Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Lincoln Lawyer (Sunday, March 20, 2011) (17)

On paper The Lincoln Lawyer seems like a great film noir in the grandest Hollywood sense, but it is executed so poorly it just comes off as a really terrible film.

Mick Haller is the eponymous advocate, who gets his name because he rides around Los Angeles in a Lincoln Town Car (seriously - that's all the name means). It seems he has an office (at least he has an assistant), but he never spends time there. Instead he rides around town going from one court house to another and from one client to another. He has a driver, apparently because his license was suspended at some point in the past, but he has his license back now and still uses the driver mostly - except for the middle act when the guy is mysteriously not around. Whatever.

He's sent to meet with a rich-boy client, Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillippe), who is being charged with assaulting a girl who turns out to be a prostitute. Roulet says he didn't do it, and his story is very convincing, however when Mick gets to digging - or gets his investigator, Frank (William H. Macy), to dig - they find that he's not the boy scout he seems to be. Mick's ex-wife, Maggie (Marisa Tomei) is a district attorney (of course) and they get into fights about their daughter, have sex now and again and share confidential information with one another. That's just what exes do, dontcha know.

I really appreciate how much of an ode to Hollywood noir this really is, with silly, random gunfights, views of obscure parts of Los Angeles and rich boys getting into trouble for their bad habits that involve unseemly elements of town, but the script here (written by John Romano, based on a book by Michael Connelly), aside from the basic plot points is really terrible. The dialogue sounds like it was written for a teenybopper soap opera and the story is so inert, it's no surprise when twists come or when characters flip.

There's absolutely no style to be found at all, as most of it takes place in daylight (that's an interesting update of noir if there's no way to get interesting shadows and lighting that gave the genre its name) and in a shity Town Car from the 1980s. Oh yeah - the stupid car that inspired the title is a late-model Town Car - because somehow Mick wouldn't care to buy a new car or something. Why not call it the Mercedes Lawyer or the Land Rover Lawyer? Is the American auto industry in such shape that this guy's heap would be its salvation?

Most of the acting here is terrible, but the actors aren't really working with any good lines. It seems much more like a high school drama club performance of a noir than any real movie with professional players. It's really badly directed (by Brad Furman). I guess this film serves the purpose of how to make a bad film noir with only bad choices. Film students can dissect each scene looking at what Furman does and lean how to do the opposite. That would probably make a pretty good movie!

Stars: 1 of 4

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Cracks (Tuesday, March 15, 2011) (16)

Cracks is set in a small all-girls boarding school on some island off the coast of England. There the diving club seems to run the school, and no one is bigger than Di (Juno Temple) who is the prefect of the club. Her best friend is Poppy (the gorgeous Imogen Poots), and the two rule the group and the school with iron bathing costumes. Their muse is Miss G (Eva Green) a teacher who is a former student of the school and claims to have travelled the world to all sorts of exotic locations before she went to work there. She's a bohemian, a reader of great books and rather easy with rules and regulations.

One day Fiamma (Maria Valverde) arrives at the school and rumors start flying around about who she is and why she is there. She's Spanish and there's talk about how she's from the royal family. She might have been sent there to avoid an embarrassing situation with a man and a failed marriage engagement. She's put in the house with the diving club and immediately is a source of interest, jealousy and desire for the girls and their teacher.

This is basically just another boarding school movie, not incredibly dissimilar from The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Another Country or Harry Potter (OK - clearly those all have very different plots, but the boarding school parts of them are very similar... and this film doesn't really have much of a plot to speak of). This movie is basically about girls being mean to one another, discovering their sexuality, being mean to one another in sexual ways and trying to take down the top girl, whoever that might be (the role of the prefect always being relevant in these stories). It's all a bit dull.

Eva Green seems to play Miss G with a wink in her eye and a tongue in her cheek - at least that's how it feels. I don't totally know why this is, though it might have something to do with how she sounds speaking English. I'm not convinced she's a great actress (though I'm happy that she seems to like to take her clothes off in movies -that's nice of her). Sometimes her serious scenes come off as a bit goofy here and far from totally earnest, which undermines the bigger story movements. I spent a lot of time in the film trying to figure out what was so funny that she was laughing at. I never did.

I think the role of Di is rather one-dimensional, only really about a "mean girl" who is trying to stay on top despite her miserable prospects. Still, I think Juno Temple does a nice job with it. She's totally a girl you want to smack for being such a bitch - and that's really the point, I think.

There's a nice visual style to the film, but a rather basic one. It's set in this beautiful area on a picturesque island, they dive in a rocky cove and walk through an old forest. It's all green/gray (isn't that all of Northern England/Scotland?), but not particularly interesting.

Somewhere along the way in this story it seems that the girls here are not sent here because it's necessarily a place for an elite education, but because it's an exotic reformatory school. They come to understand they might never get off the island, or, like Miss G, might stay there forever as a teacher. This is sorta how I felt in the theater most of the way through as it seemed unlikely that the film would end quickly or easily. At least I got to see Eva Green's bare breasts (again).

Stars: 1.5 of 4

Certified Copy (Tuesday, March 15, 2011) (15)

Abbas Kiarostami's Certified Copy is a very unusual film, despite seeming like a very natural one on the surface. It begins with an English man, James (Richard Shimmel), giving a lecture in Italy on his new book about the history and value of art fakes. As he speaks, a woman, Ellie (Juliette Binoche), stumbles into the room with her teenage son in tow. At the end of the talk she asks him to sign several copies of the book for her so she can give them to family and friends. She's an antiques dealer, and a Frenchwoman, and is aware of the value and market for fakes in her line of work. The two agree to meet the following day.

When the meet the next day they agree to get in the car and take a drive to no particular place - just go. Over the course of the day together we see that they are not actually strangers, but are a married couple rather at the end of their relationship rope (well, maybe... it's rather unclear). It seems they've been married for 15 years, live apart much of the time and fight often.

For the rest of the movie the two work over a fight they recently had and discuss who was wrong and when. The audience then has to go backwards and figure out what the game was they were playing at the beginning where they seemed to not know one another.

I have to admit that this really doesn't feel to me like a typical Kiarostami film, because it's very heavy on dialogue and very light on visual style and beauty - most of it is shot inside with cuts back and forth as a couple are talking - but it's a really interesting one (and is beautiful as anything that comes out of Kiarostami's brain would be). I think it's a clever trick from a writing point of view that the film we watch in the first act is very different from the one in the second two acts. Midway through the picture, the story changes dramatically.

I'm fascinated by the idea that this couple has a strained relationship, which manifests itself by them pretending to be strangers with one another, even when there are no witnesses around. I can't stop wondering though if they are actually somehow a pair of strangers who are playing that they are married rather than the inverse (which would help to explain problematic characters like the son who also seems to know know James). Perhaps everything up to the point of the revelation that they're married (in a cafe about two-thirds of the way through) is real and what follows is the farce.

In any event, I'm interested in the idea of copies and the deconstructed and formalist elements of the film as a copy for real life. The characters here are living their lives, but jump into a copy-life where they don't know one another (or they don't know one another and then go into a copy-life where they do). They go to a town where they were apparently married, almost a copy of their wedding day/night. They speak to each other in French or English, meaning two different things (she'll speak to him in French and he'll reply in English). Where is the reality? Where is the ground? It's really interesting.

This is a very interesting and mysterious film. Kiarostami could be saying that we are never who we really are in a relationship (even a casual flirtatious one) or that people can never be trusted, but considering nobody can be trusted, we can all agree on the relative value and importance of the relationships that are based on lies - just like how copies of great works of art have value as art themselves. It is a very post-modern concept and I appreciate that it's presented in such a standard format. Just as with a great copy, at first glance this does not seem to be such an interesting ontological examination - but it's only when you dig a bit deeper that the real nature of the piece comes out.

Stars: 3.5 of 4

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Jane Eyre (Sunday, March 13, 2011) (14)

Do we really need another adaptation of a Bronte/Austin novel? Ugh, I dunno. I guess if it had a new and interesting view of the story or was somehow so wonderfully cinematic, I would be interested in seeing it... maybe. In this new version of Jane Eyre, directed by Cary Fukunaga (who previously made Sin Nombre, which I really liked) and adapted by Moira Buffini, Jane is a bit different from what we've seen her as before. Here she's a head-strong protofeminist who suffers nonstop and seems to deal every day with the enormous sadness of her life. It's not much an inspirational tale, really, and is somewhat painful to sit through.

The story begins as Jane (Mia Wasikowska) is escaping Thornfield and arrives at the door of Marsh End where she meets St. John (Jamie Bell). We then see a flashback to her whole life. We see her being loked in the Red Room (which happens with almost no comment or importance), we see her at school, we see her getting a governess job at Thornfield and meeting Rochester (Michael Fassbender). Through all of this, she's miserable. At some point it seems she falls for Rochester and he does for her. Then they try to get married and it becomes clear that he's already married to Bertha. Then she ends up at Marsh End.

Beginning in the opening credits and continuing through the film, Fukunaga uses candle light as a visual motif. Almost all interiors are dark, except for the flickering of the candles. It seems a bit overdone, honestly, and the chiaroscuro effects on the faces of the characters feels like thin style covering for a thin concept. Is the idea that there are lots of hidden secrets and we can only see a bit of what is happening? Blech. That's annoying.

Another trick that Fukunaga uses - or overuses, really - is that whenever we see the outside world, particularly the moors, the weather relates directly and bluntly to the emotional torment or exaltation of Jane at that moment. If the happiness when you find out you can marry the man you love doesn't mean a lot to you, Jane walks through a beautiful Spring day in the garden to underline it. Just in case you didn't understand that finding out the man you love already has a wife hurts a lot, Jane runs outside and into blowing, icy, gray gale. It's so annoying and feels like paint-by-numbers more than real direction.

But what's more annoying is that Mia Wasikowska has almost no emotion ever and is always scowling and looking like she's in pain. I don't like this really, because it suggests that she knows that there's a better life out there for her. Jane Eyre doesn't know this. She's always lived in a world of relative misery and pain and would have no reason to think that her life could be anything but that.

Suggesting she has some choice in the matter and is upset with her life makes her some sort of contemporary 2nd Wave feminist (not that there's anything wrong with that) who wants to self-determine her path, marry the man she wants to marry and live happily ever after. I just don't know where she would get these ideas. As a woman with no social status in this time and place, she would be the bottom rung of the ladder. There's a reason there aren't great books about maids and servants from this era - they were considered sub-human (well, basically) and nobody cared what they felt. Jane is a governess and wouldn't have the ability to know her life sucked. She certainly wouldn't have the place to speak these thoughts.

Mostly this feels like a bad soap opera - and a very slow one at that. I am very happy with the performances of Fassbender and Bell (I always think are both great), but I was not moved by Wasikowska. She projects her emotions too directly (happy, sad, miserable, scared) and doesn't allow any room for any mystery or nuance. The script and direction are not nuanced in the slightest. Here is where Jane is happy, here is where she is sad, here is where she is angry. It's all a bit too facile and banal.

Stars: 2 of 4

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould (Tuesday, March 8, 2011) (187)

This is an interesting biodoc about the great and eccentric Canadian pianist Glenn Gould. It tells his life, in great detail, from his childhood in music school to his breaking out as a star in Canada, to his early tour in Soviet Russia and then his debut in New York City. It shows how he was always a bit unusual, and how he got more and more isolated and weird as time went on.

This is a very, very long movie and feels like it's at least 20-30 minutes too long. I think there's a lot of detail that could have been cut out. It's not really about his "inner" life, as the title would suggest, but rather about how the world saw him and how he responded to the pressure. I guess when you're a genius and an eccentric, it's not totally fair to expect that we would see inside his soul.

Strangely there's very little mention of his psychological situation and the directors Michele Hozer and Peter Raymont barely address the fact that he was a paranoid, obsessive-compulsive person who might have been sociopathic and was hardly able to make many connections with many people. It's possible that his mental state led him to become the artist he was, but it would still have been interesting to see an analysis of his mind.

Most of the film is told with still pictures of Gould, along with film footage of his interviews (he was always being interviewed and filmed) and radio shows as well as interviews with his associates and few friends looking back at his life. One thing the directors do that I didn't like is in the final third of the film, they have an actor walking around aimlessly wrapped up in a coat and scarf (the way we had seen Gould do earlier in his life) and suggest this is him. It is not him - it's just a stand-in for him. This is not really necessary and adds a bizarre layer of non-reality to the film that doesn't help tell his story.

This is an interesting movie because Gould's life was interesting, but it does not work well from a script point of view. Some of the detail of his later, non-performing life should have been cut down as should some of background on his one big love affair (which doesn't really fit in to the film).

Stars: 2 of 4

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Adjustment Bureau (Sunday, March 6, 2011) (13)

Ugh. Where to start with The Adjustment Bureau, I dunno. This is a much too complicated actiony sci-fi-ish movie about angels, fate and love. It's so banal there are no words to properly describe it. It does make me interested in reading the Philip K. Dick story it's based on, because I can't imagine that's as bad as this and I'd be interested to see how writer/director George Nolfi screwed this up so much.

There really isn't much of a plot to this movie, but rather just some stuff that happens. David Norris (Matt Damon) is a rising political star who has a reputation for being a bad-boy. He loses a Senate election but meets his dream girl Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt)in the process. They lose contact and he goes on with his life. There are a bunch of weird guys in Mad-Men-looking suits who wear fedoras and all look at these iPad-like things with maps on them. It seems they have some way of following people on their special devices and have directions they're looking for the people to move in.

For them it's very important that David and Elise don't meet again of fall in love, but they're the gang that can't shoot straight and mess up all sorts of things. Ultimately they're exposed to David and it becomes clear that they work for God and they're angels, but they use business-like words, so they're working for the Chairman and work in an office in Manhattan (the Credit Suisse building, for what it's worth). The next hour is spent with David trying to find Elise, then finding her and then the dudes in suits and hats showing up to tell him they can't be together - but nobody knows why this is.

This film is basically Inception meets Defending Your Life, although unlike both of those films, it's never totally clear what the goal of the film is or when or at what point it would end. We see a bunch of chases and a bunch of guys in nice hats, but we never really care about anything that's going on because we don't really understand what's going on. Basically it's just a movie about a couple who want to be together, but are not allowed to for no particular reason. This might work for an act or two of a film, but is not really a full story.

There are a lot of questions that come up that don't make any sense. It seems that God and the angels are working against fate and chance and that humans have no free-will. I can take that last part, but in a world with God, why can't God control everything? How is it that God is just as much at the mercy of fate as humans are at God's mercy? I don't want to give away the ending, but I will say it's one of the dullest and most recycled things I've seen in a long time.

This movie sucks. What's worse, I think the whole point for the "men-in-nice-suits" aesthetic is clearly pulled straight from Mad Men (as is the casting of John Slattery as one of the main guys). I worry that the only reason to have the fedoras integral to the plot is to influence people to start wearing fedoras again... like Men in Black did for black sunglasses. Ooof.

Stars: .5 of 4

Friday, March 4, 2011

The Human Resources Manager (Friday, March 4, 2011) (12)

I've written before that what I really love about contemporary Israeli cinema are the very interesting, small and straightforward stories. Take, for example, Haim Tabakman's Eyes Wide Open, which deals with very deep matters of love and faith, but does it in a very intimate way using a very tight story and style. In the past, director Eran Riklis has done beautiful small movies, like Lemon Tree, but with The Human Resources Manager he sheds the simplicity and embarks on a bigger movie with a much more complicated, banal story.

The script for the film, by Noah Stollman (based on a book by Abraham B. Jehoshua, possibly based on a real event) is a mess and lacks a sensible structure. In the film, the eponymous and nameless manager works in a big bakery in Jerusalem. It seem that a woman who used to work there was killed in a suicide bombing, but her body was never collected from the morgue. The woman was a guest worker from Romania who has no family in the country, and the HR man is brought in when the tabloid press suggests the bakery was being cold-hearted in the situation.

As a face-saving measure the HR manager has to take the woman's body back to her country. Following him in Europe is the tabloid journalist who wrote the articles against the bakery and has a beef against the man (because journalists HATE middle-managers). What follows is a screwballish journey into the middle of nowhere with a casket on the roof of an Eastern Bloc van.

My two main problems with this movie are that, first, it moves at a glacial pace and by the time you're near the end of the film, it's hard to remember how the hell you got there, and second, it's a really boring, hackneyed plot. There's a back story about how the HR manager is having trouble with his family (because his job at the bakery is really hard... really?!) and this trip is creating more friction with his wife - but he has to go on the trip to show her that he's a good man. That's all well and good, but by the time you're stuck in some ex-communist military bunker (where he gets a bad flu for no reason), all that back-story is totally beside the point. And do we really need another movie about a man who goes off into the wilderness (well, rural Romania) to find himself to be a good man? I've seen it a million times before and this does nothing to improve on past efforts.

I also feel that the tone of the film is weird. It would be best described as a "screwball dramedy", where you're never sure if the next moment will be silly or serious and significant. This style doesn't really work for me as I think the comedy elements are not really funny (mostly just crass and cheap) and it would have been more effective if it had been a drama with comedic elements in it. Ugh.

This is not a bad movie, but not a good one. I'm frustrated that a director I liked so much before would make such an unwieldy, rambling movie. In fairness, the best part of the film is Mark Ivanir who plays the lead guy very well. I just think the script here needs some editing or rewriting. As it is now, it's a bit of a jumble.

Stars: 2 of 4

Of Gods and Men (Friday, March 4, 2011) (11)

I heard amazing things about Of Gods and Men before I saw it (one friend said it is a "masterpiece"), so I had high hopes for it. What I got was a nice movie, with some great acting, but nothing super tremendous, really.

The story is apparently based on true events that occurred in the late 1990s in Algeria. There is a monastery of eight old French Catholic monks (the youngest one in his 50s) who lived in poverty and worked to help the people of a small village in the Atlas mountains. They have a very good relationship with the people, all of whom were Muslim, of course. They all study religious texts, including the Qur'an, read Arabic and communicated daily with the village elders on matters of faith and nuts and bolts issues about the area. Most importantly they run a health clinic, where Brother Luc (Michael Lonsdale) provides basic medical services (and even shoes) for hundreds of people in the area a day.

At some point there is a radical terrorist group ravaging the area and killing people, particularly Europeans who are there for development. When the brothers are asked by government officials to leave the monastery, in hopes of avoiding an international incident of a slaughter of monks, their leader, Brother Christian (Lambert Wilson) decides that it was their mission to stay the course. This creates tension in the group and they all have to look within themselves to see if they wish to stay and continue to help the people or if they are too worried about their lives and the wish to go.

The movie is pretty darn slow - which is typical of a movie about monks, who lead slow lives (see also: Andrei Rublev or Into Great Silence). It's not so much that it's boring, but that not a lot of stuff happens. We see their daily routines, from planting in their gardens and cleaning the floors to working in the health clinic, making food and, of course, praying. There are really only two main interactions with the terrorists, and most of the tension is that we expect the radicals will come at any point and we are waiting for them to show up.

There is a very interesting theological discussion here about whether the brothers should leave the monastery so they can be sure to continue to help others elsewhere or whether they should stick it out and not run, because the people they are serving are not able to run. It's not entirely clear which choice is more holy or if they are selfish or proud choices.

The film looks very nice - and is certainly helped by taking places in a totally beautiful part of the world, on mountain tops with amazing views. Director Xavier Beauvois and cinematographer Caroline Champetier do a wonderful job of making the Algerian countryside look lush, warm and plentiful. The acting is very good throughout, particularly the two leads (Wilson and Lonsdale) and Olivier Rabourdin, who plays Brother Christophe, the youngest monk who probably struggles the most with the decision. There is a lot of good stuff in this movie, but it all feels a bit dull and the aggressors (some generic Muslim terrorists) feel a bit un-scary and banal.

Stars: 2.5 of 4

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Thursday, March 3, 2011) (10)

So before I begin, I should say two things about Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives: 1) I have a lot of respect for writer/director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, though I didn't love the only other film of his that I saw, Syndromes and a Century. It was absolutely beautiful to watch, but was basically impossible to understand. Weerasethakul is a darling of the critic and festival worlds, possibly because he's so impenetrable it makes people feel smart to say they love him, even if they don't understand him; 2) I only understand about 60-75% of this film, but parts of it have really stuck with me and I think I really like it.

So what I can glean about the film is that Uncle Boonmee is an old Thai man who is very close to dying. He's living in a remote area in the jungle with his sister-in-law, who has become his life companion, and being taken care of by a male nurse who gives him kidney dialysis. It seems that in Thai culture is is common that just before the time of your death you are visited by spirits of loved ones and characters from your past lives.

At dinner one night, Boonmee's deceased wife, gone for about 30 or 40 years, comes back and sits at the table with them. She's very warm and happy to know her sister and husband have made a life together. She thanks them for the things they gave to her at the Buddhist temple. After a few minutes of conversation, a giant monkey with red light eyes comes into the dining area and sits down. It turns out he is Boonmee's son who disappeared a few years after his mother died. It seems the son met a monkey spirit at some point and mated with it and then became a monkey spirit as well. (Well, he now just looks like a guy in a gorilla costume with red laser eyes.)

From there we start to see some of Boonmee's past lives. We see a sequence where there is a princess being carried through the jungle on a sedan chair. She has some sort of sexual relationship with one of the servants. They go into a cave where there is a small pond inside. She begins to talk to a catfish who lives in the pond and he convinces to her get into the water. From there he begins to give her cunnilingus and thrash about a lot.

Each scene has a dreamy quality with beautiful photography throughout, but they never really have true beginnings and endings (this is very much Weerasethakul's style from what I can tell). What makes matters more interesting, and more uncomfortable, is the many scenes are shot from outside of a point of comfort, outside of a point of intimacy. They are not really long shots where we're looking at people from 50 feet away, but are normally about 15 feet from the action, making everything seem a bit more distant, both emotionally and geographically. Add to this that the dialogue seems to be delivered in a very stilted manner, not as normal flowing conversation, but where people say their lines, then pause for a beat or two and then the other will respond.

This has a very strange effect on what we see. It certainly keeps up outside of the action. Unlike in some scenes around a dinner table, for instance, where you feel like you're sitting with the characters, here you really feel like you're watching the scene from an adjoining space. It also gives an internal structure and rigidity to a film that has very little of both throughout. Each scene rather melts into the next, but within each scene, there is a very defined architecture.

On a more emotional level, though, it definitely pushes us farther away from the action. We don't feel, say, like we are part of Boonmee's family who is taking care of him before his death. We feel like we're observing this happening from somewhere else. I think this has an interesting effect, considering the film is about death and reincarnation - two things we mortals know very little about - and if we were any closer we would have to understand more about those states. We are kept outside of the emotional center of the film because we are not ready to understand the depth of Boonmee's journey.

After seeing the film I am left with many more questions than answers about it. Was Boonmee the princess, the servant or the catfish in the story we saw? Are other animals we see throughout the film also some of his past lives? When we see a montage of still shots of the monkey-spirit man hanging out with men in camo military uniforms and machine guns, is that a pun on the words "gorilla" and "guerrilla"? Is that sequence about the deep spiritual side of men who sometimes kill others? Or that the monkey spirit is a violent one? Is the last act just a long way of saying that "after people die, those who survive move on with their lives"? (I really don't understand the gist of the last act.) Are we all able to separate our spirits from our bodies in everyday life so our bodies can watch TV and our spirits can go out for karaoke?

It's easy to say that some of these questions are more interesting than most films one normally sees.Though it's frustrating that this is such an opaque work, I appreciate that Weerasethakul clearly has a different view of the world than most people (which was also clearly shown in Syndromes and a Century). I'm happy that this film is much more linear a plot than Syndromes was (though, of course, it's not a very linear plot).

At times this film reminded me a lot of Haruki Murakami's Khafka on the Shore and Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. There is something very similar in the way Murakami moves his stories from our physical world to an unseen meta/spiritual one. People exist in this world and can move into the spirit world (or the spirit world can move into ours) in a very normal way. The lyrical idea that there are layers to our world and we only see one of those layers with our eyes is very interesting and a very central to the concepts here.

Stars: 3 of 4