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Category Archives: 2008 Movies

Ten Word or Less Review: Solid opening lapses into chaotic mess.

This first part of an epic French gangster saga brings us the true life story of notorious criminal Jacques Mesrine, thug, thief, killer and kidnapper who operated in France and Canada in the 1960’s and 70’s.  Mostly unknown in the U.S., Mesrine attempts to bring to light the sprawling story of this notorious French criminal in two films.  They could’ve used 3 or maybe even 4.

This first feature, Killer Instinct, starts off on strong notes, emulating but not quite copying Scorsese’s epic crime scenarios.  Following the tried and true rise and fall of a criminal arc, Killer Instinct holds the audience in rapt attention, Vincent Cassel (Black Swan) holding the screen with fierce authority and macho showmanship.  But as this first part marches on, the story starts to slip away in a hail of important event overkill.  Whole years start disappearing between the scenes.  In just a handful of screen time Mesrine goes from being a criminal, to being married, to having a child, to going to jail, to getting out of jail, to being reformed, to lapsing back into criminality to hating his wife.  There’s no buildup to anything and the film slowly collapses in on itself as one major event proceeds another in a parade of narrative overkill.

By its conclusion Killer Instinct feels like a 4-hour movie which has been clumsily edited down to two.  The rushed nature of everything makes Cassell’s Mesrine feel less like a character and more like a thug having spastic, murderous emotional fits.  Part two of this ambitious endeavor, Public Enemy #1, supposedly plays better and when it appears in my Netflix queue I will see it.  But this first chapter ultimately feels like an ambitious but missed opportunity.

 

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Summer Hours – A well-intentioned, highly acclaimed French drama from 2008.  Three adult children cope with the loss of their mother, but more importantly, they have to determine what to do with the extensive art collection she’s left behind.  The movie has small moments that work and it gradually touches on themes and emotional gestures that viewers can take something from; valuing the things which decendents leave you, don’t discard the past quickly, etc.  But at its core it’s a movie that never boils, or even tries to.  “Summer” is content to make our protagonists all nice, pleaseant, amiable family members.  No one does anything terrible or selfish to one another and all parties avoid high drama or grand theatrics.  In short, it is dull.  It’s the kind of emotionally understated, high minded, art house, psuedo drama critics love to worship, while slightly less hoity types begin to navel gaze after a while.  Gaze into my navel I did.  It isn’t bad and it isn’t a painful sit, but after the third or fourth conversation about the importance of desks, vases and artwork, it starts to feel static.  I don’t need lurid theatrics, but at least some not so civil disagreements would’ve livened things up a bit.
Hunger – Some movies are made with the mindset that those viewing it already know something, or even a lot, about the subject matter.  “Hunger” is about IRA prisoner Bobby Sands and his hunger strike in a British prison in 1981 and a great deal of the film plays out before this becomes apparent.  “Hunger” begins by following the strange and forboding morning routine of an English prison guard.  It then moves onto the lives of two incarcerated  IRA prisoners and their hellish existence in Maze prison which consist of routine beatings and humilations at the hands of British guards.  Then roughly halfway through, these characters are dropeed and the film shifts its focus over to Sands and his hunger strike.  Sands organizes a the strike in which he becomes the first of dozens of prisoners to protest for political rights through self-inflicted starvation.  He then proceeds to starve to death.  That’s the movie in a nutshell.  Fans of unapologetic realism in cinema will likely champion “Hunger.”  It’s a film that’s always easy to respect but equally hard to watch.  The movie has no interest in cheap sentiment or overblown politics.  Though it’s tale is a worthy one, this viewer felt as if great gaps of story were missing.  The only thing I know about Sands is that he was a politcal prisoner, he was poorly treated in prison and that he starved himself to death.  Adding to this sensation of sparsity is a near total lack of dialogue. With the exception of an impressive 17 minute, unedited scene in the middle of the film, there’s virtually no conversation between anyone.  Director and co-screenwriter Steve McQueen has been sparse to a fault.

Gomorrah – One of 2008’s most acclaimed films, Matteo Garrone’s “Gomorrah” is the kind of film which flies in the face of traditional Hollywood trips to Italian settings.  Often shown as little more than a land of scenic perfection, tasty wine and charming inhabitants who riotously yell at each other, “Gomorrah” gets into the violent and sleazy underworld of Naples, Italy.  It follows an entourage of characters through the monolithic slums and hidden corners of this place as every characters life becomes hopelessly intertwined with the Camorra crime syndicate.  A thuggish union which has dominated the region through intimidation and murder for decades, the Camorra perpetrate violent crime in all the age old ways; drug dealing, gun running, gambling and consistent, unerring murder.

“Gomorrah” is a hard hitting piece, one that demands a fair amount of respect for the honest way it tries to do business and expose this Hellish lifestyle that few outside of Italy realize exists.  But it’s its own dedication to grim realism; the experience is at first confusing, slowly involving, and ultimately an unfortunate chore.  The film introduces characters, kills them, introduces more characters, leaves them for long spells, goes back to them, so on and so forth.  It takes too long for a rhythm or pattern ever emerges between these divergent stories and characters.  The film is more than half over by the time a settled sensation of who we’re supposed to be watching and why becomes clear.  Garrone doesn’t sugarcoat anything about the destructive and inescapable way of life in which these people are trapped, but nor does he do much to make you care about their outcomes either. Many of these characters, though honest in nature, are ignorant lowlifes and beasts, “Scarface” quoting thugs who want money and power and kill and rob to get it.  The characters who do rise above the level of base animal on the morality scale seem tedious and are dealt with less effectively.  Garrone is slightly more rapt with the perpetrators of violent crime than the victims of it.

Making matters more impenetrable is the film’s dogged insistence on relaying few details about this place we’ve been dropped into.  A viewer can piece together the stories and plot with relative ease, but where this is and why were watching is a mystery only the back of a DVD case can solve.  Honestly, I only know that these stories involve the Camorra crime syndicate because the DVD case told me so.  The film seems to have been made from an insider point of view and it doesn’t wish to take the effort to catch the rest of us up with the details we could use to understand the situation.  There’s one major character that runs through the entire film, trapped in an ethical dilemma because of his job.  He comes to the slums delivering money to certain individuals, an act which angers an opposing gang that then threatens to kill him.  But why he has deliver the money to begin with, who he’s giving the money to, why he has to keep on doing it after his life is clearly in danger and why his task pisses off other thugs remains a mystery.

“Gamorrah” is a taxing and frustrating thing.  It sticks with you and it’s easy to appreciate the skill of Garrone behind the camera.  Brute and savage honesty is a rare quality in filmmakers of any nationality.  But he’s stacked the deck against himself by failing to relay enough information about the situation he wants to expose, and giving his audience no one character to care about or follow through with.  When the final bullets are fired and the last bodies of two young men slump over dead, their life wasted, instead of an empathetic sadness at the lose of unfulfilled life, your left with the distinct feeling of ‘Oh well.’

Ten Word or Less Review: Better than expected Woody Allen movie.

For the first time in a long time, I admire the craft of Woody Allen.  This tired, rehashed, over-discussed, over-the-hill director some how managed to make a movie that feels young, vibrant, romantic and honest.  “Vicky Christina Barcelona” feels like a movie made by a man in the prime of youth, not an over 70 senior long faded from relevance.  “VCB” charts the romantic entanglements of American tourists Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Christina (Scarlett Johansson) as they visit Spain.  The former is an engaged intellectual who dissects life in calculating, rational fashion.  The latter a demanding spirit searching for an unfettered but fulfilling life.  Together they spend a summer in Barcelona where they meet Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), a seemingly clichéd artist/intellectual/seducer who quickly moves past pretense and engages them both emotionally and sexually.  Throw into the mix his very unbalanced ex-wife Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz) and the stage is set for a uniquely frustrating but lively movie that one could hardly expect from a senior citizen.

With its pseudo-intellectual characters, convenient narration, and picturesque travelogue settings, “Vicky Christina Barcelona” could initially be confused as nothing more than a filmed vacation for director Allen and his cast.  No one is more known for coasting on the kudos of past success than Allen.   “VCB’s” story conflict seems at first conceited and arrogantly high minded.  There’s little at stake but the romantic inclinations of two pretty but frustratingly dull American girls.  As it plays out, a more meaningful sense of relevance begins to take hold and we find ourselves entwined.  A wild but loving relationship develops between Bardem, Johansson and Cruz while Hall struggles with commitment to a man she’s talked herself into loving out of rationality. Allen constructs all of his creations as simple clichés who gradually rise above their easily knowable origins.  We watch these characters evolve from semi-contemptible types into more complex and compassion worthy human beings.

Though Hall and Johansson both deserve credit for making things work better than expected, Bardem and Cruz hold the film up a few notches more than perhaps it deserves.  The two play a divorced couple nearly incapable of civility or rationality.  At constant, almost violent odds with one another, Cruz and Bardem ratchet up the emotional intensity of everything by multiples.  What was once a pleasant, mildly insightful relationship picture becomes feverish and angry in its second half.  Cruz finds herself in an American movie which doesn’t squander her talents, while Bardem, now well known for the shadow of his “No Country for Old Men” persona, shows he’s capable of convincing romantic notes.  The two deserve a movie all their own.

As “VCB” winds down, a stunningly honest current develops.  One not pursued because it’s a movie but because it’s what the story demands.  In short, Allen doesn’t cop out and lie to us about what happens to these people just to make us feel better.  As a director, Allen has spent much of the past decade feeling like a useless has been.  Suddenly freed from his usual New York trappings, his spirit feels released and unfettered.  He had something vital to explore and his movie feels young in spirit because of it.  Most directors his age often dwell on the twilight aspects of age like growing old, driving slow or just dropping dead.  “Vicky Christina Barcelona” is a movie which slowly reveals a man reinvigorated.  Here’s hoping that Allen maintains that spirit.

Related To:  Good Woody Allen movies.

tellnooneposter

Over the past decade the French have proven themselves to be better makers of thrillers.  American thrillers often feel rote or built around mechanical, foregone conclusions.  Previews give away twists or plots are so predictable as to be completely meaningless.  The French still make thrillers the old fashion way.  They build slowly and surely, constructing the story piece by piece, trusting the audience to keep up and not lag behind like chubby school children.  And until
it charges headfirst into a monologue driven ending filled with endless, convoluted explanation, “Tell No One” is a better than average suspense film that runs on a smart screenplay that keeps the viewer intrigued but never completely clued in.  The snag though is that damn ending.

 Alex (Francois Cluzet) is a doctor on vacation with his wife Margot (Marie-Josee Croze) in the French country side.  One night they drive out to a secluded lake for some naughtiness and then fall asleep on a pier.  As their evening begins to slip into not-so-pleasant chit-chat, Margot gets up to go back to the car when Alex hears her scream.  He moves to pursue but is knocked out cold, attacker unseen.  When we next see Alex it is eight years later, he is practicing medicine, Margot long murdered.  On the anniversary of his wife’s death he receives a mysterious e-mail that seems to imply that his wife may not be dead, and suddenly the entire world starts to unravel in a labyrinth of cryptic mystery.  Dangerous people start to come out of the woodwork, the police once again begin to look at Alex with a suspicious eye and bodies begin to pile up on the side.

“Tell No One” works hard to keep the audience interested and guessing, and it doesn’t tip its hand, giving the game away.  The craft on display here is very solid and admirable throughout most of the picture.  Directed by Guillame Canet, he shows a steady assurance and just enough editorial pizzazz, but not so much as to draw attention to
itself needlessly.  Where problems ultimately rear their head is with the already mentioned finale.  Scripted by Canet, adapted from the book of the same name by American author Harlen Coben, the film writes itself into a corner from which it cannot escape.  Canet has strung along so many characters and plot that to resolve them more organically would’ve taken a massive rewrite.  Instead we get a ham-fisted showdown where one character sits down, defies the title of the movie, and tells us everything.  It’s a kind of finale that requires little imagination or craft.  The character in question doing all the explaining could practically tell the viewer anything, and we’re in no real place to dispute any of it because so much of it has been only dealt with peripherally until that moment.  It leaves the viewer wondering if any of the film made sense in the end.  When the big reveal is all over, the biggest problem with all of it is that the central event and characters that drive Alex and Margot apart to begin with are hardly present through out the story.  It leaves the viewer with a nasty sting of meaninglessness.

“Tell No One” is on almost every account an entertaining and deserving film.  The performances are all solid and it avoids so many pratfalls that so many other thrillers routinely slip into, that the ending is so irksome grates so much.  A film like this deserved something just a little more than what it wound up with.  The finale scene is a touching one and redeems things just a touch, but not completely. “Tell No One” gets a recommendation, but one that comes with a stern warning.  Those looking for a film to satisfy from beginning to end will not be happy.

changeling-international-posterClint Eastwood and Angelina Jolie took it on the chin from certain corners for last year’s high profile slip up “Changeling.”  Though not without its defenders “Changeling” was unfairly belittled by many a critic who seemed to be bearing a grudge against Jolie and her high profile, tabloid status.  It was more fun to be snide than acute.  With expectations out of the way and any and all buzz now long forgotten, “Changeling” can be viewed in a more even-handed climate, and what one may find is a more than decent, thoroughly compelling, unconventional drama. It may be less than perfect, but it is in no way some kind of laughable disaster to be held up for unwarranted ridicule.

Jolie plays Christine Collins, a single mother in 1928 Los Angeles who heads off to work unexpectedly one afternoon, leaving her son alone. Upon returning home, she finds her son gone, but no sign of any struggle.   She’s immediately met by beauracratic red tape when she calls the police to report her son missing.  Cut to five months later.   The police return a boy to Christine, but she knows it’s not him.  They cajole her into taking him home and when she tries to convince them taht they’ve made an error, they label her insane.  And so the constantly shifting plot of “Changeling” winds it’s curious course.   She becomes a noble cause defended by John Malkovich’s Reverend Briegleb, a righteous soul out to expose rampant police corruption.  She’s thrown into an insane asylum for refusing to acquiesce to police demands that the stranger child is her son.   We meet her son’s likely abductor, a twitchy lunatic who is a mass murderer of children.  It’s all so lurid and ridiculous that the only thing holding it together is the fact that it’s all based on a true story and that the story is being piloted by the cool and even hand of director Eastwood.

Eastwood’s old fashioned sense of no fuss stylization keeps “Changeling” from veering into corny melodrama.  It would be easy to over blow nearly every situation the film presents into a series of climaxes and high drama.   Such a case probably would’ve made “Changeling” unwatchable.   As it is, he instills the film with crafted feelings, carefully shifting from mystery to outrage to horror and earning the right to keep things fluid and unconventional.  Jolie took some lumps for her performance here, and it’s easy to see why she was unfairly slapped around.   Her character is singularly focused on getting her son back and all other emotions play second to this.  It leads to a feeling of repetition in her performance, but what other way could her character be?   Her child is her life and to make her character suddenly fret or agonize over something else would’ve been a waste.

As for the rest of the cast, Eastwood can often undercut his best work by dropping in cartoon colored, two dimensional characters into the mix of complex dramas, but here everyone is playing it a bit arch and on the nose.   Malkovich fits surprisingly well into the part of crusading dogooder.   Colm Feore and Jeffrey Donovan make suitably selfish and sleazy LAPD cops.   Jason Harner is all deranged ticks, crazy twitches and maniacal laughter as child killer Gordon Northcott.   And making a strong first impression as a sad accomplice to Northcott’s killer is teenager Eddie Alderson.   With everyone on the same page stylistically and the lack of under the surface qualities inherent in everyone, things gel together for the best.

“Changeling” may be no “Zodiac”, but it is a worthy movie, entertaining and engrossing.   Eastwood deserves some credit here but most of that was saved for his slightly overrated “Gran Torino.”  He’s put together a complex film that most other filmmakers probably would’ve fumbled around for then ruined.  He’s even supplied it with one of his accomplished, low key scores.  Special, and surprise, appreciation can also go to writer J. Michael Straczynski.   After years of beating the carcass of his dead science fiction creation “Babylon 5”, he’s finally shown himself capable of creating something worth pursuing.  Having Eastwood look over your shoulder can no doubt be of help.