Monday, October 28, 2013

Movie Review: The Counselor

The Counselor
Directed by: Ridley Scott.
Written by: Cormac McCarthy.
Starring: Michael Fassbender (The Counselor), Penélope Cruz (Laura), Cameron Diaz (Malkina), Javier Bardem (Reiner), Brad Pitt (Westray), Rosie Pérez (Ruth), Richard Cabral (The Young Man/The Green Hornet), Natalie Dormer (The Blonde), Édgar Ramírez (The Priest), Bruno Ganz (The Diamond Dealer), Rubén Blades (Jefe), Goran Višnjić (Michael), Toby Kebbell (Tony), Emma Rigby (Tony's Girlfriend), John Leguizamo (Randy), Dean Norris (The Buyer), Fernando Cayo (Abogado Hernandez).

I saw the Coen’s Brothers No Country for Old Men twice in fairly packed theaters – once at TIFF in 2007 and then again a few months later with my wife. Both times, after Tommy Lee Jones brilliant final monologue, when the screen turns black and silent, and the credits start rolling, I heard more than one audience exclaim “That’s it!” I know my experience is not singular to me – many have reported the same thing at screenings of the film back in 2007. And you really cannot blame the audience members who exclaimed it either – after all, movies condition us to expect a certain resolution, that No Country for Old Men does not give us. The main character is murdered – off-screen – his killer, the heartless killing machine of a villain, has walked away free, and the lawman who was chasing him has admitted he’s giving up. It’s a dark ending, a troubling ending, but a fitting and brilliant one.

Ridley Scott’s The Counselor is clearly a film by the same author of No Country for Old Men. The two taglines the Coen brother’s masterpiece used in their posters “There Are No Clean Getaways” and “You Can’t Stop What’s Coming” could easily be used for The Counselor as well. Whether Josh Brolin’s Llewyn Moss knows it or not, his fate is sealed the moment he takes the money from the dead drug dealers he stumbles upon. The Counselor (Michael Fassbender) has his fate sealed even before the movie begins. He’s warned – repeatedly – that once he goes down this path, he’s screwed, but he dives headlong in anyway.

Because the film is directed by Ridley Scott, who is known for mainstream fare, and has an all-star cast, and yes, because it’s been marketed like a mainstream thriller, it’s no wonder that most audiences – and critics – expected just that. But that is really not what Scott, and McCarthy writing his first original screenplay, have made in The Counselor. It’s almost an anti-thriller. Complaining that you can see the plot twists coming from early in the film is beside the point – there’s not even a real plot twist in the movie at all. It’s clear that McCarthy isn’t interested in writing a typical thriller – or even a screenplay that follows the normal rules we are conditioned to expect. The plot details in The Counselor are hazy because they don’t really matter all that much (although by the end, you can piece together everything that happens as long as you pay attention). This is a cold, heartless, violent film about inevitability – and indicates as much almost from the start. If at any times during The Counselor you expect a happy ending, you aren’t paying attention.

The film stars Fassbender as the unnamed lead character – a lawyer, who we first see under the covers with his soon-to-be fiancée Laura (Penelope Cruz). Soon we’ll see him meet two men – Reiner (Javier Bardem) and Westray (Brad Pitt), and we’ll understand the basics of what is happening. The Counselor has set up a drug deal with a Mexican cartel, using Reiner and Westray as middle men. They are importing $20 million worth of cocaine using massive, rundown trucks from Mexico to Chicago. We meet other characters – like the heartless Malkina (Cameron Diaz), the current girlfriend of Reiner, who has a cheetah fetish. Then there’s Ruth (Rosie Perez), a client of The Counselor who asks for his help getting her son out of jail on a speeding charge – this seemingly innocent request, that The Counselor does without thinking, is what will eventually screw everything up.

Many, if not most, reviews of The Counselor have complained about the pretentious dialogue – that goes on for minutes on end, and happen in scene after scene. But the dialogue in The Counselor is one of its greatest strengths. When did we start expecting movie dialogue to sound the way real people talk? The dialogue in The Counselor is highly stylized to be sure, but it’s also brilliant. This is one of the most quotable films of the year. The dialogue has a rhythm all its own, and the cast digs into it with gusto. My favorite may well be Brad Pitt, particularly in his first scene in a bar, where he lays for The Counselor precisely what he can expect – but his warning falls on deaf ears. But there are pleasures to be had watching any of the characters dig into the monologues McCarthy gives them – Bardem, saying more in his first scene here than in all of No Country for Old Men and Diaz making the most of getting playing the most amoral character in a film filled with nothing but amoral characters. And then there are the characters who only get one scene but make the most of them – Perez, reminding you why she is a better actress than she ever got credit for, Bruno Ganz going on about diamonds and their imperfections, Edgar Ramirez as a Priest who has no interest in Diaz’s confession, Ruben Blades as a man who waxes philosophical while threatening certain death, Toby Kebbell showing that The Counselor may have made more mistakes than just this one and John Leguizamo explaining to Dean Norris a particularly sick joke by Columbians. Fassbender is very good in the movie as well – but he’s also the film’s most passive character – sitting there and listening to everyone else, but never letting anything really sink in until it’s too late.

The Counselor may not be a perfect film – there are certainly flaws here. No matter how much I love the dialogue, it is true that the characters never really rise above the level of archetypes (although, again, I think it’s intentional). I cannot really complain about those who say the film is misogynistic – there are really only two female characters with any screen time, and Cruz’s Laura is presented as pretty much the embodiment of female perfection – or at least a man’s idea of female perfection – and Diaz is presented as her polar opposite – a heartless, she-devil. And the now infamous scene of Diaz literally having sex with Bardem’s car is unnecessary (as this scene is told by Bardem to Fassbender, it would have worked much better without the visual staging of the scene). But I still have to say, Diaz goes for broke – not just humping the car, but in her every scene in the movie. And to be fair, I don't quite think the film is misogynistic as much as it's mianthropic - it's not like any of the male characters are portrayed any better than the female ones.
The Counselor is a movie that most people are going to hate. It’s cold, it’s violent, it’s cynical and it doesn’t deliver the traditional payoffs we expect when we go see a star studded thriller or a Ridley Scott movie. But for me, it’s one of the best films of Scott’s career. Good for him diving headlong into McCarthy’s dialogue, and making a polished film out of the product – not the kind he would normally make (or the kind his brother, the late Tony Scott would make, although some critics have compared this to those film for reasons that escape me - yes, there is a superficial similarlity to some of the dark themes that run through Tony Scott's work, but stylistically it's far removed from his work, although perhaps there is something to be said about Ridley making a movie this dark after his brother's suicide) – but instead the movie that demands to be made out of McCarthy’s screenplay. And good for the actors who dive headlong into the movie, and make the most of the opportunity to deliver the type of dialogue that we almost never see in the movies. Yes, most people will hate The Counselor. Good for them. For a few people however, The Counselor is a special movie. I’m one of those people.

Movie Review: All is Lost

All is Lost
Directed by: J.C. Chandor.
Written by: J.C. Chandor.
Starring: Robert Redford (Our Man).
It’s hard, if not near impossible, to make a film about a solitary character by themselves. It’s why the few attempts we’ve had at it over the years have added certain elements to make the films more palatable. So Cast Away (2000) adds a volleyball with a face to give Tom Hanks someone to talk to for the long middle stretch of the movie, Life of Pi (2012) adds in a framing device of the man telling his story to someone else, which allows a lot of voice over narration. The recent Austrian film The Wall has the title character, who is cut off for the rest of humanity, write her story down and narrate over nearly the entire movie. Silence is scary for filmmakers, because how can they convey their characters inner lives, if they never talk?

All of this makes J.C. Chandor’s All is Lost even more impressive than it already is. Here is a film with one actor in its entire running time – who aside from a small voiceover in the first few minutes of the film, that still doesn’t answer all the questions people will have about the character, and a few isolated words yelled either in frustration or to try and attract attention – doesn’t even contain dialogue. The film is all Robert Redford, on a boat, trying desperately to survive – and nothing else. And yet, Redford’s performance is one of the best of the year, even if we never get to know the character’s inner self – or even his name. It doesn’t matter.

The movie opens with a literal bang – as Redford awakes under deck on his yacht, to discover he has just hit a shipping container. He’s in the middle of the Indian Ocean, surrounded by nothing but water, and knows his boat has a sizable leak. We see him disentangle his boat from the container, and realize that all his electronic equipment has been rendered useless by the water. We see him patch the boat, and hatch a plan. He’s going to steer his boat into the shipping lanes fairly close by and hope to be able to catch the attention of a passing boat to be rescued. He has no motor, just his sails – and has to teach himself how to navigate by the stars. He has little hope of survival, but he’s going to try anyway.

Robert Redford is, surprisingly, the perfect actor to play the lead role – identified in the credits as Our Man. He was once one of the biggest movie stars in the world – the George Clooney of his day, as he was a sex symbol who was loved by women, but still relatable to men. And also because, like Clooney, Redford also directed movies – and didn’t just cruise on his movie star charm and good looks (although he could do so when he wanted to). Now 77, Redford is well past his prime as a movie star – his last few films both in front of and behind the camera pretty much came and went without making an impact – but Redford is still the old movie star he always has been. Chandor casts him because of that movie star persona – he is an actor audiences instinctively like and root for – which given that the role doesn’t give him any backstory except that he is a man, alone on a boat, and he has some regrets (which could apply to anyone) is needed here.

All is Lost is a simple film – it is a film about the inevitability of death, and how we all struggle against that inevitability. Age simply brings death closer, and intensifies that struggle. Redford makes this clear throughout the film, as at times, he struggles doing things his younger self would have been able to handle easier – the pumping of water out of the boat, scaling the masts on the yacht, etc. Redford’s performance is almost entirely physical – and it’s remarkable how much he shows the physical and mental strain on his body and mind as the film moves along. Redford is almost the whole show here, and it’s a great one.

The film was written and directed by J.C. Chandor, and that’s surprising given that his only other film as a director was Margin Call (2011) – a very good film about the Wall Street meltdown, which was nothing but talk for its entire running time. I’ve heard some theories connecting All is Lost with Margin Call – saying the film is about the Wall Street meltdown, because it’s about an old, rich white guy on a sinking boat, trying in vain to bail his way out. To me, that’s stretching it more than a little bit. All is Lost is simpler than that – it is about one man, trying to survive. It’s wonderfully made by Chandor, who keeps his focus tightly on Redford throughout – and does great things visually and in particularly aurally – in his filmmaking. But the reason to see the film is Redford – without him, the movie doesn’t work at all. Is it the best performance of Redford’s career? Perhaps, but that’s hard to say, because everything he’s done before All is Lost informs his performance here. An unknown in the lead simply would not have the same impact, even if the performance was the same. This is Redford taking a chance – there are lots of ways this movie, and performance, could have gone horribly wrong. But somehow, it never does.

Movie Review: Escape from Tomorrow

Escape from Tomorrow
Directed by: Randy Moore.
Written by: Randy Moore.
Starring: Roy Abramsohn (Jim), Elena Schuber (Emily), Katelynn Rodriguez (Sara), Jack Dalton (Elliot), Danielle Safady (Sophie), Annet Mahendru (Isabelle), Lee Armstrong (Man on Scooter), Alison Lees-Taylor (Other Woman), Stass Klassen (Scientist).

I’ve never been to Disneyland or Disneyworld, but I understand the urge to look for the dark side of the so-called Happiest Place on Earth. Disney works very hard to keep a squeaky clean image – the commercials for their theme parks promise nothing but non-stop family fun – which is what they want you to associate everything Disney with. They want to be controversy free – and have no problem suing any and everyone who does something they don’t like. The most remarkable thing about Randy Moore’s Escape from Tomorrow then is that it exists at all – and you don’t have to watch some illegal, bootleg copy to get to see the movie itself. Moore and his cast snuck cameras into both Disneyland and Disneyworld over the course of several months, and filmed their movie right in the middle of the park. The movie is specifically about the darkness lurking behind the façade of the happiest place on earth – with sexual undercurrents, insanity, violence and crazed scientists under Epcot center. Moore has tapped into that darkness in Disney that the company works very hard to convince you aren’t there at all. When the film premiered at Sundance, everyone assumed it would never be released – although according to legal experts, Disney didn’t have much of a case, people assumed they would tie the movie in litigation so long that by the time they lost, no one would care anymore. Surprisingly though, Disney did the right thing – and simply ignored the movie. This is a tiny movie, that won’t be viewed by all that many people. Why look like a corporate bully when few will even see the film in the first place?

The film opens with Jim (Roy Abramsohn) getting a phone call telling him he is being let go from his job. This couldn’t come at a worst time, since he’s about to go spend the final day of his family vacation at Disneyland. Once he gets to the park, it doesn’t take him long to start to lose it – fueled by alcohol, he starts having bizarre fantasies – revolving around two, young French girls, who he follows behind like a creepy stalker, with his young son in tow. On the It’s a Small World ride, the faces of the children become distorted and surreal. He has ugly encounters with other park guests. His wife won’t stop bitching at him – his son won’t stop whining about Buzz Lightyear, and he will eventually end up the subject of bizarre experiments at Epcot center.

It must be said that the idea behind Escape from Tomorrow is better than the execution. After establishing Disneyland as a dark place, full of secrets and a corporate conspiracy or two, and establishing Jim as a man coming apart at the seams, the movie doesn’t really go anywhere. It’s content to come up with bizarre imagery, distorting the vision of Disney as the happiest place on earth, and have Abramsohn rage at anything and everything around him. It would have helped a little if any of the other characters were developed in the slightest – Jim’s wife is portrayed pretty much as a harpy – and his son as snot nosed whiner. By comparison, his daughter comes across the best – a sweet faced little girl – until the inevitable scene where she wants something her parents don’t want to buy her, and she devolves into a temper tantrum.

Yet, it also must be said that while the movie is too long – it could have made a brilliant 30 minute short for instance – it is also effective much of the time. I may have never been to Disneyland, but as the father of a two-year old, I do know just how painful it can be to keep a fake smile plastered on your face as you’re stuck watching something insultingly simplistic, or suffering through live shows aimed at children (the Thomas the Tank Engine live show was the longest 30 minutes of my life – I can only imagine how much alcohol the poor girl who had to sing the thing every day must have to drink). Escape from Tomorrow taps into that futile, impotent rage that all parents go through at one point or another. Most of the time, I suffer gladly because my daughter loves the Bubble Guppies so much – but once in a while…

It also taps into our fascination with Disney, and its dark side. Do a quick search on the internet, and you’ll find all sorts of evil conspiracies involving Uncle Walt, Disneyland and everything else associated with Disney. This is a massive corporation, built to make money, which also tries to present itself as totally family friendly and innocent. Of course, they’re bringing it on themselves in some ways.

You have to give Randy Moore credit. I don’t necessarily think Escape from Tomorrow is a very good movie – it’s trying hard to be David Lynch Goes to Disneyland, and cannot pull it off. Isolated moments work far better than the movie as a whole. But he’s made something interesting here – a film that everyone is talking about, even if few people will actually end up watching it. In that way it’s brilliant – how many first time directors, working with no budget and no stars can say they’ve done that? Hopefully Moore, who has made a mess of a film this time out, can turn this into an interesting career. The ideas are there.

Movie Review: Birth of the Living Dead

Birth of the Living Dead
Directed by: Rob Kuhns.
DVD special features have made making of documentaries common place. Every movies – from masterpieces to crap – now have their entire making of documented and put out there for all to see. The new documentary, Birth of the Living Dead, plays like one of those special features on a DVD – but an uncommonly good one. It doesn’t rival the best documentaries of the genre – like Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (about Apocalypse Now) or Burden of Dreams (about Fitzcaraldo), but it’s still worth seeing for fans of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, even if perhaps the only reason it’s not just a special feature on a DVD of the film is because a screw-up has made the film be in the public domain pretty much since its release back in 1968.

If you were going to make a list of the best Do-It-Yourself movies, than Night of the Living Dead would have to be on that list. It is a film that George A. Romero directed for almost no money, with a cast of unknowns, and a crew who, like him, had never made a movie before. If you were going to make a list of the most influential horror films of all time, than Night of the Living Dead would have to be on that list as well – the entire zombie genre as we now know it was pretty much invented by Romero with this film. Either of those two factors would be enough to make a documentary about Night of the Living Dead relevant – both of them practically make it necessary.

Directed by Rob Kuhns, Birth of the Living Dead is a standard issue documentary – filled with talking heads, and clips of the movie under discussion. Kuhns does not reinvent the wheel when directing the film, in part because he didn’t really need to. He has good talking heads, and the movie in question is fascinating enough to warrant such discussion.

The film details how Romero and his funders and crew made Night of the Living Dead on the fly back in 1967, and then released the film in 1968. Romero didn’t have much money – he didn’t know if he would ever finish the film – but he wanted to make a movie, and found enough like-minded people who wanted to do so as well. At first he wanted to make something more artistic – he talks about writing a screenplay inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, but when no one cared, he decided to do something more horrific and commercial – and came up with Night of the Living Dead.

As the movie makes clear, Night of the Living Dead was a product of its time. Not only is it a horror film, it’s a nihilistic one at that – one in which reflects the era in which it was made. It’s clear that the film has something to say on many social issues of the time – the ongoing war in Vietnam, racism and destruction of the nuclear family. In short, nowhere and no one is safe in Night of the Living Dead – the dead can get you anywhere, and anyone can turn against you. Yet Romero never overindulges in the political or social messages of the film – he has made a straight ahead horror movie first and foremost, but one that captures much of the cynicism of its time. It’s fascinating to note for instance that the lead character, played by Duane Jones, was black was merely a coincidence – Romero didn’t write the role for a black man, and when they cast one, he didn’t change the screenplay at all, even if it somewhat feels like he did.

Romero himself is the best interview subject – although film critic Elvis Mitchell is good as well. Romero is quick witted and funny – and easygoing, giving full credit to all his collaborators, and joking about the whole process. Romero has, of course, continued to make zombies films throughout his now 45 year directing career – he has said he wanted to make, and he’s now up to 6. He better get cracking on the next four – especially since Survival of the Dead (2009), his latest, is also his weakest.

Birth of the Living Dead is not a great documentary – but it is a good one. If you want to see the roots of the modern zombie film, or are interested in Romero at all, than you should see it. For people who are not zombie fans, there’s nothing here to see – but then, why would you be interested in the film anyway?

My Answer to the Latest Criticwire Survey Question: Off Screen Information

Q: The very public feud between actress Lea Seydoux and her Blue Is the Warmest Color director Abdellatif Kechiche has become as well-known as the film itself. Should critics ignore off-screen information in reviewing a film, or do they have an obligation to deal with it?

I, obviously, have not seen Blue is the Warmest Color yet – it doesn’t open in Toronto until November 8th – which is when I plan to see it. When I do review the movie however, I won’t deal with the many off-screen antics that have happened in the last few months – unless they are relevant to what we are seeing onscreen.

I’m not going to recap the whole feud – if you’re at all interested in it, you’ve probably already read all about it, and if not it’s not hard to find. For the most part, I do have to say that director Abdellatif Kechiche sounds like an asshole, and also somewhat ridiculous with his criticisms of Seydoux – even going as far last week to say she has to answer for what she said in court. Is he going to sue her? For what, calling him an asshole?

It doesn’t really matter to me what Kechiche did to get the scenes he did. Except in extreme cases (like saying film rape or murder or other such crimes), directors have often engaged in questionable tactics to get what they want. Sometimes, it’s relevant, and sometimes it’s not. It all depends on the movie itself.

It is not irrelevant for instance to talk about Woody Allen and Mia Farrow’s divorce when discussing Allen’s Husbands and Wives however – the last film they made together, which debuted during the nasty tabloid fodder that surrounded their separation, because the film addresses some of the issues they were going through. It’s also not irrelevant to talk about Roman Polanski’s predilection for young women when discussing Tess (1980) – since it was a film he made after running away from a conviction of raping a child, while in a relationship with his then underage star of the film – or discussing how editing his film The Ghost Writer while under house arrest, effects the results. Those things inform what we see on screen. On a completely different level, Robert Redford’s performance in All is Lost is great in large part because we, as the audience, have a long history with him as an actor – and unknown 77 year old actor in the same role would not have the same impact, even if he delivered the “same” performance as Redford.

But in the end, what really matters is what’s onscreen and what’s not. Kechiche seems like an asshole in his recent rantings and ravings to be sure, but if he made a masterpiece, I’ll have no problem saying so. And if I don’t think he made a masterpiece, it won’t because of his behavior. It’s naïve to think we can block out everything we hear about a movie and the circumstances in which it’s made when we watch the film. But you do have to decide what’s relevant to what’s onscreen and what’s not.

So basically, I have a cop out of an answer – what happens off screen is not relevant to what onscreen – unless it is. Do with that what you will.

Movie Review: The Wall

The Wall
Directed by: Julian Pölsler   
Written by: Julian Pölsler based on the novel by Marlen Haushofer.
Starring: Martina Gedeck (Frau).

Movies excel at a lot of things that novels do not – and vice versa. Not having read the book that is the basis of the Austrian film The Wall, I cannot say if it was one of those “unadaptable” books or not – but I do know that writer/director Julian Polsler probably could not have picked a worse way into turning the book into a movie. While the film is never less than beautiful to look at, and Martina Gedeck delivers a fine performance in the lead (and really only) role, The Wall commits the capital cinematic sin of telling, not showing and if nothing else shows future directors just how not to make a movie like this.

The film stars Gedeck as the unnamed protagonist of the story, who goes out to an isolated cabin in the woods with two friends. The friends head into town for a little while the first night, leaving Gedeck in the cabin alone with a dog named Lynx. When she wakes up the next morning, her friends still are not back – so she decides to head into town, on foot, herself. And that’s when she discovers it – the invisible wall that has trapped her, alone, in the middle of nowhere. Like the dome in Stephen King’s Under the Dome you cannot see this wall, cannot get over it, or under it and Gedeck has no idea where it came from. Walking back to the cabin, she sees two other people outside their cottage – and tries to talk to them. But, they are on the other side of the wall, and no matter how loud she screams, they cannot hear or see her. Then she realizes something – they aren’t moving. It’s like time has frozen outside the Wall.

The movie takes place over the days, weeks, months and finally years that Gedeck spends inside the wall – with no other people around, just her animals to keep her company. The wall has enclosed a huge space for her in the middle of nowhere – a forest, fields and lots of wildlife are inside with her and gradually she learns to take care of herself – how to harvest the crops growing inside, and hunt the animals. She bonds with Lynx the dog, and eventually with two cats she finds, along with a pregnant cow – and eventually the calf. The animals keep her going.

The problem with the movie is the near constant voiceover narration by Gedeck. We see her at the beginning sit down and begin to write down what she has experienced over her still ongoing time behind the Wall – which I would guess is the premise of the book as well. Over practically every moment of every scene, we her Gedeck’s voice narrating the action we see on the screen. She hardly says a word otherwise. The narration, which explains every thought and feeling Gedeck is experiencing onscreen, robs the movie of any real power. Reading a first person narrative can be very effective – having a constant voiceover is distracting in the extreme, especially in a movie like this.

After all, The Wall is ultimately about loneliness and solitude. Gedeck spends her days consumed by her tasks to try and stave off depression and loneliness, which she can only do for so long. It’s hard to make a film with only one character for nearly its entire running time – it’s why so few movies actually attempt to do it. When they work – like Robert Zemeckis’ Castaway (or apparently the upcoming All is Lost), they can be marvelous. But the fact that we have a near constant drone of a narrator robs the movie of its power – and its ability to make us truly relate to the loneliness and solitude Gedeck is experiencing. Worse, the narration is often not very interesting, and borders on the ponderous. It wouldn’t surprise me to discover that Polsler simply transcribed much of the novel – because a lot of what we hear is the type of narration that may well work on the page, but sounds slightly silly when spoken aloud.

All of this is a shame, because The Wall looks beautiful – shot in the pristine wilderness, that the movie makes look beautiful or scary, depending on the moment. And Gedeck’s physical performance conveys so much without the narration, that I wonder if the movie would have played much better without any narration at all – that certainly would have been a more daring choice.

As it stands, The Wall is a missed opportunity. The constant narration doesn’t work at all, and detracts from the parts of the movie that do work. It’s impossible to watch The Wall and not wonder what kind of movie it would have been – and could have been – had no narration been added at all. At the very least, it would have been a much more daring film.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Movie Review: Wadjda

Directed by: Haifaa Al-Mansour.
Written by: Haifaa Al-Mansour.
Starring: Reem Abdullah (Mother), Waad Mohammed (Wadjda), Abdullrahman Al Gohani (Abdullah), Ahd Kamel (Ms. Hussa), Sultan Al Assaf (Father).

The fact that a film like Wadjda exists at all should be cause for celebration. Movie theaters are banned in Saudi Arabia, and women are still banned from doing pretty much anything unless they are accompanied by a man. And yet, somehow Haifaa Al-Mansour, a woman, was able to write and direct a feature film in Saudi Arabia, about a smart little girl, who wants to do things that a “proper” young girl in Saudi Arabia would not want to do. While the movie has caused controversy in Saudi Arabia, the country also selected it as their first submission ever for the Foreign Language Film Oscar. It may be a very small step – representing very little progress – but it’s something.

The film stars young Waad Mohammed as Wadjda – a girl of around 11 who more than anything in the world wants a shiny new bike, so she can ride around with her best friend Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani). Proper young women do not ride bikes, but Wadjda doesn’t care. She already angers Ms. Hussa (Ahd Kamel), the headmistress at her school, because she doesn’t wear the proper head gear, or shoes, and doesn’t immediately hide herself away while playing when two men start working on a rooftop nearby, meaning – shock – that they could see the little girls playing. There is going to be a Qur’an contest at the school – and top prize in 1,000 Riel – enough to buy the bike of her dreams – so she fakes turning over a new leaf and says that she would like to join Religion Club to prepare for the contest.

Wadjda also has a complicated home life. Her mother works as a nurse, but only when she can get to the hospital – which she cannot do if their demeaning driver refuses to show up for work – which he does on some days. Her father (Sultan Al Assaf) leaves for days or weeks on end, and her mother (Reem Abdullah) has heard that her mother-in-law is trying to fix him up with a new wife – one that will give him a son, instead of just a daughter. When Wadjda sees her father’s family tree – and realizes that she isn’t on it, she adds a leaf herself – only to later find it crumpled on the floor. While outwardly, her father is kind to both her mother and Wadjda, it’s also quite clear that he values Wadjda less because she’s a girl, and not a boy.

The film balances between its neo-realist influences, and a more trying to put a brighter face on this story, which could have been a whole lot darker. Given the way Al-Mansour shoots, and the story that revolves around a bike, it’s hard not to think about Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves – which is clearly an influence. While Wadjda is definitely critical of Saudi society’s treatment of women, it doesn’t get bogged down in darkness, or play like a sermon. Instead, it makes its points against the treatment of women subtly, and then moves on. The fact that Al-Mansour essentially crafts a feel-good movie out of this story, which one suspects may be darker if it happened in real life, allows her to get away with a little bit more criticism than she may otherwise have been able to do. That may seem like Al-Mansour is soft-pedaling her message a little bit – which isn’t exactly untrue – but keep in mind she had to direct all of the outside scenes in the movie from inside a van – so she wouldn’t be seen by others bossing around men. Wadjda may be a small step in the right direction – but it’s still a step.

I found it impossible not to be won over by Wadjda. The movie is charming and funny, but also has a message – one that I think is important. In the West, we may be shocked with how women are treated in some parts of the world – I love my two-year daughter more than anything in the world – but that’s not true everywhere. Wadjda is not a great movie – it is a little too simplistic than that – but it’s an important one.

Movie Review: Paradise: Faith

Paradise: Faith
Directed by:  Ulrich Seidl.
Written by: Ulrich Seidl and Veronika Franz.
Starring: Maria Hofstätter (Anna Maria), Nabil Saleh (Nabil), Natalya Baranova (Natalya), Rene Rupnik (Herr Rupnik).

Like an Austrian Todd Solondz, Ulrich Seidl makes films that are meant to make his audience provoke a response for an audience, make them uncomfortable, and from scene to scene question their assumptions that they have made about the movie and its characters. His ironically titled “Paradise” trilogies don’t depict Paradise of any sort – just like Solondz’s Happiness was filled with miserable people. The first chapter in the trilogy was Paradise: Love, an a middle aged, overweight Austrian woman on vacation in Kenya looking for love, and gradually finds that the love she can find there is for sale – and isn’t love, but sex. You couldn’t help but feel sorry for this lonely woman at times in Paradise: Love, and you couldn’t help but be repulsed by some of the things she does as well. Both she and the Kenyan men she meets are exploiting each other – but at least the men had a better excuse. I left Paradise: Love not knowing how to feel about it – and in the months since I have seen it, I still cannot make up my mind on it. That’s one of the movie’s strengths. The second chapter in the trilogy is Paradise: Faith – and while Seidl is going for something similar, with a different main theme, the result isn’t nearly as fascinating.

Right from the beginning, Seidl is provoking us. We meet Anna Maria (Maria Hofstatter) as she goes about her morning prayers – and then lashes herself while praying to one of the many crucifixes in her house – so we know what kind of faith Seidl is referring to in the title. Anna Maria is a nurse, who goes on vacation (just like the woman in Paradise: Love – who is her sister in what is really the only connection between the two films – you don’t need to have seen the first one to get the second). But she’s not really going anywhere on her vacation – she’s staying at home. She is Catholic, and she and her prayer group are determined to make the whole Austria Catholic as well – a mighty task, but they have God on their side after all. Throughout the movie, we’ll see Anna Maria go to multiple strangers’ houses to prayer with them – and the rather large Virgin Mary statute she brings with her. Some strangers simply slam the door in her face, some humor her, some argue with her, and some seem at least somewhat interested. These scenes range from funny to sad to disturbing.

Anna Maria arrives home one day to find Nabil (Nabil Saleh) in her house. He is an Egyptian Muslim, and although they have a past together, it takes Seidl a while to reveal that he is her husband who hasn’t been living at home in a while. Nabil’s presence, and his mockery of her faith, makes it clear that this conversion to this type of religion is a later in life decision for Anna Maria – a born again Catholic if you will. Although Anna Maria allows Nabil to stay – she refuses to share a bed with him either for sleeping or sex. The later in particular infuriates Nabil, and the two begin a domestic Holy War.

Or at least, I think Seidl wants the audience to see it as a Holy War, but this never really works in the movie. The problem with Paradise: Faith is that it seems to know little about faith itself – neither the Muslim or the Catholic faiths are explored in any sort of detail in the movie, and in fact Nabil seems to be almost secular. He doesn’t go around knocking crucifixes off the wall because he really objects to her religion – but because she refuses to have sex with him, so he wants revenge. The Catholic faith isn’t explored in much more depth than the Muslim one in the movie – and Anna Maria strange relationship with Jesus – which is sexual in disturbing ways – never really makes much sense either. Seidl is obviously going for shock value in scenes like the opening and closing of the film, which are flip sides of the same coin, or the scene where Anna Maria brings a crucifix to bed. The problem is that there really isn’t much in these scenes beyond the shock value.

More effective than the domestic Holy War, and Anna Maria’s S&M relationship with Jesus than are the home visit that she makes to non-believers looking to convert them. These get increasingly disturbing and sad as the go along – beginning with an argument with an older couple who think it’s hilarious that she says they are “living in sin”, and going to a sad sack middle aged man who still misses his dead mother (and is probably just happy someone is there to talk to him) and ending with an extended sequence involving an drunken Russian immigrant woman, who proves too much even more Anna Maria’s devotion. Even if the scenes don’t make much logical sense (since when do Catholics knock on people’s doors and try and convert them), thematically and dramatically, the scenes work.

If there is a reason to see Paradise: Faith, it’s because like Paradise: Love, there is a wonderful performance at its core. Whatever problems I may have with the movie, the performance by Maria Hofstätter is not one of them. She goes for broke in this film, and delivers an excellent performance that helps to paper over the film’s shortcomings.

Paradise: Faith isn’t nearly as good as Paradise: Love. That was a fascinating, haunting film – a moral puzzle that all this time later, I’m still trying to put together. Paradise: Faith is more straight forward, less complex and less interesting. I found myself thinking about Paradise: Love for weeks after I saw the film – and now, just days after seeing Paradise: Faith, I find I haven’t thought of it too much at all. It’s an interesting film, but when compared to what came before, it’s a disappointment.

Movie Review: Dirty Wars

Dirty Wars
Directed by: Rick Rowley.
Written by: David Riker & Jeremy Scahill.

Dirty Wars, a documentary based on the reporting of Jeremy Scahill, who serves as a writer, the narrator and focal point for the film, argues, convincingly, that America’s War on Terror has become one that will never end. While in Afghanistan, we hears about many night raids being conducted on the civilian population – but cannot get any real information from the US Government on them – so he sets off, outside the safety of the Green Zone, to find out what happened on one such raid. What he finds shocks and saddens him – this raid ended up with an Afghan Police Captain – who had worked alongside Americans for years, being killed, as well as other victims – including women and children. The story the government tells doesn’t fit in with the facts that he discovers when talking to the family of the victims, who tell him shocking things. Scahill keeps digging, and keeps finding more things that disturb him. These raids are being carried out nightly – and the result is often the death of people who have somehow found their way onto a list of targets for American Forces. Yet the list never seems to grow any shorter – the more people they kill or capture, they more people they end up adding to the lists.

When Scahill starts investigating these raids, and finds out they are being conducted by a military group known as the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) is a group he had never heard of before. He digs and finds they report directly to the White House, and their commanding officer is a General McRaven. JSOC was shrouded in secrecy – but after conducting the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden, they became national heroes. JSOC carries out America’s covert war efforts – the night raids that started Scahill on his path for the truth, as well as targeted assassinations, and the now infamous, and controversial drone strikes. There is little to no oversight on them from Congress, and they are free to conduct their operations in places where war has not even been declared. In some cases, they outsource the war to African warlords – like one we see in the movie who brags about how when they capture foreign fighters, they kill them on the spot to dissuade others from fighting. Or another who says America knows war – he doesn’t question what they tell him to do, he just assumes they know what they’re talking about. The film documents Scahill’s efforts to bring what he finds to the attention of Congress and the mainstream media – and for the most part, he is rebuffed. Politicians hide behind saying things like “That’s classified”, and others dismiss the deaths of women and other innocent as “collateral damage” – regrettable sure, but just the cost of doing business.

For Scahill, a turning point was reached when a drone killed Anwar al-Awlaki, a Muslim cleric who was said by government officials to be as dangerous as Bin Laden. Maybe he was, maybe he wasn’t – but Awlaki’s death signals something that should disturb all Americans – because after all, Awlaki was an American citizen himself. Should the government really have the right to execute an American citizen without charging him with a crime? What about Awlaki’s 16 year old son, who was killed a few weeks after Awlaki in another drone strike? What was his crime?

Scahill’s arguments will be controversial for many. The film shows clips of interviews and sermons from Awlaki, who in the wake of 9/11 expressed remorse for the victims, and condemned the terrorists who killed them. How did this man turn from that into the most dangerous man in the world according the American government? Scahill argues that it is because of America’s War on Terror – that killing innocent people, like the women and children in the first raid he covers, coverts more and more people into terrorists. Thus, it is a never ending cycle.

That may be a controversial position – who really knows why anyone goes from decrying terrorism, to supporting jihad as Awlaki did – but it is at least something worth considering – as is the cost of drone strikes, that the President can use at his discretion, with little oversight. The movie makes the convincing case that while many thought Obama would reign in the War on Terror, he has done anything but in his time in office.

The film does not have a typical look of a documentary. Director Rick Rowley almost approached the movie as a Tony Scott-style thriller – with Scahill as the hero detective, trying to piece together parts of the story. The movie uses the same kind of desaturated color, and exaggerated words directly placed on screen (one at a time, like a typewriter), that Scott favored. Often in the past, I have complained that documentaries don’t do much visually to differentiate themselves from each other – but this time, it’s a little bit of overkill. At times, it almost detracts from the arguments the film is making, as it gets lost under all that style.
Still, Dirty Wars is a fine documentary about the ongoing War on Terror. We’ve seen a lot of these documentaries in the past decade, but the fact that they keep getting made, and keep exploring different aspects of the War means there are still things worth discussing. The unanswered question of Dirty Wars is simple – How SHOULD America conduct the war on terror? The movie doesn’t even attempt to answer that question. Perhaps because no one really knows. What Scahill is convinced of – and what is worth discussing about the film – is that while he may not how America should conduct the War on Terror, he’s convinced of how they shouldn’t – which is to do the same thing they’re doing now.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Movie Review: 12 Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave
Directed by:  Steve McQueen.
Written by: John Ridley based on the book by Solomon Northup.
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor (Solomon Northup), Michael Fassbender (Edwin Epps), Sarah Paulson (Mistress Epps), Lupita Nyong'o (Patsey), Benedict Cumberbatch (Ford), Paul Dano (Tibeats), Paul Giamatti (Freeman), Brad Pitt (Bass), Alfre Woodard (Mistress Shaw), Dwight Henry (Uncle Abram), Bryan Batt (Judge Turner), Kelsey Scott (Anne Northup), Quvenzhané Wallis (Margaret Northup), Cameron Zeigler (Alonzo Northup), Scoot McNairy (Brown), Taran Killam (Hamilton), Chris Chalk (Clemens), Adepero Oduye (Eliza), Michael K. Williams (Robert), Liza J. Bennett (Mistress Ford), Andy Dylan (Treach), Garret Dillahunt (Armsby).
America remains uncomfortable about slavery. This helps to explain why so few movies have actually dealt directly with slavery over the years. Last year however, we saw two films that deal with slavery in two very different ways – Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln was an excellent film about Lincoln getting the 14th Amendment passed, and Quentin Tarantino’s even better Django Unchained, a film that took the form of a spaghetti western about a freed slave going to a plantation to free his wife, and unleashing all sorts of violent chaos. Both films were critical and audience hits – which may signify more Americans being ready to confront their violent history. In his review of Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986), Roger Ebert stated that although they had already seen many great Vietnam movies – Coming Home, The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, The Killing Fields – that Platoon probably should have come first. It was a grunt’s eye view of the war, and the rest of the movies can build off of that. I feel the same way about Steve McQueen’s brilliant 12 Years a Slave. I didn’t agree with those who wanted Spielberg’s film to show the ugliness of slavery – that wasn’t what his movie was about – and I didn’t agree with those who thought that Tarantino’s film trivialized history – his film shows, albeit in a stylized way, just how racist, violent and despicable slavery was. 12 Years a Slave is the film that critics of those two films wanted them to be – a realistic, unflinching look at the horrors of American slavery. If I were to put the three films together on a triple bill, I’d show 12 Years a Slave first.

The film stars Chiwetal Ejifor as Solomon Northup, a black man born free in New York State. With his family away on vacation, he accepts the offer of two men with a circus to travel to Washington D.C. and play the violin for the crowds. The pay is more than he normally commands, and he has nothing else to do, so he agrees. At the end of his employment stint, the two men take him out for dinner – where they get Solomon so drunk he passes out. He wakes up in chains, prisoner of brutal men who either do not believe him when they say he is a free man, or more likely just don’t care. He’s a healthy black man – he’ll fetch a good price down South.

What follows is more than a decade in slavery for Northup – where he is subjected to all types of cruelty and abuse at the hands of his “masters”. His first is Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) who is by all accounts a “good” slave owner – he certainly is kinder to Northup than what he will experience later on – but he’s still employs Tibeats (Paul Dano), who taunts the slaves mercilessly, and will try to hang Northup later on. Ford does protect Northup from Tibbeats – by selling him to an even more brutal plantation owner, Epps (Michael Fassbender). When Northup tells Ford who he really is – Ford doesn’t care. He still owes money on Northup – and who will pay that if he simply lets him go? Ford may be a “good” slave owner – but he’s still a slave owner – and as the movie makes clear good and slave owner don’t really belong together. Things will become even worse for Northup under Epps – a cruel, violent man who proudly proclaims the slaves his property – and that there is no sin in anything he does with them because they are nothing but property.

The performances in the movie are all great – down to the smallest role. At the center of movie, Ejifor delivers a towering performance as Northup – a man subjected to the worst of human nature, who tries his best not to lose his own humanity. It is the type of performance that will win him the praise he has long since deserved. Equally good is Michael Fassbender as Epps – who could have been a caricature of the sadistic Southern plantation owner, but is given more depth here than we expect. He is in love with one of his slaves – Patesy (Lupita Nyong’o), and that love drives him to do even more brutal, violent things than his hatred does. Fassbender has worked with McQueen on all three of his films – Hunger (2008) and Shame (2011) – and together they make up one of the best director/actor duos working right now. McQueen constantly pushes Fassbender to deeper, darker places – and Fassbender delivers. For her part, Nyong’o makes a stunning debt as Patesy, who like Solomon, tries to keep her humanity in the face of such cruelty, but because she is subjected to even more of it, it’s harder for her. The most shocking scene in the movie – the one that is hardest to watch – comes about because she wants the simplest of things to make her feel human. Sarah Paulson is also excellent as Epps’ wife – who knows her husband’s feelings for Patesy, and hates her because of it. Paulson, a great actress who has mainly been relegated to TV work, here is given a great role and makes the most of it. I could spend the rest of the review praising the performances of the rest of the supporting cast – Dano, who adds another horrific creep to his resume, Paul Giamatti as a man who sells slaves, Alfre Woodard, who in two minutes leaves a lasting impact on the film, Scoot McNairy and Taran Killiam as the men who sell Solomon into slavery, Chris Chalk and Michael K. Williams as two other slaves who make the trip down South with Solomon, Adepero Oduye as a woman who cannot get over the loss of her children, Garret Dillahunt a man who seems trustworthy and Brad Pitt as the only “good” white character in the movie – who not coincidentally is not an American among them – but suffice to say, McQueen has pretty much perfectly cast even the smallest roles in his movie.

McQueen’s film is also impeccably made. At times for his previous films (and even a few for this one), McQueen has had his fine arts background thrown back in his face (as if Fine Arts automatically equals pretension) – but I have always found his extended takes to be brilliantly constructed. The shot of Solomon hanging, with his feet barely touching the ground, for hours on end is haunting – especially when McQueen changes angles as the long hours progress, and we see what’s happening in the background – and no one seem to think anything odd is going on. Or the toughest scene to take – when Solomon is forced to do something abhorrent, and McQueen shows it all in one, slowly panning shot. Rather than detract from the power of the scenes, I think these shots enhance it – McQueen doesn’t cut away, doesn’t give the audience anywhere to hide – you stuck watching it play out in real time. McQueen and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt have done a masterful job.

I could go on listing superlatives for 12 Years a Slave – Jim Ridley’s excellent screenplay, which creates such vivid characters in short time, and nails the vocal nuances of the time, Hans Zimmer’s haunting, yet never overbearing score, the production design, the costumes, the editing, etc. – but then we’d be here all day. Sufficed to say, all of it is brilliant – and taken together it’s what makes 12 Years a Slave such a powerful, important and masterful movie. One of the very best films of the year.

Movie Review: Carrie

Directed by: Kimberly Peirce.
Written by: Lawrence D. Cohen and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa based on the novel by Stephen King.
Starring: Chloë Grace Moretz (Carrie White), Julianne Moore (Margaret White), Gabriella Wilde (Sue Snell), Portia Doubleday (Chris Hargensen), Judy Greer (Ms. Desjardin), Ansel Elgort (Tommy Ross), Alex Russell (Billy Nolan).

Stephen King’s first novel Carrie established pretty much immediately what King would excel at for the next 40 years as a novelist – taking a realistic situation and adding supernatural and horror elements to it. The power of Carrie is that not much needed to be added in the book’s first half – that details Carrie’s torment at school at the hands of the popular girls who pick on her because she’s weird, and at home, where her religious nut of a mother punishes her for sins that she has no control over – like getting her period, or growing breasts. While King pulled one of the novels he wrote as Richard Bachman – Rage – after Columbine, fearing that it’s portrait of an articulate school shooter would inspire others (unlikely – the shooter in that book bares almost no resemblance to any school shooter I’ve ever heard of) – Carrie is almost the prototypical school shooter story – the story of a loner, tormented everywhere, who is finally pushed too far, snaps, and kills everyone. Just because Carrie uses telekinesis and not a gun doesn’t change that. Perhaps its portrait of teenage angst is the reason it remains one of King’s most famous novels, even if it is among his simplest. In 1976 Brian DePalma made an excellent film version of King’s novel – it ranks among the best films DePalma has ever made, the best King adaptations, and among the best performances of Sissy Spacek’s career, who was excellent in the title role. Since then, we’ve seen a needless sequel and a needless TV remake that changed the ending to allow for a TV series that never materialized. No, we really didn’t need another screen version of the story.

And yet, I’m glad that one was made. Brian DePalma has always been a gifted visual stylist, and his Carrie is a magnificently well-made film. DePalma also fully embraced the horror movie elements of the story, making the film into the story of a victim who becomes a monster, while at the same time relishing the revenge that she gets on all of her tormenters. This new screen version has been directed by Kimberly Peirce – director of the Oscar winning Boys Don’t Cry (1999) and the unjustly ignored Stop-Loss (2008). While I’m not sure I would have immediately identified Peirce as the director of this Carrie – I do believe I would have immediately known that this was a film directed by a woman. This film is much more attuned to the uniquely female way her tormenters abuse Carrie, gets deeper into the strange mother-daughter relationship than DePalma’s version does. And while you left the original Carrie scared, but thrilled – on an adrenaline high – the overwhelming emotion I felt while walking out of this version of Carrie is sadness. DePalma wanted to scare you; Peirce wants to make you feel something deeper. I’m not saying that this version is better than DePalma’s version – it really doesn’t even come close if I’m being honest. But to me, this Carrie represents the way, in which remakes should be done – not to simply repeat what worked before, but to find a different perspective on it.

I heard some internet sniping before Carrie opened that they could never believe Chloe Grace Mortez in the lead role because she was too good looking to be picked on, and that she was too much of a badass to be believably passive like Carrie is for most of the movie. But I found Mortez’s performance to be excellent here – yes, she’s more conventionally good looking that Spacek is (who is hardly ugly by the way), but Mortez plays Carrie as a confused teenage girl completely lacking in confidence. She’s hunched over, trying to avoid eye contact with anyone, even herself in the mirror. It doesn’t matter how good looking you are if you feel ugly – and Mortez plays Carrie as a girl who feels ugly. She excels in the early scenes – especially the disturbing shower sequence – and she excels later as she gradually opens up and starts to gain confidence – slowly but surely, as a previous unseen glint in the eyes materializes. She is heartbreaking in a scene in the locker room, where she confides in a kindly gym teacher (Judy Greer – once again doing excellent character work) that’s scared of being tricked again. As her mother, Julianne Moore has the difficult task of following Piper Laurie’s batshit crazy performance in the original. The movie tries to give her character a little more depth this time and Moore tries to not go as far over the top as Laurie did so brilliantly, and for the most part she succeeds. Laurie played the role as insane, Moore plays it as more disturbed, which fits in better in this version.

It must be said that the movie is flawed – deeply at times. The other characters aside from Carrie, her mother and Greer’s teacher are never quite given any real depth. I think the movie tries to make kindly Sue Snell (Gabriella Wilde), her boyfriend Tommy (Ansel Elgort) and the ruthless ringleader Chris (Portia Doubleday) into more than just archetypes, but it never really comes across as such. And while the prom night massacre is the highlight of DePalma’s film, it is fairly clumsily handled by Peirce in this movie – although she does give it a few nice touches. There are a few touches that seem to be directly referencing the DePalma film that don’t fit in with the rest of the movie at all (the ending is a perfect example) – they feel as if they were teleported in from another movie, because in essence that is what happened. I have to wonder if the studio mandated some of those references, and forced them on Peirce, because they don’t feel right alongside the rest of her movie.

To many, these flaws will be fatal – I know I’m in the minority in liking this Carrie – but they didn’t ruin the movie for me, even as I wished that Peirce had been able to pull off the version of the story she clearly wanted to make. This is a film whose ambitions exceed its grasp. But how many remakes – or horror films in general – even have those ambitions in the first place? And how many remakes actually succeed in making you look at a film you know so well in a different light? No, Peirce’s Carrie does not supplant DePalma’s as the “ultimate” screen version of the novel. DePalma’s film is great, this one is merely good. But it’s an ambitious, interesting, deeply felt movie, that flaws and all, is worth seeing for fans of the source material. You may end up surprised by how moved you are by the film – I know I was.

Movie Review: The Fifth Estate

The Fifth Estate
Directed by: Bill Condon.
Written by: Josh Singer based on the books by Daniel Domscheit-Berg and David Leigh & Like Harding.
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch (Julian Assange), Daniel Brühl (Daniel Berg), Alicia Vikander (Anke Domscheit), David Thewlis (Nick Davies), Laura Linney (Sarah Shaw), Anthony Mackie (Sam Coulson), Stanley Tucci (James Boswell), Peter Capaldi (Alan Rusbridger), Jamie Blackley (Ziggy), Moritz Bleibtreu (Marcus), Carice van Houten (Birgitta Jónsdóttir), Alexander Siddig (Dr. Tarek Haliseh).

Part of the problem with making a biopic about Julian Assange is that no one really seems to know who he is, aside from the egomaniacal public persona he has worked so hard to cultivate. For a man obsessed with exposing everyone else’s secrets, Assange is one of the most secretive public figures of our age. Does anyone really know who the man is? Is he really nothing more than his public persona? Despite an impressive, spot-on performance by Benedict Cumberbatch, who nails Assange’s voice, mannerisms and public persona, I still don’t think I have any idea who Julian Assange is as a person. That leaves somewhat of a hole at the center of The Fifth Estate.

The film mainly focuses on Daniel Berg (Daniel Bruhl), whose book the movie is (partly) based on (it’s based on another one as well). This is somewhat smart, as it allows the film to have a character we can get to know at its core. Berg is a computer genius, wasting his talents in an office job, who already knows who Assange is when they meet in 2007, even though few others do. Assange has already founded WikiLeaks, the website that will soon make him one of the most famous and controversial men in the world, but few are paying attention to him then. Berg convinces Assange that WikiLeaks could use his help – and soon he’s Assange’s right hand man, helping him expose warlords, corrupt banks and governments the world over. They go from an organization that few have heard of, to one that is being talked about everywhere – and a big part of that is Assange, who is a charismatic and convincing speaker. When they bring down a billion dollar bank, they can no longer be ignored. When they have a video showing American forces in Iraq killing reporters, and innocent civilians, they cause a sensation. When they get the biggest leak of classified documents in history about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq – they team up with three large papers – The Guardian, The New York Times and Der Spiegel – to ensure they cannot be silenced. But while this story seemed like it would be just the beginning of WikiLeaks and their power, it pretty much marked its end. The three news organizations are all willing to exploit WikiLeaks and their information, but they still didn’t respect Assange all that much. He was a muck raker, not a real reporter to them, and when he comes under fire, they quickly distance themselves from him. And while the papers wanted to ensure that some of documents were redacted to protect real people from being killed, Assange didn’t give a crap.

All of this is well known by now – really, unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know the story of WikiLeaks – or at least its highlights. The Fifth Estate tries hard to dramatize the events into one two hour movie. In some ways, the film works. I cannot imagine an actor better suited to play Assange than Cumberbatch, who really is excellent here. And Daniel Bruhl makes a sympathetic entry point for the viewer – an idealist who loves Assange, but slowly becomes disillusioned. That’s one of the oldest stories in the book – but it can still be effective if told right. The screenplay by The West Wing-vet Josh Singer moves things along quickly, as does Bill Condon’s direction – even if at times the film does kind of play like it was directed by an old man trying to be edgy. I was never bored by The Fifth Estate.

And yet, I was never really involved in it either. The story is so well known, that I wish that the film had taken a new angle on it, rather than just repeat what everyone already knows – which it doesn’t. I wish the film would have dispensed with such clichés as the role the talented Alicia Vikander is saddled with as Berg’s girlfriend – who is either supportive of him, or angry with him, based on whatever the screenplay requires at the time. I wish that the newspaper men – represented here by David Thewlis – had been given more to do except make speeches (Thewlis’ speech at the end of the movie sounds like a sermon, delivered directly to the audience). And I almost wish the subplot involving three great actors – Laura Linney, Stanley Tucci and Anthony Mackie – about the U.S. governments efforts to protect those who may be exposed by WikiLeaks was given its own movie – it’s more fascinating than much of the rest of the movie, but handled so quickly that it almost feels like it doesn’t belong in the movie at all.

But most of all I wish that The Fifth Estate had given me some sort of portrait of who the real Julian Assange is. The film doesn’t seem to have any clue, so it gives us mere snippets and speculation. It doesn’t seem to ever make up its mind on Assange, and leaves you knowing as little about the man as when you walked into the theater. Yes, you can make a movie where you leave the central character an enigma – and it can even be a great movie (see Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There about Bob Dylan, which gives us many different Dylan’s, perhaps all, some or none of them the “real” Dylan). But The Fifth Estate is not that film. Instead, it keeps teasing us, revealing some information, than pulling back. I think they were trying to challenge the audience, but it just left me frustrated.

You could make a great movie about Julian Assange – Alex Gibney’s excellent documentary: We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks from earlier this year is better than The Fifth Estate – but it does require the filmmakers make some sort of choice. Unfortunately the filmmakers never really do, so they leave an excellent opportunity – and performance by Benedict Cumberbatch – dangling.

My Answer the Latest Criticwire Survey Question: Good Soundtrack, Bad Movie

Q: Many great movies draw strength from their musical soundtracks, but sometimes the films don't measure up to the songs themselves. What's your favorite example of a great soundtrack to a not-so-great film?

A few answers came readily to mind when I read this question. If we’re talking scores, than I think Thomas Newman’s work on Steven Soderberg’s The Good German is a brilliant homage to the classic Hollywood scores of the 1940s – in a way the rest of the horrible movie didn’t come close to living up to. His work on Soderberg’s Side Effects earlier this year is also better than the movie itself – although I did quite like the film.

As for Soundtracks themselves – I listened to the soundtrack for David Lynch’s Lost Highway – especially the brilliant track A Perfect Drug by Nine Inch Nails – way more times than I watched the movie – which remains for me a major disappointment from one of my favorite directors – a film that plays more like someone aping Lynch than Lynch himself. In my teenage grunge years, I listened to the Singles soundtrack for a few years before I actually saw Cameron Crowe’s movie – and for a few years after I completely forgot about the movie as well (I couldn’t give you a plot description of that movie right now if I tried). I also quite liked the soundtrack to Baz Luhrman’s Romeo & Juliet – and absolutely hated the movie.


Friday, October 18, 2013

Movie Review: Kill Your Darlings

Kill Your Darlings
Directed by: John Krokidas.
Written by: Austin Bunn & John Krokidas.
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe (Allen Ginsberg), Dane DeHaan (Lucien Carr), Ben Foster (William Burroughs), Jack Huston (Jack Kerouac), Michael C. Hall (David Kammerer), Elizabeth Olsen (Edie Parker), Kyra Sedgwick (Marian Carr), Jennifer Jason Leigh (Naomi Ginsberg), David Cross (Louis Ginsberg), David Rasche (Dean), John Cullum (Professor Steeves).

The ongoing fascination with the Beat movement in American literature is understandable. The writers associated with the movement – from Allen Ginsberg to Jack Kerouac to William Burroughs – represented the rejection of the established rules of the previous generations. There is romance in their rebellion, which is why teenagers still read On the Road, and fall in love with the idea of hitting the open road. Kill Your Darlings is about the Beat movement before there was any actual work to go along with their ideas – when the writers were just young, confused (sexually and otherwise) kids who didn’t quite know what they wanted to do – but definitely knew what they didn’t want to do. Ginsberg, Kerouac and Burroughs are all characters in the movie – but the character you will leave the theater remembering is a less famous person – Lucien Carr. It isn’t giving anything away to say that the movie concentrates on the murder of David Kammerer by Carr (it happens in the opening scene, before cycling back to tell what led to it). This murder showed the dark side of the movement – spurned its central figures to go to deeper and darker places.

The main character in the film is Ginsberg, played in an excellent performance by Daniel Radcliffe, leaving Harry Potter behind him. When the movie opens, he has just gotten into Columbia University, but isn’t sure if he should attend, because it would mean leaving his deeply mentally disturbed mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) behind. But he goes anyway, and quickly learns that the poetry he’ll learn in school has too many rules for him. His challenging of the Professor in front of the whole class draws the attention of Carr – and soon the two become inseparable. Ginsberg is drawn to Carr for his ideas, his intellect, and his sexuality that simply oozes out of him. If Ginsberg wasn’t sure he was gay before, he knows after meeting Carr – whose sexuality seems to be fluid. It’s through Carr that Ginsberg will meet Burroughs (Ben Foster), Kammerer (Michael C. Hall) and eventually Kerouac (Jack Huston). Kammerer used to be a Professor, but he has quit his job to follow Carr from school to school like a lost puppy dog. He is completely infatuated with Carr – like Ginsberg is – and immediately senses a threat to their relationship – which the movie hints at, but keeps ambiguous.

Kill Your Darlings is not exactly an original film. Like many films, what starts out as seemingly a non-stop party, and endless good times, gradually reveals itself to be something much darker. Yet, while the film won\t win points for originality, it is still an effective movie for many reasons. Debut director John Krokidas gets the period details right, and nails the feeling of how freeing it can be to be a young person rebelling against the established order. In Radcliffe, he found a fine actor to play Ginsberg at this moment in his life – immensely talented, but confused and unsure of himself. In many ways, he needs someone like Carr – both because he encourages him, and because eventually the cruelty in Carr will inspire heartbreak, which will fuel his work. As Carr, Dane DeHaan is even better – sexy, dangerous, charming, yet seemingly hell bent of self-destruction, and capable of cruelty, towards those around him. Michael C. Hall is also very good as Kammerer, a pathetic shell of a man who knows that his “Lulu” will eventually destroy him, but cannot help himself anyway.

The other performances aren’t quite as good. Perhaps because Foster is tired of everyone saying he’s goes too far over the top, his Burroughs is a curiously sedate character – one who drifts into the background too often. True, you shouldn’t play Burroughs as over the top – Viggo Mortenson’s performance of the man in On the Road last year nailed it. And I never bought Huston as Kerouac – he plays him almost as an immature frat boy. Talented actors like Elizabeth Olsen, David Cross, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Kyra Sedgwick are pretty much wasted in nothing, small roles.

But when Kill Your Darling concentrates on its central relationship between Ginsberg and Carr, it works very well. Yes, I would have preferred a more daring film – a film that broke as many rules as the Beat writers themselves – but that doesn’t mean this more conventional approach doesn’t result in a fine movie.