LORE, LIKE SOMEONE IN LOVE, YOSSI



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Lore, the new German import written by Cate Shortland (who also directed) and Robin Mukherjee, is a movie filled with taut and tense images, one crowding after the other, confrontational, harsh, difficult.  There’s very little dialog.  The whole story is told in anxious edits and quick juxtapositions, nervous close ups and cropped frames that all feel on edge. 
The basic story revolves around Lore, a teenager and daughter of two very important members of the German Nazi party.  She and her younger sister and much younger twin brothers, as well as a newborn, lead privileged lives.  When Hitler kills himself and her parents are arrested, the care of the family is left to her and she has to take them all the way across Germany to her Aunt’s farm in Olm.   When Lore and her siblings are about to be taken in by some American troops for traveling without permission, they are rescued by Lore’s worst nightmare, Thomas, a Jewish man just released from a concentration camp and who claims to be their brother.  His papers and his background get them the permission to carry on.
Lore has moments of power and it’s never uninteresting.  The acting, by Saskia Rosendahl as Lore and Kai Malini as Thomas, is strong; Thomas especially has haunting eyes that are hard to look away from.  Lore’s realization that her father was not just someone in the Nazi party, but a perpetrator of great horrors, is affecting.  The things the group has to do to survive are often horrifying and moving.
At the same time, when Lore and the others make their way to their Aunt’s and Lore does something to show the completion of her character arc, the loss of innocence and her coming of age, I found I wasn’t quite as moved as I wanted to be.  There are probably several reasons for this.  One is a revelation about Thomas that, I think, watered down his part in her journey (I knew he wasn’t quite who he claimed to be; but who he did turn out to be, was a disappointment as far as I was concerned).
In addition, Lore’s journey is two parts.  One is her sexual awakening (which never quite got awakened) and her realization of the horrors of what Germany did.  These two journeys didn’t always fit well together and each weakened the effectiveness of the other.  And finally, what Lore went through was moving; but somehow the realization that the Nazi’s weren’t very nice people isn’t as powerful or unique a journey as it perhaps once was.  In the end, there may not be enough new here. 
I couldn’t begin to tell you why I really got a kick out of Abbas (Certified Copy) Kiarostami’s new film Like Someone in Love.  I’m not sure what the point was.  It’s very odd and quirky and kind of off kilter and all of the twelve points of the indie cinema law.  But I really enjoyed it.
The movie is basically a series of conversations in which someone won’t take no for an answer.  The plot revolves around a prostitute Akiko (played by Rin Takanishi with a perky pout) who doesn’t want to go on her next job.  The john is Takashi (Tadashi Okuno, who has a calm look of constant bewilderment on his face), a professor of books on sociology and violence, but once Akiko comes over, he frustratingly tries to put off doing some work for a colleague who has called.  The next day, Akiko’s boyfriend (Ryo Kase, with a pair of the most expressive doe eyes since Sylvester Stallone) confronts Akiko because he won’t accept that she wants to be left alone.  He doesn’t know she’s a prostitute and when he meets Takashi, he assumes he’s her grandfather.  I wouldn’t say hilarity ensures, but awkwardness and quirkiness certainly does.   
There’s something about Kiarostami’s approach to telling the story.  The opening scene begins with someone talking in a restaurant, but the speaker is not seen.  It’s disorienting, but intriguing, as the speaker continues arguing with someone who just won’t leave her alone.  Then Akiko is revealed, on her own at a table, while people enter and exit the restaurant and the world goes on around her.   This hyper realistic background, a constant leit motif (perhaps most haunting when Akiko has a cabbie twice drive her around a monument where her Aunt is waiting for her) is often mesmerizing.  It’s the way the whole movie is shot, constant confrontations played out in front of a naturalist background, that pulls you in and keeps your riveted.  
The movie just kind of ends with a shocking act of violence.  If this is Kiarostami’s attempt to tie everything together by commenting on the professor’s books or field of study, I’m not sure it achieves its goal.  As I said, I’m not sure what it all means and you do leave the theater a bit puzzled. But still, I loved it.
Yossi is a sequel to Yossi & Jagger, the 2002 movie written by Avner Bernheimer and directed by Eytan Fox, about a love affair between two men on the front lines in the Israeli army.  It sends with the sudden and tragic death of Jagger in Yossi’s arms, shot by the enemy.  Neither was ever able to tell anyone about their relationship. 
It’s fourteen years later and Yossi (still played by Ohad Knoller) has not gotten over Jagger’s death.  He is now a doctor, but still closeted, haunted, his body not the soldierly trim it once was, and, perhaps worst of all, his grief has left him with a nightmarish sense of fashion.   After a few stressful days at work, brought on partially by the mother of Jagger coming into Yossi’s hospital for a check up, Yossi decides to take a vacation.  He ends up giving a ride to some soldiers heading to a resort, one of whom, a handsome young thing (Oz Zehavi), becomes more and more interested in Yossi, something that Yossi has a hard time comprehending.  But the question then becomes, can someone start over, are there second chances in life, can someone come back from a tragedy and find happiness?
The sequel is written by Itay Segal, but still directed by Fox.   It’s a moving and never boring.  At the same time, it feels a bit slight, especially after Fox’s last film, the amazingly clever and powerful The Bubble, a modern day adaptation of Romeo and Juliet.  And it may feel a bit too much like an older man’s fantasy (Fred Astaire made a few of these films).  But there is also something moving in catching up with Yossi and seeing him find new meaning in life.
For more reviews, check out my blog at http://howardcasner.blogspot.com

BEAUTIFUL CREATURES



Beautiful Creatures, the new slough of despair, riddled with angst teenage film written and directed by Richard LaGravenese, is one of those movies that preaches against intolerance and bigotry and then makes cartoons out of every Christian in town, except for the one who’s black and therefore a true believer (stereotype much?).   It’s also a teenage version of Bewitched in which a mortal falls in love with a witch (oh, all right, Christine O’Donnell, they are not witches, they are casters—happy now?), but with more adolescent ennui and existential dread.  Finally, it’s also one of the myriad of films that we’re going to be plagued with (and I mean plagued) as various producers desperately try to fill the void that has been formed by the absence of the Twilight franchise.   
I think it’s safe to say that Beautiful Creatures didn’t do a lot for me (I only went because I finally decided it had a better chance of working than that new Die Hard film—unfortunately, from what I’m hearing, I made the right choice).
To be fair, there is one marvelous scene near the beginning of Beautiful Creatures that did suggest the movie might actually go somewhere.  Not anywhere great, mind you, I wasn’t that optimistic; but, you know, somewhere.  In this scene, our hapless hero Ethan (played by Alden Ehrenreich, who has such an unnerving resemblance to Leonardo DiCaprio, he could play his younger brother) is put under a spell by caster Macon (Jeremy Irons—yes, that Jeremy Irons) and asked what he’s going to do with his life.  It’s already been readily established that he is applying to every college more than a thousand miles away in order to get out of his podunk, one-horse town.  But instead of going there, he instead finds himself spouting out that he’s going to college locally so he can take care of his father and end up teaching in town, making a disastrous marriage and cheating on his wife and drinking heavily and having a heart attack at age 52, etc., etc., until he dies at age 62 by hanging himself (but with the rather brilliant coup de grace that his body won’t be found for a few days).  
But alas and alack, this going somewhere twas not to be, for a few scenes later, Macon and another character, Sarafine, who has taken over the body of the local religious bigot Mrs. Lincoln (played by Emma Thompson—yes, that Emma Thompson), have a lengthy pax de duex  in a church that goes on and on…and on.  And at this point, this very point, the movie crashes and burns and, to mix metaphors, gets buried so deep, not even George Romero could resurrect it.
And speaking of Jeremy Irons and Emma Thompson, not to mention Viola Davis and Eileen Atkins and Margo Martindale (yes, that David, Atkins and Martindale), why is it in England when they use their great actors and award winners for escapist fare, they give them movies like The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and the James Bond films, but in the U.S. they give them stuff like…like…well, like this? 
But you have to hand it to them.  All the actors are game and they play it all as if it were written by the bard himself (one doesn’t know whether to give them credit where credit is due for that, or just sit down and weep tears of Dido).  At any rate, it hardly matters.  Most of the time one just sits there not entranced by their performances, but just trying to figure out why they would make a movie like this.   
Yeah, I don’t think Beautiful Creatures did a lot for me.

SHANGHAI CALLING and 5 BROKEN CAMERAS



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At the end of Shanghai Calling, the new ex-pat comedy written and directed by Daniel Hsai, a reporter summarizes the central character’s journey by telling the audience that our not-so-intrepid hero has changed, but that perhaps that shouldn’t be so surprising: Shanghai, itself, is a changing city and it can have that affect on people.
I found this observation to be a bit odd, to say the least, mainly because the character is never changed one iota by Shanghai.  In fact, this up and coming city barely phases him a bit.  What changes him is pg.  101 of whatever screenwriting book is popular at the moment.  It’s not Shanghai that does the trick.  It’s formula, and not a particularly impressive use of it either.
This central character is called Sam.  He’s one of those obnoxious, egocentric, vain, know it all, extremely full and sure of himself (well, you know the type) characters (and to top it all off, he’s a lawyer, a deadly conglomeration).  So far, so good.  Unfortunately, he’s also incredibly bland, boring and banal (an even deadlier conglomeration).   He is sent by his bosses to Shanghai to run the local office of his law firm because he’s of Chinese ancestry, even though he doesn’t speak the language and hasn’t, as he states somewhat hyperbolically I suspect, been further than 79th Street in New York (he’s played by Daniel Henney, who, it must be admitted, is rather deft at double takes).  Cultural misunderstandings, legal shenanigans and romantic entanglements ensue, all on the exact page numbers they are suppose to ensue on, I would bet.
It’s almost impossible to care what happens to Sam.  Well, not exactly.  He’s actually the kind of character you want to fail.  He’s the kind of character you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy.   So, as only happens in the movies, he’s cast as the romantic lead.  Yes, for some reason that only film deities can imagine, when he meets the female romantic lead, a woman who thought her first husband was such an awful excuse for a human being that she moved with her daughter to Shanghai to make sure she never has to set eyes on him again, she actually thinks Sam might be husband material (of course, this might actually explain her first disastrous relationship if this is the sort of choices she keeps making in men).  
Which is where formula, like Ecstasy, really kicks in, and in high gear.  It’s as if Hsai suddenly came to the realization of, OMG, we have to make this guy likeable in order to have a happy ending, so Hsai suddenly, out of nowhere, gives Sam something to do that’s not true or consistent with who he is, that’s not only not organic to his character, but is so totally out of it—he has Sam bond with a little girl. 
And the story just gets clunky, clunkier, clunkiest after that.  It’s one of those plots where the hero is desperate to get something done, so he stops for a drink or has lunch instead (again, seemingly for no other reason than Hsai needs Sam to do something likeable).  It’s also one of those plots that depends on Sam coincidentally running into people at just the right time (like the said female romantic lead).
Other plot turns are confusing.  Sam makes a legal suggestion to a client that his assistant strongly advises him against.  The point is to demonstrate how pompous and unwilling to listen this asshole of a hero is.  But it’s unclear why the assistant advised against Sam’s course of action.  And by the time the whole rigmarole is over, it actually seems that Sam’s advice was the correct course of action.  His first act story reversal and second act plot twists are not caused by his advice being wrong, but by a crook who would have been a crook no matter what Sam told his client to do (there’s also something a little fishy here wherein a client gets a licensing agreement signed without his lawyer being present or handling it himself; but I can’t really answer to that).
At the end, there is, in many ways, a significant scene in which Sam has to decide whether to stay or leave Shanghai (and if you don’t know what decision he’s going to ultimately make, you need to get out to the movies or watch TV more).  To help in this decision, there is a montage where Sam remembers all the people he has run into while in town.   What’s odd is that I couldn’t figure out how any of these encounters could have convinced him of anything, much less make him want to stick around.  It’s a last ditch effort to fulfill a typical, and somewhat clichéd, character arc, and it, like the movie as a whole, comes up a bit short. 
5 Broken Cameras is a documentary about a Palestinian farmer who used five cameras over the years (replacing each one as they were broken) to record a history of his family and other locals’ resistance to the encroachment of new Israeli settlements on their land.  The subject matter is important and there are some powerful moments (and some funny ones, as when the Palestinians try to use the Israeli’s own ploys against them—you build a building on our side of the border and refuse to take it down because it’s against the law to tear down concrete buildings, we’ll build a concrete building on your side of the border that you can’t tear down because it’s against the law—though they take it down anyway).   At the same time, as much as I wanted to be gripped by what was going on, I never felt fully drawn in.  The directors, Emad Burnat (the farmer who filmed the events) and Guy Davidi, were never able to create a strong enough narrative to affect me as emotionally as I wanted or needed.  But it does have an optimistic ending—the border fence came down and the Israeli courts forced the authorities to give back some of the farmland that was taken. 

SIDE EFFECTS



The 1980’s called; they want their villain back.
Side Effects is the new thriller written by Scott Z. Burns and directed by Steven Soderbergh (it’s suppose to be Soderbergh’s penultimate movie, but time will tell).  I have always considered Soderbergh to be the Michael Curtiz of contemporary cinema.  Like Curtiz, he helms solid movies that are well crafted and quite entertaining.   And like Curtiz, that’s all they usually are.   Curtiz was not a particularly great director, just a superb craftsman of routine studio assignments.    He only made one really great movie, Casablanca, and that was great only by accident.  It’s hard to say whether Soderbergh will ever even achieve that (his best chances right now are Traffic and Che, with Che being the far superior choice). 
Continuing in that tradition, Side Effects is well made, but also a tad routine.  It gets the job done and is entertaining, but one can’t say much more than that.   In fact, if truth be told, one can actually say a lot less.  I really don’t think it works all that well; at least not for me.
The basic premise revolves around a psychiatrist played very handsomely by Jude Law (as if there is any other way for him to play a character) who proscribes a particular medication for a patient, Rooney Mara (of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo fame); let’s just say that after that, things go a tad awry for the good doc.  Also on board for the ride is Catherine Zeta-Jones, who plays Mara’s former therapist.
The movie begins as a social message picture that has such a serious anti-medication slant that it almost seems as if it was written by a Scientologist.  It accuses the psychiatric industry of exploiting people (mainly women) in order to sell drugs that probably aren’t helping or needed (and if they work, it’s not because they work, but because the users have been manipulated into believing they work).  There is a whiff of hypocrisy here because the screenplay feels like it’s just as exploitive of the people using medication as the pill industry is.  Burns and Soderbergh don’t really care about the medicated and their illnesses and desperation any more than the pill industry does.  In both cases, the poor schnooks are just there to further an agenda.
But then something happens.  The big plot turn that changes everything.  And it’s shocking and people gasp and sit up in their seats—except for me, who turned to his friend and told him exactly what was going on (I even knew what was going to happen before it happened).  And since the characters aren’t all that interesting, all I’m doing now is waiting to find out whether I’m right or not.  And I am.
The final third of the movie is the most interesting.  That’s when Law starts fighting back.  What he does may not always be that convincing (what he does is more what someone does in a movie than in real life), and I do feel that Burns and Soderbergh cheat a bit here and there, but it is entertaining and fun and suspenseful, so there’s that to make up for the rest.  
But there’s another issue here.  The big co-villain is that staple of 1980’s villainy, the evil lesbian.  And I suppose there is something to be said for progress.  I’m not sure what, but still, if this movie had been made back then, there quite possibly would have been demonstrations in the street.  Now we’ve progressed to the point where a lesbian villain casts not a whiff of controversy.  But when you combine that with the other staple of movie villainy, the woman trying to do a man’s job, but is incompetent at it because she is a woman and is therefore much weaker than a man because she is a victim of her own inherent unstable emotional state, the whole solution to this thriller feels depressingly uninspired and unimaginative; somewhat like Magic Mike, but without all the rear nudity to keep you interested.
What may be even more depressing is that Law reconciles with all the people who betrayed him, including a particularly unsupportive (and not quite believable) wife (let’s just say that women don’t come off too well in this movie—even of Law’s two partners, though both want him out for what happened, the woman’s a “bitch” about it, while the man is more understanding and even tempered).   I didn’t understand why Burns and Soderbergh chose to do this.  I bought this even less than the plot as a whole and thought that after everything Law went through he deserved a much happier ending.  But que sera sera.
Burns and Soderbergh have collaborated before, on Contagion and The Informant!, and in both  cases, the movies were much more original and exciting.  Here, to be perfectly honest, I felt that they were phoning it in, and getting the wrong number at times.