February 20, 2011
Dogtooth (2010) ***1/2
Directed by Giorgos Lanthimos
Dogtooth (2010)- Unapologetic showcasing of taboos as metaphor is respectable if not slightly pedestrian. ***1/2 out of 5
A surprise nominee for Best Foreign Language film at the Oscars this year, Dogtooth is not the sort of film that one would expect would get recognition from the Academy. Why? Because it's completely deranged and easily offensive. It's provoking the kinds of reactions that might result in walkouts and backlashes. Without giving too much away, Dogtooth tells the story of a father manipulating his entire family and sheltering them from the outside world. Consisting of his wife and three adult children, he doesn't let anyone inside from the walled off world with the exception of a weekly visit from a female co-worker in order to keep his son's desires under control. Even the slightest exposure to the outside world lessens the effectiveness of the father's power over every aspect of their lives. Dogtooth comments on what it sees as an artificial societal definition of family and how this and other institutions of freedom-limiting authority impact all of our lives. This biting critique flows from, among other things, taboos shown unabashedly on screen. In itself, the shocking subject matter isn't as profound as the movie wants it to be, but without a doubt, Dogtooth has a lot of interesting things to show and somewhat interesting things to say. Ultimately, though, here is a movie so extreme that I can't imagine it will win something as traditional as an Academy Award.
Animal Kingdom (2010) ***1/2
Directed by David Michod
Animal Kingdom (2010)- Atmospheric and tense. Jacki Weaver is quite good. Familiar tale of innocence shattered by crime family. ***1/2 of 5
Animal Kingdom tells the story of an 18 year old boy/man who must move in with his aunt and cousins after his mother dies of a heroin overdose. His new house is far from traditional. His extended family are power players in the local crime world. As the young man resists coming into his own, he finds himself pulled in two different directions. His cousins desire that he become one of them, though they rightly find it difficult to trust him completely. On the other hand, the police see him as their way to finally bust dangerous, elusive targets. Animal Kingdom is well-made and atmospheric, even if it explores one of the oldest and most tired themes in all film. There's glamor, excitement and a seeming sense of security in a world of vice, while living an honest life ends up increasingly impractical the more one explores the dark side. Like Goodfellas, the main character plays it straight while crazy people surround him giving the film its flavor. That being said, Animal Kingdom is no Goodfellas, and Ben Mendelsohn come across boring while Ray Liotta had a palpable sense of gravitas necessary to anchor Goodfellas. Jacki Weaver received an Oscar nomination in a great creepy performance as the matriarch of this crime family. Overall, Animal Kingdom is a solid, entertaining, familiar crime drama.
Blue Valentine (2010) ****1/2
Directed by Derek Cianfrance
Blue Valentine (2010)- Gosling & Williams are amazing! Devastatingly sad tale of what often happens after the honeymoon phase. ****1/2 of 5
Blue Valentine is about two people perfect for each other when they first meet and then absolutely wrong for each other a few years later. Yet, this marriage never comes across as a fabrication or a representation. It could easily be argued that many marriages which end in divorce were once perfect marriages. People who get divorced aren't stupid for getting married in the first place. Relationships can't be judged outside of time. Circumstances affect relationships, even ones where promises of lifelong fidelity have been made. Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams are absolutely amazing in a tale of two working class Pennsylvanians who fall madly in love in the most charming ways. They're both so happy-go-lucky and full of energy that it seems as if no couple could possibly be more perfect. Yet, we're introduced to the beginning of their relationship after we see what has happened five or six years later. They're raising a daughter. He's lost his good looks from heavy drinking and smoking, and she's given opportunities at work for a better life if she's willing to move to a different city. They can't stand to be near each other for long. The contrast of the prior joyous years with present frustrations perhaps signaling the end of their marriage comes across in a very striking way, helped in large part by Williams and Gosling, two of the best actors out there. It's painful to watch the present couple spend a disastrous Valentine's Day together needing to get unbelievably intoxicated in order to go through the motions of martial relations when we get the sense that all hope was lost long before. Blue Valentine is an exceptionally powerful look at marriage at its most unbearable.
The Company Men (2011) ***
Directed by John Wells
The Company Men (2011)- Wealthier victims of the economy make for a somewhat compelling watch. At times way too earnest. *** out of 5
John Wells, who took over writing many of the episodes of The West Wing after Aaron Sorkin left, somewhat successfully shows a different sort of victim of the economic troubles of our times. Ben Affleck plays the regional director of sales of a successful company who takes home a great paycheck, lives in a nice house and has a loving wife and family. Much to his surprise, he gets laid off and finds how difficult it is to land a job in his field even with all of his abilities and experiences. He's required to move in with his parents until things get back on track. He scoffs at his brother in law's offer to let him work construction with him during the busy season, thinking that there's a well-paying job out there somewhere that's owed to him. At the same time, Chris Cooper, a great friend and former colleague of Affleck also loses his job, but he finds it impossible to find hope in such a toxic environment due to his advanced age. Tommy Lee Jones, meanwhile, an executive in the company, can't control the layoffs of people he cares deeply about. Wells' script and directing end up way too heavy-handed for the subject matter, making him once again look like nothing more than a Sorkin wannabe. Yet, with a great deal of help from the talent on screen, The Company Men is an entertaining and interesting watch which does work as an admittedly simplistic yet effective comment on our times.
I Wake Up Screaming (1941) ****
Directed by H. Bruce Humberstone
I Wake Up Screaming (1941)- Thoroughly satisfying noir. Beautifully lit & extremely atmospheric. B-level gem. **** out of 5
Over the summer, while having dinner at an authentic New Jersey Italian restaurant, a tradition I look forward to whenever I visit, my father and I spent most of the dinner talking about films he thought I would like. I told him that, when it comes to classic Hollywood, I tend to enjoy dark, gritty films like Double Indemnity, Sunset Blvd and pretty much any Hitchcock movie. My father is a walking encyclopedia of films from the 40s and 50s, so he named more movies than I could ever hope to include in a marathon. Eventually, I ended up writing down something like twenty choices of films based on his recommendation, and from there, only fifteen are available on Netflix on DVD. I Wake Up Screaming is the first film from My Dad Marathon, and if it's any indication, my father understood my taste perfectly. This is a pretty standard film noir, but it's a total treat. Betty Grable, who I only really knew from an episode of I Love Lucy and from her reputation of supposedly having the best legs in Hollywood, stars as femme fatale Jill Lynn, the sister of a murdered model/actress who falls for the primary suspect, a promoter named Frankie Christopher, played by Victor Mature. For many reasons, the police can't be trusted, especially a sadistic detective named Ed Cornell, played by a menacing Laird Cregar, and so Vicky and Frankie help track down Vicky's sister's killer while also running from the law. I Wake Up Screaming is classic dark popcorn entertainment at its most pure. The lighting and use of shadows by director Humberstone effectively provide an atmosphere that's palpably dangerous and sleazy. Though nowhere near the greatest example of the genre, I Wake Up Screaming is a fully satisfying standard noir that I recommend to others just as much as my father recommended it to me.
The Elephant Man (1980) *****
Directed by David Lynch
The Elephant Man (1980)- A gorgeous achievement. Sentimentality is more than earned. Tragic and life affirming. ***** out of 5
The Elephant Man is one of the most beautiful movies I've ever seen. Lynch combines a sentimental tale of a severely physically deformed man who has been abused his whole life with the kind of otherworldly dreamlike strangeness that many ascribe as Lynch's style. The story of the gentlest of souls misunderstood by the ignorance of humanity had been told before in films like King Kong and Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast but never quite in this way (though Cocteau had a similar attraction to the ethereal in his film making, so maybe a strong comparison is justified with Beauty and the Beast). Using breathtaking black and white cinematography, which helps lessen the repulsion of the movie's audience to the deformities of the young man, Lynch jerks the tears by not shying away from either the cruelness or the kindness people show towards John Merrick, the real name of the title character. Granted, Lynch paints in broad strokes much like a Biblical parable--Merrick is the kindest man in the history of humankind while his tormentors are the most evil people ever--but when it's seen as a morality tale, the hyper-realism helps provide a gravitas which universalizes this tale in effective ways. The Elephant Man is gorgeous, heartbreaking and life affirming at once. It's spectacular.
I Know Where I'm Going! (1943) ****1/2
Directed by Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger
I Know Where I'm Going! (1943)- Lovely little romance imbued with The Archers' signature cinematic style and charm. ****1/2 out of 5
Recently, Time Out came out with their list of the 100 Greatest British Films, and Powell/Pressburger had many films on that list including A Matter of Life and Death at number 6 and The Red Shoes at number 5. My favorite film of theirs, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp was painfully underrated at number 14. Black Narcissus came in at number 16, and the film I plan to check out soon, A Canterbury Tale, took the 17th spot. I Know Where I'm Going! came in way down at number 26. After going through all of these directors' films that were ranked higher, it might be easy to consider I Know Where I'm Going as a lesser Powell/Pressburger classic, but think of the ranking this way. Time Out calls I Know Where I'm Going! the 26th greatest British film ever made! It's above films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Bridge on the River Kwai. That's quite a high honor, and it's quite deserved considering that it's among the most charming romances I've ever seen. We're treated to the tale of a determined banker's daughter who will stop at nothing to reach an off the path Scottish island in order to marry a rich sophisticated gentleman to live the life she's always dreamed. Her naive idealism is often peppered with the Archers' signature whimsy and visual flourishes as she looks excitedly at her itinerary, with every moment of her trip scheduled down to the minute. As tends to be the case with life, things don't go according to plan as she's forced to stay on the foggy mainland with a naval officer, played by Colonel Blimp himself, the great Roger Livesey. They don't immediately click, but when they start falling for each other, she must choose between following her plans and following her heart. Once again, a standard love story with solid performances from Livesey and Wendy Hiller in the lead roles becomes transcendent by two of the most cinematic directors ever. Powell and Pressburger know that the movies are essentially a visual medium, transforming a simple romance into a rich textured tapestry. I Know Where I'm Going! is humble in story, yet a glorious achievement.
Mary and Max (2010) **
Directed by Adam Elliot
Mary and Max (2010)- Mean-spirited & ugly. Asks us to laugh at, pity and then care about its main characters. ** out of 5
I will throw out there the fact that it looks like I'm one of the only people in the world who did not like this movie, and after attempting to rethink my reaction, I stand by my disgust at what I deem to be a mean spirited, phony exercise in joy at the suffering of others. First of all, the movie looks pretty ugly, using an inky, muted palate as part of its stop-motion model animation. Even worse, though, are the characters of Mary and Max and the fact that they're cartoons and not fully-fleshed human beings. Mary is an Australian little girl with an alcoholic mother and a father lost in his own world. She has no friends so she decides to write to a random name picked out of a Manhattan phone book. The name she chooses is Max, an overweight autistic who can't hold a job and is prone to violent anxiety attacks. The movie begins in the 1970s, well before autism is understood by the psychological community. Both Mary and Max lead difficult lives, and the movie seems to revel in this by constantly asking us to laugh at their expense. As they correspond back and forth, Mary grows older, has plastic surgery, gets married and takes to drinking so much that her life is on the verge of ruin. Max, meanwhile, continues to eat chocolate bars, growing in obesity as he farts in elevators and kills pet fish. I'm okay with comedy stemming from a disease, but Mary and Max wants to have its chocolate bars and eat them too. We're taught about autism while seeing a man so pathetically dealing with the disease that, in a way, we really learn nothing at all from him other than the fact that autistic people have difficult lives. Max goes from job to job, which makes me ask how he's able to afford his apartment. Having some experience working with autism, this portrayal never felt true to me in the way that Temple Grandin did. I'd even give the gimmicky Rain Man credit over this sadistic caricature of autism. The ending offers a cheap sentimentality that's supposed to make us feel like both characters have found some kind of fulfillment in their connection with each other, when really, this isn't a movie about connections. If anything, it showcases disconnections and asks its audience to laugh at them. Mary and Max disgusted me, and it looks like I might be pretty alone in this regard. As such, please excuse me as I go to eat some chocolates, kill my pet, fart in an elevator and wait for a letter from an eight year old to give my pathetic existence some meaning.
Best in Show (2000) ***1/2 & For Your Consideration (2006) **1/2
Directed by Christopher Guest
Best in Show (2000)- Hit or miss comedy with more than enough hits to carry the film. ***1/2 out of 5
For Your Consideration (2006)- O'Hara shines, but others are Inconsistent due to performances at different levels of absurdity. **1/2 of 5
I didn't watch either Best in Show nor For Your Consideration because they're on any list or marathon, which is the usual reason why I watch most of the films I do. I chose to watch both simply to relax, having enjoyed Christopher Guests films in the past. A Christopher Guest film is guaranteed to illicit at least some belly laughs mostly due to the fearlessness and total commitment to the troupe of regular actors on screen including Catherine O'Hara, Fred Willard, Parker Posey, Jane Lynch, Jennifer Coolidge, Bob Balaban. Eugene Levy and Guest himself among others. Guest pretty much invented the mock docu-comedy when he made This Is Spinal Tap, a film I like, though I think Waiting for Guffman is Guest's masterpiece. This genre has become a staple on television with shows such as The Office, Parks and Recreation and Modern Family. This mix of the real with the absurd is a tricky one, especially when the performers are allowed to improvise as much as they do. As a film, a mock docu-comedy must stay true to life in order for audiences to take its narrative and its characters seriously, but of course, it ought to take realistic characters in realistic situations and exploit them to the extreme in order to milk the comedy. It's when Guest and company abandon the real world completely that the jokes fall flat because they're cheap and lazy. Waiting for Guffman always kept things real, never once taking me out of the world of this small town community theater. Best in Show also works quite well because it found the right world to lambaste in the ultra-popular, ultra-serious, ultra-ridiculous world of professional dog shows. For Your Consideration is not done in the documentary style except when the characters are being interviewed by Access Hollywood type shows. As such, the actors often have to say and do crazy things in the context of the movie they are making within the movie. The film, called "Home for Purim," is so over the top stupid that I never felt like I was watching real people. Instead, the whole thing felt like an indulgence. Eventually, Home for Purim starts to gain Oscar buzz. Wouldn't it have been better for these actors to actually make a movie good enough for awards consideration and focus the comedy on backstage issues and awards show vanity? Instead, the scenes of them making the movie are simply dumb, thus disconnecting the viewer from the plot and only offering occasional laugh out loud moments. I will say that Catherine O'Hara hits the right tone, giving maybe the best performance I've seen by anyone in a Guest film. That being said, everyone else is in their own world. Best in Show is much more cohesive and, as a result, much funnier. I look forward to the next Christopher Guest movie. I hope he and co-writer Eugene Levy have learned from the disappointments of For Your Consideration and return to the form they had in Best in Show.
Catfish (2010) ****
Directed by Henry Joost & Ariel Shulman
Catfish (2010)- Painful outcome is inevitable. Fascinating expose on the victims of the anonymity of the internet. Unforgettable. ****/5
I don't need a film to spell out whether it is factual or not. I didn't lose sleep not knowing the authenticity of the story behind Exit Through the Gift Shop. I simply need a documentary to offer truths, and Catfish does just that, even if it's hard to believe that there are no fabrications whatsoever. Without giving anything away, Catfish tells the story of a young photographer who meets a family over the internet and falls for the grown daughter. Certain threads are pulled, leading Nev Schulman and filmmakers Ariel, Nev's brother, and Henry Joost on one of the most uncomfortable road trips perhaps in the history of all mankind. A perfect companion piece to The Social Network, another film that blurs the lines between real events and cinematic liberties, Catfish holds a cracked and filthy mirror up to how much we live as personas instead of as persons. The argument that anonymity doesn't negate responsibility is rarely this cringe-worthy and effective.
The Lady Vanishes (1938) ***1/2
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
The Lady Vanishes (1938)- Completely preposterous and yet a whole lot of fun. ***1/2 out of 5
Admitting that I feel like I need to revisit Vertigo since first of all I haven't seen it in a number of years and second that I didn't feel like I totally "got" the film upon that last viewing, I tend to prefer Hitchcock films with clear, straightforward plots, like Rear Window and Psycho. The more convoluted a Hitchcock movie, the more I tend to disengage slightly, despite his unmatched ability to evoke suspense and style. That being said, North by Northwest is my favorite Hitchcock film, and it has one of the wackiest plots in all film. Yet, the sheer entertainment value of that film, culminating in the great scene on Mount Rushmore, kept me completely engrossed and singularly satisfied. The Lady Vanishes is even more ridiculous than North by Northwest, and unfortunately, it's nowhere near the spectacle of that masterpiece. This movie could have used someone with even a fraction of Cary Grant's charisma. That being said, this tale of a kindly old woman who disappears inside a moving train is a great deal of fun. Sure, I rolled my eyes at the craziest of plot machinations, but I always did so with a smile on my face. In lesser hands, The Lady Vanishes could have been simply dumb. Hitchcock is too smart a filmmaker to allow tepid material to bring him down.
The Headless Woman (2009) ****
Directed by Lucrecia Martel
The Headless Woman (2009)- A frustrating and compelling look at illusions of superiority as shown through a bourgeois coverup. **** of 5
Here is a fascinating and troubling tale that feels all too real. An Argentinian woman of comfortable means thinks she hit and killed someone with her car right before a brutal rainstorm. At first, she's emotionally paralyzed, presumably due to shock. The viewer assumes that she feels both guilt and fear, but as she realizes more and more that she probably won't get caught, her guilt begins to dissipate. After all, there was a rainstorm and the boy who died was poor. The woman is far from evil, but she and those around her definitely don't see all human life as equal in dignity. Martel's direction matched with a brilliantly subdued lead performance by Maria Onetto makes The Headless Woman come alive as a humble and devastating portrait of tangible attitudes of superiority.
Winchester '73 (1950) ****1/2
Directed by Anthony Mann
Winchester '73 (1950)- James Stewart, Shelley Winters, Indians & an amazing final gunfight. That's how I like my westerns. ****1/2 of 5
An invaluable rifle sets the stage for a charming western which began one of the great movie collaborations between director Anthony Mann and star James Stewart. Seen as the everyman much like Tom Hanks is today, Stewart had to convince audiences that he was tough enough to bring a palpable presence to the screen. There's a great scene where Stewart shocking and brutally chokes a bad guy. The anger in Stewart's eyes alone are enough to make one think that Mr. Smith has gone completely off the rails. After winning the title gun in a marksmanship contest only to have it stolen, Stewart's Lin McAdam pursues the thief Dutch Henry Brown with whom Lin shares a past. Eventually, he must battle Indians as well as a sadistic henchman of Dutch's named Waco Johnny Dean, played chillingly well by Dan Duryea. Along the way, Lin befriends a young woman named Lola Manners who, though tough, needs Lin when she's placed in harm's way. As far as satisfying classic popcorn westerns go, Winchester '73 proves exemplary. Of course, great performances by Stewart and the electric Shelley Winters increase its overall entertainment value significantly.
The Parking Lot Movie (2010) ***1/2
Directed by Meghan Eckman
The Parking Lot Movie (2010)- Stays true to the spirit of the lot and its attendants, though pathos makes for a long 70 mins. ***1/2 of 5
The Parking Lot is truth, man. I mean, it's the real thing--the beginning and the end. It's the vessel through which everything exists as a microcosm of the simulacrum of all existence and beauty. If you find those three sentences amusing, then you'll probably enjoy The Parking Lot Movie, a tongue-in-cheek documentary about what is the worst/coolest job in the world. It showcases a lot in Charlottesville, VA near the University of Virginia campus, so most of their clientele includes drunk rich frat boys and sorority girls. The makeshift attendant's booth is literally as small as humanly possible, and the job often requires that employees simply sit around and pass the time for hours on end. Of course, this is the perfect time to philosophize on life, liberty and parking lots. Director Meghan Eckman perfectly captures a type of person that we all have encountered time and time again--the profoundly awkward, profoundly smart and profoundly angry young man who wishes that he could live in a different world than this one, presumably one that's occupied only by dungeons, dragons, video games and rock music. The movie is hilarious when it wants to be, but it's also exhausting when we see how much crap these guys have to put up with in their job and how it seriously breaks them down. I had a great time with about half of the film, but it's one that I'll probably never want to revisit again, in the same way that I'd NEVER want to work in this job, even if the parking lot is transcendent nirvana or whatever.
The Other Guys (2010) **1/2
Directed by Adam McKay
The Other Guys (2010)- Occasional laughs aren't enough to make up for the dumb action and the many jokes that fall flat. **1/2 out of 5
Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg star as two caricatures of cops or as vessels through which occasionally funny lines are delivered. They're not, however, real characters. Herein lies my problem with these sorts of comedies. They feel like they're constructed by committee, with jokes emerging by means of a brainstorming session. Story takes a backseat to stream of consciousness guffaws. Even worse, when they run out of ideas, they include over-the-top action chase scenes with explosions. Yes, The Other Guys will make you laugh, but it doesn't respect you enough to actually construct a coherent movie. As a fan of a show like 30 Rock, I know that it's possible to be hilarious, cohesive and intelligent at the same time. I'll take a smart complete film like Forgetting Sarah Marshall over this byproduct of a late night get together with absolutely no follow through.
Let Me In (2010) ****
Directed by Matt Reeves
Let Me In (2010)- Perhaps too faithful to Let the Right One In, a great movie. Yet, that also means this film is quite good as well. ****/5
Let the Right One In is a hauntingly beautiful Swedish movie. Let Me In is a hauntingly beautiful American movie. Let the Right One In is slightly more beautiful and slightly more haunting, but Let Me In definitely stands on its own as a quality remake. Let Me In is more vicious in its horror, which actually makes it less scary. I think it's perhaps a little bit too literal as an adaptation, but its source material is truly excellent. As such, Let Me In ends up being very good. Further, Let Me In has much better performances from its two leads Chloe Moretz and Kodi Smit-McPhee than their Swedish counterparts. The final scene in the swimming pool is so damn creepy in Let the Right One In. It's pretty damn disgusting in Let Me In. I'll take creepy over just disgusting any day, and yet, I'll take both Let the Right One In and Let Me In if I had the option to choose both. Both are quite similar and quite successful.