Archive for January, 2009

Happy-Go-Lucky

Tuesday, January 20th, 2009

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Mike Leigh remains a director who is impossible to pin down, which is exactly why his films are so unique, so original, so unmistakably his own. There are those contemporary directors who have a style, a look, a presence that is instantly recognizable. Leigh is like that.

He starts with an idea, works it out in his head, casts the film himself, gives the cast bits and pieces of information, and then begins massive improvisations, for a long period of time. There is never a traditional script, but I would argue that Leigh is a complete and masterful storyteller. He has crafted many remarkable films, including Secrets & Lies, All or Nothing, Vera Drake and Naked.

Happy-Go-Lucky, like many of his films, is centered on a remarkable performance, and that role is like a starting point for a rich, complicated movie full of terrific actors and memorable scenes. That performance would be Sally Hawkins as Poppy, the irrepressibly sunny school teacher. Hawkins is an actress I was only dimly aware of (she has a supporting role in Vera Drake), but now I will never forget her. This is one of those roles where it would be impossible to think of anyone else in the role.

The film is basically a chronicle of Poppy’s day to day existence, her relationship with her roommate Zoe (Alexis Zegerman) and her various friends, family and co-workers. Oh, and with a bitter, angry driving instructor by the name of Scott (Eddie Marsan, in a brilliant supporting performance that deserves lots of accolade recognition). The film is an endlessly fascinating look on an unshakable, resilient spirit. Poppy is definitely one of the strongest film characters I can remember seeing this year.

Hawkins and Marsan share some terrific scenes, and the contrast between their personalities is astounding. Poppy, who is optimistic and cheerful to a fault, and Scott, spewing hatred out of his mouth and contempt for just about everyone on the planet. It all culminates to a scene of great power and strength, a scene that shows the strength of one character, and the weakness of another.

The whole cast is exceptional, but I always notice the roles in Leigh films that could probably be called “small roles” in a big Hollywood movie, but in a Mike Leigh film these roles are given the same care and attention to detail as the lead performances are. Karina Fernandez as the flamenco teacher is funny and a little terrifying, and does with five minutes of screen time what many actresses cannot do with two hours. And no one will be able to forget Stanley Townsend’s haunting work as a homeless man that Poppy meets late one night.

Happy-Go-Lucky is an exceptional film by a world class director. Just great.

Tell No One

Sunday, January 11th, 2009

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Guillaume Canet’s terrific new thriller Tell No One starts up with a great set-up, and then adds layer upon layer of tricks and twists. It’s a labyrinthine story, and an astoundingly clever and intriguing mystery. Without revealing too much, Francois Cluzet plays Dr. Alexandre Beck, whose beloved wife Margot (Marie-Josee Croze) was murdered eight years earlier. Beck was eventually cleared of any wrong doing, but he was a suspect, and the local police still don’t trust him.

Fast forward eight years, and Beck is trying to get on with his life with the help of his sister Anne (Marina Hands) and her wife Helene (Kristin Scott Thomas), although the shadow of Margo follows him wherever he goes. The plot, as they say, thickens when Dr. Beck receives a mysterious email, and the police find two new bodies near the same lake where Dr. Beck’s wife was murdered eight years ago…

That’s about as much as I’ll say about the plot. I will say the story involves Margot’s father, a local police chief (Andre Dussollier), a detective who begins to doubt certain aspects of the case (Francois Berleand) and Jean Rochefort, who plays a local billionaire. Tell No One is a film that dares to have faith that its audience will able to keep up with the diabolical turns that the film takes.

I thought that a key part of the film’s success was its use of pop songs in many key scenes. There is a sequence where Dr. Beck is using a computer to communicate with a mysterious person via email, and Canet uses U2’s “With or Without You,” and the moment is completely devastating. Of course, the song is a perfect fit for the character, and the line “and you give yourself away” cannot be a coincidence, as Dr. Beck, with his actions, gives himself away.

The film reminded me a little of The Fugitive, mostly because of the “respected doctor accused of murdering his wife” angle, but also because of the film’s expert use of action scenes. There’s a great chase scene in Tell No One, which, unlike many chase scenes, actually leaves the protagonist exhausted and pooped out.

The cast is very good, but I thought that Francois Cluzet was especially convincing in the lead. It’s a powerful performance, and every bit as good as the more “serious” and award-friendly roles that are being touted about at the moment. Tell No One is a film that should be seen as soon as possible.

Doubt

Thursday, January 8th, 2009

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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

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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.