Friday, January 29, 2010

Police, Adjective

At one point, I wasn't sure I was going to get to this. I missed the Chlotrudis screening earlier in the week (I just can't do Monday movies, it seems), and the snow came down like crazy on the bus ride from Waltham to Cambridge; crazy wind and the amount of white stuff just jumped. Must have been a passing squall, though. This, naturally, comes just a couple days after the temperature climbed high enough to melt what snow was left on the ground. New England weather.

I don't have much to say about this that isn't in the review, other than mentioning that the similarity between this film's last act and that of the director's previous work, 12:08 East of Bucharest, didn't really occur to me until I did a quick scan of eFilmCritic to see if I'd reviewed that one. It really is kind of striking, now that I think of it. I may keep it in my pocket as ammunition for tomorrow's Chlotrudis nomination meeting for when people make the inevitable drive-by comments on Avatar (and I know they'll be coming; even otherwise classy, intelligent people can't resist trying to imply that they're better than the rabble by making snarky comments about something popular). See, this art-house guy is kind of a one-trick pony too; you just happen to like that trick.

Speaking of which, I should go fill out my nomination form. Sadly, I don't think Police, Adjective pushes me quite to the 110-eligible-movie level, so I'll only get 21 nominations per category rather than 22. I will attempt to use them for good.

Including nominating Sam Rockwell for both Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor in one of my favorite movies of the year - because I can and he deserves it!

Politist, adj. (Police, Adjective)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 28 January 2010 at Landmark Kendall Square #5 (first-run)

The title of Police, Adjective comes from a scene almost at the end of the movie, and based upon the definitions read out in that scene, it's interesting that the film was not named "Police, Noun" or "Police, Verb", at least if one is into self-referentiality. The first description of the world "police" as an adjective refers to a type of movie, and while this one technically fits the category, it tends to focus on different aspects of police-work than the typical procedural.

Cristi (Dragos Bucur) is a young detective in a smallish Romanian city. He is currently assigned to tail Victor (Radu Costin), a high-school student whose smokes a bit of hash with a couple of friends, one of whom - Alex (Alexandru Sabadac) - has ratted him out to the police, saying Victor's brother supplies him. Cristi has been following Victor for a week, and though he figures that they technically have enough to bust the kid for distribution, he doesn't want to move in with a sting just yet: It doesn't net him the brother they figure is the real dealer, there's something off about why Alex would squeal, and, besides, why bother when no other country in Europe prosecutes for this anyway?

While most procedurals involve surveillance and stake-outs to some extent, they tend to focus on the moment when something is about to happen, or play up the stultifying boredom of it by showing time passing. Writer/director Corneliu Porumboiu takes a different tack here, giving us many scenes of Cristi taking up a spot in the background while the teenagers do their thing, then wordlessly following as he trails them. Proumboiu and cinematographer Marius Panduru frame things carefully, almost exquisitely, to keep the tail on one side of the screen while the person being followed is at the other edge. We pick out tradecraft without being told - how Cristi tries to keep another person between himself and his target, or how to allay suspicion when a third party starts noticing that he's hanging around. It's an intriguing combination of interesting and tedious, and even though the we aren't given the message directly, we start to notice how just how much time and resources are being spent on this one kid.

Despite the precision present in how Porumboiu presents his police-work, in many ways it is the other half of the title that he is truly concerned with. Not adjectives specifically, but language. The above-mentioned scene between Cristi and his boss (Vlad Ivanov) is, in some ways, the culmination of others where characters ask each other to speak plainly, or Cristi and his wife Anca (Irina Saulescu) debating the meaning to a song's lyrics. There's another scene between them where she points out that out that the grammar in his report is out of date, that what had been two words was now supposed to be one, according to the Romanian Academy. So when all is said and done, we've got the curious idea that laws are made out of language, but language itself can change for political reasons.

That's something to chew on, although even without the way the dialogue occasionally goes into oddly formal territory, it's interesting to watch these debates play out on the face of Bucur's Cristi. Bucur doesn't feel the need to do much to ingratiate Cristi with the audience, allowing the character to come off as fussy or demanding. There's the constant implication that Cristi is smart, but in a bit over his head, and even if the audience doesn't always quite warm to the man, we can find ourselves empathizing with him about his questions, even as we sometimes have trouble deciding whether they are emotional or intellectual. He's given good characters to play against, too - Irina Saulescu manages both intellectualism and warmth as Cristi's wife, while Ion Stoica is a simple presence as the fellow officer he shares an office with. And while I believe that Ivanov only has that one scene, it's a big, meaty one that he absolutely dominates.

I notice, upon re-reading what I wrote about 12:08 East of Bucharest, Porumboiu's previous film, that it too was built around one big scene, staged in a fairly similar way: What amounts to a long-held shot of three men involved in a relatively formal discussion. It's a format that works for him, apparently, although I think it works better here because the scenes leading up to it are much more focused - there can be no doubt that this is Cristi's story - and it leads directly to a conclusion. Indeed, what could be a stiff, purely intellectual story winds up somewhat fascinating by how well Porumboiu and Bucur put us in Cristi's shoes.

It still winds up being rather on the formal side; those looking for a conventional crime movie will likely be disappointed. It offers plenty of food for thought for those with a fair amount of patience, though, whether it be ethical or intellectual.

Also at EFC

Ong Bak-2-Bak

The subject line shows that the folks at the Brattle clearly have more restraint than I have; that's a bad pun I would have slapped right on the calendar right where they usually stick "Double Feature".

(Yes, I'm inordinately proud of coming up with that.)

Let me say this: Ong Bak 2 is dozens of times more comprehensible when you haven't spent the whole day traveling from Boston to Austin, walking from the motel to downtown to pick up credentials, then from there to South Lamar because you haven't caught on with the shuttle schedule yet, and then waiting for the show to start because the Alamo guys are doing a fun intro until 12:30am (which is sitll like 1:30am Eastern Time on the first day). One is far more likely to intermittently fall asleep under those conditions than a Brattle showing that starts right on time at 9:30pm. It cleared things up enough to raise the rating a good half-star from when I first saw it.

Of course, time has chipped away at a little bit of the enthusiasm I displayed for the original Ong Bak when I saw it at the inaugural Boston Fantastic Film Festival back in 2004. Of course, back then, muay thai was something we hadn't seen on film, and I hadn't yet stumbled upon Twitch or made my first trip to Fantasia or NYAFF yet, so crazy martial arts on the big screen was an even more rare treat. I hope not to become jaded about it, because even as Jaa and company improved on their technique for this follow-up (you can't really call it a sequel), there is still a raw energy to people first making their mark to the first one that is very difficult to resist.

Ong Bak 2

* * * (out of four)
Seen 26 January 2010 at the Brattle Theatre (Brattle Selects 2010)

I haven't actually run the numbers, but I suspect that martial arts action has an unusually high number of movies titled as though they were sequels but only vague connections to each other, and that's even before considering how things get retitled for foreign markets. Ong Bak 2 is a fairly obvious example; despite the title, it is not a continuation of the story of the first; in fact, it takes place some 550 years earlier. Still, it's hardly like Ong Bak's story mattered, and this movie does offer more of what the first delivered: Tony Jaa, demonstrating amazing athletic and martial arts skills.

In 1431, a young boy named Tien (Natdanai Kongthong) escapes when his noble father and bodyguards are assassinated, but it's a case of out of the frying pan and into the fire as he falls into the hands of slavers before being rescued by Chernang (Sorapong Chatree), head of a group of bandits. Tien is offered the chance to stay, learn their ways, and train with them, growing into a man (Tony Jaa) who is groomed to take Chernang's place as bandit king. And he intends to, but the men who killed his parents are still out there, amassing more power...

Though the story is not the complete mess it appeared to be on my first go-round (it was effectively 2am after a full day of travel when I saw it at SXSW last year), it has its problems. I imagine the bulk can be traced to the tumultuous shoot: Star Tony Jaa apparently bit off more than he could chew in attempting to make his directorial debut, flaking on the production until the producers dragged him out of seclusion and hired Panna Rittikrai to take over directing duties. Getting it done required some script changes and as a result, there's an occasional disjointed feel; we spend a fair amount of time with Tien's childhood friend Pim in flashbacks, only to see her briefly as an adult (Primorata Dejudom may not actually have any lines, though she dances well). New villains appear during the last action sequences without any sort of introduction, and the film stops abruptly.

Though the movie's story suffers a bit for Jaa overextending himself, the actual direction is actually fairly impressive. In many ways, even beyond the time period, Ong Bak 2 is the opposite of Ong Bak - where the previous movie was rather good-natured (even the villains were amusingly over-the-top) and shot in a straightforward manner with few stylish flourishes beyond the occasional "instant replay", there's a grim earnestness about this one, and a melodramatic tone enhanced with frequent use of slow motion. Jaa, Rittikrai, and cinematographer Nattawut Kittikhun use a lot of stark blacks and whites in their color palette, creating plenty of striking images. It's hard to know where Jaa's work stops and Rittikrai's begins, but if he matures a little and grows into the role, Ong Bak 2 indicates that there may be more to Jaa as a filmmaker than just knowing to point the camera at himself in the action sequences.

And, yes, he has quite the knack for that. Jaa and Rittikrai are credited as splitting those duties as well (Jaa as "action director", Rittikrai as "fight choreographer"), and in this category, at least, there can be little doubt that Ong Bak 2 is worth the price of admission. Jaa's athleticism is on full display, and the film makes a point to show that several different techniques and weapons are in play (as excellent as the action in Ong Bak was, it got a bit predictable: Don't let Jaa get any vertical lift, or you will take elbows to the top of the head). The last half-hour is close to non-stop martial arts, and Jaa does some absolutely amazing things on, under, and around an elephant.

Get right down to it, that's what you want from this movie - Tony Jaa doing a bunch of crazy martial arts with an elephant. Looking great is a bonus. A story that is completely coherent would be fantastic, but you can't have everything.

Also at EFC

Monday, January 25, 2010

This Week In Tickets: 18 January 2010 to 24 January 2010

This weekend is as pure an example of laziness as you will find. No movies interested me enough to actually get out of the house, but while there, did I do any of the cleaning and stuff that needed to get done? No. Apparently, I need the imminent threat of visitors for that to happen.

I didn't stay in the house for the entirety of the weekend, though...

This Week In Tickets!

Stubless: Trucker (21 January 2010) and As You Like It (22 January 2010) on DVD.

... My friend Justin plays bass in Girls Guns And Glory, so I went to the Paradise to see them. Nice band; they're going to be at South by Southwest this March. I think they were booked just after I decided that I couldn't go to the film festival because of all the travel to various weddings I have planned this year (ironically, including his). But, anyone who is going there should check them out, especially if you like roots.

No other reviews this week. I was going to try and plow through some screeners, but even the ones that were likely NTSC wouldn't play on my HD-DVD or Blu-ray players, and the SlingCatcher which puts stuff from the computer out to the TV was balky. Actually, more likely the video drivers on the computer, but I wasn't feeling like screwing with them at the time. Hopefully, I'll get to some of them this week, although the Asylum Sherlock Holmes is on the docket as well.
SkinGirls Guns and Glory

Saturday, January 23, 2010

As You Like It

Oh, my. This has been sitting on my coffee table for a bit more than two years, most likely. I have loved Branagh's other Shakespeare adaptations - one of my fondest memories of high school was going out to see Much Ado About Nothing with a bunch of friends who were taking the same Shakespeare class, I took the bus to Boston to see Hamlet while going to college in Worcester because the Landmark Theater brought in 70mm projection especially for it, and I remember dragging my brother Matt to Love's Labour's Lost because, darn it, he had to see how gorgeous it was, with Branagh making sure to do things like match the colors of the ladies' dresses and drinks. The soundtrack to that one was in heavy rotation for a while, too, goofy showtunes and all (though I absolutely loved how "You Can't Take That Away From Me" was used in it). I defend Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. If Dead Again were to come out on Blu-ray, I am pretty sure that I would not remember actually purchasing it, because it would be done entirely by my involuntary nervous system.

So, yes, I am a fan. Fan enough to pre-order As You Like It, and then keep it near the TV rather than the shelf of movies in the back room because watching it is a priority, but with the sort of addiction to buying movies much faster than I can actually watch them that keeps me from actually sticking it into a player for over two years. I'm a bit ashamed of that.

Now... Does anybody know where I can find the Japanese HD-DVD of The Magic Flute for a reasonable price? Because that looks like the only version available that I can watch without a region-free player, and the fact that something by Branagh (and Stephen Fry!) has not gotten American distribution in the three-plus years since it started trickling out in other markets is tremendously disappointing.

Next up, as I try to plow through my unwatched DVDs: The fifteen or so unwatched festival screeners I've amassed over the last couple of years. And that's just DVD; there's some VHS ones that I'd have to hook something up for.

As You Like It

* * * (out of four)
Seen 22 January 2010 in Jay's Living Room (upconverted DVD)

Thus far, the twenty-first century has not been kind to the films Kenneth Branagh directed. If you blinked, you missed his remake of Sleuth; if you're in North America, you haven't even had a chance to see his 2006 production of The Magic Flute (which, as far as I can tell, has yet to play theaters, television, or home video here). As You Like It fell somewhere between them, premiering on pay cable a month before being released on DVD. I suspect this explains why Marvel has tapped him for their Thor movie - he can use the boost in visibility as much as they can use somebody who can breathe life into things that the general public might assume to be stuffy and boring. Such as, say, Shakespeare, for the fifth time as director.

One of the ways he does this is by taking them out of their Elizabethan setting and placing them in new contexts to show the universality of the ideas behind them. With As You Like It, he moves the action to nineteenth-century Japan, where English traders had set up enclaves in port cities. As the film opens, a well-liked Duke (Brian Blessed) is removed from power by a group of ninjas and ronin in the service of his evil brother Frederick (also Blessed). The Duke and much of his court is sent into exile in the forest of Arden, but his daughter Rosalind (Bryce Dallas Howard) is kept as a companion to her cousin Celia (Romola Garai). This sort of jealousy among brothers appears to be common, as Frederick's ally Oliver De Boys (Adrian Lester) plots to kill his youngest brother Orlando (David Oyelowo). Orlando captures the affection of Rosalind, which enrages Frederick, who banishes her. Celia refuses to abandon her best friend, and they bring court jester Touchstone (Alfred Molina) along with them into exile.

There is more, of course - Shakespeare filled his plays with characters and subplots! So we have a pair of country lovers (Alex Wyndham and Jade Jefferies); the lusty Audrey (Janet McTeer), who hooks up with Touchstone; and the melancholy Jacques (Kevin Kline). Rosalind disguises herself as a boy, as a clown would be small discouragement to any bandits who might attack two women on their own, and teases the lovesick Orlando, who also finds himself in the woods. And if the material that Shakespeare came up with wasn't enough, Branagh fleshes the story out a bit with scenes of his own invention, depicting things which previously occurred off-stage. That's how you get ninjas in Shakespeare.

You can spot those scenes because they have no dialogue - adding one's own words to Shakespeare is just not done, after all. Though he doesn't do that, he is, as usual, well aware that he is adapting the Bard's work to film, rather than simply recording a play. Lines that simply describe what the audience can see are cut, scenes are re-arranged, action is shown rather than related, and the camera follows people around. Characters speak in verse, of course, but it comes across as conversational as well as larger-than-life. And while the story is far from completely modernized, the script manages to excise some of the aspects of the last act that are downright silly and weird without losing sight of the fact that the story is intended to be funny. The whole plot about Rosalind disguising herself as the boy "Ganymede" could fall into that category, but the film manages to acknowledge that without falling into self-parody.

That's in large part due to Romola Garai. Celia is the supporting female role, but this version of the story gives Garai a lot of chances to be more than just the friend Rosalind confesses her feelings to; she's given enough slapstick and double-takes to be near the top of the list of funny people in the cast. Alfred Molina isn't far behind; he delivers Touchstone's lines with the timing of a veteran stand-up, especially when he's allowed to just take control of a scene (or has McTeer's assistance in taking things over the top). Bryce Dallas Howard doesn't get quite so many jokes as them, but she shows a tremendous mischievous charm when in disguise as Ganymede that puts a smile on one's face even though she's not going for laughs as directly as the others.

The actors in more serious roles do well, too. Brian Blessed has shown up in a number of Branagh's films, and he's well-used here; his dual role gives him a chance to use that booming voice to both make the exiled Duke jolly and gregarious and cast Frederick as a frightening maniac. David Oyelowo brings plenty of sex appeal to the part of Orlando (he makes a sumo loincloth work for him early on), and manages to be head over heels for Rosalind without chipping away at his cool too much. And while I suspect that the part of Jacques has been pared down in the adaptation (though it's been some time since I've read the play or seen a different version), Kevin Kline makes up for any lost lines with his body language and general performance, and makes the famous "all the world's a stage" speech sing.

Does Branagh's grasp of what makes a good movie as opposed to a good play, visual flair, and quality multi-ethnic cast yield a version of As You Like It that could appeal to a general audience? Maybe. Truth be told, the cross-dressing plots in many of the comedies become harder sales with every year that passes from the time when only men and boys performed on stage, and the incredulous looks Garai as Celia gives Orlando, Rosalind, and the audience only gets us most of the way to really buying into it. And as nifty as the Japanese setting frequently looks, it often feels like a gimmick that won't bring in as many newcomers as it will alienate purists.

Their loss, if so. Branagh has filmed five of Shakespeare's plays, and all five times he has produced something that is no less an entertaining movie for being an adaptation of four hundred year-old works. As You Like It is no exception.

Also at EFC

Friday, January 22, 2010


At first, I was kind of surprised that Trucker didn't get into more theaters before hitting DVD. Not just because the publicists who have my email address filled it with a lot of invitations to press screenings (in New York, of course) and EPK materials and, temptingly, an interview opportunity with Michelle Monaghan that had my heart skip a beat before I realized that it would likely be by phone or email and, really, Seaver, what do you think is going to happen beyond an interview straight out of "The Chris Farley Show", since you stink at talking to people? But the two top names on it are Michelle Monaghan and Nathan Fillion, and people like them. Maybe once you get past the sci-fi geeks who recognize Fillion from his Joss Whedon and James Gunn stuff, not by name, but once you remind folks of the roles they played ("the girl in the Santa dress in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang", "the doctor in Waitress", "Tom Cruise's girlfriend in Mission Impossible 3", "Castle", "the partner in Gone Baby Gone","Mal Reynolds", "the person who didn't make you want to drive a sharp stick into your eye in The Heartbreak Kid"), the reaction is almost always "him and her? Yeah, I really like them!".

But, I guess that's not really name recognition. And as much as I'm usually one to say that the doomsayers are exaggerating when they say how bad distribution and ticket sales are for independent films these days, I have to admit that I've sat in very small crowds for movies that have what I'd consider a pretty decent cast - folks people would recognize. Skin the other night; The Canyon a couple months ago. As much as I like Michelle Monaghan, this is the first time where the movie she's in has really been about her, so I'm not sure how much of a draw she could possibly be.

Of course, if this were released beyond New York/L.A., and it got some critical acclaim and maybe made her a dark horse candidate for a Best Actress Oscar (and, yeah, she is that good here), she might be a draw for her next movie. But getting to that next level isn't easy, and clearly takes nearly as much luck as it does doing good work.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 21 January 2010 in Jay's Living Room (upconverted DVD)

Trucker is a working-class drama, and that may be a factor in why it didn't get released on more screens. Dig into it a little, and it's similar to Up in the Air - a story about a contentedly itinerant person changing by forming attachments - but without the jet-set gloss. It's got a nice cast, doing fine work, and hopefully those recognizable names will lead to people giving it a shot on video.

The trucker of the title is Diane Ford (Michelle Monaghan). She's an independent, both in terms of owning her rig and not being tied to any man for longer than a night. Well, there's her neighbor and best friend Runner (Nathan Fillion), but he's married and that's half a step farther than she's willing to go. That's about to be challenged, though, as her ex-husband's girlfriend Jenny (Joey Lauren Adams) has just popped up to drop off Peter (Jimmy Bennett), the 11-year-old son that Diane hasn't seen since he was a baby. His father Len (Benjamin Bratt) is being treated for colon cancer, and Jenny has family obligations of her own, so Diane's stuck with the kid for three weeks.

One thing that's well-done and maybe a bit unusual about Trucker is that, even though it's natural for for the sympathy in a situation like the one with Diane and Peter to be heavily slanted toward the child, Peter initially gets on our nerves. And not in an annoyingly precious child-actor way; Jimmy Bennett turns in a very good performance as a kid that takes some effort to warm up to. He's angry, lashes out, and does stupid things; Bennett captures something akin to a justified brattiness, the sort where you can understand where the kid's coming from but can also recognize that this particular attitude isn't going to make anything better. It's quite the naturalistic performance for one so young.

He gets to have most of his scenes opposite Michelle Monaghan, and that brings out the best in both of them (if not their characters). If this movie had managed a higher profile, there's no doubt that this would be a breakout role for her. Monaghan has made a career out of being likable on-screen, and Diane is the sort of role that gets people to realize that it's not just good looks; she knows how to act well enough to get her hooks into people. Here, writer/director James Mottern gives us plenty of reasons to look down on Diane; Monaghan finds ways to present it that don't so much have us liking her, but figuring that she has certainly been led to this point by decisions that must have made sense at the time. She gets that the things that make Diane able to stand on her own two feet and the things that keep her alone are two sides of the same coin.

Nathan Fillion is another guy who has built up a reputation based on likability, and he puts it to good use here; his Runner is an amiable person for Diane to talk to. He's full of charm, the sort that makes it very easy for the audience to avoid asking the question "but what about his wife?" Joey Lauren Adams is in and out fairly quickly as Jenny, and Benjamin Bratt isn't around for much longer as Len, but it's plenty long enough to get a sense of them. Bratt especially does good work, using just words to sell his relationships with the women in the cast, and giving a sense of just how Len is doing without a whole lot of visible suffering or an emotional death scene.

That's one of the things I like about Mottern's film; it doesn't feel the need to drag every single plot thread out to its eventual conclusion. What he does isn't always subtle - he actually has the kid tell Diane that she's "the most scared person" he knows, briefly hitting the "too-wise child" and "obvious statement of theme" buttons simultaneously. But he recognizes his production's strengths, letting his cast do their thing without spending a whole lot of time jerking them from story point to story point. He shows us the world his characters live in without passing a whole lot of judgment, letting it be complicated but not compromised.

This is the sort of picture that could have netted Michelle Monaghan some awards or nominations, if a few things had broken right business-wise. They didn't, apparently. Hopefully the right people will see it anyway, and recognize that Monaghan has a ceiling well above "cool but secondary girl who looks good in a Santa dress", because she's certainly shown herself capable of bigger things here.

Also at EFC

Thursday, January 21, 2010


Very light crowd, even for something playing in theater #9 on its first (and only) week at the Kendall. I'm not sure whether that's surprising or not; it's got a cast full of relatively familiar people - Sam Neill, Alice Krige, Sophie Okonedo - a basic idea that is interesting and easily grasped from the previews. But, considering it played at the 2008 Toronto Film Festival, it seems like it has been held back for a while, maybe not quite long enough to have the stink of death on it, but long enough that it seems like the distributor is trying to boost it by having it come out near Invictus, although the long roll-out - IMDB lists it as opening in limited release back in October, and its one-week Boston run is wrapping up today, in mid/late-January - means that in some places it was on the scene before Clint Eastwood's Mandela movie came out, and in others while Invictus hangs on because it might get nominations and theaters apparently don't like to close and then re-open films in a relatively short timeframe.

I don't know that that does Skin any favors; it's not an inferior movie, but how many in the potential audience really want to see two apartheid movies in relativley close succession (three, if they feel like counting District 9)? Especially if Invictus didn't really fire people up to learn more about the subject? The two couldn't be more different, of course - Skin is very much a movie about race, while Invictus is, at its heart, a movie about politics. And maybe that wasn't its U.S. distributor's intention, but it seems to be how it turned out.

Another thing that just popped into my head was how, during the Q&A for Slam-Bang at Fantasia, the director talked about how there is very little money in South Africa for entertaining genre movies, as opposed to Important Dramas. It's worth noting that the money for District 9 came from New Zealand and the U.S.; despite being thoroughly South African it was not a home-grown production. I imagine that this must be the sort of thing he was talking about, even though it was a co-production with the U.K. It's no bad thing that this sort of movie is getting made there, but I also imagine that a steady diet of it would leave me begging for something like Slam-Bang; you can't dwell on your sad history forever.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 19 January 2010 at Landmark Kendall Square #9 (first-run)

The laws of nature and the laws of man are almost entirely different beasts. The former are relatively few, and constant, but allow for great complexity and variety; they say what can happen. The latter multiply continually, but are seldom able to cope with every situation that appears; their attempts to say what can not be done can fly in the face of reality. Skin ably recounts an example of how the two can come into conflict, pointing out the absurdity and tragedy of it.

We briefly open in 1994, the day of South Africa's first elections open to all races. Sandra Liang (Sophie Okonedo), an ordinary-seeming black factory worker, is pulled aside to be interviewed, saying she is happy for the future of her country but the changes came too late for her. Why is her opinion in particular of interest? The film flashes back to 1965, and we see that Sandra (played by Ella Ramangwane as a child) is, despite her dark skin and nappy hair, the child of two white Afrikaaner shopkeepers, Abraham (Sam Neill) and Sannie (Alice Krige). This being smack in the middle of the apartheid period, she is persecuted and driven back home. Abraham, whose motto is "never give up", fights the system to get his daughter classified as white, but when she's grown and her parents are seeking suitors, Petrus Zwame (Tony Kgoroge), a black man, is the one who catches her fancy.

Skin is based upon a true story - it updates the audience on how the characters fared before the credits roll - which is ordinarily something I try not to consider one way or another, but does prove useful on a few points. If director Anthony Fabian and his three co-writers were inventing the story from whole cloth, we might question Sandra's paternity, forcing him to spend more than the seconds he does addressing it: Sannie says there was no-one else, so we all must accept it. Similarly, we dismiss the long odds on enough recessive genes getting together to create a Sandra from Abraham and Sannie; it's unlikely, but it only had to happen once.

There are moments when it doesn't seem completely unlikely, of course. Most of the time, the work of a film's make-up artists is only noted for fantastical creatures or aging, but what they do with Sam Neill - especially in the early going - is noteworthy. It's hard to tell whether he's meant to be well-bronzed from the African sun or whether, perhaps, he's got more African DNA than the average Afrikaaner. It adds a layer or two to Neill's already very good performance; where Neill plays Abraham as rigid and stubborn, almost deluded in how he tries to reconcile his acceptance of apartheid and his black daughter by insisting that she is white, we wonder at times if his fight is as much about himself as it is about Sandra.

The actresses playing Sandra are impressive as well. They're well-cast physically, in that it's easy to believe Ella Ramangwane could grow up to look like Sophie Okonedo, but they also do an excellent job of capturing Sandra's attitudes at different stages of life. Ramangwane is wide-eyed and innocent; she always comes across as a girl who believed what her parents told her because she had no reason not to, rather than someone too stupid to see what was right in front of her face. We understand that Sandra's parents must have kept her very sheltered up until the day that they dropped her off at boarding school without needing it spelled out. Okonedo, on the other hand, plays a Sandra who has far fewer illusions to cling to; her default expression is sad and worn-down. It's not a one-note performance by any means, though - the script doesn't paint Sandra as a helpless victim, and Okonedo does a fine job of, in some ways, making this woman with an extraordinary background into someone ordinary, with a personality of her own that isn't totally dependent on her unusual childhood. She can light up a room when something strikes her funny. Okonedo is also very believable playing Sandra at a fairly wide range of ages - from just out of her teens in 1973 to having children the same age in 1994.

The rest of the cast is good, as well. Alice Krige is warm and charming as Sannie, clearly somewhat ahead of her time - at least compared to her husband - but never feeling too much like a woman from a more progressive time and place. As much as we like her most of the time, it's in the scenes where Sannie is clearly less than perfect that she shines the most. Similarly, it's very easy to be charmed by Tony Kgoroge's Petrus, enough so that his last scene or two is still shocking, even though we've seen something unpleasant build up in him. It's somewhat remarkable how quickly Kgoroge's performance turns while still being utterly believable.

But, why wouldn't it be believable? Apartheid (like similar institutions and beliefs) brought out the worst in everyone, black and white, whether we're talking about the characters' scapegoating or the circular logic used to define who belongs in which class. Director Fabian doesn't sugar-coat this, but also doesn't spend too much time pointedly condemning it with the benefit of hindsight. We see how apartheid affected people's everyday lives, not the people committed to the fight against it. He and the writers do allow the story to wander on occasion; even if Sandra's life was genuinely filled with this sort of upheaval, some things seem forced when made into a movie (for instance, one sequence has Sandra desperate to get her birth certificate to jump through some bureaucratic hoops; soon after, that she managed fine without is mentioned in an off-hand way).

So the movie is a little awkward at times, but that is, in some ways, only proper: It chronicles a situation where society's attempt to enforce rules that don't necessarily conform to nature's, and in those situations, nature tends to be right (it can't help but be otherwise), though man will fight tooth and nail.

Also at EFC

Monday, January 18, 2010

This Week In Tickets: 11 January 2010 to 17 January 2010

What you see below is, in part, an example of me not learning certain lessons well enough. The "don't treat moviegoing as homework" lesson, for instance; just because something stands a good chance of being nominated for awards isn't sufficient reason to see it. The "use free tickets from theater-rewards programs as soon as you can" lesson, because then you wind up looking up at a marquee the day they expire, wondering whether you'd prefer seeing Sherlock Holmes again or something that doesn't hugely excite you (perhaps causing you to break that first lesson, although I don't think Youth in Revolt is going to capture much buzz). Of course, using them right off may lead you to doing something stupid like watching Nine and thus showing that I didn't sufficiently learn the "don't watch anything directed by Rob Marshall" lesson from Chicago.

That gave me a chance to actually use one of those gift certificates I picked up cheap last July/August, as I had a few hours between the end of Book of Eli and Nine. I don't eat out much, so they kind of wound up gathering space in a drawer, or, well, being shuffled between a backpack and my kitchen table and random spots in my living room. I really should find a way to use one of these every couple of weeks.

This Week In Tickets!

Stubless: The Book of Eli (17 January 2010).

You know, I'm kind of surprised that in fifty-odd weeks of doing this, The Book of Eli is the first stub I've lost. I'm almost certain that I know when and where, too, because I know I had it when I was in Nine, but I had to dig through my pocket for change when getting a Sunday paper. So, it's probably in some dumpster behind the CVS in Central Square, Cambridge, after being swept up.

L'argent de poche (Small Change)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 14 January 2010 at the Brattle Theatre (Special Engagement)

I bumped into Gil & Amanda after the movie, where they gave me the usual ribbing about me being at a movie about people's ordinary lives. That's not the sort of thing I have problems with; it's the ones where ordinary lives involve doing nothing other than feeling sorry for oneself. The kids and adults in Small Change, though, are active, good-natured people, and though their stories are small in scale, they're charming and entertaining.

The other topic of conversation, of course, was "good lord, look at how kids ran around back then without much in the way of supervision". And it's not even about how it's hard to believe that they/we didn't get killed; just that the culture seems to have changed so much in just a generation and a half. I blame that Adam TV-movie.

But I digress. Enjoyable little film, occasionally somewhat heavy-handed, but it does a fine job of getting out the paradoxical but true messages that children are sturdier than they appear, and that protecting them is an adult's greatest duty.

Youth in Revolt

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 15 January 2010 at Regal Fenway #5 (first-run)

The night I saw this, I tweeted that I wasn't sure whether Youth in Revolt was more amusingly or annoyingly mannered, and I still haven't decided. It is, frequently, very funny, with great combinations of slapstick, wordplay, situations spiraling out of control, and quirky characters. The latter is where things start to get out of hand, because while quirky is one thing, there comes a point where it's tough not to think that, no matter how unusual they may be, no sixteen-year-old has ever spoken like Michael Cera's Nicholas Twisp or Portia Doubleday's Sheeni Saunders. Not even me, and I was a weird kid.

This is actually a chance for Michael Cera to show a little range, and he does.. show a little range. Nick Twisp isn't that far from George Michael Bluth, but Twisp's alter ego Francois Dillinger is an amusing (if one-note) creation. Part of the reason why Michael Cera's been able to get away with playing the same basic character for so long, aside from having it licked, is that he manages to do it as part of excellent ensembles, and that's the case here, as he gets to play against Fred Willard, Jean Smart, Ray Liotta, Zach Galifianakis, Steve Buscemi, Justin Long, M. Emmet Walsh, Mary Kay Place, and a whole bunch of talented, if less well-known, people. You get that many good, potentially funny actors in the same picture, and comedy is going to happen, if only by accident.

Not as much as it could, but enough to get a couple of big laughs and a fair number of smaller ones from an hour and a half

Crazy Heart

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 16 January 2010 at AMC Boston Common #15 (first-run)

There are some fantastic scenes in Crazy Heart. Pretty much any where you have Jeff Bridges and Robert Duvall together, for instance. Not much of great import happens during those, but you've got two great pros who seem to know their characters inside-out working off each other. Early scenes with Bridges and Maggie Gyllenhaal. The ones featuring an unbilled Colin Farrell as a country star who got his start with Bridges's down-on-his-luck Bad Blake are excellent: There's a great one where Farrell's Tom Sweet comes on stage during Blake's opening set that tells the pair's whole history just by the way the camera shows them trying to crowd the microphone.

Great stuff. And what is it leading up to? A kid getting lost in a mall, and then some sincere and utterly standard-issue twelve-step stuff as Bad Blake realizes he really, truly has a problem with alcohol and should seek help. Which is nice, and I don't mean to diminish what an accomplishment getting sober is, but the fact that Bad Blake is a drunk is the least interesting thing about him. Yes, it's likely the root of all his other issues, and I'm not saying that I liked him better when he drank, but for the first three quarters of the movie, Bad's issues are fairly unique to him, and seeing that pushed aside for the ending of every story about alcoholism is kind of a letdown.

La Dolce Vita

N/A (though somewhere around 2.5-3 out of four stars)
Seen 16 January 2010 at the Brattle Theatre (Special Engagement)

I had a lot of dozing-off moments during La Dolce Vita, which surprised me a bit; it's beautiful, it's full of interesting segments and sexy women. It didn't start that late (8pm). And yet, call it a fault in the film or the viewer, it utterly failed to create the desire in me to find out what was going to happen next. It just played like a series of similar anthology segments, impeccably designed and charming, but not really building on each other. I would fall asleep, jerk awake certain that not more than a couple of minutes had passed, and feel like I was watching a different movie, albeit one with the same main character.

(Of course, it appears that I missed the scene where something shocking does happen, reading the synopses on IMDB. Typical. Maybe in a year or so, I'll give it another three hours.)

(Aside - the movie kind of has an insufferable main character. Marcello Mastraianni's title character takes it a step further than the usual guy who has it pretty good but complains about his life's emptiness; you can't cavort in that fountain with Anita Ekberg and then be complaining that your job is without rewards beyond the monetary in the next scene!)

The Book of Eli

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 17 January 2010 at AMC Boston Common #1 (first-run)

There's a couple of things that could be considered spoilers that it's difficult to properly talk about Eli without. I'll sidestep the one that serves as the big gotcha toward the end, cannily constructed to urge audiences to give the movie a second viewing, other than to say I suspected it in the very beginning but discounted it because it didn't seem possible. But the other one.

So, (minor spoiler!) the book Eli is carrying is a Bible. And that's fine in some ways, especially the way Gary Oldman's villain sees it as a weapon to control people. The Hughes Brothers and writer Gary Whitta are at least trying to be a little subversive there. But it becomes a case of being a little smart about one thing highlighting just how stupid you're being about something bigger - to wit, that after whatever apocalyptic event left America a barren wasteland, all the Bibles were rounded up and burned, because people blamed that for their problems. Because, honestly, does that sound like how the country would act after that sort of thing? Nope, you'd totally have people doing what Oldman's Carnegie was planning thirty years earlier, some with actual sincerity.

Nice try, and the Hugheses (who really have been far too little-seen over the past dozen or so years for guys of their talent) soak the movie with devastated atmosphere, making good use of their effects to make their post-apocalyptic America look like a real place rather than the digital construction that large parts of it must be. Some of the action is very well choreographed as well, really the best that Denzel Washington has looked at this sort of thing in his career. Hopefully then don't let the better part of another decade pass before their next film.


* ¼ (out of four)
Seen 17 January 2010 at AMC Boston Common #3 (first-run)

Daniel Day-Lewis being in a movie is genuinely a good sign - since The Boxer in 1997 he's done a mere four, only signing on when there seems to be something worth doing. And he's got a fantastic cast of women working opposite him - Penelope Cruz, Judi Dench, Mario Cotillard, NIcole Kidman, Sophia Loren. Unforunately, this comes from the guy who directed Chicago. And it's even worse.

Now, I don't particularly like musicals, but Rob Marshall's method of putting them on is incredibly irritating: He can't just have characters burst into song; there's got to be a "safe area" where we can understand that it's part of the character's imagination. So, every time the story is going to get into emotional territory - because that's what songs are for in musicals, heightened emotion - we have to go somewhere else. Apparently, he figures that modern audiences just won't accept or comprehend that, within the story, people aren't really singing and dancing, and it's just a form of communication with the audience. Basically, he seems to think his audience is composed of idiots.

But even without that, Nine feels terribly cut down, reliant on the audience's familiarity with the original play, Fellini, and/or his film , and lacking a story. Despite the effort made by some of his performers, there's just no real movie here. The only things that manage to be really enjoyable are Judi Dench (who is lucky to have a supporting character that just needs personality, rather than motivation and story; otherwise she'd probably be as lost and wasted as everybody else), a couple early scenes with Lewis, before we really get to know and disdain his character, and maybe a late-film appearance by Nicole Kidman. Well, and Penelope Cruz spending a lot of time in lacy underthings; that kind of goes without saying.

But, man, am I glad to see that Marshall's next project is the fourth Pirates of the Caribean movie. Even if I weren't tired of that franchise, that's going to make it that much easier to ignore.
L'argent de pocheYouth in RevoltCrazy HeartLa Dolce VitaNine

Thursday, January 14, 2010

This Week In Tickets: 4 January 2010 to 10 January 2010

Wow, this lasted a whole year. Not without some bumps - there was that mess with Blogger back in November, and this week's edition being pushed to Thursday because I wanted to do full write-ups on stuff from the weekend is sadly less common than I had hoped. A year ago, I would stay up until the wee hours Sunday night making sure that something was ready for Monday morning, and as much as I'd like to give TWIT a "regular timeslot", so to speak, the desire to be functional at work on Monday overcame any ambitions I had of being a Monday-morning must-read whose new-found popularity leads to a website offering me actual money to travel to film festivals and file reports...

(Although, anybody who has a job like that open, I will happily trade some salary for cool travel, free DVDs/Blu-rays, etc. Email me.)

Also, I'm open to suggestions for interesting festivals to travel to this year. I won't be doing SXSW in '10, although it's a possibility for '11. I'd actually really like to, as I have a friend whose band is at the music portion of the festival, and it would be cool to (a) support him and (b) have someone to hang with at the fest for a couple of days (not that the eFilmCritic-related crew weren't cool). Toronto and Fantastic Fest are likely out, as September is not only filled with Important Baseball, but it looks like I've got two weddings to attend that month. Some in New York look appealing, but Tribeca usually overlaps the Independent Film Festival of Boston and the New York Asian Film Festival is too close to Fantasia for me to do much more than hit a weekend or two hard.

So, no big plans for this year, as yet. Just a new calendar:

This Week In Tickets!

I switched from a teNeus to a Taschen, mainly based upon what was available at Borders when I went in between Christmas and New Year's. It's a little wider, with the days a little shorter, and a picture on every opposite page so that the tickets don't get caught on each other so much. Not ideal, really, but there's not a whole lot of choices in calendars when the most important factor is that Saturday and Sunday have just as much room as the other days of the week (if not more!).

Eagle-eyed readers will note a couple different stub styles. The ticket for The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus just appears to be a case of the AMC in Harvard Square using a new style that the one in Boston Common hasn't switched over to yet. I appreciate the reduced real estate, although I suspect that no-one else cares, beyond using less paper probably being good for the environment. Then there's the tiny one for The Young Victoria.

That's a new theater, "new" being a relative term. The Stuart Street Playhouse opened as a cinema in October, but I hadn't had a great opportunity to see anything there before this weekend, as they've been something like a second-run boutique house, picking up things a week or two after I've already seen them. They had been a live theater for at least the last ten years, although before that, there was a two-screen duplex in the location (the space used for the second screen is currently standing empty).

As theaters go, it's definitely in the "not-bad" category. The price of that ticket was $8; I'm not sure whether that was a matinee price or not. If it is, it's not a great deal, but still a dollar less than the AMC Boston Common a couple blocks away; pretty competitive if it's the price they charge all day (by comparison, the Boston Common theater jumps to $11 in the evening; Kendall Square is about $9.75 a couple stops up the Red Line, with the Coolidge the same for a similarly large auditorium). Projection was fine, the lobby is very spacious and comfortable, although the location is somewhat well-hidden (it's tucked underneath a hotel). The auditorium itself is very large - roughly 400 seats. I sat in the front section, which is flat on the floor; there was stadium seating behind me. It was fine for a relatively light crowd, but the size of the screen and the room makes me wonder how it would play filled to capacity for a non-scope movie, as there's a common-height screen.

And now, the movies:

Bluebeard's Eight Wife

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 5 January 2010 at the Brattle Theatre (Screwball New Year!)

Romantic comedies could be pretty darn mercenary back in the day, couldn't they? Take this one, which has multi-millionaire Michael Brandon (Gary Cooper) fall in love at first sight with Nicole de Loiselle (Claudette Colbert), the daughter of an impoverished French marquis (Edward Everett Horton). The meet-cute is clever, but the courtship is so fast that we really don't get an idea of whether they are right for each other or not. We don't get to the main plot of the film - having found out that Brandon has been married seven times before, Nicole needs to find out whether or not he really takes marriage seriously. Which she does by demanding an even more favorable pre-nup than he'd given his previous wives, marrying him, and then treating him like crap.

It's often a funny movie - the clash of the rich yet uncultured American and the sophisticated (but not quite so flush) European gets more than a few laughs. Colbert is especially nice in her part, and David Niven makes every scene he's in better as a fellow titled-but-poor buddy. Warren Hymer is a complete stitch as the boxer hired as a means to make Brandon jealous.

In the end, though, the premise doesn't quite make enough sense for the playing out to be funny - when all is said and done, is there any particular reason to believe that he's interested in more than the chase, and willing to really commit to this marriage more than his others?

Easy Living

* * * (out of four)
Seen 5 January 2010 at the Brattle Theatre (Screwball New Year!)

Easy Living turns on people acting bizarrely and one Huge Coincidence, but it's a fun, breezy comedy that does a nice job of piling its absurdities on until the entire stock market is rising and falling through a series of events that starts with a man throwing his wife's fur coat out the window in a fit of pique. That's classic screwball nuttiness, and what's more amusing is that it doesn't require any of its characters to be completely ridiculous.

Jean Arthur is the film's leading lady, and she walks a careful tightrope in making her Mary Smith oblivious enough for the craziness to work without actually coming off as stupid. Edward Arnold packs some impressive bluster into investment banker J.B. Ball, and Luis Alberni manages to scheme without quite coming off as oily. Ray Milland makes a likable opposite number for Ms. Arthur.

It's an silly movie, no doubt, but one with plenty of laughs, from escalating misunderstandings to flat-out slapstick. A real charmer.

The Young Victoria

* * * (out of four)
Seen 10 January 2010 at the Stuart Street Playhouse (first-and-a-half-run)

A quality, old-fashioned costume drama, well-done enough that there's really not a whole lot to say about it. Emily Blunt is fairly impressive in the title role, humanizing a figure often thought of as little but stern and elderly, even though the fact that she assumed the throne at a very young age is one of the ost important things to remember about her. The rest of the cast is similarly high-quality, from Jim Broadbent in an all-too-brief role as her uncle, King William, to Rupert Friend as the prince sent to woo Victoria for strategic reasons who ultimately falls for her, to Mark Strong as the minor noble who attempts to control her through her mother. Then there's Miranda Richardson as said mother, Paul Bettany as the politician who forges an alliance...

In fact, the film's biggest weakness is that there's clearly too much hear for just one movie. Mark Strong is such a strong, forceful villain - better than he was in Sherlock Holmes, honestly - that it's a bummer to see him fade into the background halfway through. But, I wouldn't want to lose any of the love story. And then, there are whole great swaths of Victoria's life just mentioned in passing by the end credits. This would have made a great miniseries, akin to HBO's John Adams. It still makes a very good movie; it just sometimes feels like it can't decide how focused it wants to be on the Victoria/Albert romance.
Bluebeard's Eighth Wife / Easy LivingThe Lovely BonesThe Imaginarium of Doctor ParnassusMe and Orson WellesDaybreakersThe Young Victoria

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Hey, that was better than I expected: Me and Orson Welles and Daybreakers

So, after Monday's pairing of high-profile disappointments, it's only fair to point out a couple of movies from last weekend that exceeded expectations. That makes them pretty good, because I do tend to think good things about both Richard Linklater and the Spierig brothers - granted, the latter only made one movie before this, but I recall Undead entertaining the heck out of me at an early Boston Fantastic Film Festival. They had style to spare in that one, but Daybreakers hints that there may be some brains to go with. There's ideas to go with the action here.

Richard Linklater, meanwhile, is I guy I run extremely hot and cold on. I think The Newton Boys is the only film of his that I've seen that I didn't really love or really hate. It's why, despite loving Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and School of Rock, I'm very hesitant to pick up Dazed and Confused, no matter how much everyone else liked it. I remember Waking Life and Tape all too well. I've only got a copy of A Scanner Darkly because HD-DVDs got really, really cheap.

So, anyway, good movies. Go see them, especially Welles, which apparently leaves the Capitol in Arlington on Friday.

Me and Orson Welles

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 9 January 2010 at the Arlington Capitol #5 (second-run)

At times, it's a bit hard to grasp that Orson Welles was a sex symbol, once upon a time. Forget the way he ballooned to a size that matched his ego and personality later in life; he did the same in the film widely considered his masterpiece, so that the image that most moviegoers (who likely haven't seen much of him beyond stills of Citizen Kane) have of the man is bloated and arrogant. Though fictional, Richard Linklater's Me and Orson Welles is a reminder that once, only half of that description is true.

But this isn't really Welles's story. As the title implies, we follow Richard Samuels (Zac Efron), a high-school student with a love for theater and music which is being slowly strangled at school. One day, he goes into the city and walks by the Mercury Theater, where Welles (Christian McKay) is mounting a production of Julius Caesar with himself as Brutus. Richard bluffs his way into the man's good graces, landing the minor role of Lucius. There he meets a number of other ambitious actors - established names like George Coulouris (Ben Chaplin) and Joseph Cotton (James Tupper), fellow rookie Norman Lloyd (Leo Bill), and the beautiful Sonja Jones (Claire Danes). In many ways it's a dream come true, but Richard will soon discover that the theater is aptly named - Welles is nothing if not mercurial.

Even without someone who is both a perfectionist and extremely unreliable at the helm, putting on a play, like being in a band or playing high-level sports or making a movie, is the sort of activity that we outsiders likely have a difficult time fully grasping. It's a bunch of people with vast reservoirs of self-confidence, strong personalities, and individual visions trying to work together, and more often than not managing it because they share the same enthusiasm as well. Me and Orson Welles does a great job of showing the crazy energy that goes into mounting a production. There's conflicts of personality and practical matters of how things are handled. Linklater and company do a really fantastic job of showing just how the whole process works; it's one of the best examples I can remember of showing the collaboration between director, actors, and technicians without trying to over-romanticize the process or give one piece more credit than they may be due; when we see bits of the production in the end, we're impressed with what the film's Welles and his company managed and see how everything fits together.

That's in large part because Christian McKay makes us see Orson Welles for the force of nature that he was. Genius and charisma are tricky things to portray - they're extraordinary traits that are either there or not; an actor who can tap into his or her own experiences of sorrow and joy may not have access to a memory of being brilliant or magnetic. Somehow, McKay finds a way to make it perfectly clear just how frustrating someone like Welles, who is both aware of his genius and willing to leverage it, can be. And yet, we're also drawn to him as the people in his orbit must have been - even after we see what a less-than-wonderful human being he can be, we still want a piece.

McKay's performance is the forceful, memorable one, but Efron makes a nice complement. It's clear, early on, that Richard shares a certain cockiness and brashness with his mentor, but there's a streak of innocence to him that stops just short of having unreasonable illusions. It's what makes us think that he can, eventually, succeed and still be likable; Efron does a nice job of showing Richard as both self-assured and willing to learn. Similarly, Claire Danes manages to take a character who, going from her lines and role in the story, could come across as simply mercenary, and make her very human and positive.

The production is top-notch, with Linklater working from a script by Holly Gent Palmo and Vincent Palmo Jr. (itself based upon Robert Kaplow's novel). It strikes a nice balance between being chatty and fast-paced, and the filmmakers have a nifty eye for detail. What's particularly impressive is how they can work those details in there without becoming burdened by irony: A story that includes Orson Welles, Joseph Cotton, references to The Magnificent Ambersons and David O. Selznick could get very cutesy or try too hard to impress the classic movie-lovers that will be its main audience, but this film manages to avoid it. Even scenes about kids in their late teens and early twenties talking about the music of the 1930s the same way their kids and grandkids would talk about rock & roll manage to avoid inappropriate laughter.

Richard Linklater can be a hit-and-miss director, only very rarely finding mediocrity. Me and Orson Welles is one of his hits, recalling its era's backstage comedy while still always managing to have a little bit of something that stings in reserve.

Also at HBS


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 10 January 2010 at AMC Boston Common #2 (first-run)

I, as a rule, hate vampires. Ask anybody who knows me, they've heard me rant on how ridiculous the concept is and how ludicrously it's been perverted in order to sex it up. I've had to back off that a bit a bit lately, though - getting movies as good as Let the Right One In and Thirst in back-to-back years certainly shows you that there's some life in the undead yet. Daybreakers isn't in the same stratum as those movies, but they make a case from the opening scene that they've got an interesting take on the subject.

It's roughly "now + ten years" (2019), and most of the world's population has become vampires, I Am Legend-style. For the most part, they're not feral - although going too long without uninfected blood mutates them from reasonable people with fangs and red eyes to bat-like "subsiders", and drinking infected blood accelerates the process - but they've got trouble: The vampire far outnumbers the human population, which creates a real supply-and-demand problem. Vampire hematologist Edward Dalton (Ethan Hawke) is working on a synthetic blood supply, but an encounter with fugitive humans Audrey Bennett (Claudia Karvan) and Lionel "Elvis" Cormac (Willem Dafoe), puts him on the trail of a possible cure. His employer Charles Bromley (Sam Neill) isn't so sure of that, though, and sends soldiers after Dalton - including his brother Frankie (Michael Dorman).

Australian brothers Michael and Peter Spierig - who previously made the low-budget but highly entertaining Undead - are credited as writing, directing, and supervising the visual effects, and to say that they've got an eye for detail is to understate things just a bit. Much attention is paid to how a world primarily inhabited by vampires would function, from vanity mirrors that are actually a combination camera and viewscreen to news reports that mention that vampire animals combusting in the sun are now the leading cause of forest fires. There are times when I'd almost argue that people are too well adapted to being vampires, although at the speed things can change in the twenty-first century, it seems less a stretch than it might have a generation ago. The ability of people to adapt to a new world order is one of the themes that the Spierigs are playing with here, and it's perhaps telling that while the glowing yellow eyes, fangs, et al are initially jarring, we're soon taking vampires as Earth's dominant species for granted.

That's just one idea that the Spierigs have tapped into. The really nifty thing that they have done is to use the tropes of horror with the attitude of science fiction. They don't need to explain the biomechanics vampirism in any particular detail - although their take on it does make the immediate emotional sense, like all good horror- but they do work hard on extrapolating it. The result is a world that is a funhouse mirror of our own, and able to comment on everything from peak oil to vegetarianism to minority-bashing to corporate greed without the analogy seeming trite or forced. It's a new world, but we've got all our same problems, and some, like the willingness to dehumanize and disenfranchise anybody who is different, are bigger than ever.

This isn't a solemn, reflective movie, however. Discussions about ethics are almost always directly related to the action, and there's plenty of that. There are some bits that we've seen before - the beams of light penetrating a vampire's blacked-out car almost has to be a call-out to Kathryn Bigelow's Near Dark, although with a high-tech twist and a clever turn. Still, they're well-mounted and a bit exciting, and impressive in how, it the middle of a fire-fight, the filmmakers will remember that they're not just making an action movie with vampires, but a horror movie, and throw something disturbing beyond the gross-out level in. Though some of the effects are a little iffy - some of they mayhem looks a bit low-budget and the digital work in the opening bit is a slight knock on something that could be a nifty short film on its own - others are very good, and used well (quality stakes to the heart).

The cast is also pretty good. Certainly, the main cast can be relatively subdued - Hawke and Dorman have Serious Brother Drama to attend to, while Karvan's Audrey can sometimes be a generic Woman In Charge (irony: in the abstract, it's kind of refreshing that any forced romantic subplot is either missing or excised, but with a character frequently quoting "Burning Love", I might have liked that as an end credits song). Some of the members of the supporting cast see the chance to cut loose and take it, though - Sam Neill seems to be having a great time as the amoral corporate honcho, playing the villain without covering the part in ham. Dafoe seems a little less concerned about that as Elvis, attacking this guy who's not as smart as the folks around him but certainly not intimidated by that with gusto.

Dafoe seems to be having just as much fun as the audience. There are some missed opportunities in Daybreakers, but they're the type that indicate that the filmmakers have created a world that merits a little more exploration; it's the rare movie where TV/comic book/licensed novel spinoff seem like things that might be worth seeking out. Most vampire mythologies are secretive and predictable; this one's got surprises.

Also at HBS

Monday, January 11, 2010

Disappointments from fine directors: The Lovely Bones and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

Ah, what a bummer. Who wants to see movies by filmmakers you love and respect and find them wanting? Fortunately, I've got a couple "hey, that was better than I expected" reviews to write before doing This Week In Tickets.

There were comments from the staff of the theater about how not many people were showing up for the screening of The Lovely Bones, either the one I went to or the one the previous night. Not a great omen for the new film opening Friday from the man who did Lord of the Rings and King Kong. It's really flying under the radar, in part because it's not the sort of big crowd-pleaser that his last decade of work, and I imagine critical reception hasn't been that great. But, in a way, maybe that'll be good for Jackson; I suspect that becoming known as the Big Epic Guy must in some ways be a burden; after this, I suspect there will be less pressure on whatever his follow-up may be.

And then there's Gilliam. It's been a while since the last movie he did that I really like. I didn't hate Tideland or even The Brothers Grimm the way others did, but they haven't been great stuff. And Gilliam doesn't excite me that much any more, even when he finally does get a new movie made.

I suspect that it's in part because part of the initial attraction to guys like Gilliam is that their work initially seems new and different from anything else, and we're initially attracted to the novelty as well as the actual substance and style. Not entirely, but when you know that a new Terry Gilliam movie is more or less guaranteed to be grimy misery with an escape into a fantasy world or that Tim Burton is going to give Johnny Depp a stupid haircut... Well, unless you really like those things specifically, the initial excitement of one's first Gilliam dystopia or stupid Johnny Depp haircut fades as you start to wonder if that is really all they've got.

Is it unfair to want that, though? There is certainly enough of a core audience out there that likes what Gilliam brings, and is it fair to expect someone to reinvent themselves every time out?

The Lovely Bones

* * (out of four)
Seen 7 January 2010 in AMC Boston Common #18 (preview screening)

Though I tend to think that attempting to fit a movie into a specific genre and then being frustrated when it fails to fit there nicely speaks more ill of the viewer's inflexibility than the movie itself, I admit to falling into the trap with The Lovely Bones. Peter Jackson is too good a filmmaker for it to leave me screaming "what do you want from me, movie? What do you want?", but the many things it tries to do are at cross-purposes, and none wind up done well enough.

We are introduced to Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) in her own words. In late 1973, she was just starting high school, loved photography, had a crush on senior Ray Singh (Reece Ritchie). She was bright, and once saved her brother's life with her quick thinking. And she was murdered by a neighbor, George Harvey (Stanley Tucci), who fails to ignite suspicion in detective Len Fenerman (Michael Imperioli). The loss of Susie is devastating to her family; parents Jack (Mark Wahlberg) and Abigail (Rachel Weisz) can barely function, and Grandma Lynn (Susan Sarandon), who is something of a handful herself, comes to take charge. But Susie's not completely gone, it seems; she's in an in-between world defined by her imagination, watching those left behind, occasionally with another girl, Holly (Nikki SooHoo), for company.

So, what is this thing? It's not a murder mystery - we know who did it too early - and it's not really a crime story, despite how Jack and Susie's sister Lindsey (Rose McIver) play detective later on. It's got big, flashy elements that peg it as a soft story of the supernatural, sometimes crossing into the thriller category but more often the type that offers a warm view of the great mysteries but scrupulously avoids any specific religious affiliation. Mostly, it's about a family grieving, and not well, with the Susie scenes perhaps meant as a metaphor for how she is still with them but not. The thing is, a number of them don't make any sense unless they are happening literally, which opens the door to any number of other paranormal situations being in play. Indeed, at one point toward the end of the movie, a character actually seems to pause, recognize that the emotional resolution has just occurred, and then visually shift gears because, hey, murder investigation still going on. And the less said about how that is wrapped up, the better.

There's other problems. A similar one is the fantasy world that Susie inhabits; it's beautifully realized, as you might expect from the filmmaker behind Heavenly Creatures, King Kong, and the Lord of the Rings movies. But this is the sort of thing where each image needs to be meaningful and specific, and while there's a sense that Jackson is trying for that, he seldom manages much more than "pretty". Jackson also engages in some heavy-handed foreshadowing in a couple of scenes early on, although Mark Wahlberg is a common denominator there (I seem to recall him seeming like a guy with a bright future at one point, but it's becoming hard to remember why).

He's just part of an ensemble, though, and some of the other members are excellent. Saoirse Ronan, for instance, is fantastic. It's not the same sort of showy part she had in Atonement, but in just the opening few minutes, she's got us thinking that we know this kid and sort of adore her; she certainly never lets us down during the afterlife sequences. Then there's Stanley Tucci, creepy as heck playing the killer, all his usual quirk and affect drained away until there's just a bland monstrousness to Harvey. On the other end of the spectrum, Susan Sarandon livens up every scene she's in.

And despite all the different ways that the story is pushed and pulled, Jackson does a good job of keeping the audience's interest. He's got a good eye for detail even outside the special effects scenes, and does a good job with pacing. A story that is, more than anything, about mourning can either seem to drag or sell the emotion short. His sure hand is frequently able to give us hope that he's going somewhere with all of this, and make individual scenes well worth watching.

Those individual scenes never add up to a whole movie, though. Maybe in the original book, there's enough detail and room for elaboration to connect all of the story's facets so that they work together. In the film, though, the bits of the story often seem to be at cross-purposes, and it's hard to feel anything when the rules are just going to change a few minutes later.

Also at HBS

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

* * (out of four)
Seen 9 January 2010 in AMC Harvard Square #1 (first-run)

Ordinarily, when good people make a bad movie, there's a tendency to hunt for where things went wrong. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus offers an obvious and logical culprit: The sudden death of its star, Heath Ledger, midway through filming. But for all that the contortions that writer/director Terry Gilliam had to go through to work around that tragic event, it seems likely that Parnassus would have been a mess whether Ledger were able to complete the film or not.

Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) has a traveling show with one attraction - a magic mirror behind which those who enter find dreamscapes partly created by Parnassus, although Mr. Nick (Tom Waits) lurks to tempt them off the safe path so that he can steal their souls. He runs it with old friend Percy (Verne Troyer), daughter Valentina (Lily Cole), and runaway Anton (Andrew Garfield). They're poor, but mostly a happy family, at least on the surface. Underneath, Anton nurses a crush on Lily, Lily fantasizes about a more conventional life, and Parnassus and Percy fret about the debt to Mr. Nick that will come due on Lily's fast-approaching sixteenth birthday. Does the amnesiac they rescue from under a bridge (Heath Ledger) bring solutions or more problems?

Audiences familiar with Terry Gilliam's work will see his fingerprints on the film almost from the first frame, for good and ill. Parnassus's show is the sort of grimy, ill-maintained environment that he always seems to start from. The fantasy sequences begin as two-dimensional, clearly artificial environments before coming to fully-rendered life. There's an underlying mythology that speaks to the power of imagination and storytelling, although the emphasis is on the things that Gilliam clearly values most - sweeping imagery and broad ideas, as opposed to a great deal of plot or detail.

Gilliam is known - infamous, even - for presiding over troubled productions, with the travails sometimes self-inflicted (I think he badly needs a producing partner who can reign him in, say "you'll lose the audience with this"). That's not the case this time, but while the shooting schedule offered up an intriguing solution - the bulk of the scenes left to film took place within the magic mirror, so they had Ledger's Tony played by different actors on "the other side", it winds up being an awkward compromise. The three actors (Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell) are made up to look as much like Ledger as possible, so they often only seem sort of different, even though that is now a plot point. It's just noticeable enough to be distracting but not exploited enough to be significant. There's a sequence at the beginning that seems grafted on to demonstrate that the mirror can reveal this two-faced nature in people, but it winds up dragging out the movies first act and making it somewhat repetitive.

Of course, it may have been there from the start, with the face-changing added later. For all that having to make changes halfway through is the most obvious culprit in the film faltering, it's far from the only one. The final trip behind the mirror is a mess not because it features Colin Farrell rather than Heath Ledger - I actually enjoyed Farrell's performance more than Ledger's, though it's odd that the build-up and the climax of that character's arc are delivered in such different styles - but because it seems like Gilliam and co-writer Charles McKeown have no idea what they want it to be about, and it shines a light on all of the script's other faults. It can't decide whether or not Valentina's or Tony's soul is the one in the balance, and shows just what sort of short shrift Valentina has gotten over the course of the film, despite it being her story as much as anybody's. Characters are tossed aside in ways that leave the audience unsure how to feel, because it's not clear how permanent what happens on the other side is. And whether a character is viewed as a screw-up, opportunist, or monster rests on whether or not the audience catches some easily-overlooked comments to which it is not given time to react. The movie is problematic but forgiveably so beforehand, but devolves into a real mess by the end.

That's doubly frustrating, because there is actually plenty to praise. Gilliam has some heady, cool ideas with visuals to match - I love the monks who believe that they must recite the story of the world in order for the universe to keep going, for instance. Some of the Imaginarium imagery is the most joyful, delighted-with-creating things he has put on-screen since Baron Munchausen. There are some great surprises in the cast: Lily Cole, for instance, and the pairing of Christopher Plummer and Verne Troyer creates some great odd-couple banter. Colin Farrell offers a welcome reminder of how good he can be given the chance to play a good part, rather than fake an American accent in a bland action movie (Jude Law also improves upon Ledger's frequently dull, mumbly performance).

It's a shame that this winds up being Ledger's last movie; maybe we can just agree that partials don't count and say he finished on The Dark Knight? It's also a bit unfortunate that it disguises the other problems with the movie, as that lays the blame on people like Ledger, Farrell, and Law who really don't deserve it.

Also at HBS

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

This Week In Tickets: 28 December 2009 to 3 January 2010

I looked at the way the vacation days I had to use up by the end of the year and figured I would see a ton of movies, filling up this last page of the calendar with stubs. I didn't count on two things, though:

(1) Snow. Not enough to give one that eerie "empty city" feeling - where you have to walk down the middle of the street because the sidewalks are covered but it's okay, because nobody is driving except snowplows, and the gray sky seems to suppress any light that may be coming out of windows - but enough that I really saw no need to go out in it But that's okay, because...

(2) There really wasn't much to see at all. Sure, I wanted to see It's Complicated for the excellent cast, but wasn't really enthused. Still, that put it in line ahead of the award contenders that were straddling the boutique places and multiplexes; I just couldn't muster up much, if any, enthusiasm for Nine, The Road, or The Young Victoria. Likely decent movies all, but they felt like homework. And then, on New Year's Day, nothing new opened.

Seriously? Nothing? Just a little shuffling of screens at the Kendall and maybe switching one Bollywood film out for another at Fresh Pond? Wasn't there some action movie that otherwise would have gone straight to video but could have pounced on an open week (an Echelon Conspiracy situation, so to speak)?

I half-suspect that it's a tactic to soften us up for the dreck that trickles out during January and February. "You're not only going to watch The Spy Next Door, but you'll thank us for it!"

This Week In Tickets!

Stubless: The films of Makoto Shinkai

The weekly calendar has, I think, swelled to something like twice its size over the past year - the plastic back cover threatens to fall off and the scanner actually starts to distort the image because the coil wasn't designed to hold something that thick together. There's 191 ticket stubs in there, along with 14 baseball tickets, 2 concert tickets, 3 festival media passes, and a couple touristy things from Montreal... and that thing isn't designed to be used as a scrapbook.

It's Complicated

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 28 December 2009 at AMC Boston Common #13 (first-run)

So... Did anybody else watch this movie from Nancy Meyers about a divorced woman pulled back toward her husband, remember that she and husband Charles Sheyer were always credited as a team so the solo writing credit seems odd, then find out that they must have divorced at roughly the same time as the characters in the movie, and find that a little odd? Sure, she sticks Steve Martin's character in there so that we know from the beginning that Meryl Streep has an honest, decent alternative to Alec Baldwin, but at some point, does someone read the script or see the movie and wonder just what mom's getting at?

No? Just me? Never mind.

That aside, It's Complicated is a pretty inoffensively enjoyable movie, with plenty of funny moments, especially when Alec Baldwin is on screen as the since-remarried ex-husband who is shamelessly adept at rationalizing his actions. It's funny enough, and generally friendly, although more than a little whitebread. As much as Baldwin's character is a little ridiculous, I wish Steve Martin had something to do other than be the solid but not hugely exciting answer to him. At least let him be as funny as John Kracsinski, who walks away with just about every scene he's in.

A Single Man

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 29 December 2009 at the Coolidge Corner Theatre #2 (first-run)

Purely hypothetical question: If the English Professor Colin Firth plays in this character were heterosexual, and it was a female student of less than half his age that was following him around and maybe eventually making her way into a more intimate situation and making him feel that life was actually worth living, would the audience be quite so cool with it? Maybe; quite possibly, even, although I have my doubts. I ask because I thought of that hypothetical situation and couldn't really decide whether first-time director Tom Ford was talented enough to make the equivalent situation work with a gay pairing or whether there was a weird double standard at work.

I'm still not sure. There's no doubt that Ford does some good work here, and Firth, too, although something about their combined work leaves me rather cold. A Single Man is, within its category, just as cliched and showy as something like Avatar. It's the sort of movie where the audience notices differences in film grain and color saturation from one scene to the next, because while the filmmaker is clever, he's either not nearly as skilled at applying that as he thinks he is or it's very important that the audience know he's clever ("see? The sad, broken-down guy is all bleached out but the young guy is a golden god!"). There's lots of things in this movie that could have been extremely effective if allowed to work just below the level at which the audience consciously notices them, but Ford (as respected as he apparently is as a fashion designer) doesn't seem to have learned to moderate his artistic impulses in this medium.

Plus, I kind of hated the ending. (SPOILERS!) It's the type that wants to have it both ways - the character makes the choice to live (yay!) but actually allowing him to do so and maybe start a relationship with this beautiful boy might undercut how perfect a love he and his dead partner had (boo!). Thus, the perfectly-timed natural death, so he can end loving life and his partner (yay and yay!), which, while tragic, is still kind of a cop-out (and the seeing said loved one reaching out a hand, just as he dies? Tacky!). (/SPOILERS!)

A Single Man is a fine, very nice-looking film. Still, it wound up striking me as the type that is kind of trite, despite such a thick veneer of class and seriousness.

Los abrazos rotos (Broken Embraces)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 1 January 2010 at Landmark Kendall Square #3 (first-run)

Broken Embraces also has kind of a convenient ending, but the process that gets us there is much more assured. Pedro Almodovar, after all, is an old hand, and while he doesn't do much in his movie that is surprising or revolutionary, he handles his low-key melodrama like an old pro. The movie cuts back in forth between two time periods - the present, where a blind screenwriter takes offense at a young artist's commission, and fourteen years ago, when a secretary became her employer's mistress in order to secure health care for her father - with grace, and features fine performances front its entire cast. It noodles some, sure, but mostly at the start of the film, when it perhaps does not wish to tip its cap as to which stories will prove important.

It's quite enjoyable, and almost kind of refreshing to see a director as respected, even lionized, as Almodovar not feeling he has to prove himself or make each new film be a bold, new event. He finds ways to put bits of visual comedy into what is, by turns, a romantic and serious film. It's a solid, assured work, and you can't complain about that.
It's ComplicatedA Single ManBroken Embraces