Archive for the ‘Drama’ Category

The Reader

Sunday, March 1st, 2009

reader-still-1.jpg

One of the chief criticisms being thrown around regarding The Reader, the new film that finally won Kate Winslet her long overdue Oscar, is that it’s yet another Holocaust film. First of all, they’re picking the wrong genre to decry, why doesn’t anybody ever get in a huff over the new teen-dance drama or the latest Steve Martin/Pink Panther movie? Second, and more importantly, the film’s not really about the Holocaust at all. For me, The Reader is about guilt. Not just about an individual’s guilt (although that’s in here, too), but about a nation’s guilt.

Germany’s role in the Holocaust is mentioned in off-hand shots, in throw-away lines, and in the dialogue of a frustrated law student, who wonders how they can choose who should be put on trial, when the whole country went along with it. The Reader is being marketed as another “forbidden romance” film or as “another Holocaust movie,” but it asks some alarming questions about a country’s responsibility.

This is Stephen Daldry’s third feature film (and his third Oscar nomination as Best Director. Good track record), and, like his last film, The Hours, it has a structure that plays with time. It starts off in the early 90s in Germany, with a middle-aged, emotionally despondent man named Michael Berg (Ralph Fiennes). It then flashes backwards in time to his youth, where as a 15 year old (now played by David Kross) he strikes up a sexual relationship with a much older woman named Hannah (played by Kate Winslet, in her Oscar winning role). The film then fast-forwards several years, where Michael is now in law school, and observing the trial of several former camp guards for war crimes. One of them is Hannah.

The screenplay by David Hare (based upon the novel by Bernard Schlink) is a puzzle, an ethically murky period piece. If it feels cold and distant I would argue that’s because it’s main characters are cold and distant. This is not a film that leaves with warm and fuzzy thoughts. It’s a well cast film, and Winslet is very, very good indeed, but I still feel that her Oscar is more a “sorry we didn’t give you one sooner” award than for the film itself. Kross has a challenging role playing Michael both as a 15 year old and as a 23 year old, and Fiennes brings depth to a role that very well could have been a throwaway performance. Bruno Ganz gives a good supporting performance as a law professor, and Lena Olin gives grace to her two roles.

The Reader is a fine film that asks some questions that may hit a little too close to home.

Slumdog Millionaire

Sunday, February 22nd, 2009

slumdog-millionaire-fl-01.jpg

Maybe it’s me. Maybe I just don’t get it. Maybe Slumdog Millionaire is a great film, and not a cloying, manipulative, well-made but unmoving melodrama. Could be, I’ve been wrong before. Danny Boyle’s latest film is a huge smash, with critics and audiences alike, and was nominated for several Academy Awards. So, why did it leave me feeling so cold?

This film looks great, the music is incredible and it’s definitely got energy and style to spare, but, to put it bluntly, I just didn’t care about the story. Maybe one aspect was I felt like the characters weren’t very interesting, besides the smarmy TV show game show host Prem Kumar (expertly played by Bollywood star Anil Kapoor). The main actors, Dev Patel and Freida Pinto, are charming and cute but never really develop their characters.

Slumdog Millionaire tells the story about a young man who grew up in the slums of Mumbai, and winds up on the Indian equivalent of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire.” The gimmick of the movie is that every answer on the show pertains to some aspect of his life, so we get a slew of flashbacks that coincide with these questions. In the flashbacks, we see Jamal, the hero, his brother Salim and Latika, the girl that Jamal falls in love with, as they grow up, and go separate ways.

The love story angle feels especially tacked on, as does the subplot involving Salim as a criminal. It’s silly soap opera stuff that doesn’t really fit with the film. I feel like an old fuddy duddy complaining about a film that obviously has brought so much joy and has so much meaning to so many people, but I just didn’t like it. For me, this film has a clear case of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” syndrome.

Rachel Getting Married

Monday, February 16th, 2009

lucia-article-rachelgettingmarried.jpg

It’s not surprising that the late, great Robert Altman is thanked in the credits to Jonathan Demme’s film, Rachel Getting Married. The style of the movie is, dare I say, Altman-esque. In Altman’s films, there’s a focus more on character than on story, it feels like a natural, organic process, rather than a film where the strands of the plot is connected like a dot to dot coloring book. Rachel Getting Married is like that. It’s a spontaneous, rich, supremely acted movie.

The film concerns a young woman named Kym (played by Anne Hathaway in an Oscar nominated role) returning home from rehab for her sister’s wedding. To call the family dysfunctional would be an understatement, but this isn’t a typical depiction of a family in turmoil. Watching this film is eerily close to watching home movies, meaning it captures the dynamic of a specific family so well that it seems real.

Jonathan Demme is a director hard to pin down, he has directed so many different kinds of movies, worked in so many kinds of genres, that it’s not like you can label him. Here he creates a remarkable film, a celebration of life, love and the joy of movies. I never know what to expect from this guy.

Anne Hathaway has been getting most of the accolades for this film, but make no mistake, this is an ensemble film. The whole cast is brilliant, with Rosmarie DeWitt as Rachel, Bill Irwin as their father, Anna Deveare Smith as his second wife, Debra Winger as the girls’ mother, Tunde Adebimpe as Rachel’s groom to be and Mather Zickel as the best man. The work of DeWitt and Irwin especially is heartbreakingly good, and both deserved Oscar nods. Two scenes that stand out, in my mind, are the scene where a good natured game of washing dishes progresses in unexpected ways, and a scene with Hathaway and Winger that shows the two women at their most vulnerable, and most powerful. Oh, and who can forget the wonderful moment where Adebimpe sings Neil Young.

Rachel Getting Married is a fresh, exciting film that feels unlike many movies this year. Look fast for cameos by Demme regulars Paul Lazar and Roger Corman.

The Wrestler

Monday, February 9th, 2009

43905040.jpg

There are certain film performances where the actor and the role blend so perfectly that you simply cannot imagine anyone else in the role. Mickey Rourke’s devastating, brilliant performance as Randy the Ram, an over-the-hill, has-been pro wrestler is such a role. Mark my words, it will win him the Oscar (and if it doesn’t, the Oscars are now officially meaningless. Which I kind of figured by now, anyway).

Surely, Randy the Ram’s story has parallels with Rourke’s own. Both were superstars in the eighties, both lost their wealth and fame, both were given hard blows by life and both are aching, striving, yearning for a comeback. In fact, Rourke has stated that the film is so close to his own experience that he has yet to watch the entire film; it’s too real.

I have always found Rourke to be an astonishingly talented actor. As a younger actor in his heyday, he reminded me of the dark, moody method style of Brando or Clift. As he got older, the roles got wackier, looser, less predictable. Yes, the work also got “worse,” I guess, but part of Rourke’s appeal was always his unpredictability. Then came Sin City, which was supposed to be his comeback role, but it didn’t work out that way (which is a shame, because it’s a spellbinding performance).

The Wrestler is a spectacular film, rich, full of life. It’s got glimmers of hope and redemption, but it’s also realistic and grim. Darren Aronofsky, the gifted director, has crafted a masterpiece of sorts. I couldn’t look away from the screen for the film’s duration.

Of course, the reason most people will see the film is the on-screen resurrection of Rourke’s career, but attention must also be paid to the terrific script by Robert D. Siegel, the cinematography by Maryse Alberti and the supporting performances by Marisa Tomei as Cassidy, the stripper who has Randy’s heart, and Evan Rachel Wood, as Randy’s estranged daughter.

It’s a film full of humor, blood, tears and, at the center of it all, a good man, who is flawed and tired, but still is out there, trying. One of the best films of 2008.

Gran Torino

Sunday, February 1st, 2009

44216136.jpg

Most films are like this: you either like it or you don’t. No surprise there, right? But, occasionally, there’s that movie where your reaction is either you love it or you hate it. Judging from various reviews, blogs and conversations, Gran Torino is a movie that has split audiences. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but those who hated the movie are dead wrong.

Gran Torino is about a hard drinking, recently widowed Korean War veteran with a chip on his shoulder about the size of North Dakota. A grizzled, grumbling old bigot named Walt Kowalski. He’s played by Clint Eastwood, that living legend, and it’s one of his great performances. This film is the story of how Kowalski takes baby steps to becoming a better man.

Kowalksi is the last white resident in a neighborhood in Detroit that is mostly Hmong immigrants, and the film concentrates on his relationship with the family next door, most notably with the wise beyond her years daughter Sue (Aheny Her) and her troubled teenage brother Thao (Bee Vang). Thao is a shy, introverted young man who is being courted to join a gang by his cousin.

The threat of the gang, and Kowalksi’s reaction to them, will of course draw comparison to another Eastwood character. An interpretation of Gran Torino as Old Man Dirty Harry misses the point entirely. This film is not a revenge film, it’s about Walt breaking through his unjustified hatred of just about everybody around him. It’s about acceptance.

A crucial character to the film is the baby-faced priest Father Janovich (played by Christopher Carley). Father Janovich wants very much for Walt to go to confession (Walt’s wife’s dying request), and Walt, of course, refuses. Father Janovich and Walt both see the dangers and struggles the neighborhood is facing, but both have different thoughts on how to combat them.

As I read the various ‘haters’ and their stance, many were bothered that a film had a sympathetic racist character. The point, I think, is that Walt uses the racist jargon, the slang, as a defense mechanism, a shield. It’s his way to distance himself from other people. Eastwood has created a powerful film about a bitter, racist old coot who learns to lighten up, and stand up for something. Gran Torino moved me like few films have this year. I loved it.

Doubt

Thursday, January 8th, 2009

doubt.jpg

 

It’s funny that I should feel so ambivalent about a film called Doubt. It’s finely made, has some good performances and it is sure to be nominated for several awards. It’s also a bit phony and off-putting. I’m not talking about the subject matter or anything, but rather the presentation and execution of the material. It also belongs in the film sub-genre I lovingly call “Oscar Bait,” you know, movies that exist for no other reason but to win Oscars.

The film is written and directed by Oscar winning writer John Patrick Shanley (Moonstruck), who also wrote the play Doubt (which won a Pulitzer). It’s about a catholic school in the 60s that is shook by scandal. The film is basically about a nun who declares war on a priest, and whether or not the priest had an inappropriate relationship with a young boy. Whether or not the priest did something with the boy or not, the film argues, as soon as he is doubted, he is doomed.

A major problem with the film is that one of the characters who is most crucial to the story (that of Donald, the young boy, played by Joseph Foster) is a secondary character in the film. Donald is the main focal point of the story, yet is character is not given hardly any focus or scenes of great interest. I don’t know if Shanley did this to make his character’s relationship with Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) more ambiguous or what, but the lack of attention paid to the character of Donald is a huge flaw.

I think Philip Seymour Hoffman was incredible in this film, he definitely creates a feeling of both sympathy and uneasiness in the viewer. It’s a completely convincing, devastating performance. Amy Adams, who plays Sister James, is well cast, even though she’s at best a wishy-washy type of character. As I write this review, I realize how little I appreciated Shanley’s script. I think he’s a good screenwriter (obviously Moonstruck and Joe Versus the Volcano are two brilliant screenplays), but I was less than impressed with several elements to the story.

I am also torn in regards to Meryl Streep’s performance as Sister Aloysius. Some of it is brilliant, savage and compelling, other scenes seem like grotesque parody. Her accent, like bad Streisand, comes and goes. Streep is one of the best performers in film, but I feel like she dropped the ball here. There’s no way she doesn’t get an Oscar nod, though.

Viola Davis gives a great supporting turn as Donald’s mother in an unnecessary scene. Ok, I felt like it was unnecessary, though I’ve read many reviews that feel it’s the key sequence to the film. It’s wonderfully performed by Davis and Streep, but in the context of the story, it doesn’t make much sense.

Doubt seems to me like a mediocre film dressed up and presented like it’s a work of art. I’m sorry, but I don’t buy it.

Frost/Nixon

Tuesday, January 6th, 2009

frost-nixon-1.jpg

Why is it that Richard M. Nixon remains one of the most fascinating historical figures when it comes to all things pop culture? Nixon masks, parodies, cartoons, comics, TV, music, film; he has sneaked his way into just about every medium of art you can think of. Was he a monster? A fool? A savior?

Many actors have portrayed Tricky Dick in film, the best Nixon performances I can think of would be Philip Baker Hall in Robert Altman’s terrific, unjustly forgotten film Secret Honor, Anthony Hopkins in Oliver Stone’s Nixon and Dan Hedaya, who gave an outrageous, over-the-top portrayal in Dick. I’m just thinking about the different style and textures that these different actors had while play President Nixon. Then, look at Frank Langella’s performance in the exceptional new Ron Howard film Frost/Nixon. It’s parody, sort of, but also not. It’s a full-blown portrayal, he has the madness, the fervor, the self-hatred, the doubt. Langella is Nixon.

Of course, equally important to the story is David Frost (Michael Sheen), the man who interviewed Nixon three years after his resignation, and dared to ask the questions that had never been answered. The film is based upon the play by Peter Morgan (who also wrote the script), and Langella and Sheen have recreated their stage roles for the film. There could be no other two actors for these parts.

I don’t normally think of Ron Howard as a filmmaker of astonishing scope or breadth. This, of course, is really unfair, since he has directed some extraordinary films, like Apollo 13 and Parenthood. He has also directed some fine entertainments, like Cocoon, Splash, Night Shift and Willow (ok, Willow is pretty cheesy, but it’s still great). However, he also made The Grinch, which is in my opinion one of the worst films ever made. (I’m aware that he won an Oscar for A Beautiful Mind, which was a good movie, but by no means his best work. I think it was more of a lifetime achievement award).

Anyway, Frost/Nixon made me realize, you know what, this guy’s good. I think Ron Howard’s fame and popularity cloud the fact that he’s a talented director, and Frost/Nixon includes some of his finest work (it also includes a juicy role for Ron’s brother Clint, who appears in most of his films). Howard has taken a stage production and made it pulsate and bristle with intensity and energy. The heart of the film, the interviews, are filmed and edited like a boxing match, with Frost in one corner and Nixon in the other. Howard is not confined by the so-called limitations of filming what is, in actuality, two talking heads.

Langella and Sheen are both phenomenal in the film, of course, but I found the supporting cast just as important. Matthew Mcfadyen plays Frost’s producer, Sam Rockwell and Oliver Platt play two researchers who doubt that Frost has what it takes to nail Nixon, Toby Jones (looking uncannily like Rod Steiger) plays Nixon’s literary agent, Rebecca Hall plays Frost’s girlfriend and Kevin Bacon plays Nixon’s chief of staff Jack Brennan. All the supporting parts are cast and played splendidly, but I especially liked Bacon’s work here. Here is a fine, unjustly underrated actor at the height of his powers, and I’m sure he’ll be robbed an Oscar nomination the way he was robbed one for The Woodsman and Mystic River (yes, you read that sentence right).

Frost/Nixon is an intriguing, thought-provoking film that captures a clash between two titans.

Habit

Saturday, October 11th, 2008

habit.jpg

Ambiguity can be very effective in a horror film, and few modern horror films push the ambiguity factor as far as writer/director/star Larry Fessenden’s 1997 indie film Habit. Shot in New York City, Habit tells the story of alcoholic artist type Sam (Fessenden) who begins a passionate relationship with a woman named Anna (Meredith Snaider) who may or may not be a vampire. The film is successful in the way that for a good duration of the film’s running time, we’re really not sure what’s really going.

Understandably, Sam’s not doing too well. As the film opens, his father (also an alcoholic) has just passed away, and his girlfriend Liza (Heather Woodbury) has moved out, although she is vague of the current status of their relationship. He is on his way to a Halloween party, and while there, he meets the mysterious Anna, who seemingly appears out of thin air. He leaves with her, but he’s completely drunk and grabbed the wrong coat and one thing leads to another and she’s gone.

Some time goes by, and Sam meets Anna again, at a local carnival. They make love, she bites his lip and draws blood and he wakes up alone in a park with his pants off. The film gets progressively stranger, as Anna and Sam continue seeing each other, and upon each romantic meeting, she ends up drinking some of his blood. The film is not subtle on the connection between the violent and the erotic, as many vampire films fail to ever mention.

The title refers, I think, to a few things. One, Sam’s drinking habit, which helps blur his comprehension of fantasy and reality. Also, there’s Sam and Anna’s habit of meeting for passionate, but bizarre and violent bouts of lovemaking. Also, there’s Anna’s habit of drinking Sam’s blood, which does give Sam some cause to worry.

One effective element to the film is the fact that this was Meredith Snaider’s sole acting credit, so it helps to further the idea that Anna seemingly appears out of thin air. Snaider’s delivery of the lines is somewhat stilted and choppy, but I really think that helps her character seem aloof, other-worldly and helps the audience feel uncertain about her character’s true intentions. Fessenden creates an unsettling mood for this film, especially effective is a sequence with Anna and Rae (Patricia Coleman), one of Sam’s friends, outside in a thunderstorm, the characters half-shrouded in a darkness.

Many horror films are not confident enough in their material to let the film cast its spell, to let the terror and menace of the story spread slowly, to take its time. Habit may not be a scare-a-minute horror film, but you’ll definitely remember it long after it’s over.

Margot at the Wedding

Thursday, August 14th, 2008

margot-at-the-wedding-2.jpg

    I still think the best way to describe director Noah Baumbach’s films is “Wes Anderson with less quirk and more angst.” Like Anderson, Baumbach (who co-wrote Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou) is mostly interested with dysfunctional families and their extended circle of friends and enemies. His last film, The Squid and the Whale, was a classic tale of teen angst set against the backdrop of a family being torn apart from its core, and it was one of the best films of 2005.

    Margot at the Wedding is just as bitter as Squid and the Whale, actually maybe a little more so. There are probably three likable characters in this film, while all the rest are insufferable in one way or another. That’s not to say that the film isn’t filled with noteworthy performances, it’s just to say I would much rather watch these people in a movie than meet these people in person. I’ve always liked films that feature unpleasant or unlikable people, though, and this definitely qualifies.

Margot (Nicole Kidman) is a well-known writer who has made her name by writing short stories based on her own family, much to the chagrin of her relatives. As the film opens, Margot and her son Claude (Zane Pais) are on their way to attend her sister Pauline’s wedding. Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Mrs. Baumbach in real life) is marrying Malcolm (Jack Black), a slacker who is between jobs and spends most his time writing letters to magazines and newspapers. Margot is one of those people who can’t keep her opinions to herself, and tells her sister that Malcolm is not good enough for her or as a father figure for her daughter Ingrid (Flora Cross). Margot and Pauline are not on speaking terms as the film opens, Pauline resents Margot for exposing their family in her writings, and Margot resents that Pauline doesn’t do just as she says.

Leigh and Kidman have a special chemistry in the film, and truly do feel like they are sisters. They love each other, call each other their closest friend but also really can’t stand each other very much. Complications arise in the form of Margot’s former and possible future lover Dick Koosman (Ciaran Hinds), who Margot can’t quite decide if she wants to sleep with again, though Koosman’s vacation home being close to Pauline’s house definitely was part of Margot’s decision to make the trip. Also, Koosman’s twenty-year old daughter Maisy (Halley Feiffer) awakens the boyish curiosity of Claude (and possibly Malcolm). Another key character is Margot’s husband Jim (played by John Turturro), who Margot did not bring on the trip, for reasons that are slowly revealed to the audience.

The film is bleak and moody, but the power of the performances, the quality of Baumbach’s direction and the fine cinematography by Harris Savides help make it worthwhile. Nicole Kidman’s performance here is her finest in some time, and I felt that both Kidman and Leigh were robbed Oscar nominations for their work here. Margot at the Wedding is not an easy film to watch, but it is well worth it.

Pump Up the Volume

Wednesday, August 13th, 2008

pump_up_the_volume.jpg

    In the eighties and early nineties, there was a glut of films being made about the teenage experience. Many of these (including Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Heathers, The Breakfast Club and many others) are very good, and several (including the horrid Can’t Buy Me Love) are really quite terrible. Still, there are only a few that really dig deep into the teenage experience, to highlight the reality of being a teenager: the feeling of alienation, the despair, the utter loneliness and desolation that a teen can feel.

    One thing that director/screenwriter Allan Moyle captures incredibly well is the anger, guilt and frustration that many (okay, probably all teenagers feel). Pump Up the Volume centers around a young man named Mark who also happens to run a pirate radio station, and is becoming a big sensation amongst his peers on the airwaves as his on-air persona Hard Harry Hard-On. Mark is painfully shy at his new high school, but when he’s on the radio, he is the voice of those who don’t have a voice. This, of course, really pisses off the administration.

Mark resents being viewed as the voice, or really being viewed as anything noble or important. He, whether he likes it or not, represents his peers, even though at school he never talks and eats alone on the stairwell. In a harrowing scene, he speaks to a student who’s planning on killing himself. We know where this scene’s going, and then Moyle dares to take the scene, and the film, to unexpected places. The burden placed on Mark is huge, and lots of the film centers around the question of the whether or not he can handle this responsibility.

Christian Slater was becoming well known in the late eighties (probably mostly for his strong comic work in the aforementioned Heathers,) but I think it was his performance here that really established him as a star. It is a terrific performance, he is strong-willed, confident and angry as Harry, but shy and nervous as Mark. And his sneaky, shark-like voice, which has a faint tinge of Jack Nicholson, helps sell Harry as a legitimate radio personality.

Mark develops a sweet relationship with Nora (Samantha Mathis in her film debut), a fiery spirit who uncovers his true identity, and helps him with his crisis of conscience. Pump Up the Volume is a good film, but I found the last third got a little silly, with the help of a car chase (was this a requirement of every movie made in the 90s?). Also, Mark going up against the school is great cinematic fodder, but was Moyle making it too easy by making the administration really, really corrupt and by making the principal and vice principal clearly satanic?

There’s a subplot with Ellen Greene as an English Teacher who, I guess, inspires Mark that doesn’t ever resolve itself (it is pretty clear, though, that Mark’s teacher knows exactly who he is). If you’re paying attention, you’ll see Seth Green (years from the Austin Powers films) as a student. The film does use a couple Leonard Cohen songs, to great effect.