Friday, April 29, 2011

Cave of Forgotten Dreams- 3D (Friday, April 29, 2011) (26)

On its surface, Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a documentary about the Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc Cave in South-western France and the spectacular paintings/drawings on the walls. Herzog and and a small crew were granted rare access to the cave to shoot a movie... so he made a documentary in 3D, of course! He shows amazing shots of the drawings, speaks to scientists about the age of the cave and the drawings and what we know or can speculate about the people who might have created them.

Of course nothing as as simple as it seems with Herzog, a madman, genius and life-long rule-breaker. This film really is an examination of human perception, comprehension and existence as well as a post-modern evaluation of the filmic form and our experience with movies.

Clearly the most gaudy part of this formal inquiry is the fact that it is a documentary (probably the least profitable cinematic form) made in 3D (probably the most expensive, showiest format). At some level you can understand that if you get the access to the cave that Herzog got, it only makes sense to make as much with it as you can. We viewers will never get to visit the cave ourselves (access is extremely limited to a few scientists each year), so we should be able to see it in a hyper-realistic format like 3D.

But this begs the question: What is a a hyper-realistic format? Would any method be more naturalistic than this? Is anything that is shot on film and projected onto a screen (or played digitally) really going to be like it is in the world, or is our understanding of the verisimilitude of the style overstated? I think Herzog is showing us here that what we perceive to be a given reality is frequently far from the truth.

Similarly our understanding of the paintings and the people who created them is never going to be complete and, in the end, is only guess work, despite a tremendous amount of time and effort spent researching them. We will never know if what appears to be an altar with a bear skull on it is really an altar or just a random thing that one person 30,000 years ago might have done done day for no particular reason. Formality, here, is a haphazard thing and not something we should put too much stock in.

This is underlined, I think, at a moment when two scientists are speaking about one wall where a person put a series of hand-prints on the wall. We see the two women standing in the foreground and see the wall they're talking about in the distance. As the 3D was processed in post-production from a 2D print (as opposed to being shot in 3D with multiple cameras), part of the area between the women (that is in the background) that surrounds their silhouettes is partially brought to the foreground.

One could see this as a technical mistake, but I'm not sure Herzog would leave something as obvious in the film. I think he's showing us that this 3D view is not what it seems; it is as much a construction as the scientific theories that these women are talking about are. Everything we see in the world is affected by our own view of the world. The scientists who are researching this cave are looking at it from a 20th/21st Century point of view. They are in the space themselves with their own human psychology changing their hypotheses. Nothing is pure or exact.

At one point a scientist working on mapping all the markings on the walls says that after spending a few consecutive days in the cave looking at drawings of lions, he went home and dreamed about lions that night. Herzog asked him if he dreamed about the lion drawings from the cave or about real lions that he'd seen on TV or in person. The man responds, "both". This is a very important moment because what the man is describing is exactly what happens when you watch a movie. At some point in the experience, you stop noticing you are watching on a screen and your mind goes "into" the picture. The mediation vanishes and you are somehow not in the theater (or living room), but a direct witness of what you're watching.

The documentary form is a kind of mediation as well and Herzog reminds us over and over again that as much as we can study the cave paintings, we will never know what the people who made them meant or thought. There are a lot of plays with documentary formalism and he breaks several rules of technique. Herzog narrates the film, but is also a character in it (as he's done with many of his documentaries), you see his crew in many of the shots and he even says to us directly that they would be there and he speaks of the camera they use to shoot (I don't know for sure, but I think it was a standard HD camera that was later converted to 3D). All of these things are normally cut out of documentaries to make them seem more "pure", but Herzog leaves them in. He's reminding us that these things get between us and the so-called "reality" of the cave - the same way the great distance of time gets between us and the cave painters.

In another sequence Herzog shows two drawings that are next to one another and says that they were actually painted more than 5000 years apart. (The drawings are about 30,000 years old and the cave has been sealed by a rock slide at the entrance for more than 10,000 years.) He makes a comment about how the people who lived at the time the paintings were done had a different idea of the passage of time than we do. Time gets compressed for us modern people over the great span of years. After that much distance, we can only imagine what their "forgotten dreams" were - assuming they had any in the first place.

There is still a stunning proximity to these drawings and to the time and place where they were painted. Some of the drawings show now-extinct animals, like mammoths, cave lions and cave bears when they lived in what is now called Europe. It is really stunning to consider that these beings we learned about in paleontology class, always distant fantasies, honestly roamed the world at the same time as human species. Suddenly these things don't seem so far away, suddenly the things we have imagined about these species comes alive. Our dreams and imagination, the opposite of mediation, become science.

For me, this is a logical pair to Herzog's 2008 documentary Encounters at the End of the World, another film ostensibly about science, but really about human existence and the lack of knowledge we really have about our world and ourselves. These films can be seen on a very straight-forward level, as movies about specific places (Antarctica or the Chauvet Cave), but they can also been seen at deeper, more existential levels.

Humans are creative beings, we make paintings and movies, but the reasons for doing those things is not always clear when they are made and even less clear as our time passes. This film will become like the paintings, a totem from a forgotten moment of expression. We shouldn't put too much importance on it.

In Herzog's view, the world is generally a thankless, horrible place where misery is around every corner. For him, these drawings are as much about the futility of creativity, due to its formal elements and its necessary contextual relevance, as they are about the human hope for documenting the past and leaving something for the future. We have no idea who these people are and it is rather silly to get into trying to understand them, but the study of these people itself is an interesting thing to examine inasmuch as it reflects on us and our view of our own humanity.

Stars: 4 of 4

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Robber (Tuesday, April 26, 2011) (25)

I hate movies that open with titles saying that they are based on true events. Most things that happen to most people are really dull and mundane and the idea of something being "ripped from the headlines" is overstated. After all, film is a creative art and something that has many hands touching it. A representation of a real event is no more real than a fantasy film of other wolds and unknown sciences. I see such caveats as a shield beneath which bad writers and directors generally hide. It's easy for someone to say, "well, you didn't like that section, but that's how it really happened, so you can't complain." This is stupid. Regardless of the genesis of a story, it has to be compelling and interesting to viewers. The Robber is based on a true story, but is neither compelling nor interesting. It's one of the dullest films I've seen in awhile and totally unoriginal.

This true story is about Johann Rettenberger (Andreas Lust), who is serving time in jail for a botched bank robbery and is also an avid runner and marathoner. When he gets out of jail he begins training as a runner and stealing cars and robbing banks. He surprises everyone by winning the Vienna Marathon as an amateur (not one of those guys who starts ahead of the pack) and then goes off an robs another bank.

He continues to train and rob banks (and carjack people to get getaway vehicles). He moves in with a social worker who he knows from the past and they begin a torrid affair. She catches on to his dealings but loves him so much that she helps him get away (several times). If he's caught, he escapes... and, of course, he's really good at running away from cops (get it?!).

This film is very... Austrian. It's absolutely humorless, there's a very clinical, cold sex scene (the social worker girlfriend, played by Franziska Weisz is actually quite comely), it plods along with no twists or surprises, it has no score and aside from a washed-out palette, it has no flashy visual/optical techniques. Writer/director Benjamin Heisenberg actually has one very nice shot as he shows the beginning of an ultramarathon from a great distance. All you see is a small village in darkness in the middle of the night, and slowly a line of headlamps the runners are wearing coming up the road.

Lust is good, but the character is barely two-dimensional. He has only two interests in life: running and bank robbing. He seems compelled to rob banks the way an alcoholic is compelled to drink. It's something he does and he doesn't really look to stop doing it. He never shows remorse or guilt, gets upset with the girl when she discovers him and bolts. There's nothing in this film to grab a hold of. The story is so dispassionate that it's hard to feel anything for any of the characters really.

I've always thought of movies about thieves to be some of the most fun and romantic. Bresson's Pickpocket, Penn's Bonnie and Clyde and Soderbergh's Ocean's Eleven are all fun to watch (and learn from) and simple, beautiful love stories (well, less so with O11, but there's that thing between Clooney and Roberts). This is not really a romance at all - it's just an unfeeling look at what one guy did at some point in time in Austria. You would get more emotion out of a newspaper article about the guy.

It's a totally boring, cold story that doesn't give any perspective into a greater human context, let alone Johannes's character. This film is a binary sketch of some events that once happened. Who cares?

Stars: 1 of 4

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Fourth Portrait (Thursday, April 21, 2011)

The Fourth Portrait beings with a ten year-old boy, Xiang, walking down a road by himself. He goes to a riverbank and plays at the edge of the water. We soon realize his isolation is not just emotional but real, as he next goes to his father's funeral. Xiang seems to be an orphan.

He does in fact have a mother, she lives in another town where she works as a prostitute. She's living with a new man and has a baby with him. When Xiang is brought to her door she is anything but loving to him. He's a relic from a past life that she's trying to escape. She hates her current life as well, but is out of options about how to survive. Xiang must try to survive in this cold world.

As the story moves along, Xiang, who doodles and draws as a hobby, creates four portraits that show his emotional evolution and also give thematic context to the chapters of the story. This is a beautiful and efficient way of telling the story. This film really is triumph of formalism that is a treat to examine. There is something very literary, almost academic, about the straight-forwardness of this structure, but it is actually very beautiful and easy to understand.

Director Mong-Hong Chung's sympathetic depiction of childhood bewilderment is beautiful. He shoots Xiang at his short level or from his point of view looking up at adults, rather than aiming the camera down toward him. This is a very powerful detail that makes us align immediately.

Xiang doesn't know from minute to minute who to trust, who are his family members and which ones of them are dead or alive. The ghost of Xiang's older brother haunts the family, particularly his cruel step-father who is clearly dealing with some demons of his own. Xiang's mother is unapologetic about her work and unable to connect to her son who is looking for simple signs of love and connections.

Chung has definitely been inspired by other contemporary Taiwanese directors, most notably Edward Yang, and his brilliant film Yi Yi, and Ming-Liang Tsai, and his brilliant film Goodbye Dragon Inn. All three of these directors use amazing saturated colors throughout their works as well as beautiful interplays of light and dark. In this film Chung uses color to thematically move the story forward: the first act is blue and green; the second act is red and yellow; the third act is white.

Clearly Chung has watched movies and quotes many of them very cleverly here. A scene between a bafoonish buddy of Xiang and another doofus speaking about real estate sales is a funny take on Kurasawa's Hidden Fortress (or Lucas' Star Wars, which was taken from that as well); the squalor and pain Xiang lives in is reminiscent in tone and appearance to Igor's life in the Dardennes' La Promesse; moments are reminiscent of the desperation of poor children in So Yong Kim's Treeless Mountain. (There are elements of Haruki Murakami here as well.)

It is interesting that as devastating as Xiang's situation is, this is not really a sad movie. There's a matter-of-factness to how this is his life and life will go on that is very powerful. This is a wonderful film and is particularly beautiful from a stylistic, formal and emotional stand point.

Stars: 3.5 of 4

The Fourth Portrait will play at The Film Society of Lincoln Center's Taiwan Stories: Classic and Contemporary Film From Taiwan on May 6 at 6:30pm and May 8 at 3:30pm.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Meek's Cutoff (Friday, April 8, 2011) (24)

Kelly Reichardt makes very slow movies about nothingness. Her previous two films, Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy both follow people (and a dog) doing mundane stuff with no real plot or formal narrative structure. Her movies are basically the answer to the question, "What would a movie about my life look like." The simple answer is: it would be rather uneventful.

But Reichardt shines in this dullness and makes it rather beautiful. Her newest film, Meek's Cuttoff is a departure from her previous films as it is not set in our contemporary world, but is otherwise very similar in tone and concept. It follows a wagon train of three settler families as they cross the desert wastelands in Eastern Oregon in the mid-1800s. They are being led by a mysterious man named Meek who has either lost his way and is lying about knowing it or knows where he is going but can't explain to the families how long the journey will take. Whichever one it is, the train seems to not be making much progress in the middle of the desert.

As they move along, there is tension between the families and Meek, fighting within the families and a constant fear that the Native people of this part of the country will kill them for trespassing on their land. Along the way they pick up a native guide who speaks no English (his dialogue is not subtitled, leaving us as much in the dark about what he's saying as the characters are) and seems to be as much a harbinger of death as a pathfinder. The eeriness of desolate landscape is made even more spooky by the lack of any particular action or the change in topography. It seems the group might be going in circles, but it's never really clear.

Technically this film is a real triumph of doing a lot with a minimal amount of flare. Whereas with her past two films Reichardt showed a particularly DIY quality, here everything looks a bit more polished, though still with a very simple, non-showy nature. She uses mostly available light so it's particularly bright and white/yellow during the day and is black with firelight at night. She employs wonderful silhouettes during the day and shadows at night.

Her very natural recording of sound is one of the most amazing parts of the film, where the microphones are clearly put in positions to not only catch the blowing wind but also the snippets of conversation of people talking far away, as if you were in the desert with them. The most remarkable scene has the men talking in a group about 50 yards away from the women who are watching them. Reichardt sets up the mic close to the women so you hear what they hear, drowned out by the distance, rather than what most directors would do, setting the mic over by the men and just gaze at them from afar.

There does seem to be a rather feminist or at least "women's" point of view here. The costumes throughout the film are particularly wonderful (designed by Victoria Farrell) but the women's costumes are bright in fantastic colors, and much more interesting than their very basic designs. What's very important is that all the women wear bonnets whose brims hide their faces. A few times Reichardt puts the camera inside the wagons looking forward or backward so the arch-form of the frame imitates the arch-shape of the female headgear, giving us a similar view to what they are seeing.

Almost all of the characters appear throughout the film with obscured faces. Meek (Bruce Greenwood) has one of the all-time bushiest beards ever seen on film (you can barely tell it's him because you can't really see much of him). The men all wear hats and the women wear their bonnets, and everyone has filthy faces from the miles they've traveled, of course.

All of the acting is very strong, thought none of the performances are particularly noteworthy as they all become part of the harsh landscape. Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Shirley Henderson, Will Patton and Zoe Kazan are all very talented actors and recede into the background when it is most important.

The allegorical content here is very interesting and just as unanswerable as any question in the film. There are clear allusions to the Odyssey, the Aeneid, the Book of Numbers and, of course, the Inferno. It seems like the group might be traveling through hell and that maybe they're dead already or on their way to being dead. It's never clear if Meek is a charlatan, a false idol, or if he is really a cryptic guide who moves in a timespace that humans can't understand so well.

This really is an existentialist film at its heart and the closest literary connection might be Sartre's No Exit. Whether these people are really going anywhere or are just stuck with one another for eternity is never totally clear. The only person who seems to have a clear vision of what is going on is the Native tracker who abandons the group at a point. I particularly love that Reichardt gets all this amazing thematic and formal content into such a simple-looking film. She touches on all these things but doesn't dwell on any one aspect. It's really a beautifully and brilliant execution.

Stars: 4 of 4

Monday, April 4, 2011

The Double Hour (Monday, April 4, 2011) (23)

The Double Hour is a movie about... well, about doubles. Boom! The title comes from the moment when the hour on a digital clock match the minutes (10:10, say). At these times there is some magic in the air and there is a suggestion of an alternate world - a parallel world to ours (though not as elegant as the Double Life of Veronique).

In the film, Sonia (Kseniya Rappaport) is an Eastern European immigrant maid working in a hotel in Turin. One night she goes to a speed dating event and meets Guido (Fillippo Timi) a widower who is working through the pain in his life by dating (and fucking) as many women as he can. There is an instant connection between the two of them as they are both trying to escape their pasts and enjoy the romance and eroticism of the other's company.

One day, on a date to Guido's work as a surveillance security guard, they are caught up in robbery that goes wrong. It seems to us that Guido is killed and Sonia survives, but in this world of doubles, things aren't always what they seem.

Director Guiseppe Capotondi is anything but subtle with the double imagery and motifs. Guido's deceased wife looks just like Sonia (as does one of the women he's screwing at the beginning of the film), leading us to make constant double takes (get it?!) and question who we are seeing at any given moment. There are a lot of mirrors throughout (an easy thing to put on screen when Sonia's work involves cleaning bathrooms) and the screen if frequently split by masking devices (like in the poster). All of this style is clever, and overall this is a very good looking film, but it is totally overdone. It's impossible to watch the film and not notice every single double, which gets very tedious and really doesn't add up to much in the end.

This feels like a movie that has a slick script that looks great on paper and is nice and sleek looking on screen, but really doesn't mean very much once all is said and done. As an exercise in technique it's a lovely work, but it's emotionally rather hollow and has such a pedestrian twist it could just be a big budget Hollywood studio piece (though such a film probably wouldn't look so good).

My problem with Euro movies that feel like Hollywood garbage is that Euros don't really know how to make Hollywood garbage well. They put too much beauty in them (they're Euros after all). On the surface this seems like a nice movie, but if you dig just below the surface there's not that much there. I guess that's yet another "double'.

Stars: 2.5 of 4

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Win Win (Saturday, April 2, 2011) (22)

Writer/director Thomas McCarthy has a very straight-forward, frank style to his comedies. He makes movies that are totally set in our world, inhabited by characters who we could easily know as our neighbors (or ourselves) who get into difficult situations partly because of their own doing and partly because they have bad luck. His latest film, Win Win, explores how when stuck inside a world of deep malaise, people do dumb things for good reasons, and that, as with life, stuff generally works out in the end.

Mike (Paul Giamatti) is a suburban lawyer in New Jersey who has a small practice that he is struggling to keep afloat. He's married to a wonderful, loving woman, Jackie (Amy Ryan), who takes care of their two kids and has a very sensible head on her shoulders. Mike is also the wrestling coach of the local high school, where his team is one of the worst in the area. He loves wrestling and working with the kids, but the team's mediocrity and the floundering of his work is getting to him.

As part of an elaborate and unethical scheme, Mike becomes the guardian for one of his elderly clients, Leo (Burt Young... Paulie from the Rocky movies) for which he gets a few thousand dollars a month. One day Leo's estranged grandson, Kyle (Alex Shaffer), shows up unannounced and Mike feels obligated to take him in until his mother (who is in jail and rehab) can come collect him from Ohio. Kyle, a champion high school wrestler, joins Mike's team and starts to make an impact on their record and the structure of Mike and Jackie's house beings to help him. The problem, of course, is that this could all fall apart if Mike's scheme is exposed.

This is a particularly well written script. I really like the structure of this story, going from order to chaos to order, but in a very natural, understandable way. After it ties up in the end it is clear how we got to that point. It does not feel overly-manipulated by the writer, which happens much more often in movies than I'd like. It seems like more often than not, writers have an idea for a story and an ending and put a bunch of filler in the middle for no reason that moves along clumsily to that end point. The plot here winds along very organically, which fits in well with the matter-of-fact style of the film.

McCarthy loves the mediocrity and sadness of Northern New Jersey (those words are my judgement, not his). Unlike directors like Todd Solondz or Kevin Smith who delight in the weirdness of the place and paint caricatures of it, McCarthy's New Jersey is very direct: a suburban area that has a life apart from the big city it is next to, but is somehow a place of lost dreams. Life is what it is, in this place. It's not romantic, it's not silly, it's just a bit grimy but mostly good.

My biggest problem with the film comes down to this issues of naturalness, or lack thereof, where the script gets a bit jumbled. Mike's friend and business associate is Vigman (Jeffrey Tambor) a CPA who he shares the office with. Vigman is his assistant wrestling coach and good for a funny line here and there (Tambor is typically dorky, bitter and hilarious here). Unfortunately McCarthy also includes another character, Terry (Bobby Cannavale), Mike's best friend who is going through a mid-life crisis and sees helping Kyle and the wrestling team as some sort of mid-life mission. The problem is that there is simply not enough material here for there to be two friend/coach/confidant characters. It would have been better if these two characters had been merged into one. Cannavale's tone is also too jerky, too frat-boy for the film, which is otherwise sorta subtle and dark and clever.

Amy Ryan has become one of my favorite actresses in recent years with her work in The Wire, Gone Baby Gone, a comedic role on The Office and the HBO series In Treatment. She's always fantastic and never overdone. Here she continues this great streak as a woman who you almost feel bad for (she's very average) until you realize she's probably the strongest and most sensible characters in the film. She also does the most impeccable life-long-New Jerseyite accent I've heard in awhile.

Perhaps the best thing McCarthy does in this movie is to make Paul Giamatti somewhat likable. I think this is his most natural, normal, calm character since he played Pig-Vomit in Private Parts (he was brilliant as Harvey Pekar, but Pekar was a weird guy very much up the Giamatti explosive alley). Giamatti has become almost unwatchable for me as each one of his characters reaches a new depth of sadness and misanthropy. Here he's just a normal schlub with normal life problems on his back. He tries to figure out a way out of his situation, but digs himself deeper into a hole. This normal, every-manness of the character is totally the core of this film. It's a lot of fun.

Stars: 3.5 of 4

Super (Saturday, April 2, 2011) (21)

Super is a gonzo comic book movie straight out of the brain of a disaffected 15 year-old boy... or out of the brain of writer/director James Gunn. There is nothing here that your mother would like. It's crass, bawdy and silly - sorta Mystery Men meets Evil Dead.

Frank (Rainn Wilson) is a loser fry cook living in Anytown Exurbia, U.S.A. He has a terrible life and his wife, Sarah (Liv Tyler), hates him and only married him because she was getting straight after a stint in rehab. She leaves him for Jacques (or Jock, as Frank understands his name) (Kevin Bacon) a piece-of-shit strip-mall strip club owner and drug dealer, which sends him into a downward spiral of self-loathing.

One day he goes into a comic book store and meets the clerk there, Libby (Ellen Page). The two decide that they will design their own super hero personae (the Crimson Bolt and Boltie) and fight bad guys on their own. It's very similar in story (and tone) to Kick-Ass and Scott Pilgrim (both from last year).

What follows is one of the silliest Looney-Tunesy riffs I've seen in a long time. It's totally gross with tons of blood and foul language, but totally enjoyable. It's a sad world of despair and cruelty and Frank, as the Crimson Bolt, is violent and remorseless. After he blows someone's head off with a gigantic gun, he steps on his brains to rub in the point.

The script here is hilarious, bittersweet and very clever. Gunn has the perfect mix of stupidity and archness to make the dialogue feel as real as anything you'd see from an art-house think-piece. The acting is fantastic, particularly the supporting cast of Bacon, Tyler and Michael Rooker. Both Wilson and Page are actors who frequently err on the side of overdoing roles, but here they are both understated and give great, painful performances.

The best scene of the film, and one of the best comedy scenes I've witnessed in a long time, has Libby throwing herself at Frank, who is not really interested in her (he is, after all, trying to win back Sarah's heart). She convinces him that if they wear their costumes the sex will be better and easier for him to take and he won't really be cheating on Sarah. She puts on music and does this weird, uncomfortable dance (reminiscent of that Elaine Benes jig from Seinfeld), which is utterly unhot. She then mounts him and proceeds to... well, to rape him in the most silly and awkward way. In terms of "funny rape" scenes (yes, there's a category for that) it's up there for me with the one from Observe and Report (the best funny rape scene ever).

More than anything, this is a tale of melancholia and pitifulness, set in the most average, beige Americana background. It is hilarious, but there is a dark cloud of pain lying below the surface. I think it's a rather deep movie (like Observe and Report) that is wearing a gross-out comedy gown. I think there is more there than meets the eye... underneath the superhero mask.

Stars: 3 of 4

In a Better World (Saturday, April 2, 2011) (20)

Susanne Bier's In a Better World, which won the Oscar this past year for Best Foreign Film (over the far superior Dogtooth), is about bullying and facing bullies head-on. It is far from a subtle film, generally clobbering you to death with parallels, symbols and important meanings of small gestures. There is no way to watch this movie and not understand exactly what Bier is trying to get you to understand. This makes for a dull viewing experience; I'd much rather watch something and have my own journey deciphering it rather than having my hand held through the narrative.

Anton is a doctor in Africa for Doctors without Borders (or some NGO just like that). He works in a very poor village where people not only suffer from typical diseases like malaria and infections, but are also being beaten and cut up by a local warlord who terrorizes them. Anton's family back in Denmark is hanging on by a thread. He and his wife are separated and about to get a divorce and their early-teen son Elias is constantly the target of classmates at school for being fat (and partly Swedish... Danish kids can be so cruel!). If you didn't understand the connection, both Anton and Elias deal with bullies in their daily lives.

Elias meets Christian, a transfer student who has been living in England for several years with his parents. His mother just died and he and his father have moved back to the family estate to regroup. Clearly Christian is emotionally affected by his mom's death, and he doesn't like that Elias is the butt of classmates' jokes. The two become friends when Christian violently defends Elias. This sets the tone of their relationship: loyalty, but at a price.

Bier might have more White European guilt than any other director working today. One of her last films, After the Wedding from 2007, was about a Danish man trying to split his life between a swank Copenhagen family and his job as an orphanage director in India. I guess it's nice that she makes movies about sad, poor people who are not as well off as Euros, but her back-and-forth style in this film and that earlier one is a bit tedious and uninspired. I'm smart enough to understand that a white doctor in Africa or India is probably seeing things that he wouldn't see back home where he's from, I don't really need him to sit around contemplating how different the worlds are.

There is a very nice moral dilemma moment when Anton has to decided if he should keep his doctor's ethics and help save the life of the warlord, which would in turn let the evil man live to hurt and kill other villagers, or if he should let him die, playing God and saving more people down the line. This is a sorta fun moral game that one can think about for hours and hours. What are the limits of ethics and morals? Is it ethical to let one man die so you can let hundreds others live? This should really be the core of the film, but it's really just a chapter in a greater story. I think this is a mistake in the script (by Anders Thomas Jensen).

Aside from the pain of seeing people starving and sick in Africa, this is not a very difficult movie. It's nicely shot and well acted, but it's directed more like an after-school special than an Oscar winner. There is nothing particularly challenging and generally the Euros live to buy Ikea another day. The Africans are basically forgotten about by the end, which is a strange twist on this holier-than-thou tale. Interesting....

Stars: 2 of 4

Friday, April 1, 2011

Potiche (Friday, April 1, 2011) (19)

Continuing in his effort to make a film from every genre (including some genres you never knew existed), Francois Ozon's Potiche is a silly and lightly satisfying farce in the most classic French style. The story is pure popcorn nonsense, the writing and directing are rather unremarkable, but overall, this is a good and not great movie.

Suzanne Pujol (Catherine Deneuve) is a woman whose family has owned an umbrella company for a few generations (see: Demy's The Umbrella's of Cherboug) and has married a strong-willed man who is managing the plant now (it takes place in the 1970s). At some point he leaves the helm of the factory for health reasons and she takes over control. To this point she's been an obedient housewife ('potiche' means "trophy wife," en francais) managing a large house. Now she has to make business decisions in the midst of union troubles at the factory.

To help her comes Maurice Babin (Gerard Depardieu), now a Communist member of the national assembly, and formerly a political radical in the '60s. The two had a passionate romance once upon a time and now their close working relationship rekindles some of those flames. Suzanne has to manage her heart, the business and the family and keep her head about her.

The supporting cast here is great, lead by Fabrice Luchini as Suzanne's domineering and foolish husband, Robert, and Jeremie Renier, as the fabulous and possible gay (or just really into the disco scene in a French way) son, Laurent. I know this is a silly thing to say from this point in the middle of his career, but I think that in 50-some years we will look back at Renier's career the way we see Jean-Pierre Leaud's as a man who grew up in front of our eyes, almost literally, through the films he made.

The script, adapted by Ozon, is rather efficient and the story is paced well. The last act gets a bit too silly, I think, as Suzanne decides to stick with her husband and run against Maurice in the national assembly election. There are some funny bits in the film and some draggy bits as well. It's a nice movie, but nothing incredibly special. I think the acting is probably the best thing it has going for it, though that should be what you get when you hire some of the most talented actors in the world, non?

Stars: 2.5 of 4

Miral (Friday, April 1, 2011) (18)

Ugh. This fucking movie... So Julian Schnabel has made three fabulous movies up to this point: Baquiat, Before Night Falls and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. I think he films are much more interesting, much more visually appealing and much more approachable than his other artworks (I really don't like his broken plates on canvas "paintings). Miral, however, breaks that streak as it has a really terrible story, is full of terrible film cliches, has no clear narrative structure with lots of waste and was apparently cast by a blind person (and a deaf person).

The story follows the Palestinian freedom movement from the creation of Israel in 1948 to sometime randomly around the Oslo Peace Accords in 1993 (apparently the Second Intefada wasn't important or something). Miral (Freida Pinto) is a girl born to two Palestinian people in the 1970s. After her mother dies, her father puts her into an orphanage for Palestinian girls in East Jerusalem (I think) set up by Hind Husseini (Hiam Abbass) who is a sorta political person. There she is raised on the edge of political radicalism, but never really becomes a radical herself.

At some point when she's a teenager she gets a boyfriend who is more of a radical and she begins peacefully protesting Israeli treatment of Palestinians with fliers and picket signs. Then she's arrested and then there's a peace agreement (I don't mean to give too much away. Sorry). That's about it. More than anything, this is a really, really dull story where basically nothing happens. It doesn't really give a good view of the Palestinian struggle (Arafat and the PLO are never mentioned, as far as I could tell) and doesn't really explain any amount of world history that was happening at that time.

There's nothing wonderful about the look of the film, nothing you haven't see a million times in other movies. Schnabel plays with colors throughout the film, so sometimes you get washed out, super bright desert scenes, sometimes he puts a blue or red filter on the lens and you get blue or red scenes. The camera seems to move a lot, in one sequence he tilts it up to look at the tops of trees in a woods and spins... I think I've seen that before in one of his movies (maybe Diving Bell). It's all a bit paint-by-numbers filmmaking and not really interesting.

OK - so let's talk about how Freida Pinto is an Indian woman born in Mumbai and is not Palestinian. This was really totally distracting for me throughout the film. I heard an interview recently with Schnabel who said that Rula Jebreal, who wrote the memoir the film is based on (and who is now Schnabel's girlfriend), looks Indian so he cast an Indian in the role that is based on her. Well, that would be great, if the movie was called "Rula" and it was hyper-realistic - but it's not. It's a
movie called Miral and there is no sense in not casting a Palestinian, or Arab, woman in the role. It's weird and culturally dishonest.

Then there's the fact that the film is in English and not Arabic. Two of his first three films are not in English. Before Night Falls is a film about Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas and it is in Spanish and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is about French fashion editor Jean-Dominique Bauby and is in French. So why the hell is this movie in English? It's totally distracting, especially when there are English-speaking characters in the story - like a US military guy who mysteriously comes in and out of the first act of the film and is played by Willem Dafoe.

The film has been getting a lot of press about how it's anti-Israeli or something. I really don't see that totally. It's anti-Israeli the way that Star Wars is anti-Empire or the way Pan's Labyrinth is anti-Spanish fascists. That is to say that the Israelis are painted so broadly and are so bizarrely one-dimensional that they almost cease to exist as real characters or a real negative force.

There are several (turgid, terribly written) lines of dialogue where you hear Palestianians commiserate about " why won't they let us build new houses?" or "why are the settlers in our land?" Well, yes - those are good questions - but empty questions really won't scratch the surface of the issues. We see IDF soldiers acting like dicks at checkpoints. OK - buy why are they acting like dicks? And is it only the soldiers who are acting this way or do Israelis on the street agree with them. The fact is we see basically one civilian Israeli in the whole film, played by Schabel's daughter Stella... and she's a pretty cool girl, who is then dropped from the plot.

My favorite bad part of this bad film (aside from the all-brown-people-are-the-same mixup) is that end credits song is some obscure Tom Waits tune, sung in English, sorta a bluesy, mournful rock piece. Uh, Julian, are you telling me there wasn't something more relevant to the story or the region that you could have put in this spot? Maybe a song from the rough geographic area (by a Palestinian musician? Even a Palestinian rock song? Something in Arabic?)? What's the point in all this cultural gobbledygook? I don't really know and I bet Schnabel doesn't either. This is very much the throw-pasta-at-the-wall approach to making movies. It doesn't stand on its own at all, is incredibly boring and is pretty dishonest as a historical narrative.

Stars: .5 of 4