Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Review: The Wrestler

The Wrestler (2008, Darren Aronofsky)

Comparisons have been made between this Aronofsky outing and to the recent JCVD when writing a review for this film, noting the parallels between the two. I didn't keep that in mind while watching this film, but afterwards I thought about it for a bit and I would have to agree. JCVD and The Wrestler both tell the story of people who are down on their luck, almost penniless and are experiencing shattered relationships with loved ones. Interestingly enough, they both star actors who, for all intents and purposes, have been out of the spotlight light for years and have always carried some kind of criticism. Redemption time?

Well, yes, The Wrestler is a film about an aging wrestler, Micky Rourke, who needs a second job at supermarket to get by and attempts to sweet talk a stripper (Marisa Tomei) at a local joint. When he learns that his heart has grown weak and is giving out, there then becomes the matter of his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) with whom he'd like to reconnect. From this synopsis, your can probably determine that there isn't much original material to this project. Well, I'd say you're spot on. Regardless, this is a good film. It's a case in which the writing and the acting really carries a film that otherwise would have felt pedestrian. In a pathetic attempt to add absolutely nothing to the discussion already under way about the movie, Rourke is really good. This is a wounded beast of a man who continuously makes the same mistakes that put in him trouble with others. He even admits to them but cannot seem to shake those weaknesses off. I think we've all dealt with specific issues that have plagued us that were probably of our doing and we just had the hardest time dealing with them. Rourke demonstrates a controlled sadness, a sadness for himself and for what he has done to those around him. He's an okay guy but he doesn't seem to know how to handle the big issues and that ultimately became his downfall. The problems he encounters continue to eat away at him and just when it seems like one character (no spoilers, although you can guess who) is likely to give up a little bit of herself for him, he rejects it. For all its shortcomings, he is most comfortable in his current state, regardless of the physical and emotional dangers involved.

Both Marisa Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood are fine, although it seems the latter is reduced to yelling and whining. Tomei is sweet as the 'stripper with a heart of gold'. Not terribly original, granted, but she serves the story well enough as a little ray of light that is starting to appear in the wrestler's broken down life. It was peculiar however that several scenes that included her began with 45-50 second sequences with her giving either lap dances to customers or dancing on stage. I think Tomei is a beautiful actress and she certainly can put on some moves, but at one point I wondered why Aronofsky kept going back to these shots. We know what strippers do, we've all seen it before you don't have to beat us over the head with 'oh look how she has to debase herself to earn a living that sweet women.'

With all the characters in place and nicely set up, the story develops in somewhat predictable fashion. For all intents and purposes, there are no surprises here. I would say that Aronofsky filmed the actors well however. He rests the camera on their faces often, especially Rourke's. Closeups on the big screen can be quite unkind to an actor who doesn't give a good performance. But with Rourke's beaten up looks and his thoughtful stairs, it works perfectly. This is his show and he says a lot with his face. For all the mud that's been thrown in his face (or that he may thrown into his own face), there is still a very humane, kind side to him. Of course, keeping the camera on the faces of Marisa Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood never hurts either.

Despite some of its short comings, The Wrestler is a strong outing, mostly thanks to Micky Rourke. This is much like with JCVD, which had an okay heist plot, but was elevated by the presence of Jean-Claude Van Damme. A good movie overall.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Poll results

Sorry for the delay. The results from the previous showed that most of you would like to see a biopic about President William Clinton. In second place came Teddy Roosevelt. Interestingly enough, there was 1 vote to see a movie about a Canadian Prime Minister. I created that option more as a joke than anything else, but okay.

Review: Let The Right One In

(2008, Tomas Alfredson)

For a vampire movie, Let The Right One In is pretty quiet. Substituting for all out scares and gore is mood and special moments. The film shies away from the more common 'horror' genre and goes for an exploration on the 'horrifying' aspect of vampirism. For the most part, the story is about the bonding that occurs between a young lad Oskar, 12, and a curious and sad vampire girl Eli, also 12 'more or less'. There is a side story of sorts that plays out as well between the friends of a recently deceased man (bitten by you know who).

Let The Right One In is a neat movie in that in packs a good punch but serves it in small doses through mostly quiet scenes. The development of Oskar's and Eli's relationship is sweet in the oddest way. She quickly takes a liking to the boy but unsurprisingly their bonding is a slow process, mostly because she is hesitant to let him in (get it?) to her world. They meet one night in the playground in front their apartment block and display a certain curiosity for one another. Oskar never suspects anything particularly odd about her but she does show hints of interesting behavior, or traits. Only a day after lending her his Rubik cube, she has already solved the puzzle. She can't seem to digest candy. All these, including that 'strange smell' arouse Oskar's curiosity. His innocence and harmless nature arouses hers. Their scenes are pretty well acted, given that we're dealing with child actors, something I'm rarely fond of. Kare Hedebrant as Oskar plays the role very innocently, but never falls into 'cutesy' territory. Lina Leandersson as Eli has the more difficult role of the two leads. She may be a child, but she has seen and committed worse things than Oskar could ever dream of. Finding the right balance between childlike playfulness and animal like barbarism must have been rather difficult. Thankfully she delivers in spades.

The movie certainly doesn't make any kind of attempt at glorifying the vampire lifestyle. In fact, it's almost as if director Alfredson wants the viewer to pity them, to understand them. Other movies have made needless, even if somewhat entertaining attempts at making vampires appear as cool. While there may very well be some people who play with the thought of being a creature of the night, I for one enjoyed witnessing a movie that seemed to show how glum that life must be like. I can't imagine there being any fun in choosing between suicide and sucking the blood of an innocent bystander, and the movie gives no hint that Eli is enjoying herself any more than I would. It doesn't look like any 'bloody' fun. This is another strength in the film's thematic narrative. A movie about vampires is often there to frighten. Let The Right One In refuses to follow that path and instead offers a study (of sorts) into the social behavior of a vampire girl. Sure, she's a blood sucking monster, but as a living being, she still retains many of her young girl traits. There remains a trace of a human aspect in her, as is probably the case in all vampires, although other movies more often than not won't show it. There is one rather logical scene (I felt at least) which shows a newly born vampire and what she thinks of her dubious new physiological status. It's sounds like such a depressing lifestyle and with this film that idea is used to maximum effect. Overall, I found myself pitying Eli, and that way I wanted her and Oskar to become friends. It's a cute story, in a 'I promise I won't suck your blood' kind of way. There have been some negative comments regarding the climax and how it fits into the overall tone and structure of the story. It is pretty intense, but I think it reinforced Eli's feelings towards Oskar well. Director Alfredson has a keen eye for developing character relations judging by his efforts here. I look forward to exploring more of his work.

Eli was only looking for a friend that she didn't need to kill after all. Everybody needs somebody sometimes, right?

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Review: Still Life

Still Life (2006, Jia Khang-Ke)

With Still Life, director Jia tells two stories that are common not only because that occur in the same city, Fengjie, but because thematically that are tightly associated with the real societal and demographic shifts emerging from the creation of the famous Three Gorges dam. A coal miner (Sanming Han, a real coal miner) and a nurse (Tao Zhao) return to the city where they once lived, searching for lost loved ones. The city is not far from the infamous Three Gorges Dam, and many of its older areas have been completely flooded. The movie is, for all intents and purposes, a series of rather quiet scenes featuring cinematic shots of Fengjie and of the lives of the movie making a living in this city that has seen some radically demographic swings in recent years.

The acting is surprisingly good for a cast filled with non-actors. Nothing is stilted or false, and everyone pulls their own weight nicely. There are a lot of subtleties in the eyes or movements of the characters which convey motives, thoughts and emotions very well. The mere fact that Jia successfully gets effective performances out of his actors, who are, for all intents and purposes, non-actors, would be alone to recommend the film, in addition to its very lyrical nature. But where the movie really shines is in the visual depiction of the location. A lot of story is told merely through the camera work. It is a marvelously good looking film. Many places in Fengjie are featured throughout the movie, which provides the viewer with a fairly intimate look into the story of not only the characters, but of the place at large. The movie moves along very delicately as well. The cinematographic quality of the film is at times jaw dropping. These days in cinema a lot of movies 'go digital' in the creation of artificial worlds and characters. Depending on what kind of story the director wants to tell, this obviously can have its merits. But, personally, it is when filmmakers use high quality equipment to depict real life elements that I get particularly excited. Still Life is a case in when in which Fengjie and its surrounding region look so gorgeous on film it feels life some kind of National Geographic documentary at times. It allows the viewer to take everything at a slow, but productive pace. The movie could practically function as a documentary about life in Fengjie, but it also benefits from the two fictional and touching stories it tells.

Sanming, after arriving in Fengjie, earns a job as a building demolisher. He has left his life as a coal miner and of course needs to start earning some funds. But there was something quite emblematic in seeing the inhabitants of the region take apart these apartments. The times are changing in the region with this large scale project. There are valid arguments that the use of the dam will reduce China's dependence on coal, which, it can't be hidden, is a major contributor to green house gas pollution. China has depended for many years on coal, which is far more dangerous than hydroelectricity to the environment (not to say that the construction of hydroelectricity dams carries no ecological footprint either however). With that in mind, I found there was a very ambiguous feeling about the scenes in which the viewer witnesses these workers, some of whom probably live in the region, helping in the destruction of the homes.

There is a great 2-3 second clip in which the viewer hears a news report regarding the evolution of the Three Gorges dam. The broadcaster mentions how the citizens of the region have committed a 'great sacrifice' to the cause of this project. I thought that was very pertinent to the mood of the film and the mood of what is happening in China right now. It's a country that has truly exploded onto the international stage in recent years in terms of economic performance and how it holds sway in how international politics and economics are dictated. It's project like the Three Gorges dam that can get the ball rolling with regards to job creation and economic booms, not to mention the potential long term environmental benefits (which I believe outweigh the long term ecological footprint of hydro dams, because they do exist). And yet, we're witnessing the destruction of how a town use to live and be itself. It was that ambiguity which I felt that made Still Life particularly interesting.

For all the very real, down to earth elements highlighting the film, be sure to catch a couple rather fantastical touches sprinkled throughout the film. They may come off as odd a first, as they did for me. Jia catches the viewer off guard by throwing in these brief science-fiction elements into the mix. The debate as to what these short sequences bring to the movie can rage on, but they aren't enough to distract thankfully.

Jia Khang-Ka has crafted a fine piece of cinema with Still Life. It features characters and a place that are going through some profound changes. Jia finely tunes his film to give the viewer an honest and believable sense of what shifts exactly are the two main characters experiencing, but also how they fit perfectly into the overarching demographic and economic changes the region is involved in. The two subject matters are intimately linked and this makes for a fascinating viewing experience.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Review: Chop Shop

Chop Shop (2007, Ramin Bahrani)

The characters of Chop Shop live in New York. But not the glamorous Big Apple most people have visited. Rather, they inhabit a gritty, down and dirty neighborhood in Queens, New York. It's a dirt poor area of town, where people get by by starting what businesses they can. Many children never finished school and in fact, some never even attended any classes at all. The main character for the audience is Ale, played by the young and bright Alejandro Polanco. One could easily make the argument however that Ale represents the constituency of Queens, New York. He is the embodiment of hope, or the result of the failure to fight poverty. We see it through his eyes and live it with him. With no parents to care for him, Ale works and lives in a car repair shop, hence the title of the film. He is but a child, but already he had acquired the gutso and determination to make a living and be independent that others in society still haven't acquired by their early 20s. But then again, Ale doesn't quite live in a society that permits laziness. Find a way to make money or starve.

The business he works for has many rivals on the same streets, and Ale spends most of his days in the street has the bell boy of the business if you will. He asks drivers that pass by what they need done to their automobiles, estimates a price and points them to the garage. But the film shows the viewer much more than that. There is also the matter of his older teenage sister, Isamar (Isamar Gonzales), who is nice and loves him very much, but shows signs of laziness and a lack of will to earn a living. Unlike Ale, she quits jobs like teenagers quit boyfriends and girlfriends. Even though he is considerably younger than her in age, and should be younger than her in terms of maturity, it is up to him to look after her. He finds her a job and invites her to stay at his place for free. There is also his friend who hangs around in a few scenes, but he mostly wants to play. Then again, his friend has an uncle who also works in a chop shop, so he doesn't carry the burden of responsibility like Ale does.

When the film came to a close, the first that came to mind was why more American films can't be like Chop Shop? Is there a problem with telling stories like this, because it seems to me they don't come out of the United States very often. Nonetheless, I applaud writer/director Ramin Bahrani for choosing such a project. It is a perfect example of simple, competent, filmmaking and story telling. It may seem like a compilation of scenes stuck together, but there are in fact two stories being told. The first being Ale strive for economic independence. He is saving up to purchase an old ice cream van (or food stand van, I'm not sure) in order to run his own business. The kid can't even be 10 years old but he has big ideas, and it all feels genuine. A real coup by the young actor and director Bahrani. They work the balance between childlike behavior and maturity (with a particular emphasis on the latter) very, very well. The second story being shared is the story of the community itself. The viewer meets several people along the way. It's a community filled with people who are doing whatever it is they can to make the best out of a pathetic social status. It's sad and perfectly admirable all at once, which is a winning combination for the sake of the film. Bahrani makes use of the hand held 'faux' documentary style to show us the neighborhood, and it works well enough. As is always the case when such a technique is used, there are moments when I wondered what in blazes was the problem with holding the camera still for just a few seconds, but overall is doesn't produce any sea sickness. The richness of the movie of course lies in the characters and the environment, and on both accounts Chop Shop is a excellent example of what a relevant and, more importantly, an interesting film can and should be.

There is little doubt that Alejandro Palanco, as Ale, is a gifted little kid. Rarely do child actors demonstrates such a convincing performance. There is nuance, there is charm, both mature and childlike, and there is raw talent. Understandably this is young Palanco's only film role to date given is age, and whether or not he chooses to continue in film remains to be seen, but here he is quite the captivating young actor. His sister, played by Isabar Gonzales is also good, but this is Palanco's show, both with regards to the narrative and the acting skills. It's fascinating to see him change behavior somewhat later on the in the film when he realizes he has failed in his quest to become economically independent (the papers for the food stand van were not gone through thoroughly enough). Feeling betrayed, he really becomes disappointed and frustrated, just like any entrepreneur adult would if he or she realized they received the short of the stick in a business deal. But it's so gripping to see all this happen to a mere child. I think thematically this strengthens the movie as well. As mature as Ale may be, as intelligent as he may be, he is fallible. He is a kid and has not learned everything yet. Adults will and can still take advantage of his lack of experience and business sense. The movie presents this interesting dichotomy within a specific character. This impressive maturity, clearly beyond his years, coupled with a fallibility that makes him all the more human. It is simultaneously joyous and frustrating to watch unfold. No long not ago I shared my top 5 films of the year 'so far' in the appropriate discussion thread, but this film has shaken the ground underneath that list and I don't know where things stand anymore. Perhaps just before New Year's I will re-evaluate that list and post an update. Be sure to expect Chop Shop somewhere on it though.

Face-Off: Gran Torino and Taken

Gran Torino
(2008, Clint Eastwood)

Clint Eastwood directs and stars in this film. His character, Walt Kowalski, is an embittered Korean War veteran living in Detroit. His wife has just passed away and his sons believe it may be time for the old timer to settle in in a residence. Kowolski, no fool to anyone except himself, vehemently disagrees and wants nothing more than to be left alone in his house. He especially wants nothing to do with that darn Asian family living next door (they are Hmong). But there are gangs about that terrorize the family and Walt eventually, and reluctantly, gives in and decides to lend a hand.

I very much enjoy Eastwood's as a director. If I'm not mistaken he's been frowned upon by a few filmspotters, but I feel he tells interesting stories with a great sense of maturity. For someone who started out as an actor, his movies are fine example of good filmmaking. However, with Gran Torino, he may have misplayed his cards. There are many, many scenes, between Walt and the youngest boy who lives next door, Thao (Bee Vang, who tried to steal his Gran Torino as an initiation step for his entry into a gang) while I admire Eastwood's attempts at going for character development, most of them feel stagy, forced. Young Vang's lack of acting skills doesn't help matters in the least. His body language is stiff and feels fake. In what is apparently his acting swan song, Eastwood is fine, but not spectacular (was he ever such a thing as an actor?). Thankfully, when he gets into action, it's done mostly with words and attitude rather than actual fists (with one exception), which was fun to see. At 78, I'm not sure how comfortably he could emulate Jason Bourne. He still packs a mean mug however.

Of course, gangs have to be involved to move the story forward, which would have been fine, but oh well, I suppose Clint needs to show us he can still kick some nuts. The gang's presence in the film adds a certain cultural layer to the film. It is mentioned at one point how the Hmong youth in the neighborhood tend to be poor and are thus regularly recruited. This serves, in a sense, as the reason behind Walt's slow change of face towards his neighbors. It's nice, if nothing that hasn't been see before. There some funny lines spread around. As words in everyday language, they shouldn't be uttered, unless you actually want to be called a racist bigot. But there is something strangely comical about 78 year old Clint walking into an Asian household and calling them all...well, I'm sure you know a few of them yourselves.

I suppose Gran Torino is alright, but it isn't terribly memorable and it suffers from some hokey acting and some stagy scenes. I dare say I won't remember much about this movie in a few months time. Check it out at your own risk, although you may find things to like about it.

(2008, Pierre Morrel)

Liam Neeson is Bryan Mills, a retired spy of sorts who has quit his job to be closer to his daughter Kim (Maggie Grace). She lives with her mother Lenore (Famke Janssen) and her new husband, a rich and ideal man. Things are evidently sour between between Bryan and Lenore and bla bla bla, the setup is fairly long for an action movie. It's actually not terrible, I just don't think I should spend too much time one it. The point is that when Kim goes to Paris for the summer with a friend, she is kidnapped by women traders. Bryan, who's previous line of work has made him wary of the world and equipped him with a 'particular set of skills', sets out to Paris to find his daughter...and kick some nuts...literally.

Taken is about a really, really, ticked off man. I have always been a huge Liam Neeson fan particularly because he tends to play charming or complex characters. Here, he is on autopilot to destroy absolutely anyone who stands in his way. Certainly a minor shift in tone for a Neeson film. In fact, I'd even say that if Hollywood ever decided to make a Jason Bourne which featured the title character at 55-60 years old, Neeson and director Morrel have beaten them to it. This functions like a Bourne movie. No gadgets, working with wits and quick, intelligent decisions, quick pace and editing (but controlled, unlike another, bigger movie that came a few weeks ago). It was a strange experience overall. I mean, Liam Neeson absolutely ran over almost everybody in this movie. The editing made him look quicker than he probably is in real life, but still, this is something else. Schindler was breaking necks and cracking balls here. This led me to chuckle on a few occasions, which clearly wasn't the point of the film, but I'd rather laugh than be bored. His ingenuity is a bit too much at times, but I suppose that adds some funny charm to the movie.

The fights are relatively well choreographed. They are easy to follow and intense (and funny). Neeson isn't given too much to say or do. He's a nice guy, he just wants his daughter back is all. The screenplay, which has Luc Besson written all over it, features some silly plot points which hint that he and collaborators needed to make something, anything, happen in order to move the story forward, but again, if you're watching this movie is it for the story? I somehow have my doubts. His friend in the French police (Olivier Rabourbin) helps him out a bit, but doesn't do much overall.

Taken moves along a very brisk pace, and if you're curious enough to see the usual classy Liam Neeson drop the gloves in a one man war on slave traders, then look no further. Hey, he'll probably only make a movie like this once, so enjoy!

Neeson pins Eastwood into submission. Both shake hands and enjoy a good whisky afterwards. Taken wins.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Review: Milk

Milk (2008, Gus Van Sant)

Openly and proud homosexual Harvey Milk (Sean Penn), after 40 years of an unproductive life, decides to run for office in San Fransisco. It's a story of trial and error, with many poignant victories and painful losses which occur along the way. Harvey Milk is quite clearly an important American figure in the long and arduous fight for social justice for gays and lesbians. No pressure for Penn, right? His performance is one of the better performances of the year, whether in a U.S. based film or international. And there have been strong performances this year, so that's saying something. What is interesting is that he doesn't even have to really carry the film because the plot is gripping to begin with anyways, but his effort elevates the film even more so. Not too many films openly deal with homosexuality like Milk does (Brokeback Mountain being another one), and everything feels mature and well directed.

James Franco, who plays one of Harvey's two lovers in the film, is very competent as Scott, despite that he isn't given nearly enough screen time. He's calm and wise throughout. He appears fleetingly after their breakup and seems to take on the role of the Harvey's voice of reason, a role that suits him perfectly. This has been an impressive year for Franco and one hopes that he'll continue to explore his acting chops in the years to come. Diego Luna does show some acting chops, but his character is under written and feels a tad 'one note.' That isn't is the actor's fault though. The screenwriters are to blame for that. His character is an oddball and possibly even legitimately paranoid. He behaves in a very needy fashion and demands for Harvey's attention, especially when the latter is hard at work. The audience rarely, if ever, sees Luna's character in another light, which is frustrating since with the way he behaves on screen, it's actually kind of difficult to determine what attracted Harvey Milk to him in the first place. A last special note should be given to Josh Brolin, who plays Dan White, a straight city supervisor who, despite his early allegiance to Harvey, soon becomes a political rival. There is something very subtle in his performance that really should be seen.

The directing is quite good, as the movie moves along briskly but still rests long enough on the crucial moments in Milk's career. Nothing of great significance feels too rushed. The pace is great and one won't see time fly when gripped by this rich tapestry laid out by director Van Sant. He knows the beats that work and what isn't necessary and might drag the movie down. Complaints that the movie spends too much time on the public life of Harvey can be understood, but I suspect that his story is all too unfamiliar for many people (I had no idea who he was until I found out this movie was coming out) so the fact that the story dwells very much on what the man fought for, which lays out the subject matter, and how precisely he fought for it, which lays out the man, is appreciated. Van Sant does a nice job of presenting us who this man was and the impact he had on other homosexuals around the U.S. who were also seeking respect. There are several uplifting scenes throughout the film that depicts the courage and sheer determination these people showed in the face of adversity (most notably the police). When the subject matter is so interesting and the acting so good, none of those scenes feel as if they are pleading for emotional responses from the audience. The movie rightfully earns every one of them. The movie's overall feel does fall into the traditional biopic mold somewhat. The same director gave us Paranoid Park earlier this year, which did a tremendous job at conveying emotion and narration through clever and artistic editing and cinematography. That doesn't quite apply here. This is mainstream friendly filming. Still, it doesn't hurt the film really since the purpose is to tell an important, interesting and straightforward story.

I can hear the cries of 'art house Van Sant is so much better' now. I would be inclined to agree with such an argument. But that doesn't mean mainstream Van Sant is bad though. Milk is a case in point.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Review: Un conte de Noël

A Christmas Tale (2008, Arnaud Desplechin)

Deck the halls with boughs of holly because brother Henri (Mathieu Amalric) and sister Elizabeth (Anne Consigny), who haven't spoken to one another in 6 years are coming back home for the Christmas family reunion. Things are in a dire situation because their mother Junon (Catherine Deneuve) has been diagnosed with a rare illness and needs a bone marrow transplant while Elizabeth's teenage son recently attempted to commit suicide. Smells like Christmas to me.

Desplechin has a massive story to tell. So much so that the running time of the film is a surprising 2h30. Then again, this never feels like a typical, Hollywood-esque family Holidays tale. The character relations are tragic for the most part. Henri is the black sheep of the family. His attitude towards those around him is confrontational for the part. He drinks to an excessive degree, is loud mouthed and has a knack for making people uncomfortable, or simply hate him. Anne, played with class by the beautiful Anne Consigny, is under an incredible amount of stress as her relationship with her own son is already strained due the boy's psychological condition. The relationships are complex and very well written. She doesn't need her brother's emotionally destructive behavior having any influence on her son, who is in enough trouble as it is already. She shields her son and herself from Henri therefore. It's a cold maneuver but she sticks by her principals. The movie lets us understand why everything is so bleak (including a terrible death many years ago) and allows for many, many scenes for that plot to thicken and develop. The mother does not hide her reservations regarding Henri, even when speaking face to face with him, and this makes for more than a few juicy scenes. She knows very well that she is far from the perfect mother, displaying cynicism, charm, love and at times despair. Flawed but motherly nonetheless, annoyed but accepting. All this culminates in an emotionally ambiguous final scene taking place shortly after Henri has donated some of his bone barrow to his mother. Along with the sister/brother dynamic, this is one of the better silver screen love/hate relationships this viewer has seen in quite some time.

The editing is also stylish, without ever overdoing it. I won't give too much away, but the film is divided into chapters, or acts, each one beginning with a nifty and effective visual treat. The picture is seen through a small hole surrounded by darkness, with the hole either closing in on itself or growing depending on whether the scene is coming to a close or opening. It feels like the curtains falling down or raising from the stage at the tail ends of acts in a play. The choice of using this technique is poignant for a few reasons. Henri is employed in the theater business after all and an early scene, a prologue if you will, in the film depicts how his sister Elizabeth bailed him out of debt for the last time in a court settlement. These narrative links to theater enhance the visual technique used later on and provide it a lyrical quality.

There are virtually no weak links in the acting department. Consigny, Amalric, Deneuve, Roussillon (as the father, Abel) all put on a class act for the film. This is partly do to the fact they are supremely talented and that each of those parts is well written. There is a depth to all of these characters that provides the film with that extra bit of energy and life to take it to another level beyond the typical dysfunctional family material. It's familiar yet refreshing all at once. Everything feels real and honest.

There are other characters in the film. Another brother and his wife, as well as their cousin. While there were no issues with having them in the film as a supporting cast, the movie, about one hour in, decides to provide those three with their own smaller sub plot. It's not a bad sub plot, but it never carries the weight that the bone marrow/brother and sister story does. In fact, their story only has about 20-25 minutes of screen time for itself, scattered throughout the second half of the film. It's not as engaging as the main focus of the movie and it's introduced after the viewer has invested 1 hour of his or her attention into the mother, brother, sister plot. Had it been provided its own film to breath, then all would be fine, but here it makes the second half of the film feel a bit unfocused at times. The narrative structure isn't hurt that badly, but it is odd to see this plot included so late into the story. Little wonder to movie last 2 and a half hours...

Still, the latter point did not detract too much from the enjoyment there is to be had with A Christmas Tale. Those looking for lighthearted holiday fare should look elsewhere. Despite a few clever lines and some comical scenes involving children, heavy material is dealt with here. For those looking for good drama, this might be the right gift for you.

Review: Boogie Nights

Boogie Nights (1997, Paul Thomas Anderson)

Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg) is a 17 year old, polite and mostly quiet dishwasher boy working at Rodriguez’ (Luis Guzman) funky night club in the late 1970s. He doesn’t get along well with his mother, who firmly believes he his a stupid little boy wasting his life away. But a fortuitous meeting with Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) one night in the kitchen of the club changes Eddie’s life, and eventually his very name, forever. Jack is in the adult film industry, making exotic and highly stimulating porno for the fans. He likes what he sees in Eddie, especially what’s in his pants, and makes him an offer to star in sex films. And thus their partnership begins, and so does this epic movie about life in the sex film industry.

I use the word ‘epic’ for several reasons. For one, the story takes place over the course several years during which time we see the rise and fall of these people, as well as the changes that are brought upon the industry (from showing sex films in theatre rooms to the advent of video tapes). Not to mention that the movie is populated with a host of colorful characters, all related to the porno industry, who all have at least some screen time devoted to them. There is Jack’s wife and famous porno star Amber (Julianne Moore), their younger protégé Roller Girl (Heather Graham), actor and sound system seller Buck Swope (Don Cheadle), actor Reed Rothchild (John C. Reilly) crew members played by Philip Seymour Hoffman and William H. Macy, and the Colonel (in other words, the producer) played by Robert Ridgeley, to name a few (my boy… or one of them anyways, Tom Jane, even makes an appearance). As the story advances through the years, the viewer is invited to see how the ‘business’ shapes and influences all these people and how they take genuine pride in what they do, despite what some of us may think of porno films. For all these reasons Boogie Nights is a special film. It is an honest, mostly dramatic (with smidgeons of laughs here and there) look at the inner life of a often frowned upon line of work. The movie takes its subject material very seriously. This isn’t a porno film. It’s a film about the business, which it is first and foremost.

The characters and their relations with one another were more than enough to hold my interest. Jack and Eddie, who changes his name to the very sexy Dirk Diggler, get along like peanut butter and bread, that is, until the money and drugs afflict the young man. Their relationship comes full circle in the end, but the time spent on Diggler’s downfall is indeed entertaining, if not as much as his early years in the business. Not everyone is offered a great amount of screen time, but the acting chops save most of the supporting characters. John C. Reilly as Rothchild becomes Diggler’s closest friend and obviously enjoys playing the sidekick porno role very much. This is arguably the best material I’ve seen Burt Reynolds work in, so that must count for a few more points.

Boogie Nights receives a serious audio boost with a smashing soundtrack. The music in films is generally not a top priority when judging a film, but here the 70s and 80s funk, disco and rock fits in perfectly with the setting. It never takes over the scenes either, which is nice. It should be noted that the film contains several tracking shots which follow either one character or several characters as they discuss, dance away at parties, or shoot their wives. These shots are finely executed and succeed in telling parts of the story or setting the mood or tone of a sequence. That is to say, they never feel forced and wanting of particular attention.

If there was one element that irked me, it would be that the plot feels a tad bit mechanical. I suspect many viewers will detect how the story should unfold, since it follows the similar pattern that most ‘from rags to riches’ tales do as well. It’s a finely crafted movie, with good dialogue, an interesting subject matter and a host of gifted actors putting on a true show, but its plot development isn’t the least bit imaginative. Something tells me that such an issue is irrelevant with such a film, but it’s nonetheless an issue that I took note of.

Who doesn’t want John C. Reilly as their best friend anyways?

Friday, November 28, 2008

Soderbergh Poll

The results of last week’s poll are in. Coming in first was the feeling that Soderbergh has a lot of talent, but there are other directors you would place ahead of him. Interestingly, in second place was the feeling that you like his ambition more than the result of his efforts. Tied for third were the feelings of ‘I don’t love but don’t hate him,’ and ‘ he is one of the greatest directors to ever make movies.’

Saturday, November 22, 2008

In Depth Review: My Rice Noodle Shop

My Rice Noodle Shop (1998, Yang Xie) versus April Story (1998, Shunji Iwa)

The year is 1949 and times are difficult. China is plagued by internal strife between the communists (who as you may know would eventually be lead by Mao Tse-Tung) and the nationalists (KMT). Supporters of the former were many to flee to Taiwan in the hopes that soon their side would overthrow the communists.

Such is the backdrop for Yang Xie’s film about a 40 something noodle shop owner, Rong Rong (Carol ‘Do Do’ Cheng). She grew up in the small but lovely town of Guilin, where her grandfather owned his own rice noodle restaurant. But with the emergence of the communists, she and several other colourful characters from Guilin moved to Taipei. My Rice Noodle Shop functions as a series of episodes, although linked in the narrative sense, about Miss Rong’s trials and tribulations as the rice noodle shop owner. Among the cast of characters who frequent her establishment are an ex state officer, a formerly wealthy real estate business man and a school teacher, Mr. Lu (Kevin Lin).

For the most part, the movie functions as a drama. The reasons for this are evident. All these people had far more respectable and wealthy lives back in Guilin. This is shown through a series of flashbacks which set up each individual nicely. Having left it all behind out of fear of persecution, their current lives meander in poverty. Some of them who come to eat everyday do not even possess sufficient funds to pay for their meals and owe considerable debts to Mrs Rong. The film does make certain brief attempts at comedy, but they are rather painful and consist mostly of cussing, kind of like bad Kevin Smith dialogue (although that may have been more about the quality of the subtitles I found). Drama for realism’s sake is something I very much support. However, I was a tad disappointed so witness the fates the movie reserved for each of the customers. While I shan’t spoil everything, allow me to alert anyone curious about the film that none of the customers comes out all smiles. In fact, each of their individual fates is quite sad, depressing and pathetic. I can understand the logic behind this decision by Xie and the writers given the economic and political conditions of the time, but it was a bit much too handle. When writing this, I have in mind especially the up and coming school teacher, Mr. Lu, who has been saving money for years in order to set up a nice wedding and marriage for his sweet heart who is still living in mainland China. What happens to him is so depressing it almost feels as if the film was being too manipulative.

By I have criticized the film enough. I did, in fact, enjoy it a fair bit. The film’s strength lies in the strength of its central character, Rong Rong. Her flashbacks show a time when she was deemed one of the prettiest girls in Guilin and became the beautiful wife of an army general. She was wealthy and happy, even though there was every now and then the fear that her husband may not return from battle. Today she has lost the beauty that provided her such high esteem, her husband (dead) and much of her wealth. I was pleasantly surprised that the story spends most of its time with her at this stage in her life. In another movie the story would have been about her youth when she was a beauty. In another still she would have possibly been relegated to a supporting role only. None of that here. Instead, this 40 something, less beautiful than before women takes center stage. And she becomes all the more beautiful for it. She’s a business woman first and foremost and needs to keep her shop running with a profit. She grows weary of her regular customers not being able to pay, but she still lets them come and eat out of compassion. She keeps a loving and watchful eye over her niece, who plans to marry a soldier, just as she did back in her youth. Mrs. Rong warns her niece of the possible heart breaking fate that may await her husband. This is done in a loving manner, much in the way a mother would do it towards her daughter. The movie treats Mrs. Rong very fairly and makes her an interesting and complex character. Her flashbacks and reactions to them hint that she longs for her home town of Guilin and for the better days of her past. But she still finds the energy to see through every day. Her sights are never lead entirely astray from the future. It’s her determination and will to succeed that keep the restaurant afloat, and herself out of depression. It is also obvious that she takes great pride in her business and often boasts that her rice noodles are the finest in Taipei. Carol Cheng gives a complete performance, thus making Mrs. Rong a fully realized character with ambitions, fears, and dreams. The end does not say whether or not she will one day find the happiness and security she seeks, but her story ends on a more hopeful note than those of her compatriots. Her story is far more fulfilling and engaging.

I love it when a movie can provide a strong central female character, so My Rice Noodle Shop was still, despite the shortcomings I discovered, a good movie. Compelling stories the feature female actors in leading roles are difficult to find (Kieslowski's Three Colors comes to mind) so I tend to cherish the ones I stumble across. Carol Cheng carries the film with an inspiring performance which at times shows the right amount of energy, and at other times sublime subtlety. For the acting alone this is a worthwhile film. The casting is excellent, even though a few directorial decisions, particularly with regards to the narrative, were questionable.

This is also the second in in a couple of weeks that I discover an impressive Taiwanese movie. Up until then my experience with cinema from the region was close to non-existent, but now my eyes are beginning to open to a whole new pool of movies waiting to be explored. Taiwanese filmmakers have very interesting stories to tell and look forward to watching more.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Poll results

Based on the results of our most recent poll, when you want to go see a non-American film, most of you prefer cinema from the old continent, Europe. The rest of you enjoy movies from East Asia.
Hmm... nobody at all is in the mood for Latin American, Middle Eastern or African cinema?

In Depth Review: Schizopolis

Schizopolis (1996, Steven Soderbergh)

Schizophrenia itself is a psychotic syndrome which prevents a person from interacting with reality in accordance with our everyday notions of normality. It creates a disconnect with reality that exists in that person's mind.

Alright, if you would all be so kind, let me set this up for you. You have seen office job dramas and comedies, correct? Good, that means you are equipped with some knowledge of how they work. You have see some family/marital dramas and comedies, correct? Excellent. That means you have a decent grasp of how those normally play out as well.

Schizopolis is an office job, marital drama comedy that throws everything you know about those genres out the window. To top it off, it has a gay old time doing it.

Fletcher Munson (none other than Soderbergh in the flesh) has an office job at, I'm guessing, some kind of central office for a philosophical religious movement, à la Scientology. When their prime speaker's speech writer suddenly dies of a heart attack, Munson is called upon to take over the all important duty of writing the speeches that will ensure that their books and other products continue to sell. There are worries within the company (ironic no?) that there may be spy in their midst. Or a mole, Or a spy and a mole! To add to the pressure on Muson's mind and heart, his marital life has become about as enthusiastic as watching an apple rot (no offense to those who enjoy that kind of thing).

But this is where simplicity in plot ends and creativity and playfulness in execution begin. Schizopolis, its title seemingly derived from term schizophrenia, is not there to satisfy the norm but to subvert it. Dialogue, cutting, plot elements, all are given a shot of some wild energy in the arm. A case in point is when Munson returns home from the office and is greeted by is wife with words and phrases that literally express the mundane emotions that both are experience at their stage in this marriage. There is no 'How was your day?' or 'What is for dinner?' Rather, Soderbergh has his characters quite literally say things like 'Bored query regarding day.' and 'Fake enthusiastic description of evening's meal.' to get ideas across. I found this scene not only hilarious but highly effective in turning what we have come to expect from such scenes on their heads. These scenes are so often boring in movies. Why not shake them up? With regards to real life, married couples do, some of them at least, reach this hurdle in their lives. There comes a time when a relationship reaches a point of stagnation, when inspiration is lost, when the two lovers are 'going through the motions.' Soderbergh takes this dark and sad moment and serves it on a gold platter. The produced result is therefore twofold and therefore makes the scene all the more poignant. There is another example of this technique (in a way) involving an exterminator and a housewife who become involved with each other, but I don't want to give too much away. Suffice it to say that the dialogue serves to poignantly deconstruct scenes that, in any other drama, may appear as banal and over-used.

Munson's character, for a short period of time, goes through an out of body experience, or should I say, places his mind and soul into the physical body of another man. It just so happens that this other man looks exactly like him. But the man has a nice house and seems fit, so why not give it a try? Well, such a decision comes to bite him in the end in the strangest and funniest of ways. Even when he thinks he may no longer be himself , he still is. Indecicive, cowardly and emotionally weak. Be careful what you wish for...

On a few occasions there are brief television news reports shown that deliver headlines which are preposterous to say the least. I've read that they are unrelated to the overall narrative, but I would argue that as comedy, and more specifically as tools of the absurd, they fit in just fine within the confines of the film. In fact, dare I say they even add to the experience of it all.

The third act switches perspective temporarily as we see a bit of the story through the eyes of Munson's wife (Betsy Brantley). This change of perspective is refreshing in what, up until this point, has been an already refreshing movie experience. She herself is not in the most enthusiastic of moods regarding her marriage. She seeks something different, perhaps a little exotic even. This is when her husband begins to respond to her in Japanese, her lover (a dentist played by...well, I've already said too much) in Italian and another person she meets in French. Whether she has a hyper imagination or whether we are supposed to believe this is all really happening is besides the point I believe. The movie invites the viewer for a wild cinematic ride that disregards typical narrative conventions.

Many of the scenes are connected to each other in a narrative sense, other not at all. The story itself, for those with a minimal attention span, is easy enough to follow, but I'm unconvinced that it is the story which Soderbergh wants the viewer to remember first and foremost. That's not to say that there is nothing to think about or nothing of any intellectual value to found here. On the contrary. Its post-modernist structure and feel only means that the film is working on a another level, one that few directors choose to tackle and when they, often fail. Here, emotions are thrown against the wall for all to see (characters and viewers alike), the dialogue is as witty as it is inventive and certain character relationships border on the absurd. I've always said that as a movie buff, I tend to possess more mainstreams tastes than most. From what I gathered while watching Schizopolis, it's a film that simply needs to be felt first, understood later. I wonder if Soderbergh ever topped himself (mind you, I still have to wait about a month before I can see Che). The film succeeds in juggling honesty, comedy and uniqueness all in one untidy package. All the better for it. By the half mark, I didn't want the package to be get cleaned up, I enjoyed the lovable mess that was Schizopolis.

In the most bizarre turn of events, the best compliment I can give Soderbergh's film is that it is a joyfully schizophrenic experience. I may be beginning to understand the often said 'genius' behind this director's work. Now if only he had stopped making those Ocean movies after the first one, then we'd be talking...

Friday, November 14, 2008

In Depth Review: Jeanne Dielman

Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975, Chantal Akerman)

For the sake of simplicity the film will be referred to as JD for the review.

was written, directed and starred (although ‘starred’ by be stretching the term) Jeanne Dielman. It is a 3 hour and 13 minute long exercise which showcases three days in the life of the title character, Jeanne Dielman, as she works her way through the necessary chores that ensure an efficient, clean, and respectable household. These would include cooking, cleaning, shoe shining, purchasing goods at local shops and so on. Thankfully for our dear Mrs. Dielman, she does provide herself the time to rest a café. The house is not her only raison d’être. She has a son, Sylvain, played by Jan Decorte, who benefits from her devout maid work. There’s food on the plate in the morning and in the evening, the house is always clean as are his clothes. They don’t speak much however. When they do, the conversation come off as awkward, uncomfortable and even trivial. There is one moment during which Sylvain does mention something of interest (how a friend of his explained what sexual intercourse was when they were kids). Jeanne’s reaction is weak, she brushes it off. It seems as though she’s good at serving her son, not so much at just being a mother, emotionally speaking. So be it. She is his mother and he is her son and nothing will change that.

Oh, did I forget to mention that her idea of earning income consists of whoring herself out? Every day in the afternoon while her son is away at school a different middle aged man comes to the apartment to for some poontang, for a price of course.

The filming style, from a visual standpoint, is simple, to say the least. There are cuts (thank god), but the camera never moves during a scene. It is placed in a specific spot for every room in the apartment. Every time a scene returns to a room the viewer has already seen, the camera is back at that same spot. Director Akerman thus gives the viewer a very specific glimpse into each individual room. There are two elements to this. First, the director is dictating what we can and cannot see, like a painting. You can set your eyes in front of a painting and look at its margins, but you won’t see anything beyond the frame. Such is the case here. Secondly, this technique provides, in a strange way, a sense of familiarity for each room. By the second day, the viewer knows exactly where he is with every cut. Another effect of the still camera would be how characters can walk in and out of every frame. Again, this goes back to the director’s desire to show us only what she wants us to see.

A peculiar element that I noticed is that in almost every frame, with some exceptions, there is something or someone sitting or standing perfectly in the middle of the frame. When I say the middle, I am not referring to the horizontal frames, but rather that the character or object is sitting at equidistance from the vertical frames. When Dielman is the focus of the shot, there is often something strangely lonely about it all. Space therefore has a storytelling purpose when one takes this into account. The composition of these shots is manipulative in that sense. It looks like there’s nothing going on, but the viewer can deduce quite a bit. There is an interesting moment during which Jeanne and Sylvain are at the table eating supper. Sylvain gets up and goes to the couch just a few feet away. There is a cut, and the new shot has Jeanne still sitting at the table on the far right side of the frame and Sylvain on the couch on the far left side of the frame. There is a lot of physical space between the two. Could that also be the empty space between them as mother and son?

Things really get crazy on the third day. We’ve seen Jeanne perform her tasks with great efficiency for two days already. She was almost like a robot. She knew exactly what was required of her and executed each task diligently. However, on the third day, there are some slip ups. She forgets to turn on a light, she drops a knife, and drops her shoe shiner brush. At the café, someone is already sitting at her favourite spot (which of course is in the middle of the frame), and this flusters her to a certain extent. She doesn’t touch her coffee. There are a host of other little detailed missteps that happen on this third day. She doesn’t even seem as content with herself today. She looks positively bored. Something is clearly amiss. The movie comes to a close at the end of the third day with an unexpected turn of events. There was something deeply troubling her all along, and she unleashes her frustrations in a…questionable way.

I can hear your questions loud and clear (I’m going to pretend your asking questions even if you aren’t): why on earth would such a project to be made? What interest is there in watching such a film? Why is the title so long? Okay, I don’t care about that last question, but the first two are perfectly valid. What’s the point?

Well, from the perspective of someone who has decidedly more mainstream tastes, I believe that the point is whatever you think it is. It is an exposé about the mundane. It is about a housewife’s constant loneliness. It is about a mother and a son’s inability to find a meaningful connection between each other. It’s about minimalist filmmaking. It’s about shot composition. Etc, etc. Pick one. Pick two, three. Better still, watch the movie and discover something that I may have overlooked. I am of the belief that everyone’s reaction to the film can different. What I discovered may not be what, say, sdedalus may discover, or what faceboy has already discovered. JD can be personal for everyone.

I don’t know what art house cinema is. I’ve never taken a film course in my life and thus am in no position to pretend I know what I’m talking about. But I allow myself to suspect that this is art house cinema. No score, little dialogue, a completely different story telling method (yes, I do think one can argue that there is a story), and a host of other characteristics make this a movie far removed from mainstream tastes. I won’t recommend the film. I think that based on my analysis, as amateurish as it may be, is sufficient for all of you to know decide whether this movies needs to be seen or not. This viewer found pleasure in it, but you have been warned.

Do you like house cleaning?

In Depth Review: Rachel Getting Married

Rachel Getting Married (2008, Jonathan Demme)

Kym (Anne Hathaway, wow), a recovering drug addict, is given a leave of absence for a few days to attend her sister's wedding. Her sister, Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt) is a highly educated professional woman completing her PHD is psychology. The whole family is home for the ceremony, as well as close friends. It will be lavish, beautiful and perfect, just like Rachel wants it to be. There's only one potential problem: Kym, who has a rather strained relationship with almost everyone around her and who tends to spoil the fun wherever she goes with her abrasive attitude. It doesn't help of course that in Kym's past, a terrible tragedy tied to her drug consuming ways occurred which severally scarred the entire family. It could be a long few days at the wedding.

Rachel Getting Married showcases what is, in this viewer's humble opinion, some of the best writing and acting to have graced the silver screen all year. Early on, in the car ride home from the rehab center, Kym let's it be known that she would like to see their mother before the ceremony. Her father (divorced from said mother), played by Bill Irwin, uncomfortably says that he isn't so sure about that. Rachel's reaction is that of disappointment. On paper that sounds pretty normal, but the actors pull off that dialogue sequence with such subtlety, such realism, that it makes for a great scene. Right from the get go, the viewer is given a hint that something isn't right, that emotions have been bruised at some time in the past and that the healing process hasn't fully taken effect yet.

When Kym and Rachel finally meet up back home, the initial reaction, of course, is smiles, giggles and compliments. However, only minutes later does it becomes apparent that Rachel has some reservations about Kym as well. This is compounded by Rachel friend, who makes no attempt at hiding her own dislike for Kym. As the hours go by Kym realizes what her family really thinks of her. Some people, like her father, play the part with more gentleness and subtlety. Others, such Rachel, are a bit more, how should I put it, outspoken about what's wrong with her. And so emotions get complicated on the most important two days of Rachel's life.

The writing is acting, as I mentioned previously, are top notch. None of the discussions ever feel false, or shoe horned in just to make a point or to keep raising the stakes for the sake of it. There are real discussions taking place. It's difficult to find ensemble cast films where everyone is firing on all cylinders like they are here. Anne Hathaway demonstrates that she really can act. Her Kym is in such an emotionally dysfunctional status that even the viewer can be forgiven to side with her family. But there is obviously some good in her. She wants good love, but the words that come out of her mouth always seem to bring resentfulness uopn her. Is she a lost cause, a soul tarnished forever by the devastating lifestyle of the junkie? Perhaps, perhaps not. I like to think it's the latter, for all I know I could be wrong. Rosemarie DeWitt and Bill Irwin, who both have their own manners of showing either their disappointment or frustration with Kym, are both equally brilliant.

Much as been said about the hand held camera style of filmmaking, so I won't spend too much time on it, but suffice it to say that it works wonders here. It really feels as if Demme has obtained exclusive access into the world of the family, on its most important day, and has invited the viewer to tag along while things deteriorate. This is the most documentary-type fictional film I think I ever seen. Because of that genuine quality to the picture, it makes the arguments all the more difficult to bear. And I mean that in the good sense. Solid script and solid cinematography altogether.

As a final note, I'd like to point out that the wedding ceremony itself, which if I'm not mistaken lasts a good 15-20 minutes of running time, is worth the price of admission. Food, laughter, a tent with samba, hip hop, light rock. I wish I had been there on the set!

In conclusion, I would make it clear that from the perspective of script, acting and cinematography, Rachel Getting Married is one of the best films of 2008. Of course having not seen it on home video, I can only suspect (although I'm pretty sure about this) that seeing it in the theater enhances the experience. Sitting in that dark room with all my attention focused on Rachel, Kym and everyone else involved in the wedding was intense, funny, frustrating, sad, thoughtful and in the end, well worth my time and money. I sincerely hope it will be the same case with you.

Monday, November 10, 2008

In Depth Review: Vive L'Amour

Vive L'Amour (1994, Ming-Lang Tsai)

A retail estate agent named May Ling, played with surprising elegance and ease by Muei-Mei Yang, lives day in and day out by performing the same drill with potential buyers. Her life isn’t glamorous in the least, but she gets by nonetheless. Early in the film she encounters a street vendor named Ah-jung (Chao-jung Chen). He may not be getting ahead too much in the world, but he’s making some money, he’s handsome and confident. What’s not to like for a girl? Together they make love in one of the apartments Ling is trying to sell. Ah-jung doesn’t have a home however. After their initial love making session, he steals one of the keys to the apartment and sleeps there at night without her knowledge. All the while this has been happening, a urn seller, Hsiao-kang (Kang-shen Lee), has already stolen one of the keys to the same apartment and sleeps in one of the other rooms. Eventually Hsiao-kang and Ah-jung cross paths one night and even befriend one another, although Ah-jung naver makes mention of Hsiao-kang to May Ling.

Vive L’Amour is a funny and admittedly odd movie. Is there a real point to this exercise? Perhaps not, but sometimes telling a fun story, which involves a solid script/dialogue and convincing acting is more than sufficient. I never even tried to think about what the overarching themes of the film were because I was having too much fun with the characters to begin with. All three are perfectly individual and fleshed out enough for the viewer to understand them and maybe even relate. All three are going through different stages of their lives and are living in their society in different ways, yet their stories connect and resonate. When put together in this same film, the results are not only satisfying on a psychological level, but on entertaining level as well. The acting is strong across the board. There really isn’t a weak link to be found. Both male leads are engaging are more than competent but if I may, I would give special mention to Muei-Mei Yang as the real estate agent. She shows a range that I think few actresses or actors can pull off with such conviction. She playful with her new boyfriend, tired, engaging but at times apparently bored when given giving her clients a guided tour of the various apartments under her charge. Given that I don’t ever watch any Taiwanese films, I had never heard of her, but she’s on my radar now.

A word of caution however. For those who may be sold on the movie based on what I have written thus far should understand that the story takes its time developing. The pace is deliberately slow. This may be an immediate turn off for some movie watchers, but for those who enjoy movies in which the plot and character relations are allotted the time to grow and mature, regardless of how long it may take, will be rewarded for their time. Nor is this a typical romance comedy. In fact, I'm not even sure if this a romance film or a comedy for that matter, despite their being a relationship between May and Ah-jung and a few scenes that I laughed very, very hard at. One scene in particularly which has May Ling resting on the bed before a client arrives while Hsiao-kang sneaks out from underneath caught me by surprise not only because I didn’t know that he was hiding there, but because I never expected to find such comedic gold in the film. For all intents and purposes, Vive L’Amour cannot be pigeon holed into a specific category of film, and all the better for it. That last time I was similarly hit by a movie was a few months ago when I watched Targets from Peter Bogdanovich. Several film styles are meshed into one single story with the film being quite strong because of it. The lessons I learned? Twofold: a) to look under the bed whenever I get back home after work or when I’m going to have sex b) not to underestimate Taiwanese cinema.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

In Depth Review: Ivan The Terrible

Ivan The Terrible part 1 (1944, Sergei Eisenstein) and Ivan The Terrible part 2: The Boyars Plot (1958, Sergei Eisenstein)

In 1944 Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein released the first chapter of the never completed trilogy which followed the exploits and personal tribulations of Ivan Vasilyevich, more commonly known as Ivan the Terrible. Critics, movie goers and, more crucially, the state enjoyed it tremendously. In 1946 Eisenstein’s followup, The Boyars Plot, was ill received by the state, at that time still under the authoritarian rule of Joseph Stalin, and therefore banned. Ivan’s cinematic portrayal in the sequel was deemed to resemble too closely the Soviet administration at the time, and saw the film as a thinly veiled criticism of Stalin’s regime. It was only in 1958, five years following the leader’s death, that Russians were rewarded for their patience. Director Eisenstein passed away before completing the final episode in the trilogy. To make matters worse, much of what had been filmed was destroyed by the state, although a little bit of footage can be found on the Criterion Edition of the film.

Of interest perhaps: Ivan Grozny (might and power), more properly translated to modern English becomes Ivan the Awesome. How awesome is the movie though?

Before viewing the film I took it upon myself to read on the subject for some personal knowledge so I could familiarize myself with the story going in. This did in fact make the viewing a smooth experience and the reasons are twofold. Firstly, when certain characters, peoples and events were mentioned, I knew what everyone was talking about. Secondly, I understood the focus of the movie. When telling as expansive a tale as Ivan’s, the filmmakers will undoubtedly concentrate on certain events of the man’s life more so than with others. The films that make up Ivan the Terrible are a presentation of the man as a leader stuck in a rut. He himself is a self aggrandizing and evidently paranoid, but it doesn’t help that he become Russia’s first tsar of Moscovy (the name given to the Russian empire at the time. I won’t go into historical details) when the country’s upper class/aristocracy, known as the boyars, were intent on preserving their influence in state decisions. The viewer is of course encouraged to know already what the situation was between Ivan’s father and mother and the boyars before he rose to power. That’s not to say that one can’t understand anything without prior knowledge, but it makes the viewing experience complete and satisfying to a certain extent. At its core, the films are concentrating on Ivan's relations with his friends and foes and less with conquests and political reform, even though the latter two are mentioned and seen on occasion.

This three hour film depicts the constant and shifting rivalries that threaten Ivan’s throne. The rivalry with boyars is a constant one. But other relationships, that at one time were healthy, such as with the Prince Kurbsky who eventually defects to Poland once Ivan has begun his expansionist mission to the West (although a certain tension came into being once Ivan married the beautiful Anastasia, whom Kurbsky adored from afar), turn sour. This is where my reading becomes a double edged sword however. Certain events as shown in the film appear as rather accurate. Most notable is the Russian conquering of Kazan (one of Ivan’s first expansionist missions). Another is when Ivan, now terribly ill and fearing death, commands the boyars to pledge themselves to Ivan Ivanovich, his infant son. They of course refuse, which, along with the death and presumed murder of his wife, prompts Ivan the Terrible to associate himself more closely with the commoners in the creation of a paramilitary force named the Oprichnina, who went on to terrorize the land more than anything else. In other instances, I was disappointed with certain omissions. There wasn’t a whole lot about the Oprichnina in the film. The film shows a scene in which thousands of commoners pledge themselves to Ivan (the scene is very well shot by the way), but little is heard or seen about the this paramilitary force afterwards. In fact, at one point a character pleads to Ivan that the Oprichnini must be disbanded, but if I’m not mistaken that’s actually the fist time in the film the name of the force is mentioned. A viewer would therefore be forgiven for asking what exactly the characters are talking about.

Another stranger decision, was to take the historical figure of Feodor 1, Ivan’s seemingly retarded son, and make him his cousin for the film. It’s not that the decision doesn’t work for the film, only that I couldn’t figure out why (perhaps the fear that the public would not want to see one of their historical leaders with a handicapped son? I don’t know…). Despite my research, I couldn’t find anything on a Efrosinia Staritska, who is Ivan’s evil aunt in the film and plots to have him overthrown. She has the retarded son in the story, not Ivan. I suppose certain decision were made given the political climate in Russia at the time which heavily dictated censorship, but for some historical buffs these may be annoyances. Then again, they may find the changes all the more interesting. I’ll leave the verdict to them.

The acting style is, theatrical to say the least. I don’t want to use the term ‘cartoonish’ since I’ve always considered it, for one reason or another, to be a bit insulting, but there is a particular energy to the acting on display that may be offsetting for some. A lot of characters use the old bulging eyes trick to mark anger, shock, fear, sadness, etc. I can take that every once on a while, but it seemed like everyone’s ‘go to’ trick here. I also found it rather amusing that in Ivan's coronation scene, he has a booming voice that Orsen Wells would have been jealous of, despite that fact that Ivan was only 16 at the time.

Having said that, I thought that Nikolai Cherkasov as Ivan was quite convincing. A dictator needs to have something rather grandiose about him after all and Ckerkasov pulls it off nicely. Serafima Birman as Ivan’s nefarious aunt was given a juicy role and certainly injected some ghoulish delight to say the least. The music is terrific. It sets the tone very well and is quite catchy as a matter of fact. I was recognizing certain themes as they returned throughout the film and always welcomed them back.

Arguably what struck me the most was the cinematography and the composition of various shots. My knowledge of historic Russian cinema is limited (apart from Andrei Rublev which I saw recently) and therefore I did not know what to expect visually. I was very much surprised to discover a lavish, Hollywood-esque type production. This movie is big, with plenty of costumes, massive sets and even a bloody battle sequence. There were a few shots that truly showcased expert filming at its best. I guess it doesn’t matter where you are in the world, people love big epics.

It’s with mixed feelings that I write this review, but let that not denote that I feel I’ve wasted my time watching Ivan the Terrible. Any opportunity to see cinema from another region of the globe, particularly historical cinema from another region, is one a relish very much. There is a lot to like about the film, and I would invite anyone who enjoys foreign cinema (based on North American tastes) to give this a try. It looks lavish (in a 1944 kind of way) has a great soundtrack and features one of history’s most controversial figures as its central character. Just don’t expect a history lesson.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Benjamin Button Poll

Based on the results of last week's poll, a lot of you aren't interested in the upcoming David Fincher film, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the option that received the most votes. Tied for second was your excitement based on the fact that it's a Fincher project and the fact that it's another Fincher/Pitt collaboration.
Thank you all for voting!

Sunday, October 26, 2008

In Depth Review: High and Low

High and Low (1963, Akira Kurosawa)

Kurosawa's film High and Low is a prime example of the quality cinema can result when two popular genres are properly fused into one story. In this case, we have the drama genre and the detective genre. To put it briefly, Kingo Gondo (Toshiro Mifune, yet again in a starring role in a Kurosawa) is a shoe making plant director for the National Shoe Company. One night he receives a threatening phone call from a man saying that his son has been kidnapped, and unless Gondo pays the 30 million ransom, the boy will die. Soon afterwards, it is discovered that it is not Gondo's son that has been taken, but the son of his chauffeur. Regardless, the kidnapper still asks for the identical ransom. His son now in safety, Gondo begins to doubt whether he should pay the ransom, given that the 30 million in question is just about how much he has saved up and mortgaged to take over the National Shoe Company. And so begins a fascinating tale about morals and detective work.

The other players involved are the chief detective on the case played by Tatsuya Nakadai who comes into play mostly in the second half of the film. I say second half because the story is really split into two separate, but yet closely linked chapters. The first hour or so concerns itself primarily with Gondo and his reluctance to pay the ransom. His hesitancy is gruesome in that it is a young, innocent boy's life that is on the line. But Gondo's philosophy on the subject is heavily skewed for very personal reasons. He has been with the Shoe Company for decades, practically from the beginning. His life is his work and his work is his life one might argue. Additionally, he has just mortgaged most of what he owns in order to become the company employee with the most shares. This in theory would lead to far greater income in the future, not to mention an enhanced decision power. If he he pays the ransom however, all that vanishes, including his home.

What is on display is a bizarre but intriguing dilemma. As a hard worker, a very hard one at that, is Gondo not entitled to finally make his break in the company? Most people would of course argue no. Rather, the boy's life is far more precious. And yet Kurosawa makes it plainly obvious that in this world, men are after success more than anything else. One need only look at Gondo's right hand man, played by Tatsuya Mihashi, who insists that Gondo should follow through with his plan and not 'chicken out' because of circumstances that are beyond his control. There is a specific, ruthless business mentality that drives men like this and the result makes for a strange, but very engaging experience.

Tatsuya Nakadai shines the the second part of the film, when he and his team of crack detectives take over and hunt the kidnapper down. He and his men have witnessed first hand the strife the event has caused between Gondo and his wife (who pleads desperately for her husband to go ahead and pay the ransom to save the boy's life) as well as between Gondo and his right hand man and other colleagues. In addition to the fact that a young boy has been put in incredible peril, their resolve to bring these matters to a safe and positive conclusion is welcomed. Nakadai leads his team with confidence and cunning. One can understand why he is so highly regarded within the force. There is a natural calmness about him, but one that is supported by intelligence and a sharpness that enables him to make quick fire decisions when the stakes are high. Kenjiro Ishiyama plays one of Nakadai's men and is equally strong in his role as detective Bos'n. A bit older, bald and with a intimidating face, he displays determination and passion rather than anything overly menacing, which might have been the case were the story in another director's hands. His commitment to the case is second to none.

There are some inspiring scenes in the film, most notably when Gondo and the detectives, under instructions from the kidnapper, are riding on a speeding train hoping to catch a glimpse of the boy through the windows, but fully aware that the packaged ransom must be thrown out the window and that any false movement can derail the entire case (particularly since the detectives do not want the kidnapper to know that they are involved). The final sequence of the film exemplifies the result all the hard work the detectives have invested up until that point. When so close to catching the suspect, but aware that any false move can be translate to failure, both efficiency and stress are juggled together. A climax that is more than merely satisfying.

High and Low is one of Kurasawa's finer efforts. It may not involve samurais or emperors, but the director is comfortable with the material and handles it delicately, letting many of the scenes breath. The pacing is just right, with nothing feeling rushed. Everything plays out naturally. For those who associate Kurosawa with swords and ancient Japan epics, I urge them to get their hands on a copy of High and Low discover something surprising.

Friday, October 24, 2008

In Depth Review: F For Fake (spoilers)

F For Fake (1975, Orsen Wells)

Orsen Wells directs and stars in this whimsical and playful 'documentary' regarding trickery. The film focuses primarily on the works of art forger Elmyr de Hory and his biographer, Clifford Irving (who also wrote a fictional biography about Howard Hughes). At times funny, at times surprising and at other times insightful and even thought provoking, F For Fake is more than just a collage of stories about people paving their road to success through trickery. Wells invites the viewer for an exploration of the mindset and motivation of people who have garnered fame and wealth all the while duping the general public, as well as the self described 'experts.'

Is a person who can replicate a work of art so accurately not talented or that merely profiting off the talent of others? What of a writer who has the guts and wit to fool everyone and get them to buy a biography that hasn't an ounce of truth in it? What does that say about the so called 'experts' and masses who embrace these works without the knowledge of their true nature? The movie, in its own entertaining way, throws our ideas of authenticity and truth on their heads. People will always have a fascination with those who choose dubious means to create their wealth and fame. But how many of them really deserve the scorn of men and women who make an 'honest' living? In the case of Elmyr de Hory, we have a person who is charming, funny, a socialite on the Spanish island of Ibiza, and obviously very talented. So much so that the man possesses the ability the re-create the works of Pablo Picasso and other phenomenal artists in only a couple of hours, which is a testament to his command of the paint brush. He claims he has fooled art dealers the world over, selling what they deemed to be original works when all the while they were but recreations done by Elmyr himself. Is that not a talent in of itself? There is a certain irony rested in the fact that Elmyr only began to make money by selling his secret recreations after failing miserably to earn a living with his own original work.

What's more, Elmyr finds a good friend in Clifford Irving, the author of a phony biography about the life of the famous and infamous American airplane pioneer Howard Hughes. Much like Elmyr, Irving is himself a bit of a charmer and often subtle and playful in the way he answers the questions thrown at him. He's relaxed and cool at all times, which is the reason why he's gotten so far in life after all. Neither Irving or Clifford seem feel the pressure of being caught for their trickery. Therein lies perhaps their greatest strength after all. These two friends have flirted with danger and success simultaneously through their respective practices. They are the masters at what they do, that is, fool people. Is it any wonder therefore that the viewer gets the impression that both are just as enigmatic when addressing the camera?

By the end of it, even Orsen Wells himself gets in on the act. After making a promise early in the film to tell nothing but the truth for the following hour, the viewer is duped into believing one last story about a beautiful woman (Oja Kodar) and how she seduced Pablo Picasso into doing 20 or so portraits of her and letting her walk away with every single one of them free of charge. The story continues with Picasso eventually coming face to face with her dying grandfather, who for years had successfully reproduced Picasso's work and made a living off of it. Great story, right? Well, as Wells rightly points out, the 1 hour mark came to an end 17 minutes ago, and therefore everything you have been lead to believe since then was a load of bull. The documentary filmmaker exploring fakery has just pulled one last coup on the audience because he knows he can and he knows that anyone can be fooled. Ironically, Orsen Wells, as the narrator, plays a magician of some sort, who are known for creating illusions of reality, which is the central theme of the movie. Wells, as the narrator, is also having a very good time and lets the atmosphere relax. He isn't out to persecute Irving and Elmyr, but to shine the spotlight on them and have some fun while doing so. His comments and dialogue are both funny and poignant.

One can't review the film without making a note regarding its editing style. Quickly paced, with detailed closeup shots and others in which all movements come to a halt, it is little wonder that F For Fake would influence some of the cinematographic techniques that would later characterize the music videos that are featured daily on stations such as MTV and Much Music. Say what you will have how 'cool' or 'pathetic' those music videos may be, in the case of this film the style is entertaining and adds some character to the proceedings.

Certainly an unorthodox documentary, but it greatly benefits from that uniqueness. And for those who aren't fans of documentaries, there is a lot of fun to be had here. It isn't the least bit dry.