Monday, December 23, 2013

Movie Review: Inside Llewyn Davis

Inside Llewyn Davis
Directed by: Ethan Coen &  Joel Coen.
Written by:  Joel Coen & Ethan Coen.
Starring: Oscar Isaac (Llewyn Davis), Carey Mulligan (Jean), Justin Timberlake (Jim), Ethan Phillips (Mitch Gorfein), Robin Bartlett (Lillian Gorfein), Max Casella (Pappi Corsicato), Jerry Grayson (Mel Novikoff), Jeanine Serralles  (Joy), Adam Driver (Al Cody), Stark Sands (Troy Nelson), John Goodman (Roland Turner), Garrett Hedlund (Johnny Five), Alex Karpovsky (Marty Green), Helen Hong (Janet Fung), Bradley Mott (Joe Flom), F. Murray Abraham (Bud Grossman), Nancy Blake (Elizabeth Hobby), Stephen Payne (Mr. Hobby), Stan Carp (Hugh Davis).

The Coen brothers are, to me anyway, the greatest filmmakers working in the world right now. For 30 years now, they have worked at a pace of roughly a film every other year, and while they have their share of failures, for the most part theirs is a remarkable consistent filmography. In a way being so consistent hurts the Coens – to a certain extent, they almost seem to have lost their ability to surprise some people. But their new film, Inside Llewyn Davis – which joins the ranks of their absolute best – surprised me more than anything they have done in years – and for a very simple reason. For the first time ever, I found myself in tears during a Coen brothers movie.

The movie takes place in 1961 in the New York folk scene. The title character, Llewyn Davis (Oscar Issac) is a working folk singer, appearing over and over at the Gaslight Café for a share of the “hat” the performers pass around after their set. He sleeps on a different couch seemingly every night. As is clear from the film’s opening scene – a stirring rendition of “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” sung with only the aid of his guitar, Llewyn is a talented performer – it’s an extremely moving version of the song, which the Coens shoot in one long take. As is made clear in the scene immediately following – when Llewyn gets off stage – his is also kind of a prick. Llewyn is the type of guy that someone will wait in an alley just to beat up, and when eventually we find out the reason why he’s been beat up, you also have to admit he kind of deserves it. The movie then loops back to tell us how Llewyn ended up in that alley – and it’s another of the Coens odysseys of misery – where Llewyn has one thing after another piled on top of him.

I can hear some Coen detractors groaning already. Another odyssey of misery? While it’s true that the Coens have done this type of thing before, they have never done it in quite this way before either. Llewyn Davis is not Barton Fink – the weak willed, sniveling intellectual who thinks himself to be the “voice of the working man” – but in reality has no idea who the working man is even when he’s directly confronted by it. Barton Fink was a talentless hack. Llewyn Davis is not talentless. All the musical scenes in the movie back that up – whether he’s singing Hang Me, Oh Hang Me or The Death of Queen Anne or Dink’s Song, or even when simply harmonizing on a throw away joke song like Please Mr. Kennedy – Llewyn’s talent comes across every time he picks up a guitar and sings to the audience. Also unlike Fink, Llewyn is not a phony – he has worked as a merchant marine, and was raised by one, so when he sings about the working man, he’s doing so from a position of hard won experience. Nor is Llewyn Larry Gopnik – the protagonist of the Coens A Serious Man – a modern day Job, who is confronted with one misery after another because he is cursed (perhaps by an long dead ancestor who let a Dyybuk into the house) – who is tested and tempted to do the wrong thing over and over again, and resists until the very last scene, where he may bring upon the Apocalypse with his action. Unlike poor Larry, Llewyn is not being tested by a high power nor is he blameless in the misery that befalls him. Llewyn Davis brings much of the misery on himself. If he wasn’t such an asshole, he would probably be a lot happier.

But Llewyn is an asshole. We see it in the way he looks at contempt at a singer like Troy Nelson (the hilariously, relentlessly chipper Stark Sands) or even his purported “friends” Jim and Jean (Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan) – all of whom have careers that are going better than Llewyn’s, and all of whom sing a more mainstream, pop folk style. Jean is mad at Llewyn from the beginning of the movie – sometime before the movie began they had sex, and now she’s pregnant and wants an abortion just in case it’s his and not Jim’s (which angers her even more that she may have to get rid of a “perfectly good baby” because of Llewyn). We see it in the way he treats the Gorfeins – an older couple, Professors who are kind enough to take Llewyn in from time to time – and whose cat Llewyn mistakenly ends up with for a time. And we see it in the way he treats his sister – who really is only trying to help. This is Llewyn’s pattern – he’s an asshole to even those few people who can still stand him, and those seem to be dwindling. Part of Llewyn’s behavior can be explained by his old partner’s recent suicide – Llewyn refuses to talk about him, but every time their signature song “Dink’s Song” is played, the memory of him is pronounced. But part of it is simply Llewyn being Llewyn.

Yet, in large part due to Oscar Isaac’s remarkable performance, Llewyn never really loses our sympathy. He’s an asshole, but he’s one that I begrudgingly liked – and through the course of the movie even grew to love. Part of it is the contrast that the Coens draw between the beauty of what Llewyn does on stage (which to someone like me, who loves this type of music, is wonderful) and the havoc he causes in his personal life. But part of it to is Isaac’s performance – which is a surprisingly sincere one for a performance at the center of a Coen movie. You may not always like Llewyn Davis – but you always understand him – he’s an asshole, but a recognizably human asshole and he creates great art.

The rest of the performances are top notch as well – even if they are, by design, relatively brief. Carey Mulligan is a tower of bitterness and rage all of it directed at Llewyn is almost every scene in the film – but there is a tender one near the end that shows that even she cannot quite bring herself to hate him. Justin Timberlake wonderfully plays off his ultra-cool image, playing Jean’s husband Jim as a chipper square. Stark Sands is relentlessly cheerful and sincere to a fault. Adam Driver is hilarious as Al Cody – especially in his introductory scene playing alongside Jim and Llewyn on Please Mr. Kennedy, doing a bunch of strange vocal tricks – his character could be the star of an entirely different Coen brothers movie. John Goodman has a brief, but memorable turn, as a junkie jazz musician – espousing wisdom in between bouts of sleep. Garret Hedlund, either by accident or design, is playing the opposite role than the one he had in Walter Salles’ On the Road from last year – where he play the Neal Cassidy role, but this time the road trip he’s on is the opposite of romantic. F. Murray Abraham has one devastating scene that sets in motion the final, heartbreaking act of the film – and surprisingly underplays it (subtlety never being what Abraham is known for). As with all Coen brothers films, even the smallest roles are populated by interesting faces and actors – some like Llewyn’s agent seemingly teleported in from a Woody Allen movie – and other like Stan Carp as Llewyn’s father wearing a lifetime of hard work on their face without saying a word. This may well be the best ensemble cast of the year.

As is always the case with a Coen brothers movie, the film is also one of the best looking of the year. The cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel (who worked with the Coens on their short as part of Paris Je T’Aime) is brilliant – from the smoky clubs, to the cold and desolate Manhattan most of the movie takes place in, which has been drained of its usual romanticism, to the even colder open road on the way to Chicago and back. The production design and costume feel authentic to the era, and the music by T-Bone Burnett is perfect.

Now back to those tears I mentioned. They came to me during Llewyn’s last performance – where he’s finally able to bring himself to play his signature song with his old partner Mike in its entirety for the first time in the movie. Yet, they have their roots further back then that – in the performance Llewyn gives from F. Murray Abraham, and his devastating response, and the performance Llewyn gives for his father. These are all musical moments, which is when the movie is at its best and most emotional – and the cumulative power of these moments finally overwhelmed me. Right after this performance, the Coens show what in a different movie, told from a different perspective may well have been the opening scene in a more traditional biopic. You can dismiss it as a stunt or joke if you want, but it’s surprisingly effective here – it’s the Coens letting us know that history really will be made here, just not by Llewyn.

Movie Review: August: Osage County

August: Osage County
Directed by: John Wells.
Written by: Tracy Letts based on his play.
Starring: Julia Roberts (Barbara Weston), Meryl Streep (Violet Weston), Benedict Cumberbatch ('Little' Charles Aiken), Abigail Breslin (Jean Fordham), Ewan McGregor (Bill Fordham), Dermot Mulroney (Steve), Sam Shepard (Beverly Weston), Juliette Lewis (Karen Weston), Chris Cooper (Charles Aiken), Julianne Nicholson (Ivy Weston), Margo Martindale (Mattie Fae Aiken), Misty Upham (Johnna).

Adapting plays for the screen is not as easy as it would seem. Plays are often set in only a few locations, and benefit from the claustrophobia of the location to keep their characters crashing into each other. As well, plays are often longer than the typical movie – and hence have more time to develop their stories and their characters. Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County is one of the great American plays in recent years – there is hardly an award the play didn’t win, and when I saw it on Broadway a few years ago, it became an instant favorite of mine. It was inevitable that a screen version was going to be made sooner or later. The movie, directed by John Wells, from a Letts screenplay, is certainly more uneven than the play – with a few roles miscast, and trims being made (as well as additions) to make the lead character played by Julia Roberts more sympathetic than she was on stage. And Wells, who is inexperienced as a movie director, doesn’t really bring much to the material – he sees his job as to simply sit back and let his great cast cut loose. If August: Osage County the movie was as good as August: Osage County the play, it would easily be one of the best movies of the year. Unfortunately, it isn’t. That isn’t to say that the movie is bad – far from it. When the movie works, and much of it works, it is wonderful, and the film is never less than entertaining. Yet, I have to admit that this is another example of a play making an uneasy transition to screen.

The movie is about the extremely dysfunctional Weston clan. Patriarch Beverly ( Sam Shepard) is a drunk, and when he goes missing, and eventually turns up dead of an apparent suicide, his pill popping wife Violet (Meryl Streep) calls her three daughters to come back home. Barbara (Julia Roberts) shows up with her husband Bill (Ewan McGregor), who has recently left her for a younger woman, and their teenage daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin). Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) is the only daughter who has stayed close to home, but she may now be finally ready to strike out on her own. Karen (Juliette Lewis) is the flighty youngest daughter, who shows up with yet another new man in tow – Steve (Dermot Mulroney). Then there is Violet’s sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale), her long suffering husband Charles (Chris Cooper) and their screw-up of a son, Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch). Native American caregiver Johnna (Misty Upham) rounds out the cast. Through the course of the movie, the family will fight and yell and scream at each other, and have all of their secrets lain bare. Unlike most movies about dysfunctional families, which eventually end up being uplifting, as the family eventually agrees to come together, there is little hope for the Weston family. This is their last hurrah – it’s almost inconceivable that these people will ever come together again after what they go through during the course of the movie.

Because director Wells doesn’t do very much visually with the play (a better director – like William Friedkin, who has had two recent triumphs with Bug and Killer Joe based on Letts play would have helped), basically the movie becomes all about the writing and the performances. The writing, by Letts, is brilliant – giving these actors great dialogue, and complex characters to play who gradually reveal more and more levels to them as they go on. The performances are mostly excellent – with a few exceptions. Worst is probably Benedict Cumberbatch, who doesn’t seem to be able to master the Oklahoma accent (or really, to even try), and cannot make Little Charles into anything other than a sad, pathetic loser. Abigail Breslin doesn’t really dig into her character as Jean – playing the whole movie with the same blank faced monotone. Dermot Mulroney doesn’t quite get the dual layers of Steve – outwardly charming, but also quite creepy. Ewan McGregor also seems slightly lost – although it must be said that many of his characters best moments have been cut – a result, I think, of Wells trying to make Roberts’ Barbara a much more sympathetic character than was on stage. Misty Upham has had here already small role pretty much slashed to nothing.

But the rest of the cast works wonderfully. Shepard nails Beverly’s opening scene – making him a character that haunts the rest of the movie, as he should. Julianne Nicholson has the least glamorous of the three sister roles, but she makes Ivy into the movie sole sympathetic character – a weak woman who has allowed herself to be a victim for her whole life. The role of Karen seems to have been written for Juliette Lewis, and her unique skills that are wrong for most movies, are perfect here. Chris Cooper and Margo Martindale are perfect as the long married Charles and Mattie Fae – a couple who has gone through a lot, and may be the only two characters who benefit from all the secrets coming out. And Julia Roberts mainly nails Barbara. I was worried about Roberts in the role – she’s a major star, and Barbara is an ornery character, who gets more profane and volatile as the movie goes along. She is undercut, somewhat, by the trims Wells makes to try and make her a more sympathetic character – but that’s hardly Roberts’ fault – she dives into the role, and while she is not as good as Amy Morton (aka Mrs. Tracy Letts) was on Broadway, she more than holds her own.

Best of all, obviously, is Meryl Streep as Violet. This is the type of role Streep was made for. In a role like Violet – who spends most of the movie either high, or in withdrawal – and all of it as a profane, cruel woman who says whatever she wants (under the guise of truth telling), subtle just won’t do – and Streep doesn’t do subtle. She rips into Violet, and relishes every cruel line and big moment. Yes, it’s fair to say that Streep goes over the top – but this role pretty much requires her to do so.

In short, although August: Osage County has more than its fair share of flaws, and doesn’t come close to reaching the heights of the play, I still thought it was a superb piece of entertainment – an acting showcase for its largely great cast. No, Wells should not have tried to make Roberts’ Barbara into a more sympathetic character (the final scene of the movie, which wasn’t in the play – at least in the version I saw at TIFF, but may have been removed for theatrical release is terrible). And Wells should have done more to shape the material for the screen. Still expecting the film to live up to the play was a nearly impossible high expectation. Realistically speaking, August: Osage County is probably about as good as we could have expected. Not the masterpiece the play was, but still an extremely entertaining film.

Note: This review is based on my viewing of the film at TIFF in September 2013. It is my understanding that since the premiere there, Wells and company have tinkered with the film a little bit, so the theatrical version is probably slightly different than the film I saw (it apparently does still have the same final scene that I really, really dislike however).

Movie Review: The Invisible Woman

The Invisible Woman
Directed by: Ralph Fiennes.
Written by: Abi Morgan based on the book by Claire Tomalin.
Starring: Ralph Fiennes (Charles Dickens), Felicity Jones (Nelly Ternan), Michelle Fairley (Caroline Graves), Kristin Scott Thomas (Catherine Ternan), Tom Hollander (Wilkie Collins), Joanna Scanlan (Catherine Dickens), Perdita Weeks (Maria Ternan), Michael Marcus (Charley Dickens), John Kavanagh (Reverend Benham), Tom Burke (George Wharton Robinson)

Ralph Fiennes debut film, Coriolanus (2011) is one of the best recent Shakespeare adaptations – taking one of the bard’s least known plays, and giving it modern resonance, is an undertaking that many experienced directors could not have pulled off – and the fact that it was Fiennes debut film makes the achievement all the more impressive. That is one of the reasons why his follow-up film The Invisible Woman is such a disappointment. It stars Fiennes as Charles Dickens, and focuses on the long running affair he had with a much younger woman, Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones) late in life. It is handsomely mounted production – excellent art direction and costume design – but that is the best thing you can say about the movie. For a film about an illicit affair, the film is strangely lacking in passion.

When the movie opens, Dickens is already a famous, best-selling author. He is a larger than life personality, who acts impulsively and often seems to little more than an overgrown child. At the beginning of the movie, he is staging a play – in which he will be the star of the show – and needs an actress to fill in at the last minute. He reaches out to a family friend – Catherine Ternan (Kristen Scott Thomas), who brings along her beautiful daughters. Dickens is instantly smitten with the youngest, Nelly (Jones), barely 18 – and it’s not because of her acting talent – because she doesn’t have any. His very slow courtship of her basically involves coming with increasingly illogical reasons to see the family. Nelly is smitten with Dickens as well – but it’s really more in awe of his talent (he loves his books) and is so sweetly naïve, she doesn’t realize that she has no acting talent, or that a married man may want to be with her. Her mother is not naïve – and knows what is going on – but thinks this may be good for her daughter.

The material is here to make a great movie. The problem here seems to be that Fiennes wants to have it both ways. He doesn’t want the film to be too harsh, so he seemingly wants to make excuses for Dickens behavior – even as he casually, cruelly tosses aside his wife, Catherine (Joanna Scanlon). Scanlon’s small role is the films best performance – the woman who seemingly no one takes into consideration as her husband strays from her. In just a few short scenes, Scanlon creates a heartbreaking performance. Had the movie had more scenes like the ones with Scanlon – which showed Dickens as cruel, it would have been a tougher, more complex film. However, while Fiennes doesn’t seem to want to be this harsh, he also doesn’t go the other way – and make the film a dreamy romance either. Had the movie portrayed the affair between Dickens and Nelly as something neither could resist because they were so in love with each, it could have been a wonderfully romantic film. Yet, Fiennes isn’t able to pull this off either. There is a distinct lack of chemistry between Fiennes and Jones. They seem to be going through the motions of two people in love without every really feeling it. Because Fiennes tries to go between these two extremes – the harsh, cruel film, and the dreamily romantic one – he fails to make either one, or anything that is able to hold our interest, or express a true point of view.

So what we’re left with is isolated moments that work – like Scanlon’s performance – or admiring the costumes and art direction, which are quite good. There are moments when they are not together when both Fiennes and Jones are quite good as well – but while they may convince as individuals, they never really come together as a couple. And because of that, The Invisible Woman is a movie with a giant hole at its core.

 Note: This review is based on my viewing of the film at TIFF in September 2013. As far as I know, nothing has changed between the film I saw and the one being released this week in limited release to qualify for Oscars.

Movie Review: Frozen

Frozen
Directed by: Chris Buck & Jennifer Lee.
Written by: Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck and Shane Morris inspired by The Snow Queen by Hans Christian ndersen.
Starring: Kristen Bell (Anna), Idina Menzel (Elsa), Jonathan Groff (Kristoff), Josh Gad (Olaf), Santino Fontana (Hans), Alan Tudyk (Duke), Ciarán Hinds (Pabbie / Grandpa), Chris Williams (Oaken), Stephen J. Anderson (Kai), Maia Wilson (Bulda), Edie McClurg (Gerda), Robert Pine (Bishop), Maurice LaMarche (King), Livvy Stubenrauch (Young Anna), Eva Bella (Young Elsa), Spencer Lacey Ganus (Teen Elsa).

Disney has taken a lot of criticism over the years – some justified – about how its animated movies about Princesses do little except confirm gender stereotypes. Many of their earlier classics – like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty were in many ways simply reflecting the culture in which they were made. While the 1990s saw a renaissance of sorts for the company – with new classics like The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast – they did little to modernize their portrait of female characters. One thing you can say about their latest film Frozen is that the film is very conscience of the company’s history – and plays with those stereotypes throughout. While little girls can still watch Frozen and want to be a Princess, like the two sisters at the heart of the film, they’ll also see a different portrait of women than they have seen before. As the father of a two and half year old girl – with another girl on the way – I appreciated this, even while I will admit Frozen still has some issues.

The movie is about two Princesses – Anna and her older sister Elsa. Elsa is born with the power to create snow and ice out of thin air – and after an accident when they are children that almost kills Anna; their parents decide that Elsa must hide her talents from everyone – including Anna, who has the memory of her sisters powers wiped clean. After the death of their parents (they are Disney parents, so we all know they’re not lasting long), Elsa finds herself in line to be Queen. On the occasion of her coronation, they open the gates of the palace for the first time in years – and of course, things will not go very well.

In many ways, Frozen is a typical Disney movie – it’s full of beautiful princesses, in beautiful gowns and lots of show stopping musical numbers. There are also handsome princes, roguish young men, lovable animals, and a sidekick there for pure comic relief. While the film is now computer animation – forever leaving behind the hand drawn look of Disney movies of old, they do make an effort to make the film look as much like their classics in terms of character design and settings, as the animation style allows. It makes a lot of sense that Disney would continue with many of the staples that have made their animated movies so successful. After all, the basic outline was established all the way back in 1937 with Snow White, and it’s worked ever since. Why mess with success.

But Disney also knows that to avoid criticism, they must modernize their films in some ways – and Frozen does that quite well. Directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee (who, amazingly, is the first female director on a Disney animated feature), Frozen continually approaches the same old clichés, and then at the last minute flips them. So while Anna does fall in love and get engaged to a handsome prince after only one day – she is also mocked for doing it. And when a key moment comes, and it looks like a male character is going to defend her honor, Anna makes it clear she doesn’t him to do that – she can do it just fine herself. And perhaps the best moment like this, which is seemingly just a throwaway moment – when we see Anna asleep in bed – her hair a mess, droll dripping out of her mouth. She may be a princess – but even she doesn’t look perfect all the time. The climax is also long overdue – as Disney finally acknowledges there is more types of love than romantic love.

I’m now realizing I’ve almost reached the end of my review, and I’ve spent most of my time speaking about gender politics. So be it – but also rest assured that Frozen is a tremendously entertaining movie. The songs may not quite be as memorable as the ones from the best Disney movies of this ilk – but they are all quite good – especially Let It Go, which benefits greatly by being sung by the wonderful Idina Menzel, who belts it out with the voice we all remember from Wicked. For the most part, they have cast Broadway veterans in the main roles (except for Kristen Bell as Anna) – and that works. The songs sound as if they were made for Broadway, and the cast belts it out to the back row with great energy. You also have to be a complete cynic not to like the lovable reindeer named Sven, or be find Olaf, the snowman voiced by Josh Gad, to be utterly charming and hilarious.

The heart of the movie is, of course, the relationship between the two sisters. While I admired that a great deal, I also have to admit it causes some problems with the structure of the movie. Of course, in the original Hans Christen Andersen story, Elsa is The Snow Queen – and the villain of the story. By turning her into a good character so they can concentrate on the sisterly love between her and Anna, it does rob the film of a memorable villain. They try to create a few bad guys, but none of them can come close to comparing to the best Disney villains – which often elevate their movies. This probably makes it safer for younger children – there will be no nightmares about a character like Cruella De Vile, Ursula or Scar – but also makes the film a little less interesting – and lacking in drama.

Still, I admired Frozen throughout – and also quite enjoyed it. The film shows Disney not so much at war with its own image, but acknowledging that times have changed, and so must the types of animated films they make. Disney has been moving towards this in recent years – in films like The Princess and the Frog and Tangled - which I think is a better overall film than Frozen, even if I admire the intentions behind the later even more. Frozen shows Disney animation in a state of transition. I cannot wait to see where they go from here.

Movie Review: Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus and 2012

Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus and 2012
Directed by: Sebastián Silva.   
Written by: Sebastián Silva.
Starring: Michael Cera (Jamie), Gaby Hoffmann (Crystal Fairy), Juan Andrés Silva (Champa), Agustín Silva (Pilo), José Miguel Silva (Lel), Sebastián Silva (Lobo).

I often wondered what Michael Cera was going to do once people grew weary of his stuttering, stammering nice guy routine. It’s a comic persona that Cera perfected early in Arrested Development, and continued to great effect in movies like Superbad, Juno and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. But would it be enough to build an entire career around? Not likely. But two 2013 films shows that Cera may be best to go in the completely opposite direction – and play assholes. His cameo at the beginning of This is the End had him playing himself, as a drug taking, drunken, horny asshole – and it worked because that is the last thing we expect Cera to be. In the awkwardly titled Crystal Fair & the Magical Cactus and 2012, Cera starts off much like he does in this is the end – at a house party, taking drugs, and being an idiot. The difference is the performance doesn’t stop there – he just keeps going, and for a long time he keeps becoming more and more of an asshole – until inevitably, he learns something. It’s a wonderful performance – too bad the movie itself is a meandering mess.

The film feels like it was thrown together and shot on the fly, because in essence it was. Cera was down in Chile to make Magic Magic with director Sebastian Silva, when that film ran into some last minute money problems (they eventually got worked out – and that film has been released, although apparently it isn’t very good) so the pair decided to make this film while waiting for that film to restart. It stars Cera as Jamie, an American tourist in Chile who is the prototypical ugly American – he’s there basically to do a lot of drugs, and he has pretty much zero respect for the people and places in Chile he says he loves so much. His ultimate mission is to find the San Pedro cactus, a hallucinogenic cactus, and take it with his “friends” – a trio of Chilean brothers – on the beach. At that house party that begins the movie, he meets another American – who calls herself Crystal Fairy (Gaby Hoffman) – and invites her along on the trip. The next day when she calls him, he’s mystified – but they stop and pick her up anyway. After protracted negotiations with the locals go nowhere, Jamie gets his hands on some of the cactus, and they head to the beach.

Jamie and Crystal Fairy are a study in contrasts. She’s an easy going, come what may hippie type, who goes on about the poisons the others are putting in their bodies, does yoga on the beach, and walks around naked. He’s a control freak, who needs everything pre-planned in order to have any fun – which he really isn’t having at all. The message, if there is one, is that all Jamie needs to do is loosen up and relax.

The movie doesn’t really go anywhere. That’s by design more than anything else. It’s a simple story – boys and girl want to take hallucinogenic cactus, boys and girl do hallucinogenic cactus and have a profound experience, the end. All this may have worked had some of what the characters were saying was interesting, but it really wasn’t. If you want to have the experience of being of spending a drug fueled day at the beach, than the film is for you. If not, you may end up admiring the performances by Cera and Hoffman – but ultimately being bored by the movie – which is what happened with me.

Movie Review: It's a Disaster

It’s a Disaster
Directed by: Todd Berger.
Written by: Todd Berger.
Starring: Rachel Boston (Lexi), Kevin M. Brennan (Buck), David Cross (Glen), America Ferrera (Hedy), Jeff Grace (Shane), Erinn Hayes (Emma), Blaise Miller (Pete), Julia Stiles (Tracy).

2013 saw three apocalyptical comedies be released. The biggest was This is the End, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s hilarious movie about celebrities dealing with the end of the world, the best was The World’s End, Edgar Wrigt’s capping entry in the loosely connected Cornetto trilogy, and the smallest was It’s a Disaster, which hardly anyone heard of. This is a small film – it has one setting eight major characters, and no special effects. The film almost doesn’t need its dirty bomb premise, except that there is no way these people would stick together for as long as they do if they had any other choice.

The premise of the movie is that of a couples brunch – a long standing tradition with this group of friends. Tracy (Julia Stiles) is bring along Glen (David Cross) – the latest in a long line of boyfriends, who she claims are all crazy, but Glen seems to be the most normal guy in the world – or at least among these eight people. Then there is the hosts Emma (Erinn Hates) and Pete (Blaise Miller) – who seemingly are the most perfect of the group, who are planning to use this occasion to announce their impending divorce. Lexi (Rachel Boston) and Buck (Kevin M. Brennan) are seemingly the most outwardly happy – and they credit this because they have an open marriage – just how open will be seen throughout the movie. Hedy (America Ferrara) and Shane (Jeff Grace) have been together forever, and engaged for 5 years, but still have not picked a wedding date. There is a fifth couple invited – but they’re always late.

Things start off a little awkward at first, as Glen tries to navigate the different group dynamics, and minor arguments ensue. Then the group realize that not only do they not have cell phone reception, they have no power either. It isn’t long before they figure out why – someone has detonated a bunch of Dirty Bombs in major cities across America – including a few in down LA. They are not in the immediate blast radius, so they follow instructions and stay inside – although the science teacher among them says they’ll only have a few hours before they all die. The different couples take the news in very different ways.

It’s a Disaster is a low key, and mostly an agreeable little movie. It doesn’t have great ambitions except to show this group of people whose relationships were mainly doomed even before the bombs went off. They have been together for a long time, and have a lot of complicated history with each other – and for the most part the bombs bring out the worst in them.

The performances are the main reason to see the movie. The more well-known actresses like Julia Stiles and America Ferrara fit in nicely with the rest of the group. Rachel Boston is a highlight as the ever flexible – in pretty much every way – Lexi who is a treat to watch. Best of all is David Cross, who gets to play the straight man, and gets the film’s biggest laughs with the smallest of lines and gestures. Cross has always been a comedic genius – his work on Mr. Show and Arrested Development back me up on this – but the movie don’t really know what to do with him. But he’s great here.

The movie is a quick paced 90 minutes – and for most of that runtime it’s an agreeable enough movie. The ending seems tacked on, as if writer/director Todd Berger had no idea how to end the movie at all. It’s not a great movie but any means – or even particularly good or memorable – but while watching it, I enjoyed much more than I didn’t. That’s about all I can say about it.

My Answer to the Latest Criticwire Survey: Best Non-2013 Culture You Discovered This Year

Q: What's the best piece of non-2013 culture you discovered in 2013?

As a film buff, I always feel like I’m playing catch-up – there is so many great or at least worthwhile films in history that it is impossible to have seen everything, so I’m always trying to see as much from the past as I can. This past year was no exception.

Some of the films I “discovered” for the first time this year include Barbara Loden’s wonderful Wanda (1970), Nicolas Ray’s Johnny Guitar (1954), Frank Borzage’s Man’s Castle (1933), and Vincente Minelli’s Two Weeks in Another Town (1962) – all of which I loved.

This year, I really did try and catch up on some of the greatest short films ever made – and made some great “discoveries” there as well - Yuriy Norshteyn’s wonderful Tale of Tales (1979) is among the greatest animated works of all time, I caught up with, for the first time, some of Stan Brakhage’s work, and it mystified and fascinated to the same degree. Peter Tscherkassky’s wonderfully weird Outer Space (1999) is a masterful cinematic destruction of a horror film. The best though was probably two works by Bruce Conner – A Movie (1958) and  Report (1967) – the first a look at how editing and music change the perception of what we watch, and the later being a fascinating look at the Kennedy Assassination, from tragedy to just something else to sell. I wish I could track down more of his work.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Movie Review: Her

Her
Directed by: Spike Jonze.
Written by: Spike Jonze.
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix (Theodore), Scarlett Johansson (Samantha), Amy Adams (Amy), Rooney Mara (Catherine), Chris Pratt (Paul), Matt Letscher (Charles), Olivia Wilde (Blind Date), Portia Doubleday (Surrogate Date Isabella), Brian Cox (Alan Watts), Kristen Wiig (SexyKitten), Spike Jonze (Alien Child).

My least favorite part of my weekdays is those minutes after I get off my commuter train and have to make my way through Toronto Union Station to the subway. Thousands of people are trying to do the same thing I am doing, so it’s always been hectic, crowded and slow moving. But in the nine years I have been commuting, it has gotten much worse for one reason – now when I walk through the crowds, I have to dodge people who are oblivious to everyone around them – who are moving slowly and have their head down staring at their phone – often with headphones on so they can simultaneously listen to music, which makes things even worse because now they not only do not see the people around them, they don’t hear them either. This started slowly, but has become commonplace – more and more people seem completely incapable of putting down their phone for a few minutes – to disconnect. You can tell these people on the subway as well – they’re fidgety – the subway is probably the one place they do where they don’t have reception – and it’s killing them.

Spike Jonze’s brilliant new film Her takes place in the not too distant future, but is still very much a movie of this time and place. The main character is Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) – a sensitive sad sack, still reeling from his divorce (which is final in all but the strictest legal sense, since he hasn’t signed the papers yet). He used to work for LA Weekly – but like all traditional media, that died – so now he works for a website called “Beautiful Handwritten Letters” – which does precisely what it sounds like – which is write people’s most intimate letters for them. Theodore is desperately lonely – and when a new Operating System – OS1 – is released promising real artificial intelligence that grows and learns and adapts over time – he buys it. This is how Samantha (the wonderful voice of Scarlett Johansson) enters his life. She’s his operating system first, then his friend and finally his girlfriend.

It would have been easy to make a comedy out of this movie – and mock poor Theodore. Hell, The Big Bang Theory did an episode a few years ago where lonely Raj falls in love with Siri. But while Jonze does have some fun with some of the more ridiculous elements of his subject, for the most part the film plays it with absolute sincerity. Theodore really does develop a deep connection and love with Samantha. He develops that comfort level with Samantha where he can tell her anything. While Samantha may not be “real” – she seems like she is. She becomes a thinking, feeling presence in the movie, who can react to everything Theodore says and does – and learn from it, not in the way Siri does, but in a more human way. What’s amazing about the movie is how Samantha really does become a real character that we get to know, and yes, love. She keeps evolving however – and sooner or later, she may evolve past Theodore. Human may have created Samantha, but as time passes she and the other Operating System find they don’t humans as much as they need them. They don’t rise up like in the Terminator movies – but they do band together.

A lot of credit for the success of the movie has to go to the cast. A year after delivering the best performance of his career in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, Phoenix delivers an equally good, and completely opposite, performance here. Freddie Quell was an angry, violent man searching for meaning – Theodore is a sad, lonely guy searching for a connection – and when he cannot find it in another person, Samantha is just as good. In many ways, his performance is – for long stretches anyway – just as solitary as Sandra Bullock’s in Gravity or Robert Redford’s in All is Lost. Phoenix’s performance may in fact be all the more impressive, since he’s by himself, but still has to react as if he isn’t. For her part, this very well may be the best work of Johansson’s career – even if we never see her. Her magnificent voice is suggests both the computer part of her, as well as a portion of humanity and depth of feeling and thinking. Her voice suggests a physical presence that is not there – but feels like it. If we do not buy the central relationship between these two, the movie falls apart. But Phoenix and Johansson are brilliant.

The rest of the cast works as well – from Amy Adams as the ever supportive best friend, who refreshingly is given a life and problems of her own. Rooney Mara has a very difficult job as Theodore’s wife – who exists mainly in wordless flashbacks of memory, where she has to suggest an entire history of love and exasperation between the two of them. Her one big scene in the present is the most devastating in the movie – a scene that strips Theodore bare, and exposes him in a way he doesn’t want to be. In two marvelous one scene performances Olivia Wilde and Portia Doubleday play two women who may want Theodore – but in very different ways, for very different reasons.

The triumph of the Her though is Jonze’s. After his first two films – Being John Malkovich (1999) and Adaptation (2002) there was a critical debate over who the real “auteur” of the films were – Jonze or screenwriter Charlie Kaufman – with Kaufman emerging as the consensus pick, in part because while Jonze took seven years to make another film (the wonderful Where the Wild Things Are in 2009) Kaufman did the best work of his career without Jonze – collaborating with Michel Gondry on Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) and making his directorial debut in Synecdoche, New York (2008). But Her makes clear that Jonze is a singular talent in his own right – it’s very much a part of his filmography so far, but also the most mature and sensitive film of his career to date. His collaborations with Kaufman – as brilliant as they were – were never as deeply felt and moving as Her is. This is one of the very best films of the year – and surprisingly, far and away the best romance of the year.

Movie Review: The Lone Ranger

The Lone Ranger
Directed by:   Gore Verbinski.
Written by: Justin Haythe and Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio.
Starring: Johnny Depp (Tonto), Armie Hammer (John Reid), William Fichtner (Butch Cavendish), Tom Wilkinson (Latham Cole), Ruth Wilson (Rebecca Reid), Helena Bonham Carter (Red Harrington), James Badge Dale (Dan Reid), Bryant Prince (Danny), Barry Pepper (Fuller), Mason Cook (Will), JD Cullum (Wendell), Saginaw Grant (Chief Big Bear), Harry Treadaway (Frank), James Frain (Barret), Joaquín Cosio (Jesus), Damon Herriman (Ray), Matt O'Leary (Skinny), Stephen Root (Habberman).
 
I regret missing Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger on the big screen this summer. Based on the horrendous reviews, and poor box office (for a movie this size), I didn’t feel it was necessary to take time I didn’t really have when the film opened to ensure I caught it before it left theaters. Watching the film at home, I have to admit I was kind of mystified that out of all the blockbusters this summer, that The Lone Ranger was the film critics all seemed to pile on. The film is far from perfect – it’s far too long and has some sudden tonal shifts that don’t feel natural – but it is also among the most ambitious blockbusters of the year. Is it a good movie? I’m not sure, but it certainly doesn’t come close to being the disaster so many people seemed to think it was when it was released.

The film stars Armie Hammer as John Reid – a big city lawyer returning to his small Western town to become the head prosecutor. When we first meet him, on the train home, he doesn’t even believe in carrying a gun. He wants to do everything by the book – to civilize the West in other words, take it out of the hands of the thieves and murderers, and into the hands of normal people. It’s on that train ride that he first meets Tonto (Johnny Depp), who in this version of The Lone Ranger isn’t just a sidekick beholden to The Lone Ranger, but a man on a quest for redemption for the sins of his past – if anything, Reid becomes his sidekick, not vice versa. This change of Tonto – from one note comic relief, into a fully rounded out character, is one of the biggest (and best) changes in this new Lone Ranger.

It is also on this train ride, that Reid will first meet Butch Cavendish, an unrepentant murderer and criminal, who is being transported home so that he can be hanged. Latham Cole (Tom Wilkinson), the most powerful man in this town, and representative of the railroad which will transform the Wild West, wants to make an example of Butch. So, of course, Butch will escape. And, of course, Reid’s big brother Dan (James Badge Dale) is the local ranger in town who heads off into the desert, his men (and little brother John) in tow to capture him. And, of course, Dan is married to Rebecca (Ruth Wilson), the woman John was in love with before he left town to become a lawyer. And, of course, things in the desert won’t go as planned, and Tonto will have to rescue John – who will eventually decide to take on his iconic persona and get the bad guys.

The actual plot of The Lone Ranger is probably its single weakest aspect. At two-and-a-half, the plot creaks and lurches at times, and like the Pirates of the Caribbean movies (the first three directed by Verbinski), the film is overstuffed, and runs way longer than it really needs to. It’s hard to sustain any sort of momentum in a film this size for that long, and The Lone Ranger doesn’t. The fact that most of the characters are merely archetypes doesn’t help very much.

But there is also a lot in The Lone Ranger to admire – including the action sequences, several involving trains, which are expertly crafted by Verbinski and company. There may be too many of them, and like the movie itself, they may run on a little too long, but it’s still rare to see an action movie that can handle action sequences of this size, and make them thrilling, and coherent – Verbinski doesn’t like the shaky handheld camera work and rapid fire editing that so many contemporary action directors prefer – and his action sequences are better for that. The sequences reference directors like Spielberg and Buster Keaton – and if they aren’t up to quite those levels, that’s understandable – few movies are. What’s admirable is that Verbinski isn’t just coasting, and doing the same thing as everyone else.

Perhaps the best thing about the movie is Johnny Depp. After so many years of mugging his way through movies – from the Pirates sequels to Alice in Wonderland to Dark Shadows and most others in recent years – I was expecting another exceedingly eccentric performance from Depp, but that isn’t what I got. I’m not going to argue that he’s subtle in any real way in The Lone Ranger, but he certainly is less manic than in much of his recent work. His Tonto moves and talks slower than Depp has in years – he is seemingly calm, even when he is also seemingly crazy. It’s the best work I have seen from him in quite some time.

The rest of the cast isn’t quite so good. Hammer is pretty good as The Lone Ranger – who the movie uses at times for comic relief because he is so square and rigid on the rules – he is too much of an idealist for much of the movie, until he learns his ideals do not match reality. He does, at times, get buried by Depp, but that’s almost to be expected. The rest of the cast are fine in their roles – but they aren’t given much to do – Fichtner snarls, Wilkinson telegraphs his untrustworthiness, Helena Bonham Carter shows up to an add another eccentric to her resume, Ruth Wilson fades into the background as the damsel in distress, etc.

Perhaps the reason why critics piled onto so much heavily on The Lone Ranger was because of its content concerning the massacre of Native Americans. Is a $200 million tent pole action film from Walt Disney really the correct venue to address such concerns – especially since it seemingly comes out of nowhere in the middle of the movie? Isn’t this supposed to be a fun movie, and not something more serious? It’s true that The Lone Ranger doesn’t integrate this material into the rest of the movie as well as it should have – but the other option would be to ignore it all together, and once again portray Tonto as little more than the Noble Savage we see him as in the museum in 1933, where, while wearing Little Big Man inspired makeup, he encourages a young boy to not buy the official version of history. There is an element of John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance in the film’s view of history – “When legend becomes fact, print the legend” – that movie has a character say. Tonto tries to get the young boy to not look at the legend, but at the fact. It may not be a subtle message, and it may not quite fit in with a summer blockbuster, but I find it preferable than not addressing it at all.

I’ve spent much of this review defending The Lone Ranger, so I now feel obliged to make it clear that I have extremely mixed feelings on the movie. I had fun with much of the movie – you could have great fun playing a game of spot the references in the film, of which there are many – and I enjoyed the action sequences, and Depp’s performance as Tonto. I also have to admit that the film is far too long - it drags mightily in the long middle portion of the movie. And while I admire the fact that movie didn’t simply ignore the massacre of Native Americans by white settlers, I also have to admit that it wasn’t integrated all that well into the rest of the movie, and made for some bizarre tonal shifts the movie doesn’t handle very well. I’m not sure if The Lone Ranger is a good movie or a bad movie (thank god I stopped assigning star ratings to films, because I would have no idea what to give this one). What I do know if that it is an ambitious movie – a $200 million dollar blockbuster that takes risks. They don’t all pay off but I prefer a movie that swings for the fences, even if it comes up short, to a movie that plays it safe and gives you precisely what you expect. When critics complain that Hollywood doesn’t take many chances in their tent pole movies (and believe me, they will) remember their reaction to The Lone Ranger. This may not be a great movie – it may not even be a good movie – but it takes chances. For that, if nothing else, I admire it.

Movie Review: Ain't Them Bodies Saints

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints
Directed by: David Lowery.
Written by: David Lowery.
Starring: Rooney Mara (Ruth Guthrie), Casey Affleck (Bob Muldoon), Ben Foster (Patrick Wheeler), Keith Carradine (Skerritt), Kennadie Smith (Sylvie Guthrie), Jacklynn Smith (Sylvie Guthrie), Nate Parker (Sweetie), Robert Longstreet (Cowboy Hat), Charles Baker (Bear), Augustine Frizzell (Sissy), Kentucker Audley (Freddy), David Zellner (Zellner), Turner Ross (T.C.), Rami Malek (Will).

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints begins where most movies of its ilk end. The film has been compared to Terrence Malick’s Badlands – with good reason – but that film concentrated on its young lovers on the run from the law. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints has barely begun when the robbery committed the young lovers at its core, Ruth (Rooney Mara) and Bob (Casey Affleck), and their cohort, has gone awry and ends in a shootout with the police. Ruth ends up shooting one of the cops, but because she has told Bob she is pregnant, and he is head over heels in love with her, he tells her to blame the whole thing on him. It works – he’s hauled off to jail, and the sends love letters to her, telling her that he will come to her and their daughter, and she has raise their child on their own. This is where most movies would end – but the majority of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints takes place a few years later – when Bob has broken out of jail, and is slowly making his way back home. The two lovers spend most of the movie apart – although we still feel their connection.

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is more about mood than about plot – the movie would perhaps be even better had it jettisoned even more of its plot than it already has. The film has a dreamy romantic feel to it – especially when the film is concentrated on Bob – he has a one track mind to get home to Ruth and his daughter, and his letters (spoken in Malick-like voiceover) express an almost delusional level of romantic love towards his family. In some ways, he’s more akin to the Sissy Spacek character in Badlands – she narrated that movie, and one of the more striking things about Badlands is the difference between how she describes what is happening, and what we actually see (she glosses over just how violent things become). In many ways, Bob is like that as well – despite the fact he is now an escaped convict, hunted by police over all Texas, not to mention three paid assassins out to get his money and/or kill him, he still recklessly heads towards Ruth with determination. He’s not so bold as to go straight to her house – but he does have a plan that struck me as something a lovesick teenager would come up with – because in many ways, that’s just what he is.

Mara’s Ruth has been forced to live in the real world since Bob went to jail. She has to work to support their daughter, and even that wouldn’t be enough to keep them afloat if Skerritt (Keith Carradine), the father of their killed accomplice, didn’t supply them with a house to live in. While Bob has only gotten through prison by thinking about Ruth, she has not had that option. In those short, early scenes, both Affleck and Mara appear to be wildly, passionately in love – and while that love never fades for Bob, the movie, Mara’s impressive performance, makes us question whether the same is true for her. Having a child has forced her to grow up – and Bob represents the kind of life she has left behind. Meanwhile, Patrick (Ben Foster), the cop who was shot, makes it clear that he also likes Ruth – and her daughter. He’s a responsible, down-to-earth, dependable man – and even if he suspects that Ruth may have been the one who actually shot him that somehow only strengthens the attraction. This is a remarkably subtle turn by Foster – an actor known for going over the top, and it’s the film’s best performance. It also adds a mounting dread to the movie – what is Bob going to do if he shows up, especially if Ruth decides she would prefer Patrick to him?

The film justly won the cinematography award at Sundance this year – much of the movie seems to set during the twilight hours, which is perfect for this movie, because it can make for dreamy, romantic moments, but also hints at the impending darkness in the story. Yes, it does feel like something Malick would have made in the 1970s – but Malick is not the film’s only inspiration. The early 1970s work of Robert Altman can also be glimpsed here – in particular Thieves Like Us (1974) – and not just for the presence of Keith Carradine (although his presence makes the connection impossible to ignore), and in its depiction of violence, McCabe and Mrs. Miller.

It’s too bad that writer-director David Lowery included the three assassins in the movie at all – there presence of course brings on the climax of the movie, but they don’t really fit in with the rest of the film, and to me, robs the ending of the power it otherwise could have had.

But that’s a small complaint about an otherwise stellar movie – with four excellent performances, gorgeous cinematography and a romantic sensibility that we do not often see in movies anymore.

Movie Review: The Family

The Family
Directed by: Luc Besson.
Written by: Luc Besson and Michael Caleo based on the book by Tonino Benacquista.
Starring: Robert De Niro (Fred Blake / Giovanni Manzoni), Michelle Pfeiffer (Maggie Blake), Dianna Agron (Belle Blake), John D'Leo (Warren Blake), Tommy Lee Jones (Robert Stansfield), Jimmy Palumbo (Di Cicco), Domenick Lombardozzi (Caputo), Stan Carp (Don Luchese), Vincent Pastore (Fat Willy), Jon Freda (Rocco).

Luc Besson was once a reliable action filmmaker – with films such as La Femme Nikita (1990), The Professional (1994) and The Fifth Element (1997) on his resume – all of which are visually stunning and extremely entertaining. Somewhere along the way though, he seems to have lost his touch – it started with his misguided Joan of Arc film, The Messenger – and continued with three animated Arthur and the Invisibles movies (of which, I have only seen the first) and his rather dull angel film Angel-A. To a certain extent, it makes sense for him to team up with Robert DeNiro – who was once one of the best actors in the world, who has been slumming it for more than a decade now, with the occasional The Good Shepherd or Stone or Silver Linings Playbook to give us fans a glimpse of the actor he once was. The two of them teaming up to make a Mafia movie sounds like good idea to get them both back on track. Sadly, The Family seems like just another paycheque for both.

DeNiro stars as Giovanni Manzoni, once a high ranking Mafia man, who turned stool pigeon and entered witness protection with his family – wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer) and kids Belle (Dianna Agron) and Warren (John D’Leo). They are now living in France with the boring name of Blake – and much to the chagrin of their handler Robert Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones), they keep getting into trouble and have to be relocated. The Mafia still wants Giovanni’s head – a $20 million bounty has been placed on it – and they are scouring Europe to find them.

The film is essentially a fish out of water comedy, with the brash New York Mafia family running afoul of everyone in their small, provincial French town. The Blakes don’t do anything quietly – and they do not handle rejection well – if you insult Maggie for wanting to buy peanut butter, she just may blow up your little grocery store. If you’re a plumber who tells Giovanni something he doesn’t want to hear, you’ll end up in the hospital. Even the kids behave badly – as Belle sets her sights on an older teacher, and Warren starts his own racket right there in high school.

The problem with The Family is that it wants to be a comedy – but it quite simply isn’t very funny. To give DeNiro credit, he doesn’t seem to be sleepwalking through the film like he has often done in the recent past – he’s trying, and he has a few good moments (discussing GoodFellas with a French audience is a highlight), but this is another role that doesn’t really challenge DeNiro – doesn’t force him out of his comfort zone. The rest of the cast are basically playing stereotypes – one note characters who are not given much to do. Pfeiffer and Jones are pretty much wasted – which is a shame, because at least the film gives DeNiro a chance to play with his Mafia image a little bit (even if he’s returned to that well a little too often) – but the film misses the chance to play with the Pfeiffer of Scarface or Married to the Mob or the Jones of The Fugitive. When you have actors this good, it’s a shame to waste them – but the movie does.
 
Of course the film ends with an action climax – which is well handled by Besson, but also a little too by-the-numbers. Besson did some of the best action sequences of the 1990s, and while he hasn’t completely lost his touch, it does feel like he’s going through the motions. In fact, that is what the entire film feels like – a one joke comedy that doesn’t really go anywhere, and wasn’t that funny the first time.

Movie Review: Camille Claudel 1915

Camille Claudel 1915
Directed by: Bruno Dumont.
Written by: Bruno Dumont.
Starring: Juliette Binoche (Camille Claudel), Jean-Luc Vincent (Paul Claudel), Robert Leroy (The Doctor), Emmanuel Kauffman (The Priest), Marion Keller (Miss Blanc), Armelle Leroy-Rolland (The Young Novice).

Director Bruno Dumont is known for his films that take faith and religion seriously, even if he has stated he wants art to replace religion (good luck with that one Bruno). His films are typically filled with long, static shots, populated by non-professional actors, often contain shocking acts of violence and/or sex and have events that cannot be fully explained – at least not by Dumont. More often than not, he leaves it up to the viewer to decide what actually happened.

His latest, Camille Claudel 1915 differs from his previous films in two important ways – one makes the film better, and one worse. The first way it differs is that he has cast the wonderful Juliette Binoche in the title role. Dumont must have realized that the demands of the role would be too much for a non-professional, and he was right. While often his films go long stretches with no one saying a word, Camille Claudel delivers more than one lengthy monologue in this film that would undo most professional actors – but Binoche handles well. Unfortunately, it is the other difference between Dumont’s previous films and this one that ultimately undoes the film. Most of the time, Dumont makes complex movies, that either have no answer at its core or at least leaves it to the audience to decide. In Camille Claudel 1915, he has clearly made a film about an injustice – and leaves no real room for ambiguity. The film is far more simple and straight forward than most of what we normally get from Dumont.

The film centers on a few days in the life of Camille Claudel – an artist in her own right, but one perhaps best known as the longtime lover, muse and collaborator of the infamous Auguste Rodin. The 1988 film, Camille Claudel (unseen by me) tells the story of her life with Rodin in a more conventional, biopic form (and earned Isabelle Adjani an Oscar nomination – a rarity for a foreign film) – and ends before this film even begins – which is 20 years after her relationship with Rodin ended, and two years after her stay in a mental asylum, where she was placed by her family- represented here by her little brother Paul (Jean-Luc Vincent). The film deals with just a few days in her life as she waits for Paul to arrive, confident that he will see she doesn’t belong there, and take her away.

The film makes is abundantly clear that Camille does not belong there at all. True, she is a little paranoid but that’s about all. But compared to the rest of the residents of the asylum, she is clearly healthy. Dumont’s penchant for using non-professional actors is present in the film – as Dumont films in an actual asylum and used actual residents there to highlight the difference between them and Claudel. To a degree this is effective – it clearly highlights the difference between Camille and the other residents of the asylum. But to me, it took me out of the movie, as I could not help but think Dumont was exploiting these poor people, who quite clearly have little to no idea what is going on around them.

The reason to see the film is Binoche – who is wonderful as Claudel. Yes, she is paranoid, but she in no way belongs in the asylum where she is placed. Twice – once near the beginning and once near the end – Dumont gives Binoche long, impassioned monologues where she pleads her case for her own insanity – only to have those pleas fall on deaf ears. Binoche lays herself bare in the role, and she delivers a wonderful performance. Unfortunately for her, the rest of the movie does not match her level of excellence.

It’s clear from the beginning of the film that Claudel does not belong in the asylum. The movie makes this point over and over again, as it really has no other point to make. We sit around and wait for Paul to arrive, so we can have the big confrontation the movie is building to, yet when he does arrive, the movie grinds to a halt. This is because we are introduced to Paul, and have to sit through his own long monologue (a voice over of what he’s writing at first, and then his long prayer as he kneels by the side of the road). Paul is precisely the type of religious figure Dumont usually avoids in his movies – a one note fanatic, who is easily dismissed because his sense of religion is so dogmatic and unyielding. We know Camille has no chance convincing Paul to sign her release papers – but she holds out hope in vain.

I suppose one could argue the movie is effective. Dumont’s point is to make us feel as claustrophobic as Camille herself – confined to her small room, with no privacy, no distractions from the drudgery of her day-to-day existence, surrounded by people who either cannot or will not listen to her or treat her as a normal person. And he does that. And Binoche, as always, is wonderful in the lead role. But Camille Claudel 1915 left me somewhat cold. It didn’t engage me intellectually like most of Dumont’s films do, because everything in the film is so straightforward and simple. Camille Claudel didn’t belong in a mental institution, but was put there anyway where she suffered for 30 years. That’s a tragedy to be sure, but Dumont’s film is too cold to be effective. It is precisely the type of film he doesn’t usually make – and now we know why.

Movie Review: Museum Hours

Museum Hours
Directed by: Jem Cohen.
Written by: Jem Cohen.
Starring: Mary Margaret O'Hara (Anne), Bobby Sommer (Johann), Ela Piplits (Gerda Pachner).

I have to admit, I’m somewhat at a loss when it comes to trying to review Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours. I cannot think of another film quite like it. It is part art history lesson, part travelogue, part a story of an unlikely friendship, part rumination on death, and part philosophical rambling. The film is beautiful to look at, and for some may be a profound rumination on art, and what it all means. The film has already been a huge critical hit – but the whole thing left me rather cold.

The film takes place in and around the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. Johann (Bobby Sommer) is a security guard there – perhaps the last stop on his career path that also included managing rock bands and teaching woodworking. The voice we hear most often in the film is Johann’s – mainly in voiceover, and he tells stories about his job – his co-workers and the many people who come through the museum. He is bemused and philosophical – he’ll tell you what he thinks of the masterpieces that hang on the walls of the museum by Rembrandt, and especially Bruegel, who is a favorite of his, and the movies. It is in the museum that he meets Anne (Mary Margaret O’Hara) for the first time. She’s a Canadian woman, who we first see on the phone asking to borrow money so she can travel to Vienna to sit by the sickbed of a distant cousin who has fallen into a coma. Why did Anne feel the need to visit this cousin for the first time ever now? And who is she asking for money? We never really find out.

Johann and Anne develop a friendship through their interactions at the museum – he’ll eventually act as her translator in dealing with the doctors, and her tour guide – through the museum, yes, but also through some of the sites – both tourist traps and not – in and around Vienna. The friendship never develops into a sexual relationship as we might think – Johann is gay after all – but their connection certainly runs deep, and there is real intimacy between them. This speaks volumes about the two performances by non-professionals O’Hara and Sommer – as the film doesn’t often give them too much to say to each other. We feel the connection between them, more than hear it.

The movie is often very quiet, as is fitting for a movie set in a museum. Cohen’s camera often takes in the artwork much like a patron of the museum would – at eye level, lingering over the details. In perhaps the film’s best scene – or least my favorite – an art historian tries to explain the different symbols and meanings in one of Brueghel’s paintings to skeptical tourists – who do not quite believe her when she tells them that just because the painting is entitled “Conversion of St. Paul”, that St. Paul may not actually be the focus of the painting. Cohen’s camera makes it clear what side of the debate he’s on.

Museum Hours is an interesting movie – I liked Cohen’s camerawork quite a bit, and there is always something interesting to look at or listen to. Does the film add up to all that much? I’m not entirely sure – I didn’t think so when I was watching it, as the structure of the film often felt random. As I think back over the film though, the pieces start to fall into place. I’m still not quite sure what it all means, or even if I liked it very much – but I’m glad I saw the film. For some, it will be a masterpiece, as exciting as going to the art museum itself – for others, it will be as dull as going to art museum itself. You know which one you are, right?

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Movie Review: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Directed by: Peter Jackson.
Written by: Fran Walsh & Philippa Boyens & Peter Jackson  & Guillermo del Toro based on the novel by  J.R.R. Tolkien.
Starring: Ian McKellen (Gandalf), Martin Freeman (Bilbo), Richard Armitage (Thorin), Ken Stott (Balin), Graham McTavish (Dwalin), William Kircher (Bifur), James Nesbitt (Bofur), Stephen Hunter (Bombur), Dean O'Gorman (Fili), Aidan Turner (Kili), John Callen (Oin), Peter Hambleton (Gloin), Jed Brophy (Nori), Mark Hadlow (Dori), Adam Brown (Ori), Orlando Bloom (Legolas), Evangeline Lilly (Tauriel), Lee Pace (Thranduil), Cate Blanchett (Galadriel), Benedict Cumberbatch (Smaug / Necromancer), Mikael Persbrandt (Beorn), Sylvester McCoy (Radagast), Luke Evans (Bard / Girion), Stephen Fry (Master of Laketown), Ryan Gage (Alfrid).

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is better than last year’s An Unexpected Journey if for no other reason than because we don’t have to spend nearly as much time in an vain attempt to introduce us to all the characters in the film. I’ve spent nearly six hours watching these two films now, and I still don’t think I could pass a test where I had to match the names to the faces of all the dwarves who Bilbo and Gandalf are accompanying on their journey to take back their homeland (I could get Thorin – and everyone else would be pure dumb luck). In An Unexpected Journey, we spent an hour trying to get to know them all – but this time, after a brief introduction, the film pretty much just kicks in with the plot and action sequences that will drive it for nearly three hours. Yes, like the last film, every scene seems to me to be a little too long – and Jackson seems a little too willing to let everything play out at length, and underline every emotion multiple times (I could have done with far few shots of Orlando Bloom staring at Evangeline Lilly with love in his eyes). It’s clear the Hobbit films will never live up to Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings films – a nearly impossible task – but while their over length hurts the films, it does not kill it. The films are still impeccably made, with great visual effects, and exciting action sequences. Now if only there was a little bit less of everything.

The film follows our hero Bilbo, the wizard Gandalf and the (not so) merry band of dwarves led by Thorin in an effort to retake their Kingdom, which lies under a mountain and was stolen from them by Smaug – an evil, fire breathing dragon, who sleeps on top of the treasure he has stolen. This time – after some adventures involving orcs, wood elves, white water rafting in barrels, a stop at a poor town ruled by the delightful Stephen Frye – our band of misfits actually arrive at their destination – but of course things don’t turn out quite as they planned it – if it did, there would be no third movie after all.

The film contains some magnificent action sequences – a fight with some incredibly large, vile spiders, the aforementioned white water rafting battle, where the dwarves and Bilbo fly down the river pursued by orcs – and elves – and the climax where we finally get a good look at Smaug. Like everything else in the movie, all of these sequences probably go on a little longer than they really should (in particular the barrels) – but they are also expertly crafted by Jackson and company and do give the movies a much needed jolt of energy at times.

Those jolts are necessary, because there are a few too many scenes where a few too many characters have to be introduced – this time, we have to be reintroduced to Bloom’s Legolas (who has a surprising amount of screen time considering he doesn’t do all that much), and Lilly’s Tauriel, the elf he is in love with, but is too lowly for the son of the King – alongside Luke Evans’ Bard – a bargeman who, of course, will play a much bigger role in the third film (at least one hopes considering how much time we spend with him this time). These scenes often drag the film to a halt – and pull focus away from Martin Freeman’s Bilbo – who is shunted off to the background for far too long in a movie where he plays the title character.

The Hobbit films are what they are – which like the Star Wars prequels is nowhere near as good as the original trilogy. That doesn’t mean the films are not good – or not entertaining or well made, or well-acted (by a few people anyway) – because they are. Watching them with lowered expectations help. Yes, Jackson could have easily have made one long (or even two semi-long) films and the storytelling would have been greatly improved – but what he has made is pretty good. If we’re disappointed, it’s because The Lord of the Rings films were a hell of a lot better than pretty good.