Apr 30, 2011

The Double Hour

This taut, suspenseful, but slightly frustrating Italian thriller from director Giuseppe Capotondi is quite interesting and entertaining, but frankly the best news about it is that it stars the mega hot Filippo Timi (Vincere), who in this movie looks like the Italian version of Javier Bardem. Mamma mia, che bello uomo! It was about time that Italy started exporting a new heir to the pantheon of Italian gods like Marcello Mastroianni, and Vittorio Gassman. Timi more than fits the bill, but he is more of an everyman; less movie star handsome and more rugged. Yes.
The movie treads a fine genre line between a quite suspenseful thriller, a caper, a love story and something else that cannot be disclosed, but it is precisely the something else that kind of deflated the premise for me. Let's just say that it is like a noir thriller crossed with Ghost. A strange melange, that works for the most part but not quite. It definitely presents an original path to a thriller/noirish film, though the love story kind of gets in the way of the noir (as love will do). This is one of those films that you enjoy a lot while you are watching, then there is a revelation in the last third that is a little tepid, but then it becomes more interesting the day after. I love it when that happens.
The other lead is the very expressive Kseniya Rappoport, and one of the problems I have with this movie is that she is plays her character only one way, which is an interesting choice, but hard to believe. The Double Hour reimagines the concept of the femme fatale as someone who is not impervious to real romantic love. This is interesting but somehow unsatisfying because her motives are as confusing to her as they are to the audience. I wish she had shown just a bit more of her ruthless side and I would have bought the story much more.
Still, I smell American remake (if anybody here is still interested in noir, instead of retarded grown up men behaving like children).

Apr 23, 2011

A Quiet Life

A disappointing Italian noirish thriller with the great Toni Servillo as a man who has escaped a former criminal life and his past comes back to haunt him. This movie could be an American remake, and in more competent hands it could actually be an improvement over the original, because the story is pretty good. Yet there are several enormous holes of logic in the plot that makes it hard to believe.
The movie is interesting as a family story and as the opportunity to see someone who has had a chance to restart a completely new life and what happens when his old life comes back to him in spades: the classic, "you can't run away from your past" idea. It's about blood ties and children repeating their parents' mistakes. Servillo is fine but underused as Rosario, an Italian innkeeper living in Germany, leading a quiet life. His German wife, played by Juliane Kohler, (A Woman in Berlin, Eva Braun in Downfall), is inexplicably unlikeable and underwritten. And the other main characters, two young Italian hoods that come to pay Rosario a visit, although good actors, are not very interesting characters. Matter of factness is an element of style in noir, but character and motivation need to be strongly established. The hardboiled cannot be confused with undercooked material. The direction and the writing are rather blunt and uninspired. There are many missed opportunities to make the relationships between the characters much more resonant. And for a movie that is firmly rooted in the reality of Europe and Italy today, then there are some very silly plot points. A frustrating film.

Apr 22, 2011

La Princesse De Montpensier

Imagine a reputable male Hollywood director and three male screenwriters making a film version of a historical bodice ripper. You'd have to be on 'shrooms.
But this is what they do in France, and they do it very, very well.
Why has the great Bertrand Tavernier set his sights on this historical romance? Certainly it is not to appease the 15 year old male demographic. Only towards the end of the movie, when I realized that the heroine of the title is beset by not one or two, but FOUR men who are hopelessly in love with her, I wondered, is this, in effect, the smartest chick flick ever made? My suspicions were confirmed when I saw who wrote the source material. None other but Madame De La Fayette, who published it anonymously.  A woman. From the 17th Century.  Cool.

But this movie is not a Harlequin fantasy, starring Fabio. It is an intelligent and clearheaded exploration of motives among the French aristocracy at the time of their religious wars (Catholics vs. Protestants, also called Huguenots; an extremely bloody affair). The tale explores the ridiculousness and obscenity of murder sanctioned by religion, and the cynical motives for power, which in those days was held by rich aristocratic families, not corporations. Power, in essence, was oftentimes achieved by marriage. The personal was political, because the personal did not matter at all. Love was not part of the equation; only connections, power, and clout at the court.
Marie de Montpensier (Melanie Thierry), the princess in question, is very lovely, smart, virginal and virtuous. But she is in love with the wrong Guise brother. No matter, since her father is soon convinced by another father to marry her off to his son (they are all cousins), in a complicated business transaction. In a wonderfully simple scene, Marie stands literally in the middle of the road as she sees the fathers of the two young men in question letting them know who they are marrying or not. She has no say in the matter.
She is willful and tries to fight it. Her mother convinces her to "submit", her cynicism about love and men belied by a loveless yet comfortable marriage. In a fantastic speech, I hope written by De La Fayette herself, the mother says something like "love is too complicated. There is not one day that I don't give thanks that it never was between your father and I". The movie is full of such exquisite French witticisms.
After all, all French nobility did all day was exchange bon mots, when they were not whacking themselves upside the head in the name of Christ.
In fact, the movie starts with extremely violent scenes of war. War on horses and swords, and some firearms, was a brutal affair and is depicted as such. Lambert Wilson, who used to be a hunk and is now one of the most melancholy men in cinema, plays a Count who deserts the army after he's had enough of killing indiscriminately. He is given refuge by his former pupil who then is married off to the Princesse. The young man soon leaves for battle again and commends his lovely, inexperienced wife to the care of the count, who instructs her and cannot resist her youthful beauty.  There is plenty of unrequited love in this tale, which is absolutely delicious.
I bet the filmmakers did extensive period research because the movie provides a fascinating glimpse into the customs of the age. People eat with their fingers, and on your wedding night there is a mob of concerned parents and servants standing right next to your bed, waiting for the white sheets to be stained, sealing the deal.
La Princesse De Montpensier is about two and a half hours long, but it is quite entrancing. The acting is excellent, the period detail down and dirty, and the story is a great yarn. Love does not triumph in the end. Which is fine by me.

Apr 10, 2011

On Sidney Lumet

The first movie that made me cry hot tears of outraged indignation was The Hill, by Sidney Lumet, an incredibly intense film with Sean Connery about the mistreatment of British soldiers by their superiors in a disciplinary camp in WWII.
I was probably no more than 12 years of age and I watched it with my parents on TV.
By the end, I was inconsolable about the inhumanity these soldiers suffered. The fact that they were being humiliated and abused, not by the enemy but by their own leaders, was traumatic to me. I can vaguely remember my parents' proud amusement at my strong reaction to this film but indeed it gave me, probably for the first time in my life, a sense that the individual is very much alone in his fight against "the system", against insidious forces that strive to quash human dignity, often under the guise of what's best for us.

Some of the best films of the incomparable Sidney Lumet have this quality of moral outrage that, contrary to many other movies with pious and hypocritical moral pretensions, always feels totally genuine and genuinely indignant. Lumet's films have an energy, a zest, and a saltiness that makes them unforgettable. They don't go for easy targets like Nazis, or Russians, or exotic foreign enemies. Power, corruption, prejudice: he knows the enemy is within.
As I read in his obituary today about his frustration at not having won a best director Oscar for several movies that certainly deserved it (he was duly recognized with a honorary Oscar in 2005), I wondered if the reason for these slights was that, one, he was a quintessential New York filmmaker; his movies have the grit and moxie of New York in spades, something that those complacent cynics in LaLaLand may not wish to have rubbed in their faces. And two, he liked to pick fights with the system and vigorously stir the pot, making people uncomfortable about stuff that Americans are very smug about, like our judicial system, "we the people", the purity of our motives, etc. My recollections of his films are visceral and highly emotional.  I remember them as pulsing with an enormously generous energy, like life bursting at the seams.

My favorite movie of his is Dog Day Afternoon, which I also saw when I was very young. It has such an urban energy, with these two bumbling bank robbers, Al Pacino and John Cazale, both unforgettable, basically fighting with what seems to be the entire bureaucratic infrastructure of New York. Just to think about these two scrappy, clueless but spirited (and gay) fighters, brings tears to my eyes. The movie is funny, bracing, violent, and devastatingly heartbreaking. This is one of my favorite movies of all time.

I saw Network in my teens. I was impressed by the sheer force of it, and I guess dimly aware of its paranoid conspiratorial bent (understanding that corporations are not necessarily angelic requires a certain jadedness). But Network struck me as a very harsh movie. I felt like Paddy Chayefsky was angry at me. I felt I was being punished for being so naive. I remember it as being very abrasive, a touch hysterical even.
Serpico. Pacino again. One man's righteous indignation against corruption, right on.

I remember Running on Empty, with the young River Phoenix playing the son of Weather Underground-like anti-Vietnam war activists, as a beautiful movie. Who would make a movie like that today? Who would make Daniel, based on the E.L Doctorow novel about the Rosenbergs? With Lumet, you always know which side of the divide he's on.  
Lumet made other movies that were more purely entertaining, and he was as good at that as he was about stirring indignation. Deathtrap (an adaptation of a play by Ira Levin) was pretty cool and I loved Murder at The Orient Express because I was an avid Agatha Christie fan (at the age of 10). I remember the emotional rawness of Jane Fonda's performance as an alcoholic in The Morning After. Lumet inspired actors to do amazing work. He got them many nominations.

Of his recent movies, I strongly recommend Find Me Guilty with Vin Diesel, not driving a hot rod, for a change. A quintessential Lumet movie, with all his trademark spunk and unendurable heartbreak. His last film, Before The Devil Knows You're Dead, didn't quite work, but it was wonderfully ornery. It had such a gritty urban authenticity in the character parts (always glorious character casting in his films), the Lumet bountiful affection for salt of the earth, rude New Yorkers, it was almost like a throwback to another era. Lumet's movies, whether perfect or flawed, never felt generic or paint by numbers. He made everything seem more authentic and more alive than it has any right to be.
Bless his spirit. It lives forever in his films.

Apr 6, 2011

Most Depressing Article Ever

In this week's New Yorker, Tad Friend writes about the appalling state of affairs for women in Hollywood by following the career of Anna Faris, a gifted young comedienne. Reading this excellent piece, my heart kept sinking by the sentence. In any other industry, women could sue for millions on the basis of rampant sexism and discrimination, but in Hollywood they are being crushed by the system and we all hear the distant sobs and the sighs and the bitching, but nobody does anything. One almost wishes women in Hollywood would do a Norma Rae, Made in Dagenham or an Arab Spring kind of thing, and strike for their rights, walk off productions en masse (all of them, from crew members, to stars, to producers) and see what the boys would do in the world without women they so seem to pine for.
The article cites a study that shows that women writers, directors and producers make up only 17% of the total in Hollywood and this is not counting R rated movies, which seem to be exclusively the province of men. This is an appalling number. But besides the obvious disparity and enormous boys' club that is the industry, even worse are the attitudes towards women that are perpetuated in mainstream Hollywood films. Women almost don't amount to anything but disposable sidekicks, or light reflectors on the male heroes. In comedies, for the most part they always seem to be humiliated in some way or another. 
Friend cites the utterly insulting Hollywood "Laws of Date Night", that are as follows:
Men Rule -- they decide what movies couples see on weekends. Women can tolerate explosions and shoot em ups and brash and vulgar bromedies, but God forbid a guy is caught watching a movie with a central female character, let alone Jane Eyre, 'cause that would be so gay.
Men are simple. Don't confuse them -- Supposedly, "men don't understand the nuances of female dynamics". Male moviegoers only care about watching men on screen. But aren't there healthy profits to be made on the millions of women who like movies and want to watch something less stupid?
If a woman is the star, it better be a romantic comedy -- or mindless entertainments with cyberwomen like Lara Croft or Sucker Punch. Because nobody in Hollywood thinks that women can do anything other that obsess about marriage or fall in love with guys or, in the case of Angelina Jolie action flicks, behave like men on steroids. It is true that a bunch of comedies are coming out this year with women instead of guys. Bridesmaids, Bad Teacher, etc. But I am afraid that they will be about women behaving like guys: the Apatovian universe with a sex change. And I'm pretty sure that women will enjoy them. Even as we are being starved from interesting, sophisticated, reality based female characters, we have no choice but to eat what's on the menu. I hope I'm wrong, but these comedies seem to have been made, once again, with guys in mind.
Women don't have to be funny, women aren't funny and really, they are not --
These make my blood boil. I always counter this ridiculous argument: what about Lucille Ball? What about Carol Burnett? What about Tina Fey? Anna Faris? But it is true, as Friend points out, that the venue for these enormously funny female talents is not the movies, but television. Maybe women are less threatening to men on a smaller screen. But I think this is artificial. There are movies out there that have strong female characters who are not humiliated in order to exist. These come to mind: Fargo, Juno, and Cedar Rapids (and you will say, yes but they are small and kinda indy, but there is nothing wrong with that). After all, aren't women tired of always seeing the same  storylines about father issues? The same repetitive hero bullshit? The same chases, explosions and torrents of gun fire? The same distant second banana roles for women?
The height of chutzpah comes from the marketing geniuses who are quick to point out that it's the audiences that are misogynists. It's the audiences that want to see semi-anorexic women bumping into poles and playing the dumb blonde or the drunk dumb blonde, etc. After all, the studios are only giving "audiences" what they want. This is a bunch of crap. Movies have the power to change perceptions, and the public can accept other paradigms and more complex characters, if somebody takes the trouble of presenting them.
The fact is that movies are like dreams. Therefore, if Hollywood is ruled exclusively by men, all we ever are going to see are the dreams and fantasies of men. Period. This is why there should be a legal basis with which to correct this imbalance of power. Otherwise, nothing is ever going to change.

Apr 4, 2011


 Very disappointing. A rip off of every other classic horror movie, including Poltergeist, The Sixth Sense, Paranormal Activity, The Exorcist, and any movie ever about a haunted house. I am willing to cut horror films major slack as long as they scare the living daylights out of me (and I am super easy. I surrender completely). If they do, as far as I'm concerned, they have achieved success, no matter how dumb they may be. If they don't, they are artistic failures.
Insidious scared me a couple of times, but it bored me more than it scared me. It bothered me that many of the genuine scares were marred by unnecessary sound effects that made them cheesier instead of scarier.  I wish someone came along that could scare us without all those doors creaking and slamming and musical effects that are tantamount to cheating. Oh, my bad. Stanley Kubrick already did that in plain daylight in The Shining. But the reason that movie works is because a man has gone insane and he wants to harm his family in a place where other human evil has happened. In Insidious the characters are such stick figures, that they are barely there and we barely care about them. The lovely Patrick Wilson is wasted because he doesn't seem to have a character. Children exist and then are dumped in the service of a plot with enormous holes. The weirdest things happen in this house and Rose Byrne acts like a zombie. What I call "The Holiday Inn Law" of horror movies ensues. When unexplainable shit happens in a house at night, the first rule of common sense in my book is for everybody to decamp tout suite to the nearest Holiday Inn. The great premise of this movie, that the malevolence will follow the inhabitants even into a Motel 6, is totally wasted because this movie wants to be all things to all people but it doesn't do it smartly. It's about ghosts and demons and people who travel outside their bodies, but it doesn't make any sense. The last act of this movie, which does not take place in the real world, is one of the most frustrating anticlimaxes ever. I could care less about what happens in the other world. What scares the hell out of me is what can happen to us here. It gets scary when the zombies and living dead and all those cranky souls come to pay us visits. Not the other way around.
There is something strangely static and lifeless at the core of this movie. Too much information is given in retrospect that stops the film in its tracks, while too little is made of potentially interesting material. Why is this family moving houses? Do the husband and wife get along? Do the children get along? Why bring along Barbara Hershey if you are going to waste her? I thoroughly enjoyed the wonderful Lin Shaye as the medium who is brought to set things right. She was awesome. In what must be a joke that falls utterly flat, a priest is summoned but he is soon dispatched. Then the medium arrives and she is not kooky or a midget, but a smart, no-nonsense professional. The poor woman is saddled with some ridiculous dialogue explaining her nomenclature for all things that go bump in the night, but she is still the best thing in the movie.
The biggest problem with Insidious is that it is not thrilling. It's too busy ripping everybody else off to show any kind of spark. 
Rosemary's Baby, for instance, may not be a classically scary movie. There are no bumps and jolts. Instead the fear is of madness and obsession and crazy neighbors. Of a woman who is alone with her deepest fears, in the middle of New York City. It is very funny, thrilling and extremely disturbing; the kind of disturbing that can haunt your dreams. Recently, I saw Jaws in its entirety for the first time. It is a thrilling movie. The gleeful mischief that Steven Spielberg is a genius at, his inventive, malicious playfulness, make sitting through it feel like a totally immersive adventure.
James Wan, the director of Insidious, holds himself in such high regard that he bills this movie as "a James Wan film", not once but two times in the opening sequence and even puts his name on a blackboard in a scene, lest we forget who is responsible for this derivative, non-sensical hodgepodge. But he totally lacks the spirit of unbridled creativity of more humble masters.

Cedar Rapids

This bitingly funny but sweet satire, written by Phil Johnston and skillfully directed by Miguel Arteta, bears the imprimatur of its producers, Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, the best film satirists in America today. Ed Helms plays Tim Lippe, an innocent insurance salesman from Brown Valley, Wisconsin, who is sent to represent his company at a convention in Cedar Rapids, Iowa and thereby loses his innocence, not only of alcohol, drugs and philandering sex, but of the corruption which underlies business in America. A lot of the glee to be derived from this movie is how impressed Tim is with stuff that most people in this country find soul-crushing, like flying on a plane and sleeping in generic chain hotels with beige and brown color schemes, pools inside their lobbies and depressing lounge bars with names like "Horizons". To him, going to Cedar Rapids is like going to Paris and staying at the Ritz. His is an adult coming of age story in which a trio of other insurance agents, gamely played by Anne Heche, Isaiah Whitlock Jr. and the inimitable John C. Reilly, seem to be derailing his plans but end up being the best thing that ever happened to him.
This is a really funny movie that combines the profane and sophomoric humor of current bromedies with the sophistication of satire. For Cedar Rapids is out to expose the ridiculous hipocrisy that is rampant among conservatives in America. They may pray 15 times a day but they're out to screw their fellow man without compunction.
Cedar Rapids has a great cast, which includes Sigourney Weaver as Lippe's love interest (they are pre-engaged), the wonderful Alia Shawkat as a sweet prostitute and Kurtwood Smith as a classic American holier-than-thou schemer. The movie skewers the Midwestern penchant for bowdlerizing profanity, their utter lack of contact with Black people, the American male eternally immature version of sex, and the hipocrisies of the outwardly pious. The female characters, for a change, are strong and interesting, and there is a dark and discomforting vein pulsing through the movie as Tim is put through the wringer of reality.
At this point, I think that John C. Reilly should be officially designated as a national treasure. His performance here as Dean Ziegler, an enthusiastically vulgar guy that cannot abide holier than thou pieties is stuff that should be considered for the Oscars. He is magnificent. I don't much tolerate the barrage of gratuitously stupid profanity that passes for humor in many American comedies these days. It usually bores me. But in Reilly's expert hands, it almost rises to the level of poetry and the reason is that Ziegler is a larger than life, unabashed vulgarian of great conviction, but he is a decent guy. He may not display a lot of common sense in his excesses, but he does in everything else. Reilly's performance is not only hysterically funny but touchingly sweet.  
I loved this movie.