Thursday, September 25, 2008

January 2006

LAST DAYS (2005)
Not long ago, Gus Van Sant was among the most interesting American filmmakers. After making “Drugstore Cowboy” (1989), “To Die For” (1995) and “Good Will Hunting” (1997)—all among the best films of their years—he decided that a good career move would be to remake one of Hitchcock’s masterpieces, “Psycho,” frame for frame. It bombed, critically and commercially. After another failure, “Finding Forrester,” which plays like a TV movie, he’s made three films that could charitably be labeled experimental.

I previously wrote of my bafflement over “Elephant” (2003), his interpretation of the events leading up to the Columbine shootings. His latest is a quiet, slow-moving, plotless slice of the final days of a Kurt Cobain-like rocker. I would rather have watched back-to-back episodes of “Three’s Company” than endure these two “art” films. I managed to miss “Gerry” (2002), which follows Matt Damon and Casey Affleck (Ben, apparently, was out on a date with a celebrity) as they find themselves lost in Death Valley.

Most of “Last Days” consists of Blake (Michael Pitt, who starred in Bernardo Bertolucci’s nearly as aimless “The Dreamers”), an incoherent, drug-addled, apparently successful musician shuffling around his mansion, mostly avoiding contact with the handful of other young people who are camping out there. He utters about ten discernible words in the entire film, instead mumbling or humming under his breath, whether he’s on the phone or entertaining a Yellow Pages salesman.

As Van Sant did in “Elephant,” he repeats some scenes with the only difference being some small snippet of added dialogue or a slightly different camera angle. The purpose of this filmmaking technique went right over my head, but it certainly added to the overwhelmingly dullness of the movie. “Last Days” stands as one of the most tedious exercises in self-indulgent filmmaking I’ve ever experienced; it nearly works as a parody of art films.

I’m sure a compelling movie could be made about the overrated career of Cobain, who died of a drug overdose at age 27. In fact, virtually any film student with even a slight chance of graduating could probably produce a more watchable and insightful movie than Van Sant.

JUNEBUG (2005)
This seems like a movie I’ve seen too many times: A son visits, with his high-class newlywed in tow, his small-town, dysfunctional family and both come away with a new appreciation for something important. This first feature by Phil Morrison plays out as a mixture of Southern, white-trash cliches and an occasional insight into the difference between urban and rural living.

The least interesting character in the film is the son, played flatly by Allesandro Nivola, who all but disappears for much of the movie. But his wife, Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz, best known as the featured death-camp victim in “Schindler’s List”) is engaging as an art gallery owner trying to get the rights to the Civil War paintings of a mentally challenged racist. Davidtz finds a believable balance between genuine niceness and being cluelessly self-absorbed.

Scott Wilson and Celia Weston as Southern-fried parents from hell have their moments but mostly play entertaining stereotypes. Making the film worth seeing is Amy Adams performance as their naïve pregnant daughter-in-law Ashley. Her high-spirited enthusiasm for everything about Madeleine and a bubbly optimism about her bleak life gives the movie an energy otherwise lacking. Adams steals every scene she’s in, bringing alive a character so true to life, but rarely seen on screen. She was deservedly among the five Oscar nominees for supporting actress.

HEAD-ON (2005) This raw, intense German film set among the immigrant Turkish community in Hamburg examines the kind of culture clash issues that American films inevitable treat with jokes and sentimentality. Instead of misunderstood, but hardworking immigrants who eventually find a way to fit into the all-inclusive melting pot, the main characters of “Head-On” are a self-destructive, barely working violent alcoholic and a young woman who would rather kill herself than continue to live under the smothering control of her tradition-bound father.

They do meet cute: Cahit is in a psychiatric hospital after he rammed his car into a brick wall and Sibel’s there after her attempted suicide. After much pleading, Sibel persuades the older Cahit to agree to a marriage of convenience. She gets out of her parent’s house and a chance to live the hedonistic life she’s dreamed of and he gets someone to clean up his rat-hole of an apartment and the benefits of a second income (he collects bottles after shows at a local night club). But everything has its cost and the relationship ends up plunging each into their own personal of hell and life-changing tragedies.

In physically and mentally demanding roles, Birol Unel (as Cahit) and Sibel Kekilli (as Sibel) turns less-than-likable, depressing characters into people you care about by the end of the picture. Writer-director Fatih Akin, like his characters a German Turk from Hamburg, has made just a handful of films but comes off a skilled veteran. The compelling script about a community he clear knows well isn’t as surprising as his remarkable storytelling skills. He never becomes indulgent with his characters and has a keen sense of what’s worth 30 seconds of film and what’s worth five minutes.


This Western has long been the lost first film in the legendary series of cowboy morality tales directed by Budd Boetticher and starring Randolph Scott. Held hostage for years by the heirs to John Wayne’s production company, Batjac—like the Wayne films released in 2005, “The High and the Mighty” and “Island in the Sky”—the film has finally been released on DVD and was recently shown on TCM, it’s first TV airing in decades.

It was inevitable that the movie, often cited as the best of the seven films made by the trio, would be disappointing. It turns out it doesn’t rank with “Ride Lonesome” (1959) or “The Tall T” (1957), the best of the series and like, “Seven Men,” written by Burt Kennedy, but it’s a surprisingly adult, superbly staged Western that features one of Lee Marvin’s finest performances.

Scott plays Ben Stride, a former sheriff riding across the West in search of the men who killed his wife during a robbery at a stage coach station. Along the way, he hooks up with a married couple headed for California and a pair of gunmen (Marvin and Donald Berry) also looking for the gang of robbers.

Shot against the classic rock formations of Lone Pine, Ca., the picture focuses on Scott’s attraction to the wife (Gail Russell) and the enjoyment Marvin gets from taunting Scott about it. Marvin has a grand time playing the smart but ruthless lowlife and is the perfect foil for Scott’s stoic, rock of morality.

In so many of the films in this series, there is a closeness between Scott’s character and the principal villain. While both know that one of them must kill the other eventually, they recognize their similarities.

Boetticher does his best work when his characters are relaxing, at night, in the wagon or camping amid the rocks or at a stage coach station. He knows exactly how to use Kennedy’s thoughtful dialogue and inevitably foreshadows the conflicts that heat up under the desert sun. The other four films of the series are “Decision At Sundown” (1957), “Buchanan Rides Along” (1958), “Westbound” (1959) and “Commanche Station” (1960).

The final confrontations in “Seven Men From Now” play out a bit too predictably and undramatic compared to the entertaining buildup. But if you’re a fan of the genre, even an average Western from Boetticher merits a look.

One of the more interesting and forgotten films of the 1970s is “Fingers” (1978), starring Harvey Keitel as a tough-guy debt collector who longs to become a concert pianist. Writer-director James Toback’s rumination on what it means to be an artist has been turned into an equally compelling picture 27 years later by French filmmaker Jacques Audiard.

Tom (Romain Duris) actually out snarls Keitel while at the same time revealing this often ruthless character’s vulnerability as he works to harness his raw talent (his late mother was a concert pianist) and become a disciplined musician. The scenes with his father, played by Niels Arestrup, are explosive studies of a love-hate relationship.

As Tom goes from his job of forceably evicting tenants of his father’s rental properties to his intense piano lessons with a Chinese woman who speaks very little English, the actor is really playing two roles, yet revealing all the parts of this split personality in both.

At some points, I wondered if this story was too straightforward and simplistic but it has an accumulative power, mostly by way of a great performance by Duris.

Beautifully photographed, impeccably designed and featuring nuanced performances from a large cast, this epic period piece never rises above its station as a well-made soap opera. While entertaining, the movie is hard to take seriously when the basic plot involves a battle over the control of a geisha house. And the film starts out at a disadvantage by having its actors speak in accented English rather than using subtitles. It takes the picture that much further from the reaches of reality.

The movie is set mid 20th Century in the world of geishas, Japan’s version of the slave trade. Sold to a Kyoto geisha house by her father at age nine, Sayuri (played by Ziyi Zhang as a teen and adult) grows up—to make a very long tale much shorter—to become one of the top geishas in the country. There’s much intrigue involving a rivalry between the petulant reigning No. 1 geisha (Gong Li) and an aging geisha (Michelle Yeoh) who takes on Sayuri as her protégée. As much as the film tries to differentiate between good and bad characters, I could never forget that both the matriarchs in control and the men entertained by geishas were all using these women as products. It often felt like a Hollywood film from the 1930s trying to glamorize slavery.

All the Chinese actresses do fine work portraying these iconic figures of Japanese culture while Japanese actor Ken Watanabe, who scored an Oscar nomination for his role in “The Last Samurai” (2003) is a dignified presence as Sayuri’s longtime benefactor.

Director Rob Marshall, whose debut, “Chicago,” won the 2002 best picture Oscar, knows how to construct the kind of shiny eye candy that Hollywood places high value on these days. But if there were any hope of turning this story (from the best-selling novel by Arthur Golden) into a memorable chronicle of a woman’s determination to escape her shackles, another filmmaker was needed.


     For the first time in over a decade, Woody Allen has written an intense, brutally realistic drama that has, at least for the time being, silenced the critics who were already working on his artistic obituary. His last serious film was one of his best, “Husbands and Wives” (1992). Coming on the heals of his ugly breakup with Mia Farrow, it was treated as a piece of celebrity weirdness rather than the superb study of infidelity it was.

“Match Point” also deals with marital indiscretion, but it most resembles another great Allen’s movie, “Crimes and Misdemeanors” (1989), in that it focuses on how humans deal with the unfairness of life and struggle with the weight of amoral behavior. In the new film, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers plays Chris, a working class tennis pro whose friendship with a client, rich playboy Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode), opens up doors he never dreamed of going through. He becomes part of the Hewett family and ends up married to the sweet, but bland daughter (Emily Mortimer).

But it’s the sexy struggling actress Nola (Scarlett Johansson), who enters this world as Tom’s girlfriend and immediately becomes the obsessive focus of Chris’ thoughts. Initially, Chris is a character you like but don’t exactly trust even as he seems to legitimately come into his good fortune. Rhys-Meyers, an Irish actor who most recently played Elvis in a TV miniseries, does an exceptional job of maintaining an aura of mystery around Chris while still letting the audience see his mind at work.

Johansson, who will also be the star of the next Allen movie, a comedy set in England, easily handles the seductive role but isn’t given much of a chance to expand on the character. Nola becomes a cliché in the second half of the film.

What may be the most surprising element of “Match Point” is that Allen, who has rarely filmed anything beyond a kiss in his 40-year career, doesn’t shy away from erotic scenes necessary to establish Chris’ and Nola’s relationship. Though there is no nudity, the sex scenes are just as steamy as those from another recent movie about infidelity, “Unfaithful” (2002).

While in most regards, this is not your usual Woody Allen film, his habit of capturing the beauty of the film’s setting continues. No filmmaker has captured the architectural magnificence of New York City as Allen has over the years; here he and cinematographer Remi Adefarasin (a veteran of British television) do the same for London.

Many critics are calling “Match Point” Allen’s best film since “Bullets Over Broadway” (1994), but I’m a fan of “Everyone Says I Love You” (1996), “Deconstructing Harry” (1997) and “Sweet and Lowdown” (1999), all just as interesting and entertaining as the new one. Yet it definitely is his most assured work among his last six films and makes the case that this 70-year-old writer-director is far from washed up.

With little fanfare, Hal Hartley established himself as the most interesting and consistent independent filmmaker of the 1990s. In a string of films starting with “Trust” (1990), continuing with “Simple Men” (1992), “Amateur” (1994), “Flirt” (1995), and culminating with one of the decade’s best picture, “Henry Fool” (1997), Hartley created a world of paranoid characters living in a doomed society that offered little chance for meaningful relationships.

Since then, he’s lost all sense of subtlety, directing a modern Judgment Day faceoff between Jesus and Satan, “The Book of Life” (1998); a bizarre, “King Kong”-like monster film, “No Such Thing” (2001); and his latest, “The Girl From Monday,” a futuristic look at the U.S., now turned into a corporate-run society in which everything is done to improve one’s consumer rating.

Shooting in video and mostly in semi-slow motion, Hartley has fashioned a very distinctive looking movie, but he delivers his message as if he lecturing a third-grade class. It has all the hallmarks of classic sci-fi drama: barcodes tattooed on everyone’s wrist; black-helmeted security guards everywhere, sex reduced to a personal marketing strategy, big-brother propaganda and a struggling revolutionary group.

Bill Sage, a veteran of Hartley films, plays an executive in the government-controlled ad agency, who also leads a small band of anti-government militants. The threadbare plot kicks in when he rescues a visitor from another planet (a stunningly beautiful woman, of course) and teaches her how to act as a human.

Filled with elements of “1984” and “Fahrenheit 451,” “The Girl From Monday” contributes nothing new to the genre. Not surprisingly, it failed to receive a theatrical release.

The good news is that Hartley is reportedly working on a sequel to “Henry Fool” called “Fay Grim,” the name of the flighty character played by Parker Posey in the 1997 film. As much as I loath most sequels, this director needs to return to something familiar.

Terrence Malick has transformed the story of the early American settlement in Jamestown and the role of a young Indian girl, Pocahontas, a staple of grade-school history lessons, into a transfixing motion picture that sweeps over you like a masterful symphony. Matching the virginal beauty of Virginia’s coastal area and the shores of the Chickahominy River with a tender love story between the native teen and John Smith, a rebellious British soldier, writer-director Malick expresses what the European invasion meant to the native Americans, the landscape of North America and all of civilization as it evolved from the 17th Century.

What’s most impressive about “The New World” stems from Malick’s unequaled ability as a filmmaker to put on the screen the kind of dreamy ruminations that mark great novels but rarely finds its way into movies. He lingers over wind blown fields of grass, towering trees and rivers winding through bright green foliage and, paired with introspective voice-overs from Pocahontas and Smith and, later it the film, tobacco farmer John Rolfe, turns this familiar tale into something that feels immediate, unpretentiously real and expresses emotions that transcend these 400-year-old events.

As Malick has in his previous three films—“Badlands” (1973), “Days of Heaven” (1978) and “The Thin Red Line” (1998)—he turns the environs into the virtual star of the movie, with the help of incredible cinematography work from Emmanuel Lubezki. This film is as much about what the woods of Virginia meant to the natives and the settlers as it is about the uneasy relationship between these two sets of people.

At the center of this impressively made picture (despite directing just four movies, Malick is a master of cinematic storytelling; there isn’t a wasted frame in this 132-minute movie), is the vivacious, life-affirming presence of Q’Orianka Kilcher’s portrayal of Pocahontas. It’s not often that such a young actress (she was 14 during filming) is asked to carry an epic picture, but Kilcher has the ability to wordlessly express the curiosity, passion, fear and despair her character experiences during her amazing journey.

Her expression as she’s dressed up in Western clothes for the first time says as much about the domination of European culture over the world as any history lesson. It will be interesting to see what kind of future Kilcher makes for herself in acting, but certainly her work in “The New World” has to rank as one of the great starring debuts in film history.

Playing the men she entrances, Colin Farrell as Smith and Christian Bale as Rolfe give fine performances. How true the portrayal of Smith is I’ll leave to the historians, but Farrell and Malick present him as a curious intellectual who has hopes that the whites can live in harmony with the natives, yet knows a conflict is inevitable. That he’s clearly the most out going, open minded and good looking of the settlers makes Pocahontas’ attraction easy to understand.

For my money, this is the best picture of 2005, a majestic historical epic that gives new insight to America’s beginnings and serves as a study of man’s timeless connection his natural surroundings.

HUSTLE & FLOW (2005)
D Jay isn’t your typical small-time pimp. He’s in the midst of a mid-life crisis, worn down by the day-to-day hassles of making a living selling dope and collecting from the two prostitutes that work for him (his third girl is pregnant). This is an unsavory, unrepentant lowlife who has a dream rekindled when a homeless man fences a mini-Casio keyboard to him for $25.

I didn’t expect much from this low-budget, indie film but it’s absolutely captivating; sizzling with the energy (and danger) of the street life of Memphis while exploring the emotional and psychological need to pursue a higher calling. At the center of this striking film is Terrence Howard as D Jay, posing as a tough guy whose real personality surfaces when offering philosophical insight to his live-wire prostitute Nola as they await the next john. This is a “Star Is Born” performance. While embracing the hustler stereotypes, Howard and writer-director Craig Brewer (in just his second feature) create a fully realized, emotionally fragile character who puts his entire being into pursing a career as a rapper.

Howard played a very different type in “Crash;” he was the uptight television director who backs away when his wife is assaulted by a racist cop. But in both roles this 36-year-old, who’s had small roles since the early 1990s, displays a magnetic, confident screen presence that in the case of “Hustle & Flow” transforms a good, if familiar, story into one of the year’s best movies.

Brewer does a superb job of recreating the excitement of a recording session (in a makeshift studio in D Jay’s house) when all the characters find the “flow” and turn D Jay’s pimp life poetry into vibrant music. Anthony Anderson and DJ Qualls as local recording experts who find themselves becoming part of D Jay’s dream give excellent performances as do Taryn Manning as D Jay’s main moneymaker Nola and Taraji P. Henson as his true love, the pregnant Shug.

The final act, in which D Jay tries to hawk his demo tape to a returning local rapper Skinny Black (played like a vicious dog by real-life rapper Ludacris, who co-starred with Howard in “Crash”), the plot keeps turning on itself, never settling for what you expect will happen. “Hustler and Flow” never cheats on the truth; it sees that both the best of everything and the worst are equally possible.

No comments: