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

THE EVIL THAT MEN DO: Reviews of Animal Kingdom, The American and Mesrine, Part II: Public Enemy No. 1


Not long after seeing Animal Kingdom I was watching White Heat, the classic James Cagney film of 1949, the one where he is quoted as saying ‘[t]op of the word, ma” when he really says, “Made it, Ma. Top of the world”. Margaret Wycherly plays Ma, one of the great gangster villainesses in American cinema (for my friends who have no idea what I’m talking about, White Heat and Wycherly were both satirized in the third Naked Gun movie). But it’s doubtful that Wycherly holds a candle to Jacki Weaver as Janine Cody, the loving mother and grandmother who would regretfully, but very calmly and with all determination, have her grandson murdered if it meant preventing one of her sons from going to jail. The only scenes more chilling than that are the ones where she kisses her sons full on the lips a bit too deliberately, and then wipes them off, as if that would actually make the incestuous implication go away. It’s a fascinating study of pure evil, or actually the banality of evil, and Weaver plays it for all it’s worth.

The movie has a darkly comic opening in which Jacki’s grandson Joshua Cody, played by newcomer James Frecheville, watches a game show while he sits beside a woman who has passed out, or so it seems. It’s not long before some EMT’s arrive and it turns out that the woman is his mother and has actually OD’d, with Joshua able to answer all the EMT’s questions with the sort of detailed answers about a mother a teenager shouldn’t have to know. And to top it all off, as the EMT’s take his mother away, Joshua finds it almost impossible to stop watching the game show on TV. The rest of the movie is equally funny and depressing in the same doses. Joshua is picked up by his grandmother Janine and taken to live with his uncles, a group of bank thieves that are high on the list of a special police section who have taken to just killing their perps when they get frustrated at not being able to convict them the old fashion way. The family members themselves are the sort Ma Barker would have loved: a drug addict; a sociopath who has the hots for underaged girls; a third who starts falling apart the minute he ends up in jail; you know—Mama’s boys all. Joshua has no choice but to get in over his head until he has to take control in a final scene that is as devastating as it is surprising and makes a perfect bookend to the opening.

Animal Kingdom is one of the best movies of the year. The ensemble cast is first rate (though Guy Pearce seems to be around for no other reason than that he’s Guy Pearce and he’s from Australia). It’s one of those where no one is likeable, but everybody is fascinating. The script, by the director David Michod, is sharp and mesmerizing and the story coagulates with tension. One could question a late scene in which Joshua decides not to turn in a corrupt cop, but take matters into his own hands (he doesn’t really seem to have the brains, but maybe the family genes are finally kicking in). But that’s the sort of objection that makes my friends annoyed with me, so I’m not sure I’d worry too much about it.

I found The American both incredibly fascinating and incredibly boring at the same time; an odd response, perhaps, but apparently when I tell my friends that, many of them are in full agreement. The fascination comes from the strong, but intensely quiet, so quiet it sounds like a foghorn, mood created by the director Anton Corbijn, who also made the wonderful movie Control about singer Ian Curtis of Joy Division. The American proves that Corbijn can work equally well in color and black and white. The fascination is also helped by the setting, a smallish Italian town built on a hill that is full of twisting and turning streets, odd thoroughfares and more than enough dark corners to please any director of film noir. Much of the film does little more than follow lead George Clooney as Jack/Edward, a paid assassin, as he wanders the streets waiting for his fate to meet him at any moment around the next corner. There’s one incredible shot of the city from above showing a town that looks like one of those mazes that mice are put into when they are experimented upon. Not long ago, I got into Italian giallo films and one thing that struck me is that they all had these incredible settings that were characters in and of themselves, as if the location was found first and then a story was spun around it spiderlike. I’m not so sure that the same thing didn’t happen here.

The reason I found it incredibly boring is that I knew exactly what was going to happen ages before it happened. The screenplay by Rowan Jaffe has almost no plot turn that isn’t a cliché and no twist that hasn’t been telegraphed by Western Union, with only one jolting moment at the end that took me by surprise. The plot follows Clooney as he is ambushed while taking some time off from killing people. He flees to Rome while his boss tries to find out who is responsible for what happened. He is given an assignment (one of those last assignments that one only sees in movies), to help a beautiful young assassin by making a weapon for her that she is to use on her next gig. Now, if you can’t tell what happens from those three sentences, you have no one to blame but yourself. The whole spy versus spy conflict is straight out of the John Le Carre and Graham Greene school of burnt out secret agent men. In fact, one conversation Clooney has with a prostitute in which he tells her she doesn’t need to fake an orgasm is quite close to a conversation that Richard Gere gives a prostitute in the movie The Honorary Counsel, based on a Greene novel, down to the prostitute claiming she isn’t faking an orgasm, she really feels it (which in the world of Greene means that a woman is in love; Greene always had a touch of chauvinism about him).

One could also have doubts about the world view inherent in this story. It’s a world in which a mysterious organization that is never identified gets away with murder on a regular basis. No one knows who they are and none of them are ever caught. The police are no more than a siren heard in the background. In other words, it’s one of those paranoid government fantasies that one only sees in movies like Enemy of the State and Shooter, in which some black ops organization has omnipotent power, but still can’t keep the liberals out of office. It may work dramatically, but it’s a little hard to take it seriously, especially in a country that couldn’t kill Castro when it wanted.

But Jaffe is trying to do more than make a thriller. He also wants to explore the nature of redemption of the existence of God in a world that seems cold and heartless, and I’m all for that. Clooney is rather good at these moody blues introspective roles and his worn out good looks help carry things along. It ends with Clooney’s death, but with his soul, symbolized by a butterfly, wafting up to heaven. I have to be honest and say though I like the idea, I’m not convinced that Clooney’s character earned his salvation or his place above. He promises the prostitute to take her away with him, but surely that’s not quite equal to all the dead bodies he’s left in his path.

Mesrine, Part II: Public Enemy #1 is even better than Mesrine, Part I: Killer Instinct. To recap, Vincent Cassel plays Jacques Mesrine, the John Dillinger of France whose career of crime lasted into the 1960’s and like Dillinger, he managed to get a reputation of being a Robin Hood without ever giving to the poor. Again, Mesrine is all Cassel, a sociopath with delusions of romance, and who was famous for being charming. And Cassel is even more charming in this installment, in spite of the fact that he is forty pounds heavier, sometimes shaves part of his head to disguise himself and has a ridiculous sideburn/mustache/beard combo (though in his defense, so did everybody in those days). It also has some of the first part’s faults, like a plot that doesn’t seem to think it needs to set up characters or situations as it jumps and weaves from episode to episode with a certain anarchic structure. It does falter a bit toward the end as the chase scenes get a tad redundant and Mesrine tries to justify his sociopathology by claiming to be a revolutionary who only targets banks in order to bring the government down (and I have the deed to the Brooklyn Bridge in my pocket); there are actually times when you think the film’s creators (director Jean-Francois Richet, writers Abdel Raouf Dafri and Richet, and Cassel himself whose baby this is) might actually be buying it. The supporting case is fine, though none can equal Cassel’s bulldozing performance like Gerard Depardieu did in the first part. Even Mathieu Amalric, one of my favorite French actors, gets left behind in Cassel’s wake.

NEW BLOOD AND PLENTY OF IT: Review of Mesrine: Part I, Killer Instinct


Jacques Mesrine is the French John Dillinger, a larger than life criminal who got a reputation as a Robin Hood without, like Dillinger, ever giving anything to the poor. He’s played in Mesrine, Part I: Killer Instinct, by the exciting French actor Vincent Cassel, son of French movie star Jean-Pierre Cassel. Cassel pers is more known for his appearances in the cinema that grew out of the French new wave, a studied and careful style of movie making influenced by the Hollywood studio system and directors like Hitchcock, Huston and Ford. As Cassel fils said in a Q&A at an interview of a sneak preview of Mesrine at the American Cinemateque, he and others of his generation had to find their own voice because their father’s way of making movies wasn’t doing it for them anymore. This resulted in movies still influenced by America, but now by Scorcese and Coppola (and the wheel comes full turn). In France, the movement has been termed “new blood”, partially, probably, because there is a lot more of that liquid on the screen. This also meant that Cassel fils had to find his own voice as well, and unlike his father who made films like Army of Shadows, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and Murder on the Orient Express. Vincent is known for playing thugs and dangerous characters in movies like Eastern Promises, Irreversible and The Crimson Rivers.

And Mesrine is all Cassel. Apparently it’s his baby, a vanity project that he’s been working on for many years, and he is mesmerizing in the role. Mesrine was one of those people who had charm. He could insult your ethnic background and wear his racism on his sleeve, but he had charm. He could beat up women, but he had charm. He could kill people with the cool, clear collectiveness of a sociopath, but he had charm. He apparently also gave great headlines and knew how to talk to the press. Cassel said his biggest challenge was in charming the audience and making Mesrine interesting in spite of his viciousness. And Cassel succeeds. No matter what the faults of the movie may be, one is fascinated by this character and much of this is due to Cassel’s riveting and, well, charming performance.

Cassel said that he thought that one of the reasons why Mesrine is attractive to an audience is that he was someone who would say “no” to people, to the authorities, something that all of us would love to be able to do, but almost never have the courage to try. I think that’s true, but I also agree with my friend Beriau who saw the movie with me. He thinks that Mesrine is attractive because he was willing to make the romantic gesture, no matter the odds. He breaks out of prison and promises to return to help the others escape, an absolutely ridiculous idea doomed to failure (and the result is tragic), but he made the promise and he does it. He calls his girlfriend in prison and vows to break her out and she tries to convince him not to, that she doesn’t have that much time left to serve. But no, the romantic gesture demands he try. So in turn, she has to make the equally romantic gesture back and save his life by telling his that their relationship is over and she doesn’t want to see him again. He’s a sociopathic Don Quixote and Cyrano de Bergerac combined. He’s the epitome of European existentialism; the result is irrelevant, it’s the attempt, it’s the striving to be your authentic self that is important.

The weakest part of the movie is the screenplay itself, written by Abdel Raouf Dafri and Jean-Francois Richet, who also directed, from a book by Mesrine himself. The first part depends especially on a politically history of France that may be familiar to citizens of that country, but puzzling to those on these shores. It also tries to blame Mesrine’s sociopathology on his experiences in the Algerian war in a scene straight out of something that might have happened at Abu Ghraib; it feels oversimplified, though. One gets the feeling that Mesrine would have turned out to be a vicious, misogynistic, bigoted murder with little respect for human life even if he had been joined the Peace Corp. The story also feels a bit sketchy at times; the plot jumps from place to place and over periods of time without always letting the audience in on what’s going on (exactly who was that guy was who owned the Parisian casino that Mesrine and his girlfriend Jeanne robbed; who the hell knows; after awhile, it becomes who the hell cares). At the same time, it’s so skillfully put together and moves at such an exciting speed, that you end up not caring. At the interview, Cassel mentioned that people claimed that the editing felt very American, but he didn’t see it. I did. There was one scene of a car being blown up whose effect was extended by showing it happening again and again from different angles, and the attempted rescue from the prison is riddled not just with bullets, but myriad camera angles, giving it a very homegrown feeling. Add to that the thumping, hypnotic music score Eloi Painchaud and you got a pretty swell movie.