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Monday, November 30, 2009

Review: Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (2007)

* * * *

Director: Tom Tykwer
Starring: Ben Wishaw, Alan Rickman, Dustin Hoffman

Perfume: The Story of a Murder is a film that absolutely should not work and yet, miraculously, does. It takes as its centre the sense of smell, perhaps the most difficult of the five senses to convey through the medium of film, and makes the rest of the story work around it. Every emotion and thought in this story is tied to scent and, somehow, director Tom Tykwer is able to take that and transform it into something of great visual impact, weaving a cinematic spell that seems impossible. This film is a masterpiece, plain and simple.

Based on the novel of the same name by Patrick Suskind, Perfume follows the life of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Wishaw), born unceremoniously in Paris in the mid-18th century. Immediately the film confronts us with the crowded, polluted streets of Paris and though of course you can’t smell it, you can sense the stench of the fish market where Grenouille’s mother lays under her stall, casually births her baby, cuts the cord with the same dirty knife she uses to gut fish, and then leaves the presumed dead infant in the filth so that she can carry on with her work. The narrator (John Hurt) informs us that this is the fifth such birth she has endured but that this one will be different because, unlike the other children, this one will live. Grenouille’s cries alert the people of the market who, upon discovering the baby under the stall call out for the murder of his mother, who in a sense becomes the first of her son’s many casualties.

Grenouille lives for a number of years in an orphanage and then is sold to a tannery, where he works several more years. If the drudgery and cruelty of his life affects him, he does not show it. His world is defined solely and completely by his sense of smell, so keenly tuned that he can smell the rocks under the water of a river. He longs to escape the tannery and go to work for the Italian perfumer Baldini (Dustin Hoffman), where he hopes to learn how to distil and preserve scent, particularly the scent of living beings. He gets his wish and goes to work for Baldini but learns that he can’t teach him what he really wants to know. To learn that he must go to Grasse and once there he begins his monstrous collection, killing women and bottling their scents and then creating a perfume so potent, so beautiful, that men and women fall at his feet in worship.

The key to the film is the character of Grenouille, who is absolutely fascinating despite the fact that he has no emotions, no thoughts, no personality, and exists only to smell things. He is utterly devoid of humanity and greedily sucks the life out of everyone around him (there is a running theme through the film that all his “masters,” from his mother, the owner of the orphanage, the owner of the tannery, and Baldini, meet unfortunate ends the moment he is finished with them), existing only to take and never to give anything back. He feels no guilt regarding the many women that he murders because he’s unable to recognize them as human beings, and sees them only as scents he has yet to collect. He’s more animal than human and because of this it is difficult to hate him; he has no higher consciousness, no ability to reason. He is, in a very real sense, an innocent, which is how Wishaw plays him. Grenouille slithers through life with nothing but this need, this compulsive and all-consuming desire to create scent and is unable to recognize that his act of creation is also an act of destruction.

Adapting a novel as beautifully written as Suskind’s is always a tricky proposition. Often it is the prose itself as much as the characters and story that make it compelling, and that is of course something that cannot be translated to film. The film stays quite faithful to the novel, save for a few minor details and subplots, and makes up for the loss of beautifully constructed sentences by substituting them for beautifully rendered visuals. This is one of the most visually arresting films I’ve seen in a long time, wonderfully detailed in its art direction and costume design and perfectly capturing the spirit of the source novel. Few films make the page to screen transition as smoothly and perfectly as this one does; it is an unqualified artistic triumph.

Large Association of Movie Blogs

Friday, November 27, 2009

Friday's Top 5... Classic Screen Pairings

#5: Clark Gable & Joan Crawford

(Dance Fools Dance, Possessed, Laughing Sinners, Dancing Lady, Forsaking All Others, Chained, Love On The Run, Strange Cargo)

Onscreen and off Gable and Crawford had heat and they played off each other brilliantly no matter what the genre.

#4: Katherine Hepburn & Cary Grant

(Sylvia Scarlett, Bringing Up Baby, Holiday, The Philadelphia Story)

Cary Grant could make a winning combination with just about anyone, but there was particular crackle whenever he shared the screen with Katherine Hepburn.

#3: Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers

(Flying Down To Rio, The Gay Divorcee, Roberta, Top Hat, Swing Time, Follow The Fleet, Shall We Dance, Carefree, The Barkleys of Broadway)

No two people ever moved together more beautifully onscreen. True, they eventually tired of always being mentioned together, but the legacy they left behind is in a class all its own.

#2: Katherine Hepburn & Spencer Tracy

(Woman of the Year, Keeper of the Flame, Without Love, The Sea of Grass, State of the Union, Adam's Rib, Pat & Mike, Desk Set, Guess Who's Coming To Dinner)

In this battle of the sexes, the players were pretty evenly matched (though Tracy usually came out on top) making for a particularly enjoyable and enduring union.

#1: Humphrey Bogart & Lauren Bacall

(To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, Dark Passage, Key Largo)

She taught him to whistle, he taught her everything else. When it comes to onscreen pairings, no one can hold a candle to them.

Large Association of Movie Blogs

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Canadian Film Review: Kids in the Hall: Brain Candy (1996)

* * *

Director: Kelly Makin
Starring: Dave Foley, Bruce McCullough, Kevin McDonald, Mark McKinney, Scott Thompson

What works as a 2 minutes sketch doesn’t always translate effectively to a 2 hour film – just look at the number of failed films based on Saturday Night Live characters. The primary reason for this is that sketch characters, by their very nature, are quite thinly conceived, often designed around a single joke. If you’re going to give that character somewhere in the area of 118 more minutes of screen time, you’re either going to have to give him or her dimension or you’re simply going to have to repeat the same joke over and over. Most sketch to film adaptations seem to choose the latter, which is a losing proposition. Brain Candy goes a different route entirely, which is probably why it mostly succeeds as a film.

Instead of centering the film on one of their recurring characters, The Kids in the Hall spread the story out amongst various newly created oddballs (with a few cameos from old familiars thrown in for good measure) in a setting that fits them. In many films of this nature, the characters will be found in a version of reality that, while fake, is supposed to resemble our own; Brain Candy, rather than transplanting characters, transplants the insane, exaggerated universe of The Kids in the Hall show. In the film, a team of scientists labors at creating a drug to cure depression. Though it’s still in the early stages, the team’s leader (Kevin McDonald) declares the drug ready to go on the market in order to avoid having the project shut down completely by the company’s impatient CEO (Mark McKinney), a barely concealed parody of SNL and Kids producer Lorne Michaels.

When taken, the drug unlocks a patient’s happiest memory and sends them into a state of euphoria. This is wonderful and the drug sells through the roof, becoming the top selling pharmaceutical in the world. There’s just one problem: after the pill is on the market, the scientists discover that one of the side effects is that patients eventually get trapped in their happiest memory, putting them in a comatose state. Of course, as far as the people making money are concerned, this is hardly a problem at all and rather than pulling the drug, they find a way to spin the side effect to their advantage.

This is, of course, a very silly movie, although when you consider the ubiquity of drug advertisements these days, it also seems somewhat prescient. I swear to God I once saw an ad for an anti-depressant which listed “depression” as a side effect – people, we are living in The Kids in the Hall universe! The film is parody, but aspects to it seem weirdly (and frighteningly) realistic, particularly the drug company’s make money at any cost ethos.

I have a particular fondness for The Kids in the Hall because their show remains one of my favorite comedies ever, and I like this movie a lot despite the absence of Helens or either of the Cathys (it does, however, have a brief cameo by Paul Bellini, which is awesome). If you don’t like The Kids in the Hall TV show, you probably wouldn’t like this movie, so obviously its appeal is limited. However, if you like The Kids in the Hall and their style of comedy, chances are you'll walk away from this film satisfied.

Large Association of Movie Blogs

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Unsung Performances: David Carradine, Kill Bill Vol. 2

David Carradine's performance in Kill Bill: Vol. 2 was one of my favourite supporting turns of 2004 and I figured he'd get an Oscar nod for sure. I mean, aside from the fact that the performance is great, he also had that Tarantino career revival magic that worked for John Travolta in Pulp Fiction and Robert Forster in Jackie Brown (though, unbelievably, that same magic failed for Pam Grier in that same film). Alas, it was not to be and the nominees that year were Alan Alda for The Aviator, Jamie Foxx for Collateral, Thomas Haden Church for Sideways, Clive Owen for Closer, and the eventual winner Morgan Freeman for Million Dollar Baby. For me, the solution to slipping Carradine in is easy: remove Foxx, who was also nominated that year (and won) for Ray and whose performance in Collateral was anything but supporting. It seems obvious, but of course Foxx had a massive amount of hype to propel him into a nomination.

In Kill Bill, Carradine has a tough job. He has to make Bill scary and intense - a job he started in Vol. 1 as little more than a disembodied voice - but he also has to make the man human enough that we believe in his relationship with The Bride. From the start of the film Tarantino has Carradine walking that fine line, affectionately (though cautiously) reuniting with The Bride and then sitting back and letting the underlying tension between them explode in the form of an assassination attempt. Later he tells her that he acted impulsively out of hurt ("overreacted," he says) and in a surprisingly short number of scenes, Carradine has managed to give Bill enough shading that we can believe that he believes that he cares for her so much that he just had to destroy her. It's messed up, but what relationship in Kill Bill isn't?

In flashbacks we see Bill and The Bride in happier times (though, not for long, as he's about to drop her off for an arduous training experience), their relationship light and playful. She is obviously enamoured with him and dazzled by his knowledge and he seems protective and caring. It's still pretty creepy because his affection seems so paternal, but it shows another side to the relationship and the characters. A conversation with his brother, Budd, and scenes with his daughter B.B. have much the same effect, showing Bill as a human being rather than a shadowy, unstoppable force of evil. His existence is not defined solely by his desire to torture The Bride, but by a history that has left him unable to disengage love from hate or to solve any problem except through violence. When B.B. asks if he shot The Bride because he didn't know what would happen to her, he says, "What I didn't know, when I shot mommy, is what would happen to me... I was very sad. And that was when I learned that some things, once you do, they can never be undone." He's a man who would cut off his nose to spite his face simply because he knows no other way.

But make no mistake that Bill is a changed man who has learned the error of his ways. He's still perfectly willing to finish the job with The Bride and he's not willing to give her an inch for the sake of making amends. If she's going to make good on her promise to kill him, she'll have to earn it and he'll come at her with everything he has. What I love about the clip above - aside from the Tarantino crafted monologue - is Carradine's calmly sinister manner. He's cool and in control and maybe enjoying it just a little bit as he shuffles through all of the emotions she inspires in him. It's clear that he sees himself less as her destroyer than her savior - he made her the person she was always meant to be and she repaid him through rejection and betrayal. Their relationship is so complicated because Bill isn't a cartoon villain with a one track mind and no connection to human feeling; he feels everything intensely and takes everything personally.

Before Carradine was cast, the role of Bill was apparently offered to both Warren Beatty and Kevin Costner. It's hard to imagine either of those actors in the part (though I have an easier time picturing Beatty than Costner), so completely does Carradine fit. He plays the part like he's wearing a well tailored suit, guiding the character naturally through the plot and leaving an indelible mark. It's an excellent and memorable performance. Too bad Oscar politics got in the way of it being recognized.

Large Association of Movie Blogs

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Review: L'Enfant (2005)

* * * *

Director: Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne
Starring: Jeremie Renier, Deborah Francois

“What did I do?” asks Bruno (Jeremie Renier), the protagonist of L’Enfant. It’s a question so ridiculous that I actually laughed out loud at it, and yet it’s so fitting that it would be asked by this particular character that it seems to elevate the film to a whole other level. Written and directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, the film presents Bruno as being so arrested in his development that he cannot see the connection between an action and its consequences, and so his question is not facetious but completely sincere. It's at about this point that your creeping suspicion is confirmed and you know that the title doesn't refer to the baby, but the baby's father.

Sonia (Deborah Francois) has just given birth to a baby boy and returns to her apartment to discover that in her absence Bruno, her boyfriend, has sublet it to friends. She goes looking for him and finds him acting as the lookout for a robbery in progress and begging for change from motorists stopped at a light. She presents the baby to him and asks where they’re supposed to sleep now that he’s rented out their home. He tells her that the sublet will only be for another two days and that in the interim they’ll stay at a shelter, although they won’t be able to stay together since men and women are segregated. This isn’t a good start, but Sonia doesn’t seem to notice, perhaps because she’s so used to Bruno’s schemes. He has no job and makes his money stealing, spending it all immediately because he reasons that he’ll always be able to get his hands on more.

While Sonia and the baby sleep at the shelter Bruno sneaks out to meet his fence, who asks after Sonia and the baby. She wonders if they’re planning to raise him themselves and informs Bruno that people pay a lot of money in black market adoptions. The next day, when Bruno agrees to watch the baby while Sonia runs errands, he decides to find out how much money he could get for the baby and agrees to sell him. He returns to Sonia with an empty stroller and a pocket full of cash. “This is ours!” he exclaims and when she reacts with horror to what he’s done, tells her that they can always have another baby. She faints and has to be taken to the hospital, where she calls the police. Now not only does Bruno have to get the baby back and return the money to the buyers, but he also has to come up with more money to pay the go-betweens for wasting their time.

Bruno is not a good man, but there is a sense in which he is an innocent. He is so detached from any kind of morality, any real human feeling, that he genuinely does not seem to recognize the difference between right and wrong. When he tries to get Sonia to take him back, reasoning that he sold the baby but she called the cops so that makes them even, we see that he has a child’s understanding of fairness – as in, I hit you, you hit me. He doesn’t recognize the value of things and lives completely in the moment, acting only on impulse. His gang consists of two kids who appear to be about 13 and to possess more maturity than Bruno with regards to the spoils of their exploits. Money runs through Bruno’s hands like water and he ends up having to bargain with the kids when he spends some of theirs, agreeing to get their share to them the following week plus extra for being late. Bruno isn’t a guy who should be left in charge of anything.

The camera follows Bruno with curiosity, rather than judgment. It doesn’t invest itself in the baby any more than Bruno does – the baby, in fact, hardly seems to be a presence at all in the film. He doesn’t cry, he hardly moves, he is just an object held at various times by Bruno and Sonia. Bruno is the child that the film is interested in and it stands back and watches him as things spiral out of control around him and he can only stand there, confused as to how he ended up in such a position. Renier plays Bruno as a blank, a man who lives solely in the present and has neither the desire nor the drive to think beyond the very second in which he's living. The character is not complex, but the performance itself is profound.

L'Enfant is directed in a simple, straight forward way that makes it all the more effective and compelling. By the time it reached the end, I was spellbound and immediately watched it a second time. This is one of those rare films that stands in a class all its own and can't be easily compared to any other film. It is a stark, minimalist masterpiece.

Large Association of Movie Blogs

Monday, November 23, 2009

Review: Alexander Nevsky (1938)

* * *

Director: Sergei Eisenstein
Starring: Nikolai Cherkasov

Alexander Nevsky is an epic historical film from Russian master Sergei Eisenstein. Made in 1938 at a time when tensions between the Soviet Union and Germany were high, the film has heavy political overtones and suffered the misfortune of being completed only a few months before the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was signed, making the Soviets and Germans allies and necessitating that the film be pulled from screens. Fortunately for the film (and the world, I suppose), the Soviets and the Germans would be fighting again by 1941, giving the film a second life and making it seem disarmingly prescient.

The film takes place in the 13th century as Teutonic Knights attempt an invasion of Novgorod. Prince Alexander (Nikolai Cherkasov) is sent for to lead the troops because he’s well known for his bravery and intelligence and for his ability to rally the people. The knights have already taken the city of Pskov and brutally massacred its population (including a scene in which the knights casually drop children into a fire), which adds fuel to Nevsky’s cause. He devises a plan to lure the knights into a fight on the ice, reasoning that their heavy armor will eventually lead them to catastrophe.

Running parallel to Nevsky’s story is a subplot involving two soldiers, Vasili Buslai and Gavrilo Oleksich, two friends who have used the war as the pretence for a wager. Whichever shows the most courage and skill during the Battle on the Ice will win the right to marry Olga Danilovna, a Novgorod maiden they’ve both taken a liking to. She doesn’t seem to care, particularly, which of them she ends up with – I’m not sure whether that says more about her or them, but in the end the loser declares that he’ll settle for Vasilisa, a Pskov woman who joins in the fighting at Novgorod and has nothing at all to say when her hand is claimed in marriage. It’s a fairly silly plot, especially when contrasted with the rest of this very serious film.

The film is, unsurprisingly given the time and place it was made, an explicit propaganda piece. Eisenstein often films Alexander from below and frames him so that he’s busting out of the shot – the film simply cannot contain this great man as he stands in his Superman pose. The German knights are portrayed as decidedly vile creatures whose helmets are meant to evoke those of German soldiers. The helmets are a fairly dehumanizing element of their costume, as they obscure the entire face and leave only little slits for the eyes, making the German forces seem monolithic and almost robotic. The message of the film is loud and clear – invade the Soviet Union at your own peril – and very overt regarding who it’s really about, leaving no question as to why it had to be pulled from distribution.

Eisenstein doesn’t get terrifically experimental with this film – it’s pretty straight forward narratively, though there is a lot of visual symbolism. It can be a difficult story to engage with at times because the characters are so thin, but I can see how it would have worked as a rallying piece at the time it was made and especially at the time of its re-release in 1941. The Battle on the Ice is the film’s big set piece and is one of the best and most memorable large scale hand-to-hand combat sequences I’ve ever seen. The story can be a bit plodding as it wades through layers of political commentary, but this battle sequence makes the film worth watching.

Large Association of Movie Blogs

Friday, November 20, 2009

Friday's Top 5... Posters of the 1950s

#5: 12 Angry Men

The tagline is a bit on the melodramatic side, but the artwork itself is great, showing the jurors divided by the murder weapon and then the solitary shot of Henry Fonda at the bottom. It really manages to encapsulate the spirit of the film.

#4: Anatomy of a Murder

There's nothing fancy about this poster - no photos of stars, no ornate design, no tagline - it's mostly just blank space. However, its simplicity is intriguing and is the very thing that makes it so memorable.

#3: War of the Worlds

Generally speaking, '50s era science fiction films have great posters and this one is no exception. Its nightmarish vision of alien invasion perfectly sets the tone for a dark and intense story.

#2: Attack of the 50 Foot Woman

Has any poster ever more perfectly captured society's attraction/repulsion to female sexuality? Sure, she's scantily clad and straddling a highway, but she's also leaving a trail of destruction behind her. Exquisite.

#1: Vertigo

This is another instance where simplicity is the most effective way to go. Its spiralling design grabs you and draws you right in. It's a beautiful piece of work.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Canadian Film Review: The Wrong Guy (1997)

* * *

Director: David Steinberg
Starring: Dave Foley, Jennifer Tilly, Colm Feore

An ordinary man, framed for a crime he didn't commit, on the run in a chase that will culminate at the top of an American monument - but, no, this is not North By Northwest, though in its own, goofy way, The Wrong Guy is also rather brilliant. It's the kind of a movie where a character can posit a totally crazy theory about the JFK assassination - "His head just did that. I call it the 'No Bullet Theory'" - and not only will it not seem out of place, but entirely sensible given everything else that's going on.

Dave Foley stars as Nelson Hibbert, an executive who believes he’s about to receive a big promotion thanks to the fact that he’s engaged to the daughter of his boss. He’s disappointed when he learns that the boss has a favorite daughter and that the promotion will be going to the guy who is engaged to her. In a rage, Nelson storms into his future father-in-law’s office and discovers him with a knife in his back – a knife which Nelson unthinkingly removes and then tries to reinsert when he realizes what he’s done. By this time he’s covered in blood (he’s also been screaming a lot, which gets the attention of other people in the office) and certain that everyone will think he’s the murderer. Pretending to be casual, he makes his way out of the building (again: covered in blood) and goes on the run. Little does he know that there was a security camera in the boss’ office which captured the murderer in the act, a fact which is doubly funny when you take into account the elaborate means the real killer (Colm Feore) employs to get out of the building undetected.

No one is actually looking for Nelson (his co-workers, in fact, are convinced that he’s still at the office and doing a better than usual job – think of it as the George Costanza effect) but he has a way of ending up at the exact same place as the real killer and, shortly thereafter, the cops always show up. The killer becomes convinced that Nelson is actually a cop himself and decides to get rid of him, but his plans are always somehow thwarted. Eventually Nelson winds up in a small town and is taken in by the Holdens – Fred (Joe Flaherty), a banker who is about to be run off his lot by wealthy farmers, and his daughter Lynn (Jennifer Tilly), a narcoleptic who doesn’t let her condition get in the way of her desire to get behind the wheel of a truck.

The film, written by Foley, David Anthony Higgens, and Jay Kogen is a parody of chase movies generally and North By Northwest specifically. It also parodies the convention of the evil banker running simple farm folks out of their livelihood by reversing the trope and having the farmer be the town’s big time tycoon. “Sure be nice to tear this bank down and plant me a fresh crop of corn,” Farmer Brown tells Fred gloatingly. This is all played completely straight and very dry, which is probably why it works so well. That the characters aren’t aware of how ridiculous they’re being in situations that are equally ridiculous, just makes it even funnier.

There’s a subplot involving the police detective (played by Higgens) who is investigating the murder and spearheading the hunt for the killer which finds him trying to shirk his responsibilities at every turn. All he wants to do is pass the case off to someone else so that he doesn’t have to do anything, but the people around him are doing such a good job that all the pieces fall in his favor and the investigation practically runs itself, dragging him along with it. His indifference creates a nice balance to Nelson’s nervous, clumsy energy and the killer’s single-minded determination.

Directed by David Steinberg, the film is a well paced and clever send up of chase movies. It invests itself fully in the surreal nature of its reality and has the confidence to let the film stay "in character" along with the actual characters. If you happen to see this one in the video store, don't hesitate to pick it up. You're in for a treat.

Large Association of Movie Blogs

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Review: Coco Before Chanel (2009)

* *

Director: Anne Fontaine
Starring: Audrey Tautou

Oh, dear. Once upon a time, a woman named Coco Chanel nudged women’s fashion into the modern era with an aesthetic that emphasized comfort over shape without sacrificing elegance. One has to wonder how Chanel, who freed women from the confines of the corset and the petticoat, would feel about seeing herself placed in such a stodgy and airless biopic.

The film opens with sisters Gabrielle and Adrienne Chanel (played as children by Lisa Cohen and Ines Bassalem) being deposited at an orphanage by their father, whom they never see again. As adults they toil at manual labor by day (Gabrielle as a seamstress now played by Audrey Tautou) and at night they perform a double act in a music hall. Their career is derailed first by Gabrielle’s prickly comments to the hall owner, who unceremoniously fires them, and then by Adrienne’s “engagement” to a baron. Gabrielle is certain that the baron will never make good on his promise but Adrienne is confident in his love for her and leaves to set up house with him in Paris. Shortly thereafter Gabrielle sets off for Paris herself, inviting herself to live with wealthy Etienne Balsan (Benoit Poelvoorde), who nicknames her Coco after one of the songs he saw her and Adrienne perform in the music hall.

Coco’s relationship with Etienne is not a happy one. He agrees to let her stay on at his estate but expects sex in return and asks that she keep herself hidden away when his friends visit, as he’s embarrassed by her lower class origins. Eventually she forces her way into his social circle and he makes the best of it by making her the entertainment, forcing her to reenact her old act for the benefit of his friends, one of whom is Boy Capel (Alessandro Nivola). She and Boy fall in love and though their relationship is complicated by a number of factors, they do find some happiness together and he encourages her to leave Etienne and helps her to start the business which will, eventually, make her world famous.

Coco Before Chanel falls into the same trap that snares a lot of biopics, namely the assumption that the most interesting thing about an interesting person is their sexual partners, which is rarely the case. The film spends a lot of time focusing on Coco’s relationships with Etienne and Boy and, yet, both relationships end up feeling curiously underdeveloped. Her feelings for both men seem to change according to the whims of the plot, rather than according to any organic progression of emotion and intimacy. I believe that in real life Coco’s relationship with Etienne could have evolved from its ugly beginnings into something comfortable and friendly, but I don’t believe it the way that it plays out in the film. Nor do I believe in the half-hearted attempts to introduce conflict into Coco’s relationship with Boy. After discovering that he is to be married to someone whose family wealth can fund his business ventures, she informs him that nothing between them will ever be the same again and yet they seem to carry on afterwards just the same as before, except that now she knows they’ll never marry. Similarly, when she learns that the money she’s made through her shop is under his control because he secured the loan that got her the shop in the first place, she’s upset but things quickly revert to normal between them. Does she see the similarities between her relationships with Boy and Etienne and the way that each has found a means to “keep” her? The film seems only to care enough to suggest these issues, not to actually explore them.

Through it all Tautou delivers a solid, unwavering performance. Coco is a much colder character than she usually plays and Tautou brings a hardness to her that works well with the story. Coco has not had an easy life and has come to expect the world to be unfair and disappointing. Her eventual ambitions in the world of fashion are characterized not by optimism, but simply by grim determination. If only the film itself were so determined. Coco’s relationships with Etienne and Boy are a necessary part of her story, in that one introduced her to her clientele and one provided her with the capital to start her business, but they are not the story. If she didn’t have that very particular, revolutionary style, there never would have been the empire that still bears her name, so why not spend more time exploring how she developed and nurtured that style instead of lumbering through the paces of a love triangle?

Writer/director Anne Fontaine has a keen eye for framing shots (several are stunningly beautiful), but the pacing of this film is absolutely brutal. If it had unfolded at a more lively pace, I might not have minded its preoccupation with Coco’s romantic life so much, but the fact that it feels so damn long even though it’s only 105 minutes really killed it for me. It is not a film without merit, but there’s not nearly enough for me to recommend it.

Large Association of Movie Blogs

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Review: Il Divo (2008)

* * * *

Director: Paolo Sorrentino
Starring: Toni Servillo

If Tarantino ever makes a political biopic, it’ll probably look a lot like Il Divo, Paolo Sorrentino’s vibrant, sometimes confounding, look at the career of former Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti (Toni Servillo). What Sorrentino accomplishes with this movie is kind of amazing when you consider it alongside other politically themed films which, regardless of how good they are, can often be a little dry. Il Divo, on the other hand, is a lot of fun.

The film begins with a montage reminiscent of The Godfather’s assassination of the enemies sequence, as various figures who pose a threat to Andreotti’s continued wielding of power are taken out. Most of them are gunned down or commit “suicide,” but the most memorable of the deaths involves a car falling in slow motion through the air and then exploding on impact with the ground. The film doesn’t explicitly state that Andreotti is behind these murders, just that people have reason to believe that he might have been. For years there have been rumors of mafia ties, rumors which will eventually see him brought to trial.

We’re introduced to Andreotti’s inner circle of political cohorts who, at different times, are made to remind us of the gang in Reservoir Dogs and the Apostles in a mock last supper scene. These men are, for the most part, much more flamboyant and flashy that Andreotti, who is something of an absent presence throughout the film. All the things that you might associate with the madness of power – excessive displays of wealth, booze, women – seem to be happening around him rather than to him. He is the calm centre of the storm, quiet (very quiet) and calculating. His only display of passion comes during a long monologue in which he explains and defends himself to the audience, arguing that good can only be achieved by bad actions. It’s a marvelous moment from Sevillo who, up until this point, has had to play the character very close to the vest. For this one moment he gets to unleash and then he pulls it all back in, becoming once again that inscrutable figure.

The film unfolds at a fast pace, whipping through the events of Andreotti’s career leading up to his trial. It is not constructed to give you a particularly clear vision of the workings of Italian politics or, indeed, of Andreotti's career as a whole. Much of the story deals with rumors and conjecture, of corruption that may be real but may just be imagined. That's not to say that the film takes no position with regards to Andreotti - it casts him as a guilty party, certainly, but it also admits that proving his guilt is a difficult proposition. In a way, I suppose, the film has a kind of grudging admiration for the man who keeps suceeding while everyone around him falls.

Servillo's performance is flawless - he manages to make Andreotti both a shadow and a massive, feared presence at the same time. Andreotti is not a big man but though he's frequently placed in cavernous rooms, he never really seems "small." You wouldn't think so just to look at him, but he's kind of cool and he owns every room no matter who else is there or what else is going on. Sorrentino's style as a director helps a great deal in terms of this, underscoring Servillo's performance by treating the character and those around him like rock stars, making for an odd but highly enjoyable contrast. I absolutely love the way that this film moves, how it swoops and glides and sneaks up on its characters. It buoys a complicated story up with its energy and holds you firmly in its grip from beginning to end.

Large Association of Movie Blogs

Monday, November 16, 2009

Great Last Scenes: Some Like It Hot

Year: 1959
Director: Billy Wilder
Great Because...: The last line of this film is, arguably, the best last line of any film ever made, which automatically elevates the whole scene. Aside from that, there’s also the fact that director Billy Wilder opts to end on a comedic, rather than a romantic note, which is a good choice. The boy gets the girl at the end of countless films, but how often do Jack Lemmon and Joe E. Brown end up together?

Joe and Jerry, having witnesses a mob hit, escape being permanently silenced by going under cover as a couple of female musicians. Everyone around them buys into their disguises despite the fact that they look unmistakeably like Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in wigs and dresses. This is great as far as staying alive is concerned, but something of a problem since Joe has his sights set on the buxom and flighty Sugar Kane, and Osgood Fielding III has set his sights on Jerry.

Joe dons a second disguise as a Cary Grant-esque impotent millionaire whom Sugar, shall we say, revives while Jerry decides to just go with the flow, allowing himself as herself to be courted by Osgood. Eventually Osgood proposes and Jerry happily accepts, much to Joe’s consternation. "You're not a girl, you're a guy," he reminds his pal. Jerry comes to his senses and his fantasies about the happy life he’ll lead as Mrs. Fielding are replaced by a determination to get out of the fix he's in. When, however, Osgood has an answer to all "Daphne's" reasons why they can't get married, Jerry rips off his wig, exclaimnig, “I’m a man!” Osgood shrugs. “Nobody’s perfect,” he assures his intended, making for an ending that’s an instant classic and delightful no matter how many times you’ve seen it.

I’m not even sure where to start with how perfect this ending is. There’s the exasperated look on Lemmon’s face, the blank, unassuming look on Brown’s face, the couple of tango beats that play over the final seconds and, of course, that line. It is also, quite possibly, the first happy ending for a same sex couple in a mainstream film. I know it’s all played for laughs and not to be taken seriously, but consider how easily Jerry took to the idea of becoming a wife and couple that with the fact that Osgood doesn’t care that his wife will actually be a husband and, I’m telling you, you’ve got the makings of a happily ever after. You’ve also got an ending that ranks amongst the most original and clever ever committed to film, and yet another proof that Wilder is one of the best film directors who ever lived.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Friday's Top 5... Crazy Good Actors

#5: Helena Bonham Carter

In an age where celebrities are styled to the point that they barely seem human, it's kind of refreshing to see one who just totally can't be bothered. At the same time, however, when you consistently leave the house looking like you've just put on every random bit of clothing you can find, people are going to start to wonder.

#4: Daniel Day-Lewis

To prepare for Last of the Mohicans he spent time living off the land and learned to skin animals. For My Left Foot he spent all day every day in a wheelchair, earning him no friends from the crew members who hand to carry the chair over cables and the like on the set. For The Ballad of Jack and Rose he lived for a time in total isolation. I don't even want to think about how he got into character for Bill the Butcher. There's commitment to the craft and there's a cry to be committed. Plus, anyone who wears that suit can't be entirely sane.

#3: Mickey Rourke

When it's all said and done, Mickey Rourke will at least be able to say that he did it his own way. The jury's still out on whether that's a good thing or a bad thing. Although I was rooting for Sean Penn to win Best Actor, part of me was disappointed about not getting to hear Rourke's speech because I know it would have been epic.

#2: Marlon Brando

As great as he was, it's amazing that Brando's career lasted as long as it did, given that a director never knew on any given day which Brando was going to show up - would it be the passionate genius who would turn in a great performance, or would it be the spoiled star who would come in late (if at all), mumble a few words, mess around for a while, and leave you with nothing usable for the day? Still, it can't be denied that when he was on, he was on.

#1: Klaus Kinski

Everyone else on the list is really just eccentric; Kinski is probably the only one who was certifiably insane. I mean, when even Werner Herzog, who is himself teetering on the edge of the insanity chasm, thinks you're nuts, you're probably pretty far gone.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Canadian Film Review: Adoration (2009)

* * * 1/2

Director: Atom Egoyan
Starring: Devon Bostick, Arsinee Khanjian, Scott Speedman

Like much of Atom Egoyan’s work, Adoration is a film that isn’t easily pinned down. It slips in and out of different time frames, it depicts events both real and imagined, it allows its characters and their relationships to remain somewhat elusive. That it works is a testament to his ability to guide the audience through the sometimes complicated plot. This isn’t an easy film and its refusal to really resolve itself might be frustrating to some, but it’s one of Egoyan’s stronger efforts.

The story centers on Simon (Devon Bostick), who was orphaned as a child and raised by his uncle, Tom (Scott Speedman), who takes on the responsibility out of love for his sister and in order to escape from the father who domineers and intimidates him. At school, Simon tells a story about his parents, relating that his father was an attempted terrorist who tried to send his mother, pregnant with him at the time, to Israel with a bomb in her luggage. This story is not true but the result of a writing exercise in the French class taught by Sabine (Arsinee Khanjian). Sabine, who is also the school’s Drama teacher, encourages Simon to continue to work with this story, which was inspired by an actual incident and which, through internet forums, reaches the survivors of that actual incident and sparks a fierce debate in online chat rooms.

Simon gets caught up in the debate, particularly in playing devil’s advocate with regards to his “father”’s actions and the question of whether they were committed out of love or hate. What Simon is really trying to deal with is the murkiness of the facts surrounding the deaths of his parents, Sami (Noam Jenkins) and Rachel (Rachel Blanschard), and the race based tensions within his family. His grandfather insists that Sami killed himself and Rachel on purpose and that him committing an evil act was inevitable due to his origins. Tom is generally silent on the subject, insisting that he didn’t know Sami that well despite the fact that he and Rachel were married for 10 years. Aside from wanting to know for sure what happened to his parents, Simon also wonders what Tom really thinks and, specifically, what prejudices he holds.

Though Simon is the film’s protagonist, it is Sabine who becomes the most fascinating character. She has reasons for encouraging Simon and for helping him to test his uncle that you wouldn’t expect. That she’s able to weave herself so snugly into his life might seem a bit too coincidental but Khanjian (Egoyan’s wife and a frequent figure in his films) is able to sell it and is also able to convey the idea that her intentions were harmless, even if the results have done damage. The way she enters Tom’s life on various occasions is intriguing and the way that the film keeps us guessing about her until the end is very effective. She’s the story’s wild card, seemingly capable of anything and able, it turns out, to turn the whole narrative on its head.

I think that, like many of Egoyan's other films, this one is ultimately questioning the concept and value of truth. The ending of Adoration seems happy but do we - or the characters, for that matter - really know more than we did at the beginning? The ending is rooted in Sabine's ability to provide a missing puzzle piece, but what if that piece is false? What if the information she's providing is as mixture of truth and fiction, just like Simon's story? No one can ever really know what happened to Sami and Rachel except for Sami and Rachel, but now the people who've been left behind have a story that gives them comfort - and maybe that's even better than the "truth."

Large Association of Movie Blogs

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Words To Live By: All Quiet on the Western Front

Great movie speeches speak for themselves*:

*Couldn't find a shorter clip - speech starts about 8 minutes in

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Review: An Education (2009)

* * * *

Director: Lone Scherfig
Starring: Carey Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard

There’s more than one way to get an education – the formal, institutionalized way that will prepare you for the workforce, and the unofficial, haphazard way that will prepare you for life. Neither is simple as Jenny, the clever, spirited heroine of An Education, can attest. In that role Carey Mulligan shines, a total natural as she navigates Jenny’s journey through the perilous final stages of the transition from child to adult. “I feel very old,” she says towards the end, “but not very wise.” I think she’s giving herself far too little credit.

The film takes place in the 1960s and opens at an all girls’ school where posture is a part of the curriculum right along with cooking and the lesser subjects of English and Math. It is hoped by Jenny and her parents that getting good grades at such a prestigious school will help her get into Oxford. For similar reasons she has learned to play the cello, hoping to impress the admissions people with such a refined hobby. The importance of creating this image is stressed by Jenny’s father (Alfred Molina), who believes that it’s important to put on a show but doesn’t believe that the value of what Jenny is learning is the knowledge itself. Knowledge itself is secondary, which is why she has to be able to say that she can play the cello but she’s not actually allowed to practice it because the important part (learning to play) is over.

Waiting at a bus stop in the rain with her cello she meets David (Peter Sarsgaard), who charms her into letting him give her a ride home. It isn’t difficult for him to impress her because not only does he have a nice car and know about all the beautiful things that Jenny wants to know about (art, music, good food, etc.), but he’s so different from the boys that Jenny has heretofore been surrounded by. Graham (David Beard), a boy her own age who likes her, is easily flustered by her father and seems childlike in comparison to David, who is so self-assured and cool that he ends up making her father nervous and eager to impress. If Jenny were older and had more experience, she’d be wary of how expertly David is able to manipulate her very protective, very guarded parents. If someone seems to know the exact right thing to say at all times, they’ve probably had a lot of practice.

As Jenny and David’s relationship grows more serious, her future at Oxford becomes more obscure. To her shock, this is just fine by her father who has so strictly directed her life up until this point for the purpose of getting into Oxford, and she realizes that what she’d always been told was her future was in reality just a backup plan until she could find a suitable man to take care of her. “What was the point?” she asks repeatedly, wondering why, if all she was ever really expected to be was a housewife, all those other things were necessary. At a certain point she finds herself having to choose between David and Oxford and in light of all that she’s just learned, it seems to be an easy choice. The consequences of that choice, however, prove to be a very hard lesson indeed.

The screenplay by Nick Hornby is strong and, coupled with the direction by Lone Scherfig, allows the characters plenty of room for layers and details. David is not a cardboard villain, though we never really trust him for obvious reasons. He seems genuinely to care about Jenny and be affected by how things turn out and it’s surely evidence of Sarsgaard’s skill that you end up feeling a bit sorry for David – not as sorry as you end up feeling for other characters, of course, but at a certain point being able to feel anything for him is a victory on Sarsgaard’s part. There’s something very sad about David, whose existence is built entirely on illusions and deceit, and it’s heartbreaking (though expected) when Jenny finds that out.

I don’t think there’s anything I can say about Mulligan’s performance that hasn’t already been said, and better, by other people. She’s a star – charismatic, nuanced, and assured. She seems to inhabit Jenny easily and her instincts as an actor are solid. Molina, as her father, is wonderful, particularly in scenes where he’s dealing either directly or indirectly with David. David makes him nervous, not because of his interest in Jenny, but because he seems to come from a higher social order. He wants to impress David and he’s so taken in by David’s flashiness that he practically shoves Jenny into David’s arms. His speech to Jenny about how he, too, has been hurt in the situation is really moving and one of the film’s best moments. I would be remiss, in speaking of supporting performances, if I didn’t also mention Rosamond Pike, who I thought was absolutely delightful as David’s faux sophisticate, blank slate friend Helen. The expressions on her face alone were enough to win me over, but she gets some great (and ridiculous) lines as well.

I think, in the end, that An Education’s greatest strength lies in its ability to do what so few of its characters seem able: to recognize that knowledge can be valuable in and of itself. The lessons Jenny learns are painful and in some respects hold her back, but she knows more than she did before about things that can’t be gleaned from books. It might not help her at Oxford, but there will be life after Oxford and she’ll be ready for it.

Large Association of Movie Blogs

Large Association of Movie Blogs

Monday, November 9, 2009

Review: Brothers Bloom (2009)

* * *

Director: Rian Johnson
Starring: Adrien Brody, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel Weisz, Rinko Kikuchi

The Brothers Bloom, Rian Johnson’s follow-up to 2005’s Brick, is kind of a difficult film to assess because it is equal parts enjoyable and frustratingly over-plotted. It’s like a sketch on Saturday Night Live that’s really good and funny but then just doesn’t how or when to stop and so fizzles itself out. That being said, while its weaknesses keep it from being a really great movie, its strengths are enough to qualify it as a good movie. Besides, anything that starts with a voice-over by Ricky Jay can’t be all bad.

The Brothers Bloom, so named for reasons that escape me since Bloom doesn’t seem to be their surname but rather the name of the younger brother, are orphans who spend their childhood shuffled from one foster family to another and pull cons in the various small towns they find themselves in. As adults they are played by Mark Ruffalo and Adrien Brody, who don’t particularly look like they could be brothers but have a believable sibling rapport nevertheless. Stephen (Ruffalo) is the mastermind and his cons seem to be less about swindling money than about trying to make Bloom (Brody) happy. But Bloom is not happy and wants to escape the con artist life, prompting Stephen to come up with a plan for one last big score to end their career.

The plot involves Penelope Stamp (Rachel Weisz), a wealthy eccentric whose entire childhood was spent inside her family’s cavernous mansion and whose social skills are, as a result, somewhat lacking. Bloom charms her (and is, of course, charmed by her) and entices her to join him, Stephen, and Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi) on a journey to Greece by boat, which then turns into a journey by train to Prague in a fake plot to get a rare book through the mysterious Belgian (Robbie Coltrane). The fake plot is funded by Penelope, whose money disappears with the Belgian, all according to Stephen’s plan. What Stephen didn’t count on was that after losing the money, Penelope would still want to get the book because she’s just so caught up in the idea of being a smuggler. I’ll leave the description of the plot at that since there are so many twists and turns that come afterwards.

While watching the film, I couldn’t help but think to myself that if this were a TV show, I’d watch it every week because I just like the characters so much. Stephen and Bloom, despite their occupation, are nice enough guys, Bloom as the sensitive and vulnerable one who ultimately just follows along with whatever his brother wants, and Stephen as the protective older brother whose real goal is to make Bloom happy. Although their plots involve vast sums of cash, Stephen seems less interested in the money than in the mechanics of plotting to get it and in creating the story that acts as the set-up, which I suppose shouldn’t be a surprise given that the brothers are named for characters created by James Joyce (Stephen Dadalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Leopold Bloom in Ulysses). Another literary reference is made later when Penelope points out, after learning that the Belgian’s name is Melville, that their boat is called Fidele, the same as the boat in Herman Melville’s The Confidence Man. I like that moment a lot because it shows that a) Penelope isn’t an idiot despite the fact that she’s the mark, and b) Stephen is sometimes too clever for his own good.

Weisz for me is the standout of the actors as she manages to make Penelope more than just the sum of her eccentricities. I’m firmly of the belief that she knew all along that she was being scammed but went anyway because it seemed like fun and, besides, she could lose a few million without ever missing it. Her rapport with Bloom, Stephen, and especially Bang Bang – who is silent save for three words and a karaoke performance near the end – is delightful, perhaps because her own enthusiasm is contagious. She allows Penelope to be intensely vulnerable but still quite strong – stronger, certainly, than the brothers suspected.

As for the film’s weaknesses, it’s all in the way that Johnson over-stacks the deck in terms of plot. He introduces so many threads that in tying them up at the end he creates a conclusion that is less than satisfactory and also exhausts your patience as a viewer. I really, deeply dislike the ending of this film, though I found it to be enjoyable enough for the most part to recommend it.

Large Association of Movie Blogs

Friday, November 6, 2009

Friday's Top 5... Character Names

#5: Royal Tenenbaum (The Royal Tenenbaums)

A surprisingly festive (though appropriately regal) name for such a nasty, occassionally racist, old crank and self-exiled head of a family dynasty.

#4: Holly Golightly (Breakfast At Tiffany's)

The perfect name for a woman who is supposed to be carefree and fun, whose life is apparently built around her ability to flit for here to there at will and without worries (even if that isn't actually the case on closer inspection).

#3: Inigo Montoya (The Princess Bride)

Even in a movie filled with memorable names (Buttercup! Prince Humperdinck! The Dread Pirate Roberts! Fezzik!), this one still stands out. Now, prepare to die!

#2: Darth Vader (Star Wars series)

A name just dark enough to strike fear into the hearts of his victims, but just campy enough to also be delightful to audiences. Few names fit a character quite as well as this one.

#1: Pussy Galore (Goldfinger)

The winner for audacity alone. You'd never get away with it now, but isn't the film world (the Bond world particularly) better for having gotten away with it then?

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Canadian Film Review: Cairo Time (2009)

* * *

Director: Ruba Nadda
Starring: Patricia Clarkson, Alexander Siddig

When I first saw the trailer for Cairo Time my impression was of a generic, cut and paste story about a woman finding herself in an exotic land. Anh Khoi Do’s review over at The Cultural Post, however, left me assured that there was more to it than meets the eye, and indeed there is. Ruba Nadda’s film is a meditative, beautifully rendered story that works on a number of levels and acts as a terrific showcase for Patricia Clarkson.

Clarkson stars as Juliette, a Canadian journalist travelling to Cairo to reunite with her husband, Mark, who works for the UN. She’s met at the airport by Tareq (Alexander Siddig), Mark’s former colleague, who explains that Mark has been held up in Gaza and will join her in a few days. Tareq offers to show her around the city, an offer that she’s reluctant to accept until she discovers just how difficult it is for her to walk the streets alone without being harassed. Tareq becomes, in a sense, a key that allows her access to places she might otherwise not have seen and because he puts her so deeply at ease in a setting that previously made her anxious and afraid, the lines between friendship and love quickly begin to blur.

There is always a danger with stories like this of exoticizing the foreign locale and its people and lazily coding the white protagonist as “good” by his or her willingness to embrace the other culture. Cairo Time is able to sidestep this in a couple of ways and in doing so deepens the bond between Juliette and Tareq. The film shows Juliette being drawn to Tareq not because of his “otherness” but because there’s something about his personality that is familiar to her and that she naturally gravitates towards. It’s the same thing that draws her to Kathryn (Elena Anaya), another embassy wife (though, technically, she’s an embassy girlfriend) and the only person in that particular circle with whom she’s able to form any kind of meaningful connection. She’s comfortable with Kathryn, whom she joins on an “adventure” to the White Desert, and her friendship with Tareq is similar because with both of them Juliette is able to let her guard down, relax, and just take things as they are.

It also helps that the film doesn’t devolve into a lesson in tolerance or a story about a benevolent white person who will fix what she sees as a backwards culture. Juliette and Tareq come from different worlds – the film never shies away from this and in fact confronts it head on. Tareq concedes that things aren’t great, particularly for women, in his country but he’s also rightfully wary of Juliette’s ideas to implement change. She wants to write an article about street children for her magazine – a fashion magazine in which such an article would be supremely out of place. At best such an article would momentarily tug at a few heartstrings; at worst it would exploit the plight of the children in a forum devoted to frivolous consumerism. It wouldn’t actually change anything. Tareq admires Juliette’s heart and her desire to help, but as he points out to her time and again in subtle and more overt ways, you can’t solve a problem that you don’t fully understand and you don’t gain that understanding just by walking the streets and meeting a few people. There is a whole sociopolitical context that must be grasped and given the effects of globalization, you have to be willing to accept and confront the fact that some of things you do (particularly in terms of what you buy) at home affect the lives and possibilities open to someone a world away.

Both Clarkson and Siddig render quiet, sensitive performances that leave much of their characters’ relationship unspoken. The film is about so much more than whether Juliette and Tareq will have an affair and in its complex, layered exploration of this relationship, the film is quite moving. As a director Nadda is graceful and unintrusive, giving the characters plenty of room to breathe and letting the story move at its own pace. It isn't a perfect film, but it's a beautiful one that deserves to be seen.

Large Association of Movie Blogs

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Review: Cheri (2009)

* * 1/2

Director: Stephen Frears
Starring: Michelle Pfeiffer, Rupert Friend, Kathy Bates

Cheri is a movie that has a lot going for it on paper. It reteams Michelle Pfeiffer with her Dangerous Liaisons director Stephen Frears, it offers a showcase for beautiful period costumes, and it capitalizes on popular culture’s current fascination with relationships between older women and younger men. There are moments when it seems delightful, but in the end it feels like an exercise in going through the motions.

The story, based on a novel by the same name by Colette, is set in the early 20th century, which is kind of a tricky period because it shows the overlap between a kind of fashion that we generally think of as being long in the past, and technology that is relatively recent. Even though I know that it’s historically accurate, it was still somewhat jarring to see the characters riding around in cars rather than carriages. Anyway, the film follows Lea de Lonval (Pfeiffer), a much celebrated courtesan attempting to reconcile herself to the fact that she is becoming “a woman of a certain age.” The throngs of suitors are long behind her and life is much quieter than it used to be and much of her time is spent in the company of Madame Peloux (Kathy Bates), a friend by virtue of the fact that as women of ill repute, their options are limited in terms of their social circles. As a lark, Lea becomes involved with Madame Peloux’s son, nicknamed Cheri (Rupert Friend), a dissolute young man for whom even the demi monde has become boring. It is supposed to be a harmless fling but six years later the two are still together.

Lea and Cheri work at keeping their relationship light and playful and it isn’t until Madame Peloux arranges her son’s marriage to the daughter of a former colleague that they realize that they’re in love. Cheri marries his intended and Lea goes away, entering into a new affair with a new young man. When word gets back to Cheri that Lea has moved on, his marriage begins to suffer, which in turn prompts Lea to return to Paris but… things aren’t quite so simple that they can just reunite and disappear together, as they soon discover.

First and foremost, the film looks beautiful. The cinematography, costumes, art direction – all are gorgeous and hopefully the film will be remembered come Oscar time in those categories. The score by Alexandre Desplat is also quite good, though not as memorable as some of his other recent work. Unfortunately, I found the rest of the film to be rather flat. The actors don’t really seem at ease in their roles – Pfeiffer is surprisingly stiff (it pains me to say that because I quite like her as an actress) and Bates overcompensates for something by going way, way over the top (if her character had a mustache, she’d twirl it) – and it makes the whole thing seem a bit undercooked. Surprisingly it’s Friend, whose work I’m not really familiar with, who comes out on top, taking a character that could be nothing but a selfish playboy with a few good zingers and giving him depth, particularly near the end. His character reminded me quite a bit of Gaston from Gigi (which I suppose shouldn’t be a surprise since both films are based on novels by Colette): both are men who have every vice at their disposal and burn themselves out on debauchery, discovering in the process that they do want more and are perhaps capable of tending to someone else’s needs rather than worrying solely about their own. Cheri’s final exchange with Lea is wonderful because it allows him to show that he has, in fact, grown as a person and Friend handles this new side of the character with aplomb.

I suppose the biggest problem for me is the film’s abrupt shift in tone about three quarters of the way through. It begins very cheekily and sets you up to expect a comedy and then it ends on a very dark, very tragic note. The final shot echoes that of Dangerous Liaisons, but while that worked splendidly for the earlier film, it just feels out of place here and almost makes it seem as if Frears is trying to rest on the laurels of his masterpiece. Cheri isn't really a bad movie, but I found it quite disappointing.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Great Last Scenes: North By Northwest

Year: 1959
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Great Because...: It is so deliciously and unapologetically Freudian. Lots of movies end with a kiss and a fade to black, leaving the rest to your imagination. This film ends with a kiss between the now Mr. & Mrs. Thornhill, who lean back on their bunk and then... cut to a train going into a tunnel. Well played, Mr. Hitchcock.

In the short amount of time that Roger Thornhill and Eve Kendall have known each other, they've been through an awful lot. She enters his life first as a supposed ally, only to be exposed later as a betrayer. He denounces her and then realizes that maybe she's not so bad after all. Of course, by then the real bad guys also realize that maybe their pawn isn't so bad after all, making it necessary for Thornhill to try to save the woman who was once in league against him. It all culminates in a fight atop Mount Rushmore, where all that separates Eve from a long fall to her death is Roger's grip on her hand. He starts to pull her up and then...

Pulls her up on to the bunk of their train compartment. Who but Hitchcock would decide that the perfect moment to cut away is when the hero is saving the girl? Who but Hitchcock would take us right to the edge of what should be the big moment, when Thornhill will pull Eve to safety (off the face of a monument, no less), and then yank it away and get away with it? There's no heroic stance, no grateful embrace, no lingering shot of the two standing victorious on top of a former President's head and it doesn't even matter because what we end up with is so much better.

Such a quick shift in tone isn't easy to pull off. You cheat the audience's expectations by doing something like this and run the risk that they'll resent you for it. So why does it work here? Maybe because there's a randy undercurrent to much of the film (see, for example, Thornhill's appraisal that Eve is a big girl "in all the right places") that this ending just seems to fit. It also manages the rare feat of being very wink-wink-nudge-nudge obvious without losing any of the idea's cleverness. It's the kind of ending that is rife for parody but nevertheless still brilliant in its original context.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Review: A Serious Man (2009)

* * * 1/2

Director: Joel & Ethan Coen
Starring: Michael Stuhlbarg

Around the time that Burn After Reading came out, I read a commentary that stated that all the Coen brothers’ films were variations on the heist movie. Not having seen all of the Coens’ films, I don’t know whether that thesis holds together completely, but it certainly seems true enough of the films that I have seen. In Fargo, No Country For Old Men, and O Brother Where Art Thou?, it’s money that’s been stolen; in Raising Arizona it’s a baby; in Burn After Reading, it’s a disc; in The Big Lebowski it’s a very special rug. In A Serious Man, the purloined object (good fortune) is much more elusive, and so is its thief.

The story takes place in the 1960s, somewhere in the Minnesota suburbs. Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a physics professor with a wife and two children whose entire life is about to come crashing down around him. His wife is in love with another man, “a serious man” named Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed) who hugs Larry and wants him to know that they’re going to get through this. Larry moves out of the house and into the Jolly Roger motel with his brother Arthur (Richard Kind), who spends most of his time draining fluid from a boil on the back of his neck. His children don’t seem to care that he’s gone – all that matters to his daughter is that Arthur is now out of the house which means the bathroom will no longer be monopolized and she can wash her hair; all that matters to his son is that the TV reception is off and F Troop is fuzzy. A Korean student is trying to blackmail him for a passing grade. His neighbors seem to be trying to expand their property into his. A representative of the Columbia Record Club is dogging him over a membership he never signed on for. The Rabbi lauded for his wisdom won’t see him. Every time Larry thinks that things can’t get worse, they do.

Larry is not a bad man and when he says that he "didn't do anything," it's true. His greatest crime, it appears, is passivity. So how to explain his recent misfortunes? The film begins with a prologue in which a Polish couple is visited by a man that the wife swears is a dybbuk. She declares that they’ve been cursed and perhaps that’s what has happened to Larry. Maybe Arthur – whose arrival in the Gopnik household seems to have portended the end – is the dybbuk, or maybe Larry and Arthur are descendants of that couple and the curse has been extended down to them. Then again, perhaps the explanation is that sometimes shit just happens. You're just going along, thinking you've got it together, having averted what you thought would be your greatest crisis and then bam! Tornado.

A Serious Man is the most lowkey of all then Coen brothers films I've seen and feels at times less cinematic than novelistic. It quietly creeps into Larry's life and then sits back to watch it being dismantled, studying him, layer after layer, and then stepping back again. In certain respects, the film feels as passive as Larry himself - there's no great narrative push in one direction or another, which works because it adds to the sense that things are just happening to Larry beyond all control. Stuhlbarg handles all of this well as Larry becomes increasingly baffled by the events in his life then slowly melts into acceptance and starts to come to terms with things. He carries the movie easily and never lets Larry slip into being pathetic or whiny. He's just a good man to whom several bad things are happening all at once. There is a tendency with fictional characters to value them for their quirks, but it's Larry's pure ordinariness that makes him (and Stuhlbarg's performance) special.

I liked this movie a lot, but I didn't love it. Like Burn After Reading last year, I thought it was funny and well crafted but not particularly resonant. Maybe it's because so much of the story hinges on the seeming randomness of the universe, but I found it difficult to engage with this movie in a really meaningful way. Objectively I can see it's particular genius, and I can understand why other people love it, but it ultimately left me a little bit cold.

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