Cosmopolis is a “where to begin” film…where to begin…yes, where to begin.  Well, I suppose that in the end all one can do is be as honest as possible and say, as much as it saddens me since it was written and directed by idiosyncratic and ambitious filmmaker David Cronenberg, that Cosmopolis is…terrible, just terrible, a misfire from beginning to end, with almost no redeeming value whatsoever.   At the same time, I could never take my eyes off the screen.  Was it because I was hoping that it would all turn into something, anything?  Was it because I was watching a train wreck in slow motion?  Was it because I was in shock over the idea that so much talent had been put to use for a movie that was so obviously not working and no one seems to know it?  I don’t know.  But I just couldn’t look away.

The story revolves around twenty-eight year old billionaire Eric Packer who decides to take his state of the art limo (if state of the art means a vehicle normally used in futuristic sci-fi films) to get a haircut, an Odyssey like journey made more difficult by the city being confronted by Occupy Wall Street demonstrations and a visit from the president.   The movie probably gets off to a weak start by leaving out a key event, an opening scene where the audience is informed that Packer is hemorrhaging all his money, a scene which would give context to almost all of his actions, especially his primary one of wanting to get a short back and sides (rather, we have to read between the lines to get this, rarely the best choice in a screenplay).   Instead, we are told there may be a threat on Packer’s life, something that gives the story no context at all.  

At the same time, it’s doubtful that such a scene would have ultimately helped much since the movie is mostly a series of pax de deuxs in which people have intellectual conversations in highly stylized language that makes anything anyone says sounds like they’re speaking Klingon.   The rest of it revolves around Packer having sex (with an art dealer fuck buddy; one of his body guards; and his doctor who gives him a prostrate exam that nearly gives him an orgasm).  Oh, yes, he also occasionally runs into his wife where he spends time asking her when they are going to have sex again.  And the majority of it happens in the back of his four wheeled penteconter which crawls at such a snail’s pace, it looks like it’s going backwards at times (Ulysses got home in less time than it takes Packer to get to his barbershop). 

My hats are off to all of the actors—well, most of them.  Filled with such stellar performers as Juliette Binoche, Samantha Morton and Paul Giamatti, they’re so devoted to their characters, they actually had me convinced at times they new what their lines meant, though I still question whether they did.

But then there’s Robert Pattinson, who plays the callow Packer.  Where to begin.  Yes, where to begin.  First, in full disclosure, I have never been able to get through a Twilight film.  I even consider it one of those movies whose damage is far greater than anyone suspects.  Because of the franchise’s success, we are going to be burdened with film after film in which the leads are given to Pattinson and Kristen Stewart, who just don’t have the heft or ability to carry them off (I call it the Love Story curse).   Pattinson mumbles through most of his lines (it worked for Marlon Brando, but not so much here), never once convincing in his role.  Though it’s easy to understand why he was cast as a vampire in those other films (every time you look at his mouth, you swear he has fangs for teeth), his casting here may be a bit more puzzling.

In the end, the best performance is given by the limo Packer rides in.  It’s a sleek black number (at least on the inside—so slimming, you know), with a leather throne, couch, computers, television, fully stocked and fully lit bars, and a urinal.  It slowly gets covered by graffiti and dented up along the way, which means it also has the most fully developed character arc as well.

ART ISN’T EASY: Reviews of Crazy Heart and The Last Station

The last two reviews of the 2009 year. I will start 2010 with a review of 3 Idiots.

The first part of Crazy Heart, a movie about a broken down, down on his luck, alcoholic country western singer is exhilarating. Jeff Bridges is impressive in the part of Bad Blake and the scenes of people singing their hearts out to country western tunes shows just why this type of music connects deeply with its fans. The first part of the film reaches quite an impressive climax with the appearance of Colin Farrell as Tommy Sweet, a former backup singer to Bad Blake, but now an even bigger star on his own. Tommy is still so in awe of Blake and realizes just how much he owes this man, he can’t even look him in the face when they spend time together. They have an exhilarating duet when Tommy joins Blake on stage during one of his numbers, perhaps in an attempt to show Blake that he can help his former mentor if Blake would just let him. But Blake is stubborn and refuses to write any new songs; that is, until Maggie Gyllenhaal makes her appearance as Jean, a newspaper reporter who interviews Blake. At this point, formula completely takes over and there’s not an unpredictable moment left in the story, written by the director, Scott Cooper. Even Jean never really comes alive as a real person. She’s just the typical female character one usually sees in this sort of film, not there because she would be, but there because the author needs her to be. She has one unintentionally funny scene where Blake loses Jean’s four year old son in a mall and she shows up furious at him; all I could think of was Claude Rains in Casablanca (“I’m shocked, shocked that an alcoholic, broken down, dysfunctional singer would lose my son”). The movie is buoyed by some fun scenes between Blake and his agent where the agent takes all the anger and nastiness Blake gives him, but is willing to allow it (up to a point) because Blake is, well, Blake. But all in all, this is a movie that has its moments with some fantastic music, but is told in a way that is too overly familiar to really grab me like I would want it to.

The Last Station is about the last days of the great writer Leo Tolstoy (played in appropriately grand style by Christopher Plummer) and the fight over his memory and inheritance between his wife, Sofya, played like a character from a Euripedean tragedy by Helen Mirren (as Tolstoy says, “she needs a Greek chorus”), and Chertkov, the head of the Tolstoy movement, played by Paul Giamatti, who from an acting standpoint, seems to be more than up to the fight. Caught between the two factions is Vladimir Bulgakov, an aspiring writer and devoted Tolstoyian (he’s even a virgin) who is sent to spy on the Tolstoy’s by Chertkov, but becomes sympathetic to Sofya’s point of view. Bulgakov, though well played by James McAvoy (and the part is better suited to him since he’s a much better character actor than romantic lead), is never quite convincing. He is more of a device of the writer Michael Hoffman (who also directed) and the efforts Hoffman goes to in order to keep him front and center to the conflict at times seem a little forced. The conflict between Sofya and Chertkov is mainly defined in the movie in sexual terms—whether one should have it or not. The more political aspects of Tolstoy’s religion and philosophy (ideas that influenced Martin Luther King and Ghandi) are given little more than lip service. Because of this, the fight seems too one sided; today, it’s hard to sympathize with anyone who wants people to be celibate. As a result, the battle, though glorious at times, is not as strong as one might wish it to be. What gives the conflict the strength it does is the acting. Everyone more than rises to the occasion and delivers. Mirren is wonderfully sexy and passionate. Sofya is willing to humiliate herself to win and Mirren is able to make us not dislike Sofya for doing so. Plummer disappears behind Tolstoy’s beard and finds the down to earth humanity of the iconic writer. The smaller cast gives able support. It all looks great and at times it’s a lot of fun.

I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP, YOU KNOW–reviews of Taxidermia, Thirst and Cold Souls

I have gotten so behind on my blog, but I have a ton of good reasons and I’m sure I can come up with a few more if these don’t satisfy. I spent seven days in jury duty (and then this week got another notice for jury service which I didn’t think was funny one bit). After that I needed to earn a living and do coverage work and then I needed to do some work on a screenplay I’m writing with a writing partner. I’ll also blame the hot weather.

So, I’m going to concentrate on catching up on my movie reviews starting with these three fascinating oddities that I’m grouping under a title that is a homage to Anna Russell’s satiric summary of Wagner’s The Ring Cycle: “I am not making this up, you know”. All three are examples of the kind of movie I tend to look forward to, the ones that I’m eager to see while everyone else is talking about the next Batman and Transformer movie. These are smaller, more personal films, all audacious and often foolhardy, made by artists who have a vision; something that feels left out of U.S. films lately, possibly because such a trait is often ground down by film school and books on screenwriting.

Taxidermia is best summed up by the plot: a lowly and incredibly thin soldier who can shoot fire out of his penis has sex with his commanding officer’s heavyset wife; their very overweight son becomes a major competitor in the Olympic sport of speed eating (that’s okay, I never heard of it either); but the son’s son then regresses to being ultra thin like his grandfather (and therefore a disappointment to his father) and spends his time in taxidermy and taking care of his father who is so grotesquely overweight he can’t leave his basement apartment (the movie is sort an after, before, then after ad for a weight loss clinic). Fascinating for awhile on its own terms of utter weirdness, but from a story telling point of view, it feels like a number of scenes were left out between the second and third generation to explain what happened to that relationship. It’s written by Gyorgy Palfi (who also directed and who has gotten a slew of awards and nominations for this and his movie Hukkle) and Zsofia Ruttkay based on some short stories by Lajos Parti Nagy. It’s reminiscent of such movies as Delicatessen, Eraserhead and films by Peter Greenaway, best summed up with the phrase “for those who like this sort of film, it’s just the sort of film they’ll like”. I can’t say I liked it, though; but it certainly held my attention.

Thirst: if someone can write the book Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, then I don’t see why someone can’t make the movie Theresa Raquin and Vampires, which is what this South Korean movie is. Theresa Raquin is a 19th century novel by Emile Zola about the wages of sin being death; Thirst takes that idea a step further by turning Raquin’s central character, a bourgeoisie roué, into a devout Catholic priest. In this vampire version, a priest, because of his faith, undergoes an experimental treatment for a disease and ends up craving blood. He has an affair with a married woman and together they drown her dull and bland husband, but are haunted by their crime. It’s exciting, unapologetic, violent and at times ridiculously so over the top it reaches camp (though how does one do a vampire Theresa Raquin without some camp sneaking in). It was written by Seo-Gyeong Jeong (who also wrote a movie called I’m a Cyborg, But That’s Okay) and Chan-wook Park, who also directed and is known over here for the soon to be remade in the U.S. Old Boy.

Cold Souls, written and directed by Sophie Barthes, is one of those movies one describes as intriguing, which is fine with me, though I know a lot of people who consider that the kiss of death (like describing a script as existential to a Hollywood executive). It’s a very clever European type of movie (though its inspiration is Russian writers like Gorky, Chekhov and Dostoevsky) in which an actor named Paul Giamatti played by Paul Giamatti (I know, I know, type casting; but wouldn’t it have been hysterical if he hadn’t got the part and Philip Seymour Hoffman had been cast instead) can’t find the soul of Uncle Vanya, the character he is playing in the Anton Chekhov play of the same name, so he has his soul removed and substituted with that of a Russian poet (by way of a business headed by David Strathairn that seems straight out of a Charlie Kaufman movie). Giamatti finds the soul of Vanya, but loses his own. When he wants his back, he finds it’s been sold on the black market and he has to go to Russia to retrieve it. Ridiculous and absurd, yes, but also ultimately moving and insightful into the human condition (yes, it’s one of those movies; so deal with it).