Friday, June 28, 2013

Half Time Top 10: The Best Films of the First Half of 2013

Every year, at the end of June, I do a Half Time Top 10 List for the first six months of the year. So far, 2013 has been a pretty good year – and I hope it gets even better. Of course, there are many films that I WANT to see that either haven’t opened in my area yet or else I missed. So before I get to the end of the year, I want to ensure I see the following films, already released: At Any Price, The Attack, Dead Man’s Burden, Dirty Wars, The East, A Hijacking, Hors Satan, I’m So Excited, In the House, The Kings of Summer, Leviathan, Paradise: Love, Post Tenebras Lux, Reality, Renoir, Simon Killer, Something in the Air, 20 Feet For Stardom, The Unspeakable Act, We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks, What Maisie Knew, and Wish You Were Here.

As always, I don’t worry too much about this one – it’s mainly for fun, so placement isn’t as important as it is at the end of the year. Anyway, I think the top two films will definitely be on my top 10 list at the end of the year – the rest, I’m not as sure of. But all are fine films, and none are HUGE hits, so they deserve your attention.

Before I get to the runners-up and the top 10, let me point out one more thing. Sarah Polley’s excellent documentary Stories We Tell would be on the top 10 list – had I not included it in last year’s ranking when it was released here in Canada. Joshua Oppenheimer’s excellent documentary The Act of Killing would also clearly be in the top 10 – but it has not been released yet (I saw it at TIFF last year), so I didn’t include it. Tomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt, which I also saw at TIFF, may have made the top 10, but again, it has not been released yet. And although it did make Indiewire’s Survey of the best 50 films of 2013 so far, I consider the great Neighboring Sounds to be a 2012 film, even if I didn’t see it until March.

Runners-Up: Behind the Candelabra (Steven Soderbergh) may well have been in the top 10, except it’s a TV movie, which normally I do not include at all – but it really is a great biopic of Liberace, with two excellent performances by Michael Douglas and Matt Damon. Fill the Void (Rama Burshtein) is an uncommonly thoughtful, beautiful film about a young woman for an Orthodox Jewish community in Israel who is being pressured into marrying her sister’s widow. Lore (Cate Shortland) was an interesting, beautiful well acted movie about a the children of Nazis travelling across Germany as the Allies move in. Monsters University (Don Scanlon) may not be vintage Pixar, but it is still very good Pixar and the best family entertainment so far this year. Much Ado About Nothing (Joss Whedon) makes the Shakespeare masterpiece feel fresh and new again in modern day AmericaThe Place Beyond the Pines (Derek Cianfrance) was an epic, three part father-son crime drama, with another great Ryan Gosling performance. Sightseers (Ben Wheatley) was an insane, pitch black comedy about two seemingly normal people who morph into serial on holiday. Star Trek: Into Darkness (JJ Abrahms) is the year’s best blockbuster so far – balancing a good story, characters and spectacle quite well. Sun Don’t Shine (Amy Seimetz), This is the End (Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg) was the most fun I had at the movies so far this year as a group of Hollywood actors, playing themselves, face the Apocalypse. To the Wonder (Terrence Malick) is undoubtedly the weakest film of the master director’s career – but still one of the most gorgeous films of the year so far. The We and the I (Michel Gondry) was a toned down film by Gondry about teenagers, and how they’re different in a group than by themselves.

Top 10

10. Pain & Gain (Michael Bay)
Believe me when I say that no one is more surprised than I am that a Michael Bay film made this top 10 list, and a Terrence Malick did not. However, that’s what happens when Bay delivers far and away his best film, and Malick makes his weakest. This may not be the small character study Bay said it would be, but this wonderfully dark, violent comedy that borders on offensive for nearly its entire running time is Bay at his best. The film is about three idiot bodybuilders who want their piece of the American Dream – and do horrible things to get it. The film actually fits in very well with two other films on this list (see 8 and 3) as a portrait of idiot Americans, entitlement and consumerism run rampant. It is also marvelously entertaining and contains the best performance ever by The Rock. If another filmmaker made this, no one would have questioned if they were making a satire (the movie could have made an excellent, albeit very different, Coen Brothers movie). Bay has always had talent, although he’s mainly wasted it on one shitty movie after another – but with Pain & Gain he found the perfect movie for him – and delivered the best film he has ever made (and considering his next film is Transformers 4, probably ever will). For this one movie only, count me as a Bay fan.

9. Stoker (Park Chan-wook)
Korean auteur Park Chan-wook’s American debut didn’t catch on at the box office this spring, which is a shame, because although it’s not as good as Oldboy, this is still a stylish, Hitchcockian thriller, with great performances by Mia Washikowska as a disturbed teenage girl, Matthew Goode as her even more disturbed uncle, and Nicole Kidman, adding another horrible mother to her resume. The film is all about style, and Park has a lot of fun playing with the audience, especially in a few of the murder scenes, and a shower scene that starts out disturbing, and gets even more so when you realize what exactly is going on. The best pure thriller of the year so far.

8. The Bling Ring (Sofia Coppola)
Sofia Coppola’s latest is another study of spoiled rich kids – like in a sense all her films are. And yet writing it off as her repeating herself would ignore the fact that each of her films are markedly different in the lives they explore. Here, she focuses on a group of rich teens in L.A. who rob the house of celebrities when they’re not around – they already have everything they could want – but they want what they don’t have – fame. The characters start out almost interchangeable, but take on added dimensions as the film moves along. Emma Watson should be (but probably won’t) in the conversation for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her spot on performance as one the teens, who has absolutely no self-awareness. I’m getting tired of people bashing Coppola for having a famous father – she has more than proven herself over the past decade and a half – and The Bling Ring ranks as one of her best.

7. Beyond the Hills (Cristian Mungiu)
Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills is probably a more complex film than his Palme D’or winning 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, but less immediately satisfying. Once again, the movie is about two female friends, but this time, everything is a little bit messier. Both girls were raised in a Romanian orphanage – and were best friends (and it’s hinted at, perhaps more) – but have gone separate ways since leaving – one leaving the country in search of employment, one into a convent to become a nun. The friend who left comes back, to try and convince her friend to leave, and sets into motion a horrible sequence of events, in which neither woman – nor the well-meaning convent – is fully to blame, yet still ends in tragedy. Mungiu’s film unfolds slowly and methodically and contains two top notch performances (which shared the best actress prize at last year’s Cannes film festival) by Cosmina Stratan and Cristina Flutur). The film is based upon a famous, sensational case in Romania, but Mungiu strips away the bombast, and tells a simple story – one that has no real answers. Mungiu continues to be one of the most interesting filmmakers in the world right now.

6. Room 237 (Rodney Ascher)
I know some critics hated Room 237 – as they felt that director Rodney Ascher was mocking them. I didn’t feel that way, even though the movie really is about the folly of reading too much into movies. The different perspectives on Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining on display in the movie range from semi-plausible, to batshit insane, and yet as you’re watching the movie, and Ascher slows down or freezes frames on certain spots of The Shining as the obsessive of the moment prattles on, you find yourself almost believing the crap they’re trying to sell you. The Shining is the perfect movie for this sort of treatment – it’s Kubrick, so everyone knows he was a “perfectionist”, which means every little thing must be the sign of something bigger, and it’s also Kubrick doing horror – a genre piece, which he wasn’t really known for. Why did he do that? Well obviously, it was to talk about the Holocaust/genocide of Native Americans/or admit that he faked the moon landing. Room 237 is a movie for movie lovers – you may think the people in the movie are batshit crazy – for the most part, I did – but you also may see a little of yourself in them.

5. Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach)
I’m not sure any film so far this year made me feel as good as Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha. Co-written and starring the intelligent, funny, adorable Greta Gerwig as a would be dancer in New York, who during the course of the movie has to come to terms with two very difficult things – the first being, she is never going to be a great dancer, and the second being her best friend from college is going to marry her lunk-headed stock broker boyfriend, even though she’s miserable with him much of the time, and he likes to come in her face. That may not sound like the setup for a buoyant, intelligent, whip smart comedy – but in the capable hands of Baumbach and Gerwig, it is. Even when Gerwig’s Frances frustrates us because she cannot see what is painfully clear to us; she is still never less than lovable, and completely real. Gerwig has flirted with stardom ever since Baumbach casted her in his last film Greenberg (where she stole the movie from star Ben Stiller – which is hard because Stiller was also great in the film), but this really should be her star making role. As a film, Baumbach is equally inspired by Truffaut and Woody Allen, and he’s made his optimistic, enjoyable film yet. This one will leave you smiling.

4. Mud (Jeff Nichols)
The indie hit of the year so far, is Jeff Nichols third film – an excellent follow-up to Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter (although Take Shelter remains his best). The film is about two boys who live alongside the river in the South – and find a strange man named Mud (Matthew McConaughey) on an island – and even though he has a gun, and a dark past, decide to help him. Mud is the best kind of coming-of-age story, as it nails the lives of these two boys on the cusp of being a teenager – not immature children, but still haven’t become cynical like many adults. The film is almost a dark fairy tale – even though Nichols ground the film in the realism of everyday life in the South. McConaughey continues his excellent string of performances with another great one in the title role – and Reese Witherspoon is excellent in support, as is Nichols’ favorite Michael Shannon in a small role. The film is well written and directed by Nichols, who continues his run as one of the most interesting young filmmakers working in American right now.

3. Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine)
While I’ve always admired indie provocateur Harmony Korine for making precisely the movies he wants to make, until Spring Breakers, I cannot honestly say I’ve actually liked one of his movies (with the exception of Kids – which he wrote, not directed). But with Spring Breakers, Korine has made far and away his best film yet – and the ballsiest, in your face, provocative film of the year so far. Is Korine celebrating these characters and their empty lives, satirizing it, or decrying it? Why not all three? Korine embraces the contradictions in the movie – both in terms of how it perceives its characters, and the visuals – going for MTV style gyrating, to the most artful tracking shot of the year (staying inside the car with one character as they slowly drive by the chicken shack, as two others rob it), to even its stance on race. James Franco delivers the best performance of his career as Alien – the rapping drug dealer who bails the girls out, and seduces them – even though he has no idea what he’s getting himself into. But the four girls – Selena Gomez, Ashley Bensen, Vanessa Hudgens and Rachel Korine – are also great, and deserved more praise then they got. Spring Breakers is one of the must see films of 2013 – you may love it, you may hate, but you won’t forget it.

2. Before Midnight (Richard Linklater)
Back in 2004, I didn’t think Before Sunset was the masterpiece many did – I loved the film, but like the first in the series, Before Sunrise, it struck me more as a fantasy than anything else – the characters were older, wiser and more miserable, and Linklater didn’t make it as dreamily romantic as the first film, but it was just as much of a fantasy – this time, that you could go back to a prior love and everything would be fine. But Before Midnight is every bit the masterwork critics have proclaimed – and it has made the first two films better with its inclusion (you won't be able to look at those two films in quite the same way again). Why is this the best in the series? Because for the first time, it is not a fantasy. Jesse and Celine have spent the last 9 years living together – so instead of being the object of each other’s perfect fantasy lives, they are now all too real to each other. This film is more mature about relationships than the previous two – and the fight that makes up most of the last third of the film is perhaps the more realistic martial fight I have ever seen in a movie (be careful seeing this with your spouse – it may drag up things you don’t want drug up). Ethan Hawke and Julie Delphy are amazing in the film, and Linklater’s direction is perfect. I can almost guarantee this will be on my end of year top 10 list.

1. Upstream Color (Shane Carruth)
With his 2004 film Primer, Shane Carruth established himself as an uncommonly intelligent writer/director as he took his time travel premise seriously, and made one of the best science fiction movies of the decade – with almost no money. It took him 9 years to make a follow-up – but Upstream Color was worth the wait. Once again, his film has science fiction elements – including a very strange worm, and pig farmer who conducts experiments. But the film is much more than that – it is really about two shattered people trying hard to put the pieces of their lives back together – while trying to figure out what the hell happened in the first place. The best performance I saw in the first half of the year belongs to Amy Seimetz, who plays the lead here. You could say her story is in the classic “rape-revenge” model, but that wouldn’t be doing it justice. As for Carruth, he has gotten even better as a writer – constructing the year’s most complex screenplay, with its jumps in time, and as a director – the film certainly recalls the style of Terrence Malick, even while his the content of the film recalls David Cronenberg. Upstream Color is a movie you have to let wash over you – don’t try to piece it together your first time through – that really isn’t the point anyway. But this is the best film of the year so far – by far – and given how much I love #2 and #3 on this list, that’s saying something.

The Best Films I Have Never Seen Before: They Live (1988)

They Live (1988)
Directed by: John Carpenter.
Written by: John Carpenter based on the short story by Ray Nelson.
Starring: Roddy Piper (John Nada), Keith David (Frank Armitage), Meg Foster (Holly Thompson), George 'Buck' Flower (The Drifter), Peter Jason (Gilbert), Raymond St. Jacques (Street Preacher).

I have long been a fan of John Carpenter. Films like Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), Halloween (1978), The Thing (1981), Escape from New York (1982) and even, dare I saw it, Ghosts of Mars (2001) are great throwbacks to the days of Howard Hawks. His films, like the work of Hawks, has largely been conservative or right leaning. Which makes his 1988 horror-satire They Live all the more confusing, as it is certainly a left leaning movie, even as it disguises itself with right wing tropes and clichés. They Live was a reaction to 8 years of Ronald Reagan as President, and (at that time) possibly four more years under Reagon’s VP George Bush. Carpenter, who maybe more conservative than most Hollywood filmmakers, was no fan of Reagan, and he compared his Presidency to fascism and wanted to show the hypocrisy in it. Perhaps that’s why They Live is often celebrated as one of Carpenter’s best films. But to me, the satire is rather tame and toothless, the movie confused, and weighed down by clichés and a central performance by a wrestler, who let’s face it, cannot act to save his life. They are some great moments in They Live. But the whole movie adds up to very little.

Homeless after being fired from his job, construction worker John Nada (Rowdy Roddy Piper) walks from Denver to L.A. looking for work. He finds it, working under the table on a construction site, but the job doesn’t pay well, so he ends up living in a shanty town that fellow worker Frank (Keith David) invites him along. Depite being homeless and unemployed John “still believes in America”, that if you work hard, you can make a success of yourself. But then he starts noticing some strange things going on in a church across the street. When he goes to investigate, he finds the constantly singing choir is just a recording. When the police invade the church – and then destroy the shanty town – John finds a box full of sunglasses, and puts a pair on. Immediately, his world changes. It goes from color to black and white. Ads no longer look the same and are now just single words or phrases that give their underlying message “Consume”, “Marry and Reproduce”, “Watch TV”, “Don’t Question Authority”, “Obey”, etc. More shockingly, some of the people he sees aren’t really people, but hideous, bug eyed aliens. It turns out that aliens have already taken over America, invisible to the naked eye. They want to make Earth into “their third world”, and all humans are either controlled by the messages in their TVs, or willing collaborators with the regime for financial payoff. The church was the headquarters of the only group committed to fighting the aliens.

I don’t know – maybe this all seemed radical back in 1988, but to me, it seems rather tame. Carpenter is obviously comparing the aliens to Reagan and his administration, who was trying to brainwash people into accepting whatever he put out there. And that’s a little bit of a stretch. But it could have easily worked. But I think Carpenter, so beholden to genres clichés, can never really get out of his own way. The film echoes Carpenter’s idol Hawks far too much – the endless fight scene between John and Frank before they can become friends, is a typical Hawks trait. As are the snappy, sexist one liners that Piper spews (which is supposed to be okay, I guess, because they’re directed at aliens posing as women, and not women themselves). Piper is essentially playing the role that Kurt Russell usually played for Carpenter. The difference is that Russell made it work, and Piper doesn’t. When he delivers the films most famous line - “I’ve come here to kick ass and chew bubble gum. And I’m all out of bubble gum” –Piper cannot make it work. It just sounds dumb.

There are still some great moments in They Live – as there are in any Carpenter film. The first is the sequence following Piper first putting on the sunglasses, which is a small tour de force for Carpenter behind the camera. The sequence that ends the film is full of some great, comedic moments as well. But these moments are few and far between.

Near the end of They Live, John Carpenter has two film critics on TV (obviously meant to be Siskel and Ebert) who are exposed as aliens and complaining about “filmmakers like George A. Romero and John Carpenter” who have gone too far. This shout out to Romero, as well as putting his name in the same sentence, is supposed to signal that Carpenter wanted to make a film like Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (or its sequels Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead), which combined social commentary with horror. The difference between what Romero achieved in those films (and later in Land of the Dead and Diary of the Dead, and even in parts of the most recent, Survival of the Dead), is that while Romero is using the zombie genre to comment on things like racism, the demise of the American family, consumerism, the military industrial complex, capitalism and war, the satire is never pushed to the front of the movie like Carpenter has done with They Live. It’s both more subtle, yet more on target and incisive than Carpenter has pulled off with They Live. That’s why Romero is a master. And why Carpenter, as good as he can be, is a step or two behind him.

Movie Review: You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet

You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet
Directed by: Alain Resnais.
Written by: Alain Resnais  and Laurent Herbiet based on the plays by Jean Anouilh.
Starring: Mathieu Amalric (Mathieu Amalric / M. Henri), Pierre Arditi (Pierre Arditi / Orphée #1), Sabine Azéma (Sabine Azéma / Eurydice #1), Jean-Noël Brouté (Jean-Noël Brouté / Mathias), Anne Consigny (Anne Consigny / Eurydice #2), Anny Duperey (Anny Duperey / La mere), Hippolyte Girardot (Hippolyte Girardot / Dulac), Gérard Lartigau (Gérard Lartigau / Le petit régisseur), Michel Piccoli (Michel Piccoli / Le père), Denis Podalydès (Antoine d'Anthac), Michel Robin (Michel Robin / Le garçon de café), Andrzej Seweryn (Marcellin), Jean-Chrétien Sibertin-Blanc (Jean-Chrétien Sibertin-Blanc / Le secrétaire du commissaire), Michel Vuillermoz (Michel Vuillermoz / Vincent), Lambert Wilson (Lambert Wilson / Orphée #2), Vimala Pons (Eurydice), Sylvain Dieuaide (Orphée), Fulvia Collongues (La mère), Vincent Chatraix (Le père), Jean-Christophe Folly (Monsieur Henri), Vladimir Consigny (Mathias), Laurent Ménoret (Vincent), Lyn Thibault (La jeune fille et le garçon de café), Gabriel Dufay (Le garçon d'hôtel).

At 91, Alain Resnais is one of the oldest working filmmakers in the world right now. One of the last surviving figures of the French New Wave, Resnais is still making interesting, daring films – and unlike Godard, he is still making those films about people – not just random images and philosophical double speak, that his supporters have to twist themselves into knots to defend.

Resnais’ latest film – You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet – has a play and a play within the play in the film. More than anything, it is a celebration of acting – and Resnais brings back many of the actors who have worked with him over the years, and throughout the course of the film, shows how different actors performing the same role can greatly change what we think and feel about what we’re seeing. We all know this already of course, but rarely have we seen it spelled out in this way before.

The movie opens with 14 actors getting a telephone call telling them their director has just died, and inviting them to his mansion for the reading of his will. Once there, the actors, all playing themselves, are treated not to the reading of a will – but a videotaped performance from a young theater troupe doing one of the director’s best known plays. All of these actors have played various roles in the play for the director over the years – and as they watch the young performers on the screen, they get inspired, and start reciting dialogue alongside them – soon start acting out the scenes with their old cast mates. At times, they are still in that same room, and at other times, Resnais transports them elsewhere.

The play they are performing is Eurydice by Jean Anouilh – and throughout the film, we’ll see several different actresses play Eurydice, and as many actors playing her lover Orpheus. Each of these couples bring different things to the role – highlight different aspects of the play and their characters. At times, they are by themselves, and at times they are with other actors, who move between the couple to perform their scenes – sometimes in a split screen that allows us to see more than one scene going on at once.

I found all of this fascinating – and of course, I couldn’t help but think back to some of Resnais’ past films by the setting (like Last Year at Marienbad, in a large hotel instead of mansion, but still similar) and the actors who are filtered through Resnais films over the 50 plus years.

But I also have to admit that the movie never really became anything more than a formal exercise – an experiment by Resnais to see if he could pull it off at all, more than a complete movie. I’m sure those more familiar with Anouilh than I am (meaning anyone who has seen one of his plays) may get more out of the film than I did – they’ll better be able to put everything into context. And yet, I admired the film –and Resnais for attempting the film, and pretty much pulling it off even for an Anouilh amateur like myself. The film doesn’t approach Resnais best films like Marienbad (1961), Muriel (1963) or Mon Once D’Amerique (1980) – or even his wildly inventive last film Wild Grass (2009). But it’s another daring experiment by a cinematic giant. It may be more interesting to talk about than it is to watch – but hey, at least it’s not Film Socialism.

Movie Review: Shadow Dancer

Shadow Dancer
Directed by: James Marsh.
Written by: Tom Bradby based on his novel.
Starring: Andrea Riseborough (Collette), Clive Owen (Mac), Brid Brennan (Ma), Aidan Gillen (Gerry), Domhnall Gleeson (Connor), Gillian Anderson (Kate Fletcher), David Wilmot (Kevin Mulville), Cathal Maguire (Mark), Michael McElhatton (Liam Hughes).

Like Werner Herzog, James Marsh moves back and forth between fiction and documentary films effortlessly. He probably better known for his docs like the Oscar winning Man on Wire (which I didn’t like as much as many) and Project Nim (which I did), but his fiction films including the criminally neglected The King, which was exceptionally creepy (and not in a horror movie way) and his part of Red Riding Trilogy, are perhaps even better. His latest fiction film is Shadow Dancer – about the IRA in the early 1990s. The film has a drab and dreary visual look – it’s always raining in Ireland – which matches the somber tone of the film. But what the movie really lacks is tension. Here’s a movie about a woman from a family or IRA members, who becomes an informant for MI5 putting her life in jeopardy from both sides, and yet the movie is never really all that tense. It just kind of sits there.

The best thing about the movie is the performance by Andrea Riseborough. She plays Collette, who in the opening scene we see dropping off a bag in a London Metro station, and immediately being arrested. Her interrogator is Mac (Clive Owen) who gives her two options – spend the rest of your life in jail, lose custody of your young son, or become an informant. Although she hesitates, she eventually agrees to become an informant – which will mean ratting on her own family – since two of her brothers are in the IRA. This makes her even more guilt riddled than before – as a child, she sent her younger brother on an errand she was supposed to go on, and he got killed in the crossfire between the Brits and the IRA.

Strangely for a movie about the IRA, the movie is almost devoid of politics. The IRA and the Brits are heading towards a ceasefire – this time, perhaps permanently, and yet the movie never offers any opinion of the politics involved – either in sympathy with the IRA or against it. In fact, the movie doesn’t even really mention any of the issues at play – or why the leadership of the IRA wants to take the deal, and why those on the ground, including Collette’s brothers, are dead set against it. I suppose you could argue that any watching the movie already knows the issues – and already knows what side they’re on – but the complete lack of politics in the movie seemed like a strange choice to me.

The movie still could have worked without the politics of course – as long as the human story was compelling, which I don’t think it was here. If the movie is supposed to be a thriller, than it lacks any real tension, despite all the plots twists the movie throws at you – and the constant state of fear Collette is supposedly in - the enforcer for the IRA suspects she has turned informant – and will kill her if he finds out for sure. But aside from a few quiet conversations, this doesn’t really go anywhere. On the flip side, Mac trying to figure out the truth behind MI5’s motivations – particularly those of his boss (Gillian Anderson), and why they seem to be trying to undermine him also doesn’t make much logical sense – except, of course, because the movie cannot reveal its secrets until its convenient to the plot.  There is also the issue of the forced romance between Collette and Mac – there isn’t much there beyond long, meaningful looks, but since this goes nowhere, I wonder why it was included at all. The ending of the movie also seems completely illogical.

I liked the visual look of the film for the most part. This is a visually drab movie – everything seems to be a shade of grey – which is appropriate for the film since the characters are equally depressed as their environments, and perhaps because the movie takes place in the moral grey zone. The performances match the look, and are appropriate for the characters – especially Riseborough who manages to make Colette sympathetic, despite being a downer to spend the entire movie with. Owen does what he can with Mac, but it’s an underwritten role. Perhaps the best performance in the movie is by Brid Brennan as Collette’s mom – who is quietly excellent throughout. No one else really makes much of an impact.

What we’re left with is a thriller that lacks tension and has an illogical ending, a movie about the IRA devoid of politics, a romance that doesn’t go anywhere, and a character study of drab, boring people. I’ve probably made Shadow Dancer sound worse than it actually is – but there is no doubt that coming from Marsh, this was a disappointment.

Movie Review: The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone
Directed by: Don Scardino.
Written by: Jonathan M. Goldstein & John Francis Daley and Chad Kultgen & Tyler Mitchell.
Starring: Steve Carell (Burt Wonderstone), Steve Buscemi (Anton Marvelton), Olivia Wilde (Jane), Jim Carrey (Steve Gray), James Gandolfini (Doug Munny), Alan Arkin (Rance Holloway), Jay Mohr (Rick the Implausible), Michael Herbig (Lucius Belvedere).

Steve Carell is one of the most likable actors currently working. Even during his stint on The Office, he made Michael Scott into more of a lovable doofus who means well, but doesn’t realize how horrible some of the things he does are – which was fairly far away from Ricky Gervais’ David Brent, who was much more hateable. One of things I have said about Carell in recent films in that he needs to play a bad guy – he’s so good at being nice, that he makes it look too easy, and the routine was starting to wear a little thin. Someone else must have told Carell the same thing because he isn’t a nice guy in The Incredible Burt Wonderstone (and if the previews are to believed, not in The Way, Way Back either). In this movie, he plays a pompous ass – a world famous magician who has all the money and women he could possibly want, and really nothing else. His act hasn’t changed in years, and although he still shares the stage with his childhood friend Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi), they have long since stopped speaking to each other off the stage. It isn’t until he is forced to change, that Burt Wonderstone realizes what an ass he’s been.

Carell is fine in the title role, but the movie itself is a rather lazy concoction. Most of the laughs are generated by Jim Carrey as Steve Gray – a magician in the Criss Angel vein. Carrey goes wildly over the top – which is his specialty – doing one ludicrous “trick” after another – like holding his urine for 12 days, or sleeping on a bed of hot coals. He is the new breed of magician – one who doesn’t really do magic the way many remember it – with sleight of hand tricks and illusions, but instead just inflicts pain upon himself and calls it magic. It has been too long since Carrey did this kind of performance – and if there is a reason to see the film, it’s for his crazy brilliance in the role.

It’s the rest of the movie that doesn’t work very well. Like I said, Carell is fine in the lead, but the role is too broadly written. There really doesn’t seem to be much of a character there to play. The same could be said for Carrey’s role to be fair, but the movie doesn’t try and make us care about his character – and also doesn’t try to convince us he’s changed very much. Carell is left on screen trying to make his character believable, and it just doesn’t work.

There are some good moments in the film – including a hilarious news report of Anton’s attempt to bring magic to the poor children of Africa. But if Carell’s role in underwritten, Buscemi’s is barely written at all – he’s just there because they need him there for plot purposes. The same could be said for Olivia Wilde’s role, who starts as an assistant to Burt and Anton, and gradually morphs into a love interest for Burt, simply because she’s there. Alan Arkin and the late, great James Gandolfini show up in smaller supporting roles as an old time magician and a sleazy casino owner respectfully, and have a few nice moments, but are basically wasted.

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is hardly a painful movie to sit through – it moves along with quiet, uninspired efficiency (courtesy of veteran TV director Dan Scardino), and when Carrey is on screen, the movie comes alive. But the rest of the movie is little more than mildly diverting – not a horrid way to spend an evening, but not a very good one either. Now if the movie had been called Steve Gray: Brain Rapist, they really may have had something here.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Movie Review: World War Z

World War Z
Directed by: Marc Forster.
Written by: Matthew Michael Carnahan and Drew Goddard & Damon Lindelof  and J. Michael Straczynski based on the novel by Max Brooks.
Starring: Brad Pitt (Gerry Lane), Mireille Enos (Karin Lane), Daniella Kertesz (Segen), James Badge Dale (Captain Speke), Ludi Boeken (Jurgen Warmbrunn), Matthew Fox (Parajumper), Fana Mokoena (Thierry Umutoni), David Morse (Ex-CIA Agent), Elyes Gabel (Andrew Fassbach), Peter Capaldi (W.H.O. Doctor), Pierfrancesco Favino (W.H.O. Doctor), Ruth Negga (W.H.O. Doctor), Moritz Bleibtreu (W.H.O. Doctor), Sterling Jerins (Constance Lane), Abigail Hargrove (Rachel Lane), Fabrizio Zacharee Guido (Tomas), David Andrews (Naval Commander).

The zombie genre hasn’t really changed much since George A. Romero pretty much invented it with 1968’s Night of the Living Dead. Romero is still the undisputed master – making 6 films in his “dead” series in the 45 years since the first (he always said he wanted to make 10 – I doubt he’ll make it). The one thing almost every zombie movie – whether it shows the outbreak or is about the aftermath – is that it is about a confined group of people, in one location. The outside world may or may not be falling down like they are – they just don’t know (I supposed 28 Weeks Later is an exception). The biggest debate in zombie movie circles ever happened with the release of 28 Days Later and the remake of Dawn of the Dead – should zombies run?

On that level, you can at least say World War Z offers something slightly new to the zombie genre. Although, unlike the book the film is based on, the movie concentrates on one person, it does offer a global perspective on a zombie outbreak. Max Brooks book had more on its mind than zombies – and was really about politics, and how countries around the world would react to an outbreak of this kind. As far as zombie fiction goes, it actually took the questions relatively seriously.

The movie doesn’t follow the book exactly – that would have made it episodic, and since Brad Pitt was on board, he needs to be at the center of it. So instead of showing us the outbreak piece by piece, country by country with a revolving door of characters, the film concentrates on Pitt’s Gerry Lane – a former UN Investigator called back into service to hope around the globe and try and find where the zombie outbreak started. If they knew where it started, they may know how to stop it. He doesn’t want to do this, but if he doesn’t he and his family – wife Karin (Mireille Enos) and two daughters will be thrown off the relative safety of the Navy ship they’ve be taken in on. He doesn’t really have a choice.

I said earlier that this kind of globetrotting action epic is new to the zombie genre – and I really do believe that – that doesn’t mean that World War Z is exactly original. To be, this almost felt like the type of disaster movie that Roland Emmerich usually makes – although one that is done much better than most of his films. The film is more of a thriller and action movie than a horror film – I wasn’t really scared at any point during the film (although my wife was, but she’s scared of everything in movies). That doesn’t mean the movie isn’t intense – because there are great moments of tension – or exciting – as the film has a couple of great action sequences (the one in Israel is particularly well handled).

And I did like the zombies in this film. I have always been more of a “slow zombie” guy than one of the new breed of running zombies. The zombies win not because of their speed or strength or smarts, but simply because there are too many of them, and they overwhelm you. In World War Z, the zombies are running – and it works really well. Director Marc Forster has said he was inspired by insects with these zombies, and you can easily see that when the zombies swarm their prey, or even when they’re by themselves – trapped in a corner like a fly trying to get out a closed window.

Pitt anchors the movie with his good guy routine – which he does well. While I always like Pitt more when he takes chances – and few movie stars of his caliber have taken as many over the last decade – it’s easy to forget just how good he can be when he’s in full movie star mode as he is here. It’s not going to get him an Oscar or anything, but a movie like this needs a good guy at it’s core – someone for the audience to root for – and Pitt more than fits the bill.

World War Z is well made, mainstream entertainment. I had fun watching the film for two hours, and if the hinted at sequel materializes I see it. The film took some chances and mixed genres effectively. And while the movie doesn’t skimp on action, it also doesn’t beat you into submission with it like many of the action movies so far this summer. It may not be a great film, but it’s an effective one.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Movie Review: Monsters University

Monsters University
Directed by: Dan Scanlon.
Written by: Robert L. Baird & Daniel Gerson & Dan Scanlon.  
Starring: Billy Crystal (Mike), John Goodman (Sullivan), Steve Buscemi (Randy), Helen Mirren (Dean Hardscrabble), Peter Sohn (Squishy), Joel Murray (Don), Sean Hayes (Terri), Dave Foley (Terry), Charlie Day (Art), Alfred Molina (Professor Knight), Tyler Labine (Greek Council VP), Nathan Fillion (Johnny), Aubrey Plaza (Claire Wheeler), Bobby Moynihan (Chet), Noah Johnston (Young Mike), Julia Sweeney (Ms. Squibbles), Bonnie Hunt (Mrs. Graves), John Krasinski (Frank McCay), Bill Hader (Referee / Slug), Beth Behrs (PNK Carrie), Bob Peterson (Roz), John Ratzenberger (Yeti), Frank Oz (Fungus).

Last week, I did a post asking if something was wrong with Pixar. The gist of the piece was essentially that after an almost unprecedented run between 2003’s Finding Nemo and 2010’s Toy Story 3, where they made 7 films, 6 of them being great, and the other being Cars which was merely good, Pixar now seems to have three films in a row – with Cars 2, Brave and now Monsters University – that were not quite up to snuff. What I tried to convey in that piece that while it is fair to say Pixar’s films aren’t quite as great as they were during that stretch a major part of the problem was the weight of expectations. I think Cars 2 was a legitimately bad film, but last year’s Brave was very good – it would considered a triumph for any other animation studio, but coming from Pixar, it was seen as a mild disappointment. The early reviews of Monsters University seemed to suggest the same thing – they were respectable, but hardly over the moon like some of the Pixar’s best efforts. What I will say about Monsters University now that I have seen the film is similar to what I said about Brave – not quite as good as Pixar’s best – and as such, a mild disappointment – but miles better than what most children’s animation made in America is. Monsters University may not be WALL-E – but it’s no Cars 2 either.

The movie is a prequel to 2001’s Monsters Inc., where we followed intrepid duo Sully (voiced by John Goodman) and his sidekick Mike (Billy Crystal) on their adventure working for the premier scaring company in Monster Land – which is powered by children’s screams the scarers must get out of them by creeping up on them as they sleep. Monsters University goes back to the time where Sully and Mike first met - and shockingly, didn’t like each other at first. Sully came to MU as it’s called as a legacy – his father is a famous scarer, and Sully can be scary simply by showing up and growling – he slacks off, does no work, but it doesn’t matter – he’s just that good. Mike on the other hand works his eyeball off – reading every book on scaring ever written, memorizing “Scream Theory” and practicing non-stop. There’s just one problem – he’s not really all that scary.

The plot basically involves Sully and Mike butting heads with each other – and running afoul of Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren), a wonderfully creepy centipede with wings creation. In order to stay in school, they have to assemble a ragtag group of losers and win the “Scare Games”. You can probably see how this is going to play out – and for the most part you’d be right. Unlike the best Pixar movies, Monster’s University doesn’t really have many surprises up its sleeves. There is the Fraternity led by Johnny (Nathan Fillion), who always wins the Scare Games, and need to be taken down a peg, and then there’s the Frat Mike and Sully are stuck with – amusingly with the intitals OK – that is full of the nicest monsters who would ever hope to meet, who seem like hopeless losers, but who Mike and Sully will whip into shape to surprise everyone at the Scare Games.

So no, Monsters University does not rank alongside Wall-E, The Incredibles or Toy Story 3 as one of the very best films Pixar has ever made. And yet, to call the film bad or even disappointing would be wrong. The film, like even the worst Pixar movie, is stunningly well animated – a colorful world full of the strangest, funniest, creepiest monsters you will ever see in a kid’s movie. And while the plot may be fairly well worn territory, that doesn’t mean that co-writer/director Don Scanlon and company don’t deliver the goods and make an extremely entertaining, often times very funny children’s films. The kids will love Monsters Inc. – it’s got enough bright colors, action sequences and humor they can enjoy for that (although, I do wonder if little kids may be given a few nightmares by Hardscrabble – Mirren does a remarkable job of matching the monster’s creepy exterior with a pitch perfect voice).  And there are a few scenes that just about perfect for older movie buffs – the best being a sequence that relives every horror movie cliché “Boo” moment imaginable, deployed in increasingly clever ways.

Monsters University does not live up to the best movies Pixar has ever made. But it is still a very good animated movies that both children and adults should like immensely. What’s so disappointing about that?

Monday, June 24, 2013

Movie Review: The Bling Ring

The Bling Ring
Directed by: Sofia Coppola.
Written by: Sofia Coppola based on the article by Nancy Jo Sales.
Starring: Katie Chang (Rebecca), Israel Broussard (Marc), Emma Watson (Nicki), Claire Julien (Chloe), Taissa Farmiga (Sam), Georgia Rock (Emily), Leslie Mann (Laurie), Carlos Miranda (Rob), Gavin Rossdale (Ricky), Stacy Edwards (Marc's Mom), G. Mac Brown (Henry), Marc Coppola (Mr. Hall - Marc's Dad), Janet Song (Rebecca's Mom), Annie Fitzgerald (Kate from Vanity Fair).

Sofia Coppola is uncommonly gifted at depicting the empty lives of the super-rich. This has led to some critics to say she glamorizes the materialistic lives her characters lead, or worse, ask why they should care about the lives of these empty people in the first place. This probably wouldn’t be as much of an issue if her last name wasn’t Coppola (or she wasn’t a woman – I’ve never heard anyone claim nepotism in the case of Jason Reitman) and it is an easy way to ignore the differences in each of Coppola’s five films. Yes, they are all about rich young women who often see themselves as ciphers – incomplete people who find themselves watching their lives instead of living it. But Coppola doesn’t offer blanket sympathy to all of them (remember Anna Faris’ merciless skewering of Cameron Diaz in Lost in Translation?). The Bling Ring, while not quite at the level of her best films, is once a fascinating little film – effortlessly entertaining and amusing throughout, but one that stays with you for long after the end credits. Shallow, superficial movies don’t do that – but good movies about shallow, superficial people can.

Based on the true story of a group of rich kids in and around Los Angeles who for a year or so in 2011 robbed numerous celebrities of cash, jewels and stuff valued at over $3 million in total (and which, some of the victims at first didn’t even realize was missing), Coppola has crafted a movie for our celebrity obsessed times. I’ve already read comparisons of this film to two other 2013 movies – Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, another movie about out of control young women, and Michael Bay’s Pain & Gain, about a group of lunk headed body builders who want their American Dream. The three films are wildly different in all ways except one – the feature characters who want the lifestyle they think they deserve, and are willing to rob, cheat and steal (and in the other two movies, kill) their way into that lifestyle. The strange thing about The Bling Ring, is unlike the girls in Spring Breakers, who have to rob the Chicken Shack just to have enough money to go on Spring Breaker, or the lunkheads in Pain & Gain who work menial, low paying jobs – the characters out of control in The Bling Ring are already wealthy. They live in mansions, they drive fancy cars, they party at the hottest clubs in L.A. – and they haven’t had to do a damn thing to earn any of it – their parents did, and just give them everything. These kids aren’t robbing to live the life they want – it’s about getting the stuff they want, from the people they like. It isn’t enough to have a Chanel bag – you need to have Paris Hilton’s Chanel bag.
The main character and sometimes narrator of The Bling Ring is Marc (Israel Broussard), who has to go the “drop out high school” for rich kids, after being thrown out of his old school for not going, and spending a year being home schooled. He talks to the camera – in the guise of an interview for Vanity Fair (the resulting article being the basis of the movie) about how he never thought he “fit in” – didn’t see himself as “attractive” as everyone else –which is absurd, since Broussard has the perfectly tousled hair of many a hipster. His is clearly portrayed as gay, without every saying the actual words, so maybe that had something to do with his feeling “ostracized” – although one would think the safest place for a gay teenager would be in the rich homes of L.A. More likely, like most of the other characters in the movie, he just sees himself as a victim because he’s been babied his whole life – given almost everything he could ever ask for, so not getting that extra little bit feels painful.

When he meets Rebecca (Katie Chang) he finally feels like he “has a best friend” – and is immediately seduced by the life she lives – with her beautiful friends like Nicki (Emma Watson), her live in best friend Sam (Taissa Farmiga), who are homeschooled by their mother (Leslie Mann) in the ways of The Secret – and Chloe (Claire Julien, looking and sounding like a Scarlett Johansson clone). They are all beautiful, sexy young women – and know it – and use that, along with their money, to get whatever they want. But it’s still not enough for Rebecca – who starts small, robbing unlocked cars of their wallets, and then building up to the houses of vacating classmates, and finally to the homes of celebrities. It isn’t hard – the can look on TMZ to find out when the celebrities will be out of town, and none of them ever set their burglar alarms, and often leave a sliding door unlocked (or a key under the mat). Soon, their inside the house of Paris Hilton – which unsurprisingly is a shrine to Paris Hilton – and other celebrities, using their closets as their own. It isn’t just about getting designer clothes and jewels – they already have that – but they want to exact clothes they’ve seen the celebrities wear to different events.

The Bling Ring moves effortlessly throughout its first two acts. Yes, it’s fun to be in the company of these rich, beautiful people who party hard and don’t really do anything else. While I don’t think Coppola glamorizes these empty lives as some have claimed - the most ridiculous being one critic who said Coppola shoots the celebrities houses like an episode of MTV’s Cribs, proving they have never seen an episode of the show – a more apt comparison to the show would be James Franco’s now infamous “Look at all my shit” scene in Spring Breakers. Her characters start off nearly interchangeable, but like the movie itself, they gradually become more defined as the movie goes along. The performances are all spot on – especially Emma Watson’s, who delivers yet another brilliant performance, this time as the most spoiled of all the Bling Ring crew, who sees herself as a victim of everyone, takes no responsibility for her own actions, and talks about all her “humanitarian” works, although she has no idea what they actually are (if you think Watson’s performance is an exaggeration, go back and watch last week’s edition of NBC’s Dateline with the performance who inspired Watson’s character – her performance is dead on).

So what is the point of a movie like The Bling Ring? And why should you care about these people, who live empty, entitled lives, awash in materialism with little to no self-awareness? The answer is you probably shouldn’t care about them – they barely care about themselves. But Coppola sees them with such clarity that it’s impossible to look away from them. If you’re like me, you’re likely to be equally drawn into their world and repulsed by it.

Movie Review: Frances Ha

Frances Ha
Directed by: Noah Baumbach.
Written by: Noah Baumbach & Greta Gerwig.
Starring: Greta Gerwig (Frances), Mickey Sumner (Sophie), Michael Esper (Dan), Adam Driver (Lev), Michael Zegen (Benji), Charlotte d'Amboise (Colleen), Grace Gummer (Rachel), Patrick Heusinger (Patch).

Greta Gerwig is one of the most talented, smart, funny, adorable actresses working right now – although pretty much only Noah Baumbach has given her roles that allow that full potential to be realized. She worked for years in Mumblecore movies – that were mostly insufferable, except for her presence. Her performance in Baumbach’s Greenberg (2010) was the best thing about a very good movie – while I admired Ben Stiller’s performance in that movie, and found him a suitable character to be at the center of a Baumbach movie, I kept wishing the movie would instead focus on Gerwig’s Florence – an even more fascinating character, and not quite the picture of female perfection we have come to expect in movie like Greenberg. That movie brought her wider attention – and since then, she’s been cast as the quirky friend in the Natalie Portman-Ashton Kutcher romcom No Strings Attached (2011), the love interest for Russell Brand in the remake of Arthur (2011), the awkward leader of a trio of college girls trying to help their school in Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress (2012), and the cheated on girlfriend in Woody Allen’s To Rome with Love (2012). None of those movies came close to capturing Gerwig’s awkward, funny, smart, adorable persona – they essentially wasted her talents. Perhaps that’s why she co-wrote Frances Ha with Baumbach – because this is the perfect vehicle for her and her talents. And if there is justice in the world, should make her a star.

The film is shot in black and white and has a visual style that recalls early Godard or Truffaut, and because it’s set in New York will remind other viewers of Woody Allen’s Manhattan – all three directors seem to be touchstones for Baumbach here. It stars Gerwig as Frances, a 27 year old graduate from a good school, who is deluding herself in two ways – the first that she will ever become a full time dancer in the company where she has spent 5 years as an apprentice (if you haven’t made it by the time your 27 as a dancer, you’re not going to), and the second is that her college best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner) will be her best friend and roommate forever. “We’re practically the same person!” Frances tells anyone who will listen to her. The audience knows that Frances is deluding herself on both of these counts – and should be clear to Frances as well, the way the company director Colleen kindly drops hints that she should find something else, or get back into choreography, and the way Sophie cruelly dumps Frances on the subway to move in with another girl with the lame excuse “You know I’ve always wanted to live in Tribeca!”.

In some movies – okay, probably most movies – this would make Frances an annoying and frustrating character to spend an entire movie watching. But what separates a great movie like Frances Ha from a horrible movie like last year’s The Comedy, is not only how clearly the movie sees Frances, but also just how plain likable she is. Everyone loves Frances – even if they pity her. Throughout the course of the movie, she’ll move from one temporary house to the next – the apartment with Sophie, the apartment with two trust fund “artists”, one of whom she goes on a date with, although he doesn’t work out because he will sleep with anything that walks, and one she probably should date, but is too messed up to, her parents’ house at Christmas, the couch of a fellow dancer, a Parisian apartment for two days, her old school for the summer, and then finally, her own place. The movie marks the time by showing us these different spots along the way, as Frances is gradually stripped of her delusions.

The movie is humorous throughout – from the opening fight and breakup between Frances and her boyfriend, to the way she and Sophie compare sexual notes about their partners (“He could only finish with me lying flat on my stomach – all the important pieces are covered”), to an almost painful dinner party scene, where Frances hears news about Sophie that apparently everyone else knew except her, and reacts as if she was just punched in the gut, yet tries to keep smiling throughout. Frances Ha does many things well, but perhaps above all, it shows the changing nature of friendship – as Frances gradually has to except that her friend Sophie is now with “Patches” – even if he likes to come in her face, and she quits her good job in publishing to follow him to Japan, and eventually admits that she is miserable with him during a long drunken night in which Frances thinks everything is returning to “normal”, only to once again have it taken away in the harsh light of day.

Frances Ha is refreshing in many ways – it’s funny, but in a smart way, like the best Woody Allen films. And yet, this is a film about a woman – not a Woody Allen woman or a picture of female perfection, but a real woman, flaws and all. It’s also nice to see a movie about New York where money is actually mentioned – when Frances mentions she’s poor, her trust friend Benji tells her “that’s offensive to actual poor people” – but when you’re unemployed, have no money, and have middle class parents who can’t afford to let you live the life of an artist in New York, you’re poor. And the movie has one of those glorious musical moments in film, where you know as you’re watching it you will never be able to hear the song without thinking of that moment in the film – in this case, Frances dancing though the streets of New York set to David Bowie’s Modern Love.

The only complaint I have about the movie is that I think it ends a little too easily. I’m not quite sure I believe that everything would work out quite as quickly as everything works out in Frances Ha. And yet, I find that to be a minor complaint – and one I don’t really mind. By the end of the movie, you’re rooting for Frances – and it’s nice to see her happy.

Movie Review: Much Ado About Nothing

Much Ado About Nothing
Directed by: Joss Whedon.
Written by: Joss Whedon based on the play by William Shakespeare.
Starring: Amy Acker (Beatrice), Alexis Denisof (Benedick), Nathan Fillion (Dogberry), Clark Gregg (Leonato), Reed Diamond (Don Pedro), Fran Kranz (Claudio), Jillian Morgese (Hero), Sean Maher (Don John), Spencer Treat Clark (Borachio), Riki Lindhome (Conrade), Ashley Johnson (Margaret), Emma Bates (Ursula), Tom Lenk (Verges), Nick Kocher (First Watchman), Brian McElhaney (Second Watchman), Joshua Zar (Leonato's Aide), Paul Meston (Friar Francis).

Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing is a pleasant surprise. Whedon, the director best known for his genre TV work (Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Firefly, Dollhouse) and last year’s mega hit The Avengers, has crafted an effortless, utterly enjoyable modern day version of one of William Shakespeare’s best known comedies. Shot in black and white, over two weeks, for almost no money, with a cast culled from Whedon’s TV shows this Much Ado About Nothing manages the trick of setting a Shakespeare play in modern day America, while keeping the Shakespeare dialogue, and not make the whole thing look like a stunt.

This movie is set almost exclusively in the home of Leonato (Clark Gregg), a wealthy man in what looks to be a gated community. Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) shows up with his men – the love-struck Claudio (Fran Kranz) and affirmed bachelor Benedick (Alexis Benisof) in tow, along with his scheming brother Don John (Sean Maher). Claudio is in love with Leonato’s daughter Hero (Jillian Morgese), who Don Pedro agrees to woo in his name, and arrange the marriage with Leonato, while Benedick and Hero’s cousin Beatrice (Amy Acker) engage in a war of words about how much they hate each other – while of course, they love each other. And Don John wants to mess everything up with the help of his friends Borachio (Spencer Treat Clark) and Conrade (Riki Lindhome – inspiring casting, since Conrade is usually a man).

Whedon stages this all as a screwball comedy of the super-rich. Whatever these men do, and it’s never addressed, they’re obviously rich – they look they stepped out of the pages of GQ. All the actors are game – making the Shakespearean dialogue feel more natural given the surroundings than it probably should. Two central scenes – where first the men conspire to make Benedick think Beatrice is in love with him, and then the women do the same thing to Beatrice – are excellent examples of ridiculous physical comedy – complete with pratfalls that work far better than they should. Densiof and Acker are pretty much perfectly matched as the lovers who can’t stand each other, digging into their insults to each other. The best member of the cast however is, surprisingly, Nathan Fillion as Dogberry – the local buffoonish constable who uncovers the plot to shame Hero. Normally an over the top fool, Fillion nicely underplays Dogberry – and still gets many of the film’s biggest laughs – especially the way he obsesses over Conrade calling him an ass.

The problems with the movie, are the same I’ve always had with the play – essentially, why Hero still wants Claudio after he is tricked in believing she has been unfaithful, and goes out of his way to shame her in the most public and humiliating way possible. The scene where he does that is brilliantly handled by Kranz as Claudio, making the old standard of fidelity seem more modern than it should. But why then does he deserve a happy ending with Hero? And why does Hero still want him after what he did? These are probably questions better suited for Shakespeare than Whedon – although I suspect the answer would be the play is a comedy, so of course they end up together.

Adapting Shakespeare in a modern setting is a tricky proposition – one that doesn’t work out very well much of the time. But Whedon and his cast pull it off. The somehow make this play that is hundreds of years old feel fresh and new.

Movie Review: Fill the Void

Fill the Void
Directed by: Rama Burshtein.
Written by: Rama Burshtein.
Starring: Hadas Yaron (Shira), Yiftach Klein (Yochay), Irit Sheleg (Rivka), Chayim Sharir (Aharon), Razia Israeli (Aunt Hanna), Hila Feldman (Frieda), Renana Raz (Esther), Yael Tal (Shifi), Michael David Weigl (Shtreicher), Ido Samuel (Yossi), Neta Moran (Bilha), Melech Thal (Rabbi).

We do not see many films made from inside insular religious communities. There is a reason for this of course – they tend to be old fashioned and don’t really embrace movies about anything, let alone themselves, and they don’t want their dirty laundry aired in public. This makes sense, but it also leads to the only movies being made about them to be made by outsiders – who often view them as backwards or misogynistic. The film that immediately comes to mind when talking about Orthodox Jews is Boaz Yakin’s A Price Above Rubies (1998), which certainly fits that description – although I did quite like it. But now comes Rama Burshtein’s wonderful debut film Fill the Void – which is said to be the first Israeli film directed by an Orthodox woman. Her view of the community, while not all roses, is certainly more positive than Yakin’s – and more fascinating.

The movie is anchored by a remarkable performance by young Hadas Yaron, who plays Shira, an 18 year woman. While marriages aren’t not necessarily arranged in this community, there is a way that they go about doing it – that involves parents brokering the “deal”, and the blessing of the local Rabbi. The couple have a few “dates” – which really just involves two shy teenagers sitting in quietly in a room together, both too scared to say much of anything to each other. Shira thinks she is going to marry the Miller boy – and is happy about that. But everything changes when her beloved older sister Esther dies in childbirth, leaving behind a grieving husband Yochay (Yiftach Klein) and a newborn son. When the Miller’s back out of the arrangement, for reasons that remain unclear, Shira’s mother Rivka (Irit Sheleg) thinks it would be a good idea for Shira to marry Yochay instead – especially because in this community, a single man raising a baby by himself is unthinkable, and his other option is moving to Belgium to marry a widow with kids of her own.

I can picture how Fill the Void would look if it were made by an outsider to this community – Shira would be pressured by the old men of the community to marry Yochay, although she doesn’t want to, and fights against it. The movie would either end with Shira forced into a marriage she doesn’t want, or leaving the community she left behind. Burshstein takes neither approach. Shira’s father, Aharon (Chayim Sharir) is a quiet man, who doesn’t insist on anything for Shira apart from her considering the marriage to Yochay. The Rabbi asks Shira how she feels about the impending marriage, and when she tells him “emotions don’t matter”, he tells her emotions are all that matters. He isn’t going to give the marriage his blessing unless he believes it is something that both Yochay and Shira want. Even Rivka, who is the driving force behind pushing Shira towards Yochay isn’t quite as demanding as she might otherwise be.

Having said that, Burshtein doesn’t paint this community as all rosy. Shira’s Aunt Hanna, an armless woman who never married, is looked at with pity by her family, as is the much younger Frieda (Hila Feldman), who is still in her 20s, but is past the age most women marry. Burhstein’s film shows how in this community, women are looked upon as somewhat inferior if they do not marry.

The film is fascinating because it tells the story from inside this community, and sees it with clear eyes. For the Jews in this community, everyday decisions are measured by duty, morality and faith – they take these questions seriously in every decision they make. The film is also beautiful to look at – with its hazy cinematography.

At the center of the movie is a stunning performance by Yaron as Shira. She is a young woman – a girl really – who is put in a nearly impossible situation, and has to decide what to do. On one hand, she knows it is her duty to marry Yochay, who seems kind, and who is genuinely loves – but more as a brother than a potential husband. On the other hand, she wants her own husband – not her sister’s – someone she can build her own life with. Besides, wouldn’t Frieda be a more appropriate match for Yochay anyway?

Yochay remains an enigma throughout the movie. He clearly loved Esther, but now he needs to marry someone else. Marrying Shira would allow him to stay in Israel and as part of Ether’s family who he gets along with. But is that why he wants to marry Shira? Is even a part of him a lecherous older man, who looks who wants a younger, inexperienced wife – who it must be said is jaw droppingly beautiful? While the movie lets us in on Shira’s complex thought process and religious struggle to do the right thing, Yochay is seen from more of a distance.

The movie ends on just the right ambiguous note. What is going through Shira’s head in those final moments? Relief? Fear? Curiosity? Regret? Happiness? I cannot say, but that moment has stuck with me – much like the rest of the movie.