REALITY and THE WE AND THE I



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Reality, the new movie written by Ugo Chiti, Maurizio Braucci, Matteo Garrone, and Massimo Gaudioso  (God, I’m exhausted just from typing all the names) and directed by Garrone (all of whom also gave us the incredible true mafia movie Gomorrah) opens ironically with a God’s eye view of a fancy gold colored carriage with plush, red seats drawn by white horses gaily prancing down a road in Naples, the hooves almost perfectly timed to the delightful music composed by Alexandre Desplat  (who else), music that almost sounds as if it could be found in any animated fairy tale.  Then the carriage pulls through some gates and continues until it stops outside a gazebo.  A footman opens the door and a bride and groom step out, walking to two boxes and releasing a covey of doves, proceeding on to join throngs of people in way too fancy outfits who are waiting for them at a reception.   It’s a wonderful and mesmerizing scene.  Exciting.  Thrilling.
But after the reception is over, the people go home.  They take off their spangly clothes, their false eyelashes, their nice suits, their make up and they get ready for bed, the women wearing old lady half stockings, the men in underwear and black socks, their aging bodies full of flab falling over their waistlines, until we are back to reality. 
The basic story of Reality revolves around Luciano, a hard working fishmonger and petty crook (he has some odd con job going on that has people order pasta making robots and then reselling them).  He’s just that kind of guy that everybody loves.  He’s a great father, generous, gregarious.  At weddings he dresses in drag and does a bit that always brings down the house no matter how many times the audience has seen it.  A bit pompous, perhaps, and an attention junky, but, hey, no one’s perfect.   And his world, his reality, is just right…until his children beg him to audition for Big Brother, the ultimate reality show.
In many ways, one shouldn’t empathize with Luciano.   I mean, he wants to be on Big Brother, for god’s sakes.  Who can feel for someone who wants to do something so petty and egocentric?  But one does empathize with him.  Partly because he’s so reluctant to do it at first and only goes through with the audition to please his family.  But a great deal of the success of this movie has to be due to the incredible performance of Aniello Arena (in his movie debut of all things), who has eyes and a face that with a slight change of thought can tell you everything he’s thinking.  And as he begins to buy into it, into the possibility of being on the show and the fame and fortune that can come from it, you see him slowly losing it, you see the paranoia grow, you see his psychological underpinnings crumbling.  There’s something in his eyes that goes from bright to wistful and then dull in a split second that makes you want to cry for him. 
However, before continuing on, no review of this film can be complete without talking about Arena’s story.  He is not new to acting, just new to movies.  He was once a member of the Italian mafia, a hit man who is in jail for killing three people.  While incarcerated, he became involved in theater acting, ultimately traveling with a troupe where, whenever they reached a town, the non-prisoners would check into a hotel while he and his fellow inmates would register at the local prison.  To act, he has been granted a sort of work-study release—he can only leave during certain times.  Garrone wanted to use him as a hit man in Gomorrah, but the authorities thought that was just a tad too close to home.  But now Garrone and the other writers have found a most amazing fit for this actor and the last sort a character you would think a former hit man could portray.
The movie grows gradually darker as another of the story’s irony grows: as Luciano watches Big Brother, becoming so obsessed he is glued to the set almost 24 hours a day, you come not only to realize how vulgar a show it is and how that, in certain ways, Luciano dodged a bullet by not appearing on it—it’s a show that’s insultingly far beneath him—you also realize, more and more, just how unrealistic the show is in comparison to Lucian’s life, or to anyone’s life, for that matter.  In a way, Luciano gets his wish, another irony perhaps, in a sad, tragi-comedy of a finale. 
A heartbreaking and surprisingly moving film. 
The Way and the I is the new movie directed by Michel Gondry (the filmmaker trying to live down The Green Hornet and who has a penchant for using surrealism in his films—The Science of Sleep, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) and written by Gondry, Jeffrey Grimshaw and Paul Proch (the last two being newcomers to the art of writing for the screen).  The basic story follows a group of New York high school students as they take the last bus home on the final day of school before summer vacation starts.
At first, the movie is both fascinating and difficult and off-putting to watch.  The vast majority of the characters are bullies, cruel pranksters, sociopaths in the making, if not there already.  There is a reality to these characters, but they’re not pleasant to watch, especially since Gondry in many ways, doesn’t pass judgment or interpret them, but just lets them speak for themselves.  And as many artists do, Gondry seems to find man’s inhumanity to man far more interesting and entertaining than the more optimistic and positive aspects of humankind—he tends to see this long bus ride, this very long bus ride, this extremely, incredibly long bus ride, as a remake of The Lord of the Flies (and who knows, maybe he’s right).
But in the end, the movie stopped going anywhere for me after awhile.  One reason is the acting.  Gondry employs an Italian neo-realistic approach here, using real teens in the roles (even the names of the characters are the names of the actors playing them).  This has all the plusses and minuses of that aesthetic approach—sometimes a feeling of intense reality appears, at other times (a bit too often) the lines feel clunky and the characterizations come across as flat and bland.   Another reason is that after awhile, the various stories don’t seem to really go anywhere and quickly feel repetitive and all on the same level.  It becomes a bit tedious and even boring.  In the end, the authors resolve various through lines and relationships, but more often than not, in rather familiar and formulaic ways, until what’s left is a movie that feels as if it is trying to be something new and original, but is ultimately just a bit too conventional with nothing that new or insightful to say.  

SPRING BREAKERS, DORFMAN IN LOVE, GINGER & ROSA



There is a scene in Spring Breakers, the new bikini noir written and directed by Harmony (Gummo, Trash Humpers) Korine, where you think it’s all finally going to come together.  In it, Alien, a white rapper/Scarface wannabe (a surprisingly amusing James Franco), plays a sentimental Britney Spears’ song on a white piano that overlooks the ocean while three of the spring breakers, model thin college students dressed in more than skimpy two pieces, sing along, dancing ballet like movements while holding assault rifles the NRA would be proud of, and wearing pink ski masks.  It’s absurd, ridiculous, preposterous, unlike almost anything you’ve seen before, and you think, this is it, this is the moment when it all becomes something.
But it doesn’t.  It just doesn’t quite make it.  And in the end, that’s what the whole movie is.  Ambitious. Daring.  An unapologetic attempt to do things differently.  And just one scene after another where you think it’s going to blossom, but never does, finally falling apart by the end in one big, flailing, frustrating mess.
Spring Breakers is a movie that starts out being about one thing and then changes horses in mid stream.  It begins as a story about Faith, a college student who attends Christian youth meetings.  She’s warned that Satan will tempt her, but God will always giver her the strength to withstand him.   She’s not sure she buys it, but she can’t let go of it either.  So when three childhood friends (who all ended up at the same  college, which I thought was a neat trick, but sure, why not, let’s go with it) ask her to go on spring break, she agrees, even though she’s warned that the three friends are really sociopaths (and they are).  And of course, they do what any group of proud sociopaths do before spring break: they rob a restaurant to pay for it (and get away with it to boot, but it’s the sort of movie where the police only show up at the convenience of the plot).  And then on spring break, after a very, very, very, very, very, very (well, you get the idea) long time, they finally meet Satan, the aforesaid Alien.
The group describes themselves as miserable.  But they’re not miserable because of their situation.  They’re miserable because they’re, well, miserable people.  But the movie is written and directed in such a way that you’re unclear Korine realizes this; you don’t know if he’s commenting on how self-deluded his characters are, or if he’s playing it straight.  In fact, if I were to be perfectly honest, it reminded me of a screenplay I once gave feedback on and described as an incompetently written drama  only to find out the author thought it was a comedy—I really couldn’t tell the difference.  (At one point, Faith asks “why is this happening”—it’s hard to take someone seriously who is so self-deluded, but at the same time, I wasn’t sure whether I was or wasn’t suppose to take her seriously; I was the only one laughing in the theater).
So everything is set for a highly stylized, semi-satiric morality play.  And then at the halfway mark, Faith leaves.  She goes home.  A very wise move on her point it must be said, but still, she never comes back.  So if she isn’t what the story was about (as everything up until that point suggested), then was the point of the first part of the movie?  Why did we even watch it?  Korine actually does this two more times (changes the intent and direction of the story), until it feels as if he had no clear concept in the first place, that he didn’t really know what was going on and what he was trying to do.   And the whole thing finally reaches an ending so absurdly ridiculous that one is just amazed at the preposterousness of it all.  
I suppose that’s the point. But in the end, the finale is just one big long cliché.  In fact, the whole movie is just one long cliché after the other.  But Korine doesn’t do anything with them except present them at face value.  He doesn’t comment on them.  He doesn’t use them to make a point.  He just treats them as if it is enough that they are clichés—which may be a bit too ironic and post modern even for me (sort of like someone copying the Mona Lisa so well you can’t tell the copy from the original and presenting it as an original work of art).
Spring Breakers is visually stunning.  But it falls into the category of recent films like Stoker and On the Road and to some degree The Silence in which it feels as if the filmmakers think character, story, ideas are irrelevant.  As long as it’s all told visually, that’s all that’s necessary.  But the more I see of movies made like this, the more I’m becoming less and less convinced that a picture is indeed worth a thousand words.
At one point in the movie, Dorfman in Love, Dorfman (played by the cute and charming Sara Rue) is described as a cliché…a Jewish accountant.  The description is half right.  She’s a cliché, but not because she’s a Jewish accountant, but because she is a…well…cliché.  A walking, talking, double taking cliché.  In fact, one of the things that this light, breezy rom com has in common with Spring Breakers is that it is one cliché and formulaic contrivance after the other.  And like Spring Breakers, it’s unclear whether writer Wendy Kout and director Brad Leong realize this.
Kout’s screenplay is sincere and well meaning.  She shows all the appropriate empathy for her characters and the story fits all the correct troupes found in the more popular books on screenwriting.  But it’s also a movie you’ve seen a million times before.
Dorfman in Love is about a woman whose journey is to find herself, to liberate herself from the stereotyped roles she’s been assigned, to free herself from the bourgeoisie trap she’s found herself in, to really discover who she is.  But in this movie, that journey is basically defined as finding a boyfriend (at that point I almost tossed my hat up in the air and said, “That’s it, I’m outta here”).  One of the oddest interchanges is when Dorfman’s father (played in an appropriately grumpy manner by Elliot Gould, though his performance, like so much of the acting, is a bit too on the nose) tells her he’d be happy once she is married and has children.  This upsets Dorfman, though I wasn’t sure why since this seemed to be the goal she had set for herself as well. 
Dorfman in Love is a movie in which the heroine is encouraged to be brave and take chances and really experience the world and have an adventure; noble goals, to be sure, but which, within the context of this movie, means taking the L.A. Metro rather than driving, and then walking around downtown (I suppose the demographic aimed at here are readers of Joan Didion).
There’s something about Dorfman in Love that is very reminiscent of Georgy Girl, Lynn Redgrave’s rise to stardom movie about another non-thin young woman looking for love.  But while Georgy Girl is set against, and is a commentary on, the swinging sixties and the changing morality of the time, Dorfman in Love seems more set against the middle brow, urban middle class lifestyle reflected in off-Broadway plays of twenty to thirty years ago (plays that often won Pulitzer Prizes for reasons I never understood).   Dorfman in Love just feels a bit dated.
The movie is bright, at times funny (the best line is when Rue runs down the street past some winos and one says to her “Change?” and she says, “I’m trying, I’m trying”).  But perhaps the most ironic thing about it is that after it was over, I so wanted to go back and watch the anarchy and failure of Spring Breakers rather than the safe, works on its own terms, formulaic Dorfman.
Ginger & Rosa is writer/director Sally Potter’s touching and empathetic character study of Ginger, a young teenager growing up against the rise of nuclear weapons and the protests against them in 1962, England.  It’s a milieu affected very deeply by World War II, even at that late a date.  People still bear scars of that time.  And the whole country still looks as if it is affected by the rationing (everything is bleak and everyone wears coats and heavy clothing whether they are inside or out). 
There’s much to like here.  The period detail is quite nostalgically wonderful and Robbie Ryan’s cinematography has an effective cold warmth to it (he’s also worked on such movies as Red Road, Fish Tank and The Angels’ Share).  Elle Fanning (of Super 8 and Somwhere fame) is quite marvelous in the lead role.  And the most interesting actors keep popping up:   Christina Hendricks as Ginger’s long suffering mother; Alessandro Nivola as her not long suffering, but wants everyone to think he is, father; Oliver Platt and a sly minx of a Timothy Spall as a gay couple who are also Ginger’s godparents; and Annette Bening as a no-nonsense war protester (you kind of want to stick around just to see who else might put in an appearance).
The movie doesn’t always work as well as it might.  It’s basically a chamber piece, a boulevard drama, but though it has many effective moments, it could use a bit more of the tension of a Henrik Ibsen/August Strindberg play.  And the constant references to the threat of nuclear war and the end of the world never quite convince.  I suppose the idea is that Ginger is spouting this outward conflict so she doesn’t have to face her inner and more immediate conflicts.  But whenever anyone talked about the danger of the bomb, the lines never felt comfortable on anyone’s lips and seemed a bit clunky, more a distraction than an integral part of the drama.
But in the end, it’s a satisfying and often moving portrait of a young girl learning that contrary to appearances, life goes on and there’s always hope for a future.

ON THE ROAD



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The new movie On the Road is filmed with the energy and chaos of jazz being played by musicians on Benzedrine.  It’s full of jagged rhythms and scenes cut together as if they were half improvised.  It grabs you at first as does the beautiful period detail, with sets and costumes that fill you with a certain excitement the moment you’re confronted by them (production design by Carlo Conti; costume design by Danny Glicker). 
But Benzedrine doesn’t last forever and On The Road quickly crashes into a hung over morning after because this story about members of the beat generation is also about a group of people who think they are interesting, but aren’t (almost never a good premise for a drama).  Actually, it’s a little worse than that.  It’s about a group of people that the screenwriter Jose Rivera and director Walter Salles think are interesting, but neither gives all that compelling a reason as to why we should think so too.
The movie, of course, is based on the popular cult novel of the same name by Jack Kerouac.  It’s a sort of, kind of autobiographical tale in the best Wolfe/Proust tradition (all the names were changed, but apparently not to protect the innocent, because there was never any question as to who was really who in the first place).  The story revolves around an aspiring writer Sal Paradise (Kerouac) who doesn’t have anything to write about.  Into his life comes Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady), introduced to him by Carlo Marx (Allen Ginsburg). 
Dean first appears to our naïve little hero fully naked, opening the door having been interruptus in his coitus with his sixteen year old wife, Marylou (how Jerry Lee Lewis can you get).  The idea, I presume, is to show just how free and uninhibited Dean is.  But all it shows is the hypocrisy of the movie and how unfree and inhibited the production is: the confrontational in your face Dean is shown wearing that fig leaf that all movies like this use—he’s seen only from the waste up so as not to offend anyone watching from the safety of their auditorium seats (oh, the irony, the irony).  To the filmmakers’ credit, they do a bit better with the bisexuality, but only by a bit.
Dean is suppose to be a symbol of someone who makes his own morality and lives life on his own terms, fully free of the shackles of 1950’s America.  But I have two issues with this:
The first is that I saw no shackles.  Sal lives in his mother’s apartment (apparently room and board free), with no real job to speak off, coming and going as he pleases, doing drugs, and if he’s not getting sex, it’s not because of society’s priggishness, he’s just not any good at the art of seduction.  When these kinds of characters are portrayed in contemporary films, they usually live in their parents’ basement, playing video games and watching internet porn all day long.  But I don’t think Rivera and Salles see the parallel.  In actually, the only real symbol of the shackles these poor fellows must endure are the tickets they get from highway patrolman when they are racing down frozen highways at breakneck speed, often with the windshield encrusted with ice, robbing them of any visibility (gee, getting a ticket for exceeding the speed limit—those fascists). 
The second issue is how this freedom of Dean’s is defined.  Everyone wants to be Dean, but not because of an existential idea of liberation.  They want to be Dean because he can get his sixteen year old ex-wife to give him a blowjob without his asking while he’s driving a car, even though she knows she’s going to be dumped when he returns to his present wife upon reaching San Francisco.  They don’t want freedom.  They want women to humiliate themselves sexually for them.  And that’s just a whiff of the misogyny run rampant here.
To its credit, the movie ends not with Sal’s embracement of Dean’s credo, but with the realization that Dean is not a symbol of liberation, but an all out sociopath.  At the same time, this realization leaves a bad taste in the way Sal is more than a bit of a dick in his last encounter with his erstwhile hero.
The movie as a whole is not helped by not being particularly well cast.   Garrett Hedlund was building a nice career for himself with strong appearances in such films as the highly recommended Control and the not so highly recommended, but not a complete failure, Brighton Rock.  But here, sad to say, he brings little to the roll of Sal.  Sam Riley as Dean brings about the same.  Neither seems to have the ability to do anything with the characters that’s not already there.  And since nothing is there, well, you know, Q.E.D. and all that.
The supporting cast is filled with tons of cameos, most successfully Elizabeth Moss as a frustrated wife who doesn’t know how to fit into this insane world she finds herself trapped in (true to the nature of the piece, the other women tell her that giving blowjobs will make her happy), and even more successfully, Viggo Mortensen, who steals the show in a few scenes as Old Bull Lee/William S. Burroughs.  It’s an amazing little snapshot, but part of his success might possibly be that his character is the only one able to cut through the bullshit and call Dean the sociopath he is (finally, you think to yourself).  Amy Adams makes an appearance as the pre-manslaughtered by way of William Tell second wife of Burroughs, but she has nothing to really do and proceeds not to do it.
Walter Salles and Jose Rivera were responsible for the much more successful Motorcycle Diaries, a movie with some similar ideas, at least in structure.  In that movie, likewise inspired by true events, a young Che Guevara and Alberto Granado also hit the road.  But the difference is astounding.  While Motorcycle Diaries is a moving and often powerful movie about two friends who come to realize the breadth of injustice in the world and that they must do something about it, On the Road is about two friends who learn, well, nothing really.  Well, I suppose one could say that Sal learns how to leave a friend sick and dying in the cold while he goes off to exploit him for literary purposes, but I’m not sure I’d brag about that.

War Witch and The Silence



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War Witch, written and directed by Kim Nguyen, a Quebecois filmmaker, is about a 12 year old girl, Komona, who is abducted and forced to be a guerilla for a rebel army somewhere in Sub-Saharan Africa.  The story is brutal and frank and worthwhile.  It’s a film that probably should be seen just because of the horrifying and important subject matter.  At the same time, I wish I could say I liked it more than I did; but if truth be told, I felt most of it didn’t really show me anything I hadn’t seen before.  When it did, when it’s revealed, for example, that Komona has the ability to see the dead, it’s quite thrilling and scary in a way that I wanted the rest of the movie to be, but wasn’t.   But this aspect of the film, which was new and exciting, never really seemed that integral to the rest of the story (it’s called War Witch, but I often felt the Witch part of the movie was almost an afterthought).  In the end, I think the real issue for me, and I hate to be heartless, is that I never felt that Komona was a real person, but was more of a symbol of all the atrocities that are taking place in the war torn areas of Africa.  I never became as deeply and emotionally involved as I did, say, with Hushpuppy from Beasts of the Southern Wild.  Nominated for Best Foreign Language film at the 2012 Academy Awards.
In The Silence, a teenager is raped and killed and her body disposed of in a lake.  The culprits are never caught.  Twenty three years later, another teenager goes missing, from the exact same location and everyone wonders if there is a connection.  That, basically, is the crux of this German murder mystery, the second film from writer and director Baran bo Odar: why was the murderer of the first girl silent for so long and why did he decide to speak now, twenty three years later?   And who in the audience wouldn’t want to know the answer to that? 
The Silence certainly starts off well and there is much to like.  It’s intelligently written and emotionally involving.  The characters are well drawn.  It has some beautifully sweeping God’s eye views that are thrilling to watch (for some reason that I’m not sure I can explain, there is something riveting to the way bo Odar films a car from above pulling out of a garage and driving out of the parking area of an apartment complex).   But somewhere along the way, the whole thing loses its forward momentum.  I’m not totally sure why, but I suspect it’s because bo Odar is trying to make something out of the story that it was never intended to be and the harder he tries, the more clearly it appears that he isn’t quite succeeding.
The Silence is what is often called over directed.  Bo Odar uses alls sorts of camera angles and editing tricks and stylistic flourishes to make us think this is not really a movie about a twenty-three year old murder, but a study of a group of people who are haunted by unexplained tragedy.  In the same way, the screenplay is also overwritten, constantly getting off subject to focus on the personal lives of the various characters to show the audience that it is not about who did it, but the people something was done to.  What happens is that about half way through, one wants to say, okay, I get it, these people are broken, haunted, destroyed—now can we get back to why someone would kill someone in the same way someone was killed twenty three years earlier?
This directorial approach is the same method Chan-wook Park employed for Stoker and Orson Welles for Touch of Evil and The Lady from Shanghai.   But in the end, just as Park and Welles, no matter how hard they tried , couldn’t disguise the fact that they were dealing with routine material, and that there was no there, there (though at least Welles is a ton of fun when he did it), no matter what bo Odar does, The Silence is basically an Agatha Christie whodunit and no more. 
So I was hardly surprised to find out that the movie is based on a book in a series of books by Jan Costin Wagner, a German crime fiction writer who sets his stories in Finland.   It has that feeling of a mystery in a string of mysteries, thrillers filled with those quaint characters that reappear again and again, with a plot that starts out with one of those intriguing hooks that instantly rivet one, and in which any deeper meaning is merely along for the ride and not the goal itself.  It’s very reminiscent of those crime series one watches on television week after week, like Beck, or  Wallander, or in the U.S., Columbo.  But perhaps the most telling aspect of bo Odar’s attempt to make something more out of the story than what is here is that the books by Wagner have a reoccurring character the mystery is built around, detective Kimmo Joentaa.  As far as I can tell, this character is not in the movie, perhaps another attempt by bo Odar to make it seem less like a whodunit and more like, well, “art” (but for my money, a somewhat unsuccessful ruse).
The acting is a mixed bag, which also doesn’t help.  Ulrich Thomsen as the original murderer (don’t worry, I’m not giving anything away, this happens in the opening scene) is the strongest performer here, one of those bad guys that one almost comes to have some empathy for.  But the cast is also filled with a couple of people who go a bit overboard, like Sebastian Blomberg, as an officer grieving over losing his wife to cancer (in his defense, he’s also stuck with one of the most incompetent bosses you’re ever going to see in detective fiction).   And in the end, the mystery is never totally resolved; why the murderer did it is revealed, but not why he waited so long to do it (and though the solution is intriguing in an Agatha Christie whodunit way, it’s not all that convincing).

Oz The Great and Powerful and The Monk



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Oz The Great and Powerful, the new fantasy film written by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire and directed, for some reason, by Sam Raimi, is a movie about a man with Peter Pan syndrome and has commitment issues who ends up in a land far, far away where he gets caught up in a cat fight between three woman (Michelle Williams, Mila Kunis and Rachel Weisz) who are jealous of each other’s looks and/or the man in their lives.  Yes, that’s about as much imagination as is shown in this conglomeration culled from the characters in the books of Frank L. Baum (of The Wizard of Oz fame). 
It’s also a movie starring the incredibly, if not profoundly, miscast James Franco (easily as miscast as he was as host of the Oscars) in the titular role.  It’s a movie in which every scene is designed for maximum 3-D effect, while the scenery, characters and dialog are as flat as Franco’s acting (and with backgrounds that have rarely looked as much like matte drawings as they do here).  It’s a movie in which Zach Braf, a former romantic lead of such outings as Scrubs, Garden State and The Last Kiss, has fallen to such depths as to be cast in a second lead, as a flying monkey no less, yet he still steals every single scene he is in.
And finally, it’s a movie that can’t have a satisfactory ending because the filmmakers have painted themselves into a corner.  The only truly dramatically satisfactory resolution is for Oz to return to Kansas to save former girlfriend Annie (Michelle Williams) from a loveless marriage.  But he can’t leave Oz because he’s got to be there when Dorothy arrives.  But his character arc needs to be resolved, so he ends up kissing Glinda (also played by Michelle Williams, and I suppose that from the filmmakers’ points of view, one woman is the same as another, so it really doesn’t matter if Oz ends up with Annie or Glinda as long as they are played by the same actress), but we know that this relationship can’t last because there’s no such relationship when D-girl arrives.    And isn’t there something just a little creepy in that a lead character in a family film is awarded with sex for saving the day?
Oz The Great and Powerful doesn’t work.  It’s unimaginative in design, acting, direction and writing.  Perhaps it’s best to say that it’s a movie that is no Jack the Giant Slayer and let it go at that.
Meanwhile, The Monk is also about a character that is also supposed to be charismatic and inspiring.  It’s the new movie written by Dominik Moll (who also directed) and Anne-Louise Trividic.  Moll also directed the highly recommended films With a Friend Like Harry… and Lemming and there seems to be a theme here—that of some evil or perverseness worming its way into a seemingly safe situation. 
The Monk is about, well, this monk Ambrosio who lived in Spain in the late 18th century.  He’s very popular.  His sermons draw SRO crowds.  I have to be honest, I wasn’t exactly sure why.  His homilies are pretty doom and gloomy stuff and the character, as played by Vincent Cassel, is not the most charismatic of preachers.  He’s actually much better at confession where he’s able to cut through bullshit with a butter knife. 
Ambrosio’s main philosophical point is that Satan has no more power over any of us than we can stand.  I guess that was too much of a Job like statement, because it’s not long before Satan (played by Sergi Lopez, one of the go to guys for playing the devil these days, I guess) arrives to take up the gauntlet the monk has thrown him (Lopez is actually in the opening scene, which in many ways kind of demonstrates one of the structural weaknesses of the story—since the audience doesn’t know this is Satan, it never gets related to the rest of the story until the movie’s over, which isn’t very satisfactory).  But at any rate, Satan sends evil to the monastery and since this is based on a Catholic novel written in 1796, evil must arrive in the form of a woman.   And Ambrosio’s beliefs are quickly proved wrong because Satan’s power is greater than the father can withstand and Ambrosio is soon heading toward an Oedipal like tragic ending. 
But the movie never quite worked for me mainly because Satan is able to defeat Ambrosio by using magical powers and forcing Ambrosio to do things he would never normally do.  Satan’s not the devil here, he’s a Jedi knight.  So instead of being emotionally involved in Ambrosio’s downfall, all I could think was, “Hey, that’s cheating”.   I guess the whole thing’s suppose to be some sort of metaphor, but if so, it all felt a bit too vague to me until I didn’t know what the moral of the story was supposed to be: beware of Satan because he’s really Yoda? 
The real problem with the movie, though, may be the basic structure.  It’s a tad all over the place.  There are three major through lines and the movie takes a bit too long in bringing them all together (and one never seems satisfactorily integrated).  And the movie also tries to implicate the monk for the fate of a young nun, something to which Ambrosio’s guilt is tenuous at best and to which I called “shenanigans”. 
I understand that the great prankster filmmaker Louis Bunuel wanted to make a movie of the novel over the years and one can see why.  It has all the ingredients that would appeal to someone with the impious sensibility of that anti-Catholic filmmaker.  And he quite possibly would have been able to bring a certain perverse vision to the material that might have been more successful.  But for me, this movie is just a slight misstep in Moll’s career.
For more reviews, check out my blog at http://howardcasner.blogspot.com

STOKER, JACK THE GIANT KILLER



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When Michael Haneke, the acclaimed filmmaker of Amour and The White Ribbon, came to the U.S., he met with a producer who gave him a script to consider.  It was an action film of some sort, a WWII something or other, a story totally inappropriate to Haneke for anyone who knew anything about his films.  To paraphrase his reaction, he asked, Is this what Hollywood is?  A place where they just grab any old thing they have lying around in a drawer to give you that hasn’t been produced yet?
This is what I thought while watching the movie Stoker.  It’s directed by Chan-wook Park, the popular South Korean director of Oldboy and Thirst, and though I can’t say that’s how he got hired to direct this film, it certainly feels like some producer just had it lying around in his drawer and foisted it upon him. 
The film was written by Wentworth Miller (his first foray into screenwriting, but I guess he had to do something to pass the time while behind bars) with Erin Cressida Wilson (Fur, Secretary) given credit as a contributing writer.  In many ways, it’s basically one of those women in danger films that almost every actress made at one time or another in the 1940’s and ‘50’s, from Barbara Stanwyck to Joan Crawford to Katherine Hepburn (yes, even Hepburn made one).  As in those films, a psychopath or sociopath or psychotic sociopath or sociopathic psychotic worms their way into a household; anything from camp to high tension occurs (and usually both).  In this entry in the once popular subgenre, when the patriarch of a wealthy family dies, his brother suddenly shows up at his funeral and takes a rather creepy interest in his niece (the man is called Uncle Charlie for those who like film references and have seen Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt).   Various bad things happen as a result.
It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the screenplay.  It certainly gets the job done.  At the same time, for someone of Park’s oeuvre, it’s rather routine.  No, I have to be honest here.  It’s very routine. No, that doesn’t quite do it.  It’s ridiculously and insultingly routine.  Is this really the best the U.S. can offer a filmmaker of Park’s stature?
To Park’s credit, he directs the hell out of the movie.  He fills it with odd angles and creepy sounds (there’s suppose to be some through line about the niece, India, being able to hear things other people can’t, though there never seemed to be a pay off for it).  There’re all sorts of overlaps and dissolves and plenty of visual metaphors (like a spider crawling up India’s leg and going between her thighs—subtle much?).   Park gives it the old Orson Welles try (who also had to constantly flaunt his directing in order to cover up lackluster material as in Touch of Evil and The Lady from Shanghai).  And it must be said, Stoker is often an effective and even beautiful movie.
But it’s also one of these stories where people go missing and no one seems that concerned about what happened to them, unless it’s convenient for the plot.   Everyone who knows Charlie’s secret seems extremely worried about India, but not her mother, Evelyn, who in many ways is chopped liver by the time the movie is over.   The two both share the same house with Charlie, but it’s only India who anyone is concerned about (I thought sure the big revelation was going to be that Charlie was actually India’s real father, but no, this interest of Charlie’s for India was left a bit vague for me).   And the ending doesn’t really resolve anything or provide a satisfying emotional resolution.  In fact, by the time it was over, I was wondering whether a bit too much of it ended up on the cutting room floor.
The movie is nicely cast for the most part.  The actors do the best they can with the material.  Mia Wasikowski is India and she’s fine (she’s very good at sexual yearning and having an orgasm while playing the piano with her Uncle).  Nicole Kidman handles the material well in her roll as an escapee from a Tennessee William’s play.  The strongest acting comes from that remarkable down under discovery Jacki Weaver, and her performance here may make her one of the finest character actresses in films since Thelma Ritter.  Mathew (A Single Man, Matchpoint, Watchmen) Goode is Uncle Charlie; he’s lovely to look at, but his performance is a bit flat, like his American accent.
 I know I’ve been really hard on this film.  But I think it’s because Park deserves better.  The U.S. film industry has chewed up and spewed out many an artist over the years and I would hate to have the same thing happen to Park.  But Stoker is not a promising beginning for an American career.
I saw Jack the Giant Slayer.  Yes, I did.  It was at this nice theater I love to go to and there really wasn’t much else showing and a friend wanted to go for lack of a better movie out there to see, so we went.   It’s not a disaster.  If only it were; it would have been a lot more fun.  It’s actually, in certain ways, better written and acted and at times cleverer than Stoker.   It’s directed by Bryan Singer (are we ever going to have another movie like The Usual Suspects again), has four authors (yes, four), and stars Nicholas Hoult, Ewan McGregor, Eddie Marsan and Ian McShane, with Stanley Tucci as the gay character who can’t be identified as gay because that would be offensive.   But one spends most of the time wondering why any of them actually wanted to do the film.  It’s one of those movies in which a woman claims to be raised by her mother to be a feminist, but the chief lesson she was taught is to marry for love.  It’s one of those movies meant for a family audience, but it has so many people being slaughtered, that it’s just kind of depressing.  It’s one of those movies where the good guys’ army is being massacred, but they never seem to run out of soldiers.  In the end, it’s just one of those movies, one of the worst things a movie can be.  

NO, THE GATEKEEPERS



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The movie No takes place in Chile in 1988 when the country’s president, Augusto Pinochet, has been forced by international pressure to hold a referendum on whether he should hold free elections.  His solution to keeping his seat of power is to give both his side and his opponents fifteen minutes a night, and no more, as a period of time in which to make their case (and Pinochet, as the reigning government, would basically then also have the rest of the day to indirectly make his case—like American politicians when they run for office even when they are “not running for office”).  In response, the other side convinces the top ad man of Chile, Rene Saavedra, to run their campaign.
The basic conceit of the story, and it’s a good one, is that instead of creating serious ads that deal with the seriousness of the subject seriously, Saavedra decides to sell the referendum the way he sells soda pop—with a jingle and upbeat music, showing lots of attractive people singing and dancing and partying (though Saavedra does seem to have an odd fetish for using mimes in everything he does—but it is the 1980’s).  And thus the campaign for “No” (or actually “No more”, which he cleverly turns it into) is born.
The film is directed and written by Pedro Peirano (who also directed the cult favorite Tony Manero about a serial killer obsessed with the lead character from Saturday Night Fever) from a play by Antonio Skarmeta.  Peirano’s stylistic approach is to shoot the movie digitally with a washed out brown patina that makes it look like those ancient home movies your relatives would make you watch every holiday. 
I’m not sure why this approach was chosen.  It doesn’t give the story a nostalgic feel (like the black and white photography of The Last Picture Show).  It doesn’t give the movie a new wave neo realism feel (like The Bicycle Thief).  All it does is give it a feel of Mad Men meets mumblecore, with all the enervative energy that latter aesthetic movement provides.
The most interesting and dramatically compelling moments in the film are when the characters debate the approach that Saavedra wants to use; whether they want to treat the campaign with all the gravity it deserves, or whether they want to win.  And Saavedra and his supporters have a point.  You don’t sell beer by convincing people how good it tastes or any facts about the product, you sell it by showing tons of sexy people partying while drinking it.  And Saavedra’s commercials are great; they made me want to vote “No”.  But so little of the movie seems focused on this aesthetic conflict, the movie sort of feels like it’s kind of meandering.
Gael Garcia Bernal plays the lead.  He’s not that effective, but I don’t think it’s his fault.  He doesn’t really seem to have much of a character to play.  His adman is almost as dull as the brown patina suffocating him.  He’s certainly no Don Draper.  Which may be the real problem here.  In the end, maybe the movie should have listened to its central idea and used a bit more of Sterling Cooper.
The Gatekeepers, the new documentary directed by Dror Moreh, is basically a series of talking head interviews with all the surviving former leaders of the Shin Bet, the Israeli security agency.  It’s a worthy film on an important subject with the most revelatory aspect of the film, at least to me, being that all the interviewees seem to come to the same conclusion: that the troubles that exist between Palestine and Israel today are the direct result of Israel not upholding the Oslo accords while allowing Israeli’s to move onto Palestinian land.  I was quite shocked at hearing this (not at the factuality of what they said so much as that these men would actually admit to it) and am a little surprised that this part of the film hasn’t received more attention. 
But though the subject matter is important and in many ways fascinating, I have to be honest and say that I did find my mind wandering more than I would have liked.  It’s not that it’s boring.  It’s not exactly.  But there are times when it did feel like I was attending a series of history lectures at college.  Like the professors, the talking heads get the job done and are sometimes riveting, but in that hit and miss way that’s not much more exciting than attending classes.