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The Lucky Ones (2008)
Here's to being Lucky
The Lucky Ones (2008) ***1/2
Here's a fact: movies about the current war in Iraq have done about as well as... well, the current war in Iraq. To be fair, none of them have really been great. Even Tommy Lee Jones' In the Valley of Elah did not manage well financially, though it did manage to get half decent reception from critics. Understandably most of the films have been pretty heavy handed, and just as understandably, audiences have been satiating those taste buds with other, less controversial and subjects. But then comes along The Lucky Ones, starring Tim Robbins, Michael Pena, and Rachael McAdams. The film is about 3 soldiers returning home from Iraq; two on leave for 30 days, the other out for good. Instead of sticking to the usual downbeat tones of other Iraq films, it's more of a hopeful charmer and quite a funny one too. It's really more of a good old fashioned American road movie with soldiers than a war movie. But that didn't stop people from not going. The film got only limited release through 2008, despite gaining fans on the festival circuit.
Three soldiers return home from Iraq after meeting each other on the plane ride. When they arrive on American soil to catch their connecting flights, they discover that the airport is backed up solid due to a black out. Rather than wait around, Cheaver (Robbins) decides he's close enough to his home in St. Louis to rent a car and drive. TK and Colee (Pena and McAdams) decide they should join him. They're both heading to Las Vegas and figure they can probably make the drive and catch a flight out of St. Louis by the time they would here.
Colee is heading to Vegas to return her boyfriend's vintage guitar to his family. He died in the war. TK is heading to Vegas for some professional help before he meets up with his fiancé. Hookers and strippers? Colee inquires. Kind of - but not for the usual reasons. You see, they all have wounds, but some more sensitive than others. Cheaver injured his back in a not so heroic way, but he's more amused and relieved about it than embarrassed. Colee's been shot in the leg, and sports an unhealed wound and a limp. TK gets the best of both their worlds: he's been wounded by shrapnel in a not so public area. Now, as he says, it doesn't work right. He's going to Vegas to meet with some "professionals" to test his own little soldier out. "I can't go back to my fiancé without knowing it works, we'd have nothing to talk about!" A strange predicament for two people about to be married.
Cheaver, being the oldest in his 40s, is usually something of a father figure to the younger TK and Colee. On their trip those two first bicker before becoming closer. Colee openly talks about her late ex, and tells the tales he told her of robbing a Casino in Vegas to pay off his loan shark debts. TK responds with coldness and ridicules the dead man for his character. It results, inevitably in having to pull over and the keys inevitably being locked in the car.
The Lucky One's certainly doesn't go anywhere we really don't expect it to, but the paths it takes to get there aren't necessarily always the one's we expect. For example, given how quickly the trio arrive in St. Louis, it's obvious something will have to happen to keep it going. It's no big surprise to reveal that his wife wants a divorce, though she apparently is not cheating on him. Meanwhile their son breaks the big news that he got into Stanford, but needs 20 grand to secure his spot. So Cheaver decides he'll go to visit his brother or maybe even go to Vegas and win the money. That guitar Colee carries around is actually even worth 20 grand, though he doesn't want it, and she has to give it to her dead boyfriends family. She wants to give it to him but obviously knows she can't, although what she knows about her dead boyfriend seems to be less and less as time goes on.
The movie is populated with the usual oddball characters and chance encounters you find on cross country road trips, or in cross country road trip movies. There's a stop over at a church where they meet a very wealthy parishioner who invites them to a party, where among other things they encounter a young man against the war, another man who thinks after meeting the trio there's a good reason why they're losing the war, and a horny wife with the hots for the old Cheaver. Elsewhere they encounter the usual road side bars and motels, traveling sex workers and a rogue Tornado. And of course, along the way each confronts their own issues and demons.
The Lucky Ones is a funny and winning little movie. It's above all else a very human movie. The characters are what makes it succeed, not it's story. All three leads give wonderful and sincere performances, particularly McAdams as Colee. She's naive but not unintelligent, and tough but still vulnerable.
What could have been a downer filled with cheap shots and cheap tactics is instead smart and even handed, and above all respectful. That's not to say that it's necessarily a "safe" movie - but then again a movie that's best described as a road comedy about Iraq Veterans probably cannot be. It's above all else a very human movie. The characters are what makes it succeed, not it's story. All three leads give wonderful and sincere performances, particularly McAdams as Colee. She's naive but not unintelligent, and tough but still vulnerable. The movie ends as the soldiers' leave expires and they must return. At least for now they've been the lucky ones. Here's to hoping they stayed lucky.
Üç Maymun (2008)
There's an Elephant in this Room
Three Monkeys (2008) ****
How much would you sacrifice for the people around you? What can you ignore to keep your family together? If you pretend something didn't happen, does it matter that it ever happened in the first place? These are some of the questions that permeate the great Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan's latest film, Three Monkeys.
Three Monkey's is a grim affair. The film opens as a man drives his car, nodding off, and hits a pedestrian. He's a politician, and knowing what this would do to his career with an upcoming election, he phones his longtime driver in the middle of the night and offers him an proposition. Take his place, and the nine month jail sentence in return for a lump sum. He accepts for the sake of his boss. Never mind that his sacrifice is placed somewhat in vain, considering the politician loses the election anyway.
While in jail, the man's family deals on their own. His son, Ismail, wants to ask the politician for an advance so they can buy a car. He can do work with the car, but the work is for shady characters according to his mother. He takes the train to visit his father every so often in jail. The mother works in a kitchen and looks to get her son a job that he would never be interested in anyway. She does eventually go to the politician on her son's behalf, it appears, to get an advance. There's a strange tension between the two. He asks her if her husband knows about "this." Does he refer to getting the advance, which the father would never approve of, or is it something else? One day Ismail gets set to take the train to visit his father, and mother is preparing to attend training for work. At the station, Ismail gets sick, and vomits on himself. He returns home to get changed. After a moment he realizes the house is not empty. There's noise coming from the bedroom. He notices cigarettes, and looks through the keyhole in the door. He turns and leaves. His mother is having an affair with the politician we now know, as does he. He waits until he leaves then returns to the house. He confronts his mother, but never admits that he saw them together, just that he knows he was in the house. This is the first in a series of events which are purposely left unspoken. He does return to visit his father, and suspicious, he asks if they have someone new. After a pause, the son replies no. To admit the truth would mean the destruction of the family.
When the father gets out of jail, he returns home to an emotionally absent wife. We can't really know if she was this way before he left, but it doesn't really matter now. She meets him in a nighty laying on the bed, in a brilliant scene which sees the husband go from loving, to suspicious, to anger, and near misogyny, to desperation. The wife, too, goes through a range of emotions, and at one point seems genuine but for a moment, then falls back into a distant place. Everyone knows what is happening, but no one dares speak it.
Things spiral more and more into an abyss, until everything has to be at least acknowledged. There are ominous tones throughout Three Monkeys, and they climax in a crucial scene, edited in a particular manner. It involves a meeting between two people in a long take, shot from a distance, that finally cuts to another shot from a distance, but this time from a slightly different angle, and slightly obscured by objects in the foreground. What comes next will require a crucial decision be made by the Father to keep his family together, or maybe there is another way.
The family had another son who died. We're lead to believe that he drowned from the oft sounds of dripping water, and his appearance in a few surreal scenes involving the son and the father - the boy's body is soaked as he observes his family members lying in bed. These moments have a creepiness, but a sad tenderness. Particularly in one scene as the Father lies in bed, his wife moving in the background. All of a sudden a tiny arm comes up from behind and embraces him. This family must have been a bomb waiting to explode for a long time. They're bleeding pain, but each other is all they have.
Three Monkey's is about as well a film can be directed. Indeed, Ceylan won the best director prize at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival. The aforementioned scene is just one of many well constructed moments. Ceylan channels Tarkovsky in a few scenes, and his colour palette in particular is reminiscent of Tarkovsky. It's only suitable that a film of such dark subject matter be matched in it's look. Ceylan makes great use of locations, and particularly sounds. After the crucial event in the film, the mother wears a shirt that was certainly chosen for it's pattern, as perhaps a not so subtle accusation. Shots are brilliantly composed to represent the distance felt. That there seems to be only one tender embrace in the film - by the dead son to his father - is profound in retrospect.
I can't be sure, but I have a feeling that Ceylan drew from somewhere deep inside for this film. It's a film that seems as if it were made by someone who knows all to well how something feels. These kinds of movies are almost never a treat to watch. Luckily Ceylan is a such a good director that things never become unbearable, even when they're at the darkest. It's a dark and painful film, but nevertheless doesn't refuse hold out hope for a better day. They were a whole once. Maybe they can be again.
Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (1979)
Werner Herzog Makes a Vampire Movie
Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (1979)
Some movies stick with you, for better or worse. I like it when it's for the better. Werner Herzog's 1979 version of the classic vampire tale, Nosferatu, is one of those films that has stuck with me. Thankfully it's been for the better. In fact, my appreciation has only continued to grow with time. It's one Herzog's more seen films, thanks to Kinski's reputation and the fact that most versions are in English, but in my opinion, it's one of his more overlooked and under-appreciated.
Bram Stoker's Dracula has been adapted countless times, but only a few are really noteworthy. Probably the most widely seen is Coppola's 1992 version. It is not without merits. Gary Oldman is a fine actor, and does a good job with his version of the vampire, and Coppola flared the film up with an interesting visual style. The most respected and also well known version though is the first, FW Murnau's silent Nosferatu: eine Syphonie des Grauens. It reserves itself a spot on any film aficionado's must see list for Murnau's expressionist artistry. It was an assuredly constructed film with brilliant imagery and an unforgettable turn by the preternaturally creepy Max Schreck. Many will tell you that while having the highest respect for Murnau's film and its stunning achievements, they found it something of a dull affair. And I include myself in that category. There was also Todd Browning and Bela Lugosi's 1931 version, though it's perhaps more of a cult classic than an artistic masterpiece.
And then in the wings is Herzog's version. It too is respected by those who've seen it, and is itself something of a cult classic. It stars the volatile Klaus Kinski, with whom Herzog made five films, including Aguirre:Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo. Friend, documentarian, and the man who infamously won a bet which resulted in Herzog literally eating his own shoe, Errol Morris once referred to Kinski as a bonified "crazy person." That opinion, by most psychological standards, was probably correct. So if there was ever anyone to offer up a performance worthy of comparison to Schreck's original, it's Kinski.
The story follows closely to Murnau's version. Bruno Ganz plays Jonathan Harker, who's called to deliver a real estate proposal to the Carpathian castle of Count Dracula. His wife Lucy is nervous of what may come and has strange dreams. His boss, Renfield is seemingly increasingly drifting further into excited insanity as Dracula's arrival draws nearer. Jonathan's trip to Count Dracula's castle is filled with tension and foreboding. He lodges for a night where he hears tales of a vampire and warnings, but continues on through the mountains. This act contains one of the film's most memorable sequences, set to Wagner's Prelude to Das Rheingold. It ends as a carriage mysteriously emerges from the fog to pick up Harker and carry him off to the castle.
Count Dracula's castle is the epitome of ominous. The colour palette is lifeless, and of course in tribute to Murnau, shadows seem to take on a life of their own. Harker is greeted by Kinski's terrifying Dracula with uncomfortable courtesy. He searches the castle one day to find Dracula sleeping... in a casket.
While Jonathan is incapacitated, Count Dracula makes his way to Wismar on a ship. Mysteriously to the crew, they're all dying off. The ship carries hoards of rats. Is it the plague the captain ponders? When the ship finally arrives, everyone on board is dead. Dracula emerges, with him the rats.
To continue to harp on about the story is at this point an exercise in redundancy. We all essentially know what follows - Renfield is Dracula's minion, and the vampire is in love with Harker's wife, Lucy. Herzog changes things up a bit for the end, but it's Herzog and Kinski's execution that sets the film off. It has a terrifying strangeness. The locations are unforgettable - something to be expected from a man who famously declared that he directs landscapes. Delft (in Holland) served as Wismar. Its canals throughout the town are haunting, especially as the death ship squeezes its way through. The castle scenes are filmed at Castle Pernstejn, which I'm told still looks much like it did during filming.
The film's opening sequence is of real life mummies in Mexico, which can still be visited. Another strange and surreal moment comes when Harker wakes up to a young boy playing violin above him. It's one of those great Herzog moments that seemingly serve no purpose other than as beautiful oddity. The film's creepiest sequence, and one of the most unforgettable and brilliant scenes I've ever seen, takes place as Lucy walks through the town square. Pigs and grey rats wander freely; the remaining townsfolk dance around the coffins; one group sits down for a nice meal in the wake of a plague. Lucy fights to escape those trying to dance with her, as the soundtrack plays a choral piece. The result is a purely visceral and delirious sequence that has never left my memory.
Herzog has said he prefers the German version of Nosferatu over the English. I'm inclined to agree. As the years pass, and the viewings increase, any problems I initially had with the film only seemed to add to Nosferatu's greatness. Some say that in order for a film to be a true masterpiece, it has to be flawed. Herzog's films are filled with little flaws, many due to working with next to no funding. They're deeply personal, and were understandably emotional. And working with Kinski was always a volatile affair. But that's what does make them so endearing. There are many technically "perfect" films. Yet many of them that don't have that endearing quality. It's films like these that seem to stick with you, for better or for worse. For their flaws, or for what they achieve in spite of them.
Gran Torino (2008)
Grrrr... I used to be Dirty Harry
Gran Torino (2008) ***
When I saw the preview's for Clint Eastwood's new film Gran Torino, I kind of thought, 'What the hell is this?' Then I looked into it, and found that the film has so far received overwhelmingly positive reviews. Clearly, the advertising for Gran Torino wasn't doing it justice. The truth is that Gran Torino is simply out of sync with the current movie marketing paradigm. The film is a delicious throwback to old school hard boiled tough guy B movies of the 70s and 80s. Eastwood has his tongue planted firmly in cheek, and the end result is a film a helluva lot funnier than could ever be anticipated by the grim growly TV trailers.
Eastwood, directing and starring, plays Walt Kowalski, a widowed and grumpy Korean war Veteran. The film begins with Walt's beloved wife's funeral. He grimaces with embarrassment as his materialistic sons arrive with their greedy and inappropriately dressed children. The sons seem to think that their father will get in trouble all alone in his neighborhood, but neither is willing to take him in. He wouldn't leave anyway. When one son later brings him pamphlets for a retirement villa - along with some other comically old-people themed gifts - he has a long scowly growl before throwing him out of the house - on the old man's birthday no less.
Walt's neighborhood is now inhabited by immigrant Hmong families. "Why'd they have to move here?" Walt growls then spits; "Why is that old white man still living in this neighborhood?" the elderly Hmong lady next door grumbles, then out spittles the old man. The young boy next door, Tau, is something of a push over, and is harassed by his older cousin and his gang banger friends. They persuade him to steal Walt's prized possession - his '72 Grand Torino. Walt catches the boy and he runs off. Tau's cousin and gang return the next night to tell him they'll give him another shot, but a fracas ensues. When it spills onto Walt's grass, that's when he gets angry and pulls his rifle. He stops the fight and scares the gang off. The next day, to his surprise, he's greeted as a hero by his Hmong neighbors. They give him gifts and food he does not want.
Walt later stops a group of thugs from harassing Tau's sister, Sue. The girl takes to Walt, and pesters him with invites and friendly conversation. One day Walt finally agrees to go next door to a party. He begins learning about his neighbors and their people, and is shocked by their kindness to find that he has more in common with them than his own two greedy sons. Walt takes Thao under his wing after his family says he must allow the boy to make amends for trying to steal the car. He, of course, becomes fond of the boy. He teaches him how to talk like a man, and gets him a job at a construction firm to toughen him up. After Thao is stopped one day coming home from work by his cousin and the gang, they break some of his tools, leading Walt to react. From there, the violence only escalates.
Gran Torino finds lots of little tongue in cheek moments of humor, from Walt's near perpetual grumpiness to his bigotry. He's like Archie Bunker with a hangover. His racial insults are comical in their obvious bigotry. For some reason most of his insults do not seem malicious, but rather almost innocently ignorant. His Hmong neighbors greet his ignorance with amusement. Of course by the end of the film Walt has come to respect those who are different from him, and even comes to terms with himself and his own dark past. He's pestered by the young Parish Priest, who was asked by Walt's wife to keep an eye on her husband, and see that he confesses. Walt refers to him as an overeducated 27 year old virgin, but sees that even though the Priest is young, he's also wise. When Walt tells the priest he knows nothing of death, the priest responds in turn that Walt knows nothing but death.
Gran Torino has a lot to say about respecting and understanding each other, while also sticking it to the attitudes of young punks. It's a film that could clearly and probably will be taken the wrong way by many people, just as All in the Family was in its day, even with its ultimate end message. But Gran Torino is cheerfully tongue in cheek.
Walt Kowalski is something of a loving parody of Eastwood's bad ass characters of the 70s. He's a geriatric Dirty Harry. It's not an explicit comedy, but it is quite funny - and on purpose. Gran Torino is a genuinely sincere effort from Eastwood to channel his past, and has a little bit of everything, just like a good B movie should.
He's Got Balls
Balls Out: The Gary Houseman Story (2009) **
From Dodgeball to ping pong to basketball and even ice skating, sports have been the basis for wacky oddball comedies as of late, some better and funnier than others. This one doesn't star Will Ferrel or Vince Vaughan. Instead, it's Sean William Scott. He's been been funny before, so O.K., not a bad start.
The film's script apparently also won an award, I'm told. I'm not really sure how. There's nothing new or unexpected. It's the usual routine: a group of misfits gets an unruly new coach who turns them around and leads them to glory.
Sean William Scott plays tennis hasbeen/never-was Gary. He went on the Mexican semi-pro tour after a few incidents in college, before settling down in Nebraska, because it's as good as anywhere really. Plus the real estate is cheap (referring to a banged up motor home). He became an engineer - the custodial branch. One day he gets the itch an runs out on the tennis court while the high school team is practicing. The coach (Randy Quaid) recruits him as his assistant. Gary, for some reason, is enamored with the coach, but then he dies. Because he's not a teacher, the school can't make him the head coach, at least officially. The new head coach (or co-assistant coach) has no experience with tennis, or any other sport he says. In order to honor the late coach, Gary is determined to coach the tennis team to a state championship.
The cast includes lots of the usual oddballs: the gifted tennis player who reminds Gary of himself; wimpy kids afraid of getting hit with the ball; the sexy foreign language teacher as the subject of the protagonist's desires. There's also the late coach's teenage daughter, who interestingly, but oddly, has the hots for Gary before becoming the love interest of the teams star player. Gary even recruits the weird foreign kid - a pro ping pong player from the Philippines. He's never played tennis before, but his hand/eye coordination must be amazing, as Gary points out.
Balls Out actually does manage to be occasionally endearing with its goofy characters. And Sean William Scott really can play a dirty greaser very well - thanks most probably to his ability to grow a mean fumanchu. He seems so greasy it's almost offputting at times, but funny at others. When the late coach's daughter plants one on him, for a minute it seems plausible that he'll actually go through with it. That scene does lead to the film's mandatory act of turmoil and challenge. Of course, it's overcome though.
I had a fair share of laughs, but only a few roarers. The exchange student is comical in how quickly he himself becomes almost Gary's partner in crime after moving into the motor home with him. In the end, Balls Out just isn't consistently funny enough, and too many of the big jokes fall flat. The film will likely be released amid the January slew of films that studios would rather forget they made. I can't see the movie making a big box office splash, but it might do alright depending on what weekend it lands.
There is No Point that is South of the South Pole
Encounters at the End of the World (2008) ****
"There is no point that is south of the south pole." That's a no brainer, but have you ever thought about that before reading that statement? Such a simple and obvious saying, yet there's something quite poignant buried within it. It's pointed out by one of Werner Herzog's dreamers - a philosopher and part time forklift driver - that he found on his encounters at the end of the world.
Herzog begins his new documentary warning us that this will not be another film about fluffy penguins; his questions about nature are far different. For example, why does a sophisticated creature like a chimp not make use of inferior creatures - they could saddle goats and ride off into the sunset. Herzog delivers with a pondering and quizzical film. Encounters at the End of the World is about the intricacies - and insanities - of life on Antarctica. His visit was spurred on by the footage taken by one of the under-ice divers, a friend of his. He opens the film with the images of what appears to be hauntingly blue skies and bubbly white clouds, but its not skies nor clouds, but the clear waters and hulking ice. Herzog, always fascinated with the oddity and great beauty of the natural world, fills his documentary with stunning images and sequences. Underwater divers film strange creatures under the ice, and massive ice formations while navigating their way back to the single hole in the ice, without tether lines to guide them. Volcanologists traverse dormant lava tubes, only having to be weary of poison gases that can be found in some.
Herzog's base of operations is McMurdo, the largest settlement on the continent. He describes it as an ugly mining town. And it is ugly. It's filled with scientists, wanderers, adventurers and dreamers, all looking to 'jump off the margins of the map,' as one observer puts it. It also has "abominations" such as aerobics and yoga studios, even an ATM. Before he go in the field, he, like everyone else, must attend survival school, where among other things students learn to build shelter, and then must spend the night in it. They also partake in a white out simulation, achieved by wearing white buckets on their heads. They wander out to find the instructor, playing a lost peer. As they get disorientated, the scene becomes comical, but also points out our inferiority when up against nature.
Herzog does make a stop to visit some penguins briefly, and the man who studies them - reportedly no longer much of a conversationist with humans since he spends so much time isolated with penguins. Herzog's questions are amusing, but thoughtful. "Are there gay penguins?" "Is there such thing as madness among penguins?" The answer to that last question leads to one of the films most memorable and profound sequences.
The film at once is an admiration of those who find themselves working at the end of the world, and an admonition of the manipulation of adventure. Herzog wastes no time on the uninteresting people there. He talks with a scientist who describes a horrifying world that would tear us apart - if it were not too small to be seen by the human eye. He also shows old science fiction movies and warns of our fate. Some of them gather during the night, still day lit, for a jam session on top of their hut.Another woman discusses how she rode through South America in a sewer pipe, then zips herself into a travel bag. Another man, a plumber, says his hands prove that he is descended from Aztec and Inca royalty. On the other hand, he admonishes the notion of adventure for conquer. Shackleton came not for the sake of adventure, but to claim the South Pole. He almost lampoons some of his subjects, but is never disrespectful and clearly admires all of them.
The name of the film is something of a double entendre. Herzog frequently ponders another life after humans are gone. What would they think of us when they come see what we're doing in Antarctica? There are references to global warming and threats to our planet, but Herzog is no issue of the day crusader. So many other documentaries would condescend to us, and have. Green has become the fad of the day, annoying many instead of enlightening. Herzog is too much of an enigma to pander or preach to us, and that's part of the reason why Encounters at the End of the World is so special.
Werner Herzog is a man incapable of making a dull film. What is entirely true in this documentary is questionable as it is in his others. His pursuit of ecstatic truth - semi-fictions to capture the essence of what is more truthful than truth - gives him license to embellish. But no matter, if he has some of his interviewees script some details, I do no care to know which. I'm happy being mesmerized by the stories they tell as is.
For me, a Werner Herzog film is like pulling on a warm pair of slippers on a cold winter day, and pulling up by the fire to read a favorite book. Herzog was one of the first filmmakers to draw me into the world of great film-making, and for that I forever owe him a great debt of gratitude. And it was Roger Ebert who lead me to him, so how fitting that this beautiful film was dedicated to him.
It's Your Life, Mr. President
Frost/Nixon (2008) ***1/2
His most lasting legacy, as a character in the film suggests, is the the use of 'gate' as a suffix for every political blunder since his own. Richard Nixon was not a delusional man - he likely recognized this as well. We all make mistakes, but his was broadcast widely and cost him the American Presidency. We all know how affecting our greatest blunders are to us - imagine the effect it must Nixon's must have had on him. Given the comparably larger scale, I suspect it must have been devastating.
The new film adaptation of Peter Morgan's much admired play, Frost/Nixon, is rooted firmly in its performances and screenplay. Michael Sheen plays David Frost, the British television host who coaxed Richard Nixon into exercising his guilt in a series of interviews. Frost was at the time living in almost a form of entertainment exile, banished to Australia, though still successful. He was something of a playboy, something of a joker. When he proposed interviewing the disgraced former president, he was balked at. He was a variety brand host, not a serious journalist or seasoned interviewer. Nixon would eat him alive. But he persisted, and put it all together, largely out of his own pocket. Nixon, played with shocking embodiment by Frank Langella, and his people accepted, due in part to the $600 thousand payday, and in even larger part because they agreed with the general consensus - Nixon would eat this joker alive.
And so he did for most of their sessions. Nixon routinely circumvented questions with anecdotes and hyperbole, with Frost allowing him to ramble without response. But Frost, though disheartened, never gave up, and kept doing his homework. To help him was his friend and producer, John Birt (Matthew Macfadyen), Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt), and James Reston Jr. (Sam Rockwell). While David spends much of his time away promoting films he's produced, or courting potential advertisers, his three wise men cram and plan their attack. Reston Jr has already written four books about Nixon, and has a hunch about a key date and meeting early in the film which turns out to be the key to breaking Nixon down. On the other side, Nixon is almost never without his right hand man, Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon). He believes in Nixon to the end, in his righteousness, and wants to protect him from further attacks.
The film, directed by Ron Howard, uses an interesting technique. It's structured as a documentary, right down to the retrospective interviews with those involved. In a way, it's sort of a mockumentary, but sincere and without the satire or slapstick. I was slightly off put at first, wondering perhaps if this would have been better as a documentary, but it works out pretty quickly thereafter. After a while I was actually looking forward to these moments. And although the subject would make a fascinating documentary, Frost/Nixon has something that a documentary would not be able to attain - Nixon himself. Nixon was reviled at the time, hated by nearly all. Frost/Nixon and Frank Langella do not make Nixon an evil man, but a stubborn man, dedicated to his predilections. What he considered moral and just were misguided, but he was not evil. He was simply a man who made many mistakes, not least of which the abuse of his power. Most films would have taken the easy road and turned the interviews into some sort of revenge themed tale - the horrible Nixon defeated and embarrassed by a television fluff host.
Frost/Nixon does not. Instead, thanks especially to Langella's powerhouse performance, we're made to empathize with the man. We don't have to sympathize with someone to criticize them, bu we ought at least empathize. How else could we even begin to comprehend what we ourselves would have done if placed in the same situation?
What makes Frost/Nixon work is the two lead performances by Sheen and Langella. Both actors played their roles in Peter Morgan's play, and seem to wear their characters like an old pair of pants. Frank Langella is the great highlight of the film. His Nixon is startlingly transcending - not necessarily because he looks like or sounds just like the real Nixon, but because he so profoundly embodies the man's soul. When he elaborates on his misdeeds, it seems almost more because that soul is so tortured, the weight of guilt burdened too heavily on his shoulders, than because he has been outwitted.
Lancelot du Lac (1974)
A Legendary Deconstruction
Lancelot du Lac (1974)
It is my contention that Robert Bresson's films are not so much films as they are philosophical essays stroked out on celluloid. They are often contemplations on the soul, usually of its destruction. His films are highly stylised in that they are without any style at all. Many of the actors he used acted in the film in which he cast them. He left out what would usually be considered key moments in a plot, making them difficult, but always fascinating. He never failed in what he tried to achieve, though that doesn't mean they were all always really that enjoyable, especially If you approach them as you would any other movie anyway. They are an acquired taste, and frankly require a certain degree of intelligence. I don't say that to sound pretentious, but to merely point out the observation that to have to think about something requires a certain amount of intelligence.
In 1974 Bresson applied his philosophic sensibilities to a legendary tale. He took the famous Arthurian story of Lancelot's affair with Arthur's Queen, Guinevere. Of course, everyone knows the story, so I will not bother describing the plot so much as examine how it's executed. Bresson stripped all the lustre and romanticism from the story. Instead, he chose to emphasize the grime and cold-bloodedness. In the opening shot, he has Knights battle each other, hammering their swords against their armour until they strike flesh. Blood pours out like water from a faucet. It is a poignant gesture that Bresson begins (and ends) his film with inexplicable and horrific violence.
Bresson turns ups the sounds of metal scraping on metal as the knights move around. He makes them look almost silly in their shuffling motions. Their pride is a foolish one. Instead of noblemen, Bresson shows them as petty and manipulative. They conspire to kill Lancelot, not by challenging him to a duel, but by waiting for him to exit the Queen's room where, armed or not, they declare he'll be too caught off guard to put up a fight before he is run through. Even Lancelot is ashamed, for he has returned from his quest to find the Holy Grail a failure. His trespasses with the Queen, even if it is true love, are doomed to tragedy because of foolhardy nobility.
Though parts of the film take place in a castle, Bresson wastes no time with an establishing or grandiose shots. Even in battle, most scenes are reactionary. He makes it a point to show the knights lifting and closing their face masks as they speak with one another or prepare for war. The repetition somehow acts almost as satire. I think Bresson recognized the asinine behind the legendry.
Lancelot du Lac was one of Bresson's most abstract films. It was in many ways an exercise in deconstruction that would have done Derrida proud. It obviously must has been quite influential. When I first saw Terrence Malick's The New World, I instantly thought that it must have been influenced in some way by Lancelot du Lac. That film stripped the story of Pocahontas and John Smith to its bare essentials - albeit not to the extent that Bresson goes, but still. There is one scene in The New World which reminded me very much of Lancelot du Lac, the one in which Smith wades through a swampy forest in his clunky armour only to be bested by the nearly nude naturals. He looks foolish trying to navigate and murky forest in such clunky attire. Now whether or not the film was an inspiration or if Malick has even seen it, I cannot confirm (though I suspect he has - his knowledge of cinema is extensive) Bresson often shows his knights gallivanting in the forest, wearing armour as a formal attire in situations that do not require it, other than to shout, "look at me, I am a Knight of King Arthur's Court!." Sure they offer some added protection, but they are still no match for death - as Bresson points out by showing us at the beginning and at the end (purposefully placed no doubt) how blood finds ways to spray from the openings and holes in plates of armour. Their armour is simply a token of their supremacy over the common man.
Lancelot du Lac is Bresson's way of showing us the grandiose self-importance the Knights of King Arthur's Court presented upon themselves, and continues to be placed upon them by fairytale romanticism. When Lancelot asks for help to overcome his temptations from God, it is not for holiness or piety, but his own mortal self-preservation. Their quest for the Grail and their military victories have granted them fame and reputation. They squander what gifts they have been given to defeat one another. On one side, for the sake of Arthur against Lancelot; on the other for the sake of the Queen and Lancelot against everyone else. In the end when Lancelot concedes and returns the Queen to Arthur in exchange for her pardon, a group of Knights turn against the King at his moment of weakness. Now then Lancelot and his men return to fight for Arthur against the usurpers. It is a cycle of battle, or to be more to the point, competition. Throughout the film the Knights are preoccupied with competition in some form - jousting, declaring duels, chess, the love of the queen. They feast on an appetite of destruction.
All is done in the name of Christianity in Arthur's court, but Bresson leaves much of that to subtlety. One shot of Lancelot is framed in the foreground by a crucifix, out of focus on purpose. Guinevere responds that the Knights were looking for God as a trophy - yet God is not a trophy. The Knights have simply taken Christianity as their flag in a battle for self-supremacy, not any theological quest.
A Wednesday (2008)
Six out of Seven Days not so bad.
A Wednesday (2008) *
Maybe I just don't get Bollywood. I can see why some people find such films endearing, though I myself do not relate to such affections. Maybe it's a cultural thing, though lots of foreigners like this movies, and I have no problem relating or getting into other movies from around the globe. There are also lots of other great Indian films - one of the world's greatest filmmakers was Satyajit Ray, for example. I guess I just do not like the bollywood style. That's a personal taste, so let me explain myself in my reasoning.
But first, the movie. A Wednesday is actually quite an interesting story. A soon to be retired police chief in Mumbai recollects his most difficult case. A man calls police informing them that he has placed bombs around the city, and will detonate them if his demands are not met. Those demands: release four terrorists and take them to a destination of his choosing. From here on in, the film is a cat and mouse game, with the mouse firmly positioned on a perch above the city, while the cats try to find out who the mouse is, and where he is. We're told in the opening narration that this case cannot be found in any history books or government records. Why that is is divulged in time. The truth is quite unexpected, and in many ways quite profound and interesting. The problem is how it gets to that point, and therein lies the disconnect for me. I'm sure that most of these films realize they have their tongues planted firmly in cheek, but sometimes that's not the best path to tread upon.
I almost feel bad as I'm about to enter into my personal critique, because I know that the primary aim of Bollywood movies is to give the audience what it wants, but what it wants is not what I want out of the movies. But I digress, and let me begin.
1. Horrible acting from nearly everyone but the police chief and bomber, who are actually very good.
2. The most brazen abuse of slow motion I've ever seen.
3. Inane moments of audience friendly cliché, that don't just border on kitsch - they bathe in it.
4. Manages to make itself feel like a parody of a thriller with the slightest of ease.
5. Corny, asinine sequences of dialogue. I'll expand: hard as coffin nail cops are quizzed by their chief - "Are you afraid?" "No!" "But what if you die?"; "I don't care!" Is that meant to be funny? Probably, maybe. But I don't get the humor, nor do I find it appropriate.
6. So what it if its different than a Hollywood action movie? It's equally as ridiculous throughout, just in a different way.
Bollywood may take pleasure indulging in being the bastard step-child of Hollywood clichés, employing them to giddy extremes, and that's all well and good fun in something that aims to take its message a little less serious, but not here. Hollywood movies can't get away with schlock like this, so why should A Wednesday? This is a long way from Satyajit Ray.
Again, maybe I just don't get this kind of movie. Maybe I'm even missing the point entirely. Do I think that would change my mind though? I doubt it. If I hated the roller coaster the first time because it went too fast, so you told me speed was the point, I'm sure I'd still be uncomfortable the second time around. I did not like this ride. Frankly, I kind of hated it. But hey, that's just me.
The Searchers (1956)
That'll be the Day
The Searchers (1956)
Politically Incorrect? Yes. Hammy, sometimes bad acting? Yes. Silly? Yes. Melodramatic? Yes. One of the greats? Absolutely. John Ford's films are something of a mystery to me. Nearly all of them suffer from overly dramatic acting and cheesy period writing. Nearly all of them seem to bounce from tense dramas to slap stick comedies at a moments notice without necessity or merit. Yet despite what should be complete casualties of time the many of them are some of the great American movies, and those apparent casualties have become endearing. The Searchers, Ford's greatest western, is a prime example.
John Wayne, the patron saint of American toughness, gives one of his greatest performances as Ethan Edwards, a man who spends years searching for his niece, captured by Comanches after they raid the family ranch and kill of the other family members. He's returned after a long absence following the civil war, perhaps fighting in Mexico.
Apparently Wayne also thought this was his best work - he named a son Ethan after this character. Jeffrey Hunter plays Martin Pawley, the 1/8 Cherokee adopted nephew of Ethan, who comes along for the years long journey. Together they search and search. After a while, Martin confides that he continues on not so much to find his adopted sister alive, but to make sure that when Ethan finds her alive, she stays that way. Edwards is a man so consumed with hate for the Comanches that he shoots them as they carry their dead, and kills buffalo in fields just so they can't eat them. After all these years, it's likely that Debbie has been totally adopted into the Comanche way of life - something that to Ethan means she may as well be dead.
As with most of Ford's films, there's a myriad of other characters and their own little story lines. As usual, there is the stock Swedish family. Their daughter Laurie is madly in love with Marty, despite him leaving her side to search along side Ethan for years. After a time, and after Martin reveals he accidentally got married to a young 'squaw,' he gets competition in the form of Charlie McQuarie, the regions letter carrier. This plot point leads to some of the film's most memorable moments of comedy. There's also old Mose Harper, the crazy old rocking chair loving friend of the family. He's got the brunt of the film's slap stick pay off.
Pointing out just how great John Ford's direction is is analogous to beating a dead horse. Each shot is perfectly composed, simple but elegant. Of course, shooting in Monument Valley is difficult to make look poor. It's one of those great film-making environments. It's a stunning location, beautiful in its rugged stacks and jutting rock formations.
Without a doubt, some of the acting in The Searchers is silly by today's standards. Jeffrey Hunter is sometimes unintentionally hilarious. John Qualen, doing his trademarked Swedish shtick as Lars Jorgensen is at times endearing but at other times annoying and cringe-worthy. But that hardly matters, the thespian stage belongs entirely to John Wayne as Ethan Edwards. It's easy to write off Wayne in memory as an over-the-top tough guy, but seeing performances like this one reminds us that he really was a very good actor. His performance is outstanding, embodying all that a man like Ethan Edwards must. He plays Edwards as a spiteful and bitter man, who's joys seem to only rise to the level of bittersweet. His hatred of the Comanches seems to be straightforward racism, unless you're one of the few to notice a split second prop early on in the film that explains his bitterness. That Wayne was 20 years too old to play the part is entirely inconsequential.
Although The Searchers is not exactly a politically correct film, that does little to really harm the film's reputation. Ford was aware of the nature of the film he was making, and maintained that the intent was never malicious. It's certainly nowhere near the level of bigotry shown in Griffith's Birth of a Nation. It's a product of its time, which means that it's all that more of a success considering how great it is today over 50 years later.
Låt den rätte komma in (2008)
Taking the Vampire out of the Horror Movie, and the Horror out of the Vampire Movie
Let the Right One In (2008) ****
The one thing I keep reading about Let the Right One In is how it's such a unique horror movie. Horror movie this, horror movie that. This has left me baffled. How can you have seen the film and taken it as a horror movie? To be sure, it is a supernatural drama with a few moments of thrill and fear, but a horror movie? No, I simply cannot refer to it as such. While I may play semantics with the critics on that issue, I agree wholeheartedly that Let the Right One In is a special film.
This Swedish gem is set during the blistering cold days of winter. A 12 year old boy, Oskar (Kare Hedebrant) is at the mercy of the school bullies. He shuffles quietly around school, talks softly, his innocence and fears diverting his desires for revenge. He lives in an apartment complex with his mother. One day new neighbors move in. A man puts up cardboard and plastic over the windows, and avoids conversation with other tenants.
One night as Oskar sits outside in the playground, a young girl appears, hardly dressed for winter and pale as the snow itself. They talk briefly, and she tells him that they cannot be friends. Yet she comes back again the next night, and again they talk. Oskar goes off to visit his father, who lives in a rural area. Together they enjoy themselves, and Oskar finally appears happy. When he returns he continues his encounters with the girl.
Her name is Eli (Lina Leandersson). She never appears except during the night time. And for good reason. Although the film only slowly explicitly reveals that she is a vampire, it's implicit from the early sequences. In one early scene, Eli's caretaker meticulously packs his gear, then goes to a nearby park where he meets, then chloroforms, then blood lets a passerby. He's interrupted by a dog and its owners before he can finish the job, and runs off. He finds blood for her, so she must not kill herself, at least as often. His failures continue though, and she must quench her thirst. When her caretaker is discovered, he burns himself with acid to hide his identity and keep her safe. He gives himself to her as his final act, now she is on her own.
Although these moments of violence are quite bloody, and at times graphic, they're simply a necessity of the real story, the relationship between Oskar and Eli. She eventually provides him with friendship, maybe even love, as they agree to "go steady." She implores him to stand up to the bullies, which he does, though it may lead him to more trouble in the end. He learns she is a vampire in time, as he must, but he accepts this and her, and finds it in himself to help her.
Let the Right One In is a very quiet and patient film. It rightly focuses on the progression of friendship between Oskar and Eli first and foremost. At its heart, this is a beautiful and tender contemplation. Despite its dark undertones, the film never feels sinister. It retains its sweetness right down to its graphic climax.
Oskar and Eli are wonderfully drawn characters. Both young actors are emphatically true to their characters, making them all the more sympathetic. The director Thomas Alfredson shoots them in muted tones, from their point of view, instead that of an adult. He makes sparse use of music, allowing the crunching of snow, the grumbling of stomachs, the ambient sounds of the world instead to frame the action on screen. It's a very well made film, from bottom to top.
Let the Right One In is a wonderfully unique picture. The movies were made to tell stories like these. I have not read the book the film is adapted from, but it certainly would expand on much of what is only hinted at here. But what is included in the film needs no expansion. This is such a wonderful film as it stands, in its boldness, its darkness, and its touching beauty.
Man on Wire (2008)
If I Die? What a Beautiful Death!
Man on Wire (2008) ****
There was no why. No rhyme or reason, other than the fact that those towers existed. Existed, as one friend notes, for Philippe Petit to walk between them. People have always found it difficult to comprehend that Petit wire walked between the World Trade Center towers, nearly 1400 feet above the ground, without being able to justify his cause. Petit once simply stated that when he sees oranges, he juggles; when he sees two towers, he walks.
The story of how Petit and his motley crew pulled off the stunt is just as interesting as the walk itself. That day in August 1974 and the events which lead up to it are the focus of James Marsh's incredible documentary, Man on Wire. Marsh mixes documentary footage, provided by Petit and his colleagues, with reconstructions, blended so seamlessly every foot of film might as well be authentic. Petit and his friends tell the story with eager enthusiasm, particularly Petit himself. He is a man like no other. He is a ball of energy and charisma, completely harmless to everyone but perhaps himself. He has remained a child at heart.
He details the moment when he first concocted the idea to walk between the towers. While sitting in a dentist's chair, waiting to have a tooth fixed, he catches a glimpse of the towers as they are being constructed in a newspaper. He ran out of the dentist's office in a state of grace. He gleefully recounts that he didn't stick around to get his tooth fixed, and suffered the pain for weeks. But pain was no matter, he'd found his dream. He described his intentions not as a wire walker setting out to conquering heights, but as a poet looking to conquer the stage. A friend recounts that each day for Philippe was a work of art.
Petit had walked between the towers at Notre Dame, and the harbour bridge in Sydney. He was always arrested afterward of course. How joyful that when he was arrested after completing his feat in Sydney that his first order of business was to pick the watch of the police man arresting him for a gag! His reckless love for what he was doing was not fool hardy though. "The fact that death frames what you are doing makes you take it very seriously," he explains. Death was of course on his mind, but his aims were as a poet, a dreamer, an artist - not a dare devil: "If I die, what a beautiful death!" To accomplish his walk between the towers required months of preparation. The crew practiced in a field in France, with a wire the exact length between the towers. To mimic conditions, he had his friends jump and pull on the wires. He never loses balance, his concentration is impeccable. But the work doesn't end just with practice. They had to get nearly a ton of equipment to the top, all without being discovered - at least as impossible as the walk itself. They had to somehow get the rope across. How they do so is ingenious. They acquired id's to get inside, dressed as a mix of businessmen and construction workers (the towers were still partially under construction. One of the most incredible parts of the story is the night they went up to set everything up and do the walk. They're interrupted by a security guard as they begin unpacking. Philippe and his friend Jean-Francois have to run and hide under a tarp, on a beam above the WTC's 400 meter elevator shaft. They hide there, their bodies tangled, not moving, not speaking, for hours waiting for the guard to leave.
Man on Wire is built like a suspense film. It's engrossing and expertly crafted, and told with the passion and thoroughness of oral storytellers of old. Philippe Petit speaks as if he were reciting poetry in his thick French accent. Marsh accentuates the action with pitch perfect choices in the soundtrack, ranging from Satie and other classics to the disco classic A Fifth of Beethoven.
When Petit finally makes his walk, his friends gathered to watch below as he either committed suicide or one of the most poetic crimes of the century, the emotion is overwhelming. He recounts it with unbridled joy, his friends with tears in their eyes. I too was nearly moved to tears of joy. I can't remember the last documentary film to strike such a chord.
If Petit had of failed, he would have fallen to his death and likely been remembered as "that idiot." Petit recalls thinking with one foot on the wire, that to place his other foot on it and take that step was probably going to be the end of his life. Well, this life. If he fell, he would have fallen "to another life." That was his philosophy. But he didn't fall. He made it, 8 times. One police officer describes him as a dancer - he didn't just walk. He taunted police, laid down, knelt down. He had the time of his life. He was arrested with force as soon as he stepped onto the south tower - the police did not take kindly to his taunts. The charge: trespassing and disturbing the peace. The sentence: perform a show for the kids in the park as penance.
There is something so life affirming about one man boldly walking into what should have been his demise. People responded to his act of daring as if he had given charity. In a way, he had. His performance was a gift to the world. What that gift was is as abstract as the reasons for the walk itself. Sometimes we don't know why something is beautiful, we just know it is. What Philippe Petit did was beautiful, a work of poetic grandeur. Why I do not know. Words do not exist to explain. I just know.
Herz aus Glas (1976)
Tell me the Secret of the Ruby Red Glass!
Heart of Glass (1976)
Werner Herzog may well be one of my most cherished humans on the planet. If he were giving a lecture on the idiosyncrasies of his films, I would like to be there. If he was sitting on a sidewalk eating chips, I too would like to be there. He is without a doubt one of the cinema's most fascinating minds ever. He is, in my opinion, the King of the New German Wave of the 70s. And he still makes great and exciting movies! One of his most enchanting moments in his long and ambitious career (really, was there any man more ambitious in films than he?), is Heart of Glass, a totally bizarre portrait of a town gone mad. Although the picture for all intensive purposes defies the boundaries of any genre, it has been described as an absurdest drama-dy. That's a pretty suiting classification. If Heart of Glass can be described in one word, it would have to be absurd.
The film's protagonist Hias, a prophet of sorts. He can see the future, and seems usually to be depressed with the burden. His village has just lost the proprietor of its livelihood. The foreman of their red Ruby Glass factory, the only man who knew the secret of how to make it, died without ever getting the chance to pass it on. The town now searches in vain for the secret. Without it they grow depressed and begin losing their sanity, particularly the man who owns the glass works factory in his bid to discover the secrets.
That's really all that I can disclose about the film. Herzog's film is one based on style and atmosphere, getting at something underneath its story. He famously hypnotized the entire cast for each scene, save for the actor playing Hias and the professional glassblowers. Much of the dialogue was then improvised in a hypnotic state by the actors. Herzog described how an uneducated man in the cast was hypnotized, and then told to read a poem on the wall. The man replied he couldn't' see it without its glasses. Herzog told him to just move forward and he would see it. He then reportedly read off a stunning poem - a work of his own mind, since no poem ever existed on that wall. The hypnosis not only gives the actor's improvisations an peculiarity, but also their manner of delivery. It's bizarre, but totally encompassing.
It's moments of comedy are bizarre but joyful. Two men argue about who will die first, then the townspeople find them and argue which one is still alive. Later, the live man takes the dead man to the pub for a dance as a hurdy gurdy man plays.
The film starts with a long shot of Hias sitting in the mountain field watching cows in the fog. Herzog then employs footage he shot of clouds in the mountains, taken over the course of days. One shot in particular appears as though a wave of clouds is invading the hills. It's an absolutely breathtaking shot, and one that I've never forgotten, and likely never will.
Herzog once famously suggested that he directs landscapes more so than actors. In Heart of Glass he gives ample evidence to his claim. He takes joy in cutting away to seemingly completely unrelated events: a mountain waterfall, close up, as Hias narrates (it is claimed that this shot will have a hypnotic effect, especially if you speak German and do not have to read the subtitles); smoking springs and ancient trees at Yosemite; and a finale that involves a 500 year old monastery on a steep rocky Island off Ireland (Skellig Islands, fascinating place). The imagery and moody accomplishments of Heart of Glass are difficult to describe in words. It's one of the most visually arresting movie's I've ever seen. Herzog shot the film just a few miles from where he was raised in Bavaria. To list all the stunning shots in the film would be a tedious task. Virtually ever outdoors shot triumphs. It's visual poetry is profound.
Heart of Glass is one of Herzog's most unabashedly poetic and abstract films. Who else but Herzog would hypnotize his entire cast for artistic ambitions? It's a glorious film that thrives on its own integrity, and the mad visions of its ingenious helmer.
On the Wings of Time
How do we move on from our past glories? Can we? Do we even want to? Nostalgia is a powerful thing, sometimes too powerful for our own good. Larisa Shepitko's stunning debut feature Wings delves into these queries with the assured hand of an artist, executed in a patient and touching fashion.
Nadezhda Petrovna (Maya Bulgakova) is a former WWII fighter pilot hero struggles with her place in the world now that she is over forty and assigned as the head mistress of the provincial school, and seated in a meaningless bureaucratic post. When asked a question pertaining to her government field, she simply replies "I don't know anything." She is single, though in a loveless relationship with a museum curator. Her daughter has gone off and married an older man, yet Nadezhda has only met him over the phone. Of course, this hurts the lonely woman, so much so that she confides to her museum curator boyfriend that if she had been her real daughter she would have disowned her. She has nothing but memories and longings, and her job at the school. There she seems to find joy in fleeting moments. When one girl refuses to go on during a musical number, she puts on the girls costume instead so the others can still go on. But even there her life meets conflict. One student treats another, a girl, with physical cruelty. Nadezhda scolds him in front of a party gathering, after which he runs off. When he returns, he responds to question, "why?" with a blunt, "because I despise you." The film is juxtaposed with occasional flashbacks, usually just visuals - planes flying and soaring through the sky. But one turns out to be a fairly lengthy and dreamy rendering of a day out of the hospital with her love. the next sequence shows us how his plane went down, with Nadezhda on his tail. The plane crashes in a ball of flames, the wreckage captured in a swooping shot coming in overhead, freeze framing just directly above for moment, then moving on.
The glories she once knew, of love and heroism, a purpose in life, they're gone now, or so she feels. Her job at the school has the potential for a new purpose, but the cruelty only a couple students are enough to dissuade her from realizing that potential, and persuasion enough to leave the job and start anew. Her destiny is in the skies. After visiting with her daughter and her husband, who is entertaining his intellectual friends, she accuses her daughter of pitying her mother. She's just a plain old military woman, unsophisticated. Even though people seem to know her name and who she is everywhere she goes, its the truth.
There are many great movies about our yearning for the past, the desire to return to our glory days. Although Wings is a hearkening back to Nadezhda's military days and the difficulty of adapting to a peacetime life, perhaps drawing correlations to movies like The Best Years of Our Lives or Coming Home, it can equally be equated with films like Sunset Blvd. Wings though is just a different kind of film with a more touching execution. Although at times Nadezhda makes her situation more difficult than need be, she is always a sympathetic character.
Larisa Shepitko was one of the Soviet Unions unsung heroes. Her career lasted barely a decade, and she made only 4 films. I've seen two of them, this one and The Ascent, and both are nothing short of masterpieces. Sadly, she was killed in a car accident shortly after making The Ascent while scouting locations for her next project. Thankfully her work is again resurfacing thanks to the folks at Criterion. A boxset of Wings and The Ascent has been released through the Eclipse series.
Shepitko infuses her film with deep yearning painted in broad strokes. Her composition, even here in her first film, are assuredly artistic. The cinematography is stunning, particularly in the flashbacks. As beautiful as the film looks visually, and as stirring the direction is, the performance of Maya Bulgakova is at least the equal. Her portrayal of Nadezhda is nothing short of brilliant. She is able to convey so many emotions and express so much feeling with just a body language.
When she goes to visit the airfield, she climbs with struggle into a plane, dressed in her high heels and skirt. The men, overjoyed that the great Nadezhda Petrovna has come to visit, push her back to the hanger. The camera sits on her face for a few moments, as she moves from joy, to teary sadness, back to joy. The gesture is appreciated, but her destiny lies on the wings of love and steel birds.
London After Midnight (1927)
The Movie Patron's Warning
London After Midnight (1927)
This is not so much a review as an attack. And even then, the attack is not a hostile one. I'm not one to attack a movie without what I feel is a worthy reason. The only movies that even come to mind that I've attacked in writing are Bad Boys II and the recent Sex and the City movie, though that extends to the show as well. Personally, I found Bad Boys II offensive on nearly every conceivable level, so I attacked it. I despise the shameless embrace of materialism in Sex and the City. I think that show at one time was a satire, but just got too lazy to make the effort at cleverness, and instead wallowed gleefully it its shallow pool.
Those attacks were hostile. My reason for Attacking London After Midnight is not so much an attack on the film in and of itself, but an attack on the "reconstruction" of the film - the only way to see it today. The film opened to mixed reviews, yet was director Tod Brownings and Lon Chaney's most financially successful work. But then the only remaining print of the film was destroyed by fire in 1967. It's now on the AFI's lost films list, and has garnered something of an illustrious reputation and following. There are rumors that another print, fully intact exists, but this reconstruction is the only version available. It was reported as "the closest to the original version we'll see." Maybe that is so, maybe the rumors of an intact print are just that. Although many are grateful that this reconstruction exists to give them a glimpse at a lost film, when it comes down to it, this version is nothing that cannot be matched looking at a google image search, playing ominous music on windows media player, and reading from a transcript. What I'm trying to say is that this is nothing but an only kind of slick 45 minute power point presentation. It consists entirely of still photographs, panned and zoomed upon with intermittent title cards. Now, while I think this is a fairly ambitious and interesting attempt at a reconstruction, it's nevertheless just a summary from someone else's point of view, Rick Schmidlin's. He famously reconstructed Greed and Touch of Evil, and he did win an award for London After Midnight. It's my opinion though that while this is an admirable attempt, its also a misguided attempt. It's simply a curiosity project for those who have been waiting patiently to hear of a found copy of a movie that was by most accounts only mediocre. I can't make that judgment, because I still haven't seen the movie, just an elaborate photo summary of it.
Now this is not to say that still images cannot make films (lets face it, its just still images flickered through light 24 times a second), and I would direct you to my impressions of La Jetee. But La Jetee's style was Chris Marker's intent for his film, but it wasn't Tod Browning's intent for London After Midnight. Browning had his own style, and moved and shot with his camera in particular ways for particular reasons. By reducing his direction to static images removes him from director and replaces him as set photographer. In a way, it's almost a rape of the directors work. Not intentional, of course, though.
My "attack" is this: this reconstruction brings me no closer to having seen the film. I only have an idea of how it went. Sure I know a bit more about it and how it looked than before, but its just tantamount to preview research. Hence, no rating. Not zero stars, simply no rating, because, simply, I never got to see the real movie.
Was it a waste of 45 minutes? My time, yes. Your time? Depends on your predilections, I suppose. Maybe this is not so much an attack then as a warning or disclaimer akin to those found on hazardous products. If you expect a real view of a lost film, you're likely to be annoyed that you only get to glimpse through archives, and be left sour. That might not be good for your health.
Ten Empty (2008)
Empty it Out, Pick up the Pieces
Ten Empty (2008) ***1/2
In my review of Fireflies in the Garden I railed against what I felt was that films lack of originality. I termed dysfunctional family dramas a 'dime a dozen.' While in retrospect I think that term was not the best, especially in comparative terms to the prolificness of say slasher flicks or gross-out comedies. I stand by it though because like slasher flicks or nasty teen comedies, dysfunctional family dramas tend to stick to the same dogmatic formulas. Now that is not always a bad thing. Sometimes formula is formula for good reason, and sometimes it just takes style to transcend the formulaic.
Ten Empty, a small export from Australia is something of an exception to Fireflies in the Garden. Although its not anything totally unique in terms of structure, it is in a way fresh in the subject matter and execution. Eliot (Daniel Fredricksen) returns to his small town home for his father's new son's baptism. He's moved away to Sydney, become a success in the luxury pen making business (made from the material of Porches no less) and distanced himself from his families lifestyle and past. Although he is the lead in the film, the picture does not make him any kind of hero per-say. When his father offers him a beer, he remarks that he only drinks red wine. He wears fancy clothes to everyone else's old t-shirts. He is something of a quiet snob. His father resents his poshness and exodus from the family. He resents that he doesn't drink his beer, but then again he's something of a drunk.
The family is dysfunctional, but unlike most other dysfunctional family dramas, it's for good reason, not just the sake of volatility. Eliot left after his mother, suffering from bi-polar, committed suicide. He found her body. In the years since then, his father has married her sister, Diane. She's rot with Catholic guilt for her transgressions against her sister, and seems genuinely caring, but ultimately alienated to the outside looking in, shamed and hurt by her husband's clearly continuing love and pain over his deceased wife. Eliot's younger brother, Brett, remains in his room for much of the first act. The film only slowly reveals why. He too is now beginning to suffer from some form of mental illness.
That is what lies at the heart of the family's dysfunction - their inability to cope with with such illness. They fear he's going the same way as his mother, but the father is determined that he can take care of it himself. Eliot points out that it didn't go so well with his mother. The father resents the illness of his son, and can't come to terms with his condition. After a disastrous incident, Eliot wants to have Brett sent for help with professionals, but it costs money, lots of money, money that the father does not have.
Where Fireflies in the Garden was a solidly crafted film based on what was I think ultimately misguided screenplay, Ten Empty is a strongly performed film with a solid base. There are instances which seem misjudged or unnecessary, maybe even confused, but as a whole it is strong. It's carried by its performances, all of which are very good. Fredricksen is very good, but especially good is Geoff Morrell as the father. He plays his character with shockingly misguided attempts at discipline, and often displays his scorn and dismay on his sleeve. But at the same time makes it known that he's the way he is because of the way things are. When he's cruel, its precisely because he simply cannot cope. There are a number of supporting players as well, including a bartending family friend, and a woman from Eliot's past, highlighting that though he's become posh, he's not really left but simply run away.
The family, though resentful and scornful, is clearly full of love for one another. The memories of a life once lived makes the reality of the present that much harder. This is a dark movie, peppered in a realistic fashion. It has very few moments of lightness, but it nevertheless finds a crack of light in a dark room
In Search of a Midnight Kiss (2007)
Embrace the pain
In Search of a Midnight Kiss (2008) ***1/2
Oh there are so many of these movies on the Indie scene. So many about being lost and wallowing in pity, so many lovelorn 30-somethings. And to be frank, a lot of those kinds of indie movies are not very good. Some are outright terrible. But that doesn't stop people from making them. Why? Because those stories do ring true to many, many people. And that is why when those kinds of films get made with the quality of In Search of a Midnight Kiss they're quite lovable.
Shot in black and white on a small budget (in the end, around 25 thousand) in a matter of days, not weeks, this spunky little charmer has a level of spontaneity and sweetness that elevates what could have been a lackluster affair into a good picture.
The story is a modern one. Wilson has just moved to LA after being dumped by his girlfriend. On the way he's smashed his car, had his laptop stolen - on which he had a script he was planning to sell - and is out of work. He lives with his friend and his friend's girlfriend. The movie opens with perhaps one of most awkward scenes I've ever seen. When you see it, you'll know what I mean.
After being goaded by his roommates, he places an obviously reluctant add on Craig's List, as a misanthrope seeking likewise. It's New Year's Eve after all, and who wants to be alone when the clock strikes midnight. He gets a reply from a strange girl, Vivian. She's interviewing guys that afternoon for a date - she doesn't want to give up her night to be with a loser. Wilson is taken aback, but meets her. She's even more strange in person, and shockingly bold. Things go awkwardly, but good, and she gives him til 6pm to impress her. They walk and talk in downtown LA. LA in black and white seems like an entirely different place. It's a crumbling place, its majestic old theatres left unoccupied. Eventually they grow closer, then apart after she chides him to make a confession to her, then is horrified by his answer. But he's persistent, and eventually they'll end up navigating crazy ex-boyfriends, adulterous friends and the midnight traffic together.
This is a sweet little movie, filled with dialogue. It's sometimes trite, sometimes lovely, but always there. Movies like this live and die by their performances, and the leads are very nice here. Wilson is played by Scoot McNairy, who I imagine in real life is much like his character here. Sara Simmonds is quite beautiful in her strangeness. Her character is quite layered, and she gives a strong and winning performance.
In Search of a Midnight Kiss was written and directed by Alex Holdridge, who claims that the movie is more or less autobiographical. It's about the ways in which human connection can save us all, especially the heartbroken. When Wilson's ex calls and leaves him a message, he cries, but his night with Vivian comforts him and shows him that even if it ends up just being a fling love is still alive and reachable.
Le fils (2002)
Ignorance is Bliss
Le Fils (2002)
I recently stumbled across a debate over the best sibling directorial team. It was expectantly punctuated by names such as the Cohens, Wachowski's and Scotts(even though they don't direct together).
Only one respondent out of the first 50 or so included the Dardenne brothers on that list. And even though that is understandable, given their films have lived and died almost entirely on the festival circuit, its nevertheless evokes a sense of sadness. The brothers are of a small group of filmmakers who continue to explore the human soul. They are not interested in entertaining, but enlightening and provoking. Of the three films they have made thus far in this decade, two are among the best I've seen (the third, Le Silence de Lorna, I have not seen yet). One in particular is an especially astonishing achievement - Le Fils (The Son).
The problem with reviewing Le Fils is that the less said about it's content, the better. I advise you to please heed the following advice: DO NOT research the plot of the film; DO NOT read the extended synopsis on this site or any other one; DO NOT do anything but rent it, buy it, go see a showing, and simply watch. The more ignorant you are of Le Fils the better. Once you've seen it, go back and watch it again to appreciate the nuanced direction and performance by Olivier Gourmet.
He plays a carpentry teacher at a rehabilitation centre for adolescents. He knows his craft, is strong and assured in his skills and can give measurements by eye. One day, a new boy, Francis, has an application placed for Olivier's class. He goes over the paper work, and informs the rehab representative that he already has too many students, and suggests they send the boy to a metal work class. But then something peculiar happens: Olivier starts following the boy, watching where he goes, watching what he does. Why? That is the question we ask ourselves. Is he a pedophile? Does he know this boy from somewhere? Soon he goes to Francis and asks if he is still interested in joining his class. He takes the boy under his wing and begins to develop a relationship with him. Only slowly do we find out the answers to our question: Why?
That answer I would never dare reveal to anyone who does not already know the answer. It seems to be constructed as a minimalist thriller, although we only see it that way because of what we already conceive to be the case based on our predefined sensibilities. But what we think we know and what is the case are not one in the same. Le Fils tells us nothing we do not need to know and nothing less. It's a film so straightforward that it flies completely over the audiences head. When we find out the truth, the impact is devastating. For a film so steeped in day to day realism, the level of intensity it reaches is astonishing.
The Dardenne's have made their career out of creating structurally simple but thematically brilliant films. They are not storytellers, but parable tellers. Each film is an investigation into the soul, seeking to explore what it is to be truly human in the realm of the divine, the sublime, and the real. Their names should be placed on a list with the likes of Kieszlowski or Ozu.
When I first saw Le Fils, the experience left me shaken to the core. It is a film like none other. It somehow defies all expectations by laying the cards on the table plain to see. It is us, the viewers, who misconstrue and complicate things for once, and not the other way around.
My Winnipeg (2007)
Euphemisms! Everything in this city is a Euphemism!!
My Winnipeg (2008) ****
Winnipeg, Winnipeg, Winnipeg. Everything in Winnipeg is a euphemism. Sleep walkers hold the keys to their old homes! By law! Nazi Fascists invaded Winnipeg! The coldest city in the world! Home of the Ultravixens! Forks and the Forks under the Forks, and the horsehead picnic tables! Hermaphrodite streets - half front street, half back lane! Masons, ghosts, spirits and sad buildings! Citizen Girl! Yes, you can find these things in Winnipeg, Winnipeg, wonderful Winnipeg!
If you've ever seen a film like My Winnipeg before, it was likely only in your dreams, or the dreams of the mad poet of Winnipeg, Guy Maddin. Maddin's love of the silent film era has shaped his own visual style, shot usually on old grainy film stock, appearing as it his films were perhaps well preserved 1920s avant garde. He's built a career on making films so outrageously insane by modern film-making standards. His films are usually either bizarre horrors or totally unique comedies, or both. My Winnipeg is a film of sinisterly off the wall humor, conveyed through Guy Maddin's narration (played by Darcy Fehr). One gem: "My father died, with nothing left to do, he died. I'd like to say he spontaneously combusted on the ice at the area, that would have been great."
The narration often doubles back on itself, repeating itself in different forms, or entirely contradicting itself in single sentences. All the while the images (usually grainy black and white, but also occasionally in color or animation) are punctuated with flash cards, usually in single or short phrases (Tragedy! Dead Man walking! Dance of the Hairless Boners, Naked! Hairless! Dance! Swollen Pride! Why?!) They flash only for a fraction of a sentence, making them difficult to read.
I guess if My Winnipeg could be placed in a genre, they would have to call it a slapstick documentary. Maddin uses archive footage mixed with Maddin's own. The central thesis of the film is Maddin's memories and the city's as well. To begin, he rides a train, sleeping, while it rolls around the Winnipeg streets, seemingly unable to ever leave town. To come to terms with his inability to ever leave the city. He rents his old home for a month, to recreate his childhood memories. He recruits actors to play his siblings, and takes his mother (Ann Savage) to the home, then recreates memories and incidents from childhood. Maddin always seems to have a fascination with mothers, his mother. Elsewhere, he details the Masonic undercurrents of the city, the occult, man pageants, Nazi takeovers, and the rape of the city's beloved Winnipeg Jets by that corrupt National Hockey League!
So, the question that many ask then, "is it true?" Being Canadian, I know some things are true, some things are not. Would you want to really know the answer anyway? Its law that everyone gets to keep the keys to their old homes. Why? Because the town has the highest sleepwalking rate in the world! They leave their homes and wander to their old houses in the dark, in the cold, in the snow! You must let them in until they wake! Is that true? I don't care to know. If I knew then I would have to have come back to reality. Unless of course Maddin's Winnipeg is reality. In which case, Winnipeg! Wonderful Winnipeg!
Mister Lonely (2007)
That's Show Business, Folks.
Mister Lonely (2008) ****
Well, it's been 8 years since Harmony Korine made a film. The last time we saw him was in Julien Donkey-Boy, before that Gummo. Both those movies passed through eyes of which the majority had no understanding. Roger Ebert, in his review of Julien Donkey Boy, referred to Korine as on a list with such names as Herzog, Cassevetes, Tarkovsky, Brakhage, Godard, etc. The reason: because he smashed the boundaries of how a conventional filmmaker would have told such tales. He also pointed out the near death of the underground film scene. There once was a time when if you were a film buff, you sought out films like these, and sat willfully in old one screen cinemas. And you were not alone: It's hard to believe now, but yes people lined up around street corners to see the Godard's or Tarkovsky's. Now those lineups are reserved for the likes of Pirates of the Caribbean and Spiderman.
That kind of film buff is now a rare breed. We exist, and gleefully buy our tickets and run to the theatres, but we're no longer shoulder to shoulder or lined up around the corner. Take as an anecdote a few trips made to my local film festival. I saw a Bela Tarr film, and in my idealism rushed to get there early so i could get a seat. Though later I realized that the auditorium was only maybe half full, at best, in one of the smallest auditoriums in the city. When I first saw Mister Lonely, it was of course the same.
But I digress. The point? Mister Lonely, like Korine's two previous directorial outings, dare to be different, dare to be bold, and so are destined to go unappreciated. Even Ebert, who praised Julien Donkey-Boy only gave the film 2 stars - though he did wish he could give a 2 star positive review. The problem with making a film like Mister Lonely is that its so odd that everyone gets caught up on the oddity. A common gripe: "sure its original, but what's the point?" Mister Lonely, written by Korine and his brother Avi, sets its sights on the world of celebrity impersonators. Mainly are Michael Jackson (Luna) and Marilyn Monroe (Morton). He meets her while working a bizarre gig at an old folks home, as they sit half amused, half catatonic. She invites him back to her commune in the highlands of Scotland, inhabited by their kind: Abe Lincoln, James Dean, Madonna, the Queen, the Pope, Little Red Riding Hood, the Three Stooges, and Charlie Chaplin and Shirley Temple, who are her husband and daughter, respectively of course. They live in their own world. The only thing that ties them to the real world is a flock of sheep. To them, their world seems as perfect as they want it to be, for they are the truest souls of all as they cloak themselves in the lives and manners of others. Or so that is their claim. To showcase their talents and philosophy, they build a theatre where they will put on shows for themselves, and the townsfolk.
Although their is light heartedness and tender sweetness, something else seems to be sinister. Charlie Chaplin is an egomaniac, and emotionally abusive towards his wife, Marylin Monroe. To everyone else he is courteous and, well, Chaplin-esquire. She tells him that sometimes he looks more like Hitler than Chaplin.
Though the film retains its tenderness, its big shift comes with the slaughter of sheep. They are infected, and even the living must be killed. All gather round as Larry, Curly and Moe pull the triggers of double barrel shotguns. In a way, their fantasy reality is not so much shattered, but breached.
Punctuating this is a story about flying nuns, who believe that they can jump from the priests plane (played with absurd hilarity by Werner Herzog himself) and land safely on the ground below.
Although Korine has always found the beauty in his own chaos, Mister Lonely is a much more aesthetic film than his others. It has a certain level of visual prestige that few others would even strive to. Many images are quite simply breathtaking. The sequences of Nuns, accentuated in their sky blue robes against the sky blue skies are some of my favorite in any film.
And, yes, there is a point. What is it? I think I know, though I'm positive its up to some personal interpretation. And for that matter, a review is not the proper place for such a discussion. This much can be said though, its poignant, touching, and genuinely heartbreaking and life affirming at once.
Films like this exist to be based solely upon their own merit. Even though Mister Lonely has some thematic similarities to, say, Sweet Movie (which Korine has said was an influence on his career), it is still something all together unique.The problem with films like Mister Lonely, though, is that they must be taken totally literally or not at all, or maybe both at the same time. That is a lot to ask of an audience, especially now. But, I ask, is that not the point of good film-making? And Besides, where else can you see the Pope sleeping with the Queen? The Three Stooges killing sheep? Michal Jackson play ping pong with Charlie Chaplin? Or maybe James Dean hang out by a swing with Madonna and Shirley Temple? Where I ask you, where!
The Labyrinth Gangster Capitalism
Gomorra (2008) ****
Much of Gomorra takes place in and around a crumbling housing project, that in establishing shots looks as if it were a rotting labyrinth pyramid. The very structure of the film's slums serves itself as a visual metaphor for the Camorra crime institution in Naples. It's a bureaucratic shuffle, rivaling a large capitalist corporation, equally ruthless but in different senses of the term. Their products are drugs, extortion, and toxic sludge. Their version of corporate take-over involves murderously shameless acts of extreme violence.
Matteo Garrone deftly directs Gomorra, based on the novel of the same name by Roberto Saviano. It contains a labyrinth plot serving to depict a labyrinth lifestyle. One storyline focuses on a young boy, Toto, who lives in that decaying pyramid, and wants to join up with the gangsters who run it. By the end of the film, his youth will be shattered, and he'll have done things to those around him that would have seemed unthinkable before. He's the ground soldier in the gangster empire.
Don Ciro is an aging money runner, delivering rations to the families of mob prisoners. He gets increasingly caught between the war between factions within the complexes, and before long takes to wearing a bullet proof vest in fear of his own safety.
Roberto is a college graduate, given a high profile job working with Franco, who runs a scheme disposing of garbage and waste from the city by burying it in the countryside - a move that has sent the cancer rate in the countryside through the roof. Roberto must face his own conscious as he becomes more and more aware of the corruption of work.
Pasquale is a talented designer, who's put to work by his friend and boss completing a contract for dresses in less time than he and the workers should like. At great personal risk to himself, he takes an offer from a Chinese factory boss to gives lessons to his workers. The job means crossing the Comorra, so he is hidden in the trunk on the drive to the factory, with a modified hole behind the backseat so he can stick his head out to breath and chat.
The other storyline follows two Scarface-wannabes who long to be the crime bosses of all bosses. They cross the local boss by stealing drugs from dealers, causing trouble, then by stealing weapons from a mob cache, raising Cain. They are knuckle-heads, a couple of kids too stupid to see the truth behind the phony glorification of the gangster lifestyle.
That phony glorification is entirely absent here. Garrone observes his gangsters with an eye of contempt. There is no Robin Hood imagery in Gomorra. It puts on full display the ruthlessness of the gangster culture. It's a gangster as capitalist world, one where turning to killing kids or a woman is looked down upon, but not off-limits.
The film starts off with a fantastic sequence of tanning machines and surprisingly graphic murder, which would lead one to think that they were moving headlong into a Scorsese-like blood bath of macabre. You'd be wrong though. Gomorra is a very patient film, slowly unraveling its stories. It's clearly influenced by the early Italian Neo-Realists, and also has elements that reminded me of the gangster pictures of Jean-Pierre Melville. Garrone shoots in a documentary style with hand-held camera shots. It jumps between its story lines with utmost patience, which might slow down the film's pace more than many would like or are accustomed to. If you do not realize the scope of the Camorra's activity in nearly all facets of commercial and communal life in and around Naples, the connection between the stories may seem unclear. But that's one of the main services of the picture, to show us just how entrenched the mafia has remained in parts of Italy.
Although mob movies are a dime a dozen, Gamorra enters as a gangster epic with freshness. It's a very European film, and as far as gangster pictures go, with its no nonsense documentary style, and only slowly escalating violence and patience it feels like a unique addition to the genre. Gomorra is sure to split, maybe even downright annoy audiences looking for something more conventional. It defies at least most of the genre's clichés, and aims high with its quiet ambitions.
Gomorra won the Grand Prix at this year's Cannes Film Festival, and has been slotted as Italy's official entry into the 2009 Academy Awards for Best Foreign Film.
The Legend of Bob Ford
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
A newspaper man in an old John Ford film once proclaimed that when legend becomes fact, you oughta print the legend. Well, they've been printing the legend of Jesse James now for over a hundred years. He's been a Robin Hood at times, a cold blooded killer others. It's the old wild west conundrum: for every tale of outlaw heroism is a tale for outlaw ruthlessness.
And now here's a tale that is as decidedly conflicted as the legends themselves. In Andrew Dominic's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Jesse James is no hero, even shown to kill a man in the same manner that supposedly made Ford a coward. But at the same time, James is also shown to be a doting and loving husband and father. His paranoia has made him ruthless. Though he does now have his reasons to be to be paranoid, its that very paranoia which has alienated those around him.
The picture seeks to dissect the legend, not necessarily to get to the facts, but the essence of reality. In a way, it's striving for what Werner Herzog calls ecstatic truth. Though that's not necessarily aimed at James himself, but his assassin, Bob Ford. Yes, that is the legend that is most steeped in hyperbole.
Was Ford a coward? The title would lead you to be believe such, but that's the irony. If there has ever been a more matter of fact title, I've not heard it. Some of said the title says it all in this case, but nothing could be further from the truth.
Casey Affleck steals the show in his portrayal of Robert Ford, the young man who idolized, then feared, and finally assassinated Jesse James. He gives a mannered but electrifying performance. Brad Pitt portrays Jesse James as a contemplative but quietly menacing man, troubled by his increasing ruthlessness. Sam Rockwell plays close James friend, and brother to Bob, Charlie Ford. Elsewhere, in one of my favourite performances of the film, Paul Schneider plays the outlaw and notorious womanizer Dick Liddel. It's a film full of excellent performances, though none match that of Affleck's.
The plot is lingering and lyrical. When the film debuted it played in a four hour version (there have been rumblings about a future release of this version, but other than a few select screenings there have been no solid leads). The picture goes off in different directions, with the ultimate aim of eventually coming back together, but without force or haste.
The film opens with a train robbery, the last of older brother Frank James (Sam Shepard) who is weary of Bob. But Jesse takes him along, not so much because he trusts him, but perhaps because he enjoys the flattery of Bob's idolization. Eventually Jesse begins knocking off those who he suspects of going against him. Dick Liddel has been teamed up with another team member working on their own scores. Although he is close with the Fords, he reminds Bob at bullet proof not to betray him.
Wood Hite (Jeremy Renner), Jesse's cousin, shows up at the Ford home one snowy winter day. Hite has it out for Liddel, who's living there, after he slept with his father's young new wife. Hite storms the bedroom and he and Dick shoot it out. Just as Hite has Liddel in his sights, Bob pulls the trigger. They must hide that Wood has been killed, knowing that Jesse would kill them for sure now. Slowly, fearfully, and regretfully, the Ford's are enlisted to conspire Jesse's arrest. Only after they it absolutely dire does Bob commit his infamous deed. Though we know it's coming before we even enter the theatre, the assassination scene's grace and poignancy are unexpected. And the way Jesse meets his end prods existential queries. Throughout the film action is frequently narrated in a calm manner by Hugh Ross, often simply telling us in words what is happening in screen. Where in many films that may seem trite, here it feels uniquely transcendental.
Director Dominic is not satisfied to simply dissect the legend. The film is, quite frankly, one of the most stunningly beautiful films in recent years. Dominic and Roger Deakens capture the action with an unabashedly artistic eye. Chilling sky blues blend with the golden wheat of Alberta, evoking the aesthetic qualities of Days of Heaven. That film was admittedly a huge influence on the visual style of the picture. Dominic not only shot the film in the same fields, but hired the same costume designer (Patricia Norris). To top off the stunning look and mood of the film is Nick Cave and Warren Ellis' beautiful score. Cave is proving himself not only an immensely talented singer-songwriter, but a wonderful composer as well.
If there is one word to describe The Assassination of Jesse James, it is undoubtedly beautiful. Which is not to say that it's all look: the substance is also quite remarkable. The film held me in its grip for every minute of its length. Though I have not read the source material, the storyline and approach to the legends of Jesse James and Bob Ford I suspect owes much to the book. Much of the narration sounds like it may have been taken verbatim from the book.
This is a highly ambitious film, and one that I will unreservedly stand behind. There are usually only a few films that hint at a lasting reputation for greatness. I think this is one of them, and that will be recognized in time. And I'll stand by that.
Snow Angels (2007)
Snowflakes Falling on the Heads of Angels
Snow Angels (2008) ****
David Gordon Green's big breakthrough may have come in the Apatow produced Pineapple Express, but his real achievement is a small movie that only a few people saw. Working from a novel by Stuart O'Nann, Green adapted and directed the gut wrenching Snow Angels, which premiered last year at Sundance but did not get a release until earlier this year.
Green has quietly built up his resume on the indie circuit, gaining admiration from many with George Washington and his follow up All the Real Girls. He hit a bit of a critical snag with Undertow, although personally I feel that that film was a masterpiece. Snow Angels was his comeback.
The film centers on a group of small townsfolk. Arthur (Angarano) is a teenager stuck in the middle of his parents' separation, while negotiating the adolescent waters of first love with Lila (Thirlby). Annie (Beckinsale), Arthur's former babysitter, is embroiled in an affair with a co-worker and friend's husband (Katt). Her estranged husband, Glen (Rockwell), is back in town as a reformed alcoholic and reborn Christian trying to make his life work and get not only his daughter, but his wife back in his life. These tales are weaved together in circumstances of great tragedy and sad existence. If it were not for the incredibly touching story with Arthur and Lila, this may well have simply been too depressing to bear.
Make no mistakes this is a sad, sad movie about lives in despair and love in decline. Devastating things happen to these people. Glen's story is especially heartbreaking. He quickly falls off the wagon, and his pain is understandable, even if it might be of his own doings. He tries to make things right, but is met with obstacles, not least of which Annie. She's bitter with him, and in ways, entirely centered on herself. But to lay blame on individuals is impossible. They're simply the victims of circumstances in life which have spiraled out of control.
Tim Orr is, as always, Green's right hand man. His photographic style is always stunning in its desolation. His focus is always on the small things, the desolate, and the real. The big difference this time is that the setting is not the muggy south, but the snowy north. Green traveled up to my stomping ground, shooting the film in and around Halifax and its outlying small towns. Not to toot a horn, but personally I think our scenery is beautiful, especially snow covered, and that shines through in Snow Angels.
Green always keeps his films in a low key (save Pineapple Express). Snow Angels is no exception. He has the eyes and ears for how these kinds of people speak and act. That his films are so grounded in realism makes them that much more tragic and touching. His All the Real Girls was one of the finest examples of youthful realism I've ever seen. He once stated that he wanted Blockbuster to have to create a separate genre section the kinds of films he wanted to make. They frequently contain moments of gut busting humour within an overarching subtle (or not so subtle, depending on the film) pathos. Personally, I hope he sticks to his base of small personal stories. Moreover, I hope that his ventures into mainstream earn him some recognition. Not that people are going to Apatow comedies for the directors (although I did, but I likely would have went anyway), but hopefully at least a few people are clicking his name as they browse the IMDb page for Pineapple Express.
Bikur Ha-Tizmoret (2007)
Here we Have no Culture... Coffee?
The Band's Visit (2008) ****
What a charming little film this is. Why is it that foreign comedies seem to be so deftly able to manage intelligence, insight, drama and politics so thoughtfully and naturally? The Band's Visit takes a topic that could have been ripe for violence, but turns it into a tale spun of friendship and our common humanity.
The film is set in a middle of nowhere Israeli desert town. An Arab police orchestra from Egypt has traveled here by mistake, looking for a town with an almost identical name where they are to play at the opening of an Arab cultural centre. When they arrive in the small town, he's greeted with the news that there is no Arab culture here; "no Israeli culture either, no culture at all!"
As the group stands in their bright blue suits with their instruments at their feet, they negotiate a deal to get something to eat at the local diner, owned by Dina. After chatting with the bands leader, Tawfiq, she offers to set them up for the night - some at the diner, some with the two men who seem to do nothing but sit outside the diner, and some with her.
It's obvious that she is attracted to the older Tawfiq. She invites him to come with her. He takes along Khaled, the young band member who lollygags and womanizes. That night the band goes with their hosts, and spend the night doing various things. One group, lead by the band's second in command, who has written a concerto but never finished it, eats dinner with an Israeli family. There are tensions that are mostly calmed through a common denominator - song. One member waits for a call on the payphone from the embassy, a phone also stalked by a young man waiting for a call from his girlfriend - How he shoes his annoyance when the phone is in use is quite funny. Khaled goes with a young shy Israeli on a double date as the fifth wheel. He shows him how to charm his date, as the three sit on a bench. It one of the films most charming scenes. Elsewhere, Tawfiq and Dina go out and simply chat. She asks him about his life, which he only slowly and reluctantly details.
Things don't go the way we might expect in a more traditional story, but what we're left with is far more satisfying. The film is shot in muted tones, often with shots set up simply for their photographic value. Take for example the numerous shots of the Orchestra lined up in their sky blue suits, or a moment when Tawfiq, Dina, and Khaled return to her apartment for the night where upon entering all three stop and look forward for a few seconds. These shots have no value other than aesthetic reflection, but they work perfectly. That director Kolirin makes this work is a credit to his daring.
The Band's Visit is a incredibly charming film, and a pure delight to watch. Comedy goes from slapstick to subtlety without notice, and to drama and sadness just as easily and back again. Sure we don't get what the usual audience would want out of the final story, but it matters not at all. The pay off in this film is so thoughtful, and so touchingly done, what seemed preferable before seems cheap now. This is a great movie.
Standard Operating Procedure (2008)
What's (not) in a Picture?
Standard Operating Procedure (2008) ***1/2
What's in a picture? They say its worth a thousand words, but how many words are what's not in a picture worth. How about thousands of pictures? That conundrum is one of the major foci of Errol Morris, the eccentric genius documentarian's new project, Standard Operating Procedure. Although I was not engaged as I was with Morris's other works, Standard Operating Procedure is still a brilliant and fascinating look at the Abu Ghraib photo scandal.
Morris interviews through the interrotron numerous members of the staff at Abu Ghraib prison. They give their thoughts on their complicity in acts of torture, and reflect back on their experiences. One of the film's major attractions is Lynndie English, that now infamous young woman so maliciously captured on film.
What comes across most intently is that they were just doing what they were told. Those orders always come from off camera left or right. No one above Staff Sergeant was ever charged with anything. This is a point the documentary tries to drive home. In any bureaucratic structure, the big dogs never take the fall. You always sacrifice your little men, your pawns. If people knew what was really going on at the top, they would most surely revolt, or at the very least make a stink, and that would be it for you.
Morris interviews one person who claims she took pictures because she knew it was wrong, to show the world. Is she telling the truth? Well she also discusses how it was "kinda fun" sometimes. She is probably guilty and innocent on all counts.
Morris delves into his subject matter with his usual detective style. He says very little, and of course never ever dares show his face on camera. He only prompts from time to time. He has a style that is uniquely his own in the documentary world. I did not find Standard Operating Procedure to be on the same level as say The Fog of War or Gates of Heaven. But then again how many are? This is a more than worthy addition to the Morris repertoire.