Monday, October 31, 2011

Movie Review: Anonymous

Anonymous **
Directed by: Roland Emmerich.
Written by: John Orloff.
Starring: Rhys Ifans (Earl of Oxford), Vanessa Redgrave (Queen Elizabeth I), Sebastian Armesto (Ben Jonson), Rafe Spall (William Shakespeare), David Thewlis (William Cecil), Edward Hogg (Robert Cecil), Xavier Samuel (Earl of Southampton), Sam Reid (Earl of Essex), Jamie Campbell Bower (Young Earl of Oxford), Joely Richardson (Young Queen Elizabeth I), Paolo De Vita (Francesco), Trystan Gravelle (Christopher Marlowe), Robert Emms (Thomas Dekker), Tony Way (Thomas Nashe), Julian Bleach (Captain Richard Pole), Derek Jacobi (Prologue), Alex Hassell (Spencer), James Garnon (Heminge), Mark Rylance (Condell), Helen Baxendale (Anne De Vere), Paula Schramm (Bridget De Vere), Amy Kwolek (Young Anne De Vere), James Clyde (King James I).

For the sake of fairness, I must admit that I have not read any of the actual research done that proclaims that the Earl of Oxford was the real genius, and not William Shakespeare. I was aware before Anonymous that such a theory exists – and that the Earl of Oxford isn’t the only other “alternate Shakespeare” that has been suggested, but I never quite cared enough to explore it any deeper, and when I heard a new movie about the theory was coming out, I wanted to go in fresh. Why let the truth get in the way of a good story? After all, if you do any reading about it, you will find out that Mozart wasn’t the goofball or that Saleri wasn’t the villain that Amadeus would have you believe – but that doesn’t mean Milos Forman’s film, or F. Murray Abraham’s performance, aren’t among the best in history. So I was more than willing to give Roland Emmerich’s film a chance on its own terms. Emmerich apparently believes in the truth behind his film strongly – he is even making written materials about the research available to schools because he doesn’t think its right to lie to children in school. After watching Anonymous however, I find that Emmerich is probably going to do more harm to his cause than good. The film seemed wholly unbelievable to me to the point of ridiculousness – but not because it suggests that someone other than Shakespeare wrote the plays we know, but because all the behind the scenes stuff revolving around Queen Elizabeth I struck me as silly and unbelievable. It certainly doesn’t help that Emmerich (whose previous films include Stargate, Independence Day, Godzilla, The Day After Tomorrow, 10,000 BC and 2012) directs his costume drama with the subtlety of a sledge hammer to the face, and tries to make this into an action packed blockbuster. It didn’t work.

The film opens with the great Shakespearian actor Derek Jacobi taking the stage to tell us that the story we are about to hear is true. We then flashback to the time of Shakespeare and Elizabeth I. Played by Vanessa Redgrave, Elizabeth is about as far away as you can get from Judi Dench’s portrayal of her, at the roughly the same period of her life, in Shakespeare in Love. Rather than a sharp as a tack older lady, Redgrave’s Elizabeth is one step above a doddering old fool. She seems incapable of even remembering anything, let alone running England, which according the movie is pretty much in the hands of the evil Cecil family (led by David Thewlis’ William, her top adviser). Cecil knows that Elizabeth won’t be around much longer, and if he wants his family to remain in power, he needs to convince her to name King James of Scotland as her successor. Elizabeth seems to be leaning more towards the Earl of Essex (Sam Reid), one of her supposed bastards, instead. Essex is supported by the Earl of Southampton (Xavier Samuel), who trusts the word of the Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans) more than anything. Oxford has essentially been shunned by the Royal Court for most of his adult life, and is the constant source of disappointment to Cecil, his father in law. He loves Southampton however, and feels he has a way to help him – with his writing. Knowing that someone of his station could never be seen to write something as lowly as a play, he calls on Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) to do it for him. He gives him a copy of Henry V and tells him to have it performed under his own name. Not wanting to disgrace his reputation, Jonson lets a drunken, illiterate fool of an actor take credit instead. His name is William Shakespeare (Rafe Spall). Soon Shakespeare in the toast of the theater scene – with one masterpiece seemingly following another and another to the stage.

If you think I’ve given away the whole plot, don’t worry I haven’t. All of this is essentially established in the first half hour or so, and what follows is a series of double and triple crosses, flashbacks and flashbacks inside of flashbacks, lots of intrigue and lust, jealously and anger and even incest. Oh, and a few battle sequences, in the film mainly, I think, because Emmerich cannot conceive of a movie without battle sequences. Things come to a head when Richard III is performed, with the daring decision to make Richard a hunchback – much like Richard Cecil, who has succeeded his father as Elizabeth’s top adviser.

I found watching Anonymous to be a rather exhausting experience. Everything in the film is made to seem larger than life – the sets, the costumes, the music and the performances. There is no room for subtly here, and for a movie that is largely about people talking, the film seemed to be filled with noise. Emmerich is used to directing action movies, and he directs this movie the same way, and it simply does not work. This is a costume drama for people who don’t like costume dramas – and I like costume dramas.

The one element in the movie that I wholeheartedly loved was Rhys Ifans performance as the Earl of Oxford aka the Real Shakespeare. He seems immune from the bombast that surrounds him, and at times, he seems to be acting in a different, better movie than the one he is stuck in. When he was onscreen, the movie just felt different, and it comes from the confidence he exudes. It’s an excellent performance in a bad movie.

Overall, I can’t say that I liked Anonymous, and it didn’t really make me want to find out the “real story” behind Shakespeare. To quote him “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”. Call it blasphemous if you want to, but I really don’t care who gets the credit for Shakespeare’s work. His plays are masterpieces, and nothing will ever change that.

Movie Review: The Skin I Live In

The Skin I Live In ***
Directed by: Pedro Almodóvar.
Written by: Pedro Almodóvar based on the novel by Thierry Jonquet.
Starring: Antonio Banderas (Robert Ledgard), Elena Anaya (Vera Cruz), Marisa Paredes (Marilia), Jan Cornet (Vicente), Roberto Álamo (Zeca), Eduard Fernández (Fulgencio), Blanca Suárez (Norma Ledgard).

Pedro Almodovar is love with old movies. Watching his films brings to mind 1950s melodramas – especially those by Douglas Sirk, but with less censorship. There’s also a healthy dose of Hitchcock in his films, particularly recently, where his films have become more mysterious in nature. His latest film, The Skin I Live In, is no exception. There’s a little Sirk, a little Hitchcock, a little of Georges Franu’s Eyes Without a Face in the mix, all filtered through Almodovar’s prism of sexual identity. It is a film that you really cannot take seriously, because it goes so far over the top, but I don’t see that as necessarily a bad thing.

The film stars Antonio Banderas as Dr. Robert Ledgard, a brilliant plastic surgeon and researcher, who believes he has come up with a new way to help burn victims recover from their horrible scars. In the process, he has essentially invented a new kind of skin. He says he did all of this because his wife was horribly burned and killed in a car accident, and this was his way of dealing with it. He gives a lecture where he explains his discoveries, tested on lab mice. But we already know he hasn’t just tested it on mice. He has a real person as a guinea pig. This is Vera Cruz (Elena Anaya), the beautiful woman he keeps under lock and key at his house/clinic. This makes his maid Marilla (Marisa Paredes), who has been with him since childhood, extremely uncomfortable. When Marilla’s son Zeca (Roberto Alamo) shows up, we start to understand why.

To give away more would be criminal. But let me just say that I was convinced I knew where the movie was headed from the outset, and could not have possibly been more wrong. Almodovar, working on a novella by Thierry Jonquet, starts with what seems to be a standard revenge thriller/horror movie, but then goes deeper and deeper as it goes along. I think one of the reasons why I didn’t suspect where the movie was going is because I could not imagine even going there. It’s just so bizarre that I can’t believe someone would attempt it. And I say this with admiration.

The film, like all of Almodovar’s work, is impeccably made. I love when he does dark, and tones down his usual lush, vibrant colors, which only makes a few appearances here. Visually, this film is more akin to his Bad Education (which may just be my favorite of his films) than something as richly colorful as Volver. The cinematography, art direction and costume design are excellent, and the score by Alberto Ingelesis would have made Hitchcock’s regular composer Bernard Hermann proud.

If The Skin I Live In is less satisfying than most of his work, it’s because the story depends on its inherent shock value – which to be truly effective, needs to hit the audience like a gut punch, which it does. But what this requires is for the actors to play everything a little too close to the vest for much of the movie – not revealing too much. As a result, Antonio Banderas is actually kind of dull in this role, which is a disappointment given his other work with Almodovar. The beautiful Elena Anaya seems little more than skin deep for too much of the movie – although she makes up for it in the final reel. And we constantly think that Marilia wants to say more, but is held back by the necessities of the plot. Perhaps the best performance in the movie is by Jan Cornet as Vincente, who I can’t say much about without fear of giving too much away.

And yet, despite its flaws, I couldn’t help but thoroughly enjoy The Skin I Live In. Almodovar has pushed himself here, and although the result isn’t quite as good as much of his previous work, it still drew me in, and shocked me.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Best Films I Have Never Seen Before: Petulia (1968)

Petulia (1968) ****
Directed by: Richard Lester.
Written by: Lawrence B. Marcus based on the book by John Haase.
Starring:  Julie Christie (Petulia Danner), George C. Scott (Dr. Archie Bollen), Richard Chamberlain (David Danner), Arthur Hill (Barney), Shirley Knight (Polo), Pippa Scott (May), Kathleen Widdoes (Wilma), Joseph Cotten (Mr. Danner).

I have complained a number of times during this series that many films from the 1960s have aged because the young directors at the time were so committed to making anti-studio movies, that they overdosed on stylistics. But then I see a film like Richard Lester’s Petulia, and am left speechless. Here is a film that should feel aged – it is a definite product of the 1960s, and all that entails, and certainly overdoses on the stylistics that seemed modern at the time, but seem dated today. And yet, somehow, the film still feels fresh and alive. Perhaps it’s because the film isn’t really about the “swinging 60s”, but simply set during them. There are hippies in the film, but they are mainly relegated to the background. The film is really about isolation and loneliness, set against that backdrop. It is a film that had me in its grip from beginning to end.

The film stars the great George C. Scott as Dr. Archie Bollen, who before the movie begins, has left his wife and two small children. He doesn’t really know why, he simply knows that he no longer wants to be married to his wife Polo (Shirley Knight), even though he still loves her in a way, and definitely still loves his kids. He meets Petulia (Julie Christie) at a party, and the two seem smitten with each other. She has married David Danner (Richard Chamberlain), the son of the extremely rich Mr. Danner (Joseph Cotten), but David has issues. Serious issues, and that has made the “kook” Petulia even kookier. They head off from the party together, and end up at a strange, modern, surreal hotel – but things don’t happen as we expect them to. In fact, nothing in Petulia happens the way we expect them to. Petulia chases Archie, who sometimes resists her charms, and sometimes does not.

What I think makes Petulia so interesting is that even though it is a quintessential 1960s film, it seems ahead of its time. It’s more like a film looking back at the ‘60s, with all of it excesses than one during the 1960s, when all this seemed normal. While someone like Dennis Hopper was romanticizing the hippies of his generation, and the supposed freedom that the 1960s brought, Petulia strangely sees it all as empty and miserable. Perhaps its because the characters are older than most protagonists of films like this – not quite the age of the parents of the hippies (like Cotten in the film, who is excellent at showing his disappointment that the times, and his son, do not meet his old fashioned standards), but not young enough either to be truly a part of everything that is going on. The are stuck somewhere in between these two generations, and seem completely lost, alone and miserable. The don’t fit in anywhere.

It seems odd that Richard Lester directed this film. He was at the time best known for his two Beatles movies – A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help (1965), as well as the Palme D’Or winning comedy The Knack and How to Get It (1965), along with the black war comedy How I Won the War (1967). After Petulia, he went on to direct The Three Musketeers (1973) and Superman II (1983). What most of these films have in common is that they are comedies – and fairly light hearted. Yet Petulia is anything but. This is a dark drama, prompting Roger Ebert to say in his original 1968 review that “this is the coldest, cruelest film I can recall” (although it should be noted that Ebert did in fact give the film four stars). So it is cruel, and cold, but that is appropriate given what the movie is about.

Petulia is a very odd film indeed. I’m not quite sure I can think of another film of its time quite like it. While filming the movie, apparently George C. Scott confessed that he had no idea what it was about, but he was confident Lester knew, so he trusted it. But you wouldn’t know that Scott didn’t know what the film was about from watching his performance – one every bit as good as the best work of the actor’s career. Here he is a sad man, walking through his life, not quite knowing what to make of it all. He is trying to connect with somebody – or something – but ultimately finds no such connection. Julie Christie is every bit his equal in the title role – a woman who is a “kook”, but uses that to disguise her pain and torment, right up until the final scene of the film. Richard Chamberlain, who Lester told was cast because he reminded him of “an empty coke bottle”, is quite good as well. Yes, for much of the film he seems beautiful, but empty, yet when we learn late in the film his secrets, we wish we hadn’t. Shirley Knight is also fantastic as Scott’s wife, who doesn’t understand why she was left, and simply wants to retreat back into the safe life they made together.

Petulia doesn’t much show up on greatest films lists. Perhaps it’s because Lester never really became a truly great director – except at least in the eyes of Steven Soderbergh, who is a big fan. And yet, Petulia is a great film. A one of a kind film from the 1960s, who saw that decades failures more clearly than any film of its time that I can think of.

How Pasolini’s Salo Cured Me of My Need to See Extreme Films

Glenn Kenny recently wrote about Pier Pasolini’s final film Salo: or the 120 Days of Sodom on the occasion of its Blu-Ray release from Criterion. I don’t need much to be reminded of Pasolini’s film, which I watched last year when I was attempting to beef up my top 10 lists from every year. The film didn’t make my list for 1975. And it’s a film I will never, ever watch again. But I’m glad I saw it – if for no other reason than it cured me for having watch every “extreme” film that comes along.

For years, I watched the extreme horror films that made their way whether on DVD or occasionally in theaters, when they actually made it there.  I’m not going to say I saw all of them – not by a long shot – but I saw many of them. Some of them – like Takahasi Miike’s Audition (a brilliant bait and switch as a creepy romantic comedy becomes an exercise in torture) and Ichi the Killer (a sly satire on the whole extreme genre – with its two characters representing the torturer and the tortured) were actually brilliant. Some – like The Human Centipede or Martyrs – were simply sickening – movies pretending to be about something deeper, but were really just an exercise in putting disgusting images on the screen. Just off the top of my head I can think of the following films, some have merit, some don’t - Irreversible, both versions of The Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes – the remake, the Hostel movies, the Saw movies, Frontier(s), Man Bites Dog, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Funny Games – both versions - Captivity, Dumplings, Inside, In My Skin, Imprint,  Battle Royale and many many more. All of these films, both good and bad, made me want to have a shower afterwards.

My mantra with these films was simple – I can’t have opinion on them unless I’ve actually watched them myself. That was true then, and it’s just as true now. But something has changed with me. I no longer really care if I have an opinion on movies like this anymore. And I stopped sometime after watching Salo.

For those who don’t know, the film takes place in 1944 Italy, just after Mussolini’s fall, and is about four Italian fascists, who kidnap 18 teenage boys and girls, and subject them to four months of torture – physical, sexual and mental. The film is icy cold and detached in the way it presents the events – from the kidnapping of the 18 young men and women, to their examination by the four men, to forcing the victims to literally eat shit (in a sequence that is making me wretch a little bit right now just thinking about it), to the graphic, brutal murders that culminate the film. Believe me; I’m being kind in sparing the details on display in Salo. But they will remain seared in my mind forever.

Pasolini is miles away from someone like Eli Roth or Tom Six, who makes their films full of torture simply because they like to shoot them, and because they like to punish their audiences. He actually has a point, although it’s buried under everything in the film. The film is about how the Fascists, and their collaborators, raped and destroyed Italians, and how most people simply sat back and did nothing. The final shot in the movie is of two of the collaborators, who have seen everything, as they waltz together. The most despicable things happened in front of them, and they don’t care. And that’s the point. For a time, under the Fascists, the most despicable things were done in Italy and in Italy’s name, and Italians did nothing to stop it. They simply kept waltzing.

I admired Pasolini’s film, even as I was sickened by it. The grandeur of the surroundings offset against the depravity going on inside of them, make the movie effective, as does Pasolini’s cold, detached style. He has made precisely the film that he wanted to make, and his message came through loud and clear. I just don’t want to watch it again.

This brings me to two more recent films – The Human Centipede 2 and A Serbian Film. Owen Glieberman has praised The Human Centipede 2, saying it’s precisely the film the first one wanted to be, and failed. Roger Ebert called it a geek show. A Serbian Film was named the most extreme horror film of all time by one website, so curious, I looked up the synopsis. It is about a male porn star, looking for one final pay cheque, and being tricked into doing an “extreme porn” film. He is drugged, and doesn’t remember what he’s does, and then watches on videotape, as he rapes and murders people on film. It gets to the point where his own family is involved, and even in death, they cannot escape.

The director of A Serbian Film is most likely a fan of Pasolini’s film. He says the movie is about the Serbian government, and how they have raped the people. The film has been banned in some places – a distributor showing the film has even been charged with distributing child pornography in Spain. Netflix is refusing to carry the film, and I highly doubt you’ll see it on the shelf in your local video store (it was released yesterday – with one minute trimmed from its original version) – unless you live close to one of those cool video stores that carry everything, and not just by a Rogers like I do. You can get it online however, if you are so inclined.

There was a time when I would have seen both The Human Centipede 2 and A Serbian Film. Both may be masterpieces for all I know, and I cannot know unless I watch them. But I simply don’t have an interest in them anymore. Somehow Salo, which was supposed to be the ultimate endurance test of the movie, has made me immune to wanting to see the films that want to top it. I saw Salo, I survived, I even admired the film. Its images are now forever locked in my brain. Now I can move on with my life.

In his piece, Glenn Kenny surveyed five film experts to determine if Salo is a film that everyone “needs to see” – and four of them said yes. But Kenny disagrees. He rightly points out that it is impossible to see every film out there, and that one film doesn’t determine your seriousness as a film buff. I agree with that. I’m not saying that I’ll never see another “extreme” film again. I do, after all, still consider myself to be a horror movie fan. But I don’t need to see movie that push boundaries simply for the sake of pushing them. Now if something comes along that sounds interesting, I’ll surely watch it. But more and more, I get the feeling that I don’t need to see “extreme” films, just to prove that I can, or so I can express an opinion on them. I’ve already done that.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Movie Review: Margin Call

Margin Call *** ½  
Directed by: J.C. Chandor.
Written by: J.C. Chandor.
Starring: Kevin Spacey (Sam Rogers), Paul Bettany (Will Emerson), Jeremy Irons (John Tuld), Zachary Quinto (Peter Sullivan), Penn Badgley (Seth Bregman), Simon Baker (Jared Cohen), Demi Moore (Sarah Robertson), Stanley Tucci (Eric Dale), Mary McDonnell (Mary Rogers), Aasif Mandvi (Ramesh Shah).

I am currently in the middle of reading Michael Lewis’ excellent book The Big Short, which is about the 2008 financial crisis, caused by failing subprime mortgages, and the few people who saw it coming – and as such made tons of cash by betting on the mortgage bonds to fail, when everyone on Wall Street said they were safe. What becomes clear when reading the book is that anyone with even a rudimentary understanding of finance could have seen the crisis coming years before it hit, and bankrupted so many, and lead to the huge bailout. All anyone had to do to figure it out is look at the actual loans being given. What also becomes clear is that no one wanted to see it coming. They were making millions or billions of dollars because of this market, so why look too closely at it. When the outsiders who bet against the market would ask people inside why they felt they way they did, they never had a good response. Their basic argument is that the market can’t collapse because it would be catastrophic if it did. About that, they were right. I mention all this at the top of my review for the new film Margin Call, because it is in effect about the very people who should have seen the crash coming, and didn’t – because they didn’t want to see it coming.  

Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) is in charge of risk assessment for a big Wall Street firm, but he – along with 80% of the staff on his floor – are fired one day, so the firm can increase profits. On his way out the door, he gives a flash drive to one of the few employees left, a low ranking underling named Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) and tells him to have a look, but be careful. Sullivan quickly figures out what Dale was looking at, and figures out what is missing in the formulas. What he discovers is that this one floor of the firm – that deals in subprime mortgages – has leveraged themselves so much that the potential losses would be greater than the current value of the entire company. Not only that, but this is no longer a question of if, but when, as it has already started to happen. He goes to his boss Will Emerson (Paul Bettany), who goes to his boss Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey), who goes to his bosses Jared Cohen and Sarah Robertson (Simon Baker and Demi Moore), who go to the CEO John Tuld (Jeremy Irons), who choppers into the building at 3 am to have an emergency meeting. At every step along the way, the bosses at first don’t believe the numbers are correct – that a junior analyst found something that they didn’t – but they quickly see just how bad things are. Of course, no one really knows what to do, until it gets to Tuld. Whether he actually understands what his business does or not is debatable – he keeps asking for people to explain it to him in “plain English” – but he quickly grasps the ramifications. No matter what they do, they’re going to lose lots and lots of money. But if they dump it all now – even though they know it’s worthless – they may be able to save themselves, while screwing over whoever they sell it to. What do you think they do?

What I liked about the movie is how it shows just how shockingly amoral Wall Street is, and how even that has lost the ability to shock the players in this firm. The first thought on everyone’s mind in the movie is not how this crisis is going to affect the firm they work for, not how it’s going to drag the entire economy of the country down with them, but rather about their own job security – and their bonuses. This is not a movie with good guys and bad guys – because they are all bad. Dale, who knows this is coming, agrees to come back to work the next day – for one day only – so he can make over $100,000 an hour sitting in a waiting room and not warning anyone of the crap they’re selling them. Roberts knows that what they are about to do – and since he’s the head trader, he’s going to be the one who has to do – goes against everything they are supposed to believe in, but he does it anyone. Even after 30 years on Wall Street, he does it because he “needs to the money”. That’s the way it is on Wall Street – you always need the money. When Tuld comes to Robertson, and tells her they have selected her to be the fall guy (and no, it is no coincidence that they pick the one woman in Senior Management), all she can think about is that her package “better be” good. If anything outside of their own, immediate needs comes to mind for anyone, they don’t show it.

Margin Call reminded me of something like David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, about real estate salesmen who spend a long night trying to get leads, and make sales, until one of them crosses the line into breaking the law. Mamet’s play, and the movie based on it, was shocking profane, and shocking in the way it displays the mind of these salesmen, who see everyone they come in contact with as a mark. The difference between Glengarry Glen Ross and Margin Call is only the scale of the corruption. The performances in the movie all wonderful – I especially liked Paul Bettany, Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons and Stanley Tucci in the movie, but really the whole cast does an excellent job. Writer/director J.C. Chandor has crafted an economic movie for our troubled times. This is why people are joining the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Movie Review: Higher Ground

Higher Ground *** ½  
Directed by: Vera Farmiga.
Written by: Carolyn S. Briggs and Tim Metcalfe based on the memoir by Carolyn S. Briggs.
Starring: Vera Farmiga (Corinne), Joshua Leonard (Ethan), Norbert Leo Butz (Bill), Donna Murphy (Kathleen), Dagmara Dominczyk (Annika), Nina Arianda (Wendy), John Hawkes (CW), Taissa Farmiga (Young Corinne), Bill Irwin (Pastor Bud), Boyd Holbrook (Young Ethan), Sean Mahon (Liam Donovan), Taylor Schwencke (Wendy), Kaitlyn Rae King (Teenage Wendy), McKenzie Turner (Young Corrine).

Most movies about faith either mock it, or whole heartedly embrace it. So we get movies that either cater to the religious people –that show immoral people find the light of God and become saved – or movies that simply like to make fun of religious people. Vera Farmiga’s Higher Ground is neither of those things. Instead, it is a movie about one woman who at first embraces her faith with everything she has, and then gradually falls away from it. It’s not that she stops believing in God, it’s just that she starts asking more questions – and finds her church’s blind praise of God, and their very definite ideas of what faith means, to be too restrictive. At the end of the movie, I think she still believes in God – or at least wants to believe – but cannot be a part of what has consumed her for so long.

As a child, Corinne is not raised in an overly religious family, but they do make her attend church and Sunday school. One day the pastor asks all the kids to close their eyes and listen for Jesus knocking on the door to their heart – and then to raise their hand if they want to let Jesus in. Only three kids do – and Corrine is one of them. But because of her family – her weak willed, alcoholic father (John Hawkes), her flirtatious mother (Donna Murphy) and mocking sister, she doesn’t really become religious. As a teenager, she falls in love with a musician named Ethan. They marry young, and have a daughter, and on day on the tour bus crashes into a lake. Their daughter is trapped inside the bus, but Ethan pulls her out at the last second. This leads Ethan to a religious conversion – God saved their daughter. Flash forward a few years, and their family has grown. Corinne (now played by Farmiga) and Ethan (Joshua Leonard) are full blown Christians. Their Pastor is Bill (Norbert Leo Butz), and they fully embrace the Born Again Christian lifestyle of the 1970s, which mixes some hippie habits with their dogma. They are raising their family, and they are happy. They are a part of a community of people who are nice to them, and work hard to support their family, and live life according to the bible.

But things aren’t quite as happy as they appear for Corinne. She starts having doubts – and they creep in slowly. First being criticized for talking too much (we don’t want to look like we’re “teaching” the men, she’s told), or because her dress, which is positively old fashioned by most standards, is “too revealing” because it shows her shoulders. Then there are some implied sexual thoughts – she looks at little too longingly at her friend Annika (Dagmara Dominczyk), and another male member of their congregation – and perhaps Ethan isn’t quite the lover he wishes he was. When Annika gets a brain tumor, and ends up alive, but essentially a shadow of her former self, the doubts become full blown. How could this be a part of God’s plan?

There are perhaps a couple of moments where Farmiga’s film goes a little too far, and perhaps crossing a line into mocking the religious beliefs of the group – the men listening to a cassette about how to please their wives for example. But for the most part, this is a film that presents them as decent, God loving people. They are happy in their beliefs. They are nice people and their beliefs are sincere. What the movie does portray is how all consuming, and eventually suffocating, all this belief can be. Eventually, Corinne rediscovers some of who she was as a teenager – when she naughtily tried to check out Lord of the Flies from the library. She rediscovers her love of reading books other than the bible and her desire to want something more than just talk about God and how wonderful He is all the time. She thinks there has to be something more out there other than the life she has been living. As a teenager, she wanted to be a writer, and eventually the woman whose memoir this is based on, will become just that.

In the end, I have a feeling that many audience members will be frustrated by Higher Ground for the very reason I find it so daring and perceptive – because it never really chooses side, and ends with the lead character still confused. She has neither returned to be consumed by her religion as she was for much of the movie, nor has she become an atheist. Instead, she seems locked in her uncertainty. The movie quotes the bible that preaches against being “luke warm” in terms of religion – and how God hates it (he will “spew you from his mouth”). The reason that Corinne needs to leave her group is because to them, being luke warm is worse than not believing at all – you need to fully embrace religion, with no doubts or uncertainly. And that is precisely what Corinne cannot do. In the end, she decides to examine herself – her complex relationship with God, with her husband, with her children – and find out who she is. How many movies are about that? I think that if people go in with open minds into Higher Ground, they can find much to relate to – no matter what they believe.

DVD Review: Hesher

Hesher **
Directed by: Spencer Susser   
Written by: Spencer Susser & David Michôd.
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Hesher), Devin Brochu (T.J.), Rainn Wilson (Paul Forney), Piper Laurie (Grandma), Natalie Portman (Nicole), Brendan Hill (Dustin), John Carroll Lynch (Larry).

By now, I think I have seen too many indie movies about dysfunctional families. They come along like clockwork every year, having created “buzz” at Sundance, and then dropped into the marketplace where some succeed, but most fail and are forgotten. They follow formulaic scripts as much as the blockbusters do, but on a smaller scale. Some of these films, much like some blockbusters, are actually still quite good. Spencer Susser’s Hesher, I think, is an attempt to subvert the genre by adding in the title character, who really has no business being in this movie, to try and make it darker or edgier. Instead, he just shows off how clichéd the rest of the movie is, and makes us wonder what the hell he’s doing in the movie.

T. J. (Devin Brochu) is a messed up little boy, who looks like he’s about 10, but is probably more like 13, since he’s clearly in high school. As if being the one kid in class who needs to fully hit puberty isn’t bad enough, his mother has recently died in a car accident. His father Paul (Rainn Wilson) is zonked out on pills, in a deep depression and simply sits around the house all day. His grandmother (Piper Laurie) cares about her son, and her grandson, but isn’t really much help.

TJ meets Hesher (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) when in a fit of rage; he smashes a window of a house on a construction site – the very house that Hesher is crashing in - bringing the security guard, and ruining Hesher’s living situation. Then Hesher starts following him around, and eventually, will just move in with the family. Why Paul and Grandma do nothing is never really explained. Hesher is some sort of heavy metal reject, seemingly out of the 1980s, with long, greasy hair, lots of tattoos (on his back, a giant middle finger, on his chest, a stick figure blowing his brains out) and he drives around in a big, black, old van. He moves in with the family, I guess, because he has nowhere else to go, and they don’t kick him out. Where he came from, where his family is, whether he has any friends, is never explained. But given the way he acts, it’s would not be surprising if he has driven everyone in his life away from him. Hesher is, in short, an asshole.

The movie is about T.J.’s journey, and how with the help of Hesher, he starts to heal himself and move on from his mother’s death – and how he brings Paul along with him. So the journey is clichéd, and I think that’s why co-writer/director Spencer Susser drops Hesher right into the middle of it – because we’ve seen this type of movie before, where a child is healed by his relationship by an outsider, but never before has the outsider been like Hesher. Normally, it’s some kindly, understanding older character, not someone who seemingly acts in his own self interest at every step along the way like Hesher does. Hesher does what he wants, when he wants, and really, never helps TJ at all. He lets the bully continue to pick on him, he drive a wedge between TJ and the object of his unrealistic, adolescent boy crush on Nicole (Natalie Portman), who works in a grocery store. He smokes, drinks, does drugs and swears at will in front of TJ. If the lesson to be learned from Hesher, the movie, is to be more like Hesher, the character, then I’m not buying it. He is, as I mentioned before, an asshole.

But perhaps the movie still could have worked if they had made Hesher into a convincing and entertaining asshole – which they don’t. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is one of my favorite actors working right now, but even he cannot make Hesher seem like he belongs in this movie – belongs in fact in the human race. Hesher is a shallow, superficial character, and it’s like Susser thought that the tattoos, hair and profanity would distract us from that shallowness It doesn’t. It doesn’t help that the rest of the characters are just as paper thin. Rainn Wilson is a talented actor, but he can’t make looking at the TV in a daze interesting. And Piper Laurie cannot make the spaced grandma convincing either. Natalie Portman, who saw so much to like in Hesher, she also produced it, has a one note role, and I could never figure out why she does pretty much anything that she does. Little Devin Brochu fairs the best with TJ, but that’s probably just because he’s the only character who seems to have been fully thought out.

Watching Hesher, I kept waiting for the pieces to fall into place. It is a diverting movie, and for a while, I went with it, thinking there was something more to it than what I was seeing – that the filmmakers were building to something. But they never really do. What we end up with is a clichéd movie with some clever moments, that adds up to pretty much nothing.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Movie Review: Martha Marcy May Marlene

Martha Marcy May Marlene ****
Directed by: Sean Durkin.
Written by: Sean Durkin.
Starring: Elizabeth Olsen (Martha), John Hawkes (Patrick), Sarah Paulson (Lucy), Brady Corbet (Watts), Hugh Dancy (Ted), Christopher Abbott (Max), Maria Dizzia (Katie), Julia Garner (Sarah), Louisa Krause (Zoe).

Martha Marcy May Marlene is one of the most striking feature directorial debuts I’ve seen in a long time. The film is a delicate balancing act, flashing back and forth in time, to show how a young woman is indoctrinated into a cult not unlike the Manson family, and then as she tries to adjust to life outside of that cult. It has two primary settings – the cult’s compound, in which the young men and women seem to be in awe of the older, seemingly wiser leader who talks in a calm, reassuring voice that makes you think everything is perfectly ok and normal – unless you actually listen to the words he is saying. The other is a vacation home owned by Martha’s sister and her husband, where they take Martha when she calls them after a two year, unexplained absence. She doesn’t tell them where she has been, and her behavior is strange and off-putting. She was too smart to stay with the cult, but they have affected her in a strange way, meaning that now she doesn’t really fit in with normal people either. Martha is an island.

Martha is played in a great lead performance by Elizabeth Olsen (younger sister of Mary Kate and Ashley). The role requires her to do a lot – it’s a complex, difficult role, in which she has to go from intelligent, normal teenager girl to traumatized victim of the cult, to follower, and then begin the long slow progression out of it. To make matters more complex, the film plays with time, so that we see only parts of both her life inside and outside the cult at a time, leading up to a final, devastating portrait of a confused young woman who has no idea where she belongs, if indeed she belongs anywhere at all. It is a remarkable performance by Olson, and should make her a star.

But hers is far from the only great performance in the movie, as the supporting cast is excellent as well. Sarah Paulson is the older sister, trying to hard to understand and help Martha, but since Martha will not tell her anything more than she was off living with a boyfriend, she has no idea just how damaged Martha has become. She has patience, but only up to a certain point before she starts to lose it. Her husband is played by Hugh Dancy, and although his role is not as well developed, he does a good job of playing a bland, ordinary guy who just doesn’t get his newfound sister in law. Brady Corbet is creepily effective as the good looking front for the cult – he is the one who goes out and draws in teenage girls like Martha for the rest of the cult. And John Hawkes is brilliant as Patrick, the Charles Manson type figure, who is so calm, so assured that you barely notice how evil he is. This is the way cult leaders recruit people – not by acting crazy, but by acting rational, even when the ideas the expound are completely off the wall. Listen to a song he writes for Martha (who he dubs Marcy May), and at first it seems beautiful – the melody is sweet, but the lyrics are cruel even as they sung like a folk song. It’s brilliant work from one of the best character actors around.

Full credit must be paid to Sean Durkin, who is making his feature writing and directing debut. Rarely do first timers have such an assured hand behind the camera. They often try to cram too much into their films, but that isn’t the case here. The film isn’t minimalist, but it doesn’t push anything too far either. Yes, there are shocking acts in the film (a rape scene that is truly disturbing, a murder that comes out of nowhere), but Durkin doesn’t dwell on these moments – he isn’t making an exploitation film here, but a psychological study. It takes years for many filmmakers to gain the skills that Durkin has shown in his first film.

Martha Marcy May Marlene may frustrate some viewers. It moves with a deliberate pace – which many people will say it’s slow – and it’s climax, while in my mind is utterly perfect, will leave many audience members wanting more. But no matter. Martha Marcy May Marlene is an excellent film – an assured debut from a director I hope has a bright future ahead of him – and a star who I know does.

My Complex Relationship with the Oscars

I mentioned last week when I did my post about the 63 Foreign Language Film hopefuls that I will be devoting less time to the Oscar race on the blog then normal this year. Yes, I will still do nominee and winner predictions, but I’m not following every in and out of the race this year. There are a variety of reasons for this – the biggest one being time. I have a two month old baby at home, who eats a lot time, and in addition to her, I work a full time job, still try and watch as many movies on DVD and in theaters as possible – and write about them, and watch every single LA Kings game – even the ones that don’t end until 1 am my time. Oh, and for the first time ever, I’m in a fantasy hockey pool that requires me to change my lineup daily. Something had to give, and the Oscar race went by default. I didn’t even really think about it – I just stopped reading about it.

I have long since had a complicated relationship with the Oscars. On one hand, my favorites rarely win. The last Best Picture winner that was also my favorite film of the year was 2006’s The Departed – and before that you have to go back to 1993’s Schindler’s List. This shouldn’t be too surprising – get any 6,000 in a room and ask what their favorite movie of the year is, and the “consensus” answer will always be a safer choice than most individual answers. People have different tastes, and to win the Oscar you have to appeal to a lot of different ones. Some years, you’re bound to be lockstep in the consensus, but more often than not, you won’t be. That’s true of anyone.

And yet, I have always defended the Oscars for a simple reason – it sets the parameters of the conversation every year. That conversation that every film buff loves – what were the year’s best films, best performances, best screenplays, etc. Even if you hate the Oscars, think they always make the wrong choice, it doesn’t matter. You get to have your say, and the debate is always fascinating. Once a year, film buffs get together – mostly online – and debate their favorite films. Without the Oscars, and all the awards shows that feed into them, that debate wouldn’t happen at all. And if you love movies, you have to love that debate.

But increasingly, the Oscar race isn’t about honoring movies, as much as it is about generating revenue. This has always been the case, but it’s gotten worse – and for once, it isn’t the movie studios fault. It’s the media’s and other awards groups. People who run movie websites depend on Oscar “For Your Consideration” ads to run on their sites for months. Mainstream media depends on those same ads in their papers and magazines. As such, they are holding more and more events to pamper talent, and get studios to pony up the dough. Who cares if the movie sucks, just give us the money.

And awards groups just want to trumpet how important they are, instead of honoring movies. Even something with as long of a history as the New York Film Critics Circle, who just announced that they’ll be holding their “end of the year” vote in late November this year – beating the always first National Board of Review, an organization with little credibility, out of the gate. They then have the balls to say it’s not about being first, it’s about logistical concerns. They need more time to organize the event, which means they need to know the winners, so they can arrange for them to be there, and arrange to have relevant presenters to give them their awards. That’s bullshit, and if you believe it, I have a bridge I’m willing to sell you. Critics awards are supposed to be about movie professionals – people whose job it is to watch movies all year – giving out awards to the films they like the most. Not about being the arrogant internet commenter on every blog post who yells out “FIRST” and has nothing else of value to add to the conversation. The New York Film Critics are now going to vote for their year end awards almost 6 WEEKS BEFORE THE END OF THE YEAR. They say they won’t miss any of the contenders, because studios should have the movies ready by them to view anyway. But if you think Steven Spielberg gives a rats ass if the New York Film Critics see War Horse before they vote, you’re crazy. All this move does is reduce the credibility of the New York Film Critics Circle drastically. And if they don’t see all of the films before they vote, then they’ll slowly start to look like the Golden Satellites of the Critics awards circle. Never heard of the Golden Satellites? Don’t worry, no one else has either.

So really, I don’t care when Dave Poland goes on his website and starts his review of My Week with Marilyn – a film I won’t get a chance to see for another month and a half – by saying that Michelle Williams is your likely Best Actress winner for her performance as Marilyn Monroe. I don’t care what people think the Oscar odds are on J. Edgar, A Dangerous Method, War Horse, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Shame, The Skin I Live In, Young Adult, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy or any other “Oscar” movie this season is. For now, I just want them to exist as movies to me, and I want to get a chance to view them as such.

So yes, I will follow the Oscar race once the precursors start coming in – I guess earlier than ever thanks to the New York Film Critics Circle. And yes, I still intend to be a part of the conversation about the year’s best movies early next year when I’ve actually seen them. But until then, I just don’t care. I just want to walk into a darkened theater and see the movies. Is that too much to ask?

The Stupidest Lawsuit in Movie History: Drive Sued for Consumer Fraud

So, a Detroit woman is suing the studio behind the movie Drive, because she saw a trailer for it while attending The Debt, and decided to go see the movie. She expected the movie to be akin to the Fast and the Furious movies, and instead got a dark, highly stylized, highly violent, slower paced film, that she also claims was grossly anti-Semitic – essentially because, in her mind, Albert Brooks and Ron Perelman, both clearly Jewish, played one dimensional villains, and the whole movie was essentially about the Christian Ryan Gosling, having to kill the evil Jews. She saw the movie as an allegory about the “Jewish threat”, and how Christians would be justified in killing them.

A couple of things strike me as stupid in this lawsuit. First of all, as far as I know, the USA still has the First Amendment, which guarantees you the right to expose any belief system you want to. You have freedom of speech. So even if Drive was the most anti-Semitic movie in history, you don’t have a case there. You’re allowed to be an anti-Semite if you want to be.

But I don’t think Drive is anti-Semitic at all. Yes, Albert Brooks is clearly Jewish in the movie (Albert Brooks is clearly Jewish in every one of his movies, except for Finding Nemo and The Simpsons Movie), and yes, he is evil. And Ron Perelman is also clearly Jewish and evil. But how you go from having a couple of evil characters who are Jewish, to being an anti-Semitic movie, I have no idea. How the plaintiff identified Ryan Gosling as a Christian in the movie is also a reach. What about this guy, who isn’t even given a name, and barely speaks, screams Christian to the plaintiff? Apparently, a shot where The Driver is standing in front a crucifix in it, but that’s reaching, is it not? And who says that Ryan Gosling’s character in the film is really a hero anyway? The movie is a pastiche or old film noir tropes, 1980s action movies, and John Hughes films (according to Gosling, and the music cues kind of back him up on that). The whole point of film noir however, is that there are no heroes left. And as for 1980s action movie, Drive is in line with something like William Friedkin’s underrated To Live and Die in L.A. – and William Peterson’s cop in that film is at least morally suspect, if not as bad as the guys he chases down. As is Gosling here. He kills, maims, tortures, etc. This isn’t Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones here. I wasn’t even going to mention that director Nicholas Winding Refn is Jewish, because Jews can be anti-Semitic as well (as evidenced by Ryan Gosling’s breakthrough performance in The Believer – which if you haven’t seen, you should), but decided to throw that out there as well.

I think the more interesting issue here is the charge of consumer fraud, by alleging the trailer for the movie misrepresents the movie itself. The issue is interesting, but I don’t think you should be able to sue for it. But apparently, the plaintiff thought that the preview sold Drive as a movie like The Fast and the Furious – ie an entertaining, fun heist film with cars – and not what it was – in the plaintiffs mind an ultraviolent, anti-Semitic film. (Why, by the way, is she also not suing The Debt, the movie she saw the trailer for Drive while attending. That film is pretty damn violent itself, with disturbing images of suicide, murder and torture – and the Jewish characters in the movie are hardly “heroes” since they lied about what they did, and have reaped the benefits of that lie for decades).

First of all, I don’t think you can sue for this, but it is true that sometimes movies sell one movie and then deliver another. You do this by selecting certain scenes in presenting them in a certain way. There have been times when I walked out of a movie wondering why it was so incredibly different than the trailer in terms of style and tone – hell even genre (I’ve seen some very serious films, with a few comedic moments advertised as comedies for example). Editing trailers is an art form unto itself.

As for Drive itself, there is no question that the editing in the trailer is faster than the editing in the movie itself. But that, to me anyway, doesn’t mean all that much. If you watch the trailer for Drive, you do see more dialogue than you would expect in a Fast and Furious movie. You also get indications that the film is violent – Ryan Gosling is wielding a hammer in one moment for example and if you’re hit with a hammer, it ain’t pretty. And you also know that Albert Brooks is 1) Jewish and 2) the bad guy from the trailer as well. They overall tone of the trailer is actually pretty damn close to the movie itself. There is no scene in the trailer that isn’t in the movie. So no, the trailer doesn’t tell you everything about Drive – it can’t. It’s a trailer. If it told you everything, it would be the movie.

Not only that but the movie is rated R for “strong brutal bloody violence” and that warning would be on display in any theater showing the movie, so I’m not sure the plaintiff can cry foul. Every review of the film (including my own) describes the film as being extremely violent. Doesn’t the consumer have some responsibility to educate themselves before buying a product?

And even if she can cry foul, why should be entitled to anything more than a refund of her $10 to see the damned movie itself? What else can she possibly claim that she has lost by spending her time watching Drive?

If Drive is still playing in a theater near you, I urge you to go see the movie yourself In my opinion, it is one of the very best films and damn well should receive multiple Oscar nominations, especially for Albert Brooks’ brilliant supporting performance. If it doesn’t, part of that may be contributable to this silly, nuance lawsuit that has garnered more attention than it’s worth. Hell, if he isn’t nominated, maybe Brooks should sue the plaintiff, claiming “pain and suffering” because her lawsuit cost him an Oscar nomination. It would be about as valid as the suit she’s filed.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Best Films I Have Never Seen Before: Happy Together (1997)

Happy Together (1997) ***
Directed by: Wong Kar Wai.
Written by: Wong Kar Wai.
Starring:  Leslie Cheung (Ho Po-wing), Tony Leung Chiu Wai (Lai Yiu-fai), Chen Chang (Chang).

Wong Kar Wai’s ironically titled Happy Together is about a gay Hong Kong couple living in Argentina who are most definitively not happy together. Like the two films that Wong made directly before this – Chungking Express (1994) and Fallen Angels (1995), Happy Together is about a relationship, but is really about the impossibility of making a true lasting connection – everything is only temporary. I loved Chungking Express, really liked Fallen Angels, but ended up only merely amused by Happy Together. Yes, it is as visually stunning as those others – anything done by Wong when working with his go to cinematographer Christopher Doyle is visually stunning – but this time, I didn’t feel much connection to the paper thin story, or the two main characters – one of whom is a classic hustler/user, and the other grumpy stick in the mud.

When we first meet Ho (Leslie Cheung) and Lai (Tony Leung), they do indeed seem happy together. They are on their way to what is said to be a beautiful waterfall, and are simply enjoying the drive. But then, the car breaks down, and all the resentment that has been bubbling beneath the surface comes spilling out. They break up, but cannot really stay apart. For one thing, Ho is constantly getting himself into trouble – and now has just been beaten up – and comes back to Lai to help him along. Feeling bad, Lai takes him in, but the two start arguing almost right away. True, they sometimes still fall into bed together for a passionate round of fucking, but that’s about it. They don’t like each other, but are stuck in a foreign country where they do not speak the language, and have no way of getting home – and probably don’t want to go back anyway. Hong Kong has just been turned over to the Chinese, and their families don’t much like them. They are definitely not happy, but they certainly are together.

Wong won the best director prize at Cannes for Happy Together – and it’s easy to see why. There isn’t a frame of the movie that isn’t interesting to look at. His camera whizzes around these two people, the editing is at times chaotic. Yet the film also has a strange tone, set by the visuals, halfway between lust and hatred, or perhaps where the two meet. It’s clear that Ho and Lai don’t much like each other anymore, and yet they cannot let go. It is to their credit that Leslie Cheung and Tony Leung deliver excellent performances in the movie, despite the fact that their roles are underwritten. It is also to their credit that they did the movie in the first place – these are two huge stars in Hong Kong, and I cannot imagine any two Hollywood stars of their stature doing a movie with this much homosexual content.

Yet, while the movie is about two homosexuals, its message is universal. You don’t have to be gay to understand what drives these two people – their problems are the same as straight people, and their relationship is no more or less dysfunctional than many heterosexual relationships. They are caught up in a spiral of lust, love, dependence and hatred, and cannot break free.

Personally, I think that this is one of Wong’s least successful movies, and that is because for perhaps the first time, I agree with his detractors on this film. The film is all about its style, not its substance, which gets buried underneath all of Wong’s visually trickery. I thought that the visuals in Chungking Express and Fallen Angels (not to mention In the Mood for Love and 2046) were just as impressive as in Happy Together, but their thematic content, and the characters were more developed. I liked Happy Together a great deal – but unlike the best of Wong’s films, I did not love it.

The Best Films I Have Never Seen Before: Vivre Sa Vie (1962)

Vivre Sa Vie (1962) ****
Directed by: Jean-Luc Godard.
Written by: Jean-Luc Godard based on the book by Marcel Sacotte.
Starring:  Anna Karina (Nana Kleinfrankenheim), Sady Rebbot (Raoul), André S. Labarthe (Paul),  Guylaine Schlumberger (Yvette),  Gérard Hoffman (Le chef),  Monique Messine (Elisabeth).

There seems to be two main lines of thought on Jean-Luc Godard. One is that he is a cinematic genius, and as his career progressed, and he moved further away for narrative filmmaking, he became an even greater director than he already was. The people who think this, write long articles about the genius of his latest, and reportedly last, film Film Socialism. If you remember my review of that film, you know I am not in that camp, as I found Film Socialism to be a waste of time. The other school of thought is that Godard started off great in the early 1960s, and increasingly moved away from what made his 1960s output so great until he ended up becoming lost in his own pretentiousness and idea of himself. I fall more easily into that category – although I have to admit that I find some of Godard’s 1960s work unbearable as well (Two or Three Things I Know About Her comes readily to mind). Yet, when I see a film like Vivre Se Vie (1962), it makes me both happy and sad. Happy, because the film remains fresh and alive, bursting with exuberance and love of the cinema that so rarely we see on screen. And sad, because although Godard has been making films for 50 years, he so rarely again showed this same love. Like Breathless, Vivre Se Vie is a Godard masterpiece – and makes me wish he hadn’t gone off the rails somewhere along the line.

If that first paragraph has made Vivre Se Vie sound like an exciting or happy film, let me assure you that it is not. Instead, it is a film about Nana (Anna Karina), a woman who the film tries to get to know, tries to get inside of her head, and fails to. we find out early in the film that she was married until not long ago, and she has left her husband, and their daughter. The movie never explains why – perhaps because Nana herself does not know. The film simply follows her, as she goes about her life – smoking, drinking, playing pinball, working at a record store, trying to get extra money, failing, and eventually becoming a prostitute. She meets a pimp, who explains the rules of the game to her, and she follows them. She goes about her “dates” with the same lack of passion, the same bored look on her face that she does everything else in the film with.

The camera work in the film is remarkable. It is constantly moving, and yet it keeps its gaze clearly fixed on Nana. It sees her in the same way the audience sees her, studies her the same way we do as we watch her go about her life. Godard shot the movie in sequence, and didn’t do retakes – thinking that if they didn’t get it right the first time, they wouldn’t get it right the second time. So the film has an immediacy to it that is rare for films. It feels natural and real.

At the heart of the movie Anna Karina is excellent – it is probably the greatest performance ever given in a Godard film. She plays a character who is unknowable – who gives the audience just a few bare glimpses of who she really is underneath the surface that she protects herself with. She doesn’t want anyone to know her, and perhaps she doesn’t want to know herself. She doesn’t want to think, just to be who she is, make her own choices, and live or die because of them. What is remarkable about the performance, is that although Nana is all surface, we grow to love and care for her. We want her to be happy – if she can ever figure out what precisely that means – and so when the film ends in violence, as it must, it is appropriate that the camera look away. It’s too painful to see.

This is the type of film that Godard made better than anyone else did in the early 1960s. There were signs as early as the following year, with Contempt, that Godard had already grown tired of his style, and he wanted to move beyond it – although I doubt even he suspected at the time just how far beyond it he would eventually go. But no matter what I may think of later Godard, the fact remains that he is a giant of global cinema – and his place will always be assured because of films like this one.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Best Films I Have Never Seen Before: Solaris (1972)

Solaris (1972) ****
Directed by: Andrei Tarkovskiy   
Written by: Fridrikh Gorenshtein & Andrey Tarkovskiy based on the novel by Stanislaw Lem.
Starring: Natalya Bondarchuk (Hari), Donatas Banionis (Kris Kelvin), Jüri Järvet (Dr. Snaut), Vladislav Dvorzhetsky (Henri Berton), Nikolai Grinko (Kelvin's Father), Anatoli Solonitsyn (Dr. Sartorius), Olga Barnet (Kris Kelvin's Mother), Vitalik Kerdimun (André Berton's son), Olga Kizilova (Gibarian's she-guest), Tatyana Malykh (Kris Kelvin's niece), Aleksandr Misharin (Shannahan, Berton's expedition host), Bagrat Oganesyan (Professor Trajet), Tamara Ogorodnikova (Anna), Sos Sargsyan (Dr. Gibarian), Yulian Semyonov (Chairman of Investigation Commission).

I have always admired the films of Andrei Tarkovsky more than I have actually enjoyed them. Through the years, I have watched his films Andrei Rubelev (1966), The Mirror (1976), Stalker (1979) and The Sacrifice (1986), yet somehow never his most famous film – the 1972 sci-fi film Solaris.  All of these films, and I now include Solaris, are slow and meditative. They either put you into a kind of trance, where you are free to meditate on everything that has come before, and what is still to come, or else will make you grow bored and restless. Up until Solaris, I’ll admit that Tarkovsky’s films made me do both – sometimes meditate, sometimes shift restlessly in my seat and wait for something, anything to happen. His films contain some of the most striking images of any director’s work, and yet, at times everything is far too drawn out. But with Solaris, I never grew restless. I was transfixed – and that’s why this is clearly my favorite Tarkovsky film.

The film has often been compared to Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and in some ways they are similar. They are both about a space journey, and contact with an alien life form. And both films are much more serious and meditative than most science fiction films are, relying not on action, but on its themes and implications to draw in the viewer. Yet the films are very different from each other – Kubrick’s film looks outward, into man’s place in the universe, and Tarkovsky’s film looks inwards, into its characters.

The main character is Kelvin (Donatas Banionis), who starts the film in a long conversation with a physicist about the space station rotating around the distant planet of Solaris, and the strange things that are happening on the ship. After a brief stop at his parent’s house, the film shifts to that space station, where Kelvin is now stationed. When he arrives, he discovers his friend is dead, and the two other cosmonauts are being secretive, clearly disturbed by what is happening. It does not take long for Kelvin to discover why – when he receives what the others already have called– a “Guest”. This is Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk), who was Kelvin’s first wife and killed herself years before. It seems that when the cosmonauts blasted the entirely ocean covered planet of Solaris with x-rays, the planet blasted something back – being able to read the minds of the cosmonauts, and create people from their memories. This isn’t the “real” Hari, but it is a Hari that the planet has built out of Kelvin’s memories of her. She is a real person, in a way, because she has the ability to think, and feel and learn. She becomes obsessed with learning about herself – about the real Hari – from Kelvin, and is becomes increasingly unhinged with her lack of memories.

While Solaris is certainly a science fiction film, it asks deeper questions that most films of the genre. The film is really about human nature – how well we are ever really able to “know” another a person, whether we love the whole person, or just our perception of who that person is. The Guest Hari can never really be complete, because all she can know is what Kelvin knows, not what the real Hari knew. There are parts of ourselves that we hold secret from even those closest to us.

Like all of Tarkovsky’s films, Solaris is not an easy film. The 2002 remake by Steven Soderbergh was an hour shorter, and yet audiences still by and large hated it. I admired that film back in 2002, and yet for some reason put off seeing the original for nearly a decade. Perhaps its because I figured that Soderbergh, who has always been an expert at aping other directors styles, had done a good job at aping Tarkovsky’s in his remake, and that watching the original, with an additional hour tacked on, would not add anything. Perhaps it’s because of my own mixed feelings on most of Tarkovsky’s work. But I regret not seeing this film sooner. Yes, the Soderbergh film still works – is still an excellent, intelligent adaptation of the same novel, and does indeed do a fine job of aping Tarkovsky’s style – but the original is a deeper film. It needs that extra hour, not necessarily because it makes things clearer (it doesn’t), but because it provides a more immersive experience. The film is startling in its beauty – easily the most beautiful of all of Tarkovosky’s films – and its pace weaves a spell over you if you allow it to. And perhaps that helps to explain why I was more mixed on Tarkovsky’s other films. Whenever someone asked me why I had never seen Solaris, I said it was because in order to watch a Tarkovsky film, you have to be in the right frame of mind, and I was so rarely in one, that I hadn’t bothered. But for whatever I reason, I was in the perfect frame of mind to see Solaris – perhaps it’s because I have had Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life swimming through my memories for weeks now. But whatever the reason, Tarkovsky’s Solaris is a masterpiece.