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24 January 2013 @ 12:44 am
The last thing I was told about this movie was to spare myself and not watch it. I took this with a pinch of salt large enough it fit my hand--after all, this is the work of David Fincher, operating on a script from David Koepp. And yes, Koepp wrote the clumsy script for The Lost World, but he also wrote the one for the original Jurassic Park and wrote and directed an adaptation of Richard Matheson's A Stir of Echoes. I'm actually not sure what it says one way or the other, but the previews included on the DVD are for Taxi Driver, Close Encounters, Midnight Express, Lawrence of Arabia, and Dr. Strangelove. I've got to say--what a weird set of movies to pair this with--though good ones.

Meg Altman (Jodie Foster) and her daughter Sarah (Kristen Stewart) are looking for a new home in the midst of Meg's divorce from her husband Stephen (Patrick Bauchau). They are introduced to a four floor home in Manhattan with hardwood floors, multiple bedrooms and bathrooms, a working elevator, and even a yard--certainly a rarity in Manhattan. Of course, it also has a panic room: multiple inches of steel surround the entire room, which has its own ventilation, monitors linked to cameras throughout the house, its own land phoneline, and an automated steel door that uses hydraulics and motion sensors for security in rapid closure as well as protection from closing when it oughtn't. As they settle in for their first night, a man begins to peruse the front windows and door of the home, checking each and every door and window until settling on an entrance in the roof. He comes in down a ladder there, and begins to move through the house. When he finds Sarah sleeping, there's shock on his face. He moves more quietly, and begins to check each room as he goes, and later finds Meg. After this, he moves back to the door we first saw him at, and he lets in two more men: Junior (Jared Leto) and Raoul (Dwight Yoakam). They argue quietly but angry about the fact that there are people present, with the first man, Burnham (Forest Whitaker) insisting that they cancel their plans, but being talked down by Junior--who has brought Raoul without telling Burnham. The promise of $3 million keeps them interested, but the chance witnessing of their presence on the safe room monitors leads Meg to run for Sarah and bring her into the safe room. Unfortunately, the money the men are after is in that safe room, and they have to figure out now how to get the Altmans out.

In the pantheon of respected directors, Fincher is closest to Kubrick, if anything--though he very definitely covers a different kind of territory. Both, though, treat (or, in Kubrick's case, treated) film as a craft. There's rarely any moment in the works of either that feels overly spontaneous or unplanned. It's a kind of art that resembles bland construction in description, but in practice tends to be breathtaking visually: it's not about the fact that the visuals are accurate or clean, it's that they all work in the correct order and spaces. It's the beauty of expert clockwork instead of emotive sculpting. It's a method, and it's the kind that is tight and suspends disbelief if you aren't paying attention, but approaches jaw-dropping when carefully examined. There are some absolutely amazing shots throughout the movie, but none go to the trouble to announce themselves or insist on acknowledgment of their presence. The house is believably placed in Manhattan, but is actually a complicated, fully constructed set. It has the aged feeling of an established building, but the freedom of a constructed set. This isn't one of those movies where "the house is a character", but there's a certain feeling it promotes in spite of that. Space is the order of the day in all moments outside the panic room, space above and around everything--and the feeling of a kind of cold, alien age to the house that keeps it very separate from the family that has only just moved into it. It's helped, of course, by the fact that their recent move means they have not yet fully unpacked and decorated it. A lot of the motion shots imply a passive, impartial observer--unnoticed, yet still almost an sentient entity. It knows what's going on but has no investment in it whatsoever: when Burnham walks to Meg's room and into the doorway, the camera turns to frame him just behind Meg's head, unnoticed and never a focal point. It is actually the "character" that shows us Meg going to sleep and moves into Burnham's original entrance into the house.

One of the most interesting factors is that the attitudes of both the men breaking in and the women in the panic room leave us without any particular feeling of threat--there's a real menace in Howard Shore's score, a serious darkness, but Junior's goofy cornrows (which, knowing Leto's way of dealing with his appearance and hair, especially as vocalist for Thirty Seconds to Mars, where a movie doesn't require him to look any certain way, might have been his idea) and the interactions of the three men leave us not overly concerned for the actual safety of Meg and Sarah. Burnham is insistent that no one be harmed, Junior is a terrible criminal who makes assumptions and is determined to prove his control. Raoul is a mystery, but comes off as someone trying harder to be a badass than his history might actually bear out. Meg and Sarah have a moment when they decide to use the intercom to scare the men off that keeps us similarly relaxed. But when an idea to force them out of the panic room begins to go wrong, Raoul becomes something less of a question mark, and things rapidly slide into actual tension, concern, and fear. The shift of control and power, the continued goofs of Junior and the visible compassion of Burnham.

This isn't an utterly unique plot, but few things are. You're certainly left thinking of Wait Until Dark if you've ever seen it, but this is a quality set of actors we're working with all around--Whitaker is a personal favourite, Jared carries a strong history as well as the charisma that lets him front a band--interestingly shared by solo country artist Yoakam, Foster has no need to defend or explain her credibility, and Stewart turns in a solid performance as the vaguely conflicted, slightly sullen, but otherwise reasonable teenaged girl. There's no stretch into absolute clichés, even if the compassionate criminal is not an overly new idea either. The end result is, as is usually the case (always, in my current experience) with Fincher, a tight and engaging film. It's not the best movie, nor is it his best--probably not near the top at all. Still, it comes together exactly as you can only imagine it was intended to, being a thriller based heavily on suspense. There was one moment featuring Andrew Kevin Walker (author of the Se7en screenplay) in a cameo that was relatively predictable--but, in a sense, this wasn't surprising, as it relied on something that you would not as readily expect from the average person, even if some of the characters do--or at least hope for it.
22 January 2013 @ 10:44 pm
The first thought everyone levels at this movie is the one you'd expect from most synopses, the tagline, the cover art--most things: "Suburbia is a joke." The idea has been covered many times before (most notably, perhaps, in American Beauty), but that's true of most thoughts and ideas in film (or music, television, books...). It's used, like many simplistic arguments, as a way of completely depriving a work of any kind of value, without bothering to first experience it. I'm not going to confidently assert that I haven't been guilty of the same. I probably have, in fact. But, when it does occur, I do my best to try to see and justify how this is a specific and actual failure, showing or explaining why it is that the work brings us nothing new or useful or interesting. It doesn't help anything that, like many movies that address this topic, this is black comedy and at least half-satirical. That works against it in two ways, of course: one, the fact that it's familiar, and two, the fact that it's something that doesn't always work for everyone.

In a small suburban town, the high school is supplied with drugs by Troy Johnson (Joshua Janowicz), who passes them to Billy (Justin Chatwin), Lee (Lou Taylor Pucci), and Crystal (Camilla Belle) to distribute directly. When Dean (Jamie Bell) goes to see Troy one day, he is asked by Troy's mother (Glenn Close) to have Troy turn down his stereo. Dean finds, then, that Troy has hanged himself. When Dean fails to notify anyone else as he backs away and leaves, his parents (William Fichtner and Allison Janney) are unsure what to do with him. Billy and Lee are unsure what to do with their business without a supplier, and their paths begin to cross when their plan to force the assistance of Dean in acquiring whatever remained of Troy's stash goes awry. Eventually, they've embroiled the unwitting involvement of Officer Lou Bratley (John Heard), his ex-wife Terri (Rita Wilson), their son Charlie (Thomas Curtis), her new fiance Mayor Michael Ebbs (Ralph Fiennes), Lee's parents (Jason Isaacs and Caroline Goodall), and Crystal's mother Jerri (Carrie-Anne Moss). Everyone wanders around in their worlds, oblivious to the interactions occuring around them. Dean's father Bill (Fichtner) is devoted to his career as book-writing psychiatrist who has already used his son as subject for previous writing, his wife is devoted to a business selling vitamin supplements and trying to be a family, Lou is lost in the marriage he won't acknowledge the end of, Jerri is trying her best to be her daughter's age, Terri is focused on her upcoming second marriage, Mrs. Johnson is trying to deal with the loss of her son and the absolute lack of attention anyone is paying to her loss, and Ebbs is lost in a spiritual epiphany brought on by Bill's book, The Happy Accident--which is only the start of their interactions.

Director Arie Posin and screenwriter Zac Stanford put together the original idea with each other, and framed it around the central concept of The Chumscrubber, a background fiction that runs throughout the youth of the movie. Dean's younger brother (played by Rory Culkin) and the Bratleys' son Charlie are both seen playing the game based on it, Charlie is seen reading a comic, and more than one of them has a poster for the character hanging in their rooms. The Chumscrubber is from a world that strongly resembles their own suburb, but blown up in a nuclear explosion and left filled with zombies, and he is a teenager himself--but one who woke up without his head attached any longer. But, he took this not as a sign to roll over, but to continue and do what he needs to to survive. I will admit this frame is imperfect, but it's only that it doesn't quite gel and fall into place, not that it feels overly clumsy or forced--the latter being an especially large relief. The shifts between humour and moments of serious tension or emotional understanding are very well executed, as you aren't left disoriented when they occur, instead carried along into each with the proper frame of mind. Of course, the moments of shock and the more sudden laughs are also successful. The inevitable exaggerations and hyperbolic moments of this kind of comedy are noticeably just that, but don't end up crossing the line and ruining the suspension of disbelief so long as you accept the fact that this movie is what it is.

The essential sensibility of the movie is that of failure to connect or interact, visible in everyone and everything, even those attempting to get past those limitations. Bill is beyond narcissistic beyond all reckoning--when he confronts Dean about the death of his best friend, he quickly begins jotting down notes. It begins to lock Dean down in his emotional confusion and pain over the loss of his friend--loss we see on the slow, focused shot that follows him away from Troy's body. Crystal's confused attempts to connect to Dean--which very much mirror Bill's--also force him further away from everyone else. Both of them seem to be legitimately interested in Dean's well-being, but both are poor at hiding their secondary (or, more likely: primary) motivations from him. And we see every character constantly passing by Dean, and Dean passing them, no one noticing. Terri is so invested in her wedding she can't keep track of her own son, or even the man she's planning to marry. Bill fails as a father in his interest in his career. Jerri is lost in trying to be the better teenaged girl than her daughter. Billy is lost in trying to be different from his father. None of them finds the places where those motivations are parts of the lives of others. Dean has long since learned that having no friends is the best approach--not because he's not interested in others, but because he's been betrayed like we see he was by his father, even though he's still trying and willing, for a moment, to think maybe a connection is possible. But these two betrayals renew his decision to avoid connections to others, even as Crystal circles him and they both try to read each other and understand, catching glimmers of truth and flashes of acting.

The movie is like a lot of first time features: Arie and Zac have had their whole lives to put together a script and the ideas for the movie to come from it. They've worked the Chumscrubber in everywhere, even if it's not perfect, it manages to feel natural--and you start to realize it's actually more ubiquitous than you noticed previously. And there are moments where you realize just how interconnected all of these characters are, even though none of them ever realize: other than Dean. It's somewhat ironic, of course: the most emotionally shutdown is the one most aware of others. It's also a neat trick of Stanford's script and Bell's acting that he gains the sympathy of the viewer. There are a number of clever shots--from the one following Dean from Troy's body to others than manage to invert expectations and live by reactions instead of showing us what they are reacting to. There's a moment with Billy that you think will go in a certain direction, and it goes that way--but it stops short. We see how Crystal and Lee react to it, and the point is made. There's a sense, for some viewers, that we're denied the "pay-off" or the confirmation of our expectation--but, truth be told, it's readily apparent. There's no question as to what happens, and it draws your attention to the fact that the important element here is the characters, not the plot itself. The first moment, without a doubt, is where Ralph Fiennes begins his enlightenment. We do see what he is beginning to piece together, but we see it first in his face, and focus on it longer than is usual.

This is a wonderfully quirky movie, but a lot darker and more dramatic than that word might accurately imply. Still, it's worthwhile, if nothing else for the interesting choice to have a huge cast in the parents, and smaller stars for the teens--of course, that follows logically in a sense: an older actor is more likely to have more experience anyway. Still, it means that the teens all look less like stars jammed into roles and more like the characters they're playing.
08 November 2011 @ 11:53 pm
There are two overriding passions in my life: music and movies. Of late, the former has taken precedent over the latter. I'm not even entirely sure this review will come to anything; the thought has been less than motivating of late. Still, the thing that often drives me is the conflict surrounding a film. Not controversy necessarily, as it tends to relate more to how a conflict exists in film interpretation or reflection. Here, that comes in with the idea of a biopic so convoluted in its aim. It's not a movie about an enormous figure that we all see regularly who speaks to us via interviews on talkshows and performance in movies or recorded music or in government. Sure, Mark Zuckerberg is in the periphery for most or many in that Facebook is and his name is closely tied to it. But it's not a face and personality and idea that we identify so clearly. There are other instances of this, but let's lay the basic groundwork here first.

Opening to find future Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) speaking to a girl, Erica Albright (Rooney Mara), and going down in flames. Going home angry, the idea of degrading women in general passes between Mark and a roommate, and he manages to destroy Harvard's network with a brand new website. This snowballs into the interest of the Winklevoss twins, Cameron and Tyler (Armie Hammer for both), who have been working with Divya Narendra (Max Minghella) to create the Harvard Connection, another iteration of internet socialization that gains primarily from its exclusivity. Mark takes the idea and brings it back to his friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) and they run with it. They quickly bring up The Facebook, and begin to take the world by storm, eventually flashing forward to Zuckerberg being sued by both Saverin and the Winklevoss twins as the story of the website unfolds, in its effects on these people, and the people who wander in from outside--like Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), alleged co-founder of Napster, who brings flash and world-changing, big picture ideas to the whole thing.

There are, of course, people who circled the film, sniffed it and turned their nose up as they walked away because the film does not represent the real Mark Zuckerberg, Saverin or Parker. Zuckerberg in particular is naturally singled out as the lead character in the film and the most public of all of these figures. Hell, I heard Sean Parker and thought, "Huh? I thought it was Sean something else..."¹ So, with even some more familiar public figures attesting to Mark's personality and the positive qualities thereof, it becomes relevant to some that the film is not particularly flattering to Mark. Well, this isn't strictly true. Allegedly² it mis-characterizes his motivations, and changes all kinds of things, but this comes to the heart of all of it. Ask screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, or director David Fincher, even Eisenberg who plays him--that's not the point. The beginning of behind-the-scenes documentary How Did They Make a Movie of Facebook? is composed of cast and crew noting that it's not "about Facebook." Hammer refers to it as "#5 or #6" on the list of points or ideas the movie is about. And it isn't. This is Aaron Sorkin, he of Sports Night and The West Wing, Fincher of Se7en and Fight Club. Both of them, as pedantic, specific and perfectionist as they can be, are about their art. There is basically no chance they will sacrifice story or art for 'truth' or 'accuracy.' It's not the object for them, and it's not really the object for viewers--unless we're looking at a documentary.³

As entertainment the film is unsurprisingly brilliant. Of course it's not really about the invention of Facebook as a website, it's about the people around it and the ideas of it, and the contrast in the nature of socialization in the world before it and after it, the way it affected the world, the rules, values and injustices of exclusive social circles and systems. It's about isolation, oddly, in particular for Zuckerberg. It's about never learning the social mores, about not understanding the rights and the wrongs of most interactions until seen in hindsight, or misappropriating values from one circle to another, which never works. And Sorkin and Fincher put together a script and film that does all of these things successfully. This isn't a shock from either of them, and Fincher has clearly not lost his most notorious tendencies toward perfectionism: everyone refers to the number of takes for given scenes--often in the high double and near-triple digits. The final effect is fantastic, as he always comes out with movies that feel finely crafted but natural. There is no moment of stilted construction, nor of loose and sloppy film-making. The number of takes manages to bring a familiarity to the actors and an insane level of refinement that simultaneously perfects it.

As one of the formative musical artists of my life, nevermind my aforementioned love of music, it must be noted that Trent Reznor and his frequent collaborator/producer Atticus Ross (who also produced the last album Coheed and Cambria released, which I have to note as they can readily be referred to as my favourite band) produced an Academy Award-winning score for the film. It fits in with Reznor's work for the last two decades, and even easier with the work the two of them have done in the past one. It's a brilliant stroke, which is unsurprising in a Fincher movie, as he almost seemed to single-handedly inform half the public of the existence of the Pixies by either choosing "Where Is My Mind?" as the closer for Fight Club, or at least bringing in the people who chose it. Reznor and Atticus' work has been deeply cynical, dystopian and subtly menacing, and that is exactly what the movie demands. Not because it's humourless, or truly dark and nihilistic, but because of the sense of isolation, the ideas of crumbling relationships and intruding collapse of integrity as Parker brings in the ideas of money and fame and standing over others--"anarchy" in the words of Fincher himself--being the ones behind revolution. Innocence removed, lost or forgotten, trampled in the desire for money and credit and ego. It's carried out but the music makes it clearer, gives us that anticipation and dread the dialogue should not in this context. It's brilliant, and deserving of its award.

The film overall deserves it's accolades, there is no doubt about this. I realize I'm one of the last to see it, but there it is. See it if you would be even more last than me. Make it someone else--and make them get someone else behind them.

¹Shawn Fanning, publicly the equivalent of Mark Zuckerberg if we speak of Napster. To my understanding, anyway.
²I don't know, do I? So, rather than claim that I can either confirm or deny the movie, I leave all of it as alleged for me.
³Debatably, of course. The question rages as to whether the object of documentaries is to be objective or to convey a point of view. Still, people look to those more for the actuality. One hopes more are looking there, at least.
I haven't actually seen many John Woo movies. I own Hard-Boiled, sure, but I've never seen A Better Tomorrow or The Killer or even, as I hoped for a bit while it was in a local theatre, Red Cliff. But this one, being less well-known, I was able to pick up at a serious discount on travels some years ago, and shrugged thinking it must have some kind of redeeming qualities, coming out of the team responsible for so many well-respected movies (I had not, at that point, even picked up or watched Hard-Boiled, so it was as blind a buy, for my personal taste, as could be). The cover art for the Region 1 release is a little out of place, implying a serious action movie filled with gunplay and explosions. It's not explicitly noted that this is a comedy, with simple "code" like "light-hearted" and "mixed with comedy and romance" only just barely alluding to it. Then again, I make it a point to avoid back covers as much as possible, so I was really misled. Or would have been, if I thought cover art was at all representative. I've been known to judge books by their covers (or at least choose whether to read them, most often being drawn in rather than pushed away) but rarely movies. Unless they have an extremely interesting looking monster or creature, but that's neither here nor there in this instance.

Joe (Chow Yun-Fat), Jim (Leslie Cheung) and Cherie (Cherie Cheung)­¹ are three orphans adopted by Chow (Kenneth Tsang) and trained to be thieves. Their current objects of interest are valuable and historic paintings. A crated up Modigliani is their first target, taken only during its transport, in the first of many relatively complicated action scenes. After this acquisition, they take it to its prospective owner, The Frenchman², who wants them to run another job--an extremely profitable attempt to acquire Paul Trouillebert's "Servante du harem," which is also strongly desired by Chow. The Frenchman offers them a substantial sum, but Cherie tries to run interference and mistranslates back to the boys, attempting to discourage the Frenchman and let Jim and Joe believe they are indeed taking up the job. Despite promises to quit, Cherie wants to retire and so Jim starts off to make the theft anyway, though their "Godfather" (Chu Kong) is a policeman who recognizes their good hearts, has also strongly encouraged them to stop. The theft itself is managed quite easily, but the two are caught up in the end and violence ensues, changing how they do things quite thoroughly--in a less light-hearted moment.

I found myself drifting away from this movie at multiple points, perhaps because I was out of practice with watching definitively dubbed movies. By "definitively," I mean that all languages are dubbed, similar to Italian movies in decades past, where all audio is ADR and syncing is not heavily sought after. It's hard to tell if the actors are even speaking Cantonese (the other language track given on the Region 1 release) as there is a slight variance in vocal charater to onscreen character. Of course, it is a Hong Kong movie, so one would think Cantonese was the language of choice, but who knows for certain? No one I can contact, that's for sure. Still, it is a pretty big jump between the two and it made it difficult to concentrate, wondering if I was at least getting a reasonably accurate audio stream to tell me what the intended characters were like, even if subtitles might suffer in accuracy. A nice averaged out medium is often helpful for this, and I had no idea whether I was hearing or reading anything properly. Having the names "Joe" and "Jim" really did not help my impression of the subtitles, as it smacked of laziness in giving the characters anglicized names. In the course of attempting to decipher this, though, I discovered the film is occasionally categorized as "mo lei tau," which is a comedic style most closely associated with Stephen Chow. I have yet to watch his movies, but I always got the impression they were very heavy on comedy. This sort of re-arranged my expectations a bit, though I'd already noticed the movie is heavily oriented in that direction, though it seemed more like a romantic comedy with and action movie jammed into the cracks somehow, which is vaguely disorienting.

The plot is not completely paper thin, but it is still pretty weak and hardly the basis for the movie. It's simplistic heartstring-tugging for all emotional involvement, but it doesn't hold itself as anything more than that. It comes off as a framework to fit in jokes and stunts, a purpose that, in all honesty, it's pretty well suited to. It's fun when it should be, and the action scenes are very Woo, with that hint of reality in amongst the insanely impossible reactions to physics and prescient gunplay from our protagonists (landing and aiming exactly where an enemy happens to be next entering a room, for instance), with bodies that move with the obvious force of physics working against their ridiculously athletic flips and such. A leg that does not maintain a perfect straight line, that sort of thing. It gives it just the right kick of believability alongside everything else to make those scenes that much more exciting.

Overall, it's not a film I am terribly excited about, but there are some gags and stunts that blow the so-so plotting and characters out of the water. Plus, Chow Yun-Fat at the very end is completely worth it.

¹For reasons I looked into but could not find linguistic explanations for, "Joe" is often listed as "Red Bean Pudding" and Cherie as "Red Bean." I'm guessing this is some weird mixed joke where the characters making up their names in Chinese translate as these things but sound acceptable as names despite this. That, or there are actual names there that just translate to this. I have no clue, and not being in on the joke or cultural reference, I'm going to skip doing any more with it than list this information here as a footnote.

²I cannot find any (English) listing for the actor's name, so my apologies to him, but I haven't got a good solution outside of learning Chinese really, reall quickly, which I can't feasibly do (bad at languages anyway) and I am out of contact with the only Chinese speaker I am at all friendly with.
18 July 2011 @ 10:31 pm
"The Box." That was the name of the interrogation room in NBC's Homicide: Life on the Streets. It was featured in an episode entitled "Three Men and Adena," where Detectives Pembleton and Bayliss go after the man they most strongly suspect of the murder of Adena Watson, with a twelve hour time limit, during which they try every tactic they can think of to get a confession. This episode began to circle my head very early on in a movie about an unsolved set of murders of young girls, and two cops insistent that they find an answer and focusing on the man they believe is responsible.

Captain Victor Benezet (Morgan Freeman) is a friend of lawyer Henry Hearst (Gene Hackman), but finds his story of the discovery and report of the second murder victim questionable when it conflicts with the testimony of other interviewees. Before Hearst is to give a speech at a charity fundraiser, Victor calls him in for "ten minutes" of questions. It rapidly becomes apparent that Victor's genial tones are just a tactic to keep Henry somewhat at ease and pull information from him. His wife Chantal (Monica Bellucci) waits for him at the charity event, but Victor eventually lets in the more aggressive Detective Owens (Thomas Jane), who makes no bones about his own suspicions. The two of them circle Hearst, whose shifting story and reluctance to elaborate on his life do him no good in his continued insistence on his innocence.

I was relatively surprised to see this movie as, well, not quite panned, but certainly looked-down-upon as it is. I could feel the theatrical origins (admittedly, it has none, but that doesn't stop me) and learned appreciation earlier for the "bottled" drama. Of course, director Stephen Hopkins does not actually keep everything enclosed. After all the characters are rounded into Victor's office from more spacious locales, he makes brief exits to visualizations of Henry's recollections of his memories. Victor and Owens periodically appear in those memories to ask questions or observe the events he describes, scrutinizing them for missed details or discrepancies. Chantal wanders in to the police station eventually, which expands the environment beyond Victor's office just a bit.

Freeman and Hackman are brilliant and play their roles to the perfect point of believable straightness--there is no guarantee of what Hearst is hiding, nor what Victor truly believes or is holding back to sling at Hearst later. Going in, the movie can be seen easily as either an innocent man being worn down by insistent police or policemen attempting to wear down a guilty suspect who refuses to admit his guilt. All of Hopkins' interesting choices, like rapid cuts to frame, reframe or emphasize an element and play it up, or Victor's appearance in the memories of others never serve to encourage one suspicion or the other, and nothing but the facts, opinions and comments are built in to the audience's perception of Henry. The film itself is neutral, only serving to facilitate these things, biasing itself only to the current speaker and his or her feelings within a memory or comment.

There's a strange amount of discussion for a pretty clear ending, albeit one that is not completely spelled out. The issue of guilt is established clearly by the end, through evidence that few could really argue with. Some have come up with cockamamie plots and secret ideas about how the murders were carried out, but none are borne out by the evidence that is put on display. There is a certain ambiguity to how the primary characters interact at the end, when guilt is clearly laid out, but it's conveyed quite clearly all the same.

This is a solid movie, cleverly put together without treating its peculiar choices as gimmicks to ride on, and with very, very excellent performances from Freeman and Hackman, both men so certain of themselves but taken around and around as the story unfolds.
15 July 2011 @ 11:43 pm
Defiance of expectation. I'd say that's the basis of appreciation of a piece of art, but there's too much to be found in satisfaction of expectation. Still, it's the basis for a kind of appreciation, naturally the more surprising variety, or at least unexpected. All of us go in to movies or music with the expectation that some element tells us exactly what we should expect, or at least gives us a vague idea. Some of us use a knowledge base that informs us based on a director, producer or other behind-the-scenes element. Some go from trailers, actors, themes, hunches from general experience of movie going, history, descriptions from others, comparisons made and any number of other sources. Sometimes it's bang-on reliable--few of us who know the name "Michael Bay" are ever surprised by a film that comes out with his name attached as director. Sometimes this is a pleasing comfort, sometimes a stimulus to avoid the end product like nothing else. I have a general wariness of French directors with reputations and Criterion releases. I've yet to see any Godard or Truffaut, for instance. This brings us to Louis Malle, who...quite honestly I had completely misplaced, in terms of his filmography.

Atlantic City is one of Malle's films made after a move to the United States. Lou (Burt Lancaster) is a washed up old hood in that famed New Jersey gambling town, acting as servant to a woman with more money than he, Grace (Kate Reid), who met Lou and his pal "Cookie" Pinza in the city years ago. That marriage and her subsequent entry into a beauty contest have left her with the feeling that she is, or should be, a pampered princess. Across the way from Lou is Sally (Susan Sarandon), from Saskatchewan, who is attempting to work her way up to a casino dealer. Unfortunately for the both of them--or fortunately, for Lou, who harbors a voyeuristic yearning for Sally--her estranged husband, Dave (Robert Joy) and the woman he ran off with, Chrissie (Hollis McClaren), appear in Atlantic City carrying a stolen pound of cocaine and seeking help from Sally.

I realized in looking through Malle's work that I had no idea what his filmography consisted of. This is ridiculous for a number of reasons, and interesting for a handful more. First, my aversion to French filmmakers stems from an Italian filmmaker. This isn't due to any confusion between the countries or in which names come from which country or anything more than a mental association that developed behind the scenes. Fellini's Satyricon is one of a handful of films I simply could not tolerate. Finding that Pauline Kael hated it makes me feel a little bit better but does not really resolve my embarrassment over the nonsensical associations I made. It's not totally out of bounds--the logic went: Fellini was an arthouse director, a renowned one in circles that appreciate such films; Satyricon is a well-liked work of his; Fellini is associated with Italian Neorealism; Italian Neorealism is seen as part of the impetus behind the French New Wave; Malle is associated with the French New Wave, having made films in the same time frame and using some elements from it. This isn't really an excuse, just symbolic of the mess of my understanding of arthouse film in the 60s and 70s.* Sorting this out has led me toward Malle's other films, a number of which I would really like to see, as well as one that may finally provide the key to a question amongst friends: Jeremy Irons seems to be pretty awesome, but what on earth ever told us this? His filmography is beyond checkered and is not like that of some other respectable actors where it was solid until a certain point.

But I digress. Severely.

There was a point to that digression, though. The point is this: I expected to have a strangely half-intolerably slow or ponderous, possibly very internal or overly symbolic film filtered through well-known American actors, or techniques from such films shoehorned in to a more "normal" one, or some combination thereof. Instead, I got the elements of La Nouvelle Vague in an otherwise recognizable film. At least, my understanding of them. It was a pleasant surprise in this respect.

I am familiar with Burt Lancaster as a square-jawed man's man-type actor, but have seen him in nothing but The Professionals up to this point. His performance is fantastic, sliding into the necessary roles for any given emotional motivation in Lou's character throughout. He shifts whenever he enters Grace's presence, whatever that presence means to him at that time, and when he sees the chance to win over the woman he desires, he transforms, but believably, into a slick and suave man of culture--or at least the kind with money and influence. It feels like a perfect revival of the young Lou that we never actually get a chance to see. A guy who uses money or knows how to use it, saw it used, to achieve goals without necessarily holding the culture that he conveys. When he finally achieves almost everything he can think of, the chance to prove he finally "made it" to all his old friends--he falls into a laughable-in-a-saw-way braggart. It's not obnoxious so much as sad, we can see that this is what he wanted to be for all his life, and no one else particularly cares, but he acts as though they not only should, but do.

Sally is caught up in him and between her past with Dave and his current state. Make no mistake: Dave is, to quote Sally herself, "a shit." There's no real way around it. He uses everyone around him, and manipulates everything he can find, but is also too stupid to realize that his skills are imperfect and do not work on everyone. For Sally, though, it's bouncing between the well-intentioned manipulator and the utterly selfish one, slowly tearing down the miserable existence she has set out for herself, which is not much to be proud of, but is still something compared to what it could be, and moving along the road to what she does want for herself.

What's fascinating about the film and instantly noticeable as peculiar when compared to the average American-made movie is the slim, trim soundtrack. There's music, to be sure, but most of the film carries those traditions of the aforementioned schools of film-making: very little music except where legitimately present in a scene, and lots of natural light and sound. The absence of music never feels empty or claustrophobic, it just conveys a solid reality to all the scenes, helped along by a muddled set of characters who do not all seem to be pushing a pre-determined plot toward a pre-determined outcome.

I've mentioned before the tendency of people to decry sports films as having obvious endings--but they simply are binary. The team/athelete wins, or loses, most likely. And here, as with most films, we have the major options of primarily happy or primarily sad ending. Which of these it is does not matter so much as the believability of reaching it, whether the steps and the characters seem to deserve this ending--not morally, but in reflection of the actions they take on their journey toward it; does the work put in by these characters justify their reward, punishment, or normalized and continued existence?

This time, it most certainly does. It's a good ending, happy or otherwise--and I think those descriptions would be imperfect and debated anyway.

*I am also well aware that many of those leaps actually do not follow. Satyricon is hardly indicative of Italian neorealism, after all.
18 December 2009 @ 09:30 pm
It's funny to think that by 2001, no one had yet named a film simply "Heist" (okay, there's a forgotten one from 1998, but prior to that, shockingly, none, with a few possible translated exceptions). I suppose it's kind of a post-modern title--forget being poetic or unusual or unique, just go minimalist and directly descriptive, and be relatively original (the first few times at least) by ignoring all those expectations and methods of naming. In that sense, then, it makes sense as a film released in 2001. Of course, heist movies are far older than that--Kubrick's 1956 The Killing and Ocean's 11 in 1960 off the top of my head--but they are a reliable source of entertainment for those who like them, and are generally fun for their cleverness, so long as they succeed at intentions.

One of few heist films that start from a heist instead of building to a brand new one, Joe Moore (Gene Hackman), Bobby Blane (Delroy Lindo), Don "Pinky" Pincus (Ricky Jay) and Fran Moore(Rebecca Pidgeon) are not new to thieving, nor to teaming up with each other. In the middle of a jewelry heist, the aging Joe's face is caught on camera when a few steps go off plan. Joe decides this is the end for him, but Mickey Bergman (Danny Devito), who fences most of their loot, disagrees and insists that, before paying the group, they carry out one last heist: Swiss gold being brought in by airplane. Joe is against it and refuses and argues, but relents, and finds himself stuck with Mickey's rather green nephew Jimmy Silk (Sam Rockwell). Friction is generated between the two as Jimmy and his uncle believe Joe is off his game and Jimmy begins to pursue Joe's wife--fellow thief Fran.

I was reluctant to pick up this movie, on the fence because of the solid cast but familiar plot, until I noticed who wrote and directed: David Mamet. If you like Mamet's work (and you should, really), that's enough there, and when it's combined with something that is usually passably entertaining like a heist film and you're pretty well guaranteed good stuff. He keeps dialogue and plotting kinetic and exciting in whatever he does, and even when he doesn't keep you guessing, he fulfills expectations in the most satisfying ways. Mamet films are absolute pleasure, hitting the perfect balance of skill or talent and entertainment. For those who believe in such things, there is no need to bring up guilt with your pleasure, nor is there a need to worry that it will talk over you or just completely leave you in the dust. Your brain is engaged without being overwhelmed, and your appreciation and enjoyment are both satisfied. Your sympathies are put in the right places without the feeling of outright manipulation, as the characters pop and crackle with Mamet's most famous asset--witty dialogue--and become real enough, or at least strong enough projections, to carry all of their actions easily into the realms of believability. This speed and craft is most evident in a film based on deception and confidence games, as the characters slide from internal and real conversations with each other to blatant manipulation of external characters with barely a notice. And then in the third act, you realize that the internal dialogue wasn't always real either, and these characters are all constantly plotting, preparing and being in place for everyone and everything around them.

This is a potent and enjoyable example of heist films that outshines its fellows and manages to feel fresh and interesting and exciting despite coming so late to the party in a very specific genre, without having to resort to redesigning the concept of a heist film. And in many senses, it also manages to be exactly what its' title purports: a perfect crystallization of what heist films are defined as and should aspire to be.
18 December 2009 @ 07:54 pm
"How did it end?"
"If it had ended, we would not be here."
In some circles, Richard Matheson is a highly-praised name. However, those circles are often the same who bemoan the fate of his novels in film translation. Those circles tend to be small, being as few could identify the author behind The Last Man on Earth, The Omega Man and I Am Legend--much less that all three were based on the same source novel (itself sharing the name of that third adaptation), changed to great degree in all instances, with not a single one retaining the true meaning of the very title of the book. It's with this in mind that I turn an utterly boggled mind toward the "Fox Flix" trailers chosen to adorn the DVD of one of the few filmings of his horror novels that Matheson has not expressed open dissatisfaction with: Batman: The Movie (1966), Bedazzled (2000), Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, and Big Trouble in Little China. Cheese, comedy, horror-comedy and intentional cheese. What on earth were they thinking? The film itself is, while maybe a bit unintentionally campy, hardly portrayed as or visibly humourous. And yet there almost seems to be enough of a theme to suggest the choices were deliberate. Then again, maybe it was simply minimalist thinking of the worst kind: Michael Gough played Alfred Pennyworth in Tim Burton's Batman (1989), so that explains the first, the second and third involve vampires and the devil (ie, the supernatural) and the last...is from a well-renowned horror film-maker? In any case, those have no relation to even the way that Fox themselves portray the movie in menus and cover art.

Mr. Deutsch (Roland Culver) decides to serve himself and physicist Lionel Barrett (Clive Revill) by exploring the idea of "life after death," through the usage of The Belasco House, known as the "Mount Everest of haunted houses." Barrett brings his wife, Ann (Gayle Hunnicutt), and Deutsch sends, additionally, Benjamin Fischer (Roddy McDowall, who had been making something of a name for himself as the apes Caesar and Cornelius), the only one to survive a previous attempt to spend time in the Belasco House and a self-described medium, and Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin), a minister and another medium. Barrett derides supernatural explanations as nonsense, bringing a machine of his own devising that will purge the building of 'electromagnetism' (once a go-to explanation for many things supernatural). Fischer remains in this only for the money, having seen what the House can do and has done, while Tanner believes she can do something for the spirits of victims she believes are amongst those haunting the House. These motivations are all in opposition to each other, as it is a clinical problem to Barrett, a threat to Fischer and a project for healing to Tanner. These thoughts are eventually the defining traits of each character as the House beings to work its wiles on all of them.

As both a novel (Hell House, by Matheson, of course) and a film, there is endless comparison to Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House and Robert Wise's adaptation thereof, The Haunting (curiously, an inversion where the longer book title is cut short instead of lengthened, as it is here). While both Hauntings could both be considered restrained and polite, The Hell Houses are neither. The film is deliberately "watered down," as the book's events would thoroughly guarantee an X rating, as well as nausea and outright vomit from all but fans of the work of Jörg Buttgereit (one of which I am not), but is still stronger on both major taboo elements--sex and violence--than The Haunting. Nothing is truly explicit, which is hardly a surprise considering the age of the film, which came out a year prior to The Texas Chainsaw, notorious for its "graphic violence," which, in actuality it lacked. Sure, Herschell Gordon-Lewis had started the subgenre of "splatter" with Blood Feast, and Romero's Night of the Living Dead had its own elements, but it was still a good bit of time before graphic effects became a relatively standard trope (and eventually, for many, a tired one) of horror films. So, for a mainstream film, it was still reasonably violent for its willingness to show blood and its portrayal of sexuality as Tanner suffers a twisted form of psychological torture contrasted with her own sexual nature.

Much ado is often made of the ending's revelation. It isn't a horrifying, enormous, gigantic, roaring secret,¹ but that's almost the point. It's petty and stupid because that's the basis for much evil in the world, especially the worst kinds of violence--the need to show control, dominance and power over others where little exists. By the end, though, it's clear, through this revelation, that, despite an early framing around Revill that Franklin and McDowall have stolen the show. Both act in the extreme, ranging up and down and side to side in any and all moments, bouncing here and there and all over, covering and attempting to make up for the elements of their lives outside these terrifying events. Fischer is especially haunted--in either an ironic or "meta" fashion--by his previous time in the House, where he purports that it almost succeeded in killing him. He's tortured by knowing its power and his arrogant assertion that he knows how threatening it is--especially as he insistently remains despite his attempts to convince everyone they are at risk and that he only wants to get out. Revill and Hunnicutt end up relatively bland in the end, with Revill's rote insistence on "scientific explanation," which may or may not carry weight, but that denies any and all supernatural elements for the explanations.

¹If you've seen this movie, you're welcome for that one.
04 December 2009 @ 08:05 pm
I've no idea, really, how Michel Gondry or Spike Jonze came to my attention. I know I saw handfuls of music videos from both of them when music videos used to air regularly, once upon a time. But at the time I couldn't name the directors of any movies I'd seen, barring, perhaps, Steven Spielberg, so I certainly didn't know music video directors. I know "The Directors" label releases caught my attention, but I ignored Gondry and Jonze, caring only for Chris Cunningham--because, of course, he directed some videos for The Aphex Twin. Still, I think the association was enough to catch my attention in all honesty, and I do think, at least, that it's what planted their names so firmly in my head. While both worked with Charlie Kaufman (which generally sits quite well with me), I didn't know his name either, though Gondry and Kaufman were brought most firmly to my attention with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I don't think either name was really entrenched in my list of "names to follow" by the film, but it was definitely a film I recognized at least retroactively.

Mike (Mos Def) and Jerry (Jack Black) have a tendency to hang around the severely outdated video rental shop Be Kind Rewind, owned by Mr. Fletcher (Danny Glover), with Mike actually being employed there. Being in a slum-like building in Passaic, NJ, Mr. Fletcher is threatened with condemnation of the building he occupies, the birthplace of jazzman Fats Waller according to Mr. Fletcher. He goes off to research the video rental business via big-box rental stores (a la Blockbuster) while Mike runs the store. Neither Mike nor Jerry is terribly bright, but Jerry also happens to be a conspiracy theorist, convinced the local power plant is sending out microwaves that are brainwashing the public. He enlists Mike to help him sabotage the plant against Mike's own thoughts, but finds himself alone in an accident there instead, which magnetizes his body completely, leading him to enter Mr. Fletcher's shop and accidentally erase every tape there. When regular Mrs. Falewicz (Mia Farrow) comes in attempting to rent Ghostbusters, the pair is left with no choice but to find an alternate copy of the film. Being so terribly outdated, finding it on VHS is nearly impossible* and so Mike suggests that they take an elderly VHS-based camcorder and re-record the film themselves with homemade special effects. When another customer comes in demanding Rush Hour 2, they take the successful completion of their rendition of Ghostbusters and continue the process. When Jerry refuses to kiss his mechanic Wilson (Irv Gooch), they are forced to recruit the help of local female Alma (Melonie Diaz). Soon it catches on with the Passaic locals and brings them hope for saving Mr. Fletcher's store.

I think a lot of people took from the trailer that the primary focus of the movie was the versions of famous films the boys film with each other. Of course, they do just that, and they are a strong part of the film, but it's a little more of the "heartwarming save the old homestead" trope. I don't mean that as disparaging--insert discussion of the limited number of stories in existence here--but rather to clarify the film's intents, motivations and methods. The device of the "Sweded" films (their term for these "imported" versions) is part of the whole rather than the whole itself. None of them appears in their entirety within the film. It's really about love, love of film (for the viewer and one suspects the cast and crew), love of home (both Passaic and the Be Kind shop), and losing these things to homogenization, legalities and money in general. There are some rather nasty digs at Blockbuster and its ilk when Mr. Fletcher is doing his research--talking about reducing the store to "action" and "comedies." It doesn't paint "West Coast Video" as anyone in particular, nor does it specifically insult anyone working in the imagined store, so it comes off as a general, cultural criticism rather than an indictment of anyone or anything in particular. It's a little more comfortable for that, feeling like a poke at marketing trends rather than pointing fingers at big business X, Y or Z.

There's a very peculiar nature to the relationship between Mike and Jerry. It's a lot more innocent--as the film itself is--than usual, with a relatively PG vocabulary and less clever sniping between the participants. Both of them are really complete doofuses, though. Not utter idiots, but lacking in some things that just about any average viewer would realize or know better how to deal with. It's not condescending to them, though, nor to the viewer. As long as you are willing to take the film and its characters only as seriously as they ask to be taken, it's a good bit of harmless fun. It doesn't feel like we're intended to point and laugh at Mike and Jerry like they are a trainwreck or pathetic, but at their earnestness and willingness to try. Jack Black manages this--just barely--despite my reservations about him as, well, anything. I don't write him off completely (there are few actors I do, possibly none, but he's way up that list, though this makes three movies I have no real problem with him in) but I am very wary of his over-enthusiastic shtick. Jerry, though, is kind of a jerk, so once again Black's natural tendency to be an ass works for the character instead of against the movie. Mos Def is odd, being terribly subdued and almost comatose in the role of Mike, seeming almost like another local--as there are many--pulled in from the area to work on the film. It never comes off as false, just amateurish, even if deliberately so.

But if you can't accept the idea of a video store existing in the modern age, well, this movie is not going to be for you. It's not about "realism" by any stretch of the imagination, something a little refreshing to me in this day and age, taking an utterly absurd accident (the power plant one) and pretending it could have the absurd effect it does. The whole film is that way--the efforts of the boys to film are simultaneously charmingly homemade and yet unbelievably creative and perfectly made. Gondry's specialty is visuals, though, so it isn't surprising. Of course he can put these things all together properly, and make us both believe in them and marvel at them--which is the reason I check out Gondry's work. It's always simutaneously grounded and whimsically awesome--in the sense of inspiring awe, not being "totally bitching."

*I think my copy is still hanging around, actually.
02 December 2009 @ 10:58 pm
I had two free passes to the local arthouse styled theatre that were running out Monday, so I decided to go see whatever the heck was showing. One film was House of the Devil, a throwback horror film that I truly loved, the other was a film that I thought sounded like the kind I might pick up on a whim (lo, it was released by Sony Pictures Classics, an arm of Sony I trust pretty blindly to do right by me)--this one. I knew the essence of the plot, but tried to keep my readings vague, so as to avoid spoiling any of it, this being my preference when I see any film. I knew only the name Peter Sarsgaard of the primary cast and had never heard of Danish director Lone Scherfig.

Jenny (Carey Mulligan) is a 16 year old prep school student in 1961 Twickenham, London who plans to go to Oxford and then "become French," living in France, reading French literature, speaking French, eating French food, and smoking constantly. Her father Jack (Alfred Molina) discourages her from doing anything that does not further her education (barring those things which are appreciated by acceptance boards at Oxford), even things like playing her cello, which he notes will impress Oxford as a "hobby," but then continues need not be practiced as it is a "hobby." Her mother Majorie (Cara Seymour) tries to smooth things between them as Jenny tests her father's "rules," attempting to reason him into allowing her some ideas. Jenny has a fledgling romance with orchestra-mate Graham (Matthew Beard) until the poor boy makes the mistake of suggesting he might take a year off from school, which does not earn the respect of Jack. One rainy day after orchestra rehearsal, Jenny is approached from a car by a man who offers to at least shield her cello from the rain as she walks home by placing it in his car. Jenny's amused by the man's charm, and he introduces himself as David (Sarsgaard) and strikes up a conversation, eventually getting herself out of the rain alongside her cello in David's sportscar. Slowly taken with him and running into him periodically, Jenny begins to accept offers from David when he gives her the opportunity to experience the culture she so loves and admires--concerts, jazz bars, art auctions and so on. He introduces her to his friends Danny (Dominic Cooper) and Helen (Rosamund Pike), and begins to take her further and further out into the world, all the while slowly romancing her. His charm works even on Jack and Majorie, allowing this to happen with their consent. A trip to Oxford pushes at Jenny's principles, but she finds herself torn between a small moral capitulation and the chance to have a "real life."

Of course, once I saw the cast appear onscreen, I realized instantly that there was another name here I knew very well: Alfred Molina. In fact, this knowledge was humourous to me as I watched Jim Jarmusch's Coffee and Cigarettes and the segment with Molina and Steve Coogan showed, where the joke was how unknown Molina was--when the opposite was true for me. Of course, I also know the screenwriter, Nick Hornby, albeit primarily from the Americanized film version of High Fidelity. Still these were primarily passing knowledge, especially Hornsby and Sarsgaard. The synposis I read led me to expect something far more drastic was hiding behind these scenes than actually turned out, so I was surprised in this respect, and it probably helped to keep my understanding of the film "in line" with its intentions. It's worth noting here that it is an adaptation of journalist Lynn Barber's actual experiences, and that this often shores up some seemingly unusual choices.

The most interesting role by far is that of David, as Sarsgaard is forced, as many have put it, to walk the line between charming and creepy. He is charming and does not come across as purely sleazy, despite being a 30-something man romancing a 16 year old girl, though I did spend half the movie with fingertips placed at my forehead in a sort of preliminary (or perhaps vestigial?) representation of the desire to hide the film from my eyes. I was hideously uncomfortable for a lot of it. I was perhaps too charmed by David myself, but could not shake the feeling that something was very, very wrong anyway. I'm a little more open-minded than most, I suppose, as I roll my eyes at those who called American Beauty a sick film about a pedophile, but I had great difficulty stopping myself from slumping down further and further into my seat and squirming at many moments (the scene involving pet names was particularly excruciating). I can't say it was a flaw, but it was a bit of a problem. I suppose I was really directed very perfectly into the place of Jenny herself, torn between the allure of an exciting life and the responsibility of the one that is hard and boring but theoretically the "best" choice. At the same time, there was a definite feeling that it was entirely too easy to see how she was deceived, and yet wish she wouldn't be. Jenny is not stupid, she is very clever in her interactions with everyone, but she's so thoroughly charmed by David that she's easily taken in by him, but especially because he brings her all the things she wants.

The central concept is the variable defintion of "education," being either the worldly education offered by David or that of Oxford, with various tangential definitions, such as learning about life via the parts of David that were not showing originally. It's a valid argument that Jenny gives her Headmistress--that there is no one telling the students why, exactly, they must get an education--except to go on and use that dull, hard, boring education to live a dull, hard, boring life. It makes the choice of David seem obvious, yet, at the same time, we know (hopefully!) is not so simple as all of that. There's no good argument (at least none I've heard) against Jenny's, but at the same time there's an understanding, for me at least, that other paths are more difficult or simply aren't as good as they seem to be. It's nice that the film doesn't attempt to truly explain or answer this question, even if it does show Lynn Barber's actual decisions and life at the end, what she chooses to pursue and follow for her life. She admits that she has aged but not become experienced or wise because of the events she takes part in, which seems a good way of putting it.