Friday, December 23, 2011

We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011, Lynne Ramsay)

Of all the complaints I’ve read about We Need to Talk About Kevin, Ramsay’s first film in nearly a decade, the most interesting to me is the idea that the film doesn’t work because Kevin (played by Ezra Miller as a teenager) is a monster more or less from the time the doctor cut his umbilical cord. And you know what? Those folks aren’t wrong- a film in which a mother looks back at the fleeting, subtle signs that her kid is going to end up shooting up his school does (on paper, anyway) sound more compelling than one in which a child reveals his evil from the get-go and seems inevitably careening toward cataclysmic violence.

Yet I don’t think that Ramsay wants to examine the genesis of a killer, so much as she wants to explore how inadequate the vast majority of us are when confronted with unfiltered evil. As I’ve come to understand in the last three-odd years, dealing with a child can be rough going even under the best of circumstances, since parenting challenges tend to arise all too often when you’ve got plenty of other things on your plate. What makes it even harder for Eva (Tilda Swinton) is that Kevin isn’t your garden variety tiny terror who has fits and rages- he’s clever and calculating even from a young age, and all of his dealings with his mother seem driven by a desire to antagonize her, even while he puts on a friendly face for his father and the rest of the world.

Making matters worse is the fact that Eva is hardly an ideal candidate for motherhood. Swinton is pretty amazing here, conveying the frustrations of a woman whose parenting skills are limited, and whose attempts to raise her son are constantly (and frustratingly) thwarted by his unwillingness to cooperate. After all, how would you feel if you had a child who not only continued to wear a diaper well into his grade-school years, but also deliberately had an “accident” right in front of you, out of pure spite? Making it even worse is that when Eva reacts to him in a way that accidentally leads to her breaking Kevin’s arm, he now has something specific with which to manipulate his mother, thereby making her feel even more inadequate.

Which brings me back to my original idea of how ill-equipped people are to handle unstoppably evil people, no matter what their age. Sure, truckloads of books have been written on children who are mentally ill or otherwise troubled, but Kevin is clearly an outlier, and there’s no way to prepare someone to deal with his actions, much less his deeper nature. In essence, Kevin functions like a funhouse mirror to Eva, reflecting her own parenting issues and anxieties back at her, only exaggerated to an abject degree.

It’s because Eva was so powerless to do anything to stop her son that the scenes in the aftermath of the shooting are so effective. The incident has made her a social pariah, as she has her property vandalized, finds herself shunned in public, and is even assaulted by a member of the community. In a more conventional take on this subject matter, Eva would look back at her son’s life and try to figure out what she did wrong, but such was Kevin’s nature that practically everything she could have done would have ended in failure. The fact that she takes the punishment underlines not only the guilt she feels about her son’s actions, but also her resignation. After all, if you had a child like Kevin, what, realistically, could you have done to stop him?

This idea that we don’t have the amount of control over the child’s fate as we’d like to think we do is a pretty despairing view of parenting, and while Kevin is obviously an extreme case, there’s an element of this idea in every parent-child relationship. What parent hasn’t at some point had to face the fact that he or she is ill-equipped to deal with his child’s unique challenges? I’m reminded of an incident I witnessed a few years back in an airport, in which a preteen boy yelled at and insulted his parents at great length. At the time I had trouble with the fact that his parents didn’t do anything to take him aside and remove him from the crowded waiting area, but what has stuck with me most since then was the defeated looks on their faces as they tried impotently to deal with him. Granted, this child was clearly mentally ill rather than flat-out monstrous, but their reaction (or lack thereof) felt to me a lot like Eva’s feelings about her son.

If We Need to Talk About Kevin is full of troubling ideas, it’s also an highly skilled piece of filmmaking. The first half-hour of the film is particularly impressive, with Ramsay forgoing old-school exposition and instead sets up the film expressionistically, bouncing back and forth in Eva’s life in a way that establishes the film’s recurring stylistic motifs. And even after the film settles down into its story, Ramsay never goes overboard with plot, allowing the images and action to drive the action. For instance, consider how she portrays the shooting- not in exhaustive detail, but simply by showing Kevin putting locks on the doors, followed by a series of shots that may or may not be Eva’s image of how it might have happened. Even critics who don’t fully support Kevin agree that Ramsay is a major talent, and that it would be a shame if she took another decade to finish her next film.

Rating: 8 out of 10.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1 (2011, Bill Condon)

Ever since the first Twilight installment three years ago, I’ve complained that Kristen Stewart isn’t much of an actor, but now I don’t think the trouble here. Oh sure, she’s still pretty un-good, but then teen melodramas- and supernatural trappings aside, that’s what these movies are- have long been full of subpar performers. No, the trouble is that she’s the wrong kind of bad actor for this movie. A character arc like this requires someone capable of big emotions, as the story takes her from wedding-eve jitters to honeymoon passions to pregnancy-gone-bad illness. If your leading lady can’t manage to give a deeply felt performance, the next best thing is to get someone who can hit the high notes with panache and charisma. Unfortunately, Stewart lacks both of these traits, instead relying on over-rehearsed fussiness that’s a hallmark of actors who aim to be serious without necessarily being any good.

What’s more, her face lacks the necessary expressiveness to sell this story, in particular Bella’s chooses to sacrifice herself so that her baby can live. In the book, Stephenie Meyer was able to convey Bella’s decision-making primarily having her narrate the story, but Condon and screenwriter forego first-person narration here, relying entirely on Stewart to put it across, and she fails the test. Stewart’s performance lacks any sign of interior monologue, so when she says she’ll let her vampire baby kill her so that it may live, it feels less like a conscious choice than obligation dictated by the original novel. And that’s a violation of one of the cardinal rules of adaptation- it’s not enough to repeat the original plot, unless you can make the story work in the new medium as well. If you need a book to explain the movie, then the filmmakers have dropped the ball.

That said, I didn’t hate Breaking Dawn Part 1 as much as some people out there. Granted, the much-ballyhooed hiring of Oscar-winner Bill Condon to direct didn’t pay off as it should have, since the movie’s style is as half-assed as ever. Has there ever been a franchise this lucrative that’s felt this cut-rate? Still, I have to admit that the story is going in some strange and potentially fascinating directions, provided Condon handles Part 2 as well as the climactic childbirth scene. And I do like some of the supporting performances- not just those by legitimately solid actors like Michael Sheen (a finely-cured ham) and the franchise’s stealth hero Billy Burke, but also from youngsters like Jackson Rathbone and Ashley Greene, who are stylish enough that they show up Kristen Stewart whenever they’re onscreen. Heck, I even like Taylor Lautner, who may not be a great actor but who is at least right for this movie. At least when he gets angry, you believe it.

Rating: 4 out of 10.

Happy Feet Two (2011, George Miller)

2006’s Happy Feet wasn’t a great movie by any means, but for all its cute dancing penguins what lingers in the memory is what an eccentric vision Miller placed on screen, especially by family-movie standards. Unfortunately, genuine eccentricity in cinema is hard to pull off in a way that’s charming rather than annoyingly precious, and doubly so when a filmmaker must re-create his original formula. The biggest problem with Happy Feet is how what was once endearingly off-kilter now feels focus-grouped to death. Oh sure, all the hallmarks of the original- cute penguins singing and dancing along with popular songs, impressive computer animation, zany supporting characters- are there, but now it feels like Miller and company said, “hey, that was fun the first time, so why not double it up in the sequel?” So (to cite the most egregious example) instead of just getting Robin Williams to mince around in two roles- which, I mean, ugh- you’ve also got Hank Azaria with a Swedish-chef accent and Brad Pitt and Matt Damon as a pair of krill who oh-so-wackily venture off on their own. Couple that with a story that lopes along (remember Jason Mewes’ description of Lord of the Rings in Clerks II? That’s what this feels like), and Happy Feet Two ends up being perhaps the slowest 90-odd minutes I’ve spent in a theatre all year. Until it rallies somewhat in the final real with a production number set to “Under Pressure,” there’s nothing in this movie that provides any evidence that anybody involved actually cared about making this unique and special. It’s clear that Warner Brothers knew what they had on their hands, what with opening it opposite the new Twilight movie and all.

Rating: 3 out of 10.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Cold Weather (2010, Aaron Katz)

Cold Weather is a treasure because it’s not ashamed to be modest of scale. To the contrary, writer/director/editor Aaron Katz relishes in the very smallness of his movie, and the movie is all the more pleasurable for it. Everything about the movie feels modest, beginning with the ambitions of its protagonist Doug (Cris Lankenau), a twentysomething who’s recently dropped out of college but might, y’know, go back, like, eventually. For now, he’s content to shack up with his slightly more career-minded big sister Gail (Trieste Kelly Dunn), work nights at the local ice factory, and hang out when he’s off the clock.

Of course, a plot eventually finds its way into the mix, but to Katz’s credit he never lets it get out of hand with the rest of the movie. Doug, who had studied forensic science before dropping out, gets caught up in some intrigue involving an ex-girlfriend, and suddenly finds it necessary to call on some of his modest expertise. I won’t go into details about the mystery element of the story here, so that any interested readers might enjoy it themselves. But I appreciated that Katz never let the mystery stuff overwhelm everything else- not only is it exactly the sort of small-scale intrigue that of which a guy like Doug might find himself in the center, but it also never loses sight of the characters and their unique personalities. Lankenau is a real find here, creating a sort of slacker-gumshoe who’s the most interesting shamus to waltz down the pipe since Bill Pullman’s sadly forgotten Darryl Zero. I loved a wonderful little bit in which Doug, an avowed Sherlock Holmes fan, goes shopping for a pipe to “help him think” (just like his hero), only to discover that the pipes worthy of Holmes are priced well out of his budget, and he has to make due with a plainer, more workaday model, which get the job done but lacks the same flair.

Strangely enough, it’s because Katz concentrates on his characters- not just Doug, but also Gail and even his coworker turned sidekick Carlos (Raul Castillo)- that the mystery manages to generate real suspense. Too many mystery movies depend on obvious techniques of setup-and-payoff that it’s refreshing to see a filmmaker who is able to generate suspense by forcing his protagonist to think his way of trouble. Katz places us squarely with Doug from the outset, so that when he finds himself in a jam, it scarcely matters that the stakes are actually fairly low- because Doug and his cohorts take it seriously, so do we.

The ending in Cold Weather comes as a surprise. That’s not to say there’s a twist ending- far from it, really- but I was sort of taken aback that Katz decided to wrap up his story before the mystery had seemingly been resolved. Most movies of this kind would have found Doug bailing out his ex, the culprits brought to justice, and everything getting back to normal, but the final scene shows that Katz wasn’t making a mystery involving Doug and his friends, but Doug and his friends stumbling into, through, and out of a mystery. Because of this, the central concern is one of character and how the people in the film change, rather than simply being cogs in a plot machine, and this makes Cold Weather one of the most pleasurable films of the year so far.

Rating: 8 out of 10.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Cars 2 (2011, John Lasseter)

Since its release in 2006, the original Cars has gotten a rep as being one of Pixar’s least successful releases- from a creative standpoint anyway, since Pixar and corporate overlord Disney have made enough money from grosses, DVD sales, and particularly merchandising to power the economies of countless small countries. But while sheer economics demanded a sequel, I had some hope that it wouldn’t just be a cash-in and excuse to manufacture tons of Lightning McQueen bric-a-brac. So give Lasseter some credit for building the sequel’s story not around McQueen but instead around the story’s least photogenic character, the aw-shucks tow truck Mater. After all, though Mater was one of the original’s more memorable characters, he’s not a high-performance machine, and as such doesn’t lend himself to having his miniature doppelgangers zoomed around on a playroom floor.

However, I’m sad to say that the new story focus doesn’t really work. In the original film, Mater was good for some laughs, especially in the unlikely ways he cozied up to new arrival and future best friend Lightning. Unfortunately, his increased screen time reveals that Mater isn’t a very deep character, with little more to him than backwoods befuddlement and an encyclopedic knowledge of cars that comes from a lifetime working on them, which isn’t quite enough to sustain a feature-length story. What’s more, Larry the Cable Guy’s performance, which was a nice surprise in the first film, quickly becomes overbearing here, especially in scenes that require him to be wacky in the midst of deadly serious business. And considering the film’s story drops Mater into an espionage plot (Nathan Rabin of the AV Club smartly references the 1997 Bill Murray vehicle The Man Who Knew Too Little), there are too many of these scenes to overlook.

That said, there’s still enough good stuff to recommend the movie. While the first film relied too much on small-town charm (its “slow down and appreciate the little things” theme was handled better, and more succinctly, in the Andy Griffith Show episode “The Sermon For Today”), the tone here is zippier and more action-oriented, as befitting the movie’s spy-movie influences. And as with every new Pixar release, the studio’s animation wizards continue to push the envelope visually, especially in the detail and texture of the settings- several shots in the film, especially in London, could be mistaken for actual footage if not for Mater’s presence in them. And to be fair, Mater does have some good moments, especially those involving some added features he gets to work undercover. All in all, it’s a little better than the original- no great shakes to be sure, and another of Pixar’s lesser efforts, but with a real sense of fun that makes it worth seeing.

Rating: 6 out of 10.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011, Rob Marshall)

I’m almost tempted not to bother writing a review for this, seeing as how the Pirates franchise has practically come to defined the expression “critic-proof.” Morever, it scarcely matters whether the audience likes these movies anymore, considering that the promise of Johnny Depp doing his Captain Jack thing puts asses in seats no matter how much the people attach to those asses complain about the movies after the fact. So let’s bring the discussion to Depp himself, whose creative well seems to be running dry, at least as far as the character is concerned. Oh sure, he does his usual thing, pulling faces, stumbling and slurring his way through the dialogue, but morphing into a man of action when backed into a corner. While his performance in the first (and best) Pirates was a subversive gem, practically de-pantsing the big-budget blockbuster that surrounded him, the sequels didn’t quite know what to do with him anymore. So big a hit was the first Pirates that the filmmakers became convinced that audiences legitimately cared about the adventures of Will and Elizabeth and the trade wars in which they had become ensnared, when in actuality they just wanted more Captain Jack. Unlike previous entries, On Stranger Tides makes Captain Jack the sole protagonist, and unfortunately Depp’s pirate shtick has become so well-worn that it’s no fun anymore.

It doesn’t help that, despite the presence of new director Marshall, Tides is just as bloated and enamored of eye candy as the last two Verbinski films. No longer is the Pirates team interested in making a silly, audience-pleasing swashbuckler- now they feel the need to churn out spectacles, separating opening-weekend crowds from $100 million or so of their money on opening weekend on their way to impressing shoppers with their eye-popping images on the latest HDTVs and Blu-Ray players on display at Best Buy. Because of this, Captain Jack more often than not feels out of place in his own movie. This wouldn’t be so damaging if the character still felt fresh- Depp’s a charismatic enough performer that when he brings his A game, he can win over the audience no matter how bad the movie. But because the movie as a whole is so second-rate, Depp is mostly a distraction, slowing down the action (which is mostly forgettable) so he can do his thing.

This isn’t to say that On Stranger Tides is without its pleasures. After all, Penelope Cruz looks mighty foxy in her pirate outfits. But the only performer who really conveys joy of performance is Geoffrey Rush, as the wizened old sea dog Barbossa. True, he hams it up just as much as Depp- even more, perhaps- but while Depp is mostly riffing by this point, Rush grounds his performance in the reality of this world, acting as slimy and gruff as the story will allow, and no more. He’s so good in this that I actually began to imagine a Pirates movie about Barbossa without Captain Jack getting in the way. Geoffrey Rush with a peg leg might not sell as many tickets as Johnny Depp in eyeliner, but the resulting movie would probably be a lot more fun.

Rating: 4 out of 10.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Ratings for 2011 releases

Here’s a list of Muriel-eligible releases I’ve seen so far in 2011. If it seems like I’m lenient with my ratings, reflect that my time is at a premium and I try to hand-pick the movies I really want to see while waiting to watch the ones about which I’m less enthusiastic until they hit Netflix. That is, of course, unless it’s something the Offspring wants to see, in which case they generally take precedence over anything else, for good (Rango) or ill (The Green Hornet).

Anyway, the ratings:

10 ratings
Margaret (Kenneth Lonergan)
A Separation (Asghar Farhadi)
The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick)

9 ratings
Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami)
Terri (Azazel Jacobs)
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Tomas Alfredson)
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)

8 ratings
Cold Weather (Aaron Katz)
Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn)
Le Havre (Aki Kaurismäki)
House of Tolerance / Pleasures (Bertrand Bonello)
Hugo (Martin Scorsese)
Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt)
Mission: Impossible- Ghost Protocol (Brad Bird)
Moneyball (Bennett Miller)
Mysteries of Lisbon (Raul Ruiz)
Rango (Gore Verbinski)
Tabloid (Errol Morris)
Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols)
We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay)

7 ratings
13 Assassins (Takashi Miike)
The Arbor (Clio Barnard)
Attack the Block (Joe Cornish)
Beginners (Mike Mills)
City of Life and Death (Lu Chuan)
Contagion (Steven Soderbergh)
Heartbeats (Xavier Dolan)
The Interrupters (Steve James)
Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin)
Melancholia (Lars Von Trier)
The Myth of the American Sleepover (David Robert Mitchell)
Of Gods and Men (Xavier Beauvois)
Potiche (Francois Ozon)
Project Nim (James Marsh)
Le quattro volte (Michelangelo Frammartino)
Rapt (Lucas Belvaux)
Silent Souls (Aleksei Fedorchenko)
Submarine (Richard Ayoade)
The Time That Remains (Elia Suleiman)
Tuesday, After Christmas (Radu Muntean)
Warrior (Gavin O’Connor)
Weekend (Andrew Haigh)

6 ratings
50/50 (Jonathan Levine)
The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (Steven Spielberg)
The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius)
Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest (Michael Rapaport)
A Better Life (Chris Weitz)
Captain America: The First Avenger (Joe Johnston)
Cars 2 (John Lasseter)
Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog)
The Debt (John Madden)
The Descendants (Alexander Payne)
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (David Fincher)
The Guard (John Michael McDonagh)
Hanna (Joe Wright)
Incendies (Denis Villeneuve)
Leap Year (Michael Rowe)
Margin Call (J.C. Chandor)
Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen)
Nostalgia for the Light (Patricio Guzmán)
Putty Hill (Matt Porterfield)
Road to Nowhere (Monte Hellman)
Senna (Asif Kapadia)
Shame (Steve McQueen)
Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (Guy Ritchie)
Super 8 (JJ Abrams)
The Trip (Michael Winterbottom)
The Way Back (Peter Weir)
Win Win (Tom McCarthy)
Winnie the Pooh (Steve Anderson and Don Hall)

5 ratings
Bridesmaids (Paul Feig)
Carnage (Roman Polanski)
A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg)
Dolphin Tale (Charles Martin Smith)
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 (David Yates)
The Housemaid (Im Sang-soo)
The Ides of March (George Clooney)
Insidious (James Wan)
Jane Eyre (Cary Fukunaga)
Kaboom (Gregg Araki)
Kung Fu Panda 2 (Jennifer Yuh Nelson)
My Week With Marilyn (Simon Curtis)
Rio (Carlos Saldanha)
Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Rupert Wyatt)
Thor (Kenneth Branagh)

4 ratings
Film: Socialisme (Jean-Luc Godard)
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (Rob Marshall)
Spy Kids: All the Time in the World (Robert Rodriguez)
The Three Musketeers: Someone Forgot to Put a Colon in the Title (Paul “Not Thomas” Anderson)
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (Michael Bay)
The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1 (Bill Condon)

3 ratings
The Green Hornet (Michel Gondry)
Happy Feet Two (George Miller)

2 ratings

1 ratings

0 ratings

Did not finish due to lack of interest:
Aurora (Cristi Puiu)
Crazy, Stupid, Love. (John Requa and Glen Ficarra)
The Future (Miranda July)
I Saw the Devil (Kim Jee Woon)
Rubber (Quentin Dupieux)
Special Treatment (Jeanne Labrune)

Well, obviously I didn’t see everything I wanted to before the Muriels deadline. So it goes. However, I’d still like to catch up with some movies I missed even if it’s just for my own edification. Here’s what I’d still be interested in seeing sooner or later, in rough order of preference:

George Harrison: Living in the Material World (Martin Scorsese) [1]
Into the Abyss (Werner Herzog) [1] {now at Gateway, 10 Apr on DVD}
Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky) [1]

My Joy (Sergei Loznitsa) [2] {6 Mar on DVD}
Pina (Wim Wenders) [2] {now @ Gateway}
The Skin I Live In (Pedro Almodovar) [2] {6 Mar on DVD}

Coriolanus (Ralph Fiennes) [3]
Elite Squad: The Enemy Within (Jose Padilha) [3] {now on DVD}
The Mill and the Cross (Lech Majewski) [3] {now on DVD and streaming}
The Muppets (James Bobin) [3] {20 Mar on DVD}
Rampart (Owen Moverman) [3] {15 May on DVD}
Shit Year (Cam Archer) [3]
Tyrannosaur (Paddy Considine) [3] {3 Apr on DVD}
War Horse (Steven Spielberg) [3] {3 Apr on DVD}
Young Adult (Jason Reitman) [3] {13 Mar on DVD}

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010, Werner Herzog)

Suppose someone told you that Werner Herzog made a documentary about the cave containing the world’s oldest prehistoric paintings. If you haven’t seen this, try to imagine the finished product. Chances are you’ll be pretty close to what Herzog actually churned out. In the case of many of Herzog’s more esoteric docs, there’s the feeling that he chose the subjects primarily because he wanted to experience them firsthand, but few of them have felt more like home videos from the world’s most exclusive working vacation than this one. Naturally, the stuff in the caves is the film’s highlight- for once, the 3-D actually works in the film’s favor, the extra dimension providing depth and texture to both the paintings and the caverns as a whole, and Herzog’s government mandated use of handheld lanterns enhance the beauty of the underground shots in a way more traditional lighting otherwise could not. Unfortunately, Herzog unwisely underscores these majestic shots with an portentous score that overwhelms the visuals- a particularly egregious misstep coming so soon after a scientist beseeches the other visitors to listen to and appreciate the silence of the cave.

Likewise, the stuff above ground is largely from the standard Herzog playbook, such as a cavalcade of esoteric interview subjects encouraged by the director to show off their idiosyncrasies, including an experimental archaeologist who dresses in reindeer pelts and the master perfumer literally trying to sniff out another undiscovered cave. All in all, there are precious few surprises in Cave of Forgotten Dreams, although the out-of-left-field postscript that closes the movie almost compensates. Still, if the idea of seeing immaculately preserved cave paintings from thirty millennia ago holds any interest for you, then walk, don’t run, because considering how few people actually get the chance to visit the Chauvet caves, this will probably be your only chance to check them out. So even if Cave is a disappointing film, it’s an important one nonetheless.

Rating: 6 out of 10.

Potiche (2010, Francois Ozon)

Was beginning to worry that Ozon might not have another romp like 8 Women in him, but his reunion with Catherine Deneuve has pulled him out of his rut of self-seriousness. Deneuve, partly due to her status as an icon of France (not just French cinema either), is eternally underappreciated as a film actor, but she makes it look so damn easy that Ozon can go wild with the kitsch and seventies-throwback style without spinning the film off into the stratosphere. He also surrounds her with a fine supporting cast- Karin Viard is clearly the MVP, practically thrumming with personal energy as the devoted secretary and mistress of Deneuve’s husband who flowers under Deneuve’s guidance, but Gerard Depardieu also has a lot of fun as the local politico who carries a torch for Deneuve after all these years, and I’ve become highly impressed at Jeremie Renier’s ability to switch gears from the hardscrabble of world of the Dardennes to the sort of boyish charmer he plays here. Potiche is light as a feather and largely lacking in the rich subtext that shot through 8 Women if one bothered to look, although allegedly the film’s final reel, in which Deneuve runs for political office, was inspired by the 2007 presidential race. But even for those with little knowledge of French politics (including yours truly), Potiche is a more than worthy film, and one that left me with a goofy grin on my face from beginning to end.

Rating: 8 out of 10.

Monday, January 3, 2011

True Grit (2010, Joel and Ethan Coen)

I realize I’m in the minority here, but I personally found A Serious Man to be one of the Coen brothers’ lesser efforts. On one level, it was interesting to see two of American cinema’s most prominent stylists take on a project inspired by their family histories. But while most Coen brothers films inject unique touches into the framework of classical genres, they didn’t have that jumping-off point in A Serious Man. Consequently, the film feels overly fussed-over, with crises and indignities heaped upon a characteristically Coen-esque put-upon schlub. And although this character type anchored great Coen projects from Barton Fink to The Man Who Wasn’t There, without the genre framework to prop him up he’s mostly just a punching bag.

So as you might imagine, True Grit was much more my speed. Making a straight-up Western for the first time gives the Coens ample opportunities to show off their flair for visual panache and vivid supporting characters in a new venue. But while it’s easy to imagine the directors being attracted to Charles Portis’ novel for its tangy use of frontier patois, I also think they were drawn to the strength of its protagonist- no, not cantankerous marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges, marvelously dissipated), but steely youngster Mattie Ross (newcomer Hailee Steinfeld).

Much has been said about the Coens’ scorn for many of their heroes, but if one looks back at their films, there’s also a pattern of strong women who the brothers seem to genuinely admire. Most obvious among these is of course Marge Gunderson, whose folksy demeanor and unmistakable pregnancy couldn’t hide her canny police work. But stalwart women pop up again and again in their films, from leads like Abby in Blood Simple and Edwina in Raising Arizona to supporting characters like Barton Fink’s Audrey and No Country for Old Men’s Carla Jean, who even in their limited screen time provide emotional grounding for their stories.

Mattie is in this tradition, and Steinfeld is up to the task. Still in her teens, she is nonetheless able to convincingly match up with the Coens’ gifted ensemble, from heavy hitters like Bridges and Matt Damon (as the vain Texas Ranger LaBoeuf) to the directors’ requisite rogue’s gallery of supporting performers, including Dakin Matthews as the irascible Col. Stonehill, with whom Mattie shares a perfectly-realized negotiation scene. In less capable hands, Mattie Ross would have come off not only as a little girl in a tough man’s world, but as a contemporary kid playing dress-up. But Steinfeld proves herself up to the task of selling the stylized dialogue and holding her own with the grown-ups. So near the end of the film, when LaBoeuf demonstrates his respect for Mattie’s skills out on the trail, we can’t help but concur.

Rating: 8 out of 10.

The Fighter (2010, David O. Russell)

Nowadays, many cinephiles apply the word “auteur” to directors who build their movies from the ground up, writing and producing (and sometimes more than that) as well as directing. But in the formative years of auteur theory, many of the movement’s most revered figures (e.g. Hitchcock) didn’t write their own material, but instead took other people’s screenplays and make them their own in production. One of things that makes The Fighter compelling from a critical standpoint is the sensibility that David O. Russell brings to the film. It’s the first of Russell’s films to date that he didn’t write or co-write, and although the relatively pedestrian screenplay shows through in the final result, Russell finds plenty of ways to make it feel like it’s of a piece with his other work.

The most obvious example of this is the sense of barely controlled chaos in the scenes involving the family of Micky Ward (played by Mark Wahlberg). Ward is supposed to be the hero of The Fighter, but he barely registers in scenes opposite his crack-addicted half-brother Dicky (a live-wire turn by Christian Bale), his domineering mother (Melissa Leo), and his gaggle of trashy sisters. Taken by themselves, these scenes are pretty grating- especially the sisters, who seemingly move and think as a collective. But in terms of the movie as a whole, Russell makes them work, specifically as a counterpoint to Ward’s budding relationship with local bartender Charlene (Amy Adams) who wants to help Micky get his boxing career back on track.

It’s this contrast between simplicity and chaos in Micky’s life that gives the movie a kind of screw-loose energy that distinguishes it from most underdog sports sagas. In Russell’s telling of the story, what holds Micky back as a boxer isn’t a lack of ability, or even poor management by Dicky, but the fact that he’s surrounded by noise and disorder with no means of escape. It’s only when Charlene makes her way into his life that he has an oasis, a place to find comfort and clarity amidst the hubbub. Just like the hero of I [Heart] Huckabees, it’s when he finds that clarity in his life that he’s able to move forward and accomplish his goals- in Micky’s case, to get a shot at the title.

Of course, Micky’s rise to the title bout is fairly standard as far as boxing movies go. But I did enjoy the detail with which Russell and his screenwriters explore the strategies behind boxing instead of simply showing us two fighters slugging away at each other until one of them got knocked out. However, despite the film’s obvious knowledge of boxing, it’s most interesting for the way Russell shows Micky learning to distinguish between the two contrasting sides of his life, and later on, to reconcile them. The Fighter could have been a straight-up paycheck job for its director, but because of Russell’s unwillingness to be lazy, it’s cut or two above what it might otherwise have been.

Rating: 7 out of 10.