Friday, August 30, 2013

Movie Review: Passion

Directed by: Brian De Palma.
Written by: Brian De Palma based on the screenplay by Natalie Carter and Alain Corneau.
Starring: Rachel McAdams (Christine), Noomi Rapace (Isabelle James), Paul Anderson (Derk), Karoline Herfurth (Dani), Rainer Bock (Inspector Bach).

Many of Brian De Palma’s thrillers – even his better ones – don’t make much logical sense. Go back and watch Sisters (1973) or Obsession (1976) or Dressed to Kill (1980) to see some examples of his finest work that gets by almost entirely on style and not on logic. If you think about the plots of these films, they pretty much fall apart. But because De Palma tells them with such style, and such passion, and because they twist and turn so unpredictably, you are caught up in the movie from moment to moment, and don’t really care if it all makes sense in the end. At least that’s true for me. I know a lot of people don’t really like De Palma – who, unlike me, think most of his films are crap, where I just happen to think that Femme Fatale (2002) aside, the last 20 years or so of his career has been disappointing, but the first 20 years were wonderful. His latest film is Passion, and judging by many the reviews coming out of Venice and TIFF (where I saw the film), most critics are writing this film off as yet another miss for De Palma. But while I will readily admit the film has flaws – and lots of them – I also have to admit I enjoyed the movie immensely. True, Passion functions mainly as a guilty pleasure – but considering how much I have disliked most of De Palma’s recent films, that is at the very least a step in the right direction.

The movie begins, a little shakily, as a workplace melodrama. Christine (Rachel McAdams) is an executive at an ad firm, looking to get a promotion to New York. One of her underlings, Isabelle (Noomi Rapace) comes up with a great idea for a new ad campaign – and when the upper brass likes it – Christine takes the credit. While this is certainly backstabbing, Christine puts on her phony smile, and explains that since she is the boss, if she wins, everyone wins. Besides, if she gets promoted to New York, Isabelle may get a promotion herself. Oh, and Isabelle cannot feel to self-righteous about herself – after all, on the trip to London where she pitched the idea to the client in the first place, she slept with Christine’s boyfriend (Paul Anderson) – and has been carrying on an affair ever since they have returned.

Where the movie goes from here, I’ll leave you to discover, since watching this plot take one unexpected twist after another, as it moves from a melodrama into a violent thriller and murder mystery is one of the chief pleasures of the movie. It is one of those movies where you’re never sure who is the good guy and who is the bad guy – because whenever you’re convinced you’ve figured it out, something comes along to pull the rug out from under you. Even the seemingly innocent people – like Christine’s put upon boyfriend and Isabelle’s sweet looking assistant (Karoline Herfurth) aren’t quite what they seem.

There are certainly problems with Passion. For one thing, the movie gets off to a rocky start. The workplace backstabbing doesn’t feel genuine – really it feels like actors going through the motions. It doesn’t help that De Palma miscast the two lead roles. In the original French film (unseen by me), by Alain Corneau, Christine was played by Kristen Scott Thomas, and Isabelle by Ludivinne Sagnier. For whatever reason, De Palma decided to forego this generation gap, and instead cast two actresses around the same age. This could have worked, by McAdams feels like she’s trying too hard to be the boss from hell – like she’s watched The Devil Wears Prada one too many times. And for her part, Rapace doesn’t seem like the innocent victim she should appear to be in the opening scenes – she’s more than capable of fending for herself against McAdams. Yes, it is a kinky thrill to see these two beautiful women involved in a game of cat and mouse, with sexual overtones, but there is something missing there. Surprisingly it is Karoline Herfurth who gives the movie’s best performance – and it is precisely because she seemingly comes from nowhere that her performance is so damn good.

And yet the miscasting of the movie certainly didn’t kill my enjoyment of it. De Palma and his style is almost always the star of his films anyway, and especially in this film’s later half – when he pulls out all the stops – he is in top form here. De Palma has always been an unabashed borrower from other directors – especially, but not limited to, Hitchcock – and he does so here as well (especially in the weird score that sounds like Bernard Herrman on crack). But the director De Palma most borrows from here is himself. He repeats many of the stylistic tricks he has used before, but somehow it doesn’t quite seem like a boring rehash, but a knowing nod and wink to his fans in the audience.

Passion is certainly not a great film. I wouldn’t really argue with anyone who hates the film, because I know where they are coming from. And yet, for me, this film functioned perfectly as a guilty pleasure. It doesn’t really add anything new to De Palma’s filmography, and it may not be an “objectively good” film (whatever the hell that means), but damn if I did not have a blast watching it.

The Best Films I Have Never Seen Before: An Unmarried Woman (1978)

An Unmarried Woman (1978)
Directed by: Paul Mazursky.
Written by: Paul Mazursky.
Starring: Jill Clayburgh (Erica), Alan Bates (Saul), Michael Murphy (Martin), Cliff Gorman (Charlie), Patricia Quinn (Sue), Kelly Bishop (Elaine), Lisa Lucas (Patti), Linda Miller (Jeannette), Andrew Duncan (Bob), Daniel Seltzer (Dr. Jacobs), Matthew Arkin (Phil), Penelope Russianoff (Tanya).

We seem to get a few films like An Unmarried Woman every year now, but back in 1978, this film must have seemed daring and original. And what is remarkable about Paul Mazursky’s 1978 film is even though it has been copied many times since, and inspired some wonderful films, is that it still feels fresh and original more than 30 years later. I’m not sure I am fully convinced by the ending – but perhaps it’s not quite as happy as it at first seems. The more I think about the ending, the better it seems to me.

The film centers on Erica – played by Jill Clayburgh in arguably her best performance, and one of the best female performances of the 1970s – who believes she is happily married to Martin (Michael Murphy), a rich and successful man of Wall Street. They have an easy relationship with each other – even their fights seem breezy – and even after 17 years together, they are still attracted to each other, and enjoy an active sex life. They love their teenage daughter, and have an open, honest relationship with her. That’s why it comes as such a shock to her when Martin breaks down one day – overly theatrically – and tells her that he has fallen in love with another – younger – woman and wants a divorce.

The movie handles these early scenes – where we know something is wrong before Erica does – well, but handles what comes next even better. Erica is angry and confused, and starts to doubt herself. Why did Martin leave her? Wasn’t she good enough, sexy enough, supportive enough? How could he possibly do this to her. Many of the best scenes in the movie deal with Erica talking things out with her three best friends – some of whom have been through before her – as the talk openly and honestly about sex, their lives, their fears and everything else. She also talks to a therapist about some of the same issues – and gets honest helpful advice. And then there are the scenes between her and her daughter, who is also hurt and confused by her father’s abandonment – as the two take it out on each other. These are the strongest scenes in the movie, and perhaps it could well be said that Mazursky is a better writer than director, as his writing is  open, honest, sometimes brutally so, and yet often quite funny.

The third act of the film is about how Erica slowly comes out of her shell – as the wounds start to heal from her sudden abandonment by her husband. She makes a few tentative steps towards getting back out there into the dating world. But it isn’t until she meets Saul (Alan Bates), an artist, that she truly lets her guard down and allows herself to open up and perhaps be hurt again.

As I was watching An Unmarried Woman, I thought that perhaps this third act was a little too hopeful – that Bates’ Saul was a little too perfect to be believed. It doesn’t go as far as say a Tyler Perry movie where the spurned woman always seems to meet the perfect man, but it seemed to come close. And yet, the more I think about it, the more complex this relationship seems. Saul is seemingly too good to be true, and during the course of the movie, he proves that. His flaws slowly start coming up – and perhaps he isn’t the solution to Erica’s problems, but just the beginning of a whole new set of them. The movie ends on a seemingly happy note, but perhaps it’s not quite as happy as it seems.

The movie is mainly a triumph for Clayburgh, who was given the best role of her career, and quite simply delivers a magnificent performance. This is an open, honest performance, without an ounce or pretension or ego. Her Erica is a complete person – flawed, yet lovable, funny, angry, resentful all at the same time. It is a wonderful screenplay by Mazursky, expertly observed, but it required a great performance by Clayburgh to truly make the film work. He found the perfect actress for the role. An Unmarried Woman is an often imitated “woman’s movie”, but one whose honesty remains unmatched.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Movie Review: The Cheshire Murders

The Cheshire Murders
Directed by: Kate Davis & David Heilbroner.

TV has many True Crime documentary shows – like Dateline, 20/20, 48 Hours and countless others. It would be hypocritical of me to insult these programs, because admittedly, I watch them more often than I would like to admit. But a movie like The Cheshire Murders – which originally aired on HBO in July, and played on CNN over this past weekend – does highlight the difference because those shows, and a deeper documentary that aims to do more than simply provide a glimpse inside a horrific crime. The Cheshire Murders is not structured like a Dateline episode, which more often than not takes the form of whodunit, mainly because in this case, there is no doubt who the guilty are. They are caught almost immediately, confess shortly thereafter, and offer to plead guilty and spend the rest of their lives in jail in exchange for the state not seeking the death penalty, just weeks later. The Cheshire Murders goes deeper than simple guilt or innocence – and offers a shattering, hard to watch film about a bungled police response in the first third, and then gradually turning into a movie about whether or not the death penalty should be applied to anyone. If anyone deserves the death penalty, it’s the two men in this movie. But therein lies the question – does anyone deserve it?

The case in question is horrific and generated worldwide media attention. In brief, in the early morning hours of July 23rd, 2007 - Joshua A. Komisarjevsky and Steven J. Hayes invaded the home of Petit family in Cheshire, Connecticut. They beat the father, William, with a baseball bat and then tie him up in the basement. They then tie up mother Jennifer, 17 year old Hayley and 11 year Michaela, in their separate rooms. The two men wanted money – and weren’t happy with the amount the family had in the house, so when the banks open the next day, Hayes took Jennifer to her bank to have her withdraw $15,000. Although so told the bank manager what was going on, and he phoned the police, Hayes was able to take Jennifer home. Eventually, Jennifer will be raped and strangled to death, Michaela will be raped, and both girls with be doused with gasoline, and the house will be set on fire – killing them both. Father William made it out of the house just in time. During some of this, the police were busy setting up a perimeter around the house – had they acted quicker, lives could have been saved. They were there to grab Komisarjevsky and Hayes as they tried to flee the scene however.

For the movie’s first half hour or so, it seems like it will be about the crime, and the odd police response to it. Why did they do nothing except surround the home? Why didn’t they intercept Hayes and Jennifer before they even got home in the first place? Why did they do nothing to make their presence known to those inside the house? During the time when the police had the home surrounded, was when the most horrific acts inside the home occurred. Could they have done more to prevent the crimes from taking place? While William Petit has never criticized the police response, Jennifer’s family – in particular her sister – wants answers from the police – answers that the police refuse to supply (they also refused to take part in the documentary). What Komisarjevsky and Hayes was despicable, but could they have been stopped?

The movie only gets more complex from there. The movies second third is basically about Komisarjevsky and Hayes themselves – the troubled lives they led, including the childhood sexual abuse they both endured, and the strict religious upbringing Komisarjevsky had. The film has interviews with friends and family of both of the murderers, which detail their lives. The filmmakers don’t do this to try and excuse their actions, but rather to humanize them. Like Werner Herzog’s Into the Abyss, or his short-run TV documentary series Death Row, the directors don’t want to excuse the killers, but do want to present them as more than just monsters that they are portrayed as. The people who do inexcusable things are still people – which is a lesson that we continue to need.

And then the last third of the movie – which focuses on the trials of Komisarjevsky and Hayes, is really more about the death penalty than anything else. There is no doubt that both men will be found guilty of murder – they are guilty, and have admitted as much. Had the state simply let them plead guilty and sentenced them to life in prison in the weeks following the crime, the case would have been over. But they wanted the death penalty – which meant a trial had to take place – three years after the murders – and everyone – family, friends, lawyers, and the judge and jury members – had to hear about every sickening aspect of the case. The standard for death as opposed to life in prison is “aggravating” factors compared to “mitigating” factors – essentially meaning the prosecution has to prove why this triple murder is more heinous than other triple murders. Fortunately for the audience of this film, most of the horrific images – the bodies, the pictures Komisarjevsky took of 11 year old Michaela that were pornographic in nature – have never been released to the public, so we don’t have to endure them – everyone involved in the case were not so lucky. Still, hearing the sickening aspects of the case, and Komisarjevsky’s chilling diary entries about it written in jail, are going to be too much for many audience members to bare – so be warned.

The question about the death penalty that the movie raises is an interesting one. Is it more punishment to put people to death – as Hayes in particular wants to be (he tried to commit suicide, and has asked to waive all his appeals rights so he can be executed sooner – and was denied) – or to make them live with what they did for the rest of their lives? Is it worth the extra money – millions were spent on the trials, millions more on all the appeals – than it is to simply lock them up (since the appeals will likely last a decade or more, you aren’t really saving much money on incarceration)? Is putting people to death worth having to put people through the torment of lengthy trials, and delays and the appeals process, where the most horrific details of the crime have to be relived over and over again, really worth it?

The movie, wisely, doesn’t really answer the question. It simply asks the questions, and lets the audience decide for themselves. The film was directed by Kate Davis & David Heilbroner, and it is sad, chilling and unforgettable documentary. Don’t let the fact that it originally aired on HBO, and has since aired on CNN, confuse you into thinking this is just another True Crime TV doc. This is a deep, more disturbing and haunting documentary than that.

Movie Review: At Any Price

At Any Price
Directed by: Ramin Bahrani .
Written by: Ramin Bahrani & Hallie Elizabeth Newton.
Starring: Dennis Quaid (Henry Whipple), Zac Efron (Dean Whipple), Kim Dickens (Irene Whipple), Dan Waller (Larry Brown), Clancy Brown (Jim Johnson), Ben Marten (Brad Johnson), Matthew Petersen (Brett Johnson), Heather Graham (Meredith Crown), Red West (Cliff Whipple).

Ramin Bahrani’s first three films – Man Push Cart (2005), Chop Shop (2007) and Goodbye Solo (2008) were all low budget films in the neo-realist tradition (especially the first two). They didn’t make all that much money, but attracted quite a bit of attention – particularly by Roger Ebert, who adored all three films, and though Bahrani was the next great American filmmaker. Ebert loved Bahraini’s fourth film – At Any Price – as well, and while I agreed with Ebert on the first three, I really cannot on this one. It’s not that Bahrani has sold out – he hasn’t, despite the presence of known stars for the first time in his films – just that the film doesn’t really have all that much to say – or at least not nearly as much as it thinks it does. After watching the film, I definitely asked the question “Is that all there is?”

The movie takes place in the American Mid-West, where family owned farms are quickly becoming a thing of the past – being replaced by agriculture giants. Henry Whipple (Dennis Quaid) has one of those farms – but he makes most of his money selling seeds to other farmers for one of those large corporations. These are not any seeds of course – but genetically modified seeds. They grow bigger, better produce – and the good news is, customers have to keep coming back for more. In the old days, you could collect your own seeds, wash them, and replant them the next year. But even though these seeds are on your property – you can’t do that anymore. They remain the property of companies who sold them to you. Henry is the number 1 salesman in several counties – but is trailing Jim Johnson State Wide – so he looks to get any advantage he can.

Henry has two sons – one of whom has essentially run off, wanting no part of the family business, and the other Dean (Zac Efron) trying to do the same thing. He wants to race cars – and is great on the small tracks he races on – but knows he needs to get bigger if he’s ever going to be free of his father, and the family business. Of course, he also has a rivalry with Brad Johnson, Jim’s son, and we know from the outset it isn’t going to end well.

I’m not quite sure what Bahrani’s point with At Any Price is. If it’s to show the inner workings of modern agriculture in America, then he really doesn’t tell us anything new. Are we supposed to be outraged by Henry’s actions? Or feel sympathy for a man caught up in a system that is pretty much rigged for him to lose? In any case, it must be said that the best thing about the movie is Dennis Quaid’s excellent performance as Henry – who has the smile and easy charm of a used car salesman, and is just as trustworthy, and yet still manages to get the audience’s begrudging sympathy. The trickier character is Efron’s Dean – but I don’t think Bahrani ever really gets a handle on him. If we feel sympathy for Henry, we don’t for Dean – who treats his girlfriend like crap, and behaves like a selfish lout for the vast majority of the film’s running time. If the point of the final scene is to show that he has finally sold out, it doesn’t work – mainly because I don’t think Dean really believed in anything anyway.

The title, of course, refers to the motto that the two main characters seem to live by – they are willing to win “At Any Price” necessary. Had Bahrani made a better, more complete film, perhaps he could have shown just how ruthless people like Henry can be – how he really is willing to win at any price, and still managed to make him sympathetic. That was Bahrani’s goal in the film – and had he pulled it off, he may have made one of the year’s best films. But if anything, At Any Price shows what a tricky balancing act that type of film can be, and Bahrani comes up well short of his aim on this one.

My Answer to the Latest Criticwire Survey Question: Binge Watching

This week’s critic wire question asks what people should binge watch this labor day weekend, since nothing much will be hitting theaters this week – well, unless you’re eagerly anticipating Getaway I guess.

Binge watching usually refers to TV, and I’ve admitted, I’m not as up on TV as I should be. I may well use this weekend to binge watch a few shows I have wanted to see, but haven’t yet – House of Cards, Top of the Lake or Orange is the New Black. I cannot recommend any, because I haven’t seen them, but that is something I may do.
For a couple of suggestions as what you should binge watch – I always recommend Louie – as Louis C.K.’s “sitcom” is perhaps the best show on TV, and if you haven’t seen it, prepare yourself as it really is as great as they say. But I’ll also suggest another one that most people have seen – The Walking Dead.

I know a few people gave up on The Walking Dead after Season 1, and more at some point during Season 2. Yes, it has become a ratings bonanza in the latter half of Season 2 and throughout Season 3 – but if you gave up on the show before then, I say give it a go. Binge watching actually works in The Walking Dead’s favor – because many of the complaints people have about the show aren’t as bad when you sit down and watch a bunch of episodes in a row. The Walking Dead, like all shows of its sort, has its share of “placeholder” episodes – episodes where nothing much happens, but is needed to introduce a few plot points, or character points, and to fill out a season. When you’re watching The Walking Dead one episode a week, these can be infuriating. Nothing is worse than waiting a week to find out how Rick will respond to the Governor’s demand to turn over Michonne, only to have the entire next episode have Andrea try, and fail, to escape from Woodbury, and the entire storyline you wanted to see pushed back a week. But when binge watching, you can appreciate an episode like on its own terms – it is quite well made, and quietly intense, and then go on to find out what happened right after. You don’t have to wait another fucking week, but only an hour.
Most likely, I’ll do what another answer to the question suggested – and spend the weekend catching up on a director’s work that I have missed, but will have a film on the Fall Festival circuit. Today, I selected 10 films from TIFF that I will be seeing - but I need to add 5-7 more to fill out my schedule this weekend - so I don't quite know what it will be yet. I'll do a mini TIFF preview next week.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Movie Review: The World's End

The World’s End
Directed by: Edgar Wright.
Written by: Simon Pegg & Edgar Wright.
Starring: Simon Pegg (Gary King), Nick Frost (Andy Knightley), Martin Freeman (Oliver Chamberlain), Paddy Considine (Steven Prince), Eddie Marsan (Peter Page), David Bradley (Basil), Michael Smiley (Reverend Green), Pierce Brosnan (Guy Shephard), Bill Nighy (The Network).

Over the last decade, Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg (along with co-star Nick Frost) have made the so called Cornetto trilogy – named after ice cream that shows up subtly in each of the three films. While the characters don’t carry over from film to film – the comic tone does, as do the themes of male friendship, the dangers of conformity and that dangerously thin line where nostalgia goes from being a pleasant memory to a dangerous force in the lives of people – or communities. And each film sends up a specific, well known movie genre – Shaun of the Dead (2004) was the zombie movie, Hot Fuzz (2007) was the buddy cop action movie, and now The World’s End is about science fiction films – specifically a film like Invasion of the Body Snatchers or The Stepford Wives. Although there are still many genres that Wright and Pegg could poke fun of – I hope they end the series with The World’s End. Not because the series has grown tired – but because I find it difficult to believe that you can make a better movie in this style than The World’s End – which is the funniest and most entertaining film I have seen this summer. It’s time for Wright, Pegg and company to take their films own advice to the lead character of The World’s End – and grow up. And on the basis of this movie, that's just what they're doing.

The World’s End is the darkest of the trilogy – and it wastes no time in letting us know that. We open with Gary King (Pegg) telling the story of the legendary night back in 1990 when he and four best buds took on the Golden Mile in their small British hometown of Newton Haven – the goal is 12 pints, in 12 pubs in one night. They didn’t make it that night back in 1990 – a few dropped out early, and King and the rest couldn’t get past 9 – but for King he didn’t think life would ever get any better than that night – and for King he’s right. As his story ends, we realize that King isn’t just telling his backstory to the audience for our benefit – but at an AA meeting. King doesn’t want to “recover” however – he wants to get the gang back together – 23 years later – and try the Golden Mile again. In the intervening years Peter (Eddie Marsan), Steven (Paddy Considine) and Oliver (Martin Freeman) have all grown up and moved on – they have lives, wives, families, careers and not much contact with King. One by one though he convinces them to come with him – all the while assuring them that Andy (Frost) really is coming along with them – even after the “accident” years ago. And while Andy does take more convincing – a sob story about King’s recently deceased mom – and Andy begrudgingly shows up as well. The band is back together – even if King is the only one who seems to care.

But sometimes, you cannot go home again. While the pubs are still there they have been “Starbucked” – made uniform and devoid of any individuality or quaint charm. The same could be said of the people – even people that should remember King and his cohorts seem to look right through them. And as so often happens when alcohol is involved, a fight breaks out in the bathroom, someone gets decapitated, and the truth comes spilling out.

The World’s End is the best of three Cornetto films for a few reasons. For one, as much as I love the intelligence and wit that is used to send up the different genres in all three films, ultimately that sort of humor as a limit on just how effective it can be. The World’s End is far less reliant on sending up genre tropes than either of the other films – hell, the body snatcher plot isn’t even revealed until well into the second act of the film. Up until then, what we have witnessed is an intelligent comedy about male friendship. The second reason is Pegg’s character of Gary. Shaun in Shaun of the Dead may have been a slacker – but he was a well-meaning, funny and likable slacker. Gary on the other hand is pretty much just pathetic – a shell of a man with nothing in his life other than his memories – he wears the same clothes, drives the same car and listens to the same music he did as a teenager, and his only goal in life is to complete the quest his teenage self-wanted to. There is good reason why his four friends distanced themselves over the years – but Gary is a skilled manipulator of people, who somehow convinces them to come back with them. He could do the Golden Mile by himself – but what would the point of that be? He needs his friends, not really because they are his friends, but because he needs enablers. His relationship with Frost’s character in Shaun was dangerous because it prevented them both from growing up – and here that is taken to the extreme, where one of them has moved on, and the other keeps clinging to the past. Pegg’s performance is still funny and charming – we still like Gary despite ourselves – but we also pity the poor bastard this time around. They have taken this character as far as he can go – and Pegg delivers a surprisingly complex performance – and his old friend Frost matches him. The supporting cast around these three is also better than the have been in the past – with Freeman, Considine and Marsen all get fully rounded character to play, and all doing a wonderful job of it. We expect that from Freeman – but Considine, known for heavier fare, is a surprise with his comic timing, and it’s nice to see Marsen, one of Britain’s best character actors, get to play something other than the weaselly little psycho he seems to have specialized in for the past few years. It would have been nice to give Rosamund Pike more to do – the one problem with the trilogy as a whole is that Wright and Pegg have never created a fully rounded female character – but overall that’s a small complaint.

The World’s End will inevitably be compared to a similarly themed (and titled) American comedy from summer 2013 – Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s This is the End. That film was also an intelligent, funny combination of male camaraderie and apocalyptic disaster film – but after seeing The World’s End, I think Rogen and Goldberg were lucky they released their film first, because pretty much everything they did in that film is done better in this one. The World’s End is a very rare treat indeed – an intelligent mainstream comedy that pokes fun of genre tropes, while telling a real human story. At the tail end of the summer we finally got the great mainstream film we were searching for all season.

Movie Review: The Grandmaster

The Grandmaster
Directed by: Wong Kar Wai.
Written by: Wong Kar Wai & Haofeng Xu & Jingzhi Zou.
Starring: Tony Leung (Yip Man), Zhang Ziyi (Gong Er), Song Hye-kyo (Cheung Wing-sing), Chang Chen ("The Razor" Yixiantian), Zhao Benshan (Ding Lianshan), Wang Qingxiang (Gong Yutian), Zhang Jin (Ma San), Yuen Woo-ping (Chan Wah-shun), Xiaoshenyang (Sanjiangshui), Cung Le (Tiexieqi), Shang Tielong (Jiang), Lo Hoi-pang (Uncle Deng).

There is no director working today who makes more visually stunning films than Wong Kar Wai. This was even true, although to a lesser extent, of his ill-advised English language debut – My Blueberry Nights (2008). That film was dramatically hollow, and rather slow, but damn, did it look good. Wong has spent the last few years making his epic kung fu film, The Grandmaster, and once again, it is one of the most visually stunning films you will see this year. If the film isn’t up to the level of Wong’s best films, that’s because the narrative is a little scattershot – it takes multiple detours during it’s running time. In lesser hands, this would be a bigger flaw – but Wong’s detours are as entertaining and the main thrust of the story.

The movie is a biopic of legendary martial arts master Yip Man – who has already been the subject of two apparently more traditional biopics Ip Man and Ip Man 2 by Donnie Yen (that have remain unseen by me). Wong isn’t so much interested in a traditional rise and fall and rise narrative that many biopics take – tracing the man who became famous back to his roots. Instead, The Grandmaster is really an all-encompassing epic film about Chinese history from the 1930s through the 1950s, as seen through the eyes of several martial arts masters.

The Grandmaster isn’t really a kung fu film directed by Wong Kar Wai, as it is a Wong Kar Wai Kung fu film – if that makes any sense, and to me it does. Although the film is visually stunning, and contains some of the best kung fu sequences you will ever see, this film is every inch a Wong Kar Wai original – he is more interested in the philosophy and politics behind kung fu than in the kung fu itself – and of course, there is a decades long attraction between two characters who are essentially kept apart by their own sense of honor. It’s not exactly In the Mood for Love with kung fu, but that’s probably a better description than anything else I can come up with.

When we first meet Yip Man (Tony Leung), he is happy – married with kids, living off his family’s money, and a master in the Southern wing chun style of kung fu. All the kung fu masters gather at a famous brothel – although if anyone actually has sex with prostitutes its remains unseen, this is more of a social club. The old grandmaster Gong Yutian (Wang Qingxiang) is retiring, and as is traditional, must have one final duel before he can do so. Since his protégé Ma San (Zhang Jin) has already humiliated most of the southern masters, they choose Yip Man to represent them. The two duel, and Gong declares Yip the winner. His daughter however, Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi) doesn’t like the outcome and challenges Yip Man herself – and wins. But more important than the duel itself, this sets up a decades long attraction between these two characters – one in which they never truly act on, although they are perfect for each other. The betrayal of the Gong legacy by Ma Sun, and the Japanese occupation of China, become two of the most important storylines for much of the movie – because Gong Er wants vengeance on Ma Sun, and the occupation costs Yip Man more than most – or as he says it “We went straight from the spring of my life, to the winter”. In the North American released, another subplot involving another master, known as The Razor (Chang Chen) – has been all but excised from the movie – which is a shame, because I wanted to see more of him.

The duels in the film are among the best I have ever seen in a film. Wong doesn’t go quite as far over the top with wire work than say Ang Lee in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Zhang Yimou in Hero, but the effects are certainly exaggerated. There are too many duels to highlight each one – but far and the best one takes place at a train station, as snow falls down around the gorgeous Zhang Ziyi, who proves herself to be the most gifted martial artist in the film. Tony Leung, a huge star and a constant Wong collaborator, isn’t a kung fu specialist, and his scenes are not quite as good as a result. Still, his years of training for the role pay off – besides, as I mentioned earlier, Wong is more concerned with the philosophy behind kung fu than its practice – and for that, Tony Leung is perfect. He may not be able to hold a candle to say Jet Li in kung fu, but his acting ability more than makes up for it.

I feel I need to see The Grandmaster a second time. This is an utterly beautiful film, and the first time I watched it, I was simply swept up in the beauty of the images. Wong films have a way of doing that to you. The storyline, especially to somewhat like myself who is not exactly an expert on Chinese history, was slightly confusing at times, and I have to admit that I don’t really feel that I got “know” Yip Man during the course of this movie. Perhaps, however, the film would have been better had it told a simpler story – especially since Wong has never been a director whose films focus too much on the narrative anyway – he much more concerned with mood, tone and emotions than a standard plot.

As the movie flashes from moment scene to the next, it does begin to feel like he’s trying to pack too much into one movie. Wong has often been accused of being a “style over substance” director – a complaint that I sometimes agree with in films such as Happy Together. When the style and substance meet perfectly – as they do in films like Chungking Express, In the Mood for Love or 2046 – there are few directors better in the world than Wong. The Grandmaster is not on their level – Wong does seem a little more concerned with how everything looks here, than with the story or the characters. However, The Grandmaster still deserves to be seen – and on the big screen if possible. It is visually stunning from start to finish, contains some excellent kung fu scenes, and another great performance by Zhang Ziyi. The Grandmaster is not up to the level of most Wong Kar Wai films – but considering how great they are, it’s perhaps unfair to expect him to be at that level each time. The Grandmaster may not be the Wong Kar Wai masterpiece I wanted it to be – but it’s a fine film just the same.

Movie Review: You're Next

You’re Next
Directed by: Adam Wingard.
Written by: Simon Barrett.
Starring: Sharni Vinson (Erin), Nicholas Tucci (Felix), Wendy Glenn (Zee), AJ Bowen (Crispian), Joe Swanberg (Drake), Sarah Myers (Kelly), Amy Seimetz (Aimee), Ti West (Tariq), Rob Moran (Paul), Barbara Crampton (Aubrey), L.C. Holt (Lamb Mask), Simon Barrett (Tiger Mask), Lane Hughes (Fox Mask), Kate Lyn Sheil (Talia).

I heard about Adam Wingard’s You’re Next when it played as part of the Midnight Madness program at TIFF all the way back in 2011. The reviews from genre sties were universally wonderful – they painted this as both as scary example of the home invasion horror movie, a deft black comedy sending up horror movie clichés, and a mainstream example of the Mumblecore movement that actually had a chance of breaking through. In short, many thought You’re Next was a game changer. For whatever reason, it has taken nearly two years for the film to finally get released – and while it isn’t the game changer some have claimed it to be, it’s still a hell of lot better, and more entertaining, than most horror movies released in a given year. I may not think it’s quite the masterwork that some want it to be – but I also know why they love it – and why Wingard has been able to make a nice little career for himself off its back.

The film opens with a bang – as an older man (Larry Fessendam – the first of several directors to appear in roles in this movie) is having sex with a younger woman (the immensely talented Kate Lynn Sheil) – and while he walks away satisfied, she decidedly does not. She walks over, put on a CD on repeat – to Dwight Twilley’s Looking for the Magic (and if you see the movie, be prepared to spend the next few days with this song stuck in your head). Inevitably, these two will not last long – they aren’t the main characters in the movie, but function like Drew Barrymore at the beginning of Scream – to plunge the audience straight into the horror of the film from the opening scene. It is a brutally effective scene – just like the rest of the movie.

The main thrust of the plot is about a family gathering at the isolated house of their parents to celebrate their 35th Wedding Anniversary. Mother Aubrey (1980s Scream Queen Barbara Crampton – Re-Animator, Chopping Mall, From Beyond) is more than a little on edge, on various medication, and just wants her family together again. Father Paul (Rob Moran) is a rich man, enjoying retirement, although he can still be hard on his kids. Their four adult kids will arrive with their significant others – Crispian (AJ Bowen), a little pudgy, a college professor going nowhere and his girlfriend, and former student, Eric (Sharni Vinson), Drake (Joe Swanberg), who is clearly an asshole, because why do you cast Swanberg, and his wife Kelly (Sarah Myers), Felix (Nicholas Tucci), clearly the black sheep, and his goth girlfriend Zee (Wendy Glenn), and lone daughter Aimee (Amy Seimetz), who no one ever believes, and her “underground filmmaker” boyfriend Tariq (Ti West). If that sounds like too many characters to keep track of in a horror movie to you – you’re not wrong, but don’t worry too much. Once the bloodshed starts, the numbers thin quickly.

The film is essentially a home invasion horror movie – something that has become increasingly popular in recent years. The great French film Them is still the best of the recent entries, but The Strangers (2008) with Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman is a really under rated film, and this summer’s surprise hit The Purge is pretty much a home invasion film, with a dystopian twist. Home invasion films are so effective when done correctly, because there is supposed to be nowhere we are safer than in our own homes – and when that is violated it’s something we can all relate to.

You’re Next gives the audience what it expects from a home invasion movie – creepy people on the outside in masks (this time animal masks) who seem to know just where to be to be able to hack, slash, stab or shoot whatever victim they have deemed to be next. These scenes are well handled – and while the movie is bloody, it’s not as bloody as you probably think it is – as much of violence is more hinted at that actually seen. We know that one-by-one the numbers will dwindle – but there will be one “survivor girl” who inexplicably makes it much farther than we expect – this time it’s Erin, played in a wonderful performance by Vinson – and Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett actually make her survival seem more realistic than it is most of the time. This film should get Vinson far more roles in the future.

But the film is also a subtle, very black comedy. Even as the bodies start to pile up, this family, who doesn’t seem to like each other very much, they still bicker and reopen old wounds. One of my favorite moments is pretty much a throwaway one when the family argues which one of them should try and run for the car, and poor Aimee complains that “no one ever believes in me”, only to be reassured by her father that he believes in her – only to then promptly show why they probably shouldn’t have believed in her.

You’re Next is an effective horror movie – it’s clever without being too clever, it’s scary and bloody, but never crosses the line into torture porn, it has some plot twists you see coming, and some you don’t. In short, it’s an effective little horror movie. Not the masterpiece some wanted it to be, but pretty damn good.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Best Films I Have Never Seen Before: The Dresser (1983)

The Dresser (1983)
Directed by: Peter Yates.
Written by: Ronald Harwood based on his play.
Starring: Albert Finney (Sir), Tom Courtenay (Norman), Edward Fox (Oxenby), Zena Walker (Her Ladyship), Eileen Atkins (Madge), Michael Gough (Frank Carrington), Cathryn Harrison (Irene), Betty Marsden (Violet Manning), Sheila Reid (Lydia Gibson).

The Dresser is about the stereotypical egotistical actor who cannot see any of the people around him except in the way they can serve him – and about his ever loyal dresser who gets him through one performance at a time with his complete and total devotion to him. It an over the top theatrical melodrama/comedy that stays just this side of becoming ridiculous – and anchored by two great performances by Albert Finney as the actor, and Tom Courtenay as his ever loyal dresser.

The movie takes place over two nights – beginning as a performance of Othello is just wrapping up, and then involving taking everything apart and travelling to a different theater in a different city to put on a performance of King Lear. Albert Finney’s Sir is an actor who always seems to be “on” – he is larger than life in everything he does – from putting on his performances on stage, to the way he deals with the other actors off stage, to simply putting on his makeup. He is clearly not well – on the day he is supposed to play Lear, he goes crazy in town, and has to be hospitalized briefly. But nothing can keep him from the stage – not even himself. He is convinced he cannot possibly go on, but Norman, his dresser, will not let him give up. Despite the fact Sir doesn’t even know what play he is supposed to be putting on (he starts putting on black face to play Othello again), or that even when he does realize that he is supposed to play Lear, cannot remember any of his lines, Norman will not let him give up – getting him ready by sheer force of will, and assuring everyone else that Sir is fine, when he clearly is not.

The supporting cast is filled with interesting character who get a few good scenes – Edward Fox as a resentful supporting player who thinks he should be the star, Zena Walker as Sir’s wife, who cares for him in a way, but knows he would probably wouldn’t notice if she was gone. Eileen Atkins as the stage manager who has held a not so secret love for Sir for years. And Cathryn Harrison, as a young actress who thinks that Sir may be in love with her, when really, he just thinks that because she is skinnier than his wife, she would be easier to carry on stage when he needs to.

Yet as good as the supporting players are, this is really a two person show. As Sir, Albert Finney is a great, boisterous presence who commands every scene he is in. He is a man of massive ego who doesn’t seem to realize just how much everyone around him has to do to make sure the plays go off without a hitch – in his mind, he’s the center of everything. And Tom Courtenay is even better as Norman, his dresser, who lets Sir think just that. He has devoted his life to Sir, but sees himself as the real heartbeat of the theater – Sir would be nothing without him, and he is sure that Sir sees it the same way. The fact that Sir cannot seem to be bothered to care about Norman at all, never seems to dawn on him. Courtney’s final scene is when he finally gets to see everything as what it really is – and it’s devastating to him.
The film was directed by Peter Yates, who was an under rated director, perhaps because you never really knew what to expect from him on a movie by movie basis. He made two great films – the crime film The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973) that gave Robert Mitchum one of the best roles of his career, and the small town biking drama Breaking Away (1979) about the rivalry between the townies and the students in an University town. In The Dresser, he spends a great deal of time focusing on the backstage drama – the details of what needs to get done to put on a play – and there are some great moments (a highlight would be what needs to be done to create the sound effects for the storm scene in Lear). But he also clearly sees this movie for what it is – a character study of a man, Norman, who doesn’t realize how the rest of the world, especially Sir, sees him, and how it destroys him to find out. You go through The Dresser thinking it is an entertaining backstage comedy, and then realize just how deeply felt it is only at the end.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Movie Review: Post Tenebras Lux

Post Tenebras Lux
Directed by: Carlos Reygadas.
Written by: Carlos Reygadas.
Starring: Adolfo Jiménez Castro (Juan), Nathalia Acevedo (Natalia), Willebaldo Torres (El Siete), Eleazar Reygadas (Eleazar), Rut Reygadas (Rut).

Carlos Reygadas’ Post Tenebras Lux is one of those art house movies that got booed at Cannes, and still managed to win a major prize – this time the Best Director prize for Reygadas. It is easy to see why so many people hate the film (many thought it was hilarious to refer to the movie as Post Tenebras Sux – ho ho). But it’s also easy to see why so many people really do think it is a great film. This is one of those films that inspire impassioned debate. It’s not an “easy” film – it flashes back and forth in time, and sometimes into the dreams and fantasies of its characters, yet the film itself never “announces” these transitions – so for instance, you think you’re in reality at one point, and then all of a sudden a character pulls his own head off. The film is deliberately paced as well – you will know whether the film is for you after it’s extended first sequence – a little girl running through a field chasing dogs, and being awestruck by horses and donkeys – while storm clouds roll in above them. Like all the exterior scenes in Post Tenebras Lux, this scene is shot with a filter that blurs the edges of the images – which are shot in the little used aspect ratio of 1.37:1, giving the film a boxier than normal look. The story is seemingly simple and overly complex at the same time. Reading the reviews for the film it gets compared to the work of everyone from Terrence Malick to David Lynch to Stanley Kubrick to Andrei Tarkovsky. How can any serious film fan not at least want to see Post Tenebras Lux? It’s one of those films that you may love, you may hate – but you have to have an opinion on.

The basic storyline of the movie is fairly straight forward. Juan (Adolfo Jimenez Castro) has moved his upper-middle class family into a remote town in Mexico. Juan immediately stands in contrast with the villagers around him – not only because of his money - although he is clearly the richest man around, and is referred to by all as Don Juan – but because his skin is lighter. He isn’t descended from the same tribes as everyone around him. To his face, the villagers treat him with respect – but underneath it, there is a not so hidden vibe of resentment.

And it must be said that Juan isn’t a very nice guy. He treats his wife, Natalia (Nathalia Acevedo) like a doormat, and one of the first things we see him do is viciously beat a dog (an event that reoccurs in most Reygadas films) for reasons we do not understand (mercifully, we don’t really see the dog as Juan viciously beats it) – and then he is able to go right back to being a loving family man with his kids. Juan stands in contrast with Seven (Willebaldo Torres), an employee of his, who invites Juan to attend an AA meeting with him – and afterwards tells Juan even more personal secrets – which somewhat shames Juan, who believes that his internet porn addiction pales by comparison. Seven is seemingly respectful of Juan – refers to him as not only his boss, but his friend. But later things will happen, where it becomes clear Seven may well be putting on a front – much like Juan himself. Juan is clearly a man coming apart at the seams – he doesn’t fit in anywhere.

It would be tempting to say to focus on the main thrust of the story, and ignore the fantasy and dreams sequences – these are the ones most critics have a problem with. Whether it’s the bright, shining demon with a toolbox (foreshadowing of handyman Seven’s betrayal), or the extended visit to a bathhouse, where Natalia has a sexual experience that seems to border on the divine, or the British boys playing rugby (I admit – I have no clue on that one, other than Reygadas went to school in England – but he clearly thinks they are important, since he ends the film on them), or the aforementioned self-beheading. But you cannot ignore them – they are an intricate part of the movie itself.

So once again, I find myself in a position of admitting that I don’t “get” everything in a movie, and yet saying that I don’t think you really have to “get” everything in the movie to like it. This is a film that is based on dream logic more than anything else – where scenes flow from one to the next not in a linear fashion, but in thematic fashion, and where not everything we see on screen is “real” – and really, perhaps none of it is.

Post Tenebras Lux will frustrate viewers who want movies like this to be a puzzle – where in the last moment, the last piece falls into place and makes everything that preceded it perfectly clear. That doesn’t happen here. That doesn’t mean that Post Tenebras Lux is incomprehensible however. Like a dream, most of what transpires makes sense while you are in the world created by the film. It’s only later that you sit there and try and puzzle your way through it that you start to ask more and more questions.

I think Post Tenebras Lux is a film that should be seen by anyone who likes this type of movie – you know who you are – and probably not seen by people who want a more traditional storytelling approach to film. The movie doesn’t provide that. What provides instead is somewhat greater. In the end, Post Tenebras Lux is a film I admired more than I loved – I admired that Reygadas attempts what he does, and for the most part, I think he pulled it off. But the film, to me anyway, remained an intellectual exercise more than anything else. Films that deliberately take the form of dreams – everything from Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. to Altman’s Three Women to Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut to Carruth’s Upstream Color – are among my favorites because they manage the trick of working on an intellectual and emotional level. Post Tenebras Lux only works on the first part. That still makes it one of the year’s must see films – even if it’s not the masterpiece some believe it to be.

Movie Review: What Maisie Knew

What Maisie Knew
Directed by: Scott McGehee & David Siegel.
Written by: Nancy Doyne & Carroll Cartwright based on the novel by Henry James.
Starring:  Julianne Moore (Susanna), Steve Coogan (Beale), Alexander Skarsgård (Lincoln), Joanna Vanderham (Margo), Onata Aprile (Maisie).

What Maisie Knew is one of those rare movies about childhood that is made for adults. The entirety of the movie is told from the point of view of Maisie (Onata Aprile) who watches her rock star mom Susanna (Julianne Moore) and art dealer dad Beale (Steve Coogan) constantly argue – and eventually decide to get a divorce. They both fight for custody of Maisie – but not because either actually wants her, but so the other one doesn’t get her. They will both quickly remarry – Beale to Margo (Joanna Vanderham), who was Maisie’s nanny, and Susanna to Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgard), a bartender – and essentially for the same reason – so that when they have custody of Maisie, they can pass her off on someone else to do the actual work. Surprisingly, the movie is based on a novel by Henry James – who wrote it in 1897 because he thought upper class parents in Britain were becoming callous and unfeeling towards their children. Unlike most parents, they don’t sacrifice anything for their kids – they see them as accessories that they try to fit into their schedules. The book is now over 100 years old – but still relevant. The parents here may be in Manhattan and not England in the early years of this century, and not the waning days of the 1800s, but they are still basically the same.

 The greatest accomplishment of What Maisie Knew is that it completely understands what it’s like to be a child. Poor Maisie, doesn’t understand everything – all she knows is that first her parents are fighting, and then they’re no longer living together and she’s shuttled back and forth, and now she has “new” parents as well. She half understands everything – while we in the audience understand much more. The problem with both Susanna and Beale is that they have forgotten what it’s like to be a child – they treat her as a little adult, and do not understand why everything is so confusing to her. If they aren’t there to pick Maisie up from school on time, that’s okay, she’ll be fine. If Susanna needs to drop her off with Lincoln while he’s still at work – she’ll just leave her by the curb outside the bar. If Beale thinks it’s a good idea to move back to England – without Maisie – he’ll just take her out for a nice meal, and explain it to her rationally.

But Maisie does not understand everything. She’s still a child – and although she is a perceptive one – one who remembers all the broken promises made to her, she doesn’t quite understand why her parents are behaving the way they do. The good news for Maisie is that both Margo and Lincoln love her – and take better care of her than her real parents do. They are essentially in the same boat – people who hastily married someone they thought they loved, only to realize that they have been used and are essentially a babysitter that doesn’t get paid. But they do love Maisie – and they start to see each other in a different light.

The movie is thankfully free of too much sentimentality. Directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel – making their best film since The Deep End (2001) – understand that they don’t need to ramp up the emotions too high here – they don’t need to lay things on too thickly, because Maisie’s story is heartbreaking enough as it is. Perhaps they cross the line into sentimentality at the end of the movie – which struck me as unrealistic – but we forgive them that trespass, because while it’s not an ending we can quite believe, it is the ending we want.

The performances in the movie are quite good – starting with Aprile’s as Maisie, who is not cloying or cutesy – but a realistic child performance. She plays a child used to being ignored and disappointed, who wants to make others around her happy, and doesn’t hold grudges. Kids are like that – it’s only when they grow up and realize how shitty their parents were, that they resent them. Coogan is excellent as a blithely careless Beale. He doesn’t realize what an asshole he’s being – which of course makes him an even bigger asshole. Moore is terrific as the self-involved Susanna. Strangely, while she is more volatile than Beale, she is also the better parent – at least she wants Maisie to be happy, and eventually realizes that she won’t be happy with her. Skarsgard and Vanderham have rather thankless roles – they are perhaps a little too perfect – but they do the best they can with the roles.

There have been a lot of films made about divorce in the years since Robert Benton’s Kramer vs. Kramer – but What Maisie Knew is both one of the most low-key, and effective, ones I have seen. It looks at the children of divorce from their point-of-view, and dispels the myth that divorce does no harm on the children involved. It is quite a great film – it is a little too simplistic at the end for that – but it’s a quietly moving one.

Movie Review: Leviathan

Directed by: Lucien Castaing-Taylor & Verena Paravel.
Written by: Lucien Castaing-Taylor & Verena Paravel.

The reason why some critics will call Leviathan the best film of the year is the same reason why most audience members will not want to sit through the film – it’s not quite like anything I’ve ever seen before – and that’s both the films strength and its weakness. The film has come out of something called the “Sensory Ethnography Lab” at Harvard, and is co-directed by professor Lucien Castaing-Taylor, (who co-directed Sweetgrass, about sheep herding a few years back) along with Verena Paravel. The film is a documentary and an ethnographic film – yet, not really either one of those. It was shot aboard a fishing ship based in New Bedford, Massachusetts – but if you to see a film about fishing, its challenges, consequences or methodology, than really this isn’t the film for you. The film really doesn’t offer anything we traditionally think of when we watch a movie. The film immerses us in the sights and sounds on board the boat (and sometimes, overboard) but provides us with no context for anything. You simply sit back and let the film wash over you – or you fight it, and then you’re in for a very long 90 minutes. Unlike perhaps any other film this year, Leviathan offers images that you have never seen before, will probably not see again. The problem is these moments of brilliance often come right alongside some tedious moments. This is a brilliant half hour Avant garde film, stretched to 90 minutes. While I know why some have loved it – and will declare it a masterpiece (watch it to rank very high on year-end critics surveys) – I also know why when the film was released earlier this year, it grossed only $72K. This is a film that is made with little to no thought of the audience – which is refreshing and frustrating in equal degrees.

I really do not know what to say about the film – so I’ll describe the three ways in which is was shot. The first is a traditional documentary format – with the filmmakers with handheld cameras simply filming the men as they go about their work. Fair warning to people with sensitive stomachs – if you don’t think you can take extended scenes of fish being disemboweled, well then this isn’t the film for you. The second way the film is shot is with cameras mounted to the workers helmets, to capture their POV as they go about their work. The third, and most interesting way the film was shot, was with cameras that were literally tied to the giant fishing nets, and thrown out to sea. It is this way that the film produces the images you have likely never seen before – the roiling, rough see, haunting images shot of seagulls from underwater that will stay with me for the rest of my life. I haven’t seen this type of thing before – and likely won’t again. Who else would shoot this way?

You won’t really get an idea of what life on a fishing boat like this is like from Leviathan. The film is often shot in disorienting close-up, so it’s hard if not impossible to tell just exactly what you’re looking at. The voices of them men are drown out by the natural sounds of the ocean around them, and the unnatural sound of the machinery churning. One, very odd and very long, sequence simply sits back and watches the captain as he watches an episode of Deadliest Catch on TV – the show giving way to commercials. What the point of this scene is, I have no idea.

And that’s about all I can say about Leviathan. It is a film like nothing you have seen before – even the aforementioned Sweetgrass had a more traditional feel to it than this one. This one is all about its images – that it invites you to get lost in, and think of – well, whatever those images call to mind. It is deliberately ambiguous – it doesn’t argue for or against anything. Most people will have interest in the film whatsoever – I understand that. Some will proclaim it a masterpiece – I understand that as well. For me, I’m right in the middle. I admired the film, without ever really loving it. Perhaps had I seen it in a theater, where it’s easier to get lost in it, rather than at home, I would have liked it more than I did. A good test of whether the film is for you is when I mentioned “Sensory Ethnography Lab” above, did it peak your interest, or make you scratch your head in confusion. But I think if you made it this far in the review, you already know if the film is for you or not.

Movie Review: Lovelace

Directed by: Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman.
Written by: Andy Bellin.
Starring: Amanda Seyfried (Linda), Peter Sarsgaard (Chuck), Sharon Stone (Dorothy Boreman), Robert Patrick (John Boreman), Juno Temple (Patsy), Chris Noth (Anthony Romano), Bobby Cannavale (Butchie Peraino), Hank Azaria (Gerry Damiano), Adam Brody (Harry Reems), Chloë Sevigny (Feminist Journalist), James Franco (Hugh Hefner), Debi Mazar (Dolly), Wes Bentley (Thomas – Photographer), Eric Roberts (Nat Laurendi).

There is no doubt that Linda Lovelace lived a fascinating enough life to warrant a biopic being made about her. She became a “star” in the early 1970s, when her film Deep Throat, was released and crossed over from a porn hit into a legitimate hit – largely because of her skills, and the humor of the movie. At the time she was married to Chuck Traynor who abused her, forced her into prostitution at times, and into doing the movie. While she wanted to be a star – she didn’t want to do what she did to become one. That she went from abused wife to porn star to anti-porn activist should make for a fascinating biopic. Unfortunately, Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman’s Lovelace plays more like a Made for TV movie than anything else.

When we first meet Linda (Amanda Seyfried), she is a teenager living at home with her conservative parents (a de-glamorized Sharon Stone, and Robert Patrick). She has already had some troubles in her life – including a child she was forced to give up – but she wants to be a good girl – and live a normal life. She meets Chuck (Peter Sarsgaard) – and everything seems perfect. He’s fun, he’s charming, he’s good looking, he has money and he adores her. She marries him without really thinking about it too much – and that is where the trouble starts. Chuck has some contacts with the adult film industry – and thinks Linda would be a perfect star – at first, they remained unconvinced. She’s too sweet and nice – not the kind of girl you see in porn. Then Chuck shows them a movie that highlight Linda’s, um, “oral skills” – and they’re sold. The rest is history.

The most interesting thing about Lovelace the movie is the structure. Like Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights, the first half of the film makes porn look like a fun party – and the second half makes it look like a living hell. Unlike Anderson’s film however, the two halves of Lovelace actually tell the same story – just from a different point of view. What seems like fun the first time through, isn’t fun at all when what we see – or what we thought we saw – is put into context.

The movie does benefit from the two lead performances. Seyfried has the right wide-eyed innocence to play Linda – to convince us that she could so easily fall for Chuck, and then continue down the road he sets for her for too long. And Sarsgaard adds another of his sleaze balls to his resume – although perhaps he could have eased up on the sleaze a little bit in the earlier moments of the movie, since we know from the start he’s up to no good. For the most part the rest of the cast – played by recognizable actors like Chris Noth, Bobby Cannavale, Hank Azaria, Adam Brody and especially James Franco as Hugh Hefner, are more of a distraction than anything else. They aren’t really given characters to play, so they’re just kind of there.

The movie holds our interest because of Seyfried, Sarsgaard and the interesting structure. But the film is never very enlightening either. Personally, I would have liked to see a little more of Linda’s life – her early years that made her susceptible to someone like Traynor in the first place, and how exactly she picked herself up to, remarried, and became a mother and an anti-porn activist. You can make a movie like this and have it be great – Bob Fosse’ excellent, underrated final film Star 80 (1983) told a similar, although even darker story (and perhaps casting the star of that film, Eric Roberts, in a cameo is a nod to that film) and was brilliant. If nothing else though, Lovelace does act as a corrective to a previous film – the documentary Inside Deep Throat (2005) which pretty much celebrated the film, and ignored Lovelace and the pain she went through to make it. That’s something – not enough perhaps – but something.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Movie Review: Kick-Ass 2

Kick Ass 2
Directed by: Jeff Wadlow
Written by: Jeff Wadlow based on the comic book by Mark Millar & John Romita Jr.
Starring: Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Dave Lizewski / Kick-Ass), Chloë Grace Moretz (Mindy Macready / Hit-Girl), Christopher Mintz-Plasse (Chris D'Amico / The Motherfucker), Jim Carrey (Colonel Stars and Stripes), Lindy Booth (Night Bitch), Morris Chestnut (Detective Marcus Williams), Claudia Lee (Brooke), Clark Duke (Marty / Battle Guy), Augustus Prew (Todd / Ass Kicker), Donald Faison (Dr. Gravity), Garrett M. Brown (Mr. Lizewski), Yancy Butler (Mrs. D'Amico), John Leguizamo (Javier), Daniel Kaluuya (Black Death), Andy Nyman (The Tumor), Tom Wu (Genghis Carnage), Olga Kurkulina (Mother Russia), Iain Glen (Uncle Ralph).

Matthew Vaughn’s original Kick Ass (2010) was essentially a high wire act where everything went just right. It was a movie that asked the question of what would happen if anyone really tried to be a superhero – and came up with what is probably close to the right answer – they’d either get the crap kicked out them, like what happened to the title character more often than not, or else they’re batshit insane, like Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage), who ended up getting himself killed, but only after forever warping his teenage daughter Mindy aka Hit Girl (played in the film’s best performance by Chloe Grace Mortez). In order for the film to work, you have to be careful you go far enough with the violence that it seems real, but not so far that it essentially becomes another superhero movie. Too far in the previous direction, and you end up with a movie like the little seen (and fairly awful) Super, where Rainn Wilson walked around hitting people in the head with a wrench. Too far in the later, and you’ve lost the “real” aspect that separated your movie from the rest of the superhero movies in the first place. Personally, I thought Vaughn’s original film pretty much nailed this balance. Unfortunately the sequel – directed by Jeff Wadlow – doesn’t come close.

The movie takes place not long after the first one ended. Dave Lizewski aka Kick Ass (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) has given up his crime fighting ways, but is now just another bored high school senior. Mindy Macready aka Hit-Girl is now living with her father’s old partner (Morris Chesnut) who knows her secret, but wants her to give it up as well – although she doesn’t want to. Meanwhile the former Red Mist, Chris D’Amico (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) is seething with anger over his father’s death at the hands of Kick-Ass, and after his mother dies as well, decides to become the world’s first super villain – uninventively named The Motherfucker. He’s rich, and has mob connections, so he assembles a group of psychos to track down Kick Ass – who has joined forces with Colonel Stars and Stripes (Jim Carrey) and his ragtag group of “heroes”, after Hit-Girl decides to “go straight”. We know where this will lead.

There are a few – not many – things to like about Kick Ass 2. Even if he has distanced himself from the movie, Jim Carrey’s performance is actually very good. He may not quite replace what was lost with Nicolas Cage not being in this movie, but he comes close – once again creating a character who is demented and insane, but is apparently “one of the good guys”. Even better is Chloe Grace Mortez, who like the original movie, once again delivers the film’s best performance – this time as she tries to navigate something scary then crack dens – high school – and in particular a group of “mean girls”. I liked this subplot – almost a movie inside a movie – more than the rest of the film, that is until it comes to a disgusting end. If nothing else, these scenes show that Mortez should make a fine Carrie when the remake comes out this October.

The rest of the movie however just doesn’t work. Wadlow decides to take Kick Ass 2 more over the top than the previous film, and the stylistic violence doesn’t fit in with what the supposed theme of the movie is – that this is the real world, not a comic book, so there are real world consequences to the characters actions. I have no idea how many times this is mentioned in the movie (a dozen maybe?) – but the point is completely undermined by the over the top gross out gags, and in particular the comic book style violence – in particular a scene where a character known as Mother Russia – kills 10 cops in a matter of minutes – and few seem to blink an eye.

Right before that scene is another one where The Motherfucker tracks down Night Bitch (and to think some think the movie is sexist) – a hero in the same group as Kick Ass, and his fuck buddy, and decides he’s going to rape her – only to not be able to perform. This scene I had a real problem with. The writer of the comic book has recently (and correctly) been criticized for his use of rape in his comics, and his attitude towards it. He cannot be blamed for this scene – he didn’t write the screenplay after all – but I was uncomfortable watching it, as it went from the horrific specter or rape – which the Motherfucker doesn’t even see as a crime against Night Bitch, but against Kick Ass – to a comedic one the second he cannot get it up. I have never been comfortable with rape scenes in movies – the few who manage to capture the crime in its horrific details, yet are not exploitive are few and far between – but certainly this one crosses a line.

But that scene is a microcosm of the movie as a whole. The movie wants to be taken at least somewhat seriously – to shock and disturb the audience – but also be a fun comic book movie. Vaughn’s film managed that trick wonderfully well. But without him in the director’s chair, the sequel veers wildly off course.