Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Best Films I've Never Seen Before: The Reckless Moment (1949)

The Reckless Moment (1949) ****
Directed by: Max Ophüls.
Written by: Henry Garson & Robert Soderberg & Mel Dinelli & Robert E. Kent based on the story by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding.
Starring: James Mason (Martin Donnelly), Joan Bennett (Lucia Harper), Geraldine Brooks (Bea Harper), Henry O'Neill (Tom Harper), Shepperd Strudwick (Ted Darby), David Bair (David Harper), Roy Roberts (Nagel), Frances E. Williams (Sybil).

Max Ophuls only lived to be 54, but he left behind some great films. He had a turbulent career, starting in his native Germany in the early 1930s, but when the Nazis came to power Ophuls, who was Jewish, fled and worked in France until it fell to the Nazis as well. He came to America, but couldn’t find work for a number of years – finally getting to direct a handful of films, before going back to France and making inarguably four of his most well known films – La Ronde, Le Plasir, The Earring of Madame De and Lola Montes – in the early 1950s. Of his Hollywood career, Letter from a Unknown Woman (1948) is his most highly regarded – but I have to admit I found that film, although visually extraordinary, to be rather dull. I have no such qualms about The Reckless Moment however – which combines noir elements with Ophuls’ typical brand of melodrama and feminism. This is a truly great film.

The film opens with regular suburban housewife Lucia Harper (Joan Bennett) driving to Los Angeles to confront the much older man, Ted Darby (Shepperd Strudwick) who has been dating her teenage daughter Bea (Geraldine Brooks). The meeting doesn’t go quite as Lucia had hoped – Darby is obviously a con man who says he will only leave Bea alone if Lucia gives him money. When Lucia goes home and tells this to Bea, she refuses to believe her mother. That night, she sneaks out to the boathouse to meet Darby who has driven down to see her. The two argue, and Bea hits Darby over the head and flees. The next morning she tells her mother what happened, leaving out the violence, and Lucia is relieved – that is until she heads out to the beach and discovers Darby’s body. When he fell, he landed on an anchor and died. Acting quickly, Lucia drags the body to their small boat, and takes it out and drops it in the water. It will later be discovered, and the police start asking questions. They don’t know that Darby was involved with Bea, so they aren’t too suspicious – but someone else knows. That is when Martin Donnelly (James Mason), acting on behalf of a mysterious man named Nagel, shows up and demands $5,000 or else he’ll give love letters Bea wrote Darby to the police, which would raise bad questions. With her husband out of town on an extended business trip, Lucia has to try and figure out what to do – she doesn’t have the money, but she doesn’t want the police to find out about Bea and Darby. And then a strange thing happens – Donnelly turns out not to be all that bad after all.

On one level, The Reckless Moment feels like a noir film, not unlike Michael Curtiz’ Mildred Pierce (1945) which was also about a woman (Joan Crawford) trying to protect her teenage daughter after an unexpected death. But Gerlardine Brooks in this film is nothing like Ann Blyth in that one – Blyth was a master manipulator, and despite her young age, the femme fatale of that movie. Brooks is more of a lovesick teenager – completely oblivious to what she has done, and what it does to those around her, so she can continue to live in her little bubble – where her teenage love problems are the most important thing in the world. It is Bennett who is truly the center of this film – trying so hard to protect her child, despite what she has done (it is clear it was an accident anyway), and even as things start to spiral out of control, she tries hard to hold it together. The fact that her husband is away, means she has to take on the role that we would normally associate with him – the problem solver. The mother protecting her child from a murder they committed has become somewhat of a staple in the movie – films like The Deep End (2001) with Tilda Swinton’s remarkable performance (which is actually based on the same story as this film) and Mother (2010) from Korea have had similar plots. In that regard, The Reckless Moment actually seems surprisingly modern – it hasn’t really aged in the 62 years since it was made.

But this story adds another level as well. Yes, it is a noir story, but it is also a story of suburban, and dysfunction in the nuclear family. There is quite a bit of dysfunction on display in this little family – with its absent father for starters – and like many filmmakers, Ophuls pokes holes in the notion that suburbia is boring and safe. But the James Mason character adds another level as well – he has lived his life as a criminal, with no real family connection to speak of (what little he mentions about his family is not positive) – he falls in love, not so much with Bennett, but with her comfortable middle class existence that he has never known. It would be going too far to suggest that Mason is a “hero” in this movie, but his actions at the end of the film do allow everything to go back to the status quo. While Bennett has the lead role here – practically at the center of every scene – and she is great in it, it is Mason who delivers the best performance as a man who is being torn apart by his desires.

Is the ending of The Reckless Moment happy or sad? It is truly that it seems to be a happy ending, and gives the impression that everything is going to fine. Yet that happiness is built on lies – which is the final thing we see Bennett doing in the movie. That doesn’t mention what Bea is going to have to live with – that is if she can pull herself out of her lovesick depression and realizes it. While everyone seems happy at the end, it is a false happiness.

I’m not quite sure how to fit The Reckless Moment in among the work of Ophuls. It is true that the film contains a number of his signature tracking shots – shots that would make him a major influence on many directors who came later. The film is visually stunning, shot in gorgeous black and white. And to a certain extent, the film is another of Ophuls work about strong female protagonists – women who take on roles traditional male roles in society, and often pay the price for it. But something about it feels different from Ophuls later work. I don’t mean that as an insult, but more of an observation. For me The Reckless Moment is one of his best films – a strange little film that I cannot get out of my head.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Movie Review: Jane Eyre

Jane Eyre *** ½
Directed by: Cary Fukunaga.
Written by: Moira Buffini based on the novel by Charlotte Brontë.
Starring: Mia Wasikowska (Jane Eyre), Michael Fassbender (Rochester), Jamie Bell (St. John Rivers), Judi Dench (Mrs. Fairfax), Su Elliot (Hannah), Holliday Grainger (Diana Rivers), Tamzin Merchant (Mary Rivers), Amelia Clarkson (Young Jane), Craig Roberts (John Reed), Sally Hawkins (Mrs. Reed), Imogen Poots (Blanche Ingram).

According to the IMDB, there have been 22 adaptations of Jane Eyre over the years – six from the silent era, 10 made for TV and a Bollywood version among them. And that does not even include the classic horror film I Walked with a Zombie, which took the basic outline of the story for its model. I haven’t seen all of these versions, but I have seen two of the previous official incarnations – Robert Stevenson’s 1943 version with Joan Fontaine and Jane and Orson Welles as Rochester, and the 1996 version with Charlotte Gainsbourgh as Jane and William Hurt as Rochester. Although those are both fine films, there always seemed to be something lacking that marred the films in some ways. I think the problem with both versions is that neither of the Jane’s seemed young, innocent or naïve enough to fill the role properly. Fontaine was barely younger than Welles at all when they made the film – putting them on equal ground – and although there is a significant age difference between Gainsbourgh and Hurt, Gainsbourgh it seems to me has always seemed older than she actually is (and since she was 25 when she made the film, she was still too old to play Jane). That Gainsbourgh and Hurt lacked any real sexual connection hurt the film even more.

All of this leads to the most recent adaptation of Jane Eyre, by filmmaker Cary Fukunaga, who at first seems like an odd choice to direct the film. His only previous film was the Spanish language Sin Nombre, about two young, teenagers trying to cross the border from Mexico into America for very different reasons. That film was a great debut, and in Jane Eyre he proves it was no fluke. What the films share, I think, is an attention to detail, attention to the small character traits that make his characters feel human. You believe the connection between the teenagers in Sin Nombre, even though they are so different, and you feel the connection here between Rochester and Jane – and that makes the oft told tale feel vital and alive in a way the previous adaptations did not.

Fukunaga owes a debt to his actors, who play the roles pretty much perfectly. Mia Wasikowska (seen last year in The Kids Are All Right and Alice in Wonderland), gives her best performance yet as Jane. Her Jane is younger, more naïve than previous versions. She is also more touchingly fragile and human. Michael Fassbender, that great actor who has delivered magnificent but wholly different performances in films like Hunger, Inglorious Basterds and Fish Tank, has the right mix of cruelty and animal magnetism as Rochester. He is a secretive man, who keeps everyone at a distance, and his secrets locked away. Their romance is one where they both fight to resist their urges – to deny themselves what they really desire, but cannot act on. Because almost all of the sexual tension is never spoken of directly, these roles require actors to have a deeper connection that the audience can feel, even in scenes where it appears like the leads are talking about something entirely different. Wasikowska and Fassbender have that connection in this movie. The two leads are aided greatly by Judi Dench, who seems to be in every British costume drama but is great in nearly all of them, as Rochester’s maid Mrs. Fairfax. She observes everything, knows everything, but says little of consequence, like all good maids in stories like this. She speaks more in code than anything else, and feels for young Jane as she sees her get sucked in by Rochester, but admires him too much to say anything. Then there is Jamie Bell as poor Rivers, who will never understand what passion is.

Casting in a movie like Jane Eyre is really only half the battle. The other half is all about mood and atmosphere, and Fukunaga gets that just about perfect as well. From the opening scene of Jane running across the foggy moors, to the flashback of her childhood, raised in a mansion by her cruel aunt, before being sent to a crueler orphanage, and then finally to Rochester’s spacious estate Thornhill, Jane Eyre is a triumph of art direction and costume design – and perhaps even more of cinematography. Cinematographer Adriano Goldman makes this Jane Eyre dark, ominous and perhaps even spooky at times, which serves the movie well. The melancholy score by Dario Marianelli helps the atmosphere tremendously as well.

Watching Jane Eyre, I was surprised by how involved I became in it, even though I knew the story well. Perhaps that’s because the story’s big, third act reveal doesn’t really matter very much at all – what matters is that Rochester has something holding him back, not really what that something is. But freed from trying to figure out what was going to happen, I was able to concentrate on the nuances of the film, and that is what this film gets so right. Jane Eyre is one of the early highlights of the year.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Movie Review: Kill the Irishman

Kill the Irishman **

Directed by: Jonathan Hensleigh
Written by: Jonathan Hensleigh and Jeremy Walters based on the book by Rick Porrello.
Starring: Ray Stevenson (Danny Greene), Vincent D'Onofrio (John Nardi), Val Kilmer (Joe Manditski), Christopher Walken (Shondor Birns), Linda Cardellini (Joan Madigan), Tony Darrow (Mikey Mendarolo), Robert Davi (Ray Ferritto), Fionnula Flanagan (Grace O'Keefe), Bob Gunton (Jerry Merke), Jason Butler Harner (Art Sneperger), Vinnie Jones (Keith Ritson), Tony Lo Bianco (Jack Licavoli), Laura Ramsey (Ellie O'Hara), Steve Schirripa (Mike Frato), Paul Sorvino (Tony Salerno), Mike Starr (Leo 'Lips' Moceri), Marcus Thomas (William 'Billy' McComber), Vinny Vella (Frank Brancato).
There are certain movies that serve as a standard bearer for a genre – a high water mark that filmmakers always try to hit, but seem to always come up short. To me, I think Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas is that type of film for the gangster genre. In the 21 years since the film was released, so many filmmakers have tried so hard to copy GoodFellas’ success, and so few have gotten even close to capturing the magic that Scorsese did in one of his very best films. The 21 years has been littered with a bunch of pale imitations of Scorsese’s film. To that list, you can add Jonathan Hensleigh’s Kill the Irishman, which wants so desperately to be GoodFellas, and comes up so very, very short.

The opens in Cleveland in the 1970s. Danny Greene (Ray Stevenson) is a lowly dock worker, but he’s smarter than the rest of his co-workers, even if he did drop out of high school. He reads constantly, and is intelligent beyond his position. He doesn’t like the way his union is being run, so after some strong arm tactics, he runs for, and wins, the Presidency of that Union. But in Cleveland in the 1970s, the mob runs everything – and Greene is only too happy to play along. It makes him a lot of money, and it also makes the union workers a lot of money. It’s a win win, until the newspaper runs an expose on his practices, and he is arrested. But he cuts a deal – he’ll stay in contact with the Feds, and they’ll let him back on the streets. He can no longer be a union man, but he is big, he is tough and he is smart – and the mob always needs guys like that. That is until they get too big and too smart for their own good, and then they become a threat.

Ray Stevenson is an interesting actor – one who I know realize I’ve seen several times before, most notably in the lead role of The Punisher: War Zone, but one I have to admit never really left an impression on me before this movie. Stevenson is charming, handsome in a rough way, and a man who you can believe as an Irish gangster. The problem is that he is let down by the screenplay, which doesn’t give him enough to work with. I’m not sure how Greene progressed from the smart dock worker into the gangster he became – I know the events in his life, but not why he seems to have changed. Unlike GoodFellas, where Henry Hill became a real person through his relationship with his wife, Kill the Irishman pays little more than lip service to the role of Greene’s wife (Linda Cardinelli), who is in and out of the movie so quickly she barely registers. The rest of the gangsters in the movie also barely register – not even Christopher Walken, looking crazy as usual, but with no role to play. Val Kilmer for some reason acts as the narrator, although in his role as a cop, he is outside the action from beginning to end. The one exception is Vincent D’Onofrio as John Nardi. I think D’Onofrio is the type of actor who gets bored easily, which is why he seems to constantly trying weird, interesting things in even throwaway roles. Here, he uses a strange, nasally, slightly effeminate voice to play Nardi, and also strikes an interesting walk. I have no idea why D’Onofrio decided to play Nardi this way, but one thing is for sure – when he was on screen, I couldn’t take my eyes off of him.

Kill the Irishman is not a horrible movie by any means – it holds your attention at least. But it really isn’t a very good movie either. It strikes me as the type of film you come across late at night on cable, and sit and watch until you fall asleep, and have completely forgotten about when you wake up.

Movie Review: Hobo with a Shotgun

Hobo with a Shotgun no stars
Directed by: Jason Eisener.
Written by: John Davies & Jason Eisener & Rob Cotteril.
Starring: Rutger Hauer (Hobo), Gregory Smith (Slick), Molly Dunsworth (Abby), Brian Downey (Drake)), Nick Bateman (Ivan / RIP), Jeremy Akerman (Chief Wakeum).

This is most likely going to sound strange coming for the guy who in recent months gave positive reviews to Machete and Drive Angry, but I found Hobo with a Shotgun to be a thoroughly reprehensible movie. All three films have a similar goal in mind – to pay homage to the exploitation films of the 1970s, with a knowing wink and nudge to the audience. But while Machete and Drive Angry had a sense of fun – a tone that was so brazenly over the top that you could just sit back and enjoy the ride, Hobo with a Shotgun seems to revel in the way it wallows in the filth and blood on display in the movie. Despite my better judgment, I had a good time watching Machete and Drive Angry. Coming out of Hobo with a Shotgun, I felt I needed a shower.

Co-written and directed by Canadian Jason Eisener, Hobo with a Shotgun secured funding after winning a contest used to promote Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s Grindhouse. The contest was to create a trailer, like the ones seen in Grindhouse, for the same type of film. If you saw Grindhouse in theaters in Canada, you actually saw this trailer as part of that film. With an actual budget behind him, Eisener used it to secure Rutger Hauer to play the Hobo in the feature version.

From the first scene in Hobo with a Shotgun, I was pretty sure I was going to hate the movie. We see the Hobo coming into town, and walking the streets on the inner city, seeing crime all around him, a man with a camera staging bum fights, and then witnesses a horrific murder. The town is run by a criminal named The Drake (Brian Downey), and his two sadistic sons – Slick (Gregory Smith) and Ivan (Nick Bateman). The Hobo, along with many of the residents, watch as these three run down an associate, put is head through a modern day version of the stocks – the size of a sewer grate, put the man in an actual sewer, tie a barb wire noose around his neck, attach the other end to a car, and then rip his head off. Oh, and after that happens, and the geysers of blood coming pouring out of his neck, a scantily clad woman dances in the blood. Good times.

The movie devolves from there, becoming a series of bloody confrontations, until the Hobo can no longer take it, and buys a shotgun and delivers justice “one shell at a time” as the tagline of the movie helpfully informs us. He also befriends a prostitute named Abbey (Molly Dunsworth) and talks a lot about bears. One scene of bloodletting leads to another, until we finally get to the even bloodier climax.

Eisener takes great pains in trying to make us view the Hobo as a real person. He has a dream to start his own lawn mowing business, and has been saving up to buy the lawnmower of his dreams. When he cannot take it anymore, he gives up his dream and buys a shotgun instead. Hauer, who in recent years has actually done some decent work – mostly in small roles in films like Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Sin City and Batman Begins – also, takes the role very seriously. He does nothing to take the edge off all of the violence, the way Cage did in Drive Angry or Trejo did in Machete. Instead, we just have to sit and watch it all.

As a movie, Hobo with a Shotgun probably most resembles an actual 1970s exploitation movie in terms of it visual look than anything in the recent wave of homages to the genre. But I don’t think that’s a good thing. Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino are both better directors than the 1970s filmmakers whose work they admire so, so when they had their hand at directing these in Grindhouse, they made films that were infinitely better than the originals could ever hope to be. But Eisener doesn’t have that skill – or at least he doesn’t show it. Shot in extremely fake looking Technicolor, with horrid camera work and editing, Hobo with a Shotgun acts as a reminder that most of those exploitation films in the 1970s were damn near unwatchable. He pays homage to the same filmmakers that Rodriguez and Tarantino did, but lacks their wit and style. Instead, we get an ugly looking movie, about ugly people, doing terrible things. What’s the damn point in that?

I’m sure that Hobo with a Shotgun will grow into a cult movie. Films like this always seem to have a following among a certain, small percentage of the filmgoers. And if it’s your thing, that by all means, revel in it. I for one, found the movie to be the worst film I’ve seen in a theater in years

Monday, March 28, 2011

The Kings Without Kopitar

Like all LA King fans, this weekend was at best bittersweet. Yes, the Kings won their one game against the Colorado Avalanche, moving them to 92 points - which is five points up on 9th seed Calgary (with two games in hand on the Flames) and 6 points up on 10th seed Dallas (although the Stars have a game in hand on the Kings). The bigger news though was that the Kings best player, Anze Kopitar, broke his ankle and will be out at least 6 weeks. That would be late second round or early third round in the playoffs - although without Kopitar, I doubt the Kings can make it that far.

If there is one player on the Kings that is irreplaceable, it is Kopitar. The Kings are deep in net and on defense, and even on the wings, but down the middle, for this year anyway, the Kings are thin. It has been mentioned before, but it warrents repeating, that Jarret Stoll and Michael Handzus, the Kings second and third line centermen, are both better third line guys than second line. So without Kopitar, the Kings essentially have a third line guy centering their first and second lines, and a fourth line guy - Trevor Lewis - centering their third line and a winger - Brad Richardson - centering the fourth line. This isn't good. The problem is made worse by a number of factors - the Kings second leading scorer, RW Justin Williams, is also out for the reminder of the regular season at the very least. The only guy in Manchester who could come up and provide offense from the center position, Andrei Loktinov, is also down for the rest of the year. Next on the depth chart is Brayden Schenn, who would be in the AHL this season were it not for the awful agreement between the NHL and CHL which said the Kings had to send him back to Jr. That means that he cannot be called up by the Kings. Essentially, the Kings have no one to replace Kopitar.

What does this mean for the forward lines? For now, it looks like they'll make due with what they have - depend on Stoll and Handzus to play with the top two lines, Lewis on the third, Richardson on the fourth, and bring back Kevin Westgarth - the Kings goalless enforcer - to play the wing on the fourth line instead of making him a healthy scratch like almost all other enforcers this time of year. If that doesn't work, coach Terry Murray will likely try Peter Harrold - a defensemen who can play wing, but has been a healthy scratch since January. Since the Kings have already recalled Oscar Moller - who has looked great in his first two games - to replace Williams, and the only two guys in Manchester with NHL experience this season are Dwight King and John Zeiller (who both looked horribly out of place in the NHL on their short trips here earlier this season), I'm not sure who else they could call up.

What this means for the Kings remains to be seen. Obviously, you cannot replace a Kopitar at this point in the season. He was the team leader in goals, assists, points (where he ranked in the top ten in the league), plus/minus, played the power play, played the penalty kill and had been talked about as a dark horse candidate for both the Hart and Selke trophies this year. For a team that has often struggled for offense even with Kopitar, the Kings will undoubtedly struggle even more without him. If the Kings decide to hold themselves a pity party for the last seven games of the season, then I don't think they even make the playoffs. They need to generate a minimum of 4 points in their last 7 games to make it - if not 5 or 6. After Edmonton tomorrow, who they should beat, the schedule gets tougher with games against Vancouver, Dallas, Phoenix, San Jose and Anaheim (x2) to finish it off. The Kings will have to fight hard every game to get points.

If there is a silver lining, it's that the Kings have always been a defense first team under Terry Murray, and that system never did depend on any one player. Handzus, Stoll, Lewis and Richardson are all strong on the defensive side of the puck, so that should not change. The Kings should still be able to hold opponents to only 1 or 2 goals a game, like they have since the beginning of February - as long as goaltender Jonathan Quick continues to have his Vezina caliber season.

On the offensive side, the Kings need to look at teams like Phoenix and Nashville, and follow their lead. Neither of those teams has a 20 goal scorer on their team, yet right now they rank 4th and 6th in the West respetively (the Kings, by the way, are right in the middle at 5th) by having offense by committee. No one player generates the offense, they all do. Despite the loss of Williams and Kopitar, both who had more than 20 goals, the Kings still have Penner, Smyth and Brown above 20 this season, and Stoll who has 19 - these four will have to step it up even more with Kopitar out. Wayne Simmonds, Alexi Ponikarovsky and Michael Handzus have all had off seasons offensively this year, and they will need to pick it up with Kopitar out of the lineup. On defense, Drew Doughty, Jack Johnson and Alec Martinez need to contribute on a more consistent basis.

The Kings should still make the playoffs. After all, they have only lost 4 games in regulation since the end of January. I expect without Kopitar, they will struggle down the stretch as they get used to life without him, but if they cannot find a way to win two games and lose one in overtime over their next 7 - which is what they need to do to ensure a playoff spot - then they don't deserve to make it. The playoffs could be tough however. If they can hold onto the fifth spot, and play either Phoenix or Nashville, in the first round, I think they'll have a chance to win. If they face Vancouver, Detroit or San Jose however (which is what would happen if they Kings drop to 6th, 7th or 8th), it would be tough to compete offensively with those teams. Both GM Dean Lombardi and Terry Murray have preached "mental toughness" all season, and it's now time for the Kings to prove they have it.

Movie Review: Sucker Punch

Sucker Punch **
Directed by: Zack Snyder
Written by: Zack Snyder & Steve Shibuya.
Starring: Emily Browning (Baby Doll), Abbie Cornish (Sweet Pea), Jena Malone (Rocket), Vanessa Hudgens (Blondie), Jamie Chung (Amber), Carla Gugino (Dr. Vera Gorski), Oscar Isaac (Blue Jones), Jon Hamm (High Roller / Doctor), Scott Glenn (Wise Man), Richard Cetrone (CJ), Gerard Plunkett (Stepfather), Malcolm Scott (The Cook).

I would never deny that Zack Snyder is a talented visual filmmaker, even if I have always thought that his visual style is more often than not over the top. Some films require that extra bit of stylization that Snyder brings to his films. His Dawn of the Dead (2004), while not being able to be anywhere near as good as the George A. Romero original, is still one of the best balls to the wall horror films in recent memory. His adaption of Watchmen (2009) was as good as we could expect from Alan Moore’s complex, graphic novel. And even his animated film Legends of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole was entertaining. But after watching his latest film Sucker Punch, it brought to mind Snyder’s most popular film to date – the absolutely dreadful 300 (2007), and it once again started me wondering about Snyder. Does he have any concept of good or bad material? Does he understand anything he actually puts on the screen, or does he simply film whatever screenplay he has in front of him? Every scene in every one of his movies is hyper stylized – he shoots everything the same way. I am starting to suspect that whether his films are good or bad has little to do with him. Yes, he co-wrote the screenplay for Sucker Punch, so you would think he would understand the material, but that simply furthers my point. The story in Sucker Punch is so hyper chaotic that I don’t think there’s any point to any of it. It’s just another excuse for Snyder to throw a bunch of really cool stuff on the screen, and hope that no one is really paying attention.

The best scene in Sucker Punch may well be the first one. In a wordless sequence, we see our heroine Baby Doll (Emily Browning), as she fights off her cruel stepfather – angry that his recently dead wife is leaving everything to her daughters – and then watch in horror as he locks her in her room, and goes after her younger sister. She scales the wall outside her house, breaks back in, gets a gun and goes to shoot her stepfather – although things go wrong and her sister ends up dead. This sequence, shot in Snyder’s trademark, dark, grainy color palette, mostly in slow motion, is as good as it is going to get in this movie – and shows once again how Snyder can at times fill his movies with style – not just cool style, but style that works.

This incident gives the stepfather everything he needs to have Baby Doll committed to a mental hospital. In a week, a doctor will come and perform a lobotomy on her, and she’ll forget everything. She isn’t going to let that happen, and tries to make a plan for escape – enlisting the help of Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), Rocket (Jena Malone), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens) and Amber (Jamie Chung) to help her break out. But that’s just one level of reality – the one we don’t spend much time in. What we see is not a mental hospital, but a strip club, where the girls are held captive and made to dance for the clients. In order to do that, they need five things – a map, fire, a knife and a key – and each time they go to get one of these things, the movie goes to another layer, in which the women are at war with giant samurais, Nazis and all sorts of other strange creatures. That’s right folks, Sucker Punch in Inception for dummies.

It becomes apparent early on in Sucker Punch that nothing much is going to make sense for most of its running time. Unlike the aforementioned Inception, which sets up its layers of reality and dreams early, with rules that make the movie, for all of its complexity, relatively easy to follow as long as you pay attention, Sucker Punch makes no attempt to do the same. Why we are devolving to different levels of reality or dream or mental state whatever is never really explained – yet if it’s true, than perhaps Baby Doll’s stepfather, as cruel and horrid as he is, has a valid reason to put her in a mental hospital. So accepting that the movie was going to make little sense, you have two options – you can fight the movie, or roll with it. I tried to roll with it – I really did – but at the end of the day, the movie, much like 300, becomes boring and repetitive. There’s only so much style, so many rounds of ammunition you can see being fired, so much killing, so much action one can bare before it all starts to blend together in a incoherent blob. And that’s pretty much what happens in Sucker Punch. I liked part of Sucker Punch – moments in isolation that never really add anything to overall movie. Snyder does have style, and it’s a style that I don’t mind much – even if I wish he’d tone it down at times. Not every scene needs to be hyper stylized. But there are moments that work – the first fight sequence for example against giant samurais, or the sequence where Baby Doll saves Rocket from the gross, creepy cook. But it doesn’t add up to anything. You can never even really tell if the performances of the actors are any good. I know from past experience that Emily Browning, Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Carla Gugino and Jon Hamm are all talented actors, but they don’t get a chance to do anything here. As for teen good girl Vanessa Hudgens of High School Musical fame, I still cannot tell if she can actually act, or is merely the cutest thing this side of fluffy kittens. They are all buried under Snyder’s style.

As you can tell, I didn’t much like Sucker Punch. It is loud and incoherent for most of its running time. Snyder simply lets himself become lost in his effort to make everything look really cool. And to be fair, a lot of Sucker Punch does in fact look really cool. But there’s nothing more here. It’s a hollow, empty movie. A lot of sound and fury signifying nothing at all.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Movie Review: Miral

Miral **
Directed by: Julian Schnabel.
Written By: Rula Jebreal based on her novel.
Starring: Freida Pinto (Miral), Hiam Abbass (Hind al-Husseini), Yasmine Al Massri (Nadia), Ruba Blal (Fatima), Alexander Siddig (Jamal), Omar Metwally (Hani), Willem Dafoe (Eddie), Vanessa Redgrave (Bertha Spafford), Stella Schnabel (Lisa), Makram Khoury (Khatib), Doraid Liddawi (Sameer), Shredi Jabarin (Ali).

Julien Schnabel is one of the most visually gifted of all directors currently working today. It most likely comes from his artistic background, but with his first three films – Basquait, Before Night Falls and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly – Schnabel found interesting, innovative visual ways to tell his stories. The same could be said for his most recent film, Miral, except that this time, Schnabel’s visuals distract from his story, not enhance it. Here is a complex story, spanning the history of Palestine from 1948 to 1993, has a shifting narrative that at different times tells different stories of women living there during that time, and yet Schnabel seems insistent on using the same type of subjective filmmaking technique that made The Diving Bell and the Butterfly so wonderful. The difference is that that film was one man’s story – the story of a man who is essentially trapped inside his own body, trying desperately to reconnect with the world, whereas this film has a much larger scope that doesn’t lend itself to this kind of filmmaking. The result is an oddly disjointed film – one that tries to show multiple perspectives on its events, but is so wrapped up in its visual design that it doesn’t do justice to any of them.

The story opens in 1948 right after Israel has been founded. When the film opens, its central character is Hind al-Husseini (Hiam Abbass), a Palestinian woman of some standing and resources. She sees many of her countrymen displaced, and is seeing more and more orphans without a place to go. She opens her own boarding school for girls who have nowhere else to go – hoping that by educating the younger generation of women, that they will be able to change their, and by extension, their countries lot.

The narrative shifts focus a few times – focusing on a radical woman sent to jail for trying to bomb a movie theater (Ruba Blal), and the woman she meets in prison (Tasmine Al Massri), who will get out and marry Blal’s brother, Jamal (Alexander Siddig), eventually giving birth to Miral, before walking out on them both. The movie then picks up when Miral (now played by Frieda Pinto) is now 17, in the 1980s, and is living at Hind’s school during the week, and spending the weekend with her father. Her father wants her to live a normal life – not to become embroiled in the political upheaval, and violence that surrounds them – something Hind wants as well. But Miral has a mind of her own, and falls for a Palestinian militant, Hani (Omar Metweally) and slowly becomes more involved in the movement.

This could have, and should have, been a fascinating movie. For some reason, Palestine has not been presented in too many movies over the years, and when they are it is rarely from a sympathetic viewpoint. Schnabel, who is Jewish, and whose mother was apparently the head of the Woman’s Zionist Movement in America in 1948, would seem like an odd choice to direct – but he said he wanted to show the other side of the argument, which is a valid reason for doing the film. The film is certainly more sympathetic to the Palestinians than it is to the Israelis – only one of which (played by Schanbel’s own daughter Lisa) is presented in any real depth, and in any way sympathetically. While I do not necessarily agree with the politics of the movie, I was interested, just like Schnabel, in the other side of the debate. And this story, with its large, long scope, should have been a real opportunity to explore it.

Unfortunately though, Miral is a failure for reasons that have nothing to do with its politics. The film is jumbled and disjointed, and ends up not really providing any real point of view – and completely fails to give the incidents it portrays any context. Yes, the film looks great – Eric Gautier’s cinematography is a triumph, as is the editing making this one of the most distinctive visual films of the year – but the problem is we never really get to know any of the characters – or really what is happening to their country. Schnabel is so interested in his visually pyrotechnics, that he forgets that his story is more important than showing off his skills behind the camera. The result is a movie that fails to generate any real sympathy for its characters, because they remain cardboard cutouts, not real people. Pinto perhaps could have made Miral into a more three dimensional character, but she is never given a chance to. I know Abbas, Metwally and Siddig have the skills required, but again Schanbel lets them down.

Watching the film, I did feel like I was in the hands of a genuine artist of a director. But in this case, he couldn’t see the forest because of the trees. Miral is a clunky mess of a movie – one that isn’t likely to have any real impact on anyone, because Schnabel is too worried about his visuals to make a good story. It’s odd that the film has generated such fevered debate about how it portrays Israel and Palestine, because to me, it doesn’t really portray either in a way that resembles reality – the film doesn’t seem to have much of a point of view on anything, other than its clunky attempts to inject political diatribes into its narrative that fail completely. It’s a shame, because this should have been one of the year’s best films.

The Best Films I've Never Seen Before: The Travelling Players (1975)

The Traveling Players (1975) ****
Directed by: Theodoros Angelopoulos.
Written by: Theodoros Angelopoulos.
Starring: Eva Kotamanidou (Elektra), Aliki Georgouli (Clytemnestra), Vangelis Kazan (Aegisthus), Stratos Pahis (Agamemnon), Maria Vassiliou (Chrysothemis), Petros Zarkadis (Orests), Kiriakos Katrivanos (Pyladis), Giannis Fyrios (Accordionisth), Nina Papazaphiropoulou (Old Woman), Alekos Boubis (Old Man), Grigoris Evangelatos (Poet).

I have to admit that I did not fully understand Theodoros Angelopoulos’ The Travelling Players (1975) – his breakthrough film as a director and widely regarded as being his best. This is probably because I don’t know all that much about Greek history – this movie is packed with it, but assumes that you know something about it, so if you’re like me, prepare to be confused and because I had never seen one of the directors films before. I know he has won a Palme D’Or, so I really should have seen something by him before now, but even the glowing reviews of his work use phrases like “deliberately paced”, which means slow. And his films are all so long – The Travelling Players clocks in just under 4 hours, that to be honest, they kind of scared me away from his work. But while I admit that The Travelling Players is “deliberately paced”, somewhat confusing for me as a Greek history neophyte, and dense with mythological allusions I didn’t fully understand (since, I didn’t know the myth), I have to admit something else about The Travelling Players – for every one of its 230 minutes, I was enthralled by the movie. This is the type of history spanning, multi-generational epic that no one makes anyone – and few every did do very well. You want a comparison – it is to Greece what Bertolucci’s 1900 was to Italy – but far less flawed. I was confused by much of The Traveling Players and yet I loved every single second of it.

We know from the outset what type of film this is going to be. The opening scene sees the travelling players themselves – a theater trope who although the movie spans the years from 1939-1952, will only ever perform one play – Golfo, the Shepperdess – as the walk in silence down the street. They do not seem like a happy bunch, and indeed they are not. At this point, 1952, they have been through so much that we will not understand until the end of the movie, that they are miserable. They don’t even much care about the bus rumbling down the street, throwing out pamphlets urging them to vote for Alexandros Papagos in the upcoming election. Political upheaval has been a constant in Greece for decades, and to these weary travelers, they no longer much care.

The movie will flash back and forth in time to all the years between 1939 and 1952. There is a linear story here, but you have to work to find it since Angelopoulos flashes around in time at his whim. During the course of the film Greece will be under the control of a pro-monarchy dictatorship, Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, experience a Civil War between Communists and Anti-Communists, which the Communists will eventually lose, leading to the election of Papagos, an Authortative leader with American backing. Had he wanted to Angelopoulos could have easily continued through history, and political upheaval seems to be a way of life in Greece. Yet, I think one of the points that Angelopoulos is making, and why he flashes around so much in time, is because it really doesn’t seem to matter that is in charge – every regime is corrupt and violent and brutal to the people. We will see many murders during the course of the movie, and a particularly nasty rape scene, but the end result of each new regime is the same – violence and death.

So that is one layer of the film – charting the political history of Greece for more than a decade by focusing on their effect on the traveling players. The other harkens back to Greek mythology. I had a feeling I was watching something based on Greek mythology as I was watching the film – it does have that sort of epic swept and feel to it. It was only after I saw the film and I looked it up did I find out what the specific source is – Aeschylus The Oresteia, a trilogy of plays concerning the curse on the House of Atreus – reading over the synopsis of those plays, it is easy to identify the players in this movie (at least the first two parts). Against the political backdrop established by Angelopoulos, a smaller scale tragedy plays out as the leader of the trope Agamemnon (Stratos Pachis) is cheated on by his wife Clytemnestra (Aliki Georgouli) with the cowardly Aegisthus (Vangelis Kazan). Aegisthus will eventually accuse Agamemnon of being a traitor, which will lead to his execuition. Agamemnon’s daughter Elektra (Eva Kotamanidou) and son Orestes (Petros Zarkadis) will bid their time and plot their revenge on their mother and the cowardly man who betrayed their father, while a third daughter Chrysothemis, will become selfish, caring little about her family, including her own son. Just to make matters a little more confusing, Angelopoulos never names any of his characters with the exception of Orestes (which I think he did by necessity, as he has to flee the players, and they need to refer to him often in conversation).

I realize now that I have made The Travelling Players seem like a long, slow, confusing, depressing, dense, pretentious film – and to a certain extent all of those things are true. And yet for me, it was a completely involving experience – I was swept up in the upheaval of the film, the personal tragedy set against the political one. Angelopoulos favors long, unbroken shots (a personal favorite of mine), and there is no detail too small for him to obsess over. It has the epic scope and feel that so few movies these days even attempt, and for a then young filmmaker to even attempt this took guts – and to pull it off took a certain brilliance. Angelopoulos seems like an interesting man with a large ego. When his film, Ulysess’ Gaze won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes in 1995 (which is essentially second place) he got up on stage and said “If this is what you have to give me, I have nothing to say” and stormed off. Showing no remorse, when his film Eternity and a Day won the Palme in 1998 he got up on stage and said “If you had given me that other prize, and would have given the same speech”. So the man clearly has a huge ego. And yet, I think to make a film like The Travelling Players, you pretty much have to have a huge ego – if you didn’t, you wouldn’t attempt to make the film in the first place. Having now seen a film by Angelopoulos, I want to see more. The Travelling Players is a masterwork.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Best Movies I've Never Seen Before: Los Olivados (1950)

Los Olivados (1950) ****
Directed by:
Luis Buñuel
Written By: Luis Alcoriza & Luis Buñuel.
Starring: Alfonso Mejía (Pedro), Roberto Cobo (El Jaibo), Estela Inda (Pedro’s Mother), Miguel Inclán (Don Carmelo), Alma Delia Fuentes (Meche), Mario Ramirez (Big Eyes).

Luis Bunuel is best known for his early surreal films, like Un Chein Andalou (1928) and L’Age D’or (1930) and his later, more playful, dark surreal comedies like Viridiana (1961), The Exterminating Angel (1963), Belle de Jour (1967) and That Obscure Object of Desire (1977). After directing Land without Bread (1934), he took more than a decade off of filmmaking, before settling in Mexico, and making a series of films from the late 1940s through about 1960. These films are the least known of Bunuel’s career, but the few of which I have seen, still have his distinctive stamp on them. Los Olivados was the film that truly earned Bunuel his international reputation – and it remains one of his best films.

The film is about juvenile crime and poverty in Mexico City. It focuses on a group of young teenagers – children really – who never really had a chance to be anything more than what they are – petty criminals, edging towards more serious crime. The film focuses mainly on two of these kids – Pedro (Alfonso Mejia) who wants so desperately to be good, but cannot break free of the cycle of violence and poverty he was born into, and Jaibo (Roberto Cobo), who despite his young age, is too far gone to be able to get back on track.

Pedro tries so hard to be good, but he is torn between that desire, and the reality he sees on the streets. He wants his mother’s approval and affection, but she has completely given up on him, and instead is trying to raise her younger children. There is no father in the picture for Pedro at all. He tries to get a job to help his mother out, to make her proud of him, but it is a futile effort. As soon as something goes missing from the metal works shop he works in, he is the one everyone immediately blames – although his “friend” Jaibo is the real thief.

Jaibo is a little older than the rest of the children he hangs around with – and is certainly much taller. Neither of his parents are anywhere in the picture, and they haven’t been for years. He essentially has had to take care of himself since he was a kid. He has adopted the code of the streets as his own – and early in the film, after he is released for juvie, he goes looking for the kid who ratted him out. He finds him, and as Pedro looks on in horror, beats him to death. Jaibo then uses fear to keep Pedro under control – he can’t rat Jaibo out, without ratting himself out for being there.

Then there is Big Eyes (Mario Ramirez), a kid from out of town, who is brought by his father to the square in the middle of this slum, and abandoned. He tells the kid he will be back, but he never shows. Big Eyes acts as our conduit into this world – he has no idea what is going on, or how to survive, but he slowly learns the ropes – as do we.

Despite their scandalous reputation, I’ve always thought that most of Bunuel’s films function as dark comedies. He certainly had a negative view of the church, and his films often display a perverse sexuality, but Bunuel is mainly poking fun at his characters, the worlds they inhabit, and their own desires. But there is nothing funny about Los Olivados, which is the most serious film from Bunuel I have seen. To him, these kids have essentially been abandoned by society – told they do not matter, and have to fend for themselves. Of all the people we see in the movie, only the Principal of the Work Farm where Pedro is sent late in the movie seems to have any trust or faith in these kids. Pedro’s mother has given up, Jaibo’s parents have left him, as has Big Eyes, and the only other adult we really meet is the lecherous old, blind man who wants to take advantage of them. These children are treated like trash – something the unforgettable finale of the movie makes bluntly clear.

The movie is perhaps the most straightforward of Bunuel’s career. He adds two surrealistic dream sequences – one haunting Pedro, the other haunting Jaibo, but for the most part, his film is grounded in realism. The film takes place in Mexico City, but as the movie makes clear in a opening voiceover, it could happen in any major city around the world. Crime and poverty will be forever linked together, unless we do something about it. This film could be made today and very little would have changed. In fact, I couldn’t help but think of Fernando Meirelles’ brilliant City of God (2002), about a slum in Brazil, while watching this film. It is a short film – barely 80 minutes in length – but it packs an emotional wallop. It is a departure for Bunuel, considering the work he is best known for, but it is a brilliant one.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Best Films I've Never Seen Before: Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1957)

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1957) ** ½
Directed by: Fritz Lang.
Written by: Douglas Morrow.
Starring: Dana Andrews (Tom Garrett), Joan Fontaine (Susan Spencer), Sidney Blackmer (Austin Spencer), Arthur Franz (Bob Hale), Philip Bourneuf (Roy Thompson), Edward Binns (Lt. Kennedy), Shepperd Strudwick (Jonathan Wilson), Robin Raymond (Terry Larue), Barbara Nichols (Dolly Moore), William F. Leicester (Charlie Miller), Dan Seymour (Greco), Rusty Lane (Judge), Joyce Taylor (Joan Williams), Carleton Young (Allan Kirk).

Fritz Lang was one of the best filmmakers in history. His films Metropolis (1927) and M (1931) are landmarks, and some of his other films for his years in Germany are also great films (I am thinking specifically of Spies (1929) and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933) – although I have not seen all of his films from that era). In 1933, he fled Nazi Germany and ended up in America, where he continued his career – and while at the time his American films were often looked down upon by critics as not being as good as his earlier work (a pretty much impossible standard to live up), they have been reevaluated over the years, and some have become regarded as masterpieces themselves – notably his seminal film noir The Big Heat (1953). Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1957) was his last American film. Frustrated by his inability to find receptive producers and studios, he went back to Germany after this film, and made three more films. For reasons I do not understand, some feel that Beyond a Reasonable Doubt is one of his great American films – for me though, it feels more like Lang going through the motions. Yes, he was a great filmmaker, but in this case, he has not made a great film.

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt is a movie that is full of plot holes and what seems like a complete and total lack of understanding about the criminal justice system. I suppose a movie like this could work – you could probably named dozens that do – but for me this one simply strains credibility too far.

The story is about Tom Garrett (Dana Andrews) an author struggling with the follow-up novel to his successful debut. He is engaged to Susan Spencer (Joan Fontaine), the daughter of newspaper magnate Austin (Sidney Blackmer), who is enraged with the death penalty. He is tired of seeing people railroader into the death penalty on little more than circumstantial evidence, but no one will listen. But he has an idea – if he can prove that an innocent man has been sentenced to death, perhaps people will listen, and the law will be overturned. He approaches his future son-in-law with an idea – they find a murder that the police cannot solve, and then frame Garrett for it, planting circumstantial evidence all around him. They will document everything, so once Garrett is found guilty, they can reveal their hoax, and put pressure on the supporters of the death penalty. There is so much wrong with this idea from a legal standpoint, I’m not even going to bother to talk it – it doesn’t really matter, it’s just a story device anyway. Of course, things go horribly wrong, and Garrett finds himself convicted of the murder, but no longer has anyway to prove himself innocent.

This is a deeply cynical film. It paints anti-death penalty advocates as dangerously, perhaps even criminally naïve. Yet it doesn’t really hold out much sympathy for the pro-death penalty faction either. Everyone in this movie is in some kind of moral quicksand – and that’s the way Lang likes it. Only Joan Fontaine is completely innocent here – and she’s barely given a credible part to play. Dana Andrews was a decent actor in his time – square jawed and seemingly upright and moral, he didn’t have much range, but he could play the parts he was given well at times. I do think that as Garrett he is miscast – this part requires an actor with more complexity and darkness inside him than Andrews could convincingly play. It just doesn’t work.

For much of its running time, I thought Beyond a Reasonable Doubt was a decent enough movie – Lang provides an interesting visual look and feel to the movie, and I did like the moral quicksand that everyone in the film is sinking in. And I must say that the twist ending of the film truly did surprise me – but not in a good way. It really is the ending, which was completely ridiculous, that did the movie in for me. Again, I could talk about the legal ramifications of the final reveal, but that doesn’t matter does it? Pure and simple, the ending of the movie is a joke. I can see why Lang left America after this film.

Note: This film was remade with Michael Douglas in 2010. I haven’t seen that film, and after watching this one, I doubt I ever will. If Lang couldn’t make this material work, I doubt any other director could.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Western Conference Playoff Race

For those of you who follow the NHL, you know that right now, The Western Conference is in the midst of the closet playoff race in recent memory. The Eastern Conference to me, seems pretty much sewed up, but in the West anything is still possible. Vancouver has clinched their division title, and although Detroit and San Jose have not done so yet, they’d have to pretty much lose the rest of the games this season for them not to make it. On the other side, Edmonton, Colorado and St. Louis are completely out of it, and Minnesota and Columbus would need to win ALL of their remaining games to get to 96 points – which is looking like the division between playoffs and not (at the moment, this number may even go up as high as 97 or 98 points, but I have a feeling as the games dwindle, it probably settle at 95 or 96).

That leaves 7 teams, competing for 5 spots, all within 5 points of each other, with anywhere between 8-10 games to go this season. So let’s look at those 7 teams, and what they need to do to get in.

Fourth Place: Phoenix – 89 points, 8 games to go
Games Remaining:
v. St. Louis, v. Columbus, v. San Jose, v. Dallas, v. Colorado, @ LA, v. San Jose, @ San Jose.

The Coyotes look good to make the playoffs once again. Yes, they only have 8 games to go, but they are 3 points up on 5th, 6th and 7th, and have a good schedule ahead of them. To get in, the Coyotes need 7 points – or 3 wins and one overtime loss, in their last 8 games. They have 6 of those games at home, which helps them. The fact that they have two teams not in the race in St. Louis and Columbus for their next two, it seems to me that Phoenix is pretty much cannot miss at this point. If they don’t make the playoffs, it will because they completely collapsed down the stretch.

Fifth Place: Chicago – 86 points, 10 games to go
Games Remaining:
v. Florida, v. Anaheim, @ Detriot, @ Boston, @ Columbus, v. Tampa Bay, @ Montreal, v. St. Louis, @ Detroit, v. Detroit.

The defending Stanley Cup champions have had an up and down season this year, but appear to be on the upswing right now, which is good for them. Having said that, they have a very tough schedule remaining, and they need to win five to get in. They need to beat Florida, which they couldn’t do a few weeks ago, and then win the games they have against the other non-playoff teams – Columbus and St. Louis. Those are the easy games. Boston, Tampa Bay and Montreal are all fighting in the Eastern Conference right now, and will not be easy. Anaheim has been on a role, and also won’t be easy. Then they have three against their arch rivals from Detroit. Yes, Chicago should be more desperate than the Wings, yet the Wins would love to put the Blackhawks out of the playoffs, so they don’t have to face them. Those three games will be a battle, so Chicago should try to get their wins elsewhere in their last 10. They need at least 5 wins in their last 10 games.

Sixth Place: Los Angeles – 86 points, 10 games to go
Games Remaing:
v. Calgary, v. San Jose, v. Colorado, @ Edmonton, @ Vancouver, v. Dallas, @ San Jose, v. Phoenix, @ Anaheim, v. Anaheim

Since the beginning of 2011, the Kings have been pretty much unbeatable on the road – but cannot seem to win at home, meaning they are probably the only team in the NHL upset that they have more home games left than road games. The Kings need to end their current two game slide ASAP, or risk falling into another pit like they were in in November and again in January. Of their remaining games, only Colorado and Edmonton are easier teams – meaning the Kings have to win those two games and find a way to win at least 3 of the remaining 8 against some tough opponents. It could all come down to the home and home against Anaheim to end the season.

Seventh Place: Nashville – 86 points, 9 games to go
Games Remaining:
v. Edmonton, v. Anaheim, v. Dallas, v. Vancouver, @ Colorado, v. Detroit, v. Atlanta, v. Columbus, @ St. Louis.

The Preds have been on a tear recently, and despite the fact that they have only 9 games left, compared to 10 for most teams, they still have a advantageous schedule. Not only are 7 of their final 9 at home, where they are extremely tough to beat, but they have games against Edmonton, Colorado, Atlanta, Columbus and St. Louis left. They should win those five, which by itself, should get them into the playoffs.

Eighth Place: Anaheim – 85 points, 10 games to go
Games Remaining:
@ Dallas, @ Nashville, @ Chicago, v. Colorado, @ Calgary, @ San Jose, v. Dallas, v. San Jose, v. LA, @ LA.

The Ducks looked dead a little while ago, but they have come on strong recently – topped with back to back overtime wins against the Kings and Flames. Having said that, of all the teams in the race, they have the toughest schedule – with only one game against Colorado being against a team completely out of the playoffs. Assuming they win that, they will still need to generate 9 points in 9 games against some very tough opponents. My guess is Anaheim teeters on the brink until that home and home against LA to finish the season.

Ninth Place: Dallas – 85 points, 10 games to go
Games Remaining:
v. Anaheim, @ Nashville, @ Phoenix, @ San Jose, @ LA, @ Anaheim, v. Columbus, v. Colorado, @ Colorado, @ Minnestota.

The Stars led the Pacific division for much of the year, but have fallen on hard times since the beginning of February, and things aren’t going to get easier for a while. After a home game against Anaheim, they have to play Nashville, Phoenix, San Jose, LA and Anaheim again – all on the road, in a five game road trip that could make or break their season. But if they are still in it at the end of that trip, things get much easier with games against Columbus, two against Colorado and one against Minnesota. The key for them will to be not to fall too far behind in the next 6 games - they need 11 points in 10 games.

Tenth Place: Calgary – 84 points, 8 games to go
Games Remaing:
@ LA, @ San Jose, @ Edmonton, v. Anaheim, @ St. Louis, @ Colorado, v. Edmonton, v. Vancouver.

The bad news for the Flames is that out of the 7 teams competing for 5 spots, the Flames are 7th, and have fewer games than anyone. The good news is that four of their final 8 games are against St. Louis, Colorado and Edmonton (x2). Those four are must win, then they need to find a way to get two wins in four games against LA, San Jose, Anaheim and Vancouver – and hope the magic number does not rise above 96 points, as it is threatening to do. The Flames have almost zero margin of error for the rest of the season, but they ain’t dead yet.

Prediction: Taking all factors into consideration, I think it’s fairly safe to say that Phoenix makes the playoffs. They’d have to collapse in their final 8 games not to. I think the experience of Chicago will be enough to push them into the playoffs, despite their tough schedule. Nashville has the easiest schedule of any of the teams left, meaning they get in as well.

That leaves three teams from the Pacific – LA, Anaheim and Dallas, along with Calgary – two are in, two are out. I don’t think Calgary can do it. The pressure is immense right now, and having to go 6-2-0 in the final 8, and hope the number doesn’t go up, means they will be on the outside looking in. As for which team in the Pacific doesn’t make it, it’s tough to say. The Kings are reeling right now, but one win could turn that around really quick. The Ducks are on a roll right now, but have the toughest schedule coming up. The Stars have had trouble with consistency all season, and have a tough 6 games before they face an easier team. Everyone knows I am a Kings fan, but I am pretty sure I would pick them to make the playoffs anyway at this point - just one win in their next two games, following by wins against Colorado and Edmonton, and they look to be unsinkable. Between the Stars and Ducks, I will put my money on the Ducks right now. But of course, as has happened in this race pretty much every day since the beginning of February, that could change by tomorrow. There are only 3 weeks left in the regular season – and sooner or later, something’s gotta give.

Movie Review: The Lincoln Lawyer

The Lincoln Lawyer ***
Directed by: Brad Furman.
Written by: John Romano based on the novel by Michael Connelly.
Starring: Matthew McConaughey (Mick Haller), Marisa Tomei (Maggie McPherson), Ryan Phillippe (Louis Roulet), William H. Macy (Frank Levin), Josh Lucas (Ted Minton), John Leguizamo (Val Valenzuela), Michael Peña (Jesus Martinez), Bob Gunton (Cecil Dobbs), Frances Fisher (Mary Windsor), Bryan Cranston (Detective Lankford), Trace Adkins (Eddie Vogel), Laurence Mason (Earl), Margarita Levieva (Reggie Campo), Pell James (Lorna), Shea Whigham (Corliss).

The Lincoln Lawyer opens with my favorite credits sequence of 2011 so far. Old school r&b music plays, as Matthew McConaughey cruises around in his huge Lincoln Town car through the streets of Los Angeles. It immediately called to mind all those great 1970s crime movies, and sets the visual tone that the rest of the movie will follow. Director Brad Furman gives The Lincoln Lawyer an old school visual look that we don’t see very often anymore. Most movies are either of the whip fans, rapid fire editing school or are merely photographed conversations – The Lincoln Lawyer has style. It makes me wonder what Furman could do if he was given some great material – which The Lincoln Lawyer does not. It is based on a Michael Connelly best seller, which like all of his books, is kind of like John Grisham, but not quite as good. But hell, it moves quickly and has numerous twists and turns and is entertaining from start to finish. Which pretty much describes the movie as well.

I must admit that I have never liked Matthew McConaughey. There seems to be a void where his personality should be in pretty much all of his roles. I did like his small role in Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused (1993) and his breakthrough starring role in A Time to Kill (1996), but other than the odd supporting role or cameo (Frailty, Tropic Thunder), I have had little use for his work in the past 15 years. I’m not sure if it’s because he decided to try this time, instead of just coasting on his charm like he normally does, or if it’s because his character begins the movie has superficial as McConaughey has always seemed to me, only slowly gaining a soul, but The Lincoln Lawyer may just be the best work of his career. He plays Mick Haller, a lawyer, who takes on the lowest of the low in criminal defenses. He doesn’t have an office, but instead is chauffeured around LA in his Lincoln, running from hearing to hearing, and pocketing his fees along the way. He may have no scruples or morals, but he’s good at his job – and as he says, everyone is entitled to a defense.

When he gets the call to represent Louis Roulet (Ryan Philippe), he thinks he has hit pay dirt. Louis is rich – but his family is richer – and has seemingly been caught red handed. He was arrested for allegedly beating and attempting to rape a woman in her apartment – and was caught in the victim’s apartment, with blood on his hands and a knife in his possession. But Louis claims he is innocent – and that the woman, a prostitute, is simply setting him up so she can cash in on a civil suit. He seems convincing – which is even better for Mick. When his clients plead out, he doesn’t get to bill them as much as when they go to trial. But when he starts looking into the case, things get more complicated.

McConaughey is at the center of nearly every scene of The Lincoln Lawyer, and it must be said, he carries it off with ease. Perhaps it’s because of all his previous movies, I’ve seen A Time to Kill most often, but McConaughey seems natural as a lawyer – with his smug façade, charm and confidence to spare, he is pretty much the perfect actor to cast as Mick. And he nails it. One of the things I liked about The Lincoln Lawyer though is how it surrounds Mick with interesting character, played by great actors, even in the smaller roles. Ryan Philippe has the right air of entitlement as the rich kid who has been caught red handed, but claims innocence. You want to believe him, but something is not quite right about him. Marisa Tomei is fine as McConaughey’s ex-wife, and a prosecutor at that, but the movie is smart enough to know that ex-spouses cannot be opposing council at the criminal trial. I loved William H. Macy, with his strange long hair, and sharp tongue as an investigator. Then go down the list of the other characters – Josh Lucas as a cocky, young prosecutor, Frances Fisher as Phillip’s rich mother, John Leguizamo as a sleazy bail bondsman, Michael Pena as a former client of Mick’s, Bob Gunton as a powerful corporate lawyer, Bryan Cranston as a cop, Shea Whigham as a jail house snitch, Pell James as Mick’s assistant, Laurence Mason as his chauffer, Margarita Levieva as the victim and even Trace Adkins as a bike gang leader. Some of these characters only have a scene or two, and yet the feel like real people, fully realized characters, and not just people whose lives end when they not on screen. Most movies don’t bother trying to fill out these small roles, but good ones do.

It’s almost a shame that this cast, with this director who shows off his style, are shoehorned into a plot that leaves credibility far behind almost from the outset. If you’re one of those people who watches Law and Order, and picks apart the legal maneuvering on that show, that don’t bother with The Lincoln Lawyer – it will drive you crazy. Yet, if you like this type of legal thriller, and I do, then The Lincoln Lawyer provides superior entertainment value for its entire running time. No one is going to mistake The Lincoln Lawyer for a great movie – it even pales in comparison to something like Primal Fear (1996), but what is does, it does well.

Movie Review: Limitless

Limitless ** ½
Directed by:
Neil Burger.
Written by: Leslie Dixon based on the novel by Alan Glynn.
Starring: Bradley Cooper (Eddie Morra), Robert De Niro (Carl Van Loon), Abbie Cornish (Lindy), Andrew Howard (Gennady), Anna Friel (Melissa), Johnny Whitworth (Vernon).

We have been told for years now that human beings only use about 20% of their brain power. The rest of it remains inaccessible to us. But what if there was a pill that allowed you to increase that brain power, so that you can use that 100%? Would you take it? How could you not. That is what Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) is facing in Limitless, a thriller with an intriguing idea, that never quite pulls it all together. He is a failed novelist, living one step above homelessness in New York, whose girlfriend Lindy (Abbie Cornish) has left him, and really as nothing going on in his life. But then an old acquaintance comes to him, and tells him he has this new pill, FDA approved, just waiting to go on the market which will help him access all that hidden brain power. He even gives him a free sample. The difference is immediate – he finishes his novel, but quickly sees that writing is only the tip of the iceberg of what he can do on the pills. He goes back to his friend, finds him murdered in his apartment – but also finds his huge stash of the new pills. It isn’t long before Eddie is making millions on the stock market, and starting to draw the attention of the big guys. But the drug has side effects, and they are getting worse.

Limitless has an intriguing idea for a movie, but forces it into a thriller plot that never really works. It seems to me that much of its running time is involved with setting up the story – and then just as things are starting to get interesting, the filmmakers decide they need to end the movie, and dive headlong into the closing action of the film, full of chase sequences, violence, and murder. That it is all wrapped up in an intriguing package by director Neil Burger (The Illusionist, the Edward Norton movie, not the animated French film), is really beside the point.

Perhaps the problem is with Bradley Cooper in the lead role. Cooper is an actor that I feel is in danger of becoming the next Matthew McConaughey (who was excellent in The Lincoln Lawyer this week, but really, that is the only decent work he has done in years). Cooper coasts on his charm and good looks, but never really gets under the skin of his characters. Early in the film, with long, stringy hair, Cooper is wholly unconvincing as a down on his luck loser. He just doesn’t have those notes in him. When he starts taking the drugs, and transforms himself, he is much better – but it remains a performance that is nearly skin deep. I never really liked Eddie Morra that much, because I think Cooper doesn’t make us like him, so I didn’t much care about his plight.

The supporting cast doesn’t help much either. I know that I am one of the only people in the world who thought that Robert DeNiro is brilliant in Stone last year, but I really do, and I hoped that the film might have signaled that DeNiro was going to start doing real roles again for the first time in years. But Limitless is much like most of his work in the last decade. He plays a Wall Street bigwig, but doesn’t really bring much to the role. Part of it is that his role is completely underwritten – there is very little to play here for DeNiro – but part of it is that DeNiro is simply going through the motions once again. Abbie Cornish is one of the most beautiful women in the world, as she has proven in films like Candy, Stop Loss and Bright Star that she has real acting talent – but here, much like DeNiro, she is not given much of a role to play, and simply seems to be going through the motions.

I’ve probably made Limitless sound a lot worse than it actually is. No, it’s not a good movie, but it is fairly intriguing and entertaining for much of its running time. It’s just that I kept thinking that the film was building to something more than it ever actually does. It has a fine premise behind it, but the filmmakers are content to do something wholly uninteresting with it. Too bad.

Movie Review: Paul

Paul ***
Directed by:
Greg Mottola
Written By: Nick Frost & Simon Pegg.
Starring: Simon Pegg (Graeme Willy), Nick Frost (Clive Gollings), Seth Rogen (Paul), Kristen Wiig (Ruth Buggs), Jason Bateman (Agent Zoil), Jeffrey Tambor (Adam Shadowchild), Jane Lynch (Pat Stevens), David Koechner (Gus), Jesse Plemons (Jake), Sigourney Weaver (The Big Guy), Bill Hader (Haggard), Joe Lo Truglio (O'Reilly), John Carroll Lynch (Moses Buggs), Blythe Danner (Tara Walton).

Much like the previous two films written and starring Nick Frost and Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz), Paul works much better if you know the films that the two of them are poking loving fun of. If, like me, you’ve seen a ton of alien invasion movies, you will probably like Paul a lot more than most people. Hardly a scene goes by where they are not referencing one movie or another – sometimes blatantly, and sometimes subtlety. If Paul does not reach the heights of their previous two movies, I think it could be because this time, they are merely content to poke fun, and don’t push the movie further, like those two did. Perhaps this is because Edgar Wright has moved on, and didn’t direct this film, and so the two decided on Greg Mottola (Superbad, Adventureland) to direct. Mottola is a fine director, but he’s no Edgar Wright.

The film is about two British geeks, Graeme (Pegg) and Clive (Frost) who have travelled to America to attend Comicon in San Diego and then go on a cross country trip in a rented RV to visit all the alien hotspots – like Area 51 and the Black Mailbox (which is no longer black). One night, on a dark, lonely stretch of highway, a car whizzes past them, and then crashes into the ditch. Being good citizens, they get out to investigate and this is when they meet Paul – an alien, with the voice of Seth Rogen, who asks for their help. He is escaping from the government, and needs to head north so his people can pick him up. Although Clive is less enthusiastic about the idea than Graeme is, they agree to help Paul. Of course, it isn’t long before Federal Agents, lead by the no nonsense Agent Zoil (Jason Bateman) and his two bumbling underlings (Bill Hader and Joe Lo Truglio) are on their trial, trying to take Paul back to the lab.

Rogen was an inspired choice to do the voice of Paul, who of course, is not quite like the other aliens we have met in movies before. He is precisely what you would expect an alien who sounds like Seth Rogen to be – lazy and funny, spitting out pop culture references constantly (in the 60 years he has been on earth, he has helped shaped the way aliens are perceived by the public by collaborating with some big directors). I admit to being a fan of Rogen, even if his movies are hit or miss most of the time, but here, he does some great work as Paul. It doesn’t hurt that Pegg and Frost have such an easy chemistry together, and help make this an inspired comic trio – not just an alien Rogen doing his shtick. It also helps that they cast fine actors in smaller roles like Jane Lynch as a waitress with big hair, Kristen Wiig as a Jesus freak (whose has t-shirt featuring Jesus and Darwin that I would love, even if I completely disagree with it) and David Koechner and John Carroll Lynch as rednecks. Oh, and especially Jeffer Tambor, as a sci-fi writer. This is probably not a movie that is going to play well with The Tea Party, or pretty much anywhere in the rural South, but for me, it was hilarious.

The movie doesn’t really reach the greatness that was on display in Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz though. It is a little too laid back, some may even say lazy, for that to happen. Those two movies skewers zombie movies and actions movie respectively, but were also something a little more – fine examples of the genres themselves, just with a wicked satiric edge. Paul is content to be simply a comedy – an oftentimes amusing and sometimes hilarious comedy, but one with no real bite. For movie fans, Paul is a fun ride, full of references to make you feel smart, and enough humor not based on pop culture references so that others will probably enjoy it as well. If it doesn’t reach the heights of Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz, than so be it – few comedies do anyway.

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Best Films I've Never Seen Before: America, America (1963)

America, America (1963) ****
Directed by: Elia Kazan.
Written by: Elia Kazan.
Starring: Stathis Giallelis (Stavros Topouzoglou), Frank Wolff (Vartan Damadian), Elena Karam (Vasso Topouzoglou), Lou Antonio (Abdul), John Marley (Garabet), Estelle Hemsley), (Grandmother Topouzoglou), Katharine Balfour (Sophia Kebabian), Harry Davis (Isaac Topouzoglou), Joanna Frank (Vartuhi), Robert H. Harris (Aratoon Kebabian), Salem Ludwig (Odysseus Topouzoglou), Paul Mann (Aleko Sinnikoglou), Linda Marsh (Thomna Sinnikoglou), Gregory Rozakis (Hohannes Gardashian).

Elia Kazan’s America, America is perhaps the best movie ever made about immigrants coming to America. It is not a happy film about good hearted immigrants working hard, but a film filled with anger and violence. The hero of the movie is Stavros Topouzoglou (Stathis Giallelis), who is a good man, but in order to get to America, he needs to do some very bad things. This is a journey that costs him and his family everything.

The movie opens in 1896 Turkey. Stavros and his family are Greek, which means they are second class citizens in the country – but at least they are not Armenian, as they are treated even worse. Stavros has an Armenian friend, and together the chip ice off the mountains, and then sell it in town. His family, and the Greek community, look down on his friendship, saying that it will bring him nothing but trouble – and the Armenian concerns are not theirs. Stavros sees things differently – once the Turks have disposed of the Aremenians, who do you think they’ll turn on next? This all comes to a head in a violent clash that starts Stavros’ father thinking that it may be time to move their large family to Constanipole – on the other side of the country. He has a cousin there that can set them up in business. The family gives all their valuables, and sends him on the cross country journey. It is this journey, not the one to America that comes late in the film that takes up much of the running time. Stavros does not meet anyone helpful to him on his journey – and in fact by the time he gets to Constanipole, and the cousin whose business is not what he claimed it was, Stavros will have lost everything and become a murderer. But for Stavros, he has only done what he needed to do to survive, and get to where he needs to go. But also, it is also only the first step for him – he wants to go to America.

Elia Kazan’s career can really be split into two different segments – before and after 1952. It was in 1952 that he testified in front of the Joseph McCarthy’s House of Un-American Activities Committee, where he named names of people he knew were Communists. This act defines Kazan for many people – and is the reason why his lifetime achievement Oscar in 1999 was so controversial – Hollywood has a long memory, and hated HUAC, and many considered Kazan a traitor for testifying. And yet, even according to Kazan himself, that was a defining moment in his career as a director. His films before then were mainly Hollywood studio movies – safer projects, issue driven and impersonal. Even if some of the films before then were great (and at the very least his 1951 film A Streetcar Named Desire has to be considered a masterpiece), it was not until after his testimony that he started to make his more personal films. These include such great films as On the Waterfront (1954), East of Eden (1955), Baby Doll (1956) and America, America (1963) which is inarguably his most personal film. (It also includes four films I haven’t seen, but want to catch up with Man on a Tightrope (1953), A Face in the Crowd (1957), Wild River (1960) and Splendor in the Grass (1961). He wrote a book called America, America in 1962, which recounted his uncle’s journey to America, and the following year he made it into a movie. This was his story, and one that he had to make.
America, America is an epic film –the type that Hollywood has all but forgotten how to make. Kazan’s eye for detail is exacting here, and the film is perhaps the superb technical accomplishment of his career. The film lacks theatricality, instead focusing on realism that is only aided by shooting on location in Turkey and Greece. This is not a movie that feels like an old time Hollywood epic, but something much more personal and real. As always, Kazan had an eye for unknown acting talent (among others he helped start the careers of Marlon Brando, James Dean and Warren Beatty), and here with a cast of largely unknown actors, he has given us a wonderful ensemble cast. Yes, it may be marred by the fact that some of the Turks are played by white men, but that is one of those things you simply have to accept in movies from this era.

There are some films that a filmmaker simply has to make. Great filmmakers often have a passion project that they dream about for years – and sometimes are lucky enough to make. For Kazan, that film was inarguably America, America. He struggled for years with this story – never knowing if he would be able to make it – not just because of financial reasons, but for personal ones. But he finally did make it, and perhaps after that, there was little else he felt needed to be said. He took six years off of filmmaking after America, America, before returning to make 4 more films (of these only The Last Tycoon in 1976, his final film, is all that well regarded). But he made his film. And it is a masterpiece.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Best Films I've Never Seen Before: Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988)

Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) ***
Directed by:
Terence Davies.
Written by: Terence Davies.
Starring: Pete Postlethwaite (Father), Freda Dowie (Mother), Lorraine Ashbourne (Maisie), Angela Walsh (Eileen), Dean Williams (Tony), Jean Boht (Aunty Nell), Michael Starke (Dave), Andrew Schofield (Les), Debi Jones (Micky), Chris Darwin (Red), Vincent Maguire (George).

Terence Davies’ Distant Voices, Still Lives plays like a memory or perhaps a dream. There really isn’t a plot to the movie – there is certainly no narrative drive – and the characters remain somewhat hazy and not really well defined. The people lack depth. And yet, I found Distant Voices, Still Lives to be a quietly transfixing, and ultimately moving film. The first half of the film is bleak and depressing, but it gives way to a second half that is more upbeat, and perhaps even hopeful, even though there is still darkness.

The first half of the film revolves around one Liverpool family’s upbringing in the 1940s with an abusive, cruel father (Pete Postlewaite). The three children are now young adults, and as they father grows sicker, and ultimately dies, we look book at their life as children through each of their eyes. Two of them remember only the bad about their father – his mean streak and cruelty that you never could tell when he was going to explode. They also remember the resolve of their mother, who tries her best to make their lives bearable. Divorce is never mentioned as an option. Yet one of the three children, the youngest, remembers the good moments with their father – how he was at points capable of being tender and even kind. I think this is somewhat of a survival mechanism – some of us just cannot bring ourselves to deal with the pain in our lives, so we whitewash over it.

The second half of the film, following the death of the father, is more upbeat. We see the children move into adulthood, and become better people then their father was – and have healthier married relationships than their parents did. There is a note of darkness, as they do see one of their friends trapped in the same cycle of control and abuse, and feel powerless to stop it. But ultimately from the films ugly beginning, their emerges hope.

Music is very important to the film – and the way Davies uses it in the two halves of his movie evolves. In the first half, the shiny happy songs of the 1940s offset against the cruelty we see in the film – most memorably setting a scene o f abuse to Ella Fitzgerald’s Taking a Chance on Love. Davies also has the cast do some of their own singing in the film. Music plays an important role in the film – just like I think it does with memory. Songs can have different associations for different people that have nothing at all to do with what the song is actually about.

To me, Distant Voices, Still Lives was a fascinating little movie – ultimately quite moving when you allow yourself to get on its wavelength. This is not a movie about plot or characters, but about memory. Most directors when they look back at their childhood have an sense of nostalgia that doesn’t match up to reality, but here, Davies sees the time in which he grew up with his eyes open. Ultimately, for me, I do not think it is a great film. I do think perhaps I require something more to hold onto – to sink my teeth into – than what Davies offers here, which is ultimately more surface and style than substance. But it is a wonderful little film just the same.

The Best Films I've Never Seen Before: Titicut Follies (1967)

Titicut Follies (1967) ***
Directed by: Frederick Wiseman.

Legendary documentarian Frederick Wiseman’s first film, Titicut Follies, became famous because it was banned. It takes place in a mental hospital, and shows how the patients are either mistreated, ignored or worse by the doctors and the staff. Although Wiseman had permission to film – either from the patients themselves or their legal guardian, the head of the hospital, when the film was first released and drew praise from many critics, the State realized it made them look horrible, and sued to have it blocked – arguing that it violated patient privacy. The State won, and initially all copies of the film were ordered to be destroyed – but that was reversed on appeal. Although the film was still banned for the public, it could be shown for “educational purposes” to mental health professionals – I suppose to teach them what NOT to do. It wasn’t until 1991, when the patients in the film were dead, that the film was allowed to be showed to the public. It is thought that Titicut Follies was the first film to be banned not because it was pornography or a threat to National Security – so its place in film history is assured. But the film is probably more famous for its legal battles than for anything in the film itself. Although it has been readily available since 1991, there doesn’t seem to be too much demand for a black and white documentary from the 1960s about the mistreatment of mental patients.

Wiseman has had a long career in documentary film. In the 44 years since Titicut Follies was released, Wiseman has directed a total of 39 documentaries. He has a fascinating with institutions as you could tell simply by reading the titles of some of his films – High School, Hospital, Basic Training, Juvenile Court, State Legislature, Public Housing and his latest Boxing Gym. He would probably rename this film Mental Institution if he could. Despite strong reviews for almost all of his films, they never really get a proper release – often they end up airing on PBS – and DVDs of his work can be hard to find – which helps to explain why other than this film and Boxing Gym (which I saw at TIFF last year), I have not seen any of his work. Wiseman is kind of the anti-Michael Moore in that we never see or hear him in any of his movies. For all intents and purposes, he is not there – he simply sits back and films what happens in front of him. Of course his editing choices – what he includes and excludes – are Wiseman’s real voice, but he is not someone who feels the need to beat his point into your head. You can make of his films what you want.

Despite the fact that Wiseman has presumably used the same basic style in all his work, there has definitely been a progression in the skill in which he makes his films. Boxing Gym is a meticulously edited film, getting into the rhythm of the fights, and using the sounds of the gym as a kind of score. The style in Titicut Follies is more rougher and raw. You can see the jagged edges of the film, and it never quite settles into its own rhythm. This may end up helping the film, which I think should have a raw feel to it. And the footage does pretty much speak for itself.

We do not necessary see a whole lot of outright physical abuse in Titicut Follies – either it didn’t happen, or at least didn’t happen when Wiseman was filming. Yet what we do see is a hospital that is supposed to be there to help the mentally ill completely failing at its job. Patients are ignored, belittled, talked down to, mocked. They are trapped in a place that is not helping them, and doesn’t seem to care if they ever do help them. One poor sap was sent over from prison for observation and has been there for more than a year now. When he first got there, he didn’t say anything, and they diagnosed him as a paranoid schizophrenic. When he started talking one on one, the doctors saw this as a confirmation of their diagnosis – and when he starts being more vocal, it’s even more proof. The poor bastard is damned no matter what he does. There is a pedophile in the hospital that gets advice so painfully awful that you cannot believe that a trained doctor could ever think of saying it to someone like him. These patients will never be cured – some because their illness is such that they cannot be cured – but others because no one seems to know what they are doing or care about it. These guys would be no worse off in the general population given the “treatment” they receive at the hospital.

I found Titicut Follies to be fascinating, sad and infuriating. If you ever want to know just how accurate One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which was made a few years later, but set at the same basic time as this film, all you need to do is watch this film and marvel. The film is rough – as you may expect from a lawyer turned filmmaker making his first film – but effective. I can only assume that mental hospitals have gotten better in the years since this film came out, so the film is not as timely as it once was. But as an historical document, it is quite fascinating. I have a feeling I should try and track down more of Wiseman’s films.