Sunday, December 30, 2012

Possible Worlds

Police thrillers traditionally set the cops out on a chase to catch criminals. They cut through lies and deceptions, elude dangers and get their man, woman, monster, whatever. In Robert Lepage's complex Possible Worlds, which begins with a horrific murder scene, the conventions of the policier are inverted, warped and re-made with a daring verve. The story veers into a surrealistic world of dreams, memories and futuristic science. Catching a criminal seems the least of the worries the cops face at the end, despite other shocking deaths leaving mutilated corpses, each missing its brain. Finally, this intriguing and provocative film inspires its protagonists and its audience to ask existential questions about our time here. Do we exist but once? Are there parallel universes? How do we define our existence? Are memories real or subconscious dreamscapes? Is the film going to solve any of the challenging questions it raises?
The answer to the last question is no, not really, although there is a crass mad science conclusion to the piece. This is the weakest element in an otherwise masterful film that is both mentally rewarding and exquisitely beautiful.
Based on the stage play by Canadian writer-actor John Mighton and adapted to the screen by the author, Possible Worlds also -- significantly -- marks the English language filmmaking debut by Lepage. He has already worked extensively in English in the theatre, but his prior three films -- work which Lepage still considers a hobby despite his skill and unfettered imagination in the medium -- have all been in French. Sadly, this will probably not dramatically increase his audience. The film is too weird and too esoteric to appeal to the mall crowd. But it doesn't hurt that Possible Worlds is so skilfully acted. Canadian Tom McCamus is the man found murdered -- and brainless -- at the beginning of the story. In flashback, we find out how he came to be in such a state.
The regression into his memory produces a series of possible worlds, quite literally, but also poetically. In each, we find the mysterious English star Tilda Swinton playing the alluring object of McCamus' affection.
In each world, our hero is the same man. He is also 'conscious' of each of those other parallel universes. In each world, however, the heroine is transformed and has no connection or memory of her other selves. So Swinton plays four versions of herself. The possibility exists that there are an infinite number of others. Each may (or not) exist only in our hero's brain, the one removed at the murder scene. McCamus, serious and sober, and Swinton, sensual and yet remote, are both splendid, utterly convincing in making the material flow naturally. In lesser hands, the story might otherwise be just absurdist or even ridiculous.
As it is, Possible Worlds may well be the most bizarre and beautiful police thriller you have ever seen.

Wristcutters: A Love Story

 Sometimes we find beauty in the strangest places; and, remarkably for such a gruesome title, Wristcutters could probably be said to be a rather uplifting affirmation of life, hidden within a seriously quirky black comedy. Set in an afterlife reserved for people who commit suicide, it seems to contain wacky nuggets of truth from oddball characters including Zia, searching for the love of his life, Mikal, an accidental visitor, Eugene, a Russian musician that electrocuted himself on stage from being badly heckled, and the weird and wonderful Kneller, played by the ever-mysterious Tom Waits.
Zia slits his wrists and promptly wakes up in a world resembling this one, except that the colours are rather washed out and nobody smiles. He abandons his job at Kamikaze Pizza to search for his former love Desirée, and soon makes close friends with Mikal and Eugene, who accompany him on one of the strangest road trips since Dorothy lost her innocence in the Wizard of Oz.
What gives Wristcutters its edge, are the frequent, addictively interesting, and not immediately fathomable symbols that keep cropping up and nagging away like in any good movie that yearns for cult status: such as the black hole under the passenger seat where things just disappear. We just know that place - how many things have you lost there? Then there are people who are just far too weird to have been dreamt up on the back of a Hollywood paycheck: like the throat-singing mute, the dead-again messiah, or the policeman who still has a hole in his head.
There is a temptingly meaningful logic at work that will leave you fitting the pieces together long after the film has finished. Explaining how to perform minor miracles to the lovelorn Zia, Kneller tells him: "As long as you want it so bad, it's not going to happen - the only way it's gonna work is if it doesn't matter . . . " We soon start looking for clues to this rather crazy world and here Mikal (played by the much under-rated Shannyn Sossamon) looks like a good bet - but then so does anyone if you let your imagination run wild enough.
The religious orthodoxy behind the ultimate ideas of Wristcutters is a weakness, but it is put subtly and light-heartedly so will be inoffensive to most viewers.
If the stars in your sky have gone out for a while, maybe treat yourself to this zany and very well-produced story to set them on fire again. Wristcutters - a Love Story is at once touching, hilarious, thought-provoking and a hugely enjoyable ride.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Rust and Bone

There's a moment towards the end of Rust And Bone when something awful happens, and we are about to witness the ultimate tragedy. For that couple of minutes, the rest of the movie becomes irrelevant; we are just totally immersed in this act playing out. It's a brutal but wonderful sequence and, fortunately, it's not the first time we have such a scene in the movie. That's pretty much what Rust And Bone is: a series of wonderfully brutal sequences.
The movie deals with the relationship between two fragile individuals from opposite ends of life. Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) is trying to be a better father and a better man; Stephanie (Marion Cotillard) is trying to rebuild her shattered life after a horrific accident. Their need for each other grows drastically, but their real lives threaten to get in the way.
As far as story lines go, this isn't anything overly special. It's the kind of kitchen sink drama that we've seen Ken Loach and Mike Leigh do for ages. Fragile characters, broken homes, comedy out of tragedy, it's the usual stuff. Only difference here is that we're seeing it all play out in France, with French people speaking French and doing French things. But frankly, nothing is original these days; what matters more is the execution.
And what sets Rust And Bone apart from other similarly-themed movies is the execution. Working class France is shot brilliantly, looking gorgeous and despairing all at the same time. The special effects are top-notch, and there is a somewhat jarring quality to the editing that really works.
But what you really need to see this film for is Cotillard and Schoenaerts. I was trying to decide who I thought was the better actor in the film, but it's impossible to choose. They are both fantastic. I've never seen Matthias Schoenaerts before, but the guy is amazing. He manages to juggle pain and deadpan humour simultaneously, which is quite an achievement. Cotillard, meanwhile, is the usual perfect self that she is. Such an expressive face, and she's able to make even the hokiest of lines come off natural and genuine. Her talents seemed wasted in The Dark Knight Rises but, clearly, she's at her best when she's speaking her natural language. They are what make these sequences brutal and wonderful, through their chemistry and ability to suck the audience in.
The rest of the film is scattered with great supporting cast performances, especially Armand Verdure as Ali's son Sam. The young boy is a joy to watch, and can be added to that ever-growing list of strong pre-teen child actors.
I'm pretty sure Rust And Bone has won a few awards, and deservedly so. It's amazing to watch, just because it's so fun to see brilliant performances. Like I said before, the story itself isn't probably that amazing. It's been done before; but it's done in such a way here, with those two central performances, that it feels fresh and original. You really should check it out.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Holy Motors

What is more important, a theme of the movie or how it is presented? That's what I wondered after watching Leos Carax's latest picture "Holy Motors". It's a movie without classical narrative but it seems to talk of many things. In it we see a man named Oscar, driven through the streets of Paris in a big limousine, assume many different roles as a part of his job. He becomes an old woman, a motion-capture actor, a dying man and a head of the family of monkeys amongst else, each of his roles having another kind of story, conveying diverse emotions and different messages. In between his roles Oscar changes clothes and make-up, talks with his chauffeur, gets a visit from who seems to be his employer, and has a chance meeting with his former love.
The movie opens with a shot of an audience in a theatre and thus from the beginning makes us aware that it speaks of cinema. One of the first things we conclude is that Oscar is some kind of an actor whose job is to play a couple of different roles every day with other actors like him, all of them being driven around in big limousines. That assumption is confirmed when his employee appears and Oscar complains that he can't get in the role as well as he used to since he can't see the cameras because of how small they became. Also, his name immediately brings to mind the most famous American movie award, and we can easily see him as a metaphor for the award for best actor, his performances as ones for which the award has been given, and a critique from his employee as a critique of the Oscars. But that's not all that points to American cinema. At the beginning of the movie the director himself gets to the movie theatre through the wall covered with painting of the woods which, together with the name of the movie, reminded me of Hollywood and could indicate that everything we see afterwards is an allegory of it. Of course, I could very well be wrong, but since Carax don't want to talk about the meaning of the movie, all we can do is find our own interpretation of it.
In addition to being parables for the award-winning performances, Oscar's roles are also representations of the various characters every one of us is composed of. When we first see Oscar, he's a wealthy banker arranging a dinner with some colleagues. Later in the movie Oscar sees that character having dinner at the restaurant and leaves the limousine to kill him, showing in that way the repulsion we feel towards some of the characters within us, or, if you want, some segments of our personality. The exploration of our personality is additionally revealed as a theme through one of the songs in the movie, sung by Oscar's colleague and long lost love Jean, with lyrics like: "Who were we, who were we, when we were, who we were, back then?". That segment also explores the possibility of love between fragmented people as we have become.
All of that we could say makes the theme of "Holy Motors", but what about how it is presented? It's a series of bizarre looking unconnected vignettes which create very little emotional impact. The acting is great, especially by Denis Lavant who plays Oscar and through him ten more roles, doing all of that impeccably, as well as Kylie Minogue whose performance probably amazed me so much because I had low expectations, but nevertheless makes one of the highlights of the movie. The cinematography by Caroline Champetier and interesting choice of music help keep the audience interested, but they're not without flaws. The main problem is the author himself. He publicly said that he didn't write screenplay because he doesn't know how to write. And that shows. The movie misses any kind of coherency and often feels unnecessary eccentric. I can't help thinking, maybe with a good screenplay the movie could be more than the sum of his parts, just like it should.
So to turn back to the question from the beginning. I still don't know what's more important, but it seems that having an interesting theme isn't enough, for it can very easily be turned into uninvolving mess. Just like in "Holy Motors", a movie which is better to talk about than to watch.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Seven elderly English people move to India. They do this because they have been lured by promises of a golden retirement, far from the drizzle and depression of Dorking. Naturally, when they arrive in the East, things are not as they expected. Obstacles must be overcome, new ways of living must be learned, and people find they must let go of the past. Can these sixty-and-seventy-somethings overcome their prejudices, and forge a new life in the Third World?
This being a British middle-class attempt at a comedy-drama, you can round up the usual suspects … Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy, Ronald Pickup, Celia Imrie (what happened to Richard Briers and Maria Aitken? Were they tied up in pantomime in Leatherhead?) To be a successful TV and film actor in England, you must (a) speak with a cut-glass accent and (b) have been born before World War Two. The script is derived from a novel (aren't they all?) and so it has to be given an injection of life – the slow, contemplative pace of a prose work doesn't translate well to the big screen. This is done by tagging-on a bunch of one-line gags. Screen writer Ol Parker has done his best, but Bob Hope this isn't. India is "the Costa Brava … but with more elephants", and we even get that old chestnut, "If she dies, she dies!"
No-one, it seems, can make a film about India without descending into the most irritating of clichés (ever seen "City of Joy"?) The much-lauded "Slumdog Millionaire" was a major offender in this respect, and "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" fares no better. One imagines that this project was chosen for three reasons: first, there was a novel already in being (most film-makers can't or won't trust their own judgment, and always resort to the crutch of a pre-existing work to base their movie on), second, with a cast of seven geriatrics, it was perfect for Britain's talent pool of actors and third, India looms large in the British consciousness. If the threadbare Empire thing is finally receding, there are many educated British people who have backpacked their way around Goa and Uttar Pradesh in their student days, and are also vaguely aware of India as an "emerging economy", so there might be money to be made from an Anglo-Indian film. So why the stereotypes? To say this film's understanding of India is skin-deep is not being very complimentary … towards skin.
India in 2012 is a burgeoning modern state, with its own nuclear weapons and its own space program. In a population of 1.2 billion, there are quite a few switched-on individuals who know about stuff. But in Western films, we stubbornly insist on patronizing this vast and vibrant culture. You know the sort of thing. Get to India and you can't trust the water, can't trust the food, can't trust the drivers. Sonny (Dev Patel) is the young dreamer whose ramshackle hotel forms the setting of the story, and guess what – he is delightful, charming, unrealistic and not entirely honest. In other words, he is a child. Adorable, but a child.
And there's the rub. Like "City of Joy" and "Slumdog Millionaire", this film feeds into the assumption that Indians are inferior. They don't have our standards. Efficiency, propriety, hygiene – these are Western characteristics. You enter the maelstrom when you set out on an Indian road, because – bless them – they are suicidal maniacs when they get behind the wheel of a motorized vehicle. And they eat funny food.
What becomes of our Surbiton Seven after they've exchanged Cheam for Chandigarh? Well, it's all fairly predictable. They go through a phase of disillusionment, then they learn to love the Indians, and it all gets nice and heart-warming. Evelyn, Judi Dench's character, starts working in a call center and Muriel (Maggie Smith) takes a look at the hotel books. Before you can say "poppadum", the call center is a raging success, because Evelyn shows the operators how to interact with callers. The hotel is turned around, because now somebody with skill is controlling the finances. You see? That's all India needed – for two elderly women to show up and tell the locals what to do. Never mind that Muriel is a dyed-in-the-wool racist and Evelyn has never actually had a job of any kind in her life.
As for Norman (Ronald Pickup), he is the Reigate Romeo who can't accept the aging process and the loss of sexual potency. Know what happens? He meets an English woman who's lived all her life in India, and they fall in love. The Subcontinent has worked its magic again. The only thing is, why couldn't he fall in love with an Indian woman?
In the final analysis, the film doesn't work because these people are not touched by India. They go there, but they remain, psychologically, in Wimbledon. India is a success only in so far as it submits to Western ways of doing things. Sunny decides he's going to marry Sunaina (Tena Desae), even though she's from an inferior caste, because he wants to – and love conquers all, doesn't it? Never mind that they are both Hindus, living in an ancient Hindu civilization, with its time-honored ways of doing things. The Western quick fix is the way to go. How nice for us, to be able to breathe in India's aromas, glory in its colors, solve all its problems within hours of arriving … and still remain stranded, psychologically, in Surrey.


Detachment is an extraordinary achievement in filmmaking. Written by first time writer Carl Lund and directed by the controversial Tony Kaye (one would never know, but he performs music and comedy at open mics around Los Angeles), and presented by one of the finest ensemble casts imaginable, this film should be required viewing for everyone from junior high to the elderly. In one poignant story we are provided glimpses into the current status of our public education, the plight of burned out teachers attempting to repair the absent parent syndrome while reaching out to find a place beyond drugs, fighting, physical and mental abuse and the lethargy of responding to a chaotic world, and a dark view of the existentialism that allows each of us to forge ahead despite a sense of worth in a world gone crazy.
Henry Barthes (Adrien Brody in a galvanizing performance) copes with life as a substitute teacher: he comes into schools for a specific stint then detaches and repeats the cycle of caring to provide hope for kids to become someone of significance, failing repeatedly. He is assigned to a New York school headed by the soon to be fired Principal Carol Dearden (Marcia Gay Harden), meets a classroom of foul mouthed, disrespectful, angry students and attempts to teach them English. He is immediately challenged by a sassy kid whom he sends out of the room, a young angry black student with whom he connects by showing him parameters of interaction, a young obese, disturbed but gentle Meredith (Betty Kay, in a sterling performance) among others. He also encounters the other teachers and staff - the beautiful Sarah Madison (Christina Hendricks), the school counselor Dr. Doris Parker (Lucy Liu), the burned out Mr. Wiatt (Tim Blake Nelson) and Ms Perkins (Blythe Danner) and Mr. Sarge Kepler (William Peterson), and only teacher who fights back with a sense of humor Mr. Charles Seaboldt (James Caan). It is a grim situation and Henry takes his depression home.
Henry encounters a young girl Erica (Sami Gayle, in a career making role) who despite her youth is a street hooker, beaten badly by her johns. He offers her protection in his meager home - a place to sleep and eat and recover form the street abuse of her profession. A profound relationship develops - and while that satisfies Erica's desperate need for family, it frightens Henry enough to eventually call foster care to remove her. Henry visits his elderly mentally challenged Grandpa (Louis Zorich) who lives in a assisted living home and his frustrations about his memories of his apparently alcoholic suicidal mother and the lack of care being given his Grandpa results in one of Henry's rare explosions of anger - a rage that extends to every aspect of his view of life. At school Henry gradually wins the hearts and minds of his class, showing them that education is the path to living a life of meaning. His friendship with the beleaguered Meredith is supportive, but as Henry completes his three week assignment at the school tragedies surround him. It seems that everyone in the story is in a life and death struggle to find beauty in a seemingly vicious and loveless world.
In addition to the actors mentioned there are shining little vignette roles by Celia Au, Renée Felice Smith, Kwoade Cross, and others - many appearing for the first time on film and each radiating talent. But the film belongs to Adrien Brody who provides such a staggeringly real character that his message is felt in every cell of the viewer's mind. This is a first rate film in every aspect. It should be seen by everyone who either shares the mental milieu of the characters depicted here or cares deeply about the sad chaotic situation we have created during these particular times.

Saturday, October 13, 2012


Contrary to common belief, this film actually portrays three consecutive eras of Hungarian historical reality using visually shocking symbolism. The film starts with the final days of fascism where one oppressive extreme gives birth to an other directly opposite on the political scale. Communism was the bastard child of fascism, however there was a few years of discontinuity, hence the man of the flaming penis getting executed after laying his seed in the pig-woman. Why the flaming penis? Great 'balls' of fire, literally, enflaming the globe resulting in war of a global scale. The great jizz in the sky and paedophile fairytale setting-A self delusion thinking you can 'F' the world and manipulating your own population to further grotesque goals...Here little girl, put your hand over my heart. In all reality, it was a system that gave the big 'F' to its own people.
The second generation is the era of pig-boy, eating with both hands, consuming all he can and more. In historical terms it is what was once labeled as "Goulash Communism". After the '56 Hungarian uprising, communist leaders made the country the 'Happiest barrack', to avoid more trouble with the ever restless Hungarians. It was a communist style "Let the Hungarian eat cake". A nice touch in the film when the eating champion is told ahead that the Soviet will be the first and he himself can be second. Reality was, that as long as there is no '56 style open challenge to the system, you can have your private Hungarian world,within the barrack, as you like it.
The third generation is the taxidermist making a living out of prepping/propping up the decaying system. In all reality, there was no real political change in Hungary following the downfall of communism. Yes, communism ended in nominal terms, but the same leaders and their cronies stayed and held onto power. Working together with multinational companies, the World Bank and IMF, they successfully stuffed their own pockets while wrecking the local economy and enslaving the population. If you notice, the taxidermist is pale, almost bloodless with a fragile, sickly body. He lives alone among the stuffed animals-relics of the past. He is unable to attract the woman he likes-society of alienated individuals. He works out, almost fanatical, like a hamster locked in a ferris-wheel-expand all your energy, you will still never get ahead way. He still labours on and feeds his ungrateful father-the ever present oligarchs, the corrupt system that never ended, just got worse with the passage of time. The father fattens up cats kept behind bars, but when the gate is left open in a careless moment, the cats consume his gut. The symbol of fat cats: Bankers are often depicted as fat cats. Here the film comes full circle. It starts with Fascism and ironically the true definition of Fascism is the marriage of state and industry, business;in modern terms-Globalism: Fascism on a global scale. Political systems on the extreme are ultimately self-destructing, but not before they destroy their host society. At the end, the father is prepped with the cats displayed protruding from his gut-the system that literally ate itself. The doctor with the foetus is an abortionist. The tiny foetus, still in its embryonic state sports a pig tail. Pigboy and the system he represents is nothing more than a kitschy key-chain...the Hungarian population is also one of the fastest declining. The taxidermist preps himself in a 'Statue of David' style and his remains are admired in a futuristic setting by an artsy crowd-no future. It is self-sacrifice at the altar of utter helplessness. The missing head and arm-His knowledge alone was not enough to save him and his right hand-hand of righteousness, justice, itself. All that is left is a stuffed torso in the style of 'David', yet eerily reminiscent of the stuffed scarecrow of OZ. No heart, no brain, but all the knowledge and feelings of the world. A once great nation, a once great people, like so many before them, are reduced to a sideshow. Hungarians are not alone in this process. We can see the same unfolding in many countries the world over. Western societies are on a long decline as the ebb and tide of expansion and prolonged contraction of societies carries on.
Simply put, perfection is a figment of imagination. Here is the long version: I feel, most of the meaning-symbolism gets lost on people raised on a steady diet of Hollywood and most see the sensationalistic, the grotesque, the demented and the fantastic without being able to put everything into context. Such people are not able to process the story presented the way it was meant to be. This film is filled with grotesque and disgusting scenes which is both culturally and historically specific. It was the only possible way to depict the full depth of the horror of past eras culminating in the present. Hungarians are disgusted and do think, all that is going on is a grotesque freak-show and this is what this film is all about. There are also discreet hungarianisms, puns and references that those not living in the culture would have difficulty noticing. At the end, such viewers see attention grubbing sensationalism only and either they love it purely for its visual effects or hate it, because they find it simply disgusting.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

The Best of Youth

Long runtimes seem to irk people for some reason; to this day people still seem to complain about how long The Godfather was for its time. What is it about the length of a film that gets under peoples skin? It’s something I’ve been wondering ever since I got this movie, is how long you have to dedicate to the film really that much of a deciding factor that goes in to if you ever plan to watch it or not? You see the reason that question has been in my head is The Best of Youth carries a six hour story. Time is never a thing that worries me about a movie, it’s if the story is worth watching that gets me to see it or skip it.
The movie is spread over two discs just as the film itself was split in half for its theatrical release. Now with six hours The Best of Youth is able to capitalize on giving the film room to breath and the one downside of that is the first hour purposely is paced the way it is in order for us to get to know the characters. And by the time the first disc is over you’ll feel like one of the family as if they’ve welcomed you with open arms.
The Best of Youth is worth every second. I can’t recall the last time a movie has drawn me in the way this one did, simply put it’s one of the best films I’ve seen in the new millennium, granted that’s only six years but you get my point. You grow such a bond with the characters that when they have tears of joy you do to, and the same is to be said about their sorrow. How many other films can you honestly say that you grew such an emotional attachment to its characters you felt their gripping emotions? This is one of the many positive aspects of the films length, instead of rushing story and character development the slow pace builds a bond that no other movie could compare to.
The movie follows a Roman family over the coarse of nearly forty years (thirty seven if you want to get technical) with the main focus on two brothers, Nicola and Matteo Carati. Both are college students who after finals plan to go on a trip to Norway with two fellow classmates where they would see the world along the way. Matteo who works part time at a local mental hospital takes care of Giorgia, a girl no older than him and when he finds out the hospital is performing electric shock therapy on her he plans to sneak her out and help relocate her with her father.
With Matteo now planning to take Giorgia to her fathers he asks Nicola to help him bring her, basically breaking off the trip the four were going to have. When the three are at the train station waiting for the next train Giorgia is picked up by the police leaving Matteo shattered that he couldn’t help give her the freedom she deserved. Realizing he’s let her down he gives up and turns around, while leaving Nicola at the train station.
After this one event everything that happens after has indirectly happened because of it. The two brothers go their separate ways and lead lives in opposite directions. Nicola after touring the beauty of the world joins in the revolution of the people of Rome. Later he settles down with a family and has a profession as a psychiatrist helping people like Giorgia get better without the use of electric shock therapy. Even bringing fellow doctors down for practicing the barbaric treatment.
Matteo on the other hand enlists in the Army for order and rules fighting against the resistance. He later becomes a photographer for the police. Matteo spends his life fighting his internal struggle to make decision. From the moment he realizes he failed Georgia from setting her free he second-guesses every choice he makes there after. When asked why a guy like him with the upbringing he had would want to sign up he replies simply that he wants someone to make choices for him, he wants rules and guidelines. Where there is no possible way for him to give the wrong answer.
During their youthful days they’re focused on changing the world for the better, to take down the oppressors and look towards the future. As they grow older the more they want to be grounded and find one place they’re comfortable in both a political and physically sense. Only the more they try to get a hold of their future the more it starts to change never giving them a sense of comfort or stability. The key point to the movie is that every choice we make in life effects our future, small or big every decision we make can lead to good or bad and that life is simply dealing with each situation that comes next. And at times through the fog it’s clear that life is beautiful, for all the bad moments it’s worth it to ravish in the good ones.
At it’s core the film is about the family and their journey, not once does the film detract from this but at the same time it instills from time to time key events that shook Italian culture. Things such as the flood in Florence to the Red Brigades movement, the attempted assassinations on judges and even the restructuring of the nations key factories. And unlike films like Forrest Gump where at times it feels like the character is being used as a vessel to make a cultural reference possible, The Best of Youth instead stays front and center on the brothers and their way through life only bringing up the cultural upswing as pure background.
The Best of Youth is one of those films you come by that will leave you in awe days after watching it. It’s that good, director Marco Tullio Giordana has created a masterpiece there’s no doubt about it. When the credits roll and then the six-hour runtime pops in to your head you realize that each moment had reason, everything had a purpose in the film. It’s not six hours long; it’s six hours short because I personally could go another forty years with these characters and the experiences they encounter along the way.

Sunday, October 07, 2012


One of the bigger movie surprises of my life. Aside from three scenes: a fart joke near the start of the film, a poorly-done montage of the characters getting ready for a party, and a striptease at the aforementioned party, Sean Ellis' debut feature "Cashback" is almost entirely excellent. A lot of the criticisms are totally off-base as accusations of pretension and half-assed college student philosophy don't make much sense when the movie is from the perspective of, and narrated by, a first year art college student obsessed with the female form.
Accusations of chauvinism or sexism make even less sense. In the film, Ben can 'freeze time', allowing him to literally undress women without their consent and gaze at their bodies, draw them. We see the origins of his obsession with naked women in his youth. Standard male fantasy stuff, yeah? True enough, I suppose, but I think the film is smarter than that. The film is a portrayal of the male tendency to objectify women, think of them as their bodies and not as personalities, if the person doesn't know them. I worried a while ago if this was sexism on my part, that I was undressing women in my head and involving them in my fantasies, and was assured by more than one person that nothing could be more natural (indeed, I agree now, and the suggestion that women don't shallowly look at guys without an iota of thought for their personality is absurd, not to mention sexist in a way). It doesn't surprise me that accusations of sexism against this movie seem to come mostly from extra-sensitive men.
The director here depicts that exact tendency in the most literal fashion possible, then subtly suggests that Ben literally doing so is a transgression. There's a great scene which is never touched on again where Ben is walking around in his frozen world and then sees a moving figure which runs away. He's been caught looking. It's a fleeting moment but it is also probably the most important in the whole film. Ben's words right after he sees the figure are "it never occurred to me that there might be others who could stop time", or something to that general effect. That figure being where Ben was at that moment seems like a striking coincidence, I'd like to think the idea there is to suggest that maybe the figure (which was attempting to hide itself) had its own voyeuristic obsession with the other inhabitants of the frozen world. We encroach on each others' privacy so often without even thinking about it, and without thinking of what others do with our image in their heads, if they're even looking.
Ellis does this throughout the movie- it's not a particularly sophisticated piece of writing in that it's crass more often than not and that most of it is terribly blunt and literal- largely on purpose- but what's nice about this film is that while the ideas are unsophisticated and unsubtle, the actual conveyance of them is frequently quite subtle, or at least subtle enough that a staggering number of politically correct chumps manage to miss the point of the whole thing. What does bother me just a little bit is that the women Ben is actually involved with are never seen undressed. That is accurate to a degree with regard to how a man's way of thinking about a woman can change with getting to know them, but also seems to suggest the idea of a disconnect between love and sex in terms of 'purity' and such, an idea I'm somewhat uncomfortable with.
While my fiancée was ever so slightly offended by the writer/director waxing poetic through the narration about the incredible beauty of the female body, the truth is that the film is a true portrayal of the mindset of most (if not all) straight guys around that age, and if the man is an artist, as history shows, they will often work their sexual obsessions into their art. The film is a subjective, not objective portrayal of the character, which makes me appreciate more the small, thoughtful ways in which the director conveys the character's flaws. Actually, come to think of it, one of the scenes I disliked, the farting fat nude guy in the art class at the start of the film, doesn't seem so much like just a cheap laugh anymore, but seems totally in sync with the film's attitude. We never see his face, just his fat. He is a literal portrayal of the sort of person nobody wants to look at or think about, and his presence in the film, and the presence of satisfied smirks on the attractive young female students' faces (the only part of the film where the shallowness of the female psyche is explicitly portrayed) as soon as they set their eyes on him, is probably for a reason. Or maybe it's just a dumb fart joke I'm reading too much into? At its heart "Cashback" is just another romance/workplace comedy hybrid, but what sets it apart is the pure unflinching honesty with which it looks at the male psyche, the human psyche really, the bravura visual execution of the ideas with stunning photography and some superbly-staged scenes (the football match stands out), and the general confidence with which the whole thing is carried out by the excellent cast and crew. I'm definitely not giving it too much credit, but I'm almost certainly making it sound like a more demanding viewing than it actually is. It's also just funny and enjoyable, with well-drawn and entertaining characters and a good story. Loses its way a bit towards the end, but remains tremendously worthwhile.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Belgrade Phantom

Resorting to a semi-documentary approach is especially problematic as a number of interviewees, particularly the sociologists, psychologists, or similar schooled experts in the period are likened to “voices of God,” trying to persuade the viewers that these joyrides were revolutionary. Their opinions, however, cannot be questioned by the audience because they are never called into question by the filmmakers. Even the real life police officers chosen presumably to represent “the other” perspective, endorse the Phantom as a liberator and an “urban hero.” Together with the other participants, witnesses, the Phantom’s friends and acquaintances, they retell the whole affair as it was unfolding night after night. Their accounts are then illustrated with fictionalized reconstructions of the events. The revelation of the Phantom’s true identity is delayed to the final quarter of the film, but when an interviewee exposes his real name—Vlada Vasiljević—the point is as anticlimactic as if his name were John Smith in English. That the filmmakers did not know how to capitalize on building suspense around the Phantom’s real identity can perhaps be explained by the fact that both scriptwriters, Jovan Todorović (also the director) and Bogdan Petković (also the producer), are inexperienced debutantes. Nevertheless, these very young filmmakers, still in their twenties, have invested an enviable amount of energy into the project.
This troubled production started in 2006, and it is exemplary of the current lack of fundings and resources that hamstring the Serbian film industry. This is reflected in the scenes of the Phantom’s chases with the police through Belgrade, which come across as very low-budget, rather than Hollywood, to which the authors appear to have aspired. The Internet Movie Database ruthlessly lists numerous mistakes related to the reconstruction of the period, and with the expressive young actor Milutin Milošević in the main role, who does not utter a word throughout the film, this becomes an enervating experience to watch. But the most frustrating problem is the lack of coherent, or even ambiguous, view of the past. While the interviewees in the film rush to condemn the period, the director claimed in an interview elsewhere that those days were “romantic”. Whether one wants to trust the story or its teller is beside the point here, as both come across as equally confused.
This confusion though points towards another aspect of this film. As film theory has already shown, the films that reconstruct the past reveal more about the conditions of the ever evolving present in which they were made, rather than about the history they are describing. This film also speaks volumes about contemporary Belgrade, Serbia, and some of its filmmakers and intelligentsia, rather than about the now long gone seventies with their lulled down social and economic security, and underdeveloped consumerism. This film was directed by a young director, Jovan Todorović, who was trained at the well known Belgrade’s film school (FDU) and taught there by the same eighties filmmakers mentioned above, such as Slobodan Šijan. Šijan also briefly portrayed the Belgrade Phantom incident in his Strangler versus Strangler (Davitelj protiv davitelja) in 1984. This suggests that on one level, and in regards to some filmmakers, little has changed in Serbia in terms of filmmaking styles, or creative thinking, ever since then.
In the seminal anthology on the state of East European filmmaking Before the Wall Came Down: Soviet and East European Filmmakers Working in the West (edited by Graham Petrie and Ruth Dwyer), Gerald Peary wrote in 1989 about this school’s peculiar loyalty to Hollywood and its values, regardless of the fact that many of its teachers had at that time never been in the US at all. While Šijan actually spent some time in the States, Peary singles out Nebojša Pajkić as an example of someone who had not, but who was aggressively pro-American, while both of them were, curiously, politically pro-Ronald Reagan! The results of the training provided by such academics are still in evidence in Serbia, as there are groups of young filmmakers that are blindly loyal to genre, particularly Hollywood style, films. As an example, The Belgrade Phantom is promoted in press releases as an action film. A whole spate of recent films have attempted to mimic the recent Hollywood productions and genres with varying results; see particularly the films made by Dejan Zečević: T.T. Syndrome (T.T. Sindrom, 2002) and The Fourth Man (Četvrti čovek, 2007); and Srdan Golubović: Absolute Hundred (Apsolutnih sto, 2001) and The Trap (Klopka, 2007), and others. And some of their authors still maintain that such filmmaking has political meaning. Just as The Belgrade Phantom, they are obsessed with “urban heroes,” who are, for some inexplicable reason, perceived in Belgrade (and often throughout the Balkans) as morally righteous and immune to the degrading state of the nation that followed the years of strife, wars, and economic transition to capitalism. Although it would be difficult to prove empirically that all that is “urban” must be good, this belief is oddly still very common amongst some of the intellectual elites not just in Serbia, but across ex-Yugoslavia.
So just like in the eighties, a number of filmmakers from the FDU continue to repeat the mantra of “salvation” in “urban,” and “western,” values (in whichever way they perceive or understand these values), in the same manner that once their communist opponents preached their manifesto. Intellectually hidden within this bubble, they can only produce films as bland as The Belgrade Phantom, which cannot provide a nuanced and complex portrait of a truly significant year, and period, in Socialist Yugoslavia’s history. This film did not manage either to criticize or romanticize the era. It did not show how to engage, or what to do with the past, but that maybe, it only wanted to run away from it… in a white Porsche. As long as this is their aspiration, such local filmmakers are not only farther from themselves, but also from the world to which they want to belong to.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

World's Greatest Dad

Suburbia has transformed from an innocent place with friendly neighbors to a world full of miserable, sometimes disturbed people, dreams deferred, and earth-shattering secrets. From this year's Sundance Film Festival we have Bobcat Goldthwait's dark comedy World's Greatest Dad, we delve once again into the unknown of Any Town, USA.
This film mainly takes place in a school setting, but the themes and conflicts that arise coincide with those found in other films about suburbia. Robin Williams stars as struggling writer Lance Clayton. He lives with his son Kyle (Daryl Sabara), a porn obsessed, perverted teenager who attends the private school Lance teaches a not-so-popular poetry elective. There is tough love between the two. It's a typical teenager vs. the parent relationship only the censors have been turned off.
Lance is dating another teacher on staff, Claire (Alexie Gillmore), who he suspects isn't totally committed to their relationship. Life isn't getting any easier for Lance who struggles to reach his students or find a publisher for his work. When things couldn't get any worse, Lance suffers a blow few could recover from. From tragedy comes opportunity and it is up to Lance to decide what is the right thing to do.
It would be wrong of me to give away the tragedy, but it is something that does occur in Any Town, USA. In fact it happened not too long ago just a town over from me. It's the first time I can think of it being used in a film, or at least of this magnitude. There are several times during the film that I felt uncomfortable, but not to the point of disgust. There are some pretty heavy issues handled here and I think it is tasteful.
Williams does a fine job, especially in the second half of the film. For a comedian I can imagine it being difficult to change emotionally like that, but Williams has proved time after time in films like Good Will Hunting, One Hour Photo, and Insomniac that he can play just about any role thrown at him. He has a presence that is very real and powerful.
I was surprised by Sabara's performance as Kyle. I had only seen him in Spy Kids so I really didn't know what to expect. He seemed to have a clear idea of who Kyle was and what is motives are.
Goldthwait, who also wrote the screenplay, tackles a lot of issues both for adults and teenagers. At first I thought the film was going to end up like last years Towelhead, a hodgepodge of issues and conflicts that are each could have been their own film, but here we have an even dosage of each, culminating to a great finale and realization by William's character.
The film isn't perfect. One thing I don't like films to do is talk about other films. I feel like it is only a way for the writer to show off his movie knowledge and personal views about certain movies, although one segment involving zombie movies is relevant to the story. Occasionally it can be beneficial. Some of the scenes were a bit overdone with cheesy, overused dialogue, and some of the deliveries felt like they were just saying their lines and not really connecting with them.
Overall I was impressed. Goldthwait is not a big time filmmaker but this is certainly a step in the right direction (he has acted in several films and worked on other projects behind the camera). Williams gives one of his better performances as of late, but he doesn't steal the show. I thought the story was good enough to stand on its own, which is a very good thing. I hope this film doesn't get completely overlooked this year. You should try to see this one if you can.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen revolves around the vision of a sheikh (Amr Waked) who wishes to use his love for salmon fishing as a means to enrich the lives of his local people. Dead set on making his dream a reality, he contacts Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt), his representative, and asks her to do the necessary, at whatever price, to make his dream a reality. She seeks the help of the British governments leading fisheries expert, Dr. Alfred Jones (Ewan McGregor), who unwilling joins what he considers to be one big joke. Things get even more complicated when Bridget Maxwell (Kristin Scott Thomas), the Prime Minister’s press secretary, makes the whole project a “goodwill” opportunity, to create a positive vibe between the Middle East and the British. Armed with nothing more than faith and a whole lot of fish, this team sets out to do what Dr. Jones considers to be “theoretically” possible.
When you are presented with a film that is based around fishing, of all sports, you become a bit skeptical about the whole thing. Its a big risk choosing such a niche subject and trying to make a film that appeals to everybody. However, with Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, it is a risk that has paid off. Whether your interested in fishing or not, this movie will have elements that you will absolutely fall in love with. Simon Beaufoy has done a magical job in adapting Paul Torday’s book. He has definitely kept the the heart and soul of Torday’s story in his screenplay, mixing together witty dialogue and great conversations. With this being comedy-drama, comedy has not been overused or misused. It is used as an element to enhance the story as a whole and the characters involved. Certain comedic instances may not particularly be required, but they don’t take away any value from the film. After having a go at reading the synopsis, you’d expect a film of this nature to be very cheesy. Its not at all. What Hallström does very well is use fishing not as a subject of discussion but rather a central common ground between the characters. Each character is taken down a different path towards the same goal and seeing that blossom on screen is truly amazing to watch. Sophisticated dialogue and great story transitions make the most of every moment.
There are a few patches in the film when it comes to the overall story that definitely could have been improved. However, these are pretty hard to notice primarily because of the brilliant performances showcased by the cast. In fact, it is the highlight of the entire film. Ewan McGregor digs deep and showcases his Scottish side, illuminating the character of Dr. Alfred Jones. You are introduced to this sophisticated man who just intrigues you at every stage of the film. Emily Blunt brings to life the very professional and self-contained Harriet Chetwode-Talbot while adding her on-screen cuteness that just makes her character adorable. However, if we are to talk about characters, Kristin Scott Thomas’s performance as Patricia Maxwell is just mind blowing. Her fast-paced, unrestricted dialogue adds that extra oomph to the story line that just makes for an interesting character on screen. When you think about a government press person, you do get the impression that they are going to be a bit aggressive, a bit over the top and Scott Thomas delivers that in her character. Kudo’s to the crew for selecting a brilliant cast!
What Salmon Fishing in the Yemen does quite well is add a different dimension to a rather niche subject, putting together amazing film elements and an outstanding cast, to create a truly pleasant movie to watch. The story may not be for everyone but simply watching the cast perform is worth every moment.
Ewan McGregor & Emily Blunt. Frankly, it doesn’t take much more to convince one to head off to the theater. Both McGregor and Blunt co-star in Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, a new British comedy-drama directed by Swedish director Lasse Hallström. The screenplay, written by Slumdog Millionaire screenwriter Simon Beaufoy, is based around Paul Torday’s book of the same name, which won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for comic writing in 2007 and the Waverton Good Read Award in 2008.

The Concert

 This movie is vastly enjoyable, with a catch. The audience must attune themselves to accept the magic of the motion picture, suspend belief and willingly submit to manipulation. For this particular movie, they must also abandon from the very start any glimpse of hope that the movie makers have their heart in classical music, despite the allure of having Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto (Concerto in D Major for Violin and Orchestra, OP. 35, to be exact) billed as the central showpiece. In the real world, an orchestra does not plunge into a performance cold, without a rehearsal. In the real world, in a world class concert, soloists do not perform a piece of music that they have never played before. In a real world, a performance of excellence does not start in complete disarray and then magically snap into perfection. But all that do not matter. All these can happen in a movie, and that is the magic of the motion picture that one must accept.
Now to the good news. As a movie, "The concert" has all the right ingredients: it starts as a hilarious farce, eases into a poignant melodrama and climaxes in a soaring, uplifting finale. The story really started 30 years ago (revealed in an unhurried manner via flashbacks throughout the movie) when brilliant young conductor Andrei Filipov's (Alexei Gustov) "dream concert" was abruptly interrupted and terminated. Conducting the Bolshoi Orchestra he was experiencing the ultimate sublime harmony in music achieved between conductor, artist and audience, in the performance of Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto with an enormously talented Jewish violinist Lea. But the concert was never allowed to finish, as Lea and other Jewish members of the orchestra were taken away right in the middle of the performance to concentration camps while Filipov who stood up for them lost his job.
30 years later, as the story unfolds in the present, Filipov, now a janitor with the same Bolshoi Orchestra, intercepts a fax inviting the orchestra to substitute on short notice in a performance in Paris after a cancellation. He comes up with the outrageous but brilliant idea of putting together an impersonating orchestra with his ex-colleagues and go to Paris. One does not need a great deal of imagination to see how much fun can be have from developing such a plot, particularly with the rich collection of oddities of characters in the orchestra, stereotyping notwithstanding. True, this is not exactly the subtlest of humour, but still a tremendous amount of fun.
The other plot line is in Filipov's pursuit of his unfinished dream from 30 years ago. They will play Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto and he also wants a celebrated, much demanded, young violinist Anne-Marie Jacquet (Melanie Laurent) as his soloist. This plot line feeds the unabashedly manipulative and yet highly successful tear-jerking half of the movie that well balances and complements the comic side.
Gustov is convincing as the sensitive protagonist with a dream. Among the large cast of excellent support character, the best are Dmitry Nazarov as the massive, huggable sidekick cellist and Anna Kamenkova as the resourceful, enterprising wife reminds me immediately of Dolly Levi in "Hello, Dolly". But if none of these succeeds in pleasing, the movie, as one critic aptly puts it, "bets all its chips on the performance" of Melaine Laurent. Those who have seen her in "Inglourious Basterds" will need no reminder of her as "France's most glamorous Jewish actress" as one other critic puts is (the most glamorous actress in any nationality and ethic background, one might say). Go to this movie to see her, if for nothing else.
While the initial buffoonery does not do justice to the real world of classical music concert, the aforementioned soaring finale does give the audience a long-awaited of the sunny side of Tchaikovsky, in a portion of the first and third movements of the Violin Concerto.
One music critic describes it opening movement thus:
"…..begins in the strings and the woodwinds. It builds to a crescendo of excitement before the solo violin enters with an improvisatory sequence followed immediately by a statement of the first theme (Moderato assai). This is worked up elaborately and then the second theme appears, also in the solo instrument."
In the movie, this is employed also for dramatic effects. The initial bars draw slightly discernible frowns and head-shakings from the audience. Then, when radiant Anne-Marie Jacquet comes in confidently with her solo theme, everything falls into place magically.
What the same critic has to say for the finale of the concerto:
"The two principal melodies of this Finale have a folk –like character – the second one, a broad theme first stated by the solo violin, exhibits definite Russian gypsy characteristics. Tension and excitement build and the end is a brilliant climax".
By this time, the audience has been palpated to an emotional climax and the fitting conclusion, while may not necessarily bring them to their feet as the audience in the concert hall in the movie, will guarantee that they leave the cinema in an uplifted and happy mood, and forever in love with Melanie Laurent.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Exporting Raymond

In 2005, Everybody Loves Raymond wrapped up its ninth and final season, taking its leave after 2010 episodes which led it to become one of the more beloved shows of the era. It was a show that highlighted the ups and downs of every day, married life, a topic which obviously the general public related to. Seven years later, you can probably turn your television on right now and find a syndicated episode of Raymond somewhere. Shortly after the finale, show creator Phil Rosenthal was approached by a SONY representative and asked to help the Russian television network create a native version of Raymond. Rosenthal brought along a film crew to document the events, revealing that comedy isn't quite as universal as we might expect.
I'm not sure exactly what Rosenthal expected from his trip abroad but it becomes quite clear early on that he wasn't prepared for this undertaking. He is thrown for a loop when he discovers that he has to invest in Kidnapping and Rescue Insurance, an issue he is assured never comes up; he astutely points out that if it "never" came up, there would be no need for the insurance. Upon arriving, he meets up with his private security guard/driver and their exchange soars right past the "awkward" stage and borders on becoming "tense." He is undoubtedly a stranger in a strange land and it only gets worse from there.
Later, Rosenthal is brought to the studio (which literally looks like every depressing, dilapidated building you've ever seen in a Hollywood version of Russia) and introduced to the crack team of writers and crew he will be working with. They show him clips from American shows that have previously been remade and he is given a glimpse into what Russians find funny. In my opinion, this was the best part of the entire documentary. Rosenthal is shown a clip from the Russian version of The Nanny, one of the most successful programs ever, which was truly atrocious. If, like me, you believe there is no lower form of "comedy" than Fran Dresher and The Nanny, then allow me to burst your bubble: judging from the 30 seconds shown in Exporting Raymond, I would say the Russian version is approximately 37 times worse. That exact sentiment is written in bold across Rosenthal's face as he looks around the room at his laughing coworkers and realizes he's bitten off far more than he could possibly chew. It is moment that is both hilarious and a little bit heartbreaking.
As Exporting Raymond progresses, we see more and more conflicts unfold for Rosenthal. The casting process alone turns out to be a major hassle as the actor Rosenthal wants to play the Raymond character is unable to get leave from his theater company and he is replaced with an actor who appears to be the Russian equivalent of Paul Walker in terms of acting ability. To top it all off, Rosenthal doesn't get along with the director of the pilot episode, who seems to regard him as a nuisance and refuses to listen to his advice, which is, of course, the only reason he was brought in.
The greatest strength of Exporting Raymond is its ability to point out the dramatic differences between the Russian culture and our own with a simple, understated style. This is a, "Let the camera roll and see what happens" sort of documentary and there's very little in the way or post- production or narration; rather, for the most part, the audience sees what Rosenthal sees and his reactions which are generally priceless. There are times when the film loses focus and becomes somewhat dull and even at its best, there's nothing excessively funny or definitively special about Exporting Raymond. But it still serves as a quirky, fun, and moderately insightful piece of work that is worth a viewing if for no other reason than to experience Rosenthal's dumbfounded facial expressions for yourself.

Thursday, August 23, 2012


Being a croupier (dealer) in a London casino surprisingly turns out to be the perfect job for the struggling South African novelist who is looking for a subject and a main character for his book, in a job he at first thought would only be a secondary one. Clive Owen is Jack Manfred, the poker-faced narrator, whose voice-over not only relates what is taking place onscreen but relates how his novel is coming along. He sometimes becomes his fictional alter ego, the main character in his novel about a croupier.
Jack, the antihero of this sparkling and intelligent noir tale, is having trouble writing, so he is forced to take a job his unscrupulous father, once a notorious gambler but now a bartender still living in South Africa, gets for him. He secures for Jack this job through his connections in a London casino. Jack's father brought him up in casinos and forced his lifestyle upon him, raising him as a single-parent when his wife left. Jack loathed working as a dealer in the South African casino and moved to London with the hope that he could become a writer with the change in environment.
Why Jack refuses to gamble but enjoys being a croupier remains a mystery. The answer is only hinted at. It might be that Jack has watched his father's gambling habits make him a loser and has sworn that won't happen to him or, perhaps, Jack himself was at one time a compulsive gambler and has had a negative experience.
This is an overlooked noir thriller--shamefully it couldn't get a British film distributor to give it a wide release when it opened. It is a film from Mike Hodge, the director of the legendary Get Carter in 1971. It magnificently but in a cynical tone captures the London nocturnal after-hours club scene and how the charismatic Clive Owen was able to pull you into his thought process. Jack's character is established through his observations of the punters (gamblers) in the casino, sneeringly looking down at them as losers. Jack identifies with the casino and the casino's credo of not being in the business of gambling but in winning. Jack wants to do things in a honest way to win whether as a writer or as a croupier, who makes it a point of telling us how much he hates a cheat; yet, by a twist of fate, Jack ends up like all the other cheats. The cynical message inferred is that one can't change human nature, that sooner or later one will have to make a choice and bend the rules to accomodate who one is.
In a plot that can be faulted only for its contrived surprise ending and a death of one of the main players near the end that adds absolutely nothing to the story. Yet, what remains striking is the passion the croupier has for casino life and how it relates to his writing.
The croupier knows that he has hit nirvana when he can no longer hear the ball of the wheel as it rolls. It is beautiful to see this notion converted onto the screen, as the film is a one-man show for Clive Owen. It relates to how the tension builds inside him as he is confronted with changes in his life -- whether they are ones that might be considered trivial like being forced to ride public transport or heavier changes as how to deal with his ex-cop, current store detective, live-in girlfriend Marion (Gina); or, even heavier changes, if he should get involved in a casino scam.
Jack wavers between loving Marion as if she were his conscience or not being fully in love with her because he can't love someone who is so straight. Marion states that she only wants to live with a writer not a "fucking" croupier and always has such a sad expression, and is an open book to read. While Jack is always an enigma. How Jack deals with his life and how keenly accurate he is in describing others he meets, makes this film seem very literary.
Jack instantly becomes a favorite of casino manager David Reynolds (Alexander Morton) because he is so good at the job and because he is so trustworthy. Reynolds lectures him about the house rules and warns him about fraternizing with gamblers and with his fellow casino employees, and also tells him that he must report anyone he sees cheating or else he will lose his job.
But our antihero soon ignores those rules, first by bar-hopping with the casino's dishonest dealer Matt (Paul Reynolds) whom he will use as the protagonist in his book about a croupier (Matt suggests the theme for the book-- He tells Jack, "I wanna to fuck over the world"). Jack then has sex with another dealer (Kate Hardie), and then associates with a sexy grifter (Alex Kingston) who plays at his table on purpose, as she tries to get him to go to bed with her and go along with a plan to use him as an insider to heist the casino during Christmas.
There are a few other subplots brought up, such as him beating up men who are cheaters. But, as with the many other subplots, its theme is never fully realized.
When compared to three recent films about gambling CasinoThe Rounders, and Reindeer Games, there is no comparison, this one was the more pertinent. It is only too bad that Croupier couldn't feel more committed to the power of the lyrical voice-over and less to the canned responses of all the odd twists it had to throw into the story, that diminished the bleak truth it was harping at -- of how life itself is a game of chance and the casino is only a cheap imitation of life.
In the end the film's stylish depiction of the casino milieu, its thrilling noir ambiance, and the character study of the croupier, override the film's flaws. The film only seems to lack the kind of payoff that a thriller of this magnitude warranted. It turns out that this compelling story is just as much about being a writer as it is about a croupier; the ace it has up its sleeve, being the distinguished performance by Clive Owen.

Friday, August 17, 2012

The Ghost Writer

In Roman Polanski's The Tenant a man moves to the apartment of a woman who recently committed suicide there. Strange things occur in the building and the new tenant slowly assumes the identity of the dead woman. It's a disturbing situation that Polanski takes to its logical conclusion.
I mention this as a way of introducing The Ghost Writer because here again Polanski takes up the idea of the average man who, because of the circumstances surrounding him, slips out of his identity to sink into someone else's. Polanski hadn't made a psychological thriller in ten years, since The Ninth Gate. It's a pleasure to see the master hasn't lost his craft.
Ewan McGregor plays a ghost writer assigned to help the ex-prime-minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) finish his much-anticipated memoirs. The ghost, as he jokingly calls himself, takes the job under ominous circumstances: his predecessor had recently washed up on a beach, dead from either a drinking accident or suicide. It seems like a sign. But $250,000 are enough to temporarily quell the ghost's doubts.
The ghost travels from London to the USA, where Lang has taken residence on a remote island to finish the memoirs. There he meets his wife, Ruth (Olivia Williams) and his hospitable secretary (Kim Cattrall). Ruth seems to be the brains of the relationship and Lang a pretty down-to-earth guy with little interest in politics. The writing goes well, with the ghost looking for the emotions in Lang's past, the things ordinary people will want to read about, and Lang being pretty open about it.
But suddenly Lang becomes the centre of an investigation regarding war crimes; accusations arise that he may have assisted in the kidnapping and torturing of innocent people in the war on terrorism. Lang's life becomes a media spectacle. And to make matters worse, the ghost starts finding discrepancies in the details of Lang's past, details that his dead predecessor had also discovered and was investigating. Using the clues left by him, the ghost slowly unravels a vast conspiracy.
The Ghost Writer seems to have come out of the '70s. I say this as a compliment to that magical decade of filmmaking whose thrillers have set the modern standards and have seldom been surpassed. There is little physical action in the movie but a lot of intellectual activity going on. It seems to relish in finding and interpreting clues, in following intuition, in seeing all the pieces of a puzzle slowly but neatly fit together. In one of my favourite sequences, the ghost takes his predecessor's car to go back to his motel. But the car's GPS is on and its locked coordinates urge him to go in the opposite direction. The ghost, partly following his gut, partly wanting to shut up the annoying GPS, follows the coordinates, travels by ferry to the mainland and arrives at the doorstep of a man who ends up having a central role in the conspiracy.
The movie doesn't just entertain with a mysterious, suspenseful story (the screenplay was written by Polanski and Robert Harris, the novel's author); it's a perfect example of filmmaking. The ghost brings with him the foul British weather: there's little sunshine in the movie; cinematographer Pawel Edelman, with whom Polanski worked in The Pianist, suffuses the movie with nebulous tones, giving it a sense of hostility and melancholy. Alexander Desplat's score, by opposition, shouldn't work as well as it does, with its light-heartedness and exuberance. But its dreamy, fast-paced tunes end up accentuating the ghost's feelings of mistrust and anxiety.
It's in this impressive atmosphere that the actors give very fine performances. Ewan McGregor, whom I've never loved, grabbed all my attention as the innocent nobody (he doesn't even have a name in the movie) who gets involved in something way over his head. Olivia Williams' self-restraint in her performance can only be fully appreciated by the end of the movie, when it's revealed to be an essential part of her character's personality. And Pierce Brosnan is pretty at ease in his role of a disgraced ex-prime minister, eliciting sympathy while being something of a jerk at the same time.
The Ghost Writer is not terribly ambitious. It isn't here to reinvent the thriller. Polanski knows what works and knows how to make it work, and he shows precision and effortlessness at creating suspense, telling a story and bringing all the aspects of filmmaking together. Roman Polanski's return to the genre that made him famous around the world is above all an opportunity for the 76-year-old director to just have some fun doing what he loves most. The viewer is more than welcome in joining the fun.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012


Beginners provides hope to those who want to turn over a new leaf and start from scratch again. That is the moral here as well. It's never to late to start over. Whether you're in your mid-thirties looking for a serious relationship, or an elderly man who has finally exited the closet, it's never to late to begin a new cycle.
Here is a movie with great characters played by marvelous character actors, and a script by Mike Mills that is based off of his own life. Mills' mother died of brain cancer in 1999 and his father came out of the closet a week after her death, despite having being married for forty-four years. The Mills character is portrayed by a stellar Ewan McGregor, a thirty-ish man by the name of Oliver. Oliver has a fear of commitment when he is in a relationship, and he lives a modest life in a small house with his more-than-meets-the-eye Jack Russell Terrier. After Oliver's parents die, this is what he resorts to. The film has a very nonlinear narrative since the film is composed of flashbacks from three stages in his life. The first is his childhood, the second is shortly after his father's proclaimed homosexuality, and the third is current time when he is dating the lovely and beautiful Anna (Laurent).
After Oliver's mother's death, his father Hal (Plummer) announces he is gay and wants to start dating in his own field. Oliver is stunned that his father managed to shelter the fact from his mother and himself for so long, but is optimistic about his future.
Probably one of the biggest show-stealing dogs in history is the one who accompanies Oliver for much of the film set in present time. He's not one of those cliché, kiddie-movie dogs that speak entirely in puns and pop culture jokes. Oliver's dog communicates in witty, cleverly placed subtitles that add flavor to the film's sentimentality. He is probably one of the best dog actors I've seen since Uggie in The Artist.
Beginners could've easily been a recipe for self indulgence, false sentimentality, and heavy-handedness since this is a real life story from a fairly new director. However, everything is taken in a subtle, respectable manner. Emotions aren't blunt and too obvious,the script suffices even during some of the shaky romantic scenes, and I believe it only has one considerable flaw. That flaw is that Christopher Plummer's character's homosexuality is a bit too obvious. I'm not saying he overacts, but the film dances around the sole fact too much. It seems like it tries to be daring by continuing to spell it out. Yet it doesn't bring down the gem the film really is.
This isn't a deep drama, but it doesn't feel too cutesy. The film erects characters that are very likable and have ambition to be happier and wind up doing all in their power to achieve it. Both Hal and Oliver find very courteous and loyal partners in their efforts and everything ends rather smoothly. Beginners clings on to an undying sense of hopefulness and creativity from the moment it begins, and doesn't let go even when the chips are down. It's a seriously kind-hearted film.
NOTE: Why the R rating? Most likely because the MPAA feels that since it's a movie dealing with the subject of homosexuality that young people should be sheltered from it. When in reality, many teenagers are homophobic and these are the kinds of films they should see.

Monday, August 06, 2012

It's Not Me, I Swear!

Unless you're a saint, I'm sure you would have lied at one point in time when you're a kid, gotten away with it, and just became reaffirmed that hey, it's not so bad that you're not going to Hell immediately, and one could just come up with stories to spice things up, get others into trouble, or just get things done your way without paying heed to consequences that can be explained away. I never had such luck. Honest.
It's Not Me, I Swear! conjures up plenty in its tale of the neighbourhood rascal who terrorizes the residents in a quaint little town in 60s Montreal, and with his striped jersey that we see early on in the film, one cannot help but to associate him with another boy rascal in Dennis the Menace. But this is Leon (Antoine L'Ecuyer), a boy with a vivid imagination and a fearless heart, that when we first see him, he had unwittingly hung himself on a tree swing, needing his brother Jerome (Gabriel Maille) and mom Madeleine (Suzanne Clement) to bail him out of serious trouble.
And when all seemed under control, we slowly learn that this boy isn't quite always the helpless chap he is, but a real troublemaker who doesn't hesitate to show others his middle finger, whose impish grin betrays the scheming thoughts he has, to do things he wants to do his way, nevermind if it means stepping onto others complete with unbelievable anti-social behaviour (which adds to the fun of course), and you'd wonder how he manages to get away with it all. Then you realize that it's because of upbringing. Teach a child that lying is bad, but lying badly is worse. Tell a child that when one has to lie, one has to keep the story consistent. Leon's mom coaches him on such mantra, shows the same degree of disdain and disgust for her neighbours, and it's little wonder who his chief influence is. Parents out there, you have been warned.
It's the story of this street smart boy whose brain is fast to cook up stories, and whose misplaced courage allows him to fearlessly inflict bodily pain or inconvenience onto himself if the situation or his lies call for it. It's both comical and wince-inducing with situations you can both laugh and cry at the same time, and you'll feel for Leon even more when his family starts to crack and deepens in their dysfunctional behaviour, with the last straw being their mom walking out on the family. Chief influence and protector gone, Leon retreats further into himself (in some ways pining in a manner similarly seen in Danny Boyle's Millions), and his stunts become a lot more daring, until the narrative shifts gear to the other woman in his life, that of his neighbour Lea (Catherine Faucher), a peer whom we are not given much background on, other than a slew of suggestions and clues that she may be an abused kid.
Based upon the novel by Bruno Hebert, the film works because Antoine L'Ecuyer successfully carries the entire film on his shoulders, and makes it believable that he's such the rascal that he is, where on one hand he can look angelic to both his mom and his first love Lea, while on the other the devil as he leaves a trail of destruction as he goes about prodding into other's homes armed with a screwdriver, amongst other shenanigans. Curiously though, director Philippe Falardeau allowed Leon to break the fourth wall at least twice to engage the audience directly, and while you may have missed the first instance should you not pay attention, the second one felt like a bit of a cop out to achieve what we see in the finale, in what I felt had taken away the shine from an excellent build up of suspense and danger, which will guarantee that you grip your seat.
Winner at last year's Berlin International Film Festival, walking away with the Crystal Bear for Beat Feature Film (General Kplus category) and the Deutsches Kinderhilfswerk Grand Prix, this is one film you should not miss during its limited run at Cinema Europa. Catch it before it goes away, and it waltzes early into my shortlist for one of the better films to be released this year so far. A definite recommendation!


I suppose you can settle the limitations of time travel as you go along, but whatever they are, they have to be irrevocable, and there have to be urgent repercussions when a common human splits the space-time continuum. The reason we don't get more distress signals of this scenario, of course, is something apparently called a "temporal paradox," when travelers into the past do things which irrevocably alter the future, so that their present no longer exists for them to go back to. In fact, any deviation from what has already happened can cause this to happen. So what if you find yourself compelled by seeing another man with your wife? Even if that man is you, what of your reaction to that sight? How can you be responsible for making your past self follow the same course of events if there is no way of making them understand why? How else will your own existence persist?
These quandaries are set to work in Timecrimes in a mind-blowing plot concerning a zig-zaggy drawing, the gesture of making circles around one's eyes with one's fingers, potential death by falling off of a roof after getting up there in an unconventional manner, and struggling to protect from danger a woman the protagonist loves. This is all done in an inventive and captivating thicket of suspenseful mechanics. The reason it is all so thrilling is because all of the suspense tools are makeshift from everyday things. For instance, it features violent attacks but it's not about a killer or an attacker. There is a crash, a chase and an abduction, none of which we are even close to expecting at any point before they occur. It begins with our main character, a normal guy named Hector, no TeenBeat cover boy, simply sitting on a lawn chair at his new country home enjoying the view he's paid for. The suspense tool at this point is a pair of binoculars. Then his wife leaves on a simple grocery trip. Then he catches a glimpse of a woman undressing in the woods. Once he hikes into those woods, he's in over his head.
The twists and revelations that make sense of as-of-yet unexplained details are the most electrifying elements of the plot's progression. That bandage, those scissors, that naked girl, the red truck. The inexorability of a mistake leaves only one inexorable solution, but if more than one of you are developing different desperate intentions for reliving the past, how will you return to being a single present-tense individual? Timecrimes is such an innately metaphysical device that such compulsive human dilemmas converge with scientific deduction beyond human control, making the plot as universal as any could ask for.
It is the undoable nature of any detail of writer-director Nacho Vigalondo's premise that causes it to be so seamless on a perfect logical level that there is literally no flaw. It is more imperative than ever that each and every set-up be paid off. It's not that he doesn't take any easy ways out; he can't! Just like his main character. As a result, Vigalondo's victory of creativity over budget epitomizes the favorite creative idea of unavoidable tragic fate. And that is by no means a spoiler, no matter how inevitable the conclusion is to the story's seemingly random parallel events. Timecrimes is too important for our time to be any less than careful in describing its content: A sci-fi movie with zero special effects, a cast of no more than four and a single natural location, it cites the brand of intelligent, imaginative film-making that upholds brains over spectacle.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012


Sex addiction has yet to get a serious film treatment until "Shame," the sophomore feature from filmmaker Steve McQueen. Generally we feel inclined to put a comic spin on anything that taboo (see the adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk's sex-addiction novel "Choke"), but here we see how it ruins lives and relationships.
Like any addiction, main character Brandon (Michael Fassbender) becomes preoccupied with sex, participating in everything from prostitution to Internet pornography to relieving himself in the bathroom at work. The film's first act is a long sample of how sex dominates most of Brandon's thoughts as he goes through a typical week, a character study in perversion but not one that demonizes his habit so much as displaying it for what it is. We don't feel bad for Brandon nor do we despise him. Shame, aptly, might be the most applicable emotion.
As with any character study, a lot hinges on Fassbender's performance, and he delivers. Brandon isn't given a line of dialogue for what feels like ages at the beginning, yet Fassbender perfectly (albeit somewhat horrifyingly) telegraphs his internal thought process. McQueen is in perfect sync, injecting us into Brandon's brain as best he can by subtly sexualizing a lot of what Brandon sees. A sequence on the subway is entirely silent but especially powerful as Brandon eyes a woman across the way.
Stretches of "Shame" will bore some viewers to death, but it's a sacrifice McQueen makes to convey the solitude and loneliness of a man with Brandon's condition. His lifestyle simply does not allow for extended periods of human contact or long-term relationships. When he makes efforts to do so in the film, it's painstaking for him. Much of the movie feels superfluous (it could rank among the longest 100 minutes in film history), but to some extent we cannot truly understand Brandon unless we are fully treated to that isolation, to a complete lack of interest in anything but sex or something that might lead to sex or sexual satisfaction.
After our first series of trials observing Brandon, McQueen and co-writer Abi Morgan drop in Sissy (Carey Mulligan), Brandon's equally troubled (in a whole other way) sister. Her on-screen introduction features her completely nude and arguing with Brandon in the bathroom, which sets the table for their relationship. Sissy is the opposite of Brandon, a jazz singer completely dependent on human contact and emotional connection. Her intrusion on Brandon's life understandably causes him to get angry and emotionally volatile.
Brandon is not entirely averse to change, but he struggles mightily with it. The third act is an experiment that achieves both positive and negative results and digs into the question of whether or not one can personally overcome something of this magnitude. Never, however, does the film confront its themes or questions through dialogue. Only once does Sissy even allude to Brandon's perversion, telling him he has no right to chastise anyone else's sexual choices.
Fassbender and Mulligan ultimately anchor "Shame." Without them, the film would be deemed powerfully told, but completely un-engaging. Their raw performances and willingness to bare all physically and emotionally create the hook that makes such a brooding character study work. McQueen certainly deserves credit as well for working with them to create captivating performances.
The subject matter of "Shame" is not an easy one from a filmmaking perspective as well as a cultural one, but McQueen does an honorable job with it. He recognizes which traditional storytelling practices he must sacrifice in order to truly capture sex addiction tonally and emotionally.