Thursday, September 27, 2012

DVD Review: Klown

Directed by: Mikkel Nørgaard.
Written by: Casper Christensen and Frank Hvam and Mikkel Nørgaard.
Starring: Frank Hvam (Frank), Casper Christensen (Casper), Marcuz Jess Petersen (Bo), Mia Lyhne (Mia), Iben Hjejle (Iben), Lars Hjortshøj (Hjortshøj), Tina Bilsbo (Tina Bilsbo), Mads Lisby (Mads), Anne Moen (Kathrine), Niels Weyde (Ole), Elsebeth Steentoft (Pykker), Roger Kormind (Fætter Andreas), Michael Carøe (Carøe), Dya Josefine Hauch (Susan), Marie Mondrup (Ronja), Claus Damgaard (Skolelærer), Bent Fabricius-Bjerre (Bent Fabric), Jørgen Leth (Jørgen Leth).

The Danish film, Klown, is the type of comedy for those who think that the gross out comedies made by Hollywood don’t go nearly far enough. The movie fits comfortably into the wave of comedies Hollywood has produced in recent years about overgrown man children – but at this one doesn’t perpetuate the myth that its characters will change or grow with the help of a good woman. The two men at the center of the movie are selfish assholes at the beginning and selfish assholes at the end, no matter how patient and loving their significant others are. The movie gleefully ignores other standards of decency that most Hollywood comedies adhere to – sometimes with hilarious results but more often than not, I sat there stone faced, not finding a running gag about an old lady blinded by semen particularly funny. And there are a few moments that cross the line altogether and simply felt downright creepy. There is a reason why some lines aren’t crossed.

The movie is based on a popular Danish TV show (making me wonder what the hell else is on TV in Denmark) and was co-written by its two stars. Frank Hvam plays Frank, a balding, middle aged man who fears he is losing his girlfriend because she is pregnant, but doesn’t consider him to have “father potential”. In order to get back in her good books – which will take some doing because it was his semen that blinded that old lady, who happened to be his girlfriend’s mother – he decides to take her nephew Bo with him a canoe trip with his best friend Casper (Casper Christensen). This upsets Casper because they weren’t really going on a family friendly canoe trip – they are only going in a canoe at all because it’s the one thing his wife wouldn’t want to tag along on – and he has dubbed the trip the “Tour de Pussy”. Casper, it seems, will fuck anything that moves, and during the course of the movie he’ll put the moves on some high school girls, have sex with a lonely housewife (with the help of one of Frank’s fingers), go to a high priced brothel, and even be caught in a compromising position with those high school girls chaperone. Frank tries really hard to make all this somehow appropriate for Bo, but he’s so incompetent that he never really had a chance.

I have to admit that part of me admires Klown, and its writer/stars and director, Mikkel Norgaard for their willingness to push the material as far as they do. There seems to be absolutely nothing they will not do to try and get a laugh as they gleefully bust every taboo they can think of, and push the movie to its breaking point. The movie is so far past good taste they cannot even see it in the rearview mirror, and that’s the way they like it. I don’t have a problem with pushing the boundaries of comedy, but the cardinal rule when you do is simple – if it’s likely to offend someone, it damn well better be funny. And therein lies the problem with Klown – I didn’t laugh all that much. Sure, the movie gave me a few laughs, but certainly not enough to sustain the movies rather slim running time. And then there is the final shots in the movie, that go well beyond “pushing the boundaries” or being daring, into an area that is just plain creepy and, lord knows I don’t want to be a censor but, wrong. There are some things that are just never funny.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

My Most Anticipated Films for the Rest of 2012

Oscar Season is upon us once again – and it is my favorite time of year. Not some much for all the awards, which in all honesty I grow tired of quicker each passing year. But because of the films themselves – you always get one or two Oscar contenders coming in September (like The Master), but for the most part, they roll out in October, November and December – with a few stragglers hitting in January after a “qualifying run” in LA in December. If there is good news about the Academy moving their cutoff for receiving ballots to January 3rd, and the announcing nominations on January 10th, it is that after that point, there is no damn reason NOT to release films that won acclaim in order to capitalize on awards success. This will, hopefully anyway, mean that people who don’t get to see things well in advance can see everything earlier.

So with Oscar season here, I thought I’d look at the 10 films I am most looking forward to this season. Had I done this just a week ago, The Master would have been on this list, and had I done it before TIFF, Amour would have been here too.

There are many others I also anticipate including – Flight, Frankenweenie, Hitchcock, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Holy Motors, Les Miserables, Life of Pi, On the Road, Promised Land, Seven Psychopaths and Skyfall. But these are the 10 I most anticipate – and I hope that even at this “late stage” something may come out of nowhere and surprise us all.

10. Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley) – October 12
I for one welcome Polley’s transformation from actress to director. It’s not that she wasn’t a good actress – she was, and is if she decides to do that again – but she is a better director. Her debut, Away From Her, was beautiful and heartbreaking, and while Take This Waltz (released just a few months ago) wasn’t as good, it was still very good – and contains a great performance by Michelle Williams, which at this point in the year is still one of my favorites. Her latest is Stories We Tell, which received raves at Telluride and Toronto this year, and is Polley’s first documentary – a look back at her own tumultuous family history. I usually don’t look forward to docs as much as I am this one.

9. Lincoln (Steven Spielberg) – November 9
I really, really hope that Spielberg’s Lincoln is a return to form for Spielberg. After coming off what was arguably his most interesting, darkest period of his career in the early 2000s – with great films like A.I., Minority Report and Munich – Spielberg has since taken a step back – the less said about the 4th Indiana Jones movie the better, and even though I was thoroughly entertained by his 2011 double dip of Tintin and War Horse, both were merely throwbacks to yesteryear, and as entertaining as they were, do not constitute Spielberg at the height of his powers. I am sucker for political biopics however, and Daniel Day-Lewis is the best actor in the world, so the idea of him playing Lincoln in a Spielberg film has me itching to see this. No, I don’t mind Day-Lewis’ Lincoln voice in the trailer (which is an interesting choice), but hope that perhaps John Williams’ score is quite as bombastic as it was there (then again, it is John Williams). Still, Spielberg deserves respect, so I’m waiting anxiously on this one.

8. Anna Karenina (Joe Wright) – November 16
When I first heard Joe Wright was making a version of Leo Tolsoy’s Anna Karenina, I assumed it would be another classy period piece like Pride and Prejudice and Atonement, which was good enough for me. But then the reviews out of Toronto came in – and were decidedly mixed – because apparently Wright’s version is daringly stylistic – and some love it, and some despise it. That only made me more intrigued at the prospect of seeing this. Who knows if I’ll love it or hate it, or something in between, but count me in on wanting to see it.

7. Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow) – December 21
One of the films that remains unseen by anyone, Katherine Bigelow’s follow-up to her Oscar winning The Hurt Locker is about the decade long hunt for Osama Bin Laden, from 9/11 until he was killed earlier this year. The film has already generated controversy in the political spectrum – with some saying the White House gave the filmmaker access to information they shouldn’t have had to help make the film more pro-Obama in an election year (but since the film won’t be seen by voters until AFTER the election, I don’t see how that makes sense). The trailer tells us very little, I have no idea who is playing what characters, or what the movie will be like, but I still cannot wait to see this.

6. Rust & Bone (Jacques Audiard) – November 21
Jacques Audiard’s last film was the great A Prophet, one of the best prison movies of all time, and the film that launched him to greater, widespread acclaim. He’s back in this strange sounding drama about a whale trainer (Marion Cottilard) who suffers a terrible accident. Debuted at Cannes, and then played in Toronto, the film is said to guarantee Cottillard another Oscar nomination, but has received some rather mixed reviews for the film as a whole. But after A Prophet, I cannot wait to see what this filmmaker does this time around.

5. Argo (Ben Affleck) – October 12
Ben Affleck is a better director than he is an actor. His first film was the great crime story Gone Baby Gone, and his second another fine crime drama, The Town. Those films received some acclaim, and Oscar nominations for supporting cast members, but Argo is said to be a major step forward for Affleck as a filmmaker. It’s about the strange plan to get six embassy workers out of Iran back in the 1970s, and has received rave reviews in Telluride and Toronto  - and is pretty much assured Oscar nominations. The trailers make it look like an old school political thriller, something Hollywood doesn’t make enough of anymore, so I’m looking forward to this one.

4. Cloud Atlas (Andy & Lana Wachowski & Tom Tykwer) – October 26
Any film that generates the kind of intense passion – whether it be in love or hate – that Cloud Atlas generated in Toronto immediately becomes one of my must see films. I’m halfway through David Mitchell’s epic novel now, and have no freaking idea how the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer transformed this into an movie, but I have to say, I cannot wait to see what they did. There is a good chance I’ll hate it – but also a good chance I’ll love it. I want to see which one it is – and soon.

3. Killing Them Softley (Andrew Dominik) – November 30
Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was one of the best Westerns ever made – and one of the best films of the last decade. It has taken him 5 years to follow it up, with this gritty crime drama, with apparently overt political overtones. The film was greeted with more respect than passion in Cannes, but any film by Dominik is going to be anticipated by me – especially one starring Brad Pitt who did the best work of his career in Jesse James. Now stop moving the damn release date back!

2. Silver Linings Playbook (David O. Russell) – November 21
David O. Russell is a fine filmmaker – and one I admire when he does he strange, offbeat comedies like Flirting with Disaster, Three Kings or I Heart Huckabees. After a detour into a more mainstream film – The Fighter – which won Oscars and got big box office, he seems to have returned to his quirky comedic roots with this film, which won the People’s Choice Award in Toronto, about two mentally unstable people (Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence) and their relationship. What intrigues me the most however may just be the fact that apparently Robert DeNiro has awoken from his slumber and decided to actually ACT in this movie. DeNiro has always been my favorite actor, but his work for more than a decade now (aside from his directorial effort, The Good Sheperd, and the underrated performance in Stone) leaves much to be desired. Here’s hoping for a return to form for DeNIro and Russell.

1. Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino) – December 25
Without Quentin Tarantino, I’m not sure I would love movies as much as I do. His Pulp Fiction hit me an impressionable age, and fuelled by love of movies, and my desire to delve into their history. And the man keeps on making some of the most entertaining genre mashups in film history – films that somehow manage the trick of being highly influenced by film history, and yet come across as completely new, unique and original. His last film was Inglorious Basterds, which I maintain is the best film he has ever made, and the previews for Django Unchained look, at the very least, to be another huge entertainment, with Tarantino’s trademark dialogue and ultra-violence. December 25th cannot get here fast enough.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Movie Review: Trouble with the Curve

Trouble with the Curve
Directed by: Robert Lorenz.
Written by: Randy Brown.
Starring: Clint Eastwood (Gus), Amy Adams (Mickey), Justin Timberlake (Johnny), John Goodman (Pete Klein), Matthew Lillard (Phillip Sanderson), Robert Patrick (Vince), Joe Massingill (Bo Gentry), Chelcie Ross (Smitty), Raymond Anthony Thomas (Lucious), Ed Lauter (Max), Clifton Guterman (Neil), George Wyner (Rosenbloom), Bob Gunton (Watson), Jack Gilpin (Schwartz), Scott Eastwood (Billy Clark), Jay Galloway (Rigo Sanchez), Brian F. Durkin (Matt Nelson).

I don’t care how many chairs he talks to, I’ll always be a Clint Eastwood fan. He keeps threatening to retire as an actor and only work as a director – Million Dollar Baby (2004) was supposed to be his last in front of the camera, but then he returned for Gran Torino (2008), which again was supposed to be his last, but he’s back again in Trouble with the Curve. While from a prosperity stand point, he may well have been better served by making Million Dollar Baby his acting swan song – probably his best performance ever – and while Gran Torino and now Trouble with the Curve are really more of Eastwood playing on his own iconic image, I can’t say I wish he hadn’t done them. Trouble with the Curve is a standard issue baseball movie about the clash between old ideas and new, and a standard issue relationship drama between a quiet father and his adult daughter (Amy Adams) yearning for a connection with her father, and also a standard issue relationship drama about an overworked young woman (that would be Adams) falling for a guy who makes her loosen up and have fun (Justin Timberlake). There is nothing in this movie you don’t see coming from a mile away. But because all three of these actors, not just Eastwood, are so damn good, I find that I don’t really care about that. I just sat back and enjoyed watching them work.

Eastwood plays Gus, who has been a scout for the Atlanta Braves for decades, signing some of the best players in their franchise’s history. But he’s getting old – his eyesight is going. There’s a new kid in the scouting department, Philip (Matthew Lillard), who, like the characters in Moneyball, uses his computer to analyze players. Gus hates this – he says you need to see a player to know who they are and how they play. A computer can’t tell you that. Gus’s one friend in the organization is Pete (John Goodman), who argues that Gus knows baseball scouting better than anyone – and he’s still up for the job. In a last ditch effort to save his career, Pete sends Gus to see Bo Gentry (Joe Massingill) – a hotshot high school prospect that Philip believes is the next Albert Pujols. The Braves have the second pick in the draft, and if the Red Sox pass on Gentry, Phillip wants to take Gentry. Nervous about Gus’s ability, Pete reaches out to his daughter Mickey (Amy Adams), and tells her it would be nice for her to spend time with her dad on this trip. She is a lawyer, busy preparing a big case that could make her a partner – but she decides to go along with Gus anyway – over his strenuous objections. On the road they meet Johnny (Justin Timberlake), a once hotshot pitching prospect signed by who blew out his arm and never had much of a playing career. And wouldn’t you know it – he’s now a scout for the Red Sox – also looking at Gentry.

You know where all this is going, don’t you? Eastwood has to do very little except be his old, gruff, no nonsense self for an audience to like him. He can do that in his sleep, but he doesn’t here. Yes, he is playing off his iconic image here – not as much as in Gran Torino, but still an awful lot. But you cannot help but like the guy, even if you, like Mickey, wonder about his actions in the past. And Adams, such a wonderful actress who is able to add intelligence and fun to every role she takes on. In short, in a role like this, she is a joy to watch. And Timberlake continues his strong of solid performances.

Yes, Trouble with the Curve is about as clichéd as it comes. And it romanticizes a past in baseball that is long gone. Directed by Robert Lorenz, a longtime AD for Eastwood making his debut, the movie even has its share of clunky moments. I’m sure the cynics out there will hate it. But Trouble with the Curve is a fun, charming, sweet little movie.

Movie Review: End of Watch

End of Watch
Directed by: David Ayer.
Written by: David Ayer.
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal (Brian Taylor), Michael Peña (Mike Zavala), Natalie Martinez (Gabby), Anna Kendrick (Janet), David Harbour (Van Hauser), Frank Grillo (Sarge), America Ferrera (Orozco), Cle Shaheed Sloan (Mr. Tre), Jaime FitzSimons (Captain Reese), Cody Horn (Davis), Shondrella Avery (Bonita).

The two LAPD Officers in End of Watch are good cops. Yes, they may be full of cocky bravado, but they take their jobs seriously – and do them well. They are not crooked; they don’t abuse their prisoners or plant evidence. They may bend a rule or two, but they do not break them. Most movies about cops are about bad cops – even the previous work of writer/director David Ayer, who wrote Training Day and Dark Blue, directed Street Kings and wrote and directed Harsh Times. He is obviously interested in the inner workings of the police – especially in LA – and perhaps the reason he made End of Watch is as simple as the fact he wanted to show the police in a positive light for once. And he succeeds. End of Watch is a wonderfully entertaining cop movie.

The movie stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena as officers Taylor and Zavala. They have been partners for years now, went to the academy together, and have become pretty much like brothers. Taylor knows and loves Zavala’s wife Gabby (Natalie Martinez), and when he finally settles down with Janet (Anna Kendrick), Zavala is right there with him. Their relationship consists of friendly banter, much of it mocking each other, but they do love each other like brothers – we never doubt that either of them would be willing to die for each other.

The movie is largely shot through cameras that Taylor brings along with him for a film class he is taking. While there are some boring days, there aren’t that many. There always seem to be a gunfight or a fire or a confrontation with a gang – mainly a Latino gang, who start to hate Taylor and Zavala, because although they are just beat cops, they always seem to be harassing them. We know how the movie will end – a violent confrontation between these two cops and the gang – who like Taylor, always seems to have a camera on recording their activity – which is stupid, of course, because they are really documenting crimes. But this gang isn’t exactly high on intelligence.

End of Watch works because of the performances by Gyllenhaal and Pena. We like these two characters and get to know them, and because of that, when they get into gun fights, or running into a burning building or get into a car chase (which, let’s be honest here, happens way more often to these two than to any cops in history), we want them to make it out alive. Ayer is a smart enough writer and director to know that we’ll stick with the movie if we actually like the characters. They are not cookie cutters, but real guys. Gyllenhaal still has traces of that boyish charm he does so well, but there is something darker in Taylor as well. Pena is a little goofier, a little more relaxed. Both are excellent in the film, and together they make a great team.

How you feel about End of Watch may well come down to how you feel about the camera work. End of Watch is not quite a “found footage” movie, as for some reasons Ayer does give us some establishing shots numerous times throughout the movie, but it comes pretty close. It used to be that found footage was only used in low budget horror movies – but this year has seen several examples of other genres getting into the action – the sci-fi action film Chronicle and the teen comedy Project X for example. Ayer uses the shaky camera work inherent in the genre better than most – not quite as nausea inducing as others I have seen, and still with a definite sense of style. In short, I doubt most amateurs could actually make a film that looks as good as End of Watch.

End of Watch is not a great movie, and really isn’t a very original movie either. You know what you’re getting into from the previews – and if you don’t, the profanity laced tirade that begins the film will surely let you know. But it is a well-made, well-written and especially well-acted example of its genre. And an effective one.

Movie Review: Hope Springs

Hope Springs
Directed by: David Frankel.
Written by: Vanessa Taylor.
Starring: Meryl Streep (Kay), Tommy Lee Jones (Arnold), Steve Carell (Dr. Feld), Jean Smart (Eileen, Kay's Friend), Ben Rappaport (Brad, Their Son), Marin Ireland (Molly, Their Daughter), Patch Darragh (Mark, Their Son-in-Law), Brett Rice (Vince, Arnold's Friend), Becky Ann Baker (Cora, The Waitress), Elisabeth Shue (Karen, The Bartender), Charles Techman (Charlie, The Docent), Daniel Flaherty (Danny, The Bookstore Clerk), Damian Young (Mike, The Innkeeper), Mimi Rogers (Carol, The Neighbor).

American movies have a hard time dealing with sexuality in a serious way. Sure, they are good at making sex jokes, and turning young women into sex objects, but in terms of actually dealing with the subject of sexuality in any real way, American movies more often than not do not even try. And that’s why I’m disappointed that Hope Springs is not a better movie than it is – for it does try, for the first time in years, to actually deal with sexuality in real, adult characters. And yet for me anyway, something was holding me back from truly liking the movie as a movie, and not just an idea for a movie. It’s one thing to cast Steve Carell and then sap him of all his personality – his role doesn’t require one. But at the risk of offending the acting gods, I think the real problem with Hope Springs is Meryl Streep. Streep is one of the best actresses in screen history, and usually she can be counted on to deliver a great performance – in many cases (like The Devil Wears Prada or The Iron Lady to name but two), Streep is amazing even in a movie that overall just isn’t very good. Not this time.

The movie is about the 31 year marriage of Kay (Streep) and Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones). Their kids have moved out, and he can now be counted on to fall asleep in his recliner every night watching a gold show – before she lovingly wakes him up, and they stumble to their separate bedrooms. In the morning, she makes him the same breakfast – bacon and eggs – and he comes in and eats, reads the paper and then heads off to the office (where he is an accountant, of course, because he’s boring). Arnold is seemingly happy in this routine – but Kay sees it as a rut. She buys a self-help book by a marriage counselor – Dr. Feld (Carell), and decides she wants to travel to Maine to do a weeklong, in depth marriage counseling session. She books it, and the flight, and tells Arnold she’s going, and advises him that he better be coming as well – which he reluctantly does. To no one’s surprise, when they get there, Arnold spends most of the time bitching and moaning – about how much things cost mainly, but also how much of a phony Dr. Feld is. He doesn’t want to open up and share – especially when the topic turns to sex. Gradually though, the walls start to come down, and both Arnold and Kay are trying to move past their discomfort in talking about sex. But will it be enough?

The filmmakers could not have chosen better than Tommy Lee Jones to play Arnold. Jones is a great actor, yes, but what makes him perfect for the role is the fact that he has made a career out of playing men like Arnold – strong, silent types, who are wary to let their guards down, and betray any emotion to the outside world. Jones also has an underrated gift for comic timing. In short, Jones is perfectly cast as Arnold, even though he’s one of the last actors you would expect to see in a “romantic comedy” (which is how they sold Hope Springs in the trailers, even though it’s more serious than funny).

But Streep, who outwardly seems to be a perfect fit for Kay, I don’t think, ever truly gets inside her character like Jones does. Her Kay is meek, with a voice that rarely gets above a whisper, who is painfully shy and awkward when the subject of sex comes up. And Streep, who excels at playing more confident women, doesn’t seem like she ever truly gets who Kay is. To me, in this movie, Streep’s performance is too mannered – and she comes across as annoying. It doesn’t help that the movie seemingly places all the blame for this couple’s stalled sex life at the feet of Arnold (yes, there are a couple of moments that suggest Kay is at least partly responsible, but they are rushed through). And while I know I’m supposed to dislike Arnold’s close mindedness when talking about Dr. Feld, there is something rather smug about his calm demeanor that would annoy me as well if I were in that situation. In short, while I think I’m supposed to feel sympathy for Kay, I ended up feeling more sympathy for Arnold.

Now, to be fair, this could just be because I’m a man, so naturally I would take Arnold’s side. The movie is written by Vanessa Taylor – and it’s a screenplay that holds a lot of promise. I think it may have actually worked if they had cast someone other than Streep, who truly understood her character, and perhaps if they had hired a director other than David Frankel, who direction is uninspired, and his musical choices border on criminally indulgent and on the nose. So while I admire the intentions behind Hope Springs – and especially admire Jones’ pitch perfect performance – I cannot say it’s actually a very good movie. I just hope someone tries to do something similar – but better – in the near future.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Movie Review: The Master

The Master
Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson.
Written by: Paul Thomas Anderson.
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix (Freddie Quell), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Lancaster Dodd), Amy Adams (Peggy Dodd), Jesse Plemons (Val Dodd), Ambyr Childers (Elizabeth Dodd), Rami Malek (Clark), Laura Dern (Helen Sullivan), Madisen Beaty (Doris Solstad), Amy Ferguson (Martha the Salesgirl), Christopher Evan Welch (John More).

When we first meet Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), we know there is something different about him. Thin as a rail, with a strange posture and walk, Freddie is all sharp angles when he moves – and he stands out from the other sailors standing around the beach, on brief leave from their jobs onboard a WWII ship in the Pacific. When the other sailors make a sand statute of a naked woman, Freddie barges in, and feigns having sex with it – at first to muted laughs, but then he goes on too long, and everyone around him becomes silent – before he sulks off, and masturbates into the sea by himself. Back aboard the ship, as a radio announces the end of the war, Freddie immediately starts draining the torpedoes of their fuel – to make his strange alcoholic concoctions. While going through a Rorschach test, in a VA hospital after the war because apparently he has a “nervous condition”, he sees nothing but dicks and pussies in the ink blots. We see him briefly at two jobs after the war – as a photographer at a department store where he drinks heavily, quickly seduces a co-worker and gets in a violent, unprovoked fight with a client, and as a migrant worker, picking cabbage, which he has to flee because one of his drinks may have killed another work. After fleeing, he sees a yacht in harbor in San Francisco, and simply climbs aboard. That decision affects everything that happens to Freddie – and everything that happens in Paul Thomas Anderson’s challenging, brilliant film The Master – over the next few years of his life. And yet, no matter what happens to and around him, Freddie remains – stubbornly and resolutely – Freddie.

That yacht belongs to Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), or at least Dodd says it does. Instead of getting angry at Freddie, Dodd takes him into his cabin, where he introduces himself as “a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, an experimental philosopher, but most of all a man, just like you, looking for answers”. He likes the strange drink that Freddie has brought along with him – and he wants more. The yacht is travelling from San Francisco to New York, by way of the Panama Canal, and Dodd’s daughter is going to be married on board. This is a party, and Dodd invites Freddie to join them. By the end of the journey, Dodd will look at Freddie as “one of them” – although while Freddie acts as if he believes, what Freddie actually thinks is anyone’s guess.

In case you’ve been living under a rock, The Master is apparently the “Scientology” movie, and Dodd is based on their founder L. Ron Hubbard. Yet Anderson is not really interested in the inner workings of Scientology and what they believe. Yes, you get the “gist” of it – that man is haunted by their past lives, and they must free themselves of their burden so they can become the “perfect” creations they are meant to be. And there are multiple scenes in the movie when Dodd has to “process” Freddie to understand what needs to be done to “free” him, and then Dodd has multiple exercises that he forces Freddie to perform to achieve this goal. Yet Anderson is not really interested in “debunking” Scientology (much to the frustration of some critics, like Roger Ebert), because Anderson is interested in bigger things. American history is full of people like L. Ron Hubbard or Lancaster Dodd, who found “new religions”. Whether it’s Mormons or snake charmers or people speaking in tongues or Jim Jones and the People’s Church, the Branch Davidians or Scientology, these men come up with something new, and get followers – sometimes things work out, and sometimes they don’t. But what the share is charisma and confidence. You cannot, as one man at a party who challenges Dodd tries to, use logic on them or their followers, because belief – whether in a new religious movement or in one of the “old” religions do not require logic – but belief in something greater than logic. The people who follow Dodd are no different than any other religious person – they just believe in something else.

A less ambitious movie would use Freddie merely as a foil for Dodd. We see this all the time, where the larger than life character needs a more down to earth, relatable character to tell their story – to get the audience to relate to them, and hence give them a way into the movie. Think of something like The Last King of Scotland, where the main character is not Forrest Whitaker’s Idi Admin, but rather James McAvoy’s Scottish doctor, who gives the audience someone to relate to, and a way to process Idi Admin himself. But Anderson doesn’t do that in The Master. Freddie is, in some ways, more complicated than Dodd. He certainly is harder to get real read on. Yes, when he joins “The Cause”, he seems to be loyal to Dodd – he is willing to fight anyone who questions him, and he goes through every test that Dodd puts him through. Freddie is searching for something, and thinks Dodd may have the answer. But Freddie cannot change who he is – and maybe doesn’t really want to. The turning point for him may well be when he tells Dodd’s son that his father is talking and he should listen because maybe he could learn something, to which Dodd’s son simply replies “He’s making it up as he goes along. Can’t you see that?” The Master doesn’t condemn Dodd for this – in fact it implies that Dodd is simply doing what we all do. When Freddie accepts this, he may realize that he no longer needs Dodd to show him something greater.

And yet, in a strange way, Freddie will always need Dodd – and Dodd will always need Freddie. Although on the surface, these two seem like polar opposites, on a deeper level they are very similar (in fact, the final shot in the movie may imply something deeper connection between the two). Though the rest of the people in The Cause see Freddie as a hopeless case that should be cut out, Dodd can never do that. Freddie, while on the surface is the very animal that Dodd is preaching that man must evolve away from, is on some level, the very person Dodd wishes us to be. As he says late in the movie “If you’ve figured out how to live without a master Freddie, please let us know how. You’d be the first”. And it is the very fact that Freddie remains so stubbornly himself no matter what situation he’s in, that makes Dodd think this. And Freddie needs Dodd because he is the only one who doesn’t see him as an animal – a man acting purely on his own primal instincts. While he preaches that Freddie needs to evolve, he really becomes Freddie’s greatest enabler – the person who lets Freddie be precisely who he is.

The Master is a tricky film. Some people are going to have problems with the movie because it doesn’t spell everything out for the audience – it leaves things mysterious. To me, this is not a flaw in the movie, but one of its strengths – one of the reasons I find myself, days after seeing the film, thinking about it constantly. The Master represents another step forward for Paul Thomas Anderson – already, arguably, the finest director working in America today. The film has much in common with his previous film, There Will Be Blood, but is more mysterious, less intent on giving us the violent exclamation mark of an ending – a definitive ending if you will – to his movie. The final scene between Freddie and Dodd starts much like the final scene between Daniel Day-Lewis and Paul Dano in that film – in an office, with one man behind a huge desk, and while there is violence in this scene, it is emotional violence – violence meted out with words and not a bowling pin, but the effect is just as devastating.

The performances in the movie are all great. Phoenix, returning to film after a few years to recover from whatever real or fake meltdown he had that led to Casey Affleck’s strange film I’m Still Here, delivers the type of performance I always thought he eventually would. His Freddie is a bundle of nervous, violent, sexual energy that explodes at times. He physicality in the role in wonderful – from his rail thin body, that he holds at odd angles, to his scarred lip, that he turns into a kind of menacing, cruel, mocking smirk and defense mechanism, Freddie becomes the most fascinating character in any movie this year – you spend the movie trying to get inside his head, which you only do by degrees. Not to be outdone, longtime Anderson collaborator Philip Seymour Hoffman delivers a performance of calm fury. He speaks more than Freddie does, and can wax eloquent and sound intelligent but he is ultimately a salesman. He, like Freddie, lets his guard slip occasionally – sometimes in ways everyone can see (lashing out at the doubter at the party, or yelling at longtime supporter, a great Laura Dern, who questions why they are changing things), and other ways more subtlety – often when it’s just Freddie and Dodd – private scenes that highlight their complicated relationship. If both actors win Oscars this year, they will be richly deserved. And then there is Amy Adams, who is great in a more subtle way than Phoenix or Hoffman. She is ever present in the movie – often in the background with her outwardly demeanor, but she never misses a thing. Her manipulation of Dodd is there, but buried, in their every scene together – or once becoming overt. When Dodd talks of Freddie being the first to serve no master, he may well being referring to himself and his relationship with his wife.

Anderson also painstakingly recreates the 1940s and 50s America – with pitch perfect art direction and costume design. This is the first movie since Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet (1996) to be shot in 65MM (and if you are near a theater showing it in 70MM see it in that format). This allows a different, distinctive color palette that Anderson uses magnificently. The cinematography is the best of the year – and Anderson, as always, favors long, unbroken shots. While in films like Boogie Nights and Magnolia, his camera was always restless, here it is often unmoving, but the framing is precise (take a magnificent sequence in jail with Phoenix and Hoffman in adjoining cells for example).

Paul Thomas Anderson is the best filmmaker working today – and one of the few who shows growth between each one of his films. The Master is not as immediate or visceral as his last film, There Will Be Blood, but is more controlled, more complex, more willing to simply let things play out without that violent exclamation point. This will frustrate some viewers, who want that resolution. But for me, it simply makes the film more mysterious. I doubt there will be a better film this year than The Master.

Friday, September 14, 2012

My TIFF Recap

This year at TIFF for me is over – after 4 days and 13 films, I proved if nothing else, that I am getting old. So old in fact that I didn’t make it through either of my Midnight Madness screenings – The Lords of Salem and Aftershock – without falling asleep. So while what I saw made me wish I had stayed awake, I cannot in good faith review either film. I will give some brief thoughts on the other 11 though – in the rambling paragraphs below. While this year at TIFF, I didn’t see many “bad” films, I only saw one film that I would deem truly “great” – although another has greatness in it despite its flaws. I talk about the film below in no particular order – although the first film discussed was my least favorite, and the final two undeniably the best I saw.

My biggest disappointment was Brandon Cronenberg’s Antiviral a film that you have to admire the effort more than the execution. Cronenberg, David’s son, certainly has talent behind the camera – the movie is filled with memorable images, and the basic premise of the movie – that in the near future our culture’s celebrity fixation will get out of control with people wanting the same viruses that celebrities have, and even consume their cloned flesh, is an interesting one. But Cronenberg, who adapted his own short Broken Tulips to feature length, just doesn’t have enough to sustain a feature film here – and it doesn’t help that Caleb Landry Jones, who he cast in the lead is morose and uninteresting. Perhaps Cronenberg, who cast Sarah Gadon as the personification of female perfection after seeing her in Daddy’s A Dangerous Method, should have tried to get her Cosmopolis co-star Robert Pattinson for the lead. I may be one of the few who like Cosmopolis, but I think Pattinson proved there he could play this kind of dead inside “emotional vampire” well – whereas Jones’ performance pretty much sinks this movie. Still, I want to see what Cronenberg Jr. does next – although perhaps he should stay away from material his younger father would have done a lot better next time.

Ariel Vroman’s The Iceman had kind of the opposite problem – it was the film that they wanted to make, but it lacked any real ambition and adds nothing to the already crowded gangster genre. Michael Shannon is brilliant as Richard Kuklinski – the famed Iceman, a hit man for hire for the mob who killed perhaps more than 200 people in his life. I could complain about the factual inaccuracy of the movie – Kuklinski was a brute to his wife, not the loving family man we see here, and he was already a prolific serial killer before he became a mob hit man, but I see little point. Shannon is great as the crazed psychopath – not the jittery, paranoia he has done so well in the past, but a more contained fury. And the supporting cast – Ray Liotta as a mafia guy (naturally), Winona Ryder as Kuklinski’s clueless wife, James Franco in a one scene cameo as a sleazy porn director and especially Chris Evans as perhaps an even more psychopathic killer are all very good as well. I was never bored by The Iceman, but I was never truly involved either. There is a great movie in this material – and Shannon is capable of doing this role, but The Iceman was still a disappointment for me.

Not being a fan of his breakthrough film The Orphanage, I wasn’t sure what to expect from J. A. Bayona’s The Impossible, based on the unlikely true story of an English family on vacation in Thailand when the Tsunami of December 26, 2004 hit. The scenes of the tsunami itself, aided wonderfully by CGI and wonderful sound work, are brilliant – intense, brutal, bloody and scary. And the performances – by Naomi Watts as the determined mother who won’t give up no matter who injured she is, Ewan McGregor as the father, just as determined to get his family back, and young Tom Holland as the oldest son who has to act mature beyond his years, are all top notch. The movie plays well – and even got me crying a few times (I am a softy to be sure), but I have to admit that I felt bad that I let this movie, which is so blatantly emotionally manipulative get to me after it was over. The Impossible is very good while you are watching it, but fades quickly after. A technical achievement to be sure – and apparently they are gunning for Oscars with this which it very well may receive nominations for – but while I liked the film, I cannot say it’s a great one.

A film that does earn its immense emotional upheaval is Joshua Oppenheimer’s stunning, surreal documentary The Act of Killing. It’s no wonder that Errol Morris and especially Werner Herzog attached their names to this film after seeing it – it pushes the boundaries of documentary, and while some will either argue that the film is too easy on its subjects, or bring up ethical concerns, I had neither. The film is about the people the people who committed genocide in Indonesia in 1965-66 when the military orchestrated a coup – and wanted all the “communists” exterminated – although you were deemed a communist if you disagreed the coup, were in a union or were a native Chinese, or for a whole host of other “crimes”. The film centers on Anwar Congo, who has lived like a hero for decades after killing at least 100 people. Oppenheimer gets Congo and his friends to open up about what they did – which isn’t hard, they love to brag – and then gives them the means to “recreate” the torture and killings for the camera, using different Hollywood genres as their backdrop, since these killers were HUGE fans of American movies at the time. While it doesn’t seem like most of these people still have any regrets, Congo himself goes through a surprising personal upheaval – revealing his dreams and his guilt about what happened, and cannot go through with one scene where he has to play the “victim”. He’s still a murderer, and Oppenheimer shows this in ruthless detail, but he is also a human being, which Oppenheimer does not shy away from. Be sure to look for this film whenever it gets released.

A few directors had comebacks of sort at TIFF this year. After doing a couple of blockbusters, one good (Harry Potter) and one bad (Prince of Persia), Mike Newell returned to the type of movie he does best – classy, British productions with his adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. While he may not have added anything too new with this version, it is a fine production – great production design and costume design, in this film that seemed muddier, dirtier and crueler than other film versions. But he still hits the same problems many film adaptations of this novel hit – mainly that Pip and especially Estella are rather dull compared to everything around them. Still, Ralph Fiennes is wonderful as Magwich the convict (he seems to be channelling Daniel Day-Lewis in his early scenes), Robbie Coltrane great fun as Jaggers the lawyer, and Helena Bonham Carter goes wildly, inventively over the top as Miss Haversham – although one does wish this great actress took on a role that didn’t require Burton-esque theatrics from her. Fans of Dickens and this sort of classy production will love the film – the group of older women behind me raved about it after it was over – and for the rest of us, this is still an entertaining movie, even if it still doesn’t hold a candle to David Lean’s 1946 classic.

My most pleasant surprise was Brian De Palma’s Passion – his best film since Femme Fatale all the way in 2002. I had little hope for this film coming off of perhaps the worst film of his career – 2007’s Redacted – and a few negative reviews from its premier in Venice, but perhaps lowered expectations meant I liked the film more than I otherwise would have. It is true that many people will hate the film, and it does get off to a rocky start, but as the film moves along, and piles one absurd twist on top of the next, I was reminded more and more of De Palma’s thrillers from the 1970s and 80s, which didn’t necessarily depend on logic so much as style and keeping you guessing. True, Rachel McAdams as the mad bitch boss from hell is miscast, and perhaps so too is Noomi Rapace as her underling, who may or may not have taken deadly revenge (the best performance in the movie is clearly by Karoline Herfurth, as Rapace’s underling who comes out of nowhere and is stunning), but De Palma’s style is always the star, and the second half of the film has him at the height of his powers. It’s certainly not a new or original – and really doesn’t add anything to De Palma’s filmography, but I haven’t had this much fun at a De Palma film in a long time. You either go with this one or you don’t – I did, and had a blast. I understand why many will hate the film, and I cannot say that it’s really an objectively “good” movie, but on the level of guilty pleasure, this one worked for me.

A bigger comeback was made by Thomas Vinterberg, who made his best film since he breakthrough The Celebration in The Hunt. Again, this isn’t a great film, but it is a very good one with an excellent performance by Mads Mikkelsen as a kindergarten teacher falsely accused of molesting his students, and the consequences that comes along with that – even after he is cleared. Mikkelsen carries the movie, and if Vinterberg perhaps piles a little too much on top of him at times, he still manages to make you believe it all – at least during the runtime of the movie. Personally, I think the movie would have been better served by ending it a few scenes before Vinterberg does – with suspicious looks rather than overt action – but Vinterberg has crafted a gripping movie which may well figure in the Foreign Language Film Race, and possibly best actor as well.

You can’t really call Robert Redford’s The Company You Keep a comeback, since it fits in neatly with his two most recent films – Lions for Lambs and The Conspirator – as a fine, leftie political thriller. If the film becomes any kind of hit you can guarantee Fox News type using it as an example of how “out of touch” Hollywood is with America, but who cares? Redford’s film, about a member of the Weather Underground, played by Redford himself, who went underground 30 years ago and has his cover blown so he has to go on the run yet again is a top notch, classically structured thriller – with excellent performances by the entire cast. Redford still has some drawing power which is why the likes of Anna Kendrick, Brendan Gleason, Richard Jenkins, Susan Sarandon, Terrence Howard and most memorably Nick Nolte, spewing out every word as if it is his last, show up in tiny roles that add to the movie immeasurably. The three bigger roles – Redford himself, Shia LeBeaof, in his best work to date as an enterprising young reporter, and Julie Christie, as another underground fugitive, are also quite good. Again, not a great film, but a fine, old school political thriller – the type of film Hollywood seems to have forgotten how to make.

Laurent Cantet’s Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang, based on the Joyce Carol Oates novel, used non-professional, mostly Canadian teenage girls to play the title girl gang. Set in 1950s America, the “gang” starts innocently enough as these confused teenagers try to gain some control over their lives, their bodies and their sexuality – but then of course, things spiral out of control, and the gang gets in over their heads. Undeniably, the film is too long (at nearly two and half hours), but is always thought provoking and fascinating – and unlike a Hollywood production, these teenage girls are actually played by teenage girls - not hotties in their mid-20s – and who act like teenage girls. Like Cantet’s previous film, The Class, Foxfire gets amazingly natural performances from its non-professional cast, and feels like a real examination of the confusing teenage years – and acts as a corrective for so many films that simply see teenage girls as sex objects. The girls here are real, and that comes through in every frame. Yes, the film could stand to lose some of its running time, but that hardly diminishes its power.

Perhaps the most debated film I saw at this year’s festival will end up being Terrene Malick’s To the Wonder. This film has divided critics and audiences alike, even more so than Malick’s last film, the masterpiece The Tree of Life. To the Wonder is done in the same style as that film, but has a much smaller, simpler story – essentially the story of two people – Ben Affleck’s Oklahoma gas worker and Olga Kurylenko’s French free spirit – falling in love, falling out of love, and getting into a marriage both know is doomed before they even tie the knot. To me, this is Malick’s most problematic film. Even though Malick apparently cut out several subplots and supporting characters, he could have, and in my mind should have, cut even more. The subplot involving Javier Bardem’s priest struggling with his beliefs doesn’t feel like it belongs here – I know Malick is trying to tie together love and faith, but it doesn’t really hold together, and worse, some of the scenes with Bardem talking with the locals feels like Malick is looking down on these poor people. The other subplot – really an interlude – involves Affleck and Rachel McAdams, a woman he knew when he was younger, falling in love before he decides to leave her to returned to his doomed relationship with Kurylenko, doesn’t really feel natural either – it goes by far too quickly for it to build any real emotional impact, even though I think that Malick was trying to show how good a relationship could be. Yet, when the film focuses on Affleck and Kurylenko, the film is beautiful and quietly moving. Affleck, like many actors in Malick films, seems to have been cast more for his physical presence than anything else, and he is appropriately big, imposing and silent. It is Kurylenko who is the star here, and she gives an amazing performance as this woman adrift in a world she doesn’t know, having given up everything for him, and realizing it was all a big mistake. To the Wonder, like The Tree of Life, requires the viewer to meet Malick half way – you are either going to go with this film, let it drift over you, or fight it tooth and nail all the way through. While this is Malick’s most problematic film for me personally, it doesn’t mean it isn’t a beautiful film (Emmanuel Lubezki does more amazing things with the camera) and it still towers over what most other directors are attempting right now. It isn’t the masterpiece that The Tree of Life was, but that doesn’t mean it’s still very good nonetheless.

The one masterpiece I saw at TIFF was Michael Haneke’s Amour. I don’t buy what a lot of critics are saying about the film – that Haneke is showing his humanist side with this film. Depending on how you look at the film, Jean-Louis Trintignant is either a selfless man or one looking only to end his own suffering. Haneke’s films have always “punished” its characters, and by extension the audience, for their sins. It’s just this time, the only real sin his married couple has committed is growing old, which in some ways makes Amour an even crueler film than anything he has made before – and shows the audience just what is in store for them when the end inevitably comes. Yet, Amour is still a masterpiece – a brilliantly well made, and perfectly acted film by Trintignat and Emmanuelle Riva, as his wife who suffers a stroke and slowly deteriorates while he watches and takes care of her. It is a heartbreaking film as well – how can your heart break to watch suffering like this. Many may find Amour to be too claustrophobic for them – it happens almost entirely in the elderly couple’s apartment, but that is part of its brilliance. Haneke almost seems to be taking a page out of Roman Polanski’s book of confined spaces, but still filtered through Haneke’s worldview. Amour is a bleak film to be sure – but also a brilliant one.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

A Few More Films I'm Seeing at TIFF

A couple of weeks back I did my Mini TIFF Preview (, about the 10 films I knew I would be seeing at this year's festival. Normally, I go to see between 25-30 films, but with a 1 year old at home, I can only go a few days this year. But I did have some holes to fill on those days, and this past Sunday, I was able to fill those holes with three additonal films. So unless I get some tickets from work, the 10 films I mentioned previously and the following three are what I'll be seeing this year.

The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer)
I try to see at least one documentary at TIFF every year, and since two giants of the medium - Errol Morris and Werner Herzog - thought enough of this film to add their names to it as producers after seeing it, that's a good enough endorsement for me to give it a go. The film is about Indosnesian Death Squards, who in the 1960s, wiped out Communists in their country. Unlike other people who commit genocide, they are regarded as heroes in their country to this day. This sounds like a interesting, albeit depressing documentary - and I am especially interested in it because apparently the death squad members have a love of Hollywood movies - the more violent, the better.

Aftershock (Nicholas Lopez)
Normally I wouldn't spend time at TIFF seeing a movie co-written by and co-starring Eli Roth, who for the most part, I hate. But since I will be staying in Toronto only two nights, and want to see the Midnight Madness showing each night, I pretty much got stuck here. Still, this film about a earthquake in Chile, where the survivors who got buried under rubble get to the surface and discover their nightmare is far from over at least sounds interesting. And who knows, maybe with the right atomsphere provided by a pumped up crowd at Midnight, this will turn out to be better than I fear.

Great Expectations (Mike Newell)
While it almost undeniably true that no matter how good this new version of the Charles Dickens' classic is that David Lean's 1946 version will remain the defintive cinematic rendering of the novel, there is always room for a new intrepretation - I actually quite liked Alfonso Cuaron's modern day retelling for example. This one seems to be a more straight forward, period re-telling of the story, but it does have a great cast - Ralph Fiennes, Helena Bonham Carter, Robbie Coltrane, Sally Hawkins, Jason Flemyng - and director Mike Newell can be very good. I am hoping it is at least an entertaining film, and doesn't feel like a school assignment. But from the preview, the film does look gorgeous.

Movie Review: Lawless

Directed by: John Hillcoat.
Written by: Nick Cave based on the book by Matt Bondurant.
Starring: Shia LaBeouf (Jack Bondurant), Tom Hardy (Forrest Bondurant), Jason Clarke (Howard Bondurant), Guy Pearce (Charlie Rakes), Jessica Chastain (Maggie Beauford), Mia Wasikowska (Bertha Minnix), Dane DeHaan (Cricket Pate), Chris McGarry (Danny), Tim Tolin (Mason Wardell), Gary Oldman (Floyd Banner), Lew Temple (Deputy Henry Abshire), Marcus Hester (Deputy Jeff Richards), Bill Camp (Sheriff Hodges), Alex Van (Tizwell Minnix), Noah Taylor (Gummy Walsh).

Lawless moves with a restless, relentless energy thanks to its inventive use of music, very good performances and the ever present threat of violence that hangs over every frame. There is not an original note in the movie – you’ve seen everything in this movie before, and probably better than here, but the film is also endlessly entertaining. This is a movie where the line between good and evil is pretty much non-existent – everyone on both sides of the law is ruthless and violent, and pretty much have the same reason why they behave this way – money. If the audience ends up cheering for the outlaws instead of the cops, it’s only because the outlaws are quite so irredeemably evil as the smirking bad cop for Chicago.

The year is 1931, and America still has prohibition. In the hills of Virginia, pretty much everyone makes moonshine – and no one really cares. They make it, and ship to speakeasies in the neighboring towns – the sheriff knows, but because he is also a customer, he lets them go about their business. The Bondurant boys are the unofficial leaders of the bootleggers – mainly because they have the respect of everyone around them, and have a reputation for becoming violent if need be. You leave them to their business, and they’ll leave you to yours – just don’t cross them. But there is a new prosecutor in town, and although he doesn’t want to shut the moonshiners down, he does want a piece of the action to allow it to continue. And to get that point across, he has brought in a new “Special Deputy” – Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) – from Chicago. Rakes thinks that making these hillbillies toe the line will be easy – but he didn’t count on the Bondurant boys.

There are three Bondurant’s. The oldest is Howard (Jason Clarke), a war veteran with a short fuse, and a taste for whiskey. He may not have a lot of brains, but you certainly do not want to get in his way. The middle one is Forrest (Tom Hardy), who speaks in short sentences, and sometimes merely grunts. He runs things, and has a way of looking at you from his porch that shows you don’t want to mess with him. And then there is Jack (Shia LaBeouf), the youngest. He doesn’t have the brute strength of either of his brothers – but he may just be the smartest of the three – perhaps even a little too smart. It’s because he gets too cocky that things end up getting so damn violent.

And make no mistake – Lawless is one of the most violent movies this year. Through the course of this movie there will be countless beating, shootings, stabbings, slashed throats, broken necks, explosions and even an off screen rape. Anyone who knows director John Hillcoat’s previous films will not be surprised by this level of violence – after all, his last two films were the Peckinpah style Western The Proposition and the Cormac McCarthy adaptation The Road, both of which are at least as violent as this film. But in both of those films, the violence is harsher – and hits the audience harder than it does here. The violence in those films felt like real violence – as opposed to Lawless where it feels much more like movie violence. And I think that’s because the characters in those other films were stronger – deeper characters that you really get to know, and the actors get to sink their teeth into. The performances in Lawless are all quite good. I especially liked Tom Hardy’s quiet intensity – he moves like he speaks, slowly and deliberately, but he is still quick enough to make you pay if you cross him. This is another of his wonderful, slow burn performances that makes me think of him as a young Brando. I also loved Guy Pearce’s snarling, unrepentantly evil Rakes – he dresses sharply, and speaks with an evil, nasally voice, and also has ODC, and an obsession with germs. But even these two performances – as wonderful as they are – really are one note and don’t offer much in the way of depth. No one really changes in the course of the movie – except maybe Jack, and it’s really more of his circumstances changing more than him. The rest of the cast is pretty much who you expect to be when the movie opens. I feel bad that the movie gave Gary Oldman absolutely nothing to do as famed gangster Floyd Banner (I do love his scene with the shovel though), and I don’t think that the two love interests – Mia Wasikowski’s preacher’s daughter and Jessica Chastain’s former showgirl – were necessary at all, especially since the movie chooses not to let either of these gifted actresses do much of anything.

So, no, Lawless is not a great film. But it is an expertly crafted one by Hillcoat – who gets the period detail just about perfect and keeps the film moving at a relentless pace. The best thing about the movie may just be the music – a mixture of old time hillbilly songs, new songs that sound like old time hillbilly songs, and even a version of Velvet Underground’s White Light/White Heat, done in the style, helps keep the movie humming along. So while Lawless may not be as good as the filmmakers hoped it would be, it is still more entertaining than most late summer releases are – and hell of good time at the movies.

DVD Review: The Five Year Engagement

The Five Year Engagement
Directed by: Nicholas Stoller.
Written by: Jason Segel & Nicholas Stoller.
Starring: Jason Segel (Tom Solomon), Emily Blunt (Violet Barnes), Chris Pratt (Alex Eilhauer), Alison Brie (Suzie Barnes-Eilhauer), Lauren Weedman (Chef Sally), Mimi Kennedy (Carol Solomon), David Paymer (Pete Solomon), Jacki Weaver (Sylvia Dickerson-Barnes), Jim Piddock (George Barnes), Dakota Johnson (Audrey), Rhys Ifans (Winton Childs), Mindy Kaling (Vaneetha), Randall Park (Ming), Kevin Hart (Doug), Brian Posehn (Tarquin).

I kind of feel bad that I didn’t really like The Five Year Engagement. After all, one of my most stated complaints about romantic comedies is that they always end just when things are starting to interesting – that is, when the couple who has been held apart the entire movie actually start a real relationship, which is way harder than the meet-cutes and misunderstanding that dogged them the entire movie. The Five Year Engagement on the other hand starts where most of these movies end – with the man proposing to his girlfriend. And rather than leave it at that, with a happily ever after that glosses over how difficult relationships can be, the movie really does show us how difficult they are. I just wish the film itself was better – because the idea behind the movie is quite good. But director/co-writer Nicholas Stoller and co-writer/star Jason Segel never find the right tone for the movie. It lurches between slapstick comedy, which isn’t very funny, to that new breed of awkward comedy, that in this case is much more awkward than funny, and seriousness that is trying too hard. There is probably a reason why more movies like this aren’t made – they’re too damn hard to get right.

The movie stars Segel as Tom, a chef working in San Francisco, who proposes to his girlfriend Violent (Emily Blunt) on New Year’s Eve. Things seem to be going perfectly when their life is turned upside down. Violent doesn’t getting the teaching position she wanted at Berkley – but does get into a program for Research Assistants at the University of Michigan. Tom agrees to go with her to Michigan – only for a couple of years before she can get another job out West – and in the process turns down a major promotion. Now, stuck in Michigan, Violent becomes successful and happy at work, and Tom is stuck working at a sandwich shop – a good one, but still it’s a sandwich shop. And their seemingly perfect relationship starts to go wrong.

In theory, I like the idea of this movie. Although it is produced by Judd Apatow, and is the same Stoller/Segel team that made Forgetting Sarah Marshall, The Five Year Engagement is an attempt to be more mature than the previous films – to give a level of complexity to its female star the other films did not have, and not just make her the personification of female perfection who drags her overgrown man child boyfriend into adulthood behind her. Yet the movie can never really find the right notes to make all this work – Segel is still an overgrown man child, but this time he has a legitimate gripe with how everything has turned out, not that it excuses the creepy, bunny suit wearing, mustachioed loser he becomes. And while Blunt is given a role with more complexity to play here – she isn’t just rolling her eyes and throwing up her hands and saying “Boys will be boys” like so many other women in these movies, she is still much harder to get a read on than Tom. Does she, who is apparently in the psychology department, not see what is happening to Tom, or does she not want to see? Does she really think it’s fair that Tom has had to sacrifice everything so that she can get what she wants? We know from the beginning of their trip to Michigan that something will happen between her and her boss – Rhys Ifans – but did it all have to play out so predictably?

As it stands, The Five Year Engagement lurches from one scene to the next and never really finds itself. It tries to be too much – and as a result it ends up doing none of it very well. The idea is there for a great movie – but The Five Year Engagement comes nowhere close.

DVD Review: Route Irish

Route Irish
Directed by: Ken Loach
Written By: Paul Laverty.
Starring: Mark Womack (Fergus), Andrea Lowe (Rachel), John Bishop (Frankie), Geoff Bell (Walker), Jack Fortune (Haynes), Talib Rasool (Harim), Craig Lundberg (Craig), Trevor Williams (Nelson), Russel Anderson (Tommy), Jamie Michie (Jamie), Stephen Lord (Steve), Najwa Nimri (Marisol).

Note: This review was written within days of my seeing Route Irish at TIFF in 2010. As far as I know, the film was never released in North America - and yes, there is a reason why-, and is just now getting a DVD release - so I thought I'd post this.

There are few directors as socially conscious as Ken Loach. For the past 40 plus years, Loach has been making films, and all of them have a political bent to them – for him politics and cinemas are forever entwined. It was only a matter of time before Loach turned his camera onto the Iraq war – in fact I am amazed it took him this long to finally do a film on it. I am also surprised that Loach decided that this was the story about Iraq he wanted to tell – a Death Wish type thriller.

The movie opens with Fergus (Mark Womack) at the funeral of his best friend Frankie (John Bishop), who was killed along “Route Irish”, a highway leading to the Baghdad airport in Iraq. Frankie worked for one of those “private security firms” operating in Iraq, and was only there because Fergus had convinced him to sign up and come with him. But while Fergus was safely back in Ireland, Frankie was still there when the jeep he was riding in explodes, and he gets killed. From the eye witness reports, Frankie was just “in the wrong place at the wrong time”.

Fergus refuses to accept this line of reasoning though, and wants to know everything about what happened to his friend. His interest becomes more intense when get a cell phone delivered to him that Frankie wanted him to have. On that cell phone is a video in which an innocent Iraqi family is gunned down by someone else working for the security firm, as Frankie tries, and fails, to stop it. Does this video have anything to do with Frankie’s death? Is there some great conspiracy within the security firm that wanted Frankie dead so he couldn’t tell what he knows? What do you think?

It takes Fergus about half the movie to unravel the plot and swear vengeance. The film then devolves into a series of scenes in which Fergus tracks down the people responsible for Frankie’s death and makes them pay for it – including one memorable scene where he water boards someone (which apparently they really did to poor actor Trevor Williams when they realized that simulating water boarding didn’t look real enough).

I’m not sure what it was about this story that Loach felt that he needed to make. He has made thrillers before sure, but this one seems a little too rudimentary for his tastes. Yes, he gets to get his political points in – making the corporate war machines the bad guys – but that’s a little too obvious isn’t it? He doesn’t really dissect either the war, or these corporations, in any meaningful way.

Yet, once I got past the idea that Loach was going to do something more intelligent, and simply gave in to the Death Wish like theatrics of the film, I did find myself enjoying it a little more. Mark Womack may give a one note performance in the film – all righteous anger – but he holds the screen with a commanding presence. The film has many memorable images – not just the water boarding, but other acts of violence as well.

It’s just that I expect more than this from Loach. I expect something more intelligent, a movie that actually has something to say, and I don’t think in Route Irish that he really has anything. It’s like he felt he had to make a movie on the Iraq war – everyone expected him to do it years ago – and jumped onto the first project that allowed him to do so. Route Irish certainly is a horrible film, but it’s not all that good either.