Monday, September 30, 2013

Movie Review: Rush

Directed by: Ron Howard.
Written by: Peter Morgan.
Starring: Chris Hemsworth (James Hunt), Daniel Brühl (Niki Lauda), Olivia Wilde (Suzy Miller), Alexandra Maria Lara (Marlene Lauda), Pierfrancesco Favino (Clay Regazzoni), David Calder (Louis Stanley), Natalie Dormer (Nurse Gemma), Stephen Mangan (Alastair Caldwell), Christian McKay (Lord Hesketh), Alistair Petrie (Stirling Moss), Julian Rhind-Tutt (Anthony 'Bubbles' Horsley), Colin Stinton (Teddy Mayer), Jamie de Courcey (Harvey 'Doc' Postlethwaite), Augusto Dallara (Enzo Ferrari), Ilario Calvo (Luca Di Montezemolo), Patrick Baladi (John Hogan).

Rush, like most films directed by Ron Howard, is pretty much exactly the film you expect to see when you walk into the theater. The trailer sets up a good racing movie, with a rivalry between the hotshot, go-for-glory mentality of James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) vs. the cautious, intellectual approach of Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl), and basically shows how their rivalry developed over a number of years, culminating in their season long dual in 1976 for the F-1 Championship. And that is precisely what Howard delivers, in a film where the racing scenes are expertly staged, and the performances are top notch. The one thing about the film that did surprise me – pleasantly – is how it never takes sides. It doesn’t turn Hunt into a hero, and Lauda into a villain, or vice versa. Instead, it presents two men, with completely different views on what it takes to be a winner – and lets the audience decide who was right, and who was wrong – or, if you’re like me, decide that they were equally right. Both men raced the way they needed to if they wanted to win.

The movie sets these two drivers up as polar opposites – and benefits greatly from the performances by the two leads. Chris Hemsworth, who has never really had a chance to show his acting chops (he’s fine as Thor, but there are no nuances to that character) portrays Hunt as foolhardy – a fun loving party guy who drinks, smokes and screws constantly, and when he’s behind the wheel, he depends on his own intuitions. He has no fear, gleefully accepts the prospect of death, and goes for broke every time out. It’s a fine performance – and I suspect American audiences are going to be on his side more than not – even though Hunt was British, he is almost a prototypical brash American – and Hemsworth relishes the opportunity to play this charming bad boy. He doesn’t have all that more depth than Thor – but it’s a different role, and one that suits Hemsworth. Daniel Bruhl is even better as Lauda – a man who doesn’t care if anyone likes him, he’s just there to win. He’s more involved with the mechanics of his car, and knows every detail of the race he’s going drive. He is a technical driver, one who relies on his intellect to win. At first, he is the much less sympathetic – and likable – character. But he is also given more depth than Hunt. It would have been easy to turn him into an unfeeling villain – but Peter Morgan’s excellent screenplay doesn’t do that. In fact, by the end, I was rooting for him.

The racing scenes are some of the best of their kind ever put on film. Working with cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, Howard has crafted scenes that are loud, brash and exciting – often putting us behind the wheel with the drivers. Although at times Howard does rely on some rapid editing, he never loses focus – and you never lose perspective on what is happening. You feel the rush (pardon the use of the word) of the races in your guts as they are going on – that mixture of excitement and fear, that feeds the drivers need to go out there week after week and risk their lives.

As a narrative, Rush follows a fairly well-worn path – the two rivals start off hating each other, and gradually they build up a begrudging respect for the other person. They still may not like each other, but they realize that in a way they need each other – the presence of the other fuels their desire to get better, and pushes them to places they otherwise would not get to. That’s not exactly an original observation, but it gets the job done.

And that pretty much describes the movie as a whole – not exactly original, but it gets the job done. Howard has always been a gifted technical director – and this has to rank as one of the best of his career in that regard. And he has always been good with actors – and he gets career best work out of Hemsworth and Bruhl (the rest of the cast is pretty much disposable – but have some nice moments). And Peter Morgan’s screenplay is very good – stripping the movie of much of the filler movies like this often have, and concentrating on what works. Rush is precisely the movie the previews promised it to be – and for me that makes it an immensely satisfying, if not overly original, movie.

Movie Review: Don Jon

Don Jon
Directed by: Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
Written by: Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Jon), Scarlett Johansson (Barbara), Julianne Moore (Esther), Tony Danza (Jon Sr.), Glenne Headly (Angela), Brie Larson (Monica), Rob Brown (Bobby), Jeremy Luke (Danny), Paul Ben-Victor (Priest), Italia Ricci (Gina), Lindsey Broad (Lauren), Amanda Perez (Lisa), Sarah Dumont (Sequins), Sloane Avery (Patricia), Loanne Bishop (Barbara's Mom).
Like many first time directors, Joseph Gordon-Levitt tries to cram too much into his debut feature, Don Jon. This is a movie filled with ideas, and characters, and undoubtedly tries to do more than any one 90 minute comedy could realistically expect to pull off. And yet, despite that, he has made a very entertaining first film – and shows immense potential for the future. Gordon-Levitt doesn’t take the easy road with this movie, although I do hope he realizes that less can sometimes mean more.

Gordon-Levitt wrote, directed and stars as the title character – Jon – a New Jersey bartender (complete with what I would normally call an exaggerated accent, but then I have seen promos for Jersey Shore). He is good looking and charming in his Jersey way, and has no problem taking home a different beautiful girl every weekend. The problem is that for Jon, the actual sex he is having cannot measure up to the porn he watches obsessively on his computer whenever he gets the chance. The women he sleeps with are stubbornly human – with their own needs and desires, and to put it bluntly they won’t do all the same things the girls in porn will do (shocking, I know). Than he meets Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), and she slowly starts to try and change Jon – manipulating him with sex to get him to do whatever she wants. She doesn’t like his job, so she gets him to go back to school. She wants to blend friends, and meet families. And she despises internet porn. But as the movie also makes clear, while Jon has unrealistic ideas of what sex should be from porn, Barbara has unrealistic ideas of what relationships should be like from romantic movies. To her, if a guy isn’t willing to do anything she asks for her, he doesn’t really love her.

There are more characters – Jon’s overbearing, stereotypical New Jersey family - Tony Danza in his best (only?) role in years, Glenne Headly playing the stereotypical weeping mother, and Brie Larson showing off a wide range of eye rolling – his friends (it was nice to see Rob Brown in something – I always wondered what happened to him after Finding Forrester) – and most important of all Esther (Julianne Moore). Esther is a woman Jon meets at his night class. He catches her crying outside one day, and ignores her. The next week, she tries to explain – but he isn’t interested. But gradually, the two do begin to talk, and then more. If Barbara is trying to get Jon to change into the man she wants through sexual manipulation, than Esther is trying to get him to change, not because of her own desires, but because it would be better for him.

The movie’s greatest strength is Gordon-Levitt himself. He has mainly been in dramas for the past few years (even his one comedy, 50/50, he plays a guy with cancer), so it was nice to see him play a character this oversized and comedic. Gordon-Levitt doesn’t shy away from the New Jersey stereotypes in his portrayal of Jon – in fact, he full on embraces them with his accent, his clothes and his hair – but Jon is not just a walking stereotype. Gradually, he reveals layers to himself, and despite his outward confidence and obnoxiousness, you start to like the guy. Not to be outdone, Scarlett Johansson goes full on Jersey Shore with her accent and mannerisms – and nails it. Too few have exploited Johansson’s comedic gifts over her career – but she has them. Julianne Moore is very good as Esther – the older woman who takes Jon under her wing a little bit – and shows him what love and sex should be like.

It is in the writing of both Barbara and Esther than the movie has its biggest problem however. Gordon-Levitt tries to make the point that romantic comedies warp Barbara’s idea about love, just like the porn warps Jon’s ideas about sex, but it is an underwritten idea - yes, the clips of the movies they watch, complete with movie star cameos are hilarious – but because the movie never spends any time with Barbara by herself – she’s never seen Jon – she never really becomes a complete character. If Gordon-Levitt doesn’t necessarily excuse Jon’s porn addiction, he certainly gives him plenty of room to grow by the end – room that Johansson’s Barbara never gets. Esther is an even more underwritten character – her revelation about the source of her crying doesn’t quite hit as hard as it should, and she never really becomes a fully rounded character herself – just someone who fills a plot point. Both Johansson and Moore are excellent however – they help paper over the flaws in the writing of their characters, but I almost want to see two more movies – one from Barbara’s point of view and one from Esther’s – because the time we spend with them in Don Jon makes me want to spend more with both of them.

Perhaps though that really isn’t Gordon-Levitt’s fault. He is, after all, making a movie almost entirely from his character’s point-of-view, and for almost the entire movie, his character does only see the women in his life in the ways they affect him – and not as complete people. And it is to the movie’s credit that Gordon-Levitt doesn’t try to wrap everything up in a happy ending where Jon is “cured” – but instead only offers hope that he will, eventually, be able to have a mature, committed relationship with a woman. I do wish we’d get more movies like this from the women’s point of view however – but that’s really Hollywood’s problem, and not Gordon-Levitt’s.

Don Jon is a promising debut film from Gordon-Levitt, the writer director. He does try to cram too much into his running time (I haven’t even mentioned his take on religion in the film, which feels underdeveloped), and as a result his movie has a little to say about a lot of subjects, when it would be better if it had more to say on fewer subjects. But that’s something many directors learn with time. I liked Don Jon – it is funny and well-acted – the charm of the actors helping to overcome some of the scripts weaknesses. I look forward to seeing what Gordon-Levitt does next as a writer/director. He may not have made a great film this time out, but Don Jon shows that the potential is there for him to get there someday.

Friday, September 27, 2013

The Career of Ron Howard

Before Rush opens wide this weekend, I was going to write something about Ron Howard’s directing career. I considered doing a ranking of his films, as I have done with many directors in the past, but the truth is out of his 21 theatrical efforts before Rush, I’ve missed 6 films – including some big ones like Night Shift (1982), Splash (1984) and Parenthood (1989) – so I decided against that (I think I’ve caught most of Parenthood when it aired on TV – but I’m not sure). Then, I was going to write a little career retrospective, about Ron Howard the king of the Middlebrow directors. Than in this week’s The Conversation, The Dissolve’s Scott Tobias and Noel Murray beat me to it. ( It’s an excellent read, and almost made me not write this at all – but dammit, I already wrote half of it in my head, so I decided to go ahead and do so anyway. I’m such a small blog, it’s not like they’re going to come after me for “stealing” their idea anyway. Besides, I’ve seen a couple of other things looking back at Ron Howard’s career in the past week or so – it’s not like it’s an overly original idea.

When the term “middlebrow” comes up in relation to movies, it’s probably not going to be that long before the name Ron Howard is invoked – usually derisively. I admit, I’ve done it myself at times - I remember expressing disappointment that one of the most daring directors in the world, Oliver Stone, essentially made a “Ron Howard film” when he directed World Trade Center.

It’s easy to see why – Ron Howard IS a middlebrow director. But is that, necessarily, a bad thing? The thing about Ron Howard is almost always, you know what you’re going to get when you walk into one of his movies. He is a skilled technical director – his films are almost always well put together. And, as a former actor, he is capable of getting some very good performances out of his cast. I find it impossible to truly hate many of his movies – but also nearly as impossible to love many of his movies. They seem too impersonal to me. They certainly do not have a “directorial stamp” on them – Howard is no auteur – and as Tobias and Murray point out their conversation, it’s difficult to pinpoint a recurrent theme in Howard’s work – agreeing that the closest he comes is portraying people who “really good” at their jobs – but even they agree that’s a stretch.

There are exceptions to the no “love it or hate it” in the case of Howard of course. I do love Apollo 13 (1995) – and consider it his best movie (we’d be in a better place had that won the Best Picture Oscar in 1995 rather than Braveheart – which would have meant something other than Howard’s A Beautiful Mind could have won in 2001). This is one of the best movies about astronauts ever made – even if it pales in comparison to The Right Stuff (1983) and the upcoming Gravity in that regard. But it’s a movie made with precision and skill – features wonderful performances by Tom Hanks et al, and is perhaps Howard’s most personal film – as we know he loves space. The one film of Howard’s I truly despise is Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000), a horrible movie that misses everything charming about the original story. Sure, it made a lot of money – but does anyone NOT hate that film?

Everything falls somewhere in between. True, his two Dan Brown adaptations – The Da Vinci Code (2006) and Angels & Demons (2009) are both bad movies – but can you really lay the blame at Howard’s feet for them? Are they not “well made” films, with performances as good as can be expected, given the source material? Howard probably made as good of films out of those two bad novels as it was possible to make. He was hamstrung by the material there – he didn’t screw anything up that didn’t arrive to him pre-screwed up. His last film before Rush was The Dilemma (2011) – a bad comedy about Vince Vaughn having to decide whether or not to tell his best friend (Kevin James) that his wife (Winona Ryder) was cheating on him. That movies wasn’t really that well directed – and it was tonally inconsistent from scene-to-scene – but a lot of that springs from the screenplay, and the fact Vaughn never quite figures out how to play the role (it did however how just how good Channing Tatum could be in comedic roles). Howard’s biggest misstep in that film was agreeing to do it in the first place. His only other true misfire was 1999’s EdTV, which may have been better had it not come out a year after the similar The Truman Show – which was an excellent film, and showed just how shallow Howard’s film was. It didn’t help that the main character was played by Matthew McConaghey during his “I’m going to coast on my Southern charm” phase. 1986’s Gung Ho may not exactly be a wonderful film – and it is a little uncomfortable at times for it’s depiction of the Japanese, which borders on racist – but if you can ignore that, it’s an affable comedy, with a fine Michael Keaton performance at its core.

But leaving aside the six of his films I haven’t seen (Grand Theft Auto, Night Shift, Splash, Willow, Parenthood and Far & Away) – can anyone truly HATE any of Ron Howard’s other films? How can you not be charmed by the alien and old folks fantasy of Cocoon (1985) – if for no other reason than it gave some legends one last chance to stretch their acting legs a little bit – and netted Don Ameche an Oscar? I have a soft spot for Backdraft (1991) – perhaps because I saw it when I was too young to know how clichéd it is – but it still wins me over when I see it on TV – from its excellent performances in supporting roles by Robert DeNiro and Donald Sutherland, its exciting firefighting scenes, and even its cheesy ending. The Paper (1994) is a fine film about the news business – it’s not a masterpiece, but it’s very good, and has an excellent ensemble cast. Ransom (1996) is an intense thriller; with Mel Gibson is full movie star mood that is satisfying within its limitations. A Beautiful Mind (2001) may have been over rated in 2001 – when it won the Best Picture Oscar (and Howard a directing Oscar) – but 12 years later, it’s now under rated. Like many Best Picture winners, A Beautiful Mind isn’t great enough to support the mantle of “best of the year”, but it’s hardly the travesty some think it to be – and it does contain excellent performances by Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly. The Missing (2003) is actually one of my favorite Howard films – a mystical Western, a little darker than typical Howard fare, with very good work by Cate Blanchatt and Tommy Lee Jones. Cinderella Man (2005) is an overly sentimental film to be sure – but it’s period details are wonderful, and Russell Crowe (again) and Paul Giamatti – not to mention Craig Bierko – are all excellent. Howard may try too hard to make Frost/Nixon (2008) more “cinematic” – but at its core, it’s still an excellent tet-a-tet with great work by Frank Langella and Michael Sheen – and a number of fine supporting roles. The movie takes some undeserved shots because it’s one of the “middlebrow” films that got into the Oscar race that year – instead of more popular films like The Dark Knight or Wall-E - and inspired the Academy to go from 5 to 10 Best Picture nominees – but that’s hardly the films fault.

I think Tobias and Murray hit it on the head when they say that while Howard doesn’t elevate the material he’s given, he doesn’t ruin it either. In short, if Ron Howard makes a film from your screenplay, he won’t fuck it up if you’ve written a good one, but he won’t be able paper over its flaws if it’s a bad one. You’re going to see your work up there – for better or worse – in a technically proficient and well-acted film. In old school Hollywood terms, Ron Howard is not Howard Hawks – who would take the movie and make it his own – he’s more Michael Curtiz – who knows how to make a good film when he has good material.

All of this probably seems like I’m dismissing Ron Howard. I’m not. You have to admire a director who has worked consistently in Hollywood for more than 30 years, and for the most part, has put out one good film after another. True, he has very rarely made a “great” film, but he’s also very rarely made a “horrible” one. How many other directors like Ron Howard can say that? In the 30 years he’s been around, how many directors have come and gone, leaving behind little or no lasting impact on film? Ron Howard may be the poor man’s Spielberg, but that’s a hell of lot better than most directors.

To sum up, I’ll go see Rush this weekend. I suspect that I’ll like the film, but not love it. I suspect it will be a well-made film, with exciting racing scenes (those are the type of things Howard does well), and that it will be well acted by its entire cast. With Howard, you usually know what you’re going to get when you walk into the theater – and even if he rarely exceeds your expectations, he also rarely disappoints. Personally, I don’t think that’s all that bad.

The Best Films I Have Never Seen Before: A Touch of Class (1973)

A Touch of Class (1973)
Directed by: Melvin Frank.
Written by: Melvin Frank and Jack Rose.
Starring: George Segal (Steven 'Steve' Blackburn), Glenda Jackson (Vicki Allessio), Paul Sorvino (Walter Menkes), K Callan (Patty Menkes), Cec Linder (Wendell Thompson), Michael Elwyn (Cecil), Mary Barclay (Martha Thompson), Hildegard Neil (Gloria Blackburn).

Melvin Frank’s A Touch of Class tries very hard to be a modern screwball comedy, taking a more 1970s outlook on romance and adultery and combining it with the type of over the top, out of control, rapid fire dialogue popular in the 1930s. It may have even worked had the two leads felt like they inhabited the same movie – but George Segal plays his role as he played all of his roles in the 1970s – as a modern man – while Glenda Jackson tries very hard, and for the most part succeeds, in channelling an actress like Katherine Hepburn or Rosalind Russell. Either acting style could have worked, but the fact that the two stars approached the film from opposite sides made it hard for me to buy them as a couple in love – and as such it was hard to enjoy the movie as a whole.

Segal stars as Steve, an American insurance broker living and working in London with his wife and two kids. Jackson is Vicki a divorced mother of two, a fashion designer whose job is to copy the dresses of high class designers for far less money. The two meet cute once, then twice, and then go on a few dates, before deciding to sleep together. Not wanting just a cheap fling, they head to Spain for a week – and after everything that can possibly go wrong does, then end up at each other’s throats, wishing they never went on vacation together in the first place – which, in the tradition of all romantic comedies, is of course, when they actually fall in love.

As individual performances, both Segal and Jackson are quite good, it’s just they never really gel together. Segal is far too much of the 1970s man – trying hard to be respectful of an independent woman, yet still far too old fashioned to really do it. He is charming and funny however, as Segal always is. Jackson is even better. Known for much more serious roles – in films like Women in Love (for which she won her first Oscar) and Sunday Bloody Sunday, Jackson shows off her lighter side in A Touch of Class – and was rewarded with her second Oscar. It must have been a weak year for actresses, because even though Jackson is clearly the highlight of the movie, and it is a wonderfully witty performance, there is nothing in it that you don’t see any number of times in any given year. Yes, she`s wonderful, but not Oscar worthy.

That pretty much describes the movie as well. A Touch of Class has been pretty much forgotten by everyone over the years, except for people like me who make an effort to see all Oscar winning performances and Best Picture nominees (and amazingly, in one of the strongest years ever for movies, 1973, this average comedy did in fact get an Oscar nomination for Best Picture). A Touch of Class is a strange movie, because for so much of its length it tries very hard to be a screwball comedy – with mixed results – and yet because Segal is married, we know that the film will not really have a happy ending. The problem with the ending isn`t so much that it’s sad but that it strains credibility. After everything these two people go through, to end it the way the filmmakers do doesn`t quite feel right. As much as I`m not quite sure I liked these two people, they deserved a better ending than writer director Melvin Frank gives them.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Movie Review: V/H/S 2

V/H/S 2
Directed by: Simon Barrett (Tape 49), Adam Wingard (Clinical Trials), Eduardo Sanchez & Gregg Hale (A Ride in he Park), Gareth Evans & Timo Tjahjanto (Safe Haven), Jason Eisener (Alien Abduction Slumber Party).
Written by: Simon Barrett (Tape 49), John Davies (Clinical Trials), Jamie Nash & Eduardo Sánchez (A Ride in the Park), Gareth Evans & Timo Tjahjanto (Safe Haven), Jason Eisener (Alien Abduction Slumber Party).
Starring: Kelsy Abbott, Hannah Al Rashid, Fachry Albar, Oka Antara, Devon Brookshire, Samantha Gracie, L.C. Holt, Hannah Hughes, Clarissa, Kevin Hunt, Epy Kusnandar, Lawrence Michael Levine, Carly Robell, Mindy Robinson, Jay Saunders, Jeremie Saunders, Andrew Suleiman, Adam Wingard, John T. Woods.

Last year’s VHS was a nasty little surprise – a horror anthology that actually worked. It featured five shorts – two of which were great, one was very good, one was good and one was awful, to go with an average framing device (an excellent batting average for this type of film). The film used the found footage genre in new and interesting ways – and was also quite scary and disturbing. The film was successful enough on its limited budget to warrant a sequel – but for me, it doesn’t come close to matching the original. The first film had a remarkable consistency in its tone – all violent, nasty little films – and I suppose V/H/S 2 does as well for the most part – but this time the mood is lighter, there’s far more black comedy and over the top gore than the first time around. There is one excellent section to go along with three mediocre ones, and a framing device that may not be any better than the first film, but at least is shorter. When I watched the original VHS, I started out watching in the dark, and slowly turned all the lights in my house on as it went along. This time, I wasn’t scared in the least at any point.

The framing device this time is about a P.I. and his assistant who have been hired by a worried mother to find her college age son. They go to his house, and don’t find him, but do find his laptop open cued to a video of him talking about the “tapes” – which the assistant then starts to watch. The wraparound’s surprise ending wouldn’t have been a surprise if she had just watched his whole video from the start, but then that would spoil the fun, right? This segment is directed by Simon Barrett, who wrote two of the segments for the last film but hadn’t directed a feature before, probably because no one else wanted to direct the wraparound segment. It’s probably better than the wraparound from the first film, but only because it doesn’t drag on as long.

The first real segment is directed by Adam Wingard, who made the wraparound segment of the first film, so as a reward was given a chance to direct an actual segment this time. Wingard’s segment of the horrible omnibus horror film The ABCs of Death (Q is for Quack) was one of that film’s best – and I pretty much loved You’re Next, released after two years in limbo, in August. Wingard’s segment here – which he also stars in – is about a man who gets an eye transplant – with predictably horrible results. As with Q is for Quack, Wingard tries for a darkly comedic tone in this segment to go along with the horror, but the two don’t mix very well this time – and other than a few superficial shocks, there isn’t much here. It’s not horrible, just not very good either.

Next up is Gregg Hale and Eduardo Sanchez’s A Ride in the Park, which is about a young man who goes for a bike ride in the park, and is set upon by zombies. Zombies are over exposed right now, so if you’re going to do a zombie film, at least come up with an original way to do them – and this one doesn’t. Again, the tone is lighter, and never scary, but considering Sanchez is one of the directors behind The Blair Witch Project – which for better or worse is responsible for this found footage genre that is hot right now – the results are disappointingly bland.

By far the longest – and best segment – comes next. Gareth Evans (who directed last year’s excellent action film The Raid: Redemption) who teams up with Timo Tjahjanto (who made an awful segment for The ABC’s of Death) to make their extremely disturbing and creepy segment Safe Haven. It starts with a documentary crew filming a cult on their compound, and the film gradually increases the sense of impending doom, until it explodes with some of the best and most disturbing moments of the VHS series so far. True, the ending was weak, but everything up until then was pretty much brilliant.

The segment I was dreading closes the film – Jason Eisener’s Alien Abduction Slumber Party. Eisener is the man behind the absolutely terrible film Hobo with a Shotgun, and another of the worst segments of The ABC’s of Death, so I was just hoping the segment would be over quickly. But to my surprise, it wasn’t horrible. Eisener is clearly trying to tap into those 1980s movies about a group of renegade kids – like say, The Goonies – only this time, it’s about a sleepover that takes a scary turn when aliens arrive (hence the title). The segment really isn’t good – out of all of the segments, this one boasts the most shaky camera work – but it’s not that bad either – easily the best thing Eisener has been responsible for so far.

V/H/S 2 is not as good as the original. Sorry, but it’s true, and I’m kind of mystified that many critics seem to think it’s much better. Other than Safe Haven, there really isn’t anything great here – although to be fair, there isn’t anything god awful either. And I did appreciate the clever ways the filmmakers chose to film their “found footage” films this time – Wingard literally through his eye, Hale and Sanchez through a camera strapped to a bike helmet, Eisener by a camera strapped to a small dog. Still, the most traditional one – Safe Haven, through the eye of a documentarian’s camera – remains the best.

It’s a generally accepted rule that omnibus film are always better in theory than they are in practice. Quick – name a great omnibus film. I don’t think there is one that is great all the way through. Most are like New York Stories, which has one great segment (in that case by Scorsese), one horrible segment (Coppola) and one mediocre (Allen). V/H/S is actually one of the best I can think of – but perhaps what V/H/S 2 proves is that was an anomaly more than anything else – because this film, like most of its ilk, has one segment worth watching, surrounded by mediocrity.

Movie Review: In the House

In the House
Directed by: François Ozon.
Written by: François Ozon based on the play by Juan Mayorga.
Starring: Fabrice Luchini (Germain), Ernst Umhauer (Claude Garcia), Kristin Scott Thomas (Jeanne Germain), Emmanuelle Seigner (Esther Artole), Denis Ménochet (Rapha Artole père), Bastien Ughetto (Rapha Artole fils).

Francois Ozon’s tricky new film In the House sneaks up on you slowly. It reminded me of a Hitchcock film, the way it subtlety enlists you to be complacent to the characters and their actions – to turn the audience into voyeurs – before slowly turning the knife and you realize just how poisoned everything has become. It is the best film Ozon has made in years – perhaps since Swimming Pool back in 2003.

The film stars Fabrice Luchini as Germain, a bored creative writing teacher at a suburban high school in France. He thinks his students are idiots – and when he gives a simple assignment to his class asking them to tell them about their weekend, and one student writes all of two lines “On Saturday, I ate pizza and watch TV. On Sunday, I was tired and did nothing)” – it’s hard to argue with him. But then one student catches his attention – Claude Garcia (Ernst Umhauer). His assignment is brilliant – telling of the time he spent in the house of a classmate, who seemingly has a “perfect family” – unlike Claude’s own. It’s clear Claude has contempt for the classmate, who he perceives as a dolt, for the father, who he thinks is a bore, and dismisses the wife as “smelling like the Middle Class”. He looks down on these people, but he has obvious skill – and Germain takes him under his wing. He even lets his wife, Jeanne (Kristen Scott Thomas) read the stories – and although she thinks the things she writes about this family are awful, she cannot stop reading them. One story arrives after another, and Germain and Jeanne fall under Claude’s spell. How much of what he is writing is fiction, and how much is real? The stories gradually start to focus on the mother – Esther (Emmanuelle Seigner), who Claude sees as both a surrogate mother figure and a MILF. Slowly, so slowly that Germain and the audience barely notice, Claude starts asking Germain for things that clearly cross a line – and to keep getting installments of the story, he does.

In the House is a tricky film. It doles out information on a need to know basis, so we can never quite get a handle on Claude. Is what he says about what happens in his friend’s house true? Is what he says about his own home life true? Is he a sociopath, or just a troubled kid? And why, when everyone else seems to hate Germain – even the other teachers – does he zero in on him. It’s to the credit of Ernst Umhauer’s performance that he never really lets us inside. You can never get a read on him, and that makes him fascinating. The rest of the performances are just as good. Fabrice Luchini is in top form as Germain, who seemingly for the first time in years seems actually interested in anything other than himself. His world comes crashing down around him, but he is clueless – so wrapped up in the love of this new talent, he cannot see what is happening around him. Kristen Scott Thomas is also very good – why she’s so much better when she works in French than English, I’ll never know, but she is – as she too gets drawn into Claude’s world, although at least she realizes it. She even finds a sort of kinship with Claude, in the way he’s obviously toying with Germain. And Emmanuelle Seigner is excellent in a tricky role – a role that requires her to change at times scene to scene, because she is only ever seen through the eyes of Claude – and his gaze his constantly shifting.

In the House also has some interesting things to say about the nuclear family. Most often in movies, we get the portrait of the seemingly happy suburban family, which is really built on nothing but appearances and lies – think American Beauty or about 90% of the movies that come out of Sundance in a given year. But In the House is different. The normal family – married parents, one child – may be dull, boring and none too bright, but they really are happy in their little life. Meanwhile the childless couple – Germain and Jeanne – and the child from a broken home – Claude – are all much smarter than the family, but all much more miserable. Ozon seems to have sympathy for these outsiders, even as he punishes them. But it also seems to be saying that the duller you are, the happier you are.

But overall, In the House is really about storytelling – about how a gifted storyteller can slowly suck you into his story, without you even realizing it. Claude is a natural storyteller, able to get people to buy in hook, line and sinker before they know what hit them. So is Francois Ozon.

Movie Review: The Kings of Summer

The Kings of Summer
Directed by: Jordan Vogt-Roberts.
Written by: Chris Galletta.
Starring: Nick Robinson (Joe), Gabriel Basso (Patrick), Moises Arias (Biaggio), Nick Offerman (Frank), Erin Moriarty (Kelly), Megan Mullally (Mrs. Keenan), Marc Evan Jackson (Mr. Keenan), Alison Brie (Heather), Eugene Cordero (Colin), Gillian Vigman (Carol), Mary Lynn Rajskub (Captain Davis), Thomas Middleditch (Rookie Cop).

Every year the Sundance Film Festival serves as launching pad for many Indie comedy/dramas telling coming of age stories about teenagers from dysfunctional families. With my (finally) catching up with The Kings of Summer, the triple bill of indie hits in this vein emerging from Sundance is now complete for 2013. On the high end, you have James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now, an uncommonly intelligent film about teenage romance, sex, love and alcoholism, that hits all the notes we expect, but not quite in the way we expect it to. In the middle is Nat Faxon and Jim Rash’s The Way Way Back, an agreeable movie, filled with movie stars doing low key character work, that hits all the notes we expect in precisely the way we expect, but it still entertaining – cinematic comfort food if you will. And now, on the low end, is Jordan Vogt-Roberts The Kings of Summer, a well-meaning film to be sure, but one that all the notes we expect it to, in mostly unsatisfying ways.

The film is about three teenage boys – Joe (Nick Robinson), stuck living with his overbearing, sarcastic verging on cruel father Frank (Nick Offerman) and still reeling from the death of his mother. Patrick (Gabriel Basso), whose overly kind parents (Megan Mullally and Marc Evan Jackson) are always hovering above him – encouraging him, and being generally overprotective and extremely annoying. And then there’s Biaggio (Moises Arias), who is just plain weird – when he speaks at all, it’s in non sequiturs, and you cannot help but spending much of the movie runtime wondering just what the hell is wrong with him. They stumble across a pristine, unspoiled wonderland in the middle of the forest (I couldn’t help but think of the mystical “crevasse” on The Weekenders), and decide to build a house there, and move in over the summer. This will allow them to be “real men” – independent and on their own. They, of course, don’t tell their parents their plan, and although the parents report their children missing to police, no one seems to be trying to find them. The first thing they did in the recent Prisoners was send search parties into the woods – but either no one thinks of doing this in The Kings of Summer, or no one cares. No one even notices when Joe and Biaggio, frequent the local Boston Market, when they discover hunting is harder than they thought it was going to be.

The movie is about these three “becoming men” - which basically consists of them dancing around in the middle of nowhere, eating around a fire and looking at the sunset. What dialogue these three speak to each other isn’t very enlightening or all that entertaining or funny either. I guess, we can at least be thankful in these stretches for Arias’ presence – I have no idea what he’s doing for much of the movie, but at least it’s not dull and boring like Joe and Patrick are.

Slightly better are the scenes of Frank back home, wondering what he did that was so terrible to drive his own son away – and gradually seeing that yes, he is in fact a bully and an asshole. This is mainly because of Offerman – who is basically playing the same character he plays on Parks and Recreation, but without his cuddly teddy bear core that makes Ron Swanson so sympathetic. This isn’t entirely a bad thing – hearing Offerman at his sarcastic best is still a blast (“Can you relate it to my life in an allegorical fashion?”), but it’s still a minor pleasure. Unfortunately, the film basically wastes the sweet comic presence of Alison Brie as Joe’s older sister – and although I quite enjoyed Mullally and Jackson’s interplay, it’s basically one note.

The movie, of course, contains young love and heartbreak – all involving Kelly (Erin Moriarty) as the girl who Joe is infatuated with, who, of course, falls for Patrick – causing friction – basically because the movie needs something to get it to its climax. This entire subplot is thoroughly unconvincing because it feels like it tacked on.

The Kings of Summer is a perfect example of the type of movie that comes out of Sundance with lots of buzz that when you watch it later, outside the atmosphere of the festival, you cannot help but wonder what all the fuss was about. I’ve probably made the movie sound worse than it actually is – it is a well-meaning movie, with a few isolated moments that work – but not by much.  

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Movie Review: Something in the Air

Something in the Air
Directed by: Olivier Assayas.
Written by: Olivier Assayas.
Starring: Clément Métayer (Gilles), Lola Créton (Christine), Felix Armand (Alain), Carole Combes (Laure), India Menuez (Leslie), Hugo Conzelmann (Jean-Pierre), Mathias Renou (Vincent), Léa Rougeron (Maria), Martin Loizillon (Rackam le Rouge), André Marcon (Le père de Gilles).

You can never quite figure out what Olivier Assayas is going to make next. He has made some great films – like his six hour masterpiece Carlos about one of the most infamous terrorists of all time and Summer Hours, a quiet film about a family home getting sold, and the family members losing some sort of connection as a result. He has made other films – like the highly regarded (but to me awful) demonlover about corporate politics, or the thriller Boarding Gate, which seemingly doesn’t have a beginning of an end, and just expects the audience to keep up. Or the more conventional drug addict drama Clean. Perhaps the one thing that connects them all is that while all the films are rather intimate stories, they speak to larger more political concerns. The same is true of his latest film, Something in the Air, which somehow manages to be both nostalgic, and realistic.

There is little plot in Something in the Air – the original French title was Apres Mai - After May - and in France that needs no explaining. In May 1968 the student protests and riots basically shutdown the country. This movie takes place a few years later – in 1971 – and focuses on kids who missed out on those protests, but wish they hadn’t. They have serious discussions about politics, communism, art, love and films. They smoke – a lot – and drink – a lot – and while there are a lot of parties, and a fair bit of sex, no one seems to be having too much fun. They take everything too seriously for that.

The movie focuses on Gilles (Clement Metayer), a stand-in for Assayas himself, who seems slightly less committed than many of his friends. Yes – he protests. He shows up at the demonstrations, hands out fringe newspapers, commits acts of vandalism and some things more serious than that, but from the start, I think he sees how futile most of what they are doing is. This isn’t to say he doesn’t take things seriously – he does, in fact, in some ways he takes them more seriously, because he doesn’t want to just buy in to what the left is selling hook, line and sinker, but is a more critical thinker. But as the film progresses, and many of his friends get more involved in the movement, he slowly slips away – goes to art school, starts working on mainstream films as a production assistant, and eyes a future career.

As I said, the movie is largely plotless – it drifts from one scene to the next, from one heavy conversation to another, one party to the next, one packed van to the next one, and as it does, so does Eric Gautier’s wonderful cinematography. The camera seemingly floats through the movie, right there observing everything without judgment.

How much you know about this time period will likely effect how much you like Something in the Air – with people having lived through this time period probably most likely to relate to the film. For someone like me, born in 1981, Something in the Air seems more like a piece for a time capsule – a more honest and realistic version of many of the films from the 1960s that showed the protest movement as it was going on. Assayas is obviously nostalgic for this time period – nearly all of us are in one way or another for those few years in our late teens and early twenties when seemingly everything was possible. But he also sees it far more clearly than most do. It’s possible to feel sorry for some of the people in the movie – so committed to their ideals, so incapable of seeing things clearly.

For me, Something in the Air ends up being little more than a curiosity piece. It’s well made – and has moments of greatness (like the post screening Q&A of a documentary shown on the streets), but overall, it didn’t add up to very much for me. However, if you’re closer to Assayas’ age, it’s quite possible you’ll love it.

Movie Review: The Unspeakable Act

The Unspeakable Act
Directed by: Dan Sallitt.
Written by: Dan Sallitt.
Starring: Tallie Medel (Jackie Kimball), Sky Hirschkron (Matthew Kimball), Aundrea Fares (Mrs. Kimball), Kati Schwartz (Jeanne Kimball), Caroline Luft (Linda).

The title act of Dan Sallitt’s The Unspeakable Act is incest. You would think a movie that revolves around a taboo subject like that would be in danger of being exploitive – or at the very least come across as perverted. But nothing could be further from the truth about The Unspeakable Act. The brother and sister combo in the film never actually engage in incest – but there is sexual tension between the two of them – tension they both know is wrong.

The film centers on Jackie (Tallie Medel), a year younger than her brother Matthew (Sky Hirschkron) – and the one who experiences the feelings the strongest. The pair have two older siblings – an unseen brother, already out of university and starting his life, and a mostly silent older sister, who spends of her time at home, by herself. Their father is dead – has been for years – and their mother is quiet, and unsure of what to do with herself or her kids. You get the sense that because Jackie and Matthew are so close in age that they have relied on each other their whole lives. Now he’s on the verge of going to college, while she has one year left of high school. He has gotten a girlfriend – and it makes her jealous. Her “secret” crush on her brother is no secret to him – he knows it, and exploits it. To a certain extent, he enjoys her being in love with him.

For the first half hour or so, of this barely 90 minutes movie, I had no idea where the film was going – in fact, I was starting to expect it would be one of those films that ended up going nowhere. Sallitt’s framing in precise – he favors long takes, and little if any camera movement, and with Medel’s performance starting off in a typical teen girl monotone, I was starting to think that this would be a long, slow 90 minutes.

But gradually, the movie won me over. Once Matthew departs for school, and Jackie falls into a depression, she starts going to therapy sessions with Linda (Caroline Luft). The therapy sessions are really the heart of the movie – and were refreshing for just how unlike most movie therapy sessions they were. There are no major epiphanies – no repetitive “It’s not your fault”, followed by breakdowns and tears, and phony uplift. Just quiet, thoughtful conversations – no judgment, just talk. The revelations are minor, but add up. Jackie comes out of her shell, and Medel proves that the monotone of the earlier scenes were not lack of acting ability, but a conscious choice, and Jackie uses her sarcasm as a shield – one that she gradually lets down to Linda. She starts to let down her guard in other ways as well – she starts dating, and experimenting with sex – something the movie portrays in a refreshing way – not painting it either as a wondrous, mind blowing experience, or a sign of “the kids these days going to hell in a hand basket” – but the honest, clumsy fumbling of teenagers exploring their sexual identities.

The movie will eventually reveal a few more secrets – and the final scenes of the movie take the relationship between Jackie and Matthew to its obvious conclusion (and not the same one that ended the brother-sister incest comedy/drama The Color Wheel – a more honest one than that, if less mind blowing).

The Unspeakable Act is an uncommonly subtle, honest movie about teenagers that takes subject matter that many would find unthinkable, and explores it in an honest way. I still don’t think it’s a great film – but it’s a thoughtful one, and one that didn’t take the path I expected it to.

Movie Review: Gimme the Loot

Gimme the Loot
Directed by: Adam Leon.
Written by: Adam Leon.
Starring: Tashiana Washington (Sofia), Ty Hickson (Malcolm), Meeko (Champion), Zoë Lescaze (Ginnie), Sam Soghor (Lenny), Adam Metzger (Donnie), Greyson Cruz (Alfonso), James Harris Jr. (Ronaldo), Joshua Rivera (Rico), Melvin Mogoli (Kaps).
What stands out to me about Gimme the Loot – a micro-budgeted indie by first time director Adam Leon – is the almost boundless energy of the movie. That’s rare for an indie film of this size – but Leon is more talented than most, and his film moves with the same reckless energy his two heroes have. The goal of Malcolm (Ty Hickson) and Sofia (Tashiana Washington) is to “Bomb the Apple” – the apple being that oversized one that comes out in the bleachers at Shea Stadium every time the Mets hit a homerun. They need money to finance this operation - $500 bucks – a lot of money for two poor kids from the Bronx, so they set about one scam after another to try and earn the money.

Annoyed that the drug dealers he sometimes delivers for won’t give him any product, Malcolm scams a fellow delivery boy out of his goods, and heads off to rich girl Ginnie’s (Zoe Lescaze) to try and make some quick money – as the two talk and flirt, he’s also casing the place to see what he’ll be able to steal. Meanwhile, Sofia tries to sell some of the things she’s recently stolen – spray paint, a cell phone, a pair of sneakers – to make some cash herself. Of course, things never quite go as planned, and as one scheme is thwarted, they come up with another one – and the movie follows them along.

Some will probably not be happy that the movie doesn’t judge or moralize this story of two people who are admittedly criminals. This is not a gritty, slice of life in the ghetto that feels sorry for its characters, but a film that simply acknowledges the realities of their lives, and then moves on. Yes, they’re criminals, who hang out with more criminals, but they’re basically good kids trying to pass the time.

The majority of the running time is spent with these two at their various scams – but the film is at its best when it slows down long enough to allow the characters to interact with each. True, Leon’s dialogue sounds like dialogue, and although the three principle actors are all very good for non-professionals, they are still non-professionals, and those surrounding them aren’t nearly as good.

But while Leon’s goal here is mainly to entertain, there are times when he does make some social commentary. The best scenes in the movie may well be between Malcolm and Ginnie – the rich white girl he sells drugs to. Their first interaction is playful and flirtatious – so much so that Malcolm thinks he’ll be able to go back and seduce her, while others can rob her apartment. But when he returns, she is no longer alone – and the scene is 180 degrees away from what it was before – with Ginnie turning cruel. Race and class separate these two in ways Malcolm didn’t quite understand at first.

And it’s also interesting to see how Sofia fits into the male dominated world he inhabits. She is filled with bravado – tries her best to act tough, and swears more than anyone else, but it’s basically a front – and she can hurt with just a few words from a loudmouth idiot standing behind a fence. The unspoken attraction between her and Malcolm makes up the heart of the movie – these two are, of course, perfect for each other – but to admit as much would require one of them to be vulnerable to the other – which neither may be willing to do.

Gimme the Loot is far from a perfect film. It follows a pretty straight forward, predictable arc, and as I mentioned the dialogue does feel like dialogue, and the acting can be uneven. But as a first film, the film works remarkably well. I expect bigger – and better – things from Leon in the future.

Monday, September 23, 2013

My Answer to the Latest Criticwire Survey Question: Movies Ohters Are "Just Plain Wrong" About

I’ve decided from now on, I’ll just print the Criticwire question of the week directly, rather than recap. I started recapping when I answer more than 50 at one time, but now, I’ll just print the question. This is this weeks:

Q: It's important for critics to keep an open mind, but there are some cases where it feels like no sane person could differ. What's a movie or a show where you feel like anyone who doesn't agree with you is just plain wrong?

Typically, I’m a different strokes kind of guy. While I’ll engage in intelligent debate with those who want it, I really don’t try to change people’s mind too often. I explain my point of view, and if they don’t like it, I just shrug my shoulders, and move on. Not every movie is made for everyone. But there are some examples of where I think people who disagree with me are flat out wrong.

If you don’t think Wall-E is Pixar’s best movie, you’re wrong. If you think Spike Lee’s Network-in-blackface satire Bamboozled is offensive because it uses blackface, you’re wrong. If you’re one of the critics engaging in revisionism, and trying to claim Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate as some kind of masterpiece, you’re wrong. If you think the Star Wars prequels “raped your childhood” you’re wrong.

But the film – or more accurately filmmaker – I think people who disagree with me are flat out wrong about is Kim Ki-Duk – and more specifically, his film Pieta, which was released earlier this year, after winning the top prize (on a technicality) at last year’s Venice Film Festival.

The film, inexplicably, has a 75% positive rating at Rotten Tomatoes. Many critics have praised the film – some saying it’s subtle, or it sneaks up on you, or it has “thematic weight”, or is about the dehumanizing effect of the current economy – one critic even called it “one of the more delicately crafted character studies in modern cinema”. What the fuck!

Pieta is a horrible film – a shallow, pathetic film, about a shallow pathetic character. He is a loan shark, who takes out insurance policies on the people he lends money to, and when they cannot pay it back, he cripples them and collects the claim (get it – he cripples people physically, as the debt cripples them financially). Leave aside the absurdity of the insurance scam he’s running, this “commentary” on the economic situation is facile at best. Then, the characters “long lost mother” shows up – and he does what anyone would naturally do in this situation – grabs her by the vagina and yells “is this where I came from” – and then proceeds to rape her, after which, the two develop a close mother-son bond – with this psychopath happy to have his mommy back in his life, until, of course, Kim pulls the rug out from under the audience yet again.

The cinema of Kim Ki-Duk is full of these violent losers, who he portrays as sympathetic outsiders – cast outs from society, who do the most horrific things, but Kim always forgives their trespasses. Sorry, Kim Ki-Duk is a horrible director – he’s films are juvenile and shallow – yet because he mixes extreme violence with moments of silence, he has somehow convinced people he’s some sort of Master (that TIFF put his latest film – Moebius – in the Masters program alongside filmmakers like Jia Zhang-ke, Jafar Panahi, and Catherine Breillent – a filmmaker I don’t really like, but at least respect is ridiculous. Yes, most of the time I’m a “different strokes for different folks” kind of guy when it comes to people’s taste in movies. But if you like Kim Ki-Duk – you’re wrong.

Movie Review: Prisoners

Directed by: Denis Villeneuve   
Written by: Aaron Guzikowski.
Starring: Hugh Jackman (Keller Dover), Jake Gyllenhaal (Detective Loki), Viola Davis (Nancy Birch), Maria Bello (Grace Dover), Terrence Howard (Franklin Birch), Melissa Leo (Holly Jones), Paul Dano (Alex Jones), Dylan Minnette (Ralph Dover), Zoe Soul (Eliza Birch), Erin Gerasimovich (Anna Dover), Kyla Drew Simmons (Joy Birch), Wayne Duvall (Captain Richard O'Malley), Len Cariou (Father Patrick Dunn), David Dastmalchian (Bob Taylor).

Prisoners is an example of a mainstream Hollywood thriller at its finest. The film is dark, both visually and thematically, cold, dreary, violent and disturbing. It is also expertly directed by Canadian Denis Villeneuve, making his Hollywood debut, who keeps the pace up and making the two and half hour running time fly by. And it’s expertly acted by the entire cast – in particular Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal – both arguably delivering their best performances to date. And as a parent, it vividly brings to life my worst nightmare. The screenplay may take a few too many twists and turns – particularly in the last 45 minutes or so – but that doesn’t stop Prisoners from being one of the best mainstream films I’ve seen so far this year.

The film opens in small town Pennsylvania on Thanksgiving. Two families – the Dovers and the Birchs – are gathering to celebrate. It doesn’t take long for the movie to establish Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) as a man’s man – the film opens with him taking his son on a hunting trip, and advising him to be prepared for anything (hence, the supplies they have stockpiled in their basement). Both families are having a nice day, until they discover that their young daughters are missing. But where did they go? Earlier, there was a strange RV parked on the street – with someone inside. The police are called, the RV is reported at a truck stop, and Detective Loki (Gyllenhaal) goes in to make an arrest. The driver, Alex Jones (Paul Dano) takes off – but ends up crashing into a tree. But he doesn’t have the girls – says he doesn’t know where they are (and has the mentality of a 10 year old), and there’s no physical evidence – so eventually they have to let him go. Keller remains convinced that he knows something – and he’s determined to find out what that is. Meanwhile, Loki follows other leads – but time is running short. The days tick by, and there is no sign of the girls.

This is the basic setup for Prisoners, a movie that gets darker as it goes along, and makes the audience constantly question what they think – not only about its central mystery, but also about the characters in the movie. Jackman’s Dover starts off extremely sympathetic – what parent could not relate to his feeling of futilely and slow rising fury about his missing daughter? And what parent wouldn’t do “anything possible” to bring his daughter home? But Dover takes this “anything possible” to the extreme – and while you may find yourself still feeling for him, he makes it harder and harder as the film progresses – and he goes further and further, crossing lines most of us wouldn’t. Then there’s Loki – who is perhaps the first character Gyllenhaal has ever played that isn’t inherently likable. He is driven to find the girls, and isn’t above bending the rules to do so, but it also must be said that he’s kind of an asshole. He works without a partner – yells at his boss, doesn’t seem to be able to muster much of a bedside manner with the families of the victims. In short, he doesn’t play well with others.

These two characters, and the performances by Jackman and Gyllenhaal, elevate the movie. This is clearly a thriller for the War on Terror age – making the audience question the lengths that people will go to in order to “do the right thing”. Do the ends justify the means? As Dover, Jackman has never been better – he is driven, angry, violent, scary – and still somehow all too human. Gyllenhaal does some nervous ticks with Loki, but doesn’t overdo them. Like Keller, he is driven – but unlike him he is able to keep his emotions in check. These two actors make up the heart of the movie – and they are more than ably supported by those around them. Paul Dano is convincing as a man who is undeniably creepy – but also weak, slow and sympathetic. Melissa Leo is quite good as his enabling Aunt. Viola Davis and Terrence Howard are both very good as the other little girl’s parents – proving why you should cast good actors in small roles like these, because they make their underwritten roles feel real. Maria Bello, as Jackman’s wife, isn’t given much to do other than cry – but she does that well.

Some have compared Prisoners to David Fincher’s Zodiac (2007) – for its darkness, its violence and its portrait of obsession. I wouldn’t go that far – Zodiac is a masterpiece – one of the best American films of the last 10 years, and a film that goes a whole lot darker than Prisoners, and goes well beyond its central mystery as it timeline stretches out over a few decades. Prisoners doesn’t do that. But I would compare Prisoners to another Fincher film – Seven (1995). Seven was a mainstream thriller, about two people who respond to a disturbing central mystery in different ways – and a film that shakes audience to the core its depiction of violence and cruelty – but still wrapped up in a mainstream package. That is what Prisoners does. Yes, the movie contains too many plot twists in its third act – toying with the audience a little too much, and yet, these scenes are still effective and disturbing. Seven was Fincher’s second film – following the disappointing Alien 3 – and allowed Fincher to go on to even better things. Villeneuve has already made several films – the disturbing school shooting film Polytechnique and the Oscar nominated Incendies among them – but this is his first foray into Hollywood. It’s a great effort – and hopefully bodes well for Villeneuve’s ability to more make smart, mainstream fare in Hollywood after this. Lord knows, we need it.  

Friday, September 20, 2013

The Best Films I Have Never Seen Before: The Towering Inferno (1974)

The Towering Inferno (1974)
Directed by: John Guillermin.
Written by: Stirling Silliphant based on the novels by Richard Martin Stern & Thomas N. Scortia
Starring: Steve McQueen (Chief Mike O'Hallorhan), Paul Newman (Doug Roberts), William Holden (Jim Duncan), Faye Dunaway (Susan Franklin), Fred Astaire (Harlee Claiborne), Susan Blakely (Patty), Richard Chamberlain (Simmons), Jennifer Jones (Lisolette), O.J. Simpson (Jernigan), Robert Vaughn (Senator Parker), Robert Wagner (Bigelow), Susan Flannery (Lorrie), Sheila Allen (Paula Ramsay), Norman Burton (Giddings), Jack Collins (Mayor Ramsay), Don Gordon (Kappy), Felton Perry (Scott), Gregory Sierra (Carlos).

The Towering Inferno is a big, dumb, old fashioned, star studded action adventure, which is both a good and bad thing. It’s good because even action blockbusters in the 1970s cared a least a little about getting good actors into the movie to elevate the screenplay, and because unlike modern action movies, the action sequences are clear, well edited and exciting – not overburdened by thudding music, and rapid fire editing that makes everything confusing. It’s bad because it still doesn’t have much of a brain in its head, and because back in the 1970s, they felt that if you made a BIG movie it had to be a LONG movie at the same time – at nearly three hours, The Towering Inferno requires you to suspend your disbelief for far too long. It’s effective – but would have been far more effective had they cut out at least an hour.

The movie takes place in San Francisco, in a brand new sky scrapper – apparently the tallest building in the world, with a huge glass façade. The architect is Doug Roberts (Paul Newman), who has decided to retire now that his triumph is complete, and move to the middle of nowhere with his soon to be wife (Faye Dunaway). What Doug does not know is that to save money, the building’s owner Jim Duncan (William Holden) leaned on subcontractors to find ways to build the building more cheaply than Doug's plans called for. In particular, Duncan's slimy son-in-law Simmons (Richard Chamberlain), who was responsible for the buildings wiring did barely enough to get the building up to code – but considering the load the building has to take, Doug knew that more was required. Of course on the night of the buildings huge opening gala, things go wrong, the electric system malfunctions, a fire starts, and grows out of control – trapping all the VIPS on the top floor, as Doug tries to keep things under control, and fire chief Mike O'Halloran (Steve McQueen) tries to put the fire out.

The Towering Inferno held my interest for its first two hours – and even had some heart pounding moments of excitement, like Newman trying to get to kids and woman up a destroyed staircase. Newman is fine in the role of Roberts –a good man who is upset that his buildings is being destroyed, but even more distraught that people are dying. Steve McQueen is essentially playing Steve McQueen as the fire chief, who is daring and selfless as he tries to save the people in the building. It was also nice to see old timer Fred Astaire in a non-dancing role as a con man, but a sweet, good natured one. He has some nice chemistry with another old timer Jennifer Jones. Richard Chamberlain is appropriately slimy as the guy who cut the most corners – although he is essentially there because the movie needs a human villain, and he is fairly one note. Most of the rest of the cast is limited to one note roles, although since the cast is full of great actors, they do add some nice notes to their roles.

The action climax of The Towering Inferno – involving a whole hell of lot of water – is well handled, but by then, I had grown tired of the movie, and just wanted it to end. As well made as the film is, it simply goes on far too long, and eventually, I grew restless. It is certainly preferable to a film by Michael Bay – but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a great movie.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Movie Review: Simon Killer

Simon Killer
Directed by: Antonio Campos.
Written by: Antonio Campos & Brady Corbet & Mati Diop.
Starring: Brady Corbet (Simon), Mati Diop (Victoria / Noura), Constance Rousseau (Marianne), Lila Salet (Sophie), Michaël Abiteboul (Jean), Solo (René).

Simon Killer may well end up being the most disturbing movie of the year. As a film that traps us in its main characters mind as he goes from asshole into something far worse, Simon Killer works better than most audiences members will probably like. It’s not a pleasant experience to be inside of Simon’s head throughout the course of this movie – and that’s a tribute both to director Antonio Campos who directs everything to great claustrophobic effect, and the lead performance by Brady Corbet, who has never been better than he is here. The movie is at its best when it’s doing little to nothing – simply observing Simon in long, unbroken shots that trap him, and us. It’s at its worse when Campos and Corbett, along with co-star Mati Diop (the three also share writing credit) try to force its characters into something resembling a plot. This is a movie – and a character – who don’t take well to a narrative. In total, Simon Killer feels like an early work of a filmmaker who is going to become great – not quite a great film in its own right, but something worth seeing to see the director’s development. It’s up to Campos if that proves to be true or not.

The movie opens with Simon giving us his backstory – you would be forgiven in thinking that he’s talking to his shrink, because that is what it seems like at first, but in reality, he’s talking to someone he barely knows – the son of his mother’s friend – who has agreed to let Simon stay at his Paris apartment for a week while he’s away. Simon has recently graduated from University – and for the first of many times, he tells someone that he studied Neuro-Science – specifically the relationship between the brain and the eye (I could probably delve into why that’s important to the movie – but let’s not get sidetracked). His girlfriend of five years has just broken up with him – and things didn’t end well. She’s scared of him, and doesn’t want anything to do with him anymore. Throughout the movie, he’ll send some increasingly desperate e-mails to her – and when she finally responds, it coldly. Simon just wants to get away for a while and clear his head – he’ll be in Paris for a week, and then move onto to somewhere else. He never gets there.

That opening scene sets up the fact that Simon may not really be the “good” guy he claims to be – something that will become increasingly apparent as the early scenes move along – where even something as small as bumping into someone on the street escalates to something much more than it should be. While these scenes are not violent, the feeling of impending violence increases as the movie goes along, and the film traps us with Simon, who is never out of the frame. Things start to get worse when he meets Victoria (Mati Diop), a prostitute at a club. There first session is brief – but their relationship will grow throughout the movie – going from a typical prostitute/john affair, into something more akin to a “real relationship” – or at least as much of one as Simon is capable of having. Their frequent sex scenes are what made the MPAA slap this with a NC-17 rating (although it was released “unrated) – and it’s easy to see why. These are among the least erotic sex scenes you will ever see in a movie – and become increasingly disturbing as they move along. The sex scenes are really a power struggle between these two characters.

The movie is at its best when its focused on Simon, or Simon and Victoria (who reveals her real name – Noura) to him. To say both of these people are damaged would be an understatement, and to see them fight for control becomes difficult to watch. It’s less effective when it takes a prolonged detour into a strange blackmail scheme Simon dreams up for him and Victoria to pull on her johns. These scenes almost seem as if the filmmakers thought they needed to pad the running time, or else add some sort of plot to the movie – but it’s a poorly handled distraction more than anything else.

The movie also is a little heavy handed in its treatment of the other major female character Marianne (Constance Rousseau), a beautiful blonde Simon meets on the street. Visually and otherwise, she is the polar opposite of Diop’s Victoria – and the filmmakers try too hard to get the audience to see them as the virgin and the whore. It’s all just a little too neat for my tastes. And while Diop herself is great in the movie, I would have preferred even more of her – had the filmmakers tried to make her a character with as much weight as Simon, it could have elevated the entire movie.

Still, Simon Killer remains a challenging, disturbing and uncomfortable viewing experience to say the least. Campos got a lot of praise for his debut film – Afterschool (unseen by me), which is also said to be extremely disturbing. On the basis of Simon Killer, he’s a talent to watch – as is Corbet (who has quietly built up an impressive resume) and Diop. Simon Killer is not a great movie – but it’s a fascinating one. I want to see these three team up again.