Monday, August 29, 2011

Higher Ground (Monday, August 29, 2011) (77)

Higher Ground is the directorial debut of actress Vera Farmiga (it was written by Carolyn S. Briggs and Tim Metcalfe, based on Briggs' memoir). After seeing the film I hope it's the last film she directs as well. It is the story of Corinne (Farmiga), a woman growing up in the '60s in a typical, poor, somewhat broken house. She and her younger sister Wendy are sent to the evangelical church in their town where she's introduced to "giving herself to God" and whatnot. She's a bookish girl and only discovers boys in high school when one of them, Ethan, asks her to write a song for his band.

The pair quickly fall in love and by the time Corinne is out of high school she has a baby and is on tour with Ethan's band. After a terrible tour bus accident (see: Metallica), Ethan and Corinne decide to devote their lives to God. When they grow up a bit more (grown Ethan is played by Joshua Leonard), they join a hippie evangelical church with rather repressive rules (women must obey men totally and cannot seem to be teaching them anything, women have to wear very conservative clothes) but are happy with their friends in this community.

Time moves along and after a series of sad things happen to Corinne (her best friend gets cancer) she begins to question her faith and her marriage more and more. At a crossroads, she has to figure out if this is the direction she wants her life to move in or if she would rather have a more secular, worldly life.

The biggest problem with the film is that Corinne, as a main character, is a total cypher and gives us almost no perspective on her own life. It's never clear how faithful she really is and if she had doubts earlier in life. We see her struggling with speaking in tongues (something that her church doesn't believe in, but her best friend does) and we see her praying for help with certain things, but we never really understand if she's not faking it the whole time. Our view of her is entirely on the outside of her psyche, she's as much an object here as the furniture in her house.

It's a weird thing to watch a film about a person of faith and not get any sense of the depth of their faith or their subjectivity (if a man had made this film I would say it was a bit misogynistic). Forget Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest, Dreyer's Ordet or Bergman's Winter Light; this is a movie about the surface of faith that thinks its a deep work.

The pacing of the film is very hard to deal with as it moves along quickly through time. From one scene to the next we're in 1969, we're in 1975, we're in 1980 and on and on. But all this change for what? We never really see a development or growth in Corinne (she might have just been faking it the whole time... we never know). I really don't think this obscurity and uncertainly is the point of the film either; I think it's the result of a bad script and bad direction.

Farmiga, as an actress is fine, but her character is rather monotone; Leonard and Norbert Leo Butz (who plays the young pastor) are very good; Nina Arianda who plays Corinne's grown sister Wendy is wonderful as she always is. It mostly seems like Farmiga, as a director, doesn't seem to know well how to tell a story with different formal and technical tools. (Silence and lighting are great, so is the use of a diary, in such a story.)

Above all else, I don't really care about Corinne or her life. She's boring and average and doesn't seem to have any story that is compelling in the slightest. A story about a religious woman who falls out of of love in midlife with her high school sweetheart? I've seen that a million times before.

Stars: 1.5 of 4

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Tales from the Golden Age (Sunday, August 28, 2011) (76)

Tales from the Golden Age is a collection of six comedic film shorts all about life in Romania around the end of the Communist era of the mid- to late-80s, what Romanian leader Nicolae Ceausescu called "The Golden Age". All the films are written by Christian Mungiu, whose brilliant 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days set a benchmark a few years ago for what Romanian New Wave cynicism and aesthetics could look like.

Here, Mungiu works with five young directors to make the films, each one with a style that doesn't not seem to show the wonderful formalism of the movement: no long takes and no static shots. (Strangely the neither the credits nor imdb seem to say exactly who made which movies; the official website only mentions a few specific directors and films... oh, to be a real movie reviewer who gets press kits.)

The six shorts are mostly unconnected, but generally deal with the poverty of the era and how Romanians got along with subverting the official orders of the Communist party and bureaucratic suits, how the system was clearly too complex and top-heavy to survive. They each tell the story of so-called "legends" (urban legends) that persisted in the era, mostly about people who got away with naughtiness or ridiculous stories that could only come from a repressive, ridiculous system. They move on a string from short and silly to longer with a darker, more cynical humor. They are as follows:

1) The Legend of the Official Visit: A small village has to prepare for the official visit of a group of Party elites; just as they get everything set, the plans change, leaving the villagers bitter. (There's some hilarious puking in this one.)

2) The Legend of the Party Photographer (directed by Hanno Höfer): A group of Party officials have to correct a photograph of Ceausescu to make him look taller and not subservient to his Western guest.

3) The Legend of the Zealous Party Activist (directed by Ioana Uricaru): An urban Party activist tries to teach rural farmers to read and take better care of themselves.

4) The Legend of the Greedy Policeman: A family tries to hide a pig in their public housing apartment and kill and butcher it before a holiday.

5) The Legend of the Air Sellers: A high school girl tries to get enough money to go on a school trip by collecting bottles from her neighbors, saying she's a government official needing to do a scientific experiment.

6) The Legend of the Chicken Driver: A driver of live chickens figures out a way to make a bit of cash by selling left-over eggs laid by the chickens in his delivery truck.

Some of these are better than others (I particularly like the first two and the fifth), some of them are a bit more serious and drawn out (the second three).

At times this film feels a bit like Kieslowski's The Decalogue, a result of setting some of the stories in public housing blocks (all Communist-era public housing blocks in Eastern Europe looked alike, apparently) and the balance of absurd officiousness and absurd comedy; at times this feels like a Kusturica send-up of Yugoslavia and people doing silly things that they think are serious (there are no Romany here, but some of the rural people seem as capricious as Kusturica's gypsies). (I'm not saying all Eastern European movies are the same, I guess it's the Communist aesthetic that I'm responding to.)

This is a fun film, but not really an important one for the Romanian New Wave. It's an interesting analysis of politics on the ground during this era, but it's lessons are rather simple.

I'm a bit upset that it so greatly veers away from the slow and direct style of other films from the Romanian New Wave, but I guess that's the nature of movements - they move on and change over time.

Stars: 3 of 4

Your Highness (Sunday, August 28, 2011) (75)

I had big hopes that David Gordon Green, Danny McBride and Ben Best's Your Highness would be much better than the reviews and box office numbers suggested it was. After all, the three of them are best friends with and close associates of Jody Hill, the brilliant creator of Observe and Report and Eastbound and Down (Observe is one of the best films of 2009 and the best comedy of the past decade). Sadly this film is every bit as terrible as one would understand from the hype. It's directionless and one of the most totally random ideas for a movie I've seen in a long time.

By randomness, I mean, of course, that the film is set in some sort of fantasy dungeons and dragons medieval-type world. Fabious (James Franco) is the son of the king and an all around fantastic guy. He is honest and brave and kills dragons and monsters all the time. He returns to his father's castle after a campaign and brings with him his new fiancee, Belladonna (Zooey Deschanel). Thadeus (McBride) is Fabious' ne'er-do-well brother who hangs out, smokes pot and fucks as many young wenches as he can find.

During the wedding of Fabious and Belladonna, bad wizard, Leezer (Justin Theroux... JenAn's babydaddy), comes and kidnaps the bride to take back to his dark castle. The two brothers have to set out with their knights and associates to rescue her, marking the first heroic thing Thadeus has ever done. Along the way he randomly meets Isabel (NatPort), a totally hot woman who also is randomly also seeking to kill Leezer. She joins the gang in their quest.

There isn't really much pot smoking or pot jokes in the film, unlike a past Franco-DGG effort, Pineapple Express (which was also not funny). Clearly the biggest problem here is the script, which is more forced than funny. That the story takes place in this fantasy world is sorta funny (in a stoner way), but random beyond all understanding. Why on earth are they making a stoner knight movie? Nobody was asking for this film (and there's a suggested of a sequel at the end... which will probably never happen).

This has the overall feel of the Evil Dead films - in that it's a monster/fantasy movie that has a very tongue-in-cheek tone to it. Clearly it's not that good (Evil Dead II is a great film). It doesn't feel nearly as self-knowing or self-confident as that film, and much of the awkward humor seems to be from the fact that the actors (particularly Franco) know that what they're doing is stupid and they're laughing at it as they act it (like the worst parts of Seinfeld).

David Gordon Green remains a total mystery to me. He started out his career with some very dark, small dramas that had interesting aesthetic tones and a powerful melancholic sensibility. He has now made two terrible comedies in a row (with his buddies) (although, in fairness, he's directed a few episodes of Eastbound). Where is he going? Has he told all the serious stories he has to tell? I feel like it's somewhat of a shame that he's doing this. I'm sure he's having fun, but it's a weird direction for his oeuvre, n'est-ce pas? Clearly this is a misfire of a film. I just hope it's not the sign of things to come for the people involved in it (almost all of whom I really like).

Stars: 1 of 4

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Our Idiot Brother (Saturday, August 27, 2011) (74)

Our Idiot Brother (co-written by Evgenia Peretz and David Schisgall and directed by her brother Jesse Peretz) is a feel-good indie comedy about a zany family and their aloof, sweetheart brother. In the future I will use the term "a feel-good indie comedy about a zany family and their aloof, sweetheart brother" as a euphemism for boring and stupid. This movie is so proud of its small weirdness that it covers all liberal bases (that is, it's a movie that liberals... well, white people, would love): pot smoking/dealing, lesbians, documentary filmmaking, dogs and being nice. All of these things, of course, when listed like this, are treacly and flaccid. There is really nothing different between this film and a list of things.

Ned (oh, isn't that a wonderful name for a doofus!) (Paul Rudd) is a hippie who sells organic vegetables at farmers' markets in suburbia. He has a naïve sense of the world, one where he doesn't understand how people lie to move along and how those lies should be met with some level of skepticism on his part. One day he's arrested for selling pot to a uniformed policeman and goes to jail. When he gets out he moves in with each of his tree sisters in succession (all of whom live in New York City) for a spell.

He ends up changing their lives (at first for the worse, but ultimately for the better) by being wide-eyed and having no ability to keep his mouth shut. He doesn't understand that when his brother-in-law says he is shooting his documentary of a dancer in the nude to get closer to his subject, that he's actually is lying to cover up the affair he's having. He reports this tidbit ("Did you know he shoots the documentary in the nude?") but doesn't realize that it's effectively going to end his sister's marriage (probably for the best, of course). He changes everyone's life, but not on purpose. He stumbles into being a good person, but is really just a loser all along.

Rudd is good, but the character he plays is really annoying. There's only so much stupidity I can tolerate as "he's just a well-meaning guy" before I want to take him by the shoulders and shake him to get him to realize he's being dumb. Are we really supposed to think he's just this aloof because he smokes a lot of drugs? Is there something here that "some people are just free-spirits and don't understand subtlety"? (One: there are not people like that, and; two: if there are, I hate them and don't want to watch a movie about them because they're annoying.)

I can't tell if the inclusion of a (magical negro) black parole officer is a cynical commentary here about how white people have it really easy in our world and how when they screw up (dumbly) they can get back on their feet. I don't think the film is that deep or that that criticism is really here, but that point is suggested. There is basically nothing different between Ned and, say, Gator from Spike Lee's Jungle Fever (a druggie who constantly gets into trouble with family and the law) other than their race, the state's treatment of that race and the drug of choice. Of course, Gator is a tragic figure (in a classical sense) and Ned is a lovable everyman (because he's white and the people who will see this movie are white).

The supporting cast of the film is actually solid, with Zooey Deschanel, Rashida Jones, Adam Scott and Steve Coogan (I don't really like Elizabeth Banks, who's doing her best impersonation of Parker Posey here, or Emily Mortimer, who's doing her best impersonation of an American here), though the script and dialogue are so terrible they might as well be doing bad college improv.

This movie is sweet, nice, happy and written to be funny (though I never laughed). It's just totally dull and frustrating. I think there's a nice germ of a film here. A loser brother helps his family by showing them how to be less callous. It's just the execution is so tedious, I can't even say I enjoyed it.

Stars: 1.5 of 4

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Guard (Thursday, August 25, 2011) (73)

The Guard is a very weird movie. It's a cop comedy with a white cop and a black cop - but unexpectedly such a scenario plays out in Western Ireland, home to all sorts of gonzo hijinks and racist people who choose to not speak English. As the film opens, Sgt. Gerry Boyle (Brendan Gleeson) watches a car of drunk kids flip over on a road. He gets out of his cruiser, goes over to the crash scene, finds a bag of drugs, takes out a tab of acid and drops it. You see, Gerry has his own way of doing things. And it's gonzo.

There seems to be a big drug delivery that's going to come in to the port in the rural village where Gerry lives and works. To help with the arrangements to capture the dealers, the FBI sends agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheedle) to help out. Right away he's faced with all sorts of terrible stereotypes of black people from Gerry and other locals. He weathers it well, but it creates a contentious relationship between these two guys who are now working together. Ultimately Wendell returns the barbs to Gerry with stereotypes about Irish people (it's comedy, people!!).

Gerry's behavior is unconventional and goofy. He has an afternoon tryst with two hookers from Dublin (he brings them in on the train) rather than working on the case, he moves evidence from a crime scene for no good reason, he makes deals with the drug dealers he's supposed to be hunting.

Just when you think the film is a screwball cop flick, it gets sorta deep and serious. There's a story about Gerry's mother who is about to die; there's a story about rural Ireland versus urban Ireland; there's a buddy story about Gerry and Wendell. You can never really feel comfortable because it's both silly and serious.

It feels a bit like an Edgar Wright/Simon Pegg movie at times (Hot Fuzz in particular) and a bit like Henrik Ruben Genz's off-beat Danish cop western, Terribly Happy from last year (in large part due to the topography of the locations), but it's not really as good as either of those. Those films really know what they are and they do those things well (silly comedy;dark, atmospheric drama with comic elements). This seems to want to be all things at all times, but it ends up being neither fish nor fowl (cool metaphors, I know – you're welcome). It's not particularly interesting from a story/script point of view and has basically nothing artistic about it. It's a square peg jammed into a round hole and is not wonderful.

Stars: 2 of 4

Monday, August 22, 2011

Love Crime (Monday, August 22, 2011) (72)

Alain Corneu's Love Crime owes everything that it is to Alfred Hitchcock. It is a noir-murder mystery very much in Hitch's style, down to the blond heroine and brunette villainess. It is, however, nothing close to anything he would have made, because the details that are the hallmark of his films are nowhere to be found here; this is the film Hitch would have made if he had had no imagination.

Isabelle (Ludivine Sagnier... God, she's gorgeous) is the hardworking assistant to Christine (Kristin Scott Thomas... who can only make movies in French now) in an international business firm. As the film opens, we see Isa at Christine's house preparing for an upcoming meeting. Christine hits on Isa, who is clearly shocked by the overture, but also interested by it. Just then, Philippe (Patrick Mille) comes in to break up the tension. He's a client of the firm and Christine's lover.

Christine sends Isa to Cairo to present a deal to new clients. Her pitch goes off brilliantly and she celebrates with Philippe (who is there for the presentation) over a fancy dinner and roll in the sheets (French men are sluts). Back at the office, Christine, takes full credit for Isa's success, much to her consternation. Their relationship falls apart from there and culminates with Isa murdering Christine. It's unclear exactly why she does it, and also what her plan is to get away with it.

Whereas Hitch shows the amazing and meticulous detail of murder in a gripping, if mundane, dispassionate, way in Rope or Dial M for Murder, here Corneau takes out all the beauty and interesting minutiae and basically shows us a list of actions. It's an interesting difference that might have a lot to do with camera placement and depth of focus approaches of both directors (and a great lesson on the brilliance of Hitch).

Hitch shoots these expository scenes from far away or with short lenses that expand the frame, sometimes shortening the depth of a shot; Corneau, on the other hand, shoots this long murder and cover-up sequence mostly in close-ups or with longer lenses, isolating Isabelle (not a big problem for me, as I love looking at Sagnier up close) and merely presenting these mundane elements just as mundane elements. It reminds me of the expression that someone "is so interesting you could listen to them read the phone book". Here we have a very boring person just reading a phone book ... and it comes off sounding like a phone book.

The murder itself is weirdly direct and sudden with almost nothing shown to get us to expect it. In an interesting touch, Corneau uses a Pharoah Sanders jazz saxophone score layered over the action, adding a nonchalance to the act. I actually like this and respect the boldness of such a oddly fitting sound from what we are seeing (the conflict of the visual and the aural are wonderful), but it's almost too artistic for the overall tone of the film. It also hard to keep from laughing when you see Sagnier dressed in a white anti-bacterial suit as she does the deed (she really looks like an oompa loompa with a knife... you'll get no commercials).

Corneau uses two visual themes throughout the film, Isa in her bed going to sleep and Isa eating breakfast in her kitchen. They both seem to create a shorthand for showing her as a meticulous person who has a spotless house, who is almost totally isolated from warmth and love, who has few passions in her life but is still not average (as clean as she is shown to be, she might be the worst dish-washer I've ever seen on screen). As with the music choice, I like the strangeness of these scenes and how they break up the flow of action we see. I think they're ultimately unnecessary, or at least there should be fewer of them, but again, I like Corneau's daring to include them.

As much as I like looking at (OK - watching) Sagnier, I have to admit that her performances are wildly inconsistent from one to the next. Here she is actually pretty wonderful as the workaholic woman who clearly cares more about her job than her her physical appearance or dating life. In one scene when Christine comes on to Isa, there is an amazing moment where we see Sagnier's eyes change at the realization that she's being hit on; later we see a similar change in her look when she is given a work assignment. Clearly she is a good actor, perhaps some of the roles she gets are less interesting.

Aside from the overall polished and banal look of the film (why couldn't have been shot like a classic noir?) I really don't like that the narrative here is rather obscure. We never really learn why Isa does what she does. Is it really a crime of passion or is it a complicated way of getting rid of her boss to get promoted? There is almost no look into her psychology - not even through objective correlatives or stylized lighting and mise-en-scene. The murder is almost comically sudden and unprovoked. There are clearly some good elements here, but the overall aroma of the piece is stinky and underdeveloped.

Stars: 1.5 of 4 Stars

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Crazy, Stupid, Love. (Tuesday, August 16, 2011) (71)

Omigod - there's so much punctuation in the title of the film Crazy, Stupid, Love.! What's going on there? It's a list with a period at the end? Is it a statement? Is it a description of the three acts of the film? What the eff?! Ugh!

This very sweet movie, written by Dan Fogelman and co-directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, has a very nice story with a wonderful little twist at the end. It's totally unoffensive and a wonderful love story ... or, well, four or five love stories, or something.

Cal (Steve Carell) is a sad-sack forty-something dad who is kicked out of his house by his wife of twenty-some years, Emily (Julianne Moore). He goes to the bar at a mall (naturally) where he meets the lothario Jacob (totally the name of a lady-slayer... in the Old Testament) (Ryan Gosling) who proceeds to update Cal's wardrobe and give him lessons on hitting on women and general gamesmanship.

Meanwhile, Cal has two young kids who have a 17-year-old babysitter, Jessica, who is in love with him, and Jacob is trying to make it with a redhead law student, Hannah (Emma Stone), who thinks she's better than him. (Oh - I love the idea of a hot gentile couple called Jacob and Hannah! Oy vey! The Elders of Zion indeed!) Then Emily's mister, David (Kevin Bacon) is hanging around too, and Cal's son, Robbie, is in love with Jessica... and Marisa Tomei plays a woman who Cal takes home from the bar.

I hate ensemble stories. They're so goddamn overly complicated and unnecessarily redundant.

Suffice it to say that most of the humor in the film is us laughing at Cal and the ridiculous situations he gets himself and his family into. There is a silly quid pro quo, straight out of Beaumarchais and a scuffle that ensues (physical comedy!!). It's all very nice, but really not earth-shattering.

Gosling, as always, is very funny and self-assured. I still have no idea what is up with his affected speech and it wears rather thin, when he's playing a very fashion-forward guy, leaving him sounding like he's some millionaire hood-rat. (Did he learn to speak like that from Eminem? Isn't it really fake for both of them? I still think I'd rather hear Ryan rap than MM.) Carell is very good in a more dramatic role with less goofiness and less "look-at-me-I'm-being-silly" hammy stuff we're used to from him.

This is a very watchable movie, filled with tiresome cliches and only the most polished-down modernist style. It won't upset anyone and will make everyone kiss their loved one. Bo-ring.

Stars: 2 of 4

Friends with Benefits (Tuesday, August 16, 2011) (70)

The magical thing about Hollywood is that movies frequently come in pairs. Sometimes that's a result of silly luck (like how last year had two mall-cop movies open), but sometimes it's because ideas float around and don't get made and then other versions are written and produced that copy from them. That is the case with Friends with Benefits, which was based on a similar screenplay bouncing around Hollywood for awhile, called No Strings Attached. Now we have two movies about "fucking friends" and they're very similar.

As with NSA, Friends with Benefits is a surprisingly watchable film. This is not to say that it's deep or interesting, or particularly good, but it is silly and fun and generally holds together storywise. Dylan (Justin Timberlake) is a magazine designer who is recruited from LA for a big job at GQ in New York. Jamie (Mila Kunis) is a headhunter in NYC who brings him to the position. After he accepts the job, the two become fast friends and commiserate over their mutual dislike of dating and their love for sappy rom-coms (OMG - so meta!).

They decide they'll start having sex all the time, but only remain friends and not consider themselves "dating". This of course goes terribly wrong at a certain point when it becomes clear that they have different expectations from their arrangement and that "friends with benefits" is really a sloppy situation.

As with most young rom-coms these days, this is an extremely foul-mouthed film with tons of frank details about sex and sexual desires. There's something strange about a guy (JT) saying he sneezes after he cums - because it's both shocking and banal at the same time. We never hear guys talking so directly about sex, but, of course, talking about it in a studio film like this, makes it tremendously less risque, more bubble-gum. Eh.

Timberlake shows himself (again) to be a true "triple-threat" talent. He's handsome as shit, funny with great timing and very good at conveying his point. Kunis is very good here (I'm not as familiar with her work, aside from Black Swine), though her role here is more regular than his. (I have to admit, in my ideal world, I would take JT from this one and NatPort from NSA to make the perfect film... but then you'd have Kutcher and Kunis - which might make a good movie poster, but would die onscreen.)

It's funny that kids who are so happy to be fluid about what "making out" and "hooking up" is, are so concerned about titles of relationships ("dating", "friends with benefits"). I guess I don't really related to these stories in some weird way - maybe I'm too old for them? They really feel like a younger generation's idea of sex projected onto characters around my age. Interesting.

Then again, I don't know why people as perfect-looking as Kunis and JT would ever get frustrated dating and having sex with as many people as possible (you could call it "pretty people's burden"). (This goes back to the Jennifer Aniston politique, where she is not a convincing sad-sack girl who can't get a date.)

And then, of course, one has to ask what the difference is between "friendship" that involves emotional support and unlimited sex and "dating". I guess I'm old-fashioned.

Stars: 2.5 of 4

The Help (Tuesday, August 16, 2011) (69)

The Help is a film about piss and shit. One might think that it's a story about empowered women, racism in 1960s Jackson, Mississippi, mean-girl bullying or the humanity in every human, but it's really about scatology and urology. At our cores are not good souls that deserve racial and gender equality, rather we are all vessels for our next bowel movement. At least that's what I learned from The Help.

Skeeter (Emma Stone) is a self-possessed white woman in 1964 who just graduated from Ole Miss and has just gotten a job at the Jackson daily newspaper. She goes to her bridge club where she sees all the white girls she went to high school with (and apparently, even though Oxford and Jackson are only a few hours apart, she hasn't seen them for four years, or something). They are all dominated by the ginger hell-bitch Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard) whose power comes from her deep faith in segregation and her own whitedom (actually, it's a total mystery why she's the boss as her mother, played wonderfully by Sissy Spacek, seems much more liberal and less bossy than she is).

The intrigue begins with Hilly needing to relieve herself, but refusing to do so because Elizabeth, in whose house they're playing, lets her black maid use the toilets rather than having them go outside. This is an affront to Hilly and her asscheeks and she insists that Elizabeth shape up.

As this hubbub is going on, Skeeter, who, Jesuslike, is the only White woman to care about the Black maids, notices that Aibileen (Viola Davis) and Minny (Octavia Spencer) are listening and feeling bad. They don't think their backsides are disgusting and neither does Skeeter (and neither do we, goddammit!).

In need of a story that she can write "from her heart" (let's begin the list of terrible misogynistic cliches that the film highlights rather than criticizes) for her cartoonish New York book publisher, Skeeter arranges with Aibileen and Minny to have them tell her their "stories" about looking after Whitefolk so she can write a book... by which, of course, she's really just going to transcribe (secret: transcription is not the same as writing non-fiction, Miss Skeeter). Skeeter wants to "shake up" the precious Southern society she lives in... though we never really know what drives her (aside from that "she went to college").

Pier Paolo Pasolini used shit and piss a lot in his masterpiece Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom. For him it was a symbol of bourgeois tastes, of cultural fascism and of the decline of a great Western tradition. He saw the controlling of a person's basic bodily functions as the most debasing thing one could do to another.

Writer/director Tate Taylor seems interested here in the control part of this equation, but only in the most banal terms. For him, this is a symbol of blind racism, of how white people in this era had crazy notions of safety based on bigotry and how dehumanizing it was for these black maids. Pretty understandable.

But that is possibly the most superficial readings of the Jim Crow South I've ever seen. Black people had their feelings hurt by mean white people? That's insulting. Almost no time is spent discussing lynchings, segregation, terrible living situations for blacks, pay inequalities or racially bigoted laws. Looking at a very basic timeline, one sees that James Meredith entered as a student at Ole Miss when Skeeter was a junior in 1962, so she might have had something to say about her bigoted colleagues at school who harassed him. But no.

It's never really clear that Skeeter is the instigator that she's meant to be. She certainly has a beef with Hilly who she sees as insensitive and overbearing, and clearly has a desire to tell the stories of all the black maids, though that's also personally motivated. She never makes any speeches or comments about how the segregation system is wrong-minded and basically goes with the flow more as a prankster than a revolutionary.

Our hearts are supposed to be warmed by Hilly getting her just desserts (so to speak), but she really only gets embarrassed in our eyes, those of the black maids and a few white women. She still wields tremendous power by the end and her dark ways continue (as does segregation and bigotry in Jackson). There's a weird non-ending to this film, where basically nothing happens and nothing changes. Here we get a re-heated tale of subterfuge and good and evil, but nothing really happens. Black maids continue to get paid pennies for their work, continue to have to use the toilets in the back yards of their employers' homes, continue to live in a world that hates them.

Worse than anything else, the shit and piss here really comes back in act three to be merely a punch-line. So much for racial equality and human decency. But that's really all this film is. This is not a movie about the fight to end racism (like In the Heat of the Night, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner or even Remember the Titans). This is a movie that uses the era of major changes in Civil Rights understanding and legislation merely as the wallpaper for telling a "women's story" about women who work (black women) and women who don't work (white women). This would be an interesting Marxist parable, but it's not even that. It's a knitting-circle story that asks few questions and requires even less understanding.

The main lesson here is "all shit stinks the same" - and this film certainly is that.

Stars: 1 of 4

Saturday, August 13, 2011

30 Minutes or Less (Saturday, August 13, 2011) (68)

The title of Ruben Fleischer's 30 Minutes or Less comes from the fact that the main character, Nick (Jesse Eisenberg), works for a pizza delivery place that has one of those deals where if you don't get your pizza in 30 minutes you don't pay for it. Considering the plot of the film involves a bomb/kidnapping, you'd expect some sort of "you-have-30-minutes-before-the-bomb-goes-off" sorta thing, but, alas, writer Michael Diliberti apparently isn't that clever.

Nothing about this film is clever or particularly funny. Nick and his best friend Chet (Aziz Ansari) are fighting over their past jerky behavior and the fact that Nick slept with Chet's sister, Kate (Dilshad Vadsaria) (which, of course, is totally uncool, brah). Meanwhile across town (this town is Grand Rapids, Michigan, home of great tax-free filmmaking!), losers Dwayne (Danny McBride) and Travis (Nick Swardson) are trying to kill Dwayne's dad (Fred Ward) so he can inherit the lottery money he won a few years ago.

Their dumb plan involves them ordering a pizza from Nick's place, kidnapping him and strapping a bomb to his chest, then forcing him to go rob a bank. Oh-kaaay. Nick has to enlist the help of Chet to rob the bank and save his butt.

There are a bunch of moments here where you presume what you're hearing was written as comedy, but none of it is very funny. The plot is stupid in the worst banal way and the acting all around is wooden (and I'm a big fan of Zucker- ... uh, I mean Eisenberg and McBride). Ansari's style is to normally rather monotone with punctuations of high-pitched shrieks; that's normally funny, but here it just comes off as line-reading and uninspired.

This movie is a bomb.

Stars: .5 of 4

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow (Wednesday, August 10, 2011) (67)

Sophie Fiennes's documentary about German mixed-media artist Anselm Kiefer, Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow, is an interesting and beautiful meditation on the creative process and a fascinating examination of how one artist sees the world and the future. The title is taken, apparently, from the biblical story where after humans leave the earth, there will be a new world of life, that there's a cylce to things and that we build things and they fall apart and then they're re-built later.

Kiefer's art is very much related to this. He's a post-structuralist painter and sculptor whose work generally is abstract but deals with the general driection of things moving toward their endings and toward chaos. Generally his work is about post-war, post-industrial, apocalyptic and post-apocalypic themes where stuff falls apart and breaks and the colors and textures are earthy, dirty and somber.

Fiennes filmed Kiefer during a time he was working at a former silk factory in the South of France. Apparently he took over a complex of buildings for several years, excavating certain areas, using the industrial spaces and materials as his inspiration. The work there is an expansion on the motifs and materials of lead, cement, dust, glass, water, books, boats (and all that those things symbolize). We see him working with his assistants on certain paintings (which are really assemblages of paint, found materials, glass and lead arranged in generally significant ways - though their significance is a bit hidden from us).

Fiennes alternates between expositive sequences of the work in the spaces of the building, undercscored by minimalist music by Ligeti and others, silent shots of the assistants and Kiefer working on the art in silence and more interactive parts where the artist explains to his assistants what he needs done by them. There are no talking heads or voiceovers explaining what we're seeing. There is, however, an interesting sequence in the middle where Kiefer is interviewed by a German journalist. He's very funny, in a very German way, in this element, possibly because the journalist is so literal and rigid — even more German than the artist.

This film is a very interesting examination of how art is about exploring human existance and how art refers to other, older art. There's an interesting dialectic between heavy, solid things and new, fluid things and how monumental elements fall apart over time. This is an investigation about how concrete can be soft and malleable and how dust and dirt can be pretty, about how all that remains after a silk factory leaves is concrete and metal. Soft and hard. Kiefer's work is not particularly aesthetically beatutiful, but it is powerful and full of complex emotions. This is an interesting look at a chapter of his career, moving from order to chaos.

Stars: 3 of 4

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Sarah's Key (Sunday, August 7, 2011) (66)

There have been a handful of thematically and intellectually offensive movies about the Holocaust in recent years: Life is Beautiful, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Schindler's List, to name just three. We can now add Sarah's Key to that list. All of these films take the already emotionally charged and boldly "good versus evil" elements of Nazis, death camps and murdered children and trivialize them until we get these cumbersome tales so thick with shallow sadness it is hard to breath.

Sarah's Key is so emotionally superficial and sentimental that it makes us feel angry that someone would have so little sense as to make such a work of dreck. The story is utterly forgettable and recycled and has such an accusatory tone that the meta-film, the concept of how the French respond to the Holocaust inside a Holocaust film, becomes more important than the narrative itself. This is a French film in the style of an American Hollywood film. The symbolism is blatant and hackneyed and historical details are pushed aside for manipulative devices. The film is facile to a fault and disgusting in its tone.

Julia (Kristin Scott Thomas) is an American journalist married to a Frenchman and living in Paris where she writes features for a magazine. She and her husband (and their early-teen daughter) are about to movie into his family's apartment in the Marais and are busy renovating and updating it. Meanwhile Julia begins writing a story about the collaborationist French government's arrest and deportation of French Jews in July 1942, known as the Vel' d'Hiv Roundup. (This is indeed a largely unknown atrocity in the history of the Holocaust, one that is not taught often in American schools, at any rate.)

The deeper she gets into the story, the more she finds out about the fact that her husband's family probably moved into their apartment days after the previous tenants (a Jewish family) were sent to their deaths. She discovers that the daughter of that family, Sarah, might have escaped and survived after the war (well, really she just finds that there are no records of her in the Nazi records, so she assumes she survived - whatever). She goes off in search of the girl, who somehow represents the hope of happiness and freedom she is missing in her marriage (or something like that).

The film is told by bouncing back and forth between the present with KST and the past where Jews are rounded up and sent off to their deaths. Most of the time, however, the moments where we jump from the past to the present or from the present backwards seem absolutely arbitrary and more motivated by script structure than by anything thematic or resonant. Most of the transitions happen when the young Sarah, who is trying to escape the Nazis to go find her younger brother who was locked in a closet in the apartment, is in a particularly precarious position - just in case you thought Nazi roundups were all sunshine and daisies.

This tedious manipulation and banality is so omnipresent in the film, it's hard to even single out a specific moment. At one point, when Julia is telling her journalist colleagues what she is uncovering in her research, one of them says, "When you think that such terrible things happened, it really gives you pause." Gee, thanks. I wasn't aware that an anecdote about thousands of people being rounded up and put into a filthy stadium before being sent off to their deaths was sad and terrible. Thanks for making that clear to me.

I have said in the past that nearly all contemporary French films deal with national guilt over the nation's role in the Holocaust, North Africa or other colonial outposts and here we have yet another example. (I should say that this is not a negative thing, but just an observation. Audiard's A Prophet is loosely about North Africa and colonialism, but is brilliant.) What's unusual here (and not unusual in a good way) is that the story is about an American digging into the story rather than a French person. When Julia's family seems to not be interested in the story of their apartment, she gets angry and judges them for their aloofness.

This feels like director/co-writer Gilles Paquet-Brenner is both a criticizing French society for not being more interested in the history of such a bad event as well as a strange celebration of American tactlessness. Why in the world would a woman shove a painful story down the throats of her family (and then later suggest that she regrets having done it)? When has it ever been acceptable to air dirty family laundry when nobody was asking about it? What's so wrong with people wanting to live naïve lives where they don't dig into the corners of historical events for which they're not guilty? Make no mistake, Julia is an asshole in this story and she is treated like a hero.

Stylistically, Paquet-Brenner treads on the most cliched turf imaginable in film. Just like the "girl in the red dress" in Schindler's List, Sarah's key (a key she used to lock her brother in a hidden closet in their apartment before they were rounded up) becomes some sort of supersymbol that we see over and over again, always with the same superficial effect. Why does it need to be so literal? Don't we understand the pain Sarah and her family feel for their lost brother/son without needing a visual clue to explain it to us? Are we really that stupid that we can't understand the sadness of the murder of a child?

This film is much more of an American-feeling film than a French one. There is no depth to the discussion and seems to move along on a surface level, pulling on heartstrings (like introducing irrelevant other kids, just to kill them off... in case we didn't know that lots of kids died at the hands of the Nazis) rather than anything in our brains (and, yes, the average French movie is smarter than the average American movie... this probably has to do with production volumes as much as anything else).

Somehow Julia's quest, even though it shakes two family's to their foundations (despite nobody in either family ever doing anything offensive), is some sort of righteous experience. It is not, of course. Julia is a sociopath and utterly unaware of the fact that Sarah's story is unremarkable and irrelevant to the lives of contemporary people. Not to say that hidden stories are better, but exposing pain from long ago isn't always worth the trouble (Julia and Paquet-Brenner seem to think it is).

I don't need to be told that the murder of children and innocent people by the Nazis (and their Petainist collaborators) was a bad thing. I learned that lesson a long time ago. This is a case where the truth is so banal that it doesn't really set anyone free, but just makes them frustrated for finding it out - and for finding out in such a trite way.

Stars: 1 of 4

Friday, August 5, 2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Friday, August 5, 2011) (65)

So, it's pretty special right now that there's this new blockbuster called Rise of the Planet of the Apes and there's also a documentary called Project Nim and they're both about chimps and human-chimp interactions. In fact the first 20 minutes of Apes lines up almost directly with the first act of Nim. Special. Of course one film is more or less scientifically rigorous and raises questions about our humanity and methods and the other is a popcorn-seller that feigns those things, but really just gives us a bunch of shrieking primates (humans and chimp) and no story, structure or sense.

Will (James Franco) is a scientist working for a lab to develop an Alzheimer's drug. When one of the apes he does his tests on goes crazy he smuggles its baby out of the building and into his home attic for safekeeping. It seems that this chimp, Caesar, has been genetically enhanced by meds given to his mother. OK. Will's dad (John Lithgow) suffers from Alzheimer's, but when he's given these still-untested meds, he shows tremendous mental recovery. Will thinks he's on to something... .

What he's not onto (what would have been clear if he had watched Project Nim) is that living with a chimp is not easy and that chimps are really strong and can be very violent. At some point, Will meets a veterinarian (Frida Pinto) who explains to him that he has to let Caesar run around in the outdoors out of the house (he's been living with the feckin' chimp in the attic for three years! Jesus!). They fall in love.

Five years later, they're still living with the chimp (by which point it's probably bigger than a human and many times stronger) until he attacks a neighbor (stupid gag: the neighbor gets attacked or harassed several times in the film; it's actually not funny). He's sent to a primate collection center run by Brian Cox and Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy), who apparently hate primates, or something. Over time we see Caesar becoming the king of this zoo (oh, I get the significance of his name now!) and ultimately his revolt against the humans. Then there's a big fight on the Golden Gate Bridge (even though they start on the North side and then end up on the North side... confusing).

It's never clear who the good guys are and who the bad guys are here. Draco and Brian Cox are clearly bad, but Franco is good (even though he's the worst scientist in the history of the world and Frida Pinto is the worst vet and the least interested girlfriend/wife ever) (there's a scene where, after living with him for five years, Franco shows Pinto the research he's been doing... and it's all out in plain view in his study in the house... as if she never though to wander in that room and read the stuff). The big pharma lab Franco works for seems to be bad, but we really don't care about it; the apes are good, then bad, then good again. There are a lot of people who die but no blame is assigned for their deaths. It's not as if this is ambiguous and interesting, it's just confusing and impossible to align with anyone (or anyape).

Technically this film is a big steaming pile of apeshit (question: why is 'apeshit' a synonym for 'crazy', but 'horseshit' is a synonym for 'shit'? Ima change that.). Baby Caesar looks like a special needs child (crossed with a Conehead) and looks nothing even close to real. The CGI animation here is a joke, particularly in the early stages of the film.

At some point when Caesar gets to be "fully grown", he is animated with the help of human-puppet-like-person Andy Serkis (who also did the "acting" for Gollum in the Lord of the Rings movies). Much attention and praise has been given to Serkis - and I absolutely can't figure out why. It basically looks like it could have been animated the same crappy way with or without him in a motion-capture suit. And really, if we're giving credit to the actor playing the ape, doesn't that mean the actors playing humans are doing a terrible job? (They are.)

(I want to add a few points here: 1) Most people don't know what the heck apes look like or how they move, so to say Serkis looks natural as an ape is bunk because that's an assessment based on no reference; 2) The original 1933 King Kong looked much more "natural" than this, whatever the hell that means; 3) I don't think Serkis does anything that thousands of modern dancers/Cirque de Soleil people couldn't do and I don't know why he's getting such attention.)

To say the wrting and directing in the film are bad is to insult bad writing and directing. (And yes, this might have a worse script and be directed more ham-handedly than Transformers 3.) Director Rupert Wyatt so totally doesn't know how to organize a competent sequence or scene that most of the time we're left wondering about basic things like what we're looking at or the geography of floorplans. The crowning jewel of the film is a totally unnecessary shot of Caesar and his crew, having busted out of ape jail, on top of a San Francisco trolly-car going over a hill and posing; the reverse shot of their backs show the towers of the Golden Gate Bridge, mostly obscured by the apes themselves. This is terrible shot construction (all digital, of course, meaning they could have put any of those elements anywhere on screen) and fits in nowhere to the continuity of the story.

The script, by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver (veterans of schlock horror garbage), is a structural mess: the first two acts are really about nothing but Caesar being locked up and not being an interesting character and only the last act has any action in it. It also has some of the worst dialogue in recent memory. When Will finally finds Caesar after he's thrown his feces all over San Francisco, all he can do is to ask him (nicely) to come back home with him. Yes, Will, your pet chimp just went fucking crazy all over town, killing people and destroying a major steel bridge; I'm sure he'd love to move back to your suburban attic. Stupid.

I can't imagine why so many reviewers are so kind to this film. It's an absolute turd and has no redeeming qualities to it. Everything from the wooden acting (Franco has that in him, to be sure) to the terrible technical stuff to the terrible artistic stuff makes this movie just awful. Rather than seeing it, you should see Project Nim. It's a very similar story and done much better.

Stars: 0 of 4

Mysteries of Lisbon (Friday, August 5, 2011) (64)

Filmmakers, perhaps more than any other artists, have always been fascinated by point-of-view and the internal narrative structure of a story. There are probably many reasons for this, but it has a lot to do with the fact that film is a multi-media, multi-sensory format where things like the camera's angle, what is seen and what is unseen, who the narrator is and at what point in the story is he or she sitting all affect the audience's view of something. In literature there are certainly issues of a narrator's voice (first person, third person) and if any of the characters in the story are telling the tale, but I don't think this element is as interesting or as deep.

Raoul Ruiz's Mysteries of Lisbon is a long movie to be sure, at a staggering 272-minutes, but it's rich and filled with an interesting investigation of point-of-view and of stories within stories. He takes cues from Kubrick, Sokurov and Bergman and turns out one of the best films of the year.

The gigantic tale, adapted by Carlos Saboga from a book by Camilo Castelo Branco, mostly revolves around Pedro da Silva, a boy who lives in a Church school when the film opens in mid-19th-century Lisbon. He does not know who is parents are and is ostracized by the other kids because of this. It is soon revealed that he is the out-of-wedlock child of a noblewoman and her lover and was protected by the head priest, Padre Dinis (Adriano Luz), when he was born. Now his mother is back in his life and Padre Dinis is going to give him the story of his birth and his parents' romance.

From this point forward we see a tremendous story along the lines of Dickens, Hugo or Thackeray that investigates the histories of every person in Pedro da Silva's family, and many of his family members' associates. This is a story of discovery for the boy, for Padre Dinis and for us as they delve into the baroque complexity of his parentage and his life.

In one of the first scenes, Pedro's mother gives him a cardboard proscenium frame for cut-out puppets - a clear homage to the toy that Alexander played with in the opening shot of Bergman's Fanny and Alexander. Our first thought is of all the themes from that film: the questioning of faith, the loss of faith, death, humiliation, anger at parents, reconciliation, magic and imagination. This is a powerful symbol and an efficient way of bringing up these ideas that we come back to later in the story.

This proscenium also serves to show us that the story is just a story and that we will be experiencing it through the eyes of several characters; the frame of the cardboard stage lets us know that we will be seeing a story from many different frames of reference told by many different people. Throughout the film we see sequences set up by having the characters appear in cardboard cut-out-form inside that proscenium, underlining the fictional, manufactured elements of the story. Right away there is an idea that there is no absolute truth that exists in this world, but that all history is relative, complicate to understand and somehow unnatural or fake.

From here we see and hear stories told by different characters, like Padre Dinis, some of whom tell stories within stories (and some stories within stories, within stories) about different characters and their backgrounds. We find out that basically everyone has a complicated past where they had a different identity (and some will have different identities in the future). We see how small decisions at one point will affect many points down the road, but then when you go back to retrace the steps, understanding becomes difficult.

This richness we find is not only visible in the storytelling, but also in the amazing direction by Ruiz and his brilliant composition of the frame and choreography of movements within it. He brilliantly uses short and long lenses to gain depth of field or focus on small elements, he frequently stages gorgeous static moments when characters are seen in the frame in beautiful correspondence with the others. Scenes where there is movement, like the requisite dance scenes in period pictures (there's always got to be at least one, doesn't there?), are full of people and textures, decorations and objects - a total delight for the eyes (an very reminiscent of Sukurov's Russian Ark).

Big productions are always complicated to make and open their directors to tremendous criticism (James Cameron for Avatar) or praise (Olivier Assayas for Carlos), much of which stems from the sheer size of the work (they're too long, too complicated, hard to follow, amazing in their detail, such a big and wonderful story). This film, originally made for Portuguese television where it played as a six-part miniseries, is just about the grandest thing you'll see this year, but it is also an incredibly dynamic story with a gripping plot filled with intrigue and masterful visual artistry. It's rare to see a movie of this length where the artistic elements are as compelling as the story (Assayas, for instance, didn't use much style or creativity in his presentation of Carlos - the story was really the most important element for him).

Despite its length, I strongly recommend sitting through the whole picture (it's shown in two parts and one could easily see each part on a different sitting). The scope of the story from beginning to end is amazing and beautiful and it's wonderful to see how each character deals with his or her own story, considering they are each living in their own subjective worlds seeing life through their own prosceniums.

Stars: 4 of 4

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Beginners (Thursday, August 4, 2011) (63)

Beginners is a very intimate, funny, personal and sad movie by writer/director Mike Mills. It does sometimes boil over with sentimentality and cuteness (he is married to Queen of Cute Miranda July), but his enthusiasm is infectious and he communicates the difficulties of discourse brilliantly through montage, score and clever dialogue (sometimes from a dog).

As the film opens, Oliver (Ewan McGregor) tells us that his mother died five years ago and that his father, Hal (Christopher Plummer) has just passed away from cancer. Hal had just came out as gay after living as a straight married man since the 1950s; in his final years, he had a lover, Andy (Goran Visnjic) and began to open up to his son in ways that he had never done in the past.

The story is told simultaneously in the present and flashbacks at the past, sometimes at Oliver's childhood interacting with his off-beat mother and sometimes looking at the last years of his father'a life, but always from Oliver's point of view. He's a sad guy; now in his 40s, he is an artist living and working in LA and never totally connecting to anyone (including his friends). There is a suggestion from them that he used to be more "into it all," but he's gotten sadder and more quiet, either because of his father's death or exacerbated by that.

At any rate, he goes to a party with them where he meets Anna (Melanie Laurent) a French actress living in an LA hotel for some short period of time. The two immediately connect, probably they each see a similar dourness in the other, and they try to make it work together despite their individual distrust of humanity and Oliver's specific pain from losing his father, who had become a close friend in recent years.

I think that a well-crafted montage is one of the best and most interesting devices a director can use, and Mills employs them here wonderfully and rather unlike anything else I've ever seen. There is a refrain and a structure they all come back to. In a monotone voice-over we hear Oliver say, for instance "I was born in 1963. This is the President in 1963; this is what nature looked like; this is the sun; the stars." As we hear these things, we see advertising or publicity stills of the things being described. Yes, it's certainly a bit precious, but it's effective. This is how Oliver sees the world and this gets us into his literal frame of reference. He is not a very elaborate emotional person, rather he sees things in a binary way: happy/sad, pain/pleasure, good/bad, comfort/discomfort. These montages lead us into this understanding.

To say they are reminiscent of Hollis Frampton's seminal art film, (nostalgia), is an understatement, and perhaps strikingly naive. The disembodied voice feels close and uncomfortably clinical at the same time; the idea of images summing up emotions and acting as stand-ins for whole stories. Really what the connection comes down to is exactly the title, nostalgia - and more specifically sadness over things long ago (even things you didn't experience yourself).

As the film goes along, Oliver seems to be working on an art project about sadness, hand-drawn pictures that have some political message and some personal connection (they're about his father's suppression of his sexuality). Clearly Mills isn't subtle with his themes.

Back with Anna, they both have issues with their parents (she has an ongoing discussion with her father he wants to kill himself for reasons we never find out). They connect because they're both moving at the same slow pace experiencing everything, stopping to smell the roses, as it were. Oliver is clearly afraid of commitment, and ambivalent about "taking the next step" with her, for fear their relationship will evaporate (because things move toward nothingness, of course).

The connection they mutually feel is frightening to Oliver, who has connected to several people over the years. First we see his unconventional mother (who is a riot, played by Mary Page Keller), who seems to interact with the 10-year-old Oliver as if she is a 10-year-old. She does a silly dance in an art gallery, she has a game where she shoots him with her fingers as a gun and critiques his death-fall. It's clear that as a kid, he connected more to his mother. After she died, he clearly connected to his father and appreciated his joie de vivre and recognized his life-long struggles. After his father's death, he connects to his father's dog, Arthur, who doesn't speak, though we do see his glances subtitled several times (this is wonderful and very reminiscent of Miranda July's joyful eccentricity).

Oliver is worried that he might not be in an emotional position, at this moment, to properly give himself to Anna, and he wants to cut off the relationship before they get in too deep. Clearly this is a self-fulfilling action, as pushing her away for no good reason...well, it pushes her away. We feel bad for her, but also bad for him. He knows not what he does.

All four lead actors here are non-Americans (and then the fifth is a dog) and only Laurent is playing a foreigner. I found McGregor's American accent difficult throughout, as much as I tried to ignore and just chalk it off to a silly LA affectation. Really, Plummer, Visnjic and McGregor all struggle with their accents, though they all give very nice heart-felt performances. I guess Laurent's performance feels the most honest (possibly because she's playing a French woman who speaks with a French accent), because she doesn't seem to be reaching as far for the emotional connections to Anna's actions. (I'm very upset that I'm not dating Melanie. She's beautiful and talented... and Jewish... .)

Perhaps Mills relies too much on his montages. I think they would have been even more effective than they are if there had only been three or four of them rather than the six or seven we see. He's certainly a bit too blunt about the theme of sadness. Clearly the actors' accents are distracting too, but Mills gets great performances out of them all. He also uses technical stuff, like a wonderful, sad piano score by Roger Neil, Dave Palmer and Brian Reitzell to convey the darkness of the film, despite it's very funny writing. This is a movie that I expected to hate for being too sweet and too on-the-nose about child-parent emotions. It's much better than that and is a very nice work.

Stars: 3 of 4