Monday, October 31, 2011

Anonymous (2011)


Audiences may sometimes divide themselves when it comes to historical fiction.  There is the faction who appreciates a fictional story assigned to a true historical figure to create an engrossing book or movie.  Conversely, there arises a vocal minority who deride the story as an affront to what actually happened in history; they worry the uninformed masses will be swayed by the fiction and falsely believe the fiction to be true.  Such is the case with Anonymous.
In this story, which furthers the case of a scholarly minority who do not believe William Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) authored all of those plays, Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans), was the true genius behind the words.  As an Earl, his station was superior to writing and associating with the rabble in a place such as the Globe Theatre.  However, his gift required an outlet.  He heard the voices of his characters and felt the physical need to commit those voices to paper. 
Left at this level, the film would have been more scholarly and actually about the canon itself, but director Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, 2012) appears to have desired a more suspenseful thriller.  In this era, Queen Elizabeth 1 (Vanessa Redgrave) is at the end of her Golden Age and the issue of royal succession is on the English court’s mind.  Most expect the title to fall to James I of Scotland including the Queen’s most trusted advisor Edward Cecil (David Thewlis).  There are those though who would like the crown to stay closer to home, one such person is Edward de Vere.
Edward recognizes the power of words.  When words successfully capture an enraptured audience, they can move them to weep, poke them with laughter, or even stoke their anger and morph that audience from mere observers into a mob.  To ensure he remains as the man behind the curtain, Edward de Vere hires Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) to be his cover.  Jonson is already a moderately successful playwright and is loathe to sell out his proud signature on works which are not his own.  Mistakenly, he relays the situation to one William Shakespeare.
In Anonymous, Shakespeare is a buffoon.  He drinks too much, spends too much time and money with whores, and is even illiterate.  Since he is an actor, he can read; however, he is unable to even scribble his own name on parchment.  The remainder of the film involves different factions scheming to ensure their man is in line for the throne, the resentment of Ben Jonson over Shakespeare’s fraudulent fame, and mostly stuffed into the background are the plays themselves.
Sections of the most famous scenes of Henry V, Romeo & Juliet, Richard III, and Macbeth are briefly staged in the theatre, but they are not the focus.  The faces of a stunned crowd, the roving eyes of Ben Jonson and Edward de Vere are in close-up, but the words are overshadowed.  The suggestion that a glove-maker’s son with a grade school education from an out of the way village named Stratford-upon-Avon did not author all of those plays is intriguing.  A figure such as the Earl of Oxford with his first rate classical education and firsthand knowledge of the world outside England makes for a plausible argument against Shakespeare.  However, Anonymous truly is historical fiction.
Just as Shakespeare doubters gleefully point out the striking lack of evidence missing from his authorship such as original editions, lack of fame in his lifetime, no mention of the plays in his will, etc… there is also scant evidence Edward de Vere authored them either.  Furthermore, the political intrigue in Anonymous is also severely stretched in the credibility department.  I will not belabor the details, but if you are already aware of who becomes king after Elizabeth, the tone will be a bit less suspenseful for you than those of you who do not know about the succession. 
I recommend Anonymous mainly due to its wonderful production value.  The streets are covered in garbage and mud; one must skillfully walk on strategically placed boards placed on top of the mess to avoid sinking into its depth.  The reconstruction of the Globe Theatre is done with care and accuracy.  Furthermore, in a time when films are routinely shoveled out for the masses to blindly consume based on the bottom line and more frequently their ignorance, Anonymous at least concerns the worlds’ greatest ever author.  Whoever wrote those lines, be it Shakespeare or Edward de Vere, at least somebody did. 

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Skin I Live In (2011)

You will enjoy particular films even more if you do not know very much beforehand; think The Sixth Sense or The Crying Game.  Previews nowadays give away everything including the set up, the conflict, its climax, and sometimes even the ending all before you go and see it.  The preview for The Skin I Live In sidesteps the problem of giving things away by only showing select scenes set to music.  There is no dialogue to listen to for the potential audience member to find out who is doing what and why.  Whoever had the idea to limit this preview did everyone a favor.
I will only cover the basics of the plot because you really want to go into this film as ‘blind’ as possible.  Robert Legard (Antonio Banderas) is a brilliant scientist and surgeon.  He is on the leading edge of his field which has far exceeded standard plastic surgery.  He has been involved in the first face transplants and is conducting extensive and methodical research into creating a new form of skin, one which is tougher than normal human skin whose practical application is to help burn victims but has the possibility to go much further than that. 
At home, Robert is just as methodical and precise as he is at work.  His live-in house keeper Marilia (Marisa Paredes) runs a tight ship to keep everything in order and Robert’s personal research lives upstairs in a locked room.  Vera (Elena Anaya) is Robert’s captive and his prized research specimen.  I will stop the set up description right here. 
Directed by Pedro Almodovar, The Skin I Live In is a suspenseful thriller and verges on horror; however, in the director’s own words, it is a “horror story without screams or frights”.  Robert is a modern day mad scientist, but instead of having an open lab with electricity captured from lightening bolts, he has a scalpel and a sterile workspace.  Almodovar adapted the screenplay from Tarantula, a novel by Thierry Jonquet.
Since it is an Almodovar film, The Skin I Live In contains certain themes which are very common in most of his films.  The first is that it has family secrets.  Almodovar loves family secrets; think back to All About My Mother and Volver which were oozing to the core with them.  He is a director who loves to go into people’s attics, find a chest full of dusty old secrets, pop the lid, and rip them out just like he would old clothes. 
The second theme here which we have seen Almodovar cover before is gender identity.  How society and individuals view themselves as male and female has always intrigued him, most recently in Bad Education.  There are scenes here which reminded me a bit of The Human Centipede but it is nowhere near that tasteless or insane.  The Skin I Live In wanders around a bit at first before you learn what is really going on and the reasons behind it.  Once you learn that, you will understand it has not been wandering around at all, it has just been setting you up for one hell of a story.

The Three Musketeers (2011)


Another Three Musketeers movie.  The producers were having a brainstorming session one day and one of them jokingly said, “You know what we haven’t had in a few years?  A Three Musketeers movie!”  Then another one chimes in with “Oooh, and this time there will be maximum CGI and make it in 3D so we can up the price on the suckers who actually see this thing in a theater.”  Or, perhaps Paul W.S. Anderson got tired of making Resident Alien 12 and wanted to take a break.
For this new iteration of a very old story, Hollywood didn’t even break a sweat this time.  The Three Musketeers, Athos (Matthew MacFadyen), Porthos (Ray Stevenson), and Aramis (Luke Evans) are down on their luck and drinking heavily in Paris after they were betrayed on their last job by Milady de Winter (Milla Jovovich) and the dastardly Duck of Buckingham (Orlando Bloom).  D’Artagnan (Logan Lerman) breezes into town from the countryside ready for adventure and there you have it, everyone is ready once again to go through the motions of the Musketeers. 
Poor Cardinal Richelieu (Christoph Waltz).  In history, he is credited with creating the modern nation-state and truly putting France on the map as a world power.  Unfortunately, whenever a Musketeers movie comes out, he is the sinister wizard behind the curtain pulling the strings of the young King Louis (Freddie Fox).  What is Christoph Waltz doing in this movie?  He won an Oscar two years ago for Inglourious Basterds and could pick his next scripts.  He picked this one?  I know actors say it is also more fun to play the villain, but why a cartoon character?
Most of the cast in this film play their characters as cartoons.  Orlando Bloom, Logan Lerman, and Freddie Fox are the worst offenders.  Just because the script is horrible and the dialogue is atrocious does not give you license to pretend you’re in a pantomime theater.  The relentless overacting, menacing scowls, and campy one-liners from these three are appalling.  The Musketeers themselves actually play their characters with purpose and a level of seriousness, except for Ray Stevenson.  MacFadyen and Luke Evans are actually quite good as Athos and Aramis and it is a shame their talents are weighted down with the rest of the cast who are taking a break from their careers here.
Most of the action and movement in The Three Musketeers is special effects laden and every now and then the script allows for an actual scene of dialogue or a sword fighting scene which appears to have not been shot in front a green screen.  These are very brief though and then are interrupted with ridiculous looking air ships which have the world’s first air to air engagement on top of Notre Dame.  As the film dragged on, I became thankful for these preposterous action scenes just to take the screen away from D’Artagnan, the Duke of Buckingham, and the worst offender of them all, the young King Louis. 
Also, because The Three Musketeers is intent in failing in every single aspect it can, it ends with one of those horrible scenes which set it up for a sequel; that is if this one makes enough money the first time around. 

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Margin Call (2011)


Margin Call’s poster shows in bold print the words “Inspired by a True Story.”  Eh…  Set in a fictional brokerage firm in 2008 just before the housing bust, it appears to be very loosely based on Lehman Brothers.  Opening strongly, Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) is ushered into a conference room to meet with people who he has never met before who thank him for his 19 years of service to the company but he is being let go and will now be escorted to the front door by security, but really, thank you for your service.  In a slight nod to the territory covered by Up in the Air, the film follows neither the nameless administrators who just did the firing or the shocked new unemployed banker.  On his way out the door, Eric tosses a data stick to his young protégé Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) and tells him to take a look at it and to “be careful.” 
Peter is a young guy who doesn’t mind burning the midnight oil to get ahead in the firm but also has mixed feelings about the way his boss was just unceremoniously ushered out of the building.  Taking a look at the date file, Peter discovers Eric was onto something big.  Apparently, his firm, and also all of Wall Street, is about to fall off a cliff and go bankrupt because of some newly discovered toxic assets.  From following the news the last few years, the audience is well aware Peter just figured out the securities which the banking industry has been trading based on lousy home mortgages is about to send everyone to the poor house. 
Peter calls his new boss Will (Paul Bettany) who call his boss Sam (Kevin Spacey) who calls his boss Jared (Simon Baker) who calls his boss John (Jeremy Irons).  These higher up bosses are names Peter has only distantly heard of, the kind of bosses who do not routinely come into the office and only show up in the columns of the Wall Street Journal.  Explaining over and over again what he has stumbled across is not easy for the audience to follow.  The script deliberately sticks with convoluted business speak which only a skilled MBA holder would be able to follow.  Even when the big boss John asks Peter to explain it to him like he is talking to a golden retriever, the explanations is still muddled and it is only because we are in 2011 instead of 2008 that we are able to kind of figure out what is going on.
Now that everyone realizes what the problem is, what will they do about it?  They are the first firm on Wall Street to figure it out, but probably not for long.  Enter the ethics debate and the prisoner’s dilemma.  If the firm goes to the press or to the other banking firms, they will take an enormous loss along with the rest of them, maybe even going bust.  If they sell all of these toxic assets the next day, they will spark a panic, an SEC investigation, and severely cripple their reputation, but they won’t go broke.  However, in shoveling their junk investments to other firms, they will set their brethren up for failure. 
The vast majority of all of these conversations and worried looks take place in one building from secret basement rooms to the roof.  Most of the action also takes place in one night as the bosses try to balance ethics, secrets, and most of all, profits before the opening trading bell strikes.  The script is sharp, but the relentless banking jargon tries one’s patience.  Also, the claim that it was inspired by a true story is a pretty far reach.  There was no magic moment on Wall Street when one young guy sat down and figured out the recession was going to start the next day.  No firm pulled an all-nighter and sparked the crisis.  Lehman Brothers had a gigantic meltdown, but it wasn’t because they stumbled onto the truth and decided to lead-turn the panic.
Margin Call’s greatest asset is its cast.  It is an independent film, but you would not know that by looking at the cast.  Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Zachary Quinto, and Stanley Tucci all knock it out of the park and lend a huge dramatic weight to what could have been a very dry and eye-gouging script.  Demi Moore, Simon Baker, and Penn Badgley are also along for the ride but noticeably do not measure up to their peers listed above.  I am not saying they deliver poor performances, but someone is going to come in second fiddle to Jeremy Irons. 
I do not actually recommend this film even though the cast will most likely be strong nominees for any ensemble cast award this season.  The script is too cumbersome and the idea that first time film writer and director J.C. Chandor tries to play this story off as true is too unbelievable by far.  When it comes to films about the downfall of the banking industry, it is best to stick with the superior documentaries such as Inside Job and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.      

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Way (2010)


Everyone has their own, personal reason for choosing to walk the real 500 mile Camino de Santiago.  This is a trail which begins in France, winds its way through the French Pyrenees, across northern Spain’s Basque region, and ends in Galicia at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.  Legend says St. James is buried here.  Every year, thousands of ‘pilgrims’ make this arduous trek which can take months to accomplish.  However, don’t let the word pilgrim fool you; many people undertake this quest for non-religious reasons.
In fact, four such folk are the main characters in The Way.  Tom (Martin Sheen) is a native Californian eye doctor who spends as much time on the links as he does at the office.  He receives an unexpected phone call from a French policeman informing him his son Daniel (Emilio Estevez) died in southern France in a major storm.  Tom flies out to France to collect his body and learns about the pilgrimage Daniel was just starting out on.
Tom and Daniel did not have the best parting one would like to have the last time you are going to see your son.  Tom thought Daniel was wasting his life on these silly adventures while Daniel responded with the platitude, “You don’t choose your life, you experience it.”  In a moment of remorse and homage, Tom decides to walk the 500 miles for Daniel with his cremated remains spreading his ashes along the way.  Quickly, he is joined by fellow pilgrims each with their own reasons for taking a few months out of their lives to backpack across Spain.
There is the Dutchman Joost (Yorick van Wageningen) who is walking the trail to lose weight for his brother’s wedding.  Sarah (Deborah Kara Unger) is a chain smoking Canadian who vows to drop the habit once she reaches the cathedral and Jack (James Nesbitt) is an Irishman convinced the trail will finally crack his writer’s block.  Initially, Tom does not particularly want their company because he is suffering from some severe guilt and remorse about Daniel.  This leads to the film’s low point of a drunken rage against pilgrims and his walking mates.  Fortunately, once this ridiculous and needless scene is over, the rest of The Way is a very enjoyable movie to watch.
The Way was shot with only available light, sunlight during the day and candles and fire at night which lends it a great deal of authenticity.  Other than the main characters, everyone else on screen are actual pilgrims walking the trail to the cathedral.  There is a scene later on with real Roma (Gypsies).  Since the Camino de Santiago means a great deal to many people, especially those in northern Spain, you can really see how writer/director Emilio Estevez took his time to do this right.
It is refreshing to see Emilio pop his head up once again for some work.  I last saw him when he directed 2006’s Bobby and since then it appears he has only directed a couple episodes of Numb3rs.  Perhaps he is always waiting for some real inspiration to use as his next project.  He mentioned The Way came about from his father and his son’s experience on the trail.  I wonder if the character Jack is a model for Emilio since the first draft of this screenplay took six months to write.  Furthermore, it is about time Martin Sheen showed up in a good movie again.  Recently, he has had some bit parts in throw away movies such as Love Happens and Imagine That and hasn’t truly had quality work since The Departed. 
The Way won’t win any awards; however, it is so positive and perhaps intentionally persuasive that I bet every person in the audience thought about how they could find a few months to take off and hike that distance.  I had no idea that such a place as the Camino de Santiago existed before watching The Way which I suspect is a big reason why Emilio Estevez took the time to write and direct this film.  He wants the rest of us to know about it as well.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Blackthorn (2011)


Butch Cassidy didn’t die!  Both he and the Sundance Kid somehow made it out alive at the end of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and escaped certain death at the hands of the Bolivian Army.  Flash forward 20 years and Butch, now known as James Blackthorn (Sam Shepard), is still in Bolivia and living a quiet life breeding horses and enjoying the scenery.  However, James knows it’s time to sell what he has and return home to the U.S.  He is not young anymore, heck; he is not even middle aged anymore.  There are some people he wants to see back in America but wouldn’t you just know it, now that James is trying to leave, local events unexpectedly descend right on his head and he gets mired in a side quest of money and revenge before he can finally go home.
His sidekick this time is Eduardo Apodaca (Eduardo Noriega), a Spanish engineer who just stole a huge sum of money from the regional mining magnate and has not only a large bounty on his head, but a posse of extremely irritated tough guys on his tail.  James and Eduardo get tangled up together as only two people can in the middle of nowhere Bolivia and they start working together to get the money and stay alive. 
But what happened in the 20 years from when we last left Butch Cassidy and what happened to the Sundance Kid?  These events are slowly uncovered through flashbacks where young Butch (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and Sundance (Padraic Delaney) are first back in the U.S., make their way to Argentina, and finally Bolivia where it somewhat tells how they got out of that tricky business.  Also in the flashbacks is a Pinkerton agent, McKinley (Stephen Rea), who chased the two bandits from the U.S. to South America.
The Blackthorn screenplay was written by Miguel Barros, his first fiction credit, but could have been written by the Bolivian Tourism Office.  Shot in Bolivia, the scenery should garner its own supporting actor credit.  The camera lingers of high mountains, lush plains and valleys, winding rivers, and even barren salt flats.  Frequently, James will sit down, stare at his surroundings, and mention to whomever he is with at the time just how gorgeous Bolivia is.  Directed by Mateo Gil, known more for his writing (The Sea Inside, Open Your Eyes, Vanilla Sky), Blackthorn brought Butch Cassidy back to life, but did it really need to?
According to this script, there was no need for a Butch Cassidy sequel right after the 1908 events with the Bolivian Army because Butch didn’t do anything except disappear into the countryside and settle down.  Now the camera is back on him because of this Eduardo business.  However, the whole mess is so blatantly contrived and small minded that the plot is just an excuse to bring back a very famous character. 
Also, it has briefly revived the moribund careers of Sam Shepard and Stephen Rea, two talented actors who do not receive very many scripts anymore.  Shepard has popped up in very small roles recently in Fair Game and Brothers while Rea was more or less last seen in V for Vendetta and a 2009 episode of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit.  It is a shame that not only does the Blackthorn script severely let down its predecessor, but when two aging actors finally get the chance to show they still have what it takes to carry a film, they are saddled with this one.    

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Mill and the Cross (2011)


The Mill and the Cross is a movie inside of a painting, specifically The Way to Calvary (1564) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.  Pieter Bruegel (Rutger Hauer) is the main character in the film which takes turns following him as he decides how his painting will take shape and who will be in it and also follows the local peasants who go about their daily business in middle of 16th century Flanders.  The background is always the actual painting’s background with the mill high up on a rock looking down on a large field where most of the action occurs.
Bruegel’s patron is Nicolaes Jonghelinck (Michael York), a successful Flemish banker who spends his time learning from Bruegel about the people in the painting and what each section represents and also pontificates to nobody in particular about the current state of affairs in Flanders.  In 1564, Spain ruled what is now Antwerp and Flanders.  The Spanish militia seen in the painting in their red tunics seemed to be preoccupied with chasing down and torturing Protestant heretics.  There are gruesome scenes in the film with a man tied to a wagon wheel hoisted up in the air with no defense at all while the birds have at him.  A woman’s fate is no better as she is shoved alive into an open grave while the red tunics fill the dirt in on top of her. 
The Way to Calvary itself does not show these particular atrocities.  Instead, it has Jesus in the center hoisting his own cross towards his crucifixion.  The exact moment the painting captures is Simon helping him with the cross because Jesus stumbled and fell down.  Everyone’s eyes are on Simon at this time instead of Jesus.  In the foreground is Mary (Charlotte Rampling).  She is helpless as she sits on the sidelines because there is nothing she can do to prevent the red tunics from carrying out their mission.  The rest of the painting shows hundreds of peasants either watching the proceeding or going about their chores.  Children play games on the hillside, a local peddler sells his bread, a horn player dances around, and above them all, the miller observes from his windmill.
The Mill and the Cross is at its best when Bruegel is explaining his inspiration and how he plans to incorporate all of his ideas and scenes into one large landscape.  He looks closely at a spider’s web to discover where the anchor point on his painting will be and how to section off the rest of the action.  Just as intriguing are the scenes of everyday life in 1564 Flanders.  A young couple gets out of bed and takes their cow to the field for the day.  Bruegel’s wife and children wake up after him and get ready for breakfast which is a small slice of bread.  The miller and his apprentice ready the mill for the day’s tasks and the large wheels and gears moan into action. 
Rutger Hauer is excellent as Pieter Bruegel and he appears to be serving his artistic penance to atone for his ridiculous participation in Hobo with a Shotgun earlier this year.  Michael York is taking a break from his voice over work and TV appearances to finally show up in a serious film again.  Charlotte Rampling is sort of the odd man out here.  Her screen time is sparse as Mary and she spends most of the time misty eyed observing all of the peasant movements around her. 
The Mill and the Cross is a Polish production directed by Lech Majewski who also aided in adapting the screenplay from a book of the same name by Michael Francis Gibson.  The film was an official selection at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and will most likely earn an Oscar nod for Best Costume Design.  The costumes are remarkable and frequently take center stage over the performers. 
The Mill and the Cross is a bit reminiscent of The Girl with a Pearl Earring but instead of showing how the painting is made from the outside, this time, the filmmakers actually take you inside of the painting itself and walks on the same landscape as its subjects.  There is little dialogue in the film which is not a problem because it is so absorbing to just sit back and watch the peasants wander around the area and Bruegel figure out how to tie everything together.  I will not give it away, but the final shot of the film is as wonderful as the rest as the camera backs up and reveals something to the audience. 
If you are a movie patron with patience and an interest in art history, The Mill and the Cross is for you.  If you get bored in movies without guns, flash bangs, and screaming, stay away. 

Friday, October 14, 2011

Take Shelter (2011)


Curtis (Michael Shannon) is having bad dreams.  Bad dreams are a bit low key to accurately describe what he dreams at night; absolute night terrors works better.  He dreams his faithful dog suddenly attacks him and takes a chunk out of his arm and later he dreams his best buddy stabs him with a pickax.  There is no warning these events would ever occur in reality, but for some reason, Curtis’s arm still aches the rest of the day after the dog dream. 
This sounds like the setup to a horror film but Take Shelter is far from that genre.  Curtis has more than a stirring suspicion at what is really going on in his head.  When his mother was his age, she was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and has spent the rest of her life in assisted living because of it.  This scenario scares Curtis more than anything in the world because just before these dreams, he was a very happy and loving family man. 
His wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain) spends the majority of her time taking care of their deaf daughter and creating handicrafts to sell at the local neighborhood yard sale.  Their family is not rich, but Curtis has a steady job in drilling and they get by.  However, these sudden dreams and later on hallucinations are starting to take their toll on the family harmony.  Curtis feels something is coming.  He does not know exactly what it is, but he tries to describe it as the ultimate storm anyone has ever seen.
To prepare, he starts renovating an old storm shelter in the backyard, at significant cost.  Most of these things he does without informing his wife which upsets her even more.  Samantha is well aware of what happened to Curtis’s mother and just like his friends and neighbors, and even Curtis himself, starts to worry just how far down the rabbit hole these actions are going to go.
Take Shelter smartly takes into account the current life and times of its rural Ohio setting.  Curtis knows he is lucky to have a job because a lot of people do not and times are rough out there for the unemployed.  They show how hard it is to muddle through the healthcare bureaucracy to see the correct doctor signed off by the insurance company for the correct procedure they are willing to pay for.  They are just as shocked at pharmacy co-pays as everyone else is. 
What does not work and sets the film back is its pacing.  I do not shy away from what some folks refer to as ‘slow’ cinema but Take Shelter can really test your patience and stamina.  There is not a lot of action and movement here and there is no increased amount of dialogue to make up for it.  There is a huge amount of time devoted to watching Curtis’s face, wincing cheekbones, and the troubling weather on the horizon which may or may not be real.
This is a huge burden for actor Michael Shannon but as he usually does, he provides a remarkable performance.  I would support his name being mentioned around Oscar time for his work here.  He has been outstanding before, especially in Revolutionary Road, and his Curtis character here is somewhat reminiscent of other characters he has played with mental issues in Bug and My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done.  Jessica Chastain does not have near as many sustained one on one solo shots with the camera but she shows once again why she has come out of nowhere to be this year’s breakthrough actress.  It seems she is in a film once a month nowadays with The Tree of Life, The Help, The Debt, and now Take Shelter.  I had never heard her name before May of this year and now she is showing up everywhere. 
Take Shelter is also getting rave reviews from the established critics.  Ebert gave it four stars and it won the Critics Week Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival.  What am I missing?  The acting is top notch but the script is sparse, the pacing is snail-paced, and there is not much else to make up for that.  I do not recommend anyone go see this because it more than just feels empty, it really is.  There is no substance to wrap yourself around.  There is Michael Sheen of course, but he just cannot shoulder the weight all by himself without some additional help from the writer.      

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Toast (2010)


Here is how I imagine this hypothetical sequence of events.  Screenwriter Lee Hall, best known for the Billy Elliot script, sat down and read Nigel Slater’s autobiography.  Hall loved it so much that he sat down and turned it into a screenplay named Toast.  This is not unusual since the main characters in Billy Elliot and Toast are very similar.  BBC One bought it instead of a film studio which should be clue number one that Toast was not going to be a potential Billy Elliot sequel.  They hired a director, S.J. Clarkson, mostly known for directing TV episodes on both side of the pond such as EastEnders and Dexter.  Most surprising and most perplexing, the BBC and the Toast script were able to attract acting talent, most notably Helena Bonham Carter.
What did Carter see in this script?  She took time out of her life the very same year both Alice in Wonderland and The King’s Speech hit theaters to slap on ill-fitting kitchen attire and help bring the life and times of Nigel Slater to the world.  Nigel Slater is a British food writer most notably for the Observer and previously for Marie Clair.  He was born in the Midlands to repressed, but somewhat wealthy, parents who did not dedicate much time and effort into the domestic side of life. 
Nigel’s mother played by Victoria Hamilton seems to have no experience in the kitchen whatsoever as she puts actual cans of food into boiling water and at the same time sucks on an inhaler to indicate to Nigel and the audience that something is not quite right.  Nigel’s father, Ken Stott, disappears to some sort of job during the day and returns home with few kind words for his son and prances on eggshells around his wife.  When he tells Nigel to do something, the reason behind it is usually, “Do it for your mother” although Nigel cannot quite make sense of why eating a miserable ham would benefit his mother very much.  Most conversations between Nigel and his father end in the exclamation, “You stupid, ignorant boy.”
Not surprisingly at all given the overt setup, Nigel’s mom dies early in the film and then men are left to their own selves.  This does not last very long before Helena Bonham Carter shows up as Mrs. Potter, the new house cleaner.  Nigel sees straight away that the lady from local council housing has set her eyes on their nice house and well to do Mr. Slater.  She goes above and beyond mere cleaning; she starts to darn socks and even cook.  The allure and mysteries of cooking are a subplot so far as Nigel has never seen anyone make a proper meal before but is wise enough to recognize and agree with the axiom, “the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.”
Mrs. Potter knows this proverb all too well.  Pies, turkeys, and potatoes all start to regularly appear on their dinner table, items which had never been there before.  Nigel begins home economics training, at the expense of his popularity, to match wits with Mrs. Potter in the kitchen.  His motivation for doing so is not clear.  Is it jealousy for his father’s affection?  Does he despise Mrs. Potter so much that the one way he thinks he can get her fired is to be a better cook than she is? 
The Mrs. Potter character is one of the main reasons Toast is a truly horrible film.  In Nigel’s eyes, she is the epitome of evil; however, to every other rational human being and the audience, she is a normal woman who truly seems to take a shine to his father and even Nigel himself, although he is a true brat to her every chance he gets.  She may latch on to the possibility of climbing the social ladder a bit too readily, but she is not mean.  She shoulders all of the domestic responsibilities of the home and never once hits little Nigel and never even gets in a shouting match with him.
Nigel’s hostility wears on the audience very quickly and after a bit, just seems tired and out of place.  Nigel is played by newcomer Oscar Kennedy as an eight year old and by Freddie Highmore (Charlie & the Chocolate Factory, Finding Neverland) as a teenager.  His animosity never recedes and by the end, I was absolutely fed up with watching him.  The interactions between Nigel and his father and between Nigel and Mrs. Potter do not work.  I am incredulous that anyone, especially an actress of Helena Bonham Carter’s caliber, would read this script and agree it would be a good idea to turn it into a film.
Stay away from Toast at all costs.  Even though it is based on an autobiography, it is ridiculous, monotonous, and worst of all, despising all of the characters on the screen is no way to enjoy a film.  In fact, Toast is a film to endure rather than to enjoy.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Love Crime (Crime d'Amour) (2010)


Rare for a mysterious thriller set in the high stakes business realm, Love Crime (Crime d’Amour) is dominated by women with the men relegated to paltry supporting roles.  Christine (Kristin Scott Thomas) is on the fast track to the elite tier of her international business firm as chief of their Paris office.  She is confident, sexy, knows how to work the room, and has complete faith in her subordinate Isabelle (Ludivine Sagnier).  Not only is Christine a business mentor to Isabelle, she also assumes the role of life coach, close confidant, and in a few moments, possible temptress.
Isabelle is also on the fast track but is severely overshadowed by the extroverted Christine.  She has original ideas which win the firm big clients but Christine will frequently claim those ideas as her own to help her case for promotion.  Christine does not necessarily view this as the immoral thing to do.  She is the boss and ideas flow to the top.  Plus, any success merited to Christine will naturally help Isabelle’s career; however, Isabelle must never forget who is truly in charge.
While attempting to prove herself outside of Christine’s shadow, Isabelle sparks a feud between the two careerists with drastic consequences.  So begins an intricate chess match of hints, allegations, innuendo, and dramatic backroom conversations.  Christine attempts to squash her former protégé back into obscurity and Isabelle maneuvers to step into her own spotlight subverting her malicious boss. 
If you have a weakness for ‘who dunnits’ or intricate true crime methodologies, then Love Crime is your guilty pleasure come true.  However, if you have only passing interest in the above mentioned genre, then you can take or leave this film.  The script is sharp, the acting is a pleasure to watch, and the intense, hushed French conversations will keep you immersed, but there is not much more to it. 
Isabelle’s relationship with Christine reminded me a bit of the earlier Ludivine Sagnier role in Swimming Pool, but instead of Charlotte Rampling, this time you get a much more assertive Kristin Scott Thomas.  There are also direct reminders of The Business of Strangers with Stockard Channing and Julia Stiles. 
Sagnier redeems herself in this audience member’s eye from her disastrous work in The Devil’s Double.  While that was a good film, her character and acting drastically impacted its plausibility.  Plausibility is also a factor here in Love Crime.  There are overreactions you would never see in reality but the intricate follow through in the malevolent details make up for a good portion of disbelief. 

Moneyball (2011)


Baseball is the sport to follow if you love numbers.  Almost every aspect of the game can be and is quantified by a percentage which both ball clubs and fans use to rank players.  The science of ranking players using particular categories, specifically on base percentage, is the foundation for an analysis program known as sabermetrics.  Moneyball never uses this term, but that is what they are talking about. 
Moneyball tells the story of the Oakland Athletics’ 2002 season.  At the end of 2001, the A’s lost the divisional playoff series to the Yankees and then their three superstars left for free agency.  Compared to the Yankees and the vast majority of the rest of Major League Baseball teams, the Oakland A’s were poor.  They could not compete with the other clubs to put well known impact players on their roster.  General Manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) pleaded with his scouts to come up with a new way to identify players instead of the usual way it had been done for the past hundred years or so, mostly gut instinct and the usual power numbers. 
While in Cleveland on a bartering trip to replace the holes in his lineup, Billy meets Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a low level player analyst, who has some unconventional ideas about what it really takes to win games.  To win games, you have to produce runs.  To produce runs, you have to get on base, be it with hits or walks.  Scouts and baseball crowds prefer hits since they are far more sexy than walks; however, they are one in the same to Peter Brand and Billy Beane quickly becomes an acolyte to this new way of thinking.  Shifting focus to the most undervalued players in baseball, Oakland starts signing guys who are considered too old, sub-par fielders, and unimpressive at the plate.  Not only does the scouting staff start to revolt, but the coach, Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman) looks at Billy and his methods like they are from Mars.
Sabermetrics was not new in 2002, but no ball club ever put a team together using mostly stats before.  Everybody expected them to lose, be at the cellar of their division, and for Billy to be fired at the end of the season.  However, the 2002 season went in a different direction and produced some profound ripple effects throughout the rest of the league and how teams valued players afterwards.  Moneyball is definitely a film for baseball fans and stat geeks.  However, if you are not into baseball, you most likely will not enjoy Moneyball very much.  There is limited on field action and a lot of detailed conversations about baseball methods with its corresponding jargon. 
Moneyball is based on a 2004 book and is advertised as the true story of what happened in that 2002 season; however, there are a lot of dramatizations and changes.  First of all, there is no Peter Brand in real life.  In fact, Billy’s Assistant General Manager joined the team in 1999 and was named Paul DePodesta.  Mr. DePodesta did not like how they wrote his character in the script and asked that his name be changed.   He argues that he was not only focused on statistics to shape the team. 
I desperately wanted Moneyball to be an amazing film.  I love baseball and I really enjoy reading and talking about baseball stats.  Unfortunately, Moneyball is not a great movie, it is just ok.  It lacks a certain weight and depth.  Early scenes between Pitt and Hill could have been much deeper concerning their ideas to change the way the game is played, but they are light and choppy.  Peter Brand never really gets a long monologue to explain just how his ideas could create a winning team from start to finish.  Furthermore, the character of Coach Howe is ridiculous.  Philip Seymour Hoffman spends his very limited screen time hurling out one word guttural answers and just looks ill.  I know he was meant to disagree with the way the team was headed, but why make him look deathly pale and on the verge of a nervous breakdown? 
See Moneyball if you are a baseball fan; you will enjoy the behind the scenes look at the scouting meetings and the shenanigans which go on at the trade deadline.  However, be prepared for a light fiction film which can stray pretty far from what really happened that year. 

Friday, October 7, 2011

My Afternoons with Margueritte (2010)


Germain (Gerard Depardieu) is not illiterate.  He knows how to read and write, but he really prefers not to.  For one, he is not very good at reading, he goes slowly and he uses his finger to follow the lines across the page.  However, his comprehension is pretty good, especially when someone reads aloud to him.  He imagines the scene in his mind and if the reader is describing rats in the street he can see those rats squirming around in enough detail that it makes him uncomfortable.  Not being a big fan of reading and not being known as any sort of intellectual at his local bar is just fine by Germain.  He is a town handyman, a very capable gardener, appreciates his girlfriend, and is not depressed about his station in life.
His station isn’t very high either.  He lives in a trailer behind his mother’s house and makes ends meet by being good with his hands, be it woodworking or gardening.  One advantage to not having a steady 9-5 job is lunch in the park.  Germain enjoys making a sandwich and leisurely eating it on his favorite park bench where he can monitor the pigeons.  He goes there enough to know that in fact there are 19 usual pigeons hanging around and he even has names for all of them.  It is here in the park where he meets 95 year old Margueritte (Gisele Casadesus).  The park gives her a chance to escape the old folks home for a bit and read out in the sunlight.             
Margueritte and Germain strike up a pleasant friendship where she reads aloud and he appreciates the stories.  This is the first time in his life someone has ever taken the time to talk with him one on one about stories, how they make you feel, and what the author may have been thinking about.  Germain has bad memories from his childhood, both from an unfriendly school and an uninterested mother.  Margueritte sees through his thick exterior and recognizes a kind of kindred spirit, one who really appreciates a good story and crisp sentences.  In another life and with decent surroundings, Margueritte surmises Germain could have been an author himself.
All of these new ideas, books, and learning makes his life a bit more uncomfortable.  His friends at the bar notice his vocabulary is raising a notch or two and his girlfriend Annette (Sophie Guillemin) is starting to wonder where all of this self improvement is coming from.  Give My Afternoons with Margueritte a strong point in the good script column that is sidesteps what could have been a misunderstanding with a real scene of openness, frustration, and acceptance. 
Gerard Depardieu gives a very strong performance here as a guy everyone likes, except his mother, and who enjoys his life in his small town.  This comes off a very good performance he had last year with Inspector Bellamy.  Gisele Casadesus has shown up three times in the movies in the past few months.  She has bit parts in Sarah’s Key and The Hedgehog and for a lady of such an advanced age, she really has a grasp on Margueritte and how she would feel towards a man approaching middle age whose earlier experiences stunted what could have been a wonderful relationship between him and the world of books.  She may be the only 95 year old in France capable of still turning out a good performance which is why she is getting every single role in France which calls for one.
My Afternoons with Margueritte is a very pleasant way to spend your own afternoon.  Watching Germain and Margueritte plod through a Camus novel is refreshing and it is truly enjoyable to sit back and watch a script unfold which chooses to step away from cliché and focus on character and style.          

The Ides of March (2011)


Physically compare experienced political operatives with their interns.  More than wrinkled faces and less hair up top separates them.  The interns still have fresh ideals and expectations of the candidates they choose to support; the experienced staffers know better.  There was a point on a campaign in their past where their own ideals took a left turn; a point where reality jumped up and showed them no candidate is perfect and a time when it became less about the future of tomorrow and more about just beating the other guy. 
Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling) is at the intersection.  He is the number two on Governor Mike Morris’s (George Clooney) presidential campaign.  He not only shares the Governor’s political platform, but believes in the man himself.  It is not the hero worship of the interns he supervises, but it is not the same almost numb feeling the number one campaign managers sometimes show.  Stephen’s boss and the Governor’s main guy is Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman).  He is on board because he shares in the political faith, but he knows more and it shows.  His shoulders are hunched, he smokes too much, and he believes in loyalty to the candidate even more than he believes in his own mother.
The Governor is towards the end of a tight Democratic primary and there is only one more candidate between him and the general election, one which will most likely favor the Democrat in the race.  The campaign has stopped for the week in Ohio which is fast becoming a make or break primary state.  Stephen and Paul are expertly drafting speeches, maneuvering the candidate where he needs to be, and cozying up to the New York Times political reporter Ida Horowicz (Marisa Tomei) for some favorable coverage.  The other candidate is also in town though and he has his own political attack dog in Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti).  Tom knows the real deal just as much as Paul and sees in Stephen what they all used to be, smart and talented, yet still a bit wide-eyed. 
Speeches are made, debates are contested, and each side is courting various political kingmakers.  Every time it comes down to Stephen to make a decision, it becomes more and more a matter of what is right or what will get my candidate elected.  What if you do the right thing but it causes your candidate to fall in the polls?  What if you compromise your values and it gives your team the boost it needs to clear that last hurdle?  Stephen has some tough choices to make and what The Ides of March really comes down to is will Stephen the individual still be the same somewhat fresh idealist he was at the beginning of the week?
The Ides of March has a serious and tight screenplay and it matched those characters from the page with tried and true heavy hitters.  Ryan Gosling is fast becoming one of Hollywood’s premier true actors but even he loses the screen to the fascinating performances of Hoffman, Giamatti, and Tomei.  These guys must tire of waiting around for that perfect script to come along because when it does, they are usually first in line to give it what they’ve got, and in The Ides of March, these three knock it out of the park.  Gosling and Clooney are no slouches and must carry a lot of the film, but their roles are not as juicy as the supporting cast.  Evan Rachel Wood also shines as a campaign intern. 
The Ides of March opened this year’s Venice Film Festival and won its Brian Prize, the first American film to do so.  The Brian Prize champions the values of rationality, human rights, expression, etc… and it must have been an easy choice.  Scripts like this one do not come around once a week.  True actors such as Hoffman, Giamatti, and Tomei rarely latch on to roles in the same film where they each have in-depth, staggering monologues.  When one of them gets going, they could go on the same spiel for minutes on end with hardly an interruption.  The choices people make really can change them as an individual.  Do you choose the right thing every time or is the end all that matters no matter what the means?       

Saturday, October 1, 2011

50/50 (2011)


Many films about cancer are actually only about ‘movie cancer’.  These have characters who say they are sick but their disease does not seem to interrupt their lives at all as they continue on normally until one day they unexpectedly disappear because of their phantom cancer.  The rest of the films concerning cancer realistically show their characters with aches and pains, traumatic responses to chemotherapy, and emotional breakdowns.  50/50 shows real cancer and not the fake movie kind ala this month’s Gus Van Sant film Restless.
Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a 27 year old sound editor for Seattle Public Radio.  His relationship with his girlfriend Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard) is looking up as she is starting to spend more and more nights over at his house.  Adam’s best friend Kyle (Seth Rogen) is also a major part of his life mainly as chauffeur, work mate, and deliverer of crude comedic one-liners.  Adam has everything going for him and finally decides to head to the doctor to check out some nagging back pain.  When the doctor blindsides him with a whole bunch of really long sounding words relating to a tumor on his spine, Adam’s world stops on a dime and all of his plans and expectations just pack up and fly out the window. 
He doesn’t smoke, he doesn’t drink, and he recycles.  How on Earth, especially at 27, could he have a tumor?  Chemotherapy begins right away as does a myriad of other doctor visits and awkward sessions with a 24 year old therapist who looks even younger than that.  Katherine (Anna Kendrick) is assigned as Adam’s therapist to help him sort through his feelings; however, he has a very tough time adjusting to the fact that he is her third patient ever and their rapport takes an immediate hit when she has no idea who this Doogie Howser person Adam keeps mentioning is.  Adam also notices how his friends and family relationships change regarding his disease.  Which of his friends will step up and stick by him in his troubled times?  Will his girlfriend stay supportive, will his best friend want to keep hanging around and will his mother (Anjelica Huston) be able to keep it together enough not become another emotional problem in his life?
50/50 was written by Will Reiser and is loosely based on his real experiences with cancer.  Reiser is a frequent co-writer and friend of Seth Rogen which is why he shows up in the sidekick role here.  Coincidentally or not, this is also a reprise of a character Rogen played in Funny People when he became Adam Sandler’s sidekick when he had cancer.  Rogen’s character Kyle is very similar to his wise-cracking, vulgar characters from Knocked Up and Pineapple Express.  In fact, it probably is the same character just with another name because he plays them exactly the same.
The two actors who really rise above the rest in 50/50 are Gordon-Levitt and Kendrick.  Continuing a remarkable series of characters from 500 Days of Summer and Inception, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is very believable as a young guy who must come to grips with a new reality he did not sign up for.  Also, the talented Anna Kendrick shows up in a very familiar role because the audience saw her do the same thing in Up in the Air; she plays a character where she is judged as too young to be effective.  Unlike Seth Rogen, Kendrick is extremely capable and her scenes with Gordon-Levitt are as uncomfortable and stunted as they would be in a real hospital. 
Bryce Dallas Howard has now played back to back roles as an extremely unsympathetic and callous character; this summer’s The Help has Howard as a conniving villain.  She should be careful lest she is typecast as the wicked witch next.  Thankfully, Anjelica Huston is here in her juiciest role since 2007’s The Darjeeling Limited or even 2004’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.  She does not get too many plum roles anymore which is a shame because she steals the scenes she is in as the emotional wreck of a mother.  She overshadows Gordon-Levitt and annihilates Seth Rogen when they share the screen.
I mentioned Restless earlier because both of these films were released close together, have a main character with cancer, and are even both based in the Pacific Northwest.  50/50 is supposedly shot in Seattle and has one or two establishing shots with the Space Needle in the background but the vast majority of it is obviously shot in British Columbia.  50/50 looks and feels that much better because I saw Restless recently and it was so ridiculous in how it showed a character with cancer that 50/50 shines bright above it. 
Even though I complain about Seth Rogen’s acting, 50/50 is a very powerful film and does not match the comedy its preview promises.  There are scenes to laugh at, but there are many more which are truly deep and prompt meaningful responses from the audience.  50/50 is a delight to watch and I highly recommend it to anyone and everyone.  You will be happy you took the time to seek this one out.