Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Never Let Me Go (2010, Mark Romanek)

“Everyone I know goes away in the end.” ~ Nine Inch Nails, “Hurt”

When asked recently about the essential difference between his original U.K. version of The Office and its American remake, series creator/star Ricky Gervais stated that while Americans are brought up to believe in their boundless potential for success, British children are more often reminded of their social standing and limitations. I expect that this difference has quite a bit to do with the chilly reception Mark Romanek’s delicate adaptation of Never Let Me Go has found on these shores. Like The Remains of the Day, the most notable big-screen Kazuo Ishiguro adaptation, Never Let Me Go is a story about people who have been born and raised for the express purpose of serving. It’s not necessarily a theme that resonates widely in a culture that values determination and grit, but it’s a more universal idea than most people would probably care to admit.

It’s impossible for me to discuss the particulars of Never Let Me Go without spoiling the plot, so here goes.

Never Let Me Go is an almost unbearably sad story of three people- Kathy (Carey Mulligan), the film’s protagonist, and her friends Tommy (Andrew Garfield) and Ruth (Keira Knightley)- who have been bred specifically to serve as organ donors for others who have been born naturally. Like the meagerly paid Third World workers who toil in ramshackle factories to manufacture the products we take for granted, these “donors” are kept out of sight from the general population- less emotionally messy that way. From childhood, they’re sequestered in an isolated school called Hailsham, where they are taught numerous academic subjects in a way that doesn’t prepare them for the future so much as allow them to mark time before the inevitable. And these are the lucky ones- the administration of Hailsham sees itself as progressive, if you can call encouraging children to hope for the future before slamming the door on these hopes “progressive.”

What seems to turn off the film’s critics is the acceptable the characters have for their fate. However, it felt right to me. Since they were born, these children have been brought up to obey their elders and betters and not to question what they’re told about the world. They’re kept isolated from anything that might contradict what they already know, and are fed rumors about the horrors that face those who run away. All their lives, the characters in Never Let Me Go are told that their only worth is as spare parts for others, so it seems somehow right that they wouldn’t try to escape their fate for fear that they wouldn’t fulfill their appointed “purpose.”

Besides, what would people have this be? The Island, in which characters who have been raised in captivity suddenly morph into motorcycle daredevils and shoot-‘em-up action stars? Give me a break. When a person has spent his or her entire life clinging to a shred of hope, it’s the more mundane things that begin to sustain them- Lucy’s childhood dreams of owning a horse, or the art projects the students are assigned with the promise that the best will be selected to be shown in a gallery. As an adult, Kathy becomes a “carer,” tending to other donors and shepherding them through to their “completions” (even in death, donors aren’t granted full humanity). It’s a difficult responsibility, but Kathy believes she’s doing a service, bringing comfort to her fellow donors, including Tommy and Ruth. Trouble is, every donor’s got to reach completion sooner or later.

Late in the film, the characters hear a rumor that donors can be granted a few extra years if they are found to be in love. For Kathy and Tommy, who have harbored feelings for each other since their Hailsham years, this presents a new kind of hope. However, the movie never makes this possibility seem any more real than the rumors of Hailsham escapees turning up dead and mutilated. But while we don’t believe the rumor to be true- and it’s possible that Kathy doesn’t believe it very deeply either- Tommy is excited about the possibility of a delayed completion. It’s in these scenes where Garfield’s performance, the best in the film, gets especially fascinating. While Kathy and Ruth have grown up to be fairly normal (considering the circumstances), Tommy has remained more or less childlike, and so his efforts to prove he deserves to be granted an extension find him reverting to the ways he learned at Hailsham, as he draws sketch after sketch to show off his creative mind and soul. When he discovers the truth, it devastates him so much that all he can do is break down screaming as he did when he was a child. It’s a heartbreaking moment, as is his final scene, in which he meets his destiny by turning to Kathy and giving her one final sad smile.

One of the marvels of Never Let Me Go is how precisely Romanek captures the very specific tone of the novel. Ishiguro’s book is fairly light on story, so in order for the movie to work at all Romanek needed to find the right feeling, and he never missteps. Every element of the film- the performances, Rachel Portman’s score, the muted cinematography and art direction- is tightly controlled, all in the service of sustaining the mood of resigned fatalism at the heart of Ishiguro’s vision. Romanek doesn’t reach for his effects because to do so would break the movie’s spell. Like its central character, Never Let Me Go refuses to rage against the dying of the light, and while of the movie’s critics might object to that, I for one found it to be incredibly moving. By refusing to pander to the audience’s need to catharsis, Romanek has done justice to a great book.
Rating: 8 out of 10.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Social Network (2010, David Fincher)

Nowadays, we’re told from childhood that we can do damn near anything, provided we’re willing to put forth the effort. And while that’s not entirely wrong, the truth is that some people have a much easier path to worldly success than others. To be born into money is a tremendous leg up for a child, since his family’s social and financial status allows them to use their money and connections to give their child an advantage over those who are less fortunate. And if David Fincher’s spellbinding The Social Network is any indication, the stratification is even more pronounced at the top. In the world envisioned by Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, the Harvard students we see aren’t content to accept that they’re the cream of the crop because they attend America’s most prestigious university- they need to further stratify their society, with the truly elite winning invitation to the school’s prestigious “final clubs” while the others find themselves on the outside, looking in.

Mark Zuckerberg, played by Jesse Eisenberg, is one of those on the outside. Early in the film he despairs, “how do I distinguish myself when I’m surrounded by people who all got 1600 on their SATs?” He sees induction into a final club as being his ticket to greater things in life, and he pictures (fantasizes?) soirees in which Harvard’s best and brightest bus in stunning young women for all sorts of decadent activities. Meanwhile, the best Mark can manage is to get into a Jewish frat that holds kitschy “Caribbean nights.” It doesn’t help that Mark is lacking in social acumen- the movie’s first scene finds him talking circles around his girlfriend, belittling her college (“Why do you need to study? You go to BU”), and insinuating that she slept with the doorman.

Naturally, the girl in question calls Mark an asshole and breaks up with him, which prompts Mark to get drunk, post nasty remarks about her to his blog, and extrapolate his feelings about her into a resentment toward all the women around him by starting a blog called “Facemash”, which asked visitors to compare the relative hotness of Harvard’s coeds. The stunt ended up crashing Harvard’s servers and landing Mark in hot water with the school’s administration, but it also made him a celebrity on campus and attracted the attention of a trio of popular seniors, the Winklevoss twins (Armie Hammer and Josh Pence) and their friend Divya Narendra (Max Minghella). The three of them approach Mark to assist them with an idea of theirs, called The Harvard Connection, which would connect Harvard men to connect with interested women, since “women want to go with guys who go to Harvard.” Mark, of course, accepts.

It’s the so-called “Winklevii” who present the movie’s strongest contrast to Mark. Whereas Mark is average in stature and appearance, the Winklevii are practically Aryan poster boys (“I’m 6’5”, 220 pounds, and there’s two of me”). Likewise, the Winklevii are rich kids, honors students, and star, Olympic-bound rowers on Harvard’s celebrated crew team. Divya appears to be formidable unto himself, but he’s practically the Winklevii’s sidekick. Perhaps most importantly, all three are longstanding members of one of Harvard’s most elite final clubs, and when they propose their idea to Mark they’re only able to take him into the club as far as “the bike room.”

So why does Mark take the Winklevii and Navendra up on their idea only to turn his back on them almost instantaneously to pursue what would eventually become Facebook? According to the Winklevii, Facebook was a ripoff of their Harvard Connection concept, but I don’t see that many similarities to be honest. On the basis of The Social Network, Mark didn’t steal the concept so much as turn it upside down. Whereas the Winklevii were two of Harvard’s golden boys, Mark was an outsider in almost every sense. He saw The Harvard Connection as reinforcing the sense of entitlement that the Winklevii and their peers felt at being rich, smart, and popular. While he and guys like him yearned to be accepted into the Winklevii’s sphere, he also resented their eagerness to trade on the irresistibility of their lifestyle, while employing someone else to do most of the leg work. All this, of course, in the guise of “rehabilitating Mark’s image”, to use the Winklevii’s condescending phrase. What they don’t realize is that Mark won’t be condescended to- not by Harvard’s chief of security, not by the Winklevii’s smug attorney, not even by the golden boys of a final club Mark wishes to join.

The Harvard Connection was basically another way for the Winklevii and those like them to confirm their awesomeness by trumpeting the irresistible allure of the Harvard name to women who were in the market for the most eligible men out there. Like so many aspects of their blessed lives, it was defined by its exclusionary nature. But although Facebook was only available at certain college in its early years, any student who attended those colleges could join. Consequently, Mark’s creation of Facebook feels like a raised middle finger to the Winklevii and their cocoon of privilege. When asked why the Winklevii filed the suit, Mark posits that “for the first time in their lives things didn’t turn out as they’d planned.” In short, they weren’t the golden boys anymore. We see the Winklevii competing in one of the world’s toniest upper-crust sporting events, the Henley Regatta, and their hard-fought loss to the Dutch crew team feels like small potatoes to them after they’re told that video from the race had already been posted on Facebook. In response, the Winklevii (who had previously tried to be honorable about the whole thing because they thought it was the Harvard way to be) show their true colors by saying, “let’s get this frickin’ nerd.”

Of course, it would be much easier to root for Mark Zuckerberg if The Social Network it was just about him beating a matching pair of Teutonic stuffed shirts at their own game. But Mark is too prickly a character for that. Fincher and Sorkin contrast Mark’s difficulties with the Winklevii with a very different lawsuit filed by his Facebook co-founder and former best friend, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield, very good). As Mark worked on the coding and design of Facebook, Eduardo supplied his business savvy, first supplying some of his own money before venturing out to find advertising revenue.

Unfortunately for Eduardo, advertising didn’t mesh well with Mark’s image for Facebook, which was “cool” precisely because it wasn’t plastered with ads. So when Napster founder Sean Parker (played by Justin Timberlake) swooped in to hook Mark up with his venture capitalist friends, Eduardo found himself being forced out of a business he’s helped start and into which he’d poured much of his money and energy. Once again, there are some class dynamics in play- Saverin was a buttoned-down prep school graduate, whereas Parker was a self-made Silicon Valley rock star who lived fast and seemed less interested in making money than staying on the edge. The difference between Eduardo and the Winklevii is that Eduardo honestly cares about Facebook. The business with the Winklevii was just that- business- but Eduardo comes off almost like a jilted lover. In fact, during his final deposition, Eduardo can’t even bear to look Mark in the face, turning his chair around and gazing out the window with tears in his eyes.

The Social Network is the most impressive Hollywood movie I’ve seen this year, with a whip-smart screenplay, stellar filmmaking, and impeccable performances across the board. Eisenberg’s work as Zuckerberg is light years from the affable nebbishes he usually plays, and the supporting cast- yes, even Justin Timberlake- is first-rate across the board. But honestly, I think I’ve said plenty about the movie already. Not only are the film’s other pleasures articulated clearly by some of the other reviews out there, but this is such a deep film that it will take multiple viewings just for me to absorb everything it has to offer. And who knows- maybe after I revisit it, I’ll bump this rating up even higher.

Rating: 9 out of 10.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Life During Wartime (2009, Todd Solondz)

You know, I think I’m pretty much done with Solondz. Happiness has its problems, particularly when Solondz feels the need to provoke, but it also makes some genuinely cogent points about the inability of its characters to relate to each other, or in some cases even try. For the most part, Storytelling and Palindromes kept the provocations while jettisoning the incisiveness, but I had some hope that Solondz might be able to pull it together for this sequel to Happiness. Alas, no such luck. Life During Wartime tones down the audience-baiting (to a point anyway), but doesn’t fill the gaps with anything interesting. It’s that rarest of creatures- a bland Todd Solondz movie.

That’s not to say it doesn’t have a handful of interesting ideas on its plate. Foremost among these is Solondz’s re-casting of the entire ensemble. The most obvious impetus behind this is to suggest the passage of time and the effects the years have had on the characters. Nebbishy pedophile Bill Maplewood, formerly played by Dylan Baker, has emerged from a decade-long prison sentence as hulking, monosyllabic Ciaran Hinds. Sunny bleeding-heart Joy has morphed from Jane Adams into wet blanket Shirley Henderson. Allen, the shut-in prank caller once played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, has turned into The Wire’s Michael Kenneth Williams, picking up additional dangerous hobbies along the way.

And so on. It would be easy to call Solondz’s re-casting a cheap formalist prank. After all, this was the guy who alternated half a dozen different actresses of different ages, body types, and colors (along with one male) in the lead role of Palindromes. But I think that Solondz recognizes that most of his audience will already be familiar with Happiness- enough that our familiarity will inform our pre-conceived notions of the characters and their lives. Consequently, he’s able to use the re-casting of the roles to comment on how greatly they’ve changed in the intervening years. For example, in the first movie Dr. Maplewood’s wife Trish, then played by Cynthia Stevenson, was something of a pushover, but a decade of raising her children alone while moving past her family’s dicey past (with help from prescription medications) has turned her into the quirkier, more imposing Alison Janney. Since we already know where she’s been, it’s interesting to see how much she’s changed.

Alas, if only the rest of the movie was so thought-provoking. Not that it doesn’t try, mind you- Solondz clearly thinks he has plenty to say on the subject of forgiveness. And maybe the film could have been a fascinating treatise on forgiveness if only he didn’t feel the need to make his characters talk about it in every other scene. The most egregious mouthpiece for Solondz’s thesis is little Timmy Maplewood (played by Dylan Riley Snyder), who at one point grills his mother and her new beau (the decidedly non-fruity Michael Lerner) about the concept of forgiveness and how far it should be taken. Timmy’s conflicted feelings about forgiveness make sense for his character- after all, this is a kid who has just discovered that his dad isn’t a dead war hero but rather an imprisoned sex offender. But Solondz just doesn’t know when to stop with Timmy. Scene after scene finds Timmy grappling with his feelings loudly and at length, until all I could do was give up on the character. It doesn’t help matters that Solondz feels the need to spout off profanities at several points, or that Snyder is less effective as a flesh-and-blood performer than an image of boyish innocence.

If Timmy is coming to grips with the past, his elders are haunted by it. In the case of Joy, this haunting is literal- she’s visited at several points by Andy (previously Jon Lovitz, now Paul Reubens), who committed suicide after she snubbed him in the first movie. During his visits, Andy appeals to Joy’s memory of their relationship (such as it was) and remembers the pain she once caused him. He also invites her to join him in death, an invitation that’s extended to her once more by Allen’s spirit after he too kills himself. The scenes with the ghosts show some promise- Solondz means to position them as the counterpoint to Timmy’s notions of forgiveness- but mostly come off as clumsy.

This clumsy execution of potentially effective ideas is a common thread that runs through Life During Wartime. There are a handful of moments that actually work as they should, notably a scene in which Charlotte Rampling plays a self-loathing woman who picks up Bill at a bar. But more scenes are like the film’s climax- in which Timmy mistakes an innocent male bonding gesture for an unwelcome sexual advance- which is so hamfisted in its setup and follow-through that most of its impact gets blunted. In the end, very little Solondz does in Life During Wartime manages to hit home. Storytelling and Palindromes didn’t work for me, but at least they were the work of a filmmaker who was trying. By contrast, Life During Wartime finds Solondz, like his characters, replaying old tapes.

Frankly, I’m getting tired of listening to these old tapes. Once again, Solondz’s worldview can be boiled down to “life sucks, and then you die.” The only thing new he can bring to the table here is that it sucks when you’re dead too. But that’s not enough to make his brand of nihilism any less cheap. I’m not averse to bleakness in my movies- I love No Country for Old Men, after all- but if that’s all you got, you don’t have much of anything. Unless I hear that Solondz suddenly has more to say, I think I’ll forego his movies from now on.

Rating: 4 out of 10.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Town (2010, Ben Affleck)

One of the biggest surprises of 2007 was the discovery of Ben Affleck as a serious filmmaker. Some would argue that much of the success of Affleck’s debut feature Gone Baby Gone was due to some fine acting and strong source material by Dennis Lehane, but Affleck was to be commended for eliciting those performances from his cast and finding the right tone and style for the material. Unfortunately, he can’t replicate this success with his follow-up film The Town. There are points in the film where he seems to be chasing after the same downbeat thriller vibe, but the magic never quite happens.

Part of the problem is that the source material just isn’t as rich as Gone Baby Gone. Whereas the earlier film distinguished itself by the way it dealt with the morality behind its characters’ actions, here he’s working with little more than a boilerplate heist movie, with all the off-the-shelf elements that genre implies. Hero who wants to escape his life? Check. Tenacious cop bearing down on our hero just as he’s trying to go straight? Yup. Loose-cannon best friend who becomes more of a liability as the story progresses? You betcha. Final big job to end all big jobs? Obviously.

That’s not to say that it’s impossible for a formulaic heist movie to be good. Hell, considering all the clichés it embraces, Heat is pretty much the Love, Actually of the genre. But when the story elements are so familiar, the only way a heist movie can distinguish itself is with style and filmmaking brio. And Affleck just isn’t a strong enough filmmaker to sell this material in a way that makes it feel exciting. The characters in the film are either off-the-shelf (Jon Hamm’s all-business FBI agent, Jeremy Renner’s unstable crook, et al), or worse, unbelievable. This is especially true of Affleck’s character, a career criminal who comes off less like a hard-bitten townie than a secular saint, pining for his lost mother and forever looking for a way out of his life.
Personally, I think the romance between Affleck and Hall would have been more compelling had Affleck’s character been a more honest-to-goodness bad boy. Hall plays a bank manager whose life is shaken up when Affleck and his gang briefly take her hostage during a heist, and in the film she seems to respond primarily to Affleck’s goodness. However, I think the dynamic could have been thought-provoking if instead of showing her to be traumatized by the abduction, it could have kick-started a kind of hunger for danger that manifested itself in her going after dangerous men. It certainly would have felt less drippy than it feels in The Town, with the added bonus of not leading to the film’s almost laughable final minute.

I recently told a friend that I’ve gotten to the point in my life as a movie lover that I’d rather see a movie that people seem to either love or hate (but respond to strongly either way) than a movie about which most people seem to be fairly lukewarm. I wasn’t talking about The Town when I made this statement, but I could have been, since it’s a movie that falls resolutely into the latter category. It’s not bad, and certainly not offensive, but it’s so safe and middle-of-the-road that it doesn’t feel particularly necessary- even the climactic “big job” is underwhelming despite an intriguing setup. Most of the pleasures of The Town are borrowed pleasures, attributable more to the genre itself than anything special the film does. I never thought I’d say this a decade ago, but I honestly expected more from Ben Affleck.

Rating: 5 out of 10.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Wild Grass (2009, Alain Resnais)

Well, now that that’s out of the way… After the lovely and relatively straightforward Not on the Lips and Private Fears in Public Places, Resnais is back to the head-scratchers of old with his latest film, Wild Grass. I suppose that what really perplexed me about this is how little I was prepared for it. Perhaps it was the other recent Resnais works, or maybe it’s just my general experience with aged filmmakers, but I was blindsided how strange a moviegoing experience this was. What’s more, the opening minutes of the film do almost nothing to prepare one for the rest of it- the first couple of scenes, in which Resnais’ eternal flibbertigibbet-muse Sabine Azema heads to her favorite shoe boutique to buy new shoes for her oddly-shaped feet only to have her handbag swiped immediately after, could have led off any number of whimsical rom-coms.

From that point, Resnais only gradually reveals how odd things are in the film’s world, beginning with his use of voiceover narration to describe the sinister thoughts (fantasies? Memories?) of male lead Andre Dussolier. Eventually, Wild Grass reveals itself as one of the fou-est tales of l’amour to hit the screen in a long, long time. Most love stories between crazy people de-emphasize how deeply troubled they are in favor of warm-fuzzy sentiments about misunderstood loners finding each other, but Resnais isn’t interested in sentiment. Instead, he lets Dussolier’s actions become increasingly inappropriate (slashing her tires, for example) before he finally gets a tongue-lashing from the local police and goes back on good behavior. Then, all of a sudden, Azema decides she wants him too, and goes off her own deep end.

What to make of it? I’m honestly not sure. What I do know is that I want to re-visit this movie more than damn near any other I’ve seen so far this year (that it’s bloody gorgeous helps too). Maybe what was needed was for me to sit through it that initial time, to wipe away whatever expectations I might have had for the film. And now that I know better what’s coming, up through that final shift in narrative direction, I should be able to better appreciated what Resnais does. Thus, the rating below should be considered even more provisional than usual.

Rating: 7 out of 10.

The American (2010, Anton Corbijn)

Is there any archetypal character with a higher mortality rate than that of the crook doing his last job? Once you know that, The American becomes a slow trudge to an inevitable end, complete with a Rififi-style last drive. Harsh? Perhaps. But though The American aspires to be a high-toned take on a stock genre premise, it feels fairly standard-issue. Oh sure, George Clooney manages to smuggle his trademark cool into the story. However, aside from some pretty but fairly uninspired images, there doesn’t seem to be much on the mind of former music video director Corbijn. Oh sure, there’s plenty of arthouse ponderousness and hearkening back to genre classics (some Melville here, a dash of Leone there), but this is a film with almost nothing to say. And for a while, Corbijn almost manages to make it work largely because he whittles down the story to almost nothing aside from Clooney immersing himself in the job.

The American ultimately loses its way by reverting to conventional plotting, in which the nature of Clooney’s job is revealed, a possibly risky dalliance with a local prostitute turns into the hero’s best hope to escape, and so on. The most glaring example of this comes in the form of Clooney’s handler Pavel, played by Johan Leysen, who exists in the movie solely to voice what little subtext there is (“you’re losing it”) and to set the plot in motion for the dunderheads in the audience. In the end, The American is a textbook 5, meaning it’s largely a near-miss but a diverting enough one, thanks to the expected Clooney coolness and plenty of welcome nudity from the luscious Violante Placido.

Rating: 5 out of 10.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Get Low (2009, Aaron Schneider)

The history of movies is filled with hermits, but few have been as precisely drawn as Felix Bush, the protagonist of Get Low. Played by Robert Duvall, Felix is a cantankerous old coot- the word “old” would seem redundant but for the agreeable rhythm it brings to the phrase- who’s holed up in his cabin for the better part of four decades, with only a mule as company. One thing I appreciated about Get Low is that it doesn’t strive too hard to make Felix seem purer or more genuine than the more sophisticated townsfolk he meets throughout the film, or to turn him into some kind of backwoods philosopher. That’s not to say Felix doesn’t have wisdom of a sort, but it’s the kind of wisdom one gains through fending for oneself for a long period of time. Four decades alone hasn’t brought Felix any closer to figuring out the meaning of life, but they’ve given him plenty of time to perfect his recipe for rabbit stew. I also enjoyed how Felix’s lifestyle has given him a distinctive speaking style that’s simultaneously colorful and no-nonsense, as if he hasn’t missed having to engage in social niceties and wouldn’t mind not having to again. Observe the way he doesn’t linger any longer than he has to in a conversation- once he’s made his point, he simply picks up and leaves.

Get Low is a film of no great ambition but plenty of small pleasures, beginning with the performances, as one would expect from a movie starring Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, and Bill Murray. Duvall has played more than his share of ornery cusses, but he’s never played one quite like Felix, and it’s great to see him finding new wrinkles to a character that in other hands might have seemed like a cliché. Spacek brings an un-showy warmth to the role of a woman who has a somewhat fraught history with Felix, and Murray puts just the right spin on the slick undertaker who has no qualms about playing along with Felix’s idea to stage his own funeral while he’s still around to do it, if it means Murray gets his hands on some of Felix’s “hermit money.” Just as noteworthy, in a quieter way, is Lucas Black as Murray’s less gung-ho associate, who might come off as a textbook audience surrogate but for Black’s gift (in evidence ever since Sling Blade) for performances that are free of affectation and phoniness. And Bill Cobbs gets a nice supporting role as the one man who knows the truth about Felix’s past, the cause of much speculation among the locals.

Get Low isn’t particularly distinguished cinematically- with a cast like this, Schneider seems primarily concerned with not getting in the way. But I think the unassuming direction works in the film’s favor, since instead of ladling on the cutesy touches like so many would-be festival favorites, Get Low lets the charm flow naturally from the story and the performances. I just wish that Schneider and his screenwriters had the confidence to end the movie one scene before they did, on a perfectly lovely bit of homespun poetry involving a final guest arriving at Felix’s living funeral. But no matter- Get Low is a refreshing bit of low-key entertainment, one that’s especially welcome at the end of a summer filled with bloated spectacle. I don’t think I can put it better than my friend Craig Kennedy, who said, “it might not rock your world, but it’ll make it a nicer place to be for a couple of hours.”

Rating: 7 out of 10.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Restrepo (2010, Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger)

It’s a challenge for me to review a movie like Restrepo. It’s not that I think that it’s a bad movie, or even a particularly odd one. But given the film’s nature- Hetherington and Junger are journalists rather than filmmakers, and the film is almost pure reportage- that there’s almost nothing to report, positive or negative, as regards the cinematic merits of Restrepo. In other words, if you’re down with what Hetherington and Junger are doing, you’ll be down with the movie.

For me, it was kind of a wash- an admirable wash to be sure, but a wash all the same. Sure, I can appreciate the difficulty incurred by the directors in making Restrepo, being embedded for the better part of a year with soldiers in Afghanistan’s most dangerous war zone. And Lord knows I have nothing but admiration for the soldiers stationed there, risking their lives against a largely unseen enemy in an area where even the most sympathetic locals aren’t eager to have their home turned into a battleground.

But although the film does provide some vivid illustrations of what’s happening in the war in Afghanistan, I was left fairly cold by Restrepo. Part of the problem is that I’m generally cold on old-fashioned Pennebaker-style “direct cinema”, but when I think of great documentaries, I expect a little more from the filmmakers to be in the right place at the right time, camera in hand. In other words, it’s not enough to show me something. The directors must assemble their footage into something that expresses a film that stirs the mind, instead of simply trying to wow us with the footage itself.

Now, I’m not asking all documentarians to be Michael Moore (heaven forbid). But while in journalism the story itself is of paramount of importance, the most important aspect of making a film is assembling the story in a way that accentuates the themes and ideas contained therein. The biggest flaw of Restrepo is that it’s so short on actual ideas. In other words, Hetherington and Junger just don’t have a whole lot to say. And while some of the footage is indeed impressive, that’s just not enough to turn Restrepo into the great definitive document of Afghanistan that its supports insist it is.

Rating: 6 out of 10.

Dogtooth (2009, Yorgos Lanthimos)

Often, when critics extol a movie for being imaginative and creative, they do so in order to praise flights of fancy that make their hearts leap with joy, such as the works of Hayao Miyazaki or the geniuses at Pixar. So what to make of a film like Dogtooth, a film that’s as imaginative as any film I’ve seen this year, but in a particularly dark vein? True, Dogtooth is set in a recognizable real-world setting- a suburban family home- but for all intensive purposes it might as well be another world.

The unnamed family at the center of Dogtooth is one founded not on love but rather an insidious sort of mindfuckery, in which the parents have barricaded their children in the house from birth and taught them to fear the outside world. The high wall that surrounds the family’s property speaks most plainly to their isolationism, but many of the parents’ manipulations are more subtle, as when the children are taught words describing the outside, only to have them (mis-)defined as objects that remind them of domestic comfort, as when they associate the word “sea” with a wooden armchair. There’s even an unseen brother character, possibly apocryphal, who is said to lurk just outside the walls, until the father deems it necessary to invent a story in which he was murdered by a house cat that infiltrated the property.

What’s going on here? It’s fairly obvious that the parents are psychotic, even before we see their more, shall we say, extreme punishments. Yet Lanthimos clearly has more on his mind than simply showing a pair of nutjobs who Fate had the sordid sense of humor to allow to meet each other and breed. No, Dogtooth is a rather pointed commentary on the destructiveness of over-parenting. Throughout the film, the parents’ methods point to a desire to shelter their children from the harshness of the world while enforcing their authority over their offspring. But by isolating their children (almost) completely from the world’s evils, they have reduced them to little more than animals themselves, prone to violence against themselves and each other.

Moreover, at a certain point it’s clear that the parents are more interested in perpetuating the experiment than they are in turning their children into well-rounded adults, as most parents would desire. The key scene in the film comes after one of the daughters attacks the son in his sleep. When the father rushes into the room, the son accuses his sister, but she turns around and blames it on a much-feared cat, who invaded the room wielding a hammer. Obviously, the father (the only one who is permitted to travel into the outside world) knows this is a lie. But to admit as much would mean puncturing the elaborate lie he and his wife have worked so hard to create, so he lets it slide. Pretty telling, I’d say.

Of course, in a family so cut off from the outside world, any external influence that is introduced would be exaggerated, and this happens when one of the father’s female employees is permitted to visit the home regularly, ostensibly to provide the son an outlet for his sexual longings. The woman also sometimes smuggles in contraband items for the girls- first a headband, then some videotapes- that she trades for sexual favors. Eventually, watching movies like Rocky and Flashdance brings out a sense of rebellion in the eldest daughter, but Lanthimos refuses to make this rebellion cathartic for the audience. Sure, the girl begins to assert her independence, but after two decades of isolation she’s ill-prepared for it, and when she decides to break free, the results are harrowing.

The same could be said for the whole of Dogtooth. With only his second film, Lanthimos has created a film so unique in tone- call it “absurdist tragedy”- that it announces him as a formidably gifted filmmaker. Not only does Lanthimos tap vividly into a deep-seated parental fear- that our efforts to shelter and protect our children may be hurting them rather than helping- but he does it with such skill that Dogtooth is an exciting work of art even when it becomes borderline unbearable to watch. It’s a major achievement, and an early front-runner for my favorite film of the year.

Rating: 10 out of 10.

Monday, August 9, 2010

The Kids Are All Right (2010, Lisa Cholodenko)

I honestly don’t feel like I have a lot to add to Mike D’Angelo’s spot-on assessment of Cholodenko’s latest, which might as well be titled Scenes From a Might-As-Well-Be-Called-Marriage (But For the Jackasses Who Voted For Proposition 8). The primary virtue of the film is the complexity with which its three grown-up characters are seen- Nic (Annette Bening), a serious doctor with a slight issue with alcohol; Jules (Julianne Moore), Nic’s life partner, a wishy-washy fortysomething perpetually between careers; and Paul (Mark Ruffalo), the anything-goes boho restaurant owner who, a few decades ago, donated the sperm that sired Nic and Jules’ children. Cholodenko and co-writer Stuart Blumberg, along with the cast, do a fine job establishing the dynamic of the family, in which the adults grapple with everyday problems- the waxing and waning of sexual passion, the encroachment of Nic’s job into the nighttime hours, and so on. All the while, the two of them work hard to bring up well-adjusted kids, albeit of a particularly tolerant variety, and shielding them from their own issues.

Naturally, Paul’s arrival on the scene is an irritant. The kids, Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and Laser [!] (Josh Hutcherson), have a right to be curious about the man who provided half their DNA, but likewise do Nic and Jules have the right to be uneasy at the presence of a father figure in the children’s lives after they’ve spent years creating a solid family without one. For his part, Paul is genuinely moved by the introduction of his kids into his life, and he does his best to insinuate himself into theirs, even as it’s clear that his presence isn’t exactly required. The Kids Are All Right handles the dynamic between these five characters with such keen observance and subtlety that it’s something of a letdown when Cholodenko and Blumberg have him embark on an affair with Jules.

That’s not to say that I’m with Jeffrey Wells in his vocal objection to the film’s final marginalization of Ruffalo, since in the end, the family situation must resolve itself, and all else is secondary. Nor was I taken aback by the turn of events that leads the ostensibly girl-loving Jules into Paul’s bed- after all, all three of Cholodenko’s films to date have featured characters whose sexual leanings are rather more fluid than they’d originally thought. It’s just that an affair between Jules and Paul feels too dramatically convenient- too easy an “out”- for this story. Maybe it’s just that I’ve never been a big “plot” guy (which might explain why I never sold a screenplay back when I was trying), but I found the relationship between Nic and Jules’ family and Paul to be interesting enough that the film’s need to turn him into a force working against the family’s happiness felt like a cop out to me. When a movie creates characters as rich as The Kids Are All Right does, I’d rather just see them bounce off each other than be hemmed in by a plot.

Rating: 6 out of 10.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Everyone Else (2009, Maren Ade)

A subtler take on a prickly, Cassavetes-style relationship drama, Everyone Else examines the friction-filled love affair between Gitti (Birgit Minichmayr) and Chris (Lars Eidinger). As the film begins, the two are left on their own in sun-drenched Sardinia, where Chris, an architect, has been hired to do some improvements on a rich man’s vacation home. But while Chris makes a few stabs at work, most of his time is spent with Gitti as they try to enjoy some time on their own.

Soon, however, their personalities get in the way of their enjoyment. To begin with, Chris discovers via phone that he’s lost a prestigious competition, then hides the bad news from Gitti for several days, allowing his unexplained disappointment to cast a pall over their holiday. Then an encounter with one of Chris’ colleagues and his wife leads to a pair of awkward dinner parties in which Chris and Gitti’s issues come to the fore.

Ade, to her credit, never puts too fine a point on the frictions that exist within the relationship. Based on their actions in Everyone Else, it’s clear that Chris takes his artistic principles very seriously, but is somewhat spineless and eternally conscious of his self-image. On the other hand, Gitti is more impulse-driven, which gives her a kind of honesty that’s bracing in some circumstances but a hindrance in social situations, in which her inability to shrug off something she finds disagreeable leads to difficulties that might otherwise have been averted.

I won’t delve too deeply into the plot of Everyone Else, which is best experienced with as little advance knowledge as possible. However, it’s fascinating to see how Ade, ably assisted by Eidinger and Minichmayr, portray in detail the relationship between Chris and Gitti. We’ve all known couples like Chris and Gitti, in which their outward affections barely mask the hostility they feel deep down. There’s some truth to the old saying that opposites attract, but at the end of the day those opposites need to be compatible, personality-wise.

In most movies about relationships, love is depicted as the end result, and they all live happily every after. But even the happiest of couples- hi, honey!- knows that it’s nowhere near that simple, and for all couples who think in the long term, the make-or-break issue becomes not whether love is shared but rather whether the partners can make the relationship work. Everyone Else is about a borderline case- two people who may like (or even love) each other, but aren’t sure whether that’s enough, or should be. On that basis alone, it’s more realistic than most movies of its kind, and better to boot.

Rating: 8 out of 10.

Inception (2010, Christopher Nolan)

There’s a certain paradox to the notion of Christopher Nolan making a “dream-film.” Nolan’s work has always been distinguished by a Swiss-watch precision and intricacy, and this springs from his writer’s need to focus on those aspects of the film that are relevant to the story. But dreams, as most anyone can tell you, aren’t so coherent. Often, the content of dreams is born less out of specific situations in one’s life than from deep-seated desires and anxieties which manifest themselves in strange ways. As a result, Nolan’s multi-level dream narrative doesn’t come off as a dive into the unconscious so much as a complex multi-player video game, in which the participants join in with an ostensibly unified purpose but are at the mercy of their own skill sets, personalities, and limitations.

But if Inception isn’t really convincing as an according-to-Hoyle dream film, it thrills on just about every other front. To begin with, Inception is a marvel of screenwriting structure, as Nolan uses the device of dreams-within-dreams-within-dreams to craft the cinematic equivalent of Russian nesting dolls. Even if the concrete goals of the story are fairly clear- the cranial crooks need to implant an idea, while team leader Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) has to come to grips with his wife’s death and find a way home to his kids- Nolan’s story is complex, as Cobb’s team must burrow deeper in their mark’s mind while fending off his built-in defenses.

That the film is never confusing is fairly amazing, and a testament to Nolan’s skill as a filmmaker. Rather than rushing through to the job itself, Nolan takes plenty of time to explain the rules of the game and to establish the different dream-worlds they will inhabit. So once he has to cross-cut between the different dream levels, we’re always sure where everyone is- no mean feat when you’ve got four or more levels to deal with at once. Additionally, Nolan’s screenplay employs a device in which time expands with every further level the characters visit- ten seconds of “real world” time equating to three minutes in the first level of dreaming, an hour in the second level, and so on. This leads to a riveting use of cross-cutting in which the team must wrap up its mission while, in the highest dream level, the team’s van ever-so-slowly plunges off a bridge into a river. If they don’t finish up before they hit the water, the mission will fail.

Inception is most successful as pure spectacle. Even if they don’t feel like dreams, there are images in the film that are astonishing, some of which appear in the trailers, others of which I won’t spoil here. Inception’s effects are always convincing and often transcendent, all the more so because they’re so perfectly integrated into the worlds of the characters. And if the so-called “human interest” comes up short here- wait, Nolan’s using the dead-wife plot again?- perhaps that’s because Nolan intends them not as fully functioning characters but as someone’s “projections.” Ah, yes- but whose? (That said, Tom Hardy rules, which is something I never imagined myself saying after his performance in Star Trek: Nemesis.)

One thing is clear, Inception is a movie that I’ll need to see more than once so I can watch it freed from my initial expectations. Now that I have a better idea of what Inception is and what it isn’t, I should be able to judge it more on its considerable merits. And now that I know what to expect, perhaps now I’ll be able to better determine what exactly Nolan’s game is. Because if my experiences with his work have taught me anything, it’s that there’s always more going on than Nolan lets on the first time around. Even if there’s not- well, it’s still pretty doggone awesome. And isn’t that enough?

Rating: 8 out of 10.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Winter's Bone (2010, Debra Granik)

In many ways, the Ozarks world of Winter’s Bone harbors a way of life that seems to have changed little since the Great Depression. Oh sure, the cars and clothes are newer, and the local underground industry has switched from moonshine to crystal meth. But the mentality feels mostly the same- fierce territoriality, a strained-at-best relationship to the Law, and tenuous blood ties that only hold up to the point where they stop being useful. It’s a pocket of America that feels like a distant planet compared to the contemporary suburban sprawl, to say nothing of the big city, and it’s the kind of place where those who hail from elsewhere thank the heavens that they weren’t born, and where those who were born there rarely manage to escape.

Under the circumstances, it’s sort of amazing that Ree Dolly (played by Jennifer Lawrence) turned out so well. The offspring of a largely absent, ne’er-do-well father and a mostly catatonic mother, 17-year-old Ree is shouldering the responsibility for keeping her family going. She has dropped out of school to raise her younger brother and sister, but she motivates them to do their homework and quizzes them on their math and spelling. She assembles the meals primarily from what’s on hand and what can be hunted in the nearby forest. Money being tight, she could go around asking for charity, but she lives by the wisdom, “never ask for what ought to be offered.” It would be easy for her to fall in with the meth cookers in order to earn a living, but like the Dardenne brothers’ Rosetta before her, she won’t fall into the rut. And when she discovers that her family could get kicked out of their house after her dad has skipped bail, she’s not about to sit around and wait for the inevitable.

One of the wonders of Winter’s Bone, based on a novel by Daniel Woodrell, is how much it reveals about both its heroine and its setting not through tiresome exposition but through action. Granik and co-screenwriter Anne Rossellini don’t toss in so much as a throwaway line about Ree’s upbringing, but judging by her resourcefulness it’s clear that she had to figure most of life out for herself. In her hardscrabble way, Ree is the most heroic character I’ve seen at the movies all year, and Lawrence is a dynamo, less an up-and-comer angling for a career boost than a young performer with serious chops that were just waiting for be revealed. Lawrence isn’t playing a Hollywood hillbilly- Ree is a clever young woman whose circumstances have made her wise beyond her years, and she knows how to navigate a world that spits out weaker souls.

It’s a world that Granik portrays in such depth that Winter’s Bone never simply feels like a vehicle for its young star. The visual style of the film never falls into Southern Gothic clichés, but finely straddles the line between naturalism and noir. She then fills this world with a vivid gallery of supporting players, from the great John Hawkes as Ree’s uncle Teardrop, who reluctantly aids her on her quest, to Dale Dickey as Ree’s most intimidating obstacle, a local crime queen who has her fingers in lots of pies, all of them rotten. And throughout the film, Granik fills the frame with detail after vivid detail, from the crowds at the local cattle auction to the way a birthday party turns into a sing-along. It rang particularly true that the only option for young adults aside from crime is the military, which reels in many of its enlistees with the promise of money, travel, and the allure of potential heroism.

Winter’s Bone won the Dramatic Grand Jury Prize at Sundance this past year. But while this award’s pedigree often suggests bland off-Hollywood fare that’s low on legitimate entertainment value (i.e. Quinceañera and Personal Velocity), Winter’s Bone is never less than riveting. A tense thriller, a study of an unforgettable character, and as lived-in a portrait of the South than any film I’ve seen since The Apostle, Granik’s film is a major achievement, and one that will, I hope, kick off long and fruitful careers for both its director and leading lady.

Rating: 9 out of 10.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010, Banksy)

At a time when some documentaries can’t even manage one compelling through-line, Exit Through the Gift Shop has three. The first and most obvious is its documenting of the vital but necessarily secretive world of street artists. For that, we mostly have Thierry Guetta to thank. Guetta, a Frenchman by birth and compulsive videographer by nature, fell into the orbit of the Los Angeles street art scene through a relative and proceeded to film many of the movement’s most prominent figures at work, including Shepard Fairey, creator of the iconic “Obama/Hope” graphic, and eventually Banksy, generally thought to be the world’s foremost street artist. If Exit Through the Gift Shop had no other redeeming qualities, it would be invaluable for the footage of these artists at work and as a demonstration of the surprising amount of effort, artistry, and risk they face to bring their work to the world, even if it will inevitably disappear within a day or so.

It’s Guetta’s efforts to film street art in action that led to his relationship with Banksy, which form’s the film’s second fascinating thread. Guetta, a genuine eccentric whose most obvious characteristic is his undying enthusiasm, fell in with Banksy and his crew and filmed a number of their works, from the “murder” of a London phone box to an anti-Guantanamo Bay piece he hung at Disneyland. But while Guetta won Banksy’s respect for failing to rat out his friend to Disneyland security, Guetta’s attempt to assemble his footage into a documentary was a disaster, and Banksy more or less hijacked the project by encouraging Guetta to go out and make art on his own.

It was this turn of events that finally led to the film’s third and perhaps most thought-provoking thread, in which Banksy uses both Guetta’s previously existing footage and footage taken of Guetta readying his art-world debut to ponder the nature of street art itself. Throughout Exit Through the Gift Shop, we are shown examples of how “street art” can contain artistry and ideas (as compared to old-school graffiti artists with their hasty aerosol scribblings). However, when Guetta is given a chance to make art of his own, he mostly just steals ideas from the artists he once followed. A kind of street-art Eve to Banksy’s Margo, Guetta fobs off his works on art fans primed for something new and edgy (but not informed enough to recognize that his art is derivative and uninspired), selling works for a total of more than a million dollars at his first public exhibition. Given the secondhand way Guetta achieved success by riding the coattails of his more established betters, it somehow seems fitting that he ended up getting commissioned by Madonna to design the cover of her latest greatest-hits album.

By the end of the film, Exit Through the Gift Shop has metamorphosed almost imperceptibly from a street-art primer to an often hilarious poisoned-pen letter to the man who gave this project its start. Some might argue that, by re-appropriating Guetta’s footage to his own ends, Banksy is no better than Guetta, but I’d say that the difference is that while Guetta is selling his secondhand goods to the world as his own vision, Banksy has basically given Guetta the latitude to hang himself by his own rope. Furthermore, Banksy’s efforts have turned Guetta’s formless video into something akin to a street art manifesto, reclaiming it from those pretenders who buy expensive photocopying equipment and employ dozens in their efforts to sell millions of dollars of “edgy” works in galleries, and returning it to the artists in the streets, who haunt Kinko’s by day and climb out on roofs and evade police by night for almost no monetary gain. True “street art” may not technically be legal, but thanks to Banksy- and to some extent, Guetta- it’s never looked nobler. And even if, as some have claimed, Exit Through the Gift Shop is a hoax, I’d say the points it makes stand either way.

Rating: 9 out of 10.

Father of My Children (2009, Mia Hansen-Løve)

When we first meet Grégoire Canvel, the protagonist of Father of My Children, he’s juggling two cell phones in an attempt to resolve the problems of the day. Grégoire (played by Louis-Do de Lencquesaing) is a film producer who specializes in backing brilliant but prickly filmmakers most producers wouldn’t touch- a figure inspired by the late Humbert Balsan, who backed difficult projects by Lars Von Trier, Bela Tarr, Clare Denis, and others. Why does Grégoire do this? It’s partly because he cares more deeply about cinema than his colleagues, and partly because he sees himself as an underdog, fighting the good fight for art over the bottom line. But because of the nature of the job, virtually every day brings a new crisis, and when this is the case the only reasonable response is to deal with the immediate crisis, lest one go nuts from fear of what’s going to appear on the horizon.

Trouble is, Grégoire’s in-the-moment fixes are beginning to catch up with him. He’s running out of money, favors, and goodwill. Filmmakers still seek him out because they don’t know where else to turn, but how will he fund their work with no money? His dream is die, a massive crisis for with no available solution that doesn’t leave him hanging out to dry. A man whose livelihood has depended on his ability to find quick resolutions, Grégoire can only contemplate one possible way out. It’s often said that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem, but in light of the decisions Grégoire has made throughout the film, it’s more or less inevitable that he’d end up that way.

Father of My Children would be pretty grim indeed if all it was was the story of one man’s downward spiral. However, Hansen-Løve has more on her mind than Grégoire Canvel’s demise. Instead, Canvel dies roughly halfway through the story, with the remaining duration devoted to his family’s behavior in the way of tragedy. Suicide may remove Grégoire’s need to deal with his problems, but the problems themselves remain, and his widow Sylvia (Chiara Caselli) does her best to manage the crises he left behind and resolve them in a way that honors his memory. Meanwhile, daughter Clemence (played by de Lencquesaing’s own daughter Alice) finds herself making discoveries both about her father and herself. Tragedy places both Sylvia and Clemence in a position where they must reveal parts of themselves they wouldn’t have needed to otherwise, and while they don’t always succeed in their new goals, they forge on in a way that Grégoire could not, and Hansen-Løve clearly admires their efforts. Father of My Children doesn’t exactly tell a new story, but it tells its story gracefully and great subtlety, which is just as rare a commodity as originality.

Rating: 8 out of 10.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Despicable Me (2010, Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud)

One of the most enduring moviegoing grips is the old saw that Hollywood is running out of fresh ideas. And considering the lucrative kids’ market, it’s little wonder that most studios play it safe by rehashing hit properties for family audiences. So it’s admirable to see Universal, not usually known for animated fare, releasing a more or less original property like Despicable Me, especially at the height of the summer season. However, one of the disadvantages to starting up a potential franchise is that it requires a kind of media carpet-bombing to build awareness that isn’t necessary for stuff that has been around for years. Thus, while Disney and Pixar can get away with a few Toy Story 3 trailers that show everyone that, hey, Buzz and Woody are back in a new adventure, the folks behind Despicable Me have to work harder to get the word out. Anticipating this need, Universal released their first teaser last summer, and since then they’ve rolled out several other spots to play in theatres and on television. Consequently, much of the movie’s highlights have been spoiled by the advertising campaign. Sure, the studio has successfully marketed their movie into a family blockbuster, but it already feels like I’ve seen most of the good stuff after a single viewing.

Is this unfair? I suppose, especially since I usually try to confine my thoughts on a movie to what happens between the studio logo and the final MPAA rating card. But it’s also sort of inevitable, seeing as how I can’t exactly hook myself up to Dr. Mierzwiak’s memory-expunging machine before watching a movie (if I could, I’d use it to experience some of my favorites again for the first time). And strangely enough, going into the movie with most of the money moments pre-spoiled for me had a side effect of allowing me to better-appreciate the smaller sight gags, especially the background architectural stuff that otherwise might be lost. Additionally, the story’s inevitable turn toward the maudlin was far less grating to me here than in many other cases where it spoils the fresh hilarity. Nonetheless, Despicable Me isn’t good enough to overcome that feeling of déjà vu that was caused by its advertising campaign. Perhaps now that everyone is familiar with this movie, its large grosses will allow Universal to be more confident in what it has that they’ll be able to surprise us a little with the inevitable sequel.

Rating: 5 out of 10.

Cyrus (2010, Jay and Mark Duplass)

Watching Cyrus, the latest from indie-world favorites the Duplass brothers, I was reminded of George Ratliff’s awesome Joshua, one of my favorite films of 2007. Not that the two movies were similar in look or feel, mind you, but both movies use popular genres to address anxieties that are fairly common. In Joshua, Ratliff tackled the worry faced by many fathers that the apple may fall disconcertingly far from the tree, while here the Duplasses take as their premise the anxiety faced by would-be stepfathers that they might not blend into their future families quite so smoothly as they had hoped. But the differences stop there, since Joshua is a sure-footed work from a filmmaker in full control, while Cyrus has been made by a pair of directing brothers who don’t seem to know where to progress from their promising idea.

The most obvious manifestation of the Duplasses’ tentativeness is their complete lack of facility with the camera. In their three films to date, the Duplass brothers have employed a handheld camera to underline their films’ ramshackle, lo-fi nature, but particularly in Cyrus, it seems they’ve confused this scruffiness with an honest-to-goodness aesthetic. Unfortunately, waving a digital camcorder around like a semi-distracted dad at his kids’ soccer game does not a style make. The Duplass brothers are convinced that nearly every moment that’s even remotely significant (and many that aren’t) needs to be punctuated by a quick zoom, but after one or two instances in the first couple of minutes this is merely annoying. There’s just no evidence that there’s an assured hand on the camera at any point during Cyrus, and the Duplasses would do well to consult the films of the Dardenne brothers or, more appropriately, Lukas Moodysson’s Together for tips on how to do it right.

This unease behind the camera wouldn’t be such an issue if the script was better- after all, last year’s Humpday, which starred one of the Duplass brothers, was no great shakes cinematically but was distinguished by its sharp screenplay. Unfortunately, once it lays down its premise, Cyrus isn’t thought through very well. Once the film has established the relationship between John (John C. Reilly) and Molly (Marisa Tomei) and introduced Cyrus (Jonah Hill), Molly son and semi-covert disrupter of their relationship, the Duplasses seem content to hit the obvious beats. There are many directions the Duplasses could have taken this premise, such as by steering it somewhere truly dark, or by making the rivalry between John and Cyrus subtle so that Molly couldn’t even detect it. Instead, the movie’s trajectory feels pretty formulaic, with the conflict coming to a boil, followed by a misunderstanding that briefly tears apart the couple, then some final-act redemption for Cyrus. It all feels too easy, as if in spite of the Duplasses’ ongoing commitment to grungy moviemaking is a mask for their desire to be comfortably Hollywood in their storytelling.

Trouble is, by aiming to bridge the gap between a no-budget Sundance favorite and a big-budget crowd-pleaser, Cyrus ends up scratching neither itch. It’s a shame, really, since the movie begins with a great deal of promise. The Duplasses wisely realized when making Cyrus that the movie wouldn’t have a prayer unless we were rooting for John and Molly’s relationship, and the movie’s opening does a fine job of making their courtship not only believable but highly sympathetic. Reilly has made a cottage industry of playing endearing schlubs, and just because he’s the obvious choice for this part doesn’t mean he’s not awesome at playing it. And Tomei is just as good in the role of a woman who’s finally dipping her toe back into the dating pool after spending most of her adult life raising her son (also, is it just me or is she getting hotter as she ages?). Even Hill is fine as Cyrus- the role is written more as a plot device than an actual character, but Hill’s performance goes beyond placid stillness and a thousand-yard stare to suggest some tumultuous goings-on below the surface. There’s so much that’s good in Cyrus that it’s a shame that the Duplass brothers don’t know what to do with it. Shame, really.

Rating: 5 out of 10.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Twilight Saga: Eclipse (2010, David Slade)

Who is Bella Swan, really? I’m not talking about the role she plays in the Twilight saga. What I’m asking is who she is when she’s alone. Does she have any hobbies? Does she keep a journal, or doodle in a sketch pad, or enjoy going to hear live music? I only ask because there doesn’t seem to be much to her, at least not in the movies (I haven’t read the books, so I couldn’t make a judgment on that front). Hell, even the memorably antisocial Travis Bickle watched TV and went to porn theatres. To these eyes, Twilight heroine and lip-biting enthusiast Bella is perhaps the least compelling protagonist in a Hollywood blockbuster in many a moon.

This isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker, of course- I mean, Keanu Reeves’ Neo didn’t have a whole lot going on in his life either. But despite being boring as ass, it seems like nearly everyone Bella meets in the Twilight series thinks that she’s totally awesome. Her gaggle of human friends seem to be constantly seeking approval from her even though she doesn’t really hang out with them outside of school, and not one but two supernatural hotties are practically at each others’ throats (literally) to win her heart. Almost the entire Cullen family falls for her instantly, and the one who doesn’t (Nikki Reed’s Rosalie) resents her because of her own personal issues. Similarly, the Quileute tribe practically takes her as one of their own, even making her the first outsider to attend a tribal council meeting. Hell, she’s the reason for the climactic battle in Eclipse. Yet Bella herself hardly seems worth the trouble, and this makes much of Eclipse, and the franchise as a whole, pretty hard for me to swallow.

Of course, this wouldn’t bother me so much if Eclipse gave me a little more to think about. Has anyone else noticed that this movie just kind of sits there, story-wise? I’m not talking about incident, since I suppose plenty of stuff happens in Eclipse. I’m talking about plot. As any decent writing teacher will tell you, plot doesn’t simply mean incident, but rather a series of incidents leading to change. At the end of the day, what changes occur in Eclipse? Not many. Sure, Bella finally says yes to Edward’s proposals of marriage, and Victoria gets killed in the final battle, but for the most part Eclipse is prolonged buildup to Breaking Dawn. It’s pretty much all setup, with almost no surprises. And did this really need to be two-plus hours long? Not remotely.

It doesn’t help that it’s not especially well-made. Say what you will about New Moon, but at least it’s a good-looking movie, with interesting camera angles (I dig the overhead shots in the forest chase scene) and some well-deployed uses of color, particularly once the gang heads to Italy. By contrast, Eclipse is cinematic cold oatmeal- not offensive by any means, but just kind of blah. I’m not even talking about making things pretty, but director David Slade can’t even manage a single shot that intrigued me enough to want to know more. He’s so eager to shoot the onscreen action in closeup that it’s difficult to tell where the characters are in relation to each other, especially during the action scenes. He even botches the scene in which the army of “newborns” emerges from the water by not being patient enough to keep his camera on the surface of the water for a few seconds before the first head pops out.

Listen, I don’t want it to seem like I’m piling on a movie that’s not my cup of tea. There’s nothing in Eclipse that angered me or made me want to hurt myself like I did during Beverly Hills Chihuahua. Heck, there are even a few things I like, such as Billy Burke’s performance as Bella’s bachelor dad, who reacts to the endless drama in his daughter’s life with a sort of irritated resignation that’s always good for a chuckle. All in all, it’s a fairly inoffensive time-waster of a movie, one that’s of interest primarily to the legions of fans who clamor to see their favorite characters and scenes play out on the big screen. I certainly don’t begrudge them their love for Twilight- I have my soft spots too, and hey, at least they’re reading something. I might not be that keen on Eclipse, but then, I don’t really matter compared to all the people who are already counting down to Breaking Dawn next year, which will bring the hotly anticipated wedding of Bella and Edward. And I suppose I’ll watch that one too, not least because I’m genuinely curious what Edward will have to say to Bella now that he no longer has the option of proposing marriage ten times per day.

Rating: 4 out of 10.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Ratings for 2010 releases

Here is my list of ratings for 2010 Muriel-eligible films I’ve seen thusfar. Click on the underlined titles for more detailed thoughts on them. The ratings scale is explained at right.

10 ratings
Dogtooth (Giorgos Lanthimos)

9 ratings
Exit Through the Gift Shop (Banksy)
The Social Network (David Fincher)
Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik)

8 ratings
Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky)
Carlos (Olivier Assayas)
Everyone Else (Maren Ade)
Father of My Children (Mia Hansen-Løve)
The Ghost Writer (Roman Polanski)
How Do You Know (James L. Brooks)
Inception (Christopher Nolan)
Never Let Me Go (Mark Romanek)
October Country (Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher)
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (Edgar Wright)
Somewhere (Sofia Coppola)
Toy Story 3 (Lee Unkrich)
True Grit (Joel and Ethan Coen)

7 ratings
Around a Small Mountain (Jacques Rivette)
The Fighter (David O. Russell)
Get Low (Aaron Schneider)
Hadewjich (Bruno Dumont)
Jackass 3D (Jeff Tremaine)
Let Me In (Matt Reeves)
Lourdes (Jessica Hausner)
Mother (Bong Joon-ho)
The Oath (Laura Poitras)
A Prophet (Jacques Audiard)
The Secret of Kells (Tomm Moore)
Shutter Island (Martin Scorsese)
Sweetgrass (Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor)
The Strange Case of Angelica (Manoel De Oliveira)
The Tillman Story (Amir Bar-Lev)
Valhalla Rising (Nicolas Winding Refn)
Vincere (Marco Bellocchio)
White Material (Claire Denis)
Wild Grass (Alain Resnais)

6 ratings
127 Hours (Danny Boyle)
And Everything Is Going Fine (Steven Soderbergh)
Animal Kingdom (David Michod)
Bluebeard (Catherine Breillat)
Blue Valentine (Derek Cianfrance)
Buried (Rodrigo Cortes)
Catfish (Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost)
Eccentricities of a Blond-Haired Girl (Manoel De Oliveira)
Enter the Void (Gaspar Noé)
Get Him to the Greek (Nicholas Stoller)
Greenberg (Noah Baumbach)
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (David Yates)
How to Train Your Dragon (Dean DeBlois & Chris Sanders)
I Love You Phillip Morris (Glenn Ficarra and John Requa) {3}
Inside Job (Charles Ferguson)
Inspector Bellamy (Claude Chabrol)
The Karate Kid (Harald Zwart)
The Kids Are All Right (Lisa Cholodenko)
The King’s Speech (Tom Hooper)
Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’hoole (Zack Snyder)
Ondine (Neil Jordan)
Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1980 (James Marsh)
Restrepo (Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger)
Smash His Camera (Leon Gast)
Soul Kitchen (Fatih Akin)
The Square (Nash Edgerton)
Tron: Legacy (Joseph Kosinski)
Vengeance (Johnnie To)

5 ratings
Alice in Wonderland (Tim Burton)
Amer (Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani) {2}
The American (Anton Corbijn)
Cyrus (Jay and Mark Duplass)
Despicable Me (Pierre Coffin & Chris Renaud)
I Am Love (Luca Guadagnino)
I’m Still Here (Casey Affleck)
Iron Man 2 (Jon Favreau)
Marwencol (Jeff Malmberg)
Micmacs (Jean-Pierre Jeunet)
Please Give (Nicole Holofcener)
The Secret in Their Eyes (Juan Jose Campanella)
Splice (Vincenzo Natali)
Stone (John Curran) {3}
The Town (Ben Affleck)

4 ratings
Chloe (Atom Egoyan)
The Killer Inside Me (Michael Winterbottom) {3}
Life During Wartime (Todd Solondz)
RED (Robert Schwentke)
Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1974 (James Marsh)
Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1983 (Anand Tucker)
Tiny Furniture (Lena Dunham)
The Twilight Saga: Eclipse (David Slade)

3 ratings

2 ratings
The Spy Next Door (Brian Levant)

1 ratings

0 ratings

Additionally, here’s a list of movies I’d like to see before filling out my Muriels ballot this year. Naturally, some are more urgent than others, though ideally I want to see them all if I have time (ha ha). So if anyone should happen to have a copy of one or more of these on DVD that he or she would be willing to let me borrow, I would be most appreciative.

Also, the number in braces {like so} represents my level of anticipation for this particular film. The number corresponds to my post about the movies I still “need to see” before I feel confident filling out this year’s Muriels ballot. Basically, {1} is for my most highly anticipated movies, and so on.

(30 Nov: In the interest of making this list rather less intimidating for me, I’ve pared it down somewhat. As always, if there’s anything you think I should add, let me know.)

Scheduled to come to Columbus:
Ne change rien (Pedro Costa) [Feb 11 @ Wex] {2}
The Illusionist (Sylvain Chomet) [Feb 11 @ Gateway] {2}

In town this week:
Another Year (Mike Leigh) [Feb 4 @ Drexel] {1}
Rabbit Hole (John Cameron Mitchell) [TBA @ Gateway] {3}

DVD release TBA:
Boxing Gym (Frederick Wiseman) {2}
The Concert (Radu Mihaileanu) {3}
Four Lions (Chris Morris) {3}
Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno (Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea) {3}
Hideaway (Francois Ozon) {3}
Monsters (Gareth Edwards) {3}
My Dog Tulip (Paul and Sandra Forefinger) {3}
Neil Young Trunk Show (Jonathan Demme) {3}
Tamara Drewe (Stephen Frears) {3}
Unstoppable (Tony Scott) {3}

Friday, June 25, 2010

Vincere (2009, Marco Bellocchio)

It’s rare to see a movie with an emotional pitch as high as Marco Bellocchio finds in Vincere. The later scenes in There Will Be Blood were awfully fevered, but even the preternaturally confident PTA didn’t attempt to sustain it throughout an entire film, although Magnolia came awfully close. So it’s sort of awe-inspiring to witness Bellocchio maintain such this tone throughout Vincere. From the central performances of Filippo Timi as the young Mussolini and the blistering Giovanna Mezzogiorno as his obsessed first mistress on down, there’s almost nothing subtle about this movie. But then, why should there be? Vincere story is a sad saga of real-life injustice, an impassioned woman who was steamrolled by a man’s ambition and buried by a system that would do anything to reward his success. Sure, she clearly had a few issues, but it doesn’t make it right that Il Duce would lock her up and take away their son simply to protect his image in ultra-Catholic Italy.

Compared to most biopics, Vincere’s script is extremely elliptical, hitting nothing but the key points of the Ida Dasler story to the extent that non-Italians might get lost at some point. Bellocchio careens from one big scene to the next with no down time (as Krusty the Klown might say, it’s the tightest 122 minutes in showbiz), resulting in a lack of depth to the story. Similarly, even if Bellocchio’s brio doesn’t flag, the story itself does, growing repetitive in the final hour. Really, there are only so many ways to liven up Ida screaming out the truth only to be slapped down by the authorities. But while I wasn’t particularly moved or fulfilled by Vincere, I found it fascinating all the same. Asked to choose a word to describe it, I’d have to pick “operatic”- indeed, a handful of the characters break out in song during the film- and I for one would be excited to see Bellocchio (or someone just as capable) tackle this story in opera form. As is, it’s not great, but it’s pretty awesome all the same.

Rating: 7 out of 10.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Toy Story 3 (2010, Lee Unkrich)

In the interest of avoiding any long dry spells like I had between the Muriels and the White Elephant this year, I recently decided to post a few thoughts on every movie I see. Which is a great idea in theory, but sometimes it’s hard to think of anything insightful to add to the conversation. I’ve found myself in this situation with two new releases, Toy Story 3 and Please Give (or as I like to call it, Please Give the Vultures What They Want So They’ll Stop Hovering Already). In the case of Please Give, etc., I think that Craig Kennedy over at Living in Cinema has said it pretty well, and all that’s left for me to add is that despite my misgivings about the movie, it did satisfy my Rebecca Hall thing, so it was worth it for that anyway. Rating: 5 out of 10.

With Toy Story 3, it’s a little trickier, since my inability to think of something insightful to write has less to do with my thoughts neatly dovetailing with those of other (better-known) critics than the fact that it more or less scratches the itches the other two Toy Story movies scratch. Even more than most successful third installments, Toy Story 3 traffics in the viewers’ nostalgia for- and familiarity with- the previous films, to the point where in the opening scene I got a smile on my face when I heard the line, “I’ve got my dog, with a built-in force field!”, knowing exactly what would happen next. Like everything Pixar does, this reaction is completely intentional, since Toy Story 3 is about re-familiarizing us with the world of Andy and his beloved toys, all the better to ponder what’s going to happen when this world falls apart. Yes folks, Toy Story 3 is about moving on- saying goodbye, accepting one’s fate, and finally starting anew.

One of the most notable elements of the third (and, it would seem, final) Toy Story adventure is how much more Andy there is in the story. In the first two films, we caught glimpses of Andy and his relationship with the toys, but for the most part the toys were defined by their actions when he was absent- they established their own personalities and had their own adventures, but aside from Woody’s brief flirtation with museum-based immortality, they never acted in a way that ran contrary to their loyalty to their owner. So it’s a little startling to discover in Toy Story 3 that Andy becomes an active character in the story. Oh sure, most of the film is about Buzz and Woody and the gang and their trials and tribulations, but it’s also about Andy and how he has to come to terms with his feelings about the toys as he stands on the cusp of adulthood. As Andy grows up, is there still room for his old best pals?

What makes Toy Story 3 so effective from an emotional standpoint is that way it contrasts the trajectory of a human life (Andy’s, to be specific) with that of the toys. Whereas Andy grows up over the course of eighteen years and must then find his way in the world, a toy is more or less born to its appointed purpose. But once it’s fulfilled this purpose, what then? Toy Story 3 presents four options- going into storage until Andy “needs them again,” being donated to a day care where they’ll be played with but never belong to anyone, getting thrown away and eventually incinerated, and finally being given to another young child to be loved similarly to the way they were before. It’s a credit to the movie that it presents all four options with a surprising amount of emotional complexity, without ever feeling like Pixar is sacrificing entertainment value.

Considering how well thought out all four of these options happen to be, it’s almost disappointing that Unkrich and his team feel the need to introduce a villain into the story in the form of Lots ‘o’ Huggin’ Bear (voiced by Ned Beatty). Part of me wondered whether it might have been possible to follow the characters through these different potential fates without throwing a bad guy into the mix. However, these thoughts didn’t occur until well after the film was over. As I sat in that darkened theatre, all I could think of was how well I’d gotten to know- and like- these characters over the years. Most of all, I was grateful at getting the chance to spend a little more time with them. And in the end, it seems that Andy himself was grateful too.

Rating: 8 out of 10.

Final thought: What’s the deal with Ken? Unless the story requires it, the Toy Story movies have generally kept mum on the origins of the toys. But I can’t help but wonder how Ken got to the point at which we meet him. After all, here’s a Ken doll who, by his own admission, has never met a Barbie before. And while that’s certainly not impossible, it doesn’t seem likely. For one thing, the Sunnyside day care seems to depend on donations for its supply of toys. Which makes me wonder what kind of kid would have a Ken doll with a dream house and a full closet full of clothes but no Barbie. Ken can protest all he wants that he’s “not a girls’ toy,” but let’s face it- have you ever known someone to have a Ken independently of Barbie? What is Ken if not Barbie’s ultimate accessory, a hunky himbo to be dressed up while providing Barbie a male companion, all the better to reinforce the marriage fantasy that’s drummed into little girls’ heads from the cradle?

… Sorry about that. But it does make you think a bit, I suppose. I mean, it’s not like Ken has forgotten. He’s not a Buzz Lightyear, whose memory can be wiped clear with the touch of a cleverly hidden button. A much more likely scenario is that Ken came into the world at Sunnyside. For most characters in the Toy Story universe, life begins when their boxes are opened. Look at the way Buzz sprang to life in the first film only after Andy has ripped the package open and stood him on the bed. Similarly, in TS2 New Buzz comes “out of hypersleep” once the original Buzz opened up his box in an attempt to steal his tool belt. So while Ken has no doubt been on a shelf next to Barbie at some point, he wouldn’t have been aware of it until the box was actually opened. Which leads me to believe that rather than being bought and taken home and played with as part of the Barbie world, he was given directly to Sunnyside, clothes and dream house and all, probably due to a toy store having to get rid of excess Ken stuff.

Of course, the Prospector complicates matters. If the story of Stinky Pete’s box never having been opened (at least, not from the outside) is true, then that shoots a hole in the box-opening theory right there and it’s back to the drawing board for me. Still, it’s possible that his box was opened at some point for some reason or other, especially if he’s been around and harboring seething resentments for space toys for nearly half a century. And besides, aside from The Velveteen Rabbit’s concept of Nursery Magic, can you think of a better explanation?

I know, I know- I’ve thought entirely too much about this issue. And normally, I’d say that I’ve done more thinking about it than the filmmakers have. But this is Pixar, where everything is planned and thought through, and somebody along the line must have thrown out the question of how exactly Ken could have gone through several decades (according to IMDb he’s a mid-eighties model) without having encountered a Barbie. Even if they don’t come out and explain it in the movie, I’m sure they didn’t throw the idea out there without thinking it through. And isn’t it a testament to how much fun the film is, and how well thought out the Toy Story world has been so far, that I’m entertaining these thoughts at all?

Now, to figure out what’s up with the Potato Heads. I mean, their parts can operate independently, and Mr. Potato Head is about to walk around by using, at various point, a flour tortilla and a cucumber for a body. Are they Voltron-esque beings who are able to combine autonomous components to create a greater whole? And what happens when their parts get mixed up, as they’re bound to be at some point, with Mr.’s arms and/or eyes ending up on Mrs., and vice versa? Hey, there’s a gag for Toy Story 4

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Karate Kid (2010, Harald Zwart)

Am I strange for thinking this works better than the original? I watched John G. Avildsen’s 1984 take on this story not too long ago, and aside from the character of Mr. Miyagi, I found it pretty creaky. But its formula was pretty solid- new kid in town gets beaten up by martial-arts-practicing bullies, gets training from a mysterious master/handyman, and gets back at them in the ring. Granted, it’s not exactly a sophisticated story arc, which is part of the reason it’s more effective when the hero and his nemeses are in their early teens rather than nearing their high school graduation. Likewise, it’s more believable that these villains could be manipulated by their instructor, considering how hormone-addled and insecure boys tend to be at this age, grasping at anything that makes them feel tough and in control.

Of course, a drawback to the change in age is that it can be a little difficult to watch little Jaden Smith get the tar kicked out of him early in the movie, but Smith, small of build but full of attitude, is more believable as someone who would run afoul of bullies than affable goofball Ralph Macchio. It’s too soon to tell whether Smith is more than a talented child actor, but he’s definitely got presence to burn, not to mention his father’s natural charm and ease in front of the camera. His teacher, Mr. Han, lacks the self-aware eccentricities of Pat Morita’s Miyagi, but Jackie Chan’s uncharacteristically low-key performance is good nonetheless, and Chan and the filmmakers deserve credit for not simply trying to make him another Miyagi. And Taraji P. Henson doesn’t get much to do as Smith’s single mom, but she makes the character work.

Having transported the story to China, Karate Kid 2010’s titular martial art has been replaced by kung fu. And while the climactic fights are just as effective as those in the original- they’d be even better if not for the use of a distracting Jumbotron- Mr. Han’s unconventional teaching method of “hang up the jacket” just doesn’t have the same magic as “wax on, wax off” and “paint the fence.” But for the most part, the new Kid doesn’t screw up what worked in the original, while finding ways to change the formula mostly for the better. It’s not great art, but it’s solid entertainment, especially if you’ve got an age-appropriate kid who’ll respond to what the movie is selling. I’m surprised to find myself not so much dreading the inevitable sequel so much as wondering where they’ll take the franchise from here. Jaden Smith meets Tony Jaa in The Muay Thai Kid, anyone?

Rating: 6 out of 10.

Get Him to the Greek (2010, Nicholas Stoller)

Russell Brand’s dissolute rock god Aldous Snow was one of the highlights of 2008’s Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and now with an expanded role he’s still pretty damned hilarious. But with the increased screen time has come a need to provide Aldous with a more rounded character, which means that instead of showing up now and then to make humping motions and glower lasciviously, he’s now grappling with daddy issues, relationship woes, and a relapse into drug addiction. Now, the scenes involving Snow’s issues aren’t bad per se. Trouble is, they don’t mesh particularly well with the funny stuff. When Stoller follows an hour or so of binge-drinking and late-night partying with scenes about Aldous learning to face up to his addiction and growing the hell up, it feels like someone laced my candy with vitamins so I wouldn’t feel so bad about gorging on empty calories. I know that we’re all supposed to have positive messages in our Hollywood movies, but when it comes to comedy, everything is forgivable just as long as it’s funny.

That said, Get Him to the Greek does mostly deliver the laughs. It’s not as consistently funny as Forgetting Sarah Marshall was, but the highs are much higher this time out. As the hapless studio flunky assigned to accompany Snow to a special concert, Jonah Hill takes what in other hands could have been a straight-man stick in the mud and makes him just as funny as Snow, albeit in a fussier sort of way. And while I wasn’t quite as taken with Sean Combs’ work as Hill’s vulgar, manipulative boss, I enjoyed the performance all the same, along with the rest of the supporting cast. And few can touch the Apatow team when it comes to great, out-of-nowhere cameos (there are two here, neither of which I’ll spoil for you). But the movie’s success rests primarily in Brand’s shoulders, and he delivers not only in the comedic set pieces but also in the straight scenes and even in the concert sequences. If nothing else, Brand’s performance is even more committed here than in Marshall, and while I’m not sure there’s much more to be done with Aldous, it’s a testament to Brand’s talent that he’s made it this far.

Rating: 6 out of 10.

The Secret in Their Eyes (2009, Juan Jose Campanella)

Not hard to see how this ended up winning the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar last year, considering that its primary competition was the behind-bars brutality of The Prophet and the didactic scolding of Michael Haneke’s man’s-inhumanity-to-man illustration The White Ribbon. Compared to those two, The Secret in Their Eyes is pretty standard awards-bait, a gussied-up big-screen version of Law and Order in which the melancholy undertone doesn’t get in the way of the Very Bad Guy getting more or less what’s coming to him. If that sounds like damning with faint praise, then how else would you describe a serviceable murder mystery with relatively standard characterizations and bolstered by a handful of memorable scenes?

Of course, the word “memorable” doesn’t necessarily imply “awesome”, and there are few better recent examples of this than Secret’s much-ballyhooed centerpiece sequence, in which the hero and his hard-drinking sidekick (guess what happens to him?) finally track down the baddie at a football match. For some reason, Campanella felt it wise to shoot the entire scene in one extended “impossible” take, beginning with a helicopter shot into the stadium, then following the hero through the crowded bleachers, followed by an extended foot chase, after which the culprit jumps down onto the field and is eventually apprehended. Granted, it’s all very technically impressive how Campanella and his visual effects team put it together. The problem is that it’s so attention-grabbing that it took me right out of the movie.

Now, I’m a fan of long takes- seeing as how I’m a DePalma fanboy, this should go without saying. But in order for them to work, one of two things has to be true: either the camera movement looks and feels like something a camera could actually do, or the movie that surrounds the shot isn’t aspiring to realism. However, this shot failed both of these tests. It would be one thing if Campanella was making a frenzied movie-movie kind of thriller (a la DePalma), but most of The Secret in Their Eyes is relatively sedate stylistically. Therefore, as soon as the camera descended into the crowd of football fans, I became absorbed less in what was happening in the story than I was in how impressive the shot was. So, a lesson to all filmmakers with any sort of budget for special effects- just because you can create something snazzy doesn’t make it the right choice. As far as I’m concerned, that single shot brought my grade down one point by itself. And when the movie’s only pretty good to begin with, that makes a world of difference.

Rating: 5 out of 10.