Friday, March 30, 2012

Movie Review: Womb

Womb **
Directed by: Benedek Fliegauf.
Written By: Benedek Fliegauf.
Starring: Eva Green (Rebecca), Matt Smith (Thomas), Lesley Manville (Judith), Peter Wight (Ralph), István Lénárt (Henry), Hannah Murray (Monica), Ruby O. Fee (Rebecca - 9 years), Tristan Christopher (Thomas - 10),  Jesse Hoffmann (Thomas - 5 years).

Note: I saw Womb nearly two years ago at TIFF – and this review was written a few days after seeing it. I see no indication that any changes in the movie have been made since then, but figured I should mention it anyway just in case the movie was re-edited from the very disappointing version I saw two years ago.

Womb is one of those movies whose concept is so good that you simply cannot believe that the end result doesn’t work. The film takes place in a small, beachfront town – although mainly in winter, where the place is even more desolate – and opens with a friendship between 9 year old Rebecca and 10 year old Tommy – a friendship that grew incredibly close until Rebecca and her family moved away. Now, more than a decade later, Rebecca returns, and finds Tommy still there – and the two are drawn back together almost immediately. The only sense we get that this is a sci-fi film, set in the near future, is Tommy mentioning something called “cyber-prostitution”, which involves clones. It is on their way to a protest against this, early in their renewed relationship, where Tommy is hit and killed by a car. And this is where the story really begins.

Rebecca (now played by Eva Green) has some of Tommy’s DNA, and decides that she wants to give birth to his clone, and raise him as her own son. But it’s clearly fairly early on that she has more than motherly feelings toward this new Tommy. Green does an excellent, and unsettlingly job, of staring at this child with a mixture of motherly and sexual feelings. On Tommy’s part, he doesn’t know the secret of his birth (which she hides for many reasons, including the fact that clones are viewed as second class citizens by everyone) – but he looks at Rebecca with that same mixture – something oddly sexual for child his age (and it gets truly creepy in one scene on the beach while the two are playing and Tommy essentially gets on top of his mother, and for lack of a better term dry humps her).

The movie raises disturbing questions about sexual ethics. Technically, although Green gave birth to this new Tommy, they are not actually related. But is she raising this child simply because she thinks the world will be a better place with this version of Tommy, or because she is trying to get her soul mate back. They movie ventures into truly disturbing territory in its final scenes – where new Tommy is now in his early 20s, and while Green must surely be in her mid-40s by then, she doesn’t look like she has aged that much. It is here where the mixed up feeling truly come out.

I realize now that I have made this movie sound a whole lot more interesting than it actually is (which is why I choose to see it at TIFF in the first place). The film is painfully slow, as director Benedek Fliegauf favors long unbroken shots of his characters in and around their abandoned beach house, essentially looking at each other. Yes, this looks carry a disturbing quality to them, but Fliegauf doesn’t seem to have much more on his mind for most of the running time then these looks, which he repeats far too often for them to be effective. He really seems to be treading water at times, waiting to get to his conclusion when he can really let loose. There are many places Fliegauf could have taken this film – and although he choose an interesting one in the sexual angle – there are other questions that are left unanswered – disturbing sequences like when Tommy 2.0 buries his surprising lifelike toy, even as it moves and makes sounds, suggests that Fliegauf may be making a case of nature vs. nurture – and that this new Tommy will be an entirely different person because of the way Rebecca raises him, compared to his original parents – a darker, more violent person perhaps. But there is no follow through on this, no follow through on Tommy’s original parents who are initially reluctant to agree then go away for 2 decades before showing up, and saying nothing.

There are striking images in the film, it raises such interesting questions and Green does a remarkable job of conveying her confused feelings toward her son/lover that I really wanted to like Womb. But the end result is a long, slow journey that takes for too long getting to where it’s going.

Movie Review: The Snowtown Murders

The Snowtown Murders *** ½ Directed by: Justin Kurzel.
Written by: Shaun Grant & Justin Kurzel based on the books by Debi Marshall and Andrew McGarry.
Starring: Lucas Pittaway (Jamie Vlassakis), Daniel Henshall (John Bunting), Louise Harris (Elizabeth Harvey), Aaron Viergever (Robert), David Walker (Mark Haydon), Brendan Rock (Marcus), Richard Green (Barry), Anthony Groves (Troy), Bob Adriaens (Gavin), Frank Cwiertniak (Jeffrey), Matthew Howard (Nicholas), Marcus  Howard (Alex), Beau Gosling (David).

The Snowtown Murders is an almost unremittingly bleak movie about almost unspeakable evil. It is a movie about the most infamous serial killer in Australia history – John Bunting – who manipulated people into helping him commit multiple murders. We often hear about serial killers manipulating their victims – how else could they rack up so many victims without anyone noticing – but the crimes themselves are really rather crude. It is the way he worms his way into the lives and heads of his co-conspirators that is really chilling. The Snowtown Murders is not a procedural examining the crimes in detail – some of the murders are only mentioned, some implied and only one is really shown in any real detail. Instead, it focuses on a damaged kid and how Bunting got him to help kill.

The movie opens on the family of single mother Elizabeth Harvey (Louise Harris), who asks a neighbor to look after three of her four sons for a few hours. When she discovers that the neighbor forced her kids to strip so that he could take pictures of them, she is incensed – and although the police are called, he’s out on bail fairly quickly – and resumes his life, sitting on his stoop and staring across the street at her house.

For the oldest of the three exploited sons – Jamie (Lucas Pittaway) the pictures are not a huge deal. After all, his older brother Troy has been molesting and raping him for years. Yet, the revelation that there is a “pedo” in their midst gets the locals riled up. And this is when Bunting shows up along with his friend Robert Wagner (Aaron Viergever). At first, it seems all he wants to do is torment the pervert across the street – revving his motorcycle on his porch late at night, and enlisting Jamie in helping to throw a couple chopped up kangaroo carcasses onto his porch. Then, John moves in – presumably because he is dating Elizabeth – and starts holding court in the kitchen in front of all the neighbors – going on about degenerates and pedophiles and “fags” all around them. The way he phrases everything makes it nearly impossible for you to disagree with him – and then he bullies, in a nice way, people into saying just what they would like to do to all these degenerates. For Jamie, with no father in the picture, John at first seems to be the only adult male he can trust – and who cares for him. So when he shows Jamie a dead body, although he is terrified, he goes along with what John wants him to do. And John continues to increase his demands on Jamie as the murders progress.

Co-written and directed newcomer Justin Kurzel, The Snowtown Murders is a movie without any hope, without any joy. This is a movie about a damaged kid, who was already heading down a bad path before John Bunting entered his life. He was ripe for the picking. He had already learned to go along with what older, more powerful men want – from his older brother, who he relents to rather easily when he wants to rape him, to the pervert neighbor across the who asks him to strip. At first, it seems like John actually cares for him – unlike those other two. He is nice to Jamie, listens to him, makes him feels like he belongs. And from there, it is surprisingly easy to get him to kill for him.

There is only one murder graphically depicted in The Snowtown Murders, but it is unforgettable as it shows how Jamie crosses the line between being an accomplice to a murderer. When he does it though, it almost seems like an act of mercy more than anything else – something he does simply to stop the torture that John and Robert are inflicting on their victim – even though Jamie is the one who truly has reason to hate their victim.

As I said earlier, those looking for an in-depth account of Bunting and his accomplice’s crimes may end up disappointed. The crimes themselves are not what the movie is really about – it is really about what the judge in the case called the degenerate sub-culture that Bunting fostered. In a movie like this, performances are key – and newcomer Lucas Pittaway does a fine job as Jamie, as he moves from damaged, quiet kid, to damaged, quiet murderer. But it is Daniel Henshall as Bunting who is truly chilling. In many recent fictional serial killer movies, the killers are portrayed as charming and funny – creepy, yet likable – think Hannibal Lector. But Henshall's performance as Bunting as far from that, although he shows up with a smile. His performance is one of the most chilling, realistic portraits of a psychopath I have ever seen in a film. Very few movies about serial killers deserve comparison to John McNaughtons disturbing, indie masterwork Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer with its great performance by Michael Rooker. Kurzels film, and Henshalls performance, earn that comparison.

Movie Review: Detachment

Detachment ***
Directed by: Tony Kaye.
Written by: Carl Lund.
Starring: Adrien Brody (Henry Barthes), Sami Gayle (Erica), Christina Hendricks (Ms. Madison), Betty Kaye (Meredith), Lucy Liu (Dr. Parker), James Caan (Mr. Seaboldt), Marcia Gay Harden (Principal Carol Dearden), Blythe Danner (Ms. Perkins), Louis Zorich (Grampa), Bryan Cranston (Richard Dearden), William Petersen (Sarge), Tim Blake Nelson (Mr. Wiatt), Isiah Whitlock Jr. (Mr. Mathias).

Being a teacher in the best of circumstances is hard. Being a teacher in a school where most of the students don’t care, the parents care even less, and the State government is looking to close down your school unless you can raise your test scores is even harder. And after a while of teaching in schools like this, you may well end up like Henry Barthes (Adrien Brody), who at one point cared and thought he could make a difference. We still see flashes of that man, but for the most part, Henry walks through his day like a ghost.

Henry is a substitute teacher called in to take over for a teacher who just cannot take coming to work one day longer. He lives in a cramped little apartment, in the bad part of town, and spends most of his money on his grandfather’s assisted living facility – but that sucks too, as the staff doesn’t really assist grandpa too much. When Henry walks into the classroom, it takes him a while to get everyone to settle down – he has to throw one student out almost immediately, and then is threatened by another one. For those thinking that perhaps Henry will turn this ragtag group of misfits around, you’re in for a surprise, because nothing of the sort happens. True, the students gradually do come to respect Henry, but he doesn’t really inspire them too much. They like him because he treats them with just slightly more respect than some of the other teachers. The only thing in Henry’s life that means anything is his relationship with Erica (Sami Gayle), a teenage prostitute. No, they never have sex – he treats her like a younger sister, gradually getting her to believe that she is worth something. But if this is a triumph, it is offset by his relationship with one of his students – Meredith (Betty Kaye), who thinks Henry is the one person who sees her for who she really is – the truth is, he barely notices her.

Directed by Tony Kaye, from a screenplay by Carl Lund, Detachment, is perhaps the darkest movie about teaching that I can recall. We have some interesting movies about teachers in the last few years – from Laurent Cantent’s brilliant The Class to the Canadian film Monsieur Lazhar, to the drug addicted teacher at the heart of Half Nelson. These movies show just how soul crushingly hard teaching can be, but also how rewarding it can be. There is nothing rewarding about teaching in Detachment. Henry is just trying to go through his day, and the teachers who are the most effective in the movie – like James Caan – are the ones who allow all the insults and apathy of their student’s role off their backs. Lucy Liu has a great scene as the guidance counsellor as he snaps at a female student, telling her she has no future, because she doesn’t give a shit, and the only thing she will ever succeed at is getting men to fuck her. That believing in something is hard and takes character – it takes nothing to give up. Harsh, perhaps a little clichéd, but true.

Tony Kaye made his debut film, American History X in 1998, and despite the fact that it has become a minor classic, his battle with the studio, and star Edward Norton, pretty much ruined his career. His documentary, Lake of Fire, is one of the finest of the last decade, and the best doc you will ever see on abortion. Now finally, he has made a follow-up feature, and he gets a great ensemble cast to participate. Most of them, like Marcia Gay Harden, Bryan Cranston, Christina Hendricks, Tim Blake Nelson, Blythe Danner and the aforementioned Lucy Liu and James Caan, only have a couple of scenes. This really is Brody's movie, and he is great in the lead role. His Henry has, as the title suggests, grown detached from the world around him, and his job. He no longer really gives a shit about anything. Erica slowly draws him back into life, but is it too late?

Detachment is not a great film – it remains a little clichéd, a little too dark to really be believed. And yet, it held my attention throughout. Kaye knows how to direct and makes this a visually interesting film, centered on Adrien Brody’s face, a mask of indifference hiding something deeper and darker. Yes, the movie reaches a little too far at times, but I didn’t mind. I’m sure all teachers will see at least a little bit of themselves in this film.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Movie Review: The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games *** ½ Directed by: Gary Ross.
Written by: Gary Ross and Suzanne Collins and Billy Ray based on the book by Suzanne Collins.
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence (Katniss Everdeen), Josh Hutcherson (Peeta Mellark), Woody Harrelson (Haymitch Abernathy), Elizabeth Banks (Effie Trinket), Stanley Tucci (Caesar Flickerman), Donald Sutherland (President Snow), Wes Bentley (Seneca Crane), Lenny Kravitz (Cinna), Willow Shields (Primrose Everdeen), Liam Hemsworth (Gale Hawthorne), Paula Malcomson (Katniss' Mother), Toby Jones (Claudius Templesmith), Amandla Stenberg (Rue), Dayo Okeniyi (Thresh), Leven Rambin (Glimmer), Jack Quaid (Marvel), Latarsha Rose (Portia), Alexander Ludwig (Cato), Isabelle Fuhrman (Clove).

The Hunger Games is a very good movie based on a great book. Yes, I know that The Hunger Games books are aimed at teenagers, but as a series they are as good as Harry Potter, and much better than Twilight. Fans of the book will likely like the movie more than non-fans – because they will be better able to fill in the gaps. The movie doesn’t change anything from the book – but it does leave out a few details – and it’s in the details that make this series go from very good to great.

The movie opens in a dystopian future. A failed revolution decades before has left the Capitol all powerful, and the other districts trembling in fear. There are 12 districts outside the Capitol – each poorer than the ahead of it, and they live in fear because the 13th District was destroyed by the Capitol. One of the ways in which the Capitol keeps the District under their thumb, living in fear, is The Hunger Games – an annual event in which one teenager boy and one teenage girl from each district are put into a huge arena, and left to fight till the death. To the people in the Capitol, this is all little more than reality TV taken to the extreme – and of course they love it. For everyone else, it can literally be life or death.

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is from District 12. She has been the sole provider for her mother and younger sister since her father died years ago. At the “Reaping”, the draw to see who gets the “honor” of taking part in The Hunger Games, she is shocked and horrified when her young sister Prim is selected – without thinking, Katniss steps up and volunteers to go in her place. For the boys, it is Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) who is selected. So, they board a train for the Capitol along with their “mentor” Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) – a former winner of the Games – to participate.

What the movie gets right about the book is the propulsive, brutal energy of the novel. The movie doesn’t soften the blow of the violence – even if it may be less bloody than it should be, in order to get a PG-13 rating in America. When the games start, it is still kids killing kids – some with brutal, unrelenting glee, some reluctantly, but everyone does what they need to do to survive. Some have pointed out the similarity between The Hunger Games and the Japanese film Battle Royale – a true masterpiece – and it’s true they have similarities. But then, so does The Hunger Games and two Stephen King stories – The Long Walk and The Running Man. And of course, you can trace this basic premise back to William Golding’s literally masterwork The Lord of the Flies.  The idea of kids killing kids, or people dying for the entertainment of others, is not an overly original idea, but it is one that when done properly still retains an undeniable power.

What made The Hunger Games, as a book, stand out to me is that addition to the kids killing kids angle, it was also a dead on media satire. Katniss becomes a star at the games, not because of who she is, but of how she looks. Aided by a stylist, Katniss looks great, and hence garners fans. When she and Peeta, with the advice of Haymitch, learn to play the media and the audience, to become stars. The movie implicates the viewers in the Capitol – and by extension the readers of the book – in the bloodlust on display in the book. The over the top TV show produced by The Hunger Games is little more than an extension of the current reality TV shows. This is the aspect of the book that made The Hunger Games great – and it is mainly missing from the movie. The audience is barely viewed, and the movie rushes through too much of the rest. And that’s a shame.

But The Hunger Games is still a very good movie. For one thing, they have found the perfect Katniss in Jennifer Lawrence. I didn’t realize it before, but her Oscar nominated performance in Winter’s Bone shares a lot in common with Katniss – both being strong, self-reliant, responsible teenagers who are effectively raising their siblings in a world that doesn’t give a shit about her. Lawrence carries the movie and it is a great performance. Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks -  as a representative from the Capitol, Stanley Tucci – as an over the top TV personality – and Donald Sutherland as the evil President provide effective support. Co-writer and director Gary Ross, who was an odd choice for the material, does a very good job behind the camera, keeping the pace going, and giving the movie the violent edge it needs.

The Hunger Games stops short of being a great movie because it doesn’t push things far enough. Perhaps it was simply a question of running time – something had to go, and it’s easier to cut satire than violence. But hopefully the next two movies – which will almost certainly be made and as quickly as possible now – goes a little farther. The series is going to get much, much darker before it ends – and the filmmakers need to push themselves farther.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Movie Review: The Turin Horse

The Turin Horse *** ½ Directed by: Béla Tarr.
Written by: László Krasznahorkai & Béla Tarr.
Starring: János Derzsi (Ohlsdorfer), Erika Bók (Ohlsdorfer's daughter), Mihály Kormos (Bernhard).

One of the gaps in my cinematic knowledge has always been Bela Tarr. Despite having made some highly acclaimed films – including Damnation, Sanantango, Werckmeister Harmonies and The Man from London (featuring on my favorite actress – Tilda Swinton), I have somehow managed never to see one of his films. I have always meant to, but for whatever reason, just never have. Apparently his most recent film, The Turin Horse, will be his last – even though he’s not yet 60, he has decided to walk away. We’ll see if that happens or not – but on the basis of this film, I hope it’s not true. I am now more convinced than ever that I need to see some of his earlier films – The Turin Horse is a masterfully made film, entrancing, fascinating, almost impenetrable. I am sure that many – perhaps even most – audience members would hate the film. It is slow, not deliberately paced which is a critical euphemism for slow, but really slow. Not a whole lot happens in the film. There is little to no dialogue, and the one time someone opens their mouth and delivers a long speech, it is promptly dismissed as bullshit by the main character. It is about the long, slow march to death – to nothingness. Perhaps it’s just the characters in this movie that are doomed, but perhaps it’s the world at large. For this movie, they amount to the same thing.

The movie opens with a narrator telling us a story of Frederic Nietzsche, who one day walked outside his Turin apartment, saw a cab driver abusing his horse, and this was the last straw for him before he retreated into syphilitic madness to live out the rest of his days. Of the horse, the narrator informs us, we know nothing. That this movie is about a man and his horse doesn’t necessarily mean that it meant to be the same horse Nietzsche saw – there is nothing in the movie that even suggests that we are in Italy – it looks much more like Tarr’s own Hungary – but the story is still relevant to the movie. Because what we see may just be the last straw before madness – or nothingness – as well.

The movie opens with a long shot showing Ohlsdorfer, the main character, driving his horse back from town. The camera keeps the horse, and the work he is doing to pull Ohlsdorfer and his cart. The shot goes on for minutes on end, working, straining. When they finally reach home, Ohlsdorfer puts the horse in the barn – at which point, the horse will completely give up. He will refuse to work, refuse to eat or drink, for the rest of the movie. Meanwhile Ohlsdorfer and his daughter subsist on a paltry diet of one potato, and a kind of brandy. Tarr repeats the routines of these two – the preparation of the meals, the daughter trying to feed to horse, or going to the well to get water – which one morning, she discovers has run completely dry – and one or both of them just staring out the window at the nothingness around them. They are visited twice – first by a neighbor, who informs them the nearby town has just “blown away”, and he is the one who goes on the long rant about the world, that the father dismisses as bullshit. And once by a group of gypsys, who leave behind a religious pamphlet that the daughter reads aloud from when they leave.

What does The Turin Horse mean? The movie resists easy interpretations because there is not much dialogue, and when there is, it is quickly dismissed. Is this the end of the world? It may well be. Why else does the well run dry? Why else does the horse refuse to the move? Why else do the father and daughter turn around and return to their farm after they determined they had to leave. The camera in that scene shows father, daughter and horse walk over a hill, and then a few minutes later return. What made them turn back? Tarr never says.

I found myself transfixed by the movie, despite the slow pace and despite the lack of dialogue. I tried, for two and a half hours, to figure out what it was all about, and never quite did. Although their styles are very different, I was reminded of the work of Andrei Tarkovsky while watching this film – because of the slow pace and the way their work resists those easy interpretations. Neither director does all the work for the audience – you have to do a lot of it yourself. And yet, Tarr also warned in interviews not to try and read some profound statement in The Turin Horse – keep it simple was his advice.

I was reminded of Tarkovsky in another way to – in that I admired the film more than I actually loved it. Tarr is a master filmmaker – and the black and white cinematography of the movie is brilliant, as is his control, his lack of editing. It is a brilliant movie in many ways, and yet I never quite loved it. To a certain audience, The Turin Horse will be the best film of the year. To some, it will be the worst. To me, I admired the film so much, that even if I didn’t quite love the film, I have to admit, you will not see many films more challenging this year.

TV Movie Review: Game Change

Game Change *** ½
Directed by: Jay Roach.
Written by: Danny Strong based on the book by Mark Halperin & John Heilemann.
Starring: Julianne Moore (Sarah Palin), Woody Harrelson (Steve Schmidt), Ed Harris (John McCain), Peter MacNicol (Rick Davis), Jamey Sheridan (Mark Salter), Sarah Paulson (Nicolle Wallace), Ron Livingston (Mark Wallace), David Barry Gray (Todd Palin), Larry Sullivan (Chris Edwards), Mikal Evans (Bexie Nobles), Colby French (Tucker Eskew), Bruce Altman (Fred Davis), Spencer Garrett (Steve Biegun), Brian Howe (Randy Scheunemann), John Rothman (A.B. Culvahouse), Austin Pendleton (Senator Joe Lieberman).

No one is neutral when it comes to Sarah Palin. You either admire her as a straight-talking, down to earth hockey mom and political maverick, or think she’s a dangerously ignorant woman who has no idea what she’s talking about. The best thing about Game Change, which may well turn out to be the best made for TV movie of the year, is that (despite what Fox News says) it is neither a hit piece, trying to make you hate Palin, nor is it a love letter to the woman. You will almost certainly leave Game Change feeling the same way about Palin as you did when the movie started – love her or hate her – but if you watch the movie with an open mind, you may just feel a little bit of sympathy for her.
The movie opens with the McCain campaign in trouble. Barack Obama has become more than a political candidate – but a genuine celebrity. People absolutely love him, and don’t really care about his lack of experience. McCain (Ed Harris), a professional politician for decades, cannot understand how he is losing by so much to Obama. His campaign manager, Steve Schmidt (Woody Harrelson) thinks they need a game change – something to counteract Obama’s momentum. McCain wanted to have Joe Lieberman – a former Democrat, now an Independent, as his running mate but he won’t do them any good in trying to beat Obama. Neither with Tim Pawlenty or Chris Christie or any of the other Republicans who everyone thinks he should choose from. They want something BIG – and Schmidt seems to thinks he has found it in the newly elected Governor of Alaska – Sarah Palin. The Republican base will love her – which McCain needs to keep them happy – but she is also pretty, charming and funny – not to mention a woman, which may help to win over some female voters, already mad that Hilary Clinton lost to Obama in the Democratic primaries. So, they decide on Palin, but she needs to be vetted – a process that normally takes months, but they only have 5 days. They think all that doesn’t matter, and go ahead with her. But Palin is more than they bargained for – she has no idea about foreign policy, and dangerously little knowledge of domestic policy. Yet, she is confident beyond what knowledge base she does have – she insists on doing things her own way. Not only that, but she will not listen to any of her handlers – she sometimes goes nearly catatonic and shuts out everything around her. She’s a maverick all right.
Most of the major facts in the movie are not really in conflict – Palin really did cite seeing Russia from Alaska as part of her Foreign Policy experience, the infamous Katie Couric interview was not an example of “Gotcha” journalism, but a fair interview that exposed Palin’s lack of knowledge. It also shows just how charming Palin can be – how good she is at speaking, even if she has no idea what she’s talking about, she’s charming when doing it.
Julianne Moore delivers an amazing performance as Palin – she goes deeper than Tina Fey’s spot on impression on SNL that year, to show a woman who is confident she can do anything, who gets in way over her head, and for a while cannot handle it. You feel sympathy for her when she is simply a woman in over her head, struggling to stay afloat. When people take shots at her daughter Bristol – who whatever you think about her, was a pregnant teenager, which would be hard enough without a National spotlight on her – or on her disabled son Trig was inexcusable. But as she struggles to stay afloat, and she because more and more famous, and gets more and more adoring fans, who do not care about her shortcomings, she becomes something of a political monster – she begins to think that she is the real star of the campaign – because in essence, she is – and starts to think she can call all the shots. No one, not Schmidt, not even McCain, can control her.
Woody Harrelson deserves a great deal of credit for his performance as well – he is a smart political mind, who wanted a game change, and got it, but had no idea of the can of worms he was going to open. Ed Harris makes McCain into a very sympathetic man – a man of principle, who loses them in his quest to become President, and doesn’t see that until it’s too late. Late in the campaign, he laments that this was not the campaign he wanted to run – the attacks on Barack Obama, that had become racially motivated and hate filled, shocked him. The other key performance is by Sarah Paulson, as the McCain staffer assigned to be Palin’s handler, who cannot believe what she has to work with.
Directed by Jay Roach, who started making comedies like Austin Powers and Meet the Parents, but has recently moved to HBO to make political films like this, and Recount, from a few years ago. This is an intelligent, well-acted, well written and well directed film. In years past, this could have easily been a theatrical movie, but now, sadly, we know very few people would go see it. So HBO fills the void, and has made a wonderful political drama. I’m sad that this movie had to be made for HBO – but I am happy that it got made it all. For political junkies, Game Change is a must see.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Movie Review: 21 Jump Street

21 Jump Street ***
Directed by: Chris Miller & Phil Lord.
Written by: Michael Bacall & Jonah Hill based on the series by Patrick Hasburgh & Stephen J. Canell.
Starring: Jonah Hill (Schmidt), Channing Tatum (Jenko), Brie Larson (Molly Tracey), Dave Franco (Eric Molson), Rob Riggle (Mr. Walters), DeRay Davis (Domingo), Ice Cube (Captain Dickson), Dax Flame (Zack), Chris Parnell (Mr. Gordon), Ellie Kemper (Ms. Griggs), Jake M. Johnson (Principal Dadier), Nick Offerman (Deputy Chief Hardy).

The idea behind 21 Jump Street – that two police officers could go undercover in high school and pass themselves off as students – is ridiculous. One of the main reasons why this update of the 1980s TV show works so well is because the filmmakers know the idea is ridiculous, and they have fun with it. No, Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill do not look like high school students anymore – and that’s precisely the point. If more filmmakers would acknowledge just how ridiculous their premises were, perhaps wed get more movies as funny, clever and just flat out entertaining as 21 Jump Street.

When they were high school seniors – 7 years ago – Jenko (Tatum) and Schmidt (Hill) were on opposite ends of the social specter. Jenko was a jock and one of the popular kids. Schmidt was a nerd that Jenko picked on. When they meet years later, at the police academy, they bond because they are still opposites – Jenko excels at all the physical stuff, but is still none too bright, and Hill is still really smart, but doesn’t excel at the physical stuff. But when they screw up their first bust, they get punished by being sent to 21 Jump Street – and revived undercover program from the 1980s – where they will be sent back to high school – shockingly, when they get there, each sees how the other half lives. Schmidt falls in with the popular kids – the drug dealers of a new synthetic drug that recently led to a student’s death – and Jenko is stuck with the science nerds, trying to figure out who is actually making the drugs.

But the plot of the movie is largely inconsequential. This is a movie that mines humor out of its ridiculous premise of having two guys well into their 20s hanging out in high school – and realizing how much things have changed. At this point, we expect Jonah Hill to be funny in his movies – he has numerous great comedic performances on his resume – Superbad, Get Him to the Greek and his creepily hilarious turn in Cyrus. Yet, Hill isn’t quite playing the brash, over compensating fat guy, but rather a really rather shy, sweet guy who always wanted to be popular, but could never crack the code. Which is why, when he becomes popular, he takes it a little too seriously. The surprise part of the tandem is Channing Tatum, an actor I have never really warmed to before. But here, he matches Hill joke for joke, and even brings a degree of sympathy to his character – he expected to be popular once again when he went back to high school, and the fact that he isn’t upsets him more than he wants to admit. Yet, he does find real friends with the science geeks. The supporting cast – James’ younger brother David Franco as the cool kid, drug dealer, Ice Cube as Captain who swears like a Mamet character and especially Brie Larson as the cute, popular girl who falls for Schmidt, are all wonderful.

21 Jump Street plays with its multiple genres throughout – high school comedy, buddy cop action film and comes up with an interesting mix. The fact that they know how silly the movie is becomes the key to why it works so well. 21 Jump Street may not be a great movie, but I had a great time watching it.

Movie Review: W.E.

W.E. **
Directed by: Madonna.
Written by: Madonna & Alek Keshishian.
Starring: Abbie Cornish (Wally Winthrop), Andrea Riseborough (Wallis Simpson), James D'Arcy (Edward), Oscar Isaac (Evgeni), Richard Coyle (William Winthrop), David Harbour (Ernest), James Fox (King George V), Judy Parfitt (Queen Mary), Haluk Bilginer (Al Fayed), Geoffrey Palmer (Stanley Baldwin), Natalie Dormer (Elizabeth), Laurence Fox (Bertie), Douglas Reith (Lord Brownlow), Katie McGrath (Lady Thelma), Christina Chong (Tenten).

I can say a lot of bad things about Madonna’s W.E. – that it is overlong, over directed, over designed – both in determines of its art direction and costume design – over scored, that the acting either seems rather flat or completely over the top, that it is a whitewash of history. And yet the one thing I cannot say about W.E. is that it was boring. It held my interest throughout despite the fact that so little of the films actually works. I’m not sure why it held my attention, and yet it did.

The film takes place in two time periods – in 1930s England, where a twice divorced American named Wallis Simpson (Andrea Riseborough) falls in love with the Crown Prince of England Edward (James D’Arcy), so much so that he will abdicate the throne so he can marry her – and 1998 New York, where another woman named Wallis (Abbie Cornish) has married a rich, famous doctor named William (Richard Coyle), but falls in love with a refuge Russian intellectual currently working as a Security Guard at Sotheby’s – who are auctioning off much of the original Wallis and Edward’s estate – named Evengi (Oscar Issac). Both love stories are supposed to show strong women who bucked the societal pressures to be with the person they love. Both women give up everything they know for love.

As I mentioned off the top of the review, W.E. has many problems – and they track back to Madonna as writer and director. The screenplay is a little bit of a mess – the modern day story is shallow and unconvincing, and Abbie Cornish as Wally, is too much of a blank slate – it’s hard to feel that much sympathy for a woman who shows little to no emotion, and when she does it feels forced and insincere. The story of past doesn’t really work either – Madonna goes to great pains to try and convince you that Wallis and Edward were not Nazi sympathizers as many believe, but she may have been better to leave it alone. Not only that but Risen borough doesn’t really seem to be playing Wallis Simpson at all – but rather, she seems to be playing Madonna herself. The result is an odd mixture of past and present that doesn’t really work.

As for Madonna’s direction, it really is all over the map. Madonna tries hard to make the film look artistic – strange camera angles, different film stocks, strange close-ups, a strange dance sequence Wallis does set to the Sex Pistols (but not to God Saves the Queen, which would have made much more sense), but all these tricks undercut the movie – it makes it seem like a director lacking in confidence trying to cover up the holes in the movie with self-conscious “artistry”. The score by Abel Korzeniowski is ever present and distracting. The Oscar nominated costume design is quite good – but it’s also too much – you find yourself watching the clothes, and not the people in them.

This is Madonna’s second film as a director – following 2008’s Filth and Wisdom, which remains unseen by me. I think she needs to settle down behind the camera and realize that sometimes less is more. Every frame of W.E. seems painstakingly crafted, but they don’t really fit together. And yet, the movie did hold my attention from beginning to end. Maybe it’s simply because in so many ways W.E. is a train wreck of a movie, and it’s hard to look away. But I do feel that if Madonna simply settled down a little bit, she may actually make a better movie next time.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Movie Review: John Carter

John Carter ** ½
Directed by: Andrew Stanton.
Written by: Andrew Stanton & Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon based on the story by Edgar Rice Burroughs.
Starring: Taylor Kitsch (John Carter), Lynn Collins (Dejah Thoris), Samantha Morton (Sola), Willem Dafoe (Tars Tarkas), Thomas Haden Church (Tal Hajus), Mark Strong (Matai Shang), Ciarán Hinds (Tardos Mors), Dominic West (Sab Than), James Purefoy (Kantos Kan), Bryan Cranston (Powell), Polly Walker (Sarkoja), Daryl Sabara (Edgar Rice Burroughs).

To me, John Carter is one of those rare movies that is not too long, but instead is too short. The film feels like an epic that was cut down to fit into a more manageable, audience friendly running time. Yes, it is still over two hours, but it still feels like scenes are missing – that the film jumps around a little too much. Unlike some critics, I don’t think that John Carter is confusing – it’s a pretty simple story – but it did remind me of a something Robert Evans said he said to Francis Ford Coppola on seeing his two hour cut of The Godfather (which of course, Coppola denies). I asked for an epic, and you delivered a trailer. John Carter probably would have worked better as an epic TV miniseries, or at least a three hour movie. As it stands now, the whole thing feels rushed.

The movie stars Taylor Kitsch as John Carter, a veteran on the Confederate side of the Civil War, who has spent his post war life digging all around the world, and amassing a huge fortune. He summons his nephew (Daryl Sabara) to his house, and when he arrives, he is told that Carter has suddenly died – and left everything to him. He has also left instructions to give his nephew his personal journal – which flashes back to Carter`s past and tells the story we will see. Carter, while searching for gold in the desert, discovers an amulet, which transports him to Mars. And so the adventure begins.

I liked much of John Carter, although because the stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs on which the movie is based has been so popular, and so influential, over the years, the story seems a little more clichéd than it probably did when it was written. Still, Carters journey to Mars, where he first meets the Tharks – a race of four armed, 7 foot tall, green men, who worship strength. Soon though, he is drawn into an epic war between more human Martians. I won’t get into the details of the plot – because that would take the rest of this review.

Directed by Andrew Stanton – who made two of Pixar`s greatest films in Finding Nemo and Wall-E – the movie is filled with visual imagination. I did love the look of the Tharks – and later the White apes – and the action sequences are well handled. There are battles on top of battles, and they are entertaining. The special effects are wonderful as well. The movie is also never boring, even though some may grow restless as sometimes there are long sequences without action.

But the movie has problems as well. I could have forgiven the fact that the movie seems to skimp on some details – that it feels like some scenes are missing, which would have given more weight or logic behind the decisions made by several characters. After all, perhaps it is preferable for a movie to be rushed than to be like the later Pirates of the Caribbean films that were all nearly three hours, and took a simple story, and turned it into a long, tough slog. What is more unforgivable is the casting choices, which don’t make much sense.

The biggest problem is John Carter himself – Taylor Kitsch. He is supposed to be a grizzled, Civil War veteran, and instead, he looks like an underwear model. Watching the film, I couldn’t help but think of two former movie heroes – Clint Eastwood's Man with No Name in the Sergio Leone spaghetti Westerns, and Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca. Carter seems like he should be a little older, a little more grizzled, a little more cynical – and Kitsch is simply wrong for the role. I never quite bought him in the role. Lynn Collins fairs slightly better – as the heroine, a Princess on Mars who is being forced by her father to marry her people’s biggest enemy to ensure peace. She is feisty and beautiful, and yet her role is one of those that feels underwritten. Ciarian Hinds, as her father, is wasted and given nothing to do. Domenic West, as the bad guy, is far too one note to be believable. Mark Strong, who is great as the bad guy in one film after another, has a blank stare on his face throughout and doesn’t generate the kind of hatred that his character should. Strangely, the performances that worked the best for me were either the ones where the actors were covered in special effects – like Willem Dafoe, Samantha Morton and Thomas Haden Church as the main Tharks – or the ones who are barely in the movie, like Bryan Cranston as a Civil War general, who has just a few scenes near the beginning, but steals every one he is in.

In short, I loved the ideas behind John Carter, and the visual look and feel of the film, much more than the film itself. Had it been longer, and taken the proper amount of time to develop all of its characters, perhaps it could have made up for the miscasting of the lead role. On the other hand, had they cast the lead role better, the rushed storyline might not have stood out so much. As it stands now, John Carter is much less than the sum of its parts.

Movie Review: Silent House

Silent House ***
Directed by: Chris Kentis & Laura Lau.
Written by: Laura Lau based on the screenplay by Gustavo Hernández.
Starring: Elizabeth Olsen (Sarah), Adam Trese (John), Eric Sheffer Stevens (Peter), Julia Taylor Ross (Sophia).

Spoiler Warning: Although the following review does not reveal the ending of Silent House, it may give too many hints – and this is a film that works best the less you know about it. You’ve been warned.

The problem with many horror films is that eventually they have to end, and the filmmakers have to come up with an explanation for everything that came before – and often no matter what explanation they give, it is unsatisfying. More often than not, the explanations we come up with while watching a horror film – or the uncertainty of what is going to happen altogether – is better than what the filmmakers can possibly come up with. So it is with Silent House, who for about 75 of its 88 minute running time is a truly frightening, ingeniously shot, wonderfully acted horror film that just goes off the rails at the end. I`m not sure if any explanation for what happened would have been satisfactory, but I am quite sure that few explanations could have been worse.

The movie stars at one of those dark, rundown, secluded houses that horror movies love. Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen) is at the house with her father John (Adam Trese) and Uncle Peter (Eric Sheffer Stevens). It is a family home, that hasn`t been used in years, and squatters and partiers have pretty much trashed the interior and broken all the windows – which Uncle Peter has boarded up. They have no power and no phone, and the house is far enough out in the country that they do not even get cell phone service.

The movie sets up its atmosphere early – everywhere Sarah goes in the house she has to carry a lantern or a flashlight. The house starts out dark and gets even darker as it goes along. We know something is not quite right the moment Sophia (Julia Taylor Ross) shows up to talk to Sarah. Apparently, they are old childhood friends, but Sarah seems to have no memory of her. They make plans to get together later – but there is something about Sophia that isn’t quite right – she`s just a little too creepy.

The movie, directed by Chris Kentis and Laura Lau - who wrote and directed the ingenious indie horror film Open Water – Silent House, appears to take place in real time – that is that the entire movie looks like one continuous take, with no editing. Some audiences members will undoubtedly hate that about the movie – it requires to entire film to be shot in the handheld style – constant movement, shaky camera work – but for me, this style works amazingly well, gradually ratcheting up the tension, and at times being almost unbearably intense and frightening, as someone or something is in the dark house with Sarah, and her father – who gets hurt early and then disappears. Elizabeth Olsen, so brilliant in last year’s Martha Marcy May Marlene, is a great horror movie heroine – real, emotional and seemingly genuinely terrified. She is the heart of every scene – nearly every shot – and she holds the camera, and the audience, in rapt attention. It is a brilliant performance in a hard role and movie.

And then, the ending of the movie comes. Did I see the end coming? Yes. Would I have seen it had I not heard that the movie was a remake of a European film (and European filmmakers seems to love this type of ending) or that many found the ending disappointing? I’m not sure. But whether or not I could see the end of movie coming, it still would have been a stupid ending – the type of ending that quite simply makes no sense. I was disappointed in the end of the movie, which strikes me as a lame way to explain everything.

And yet, so much of Silent House is wonderful, I cannot simply dismiss the whole movie. Had the filmmakers come up with a better ending, this could have been one of the great horror movies in recent memory. But as it stands, it is still a good movie – but it does leave a bad taste in your mouth.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Movie Review: Miss Bala

Miss Bala *** ½
Directed by: Gerardo Naranjo
Written by: Mauricio Katz & Gerardo Naranjo.
Starring: Stephanie Sigman (Laura Guerrero), Noe Hernandez (Lino Valdez), Irene Azuela (Jessica Berlanga), Jose Yenque (Kike Camara), James Russo (Jimmy), Miguel Couturier (General Salomón Duarte), Gabriel Heads (Agent Bell).

Gerardo Naranjo’s Miss Bala takes epic, national level violence, and makes it intimate. It looks at the ongoing drug war in Mexico, where since 2006, the army has been warring with the drug cartels, with tens of thousands of casualties caught in the crossfire – not just members of the army and the cartels, but innocent people. Miss Bala is loosely based on a true story, where a would be beauty queen gets caught up in a drug war that is far outside of experience – and there is nothing that she can do about it.
Stephanie Sigman stars as Laura Guerrero, who works selling clothes with her father and little brother, but dreams of a bigger, better life – a life that she may be able to reach if she can win the Miss Baja pageant. She heads off for the audition with her best friend, gets into the pageant, and soon thereafter finds herself at the center of a bloodbath in a nightclub. Cowering in the bathroom, when armed cartel members burst in and open fire on everyone. This would be traumatic enough, but soon, she caught up even more than she already is – all because she was naïve enough to believe the police could help her.
I’m not going to describe what happens next, because the plot twists and turns in Miss Bala are part of the pleasure of watching the film – where the film ends up may seem ridiculous, but as the movie plays out, every twist and turn – and there are a lot of them – seem believable and real. Naranjo mixes genres brilliantly throughout the course of the film – gritty crime drama, melodramatic Mexican soap opera, almost Dardenne like realism at times as well. At the heart of every scene is Sigman, who Naranjo keeps firmly in his cameras gaze for the entire running time. After the nightclub shootout, she seems almost catatonic at times – she is certainly shell shocked – as she just cannot seem to believe just how much she has to go through. And yet, despite that shock, she remains an intelligent woman – in every moment, she has to make life and death decisions, and while in retrospect, she makes mistakes, every decision she makes seems like a sensible one at the time she makes them. The other major character is Lino (Noe Hernandez), the leader of the cartel who keeps showing up in Laura’s world. It’s almost comic the way he keeps showing up – like he and Laura are at the center of romantic comedy, as they are constantly drawn together. Lino is a character full of contradictions – we see him brutal and violent at times, and at other times almost tender towards Stephanie, even as he uses and abuses her.
Miss Bala is a delicate balancing act. As I mentioned earlier, Naranjo mixes genres throughout the movie. I was reminded of Gomorrah, the Italian film from a few years ago, which looks at the constant, ever present violence in Naples, and how the mob still controls everything. And yet, Miss Bala is a more intimate film than Gomorrah – which was an expansive film, that looked at multiple story lines and multiple characters, whereas this film centers on a single story – a single woman, and all the violence that she witnesses throughout the film. Yes, at times, this seems like an over the top Mexican soap opera – especially when an Army General arrives on the scene – but the movie never goes over the top in the melodramatic elements of the film. And yes, I was reminded of the Dardenne brothers at times in the movie. Their camera often stares at the faces, or even the back of the heads, of their protagonists, as if by starring long enough, they’ll be able to break through. And Naranajo does that at times with Sigman’s Laura as well – who holds the cameras gaze throughout.
Miss Bala is a fascinating, dark, violent, entertaining crime drama, melodrama, character drama, and social issue film all rolled into one. That may seem like too many things for one movie to try and accomplish – but somehow Miss Bala pulls it off.

Movie Review: Project X

Project X **
Directed by: Nima Nourizadeh.
Written by: Matt Drake and Michael Bacall.
Starring: Thomas Mann (Thomas), Oliver Cooper (Costa), Jonathan Daniel Brown (JB), Dax Flame (Dax), Kirby Bliss Blanton (Kirby), Brady Hender (Everett), Nick Nervies (Tyler), Alexis Knapp (Alexis), Miles Teller (Miles), Peter Mackenzie (Dad), Caitlin Dulany (Mom), Rob Evors (Rob), Rick Shapiro (T-Rick), Martin Klebba (Angry Little Person), Pete Gardner (Older Guy).

Project X made me feel old. I’m only 30, and yet I’m already feeling like an old man decrying the youth of today for their shallowness and saying things like “when I was a teenager…”. Project X is about a high school house party that gets wildly out of control, with hundreds of people laying waste to the house and the neighbourhood at large. It is a celebration of the same type of idiots you see populating the Jersey Shore. But I’m not here to pass moral judgment on the movie – or the generation of kids who inspired it. Nor am I going to join the chorus of people who worry about what sort of behavior Project X is going to inspire in the youth of today – mainly because I think those people have it backwards. Project X is not going to inspire teenagers to be idiots – it is inspired by idiot teenagers.

Project X centers on Thomas (Thomas Mann) and his two friends – Costa (Oliver Cooper) and JB (Jonathan Daniel Brown). The three are high school losers – although Costa sees himself as some sort of Jewish playa. It is Thomas’ 17th birthday, and his parents are going out of two. Costa has convinced him to have a party at his house – and that he’ll even plan the whole thing. Thomas worries that no one is going to show up, and he’ll look like an even bigger loser than he already feels like he is. He needn’t worry.

Project X is shot in the newly en vogue style of the “found footage” film, popularized by The Blair Witch Project more than a decade ago, but just recently left the horror genre – first with Chronicle earlier this year (which was actually a very good film), and now moving into the idiot teenage comedy. In all honesty, the found footage style is the only style which would have worked at all for this film. Why? Because this is a film without a character to care about or a meaningful line of dialogue. But that seems almost appropriate for this film – the party is the star, and this is not a movie about characters, but about the youth culture in general. A culture where teenage boys treat teenage girls as nothing more than sex objects – and the girls, sadly, seem to embrace that role. Only two girls really get any screen time – Kirby (Kirby Bliss Blanton), the girl next door that Thomas should have realized was the one for him well before the party, and Alexis (Alexis Knapp), the “hot girl” at school who turns out to be nothing more than a “star fucker”. That doesn’t stop dozens of other girls from striping down to nothing – which doesn’t take them long since they start out wearing nothing next to nothing.

I have to admit though that Project X held my attention throughout – I was never bored by it for a second. It is inventively shot, proving that the found footage genre can do more than just horror films. And it does look like one hell of a party. And yet, this is a comedy, and I never laughed once. The movie doesn’t try very hard to get laughs though – that would require jokes, and jokes require a screenplay, and this movie doesn’t seem to have one.

I couldn’t help but think about American Pie while watching Project X – perhaps it’s because there was a preview of the upcoming sequel American Reunion at the beginning of the film. I remember people decrying that movie as gross at the time (which came out when I was in my last year of high school), but Project X makes it seem tame by comparison. At least in American Pie, the girls the horny guys treated as sex objects surprised them by being actual people. The girls in Project X seem to embrace their roles as sex objects and little else. And sadly, I do not think that Project X is that far off the mark. But just because Project X gives a fairly accurate picture of current youth culture – exaggerated of course – doesn’t mean that the film, or us in the audience, should celebrate it.