Thursday, March 31, 2016

Movie Review: Mekong Hotel

Mekong Hotel
Directed by: Apichatpong Weerasethakul. 
Written By: Apichatpong Weerasethakul.
In some locations, the release of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendour is accompanied by his 2012 short (57 minute) Mekong Hotel that was previously unavailable in North America. That wasn’t the case when I saw Cemetery of Splendour at the TIFF Lightbox a few weeks ago, but when I noticed the film has been added to iTunes (in Canada anyway), I figured it was worth the couple bucks and an hour of my time. Unfortunately there isn’t very much to Mekong Hotel – it plays like the director is simply playing around with ideas he has already explored, and will explore again in the future, but in no really meaningful way. The film is confusing – if you watch it with no context, it would be borderline incomprehensible. In short, there is a reason why the film has been mainly unseen since its debut at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival – and why it will likely remain that way. It’s really for diehards only.
The film blends together different elements – some documentary (or at least documentary like) footage of Apichatpong Weerasethakul talking to his friend, who is constantly strumming on a guitar (the music is beautiful). Then there is a quiet, slowly evolving love story between two younger people, who like Apichatpong Weerasethakul  and the guitar player, talk about nothing much. The young woman’s mother is also at the title hotel – but she is now a so-called “Pob Ghost” – and spends much of her time gorging on bloody entrails. She can also inhabit the bodies of others, and essentially get them to do the same thing.
All of this takes place at the beautiful hotel of the title – on the border of Laos and Thailand, and filmed at a period of flooding. There are many, long, unbroken, mainly silent shots of the flooded areas. These shots are beautiful, and there is no mistaking them for the work of any other director. Also making sure there is no mistaking the director, the supernatural or horror elements are dropped in the film in a completely nonchalant way, and the characters simply except this and move on.

Apparently much of the “fictional” elements of the movie are based on an old screenplay that Weerasethakul had written, which he has not had the money to make properly (at least the time, and now he has moved on). This is probably why some of it feels so familiar – while Weerasethakul has always, deliberately repeated themes, motifs and visuals from film to film, this one really does feel like a leftover from Uncle Boonme Who Can Recall His Past Lives – and without that films creativity and inventiveness.
In short, Mekong Hotel is more a doodle than anything – the equivalent of a writer’s notebook that contains fragments of ideas that really don’t add up to very much. Is it interesting to see Weerasethakul’s ideas? Sure, a little. But my interest got strained pretty quickly. Apichatpong Weerasethakul is a masterful filmmaker – one of the best currently working in the world right now. But perhaps he didn’t really need to share this with the public. Diehards, knock yourself out. The rest of you can skip it, and focus on Cemetery of Splendour and his other features.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Movie Review: Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice

Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice
Directed by: Zack Snyder.
Written by: Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer.
Starring: Ben Affleck (Bruce Wayne / Batman), Henry Cavill (Clark Kent / Superman), Amy Adams (Lois), Jesse Eisenberg (Lex Luthor), Diane Lane (Martha Kent), Laurence Fishburne (Perry White), Jeremy Irons (Alfred), Holly Hunter (Senator Finch), Gal Gadot (Diana Prince / Wonder Woman), Scoot McNairy (Wallace Keefe), Callan Mulvey (Anatoli Knyazev), Tao Okamoto (Mercy Graves).
Back in 2012, when The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises, both came out, I wondered if comic book movies were at a tipping point. While it was possible, I thought, to make a superhero movie bigger than The Avengers or darker than the Nolan Batman movies, had been, I wasn’t sure it was advisable to do either, and I didn’t know where the superhero genre had left to go – especially if they continued to refuse to evolve, and allow directors to take things in different, perhaps more personal directions. In the four years since, the answer has pretty much seemed like the studios have decided to maintain the status quo. The Marvel movies continue to chug along, at a reliable two-movies-per-year pace, and while Avengers: Age of Ultron was too large and bloated, for the most part, they’ve keep up a rather admirable level of quality. Captain Winter: Solider may be the best one they’ve made so far, and Guardians of the Galaxy perhaps the most purely entertaining. They’re not re-inventing the wheel at Marvel, but they know they’re business, and are good at executing it. The same could be said of the folks in charge of the X-Men movies. Sure, Sony messed up Spider-Man (the two Marc Webb movies are far from awful – but they did seem completely unnecessary), and the less said about Fantastic 4, the better. Eventually, like everything else, superhero movies will fade – but until then, for the most part, they deliver an entertaining diversion – a distraction.
Which brings us to Zack Snyder, who seems to think that the way to go with superhero movies is to make them bigger than The Avengers, and more morose than The Dark Knight. Snyder is clearly influenced by Frank Miller – whose two great Dark Knight graphic novel redefined the character in the 1980s, but Snyder takes things even farther. His awful film 300 was also based on Miller graphic novel, and he was the director who was finally able to bring the darkest superhero graphic novel in history, Alan Moore’s brilliant Watchmen, to the screen (as much as people hate on Watchmen – I actually rather like it, problems and all – or at least I did when it first came out – it’s been a while since I revisited it). His Man of Steel was another Superman reboot – after Bryan Singer’s underrated Superman Returns, disappointed many – and launched the DC Comic Universe. Man of Steel is an odd movie – darker, more violent and more morose and more violent at Superman has ever been onscreen before. I was lukewarm on that film – parts I liked included Michael Shannon’s General Zod, although the willful destruction that concluded the movie left a sour taste in my mouth, as it did with many others as well. To give Snyder and company credit, that’s where they begin Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice – with Ben Affleck’s Bruce Wayne angry that Superman’s battle with Zod destroyed much of Metropolis, including his own building, which left some of his employees dead or wounded. It’s enough to make Wayne breakout his old Batman suit – he’s pissed at Superman, and wants to stop him. That is actually a pretty good place to start a movie called Batman v. Superman – because why the hell else would two superheroes battle each other.
The problem really is the rest of the movie that Snyder and company spin out from there. The villain this time is Lex Luthor (Jessie Eisenberg), who has an overly complicated plot to destroy Superman, for reasons that are never really all that clear. His plot doesn’t make all that much sense either – unless you think people would actually believe Superman would shoot people. It doesn’t help that Eisenberg is absolutely awful in the role – he is trying for some kind of heightened, over-the-top, insanity – but he isn’t able to make it scary like Heath Ledger’s Joker, nor over the top funny and enjoyable like Gene Hackman or Kevin Spacey, previous big screen Lex Luthors. Instead, he makes Luther is tick-raddled psycho, with no basis in anything resembling human behavior. He would have been better off just playing Luthor the same way he played Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network.
Yet, as the Marvel movies have proven, you make an effective superhero movie even if you don’t have a good villain (seriously, other than Loki, has any Marvel movie had a truly great villain? Maybe Robert Redford in The Winter Soldier). The bigger problem is Batman and Superman themselves. I don’t blame the much derided casting of Ben Affleck as Bruce Wayne/Batman. He’s fine in the role – at least as written. He’s even more humorless than Christian Bale’s Batman was for Christopher Nolan, and doesn’t have nearly the depth he had there. Now, he’s basically just a humorless asshole. Henry Cavill is stuck with the unenviable role as Superman/Clark Kent, and he doesn’t seem to know what to do with it. On one hand, he seems to be trying to put on the sunnier, happier face and easy charm that previous Superman actors have played the character with, although it’s undercut by Snyder’s insistence to keep everything dark and morose. There’s no joy in this movie, as it takes everything so painfully seriously – which worked for Nolan, but doesn’t work here, because everything in the movie is so ridiculous.
So what really we’re left with is a two and half hour movie that goes back and forth from sullen and morose dramatic scenes, and long, loud, brash fight sequences where huge, hulking men crash into each other again and again and again. Everything is dark and gritty, as if Snyder mistakes that for authenticity, but it doesn’t much work here. He also has to cram so much other crap into the movie – because DC wants to prematurely jumpstart their own version of what Marvel has been doing for nearly a decade now. The highlight is Gal Gadot as Diana Prince/Wonder Woman – although she is clearly shoehorned into the movie, she’s so good it’s hard to complain, and it makes me eager for next summer’s Wonder Woman standalone movie. The film also pauses mid-movie for essentially a series of mini-trailers to setup other members of the Justice League – The Flash, Aquaman and Cyclops.
All of this setting up hurts the movie’s plot even more than it otherwise would be – and really hurts many of the characters. Poor Amy Adams has to play Lois Lane as basically an incompetent reporter, whose only purpose is keep almost getting herself killed so Superman can save her. The great Holly Hunter shows up as a Senator, and is asked to spout silly dialogue before she can be dispatched with. Diane Lane shows back up as Superman’s mom, and gives him advice almost as bad as Kevin Costner’s in the first movie – and then, like Lois Lane, is there just to be rescued. Laurence Fishburne played Perry White as the worst newspaper editor in history. The talented Tao Okamoto – so good on TV’s great, short lived Hannibal – plays Lex Luthor’s assistant, whose only job it seems is to walk around in high heels (which, to be fair, she does remarkably well). Jeremy Irons’ Alfred is reduced to a wisecracking background character. A movie with the runtime of Batman v Superman should have opportunities for supporting characters to do something interesting – this one, does not.
There are moments in the film that are good. I’ve already mentioned Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, but I’ll do so again (she really is that good). While the multiple dream sequences - including a dream sequence inside a dream sequence (I half expected Leonardo DiCaprio and his top to show up) were ridiculous in the film, the best, non-Wonder Woman sequence in the film may just be one of those dream sequences, with Batman envisioning a dark, sunburnt, dystopian future.
Overall though, Batman v Superman doesn’t give me much to look forward to in the future of the DC Universe it is trying so desperately hard to create. Yes, Wonder Woman looks great, and I think this summer’s Suicide Squad looks like fun (for one thing, it doesn’t look like it’s taking itself as painfully serious as this movie does), so if you want to be optimistic, you can write off Batman v Superman as a necessary, growing pains movies – a two and a half hour trailer, which basically has the unenviable job of setting everything up, that future installments will do better. But you have to really, really see that bright side to get there – and still, we’re left with this dark, brooding, slog of a superhero movie, that has the size of The Avengers and the darkness of The Dark Knight, without the fun of the former and dramatic heft of the later. It’s the worst of both worlds.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Classic Movie Review: The Films of Don Hertzfeldt - 1995-2005

To me, animator Don Hertzfeldt is the greatest director of short form animation currently working. His latest film is World of Tomorrow – an absolute masterpiece, probably the greatest thing he has ever done, which earned him his second Oscar nomination. His animation has been hugely influential and admired for years now – but he has remained an under the radar director – mainly because he has rejected all offers to work in commercials, and most offers to do something bigger than his independent shorts – the lone exceptions being the weirdest couch gag in Simpsons history, and a run with The Animation Show, which doesn’t really count, since it basically just showcased the type of work he’s always been doing. Hertzfeldt makes the films he wants to make, and if they aren’t going to make him hugely wealthy, it doesn’t matter – he has complete freedom, and that’s more valuable to him – and to us. Since I saw World of Tomorrow in early 2015 (from Vimeo – for a bargain of $4.99 – considering you keep it for a month, where I watched it approximately 10 times) – I’ve been meaning to go back and watch (or re-watch) all of his work from the beginning. It’s all fairly easy to find – either on Youtube or Vimeo. In short, the main is a genius – he uses mainly stick figures, but what he does with them is remarkable. His shorts are often hilarious, surreal and surprising emotional. He is one of the great directors of our time.

I am going to do two posts covering Hertzfeldt’s career – the first covers 1995-2005, and the second 2006-2015. Let’s get started.

Ah, L'Amour (1995)
Hertzfeldt’s first student film shows that he pretty much already has his style in place – even if it’s a lot cruder here than it would go on to be. The short runs about two minutes, and features a happy-go-lucky stick figure man walking down the street with a huge smile on his face – and running into a series of women. Each time he meets one, he says something fairly innocuous (and it gives even more innocent with each woman he meets) – before the woman freaks out, turns into some sort of raging, violent psychopath and kills him in some sort of grotesque way – decapitation, skinned alive, chainsaw, gun shot, stabbing, etc. – before the kicker, when he finally gets a girl. The animation here is cruder than it will be on any of Hertzfeldt’s other films (and I don’t think the print online is the best) – but we can already see Hertzfeldt’s visual style – the stick figures, the crumpled paper, etc – coming through, as well as his dark comic sensibility, as the man is killed is surreal, grotesque ways. The actual content of the film is, admittedly, more than a little off-putting – you can almost see the film being used by some sort of Men’s Rights Activists, and other misogynists (it certainly doesn’t help that the main character talks to every women he meets – except for the fat one), but taken for what it is – a little film made by an (admittedly) bitter student (the credits bill it as A Bitter Film by Don Hertzfeldt – Bitter Films would later be what Hertzfeldt called his company) and it’s an amusing little film. It is the least of Hertzfeldt’s work – by a fair margin – but it’s amusing.

Genre (1996)
Hertzfeldt’s second student film, Genre, is a big step up from Ah, L’Amour – the animation is better, the humor better, and on the whole, it’s just a wonderful, little 5 minute film. In the film, an animator (on assumes Hertzfeldt), draws a cartoon bunny (a little more advanced that Hertzfeldt’s stick figures – but not much), and then pokes and prods him, angering the bunny, as he figures out what to do with his creation. What he ends up doing is putting the bunny into 12 different, increasing bizarre movie genres – cycling through the standards – Romance, Sci-Fi, Comedy, Horror, Porno, Children’s, and then being increasingly strange – like the Abstract Foreign Western, before the bunny has the kicker – a suggestion of his own genre. Once again, Hertzfeldt’s penchant for black comedy is seen throughout – the poor bunny dies any number of times during this 5 minute film, often in bloody and hilarious ways. There’s really no use denying that the film is one of Hertzfeldt’s lesser efforts – there’s no real depth here, it’s just an amusing way to spend five minutes – but in that, it is damn fun. For a student film, it’s excellent.

Lily and Jim (1997)
Of Hertzfeldt’s four student films, Lily and Jim is easily the most ambitious of the bunch – at 12 minutes, it’s longer than his first two combined, and is really when he starts to explore his bittersweet themes that run through his work. The two title characters are lonely, 20-somethings both looking for a relationship – who end up on a disastrous blind date together. The film cuts back and forth between the date – where the pair of them struggle through a dinner, trying to come up with something to say to each other (often, allowing us to hear their inner monologue, and then the horrible results of what they actually say out loud), and the pair of them talking, directly to the camera about how things went. The film perfectly captures that awkward, getting to know each other – especially given how painfully shy both of these people are. The dinner is awkward and mostly silent – the after dinner part, when they go back to Lily’s place for coffee, is even worse (Jim is allergic to coffee, but is too embarrassed to say so) even better. The film is quietly quite funny, but also rather insightful in a way that sneaks up on you – Jim’s closing monologue on the nature of relationships is quite touching and honest. Visually, the film finds Hertzfeldt finding his groove – once again, they are mainly stick figures, with only a dash of color. This is more down to earth than much of Hertzfeldt (the only surreal part may be the inane images on the TV). The first two student films are quite funny, but shallow – Lily and Jim is when Hertzfeldt starting becoming the filmmaker he would go on to become.

Billy's Balloon (1998)
Hertzfeldt’s final student film is this sadistic little marvel. As a parent of two kids under 4, I can tell you there are few things they like more than balloons – and Hertzfeldt’s short starts out with a little kid, a rattle in one hand, and red balloon (a reference to, of course, the 1956 film The Red Balloon – a beloved childhood short), basically as happy as can be. And then, the balloon attacks – pummeling poor Billy into submission – and that’s just the beginning. At first, it seems like Billy’s Balloon will be a one joke film – like Ah, L’Amour or Genre – but Hertzfeldt keeps upping the stakes every minute or so (in this 5 minute film) – I particularly love who the balloon stops attacking when adults walk by, and then tries, and succeeds, to win Billy’s affection back – before it ups the ante once again. The film represents kind of a 180 from Lily and Jim, which was more grounded then anything Hertzfeldt had done before – and this one flies off into nasty, surreal, sadistic territory – and it’s also hilarious. A wonderful little gem.

Rejected (2000)
Hertzfeldt received his first Oscar nomination for his first, non-student film – the absolutely brilliant, hilarious, surreal, demented little masterwork – Rejected, which works brilliantly on its own, and also works as a precise summation of Hertzfeldt’s view on advertising – and why he doesn’t do it himself. The concept of the film is simple – Hertzfeldt is hired to do a series of commercials for “The Family Learning Channel”, and eventually for its parent company – one of those all-encompassing corporate giants who make everything. All of Hertzfeldt’s commercials get rejected, and they become increasingly demented as the go along – not that they even start out normal.

The first commercial has a stick figure (of course) holding a giant spoon in front of a small cereal bowl repeatedly exclaiming “My spoon is too big” – before he’s joined by a banana, who helpfully tells us that “I’m a banana”. Things get increasingly bizarre from there – men growing a second head, flying pig fish, a group of people with silly hats, a group of people in silly hats beating someone wearing a regular hat, a bunny with angry ticks company out of his nipples, stick figures spilling blood all over each other. Things get worse when he has to start selling products – as his bizarre, disturbing commercials have nothing to do with the products. All of this culminates in one of the most bizarre, surreal, disturbing things I have ever seen – a group of, I don’t know, fluff balls, who are dancing around as their leader exclaims things like “Life is Good”, “This is Fun” and finally “My anus is bleeding” – all to their cheers. In his text commentary, Hertzfeldt says that an academic once compared this to Nazi propaganda films – and while I’m not sure about the Nazi part, the propaganda is certainly accurate. This isn’t even the end of the 9 minute film – as Hertzfeldt first tries doing a commercial with his left hand, and then, in a complete psychological meltdown, the commercials literally start falling apart, the pages start crumbling, and everything is sucked into a black hole.

On one level, Rejected is just a straight ahead comic masterwork – hilarious in its bizarre, surreal nightmare inducing commercial landscape. But it also acts as Hertzfeldt’s mission statement – he clearly has the talent that he could make a lot of money doing commercials if he wanted to – but they wouldn’t be his work. So, instead, we get a bizarre little masterwork like Rejected – which is 9 minutes of utterly bizarre brilliance.

The Animation Show: Welcome to the Show/Intermission in the Third Dimension/The End of the Show (2003)
In 2003, Hertzfeldt teamed up with Mike Judge to present The Animation Show – a touring collection of animated shorts that went theatrical, and then to DVD. As part of this presentation, Hertzfeldt did three mini-segments – Welcome to the Show for the beginning, Intermission in the Third Dimension, somewhere in the middle, and The End of the Show, predictably, at the end. No one would have blame Hertzfeldt for merely phoning it in with this segments – that run a total of 8 minutes – but Hertzfeldt, predictably, didn’t do that – and actually does some fairly brilliant stuff here.

In the Welcome to the Show segment, it starts out pretty much how you would expect it to – with the Fluffy guys from Rejected coming back to welcome the audience to the show, implore them to visit the lobby for some snacks, etc. Then one of the fluffy guys asks the other one what Animation is, and all hell breaks loose, as he explains that anything is possible in animation, and to prove it, Hertzfeldt starts screwing with both of them – giving them extra arms, giving them longer legs, and basically torturing them, giving rise to one of my favorite quotes of all of Hertzfeldt’s work – “Damn the illusion of movement”. The segment has a mind of its own, and tries to go back to being a bright, cheery commercial (“Let’s all go to the lobby”, etc) – but what has already been unleashed cannot be stopped.

The even stranger Intermission in the Third Dimension is funnier and more surreal than the Welcome to the Show segment – and probably plays even better today than in 2003, since the film industry has embraced 3-D to an extreme degree. The two fluffy guys are back for an Intermission in the Third Dimension, before admitting that 3-D glasses are not available in all areas, but acting like everything we see will be in 3-D. When one of them puts on the 3-D glasses, his mind his blown – and he falls down an acid fuelled rabbit hole, full of bizarre imagery, before he is attacked by spiders.

The finale brings back our two lovable fluff balls, and one starts to make an impassioned plea about the value of animation – how it’s not just for children and people with mental handicaps, but a genuine art form for all – but is interrupted by robots, who the fluff balls immediately have to get into a loud, incoherent battle with, bringing our show to an end. It’s like a mini-version of Adaptation.

By their very nature, these three mini-shorts are not as deep as much of Hertzfeldt’s work – but I do think they act as an extension of Rejected in many ways – as it allows Hertzfeldt more a chance to explore just what is possible in animation, and try to explain why he loves it – and how it has been overtaken by commercial concerns – and wrapped up in a surreal, brilliant little package. Many people would have simply tossed something off quickly for these segments – but Hertzfeldt does something quite clever with them. They probably deserve more attention than they get.

The Meaning of Life (2005)
The Meaning of Life strikes me as a film where Hertzfeldt is clearly growing – stretching what he can do in terms of animation, while maintaining his visual style, he adds different elements to it. It’s also the most wildly ambitious film that Hertzfeldt has ever made – essentially encompassing all of human evolution from the beginning until way into the future into one, 12 minute films is daunting. But the film is up to the task – and fully earns comparisons to such films as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011).

The film opens with a haunting image of a stick figure in light, falling and falling, before he turns to ash. Hertzfeldt then gives us millions of years of human evolution in the span of a minute, culminating with modern man – under storm clouds – as a series of stick figures walk across the screen, all repeating a single phrase over and over again – soon, there are more and more people, and things gets dark, and more violent – the screen is soon full of people, and Hertzfeldt then scrolls through human history, sometimes stopping on a group of dead people, and then scrolling further. Then in his boldest gamut, he takes us briefly into the cosmos, before returning to earth and showing human kind’s continued evolution – as we morph from one strange creature to the next, we never seem to learn anything, as each creature repeats our mistakes. Soon, we are left with but two characters – and a father and a son perhaps – who discuss the meaning of life – the father angry that the son would even ask, before he stalks away – leaving the son by himself with the stars – which brings a smile to his face. Soon, we are back into those stars.

It’s nearly impossible to describe The Meaning of Life – not the visuals, as while it does look like many of Hertzfeldt’s stuff, it also introduces the most ambitious visuals his films had seen to this point – the cosmos, who he tints the screen, near the end. But the overwhelming effect the film has on the viewer. It’s an abstract piece to be sure- perhaps the most daring one of Hertzfeldt’s career. It’s a film that forces you to reckon with it more than anything else he has done. In short, it is a masterpiece – the best film he had done to this point.

That’s the end of Part I of my look back at Don Hertzfeldt. The eight films (or whatever) here show a director on the rise – the early promise of his student shorts, the culmination of his humorous pieces with Rejected, and his ambitious The Meaning of Life to bring to an end his first decade. Next time, we’ll look at how Hertzfeldt has continued to evolve in the last decade.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Movie Review: Knight of Cups

Knight of Cups
Directed by: Terrence Malick.
Written by: Terrence Malick.
Starring: Christian Bale (Rick), Cate Blanchett (Nancy), Natalie Portman (Elizabeth), Brian Dennehy (Joseph), Antonio Banderas (Tonio), Freida Pinto (Helen), Wes Bentley (Barry), Isabel Lucas (Isabel), Teresa Palmer (Karen), Imogen Poots (Della), Peter Matthiessen (Christopher), Armin Mueller-Stahl (Fr. Zeitlinger), Cherry Jones (Ruth).
Depending on who you listen to, Terrence Malick has either spent the last few films refining his style – continuing his bold move away from the restraints narrative and character, and into something altogether new and more spiritual, or else he has devolved into navel gazing, self-parody who has thrown out everything relatable and human in his movies to make empty exercises in style. His latest film, Knight of Cups, is not going to change anyone’s minds as to which position they have staked out. It is clearly a continuation from his masterpiece The Tree of Life (2011) and the more problematic To the Wonder (2012) – to complete a trilogy of self-exploration for Malick. He continues with the style he has been working with since his stunning debut, Badlands (1973), and refining ever since, stripping away things like narrative and dialogue, in favor of long, languid tracking shots, and whispered voiceover. The details of what the characters are talking about are unimportant to Malick, and he refuses to put them through a three act structure. What he is able to do though, is evoke the emotions of the characters. The film play like memories – the specifics of the argument, the party, the sex, involved is somewhat hazy – but we remember how it made us feel.
For a director so intensely private, he has certainly explored what biographical information we know of him in the last three films. The Tree of Life remains his masterpiece – one of the best films of the decade, a combination of the epic and intimate – exploring the history of the world, alongside the history of a single family (Malick’s). His follow-up, To the Wonder, worked best when it was exploring a failed marriage (again, Malick’s) – and the brief respite in the middle of the movie, when the male protagonist (Ben Affleck) is actually with a woman he loves – before trying with his wife, who he is ill-suited for, again. It stumbled in a subplot involving Javier Bardem as a priest, visiting the poor people in Oklahoma – which struck me as condescending, and I don’t think the connection between love and faith that he was striving for every really worked. Knight of Cups is set in present day Los Angeles, but is based on Malick’s time there as a screenwriter in the 1960s and 1970s – as he wonders from one party to the next, one beautiful woman to the next, looking more like a zombie than anything else. There are scenes of his family, and we recognize the character types that the father, mother and brother from The Tree of Life, just decades later, still repeating the same patterns.
The film stars Christian Bale as Rick, the screenwriter, who is in every scene of the movie, but doesn’t really seem to do much. Malick has often cast actors purely for their physical presence – sometimes aggravating them (Colin Farrell complained that Malick saw him as nothing more than a “fucking osprey” when filming The New World), but Bale (who co-starred in The New World), clearly gets what Malick wants, and delivers it. It’s not a great performance – it may not even be a performance at all, really – but it is perfect for what Malick is doing in the film. For that matter, so is the series of beautiful women who enter and leave Rick’s life. Often, the details of what happened, what went wrong, are left out – as he drifts from Imogen Poots’ wild child, to Frieda Pinto’s model, to Teresa Palmer’s stripper, to Natalie Portman’s married woman, the details of these women are lost in the film. That doesn’t even mention the various other women, who we often glimpse for just a few moments – sometimes naked, sometimes, not. The only one that comes close in Cate Blanchatt, playing Rick’s ex-wife, who is the only woman we really hear on the soundtrack, in those ethereal voiceovers, expressing her regrets (we get a little from Portman to, actually). I know some find Knight of Cups to be sexist – or at least clueless about women, and that’s fair enough – you cannot argue that Malick’s camera doesn’t see these women as beautiful objects, because it does. But that is also kind of the point, as Rick drifts from one to the next, without ever bothering to see them as real people. He’s an empty shell of a person, drifting from one experience to the next. Some of those experiences seem like fun – the parties, filled with celebrities, who often just enter the corner of the frame, and then move on, for example. But they are just an escape. Occasionally, his agents will show up and talk about money, and jobs – although we never see him working. His apartment is nearly empty – two robbers come in, and complain that they have more stuff in their place, and they’re poor. His family enters – his brother (Wes Bentley), angry, and trying to recover from a suicide attempt, his father (Brian Dennehy), stubborn and intractable, his mother (Cherry Jones), ethereal and fragile. Even in these scenes, Rick seems more like an observer than an active participant.
For about the first 90 minutes of this two hour movie, Knight of Cups works wonderfully, drawing a portrait of an empty man, leading a hollow life, where he should be happy, but clearly is not. The cinematography, by three time defending Oscar champ Emmanuel Lubezki (Lubezki is one of the best cinematographers in the world, but how the hell has he won three Oscars, and none of them for a Malick movie?), is wonderful. The film works – it gets to you, lulls you under its spell. But then, the movie repeats its cycle at least one too many times – its point has been made, perhaps already more than once, and then Malick belabors it a little bit, and the film sputters a little coming down the stretch. It regains a little for the very end of the film – which is really a beginning – but it does feel a little drawn out.
I do have sympathy for those who wish that Malick would go back to something more narrative based than his last few films. The Tree of Life maybe the best film of his career (it, at least comes close) – but To the Wonder and Knight of Cups are easily the least of his films. Badlands (1973), Days of Heaven (1978), The Thin Red Line (1998) and The New World (2005), were all beautiful film, filled with stunning cinematography and Malick’s dream/memory like imagery – they also had larger stories to tell, and characters to explore. By the evidence of the last three films, Malick has lost all interest in doing that now. Maybe, he’ll turn back towards that in the future (the films are coming much more frequently than they used to), but I wonder if we really want or need Malick to do that. After all, there are lots of filmmakers who are telling stories with three act structures, and character development, etc. There is only one doing what Malick is doing. If we can handle 10 superhero movies a year, surely, we can have one deep dive in Malick’s subconscious every few years, right? As imperfect as Knight of Cups is, I’m glad it’s in the world.

Movie Review: Cemetery of Splendour

Cemetery of Splendour
Directed by: Apichatpong Weerasethakul   
Written by: Apichatpong Weerasethakul.
Starring: Jenjira Pongpas (Jenjira), Banlop Lomnoi (Itt), Jarinpattra Rueangram (Keng), Petcharat Chaiburi (Nurse Tet), Tawatchai Buawat (The Mediator), Sujittraporn Wongsrikeaw (Goddess 1), Bhattaratorn Senkraigul (Goddess 2), Sakda Kaewbuadee (Teng), Richard Abramson (Richard Widner).
About half way into Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendour, Jenjira (Jenjira Pongpas) is praying at a shrine, giving offerings of small, carved animals to a pair of goddess, and explaining what they are for to her American husband, Richard. One is for her leg – she has one that is significantly shorter than the other, and she needs to walk with braces. One is for his hand. And the other is for their “new son” – Itt (Jarinpattra Rueangram), a soldier in a deep sleep at the former school transformed into a hospital Jenjira volunteers at. “We have a new son?” Richard asks, amused. “Yes, he was a soldier. You’re a foreigner, you wouldn’t understand”, she informs him. He insists that he does – but I’m not sure he really does.
I highlight this exchange, because I think to a certain extent, it describes the movie as well. Whenever I watch one of Weerasethakul’s film, I am always aware there is a level of political allegory going on beneath the surface of the film that I never fully understand. Weerasethakul is a Thai filmmaker, and even if his movies don’t make a ton of money at home, he is making them for a Thai audience, who is going to understand them in a different way than I, as an outsider, will. And yet, it is because Weerasethakul’s films are so specific that the emotions they conjure up are universal. When a film tries to dodge the specifics – like say, Beasts of No Nation, which took place in an unnamed African country, and danced around the root of the conflict – it starts to feel at least slightly false. I may not understand the exact political climate in Thailand that Weerasethakul is commenting on in his films – but on a more human level, the films work.
As with Weerasethakul’s other films, the past haunts the present in Cemetery of Splendour. The main story takes place at a rural school that has been transformed into a hospital. An old classroom, has been turned into a warding for the sleeping soldiers, whose families loyally visit them, although they mostly remain unconscious. What caused the soldiers to fall asleep in the first place is never explained, although it explained that the school was built on the “Cemetery of Kings”, and these long dead man are using the unconscious men to continue to fight their war for them, sapping their energy, and keeping them that way. Each man is hooked up to a glowing machine – the Americans apparently used these in Afghanistan as well – that is supposed to regulate their dreams. It is here where Jenjira meets Itt – he has no family to visit him, so she is the one who keeps vigil. Occasionally, Itt wakes up, and he and Jenjira hit the town – they go out for noodles, or to the movies. But he could fall asleep again at any minute. There is a physic, Keng (Jarinpattra Rueangram), a young woman who can communicate with the dead – or in this case, the unconscious. The most memorable sequence of the movie is when Keng and Jenjira walk around the grounds outside of the hospital. Keng has been taken over by Itt for this sequence, and he/she describes the ornate palace of the King that he sees, as Jenjira (and us, in the audience), she the normal forest all around us.
Weerasethakul is a very deliberate filmmaker – which is a nice way of saying that his films are often slow. Even compared to the likes of Syndromes and a Century and Uncle Boonme Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Cemetery of Splendour is languidly paced. Those two films have a lot in common with this one – Syndromes was also set at a hospital, and Weerasethakul repeats some of the imagery of that film (although not the literal inner workings of the hospital building he had there). I think near the end, Weerasethakul is even playing with the audience a little – making us think he’s going to end the film the way he did that time – before circling around and ending the film with a rare close-up – which is all the more stunning because it is so rare. With Uncle Boonme, it shares the matter of fact presentation of the supernatural – ghosts are taken as a given in these films, not horror movie stuff, but something more quiet and powerful.
Weerasethakul is a one of a kind filmmaker – marching to the beat of his own drummer. His camera rarely moves, and he prefers long takes – sometimes they stretch on for minutes on end. His films also defy easy interpretation. He doesn’t do the work for the audience – but he allows them to figure it all out for themselves. Some of Cemetery of Splendour baffles me, some of it delights me, some of it haunts me, and yes, some of it bores me. I think it’s fair to say that Cemetery of Splendour is a more interesting film to write and talk about than it is to actually watch. It certainly is a film that I’m glad I saw, and will not soon forget – even if it doesn’t quite reach the heights of some of Weerasethakul’s previous films.

Movie Review: The Little Prince

The Little Prince
Directed by: Mark Osborne.
Written by: Irena Brignull & Bob Persichetti based on the novel by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.
Starring: Jeff Bridges (The Aviator), Mackenzie Foy (The Little Girl), Rachel McAdams (The Mother), Paul Rudd (Mr. Prince), Marion Cotillard (The Rose), James Franco (The Fox), Benicio Del Toro (The Snake), Ricky Gervais (The Conceited Man), Bud Cort (The King), Paul Giamatti (The Academy Teacher), Riley Osborne (The Little Prince), Albert Brooks (The Businessman).
After seeing The Little Prince, I can sort of understand why Paramount backed out of releasing the film in America at almost the last minute (Canada had a different distributor, so we get to see it), even if I think it’s a shame that American audiences won’t be able to see this on the big screen. The film is different than American animated films – it is less concerned with action, bright colors and crass humor, and talks down to children far less than Hollywood films do. It is actually a fairly dark little film – perhaps a little too dark for my four and a half year old, who was scared at some points (no nightmares though – and you know what, it’s good to be scared sometimes). The film is really about death – and about how to deal with that, and how to speak about it to children. It doesn’t come right out and say it – but there’s the underlying message. That message is important to children – and I appreciate how the film deals with it.
The film tells the story of a little girl whose mother has her entire life planned out for her. She has the summer to get ready to attend the best school in the area – one that will prepare here to be a useful member of society, and has no time for anything else. In order to get into that school though, they have to move to a new area – and the only house they can afford is an undesirable one. While everyone else lives in the same box, they move in next to a ramshackle, messy house lived in by The Aviator (voiced by Jeff Bridges) – a old man, with a Duck Dynasty beard, who is absent minded, but friendly. The Little Girl and The Aviator become friends – and he tells her the story of The Little Prince – who he meet years ago when his plan crashed in the desert.
The film has two different animation styles. The modern story – of The Little Girl and The Aviator in the computer generated style we are accustomed to, and the scenes of The Little Prince in a stop motion style. The first two thirds of the films goes back and forth between these two stories – before the third story kind of combines them together, as The Little Girl has to go on a journey not unlike The Prince in the story.
The film takes its time telling its story. Although the final act does have some action sequences in it, for the most part, this film is more interested in the characters then the action. The slow bond that grows between The Aviator and The Little Girl, and The Little Prince’s journey from his home planet to the desert. The stories mirror each other – The Aviator needs The Little Prince to help him remember his childhood, and get out of the desert, and The Little Girl needs The Aviator to teach her to loosen up, and actually have a childhood. The ending of the film is never really in doubt – it does have a happy ending, even if perhaps it shouldn’t (it’s telling that while the film ends The Little Prince segment with its death metaphor, it doesn’t end the actual movie the same way (perhaps they felt it would a little too dark – and they may well have been right).
Hollywood doesn’t make films like The Little Prince. They would see the film as too dark and not commercial enough – and perhaps they are right. But it’s a shame that America will have to wait to see the film on Netflix (who stepped up when Paramount backed out) – because the film tells an important message to children, that Hollywood isn’t going to give them (at least not since the 1940s when Disney films were way darker than they are today – which is perhaps why those films seem better than what they are making today). The film is well animated – in two styles – and has a talented English voice cast (taking over for the original French one). It is an intelligent fantasy for children that is quietly moving. For Canadian viewers with slightly older children (my daughter was probably too young – but not by much, and it didn’t do her any lasting harm – in fact, she was very proud of herself that she was able to make it through the film and be brave) – see it in theaters. It deserves the support. For Americans, keep your eye on Netflix.

Movie Review: The Program

The Program
Directed by: Stephen Frears.   
Written by: John Hodge based on the book by David Walsh.
Starring: Ben Foster (Lance Armstrong), Chris O'Dowd (David Walsh), Guillaume Canet (Medecin Michele Ferrari), Jesse Plemons (Floyd Landis), Lee Pace (Bill Stapleton), Denis Ménochet (Johan Bruyneel), Edward Hogg (Frankie Andreu), Dustin Hoffman (Bob Hamman), Elaine Cassidy (Betsy Andreu), Laura Donnelly (Emma O'Reilly).
In order to be the best in the world at something, you have to go after it with single minded determination. Whatever else you can say about Lance Armstrong – and you can say plenty – you cannot deny that he went after being the best cyclist in the world with that determination. Did he cheat? Of course he did. But everything we now know suggests that pretty much everyone who was among the best in the world at that time was cheating – Armstrong just cheated better than anyone else did. The best thing about The Program, which charts Armstrong’s career from okay rider to cancer survivor to beloved seven time champ to disgraced athlete, is that Ben Foster’s performance as Armstrong captures that one track mind he had. He knows everyone is cheating, so damn it, he’s going to do it as well – and he’s going to win.
Foster has played a variety of psychos over the years, and he plays Armstrong in very much the same way. There is a cold look in his eyes as he rants and raves about how he has never tested positive, and when he goes after one person after another who tries to go public with what they know. It isn’t enough for Armstrong that there isn’t evidence – for years – which he cheated. He has to destroy those who are coming after him. And destroy them he does. It is the behind the scenes stuff where Foster really shines in the movie – the private moments we didn’t see. He is perhaps too good at doing that, as it bleeds over into the public face Foster gives Armstrong as well. Armstrong was a good actor – likable and charming enough to not only fool everyone, but to make people want to believe him. Foster doesn’t get that part right – he looks like a psycho even in those scenes as well. Foster is committed to this role – so committed, that apparently he actually used the drugs Armstrong did while filming the movie (which brings to mind Laurence Olivier’s advice to his Marathon Man co-star, Dustin Hoffman – also in this movie – “My dear boy, why don’t you just try acting?”). There is commitment and there is stupidity – and Foster is dangerously close to the later here.
Aside from Foster’s performance though, there isn’t much in The Program. The film was directed by talented journeyman Stephen Frears – who rises and falls with his material. For every great film like The Grifters or High Fidelity, there are mediocrities like Mrs. Henderson Presents or Hero. Here, he’s saddled with a story that has been told many times over, including in Alex Gibney’s good documentary The Armstrong Lie just a couple of years ago. Frears and company don’t really bring much more to the table here. The audience surrogate is probably David Walsh (Chris O’Dowd), one of the reporters who never believed Armstrong, and was after him for years. But Walsh disappears for long stretches of the movie, and there isn’t much to his character. Nor is there very much to Guillaume Canet’s performance as Medecin Michele Ferrari, the doctor who acted as Armstrong’s doping mentor – it’s a broad performance, by a Frenchman, doing a broad Italian accent, in English, and doesn’t much work. Dustin Hoffman and Lee Pace are pretty much wasted. I did like Jesse Plemons work as Floyd Landis, Armstrong’s teammate, and eventual disgraced Tour de France champion himself. Plemons makes Landis jealous and rather pathetic – not the face Landis tries to put to the public, but rather a man jealous that he cannot do anything as good as Armstrong – even cheat.
The movie pretty much rushes through Armstrong’s career – all those Tour de France wins, his retirement, his comeback, and doesn’t offer much in the way of detail on anything – it’s too concerned with moving onto the next thing, before it really deals with anything. A tighter film – maybe one that focused purely on Armstrong trying to cover things up, and how he was actually caught (it grazes over that quickly), would have worked better. As it stands, The Program feels too workmanlike at every level. There is a great movie to be made here –and Foster may well have been able to deliver that great performance – but unfortunately, The Program isn’t it.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Classic Movie Review: Possession (1981)

Possession (1981)
Directed by: Andrzej Zulawski   
Written by: Andrzej Zulawski and Frederic Tuten.
Starring: Isabelle Adjani (Anna / Helen), Sam Neill (Mark), Margit Carstensen (Margit Gluckmeister), Heinz Bennent (Heinrich), Johanna Hofer (Heinrich's mother), Carl Duering (Detective), Shaun Lawton (Zimmermann), Michael Hogben (Bob).

Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession has got to be one the best, what-the-fuck-was that? movies in history. This is a film that won the Best Actress Prize at Cannes in 1981 for its star Isabelle Adjani – giving one of the best unhinged performances you will ever see – and yet for years the film only existed in a badly truncated form and was one of the notorious “video nasties” in the UK – a group of banned films over there. Possession is a bizarre and disturbing film to be sure, and although you’re likely to find it in the horror movie section, I’m not entirely sure it belongs there. Certainly the first hour of the film really doesn’t – and even as it descends into complete chaos in its later stages, scary isn’t the word I would to describe the film. Then comes the ending which, to be honest, I have no idea how to unpack – but which utterly and completely disturbed me.

The film is about a couple – Anna and Mark (Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neill) who are separating for reasons they either cannot quite understand, or at least say aloud. He has worked as some kind of spy – but he’s done now. But Anna still wants to leave – and won’t really explain why. The couple have a son – but are among the most neglectful parents imaginable. The first hour of the film really is about this marriage disintegrating – and how these two people both love and hate each other, and really do try and hurt the other one. We aren’t given much in the way of backstory for this couple – but it’s fairly to assume that neither has been faithful – although Anna has also left her lover, Heinrich (Heinz Bennett, in perhaps the films strangest performance, which is saying something) – and it doesn’t take Mark long after Anna leaves, despite his attempts to get her back, before he’s sleeping with someone else as well. The first hour is almost like an Ingmar Bergman films – Scenes from a Marriage perhaps – in how it depicts these two people as their marriage falls apart.

But something is not quite right here – something beyond their marriage. Anna has moved to an apartment by herself – and it’s rather rundown. Mark has hired a Private Detective to follow her – and although he finds out where she lives, he then disappears. Later, his partner (in every sense of the word) also finds her – and also disappears. To say more, would be to give away some of the films surprises – although to be fair, I don’t think I could spoilt them even if I tried. Needless to say, this get crazy and disturbing – and performances that were already ratcheted up to 11 start going even crazier. Adjani’s freak-out (which is using a nice word to describe it) on an abandoned subway platform is so over-the-top that it should be laughable. Yet, she is so fiercely committed in that scene – and Zulwaski films most of it in one take, holding her in that moment, that it becomes truly disturbing, even before fluids start to flow. Adjani has always been a great actress – but she has never been better than she is in this movie – and few other actresses have been asked to do more in a movie. Throughout the movie she plays a wife, a mother, a sex object, a pawn, a maniac, and several other different things – and yet they all make sense in this context – all as one woman. Neill cannot quite match Adjani – but boy does he try. He glowers insanely throughout the back half of the movie, and has to carry it a little bit near the climax.

It will surprise no one that Zulawski was going through a divorce when he wrote and directed Possession. It feels like akin to David Cronenberg directing The Brood (1979) at the time of his divorce as well – another bizarre body horror film that can be taken as misogynistic if you wanted to see it that way, although I would argue both have more going on beneath the surface than it appears (man, I really need to watch The Brood again – soon). The film is disturbing and gross in many ways – I wouldn’t blame you if you hated the film, as it is bizarre and over-the-top, and clearly imperfect. It’s also a film though that gets your skin, and is genuinely disturbing and unnerving. This isn’t a film that I found scary watching – yet it’s a film that will haunt my dreams forever.

I think I have had a hard time with this review – getting across precisely what the experience of watching Possession is like – and I think because I’m not sure I’ve ever quite had an experience like it. They want you to think this is a horror film with its marketing – the posters, the DVD box art, etc. But it’s far more disturbing than that. That’s because like all great horror films, no matter how outlandish things get, the fear is rooted in reality. Perhaps the best thing I can say about Possession to get you to watch it is this – when it was over, I simultaneously wanted to watch it again, immediately, and also never see the movie again and purge it from my mind. If that sounds like a recommendation to you – and it’s meant to be – than Possession is for you.

Movie Review: Blood of My Blood

Blood of My Blood
Directed by: Marco Bellocchio.
Written by: Marco Bellocchio.
Starring: Roberto Herlitzka (Conte), Pier Giorgio Bellocchio (Federico), Alba Rohrwacher (Maria Perletti), Lidiya Liberman (Benedetta), Federica Fracassi (Marta Perletti), Toni Bertorelli (Dott. Cavanna), Fausto Russo Alesi (Cacciapuoti), Alberto Cracco (Inquisitore Francescano), Bruno Cariello (Angelo), Filippo Timi (Il pazzo), Elena Bellocchio (Elena), Ivan Franek (Rikalkov), Patrizia Bettini (Moglie del conte), Sebastiano Filocamo (Padre confessore), Alberto Bellocchio (Cardinal Federico Mai).
Italian filmmaker Marco Bellocchio has been directing films for 50 years now – his debut film, Fists in the Pocket (1965) may still be his best known, and is certainly a masterwork. I’m not sure he ever quite gets the credit he deserves for how good he is, and I include myself there, as I certainly need to see more of his work (I haven’t disliked any of the films I have seen). His latest film, Blood of My Blood, is an ambitious and ambiguous film, showing once again that this director – now in his late 70s – isn’t going to take it easy in his remaining years. The film is a beautiful, haunting and confounding film – one that I think demands a second viewing (at least) to truly understand it – particularly in how the two distinct halves of the movie relate to each other (although, even on first viewing, you can clearly see some echoes in each half). It’s also a film that continues to grow in your mind after seeing – calling you back to it.
Both halves of the film take place in Bellocchio’s hometown of Bobbio, Italy – centuries apart. In the first, set during the Inquisition period, a soldier, Federico (Pier Giorgio Bellocchio) arrives the Bobbio monastery, upset that his brother has been given a sinner’s funeral. His brother has recently committed suicide, but has always been a devout man with the Church. He talks to the Priest in charge (Fausto Russo Alesi), who informs Federico that what needs to happen is that a young, beautiful nun, Benedetta (Lidiya Liberman) needs to confess – she was close to Federico’s brother near the year, and many think she was in league with the Devil, poking and prodding the devout man to commit suicide. She is forced to endure a series of painful “tests” to prove she is not in league with the Devil after all. Federico becomes torn when he, like his brother, falls for Benedetta – and he is torn apart by his own doubts.
The second half of the film talks place in modern Bobbio, where a man from the tax office, Federico (Bellocchio, again), arrives with a Russian billionaire in tow, who wants to buy the monastery (or prison as they now call it), to either turn it into a musical rehab place for drug addicts, or a luxury hotel – whatever. The problem is the dilapidated monastery isn’t as empty as people think – the Count (Roberto Herlitzka) has been living there for 8 years, hidden away from his wife, and most of the rest of the town (oh, and he’s a vampire). He remains a powerful man however – with ties to the town council – but now he must come out and deal with these outsiders.
The first half of the film is stronger than the second. It’s more beautiful, haunting and enigmatic than the second, with a brilliant score, and a haunting choral version of a Metallica song which is somehow the absolutely perfect choice for it. The second half is a little more obvious – as Bellocchio seems to be taking some rather easy shots as the emptiness of modern life. But it’s still wonderful to watch him work.
At the end of Blood of My Blood, I felt the urge to go back and watch it again – which seeing as how I saw it at TIFF, was impossible at the time. The film is confounding, but in a pleasurable way. Does everything add up in Blood of My Blood. I’m honestly not sure – but I’m also sure I don’t much care. It’s always wonderful to see a great director pushing himself even late in his career – and that’s certainly the case with Blood of My Blood. I just hope this one doesn’t get lost in the shuffle – like far too many recent Bellocchio films have.
Note: As far as I can tell, this film is not getting a theatrical release in North America any time soon. I did notice that it is available on iTunes (in Canada anyway), so I’m posting my review that I wrote after last year’s TIFF, where I saw it.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Movie Review: Mountains May Depart

Mountain May Depart
Directed by: Zhangke Jia.
Written by: Zhangke Jia.
Starring: Tao Zhao (Tao), Yi Zhang (Zhang Jinsheng), Jing Dong Liang (Liangzi), Zijian Dong (Dollar), Sylvia Chang (Mia).
Jia Zhangke has become China’s leading director of the past two decades by making films about the double edged sword that is China’s opening to the West and moving towards capitalism. He often makes films set in his small hometown of Fenyang, a mining community, which stands in for China at large. He has been a controversial filmmaker in China – his first few films were done without state sanction, and although since 2004’s The World, he has had that, that doesn’t mean his films always get released there – like his last film, the masterpiece A Touch of Sin, about the rise in random violence in China, which won a prize at Cannes, was released around the world, had a release date set in China, and then just didn’t come out (as far as I know, that’s still true of that film). His follow-up to that film, Mountains May Depart, finds Jia in familiar territory – make in Fenyang, for a triptych of stories – one in 1999, one in 2014 and one in 2025 – that focuses on one family, and those that surround them. Jia uses different aspect ratios for each section – starting very boxy in 1999 (1.37:1), expanding in 2014 (1.85:1) and even more in 2025 (2.35:1). With each segment, the world open to these characters expands, and yet they grow increasingly isolated and disconnected from each other.
The first, and longest, segment of the film initially seems like the most hopeful. The film opens with a wonderful choreographed dance number set to the Pet Shop Boys “Go West” (a staple of my middle school dances – and now I feel old), sung by Tao (the amazing Tao Zhao, Jia’s wife and frequent star) and others celebrating the New Year. A love triangle forms around the pretty Tao as both the wealthy entrepreneur, Zhang (Yi Zhang) and the poorer mining worker Liangzi (Jing Dong Loang) fall for her, which of course ruins the friendship the three of them had (it makes it hard to be friends with someone who buys the mine you work for, and then fires you). It would be easy to think that Tao picks Zhang because of his money – and perhaps that is part of it. But more than that, there are other reasons – Zhang is better looking, more effortlessly charming, and unlike Liangzi, who more quietly sulks, he actually makes his feelings known to Tao (it’s obvious Liangzi feels the same way – but he never says it). The segment, that starts on that high note of Go West, and for a while feels like a lot of fun, where all the characters are hopeful for their future, becomes melancholy by the end – Tao needs to make a decision, and no matter what she does, that closes other doors, and people will get hurt.
The second segment takes place 15 years later, in 2014. Zhang has become even wealthier than he was in 1999 – but he and Tao are now divorced. He’s moved to Shanghai – taking their son with them – and she’s alone in Fenyeng (Liangzi hasn’t been there in years). When her father dies, she gets her son back for a few days – but it’s clear that neither one of them really know what to say to each other. Her son, named Dollar, has a life in Shanghai – and a new stepmother (he calls her Mommy), and barely knows Tao, who now has a lot of money, but is desperately alone and lonely. Liangzi returns to Fenyeng because he needs money – years of working in the mines has made him sick.
The third segment takes place in Australia, in 2025 – and is almost entirely in English, Dollar (now played by Zijian Dong) is an University student, who hasn’t seen his mother in years, no longer speaks any language other than English, and has grown distant from his father – who has become a paranoid gun nut, who it is strongly implied fled China before he could be arrested. Dollar feels disconnected from everything – he wants to drop out of school, but he does develop a bond – and then something deeper – with his teacher, Mia (Sylvia Chang), who is old enough to be his mother. She’s from Hong Kong, and initially left for Toronto in 1996, and has now moved to Australia following her divorce.
It must be said that the third segment doesn’t quite live up to the first two segments for a couple of reasons. The first being that Jia seems slightly uncomfortable working in English, and the dialogue sounds more than a little stilted at times, particularly when spoken by Zijan Dong, who gives the weakest performance in the film. The other reason is that Tao has been the emotional anchor of the film – and she’s all but absent in the third part of the movie. There is brief sequence at the beginning of the second segment that also doesn’t focus on Tao (it focuses on Liangzi), but for the most part, the film has been about her – and when the film leaves her behind, it suffers a little bit. The presence of Sylvia Chang certainly helps – but even she isn’t as good as Tao Zhao. Yet, even if this segment isn’t quite as strong as the other two, it does fall completely in line thematically with what Jia is doing, making its flaws a little easier to take. It is not surprising that it is her the film returns to in its final moments 0 providing an absolutely perfect bookend to the movie.
Mountains May Depart isn’t quite the film A Touch of Sin was – that film had the advantage of being more stylized and violent, and also angry, pulling us along with more urgency. Mountains May Depart is a sadder film – a slow film, that sees what China is becoming, and isn’t hopeful for what is coming next. The film is less overt in its political commentary than his earlier, neo-realist films like Platform (2000), but his critique is no less pointed or on target, and more resigned (after all, the characters in Mountains May Depart were optimistic in 1999 – and there is at least some of that in Platform as well, as they didn’t know quite where things were head). Mountains May Depart is not a perfect film – but it is an excellent one – and further proof that Jia Zhangke is one of the best filmmakers in the world right now.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Movie Review: 10 Cloverfield Lane

10 Cloverfield Lane
Directed by: Dan Trachtenberg.
Written by: Josh Campbell & Matthew Stuecken and Damien Chazelle.
Starring: John Goodman (Howard), Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Michelle), John Gallagher Jr. (Emmett).
Spoiler Warning: You probably shouldn’t read anything about 10 Cloverfield Lane before seeing the film, which more than most films, relies on its twists for its impact. I will tread lightly, I think, into spoilers in this post – but you’d probably be better off just coming back after you’ve seen the movie. And you should definitely see the movie.
10 Cloverfield Lane is a film that works best the less you know about it. It is a movie that deliberately keeps the audience in the dark about what is really going on, and what its motives are – but unlike many movies that do something similar, it doesn’t feel like a cheat this time around – basically because the heroine is as in the dark as we are - in fact, since she doesn’t know the title of the movie she’s in, she’s even more in the dark. Yes, the title of the movie is kind of a spoiler for the movie to follow – one that feels like it was made more for financial reasons than artistic ones. A different title may have given the ending more a jolt – or a different ending may have been more shocking – but then again I can imagine a bunch of angry Cloverfield fans getting upset had the film ended differently than it does.
The film stars Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Michelle – a woman who gets upset at her finance, leaves her ring behind and takes off in her car. She’s driving along the dark, lonely backroads of the Southern USA, ignoring phone calls from her finance, where her car is blindsided, and she tumbles down and down and down in her car. She wakes up with an IV in her, but chained to a pipe. She isn’t in a hospital. Soon Howard (John Goodman) will come in with some food and an explanation. He found her on the side of the road, and couldn’t just leave her there to die, so he brought her back to his underground bunker. And it’s a damn good thing he did to, because America is under attack. Howard doesn’t know if it’s nuclear, chemical or alien, or who’s attacking, but he’s sure someone is, and the air is poison. They’ll be down there a while. And they are not alone. There’s also Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), who doesn’t seem as paranoid or delusional or scary as Howard – but he does back him up on the important stuff. An attack has happened, and nowhere except Howard’s bunker – that he’s worked years on, for just such an occasion, is safe.
The film is basically a Hitchcock-ian thriller, with these three people bouncing off of each other in the large, spacious bunker (there are multiple rooms, meaning characters can talk out of range of the third person). From the beginning, it’s clear that Howard is paranoid, and perhaps delusional, but at the same time, there is evidence that he still may be correct. Goodman, one of the most reliable character actors working today, gives one of his finest performances as the unhinged Howard – who wants everything to be nice and orderly and sweet – a little surrogate family unit, who is seemingly unaware that it is his fits of rage and paranoia that really make things awkward and tense in the bunker. Winstead is reliable as ever in Scream Queen mode, and she gives her Michelle more depth than most other similar characters – she’s a survivor, and those instincts do her well. Gallagher has a more thankless role – his Emmett is rather sweet and rather dim – nothing much seems to faze him, and he goes through the movie with a perpetual smile on his face, and willing to go along with just about anything.
The film has twists and turns galore – especially in its final act, which will either work for you, or completely will not. It did for me, in part because I often think movies like this only really screw up in its final moments, as it needs to find a way to end things that is as satisfactory as the long, slow buildup. 10 Cloverfield Lane finds a way that is decidedly not anti-climactic, as it morphs into another movie in its final minutes – but a really exciting one.
I have no idea how 10 Cloverfield Lane will play when I watch it a second time (I definitely will watch it a second time though). Is this a thriller that reveals more layers once the shocks and surprises no longer shock and surprise, or will it seem like a rather shallow genre piece, designed really to only be watched once? I have no idea. What I do know is that the film works like gangbusters the first time through – gradually building tension, and then wonderfully releasing it. What a smart idea that producer JJ Abrams had to make a quasi-sequel to Cloverfield, the 2008 found footage monster movie, but make it a completely and totally different experience. I prefer this one. Debut director Dan Trachtenberg masterfully builds suspense, and gets great performances from his two leads. I almost wish the film was still called The Cellar (or The Bunker), its original title, and didn’t reveal its connection to the previous movie in the title (that reveal, late in the film, would have been amazing). Yet, I understand that to a certain extent, the title was necessary – Abrams and company needed to get people to a smaller, three person chamber piece thriller – and how else were they going to do that?