Sunday, March 28, 2010

Mother (Sunday, March 28th, 2010) (25)

I am a big fan of South Korean director Joon-ho Bong most well known film, The Host. It is a monster movie in the tradition of the great B-movies of the 1950s and 1960s, like Godzilla or Mothra, but is silly, self-aware, moral and very down-to-earth. Because of this, I was very excited to see his new film, Mother.

This is a Hitchcockian murder mystery based around a guy, Do-joon, who is autistic. He has a small group of friends in the rural town setting and they treat him like anyone else. One night when walking home from the bar he discovers the body of a girl who has been murdered. Immediately he is the main suspect, but mostly because he's an easy target who can't account for his whereabouts -partly because of his difficulty communicating and partly because he was a bit drunk at the time. His mother and all his friends don't believe he was capable of such a thing and they set out to prove him innocent and find the real killer (with or without police help).

Much like The Host, the tone throughout the film is very silly and over-the-top. People behave in ridiculous ways, launching into long monologues, being very silly when they drink, and using very crude language all the time. The violent scenes are also crazy and super bloody - but with a juvenile gory element to them. At times these aspects are enjoyable and at times they are frustrating. Bong spends so much time setting up the ridiculous, stylized situations that I got annoyed that I was not just able to see what was happening without the zaniness. It is a bit too much style and not enough substance. It is certainly a lot of fun, but just too overdone for my taste.

The eponymous mother character is a bit unhinged and is for me a bit hard to empathize with. She's overbearing and much-too concerned with her special-needs son. She interacts with him as if he was a child - even in his 30s - and seems to go overboard with her reaction to his arrest. I guess, as the title describes, this is the central part of the movie - but it actually felt like a side story and not the main direction. For me, the film is really about this special-needs kid and how he lives and then gets into trouble. That his mother is a mad freak is just a bit unnecessary for me - a hat on top of a hat, if you will.

The ending of the film is pure Hitchcock where it is unclear whether the good guy really wins in the end - or if everybody else loses. I really like these classic elements of the story and script.

Stars 2.5 of 4

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Chloe (Saturday, March 27, 2010) (24)

I think Atom Egoyan is a very talented director and even his bad stuff has beautiful and interesting elements in it. His newest film, Chloe is a very well made, interesting psycho-sexual drama that has some lovely moments, is aesthetically wonderful, but comes apart in the end, rendering the whole production only OK in the end.

Catherine and David (Julianne Moore and Liam Neeson) are a middle-aged married couple in Toronto who have a high-school-aged son. They are deeply in love, but after David comes home late one night from a meeting, Catherine starts to suspect that he is cheating on her. She hires a young prostitute, Chloe (Amanda Seyfried), to flirt with him and see if she can draw him into an affair. Things get out of hand, when David apparently does fall for Chloe's bait and she reports the news back to Catherine.

As with many of Egoyan's films, including his masterpiece The Sweet Hereafter, the filmmaker is able to richly fill a screen with sumptuous details. Interiors look clear and gorgeous, comfortable and totally complete. Cinematographer Paul Sarossy does a wonderful job of making very common set-ups look more than average, more than just plain reality. These locations set up a beautiful juxtaposition between the places and the frequently psychological difficulties his characters find themselves and between them and us. We look at the settings and think they're easy and relaxing; they can't enjoy these places because they're too wrapped up in their own dramas. Such tension is central, I think, to Egoyan's works.

The acting throughout is very good - and I am not normally a big fan of Julianne Moore. Neeson is always great - but he's very much a supporting character here. Amanda Seyfried proves herself once again to be the top of her class of young starlets (above Anne Hathaway, Kristen Stewart, Carrie Mulligan and Anna Kendrick, all of whom I just can't stand for their overacting or dullness). She does amazing work in the HBO show Big Love and it continues here. She is convincing as a clever working girl who knows how to look out for herself, but also a fragile young woman who has a ton of mental baggage. She also seems very comfortable to be very naked (which was totally fine with me!). Moore works well with Seyfried and is also good here as a wife who feels scored, trying anything she can think of to dig herself out of a tough family situation.

The writing is what really hurts this film. It begins very nicely in a very Noel Coward/Billy Wilder sort of way, but ultimately devolves into a very trite and dull Hollywoodish third act where characters start to freak out for no reason and the regulated calmness of the beginning is lost. The ending is simply a joke, along the lines of a teen thriller.

Overall this is a very pretty movie that doesn't end as well as it begins. It's good, but not fabulous.

Stars: 2 of 4

Friday, March 26, 2010

Waking Sleeping Beauty (Friday, March 26, 2010) (23)

This is a very interesting documentary about Disney animation from 1984 through 1994 - arguably the most important time in the history of the company and the era that created the entertainment behemoth that Disney is today. In the early 1980s, Disney animation was at its lowest point since the death of Walt in 1966. They had a string of bad movies that were not interesting to viewers and not making money. Around 1984 the board of Disney brought in Michael Eisner and Frank Wells to turn the studio around.

Up to that point, the company was making most of its money on the theme parks and live-action movies. Eisner brought in Jeffrey Katzenberg as the Chairman of Disney and the two of them developed a strong interest in re-launching the animation arm, the bedrock of the company's legacy.

The animation department was being run by Roy Disney, Walt's nephew. Roy and Katzenberg worked tirelessly, along with executives like Dick Cook and Peter Schneider to reorganize the creative process and come up with ideas that would be both appealing to people of all ages and make them want to spend money to see the works. They all worked closely together and almost all of them hated the others. There were a lot of big egos involved and they all were puffed up by their huge paychecks.

The film is really about the historical elements of the change (going from The Great Mouse Detective to The Little Mermaid to The Lion King) and the political forces that played in the background. Eisner famously didn't promote Katzenberg when Frank Miller died, which sent Katzenberg out the door and on to DreamWorks, now a major rival to Disney (animation and live-action).

As interesting as the story is (it really is a fascinating and engaging story), the film does not really do enough to bring the viewer in and interest them. There is only a small amount of animated material shown onscreen and almost no music (considering it's a documentary about animated musicals, I think this is a shame). More unusual, and frustrating, is that all of the interviews with the principle people are used as voice-overs and you never see a 'talking head'.

I think the point of this is that it is supposed to help focus on the old footage on screen. What it actually does it makes it more confusing because it's never clear if we are hearing an old or a new interview. If you had the visual footage along with it, you could tell if it was shot recently or 20 years ago. Disembodied voices are hard to follow or pay attention to. This is especially hard when you have to juggle the names and voices of a few dozen people without a face or other visual clues to fall back on.

Sadly, we see very little about how the style of Disney's animation changed in this time. They get so wrapped up in the history they forget to mention that a movie like Beauty and the Beast looks different than earlier 2D Disney fare, like The Black Cauldron. There is also not enough discussion of how Disney got to work with Pixar so frequently at the end of the 1990s and through the Aughts.

This is a very interesting, Shakespearean chapter in Hollywood history (almost King Lear meets Henry V), but it is not presented in the best way.

Stars: 2 of 4

Greenberg (Friday, March 26, 2010) (22)

I really like so-called "Mumblecore" films. This mid-aughts mini-movement developed rather organically in the United States where film students started making gritty, microscopic-budget dramas about mid-20s post-college malaise. Most of these films are story-based, feature either non-actors or unpolished actors, have stories that are less traditionally structured and use new media and formal experimentation throughout.

Two of my favorites are Andrew Bujalski's Funny Ha Ha from 2005 and Joe Swanberg's LOL from 2006. Both deal with relationships between lovers and friends and how the current young generation has difficulty connecting with one another (suggested by the IM shorthand in the titles). I think it is the most successful post-modernist film movement in commercial release.

Greta Gerwig is a mumblecore alumna, having worked with Joe Swanberg on LOL and Hannah Takes the Stairs. She is disarming and totally honest. She is the girl next door because she's absolutely average-looking and still beautiful. She is the slightest bit out of shape - but this only adds to the idea that you could meet her at a bar or a friend's party and date her.

She is also almost the only thing good in Greenberg, a mainstream mumblecore film about misanthropy made by Noah Baumbach, an interloper and poseur.

I have a love-hate relationship with Baumbach. I thought his first film, Kicking and Screaming was very OK (though, I admit, I might have been too young when I first saw it to have a decent opinion about); I thought The Squid and the Whale was really great; I thought Margot at the Wedding was rather miserable and I now don't like this one. Oy vey.

The story revolves around Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) who is a horrible, hateful New York loser who is more-or-less unemployed, recently got out of some sort of mental hospital (which we never really are clear about, but is relevent enough to mention a few times), has burned basically all the bridges in his life and spends his days as some level of carpenter (in New York, at least) and by writing notes of complaint to companies who bother him.

He is house sitting the posh Hollywood home of his brother who is out of town on vacation with his family. His brother's young personal assistant, Florence (Gerwig), seems to take care of everything from shopping for groceries to looking after the family dog. Greenberg meets Florence awkwardly one morning and later in the day, when he exhausts the three phone numbers in his Rolodex, calls her for a date.

He doesn't drive or have access to a car (which is weird because it would seem in LA his brother would have a car available while he is out of town... this is totally contrived), so Florence picks him up. They end up back at her place after a few minutes and end up making out (with possibly the worst, most uncomfortable and bizarre on-screen cunnilingus I've ever seen in my life). For the rest of the film, Greenberg treats Florence badly, she falls deeper and deeper in love with him and he pisses off the only two old friends that don't totally hate him by this point (Jennifer Jason Leigh and Rhys Ifans).

I don't find misanthropy to be interesting. It's like someone having red hair being an interesting characteristic or something to make a movie about. Some people are terrible and have destructive personalities and that does not make them more engaging as characters. Yes, Greenberg is a smart guy who has a quick tongue and can make a lot of pop-culture references and leaps of logic - but he's basically a very dull person to watch.

He sits around, bitches, calls people to take care of him, treats people badly and doesn't really feel bad about any of this.(By the way, there is a suggestion here that Greenberg has had a breakdown that put him in the hospital, but we never get to know much about this, so his inability to commit to Florence and other friends might be because he's generally rotten in his character and might be because there's a emotional-psychological problem, but we never find out much about this).

The writing by Baumbach (based on a concept by him and his wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh) is terrible. The story is totally monotone with no development, no intrigue, no analysis or redemption and no pacing. Greenberg's dialogue is punchy, but I think that's easy to write and not all that interesting. I can bitch, insult people for hours and be very wise and there's nothing about my life that is particularly screen-worthy.

I guess this is where the mumblecore thing comes in. The themes in this film (not being able to commit, not having any direction, general dissatisfaction with one's life) are the mainstays of mumblecore. The scenes between Greenberg and Florence are pure mumblecore (people meet at a party- or a job - and hook up, having raw, ugly sex and circular conversations). One problem with this is that most of the dialogue from Greenberg is elevated, Hollywood Oscar-bait with long monologues, while the lines from Florence are pure mumblecore, with grunts and sighs and awkward timing and a patina of reality that Greenberg (that Stiller) does not have.

The other problem with this, of course, is that this is a dirty white hippie with dreadlocks. It is neigher fish nor fowl. It is not mumblecore as the story is too polished and has too much direction and is really *about* Greenberg's misanthropy, which is much too introspective in the dark surface world of mumblecore.

Stiller is totally fine here in this role, but I think it's a pretty easy character to play. He's basically a total asshole. There's not much nuance and he doesn't grow or change much at all from beginning to the end (thanks to the terrible writing). Gerwig is a real discovery and is perfect for the role - especially because she's effectively unknown to most audiences so we come in with no preconceived notions about her. She's modest and average, but clearly sexy in a dirty hipster way. She's unpolished and shy and exactly like countless women we all know as friends or friends of friends. She has the best qualities of of the mumblecore movement.

Technically the film is fine, thought Harris Savides' photography is beautiful and intimate and not overdone. I also give lots of credit to costume director Mark Bridges who put Gerwig in a cardigan that is absolutely perfect for the character and brings with it as much background as you need to know about her (she got it from her ex boyfriend or her father or a thrift store and wears it everywhere in the LA winter). Again, this costume design is straight out of mumblecore.

More than a white kid with dreadlocks, this is a white man in blackface. Mumblecore is wonderful because it's small and independent and fresh and the means of productions are made outside the polish of the Hollywood machine on borrowed equipment in a cast-member's crappy rental apartment. This is the big-budget, mainstream version of that. It has a big time actor and is trying to *say* something about the state of people in the modern world. It has no soul, though. It's a fake and a fraud and almost an offense to the bright, natural originals.

I can see Gerwig hitting it big from this. She's really great and I can see Hollywood people thinking they can make her then next ScarJo or Anne Hathaway. I wouldn't support this, though, as I think she's a much more dorky, unpolished actor than those other movie stars. I hope she goes back to weird small movies (though I'd love for her to get a paycheck and I can't imagine she makes much in the smaller fare). I also hope Hollywood does not catch on any further to mumblecore. Baumbach might have killed the genre here - I hope others don't come along to feed on the carcas.

Stars: 1.5 of 4 (those stars are for Gerwig and Savides only)

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Runaways (Saturday, March 21, 2010) (21)

This is a totally lifeless movie about the history of a band you've never heard of, the Runaways, in Los Angeles in the mid-1970s. The only reason why they are at all special is because they were the first band Joan Jett was in. They were the first major-ish "all-girl" rock band and apparently sold sex, sexual independence, bi-sexuality and a very average rock sound.

The only reason I can figure out that the film is getting polite reviews is that the American men who are generally reviewing it are so misogynistic and homophobic that a slight taste of lesbianism is enough to get them erect and their brains clouded with hormones so they miss the rest of this mess. The lesbianism isn't very special, erotic or believable and the film never rises above a tired yarn about a garage band hitting it big-ish and then coming back to earth. The production values are embarrassingly low, which distracts from the story and makes it incredibly hard for the slightest suspension of disbelief.

The movie opens with 15-year-old Joan, played by the dead-behind-the-eyes Kristen Stewart, buying dirty leather clothes, being kissed by a ratty scene girl and sniffing glue - because she's disaffected, you see. (Of course this only leads one to think about the great Ramones song "Now I Want to Sniff Some Glue" - a musical height that we never see throughout the rest of the film.)

Then we see teenage Cherie Currie, played by the cute-kid-star-cum-grown-up-beauty Dakota Fanning, who is obsessed with Ziggy Stardust, lipsynching her way through a Bowie song in a high school talent show. She's from a broken home and likes to go to clubs with her sister. You get it?

One night out in LA, Joan, who plays guitar, meets music producer and promoter Kim Fowley, played by the tremendously talented Michael Shannon (who is badly used here). They set out to form an all-girl rock band. They meet Cherie at a night club and audition her. She sounds terrible, but they decide that she has the right look for the band. Once they start practicing and playing together they sound terrible to me, but apparently they are good. Their sound is not really that hard or punk - it's sorta hard-ish pop and somehow sexually liberated on the surface.

The band begins to tour in crapholes and begins to use drugs and alcohol. They become very sexual, fucking their manager, roadies and all sorts of people they meet on the road. They also screw each other in very, very PG ways. We never clearly see that they really love each other (though we're told they do). Joan seems mostly bored and interested in sex because she's not really interested in anything else. Cherrie seems stoned mostly and not really in control of much.

They go on tour to Japan, which is a surprise because it's not clear they've really hit it big. (Director Flora Sigismondi does a terrible job with this sequence that is clearly shot in downtown LA with a bunch of *Asian* extras playing excited Japanese teens - this is a joke). They fight a lot because Cherrie is too hot for them (I mean, objectively, Dakota is hot!) and then when they're cutting what seems to be their first album (at least the first one we see them working on) they break up.

The film has absolutely no emotional flow and terrible pacing. We see a bad band playing music, then they get messed up on the road, then they mess with one another, then they break up. At no point do we like them or care if they turn out well. It feels like it's one slow, bad scene after another. There are no climaxes and no high moments. Even when the band has a good show in Japan, they still sound like they can't play a good note.

Bizarrely there is almost no music used in the film - either music from the Runaways or from bands they might have been listening to. OK - there's one Iggy Pop song and one Bowie song, but that's about it. This is laughable in a movie about a great moment in music (when punk was in its formative years and glam was hitting its peak). It almost felt like they couldn't get the rights to more music there was so little in the film.

The acting throughout is overdone and generally bad and I think it's about time that we all admit that despite Kristin Stewart being a central part of one of the biggest film franchises of all time (Twilight) she really is untalented and terrible. It's actually hard to know if she's trying to act like a lifeless rat or if that's just how she is. Dakota Fanning is not as bad as Stewart, but she's not very good either. Michael Shannon is generally very good, but he's way overdone here. Like a beautiful steak, he's good without all sorts of toppings and marinades and stuff. Just cook him on two sides and serve.

Generally I found the lesbian make-out scenes tepid, safe and less than erotic. It seems like they're just screwing around for lack of anyone else to screw around with. Of course maybe there is a connection between these two, but, again, Stewart is so bad that you couldn't tell it. I never get the sense that Cherrie is all that into the sex and we see Joan having sex with men too... All in all, it seems like a cheap trick to get two young starlets (Stewart and Fanning) to kiss so people will talk about it and rush out to see it. I hate being manipulated like this.

I don't care that the movie apparently looks like old Super-8 footage or old Kadachrome pictures and early music videos. It's super boring, badly made and badly acted. The script is terrible and the direction seems unaware of what we're seeing and feeling.

Stars: .5 of 4

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Friday, March 19, 2010) (20)

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a film adaptation of the first book of the trilogy written by Swedish novelist Stieg Larsson. The rather complicated story is about an investigative journalist, Mikael Blomkvist, who gets a job from a mega-rich industrialist, Henrik Vanger, to investigate the murder of his teenage niece some forty years before. As soon as Blomkvist begins the search on a remote island where the Vanger clan all have their houses, he is joined by computer-hacker extraordinaire Lisbeth Salander who has taken an interest in Blomkvist (who has been disgraced by a recent libel case against him). She has a thing against men who abuse and hurt women (which goes back to her own troubled childhood).

The two begin to look into the possible suspects inside the Vanger family and uncover a world of rape, abuse, Nazi love and murder, all covered up by the family's status and political power. And just when you think the story has concluded, there is another chapter (the total run time is more than 2 hours 30 minutes).

The story is very complex with several threads going on at once. Lisbeth (the eponymous inked girl) has a whole subplot of her own where she has a financial guardian who abuses and rapes her and tells her she will be cut off from her money if she tells anyone about it. She ultimately gets a very graphic, sadistic revenge on the man. It seems like the multiplicity of narrative threads in the film would work better in the novel than onscreen. For a viewer, it seems like a bit of a hat on a hat and that some of these extra subplots could have been cut out.

The acting is very good throughout. Michael Nyqvist is great as Blomkvist. He's a smart journalist who seems to have a good moral sense about him. He's a diligent researcher and knows how to bend the rules to get what he needs. Nyqvist looks very smart and clever, with a brightness in his eyes that's refreshing to see. Noomi Rapace is also great as Lisbeth. She is very quiet and methodical, but clearly knows what's going on below the surface of an event. She's flirty at times (though clearly she has had bad interactions with men) and also has a zeal in her gaze that's nice to see.

I was rather surprised by how frank and violent the film was. The scene where Lisbeth is getting raped by her accountant we basically see the whole thing - but also see close ups of her face as she cries out and winces in pain. This is pretty shocking. Then we see in great detail exactly how she savagely takes revenge on the man. Later we see several very violent acts shown without any apologies or filters. Director Niels Arden Oplev (a Danish man, not a Swede) clearly thinks that showing exactly what is happening is the best way to present the material (as opposed to, say, suggesting what is happening offscreen). It is powerful stuff, though not for the easily shocked.

I guess it's unfair to hope that every Swedish movie should look particularly "Swedish", by which, I guess, I mean "look like Bergman". Still, this film comes off much more like a fast-paced American action film than anything I've ever seen from Scandinavia. It does move along from one point to another very smoothly and very fast. There is something nice about this, definitely. Still, I have to ask myself that if this was a Hollywood production with big action stars in it, would I like it at all - and I'm not sure that I would. I think there is something nice and refreshing in the straightforwardness of it - something that is ultimately Swedish that I like.

Stars: 2.5 of 4