Friday, September 30, 2011

Restless (2011)


Annabel (Mia Wasikowska) has cancer, but don’t worry, it’s just movie cancer.  She has a brain tumor which has a precise ticking clock on how long it will allow her to live, but she can still run around, dance, skip, and eat cheeseburgers and milkshakes.  As opposed to what real cancer looks like, you have probably seen movie cancer before in the likes of Love Story and The Bucket List. 
Enoch (Henry Hopper) has bad timing.  He meets Annabel right around the time she learns of her depressing fate and discovers they share a particularly odd outlook towards the rest of the world.  He spends his weekends gate crashing the funerals of strangers because he has an unhealthy preoccupation with death.  Annabel finds this peculiarity attractive and they start building a relationship from there.  Annabel does not lie to Enoch though, he is well aware from the beginning there can only be one result of spending time with her. 
Enoch is not alone though.  He enjoys the company of a ghost, specifically a Japanese kamikaze pilot named Hiroshi (Ryo Kase) who remains forever in the flight suit he was wearing when he fulfilled his destiny.  Hiroshi encourages Enoch to talk to and spend time with Annabel and he is also much more active than your average ghost, but certainly not to a Patrick Swayze level.  Hiroshi enjoys nightly games of Battleship with Enoch and even gets visibly upset when the word Nagasaki is mentioned. 
On paper, these are three intriguing main characters that should have produced a wonderful, quirky film, especially since Restless is directed by Gus Van Sant.  Unfortunately, Restless comes nowhere near to fulfilling its promise which is mainly a result of a poorly written script and shoddy acting.  The screenwriter is first timer Jason Lew who adapted it from a play he wrote at NYU.  This story may very well work much better as a play and observed with real time actors on a stage.  His friend at NYU, Bryce Dallas Howard, saw the play’s promise and produced Restless along with her father Ron Howard and his production partner Brian Grazer. 
Those are some very influential names.  I am shocked to see that Brian Grazer and Ron Howard would put their names and money behind Restless; we’re talking about the guys behind A Beautiful Mind, American Gangster, and Arrested Development.  Well, Brian Grazer was also behind Blue Crush and something called Curious George 2: Follow That Monkey!  Perhaps it is not that strange. 
Restless also appears to be one of those vehicles for the Hollywood kids.  Henry Hopper is Dennis Hopper’s son and this is his first lead role.  Bryce Dallas Howard is Ron Howard’s daughter and this is her first time producing.  Annabel’s sister Elizabeth is played by Schuyler Fisk who is Sissy Spacek’s daughter.  Fisk was also in Orange County which is another Hollywood kid’s film; remember the lead character there was played by Colin Hanks, the prodigy of a Mr. Tom Hanks. 
I mentioned the acting was the second reason Restless does not work very well.  Henry Hopper is unsure of himself in his first lead role and any scene which requires him to be agitated, angry, or upset turns out to be a disaster.  Mia Wasikowska is much better but comes nowhere close to her superior performances from Alice in Wonderland and Jane Eyre.  She has a horrible script to work with and is unable to produce much good from it. 
Restless was the opening film from the 2011 Un Certain Regard section at the Cannes Film Festival.  These films are reserved for “original and different” films which the festival organizers think deserve international attention.  I can see why they would put a Gus Van Sant movie in this category because of his previous films such as Elephant and Gerry.  Those two were absolutely original and different.  However, just because his name is Gus Van Sant does not mean every movie he makes will be original and different; Restless is not.  It is just plain vanilla and a waste of some major talent.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010)


The Emperor is dead and next in line to replace him is a woman.  Never in the history of China has there been an Empress.  As her coronation draws closer, loyalties are tested, schemes are rumored, and when people start to literally burst into flames, the stakes can be no higher for all involved.  This is the set up for an in-depth mystery with a side of kung fu action. 

In late 7th century China, thousands of laborers are working under pressure to complete an immensely tall tower in the shape of the Buddha in time for the Empress’s coronation.  There are rumors that her predecessor did not die of natural causes and there are rebel armies in the countryside eager to invade and prevent her from taking power.  While on an inspection tour of the tower, the chief architect suddenly bursts into flames and burns to death in a matter of seconds.  While investigating this occurrence, the chief investigator then bursts into flames as well.  Is this divine intervention for tampering with magic amulets or is something more sinister afoot?
The man put on the case is Detective Dee (Andy Lau from House of Flying Daggers).  He has been imprisoned for the past eight years for opposing the Empress’s (Carina Lau from 2046) rise to regent; however, it is she who releases him to find the culprits because the realm’s Imperial Chaplain says it must be so.  Joining his investigative team are a trusted aide to the Empress who is to keep tabs on him, Jing’er (Bingbing Li from Snow Flower and the Secret Fan & the Forbidden Kingdom), and an albino detective, Pei Donglai (Chao Deng).  Very few people want to see Detective Dee succeed and find the plot’s mastermind.  He continuously dodges assassination attempts, interrogates hostile witnesses, and must face off against some paranormal forces which appear to be involved.     
The Detective Dee character is based on the Chinese folk hero Di Renjie who remains a popular figure from China’s Tang Dynasty who ruled from the 7th to 10th centuries.  He is wise not only in the ways of following leads in a case but in the politics behind the case itself.  He recognizes and easily dissects the true motivations behind why he was chosen to investigate these matters and can see two steps down the road just as easily as he can hear an assassin’s arrow flying through the air.
The downfall of this film is its ridiculous use of CGI.  No attempt was made to make any backgrounds or scenery look real, wide shots of the city are cringe inducing, and you can almost make out the individual pixels which comprise the Buddha tower.  When focused on the mystery and when the characters are discussing methods and possible perpetrators, the script is engaging and the film is at its best.  However, when characters stop to talk about the past or their feelings, it usually takes a nose dive and makes you wait to just get those scenes out of the way. 
Compared to its obvious cousins of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero, and the House of Flying Daggers, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame is way at the bottom of the list.  The action sequences are not as eye-popping, the dialogue is stunted, and any hint of true emotion is as fake as the film’s CGI.  Stay away from Detective Dee.     

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Happy, Happy (2010)


There are four main characters in Happy, Happy because it is about two couples; however, one of them really shines through and becomes such a pleasure to watch that it really does not matter what happens with the plot or any of the other players, she is just stunning.  I am talking about Agnes Kittelsen who plays Kaja.  She is almost always smiling, even when there are situations when there is nothing to smile about.  She exudes positive energy and cannot help it when her actions either makes someone else around her happy or rubs someone else the wrong way.
Kaja is married to Eirik (Joachim Rafaelsen) and they appear to live in the middle of nowhere Norway.  They not only own their own house, but also the one next door which they rent out to people who are usually looking to get away from the city.  A city couple from Denmark does exactly that when they abruptly shift from urban to rural.  The new couple next door is Sigve (Henrik Rafaelsen) and Elisabeth (Maibritt Saerens).  Since there is not much else to do in the immediate locale, the two couples start sharing dinners together and playing games.  These games lead to uncomfortable couple comparisons which is never a good thing.  Comparing your relationship to someone else’s is not the way to end the evening on a high note.
During one game, it emerges that Kaja and Eirik have not had sex in over a year and that Elisabeth has recently cheated on Sigve which was a catalyst in their decision to escape to the countryside.  The couples also notice the personality clashes and matches around the dinner table.  Kaja and Sigve are naturally extroverted and outwardly positive.  Elisabeth and Eirik are much more reserved and while not necessarily secretive, they do not have the impulse to share their feelings around the room.  These situations and personalities obviously set up what may lead to adulterous liaisons, secrets, and acrimony.  However, this is not a heavy handed drama about adultery and revenge.  There are laughs, comedic scenes, and an overall light air around the decisions these couples make in response to one another. 
Each couple also has a son, although Sigve and Elisabeth’s son is adopted and black.  There are scenes between the two boys, who seem to be around seven years old, which do the film no credit and do not fit.  Their sequences are only peripheral to the plot and have no bearing on any central themes, which is all the more puzzling why they are even there.  Their interactions disrupt the light flow and mood of the movie and should either be completely rewritten or just taken out. 
Happy, Happy won the Grand Jury Prize for Dramatic World Cinema at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and is also Norway’s official submission for the 2012 Academy Awards.  It approaches its characters with maturity and understanding, characteristics true for most Scandinavian films but frequently lacking in American ones.  It is also challenging to classify Happy, Happy as just a comedy or a drama.  There are not very many jokes or moments to laugh at but there are also very few emotional moments which aim for true drama either; it carves out a distinct middle ground. 
I recommend Happy, Happy for those of us who like Scandinavian films and appreciate movies which take their characters seriously.  Thank goodness there are no slapstick moments here which would not fit and no downright weepy ‘woe is me’ segments.  Just lose the scenes with the kids and then you would really have a heck of film on your hands. 

Monday, September 26, 2011

The Mysteries of Lisbon (2010)


The Mysteries of Lisbon are not so much mysteries as they are a series of conversations which always lead to some sort of revelation.  These revelations are melodramatic punch lines with interlocking characters continuously finding out who their parents are, where they came from, the results of lost loves, and everything in between.  If the script was written in a linear fashion with no time jumps or flashbacks, there would be no mysteries; it would just be a meandering retelling of Romeo and Juliet (and all of their cousins).
The word meandering sounds harsh and an indictment of a script which does not know where it is going.  However, I mean meandering as in there are multiple lead characters to follow and each of them has a very complicated past which takes its time to tell.  The Mysteries of Lisbon is four and a half hours long; the director threw out accepted norms for audience patience in favor of showing the whole story.  It is based on an 1854 novel by the Portuguese author Camilo Castelo Branco and it appears it was filmed in an unabridged fashion.
The main character is a village priest, Padre Denis (Adriano Luz), who at first is indirectly involved in a couple’s forbidden love affair and then purposefully injects himself into their lives and then into everyone else’s life who comes into contact with their troubles.  Even though the priest is the interconnecting cog in the middle of all of these characters, he is not the narrator.  That role is given to an orphan the priest looks after and becomes a driving force of his own later on. 
The director, Raul Ruiz, obviously loves conversations, but only deep and emotionally scarring ones.  Every conversation or recounting of a previous conversation has its own 30 minute segment it seems.  The characters, usually just two, sit in a room and then the scene fades into flashback on what happened in the past which will now illuminate the present.  I believe the time shifts were included to create the mystery.  The author deliberately created the tension of not knowing and the ‘a-ha’ discovery moments because he could not have accomplished the same moments with a realistic, linear timeline. 
The action is mostly set in Portugal and appears to be in the early 1800s but after Napoleon.  The Emperor is frequently referenced but only in the past tense.  Many of the characters are nobles so the costume designer had a true feast in outfitting so many people in remarkable period dress.  The Portuguese scenery and elaborate set designs are also enjoyable; somebody really took their time to make the set look intensely real.  The lighting is also employed to convey a sense of realness.  There seems to be no artificial lighting whatsoever.  Light only comes through windows during the day and the rooms are terrifically dark at night.  The candles never flicker so there must be some source of artificiality, but it is not noticeable. 
Unfortunately, Raul Ruiz recently passed away on 19 August.  He was Chilean born but left Chile in 1973 when Augusto Pinochet took power.  The Mysteries of Lisbon is his final film and is of such epic proportions it appears he was thinking about this film for a long time before he finally took the plunge. 
I recommend this film, but be careful.  Watch it only if you appreciate long, intense scenes of dialogue or appreciate the intricate details of period films.  There is extremely little action and drawn out sequences with no words spoken at all; however, there is character with the endearing name ‘Knife Eater’.  If these aspects do not scare you, then sit back and enjoy because you are in for a real treat.  You will not see a film like this from an American director; no studio would ever sign off on a movie this long, not if they expect it to make any money.    

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Killer Elite (2011)


Killer Elite is saddled with a vague and forgettable title but at least it sounds more lethal than the book it is based on by Sir Ranulph Fiennes, “The Feather Men”.  An evil cabal known as the Feather Men does not inspire too much fear.  These ex-SAS (Special Air Service) members, and now business leaders, chose the name themselves to signify their light touch on situations which concern them.  Shady characters are starting to ask around about an old mission in Oman involving SAS men and this falls right in the wheelhouse of issues the Feather Men are watching out for.
The Feather Men novel is allegedly based on a true story but none of the facts have ever been verified.  Sir Fiennes described the book as ‘factional’ which does not bode well for the story’s authenticity.  However, the plot is intriguing, especially for a shoot ‘em up first, ask questions later action fest.  The background and set up are complicated enough which makes you want to follow it closely.  I do not want to provide an exact plot synopsis but essentially Danny Bryce (Jason Statham) must kill some ex-SAS men to save his assassin mentor (Robert De Niro) from some Omani oil sheiks.  Spike Logan (Clive Owen), also an ex-SAS man but not one of the marked men, has his sixth sense kick into overdrive and tries to save his mates from Danny’s bullets as a good Feather Man would.  Sir Fiennes actually claims to be one of those marked SAS men.       
The script portrays Danny as an assassin who has lost his taste for killing and vows after every trigger pull that “this is my last job”.  He is supposedly from Australia but oddly maintains a thick and native British accent.  Since every assassin must have someone to come home to, his girlfriend Anne (Yvonne Strahovski) waits impatiently for him as he disappears on his missions.  Strahovski is a real life Australian and has a matching accent to prove it.  She has been outstanding in the Chuck series so it is enjoyable to see her finally cross over into mainstream film. 
Even though the plot is deeper than your average thriller, the dialogue does not rise above mediocrity and has the exact same platitudes as most other actions films.  The worst example is:
“He knew what he was getting into when he joined the club.”
“What club?”
“The killer’s club.”   

There is also the obligatory conversation about the woe is me assassin which includes the gem, “The killing is easy, living with it is hard.” 
First time feature film director Gary McKendry is very good at filming one on one hand fighting scenes.  Statham and Owen impressively use the entire room and every prop in it to beat each other senseless.  For the ladies, they still keep their film star looks even after they are done taking turns butchering each other.  What McKendry has yet to master are car chases.  The edits are too fast which turns each of them into a messy muddle.  Opening one weekend after Drive which contains outstanding car sequences makes these awkward scenes in the Killer Elite look even worse by comparison. 
The overall look to the Killer Elite is good however.  Even though it was mainly shot in Melbourne, the skies are usually England gray and the Brecon Beacons mountain range sequence is shot well.  This film is right in that middle range where I am unsure still at this point rather to recommend it or not.  It is much better than the garbage in its genre such as The Expendables but fails to reach up to the higher level of Crank or The Bank Job.  I suppose I marginally recommend the Killer Elite for its absorbing plot and intricate assassination sequences, but be warned, this film is not anything more than average. 

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Higher Ground (2011)


Higher Ground is about a woman who wants something far more than she can actually handle it.  Corinne (Vera Farmiga) is so sure in her devoutness to God that there is never any question or doubts.  She knows there are mysterious ways she will never understand and sometimes even forgets her place when she almost preaches at the learned men of the church instead of sitting in the background like women should at her church services.  Then why does she still feel empty?  She is inviting God in, leaves the porch light on, but sometimes he just does not show up. 
Corinne listens to her best friend pray for her in tongues and so wants that same energy to flow through her and speak those strange and unfamiliar words.  She stares into the bathroom mirror almost begging the unseen to let the spirit flow through her and make her feel ecstatic.  Alas, no holy spirit shows up.  In fact, those mysterious ways show up again in forms which make Corinne start to wonder just what is pulling the strings in the world if all of her prayer goes nowhere and horrible things continue to happen and that empty feeling inside of her grows larger.
The screenplay is based on Carolyn S. Briggs’s memoir “This Dark World” and must come to life more on the printed page than on screen.  Higher Ground is a faith story of one girl’s and then woman’s history of faith and then disenchantment.  Sometimes it is delightful especially early scenes between young Corinne (Taissa Farmiga) and her boyfriend (Boyd Holbrook) and even more so with her best friend Annika (Dagmara Dominczyk).  These supporting characters are far more intriguing on screen than Corinne is.  The majority of the film follows Corinne through her daily grind and interactions which either affirm or hinder her faith.  This memoir may make for interesting conversation in the author’s living room, but on screen, it just wanders around. 
Just because one is able to write a memoir does not mean it will be compelling to an outside observer.  The scenes in Higher Ground may work individually at moments, but taken together, they do not quite fit alongside one another.  At the end, they really are just scenes juxtaposed together to tell a life story wrapped around faith; that is about as interesting to watch as it is to read about.

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Interrupters (2011)


The Interrupters is frustrating.  The three ‘violence interrupters’ which this documentary follows must have an endless supply of optimism and an iron will to go out there every day and try and convince people, who mostly are not looking to be convinced, that there are better choices than resorting to violence and revenge.  A normal person would give up, probably on the first day, but not the CeaseFire interrupters. 
Most of CeaseFire’s violence interrupters are ex-cons.  This is actually a plus on their job application for a position like this.  They know firsthand the consequences and utter futility which comes with choosing the violent option in an argument on the street.  Their goal is to intervene in an argument’s ‘front end’ before pistols are drawn from waistbands. 
Chicago has drawn national attention for the number of murders which happen on its streets every year, especially involving adolescents.  The Interrupters follows a year in the life not just of the CeaseFire organization, but specifically three of their most committed mediators.  The most engaging and interesting person by far is Ameena Matthews.  She is the daughter of Jeff Fort, one of Chicago’s most notorious gangsters, who made mistakes in her youth but is now out in force and ready to get in your face to show you just how wrong a choice violence is.  With no fear, Ameena will walk in the middle of a large group of young gangbangers and give them a lecture on just where they are headed.  Amazingly, these lectures usually work.  You do not want to disappoint Ameena Matthews; she is one of the most persuasive and enigmatic people ever to show up in a documentary.
Her fellow mediators are not as engaging as she is though.  Cobe Williams is usually an interesting guy to follow, especially when he is trying to calm down a man known as ‘Flamo’.  Flamo has a particularly bad day when he first meet him and appears to be 100% ready to charge down the block and start a shooting spree.  Cobe listens, nods his head, and then offers to take Flamo out to dinner thereby putting some distance and time between him and his problems.  We check in with Flamo every now and then and he provides some segments of comic relief and even some hope. 
The third mediator is Eddie Bocanegra.  He comes in a distant third on this list of three.  Most of the time, he is with the family of a deceased young man who made some poor choices and ended up in a coffin.  Eddie strikes up a relationship with the boy’s sister and encourages her to draw to deal with her grief.  The rest of the time, Eddie leads an art class in a local elementary school to teach the kids who are just a few years away from their prime ages of vulnerability to think through their choices to their logical conclusions.  Eddie is never shown actually talking down violent situations like Ameena and Cobe are.  He acts as more of a peripheral mediator rather than a down in the mud violence buffer, at least that is how the editing process shows him. 
The filmmaker, Steve James (Hoop Dreams), checks in with various at risk youth throughout the year.  Some start off in very shaky and turbulent places but steadily pull themselves up and out of the gutter.  Others, however, leave you shaking your head at the end acknowledging that there will most likely be many more failures for the mediators than successes.  Happy endings really do seem few and far between in the streets of Chicago, even when there are extremely persuasive interrupters who guarantee that if you pull the trigger, you will not win in the end. 

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Drive (2011)


The driver in Drive is just that, he drives.  He has no past and even no name.  One would guess prison was a part of his past but that is just a guess.  The driver only has two distinguishing characteristics, he is extremely adept behind the wheel of a car and he wears a strikingly odd white jacket with an orange scorpion on the back.  The scorpion’s meaning is somewhat explained and furthers a philosophical undercurrent in Drive which is not apparent in the previews.
The audience I saw Drive with on a late Saturday night opening weekend started to laugh at the screen and mock the actors, the direction, and the jacket.  Their expectations did not match what was unfolding on the screen.  They expected multiple car chases between the driver and the cops, backstabbing crooks, and action sequences just for the sake of action sequences.  Well, those clichés are not here and it transforms what would have been just another Gone in 60 Seconds to a film which operates on a different, more introspective plane.
The actors in Drive are well known as true actors who respect their craft: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, and Albert Brooks.  Gosling has shown his chops before with The Believer, Half Nelson, and Lars and the Real Girl and might have the fewest lines of dialogue ever by a film’s main character.  Carey Mulligan, still resonant from An Education, pulls off a sympathetic next door neighbor who needs the driver’s help even though she may not know it.  Bryan Cranston is assigned a more stock character and Albert Brooks who usually plays bumbling schlubs gets a turn as an antagonist for once.  The only sour note is Ron Perlman who just plays an extension of his Sons of Anarchy character. 
This script requires true actors to flesh it out.  Scenes with words are few and far between so that facial expressions say more in conversations than dialogue does, especially between Gosling and Mulligan.  There is a reason you will not see Jennifer Aniston and Ryan Reynolds in Drive; there is now way they could just sit in a room, stare at each other, and talk to each other with their eyes and cheek bones. 
Drive’s director, Nicolas Winding Refn, won Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival for one reason, necessity.  If the film does not need it, it is not there.  For example, when the driver is waiting outside while a robbery is going on inside, there is no sound.  If you were waiting in a car with the radio off, it would be exceptionally quiet, just like in the film.  There is no background noise, no radio on, nothing.  The audience was absolutely quiet right along with the film straining to hear what was going on in the building next door.  Refn could have extended the car chase scenes with more screeching tires, made the scenes between Gosling and Mulligan more romantic, and turned down the accompanying existential philosophy.  By choosing not to do these things is why he won Best Director.
Existential is the most apt word to describe the driver.  He gives his own life meaning and purpose.  His background is never brought up once, but something in his past has shaped his actions.  He lives his life sincerely despite the myriad distractions of obviously crooked associates, menacing goons, and the unfamiliar terrain of romantic feelings towards a woman.  What truly makes Drive so good is all of the pitfalls it avoids by just focusing the camera on Gosling on Mulligan and letting it go from there.  Mainstream audiences looking for standard car chases and fist fights on a Saturday night will not understand Drive; the philosophical undercurrents here make them uncomfortable.  Drive is for those who appreciate diving in a bit deeper rather than wading in the cliché kiddy pool.    

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Circumstance (2011)


The circumstances which the two girls in Circumstance find themselves struggling against are those created by the oppressive Iranian theocracy.  Every single thing which they want to do as teenagers is deemed illegal by the ruling mullahs and enforced by the corrupt morality police.  To circumvent the rules, they use secret code words and signals to sneak into underground parties where there is dancing between the sexes, drinking, and some recreational drug use.  To add even more danger to their escapades, the girls, who are best friends, discover they are falling in love with each other which could destroy not own their own, but their family’s lives in patriarchal Iran. 
Atifeh (Nikohl Boosheri) comes from a wealthy and comparatively liberal family.  Her father encourages training in music and does not openly support the mullahs.  Atifeh’s brother, Mehran (Reza Sixo Safai), is already a trained classical musician but is struggling against some personal demons.  He has just returned home from rehab to get rid of a drug problem and finding himself adrift in sobriety, turns to radical Islam where he latches on to the morality police upsetting the family’s dynamic. 
Shireen (Sarah Kazemy) is poor and lives with her aunt and uncle because the regime ‘disappeared’ her university professor parents because they had ideas the mullahs did not appreciate.  Her teachers jab her with snide remarks for her questionable character, her uncle just wants to find a suitor to marry her off to, and Mehran is showing some uncomfortable glances and awkward touches which Shireen does not want to return. 
The odds are not with Atifeh and Shireen.  Their society, government, and families have created circumstances which bind them to specific situations they do not want to be in.  First time filmmaker Maryam Keshavarz shows the impact of Iran’s theocratic culture at the micro level focusing on two girls and their immediate family.  The audience witnesses how dangerous it can be if one calls the wrong attention on themselves.  Unfortunately, Circumstance lapses occasionally into soap opera melodrama, especially towards the conclusion.  Misunderstandings, tears, and confessions weaken its edge and the ‘us against them’ atmosphere.
Circumstance focuses on an important and frustrating subject and is worth the watch.  The two female leads are convincing and daily Iranian life is shocking to those who are unfamiliar with its tenets.  This film could never have been filmed in Iran not only because its mocks the regime, but because it shows male and female actors together and even touching; therefore, Lebanon had to take the place of an actual Iranian landscape.  Perhaps Circumstance will show up in the one of the back alley, illegal DVD shops which Iranians flock towards to find some real culture. 

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Bellflower (2011)


Bellflower is the result of some filthy filmmaking.  I do not mean that as they did a poor job, far from it.  I mean the shots are so real and intense that you can almost smell B.O., sweat, and whiskey while sitting in an air conditioned theater.  There is a road trip scene where it looks like the camera lens was cleaned with spit and a dirty paper towel.  This is not the California you are used to seeing on screen.
Woodrow (Evan Glodell) and Aiden (Tyler Dawson) are lifelong best friends and share the same goal, to be ready for the apocalypse.  In their spare time, which seems to be all of their time, they build their own flamethrower and Mad Max looking Road Warrior car with dual flamethrowers mounted on the back.  This is the result of kids watching Mad Max 100 times.  When the apocalypse happens, they will drive around in this ready for war vehicle with their hand-held flamethrower; wouldn’t you follow them?  That is what they are hoping for.  Woodrow and Aiden build their gadgets more for fun, they are not completely serious that they expect Armageddon to occur tomorrow, but they wouldn’t mind it if it did. 
An unexpected force arrives between these two friends though.  Milly (Jessie Wiseman) and Woodrow hit it off and start spending all of their time together.  Their first date involves driving to Texas to eat at a day old meatloaf restaurant.  It appears they get off on following through with high stakes dares.  The script wisely avoids a love triangle but Aiden does resent that he has lost his best friend to a girl; now who prepare for the apocalypse with him? 
Relationships, however, usually start strong and sometimes go astray.  The second half of the film deals with some intense and gut-wrenching episodes on dealing with emotional pain.  Add in the always flowing booze which every character seems to live off of as life juice and some not so wise decisions suddenly look very attractive.  Glodell, who also wrote and directed Bellflower, shows some of the most realistic and gritty violence which has ever been filmed. 
Bellflower is a very good and original debut film.  The soundtrack works, the acting is ok, and the cinematography is what you will remember the most after it is over.  This low budget experience is a breath of fresh air from over produced and stale studio productions.  Just don’t breathe in too deeply or else you might taste some of Medusa’s exhaust or one of the character’s three day old whiskey breath.     

Monday, September 12, 2011

Brighton Rock (2010)


There is something off about Brighton Rock.  The atmosphere and mood surrounding the action does not match what is going on.  Based on a Graham Greene novel, Brighton Rock follows a low level gangster’s attempt to avenge his father figure, stake a claim to the top spot, and run the mob racket in Brighton, England in 1964.  Encasing this formulaic plot is a soaring orchestral score, shots of the waves crashing on the rocky beach, and dialogue which seems deliberately pieced together from 1930s and 40s gangster pictures.
Pinkie Brown (Sam Riley) witnesses a rival gang member murder his mentor/mob boss in the film’s opening scene.  Pinkie learned everything from this man including intimidation tactics, how to handle a knife, and presumably how to convincingly wear a menacing sneer.  Riley plays Pinkie as a guy you do not want to mess with, let alone have a conversation with.  Unfortunately, poor and innocent Rose (Andrea Riseborough) witnesses a key segment of the revenge attack and becomes connected with Pinkie who needs to keep close tabs on her.  Mistaking his attention as romantic interest, Rose almost becomes comic.  No matter how lonely the girl, I cannot believe any female would be flattered by Pinkie Brown.  He is overtly mean, sarcastic, and threatening to this girl he is trying to convince he has feelings for.  Rounding out the ensemble is a miscast Helen Mirren as a meddling interloper and John Hurt who acts as a sort of Greek Chorus commenting on the plot from aside.   
The mise-en-scene; however, is quite convincing.  Brighton is shot as cold, bleak, and gray; adjectives which aptly describe that city in the winter time.  There seems to be nowhere else to go or spend time other than the Brighton Pier, which is true.  Brighton Rock desperately wants to be an epic with its serious moments on the Dover cliffs, brutal knife fights under the pier, and its dangerous love story.  The plot is so thin and trivial though that it cannot match, but only hinder, the help all the other film components are trying to give it such as the score, costumes, and set design. 
Do not waste your time with Brighton Rock.  The writer who adapted this novel to the screen is Rowan Joffe who also wrote the screenplay for 2010’s The American.  If you have not had the pleasure of that film yet, see it instead.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Help (2011)


The Help is at once a joy to watch for its absorbing yet haunting story and for the superior acting by Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer.  On the other hand, it is nauseating at times to suffer through the scenes of outright cruelty perpetrated by the white women of the south in the early 1960s.  It is one thing to read about Jim Crow in a book or listen to an old person nowadays discussing what it was like, but to see reenactments of just how dehumanizing and vindictive the times were is just unsettling.  This is an important story, fictional yes, but representative of a time and a place which reminds the audience just how ashamed we should be at aspects of our past.
A few decades ago in the south, it was commonplace for a white family to employ a black maid.  Maid is an all encompassing term for house cleaner, cook, nanny, grocery shopper, butler, and every other menial task you could think of.  They potty trained the toddlers, read them stories, and pretty much raised the children instead of their mothers who were enjoying that afternoon’s bridge party.  This particular story takes place in Jackson, MS and focuses on three main characters. 
‘Skeeter’ (Emma Stone) has just graduated from Ole Miss, one of her only clique to do so, and returned home to get her foot in the door at the local paper.  It appears she went to school for an education rather than to husband hunt which sets her apart from her friends.  She wants to be a writer but does not have the experience to get hired on by a true publishing firm.  What really separate Skeeter though is that she has a much more enlightened view on race relations.  This is odd.  Where did this character pick up the notion that perhaps certain things should not just be left alone and separate but equal is anything but?  Skeeter’s mother (Alison Janney) does not display any sentiment towards her maid and Ole Miss was not widely acknowledged to be a bastion of forward and progressive thinking thought in 1963.  It is strange that Skeeter is of such a different mold than the rest, but there would be no plot if she was not.
Illicitly, Skeeter starts to interview the black maids of the town.  She spends most of her time with Aibileen (Viola Davis) and Minnie (Octavia Spencer).  These two maids share with Skeeter their horror stories of maltreatment, child neglect, and every other behind the curtain story their employer would not want anyone else to know.  Skeeter is combining all of the maids’ stories into a book to tell the rest of the country what is going on down south from the maids’ perspective this time. 
I have a hunch that come awards time, there will be a Best Actress nomination for Viola Davis and a supporting nomination for Octavia Spencer.  The film is strongest when they are on screen.  Viola showed traces of her character in 2008’s Doubt and this is Octavia’s first true starring role.  When the film flips back and focuses on the white women for a time, especially when it shows Skeeter trying to find a boyfriend or argue with her mother, the atmosphere loses its tension and the pacing slows until it gets back on track with the maids.  This film is truly unsettling at times, but well worth the audience’s discomfort to show them a time and a place not very long ago which was not just immoral, but malicious.   

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Griff the Invisible (2010)


People see the world through different windows.  Most of us see the everyday stark reality of work, home, and family.  A few people see things a bit more unusually.  On the surface, Griff (Ryan Kwanten) leads an unassuming and mundane life.  He has a job as a shipping liaison in a cramped cubicle, he does not enjoy talking to people, and he seems to hide even when he is walking on the street.  Because of Griff’s social ineptitude, he is a magnet for bullies.  There is a bully at work who singles out Griff for torment and even Griff’s brother Tim (Patrick Brammall) makes Griff feel uncomfortable with his overbearing manner. 
Griff has a secret though.  There is a reason he chooses not to have any friends and only works rote office jobs.  He is a superhero.  At night, he scans the streets with a telescope and a bank of computers from his apartment searching out ruffians intent on harming neighborhood women.  The police commissioner will call him with tips and thanks for a job well done.  To keep his superhero costume in working order and incorporate new technologies, Griff visits a local hardware store and always warns the cashier to forget he was ever there.
Melody (Maeve Dermody) also has a secret.  She realizes that since there is so much space between the atoms in our bodies and the atoms in walls that if she aligns herself just right, she can walk through walls.  She happens across Griff and is mesmerized.  Here is a kindred spirit.  Melody cannot stand the workaday men who fancy her because they see the world as it really is.  Griff, on the other hand, does not see hardly any reality and this strikes Melody as the most wonderful thing she has ever seen.
The story and interactions between aloof Griff and curious Melody work.  They have a special conversational style and truly understand one another.  When they are on screen together, the film works.  Unfortunately, when they are apart and it is just Griff and his superhero activities, the film is a complete mess.  Griff is really not a very interesting character when it is just him in his apartment trying out new superhero ideas.  Melody is the character the audience cares about and wants to watch, so whenever she is off screen, you spend that time just waiting for her to reappear.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Hedgehog (Le Herisson) (2009)


The pre-teen 11 year old girl in Mona Achache’s The Hedgehog is one of the most delightful characters to watch on screen in the past few years.  Paloma (Garance Le Guillermic) decides to kill herself in a few months on her 12th birthday because she cannot bear the thought of living the rest of her life in a fishbowl.  In voiceover, this decision is not a melodramatic response to her perceived lot in life or depression, but the result of a particularly witty form of logic.  Paloma is not portrayed as a girl genius because she is overly book smart, but because she has the firmest grasp of pure rhetoric and logic any character has ever had before in a film.
Paloma spends her days sneaking around her large apartment and the fancy apartment building around it with her sturdy 8mm video camera documenting her family’s neuroses and those of her neighbors.  She can be extremely harsh, but true, when it comes to defining her mother, father, and sister through the lens.  There is one neighbor Paloma cannot quite put her finger on though, which is rare, and that is the building’s super who lives downstairs.  From the unobservant eye, Renee Michel (Josiane Balasko) is a middle-aged and sour hermit who lives to mop the floor, distribute mail, and to give you a wary eye as you pass by.  But there is something deeper than just what the eye can see which Paloma wants to find out.  She realizes that being a building’s concierge is the perfect place to hide in plain sight. 
A new tenant moves in one day, Kakuro Ozu (Togo Igawa), and he and Paloma realize they are kindred spirits.  Mr. Ozu is a wealthy Japanese businessman and he strikes up a friendship with Paloma as they discuss their shared curiosity for the downstairs woman and their delight in playing the game Go with one another.  Paloma has an enjoyable scene where she eviscerates an elder dinner guest who insists Go is the Asian form of chess.  Using her impeccable logic, she makes a fool of him by even suggesting this could be so. 
The Hedgehog won the Audience Award for Best Film at the 2010 Seattle International Film Festival which is quite an achievement considering they screen hundreds of films in competition there.  I will not soon forget what a great time I had being able to sit back and listen to brilliant dialogue in a film which is set almost exclusively in one building in Paris.  Bravo. 

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Senna (2010)


Racecar drivers only get documentaries if they die unexpectedly while in the racecar.  Subscribing to this theory, I expect the Dale Earnhardt story any day now.  However, the story of Brazilian driver Ayrton Senna has nothing to do with NASCAR, but the world wide racing circuit of Formula One in the late 1980s and early 1990s.  Senna won the World Championship an astounding three times, put all of his faith in God (to the annoyance of some other drivers), and saw no purpose for being happy with 3rd, 4th, or 5th place.  He said if you do not race to win, then why race at all?
The documentary shows Senna’s early success on the go-kart circuit and believes this was Senna’s favorite sort of racing.  Unlike Formula One, the go-karts contained no politics or money; it was pure racing.  Senna did not like politics, most likely because he was not very good at it.  The most engrossing part of his story is the back and forth severely competitive race Senna had on and off the track with Frenchman and sometimes teammate Alain Prost.  Prost is a four time World Champion and these two men grew to despise one another. 
There were accusations of intentional crashes, poor sportsmanship, and collusion on the part of Prost.  Both Prost and the Formula One President at the time were French and the film makes a definite point that these two might have been conspiring against Senna in particular situations and rulings.  Prost would criticize Senna in the press that his total faith in God put him and other drivers in danger on the track because he though himself immortal.  Senna certainly did drive fast and pushed his car to its mechanical limits.
Pushing himself and his vehicle to those limits finally earned him a win at his home country track in Brazil.  The video of Senna hysterically screaming and the crowd going nuts is still resonant all these years later.  Senna was a Brazilian hero and gave a lot of hope and joy to his native countrymen.  He was constantly mobbed on the street and was one of his country’s most famous celebrities.  He may have been even more loved in Japan where near riots would break out when he would come there to race.  The videos and interviews unearthed for this documentary are top notch.  The filmmakers show the audience a driven, ambitious, and at times emotionally and physically exhausted Senna.  At the end, you really wish there was another race for Senna to run.