Monday, December 31, 2012

A Few Words on the Timing of My Year End Report


As faithful readers know, I go all out with my year-end report – a list of my top 30 films, five favorite animated films, 10 favorite documentaries, the top 10 performances in each Oscar category as well as ensemble performances, and of course, a list of my most disappointing and worst films of the year. Most critics have already released their list, or will in the next week or so. Unfortunately, I’m going to have to wait a little longer.

I do an annual survey of critics’ top 10 lists and endeavor to see as many of the top 100 films of the year before I release my list (currently, I’m over 500 lists, and stop at 650). I have seen 84 of the top 100 films. The 16 films I have not seen fall into different categories. 1) Not released in my area at all (Neighboring Sounds, The Gatekeepers, Sister, Almayer’s Folly, Room 237, Two Years at Sea, The Day He Arrives,  Detropia, Middle of Nowhere, In the Family, The House I Live In). 2) Films I missed when they were released (How to Survive a Plague, 5 Broken Cameras, ) 3) Foreign films not released in North America yet (Berberian Sound Studio) and 4) Films I have not had time to see, but are playing in Toronto (Not Fade Away). Sharp eyed readers will realize that is only 15 films. And there is a reason for that. While, I would love to see all 15 of these films, I’m not going to hold back my top 10 list and everything else for them, because if I did, I may never release it. Only two of those films were in the top 50 (How to Survive a Plague and Neighboring Sounds).

But there is one film I feel I must see before finalizing my top 10 list before I can release it. And it currently sits at number 1 on my survey – Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty. The film will be released in Canada on January 11th, and I will see it then. Then I will decide where it belongs on my list – if at all – and then the following week, I will release my list. So don’t look for my list until the week of January 14th. That is when it will be in this space.

Movie Review: Django Unchained

Django Unchained
Directed by: Quentin Tarantino.
Written by: Quentin Tarantino.
Starring: Jamie Foxx (Django), Christoph Waltz (Dr. King Schultz), Leonardo DiCaprio (Calvin Candie), Kerry Washington (Broomhilda), Samuel L. Jackson (Stephen), Walton Goggins (Billy Crash), Dennis Christopher (Leonide Moguy), James Remar (Butch Pooch / Ace Speck), David Steen (Mr. Stonesipher), Dana Michelle Gourrier (Cora), Nichole Galicia (Sheba), Laura Cayouette (Lara Lee Candie-Fitzwilly), Ato Essandoh (D'Artagnan), Don Johnson (Big Daddy), Franco Nero (Bar Patron), James Russo (Dicky Speck), Bruce Dern (Old Man Carrucan), Jonah Hill (Bag Head #2).

Watching Quentin Tarantino`s Django Unchained I couldn’t help but think of those news stories you hear from time to time about how some group of Southern politicians want to downplay the “racial aspect” of slavery and teach students that the Civil War was about “States Rights” more than slavery (which is technically true, although since the right the Confederate States were fighting for was the right to own slaves, their argument doesn’t hold much water). What Tarantino has essentially done in Django Unchained is make the anti-Gone with the Wind. There are no smiling, happy slaves cracking jokes here. There is no romanticizing or idealizing the old South. In Tarantino`s film, everyone in the South is a racist bastard, deserving of what they get. Coming on the heels of his last film, Inglorious Basterds about a group of Jewish soldiers killing Nazis, giving us a more fitting ending to WWII than the real war gave us; Tarantino has essentially done the same thing here for slavery. That will not sit well with some – what he is essentially saying is that there is little to no difference between Southern slave owners and Nazis – but it is more accurate than not.

The film stars Jamie Foxx as Django, a slave who has been sold at auction and is tracked down by King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a German dentist turned bounty hunter. He needs Django to point out the Brittle Brothers for him so he can kill them and collect the bounty. He makes Django a deal – he helps him catch the Brittle brothers, and Schultz will give Django his freedom. Django acquits himself so well on that first job; he decides to make their partnership more permanent. Django agrees. He needs money – and also help in becoming a killing machine. His wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) was also sold at auction, and Django will do anything to get her back. Schultz agrees to help him get Broomhilda back, after a winter of tracking, killing and making money.

The heart of the films first and second act is the relationship between Django and Schultz. In many ways, it is a mentor and student relationship – with Schultz molding Django's raw talent for killing people and helping to channel his immense anger into a more productive means. Waltz, who won an Oscar for Basterds playing perhaps the most memorably evil Nazi in cinema history, is essentially playing a Good German this time around. He is the one white character in the movie who disapproves of slavery, and you treats Django more or less like an equal. I say more or less, because even after they form a partnership, Schultz still only gives Django a third of the bounty they collect instead of half. And there are times when he seems almost patronizing to Django. Still, he is clearly the only good white character in the movie – and make no mistake, it is not a coincidence that he is not American. Foxx has the less showy of the two roles – Waltz gets the best dialogue, and as in Basterds, he makes the most of it. But through the course of the film, Foxx’s Django becomes his own man. While he needs Schultz at first to teach him what to do, by the third act, Django needs no one.

That third act is what elevates the film to the truly great. Once Schultz and Django figure out that Broomhilda has been bought by Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), owner of the famed Candie Land plantation, who prefers to be called Monsieur Candie, they come up with a plan to get her back. Candie likes to put on a front of civility, class and enlightenment – and doesn’t understand how being one of the leading purveyors of Mandingo Fighting (slaves fighting slaves to the death) interferes with that. He even treats Django with more respect than he would treat any other black person, because Schultz treats him as an equal, and because he is posing as a “black slaver” himself. But make no mistake, Candie is as vile as creation as Tarantino has ever created – horribly, gleefully racist, and when he figures out that Schultz and Django may be playing him, he becomes even more hateful, and spews even more bile. Yet, despite how evil Candie is, perhaps the real villain of the film is Steven (Samuel L. Jackson), Candie’s most trusted, oldest slave – who laughs at all Candie’s racist jokes, and looks down his nose at Django. Through the course of the movie, Steven does even more to protect his way of life – in which slavery plays a pivotal role. It is no mistake that the makeup job on Jackson makes him look like Uncle Ben. Jackson, who has pretty much been sleepwalking through his roles for the last decade or so, rips into his role as Steven – and makes what could have been a regular Uncle Tom role into something much deeper, darker and more complicated.

The film has all the hallmarks of a Tarantino film. The films dialogue has a rhythm all its own – from the early scenes of Schultz and his “negotiation” with Django’s owner, to the dinner party scene which is the centerpiece of the third act to a ingenious and hilarious scene in which a bunch of Klan members complain about the lack of visibility in their hoods, no one writes dialogue quite like Tarantino – and no one is better at finding the right actors to deliver that dialogue. The film is also the most violent of Tarantino’s films – blood splatters the wall, the grass, the flowers, the trees and everything else around them every time guns are drawn – which is often.

What Tarantino has done in his last two films is what critics always complained about in his earlier films – he has developed a world view and a sense of morality. While Basterds was a better film – it is Tarantino’s masterpiece because his love of cinema and dialogue actually became key thematic elements in the film itself – Django is probably his angriest film. Many people have fooled themselves that in an America where Barack Obama is President, that racism is dead and we live in a “post racial world”. Tarantino doesn’t buy that argument. Django Unchained is a violent, angry look at race relations in America – yes, one that recognizes that America has come a long way from its earliest days, but still knows there is more to do. America still needs to reconcile itself with its violent, racist past and in some ways, a film like Django Unchained can help that. Yes, it is a spaghetti Western, a Blaxploitation film and a comedy. But it is also a more honest look at race in America than any other film in recent memory. Oh, and it’s the year’s most entertaining film to boot. This is truly a masterful film – one that only Tarantino could make.

Movie Review: Les Miserables

Les Miserables
Directed by: Tom Hooper.
Written by: William Nicholson based on the musical by Herbert Kretzmer Claude-Michel Schönberg  & Alain Boublil based on the novel by Victor Hugo.
Starring: Hugh Jackman (Jean Valjean), Russell Crowe (Javert), Anne Hathaway (Fantine), Amanda Seyfried (Cosette), Sacha Baron Cohen (Thénardier), Helena Bonham Carter (Madame Thénardier), Eddie Redmayne (Marius), Aaron Tveit (Enjolras), Samantha Barks (Éponine), Daniel Huttlestone (Gavroche), Colm Wilkinson (Bishop), Isabelle Allen (Young Cosette).

Les Miserables is one of the most beloved musicals of all time (just ask my wife, you knows every song by heart). It is a musical of big, bold emotions with soaring songs and a huge cast. I understand why some would find the whole thing tiresome, but I also understand why some are completely in love with it. It took years for this film version to get made – and while it does not make a seamless transition, this is still a big, bold, old fashioned musical, which tries very hard to make the emotional resonance of the film more realistic. And while at times these two elements – the epic, old school scope of the film, and the more raw, stripped down emotion that director Tom Hooper tries for, at times fight each other, overall I have to say that the film won be over.

The story is well known to all. In the years around the French Revolution, Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) spends 19 years as a prisoner doing hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving nephew. When he is finally released, he struggles to get his life back, because he has been branded a “dangerous offender”. A kind hearted Bishop takes pity on him, and even refuses to turn him in when he steals all the Church’s silver under one condition – he must use his ill-gotten gains to become a better man. Valjean tries hard to be that good man – he even becomes the mayor of a small town, and a business owner. And this is when his old nemesis Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) shows up. He is obsessed with tracking down Valjean, and thinks this seemingly respectful man could be him. The movie contains several subplots as well – the most tragic is that of Fantine (Anne Hathaway), a struggling single mother who needs to earn money to support her daughter – and will do anything to get it. That daughter will eventually be adopted by Valjean. The films second act takes place mainly at a barricade in Paris, where a group of students have taken over. Valjean, now in hiding once again with Fantine’s now grown daughter Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), who falls in love at first sight with Marius (Eddie Redmayne), one of those Revolutionary students – much to the chagrin of Eponine (Samantha Barks), the daughter of the amoral innkeeper and his wife (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter). All of these characters will come crashing together at these barricades.

Some of the directorial choices made by Tom Hooper are likely to draw criticism. This is apparently the first musical to have the actors sing live on set instead of a lip synching to a prerecorded track. This gives the music a more realistic feel, which are both a good thing and at times, a not so good thing. Also, Hooper chooses to film many of the songs in close-up on the actor’s face, which is pretty much the opposite of what seeing the musical on stage – where you see everything. For a song like I Dreamed a Dream, the result is a true tour-de-force by Anne Hathaway. This is truly one of the most powerful, emotional scenes of the year. With her shaved head, and the close-up that doesn’t leave her face, and doesn’t cut, I couldn’t help but think of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s silent masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc, which used close-ups of Maria Falconetti’s pained face to masterful effect. The same is true here, and Hathaway will likely win a well-deserved Oscar for her trouble. In the second act, Samantha Barks gets a similar moment with her heartbreaking rendition of On My Own, which she owns (it probably helps she played the role on stage). Strangely, this is one of the few songs that Hooper allows to open up a little more, and allows more movement. This doesn’t diminish the impact of the song however.

I will say though that Hooper certainly overuses the close-up in this film though, Most of the movie is shot in this style, and while at the best moments, it works magnificently, there are times when a little more movement and flow could have benefited the movie. The film is a bold, brash, emotional, old fashioned epic – and it loses some of that with all the close-ups.

And not all the performances truly work either. Hugh Jackman is just about perfect as Jean Valjean. He has the voice capable of pulling off the difficult vocal role, and for the first time, he gets a chance to truly show his dramatic range – and makes the most of it. Eddie Redmayne does what he can with Marius, as does Amanda Seyfried with Cosette, but the truth is, they are stuck playing the standard issue stupid, young lovers who don’t know each other, but are still hopelessly, head over heels in love. And I have already sung the praises of the great performances of Anne Hathaway and Samantha Barks. But Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter are not very good singers – and the live singing exposes that a little bit. It isn’t a major problem, since they are used mainly for comic relief – and because the plot requires them to show up in odd places at odd times to move the story along. Then there is Russell Crowe as Javert. While Crowe, a terrific actor, does have the chops to play the role dramatic, giving Javert the obsessive quality he needs, his singing voice is more appropriate for rock than Broadway – and it shows. Javert is a great role, but when Crowe is asked to carry a few songs on his own, he doesn’t quite pull it off.
 
Overall though, I have to say that Les Miserables won me over. Some of the directorial choices are strange, some of the performances not quite up to snuff, and the movie kind of runs low on steam in the final act (it is nearly three hours long). And yet, Les Miserables is the kind of old fashioned, epic musical that Hollywood doesn’t make at all anymore. It takes chances and risks, and for the most part, it pulls it off. While Les Miserables has its flaws, its best moments are as good as anything you will see this year.

Movie Review: This is 40

This is 40
Directed by: Judd Apatow.
Written by: Judd Apatow.
Starring: Paul Rudd (Pete), Leslie Mann (Debbie), Maude Apatow (Sadie), Iris Apatow (Charlotte), Jason Segel (Jason), Annie Mumolo (Barb), Robert Smigel (Barry), Megan Fox (Desi), Charlyne Yi (Jodi), Graham Parker (Himself), Chris O'Dowd (Ronnie), Lena Dunham (Cat), Albert Brooks (Larry), John Lithgow (Oliver), Melissa McCarthy (Catherine).

The biggest problem with Judd Apatow films is that he doesn’t know when enough is enough. With The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up he made two of the best comedies in recent years – and even his third film, Funny People, has a lot of great stuff in it. His latest, This is 40, is very much the same. Somewhere lurking in the movie’s nearly two and half hour runtime is a great comedy about what it means to be in a long term marriage with kids. But like all of Apatow’s films, he doesn’t seem to know that sometimes less is more. He wants to include pretty much every idea he has in his head in the final film. The result is a movie that feels bloated, and although so much of the movie is good – either insightful or funny or both – the overall impact is dulled simply because Apatow’s story cannot support the films mammoth running time. It reminds me of the story of the editing of Annie Hall – when the editor convinced Woody Allen to cut out an entire subplot that would have added an hour of running time, and instead to concentrate solely on the relationship between Alvie and Annie. The result is one of the greatest screen comedies ever made. Apatow needs an editor like that.

The film reintroduces Pete and Debbie (Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann), the couple who provided the example (either of what to do, or what not to do, depending on how you look at it) to the main characters in Knocked Up. They are both turning 40 within a week of each other, but Debbie insists she’s really only 38 – but she’s not fooling anyone. He owns his own indie record label, and its struggling, and she owns her own fashion boutique, and it isn’t doing well either. Not only are they facing financial difficulties, their relationship has reached a state of complacency. With two daughters, demanding jobs, and demanding extended families (two of the many subplots involved their fathers – Albert Brooks as his, who constantly needs money, and John Lithgow as hers, who is never around), they are taking each other for granted. And things get even worse during the course of the movie.

This is 40 is one of the few movies out there that take an honest look at what it is like to be married to the same person for years on end. The love between the two of you never really goes away, but that passion that most movies are about fades after years together. As much as you love the other person, sometimes they can drive you absolutely crazy. The movie is at its best when it concentrates on Rudd and Mann together – the bickering, the arguing, the lying, the frustration. But it’s not all bad. They still love each other; they’re just not sure what to do next. But when push comes to shove, they are still there for each other. You can insult them as much as you like – but no one else can.

The movie is bloated because there are too many subplots. Albert Brooks constant demand for money. John Lithgow’s absentee dad. Pete’s attempt to resurrect the career of Graham Parker. His problems at work with is staff (including Chris O’Dowd). The two clerks at Debbie’s store – Charlene Yi and Megan Fox. Debbie’s trainer (Jason Segel). A feud with another mother at school (Melissa McCarthy). Pete’s bitch sessions with his best friend (Robert Smigel). And then all the problems with the kids themselves (Maude and Iris Apatow). The fact that so many of these performances – especially by Brooks, Lithgow and McCarthy – are great helps all the subplots go down easier than they should. Yet, there is still way too much going on for one movie to deal with. The movie would have been much better off jettisoning several of these subplots, and concentrating on what works best – Pete and Debbie themselves.

Paul Rudd is a fine comic actor, and while the movie demands more dramatic work from him than we’re used to seeing, it’s mostly good in those scenes as well (although he does resort to talking really loud too often). Leslie Mann is wonderful though as Debbie – sympathetic, funny, sexy, but also kind of annoying in the way that only wives can be. She nails it.

Overall, This is 40 is a good film. It is way too bloated, and at times the editing seems choppy – as if Apatow is more concerned with jamming everything he wants into the movie than how it all flows together. And yet, what works in the movie is wonderful, honest and funny. This is 40 could have been a great film – but I’ll settle for the good one Apatow made.

Movie Review: Barbara

Barbara
Directed by: Christian Petzold.
Written by: Christian Petzold & Harun Farocki.
Starring: Nina Hoss (Barbara), Ronald Zehrfeld (André), Rainer Bock (Klaus Schütz), Christina Hecke (Assistenzärztin Schulze), Claudia Geisler (Stationsschwester Schlösser), Peter Weiss (Medizinstudent), Carolin Haupt (Medizinstudentin), Deniz Petzold (Angelo), Rosa Enskat (Hausmeisterin Bungert).

Christian Petzold’s Barbara is both a melodrama and a thriller, but one that refuses to pump up the action and emotions to the degree that films in both genres usually do. There are no car chases or fight sequences here, no weepy confessions or swelling music to artificially evoke tears or thrills. Instead although Barbara is both a thriller and a melodrama, it plays things straight – and is more of a character study than anything else.

Nina Hoss stars in the title role. It is 1980 in East Germany, and Barbara has been banished from her life in Berlin, and forced to take up her medical practice in a small, country hospital. From the time she arrives, she is watched by everyone – her co-workers, her new boss Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld), and most invasively by the Stasi, who like to pop by and subject her to humiliating surprise inspections. Everyone whispers about her behind her back, but she keeps her head down and does her job. Everyone knows she has a secret – and she does – but she doesn’t let on as to what it is.

Hoss’ performance in this movie is truly masterful. She is asked to do so much, by doing very little. In the early scenes in the movie, she tries to keep a stone face – not let anyone see behind the façade of the tough woman she is putting up. Yet, around the edges of those scenes, her humanity slowly starts to peak through. She isn’t the ice queen she is pretending to be – but just a woman who is justifiably scared, and doesn’t know if she can trust anyone, so she decides to trust no one. But slowly, she starts to loosen up – Andre is nice to her, some of her patients have it even worse than she does, and in the end she cannot ignore her hypocratic oath – “First do no harm”. That can mean many things to many people. Like her country at that time, Barbara is divided – torn between doing what she thinks is right, and doing what she needs to for herself.

Hoss portrays this character as a complex, complete person. Barbara feels more like a real person than most movie characters – who are puppets being put through the motions of the screenwriters grand design. In many ways, Barbara follows the standard plot we expect in this type of movie. And yet, in the hands of Petzold and Hoss (who have worked together five times now), the film feels more natural than that – you buy the clichés more than you usually do, right up to ending which has an inevitability about it that quite simply works.

There have been a lot of movies about the waning days of Communism in the past few years. Romanian cinema is starting to address this period in movies as variant as The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Aurora and 12:08 East of Bucharest. Germany has started as well, with films like the Oscar winning The Lives of Others. Barbara belongs on the list with all of them. It is not as overtly political as many of those films – it doesn’t feel the need to spell it out how bad the Stasi were, but instead treats them as a fact of life that must be dealt with. This is a quiet, haunting film that stays with you long after it ends.

Movie Review: Jack Reacher

Jack Reacher
Directed by: Christopher McQuarrie.
Written by: Christopher McQuarrie based on the book by Lee Child.
Starring: Tom Cruise (Reacher), Rosamund Pike (Helen), Richard Jenkins (Rodin), David Oyelowo (Emerson), Werner Herzog (The Zec), Jai Courtney (Charlie), Vladimir Sizov (Vlad), Joseph Sikora (Barr), Michael Raymond-James (Linsky), Alexia Fast (Sandy), Josh Helman (Jeb), Robert Duvall (Cash).

Jack Reacher, the character created by Lee Child who has starred in well over 10 novels now is a six-foot-five, 250 pound ex-Army cop who wanders around America getting himself involved in police investigations everyone he goes. Tom Cruise is not the first person you would think of to play the film version of this beloved character. Who would be? Maybe the new, kickass Liam Neeson? And yet, what Tom Cruise lacks in pure physical size, he makes up for in other ways. Like all of Cruise’s best characters, Reacher is driven to the point of obsession. You get in his way, and he’ll bring you down one way or another. Cruise plays fiercely determined as well as anyone – and that’s pretty much the best way to describe Reacher.

Had the filmmakers had a crystal ball, they probably would have picked another Reacher novel than One Shot to adapt for his first cinematic outing. As it stands, the movie opens with a lone gunman preparing and then opening fire into a crowd, killing five people with his sniper rifle and then taking off. It doesn’t take long for the cops to identify James Barr as the suspect, and the mountain of evidence against him seems too irrefutable. The problem though is that we know Barr didn’t do it, since we saw the real shooter (a change from the novel – and not a good one). Before Barr is beaten into a coma in jail, he asks the cops to track down Jack Reacher. But Reacher is a ghost, and unless he wants to be found, he won’t be. Luckily, he wants to be found. He has history with Barr, and wants to see justice done this time, even if it wasn’t in the past. No sooner does Reacher arrive on scene than a tug of war begins – between the cops and the defense lawyer (Rosamund Pike) to find out what Reacher knows. Also, it seems like someone wants to scare Reacher away – but Reacher is not easily scared.

Written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie, Jack Reacher is a solid thriller from beginning to end. We know from the beginning that things aren’t quite as they appear, but that Reacher will figure everything out. Cruise anchors the film with a fine, but unspectacular performance. Much better is the assortment of supporting characters that surround him – Robert Duvall as an old jarhead, Richard Jenkins and David Oyelowo as the DA and the lead cop respectively, who both may not be trustworthy. And best of all is that mad German genius Werner Herzog as the mysteriously named The Zec. Herzog adds a level of insanity to any movie he’s involved in, and Jack Reacher is no different.

Like the Reacher novels, the movie is a fine, disposable entertainment – involving while you’re in the story, almost instantly forgettable once it’s over. I enjoyed the film. It held my attention, had some performances and a twisty story that will keep you guessing (unless you read the book). This is probably as good as a Jack Reacher movie could be.

Movie Review: Sleepwalk with Me

Sleepwalk with Me
Directed by:  Mike Birbiglia.
Written by: Mike Birbiglia and Joe Birbiglia and Ira Glass and Seth Barrish.
Starring: Mike Birbiglia (Matt Pandamiglio), Lauren Ambrose (Abby), Carol Kane (Linda), Cristin Milioti (Janet), James Rebhorn (Frank).

Mike Birbiglia is a talented stand-up comedian, who mines his own life for his material.  He is soft spoken, socially awkward, shy and rather quiet. Which is why, as Sleepwalk with Me shows, it took a hell of a long time for his career to take off. Birbiglia wrote, directed and stars in this autobiographical movie, which like him is funny, charming, touching and just downright likable.

Birbiglia stars as Matt Pandamiglio, who wants to be a stand-up comedian, but in reality has simply become a bartender in a comedy club. He has been with Abby (Lauren Ambrose) for since college and everyone tells him how lucky he is to have her as his girlfriend. And it’s easy to see why – Abby is sweet, smart, sexy and ever supportive of everything Matt wants to do. While everyone else thinks Matt stand-up career is going nowhere, she encourages him to stick with it. But of course, just because everyone else thinks Matt and Abby are perfect for each other, that doesn’t mean they are. The movie is about how Matt’s career takes off, just as his relationship crashes and burns.

Birbiglia based on the movie on his one man show that was well received on Broadway, and helped Birbiglia land some episodes on NPR’s This American Life. Birbiglia is a natural storyteller, and Sleepwalk with Me is best when he speaks directly to the camera, telling his story. He knows how to hold the audience’s attention simply by talking to them. Of course, Birbiglia is also excellent when he’s on stage. As an actor, he is okay – he is after all, playing himself, although there are few dramatic scenes where he is clearly outclassed by Ambrose, who is excellent as Abby, who is perfect, just not perfect for Matt.
 
I don’t know whether Birbigilia has a real future as either a director or an actor, unless he continues to mine his own life to make movies – and I would like to see that. Sleepwalk with Me is charming and funny, and unlike many first films, doesn’t try to do too much. Birbiglia knows this story inside and out, and tells it well. I liked him in the movie, and because I did, I liked the movie as well.

Movie Review: It's Such a Beautiful Day

It’s Such a Beautiful Day
Directed by: Don Hertzfeldt.
Written by: Don Hertzfeldt.
Starring: Don Hertzfeldt (Narrator).

Don Hertzfeldt’s It’s Such a Beautiful Day is one of the most unique animated films you will ever see. It is actually three short films – Everything Will Be OK (2006), I Am So Proud of You (2009) and It’s Such a Beautiful Day (2011) that Hertzfeldt has edited together into a seamless feature film of just over an hour long. It was barely released in theaters, and can be purchased on his website (http://www.bitterfilms.com/), which I encourage everyone to do. I was lucky enough to be able to borrow a DVD from a friend, and the film, while crudely animated, is actually quite sophisticated in its storytelling, sound design and at times, its visual effects. This is a one of a kind film that you should track down.

The film is about Bill, an animated stick figure in a top hat. The movie takes place mainly in his mind as it slowly falls apart. At first his visions, dreams and nightmares are simply surreal, and at times downright hilarious. But the film gets darker as it goes along, and ends up being a rather touching, sad reminder of mortality.

Why is Bill’s failing falling apart? For much of the movie, we don’t know, and neither does Bill. Eventually we will learn he has been diagnosed with some sort of disease – what I don’t think the film ever says. The movie contains a flashback to his childhood, which helps to explain why Bill is the way he is. And there is also a rather touching relationship with an ex-girlfriend, who seems to the be the only person who truly loves Bill.

I don’t want to talk too much about the story, because I think it is better left unsaid. What I will say is that although Bill is nothing more than a stick figure in a top hat, he is also a touching, realistic person that anyone watching can relate to. You will be surprised just how much you come to care about this little man.

The entire movie was made by Hertzfeldt working by himself, doing everything by hand. The animated sequences are inventive in their own crudely drawn way. There is also some interesting, lve action practical special effects sequences which are even more inventive in what Hertzfeldt is able to achieve. The sound design is even more impressive, especially in a few sequences where Bill’s mind seems to be completely falling apart.

It’s Such a Beautiful Day is a testament to what one man can accomplish when he has a story he wants to tell, and the skill and determination to do so in an intelligent way. Hertzfeldt is a one of a kind filmmaker, and It’s Such a Beautiful Day is a one of a kind film.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Movie Review: Amour

Amour
Directed by: Michael Haneke.
Written by: Michael Haneke.
Starring: Jean-Louis Trintignant (Georges), Emmanuelle Riva (Anne), Isabelle Huppert (Eva), Alexandre Tharaud (Alexandre), William Shimell (Geoff).

Michael Haneke has made a career out of punishing his characters and by extension the audience, for their sins. From the parents of the deranged Benny in Benny’s Video to everyone in Code Unknown, to Daniel Auteuil’s in Cache to the entire village in The White Ribbon and in most of his other films, in a Haneke film the past is never forgotten, and those past sins eventually catch up with everyone. And Haneke has never let viewers off the hook either – he directly blames them for all the violence in both versions of Funny Games, and holds nations responsible for their past in other films. While many critics have seen his latest film, Amour, as a more humanist side to Haneke – a film where he finally feels warmth for his characters, I am not convinced this is the case. True, the old married couple at the heart of Amour have no past sins (that we know about) to atone for – but they are still punished quite thoroughly. The only thing they really do wrong is grow old – and Amour lays bare exactly what happens to them because of it – and by extension what will happen to everyone in the audience one day as well. So while it some ways, Amour really is the “warmest” film that Haneke has ever made, in other ways it’s the cruelest – his characters get punished much like they have in the past, but this time they haven’t really done anything wrong.

The film opens with a seemingly happy Paris couple in their 80s coming home from a concert. They have been married for years, and still seem very much in love. The next morning they wake up and have breakfast together. Everything is going normally until Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) stops responding to Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignat). He tries everything, and nothing can get her to snap out of it, until suddenly she does. She has no memory of what happened, and thinks he is playing a cruel trick on her. They go to the doctor, and discover she has had a stroke. And for the rest of the movie, she will slowly deteriorate – and he will be there every step of the way trying to take of her.

The movie takes place almost entirely in their apartment – and they have few visitors. Their daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert) stops by occasionally – and disapproves of how Georges is handling everything but he doesn’t really care. He promised Anne he would never take her back to the hospital, and he means to keep that promise. They have a nurse, and later a second nurse, come over to help take care of Anne, but Georges fires one of them in one of the harshest scenes in the movie. He doesn’t approve of how she was treating Anne – and when she complains he tells her “I hope one day someone treats you like you treat your patients when you cannot defend yourself”. Anne wants to die – talks about it a lot until she can barely speak at all (then she just repeats “Hurts” for hours on end). She even tries to stop eating by refusing to swallow anything Georges feeds her – leading to a moment that is as sudden and shocking as the suicide in Cache.

Amour is not an easy film – nor is it meant to be. Most of the movie is the day to day routine that Georges and Anne go through – shot by Haneke is his typically cold, detached style as the camera simply sits back and observes the two of them. It is an honest film however – anyone who has been around someone slowly dying could tell you that. The performances here – perhaps more than any other Haneke film – are key to the movie’s success. Emmanuelle Riva may have the simpler role, as she has to waste away and slowly die, but it is a brave performance, and Riva and Haneke pull no punches here. This is not one of those movies where the woman dies of some mysterious disease that somehow makes them more beautiful as they die (I think it’s called Love Story syndrome). Riva’s physical transformation is shocking. And she completely and utterly nails the behavior and speech patterns of a stroke victim. But Jean-Louis Trintignant is even better, as the man who has to watch his wife slowly dissolve into nothing. When the movie begins, he seems like such a nice guy, but while you could argue that everything he does in the movie is understandable, and motivated mainly by love, you could also argue that he behaves selfishly – and at times even acts like a child. It’s probably too much to ask for, but both Trintignant and Riva deserve Oscar nominations this year for their amazing performances here.

Reading some of the reviews of Amour coming out of Cannes (where the film won the Palme D’or – placing Haneke is very exclusive company of directors who have won the award twice) I was worried that perhaps Haneke had gone soft on us. But Amour is hardly a soft film. Yes, he gives he feels more for the characters in this film than he has in the past – but he still punishes them – and the audience, and makes us watch. This is a difficult film to watch – but a brilliant one.

Movie Review: Red Hook Summer

Red Hook Summer
Directed by: Spike Lee.
Written by: Spike Lee & James McBride.
Starring: Jules Brown (Flik Royale), Clarke Peters (Da Good Bishop Enoch Rouse), Toni Lysaith (Chazz Morningstar), Nate Parker (Box), Thomas Jefferson Byrd (Deacon Zee), Jonathan Batiste (Da Organist T.K. Hazelton), Heather Simms (Sister Sharon Morningstar), James Ransone (Kevin), De'Adre Aziza (Colleen Royale),  Isiah Whitlock, Jr. (Detective Flood), Spike Lee (Mr. Mookie).

Spike Lee movies, even the great ones, have messiness about them. He needs this messiness to get the raw intensity that makes his best movies so good. Take his masterpiece Do the Right Thing (1989) fir example. In the 23 years since it was made, no other American film has been able to distill race relations so succinctly, so brilliantly, as Lee’s films which is about an extremely hot summer day in Brooklyn, when all that pent up anger and hostility that simmers just beneath the surface in that multi-ethnic neighborhood explodes. Do the Right Thing is brilliant precisely because of its messiness.

His latest film, Red Hook Summer, tries very hard to recreate that feel. It feels like a film by a young filmmaker, simply bursting with ideas who feels he has to get them all on screen at the same time. This gives the film a propulsive energy that so few films have. And yet, because Lee tries to EVERYTHING in Red Hook Summer, he doesn’t really succeed in accomplishing much of anything. The film is full of plot holes that only get more glaring as the movie goes along. The final act plot twist is simply ludicrous, and raises more questions that the film is unprepared to deal with.

The film is about Flik (Jules Brown), a young boy in the crest of his teenage years who is left by his mother with his grandfather Enoch Rouse (Clarke Peters) in Red Hook, Brooklyn for the summer. Why she does this is never explained, and is the first (and biggest) plot hole in the movie. We hear it’s because she’s going on a trip, but later it does seem like she’s back home in Atlanta, while Flik is still suffering in Brooklyn.

No matter, she leaves him there because the movie requires her to leave him there for there to be a movie at all. Flik is a quiet kid – he hides behind his Ipad, taking pictures and videos of everything he sees around him. In this version of Red Hook, he seems to have two choices. He can either father his grandfather, a bishop at a local, struggling church, or he can drift towards the gangs – led by Box (Nate Parker), who is the son of a former parishioner of the church of left when she died. Enoch has not given up hope on him yet, even though it’s clear that Box is a bitter, angry young man who is not ready – and may never be – to be welcomed back into the church. Flik spends his days trying to fix up that church – overseen by drunken Deacon Zee (Lee regular Thomas Jefferson Byrd, usually so good, but here so far over the top he cannot be believed for a second), and starting a cautious, pre-teen romance with Chazz (Toni Lysaith).

There are great moments in Red Hook Summer – almost all of them revolve around Clarke Peters. This is a truly great performance, as Peters gives his impassioned sermons and life lessons, all the while we can tell, he is hiding something. The film is full of great music as well – not just in the church, although those numbers are soaring as well, but also littered throughout the film itself – most memorably in the closing montage. This is a movie about these people who sees them clearly – knows they are all flawed, and that all of them are searching, in their own ways, for salvation.

Perhaps the problem with the movie is Jules Brown as Flik. He is too passive in the film, just kind of letting everything go on around him, and never really becoming an active participant in his own life, or the film. As such, the movie has a hole at its core that it never really gets over. Then there is the fact that the rest of the performances all pale in comparison to Peter’s electrifying performance as Enoch – everything fades to the background whenever he is on screen. He even tries his best to sell that horrible plot twist in the last act that makes no sense by itself – and even less sense in relation to the rest of the movie.

Still, while Red Hook Summer has to ultimately be seen as a failure, there are things I liked about it. The music. The performance by Clarke Peters. That messy, raw intensity of the Brooklyn streets that no one can capture quite like Spike Lee can. Oh, and the fact that we finally learn that Mookie is okay. That made me smile.

Movie Review: Tabu

Tabu
Directed by: Miguel Gomes.
Written by: Miguel Gomes and Mariana Ricardo.
Starring: Teresa Madruga (Pilar), Laura Soveral (Old Aurora), Ana Moreira (Young Aurora), Henrique Espírito Santo (Old Ventura), Carloto Cotta (Young Ventura), Isabel Muñoz Cardoso (Santa), Ivo Müller (Aurora's Husband), Manuel Mesquita (Mário).

I pride myself on being a fairly adventuresome film watcher. I go see everything from blockbusters to indies, from foreign films to documentaries, to the films that everyone sees to the films that almost no one sees. Miguel Gomes is one of those directors who makes films that send those strange film magazines into a tizzy, but whose films are barely seen by anyone else. I know because I read those magazines, and recently one of them – Cinemascope – not only put his latest film, Tabu, on the cover but named Gomes one of the 50 best directors under 50. I remember hearing of his last film – Our Beloved Month of August – because it did so well on the Indie Wire and Village Voice year end critics’ survey, where it stood out because somehow I had never even heard of it before then. So when I had a chance to see Tabu, I jumped at it – I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.

I must say, I was disappointed. While Tabu is a marvelous looking film – in glorious black and white, that uses the style of silent film for two of its three parts, the movie failed to engage me in the least – either emotionally or intellectually. After a while, I just grew bored.

The movie opens with a silent film, with narration, of an intrepid explorer in Africa. The style reminded me of those old newsreels you sometimes see, as the man braves the jungles of Africa, and the people and animals around it. This sequence was fascinating to me, because I could never figure out what the hell was happening – was this just a surreal joke? Would it build to something?

We then flash to the first real part of the movie – entitled Paradise Lost. In it, a middle class woman in Portugal, Pilar (Teresa Madruga) goes to the train station to meet the young Polish woman who is supposed to board with her for a while – only to be rejected by the girl, who pretends to be someone else. She then goes home, and receives the first of many phone calls and visits from Aurora – the old woman who lives across the hall and Santa, her live-in African caretaker. Aurora has a daughter somewhere in America, who hardly ever visits or calls. Santa is her only real companion, and she doesn’t like Aurora very much – which is understandable, because Aurora doesn’t seem like a very nice person – just an annoying old lady who imposes herself on everyone around her. When she dies, we meet an old man named Ventura – who will narrate the final segment of the film – Paradise. Again, this segment is made in the style of a silent film, which Ventura narrates. It takes place in his youth, in Africa, where he meets and falls in love with Aurora – who ends up pregnant with his child, even though he is married to someone else. Of course, this will not end well for anyone – and a murder will take place, although not the person we expect Aurora to kill.

Reading some reviews of Tabu – most of which were rapturous in their praise – I discover that most people see the film as a kind of statement on Portugal’s past imperialism in Africa. It is true that each of the three segments have some connection to Africa – and see the African people as some sort of exotic “other”, that no one really takes seriously on their own terms. In the prologue and the final segment, no African characters make any impression at all – they are simply in the background, for exotic effect on the characters’ lives. In the middle segment, the only African character is Santa – and even she hangs in the background, as if not sure she is allowed to have an opinion on anything.

If that is the point of the movie, it’s an easy point, and is made early and often throughout the film. It may have been a good idea to give a real role to an African character, but then, I supposed that is beside the point – the point being that while Portugal had control over parts of Africa, like Aurora has control over Santa – they don’t for a second consider their own thoughts or feelings – just how they can serve themselves. A fair point, but not one to build an entire movie around – at least not this movie, which focuses on the shallow lives of the Portuguese characters – which again, may well be the point, but not a very interesting one.

Compare Gomes’ film to that of another recent Portuguese master – Pedro Costa. Costa’s film, In Vanda’s Room and Colossal Youth – really are masterpieces, even if most people have never heard of them. In them, Costa mixes fiction and documentary, and repeats scenes to make a point. But the people in his movie snap into sharp focus in their sad, lonely lives. Gomes’ film is all style and message, and never engages in terms of story or character. The subtext of the movie may well be interesting – but in order to get people to read for the subtext, you at least have to engage them on the text level. For me anyway, Tabu doesn’t. However if it sounds interesting to you, maybe it will be.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Movie Review: Rust & Bone

Rust and Bone
Directed by: Jacques Audiard.
Written by: Jacques Audiard and Thomas Bidegain based on the story by Craig Davidson.
Starring: Marion Cotillard (Stéphanie), Matthias Schoenaerts (Alain van Versch), Armand Verdure (Sam), Céline Sallette (Louise), Corinne Masiero (Anna), Bouli Lanners (Martial), Jean-Michel Correia (Richard), Mourad Frarema (Foued), Yannick Choirat (Simon).

Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone is a melodrama about two damaged people, who help save each other. It’s a somewhat odd choice for Audiard as a follow-up to his masterpiece A Prophet, which is one of the best crime dramas/prison movies ever made. This film is a more standard issue melodrama – one that tries, and succeeds, in trying to make the audience feel sympathy for its two main characters. While the film is nowhere near as good as A Prophet was – it is still a fascinating, heartfelt little film – and contains two excellent lead performances.

The first character we meet is Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts), who for reasons the movie never fully explains, no has custody of his five year old son Sam that he barely knows. He travels to live with his sister Anna (Corrine Masiero) and her husband that he hasn’t seen in years. They don’t have much, but welcome Ali and Sam into their home. Ali has no discernible skills – he used to box and Thai box – but he doesn’t much do that anymore. He gets work as a bouncer – and later as a security guard, and working for a security consultant, who specializes in placing illegal cameras in business, that allow the bosses to monitor their employees. It is while he is a bouncer that he meets Stephanie (Marion Cotillard) at a club. She gets hit, and he takes her home – and although she has a boyfriend, he gives her his number anyway.

Stephanie is a whale trainer at park that looks like Marin World to me. We see her during one of her performances – set to Katy Perry’s Fireworks – as she and the other trainers direct the whale what to do. What starts as a fun episode, begins to take on an ominous tone – we know something is about to happen, well before it does. What happens is a horrific accident that takes both of Stephanie’s legs above the knee. Wherever her boyfriend goes, it’s clear he is not sticking around. Her friends and family feel awkward around her – and soon with no one left to turn to, she calls Ali. Surprisingly, Ali treats her like a normal person – which is precisely what she needs. Ali is no saint – we see him cruelly lashing out at his son, and eventually, he’ll get into the world of underground fighting. Both of these people are hurting, and need each other, or else they may just spiral downwards to a point of no return.

The reason to see the movie is the two excellent lead performances. Schoenaerts role will probably remind viewers of his role in Bullhead – an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film Last Year – where he played a man with a secret, who feels grossly inadequate, and overcompensates for their inadequacy by building his muscles. That was a great performance, in a movie that tried to needlessly add complexity with an absurd plot. Ali is a similar character – although more vocal than his character in Bullhead, both men feel inadequate, and try to mask their inner pain with the outer shell they show the world. Both men are angry and prone to violence – Ali has just found a way to release that anger in a (marginally) more acceptable way. If Bullhead announces a major new acting talent, than Rust and Bone confirms it. And Cotillard is Schoenaerts equal in every way in this movie. She plays a similar role in some ways – a woman who likes to be desired by men, who used to love when men stared at her, and fantasized about her, but now has to deal with the fact that everyone sees her differently now – not as an object to lust after, but a woman to be pitied. Through Ali, she gets back out into the world – is able to start seeing herself differently than before. She also learns though that Ali may not be someone you want to count on. This is a very internal performance by Cotillard – she doesn’t explode, like many actors would giving what her character goes through, but simply tries to bury it down deep inside herself. It’s some of the best work she has ever done.

I’m not quite sure I buy the ending of the movie. The Craig Davidson short story that was used as a jumping off point for this story had a much darker ending than this – and it seemed more appropriate to the story. And yet, emotionally anyway, I prefer this ending. I may not quite believe it – but I want to. 

Movie Review: The Impossible

The Impossible
Directed by: Juan Antonio Bayona.
Written by: Sergio G. Sánchez.
Starring: Ewan McGregor (Henry), Naomi Watts (Maria), Tom Holland (Lucas), Geraldine Chaplin (Old Woman), Oaklee Pendergast (Simon), Samuel Joslin (Thomas), Johan Sundberg (Daniel), Christopher Alan Byrd (Dieter).

One of the strange things about movies about events where thousands or millions of people die – whether it be the Holocaust or some sort of natural disaster – is that the movie are almost always about the few lucky people who survive. I understand this urge – after all even in the darkest events in human history, audiences want some sort of hope to shine through. This is why we get so many films about the brave people, and the brave Jews, who hid from the Nazis and somehow survived the Holocaust. And it’s why we get a film like The Impossible – which is about the Indian Ocean Tsunami of December 26, 2004 – a natural disaster that killed 230,000 people – and is about the unbelievable but true story of a family who somehow survived. I understand the urge to find a positive story out of a negative one, it just seems odd to me.

The Impossible is about a British family living in Japan, who goes on a Christmas vacation in Thailand. After a few brief establishing scenes – where everything seems idyllic and perfect – the family thrust into a nightmare. While playing at the pool one morning, the tsunami hits out of nowhere – they hear a rumbling, they see trees topple, and then the huge waves crash down upon them. When the initial wave is over, we follow the mother, Maria (Naomi Watts) and the oldest son Lucas (Tom Holland), as they find each other amongst the currents, and fight to keep their heads above water, and struggle to get help. It will be a while before we find out about the father Henry (Ewan McGregor) and the two younger sons.

The scenes of the tsunami are devastating, almost unbearably intense, violent, chaotic and bloody. Brilliant aided by CGI and excellent sound work, these scenes are the best in the movie as we are thrust into the midst of all the chaos. Directed by Juan Antonio Bayona – whose breakthrough film was the stylish Spanish horror film The Orphanage, loved by many but not by me – this movie, at its best, is an impeccably crafted tale of survival against all odds. Aided by a gutsy performance by Watts, whose performance is mostly visceral, intense and physical and young Tom Holland, who carries most of the weight of the movie on his young shoulders, the first half of the movie is where the film is at its best.

The second half of the film (and here I guess I should provide a Spoiler Warning even though I don’t plan on getting too specific) is also quite effective, but in a much different way. The visceral energy of the first half of the film is put on the backburner, and the movie becomes more inspirational – a film that wants to wring tears out of its audience. And that it does – at least it did for me (but I find that since becoming a father last year, I much more vulnerable to tears while watching a movie). This second half, while effective while the movie is running, left me feeling bad after the movie ended – bad because I think the filmmakers laid everything on too thick here, tries too hard to get you to cry. I don’t mind when a movie earns the tears it produces, but I do get a little angry when I feel a movie is just bald face manipulative of me. And while I think The Impossible is a fine film – even in the second half – I also have to say that I think this movie crosses that line a little bit.

But having said that, I have to say The Impossible is still a highly effective film – very well-acted by everyone and well-directed by Bayona, who does some very nice work in the later scenes, choreographing some complex sequences that reminded me of Spielberg. The Impossible is a good film – to some, who don’t mind being this manipulated by a film, it will be a great film. I just wish the film hadn’t quite stacked the deck so much, because had it played things a little straighter, it could have been a better film.

Movie Review: Sound of My Voice

Sound of My Voice
Directed by: Zal Batmanglij.
Written by: Zal Batmanglij & Brit Marling.
Starring: Christopher Denham (Peter Aitken), Nicole Vicius (Lorna Michaelson), Brit Marling (Maggie), Davenia McFadden (Carol Briggs), Kandice Stroh (Joanne), Richard Wharton (Klaus), Christy Meyers (Mel), Alvin Lam (Lam), Constance Wu (Christine).

Brit Marling is one of the most interesting faces in American indie cinema right now. Last year, she co-wrote and starred in Another Earth, a science fiction film with almost no budget that was more interested in ideas than special effects. Now, she has co-wrote and stars in Sound of My Voice, another film that some call science fiction, although perhaps that’s not entirely accurate. What is accurate however is that like Another Earth, Sound of My Voice was made for not a lot of money, and is far more interested in ideas than the typical Hollywood movie – no special effects here. Just a fascinating little film.

The film stars Christopher Denham and Nicole Vicius as Peter and Lorna, an upper middle class California couple, who decide that they want to expose a cult and its leader Maggie (Marling) for the fraud that she is. They plan to pose as new recruits and clandestinely film the meetings for a documentary. This isn’t a large cult – I’m not even sure it has a name – and is really just a handful of people who meet in a basement, dress in white robes, and listen to Maggie’s story. According to her, she is from the year 2054 where a civil war rages, and food is scarce. She cannot leave this basement because the toxins in 2012 are too harsh for her body. She speaks in a calm, reassuring voice. It’s easy to see why people fall for her – she has an air about her that makes people want to please her.

Peter or Lorna are typical, entitled white suburbanites, leading hollow, empty lives. They are precisely the type of people who fall for cults in the first place – the ones who ask themselves “Is that all there is?”. But instead of falling for the cult, they decide to expose one. But it amounts to the same thing – they are no happy with their lives, and want something more – how much more, they don’t even realize.

The reason to see the movie is Marling’s performance as Maggie. She never gets worked up, never outwardly upset, never raises her voice. And yet she pokes and prods at her recruits – tests them by being openly hostile one second, and then comforting the next. She is trying to keep everyone off guard. Like Peter and Lorna, we think she’s a fake from the beginning, but she seems so sure of herself. Even when she’s asked to sing a song from her time, and ends up singing Dreams by The Cranberries, only one person openly questions her on it – and is promptly expelled. She is manipulative in the extreme, but like all successful cult leaders, makes everyone think they’re doing things of their own free will.

I didn’t much like the ending of Sound of My Voice, although I will admit I have no idea how else the movie could have ended. Yet it all seemed too typical to me – too calculated to keep the audience guessing even after the film ends. Like Another Earth, the ending is ambiguous – you can read it however you want to – but unlike that film, this ending didn’t work for me. Still, Sound of My Voice is another unique film for Marling – who has become one of the people you need to watch.

Movie Review: Premium Rush

Premium Rush
Directed by: David Koepp.
Written by: David Koepp & John Kamps.
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Wilee), Michael Shannon (Bobby Monday), Dania Ramirez (Vanessa), Wolé Parks (Manny), Aasif Mandvi (Raj), Jamie Chung (Nima), Christopher Place (Bike Cop).

The problem many action movies have is that they take themselves too seriously. In among all the chase sequences and gun battles, the rest of the plots often try to make some larger point – or show that the filmmakers have something greater on their minds that simply action. If done well – like Skyfall or the Nolan Batman films – this can elevate the films above the normal trappings of the genre. If not done well, they can become self-serious bores. The charm of David Koepp’s Premium Rush is that it takes absolutely nothing seriously. The film is essentially one big, long chase sequence through the streets of Manhattan, and is pretty much completely unbelievable from beginning to end. But the film knows this, roles with it, and the result is a film that while it may not stay with you, is almost impossibly entertaining while you are watching it.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Wilee (like the Coyote) a bike messenger in Manhattan, who once went to law school, but never took the bar exam. He likes being on the streets of New York on his bike too much. His bike has no gears and no brakes – he considers both dangerous – and he basically dodges in and out of traffic, risking his life at every moment of his day. He often plays out what will happen if he dodges this way or that way in the split second before he has to make a decision – and most of the time, if he chooses around, he’ll up being killed by a car.

At the end of another day, he gets one final assignment – pick up an envelope from Columbia University and deliver it to Chinatown. He knows the sender – Nima (Jamie Chung), because she is roommates with his girlfriend Vanessa (Dania Ramirez), and thinks nothing of this delivery. It’s a long ride, and needs to be there in an hour and half, but it will pay him well. So off he heads to Columbia – and picks up the envelope. It’s there where he meets the man who will become his nemesis – Bobby Monday (Michael Shannon), who tells him he needs that envelope back – right now. But Wilee has a code – once the envelope goes into his bag, it doesn’t come out again until it reaches its destination. It would have been much simpler had he just turned it over.

Eventually, we’ll learn the backstory behind everything – what precisely is in the envelope, why it’s so important to Nima to see it delivered on time, and why Monday wants it so badly as well. It doesn’t really matter though. The envelope is a classic MacGuffin – it doesn’t matter what’s in the damn thing, it just matters that everyone wants it so badly.

The movie is extremely well made by Koepp. He doesn’t slow let the movies pace slow down very much through its entire running time, and even if the chases themselves become increasingly impossible, he handles them all with style. If you want to simply turn your brain off and enjoy the ride, then you’ll have a good time. If, like me, you cannot quite do that, you’ll marvel at everything being done in the movie as you try to figure just exactly how they did that.

The two lead performances help the movie a great deal. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a great actor, but here he coasts on his natural charm – but does so to great effect. You instantly like him and that never wavers. Even better is Michael Shannon as Bobby Monday, who seems at times to be trying to amuse himself with wacky vocal ticks, but it’s still a blast to see one of the great actors of his generation let loose and have fun for once.

I’m not going to argue that Premium Rush is a great movie – it isn’t. But damn it, if it isn’t a fun ride for just under 90 minutes. During this time of year, when every week seems to bring an “important” movie to theater, spending 90 minutes at home with this one brought a smile to me face.

Movie Review: The Loneliest Planet

The Loneliest Planet
Directed by: Julia Loktev.
Written by: Julia Loktev based on the short story by Tom Bissell.
Starring: Hani Furstenberg (Nica), Gael García Bernal (Alex), Bidzina Gujabidze (Dato).

Nica and Alex are a couple who are going to be married in the coming months. Aside from that, and the fact that they are obviously experienced world travelers, we learn very little about them during the course of The Loneliest Planet. They are in Georgia (the Georgia of Eastern Europe, not the Southern USA) and hire Dato to guide them through the beautiful, but largely barren, mountains there. At first they seem carefree – they playfully talk with each other, make goo-goo eyes at each other, and seem pretty much carefree. Than something happens out on in the mountains, and in a split second, Alex makes a mistake, and then recovers. But how does that split second change their relationship? Pretty much completely, as in the second half of the movie, all that playfulness is gone – replaced by a stony silence, before they oh-so gradually start coming back to normalcy – at least what will be their new normal – after that.

I know some critics have loved The Loneliest Planet – with its beautiful cinematography in the mountains - shot in 1.66:1, a narrower aspect ratio than most films. That narrower aspect ratio is used to great effect by director Julia Loktev, especially in the film’s second half, as the vast open spaces of the first half are replaced by ominous mountains than seem to be closing in on the characters. Some critics have liked the performances by Hani Furstenberg and Gael Garcia Bernal as the central couple – said to be American, although neither sound American (probably because Furstenberg is Israeli and Garcia Bernal is Mexican). Loktev is clearly in their love with their faces, which she lovingly frames through the movie, trying to pick up on the smallest of movements. Personally, I think non-professional actor Bidzina Gujabidze is better than either of them as Dato – perhaps because he is non-professional, and is playing a version on himself, he seems more comfortable – more natural than either of the two pros.

But I must say, I was bored by The Loneliest Planet. Loktev gives us no real reason to care about Nica and Alex and their story. She broadly sketches their story at the beginning, and then repeats herself in the first half of the movie – has the inciting incident half way through (which is the film’s best moment) and then repeats herself in the second half. The movie was based on a short story by Tom Bissell, and perhaps it should have been made into a short movie. There just wasn’t enough material here to keep me interested for nearly two hours.

Loktev is a promising director. Her first film, Day Night Day Night, was much better – the story of a would-be suicide bomber going to Times Square in New York. That film also provided no backstory for its main character, but was fascinating and intense throughout. The Loneliest Planet, while beautiful, doesn’t hold the same interest. I see what she’s trying for here – to make the two characters we meet in the first act question everything they know about themselves and each other in the second half because of the incident, but Loktev slows this movie too much for it to have the impact she wants.