Saturday, June 27, 2009

Review: Summer Hours

L’Heure D’Été (2009, Olivier Assayas)

As one of the characters in the film reminds her family, when a person passes away, their memories and all that which is locked within leaves with them. That is true, but only to a certain degree. Like so much in life, there are many ways to remember people and their legacies, such as the stories they shared and their accomplishments. Yet another can simply be the personal objects they leave behind, which loved ones of the deceased will want to keep for their sentimental value, which can far outweigh whatever monetary value they may possess. There is the odd familial situation in which a great numbers of factors lead to the opposite action, that is, the family having to get rid of everything to take the money. In Olivier Assayas’ drama Summer Hours, siblings Adrienne, Frédéric and Jérémie (Juliette Binoche, Charles Berling and Jérémie Renier respectively) are confronted with this difficult and trying reality after their mother Hélène (Édith Scob) passes away.

Hélène, long divorced from her husband, had been living in the quiet French countryside side in a magnificent house for several years, a house which preserved the great art, furniture and sculpture collection amassed and created by her late brother, their uncle. For many years already Hélène had cherished this beautiful collection and the house itself, but when her children and her grandchildren come visit her one summer afternoon, she takes Frédéric aside and makes it explicitly clear that he doesn’t have to hold old onto any of it after she dies. Taken aback, not only because his own mother is talking about her inevitable death but also because of how casually she is telling him how much he could get for each piece in her collection, Frédéric denies any intention of wanting to sell the house. It, as well as everything inside it, should be kept for the grandchildren when they use it in the summer. It should also be kept for the sake of family heritage and memories. But when Hélène passes away a mere few weeks later, both Adrienne and Jérémie explain that, as much as they love the house, neither one would ever use it due to their respective job and living situations (Adrienne is some kind of designer in New York while Jérémie is employed for a shoe company in China). With the votes 2 against 1, the family proceeds to sell off their inheritance.

I read somewhere that writer and director Oliver Assayas was influenced by many of the Taiwanese new wave directors, most notably Hou Hsiao-Hsien, and I thought I detected some of those cinematic sensibilities in Summer Hours. There is the overall story concerning the selling of this marvellous collection and all the steps required in order to properly execute this plan, but through it all the film feels far more concerned with offering snippets of who these people are how they are coming too grips with the reality of the situation through delicately written and intimately filmed scenes, a technique that the great Hou Hsiao-Hsien (for those familiar with his work) has perfected throughout the years. It really is the individual scenes, those individual moments during which two characters or more will have a conversation and the viewer is privy to hearing their emotions and thoughts on this arduous and difficult time in their lives. Glued together we indeed have a film that offers somewhat of a plot, but it works far better as a character exploration piece than anything driven by a tightly focussed narrative. Each sibling is living a very different life, with two of them not even residing in France anymore, and this plays a major roll in why they make the decision to sell the inheritance. The scene in which the three siblings debate and eventually arrive at the decision to sell the property is one of the best acted, written and filmed scenes I’ve seen so far this year. In that 5 or 6 minute span we the audience are given a very fleshed picture of who each of these people are and how they behave amongst each other; What’s interesting is that despite the reality that their situation is an emotionally trying one, Adrienne, Frédéric and Jérémie remain quite composed throughout, with only some brief moments indicating that any strain may be afflicting them. Summer Hours shies away from major argument scenes, with brothers and sister at each others throats, something that might have felt too manipulative if in the wrong hands of a particular director. It occurs once, but it feels right in that one scene. Here the characters are sad, but rarely give in to outbursts. The dynamics get intriguing when they begin to collect their thoughts on the possibility that the relation between their mother and uncle may not have been of the healthiest nature. That is, arguably, when their emotions are given the greatest test, when the possibly cruel truth begins to surface.

The acting is very solid all around, with special mention going to Charles Berling as Frédéric and Édith Scob as Hélène, whose only misfortune is that her character must perish after only perhaps 20 minutes of screen time. She radiates with life as Hélène, a woman who recognizes that her time is fast approaching, but moves and talks as if she could keep on going for decades still. Charles Berling’s character Frédéric is the one sibling of the three of whom the viewer sees the most, and he gives a fine, measured performance. Most of the work involved in selling the property rests on his character’s shoulders, meaning that he is, arguably, carrying the heaviest emotional weight in addition to his duties as a father to his own children. Oh, but isn’t Juliette Binoche in this film? Yes she is indeed, but I can’t say that this was her best work. Even when she isn’t firing on all cylinders Binoche is a superior actor to most, but I never felt she was given a whole lot to work with. Her character of Adrienne doesn’t offer much in terms of emotional depth, although there were a few moments of what I like to call ‘Binoche brilliance’. This feels more like Berling’s show than anyone else’s. Lest I forget, Isabelle Sadovan gives an inspired performance as the house maid Éloise, despite rather limited screen time.

Another aspect about the film that gives it a special quality was how it spends time with some of the steps in the auctioning process, from the moment the Musée D’Orsay art experts visit the home to when more experts are sitting at a table discussing the merits of the collection. In fact, one if my favourite scenes in the film is the 5-6 minute sequence when the experts are walked through the house by Frédéric and Adrienne and shown all the lovely goodies. It may offer less character development, but it was nice to know the film was taking some time to show the long process necessary to sell off the inheritance. The camera work during this sequence is also superbly done. Assayas has great control of his shots, making his camera take smooth glides across rooms to follow characters or to observe objects. There were other moments, particularly during conversations between many characters at once (during dinner or in a living room) when the camera had a very dynamic and lively feel to it. It followed the action quickly, but always in a controlled manner. Sometimes a person may be hidden by something else and reappear once the camera had moved out of the way of the object or person blocking them. It sounds really simple on paper and maybe it was also very simply to set up, but it looks very nice on film. It helps that a lot of the film takes place in a private domain in the French countryside, with a lush green surrounding and a marvellous house used as the primary shooting location.

Not every scene works. The film spends a few scenes on Frédéric’s daughter, who has run into some drug problems, and while I acknowledge that it makes the familial dynamics real, I didn’t really have the same emotional investment in that strangely brief storyline. Two of the siblings are awarded their own scenes to finally let out some tears, and each time I felt it to be unnecessary. We knew that they were sad. One of the interesting elements of the film was in fact seeing how these characters were dealing with their thoughts and feelings and to see them burst out in tears felt a bit typical, as if Assayas wanted to remind us that these people also cry, just like the rest of us. But for all intents and purposes, the moments that didn’t impress were far and few between.

While offering little that is out of the ordinary, Summer Hours is still a solid piece of filmmaking. It’s a quiet little film, but one that carries some very well acted and constructed scenes. The notions of family memories, attachments, legacies and what they mean to their inheritors is well handled and given a neat 21st century perspective. I’m pretty sure the film received a very limited release in North America, so either wait for the DVD, or don’t waste another second if you learn that it’s playing in your area.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Review: Drag Me to Hell

Drag Me to Hell (2009, Sam Raimi)

After a thrilling ride with the Spider-Man trilogy, Sam Raimi returns to his so called ‘roots’ by delivering movie goers a horror film with a heavy dose of comedy. Or maybe the proper categorization is saying it’s a comedy with a heavy dose of horror. You know, I doubt it matters much. Raimi fans, if you’re reading this, I’m you know what I mean. It’s a movie with gore, shocks and laughs. I got that part right at least, correct? Many people, movie buffs and critics alike, were pleasantly surprised with how of the first Spider-Man film turned out. It was colourful, funny and had interesting characters. This was from the bloke who made those Evil Dead movies? It’s widely accepted that he even surpassed himself with Spider-Man 2, bringing that franchise to even greater heights (even though this reviewer, while enjoying the sequel, doesn’t quite agree with such intense a sentiment). Alas, such a good ride couldn’t last forever, and when Spider-Man 3 was released, fans scolded Raimi for losing his way with the franchise. After such a poorly received film (and again I’m a bit of a contrarian in thinking that the third entry really isn’t that bad), the director opted to make a movie reminiscent of those that brought him success and fame originally.

Drag Me to Hell stars Alison Lohman as Christine, a sweet and pretty bank employee who deals with mortgage loans. She is currently vying for a much higher position in her company, but must contend for the favour of her boss (David Paymer) with a newcomer to the bank, the slimy and devious Stu (Reggie Lee). Her boyfriend (Justin Long) is deeply in love with her, but his mother disapproves of the relationship. Things don’t get any better when Mrs. Ganush, a sickly old woman, shows up to Christine’s desk one morning asking for a third mortgage extension. Christine knows that to earn that new position she wants at her branch, she needs to make the ‘tough decisions.’ She refuses Mrs. Ganush the extension, even after the hideous old hag pleads before her and everyone else present. Later that day, as Christine walks to her car in the basement parking lot, she is viciously attacked by Mrs. Ganush, who clearly possesses some kind of superhuman abilities. Before Christine can get away, Mrs. Ganush puts a curse on her, only later to be revealed as a curse that will send poor, sweet Christine to hell to be burned for all eternity.

If this sounds silly, rest assured, that’s the point. Raimi wants to have fun and invites the audience to join along. Very, and I mean very few scenes are played straight. Not being very familiar with the director’s previous work, Spider-Man trilogy notwithstanding, I wasn’t sure what to expect exactly, but the buzz surrounding the film upon its release was resoundingly positive, mostly due to its light hearted elements, something unsuspecting people who only know the film from its trailer might not get (the trailer makes the movie look like a more traditional ‘scary’ horror movie). The buzz wasn’t wrong about the film not taking itself too seriously. I laughed far, far more than I expected to. At times the comedy came from a bit of dialogue while during other scenes it had more to do with the ridiculous setups and situations Christine would get herself in. What surprised me was the care that went into the writing of Chrstine. There are a lot of little details about her actions and behaviours that made her a pretty interesting character. She’s a sweet pie on the surface, but the film provides hints of some deeper insecurities that haunt her. The disapproval of her boyfriend’s mother is a cause for stress, as is her intentional efforts to let go of her past, when she lived on a farm, was a chubby little girl and ‘talked differently.’ There is a clever scene, very brief, near the beginning when Christine is heading to work and passes by a bakery. She looks through the window, gushing at the delicious pastries inside, only to suddenly turn sharply around, struggling her very best to avoid the temptation. It probably lasts less than a minute, but it’s funny and gives some insight into her character. There is even a payoff scene to this struggle later in the film, but I won’t give it away. Credit where credit is due, but Raimi can’t take all of it. It’s Alison Lohman who plays the character after all, and I have to say she handles herself really well. She has good comedic timing, can bring the ‘I’m gonna get some’ attitude when it’s required, and can play shit pants scared. As the predicament grows more and more dire, she goes through a transformation of sorts, becoming more desperate and more willing to go to greater, less honourable lengths to save her skin. This comes to the point, in a twist of irony, one cannot help but feel that maybe, just maybe, she might actually deserve to be dra…no, never! Lohman’s performance isn’t groundbreaking, but it does serve as a reminder of what the results can be when casting is done right in a horror film, as opposed to the usual tits and ass brainless casting which so often plagues horror movies these days (although it doesn’t hurt that Lohman is a very attractive woman). Justin Long, usually the main sourve of comedic value in whatever project he’s involved, plays the straight man for once. I’m not entirely sold on the idea of Long as a more serious actor, but I still thought he was alright here. He does have some decent banter with the fortune teller, played by Dileep Rao, who helps Christine with tips to combat the curse. Rao isn’t in the movie for very long, but he’s very, very good in his small role (the credit card joke got a good laugh out of me). Even Reggie Lee hits the right notes as the snotty rival at work. Great casting all around.

While I did like the character of Christine, the comedic elements and the performances all around, I wasn’t entirely sold on the supposedly scary scenes. Truth be told, I’m still not sure what was supposed to be scary or funny whenever Mrs. Ganush or some other creature would appear. I think the main reason for this is that I found most of those scenes boring. It just became a little bit too over the top for me, so whether it was vying for laughs or shrieks, I wasn’t giving either. Many of the visual effects don’t look that impressive, and bare with me, I know that was the point, but that never resonated with me. So many of the dialogue and character driven scenes are cleverly written and amusing, that when Raimi and his team were trying to get laughs out of mere hysterics and cheap visual effects, I was usually let down. I know there are those out there who loved specifically those hysterics and awkward visuals since they essentially reinforce the film’s self-deprecating nature, and that’s fine by me. I just felt that tonally, those two facets, the dialogue/character driven moments and the off-the-wall spooks made the movie uneven at times. There weren’t even a whole lot of people at my screening who laughed at the crazy moments either, so I can’t be alone on this. Ironically enough, there was this one woman who shrieked, I kid you not, at every single ‘spook’ moment, which I’m pretty sure was the opposite of what Raimi was going for given how silly they are, but whatever floated that woman’s boat is fine I imagine. I should mention that I did find the first crazy moment of the film, when Mrs. Ganush attacks Christine in her car at night, to be entertaining. I think that had more to do with the fact that it was just a good old fashioned brawl, complete with punches, kicks, vomiting and eye stapling. It was a fight and not a fright, which as a movie goer I simply find more thrilling. When the film reverted to insane horror moments, that’s when I was less entertained.

While I won’t jump on the bandwagon calling Drag Me to Hell one of the most entertaining films of the year, I won’t deny that I had a good time, even though it was for some very specific aspects, and not for a little bit of everything. The story is entertaining in its silliness, the cast is fantastic and the writing does a few interesting things with the main protagonist, a rarity in horror films of the early 21st century. Having said that, I got no laughs or shrieks out of the ‘scarier’ moments in the film, which is a shame because had I found those entertaining, this probably would be one of my favourite films of the year. As it stands, it has some really solid elements, and others that fell flat. Nonetheless, when considering what Hollywood has offered movie buffs so far this summer (Star Trek and Up notwithstanding), Drag Me to Hell is clearly better than a lot of the mainstream material playing now, and just as a funny movie is rather solid.

*To give you the most detailed example (minor spoilers ahead) I can of what I’m talking about, I really liked the dinner scene when Christine goes over to her have supper at the home her boyfriend’s parents and the first time Christine meets the fortune teller, but I thought the scene in the shed when Christine is getting her equipment really stupid.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Review: The Girlfriend Experience

The Girlfriend Experience
(2009, Steven Soderbergh)

One of the great American directors working today, Soderbergh is a filmmaker who can comfortably slip into almost any genre. I haven’t seen all of the man’s projects, but more than enough to determine that he knows exactly how to handle almost any film genre. What’s particularly impressive is his ability to deliver high quality films, regardless of what kind of story he is telling, which actors are starring in the film or even what kind of camera he is using. He can make a slick, fun heist movie like Out of Sight with George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez, he can destroy and defy expectations and conventions of comedies like in Schizopolis (starring none other than the director himself), and he’s perfectly capable of producing a 4 ¼ hour long biopic about one of the 20th century’s most popular figures, Che Guevara in Che. Hollywood crowd pleasers (Oceans films), Oscar worthy efforts (Traffic, Erin Brockovich), art-house favourites (Che, Schizopolis), Soderbergh can, seemingly, do it all. His previous film, the epic Che, is now followed by one of his shortest films yet, The Girlfriend Experience, clocking in at a paltry 78 minutes. True to the ‘art house’ side of him, Soderbergh decided to mess with the chronological order of the events in the story and cast unkown actors and actresses. Actually, there’s a catch. Sasha Grey, who stars in the film, is in fact well known in some circles, but that’s because she’s a porn star.

Chelsea (Sasha Grey) is a relatively successful call girl (call her up, set up an appointment and she will act as your girlfriend for the night) in Manhattan who lives with her boyfriend Chris (Chris Santos), who is a personal trainer at an expensive gym. The film’s many scenes lay in out in various detail the fragile relationship these two young professionals have, Chelsea’s aspirations for further success and maybe even love, as well as Chris’s own search for greener pastures in his field. As is the case in several of the director’s previous works, very little, in fact nothing if I remember correctly, is told in chronological order. Soderbergh is clearly a fan of this method and I can understand why, as puts a very different perspective on individual moments in the lives of the characters. It reminds me of how people often reminisce about specific moments from their pasts, when we think ‘Oh, how that was a lovely tea party’ or ‘Darn, had I only woken up 10 minutes earlier.’ When a story is told in chronological order, everything meshes in well together, even though various scenes will undoubtedly stand out for some viewers. They all fit in easily, or less so depending on the quality of the film, into a single cohesive plot. With a movie like The Girlfriend Experience, what we are left with feels more like a wall of photographs, each one perfectly capturing a moment, but combined together, those moments can tell the story of someone’s life. It might not suit everyone’s taste, but it’s a technique I feel Soderbergh understands well and uses in convincing fashion, including in this film.

Which brings me to the individual scenes themselves. Admittedly, there isn’t a whole lot of storytelling at play here. I think that the film’s running length is partly responsible for that, but it was also a personal choice of the writers (David Levien and Brian Koppelman) and the director. There are conversations at the dinner table between Chelsea and Chris, conversations at a restaurant between Chelsea and potential business partners, conversations in the private rooms of clients, etc. It might all feel mundane to the average viewer, and it is pretty mundane when one thinks about it, but somehow the film manages to make it worthwhile enough. I don’t know how the call girl business functions, so it was rather interesting to listen in on these discussions. I don’t think the film delves all that deeply into the matter, but I nonetheless found a certain degree of pleasure in eavesdropping, for that’s really what the movie feels like, an opportunity to eavesdrop. Without a traditional, powerful narrative to propel the movie forward, one finds enjoyment in being awarded a slightly closer look than usual into the life of someone who, when on duty, probably keeps her private life tightly knit and to herself. Even though we don’t to know a whole lot about the character of Chelsea, there were still moments that brought her to life a little bit, such as when she is shopping for clothes and notices one of her clients (or former client?) out the window with another woman who, in a funny way, resembles her. There is this brief pang of frustration and disappointment. Because she lost a good client (money)? Because she may have actually enjoyed his companionship as he did hers? We don’t know for sure, but there are a few of these intriguing little moments sprinkled throughout the film that give the character of Chelsea some layers, even though they may not be terribly deep.

Speaking of Chelsea, I imagine this review can’t go on any longer without mention of Sasha Grey’s performance. There are, I’m sorry to alert my porn addicted friends, no sex scenes in the film, so the other kind of ‘performance’ shan’t be discussed. No, here Grey really is asked to act out a role for a character, a character that is perhaps a little too sure of herself, a little reserved, a little blazé about the whole thing. At least that’s what I got out of her performance. That isn’t to say that it’s bad. On the contrary, I guess it was alright, although I’m not so sure she is given a whole lot to do. There is even a moment in the film when her character Chelsea retells one of her most recent sessions with a client, and explains that the man didn’t want sex or to kiss. He merely invited her to talk. I think this is what lies at the heart of a character like Chelsea, that is, she’s the hot woman one calls to take out, talk to, and probably get physical with. As long as she is looking fine, which she certainly does I might add, and is effective in ‘close quarters’, nothing else is actually required of her. I don’t think Chelsea even does all that much talking in the film. Many scenes have her mostly listening to other people talking to her rather her engaging in the conversation with anything intelligent or provocative to say. So once again, it brings me back to my original argument that what Sasha Grey specifically does in the film is fine, but I still don’t think she is doing very much.

This being a Soderbergh film, The Girlfriend Experience benefits from lush visuals and superb musical accompaniments. One of the better sequences in the film features a street drummer pounding away a very catchy and hip tune on his drum set. For the most part, the instrumental is non-diegetic sound, as the viewer sees a quick series of events in the lives of Chris and Chelsea transpire. It is only as the drummer concludes his performance that we finally see him in the flesh on a street in Manhattan. Truth be told, I don’t even quite remember what it is I saw as the music played as non-diegetic sound, I was merely enthralled by the performance. The movie has also has a very sleek, professional look to it. Soderbergh has a very fine eye for setting up visually stimulating shots and discovering camera angles that handle the right mood for individual scenes and getting the most out of them. He used the RedOne camera that everyone has been raving about recently, particularly since it people learned last year that the RedOne was used to shoot Che. For a camera that is supposed to be comparatively inexpensive, there is no question that it produces a great look for movies. Che looked fantastic and so does The Girlfriend Experience. It helps that Soderbergh himself is a great visual storyteller, arguably one of the better ones working today, so coupled with the great ‘bang for buck’ of the RedOne, the movie comes off looking rather stylish, while strangely retaining a certain realistic, almost documentary look. If for anything at all, I’d suggest watching the movie for its visual qualities.

Not reaching the heights of his great works, The Girlfriend Experience is still more than suitable curiosity. Not a whole lot happens, but that almost didn’t even matter to me because I still enjoyed it, sometimes for the individual moments, sometimes for the music, other times for the great cinematography. As a complete package, it’s definitely 'minor Soderbergh', but in the good sense, not Ocean’s 12 'minor Soderbergh'. I saw it, I was intrigued, I may watch it again, I may not. I suppose that in the grander scheme of things it does suffer from a ‘take it or leave it/ doesn’t really matter’ quality, but if you like cool looking movies, and most certainly if you enjoy art house Soderbergh, then don’t hesitate to catch this one.

Poll results

The results for the last poll are official. The month of July will be dedicated to one of the great directors of the horror genre, and one of the few immensely popular Canadian directors, David Cronenberg. Coming in second place was 'Horror (non-Cronenberg). Evidently, a lot of readers at Between the Seats like horror movies. Both horror related options received over 50% of the votes.

Tied for third were '1940s, early 50s post-war Japanese cinema' and 'Pixar'.

And receiving absolutely no votes at all was 'James Bond.' Thanks guys.

A big thank you to all those who voted in the poll and a big thank you to those who post comments about our reviews. We don't get a lot of comments here at Between the Seats, but we do appreciate it when they come in.

The final lineup for July has not been determined, but right now it looks like Between the Seats will tackle Shivers, Scanners, The Dead Zone, Videodrome, The Fly, Dead Ringers, Naked Lunch, Existenz, Spyder and A History of Violence.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Review: Adoration

Adoration (2008, Atom Egoyan)

Egoyan is not a director who shies away from controversial, touchy subjects, such as the Armenian genocide during the first world war (Ararat), the mourning of an entire town after everyone’s children dies in a school bus accident (The Sweet Hereafter) and the sick mind of a serial killer (Felicia’s Journey). His films are sometimes quite meditative, subtle and intelligently done, as is the case in both The Sweet Hereafter and Felicia’s Journey. Other times, such as in Ararat, the result leaves to be desired, with certain ideas and arguments feeling far too forced (even though, as a whole, I personally really don’t mind Ararat). But those films were all focused on discernable, overarching themes. Whether Egoyan succeeded in dramatizing the emotions involved in each of those stories is up for debate if you so desire, but they all had a focus, a particular mindset, both with regards to the narrative and the themes. With his most recent film, Adoration, Egoyan may have stretched himself a bit too much, not to mention that I wasn’t convinced that the themes in the film needed all that much stretching to begin with.

Simon, played nicely by Devon Bostick, is a high school student who is encouraged by his French teacher Sabine (Arsinée Khanjian, always reliable) to prepare a presentation for class about his late father, who passed away many years ago along with his mother. Simon does so, telling his classmates how his father of Middle Eastern descent was a terrorist who had used his mother to have a bomb explode on a plane. The truth of the matter however is that…there’s no truth whatsoever in this presentation. The classmates don’t realize this and Simon’s fabricated story elicits some intense reactions, many of which are shared on a nightly basis in the internet chat rooms. Even some adults, after some word to mouth, get in on the act and begin spewing their own two cents on the subject of terrorism in the post 9/11 world.

This is but one of the many elements of Sabine’s plan to get to see Simon’s uncle Tom, played by Scott Speedman. Tom, who tows cars for a living, took over parenting duties for the boy ever since Simon’s parents died, but has been running short on money for quite some time already and, by and large, isn’t the most sociable or communicative of people. Why would Sabine want to meet and discuss with this lonely and shy man? In proper Egoyan fashion it seems, the plot is weaved with so many threads that if I went any deeper into its complexities, I pretty much wouldn’t have any other choice than to give everything away, or most of it anyways. I do like it when Egoyan constructs his films in which the heart of the story is revealed little by little, with interesting and tantalizing hints offered along the way. For the most part he handles this storytelling technique admirably. A great example of this method is in the film Exotica, a film that doesn’t always get the credit it deserves. However, in order for this strategy truly to bear fruit, the heart of the story must be worth it, the reveals and themes at the center of the movie must be able to capture the viewer’s attention. As I walked out of the cinema on that rainy night, I realized that even Atom Agoyan can’t strike gold every time.

In Adoration, it would seem as if the ideas are too many, with a decidedly sub-par and not particularly clever back-story available to support them. The first half of the film pertains mostly to the phenomenon of information wildly circulating on the internet. Very shortly after delivering his presentation, Simon witnesses the debates about death, love, and forgiveness that rage on the internet blogs and live video chat sessions. Some of the dialogue and arguments shared is poignant, although not a whole lot of it. Things get especially disappointing when some of the adults, who you would think would bring some intelligent remarks to the discussion, actually start behaving worse than some of the teens. One of them even goes on this diatribe about all the ‘fucking terrorists.’ And here begin my issues with Adoration. False information taken for granted and spread across the internet is in fact an interesting topic, a reality with which you and I have to deal with on an almost daily basis (unless you don’t use the internet, don’t blog or don’t chat). It just isn’t handled in any worthwhile way with this film. In fact, probably one of the reasons this topic feels half baked in the story is that the second half of the film essentially jettisons this theme and focuses primarily on the dynamic between the French teacher Sabine and Tom, Simon’s uncle. There isn’t anything terribly wrong with switching storylines in a single film, as long as it's handled properly. Here however, it really feels like young Simon is abandoned for a good 30 or 40 minutes before the ‘climax’ occurs. The film had begun with Simon in search of the his parents’ real history, not what he deems to be the rubbish his dying grandfather told him, in essence, that his father had in fact wanted to kill his mother because he was another crazy, fanatical bloke from the insane Middle East. The real story about Simon’s parents is basically revealed as Sabine continues to press Tom for a meeting, and to discuss delicate issues, something the incredibly introverted Tom is less than willing to do. When Tom finally opens up and reveals his feelings, thoughts and recollections about Simon’s mother and father, it all…feels kind of flat.

There’s nothing provocative, nothing new happening here, certainly not for a 21st century audience member with a degree of familiarity with the catch all ‘multiculturalism’ phenomenon that characterizes Canada, the United States, and plenty of other countries across the globe. By the time the more dramatic, revealing flashback scenes transpired, my immediate reaction was, I’m sad to report, ‘Huh, so that’s what the fuss was about?’ So here we have an Atom Egoyan film about misinformation over the internet and multiculturalism (or something of that nature) and neither theme really works. Granted, just like in any other film, there are other things going on, the movie isn’t strictly about those two themes, but they seem to be what mainly drive the current and past stories of all the characters involved. Sabine, who at first approaches Tom in traditional Islamic garb, tries to elicit reactions out of him by speaking ill about Jews. Really? That was part of your plan? Okay…

Seeing as I’m a forgiving movie goer, I usually see the good in most films, and Adoration is no exception. Arsinée Khanjian, who has appeared in many of Atom Egoyan’s films in the past, is her usual reliable self. There is an earnestness in her performances that I find attractive and she doesn’t disappoint, except with the fact that I don’t think her dialogue is very sharp. The same can be said for Scott Speedman, a solid actor who doesn’t seem to get the work an actor of his character deserves (no, I don’t think Underworld counts). Tom isn’t necessarily an easy role to play. His character is shy, but must open up at least a little bit by the end, otherwise the entire purpose of Sabine’s weird plan is lost. Speedman handles this well, scruffy beard and all. Even young Devon Bostick, whom I had never heard of up until now, delivers a solid performance as the teen ‘acting out’ a lie to his class, but also genuinely curious for the truth behind the death of his parents. It’s nothing to shout about, but he’s a more than competent actor. The film also looks very good. There is a rather poetic and sometimes dreamy look and feel to the proceedings, something not unheard of in an Egoyan film. Many of his previous efforts share this same strange but effective quality. I don’t quite know how to explain it. It’s all in the shot setups, editing, score and cinematography. Each scene is given a somewhat ‘soft’ touch, despite how many of his films deal with deadly serious and dramatic manners.

There is this one line of dialogue, which I don’t recall word for word and therefore will paraphrase, that Sabine delivers late in the movie, when all has been revealed and discussed. It pertains to her connection with Simon’s father, and while I was hoping for something dramatic and intriguing, she literally explains that she ‘doesn’t know why it happened.’ She ‘cannot explain it.’ That’s unfortunately what I felt when the film ended. Where did things go wrong and why? The film always seems unsure of what it wants to do with its characters and their storylines. By the time Simon experiences his cathartic climax, the moment hasn’t been earned. It would be tempting to applaud Egoyan for tackling these fascinating issues raised in the movie, but for someone who has handled delicate material in far better manner with previous efforts, one can’t help but feel that this is a missed opportunity. Despite all this, I still didn’t hate the film. It has solid moments, mostly due to the acting, which is solid throughout. Even though they aren’t given the best possible treatment, I did like some of the ideas the movie played with (minus the ridiculous racism scenes). It’s simply too unfocused and loses its way the deeper into the story we get. You can’t strike gold every time indeed.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Review: The Limits of Control

The Limits of Control (2009, Jim Jarmusch)

American independent filmmaker Jim Jarmusch is back with another cryptic, layered and visually significant film that should keep the art house crowd happy. Of course, that all depends on if you can catch the film at your local theatre. I was highly fortunate to see it on opening weekend because it was completely gone 2 weeks later. I can literally say that I was one of the very few to have seen Limits of Control on the big screen, at least in my region. And if I remember correctly, there weren’t a whole lot of us at that screening to begin with anyways, so I doubt the film was selling out showings.

But when it comes to director Jarmusch’s work, one shouldn’t expect to get a crowd pleaser à la Brothers Bloom. His films rarely tell straightforward, familiar plots (perhaps Ghost Dog could, potentially, fit that bill, but even that movie had some interesting quirks) and he utilizes the medium of film to great artistic effect, additional emphasis on the ‘artistic’ part of that claim. I haven’t seen many Jarmusch films, but those I did have the pleasure of discovering told me, quite clearly in fact, that an artist was behind the camera, not your everyday storyteller. I love the great American storytellers (Scorsese, Coppola, Speilberg), but it’s interesting to see some rather different hands and minds at work every once in a while, and Jarmusch certainly is different when it comes to American cinema.

The Limits of Control
has actor Isaach De Bankolé (the guy who engages Bond in combat with a huge blade in the hotel staircase in Casino Royale) as the ‘employee’ of an unknown, unnamed ‘organization’ sent to Spain to take care of ‘business’. I make deliberate use of extensive quotation marks because I can only assume this is the setup to the film. The film opens in an airport with De Bankolé’s character meeting with two men dressed for business. They offer some rather cryptic comments and suggestions and a small piece of paper in a matchbox before they send him on his way. The dialogue, as is the case in other Jarmusch films, is at times funny and engaging, but mostly secretive and hard to grasp in the sense that there’s no freaking way you know precisely what’s going on. While in Spain, our protagonist goes from strange encounter to strange encounter with an entire host of offbeat characters who themselves discuss seemingly random subjects and trade little pieces of paper stashed in matchboxes with De Bankolé. Music, film, bohemian lifestyles, physics, each character takes a few minutes to offer some of their thoughts on these subjects while De Bankolé sits and listens. These discussions and transactions usually occur at cafés (with a couple of exceptions), at which point De Bankolé will very explicitly order for espressos in two separate cups. Lest I forget, one night in his hotel room he is met by a vivaciously sexed up agent (I’m guessing all these people are agents of some kind, although for all I know they could be playing a game), played to the hilt by Paz de la Huerta, who usually wears a see-through plastic rain coat. Almost every agent is played by recognizable actors, such as Tilda Swinton, John Hurt and Gael Garcia Bernal to name a few.

Visits to the museum, a train ride, quiet afternoons at the cafés, oddball conversations, why in heavens name would such a movie be of any interest to anyone? Well, a short while ago fellow film critic Bill reviewed on his blog Gus Van Sant’s Gerry , a 2002 film about two friends who accidentally get lost in the desert and wander for the next 80 minutes. I thought the film was a terrible bore. It is expertly shot (it’s a Van Sant film after all), but whatever bloody fun, intellectual or not, was supposed to be had with that film was absolutely lost on me. Bill loved it, giving it a perfect score. Well, The Limits of Control is my Gerry. It moves at a slow pace, doesn’t have any significant plot or narrative that drives the movie in the traditional sense, but I had a great time watching it. Like Gerry, the movie looks exquisite. Director Jarmusch always had a great visual eye, but this time couldn’t go wrong by hiring long time Wong Kar Wai collaborating cinematographer Christopher Doyle. They already had the upper hand by filming in Spain, a country I had the privilege of visiting a little bit which is beautiful, but put Jarmusch and Doyle together and the viewer is awarded with a superbly shot film. The shots may not have terribly complex setups, but they all capture the beauty and tone of whatever location or event the audience sees on screen. Night, day, outside at the café, outside in the Spanish countryside, inside De Bankolé’s hotel room as he goes through his tai-chi exercises, at the museum, everything looks great. The most seemingly mundane scenes (like the tai chi sessions) are given care, which makes Control, certainly from a purely visual standpoint, a joy to watch.

De Bankolé doesn’t say very much, but when he speaks it is very deliberate and direct, like when he orders two espressos in two separate cups. ‘Don’t mess with me, I mean business and I have no time to waste’ kind of attitude. I’ve often seen De Bankolé in supporting roles, such as the African militia leader in Casino Royale and as the Haitian ice cream man in Ghost Dog, so it was intriguing to finally watch a film in which he is awarded the center of the stage. Interestingly enough, Jarmusch uses him mostly for his facial expression rather than for dialogue. He does have a great face for the ‘all business’ type of character. But what exactly is his business and what is the point of this entire exercise? Is it merely style or is there some substance to it? I think so, but much like how Bill found much to like in Gerry, with The Limits of Control, you have to figure it out yourself. There is fun to be had on many levels however, not just in piecing together what is going on in terms of plot. I’m almost certain Jarmusch had something specific in mind when writing the script and directing the film, but it has such an open minded artistic quality to it that anybody can come away with something quite different. I liked the individual, one-sided conversations De Bankolé has with his colleagues and contacts. These scenes often flirted with comedy, several of the lines hit the bull’s eye in fact. De Bankolé is such a steely character in the film one would be tempted to associate him with all the brooding hit men heavies we see in those Jason Bourne films. But the people he is associated with are so colourful and different in their individual approaches and styles, that the contrast, not only between each one and De Bankolé’s character, but also between themselves, made me smile a lot throughout the film. Almost any time de la Huerta’s sexed up, semi-naked character showed up, it was played with a strange comedic quality as opposed to wanting to create some genuine sexual tension. This is but one of the many ways in which Jarmucsh is toying with the viewer’s expectations. He is a director in full control of his art and he is testing the limits of that control. De Bankolé looks like a hitman character, but who are these clowns he’s dealing with? Why does he have to visit a museum all the time? De Bankolé himself is wanting of control, as can be assessed in the manner with which he orders his espressos and engages in tai chi. He refuses to use cell phones and refuses to make love with de la Huerta (she even sleeps naked, cuddled in his arms while he lies awake fully dressed). He is in full control of his own idiosyncrasies, but the associates are in full control of the mission, as they direct him where to go. Director Jarmusch is in full control of this movie, and when we think we know what might happen, such as when a semi-naked agent appears, Jarmusch pulls the rug under our feat. By the time the climax arrives, instead of going all out, it’s quiet and quickly taken care of. Even the person ( a pleasant surprise that I’ll refrain from revealing) who is the target of De Bankolé’s mission (if he ever was on a mission to begin with) not only speaks about control and what kind he exercises, but is astounded by De Bankolé’s own control over the situation:

- Antagonist: How the fuck did you get in?
- De Bankolé: I used my imagination.

If you’ve seen the film and left with a completely different take, that’s excellent because I really think that’s the kind of movie this is. Absolutely nothing is spelled out, which means anybody can take make up their own little plot if they see fit. Anybody can have control over the story because it’s so open ended. The duality of control that can be exercised by both the director and the viewer makes the film all the more intriguing and worthwhile. The only limits to the control you have are the ones you yourself create.

That and the fact that the movie takes place in Spain. Sorry if that bothers you. You have no control over that.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Review: Sin Nombre

Sin Nombre (2009, Cary Fukanaga)

A few months ago I reviewed a 1983 film directed by Gregory Nava titled El Norte, which told the story of two siblings, a brother and sister, who make the arduous trek from their small and impoverished Guatemalan town to California in the hopes of starting a new and better life. The film admirably handled the scenes dealing with the difficulties involved in illegally making one’s way to another country and the trials and tribulations of settling down and making a life for one’s self once there. Fast forward 26 years later, and here we are with a film that, at least in its premise, is eerily similar to Nava’s project. This time it’s first time writer and director Cary Fukanaga who, with his film Sin Nombre, explores the stressful and dangerous voyage embarked on by a small group of Hondurans who are putting it all on the line in an effort to migrate to the United States. Some, such as Sayra (Paulina Gaitan) and her father and uncle, are essentially fleeing poverty and chasing dreams. Others, such as a teenage gang member named Casper (Edgar Flores), are literally fleeing to save their lives.

Sin Nombre, contrary to El Norte, takes far more time in setting up the premise and in showing the viewer the lives of the protagonists. Casper is a teen who, with little to no genuine opportunities to make a living or get an education, is a junior member of dangerous gang currently entangled in a turf war. The gang is led by an imposing figure named Lil’ Mago (Tenoch Huerta Mejia), a bald, tattooed tough. The only true shining light in his life is his current girlfriend Marha Marlene, although Casper feels the need to keep this relationship a secret in order to protect her. Somewhere else in this same town lives Sayra and her uncle, who are both invited by her father to finally make a run for ‘el norte’, the United States. Clandestine train rides, sneaking around and such, it will be a difficult journey, but ultimately Sayra acquiesces. On the same day Sayra and her family take the train (and by ‘take the train’ I essentially mean they’re sitting on the roof of the train cars with literally hundreds of other people), Casper, Lil’ Mago and their new young protégé Smiley (Kristian Ferrer), take the same train with a plan to rob the illegal passengers on the roof. In a very tense and emotionally charged moment, Casper commits a treacherous act that puts his life in considerable danger, to the point that when Smiley, who has escaped the scene, reports back to the gang, the other members take an oath to track Casper down and kill him in cold blood. Afraid, stressed out beyond belief and now alone, Casper is cautiously approached by Sayra and the two form a bond of sorts while on their way to the U.S.

If the above synopsis feels like it’s missing some information, that was a deliberate choice on my behalf. There are plenty of little details in the setup to this film that add some layers to each character that I would much rather have the curious viewer discover for themselves, so I chose to be as vague as possible while still providing an idea of what happens in the film.

Fukanaga’s directorial debut is, for the most part, quite impressive even though it is far from a perfect film. He handles character moments with a realism that was very nice to see. The entire setup before the attempted train robbery occurs, which effectively putts the characters of Sayra and Caper on the same path, is long, but never overbearing. As opposed to rushing into the thick of the plot, which can be boiled down to the fleeing Sayra and Casper perform in order to escape the gang members who are hunting them down, the film invests a decent amount of running time to developing the essential characters and giving them a three dimensionality that made them feel pretty realistic, especially Casper. Edgar Flores plays Casper very well, bringing an impressive maturity to a role that demands a lot of mixed emotions. He is indeed a gang member at the beginning of the film, but there is a side of him that will only go so far in order to serve the code his brotherhood. He isn’t all bad and there are hints which indicate that perhaps with the smallest of opportunities, he may have made something else of himself instead of a thug in training. There is a nuance in the performance and in the writing for the character. He probably is good at heart, but has several bad strings attached, and if he chooses to do good, the results can turn ugly for him and those he cherishes. He is a ‘broken hero’ type of character, and it’s played to solid effect in the film. There is even a decent amount of time setting up the relationship with Casper and his protégé Smiley, who, at least in the early goings, have a ‘big brother/little brother’ theme going on. This makes their encounter at the end of the film (after the incident on the train) all the more emotionally satisfying. The same cannot be said for Sayra, who isn’t given as much time to develop as a character in the beginning. She is young, seems to be a good girl, takes a certain liking to Casper and chooses to help him out. That’s pretty much it. I think the actress who portrays her, the young Paulina Gaitan, is solid in the role. The problem lies more in the fact that I think writer/director Fukanaga wasn’t sure what kind of person to make her. Her and Casper make a decent team, and in a way, I can understand what kind of dynamic is living itself out. She’s a young teen, she sees this boy who must be around her age make a noble decision that protected her family, he’s not bad looking, and she feels not only an attraction to him, but a need to reciprocate his act. She feels indebted to him and, recognizing that his decision has put his life in danger, wants to protect him and smuggle him with her family into the United States. It’s a decent plot, I wouldn’t argue otherwise, I only think it all happens rather suddenly and doesn’t carry the emotional satisfaction it would have had Sayra been awarded the same careful, well written setup that Casper had.

*Major spoilers*
This leads to the big turning point in the film, a scene that will either have viewers shaking their heads or get them excited for the final act. At one point, Casper, feeling that his days are all but numbered, chooses to get off the train and make a run for it on his own. To his surprise, he quickly realizes that Sayra has opted to tag along with him, leaving her uncle and father back on the train. The big question about this moment is: does the movie earn it? Sayra has only met Casper perhaps 12 hours ago or so, she is aware that his life is in incredible danger and that his presence can prove to be a deadly liability to her life. Despite all this, she chooses to leave her family behind for him, clearly endangering her life for a boy, who for all intents and purposes, really isn’t keen on having her around anyways. This can understandably be a significant problem for several viewers. The upside is that their teaming up for the second half of the film leads to some very solid scenes of them fleeing the blood thirsty gang members and other quieter dialogue scenes as they make their way from rest spot to rest spot. The rest of the movie is still very entertaining, which in a way made me thankful that Sayra made the ridiculous choice to get off the train, but it doesn’t change the fact that is was a really, really odd and dare I say stupid decision. This all comes back again to the writing for her character not being up to par with the effort gone into making Casper a fully fledged person.
*End of major spoilers*

On a technical level, Fukanaga’s debut is an impressive effort, offering excellent realistic scenery. The look and feel of the film is quite gritty and doesn’t do very much to sugar coat the dire situations the characters are in. Nothing is ever attention grabbing or calls attention to itself in the cinematography or editing departments really, but that helps provide the film with a welcome realism that is very well suited for a story of this nature. All in all, it's a very competently shot movie.

The script may have some issues, such as the development that went into the character of Sayra and the fact that, I can’t lie, there is a certain sense of inevitability about how the story will turn out. The climax is well acted and packs a punch, which is a credit to the filmmakers, but it isn’t terribly surprising either. In fact, I can’t say that anything happening displays any remarkable originality. Even the subject matter has been dealt with in film before (El Norte being an obvious case in point). It stands to argue that it’s well acted, well shot and deals with an interesting subject matter. For a directorial debut, I applaud Fukanaga for telling a gritty story in fairly realistic fashion and getting some solid performances out of his actors. I don’t think he takes very chances in his story telling however and even makes one (potential) bad mistake, as discussed briefly above. I think he has the potential to grow into an interesting director and, despite its flaws, Sin Nombre can be used as a case in point for the man’s directorial capabilities.

Review: The International

The International (2009, Tom Tykwer)

The release of The International was very timely. With the world economy experiencing a significant downward tailspin and accusations all around thrown towards several multinational enterprises and financial institutions for unethical practices (which generally led to amazing profits while so many other people’s and companies budgets and earnings were left to ashes), director Tom Tykwer brought us a story about, what else, a high profile bank engaged in various evildoings. The bank’s tentacles are spread far across the globe, with heavy influence on the Third World conflicts as well as the weapons manufacturing and sales industries. Clive Owen stars as Louis Salinger, a former Scotland Yard detective now working for Interpol, who has been tracking down the criminals pulling the bank’s strings for years already. With the help of his colleague Eleanor Whitman, played by Naomi Watts, they go from clue to clue (and usually from murder scene to murder scene) in order to take down those scoundrels down and hopefully burn that evil bank to ashes.

Thrillers of this nature, the ones that choose to be topical or that deal with a complex issue, are quite tricky to muster correctly. A sufficient amount of context and explanation must be provided so the audience can follow along. This can be called ‘exposition’, a term used to qualify whatever dialogue is used in a movie to keep the audience up to date, thus avoiding any possible confusion and subsequently losing the viewer’s interest. However, given that this is a thriller after all, the audience needs to be rewarded for their patience and concentration with a sense of excitement, either through action sequences or simply creative and well thought up scenes during which the protagonists are in some clear and present danger. The final ingredient is that for the viewer to feel the suspense, it needs to care for the protagonists in question. The perfect mixture of these ingredients is indeed difficult to find, but when that level of success is reached, a movie can be really darn good.

To get the basic argument out of the way, I’ll admit right now that I don’t think The International is a very good movie, but it does just enough, barely I should add, to prevent me from declaring it a ‘bad’ film. How so? I’m glad you asked.

First however, let's dissect the positives. Director Tykwer knows his camera work, there is no question about it. From a purely visual standpoint, The International is more than merely a ‘fine looking movie.’ It looks superb. Many scenes clearly indicate that care and precision went into the camerawork. Focus shots, smooth camera movements, clever shot setups in how what was at the forefront in the picture and what (or whom) lurked in the background, all this was expertly crafted. From start to finish, the movie is stylish and even smartly edited. There are a few sequences that stand out in particular even, the most prominent one being of course the now famous (relatively speaking) Guggenheim shootout sequence. Technically, it is an exquisite scene. From the moment Owen’s Louis Salinger walks in, to the moment he runs away with his dear life, it is a perfectly constructed action sequence, at least on the technical level. The individual shots and editing are very effective because, unlike in so many other action-oriented scenes we’re subject to these days, there is no disorientation. What’s happening, where the protagonist and antagonists are situated in this architecturally complex and unique building, all the dynamics of an intense action sequence are marvellously on display. As an admirer of good action films, I was very pleased to see how Tykwer handled the cinematography.

Confused? You and me both buddy.

Some of the more subtle moments are also nicely handled. The Guggenheim shootout was one way to show death and carnage, but there is another scene involving the murder of a bank employee that is so freaking cool that I almost want to watch the film again just for that moment. A bank employee is given a private drive along the Mediterranean on the Italian coast in a hilly region of the country (the same region where the pre-title sequence of Quantum of Solace was shot). The car passes from tunnel to tunnel on a relatively smooth ride. At one point, with the camera still overlooking the road and the mountains, the vehicle drives into yet another tunnel. The camera pans away, offering a breathtaking view of the scenery in the process, … but the car never exits the tunnel. It’s a great shot not only because it’s looks gorgeous, but because of what is implied. Without being too explicit, the scene becomes particularly eerie, even though it’s a villain who is being offed. Overall, Tykwer and his crew of camera workers and editors should be applauded. This is how you shoot a freaking thriller/action film.

So far, I’ve given the film a lot of praise, so what exactly is wrong with it? To put in bluntly: everything else. The script, the themes, the characters, none of those elements felt rewarding at all. The International suffers from some horrendous script problems, the most notable one being that the story and many of the individual dialogue scenes are either painfully boring or painfully heavy-handed. The early goings in the movie have Owen and Watts venture from interrogation to interrogation, from meeting to meeting, and all of them feel terribly flat and uninspired. The conversations are mundane and don’t provided the film any significant momentum, dare I say no momentum whatsoever. Who made a given money order, what are your connections, why is this person/group involved?, etc. I couldn’t find a single interesting dialogue scene in the many, many dialogue scenes that clutter the first hour. It’s just a bunch of gibberish delivered in rather uninspiring fashion, even by Naomi Watts, which is an absolute crime if you ask me. When one of the early ‘dramatic moments’ involved the Clive Owen character learning that a meeting that was scheduled with a bank representative has been cancelled, and the fact that this wasn’t trying to be funny in any way, I figured there was something fishy about the script. There is another scene that is so bizarre in its earnestness since what is transpiring feels so comical. A high end representative of the bank (maybe the CEO, I don’t recall to be honest) is in a phone conversation with a colleague while at home with his young son. When prompted to make a crucial decision that will undoubtedly have repercussions, the evil representative bases his choice on some fluffy pseudo-philosophical advice provided by his 7 or 8 year old boy. These scenes are supposed to be taken seriously, but I’m pretty sure that’s impossible.

Clive Owen is a fine, fine actor, arguably one of the better mainstream actors working in big budget films today. He does bring a certain grittiness to his role as the burned out and vengeful Interpol agent (a colleague of his is killed off early on, presumably by this all powerful bank), but there isn’t a whole lot about this character to latch onto. He’s basically glum throughout the entire movie. Soon before the final act commences, Salinger is interrogating a former high end bank employee (Armin Mueller-Stahl). The kind of replies the Mueller-Stahl character provides are shamefully predictable and mundane, which deprives this crucial scene of any originality or tension. Soon afterwards Salinger storms out of the room and spews out towards the Noami Watts character why he is so obsessed with this investigation, but it’s completely ham-fisted and unnecessary. By this point everybody knows who is good, who is bad and why Salinger is doing all of this, there’s no reason for him to spell it out. Naomi Watts is quite literally given nothing to do, so much so that her character is actually thrown out of the mix with about 25-30 minutes left in the story. I rarely get worked up about action and thriller movie scripts, but I couldn’t help but feel that the screenwriters didn’t know how to handle the material. Instead of being thought-provoking, morally ambiguous and subtle, what the viewer is left with is a boring story that, for my money, takes itself far too seriously. Big bank=bad, overworked and underpaid detectives=good, or something like that. Yeah, yeah, I get it already.

The International was a very frustrating viewing experience. On a technical level, and especially for those of you who admirer good cinematography and well crafted action, I’m tempted to encourage you to watch it on Blu-Ray, a format that I don’t doubt for a second makes the film look beautiful at home. But as a complete movie experience, which preferably should have some interesting characters, story arc and themes, the film is an absolute mess. Unless you are very, very forgiving, or want to see a slick looking movie and nothing more, I’d say this needs to be avoided.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Review: Il Divo

Il Divo (2008, Paolo Sorrentino)

Il Divo
has finally arrives across the pond to North American screens after almost a year after its initial theatrical release in Europe and all the subsequent praise it received from our cousin critics. I have my doubts as to how much about Italian politically history, and in particular about former Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti (Toni Servillo), North American audiences are familiar with. I shan’t go on any tangent of facts to bring you up to date, may faithful readers, because I myself am an example of someone who knows next to nothing about Giulio Andreotti or Italian political history. They seem to have general elections far too often (their proportional representation electoral system often results in highly unstable governing coalitions in the country’s legislature) and that’s pretty much it.

Did this lack of back-story and general knowledge hinder, in any way, my possible enjoyment of the film? Not at all in fact. This is a strong sign that Sorrentino’s Il Divo is a well constructed film, both in terms of the portrait of ‘Il Divo’ it paints and for its overall sense of style. Those fearing that I’m encouraging you to seek a dry, by the numbers political biopic should rest assured. Dry and by the numbers Il Divo most certainly is not. If any of you have seen the great Michael Mann film The Insider, take a moment to reminisce about how that movie balanced a solid story, great acting and packaged those two ingredients in a very visually cinematic experience. Even the soundtrack and score was excellent. It a great sense of style to it, its own identity which elevated it above the typical ‘based on a true story’ movies. Yeah, well, take that and add twice as much style, make it in Italian but keep the substance. That, in a nutshell, is Il Divo.

The time frame of Il Divo isn’t very expansive, concentrating solely on Andreotti’s years as Prime Minister. No scenes from his childhood which might ‘explain’ why or how he became the man he was, and there is very little involving his private life either. The movie is a brief look, albeit a hazy one at times, at Andreotti at the height of his game, as the masterful, cunning and untouchable politician. A small, mostly quiet man with an iron political will, Andreotti is accused from left to right of having close ties to the Italian mafia and corruption on many, many levels. But this little man is a survivor. He may look meek to those who do not know him, but Andreotti knows the ropes of Italian politics, and knowing what moves to make and when is, obviously, the most important quality a politician can one in his or her career. But his ties to the criminal world and many other important spheres helped as well. His connections deep, deep into the valves of whatever group of people were available to help him. Needless to say that a politician’s success rests, to a certain degree, on the connections he or she will establish throughout their career, but Giulio’s were, much of the time, of a provocative nature.

The film opens in brutal fashion, in which the viewer witnesses the vicious murders journalist and men from the world of finance. Soon afterwards, just before Andreotti is off to meet his newest cabinet team, his closest allies pay him a visit in a private room as he receives a fine shave. These allies, powerful and influential, are of all kinds of stripes, from the business community to the very clergy. Each has a nickname which encapsulates their biggest trait. They, much, like Il Divo himself, are at the top of their games, even though they obviously aren’t and could never be quite where Andreotti is at. Together they essentially form an old boys club, looking out for each other’s interest and protecting their behinds at the expensive of the others if need be (and it usually is indeed the case). Are they really friends with Andreotti? Possibly. It’s also possible that the mere search and discovery of power is what holds this tight knit group together. They have it as long as they stick together, and they certainly aren’t in the mood to let go any time soon. Essentially, about 10 minutes into the film is viewer is fully aware of what kind of ‘leader’ Andreotti is, a man who takes the cake and eats it too.

But who is this man, as a person, as a human being? Well, that’s part of the fun to be had with the film. Toni Servillo’s performance is a incredibly convincing as this quiet but oh so shrewd politician. Intelligent and potentially dangerous even you happen to be on the other team. He doesn’t demonstrate much emotion at all, in fact he doesn’t even talk all that much either. When he does however, it can cut deep or catch someone off guard. Through it all however, Andreotti never fully reveals himself to anyone. Even some of is closest advisors know very little about the man ‘behind the man.’ One of his colleagues even remarks that even after all these of working with Il Divo, he still doesn’t ‘fully understand’ him. Little else matter to him other than politics and the preservation of power. That and maybe the possibility of gaining more power of course. He isn’t the most friendly public figure, not by a long shot, and yet still there is a fascination surrounding him. He is Prime Minister after all, which automatically puts him in the spotlight. But it’s this brilliant balancing act between the seemingly aloof outer shell with the cold calculating machine which lies beneath that makes him such an intriguing enigma for the viewer. In what is arguably the best scene in the film, a seasoned journalist, after being awarded a rather exclusive one on one conversation with the Prime Minister, proceeds to bombard the latter with a series of hard questions, each related to the next, and each one in relation to the incessant accusations of corruption. During this torrent of queries, Andreotti shows absolutely no signs of uneasiness. He takes it all in and waits for the journalist to finish. When afforded the opportunity to reply, 'Il Divo' delivers a politically savvy and terribly clever rebuttal. The scene ends. The journalist, however intelligent and potentially embarrassing his questions may have been, has effectively lost the battle. Brilliant, delicious and evil.

Incredibly, the film doesn’t entirely belong to the titular character, even though he is the main attraction. As mentioned earlier, director Sorrentino injects the film with a sublime sense of style. The technical aspects are top notch, from the intelligent quick cut edits, to the smashing soundtrack which effectively sets the tone for each scene for which it is used. Even without these great elements, there would still at least be Giulio Andreotti to keep the viewer’s attention, but as it stands the movie truly has a life of its own. There are even brief moments during which the viewer is privy to Giulio’s thoughts and imagination (possibly fears). They don’t last long, but their strange quality only adds more colour to this fascinating character. But therein lies another of the movie’s great strengths, that is, its ability and willingness to be playful with its construction. All these visual and audio flourishes help make the film genuinely entertaining, in addition to being an intelligent look into this infamous character. There is a joy to behold in seeing a political biopic have a little bit of fun with itself. It’s not making fun of its characters mind you, but taking full advantage of slick movie techniques found most often in action films or thrillers and using them for a genre that one would not immediately associate with said techniques. The results are surprisingly fresh, just as they were a decade or so ago when Michael Mann earned rave reviews for The Insider, although I would go so far as to say that Il Divo even outdoes The Insider in terms of style.

It's without question one of the better films to have been released on this side of the pond thus far in 2009. If given the opportunity to catch the movie, do yourself a favour and take advantage of it.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Review: Watchmen

Watchmen (2009, Zack Snyder)

The marketing campaign proclaimed that Watchmen was from the ‘visionary’ director of 300. While that film certainly offered some interesting and well crafted visuals (produced by a Montreal visual effects company no less), I felt the story and characters to be cold and distant. The overall experience was very flat, with very little I found to be engaging or memorable. It was more of a video game that lasted 2 hours than an actual cinematic experience, the best of which offer actual plots, character arcs and themes. ‘Visionary’ perhaps, but only to a certain degree. So when wind carried the news that Snyder was at the helm to translate the Watchmen comic to the screen, a book heralded by many to be multi-layered and complex in narrative devices, character development and setup, I was…curious to say the least. Having never read the actual comic at the time, I made it my duty to read it through the movie’s opening weekend while the big crowds flocked to the multiplexes. It was a thrilling 48 hours (breaks included). I don’t think I had read a comic that carried such heavy themes, ambiguous characters and dark undertones before, certainly in a ‘superhero’ comic book. A few days later, during those amazing bargain Tuesdays, I made the trek myself to witness what director Snyder had in store for the paying customer and new born fan of the comic.

In an alternate 1980s United States, Richard Nixon is still president, and the United States and Soviet Union are consistently on the brink of nuclear war. Super heroes, the likes of which were welcomed and adored so many decades ago, have now been outlawed and cannot roam the streets at night any longer to protect the innocent. A band of former crime fighters called the Watchmen, are called back into action when one of their past members, The Comedian, is brutally murdered without warning in his very condo home. Soon, Rorshach (a virtual psychopathic crime fighter who illegally hunts down criminals), Nite Owl II, Silk Spectre II and Dr. Manhattan (essentially a floating, naked, blue man who is the result of a terrible nuclear accident) are drawn back into action to unravel who or what is behind the murder. Their fears, weaknesses, pasts, the public’s general rejection of super heroes and the possibility of nuclear annihilation are but some of the obstacles which stand in their way. All in a day’s work for a crime fighter, right? Their investigation will propel them to question their usefulness in society, to mend wounded relationships and maybe, just maybe, save the world like in the good old days.

To start things off, that ‘visionary’ quality that Snyder apparently has was very apparent. The movie looks very, very slick, but never too slick, thus avoiding a dangerous pitfall that could have deprived the movie of the serious and dark tone that haunted the comic. The camera moves in all sorts of locations and at all kinds of speeds, a technique reminiscent of the Matrix films (or the first one at least), giving the film a rather dynamic look and feel. This worked well because I bought into the idea, as I read the comic a few days earlier, that Watchmen took place in a well constructed world. A alternate universe, one that perhaps defies the laws of nature at times, but a world that nonetheless follows its own rules. When that fascinating world was presented on the screen, it was intriguing to see specific comic panels appear in cinematic form, and then to see the camera move around and offer a different point of view to those very panels. I know some have complained about the use of the Matrix-esque camera movements, lending the movie a far more ‘action’ and ‘Hollywood mainstream’ feel, and while I suppose I can agree with that sentiment, I can’t say it ever bothered me. In fact, as I wrote only a moment ago, I thought it worked wonders for this world originally thought up by the great Alan Moore. It kind of felt like the book was really being brought to life. This is, of course, in addition to the fact that the visual effects are quite impressive. I’m not one to quickly praise films that rely heavily on computer generated imagery, but Watchmen is a case in point when a film uses it to great effect and does an effective job at re-creating the Watchmen world. It’s always fun to shun those darn CGI effects, but I just can’t do it with this film. It looks really good.

Which brings me to a possibly more crucial point. How faithful, or accurate is the movie in terms of plot and characters? Does Zack ‘I can do cool camera tricks’ Snyder give the film any content beneath the beautiful photography? Well, to my surprise, very much so. Granted, one must expect that, even with a 2 ¾ hour film, not every subplot and element of the original plot can be inserted into the movie. Certain things that I very much enjoyed reading did indeed fall by the wayside, such as the Black Freighter inside story, but overall, many, if not all of the encompassing themes are retained. The fear of nuclear attack, the ‘dark age’ for superheroes, the idiosyncrasies of each character, etc, much of it was retained. I could never fully determine whether or not someone who hasn’t read the comic would be lost in this intricate and complex world because, as I’ve said, I had read the book beforehand. Still, I think Snyder aptly fulfills the task of presenting these ‘heroes’ as anti-heroes , each one with his or her own flaws, some of which cut very, very deep. The film even allots some running time to some of their back stories, albeit briefly. While I’m sure purists would have loved a 6 hour film featuring every nitty gritty detail from the source material, that was never going to happen. Perhaps the one important character who receives the short end of the stick is the infamous Ozymandias, but then again, he never was awarded that much time to be fleshed out in the comic either. But apart from him, everybody pretty much gets their moment to shine, especially Rorshach, Dr. Manhattan and Nite Owl II, played by Jackie Earle Haly, Billy Crudup and Patrick Wilson respectively. Each brought their respective characters to the big screen very admirably and left the biggest impression by the end of the film. As has been written time and time again, Jackie Earle Haly is practically steals the show as Rorshach, prociding the viewer with one of the most manic and depressing anti-hero crime fighter to ever grace the screen. My guts tell me Christian Bale’s Batman would think twice before hunting down this man. The one actor who, as I breezed over several reviews, was consistently shunned for her performance was Malin Akerman, who plays Silk Spectre II. While it is true that not all of her scenes rang true, particularly during her fateful confrontation with Dr. Manhattan on Mars, she’s still pretty decent as Silk. I never saw her character in the comic as particularly heroic or daring, but rather as a young, frustrated individual who was thrust into the role of superhero against her will, thus making her a bit of a whiny girl, even if still very brave. As Silk, Akerman brings those qualities to her role. She’s the girl who is wrestling with the thought that there is another life she wanted to have, and yet feels almost instinctively drawn back to the world of crime fighting, despite what she may tell her old friend Nite Owl II. All in all, I thought movie goers reacted rather harshly towards her performance. Unwarranted criticism if you ask me.

Not only do I think the cinematic translation retains most of the essential elements of the book, the film adopts the very moody and atmospheric tone of the comic as well. The mood of this movie is more akin to Nolan’s Batman series than, say, the Spider-Man trilogy. What’s more, the film is rather graphic in certain sequences, not shying away from depicting how intense the ‘crime fighting’ can be. This was a very much welcomed element to the film as so many action films released by studios these days refrain from going all out in order to earn a PG13 rating, thus allowing more youngsters into the theatre rooms. Not so with Watchmen, which features blood splattering, a particularly awkward sex scene, a nasty Vietnam murder scene, and a rather unpleasant death to one of our heroes. I wouldn’t go so far as to say this is on par with the original Die Hard or Sin City, but it’s not far off. With so many franchises and studio films shying away from truly intense and gruesome violence (violence is pretty gross most of the time anyways) with the last Die Hard film and especially the recent Terminator outing, it was, in a strange way, refreshing to see a comic book movie that told a dark tale with practically no holds barred. Some complaints were aimed at how the film depicts the moment Rorshach changes his colours from a mostly decent crime fighter to positively crazy man hunter. While I won’t give away how the event transpires in either the book or the film, I thought both versions worked well. Why was the change made at all? I honestly don’t know, but I thought it curious that fans cried about how ‘less gruesome’ the moment is in the film. I don’t know about that…I don’t think either death scene is any more pleasant than the other.

Many have criticised the film for shunning away from many ingredients that made the source material so rich, and effectively offering a very ‘Hollywood’ or ‘slick, big budget’ version of their long cherished book. I respectfully disagree. Unless a studio was willing to make a television mini series, which would indeed have offered writers and a director much more running time to flesh out some subplots and even include others that were completely omitted from this cinematic version, I think movie goers received one of the better possible silver screen interpretations of Alan Moore’s famous story. Are there things missing? Yes. Are certain things changed to give the movie a more cinematic and possibly ‘action flick’ feel? Yes (the crime fighters seem to possess a whole lot more dynamic fighting skills than in the book). But for what was actually preserved from the original story, the performances by the leading actors and the brutal tone of the film, I enjoyed the ride a lot. In fact, I would encourage anyone looking for a comic book movie which is serious in tone, to the point of even turning many of our 'heroes' into pretty cold and rough people, to not miss this film.

Want to read another take on the film Watchmen? Be sure to read this review at the always enjoyable Hamster Factor.