Thursday, January 27, 2011

Dissolution (Hitparkut)

DISSOLUTION  (Hitparkut)                           D                    
Israel  (88 mi)  2010  d:  Nina Menkes

While it’s immediately clear we’re in Dostoyevsky Crime and Punishment territory, shot in Black and White in long, static shots that could easily be mistaken for Béla Tarr or the marginalized territory of Pedro Costa, where the protagonist (Didi Fire) is a man of few words, and fewer friends, as he’s seen having a difficult conversation with an associate who makes him repeat what he’s trying to say, suggesting the possibility of ghosts exist, and not just because only sick people can see them, but perhaps because only in that weakened state are they allowed to be seen.  He then gets in a quick confrontation trying to avoid his landlord, has an eerie visit with a pawnbroker where he continually asks inappropriately personal questions, and also buys the cheapest meat possible from the butcher, which turns out to be cow lungs, which we see him cook up, a truly gross display of what is presumed inedible.  Shot in Israel in a mixed race neighborhood of Tel Aviv called Yafo where Arabs and Jews contentiously live side by side, where no one seems to like one another, as expressed with a car that continues to chase after Didi throughout the movie, where he’s continually seen running away.  Menkes shoots Didi in long darkened shots laying in his bed, which his landlord calls a tomb, for long periods of time, or we see him off to the side of the screen, sitting in a bar where pieces of light intermingle with the shadows, where another unidentified figure sits prominently in the center of the picture drinking alone and smoking a cigarette.  This oppressive sense of isolation is potent, especially when we see him return to the home of the pawnbroker, where we know what happens through offscreen sound, and later a pool of blood can be seen as he peruses through her personal belongings. 

Senseless murder is one thing, but this film attempts to deal with the haunting aftereffects, as if Didi is somehow punishing himself for his crime.  But there’s little evidence of this, as the mood is simply too detached, and nonprofessional Didi shows just as little afterwards as he did prior to the event, so for all practical purposes, there’s a disinterest that permeates all throughout this film.  There’s no emotional connection anywhere to be found, no underlying motivation to kill the pawnbroker, and no conceivable punishment harsh enough to fit the crime, as instead he spends his time in a self-imposed solitary confinement cut off from the rest of the world around him.  But that’s exactly as he was living beforehand, so what’s changed?  Does he become unhinged, more restlessly anxious, or panic with guilt?  The answer is no he doesn’t.  Instead the portrait is one of disconnection and alienation with the world, and not through any social stigma such as poverty or lack of education, but simply a man who is completely disconnected with himself and can find no meaning in the world.  Unfortunately, throughout the film there’s little movement, nothing to pull the audience into this picture, instead there’s a stifling stillness, as there is little evidence of trauma or psychosis, and only a scant few flashbacks or hallucination sequences showing a surrealistic or altered view of the world.  There is an intriguing final image, but everything suggests people can’t wait to get away from this man fast enough, where the impression is one of a different kind of emptiness, as his dull malaise leaves the audience wondering why they should show the slightest interest.  Dostoevsky is meant to be brooding and melancholy, miserablist even, and darkly disturbing, but this film proves the dramatic power of literature does not always transfer to the screen.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

No Strings Attached

NO STRINGS ATTACHED                           C+                  
USA   (110 mi)  2011  d:  Ivan Reitman 

If we were in a relationship, I'd become a weird, scary version of myself.    —Emma (Natalie Portman)

I suppose a lot of what you get out of a movie like this depends on what you bring into the theater with you, such as preconceived notions.  Certainly the draw here is seeing Natalie Portman lower herself to this dreck, where she’s actually named as a producer and beaming with a smile on her face, actually looking happy right on the heels of her Academy Award nominating role which couldn’t have been more dramatically challenging in the psychic horror thriller BLACK SWAN (2010) where she took a deep descent into madness.   Having low expectations is the key to enjoying a movie like this, after all, it’s directed by the guy who made GHOSTBUSTERS (1984) more than 25 years ago, which was cheesy even then - - so if you get a little something to enjoy, be grateful.  I still remember sex columnist Dan Savage’s infatuation with teen throb Ashton Kutcher wearing whities, so don’t expect much else out of a guy who’s more a Hollywood celebrity than an actor, accurately described in the film as annoyingly happy.  If the entire plot feels borrowed from a Friends TV sitcom episode where Natalie Portman’s role is interchangeable with Jennifer Aniston, well perhaps it is.  The jury is still out on whether Natalie Portman can carry a film alone, as she is surrounded by a sizable secondary cast which keeps popping their heads in and out of the picture, usually for comic relief in order to keep re-energizing the film with easy laughs.  There’s not much doubt that this is another formulaic film, but one wonders if Portman’s presence will add anything different, like Jodie Foster or Julia Stiles, young attractive women who also brought an edge of smartness and strength to their roles.  I suppose playing opposite Kutchner tells us all we need to know, as he continues to be a grown up adolescent, and he ends up being the responsible one in their relationship. 

Kutchner and Portman initially grow attracted as sex buddies, where due to Portman’s hectic schedule working at a hospital she simply has no time for dates and small talk, preferring a few moments in the sack until it’s time to go back to work again.  Kutchner plays along, thinking this is any guy’s dream, but he soon wants more out of it, and he’s not afraid to say so.  Portman on the other hand has an aversion to cuddling and commitment, thinking somebody always gets hurt, so she avoids all the small stuff.  Of course, this plays out in obvious fashion, where initially there’s a rush of sexual attraction and interest.  One of the things the film does best is express this candidly through cell phones, gossip, and the Internet age, so soon all their friends who weren’t supposed to know have heard all about it.  They’re the talk of the town, as they seem so grown up about a relationship without emotional attachments, except they get disturbed at the thought of their so-called partner seeing someone else.  So it’s a little more complicated than they let on.  When they have a falling out, the energy sags and the film sinks, where in no time at all we have nearly forgotten what we liked about this film.  Thoroughly predictable, the secondary characters are terrific, especially Portman’s roommate Greta Gerwig, also Kutcher’s buddy Ludacris, who themselves feel like a couple with possibilities.  This is a breezy, light-hearted romantic comedy that accentuates the lifestyles of the rich and the famous, and being single, where people are rarely if ever seen at work, but the focus is on all the fun and extracurricular activities in their lives, as if the audience can re-live their youth vicariously through this virtual reality world where relationships require no commitment whatsoever.  That premise is intriguing, but this is Hollywood, where artifice reigns supreme, so girls aren’t allowed to have fun and be in love without first recognizing the error of their ways and quickly correcting it, showing maturity, wisdom, and of course, providing the moral of the story. 

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Company Men

THE COMPANY MEN                                              B+                                          
USA   Great Britain  (109 mi)  2010  d:  John Wells

This is the first film that attempts to project the magnitude of the nation’s recent economic woes, as seen through the eyes of several white collar managers that are fired, whose lives, as they know it, are inexplicably altered forever, where people have to do a gut check and re-assess what they’re willing to endure in order to survive.  Pride is on the line, as people have a high opinion of themselves, but this film is about watching that veneer of confidence slowly dissipate, as without a job many have a hard time believing in themselves.  The film documents the various stages of the fall from grace, from the initial denial that it’s happening to you, the injustice of it all, leading to anger and bitterness, until eventually one is humbled by the force of having to admit that they’re unemployed, where the social stigma is like having leprosy.  No one wants to get near you, and you’re ashamed to admit it.  The film really gets that defeated tone just right from the start until just before the finish, where a needless Hollywood happy ending is tagged on at the end.  But up until that point, this film surprisingly gets it right, largely due to the viewer empathy established with the characters and the truthfulness of the performances all around, starting with Ben Affleck as a Boston manufacturing super salesman who’s pulling down $160,000 a year, plus incentives and bonuses, until his company merges and in order to keep the stock prices high, he finds himself a casualty, as he’s suddenly terminated in the opening moments of the film and offered three month’s severance pay.  With a million dollar home in the suburbs, a Porsche car, memberships in exclusive golf resorts, and kids who aren’t nearly old enough yet to even be thinking about college, he suddenly doesn’t have the means to pay his bills, even after he sells the house and the car, as he still owes more than they’re worth.  After initially refusing to acknowledge the obvious, that he would never again make anything close to his previous salary range, he just needs to find one employer that’s willing to hire again.  And of course, millions of people in identical situations around the country are hoping for the same thing, where a job offer would be paramount to a miracle, as none are forthcoming. 

What makes this film particularly interesting is that it escalates to the people above Affleck, where one of the original co-founders of the company, Tommy Lee Jones, who is now criticizing the decisions of the CEO, his former college roommate and best friend, Craig T. Nelson, who is the driving force behind the decisions to make drastic cuts in personnel, identifying that they’re working for the stockholders not the employees, believing they were well paid and the company no longer owes them anything.  The trustful interplay between these two is cracking, as their priorities are different.  Nelson’s stock options are going through the roof, while Jones is watching good people that he hired a decade ago get tossed along the wayside as collateral damage.  One of those is Chris Cooper, one of the last of the high paid execs to go, and one that doesn’t deal with it gracefully.  For awhile, the more interesting story belongs to the upper echelon, as Jones is actually sleeping with and invested in a personal relationship with the hatchet lady (Maria Bello), the company spokesperson performing the dreaded layoff interviews face to face, while also maintaining a disastrous marriage in an oversized home with a woman he can barely even speak to any more.  It’s interesting to see just how the economic scale affects how the wives deal with the sudden changes, where Jones’s wife will still take her shopping trip to Palm Springs but without the corporate jet while Affleck’s wife can’t pay the mortgage.  Brother-in-law Kevin Costner who’s continually making snide remarks about corporate excess even prior to the news is excellent as a working class carpenter who offers Affleck a job during the hard times, an offer that is rejected out of hand.  Many months later, however, Affleck comes crawling to Costner for the work, even bringing in help that he met on the unemployment line, showing that these are desperate times. 

This is writer and director John Wells’s first film, where he’s previously done television work on ER, and he’s aided here by a superlative cast, also the Coen Brother’s ace cinematographer Roger Deakins.  Shot on location in Boston, the giant interior corporate window scenes are especially expressive, as the windows determine the executive pecking order, doled out to those willing to support the CEO and make him look good, as much of their lives is spent on the cocktail party circuit showing themselves and their wives or mistresses off, living the high society life, and basically talking about themselves in an insular world that is defined by the executive yes man mentality, as any critical voice is quickly distanced from the inner circle.  While this film may be told in broad strokes, it does an excellent job framing what goes wrong, showing the world falling apart for certain individuals who are used to being on top all the time, with people catering to their every need.  When that stops, there’s some question about whether these individuals can accept their downfall, as we’re all aware of stories of former employees “going postal,” where they come back to work with a bagful of guns and ammunition after being fired.  This doesn’t go there, but it considers it, meaning anything’s possible.  The film is weakest when it comes to finding a way out of this mess, even for the characters portrayed in the film, as that part of the story really isn’t being told.  What is happening to all these middle class families with kids that need to go to college whose parents have lost their jobs and their homes?  Where are they now?  In my view, they’ve become invisible.  

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Way Back

THE WAY BACK                                                       B                     
USA  (133 mi)  2010  d:  Peter Weir

Peter Weir hasn’t made a film in 8 years, which is a staggering revelation considering the superb craftsmanship associated with his films, especially the breathtaking visualizations.  Perhaps he hasn’t been able to raise funds after the mixed reception of his last work, MASTER AND COMMANDER: THE FAR SIDE OF THE WORLD (2003), which played fast and loose with the historical facts, actually changing the storyline from the book upon which the movie was based in order to fit the gung-ho George W. Bush saber rattling war scenario that was taking place at that time.  This is a National Geographic funded project which allows him to film in some of the more remote areas of the globe, based on a 1955 book The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom by Slawomir Rawicz, where he and several others escaped from a Siberian gulag in 1940 and in a year’s time walked 4000 miles from Siberia, finding and following Lake Baikal, trekking past the Tran Siberian railway to Outer Mongolia (also Communist), across the Gobi Desert, past the Great Wall of China (still Communist) into the Himalayan Mountains, initially finding refuge in Tibet, but continuing their trek into India where the British government at the time was staunchly against both the Nazi’s and the Russians, though the Russians were a war ally.  There has been some controversy about the book, as it was initially released as the author’s own story, but when it was revealed afterwards that he was released by the Russians under a 1942 amnesty agreement, Rawicz indicated it is actually the story of three Polish men who recounted their stories to him, one of whom is a former Polish soldier, Witold Glinski. 

Described as the first Hollywood film about the Soviet gulag, this overly detached and in the end unengaging film opens in Poland in 1940 when it was invaded to the West by Hitler and the Nazi’s, and from the East by Stalin and the Russians, opening with a Stalinest interrogation sending a Polish citizen to a Russian gulag for twenty years for making negative statements about Stalin.  The conditions there are decripit, with prisoners starving from lack of adequate food, housing prisoners with professional killers who run the inside of the prisons with smuggled weapons.  In reality, these were forced labor camps, something that was common in both Japan and China during this same time period, where the conditions were so brutal that escape seemed the only viable option.  In Siberia, however, the natural elements are so severe, and the distance so great, that chances of survival from an escape are rare to slim.  This film is reminiscent of the epic Japanese War Trilogy THE HUMAN CONDITION (1959-61), a three part drama by Masaki Kobayashi who documents similar conditions when defeated Japanese soldiers were simply abandoned and left on the mainland of Manchuria, China and had little hopes of ever finding their way back home, where the film follows the futile efforts of one soldier who escaped from a Russian gulag only to wander endlessly, starving for days on end without food, making his way alone through the vast emptiness of the barren landscape, eventually succumbing to weakness and starvation, left to die alone, frozen in the bleak emptiness of a desolate winter.  These exact same circumstances await the seven escapees, one of whom freezes to death the very first night. 

Featuring breathtaking cinematography by Russell Boyd, the humans are specks on the landscape as they initially make their way out of the Siberian forest before becoming engulfed in the immensity of the world around them, afraid to show themselves in Stalinest nations for fear they’d be turned back in to the authorities, so they instead have to creep around towns and hide where they could.  When they reach flat landscapes, it’s most treacherous, as it’s also harder to find food and water out in the open spaces.  One of the film’s failings is the inability to deal with the subject of starvation, which should have been everpresent throughout the journey, yet they somewhat nonchalantly find food all too easily.  Finding water in the desert was truly miraculous, but there was very little tension established about finding food.  Instead when people started to physically deteriorate, attention was paid to physical injuries or ailments, but no words spoken about food, which had to have been on their minds, perhaps even hallucinating about it.  Also, some of the arduous nature of their adventure is glossed over, as the seasons change from ferocious winter storms to spring pretty quickly.  The film also does little to delineate between the characters, where the audience never develops an emotional attachment to any of them, or understands why one is considered the navigator or leader, when he’s actually the youngest or newest prisoner, which makes little sense.  Who made him in charge?  In reality, it’s human nature for there to have been some dissension in the ranks over leadership, yet in this film there was no discussion whatsoever.  It was this lack of tension or screen intensity between the characters that left a feeling of vague disconnection with the audience, where the enormity of what was taking place rarely developed into an acute sense of awareness or personal triumph, never really becoming quite so intensely powerful as Phillip Noyce’s RABBIT-PROOF FENCE (2002), which remains the definitive film on the subject, perhaps because the journey coincided with monumental social changes, so the epic adventure was superbly and dramatically placed in historical context.    

Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Naked Spur

THE NAKED SPUR              B+
USA (91 mi) 1953 d: Anthony Mann

Smart, compact, and honest, Anthony Mann developed a unique style of western, one that bonded man with nature, insisting that he shoot his westerns outdoors on location, but also accentuating the psychological dilemma of human flaws, where men are imperfect yet strive to overcome their weaknesses. Particularly in the West, where the focus of attention is on male individuality, it’s surprising what drives men to do what they do. That was never more apparent than in this film, taking the usually mild mannered James Stewart, forever characterized as homebody George Bailey in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946), but also as the renowned Senator from Ford’s THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE (1962), and turning him into an ornery, highly embittered man who has been betrayed by a former fiancé who sold his land and ran off with another man while he fought for the Union in the Civil War. In the West, nothing showed weakness like being taken for a sucker by a woman. In order to buy his land back, he desperately becomes a bountry hunter, which means butting into other people’s business and routinely placing himself in harm’s way, a dangerous job most men aren’t cut out for, but Stewart is driven to get his land back, as if he is defined by what he owns, and until he gets it back, he’s a man ripped apart with something missing inside.

Shot by William Mellor in the extremely rugged mountainous terrain of Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, this has a streamlined and experimental feel to it as the story unfolds with only five characters in the entire cast, Janet Leigh as the female companion of the outlaw, Robert Ryan, Millard Mitchell is an old gold prospector, a go along, get along kind of guy that Stewart happens upon, while Ralph Meeker plays a disgraced man in uniform carrying dishonorable discharge papers who just happened to hear gunshots, throwing himself into the middle of things without anyone asking for his help. The three take Ryan fairly easily as he’s out of ammunition, but only then do the associates realize there’s a $5000 reward to bring this man in dead or alive for shooting a U.S. Marshal. Stewart’s dreams go up in shambles at the thought of splitting the reward money, as a share is not enough to buy back his land, but he has little choice. Despite being shot outdoors in the wide open spaces, much of this plays out like a chamber drama, as this is a psychological study that begins to resemble THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE (1948), where the feeling of claustrophobia sets in on the long ride back to Kansas where they never leave each other’s sight, as the characters grow more protective of their merchandise, thinking of him as an investment, becoming ever more obsessed with their own personal greed, so much so they can’t get away from it, as they live with it night and day.

Stewart plays off-type in Anthony Mann westerns and here he’s angry most of the time, like he’s a clogged spigot about to burst, as he’s not too happy about the way things turned out, where instead of one he has to closely watch over four others at all times. In my view, he’s a little over the top, bordering on hysterical, not really in synch with the other four actors who feel much more relaxed within their characters, but then Stewart is carrying the picture, and his disappointment with himself is one of the keys to the story. Ryan, in particular, is extremely comfortable in his role as a bad guy with a smile, as he relishes in the idea of getting these guys all stirred up over the money, hoping they will eventually turn against one another, allowing him an opportunity to escape. Leigh has to straddle both worlds, as she’s loyal to Ryan, believing he’s innocent, as that’s what he kept telling her ahead of time, but she begins to suspect his real motives, becoming sympathetic to Stewart who has lost everything, a shattered man whose vulnerability makes him highly trustworthy. The climax of the film takes place at a high cliff and river location that resembles DELIVERANCE (1972), where the ferociousness of the rapids really are a threatening force, where the intensity of the river makes this a tense and gripping backdrop to the unraveling human drama.

Friday, January 14, 2011

High Plains Drifter


HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER      B-                                                                                                  USA  (105 mi)  1973  ‘Scope  d: Clint Eastwood

The entire film plays out like a dream sequence, beginning and ending as if drifting in and out of a mirage-like haze, with eerie music that sounds like a Twilight Zone episode.  And in fact, that’s pretty much what it is, the story of an avenging angel who comes back to the small town of Lago to hold people accountable for their greed, corruption and murderous ways, now hiding behind their piousness and sanctimonious morality, all of which is built on a pack of lies.  To this degree, it resembles the tone of John Carpenter’s THE FOG (1980), which after revealing itself as an unexplained natural mystery, slowly tightens its noose around the entire town until eventually corpses begin rising from the dead.  Eastwood’s film is a little more understated, a revenge saga told like a parable, with a deadly solemn tone throughout.  Eastwood is another one of his Man with No Names, known only as the Stranger, who rides into town one day, is accosted by three thugs which chose the wrong guy to pick on, as he immediately blows the three away in broad daylight.  Too bad for them.  When a corseted blond sashays directly into his path, followed by a stream of insults, one might think he would give her a spanking.  Not so, as instead he pulls her into the barn and rapes her, again in broad daylight, this time in front of the entire town standing there watching.  This is a bit disconcerting, as there’s some things you just don’t do to a lady, and this is certainly one of them, but this is also a clue that this is no ordinary avenging angel, as is his survival in a bathtub which she shoots full of holes in anger.  But he has nary a scratch.   

The gist of the story is then revealed in a dream sequence, which is an apparent flashback into the Stranger’s life when he was the town sheriff and was about to report a mining company’s boundary infraction, to their advantage of course, but was whipped to death by a crew of outlaws while the entire town stood and watched.  Now the Stranger is back, completely unrecognizable to anyone in town, who have kept quiet about this incident ever since, though the three outlaws were sent to prison for murder, and are about to be released.  At seeing what the Stranger can do with a gun, they immediately hire him, offering him whatever he wants that the town can provide, if he’ll protect them from the outlaws return.  Basically, they’re asking him to cover up their initial cover up.  This borders on the ridiculous, reminiscent of Kurosawa’s YOJIMBO (1961), where the outlaw plays head games with a town with two warring factions.  Interesting, since the Sergio Leone westerns starring Eastwood, especially A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1964), borrowed liberally from Kurosawa, including the exaggerated facial close ups, the lone gunman slowly ambling out into the street in a cloud of dust, the leaves blowing, the window shutters on the street locked shut by panic stricken and hysterical townsfolk, all shivering in fear, while his dusty, sweaty opponent enters the street, usually covered by at least a half-dozen, rifle-toting henchmen, while eerie, percussive music plays to accentuate the heightened sense of anxiety.  But Eastwood directing on his own is toned down to the bare essentials, accentuating a mood of the austere, where the Stranger is a man of purpose.  Even his presence has an Eastern sense, as he appears to be a wandering spirit who is restless because no one has bothered to put a marker on his grave.  Few westerns exclusively play the revenge card like this one, though Eastwood tried it again with PALE RIDER (1985), both by the way shot by Bruce Surtees. 

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Secret Sunshine

SECRET SUNSHINE (Milyang)                                  A-                   
South Korea  (142 mi)  2007  ‘Scope  d:  Lee Chang-dong

Premiering at Cannes in 2007, nominated for a Foreign Language Academy Award in 2008, it took nearly 4 years before the film opened in a major U.S. city, distributed by IFC, and when it did, it was shown on HD Video on a small screen, similar to watching it at home, as the size is reduced even further for the ‘Scope aspect ratio, so the top and bottom of the screen were empty.  As to why it took so long for the film to arrive, one remains clueless, as it’s clear this is a formidable talent with unique filmmaking credentials.  According to his bio at IMDb See full bio, Lee Chang-dong was born in Daegu, considered the most right wing city in South Korea, and was a high school teacher and acclaimed novelist before turning to cinema, directing his first film at the age of 43, but also writing all of his own films.  He also worked as his nation’s Minister of Culture for several years between OASIS (2002) and the release of this film, bringing a certain maturity level to his films, similar to French director Claire Denis who also got her start at the age of 40, but also contributing a dense, novelistic style that is uniquely his own.  OASIS is unlike any other film I’ve ever seen, as it examines crass societal prejudice through one of the most improbable and disturbing love affairs ever captured on film, where the two lead characters are so mentally and physically challenged that it’s difficult to even watch them onscreen.  The audience has no choice except to adjust their perceptions to the subject matter.  This film is on more familiar turf, a mother’s grief from a sudden and unexpected loss of her child who is killed in a kidnapping for ransom scheme gone wrong, but it’s just as maddening and heartbreaking, as it takes her on a strange and baffling odyssey to explore possible religious and spiritual avenues for her insurmountable pain.  The ease with which this director mixes near slapstick comedy side by side with searing tragedy, while also making astute social comment, is what separates him from the rest, as his range is simply unsurpassed.

Lee never makes it easy for us, nor does he spell things out for us, as he instead takes us on Jeon Do-yeon’s novelesque journey (winner of Best Actress at Cannes), a widow who is moving with her young son to the small town of her recently deceased husband, the subject of poisonous family rumors which has caused her to leave her family behind, which begins with her car breaking down just outside of Milyang, which in Chinese means “Secret Sunshine,” where a hotshot mechanic Song Kang-ho cheerfully welcomes her to the city.  Slowly she acclimates herself to life in a small town, where school busses have flowers and optimistic slogans painted on them and where everyone has soon heard about her arrival.  She immediately joins a women’s social circle, even as she has little in common with these other women who oftentimes make unflattering comments about her behind her back, but this is what’s done as she assumes a social standing as a piano instructor.  It’s interesting to see women drink too much in public as they have a vicious sense of humor and seem to enjoy leaving their husbands behind.  Their frivolity recalls the surreal final scene of dancing housewives in Bong Joon-ho’s audacious psychological thriller MOTHER (2009).  Somewhat shockingly, this film turns into a heartbreaking missing child saga, where the terrifying jolt of losing her child becomes a stark everyday reality, where her inconsolable anguish leads her to seek comfort in the refuge of Christianity, where her physical expression of grief in the church is unforgettable, expertly shot by the way where in a distant shot that lasts for nearly a minute we only hear the sounds of wailing in the congregation before a close up reveals the source, where smiles just a few minutes ago have led to a flood of tears.  Song Kang-ho accompanies her in her religious quest, always a bit late and usually appearing just outside the frame, but he always seems to be there, standing up for her when no one else will, especially when her dysfunctional family comes to her son’s funeral and tries to label her damaged goods.  When Jeon was initially blackmailed and had no one else to turn to, there’s a hauntingly empty scene where she pays him a visit at his garage at night where she stands outside gazing in at him where he’s alone, drinking heavily, and singing karaoke at the top of his lungs. 

Jeon’s Christian transformation is one for the ages, as she soon becomes the poster child for a born again Christian, assimilating the message and the speech, becoming one of God’s ambassadors on earth spreading the message.  She goes to meetings, speaks with the Reverend, joins new social circles, and sings joyous religious songs outside the commuter train stations as bystanders walk by.  The film paints an excellent portrait of Korean Christianity, which is always led by that everpresent cheerful smile, and where they have a ready answer for all of the nation’s social ills.  This leads to that transcending moment when she’s ready to go to prison to forgive the man who murdered her child.  There have been other similar determinant prison sequences, Bresson’s PICKPOCKET (1959) and Kurosawa’s HIGH AND LOW (1963) come to mind, which feature moments of transcendence.  But this is something different altogether and is eerie and creepy at the same time, as the prisoner has also found comfort in the salvation of Jesus Christ, so her forgiveness is not really necessary, as he’s already squared it with a higher power.  Where does this leave her? - - devastated and crushed, where this turns into a psychologically tormenting grief and anguish of Dostoevskian proportion.  Her ultimate clash with religion reaches NASHVILLE (1975) proportions in one of the most perfectly written sequences in the film when she inserts a pop song into an amplified Christian outdoor rally during the middle of a sermon (Kim Chu Ja singing “Gu Jit Mal”).  She is rattled with guilt for the inner rage she feels, and for which she can find no comfort or relief, feeling scarred and betrayed for life, as she’s really done nothing wrong, yet she’s condemned to eternal punishment without ever committing a crime.  What God, who oversees all things, could allow this to happen?  And where is her salvation?  What is her road to redemption?  She travels into that BREAKING THE WAVES (1996) territory, which is really a descent into human depravity, and it is from this haunting and punishing emptiness that she needs to find herself, from some horrible dark abyss, void of human virtue, a laceratingly lonely and empty place, the cavernous depression of her soul, where she needs to somehow crawl out alive and discover what it means to live again.   

The Illusionist

THE ILLUSIONIST                                            B+                   
France  Great Britain  (90 mi)  2010  d:  Sylvain Chomet 

Rather than pay homage to Jacques Tati like Sylvain Chomet’s last film, this one is adapted from an actual Tati screenplay that features an animated version of the legendary character Monsieur Hulot himself, which creates something of a controversy as it perhaps mis-identifies which missing daughter he was attempting to recognize, as the story closely resembles Tati’s relationship with his own daughter that he neglected (Sophie Tatischeff), no doubt due to his obsession with his career, but also points to his firstborn, an illegitimate daughter (Helga Marie-Jeanne Schiel) born 4 years earlier outside his marriage, a girl he all but abandoned, as she was raised in an orphanage.  In 1955 when Tati wrote the script, Helga would be age 13, and Sophie, 9, though he continued to tinker with the script for another four years.  The script was actually handed to the director by Sophie in 2000, two years before she died, and the film is dedicated to her, which the family of Helga feels is a major oversight.  (See: The secret of Jacques Tati - Roger Ebert's Journal and also from The Guardian:  Jacques Tati's lost film reveals family's pain and The Telegraph:  Jacques Tati's ode to his illegitimate daughter - Telegraph)  Set in the late 1950’s, he’s known as the great magician Tatischeff, carrying around in his pocket a circus poster showing him doing his act which he diplays at various theaters around town where he performs to an ever dwindling audience that is becoming non-existent.  His music hall act is charmingly adorable, where he pulls a rabbit that bites out of a hat, an animal that prefers to poke its head out prematurely, and performs all sorts of miracles, but few are interested anymore, replaced by a hilarious sequence of British rock ‘n’ rollers who refuse to leave the stage, performing an endless series of narcissistic encores until the house empties afterwords with the exception of an elderly woman and her bespectacled, ice-cream eating young son who keeps checking his watch. 

What’s marvelous about this film is how it’s perceived through multiple layers, one of which includes extended Miyazaki-like travel sequences, always accompanied by a sublime musical score which was written by the director himself, moving from the spectacular Paris venues to obscure Scottish pubs during the rainy season, eventually settling for awhile in Edinburgh, as Tatischeff spends his life on the road searching for new venues that will hire him, many with the help of his fellow performers who keep offering him their business cards.  Another layer is the presence of a stowaway, a young girl who attaches herself to the great magician like a father figure.  Though they stay together at a run down hotel, this girl has a life of her own, following her curiosity, spending her days roaming through the city.  One of the more wonderful sequences is when she makes soup, which Tatischeff belatedly discovers is rabbit soup, where he looks around frantically for his missing rabbit.  But in this scene she generously feeds other vaudevillians staying in the hotel as well, some close to starvation, as it is filled with performers who are at poverty’s edge and are later seen facing even more dire circumstances. 

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this film is the autobiographical aspect, as Tati himself considered the material too personal, thinking himself a failure both as a performer and as a father, yet that’s precisely what makes such an intimate work so endearing, where at one point Tatischeff cleverly sneaks into a theater that is playing MON ONCLE (1958) where, as an animated figure, he’s stupefied at seeing himself in real life.  The magician’s act is always performed with the utmost professionalism and grace, even when he’s forced to become a department store live window mannequin, selling women’s perfume and brassieres, making them appear and disappear.  In the same way, Tatischeff refuses to disappoint the young girl, who is convinced that as a magician he can make anything appear out of thin air, where her fascination is based on her gullibility and naiveté.  But the harsh reality is that time is passing by these charming vaudeville acts and money is hard to come by, especially when his act closes as quickly as it begins, so he spends more time away from her in search of work.  There’s an underlying pathos in every scene, all near wordless, as the dark tone and bleak existence in the world is never sugar coated.  In fact, much of this resembles early Chaplin when his Little Tramp is desperately searching for work or for a bite to eat.  By the end of the film Tatischeff has sadly become obsolete, perhaps even to the girl who is discovering her own life and her own independence.  

Blue Valentine

BLUE VALENTINE                               C+
USA  (114 mi)  2010  d:  Derek Cianfrance

According to IMDb trivia, the film was originally set to shoot in spring of 2008, but was delayed due to Heath Ledger’s death. The producers and director delayed the film out of respect for Michelle Williams, Ledger's ex-girlfriend and mother of his daughter Matilda, rather than going ahead and shooting the film with another actress in Michelle's role.  This felt more like a sketch, like it was incomplete scenes from an actor's workshop, as if they were still working on it by the time they filmed it because it never feels like they got it right.  Sometimes you can spend too much time on a project.  In this case, the director (and who is he anyway?) had been working to get this film made on and off for 12 years, Michelle Williams for six, and Ryan Gosling for four years.  So one gets the feeling that what was missing was any feeling of immediacy or fresh insight.  By the time it was captured onscreen, this all felt like old news.  Part of the problem is the choice to make both characters so ordinary, so everyday and typically like you and me, that in the end "neither" of the two characters is very interesting and never once is there an epiphany moment that one could essentially call "moving."   In a drama, you need drama. By the end of this movie I couldn't wait to get out of the theater as it was that unpleasant an experience - - and so predictable that I wasn't even watching the screen anymore as they simply weren't finding new territory, instead retreading the same grounds.  There's more energy in the end credit sequence than there is anywhere else in the entire film.  There's nothing wrong with either Gosling or Williams, this just feels poorly written and poorly directed, as there should be some emotional connection with the audience.

This feels like a throwback to a different era of filmmaking, perhaps Cassavetes making SHADOWS in 1959, a time when this kind of raw, emotional intimacy onscreen contrasted against the more conventional mainstream epics that passed for movies, where characters rarely revealed emotional truth on any kind of a regular basis, where Sirkian exaggeration of the 1950’s through melodramatic hysteria subverted and disguised what was really emotional conformity of the era.  With counterculture films like BONNIE AND CLYDE (1967), FIVE EASY PIECES (1970) and THE MOTHER AND THE WHORE (1972), they began to question just what moviemaking was all about, where overly confessional characters could spend the entire movie in turmoil searching for that inner truth that has evaded them.  Over time, action features became less important to leading performances, replaced by indie films sending cameras in search of more soulful representations of our lives, where Terrence Malick and David Gordon Green seemed destined to reduce scenes of our lives to cinematic poetry and art.  In their films, life’s realism is presented so thoroughly and without artifice so that the inner lives onscreen blossomed and became the focus of character development.  In this manner, film became the cinematic expression for emotional realism, which is what indie films were really searching for in the first place.  All of which leads us to this film, lauded by some for revealing such raw emotional truths in the performances of the two lead characters, whose lives are exposed and then literally ripped apart before our eyes, showing only the initial romantic surge told out of time, mixed and interspersed with the falling out of a horrible marriage.  From the viewer’s standpoint, it feels like a sadistic exhibition, the manipulations of a slasher film, a grotesque example of WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF (1966) when placed in the wrong director’s hands, as the abusive Edward Albee language and incendiary emotional fireworks desperately need the human context of what seems on the surface to be a successful marriage, when the claustrophobia of exposed nerves and routine patterns of failed intimacy begin to open wounds of inner rage and disgust.  We’re entering Tennessee Williams territory of sexually repressed and dysfunctional relationships that pretend for all the world to see as if nothing is wrong. 

What’s missing in this film is any sense of theatricality, the interplay of characters, where the audience develops a sense for the people depicted onscreen.  Because the editing is all chopped up and spit out in disconnected pieces, the audience sees the aftereffects of the drama, but not the drama itself.  The focus of the story centers around a married couple on the rocks, Cindy (Michelle Williams) and Dean (Ryan Gosling), where from the outset the audience can sense Dean freely speaks his mind while Cindy doesn’t, as she’s caught up in a motherly role of exclusively doing for others, remaining busy to such an extent that she has no time and no life for herself, which includes any intimacy with her husband, where there is apparently a wall between them that is crushing her, but Dean hasn’t a clue and needs everything explained to him.  Throughout the film he is continually peppering her with questions about what she’s thinking and why, always changing the focus to her, never acknowledging any wrongdoing on his part, always the innocent one placing the blame and the burden on her shoulders, which is a weight she eventually can’t carry anymore.  Dean, however, acts like this is all news to him, as if he’s been on another planet, that somehow the enormity of her unhappiness has escaped him.  Again, what’s missing in this marital deconstruction is theatrical urgency, as it’s missing the eloquence of direction and structured writing.  Instead, much of this feels flatly improvised, where they seem to rely upon repetitious language and similar fallback positions, never really accumulating any power of drama.  The camera is raw and in-your-face, featuring close ups that fill the entire screen, shot on Super 16 mm and Digital giving it a seedy, grainy look that is absent any natural color, but the dialogue and nudity are too tame and the audience has difficulty developing a connection or even an interest in these characters who are simply not memorable, instead they come and they go all too quickly, in the end actually becoming forgettable.  Perhaps we’ll remember the song, “You and Me” by Penny and the Quarters: (3:06).