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.