Thursday, December 25, 2008

"A Gentle Breeze in the Village" (2007, Dir: Nobuhiro Yamashita)

Pros: Beautiful cinematography. Natural acting. Lovely pacing. Heartwarming story.

Cons: Overly slick production. Feels more Western than director's previous works.

Grade: A

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

"A Tale of Two Sisters" (2003, Dir: Ji-Woon Kim)

Pros: Great use of tension. Excellent acting. Lovely sets. Some effective jump scares. Nice use of light + shadow.

Cons: Use of blatant 'scare tactics'. Some cliche 'horror-movie' camerawork. Hard-to-understand ending. Doesn't feel very organic.

Grade: B

Sunday, December 21, 2008

"Slumdog Millionaire" (2008, Dir: Danny Boyle & Loveleen Tandan)

The popularity of this film with American film critics associations just goes to show how wholly film critics are fazed by bright colors and loud noises. Sacrificing story for energy, wretchedly artificial and with not a lick of subtlety to be found, Slumdog Millionaire epitomizes the idea of "style over substance" in every way.

The cast is charismatic but there's no great acting to be found here. The writer seems to have no grasp of metaphor or nuance, hammering each point home as bluntly as possible. From the overly Western plotline to the almost patronizing way Boyle portrays the Indian slums, there is nothing here that seemed real to me in the slightest. It's a Westerner's approximation of the "real India", complete with a soundtrack (quite enjoyable, admittedly) of Indian songs remixed in a Eurodance style.

Cinematography is frequently interesting, but the abundance of cheesy slow-mo and the weird editing makes it seem as though we're watching a music video instead of a film. Slumdog Millionaire is basically the stylistic twin of Mamma Mia! with an Eastern setting and a European director. This, of course, automatically makes it worthy of awards.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

"The Seventh Continent" (1989, Dir: Michael Haneke)

Pros: Interesting message movie. Effectively disturbing. Good for fans of Haneke.

Cons: Pacing and subject matter will turn off Haneke newbs. Tiresome editing structure.

Grade: B+

"Happy-Go-Lucky" (2008, Dir: Mike Leigh)

Pros: Brilliant, complex performance by Sally Hawkins. Rich supporting cast. Intricate narrative. Interesting concept film, the first of its kind from a director known mainly for "slice-of-life" drama. Highly discussable. Richly observed.

Cons: Writing seems less than organic at the beginning. Takes a while for the brilliance to really "kick in". Over-the-top score. Primary school teachers dress like hookers. Less realistic than Leigh's past work.

Grade: A

Sunday, December 14, 2008

"WALL-E" (2008, Dir: Andrew Stanton)

Pros: Visually stunning. Brilliant use of lack of dialogue. Great character design. Brilliant animation. Full of beautiful moments. Marvelous score. Great end-credits sequence.

Cons: Loses some of its charm once humans enter the equation. What dialogue there is is rather blunt and preachy. Political ends are admirable but portrayed less than subtly. Would have worked better as a "silent" film - without any human dialogue at all.

Grade: A-

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

"Benny's Video" (1992, Dir: Michael Haneke)

I can imagine that this film would have nonplussed critics when it came out, but seeing Haneke's works in reverse chronological order makes it a lot more interesting - you can see, in embryo form, ideas that he explored in depth in his later films. Present in Benny's Video is both the "filmwatching as voyeurism" idea he looked at in Hidden, and the "filmwatching as crime" idea he explored, to brilliant and challenging effect, in Funny Games. These themes are substantially less developed in this film, and it functions as more an exercise in brainstorming than a fully realized film in its own right - even looking at it from a pre-Hidden and -Games angle.

A lot of future Haneke regulars are here - Arno Frisch and Ulrich Muhe (may he rest in peace), both of whom starred in Funny Games play Benny and his father, respectively. Angela Winkler is the mother. Haneke uses subtle camera tricks and directs his actors in ways that complicate the questions ultimately posed by the film - who is the most heinous? The son, who kills without feeling and suffers no visible remorse (until, possibly, the ending - which I believe would have been better had it been left open-ended)? The father, who thinks only of his family and his son's reputation? Or the mother - do those little smiles represent a crumbling emotional front or is she secretly enjoying the perilous situation she's found herself in?

The underlying strain of anger towards America and American media is once again present here. Mickey Mouse makes another background appearance - he was in Funny Games as a refrigerator magnet. I find Haneke's distaste with American tash culture far more compelling than von Trier's - especially since von Trier has never even been out of Europe, and thus fits completely the "stuck-up, anti-American European" image than many Americans have. And apart from Dogville, I don't think von Trier has made anything remotely as interesting or complex as Funny Games or Hidden.

The direction is the star here - the acting is passable but not really significant in the scope of things. I find it kind of ominous that Ingrid Stassner, who plays Benny's victim, has no other credits on IMDb.

There's enough interesting material here for me to give it a B- grade, but it will probably only be of interest to Haneke fans.

Friday, December 5, 2008

"Wild at Heart" (1990, Dir: David Lynch)

Peppy fantasy romance shows Lynch at his most whimsical. His affinity for black comedy is on display here - the story itself is a twisted retelling of "The Wizard of Oz", with a very leggy Laura Dern (mining the role for all its worth) in the Judy role and a surprisingly bearable Nicolas Cage as the love interest. The weakest link is Diane Ladd, whose hyperbolic Wicked Witch performance is so loopy that it hits only a few of the necessary targets, leaving whole character avenues untraveled. Harry Dean Stanton, Willem Dafoe, Isabella Rossellini and a feral Grace Zabriskie fill out the castlist.

A fun diversion, but as close to fluff as I think Lynch'll ever get.

"David and Lisa" (1962, Dir: Frank Perry)

This interesting, offbeat coming-of-age benefits from a nice supporting cast and some intriguing directorial flourishes, but a prosaic, unrealistic script and a hammy performance by young lead Keir Dullea make it more of a chore to sit through than it should be.

Irritating teen David (Dullea), who has a fear of being touched, is sent to a private boarding school for the special (I think that's the PC term?), where he meets MPD girl Lisa (a beautiful Janet Margolin, doing pretty well in a shallow role), who only talks in rhyme and has an alternate personality named Muriel, who is withdrawn and silent. They get to know each other, stuff happens and it all winds up towards a predictable but sweet result.

Supporting cast is fine - Howard Da Silva as the head psych, Richard McMurray and Neva Patterson as David's parents and Jaime Sanchez and the intriguing but underused Coni Hudak as some of David's schoolmates are all stellar.

Moody and enchanting at times, but the slow pace and Dullea's complete lack of acting ability kill it.

"Funny Games" (1997, Dir: Michael Haneke)

This brilliant, disturbing masterpiece on the connection between media violence, desensitization and real-world violence is perhaps one of the braver pieces of filmmaking of the past twenty-odd years. Michael Haneke is a genius and the only contemporary director I know of who utilizes violence in his films with such innovation, originality and genuine power. Not for the weak of heart or nerve, but definitely one to see if you give a shit about movies or the media and the effects they have on us.

"Cleo from 5 to 7" (1962, Dir: Agnes Varda)

A real director's film, chock full of interesting setpieces, symbolism and subtle visual tricks. There's so much to look for here, which makes it a fun watch for French film devotees (especially if you're keen on puzzles), but the lead character is only marginally interesting, and her story isn't gripping in the slightest. Earns marks for the visual sense and keen attention to detail on behalf of Varda.

Monday, December 1, 2008

"Australia" (2008, Dir: Baz Luhrmann)

It's definitely long, it's definitely overjuiced and it is definitely theatrical, but I enjoyed every minute of this campy, OTT romp. The critics have been giving it too hard a time - the acting is great all around, the visuals are stunning and the film itself is a huge heap of fun. Sirk can suck it - this is how you do melodrama.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

"Kabluey" (2007/8, Dir: Scott Prendergast)

A funny, endearing indie comedy that never oversteps its limits but manages to be a nice diversion nonetheless. Lisa Kudrow brings gravitas to a wisp of a role, Scott Prendergast is quite good (especially near the middle, where his character is allowed to show more depth) and the supporting cast is full of talented comedians (Conchata Ferrell and hypnotic Angela Sarafyan, especially good) doing their thing.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

"Cactus Flower" (1969, Dir: Gene Saks)

A piece of pure fluff that I enjoyed despite myself. The entire cast is very funny (Ingrid Bergman is a highlight, showing a great sense of comic timing!) and I enjoyed the subtle spoofing of crazy '60s dancing styles.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

"Rachel Getting Married" (2008, Dir: Jonathan Demme)

An organic film that grows like a vine - the year's best film so far and probably one of the highlights of the decade. A pitch-perfect script allows for incredibly full characters and powerful emotional conceits that never threaten to grandstand. Acting is fantastic all around, especially Hathaway, Irwin and Winger.

Monday, November 17, 2008

"Changeling" (2008, Dir: Clint Eastwood)

A big, lumbering, elephantine movie that is often rather embarrassing and cheesy. Angelina Jolie is stiff and artificial, trying and failing to create a character by stringing together a bunch of Big Scenes. The supporting cast is unusually rich considering the film's quality - Jason Butler Harner stands out by having an absolute ball with his character. He earns major points for trying to kiss Angelina Jolie during the prison showdown scene (Jolie does her best work of the film in this scene, as well) and for singing "Silent Night" on his way to the gallows. Amy Ryan does very well with an incredibly corny role, and Jeffrey Donovan brings presence to a thin role as the head of the police investigation into Jolie's son's case. Eddie Alderson and Michael Kelly are also quite good. The makeup work is ridiculously good but completely inappropriate for the story - I find it hard to believe that with all the blubbering Jolie does in this film, her makeup never, ever, ever smears.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

"Love Songs" (2007, Dir: Christophe Honore)

A film so retarded that it can't walk without assistance, film suffers from a severely convoluted plot and some incredibly odd acting (by a cast of, admittedly, very good-looking people) and the songs are so bad that it seems almost as if they were thrown in as an afterthought. Not worth it, but Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet is a cutie.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

"Zack and Miri Make a Porno" (2008, Dir: Kevin Smith)

A sweet but stagy romcom that is often very funny but just as often very stilted. Good acting and witty script but none of it feels spontaneous or organic - the emotional payoff is completely calculated but, fortunately, it works. Banks shows her comic chops as a lead player, but it's still a disappointingly rote performance. Jason Mewes and especially Justin Long are hilarious in supporting roles. There's one joke in here that is too crude for words; I wish they had left it out. Nice to see Traci Lords making fun of herself - she's not a bad actress, to be honest. Very good soundtrack, as well.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

"The Piano Teacher" (2001, Dir: Michael Haneke)

A study of obsession and perversity sculpted in ice, "La Pianiste" will stick with you. Emotionally and intellectually challenging and very hard to watch at times, this solidifies Haneke's reputation as one of the few contemporary directors willing and able to experiment.

What could have smacked of sensationalism is redeemed by a suitably cold directorial approach. The sexual and violent scenes are shown as if they were diagrams in an encyclopedia. Cold, indifferent and scientific.

Haneke (now one of my favorite directors) certainly knows how to play with pause and interruption. A master of tension, he creates a deceptively calm front for the film that makes the inevitable explosions of violence even more shocking. The beating/rape scene in this and the throat-cutting scene in "Hidden" both reflect this unique ability.

Everything in the film represents the clean, coldly intellectual worldview of the main character. The interiors are large, uncluttered and almost impossibly formal. The cinematography is very crisp, in fact, too crisp - everything looks clean and "real" but there's an undercurrent of danger. It is like looking at a kitchen display in a home furnishings store - it looks like a kitchen but it is definitely not a real kitchen. The speed of movements seems slightly altered and a bit jerky - like watching an image in a flipbook. All the technical aspects of the film support the major themes of the lead character's story arc in surprising, intriguing ways.

Isabelle Huppert is superb in the lead. Watching her face, the expressions of her eyes - it is like seeing frost form on a window. It is a cold, clean, sharp performance, but it is sharp like a knife.

The support is equally fine. Annie Girardot is funny, scary and sad as Huppert's oppressive mother, and sleazy/sexy Benoit Magimel is a worthy emotional foil to Huppert's intellectualism.

That, and the music is excellent!

Saturday, October 18, 2008

"Whispering Corridors" (1998, Dir: Ki-hyeong Park)

A good, honest ghost story that uses unabashedly cliche horror tactics to achieve its ends. Surprisingly, it is quite scary.

Set in a Korean girls' school, the plot is hugely complicated, so I'm not going to explain it here. This film pulls out all the stops in its search for scares - double-takes, creepy music, drippy sound effects, jump starts and an old-fashioned Big Twist that is very well done - I didn't see it coming at all. It has its misses, but there are definitely more hits.

Acting is good but not hugely special all across the board.

The cinematography looks pretty dated for a film only ten years old. Still, watch it if you're in the mood for a proper, frightening ghost story, the kind rarely made by Hollywood anymore.

Friday, October 17, 2008

"W." (2008, Dir: Stone)

A turgid, unfunny political "epic" that offers us absolutely nothing new in the form of information, satire or emotional insight. Attempts at humanizing George W. Bush succeed thanks to a pointedly obvious script, but the direction is so self-indulgent and the humor is so forced (entire scenes, like the hazing one, are inserted just as set-ups for one try-hard "quotable" line). Nice cinematography, but that is one of the few things of interest here.

Josh Brolin will definitely get a boost in star appeal thanks to this role, but he gives an imitation when he should have given a performance. It's a dumb portrayal of a dumb person, and we never really get to see the film through Bush's eyes. We never get to see what he's thinking or feeling when such insight should have been the backbone of the film.

The supporting thesps nail their characters' mannerisms and appearances but remain emotionally distant. The best performances come from Richard Dreyfuss as Dick Cheney, projected a sinister aura from the edges of scenes, and Elizabeth Banks, who has some nice moments of introspection but has some trouble with the accent. Ellen Burstyn tries to command the screen during her few scenes, but just ends up looking like a show-off. Thandie Newton is impossibly ham-fisted as Condoleezza Rice, giving a perf that would be more at home in an episode of SNL. Jeffrey Wright, Scott Glenn and James Cromwell are all solid but prosaic.

A half-assed attempt at political discourse, and very boring.

Friday, October 10, 2008

"Now, Voyager" (1942, Dir: Irving Rapper)

Uplifting, if overlong, Bette Davis tear-jerker. A spinster aunt, oppressed by her domineering upper-crust mother, goes to a sanatorium after a nervous breakdown and emerges a new woman. She travels to Argentina on a cruise ship, meeting a handsome man stuck in a loveless marriage and forges a connection with him. A whole lot of other stuff happens.

The protracted, episodic nature of this film could have dulled its attempts at creating an emotionally resonant story, but the quality of the acting greatly elevates it. But lol @ Bette's eyebrows in the first act.

"Carrie" (1976, Dir: Brian De Palma)

"Carrie" veers dangerously close to exploitation at times (de Palma sure likes his jailbait), but still manages to be a chilling and effective study of interrupted innocence, the horrors of high school hierarchy and the psychological effects of menstruation. The cast of young thespians bring believability and charisma to their roles, but Sissy Spacek certainly comes out on top. She distills the emotional maelstroms of adolescence in one perfectly calibrated performance, running through anxiousness, fear, hate, love and blossoming confidence.

The story is well-known so there is no need to rehash it here. The climax is oft-imitated but remains powerful and chilling.


The main problem I had with this film was the broad symbolism of having Carrie's mother die like St. Sebastian. It seemed to me that de Palma was aiming for some general theme of religious imagery here, but this particular image didn't really *mean* anything. In fact, I thought the whole Piper Laurie performance was ridiculous - an over-the-top, implausible performance in a scarily plausible role.

"Damage" (1992, Dir: Louis Malle)

Major flaws of casting (with one notable exception) and a cold, detached mode of direction cripple this potentially interesting melodrama. The main faults of this picture can all be traced back to the flick's woefully misguided attempts at turning Jeremy Irons into a sex symbol.

Stephen Fleming, a well-to-do politician (Irons, somehow creating a performance both underdone and hyperbolic) strikes it up with Anna, a beautiful young woman at a party (Juliette Binoche, unengaging) and embarks on a wild sexual affair. Finding out that she is in a relationship with his son, Martin (the beautiful Rupert Graves, pretty good in a negligible role) doesn't douse his passion, and their affair becomes more and more dangerous to all involved, including Fleming's wife, Ingrid (Miranda Richardson, absolutely f-a-n-t-a-s-t-i-c).

The heart of this picture should be in the myriad sex scenes, but they are acted and directed so as to be deterrents to passion and interest. Jeremy Irons offers such a childish, over-the-top imitation of coital ecstasy that it makes you wonder whether he had ever had sex before. Whatever you want to call his beastly howling, you can't call it realistic. Juliette Binoche does an okay job convincing us that Anna is even marginally turned on by these overwrought trysting sessions, but even her beauty and natural sad charisma can't save the cold direction from itself. Grand opera and chilly classical scores aren't hugely appropriate accompaniments to passionate sex scenes. As a result, what should have been hypnotic and sensual is merely clinical, and we end up having no idea of WHY Anna and Fleming are so addicted to each other.

The performances of the two leads are so distant and underplayed that it is impossible to believe that such a relationship could actually take place. For a film like this to work, we need to understand the irresistible danger and the adrenaline rush that attracts Fleming to such a scenario. The viewer is forced to look at the proceedings from a distance when, for the film to function, they should have been in the thick of things.

The ending is the best part, thanks to Miranda Richardson. She blows the entire film out of the water in a magnificent two-scene acting feat that must be seen to be believed.

Overall, the film is nice-looking but so coldly unemotional that it is impossible to really identify with the events happening onscreen.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

"Ordinary People" (1980, Dir: Robert Redford)

Best Picture-winning Robert Redford film is well-acted and very well-written, but falls prey to many of the problems that plagued 80s filmmaking - easy sentiment and that GODDAMN SPARKLY MUSIC SCORE among them.

The cast is good all around - Mary Tyler Moore's frozen facial expressions fit the character's backwards slide of repression perfectly. Timothy Hutton is solid but never really transcended the material, in my opinion. Judd Hirsch's character should have been written out entirely - he's just a cipher to make the difficult subject matter easier to swallow for mainstream audiences. Elizabeth McGovern is sweet and touching in a supporting role. Donald Sutherland takes the top prize with a beautifully restrained performance.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

"The First Night" (2003, Dir: Luis Alberto Restrepo)

Solid but not particularly memorable effort - was Colombia's submission to the Oscars in 2004. An AWOL soldier and his sister-in-law experience their first night as homeless people on the streets of Colombia. The story is intercut with flashbacks to before and during the soldier's experiences in the civil war. Strong performances from John Alex Toro and especially Carolina Lizarazo in the leads. Worth seeing just for dreamboat Julian Roman wearing short shorts for most of his small screentime.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

"The Family Game" (1983, Dir: Yoshimitsu Morita)

A scathing indictment of the lifelessness of the 1980s Japanese middle class, film tries to explore story with an absurdist touch but sometimes overdoes it, becoming weird for the sake of weird.

A four-person family living in a tiny Tokyo apartment hire a tutor to remedy the youngest son's failing grades. The tutor's unconventional approach makes a change in the lives of all four family members.

The best scenes come near the end - a family dinner with the tutor that dissolves into a food fight, and a chillingly ambiguous ending that symbolizes the family's return to their original routine.

Performances are good all around. Yusaku Matsuda is a hoot as the tutor, bringing both humor and a hard gravitas to the role. Saori Yuki is quietly touching as the mother. Legendary director Juzo Itami as the dad, Ichirota Miyagawa as the younger son and Junichi Tsujita as the older son acquit themselves well, even if they don't make a huge impression. The surreal direction sometimes takes a swerve into OTT territory, but "The Family Game" is still worth a look.

The subtitles on the copy I watched weren't especially well-translated, so if you're getting this from Netflix, be aware.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

"Judy Berlin" (1999, Dir: Eric Mendelsohn)

There's something incredibly unsettling about a movie as thematically uneven as this one. There are powerful moments and some lovely instances of introspection, but the screenwriting is too often hyperbolic and the execution too often excessively sentimental. A worthy idea, but it needed a little... or a lot... more thought.

The acting is very good all around, but each performance is so wildly different from the next that it seems as if each was hijacked from another film. The all-out, farcical gaucherie of Falco's performance doesn't mesh with the near-painful domestic dramedy of Kahn's the thematic tightrope-walking of Barrie's, so that even the most striking acting moments feel strangely dissonant with their surroundings. Madeline Kahn fares the best, although all the women are good. It is very sad that this was her last film - her amazing ability to walk such a fine line between comedy and dramedy has yet to be matched. Bette Henritze is also very good in a small role as an Alzheimer's-afflicted former teacher at Barbara Barrie's character's school.

The females in the cast get the best lines and the best stories - the writing for the men is cliche and over the top (Aaron Harnick's cries of "Mother!" and Bob Dishy's "I hope you understand that I have no idea what I'm doing..." speech).

Photography is interesting but the B&W "experimentation" is clearly lifted from many 60s and 70s independent styles. An interesting watch all around, but not a particularly satisfying one. C+

Thursday, September 25, 2008

"Janice Beard: 45 WPM" (1999, Dir: Clare Kilner)

I got this for the amazing Eileen Walsh (who delivered my single favorite supporting actress performance of all time in The Magdalene Sisters). "Janice Beard" is a 'quirky British comedy' in the vein of Saving Grace, Little Voice and especially Very Annie Mary, and it is definitely an excellent specimen of that genre. It is very funny in a quaint, endearing way, and it has some great comedic performances from Walsh and a cast that includes Rhys Ifans, Patsy Kensit, Sandra Voe, Eddie Marsan and Mossie Smith.

Janice Beard's (Walsh) father dies exactly at the moment of her birth, launching her mother (Voe) into depressive agoraphobia that lasts over twenty years. She develops a habit for spinning wild, fanciful stories in an effort to get her mother out of the house. When she finally leaves home to work in London as a secretary for an auto company, this habit leads to all sorts of mayhem.

The film rests on Walsh's comic stylings almost completely. She plays the exact opposite in tone of her "The Magdalene Sisters" character, and she does so very well. She is by no means typically attractive and, like many less-than-traditionally-beautiful actresses (such as Sissy Spacek and Toni Collette), she makes use of this in interesting ways. She nails both the naivete and the mischievousness of the character with aplomb, hitting home runs emotionally, vocally and physically (witness her hilariously apt expressions and voice when she pretends to be a TV interviewer).

Supporting thesps are fine all around, but Voe is especially touching as Janice's mother. Sarah McVicar, who plays one of Janice's office mates, is a dead ringer for Miranda Richardson. The cinematography is very good for a movie of this type, and there is some great use of patterns and colors in the camerawork.

Overall, it's light fun. Don't expect a huge deeper meaning, but it is very good for what it is.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

"After Life" (1998, Dir: Hirokazu Kore-eda)

How can I begin to explain the magic of this film? Has there been any other picture made that deals with such universal themes as death, memory, life, love and spirituality with such candor and lack of sentimentality? I don't think there has. I don't really think I can review this film comprehensively without making a fool of myself, so I'll just give a rundown of the story and what I thought of it.

"After Life" details a week of operations in a way station between heaven and Earth. The newly deceased stay here for a week, three days of which are spent choosing one defining memory from their lives. This memory will be recreated on film and will be the only thing they take with them to the afterlife.

Kore-eda shows massive directorial innovation here, creating a drama using almost solely documentary techniques. The lives of the deceased are revealed sparely through 'interviews' and random banter.

It's a brilliant film - watch it!

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

"Dance with a Stranger" (1985, Dir: Mike Newell)

An impossibly protracted study of obsessive love, hampered by a bad script, poor editing and an unengaging directorial hand.

I watched this for my beloved Miranda - she's one of my favorite actresses - and, boy, did she let me down. It isn't a bad performance, by any means - the fact that this was practically her debut makes it quite impressive. It's a feral performance, and it seems like she's acting purely on a stream of consciousness. She attacks the script with her teeth bared and her claws out, but it isn't strong enough to hold up. The film itself caves in under her OTT gesticulation and gorgon's stare. It is a monumental performance that, at the same time, fails spectacularly.

The visuals are interesting, but they don't successfully distract from the film's stagnant pacing. At one point, I thought "This must be over by now", and when I looked at my watch I found that I was only forty minutes in, with an hour to go. Not a good sign. Supporting thesps are decent - a young Lesley Manville makes an impression in a small role as a girls' bathroom gossip - but co-lead Rupert Everett isn't suave enough to convince us that any woman would stay with him despite the repugnance of his actions.

Glad I saw it - I'm a Miranda completist - but it's a slog and she's done better work since.

"Burn After Reading" (2008, Dirs: Ethan Coen & Joel Coen)

Puffed-up to the point of bursting by its directors' sense of their own cleverness, "Burn After Reading" emerges as collage of every flaw in the Coens' oeuvre. The ham-fisted screenplay and seen-it-all-before Coen humor makes this film one of their worst. In fact, I could hardly believe that the brothers were even capable of producing such an inane piece of crap. I hope to God that they don't keep resting on their laurels creating films like this, especially after the power and scope of the fantastic "No Country for Old Men".

To tell the truth, I don't really like the Coens. They are incredibly condescending to their audience in almost every one of their films (but especially the comedies), and the way they depict southerners and minority characters as novelties rather than real people really offends me. Their gallery of the "absurd" (i.e. non-whites and Red Staters) was refreshingly absent in NCFOM - for the most part. The Dillahunt and Grant characters were staples of the old style.

This film is the most egregious example of their "smarter-than-thou" attitude that I've seen. Their attempts at humor are so pompous that they aren't even funny. We've seen these jokes in a million other films, and just because they're now being told by the COEN BROTHERS doesn't mean they're fresh or amusing. Such a sordid blend of bad jokes and gruesome violence does not a successful black comedy make.

An all-star cast is wasted here. Frances McDormand ladles out the tics and twitches and somehow makes her idiotic character even more loathsome than it already is on the page. George Clooney and John Malkovich churn out their usual shpiels. Brad Pitt shows a flair for comedy hitherto unseen, but it's still completely affected. Tilda Swinton fares the best here - she's a perfect fit for the role and she's very funny. Supporting character thesps, such as Richard Jenkins and J.K. Simmons, are wasted.

"4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" (2007, Dir: Cristian Mungiu)

Had I seen this before I had published my Top 10 of 2007 list (find it here) I probably would have placed in at #3. It's a marvelously tense film with some expert use of suspense and atmosphere, and one of the best thrillers in ages.

The film's story is relatively straightforward. During the Ceasescu regime in Romania in the 1980s, a college student, Gabita (Laura Vasiliu), and her roommate/best friend, Otilia (Anamaria Marinca), try to organize an illegal abortion. A lack of foresight by all and Gabita's selfish and stupid behavior lead to an increasingly fraught situation that irrevocably damages both Otilia's relationship with her boyfriend Adi (Alexandru Potocean). After hiring a vicious male abortionist, Bebe (Vlad Ivanov) for financial reasons, things get pretty heavy.

The director, Cristian Mungiu, has said that this film will be the first of a trilogy about the Ceasescu regime - I can't wait for the next two installments. He's shown amazing skill at manipulating mood here, and the fact that this was disqualified from the Oscar shortlist for Best Foreign Film last year is a joke. The script is flawless, and one of the best of '07. The editing is powerful and considerably adds to the tense mood - one abrupt cut to a shot of two trains moving in opposite directions is a corker, and there's one truly amazing scene - a dinner party at Adi's parents house (the mother is played to perfection by Romanian screen goddess Luminita Gheorghiu) is almost unbearably wrenching.

The acting is a mixed bag. Anamaria Marinca is stupendous as Otilia, who very nearly martyrs herself for the ungrateful Gabita's cause. Her high point is a fantastic study of nuance, shot in profile, as she discreetly berates Gabita for her lack of foresight after the abortionist leaves. Vlad Ivanov plays a vile character as repulsively as he can, but something about his playing struck me as fake. Vasiliu doesn't have much to do, but she doesn't show too much creativity with the lines she does have.


The one part of the film that really left me cold was the ending. It was clear to me about two-thirds of the way through that the director was having a hard time finding a way to end the film, and the "Let's never talk about this" conclusion felt too glib and predictable by half.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

"Hamlet 2" (2008, Dir: Andrew Fleming)

SHOOT ME NOW. This was worse than "The Happening" - which at least ended up being funny unintentionally. The intentional humor in this travesty falls flat EVERY TIME, and the lead character - repulsively played by a godawful Steve Coogan - is completely execrable. It's a complete train wreck from start to finish.

The production tries so hard to create an "iconic" comic jag, and Coogan is so blatantly looking for the kind of instant fame that accompanied the Carell and Black performances from "The 40 Year-Old Virgin" and "School of Rock" that the entire project just stinks of wretched desperation.

The only bright spots come in some of the supporting performances. Screen newcomer Skylar Astin (he was in "Spring Awakening") is actually quite funny as an awkward, sexually ambiguous drama student. Catherine Keener is, for the most part, same old same old, but she has one funny scene in a bar. Amy Poehler is funny, and Elisabeth Shue is a good sport and, gasp, touching, playing herself. David Arquette is funny in a small role.

I must admit that the "Rock Me Sexy Jesus" number was mildly amusing, but I still wish Coogan wasn't in it. On the whole, a pathetic attempt at farce.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

"The 400 Blows" (1959, Dir: Francois Truffaut)

Probably the best film ever made about children, 'The 400 Blows' stands out because of its remarkable contemporaneity - all the more surprising and powerful considering it was made in 1959.

I find it harder to write reviews when I like the film in question, so this one will be short. The performances are excellent - Jean-Pierre Leaud delivers one of the most assured debuts I've ever seen in a film (I saw his screen test in the special features section of the DVD and was amused by how similar he was to his character). Albert Remy and Claire Maurier (she played the cafe owner in Amelie!), as the lead character's parents, provoke complex emotions in their roles. The other child thesps, including Patrick Auffay as Antoine's best friend, are refreshingly natural. There is a strange serenity in the way Leaud's harsh world is shot - it is as if we are seeing his story through a window, uncensored and unbiased. The story is undeniably about Antoine, but we are shown it from a third-person perspective - thus the problems that plagued films like "Thirteen", where the self-absorption of the teenage characters was reflected in the script, are thankfully absent here. The ending is haunting and powerful.

Lovely cinematography and an interesting score are other high points of this brilliant film.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

"The Homecoming" (1973, Dir: Peter Hall)

A cinematic spray of acid straight to the face, this caustic little masterwork explores the dramas of sex and childhood with a ferocious candor on par with "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?", a film I mini-reviewed here a few days ago. It explores the familial structure like a surgeon performs an autopsy. Based on a two-act play by Harold Pinter, the film also unfolds in two acts - "Night" and "Afternoon". The first act is a brilliantly cryptic study of character and motivation without emotion or sentiment, and it showcases some brilliant ensemble acting. The second act isn't half as good - it ditches the labyrinthine dialogue of the first act and settles for a blunt and ungraceful conclusion. Still, the very end is unusual and chilling.

The acting is, by and large, great. I enjoyed Cyril Cusack and Ian Holm the most - the former plays, perhaps, the only truly sympathetic character in the film, and Holm acts with the most innate charisma. Paul Rogers is very good, if a little monotonous, as the malignant father (figure?). Michael Jayston and Terence Rigby do well with what they are given, but they don't have a lot of room to explore their characters. I picked up this film for Vivien Merchant, although I didn't enjoy her performance as much as I hoped I would. She has astoundingly expressive eyes - just watching her face in this film is an education - but the performance isn't nearly as vocally inventive. She's good, but there's a curious dissonance between the two halves of the performance.

Some questions I have: Did Max molest Teddy, Lenny and Joey as children? "Think of the fun we used to have in the bath", "He still loves his father!" and a couple other lines I can't recall right now spring to mind. Also, was MacGregor Max's lover? If you've seen the film I'd love to hear your insights on these subjects.

Friday, September 5, 2008

"Wilderness Survival for Girls" (2004, Dirs: Eli B. Despres & Kim Roberts)

A sharply directed indie thriller with a bunch of interesting ideas. The film has a nicely calibrated plot but a poor script full of stilted dialogue prevents it from really taking off. The budget is clearly low - a film like this could have worked a lot better with some adequate funding.

The directorial team of Despres and Roberts wrote and produced the film as well - I really wonder what this could have been like if a different screenwriter had been found. The directing is quite impressive for a film of this budget - the use of music and suspense is expert and there's an inventiveness in the camerawork, too - before the girls encounter the intruder, scenes shot as if from the ceiling or near the floor add a voyeuristic, creepy touch to an already uneasy mood.

The characters are well-developed, even if they aren't given good lines, and the acting is generally pretty good considering the written material the performers were given.

Ali Humiston is probably the best as the irreverent, foul-mouthed Kate, closing the seams between character and actor with ease. Jeanette Brox (an actress who I had seen on TV and liked, and the reason why I picked up this movie) has a unique, awkward charm that she can coast on for some of her scenes, but in others she shows creativity with pause and diction. She's a talented actress and one to watch. Megan Henning is the weakest link. She's not bad, but her Deborah is just bland and her attempts at neuroses are half-hearted - none of it feels genuine. James Morrison is wickedly good as the creepy intruder, projecting an aura of watchful menace.

An intriguing film - a cliched premise brought to life through taut direction, but hindered by clunky dialogue.

"Vicky Cristina Barcelona" (2008, Dir: Woody Allen)

This film has me convinced that only Spanish-speaking men can be truly romantic, and if you see it you'll find it hard to disagree. Woody Allen's newest is a return to old form - the prickly, clever dialogue jumps off the page and the beautiful Spanish vistas provide a mood of irrepressible sensuality that Allen has never before captured. I think that the charm of this film comes from the discovery, on Allen's part, of its Spanish culture - maybe he should keep making films in other countries just to stay fresh. It seems like America bores him now.

VCB showcases some subtler comedy than Woody has displayed in the past. There's an excellent attention to detail here in both the writing (which is impeccably restrained) and the direction (I love the cut where Doug, after listening to Cristina's tale of lesbionic darkroom dalliances, puts the napkin in his lap and then there's a cut to a scene of him with a laptop on his lap, sitting on the bed - shrewd editing). It isn't hard to get swept away in the film's raw aura of sexuality - the fact that nothing graphic is shown, I think, makes it more potent - and the rich, earthy sepias of both the camerawork and the Spanish surrounds adds greatly to the mood.

Performances are fine all around. The lead actresses - Scarlett Johansson as Cristina and Rebecca Hall as Vicky - are somewhat miscast, in my opinion. Johansson has a beautiful face and a kind of warm openness to the sensuality of the film, but she just doesn't have the kind of talent needed in order to easily maneuver Allen's tricksy dialogue. The character seems to fit Johansson's overall persona well, but she lacks both the comic and dramatic talent to really make Cristina have a dynamic impression. Rebecca Hall is quite good - great, at times - but she's a British actress playing an American character, and her performance seems more like a caricature of Ivy League Americanism than an embodiment of it. She's a good actress and I'm glad she's in high-profile films, but I wish they had cast an American actress. Javier Bardem smolders in a role perfectly tailored to his heavy-lidded, rumbling-voiced gravitas. He never has a huge chance to do much other than project a raw sexual appeal, but he's very strong throughout. The real story here is Penelope Cruz.

As the temperamental (to say the least) Maria Elena, ex-wife of Bardem's character, she is a force of nature. She performs excellently in both English and Spanish here, and I've never seen her act with such fluidity and grace. Maria Elena could have been a shrieking harpy, but somehow Cruz lets us identify with the character's essence - a woman who operates solely on the direction of her emotional compass. She shrieks and she storms around, but she's always mysterious and she always attracts. I just wish that she had been showcased more in her final scene, but that's what good supporting acting is - when an actor or actress leaves you wanting more. It is a spiky, tangy and exotic performance - she's absolutely excellent here.

An ideal date movie if you really want to get that certain someone in the sack - this film is an aphrodisiac.

"Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" (1966, Dir: Mike Nichols)

The definitive tragicomedy of the 20th century: they just don't make them like this anymore. The acting is transcendent and the direction is stunning and all the more powerful considering that this was Mike Nichols' first picture. That the film manages to stay generally free of staginess is a miraculous feat.

Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor spew vitriol like it's nobody's business. Sandy Dennis does a great job of showing that Honey may just be more adept at manipulation than anyone realizes. George Segal does very well with the least distinctive character, but he isn't any opportunities to really command the screen the way Burton, Taylor and Dennis do.

Great film, a classic.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

"You're a Big Boy Now" (1966, Dir: Francis Ford Coppola)

I have a theory that if "You're a Big Boy Now" was filmed without dialogue - basically a silent film with a music soundtrack - it would work a lot better. The writing in this film is really clunky and the attempts at farce fail on all counts, but there's a joy in color and music that isn't present in the ponderous and stilted machismo of the overlong, overjuiced, overpraised The Godfather.

The film itself is a curious pastiche of different concepts and visual flourishes - Coppola seems to throw ideas at the film like darts, but he never commits to any of them. The plot seems to be just a backdrop for Coppola's messy, Pollockian style of direction. It is clear that this was a student film - you sense the eagerness and the excitement of a neophyte in the art of filmmaking - but the amateurishness is clear.

Peter Kastner projects a kind of bucksome ineffectuality in the lead, but there are some funny performances in supporting roles - Elizabeth Hartman is very foxy as Barbara, Tony Bill is quite good as Bernard's smooth-talking co-worker, Julie Harris is funny in an odd casting choice, and a po-faced Rip Torn is very funny. Less successful are Karen Black, whose sweetness is a bit bland, and Geraldine Page, who provides a broad, tic-filled comic archetype with no focus or real verve.

Special mention must go to the excellent costumes and sets - I especially loved Barbara's kitchen adorned with Mucha prints and clown figurines.

Friday, August 29, 2008

"Hawaii" (1966, Dir: George Roy Hill)

I had more fun with "Hawaii" than I thought I would. The film is so ridiculous at times that you can't help but laugh at it - the first hour is utterly weird and wacky in the most awkward way possible, provided lots of uneasy chuckles. I don't know how much of this humor was intentional, however, and the idea that the filmmakers may have been being absolutely serious really frightens me.

The next two hours drag interminably. The direction doesn't engage and the writing is too blunt in its approach - Malama is supposed to be a symbol of the "innate goodness" of the Hawaiian culture pre-conversion, but her role is completely corny. The role of Jerusha is the best one, as it provides Julie Andrews with a real chance to add shading to the character, which she does. She's not great, but it's one of the best performances in the film.

Max von Sydow is OTT in the worst ways possible here. His character is so repulsive that it makes the end-of-film turnaround completely ridiculous both in its execution and its expectations of the audience (compare it to the loathsomely sanctimonious ending of "Breaking the Waves", one of my least favorite films ever). He doesn't play the "good" Hale as the "bad" Hale changed, he plays him as a completely different character. It needed to be shown that "bad" Hale had the "good" Hale in him all along, and von Sydow's performance isn't sharp enough to maneuver the character's intents, purposes and turmoils with grace. His performance is overwrought enough to provide us with some cheap laughs, but it's disappointing acting considering it came from such a great actor.

Richard Harris is dashing and charismatic, but his role is just as noxious as von Sydow's. Jocelyn LaGarde gives a remarkable, earthy charisma to her character, but her story arc is played for laughs when it shouldn't have been. Manu Tupou and Lou Antonio are quite good in small roles.

The scenery is nice, but the story is horribly botched. Only watch this as a curio, or just watch the first hour for some laughs at the film's expense.

Monday, August 25, 2008

"Pierrot le Fou" (1965, Dir: Jean-Luc Godard)


Gosh, this film is intense in the most surprising of ways. I'm angry at myself that I didn't look into the Godard oeuvre sooner, because now I'm going to have to see all his films!

I always find it interesting to see foreign films of the 1950s and 1960s and see how far ahead they were, thematically, than American films. Especially in the 60s, sex and violence in foreign films (especially mainland European films) were treated with a remarkable candor that today's American films are still too sheepish to try. I wonder if a film like "Pierrot le Fou" could have been made, and taken seriously, in the 2000s. I doubt it.

Godard shows a remarkable mastery of color, music and editing. The visual sense is amazing - the cuts are absurd but never superfluous. Here, Godard creates a world where surrealism feels entirely natural.

This is the only film I know of where the progression of the film is handed over completely to the characters. Marianne and Ferdinand know they are being watched - we, the audience, are their spying pursuers. They look at us and talk to us, and they are wary enough of our motives and trustworthiness that they will often change the story itself just to throw us off their trail. It is a revolutionary move by Godard, giving the audience complete insight but also keeping them shut out completely - and it would not have worked without his actors, Jean-Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina.

Belmondo provides a strangely affable presence with regards to his character - a man so tortured by the superficiality of the world that he feels he must flee it - figuratively speaking, he is trying to go to outer space without leaving the ground. Anna Karina's performance is a miracle of submission to role and direction - there is nothing to separate her from the character. It is an example of near-frightening immersion, made all the more impressive by the fact that her role is more an idea (of danger and possibility and opportunity) than a real woman.

If you haven't seen this yet, pick it up now! But make sure you watch it on Blu-Ray, I can't imagine seeing it any other way!

Monday, August 18, 2008

The Deer Hunter (1978, Dir: Michael Cimino)

"The Deer Hunter" is three hours long, and when you are directing a film this long you can't skim over character development. You really can't... but "The Deer Hunter" does that. The director seems more interested in maintaining a constant aura of chaos, and not just in the war scenes - the wedding scenes at the beginning are great examples of this. Coupled with the confusing segues and lack of clarity in the editing, it makes the film very hard to keep track of. Characters get lost in the mix and the actors are given very little opportunity to create three-dimensional personalities.

I think that Cimino wanted the film to be really overwhelming, so he made each scene as busy as possible. He needed to realize that the subject matter itself is overwhelming, as is evident in the comparatively restrained war sequences - in comparison to the first and final sections of the film they are positively zen - and that a better idea would have been to create a feeling of starkness and/or placidity in the Pennsylvania scenes, so as to provide a greater and more powerful contrast. The ending is hokey to the max, and was really disappointing in the way it fell back so quickly onto easy sentiment. The music is very... odd? The soundtrack really needed to be rethought.

Robert De Niro offers a very guarded performance. His role, alone out of all the others, really gives opportunity to show connection between the different characters, but he doesn't fully grab hold of it. As a result, Mike's emotions and feelings towards other characters are murky and poorly drawn. Christopher Walken is bravura, and invests his character with more soul than De Niro, but he still isn't given adequate room to explore. It could have been a phenomenal performance without the hindrance of shoddy direction and poor plotting. John Savage fares better simply because his role is very straightforward and his arc isn't skirted by the script, but his trauma is still powerful and upsetting.

"The Deer Hunter" also bothered me with its casual misogyny - all the women are portrayed as stock wife/girlfriend or mother types. Meryl Streep's role is utterly idiotic, so it would be nitpicky to complain about wasted opportunities (there really aren't any opportunities to waste), but despite her valiant efforts in this thankless part she still doesn't provide us with a real sense of Linda's motives or conflict (Nick or Mike? She doesn't seem bothered either way). Rutanya Alda gives an interesting mood and presence to her few scenes.

I think I'm being excessively negative, because "The Deer Hunter" definitely has its moments - the Vietnam War scenes are genuinely shocking and powerful, and the first Russian roulette scene is very intense. Still, the actors are neglected, the plot is dimly conceived and the symbolism is heavy-handed, so I can't give this more than a B-.

AN: 08/25/08 ~ Changed my rating to "C+".
AN: 09/05/08 ~ Changed my rating to "C"

Thursday, August 14, 2008

"Alfie" (1966, Dir: Lewis Gilbert)

I'm watching this film for the August Supporting Actress Smackdown at StinkyLulu's blog.

I hadn't seen the 2004 remake of this film with Jude Law, so I didn't really know what to expect going into it except for lothario antics from Michael Caine. I was also under the impression that it was a comedy - an impression that was quickly dispelled.

'Alfie' is actually deep, very sad and very touching. Michael Caine's Alfie is a despicable character, but the intuitive direction certainly helps you to understand him. Alfie is misogynistic, but the film isn't.

Michael Caine's performance isn't a masterpiece of variety, but he makes some interesting choices in showing us traces of repressed psychological turmoil - his reaction to the funeral procession just before the scene in the doctor's office gives us a revealing glimpse into Alfie's own thoughts and fears regarding mortality.

The supporting female cast generally play their parts well - Shelley Winters is quite funny, and Jane Asher and Julia Foster are good if not especially memorable. The real standout here is the unconventionally beautiful Vivien Merchant, who charges each smile and glance with a tangible sadness. Her pivotal scenes in Alfie's apartment are harrowing - I'm very glad she got the nomination this year. I've looked up some of her other work online, and I've moved "The Homecoming" right to the top of my Netflix queue (apparently she's fantastic in it).

Michael Caine's fourth wall-breaking banter with the audience seems clever at first, but as the film wears on it seems more and more like a superfluous tic. I wish they hadn't used it so much, but it was useful in keeping the lead character from dissolving into a one-note cad.

Techs are good all around. Direction keeps things moving along snappily and the story is nicely reined in - one scene, however - a fight in a bar - is very silly and a lot of fun but doesn't seem like it belongs in the film. The point of the film - that indulgence only leads to pain and despair - is delivered with a heavy hand but, then again, this was the era of hyperbolic film messages (this was made one year before Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, go figure). I also wish it could have been subtler with Michael Caine's casual sexism - having him refer to a woman as 'it' was a bit obvious.

Definitely worth a watch. I bought the DVD at a department store, but I don't know if I'll see it again in its entirety - Vivien Merchant is worth another look, though.