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.