Monday, October 29, 2012

Movie Review: Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas
Directed by: Tom Tykwer & Andy Wachowski & Lana Wachowski.
Written by: Tom Tykwer & Andy Wachowski & Lana Wachowski based on the novel by David Mitchell.
Starring: Tom Hanks (Dr. Henry Goose / Hotel Manager / Isaac Sachs / Dermot Hoggins / Cavendish Look-a-Like Actor / Zachry), Halle Berry (Native Woman / Jocasta Ayrs / Luisa Rey / Indian Party Guest / Ovid / Meronym), Jim Broadbent (Captain Molyneux / Vyvyan Ayrs / Timothy Cavendish / Korean Musician / Prescient 2), Hugo Weaving (Haskell Moore / Tadeusz Kesselring / Bill Smoke / Nurse Noakes / Boardman Mephi / Old Georgie), Jim Sturgess (Adam Ewing / Poor Hotel Guest / Megan's Dad / Highlander / Hae-Joo Chang / Adam / Zachry Brother-in-Law), Doona Bae (Tilda / Megan's Mom / Mexican Woman / Sonmi-451 / Sonmi-351 / Sonmi Prostitute), Ben Whishaw (Cabin Boy / Robert Frobisher / Store Clerk / Georgette / Tribesman), Keith David (Kupaka / Joe Napier / An-kor Apis / Prescient), James D'Arcy (Young Rufus Sixsmith / Old Rufus Sixsmith / Nurse James / Archivist), Xun Zhou (Talbot / Hotel Manager / Yoona-939 / Rose), Susan Sarandon (Madame Horrox / Older Ursula / Yusouf Suleiman / Abbess), Hugh Grant (Rev. Giles Horrox / Hotel Heavy / Lloyd Hooks / Denholme Cavendish / Seer Rhee / Kona Chief).

No matter what you think of Cloud Atlas, you at least have to admit that this is one of the most daringly ambitious films of the year. I understand the people who think it’s a mess or bordering on incoherent (I’m not sure how I would have fared in piecing everything together had I not recently finished David Mitchell’s novel) or who simply think the film is overlong and flawed and fails to live up to what it sets out to do. I don’t necessarily agree with all of that – some of it, yes – but what I don’t understand is how some are outright mocking the film. The Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer decided to take an enormous risk in bringing this novel to the screen, and have crafted a huge, ambitious and daring film that is full of wonderful moments. Whether or not it all quite adds up (and for me, it mostly does) is almost beside the point – you have to at least admire their daring in even attempting to make Cloud Atlas. American film would be much better off if more filmmakers were as fearless as these three.

In the 1840s, Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) is travelling by boat from the South Pacific back to his native San Francisco – and tries to help a stowaway slave as well as fight off a parasitic worm making his way into his brain with the help of Dr. Goose (Tom Hanks). In 1936, a young British composer Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) writes letters to his lover Rufus Sixsmith (James D’Arcy) from the home of Vyvyan Ayers (Jim Broadbent), an aging composer who needs Frobisher’s help if he’s ever going to write music again. In the 1970s, Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) meets an aging Sixsmith on an elevator, and he gives her the clues to help unlock a nuclear conspiracy. In 2012, a book publisher Timothy Cavendish (Broadbent) has to hide out from some thugs, and finds himself in a Kafka-esque nursing home being held against his will. In 2143 in Neo-Seoul, a Fabricant Somu-451 (Doona Bae) discovers the truth about herself and her position in life, and tells it to an archivist before she is to be executed. And 106 Winters After the Fall, Valleysman Zachary (Hanks) helps the strange, foreign woman Meronym (Berry) find the secrets of the past, which could save both of their people’s futures.

In Mitchell’s novel, these stories were told in ascending order – climaxing with Zachery, and then works their way back down to end with Adam Ewing. That structure worked remarkably well in the book, as Mitchell daringly mixed genres, and links the stories to each other, with a character in each story discovering the story previously told – and thinking it may well be fiction. The book also valued language, and through the course of the novel, we see it devolve, from the prim and proper sentences to Adam Ewing, to the barely coherent ramblings of Zachary, and then back again. As the novel progresses, you start to see how the stories mirror each other – all touching upon the same themes. The novel has many accomplishments, and is truly one of the most original works of fiction of the last decade.

The Wachowskis and Tykwer decide on an even more daring, and cinematic, way of telling these stories however by jumbling them up – jumping back and forth between them for the entire almost three hour running time – linking individual scenes that correspond with each other. Although Tykwer directed three of the segments himself – the Frobisher, Rey and Cavendish stories, and the Wachowskis the other three, Ewing, Sonmi and Zachary – they never feel like the work of different directors, as the come together as seamlessly as is possible given the structure of the movie. Casting the same actors to play roles in each segment was a stroke of genius, as it provides some dramatic continuity between the stories. It is certainly true that not all the roles that all the actors play come together seamlessly to create whole characters, for the most part it works. Particularly for Hanks, who is a man who struggles with doing the right thing throughout – there is a definite progression for his multiple characters. Hugo Weaving is the opposite – an evil, amoral character every time he shows up. The rest is more of a mixed bag – although the two best performances in the movie are by Ben Whishaw, who likely doesn’t leave much of an impression in his small roles, but makes Frobisher into a tragic, romantic, poetic hero and Doona Bae, who as the fabricant Sonmi has the most emotional journey of any one segment – which is saying something as this segment has also been pumped up by the Wachowskis to give the movie some action. Also impressive though was Jim Broadbent, who seems to be having a blast as Timothy Cavendish and Hugh Grant, who shows up as characters who seemingly have more power than they actually do. And Halle Berry does a fine job being a spunky heroine – especially in the 1970s segment.

The film is also an impressive visual achievement – with wonderful special effects, art direction and costume design that gives each segment their own distinct look and feel. I was impressed by the cinematography – by Frank Griebe for the Tykwer segments and John Toll for the Wachowskis, although the entire movie has the free flowing camera style that connects each segment. The editing by Alexander Berner is undeniably the most complex editing job of the year. I was also surprised to learn that the score, which often ties the whole movie together, was also a team effort by Tykwer along with Reinhold Heil & Johnny Klimek.

To put it bluntly, I was in awe when I watched the movie, marveled by the impressive way this was all put together, and how the directors got the cast of stars to buy into the roles, and dive headlong in which certainly ran the risk of making them look stupid. I was film with admiration for the movie for its entire running length – yes, it is almost three hours long, but for me the time flew by – I wasn’t bored for a second.

And yet, I also have to admit that Cloud Atlas has more than its share of flaws. Like I said, overall I think the casting of same actors in various roles was a stroke of genius – and I see how some of them connect to each other. But other time, I have to admit I’m at a loss. I know why Sturgess is playing both Ewing and Hae-Joo Chang, the “Union” man who Sonmi falls in love with, but I have no idea why he shows up as a Poor Hotel Guest or a Scottish thug in other segments. I get how Luisa Rey and Meronym connect to each other for Berry, but have no clue why she shows up as Jacosta Ayers or some of her other characters. And other than Frobisher, it seems like they’re making poor Whishaw play the most meaningless roles in the other segments for now reason. While I’m not offended, as some are, about actors playing different races – after all, if Koreans are offended because many white and black cast members show up as Koreans in Neo-Seoul, than I suppose whites, Mexicans, blacks and women should be offended as well, since different races play those characters as well. After all, part of the theme of the movie is what makes us who we are is much bigger than race. Having said that, while I admire much of the makeup work in the movie, some of the Korean makeup is a distraction.

And then we have to deal with what the movie is actually saying – and I have to admit that the message is jumbled and messy, and I don’t think ever quite comes together the way the Wachowskis and Tykwer were hoping it would. The film is filled with a lot of new age spiritual hokum, that I personally don’t believe in, but then again, I don’t prescribe to the religious beliefs on display in Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life either, and I still think that film is a masterpiece. The difference is that Malick’s message is confidently told, and comes through during the course of the film. While the message here is muddled.

Yet the pros of Cloud Atlas certainly outweigh its flaws. The film is a daring, original, technical marvel – one that takes huge chances, and mainly pulls it off. I don’t want to have a film culture where a movie like Cloud Atlas, which is so hugely ambitious, is mocked. Hate Cloud Atlas all you want – I understand the reasons – and yet I have to say that a film like this deserves respect. To me, it’s one of the must see films of the year for anyone who values ambitious films. You may hate Cloud Atlas, but I don’t think you can easily dismiss it.

Movie Review: The Sessions

The Sessions
Directed by: Ben Lewin.
Written by: Ben Lewin based on the article by Mark O’Brien.
Starring: John Hawkes (Mark O'Brien), Helen Hunt (Cheryl), William H. Macy (Father Brendan), Moon Bloodgood (Vera), Annika Marks (Amanda), Adam Arkin (Josh), Rhea Perlman (Mikvah Lady), W. Earl Brown (Rod), Robin Weigert (Susan), Blake Lindsley (Dr. Laura White), Ming Lo (Clerk), Rusty Schwimmer (Joan).

I am a notoriously soft touch at the movies in that I cry, or at least get to the verge of tears, in many, many movies – sometimes not even very good ones like Marley & Me, or a film like the upcoming The Impossible, in which I knew I was being manipulated but couldn’t stop myself. Hell, for a while there, nearly every Pixar movie (especially Wall-E) had me crying like a little girl. I bring this up at the beginning of the review of The Sessions because this is a movie that is clearly designed to make you cry at the end – and yet I never even got the least bit choked up. Despite my admiration for the performances in the movie, I never really connected with it. It is not a very ambitious movie, and is precisely the film it wants to be, and yet for whatever reason it left me cold.

The film stars John Hawkes as Mark O’Brien, who got polio when he was a child, and has been stuck in an iron lung for most of his life since. He can survive outside the iron lung for a few hours at a time, and can feel his entire body, but he cannot move anything other than his neck. Still, he has managed to live longer than his doctors thought possible, and have a good career as a writer and poet. He is a devout Catholic, but despite this, he has always long for something he has never had – a sex life. He loves women, and while he is charming and funny, they love him too – just “not in that way”. So he’s nearly 40 and a virgin, but while researching a series of articles to be titled “Sex and the Disabled”, he hears about people called “Sex Surrogates”. Yes, these are women who will have sex with you for money, but they are not prostitutes – they work with you to get you over your fears and insecurities so you can move on from them and have a normal sex life with a partner. After consulting his Priest, Father Brendan (William H. Macy), who advises him “I feel pretty strongly he’ll give you a free pass on this one”, Mark hires Cheryl (Helen Hunt) to be his sex surrogate. She lays out the rules quite clearly – yes, the goal is to have sex, no she is not a prostitute, and they can only have six sessions together. This last one is to try and prevent any emotional attachment to form – although it’s not really successful in this case.

A large part of me admires this movie. John Hawkes, who because of his weasel-like appearance, especially when he grows the scraggily facial hair he normally has, is most often cast as bad guys in movies – the type of part that Steve Buscemi plays. Since he broke through with his Oscar nominated turn in Winter’s Bone, Hawkes has made the most of his raised profile – delivering an even better performance last year as a Charles Manson-like cult leader in Martha Marcy May Marlene. In The Sessions, he gets to play a nice, normal guy – a sympathetic character who quite understandably just wants to have as normal a life as is possible given his circumstances – and that includes having sex. Yes, this is the type of role that seems to be designed to be an Oscar player (like Daniel Day Lewis in My Left Foot), and Hawkes will probably be nominated for Best Actor for his role here, but it is also a genuinely good performance. Helen Hunt has arguably an even more difficult role, as she has to overcome some audience members pre-conceived notions of her character – no matter how the movie presents it, some will see her as little more than a prostitute – and also has to bare all multiple times in the movie, which is nerve wracking for many actresses, especially ones at Hunt’s age (I must say, she looks good). But this is a very good performance by Hunt, a sympathetic, complicated role, as although she doesn’t fall in love with Mark – she never stops loving her husband – her journey with him is certainly more emotional than she is used to. And finally, there is William H. Macy who is effortlessly funny and charming – essentially the kind of Priest I think must Catholics wish they had.

I also admire the movie’s willingness to direct address sex. American movies seem to be very puritanical about sex, and I cannot think of another movie that even attempts to address sex and the handicapped, let along be honest about it. The highlight of The Sessions is appropriately enough the sessions themselves between these two, which are embarrassing, funny and honest.

But all this admiration for the movie never really led me to become involved in it. Curiously, I felt emotionally detached from the proceedings. I think it’s because despite how good the performances in the film are, they cannot overcome the fact that none of the characters have any real complexity – everyone in the movie is just so damn nice and likable and sensitive and kind, that I had trouble believing that anyone, anywhere could possibly be like this. Sex and love are messy in real life, and The Sessions wants everything to be so neat and tidy.

The Sessions is certainly not a bad movie, and yet I don’t think it’s a very good one either. I admire and liked Mark O’Brien as played by John Hawkes in this movie, but overall it felt like the movie painted him as too saintly. Disabled people are people – with all the messy emotions, hurt, pain and contradictions that everyone else has. I wish there was more of that in The Sessions. There certainly was in Jim Sheridan’s My Left Foot, which is why it remains perhaps the best film in this genre ever made – and why The Sessions left me cold.

Movie Review: Smashed

Directed by: James Ponsoldt.
Written by: Susan Burke & James Ponsoldt.
Starring: Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Kate Hannah), Aaron Paul (Charlie Hannah), Octavia Spencer (Jenny), Nick Offerman (Dave Davies), Megan Mullally (Principal Barnes), Mary Kay Place (Rochelle), Kyle Gallner (Owen Hannah), Bree Turner (Freda).

Mary Elizabeth Winstead has a great face. I don’t just mean a beautiful face, although that is undeniably true, but an open and honest face. It’s something in her eyes, which just scream out for sympathy and understanding. I’ve been a fan of hers for a while, without every knowing precisely why – since beside her performance in Tarantino’s Death Proof, I cannot say she’s been great in anything (and even there, it could be because she spends the entirety of her performance in a cheerleading outfit). But finally in Smashed, she has been given a great role. The movie itself is a fairly typical story of a recovering alcoholic, although a well-made and honest one, with a little bit of a twist. But the reason to see the movie is Winstead, who is great.

Winstead plays Kate Hannah, a first grade teacher who has been an alcoholic for years. We first meet her stumbling out a bar and meeting a girl sobbing in the parking lot – who invites herself along for a ride home. Although Kate is just an alcoholic, and not a drug addict, she ends up smoking crack with this woman, and waking up the next day not knowing where she is. She decides it’s time to slow down a little bit – cut back on the drinking, and her husband Charlie (Aaron Paul) says sure, why not? He’s an alcoholic as well, but doesn’t view it as a problem. The slowing down doesn’t work, and soon Kate is just as drunk as ever, ends up peeing on the floor of a convenience store when the clerk won’t sell her the alcohol she wants, and then puking in front of her first graders the next day. When one of them innocently asks if she’s pregnant – because her mommy puked when she was pregnant with their little brother – Kate decides it’s better than admitting the truth and says she is. This gets back to the principal (Megan Mullally), who is happy for her. The only person who sees through Kate’s lies is VP Dave Davies (Nick Offerman), a recovering alcoholic himself, who invites her along to a meeting. She goes – and soon has decided to stop drinking altogether. From this point, the movie becomes a fairly standard recovering alcoholic movie – complete with relapses – but one with a little twist- everything was fine with Kate when she was a drunk – it’s when she gets sober that her life crumbles around her.

Smashed is not a particularly original look at alcoholism – it doesn’t transcend the genre like a film such as Leaving Las Vegas does. But it is an honest examination about what it means to be an alcoholic, and how tough it is to get sober. When you’re drunk all the time, you don’t consider the consequences of your actions – you don’t spend a lot of time thinking about how you’re drinking effects yourself or those around you. When you’re sober though, those questions become more important. So as Kate gets sober, and sees her husband still nearly constantly drunk, she starts to question the strength of their relationship. Are they simply together because both of them like to drink, and marrying your drinking buddy essentially means you never have to drink alone. It’s no fun to be the only sober person at a party, and that is essentially what Kate’s life becomes. No wonder she throws herself into those AA meetings and the friends she meets there – she knows no one else, not even her mother, who isn’t constantly drinking.

Winstead is great in the scenes where she is drunk. She is the type of drunk who thinks she is the life of the party – that she is funny, charming and everyone loves her. In reality, she is loud, incoherent and kind of a bitch when she’s drunk – she’s just too drunk to notice it. Her performance goes beyond the slurred speech and the stumbling of many movie drunks – she is the type of drunk I used to see during my limited trips to the bar in my college days. Once she gets sober, she starts to see the people around her how people must have viewed her – and she doesn’t like it. For his part, I also quite liked Aaron Paul, from Breaking Bad. Yes, Charlie is a drunk. But he’s not a mean or abusive drunk – just a thoughtless one. He is, in fact, a nice guy. The last scene in the movie implies that maybe this entire movie, with a different protagonist, is about to start again.

Smashed is a fine movie that is elevated by Winstead’s great performance. There have been a lot of movie drunks over the years – next to making a movie about the Holocaust or playing a handicapped person, playing a drunk is the best way to get yourself an Oscar nomination. But Winstead’s performance is genuinely great in this movie. You feel sympathy for her, you root for her to succeed and at times just want to give her hug. She looks like she needs one.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Movie Review: The Paperboy

The Paperboy
Directed by: Lee Daniels.
Written by: Lee Daniels & Peter Dexter based on the novel by Dexter.
Starring: Zac Efron (Jack Jansen), Matthew McConaughey (Ward Jansen), Nicole Kidman (Charlotte Bless), John Cusack (Hillary Van Wetter), David Oyelowo (Yardley Acheman), Scott Glenn (W.W. Jansen), Ned Bellamy (Tyree Van Wetter), Nealla Gordon (Ellen Guthrie), Macy Gray (Anita Chester).

A larger part of me than I would care to admit admires The Paperboy. This is the most lurid, ridiculous, violent, disgusting, over the top pulp melodrama to come along in I don’t know how long. But co-writer and director Lee Daniels full embraces this ridiculous story, and fills the movie with the type of visual flourishes that would normally look ridiculous, but somehow completely fits this particular movie. Not only that, but Daniels gets his entire cast of movie stars to completely abandon any pretext of vanity and has them dive headlong into the crazy movie that he is making. He’s going for broke behind the camera, and gets the entire cast to go for broke in front of it. The movie is so filled with logic flaws, with characters doing things that no sane person would even think of doing, let alone going right ahead and doing it, but somehow the actors make you think what they’re doing makes sense at the time. This is the type of guilty pleasure you either roll along with, or else you rip it to shreds. My only real problem with the movie – the one that kept me from enjoying this trash – is that two of the characters frustratingly insist on having real, relatable human emotions that make you feel bad for them. How the hell am I supposed to enjoy this movie when these two keep getting in the way?

The movie is set in the Florida swamps of 1969. Four years earlier, Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack) was convicted of murdering the violent, racist local sheriff and sentenced to death row. No one is going to argue that Van Wetter is a good person – being trailer trash would be an unattainable goal for him – or that he isn’t a violent, horrible person. But, there are serious questions regarding his case – and the fairness of his trial. Two reporters from the Miami Star – Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo), a black man from London and Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey) come to this small town to try and get to the bottom of it. Ward grew up in this town, and left his newspaper running father (Scott Glenn) and his little brother Jack (Zac Efron) behind. Jack is really the main character of the story – recently thrown out of school, and lounging around the house, Ward hires him to be their driver while they’re around investigating. Two other characters need to be mentioned – the Jansen’s maid Anita (Macy Gray), who narrates the story, and has really been a sort of surrogate mother/older sister to Jack and Ward since their mama ran off. And then there’s Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman), one of those women who writes to convicts on death row and fall in love with them. Her latest pen pal is Hillary, and according to her, they two of them share a deep and powerful connection – emotional and sexual – even though they have never been in the same room together. Even though Jack knows this, he still falls hopelessly in love with Charlotte. This is a kid with serious mommy issues.

The Paperboy is full of violent, disgusting and lurid scenes. The one where Jack gets stung by a jellyfish, and Charlotte chases off a group of high school girls yelling “If anyone gonna piss on him, it’s gonna be me”, and then yes, proceeds to piss all over Zac Efron, has already become the stuff of legend – and for good reason. It’s the most ridiculous scene in a movie I’ve seen this year, but damn it, if it isn’t fun to watch it at the same time. But the most outlandish scene in the movie isn’t this, but happens earlier – the first time Charlotte and Hillary are in the same room together, although it’s a prison visiting room and Jack, Ward and Yardley are also there, and the two “lovers” cannot come within 10 feet of each other, and yet still manage to have simultaneous orgasms. How they accomplish this has to be seen to be believed. They movie is full of sex scenes – some that are graphic and violent to boot – and lots of blood and guts (the scene when Hillary’s even bigger redneck guts a gator will haunt by dreams forever), yet still nothing quite compares to that scene for its sheer outlandishness.

What kept me from just rolling with the movie, was that Zac Efron, in the lead role, is kind of dull. I don’t think this is really his fault – and admire this teen heart throb for having the guts to do this kind of movie. I don’t even mind his horrible Southern accent – it simply adds to the outlandishness of the movie. But the character himself doesn’t seem to fit in with the rest of this motley crew. He’s really just a sweet kid with abandonment issues that gets in over his head. And then there’s Macy Gray’s Anita. I loved Gray in this movie- she uses her one of kind voice  to make Anita into a sympathetic, funny character. But it almost seems like she’s been shipped in from another movie – maybe a better version of The Help – and neither she or Jack belongs with the rest of these people. The movie keeps coming back to them, and ruining the guilty pleasure the rest of the movie was giving me.

The rest of the cast though is pretty fantastic, and obviously having fun with their roles. John Cusack never quite convinced me that he was a gator killing redneck, but he tries really hard. Matthew McConaughey continues his streak of interesting performances in smaller movie – combine his work here with that in Bernie, Magic Mike and Killer Joe, and he is having far and away the best year of his career. All this from an actor I previously thought had little to no talent. David Oyelowo is hilarious and amoral as Yardley (I love the scene where Efron visits him in Miami). Best of all is Nicole Kidman, who I kid you not deserves Oscar consideration for her role as Charlotte. I cannot imagine a person like Charlotte existing in the real world, but Kidman goes completely for broke in the role – wildly over the top, sexy, slutty, sympathetic, hilarious and kind of gross all at the same time. Kidman often doesn’t get credit for all the risks she takes in her career – Charlotte Bless is one of her biggest risks, and she pulls it off.

I cannot say that The Paperboy is a good movie. The movie has way too many flaws in terms of logic for that to be true, including perhaps the most ridiculous finale of any movie this year. When you add in all these logic flaws with the fact that the main character just isn’t very interesting, and in fact distracts from the madness going on around him, The Paperboy is a movie that simply collapses under its own weight. And yet, I cannot say I am sorry I saw the film – or that I am not looking forward to seeing what Daniels does next. He has only directed three films in his career – the god-awful Shadowboxer, the quite good Precious and now The Paperboy. He does nothing halfway – there is nothing subtle about his movies, and he gets his cast to dive headlong into whatever he is doing. This time, despite all the things I admire about the movie, it didn’t quite work. Hopefully next time it will.

Movie Review: Stories We Tell

Stories We Tell
Directed by: Sarah Polley.
Written by: Sarah Polley.

While watching Sarah Polley’s extremely personal documentary Stories We Tell, I got the feeling that Polley made the film to figure out why she was making the film. In the film, Polley documents her own family – focusing on her parents from the time they met and fell in love, until her mother died of cancer, when she was in her pre-teens. She was the youngest child – an accident to be sure, one that according to her father, her mother almost decided to abort. If that sounds to you like one of those things that most parents would never tell their children, you’d be right. But this family is different. We see it when Polley interviews her brothers and sisters, who are funny, charming and honest. And you see it when Polley’s father Michael reads aloud the letter he wrote to Sarah after discovering that he wasn’t her biological father – a letter than helps this documentary find its narrative through line – and brought me, at more than one point, to the brink of tears. This is a family that doesn’t keep secrets from each other.

And that simple fact, that seems so obvious in the film, is what makes its central story so fascinating. Because a secret has been kept – for decades. I mentioned in the opening paragraph that the letter Michael Polley reads to his daughter Sarah was written after he discovered he wasn’t her biological father. What I didn’t mention was that he – and Sarah – did not find that out until Sarah was almost 30. Her mother, Diane, had an affair with movie producer Harry Gulkin when she went to do a play in Montreal in 1978, and came home pregnant. Because she had also been with Michael during this time, she never knew for sure who the father was, but never let on to anyone that it may not be Michael. Although she did send pictures of young Sarah to Harry in Montreal. He knew he may be Sarah’ father – in fact, in his heart, he knew he was. And this was not just a fling for Harry – he truly, madly, deeply loved Diane – wanted her to leave Michael and bring her kids to live with him in Montreal. But she wouldn’t, and he figured if that’s the way she wanted it, and he could not persuade her, it was better to just leave well enough along. When she died, shortly after Sarah’s 11th birthday, he still decided to do nothing. But there was always rumors in the family that Sarah wasn’t Michael’s biological daughter – she looked nothing like him. These rumors were merely a family joke, until Polley decided to do some digging herself – and then met Harry on an unrelated matter and quickly discovered the truth. What does this knowledge do to a person who is almost 30? Especially when they cannot confront the person they most want to, because sadly she has died? Perhaps more importantly, what does it do to the family? Is there a reason why all three sisters got divorced shortly after learning Sarah’s real paternity? What does it do to the perception they all had of their mother?

Stories We Tell is an exceptional documentary, in part because it doesn’t seek to answer these questions, but simply to ponder them. This is a movie more about family narratives- yes the stories we tell to each other about our shared history. Polley recreates home movies – extremely convincingly I might add – that shows Diane in different lights, depending on who exactly is telling the story. There seems to be as many different Diane’s as there are people talking about and that I think is precisely the point. Our perceptions of who each other are is what we really remember, perhaps not who the person really is. At one point, late in the film, Harry warns Polley that she will never find the truth – she will never touch bottom here, because there are really only two people who know the story of him and Diane, and one of them is dead. That is true, but sometimes searching for the truth is more important than truth. I recently finished reading Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, which is an endless searching for IT that the main character never really find. It’s the journey, not the destination that counts.

All of this probably sounds rather pretentious, heavy handed and perhaps like a vanity project for Polley. But it isn’t – not really anyway. It’s a deeply personal film to be sure, but it’s also a deeply felt film – Polley doesn’t place herself in the middle, doesn’t make herself the sole arbiter of the truth (although, as her father points out, that by editing the film, she is deciding on the truth, which is also true, and also a great reason to include Michael saying it). It also puts into perspective Polley’s other two films as a director – her stunning debut film, Away From Her, about a long married couple being torn apart when one of them gets Alzheimer’s, and the sacrifices the other makes for them, and this year’s Take This Waltz, which also looked at a bored housewife and an affair – which is as honest and unflinching as Stories We Tell, in that it both feels sympathy and scorn towards its central character. Polley made that film when she felt she needed to get away from this one for a while. The two films certainly enrich each other.

With just three films under her belt as a director, Sarah Polley has become one of the best Canadian directors working right now. Her films are intelligent, well made and honest. Polley was once a wonderful actress – but she’s an even better director.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

DVD Review: Elena

Directed by: Andrey Zvyagintsev.
Written by: Andrey Zvyagintsev & Oleg Negin.
Starring: Nadezhda Markina (Elena), Andrey Smirnov (Vladimir), Elena Lyadova (Katerina), Aleksey Rozin (Sergey).

Elena is a film that I found to full of surprises. When the movie began, I thought I knew precisely where everything was going to go – and why we would end up there. And while the events of the movie play out pretty much how I expected them to, their meaning is a hell of lot deeper, and more troublesome, than I expected. And I mean that as a compliment. I thought this was going to be another screed about the rich being greedy, and the poor having to scratch and claw their way for everything – but it’s much more than that.

The film stars Nadezhda Markina in the title role, and it’s a remarkably subtle performance. Years ago, when she was a nurse, she had to take care of the rich Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov) in his home. Their relationship has changed over the years, but only in its name, as Elena is no longer his nurse but his wife. But they still have separate bedrooms, and she still pretty much waits on him hand and foot. Vladimiri is rich, and Elena is not, and even though they are married, that hasn’t changed. The money is still his and his alone. Yes, he supports her – but only her. He doesn’t want her to give any money to her son from a previous marriage – although she does give him her pension since Vladimir supports her. Even when she comes to him saying she needs money to help her grandson out – if he cannot afford to pay for college, which his family with an unemployed father and a new baby at home cannot, he’ll have to join the army – Vladimir rejects the idea. Her son should support his own family – Vladimir married Elena, not her whole family. When Vladimir has a heart attack, he decides that it is finally time to draw up a will. Most of the money will go to his single, childless daughter Katerina (Elena Lyadova), but Elena will be given an annuity with monthly payments which he is sure will be more than enough to see to her needs. He tells Elena this the day before his lawyer is going to come to see him and draw up the will. So what do you think Elena will do?

There are certainly elements of noir at play in this movie – Roger Ebert suggests that the movie could have been made in Hollywood in 1940s with Barbra Stanwyck in the title role, although I find it hard to believe than Stanwyck would ever play a woman who allows herself to be treated like a doormat like Elena does. The film did call to mind Mildred Pierce however – about a woman who sacrifices everything for her ungrateful bitch of a daughter. And writer-director Andrey Zvyagintsev referenced Woody Allen’s Match Point as an inspiration – that film of course was another film about murder and class warfare, which ultimately ends with the main character getting away scot free to start his new life.

But Elena is more than a noir as well. It becomes a film about modern Russia – just a few decades removed from Communist rule, this Russia is still not a place you would to live. Vladimir’s house is Moscow is big and modern – but also cold and unfeeling, just like he is. Yes, this is a movie where the rich man is a greedy bastard – he could easily afford to help his wife, but won’t. It’s his money, he earned it, and he’s keeping it. But the poor don’t come off much better. Elena’s son, Sergey (Aleksey Rozin), really does seem to be the lazy, good for nothing layabout that Vladimir accuses him of being. His pretty wife seems a little dull and certainly not to bright – it’s hard to argue with Vladimir when he says if they cannot afford to have children, they should stop having them. And the grandson Sasha, is a violent, lazy, ungrateful brat. You could feel sympathy for these people if they were working hard to try and make ends meet, but they aren’t. They’re looking for a handout.

But there are two characters who are more complicated than they at first appear to me. One is, of course, Elena, who surprises herself by what she is capable of doing – and for a while, you feel good for her as she seems to want to stop being used as a doormat like Vladimir has been doing for years now. But then she falls right back into another smothering, domestic life – one that is perhaps even worse than the one she was living. The other character is Katerina, Vladimir’s daughter. We get a first impression of her just during a conversation between Vladimir and Elena – where he accuses her of being “just like her mother” and only caring about life’s luxuries and not the work that needs to be done to get them. And Elena is bitter with her because she doesn’t have to work – she has everything handed to her. When we first meet Katerina, we seem to have our suspicions about her confirmed – that she is nothing but a spoiled, lazy rich kid. But her first appearance is in a conversation between her and Elena – who obviously doesn’t like her. When she has a conversation with her dad, she comes across as much more sympathetic and likable – you almost feel sorry for her as she is trying to turn her life around. Besides, it’s not like she’s wrong about Elena or why she married her father.

Elena turns out to be a much more complex film than it appears to be at the beginning. What could have just been another modern noir, but this one is Russian, becomes something greater than that – and more complex. This is a film to track down.

DVD Review: Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present

Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present
Directed by: Matthew Akers.

In 2010, The Museum of Modern Art in New York did a retrospective of performance artist Marina Abramovic’s work. It’s hard to do a retrospective of a performance artist, but essentially the museum had videos of her past performances, and a number of younger artists recreating her work – including two nude models facing each other in a narrow doorway, where the audience has to squeeze through. For this retrospective, Abramovic did one new “piece”, named after the exhibit itself – The Artist is Present. This consisted of Abramovic sitting in a chair on one side of a table with another chair at the other side. One audience member after another sits in that chair across from her, and the two simply stare at each other. You aren’t allowed to talk to her, nor was she allowed to talk to you, nor were you allowed to try and distract her. You simply sat there and stared at each other.

I know a lot of people who read that paragraph are asking the same question I asked myself when I heard about the film – and the same question Ambramovic says she has gotten more than any other throughout her career – “Why is that art?” She says no one asks her that anymore, which either means after 40 years as a performance artist that people are finally beginning to “get” her, or perhaps they are just pretending to – not wanting to admit to anyone that they don’t get her. I cannot begin to describe why this is art, but after watching the movie, I am convinced that it is. Some art does not need an explanation or at least defies explanation, and I think that is true of this piece by Abramovic. I cannot articulate why this is art, but I am sure it is.

Marina Ambramovic: The Artist is Present is a fascinating, entertaining documentary. The first half of the movie details Ambramovic’s career up to this point, with a focus on her 12 year collaboration with Ulay, another performance artist, who was also her boyfriend during that time. They spent nearly all their time together during those years, and their performances were meant to pull the mask off of male/female relationships, to show them in all their cruelty and violence, which very well maybe what ended up driving them apart. After the split, they both continued with their careers, but she became much more successful – in part because her new manager found ways to make money off of performance art, which is always a hard thing to do. She and Ulay hadn’t seen each other in 23 years, but he agrees to take part in her new exhibit – to be the first person sitting across the table from her.

The second half of the documentary is essentially solely about that new piece – it shows the toll it takes on Abramovic day after day (she’s there 7 and a half hours a day, 6 days a week for 3 months), but mainly it shows the people who are participating in the piece – those sitting across from her and those who sit back and observe them. Some of the people who stare at her are filled with joy, others with sorrow, and many begin to cry. People come back day after day, time after time, just to get a chance to be a part of this event. In all, she ends up sitting across from about 10,000 people.

It was this second half that convinced me what Abramovic was doing was art – not the first half where her assistants or the curator at MOMA or Ulay or Abramovic herself talking about the piece and what it means, but in actually watching the people and their reaction to the piece. I was reminded, oddly enough, of something Roger Ebert wrote about Jean Luc Godard’s Film Socialisme, a film that both he and I disliked immensely, where he said that the film was essentially about whatever you thought about while watching it. Ebert, and myself, had no idea what the hell Godard was trying to say in the film, so the film became solely what we, as audience members, thought while watching the film – and for me anyway, mostly I thought about how bored I was. In a very real way, The Artist is Present, Abramovic’s piece, not the film, is also about whatever the audience member sitting across from Abramovic is thinking – she essentially becomes a mirror, and each audience member sees whatever it is they want to see in her. Unlike most art, where the message is the same for everyone who witnesses it, because the artist puts the effort in once, and everyone sees the same end result, Abramovic’s piece changes every time. Every individual who sits across from her gets the same amount of effort focused solely on them.

So no, I cannot put into words why what Abramovic did at MOMA was art, so I’m not even going to begin to try. But art is was. And like much great art, it requires artist participation and thought – you have to become an active participant in the art as an observer, or else there is no art.

DVD Review: 2016: Obama's America

2016: Obama’s America
Directed by: Dinesh D'Souza & John Sullivan.
Written by: Dinesh D'Souza & John Sullivan based on the books by D’Souza.

I would be interested in seeing a documentary critical of President Obama’s first term as President. When he was elected in 2008, a wave of hope swept America that Obama would actually be able to change things in Washington for the better – that he was a different type of politician and that his election signaled the end of politics as usual. Now, four years later when Obama is running for re-election that hope has changed – even for many of his die hard supporters – into simply saying that he is better than his opponent – Mitt Romney. Part of this disappointment was practically inevitable – expectations for Obama were impossibly high, and the Republicans in Congress and the Senate certainly did not work with Obama to solve anything. Yet, Obama is not above criticism, and there is a real case to be made about the disappointments of his first term. Unfortunately 2016: Obama’s America, which has become the highest grossing documentary of the year, is not really interested in making a serious case against Obama and his policies or his failures during his first term. Instead, it is a documentary that deliberately misstates facts, and in the films second half goes off into crazy conspiracy theories – pretty much arguing that Obama is not simply misguided or incompetent or wrong in his policies – but that Obama is deliberately trying to sabotage America from within and to destroy the entire country. Are there really people who believe this crap?

The film was co-written and co-directed by Dinesh D’Souza, based on two of his books – Obama’s Rage and Obama’s America. D’Souza was born in India, and came to America to attend Dartmouth, where he joined up with the Conservative group on campus, and became a Reaganite in the 1980s. D’Souza is obsessed with Obama, apparently because he sees a lot of similarities between himself and Obama and their upbringing, even though the two of them have taken such radically different paths during their lives. Despite all the inaccuracies in the film’s first half, this is where the documentary is at its best – when D’Souza compares and contrasts himself to the President. His theory that Obama’s entire worldview was shaped by the father he only met once in his life doesn’t really hold much water, but it is sort of fascinating to see him try and make his case. In fact, the most fascinating person in the movie turns out to be D’Souza himself, and not Obama. What it is about Obama that makes D’Souza so obsessed with him? He’s kind of like Bizarro Obama.

I could waste a lot of time listing the inaccuracies of the movie, but enough people have already done that, so I don’t think there’s much reason to do so. What I will say is that D’Souza’s theory about Obama’s anti-colonialism, and his radical socialism bordering on communism doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense, and is based on nothing other than D’Souza’s wild speculations, backed up by nothing other than his own theories. He ties himself into knots trying to tie all of his theories together. In D’Souza’s mind, nothing is a simple coincidence, but evidence of a large effort that shaped Obama’s worldview. When his mother remarried an Indonesian man, this is because he reminded her of first husband, Obama’s father, because he was also a dark skinned man from the third world (this is a nice way of saying his mother had jungle fever). And when she sent him back to Hawaii to get an education instead of staying in Indonesia, this is because her second husband had a more pro-Western attitude than she was comfortable espousing young Barack to – not because the schools in America were better than in Indonesia. And because some in Hawaii are still angry at the way their country was annexed by America 100 years ago, this means Obama was taught a lot of “oppression studies’ in school there, and of course, believed it all. Because he had contact with some controversial people – from a card carrying member of the American Communist party who was a friend of his grandfathers, to being the student of some radical professors at college, who Obama was friendly with even after graduating, to the more well-known examples of Bill Ayers and Jeremiah Wright, that must mean Obama agrees with everything all of them have ever said. D`Souza even brings up a paper than Obama Sr. wrote in the 1960s saying that in theory there was nothing stopping the government from taxing people at 100% as long as they provided everything the citizens needed, and wonders aloud if this is what Obama means by the rich paying their “fair share”.

But if D`Souza`s strange speculations in the first half are half baked at best, it`s the second half of the movie that really bothered me – when D`Souza tries to predict what will happen if Obama were to win a second term. Well, according to this movie, you might as well shoot yourself in the head if Obama is re-elected, because it will most likely bring upon a virtual apocalypse where everything America has done during its history would effectively be destroyed, and the Muslim world would become a new superpower, and America would be left so deep in debt that the country would be destroyed, and everyone in the world except America would have nuclear weapons, so America would have no way to defend themselves. This would make a great science fiction dystopian movie, but since this is a documentary, there is nothing really to back any of that enough. D`Souza has a few actual facts in the movie, but the conclusions he reaches based on those facts are insane.

The success of 2016: Obama`s America shows nothing if not the fact that a large number of Americans are not satisfied with the job he is doing as President. Those people, and even Obama`s supporters, deserve a real commentary about the man and his politics – not the insane speculation and ranting that makes up most of this movie.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Movie Review: Argo

Directed by: Ben Affleck.
Written by: Chris Terrio based on the article by Joshuah Bearman.
Starring: Ben Affleck (Tony Mendez), Bryan Cranston (Jack O'Donnell), Alan Arkin (Lester Siegel), John Goodman (John Chambers), Victor Garber (Ken Taylor), Tate Donovan (Bob Anders), Clea DuVall (Cora Lijek), Scoot McNairy (Joe Stafford), Rory Cochrane (Lee Schatz), Christopher Denham (Mark Lijek), Kerry Bishé (Kathy Stafford), Kyle Chandler (Hamilton Jordan), Chris Messina (Malinov), Zeljko Ivanek (Robert Pender), Titus Welliver (Bates), Keith Szarabajka (Adam Engell), Bob Gunton (Cyrus Vance), Richard Kind (Max Klein), Taylor Schilling (Christine Mendez).

A lot of actors eventually try their hand at directing. Some do it simply as a vanity project or to prove to themselves they can actually do it. And some become filmmakers whose directing career eventually becomes even better than their acting career – Clint Eastwood for instance. Ben Affleck is more of the second type of actor. A few years ago, Affleck, the actor, had a string of disappointments on his resume and was most likely disappointed with how things had gone for the past few years. So he directed Gone Baby Gone (2007), a wonderful little crime movie that turned out to be much deeper than its genre roots suggested. He followed that up with The Town (2010), which was another fine crime film. With those two films, Affleck proved himself to be a director to watch – one with a definite skill and style. If he hadn’t quite crafted a great movie yet, he was surely on his way to doing so. His third film, Argo, is that great film.

Argo is a thriller, that if it wasn’t true, you couldn’t possibly believe it. As everyone knows, in 1979 Iranians stormed the American embassy and took all the workers their hostage. Six of those workers however escaped out a back door and ended up hiding in the Canadian ambassador’s house. No one knew they were there, and it had to stay that way. Eventually though, these six workers had to get out of the country – and no one has any idea how to do that. That is until Tony Mendez (Affleck), who specializes in getting people out of places that shouldn’t be, comes up with a gloriously absurd idea – the six embassy workers are really a Canadian film crew, scouting locations for a Star Wars rip-off that needs an exotic location, deserts, etc. Why wouldn’t a film crew want to shoot a movie in Iran during a hostage crisis?

It turns out making a fake movie isn’t as easy as you would think. The key to getting away with any lie is that the details have to be accurate. And so before he heads to Iran, Tony heads to L.A. He meets up with John Chambers (John Goodman), an Oscar winning make-up man and Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), a producer. They need to make Argo, the movie they are supposedly making, look real – they have a script, a poster, storyboards and even host a big event in Hollywood and get written up in Variety. Then Tony heads to Iran to train the embassy workers on their jobs, so they can head to the airport and all fly out together.

In some respects, Argo is almost two different movies – both of them great. On one hand, you have a Hollywood comedy not unlike Wag the Dog, where a Washington insider goes to a Hollywood producer to create a fake war, and the scenes in LA are mined for great comedic effect. John Goodman and especially Alan Arkin are great in their roles as Hollywood men, doing something not for fame or money, but simply because it is the right thing to do. These scenes are great for film buffs.

The other movie is much more delicate and hard to pull off – a thriller without chase sequences, shootouts or really any violence of any kind. It is easy to manufacture drama, and get audiences perched on the edge of their seats with those types of scenes, but Argo contains none of them. Instead, it is a breathless thriller where seemingly simple actions are heightened to an almost unbearable degree of suspense – where a simple questioning by the Imperial Guard becomes nail biting. This is where Affleck’s real accomplishment lay.

Affleck also casts his movie well – even the smallest roles are seemingly played by actors we recognize, and together they make up one of the best ensembles of the years. Arkin and Goodman are great, yes, as the Hollywood people. Even better though is Bryan Cranston, the best actor on TV right now, as Affleck’s CIA boss who is quick thinking, intelligent and has an acid tongued sense of humor, even in the most intense moments. Scoot McNairy is also wonderful as one of the embassy workers who doesn’t think they should be leaving.

Argo is gripping, exciting, funny entertainment. It’s rare to get someone attempting that mixture in a film – even more rare for a film to pull it. If Gone Baby Gone and The Town showed Affleck was a director with promise, Argo fulfills that promise.

Movie Review: Seven Psychopaths

Seven Psychopaths
Directed by: Martin McDonagh.
Written by: Martin McDonagh.
Starring: Colin Farrell (Marty), Sam Rockwell (Billy), Christopher Walken (Hans), Woody Harrelson (Charlie), Tom Waits (Zachariah), Abbie Cornish (Kaya), Olga Kurylenko (Angela), Zeljko Ivanek (Paulo), Harry Dean Stanton (Man in Hat), Linda Bright Clay (Myra), Long Nguyen (Vietnamese Priest), Michael Pitt (Larry), Michael Stuhlbarg (Tommy), Kevin Corrigan (Dennis), Gabourey Sidibe (Sharice), Christine Marzano (The Hooker), Amanda Mason Warren (Maggie).

The main character in Seven Psychopaths, written and directed by the Irish Martin McDonagh, is an Irish screenwriter named Martin, who has a brilliant title for his latest screenplay, Seven Psychopaths, but no story, and no real idea for who the seven psychopaths of the title are. Throughout the course of the movie the audience is watching, Martin will meet these psychopaths – or most of them anyway – and they will help him write his screenplay, which is presumably, the movie we are watching. This sort of blending of the movie we’re watching as it’s being written has been done before – most notably in Adaptation, where screenwriter Charlie Kaufman made himself, and his fictional twin brother Donald, the main characters – and when Charlie gets stuck and doesn’t know how to end his movie, his hack brother takes over and ends the movie with chases and violence and death. Martin McDonagh does a similar thing with Seven Psychopaths – the result may not be quite the triumph of Adaptation, but damn if he doesn’t come close. Oh, and Seven Psychopaths is also one of the most deliriously entertaining films of the year.

Marty (Colin Farrell) is an Irish screenwriter, who has been stuck for months, possibly because he is an alcoholic – that everyone seems to feel the need to remind him of in nearly every scene. The movie acknowledges that an Irishman being a drunk is a cliché, but merrily goes on its way anyway. His girlfriend Kaya (Abbie Cornish) is getting frustrated with his drinking, and is on the verge of breaking with up with him. Meanwhile, his best friend Billy (Sam Rockwell) is a would be actor, who makes his money with a dog kidnapping scam he runs with Hans (Christopher Walken). Their new plan is to kidnap the dog of psychopathic mob man Charlie (Woody Harrelson), because he loves Shih Tzu Bonny so much they figure they can milk a lot of money out of him. But Charlie is even crazier than they realize, and soon is on the war path looking for his dog. Oh, and Marty is trying really hard to come up with stories for his seven psychopaths, and starts taking them for the headlines – a man known only as the Jack of Diamonds killer, who only kills mafia men and stories others have told him. When he still needs subjects, Billy places an ad in LA Weekly for psychopath to share their stories – and this is how they meet Zachariah (Tom Waits), his rabbit and his strange story. The only character that Marty has actually invented for his screenplay is a bitter ex-Vietcong soldier hell-bent on destroying America – but he doesn’t really want to use him because despite the title, he doesn’t want Seven Psychopaths to be just another psychopath movie. After the first half of the movie, in which a lot of people get killed in one bloody way after another, Marty decides that how he wants the movie to end is the main characters drive out to the desert and talk – and that’s precisely what he, Billy and Hans do. But Billy doesn’t want such a pussy ending to the movie, and decides to stack the deck in favor of what he wants.

If all of this makes Seven Psychopaths sound like a complicated movie that’s because it is. But it is also a wonderfully entertaining movie that embraces some clichés of the genre, and then explicitly mentions the clichés the film is embracing (like in a great conversation between Marty and Hans about his female characters) and then completely defies other ones. The actors fully embrace their roles, and while you would think that a movie with seven psychopaths would have a lot of overlap in terms of characters – you’d be wrong. All the psychos maybe psychos, but they are each uniquely their own psycho. Sam Rockwell has perhaps the showiest role of the bunch that uses his off-kilter grin that always looks slightly crazed anyway to great effect. Woody Harrelson has great fun chewing the scenery as an unrepentant psycho, and has even more fun becoming a little wuss when his dog is involved. Tom Waits plays Zachariah as pretty much only he could – scary, sad and sympathetic all at the same time. And Colin Farrell keeps the whole movie grounded – the only “normal” character in the film. Far and away the best performance in the movie however belongs to Christopher Walken. You pretty much have to cast Walken if you are making a movie called Seven Psychopaths, and yet Walken’s Hans is the most sympathetic character in the movie – and the wisest. Walken has fully embraced his weird screen persona, and whored it out so often in some many bad movies, you sometimes forget just how great – how subtle – he can be when given the right role. His Hans is a man with a tragic backstory, and really a tragic story arc in the movie, and yet unlike everyone else, he doesn’t embrace violence – he has moved beyond that. Walken’s performance is a comedic gem, but also strangely moving. It’s one of the best performances he has ever given.

Martin McDonagh has already won an Oscar (for his short film, Six Shooter) and crafted a great crime drama with his debut feature In Bruges, which gave Farrell his best role ever. With Seven Psychopaths he has made a crime drama that is a little more complicated – that toys with the genre and the audience – and is still an hilarious, violent, bloody example of the genre it is sending up. I cannot wait to see what he does next.