Thursday, June 30, 2011

Half Time Top 10: The Best films of 2011 So Far

I have found it somewhat harder to see all the films I want to in 2011. So there are several films that I really do wish I had seen before I did this half time top ten – Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Beginners, 13 Assassins, The Trip, The Princess of Montpensier, Submarine, Cold Weather, A Better Life, City of Life and Death, Tuesday After Christmas foremost among them. Yet, I still think that this is a fairly strong half time top 10. Obviously, most of the best films come out in the fall, but so far this year we have seen a fair share of strong films. I could have easily included Hanna, Trust, Beautiful Boy or X-Men: First Class to this list had there been room. But there wasn’t.

10. Jane Eyre (Cary Fukunaga)
Charlotte Bronte’s oft filmed story of a mild mannered governess who falls in love with her boss has never seemed so romantic or lustful on screen before now. The production is lush and keeps perfectly with the story’s gothic romantic roots. Mia Washikowska is wonderful as Jane, and Michael Fassbender is even better as Rochester. Add in great supporting turns from Judi Dench, as the ever nosy housekeeper, and Jamie Bell as the cold, religious man who also falls for Jane, and you have the ingredients of a great little film. Director Cary Fukunaga seems like an odd choice to direct – his only other film being the Spanish language Sin Nombre about South Americans trying to sneak into America – but he does a wonderful job here. A terrific movie romance.

9. I Saw the Devil (Jee-Woon Kim)
Without a doubt the most disturbing movie from the year’s first six months, Jee-Woon Kim’s tale of a serial killer and the fiancé of one of his victims who tracks him down with the intention of torturing him, is the most violent film of the year. It is disturbing in the extreme, but that is the way it was meant to be. This isn’t an exploitation flick, not really anyway, but a dark revenge tale akin to fellow Korean filmmaker Chan Wook Park’s Oldboy. The film even stars Oldboy’s Min-sik Choi as the deranged serial killer. What impressed me most about the movie – aside from its style which is terrific – was the nuances in the performance. This is not torture porn, but a complex, moral puzzle that involves torture. I was surprised by how involved I became in it. Not for the faint of heart, but a wonderful film.

8. Insidious (James Wan)
No one is more surprised than me that James Wan’s Insidious is on this list. He is oft blamed for starting the torture porn genre with Saw, but looking back, the original Saw was not really about torture – and he has distanced himself from the sequels. Insidious is a grand old haunted house movie – with Patrick Wilson and Rose Bryne terrific as worried parents to a young boy who may or may not be possessed. To say anything else would be to give away the fun of the movie – but I will say that this is one of the few recent, American horror films that got under my skin and actually scared me. Wan is a talented filmmaker, with a respect for the old school horror film - something that harkens back much further than most filmmakers currently work in the genre. A must for fans of the genre.

7. Super 8 (JJ Abrams)
JJ Abrams is in love with old Steven Spielberg movies, and with Super 8 he made a loving homage to his cinematic hero. Lucky for me, I love Spielberg as well. Super 8 has the innocence that so few movies of its kind have anymore – it gets the sensation of being a kid right, and then adds in a terrific alien invasion plotline. Yes, to a certain extent Super 8 is little more than a clone of early Spielberg movie clichés – but I didn’t much care when I was watching it. I was too busy being thoroughly entertained – as well as amazed by just how good an actress young Elle Fanning really is. Abrams has brought back that sense of joy and discovery to the summer blockbuster, that too often gets obscured by directors who just like to blow shit up.

6. Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami)
Depending on how you look at it, Abbas Kiarostami’s film is either a film about a long married couple who pretend to have just met when the film opens until the ugliness of their troubled relationship comes to the surface, or the story of two people who just met, who on a whim decide to pretend to an long suffering married couple. Or both. Or neither. No matter what you make of Abbas Kiarostami’s play on European art films (particularly Roberto Rosselini’s Voyage in Italy and Alain Resnais’ Last Year in Marienbad) doesn’t really matter. There is not right or wrong answer. But for me, one of the biggest pleasures to be had so far this year was trying to figure it all out – and seeing Juliette Binoche in one of her greatest roles to date.

5. Rango (Gore Verbinski)
Gore Verbinski’s Rango is an endlessly inventive animated comedy/Western. I am so glad he rejected directing the forgettable Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, and instead opted to make this wonderful film, as this film has the sense of adventure and fun that the Pirates series lost at least 2 movies ago. Johnny Depp is wonderful as the title character – a pet lizard thrown from his car, which ends up in a desert town where he becomes a legend. I loved the supporting voice work of Bill Nighy as an evil snake, Ned Beatty as the town's corrupt mayor (with this and Toy Story 3, Beatty is becoming the go to guy for bad guys in animated films) and Ilsa Fisher as a scared woman. This is most likely a film that people like me – huge fans of Westerns – will enjoy a lot more than the children the film is aimed at – but I don’t care. This is a movie buff’s dream film, and I couldn’t get enough.

4. Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt)
Another Western – but this one couldn’t be more different from Rango. This film, directed by Kelly Reichardt (Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy) is a muted Western about a group of settlers being lead across the desert by Meek (Bruce Greenwood, looking like a crazed hillbilly), who doesn’t know where he’s going. The settlers argue and bicker, and continue to trudge on – until they meet an Indian who may be able to help out. The film is deliberately paced, but never less than completely fascinating. Michelle Williams delivers yet another great performance as the groups moral compass. Reichardt’s decision to shoot in the little used 1.33:1 aspect ratio, keeps the focus on the settlers, and not the vast landscapes around them. They push on, towards a future that they are not sure of.

3. Poetry (Lee Chang-dong)
Lee Chang-dong is one of the greatest filmmakers in the world that hardly anyone in North America knows about. Hopefully that will change this year, with the release of his 2007 masterpiece Secret Sunshine on DVD by Criterion, and his brilliant follow-up Poetry. The film stars Jeong-hee Yoon as a Korean grandmother stuck raising her teenage grandson because her daughter has run off to the city – and only communicates by the occasional phone call. Two things throw this grandmother’s world into chaos – one is that she is told she has early Alzheimers, and the other is that her grandson has been accused of a gang rape that eventually led to the girl in question’s suicide. She tries to ignore these two traumatic events, and instead takes a poetry class. Poetry is an odd movie, but one anchored by a terrific lead performance and Lee Chang-dong’s terrific, insightful writing and directing. The film didn’t make much of a splash at the box office, but be sure to put it on your Must See List when it comes to DVD.

2. Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen)
I think of Woody Allen films as cinematic comfort food – you know what you’re going to get going in, but it still fills you up and makes you feel good. He has been hit and miss for at least a decade now, but with Midnight in Paris he has made one of his very best films. The film stars Owen Wilson as a screenwriting vacationing with his materialistic fiancée (Rachel McAdams) in Paris. While he’s interested in the romance of the city, she likes to shop. One night, while hanging out on an anonymous street corner and old car pulls up and the occupants beckon to Wilson to get in. It turns out that inside the car are F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, and unknowingly, Wilson has stepped back into the Paris of the 1920s. The film is wonderful comic fantasy – bringing to mind Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo. Wilson has perhaps never been better – he resists the urge to do a Woody Allen impression, and it works. The cast of actors playing the famous denizens of 1920s Paris – including Hemingway, Dali, Bunuel, etc. – are all excellent. I did not have more fun at the movies so far this year than I did at Midnight in Paris – and I doubt I’ll have as much fun again this year.

1. The Tree of Life (Terence Malick)
There are certain films that come along that are just completely one of a kind. Despite the fact that Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life has been compared to films likes 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solaris, it really is a film unto itself. A mind bending journey for the beginning of time, to perhaps it end. There is a terrific visual sequence that shows us the big bang right up until the dinosaurs walked the earth, and then the film changes course slightly, and tells the story of a young boy (Hunter McCracken) growing up in 1950s Texas, with a strict father (Brad Pitt) and a loving mother (Jessica Chastin). Then there is Sean Penn as the haunted older version of this boy, remembering the summer where he lost his innocence. The film is spellbinding – a huge technical accomplishment, but also a profound statement on humanity. Malick has always been a great filmmaking, but in The Tree of Life he outdoes himself. Will I see a better film this year than this? It’s possible – after all Scorsese, Cronenberg, Spielberg, Eastwood, Fincher and others have films on tap for later this year. But it’s not probable.

The Best Movies I've Never Seen Before: Mishima (1985)

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985) ****
Directed by: Paul Schrader.
Written by: Paul & Leonard Schrader and Chieko Schrader collaborating with Jun Shiragi parts based on the novels by Yukio Mishima.
Starring: Ken Ogata (Yukio Mishima), Masayuki Shionoya (Morita), Junkichi Orimoto (General Mashita), Naoko Ôtani (Mother), Gô Rijû (Mishima, age 18-19), Masato Aizawa (Mishima - age 9-14), Yuki Nagahara (Mishima, age 5), Haruko Kato (Grandmother), Roy Scheider (Narrator).

The films of Paul Schrader often center around lonely men who are obsessed with something. As a writer, he wrote Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ and Bringing Out the Dead for Martin Scoresese, the under seen Rolling Thunder for John Flynn, Obsession for Brian DePalma and The Mosquito Coast for Peter Weir, which all feature obsessed characters to one degree or another. In his work as a writer/director, it is a theme that comes up again and again – in the underrated Hardcore (1979), about a religious man trying to find his daughter who has become involved in porn, in Affliction about an aging man still tied to his abusive father, in Auto Focus about TV star Bob Crane and his sex addiction, even in Dominion: A Prequel to the Exorcist about Father Merrin for the much more famous 1973 original. The protagonists of his films are men who fixate on something, and cannot let it go no matter what.

The same is true of Yukio Mishima, the famed Japanese novelist that is the subject of perhaps Schrader’s best film as a director. Mishima became famous after WWII, and was widely regarded as Japan’s greatest living novelist – almost winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969, a year before his death. Mishima went out in spectacular style – when he, along with a few of his devout followers tied up a high ranking General, and demanded to speak to the troops on the base. They allowed this, yet as Mishima was giving his insane speech, he was mocked and jeered by the soldiers. Retreating back into General’s office, he commits suicide by seppuku (ritual suicide by disembowelment), which was his plan all along. How did Mishima get to this point?

This is the question that Schrader tries to answer in Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985), but ultimately, I don’t think he comes up with an answer. Yet, rather than making this film a failure, I think it actually makes the film somewhat more interesting. My favorite biopics, like Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There (2007) about Bob Dylan, often leave their protagonists as much of an enigma as they were when the films started. The same can definitely be said of Mishima.

Told in four chapters – Beauty, Art, Action and Harmony of Pen and Sword – Mishima covers the man’s life and his work from early childhood until the day he commits seppuku. The scenes of Mishima early in life are shot in gorgeous black and white, and cover his confusing childhood first being raised by his grandmother, because she thought his mother was unfit, then going to live with that mother when grandmother dies. At the outbreak of WWII, Mishima goes to enlist, but gets a medical rejection – although the film states that he exaggerated his illness to get out of service. Perhaps this is the key moment in Mishima’s life – the shame of lying to get out of dying for his country. During the first three chapters, we also get mini adaptation of three of Mishima’s books – The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, about a stuttering young man who experiences sexual humiliation, and ends up waiting for American bombers to come and destroy the beautiful Golden Pavilion in his hometown of Kyoto (and is devastated when they don’t), Kyoko’s House, about a strange, almost incestuous relationship between a son and his mother, and how the son plays it out with an older woman who abuses him, and finally Runaway Horses, about a military group plotting an assassination so that the Emperor of Japan can reassume his “rightful place” as ruler of Japan. These sequences are shot in brilliant, over the top color and style The final chapter is almost exclusively about the day in which Mishima kills himself. These scenes are the most “realistic” of the movie, and are anchored by the great performance by Ken Ogata, one of Japan’s best actors.

What does all of this add up to? I’m not exactly sure. It can be dangerous to try and read too much into the art to get to know the artist behind it, but Schrader gives us a valiant effort in his three adaptations, which in total reveals a man obsessed with beauty and death. The flashbacks pain Mishima’s evolution from a shy, quiet child, into a right wing ideologue, preaching that Japan had grown weak in the years following WWII, that the army needed to be stronger (so he starts his own army), and that the Emperor was the rightful leader of Japan. The scenes of his last day portray a man who is confident in what he is doing, and that it is the right thing. He doesn’t even seem too phased by the mocking and jeering that come at him during his speech. He sticks to the plan.

Ultimately what emerges is a character not unlike Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. Both are men obsessed with death and destruction, who have molded an ideology to fit their obsessions, instead of the other way around. Bickle doesn’t particularly how he gets to his endgame – whether its assassinating a Senator or killing a group of pimps and johns, to him it leads to the same place. With Mishima, I think he saw himself as a romantic figure, suppressing himself (it is quite clear that at least Mishima was bi-sexual, if not just gay) who wanted to commit seppuku, and simply adopted his right wing stance as a means to get him there. Mishima directed one film, a short entitled Patriotism, which is about (of course) a military man who commits seppuku in front of his wife. If you watch that film, Mishima’s politics really don’t come through very well at all – he seems more obsessed with getting the details of the seppuku right than the reasons behind it. This is how he wanted to die – and he just wanted a reason to get there.

It also must be said that Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters is a massive technical accomplishment. The cinematography by John Bailey ranks among the best of any American film of the 1980s – gorgeous black and white for the flashbacks, saturated colors for the fiction segments, and realistic colors for the day of his suicide; it is all handled well by Bailey. The art direction, which requires a lot of details through these four chapters, is also top notch. Although I often feel like the scores of Phillip Glass are too grandiose for their own good, here writing his first score for a fiction film, it works beautifully. Schrader keeps the score going throughout almost the entire movie, and it casts a spell over the proceedings. Ken Ogata’s performance of the obsessed man in his final years is brilliant at every turn – matching his performance as a psychopath in Shohei Imamura’s Vengeance is Mine.

Ultimately, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters is a challenging, thought provoking film. No, it does not answer all the questions about the man – it may not even answer any of them – but it is a haunting film, one that asks tough questions, and demands the audience to try and answer them. As a country, Japan seems to want to forget that Mishima existed, or at least how he died – this film has never had an official release in that country. His legacy makes that country uncomfortable. As a film, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters has often been called flawed by critics. That may well be true, but it is gloriously flawed in a way that only truly great films are. It may be too ambitious for its own good. But I wouldn’t want this film any other way.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

THe Best Movies I have Never Seen Before: Unfaithfully Yours (1948)

Unfaithfully Yours (1948) *** ½
Directed by: Preston Sturges.
Written by: Preston Sturges.
Starring: Rex Harrison (Sir Alfred De Carter), Linda Darnell (Daphne De Carter), Rudy Vallee (August Henshler), Barbara Lawrence (Barbara Henshler), Kurt Kreuger (Tony Windborn), Lionel Stander (Hugo Standoff), Edgar Kennedy (Detective Sweeney), Al Bridge (House Detective), Julius Tannen (O'Brien), Torben Meyer (Dr. Schultz).

Preston Sturges was one of the greatest directors of comedy in cinema history. His resume is full of great work – like the sexually suggestive The Lady Eve (1941), the Hollywood feel good movie Sullivan’s Travels (1942), the remarriage comedy of The Palm Beach Story (1942), the daring wartime film Hail the Conquering Hero (1944) and the unmarried pregnancy comedy The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944). Sturges’ films were daring in the 1940s, not shying away from contemporary issues, and perhaps that is why they have lasted as long as they have. Unfaithfully Yours was Sturges’ last great success – although it flopped when it came out in 1948. Sturges was a temperamental director, with a rather large ego, and after a string of successes, her formed a partnership with Howard Hughes that took up a lot of Sturges’ time, although he only completed one film in three years with Hughes – and it flopped. Returning to the studio system, he made Unfaithfully Yours in 1948, and when it flopped, his career was all but over. He struggled and got two more films made before his death, but they are not well remembered. Unfaithfully Yours, while not quite the triumph of his earlier films, is still a remarkable comedy that puts most contemporary ones to shame.

Rex Harrison stars in the movie as Sir Alfred De Carter, a famous conductor, just arrived back in New York from a trip to Europe. He is delighted to see his beloved younger wife Daphne (Linda Darnell), who seems equally head over heels in love with him. But then his stuffed shirt of a brother in law August (the great Rudy Vallee) comes to see him. Apparently, Alfred had asked August to “keep an eye on” his wife while he was away, and August took it much more seriously than Alfred meant. When August was called out of town, he even hired a detective to follow Daphne. What the Detective found implies that Daphne maybe having an affair with Alfred’s young, good looking assistant. Alfred tries to put it out of his mind, not believing it for a second, but he cannot stop thinking about it. During that night’s performance, he imagines three different scenarios on how to deal with the situation – murder, forgiveness and suicide.

It’s these fantasies that make up the heart of the film, and they are played pretty much perfectly by Harrison. By all accounts, he was a drunken lout in real life, but there is no denying the comic skill he brought to his roles – even in films that aren’t very good overall (he kept the first two hours of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s bloated Cleopatra from going too far over the top like the last two hours with his performance as Julius Caesar, and while I do not like it as much as most people, and usually I hate sing talking in musicals, I have to admire his Oscar winning performance in My Fair Lady). His real moment to shine though is after those fantasies are over – and he tries to put his murder plot into action. What worked so smoothly in his mind, could not possibly go more wrong in reality, in an extended, wordless sequence of physical comedy that is worthy of Chaplin or Keaton.

If Unfaithfully Yours does not quite reach the heights of Sturges’ best work, it is perhaps because it is not quite as daring as his other films. You could remake either Hail the Conquering Hero or The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek today, and it would still be controversial for the way it portrays those in the military (please don’t remake them though – no one needs to see Adam Sandler or Ben Stiller ruin the perfection of those films). In Unfaithfully Yours, his career on the line, Sturges seems to hold back just a little bit – putting a shiny happy ending onto the film, and never quite pushing the film to the darker extremes it demands.

Yet the film is still hilarious, almost from start to finish. Sturges had a light comic touch, and he brought out the best in his actors. So while even though Unfaithfully Yours isn’t his best work, it sure beats the hell out of almost any comedy you’re likely to see in the theaters today.

The Best Movies I Have Never Seen Before: Syndromes and a Century (2006)

Syndromes and a Century (2006) ****
Directed by: Apichatpong Weerasethakul.
Written by: Apichatpong Weerasethakul.
Starring: Arkanae Cherkam (Ple), Jaruchai Iamaram (Dr. Nohng), Sakda Kaewbuadee (Sakda), Sin Kaewpakpin (Old Monk), Nu Nimsomboon (Toa), Jenjira Pongpas (Pa Jane), Sophon Pukanok (Noom), Nantarat Sawaddikul (Dr. Tei), Wanna Wattanajinda (Dr. Wan).

The more films I see by Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, the more in love with them I become. I had somehow avoided his films for a decade, before seeing his strange, haunting Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, which won the Palme D’Or at Cannes last year. Entering that film new to Weersethakul I was both enthralled by the film and confused by it. Going back and watching his previous films – first Tropical Malady and now Syndromes and a Century (2006), I find it easier to get on Weersethakul’s rhythm (I look forward to seeing his breakthrough film, 2002’s Blissfully Yours at my earliest convenience). I could say that Syndromes and a Century is my favorite of his films so far, but perhaps that’s just because it’s easier for me to accept his films now for what they are – odes to romantic longing and innocent eroticism where the past, present and future all collide in films that operate on a dreamlike logic.

Syndromes and a Century, like Tropical Malady before it, is really split into two different films, although each half informs the other. We start at a rural hospital set some 40 years in the past, where a female doctor interviews the most recent addition to the staff. Some of the questions are related to medicine, and some seem to be completely out of the blue “Do you like squares or circles? What color would you want the circle to be?” etc). Then as these two doctors walk out of her office and down the corridor, the camera pans away from them and looks out the window longing – at a beautiful forest and a lovely little house. The doctors and their conversation remain on the soundtrack, but are rendered unimportant by Weersethakul’s daring camera move.

It may help to know that Weersethakul sees this as a movie about his parents, who were both doctors. But then again, it very well may not, because the plot, as much as there is one, isn’t really about these two doctors falling in love. In fact, they don’t fall in love at all. Another man is in love with the female doctor we see at the beginning of the film, and in a scene where he confesses his love for her, she instead of accepting it, tells him the story of the man she once loved – an orchid salesman, who was in love with someone else. There is also a delicate story between a dentist and a young monk, who bond over their love of music. Yet in a scene where we sense these two circling each other, in the same gentle, innocent eroticism on display in the first half of Tropical Malady, the dentist admits he thinks that the monk is his reincarnated brother.

The second half repeats much of what happened in the films first half – yet this time in a modern, urban hospital. We open with the same interview between the female and male doctor, but this time the questions and answers are slightly different – the camera holds her in its gaze, instead of him, which is odd considering while the first half mainly followed her after the interview, this second half mainly follows him. Once again these two characters don’t get together, and instead we see the male doctor with his photographer girlfriend.

The two halves of the movie tell a similar story, but highlights the difference between the time and place in which they take place. The innocent story of unrequited love and gentle longing, set in a beautiful area where Weersethakul concentrates on the nature around the hospital, is replaced by something slightly courser in the second half (and erection makes an appearance in the second half of the film, but notably not the first). People are not connecting to the same degree in the second half. Instead of shots of the beauty of nature, Weersethakul shows us the duct work of the hospital.

But, as with all films by Weersethakul, just when I think I have it all figured out, he pulls the rug out from underneath us. What are we are to make of how he chooses to end his film, which is a large outdoor aerobics routine led by an enthusiastic instructor and then gradually pulling the camera back to see hundreds of people following along? It is a mystery to which I don’t think I’ll ever find the answer to.

But, in the end, it is that mystery that makes Weersethakul’s films so mesmerizing. These films are deliberately paced, with camera shots lasting minutes on end, slow pans and close-ups. In them, Weersethakul explores the mysteries of human nature, love, desire, lust and so much more. It is what makes him one of the most original filmmakers working in movies today.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Movie Review: Bad Teacher

Bad Teacher ** ½
Directed by: Jake Kasdan.
Written by: Gene Stupnitsky & Lee Eisenberg.
Starring: Cameron Diaz (Elizabeth Halsey), Lucy Punch (Amy Squirrel), Jason Segel (Russell Gettis), Justin Timberlake (Scott Delacorte), Phyllis Smith (Lynn Davies), John Michael Higgins (Principal Wally Snur), Dave Allen (Sandy Pinkus), Jillian Armenante (Ms. Pavicic) , Matthew J. Evans (Garrett Tiara), Kaitlyn Dever (Sasha Abernathy), Kathryn Newton (Chase Rubin-Rossi), Igal Ben Yair (Arkady), Aja Bair (Devon), Andra Nechita (Gaby), Noah Munck (Tristan).
Bad Teacher really wants to be a movie like Bad Santa or the original The Bad News Bears. The concept is simple – take a profane, crude, completely inappropriate grown in a position of responsibility deal with children and let the hilarity ensue. This worked for Bad Santa, because Billy Bob Thornton was brilliant in his role as the worst department store Santa in history, and the direction of Terry Zwigoff, along with the screenplay, was pretty much pitch perfect. The rest of the cast followed Thornton’s lead, and what you ended up with was one of the funniest comedies in recent years, no matter how inappropriate it all was. Bad Teacher doesn’t come close to rising to that level.

The movie stars Cameron Diaz as Elizabeth Halsey, who took a job as a middle school teacher for a year as she prepares to marry a rich doofus. But then the doofus, egged on my mom, dumps her and so she is stuck going back to school once again to mold young minds. She doesn’t care about her students, and makes that abundantly clear from the beginning. She shows movies to class every day – everything from Stand and Deliver to Lean on Me to Dangerous Minds to Scream (hey, that does have some action in a school). She mainly sleeps and gets stoned in the parking lot. She is trying to save up enough money to get a boob job, to help her attract another rich doofus. She thinks she may have found the proper rich doofus in the new substitute teacher, Scott Delacorte (Justin Timberlake), who comes from an extremely wealthy family, and teaches because he enjoys it. He has also made a nemesis of Amy Squirrel (Lucy Punch), an overly perky teacher across the hall, who thinks, correctly, that Elizabeth is a horrible teacher. Then there’s the gym teacher, Russell Gettis (Jason Segal), who shares Elizabeth’s cynicism, but likes teaching gym. They are more attuned to each other, but he’s not rich. Things change only when Elizabeth finds out that the teacher, whose class gets the highest marks on the state wide test, gets a bonus. That would pay for her boob job – but of course, her kids don’t know anything, because she hasn’t taught them anything.

There are moments in Bad Teacher that work – that are hilarious (I still laugh every time I think of Jason Segal arguing with a student about whose better – Jordan or LeBron, even though I’ve seen it dozens of times now in the previews). For her part, Diaz throws herself into the role, and is actually quite good here. In fact, the whole cast is. Lucy Punch is perfectly suited to play the perky nemesis, Justin Timberlake makes a surprisingly convincing dork and Jason Segal is charming and funny as the gym teacher. The supporting cast, including Christopher Guest regular John Michael Higgins, as the dolphin loving principal and The Office co-star Phyllis Smith, as the only teacher who actually likes Elizabeth have some nice notes as well.

So why then, is Bad Teacher nowhere near as good as it should be? I think the real problem is that the movie missed its best opportunity. There are far too few scenes with Diaz and her students – none of whom ever really become characters in the story. Bad Santa mined many of its laughs because of the way Thornton interacted with the loser kid he started to stay with. That was really the heart of the movie. The rest of it was colorful, wonderful background. Here, that’s about all there is. There is something funny about grownups being completely inappropriate around children – at least to me – but grownups acting like assholes around other grownups simply isn’t quite as funny. In addition, while some of the one liner are great, many quite simply fall flat. The cast is game, but the screenplay never quite rises to their level.

I’m not going to say that Bad Teacher is a horrible movie. It isn’t. It works as a distraction, and is mildly enjoyable. It has its moments, and I was never really bored by it. But, the film just never quite gets to the level it needs to be at to be truly successful or memorable. This cast deserved better.

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Best Films I Have Never Seen Before: Two for the Road (1967)

Two for the Road (1967) *** ½
Directed by: Stanley Donen.
Written by: Frederic Raphael.
Starring: Audrey Hepburn (Joanna Wallace), Albert Finney (Mark Wallace), Eleanor Bron (Cathy Manchester), William Daniels (Howard Manchester), Gabrielle Middleton (Ruth Manchester), Claude Dauphin (Maurice Dalbret), Nadia Gray (Francoise Dalbret), Georges Descrières (David), Jacqueline Bisset (Jackie), Judy Cornwell (Pat), Irène Hilda (Yvonne de Florac), Dominique Joos (Sylvia).

Out of all the decades, I think it is the films of the 1960s that have aged the most. Since the studio system was in the midst of collapse, directors had more freedom to experiment that ever before – and in some cases they made masterpieces. But when I watch films like Tom Jones (1963) or Charly (1968) to name just two films, films that were popular and critically acclaimed at the time of their release, they seem hopelessly dated now – drowning in strange directorial tricks that now seem downright silly. There are moments in Stanley Donne’s Two for the Road (1967) that reminded me of those films – a strange scene played in fast forward and the famous closing shot that shows the cars the bickering couple at the heart of the movie split apart and come back together again. These scenes seem out of place in the film, that otherwise is a surprisingly frank and modern look at marriage – and all the good and bad that comes along with it. Perhaps Donne, an old school Hollywood filmmaker (behind such films as Singing’ in the Rain and Funny Face) added these touches in just to make his film fit in with everything around it. He needn’t have bothered – there is more than enough in the film to make it relevant.

The film is about Mark and Joanna Wallace (Albert Finney and Audrey Hepburn). They have been married for 12 years, have a daughter and are constantly at each other’s throats. The movie flashes back in forth in time to show this couple on several trips together – from them hitchhiking across Europe after meeting each other for the first time, to a trip in a rundown car when he is still struggling as a architect but they are happy, to an insufferable trip with another couple and their annoying daughter they refuse to discipline, to one where Mark’s boss, who has made them rich, places unrealistic demands on him, to finally the one they are currently on, and which may well be their last.

Donen was a director who loved his films to look good – and aside from his little forays into 1960s style I mentioned in the first paragraph – Two for the Road looks good at all times. The cinematography is beautiful at times – showing us the splendor of Europe, without stooping to just showing off landmarks. The costumes are immaculate, showing us the passage in time, in styles, in social standing so that we orient ourselves immediately to what trip we are actually seeing at that time. Albert Finney and Audrey Hepburn are both attractive, likable actors. For a while, we are lulled into thinking that this will be another storybook, Hollywood romance. But gradually it becomes something deeper than that – something darker. The couple, who always bickered playfully, continue to bicker but lose the playfulness. The child that comes is a weight on them, even though they love her. Infidelity rears its head – first with him in a fling that means nothing, and then with her in a fling that most assuredly does. The young, idealistic couple we meet at the beginning are barely visible in the people they end up being 12 years later.

And yet Two for the Road still made the AFI’s list of the 100 Greatest Movie Romances. Why? Because underneath everything these two do to each other, there is love. Most movie romances end where in real life the going gets tough. Romantic comedies are built on the basic concept of keeping the two people everyone knows should be together apart for the whole movie, so they can come together in the final reel and kiss – often in the rain or an airport – and the audience can cheer because we know they’ll live “happily ever after”. But life doesn’t work that way. Marriage is hard and requires work. Real married couples are not incandescently happy every moment of everyday.

This is the reality that Two for the Road explores. It gives us the Hollywood style romance at the beginning of the film, but as the movie goes along, we see less of that happy couple full of naïve hope, and more of the couple who bicker. And yet, in a very strange way, Mark and Joanna are meant for each other. They fit together, and in a strange way make each other happy, even when they are making each other miserable. Finney is a charming actor, and I am always somewhat surprised to see how good looking he was in the 1960s – I have a vision in my head of the aging man in Erin Brockovich, but with that deep voice, he really was attractive back then. Of Audrey Hepburn, nothing needs to be said about her fragile beauty. These two were stars back in 1967 – the could have made whatever they chose, but the fact that they chose to make this movie shows a little daring on their part – and both are rewarded with one of the best roles of their careers. Hepburn in particular is great in the film. Perhaps after so many cinematic romances – Roman Holiday, Sabrina, Funny Face, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, My Fair Lady, etc – she wanted to show a different, more honest portrait of love, and in that she succeeds wonderfully well. Like the best cinematic romances, Two for the Road understands that love is not easy.

The Best Films I've Never Seen Before: Still Life (2006)

Still Life (2006) ****
Directed by: Jia Zhangke.
Written by: Jia Zhangke.
Starring: Sanming Han (Sanming), Tao Zhao (Shen Hong), Zhou Lan (Huang Mao), Lizhen Ma (Missy Ma), Hongwei Wang (Wang Dongming).

For years, while Jia Zhangke was establishing himself as one of the best directors in the world, people in his own country of China had to see his films on pirated DVDs. He worked outside the Chinese movie system, which meant that his films were for all intents and purposes, banned. Still Life (2006) was the first of his films that the Chinese government officially allowed to be seen. But unlike a filmmaker like Zhang Yimou, who went from angered Chinese officials with his 1990 film Ju Dou, to making films that celebrated China and even ended up directing the country’s Olympic Opening Ceremonies, Still Life is just as critical of China, and the confused place the country currents sits in as the rest of Jia’s films. Like his 2000 masterpiece Platform, Still Life is about the changing economic landscape of China – from State run communist to State appoved capitalism, and how even with this freedom, the Chinese people really aren’t any better off.

The movie takes place in a small town along the Yangtze River, where all the residents are going to have to be relocated because of the massive Three Gorges Dam, that will end up flooding their town (Jia has said he thinks the reason why the Chinese government approved this film was because the Three Gorges dam and its effect of the people is too big to try and cover up). In total, a million people have been displaced because of this massive dam – the biggest in the world – that was made to produce electricity for the country.

But Jia’s film is not just a political statement on the dam. It is an immensely human drama, about two people, who never meet, but come to this town for the same basic purpose. Sanming (Sanming Han) once purchased his wife from this town, but once she had their child, a daughter, she fled back to where she came from. Sanming has not seen or heard from her in 16 years, and when he arrives, with a scrap of paper that has the address she left for him 16 years before, he discovers that the house in already underwater. He goes to see his brother in law, who he has never met, and he tells him that his wife is away, and won’t be back for a while. Rather than pack up and head back home to the coal mines where he has worked his entire life, he gets a job in town – picking up a hammer to help smash the building in the area that will soon be flooded.

About half way into the movie, with no resolution for Sanming (at least not yet, as Jia will come back to him to finish the film), the film shifts to focus on Shen Hong (Tao Zhao), who husband is working on the dam, and two years ago simply stopped coming home. She still gets a phone call from him once in a while, simply to check in to see if she is still alive. He has even gone as far as to give her a phone number without the correct number of digits so she cannot contact him. Like Sanming, she comes to find her errant spouse, not sure what she is to find.

By focusing on the human element, rather than simply the dam itself and its implications, Jia has made a film that is sad and humane. His camera glides effortlessly along, capturing some of the most memorable and beautiful images in any film in recent memory (that he shot the film digitally makes the feat all the more impressive). He observes his characters dwarfed by their surroundings – the massive mountains in the background, the shattered city coming down around them. Although the film focuses on two outsiders to this area, the film is just as much about the city – and its inhabitants – as it is about the main characters. The men Sanming work with all plan on joining him in the coal mines when they are down destroying their city and are forced to move. They have nowhere else to go.

Jia’s film are about the changing face of China, and the human element that goes into it. He does not romanticize the Mao era (how could he?), but he is not sure that the current system is any better – that it leads the Chinese people to live happier lives. Watching this film, I was reminded of the excellent 2010 documentary, Last Train Home, which was about a working class Chinese couple, who have to travel far from home to make a living, essentially living their children to be raised by their grandparents. As China continues to become the most important economy in the world, Jia’s film continue to probe the cost of doing so. There is no joy in Still Life, just people balanced precariously between the new and old China, trying not to plummet to their deaths.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Best Films I Have Never Seen Before: Pedro Costa’s Fontainhas Trilogy (1997-2006)

Pedro Costa’s Fontainhas Trilogy ****
Ossos (1997), In Vanda’s Room (2000), Colossal Youth (2006)
Directed by: Pedro Costa.
Written by: Pedro Costa.
Starring (Ossos): Vanda Duarte (Clotilde), Nuno Vaz (The Father), Mariya Lipkina (Tina), Isabel Ruth (Eduarda), Inês de Medeiros (Whore), Miguel Sermão (Clotilde's Husband).
Starring (In Vanda’s Room): Vanda Duarte, Zita Duarte, Pedro Lanban, Antonio Moreno, Paulo Nunes, Pernardo Paixao.
Starring (Colossal Youth): Ventura, Vanda Duarte, Beatriz Duarte, Gustavo Sumptu, Cila Cardoso, Isabel Munuz Cardoso, Alberto Barros.

Pedro Costa is one of those filmmakers whose name always pops up in those upscale film magazines – like Film Comment and Cinema Scope – but whose films never actually open in North America. Unless you’ve seen his films at festivals, you probably don’t get a chance to see them at all in the theater. I was lucky enough to see his 2006 film, Colossal Youth, at the Ontario Cinematechnique back in 2007, and although the film is undoubtedly slow, I found it fascinating and mesmerizing, all the time knowing that I did not fully understand it. I sought that film out because of Film Comment and Cinema Scope (Cinema Scope actually featuring it on its covered of its 2006 Cannes Festival coverage) because I had read so much about it, but had not had a chance to see it. Unfortunately, I did not see Costa’s other films during that retrospective, and it wasn’t until recently that they have become available on DVD – again perhaps because of those magazines. Cinemascope elected Costa’s 2000 film In Vanda’s Room as the second best film of the decade, and also included Colossal Youth on their best of list of only 16 films. Film Comment had Colossal Youth at 28 and In Vanda’s Room at 42 on their decade ending list, and listed Costa as the 12th best director of the decade. When TIFF did their list, Youth ended up at 16 and Vanda at 18. This is remarkable when you consider that neither of those films ever received a theatrical release in North America – and at the time the surveys were done, were not even available on DVD over here. So, having seen Colossal Youth, I decided to go back and watch Costa’s other films in the so called Fontainhas trilogy, which includes In Vanda’s Room and Ossos (1997) – and ended up watching Colossal Youth again, this time with a much deeper understanding of the film.

Watching the films over the course of a weekend is to see Costa grow as a filmmaker from one film to the next. In many ways, the three films are similar, and yet in other ways they are remarkably different. Yet, you get the sense that in order to make the next film, he needed to go through the previous film to get there – to hone his style, and figure out precisely what works. It is also to see Fontainhas, a slum on the edge of Lisbon, get completely destroyed, as the poverty stricken residents, who have formed a sort of rough community or family, is torn down and the residents moved off into brightly painted, sterile, cheap apartments elsewhere.

Of the three, Ossos is the most conventional film. Costa shot it on 35mm film, and even though he cast the people he met in Fontainhas, they are all playing characters – some thinly veiled versions of themselves, some not. Costa has sighted Robert Bresson as an influence, and it’s easy to see that filmmaker in this film – from the non professional actors, often with stone faces, to the rhythm of everyday life, to the tragic finale of the film, it does seem like Bresson is in ways channeling Bresson. The film is utterly gorgeous, full of wonderful tracking shots and memorable images, and its depiction of poverty is heartbreaking. It’s only after we’ve moved on to the other Costa films that we realize what Ossos was missing – the rawness of the area. On film, it looks too clean, too much like any other slum we’ve seen in a movie. Costa very well could have followed Ossos with other films like it, and he could have become much more popular than he is had he done so (the film did win some prizes at International Festivals and was a box office hit in Portugual). The film in some ways reminded me not just of Bresson but of the Dardenne brothers, who are among the most popular and acclaimed filmmakers in Europe right now. Costa was clearly not at their level when he made Ossos – which despite how good it is, and it is very, very good, it still shows the signs of a slightly immature director.

Instead of following that path however, Costa followed another one – one that took him deeper into Fontainhas than any other director would have dared to go. While filming Ossos, which was a professional production with a big camera, a lighting crew and everything that goes along with it, Costa felt he wasn’t capturing the area or its people the way he should be. His star, Vanda Duarte, invited him to spend time with her and her sister in her room – where all they do is talk and take drugs. So after he finished Ossos, that precisely what he did. He bought a digital camera, and went back to Fontainhas, and shot hours and hours of footage of Vanda, her sister Zita, and the various people they come in contact with. It started out as a documentary, but Costa felt that wasn’t working either. The result is not a scripted movie in any sense, but isn’t really a documentary either. It is something in between, impossible to categorize, and ended up being In Vanda’s Room.

In Vanda’s Room, as the title implies, takes place almost entirely in Vanda’s room – a small, cramped, space where, as Vanda promised, all they really do is talk and take drugs – in their case, smoke heroin. Filmed by himself, with a digital camera, the film has a stark look to it. The only lighting in the film comes through the few windows and doors in the various rooms they are in. Often, the people keep them closed to avoid the light, so we get shafts of light lighting these people. The digital camera works better than the film camera did at capturing these people and their lives – its less intrusive. If Ossos reminds one of a Bresson film, than In Vanda’s Room certainly resembles a family drama by Ozu. There are no tracking shots, no real camera movement at all, as Costa simply lets the scenes play out in front of him. These simple scenes – often done in long shots, but also quite often in close up, show a sympathy and understanding of these people that I doubt another director would try and achieve. He understands these people, and loves them, even as he watches them destroy themselves. Yes, the movie, as some critics have pointed out, is beautiful – and so in a way, Costa is making poverty beautiful, but I don’t see that as a flaw. These people, who should be so miserable, aren’t. Yes, there is heartbreak, like in an unforgettable scene where Vanda and a friend talk about the death of someone they knew. During the course of the filming, Fontainhas has already started to be destroyed – we see bulldozers come in and destroy some of the houses. The destruction of the area is under way.

Which brings us to Colossal Youth, which in my mind is Costa’s best film. Costa presented Vanda Duarte in the way she needed to be portrayed in In Vanda’s Room, and so when he “discovered” Ventura, and decided to make him the centerpiece of Colossal Youth, he needed to change a little to make sure he captured this larger than life person in the proper way. The result is a film that is more fictionalized than In Vanda’s Room, and yet still entirely accurate. The film contains flashbacks to an earlier time in Ventura’s life, but the film doesn’t give us any indication that it is flashing back, other than a bandage on Ventura’s head. Ventura has been described by some critics as a “King without a Kingdom”, and that seems accurate. He refers to the residents of Fontainhas as his children, although obviously, they are not all his children. In the film’s opening scene, his wife is leaving him, and all of his stuff is being thrown out a window. From there, Ventura tells his story – through repetition by Costa, who shots again with a digital camera, using the light in the area, and again, creates some of the starkest, most memorable images of any film this decade.

I referenced Bresson in regards to Ossos, and Ozu is regards to In Vanda’s Room. But for Colossal Youth, the reference seems completely different – John Ford. This isn’t to say that the film is action packed, but it contains some of Ford’s hallmarks – Ventura and others are often framed in doorways, much like Ford used to do. And Ventura seems to be doomed to history, even as he is living it. Costa has sighted Sergeant Rutledge, one of Ford’s lesser films, as an influence for the way it portrayed Woody Strode. And with that in mind, Colossal Youth takes on other dimensions. It is a tragedy in the grandest sense. By the end of Colossal Youth, Fontainhas has been completely destroyed, its residents scattered, their family ripped apart. At least Vanda seems to be doing better – a new boyfriend, a new baby, and she appears to be clean. We can only hope. For Ventura, this tragedy is greater – he has lost everything, and yet is determined to still try to live as he did before.

I have to admit that most people will probably not like these films. When I saw Colossal Youth back at the Cinematechnique in 2007, which is usually a fairly adventurous crowd, I would estimate that at least half of the audience walked out of the film well before it ended. The films, especially In Vanda’s Room and Colossal Youth are slow and methodical – perhaps even slower and more methodical than the work of Tarkovsky. Yet they are also makeup one of the most distinctive cinematic journeys in recent film history. Costa challenges us to see these people, with all their flaws as they are. To feel sympathy for them, to love them like he does, or like the people who walked out of Colossal Youth, to completely ignore them. How one responds to these films says more about them, then it does about Costa or the people who inhabit his films.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Best Movies I've Never Seen Before: The Barefoot Contessa (1954)

The Barefoot Contessa (1954) *** ½
Directed by: Joseph L. Mankiewicz.
Written by: Joseph L. Mankiewicz.
Starring: Humphrey Bogart (Harry Dawes), Ava Gardner (Maria Vargas), Edmond O'Brien (Oscar Muldoon), Marius Goring (Alberto Bravano), Valentina Cortese (Eleanora Torlato-Favrini), Rossano Brazzi (Count Vincenzo Torlato-Favrini), Elizabeth Sellars (Jerry), Warren Stevens (Kirk Edwards), Franco Interlenghi (Pedro Vargas), Mari Aldon (Myrna).

There are certain writers that you can identify by their dialogue. Recent examples include the casual conversations loaded with hidden meaning of Quentin Tarantino, the rapid fire dialogue of Aaron Sorkin, or the profane beauty of David Mamet. As soon as you hear their characters speak, you know who wrote the screenplay without having to be told. An earlier example of this was Joseph L. Mankiewicz, whose dialogue was dripping with cynicism. His best film is undoubtedly All About Eve (1950), his sublime backstage drama about an aging actress (Bette Davis) and the young upstart who usurps her (Anne Baxter). Made four year after that film was The Barefoot Contessa, another showbiz drama that is positively full of cynicism.

The film stars Humphrey Bogart as Harry Dawes, a washed out, alcoholic filmmaker who is now back on the wagon, and given a chance to direct again by the “Wizard of Wall Street”, Kirk Edwards (Warren Stevens), whose ego has decided he should produce movies. Along with Edwards’ boot licking PR man Oscar Muldoon (Edmond O’Brien), the three men go to see a nightclub dancer, Maria Vargas (Ava Gardner) is Spain. They discover a movie star that night, although Maria doesn’t like Oscar and doesn’t trust Edwards, she does believe in Dawes. They turn her into a overnight success – the biggest, sexiest female star in the world. But from the beginning of the movie, we know things will not end well for Maria – the movie opens, and continues to flashback to her funeral, as first Harry, and later Oscar, will tell us what happened to lead Maria to an early grave. It has to do with the men in her life – all of whom want to possess her, but cannot. There is her “cousin” who always seems to be around, and at one point Maria actually will fall in love – with an Italian Count – and get married. But even he cannot keep her happy, for reasons I will not explain here.

In Humphrey Bogart, Mankiewicz found the perfect actor to play Dawes. Bogart didn’t play happy or optimistic people very well, but cynicism fit him like a glove. Here, because he is one of only two men who don’t want to possess Maria (Oscar being the other one), he has the advantage of distance to be able to see just where everyone else screwed up. He plays a man who has already lost everything once, so if he loses it all again, it doesn’t really matter to him. He delivers Mankiewicz’s dialogue with a cool, calm yet venomous delivery – he certainly holds the rest of the characters, except for Maria, in contempt, and he really doesn’t care who knows it. Edmond O’Brien won an Oscar for his role as the PR man (although one suspects that the fact that Lee J. Cobb, Karl Malden and Rod Steiger were all nominated in the same category for On the Waterfront probably helped him to win), and its fairly easy to see why. Hollywood knows PR men like Oscar well – people who are your best friend when you’re on top, but will drop you the second a better offer comes along. Unlike Dawes, who doesn’t want to possess Maria because he’s love with someone else, Oscar doesn’t want to possess her simply because it would get in his way. He is too self involved to spare a thought to anyone else.

If there is a flaw in The Barefoot Contessa it is Gardner herself. She was one of the most beautiful women in the world when she made this film, and yet, I never quite understood why so many men were so drawn to her – so obsessed with her, as she seems somewhat cold, distant and aloof. But then again, perhaps that’s the point. Although this is her story, it is not told from her point of view – but mainly from Dawes, until late when Oscar has to take over because Dawes wasn’t around. In a very real way, neither Dawes nor Oscar truly understand her either. Perhaps even Mankiewicz couldn’t answer the question as to why men were so drawn to her – and that’s why he covers up this inability to explain with his narrative structure.

Overall, The Barefoot Contessa is an entertaining, cynical, well written and well acted Hollywood drama. Mankiewicz was always a better writer than he was a director, but here, he serves his excellent screenplay well. This is a wonderful, old school Hollywood gem.

The Best Films I've Never Seen Before: Kings and Queen (2004)

Kings and Queen (2004) ****
Directed by: Arnaud Desplechin.
Written by: Arnaud Desplechin & Roger Bohbot.
Starring: Emmanuelle Devos (Nora Cotterelle), Mathieu Amalric (Ismaë Vuillard), Olivier Rabourdin (Jean-Jacques), Maurice Garrel (Louis Jenssens), Valentin Lelong (Elias Cotterelle), Geoffrey Carey (Claude), Thierry Bosc (M. Mader), François Toumarkine (Prospero), Miglen Mirtchev (Caliban), Jean-Paul Roussillon (Abel Vuillard), Catherine Rouvel (Monique Vuillard), Catherine Deneuve (Mme Vasset), Noémie Lvovsky (Elizabeth), Jan Hammenecker (Nicolas), Nathalie Boutefeu (Chloé Jenssens), Joachim Salinger (Pierre Cotterelle), Elsa Wolliaston (Dr. Devereux).

There is no timidness in the films of Arnaud Desplechin. He is fond of big emotions, mixing genres and films about families who would most likely be wise to disband. His latest film was A Christmas Tale (2008), about a family gathering for the first time in years, because the matriarch (Catherine Denueve) is dying and wants all of her children, who have been squabbling for years, together one last time. Before that, he made Kings and Queen (2004) a film that mixes a similar family melodrama, with a comedy about a man in a mental hospital, that turns out to be completely different that we expect it to be.

The film opens with Nora (Emmanuelle Devos) looking into the camera and telling us about her life. She is certainly the “Queen” of the title, and she tells us about her “kings”. Her first husband, who killed himself and left her pregnant, but who she sometimes sees and talks to. Her now 11 year old son Elias, who she adores, but worries that she won’t be able to raise him properly. Her dying father, who she thinks loves her a great deal. Her fiancée, a rich man, who provides safety and security, if not exactly love. And finally, her second husband, a famed violinist named Ismael (Mathieu Amalric), who is eccentric in the extreme, and is not only the man who ends up in a mental hospital, but also the man she thinks may be the best person to raise her son.

The film is a balancing act between the melodrama that Nora finds herself in the center of – dealing with her dying father, and a distant sister, who wants so badly to be with her father at the end of his life, but can somehow, never find her way there – and the comedy of Ismael in the mental hospital, where if he doesn’t act quite like RP McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, he certainly does grab the attention of his doctors with his theory that women do not have souls – this does not go over particularly well with either his first doctor, Catherine Denueve, nor his second, Elsa Wolliaston.

The movie proceeds in this fashion for nearly two hours, before Desplachin drops a bombshell on his audience and the characters, that changes everything we think we know about the movie and the characters in it. It turns out that not everything we have seen in the movie is entirely accurate – and that Nora, who has functioned as our narrator, is not quite the queen she has portrayed herself as. As a letter from her father surfaces, one of the most viscious letters in cinema history, we are forced to reevaluate her, Ismae, and everything we thought we knew about what had happened. It also brings just what a tour de force job Desplechin has done as an writer and director has done, and in particular just how wonderful Davos is in the lead role. It truly is one of the best performances of the last decade.

Kings and Queen shows Desplechin with his powers at full blast. He is never going to be a director who takes things easy – he thinks big, and while some will undoubtedly complain that Kings and Queens is far too long, and that Desplechin indulges himself too much with all the tangents and side trips he takes during the movie, you cannot deny just the sheer audacity it took to make this film. He is now officially one of my absolute favorite filmmakers in the world right now – and Kings and Queen just be may his masterwork.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Movie Review: Green Lantern

Green Lantern ** ½
Directed by: Martin Campbell.
Written by: Greg Berlanti & Michael Green & Marc Guggenheim and Michael Goldenberg.
Starring: Ryan Reynolds (Hal Jordan / Green Lantern), Blake Lively (Carol Ferris), Peter Sarsgaard (Hector Hammond), Mark Strong (Sinestro), Temuera Morrison (Abin Sur), Angela Bassett (Dr. Amanda Waller), Tim Robbins (Senator Hammond), Jay O. Sanders (Carl Ferris).

Green Lantern is the fourth superhero movie to hit screens in 2011, and the third in the last six weeks or so, following closely on the heels of Thor and X-Men: First Class. Perhaps if I had not seen those movies so recently, I would enjoyed Green Lantern a little more than I did. Most of the reviews so far have been awful, and while I do think Green Lantern is the weakest of the three summer superhero movies so far, it certainly isn’t a horrible film. In fact, I’d feel much more comfortable talking a kid to see Green Lantern than Thor or X-Men: First Class, which are a little darker, more violent and overall simply more adult. Green Lantern on the other hand is just lightweight fare. It really does feel like a live action Saturday morning cartoon show.

The movie is about Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds), a test pilot who lives his life on the edge, although sometime he freezes up because his own father, another test pilot, died in a crash in front of his eyes as a child. So it is early in the movie, when Hal is asked to have a simulated battle with robot pilots that his company has made to prove to the army that they are better than humans. Hal wins, of course, but at a price. It’s later that day that he is magically sucked up into a glowing green vortex or some sort and transferred to the docks. A spaceship has crashed there – and inside is an alien named Abin Sur. We know him, because the introduction to the movie explains what Green Lanterns are – a group of intergalactic beings whose job is to protect the universe. They each have a ring and a lantern, that allows them to turn whatever they think of into reality. Abin Sur is going to die, and the ring has selected Hal to be his replacement. And the ring doesn’t make mistakes.

What follows is a fairly standard issue superhero origin story. The irresponsible, womanizing Hal has to learn how to be a hero – he gets transported to the Green Lantern headquarters for training under the eyes of Sinestro (Mark Strong), their leader – but Hal thinks he isn’t right for the job. The only qualification seems to be that you must be fearless – and Hal is far from that. He cannot even seem to tell the woman he loves, Claire Ferris (Blake Lively) that he loves her, and of course, some times he freezes up under pressure. But Hal will be tested sooner than he knows. Hector (Peter Sarsgaard), the scientist son of a Senator (Tim Robbins), was called in to examine Abin Sur’s eventually discovered body – and it appears like something he came into contact with is having strange effects on him. Hector grew up in love with Claire, but always in Hal’s shadow, so of course, he’s just bitter and smart enough to become super villain when the opportunity arrives.

The movie is enjoyable in parts. The day after I saw Green Lantern, I watched an episode of The Avengers on TV with my 6 year old nephew. He was transfixed by it, while I found it mildly amusing. I feel the same way about Green Lantern – I bet my nephew would love it – but for me, it never really gets to takeoff velocity. Part of the problem with an origin story like this is that they have to spend so much time setting it up – and let’s face facts here, Green Lantern’s origin story is pretty lame – and I could have done with much less talk about Will Power vs. Fear. Ryan Reynolds is fine as Hal Jordan, but nothing great. The same could be said for Blake Lively, who has the thankless role as “The Girl”. The best performance clearly belongs to Peter Sarsgaard, who is terrific as the embittered Hector. The problem is that he’s only one villain – the minor one – and the major one is a strange alien who looks like he’s made of poop, which just isn’t all that interesting.

The film was directed by Martin Campbell, who made the terrific Casino Royale a few years ago, and has spent his career directing action movies. He knows what he’s doing, and for the first time in a while, I can actually say the 3-D in this movie works. It works better when Hal is in space, but its fine for most of the time. I’m still not convinced it’s necessary. But overall, I think the movie had to spend so much time setting itself up, that it never really takes the time to tell a real story. Green Lantern isn’t as good as it could have been – but on the basis of what’s here, I’d watch a sequel.

DVD Review: I Saw the Devil

I Saw the Devil *** ½
Directed by: Jee-woon Kim.
Written by: Hoon-jung Park.
Starring: Byung-hun Lee (Kim Soo-hyeon), Min-sik Choi (Kyung-chul), Gook-hwan Jeon (Squad Chief Jang), Ho-jin Jeon (Section Chief Oh), San-ha Oh (Joo-yeon), Yoon-seo Kim (Se-yeon).

I’m not sure what the hell is wrong with Korea, but right now they are making some of the most extreme, violent films in the world right now. Chan-wook Park is the obvious poster boy for extreme Korean films – with his trilogy of movies Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy and Lady Vengeance, and the violent vampire flick Thrist, and Korea does have its share of more serious filmmakers as well (Lee-Chang Dong and Bong Joon-ho leading the way there). But most of the films we get see over here are like Jee-woon Kim’s I Saw the Devil, a graphically violent, disturbing in the extreme serial killer/horror film. Trust me, you won’t soon forget this one.

The movie opens with an extremely unsettling scene, as we see the beautiful Joo-yeon (San-ha Oh) on the phone with her Special agent fiancée, talking about how her car has broken down in the snow, and she’s waiting for a tow truck. It isn’t long before a strange man, in a school van, shows up to offer help, which she politely refuses. But no sooner has she hung with her fiancée, than the man in the van comes back – breaks her window, beats her to death, and drags her lifeless body across the snow in one of the most haunting shots in recent memory. He will take her back to his house where he will chop up her body and dispose of it. When it’s found, the fiancée, Kim Soo-hyeon (Byung-hun Lee) vows to track down the killer and have his revenge. It doesn’t take him long to discover that the killer is Kyung-chul (Min-sik Choi from Oldboy). But Kim is not interested in simply killing him – he wants to toy and with him for a while, and torture him so that he feels even more pain than his fiancée did. But of course, it isn’t quite as simple as that.

Watching I Saw the Devil, I couldn’t help but think of a movie like Taken from a few years ago. I disliked Taken immensely, but many other people loved it. It is kind of the cookie cutter version of the revenge story we see a lot. I thought of it, because Kim has some of the same very specific abilities that Liam Neesom had in that film – we see them early in the film when he’s trying to figure out who the killer is by torturing a few other candidates first. He is a man with “nothing to lose”, who can inflict pain with the best of them.

But I Saw the Devil is more complex than that. This isn’t just a story of a man seeking vengeance, and it isn’t quite as simple as the fact that the hero has to sink to the level of the killer to catch him. Those questions have been asked and answered in movie many times over, and although often times they can still work (like in No Country for Old Men and The Dark Knight), I Saw the Devil goes further. Kim really does sink to the level of the killer – his torture of him throughout the movie is brutal and unrelenting. The movie toys with our expectations – we saw what the killer did to his fiancé, so we want him to have his vengeance. The movie gives us that, and then goes further and further and further until we are sickened by what is on the screen. You want vengeance and blood – you got it, now deal with it.

One of things that I think works best about I Saw the Devil are the performances. Min-sik Choi truly is one of the most memorable serial killers in recent memory. Yes, to a certain extent, it is a rehash of other serial killers in the movies, but he seems even more remorseless than they do – and is not nearly as charming or intelligent. He kills because he enjoys killing people. No one will leave the theater smiling about him like they do with Hannibal Lector. But Byung-hun Lee is perhaps even better, even though he has the much less showy role. He seems emotionless as he is going about his work, and he doesn’t even seem to care too much that his way of torturing Kyung-chul (he tracks him down, breaks something, and then lets him go to track him down again and break something else), means that there are quite a few innocent people put in harm’s way for his vengeance. It isn’t until Kyung turns the tables that he starts to regret it – and even then, the emotions are not over the top – not even in his tragic final scene.

I have not seen any films by director Jee-woon Kim before – not even his highly regarded Western mash-up The Good, The Bad, The Weird – released here last year. On the basis on I Saw the Devil (and what I know about his previous film), he is obviously a movie brat – a Korean Quentin Tarantino as it were. He references many films here – Oldboy in the first scene (it is not a coincidence that Kyung’s weapon of choice there is a hammer) – but he plays with them a little bit. Watch the segment with the cannibal to see how he takes something out of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and then twists it.

I Saw the Devil is certainly not a pleasant film to sit through. For genre fans however, it is a must. And what I appreciated about it is that even though it shows quite a bit of torture – of tough to take violence – it never devolves into the level of torture porn. There are real characters at the center of this film, and the violence flows from them. This isn’t a film where torture is shot for torture’s sake – where we see extreme violence simply because the director likes to revel in bloodlust. Instead, the violence in the movie, as strong and off putting as it is, is necessary to the movie. It is possible to make great movies with this level of violence – as this film proves.

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Best Movies I've Never Seen Before: The Circle (2000)

The Circle (2000) ***
Directed by: Jafar Panahi.
Written by: Kambuzia Partovi.
Starring: Nargess Mamizadeh (Nargess), Maryiam Palvin Almani (Arezou), Mojgan Faramarzi (Mojgan - Prostitute), Elham Saboktakin (Elham - Nurse), Monir Arab (Monir - Ticket Seller), Maedeh Tahmasebi (Maedeh), Maryam Shayegan (Parveneh), Solmaz Panahi (Solmaz), Fereshteh Sadre Orafaiy (Pari), Fatemeh Naghavi (Nayer), Ataollah Moghadas (Haji), Abbas Alizadeh (Father of Pari).

Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi currently sits in prison in Iran serving a six year sentence for “assembly and colluding with the intention to commit crimes against the country’s national security and propaganda against the Islamic Republic, “which essentially means criticizing Iran’s government, supporting the opposition in elections and making films critical of Iran and their human rights record. He was also banned from making any films, writing any screenplays, giving any interviews or leaving Iran for 20 years. Even though I am not a huge fan of Panahi’s films, I think every reasonable person in the world can agree that no one should go to jail for making a movie – or simply letting his views be known.

Panahi’s most famous film is 2000’s The Circle. It is a film that is extremely critical of the treatment of women in Iran, and uses several of their stories to highlight this. Taking its cue from Max Ophuls’ La Ronde, the film circles around, with one story leading to the next to the next, before we arrive back where we started.

The movie opens in a hospital where a woman has just given birth to a baby girl. But what should be happy occasion is instead a sad one – the ultrasound had indicated that the child would be a boy, and now the new child’s grandmother is worried that when her in laws find out that the child is a girl, they will want a divorce, or worse. From there, the movie spins out to tell the story of three women who have escaped from prison, their struggles to get out of town to go to one of their small villages, to the story of another former prison who has to escape from her home because her brothers want to “talk to her”, and tries to find a way to get an abortion, to the story of a mother abandoning her daughter in the hope that she will find happiness in a real family, and finally to a story of a prostitute who ends up being arrested, and going to jail where we see all the women we met in the film in one cell – including the mother whose only crime was giving birth to a girl.

Watching The Circle, it is impossible not to feel sympathy for the women that Panahi puts on the screen. For the most part, their only crime is that they are women and have decided to act like women everywhere else in the world get to behave without question. The system clearly holds them to impossibly high standards that they cannot hope to reach, while letting men do pretty much anything that they want to. Panahi uses a mix of professional and non-professional actresses in his film, but I honestly could not tell you which ones are which – they are all raw and real. Panahi’s visual style is simple yet effective – he favors long, unbroken takes, and often employs tracking shots to follow his characters. Panahi fills his screen with the contradictions of modern Iran – showing happiness in the background, while the foreground is full of pain and sorrow.

While I admire The Circle, much like I admire the other Panahi films I have seen (Crimson Gold about a mentally unstable thief and Offside about a teenage girl who wants nothing else but to see the Iran team play soccer, but cannot enter the stadium because she’s a girl), I feel somewhat similar to his films as I do to films like Paul Haggis’ Crash or the entire work of Stanley Kramer. You cannot argue with the films moral viewpoint, and yet I find these films to be too heavy-handed and preachy. Perhaps in Iran, you have to be heavy handed to get your point across, but personally, I would have preferred a little more subtly in the films. He takes his lead from the Italian neo-realist movement of post WWII, much like many Iranian filmmakers do, but unlike someone like Abbas Kiarostami, Panahi remains fixated on telling his stories and delivering a social message. At times, his characters seem more like symbols than real people.

Still, there is a lot to admire about Panahi’s films in general and The Circle specifically. He is certainly an important voice in Iranian cinema and culture. I hope at some point soon, he is released from prison, and can resume his filmmaking career. Something tells me he has more to say than what he done so far. However, as long as the prison sentence and filmmaking ban are in effect, the world is robbed of this important cinematic voice.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Thoughts on the NHL Season

Yesterday, the Boston Bruins beat the Vancouver Canucks 4-0 in game 7 to win the Stanley Cup. I had predicted the Canucks to win, but was rooting for the Bruins, so I can't say I'm disappointed, although I would have liked to have seen a better game with the cup on the line. As a LA Kings fan, I have a hard time cheering for Vancouver since they beat my team in last year's playoffs - and were kind of dicks about it. I don't like the way Vancouver plays - with all the cheap shots, diving and whining that goes on with them. Yes, Boston delivered just as many cheap shots as Vancouver did this series, but they didn't whine that much about it. And how can you possibly not be happy for Tim Thomas, a goalie who didn't even break into the league until he was over 30, worked his way to win a Vezina trophy two years ago, lost his job the following year because of injuries, than battled back and took it again this year - most likely winning a second Vezina trophy, the Conn Smythe for MVP of the playoffs and the Stanley Cup. You simply can't.

What this means for Vancouver remains to be seen. This was supposed to be their year, and they came so close, but couldn't close the deal in Game 7. Now, they have some UFAs to try and resign (in particular Kevin Bieska, who was their best defenseman all season), and are stuck with a few expensive contracts that simply didn't work out (Ballard). They will either fold next season, or come back more determined than ever - like Pittsburgh a few years ago after losing to Detroit in the finals one year, and then beating them the following year. One thing is for sure, the Sedins have got to learn how to play playoff hockey, and Luongo needs to be more consistent when they need him, or this will happen again.

For Boston, it was a magical run - three game seven victories, losing some key players to injuries, having their BIG trade line acquistion essentially be a bust (Kaberle), and yet still finding a way to win. I don't think they can do it again next year, but who knows? Maybe they can.

So that brings the NHL season to a close. I'll be back before the NHL awards to give my picks as to who SHOULD win and who WILL win, and perhaps who was overlooked. But other than that, unless my beloved Kings make a big move this offseason (and I don't think they will), I'll be done writing about hockey until training camp starts next September. I can't wait.

The Best Films I've Never Seen Before: Splendor in the Grass (1961)

Splendor in the Grass (1961) *** ½
Directed by: Elia Kazan.
Written by: William Inge.
Starring: Natalie Wood (Wilma Dean Loomis), Warren Beatty (Bud Stamper), Pat Hingle (Ace Stamper), Audrey Christie (Mrs. Loomis), Barbara Loden (Ginny Stamper), Zohra Lampert (Angelina), Fred Stewart (Del Loomis), Joanna Roos (Mrs. Stamper), John McGovern (Doc Smiley), Jan Norris (Juanita Howard), Martine Bartlett (Miss Metcalf), Gary Lockwood (Allen 'Toots' Tuttle), Sandy Dennis (Kay), Crystal Field (Hazel), Marla Adams (June), Lynn Loring (Carolyn).

I like a good teenage melodrama, and Elia Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass is a very good one indeed. Watching the film, I couldn’t help but think of a current teen melodrama making tons of the money at the box office – of course I’m think of the “Twilight Saga”. Both films are about good looking teenagers trying their best not to give into their sexual urges. The difference is that Twilight is merely skin deep – you never feel those teenage hormones waiting on the inside ready to explode, whereas in Splendor in the Grass that is all you feel. These kids are in heat, and it will drive them insane.

The movie takes place in Kansas right before the outbreak of the Great Depression. Wilma Dean Loomis (Natalie Wood) is the most popular girl in school – because she is dating Bud Stamper (Warren Beatty), captain of the football team and the son of the wealthiest man in town, Ace (Pat Hingle). Right from the film’s opening scene, we know they are fighting their urges – he pressures her, but she eventually gets him to stop. Bud is frustrated, but he loves Wilma – he plans on marrying her. His father is pressuring him to go off to college, to follow him into the business world, but all Bud wants to do is run one of his dad’s old ranches and marry Wilma. Ace thinks this would be tantamount to throwing his life away. For her part, Wilma seems addicted to Bud – she wants him badly, but her overbearing mother (Audrey Christie) never leaves her alone – talking about “nice” girls, and what they do and do not do – and more than that, how it makes one “not nice” to even want to do it. There are cautionary tales all around them – Bud’s sister Ginny (Barbara Loden) who has become known as the town tramp, and a girl in high school with them, Juanita (Jan Norris) who is on her way to taking over the crown. Bud tries – he really does – to deal with his urges, but everywhere he turns for advice, he is given bad advice. His father tells him that there are girls out there who he can use to meet those urges, without spoiling a nice girl like Wilma, whom he may want to marry. Things get complicated, Bud leaves Wilma, and soon, she is spiraling out of control.

The film was directed by Elia Kazan, who spent much of his career advancing sexuality onscreen well before many other directors were doing it. The carnal lust felt in A Streetcar Named Desire is palpable, the strange, creepy attraction Karl Malden feels for his child bride in Baby Doll, and her own way of manipulating men with her seemingly naïve sexuality, was scandalous in 1956. In 1961, these things were still not talked about on screen very often. Watching the film now, it may seem dated, and yet it in many ways it seems relevant. Teenagers still struggle with these questions – in a very different way of course – and the ultimate message of the movie remains relevant – that teenagers are going to have sex, or at least want to have sex, no matter what adults do – so it is better to give them a healthy attitude towards it, rather than try to repress it.

Would Wilma Dean have gone crazy had her mother not given her famous speech about “A woman doesn't enjoy those things the way a man does. She just lets her husband come near her in order to have children”? Probably not. Wilma is convinced that her sexual desire is a sign that she is already insane, and she freaks out. Bud is taught that sex is dirty – that you don’t actually want to do it with the person you love, and spoil them. Ginny exposes the hypocrisy on the whole situation in her memorable breakdown, when none of the men at a party will dance with her – and she yells “You only come near me in the dark!”

The film works tremendously well as a steamy, soap opera. The sexual chemistry between Beatty and Wood is remarkable, and the viewer grows just as frustrated as they do that they don’t just give into their urges. Had they done that, things probably would have turned out much better for both of them. The movie does end on a more positive note – one that gives hope to the future that perhaps both of these young people will be okay. But the healthiest thing that both of them can do, is get away from their parents. It isn’t until they do, that they start to grow up.