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+