Friday, June 29, 2012

DVD Review: Polisse

Directed by: Maïwenn.
Written by: Maïwenn & Emmanuelle Bercot.
Starring: Karin Viard (Nadine), Joey Starr (Fred), Marina Foïs (Iris), Nicolas Duvauchelle (Mathieu), Maïwenn (Melissa), Karole Rocher (Chrys), Emmanuelle Bercot (Sue Ellen), Frédéric Pierrot (Baloo), Arnaud Henriet (Bamako), Naidra Ayadi (Nora), Jérémie Elkaïm (Gabriel), Riccardo Scamarcio (Francesco).

I have heard more than one critic compare Polisse to a whole season of Law and Order: Special Victim`s Unit compressed into just over 2 hours. And many of those critics have used that as a criticism of the movie – that there are some many cases pressed into the running time that none of them really gets the focus they deserve. But I think that may be precisely the point of the film – that in a police unit like this, there is always another case, so you never can dwell of one of them, you got to constantly keep moving on the next one. They can never focus on the pain in one case, because there`s always pain in another one to move onto.

The film focuses on the Crimes Against Children unit of the Paris Police department. It is a tight knit group who are all crammed into a small room together, bumping into each other constantly, listening in on each other`s conversations and interrogations. They have no secrets from each other – even in their private lives – most of which are in tatters. They also now have to deal with Melissa (played by Maiwenn herself) as a photo journalist who is there to document what they do on a day to day basis.

Polisse is a strange film. There is a lot of darkness in the movie that is appropriate for the subject matter. The truth is, no matter how many children the unit helps, they almost always get there too late. Many of the movies most scenes involve interrogations with men who have raped their daughters, or exploited other children in some way. The way the men act is if they have done nothing wrong, and do not see why they are being arrested. The single saddest scene may be when an immigrant woman comes in with her young son – and says she is tired of sleeping on the street with him every day – and wants the unit to find him a better home. The entire unit mobilizes to try and find them a shelter where they can stay together – and fail at even that simple task, needing the split the two up. All of these cases take their toll on the unit – are they doing any good at all. No matter their personal relationships – and even their friendships within the group – start to fray.

By design, Polisse is scattershot, jumping from one scene to the next quickly – and once they move onto the next case, the previous one is never brought up again. There are moments of lightness – group dinners and parties for example, where the team lets off some steam. And in one moment, the unit cannot help but breakdown in laughter when a teenage girl tells them why she gave blow jobs to a group of boys – the stole her cell phone and told her she had to blow them to get it back. When they start laughing at her explanation, the teen girl defends herself – “It was a smart phone!” which sends them into hysterics. After all the darkness they see, they cannot help but laugh at stupidity.

One thing I didn’t know when I watched the movie is director Maiwenn’s history. The reason she only goes by one name is not a simple case of vanity – but because her driven actress mother shoved her into the business at a young age, and at age 15 she was so angry with them, she refused to use her last name. At the same age, she began a relationship with Luc Besson, then in his early 30s, and a year later, at just 16, she gave birth of their child. Did this history, both with her parents and then Besson (the two broke up when he left her for Milla Jovovich) draw her to this material? But what does her treatment of the unit, which is sympathetic, but not glowing, really mean? I’m not sure – I think knowing her history simply raises more questions than it answers.
Polisse is an interesting, entertaining, fascinating movie. Yes, it is scattershot, and the movie kind of flies off the rails in its closing scenes – with not just one moment but two that makes little sense, including the closing moment. But there is passion here – and this messy movie is always interesting to watch.

DVD Review: In Darkness

In Darkness
Directed by: Agnieszka Holland.
Written by: David F. Shamoon based on the book by Robert Marshall.
Starring: Robert Wieckiewicz (Leopold Socha), Benno Fürmann (Mundek Margulies), Agnieszka Grochowska (Klara Keller), Maria Schrader (Paulina Chiger), Herbert Knaup (Ignacy Chiger), Marcin Bosak (Yanek Grossmann), Krzysztof Skonieczny (Stefek Wroblewski), Milla Bankowicz (Krystyna Chiger), Oliwer Stanczak(Pawel Chiger), Kinga Preis (Wanda Socha).

At this point, we have all seen countless movies about the Holocaust – that gave run the gamut from masterpiece to sick exploitation. And many of these countless films have centered on a non-Jew who finds their humanity by helping a group of Jews hide from the Nazis and survive the war. Of course, the most well-known example would be Schindler’s List, but you could name many, many others. The story, well still powerful, has been told so many times that in many ways it has lost much of its impact. Before seeing In Darkness, I would have said I never needed to see another one of these movies again. But while In Darkness is not a great film like Schindler’s List, it is still a worthy one – one that gets under your skin, and while it doesn’t surprise you, it does move you.

The movie takes place in Poland, and starts with the Nazis liquidated the Ghettos in Lvov – killing many, and sending everyone to the Concentration Camps. A group of Jews however do not want to be sent away – and find a way to hide. The get into the sewer tunnels, and hide out there – where eventually Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz), a Catholic-Polish sewer worker finds them. There are dozens of them, and he knows he cannot save all of them – but he does lead a smaller group to an area in the sewer that he feels is safe. At first, it`s just because the Jews have money – and a sewer worker with a family to support can always use money. Socha certainly has no love for the Jews – he insults them numerous times with anti-Semitic names and taunts – but somewhere along the line, Socha decides he must protect them – save them, at all costs, even when there is no money left.

All of this, I know, makes In Darkness sound much like many other Holocaust movies – and it won`t help if I tell you that In Darkness contains images like that of Nazi soldiers marching a group of naked Jewish women out into the forest before gunning them down. And all of that is true. But two things drew me into In Darkness despite the familiar territory. One was the visual look and location of the movie. Much of the movie takes place in the sewers, so the movie is bathed, appropriately enough, in darkness. I have heard some critics complain that the images are too murky, but that could have been a projection problem, because watching the film on DVD, I found the images, while dark, to also be crystal clear. Directed by Agnieszka Holland, who has already made more than one Holocaust film (the famous of which would be Europa, Europa from 1991), the films visuals are confident, dark and memorable.

But the more interesting element to be is Socha himself. He is certainly not the first character who decides to help save the Jews he was at first exploiting. But for Socha, there is no big movie transition, no one moment where he goes from someone trying to exploit to someone trying to save – it’s a gradual process, and I don’t think even he could tell you when it happened. It`s interesting to see him interact with an old friend he spent time in prison with – now a Ukrainian Army captain working for the Nazis. Perhaps Socha transformation has more to do with the Ukrainian than with the Jews himself – he doesn’t want to be as much of as a rat as his old friend, and he doesn’t like to be told what to do. Another thing that must be mentioned is that Jews themselves are not cookie cutter characters – not just innocents shivering in the dark waiting to be saved, but become three dimensional characters as well – and not all of them all that nice.
In Darkness is not one of the great Holocaust movies of all time – despite its visual look and the three dimensional characters, a movie like this, unless really special, cannot have the same impact as they once did. The film was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language film. It was a safe choice by the Academy, but a valid one. In Darkness may not be a great film, but it is impossible not to be moved by it – not to be drawn into its story.

DVD Review: Mirror, Mirror

Mirror, Mirror
Directed by: Tarsem Singh.
Written by: Jason Keller and Marc Klein and Melisa Wallack based on the Grimm Brothers Story.
Starring: Julia Roberts (The Queen), Lily Collins (Snow White), Armie Hammer (Prince Alcott), Nathan Lane (Brighton), Jordan Prentice (Napoleon), Mark Povinelli (Half Pint), Joe Gnoffo (Grub), Danny Woodburn (Grimm), Sebastian Saraceno (Wolf), Martin Klebba (Butcher), Ronald Lee Clark (Chuckles), Robert Emms (Charles Renbock), Mare Winningham (Baker Margaret), Michael Lerner (Baron), Sean Bean (King).

Mirror, Mirror so wants to be a clever spin on Snow White – bringing a modern sensibility to the classic fairy tale, while still setting it in the past. In a way, the movie reminded me of the Shrek movies, which both wants to be a fairy tale, and a sendup of fairy tales. That is a difficult line to walk, and Mirror, Mirror does a decent enough job of walking that line, but quite simply not good enough. The actors are certainly game – and seem to be having a blast – but that doesn’t mean they can cover over the fact that Mirror, Mirror is all surface, and no substance.

The film was directed by Tarsem Singh, who has made four films; all of which look great, but only one is a really good movie. That was his first – the underrated The Cell (2000), a mind bending science fiction, serial killer drama, that was masterfully handled by Tarsem. Many loved his 2006 follow-up The Fall, which looked as great as The Cell, but had a storyline that never gelled for me. His last film was last falls The Immortals, which was obviously inspired by 300, but looked a hell of a lot better, even if the story never really went anywhere. There is never a doubt that Mirror, Mirror is one of his films – it opens with a wonderful, animated puppet sequence where the evil Queen gives us the famous backstory we all know for Snow White. It then dives headlong into its story – which certainly deviates from the fairy tale we all know. The Seven Dwarfs are no longer merry miners, but jolly thieves. The Prince shows up at the beginning of the movie, is immediately robbed by the dwarves, and has to be saved by Snow White – before heading off the palace, where the Queen sets her sets on him as a future husband, to help her finance her own vanity, which has bankrupted the kingdom. Of course, Snow White is still chased out into the woods, and still teams up with the Dwarves, but she is not as passive as before – not just waiting for the Prince to eventually save her.

The actors are all up for their roles, and in a vacuum, they all perform them well. Julia Roberts is obviously having a blast being the wicked Queen – she’s not as annoying cutesy as I often find her, as the bad guy role fits her surprisingly well. Lily Collins certainly looks like a teenage Snow White – dark hair, pale skin, and I liked how she refuses to be a passenger in the story. Armie Hamer looks the part of a handsome prince, and he goes for it, not afraid to look goofy at times. The problem with all of these performances is that they don’t really seem to be interacting with each other – the hate between the Queen and Snow White, and the love between Snow White and the Prince is never really felt – just stated. The actors are all having fun, but they lack the passion that should drive the film. The best lines in the movie go to the Dwarves – who at least seem like a real team.

Yet, the movie is always a treat to look at – as Tarsem’s films always are. The art direction and especially the costume design (which if you didn’t know this was a Tarsem film, would certainly give it away – especially the Royal Guards uniforms) are top notch. But there is only so much time you can admire the sets and the costumes, and enjoy actors who are obviously having a good time, but don’t seem to fit together, before the movie becomes rather dull. Tarsem is a gifted director – but it’s now been 12 years since he found a story that can match his visuals.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

DVD Review: Wanderlust

Wanderlust  Directed by: David Wain.
Written by: David Wain & Ken Marino.
Starring: Paul Rudd (George), Jennifer Aniston (Linda), Justin Theroux (Seth), Alan Alda (Carvin), Malin Akerman (Eva), Ken Marino (Rick), Joe Lo Truglio (Wayne), Kathryn Hahn (Karen), Kerri Kenney-Silver (Kathy), Lauren Ambrose (Almond), Michaela Watkins (Marissa), Jordan Peele (Rodney), Linda Lavin (Shari), Jessica St. Clair (Deena Schuster), Todd Barry (Sherm).

The best scenes in Wanderlust are the opening ones. A New York couple, George (Paul Rudd) and Linda (Jennifer Aniston), are tired of renting, and decide to buy a studio apartment (or microloft as the sales agent calls it) – and finally commit to something. And, of course, that’s when everything goes wrong. The company that George works for is invaded by the Feds, and he finds himself out of work. Linda, who has bounced from one career to the next rapidly, has a disastrous meeting with HBO, who does not want to air her documentary about penguins with testicular cancer. Soon, they have nothing, and hit the road for Atlanta to stay with George’s obnoxious brother Rick (Ken Marino), who has made a fortune renting Port-a-Pottys. In these few, short opening scenes, Wanderlust has the feel of a 1930s screwball comedy, with Rudd as the straight laced, logical half of the couple, and Aniston as the loopy free spirit. The scenes also set out what you would think would be a rather incisive, timely comedy about the recently unemployed – and indictment of the economic system that insist on separating everyone into winners and losers. Had the movie continued in this vein, with this kind of sharp wit, it could have been one of the best comedies of the year. Sadly, it doesn’t.

For a movie called Wanderlust, there is very little wandering in this film. Yes, the couple go on a road trip to start the film, but before they can get to Atlanta, they stop off at what they think is a normal Bed & Breakfast – and it turns out to be a hippie commune called Elysium. The patriarch of the Elysium, Carvin (Alan Alda), who would love to tell you who he bought the property with back in 1971, and very little else. That night they spend at Elysium is so peaceful and refreshing, that they decide it beats the hell out staying with Rick, who is an insufferable asshole, and dive headlong into this hippie paradise.

I enjoyed much of Wanderlust, and yet felt the movie didn’t really push far enough. In many ways, it feels like a comedy that could have been made in the early 1970s. Although many of the jokes about the hippies and their lifestyle are funny, they could have been made in way back then. Surely, being a hippie has progressed since then. Just look at the Occupy Wall Street-ers, who invoke the spirit of the 1960s protesters, all the while half of them are drinking Starbucks and playing with their I-Pads. There is rich material to be mined here, but Wanderlust pretty much takes the easy way out. The movie could have been a sort of update of Albert Brooks`Lost in America, about a married couple who embrace the romanticism of Easy Rider – and dropping out of society – until they lose all their money, and are faced with actually living like hippies with no money. But the movie doesn’t have that much guts – especially in the way the movie ends, which seems completely inappropriate for what comes before it.

Having said that, Wanderlust is often very funny. Rudd is a perfect straight man, looking on the hippies, and what they doing with his wife, with increasing incredulity as the movie progresses. He is at his weakest when the movie lets him let loose – like an awkward scene where he practices his come-on lines which goes on far too long, and wasn’t funny to begin with. Jennifer Aniston has fun as the more free spirited of the two – getting to be genuinely loopy at points. Justin Theroux is terrific as the lead hippie, who spouts off insane things in such a calm, confident voice that he sounds convincing. And although I feared Joe Lo Trugilo`s role as a `nudist winemaker`would be one note, it actually does develop into something genuinely surprising.

Wanderlust is not a great comedy – it needed more guts to be that. But it is a pleasant movie, one that makes you laugh more than most comedies. Yet, I still couldn’t help but be somewhat disappointed in it. The opening of the film suggested that Wanderlust might just be going somewhere truly daring – but the movie just ends up recycling the old ideas of not being able to run away from your problems – and how even something that seems so free (like the hippie commune) is simply another prison, just like the one Rudd and Aniston just fled. It`s not a bad movie by any means – just one that needed to push itself harder, and find some jokes to tell that couldn’t have been told 40 years ago.

DVD Review: Keyhole

Directed by: Guy Maddin.
Written by: George Toles & Guy Maddin.
Starring: Jason Patric (Ulysses Pick), Isabella Rossellini (Hyacinth), Udo Kier (Dr. Lemke), Louis Negin (Calypso / Camille), Brooke Palsson (Denny), Suzanne Pringle (Brooke Palson's body double / Gun Moll), David Wontner (Manners), Kevin McDonald (Ogilbe), Daniel Enright (Big Ed), Theodoros Zegeye-Gebrehiwot (Heatly), Brent Neale (Denton), Olivia Rameau (Rochelle), Claude Dorge (Belview).

Guy Maddin is one of the distinctive directors working in the world today. Love his films, or hate them, there is no doubt about who made each and every one of them. He has directed 41 films since 1986 – most of them shorts, and although I’ve only seen a handful of them, I count myself as an admirer of his. No, I don’t think I’ve ever loved one of his films, but they are all unique and at the very least interesting. He dives back into our shared cinematic past, and comes up with something that is all his own.

His latest film is Keyhole, a very odd film indeed, which mixes elements of film noir and horror, but it really neither of those things. It opens with a group of gangsters firing their way into a house that has been surrounded by the cops. It is night, there is a thunderstorm going on, which keeps the cops at bay. We know we are in Maddin territory early – and not just because the film uses his distinctive black and white visuals. The film opens with a gangster telling everyone to line up against the wall – any one alive, face out, any one who is dead, face the wall. This may sound odd, but this is a house full of ghosts – of memories – so it makes a bizarre kind of sense. The lead gangster is Ulysses Pick (Jason Patric) – and this is his house, and he needs to figure out its mysteries. In addition to his gang, there are two hostages – one young man bound and gagged, and a young woman who is soaking wet. Ulysses’ wife Hyacinth (Maddin regular Isabella Rossellini) is in a room on the top floor of her house, and has her naked father chained to the bed – but as he says, no one knows just how long that chain is.

I could try to explain what happens in Keyhole, but it would be an exercise in futility. I’ve seen the film, and I know what I saw, but I’m not sure I could describe precisely what happens in the film – or more importantly what it all means. Maddin has described the film as his first true narrative film, and there is certainly an element of that in this film – much more so than he previous films. And yet the film, like his others, plays more like a dream than a true narrative. While you watch the film, you know what is going on at any given moment, but when it is all over and you stand back and try to piece everything together, I’m not sure it all fits. But I am sure that Maddin doesn’t really care if it all fits he is more interested in diving headlong into cinema’s past and coming out, with his themes of memory and loss. These echo through Keyhole in many ways, and really throughout all of his films.

Keyhole is not my favorite Guy Maddin film – that would probably be his extremely bizarre “documentary” My Winnipeg, about his mixed emotions about his own home town. But it strangely, it may be his most accessible film – a good place to start for people who want to find their way into the films of this unique director. Because it has more a narrative, and more mystery to the narrative, it plays more like a “traditional” film than most of Maddin’s work, and as such audiences will be comfortable with it. No, I'm not sure if it all comes together, but it does provide enough details for audiences to parse. In Maddin’s best films – like My Winnipeg and Brand Upon the Brain – are purely felt and made films. Yet, Keyhole is still fascinating. It is still a film that only Guy Maddin would make.

Movie Review: Indie Game: The Movie

Indie Game: The Movie
Directed by: Lisanne Pajot & James Swirsky.
Featuring: Jonathan Blow, Phil Fish, Edmund McMillen, Tommy Refenes.

Roger Ebert has been engaged in a debate for years now with gamers as to whether or not video games can be considered art. His argument is convincing – because the gamer changes what happens in the game, it cannot be art. Even though we all filter a film, a book, a painting, music or anything else through our own our personal experiences and interpret things in our own way, we all see the same thing when we see a film, we all hear the same thing when we listen to music, etc. But the same cannot be said of video games, so they cannot be art – at least according to Ebert. I never really had a dog in this fight – I’m not much of a gamer myself. I own a PS3, but I bought because it was a Blu-Ray player, and would allow me to play the one video game a year I buy – the latest installment of EA Sports NHL series, which I’ve been doing on various platforms for most of my life now. I hope that Ebert sees Indie Game: The Movie however. It may not change his mind as to whether or not games can be considered art – but I think you at least have to admit that the game designers featured in this documentary have the souls of artists. While most may just see a silly game – a way to kill time – they see it as a way to express themselves to the world. And really, isn’t that what artists do?

Indie Game: The Movie follows four independent game designers, who are at different stages with their games. Jonathan Blow created Braid, which when the movie begins has already become a huge hit – both financially and with the critics. But while you would think Blow would be happy with this, instead he says when the game became a hit, he fell into a depression. He would show up on pretty much any message board discussing his game, and answer any criticisms the game received with long, detailed responses, essentially annoying everyone. He was disappointed because people saw his creation as little more than a fun, entertaining video game – and not the heart and soul he poured into it.

Then there is Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes, who have spent a long time building their game – Super Meat Boy – about a boy with no skin, who has to save his girlfriend, who is made of bandages, from the clutches of the evil villain. Think Super Mario Brothers, except much harder, and with more blood, and you’re at least on the right track. Edmund talks about the years he has poured into this – how he was a lonely kid, and video games were his outlet, and how he got started designing games that express that vulnerability. Tommy is lonelier than Edmund – at least Edmund has a wife – but Tommy has next to nothing, and has sacrificed everything for the game. The movie count downs to the unveiling of their game on Xbox Live – to see if all their hard work pays off or not.

Then there is Canadian Phil Fish, who won an award for his game Fez way back in 2008. But that was little more than a prototype, and although the award made him a celebrity in the game world, Fez was nowhere near ready to be unveiled. He gets funding, and thinks his game will be ready by 2010. Then 2011. By the end of the movie, he plans to have it out by early 2012 (which apparently, he did). If you think movie message boards can be brutal on directors and actors – just look at some of the things said about Phil Fish on the boards devoted to these types of things.

Indie Game: The Movie is a fine documentary – fascinating in its way looking at these four men who devote their lives to this. They don’t work for the major game companies – which often have hundreds of people working on a single title, and millions of dollars of funding. These guys do it by themselves – or with a very small team of people. This is not a job for them – they have no idea if their work will ever pay off or not – but rather this is an obsession for them. For them, designing video games are their calling. I do wish the movie was a little deeper – that it cast a wider net to look at more than just the successful crop of indie game designers, but people who struggle even more than they do. Or even if the directors had pressed a little harder when interview subjects. It does seem like the filmmakers are fans, and there may be a little too much gushing during the film.

So, are video games art? I still don’t know the answer, and I doubt I ever will. Yet, what Indie Game makes clear is that at the very least, there are some people who take it as seriously as any artist ever has – willing to sacrifice everything for their obsession. I’m not sure it’s art, but it’s not just fun and games either.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Movie Review: We Have a Pope

We Have a Pope
Directed by: Nanni Moretti.
Written by: Nanni Moretti and Francesco Piccolo and Federica Pontremoli.
Starring: Michel Piccoli (Il papa), Nanni Moretti (Lo psicoanalista), Jerzy Stuhr (Il portavoce), Renato Scarpa (Cardinal Gregori), Franco Graziosi (Cardinal Bollati), Camillo Milli (Cardinal Pescardona), Roberto Nobile (Cardinal Cevasco), Ulrich von Dobschütz (Cardinal Brummer), Gianluca Gobbi (Guardia svizzera),  Margherita Buy (La psicoanalista).

Nanni Morretti’s We Have a Pope asks an interesting question – what if the Cardinal who is elected Pope doesn’t want the job? This isn’t like running for a normal political office where you have to really run for the job. You go into conclave with all the other Cardinals, and anyone could come out the winner. Yes, there are people who want the job, and there are favorites – hell you can gamble on who’s going to win. But then again – in elections of this sort don’t always win (although, the current Pope went into Conclave as a 3-1 favorite). What is clear about the election in We Have a Pope is the man who eventually wins was no one’s first choice – when the first rounds of votes are read, his name never comes up. And then, finally, they choose.

The winner is Melville, played by legendary actor Michel Piccoli, who is now 86 years old. Like the current Pope, he will be seen as a transition Pope – electing an old Pope who you know won’t be around too long, before they elect a real reformer. Melville is a safe, uncontroversial choice – and everything seems to be going according to plan – until he is supposed to go out onto the balcony and address the faithful – and he just cannot do it. The Cardinals encourage him to take some time and pray on it. But this really does put the Vatican in a difficult situation. Until the new Pope is officially announced, none of the Cardinals are allowed to leave. And Melville doesn’t seem like he’s going to be ready any time soon. So, while the world waits to find out who the new Pope is, the Vatican brings in a psychiatrist (Moretti) himself to try and figure out what’s wrong with him. That quickly fails – but now that Moretti knows the identity of the new Pope, he cannot leave either. The Vatican decides to try another shrink – this time outside the Vatican, and sneak Melville out without anyone noticing. But Melville is craftier then they think he is – and he slips his security detail, and ends up wandering the streets of Rome, interacting with people as a normal, old man – and sometimes catching news reports about how worried Catholics the world over are becoming with no one knowing what is going on with the Pope. And, of course, the Vatican searches valiantly to find him.

The movie has two main streams – one inside the Vatican and one outside. The one inside is more light hearted, and at times hilarious. Moretti confesses early in his stay that he is not a `believer’ and that his wife has left him because he is `the best` therapist and she, another therapist, could deal with that. He soon starts debating the Cardinals – saying the Bible highlights all of the problems the current Pope is going through, arguing about cards, and eventually organizing, I kid you not, a volleyball tournament – splitting up the Cardinals by geographical region, and having them duke it out on the volleyball court (poor Oceania only has three team members, but South America is the story of the tournament).

While the story inside the Vatican is more slapstick funny, the one outside, with Melville going interacting with the people on the streets – and rediscovering his long lost love of acting – which is how he wanted to spend his life, but wasn’t good enough to pursue. He does hook up with a acting troupe, doing Chekov`s The Seagull, and decides he simply wants to disappear. As played by Picolli, Melville is a kind, pious man – intelligent and introspective. He wants to lead a quiet life in his final years – and knows that becoming Pope would be the end of that. Like the other Cardinals, whose thoughts we hear at the beginning of Conclave -with all of them silently praying to God that they not be picked – he doesn’t want the job. And when it’s thrust upon him, he questions the will of God.

When people heard that Nanni Moretti was making a film about the Pope, I think they expected more political and controversial than We Have a Pope ends up being. After all, this is the same director whose last film, The Caiman (barely released in North America, if at all, but which I saw at TIFF back in 2006), was a pointed assault on Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian media magnate turned President. And yet, a couple of things should be noted, the first being that while The Caiman is an assault on Berlusconi, and lays out all of his sins, it is also an attack on the left – which Morretti is a part of – for not doing more to stop him – for being too scared to act. That film was actually deeply cynical about the whole damn thing. The second is that We Have a Pope is, in subtle ways, the attack some were expecting. Listen to the Picolli practicing his speech while sitting on the bus, admitting that sometimes "we have been slow to acknowledge our mistakes", which I believe is in reference to the clergy molestation scandal, that many complained Moretti didn’t bring up at all. And then there is the final scene – which I have to say genuinely surprised me – in which Melville explains himself. This is a still a pointed political statement on the Catholic Church –but a gentle, subtle one, that uses humor to make its points.

We Have a Pope is a highly enjoyable movie – funny, yet intelligent. You start off enjoying the film, and then it sneaks up on you and actually makes you think. Moretti doesn’t beat you over the head with his point – but makes it just the same.

Movie Review: Hysteria

Directed by: Tanya Wexler.
Written by: Stephen Dyer & Jonah Lisa Dyer & Howard Gensler.
Starring: Hugh Dancy (Mortimer Granville), Maggie Gyllenhaal (Charlotte Dalrymple), Jonathan Pryce (Dr. Robert Dalrymple), Felicity Jones (Emily Dalrymple), Rupert Everett (Edmund St. John-Smythe), Ashley Jensen (Fannie), Sheridan Smith (Molly), Gemma Jones (Lady St. John-Smythe), Malcolm Rennie (Lord St. John-Smythe), Kim Criswell (Mrs. Castellari), Georgie Glen (Mrs. Parsons).

How is it that a movie about the invention of the vibrator has been turned into a classy, understated, British costume comedy? I’m not exactly sure how director Tanya Wexler pulled off that feat, but she does, and if no other reason deserves some credit for that. This is a movie that could have easily gone off the rails, yet never does. Yes, it is fairly predictable, and some of the dialogue goes crosses the line into lecturing, but overall, Hysteria is an enjoyable little film.

The film stars Hugh Dancy as Dr. Mortimer Granville, who has just been fired from another job for questioning his boss’ decision not to change a patient’s bandages, because his boss does not agree with Granville that germs exist. Such is the life for Granville in Victorian England, where he is reading the latest medical journals, and his elders are still using leeches. Desperate for a job, he eventually agrees to become the associate of Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), who specializes in treating female hysteria. Apparently this is caused by an overactive uterus, and can lead to all sorts of horrible symptoms, that if serious enough can only be treated by removing the uterus entirely. But Dalrymple treats mild cases with massage the genital area that produces “paroxysmal convulsions” or in today’s language, orgasms. The scene where Pryce shows Dancy just how he does this (“I start with a little musk oil…”) is just about the funniest I have seen this year.

Soon Granville is as accomplished as Dalrymple at this practice, and is on the fast track to becoming a partner – and may just end up marrying Dalrymple’s dutiful daughter Emily (Felicity Jones) – even though he finds himself increasingly drawn to the more rebellious daughter Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who uses her family’s money to help the poor in London – that most people of her class thinks is distasteful. But all this massaging is starting to hurt Granville’s wrist – but his friend has a few electric feather duster that produces a pleasant vibration – and a genius idea is born.

Hysteria does not really attempt to be a really sexy, erotic movie that you might expect to be given its subject matter. The movie does have a lot to say about the state of female medicine back in Victoria Times – where hysteria was used to diagnose pretty much anything wrong with a woman, and where no one seemed to realize that females could actually experience sexual pleasure – or at least they would never say so out loud. The men may be too dull or dimwitted to figure out why they have such a large clientele – but the women know, they just let the men continue to think what they want. In some ways, things don’t really change.

The central relationship in the movie is between Granville and Charlotte – which follows the standard romantic comedy formula pretty much to the letter. When he first meets Charlotte, Granville thinks her insane, and is much more attracted to the more docile Emily. But the more interactions they have, the more Granville is drawn to her. We know what will happen, and it does – but at the very least it is pleasant. Dancy and Gyllenhaal play their roles well – especially Gyllenhaal, which is a relief, because too much of her dialogue is the type of feminist speeches that always seem out to place to me in movies like this – but Gyllenhaal sells it nicely.

Besides, it is the supporting characters who steal the movie. Jonathan Pryce is brilliant as Dalrymple, who has no idea what he is doing, but it great at just the same. Even better is Rupert Everett, who is quite clearly gay even if the movie never explicitly states this (although Granville does lovingly call him a “full time sexual deviant”, which was the euphemism of the time). He is a rich, drunken playboy – and he is quite clearly having a blast. Everett, who looked like he was on the verge of stardom back in the late 1990s, has rarely been given a role that exploits his talents this well – and he makes the most of it. Then, of course, there is the series of women who are Dalrymple and Granville’s patients – who discreetly have their orgasms under a tasteful red tent – and each and every one of them are a treat.
Hysteria may be a one joke movie – but it’s a good joke, well told. It certainly is not a great movie – but it is great fun, and given its subject matter, that’s probably about all we could hope for.

DVD Review: Wrath of the Titans

Wrath of the Titans
Directed by: Jonathan Liebesman.
Written by: Dan Mazeau & David Johnson & Greg Berlanti based on the screenplay by Beverley Cross.
Starring: Sam Worthington (Perseus), Liam Neeson (Zeus), Ralph Fiennes (Hades), Edgar Ramírez (Ares), Toby Kebbell (Agenor), Rosamund Pike (Andromeda), Bill Nighy (Hephaestus), Danny Huston (Poseidon), John Bell (Helius), Lily James (Korrina), Alejandro Naranjo (Mantius), Freddy Drabble (Apollo), Kathryn Carpenter (Athena).

For whatever reason, I liked Wrath of the Titans more than its predecessor, Clash of the Titans from way back in 2010. Perhaps it’s because I watched this one on DVD and not in theaters, so I didn’t have to suffer through the horrible 3-D that marred the first film so badly. Clash of the Titans was one of those films not shot in 3-D, but went through a conversion after the fact, which hardly ever worked, and certainly didn’t that time. I felt the original Clash of the Titans was a visual mess – blurry and incomprehensible at times. The best thing that can be said about its sequel is that I could at least tell what the hell was going on – not that I much cared, but baby steps of improvement is still an improvement.

The movie takes place 10 years after the events of Clash of the Titans, when Perseus (Sam Worthington) finds out he is the son of Zeus (Liam Neeson), and thus is half God. He went onto to defeat the Kracken, and then retired to his old, quiet life as a fisherman and family life. And for a long time he was happy. But then Zeus comes down again to see his son – and tell him that the Gods are losing their power because the people have stopped believing in them. If people do not pray to the Gods, they apparently lose their power. Hades (Ralph Fiennes) has decided not to go down without a fight – so he has conspired with Cronus, father of Zeus, Hades and Poseidon, to free him from his prison in Tartarus, and sap Zeus of all his power. In doing so, Cronus will destroy humanity. So obviously Zeus needs the help of his humble fisherman son – who is, like last time, reluctant to get involved, until he is forced into it.

From that plot description you may well think that this is a film where you need to review your Greek mythology before seeing – but that’s not really the case. There is a lot of talk and exposition in the first act, before it all gives way to one action sequence after another, and lots and lots of special effects. The special effects are fine, I guess, but it seems like they spent so much money on them that they felt they had to used throughout. As the film moves along, there is little else in the movie aside from those effects – the characters, who weren’t that interesting in the first place, spend much of the movie yelling at each other, and getting into one fight after another.

All that said, Wrath of the Titans is at the very least not a boring movie. And while I feel the special effects are overused, they are at least well done – and there are a few legitimately exciting scenes in the movie – and an excellent sequence involving a maze into Tartarus. But Wrath of the Titans offers nothing to really sink your teeth into – nothing to really keep you involved or care about the outcome.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Movie Review: Brave

Brave Directed by: Mark Andrews & Brenda Chapman.
Written by: Mark Andrews and Steve Purcell and Brenda Chapman and Irene Mecchi.
Starring: Kelly Macdonald  (Merida), Billy Connolly (Fergus), Emma Thompson (Elinor), Julie Walters (The Witch), Robbie Coltrane (Lord Dingwall), Kevin McKidd (Lord MacGuffin / Young MacGuffin), Craig Ferguson (Lord Macintosh), Sally Kinghorn (Maudie), Eilidh Fraser (Maudie), Peigi Barker (Young Merida), Steven Cree (Young Macintosh), John Ratzenberger (Gordon).

I doubt that you will see a more stunningly beautiful animated film this year than Brave, the latest movie from Pixar. In the past few years, I have often said that Pixar is the best creative force in mainstream American movies over the past decade – and I still believe that. There are few filmmakers who could claim to have been as consistent as Pixar has been since their inception in 1995. When you look at the fact that since then they have produced Toy Story, Toy Story 2, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Wall-E to Up and Toy Story 3, all of which are great films, the run is remarkable. When they make a “disappointing” film, it is usually still of very high quality – like A Bug’s Life, Monsters Inc. and Cars, just not quite up to their almost impossibly high standards. Their only true misfire is last year’s Cars 2, which is the type of loud, obnoxious animated film that you usually go to Pixar films to get away from. All of this brings us back to their latest film Brave – which while not a disaster like Cars 2, also does not reach the heights of most of Pixar’s best films.

The film takes place in Scotland sometime in the past. Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) is a tomboy Princess, with bratty triplet young brothers, a gruff father Fergus (Billy Connolly) and a refined mother Elinor (Emma Thompson). Merida is tired of what she sees as Elinor trying to run her life. This comes to a boil when Elinor feels it is time for Merida to get married. They invite the three eldest sons of the clans beneath them to compete for her hand in marriage. But Merida has no interest in marrying them – or in anyone else for that matter. But refusing to take anyone as a husband may well result in a war between the clans. Frustrated, Merida takes off into the forest, where she comes across a witch – or gives her a way to change her fate by changing her mother’s mind – which of course ends up having consequences Merida cannot possibly foresee.

The above plot summary probably sounds more like a traditional Disney film, than something from Pixar. Yes, the two companies have been related ever since Pixar’s inception, but when at their best, Pixar tells stories that are completely outside the normal comfort zone for animated children’s fare. That is the real reason why Brave never quite reaches the heights of Pixar’s best films – the plot seems far too standard, too predictable, even a little clichéd. When I watched Ratatouille, Wall-E or even the Toy Story movies, I’m never quite where they’re going to end up. Yet at every stage of Brave, you know precisely where it’s going. Yet, Pixar does update the traditional Princess story – this Princess is no damsel in distress, and needs no handsome prince to come along and save her or complete her in anyway. And, unlike other recent feminist spins on classic fairy tales, she never does fall in love. And I did love the sensitivity and complexity that they used in painting in the relationship between mothers and daughters – a relationship that is not usually the central one in children’s movies. Still, the story of Brave seemed to play it too safe for it to be truly great.

The film is, as stated above, stunningly animated. If Brave is a step or two behind Pixar’s best films in terms of its story, it is the equal of their best films in terms of the animation. The details in every frame are meticulously, lovingly crafted. Merida’s long, curly read mop of hair is a thing of beauty in and of itself – with each strand of hair individually crafted. The massive castle where she lives with her family is a traditional animated castle, but still expertly crafted, with many dark nooks and crannies, and secrets. But the most impressive thing may be the forest, where most of the action takes place, which uses bold, beautiful colors (especially the bright greens). The 3-D is well handled, but like most Pixar films, completely unnecessary.

The only criticism that Pixar has consistently faced over the years is that all of their films have male leads. Perhaps that explains Brave – that it is a response to all those criticisms. But I think Pixar could have thought this out a little bit more – to make a female heroine as original as Wall-E or Remy the Rat. So yes, Brave is a little bit of a disappointment simply because it does not live up to the best that Pixar has done – that it doesn’t live up to the nearly impossibly high standards that have set for themselves. Yet, it still must be said the chances of seeing a better animated film this year are rare – the chances that you’ll find a more beautiful animated film this year practically nil. Brave is not as good as Pixar is capable of – but it’s still head and shoulders above most animated films we get in a given year.

Movie Review: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
Directed by: Timur Bekmambetov.
Written by:  Seth Grahame-Smith based on his novel.
Starring: Benjamin Walker (Abraham Lincoln), Dominic Cooper (Henry Sturgess), Anthony Mackie (Will Johnson), Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Mary Todd Lincoln), Rufus Sewell (Adam), Marton Csokas (Jack Barts), Jimmi Simpson (Joshua Speed), Joseph Mawle (Thomas Lincoln), Robin McLeavy (Nancy Lincoln), Erin Wasson (Vadoma).

The idea behind Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter sounds like a complete joke – that one of the greatest Presidents in American history led a secret double life as a vampire hunter - that in fact, it was the vampires that drove everything he did in life – from becoming a lawyer, to becoming a politician, to trying to end slavery to fighting the civil war. Some of the reviews of the film have already accused it of trivializing history – from Lincoln himself to slavery to all those men who lost their lives in the Civil War. My understanding is that the novel by Seth Grahame-Smith, who also wrote the screenplay, was a more thoughtful examination of these issues in addition to being a bloody, action/horror story. To me, that may be the problem with Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter as a film – it seems to simultaneously take the whole concept too seriously and yet not seriously enough. Had the filmmakers gone full bore into exploitation territory, the film clearly would have been in poor taste, but also could have been a hell of a guilty pleasure. Had they taken it more seriously, and eliminated the ludicrous action sequences and added in some of that thoughtfulness that the book apparently had, it could have been a fascinating alternate history. But since the movie seemingly wants to do both of those things, it ends up doing neither all that well. It is still mildly entertaining and mildly fascinating, but had they made the decision to go one way or the other, it could have been much better.

The movie begins with Lincoln as a child who witnesses his mother’s murder at the hands of a vampire, largely because of what he has done. Ten years later, he is determined to get revenge – only to learn the horrible truth that it was not a man who murdered his mother – but a vampire. He is taken under the wing of Henry Sturgees (Dominic Cooper), who teaches him to dispatch vampires with skill and speed. Not being one for shooting irons, Lincoln decides to instead use a modified silver axe that he uses to lope off their heads. Sturgees has one rule – no family, no friends. They get in the way of his larger duties. Lincoln intends to keep this promise, but when he meets Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), he cannot resist her charms. And slowly, he starts to get involved with politics – and ending the evil of slavery, which he learns is largely controlled by the vampire leader Adam (Rufus Sewell) – who else but slaves could they kill in large numbers and have no one notice or care. The movie climaxes with the Civil War – which starts out hard for the Union because many of the Confederate soldiers are vampires, and hence, impervious to the weapons at the Unions disposal.

With a movie like this, you have to decide before seeing it whether or not you’re willing to roll with it, or if you’re going to fight against it. And if you’re going to fight against it, why the hell would you see it anyway. I get the criticisms the film has received for being disrespectful to history and for slavery, but I do not necessary agree with it – especially the criticism that I have heard most often that says that the movie makes slavery easier to swallow because it was not the fault of humans, but monsters. But that’s not really the case – the movie never really argues that ALL of the Confederacy is vampires just that the vampires chose that side – with the Confederacy going along with the vampires. In some ways, that makes the Confederates look much, much worse – that they wanted slavery so bad that they were willing to align themselves with inhuman monsters.

And yet, I do not think the movie pushes things far enough. The movie plays everything mostly straight – Benjamin Walker is actually quite good as Lincoln, never letting the weight of the character crush his performance in any way. And yet, every time the movie threatened to go beyond being straight faced and into actually thoughtful territory, the movie instead throws in another action sequence – with heads and limbs flying all over the place, and buckets of blood splattering all over the place.

The fault for this really lies behind the camera – with producer Tim Burton and director Timur Bekmambetov. Both are filmmakers who value visuals over ideas, and that shows throughout the movie. Yes, some of the action sequences are well handled – not quite as exciting as Bekmambetovès last film, Wanted which was a great guilty pleasure, but entertaining just the same. But they were also completely ludicrous – especially the finale aboard of train, which while it does have some exciting moment was so outlandish I, could never get past it. The fact that they felt the need to add 3-D to the movie didn’t help – it made a dark film feel even darker. I would have much rather seen it without having to look through 3-D glasses.
Yet, I do have to say that if a movie called Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter sounds like your type of movie, and then you probably will enjoy it. Yes, I would have liked to see the film either embrace its supreme cheesy potential, or make an actual thoughtful alternate history about Lincoln, but the finished product is certainly at the very least interesting, and at times fun. It doesn’t reach the potential it had, but it’s not a horrible film either.