Thursday, May 30, 2013

Los Angeles vs. Chicago

Please excuse me while I indulge in my other passion other than movies – hockey. Specifically, the Los Angeles Kings. As you know, the Kings won the Stanley Cup this year, and back in the Conference Finals this year against Chicago (and if you don’t know – shame on you!). They will be taking on the Chicago Blackhawks for the chance to go back the Stanley Cup Final. You’d be hard pressed to find two cities that more movies have been set in (not counting New York obviously – and since BOTH of their teams lost, screw them), I thought I’d do a comparison of 10 movies – one for Los Angeles and one for Chicago to see who comes out on top. By using this very scientific method, I think we can safely assume whatever city comes out on top will also win the series. And hopefully, I can do a post comparing Los Angeles to Boston next round (god help me if it’s Pittsburgh). Anyway, I’ve broken down the films by category – with Los Angeles coming first and Chicago second (they are the Second City after all).

1. Classic Film Noir
Sunset Blvd (Billy Wilder, 1950) vs. Call Northside 777 (Henry Hathaway, 1948)
Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd. is one of the greatest films ever made. A cynical look at the industry that dominates their city and how it uses people up, and how delusional people get as a result. A dark, mysterious, brilliantly written, directed and acted movie. Call Northside 777 is – well, it’s okay. It has Jimmy Stewart as a reporter looking into an old murder case – and hey, it was actually filmed in Chicago. That’s something I guess.
Advantage: Los Angeles

2. Michael Mann
Heat (1995) vs. Public Enemies (2009)
Michael Mann is one of the best action directors in the world today. His male characters are defined by their jobs – and take no nonsense. And his female characters – well, they kind of fade into the background. So a point goes to Public Enemies for Marion Cottilard, perhaps the best female performance in any Mann film. But that’s the only way Public Enemies is superior to Heat – which had multiple amazing action sequences, and the first onscreen pairing of DeNiro and Pacino – in one of the best scenes of all time. I love Public Enemies, but this isn’t even close.
Advantage: Los Angeles.

3. Robert Altman
Short Cuts (1993) vs. The Company (2003)
Robert Altman is one of the best director of all time. His Short Cuts is an epic masterpiece, combing multiple stories from Raymond Carver into a rich tapestry of L.A. at its very best and very worst. You could easily make the case that it is the quintessential L.A. movie. The Company is about ballet – and although it has its champions, has largely been forgotten by most. Yes, I liked Neve Campbell in the movie, and it’s a fine film in its own right. No, it’s nowhere near as good as Short Cuts.
Advantage: Los Angeles.

4. Throwbacks to Previous Decades
L.A. Confidential (Curtis Hanson, 1997) vs. The Untouchables (Brian DePalma, 1987)
Both of these films look back at their cities and movie history. Curtis Hanson’s brilliant L.A. Confidential is like a 1940s film noir – full of corruption, greed, lust, violence and murder – and features a brilliant cast led by Russell Crowe, Kevin Spacey, Guy Pearce and Kim Basinger. Brian DePalma’s The Untouchables wants to be a 1930s gangster movie – and does feature a great turn by Sean Connery, and I do love Robert DeNiro’s scenery chewing. Both are excellent – but L.A. Confidential is clearly better.
Advantage: Los Angeles.

5. “Existential Crime Movies”
Drive (Nicholas Winding Refn, 2011) vs. Thief (Michael Mann, 1981)
I never quite believed that Drive was an “existential” crime thriller like so many believed (nor Thief for that matter, but seemed to be the consensus when Drive was released in 2011), but there is no doubt that visually at least, it owes a great deal to Michael Mann – and the lead characters in the film are similar (though certainly not the same). As stated above, I loved Michael Mann – and Thief is one of his best films. Yet, Drive is even better – more stylish, more violent, it has a gorgeous Carey Mulligan, Ryan Gosling at his silent best (not to mention the coolest jacket ever)and best of all Albert Brooks as an Albert Brooks-like psychopath. Thief is great – Drive is better.
Advantage: Los Angeles

6. Comedies Best When Stoned/Drunk
The Big Lebowski (Joel & Ethan Coen, 1998) vs. The Blues Brothers (John Landis, 1980)
The Big Lebowski is not the Coen’s best movie – but it is certainly the funniest. Jeff Bridges should have won an Oscar for his now iconic performance as the Dude. John Goodman is hilariously over the top, Steve Buscemi gloriously dumb, John Turturro wonderfully creepy and Sam Elliot the best narrator in memory. The Blues Brothers is fun – and at the center of John Belushi’s legacy – and may be good for Kings fans to watch this series, since they destroy Chicago in it. Still, The Big Lebowski is much, much better.
Advantage: Los Angeles

7. Families in Crisis
Killer of Sheep (Charles Burnett, 1977) vs. Ordinary People (Robert Redford, 1980)
Robert Redford’s Ordinary People won the Oscar for Best Picture way back in 1980 (beating Raging Bull – for shame!). it’s actually a very good movie that has been forgotten by too many people – it’s depiction of the Chicago suburbs seeming perfection masking deeper pain is quite good. Still, compare that to Charles Burnett’s brilliant 1977 student film Killer of Sheep, that didn’t get an official release for decades because of music rights issues. The family at the heart of that movie is poor, and struggle to make ends meet day to day, and still have a better bond that the rich WASPS in Ordinary People. Watch them back to back and tell me which family comes across whinier.
Advantage: Los Angeles.

8. 1970s Crime Films
Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974) vs. The Sting (George Roy Hill, 1973)
Polanski’s movie is one of the great neo-noirs ever made, with a brilliant screenplay by Robert Towne, Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway and John Huston at their best, the best nose slicing scene in movie history and a killer ending. The Sting is a fun, forgettable conman movie that somehow won the Best Picture Oscar. I really don’t need to say anything else.
Advantage Los Angeles.

9. Brian DePalma
Body Double (1984) vs. The Fury (1978)
Body Double is an excellent homage to Hitchcock’s Rear Window – a nifty, nasty little film that also features Melanie Griffth (who was hot at the time) as a porn star in an unforgettable role. The Fury has John Cassavetes exploding head. Now, as exploding head scenes go, it’s pretty good. But it’s no Scanners.
Advantage: Los Angeles.

10. “Romantic Comedies for Guys”
Punch-Drunk Love (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2002) vs. High Fidelity (Stephen Frears, 2000)
Both of these films outwardly look like typical romantic comedies – but both have a much more masculine sensibility than most in the genre. In Punch-Drunk Love, Anderson brilliantly deconstructs Adam Sandler’s onscreen personality – meaning it’s the one movie that acknowledges that he always plays an anti-social psycho – but even he finds love. In High Fidelity, John Cusack talks a lot about his past loves and pop music. I love both of these films – still, it’s not much of a contest, is it?
Advantage: Los Angeles.

So, there you have it – a perfect 10-0 record for L.A. over Chicago. Now, I’m sure that some will disagree with some of my choices here (they’re wrong), and some will say I should have picked different Chicago movies – The Fugitive, Risky Business, Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters, Chicago, Eight Men Out, Dick Tracy, Medium Cool, Mickey One,  Road to Perdition, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (even though one of the main characters there has the good sense to be a Red Wings fan) and that I stacked the deck too heavily in L.A.’s favor and didn’t play fair – but screw those people. Go Kings Go!

The Strange Case of M. Night Shyamalan

In 1999, M. Night Shyamalan made The Sixth Sense, which became the surprise hit of the summer. Not only did it make a lot of money, it also secured several Oscar nominations – including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay – which is almost unheard of for a supernatural thriller. Part of the reason The Sixth Sense became such a hit of course was the twist ending – which managed to do what great trick endings do – completely shock and surprise the audience, and yet make perfect sense once it was revealed. Any idiot can come up with a from out of left fielding ending that surprises the audience – the trick is to make the ending logical, and yet also prevent the audience from seeing it coming. Shyamalan pulled that off perfectly.

My opinion on The Sixth Sense has never wavered over the years. I think it’s a superbly made and very well acted thriller and I did love the ending – but without the ending, it’s clear to me that The Sixth Sense would have long since been forgotten. It’s a very good film with a great ending. His follow-up to The Sixth Sense wasn’t as highly regarded with critics or audiences – but to me is
Shyamalan’s best film. That would be Unbreakable (2000) – another supernatural thriller with a twist ending, but this time the whole movie is at the same level as the ending. Bruce Willis has arguably never had a better leading role in his career, and Samuel L. Jackson is just about perfect as the man who guides him through the surprising things he learns about himself. I’m not joking when I say that Unbreakable reminded me of Hitchcock – and there are few thrillers that I would say that about. It is a masterful film – and it’s a shame that the film wasn’t a bigger hit, which is what led Shyamalan to abandon his plans for two sequels. Unbreakable is the perfect “Issue #1” of a comic book franchise – and while it stands on its own as a masterwork of its genre, it’s a shame we didn’t get to see what came next.

Two years after Unbreakable, Shyamlan had another big hit on his hands with Signs (2002). Again, I think this is a superior film of its genre, and while it’s easy to make fun of some of the more sincere moments in the film – and at times, the movie does take itself too seriously – it’s still one of the better movies of its ilk. It had a wonderful performance by a pre-crazy Mel Gibson, and another one by pre-crazy Joaquin Phoenix. While the ending wasn’t the shock that his first two films were – it’s still surprising. And Shyamalan had many great moments in the film that I found scary as hell when I saw them (the videos, the knife under the door, etc.).

On the basis of these three films, I though what we were dealing with was a modern Hitchcock – a director who could make thrillers that didn’t depend on gore, and could be watched even after the secrets are revealed. Yes, at times Shyamalan’s dialogue was ponderous, and the films were all a little self-serious, but still, Shyamalan did more in those three films that most directors in the genre do in their career.

And then it all went to shit.

The follow-up to Signs was The Village (2004), and while the film still made money, it almost immediately became a joke. A blind Bryce Dallas Howard wandering around in the forest, a ridiculous performance by Joaquin Phoenix, clearly phony “wolves” and the most ridiculous twist ending of Shyamalan’s career – The Village was clearly a step backwards from Shyamalan. It had all the markings on a director who took himself too seriously, and was stuck in a rut creatively. People expect a twist from Shyamalan, so he kept giving it to them. But sooner or later, your luck runs out – as it did with The Village.

Most other directors would probably decide to do something completely different at this point. And surely, this was not the only genre that interested Shyamalan – he made two films before The Sixth Sense (Praying for Anger in 1992 and Wide Awake in 1998) that were completely outside the supernatural thriller genre (and remain unseen by me).
But instead of doing that, Shyamalan doubled down. In 2006 he made Lady in the Water, and was almost universally slammed by the critics for it – and worse for him, it didn’t make much money. Personally, although I certainly think Lady in the Water is a hugely flawed film, it’s one I kind of like. It’s a strange fairy tale, wonderfully photographed by Christopher Doyle, and containing two excellent performances by Paul Giamatti and Bryce Dallas Howard. Yes, the whole film critic character (Bob Balaban) was a stupid idea – and Shyamalan had to know he was going to be blasted for it – as was Shyamalan casting himself as a “writer who will save the world” – because it shows enormous ego, and he’s not much of an actor. Oh, and calling the creatures “Narfs” and “Scrunts” was also silly. Still, I kind of admired Lady in the Water for fully embracing its fairy tale storyline – for making a completely non-cynical film in a very cynical time. It wasn’t close to great, but it’s not quite the travesty people said it was.

That would come two years later – when in 1998 Shyamalan made The Happening. If you wanted to make a straight faced parody of all the worst things about Shyamalan’s films, you couldn’t do better than this. With overly serious performances by Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel, to ridiculous deaths, an even more ridiculous twist ending, and inane dialogue about hot dogs, The Happening was the film where finally even Shyamalan realized he had gone too far – it was time to do something else.

Personally, I thought this was a good idea. In The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs and parts of The Village and Lady in the Water, Shyamalan had shown he was a good, sometimes great director. But his last three films had also shown that as a writer, he was simply out of ideas. Sometimes when a director takes a step back – and embraces a different type of movie, from a writer other than himself, he can turn things around.

This didn’t happen for Shyamalan. His 2010 film The Last Airbender is arguably his worst. Based on a popular animated series, The Last Airbender is a horribly written and acted movie. To add to its problems, it wasn’t shot in 3-D, but converted to 3-D to cash in on the recently emerged craze – this made an already dimly lit film look downright dark and incomprehensible at times. This wasn’t the only problem with the direction – there was hardly anything right about it – but it didn’t help.

Which brings us up to date. Shyamalan flirted with other projects – he was attached to Life of Pi for years, until he backed out, thinking the novel was unfilmable (Ang Lee proved him wrong, and has a Best Director Oscar to prove it). Shyamalan’s latest film, After Earth, starring Will Smith hits theaters this week. Will it get him back on the A-List? Who knows – it certainly doesn’t look great, but at this point in his career, good could be considered a major win for Shyamalan.

After Signs, it appeared like Shyamalan was well on his way to becoming a director like Steven Spielberg (I believe Time Magazine’s Cover even proclaimed him so). He looked like he was going to become that rare “star” director who could sell a film on his name alone. Those directors are few and far between – perhaps only Spielberg and Tarantino can do so right now, although one could argue Scorsese as well. But the previews for After Earth don’t even mention it’s director at all – hell, I saw multiple trailers, and didn’t realize it was a Shyamalan film until I looked the film up on IMDB. After four bombs in a row, it’s clear the studio’s marketing department sees his name as a liability.
 
But part of me is still rooting for Shyamalan. Unbreakable really is that good, and The Sixth Sense and Signs are close as well. He is a talented filmmaker – and although it’s fairly undeniable that his ego led to his downfall, as he kept plowing forward with increasingly ridiculous plots, perhaps now that he has been humbled he can make a comeback.

The Top 10 Performances by Woody Harrelson

Woody Harrelson has always been one of my favorite actors – even though he seemingly disappears from the movies for a couple years at a stretch quite often. He’s one of those guys who can fit in no matter what kind of movie you’re making – absurd comedy or dark drama, and everything in between. He’ll be in Now You See Me this week, so I thought I’d look back at by 10 favorite Woody Harrelson performances.

10. Game Change (Jay Roach, 2012)
When Game Change debuted on HBO last year, most of the talk (rightly) centered on Julianne Moore’s performance as Sarah Palin. Moore pulled off the near impossible in showing just how dangerously incompetent Palin was to be Vice President, let alone President, and yet still made her a fully rounded person, who even generates sympathy from the audience – there is a reason why Moore won a bunch of awards for her performance. But Harrelson’s role is really the central one in the movie – he plays Steven Schmidt, the McCain adviser who wanted Palin in the first place, and then watches slowly as she melts down, and he realizes just how bad a candidate she is and yet what a brilliant actress she could be. Harrelson does not have the well-known personality or vocal mannerisms to fall back on, like Moore and Ed Harris (who played McCain) did. His role is tricky, and he pulls it off brilliantly – right up until the final moments. A great performance by Harrelson here.

9. No Country for Old Men (Joel & Ethan Coen, 2007)
There is no question about it – compared to the performances in this movie by Josh Brolin, Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem and even Kelly McDonald, Woody Harrelson’s role pales. And yet, Harrelson is just about perfect in his few brief scenes as Carson Wells – another hit man who is on the trail of Josh Brolin and his stolen money, as well as Javier Bardem’s even more brutal hit man. In many ways, Wells is a mere misdirection in Cormac McCarthy’s novel, and the film based on it – he comes in, is confident, knows Chigruh, and we think we’re being setup for some sort of epic confrontation, only to have him dispatched rather quickly and easily. That’s a brilliant move – but in many instances it would mean the actor playing the role has a thankless task. But Harrelson makes the most of his few scenes – creates a very specific character out of him. No, he isn’t the best in this movie – not even close because he’s not given the role for it – that doesn’t mean he isn’t just about perfect in the film anyway.

8. White Men Can’t Jump (Ron Shelton, 1992)
Ron Shelton directed two great sports comedies in the late 1980s/early 1990s – the more famous of which is Bull Durham, but the better of which is White Men Can’t Jump. This is a film that gave Harrelson his first great movie role, and he excels in it. He plays a basketball hustler, who knows that simply by looking like he does, no one will take him seriously - making it all the better when he beats them. Harrelson has great chemistry with the other two major characters in the movie – Wesley Snipes (yes, there was a time where he could act), as another hustler who he teams up with, and Rosie Perez as his whip smart, sexy, funny firecracker of a girlfriend. The film is profane in the extreme – but is creative with its profanity – and Harrelson nails it.

7. Zombieland (Ruben Fleischer, 2009)
Woody Harrelson has a gift for playing eccentric characters – and his role in Zombieland, as Tallahassee, the Twinkie and Bill Murray loving guy who relishes killing zombies in creative ways is one of his best. While Jessie Eisenberg is certainly the star of the show here, Harrelson gets the film’s plum supporting role – and he makes the most of it. Many actors would look lost, or simply seem out of place, but not Harrelson who nails the tone between comedy and horror pretty much perfectly. Harrelson has had tougher roles – and obviously delivered better performances, but I’m not sure he’s ever been this much fun to watch in a movie.

6. The Walker (Paul Schrader, 2007)
Not many people saw Paul Schrader’s The Walker from a while back, but they should have if for no other reason than to see Harrelson’s excellent performance in the lead role. He plays Carter Page III, the son of a famous congressman who took on Richard Nixon during Watergate, and is still admired in Washington. By comparison, the younger Carter hasn’t done much with his life – he is rich and gay, and spends his days escorting the wives of politicians to social events when their husbands are too busy. And then, Carter becomes involved in a murder he did not commit, but looks like he did. This is a prototypical Schrader movie – similar in many ways to American Gigolo (1980), but to me, a better, more complete film. It is a murder mystery and a quietly moving character study. And Harrelson absolutely nails the leading role.

5. The Thin Red Line (Terrence Malick, 1998)
I have no idea how much of Harrelson’s performance in The Thin Red Line ended up on the cutting room floor. Malick is infamous for cutting actor’s either out of the movie completely or turning major roles into what amounts to a cameo appearance – which may well be what happened to Harrelson, who only has a few minutes of screen time in Malick’s WWII masterpiece. Yet who can forget those few minutes by Harrelson – who has perhaps the most memorable scene in the entire movie gets a chance to have the film’s most tragic and accidental death sequence – and one that hits hard. Harrelson does so much in that one scene that even though that’s pretty much all he does in this film; it still remains one of the most stunning performances of his career.

4. Rampart (Oren Moverman, 2011)
Harrelson’s character in Rampart is the most amoral character Harrelson has ever played – and really one of the most amoral characters I have ever seen at the heart of a movie. He plays an LAPD officer who is involved in the Rampart scandal of the late 1990s – but he seems even worse than most of the officer in that scandal. He is racist and misogynistic, has two kids, by separate mothers (who happen to be sisters and live next door to each other), but doesn’t seem to care too much about them either. He is violent in the extreme – he is filmed beating a suspect with such expertise, it cannot possibly be the first time he’s done it. He makes enemies where ever he goes – and yet somehow, he always seems to be able to escape. Rampart is not a movie with a typical plot – it does not show this man’s descent into corruption – he’s rotten to the core at the beginning of the film, and he’s not really any better or worse at the end. It is a great performance in a movie that deserves more attention.

3. The Messenger (Oren Moverman, 2009)
Harrelson earned his second Oscar nomination for his excellent performance in The Messenger. He plays a career military man who was simply the wrong age to ever see any combat. His job now is to go to the homes of the families of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan and break the news to them. He has a new recruit – played by Ben Foster, subtly for once – and is showing him the ropes. He advises to not get involved – don’t touch or hug the families, just deliver the news and then get out as fast as you can. This may sound heartless, but Harrelson’s character is hardly uncaring. He is struggling with his own demons and feels tremendous guilt – he just knows what the family needs, and what he needs. This is a quiet movie – but a powerful one. And Harrelson is one of the best things in it.

2. The People vs. Larry Flynt (Milos Forman, 1996)
I’m not sure what it was that Milos Forman saw in Harrelson to make him cast him as famed pornographer Larry Flynt in his excellent biopic – but I’m glad he did. Harrelson got his first Oscar nomination for this role – and he damn well should have won (he lost to Geoffrey Rush for Shine – a fine performance to be sure, but not a great one like Harrelson’s). Harrelson plays Flynt as a fun loving scumbag – he knows his Hustler magazine is vulgar, and he doesn’t care – it makes money. Harrelson is wonderful as she shows Flynt’s evolution from moonshiner to strip club owner to fledgling provocateur into publishing giant – all with the help of his loyal wife (Courtney Love, who showed here she is a real actress – and sadly, has yet to be able to do the same since). Harrelson fully embraces the chaos and contradictions in the role – and delivers one of his very best performances.

1. Natural Born Killers (Oliver Stone, 1994)
In 1994, casting Harrelson as a psychopathic spree killer in lover struck many people as odd – after all, at this point, he was pretty much known only as lovable doofus Woody Boyd from Cheers. But Oliver Stone saw the darkness in Harrelson lurking beneath the surface. As Mickey Knox, Harrelson was given the best role of his career – and delivered a tour-de-force performance. He is likable, charming, funny, creepy, scary and violent – often at the same time. The best part of his performance in undeniably the interview he gives with Robert Downey Jr.’s Geraldo like journalist (modeled after interviews with Charles Manson) – which Harrelson nails. But the entirety of his performance is brilliant. The movie was too violent and too controversial to gain any awards traction – but Harrelson deserved an Oscar for his role here. Maybe one day, he’ll get one.

The Best Movies I Have Never Seen Before: The Hit (1984)

The Hit (1984)
Directed by: Stephen Frears.
Written by: Peter Prince.
Starring: John Hurt (Braddock), Terence Stamp (Willie Parker), Tim Roth (Myron), Laura del Sol (Maggie), Fernando Rey (Senior Policeman), Lennie Peters (Mr. Corrigan), Bernie Searle (Hopwood), Brian Royal (Fellows), Albie Woodington (Riordan), Jim Broadbent (Barrister).

The Hit is a strangely philosophical British gangster film. I wasn’t quite prepared for the film when it started, thinking it was going to a hardboiled thriller akin to something like The Long Good Friday (1980) or Mona Lisa (1986). Instead, I got a strange film – darkly comic, slow moving, ponderous, at times pretentious, and at times quietly profound. I’m not sure the movie is entirely successful – but it certainly is different.

The movie opens with Willie Parker (Terence Stamp) standing up in court and ratting out all his gangster friends. As he steps off the stand, the defendants he has just sold out stand up and start singing “We’ll meet again”, as the boss, Corrigan (Lennie Peters) looks on. This is, as far as I can recall, the only time Corrigan is on screen in the entire movie, but Peters strange, scarred face hangs over the rest of it. You need someone that looks this mean and hard for the film to work as it does.

Flash forward 10 years, and Willie is living a quiet life in Spain – until he is kidnapped by local youth toughs, and handed over to Braddock (John Hurt) and his rookie partner Myron (Tim Roth). They work for Corrigan, now out of prison, and waiting for them in Paris. Everyone knows what will happen when they get there – Willie will be killed. And along the way, they run into some trouble with another gangster, and kill him, but Braddock cannot bring himself to kill his hooker girlfriend Maggie (Laura Del Sol), so she gets dragged along with them on their strange journey through Spain, on route to Willie’s death – and probably Maggie’s as well.

Terence Stamp has always been an interesting actor, and here he has a strange, difficult role, that he pulls off. If you have a vision of what a gangster who rats out his friends would look like, then Stamp fits the bill perfectly – he has often played bad guys in the past. But his Willie is different. In the 10 years since he sold his friends out, he has spent a lot of time thinking and reading – and he seems ready to accept death. He has the chance to escape and he doesn’t, knowing that it wouldn’t really do him any good. He has been waiting for this, and seems to accept his fate. Yet, Willie isn’t as completely Zen in his reasoning as he appears to be, and herein lies the complexity for him. He admits he only sold out his friends because he couldn’t face jail time, and when his moment to truly accept death comes, he doesn’t handle it well. He is never quite what we think he is.

Tim Roth, in his first major role, is also excellent as the naïve, first timer Myron. He breaks the first rule of being a hitman, in that he actually starts to like Willie – even asking him why there are so many castles in the country, and joking with him. Roth, who can be as scary as any actor alive, makes his Myron into an innocent, likable idiot.

But for me, what keeps The Hit from being a great movie is that the other two people on this journey never really snap into focus. Laura Del Sol is just kind of there – along for the ride. She obviously wants to survive, and she tries to talk her way out of her death, but she doesn’t really add much. And John Hurt, who is given very little to say, never becomes the complex character he should be. He’s fine in the role, but there isn’t enough there. And I was also disappointed that they cast the great Fernando Rey as a Spanish cop, and then didn’t give him anything to do.

Directed by Stephen Frears (who has gone onto have a great career, that largely started here), he finds the right tone for the Peter Prince’s screenplay. This isn’t a hardboiled gangster film, but something else entirely. And while I don’t think it’s a great film, it’s one that held my interest throughout, and was surprisingly insightful. I liked The Hit – but everyone involved has done better.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Movie Review: Lore

Lore
Directed by: Cate Shortland.
Written by: Cate Shortland & Robin Mukherjee based on the novel by Rachel Seiffert.
Starring: Saskia Rosendahl (Lore), Nele Trebs (Liesel), André Frid (Günther), Mika Seidel (Jürgen), Kai-Peter Malina (Thomas), Nick Holaschke (Peter), Ursina Lardi (Mutti), Hans-Jochen Wagner (Vati).

There has never been a shortage of WWII movies – that started being made pretty much as soon as the war started, and have never really slowed down. But one aspect of the war that hasn’t had a lot of movies made about it is the lives of German children. True, Roberto Rossellini made a masterpiece on the subject shortly after the war ended – Germany Year Zero (1947), and occasionally we get a patronizing, borderline offensive movie like The Boy in the Stripped Pajamas (2008), but for the most part, filmmakers have chosen to focus on the combat itself, or the Holocaust for the subject of their movies – and not without good reason. German cinema has been slow to address Nazis and the Holocaust at all, so perhaps that helps explain the absence of these movies. Because German children are pretty much blameless in what happened in their country – they didn’t let or help Hitler rise to power, didn’t fight the war, and didn’t work at the Concentration Camps. All of this helps make Cate Shortland’s Lore, such a fascinating movie. Oddly, although the film is in German, it is an Australian film – but perhaps that lets the film have an outsider’s perspective that lets it see its characters more clearly.

The film starts just when the Allies have won and begun to occupy Germany. Lore (Saskia Rosendahl) is about 14, and the eldest of 5 children – a sister Liesel (Nele Trebs) on the cusp of puberty, twins Gunther and Jurgen, around 8, and baby Peter. Their father is a fairly high ranking SS Officer – what he does is never exactly clear, but as the film opens, he is burning all the documents he can, before he is arrested. He isn’t gone long before their mother, too, has to turn herself in. If she doesn’t, they just arrest her anyway. She tells Lore to take her siblings across the country to Grandma’s house – not knowing that the journey is going to be as treacherous as it turns out to be.

Lore is not an easy character to get a read on – she is often silent, and is focused on doing what she has to do to get her younger siblings to safety. They meet Thomas (Kai-Peter Malina) on the road, and he helps them. Lore immediately resents him, because she has seen his papers and knows that he is a Jew. Although she spews the hateful anti-Semitic rhetoric taught to her by her parents, her heart isn’t quite in it. She is deeply conflicted because on one hand, Thomas is who she has been taught to hate, yet on the other hand, he is helping them survive, and the rest of the kids – who don’t seem to know or care what a Jew is – love him so much. Thomas, like Lore, is hard to get a read on – he too is often silent, and watchful. The characters circle each other with a mixture of desire and repulsion.

Lore is a subtle movie – one that gradually introduces its theme of the blinders willfully worn by the German people throughout the war. Lore and her siblings can be forgiven – after all, they are only children, and children listen to what their parents tell them. They have led sheltered lives, and one gathers, a relatively happy one. Whenever they come to a town, and go the Allies for food, they are forced – along with all the other Germans – too look at pictures from the Concentration Camps, to see what has been done in their name. Most of the other Germans don’t believe the pictures – they think they were created by the Allies to scare them (“You never actually see anyone actually killing them, do you?” one remarks). Throughout the movie, they’ll come across one older person after another, lamenting the loss of the Fuhrer – and how “We let him down”. Lore doesn’t beat you over the head in these scenes, but lets them play out naturally. What they do to Lore is not made clear until the final scene – when she finally acts in defiance.

Lore takes on the mood of a fairy tale – but not the cheery ones we tell to children, but the darker, original tales. Like Little Red Riding Hood, these children head off through a forest filled with dangers on the way to Grandma’s house. Shortland’s direction, and the excellent cinematography, help highlight the dark fairy tale tone and atmosphere of the story.

Lore is not an easy film – it asks the audience to understand, if not sympathize, with a character who for most of the running time acts anything but sympathetic. That we do understand is a testament to Rosendahl’s remarkable performance, and Shortland’s subtle screenplay and direction. Lore is not an easy film, but it’s one worth watching and thinking about.

Movie Review: Dark Skies

Dark Skies
Directed by: Scott Stewart.
Written by: Scott Stewart.
Starring: Keri Russell (Lacy Barrett), Josh Hamilton (Daniel Barrett), Dakota Goyo (Jesse Barrett), Kadan Rockett (Sam Barrett), J.K. Simmons (Edwin Pollard), L.J. Benet (Kevin Ratner), Rich Hutchman (Mike Jessop), Myndy Crist (Karen Jessop), Annie Thurman (Shelly Jessop), Jake Brennan (Bobby Jessop), Ron Ostrow (Richard Klein).

When I reviewed the horror film Mama recently I said this: “The problem with Mama is pretty much from beginning to end, the audience knows what the big secret of the movie is going to be – and we just have to wait for the main character to catch up to us. So while Mama is much better made and acted than your run of the mill horror film, it’s just as brainless.” I quote this at length, because it fits pretty much perfectly to Dark Skies as well. You cannot name a movie Dark Skies and start the movie with a quote from Arthur C. Clarke and expect the audience NOT to guess your movie’s big surprise. Like Mama, Dark Skies is a very well made horror movie – but it doesn’t quite have the advantage of Jessica Chastain in the lead role. Keri Russell is fine – but nothing more.

The movie is about the Barrett family – a typical suburban family, who like everyone else is experiencing money problems. Lacy (Russell) is a real estate agent trying to make money on commissions, but doesn’t have the houses to do so, and Daniel (Josh Hamilton) has been out of work for a few months now. Soon though, they’ll wish money problems are all they’ll have. The Barrett’s have two sons – Jesse (Dakota Goyo), on the cusp of being a teenager, and all the confusion that comes along with that, and Sam (Kadan Rockett), a few years younger, who still thinks he sees the sandman – and blames him when he does things wrong. The Barrett’s think this is just a phase – if only that were true.

Of course, strange things start to happen – break-ins to their house, that aren’t really break-ins. Despite a new alarm system, and Daniel’s installation of Paranormal Activity like camera equipment, strange things keep happening – so Lacy, of course, hits the internet and, of course, comes back with a bunch of conspiracy theories that Daniel, of course, thinks are ridiculous but, of course, turn out to be all too true. You get the idea. And without Mulder and Scully to help them the Barrett’s are basically screwed.

Like Mama, the central problem with Dark Skies is that the movie holds no real surprises for the audience. From the opening moments, you know (or should) precisely where this movie is going – and spend the first hour (of a movie barely 90 minutes long) frustrated because the characters take so much more time than you did to figure it all out. Good horror movies need to provide you with a plausible alternate theory – something that makes you go back and forth in your mind trying to piece things together. But from the beginning, there is only one thing that could be causing the problem in Dark Skies.

The film was written and directed by Scott Stewart – and I guess it’s a step forward from his first two features – Legion (2009) and Priest (2011), two horror/action movies that inexplicably tried to turn Paul Bettany into an action hero (it didn’t work). Here, the action is less frantic, the characters more believable, the atmosphere creepier, and more believable. He shows more skill behind the camera this time than in the previous two films. But his screenplay is what ultimately undoes him – it’s hard to get too involved with a movie that depends so much on shocking the audience, when you figure out all the surprises before the characters do – and if there was ever movie that did not require one of those flashback montages that explain the twist, this would be that movie – but it’s there just the same.

Dark Skies certainly isn’t an awful movie. It is well made, and the performances are as good as can be expected given what they to work with – and I did quite enjoy J.K. Simmons in his one scene cameo is a crazy guy who isn’t so crazy after all. But it is a rather pointless one. You have to do something to scare the audience – and Dark Skies gives the game away before the first scene in the movie.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Movie Review: The Hangover Part III

The Hangover Part III
Directed by: Todd Phillips.
Written by: Todd Phillips & Craig Mazin based on characters created by Jon Lucas & Scott Moore.
Starring: Bradley Cooper (Phil), Ed Helms (Stu), Zach Galifianakis (Alan), Justin Bartha (Doug), Ken Jeong (Mr. Chow), John Goodman (Marshall), Melissa McCarthy (Cassie), Jeffrey Tambor (Sid), Heather Graham (Jade), Mike Epps (Black Doug), Sasha Barrese (Tracy), Jamie Chung (Lauren), Sondra Currie (Linda), Gillian Vigman (Stephanie).

The first Hangover film worked, in part, because it was so unexpected. At the time, Todd Phillips was the director behind some terrible (School for Scoundrels), some bad (Road Trip), some passably mediocre films (Starsky & Hutch, Old School), Bradley Cooper was hardly a movie star, Ed Helms was still the fourth guy you thought when you thought of The Office, and Zach Galifianakis was the standup comedian your stoner friend kept raving about, but you never actually saw. It worked because it had a very simple idea, and built around that idea with three personalities that played off each other well, and threw in a ton of offensive humor – that wasn’t as offensive as it could have been because it was funny. In the four years since The Hangover, there have only been a few films that can match it on a pure laugh-out-loud moments scale.

Because the movie became such a hit, a sequel was inevitable. The filmmakers reassembled the whole cast, and tried very hard to recreate the magic of the first movie by setting it in Bangkok instead of Vegas. Everything was bigger in the second movie –the baby was replaced by a mischievous monkey, and the filmmakers tried to outdo the first movie by taking everything further – and the result was pretty much a disaster. If you’re going to be offensive, you have to be funny – and The Hangover Part II was not funny. Now comes The Hangover Part III. After a lackluster second installment filmmakers usually do one of two things for the third installment – either go balls to the wall to redeem themselves, or make the laziest film possible to suck as much money out of the box office as possible while the series still has some goodwill. Unfortunately for us, after an inspired start (I don’t think I’ve ever seen a giraffe decapitation joke before) The Hangover Part III is pretty much the definition of the later.

This time, instead of a wedding bringing the Wolf Pack together – and it’s a funeral (Alan’s dad). Alan’s family is worried about him and want him to go to some place called “New Horizons” (whatever the hell that place is supposed to be is never explained, probably because it doesn’t matter). Alan agrees only because Phil, Stu and Doug are going to drive him to Arizona themselves. But – of course – they don’t make it there. On the way, they are kidnapped by Marshall (John Goodman) and told he wants them to track down their arch nemesis/drinking buddy Chow (Ken Jeong). They have three days – and of course, he’s keeping Doug hostage until he gets them. Thus starts a journey to Tijuana, and ending, of course, in Vegas.

I suppose we should be grateful that the movie doesn’t reuse the same “hangover” story from the first two films again – but this plot isn’t any better. And it gives rise to the film’s biggest problem – too much Jeong and Galifianakis. Both actors can be hilarious – but both are best in smaller doses. Even on the brilliant Community, Jeong’s Chang is best when he’s not driving the plot – and see him in a few brief scenes in Michael Bay’s Pain and Gain to see how to use him effectively. Here, he has to drive most of the action – and while he has a few great moments (I found him singing Nine Inch Nails’ Hurt at Karaoke inexplicably amusing), he wears out his welcome. The same can be said of Galifianakis – in the original Hangover, he was hilarious, because he took a backseat to Bradley Cooper and Ed Helms – and his craziness was used just enough so it didn’t crossover into annoying. Here, Cooper and Helms aren’t really given much to do – they have become the supporting players, and as a result, I quickly grew tired of Galifianakis and his absurdity.

The filmmakers have promised that this is the last Hangover movie – and that’s a good thing. Really, they should have stopped after the first one, as the last two films have proven there really is nothing else they can do with these characters. Now that the series is over, The Hangover Part II and The Hangover Part III will be quickly forgotten – and hopefully, we’ll just remember when the original film – which is still hilarious.

Monday, May 27, 2013

My Answer to the Latest Criticwire Survey Questin: Memorial Day Viewing

This week's question is what is the best movie to watch on Memorial Day. Since I'm Canadian, and hence don't even have Memorial Day off work - we had the previous weekend for Victoria Day this year - this is a hard question to answer. But I'll take in the spirit in which it was intended and answer is with a war movie - actually two of them. What I would watch - since far too few people did back in 2006 - is Clint Eastwood's Iwo Jima double bill Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima. I'm not saying these are the best war movies ever made - they certainly are not - but I think they're good for Memorail Day viewing. Why? Because as flawed as Flags of Our Fathers may have been, it is a fascinating movie not just about war heroes, but on the nature of what makes a war hero itself. The men who raised the flag and become icons, did not do it to become icons - and were uncomfortable with the fame it brought it - in some cases with really bad after effects. We should celebrate the men and women who willingly sacrificed their lives for us - but we should not exploit them, or glamorize what they did. It wasn't glamourous, and men young men died. Letters from Iwo Jima is a more straight forward film, but a less flawed one. And it took decades for an American filmmaker to make a film from the Japanese point of view. I think Letters from Iwo Jima is a great film because it reminds us that our enemies are just people too - people who are fighting for their homeland, just like our soldiers are fighting for theirs. The grunts on the ground don't make the decisions that led us to war - but they're the ones who pay the price for it.

There are lots of choices to choose from though - and I think any number of documentaries about returning soldiers and they sacrifices they have made - and how, at times, they have been mistreated by the government would also fit. The Tillman Story, Restrepo, To Hell and Back and The Invisible War all leap to mind as well.

Movie Review: Fast & Furious 6

Fast & Furious 6
Directed by: Justin Lin.
Written by: Chris Morgan based on characters created by Gary Scott Thompson.
Starring: Vin Diesel (Dominic Toretto), Paul Walker (Brian O'Conner), Dwayne Johnson (Hobbs), Jordana Brewster (Mia), Michelle Rodriguez (Letty), Tyrese Gibson (Roman), Sung Kang (Han), Gal Gadot (Gisele), Ludacris (Tej), Luke Evans (Shaw), Elsa Pataky (Elena), Gina Carano (Riley), Clara Paget (Vegh), Kim Kold (Klaus), Johannes Taslim (Jah), Samuel M. Stewart (Denlinger), Benjamin Davies (Adolfson), Matthew Stirling (Oakes), David Ajala (Ivory), Thure Lindhardt (Firuz), Shea Whigham (Stasiak), John Ortiz (Braga).
After watching Fast & Furious 6, I think it’s time to admit that I have been too hard on this series of movies over the years. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not all of sudden saying that the films represent great art, because they don’t. They are still 6 absolutely ridiculous movies that in order to enjoy you have to turn off your brain. Yet, the series has done two rather remarkable things. The first is that the quality of the movies has been consistent over 6 movies – none of them are great, none of them are terrible, they are all varying degrees of good or ok – in fact this sixth installment just may be my favorite. The second thing the series has done that most series of its ilk has not – it has kept up its continuity. That may seem like I’m damning the movie with faint praise, but I don’t intend to – considering how many horror franchises make 6 or more installments of their series – and considering that most of them become unwatchable by the third installment, this is much harder than it looks.

The second remarkable thing about the series is that while I may not take the storylines very seriously –the filmmakers do. In Fast & Furious 6, the film brings back characters – both major and minor – from all the other installments, and keeps trusts the audience to know who they are. And not once but twice, the film flashes back to earlier installments, and gives us additional information then we had at the time – once to explain why one of the characters we thought was dead isn’t, and the other time to put a character’s death into a broader context. The films have been toying with us ever since installment number 4 – when the filmmakers rightly realized that if they were going to bring back just one character from Tokyo Drift, it damn well better be Han (Sung Kang), and found a way around his death in that movie, by setting the three movies that came after Tokyo Drift before it on the series’ internal timeline. Ever since, Han has been my favorite character. Now perhaps all of that is too serious for a movie – and series – like Fast & Furious – I’ll certainly admit that it is. But it is one of things I appreciate about the series – the filmmakers take it seriously enough that they don’t take the lazy way out like many series do, but not so seriously that it drags the movies down – turning the Han deathwatch into a dark, running joke (every movie has him reference moving to Tokyo – but he never does).

I’ve rambled on about these things and not Fast & Furious 6 by itself, because really, what is there that needs to be said? By this point, you’re either into this series or not – you can either sit back, turn off your brain and enjoy two hours of fast cars, gorgeous women, action, Vin Diesel’s gritty voice, and Paul Walker’s blank stares or you can’t. The movies do seem to try and up the ante every time out – so this time – and I’m giving nothing away since both in the trailer – the boys and their cars take on a tank in one scene in a jumbo jet in another. Can you believe any of this? Of course not. Do you really care? I didn’t.

This movie benefits from a few other things as well. I thought the last installment missed Michelle Rodriguez’s tough, sexy Letty – and apparently the filmmakers did too because they bring her back – but this time, she’s on the other side, and is the bait Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) uses to get Domenic and his team to help him stop a madman bent on assembling some sort of device that could cripple a nation (is this the fast and furious or a Bond movie). And then they also bring Gina Carano from Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire– the one woman I could believe could hold her own in a fight with Rodriguez – and she proceeds to do that not once but twice.

This may be the last installment of the series directed by Justin Lin – who has directed the last four, and has done an increasingly good job each time out. Because they wanted Fast & Furious 7 – which they set up in this one – ready for next year, Lin didn’t think he could do it in time, and backed out. The reins will be taken over by James Wan – who did the first Saw movie (which is good – don’t blame him for what happened later in the series) and the even better Insidious. Perhaps this is a blessing for Lin. He burst onto the scene with the wonderful, dark high school film Better Luck Tomorrow (2002) about very smart Asian kids who gradually dig themselves in deeper and deeper into trouble until someone ends up dead. Since then, he has essentially been doing this series (and the largely forgettable Annapolis). Perhaps now, he can fulfill more of the promise he showed in Better Luck Tomorrow.

I’m not claiming that Fast & Furious 6 is a great movie. It’s not. But it excels at being precisely what it is. You cannot take a moment of it seriously, and you’ll likely forget many of the details before you hit the parking lot. But as big, dumb, loud, fast summer entertainment goes – Fast & Furious 6 fits the bill nicely.

Movie Review: Love is All You Need

Love is All You Need
Directed by: Susanne Bier.
Written by: Anders Thomas Jensen and Susanne Bier.
Starring: Trine Dyrholm (Ida), Pierce Brosnan (Philip), Kim Bodnia (Leif), Paprika Steen (Benedikte), Sebastian Jessen (Patrick), Molly Blixt Egelind (Astrid), Christiane Schaumburg-Müller (Thilde), Micky Skeel Hansen (Kenneth), Bodil Jørgensen (Lizzie), Line Kruse (Bitten).

I understand why Susanne Bier wanted to a make a lighter film like Love is All You Need. Although her reputation is mainly built on her last four films, all of which are heavy dramas – Brothers (2004), After the Wedding (2006), Things We Lost in the Fire (2007) and her Oscar winning In a Better World (2010) – she made a few comedies before that. And those last four films are very, very heavy. When she’s at her best – like in Brothers, Wedding and Fire – her films are hard hitting, emotional gut checks, but when she’s at her worst – strangely the film that won her the Foreign Language Film Oscar, In a Better World, it’s almost comical how she piles up misery upon misery until you simply suffocate from it. So sure, Bier has earned the right to make a comedy – but did it have to be one so littered with clichés like Love is All You Need?

The film stars Trine Dyrholm, in a very good performance actually, as Ida – a Danish hairdresser who has just been informed that she has beaten cancer – although at the moment she is completely bald and has to wear a wig. She comes home to share the good news with her husband Leif (Kim Bodnia) – and wouldn’t you know it, she walks in on him having an affair with a much younger colleague. She is devastated, but has to pick herself up and head to Italy, where her daughter Astrid (Molly Blixt Egelind) is getting married. At the airport, she literally runs into Philip (Pierce Brosnan), who has already been established as a workaholic produce seller – who turns out to be her daughter’s future father-in-law. Philip is bitter and lonely – still not over the loss of his wife years before. If you cannot see what is going to happen between these two, than you have obviously never seen a romantic comedy before. These two characters drive each other crazy at first and then – well, you know, don’t you?

Love is All You Need is at least pretty to look at – most of the movie takes place at on a large estate in the Italian countryside – and is appropriately filmed in lovingly, sundrenched style. Like Ridley Scott’s similarly beautiful, but completely empty, A Good Year, this is a film that makes you fall in love with the location much more than any of the characters. So sit back and enjoy the sights – because there isn’t much else here.

I will say I found it strange that even in a romantic comedy like this, Bier adds in some rather heavy material – horrible mothers, bulimic daughters, sexual identity issues, etc. all come up during the running time of this film, but they are barely dealt with – just tossed off and the forgotten about.

It must be said that Dyrholm’s performance as Ida is actually quite good. I could never believe Brosnan’s performance – he’s far too one note in the film, and his demeanor never really changes whether he’s the stick in the mud or apparently the man in love. He’s sleepwalking through the film. And the supporting cast isn’t really given anything to play – the worst example may just be Benedikte (Paprika Steen) as Philip’s sister-in-law who makes a jaw droppingly harsh transition from delusional to downright cruel that makes no sense whatsoever. But through it all, Dyrholm does her best to keep the movie on an even keel – she doesn’t really succeed, but the fact that she comes close at times needs to be commended.

Perhaps I’m just too cynical for movies like this. I admit it – I’ve pretty much had my fill of romantic comedies – especially of this “wish fulfillment” variety on display in Love is All You Need. I’m much more forgiving of action or horror films that fully embrace the clichés of their genre than I am of romantic comedies. So, I guess that if you like the genre perhaps you’ll find something or worth in Love is All You Need. However, if you want something different – something intelligent or funny or heartfelt – than Love is All You Need fails.

Movie Review: The Source Family

The Source Family
Directed:  Maria Demopoulos & Jodi Wille.

Watching The Source Family, I couldn’t help but think there was more to the story than I was being told. This is a documentary about Jim Baker aka Father Yod, a WWII hero, suspected bank robber, and probable murderer, who in the late 1960s and early 1970s – when he was well into middle age – started what ended up essentially being a cult. Baker was a successful restaurateur, who abandoned not one but two families before his “enlightenment” who started The Source restaurant in Los Angeles (famously seen in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall – the hilarious clip of which is in the movie). It was a vegan restaurant – one of the first of its kind in America – drew celebrities such as Goldie Hawn, Jane Fonda, John Lennon, etc. and was hugely successful. But the restaurant hides a darker secret – that Baker was essentially a cult leader. He would draw in young people – especially women, many under the age of 18 – and then would give up their life savings to the “family” and then abandon their previous lives to wait tables, be busboys or chefs in the restaurant. One woman was engaged to a famous photographer when she joined – and wanted him to join too – something to this day he finds incredible. As the film progresses, things get darker and darker – Baker ordering any girl under 18 in the family to get married (to avoid statutory rape charges) and dictating who ends up with who. Throwing over the woman he was married to – and who the family considered a “mother” to his father, so he can take on 13 different wives at the same time. When the family abandons LA and moves to Hawaii, the neighbors apparently complained about “this Manson family” type – and while it’s true The Source Family never murdered anyone, it’s not hard to draw some similarities between the two groups.

This well could have served as the basis for an excellent documentary – but in order for it to be one; the film had to be darker than it is – more probing into Baker and his group. As it stands, this is a mostly sympathetic portrait of a man who you could certainly argued brainwashed young women – sometimes criminally young women – into having sex with him. The movie interviews some former members – but other than the ex-wife Robin who he tosses aside, and who still says “I’ve never known love like the love I had with him” even though she’s still bitter and angry with him, almost all of the interview subjects have seemingly nothing but fond memories of Baker. True, some admit that eventually they grew tired of Baker and moved on with their lives – whether it was the sex with young women, his forbidding the family from seeking medical treatment or something else, eventually everyone moved on. And yet, the still talk of him as if they are in awe of him – and recount the “miracles” he performed. No one admits to regretting the time they spent as part of the family. Many in fact still keep in contact with each other, and while they are no longer a cult, still look back in reverence at those days.

Perhaps that is what directors Maria Demopoulos and Jodi Wille had in mind with The Source Family – to show how powerful these types of charismatic leaders can be – that even after decades, people still worship him. But that doesn’t really come across in The Source Family. Surely there are some people out there they could have interviewed that would have delved more into the dark side of this family – and of Baker himself. Instead, the movie seems spend most of its time praising Baker, praising the music his family made, and looking back with nostalgia at a bygone era.

As it stands, The Source Family seems more like a rough draft than a finished product. The film feels half formed and is incomplete. Perhaps the filmmakers needed more interviews – to cast a wider net (not many of the 13 wives are interviewed for example), or perhaps they just needed to push their interview subjects harder. But the finished product feels almost like an endorsement of this cult rather than a full examination of it.

Movie Review: Beautiful Creatures

Beautiful Creatures
Directed by: Richard LaGravenese.
Written by: Richard LaGravenese based on the book by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl.
Starring: Alden Ehrenreich (Ethan Wate), Alice Englert (Lena Duchannes), Jeremy Irons (Macon Ravenwood), Viola Davis (Amma), Emmy Rossum (Ridley Duchannes), Thomas Mann (Link), Emma Thompson (Mrs. Lincoln / Sarafine), Eileen Atkins (Gramma), Margo Martindale (Aunt Del), Zoey Deutch (Emily Asher), Tiffany Boone (Savannah Snow), Rachel Brosnahan (Genevieve Duchannes), Kyle Gallner (Larkin Ravenwood), Pruitt Taylor Vince (Mr. Lee).
Ever since Harry Potter became a huge hit, Hollywood has tried to mine other successful Young Adult novels and turn them into a profitable series. For everyone that hits – like Twilight and The Hunger Games – we seem to have one that misses – like The Golden Compass and now Beautiful Creatures. The quality of the movies themselves don’t seem to be a huge factor here – The Golden Compass is far better than any of the Twilight movies, and roughly equivalent to The Hunger Games, and even though Beautiful Creatures isn’t a very good movie, it can certainly stand alongside Twilight on the quality scale. Hollywood, it seems, isn’t very good at judging just how passionately young readers feel about the source material – hence initially you had executives who wanted to completely change the Twilight series from the novels, or why they green lit Beautiful Creatures at all, which given the box office performance of the film, no one really seemed to be demanding – and the sequel of which we will never see. While I cannot argue that’s a great loss, it is slightly disappointing – because while Beautiful Creatures itself is a merely mediocre movie, the story has potential – and when it focuses on the adult characters instead of the star crossed teen lovers, it is at times a downright riot.

The movie stars Alden Ehrenreich as Ethan Wate who lives in a small North Carolina town, and longs to get out. While the other students in his class seem to be idiots – who think it’s a wonderful thing their church has so much influence they can ban books like To Kill a Mockingbird from the curriculum, Ethan fancies himself smarter than the rest – a writer in waiting – who reads Vonnegut and will move onto Bukowski. He’s just about to enter his Junior Year, and is counting down the days until he can go to college anywhere, as long it’s far, far away – his mother died years ago, and his father has pretty much locked himself in his bedroom ever since.

Into Ethan’s life enters Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert) – who everyone is school takes an immediate dislike to, since she is a member of the famed Ravenwood family – who may be the richest family in town, and own half of it, but are hated because they are suspected of being Satanists, and the family leader Macon (Jeremy Irons) is too stuck up to ever venture into town. He’s Lena’s uncle, who has agreed to let her attend school, even though he doesn’t like the idea. While everyone else hates her Ethan, of course, falls for her. And because he’s so witty and charming, she falls for him too – but she has, of course, a secret that will take the movie in the direction of the supernatural.

Beautiful Creatures is not a very good movie. The screenplay was written by director Richard LaGravenese, and he cannot overcome the overwrought, melodramatic dialogue that was probably part of the novels (I’m assuming, since most Young Adult novels are filled with it). As a director, he seems to be aping Tim Burton, and although there is some wonderful art direction in the Ravenwood mansion, LaGravenese cannot match Burton for his sense of weirdness, that Burton pulls off in his sleep.

Still, the movie comes far closer to succeeding that it probably should because of the performances. Ehrenreich is a natural movie star if he’ll be ever to find the right role – he has that effortless charm that wins you over despite of yourself. Englert, far better in the recent Ginger and Rosa, is still quite good – the kind of beauty that could be an outcast only in the movies. They’re fine together, even if you never quite believe their story. The real reason to see the movie – if you must – is for the performances by the adults. Viola Davis is mostly wasted as Amma, the librarian who harbors secrets of her own – as are two other very good actresses, Eileen Atkins and Margo Martindale. Perhaps all three signed up because they thought this would become a franchise and would be an easy paycheck for a few years or because future installments promised more for them to do– but as it stands, the movie doesn’t do anything with them, and with the series dead, it never will.

However, whenever Jeremy Irons, Emma Thompson or Emmy Rossum are onscreen, the movie comes alive. Irons seems to have no real criteria for what movies he’ll do – he’s been in far too much crap for an actor as good as he is – but in the role of Macon, he is clearly having a blast and has some great moments – especially at a town meeting he is not wanted at – even if he too is saddled with too much explanatory dialogue. Even more fun is Emma Thompson, who shows up as the true antagonist of the movie, and rips into her role with gusto, obviously relishing the chance to play the villain for once. Do either of these British actors come close to a believable Southern accent? No – but then I don’t think they were trying to. They seem to enjoy going completely over the top in their exaggeration of their accents – and so I enjoyed them as well. Even better than both of these actors – surprisingly – is Emmy Rossum who owns the screen in her all too brief appearance as a cousin of Lena’s – able to control men even more than a woman who looks like Rossum should be able to. Build a movie around her character, and you got yourself a movie.

But they didn’t build a movie around her – they built it around an overwrought, melodramatic teen romance that somehow ends up bringing the Civil War into the proceedings. Far too much of the movie is spent telling the story, which isn’t all that interesting, and far too little is spent on the characters you actually want see onscreen. I don’t think Beautiful Creatures is a very good movie, but it did have potential. Perhaps a TV series would have worked better than a movie because this is the type of story you want to dig deeper into – where you want to background to come to foreground.