Tuesday, July 31, 2012

TJE 7/31 - J. Edgar (2011)

While I'm plowing through the remainders of last year's Oscar hopefuls, it's only right that I should tackle this one too. There's a film or two every year that gets enough attention that I feel obligated to give it a watch, but I really have no interest in it whatsoever. Sometimes it's because of unappealing subject matter or the talent involved makes me doubtful. In the case of "J. Edgar," it was both. I've followed the career of Leonardo DiCaprio since his days on "Growing Pains," but in recent years, his string of dour, intense leading man roles has really put a damper on any enthusiasm I had for him. I'm especially wary whenever he tries to take on a prestige part that isn't a good fit for him, and J. Edgar Hoover seemed to be another of those.

Sometimes I'm wrong, and pleasantly surprised, but not this time. "J. Edgar" is entirely dependent on DiCaprio's performance, and he doesn't deliver. There's barely any physical resemblance, the voice is all wrong, and DiCaprio spends an awful lot of time slathered in makeup and prosthetics, trying to make himself look older and heavier than he actually is. He brings plenty of enthusiasm and vigor, but Jimmy Cagney could never play the same roles as Charles Laughton or Gary Cooper, and I have no idea why DiCaprio keeps picking parts like this that he's so ill-suited for. Then again, J. Edgar Hoover would be a challenge for any actor, particularly the way that director Clint Eastwood and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black portray him here.

I admit not knowing as much about J. Edgar Hoover, the pioneering founder and first director of the FBI, as I probably should. "J. Edgar" is a mishmash of his greatest hits, from the origins of the FBI to his fights against Communists, organized crime, and his later political struggles. It also delves into his personal life, mapping out the relationships with the people that he was closest to: his mother, Anna Marie (Judi Dench), his loyal secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), and attorney Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), who it is heavily implied is more than just a colleague. "J. Edgar" addresses all the rumors about Hoover's sexuality, from the cross-dressing to the homosexuality, in a little too much depth. Several encounters and incidents are surely invented, and take away the focus from the more interesting true-life material, like Hoover's search for the Lindbergh baby and how he publicized himself as the ultimate G-man.

The approach struck me as oddly reductive, in spite of all the ground the film covers. Hoover, a charismatic, committed, often paranoid man, is a complicated figure in American history, and the film's idea of what was driving him doesn't ring true. Also, Eastwood never shows Hoover as a truly powerful or menacing figure, but only refers to the extent of his influence obliquely. The impact of his methods is blunted because we rarely see how they're affecting anyone else, for good or for bad. The only time we realize that he had much power at all comes in a very late scene, when Hoover realizes how much of it he's lost. I was surprised at the smallness of the picture's scale, the way we only see events play out from one or two very limited perspectives. Thanks to the flashback-heavy structure of the film, the different eras and events have a tendency to blur together.

Eastwood tears down the popular image of J. Edgar Hoover, but he doesn't succeed in replacing it with anything more likely. I can see what he and Black were going for, and I admire the ambition, but the end result is too sprawling and inert, too weirdly pieced together with unsubstantiated theories to be very convincing. There is a surprisingly sentimental love story that emerges as the backbone of the piece, but I couldn't help feeling that Hoover's devotion to the FBI should have been getting more of the emphasis and attention. I think a stronger central performance could have also helped to make the film feel more cohesive, but I've said enough about DiCaprio for one review.

"J. Edgar" boasts a strong supporting cast, but weak supporting roles. Judi Dench and Naomi Watts have little to do, but gamely play along. Armie Hammer is more promising, and manages to pull off the old age make-up much better than DiCaprio does, but Tolson is hardly more than a foil for Hoover. There are also some good cameos, but they're fleeting. Everything in this film feels too fleeting, never quite on solid ground. In the end I'm convinced that Hoover is a fascinating subject, and would love to see further exploration of his life in future films, but this particular combination of talent was not the right one to do it.
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Monday, July 30, 2012

TJE 7/30 - Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2011)

I saw "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" a couple months ago and originally decided not to write a review for it, but since then I've had the nagging feeling that I chickened out. I read so many gleefully negative reviews of "Extremely Loud," that I felt another one would just be redundant. Everyone knew that the star-studded Stephen Daldry adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer's novel was the most obvious, unsubtle kind of Oscar bait that was rightly mocked for being overly maudlin and pretentious, didn't they? But after a whole month of writing reviews I never would have written, it felt right to cap off the experiment with one more that I almost let fall to the wayside. So here we go.

Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn) is nine years old and very special. He is highly intelligent, inquisitive, and very particular about collecting and cataloging information. His loving parents (Sandra Bullock, Tom Hanks) worry about his myriad phobias and his difficulty in interacting with other people. Oskar's father creates elaborate treasure hunts and adventures to help Oskar break out of his shell. Then his father dies in the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, and Oskar is left with an unfinished puzzle from his father to complete. Convinced that one last treasure hunt remains unsolved, Oskar takes to the Manhattan streets, meeting many different people and exploring new places. Along the way he picks up a traveling companion, a mute old man (Max von Sydow), who has come to live with Oskar's grandmother (Zoe Caldwell). Eventually they become close enough that Oskar decides to tell him the secret he's been keeping about his father's death.

There are some major problems with the basic concept of "Extremely Loud." The biggest one is the the character of Oskar, who may have Asperger's Syndrome, but the tests came back "inconclusive." The filmmakers use this as an excuse to borrow some behavioral elements from the autism spectrum without having to accurately portray the reality of a kid with the condition. And in doing so, they make Oscar utterly insufferable. He rattles off trivia like a walking encyclopedia, gets away with being rude to strangers, and is generally allowed to be as weird and demanding and inappropriate as he likes while never suffering any particularly adverse consequences for it. Sure, this is a kid in pain who is trying to make sense of the world after the loss of his father, but the elaborate song-and-dance that his family goes through to feed Oskar's delusions gets pretty ridiculous. Thomas Horn is pretty awful too - he mugs shamelessly and draws out the melodramatic bits to the point of tedium - but this is not his fault.

With child actors, the director takes on the greater responsibility for guiding the performance, and Stephen Daldry's been excellent at this before. He directed "Billy Elliot" and helped the difficult young characters in that film come across as genuine and candid. There was none of this manufactured sentiment that feels so awkward and mawkish. 9/11 is still such a delicate topic, that I can't imagine why you'd have a main character who all but requires that the tragedy be addressed in such a heavy-handed manner. Then again, Daldry has built a reputation for himself for helming these ill-considered prestige pictures. You could make some arguments for "The Hours," a deathly dull film about Virginia Woolf and other depressed women. "The Reader," however, was such a by-the-book Nazi memoir, tailored so exactly to the tastes of the Oscar voters, it felt less like a film than a platform for Kate Winslet to make her case for an Oscar statuette.

"Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" also feels like a totally artificial construct, inhabited by characters that the director wants you to believe are more realistic and relatable than the usual Hollywood types found in slick action movies and rom-coms. Except they're not. Sandra Bullock delivers the performance that comes closest to resembling a real, living human being. Everyone else is playing an utterly flat, utterly devoid collection of traits. John Goodman appears as a friendly doorman. Viola Davis and Jeffrey Wright are an African-American couple in crisis. Tom Hanks and Max von Sydow commit no serious cinematic crimes, but neither are they allowed to be full and complete personalities. For a different kind of film, a more stylized or fanciful film, this shallowness of character could have worked, but not in "Extremely Loud," which is dead serious and desperately trying to convince us of its profundity 100% of the time. Instead of something heartfelt and universal, it's just labored and clumsy, and a chore to sit through.

It almost seems like Oskar directed the film, expending all this time and attention on the minutiae and the technical craft. "Extremely Loud" looks gorgeous. It's beautifully shot, the art direction is great, and there are singular moments that do manage a little transcendence. But the heart of the story is buried so deep under all the quirks and distractions that it is impossible to access. Oskar may have found a way to connect in the end, but Stephen Daldry never does.
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Sunday, July 29, 2012

TJE 7/29 - Angel Face (1952)

I wasn't familiar with the work of Jean Simmons when she was young. I remembered her from "Guys and Dolls" and "Spartacus," as a very elegant and dignified leading lady. I never knew that she used to have a softer face, a higher, girlish voice, and in the right lights you could mistake her for Audrey Hepburn. And this made her perfect for the role of Diane Tremayne, a deeply troubled young woman who might be capable of murder, but is so attractive that she draws in the suspicious hero, in spite of himself.

Frank Jessup (Robert Mitchum) drives an ambulance, and one night responds to an emergency at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Tremayne (Herbert Marshall, Barbara O'Neil). The gas was left on in Mrs. Tremayne's bedroom and she was nearly asphyxiated. Though dismissed as an accident, there is the possibility that it was a murder attempt, as Mrs Tremayne is very rich. Frank finds Mr. Tremayne's daughter and Mrs. Tremayne's step-daughter Diane downstairs, distraught, and he tries to comfort her. They go out together, and then Diane finds reasons to spend more and more time with him. Frank already has a girlfriend, Mary (Mona Freeman), and he's aware that Diane may have been the one who tried to kill her step-mother, but he allows himself to be manipulated. He even agrees to become the Tremaynes' chauffer, putting him in the perfect position to observe the dysfunctional family.

Add "Angel Face" to the pile of exceptional Otto Preminger crime dramas, alongside "Anatomy of a Murder" and "Laura." I think this is my favorite of them so far, because the performances of Simmons and Mitchum are so good. This is a predictable story, a tragedy that we can see coming from a long way off. Mitchum's hero can see it too, but just can't turn away from the girl who professes to love him so desperately. I thought "Angel Face" was an odd title for such a dark story, but it is perfectly appropriate. The instrument of Frank Jessup's doom is Diane's allure. The film is less about the crime that is committed and the business of sorting out who should be held responsible, than the underlying psychological workings of the two primary characters, who easily transcend the usual film nor types.

"Angel Face" is distinctive for an unusually knowing, cynical attitude. A good portion of the film is devoted to a court case, and it doesn't hesitate to show that justice often requires compromises. The system has certain biases that can be exploited, and a good lawyer, in this case a persuasive fellow named Fred Barrett (Leon Ames), knows that the truth often gets in the way of the desired result. Morality is twisted at every turn, not in a salacious way that invites outrage, but very pragmatically. Despite the melodramatic overtones, there's a refreshing realism to the film, from the rare presence of minorities to the detailed court proceedings to the multifaceted characters. Our villain is also very much a victim, and the ostensibly good characters do things that would be considered despicable in a less nuanced film.

I really enjoyed how Preminger strips away most of the excesses we usually see with these kinds of stories, and sticks to a tight, focused drama that plays out a very personal level. The leads have real psychological complexity to them, especially the lovely Diane. There's a great sequence late in the film where she is at the piano, deep in thought. She plays a few notes, in perfect sync with the ominous musical score, subtly indicating that the music reflects her inner turmoil. Then she leaves the piano and wanders around the empty house, but the music she isn't playing continues, growing louder. Clearly Diane is about to do something desperate. The black and white cinematography is excellent, filling the empty house with shadows and ambiguities.

Robert Mitchum is great, but I can't say enough about Jean Simmons' performance here. Diane is cruel and selfish and manipulative, but there isn't a moment when she isn't also utterly vulnerable and sympathetic. Preminger never portrays her as mad or hateful, never has her go off on some over-the-top rant or reveal some hidden ugliness at her core. Instead, Diane is clearly a tragic character, someone who perhaps made a bad mistake and surely can be redeemed. We root for her, even though we know we shouldn't. We find ourselves drawn in, just as poor Frank does.

"Angel Face" is my kind of film noir, a film about the dark side of the human soul, but one that doesn't need the violent spectacle or the old clichés in order to make an impact. It's just a good director, good performers, and good writers telling us a story that everyone knows, but telling it in such a way that it hits just as hard as when we heard it the first time.
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Saturday, July 28, 2012

TJE 7/28 - Momo (1986)

"Momo," by Michael Ende, was one of my favorite books as a kid. I didn't realize that a film version existed until a few years ago, when I stumbled across a trailer on Youtube. A co-production of German and Italian studios, with an international cast, the 1986 fantasy film never penetrated the American market. An English language version was prepared, however, along with German and Italian ones. It was one of those projects where every actor performed in whatever language they were comfortable with, and the rest were dubbed, so it's not clear which language should be considered the original. I've seen the German and English versions now, and I think it's a perfectly wonderful children's film, no matter what language it's in.

An orphan girl named Momo (Radost Bokel) is our heroine. She is about ten years old with fuzzy hair and a big smile. Momo is discovered living in the ruins of an ancient amphitheater, and makes friends with the people who live nearby, becoming especially close to an old street sweeper, Beppo (Leopoldo Trieste), and a young entertainer, Gigi (Bruno Stori). One day the Grey Gentlemen appear, a group of anonymous figures who steal away people's time by causing them to rush and hurry, tricked to think they are saving time when they're really losing it. Momo's friends are drawn away one by one, until she must leave the amphitheater to find a way to save them. Her journey takes her out into the world and beyond. She meets a clairvoyant tortoise named Cassiopeia, and the keeper of time, Professor Hora (John Huston), who help her prepare to fight the Grey Gentlemen.

Michael Ende was famously unhappy with the Hollywood adaptation of his more famous children's novel, "The Neverending Story," and so took a more active role in the development of "Momo." And it shows. "Momo" follows very close to the book, containing a little too much story for the film to handle, and several concepts that don't work on the screen the way they do in print. The primary one is Momo herself. Radost Bokel is a charmer and carries the film easily, but the script does a messy job of explaining Momo's special power - that she knows how to listen and pay attention to people, helping them feel better about themselves, that in turn makes their problems easier to solve. Miraculous things tend to happen around the movie Momo, but the mechanism of her magic is left largely unexplained.

On the other hand, there are many, many things that the movie gets right. I'm not familiar with director Johannes Schaaf, but he finds a nice balance between the big, impressive fantasy visuals and simpler techniques. The first half of "Momo" is very natural in style, and a brief fantasy sequence with the children is mostly achieved through trick photography and clever framing. But once the supernatural threat of the Grey Gentlemen arrives, then we get fancy makeup effects, wilder costumes, and the art design becomes more and more elaborate - but never to the point where it overwhelms the story. There's a lovely moment when Professor Hora takes Momo to visit the place where all time comes from, and the audience is treated to a beautifully surreal sequence of impressionist images instead of a more literal representation.

The most memorable visuals of the film may be the Grey Gentlemen, with their uniformly bald heads, sharp suits, bowler hats, and granite briefcases, wreathed in ever-present clouds of cigar smoke. In force they are striking to behold, a perfect embodiment of sinister, heartless bureaucracy. And then there are the incredible sets - the otherworldly home of Professor Hora that looks like it's situated a few doors down from Heaven, the coldly modern city that engulfs Momo's friends, and the sterile Time Bank that the Grey Gentlemen use as their headquarters. The limited budget is very apparent, but "Momo " accomplishes so much with it, and isn't afraid of tackling big and complicated ideas, even if it can't quite do justice to all of them. And yet it also seems quite satisfied with being a children's film, using a great deal of dream logic and child logic that most films for grown-ups can't get away with.

I have a special fondness for 80s fantasy films, because I grew up on them, and seeing "Momo" was like unearthing a forgotten bit of my own childhood. I'm glad that I saw this as adult and a film buff though, so I could appreciate the appearance of Ninetto Davoli as a shopkeeper, and Armin Mueller-Stahl as the leader of the Grey Gentlemen. And then there's John Huston, the legendary American director, playing Professor Hora. His part in "Momo" was his last appearance onscreen, and it's a warm and wonderful performance.

I suspect that if I didn't love the book so much, and wasn't so happy see these familiar characters brought to life, I wouldn't have enjoyed "Momo" nearly so much. But I do, so I did, and that's that.
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Friday, July 27, 2012

TJE 7/27 - You, the Living (2007)

Roy Andersson's apocalypse comedy "Songs From the Second Floor" was one of the most unique and memorable Swedish films in recent memory, so I was curious about what he'd follow it up with. "You, the Living" came seven years later, and feels like more of the same, only without the apocalypse stuff. Here we have a collection of short, dark, comic scenes, about ordinary people living out their ordinary lives. Most of the characters are sad and miserable, seeking to escape their unhappiness. There is nothing as bleak and horrifying as the content of "Songs From the Second Floor." The most serious episode of violence is probably the fed-up barber (Kemal Sener) who ruins a rude man's haircut. There are some fanciful touches, including dream sequences and musical interludes, and the tone is altogether lighter, if not really much happier. Several characters are members of, or have some connection to a group of jazz musicians who call themselves the Louisiana Brass Band.

At first, it seems there is no plot. A woman (Elisabeth Helander) cries that no one understands or loves her, and then orders her confused boyfriend (Jugge Nohall) to get lost. A man (Björn Englund) practices the sousaphone, to the annoyance of his wife. A musician, Micke (Eric Bäckman), is approached by a starry-eyed groupie (Jessika Lundberg) in a bar. These characters all return in later scenes and their stories progress, but others do not. Some are never named, so it's difficult to keep them all straight. My favorite story of the bunch is told by a carpenter (Leif Larsson) who has a terrible dream, that the film obligingly illustrates for us. He tries to do the tablecloth trick at a party, and ends up destroying a 200 year-old china set. Dragged into court with only a sobbing advocate at his side, the judge throws the book at him for his terrible crime. Death by the electric chair! We cut back to the carpenter stuck in traffic, still telling the story, just before the switch can be thrown. Slowly the band members come together, and we see them pop up throughout the film, at a jubilee here, and a funeral there. Everyone bears the weight of their own little tragedies, but the music plays on.

Andersson's style is very specific and very easy to spot. He creates these elaborate tableaux, often with dozens of people in the frame, that are very precisely composed. His shots use deep focus, so that we can see what is going on in the background and the foreground at the same time, and he includes all these little visual details that it's difficult to make out on a regular television. Most scenes play out in long single takes without cutting, all the action perfectly contained in that single shot, and then we move on to the next one. I think Andersson's films are the kind that really benefit from a theater viewing, because there's so much going on that is easy to overlook on a smaller screen. He hardly ever moves the camera, but when he does it is to very good effect. In one dream sequence, just a slight repositioning of the camera lets us look out a window at the scene outside. Andersson's penchant for these little gags and elaborate setups reminds me Jacques Tati, the French director who was known for his facility with visual humor. The blackness of the social satire, however, recalls Luis Buñuel.

It might seem presumptuous to be comparing Andersson to such these directors, but there's no one else out there I can think of to compare him to. Modern directors with similar styles like Lech Majewski and Peter Greenaway are mostly concerned with period pieces and classical subjects. Andersson turns his camera on average Swedes, played mostly by non-actors, living out average lives. His painstakingly devised scenes play out in dingy apartments, in diners, offices, churches, shops, and out on the street. The problems are small and incidental, only adding up to something large and profound when you see them in aggregate, or when the characters intersect in interesting ways. And then there's the menacing ending, that seems to be leading them all right into "Songs From the Second Floor."

"You, the Living" doesn't have the nihilist bite or the eye-popping visuals of "Songs From the Second Floor," but it's plenty effective in its own right. The critique is subtler, but no less satisfying. The humor is not as mean, but often is a bit sadder and the characters easier to sympathize with. Here, faced with difficulties, our nobody heroes are discouraged but tend to soldier on rather than give into despair. "You, the Living" still views humanity as pretty self-absorbed and miserable, but there's a little bit of hope here too.

Roy Andersson is apparently planning a third film in this vein, and I hope he gets to make it. And that it doesn't take him another seven years.
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Thursday, July 26, 2012

TJE 7/26 - Flash Gordon (1980)

"Flash Gordon, Quarterback, New York Jets," is how our hero introduces himself, a bleach blonde beefcake who shows up wearing a shirt with the name "Flash" emblazoned across his chest. Such is the subtlety of the 1980 "Flash Gordon" movie, based on the 1930s comic strip hero and the film serials and television shows he starred in. The movie makes no attempt to hide these origins, featuring snippets of the original comics right in the bombastic opening credits, complete with a song by Queen that chants Flash's name over and over, and declares him the savior of the universe. He's a miracle! King of the impossible! It's the audience's signal to expect something larger than life, grandiose in scale, and of course as campy as hell.

All-American good guy Flash Gordon (Sam J. Jones) and a pretty travel agent named Dale Arden (Melody Anderson) meet on a flight, just as the planet Earth is attacked by the forces of evil Emperor Ming the Merciless (Max von Sydow), of the planet Mongo. Flash and Dale crash land conveniently adjacent to the mad scientist Hans Zarkov (Topol), who brings them along in his rocket ship to investigate who is attacking Earth. They make it to Mongo, and are quickly captured by Ming's forces. In order to save the day, Flash must win over the loyalties of Ming's daughter Princess Aura (Ornella Muti), and the leaders of the of the oppressed inhabitants of Mongo, Prince Barin (Timothy Dalton), and winged Hawkman, Prince Vultan (Brian Blessed). This involves a duel with whips on a tilting platform riddled with spikes, flying all manner of retro spaceships and rockets, tangling with poisonous creatures who live in tree stumps, and a very brief death.

"Flash Gordon" captures the spontaneity and silliness of those old kiddie serials, except with all the bells and whistles that those productions could never afford. There is not the slightest bit of logic to the plot, except that Flash Gordon is supposed to fight monsters and aliens and get into terrific big battles with the hordes of Ming the Merciless, so that's what he's going to do. Sam J. Jones is not much of an actor, but his look is perfect. The hair, the muscles, the slightly blank expression - all straight out of the comic strips. Nearly everyone else in the cast is hamming it up like mad, and how could they not? All of them are swanning around in opulently garish costumes, talking about places with names like Mingo and Mongo and Sky City. Flash has a fight scene where he uses football plays to dispatch the guards in Ming's throne room. By the time Dale and Princess Aura are having a goofy catfight in slinky pastel robes, it seems par for the course.

The style of the production design reminded me immediately of the psychedelic retro-futurism of "Barbarella." Both "Barbarella" and "Flash Gordon" were produced by the great Dino De Laurentis, and have the same kind of playfully bizarre European visual sensibility. Little shared details like the Hawkmen flights and the cloud effects make me suspect that even if there wasn't much talent in common, they were working on the same wavelength. Also, though "Flash" was ostensibly aimed at children, there's some surprisingly frank sexuality, particularly Flash's interactions with the predatory femme fatale, Princess Aura. At one point she has him down to a pair of short shorts, and coyly promises not to look while he changes into something more dignified. This being "Flash Gordon," dignified is a relative term, of course.

I kid, but production designer and costume designer Danilo Donati is the film's MVP. His contributions help immeasurably in bringing some vitality to the paper-thin characters, and giving them a properly fantastic world to explore. He goes over-the-top, but so purposefully and so artfully that it works. The women are all in elaborate headdresses and shimmery fabrics. A tribe of dwarves show up clothed in what appear to be foil chocolate wrappers. Ming the Merciless is a visual masterpiece of Orientalist menace, without ever looking specifically Asian enough to cause offense. The film never seems to run out of spectacular and/or ridiculous things to look at, from floating cities to murky swamps to torture chambers.

In an odd way, "Flash Gordon" may be one of the most successful comic book adaptations of all time, not because it's particularly good, but because it successfully translates so many comic book elements that have caused others to stumble - the bright colors, the outlandish stories, and the constant hyperbole of fights to the death and unspeakable evil. Others have tried this approach and failed miserably, notably "Masters of the Universe," but in "Flash" it all comes together in one campy, goofy, crazy ball of B-movie fun. I highly recommend it for all your 80s cult movie needs.
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Wednesday, July 25, 2012

TJE 7/25 - Keyhole (2012)

A Guy Maddin film is always an odd thing to experience. The Canadian filmmaker, known for "Brand Upon the Brain," "My Winnipeg," and "The Saddest Music in the World," was clearly born in the wrong decade. He prefers the styles and sensibilities of films from the 1920s and 1930s. He works predominantly in black and white, borrowing imagery and common tropes from the Prohibition and Depression eras, and uses a surreal, expressionist style that can be narratively incoherent.

So take the description of his latest film, "Keyhole," with a grain of salt. The marketing copy tells us it s the story of a gangster, Ulysses (Jason Patric), who returns home after many years in search of his wife Hyacinth (Isabella Rossellini), who has confined herself to the huge, labyrinthine house. Ulysses searches the house room by room, with a hostage (David Wontner), a blind girl (Brooke Palsson), and the remnants of his gang in tow. Ghosts and phantoms dog their every step. Sounds like a very nice little supernatural thriller doesn't it? I hope no unsuspecting horror fans picks this up, because they won't have any idea what they're getting themselves into.

The first scene of "Keyhole" shows the gang fighting their way into the house, which has been surrounded by the police. Those who have made it inside are ordered to separate themselves into two groups. The ones who are still alive may continue. The ones who are dead are told they must stay behind. The film is narrated by Hyacinth's father (Louis Negin), a naked old man who has been chained to his daughter's bedpost. He's probably dead too, along with most of Ulysses and Hyacinth's children, who keep making appearances throughout the film. The old man informs us that happiness disperses once the inhabitants of a house have gone, but sadness lingers and haunts, Ulysses' journey through the house is a journey through memories. There are many things that he has forgotten that he must remember, and many things that he never knew that must be discovered.

Maddin's usual obsessions are all on display: unhappy families, psychological and sexual neuroses, ghosts who treat their deaths quite matter-of-factly, ambiguous physical environments, and old movie magic. This time, however, it feels like he's trying too hard. We're supposed to find the nightmarish interior of the house disorienting and dreamlike. Maddin bounces lights and shadows from the windows over the characters as they converse, cuts quick montages of half-visible images, and piles dissolves one on top of the other. There's some vaguely menacing sexual deviancy going on around the edges of the story, including a very lost-looking Kevin MacDonald from "Kids in the Hall" having an endless tryst with a French prostitute. It's all so bizarre, but a familiar, clumsy kind of bizarre. For the first half hour of the film I was unmoved, feeling like I'd wandered into a student film made by someone who'd watched David Lynch's "Eraserhead" a few too many times.

However, as Ulysses worms deeper and deeper in the house, and the history of his screwed-up family begins to unfold, the most excessive stylization settles down. "Keyhole" eventually becomes a more languid exploration of a broken marriage, digging up all the forgotten little incidents and events that lead to its ruin. A broken bowl, a dead son, and too many long absences are brought up again and again. Ulysses and Hyacinth have whispered conversations through keyholes, though they always seem to be a considerable distance apart. Various figures try to hamper or delay the reunion, and are dealt with one by one. Perhaps they are symbolic of other forces that kept the couple apart originally - filial duty, Ulysses’ criminal activity, infidelity - but sorting through all the layers of abstraction and ambiguity would require a much longer review than I have space for.

The cast is impressive, particularly Jason Patric and Isabella Rossellini, who provide moments of emotional clarity that are vital in anchoring the film amidst all the dream imagery. They fit the period setting without any problems, but it's really their ability to convey unusual, unworldly emotional states that I found the most striking. Louis Negin is a lot of fun as the sneering father-in-law, contemptuously feeding the audience information about the rest of the unfortunate family, in order to point out their many shortcomings. You can also spot Udo Kier making a brief appearance as a doctor.

If you're a fan of Guy Maddin, "Keyhole" should be familiar territory. I think it's probably one of his messier and more self-indulgent films, and can test the patience, but it has some good moments that it may be worth the time to dig out. If you're not familiar with the director, however, this is not the best of his films to start with. I'd suggest the far more accessible "My Winnipeg." And if you're not keen on experimental films at all, then best steer clear of "Keyhole" entirely.
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Tuesday, July 24, 2012

TJE 7/24 – The Dark Knight Rises (With Spoilers)

This is your final spoiler warning. Here goes.

Okay, I admit I was wrong. Robin, who bears absolutely no resemblance of any other version of Robin, ever, was in "The Dark Knight Rises." However, this was the only version that was ever going to work in the Nolan universe. Officer John Blake's story was easily the most complete and satisfying one in the film, and I can't help wishing that he could have stayed an entirely original character to escape all the extra baggage associated with Robin. But as a reinvention of a Batman staple, he may be the most thorough and impressive one I've seen yet.

I wish I could be as excited about the other new characters that were introduced, but they don't even come close. The misdirection about Bane and Talia al Ghul was clever, but it came at the expense of both of the characters. Bane, without the Venom, with his origins rewritten, was simply a very smart and intimidating terrorist in a scary mask. We didn't know what his real intentions were, unlike the Joker, who very effectively demonstrated the depths of his psychosis. And in the end it turns out that all the talk of revolutions and punishing Gotham was just for show. The real mastermind behind Bane was Talia, who was bent on avenging her father. She barely got any screentime whatsoever, and it was only thanks to Marion Cotillard that the reveal landed with any impact. Nolan's Bane was certainly a sadistic menace, but one whose motives were entirely too confused to be a great villain.

Then there was Catwoman. Anne Hathaway brought the charm and the sexiness, and seemed game to tackle the role, but was given so little material to work with. She fights. She banters. She looks great in the costume, giving off more of a Julie Newmar vibe than her film predecessors. There are hints of a possible romance with Bruce Wayne. Mostly, though, she's on her own, playing a game with different stakes than what the rest of the cast is dealing with. Selina Kyle's subplot takes up a lot of time, but seems to have the least bearing on the larger story. Wayne's romance turns out to be with Miranda Tate, not her. Kyle is only minimally linked to Bane, and her conversion to the side of angels isn't particularly meaningful. She's just involved enough to justify her share of the spiffy action scenes and witty one-liners, but only just.

And then we come to Bruce Wayne. I like that Christopher Nolan wanted to create a definitive ending for Wayne, and to let his story conclude. The trilogy began with the origin of Batman, and it was a bold idea to end it with the last chapter of Wayne's tenure as a superhero. Nolan did his best to convince us that it made sense for Wayne to willingly give up the cape and cowl, emphasizing his precarious physical condition, providing him with a clear successor, and having multiple characters point out that his behavior had gone from selfless to self-destructive. I don't know that I really buy it though. Wayne faking Batman's death I can understand, but why fake his own? If he was willing to give up so much to save Gotham City, why leave it behind for good?

It's not that I don't think that this was a good endgame, but it's not set up well at all. We don't get to see Wayne exorcising the demons of his past, or having the epiphany that he can and should move on from Gotham. This is a major oversight. No other version of Batman has ever left the Batman role, and we really needed to see more of the thought process behind the decision. After the fight with Bane, when this soul-searching should have happened, instead we get Wayne in the Pit, learning the backstory of Bane and Talia. How does the lesson of scaling the prison wall fit into Wayne's mental state and ongoing character arc? Does learning to fear death again boost his will to live? Does he learn that being a symbol of heroism is more important than the actual act? I almost wish that the final glimpse of Bruce Wayne was Alfred's fantasy, because the lack of an explanation undercuts the last twist so badly.

There were other parts of "The Dark Knight Rises" that worked. The fall of Gotham City to Bane was beautifully plotted out and executed. The scenes of life under his reign of terror were fun, especially Dr. Crane presiding over the kangaroo court. I have no complaints regarding any of the action sequences, and I particularly enjoyed Selina Kyle getting herself out of the bar with a combination of fighting and trickery. Up until the Pit sequences, I liked how Bruce Wayne's character arc was going. However, I have to say that Batman looked out of place in a lot of shots. I don't know it was the increased daytime scenes or some changes in art design, but the rubber suit looked like it belonged in an older, campier movie.

I'm also glad that Alfred and Commissioner Gordon got more time and attention, both men struggling with bad choices made with good intentions. Lucius Fox got shorter shrift this time out, but there was a nice wink to that, when he ushers Bruce Wayne down to the lab to show off some gadgetry, just for old time's sake. And I'm always surprised by how deftly Nolan draws some of the minor characters, like Matthew Modine's Deputy Commissioner Foley, and Selina's gal-pal sidekick, played by Juno Temple. The exhaustive amount of detail in some of the visuals, from the Gotham police uniforms, to a football stadium full of fans decked out in Gotham Rogues gear, to the Stock Exchange sequence, all point to an enormous amount of effort being expended on this film. And it's all dazzling to look at and take in.

I just wish the story had been more solid. But I think about all the Batman movies that Christopher Nolan could have made instead – the Riddler-centric retread of "The Dark Knight" with Leonardo DiCaprio that the studio wanted, or the too-faithful comic book adaptations that the fans wanted – and I'm glad Nolan went in this direction. Even though I thought the film bit off more than it could chew, "The Dark Knight Rises" was an honest and worthwhile attempt to take the Batman mythos somewhere new. The results are severely flawed, but still well worth watching and debating and puzzling over.

As a point of comparison, I prefer "The Dark Knight Rises" to "Batman Begins" by a wide margin, and the Nolan "Batman" trilogy as a whole to every other superhero film series ever made.
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Monday, July 23, 2012

TJE 7/23 – The Dark Knight Rises (No Spoilers)

Here's how we're going to do this. Review posted today will be a spoiler free as I can possibly keep it. Review posted tomorrow will go into all the analysis of the things that you shouldn't know about before watching the latest Christopher Nolan Batman film. Got it? Great. Onward!

It has been eight years since the events of "The Dark Knight," and both Batman and Bruce Wayne have retreated from public view, the Batman's image tarnished by being scapegoated for the death of Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), and Wayne's heart broken by the death of Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gylenhaal). In the meantime, peace and prosperity have made the leaders of Gotham complacent. Only Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) continues to fight a forgotten war on crime, and has made too many moral compromises to do it. So no one appears to be left to stop the new villain Bane (Tom Hardy), a terrorist who has been turning Gotham's less fortunate into an army of ideological crusaders, bent on bringing down the rich and powerful of Gotham City. However, Batman has some new allies of his own, including a young policeman named John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who is not afraid to work outside the system, and a lovely cat burglar named Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway).

Let's get the big stuff out of the way first. No, "The Dark Knight Rises" is not as good as "The Dark Knight," for the simple reason that it doesn't have any characters that can match up to Heath Ledger's Joker. Tom Hardy's Bane is a properly menacing hulk of a villain, visually magnificent, but comes off as something of a Joker-lite because his ideology is more muddled and he doesn't have the same charisma or presence. Catwoman, who is never identified as Catwoman, is nothing unexpected. Anne Hathaway has no problem playing the sexy bad girl, but there's just not much more to this version of the character. She gets her own subplot, but it's such a simple and predictable one, it feels perfunctory. The film could have cut her out entirely without much effort. And as usual, Bruce Wayne's love life gets the short end of the stick. In addition to flirting with Selina Kyle, Wayne gets close to a philanthropist businesswoman named Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), who really should have been given a few more scenes to cement their new relationship. Considering this cast and these promising characters, I was surprised at how shallow they came out.

But then, Nolan has a lot on his plate. "The Dark Knight Rises" suffers from trying to do too much and having a lot of conflicting messages. Bruce Wayne must find the strength to put on the Batman suit again, but then the case is also made, most strongly by Alfred (Michael Caine), that it's time for Wayne to put Batman behind him. Is he too self-destructive to be a hero? Is being a hero making him self-destructive? It was brave of Nolan to devote so much time to Bruce Wayne wrestling over the decision to return to the crimefighting life, and pumping up the personal stakes. Some of the best Wayne and Alfred scenes of the series are the result, and I've never been more sure of Michael Caine's MVP status in these films. However, I don't think that these issues were resolved as well as they could have been, and there are some odd developments required by the plot that nearly derail the whole works.

To add to the confusion, in the previous "Dark Knight," Batman was painted as the one who would do the dirty work and stay in the shadows, while Harvey Dent was elevated to hero status because he was a better symbol of hope for Gotham. Here, this is quickly subverted, and Dent's heroism is treated as a destructive lie that has been exploited by those in power. And those in power may deserve what's coming to them, but Bane's efforts to lead the downtrodden in overthrowing the corrupt are portrayed as evil and destructive. Batman's vigilantism gets a pass, of course. I've seen a few articles suggesting that Nolan had some beef with the Occupy Movement, but aside from borrowing a few bits of iconography to make the film more topical, I don't think "The Dark Knight Rises" is making any kind of political statement. Or if it is, it's a deeply convoluted and confused one.

The film runs well over two hours, and it's not nearly as complicated as I'm making it sound, but there are an awful lot of subplots and complications to grind through in order to set up the big finale. At one point we're following Wayne, Blake, Kyle, Gordon, Bane, and Wayne Enterprises CEO Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), all from different vantage points in an ongoing crisis. Aside from Bruce Wayne, the character who gets the most development turns out to be John Blake, who is set up as this down-to-earth, average police officer, just trying his best to help save Gotham City. We follow his perspective for a good chunk of the film where Wayne is absent. I like the character, and I like Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the role, but I don't think the film benefited from Blake getting this much emphasis. There were several other characters that needed the attention more.

Still, Nolan delivers plenty of good action, and he succeeds in keeping the major storylines on track and the adrenaline high. Superhero movie fans should have no complaints about the level of mayhem. All the old toys and vehicles and are back, including a handful of new ones. Crimes and carnage take place on a grander scale, and some of the later altercations turn into full scale battles. It's easy to ignore all the plot holes and the unanswered questions when there's so much forward momentum driving the film toward its big climax. I thoroughly enjoyed "The Dark Knight Rises" while I was watching it, and letting myself get carried away by the noise and the spectacle. However, when you try and go back and piece together the logic and motivations, it doesn't add up. And that's a shame.

"The Dark Knight Rises" is perfectly fine as a summer action movie. Most Batman fans should love it. However, for the discerning viewers, the ones who were hoping to see a reinvention of Catwoman, or a truly monstrous Bane, there's bound to be some disappointment. It feels like Nolan was trying to reach something big and profound with the Batman franchise, but he didn't quite grasp it. The visuals are right. The talent is right. The desire for better was clearly there. And Nolan had the daring and the will to twist and reinvent the mythos as he saw fit, to create something different and new.

But in the end, Christopher Nolan didn't quite stick his landing. More on that tomorrow.
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Sunday, July 22, 2012

TJE 7/22 - The Turin Horse (2011)

We begin with the famous anecdote about Friedrich Nietzche, who one day encountered a horse being beaten by his driver in the street, and intervened. He was so overcome by the incident, it may have contributed to a mental breakdown that Nietzche suffered and never fully recovered from. The film suggests that it will tell us what happened to the unfortunate horse and its driver, but I'm not sure that it really does.

"The Turin Horse" is an apocalyptic fable, about an unnamed man (János Derzsi) and his daughter (Erika Bók), who life in a small stone cottage in an empty wasteland. They own the titular horse, who we seeing being driven homeward by the man in the opening shots of the film. Subsequently, the horse stays in the small stables adjacent to the cottage and refuses to eat or drink. Perhaps it knows something that the humans do not. For the rest of the film, spanning six days, father and daughter remain in this tiny, remote place, waiting out a terrible windstorm that rages outside, and going through a daily routine of drudgery and growing despair. But who could expect anything more cheerful from the great Hungarian auteur Bela Tarr?

I will warn you now that "The Turin Horse" is an art film to test the patience of art film lovers. It is two and a half hours long, shot in beautiful, bleak black and white. The sparse lines of dialogue are spoken in Hungarian. By the director's own admission, the film is designed to wear on the viewer, with its constant repetitions of the characters' routines, the ominous musical score, and the ever darkening mood. Long, long static shots show the arduous task of drawing water from the nearby well, the mundanity of the characters consuming their daily allotment of boiled potatoes, and the struggle to complete chores outside while being buffeted by the violent winds. "What's going on?" the daughter asks one night in the darkness, the only time when father and daughter seem able to speak honestly to each other. There are signs that larger forces are are work, perhaps close to bringing about the end of the world.

What does any of this have to do with the madness of Friedrich Nietzche? If the dialogue is Hungarian, where does Turin come in, or does Turin just refer to the horse's point of origin? These are not the kinds of questions that the film is interested in answering, at least not directly. Instead, as with Bela Tarr's previous films, the objective is to create a particular reality for the audience, to evoke a mental state that lets them experience a fragment of this desolate universe. We come to understand that the main characters live lives so devoid of meaning or purpose, that their very desire to exist is being sapped away. I suppose you could argue then, that watching the film is akin to endangering your own mental health. I'm kidding. Mostly.

The power of the film is in its simplicity and starkness. Sets and costumes and bare bones and utilitarian. A town is mentioned, but we never see it. The actors' performances are harshly naturalistic, recalling Robert Bresson's famously dead-eyed female leads, reflecting his distaste for any sign of affectation. We watch the characters work and work, the focus on their slumped forms rather than their faces. The man is bearded, and the girl's hair is always in the way, especially when she is outside. The cinematography, though very beautiful, is unrelenting in its dreariness. It is a relief when other briefly characters appear at the cottage, to provide momentary respite from the sameness of each day's cycle, even though each new deviation is a portent of steadily encroaching doom.

It's easy to label "The Turin Horse" pretentious cinema for masochistic snobs, but the emotions that it stirs and the themes that it explores are not so easy to dismiss. There have been many films about a coming apocalypse in recent years, but only a few films like "The Road" and "Perfect Sense" have confronted the hopelessness that lurks on the edges of these narratives. "The Turin Horse" does so even more directly. It doesn't matter what caused the end of the world here, but only that it renders an endless, difficult struggle for simple existence too arduous to continue. And watching the characters reach that breaking point is fascinating, terrifying, and deeply moving.

This is reportedly Bela Tarr’s final film. I’ve only seen one of the others, “Werkmeister Harmonies,” which I loved. The other major one, “Satantango,” remains on my to-watch list. I’m a little afraid of it, really. Considering my reaction to his other work, the seven hour running time of “Satantango” may be too overwhelming. “The Turin Horse” is going to be difficult enough to recover from.
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Saturday, July 21, 2012

TJE 7/21 - Boys Town (1938)

A few days ago I reviewed "Angels With Dirty Faces," which was notable for one standout performance by James Cagney. He was nominated for the Oscar that year, but lost to Spencer Tracy for playing Father Flanagan in "Boys Town." Now Cagney's performance is held up as one of the defining roles of his career, while Tracy's seems to be fondly regarded mostly out of nostalgia. So I watched both films, and it's pretty clear why Tracy got the Oscar. "Boys Town," despite its reputation for being sentimental and maudlin, is a much better movie than "Angels With Dirty Faces."

We first meet Father Flanagan, a Roman Catholic priest, running a refuge for the homeless, but his efforts don't seem to make much of a difference. After visiting a condemned man who had a terrible childhood, Flanagan decides to change tactics and open a home for orphan boys, believing there's "no such thing as a bad boy." After persuading a local shopkeeper, Dave (Henry Hull), to finance the venture, Flanagan creates a home for boys that eventually expands to a whole little community called Boys Town, with its own schools and training facilities. The boys elect their own leaders and enforce their own laws and justice under the guidance of Father Flanagan. Though the place is always in debt, Flanagan's methods, aimed a preparing the boys for good futures, prove sound. However, Boys Town is tested by the arrival of Whitey Marsh (Mickey Rooney), the brother of a convict, Joe (Edward Norris). Whitey is well on his way down the wrong path in life, and it may be too late for him to change his ways.

The boys of "Boys Town" are fully realized characters, unlike the passel of interchangeable young toughs in "Angels With Dirty Faces," and that makes all the difference. Tracy may have won the Oscar, but I think the performance that really makes the movie work is Mickey Rooney's. Whitey Marsh is the kind of young gangster wannabe who is always trying to act big, who has a smart-aleck reply to everything, and thinks he's a lot smarter and rougher than he actually is. He struts around and postures and mouths off. And he's so much fun to watch, getting his ego deflated at every turn. Then come the dramatic parts, and Rooney nails those too. Sure, there's some cutesy business, especially with a little seven year-old named Pee Wee (Bobs Watson), but the kids in the picture are rock solid. I think you could have cut Father Flanagan out of the plot entirely and still had a perfectly watchable film with Rooney as the lead.

Maybe it would have also been a more interesting one, as the story of Father Flanagan is awfully conventional. "Boys Town" is almost certainly a very whitewashed portrayal of reality. Whitey is presented as a terribly problematic case for Flanagan, but he turns out to be quite responsive to a little peer pressure and tough love. None of the boys have any truly serious mental or behavioral problems. The plot is frankly a little ridiculous, involving a bank robbery, a standoff with the crooks responsible, and a couple of really blatant, manipulative twists in the last act. Also, the timeline jumps ahead frequently. One minute Flanagan and his first group of boys are suffering a miserable Christmas at the first orphanage, and the next Flanagan has somehow managed to pay off all his debts and is looking to expand. Then there's the fact that Flanagan seems to be running Boys Town by himself, with a nun in the infirmary as the only other nominal adult presence. And the film certainly has its own agenda. Flanagan's persistent money troubles seem like thinly veiled solicitation for donations, and the jabs at a local newspaper publisher seem to be alluding to some offscreen incident we don't know about.

And yet the movie still works. After nearly seventy-five years, it's still moving and inspiring and the corny ideals behind it still have potency. The sentiment and optimism are there, but don't grate as badly as you might suspect. Though the particulars of the story are too good to be true, there's still a ring of truth to it. Father Flanagan is idealized, true, but in Spencer Tracy's capable hands he also comes off as very human, and we can believe that perhaps there was once such a man who cared and loved enough to create a place like Boys Town. And even if he didn't save someone like Whitey Marsh in such dramatic fashion, he probably did change many lives for the better through the reforms he pioneered.

"Boys Town" is also something of a cautionary lesson for me. I think I've been relying too much on certain critics' lists to choose movies to watch lately, and entirely overlooked a film that was a major cultural touchstone of its era, and made a real impact. I don't think "Boys Town" is particularly notable from a purely artistic standpoint, but it's not hard to see why it's so fondly remembered. It's not a great film, but it stands as a wonderful example of old-fashioned studio style filmmaking, acting, and writing. And it's still awfully entertaining too.
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Friday, July 20, 2012

TJE 7/20 - Baraka (1992)

I saw the last half hour or so of "Baraka" a long time ago, and I couldn't figure out what it was supposed to be. There were all these images of concentration camps, a funeral on the Ganges river, Whirling Dervishes, ancient stone images, beautiful landscapes, and starry night skies. I couldn't piece together any kind of narrative, but I kept trying to. What was it all about? What did it all mean? A decade later I finally saw the whole movie, and found some answers.

"Baraka" is categorized as both a documentary and an experimental film, following in the footsteps of the more celebrated "Koyaanisqatsi." Ron Fricke, who was the cinematographer on "Koyaanisqatsi," directed "Baraka," bringing a somewhat different sensibility. The film is best described as a collage of images exploring the natural world and human society. There is no story, at least none that is made explicit. Instead, the film looks at a variety of subjects across multiple cultures, such as religious rituals and industrialization. Like "Koyaanisqatsi," the modern world is viewed negatively, as a source of corruption, pollution, and squalor, but it doesn't dwell on this for very long. Critique is not the central concern of "Baraka." Its gaze is wider, and it spends far more time finding connections between different cultures, cutting from one part of the world to another, architecture in one country of the world echoing that of a different city, the ceremonies of one religion blending into other. Sometimes the viewer won't even notice that the film has moved on from one place to the next. In total, the filmmakers collected their images from 24 countries, across six continents.

Spirituality and common humanity are the major themes here. "Baraka" means "blessing" in Arabic, and some of the earliest images we see include calls to prayer, women reverently kissing a lock, and monks at a Tibetan monastery. There is no identifying information and no context for any of these images. The film requires the audience to recognize and make sense of what they see with little help from the filmmakers. Here are a group of children dressed in colorful tribal costume. Here are people decorating a temple. Here are a group of men in long robes and tall hats being solemnly blessed. And then they begin to dance, and you realize that these are the famous Whirling Dervishes of Turkey. In the modern world segments, shots of crowded subway platforms are intercut with shots of newly hatched chicks being processed and marked, and it's left to the viewer to catch the connecting ideas of mechanization and dehumanization.

The major selling point of "Baraka" is the cinematography, which is absolutely stunning. Throughout, I kept thinking of Tarsem Singh's fantasy film, "The Fall," which also went globetrotting to many different locales in order to find the most beautiful shooting locations that it could. However, "Baraka" has more impact because of the documentary approach. I'm sure there was still some staging for some of the shots we see in the film, but the images feel far more genuine, more candid and spontaneous. The camera is less intrusive, and there is the sense that we are simply watching as real-world events unfold. This is not to suggest that the film is lacking a point of view, because it's not. The inclusion and juxtaposition of certain elements is very deliberate, particularly the later segments of the film that travel to various concentration camps and Khmer Rouge prisons, lingering on photographs and piles of skulls.

However, I found that the images of nature were the most arresting. It's one thing to see lovely shots of waterfalls and desert landscapes and rock formations, but it's quite another to see them in this kind of quality, set to the hypnotic score by Michael Stearns, as part of the larger whole of "Baraka." The film has this wonderful immersiveness, which I think is due to the total lack of dialogue or any artifice we expect from other films, including the usual nature documentaries. "Baraka" is really a silent film, one that derives so much of its effectiveness from some of the oldest montage techniques, and lacks the distraction of modern movie soundscapes. We just have image after image of marvelous things to look at. And soon you get caught up in the rhythm of the editing, which is deceptively languid in the early going, and it's hard to look away from the screen.

There is a common what-if question that tends to come up in movie nerd discussions. If you met someone who had never seen a movie before, what would you show them first? I think I would pick "Baraka," because it shows what the cinematic medium is capable of, and because it provides such a fascinating look at a world it's easy to forget is all real.
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Thursday, July 19, 2012

TJE 7/19 - Shame (2011)

"Shame," according to Boxofficemojo, was the only film released in the US in 2011 with an NC-17 rating, and I'm glad that it was. The story concerns a man who is battling sex addiction, though the term is never used in the film. The NC-17 content is absolutely essential. However, I should warn that the graphic sexual activity that we see onscreen is not titillating, prurient, or anything that could be called sexy. Rather, the overwhelming mood of the film is one of isolation, alienation, and loneliness.

Brandon (Michael Fassbender) works in a Manhattan advertising firm. He is successful, handsome, and perpetually unattached. By his own admission, he has never had a relationship that lasted for more than four months, spending his nights with a succession of anonymous strangers and paid sex workers. His need for gratification is constant, but he remains emotionally uninvolved with the people around him. Then one day his younger sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) arrives unannounced at his apartment. Her situation is unstable, and Brandon lets her stay, but the demands on his privacy severely hamper his sex life, and he's forced to struggle against the impulses he's long indulged. Awkwardly, he begins to look for alternatives to his solitary existence.

Director Steve McQueen is known for his long takes, and there are several employed here to good effect. The unblinking, sustained gaze ratchets up the tension, heightens the mood, and gives the performances more room to unfurl. And they're excellent. "Shame" is a character study, driven by work of its superb cast. Though the script by McQueen and Abi Morgan contains plenty of dialogue, there is very little proper exposition, and it takes a while to figure out what Sissy's relationship to Brandon is, and for the details of his addiction to emerge. We observe Brandon going through his usual routine at home and at work, riding the subway and jogging through empty streets, almost always alone. McQueen often places him on the edges of the frame, emphasizing his remoteness. Crop the widescreen frame to in some scenes, and he would totally disappear. One of the most vital elements here is the score by composer Harry Escott, supplemented with Bach piano pieces performed by Glenn Gould. The melancholia of the music completely saps away any pleasure that could be had from the sex scenes, rendering them clinical, empty, and cold.

2011 was a great year for Michael Fassbender, and of the four films he appeared in, "Shame" was the one that contained his best performance. It's surely the most fearless and revealing, not just because he spends a good portion of the screen time in the nude, but because of the intimacy and candidness of it. Initially Brandon's lifestyle is attractive, enviable even. Fassbender is charismatic enough that we can easily accept his ability to charm just about any woman into bed for a no-strings tumble. However, there's always an unspoken tension to every encounter, and it soon becomes apparent how little control he has over his sexual urges, and how precarious a situation he's come to. Fassbender embodies all the common paranoias toward sex, the fears of inadequacy, of rejection, of unforeseen consequences, and of course that the extent of his secret, perverse activities will be discovered. We watch him ignore and internalize the problems, until they overwhelm him. And nobody suffers an onscreen breakdown like Fassbender.

The only real relationship Brandon has is with his sister, and we learn very little about Sissy except that she is a musician who has achieved a small measure of success, she's in a troubled relationship, she has a history of self-harm, and she has nowhere else to go. Carey Mulligan's performance does the rest. McQueen devotes one of the longest scenes in the film to Brandon simply watching her sing "New York, New York" in a club, her face filling the screen. Initially it seems like a gimmick, and Mulligan's tremulous vocals are passable at best, but the effect is mesmerizing. She has the ability to suggest so much in the most offhand comments and gestures, and in one of her best scenes we don't see much more of her than back of her head. Her psychological state, like Brandon's, is never discussed, but take one look at Mulligan and you know Sissy is a girl on the edge.

"Shame" is about far more than addiction. It quietly criticizes and deglamourizes the entire alpha male image that Brandon creates for himself. All the hallmarks of his success - being rich and attractive, living in Manhattan, enjoying all the best clubs and restaurants, and snagging the girl that a colleague couldn't – amount to very little in the end. He spends most of the film perfectly miserable, despite enjoying every classic heterosexual male sexual fantasy in the book. Sissy's life as an artist doesn't bring her happiness either, her pretty exterior masking too much pain. Manhattan itself has never looked so beautiful and so desolate.

"Shame" is a tough film, but cathartic and penetrating, and a viewing will linger in the mind for days. The real shame is that more people won't see this film because of the MPAA rating, but that's a rant for another day.
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Wednesday, July 18, 2012

TJE 7/18 - Angels With Dirty Faces (1938)

This review is going to be very spoiler-heavy, because one of the most notable things about "Angels With Dirty Faces" is the direction that the story takes, which simply wouldn't happen in a mainstream modern film. I'm going to discuss it in some depth, so fair warning, and here we go. "Angels With Dirty Faces" is a crime film about gangster Rocky Sullivan (James Cagney) who does all the despicable things that gangsters do, but makes good in the very end by sacrificing his reputation and acting like a coward at his execution. He does this for the noble purpose of ensuring that the local gang of street kids who idolize him won't be tempted to follow in his footsteps.

Present-day American culture idolizes the anti-hero and masculine pride far too much for this kind of ending to be acceptable today, and such blatant morality tales went out of fashion a long time ago. The story follows a tried and true formula. Rocky and his best friend Jerry Connolly (Pat O'Brien) are a pair of mischievous kids together. One day they are caught trying to rob a railroad car. Jerry escapes, but Rocky is carted off to a string of reform schools and lock-ups, graduating to longer stints in prison as his criminal career progresses. After serving a three-year sentence for a theft committed with a shady lawyer named Frazier (Humphrey Bogart), Rocky goes home to the old neighborhood, and discovers that Jerry has grown up to be a respected local priest, and Laury (Ann Sheridan), the girl they used to tease, is now a beauty.

Rocky has matters to square with Frazier and his boss Keefer (George Bancroft), which leads to escalating episodes of violence. However, this is not your typical gangster picture. The film's biggest conflict is really over the souls of the gang of local boys, lead by Soapy (Billy Halop), who Father Jerry is trying to keep on the side of angels, steering them away from vice and temptation. Rocky befriends them, after they pick his pocket, and quickly becomes their hero and the only adult who can get them to do anything. It's easy to see why. Rocky Sullivan may be the most likeable gangster there ever was, a man who claims he doesn't have a heart, but is clearly loyal and generous and probably capable of being much more. He holds no grudge against Father Jerry, and genuinely cares about the kids. At the same time, he's not hesitant about giving Frazier and Keefer exactly what's coming to them.

The performance of James Cagney and the unusual ending are the only things I can summon up much praise for. The direction by Michael Curtiz has some nice flourishes, especially in the rousing action sequences, but it's nothing special. The performances by O'Brien and Sheridan barely register. The kids are funny and engaging, but barely differentiated enough to be real characters. They aren't even credited separately, but as the "Dead End Kids," for one of their previous projects together. It's sort of fun to see Bogart playing such a straight villain role in his pre-stardom days, but it only serves to highlight how simple and shallow the film is. If it weren't for Cagney's charismatic portrayal of Rocky Sullivan, I doubt anyone would remember the film today.

Then again, there is that ending, which sticks in the mind not only because of how well executed it is, but because of what it represents. There used to be so much more debate over the portrayal of crime and criminals on film, on their social impact. Here we have a film where the filmmakers clearly felt a sense of responsibility toward their audience. Rocky had to be punished for his crimes under the Hays Code one way or another, but using the punishment as a means of redemption was far more interesting and fulfilling than Rocky simply getting carted off to jail or dying on the final firefight. It also allowed Cagney to subvert the image of the "tough guy" he was always trying to get away from, which is probably why he took the role in the first place.

Can you imagine a modern crime picture where the gun-toting badass hero realizes that he's contributing to the degeneracy of the American youth, and willingly destroys his own image of cool in repentance? Can you imagine the equivalent of the Pat O’Brien character being part of that decision without all the baggage of the religious viewpoint, because being a priest was shorthand for being the dispenser of proper morality in a film? Can you remember the last time intentional disillusionment of young children was a plot point? For better or for worse, "Angels With Dirty Faces" could have only been made in the 1930s, when Hollywood was far more innocent, and the bad guys, even the good-hearted ones, always got it in the end.
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Tuesday, July 17, 2012

TJE 7/17 - Margaret (2011)

The story of the production of "Margaret" is easily as interesting as the film itself. Director Kenneth Lonergan wrestled with editing the film for years, and multiple delays sparked lawsuits and endless speculation. The final result is an ungainly film that really could use a few more passes in the editing bay. Running two-and-a-half hours, "Margaret" feels overlong, unfocused, and self-indulgent. However, it occasionally manages moments of real intensity and thoughtful insight.

Teenage Lisa (Anna Paquin) is a precocious, but irresponsible student, the kind of girl who will expend much more effort justifying why she cheated on a test than studying for one, and she's charismatic enough to get away with it. She lives with her mother Joan (J. Smith-Cameron), a busy, distracted actress, in Manhattan. Her father Karl, played by Lonergan, lives on the West Coast. One day Lisa witnesses, and may be the cause of a fatal bus accident. She distracts the driver, Maretti (Mark Ruffalo), causing him to run a light and strike a pedestrian, Monica (Allison Janney), who dies in the street while Lisa holds her. This has a profound effect on Lisa, who can't accept that it was just an accident. She seeks out Monica's best friend Emily (Jeannie Berlin), starts acting out in school, and loses her virginity on a whim to a classmate named Paul (Kieran Culkin).

"Margaret" is densely packed with minor characters, all revolving around Lisa. Matt Damon and Matthew Broderick play her math and literature teacher respectively. Jean Reno shows up for a few scenes as her mother's new boyfriend. They don't all neatly fit into the confines of the narrative. Surely we should see more of Mark Ruffalo's and Kieran Culkin's characters, considering the impact that they have on Lisa. Michael Ealy appears briefly as a lawyer friend of Emily's. He's introduced like he's about to become an important player, but disappears after a single scene. However, he makes the most of that scene and comes across as a full and complete character, and it's the same with the others as well. Everyone in "Margaret" has as sense of possibility about them, that we might find another, more interesting facet of the story there if only we had the time to linger a bit longer.

However, the film is built around Lisa, and the excellent performance of Anna Paquin. At times Lisa is sympathetic, and at times she is infuriating. After the accident she is frequently defensive and angry, hiding behind a mask of teenage sullenness and righteous indignation. When confronted, she cries persecution, but is never hesitant to land her own blows, particularly with her mother. Lisa may be articulate, but she lacks self-awareness and perspective. At the same time she clearly feels so keenly, it's easy to empathize with her, even as she uses her emotions as an excuse to feed her own ego. She talks and talks and talks, making her the ideal protagonist for a film that is largely built around conversations. Paquin grabs the spotlight and never gives it up.

It took a while to get used to Lonergan's dialogue, which is wordy and literate. I wasn't a fan of the more confrontational moments, where characters erupt at each other in torrents of precisely scripted back-and-forth that doesn't sound genuine to the ear. Who has such perfect sentence construction when they're busy biting someone's head off? However, I like his pauses, the way that he often insinuates thoughts and moods into the silent moments. A nice little throwaway scene occurs late in the film, when Matthew Broderick's teacher character passes Lisa and a friend in the park. They lob a few taunts at him, which he seems to ignore, but a quick shot of the back of his head emphasizes that he's taken in every word. Also, though scenes go on for unusually long stretches, Lonergan knows where to cut, and where to wait just a beat longer, to catch a reaction or allow someone's discomfort to sink it.

His film is great scene by scene, but the whole of "Margaret" never really coheres as it should. Smaller characters are left by the wayside too often. Some plot threads are sorely underdeveloped while others are dragged out endlessly. The final scene doesn't resonate as it should, because we never got quite enough time with one of the characters who is key to the ending. Also, the political and cultural references seem rather awkwardly shoehorned in. The post 9/11 parallels are pretty damn obvious without Lisa's contentious debates with a Syrian classmate, thanks. And the opera and literature references are awfully on-the-nose.

I've seen other critics hail "Margaret" as a great film, as one of the best American films of this era. I can't agree, because the flaws simply go too deep. I can see the greatness there, but it's not realized well enough to fulfill that potential. It is a very good film, though, and a noble attempt at being something more meaningful, more thoughtful, and more honest than most coming-of-age movies. And in the end it was well worth all the drama and effort of its creation.
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Monday, July 16, 2012

TJE 7/16 – Kafka (1991)

"Kafka" is a quasi-biopic that takes the interesting approach of combining aspects of its subject's real life with elements of his most famous stories. However, the film is not just an ode to Franz Kafka's enduring work, but also to other notable cinema that Kafka had a strong influence on. It's hard not to look at the breathtaking black and white shots of shadowy streets and anonymous, lurking figures, and not think of Orson Welles' "The Trial" and "The Third Man." And there's a definite nod to Terry Gilliam's "Brazil" in some of the later, more fantastic set pieces.

We begin with Franz Kafka (Jeremy Irons) employed at a medical insurance firm in Prague. He spends his days in bureaucratic misery as a clerk, under the watchful gaze of his supervisor Burgel (Joel Grey), writing his stories on his own time as a hobby. One day his friend Eduard Rabin disappears, and Kafka becomes aware of a group of bombers, including the lovely Gabriela (Theresa Russell), who are fighting a mysterious, oppressive authority in the town, that may have been responsible for Eduard's disappearance. Their intentions are unknowns, but they headquartered in the inaccessible Castle where all of Kafka's records and reports are ultimately sent. After Gabriela disappears as well, Kafka investigates on his own, in spite of the warnings of the law, in the form of lnspector Grubach (Armin Mueller-Stahl), and the bureaucracy, embodied by the Chief Clerk (Alec Guinness).

What could be more appropriate for a film about Kafka than a paranoid conspiracy thriller? "Kafka" is full of shadowy men in long coats and dark hats who are up to no good, chases through winding streets and underground tunnels, and secretive, elliptical conversations. The plot resembles "The Trial" and "The Castle" the most closely, though some of Kafka's other works are namechecked. "Kafka" is patterned off of the German expressionist films, with a good dose of more modern film noir, and often looks like it was made sometime in the 1940s or 50s. Shadows and silhouettes loom large in small spaces, and the deceptively delicate score summons an atmosphere of creeping dread. The cinematography alone had me transfixed for a good hour, marveling over the period details and the old fashioned lighting schemes.

The story is a muddled affair, and the actors occasionally seemed lost amidst the half-baked conspiracies. Jeremy Irons doesn't get to do much as the hapless everyman that every Kafka hero ultimately is. The film, despite the title, has very little interest in giving us an accurate portrait of the writer, or any insights into his character beyond the commonly accepted historical details. However, Irons does lend a quiet reserve and intelligence to the role that is invaluable. Theresa Russell sticks out rather badly as Gabriela, but the rest of the supporting cast is excellent. It was a pleasant surprise to find actors like Armin Mueller-Stahl, Alec Guinness, Ian Holm, and Joel Grey among Kafka's chief tormentors.

I didn't mind the weaker plotting for most of the movie, since it only seemed to be an excuse to stage these wonderful scenes of suspense and mystery anyway. It was only toward the end, where the film tried to give us definitive answers, that things went seriously awry. The point of most Kafka stories is that there is no satisfying resolution and there are never definite answers. I won't go into much detail because far too many reviews give away too much about the relevant plot points, but it felt like that later segment of the film was part of an entirely different production, not just because of how it was presented, but because it seemed to switch genres for a few minutes as well. Was this intentional? If so, I suspect that the talented young director at the helm wasn't sure footed enough to pull it off.

The young director in question was Stephen Soderbergh, fresh from his success with "Sex, Lies, and Videotape." "Kafka" was only his second film, and remains an almost total outlier from the rest of his body of work. Perhaps it would be best to compare it to "The Good German," the black and white WWII film which Soderbergh made fifteen years later, with only the filmmaking techniques that would have been available in the 1940s. That film was also more style than substance, with a few modern touches that felt out of place. Were they simply made as technical exercises, so that the director could see whether he could work within these older styles and recreate the celebrated techniques of the cinema titans of old?

Perhaps, but "Kafka" comes across as more than just an imitation. The Welles style works beautifully for the material, and Soderbergh absolutely nailed the sinister mood and tone of the film. If nothing else, his "Kafka" was appropriately Kafka-esque.
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Sunday, July 15, 2012

TJE 7/15 – Goon (2011)

I'm seriously conflicted about "Goon." It's the story of a bouncer named Doug Glatt (Seann William Scott), who gets into fights at the drop of a hat, and is a terrible disappointment to the rest of his family. Then one day, he gets into an altercation at a hockey game, and withstands such a beating that he's recruited to be an enforcer for the local team. Doug can't really play hockey, but he's an excellent bruiser, which eventually gets him placed with the minor league Halifax Highlanders. There, he faces contentious teammates, a dysfunctional team dynamic, and a chance at love with a girl named Eva (Allison Pill).

Based on a true story, "Goon" follows the template of your average sports movie. Unlikely local man beats the odds, joins the big sports team, and helps them to victory. However, "Goon" isn't really interested in being an inspiration as it is in showing a rougher, unvarnished side of the sport that the public doesn't get to see. In this case, it's the incredible amount of violence that Doug's position requires, and the nonstop jackassery going on behind the scenes - often aimed at guys who are on the same team. There is so much swearing in this movie, I eventually just became numb to it. Doug's best friend Pat (Jay Baruchel, also one of the credited writers) literally cannot go two lines without using crude language or lobbing ugly insults at someone. Admittedly, one of the funnier scenes is when he finds himself seated near Doug's straight-laced parents (Eugene Levy, Ellen David) during a game, and totally fails at trying to stop the onslaught coming out of his own mouth.

And then there's the violence. If you like hockey fights, "Goon" has tons of them, and they're brutal, graphic, and clearly one of the big selling points. The whole film builds up to the face-off between Doug and his idol, Ross Rhea (Liev Schreiber), who pulled a dirty stunt that injured Doug's troubled teammate Xavier Laflamme (Marc-André Grondin) in a previous game. I went into "Goon" thinking that I was going to be watching a hockey movie, but it was more like watching a boxing or MMA movie. Instead of getting in the ring, Doug gets out on the ice, where it's always inevitable that things will come to blows. For people who like hockey fights, that's great, but I'm a hockey fan who always found the fighting to be one of those little quirks of the game that I could take or leave. Is it odd that I actually wanted to see more of the hockey than the lip-splitting and face-pummeling?

Though I respect that the filmmakers wanted to show the harder-edged reality of this corner of the hockey culture, I had a really tough time with the overwhelming nastiness of the content, to the point where it was hard to stay focused on what was going on. It doesn't help that the film plays fast and loose with timelines and Doug's skill level. One minute he can barely skate, and the next he's pitching in to score goals, upstaging other players. We barely see any of his development as a player onscreen. Instead, it's just fight after fight, intercut with his developing relationship with Eva and teambuilding with the other guys. I wish we'd seen more of some of the other players. The script takes the time to introduce many of them, but they barely figure into the plot at all.

I liked Seann William Scott here, in a role that really plays to his strengths. Doug is dumb, but very self-aware, loyal, and good-natured. He doesn't let the behavior of his teammates, the disapproval of his family, or the cynicism of anyone else get him down. When he tries to win over Eva, he's genuinely sweet, and willing to overlook the fact that she is a self-described "bad girlfriend" who sets off a lot of warning bells. He fits what "Goon " is going for, which is to demystify the idea of a sports hero to a certain extent, and spotlight a guy who accepts that he has certain limitations, but is able to find glory within those limitations. I also liked Liev Schreiber, who gets in a few good scenes. And add another winning turn by Allison Pill to the pile. Would someone please give this woman bigger parts already?

At best, "Goon" is a very unconventional sports movie that is trying to bring something different to the table. However, I don't think it's well executed enough to escape its niche. For a certain breed of hockey fans, "Goon" should go over very well, but I wouldn't recommend it for general audiences. There's just too much sports culture shock if you're not familiar with the game, and too much potentially squicky content even if you are.
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Saturday, July 14, 2012

TJE 7/14 - Mirror Mirror (2012)

When people think of Disney movies, they tend to think of the animated films. When I think of Disney movies, I'm just as likely to think of their tradition of light comedic "family films," which all have this aggressively peppy, enthusiastic attitude, extremely simple characters, lots of broad slapstick humor, a heavy reliance on platitudes and sloganeering, and usually a very obvious message.

"Mirror Mirror" is one of these films, and the message is your typical modern girl power rally, mixed into the traditional princess narrative of finding and landing a Prince Charming. The modern Snow White should not only be refined and beautiful and sweet, but a defender of the oppressed, on the path to becoming a benevolent ruler. Additionally, she should be able to hold her own in a sword fight with her prince, and rescue him too if she has to. How is she to accomplish this? "Believe!" the film declares, and then throws all matter of visual distractions at us before we can ask about specifics.

"Mirror Mirror" is really all about the visual distractions. The main selling point of the film is not Julia Roberts, headlining as the Evil Queen, and it's not Armie Hammer and Lily Collins, who are playing our young heroes. It's the Indian director Tarsem, who is known for his elaborately ornate visuals in films like "The Cell," "The Fall," and "Immortals." With no small amount of help from the late costume designer Eiko Ishioka, he creates a fairy-tale kingdom of striking shapes and lush colors. The Queen's golden throne and court gown dominate the whole the room. The dwarves disguise themselves as giants, using stilts that resemble accordion bellows. The Queen's secret hideaway on the other side of her magic mirror resembles a sinister bird, an echo of the brighter peacock images she is associated with throughout the film. Unlike other fantasy films, the screen is never overly busy or cluttered, with plenty of space to appreciate the effect of individual parts of the art design and costume pieces.

I wish Tarsem's talents had been put to use for better material, but "Mirror Mirror" is a very slight film, probably best enjoyed by small children and tired adults who aren't really paying attention to the dialogue, but will appreciate the parade of pretty colors. Roberts narrates the story as The Queen, who married Snow White's widowed father, The King, and took over the kingdom after he disappeared many years ago. She's in the process of running it into the ground when the story starts, having taxed the people to the brink of starvation. An opportunity appears in the form of Prince Alcott (Armie Hammer), who lands on her doorstep after being accosted by the seven dwarves, bandit thieves who live in the nearby woods. The Queen resolves to marry him for his money, organizing an elaborate ball that requires squeezing the people for even more funds. Meanwhile, Snow White (Lily Collins) has just turned eighteen, and after sneaking out of the castle discovers just how dire the situation is. She resolves to take back her kingdom and defeat The Queen.

If you're wondering where the huntsman is, there isn't one. We just have Nathan Lane playing Brighton, the Queen's chief toady, who gets the job of taking Snow White out into the woods at one point to kill her, but predictably bungles the job. He's really only there for comic relief, in a film that frequently goes off on comic digressions that aren't as funny as they should be. There are the Queen's icky beauty treatments, the prince falling victim to a botched love potion, and most of the business with the seven dwarves, who remain very minor characters in this version. If you've seen the trailers, rest assured that the worst of their punning, including the infamous "Snow way!" line, has been left on the cutting room floor. What remains is best described as agreeably high energy, but only mildly amusing.

In spite of the weak dialogue, I did enjoy the performances. Lily Collins has become a much more solid screen presence since I last saw her in "Priest," and Armie Hammer actually has some pretty good comic timing. I look forward to seeing him again in "Lone Ranger" next year. Julia Roberts gets most of the fun stuff, sniping about common fairy tale conventions, grumbling about her fading looks and Brighton's incompetence, and generally acting more like an impossible, spoiled prima donna than a truly evil harridan. I think the film could have used more of her, but then I'm also glad they didn't overuse her either. A little of Roberts goes a long way, and in spite of what all the marketing would have you believe, this isn't really her movie.

"Mirror Mirror" is a piece of fluff in the end, inoffensive and harmless. It aims so low that you can't say it doesn't meet expectations, but at the same time it's a little depressing that such a gorgeous film with such talented actors really amounts to so little. There are one or two inventive little twists that show the film did have the potential to do something more daring and interesting. Instead they just stuffed the Snow White story into the new Disney formula, which isn't much of an improvement over the old one.
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Friday, July 13, 2012

TJE 7/13 – Happiness (1998)

So I've watched my first Todd Solondz film. I knew the director by reputation, but hadn't braved his work until now, because I was always a little wary of him. Solondz is the creator of very, very black comedies about dysfunctional domestic relationships, sexual deviancies, and all kinds of controversial material. In "Happiness," his second film, the main characters include a man with perverse sexual fantasies who makes anonymous, sexually explicit phone calls to unsuspecting women, and a pedophile who likes young boys and has detailed discussions of sexual matters with his own eleven year-old son. Are you cringing yet?

From the very first scene, Solondz insists on the audience's discomfort. We see a man and a woman played by Jon Lovitz and Jane Adams seated together at a restaurant. They exchange empty pleasantries, but it is obvious that the man is extremely upset and the woman is very tense. The conversation goes on, becoming more strained by the second. Eventually it comes out that they are a couple who have just broken up, and the conversation takes an ugly turn from banal to vicious. For the first third of the film or so, "Happiness" is a string of these horrible conversations, one after another. The pervert, Allen (Philip Seymour Hoffman), has a session with his therapist, Bill Maplewood (Dylan Baker), who ignores him. Maplewood then sees his therapist, and never quite admits that he's a pedophile, which we learn immediately afterwards. The woman from the restaurant, Joy, discusses the breakup with her sister Trish (Cynthia Stevenson), whose well-intentioned pep-talk reveals how pathetic she thinks Joy is. Allen fails to strike up a conversation with Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle), the neighbor he has been fantasizing about, while they are in the elevator together. Maplewood and his son Billy (Rufus Read) have a frank talk about the mechanics of ejaculation. Lenny (Ben Gazzara) leaves Mona (Louise Lasser), his wife of forty years, but insists that they are not getting divorced.

Some of the content here is downright disturbing. "Happiness" was given an NC-17 rating, mostly for a couple of semi-explicit masturbation scenes. Nearly all the actual sex and the rest of the controversial stuff is kept safely offscreen, but plenty is implied and alluded to. The dialogue by itself is extremely explicit, detailing rapes and molestations and lurid sexual fantasies that become very difficult to sit through. Worse are the attitudes of the characters, who show little remorse or self-awareness of how vile and terrible their behavior is. But after introducing us to this collection of screwed-up, miserable people, "Happiness" slowly reveals that it's after more than just the audience's shock and disdain. Just when you think that you couldn't be more disgusted with Allen, or more horrified by Dr. Maplewood, Solondz goes and humanizes them. Many of the stories in "Happiness" conclude in a strangely touching and poignant fashion, in spite of all the cynicism and meanness that preceded them. You may find, that in spite of whatever moral judgments you may make about the characters, you sympathize with them in the end.

This is due in large part to the performances, which are difficult and impressive. "Happiness" was one of the films that brought Philip Seymour Hoffman to prominence in the late 90s. As Allen he is utterly repulsive, a leering, heavy breathing, physically unkempt creep who you want to keep a distance from instinctively. However, his desperation and his loneliness come through, and there's the sense that when you get away from his sexual problems, he may actually be a good guy somewhere underneath. Maybe even better is the performance of Dylan Baker, who plays Dr. Maplewood with such awful likeability, in some scenes you actually want him to get away with the unthinkable. Baker is one of those actors who seems to be everywhere, but he rarely plays anything with real substance. This is probably the best role he ever had. The women in the cast don't get nearly as much juicy material to work with, but Jane Adams is a standout as the hapless Joy. She plays about the most conventionally normal character in the cast, and she's a mess. Camryn Manheim and Jared Harris also appear in smaller, but important parts.

And what about Todd Solondz? He certainly has a distinctive style, which is low budget, but enough to place his characters in a slightly heightened, surreal version of reality which is very heavy on the irony. The score frequently sounds like it's been lifted from a saccharine 90s family movie, and many scenes take place in cheerfully lit suburban homes and apartments, to contrast with all the perversity and discomfort of the actual content. 90% of what makes "Happiness" a comedy is this malevolent glee that Solondz seems to take in juxtaposing the normal and comforting with the abnormal and the deeply upsetting. For this reason, I don't think "Happiness" will work for everyone. Sometimes it's too obvious about its intentions. But it worked for me.
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Thursday, July 12, 2012

TJE 7/12 – Papillon (1973)

Franklin J. Schaffner is one of those directors that nobody ever remembers, and quite unfairly. After watching "The Boys From Brazil," I went poking around in his list of credits and was astonished to discover that this was the man who had directed "Planet of the Apes" and "Patton," one right after the other. He had also directed "Papillon," one of those films that I kept meaning to watch for a long time, because it had Dustin Hoffman in it, and one of the last screenplays by the great Dalton Trumbo.

In 1930s France, Henri Charrière (Steve McQueen), nicknamed "Papillon" for the butterfly tattoo on his chest, is wrongly convicted of murdering a pimp, and shipped off to a penal colony on Devil's Island, off the coast of French Guiana. The prison is notoriously brutal, and most of the other prisoners are resigned to never seeing France again. Papillon has other ideas. He becomes the bodyguard of a forger, a weaker, bookish man named Louis Dega (Dustin Hoffman), so that Dega will fund his escape. However, after being subjected to hard labor, terrible conditions, and worse treatment by the guards together, the two become friends. "Papillon" charts the long years of their lives spent on Devil's Island, seeing them through botched escape attempts, stints in solitary confinement, starvation, sickness, and worse.

"Papillon" was based on the memoirs of the real Henri Charrière, and it almost seems like a spoiler to know even that much, because this is one of those prison movies that is so harsh and so unrelenting, it's not clear whether or not our heroes are going to be alive at the end of it, let alone in any sort of condition to be writing memoirs. Prisoners die left and right from illness, exhaustion, malnutrition, and brutal treatment. It's the little details that sell it, the way the prisoners are hosed down on the transport ship, or the method of dispensing haircuts to the men in solitary confinement. Despite so much of "Papillon" dealing with incarceration, the story is sprawling and epic. Papillon's escape attempts lead to encounters with bounty hunters, a leper colony, and friendly natives. We see glimpses of other colonists, mostly military men and adventurers. Though not filmed in South America, the tropical Jamaican locations are a good stand-in, especially when aided by the sweeping cinematography of Fred J. Koenekamp.

I was more interested in the performance of Dustin Hoffman going into the film, because he's been one of my favorite actors for as long as I can remember, but it was Steve McQueen who really sold the picture. "Papillon" is pretty much two-and-a-half hours of watching this man being broken down by an incredibly cruel system of authority. Unlike in "The Great Escape," the damage goes deep and there's no way he's going to bounce back so easily. Particularly harrowing are the solitary confinement scenes, where there's nothing left to fight or outsmart, and Papillon must simply endure the insidious ravages of time, silence, and isolation. McQueen was known for being an icon of cool, which works well to establish him as the strong-willed hero who will never stop trying to escape, but it's when he's really tested and really suffering that he's at his most arresting. Because of the demands of the script, I don't think he has the chance to get really deep into the character, as Paul Newman did with Cool Hand Luke, but it's still one hell of a performance.

And then there's Dustin Hoffman as Dega, a little man with big, thick glasses who has absolutely no intention of escaping, believing that his best chance off of Devil's Island is through appeals going through the courts back home. He's our everyman to Papillon's rugged action hero, the one who gets injured easily and always looks awkwardly out of place in the jungle, but pulls his weight nonetheless. Hoffman's not pushing any boundaries here, playing a variation of the nebbish with hidden strength we'd already seen in films like "Straw Dogs," but he gives Dega such humanity and appeal, he's really invaluable to the film. "Papillon" easily could have been told from his point of view, and it might have been a more interesting film if it was.

"Papillon" recalls all those inspirational 60s war films about brave men overcoming impossible adversity. However, it's a little too simple and straightforward to match up to the real greats of the genre. Papillon is a terribly admirable individual, but we never do find out much about him. However, the gorgeous scenery, which Schaffner practically manages to turn into the film's third lead, is a treat for the eyes. The performances of McQueen and Hoffman are excellent, and actors have a great rapport with each other. The film may not be great, but it's still exciting, engaging, and frequently moving.

I'm not sorry I put off watching "Papillon," but I'm glad that I finally did see it.
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