Friday, April 04, 2008

Into The Wild

I've read a lot of professional and amateur reviews for this film, and about half begin with, "This film is just about some spoiled brat with high hopes and no brains!" And I would say "Yes, it is, BUT...", because by the end the main character completes a 'character arc'.

You have to remember that Chris McCandless was young and motivated by the idea that rejecting the materialistic ideology of the Western society he was raised in, his parents overbearing superficialness and unhappy domestic history would attain freedom. This motivated him to go and find freedom in the wild, specifically, Alaska. However, before he gets to Alaska he hitchhikes for two years and meets a series of influential characters. A lot of the time these characters provide comic relief, but when Chris leaves them after forming an emotional bond, you realise that he isn't a great person and that these characters serve to indicate this selfish aspect of Chris' character. But that's okay - you don't have to like Chris! But that said, Chris is hard not to like; when you strip away all his selfish actions you get a handsome and charming man.

However, you have to accept as a viewer that Chris was real, and all *real* people are flawed. He does selfish things, he hurts people and people hurt him. That is life. But he is not all bad, none of us are! If you look for the good you will find it - sometimes he's quite a decent guy.
Sean Penn has structured the film in several chapters that ascend like this, "Birth", "Manhood" etc. I'm not sure if I liked this aspect of the film. On one hand, it gives Chris' journey another dimension i.e. His journey encapsulates the journey we all go through in our lives. But sometimes I thought it was a little too ambitious to apply that to one man's idealistic and eventually fatal adventure. I also hated how the main title "Into The Wild" morphed from cool yellow handwriting into ugly green block letters - perhaps it was meant to symbolise the rejection of aesthetic comforts? But some aspects of the film I did really like, such as the sensitive and touching voice-over of Chris' sister during the film. In that way, there are three narratives running simultaneously through the film: Chris' family (represented by his sister's voice-over and flashbacks), Chris' hitchhiking adventures (used to show aspects of his character), and Chris in Alaska (the real trial of his adventure, providing many climaxes in the movie, and the final stage of his character arc). This structure is very sophisticated I think (opposed to some reviewers who call the film 'confused' and 'jumbled'), and really draws us deeper into the film.
While some people can't be drawn in by how repulsed they are by this rich kid's selfishness and typical anti-society 'tude, the ending serves to change your mind. Chris goes out there to get freedom, because he thinks:

Freedom = Happiness

However, he realises that happiness must be shared for it to mean anything. He also discards the immature alias he gave himself when he was still an ideologically motivated idiot - Alexander Supertramp - and realises everything must be called by its right name, and accepts himself for who he is - Chris McCandless. In the end, this film evolves into a touching coming-of-age story, having been a riveting adventure story, road movie and family drama.

Now for technical aspects of the film (it deserves at least five stars for this alone!) - beautiful cinematography; the shots of Alaska are incredible. The acting - Emile Hirsh is absolutely perfect. There are no Oscar moments; the performance as a whole is complete, perfect and understated. Some of his improvisations are hilarious. The supporting actors are all brilliant, especially Hal Holbrook as Mr. Franz and Kristen Stewart as the young, horny singer Tracy. Chris' partings with Hal Holbrook and Tracy are the most heart-wrenching. Chris rejects a flourishing romantic relationship for his freedom. This makes his realisation that he needs to share it even sadder.

My final opinion on the film is that it is well-made, and deserves to be respected, just for all the hard work that has gone into it. Hirsch's dedication to the role and Penn's dedication and sensitivity to the story and Chris' memory. There's only three things left that concern me:

1) The representation of Chris as a hero/Jesus. There were moments when I thought Penn was casting Chris as too much of a heroic figure, when we have to remind ourselves that he wasn't - he was young, motivated and ill-prepared. As much as it pains me to say this insensitive-sounding statement, I have to: his death does not make him a hero. If he had come back alive, would there be a film? I worry about these things. What if the river had NOT become so wide and Chris had been able to return? What if Chris had come back and integrated into society? Would there be a film?

2) His family's involvement in the making of the film - how much power did they have? Have they changed representations of themselves? How objective is this film? Objectivity can never be achieved, but I worry if the family made themselves look better for the film. I think the character arc I see concerning Chris' parents is very likely to have really occurred, but how do I know for sure? I don't know.

3) Hypocrisy? Is Chris a hypocrite for living in an abandoned bus in Alaska? No, because it wasn't his goal to abandon modern technology, it was his goal to abandon the restrictions of a superficial society, such as having a definite identity and set future.

P.S. I haven't read the book; I'm judging the film on its own merits.

Ne le dis à personne (Tell No One)

Somehow it falls to the French to do taut thrillers these days. Usually, where an American producer will use special effects, the French use sex.
This French adaptation of Harlan Coben's convoluted thriller (a best-seller) is doomed, by its language, to be overlooked by the majority of English-speaking moviegoers which is a huge shame, because it is a very stylish film that deserves a wider audience. It's strange that an American book has been made by the French, especially one with such obvious commercial potential, but had Hollywood bought the rights, I can't help thinking it would have produced something altogether different.
TELL NO ONE opens on one of those naturalistic dinner party scenes: all glasses clinking and laughter and dialogue just a pitch below hearing. Yet this is a misleading beginning for a film that progresses into a thoroughly surprising and superior tale of a husband's desperate search for his seemingly dead wife. Mystery gives way to puzzles. Puzzels lead to darker ones. Canet executes the set-up for his tale beautifully, placing his couple stark naked, lakeside, and under the moonlight to emphasize the sheer indulgence of their love. Then with little dialogue he changes the tone from romanticism, to blinding horror as Alexandre (Francois Cluzet) hears a scream and tries in vain to save his wife Margot (Josee Croze) but is beaten over the head by her attacker.
8 years later, on her death anniversary, the dedicated paediatrician is still mourning his wife. But after all these years, he suddenly begins receiving emails, apparently from beyond the grave. A link connects him to a public security camera at a particular time which shows him his wife looking older, and apparently still alive, wanting to make contact with him, but in cryptic methods which is baffling because all this starts when the police have finally found Margot's remains at the place where she was murdered. Going by the style of murder, the police easily zero in on a psycopathic killer and arrest him.
This is only the start, and combined with increasingly suspicious police investigators and a string of further murders, lead to the doctor being framed for the murder of his own wife in a forcefully re-opened investigation after so many years and ultimately going on the run. Both to save his life and to follow a mad instinctive idea that Margot may still be alive inspite of obvious, physical evidence.
One of his remaining links with the world and sanity is the girlfriend (Kristin Scott Thomas is possibly even more captivating in French and her poise and cheekbones seem to be a natural marriage with the language and Parisian backdrop). He is forced to abandon his career and home, and undergo a profound personality change. Another accomplice is the 'low-life' (Marchal, best known as a director), who owes the doctor a favour. This heavy dude, in one scene which raises the story to high comedy, is outraged at being put in the shade by Dr Beck's new-found psychopathic tendencies.
With traces of Diva, as well as Marathon Man, this naturalistic thriller holds you all the way to the end. Just watch that long chase scene midway through the film and listen to the soundtrack, distinctly downbeat in comparison to the type of music most American films would use, it nevertheless ratchets up the tension just as well. And there is a mutual moment of revelation for both us and the beleaguered doctor played to U2's 'With or Without You' which sent a small shiver racing down my spine. Each scene is very well directed, but the pacing is relaxed allowing for some tragi comedy.
This film borrows successful elements from many other films, including some recognisable caricatures, but weaves a very cohesive world the the hero bounces around in. Cluzot looks a little like a darker, more rugged Dustin Hoffmann and copes well with the range of emotions he is asked to portray.
What keeps us gripped though, is that we actually care about these characters and their fate-about what really happened that night (which is possibly why I put up with a slightly indulgent confession scene), and despite the fact that this thriller utterly surpassed most of the usual Hollywood offerings; I found myself craving what Tinsel Town does best: a happy ending.
And yeah I'll be watching Department 36, another thriller by this man and see for myself if Canet is the french version of Paul Greengrass.

Gone Baby Gone

For his first time behind the camera as a director, the actor Ben Affleck has chosen a brooding, serious drama about missing children, wayward parents and idealism lost and regained. “Gone Baby Gone” is based on the novel by Dennis Lehane, who wrote the similarly themed “Mystic River,” which Clint Eastwood turned into a modern classic. If Mr. Affleck hasn’t raised his material to that rarefied level, he has taken a satisfyingly tough look into conscience, to those dark places where some men also go astray.

The story wants to break hearts: 4-year-old Amanda McCready, a blond doll, has disappeared without a trace amid the squalor of her South Boston neighborhood. The cops are out in formation, as are the television news vans, antennas raised high and all but trembling for blood. Staring into the cameras, the neighbors eagerly offer ready-made headlines and self-flattering condolences: they’re coming together, everyone loves Amanda. The days tick past and the child’s anxious aunt, Bea (Amy Madigan), seeks help from a local private investigator, Patrick Kenzie, a squirt who looks as if he just dropped out of college and is played without an ounce of actorly ingratiation by Casey Affleck, the director’s younger brother.

I’m not sure exactly when Casey Affleck became such a good actor. Steven Soderbergh tapped him a few years back for recurring third-banana duties in the “Ocean’s Eleven” films, and Gus Van Sant put him in “Gerry,” his 2002 avant-garde feature, in which Mr. Affleck roamed around a merciless desert landscape with Matt Damon, with whom he took turns playing Beavis and Butt-head, Vladimir and Estragon.

More recently he stole the show from Brad Pitt in the western “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.” One of the unusual things about his performance as Ford was its lack of sentimentality. He didn’t plead the character’s case or remind us of his own humanity; he just played the role.Most actors want you to love them, but Casey Affleck doesn’t seem to know that, or maybe he doesn’t care. Patrick doesn’t cuddle or kiss up. He takes the job Bea offers despite the reluctance of his live-in girlfriend and partner, Angie (a solid Michelle Monaghan), but he doesn’t look like anyone’s idea of a savior. With his sneakers and jeans and small-man’s swagger, he comes off like one of those toughs who never leave the neighborhood and would sooner swing a bat at your head than at a ball.Mr. Affleck is already deep into the character right from the start, but neither he nor his director let on all they know about Patrick. There’s something about this guy that needles, that helps keep an already tense story on edge.

Despite its terrible question marks — who stole Amanda and why, is she alive and for how long — “Gone Baby Gone” pays closer heed to the enigmas of soul and heart than to clues and guesswork. There are false leads, dead ends, brandished guns and nightmarish discoveries, as well as shadows and controlled camerawork, but mostly there are human frailties and thrown-away, forgotten lives. The screenplay by Ben Affleck and Aaron Stockard whittles down but doesn’t reduce Mr. Lehane’s material, pulling out details and types that stick to the screen, including Amanda’s mother, Helene, played by a ferocious Amy Ryan. Talk about not wanting our love! Ugly in voice and deed, Helene is the underclass mother from hell, a hazard, a druggie, a villain in waiting.Helene is a nightmare, or at least the embodiment of a certain familiar fear: the bad woman (welfare queen) periodically held up as a symptom of some grave social disorder. Working with her supportive, encouraging director, Ms. Ryan plays with this stereotype and our sympathies to the breaking point. Deploying her broad Boston accent like a weapon, she whines and retreats, testing Patrick’s sympathy with each one of her pathetic excuses. It’s a gutsy, sensational performance that adds layers to an already spiky, provocative creation. At first you hate the woman and love the actress, though because Ms. Ryan and Ben Affleck are wise to the ways of scapegoating, you learn why that hate is misplaced.It isn’t all that surprising that Mr. Affleck is so good with his performers, or at least most of them. The film has been wonderfully populated with character actors like Titus Welliver, who plays Lionel, Helene’s straight-talking brother, and Michael K. Williams, one of the outstanding villains from the HBO drama “The Wire,” who shows up here as a friendly cop.

Just as memorable are two unfamiliar faces: the newcomer Jill Quigg, who has a few startling scenes as Helene’s comically, scarily belligerent friend Dottie; and the Boston rapper Slaine, whose cool, dead-eye performance as the drug dealer who leads Patrick right into the heart of darkness adds menace to one of the film’s strongest, most harrowing scenes.

Mr. Affleck trips up now and again, mostly with his older, famous peers Ed Harris and Morgan Freeman, who delivers one of the more unpersuasive performances of his career as the head of the police department’s missing-children division. The director does better with Mr. Harris, who plays a hotheaded detective in a distracting hairpiece, though again Mr. Affleck doesn’t control the performance as well as he does those of the other cast members. He also wavers when he lingers too long over the crumpled faces and bodies of what appear to be real South Boston natives.

Even so, one of the graces of “Gone Baby Gone” is its sensitivity to real struggle, to the lived-in spaces and worn-out consciences that can come when despair turns into nihilism. Mr. Affleck doesn’t live in these derelict realms, but, for the most part, he earns the right to visit.

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

Sidney Lumet returns to top form in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead - a devilishly tense (pun intended), sprawling, melodramatic puzzle of a film. The film's title comes from a famous Irish blessing, which declares, "And may you be in heaven half an hour before the devil knows you're dead", verbiage very much apt for protagonist brothers Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Hank (Ethan Hawke).

In short, Andy and Hank, both short of money for various reasons, are looking to rob a "mom and pop" jewellery store, yet the sting in the tail lies in the fact that this store is owned by their parents. The focal point of the film is this robbery's result, which leaves various individuals dead or near death, and Andy and Hank must attempt a clean getaway as their father, Charles (Albert Finney), seeks to get revenge on the perpetrators. Embroiled in the turmoil is Andy's wife Gina (Marisa Tomei), who is torn between the two brothers in a very twisted love triangle.

Lumet enjoys utilising non-linear narrative to great effect in this film – we open on the day of the robbery, and subsequently dart around various days before and after it, which reveals to us a wealth of important and, at times, shocking information. The initial robbery is an intense, gripping scene of intrigue, ending in a violent eruption, yet soon enough, we are sent plunging backwards to three days prior to this. Such flashbacks are often disorientating and ancillary to the plot, yet in this instance, they are satisfying, and moreover, necessary – they work quickly in familiarising us with the two brothers and their various motivations (monetary, sexual, and familial) to rob the store.

The wildly slick robbery plan is orchestrated largely by Andy, who plays things extremely cool, whilst Hank initially balks at the idea, yet, with various large and looming debts, he ultimately decides to ride shotgun. In moments such as these, as Andy sits behind his desk, almost pontificating the need to pull this scam off, smoking a cigarette, he himself assumes a rather Faustian, devil's advocate-like persona, and it's wonderful to watch.

These flashback interludes, even in their effectiveness, fortunately do not last for the rest of the picture, and soon enough, we are thrown back into the intense robbery scenario, yet this time, thanks to said flashbacks, we now have context established. Lumet does decide to dip the viewer in and out of Andy and Hank's lives from days before the robbery, yet rather than suffocate the film, the puzzle-esquire format exists to suture together the various plot strands, endowing the viewer with essential information and character development.

Following the botched robbery, Hank states to Andy that "it's all come apart", and this is truer than the brothers know. The fallout of the robbery has greater ramifications than either could have ever expected. With the introduction of their father, the flashbacks begin to encapsulate his life also, introducing a more sinister, foreboding, and dangerous element into the narrative.

Hank in particular seems to become more and more neck-deep in trouble (mostly monetary) as the film progresses, yet Andy is hardly keeping himself above water either. Their own tribulations, combined with the emergence of their disaffected, enraged father, causes the tension to ratchet up to highly unnerving levels, setting up for what is one of the most thrilling, and shocking finales of the year. If anything, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is a film about downfall – the death of a very twisted American dream, if you will. There certainly are cathartic moments before the fall, in that these are, to a degree, sympathetic characters, although aside from Finney's tragedy-imbued person, you have to wonder if they're worthy of such sentiment. Andy, in particular, is of dubious moral character, and Hank, driven by a need to stay afloat, is dragged down into the abyss with him..

It is a massive credit to the picture to be endowed with such acting powerhouses as Hoffman and Finney, that one is able to find all of the film's familial issues to be convincing precursors to their present problems, without at all seeming forced. The finale is almost unbearably tense, serving up its fair share of surprises, and whilst one may declare that it "descends" into melodrama, I attest that it shamelessly (and rightly so) does so, with no descent or decline in the film's integrity or quality. The final twenty minutes is so chock full of unpredictability (yet still manages to be tangible), and so masterfully acted, that even if you find the melodrama to be several steps too far, there is nevertheless an assortment of reasons to both watch and revel in this electrifying, dramatic character study.

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is packed with Oscar-worthy material – the tragic, spiralling plot is unflinching in its portrayal of man's desperation, thanks to Kelly Masterson's sharp and inventive script. However, what without question raises this film above similar pictures is its acting – Albert Finney is perfectly smouldering as a vengeful man thrown into an impossible situation, Philip Seymour Hoffman is spot-on as the unquestionably slimy sibling, and Marisa Tomei does an appropriately ditzy job. One mustn't forget Ethan Hawke either, whose role is not as meaty as Hoffman's, yet he still brings a flare to the role of an unspeakably desperate individual. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is a winning, daring concoction of skillful writing, deft performances, and schooled direction.

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Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Dancer in the Dark

While i watched Dancer in the dark, I had the weirdest sensation any movie has had on me, well, not totally, coz this was part of a movie marathon at home, and this one came after another despresso - Mar Adentro (reviewed). By the time the credits started rolling to Bjork's rendition of "New World", you'll literally plead with Lars Von Trier for another drowningly happy musical escapade, like the four or five in this otherwise totally depressing movie. I don't know how to talk to people about it because the film is such a personal experience that you can end up completely unhinged by someone else's response. I knew he/she might not get it and I thought to myself (rather snobbishly) "the unwashed masses do not deserve this movie!"
Completely shot in a handheld camera, Dancer in the Dark revolves around Selma (Bjork), a poor Czech immigrant working in a factory in the United States, trying her best to save money for her son's operation to cure him of a genetic eye disorder in the bloodline, which is already making Selma's eyesight get worse and worse. Technically, she is blind. Things get real slow during the first half of the movie, until her landlord-friend, out of sheer guilt and need for money, robs her off her entire life's savings. Things get worse when he asks her to shoot him. She does, and goes to jail. Still, her main priority does not remain in her own freedom, but her son's operation.The plot is a bit fantastic and decidedly in the melodrama vein but the emotions it stirs up are anything but cheap and convoluted. Selma's travails are, in fact, so painful that you long for her escape into the color saturated musical episodes within the movie as much as she herself does.
Bjork (and her music) prove to be ideal for this role and film. it's tempting to say that she is Selma but one does not become an internationally acclaimed rock star without some degree of nerve and Selma is a meek creature. Still, Iceland's musical goddess does essentially become Selma. I have not seen a performance that felt this much like reality -like existence onscreen. Bjork has always had a way with tunes that are both unsettling and comforting - gorgeous nightmares. By the time Bjork/Selma is robbed of even her ability to escape reality -breaking down to the tune of "My Favorite Things", you are broken right beside her. There's no one like Bjork...and, believe me, there's nothing like her in this film.
Its a fact that while the movie was being shot, Bjork abruptly walked off the set and failed to turn up for three days. Shooting was suspended indefinitely. She did come back however to finish this movie, but decided to quit acting because of the difficulties she faced trying to invoke the harsh emotions needed for her character.

Of course, all that said, you may not feel the same as myself about the movie. Hence my hesitation in talking about the film. Not everyone will have such a favorable reaction. There are some of you who will hate it. This breaks my heart because, for me... I was spellbound. It's a profoundly beautiful film. It is unfathomable to me that anything else will wreak such transcendent cinematic havoc for a long time to come.
I'm trying but... I think, failing to express myself. Dancer in the Dark is a visionary and magical experience. Right from the opening overture which shows gorgeous five minutes of fabric-painted frames to Selma's final tearful rendition of "My Favorite Things", the film is miraculous. One that left me totally upset. I don't know where it will take you but you really should go. You'd either love it or hate it. Nowhere in between.

Ben X

A severely withdrawn, possibly autistic teen views his school tormentors as videogame combatants in “Ben X.” Belgian-Dutch mix of fantasy computer graphics (from actual game “Overlord”), classic misfit-vs.-bullies youth drama, hyperactive p.o.v. and some overly twisty plot developments doesn’t quite cohere in a tale that might have allowed more suspension of disbelief in its prior novel and play incarnations. Still, pic’s reception in Montreal (where it won three awards, including the Grand Prix) proved it’s a potential crowd-pleaser that could appeal to auds predisposed toward the likes of “Donnie Darko.” European theatrical sales are very likely; elsewhere, DVD seems more probable.
Diagnosed with autism variant Asperger’s syndrome -- though to his long-suffering, divorced mother (Marijke Pinoy) that’s just the latest useless term doctors have provided over a decade of unhelpful diagnoses -- Ben (newcomer Greg Timmermans) is hardly a typical adolescent. He never speaks, save to mom and a little brother. Though he gets high grades, he is viewed as “Frankenstein” and “the Martian” by classmates at the regular high school his father (Pol Goossen) insisted he attend.
Ben’s only solace is the time spent playing sword-and-sorcery game “Overlord,” where he can be the fearless hero slaying foes left and right. The closest thing he has to a friendship is with “Scarlite,” a female online gamer he’s never met.
One day, when the teacher is away from the classroom, loutish bullies Bogaert (Titus De Voogdt) and Desmet (Maarten Claeyssens) make Ben stand on a desk and de-pants him -- while everyone takes cell-phone photos. Unable to bring himself to tell mom or school authorities what happened, Ben seems to be edging toward violent revenge or suicide, or simply disappearing for keeps into his fantasy world.
How this somehow works its way toward a happy ending involves a lot of card-shuffling by helmer Nic Balthazar, including the introduction of a major character who may or may not be imaginary (the film handles the ambiguity rather clumsily) and a prankishly vengeful climax. Both these key elements strain belief, since they suggest Ben is capable of logical thinking quite beyond anything so far witnessed in a pic that’s almost entirely from his p.o.v. Still, many viewers will identify with this ultimate sensitive-loner figure enough to overlook such credibility gaps.
Making a film directorial debut following the success of his hero in literary and theatrical form, Balthazar gets first-class help from pro contributors. Timmermans does OK with the somewhat thankless job of keeping Ben on the jittery edge of a total meltdown.
Supporting perfs are solid. Tech package is slick.