Saturday, March 24, 2012

Garden State

Every once in a while comes another film which claims it understands that lost era of life called the twenties. Attempting to show how for a decade a whole generation can feel lost, these films are often over-hyped and inaccurate. In his debut feature however, Zach Braff is able to fix this with a superb film about that era of our lives when we never really know where we're going.
At the age of 29, Braff, best known for his role as J.D. in "Scrubs" is well aware of how we can get lost in an age where we continue to put off our futures whilst we spend our times on different types of drug. Speaking in a recent interview for UGC Unlimited Magazine (Dec - Jan issue), Braff said: "I think your teen years are your body's puberty and your twenties are your mind's puberty." Whether Braff is right in his views or not, in his written and directorial debut, all his characters find themselves going nowhere in life.
Braff plays Andrew Largeman, an actor in Los Angeles. On medication since the age of ten, "Large" has been numb for as long as he can remember. Therefore when his estranged father (Ian Holm) rings with the news of his mothers death, the original reaction is far from reactive. Returning home for the first time in almost a decade however, he decides to skip his medication for once and go on a holiday from himself. As his body detoxifies, "Large" encounters his old school friends and the bouncy Sam (Natalie Portman) and begins to question whether the prescribed drugs were actually good for him or not.
"Garden State" is a brilliant first step for Braff. With characters who all suffer and to a degree feel lost, the characterisation is wonderful and the bond which the audience develops is huge. We all care for Braff's main character as he begins to finally experience life, and we all associate with Sam and Large's best friend Mark (Peter Sarsgaard). All three characters have to one degree or another suffered as a result of their parents, and we can all sympathies with that combination of embarrassment and love.
The plot as well is superb in it's detail. Starting with some good laughs at the start which do dwindle in number towards the end, the story keeps us gripped and involved. Whilst it does collapse towards the end as Braff writes a conclusion containing a few too many conventions, the script never relents from keeping us in touch with the characters.
Perhaps one of the finest things about this film is it's soundtrack. Created by Braff as well, this soundtrack has been nominated for awards and was at least partly responsible for convincing Natalie Portman to take the role of Sam. With the right sort of beat at the right moments, Braff's soundtrack adds to the joy of the film and makes it even more something for him to be proud of.
"Garden State" is a VERY good first step up the ladder for Zach Braff. Capturing the twenties with ease, Braff tells an engaging story which keeps the audience hooked from start to finish. With a stunning soundtrack and amazing characterisation, Braff makes us think and feel as his character of "Large" rediscovers himself. Admittedly Braff's one flaw is the slightly too "play it by numbers" finale which rounds itself off too nicely, but even then, we never loose interest. A wonderful first feature for Braff and a positive sign for the future.

Broken Flowers

Winner of the Grand Prix at this year’s Cannes International Film Festival, Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers is layered with sophisticated symbolism, amusing wordplay and a strong cast, yet it remains an unsatisfying film. 
In one of his better roles, Bill Murray plays Don Johnston, a man who has amassed a lot of time and money on his hands while letting many women slip through his fingers. Intermixing a comical play on the names of “Miami Vice” star Don Johnson and the great lover “Don Juan,” the determinedly bachelor Don has just been dumped by his latest lover, Sherry (Julie Delpy), for no explicable reason. However, Sherry is clearly younger than Don and that will figure in greatly as we meet the rest of Don’s past lovers, who have matured emotionally while he has not. Don responds to Sherry’s departure by watching old movies like The Private Life of Don Juan with Douglas Fairbanks. With more money than imagination the suburbanite finds camaraderie in television and nostalgia. 
Too coincidentally, on the same day Sherry splits, Don receives an anonymous letter in the mail from a former lover informing him that he has a 19-year old son who may be out searching for the dad he never met. Still preferring television and self pity to paternity and maturity, Don displays no interest in the offspring matter. Unfortunately for Don’s inertia, his neighbor and closest friend, Winston (Jeffery Wright), encourages Don to look into the matter. 
A budding detective when he is not working at one of his jobs, Winston insists Don should find out the truth. Don is still not interested, but the viewer acquainted with Jarmusch films knows he will soon be traveling. The writer-director of Permanent Vacation, Stranger than Paradise, Down by Law, Mystery Train, Night on Earth and Dead Man, Jarmusch’s films often have themes about how travel subtly changes the man -- not necessarily for the better -- and Broken Flowers follows suit. 
Don’s first stop is Laura’s house. A working class house bordering on trailer trash, Don is greeted at the door by Lolita (Alexis Dziena). Wearing only a bathrobe, Lolita -- an intentional reference to Vladimir Nabokov’s infamous nymph -- invites Don inside the house for some dessert. Don declines the dessert but enters the house and waits. Inspired by his nonchalance, Lolita attempts to seduce him, but her ploy induces Don to run out of the house and right into Laura (Sharon Stone). Don is very lucky he ran out of the house when did; he would have been in a lot of trouble if he remained. 
Don’s next visit is Dora (Frances Conroy). Dora’s house is as every bit as vulgar as Laura’s house but for different reasons. Unlike Laura, Dora is married, but her unhappy family of two is unhappy in its own special way (to paraphrase Leo Tolstoy). An Ibsen heroine of sorts, Dora is living in urban sprawl hell. 
Don’s third stop is to see Carmen (Jessica Lange). Carmen is a person who helps people talk to their pets. Like her patients, one assumes, Carmen would rather talk to animals than people, especially Don. The encounter is surprisingly dull. In many ways the film’s conceit about human beings not being able to converse has been leading up to this scene. Instead of exploring the insurmountable distance human beings can experience from one another, the film goes for a few, rather obvious, jokes. Feelings are neither expressed verbally nor visually. 
In line with the film’s buildup against Don, in all of his manifestations, Don’s visit to Penny (Tilda Swinton) is full of rage and suppressed emotion. Talk is too cheap. 
Through this episodic journey, Don realizes these four women have been scarred by Don’s indifference and his encounters with them slowly build up the film’s narrative against this so-called Don Juan. Laura is sentimental, Dora is depressed, Carmen is indifferent and Penny is full of hatred. Don Juan goes to his own personal hell. 
Jarmusch and Murray previously teamed up for Jarmusch’s career low, Coffee and Cigarettes. Although Murray was in one of the more interesting scenes in that episodic film he had very little to do. Casting Murray as Don in Broken Flowers was an excellent, if flawed, choice. 
Murray is a master of the deadpan response and here he lets a more anguished side take over. This is a sadder dramatic performance by Murray, more like one he gave in Wes Anderson’s self-indulgent The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou than the one he gave in Sofia Coppola’s endearing Lost in Translation. Yet the film never even bothers hinting why these attractive women found Don attractive women in the first place. Don is an emotional basket case and his accumulated wealth came later in life. Was it just Don’s/Murray’s appearance?

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Green Street Hooligans

Touted in the United States as the Film Hollywood doesn't want you to see, Green Street Hooligans crept into six theaters on September 9th and posted a weekend of gross of $48,000, that is about $7,000 per site, which Hollywood would not have believed, considering the top grosser of the previous week (on 3,000 screens), eked out a per site gross of $6,000. So, why is this new Elijah Wood film being released by its makers and promoted by Wood's fans. Maybe because the Hollywood machine has misunderstood the film, thinking it's a violent gang picture about the underground of a British sport starring a cute furry Hobbit. My, my-have they seen it? Have they bothered to attend a Film Festival where it garnered rave reviews and awards? Well, the cats out of the bag and this riveting, taut, well-performed film has made a mighty entrance, blasting to hell the finite obscurity of Hollywood moguls.
Simply premised, a Harvard drop-out (expelled) visits his sister in London has a chance encounter with an in-law who takes him under his wing and introduces him to organized British hooliganism, the Firms-in this case the Green Street Elite, wrapped around the fanaticism of Football (that sport we call in the states Society Football; or SOCCER). But the film is not about Football or the violence attached to the Firms. It's deeply entrenched in primal man-the tribal man of the village. Margaret Mead would be quite at home (rest her soul) observing the rival firms standing and riling each other, much like Neanderthals at a Mammoth hunt. The script wanders a bit on a thin plot, but allows the message to be clear. When you share a central bond with villagers and stand your ground, you have invested your soul in the collective reputation of the tribe. Outsiders, who lack this, are mere wimps.
Elijah Wood as the Yank, Matt Buckner is superb as he grows a pair of balls over the length of the film. If you don't mind seeing everyone's favorite Hobbit have the stuffing beat out of him, and scrapping like the Dickens and enjoying the violence incrementally, you'll be okay. The acting job is sterling and filled with the steel that overtakes the character. His mentor, Pete, played by Charlie Hunnam, rushes like a river through the work, giving it buoyancy. Hunnam's cockney cleverness and leadership keeps the film alive and crisp, never a boring moment. In fact, the violence, which is not gratuitous, but organic to the work, draws you in to take a good look. This is the real stuff and we want to see Elijah Wood slam and get slammed, and Charlie Hunnam lead the tribe to victory. Of course, there are villains and naturally, a moral twist as the simple plot and theme gets aced by human failures, which drains all the nobility from the initial premise.
Excellent performances are delivered by Leo Gregory who plays Bovver, the fly in the Firm's ointment; and Geoff Bell and Terrence Jay, the bad guys, each on opposite sides of the pond draw our our natural tendency to hiss on cue. Claire Forlani as Matt's sister delivers a credible performance, trying to match Elijah Wood with Buckner family nuances. Lexi Alexander, in her first directorial credit, does a splendid job handling angle and shot, many of which are iconic and deliver memorable punches, much like Elijah's Wood facial essays, which dot this film more than his others.
Rated R for language (not only the proverbial F word, but also a bushel of the more offending C word) and mild drug use, the only thing this film lacks is sex-and if it were included, that would have been gratuitous. With strong performances from all cast members and particularly from their flagship, Elijah Wood, this is one film that may not be for all young Hobbits, but (I predict) will linger in the halls of film favorites for years to come. The film that Hollywood doesn't want you to see should be seen as often as possible, if not for the brilliance of the work, for no other reason than a firm vote of confidence for all grass roots efforts in the world of the creative arts. A+

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Five Minutes of Heaven

Can truth and reconciliation be achieved with the man who killed a loved one? That's the question put forth in "Five Minutes of Heaven," a character-driven, suspenseful film with two extremely powerful performances from Liam Neeson and James Nesbitt.
It begins in Northern Ireland, 1975. A teenage Alistair Little tires of Protestants being killed in the streets, and so joins the Ulster Volunteer Force determined to gain the respect of his brothers by killing a Catholic. James Griffin becomes his victim, while little brother Joe Griffin looks on in horror. It's a gut-wrenching scene as Joe watches his brother gunned down, locks eyes with Alistair, then sees James bleed to death. Not only is Joe traumatized by the event, but he carries a deep resentment that his mother blamed him for not doing anything to save James.
"Heaven," directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel ("Downfall") and written by Guy Hibbert, focuses on young boys needing to be men. Alistair marvels at the power of holding a gun, without understanding the weight that comes with it. And Joe is constantly blamed for inaction, but what could a young boy have done? He intends to remedy that later during a meeting, set-up by the media, that unites him with Alistair. Joe, played as an adult by Nesbitt, anxiously rehearses the things he wants to say. He not only wants to relay the hurt, the disappointment in the lack of Alistair's punishment, but also to hear Alistair remove the blame that his mother put on him. He even wants to know if Alistair remembers the little things about that night, like the pictures that hung on the wall, cause Joe remembers everything.
Alistair, played by Neeson, is changed. He served twelve years for robbery and came out a voice for urging other young men that killing is wrong. He is confronted with the reality of his atrocities on a daily basis and he hates himself for them. It doesn't matter to Joe though. He spits at the idea of having to shake Alistair's hand, to reconcile, and then watch Alistair go on his merry way, forgiven. What's done is done. Revenge is key and even Alistair knows it.
The TV crew setting up around where the men will make their connection adds another dimension to the film. Only looking to make good television, the constant annoyance of the cameras, where technical mishaps happen that demand re-takes, only serve to hammer home that this is the most sacred of meetings. Watching Joe walk down the stairs to meet Alistair for the first time, only to have to do it again cause of tech-failure, are angering.
Neeson and Nesbitt are fantastic. Neeson shows the mental anguish Alistair has gone through for his atrocities but also the acceptance that he must do this meeting with Joe. And Nesbitt is an anxious ball of anger. Watching him rant about what Alistair did to him and the lack of punishment for that act is heartbreaking and pummeling in its level of rage. A counterpoint later on when he hears from a runner on the TV set that Alistair is now a sad, broken down man leads to an interesting reaction from Joe as well.
"Heaven" never loses track of these men as they grapple with the difficulties of forgiveness (as does the audience) and never hits a false note in showing what they go through. You anxiously wait for them to finally meet and when they do the suspense is very real. This movie is, above all, a human story with an important meaning in our terrorism-around-the-globe-world.