Friday, November 30, 2012

Movie Review: The Imposter

The Imposter
Directed by: Bart Layton.
Featuring: Frédéric Bourdin (Himself), Adam O'Brian (Frédéric Bourdin), Carey Gibson (Herself), Anna Ruben (Carey Gibson), Beverly Dollarhide (Herself), Cathy Dresbach (Nancy Fisher), Charlie Parker (Himself), Alan Teichman (Charlie Parker), Nancy Fisher (Herself), Ivan Villanueva (Social Worker), Bryan Gibson (Himself), Maria Jesus Hoyos (Judge), Codey Gibson (Himself), Anton Marti (Male Police Officer), Amparo Fontanet (Female Police Officer), Bruce Perry (Himself), Ken Appledorn (U.S. Embassy Official), Phillip French (Himself).

Spoiler Warning: I don’t think that this review contains any true spoilers – most of what it discusses is revealed fairly early in the film. However, if you know nothing of the story, and want to see the film yourself, you may be better off waiting until after you’ve seen the film to read this review. What I will say in this space is that it is a very good documentary. You’ve been warned.

The Imposter is a fascinating documentary that ultimately raises just as many questions as it answers. In 1994, Nicholas Barclay, then 13, disappeared from his Texas home and was never found. In 1997, his family gets a phone call from police in Spain – they have someone there who claims to be Nicholas. As soon as they get some paper work done, they can come and get him – which is exactly what his big sister does. Nicholas has a fantastic story to tell about being kidnapped and forced into the sex trade for years, before finally escaping his captors. But there are problems with his story. How did his captors manage to smuggle a 13 year old boy out of America in the first place? Why is his hair a different color? Why are his eyes a different color? Why does he speak with what appears to be a French accent? Why does he seem to have little to no memory about his life in Texas? And why does he appear to be older than 16-17 year old boy he is supposed to be?

The answer of course, as the title implies, is that this is not Nicholas at all. The person claiming to be Nicholas is really Frederic Bourdin, who is in his early 20s and is in fact from France. He is wanted by Interpol, and when some helpful tourists come across him in Spain, he has to think quickly before he gets arrested. Bourdin is interviewed in the film, and explains exactly how he came to claim to be Nicholas Barclay. He never expected things to go as far as they do, but he rode the wave anyway. Because when Nicholas’ sister shows up, she believes that he really is Nicholas – and when she brings him home to Texas, the rest of the family believes it as well. His amazing story of survival even makes the news. The problem is that the FBI wants to speak to him. They need to know everything “Nicholas” can tell them about the sex trafficking ring that abducted him. But Nicholas isn’t really co-operating – and neither is his family. It will only be a matter of time before the truth comes out.

The Imposter is one of those stories that if it wasn’t true, you would never believe it. Imagine a Hollywood screenwriter trying to make this story up, and it just doesn’t seem at all plausible. But this is a true story – and a strange one. And even by the end of the film, when Bourdin has had his say, and Nicholas Barclay’s family have all had their say, we still don’t know the whole story.

Why, for instance, did the Barclay’s believe this person, who was clearly not Nicholas, was their long lost son/brother? Even after the police and FBI tell them there is no way he could possibly be Nicholas, they continue to insist that he is for quite some time? Was it simply that they were so desperate, so wanted to believe that this was Nicholas, that they convinced themselves of the impossible? Or is it something more sinister. After his ruse was discovered, and Bourdin was arrested, he claimed that the family confessed to him that they had murdered Nicholas and disposed of the body. Therefore, they had to pretend that the real Nicholas was out there somewhere, or else admit their own guilt. But how can we possibly believe anything Bourdin has to say? He is a compulsive liar – Nicholas was not the first, nor was he the last, person Bourdin tried to pass himself off as. And yet, there does seem to be something fishy going on here – something beyond Bourdin.

The Imposter was directed by Bart Layton and is an interesting looking documentary throughout its running time. Purists will most likely be upset that Layton inserts “re-enactments” and other staged scenes, without anything identifying them as such, but smart audience members will be able to tell – and the scenes give the film something to show other than the standard boilerplate documentary format – talking heads and archival footage. And it’s a film that is endlessly fascinating. Yes, it is more manipulative than most documentaries, and at times Layton goes a little overboard with the stylistic trickery, but overall The Imposter is a documentary that I cannot get out of my head.

DVD Review: ParaNorman

ParaNorman
Directed by: Chris Butler & Sam Fell.
Written by: Chris Butler.
Starring: Kodi Smit-McPhee (Norman Babcock), Tucker Albrizzi (Neil), Anna Kendrick (Courtney Babcock), Casey Affleck (Mitch), Christopher Mintz-Plasse (Alvin), Leslie Mann (Sandra Babcock), Jeff Garlin (Perry Babcock), Elaine Stritch (Grandma), Bernard Hill (The Judge), Jodelle Ferland (Aggie), Tempestt Bledsoe (Sheriff Hooper), Alex Borstein (Mrs. Henscher), John Goodman (Mr. Prenderghast), Hannah Noyes (Salma).

Everything about ParaNorman is delightfully off-kilter. This is a traditional stop motion animated film (with a little help from computers) about a very strange little boy named Norman, who cannot only see dead people all around him, but talks to them. For the most part, these dead people are nice to him – and like having someone to talk to. His dead grandmother hangs out on the couch to keep an eye on him. Everyone in town thinks he’s nuts and more than a little creepy. But when the Witch’s Curse threatens this small New England – still proud of it’s with trail days (or at least not ashamed enough to not use it as a tourist attraction – he may be their only hope.

There is something about stop-motion animation that I like. Unlike the more advanced computer driven animation that dominants children’s films nowadays, stop-motion animation isn’t perfect. The characters are lovingly sculpted by hand, and prone to look and feel imperfect. The same is true for how the characters move – not quite like real people. Computer animation can be great – but there is something I love about the handcrafted feel of stop motion – and it’s just about perfect for ParaNorman.

Norman is not your typical protagonist for an animated children’s film – he isn’t really a plucky, misunderstood, underdog. There is something creepy about him. He’s a nice guy, but he is certainly morose and has an understandable fascination with death. His hair stands straight up on, no matter what he tries to do with it, and his ears stick out funny. Even his own family doesn’t understand him – his father wants him to be normal, his mother loves him, but worries about him, and his older sister is a typical self-involved teenage girl. The only (living) person who likes him is Neil, a tubby kid in his class who finds Norman’s gift fascinating. Everyone else – including the school bully Alvin – hates Norman.

The plot of ParaNorman is fairly typical – a witch is going to release a curse on the town, and Norman is the only one who can stop it. He has to assemble his ragtag group – including Neil, Alvin, his older sister and Mitch, a lovable but lunkheaded jock who is Neil’s older brother. Their journey takes them all over town – including the cemetery a number of times. It is an effective plot, but a fairly by the numbers one.

What I admired about ParaNorman were the visuals, which as I mentioned has a lovable homemade quality to them, and the characters, who neatly skirt around cliché for the most part (not really in the case of the older sister or the bully). I’m glad they’re still making animated films like ParaNorman – aimed at slighter older kids, which treat them with respect, and has a distinct visual look all their own. I tire of many animated films with their concentration on bright colors and non-stop action, but ParaNorman is so lovable, I never grew bored.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Jude Law's Top 10 Performances

Jude Law is a fine actor. I’m sure everyone remembers the moment at the Oscars years ago when Chris Rock jokingly asked who the hell Jude Law, and why he was all of a sudden in every movie, and then the no fun Sean Penn felt the need to defend Law against what was really just a silly joke by saying that Jude Law was one of “our finest actors”. And Jude Law can be a great actor. His most recent film, Anna Karenina, opens in Toronto this week – and Law is getting mostly good reviews, even from those who don’t like the movie very much. So, like I have seemingly done a lot lately, I thought I’d look back at his best performances to date.

10. Gattaca (Andrew Niccoll, 1997)
Gattaca was the film that brought Jude Law to my attention. This intelligent, thoughtful sci-fi film is about a futuristic, genetically “perfect” society. In the film, Law plays one of those genetically perfect people, who has become paralyzed from the waist down in an accident, so he “sells” his identity to Ethan Hawke, the film’s hero, who doesn’t have the genes required to fulfill his ambitions. Law is very good in his supporting role – a man who knows he has been screwed out of his “rightful” lot in life, and figures out a way to con the system. This film showed that Law had real promise as an actor – a promise that he has mainly fulfilled.

9. eXistenZ (David Cronenberg, 1999)
I often wonder what actors make of material like David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ. They have to know that making it all seem believable is almost going to be impossible. After all, this is a movie where Law has to play a video game virgin, who ends up licking the port in the small of Jennifer Jason Leigh’s back where the controller plugs in, and explains that it’s just his game character doing it, not him. Or, where he has to eat the most disgusting looking fish I’ve ever seen in a movie, and then make a gun that fires teeth, out of the skeleton. The only way to make material like this work is to fully embrace it – take the chance that you may end up looking like an idiot, and go for it. And Law does that, and that helps to make eXistenZ an interesting movie. It’s not one of Cronenberg’s very best films, but it’s interesting – and should probably be more highly regarded than it is.

8. Contagion (Steven Soderberh, 2011)
The only real villain in Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion is the virus that kills millions of people itself. But if there is a secondary villain, it would be Jude Law’s opportunistic blogger – who encourages wide spread panic, only so he can capitalize on it. Law’s subplot is one of two – the other being the baffling Marion Cotillard subplot – in the movie that seems to be connected to the rest of the movie. You could have easily cut Law out of the movie, and it may have been an even stronger film. And yet, Law is so good as at playing this morally reprehensible character, that I’m glad they didn’t do that. He looks like an idiot wandering around in his hazmat suit, but Law plays this role as well as it could be played. It may not belong in the movie, but that doesn’t mean Law isn’t great in the role nonetheless.

7. Sleuth (Kenneth Branagh, 2007)
Kenneth Branagh’s Sleuth was criminally neglected back in 2007. It isn’t a great film, but it certainly deserved more attention that it received. The screenplay was written by the great Harold Pinter, who takes the famous Sleuth’s original plot, and gives it his own touch. Pinter doesn’t seem too interested in the mystery of Sleuth – perhaps because he knows anyone interested in the movie would already know the solution. So instead, Pinter gives Michael Caine (playing the Laurence Olivier role) and Law (playing the Michael Caine role) such wonderful dialogue to delve into. The film is essentially one long, cruel, verbal chess game between these two men, who hate each other, and try to constantly to one up each other – I doubt either one of them gives a shit about the woman they are supposedly arguing over, they just want to win. Yes, Michael Caine has the better role – and delivers the better performance. But Law holds his own – which against Caine in top form, is saying something.

6. Road to Perdition (Sam Mendes, 2002)
In Road to Perdition, Law plays an extremely creepy little man – with pale skin, rotting teeth and receding hairline, Law is miles away from his usual sex symbol self – and it works. He plays a crime scene photographer, who has crossed over to actually committing crimes – as a hired assassin. Law’s character isn’t given the depth of Paul Newman’s brilliant supporting turn, or Tom Hanks as the main character, but Law’s work here does precisely what it is supposed to do – creep the audience out, and give them a true portrait of evil. A wonderful performance by Law playing against type.

5. Closer (Mike Nichols, 2004)
To a certain extent, both Law and Julia Roberts, who are supposedly the leads in Closer, are overshadowed in by Clive Owen and Natalie Portman who play the two key supporting roles. And while it’s true that Owen and Portman are brilliant in the film – richly deserving of the Oscar nominations they received – Law is excellent in his own way. He plays a shallow, superficial London writer – slumming it writing obituaries, until he meets Portman, and then writes a novel about their relationship – and then he meets Roberts, when getting his book jacket cover taken, and on and on. Perhaps the reason why people think Law was overshadowed by the rest of the cast is because while he isn’t a nice guy – and never truly loves anyone, despite how often he proclaims he does – Law’s Dan just cannot compete with the rest of these people in terms of how despicable their behavior becomes. He is out of his league. But Law plays this role precisely how it should be played – the stupid schmuck doesn’t know what hit him.

4. A.I. (Steven Spielberg, 2001)
If I read it once, I read it a thousand times – critics claiming that Haley Joel Osment’s David, the cute little boy Mecha designed to love was a classic Spielberg creation, whereas as Gigolo Joe – played by Law – a mecha designed to have sex, was pure Stanley Kubrick – who originated the project. Apparently, that was all hogwash, but it hardly matters for Law’s performance. It has to be hard to play a robot – especially one like Law’s Gigolo Joe, who isn’t programmed to have human feelings like David – but is essentially a life sized vibrator. But Law nails it. This is an interesting performance by Law – he moves like Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly – and does “feel” something for young David. But he is still just a robot – programmed to do what he does and little else. It’s hard performing these types of roles, but Law does it as good as anyone.

3. The Talented Mr. Ripley (Anthony Minghella, 1999)
Law received a richly deserved Oscar nomination for his performance as Dickie Greenleaf in Anthony Minghella’s excellent adaptation of a great Patricia Highsmith novel. Dickie is everything the title character – played in an even better performance by Matt Damon – both hates and wants to become. Dickie is rich, good-looking and charming – everyone loves Dickie, and when he talks to you, he makes you feel important. But Dickie, it must be said, is also a complete asshole – which Law makes perfectly clear. He doesn’t deserve what he gets, yet still there is something satisfying about it when Law’s Dickie, who so casually and cruelly discards Ripley, gets precisely what Ripley thinks he has coming to him. And Law nails that tricky mixture – between someone you want to be, and someone you want to kill.

2. I Heart Huckabees (David O. Russell, 2004)
Strangely, I compare Law’s performance in I Heart Huckabees to his role in The Talented Mr. Ripley – even though the two films could not possibly be more different. David O. Russell’s comedy is one of the strangest creations of the past decade – a comedy about a loser (Jason Schwartzman), who believes something strange is going on, so he hires two existential detectives to follow him and figure out what. Schwartzman’s job, as an environmentalist, brings him into contact with Law’s Brad – who works for the department store chain Huckabees. Brad and Huckabees doesn’t give a shit about the environment, but knows it’s bad PR to admit that, so he jumps on board with Schwartzman’s crusade – and pretty soon has all the credit to himself. Brad is similar to Dickie Greenleaf because he is precisely the person that you simultaneously want to be – he’s rich, good looking, charming and everyone loves him – and that you cannot stand – because he’s rich, good looking, charming and everyone loves him. And both receive their comeuppance as well – but Brad’s doesn’t involve a boat oar, just vomit. A deliriously, strangely funny movie – and a great performance by Law.

1. Cold Mountain (Anthony Mingella, 2003)
I have a lot of problems with Anthony Minghella’s Cold Mountain – and they almost all involve Renee Zellweger’s extremely grating, annoying (and yet somehow Oscar winning) performance – and none involve Law. I seem to be in the minority on that, this movie – clearly split into two parts, the first being home on Cold Mountain itself with Nicole Kidman, a hopeless city girl, trying to run the family farm and needing the pluck of Zellweger to do it and the second, involving Law as he wanders home from the Civil War (as a Confederate deserter)  seems to have more people praising the Kidman/Zellweger part (which I didn’t like very much) instead of the Law part (which I loved). As Law tries desperately to get back to the woman he loves – but barely knows – he comes across a series of strange characters – many of whom threaten to upstage him, but never does. Personally, I would love to see a version of Cold Mountain that is just about Law coming back from the war – jettison the rest of the crap, but the star here is Law – so although Cold Mountain is a hugely problematic film for me, it still contains Jude Law’s best work to date.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Movie Review: Life of Pi

Life of Pi
Directed by: Ang Lee.
Written by: David Magee based on the novel by Yann Martel.
Starring: Suraj Sharma (Pi Patel), Irrfan Khan (Adult Pi Patel), Ayush Tandon (Pi Patel -11 / 12 Years), Gautam Belur (Pi Patel -5 Years), Adil Hussain (Santosh Patel), Tabu (Gita Patel), Ayan Khan (Ravi Patel -7 Years), Vibish Sivakumar (Ravi Patel -18 / 19 Years), Rafe Spall (Writer), Gérard Depardieu (Cook), James Saito (Older Insurance Investigator), Jun Naito (Younger Insurance Investigator), Andrea Di Stefano (Priest), Shravanthi Sainath (Anandi).

Life of Pi is one of the most stunningly beautiful films I have ever seen. I urge you to see the film in a theatre – on the largest screen possible, and spring for the 3-D, which for once is actually used to perfection. Even if you don’t think much of the story, this movie gives you an almost constant stream of beautiful images to gawk at. And yet, something was holding me back from truly loving the film. The rest of the film never quite rises to the level of its visuals.

The film opens with a middle aged Pi (Irrfan Khan) living in Montreal telling his story to a writer (Rafe Spall). We flash back to Pi’s childhood in India, where he was raised (literally) in a zoo. Pi was always a spiritual child, and could never decide on a religion. He was born a Hindu, but became a Catholic and a Muslim, not in place of each other, but at the same time. In the 1970s, Pi’s father decides that it is time to sell the animals, and head to Winnipeg for a better life (and here I thought people moved away from Winnipeg for a better life). The family and the animals are loaded on a huge cargo ship – and it isn’t long before the ship wrecks, leaving Pi as the only human on a life raft. He’s not alone though – there’s a rat, a hyena, a zebra with a broken leg, an orangutan and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. It isn’t long before it’s just Pi and Richard Parker – and Pi has to figure out how to keep the giant beast from eating him, and stay alive for months at sea.

The film is an extremely faithful adaptation of Yann Martel’s bestselling book – it’s legions of fans will not be disappointed. It makes some trims, necessary for time reasons, mostly in the film’s opening passages set in India, but mainly adheres closely to the book. I read the book not long ago, and liked it quite a bit, but didn’t love it as much as many have. Perhaps, in the interest of fairness, I should mention that I am an atheist and so this “story that will make you believe in God” just couldn’t have the same spiritual impact it has had on many. For this is clearly a religious movie – a movie where the very real journey Pi takes across the ocean is also a spiritual journey – he has his faith in God tested, but he ultimately prevails. It’s not that I cannot be moved by religious or spiritual films – hell I named The Tree of Life the best film of 2011, but that film, although it ultimately confirms the existence of God (at least if you read the ending like most do), was really about a man’s struggle with God and his “mysterious ways”. I never got that sense in Life of Pi, either the book or the movie, that Pi’s faith is really tested that much – his faith is shaken, but he never really loses it. It doesn’t help that in the movie, he doesn’t get the same sort of running, interior monologue that he has in the book, so we are left more often than not trying to read the face of novice actor Suraj Sharma as Pi. Sharma is good as Pi, but not great – perhaps a little too passive at times. The bookending scenes of Irrfan Khan and Rafe Spall are also a little clumsily handled – although they are mainly saved by Khan, who once again proves why he is a great actor. Mychael Danna’s score is a little overbearing at times, but it generally moving.

Yet, these are mainly minor flaws in the movie. Directed by Ang Lee, who has made many beautiful movies in the past (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Brokeback Mountain, Lust, Caution chief among them), but has never made a film this purely visually stunning before. The cinematography, by Claudio Miranda (who is used to working with special effects in films like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Tron: Legacy) is one of the triumphs of the year. There are shots here that are simply stunning – the clear water of a Paris swimming pool broken by a solitary swimmer above being my personal favorite. The film’s color palette is bright and bold, fitting its narrative, both in India and on the ocean. The special effects are effortlessly integrated into the world Lee has created. Despite my problems with the narrative at times, I was never anything but fully engrossed in the pure visual wonder Lee has put on screen.

Even the 3-D works. I have mentioned numerous times over the last few years that I am not a fan of 3-D – I don’t mind it with animated movies as much, but more often than not, in live action movies it is little more than an unnecessary distraction. Life of Pi joins the extremely short list of films – perhaps as sort as Avatar and Hugo – of live action films that actually use 3-D well. Lee doesn’t use the technology to have a bunch of stuff coming flying at the audience (okay, yes, he does just that in the flying fish sequence, but that’s only one scene), but to add depth to his images. Overall, while I don’t think that Life of Pi is quite the religious experience Ang Lee and company were hoping for – at least for me – it is still one of the most visual achievements of the year.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Movie Review: Silver Linings Playbook

Silver Linings Playbook
Directed by:  David O. Russell.
Written by: David O. Russell based on the book by Matthew Quick.
Starring: Bradley Cooper (Pat), Jennifer Lawrence (Tiffany), Robert De Niro (Pat Sr.), Jacki Weaver (Dolores), Chris Tucker (Danny), Anupam Kher (Dr. Cliff Patel), John Ortiz (Ronnie), Shea Whigham (Jake), Julia Stiles (Veronica), Dash Mihok (Officer Keogh), Matthew Russell (Ricky D'Angelo), Brea Bee (Nikki).

There was a time when not all romantic comedies sucked. I’m thinking of the 1930s and 1940s, when the classic romantic, screwball comedies were made. It wasn’t that films like Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth (1937) or Ernst Lubitsch’s Ninotchka (1939) to name just two examples told original stories that made them so special – it was that the dialogue in those movies had a musical nature to them, and actors like Cary Grant, Irene Dunne, Katherine Hepburn, Greta Garbo, etc knew how to deliver it to maximum effect. It is in this tradition that David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook fits into. In terms of plot, this is a standard issue romantic comedy – you know precisely how everything is going to play out from fairly early in the running time, even if the characters do not. But the dialogue is excellent – and the actors rip into their roles with the same kind of comic force that we don’t see very often. And the movie even finds some time for some genuine emotions along the way. It is probably impossible to recreate those screwball comedies of the 1930s and 1940s today, but Silver Linings Playbook comes as close as we’re likely to see in this day of age.

The film stars Bradley Cooper as Pat, who has just been checked out of a mental institution by his mother after an eight month stay. Something happened back then – a violent episode involving his wife – that led to his involuntary confinement. But he’s out now, says he is better, and hell-bent on getting his wife back. This is an unrealistic goal that everybody except Pat seems to realize. She has a restraining order on him and has gotten a divorce settlement, but Pat is determined that eventually, he’ll win her back. He’s been working out – obsessively – lost weight and is even reading the books she teaches to her English classes; to show they have common interests. His mother Dolores (Jacki Weaver) is forever kind and patient with him. His father Pat Sr. (Robert DeNiro) has some of his sons same issues – just undiagnosed. Pat Sr. is obsessed with the Philadelphia Eagles, but has been banned from the stadium for his own violent outbursts – and is superstitious in the extreme about what rituals to follow to ensure the Eagles win.

Things change for Pat when he meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a beautiful young widow, with mental issues of her own. She is the sister-in-law of Pat’s best friend Ronnie, who because they have mental illness in common, Ronnie and his wife think they will have a lot to talk about. Like every romantic comedy, the two don’t like each other much at first, but soon they do in fact bond. Their shared loss, which is what drove each of them over the edge, binds them together – and Tiffany’s determination to enter a dance contest with Pat gives them something to work towards together.

The heart of the movie is the scenes between Cooper and Lawrence, both of whom are excellent in their roles. This is the role Cooper in particular has been waiting for – a chance for him to show he’s more than just another pretty boy actor. The movie makes good use of Cooper’s natural charming persona, but also allows him to stretch himself. He is very good at getting into Pat’s somewhat warped head as he tries to get better. For her part, Lawrence elevates what could have been a very standard role – that of the beautiful young woman who helps “heal” the main character. She has issues of her own, and is her own person, but her journey is more in support of Cooper’s, so it to her credit that she makes Tiffany into a fully rounded person. The movie is at its best when these two are by themselves, talking. Russell’s great dialogue moves at rapid fire pace. These two actors find a rhythm all their own in the dialogue, and make their scenes together the highlight of the movie. The supporting cast around these two are also very good – Jacki Weaver, best known for playing the warped matriarch in Animal Kingdom, plays the complete opposite this time – the kindest matriarch imaginable. And it’s good to have Chris Tucker back doing his usual Chris Tucker thing. It can be annoying at times, but it’s been so long since I’ve seen him in a movie, that to me, he was a welcome addition. The best supporting performance belongs to Robert De Niro as Pat Sr., a man struggling in his own ways. De Niro, who so often now seems to sleepwalk through his roles, here is excellent – a man struggling with his own demons, and also struggling with his sons – he wants to help Pat out, but just doesn’t seem to know how.

Silver Linings Playbook was written and directed by David O. Russell. Russell’s first four films – Spanking the Monkey, Flirting with Disaster, Three Kings and I Heart Huckabee’s – were all exceedingly strange, and in their way daring. His last two films, The Fighter and now Silver Linings Playbook are more conventional – more easily fit into a specific genre. Yet both of these recent outings are excellent examples of their genre – that Russell, through the intelligence of the screenplays, sensitivity with the actors, and perfect timing as a director, has made better than most films of those genres. Yes, if you walked into the last 10 minutes of Silver Linings Playbook, you could easily conclude that this was just another romantic comedy – one that ends in the same clichéd way they all do. But how Russell gets there is altogether his own. I may wish Russell took a few more chances in his recent movies, but it’s hard to complain too much when the result is a film as entertaining as this.

Movie Review: Hitchcock

Hitchcock
Directed by: Sacha Gervasi.
Written by: John J. McLaughlin based on the book by Stephen Rebello.
Starring: Anthony Hopkins (Alfred Hitchcock), Helen Mirren (Alma Reville), Scarlett Johansson (Janet Leigh), Danny Huston (Whitfield Cook), Toni Collette (Peggy), Michael Stuhlbarg (Lew Wasserman), Michael Wincott (Ed Gein), Jessica Biel (Vera Miles), James D'Arcy (Anthony Perkins), Richard Portnow (Barney Balaban), Kurtwood Smith (Geoffrey Shurlock), Ralph Macchio (Joseph Stefano).

Alfred Hitchcock was one of the greatest filmmakers in history – and now for the second time in as many months, he is subject to a film biography unworthy of him. HBO’s The Girl was a one note film that saw Hitchcock as a pervert who tormented his leading lady, Tippi Hendren, through two movies because she rejected his sexual advances. I don’t argue much with the fact that the movie saw Hitchcock as a pervert, just the one-note, repetitive way in which the movie was structured. The new film Hitchcock, which is playing in theaters and not TV, is not all that much better than The Girl – although it is more entertaining, and forgiving of Hitchcock, the man, and more in awe of Hitchcock the filmmaker. If one of the problems with The Girl was how narrowly focused it was, than the problem with Hitchcock is how much crap they try and cram in it. I am usually not one to complain about a movie supposedly based on a true story taking liberties with the facts – normally it’s done at the service of the story – but the crap they make up here is simply silly.

The movie stars Anthony Hopkins as Hitchcock, and opens with the famed director making another crowd pleasing hit – North By Northwest. At the premiere, a reporter asks Hitchcock if it wouldn’t be smart of him simply to retire – he is already one of the greatest filmmakers in history, and has over 40 films on his resume, but he’s getting old, no? As if to shut this one man up, Hitchcock decides to completely change up his M.O. on his next film – but needs to find the right material. He settles on Robert Bloch’s book Psycho, loosely based on the exploits of Ed Gein, a psychopathic, Midwest mama’s boy. The studio refuses to fund the movie, so Hitchcock puts up his house to fund it himself. The censorship board doesn’t want to give him a seal of approval on the screenplay, but he plows ahead anyway. Hitchcock wants to do something different this time around, and damn it, he’s going to do just that.

Hopkins, who doesn’t look or sound much like the real Hitchcock, is at his best when he’s playing Hitchcock’s public persona – the showman who liked to play with audience’s emotions. Hitchcock was not just a great filmmaker, but also a great salesman, and when Hopkins is playing the Hitchcock world saw at that time, he is in fine form, and immensely entertaining. But when the film tries to get to the darker places in Hitchcock’s mind, it finds itself on less sure footing. Like The Girl, the movie says that Hitchcock was in love with all his leading ladies – although in this film, it does stop somewhere in the realm of fantasy, as he never acts on it. So we have Vera Miles, who Hitchcock felt betrayed by when she had to drop out of Vertigo because she got pregnant, but more so because she didn’t like being controlled by him. Jessica Biel, who plays Miles, never finds the right note to play her – unlike the real Miles, she leaves almost no impression. Scarlett Johansson, who plays Janet Leigh, fares better – no she doesn’t much look like Leigh, but surprisingly she captures that almost innocent sexuality that Leigh had about her – the good girl who finally breaks the rules. Leigh takes Hitchcock’s leering in stride, and never lets it distract her.

It seems like the main reason why the filmmakers want to make this movie is to acknowledge, as few have, the role Hitchcock’s wife Alma (Helen Mirren) played in his career. She worked with him on all of his movies – often without credit – but did just about everything with him. She was the most important collaborator Hitchcock had – at least in the view of this movie – and she has long ago grown to accept Hitchcock’s fantasy life with his leading ladies. But Alma, as played by Mirren, is a little tired of being shunted to the background – of only being important because of who she is married to. However, the subplot of her collaboration with another writer – played by Danny Huston – and Hitchcock beginning to suspect the two of them of having an affair – is underwritten, and seems to have been added to try and add even more conflict between the two of them. It wasn’t necessary.

The film has other problems as well. James D’Arcy is very good at playing Norman Bates – the problem is that the screenplay doesn’t seem to realize that Norman Bates and Anthony Perkins are two separate people – and even in the scenes where Perkins is supposed to be himself, D’Arcy makes him too creepy. Then there is the ridiculous addition of some strange fantasy “therapy” sessions where Hitchcock imagines himself talking to Ed Gein (Michael Wincott) himself. What they hell that was supposed to accomplish, I’ll never know.

In short, Hitchcock is a mess. It is at times a well-acted and entertaining mess, but it’s a mess nonetheless. Hitchcock deserves a better biography made of him – as does Alma for that matter. The two we’ve gotten in the last two months do neither of them – nor anyone around them – justice.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Movie Review: Rise of the Guardians

Rise of the Guardians
Directed by: Peter Ramsey.
Written by: David Lindsay-Abaire based on the book by William Joyce.
Starring: Chris Pine (Jack Frost), Alec Baldwin (North), Jude Law (Pitch), Isla Fisher (Tooth), Hugh Jackman (Bunny), Dakota Goyo (Jamie Bennett), Khamani Griffin (Caleb), Kamil McFadden (Claude), Georgie Grieve (Sophie Bennett).

Rise of the Guardians is good enough to make you wish it was better. It has an ingenious premise – one of those ones that is so obvious you wonder how no one else ever thought of it before. Yet I wish that the movie had either taken that premise either a little more or a little less seriously. Rise of the Guardians is one of those strange children’s movies that is both a little too dark for younger kids, and a little too naïve for older ones. There is probably a sweet spot – that age that the movie is perfect for – but I’m not quite sure what it is.

The movie’s hero is Jack Frost (voiced by Chris Pine), who has spent the last 300 years bringing blizzard, ice and snow ball fights to the children of the world. But there’s a hole at his core – he doesn’t know why he was put here by the Man on the Moon – just that he was. He wants desperately to belong to something. Even the kids he gives snow days to do not believe in him – and as such, they cannot see him. He is a merry prankster, who isn’t all that merry.

But then the Guardians come calling. Their arch nemesis Pitch (voiced with appropriate menace by Jude Law), better known as the Boogey Man, is getting ready to make a comeback. The Guardians are a group of four childhood icons – Santa (voiced by Alec Baldwin, with a Russian accent for some reason), the Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman, exaggerating his Australian drawl), the Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher, who has an unhealthy fixation on teeth), and the silent Sandman, my personal favorite, as he seems to have been inspired by Harpo Marx. Their job is to preserve children’s belief and innocence – and Pitch wants to destroy that, by giving them nightmares. Pitch ruled in the Dark Ages, when everyone was miserable and scared, and he wants that back. For reasons he does not explain, the Man on the Moon tells the Guardians they need to recruit Jack Frost to join their ranks.

Rise of the Guardians has enough action to keep children entertained for the most part. Jack Frost sails along on the wind and the other characters either fly, or take Santa’s sleigh everywhere, and their numerous battles with Pitch are handled well, even if they do start to repeat themselves after a while. These are the scenes that any kid will enjoy – even if other parts of the movie they don’t like as much. The character design is also interesting and well done – twisting the classic image of these characters enough to give them their own unique look for the film – Santa with Naughty and Nice tattoos on his arms, the Easter Bunny as a muscular jack rabbit, the tooth fairy more of a traditional looking fairy than a Tinker Bell-esque fairy princess, and Sandman as an ever shifting mass of sand, Pitch as an almost vampire pale creation, Jack Frost an innocent yet mischievous teenager. It didn’t surprise me to learn that one of the producers of the movie was Guillermo Del Toro – because the creatures resemble some of the ones he has put on screen before. At times, these characters are upstaged by their various sidekicks – I particularly liked Santa’s two groups of minions – the hapless, hilarious elves, and the put upon, exasperated Yetis who actually do all the work, and Pitch’s galloping, red eyed black horses, who are literal nightmares come to life. The idea of essentially making these childhood fantasy figures into superheroes – much like The Avengers – is an idea that is ingenious in its simplicity.

And yet, while I was watching the movie, I wanted more from the movie. For my tastes, I would have preferred a darker outlook. The movie sees childhood as either black or white – either completely naïve and innocent, or else mired in fear, when in reality these two states co-exist in every child. You don’t need to look any further than the original backstories of most of the Guardians themselves, who while they have become symbols of childhood innocence, have some pretty dark stuff in their past. Children are afraid of things precisely because they are more willing to believe in them – things that as adults we know are not logical – the monster under the bed for example – can scare the crap of a child. Personally, I would have liked to see the movie go darker into this area – much like Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are. But I also think that the movie would have better served had the gone the other way – and completely embraced the childhood wonder the movie endorses, and made this a purely innocent rollick for younger kids. The movie tries to have it both ways.

Overall though, Rise of the Guardians is a solid animated film – not quite as loud, flashy, colorful and headache inducing as many of the movie that pass themselves off as children’s entertainment these days. But it never rises to the level of greatness either – even though there are certainly great moments in the film. As I said at the beginning of the review, Rise of the Guardians is good enough that you wish it was even better.

Robert DeNiro's 10 Best Supporting Performances

Robert DeNiro will always be my favorite actor of all time – even if I have to admit that since about 1997 or so, he more often than not seems to phone in his performances.  True, he shows up in a few movies every year, but the good ones were few and far between (his best, was his directorial effort The Good Shepherd - his best performance was in the under rated Stone). Apparently, he is one of the leading contenders for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar this year for David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook. Rather than countdown his best performances – and writing yet again about his brilliance in Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The King of Comedy, etc. I decided to look at his 10 best supporting performances. It made from a pretty interesting mix of performances.

10. The Untouchables (Brian DePalma, 1987)
Robert DeNiro can be a remarkably subtle actor, capable of delivering emotionally devastating performances – but like all actors, there is a ham inside him that he occasionally lets loose. His performance as Al Capone in The Untouchables is one of those performances. The entire performance is built around exaggerated mannerisms, from his infamous meeting scene where he beats a man to death with a baseball bat, to his final courtroom scene screaming at the judge. It may not be a performance that ranks among his very best, but I know I sure had fun watching him chew the scenery.

9. Machete (Robert Rodriguez & Ethan Maniquis, 2010)
No, I’m not going to argue that Robert Rodriguez & Ethan Maniquis’ Machete, a violent, bloody, sex drenched comedy and would be political satire is some sort of misunderstood masterpiece. It is precisely what all of Rodriguez’s films – even his best ones – a B movie that is a hell of a lot of fun, but never rises to greatness. But I cannot deny that I had a blast seeing DeNiro, a well-known “Hollywood Liberal” playing a Texas State Senator, with the most racist, hate filled campaign ads imaginable (comparing Mexicans to cockroaches is about the nicest thing he has to say about them). His extremely exaggerated (and extremely fake) Texas accent is downright hilarious and for once in a recent movie, DeNiro seems to be having a blast – and as a result, I had a blast watching him. The performance is in no ways realistic, which is why it’s just about perfect for Machete.

8. A Bronx Tale (Robert DeNiro, 1993)
DeNiro has only directed two movies in his career – and they are both great. His second film, The Good Shepherd, is a near masterpiece, but DeNiro didn’t give himself much a role in that one. He does in A Bronx Tale – and not the one we think he’d give himself. The film is about a 17 year Italian kid in the Bronx in 1968, who is stuck between the world of a neighborhood gangster he admires, and his working class father, who he also somewhat admires. It would have been obvious for DeNiro to play the gangster, but instead he plays the father. He doesn’t like the neighborhood gangster, play by Chazz Palmetieri, who also wrote the movie, but knows he really cannot stop his son for working for him if he wants to. He just tries to teach him the right thing. “You want a see a hero? Look at a guy who gets up every morning and goes off to work to support his family. That’s heroism”, he advises his son. A Bronx Tale is an interesting movie – it doesn’t fall into the conventional scenarios we expect from a movie about a gangster – Palmetieri is very good, and a little more philosophical than we expect. DeNiro made a great directorial debut with A Bronx Tale – and part of the reason is his subtle, sympathetic performance.

7. Bang the Drum Slowly (John D. Hancock, 1973)
Bang the Drum Slowly opens when Robert DeNiro’s Bruce, a mediocre Major League catcher, finds out he’s dying of an incurable disease and has only a few months to live. He tells no one about this except his friend Henry (Michael Moriarty), an all-star pitcher on the team. They decide to keep the secret and let Bruce play out his final season, until he’s too sick to go on anyway, with dignity and respect. This may make Bang the Drum Slowly sound like a somber movie, but it is far from that. The movie is, at times, downright hilarious – especially in the scenes involving Vincent Gardenia, as the manager, who tries desperately to figure out what the hell Henry and Bruce are hiding. Yes, the movie is about death, but it’s also about baseball and male bonding. DeNiro has the showcase supporting role, of course (although it was Gardenia who got nominated for an Oscar for the movie), because he is dying. But the young, nearly unknown DeNiro delivers a smart, touching, honest performance. Bang the Drum Slowly has mostly been forgotten – but it shouldn’t be. It’s one of the best baseball movies ever – and contains a great performance by a young DeNiro.

6. Brazil (Terry Gilliam, 1985)
What is one to make of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil? It is a bizarre film that Gilliam said was inspired by George Orwell’s 1984, even though he admits he never actually read the book. It is a science fiction film, with strange flights of fancy, dream sequences and absurd humor. It is the type of film you either love or hate. Apparently, DeNiro fell in love with the screenplay, and wanted to play a larger role that Gilliam had already promised to Michael Palin – so he offered DeNiro what turned out to be little more than a cameo. And yet DeNiro’s Archibald Tuttle, the real terrorist the insane government bureaucracy was looking for when they interrogated an innocent man to death, becomes one of the most memorable in the movie. You may think that in a movie populated by British actors – especially comedic ones – that DeNiro would stick out like a sore thumb – and he does, but in a brilliant way, because Tuttle is unlike anyone else in the film. DeNiro’s role in Brazil in one of his smallest – but he leaves a huge impact.

5. Angel Heart (Alan Parker, 1987)
Alan Parker’s Angel Heart is a weird, over the top horror movie/erotic thriller. The multiple, graphic, blood drenched sex scenes involving Lisa Bonet may well have gotten her booted off the Cosby Show (temporarily) at the time. It is utterly ridiculous, and yet a superb exercise in style by Parker, and shows why Mickey Rourke was considered to one of the great up and coming actors at the time. DeNiro’s role in the film is relatively small. But his Louis Cyphre (if you don’t know who he’s playing, say that same out loud and you’ll figure it out) is my favorite part of the movie. Why the hell DeNiro decided to make himself look and sound like his good friend Martin Scorsese for this role, I’ll never know. But it was a stroke of genius. It is a wonderful tribute to Scorsese, and perhaps the reason DeNiro did was simply to amuse himself – but it works wonderfully. The movie is an exercise in seeing how far Parker can push everything – and on that level it succeeds, kind of anyway, but the reason I remember it is DeNiro.

4. GoodFellas (Martin Scorsese, 1990)
DeNiro may have been top billed in GoodFellas, but we all know that Ray Liotta was the lead. Personally, I think DeNiro’s work in GoodFellas has been underrated over the years – everyone, justly, raves about Joe Pesci’s Oscar winning psychopath, but DeNiro’s performance – a little older, a little wiser, but just as ruthless doesn’t get as much attention, but the movie is unthinkable without Jimmy “The Gent” Conway. His role here is one of controlled fury – unlike Pesci, who you know when he’s about to snap, DeNiro never quite plays his cards the same way – he knows when he’s about to kill someone, but he doesn’t let anyone else know. This is a great performance in one of the best movies ever made.

3. Mean Streets (Martin Scorsese, 1973)
Mean Streets was DeNiro’s breakout screen role – and started the best actor-director collaboration in cinema history. In the film, Harvey Keitel plays the Scorsese surrogate – guilt riddled, low level gangster who doesn’t quite feel right about what he does – both in working for his uncle, and in seeing his best friends epileptic sister. DeNiro is that best friend – Johnny Boy – and he is as wild as Keitel is restrained. He sometimes does stupid, destructive things just for the sake of doing stupid, destructive things. And he’s got in over his head in debt to the wrong people – and he is to blind to see Keitel trying to help him. There is a scene early in Mean Streets, where DeNiro tries to explain himself to Keitel where he’s lying through his teeth – we know it, Keitel knows it, and DeNiro knows Keitel knows it, and yet he just keeps going. In this scene alone, DeNiro shows how brilliant he would become. And the rest of the performance is nearly as good.

2. Jackie Brown (Quentin Tarantino, 1997)
Tarantino’s Jackie Brown is perhaps the least celebrated of his features, and that’s a shame, because it is pitch perfect crime drama and perhaps the best adaptation of an Elmore Leonard we will ever see. Tarantino takes his time here – the film is two and half hours long – and while it’s as intricately plotted as any Leonard adaptation, Tarantino also lets his characters breath – to be more than just figures in the plot, and that is what Leonard does so well. DeNiro is brilliant as Louis, the dull, dim-witted ex-convict, just out of jail and not sure what to do. His best scenes are the various two handers he has with Bridget Fonda (giving the best performance of her career), as Samuel L. Jackson’s mistress, who sleeps with Louis, and then becomes an annoying nag. The two have an effortless chemistry together, and their scenes are so well written, and performed, that you almost wish the entire movie was about them – or you would if everything around them wasn’t just as great. If you haven’t seen Jackie Brown in while, check it – DeNiro is just one of many pleasures the movie has to offer.

1. The Godfather Part II (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)
Think about this for a second. In 1974, Robert DeNiro had just had a breakthrough role in Mean Streets –a movie popular with critics and other directors, but barely seen by the viewing public, so he’s still fairly unknown to them. And then DeNiro gets cast to play the younger version of Marlon Brando’s Vito Corleone – one of, if not the most, iconic screen role in movie history. Not only that, but almost the entire performance will require DeNiro to speak in Sicilian accented Italian – and the man doesn’t speak the language at all. The balls it took to even attempt to pull this performance off is almost unthinkable – and then to deliver one of the best performances of the 1970s – and win an Oscar for the role – is all the more impressive. DeNiro’s Vito Corleone is undeniably going to grow up to be Brando’s, and yet DeNiro gives him his own flavor as well. When we meet him, he is just a humble immigrant, who slowly, methodically works his way up to become someone important. There are two murder scenes in the movie that are masterful – and although Coppola deservedly gets most of the credit for the brilliant sequence of DeNiro tracking his prey on the rooftops, DeNiro plays it just as brilliantly. This performance is legendary for a reason.

Anthony Hopkins' Top 10 Performances

Anthony Hopkins is one of the best actors in the world when he wants to be – but we all know he has too often whored out his talent in movies that do not deserve it (Instinct, 360, Thor, The Rite, The Wolf Man, Bad Company and far too many others). But when he’s good – he’s very good. Apparently, Hopkins may get himself his first Oscar nomination in 15 years for his work as Alfred Hitchcock in the appropriately titled Hitchcock. I thought I’d look back at his best work to date.

10. Hannibal (Ridley Scott, 2001)
Originally, I was only going to put one of Hopkins’ performances as Hannibal Lector on this list, but I decided against that for two reasons – the first is a practical one – I couldn’t decide on a 10th performance. And the second is that his work in Hannibal is miles away from his work in The Silence of the Lambs and Red Dragon. In those movies, Hannibal was a caged animal – he had to play the games others wanted, or else he wouldn’t have any fun. Here, Hopkins’ Lector is let loose on the world – free to do whatever he wants, and Hopkins relishes the opportunity to go so far over the top it borders on the absurd. And yet, whenever I catch a few minutes of this on TV, I can see just how much Hopkins is having – and how much fun I’m having watching him. Hopkins can be the subtlest of actors when he wants to be – and can also be a shameless ham. Here, he’s a ham – and I love it.

9. The Human Stain (Robert Benton, 2003)
Yes, my wife and I still, 9 years later, make jokes about Anthony Hopkins playing a black man – who passes as white for decades. And no, the movie is nowhere near the masterpiece novel written by Philip Roth on which it is based. And yet, the movie is still interesting throughout – and although I do think another actor may have been physically convincing than Hopkins, I cannot deny the passion he puts into this performance – whether he’s railing against the PC police who cost him his job, or confessing his sins to his new girlfriend (Nicole Kidman – who doesn’t have an easy role either). The movie is fascinating as is Hopkins performance, who throws himself into the role with everything he has. Yes, the movie has more than its share of problems – but it will certainly start some conversations if you watch it with someone.

8. Hearts in Atlantis (Scott Hicks, 2001)
Like some of Stephen King’s best stories, Hearts in Atlantis is not really a horror movie, but tells a real story, in which the supernatural plays a role, mainly in the background. The movie takes place over a summer in the 1950s, where a 12 year old boy bonds with the old boarder who has moved in upstairs. This is Hopkins, who is hiding out from the “Low Men”, who want him because of his gift – a gift that the young boy has as well, although he hasn’t figured out how to use it. The smartest thing that director Scott Hicks does in the movie is concentrate of story, character and atmosphere – and simply let the story’s supernatural element take care of itself. And Hopkins aids him a great deal in that. When he talks about the “Low Men”, he could have gone overboard with it – making it overtly scary, or sound like cheesy horror movie dialogue, but he doesn’t. He makes everything more complicated than that. This is a vastly underrated performance in a movie that should be rediscovered.

7. The Edge (Lee Tamahori, 1997)
The Edge is a wilderness survival movie written by David Mamet – which is odd, because Mamet’s characters usually never seem to leave the city. But the movie contains some of Mamet’s best dialogue, that director Lee Tamahori, and his two actors deliver wonderfully well – not overplaying it, like some try to do with Mamet’s words, but underplaying it. The movie is really a battle of wills between Hopkins, as a cold billionaire, and Alec Baldwin, as the fashion photographer there to take pictures of Hopkins’ trophy wife – who of course, is also sleeping with her. As the two men find themselves lost in the wilderness, and chased by a bear, they battle each other, and everything else. This is a brilliant two hander of an action movie – and one that gives Hopkins the far better role of the two. These two need each to survive, at least for a while, and Mamet’s screenplay brilliantly plays with the conventions of the genre. The ending kind of sucks, but don’t they always in movies like this?

6. Amistad (Steven Spielberg, 1997)
Hopkins’ role in Steven Spielberg’s Amistad is not a large one – he doesn’t really come into the proceedings until fair late in the game, but when he takes center stage, you cannot look away from him. Hopkins was nominated for a Supporting Actor Oscar for this film, and it’s easy to see why – his stirring closing argument to the Supreme Court, pressing upon them the urgency of the case, and why they must let the slaves who overtook their kidnappers on the slave ship, was the only right thing to do. Hopkins has always loved grandstanding, and that is precisely what this role requires of him – and he does so well. That speech is long, but impassioned, and far more memorable that almost anything else in the movie.

5. Titus (Julie Taymor, 1999)
No one would consider Titus Andronicus one of Shakespeare’s best plays. It is so wildly over the top in its level of blood, gore and violence, and has only one likable character – the title character’s poor daughter who will be raped, have her tongue torn out, her hands cut off and eventually her neck broken. But Julie Taymor’s Titus is one of my favorite Shakespearian films – precisely because she embraces the plays over the top nature, and plows straight ahead. Perhaps her best decision was casting Hopkins in the title role – a conquering General who returns to ancient Rome a hero, and then has to fight battles on the home front, and will eventually chop off his own hand, and then kill his arch enemy’s two sons, and feed them to her in a meat pie. Who else could you possibly get to play that role? Hopkins has often gone over the top for no reason, but here, he knows damn well the only way to play Titus is to go wildly over the top – and he succeeds brilliantly. A demented performance in a demented film.

4. Howard’s End (James Ivory, 1992)
I’ve talked often in this list so far of Hopkins’ tendency to go over the top, but it’s worth noting that when he wants to be, Hopkins can be the subtlest of actors. His performance in Howard’s End is a near perfect example of this. In the film, Hopkins plays Henry, an upper-middle class man whose first wife has just died, and decides to take on a second wife (Emma Thompson). At first, Henry seems to be shy, quiet and awkward – but a generally good man. But then his past comes out – he has made mistakes you see, but he asks for forgiveness, which he receives. And then late in the movie, he shows his true colors – how cruel and heartless he can be to someone who has essentially made the same mistakes he has – the difference being that the people who made that mistake are poor, and he is not. Or as he says “The poor are poor. One is sorry for them, but there it is”. Henry is cruel and heartless, although he is extremely civil about it all. The upper class always are in Merchant-Ivory films – and Hopkins delivers a great example of it here.

3. The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991)
When Anthony Hopkins dies, the first sentence in every obituary about him will undoubtedly mention The Silence of the Lambs – it is a role as iconic as they come. Perhaps Hopkins would have been better suited if, like Jodie Foster, he decided not to take on the role a second (and then a third) time – but his work in Hannibal and Red Dragon don’t diminish just how great he was in this film – to me anyway. Hopkins won his only Oscar for this performance – and while it is small for a lead role, his presence hangs over every scene – he is the one you remember long after the film is over, no matter how great Foster was as Clarice Starling. Hopkins calm, cruel voice is haunting in the extreme. There is  a reason why Hannibal Lector tops many surveys of the greatest film villains of all time – in a very real way, anyone who plays a psychopath from this moment on, had to live up to Hopkins. And so very few have even come close.

2. The Remains of the Day (James Ivory, 1993)
In The Remains of the Day, Anthony Hopkins quietly breaks your heart. It is my personal favorite of all the Merchant-Ivory films, and a large part of that is Hopkins quiet, thoughtful, subtle performance. Hopkins plays a butler to an English Lord, who places duty above all else – even his own feelings, which he never expresses. That he is love with the head housekeeper (Emma Thompson) is obvious, and even though she approaches him, he never truly responds – even telling her when she catches him reading a romance novel that he only reads it to “improve my vocabulary”. In the years leading up to WWII, the Lord hosts a series of dinners promoting “international understanding” – but in reality were just pro-Nazi parties. What does Hopkins butler think of all this? He never says. It isn’t his place to have his own thoughts or feelings – just to serve the master no matter what. Hopkins work here is sad and heartbreaking – his character never realizes he has wasted his entire life. Maybe he gets an inkling of that near the end of the film, but even then, he cannot show. The poor, dumb bastard.

1. Nixon (Oliver Stone, 1995)
The most shocking thing about Oliver Stone’s Nixon is how much sympathy he shows for a man he obviously hates. Hopkins Nixon is not the snarling villain we have seen in many movies, but a man undone by his own flaws – his own hubris. Nixon was an intelligent man, but what he really wanted was to be love by the people – and he can never figure out why he isn’t. As he says to a portrait of JFK – a man he admires and hate in equal measure - in the White House, shortly before he resigns in disgrace “They look at you and see who they want to be, they look at me, and see who they are”. The movie makes no excuses for Nixon – it shows him at his worst, but it’s hard not feel something for the man. It would have been easy for Hopkins to make Nixon into a one dimensional villain – they have been great performances by actors who have done this (Philip Baker Hall in Robert Altman’s Secret Honor, Frank Langella in Ron Howard’s Frost/Nixon), but Hopkins goes deeper. No, he doesn’t particularly look like Richard Nixon – and he only marginally sounds like him – but Hopkins’ performance here is not just an impersonation, but something far greater than that. Nixon is one of the best films of the 1990s – one of Stone’s most underrated masterpieces, and truly remarkable performance by Hopkins. I know most people would pick The Silence of the Lambs for the top spot on this list – and while I understand that, I do not agree. Nixon is the role I’ll always remember Hopkins for.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

DVD Review: Goodbye First Love

Goodbye First Love
Directed by: Mia Hansen-Løve.
Written by: Mia Hansen-Løve.
Starring: Lola Créton (Camille), Sebastian Urzendowsky (Sullivan), Magne-Håvard Brekke (Lorenz), Valérie Bonneton (La mère de Camille), Serge Renko (Le père de Camille), Özay Fecht (La mère de Sullivan), Max Ricat (Le frère de Sullivan).

Goodbye First Love is about that particular blindness that only teenage girls seem to have. When you’re a 15 year old girl in love with a handsome, slightly older boy, it seems like you are completely blind to all his faults. Camille (Lola Creton) is a stunning French beauty who is head over heels in love with Sullivan (Sebastian Urzendowsky), who is 19. She’s only 15, but she spends all her time thinking about Sullivan. They argue often, he storms off often, she spends hours in her room crying, and then he comes back, his regular rakish self, and they make up all over again. Her mother doesn’t object to their relationship, but is still worried about her daughter. Why are you in love with this boy? All he does is make you cry, she asks Camille one day. “Tears of joy” is her only response. Try arguing with that.

The movie spans an eight year period, which Camille and Sullivan will mostly spend apart. During their torrid teenage affair, he decides to drop out of University and go backpacking through South America with his friends. “Don’t worry”, he assures her, “It’s only 10 months”. At first she believes the lie – hangs a map of South America on her wall, and tracks his progress with pins from wherever his letters are coming from. But then, as was inevitable, the letters start coming less frequently – they are at times obliviously cruel, and then stop altogether. Camille is devastated – but then moves on.

We meet her again, years later, as she’s studying architecture. She has cropped her hair short, and still pines, at least at times, for Sullivan. But gradually she comes out of her funk. She develops a relationship with one of her professors Lorenz (Magne-Havard Brekke) – who is older, wiser and yet still wears his hair long, like many middle aged men trying to convince themselves that he is still young. The two are comfortable with each other – and despite what we initially think – this is no mid-life crisis fling for Lorenz. These two do love each other – but it isn’t the type of love that rocked Camille’s being as a teenager. So when she runs into Sullivan’s mother one day, and gives her her new phone number, we know it’s only going to be a matter of time before Sullivan shows back up.

I couldn’t help thinking of the Twilight series when I watched Goodbye First Love. No, this movie does not have werewolves or vampires, but its main character shares the same delusion of what love is with Bella – the heroine of the Twilight saga. For both of them, love should be an all-consuming passion. But there is a key difference between these two – and that’s because writer-director Mia Hansen-Love understands how soul destroying that kind of all-consuming love can be – and how unrealistic it is. In his review of the film, Roger Ebert complains that the movie should be harder on Sullivan – even if Camille cannot see it, he really is a jerk – and unlike her, he doesn’t seem to mature as he grows older. But Hansen-Love makes her movie from Camille’s point-of-view – a point of view that cannot help but love Sullivan, despite all his faults. But the audience can see who Sullivan really is, even if Camille cannot.

Goodbye First Love gets deeper as it moves along. At first, it seems like this will be a nostalgic look back at young love – the type most people have, and although they get over it, they never quite forget. The film opens in 1999 in Paris, and sees everything as wonderful and romantic. It would not surprise me to discover that this is, at least partly, based on Hansen-Love’s own experiences – she would have been a few years older than Camille in 1999, but not much. And her first film, The Father of My Children, was also somewhat autobiographical.

But it’s when the movie jumps forward in time that it goes deeper than mere nostalgia – and romantic longing. Because when Camille and Sullivan reunite – and discover that same passion still there – the movie doesn’t swoon like it does in those earlier scenes – there is a sense of sadness in these scenes, and a feeling that these two kids need to grow the hell up.

The performances help a great deal. Magne-Håvard Brekke as the older man isn’t the pervy old guy after hot young flesh that we expect him to be – he’s kind, sweet, trusting and thoughtful. Sebastian Urzendowsky as Sullivan has some of that bad boy attitude that women find so appealing – at least as teenagers, but is also good at showing how less romantic that seems when you grow older. He’s not a million miles away from some of the young men in a Catherine Breillent movie, who always talk the young women in their lives out of their virginity – but is seen much more sympathetically than Breillent could ever conceive. Best of all is Lola Créton, who is perfect as the naïve teenager, and never loses our sympathy even as she makes mistakes later in the movie. She’s a beauty – and a future French star to look out for – a younger Marion Cotillard if you will.
 
Overall, I think Goodbye First Love is a fine little movie. It’s an improvement over The Father of My Children, which everyone seemed to like more than I did, and shows that Hansen-Love really is a filmmaker to watch out for.