Friday, October 30, 2009

Weekly Top Tens: The Best Female Directors Working Right Now

Filmmaking is mainly seen as a man’s job. Most films are still directed by men, even movies that concentrate of female characters amazingly enough. But while men are still predominant, there are still lots of great female directors who are starting – or in some cases already have – made a name for themselves over the years. These are my ten favorites. The only rule is that they had to have directed more than one feature film. So as good as the likes of Sarah Polley, Miranda July and Lone Scherfig are, they’ll have to wait. What shocked me was how many great female filmmakers there are out there right now. I could have easily included Lexi Alexander, Gillian Armstrong, Catherine Briellant, Nanette Burstein, Nora Ephron, Catherine Hardwicke, Nicole Holofcener, Kasi Lemmons, Deepa Metha, Nancy Meyers, Rebecca Miller, Mira Nair, Kimberly Pierce, Lea Pool, Sally Potter or Gina Prince-Blythewood. With directors like this around, I hope that more and more women get into filmmaking.

10. Lynne Ramsay
Lynne Ramsay’s debut film as a director was the brilliant Ratcatcher (1999). It is a truly haunting, and brilliant visual movie, about a 12 year old boy in Glasgow whose friend accidentally drowns. With this film, Ramsay previous known for directing shorts, announced herself as a major director. Unlike many female directors, where the criticism is often that they are not interested in visuals, Ramsay’s film shows a command of cinematic grammar with the best of them. Her follow-up film Movern Callar (2002) features a brilliant performance by Samantha Morton, as a woman who wakes up on Christmas morning to discover her boyfriend has committed suicide. She takes his unpublished novel and passes it off as her own. In the years since then, she has yet to return to directing, but has an adaptation of the brilliant novel We Need to Talk About Kevin in the works (starring Tilda Swinton!) for next year. Ramsay is a great director, with hopefully a bright future in front of her.

9. Jane Campion
A decade ago, Campion would have probably been the number one female director in the world. She was directing great movies far before most of the other women on this list. Her two short films, A Girl’s Own Story (1984) and Two Friends (1986) (both unseen by me) were critically acclaimed and won prizes at the Cannes film festival. Her debut feature film Sweetie (1989) was a brilliant exploration of mental illness. An Angel at My Table (1991), also explored mental illness, but in a much different way in the biopic of Janet Frame. Again, it was brilliant. Campion’s next film is her masterpiece – The Piano (1993). Winner of the Palme D’Or at Cannes, Campion became only the second female director in history to get nominated for a Best Director Oscar. The film, a sexual exploration of a mute woman who marries a cruel man, then starts an affair with another. Holly Hunter and Anna Paquin both won well deserved Oscars for this film (Campion herself won the Original Screenplay Oscar) and it is masterful. She followed up with The Portrait of a Lady (1996), one of the best adaptations of a Henry James novel ever, with a great performance by Nicole Kidman, and masterful supporting work by Martin Donovan, John Malkovich and Babarba Hershey. It’s here though that things kind of fell off the rails. Her next film was Holy Smoke (1999) with Kate Winslet as a woman in a cult who is kidnapped by a “deprogrammer”, Harvey Keitel, and the two essentially go to war with each other. Winslet is amazing, but the movie doesn’t make any sense at all. Worse still was her next film, In the Cut (2003), a modern tale about sex with Meg Ryan, which may have looked great, but was incomprehensible. It took her six long years before she made another feature, but earlier this fall saw the release of Bright Star, which is something of a return to form for her. This soft love story between John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and Fannie Brawne (Abbie Cornish) is masterfully directed. It is a fine film, yet not quite up to par with her best work. Campion deserves a spot on this list because of her great filmography. I just hope we see more films like The Piano in her future, and fewer like In the Cut.

8. Kelly Reichardt
Reichardt only has three features under her belt – only two of which I have seen – but she has already become one of my favorite directors. She made her debut film, River of Grass in 1994, and then spent the next 12 years doing shorts and other things. But in 2006 she made the wonderful film Old Joy. This film about two old college friends (Daniel London and William Oldham) getting together to go on a camping trip into the woods to find a “hot spring” is bittersweet and melancholy, with some homoerotic tension bubbling beneath the surface. The film is quiet and brilliantly well observed. Despite the fact that almost no one saw the film, it became a critical hit. She followed that film up with last year’s Wendy and Lucy with Michelle Williams as a woman who is travelling across country with her dog, when her car breaks down. Despite the presence of a “star” in Williams, Reichardt did not change her style, and Wendy and Lucy has the same low key realism as Old Joy did. If you do not tear up at the end of that movie, you have no heart. She has another film coming out next year – Meek’s Cutoff – with Williams again alongside Paul Dano, Will Patton, Shirley Henderson and Bruce Greenwood. I for one, cannot wait to see what she does next.

7. Susanne Bier
Danish filmmaker Bier has been working steadily since the early 1990s, but it has only been her last three films where she made a major breakthrough in the international market (and have been seen by me). First there was Brothers (2004) (which has a Hollywood remake coming out in December with Jake Gyllenhaal, Natalie Portman and Tobey Maguire), about a soldier supposedly killed in Afghanistan, and the relationship that develops between his formerly no good brother and his wife (Connie Nielson) as well as his kids. Things get complicated when it is revealed that he wasn’t really killed, only taken prisoner, and now he cannot deal with life back home. This was a masterfully directed movie, full of great performances and raw emotions. Her follow-up film, After the Wedding (2006), was nominated for the foreign film Oscar, and was another family drama, about the Danish head of an orphanage in India (Casino Royale’s Mads Mikkelsen), who comes home for a family wedding and discovers a dark secret about his family. Again, this was a powerfully made and acted film. After that, Bier moved to Hollywood and directed the underrated Things We Lost in the Fire (2007), featuring an amazing performance by Benicio Del Toro as a recovering drug addict. Halle Berry is also strong as the recently widowed wife of Del Toro’s best friend, who reluctantly puts up with him. This was one of those movies that got lost in the awards season shuffle, and is crying out to be rediscovered on DVD. Bier has at least two films in the works coming up, and I hope she continues her strong streak.

6. Claire Denis
I suspect that many serious film buffs would put Denis much higher on their list. After all, she has been directing great films for more than 20 years now, starting with her debut Chocolat (1988 – not the terrible Juliette Binoche/Johnny Depp movie). She has moved effortlessly between features and documentaries, making such great films as Beau Travail (1999), about a man recalling his life leading the foreign legion in Africa, Friday Night (2002), which takes place almost entirely in a car, but is wonderful nonetheless, The Intruder (2004) about an elderly man who dreams of violence and needs a heart transplant. Her two most recent films, 35 Shots of Rum (2008) is currently in release right now (where I have not had a chance to see it) and White Material (2009), which just played the Toronto Film Festival have also received great reviews. So if Denis is such a masterful filmmaker (and she is, totally eschewing the idea that women cannot be brilliant visual stylists), why is she only number 6? It’s because I no matter how much I admire her films, I am still waiting for one to come along that I completely and totally fall in love with – and the five directors above her all have at least one of those films on their resume.

5. Mary Haron
Mary Haron spends more time directing TV shows – like Homicide, Oz, Six Feet Under, Big Love, The L Word then on her features – like many directors she has to pay her bills this way instead of with movies. But her three features show a director of supreme intelligence and style. Her debut film was the wonderfully weird I Shot Andy Warhol (1996), starring Lili Taylor Valerie Jean Solanas, a woman who becomes a hanger on of Warhol’s, and eventually cracks and shots him (but doesn’t kill him). The film was thoroughly researched, and provides a scarily accurate portrayal of Solanas, giving Taylor her best role to date. Jared Harris is also excellent as Warhol (in fact, he’s probably the definitive screen version of the legend). After that, Haron took a on surprising project with American Psycho (2000), based on Brett Easton Ellis’ controversial novel about a sexist serial killer in the 1980s. Haron played up the satirical nature of the novel, and put a feminist twist on it, delivering a masterwork. It remains the best film she has ever done. Her last film was The Notorious Bettie Page (2005), a brilliant biographical portrait of the famed pin-up model (played with gusto by Gretchen Mol) before her conversion to Christianity. The film is a wonderful portrait of a woman who became a symbol of pornography, as well as sexual liberation, without ever really being conscience of it. The film, shot in brilliant black and white, is also a stylistic breakthrough for Haron. Mary Haron is a talented filmmaker, and one I hope to see more films from in the future.

4. Andrea Arnold
With only one short film, and two features, Arnold has already won an Oscar (for her 2004 short Wasp, a brilliant little movie about a mother who leaves her baby outside as she goes into a bar to get drunk), and two Jury Prizes at the Cannes film festivals for her features. With Red Road (2006), Arnold established she was a brilliant filmmaker with style and storytelling flair. The movie follows a woman who works as a security guard who becomes obsessed with a man she sees on her video monitor and starts following him – for reasons that only become clear late in the movie. Although I have to admit I was let down by the end of the movie – when the resolve of the movie becomes apparent and clichéd – up until then it was an extremely well directed, written and acted movie. Her most recent film, Fish Tank, is a definite step up. It concentrates on a young girl (Katie Jarvis in an amazing performance) living in the housing projects who dreams of becoming a dancer. But this is no romantic rags to riches story, but a grim story about her, and how she becomes close (too close) to her mother’s most recent boyfriend (the great Michael Fassbender). Arnold is a gifted visual stylist, and gets great performances out of her stars. She is a director who is only going to get stronger.

3. Julie Taymor
Before Taymor starting directing movies, she made a name for herself directing musicals such as The Lion King. Her debut feature film was 1999’s brilliant adaptation of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, simply entitled Titus. The film is a brilliant visual masterwork, which takes one of the Bard’s lesser plays and turns into a both a grand folly, a true tragedy and a statement on modern society. It remains far and away her best film. Her follow-up film was the colorful biopic Frida (2002), about the famed painter Frida Kahlo. The film was more popular than Titus, garnering six Oscar nominations (including one for Taymor who co-wrote a song for the movie), but it was also a safer movie than Titus was. Still, visually masterful though. Her latest film was 2007’s Across the Universe, her uneven, yet still visually stunning musical based on the songs of The Beatles – which she used in new and exciting ways. Yes, the film was somewhat stylistically excessive, but it was also bold and exciting. Next up for Taymor is her Broadway musical version of Spider-Man, and her film adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest – both due in 2010. I cannot wait.

2. Kathryn Bigelow
Since her directing debut in 1982, with the strange motorcycle film The Loveless starring Willem Dafoe, Kathryn Bigelow has carved out a strange, yet brilliant, directing career for herself. Strange because for a woman, she seems to concentrate on male characters, and is strongly drawn to their masculinity. Yet perhaps because Bigelow is a woman, she is able to view it all critically, and with more honesty, than most male directors. Her big breakthrough films was 1987’s Near Dark, a brilliant mixture of the vampire and Western genres, that Bigelow twisted to meet her own outlook. Her next film ranks as one of her disappointments. Blue Steel (1990) stars Jamie Lee Curtis as a rookie cop who becomes the object of a serial killer’s obsession. The film is well made, but too preposterous, and not quite entertaining enough to overlook it. An okay film to be sure, but I expect more for Bigelow. She followed that film up the next year with the immensely entertaining, guilty pleasure Point Break, with Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze – a film that has become a staple for action fans, and has been endlessly parodied ever since (most memorably in Hot Fuzz). In 1995, she made the memorable, and underrated science fiction thriller Strange Days, set in late 1999, where Ralph Fiennes plays a man who uncovers a police conspiracy, and tries to stop it. This was a brilliant blend of thriller, science fiction and action movie that most critics didn’t know what to make of. Her next two films were somewhat disappointing though. The Weight of Water (2000), takes a talented cast including Sean Penn and Sarah Polley, and turns it into a bore. The film remains visually interesting throughout, but I couldn’t much care about the story itself. In K-19: The Widowmaker (2002), Harrison Ford and Liam Neesom play Russian submarine officers who disagree on how to handle a malfunction. A fine film, but it plays in comparison to the superior The Hunt for Red October and Crimson Tide. Her most recent film, The Hurt Locker (2009), is her masterpiece however. The best movie to date about the current war in Iraq, The Hurt Locker drains the situation of the politics and simply concentrates on the day to day lives of the soldiers. Jeremy Renner gives a brilliant performance as a man who becomes addicted to the rush, the danger of defusing bombs, and puts his fellow soldiers in jeopardy. Almost unbearably intense, brilliantly well made, this is one of the great war films of recent years. I look forward to Bigelow doing more great work in the future.

1. Sofia Coppola
I’m sure that just about as many people will love as hate my top choice here. Coppola has become one of those filmmakers that some people love, and some people love to beat up on. I’ll admit that when I heard she was directing her first feature, I assumed that it was little more than nepotism. But that film turned out to be The Virgin Suicides (2000), a brilliant cinematic achievement that tells the story of its sisters in peril from the point of view of the boys across the road. It established Coppola as a real filmmaker, gifted visually, and also at storytelling, and introduced her favorite theme of beautiful young women under glass. Her next film was Lost in Translation (2003), which became the most critically acclaimed film of the year (which is, I believe, what led to the backlash). It remains a funny, thoughtful, brilliant movie about an aging movie star (Bill Murray), and his friendship with Scarlett Johansson’s young, kept wife of a celebrity photographer. The film is subtle and touching, and I still believe, wonderful. Her most recent film, 2006’s Marie Antoinette, took quite a critical drubbing, but no matter what the films undeniable shortcomings are (Coppola had pretty much gone as far as she could in the beautiful women under glass theme in her first two films), it is still a brilliant stylistic exercise, with a great Kirsten Dunst performance at its core. Yes, it could have been better, but I still prefer it to the other cinematic Antoinette’s. Next up, should be Somewhere with Stephen Dorff (hopefully finally living up to his potential) and Elle Fanning sometime in 2010. The reason why Coppola is in the number one slot is simple – out of all of the great filmmakers on this list, a new film from her would make me more excited than anyone else.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Movie Review: Julia

Julia *** ½
Directed By:
Erick Zonca.
Written By: Erick Zonca & Aude Py & Camille Nata & Michael Collins.
Starring: Tilda Swinton (Julia), Saul Rubinek (Mitch), Kate del Castillo (Elena), Aidan Gould (Tom), Jude Ciccolella (Nick), Bruno Bichir (Diego), Horacio Garcia Rojas (Santos), Kevin Kilner (Johnny).

Julia (Tilda Swinton) is one of those party girls way past their prime. She still goes out almost every night and gets drunk and ends up waking up next to some strange guy the next morning, even though she is well into her 40s. She cannot hold onto a job, cannot hold onto to any real friends, and she drinks every day. She cannot stop herself at one drink. Several times over the course of the film we see her start on that one drink, and then flash forward to the next morning. The middle part is always the same.

The only person who hasn’t abandoned Julia yet is Mitch (Saul Rubinek), and that’s because he has been where she was in the past. But even he is getting ready to abandon her if she doesn’t start going to meetings. It is at one of these meetings that Julia meets Elena (Kate del Castillo) for the first time. Elena recognizes Julia because she lives across the street from her. Elena tells Julia about her son Tom (Aidan Gould), who was taken away from her by her father in law after her husband’s death. That was five years ago, Tom is now eight, and Elena hasn’t seen him since. She convinces Julia to help kidnap her son, and promises a big payday. Things don’t go as planned, and Julia ends up on the run with Tom in tow.

Tilda Swinton gives one of those fearless performances as Julia that we rarely see in a movie. She is not a sympathetic character at all. We almost immediately dislike her when we meet her, as she is one of those sloppy drunks, who doesn’t understand the concept of personal space, and doesn’t get the fact that she is annoying everyone around her. She is the most self involved person I can recall seeing in a movie – everything filters through her perception of herself as a victim of everyone else, when in fact, she brings all the shit down on herself. As the movie progresses, she doesn’t really change all that much. She lashes out at Mitch, at Elena, and eventually at Tom, who is just acting like any kid would. She drugs me and ties him up repeatedly, every time telling him that this “is the last time, I promise”, and cannot believe it when he eventually stops trusting her. She has probably made the “the last time” promise before with her drinking, and she means it every time. The movie requires Swinton to hit a lot of different notes, and she does so perfectly. At the heart of every scene in the film, Swinton carries it effortlessly.

The movie itself is not quite as good as Swinton is. It meanders a little bit at times, and contains a few too many twists and turns (the last one, where Julia learns something is not really believable). In addition, the director of the film, Erick Zonca, from France, gives the movie perhaps too much of a European flavor. For a movie that it set in California and Mexico, the movie never really feels like it is taking place there.

But those are minor problems. Overall, Julia is well made, well written and because of Swinton’s masterful performance, well acted. This is Swinton’s best performance to date, and considering what she has done in the past, that is saying something. It’s too bad that hardly anyone has seen the film – if they had, Swinton would be a guaranteed Oscar nominee this year.

DVD Views: A Christmas Tale (2008)

A Christmas Tale ****
Directed by:
Arnaud Desplechin.
Written By: Arnaud Desplechin & Emmanuel Bourdieu.
Starring: Catherine Deneuve (Junon), Jean-Paul Roussillon (Abel), Anne Consigny (Elizabeth), Mathieu Amalric (Henri), Melvil Poupaud (Ivan), Hippolyte Girardot (Claude), Emmanuelle Devos (Faunia), Chiara Mastroianni (Sylvia), Laurent Capelluto (Simon), Emile Berling (Paull), Thomas Obled (Basile), Clément Obled (Baptiste), Françoise Bertin (Rosaimée), Samir Guesmi (Spatafora).

A Christmas Tale is a film about a large family getting together for Christmas for the first time in years. This is a family that has a lot of unresolved issues, all seemingly stemming for their eldest child’s death of leukemia as a child. At the time, the parents Junon (Catherine Deneuve) and Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon) only had one other child, Elizabeth (Anne Consigny). None of them was a match for bone marrow transplantation. So they decided to have another child, Henri (Mathieu Almaric). When it turns out that Henri is also not a match, the oldest son dies, and the mother never really forgives Henri - hating him for his entire life. Eventually, the couple has another child, Ivan (Melvi Poupaud), and the parents love him too.

Probably at least in part because of this, Henri winds up a selfish asshole in his adult life. Elizabeth finally gets fed up with his antics, and agrees to bail him out of trouble one last time, but has a condition - Henri is to be banished from the family. The rest of the family can see him when they want, but anytime Elizabeth is around, Henri is not to be there. Five years pass, and although Henri is still upset, everyone else seems fine with the arrangement.

But then, Junon is diagnosed with leukemia herself and needs a bone marrow transplant. All the kids and the grandkids are tested to see if there is a match. Only two come back positive. One is for Paull, Elizabeth’s son, who has inherited another one of the family burdens - mentally illness, and has just got out of the hospital after a mental breakdown. The other match is, of course, Henri. The entire family gathers together for four days over Christmas.

There are other plot threads running throughout the film. Henri has brought along Faunia (Emmanuelle Devos), a gorgeous Jewish woman to the celebration, and everyone in the family seems to like her more than Henri. Ivan’s wife Sylvia (Chiara Mastroianni) has just found out that his cousin, Simon (Laurent Capelluto) has been in love with her for years. When she met Ivan, she met Henri and Simon at the same time - eventually sleeping with Henri before settling down with Ivan. But she always liked Simon, and when she finds out that he “gave” her to Ivan, she is pissed off.

A Christmas Tale is essentially two and half hours of talk. Played out in a series of brilliant conversations, that ranges from the comic to the tragic, often in the same scene. To further complicate things, Desplechin plays with the tone of the movie by using music in strange ways. At times when the conversations are about the most serious subjects, he has cheery music playing the background. And the reverse is also true. This gives scenes a strange feel to them, but essentially this serves to only heighten the emotions.

The performances in the movie are all amazing. Deneuve is one of the best actresses in the history of movies, delivers yet another great performance here. She plays a woman who is utterly incapable of hiding her feelings for her family members. When Faunia asks her why she likes her, and yet hates Sylvia, she says that it’s because she’s with the son she doesn’t like. And yet, she is never exactly mean about it, just rather matter of fact about it. Jean-Paul Roussillon is excellent as Abel, a man who is just trying to hold onto his family, and yet has no real idea as to how to do that. Anne Consigny delivers a remarkable performance as Elizabeth, a woman has no real power, and so she tries to control everything around her. When it turns out that only her mentally unstable son and Henri can donate marrow to her mother, she is determined to get her son to be the donor - because to her Henri is poison, and she doesn’t want even that much of him around when she’s with her mother. By the end, she has learned to simply let some things go. And finally, there is the brilliant Mathieu Almaric, last seen playing a Bond villain, now playing a charming womanizer, drunken asshole. It is easy to see why Elizabeth hates him so much, and yet it’s hard not to at least kind of like him. He has that sort of irascible grin that puts you at ease. The rest of the cast easily matches these four brilliant actors in their performances.

The film is essentially about the lasting legacy that your family leaves you. Quite literally, because of the bone marrow, these people are part of each other. The other legacy that is passed down throughout the family is mental illness. The people in this film all have mental issues - some more serious than others, but all of them are should probably be seeing a psychiatrist.

Desplechin’s film fits firmly in the tradition of Ingmar Bergman and Woody Allen, at times more firmly in one of them than the other. Like those masters, he looks at his characters in all their flawed humanity, and doesn’t really try to solve anything. While at the end of the film, it certainly seems like this family is heading down the right path, perhaps they aren’t. Perhaps they can never truly be a “functional” family. But that is what makes them more normal. When Claude, Elizabeth’s husband, storms out of the house because he cannot take all the “drama”, he’s the one who looks like an idiot. Dysfunction is a part of every family. And in this way, the family at the center of A Christmas Tale is more like our own than we would probably like to admit.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Weekly Top Ten: The Best Non-Shakespare Play Adaptations

Since I did Shakespeare, I figured the rest of the play writes in history deserved some credit as well. On this list we have adaptations of such diverse talents as Arthur Miller, John Patrick Shanley, Anton Chekov, Eugene O’Neil, David Mamet, Tracy Letts, Tony Kushner, Peter Schafer Edward Albee and Tennessee Williams. My one rule was to limit the number of plays by any one play write to one. That way, I could cover more ground. Plays are not inherently cinematic – they have their basis in the theater of course, but I think all of these films found great ways to tell their stories in cinematic terms.

10. Vanya on 42nd Street (Louis Malle, 1994)
Vanya on 42nd Street is a daring movie by director Louis Malle, who often pushed the boundaries of what could do. Over the course of three years, a group of actors (including Wallace Shawn, Julianne Moore and Andre Gregory) gathered at an abandoned theater on 42nd Street in New York and put on rehearsal like productions of Chekov’s play Uncle Vanya in the street clothes. Devoid of commercial demands, they were able to get into the heart of what the play was about, and explore it in a new and exciting way. Uncle Vanya is of course Chekov’s story of a wasted life, ending with Vanya lashing out violently at the people who ruined his life. Vanya on 42nd Street is completely unlike any other movie I have ever seen.

9. The Crucible (Nicolas Hytner, 1996)
Arthur Miller’s 1953 play about the Salem witch trials was a thinly veiled attack on McCarthyism that was running through the country at the time. It amazes me that it took over four decades to get the definitive film version of the play. Daniel Day Lewis gives a wonderful performance as John Proctor, a respected citizen in Salem in 1692. A group of young women, including Proctor’s former mistress Abigail (Winona Ryder, also very strong in the film) are caught dancing and perhaps practicing witchcraft. To protect themselves, they start accusing other people in the town of witchcraft – including Proctor’s wife Elizabeth (Joan Allen – excellent). The trial, led by Judge Thomas Danforth (Paul Scofield, again amazing) quickly turns into a circus, with constant arrests, allegations of wrongdoing, confessions and recantations. Miller, who wrote the screenplay for the movie himself, has kept the heart of his play intact, and has found an amazing cast to perform it. The director, Nicolas Hytner has been hit or miss over the years, but The Crucible is his finest hour.

8. Long Day’s Journey Into Night (Sidney Lumet, 1962)
Eugene O’Neil’s final play, published after his death, becomes one of Sidney Lumet’s best films. A family in crisis, the Tyrones spend a long day and night going after each other verbally. James (Ralph Richardson) is a prominent stage actor, who is worried about all the money that his family is spending. Mary (Katherine Hepburn) has just returned from rehab for morphine addiction. Their son Jamie (Jason Robards) is a drunk and a cynic. Their other son Edmund (Dean Stockwell) has returned from the merchant marines and may have consumption. The movie is long, and essentially omits nothing of the original text, and in this case that’s a good thing, because the whole movie builds to its powerful climax. The acting is amazing, but the direction by Lumet is just as impressive, making this into a real movie, not just a photographed play.

7. Doubt (John Patrick Shanley, 2008)
Often times, I feel that play writes probably should not direct film versions of their own plays, because they are simply too close to it, and do not understand that film is a visual medium, not just a bunch of photographed conversations. But while I think that Shanley makes some mistakes as a director of his own play here, overall he does a great job with it. Doubt is a sensational movie about the conflict between a nun (Meryl Streep) who represents the old school Catholic church and a priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who represents a kinder, gentler Catholicism in 1960s Brooklyn. Of course, the play and the movie is also about the war in Iraq, and about how having doubt is an essential part of the human condition. The acting in the movie is terrific – Streep has not been this good in years, and the rest of the cast is equally sensational, especially Viola Davis who is one short scene steals the movie. This is dynamic filmmaking, but also a top notch adaptation of one of the most acclaimed plays of our time.

6. Glengarry Glen Ross (James Foley, 1992)
David Mamet has had a lot of his plays turned into movies over the years (Oleanna, American Buffalo, Lakeboat, Sexual Pervarsity in Chicago and Edmond), but none are as good as James Foley’s adaptation of Glengarry Glen Ross. Mamet wrote the screenplay himself, and added one of the greatest one scene roles in cinema history for Alec Baldwin, who comes into a real estate office to “encourage” four struggling salesman to pick up their game. At the end of the week, the two with the lowest sales totals will be fired. Jack Lemmon gives one of his best performances as Shelley “The Machine” Levine, an aging salesman who was once great, and now cannot close to save his life (the character of Gil on The Simpsons is based on him). Ed Harris is the profanity spewing hot head, Al Pacino the cool as a cucumber “star” and Alan Arkin is the desperate man just trying to keep his head above water. Add to them Kevin Spacey as their boss, and Jonathan Pryce as a jittery client, and you have one of the best ensembles ever assembled. Mamet’s play is about the ruthlessness of business, and how it crushes people. It is just as relevant today as it was when it was written. A masterwork.

5. Bug (William Friedkin, 2006)
Critics seemed to not recognize the brilliance of this film when it was released a few years ago. Based on the off Broadway play by Tracey Letts (who would go on to write the brilliant August, Osage County also being turned into a movie), Bug is essentially a two character piece about an Iraq war veteran (Michael Shannon) who believes bugs have literally been implanted in his teeth, and a waitress with a dead child and an abusive ex-husband (Ashley Judd), who willfully goes along with his delusion, until finally she is as crazy as he is. Other characters drift in and out, but its these two and their shared madness that are at the heart of the movie. This is the film that introduced the film world to just how brilliant Michael Shannon really is, and gave Judd the best role of her career. And it was veteran director William Friedkin’s best film in decades. He directs like a hungry young filmmaker. Too bad no one seemed to notice.

4. Amadeus (Milos Forman, 1984)
Milos Forman’s adaptation of the Peter Schafer play of the same name is so cinematic, that you could hardly guess that it was based on a play at all. In F. Murrary Abraham’s Saleri, the film has one of the greatest, most complex screen villains in history. His jealously of the great Mozart (Tom Hulce), and the ease at which he composes, and his devil may care attitude, drives Saleri deeper and deeper into rage. Forman’s film swirls around, containing such amazing music, costumes, sets and cinematography, that is easy to get lost in the texture of the film. But it is also profound and emotional. This is the way you adapt plays to the screen.

3. Angels in America (Mike Nichols, 2003)
Tony Kushner’s epic two part play becomes a brilliant six hour miniseries in the hands of director Mike Nichols. The film, set during the 1980s in New York, deals with several gay characters struggling with AIDS and their identities, as well as heavenly visions. The entire cast is brilliant. Al Pacino as a dying Roy Cohn, who takes pride in his part of the “Red Scare” of the 1950s, including his role in the execution of Ethel Rosenberg, who haunts him on his death bed as lies dying of AIDS (which he covers up, not wanting to admit he is gay). Meryl Streep as the ghost of Rosenberg, as well as the understanding mother of one of the characters, a Rabbi and finally an angel. Patrick Wilson as a closeted Mormon (and son of Streep), who is Roy Cohn’s aid. Mary Louise Parker as Wilson’s jilted wife, descending into her delusions. Ben Shenkman as Wilson’s current lover, who is angered by his Republican ideals. Justin Kirk as Shenkman’s former lover who has AIDS, and has been approached by an Angel (Emma Thompson), to go on a Holy Mission. And finally Jeffrey Wright as a flamboyant nurse, and friend to all. Nichols films is huge in scope, and wildly cinematic to boot. It is a film that addresses America at both its best and worst, and is an absolute masterpiece.

2. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Mike Nichols, 1966)
Edward Albee’s play about a warring older couple (brilliantly played by Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton) who use a younger couple (George Segal and Sandy Dennis) as pawns in their own twisted game is brilliantly brought to the screen by Mike Nichols (making his second appearance on this list). Martha (Taylor) is the daughter of the dean of the University, married to George (Burton) an “associate professor” of history. They spend the play verbally and at times physically, abusing each other in front of their guests – a new professor, and his alcoholic wife. But it is all a game to George and Martha, who invent their own stories to try and get a rise out of their guests, for their own amusement. I have rarely seen a better film about two worse people than this one.

1.A Streetcar Named Desire (Elia Kazan, 1951)
Elia Kazan’s adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ classic play reuniting most of the Broadway cast of the play is the best adaptation of play to screen in history. Marlon Brando’s performance as the animalistic Stanley, who drives his sister in law Blanche (Vivien Leigh) insane is absolutely stunning, and transformed screen acting forever. Leigh is Brando’s match as the Southern Belle Blanche, who thinks she demands she be treated like the lady she is, but cannot match Stanley. Kim Hunter’s performance as Stella is a thing of beauty – she knows Stanley is a brute, but her sexual attraction to him makes her powerless. Rounding out the major cast is Karl Malden as Mitch, Blanche’s gentleman caller, who is under the control of his demanding mother who he dotes on even though he hates her. The film got away with a surprising amount of sexual imagery (the rape scene is only alluded to, but is unmistakable) and the film is an absolute masterpiece. One of the best films ever made.

Weekly Top Ten: Best Shakespeare Adaptations

I know for most people, Shakespeare remains someone the associate with school, where you had to slog through a play, and interpret every line and character, and write long, pointless essays. I remember I almost failed one essay I wrote on Romeo & Juliet where I had to write from the point of view of one of the characters after the play was over, and I picked Romeo, who regretted his choice to kill himself over a girl he barely knew. I was told I missed the point of the play. But, hell, Romeo has ALWAYS struck me as a whiner, and I never did much like that play anyway (notice how none of the film versions are on this list). But I do love Shakespeare. If you can divorce yourself from those English classes of yesteryear, and just sit back and enjoy the plays, or the film versions of them, you will find greatness in them. For this list, I chose to only have two “non-traditional” Shakespeare adaptations – one that doesn’t use the masters own words and chose to limit the films of any director to one, and any one play to one (the only thing that would have changed here is that Welles’ Macbeth would have also been included).

10. The Merchant of Venice (Michael Radford, 2004)
Michael Radford’s film version of the controversial Shakespeare play earns a spot on this list, because Radford and his cast understand something that most people have missed over the years – that The Merchant of Venice, despite being defined as one of Shakespeare’s comedies, is actually a tragedy – with the Jewish Shylock as its complicated tragic “hero”. Al Pacino delivers a passionate, brilliant performance as Shylock, a man who does what he needs to do in order to survive. The film opens with a montage showing how the Jews are mistreated by the Catholics in Venice. Although Shylock has often been treated as a comic villain, here he is more of victim than a villain. Shylock maybe unreasonable in insisting on receiving his pound of flesh for the hated Antonio (Jeremy Irons), but he just wants what is owed to him. The comedy of the movie – that of all the ridiculousness about suitors – fades from memory soon after the film ends. But I will never forget Pacino’s impassioned performance as Shylock.

9. Othello (Orson Welles, 1952)
There is a sadness for me in proclaiming Orson Welles’s 1952 version of Othello to be the definitive screen version. Not because Welles’ film is not masterfully made – as with everything he did it is visually stunning, and the lengthy delays in production are not all that noticeable in the final result – but because no matter how good Welles is in the title role – and he is magnificent – he is still a white man in blackface playing the role of an African character (the 1995 version with Laurence Fishburne is not very good, although it gives us the definitive screen Iago in Kenneth Branagh). But Welles film remains one of the best Shakespearian adaptations in history despite my misgivings about some of the content.

8. My Own Private Idaho (Gus Van Sant, 1991)
Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho recasts the roles of Prince Hal (the future King Henry V) and Falstaff from the play Henry IV into street hustlers in Idaho in the 1980s. Keanu Reeves plays Scott, the son of the Mayor of Portland, who wants to reject his father’s way of life, but is only hustling until he turns 21 and can get his hands on his trust fund. River Phoenix is Mike, the lowlife kid who somehow embraces life, despite his narcolepsy. Like Prince Hal in Henry IV, Scott will eventually abandon his loyal friend and embrace his father’s posh lifestyle. And like Falstaff, Mike is seemingly at the mercy of strangers, who can either help or hurt him, depending on what they want to do. That My Own Private Idaho is an amazing version of a story set hundreds of years in the past, in another country no less, is a testament to just how universal the themes in Shakespeare really are.

7. Macbeth (Roman Polanski, 1971)
Roman Polanski’s version of Macbeth is undoubtedly one of the most violent, sexually charged adaptations of Shakespeare in cinematic history. He casts younger actors than normal for both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, and daringly changes Lady Macbeth from a nagging bitch into a more human character, who slide into insanity comes quickly once she realizes what she has done (another daring move was to have her perform her famous sleepwalking scene in the nude). Polanski’s visual technique places the audience inside the play, turning us into voyeurs to the plays violent acts. His conclusion, where Donalbain visits the witches, suggests a never-ending cycle of violence, where in the future, Donalbain will become Macbeth. This is a chilling, violent Shakespearian film.

6. Richard III (Richard Loncraine, 1995)
Richard Loncraine’s daring film version relocates the action from Shakespearian England into an alternative Fascist England in the 1930s, thus putting the events of the film into a different light than most adaptations. Ian McKellan delivers a remarkable performance as the classic Shakespearian villain, who’s jealously, leads him to overthrow his brother, and makes the nation fall into chaos and violence. The film is heavy on the Nazi symbolism, but it used to great purpose here. The entire cast is strong, but is McKellan who makes the biggest impact as the unbalanced, violent Richard. This production took a lot of chances, and carried it off brilliantly well. I love the touch of having Richard deliver his famous “Made glorious winter by this son of York” speech while standing at a urinal, which shows his utter contempt for his brother. Wonderful work.

5. Henry V (Laurence Olivier, 1945)
You cannot have a list of great Shakespearian movies and not include one by Laurence Olivier. His first film, Henry V, was also his very best (sorry, but despite the Oscar wins for his 1948 version of Hamlet, I find that film a thudding bore). Olivier’s film brilliantly combines the theatrical with the cinematic, with the film opening and closing in the Globe theater on stage, with the action shifting to stylized film sets, and finally for the climactic battle, in a real location. Olivier’s performance as Henry is his greatest as any Shakespearian character. The only thing that hampers Olivier’s film is that because it was made as a “propaganda” film during WWII, Olivier leaves much of Henry’s harsher traits off-screen (no instructions to rape and pillage Harfleur, no hanging of traitors, etc.). But Henry V remains one of the most daring and brilliant adaptations of Shakespeare for the screen.

4. Julius Caesar (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1953)
Julius Caesar is one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays, and this is the best version ever put on screen. The central character is Brutus, played in a brilliant performance by James Mason, who agrees to go along with the plan to assassinate his friend Caesar hatched by Cassius (John Gielgud), but only for the good of Rome. When the act is done, Caesar (Louis Calhern) lies dead, and Brutus makes his impassioned plea to the people of Rome, who are with him, until Marc Antony (Marlon Brando), makes the famed “Friends, Romans, countrymen lend me your ears” speech, and Brutus and his “friends” are driven from Rome, only to return on the attack. What makes Julius Caesar so great is the character of Brutus who is conflicted about what he feels he must do, and therefore, he defies easy categorization. And Mason is brilliant in the role. Brando may have been the one who got an Oscar nomination for the movie, but it is Mason who is the real star.

3. Titus (Julie Taymor, 1999)
Julie Taymor took one of Shakespeare’s lesser know plays and turned it to an out and out masterwork of visual filmmaking. The film opens in modern day, where a boy’s toy soldiers morph into the army of Roman General Titus Andronicus. The film uses many differing time settings for the movie, and the musical cues follow suit. Titus (Anthony Hopkins). The film is essentially a revenge drama, where vanished Queen of the Goths Tamara (Jessica Lange) wants to get revenge on Titus for killing her eldest son. So she sends her two remaining sons to rape Titus’ daughter – which they do, and then cut out her tongue and cut off her hands, in an attempt to silence her. When Titus learns of what has been done, he kills Tamara’s other two sons, and feeds them to her is a meat pie. All the performances are brilliant – Hopkins has a lot of fun playing not only on his role in The Silence of the Lambs, but in one scene brilliantly mocking the delivery of John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson and Laurence Olivier. But I also particularly loved Henry Lennix’s performance as Aaron, a Moor and lover of Tamara, who is the chief architect of her revenge plans. The film is violent – the most violent of any Shakespeare adaptation – but brilliantly well executed by Taymor and her cast. Although this was not a box office hit, its influence can be seen in many films since.

2. Ran (Akira Kurosawa, 1985)
I had to include one non-traditional Shakespearean adaptation for director Akira Kurosawa (who made Hamlet into a film noir in The Bad Sleep Well and Macbeth into a samurai epic in Throne of Blood), along with this Japanese version of King Lear, that may well be his masterpiece (it is the best film on this list, but it felt wrong to not have an actual Shakespeare adaptation in the number one spot). Tatsuya Nakadai plays Hidetora who decides to split his kingdom into three and give control to his three sons. What happens next is straight out of Shakespeare, as the only loyal son is banished because of the King’s pride, and the other two start plotting against each other, and their father, who eventually goes mad with grief. Ran actually improves on Shakespeare’s Lear, as it deepens the characters by giving them more of a past to haunt them, and in Lady Kaede, they have created a character not unlike Lady Macbeth. The film is visually magnificent, overflowing with color and violence. Kurosawa made a lot of great films in his career – and Ran is easily the equal of any of them.

1. Hamlet (Kenneth Branagh, 1996)
Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet is the best adaptation of Shakespeare for many reasons. For one, unlike just about every other adaptation, Branagh does not omit a line of dialogue from the film – this four hour opus is Hamlet in its entirety. But completeness would hardly be worthy of the number one spot by itself. Branagh’s direction of the movie is stunning and cinematic – his use of mirrors of example rivals that of Welles at times in this movie. His performance as Hamlet, although he is too old for the role (but not nearly as old as the other cinematic Hamlets) is amazing, hitting the high notes perfectly, but also giving feeling to the less famous speeches. Although some celebrities make some ill advised cameos (Billy Crystal, Robin Williams and Jack Lemmon among them), the major roles are cast to perfection – Derek Jacobi as Claudius, Julie Christie as Gertrude, Richard Briers as Polonius and particularly Kate Winslet who is the definitive Ophelia. This is Branagh’s masterpiece.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Movie Review: Saw VI

Saw VI **
Directed By:
Kevin Greutet.
Written By: Marcus Dunstan & Patrick Melton.
Starring: Tobin Bell (Jigsaw / John), Costas Mandylor (Hoffman), Mark Rolston (Erickson), Betsy Russell (Jill), Shawnee Smith (Amanda), Peter Outerbridge (William), Samantha Lemole (Pamela Jenkins), Tanedra Howard (Simone), Marty Moreau (Eddie), Shawn Ahmed (Allen), Janelle Hutchison (Addy), Gerry Mendicino (Janitor), Caroline Cave (Debbie), George Newbern (Harold), Shauna MacDonald (Tara), Devon Bostick (Brent), Darius McCrary (Dave), Shawn Mathieson (Josh), Melanie Scrofano (Gena), Karen Cliche (Shelby), James Gilbert (Aaron), Larissa Gomes (Emily).

I have to give the makers of Saw VI credit. The last three entries in the series simply go along with the formula established in the first two movies with mindless glee, inventing new, grosser ways of killing people, and not really worrying about what the movie actually means – which is of course, nothing. But in Saw VI, the filmmakers certainly try and link the movie with what is happening in the real world. It is almost like Saw VI is a horror movie directed by Michael Moore.

Consider the opening scene in the film. Two people wake up in a room, and a video starts to play. It tells them that they have taken advantage of people with their “predatory lending practices” by giving people loans they knew they’d never be able to pay back. They have a minute, and however sacrifices more of their body in sheer weight will be released. The loser will be killed by the medieval looking device strapped to their heads. The two start cutting.

And then there is the main game in the movie. Erickson (Mark Rolston) is an insurance company executive who specializes in probability formulas. Essentially what he does is take an application and determine if the cost of insuring the potential client is going to be more or less than premiums they will pay. Then when people actually do file a substantial claim, he and his “Dragon Den” of six people review every document related to the clients file and determine if there is any way they can deny the claim. They deny a man who has heart disease treatment because he failed to disclose a dental surgery he had as a child. Dental surgery can lead to scar tissue, which can lead to gum disease which can lead to heart disease, which means his problem is a pre-existing condition. Without coverage, the man will die, but Erickson doesn’t care so much. He just saved the company a lot of money.

Now, if you’ve been following along with this series, you know that the killer, Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) died at the end of Saw III, but that it hasn’t stopped him from appearing in the movies. He now appears in a series of flashbacks that highlight why he chose his successor Hoffman (Costas Mandylor) to pick people like Erickson. You may be reminded of CNN when Jigsaw meets with Erickson and tells him that people always say that doctors and their patients, and not the government, should make medical decisions, but in reality, it’s the insurance companies who do it.

But while a certain part of me admires Saw VI for addressing the current economic and health care debates instead of just mindlessly repeating the same tired formula, I have to admit that at the end of the day, this is little more than a framing device to set up a game, in which the result is exactly the same as the other movies. I have become increasing frustrated with the movies, as they have moved away from individual tests that in Jigsaw’s words tests the victims “will to live”. Consider Erickson’s tests, which often involved choosing who is going to live or die. It’s true that it’s a test for him, but what about the poor people he has to choose between. Whether or not you believe that they deserve to die, the fact of the matter is that they are not given a test at all. Their fate is entirely in Erickson’s hands, and they do not test their will to live at all.

The movie is certainly well made for a horror film, but it essentially follows the same basic visual strategy of the other films in the series. It does what it sets out to do and nothing more. I supposed that if you liked the other Saw films, you’ll like this one as well. It is better than installments III, IV and V, but then almost anything would be. And it doesn’t reach the heights of either of the first two installments. Despite the series’ newfound social consciousness, Saw VI is essentially more of the same.

Movie Review: An Education

An Education ****
Directed By:
Lone Scherfig.
Written By: Nick Hornby based on the book by Lynn Barber.
Starring: Carey Mulligan (Jenny), Peter Sarsgaard (David), Alfred Molina (Jack), Cara Seymour (Majorie), Olivia Williams (Miss Stubbs), Matthew Beard (Graham), Amanda Fairbank-Hynes (Hattie), Ellie Kendrick (Tina), Dominic Cooper (Danny), Rosamund Pike (Helen), Emma Thompson (Headmistress).

It’s England, 1961, and women go to school not to prepare themselves for future careers, but rather in order to meet a proper husband and settle down. Jenny (Carey Mulligan) has never really questioned this logic, and has spent her entire life preparing to go off to Oxford to study English literature. Her father Jack (Alfred Molina) has it all planned out for her, and she’ll get in if only she can get her Latin marks up. She dreams of a more glamorous life visiting Paris and listening to jazz and going to good restaurants, but she is biding her time.

That is until she meets David (Peter Sarsgaard). She is standing in the rain with her cello waiting for bus to take her home, when he pulls up alongside him in his fancy car. They talk, they flirt, he drives her home, and then she thinks nothing more of it. That is until the day of her recital, which she told David about, when a fancy bouquet of flowers arrives at her door. When she sees him standing in the street a few days later, she goes to thank him. He asks her to join him and his friends for a concert. She agrees. When she tells her parents about it, they say no. That is until they meet David. David is charming and funny, and soon has her parents eating out of the palm of his hand. Jenny for her part likes David, but likes the kind of life he provides her with even more. Why wait to go the fancy restaurants, listen to jazz and visit Paris when she can do so now? What can she really do with a degree anyway? Astonishingly, her parents seem to agree with this logic. We sense, and to a certain extent Jenny senses as well, that there is something not quite right about David. We don’t trust him, but everyone in the movie seems to. Even when we find out how it is that David makes his money, there is little more than a brief fight, before things go back to normal between them. Why mess with a good thing?

An Education is an extremely intelligent movie that sees its characters clearly, and gives even the minor ones real depth and feeling. The whole movie really does rest on Jenny’s shoulders, and newcomer Carey Mulligan delivers one of the best performances of the year. She captures that period in life between adolescence and adulthood just about perfectly, with her innocent looking face, and a wisdom beyond her years. In many ways, she is the most adult character in the movie, one who makes her romantic seeming decisions not simply based on youthful naiveté, but also on the knowledge that there is very little out there for her. Her happiness depends on a man, and in David even if she is not over the moon in love with him, he can provide her the lifestyle that she wants. It is a gutsy performance by Mulligan, who delivers a performance that is astonishing.

The rest of the cast rises to her level. Sarsgaard is supposed to be the adult in the relationship – after all he’s in his early 30s, and Jenny is only 16, but he has a kind of childlike innocence about him. Sure, he is letch, but he truly does seem to believe what he says to her. He is not just some heartless older man taking advantage of a younger girl, but truly believes what he is selling. Domenic Cooper, who plays David’s best friend Danny, is not as innocent, and knows where this is all heading from the beginning, but goes along anyway. Danny’s wife Helen (Rosamund Pike) is delightfully dimwitted. Pike is an actress capable of playing intelligence, but she makes Helen a dolt, and her eyes show that lack of intelligence brilliantly. Alfred Molina is wonderful as Jenny’s father, raging about his daughter going to Oxford, and then seemingly willfully making himself believe in David. Cara Seymour, as Jenny’s mother, seems to have her own ideas, but holds back. It’s not her place to question her husband. In smaller roles, Olivia Williams is heartfelt as Jenny’s teacher who believes in her, and Emma Thompson is strict as the Headmistress who feels sorry for Jenny, but not sorry enough to have a heart.

The screenplay by Nick Hornby and the direction by Lone Scherfig are both heartfelt and engaging. We would suspect a movie about a older man and teenage girl to be either depressing or sultry, but this film is neither. It is a film bursting with life and intelligence. It is impossible not to smile at the end of An Education. Jenny certainly learns a lot about life in this movie.

Movie Review: Amelia

Amelia * ½
Directed By:
Mira Nair.
Written By: Ronald Bass & Anna Hamilton Phelan based on the books by Susan Butler & Mary S. Lovell.
Starring: Hilary Swank (Amelia Earhart), Richard Gere (George Putnam), Ewan McGregor (Gene Vidal), Christopher Eccleston (Fred Noonan), Joe Anderson (Bill), Cherry Jones (Eleanor Roosevelt), Mia Wasikowska (Elinor Smith), Aaron Abrams (Slim Gordon), William Cuddy (Gore Vidal).

I’m sure Amelia Earhart was a fascinating woman. You would have to be if during the Great Depression, you stood up and broke the all boys club mentality that were around pilots at the time. What she accomplished, no other female had done so before her. She remains an inspiration for a lot of people. But the Amelia Earhart presented in Mira Nair’s new biopic is a thudding bore – as is the movie that surrounds her. Watching the movie, I could help but wonder if that’s all there was to her story, and if so, why people seem to love her so much.

Two time Oscar winner Hilary Swank plays Earhart, but much like all of her performances that she hasn’t won an Oscar for, it is a mannered and lifeless performance. Earhart was presumably a woman who embraced life, and lived it to the fullest, consequences be damned. But Swank in this movie seems utterly lifeless. You never feel her love of flying, never feel there is any passion in her marriage to George Putnam (Richard Gere) or her affair with Gene Vidal (Ewan McGregor). Swank dons a boyish haircut, and a fake sounding Kansas accent, and thinks that’s enough to play Earhart, but she doesn’t capture the spunk and vitality needed to play her. Imagine if Amy Adams, who memorably played Earhart in the otherwise standard Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian earlier this year had played her. Then you would have seen some life in this movie.

But Swank is just one of the myriad of reasons why the film doesn’t work. She certainly gets no help at all from the lifeless Gere, who spends most of the movie either smiling serenely, or looking worried. He claims he loves Earhart over and over, yet you never feel that love – not even when he gets angry about her affair with Vidal. Like Swank, Gere dons a fake accent (what he was going for, I have no idea, but I suppose since the real Putnam was from upstate New York, that was what he tried for). McGregor is equally lost as Vidal, but he is given next to nothing to actually do with his role. My wife insisted that his accent wasn’t as bad as the other two, until I informed her that Vidal was from South Dakota, and not England. Everyone else in the cast looks just as lost in the movie as these three do.

Director Mira Nair is a gifted filmmaker, but her best films (Salaam Bombay, Mississippi Masala, Monsoon Wedding, her segment of September 11th ) are the ones that seem to be extremely personal to herself as an Indian-American woman. She undoubtedly admired the independent minded Earhart, but that doesn’t mean she was the right choice to direct the movie. Her filmmaking here is flat and lifeless – not the sort of thing I think when I think of her colorful, lively films of the past. She misses an real opportunity in making the flying scenes seem so dull. True, Earhart wasn’t much of a racer, and she was often the only plane in the air, but we constantly hear how dangerous what she was doing was, and yet we never feel it. Not even in the finale, when Earhart misses her landing spot and ends up God knows where out in the Pacific Ocean. All we get is some muddled dialogue over the radio. Nair, who rightfully resists the urge to sensationalize Earhart’s death, doesn’t even portray it at – we simply get her plane fading into the clouds.

Her storytelling attributes also fail her, as plot threads are introduced, and then dropped a scene later with no real purpose. What are we to make of the character of Elinor Smith (Mia Wasikowska), who says she wants to dethrone Earhart as the premier woman flyer, only to disappear for almost the entire rest of the movie, save for one scene when Putnam tells her to throw a race against Earhart? Why is she in the movie at all? And what of Christopher Eccelston’s Fred Noonan, Earhart’s navigator on her fateful final flight. Much is made of his drinking, but then nothing done with it. Why do the filmmakers have him make a pass at Earhart, and then drop it in the next scene? The movie lacks a real flow, anything really for an audience to hold onto.

Amelia is a major disappointment from a filmmaker who is normally top notch. No doubt when the studio green lit this movie, they had visions of Oscars dancing in their head. This is one film that I feel safe in saying will not be invited to the Kodak theater in February.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Weekly Top Tens: The Scariest Movies of the Decade

Let me be clear right off the bat and say that this is not a list of the “best” horror movies of the decade, but rather the scariest. Some of these movies are not even all that good, but I have to admit that they did their job in that they scared me. I don’t often get scared at the movies anymore – I know the tricks too well – but I still love the sensation of being scared out of my mind at the movies. A great horror movie need not scare the crap out of you. But these ones did. I got inspired by watching Paranormal Activity this week, a film as you can see by this list has earned its reputation, and since I already made myself look like a little girl this week by posting my top ten kids movies that make me cry, I figured this couldn't make me look any worse.

10. May (Lucky McKee, 2002)
May is the only film on this list that doesn’t have a job out of your seat terrifying moment, which is why it is number 10. But what it does do is brilliantly ratcher up the tension scene by scene, so that by the end of movie you are completely glued to your seat and terrified. Angela Bettis gives one of the best horror movie performances of the decade as the lonely title character – a painfully shy girl, whose only friend his her doll. She meets and becomes fixates of two people – Jeremy Sisto and Anna Farris – but both are eventually creeped out by May and betray her, setting her off. After her doll is destroyed (in the single most disturbing scene in the film, as a she and a group of blind children grope about on a floor covered in glass), she decides to make a new doll – this one out of people. The final scene of the movie – where May gouges out her eye to complete the doll, is among the creepiest endings I have ever seen in a movie.

9. The Ruins (Carter Smith, 2008)
While Carter Smith’s film is nowhere near as terrifying as the Scott Smith novel on which it is based, The Ruins is still an extremely effective, extremely scary horror movie. A group of young Americans on vacation in Mexico decide to go on a daytrip to some ancient ruins. When they find them, and set foot on the ruins, the locals surround the ruins and won’t let them leave. At first confused, they finally realize that there is something not right about the plants growing on these ruins. They are alive, and they are hungry. While it seems strange to say that a movie about killer plants is scary, this one truly is. Try not to be terrified when the group have to amputate the legs of one of their friends. Or on any of the trips down the darkened mineshaft in search of that ringing cell phone. Or finally, when you see the vines under one of the groups skin. This is an effective horror, that while it doesn’t live up to the source material, still managed to scare me.

8. Wolf Creek (Greg McLean, 2005)
I don’t much like Wolf Creek, as it is an ugly, vile little film, yet I cannot help but admit that the film did its job as it truly did terrify me as I watched it in the theater. A trio of young Australians – two girls and a guy – head out into the outback, only to have their car breakdown and be “saved” by a seemingly nice older man. What they don’t know, is that the man is a psychopath hell bent on killing all three of them. The three of them are drugged and separated. One of the girl wakes up, and discovers her friend being tortured by the killer, manages to free her, and the duo try to escape, but it is futile. The scariest scene comes in a car, where one of the girls watches in horror as she discovers cameras with videos of other young people having the same thing done to them, only to have the killer pop out from the backseat and make her a “head on a stick” by severing her spinal cord. This is a repulsive film, yet it does what it sets out to do – scare the crap out of you, so in that regard, I have to be honest.

7. The Loved Ones (Sean Bryne, 2009)
In The Loved Ones, a kid who is trying to forget his sins by drowning himself in drugs and music seems to finally turn a corner and reconnect with his girlfriend, and is then put through the most horrifying experience of his life. A shy, yet mentally unbalance classmate, has an obsession with him and gets her father to kidnap him on the night of the prom, and forces him to be her date to her families twisted little prom of their own. The torture scenes in the film are tough to bare, but it’s the moments after our hero is thrown into the pit, and has to fight with her other “dates”, who have become ravenous freaks, that is truly terrifying. That and the performance by Robin McLeavy who is far and away the most horrifying female horror movie villain in recent memory. She even makes the cute song “Pretty Enough” seem like scary. I saw this film at this year’s Toronto Film Festival where it won the Midnight Madness people’s choice award, so watch for it.

6. Eden Lake (James Watkins, 2008)
A young couple decide to head down to a remote lake for a romantic weekend away from everything. They have a series of escalating run-ins with a group of juvenile delinquents out in the middle of nowhere, culminating when the kids steal their car. When the couple find them, the man (Michael Fassbender) confronts them and demands their keys back, leading to a fight where he kills the main hooligan’s dog. Thus sets off an even more terrifying sequence of events that have the two running for their lives. Eden Lake takes a standard premise, and executes it brilliantly, thanks in no small part to the performances of Fassbender and Kelly Reilly as the couple, and Jack O’Connell you is terrifying as the leader of the kids. You wonder where these kids went so wrong, and then in the films final sequence – the most horrifying in the entire movie – you meet their parents, and everything snaps into focus. This is proof that the English know how to make good horror films.

5. Frontier(s) (Xavier Gens, 2007)
In Frontier(s) a group of French criminals – mainly made up of young Muslims – take advantage of the riots following a far right wing party’s election to orchestrate a robbery, that goes horribly wrong. On the run from the cops, they end up at an out of the way bed and breakfast, and do not know what they are in for. The family who runs the B&B are neo-Nazis, led by the patriarch, a former SS officier, who take their time to torture and kill most of the criminals, but want to save the women for “breeding” in order to expand their Nazi regime. Frontier(s) is as graphic and as bloody as any film I this decade, but it is also genuinely terrifying as things go from bad to worse in a hurry. Directed by Xavier Gens, the film is an intelligent horror movie, but one that knows how to get under your skin and stay there.

4. The Mist (Frank Darabont, 2007)
Perhaps the most underrated horror film of the decade, Frank Darabont’s The Mist is terrifying because of what it doesn’t show you, much more than what it does. A mist moves in to a small Massachusetts town and traps the residents, including Thomas Jane and his son, in a grocery store. Strange things keep happening outside, and anyone who ventures out, never makes it back in again. For much of the movie, the mist itself is the bad guy, hiding the horrors that wait outside the door. When the creatures do attack, is becomes a truly terrifying movie. The Mist also boats the most downbeat ending of pretty much any film this decade – but one that makes complete sense. This is one of the very best adaptations of a Stephen King novel ever.

3. Paranormal Activity (Oren Peli, 2009)
It amazes me what director Oren Peli was able to do with just $15,000 and a video camera. The film is a truly frightening experience, and does so with almost no special effects, and almost nothing being seen. Shot entirely from the point of view of a couple who think their house is haunted, they set up their video camera at night to try and capture the activity as it happens. What they capture is truly creeping, although we see almost nothing. The performances, especially by Katie Featherston, are brilliant in the way that we never catch them acting, and the final scare (which some people do not like, but screw them), I think is utterly brilliant. A truly frightening film experience.

2. Them (David Moreau & Xavier Palud, 2006)
I often think that scary movies really only work in the movie theater, but Them is a movie that completely dispproves that point. Watching this at home by myself on a dark night, I wanted to spend most of the movie underneath my comforter, but could not take my eyes off the screen for a second. A couple in a secluded house starts to hear strange noises, then has their car stolen. They then start to see a group of people seemingly everywhere outside their house, and eventually inside. What do these people want? Who are they? The movie takes its time answering these questions, gradually ratcheting up the suspense through the first two acts, before shocking us in the third. A old concept I know – people trapped inside an isolated house – but the directors do a brilliant job of making this movie appear real, and truly terrifying.

1. The Descent (Neil Marshall, 2006)
The Descent takes out fear of the dark and the unknown to entirely new places. A group of women go spelunking in North Carolina, and end up getting lost down in the caves. That would be bad enough, but it appears that they are not alone down there. The Descent spends a lot of time in the beginning setting up the suspense, with little more than darkness and strange noises drawing us deeper and deeper into the setting. By the time the “crawlers” appear, we are beyond scared, yet Marshall is a talented enough director that the film never falls into horror more clichés, but instead continues to ratchet up the suspense. This is the only film in recent memory that actually had me scared not just during the movie, but for days after. A great film.