THE WOMEN. PART II: Reviews of Sex and the City 2, Mother and Child, Please Give and The Fathr of My Children

Please Give is the latest from Nicole Holofcener and I’ve always been a big fan of her quirky, character driven, ensemble stories that often remind me of Woody Allen in all of his neurotic New York Sunday go to meeting finest. However, I’m afraid that this one didn’t quite do it for me. I found it, like all her films, to be the work of someone obviously intelligent and talented and who has a vision. My main issue is that all the characters in the film were speaking without a filter, saying exactly what they were thinking without any regard to commonly accepted social protocol. Witty as everyone was, let’s just say that it didn’t quite strike a believable cord with me (more like staircase rudeness in many ways). However, in the movie’s defense, I went with my friend Jim who liked it for the exact reason I had problems with it. He loved these people saying exactly what they meant and even reminded me that at one point, when Andra, a woman of languishing years to say the least, comments that her granddaughter’s date is shorter than she is, I whispered to him, “Well, she’s only saying what we’re all thinking”. Of course, this character is 91 years old and showing signs of diminished capacity; I wasn’t sure what everyone else’s excuses were. The other issue I had was with the character of Kate, played wonderfully by Holofcener regular Catherine Keener. Whether intentional or not, Holofcener seemed to go out of her way to mock or make fun of Keener’s obsession with helping others and how emotionally difficult and draining it is for her. The implication is this is a satirical comment on middle class guilt. It might be if Kate didn’t show such textbook symptoms of clinical depression, a physical inability to bounce back from negative emotions in the way that most people are able to. Everyone, including Holofcener, sees Kate’s actions as something to make fun of, something annoying or even hypocritical (there’s one scene where her daughter is furious that Kate wants to give $20.00 to a homeless person but won’t buy her $200 jeans; exactly how we’re suppose to react to that I wasn’t sure, but I was hoping that Kate would slap some sense into her daughter). Of course, I could be wrong. I could have totally misunderstood everything that Holofcener was trying to say here. But that may ultimately be the problem I had with the film. I didn’t know what Holofcener was trying to say and didn’t know how I was supposed to feel. In spite of the fact that everybody had no trouble saying what they meant with no filter, Holofcener wasn’t so obvious.

The final film in this set is The Father of My Children, the latest from writer/director Mia Hansen-Love. I saw this sans friends or acquaintances, so I’m on my own on this one. It’s basically divided into two parts. In the first half, the story is a portrait of Gregoire Canvel (played by a wonderfully shaggy-haired Louis-Do de Lencqueasain), a French producer of independent art house films (yes, not all French films are independent art house movies, they actually have specialized production companies and producers for them). But Canvel has taken on a bridge too far, in this case, an expensive war firm with epic possibilities directed by a difficult director who can’t control the budget. Canvel’s in debt, can’t get credit, has already sold off his catalog of films, and has had to make financial deals on other releases such that he is going to receive very little of the profits, if there are any. As a result, he kills himself. The film then concentrates on his wife Sylvia (Chiara Caselli) and oldest daughter Clemence (Alice de Lencquesaing), the wife trying to finish out her husband’s slate of films to give meaning to her husband’s death, and the oldest daughter having to come to terms with a secret: her father had an illegitimate child. The first half feels the most realized mainly because the plotting is taut and focused. The audience knows what’s at stake and is caught up in wanting to know how it’s all going to turn out. The suicide, though not surprising, is shocking because it still seems to come out of nowhere. The second half is more languid, as if it’s trying to figure out what it wants to be about. It seems to meander and doesn’t feel quite as gripping as the first half. This may mainly be due to the part of the plot relating to Clemence, a through line that is unclear in its purpose. The part concerning Sylvia is often as taut as the first half with one wonderful scene where she confronts the narcissistic director of the movie too far and he is not only unrepentant about his contribution to the producer’s despair, he blames everything on Canvel; the director may be a great artist, as Canvel contends, but he’s an obvious rotter as well. Though the second half may not be as focused or taut as the first half, it’s still moving.

THE WOMEN, PART I: Reviews of Sex and the City 2, Mother and Child, Please Give and The Father of My Children

According to traditional wisdom, movies about women and starring women are few and far between. This is, and always has been, complete hogwash. While it is true that studio, tent pole films are often devoid of actresses or female characters of any import, independent and foreign films have more than taken up the slack. And now even the studios have slowly begun to realize that women are willing to spend money on movies so that at last, but not least, we are finally getting a few films from those Mounts of Olympus aimed at the distaff part of the population. All is not right in the world, but it’s not, nor has it ever been, as bad as people have painted it.
In Sex and the City 2, there is one scene that basically sums up the problems with the movie. Carrie Bradshaw (played, of course, by Sarah Jessica Parker) is in Dubai talking to a valet who has been assigned to serve her every need. When she asks him if he is married, he tells her that his wife is in India and they only see each other every few months if they can afford it. Does Carrie think, “OMG, there are people in the world so bad off financially, they can’t even live with their spouse?” Of course not. She thinks, “Hm, if this person can have a successful relationship with his wife though he only sees her every three months, maybe my husband’s request for a couple of days off a week from our marriage might not be as unreasonable as I thought”. Sex in the City is about four women who got to Dubai, see a country, experience a different culture, interact with a whole new ethnic group…and don’t learn a damn thing. I went with my friend R. (name changed to protect the innocent, or at least his profession in the industry) and he called it vulgar. I’m not sure I can disagree. The four friends end up in Dubai when Samantha Jones (Kim Cattrall), the sexual adventurer of the foursome, gets a potential job offer from a businessman who wants to hire Samantha to do PR and sell his country as a tourist attraction. Now you would think that someone who made a name for herself doing PR would know that it’s probably unwise to insult the country of the businessman who wishes to hire you, but from the moment Samantha steps off the plane, she does nothing but act in, as suggested by my friend, the most vulgar manner imaginable. This might be all right if she had done it for political reasons, in response to the way Dubai treats their female citizens, say; but no, she does it because, well, she’s kinda (again, as my friend suggested) vulgar, which in certain circumstances is empowering and funny, but in others, it’s just, well…vulgar. In fact, she acts like Edina Muldoon in Absolutely Fabulous and there are times when the whole movie seems like a parody of the episode where Edina and Patsy went to Morocco. For a movie about women’s liberation (the quartet even does a karaoki version of “I Am Woman”), the writer/director Michael Patrick King seems to have trouble seeing the women of Dubai as little more than an occasion for a joke. I’m sure that for King the second class citizens of Dubai are little more than a punch line, but I’m not sure they would quite see it the same way. After a few adventures, and when all the requisite character arcs of a formulaic tent pole film have been covered, all four characters return to the city a little older. If only they had returned a little wiser.

In Sex and the City 2, four women go to Dubai and never experience anything more than their own backyard. In Mother and Child, the latest from writer/director Rodrigo Garcia, three women never leave their own back yard, but experience the whole universe. The three women are Karen (Annette Bening, who seems to be having a good year, what with The Kids Are All Right coming out soon); Elizabeth (Naomi Watts); and Lucy (Kerry Washington). Exactly how these three people fit into each other’s universes is not revealed at first, though it quickly becomes clear that Elizabeth is the daughter that Karen gave up when she got pregnant at age fourteen. This revelation also gives the plot a bit of grounding, since we know that eventually the two will somehow connect again; but how exactly does Lucy fit into all this? Well, she in turns adopts the baby Elizabeth has when Elizabeth dies in childbirth; but that’s not the end of it, not by a long shot. During the film, there is a lot of discussion as to whether God exists or if He brings meaning and order to the universe. At times, these conversations seem a little forced. But they are necessary, because in a deeply moving and surprising ending, Karen, a woman with a chip on her shoulder who does all she can to alienate those around her, realizes that everyone, chip or no chip, is actually connected, that there is a spiritual unity to the universe and that she is part of it and the proof is closer than she would have ever thought. This is a movie you watch to see actors really dig into characters that have meat and bones. Jerry, my best friend in Chicago, who also loved the movie, said that in Annette Bening he now has his first strong possibility for his list of the best of 2010. He also predicts an Oscar nomination. I’m not so sure. As wonderful as she is, it’s still an independent film opening rather early in the year. She may have a better chance with The Kids Are All Right. Naomi Watts has the most difficult role to play, mainly because her character starts out with all the clinical characteristics of a sociopath; she manipulates people in quite evil ways at time and with not one whit of a guilty conscience about it. Then when she gets pregnant, she suddenly reverses herself and leaves all the sociopathology behind (the hormones, maybe?). To a certain degree, one of the themes of the movie is that a woman has to connect with their child in some way in order to fully become themselves; but to change from a sociopath to a human being when you get a bun in the oven is really going there thematically. I’m not sure I bought it, but Watts made it damn entertaining. Last but not least Washington keeps up with her co-stars; annoying and off putting at times, like all the others, she more than earns your empathy by movie’s end. This is an ensemble movie in which the characters never really interact. It’s also a deeply moving film about the need for people to connect, to find meaning in their lives by reaching out to each other, even if they do never meet. Sort of a contradiction in terms, but that’s the universe for you.

WHO DUN IT?: Reviews of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Secret in Their Eyes

Lately, there has been something of a revitalization of the “who done it” murder mystery in film, a genre that in many ways, like screwball comedies, had found its way to television series and didn’t seem to want to come back. My feeling is that this recent influx started with Tell No One, the very successful French mystery that opened here a couple of years ago. Why this is, is hard to say. It could be cyclical. It could be coincidence. But don’t be surprised if we see more of them, because once something makes money, then all bets are off the table. Two more opened very close to each other this year, both doing well enough at the box office that they are going to be remade, like Tell No One, in the U.S.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a Swedish mystery based on a wildly successful series of books written by Stieg Larson. I have read that the success of mysteries in Sweden, especially extremely violent ones, are something of a mystery in itself since the Scandinavian countries have some of the lowest murder rates in the world. And whatever else one might say about The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, it is extremely violent. I went with a friend who had no idea what he was getting into and his first response was how intense it was. No argument there. At the same time, though there was much I enjoyed in the film, especially once the mystery itself got going, the intensity often seemed to have no real purpose. As a result, the screenplay, by Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg, seemed a bit clunky to me. It starts off with two separate plot lines. Mikael Blomkvist (played by Michael Nygvist) is an investigative reporter sued for libel. When he loses, he not only has to pay damages, he also has to serve six months in prison. Since he has some time to get his affairs in order before entering the clink, he is approached by the oldest member of a very wealthy family, Henrik Vanger, to investigate the murder of his niece from forty years ago. This is where this section of the mystery never really made a lot of sense to me. His niece disappeared and her body was never found, so it’s a little unclear why he thinks she was killed. He believes that one of his relatives, rapacious capitalists, some with ties to Nazism, did it, but he can’t provide a motive other than that they’re rapacious capitalists, some with ties to Nazism—which makes them assholes, but not murderers. Every year, Vanger receives a framed flower on his birthday. He thinks it’s from the murderer to torment him about his niece. But if that is true, and the murderer is one of the family, wouldn’t all he have to do is figure out which of his relatives were out of town in the location of where the flowers were sent from in order to solve the mystery? Actually, everything…everything…suggests that the niece is still alive, but the screenplay skips over this lack of logic. It also skips over why Vanger waited so long to look into the murder; if he hired any detectives earlier, it’s not mentioned; and Blomkvist would be smart enough to have asked. The set up is just clumsy and, well, clunky, as has already been said. There is also a second plot unfolding at this time concerning Lisbeth Salander, a troubled young woman who is a brilliant hacker. Well, troubled is only the tip of the iceberg. Though of age, she has to have her expenses and the way she spends her money overseen by a government appointee; the reasons are vague, though they may make sense to someone who is Scandinavian (a friend of mine said that in the book, Lisbeth has some form of Asperger’s or something like that, which to a degree suggests the need for a guardian, but still makes one wonder). She’s also mercilessly raped and sexually abused by this appointee. What this has to do with the murder itself is unclear; actually, in one way, it’s very clear: it has nothing to do with the murder, but still, there you have it. Lisbeth becomes involved because she did some hacking work for Vanger and became interested in Blomkvist and decided to help him solve the murder. Once all this is over (an hour perhaps into the movie), the mystery itself starts in and the plotline becomes much more involving. It all starts with a rather brilliant observation by Blomkvist that he makes while looking at old newspaper photos and from there on in, it becomes one of those Miss Marple/Hercule Poirot mysteries with all sorts of clever twists and turns. It’s all somewhat convoluted, though at the same time, it all does come together and make sense. It’s hard to say it ever rises above an Agatha Christie mystery, but the raw looking cinematography that makes everything feel dark and gloomy even in broad daylight, and the demytholizing of Swedish sympathies with Nazism are a plus, as is Noomi Rapace’s intense (that word again, though here somewhat of an understatement) portrayal of Lisbeth. The final ending, of Lisbeth going off somewhere and being rich and glamorous is supposed to mean something, but what exactly is vague and may ultimately reveal the problem with the movie (which may or may not go back to the book). The story is more about Lisbeth than about Blomkvist; in fact, Blomkvist at times is more along for the ride. But the screenwriters weren’t able to quite able to focus the story around her the way it probably needs to be.

The Secret in Their Eyes is the Argentine winner of the Best Foreign Language Film of 2010 for the Oscars. What’s often interesting in watching foreign films is to notice the differences in the way certain things are done than in the U.S. In The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, it is surprising that libel is a criminal matter whereas in the U.S. it’s only a civil one and that there are government guardians appointed for people who suffer from such problems as Asperger’s (both of which might make it difficult for the screenwriters of the American remake). In The Secret of Their Eyes, the central character, Benjamin Esposito, is a federal justice agent, a position that one doesn’t find on such shows as Law & Order. It seems to be a job (not even requiring a high school diploma) in which someone prepares a case for prosecution, something between police detective and District Attorney (you can also add here that Judges also serve as lawyers and investigators and some government officials have the ability to pardon criminals in secret). There is an odd similarity between this movie and …Dragon Tattoo. Both mysteries began to unravel based on an observation made in looking at old photographs. It’s as if both screenwriters (here Eduardo Sacheri, who also wrote the book, and Juan Jose Campanella, who also directed) had channeled the screenplay of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up, in which a fashion photographer captures something suspicious while taking snaps of a couple cootchi-cooing in a park. There’s also a similarity in that both have brutal rapes as part of their plots, but I’m not sure what that says and I’m not sure I want to know. It’s not easy to write about a rape and show empathy for the victim while not exploiting the situation and I’m not sure either writer or director succeeded with that here. The Secret of Their Eyes also has a certain clunkiness to its plotting as well in that there are actually two through lines. One is the solution of a brutal rape and murder of a beautiful young woman married to a mild mannered young man who never gives up hope of finding the real killer; the second is the romance between Benjamin and a Judge, Irene. The romance is the least satisfactory aspect of the script. It’s one of those unrequited affairs where Irene is so out of Benjamin’s league he can’t bring himself to court her and Irene, as a woman, can’t make the first step and tell Benjamin how she feels (you know, like in those films by John Hughes). It’s something of a cliché and the two actors (Ricardo Darin and Soledad Villamil) never generate much heat. The love story never feels that closely connected to the mystery either, and the ending where Benjamin decides to go for it and declare his feelings feel a bit unsatisfactory, as if the real reason for the woman’s rape and murder was to eventually bring these two characters together. The investigation of the death is much more intriguing and comes with some nifty detective work and leads to the best performance in the movie, Javier Godnio as the murderer, one of those people driven to become a fascist due to feelings of sexual inadequacy (like The Conformist). You can feel the rage and evil sweating from his body and he has a wonderful smirk when he realizes he has all the power. The surprise ending is truly a surprise and provides a satisfactory emotional resolution to the story.