Thursday, March 28, 2013

Movie Review: Roman Polanski: Odd Man Out

Roman Polanski: Odd Man Out
Directed by: Marina Zenovich.

One of the strangest reactions from this year’s Academy Awards ceremony were the people who criticized a joke made by Mark Wahlberg (while talking to the Seth Macfarlane voiced Ted) by saying the after-Oscar orgy was taking place at Jack Nicholson’s house. Macfarlane drew a lot ire for the whole telecast being sexist, and while I understood (though did not agree) with much of the criticism, this one confused me. It seems people were upset because it was, of course, at Jack Nicholson’s house where Roman Polanski drugged, raped and sodomized a 13 year old girl – which he confessed to, served a three month “evaluation” period at San Quentin prison, and then fled the country when it looked like the judge may sentence him to more time. The reason the outrage over the joke confused me was simple – Roman Polanski doesn’t seem to be demonized for what he did, so why does Macfarlane’s joke – not about the rape at all, but about Nicholson’s notorious womanizing – draw so much ire? Why was there no outrage directed at movie stars like Harrison Ford, Ben Kingsley, Sigourny Weaver, Johnny Depp, Adrien Brody, Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, Kate Winslet or Jodie Foster who have all worked with Polanski? Why when Polanski was arrested by the Swiss in 2009, did the Hollywood community seemingly unanimously unite behind Polanski, and sign petition urging the Swiss to let him go, and the L.A. District Office’s to drop the charges? Why does it seem like in this whole sordid mess, that Seth Macfarlane has been criticized more than Roman Polanski?

Roman Polanski is a difficult situation for a film buff like myself. That he is a genius – one of the best directors in history – in pretty much unquestionable. Knife in the Water, Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown are all legitimate masterworks. His other films include Macbeth, The Tenant, Tess, Death and the Maiden, The Pianist and The Ghost Writer which are nearly as good as his masterpieces. And as a Polish Jew, Polanski survived the Holocaust and brutal Communism in his youth, became a star director, and seemingly had it all when the Manson family murdered his beautiful wife Sharon Tate and their unborn child. He somehow managed to get his life together, and continued to work. And then in 1977, he was arrested for drugging, raping and sodomizing a 13 year old girl who was working with him on a photo shoot. That Polanski is guilty is not under dispute. Polanski’s own confession to the crime is fairly brutal. Perhaps because he was famous, the Prosecutor and the Judge agreed to a deal – Polanski would spend three months of evaluation at San Quentin prison – at which point, if they felt he was not a danger, that would be the end of his punishment. Polanski did the time, but in the days leading up to his court appearance, where everyone thought Judge Rittenbaum was going to release Polanski, it became clear that Rittenbaum had other ideas – namely, sentencing Polanski to years in prison. With this hanging over his head, Polanski fled to France, and has never returned to America. He has been a fugitive ever since.

This part of the case was covered in Marina Zenovich’s excellent 2008 documentary – Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired. That film did an excellent job of balancing the horrific nature of Polanski’s crimes and all the complicated legal proceedings that came after – proceedings in which it is now fairly clear that both the D.A.’s office and the Judge engaged in inappropriate behavior – namely, conversing about the case without Polanski’s lawyer present. What Polanski did was horrific – but he deserved fair treatment by the justice system, which he felt he wasn’t going to receive so he fled.

Zenovich’s new documentary – Roman Polanski: Odd Man Out, is about his arrest at the airport in Switzerland in 2009, where he was going to accept a lifetime achievement award at the Zurich Film Festival. Oddly, Polanski had been in Switzerland countless times since fleeing America, and the Swiss never arrested him, and the Americans never asked them to, even though they do have an extradition treaty. Perhaps stranger still, the Swiss were the ones who contacted the America about Polanski’s impending visit – and asked them if they wanted them to arrest Polanski, which they did. This kicked off a long, 10 month extradition process – where Polanski had lawyers in American arguing his case, against the L.A. D.A.’s office – whose argument was that as a fugitive, Polanski had no standing to file anything – and in Switzerland, where he spent a few months in jail, before being let go to stay in his chalet in the Swiss mountains until the Swiss decided what to do with him.

If Wanted and Desired did an excellent job at balancing the two sides of Polanski’s case – his horrific crime and the flawed legal proceedings around them, Odd Man Out doesn’t do the same thing. This film is much more sympathetic to Polanski than the previous film – in part I think, because as Zenovich has mentioned, her documentary contributed to Polanski getting arrested in the first place by digging up the past. Zenovich does have interviews with the victim and her family, who basically says she has gotten over it and moved on with her life, and is damn tired of talking about it. Good for her. But the argument about how if the victim can get over it, so should everyone else have never made much sense to me. We do not let the victim decide the punishment for the crime for a reason – and that reason cuts both ways. If she said that we should castrate Polanski for what he did to her, you wouldn’t find too many people agreeing with her then, would you?

Odd Man Out is less successful than Wanted and Desire for many reasons – the biggest being the extradition case isn’t nearly as interesting as what happened in the 1970s. While there are conspiracy theories about the Swiss arresting Polanski to get on the America’s good side as the two countries were fighting about UBS (Swiss Banks) and their secrecy at the time, that is really all they are – theories. Good theories, but theories nonetheless. Another reason is because there is precious little interviews with Polanski himself – which made up quite a bit of time in Wanted and Desired (these were archival interviews, not ones by Zenovich herself, but were fascinating just the same). And as mentioned I think Odd Man Out is far too sympathetic towards Polanski himself. You can argue all you want that he was treated unfairly in America, and he was treated unfairly by the Swiss – some of which is undeniably true. But when you get right down to it, Roman Polanski has now spent a grand total of approximately 13 months in custody – several of which were under house arrest in a Swiss chalet – for drugging and raping a 13 year old girl. He is guilty of that. He is also guilty of fleeing the country unlawfully. His defense attorneys can argue all they want about how this is a conflict between the people who value the rules and people who value the context in which those rules were broken. But they have to argue that – because they cannot argue that Polanski didn’t break the rules. They certainly cannot argue that Polanski is innocent. And they certainly cannot argue that a three month stretch in San Quentin for rape of a 13 year old is a harsh enough punishment. Not many would agree with that one.

Yet while I do not think Odd Man Out is as good as Wanted and Desired, it is still a fine film – and a fascinating one. I do wish that some of the “anti-Polanski” people were given more of a voice, or that Zenovich had pushed his supporters more on what they think about what he did- they seem to gloss over that in their minds, as they never bring it up. But this is still a fascinating documentary about this ever evolving case, always strange case. It appears like the victim has gotten over it and moved on with her life. Good for her. And it appears that Polanski is now a changed man, and is a happy husband and father. Good for him as well. But no matter how much he may have changed, or how bent the justice system is, it doesn’t excuse what he did – just like the fact that Ray Lewis found God and changed his life doesn’t excuse the fact that he was involved in a double murder – no matter how much Baltimore Ravens fans want to believe that. Roman Polanski is a convicted child rapist who spent a few short months in jail for a crime that most others would have served years for. No matter what the legal system has done to him, it doesn’t change those facts. And doesn’t mean you should feel any sympathy for the man in regards to this case. I certainly don’t.

Movie Review: From Up on Poppy Hill

From Up on Poppy Hill
Directed by:  Goro Miyazaki.
Written by: Hayao Miyazaki & Keiko Niwa based on the comic by Tetsurô Sayama and Chizuru Takahashi.

One of the great things about the work of Hayao Miyazaki is that although his movies are often fantasies, they remain grounded in the real world. Yes, his films are filled with wizards and witches, floating castles, spirits and all sorts of strange creatures, but when at their most basic level, they are still relatable stories for children, that address their lives in a subtle, sometime sad, sometimes joyous ways. The new film From Up on Poppy Hill was not directed by Hayao Miyazaki – although it was written and “planned” by him – but his son, Goro Miyazaki. The apple has not fallen far from the tree this time. And From Up on Poppy Hill is more grounded in reality that any of the older Miyazaki’s films – no mystical creatures exist here at all. It tells the haunting, beautiful and sad story of a Japan intent on building its future by tearing down its past.

The film takes place in the early 1960s – specifically in the run-up to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics – although the film doesn’t take place in Tokyo, and we see no games, the Olympics, and what they represented serve as a metaphor for the entire film. As a nation, Japan wanted to press forward, modernize, exorcise or at least forget about the war that had crippled their country. The same thing is happening on a smaller scale in a small town.

The heroine (and there is always a heroine in Japanese animation, a refreshing change to the male dominated heroes in American animation) in Umi, a teenage girl who still misses her father – a ship captain killed in the Korean war. Her mother is away studying, which leaves Umi at home with a grandmother, younger siblings and quite a few kindly, yet eccentric, boarders. She is constantly busy – but she likes it that way.

At school, there is a mini-war brewing as the school wants to tear down the old, rundown clubhouse – used by many male members to house their various clubs, ranging from the school newspaper to astronomy club, to a very large student who makes up the Philosophy club of one. The place is a dirty mess, and the school wants to replace it with something new. But the students who use the clubhouse love it – they feel it connects them to the past. Umi it gets drawn into their fight, when she develops a crush on Shun, and the two dance around each other in that way that young teenagers who don’t quite know how to express themselves do. But there are darker secrets yet to be revealed. From Up on Poppy Hill, although outwardly a sweet, innocent film, is also one haunted by war and death.

I cannot think of a higher compliment to pay to the film than to say that I could easily believe it was a Hayao Miyazaki film. The animation of the film is beautiful, rendering the smallest details – the leaves, the flags that Umi raises every morning, etc. with detail and a sad beauty. The film will likely be a little slow for young children – the story doesn’t feel the need to rush, to be loud and noisy and all constant motion and action like American animated films. It takes it’s time getting where it’s going. Older children will likely appreciate how the movie doesn’t talk down to them – and while the film has dark moments, it’s the type of darkness that isn’t going to scare children. They can relate.

And adults, who love animation, will love the film. It is a beautiful, lovely film – and a nostalgic one. We shouldn’t tear down the past to make way for the future – as this beautiful, haunting sad film shows us.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Movie Review: Olympus Has Fallen

Olympus Has Fallen
Directed by: Antoine Fuqua.
Written by: Creighton Rothenberger & Katrin Benedikt.
Starring: Gerard Butler (Mike Banning), Aaron Eckhart (President Benjamin Asher), Morgan Freeman (Speaker Trumbull), Rick Yune (Kang), Angela Bassett (Secret Service Director Lynn Jacobs), Melissa Leo (Secretary of Defense Ruth McMillan), Finley Jacobsen (Connor), Dylan McDermott (Forbes), Radha Mitchell (Leah), Cole Hauser (Roma), Robert Forster (General Edward Clegg), Ashley Judd (Margaret Asher).

Olympus Has Fallen is a ridiculous action movie – of that, there can be little debate. In order to believe pretty much a second of the film, you have to suspend disbelief for two hours, and just sit back and enjoy the ride. If you are able to stop thinking, than you may well enjoy Olympus Has Fallen. It is well directed by Antoine Fuqua, who once again proves he is more than able to direct a good action movie. And it is well acted by the entire cast – even Gerard Butler, who typically I don’t like very much. I cannot really claim that Olympus Has Fallen is a good movie – it isn’t – but it’s not horrible either. If you want something completely undemanding, where you simply watch the bodies pile up, then you might enjoy Olympus Has Fallen – at least while you’re watching it. By the time you hit the parking lot, you’ll have either forgotten about the movie completely, or have too many questions about the logic of the movie to comprehend.

Mike Banning (Butler) is a Secret Service agent relegated to working at the Treasury after a car accident where he chooses to save President Asher (Aaron Eckhart) instead of the First Lady. He is the best the Secret Service has, and has a personal bond with the First family, but Asher doesn’t want to have to look at the man who let his wife die every day. Then, one day all hell breaks loose. Asher is supposed to meet with the South Korean Prime Minister at the White House. There is an “incursion” – meaning a plane in the no fly zone – and this one is spraying Washington with bullets. The security team takes the President, his staff and the South Korean Prime Minster and his staff to the “bunker”. But wouldn’t you know it, the Prime Minister’s staff is not who they say they are. They are terrorists, with murky motivations about allowing “Korea to settle the Civil War your country interfered with”. The terrorists now have control of the President, all his top aides, and the War Room. Oh, and in a brutally violent and bloody gun battle that takes up a good 15 minutes of screen time, they also have complete control of the White House above ground as well. Banning fights his way into the White House, and is the only one on the inside. He is in communication with another War Room, trying to find a way to take back the White House and the President. The Speaker of the House Trumbull (Morgan Freeman) is in charge, because both the President and the Vice President are being held hostage in that bunker (you would think since they cannot fly on the same plane together, they would have separate places to go in such a case, but that’s the least of the film’s logic loopholes). And Banning is also taking down the terrorists – one at a time. If you think this sounds an awful lot like Die Hard in the White House – well, you’re right.

You could drive a fleet of Mack trucks through all the plot holes in the movie, which simply adds more and more issues of credibility as it goes along – especially when it starts involving something called the “Cerberus” codes, which have to be fictional, because if they’re not, than it’s the stupidest idea involving nuclear weapons since the Soviet’s secret doomsday device in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove – that movie at least acknowledged the idea was stupid. Besides, the Codes are just an excuse to have another of those giant countdown clocks action movies love so much that shows in glowing red numbers just how much time before nuclear annihilation we all have, so the hero can stop it just before time runs out and a room full of people can cheer and high five each other, while Morgan Freeman breathes a huge sigh of relief.

Looking back at what I’ve written so far, I realize it sounds like I hated Olympus Has Fallen. I didn’t. I didn’t really like the movie either – it’s too preposterous for that, and had me rolling my eyes at each new plot twist and at the “America, Fuck Yeah!” attitude of action movies so brilliantly satirized by Team America: World Police. And for those who thought that Zero Dark Thirty endorsed torture (you’re still wrong on that one, by the way), wait until you see a scene when Butler has two terrorists tied up and needs information from them. I would expect a lot of op-eds comparing Antoine Fuqua to Leni Riefenstahl and a Senate Investigation like that movie received, except that the movie will be seen as too goofy for that. You do not make headlines and get the media attention you they crave so much by picking on a movie like Olympus Has Fallen.

What I will say about the film is that it is very well made by Fuqua. He may not be John Woo in terms of staging gun battles, but the siege on the White House is one of the best scenes of its kind in recent memory. And it’s bloody as hell as well – which you can either say is a good or bad thing depending on how you look at it - typically, I like when action movies of this sort show the blood – it’s not quite as easy to see this thing as purely escapist fun when you see all the blood, and realize that when these people die, they die hard, instead of just a bloodless pirouette and then falling to the floor. Fuqua knows how to direct action – and he does so well here. The cast is mostly very good as well. Yes, Morgan Freeman can sleepwalk through this kind of role by this point, but he does what is required of him. The same can be said of Aaron Eckhart, who makes a convincing President – even if you have no idea what his actual politics are – or even if he’s a Democrat or a Republican (there are some talk about billionaire donors, but that could be either party). Butler is more convincing as an action hero than a romantic comedy leading man, and plays Banning – the superhero – as well as it can be played. The weak link is probably Oscar winner Melissa Leo as the Secretary of Defense, but given the absolutely ludicrous dialogue she has to work with (much more so than anyone else), I’ll give her a pass on this one.

Olympus Has Fallen is in no way a good movie. It is mindless, violent entertainment for action movie aficionados only. You know the type – they just want to see things blow up real good and lots of gun battles and hand to hand combat. If you don’t expect much from Olympus Has Fallen, you may have a good time with it. In just a few months, we’ll get see Roland Emmerich’s take on pretty much this exact same plot – with Channing Tatum springing into action to save President Jamie Foxx from a heavily armed paramilitary group in White House Down. Given Emmerich’s track record (Independence Day, Godzilla, The Day After Tomorrow, 2012, Anonymous) I have a feeling it will be just as preposterous as this film.

Movie Review: No

No
Directed by: Pablo Larraín.
Written by: Pedro Peirano based on the play by Antonio Skármeta.
Starring: Gael García Bernal (René Saavedra), Alfredo Castro (Lucho Guzmán), Luis Gnecco (José Tomás Urrutia), Néstor Cantillana (Fernando), Antonia Zegers (Verónica Carvajal), Marcial Tagle (Alberto Arancibia), Pascal Montero (Simón Saavedra), Jaime Vadell (Minister Fernández), Elsa Poblete (Carmen).

In 1988, under pressure from the International Community, Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet allowed a referendum on whether or not he should continue being President for the next 8 years. His bloody dictatorship had lasted 15 years, yet no one really believed he would lose. While each side – the Si and No – would get 15 minutes of air time on National TV every night for a month leading up the referendum to make their case, Pinochet controlled the airwaves, so he basically had all but 15 minutes a day to make his case. Pablo Larrain’s No, which was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar this past year, tells the story of how the No side won the referendum. As with Argo, Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty, the debate in Chile has raged on about just how accurate the film is. And it’s easy to see why. When the referendum came down on the No side – ousting Pinochet – it was a proud moment for the country –a sign that their people would not be terrified into silence and passive acceptance. But what No argues is that the case made for the No side was really shallow and superficial – the ad executive in charge of the No campaign uses the same tactics to sell “No” as he does to sell soda.

The film stars Gael Garcia Bernal as Rene Saavedra. He is a successful advertising executive, who father was more outspoken and political than he is which lends him some credibility on the opposition side. When he is approached about running the No campaign, he initially refuses. His boss is running the Si campaign, and Rene is more concentrated on making a lot of money to support his son – his estranged wife protests against Pinochet and his regime, and has the bruises to prove it. But eventually, he agrees.

The movie doesn’t present the No side is the kindest of lights – although certainly, they are presented more positively than the Si side, who are really just spineless yes men, who knows what Pinochet has done, and doesn’t care because it’s good for them. But the No side is full of stuffy intellectuals and idealists, who want to sell statistics and intellectual arguments to the people of Chile. They don’t think they have a chance to win, so all they really want to do is to present the facts of Pinochet to the public –to get the information out there. But Rene disagrees. He doesn’t want to depress the people – they do that, and they will lose. So he comes up with a series of ads that are basically pretty people smiling, dancing, having a good time and voting “No”. He doesn’t sell the audience the truth – just some murky version of Hope and Change (sound familiar?).

This makes No a rather strange experience. You would think that a movie like this would be an inspirational film, about people rising up against a brutal regime. But what No really is, is about the people of Chile were duped into doing the right thing, even if it was for the wrong reasons. Does the end justify the means? In this case, sure it does. But what does it say about people that all you have to do to get them to vote the way you want them to is sell them a lie? And that so many people just went along with the lie.

This is why the film is being debated in Chile. I don’t know the true story of what really happened during the referendum – perhaps the ads had little effect on the public, who were going to vote to begin with. But by presenting the victory this way, Larrain undercuts the inspirational aspect of the movie, and makes something a little darker, a little more cynical, a little more thought provoking than it otherwise would be.

No is said to conclude a trilogy for Lorrain about Pinochet and Chile – following the serial killer drama Tony Mareno (2008), about a selfish man obsessed with Saturday Night Fever and Post Mortem (2010), about a morgue in the last days before Pinochet took over. I have not seen either of those films (I meant to see both, but somehow never did), but on the basis of No, I think I should go back and watch them. Lorrain’s film is not an easy one – or at least, it offers no easy answers. It also looks deliberately crude (Lorrain wanted to recreate the video look of the 1980s, and does a remarkable job of it). Gael Garcia Bernal continues to impress in the lead role. But No is not really about any of its characters. It is about Chile in detail, and Democracy in general. It is a fascinating little film.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Why I Never Miss a Harmony Korine Film (Even Though I Have Yet to Like One)

The film of the moment – being discussed by seemingly every film critic in America – in undeniably Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers. For reasons that are unclear to me, even though the film opened in limited release last week and goes semi-wide across America this week, it doesn’t open in Canada AT ALL until next week – at which point I hope to see it, although that depends on how wide it goes. Since I cannot discuss Spring Breakers yet, I thought I’d look back at Korine’s other feature films so far. I haven’t seen his (many) shorts, but I have seen his four features before Spring Breakers – Gummo (1997), julien-donkey boy (1999), Mister Lonely (2007) and Trash Humpers (2009). The only one I have come close to really liking is julien donkey-boy – and I pretty much loathed Mister Lonely and Trash Humpers. So why then do I get excited at the prospect of a new film by Korine? The answer is simple – no matter what I think of him or his movies, they are definitely one of a kind.

Korine first broke into movies writing the nihilistic screenplay for Larry Clark’s Kids (1995) – which to me remains the best film Korine has ever been involved with. Korine wrote about the world he knew in New York – bored teenagers who do nothing but drink, do drugs, have sex and beat people up. It is a shocking film – but it should be. Korine also wrote the screenplay for Clark’s Ken Park (2002), although he wrote the screenplay years before the film was made, and had nothing really to do with making the movie. As that film has never really been available in North America, I have not seen it.

When Korine was 23 years old, he made Gummo. The film won prizes at the Rotterdam and Venice film festivals – and earned raves from filmmakers as varied as Jean Luc-Godard, Gus Van Sant and Werner Herzog. The film was also pretty much despised by American critics – and it’s easy to see why. Gummo is an undeniably ugly film. Korine’s style in the film is harsh – the film was shot on video, and looks every bit as ugly as that sounds. The film has no real plot, but centers on the desperate residents of Xenia, Ohio – a town still affected by a hurricane that hit it in the 1970s. It seems the only people left in town are psychopaths and the mentally ill. Through the course of the movie, we’ll see two teenage psychos murder a lot of helpless neighborhood cats (in a scene near the end, they’ll hold one of these cats up to the audience, in one of the more deliberate attempts in the movie to shock). We’ll also see such things as eating a disgusting candy bar that dropped into dirty bathwater, men beating a folding chair for some reason, Chloe Sevigny pulling duct tape off her nipples, the long forgotten Linda Mantz (Days of Heaven), doing a soft shoe routine in a filthy basement and a woman with down’s syndrome pimped out a prostitute.

I have no idea what ANY of this adds up, or what it is supposed to add up to. Critics rightly called out Korine for doing things simply for shock value – he has done that in every movie so far, and from what I hear about Spring Breakers, I expect more of the same. But they also call out Korine for what they see as him “faking realism” – since he cast professional actors, and shot the movie in Tennessee rather than Ohio.

I don’t quite get this complaint. Surely, if Korine wanted to fool us into thinking that there really was a town as miserable as the Xenia, Ohio he shows, he could have easily shot the movie in Ohio and used non-professional actors. Had he done that, the reviews probably would have been a lot nicer – they would have praised him for capturing the real pain and suffering with an unblinking eye. But I have to think that Korine knew that going in – and that part of his point is that he is faking the realism. What’s his point? I admit, I have no idea, but I think he probably has one. I didn’t much like Gummo, have no desire to ever see it again, but it is unquestionably the film Korine wanted to make.

His best film as a director was his sophomore effort – julien donkey-boy (1999). In that film, he uses the rules of the then en vogue Dogme 95 filmmakers from Denmark (led by Lars von Trier), although as Roger Ebert points out in his review, Korine does admit to cheating on several aspects – since all props were supposed to be found on scene, and he imported a can of cranberries from a grocery store. And how Chloe Sevigny isn’t actually pregnant, but just has a pillow under her shirt (but said pillow, was found on scene.

The film isn’t much prettier than Gummo was, but it is much better – because as ugly as the characters may be, they are actual characters this time around, unlike Gummo, and they actually do grow and change in certain way during the course of the film. The film’s title character is played by Ewan Bremmer, who is schizophrenic, and hence the movie certainly has an unreliable point of view. What actually happens in the movie? What does he just imagine?

Werner Herzog plays the title character’s father – an outwardly cruel man, who belittles his daughter – Chloe Sevigny – in scenes that are shocking, funny and sad all at the same time. The film still has moments in which Korine is trying to shock the audience – a miscarriage and everything that comes after – and yet it is built around its characters. The film is undeniably a challenging one – not completely successful, perhaps not successful at all – but once again shows Korine going for broke. Again, I don’t know if I would describe julien donkey-boy as a good movie – I certainly cannot think of too many people I would actually recommend the film to – but once again, it is precisely the film Korine wanted to make.

It took Korine 8 years to follow-up julien donkey-boy with another feature (there was a nervous breakdown in between) – and that was Mister Lonely (2007) – a film I completely loathed. The film was about a commune in the Scottish Highlands, that is inhabited by celebrity impersonators – oh, and it also features nuns jumping out of an airplane with no parachutes and landing, unscathed, on the ground. My blog wasn’t running at the time, but I was writing reviews and this what I had to say about the film then:

“The commune, which is not the paradise that Michael hoped it would be. Marilyn’s husband is Charlie Chaplin, but he is hardly a lovable scamp, but a cruel, manipulative man. Abraham Lincoln swears constantly. James Dean, for some reason, tells jokes. Sammy Davis Jr. tap dances. Madonna doesn’t really do anything. The Pope and The Queen sit around. Shirley Temple is adorable. Buckwheat is still a racist stereotype. The Three Stooges screw everything up. And, for some reason, Little Red Riding Hood is running around.

I’m sure Korine has a point to make in all of this somewhere. And I’m sure it has to do with the culture of celebrity, which has become a sort of religion for some, although it remains empty, just like the nuns falling out of the plane. But watching the movie, I couldn’t help but think that it was all a waste. Diego Luna does a decent Michael Jackson –especially when he’s dancing – but the rest of the impersonators don’t even come close. Are they not supposed to? Why are they living the way they do? What do they get from it all? And where are Buckwheat’s parents, and how does a kid that young even know who Buckwheat is? And why the hell are the eggs singing? (yes, there are singing eggs, no, I have no idea why).”

No, I still have no idea why there were singing eggs, and I still have no idea precisely why Korine made this film – what made him feel like he had to make this film. What is clear, as it was in Gummo and julien donkey-boy is that Korine doesn’t think much of our modern day culture – he views it as shallow, and he has a point. But why he felt the need to address it like he does in Mister Lonely, I have no idea. Still, I will say this for the third time, although Mister Lonely is, to me, a god awful film, it is still the film Korine wanted to make.

Which brings us to Trash Humpers (2009). The film made my “worst” list in 2010 (when it was released), and nothing has changed my mind on that. In a way, Trash Humpers can be viewed as a sequel to Gummo – this isn’t a film about teenagers doing destructive things, but old people doing destructive thing. But they aren’t really old people – they are people like Korine and his wife – in deliberately bad old age makeup and masks. As the title suggests, they quite literally spend much of the movie humping trash. Unless they are giving a blow job to a tree branch. The film was shot on VHS, to make the whole thing look even worse than it otherwise would. Mission accomplished.

I hated Trash Humpers. It was boring and repetitive in the extreme, and I’m sorry, I didn’t get much out of the experience. And yet, I still said the following two things in my extremely negative review:

“While I somewhat admire the fact that Korine made precisely the film he wanted to make - I cannot really say that it is an experience I ever want to go through again”

And

“Korine is a real filmmaker, and a real artist. To me, julien-donkey boy, with its weird performances and style remains his best film. He is a unique filmmaker, with a strange vision of the world around him.”

You’re sensing a pattern here, and you’re right. To bring this post back to its title, the reason why I will never miss a Harmony Korine film, even if he hasn’t made a film I’ve really liked, and certainly not a film I would ever want to watch a second time is simple – Korine is one of a kind. He is a real artist and he makes precisely the films he wants to make. So many films today are interchangeable. And too many filmmakers don’t take any chances whatsoever. Korine constantly takes chances, and no one else would make the films he makes. There is a reason for that, of course, but Korine doesn’t care what that reason is. He doesn’t follow trends – he just makes whatever the hell he wants.

That is why I am so fascinated by Spring Breakers – and why I cannot wait to see it. Yes, Korine is making a movie with movie stars – James Franco – and former Disney stars – Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens. And yet, I also know that the film itself, no matter what it’s like on the surface, will still be Korine’s. That he didn't just cast movie stars for commercial appeal, but because he's got something else up his sleeve (not having seen the film, I have no idea what that is - but I cannot wait to try and figure it out). He is a real artist – even if I haven’t much cared for his art so far. But every artist has detractors. I hope Spring Breakers will be the film I always thought Korine could make. He's certainly kept me waiting awhile.

The Best Films I Have Never Seen Before: Them! (1954)

Them! (1954)
Directed by: Gordon Douglas.
Written by: Ted Sherdeman and Russell S. Hughes based on the story by George Worthing Yates.
Starring: James Whitmore (Police Sgt. Ben Peterson), Edmund Gwenn (Dr. Harold Medford), Joan Weldon (Dr. Patricia 'Pat' Medford), James Arness (Robert Graham), Onslow Stevens (Brig. Gen. Robert O'Brien), Sean McClory (Maj. Kibbee), Chris Drake (Trooper Ed Blackburn).

By the 1950s, paranoia about nuclear bombs and their after effects had made its way to the movies. There was the 1953 film The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (unseen by me) about a dinosaur awoken from under the sea by nuclear bombs that goes on a killing spree. And in 1954, the Japanese film Gojira (better known as Godzilla), the best of all the nuclear monster films, was made. In its original Japanese version, Gojira is a haunting, powerful film that deals directly with Japanese fears after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. By comparison, Them! released in America the same year, is rather tame, but it still taps into that same fear.

The movie opens with a little girl, obviously in shock, walking down the street. She is picked up by Sergeant Ben Peterson (James Whitmore), and his partner, who head up the seemingly abandoned road to investigate. They find the trailer the girl and her family were staying in, and it has been thoroughly destroyed, and her family has disappeared, but by what, no one knows. When they head further up the road, they find a small store, that has also been destroyed, and the owner left dead. The only clue is a strange track that no one can identify. That is until it is sent to Dr. Medford (Edmund Gwenn) and his daughter Pat (Joan Weldon), who think they have the answer – giant ants. And sure enough, when they look around in the desert, they do indeed find a colony of giant ants, and they are able to destroy them. The bad news is, the ants eggs have already hatched – and two queens have escaped. Because they can fly, there is no telling where they could have gone.

To a certain extent, Them! is just another cheesy sci-fi/horror film from the 1950s. You certainly have to accept the fact that the special effects are not as good as modern audiences are used to seeing, and that the film indulges in clichés of the “giant, mutated things that can kill you” genre. And yet, if you can get past all of that, Them! works remarkably well. It gets the paranoia about nuclear weapons just about right, teases us wonderfully with the reveal of the ants, and when the climax comes – set in the sewers of Los Angeles, it is genuinely suspenseful. Whenever someone does a movie like this now, they tend to try for camp value – like in Eight Legged Freaks. But to me, those movies never really work. They try too hard to wink at the audience, and prove how clever they are, and that tends to be a turn off for me. But a movie like Them! which plays it pretty straight, is much more effective.

I sometimes fear that movies like Them! no longer work for modern audiences, who have grown too cynical for a movie like this. Yes, it is cheesy and the special effects are not great by today’s standards (although they were pretty fantastic by 1954 standards), but if you can get by that, and look at the meat of the movie, then Them! is still creepily effective.

The Best Movies I Have Never Seen Before: Great Expectations (1946)

Great Expectations (1946)
Directed by: David Lean.
Written by: David Lean & Ronald Neame & Anthony Havelock-Allan & Kay Walsh & Cecil McGivern based on the novel by Charles Dickens.
Starring: John Mills (Pip), Tony Wager (Young Pip), Valerie Hobson (Estella), Jean Simmons (Young Estella), Bernard Miles (Joe Gargery), Francis L. Sullivan (Mr. Jaggers), Finlay Currie (Magwitch), Martita Hunt (Miss Havisham), Alec Guinness (Herbert Pocket), Ivor Barnard (Mr. Wemmick), Freda Jackson (Mrs.Joe), Eileen Erskine (Biddy).

David Lean’s 1946 version of Great Expectations is seen by all as the quintessential screen version of Charles Dickens’ classic novel – and with good reason. It is clearly the best version that I have seen, with gorgeous cinematography and production design. The film almost plays like a horror movie when we enter the enormous, crumbling mansion of Miss Havisham (Martita Hunt), who of course is the villain of the piece, as her actions forever damage and warp two children. Above all, Great Expectations is a movie about child abuse – not the overt kind, but the more subtle, psychological kind that can be even more damaging.

The story is well known by all. Young Pip (Tony Wager) is an orphan being raised by his cruel sister (Freda Jackson) and her kindly husband Joe (Bernard Miles) – a lowly blacksmith in the English countryside. While visiting the graves of his parents, he meets Magwitch (Finlay Currie), an escaped convict, who threatens him and tells him to come back the next morning with something he can cut his chains off with. Pip does this – and even though the convict, and his cohort, who he despises, get caught, it is not because of Pip. Pip then comes to the attention of Miss Havisham who wants him to come over to her crumbling mansion to play with Estella (Jean Simmons), her young charge, who at first doesn’t want to play with this “peasant”, but is talked into by Miss Havisham – who tells her she can “break his heart”. Havisham is a bitter, lonely woman, who refuses to leave her mansion, or change it in the least, since she was stood up on her wedding day decades before. She is angry at all men, and sees her chance to get revenge on them through Estella.

Years pass, and although Pip is in love with Estella, she has moved away, and he has become an apprentice to Joe. And then a lawyer – Mr. Jaggers (Francis L. Sullivan) arrives to take Pip (now John Mills) away with him to London. He has an anonymous benefactor, who wants to make Pip into a proper gentlemen. Naturally, Pip assumes this benefactor is Miss Havisham, who wants to turn him into a gentleman so he can marry Estella (no Valrie Hobson). He moves to London to share a flat with Herbert Pocket (a wonderful Alec Guiness in his first major role) – hopefully to woe Estella, who unfortunately has become exactly what Miss Havisham wants her to be.

Few black and white film look better than Lean’s film here. The Oscar winning cinematography (by Guy Green) is magnificent – from the foggy opening scene in the graveyard, to the horror movie stylings of Miss Havisham’s, to the bustling streets of London is wonderful. The screenplay has pretty much served as the model for all future feature adaptations of Dickens’ epic novel, as it pares away much of the enormous plot and supporting characters of the novel to focus exclusively on Pip and his journey.

The movie, it must be said, is not without faults. John Mills was far too old to play Pip – who is supposed to be in his early 20s, and Mills was nearly 40 at the time. I was going to write that Mills is also bland in the role of Pip, but the truth is, Pip is a bland character. Much like Dickens’ Oliver Twist, the central character is perhaps the least interesting one in the novel – a character needed to get all the colorful supporting characters in the film. And they are colorful – from Finlay Currie’s scary Magwitch, to Hunt’s wonderful, ghostlike Havisham, to Sullivan’s large, humorless lawyer, to Guiness’ amusing Pocket, to Bernard Miles’ decent Joe, to Hobson and Simmons’ combing for the screen most beautiful Estella, the cast that surrounds Mills is far greater than he is.

And it also must be said, like every other version of Great Expectations I have seen, I was more drawn into the story’s beginning – with the children – then the second half, with them as adults. And Lean adds a needlessly happy ending to Great Expectations – eliminating 11 years in which Pip travels to Egypt, and Estella was married to the abusive Bentley Drummie, and eliminating all the ambiguity of Dickens’ ending as to the fate of Pip and Estella. Yes, it gives the audience what it wants, but it doesn’t really fit with the rest of movie – a criticism that some have of the end of the novel, which was re-written by Dickens to make it a happier ending.

Still, these are minor quibbles with a great movie. David Lean had already directed a number of highly thought of film by this time – most notably Brief Encounter (1945). After the romance of that film, he wanted to make something darker, and Great Expectations, aside from the ending, counts. It is one of the great British films of its time – and one of Lean’s very best movies.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Movie Review: Identity Thief

Identity Thief
Directed by: Seth Gordon.
Written by: Craig Mazin and Jerry Eeten.
Starring: Jason Bateman (Sandy Patterson), Melissa McCarthy (Diana), Amanda Peet (Trish Patterson), T.I. (Julian), Genesis Rodriguez (Marisol), Morris Chestnut (Detective Reilly), John Cho (Daniel Casey), Robert Patrick (Skiptracer), Eric Stonestreet (Big Chuck), Jon Favreau (Harold Cornish).

Melissa McCarthy is an extremely talented comedic actress who I don’t think Hollywood has any idea what to do with. Her performance in Bridesmaids, while a tad overrated, managed to break through the bias against broad comedies of awards season to capture her an Oscar nomination. Her brilliant two scene performance in Judd Apatow’s This is 40 was the best thing about the movie (and the outtake of her rant that play during the end credits made me laugh more than anything else in that movie). She was probably the best host on SNL last season, and I’m looking forward to her hosting again in a few weeks. But as for leading roles in movies, I fear we’re going to have to sit through more films like Identity Thief.

On the surface, Identity Thief should work as a broad comedy. McCarthy can be brilliant, and has no problem going wildly over the top, and in Jason Bateman she has just about the perfect straight man – he did that on Arrested Development, and it’s his specialty in movies now. The problem with Identity Thief is really quite simple – it’s not funny. The screenplay by Craig Mazin and Jerry Eeten quite simply doesn’t give McCarthy and Bateman – not to mention the rest of the cast – anything to do, and worse gives you whiplash with all of the movie’s shifts in tone. Are we supposed to hate McCarthy, like we do in the beginning? Laugh at her, like during the middle part (including a ridiculous, and not in a good way, sex scene) or are we supposed to pity her, as during the film’s final act. A good screenplay could make us do all three, I suppose, but this is not a good screenplay.

Bateman stars as Sandy Bigelow Patterson, a Denver accountant (of course, because he’s boring, he’s in accounting) who discovers that someone in Florida has stolen his identity. This person turns out to be Diana (McCarthy). The police are apparently powerless, so Sandy heads to Florida himself to bring her back to Denver and clear his name. It doesn’t take long to find her, and it doesn’t even take long to convince her to come with him – for one thing, he promises no police, he just wants her to tell his boss, who may fire him, that he didn’t do anything wrong, and for another, Diana has two drug dealers (T.I. and Genesis Rodriguez) and a bounty hunter (Robert Patrick) chasing her, for reasons I’m not entirely sure of (it doesn’t matter why they’re chasing her, just that they are). So in essence, we have a version of Midnight Run, the excellent 1988 bounty hunter comedy with Robert DeNiro and Charles Grodin. Except, of course, Identity Thief isn’t funny, and Midnight Run was.

Identity Thief was a bad movie in the first and second acts. The sex jokes are tasteless, but not funny, the fat jokes are even more tasteless and unfunny, and when they combine the two of them in a sex scene between McCarthy and Modern Family’s Eric Stonestreet (another fine comedic actor), the result is nearly unwatchably unfunny. I don’t really have a problem with “tasteless” comedy – but the general rule is, it has to be funny, or else it’s just juvenile at best or offensive, at worst. The first half of Identity Thief has healthy doses of both.

But the film really falls off the rails during its final act – when all of a sudden, we are supposed to feel sorry for Diana. The movie doles out one of those tragic tales that is meant to make you see Diana in an entirely different light. If movies have taught us anything, it’s that every screwed up character is screwed up because of a lousy childhood – that even people in their 40s are completely incapable of getting over. In a way, it reminded me of the indie hipster movie last year The Comedy, except McCarthy is not nearly as insufferable as the main character in that movie. But the result is the same – we’re all of a sudden supposed to see depth, and feel sympathy, for a character we’ve been led to believe is horrible. It didn’t work in The Comedy, and it doesn’t work here.

The film was directed by Seth Gordon, whose debut film was the excellent documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, about grown men who obsess about getting a high score on an old Donkey Kong arcade game. But it now appears that what he really wants to do is direct subpar comedies – there was the awful Four Christmases (with Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon), the actually enjoyable Horrible Bosses (although, I suspect, that had more to do with Spacey, Farrell and Aniston than Gordon) and now Identity Thief.

The film is a hit – I saw it weeks after it came out, and it’s already past $100 million at the box office, which pretty much confirms Bateman and McCarthy are movie stars, who can sell this type of comedy. Has anyone really enjoyed the film though? I guess there must be some, but Identity Thief isn’t even good enough to be called sitcom level comedy. It’s a confused, unfunny mess.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Movie Review: Neighbouring Sounds

Neighbouring Sounds
Directed by:  Kleber Mendonça Filho.
Written by:  Kleber Mendonça Filho.
Starring: Irma Brown (Sofia), Sebastião Formiga (Claudio), Gustavo Jahn (João), Maeve Jinkings (Bia), Dida Maia (Ricardo), Irandhir Santos (Clodoaldo), W.J. Solha (Francisco), Lula Terra (Anco), Yuri Holanda (Dinho), Clébia Souza (Luciene).

The past haunts the present in subtle, yet powerful, ways in Kleber Mendonca Filho’s brilliant debut film Neighbouring Sounds. The film opens with old photos of slaves on Brazil’s sugar plantation, before flashing forward to present day Recife, a town on the Brazilian coast where the upper, middle and lower class live side-by-side, yet worlds apart. If you can afford to, you lock yourself behind gates and walls, as the residents of this small neighbourhood are paranoid of the people around them that they do not know. This paranoia seems unfounded, as we don’t see much crime on the streets – and what we do see is committed by the spoiled grandson of area’s richest resident Francisco (W.J. Solha) – who made his money on the sugar plantations. He owns much of the area, but while his is the fanciest house in the area, with the most protection, he is also the only one who feels safe enough to leave his house in the middle of the night – to walk down to the beach and go swimming in the Ocean, despite signs warning of sharks.

The film has a large structure, layering story upon story much the same way Robert Altman did in films like Nashville or Short Cuts. Gradually, characters begin to emerge. Joao (Gustabo Jahn), another grandson of Francisco, who has a job showing condo in his grandfather’s building – condos where maid quarters are expected. He hates his job, but does it anyway. He has started seeing Sofia (Irma Brown), who used to live in the area and wants to see her former house before it’s torn down to make way for even more condos. There is Bia (Maeve Jinkings), a bored housewife, who escapes through pot and an unbalanced washing machine. She is fighting a private war with the barking dog next door, and gets into a fight with her sister – they are both getting a new TV, and Bia’s is bigger. There is Dinho (Yuri Holanda), the delinquent car radio thief, who as the grandson of Francisco, has no need to steal people’s radios, except that he wants to.

The common thread running through the movie is Clodoaldo (Irandhir Santos), who shows up one day and gets all the residents to agree to pay a monthly fee for him and his men to patrol the streets at night to keep everything safe. This basically involves them sitting under a tarp, talking to each other on their walkie-talkies. Clodoaldo has secrets as well, as everyone in the neighbourhood does, but is also the only character who comes into contact with everyone else – from the upper class of Francisco and Joao, to the middle class Bia, to the lower class maids and doormen the other forget about, unless it’s to complain about them.

Neighbouring Sounds is a slow burn of a movie. When the film begins, you think it may just be a slice of life film about this neighbourhood. And yet, fairly early on, the sense of mounting dread begins. You know from the start that something darker is lurking beneath the surface here, you just cannot quite figure out what it is. None of the characters are what you would call wholly good or wholly bad. Joao seems like a nice guy – in one of the film’s best scenes, he’s the only one who argues on behalf of a doorman the rest of the condo residents want to fire for sleeping on the job – which would mean the longtime employee could be gotten rid of with no severance package. In this scene it becomes clear that resentment is not just between the different classes, but between everyone – no one trusts their neighbours. But Joao also puts his longtime maid out to pasture, replacing her with her dour daughter, even though she doesn’t want to retire, and at only 60, doesn’t really need to. On the surface he seems nice – he seems to have some guilt about his family’s wealth and wants to be seen as just another resident of the street, but his sense of entitlement gradually starts to show.

The mounting dread is aided by the intricate sound design of the movie, where everything is ramped up just a little beyond its normal volume – footsteps on the ceiling above you can sound as ominous as anything else in this movie. And gradually, a few bizarre things happen to make you wonder just what precisely is going on.

Neighbouring Sounds is a remarkable debut film for Kleber Mendonça Filho. Like many first time directors, he picked an ambitious project – many characters, interlocking stories, subtle shifts in tone, gradually ratcheting up the tension – but unlike many directors he has the skill to pull it off. The movie ends with two scenes in which we see the past coming back to haunt one character, and then that same past seemingly about to repeat itself with another character. All over a fence. Or a dog.

Movie Review: Caesar Must Die

Caesar Must Die
Directed by:  Paolo Taviani & Vittorio Taviani.
Written by: Paolo Taviani & Vittorio Taviani based on the play by William Shakespeare.
Starring: Cosimo Rega (Cassio), Salvatore Striano (Bruto), Giovanni Arcuri (Cesare), Antonio Frasca (Marcantonio), Juan Dario Bonetti (Decio), Vincenzo Gallo (Lucio), Rosario Majorana (Metello), Francesco De Masi (Trebonio), Gennaro Solito (Cinna), Vittorio Parrella (Casca), Pasquale Crapetti (Legionary), Francesco Carusone (Fortune Teller), Fabio Rizzuto (Stratone), Fabio Cavalli (Theatre Director), Maurilio Giaffreda (Ottavio).

Caesar Must Die uses real inmates from Rebibbia prison, just outside of Rome, playing themselves, and also playing characters from William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. The film opens and closes with scenes in color of the inmates performance, in front of an apparently enthusiastic crowd, of Shakespeare’s play. In the middle, which is shot in stark black and white, we see the six months of rehearsals that went into mounting this production. But Caesar Must Die is not a documentary about prisoners performing Shakespeare. Even the rehearsal scenes are scripted by Paolo and Vittorio Taviani. They do this to draw parallels between the prisoners and the characters they play, and by having men who are in prison for years if not for the rest of their lives, it gives some of Shakespeare’s words new meanings.

As a film, Caesar Must Die is a fascinating experiment – but not an altogether successful one. If you don’t at least have a working knowledge of Shakespeare’s original play, you may well be lost while watching the movie. At only an hour and sixteen minutes, obviously the majority of the text has been cut, and of course, not everything is from Shakespeare’s play even at that, because the filmmakers aren’t really interested in another version of Julius Caesar, but in how the prisoners respond to Julius Caesar – what they make of the words and ideas behind the play. It is ironic, of course, to have prisoners talk about liberty – and their idea of honor may differ from ours. And the central debate behind Julius Caesar is of course whether the conspirators are “justified” in killing the man they once adored, but who has now become a tyrant. As with any production of Caesar, the character playing Brutus (Salvatore Striano), is the most fascinating. The other conspirators are after their own means by killing Caesar – it’s not for the greater good, but for their own. But Brutus is different. He believes in what he does.

There are wonderful moments in Caesar Must Die – an unforgettable audition sequence for example, where the prisoners have to say the same lines in two different ways – once filled with sorrow and regret, once with angry and rage. These guys, it must be said, are pretty damn good (at least some of them).

I admired Caesar Must Die more than I actually enjoyed it. It is certainly a fascinating idea for a movie, and the film looks great in black and white. But I cannot help but think that the idea here is better than the execution. The structure is essentially a play (the rehearsals) inside a play (Julius Caesar) inside a movie (Caesar Must Die). The best moments are when the prisoners connect with the dialogue and themes of Shakespeare’s play – and struggle, like anyone else, in the best way to convey their meaning to an audience. But there are moments when the Taviani’s lay things on a little thick. Nearly every review I have read mentions the line, late in the movie, where a prisoner looks directly at the camera and says “Since I got to know art, this cell has become a prison”. The idea behind the line, that art can free you only so much, is a decent one. The execution comes across as phony, and trying too hard. While there is a raw intensity to the prisoners, they are not exactly polished actors, and subtlety is not their strong suit.

Still, the movie is a fascinating experience, and as a lover of black and white films, one that is wonderful to look at on the big screen. I don’t think the film comes together to make a wholly conclusive statement, but it’s an interesting film to say the least.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Movie Review: Stoker

Stoker
Directed by: Chan-wook Park.
Written by: Wentworth Miller.
Starring: Mia Wasikowska (India Stoker), Nicole Kidman (Evelyn Stoker), Matthew Goode (Charles Stoker), Dermot Mulroney (Richard Stoker), Phyllis Somerville (Mrs. McGarrick), Harmony Korine (Mr. Feldman), Lucas Till (Pitts), Alden Ehrenreich (Whip), Jacki Weaver (Gwendolyn Stoker), Ralph Brown (Sheriff).

Korean director Chan-wook Park has made a name for himself by directing ultra-violent movies in his home country. Yet as violent as his films are, they are also extremely well made, and for the most part intelligent. Oldboy (2003) is inarguably his masterpiece so far – a revenge film/melodrama that Quentin Tarantino obviously admired - the jury he headed at Cannes gave it the Grand Prize of Jury, essentially second place, which was interesting because while Cannes has no shied away from extreme Asian cinema, they have shied away from giving it prizes. Like many foreign filmmakers who find a following in North America, Park decided to come to Hollywood. His Hollywood debut is Stoker, a nasty, wonderfully directed and acted Hitchcock homage. While Stoker may not be as good as the Master’s best films – or Park’s own best films for that matter – it is still an early year highlight.

Mia Wasikowska stars as India Stoker, a sullen, depressed, extremely intelligent teenage girl, whose beloved father (Dermot Mulroney) dies in a car accident on her 18th birthday. Her mother Eve (Nicole Kidman) doesn’t seem all that broken up by her husband’s death. And then on the day of his funeral her Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) shows up, and moves right into their house, and has eyes for his sister-in-law, who seems more than game. What makes this even stranger is that she didn’t even know she had an Uncle Charlie – but the longtime family housekeeper (Phyllis Sommerville) does know him – and she quickly vanishes. A relative (Jacki Weaver) will also show up one night, wanting to talk to Eve about Charlie, but she leaves the house after dinner, and India never sees her again either.

It is with mounting dread that we watch the movie, and we fear for this sullen, but innocent young girl who is at the mercy of a monstrous mother, and perhaps an even more monstrous Uncle (and if you’ve seen Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, you know what we’re dealing with in Uncle Charlie). Wasikowska is great in her role here – seemingly still, but she is constantly watching and never misses anything. She is better in roles like this – or as the title character in Jane Eyre – than in more “heroic” roles like Burton’s Alice in Wonderful. Her beautiful, seemingly innocent face is capable of telling us so much, so when the movie starts twisting, and the plot twists become more and more ridiculous, Wasikowska keeps the film grounded and believable. We may not believe what is going on around her, but Wasikowska makes us believe in how India responds to it.

Kidman is excellent as well, even if Eve is a tad one-dimensional – she is the monster of a mother, who doesn’t really love her daughter, as much as she feels jealous of her – jealous that her late husband spent more time with India than with her. And when Charlie comes in, and outwardly prefers Eve to India, she is so blinded by her own pride, that she doesn’t see what is happening right in front of her eyes – that Charlie has no real interest in her. He only has eyes for India. Matthew Goode is good as Charlie, a charming mask, an easy laugh and all charm. He is the mystery at the center of the film. Where did he come from? Why did he come back? Given the name of the movie, Park’s last film Thirst, and given that Charlie always leaves his plate untouched, you’d be forgiven in thinking that he is perhaps a vampire. Goode gamely plays along, not offering too many clues as to what his secrets might be.

Perhaps more of a star than any of the cast members is Park and his direction. This is a wonderfully directed movie, with excellent, creepy sound design, and a camera that looks unblinkingly at the horror on screen. Some will inarguably say that the film’s style is over the top and trumps the subject, but Park’s style perfectly matches the over the top subject matter. The violence in the film is strong, bloody and potent – and yet still cannot hold a candle to what Park has put on screen in the past – because it doesn’t need to.

Of course, as with most movies of its sort, Stoker’s weakest moments are when the secrets the film has worked so hard to conceal come pouring out – this time they are both horrific and disturbing, and yet still kind of bland and predictable. Yet what Park is able to do is twist individual moments brilliantly – making us think one thing, only to have his camera pull back and reveal an entirely different meaning (the scene in the shower is the most brilliant example of this). The film begins and ends at the same spot, and yet what was beautiful at first, has now become horrific when we understand the meaning. With Stoker, Park succeeds wonderfully in doing what Hitchcock loved to do – playing the audience like a piano.

Movie Review: Oz: The Great and Powerful

Oz: The Great and Powerful
Directed by: Sam Raimi.
Written by: Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire based on the books by L. Frank Baum.
Starring: James Franco (Oz), Mila Kunis (Theodora), Rachel Weisz (Evanora), Michelle Williams (Annie / Glinda), Zach Braff (Frank / Finley), Bill Cobbs (Master Tinker), Joey King (Girl in Wheelchair / China Girl), Tony Cox (Knuck), Stephen R. Hart (Winkie General), Abigail Spencer (May), Bruce Campbell (Winkie Gate Keeper).

When I watched Oz: The Great and Powerful a few days ago, I did so in 2-D. I don’t really have anything against 3-D per se – although normally, I don’t really think it adds much to the experience – but the time of the 2-D show was just much more convenient to me, so that’s what I saw. While I was watching the film, I couldn’t help but wonder if director Sam Raimi – or any director who works in 3-D these days – considers how the film is going to look in 2-D. Afterall, many audiences will still their work on the big screen in 2-D, and many more will do so over the years on televisions in their own home. The reason why I ask this is that are moments in Oz: The Great and Powerful which were cringe worthy in 2-D – blatant moments where things fly at the screen with absolutely no reason to, other than to give the audience their money’s worth on the 3-D surcharge. There were other bad moments – although maybe they were just as bad in 3-D – where the visual effects seemed off – a moment where Oz and Theodora are running over a hill for example, that simple seemed clumsy.

I wondered these things for a few reasons – for one, they stood out like a sore thumb. For another, the film is directed by Sam Raimi, who is a gifted director, and whose earlier films all had his signature style – a style that shows up in only one shot of Oz: The Great and Powerful (the plants with the eyes, and how they see Oz and company in case you’re curious), but for the most part, Oz: The Great and Powerful has none of Raimi’s fingerprints on it. It could have been made by just about anyone, because more and more of these special effects epics are starting to have a homogenous look to them. The other reason I noticed was much simpler – I was bored. Oz: The Great and Powerful utterly lacks in imagination in its storytelling, and along with the flaws in the visual effects, this made it impossible for me to be swept up in the movie’s “magical world”. The world of Oz in this film is so clearly fake, that it took me out of the movie. An even bigger problem is that the characters seem as fake as their surroundings.

Compare this to the original The Wizard of Oz from 1939. Visual effects have obviously grown by leaps and bounds over the past 74 years – but that’s not necessarily a good thing in every respect. The Oz in the 1939 classic was still a “real” place – everything in it looked as though it could touched and felt, because, of course, it could. Everything in the new movie looks like a computer game. And on another level, although the effects in the 1939 version show their age in many ways, the story is so compelling, the characters so relatable, real and either lovable or hateable, that kids still get drawn into the movie’s spell all these decades later. I doubt anyone will be watching Oz: The Great and Powerful decades from now.

The movie stars James Franco as a carnival magician/con man/womanizer, who while running away from an angry husband, jumps into a hot air balloon and ends up in Oz when a twister hits. The first person he meets is Theodora (Mila Kunis), a witch, but a seemingly good one. She tells Oz of a prophecy of a wizard descending from the sky who bares the land’s name bringing peace to all. And of course said king who be showered with riches. So first Oz seduces her, then they head off to the castle where they meet Theodora’s sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz), who informs Oz of something Theodora forgot to mention. In order to rein, he needs to kill the “Wicked Witch” Glinda (Michelle Williams), who lives in the Dark Forest. So, with the help of his new flying monkey Finley (Zach Braff), Oz heads into the Dark Forest to kill the Wicked Witch.

If the movie was hoping to surprise us with a role reversal, I doubt too many will be shocked to discover that Glinda isn’t really the Wicked Witch – Evanora is. And because Oz broke her heart, Theodora turns wicked as well. You’re not fooling anyone by having the brunettes be evil, and the blonde being as pure as driven snow.

The bigger problem with the trio of witches though is simple – they are all extremely boring characters. This is doubly disappointing when you think of how the original Wizard of Oz (and all the Oz books) was one of the few children fantasy series to have strong, female protagonists. In this one, they have been replaced by a womanizing huckster, who treats the women poorly – and the women behave as one dimensional stereotypes. I love Michelle Williams – she’s one of the best actresses working today – but she’s not really right for a goody-two-shoes role like Glinda (how they hell they DID NOT cast Amy Adams in this role is a mystery to me).Instead of being sweet, innocent and lovable, Williams is just kind of bland. Weisz is even worse, as she’s one dimensionally evil and obviously so from her first scene. The film never really gives her much to do. I think they tried to make Theodora a more complicated character, but her transformation from wide eyed innocent to cackling super witch is so abrupt that it feels unnatural – not to mention the fact that Kunis doesn’t look natural in green paint – she’s just one more phony looking special effect. James Franco is fine, I guess, as the charlatan wizard, but there isn’t much he can do with the role. At least Zach Braff is an entertaining annoying flying monkey.

In the past few years, I have read more than one piece about how all big budget movies look the same – that they no longer have any style of their own, but all have the same “blockbuster” aesthetic. I still don’t know if I quite believe that – no matter what you think of Nolan’s Batman movies, they are all undeniably his in every way – including visually, and the same goes for Michael Bay. But these type of fantasy movies are starting to run together, and have little to differentiate themselves from each other, and suck all the style from the director. Is there anything in Oz that marks it as a Sam Raimi film? He is a gifted visual director, but here it’s layered under so much candy colored crap it’s hard to tell. Tim Burton had a similar problem with Planet of the Apes (truly, the least Tim Burton-esque of all Tim Burton films) and Alice in Wonderful. It seems to bigger your budget it, they more your film has to look like everything else.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Movie Review: The Last Gladiators

The Last Gladiators
Directed by: Alex Gibney.

I am a huge hockey fan. I have been a fan of the L.A. Kings since I was 6 years old, when they got my favorite player of all time – Wayne Gretzky. Yes, I was a bandwagon hoper back then, but since I suffered through 25 years with the team, I believe I can call myself a true fan now, and last year when they won their first Stanley Cup it was perhaps the greatest moment of my life that I really didn’t have anything to do with. The NHL has changed since I was a kid, and Alex Gibney’s The Last Gladiators shows one of the ways in which it has – fighting. There is no doubt that fights still happen in the NHL – and even if the media wags a disapproving finger at the NHL for allowing it to continue, fighting will always be a part of the game. But it isn’t as big of a part as it once was. Watching The Last Gladiators takes you back to a time when bench clearing brawls were common. And the speed and ferocity of the fights in those days seem much worse than today. Fighters today are a little more concerned for their own safety – as well they should be – and do a better job of protecting themselves. But back in the 1980s, two men simply squared off and starting pounding on each other until one of them fell over.

One of the toughest fighters back then was Chris Nilan, who is the main focus of Gibney’s documentary. Nilan admits he wasn’t a great hockey player – he couldn’t skate very well, shoot very well, or pass very well. But what he could do was fight. He wasn’t afraid of anyone, and for years as a Montreal Canadian, he would go toe-to-toe with anyone who dared mess with one of his teammates. He got better at hockey over the years – his coaches and teammates helped him work on the fundamentals of the game, and he even scored 20 goals one year. He didn’t get “pretty” goals like Gretzky or Mario Lemieux, but you plant him in front of the net, he couldn’t be moved, and he'd whack in a rebound goal. If that sounds easy, you try it sometime.

But Nilan, like many former NHL tough guys – or enforcers or goons or whatever you want to call it – has had a rough time since leaving the NHL. The movie has an interview with Bob Probert – probably the most infamous of these guys from that era – and will later show his funeral. He died of a heart attack, after years of struggling with alcohol and drug abuse. He was only 45 years old. The autopsy also showed signs of brain damage – from all the concussions Probert got in his career as a result of fighting. The documentary features other tough guys – Nilan, Tony Twist, Marty McSorley and others list all their injuries and surgeries they had over the year to repair the damage to their bodies they inflicted on themselves and each other over the years.

What always strikes me when I see these enforcers interviewed is that they all seem like nice guys. You would think that guys whose job it is to beat people up game in and game out, would have a screw loose, or be violent, nasty people in their day-to-day lives, but for the most part, they aren’t. Nilan is filled with regret for some of the things he did outside of hockey – yes, there were some fights – but mainly it was his drug addiction (to painkillers) and alcoholism that he regrets. And these tough guys have a code – they don’t really want to hurt each other. They just want to fire up their team, or defend their teammates. The most telling example of this “code” comes not from Nilan, but another tough guy who says when he was fighting one time, his shoulder popped out of the joint and he let out an audible gasp of pain – the other fighter asked him what was wrong and when he told him the shoulder popped out, his opponent said “Okay, fight’s over” and stopped. Many of these guys became good friends after their playing days were over.

Fighting will probably always have a place in hockey. None of the fighters interviewed think it should be taken out of the game, and every time they do a poll of players in the NHL, the overwhelming majority think it has a place in the game (I believe the last one I saw was at 98% for fighting). But the debate around fighting in hockey has ramped up in recent years. Concerns about concussions are real – and how they affect the quality of life of players after their playing days can be horrific (not quite as bad as football players, but not good either). Many in the media want to take out “staged” fights, but leave non-staged ones in the game. If staged fights got eliminated, so would the jobs for these enforcers – because of the most part, all their fights are staged. Many see this as a good thing – after all, most enforcers aren’t very good hockey players – certainly not NHL level at anything other than fighting.

But to wrap up the fighting debate in the cloak of player safety, and go after just “staged” fights doesn’t make much sense to me. You can get a concussion or a major injury in a fight whether it’s staged or not. What the NHL needs to decide is if fighting has a place in the game or not – and then either let it go, knowing the risk the players are willingly taking, or eliminating it completely. You can’t have your cake and eat it too.

I know that most of this review has turned away from Gibney’s documentary and talked about fighting in hockey, but, well, that’s just the way it is. The Last Gladiators is a must see for all hockey fans. Seeing what Nilan and other tough guys have gone through since their glory days may well make them think twice before cheering on hockey fights. And the debate about fighting in hockey is real, and should be had – just like the debate about concussions in football must be had as well. As fans, we don’t really see hockey players as “people” – they are out there on the ice playing for our amusement – we cheer for them, or boo them, as we see fit, and when their playing days are done, for the most part, we don’t think of them ever again. What The Last Gladiators does is make us see Nilan, who always seemed like the toughest guy in the world on the ice, as a real person who has paid a hefty price. Only part of that is because of hockey, but undeniably hockey contributed to his demons. I still don’t really know what I think of fighting in hockey – as a kid, I loved it, but for the most part now when a fight breaks out, I yawn, and wait for the game to start again. The Last Gladiators is an essential addition to the debate about fighting in hockey.