Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Yawn! Thoughts on the FIRST! Movie Awards of the Season

After all the hubbub about the New York Film Critics moving their date up to go first, and then getting angry when one film (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close) wouldn't play along, they come along and give out the first awards of the season - and make the most boring choices possible. I'm not saying that the award winners are undeserving, just that I'm not sure why they made such a big deal about going first and "getting the conversation started" and then went ahead and made such conventional choices. So, they are the first of what will be many awards going to The Artist and director Michel Hazanavicius. Good for it - it would have gotten in at the Oscars no matter what the New York Critics did. Same can be said for Meryl Streep for The Iron Lady. I haven't seen either film, so I cannot comment on whether they "deserved" the prizes or not, but they were safe choices.

I was thrilled that The Tree of Life got 3 awards - although to be fair, it already has a cinematography nomination wrapped up, and Pitt would not have won the Best Actor prize without Moneyball and Chastain would not have won the Supporting Actress prize without Take Shelter and The Help. But Pitt and Chastain were great in all their films this year, so good choices. Also safe. And I love Albert Brooks win for Drive, so no complaints there. Even below the line, they went safe with A Separation getting Foreign and the highest non-kids doc in Cave of Forgotten Dreams winning Non-Fiction film. And why no animation award this year? Apparently, they didn't think any was good enough. So screw you Rango!

You do have to wonder though at the politics behind their choices. They got to see The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo early - although they did have to push their vote back a day to see it. Did it not factor in their vote because they didn't like it enough? Or because they didn't want to seem to give favoritism to a film that did them a favor by screening early for them? Or because they were pissed because the film made them wait an extra day? Or were they pissed because Scott Rudin produced both this and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, the one film who didn't cave for them? You make the questionable decision to move up, and you have to expect these types of questions.

The winners are below:

New York Film Critics Circle
Picture: The Artist
Director: Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist
Actor: Brad Pitt, Moneyball/The Tree of Life
Actress: Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady
Supporting Actor: Albert Brooks, Drive
Supporting Actress: Jessica Chastain, The Tree of Life/Take Shelter/The Help
Screenplay: Moneyball
Cinematography: The Tree of Life
Documentary: Cave of Forgotten Dreams
Foreign Film: A Separation
1st Feature: Margin Call

As for the Independant Spirit Awards, again I cannot complain too much. Like New York, they wanted to be among the first to anoint The Artist as one of the year's best (although how the hell the French produced film qualified as an American indie, I have no idea). They also wanted to be the first to anoint The Descendants, another safe choice (although, I must say it is one of my absolute favorites of the year).

I must say that I like almost all of the choices they made - at the ones I have seen. 50/50, Beginners, Drive, Take Shelter and The Descendants are all quality films - and I assume The Artist is as well. How Midnight in Paris didn't score anything other than Supporting Actor and Cinematography is beyond me though (they do seem to dislike Woody personally over there).

But I am still disappointed, as I am every year, that these awards always seem to jump on the bandwagon and award the "indie" films that are being awarded everywhere else. Most of the nominees aren't really "indie" at all, but come from the speciality branches of major studios - like Fox Searchlight or Sony Pictures Classics. Why can't they award films that are truly independant, coming from the small companies, like IFC for example, who work their asses off to get their films - without the benefit of major movie stars like George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen et al - seen at all. They make some interesting choices in the nominating round in the acting categories, and things like First Film and the John Cassavetes prize, but they are mainly shunted to the background. In short, the Independant Spirit Awards need more Independant Spirit. If they're just going to award the same movies/performances as everyone else, why do they exist in the first damn place?

The full list of nominees is below.

INDEPENDENT SPIRIT AWARDS
BEST FEATURE
50/50
Beginners
Drive
Take Shelter
The Artist
The Descendants

BEST DIRECTOR
Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist
Mike Mills, Beginners
Jeff Nichols, Take Shelter
Alexander Payne, The Descendants
Nicolas Winding Refn, Drive

BEST MALE LEAD
Demián Bichir, A Better Life
Jean Dujardin, The Artist
Ryan Gosling, Drive
Woody Harrelson, Rampart
Michael Shannon, Take Shelter

BEST FEMALE LEAD
Lauren Ambrose, Think of Me
Rachael Harris, Natural Selection
Adepero Oduye, Pariah
Elizabeth Olsen, Martha Marcy May Marlene
Michelle Williams, My Week with Marilyn

BEST SUPPORTING MALE
Albert Brooks, Drive
John Hawkes, Martha Marcy May Marlene
Christopher Plummer, Beginners
John C. Reilly, Cedar Rapids
Corey Stoll, Midnight in Paris

BEST SUPPORTING FEMALE
Jessica Chastain, Take Shelter
Anjelica Huston, 50/50
Janet McTeer, Albert Nobbs
Harmony Santana, Gun Hill Road
Shailene Woodley, The Descendants

BEST FIRST FEATURE (Award given to the director and producer)
Another Earth
In the Family
Margin Call
Martha Marcy May Marlene
Natural Selection

BEST SCREENPLAY
Joseph Cedar, Footnote
Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist
Tom McCarthy, Win Win
Mike Mills, Beginners
Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, Jim Rash, The Descendants

BEST FIRST SCREENPLAY
Mike Cahill, Brit Marling, Another Earth
J.C. Chandor, Margin Call
Patrick deWitt, Terri
Phil Johnston, Cedar Rapids
Will Reiser, 50/50

JOHN CASSAVETES AWARD – Given to the best feature made for under $500,000. 
Bellflower
Circumstance
Hello Lonesome
Pariah
The Dynamiter

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY
Bellflower
The Off Hours
Midnight in Paris
The Artist
The Dynamiter

BEST DOCUMENTARY (Award given to the director and producer)
An African Election
Bill Cunningham New York
The Interrupters
The Redemption of General Butt Naked
We Were Here

BEST INTERNATIONAL FILM (Award given to the director)
A Separation
Melancholia
Shame
The Kid With a Bike
Tyrannosaur

PIAGET PRODUCERS AWARD
Chad Burris, Mosquita y Mari
Sophia Lin, Take Shelter
Josh Mond, Martha Marcy May Marlene

SOMEONE TO WATCH AWARD
Simon Arthur, Silver Tongues
Mark Jackson. Without
Nicholas Ozeki, Mamitas

TRUER THAN FICTION AWARD
Heather Courtney, Where Soldiers Come From
Danfung Dennis, Hell and Back Again
Alma Har’el, Bombay Beach

ROBERT ALTMAN AWARD – (Given to one film’s director, casting director, and its ensemble cast)
Margin Call

Movie Review: Brighton Rock

Brighton Rock ***
Directed by: Rowan Joffe.
Written by: Rowan Joffe based on the novel by Graham Greene.
Starring: Sam Riley (Pinkie Brown), Andrea Riseborough (Rose), Helen Mirren (Ida), John Hurt (Phil Corkery), Philip Davis (Spicer), Nonso Anozie (Dallow), Craig Parkinson (Cubitt), Andy Serkis (Colleoni), Sean Harris (Hale), Geoff Bell (Kite), Steven Robertson (Crab).

Pinkie Brown is an irredeemable psychopath, and once you realize this, about half way through Brighton Rock, he becomes a far less interesting character than he was when the movie began. This is most likely why most movie psychos are supporting characters, and not their character arch is predetermined. Yet, even once Pinkie becomes less interesting as a character, Brighton Rock remains a stylistic treat, and the supporting characters are enough to make this a fascinating little neo-noir. Not as fascinating as the Graham Greene novel on which it is based, but fascinating nonetheless.

Written and directed by Rowan Joffe, Brighton Rock moves the action from the 1930s, to the early 1960s, I think to better show the moral decay in youth happening around that time. Pinkie is barely out of his teens, and already a low level gangster. When we first meet him, he’s frozen in fear as his father figure is murdered in front of him. He is assigned to “cut up” but not kill his murderer, to send a message to a rival gang. After screwing up the task once, he doesn’t screw it up again – but takes things too far, smashing the murderer’s head in with a rock, killing him. This is a problem because Pinkie’s boss Spicer (Mike Leigh regular Phillip Davis) was photographed with the victim, and the young woman he was trying to use as cover Rose (Andrea Riseborough) by one of those annoying photographers you see at all tourist traps. Pinkie needs to get that picture, and to do so, he needs the ticket Rose has. Thus begins a complicated relationship between Pinkie and Rose. She falls head over heels in love with him, even though she knows he is a murderer. He marries her, because a wife can’t be forced to testify against her husband. And the only one who seems interested in bringing Pinkie down is Ida (Helen Mirren), who called the much younger victim a “gentleman friend” of hers, and is also Rose’s employer, and doesn’t want to see anything happen to her.

The Graham Greene novel on which this film is based is much more complex than the movie. Greene, a Catholic, was making a point on morality when he wrote the novel. Pinkie and Rose are both Catholics, yet he is a psychopath and a murderer, and she tries to justify her love for him. Their morals, despite being Catholic, are questionable. Ida, who is not religious at all, is the most moral character in the story – obsessed with doing the right thing – not because of God or religion, but because of her own moral code. This is merely hinted at in the movie, which is disappointing, because it’s what I admired most about Greene’s novel.

So, taking out the theological element of Greene’s novel, what we are left with is a nasty little, highly stylized noir, and that’s good enough for me. Brighton is supposed to be a tourist trap, but how Joffe photographs it, with its dark foreboding skies, rundown, skuzzy looking boardwalk, their never ending wind, whose coldness you can almost feel, makes it look like the most depressing place to spend a holiday I can think of. This is one of the darkest, gloomiest movies of the year, and the visual look matches the subject matter.

The performances help a great deal as well. Sam Riley, so good in the under seen Control a few years ago, is cold and heartless as Pinkie. He evolves from the scared kid we see in those first few scenes, into the calculating psychopath pretty quickly in the movie – and to his credit, he never tries to take the edge off. He plays it as cold and cruel as he should. Andrea Riseborough is also quite good as Rose, who makes her character naïve, somewhat dim teenager in love. Somewhere inside, she has to know just how awful Pinkie is, but she cannot bring herself to admit to herself – not even in the sad scene that ends that movie, where we realize just how pathetic Rose is. Best of all is Helen Mirren, playing another one of her tough as nails women. She sees things more clearly than anyone else in the film, and knows precisely what she needs to do. Nice support is offered by Phillip Davis, all scared energy, Andy Serkis (without the aid of computer technology) as a slimy gangster and Nonso Anozie, a friend of Pinkie’s torn between his loyalty for him, and doing the right thing.

All told, Brighton Rock is not a great film. It doesn’t have the needed depth for that, because Rowan Joffe decided to make the movie simpler, more streamlined than the novel. And yet, on its own terms it works. It is a nasty little film – but an effective one.

Movie Review: Senna

Senna ***
Director: Asif Kapadia.

I love those ESPN documentaries I see on TV sometimes. Even when they’re not about a subject I’m particularly fascinated in, they normally draw me in because they are well made and intelligent. I mention this off the top of my review for Senna, because for all the acclaim it has received this year, it reminded me of those ESPN documentaries. There’s nothing really wrong with that, and the film is fascinating in and of itself, but at the same time, I’m not quite sure why people think it’s one of the year’s very best documentaries. It does what it does just fine – but so do all those ESPN films.

The film is about Ayrton Senna, who many consider to be the best F1 driver in history. He won the world championship in his sport three times, held the record for years for most pole positions, and was utterly fearless on the track. His rivalry with sometime teammate Alain Prost was great for the sport, as everyone loves rivalries, and helped bring it to new heights. Two years in a row – 1989 and 1990 – the World Championship was decided by a crash between these two warriors at the last race of the season, with each driver taking one – and of course, with each driver blaming the other for the collisions. In 1994, while leading the San Marino Grand Prix, Senna lost control of his car and crashed into the barrier and was killed. He is, to this point, the last driver to die while racing in the F1 series.

Senna was a fascinating character. Some think of him as fearless, some reckless. When you watch his fatal accident – which is shown here, and will likely make you want to turn away – you can see why. He doesn’t get involved in an accident with another car – just simply loses control and crashes. He had a lead at the time, and conditions were excellent and clear. Why would he drive like that?

The film is thrilling in its racing scenes, as only good car racing can be. Most fictional films about the sport never capture it the way it is in reality, and they are poorer for it. The interviews with Senna and those that knew him paint a complex picture of the man – he could be caring and thoughtful, certainly had faith in God, and was fiercely patriotic to his native Brazil. He could also be ruthless and reckless on the track. He wanted to win – but more than that, he seems to have wanted to destroy everyone else. That is why he was so good at what he did.

The film is well made by Asif Kapadia, who assembles the footage in an expert fashion. And it drew me in, despite the fact I don’t really like car racing. And yet, watching it on DVD, I could never escape the feeling that the film should have just been another ESPN special. It’s well made, and for fans of the sport, a must see. And when you come across the film on TV in the future (and you will – ESPN was one of the companies who funded it), you’ll likely enjoy it. But is it one of the great sports documentaries of all time, like some have claimed? Not even close.

Movie Review: Restless

Restless ** ½
Directed by: Gus Van Sant.
Written by: Jason Lew.
Starring: Henry Hopper (Enoch Brae), Mia Wasikowska (Annabel Cotton), Ryo Kase (Hiroshi Takahashi), Schuyler Fisk (Elizabeth Cotton), Lusia Strus (Rachel Cotton), Jane Adams (Mabel).

The films of Gus Van Sant have been obsessed with death for a decade now. There was his so called “Death Trilogy” starting in 2002 with Gerry, where Matt Damon and Casey Affleck walked around in the desert until one killed the Elephant, based on the Columbine massacre and 2005’s Last Days, about Kurt Cobain’s suicide. He followed those up with the similarly styled Paranoid Park in 2008, about a skateboarder who accidently kills a security guard. Through these four movies, Van Sant has examined death by friend, death by stranger, death by self and death by accident. All four of the films were great in their own way – not looking to explain why things happened, but simply observing them. When he did make a mainstream film, it was 2008’s Milk, which was also a film that pulls us along towards death – and the specter of death hangs over every frame. Perhaps that’s why he made Restless. Like those other films, we know early on that the film will end with someone dying. But unlike those other films, it isn’t a dark examination of death, but more like a fantasy. Mia Wasikowska’s Annabel is the healthiest looking end stage cancer patient I’ve ever seen. She must have the same kind that Ali McGraw had in Love Story that simply made he look more beautiful, rather than the reality of withering away to nothing. So while Restless ends the same way as Van Sant’s other recent films, it’s comforting rather than sad.

The movie opens with Enoch (Henry Hopper, son of Dennis), a teenager whose parents died in a car accident not long ago, and is still not over it. He was in the car when it happened and ended up in a coma for months – so when he woke up, he not only discovered his parents were dead, but also buried, and everyone else moving on. Now, he spends his time splayed out on the concrete drawing chalk outline around himself, and attending funerals. He is also visited occasionally by Hiroshi (Ryo Kase), a WWII Japanese kamikaze pilot, although whether he’s delusional, playing make believe or really haunted is never explained. He is much like Harold from Harold and Maude, 40 years ago.

It’s at one of these funerals he first sets eyes on Annabel (Wasikowska), wearing an Annie Hall style big, floppy hat. She’s beautiful, and smiles at him. Their first meeting doesn’t go so well, but eventually, they warm to each other. She tells him she has cancer and has 3 months to live. He’s okay with that – it actually fits in with his death obsession nicely. She doesn’t want to talk about it – she wants to live in the moment, and have a normal teenage romance with Enoch before she goes.

The performances by Hopper and Wasikowska go a long way to making this movie palatable. Hopper looks much like his father – has the same sort of crooked grin, strange charm and off kilter eyes. I have no doubts that he’ll end up playing many psychopaths like his dad did. But here, he uses all of this to develop a strange charm. Enoch should be a lot creepier than he is, given his actions, but Hopper makes you like the kid, and feel sorry for him. Wasikowska is, to use that overused critical phrase, radiant as Annabel. Her sweet, open face, her charming smile, her Mia Farrow haircut makes you fall in love with her easily.

The film is, of course, a fantasy. Cancer isn’t really like this, but we like to think it is, if only so it’s easier on us and our loved ones when eventually we die, as we all will. But in the hands of Hopper, Wasikowska and Van Sant (aided tremendously by Harris Savides’s excellent cinematography) it almost works. Yes, the film manipulates you, tries hard to milk tears out of you, but you almost don’t care because so much of the movie is so charming. But the film goes a little too far – tries to become a little too hip and clever for its own good, with its indie rock soundtrack and too many stylistic flourishes. I don’t begrudge Van Sant for wanting to make a cheerier movie than he has made in a decade – I am surprised it has taken him this long to do so in fact. And while the film is undeniably his, it remains perhaps the most minor, low key work of his career.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Movie Review: Hugo

Hugo ****
Directed by: Martin Scorsese.
Written by: John Logan based on the book by Brian Selznick.
Starring: Asa Butterfield (Hugo Cabret), Chloë Grace Moretz (Isabelle), Ben Kingsley (Georges Méliès), Sacha Baron Cohen (Station inspector), Emily Mortimer (Lisette), Christopher Lee (Monsieur Labisse), Helen McCrory (Mama Jeanne), Michael Stuhlbarg (Rene Tabard), Ray Winstone (Uncle Claude), Frances de la Tour (Madame Emilie), Richard Griffiths (Monsieur Frick), Jude Law (Hugo's Father).

Martin Scorsese’s Hugo is mainly about the joy of watching movies – and the power they have to ignite your imagination. It is a film made for movie lovers, regardless of their age. It was impossible for me not to think of those stories Scorsese tells about being an asthmatic kid, watching the world outside his window, and discovering the world of movies as I watched this film. It was also impossible not to think back to my own childhood, and the experiences that led me to become a movie lover. This is that rare film that reminds you why you fell in love with movies in the first place. Yes, it is a kid’s movie, but like many of the best kid’s movies, it is more a movie about childhood than a movie made for children themselves. Older kids will like it, but younger ones, I’m not so sure. Not that it really matters to me – as I loved the movie.

The movie takes place in 1920s Paris, where Hugo (Asa Butterfield) is an orphan who lives at the train station. His mother and father are dead, and for a while he lived with his uncle, who has to ensure all the clocks in the station are properly kept up, but the uncle has also vanished. Hugo lives in the steaming bowels of the station, and figures that as long as he stays out of sight, and keeps the clocks working, no one will know his uncle is dead, and he won’t be sent to the orphanage. He just has to avoid the nasty Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), who loves capturing kids with no parents.

Hugo meets two people who will change his life. The first is Georges (Ben Kingsley), the old man who runs the toy booth at the station, who catches Hugo stealing, and takes away his father’s beloved notebook and will not tell him why. The second is Georges’ goddaughter Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), who he enlists to help get the notebook back. Hugo needs it because before his father died, the two of them were trying to repair an automaton – a windup robot that who can write – and the notebook will tell Hugo how to complete it. Isabelle has led a sheltered life, invested in books, and sees this as her chance to have a real adventure.

The first half of Hugo is a marvellous visual adventure as Hugo and Isabelle try to piece together the truth about the automaton, avoid the station inspector, figure out why “Papa Georges” is so angry about the notebook and sneak off to the movie to see Harold Lloyd dangle from a clock. Isabelle refers to Hugo as “Dickensian”, and that’s as good of a description as any for him. The movie meanders in place in this segment, but I didn’t mind it. The side trips added flavour and nuance to the movie as a whole.

The second half of the movie is essentially a tribute to the silent movie makers of yesteryear. Eventually, Papa Georges will be outed as Georges Meiles, the silent film pioneer who pretty much invented special effects and directed hundreds of short films in the early 20th century. His most famous is Voyage to the Moon in 1902. What Meiles did with special effects, which did not really exist until he came along, was truly remarkable. Scorsese, who has made numerous documentaries about film history, has now taken that structure into a dramatic film. What’s amazing that although the film is a history lesson at times in the second half, it never feels like one.

In essence what Scorsese has done with Hugo is take the most advanced special effects of his time, and used them to make a tribute to the film pioneers who invented special effects – and the medium of film as a whole. The environment of the train station created by Scorsese and his collaborators is truly astonishing. CGI interacts perfectly with period detail in the art direction and costume design, and the dark passages running through the train station, full of clock gears, is amazing. For the first time since Avatar, the 3-D in the movie actually works to enhance the movie, not distract from it. Scorsese uses it as flavour, to add depth and dimension to his film, rather than supplanting the story with his use of special effects. The actors, amazingly, never get lost in all the special effects around them. Sacha Baron Cohen once again proves he is among the most adept of physical comedians. Chloe Grace Moretz continues her streak of incredible child performance, capturing the innocent fun of adventure perfectly. Asa Butterfield makes a wonderful, wild eyed hero. And Ben Kingsley is best of all, as Georges Meiles, a sad man who thinks the world has forgotten him. The supported by a wonderful, eclectic cast of character actors, all of whom add flavour to the train station environment. I have a feeling that Georges Meiles, watching this film, would be astonished by how far movies have come in just over 100 years.

Hugo is a masterful film. It is one of the most visually assured films of the year – a film that uses the most up to date techniques to support it’s larger than life story. At first, Hugo seems like a departure for Scorsese. I mean, the director of Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and GoodFellas, making a kids movie? But the film is obviously close to Scorsese’s heart. Scorsese has always been one of the biggest fans of movies in the world – and one of their most knowledgeable supporters. He has very vocal in his advocacy for preserving the films of the past (in fact, he has admitted that one of the reason he made Raging Bull in black and white was to make a point about film preservation). That Scorsese has been able to create such an astonishing visual film that functions both as an adventure film for children and a history lesson about the importance of movies is truly amazing. Hugo is a love letter to the movies – and one of the best of the year.

Movie Review: My Week with Marilyn


My Week with Marilyn *** ½
Directed by: Simon Curtis. 
Written by: Adrian Hodges based on the books by Colin Clark.
Starring: Michelle Williams (Marilyn Monroe), Eddie Redmayne (Colin Clark ), Kenneth Branagh (Sir Laurence Olivier), Judi Dench (Dame Sybil Thorndike), Julia Ormond (Vivien Leigh), Emma Watson (Lucy), Toby Jones (Arthur Jacobs), Dougray Scott (Arthur Miller), Dominic Cooper (Milton Greene ), Richard Clifford (Richard Wattis), Zoë Wanamaker (Paula Strasberg), Derek Jacobi (Sir Owen Morshead).

At one point in My Week with Marilyn, they are watching her act out a scene in The Prince and the Showgirl, her 1957 film co-starring and directed by Laurence Olivier. She has been a terror on the set so far – showing up late, if at all, drunk or high on pills, needing constant reassurance from her acting coach, Paula Strasberg, and essentially being an insecure mess. But as they watch her perform in one scene, one character says to Oliver “When Marilyn gets it right, you don’t want to watch anyone else”. This pretty much sums up Marilyn Monroe’s onscreen appeal. As I watch more films with her, I am often struck by how inconsequential the films themselves are – like The Prince and the Showgirl, many of her films are fun, but lightweight. And yet, when Monroe is onscreen, you cannot take your eyes off of her. I have loved her in pretty much every film I have seen her in, even if I don’t much care for the movies themselves. And it’s more than just her looks that made her one of the biggest sexual icons of the 20th century. She seems so sweet and innocent – so naïve and lovable. This is a quality that cannot be taught to actors – you either have it or you don’t. Monroe had it. What is remarkable about Michelle Williams’ performance as Monroe in My Week with Marilyn, is that she captures that quality perfectly. Any gifted mimic could master Monroe’s trademark little girl voice and her mannerisms. It takes a remarkable actress to capture that screen presence Monroe had. And Williams absolutely nails it.

The film itself, much like Monroe’s films, does not rise to its star’s level. Perhaps it’s impossible to, since by its very nature, the film is fairly lightweight, straight forward, and lacks any real plot. This isn’t a biopic that seeks to explain Monroe – certainly not something as complex as Todd Haynes’ Bob Dylan film, I’m Not Here – but does seek to show us all the different sides of Monroe. On that level the films works amazingly well – and there are many fun touches along the way.

The film centers on Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne), a rich kid who dreams of being a filmmaker. He shows up at Laurence Olivier’s studios, and refuses to leave until he given a job. He ends up being hired as “3rd Assistant Director”, which is essentially a gopher. Whatever anyone else on set wants, it’s Colin’s job to get it for them. The Prince and the Showgirl is about to start shooting, and along with that, Monroe will be arriving with her many movie star demands that Olivier is not used to dealing with. He is a serious actor and filmmaker – a constant professional, and he’s unprepared for what Monroe is about to bring down on his orderly set. He is angry from day one with Monroe’s tardiness, her constant messing up of the lines, her constant need for reassurance, Paula Strasberg’s presence and all this nonsense about Method Acting. “Whatever she needs is right there on the page” he screams at one point, to which Strasberg responds “The lines are there, but the character is not”.

Everything that goes on around Monroe is delightful and well handled here. It must have been a real treat for Kenneth Branagh to play his idol Olivier in this film, and although he doesn’t much look like the star, he nails his voice and his mannerisms – even when having to don the ridiculous accent that Olivier used to such great effect in the movie. He doesn’t go as far as Williams does in becoming the famous person he’s playing, but to be fair, he isn’t really given the chance to – his role is much more of a surface level one. As is Judi Dench’s as Dame Sybil Thorndike, but it also must be said that she delightful in her scenes. Julia Ormand is quite good as the insecure Vivien Leigh, Olivier’s wife, who finds herself replaced onscreen (she played the role Monroe has on stage, but is too old for the screen version) and fearful that Olivier wants to replace her off-screen as well. Eddie Redmayne is all wide eyed adoration as Clark, who starts out as a gopher, and becomes Monroe’s main on set confidant – and perhaps even more. The period details are handled well by director Simon Curtis.

But the reason to see the film is Williams’ remarkable turn as Monroe. Made up as she is, she looks enough like Monroe to pass as her (although Monroe was more full figured), but that’s the least interesting aspect of her performance. Williams is asked to show so many different sides of Monroe – her onscreen charm, the way she wins over an audience of adoring fans in person, her onset insecurities, her drunken, drugged out behaviour, her free spirited ways away from the set, and the sad little girl Monroe was in real life – just trying to find love. Williams nails every aspect of an immensely difficult performance. There are so many ways it could have gone horribly wrong, but she sidesteps them all. The movie itself is good – very good in many ways – but Williams is remarkable.

In total, My Week with Marilyn is not a great film. In fact, without Williams performance, the film very easily would have almost definitely turned out merely okay at best, and quite poor at worst. But a performance like Williams’ has the ability to raise the level of the entire movie. It truly is one of the best performances of the year – and the movie surrounding it, is at the very least, pleasant.

Friday, November 25, 2011

The Best Films I Have Never Seen Before: Harold and Maude (1971)

Harold and Maude (1971) ***
Directed by: Hal Ashby.
Written by: Colin Higgins.
Starring:  Ruth Gordon (Maude), Bud Cort (Harold), Vivian Pickles (Mrs. Chasen), Cyril Cusack (Glaucus), Charles Tyner (Uncle Victor), Ellen Geer (Sunshine Doré), Eric Christmas (Priest), G. Wood (Psychiatrist), Judy Engles (Candy Gulf), Shari Summers (Edith Phern).

Harold and Maude was pretty much dismissed by critics back in 1971, and was initially a box office failure. And then, almost immediately afterwards, it became a cult hit – playing in some theaters for years on end. Watching the film for the first time now, it’s easy to see why critics initially hated it, and why some audiences fell in love with it. It reminded me at times of Mike Nichols’ The Graduate, and its influence on filmmakers like Wes Anderson is pretty clear. Yet the humor in the movie is dark and strange, and at times somewhat creepy. The whole premise of the movie – a 20 year old man falling in love with a 80 year old woman – is creepy as well (for the record, this isn’t a double standard thing – I’d be just creeped out by a romantic comedy starring Peter O’Toole and Emma Watson). Yet there is something about Harold and Maude that kept me fascinated by it – and enough of the comedy is laugh out loud funny that I have to admit, despite my reservations, that I enjoyed the film.

The best thing about Harold and Maude is Bud Cort – the talented young actor who had just made two movies with Robert Altman the previous year (MASH and Brewster McCloud). He is Harold, a 20 year, rich kid who is bored by life. His only joy is faking his own suicide again and again and again, to the point where his mother (Vivien Pickles, who is absolutely hilarious in her role) has stopped caring. His fake suicides are a running gag in the film, and provide some of the funniest moments (my favorite is when he apparently sets himself on fire, done all in one shot in the background). He is a child of the 1960s, facing possible drafting into a war that he (and the movie) sees as ridiculous. He is the classic disenfranchised youth.

Ruth Gordon plays Maude, an 80 year old Holocaust survivor (this isn’t, to the best of my recollection mentioned in the movie, but you can clearly see a numbered tattoo on her arm in the film), who is the exact opposite of Harold. She has embraced life to the fullest, and lives every day with joy, always looking to try new experiences. She will not let life get her down. The two of them meet at a funeral – neither of them knew the deceased, but both simply like going to funerals – Harold because he’s obsessed with death, Maude to remind herself of what she’s fighting against). What starts as a friendship, quickly turns into something else entirely.

There is much to like about the film. Directed by Hal Ashby (who would go onto to direct much better films like The Last Detail, Shampoo, Bound for Glory, Coming Home and a personal favorite Being There) has an interesting visual style. He films much of the movie in static long shots that he holds just a second or two longer than most directors would to allow the humor to seep in. The songs by Cat Stevens are memorable, and help to give the film that The Graduate type vibe, with only the one voice all the way through. Cort is excellent as Harold – deadpan perfection in most of his humorous scenes, though he isn’t quite as convincing when the film becomes more emotional. Vivien Pickles may in fact give the best performance in the movie as his mother – the scene where she fills out Harold’s dating service application is the best in the film. Ruth Gordon is a little more problematic, not really because of her performance, but because of how the film is written. She can become a little cloying and annoying, and some of her lines are hackneyed. The ending of the film doesn’t work at all, because it seems to fly in the face of everything that went before it.

Yet, overall Harold and Maude is a satisfying, unique comedy. It isn’t the classic that the supporters claim it is – at least not to me – but there is much to like about it. Ashby would go onto better things than this, but he continued to have to battle the studios (as he did here) to get the films he wanted to get made done. Harold and Maude is a fine film – it just isn’t a masterpiece.

The Best Films I Have Never Seen Before: Muriel (1963)

Muriel (1963) ****
Directed by: Alain Resnais.
Written by: Jean Cayrol.
Starring: Delphine Seyrig (Hélène Aughain), Jean-Pierre Kérien (Alphonse Noyard), Nita Klein (Françoise),  Jean-Baptiste Thiérrée (Bernard Aughain), Claude Sainval (Roland de Smoke), Laurence Badie (Claudie), Jean Champion (Ernest),  Jean Dasté (The Goat Man), Martine Vatel (Marie-Dominique), Françoise Bertin (Simone).

The films of Alain Resnais are always a little more complex than they first appear – and that’s saying something as many of films appear to be very complex. His 1963 film Muriel – his third narrative feature following Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) and Last Year at Marienbad (1961) – is slightly different as at first, it seems like a rather straight forward melodrama – although a superbly acted and crafted one. The only thing that appears strange is Resnais’ repeated rapid editing of empty spaces waiting to be filled by the characters. At first, I simply dismissed them as a director, who was used to more formally complex work, trying to add some artiness to a standard story. But as the movie moves along, and everything becomes much more complex, these sequences actually become quite important – and add to the complexity of it all.

The film stars Delphine Seyrig as Helene, a widow who sells antiques out of her apartment in a small, seaside French town. Her stepson Bernard (Jean-Baptiste Thierree) has just returned from his military service in Algeria, and seems haunted by his experiences there. He keeps mentioning “Muriel” so much, that Helene starts to refer to her as his fiancée – even though we see for the beginning of the film that he is seeing no one named Muriel, but is instead sleeping with Marie-Do (Martine Vatel). Helene has invited her former lover Alphonse (Jean-Pierre Kerien) to stay with her for a while, and he shows up with his “niece” Francoise (Nita Klein). Helene and Alphonse broke up because of the war (WWII), and he has supposedly spent most of his time since running a café in Algeria – but with the troubles there, he has returned.

The film is about the different ways these people are deluding themselves – and each other. They are hiding from reality, and putting up a front to those around. War has scared all of them in one way or another, much like the town itself (it is remarked that the town was destroyed in WWII, and is still in some ways building itself back up). The truth about all of these characters will be revealed throughout the course of the movie – but perhaps it’s not the real truth. The most memorable scene maybe when Bernard finally explains who Muriel is – his words juxtaposed against more banal news reel images of the Algerian war.

The film is a triumph for Resnais, as well as his actors. For Seyrig, her character fits in nicely alongside her other work in films like Last Year in Marienbad – where she plays a woman who either doesn’t remember a romantic tryst the year before or it never happened in the first place – and Chantal Ackerman’s Jeanne Dielman (1975), where she plays a housewife wholly devoted to her routines, until it is shattered and she snaps. Her Helene seems like such a nice woman – a typical, young widow – but her apartment cluttered with stuff that is for sale works as a metaphor for how chaotic her mind is. She is a gambling addict, at risk of losing everything, but she continues gambling anyway. She has romanticized her brief romance with Alphonse, and the two of them seem to be falling back into something, but then why does she continue to see her new suitor, Roland de Smoke? And why did Alphonse bring along Francoise, who is clearly not his niece, but his lover. And why did she come?

The film has been seen by some as homage to Hitchcock, and I think that fits as well. It is not a typical thriller, but it is one that builds suspense in interesting ways – and one where the characters are not quite as they appear to be. Resnais jump cuts work, because it disturbs the movie, as the characters are disturbed, and helps to emphasize their alienation for reality.

The final shot in Muriel is haunting. It takes place inside Helene’s apartment, but everything now seems to be in order. A woman we have never seen before, but we know who she is, comes in and finds the place empty. The meanings of this shot are complex, and are ones I just beginning to grasp. Muriel is a complex masterpiece.

The Best Movies I Have Never Seen Before: Salvatore Giuliano (1962)

Salvatore Guilano (1962) ***
Directed by: Francesco Rosi.
Written by: Suso Cecchi d'Amico & Enzo Provenzale & Francesco Rosi & Franco Solinas.
Starring: Salvo Randone (President of Viterbo Assize Court), Frank Wolff (Gaspare Pisciotta).

There is no doubt that Francesco Rosi’s Salvatore Guilano is a very influential film. You see echoes of this film in something like Gillo Pontecorvo’s much better known The Battle of Algiers – made four years after this, and even in something as recent at Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah (2008). It is a film that jumps back and forth in time, to show how criminal Salvatore Guilano, and his mafia, influenced events in Sicily for almost two decades. The strange thing is that Guilano isn’t even a character in the movie – he only shows up in the movie as a corpse or as a barely seen presence running up the mountains.

The fact that Rosi chose to name his film after a character that is barely in it, and makes no impression on the film as a living character, is odd, but it works to a certain extent. Guilano himself isn’t important – and Rosi definitely did not want to make some sort of hero out of the outlaw, which many films seem to do. Rather, he wants to show the corruption in Sicily during this time period, the relationships between the criminals, and more importantly, the relationships these criminals had with the cops and politicians, who were supposed to be doing something about them. This is a complex portrait of a society that is rotten to its core.

The film is broken up into two halves – the first revolving around the discovery of Giulano’s body in 1950, that then flashes back to tell everything that happened between 1943 (when Guilano fought for Italy), through Sicily’s succession movement, and into Guilano becoming a criminal. The second half of the movie is about Guilano’s right hand man and Judas Pisciotta, who is put on trial for many things in 1960, and flashing back to what got them there from the time of Guilano’s death to the trial itself. The odd thing about the movie is although it is made up of flashbacks, Rosi doesn’t identify them as such. The present and the past play off of each other, cause and effect are next to each other, rather than the story proceeding in a chronological fashion.

I must say that I admired Salvatore Guilano more than I actually enjoyed or became involved in the film. Unless you are up on your Sicilian history, you may well get lost in the movies complex narrative, as I was at certain times. Perhaps a second viewing would help in that regard. But the filmmaking itself is impeccable. Rosi’s style mixes together neo-realism and the crime drama – something echoed in the film’s top notch cinematography and editing. I want to see more of Rosi’s work, because even if I didn’t love Salvatore Guilano, I can tell what a gifted filmmaker he was.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

New York Films Critics Value Yelling "FIRST" More than Actually Seeing the Movies

A few weeks ago, the New York Film Critics Circle announced they were moving up their vote, typically done about a week and half into December, to November 28th. The move, despite what members of the organization said, was clearly made so that they could beat the National Board of Review to the punch, and be the first to declare their winners this awards season. I commented on the move (you read that post here: Ihttp://davesmoviesite.blogspot.com/2011/10/my-complex-relationship-with-oscars.html) at the time, saying it was stupid, and a group with as long of a history as the New York Film Critics Circle has, does not need to do this. And if they insisted on keeping that date, and ended up missing movies because of it, then they would become little more than the Golden Satellites of the Critics awards.

Well, obviously they disagree with me. They did agree to move their date back one day in order to see David Fincher's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo next Monday. They pretty much had to - Fincher's last film, 2010's The Social Network, won the group's top prize. To not give his next film a chance would have been idiotic in the extreme.

But then another film announced they wouldn't meet the New York Critics deadline - Stephen Daldry's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, starring Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock, about 9/11. They said their film wouldn't be ready to be screened until December 2nd. And the New York Critics decided they didn't care - they were voting anyway.

This is an idiotic move by the New York Critics. Now, I don't think Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close had much of a shot with the group - Daldry's previous films Billy Elliot, The Hours and The Reader all found Oscar success (the later two winning the Best Actress Oscar for Nicole Kidman and Kate Winslet respectively), yet didn't get any love from the New York Critics. And that's fine - the Critics are supposed to give out awards to the films and performance they like most, not try and predict the Oscars. But to not even bother to see one of the films campaigning for major awards this year, because they won't show it to you until December 2 (a full 29 days BEFORE THE END OF THE YEAR), is ridicilous.

The worst case scenario for the critics is that the film goes onto be a major player in the awards this year - a Best Picture Oscar nominee or winner, or perhaps an Oscar win for someone like the legendary Max von Sydow, who is rumored to be great. If that happens, the New York Film Critics look like complete idiots. And if the New York Critics gang up en mass against the film when they do review it, they'll look like petty assholes - no matter if their reviews are accurate or not.

It seems to me that the New York Film Critics are chasing irrevelvancy. They set a ridicilously early date, and are now pissed that one film has decided not to play along. But, hey, they'll still get to yell FIRST like that obnoxious asshole on blogposts across the internet. I guess that's what's important to them.

Movie Review: Texas Killing Fields

Texas Killing Fields **
Directed by: Ami Canaan Mann.
Written by: Don Ferrarone.
Starring: Sam Worthington (Det. Mike Souder), Jeffrey Dean Morgan (Brian Heigh), Chloë Grace Moretz (Little Anne Sliger), Corie Berkemeyer (Shauna Kittredge), Sheryl Lee (Lucie Sliger), James Hébert (Eugene Sliger), Stephen Graham (Rhino), Jessica Chastain (Det. Pam Stall), Annabeth Gish (Gwen Heigh).

It would be unfair to compare any second time director to Michael Mann, but because he is the producer or Texas Killing Fields, as well as the father of director Ami Canaan Mann, and because the film itself hits on some of the subjects that Mann has built his career on, the comparison is inevitable. It must be said that Texas Killing Fields is a stylish movie – not quite as stylish as Michael Mann’s films – but damn close. Ami Canaan Mann shows a real visual sense behind the camera with this film. Unfortunately, what she does not show is much of a gift for storytelling. The movie’s plot is muddled and confusing. What’s surprising is that for the most part, the performances are pretty good, which is odd since the movie is so poorly written and plotted.

The movie takes places in Texas (obviously) where for years dead bodies have been showing up in the bayou, which the police have dubbed the Texas Killing Fields. Mostly, these are prostitutes and drug users, and the police are never able to solve them. Whether they are the work of one serial killer, multiple serial killers or just individual crimes no one really knows. The movie is loosely based on a real life story that has no solution. So, of course, the movie provides one.

The movie opens with one murder that Detectives Soulder (Sam Worthington) and Heigh (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) investigate, where of course, the body winds up in the Killing Fields. In the next town over, another murder of a young woman happens at around the same time, and fits the same pattern. This one is being investigated by Detective Stall (Jessica Chastain), who is Soulder’s ex-wife. Like many police departments, these two don’t want together – that would mean sharing the credit if an arrest is made. But, of course, by not working together, an arrest becomes less likely. Heigh tries to bridge the gap – he seems obsessed by the case – but departmental politics, and ex-spouses, have a way of getting in the way of that.

The most interesting character in the movie is Little Anne Sliger (Chloe Grace Moretz, giving yet another exceptional performance for a child actor following her work in Kick Ass and Let Me In). She’s lives with her mother (Sheryl Lee), who to describe her as white trash would be giving her too much credit. We know the men around these two are involved in the murders somehow – because otherwise, why the hell else would any of them be in the movie?

On the surface, this probably sounds like a gripping police procedural – and well it should have been. But the plot of the movie is a mess. Nothing in the movie seems to flow from one scene to the next. Things that seem vitally important one scene are completely dropped afterwards, and never brought up again. There are times when I literally felt like entire scenes and sequences were missing, because the plot is so scattershot.

So, it is quite remarkable that Moretz, along with Jeffrey Dean Morgan, actually end up creating real characters from what they have to work with. Morgan has a world weariness about him, but is driven by an obsession, not unlike the one that drove the Robert Graysmith in David Fincher’s masterpiece Zodiac, a film I think this one is trying hard to emulate, and failing. Sam Worthington remains a fairly mild, dull hero for a movie, and this year’s It Girl Jessica Chastain is completely wasted in her role. So far this year she’s been excellent in The Tree of Life, The Debt, The Help and Take Shelter, so I guess four out of five ain’t bad. The film also gets the visual look just about right, and the bayou, and the small, dusty Texas towns feels authentic. Had they been able to figure out the story better – to make it clearer, more concise – than Texas Killing Fields would have had a shot at greatness. Unfortunately, it don’t even come close.

TV Movie Review: Too Big to Fail

Too Big to Fail *** ½
Directed by: Curtis Hanson.
Written by: Peter Gould based on the book by Andrew Ross Sorkin.
Starring: William Hurt (Henry Paulson), James Woods (Richard Fuld), Paul Giamatti (Ben Bernanke), Billy Crudup (Timothy Geithner), Topher Grace (Jim Wilkinson), Cynthia Nixon (Michele Davis), Ayad Akhtar (Neel Kashkari), Edward Asner (Warren Buffett), Michael O'Keefe (Chris Flowers), Joey Slotnick (Dan Jester), Peter Hermann (Christopher Cox), Bill Pullman (Jamie Dimon), Evan Handler (Lloyd Blankfein), Tony Shalhoub (John Mack), Matthew Modine (John Thain), Ajay Mehta (Vikram Pandit), John Heard (Joe Gregory), Kathy Baker (Wendy Paulson), Erin Dilly (Christal West), Amy Carlson (Erin Callan), Beau Baxter (Skip McGee), Chance Kelly (Bart McDade), Chil Kong (Min Euoo Sung), Dan Hedaya (Congressman Barney Frank), Steve Tom (Senator Chris Dodd), Jonathan Freeman (Senator Richard Shelby), Bud Jones (Harry Reid), Linda Glick (Nancy Pelosi).

I think the biggest question people have about the 2008 financial meltdown that America is still recovering from is not how it happened – that’s been pretty well established – but why? Why did the banks invest so heavily in mortgage backed securities that were essentially worthless? Why did lenders give out these mortgages in the first place? And why didn’t the Treasury Department, the SEC, the Fed or Congress do any sort of regulation on this new type of derivative that almost sunk America’s economy. In the HBO film Too Big to Fail (based on the book by Andrew Ross Sorkin), Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson (William Hurt) gives a more honest then you would ever see him give on TV when asked by an aid why there was no regulation. “No one wanted it. We were making too much money”. And that in a nutshell is the real reason things failed. Once people actually started looking into their mortgage backed securities, that they had leveraged their entire bank against, they realized they were worthless crap. But no one looked because they were making too much money.

What becomes clear while watching Too Big to Fail is how nobody really knew just how big of a clusterfuck the whole thing would become. Much of the running time is devoted to the effort to find a private solution for Lehman Brothers, an investment bank that would eventually fail. When the effort starts, they think that Lehman has $15 billion in toxic assets (a better term would be worthless). As it moves along, that number becomes $30 billion and then $70 billion. Then in the midst of the negotiations to save them, it becomes clear that the world’s biggest insurance company, AIG, is in real danger. The idiots that they there had insured all of these mortgage bonds, and when they all crashed, they’d owe billions of dollars they didn’t have to every bank in the world. And if they didn’t pay, than the banks would fail. Whenever they think they have a handle on the problem, something else comes along and knocks them for a loop.

All of this, and much much more, is handled with intelligence by the film. You would think that a film about Wall Street banks, which is essentially made up of men and (a few) women in suits talking in various rooms would be boring. But this one isn’t in the slightest. Part of that is because of the cast assembled for the movie. William Hurt gives a weariness to Hank Paulson, who was once the CEO of Goldman Sachs, who is now watching everything around him crumble. Paul Giamatti has a few nice scenes as Ben Bernanke, who is essentially brought in to scare people to death. James Woods is excellent as Dick Fuld, the CEO of Lehman Brothers, who lets his own ego screw up not just one but two deals that could have saved the company. Ed Asner has essentially a cameo as Warren Buffet, but he seems to be the only one who knows what the hell is going on, and as such, remains at a distance. Topher Grace and Cynthia Nixon are good as Paulson’s underlings, Bill Pullman, Evan Handler, Tony Shaloub, Matthew Modine and Ajay Mehta all fine as other Wall Street CEO’s trying to save their own hides. Billy Crudup as Timothy Geithner, trying very hard to be pragmatic. Peter Hermann as the cowardly head of the SEC. And on and on it goes. This is one of the best ensemble casts you will likely ever see in a TV movie. Many only have a few scenes, but they leave an impression.

The film was directed by Curtis Hanson, whose career after L.A. Confidential (1997) and Wonder Boys (2000) has not really turned out like he planned. But here, he uses his skills effectively. He keeps the pace moving. The screenplay by Peter Gould is densely packed with loads of information and dialogued, and yet it never gets bogged down. You understand what is happening, no matter how technical it all gets.

The film ends with Paulson giving the 10 largest banks in America a total of $125 billion of tax payers money. They do this so that the rest of them won’t fail like Lehman Brothers did, and to free up the credit markets. When the banks have no money, they can’t lend it to anyone, and businesses fail and people lose their homes. But despite the fact that they are essentially saving the banks, the CEO’s still have conditions under which they will except the money – namely, no conditions at all. As one person says “These people brought the American economy to the brink of collapse, and we still can’t put any conditions on this money because they might not take it!”. Exactly. They don’t give a rat’s ass about anyone other than themselves and their profits. They took the money, but things didn’t get any better – they got worse. If you want a clear, succinct portrait of what happened and why, Too Big to Fail offers that.