Mandel Maven's Nest Flicks: Ogling Teens and 20somethings
Nora Lee Mandel is a member of New York Film Critics Online and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. Her reviews are counted in the Rotten Tomatoes TomatoMeter:
Complete Index to Nora Lee Mandel's Movie Reviews
Since August 2006, edited versions of most of my reviews of documentaries/indie/foreign films are at Film-Forward; since 2012, festival overviews at FilmFestivalTraveler; and, since 2016, coverage of women-made films at FF2 Media. Shorter versions of my older reviews are at IMDb's comments, where non-English-language films are listed by their native titles.
So it's late Summer and young couples' thoughts turn to love, right? I was walking to work on 22nd Street and in front of me were TWO very attractive young couples gazing into each other's eyes. It's 8:00 am and both couples are doing the same thing -- turning to each other with a slowly growing, glowing smile. Clearly of remembrance of Things We Did Last Night (or just this morning?). Both slowly reach out hands, then gradually inch arms around each other, then lock lips. You know it's love in Manhattan when one couple stops in the middle of the street to kiss and the other doesn't even notice the light turning green! While an ancillary reason I go to every free concert in the parks is to reassuringly observe that young love optimistically blooms eternally in a city bustling with summer interns, it's more socially acceptable to be a voyeur in the dark.
Minding the Gap (My capsule “Best of 2018” review) (preview courtesy of Hulu and Kartemquin Films) (12/17/2018)
The Rider (My capsule “Best of 2018” review) (at 2017 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (12/17/2018)
Too Late to Die Young (Tarde para morir joven) (preview at 2018 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (10/6/2018)
A Faithful Man (L’Homme fidèle) (preview at 2018 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (10/1/2018)
Sorry Angel (Plaire, aimer et courir vite) (preview at 2018 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (10/1/2018)
The Last Romantic (El Último Romántico) (short) (preview at 2018 Tribeca Film Festival) (5/15/2018)
Knuckles (short) (preview at 2018 Tribeca Film Festival) (5/15/2018)
Back Roads (preview at 2018 Tribeca Film Festival) (5/7/2018)
The Miseducation of Cameron Post (preview at 2018 Tribeca Film Festival) (5/4/2018)
Obey (preview at 2018 Tribeca Film Festival) (5/2/2018)
God’s Own Country (My capsule “Best of 2017” review) (previewed at Film Forum) (12/21/2017)
Complicit (previewed at 2017 Human Rights Watch Film Festival at Film Society of Lincoln Center and IFC Center) (6/23/2017)
The Navigator (Kartleseren) (short) (briefly reviewed at 2017 Tribeca Film Festival) (6/11/2017)
New Deep South: House of JXN (short) (briefly reviewed at 2017 Tribeca Film Festival) (6/10/2017)
Life Boat (short) (briefly reviewed at 2017 Tribeca Film Festival) (6/10/2017)
Sambá (briefly reviewed at 2017 Tribeca Film Festival) (6/10/2017)
New Deep South: House of JXN (shorts series previewed in New Online Work (N.O.W.) Showcase at 2017 Tribeca Film Festival) (4/22/2017)
Frantz (previewed at 2017 Rendez-Vous with French Cinema at Film Society of Lincoln Center) (3/18/2017)
Something About Life (Nesto o zivotu) (short) (seen in 2017 First Look Festival at Museum of the Moving Image) (2/4/2017)
Boone (seen in 2017 First Look Festival at Museum of the Moving Image) (2/4/2017)
Almost Sunrise (previewed at Human Rights Watch Film Fest 2016 at Film Society of Lincoln Center and IFC Center) (7/27/2016)
Inside The Chinese Closet) (previewed at Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2016 at Film Society of Lincoln Center and at IFC Center) (7/13/2016)
Spartacus and Cassandra (seen in 2016 Panorama Europe at Museum of the Moving Image) (5/23/2016)
LoveTrue (previewed at 2016 Tribeca Film Festival) (4/6/2016)
The Tribe (Plemya) (My edited capsule “Best of 2015” review) (previewed at 2015 New Directors/New Films of Film Society of Lincoln Center/MoMA) (12/20/2015)
Manos Sucias (previewed at 2014 Tribeca Film Festival) (My additional notes.) (8/3/2014)
Point and Shoot (previewed at 2014 Tribeca Film Festival) (8/3/2014)
A Coffee In Berlin (Oh Boy) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish woman.) (6/13/2014)
A World Not Ours (previewed at 2013 DOC NYC Festival) (5/28/2014)
Youth (Hanoar) (kudos to the Cunio brothers) (previewed at 2014 New Directors/New Films of Film Society of Lincoln Center/MoMA) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women.) (4/5/2014)
Fish & Cat (Mahi va gorbeh) (previewed at 2014 New Directors/New Films of Film Society of Lincoln Center/MoMA) (4/5/2014)
The Return To Homs (briefly reviewed in Witches & War at 2014 New Directors/New Films of Film Society of Lincoln Center/MoMA) (Note: Ripping through apartment buildings, the government bombs reveal a middle-class with comfortable possessions, making the people we see on the TV news in refugee tent cities more relateable, and making their kids turned into a ragtag rebel army that much more striking.) (3/31/2014)
Stop the Pounding Heart (briefly reviewed in Witches & War at 2014 New Directors/New Films of Film Society of Lincoln Center/MoMA) (Note: While I haven’t seen the first two films in this trilogy, From Colby was first seen in Low Tide, and Sara in The Passage. The closing images of her are too theatrical, but at least seem more respectful of her limited options than how Hollywood (and most audiences) who would have put her on the horse of her dreams to ride away. (3/31/2014)
Teenage (briefly reviewed in 2013 Documentaries at Tribeca Film Festival and in Youth in Rebellion at Tribeca 2013) (6/9/2013)
The Motivation (briefly reviewed in 2013 Documentaries at Tribeca Film Festival) (6/9/2013)
What Richard Did (briefly reviewed in Youth in Rebellion at Tribeca 2013 at Tribeca Film Festival) (6/5/2013)
Northwest (Nordvest) (briefly reviewed in Youth in Rebellion at Tribeca 2013 at Tribeca Film Festival) (6/5/2013)
Harmony Lessons (Uroki Garmonii) (briefly reviewed in Youth in Rebellion at Tribeca 2013 at Tribeca Film Festival) (6/5/2013)
Renoir (previewed at 2013 Rendez-Vous with French Cinema at Film Society of Lincoln Center) (Note: This is quite a contrast to the garrets seen in other depictions of Impressionist painters, hinting at how the son later sold off this patrimony to fund his own art. The concluding reunion is lovely in even bringing the beloved predecessor back to the bosom of the family. Not only have I not seen a zoetrope used so flirtatiously, Alexandre Desplat’s score is exceptionally romantic.) (4/6/2013)
Burn It Up Djassa (Le djassa a pris feu) (briefly reviewed at 2013 New Directors/New Films of Film Society of Lincoln Center/MoMA) (3/25/2013)
Sister (L'enfant d'en haut)) (Note: Cinematographer Agnès Godard emphasizes the yo-yo elements of the kid’s life up to the mountain and down in the valley in the limbo of that cable car (he is even is dispatched downhill with the garbage at one point), even as a car ride on a flat road is even more tense with a threat of violence.) (10/29/2012)
China Heavyweight (7/6/2012)
Gypsy (Cigán) (6/27/2012)
Bidder 70 (briefly reviewed at 2012 Human Rights Watch International Film Festival) (6/16/2012)
Benji (briefly reviewed in Documentaries at 2012 Tribeca Film Festival) (Note: ESPN Films’ continuing 30 for 30 series has helped expand the audience for documentaries and sponsorship for documentarians, so I’m looking forward to 9 for IX.) (5/3/2012)
Town of Runners (briefly reviewed in Documentaries at 2012 Tribeca Film Festival) (5/3/2012)
On The Mat (briefly reviewed in Documentaries at 2012 Tribeca Film Festival) (5/3/2012)
Planet of Snail (briefly reviewed in Documentaries at 2012 Tribeca Film Festival) (4/26/2012)
Turn Me On, Goddamit (Få meg på, for faen!) (previewed at 2011 Tribeca Film Festival) (Note: Just a mild warning, given that it’s not MPAA rated but I think it is appropriate for teens – there is brief glimpse of bare breasts and a (prosthetic) penis.) (4/1/2012)
Bully (Notes: My review is colored by the experiences of me and my husband growing up—no, this is not a new phenomenon or a current crisis/epidemic as some claim-- and as a mother of my sons, where I, too, would complain to teachers and bus drivers with reactions like shown in the film – when there was intervention there was a year without bullying; when the response was “Sure, every parent wants their kid to be popular, but they can’t all be. . .” etc., the bullying resumed. Mitt Romney’s reported behavior against a classmate was so commonplace in our high school years (and we were at Harvard graduate school at the same time) that he, as the popular ringleader, can’t now either remember it or understand “pranks” as bullying a victim (though younger reporters don’t understand kids then didn’t use contemporary terms like “gay” or “homo” or the “f” slur, more likely the taunts were of “sissy” against a boy, or “tomboy” against a girl.)
However, I do have issues with the documentary. There's far too much of weeping parents, which leaves it open to criticisms about other problems the kids had who tragically killed themselves. Let alone, to be cynical, grief looks the same no matter what the cause, in so many depressing documentaries. The interviews with the lesbian teen are like after-the-fact TV magazine coverage -- she mostly stands there with her few supportive friends and looks longingly at the gym she’s been hounded away from. The as-it-unfolds verité portions, even the after-the-fact legal consequences for the victimized black girl in Mississippi, are so good and so strong that they make the rest of the film look weaker. Also frustrating is the lack of insight on the bullies, let alone their parents, and any punishments, not even an epilogue scroll or in the press notes.) (updated 5/12/2012)
Donoma (briefly reviewed at 2012 New Directors/New Films of Film Society of Lincoln Center/MoMA) (3/23/2012)
The Forgiveness Of Blood (Falja E Gjakut) (2/24/2012) (Notes: The script a bit too didactically adds in a woman customer on the sister’s route who is an opposing cousin but is sympathetic that a hotheaded male relative has violated the norms, yet she still can’t interfere. Director of photography Rob Hardy heightens the atmospheric contrasts between indoors and outdoors, so that the teen boy’s release in the officially sanctioned “besa” has the emotional force of Ray Bradbury’s 1954 science fiction story “All Summer in a Day” as he tries to temporarily reenter normal teenage life, so it seems that much more cruel when it’s suddenly cancelled. How sad that the way being found to help these kids is to get them home computers. For background explanations of the culture read The Accursed Mountains: Journeys in Albania by Robert Carver, even though it’s out-of-print from 1999.)
Homecoming (previewed at 2011 Other Israel Film Festival) (11/21/2011)
Shout (previewed at 2011 Other Israel Film Festival) (11/21/2011)
The Interrupters (Notes: They tell their tough biographies that doubtless make them ineligible for conventional Big Brother/Big Sister role model programs, and are unlike police or social workers, with endless empathy for those coming out of jail, raging against the murder of a family member, or are in shock from witnessing a killing. They plead for respect for the dead and their families, and get people to talk instead of lash out, though sometimes they even physically put their bodies between aggressors.) (Why The Wire references.)
The Myth Of The American Sleepover (Notes: The next day dawns with almost too All-American scenes of flying flags, picket fences, and the Labor Day parade, where the teens fit neatly back into the town’s expectations – marching band, dancing girls down main street, and the blonde object of desire as the queen waving from the convertible. James Laxton’s dreamy day passes into night cinematography recalls his lovely work in Barry Jenkins’ Medicine for Melancholy (2008), though not as quietly patient in how the newly revived Rohmer films capture the impact summer’s evanescent natural phenomena on young folks.) (7/29/2011)
The Team (briefly reviewed at 2011 Human Rights Watch Film Festival, dedicated in memory to my activist dad) (6/20/2011)
Better This World (briefly reviewed at 2011 Human Rights Watch Film Festival, dedicated in memory to my activist dad) (6/20/2011) (Note: This is one of several films in the series that my editor thought I was being too cynical in seeing what I thought of as an "Emily Littella" moment, like Gilda Radner's TV editorialist who ranted about issues she had misheard. Her "never mind" coda echoed here when a closing confession revealed in passing that the seemingly railroaded defendant was prevaricating.)
The Colors Of The Mountain (Los Colores De La Montaña) (5/20/2011)
Louder Than A Bomb (previewed at 2010 DocuWeeks) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women.) (5/18/2011)
Splinters (briefly reviewed in Final Roundup of the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival) (5/13/2011)
Winter Vacation (Han Jia) (briefly reviewed at 2011 New Directors/New Films of Film Society of Lincoln Center/MoMA) (3/25/2011)
Winter In Wartime (Oorlogswinter) (3/18/2011) (Note: The book subsequently came out in English, but I haven’t read it yet. The action includes a bike, a horse, a boat, a bridge and learning who to trust. Pino Donaggio's score is a bit over the top.)
Zero Bridge (2/20/2011)
Mumbai Diaries (Dhobi Ghat) (1/21/2011) (Note: The tour through the maximum city also includes hearing many different dialects and seeing Parsi Zoroastrians, and Muslim and Hindu celebrations.)
If I Want To Whistle, I Whistle (Eu Cand Vreau Sa Fluier, Fluier) (1/5/2011)
Rachel (10/10/2010) (also briefly reviewed at Part 1 Recommendations of 2009 Tribeca Film Festival) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish woman) (4/26/2009)
Highwater (8/27/2010) (Note: Ted Woods' upcoming documentary Whitewash is eye-opening about the biases in the Endless Summer series that this younger Brown director still hasn't completely overcome. The Jersey Shore refugee seems like a more competitive, long-haired, tiny bikini-clad counterpart to the patriarch in Doug Pray's Surfwise, soon to be fictionalized as Sean Penn.)
Salt Of This Sea (Milh Hadha Al-Bahr) (8/13/2010) (also briefly reviewed in Part 3 Family Ties Around The World at 2009 Tribeca Film Festival) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish woman) (5/9/2009) (Note: The Palestinian-American woman butts up against the Palestinian Authority and bank as much as the Israeli police and military. The issues around the romantic couple keep changing based on their gender, language, and citizenship.)
Lebanon (Notes: Their only visible contact with headquarters is in the person of the grizzled Jamil (Zohar Strauss, unrecognizable here as the older man in Eyes Wide Open (Einayim Petukhoth)), who comes into the tank to berate them with peremptory commands that gradually have less and less credibility. There's also pointed instructions to identify the banned phosphorous as "smoke".) (8/6/2010)
Racing Dreams (7/9/2010) (also briefly reviewed at Part 2: The Kids Are Alright of 2009 Tribeca Film Festival) (5/4/2009) (Notes: Explanatory charts keep the audience apprised of their standings in wins and points after each race on the karting national circuit in 2008, as the kids enthusiastically describe track conditions, racing strategies, and expensive equipment selections (with a palpable longing for sponsors and their products).)
After The Cup: Sons Of Sakhnin United (additional background in my review of 2009 Other Israel Film Festival) (5/21/2010)
Buried Land (seen at 2010 Tribeca Film Festival) (5/14/2010)
Just Like Us (briefly reviewed in Recommended Documentaries: There's No Business Like the Celebrity Business at 2010 Tribeca Film Festival) (5/7/2010) (Note: The multi-national --albeit non-Jewish-- English-speaking comics visit Dubai, Egypt, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia.)
The Two Escobars (briefly reviewed in Recommended Documentaries: There's No Business Like the Celebrity Business at 2010 Tribeca Film Festival) (5/7/2010)
Freetime Machos (briefly reviewed in Recommended Documentaries at 2010 Tribeca Film Festival) (5/7/2010)
Keep Surfing (briefly reviewed in Recommended Documentaries at 2010 Tribeca Film Festival) (5/7/2010) (Note: Coincidentally, the most captivating segment in The Travelogues, Dustin Thompson's impressionistic tour of Europe also showing at the Festival, is a more aesthetic appreciation of the river surfers in black and white, with the distinctive mentoring tradition there put in extra relief by their distinctively German back-stories.)
Sons Of Perdition (briefly reviewed in Recommended Documentaries at 2010 Tribeca Film Festival) (5/7/2010) (Like the real-life versions of characters from Big Love.)
Hunting & Sons (Hunting & Zn.) (briefly reviewed at 2010 New Directors/New Films of Film Society of Lincoln Center/MoMA) (3/30/2010)
Like You Know It All (Jal aljido mothamyeonseo) (briefly reviewed at 2010 Film Comment Selects of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (2/19/2010)
Eyes Wide Open (Einayim Petukhoth)) (2/5/2010) (also briefly reviewed at 2010 New York Jewish Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center/The Jewish Museum) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish woman.) (1/25/2010)
Everyone Else (Alle Anderen) (briefly reviewed at 2009 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (10/9/2009)
Bright Star (10/5/2009)
Eccentricities of a Blonde (Singularidades de uma Rapariga Loura) (briefly reviewed at 2009 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (9/26/2009)
Bliss (Mutluluk) (8/7/2009)
Original (briefly reviewed in Part 3 Family Ties Around The World at 2009 Tribeca Film Festival) (5/9/2009)
My Dear Enemy (Meotjin haru) (briefly reviewed in Part 3 Family Ties Around The World at 2009 Tribeca Film Festival) (5/9/2009)
Seven Minutes in Heaven (Sheva Dakot Be’gan Eden) (briefly reviewed at Part 3: Family Ties Around the World, of 2009 Tribeca Film Festival, and briefly reviewed in The NH Jewish Film Buzz, at page 21) (updated 12/9/2011)
Team Qatar (briefly reviewed in Part 2: The Kids Are Alright at 2009 Tribeca Film Festival) (5/4/2009)
About Elly (Darbareye Elly) (briefly reviewed in Part 1 Recommendations at 2009 Tribeca Film Festival) (4/26/2009)
The Mysteries Of Pittsburgh (So, nu: my commentary on the missing Jewish woman.) (4/10/2009)
Enlighten Up! (4/1/2009)
Give Me Your Hand (Donne-moi la main) (briefly reviewed at 2009 New Directors/New Films of Film Society of Lincoln Center/MoMA) (3/27/2009)
Ordinary Boys (Chicos normales) (briefly reviewed at 2009 New Directors/New Films of Film Society of Lincoln Center/MoMA) (3/27/2009)
The Shaft (Dixia de tiankong) (briefly reviewed at 2009 New Directors/New Films of Film Society of Lincoln Center/MoMA) (3/27/2009)
Unmade Beds (briefly reviewed at 2009 New Directors/New Films of Film Society of Lincoln Center/MoMA) (3/27/2009)
The Black Balloon (12/5/2008)
Antarctica (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish woman) (11/26/2008)
The Betrayal (Nerakhoon) (previewed at the 2008 Human Rights Watch International Film Festival at Lincoln Center) (11/21/2008)
Ping Pong Playa (9/8/2008)
Bustin’ Down The Door (Note: The Da Hui were known as “Black Shorts”, in tune with the civil rights movement.) (7/25/2008)
The Order Of Myths (emendations coming after 1/25/2009) (7/25/2008)
Wonderful Town (7/18/2008)
The Wackness (7/3/2008) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women)
Unsettled (emendations coming after 11/8/2008) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women) (5/8/2008)
Up The Yangtze (emendations coming after 11/1/2008) (See with Patty Chang and David Kelley’s 30 minute short Flotsam Jetsam, seen at the 2008 New Directors/New Films Series at Lincoln Center/MoMA)
City Of Men (Cidade Dos Homens) (2/29/2008)
Look (emendations coming after 6/14/2008) (12/14/2007)
Atonement (emendations coming after 6/7/2008) (12/7/2007)
Note: RE the most notable scene in the film: From 'Atonement' director uses novel approach to adapt bestsellers , by Michael Ordoña, Los Angeles Times, 12/2/2007: “Wright wrangles unusually long prep time for his films, including two weeks "in camera" planning shots for Atonement. However, such preparation wasn't a factor in one of the film's signature sequences, a five-plus-minute tracking shot through the insanity of the British evacuation at Dunkirk. ‘That was the one thing that [cinematographer] Seamus [McGarvey] and I actually didn't plan because it was daunting, . . [production designer] Sarah [Greenwood] took it on and planned the set around that shot; Seamus took on the whole camera aspect; the Steadicam operator, Peter Robertson, gave sweat and blood for it, and we practically hospitalized the man. The actual cast then invested their hearts into it, and a thousand extras on the beach’ and the surrounding community were involved, Wright said. ‘That's why I find that scene quite emotional now. Because of all those minds focused on that one moment and all doing the best they can. It was more like a happening than a shot; it was a special moment.’"
Rocket Science (8/10/2007) (emendations coming after 2/10/2008)
Dans Paris (Inside Paris) (8/8/2007) (Note: OK – so one of the hunks is already in his ‘30’s. But you can still play a drinking game of the French New Wave references – yes –addressing the camera is from Jean-Luc Godard!)
9 Star Hotel (Malon 9 Kochavim) (5/23/2007) (emendations coming after 12/23/2007)
Candy (11/17/2006) (emendations coming 4/17/2007)
Somersault is a fresh spin on the in-over-their heads teenager movie, particularly the mixed-up city girl confusing the well-meaning country boy sub-genre. It is a sophisticated look at the motivations and resourcefulness of a teen age runaway.
In her debut feature, writer/director Cate Shortland poignantly captures a girl's search for love and independence through sex. It isn't often that we see a film about tantalizing jailbait from the girl's perspective.
The town settings from Canberra to Jindabyne in New South Wales are unusual for Australian films we usually get to see in the U.S., providing an unusual meeting place for cold-weather tourists, the poor in their service industry, and farmers in from cattle stations.
Abbie Cornish is a marvel in the central role. Looking startlingly like the young Nicole Kidman from her early Australian movies such as Flirting, she morphs from coltish girl to sexual aggressor, even as it's clear she doesn't understand what she's getting herself into by thinking she can live out her fantasy in following one guy after another who she has met on the road. With the glimpses we get of her tumultuous inner world through a childish diary, "Heidi"s naiveté is palpably painful as Cornish projects her at different times in the film as being the character's actual 16 or pretending to be 20 when she thinks she can use sex as a manipulable tool without realizing what creepy situations can result. The subtlety of her performance extends to how differently she relates to men than women, particularly as she keeps seeking out mother figures.
Sam Worthington is heartbreakingly sweet as equally naive, somewhat older "Joe", who clumsily becomes her protector and something more. I wasn't clear, though, about his back story with issues in his past (there's a lot of family secrets all around). The film also comments on bloke culture, including the ambiguous touches of homo-eroticism in male bonding.
The scenes between these two marginalized young people are engrossing with their attraction and hesitation, as they clumsily imitate adult behavior that they can't really handle. Bouncing between maturity and immaturity, tenderness and aggression, they have enough trouble expressing and understanding their feelings without adding sex into the mixture.
A side story with an autistic child leads to a way too didactic discussion about empathy and emotions, with flash cards no less.
The cinematography had a lovely blue haze, but used fuzzy focus too often.
I had some difficulty understanding the male dialogue among thick accents and low sound projection in the Time Square Theater, compounded by the restless male audience, up and down, in and out, slamming doors, who seemed mostly attracted to the film by Cornish's nude scenes.
This film is a creative contrast to American indie films that tend to see young women on the cusp of adulthood more as victims as they experiment with their sexual power, such as Blue Car or Hard Candy, or in commercial fare as innocents, like The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, let alone male fantasy objects as in American Beauty. A spate of recent non-American directors have focused on their impact on males, such as in The Holy Girl (La Niña santa), À Tout de Suite (Right Now), and Lila Says (Lila dit ça), with varying degrees of the success of this film in capturing their girl/woman confusion. (8/2/2006)
Iowa wants to be Requiem for a Dream for Midwest meth, but it comes across as a hard R rated Reefer Madness.
Yes, drugs are bad, and meth is horribly pernicious, as an addiction and how it destroys people, families and communities. But these characters who are either dumb or ridiculous and the eye-rolling plot won't teach that lesson to anyone.
While writer/director/star Matt Farnsworth has some charisma on screen, his partner Diane Foster plays a wincibly silly wide-eyed innocent corrupted by drugs as was already satirized by Susan Sarandon in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I really felt sorry for her for all the totally unnecessary nudity she was put through. It wasn't until the end of the film that I realized I was supposed to think these two were recent high-school graduates to explain some of their naiveté, as we are bombarded by their school photos, but if so, they even looked older than the folks on The O.C.. While they have good chemistry on screen, they are a pale imitation of a Badlands-type couple.
The guest stars are badly used. Michael T. Weiss, who was so good in TV's The Pretender, is completely ludicrous as a corrupt parole officer and his brutal violence is just plain crazy, as his character pretty much ruins any social significance for the film. Rosanna Arquette has to be even sleazier than she rolled around for David Cronenberg as a very low rent Livia Soprano. John Savage even has to mouth the old baby boomer excuses about I did pot but this is worse. A Goth chick shows up, with the odd explanation that she's a stripper from Des Moines. The obligatory Latino drug dealer appears - in Iowa?
With a limited budget, the interior view of meth use is portrayed quite vividly, with quite scary hallucinations. We certainly see them go crazy.
While the Iowa locations are used very well (including an amusing scene of a propane gas robbery), the accents and church references are confusingly Southern Baptist. Guns seem to be used by law abiding and law breaking citizens here more than in any inner-city drug-dealing movie.
The songs of Iowa's best known bard Greg Brown are used throughout, but oddly are not listed in the credits. I hope they were used with permission.
I caught this at its commercial run in NYC because I missed it at the Tribeca Film Festival where it got considerable-- and inexplicable-- buzz.
Debut feature writer/director Rian Johnson seems to have gotten the idea for Brick about the same time the creators of Veronica Mars situated a noir detective story within a California high school, but he has brought it to life with a visual filmmaker's eye for dark storytelling.
Within a small budget and limited locations, Johnson pulls together smart dialog by emotive young actors, beautiful cinematography, with tension-inducing editing punctuated by a marvelously creepy score.
While there's myriad visual and dialog references to scores of earlier mysteries and noir (from Sherlock Holmes to Edgar Allen Poe to The Maltese Falcon to Chinatown to The Long Goodbye and many, many more) in the deliciously twisted plot where everybody sets up everybody else, Johnson slyly maintains the high school setting, even with death and drug dealing. Key scenes take place on the football field, messages are left in lockers and a talent show is in rehearsal (allowing for more odd references from Bob Fosse to kabuki to shadow puppet theater). A glossary that is being distributed at theaters is silly as we certainly expect kids to talk in slang and have nicknames, even if this runs more to post-war L.A. than hip hop culture (the closest to pop selection on the soundtrack is Lou Reed). We expect a sub-culture to have its own slang; that's a major plot point in HBO's The Wire. I wasn't sure if devilishly clever one-liners about trust issues and muscle, among a lot of funny lines that the audience warmly responded to, were lifted from other sources or were original.
While the original "Shaft" himself, Richard Roundtree is Assistant Vice Principal "Trueman", effectively representing the snitch-seeking cops, the only time the teen ambiance is weakly played for laughs is when an oblivious mother shows up, pushing corn flakes and juice. And she's the head villain's mom, a hobbit-looking Lukas Haas. (There's even a joke about Lord of the Rings and the initiating request certainly recalls a certain plea for Obi Wan Kenobi.)
Central lead Joseph Gordon-Levitt is considerably less flashy as "Brendan Frye" than his charismatic performance in Mysterious Skin, but he does a surprisingly tender Bogart, going from nerdy lone wolf to surprising tough guy to heartbroken. I wasn't sure if the changes in his bruised visage were continuity errors or intended to be humorous or that longer time passed than I thought despite frequent shots of changing digital clocks (there are a lot of repeating blank screens when he is knocked out). But then his character earlier had a shadily missing two months. Nora Zehetner channels Mary Astor quite tastily.
While some of the set-ups are a bit too Hopperesque stagey as characters freeze and the camera glides along (coincidentally recalling some shots in A History of Violence), other scenes brilliantly show off Johnson's skills at delivering thrills with no special effects. One dark room is lit only by a shaft of light and a slowly turning mirror. Another dark basement room holds three antagonists nervously listening to horrific sounds of a fight above them. There are a lot of long shots of empty roads, a ringing Phone Booth and a lone speeding car or runner that provide key clues. Flashbacks are well integrated in for stream of consciousness memories and cinematic clues and explications. Johnson's visual and literate use of a genre for both humor and poignancy favorably compares to the Coen Brothers. (4/3/2006)
Lonesome Jim is an affecting portrait of a would-be writer on the cusp of 30 who reluctantly seems to reenact Thomas Wolfe's adage "home is where, when you go there, they have to take you in" even as going home again is a depressing admission of complete defeat.
Despite the pictures of suicidal authors on his old bedroom wall, "Tim" is gradually forced to develop empathy for other people and see beyond his own failures, even if at first it's only to get laid (in an amusing effort to try and prevent premature ejaculation). He even complains to his even more depressed divorced brother "I came home to have a nervous breakdown but you beat me to it." Each time he in a small, even ineffectual way steps up to the plate and accepts responsibility for another person and his actions towards people we cheer as a progressive victory against his no man is an island loneliness.
Casey Affleck as "Tim" is so adorably woe begone that it is not surprising that his mother (a scarily cheerful Mary Kay Place, recalling her Mary Hartman days) and Liv Tyler, as "Anika", are drawn to him as a fixer-upper. Tyler, no longer anorexic looking with a post-maternal real-looking body, sweetly captures a small town girl who was probably the prettiest in high school, got knocked up in time for graduation and since is clear-eyed about her life and responsibilities. While Place's mother, a bit oddly, overly infantalizes her two back at home adult sons, she has poignant flashes of giving or receiving brutal honesty that show she knows perfectly well she's been turning lemons into lemonade (or cobbler anyway).
Besides Mark Boone Junior in broad comic relief as the conniving stoned uncle, James C. Strouse's debut script and his autobiographical Indiana settings), (and he sweetly thanks a lot of family members besides the ones who were extras), well capture the non-anonymity of Midwest small town relationships, with their entanglement of friends, neighbors, parents, children, ex's, hospital, community center basketball team and local bars (as director Steve Buscemi showed so well in a different locale in his first feature Trees Lounge). And many of Strouse's relatives are listed in the cast. With a ladder factory instead of dolls, the atmosphere is like a sweeter, more romantic Bubble without the mystery.
Jack Rovello as little "Ben" is one of the most appealing child actors seen in years and his on-screen relationship with Affleck is not clichéd in its back and forth as each fulfills a need in the other.
The soundtrack emphasizes that "Tim" is not in NYC any more with very twangy country music always on the radios, all nicely non-commercial selections.
Much as I was rooting for the characters, the laser digital photography or whatever was distractingly poor quality blown up on a big screen at the IFC Center in NYC. It might have been better served being a cable movie if with a low budget they could only afford this level of cinematography.(3/30/2006)
Duck Season (Temporada de patos) answers the question what do 14 - 16 year olds in a Mexico City housing development do on a lazy Sunday afternoon when their mother and the electric power is out?
Turns out, not much else than the kids in the Wisconsin basement did in That'70's Show or in Dr. Seuss's The Cat in the Hat. It is a relief to know these latchkey friends aren't like Larry Clark's Kids on NYC's Lower East Side or those in the banlieus we've seen lately in French films, as instead we have a series of amusing vignettes, with the humor emphasized by co-writer/director Fernando Eimbcke's camera angles. The audience frequently takes the position of the oven, video game, painting, etc. that the adorable youngsters stare at intensely in various degrees of sobriety. Danny Perea as literally the girl next door is marvelous. The boys' friendship is very naturally portrayed.
This is the second little movie I've seen this year where a Pizza delivery guy gets caught up in his customers lives and it is a cute gimmick, even if we don't really learn much about the guy other than that he's fed up.
We only learn much about one of the kids, as the minor revelations are let out gradually in incongruous ways. Surprisingly, any of the self-discovery or lessons learned are really just a taking off point for humorous actions. It's just a series of funny looking scenes, one slowly after another, usually based on the kids' naiveté and misunderstandings. (The trailer is very misleading as to the pacing of the film.)
The final scene is after all the credits so you can see, among many thanks, acknowledgments to Yasujiro Ozu, probably for the domestic focus and camera angles, and James Jarmusch, as this black and white film does have a lot in common with the look and interactions in Coffee and Cigarettes, among other of his films.
There are only a couple of cool song selections we hear them playing, with some classical pieces for juxtapositional humor.
The English subtitles are always legible and easy to read.(3/22/2006)
Beautiful City (Shah-re ziba) is an intense, universal story of love and death within societal strictures, as much as stories by Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Henry James, Edith Wharton, I.B. Singer or O. Henry, etc. etc. It just happens that here love from parents, children, siblings, friends, spouses and suitors has to find an outlet within Islamic law as practiced in contemporary Iran so they are silhouetted against extreme options.
Writer/director Asghar Farhadi is as observant of the power of human emotions as those masters in letting the story and characters unfold slowly like an onion. Each becomes more complex than we see at first; each has reasons motivated by strong feelings that teeter between sacrifice and fulfillment.
All the characters have choices to make - and feelings they cannot choose to control. A father's grief is as implacable as the undying love of his daughter's boyfriend. A mismatched couple (a spirited Taraneh Alidoosti as the woman "Firouzeh") falls in love without ever touching or exchanging an endearment (and completely enclosed in clothes, as a lesson to Western cinema). All know that if they compromise they will be diminished or something irretrievable will be lost. As each must ask just how far to go for love, they are trapped as much by human nature as by the stringent details of Islamic law (with resonance for any country that has legal revenge through the death penalty).
The character who takes over the heart of the film is a familiar figure in every culture - the confident negotiator who could talk the devil out of whatever, with charm, wile and persistence. A thief, he is at equal ease creatively debating with his jailer as with an imam. But in a short period of time this incipient "Milo Minderbinder" (as in Catch 22) dramatically learns that the mysteries of the human soul may be beyond even his bargaining. Striving to save his best friend's life and finding unexpected ramifications whatever he does, young Babak Ansari as "A`la" grows before our eyes.
None of the characters is a stereotype. The jailer is like a sympathetic social worker. The imam is very practical about life (though oddly his quoting of Koranic verses aren't translated in the subtitles). The sister stands up to abuse. The teenage murderers acted out of deep love. Even the strict, abusive father is seen as crazed with a sorrow he cannot let go. So there are no Hollywood endings to their lives.
The look of the film seems like faded 1940's Hollywood Technicolor, with a bluish tinge, making it look old fashioned, even as we see a Nike cap and other miscellany of modern culture among the evocative atmosphere of crowded jails, rooms and mosques. The personal issues of drug addiction, poverty, domestic abuse, etc. that complicate love are also universal beyond the headscarves and unfamiliar architecture.
The English subtitles are always legible, turning from white to yellow against light backgrounds. (3/17/2006)
I stayed through all the lengthy non-translated closing credits of Evil (Ondskan) waiting in vain if co-writer/director Mikael Håfström would credit Tom Brown's Schooldays as it is virtually identical to that classic about bullies at a boys' boarding school. While I now know that the original novel by Jan Guillou is semi-autobiographical (which is required reading in Swedish schools), perhaps it should have started with "inspired by a true story" or some such.
Otherwise it just seems like a story updated to Sweden in the 1950's, so that issues of Nazi sympathizers vs. social democrats and Gandhi-model nonviolence can be added to the dialog, American pop tunes by Buddy Holly etc. can be inserted into the soundtrack and Andreas Wilson as the central "Erik Ponti" can have an intentional James Dean swagger, but, except for an odd prologue and epilogue, the plot is otherwise the same.
These additions try to broaden the issue of male on male bullying to explore its roots in child abuse, but they just make the progression of the central character's development more confusing as he goes from bully to victim to revenger and make the title subjective. Similarly, the weak role of authority figures, including a nasty stepfather, and their jabbering on about morality to victims not to perpetrators is more quizzical than in the older work because there the author had a pedagogical point to make. "Erik"s search for alternative strategies in dealing with the bullies is somewhat creative, though not as in If.
What makes the film compelling to watch at all despite what we have seen many times before is Wilson's charismatic performance. He actually makes us believe that this model of Aryan physical perfection and athletic prowess with his own troubled violent past could be best friends with the poetry and jazz-loving nerd and would prefer to spend his afternoons reading Oscar Wilde (which is as close as this story gets to the homo-erotic issues at such schools, despite one dark hint about what worse damage the bullies could do). Henrik Lundström is very good as the weak roommate "Pierre Tanguy", but the other actors are playing caricatures who were already satirized in Animal House.
The role of women is problematical here, as they are not oblivious to the abuse but are mostly cowed observers and therefore complicit. "Erik"s relationship with the not too believably outspoken young waitress "Marja" (Linda Zilliacus) is a sweet respite (unlike in "Tom Brown") so we can sympathize that it is their relationship that becomes his breaking point to make changes.
The closing frames seemed a bit too precious and inappropriate reference to Truffaut's 400 Blows (Tre Cents Coups) as this hero does have a future. (3/17/2006)
Woman Is the Future of Man (Yeojaneun namjaui miraeda) feels like a cheerless Korean spin on Jules et Jim crossed with the chauvinism of Carnal Knowledge.
From the discussion in the ladies room afterwards, people in the audience weren't falling asleep trying to follow the flash backs vs. dreams vs. fantasies vs. flash forwards vs. the narrative of an obsessive threesome of old friends as much as frustration with the women characters. Either the females were fulfilling every racist stereotype Americans have of "Oriental" women, as seductive passive doormats, or the film is one long drunken male fantasy. The women only got to even show emotions a handful of times.
Occasionally the two guy friends weepily confess, through their nonstop talking and drinking, their faults with mea culpas and various self-flagellations about wanting sex "too much", and even admitting that they've mistreated the women they stalk --but that doesn't stop their boorish, insensitive --and worse-- behavior.
It is also possible that a lot of the Korean cultural reference points were lost in the subtitle translations. There seems, for example, to be a familiar form of address in Korean as there is in many non-English languages that was clumsily handled in the translation when women despair of being addressed that way by their lovers.
Whatever theme writer/director Sang-soo Hong intended to portray about the role of Eros amidst a non-purifying snowy night in the city, all that comes across is that men are shmucks and they deserve what they get.(3/13/2006)
London started out with potential as another male self-pity party, a kind of Leaving Las Vegas as if done by misogynist Neil LaBute with Mamet kind of language.
I even sympathized with Chris Evans sometimes, at least when he was in shaggy-haired, hang-dog mode moping over his ex-girlfriend, as Jessica Biel is gorgeous in various undress. But the flashbacks to his Fantastic Four-looking shaved head macho, jealous crazy days with her made me wonder why she had been with him at all, other than his tattooed abs. He does seem to have a lot in common with the guy in 9 Songs as he pretty much just remembers one thing about a relationship and figures the only reason she'd break up with him was sex-related, unless arguing was their foreplay.
But the drinking and cocaine use begins and never stops and any sympathy evaporated.
The ages of the women in the movie make absolutely no sense. Sometimes they seem to be jailbait, but other times they are old schoolmates of the twenty something central characters, and the central party attracts an odd mix of ages. It's not even clear if they are in or out of college. Certainly the ridiculous conversations about the meaning of life and God (surrounded as they inexplicably are by Buddhist sculptures in one of those fantasy NYC apartments with a very large bathroom) seem like late night dorm bull sessions.
The flashbacks to illustrations of pseudo-scientific theories and urban legends are amusing but are a waste of time if they are to convince us that any of these deluded idiots are intelligent instead of just stoned. A fight breaks out just so you shouldn't think that such soul-baring discussions would mean these guys are metrosexuals, as that seems as much a motivation as anything else in this film.
It was five minutes into the film when Jason Statham inexplicably appears (playing an older guy who may be intended to be like Jack Nicholson along for the ride as in Five Easy Pieces) that I realized this wasn't the film I meant to see, but another with a similar name. But I was prepared to have an open mind and the audience in the Times Square theater I was in positively responded to the mordant humor.
Debut writer/director Hunter Richards does show potential here in handling romance, as that is the most effective part of the film, at the beginning and end. (2/27/2006)
Imagine Me & You is a fluffy British take on Kissing Jessica Stein that makes even less sense in understanding lesbians.
This thinly stretches out into a predictable romantic comedy what so many serious films lately have shown so much more poignantly, people struggling to understand their confusion with their sexuality, and the impact that has on the people with whom they are intimate.
While trying to be nice to everyone, it comes close to supporting the nonsense theory about gays "converting" straights, as it sure seems easy, though lately even the series The L Word seems to be demonstrating that as well. Unfortunately abandoned was even the exploration of how gay and straight women could be Will and Grace-like best friends.
There are some sit com-y amusing scenes of straights trying to prove their PC-ness with gays. I enjoyed the switch that the florist is a gay woman not a gay man for a change, and the running plaints on love from the customers was amusing and has sit com future potential. We don't learn much about her otherwise. But then I had trouble all through the film of even telling the two lead actresses apart - couldn't they have at least died one of theirs hair?
This was the first Matthew Goode film where I didn't think he was the one who was going to come out, though the film's rush effort to treat him nicely was very forced.
It was nice to see actors from various British shows like Waking the Dead and Manchild get to have fun with different characters.
The pop music selections are surprisingly old, from the title Turtles song to Dusty Springfield's "Look of Love."
The film might have been more effective as an old-fashioned straight triangle. (2/27/2006)
Pizza is a sweetly droll portrait of the impact two disparate people have on each other over one night in a small town. Writer/director Mark Christopher brings to bear some of the freshness of the likes of Napoleon Dynamite, Me and You and Everyone We Know and MTV's Daria. He is particularly good at capturing the dialog, rhythms and social interactions of teens and post-adolescents.
Kylie Sparks as "Cara-Ethyl" is the stand out in carrying the film with her twixt childhood and adulthood 18th birthday girl, quickly switching from big sister knocking down an annoying little brother (exceptionally foul-mouthed, but believably played) to painfully trying to fit in with the high school in crowd to wisely sizing up her companion for the night. She is funny, poignant and moving. She's so good as the chubby, bespectacled outsider that it was unnecessary to have a poster from the musical Hairspray shown over and over behind her during a karaoke number.
Ethan Embry as 30-year-old "Matt Firenze" the pizza delivery guy she latches on to takes surprising directions in self-discovery; he charmingly is not a stereotyped hunk as he learns to move beyond that comfortably easy role. The film ends up being more about him finally learning to grow up, even as it is realistic about their relationship.
It's nice to see Jesse McCartney satirize his usual pop image, even in a tiny role, while the casting of rail thin Alexis Dziena unintentionally supports the commentary on Hollywood images of teens as she's gone on to star in ABC's Invasion. The point is nicely demonstrated how everyone is striving, inappropriately, to be in an older in crowd.
Too bad the adults are so broadly drawn as to bring down the film, particularly Julie Haggerty's temporarily blinded mother, even though the film ironically recalls her classic encounters in Albert Brooks's Lost in America. And why is she carrying around that hairbrush?
Overall, the success of the film is because the characters are neither
sentimentalized nor patronized. They make mistakes and they don't always do the right thing, but somehow they learn something through a night of delivering pizzas.
The interstitial animations that play off pizzas are cute.
The Wilton, PA filming locations are very effectively used to convey small town life. (2/13/2006)
On the Outs puts teen age girls front and center in as moving and disturbing docudrama like films that focused more on boys, from The 400 Blows (Les Quatre cents coups) to Kids.
This is the distaff side of where the child drug dealers in The Wire come from, with Jersey City a strikingly similar locale to Baltimore. We see the intertwining and exacerbating problems of poverty, poor health, violence, and weak education with the destructive impact of drugs cutting a hurricane-like swath through their community and defeating individuals who try to stand up in its rip tide.
Three young black and Latina women, who intersect in the streets and in a juvenile detention facility, have the tragic contradictions of typical adolescents, especially of ones thrust way too soon into the adult world. (As Rush ironically sang: We are only immortal for a limited time.)
We see the tough young dealer determined to make it in a man's world (the charismatic Judy Marte of Raising Victor Vargas as "Oz") who thinks she can nevertheless keep her family free of drugs and dealers; the loving but cocaine addicted single mom (a heartbreaking Paola Mendoza as "Marisol") who forgets to buy her daughter milk; and the naive lover (the pivotal and very non-amateurish Anny Mariano as "Suzette", who says in the accompanying film guide that she was inspired by her sister's experiences) of an older "Sportin' Life" of the streets-type -- the changes in her eyes over the course of the film illustrate the girls' trajectory.
The acting is uniformly excellent. Don Parma, in his screen debut as "Tyrell," is almost as devilishly riveting as Michael K. Williams's "Omar" in The Wire, which is really saying something. The actresses portraying mothers and older relatives fairly showcase the difficulties these women have in preventing their daughters' from repeating their mistakes.
There are a few weaknesses. I was unclear what the passage of time was -- a month? More? We don't really understand how "Oz" got so tough and started dealing in drugs. It's a bit heavy-handed, if ironic and poignant, to frequently show the girls in silhouette to the unattainable Manhattan skyline, particularly of the Statue of Liberty.
I also think writer/directors Lori Silverbush and Michael Skolnik want us to think of the bureaucrats they brush up against as rigid and uncaring, but, sorry, I don't think a foster child should be returned to an irresponsible addict not committed to a drug rehab program, regardless of how she got or stays that way. The "Scared Straight" approach didn't look effective, either, by further weakening the girls' self-esteem. At least the white middle-class employer of one girl's housekeeper mom wasn't drawn too stridently.
Some scenes use a herky-jerky whir that's a bit dizzying, and it's unclear if there's thematic consistency to its use or if they were artsy, cinematographic accidents.
The original music and selected songs were excellent, ranging from gospel (the beautiful opening "Motherless Child") to hip hop to singer/songwriter (Imani Coppola's "Freedom Come"), particularly considering the small budget.
I'm not sure who the teens outside the theater were who appreciated my attending one of the last screenings in New York City, but they very helpfully directed me to the background booklet the filmmakers' produced which is essential in providing information that was not in the credits, and not just on the actresses and creators. The booklet explains that the script grew out of a summer the creators spent working at a juvenile jail in Secaucus, N.J. and how they workshopped the script with the actors. It also includes resource information on the problems of and solutions for girls caught in the juvenile justice system that are also linked on the film's Web site.
But there are no easy solutions for the three girls we cry for in this film, even as there are hints of hope. (1/27/2006)
Tristan & Isolde is a satisfying enough pseudo-historical Hollywood re-telling of a legend.
Marketed to teens, particularly through music video TV ads on teen-oriented shows rather than faux promotional documentaries on A & E or Discovery or the History Channels, it's an adequate PG-13 swashbuckling tale for an audience who hasn't seen many romantic epics. While the production design, architecture, military technology, hair styles, costumes, religious practices, music, languages, accents, literacy, let alone the John Dunne poetry, make absolutely no pretense of any kind of historical accuracy whatsoever, the film takes its tone very seriously and it's quite possible to leave one's rational brain behind and get swept along.
In Hollywood terms, the film opens with a background explanation that it takes place soon after the recent version of King Arthur and seems more redolent of that renowned triangle than the German opera or classic French tale, etc. There's quite a few elements in the plot with holes and confusions, especially in keeping track of various treacheries, duplicities and crossed loyalties. And where does that mast and sail on the little skiff crossing the sea between Ireland and England come from?
While even "Isolde" notes "Tristan"s scrawniness by commenting to him that her betrothed is "twice your size," John Franco is attractively sinewy with an irresistible mop of curls. Too bad he portrays "Tristan" as too stoic rather than conflicted, which he did do well in City By The Sea. Thomas Sangster as the "Young Tristan" is absolutely adorable without curly hair.
Sophia Myles is similarly so sweet as "Isolde" that the relative explicitness of her adulterous triangle is a bit confusing, especially since Rufus Sewall, for a change, isn't a stereotyped villain. It's to the credit of Dean Georgaris's script that he is instead a king for whom no good deed goes unpunished. "Isolde" even admits at one point that if she had a baby she wouldn't know which one was the father, while a closing explanation continues fitting the legend into history.
The production design is overwhelmingly grey. We don't even see any blood in the many duels and fight scenes until a key trail at the end, when it seems more black than red. The aftermath of various violent encounters is more gruesome than what we actually see happening, as the brutal intensity is created more through editing and sound design.
While the matte landscape backgrounds are only obvious a couple of times, the coastal scenes are beautiful.
The music by Anne Dudley is very dramatic but other than a few flitting fiddles, it completely wastes any opportunity to incorporate traditional instrumentation, melodies or even differentiation between Irish and the various tribes of Britain. (1/22/2006)
Match Point is such a pastiche of many films and literary works, some self-referentially preened, that I occupied myself identifying them throughout the movie.
Starting with a repeating visual motif of tennis balls across the net recalling a classic image from Blow Up, scenes at a Wimbledon-like club near the opening seem straight out of Evelyn Waugh, such as in Bright Young Things. Two guys exchange a freighted conversation about loving opera I thought for sure was a coded gaydar filter so we'd be seeing them either on the down low or bi, especially as Matthew Goode is channeling a young Rupert Everett.
But, no, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers is more conventionally manipulative as we see him reading Crime and Punishment, and the Penguin equivalent of Cliff Notes of Dostoevsky for analysis (and poshing up his native accent even as Goode keeps teasingly calling him "Irish").
Courting is done, as in many references to Woody Allen's own Crimes and Misdemeanors, by seeing old black and white movies during the day (portentously Rififi (Du rififi chez les hommes)) or foreign ones (ironically class-conscious The Motorcycle Diaries (Diarios de motocicleta) with a rich girlfriend of an ambitious guy who makes quite different decisions) though this film actually focuses very little on Dreiser's class differentials of the similar American Tragedy).
The setting is supposed to be contemporary, but other than some frank discussion of birth control and fertility treatments, these folks love opera and collect classic cars. Not an iPod in sight and computers are something mysteriously used at vague jobs. It would make sense if Penelope Wilton's tippling matriarch was the source of inherited wealth and Brian Cox's patriarch a wealthy business tycoon, recalling Edith Wharton, let alone F. Scott Fitzgerald, but that would make too much sense, as we're supposed to assume this is an old, inbred family. This seems to be parallel to Allen's oeuvre as Age of Innocence is to Scorsese and Gosford Park is to Altman's, but their period specificity added the weight of historical social changes to come that this film is lacking.
Instead, what we get is basically another take on the character of The Talented Mr. Ripley, and Rhys-Meyers is much better than Matt Damon, as sexy as Alain Delon was in the Purple Noon (Plein soleil) interpretation and far more emotional than both, in his lust and in his chutzpah. He dynamically carries the last part of the movie by creating the kind of villain where the whole audience first starts rumbling about him to each other and then yelling to him on the screen. His Bergman-esque confrontation with ghosts, while visual, is far less effective than the moral and religious discussions in Crimes and Misdemeanors.
Up until her last few Shelley Winters-in-A Place in the Sun-channeling hysteria scenes, Scarlett Johansson has some of the smartest and sexiest seduction dialog in any of Allen's films. But her character stops making a lot of sense.
Emily Mortimer pretty much plays the same lovelorn victim she did in Young Adam and doesn't get to expand into the further tender vulnerability she projected in Lovely and Amazing.
With the film co-produced by BBC, it's nice to see wonderful actors from TV series such as Spooks (MI-5), Murphy's Law and Prime Suspect, who add authenticity heft in small roles.
The production design and music are way over the top. The continuous opera excerpts, sounding like they are playing from old '78's, are a change from Allen's usual jazz, but seem a forced exaggerated theatricality (even as Rhys-Meyers amusingly uses the decidedly more middle-brow The Woman in White as an alibi). With one of the characters interested in contemporary art, he is constantly surrounded by paintings that comment on his actions, such as a large red rooster emphasizing his cuckoldry and another with the word "ache" writ large across it, etc.
The best elements of the film are ironically visualizing the elements of luck and chance, as applied to tennis, fertility and life.
This film looks beautiful and has nothing new to show or say.(1/12/2006)
Brokeback Mountain ranks as one of the saddest, most heart breaking romantic movies ever made, without a drop of sentimentality or ounce of schmaltz.
Director Ang Lee has created a direct descendant of John Ford's seminal Westerns. While filmed in Alberta standing in for Wyoming, rather than Ford's usual Monument Valley, the gorgeous landscape (credit to Rodrigo Prieto's lovely cinematography) and endless horizon of isolation recalls a West where John Wayne tried to shoot Natalie Wood for transgressive fraternizing in The Searchers and the men of My Darling Clementine, etc., were only free outdoors, beyond the confines of civilization. The camera adores the two handsome Marlboro Men at the center of the story from first shot, and throughout, as we see them draped over trucks, sheep, horses, campfires and each other.
Enlivened by terrific acting, Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana's screenplay adaptation of Annie Proulx's short story manages the difficult feat of communicating raw emotion through essentially inarticulate characters who first don't understand their feelings and then have no words to express them.
Jake Gyllenhaal is almost as adorable as "Jack Twist" as he was romancing Gwyneth Paltrow in Proof. Even though his aging hair and make-up defeat him visually for a human saga that extends over 20 years (as well as Anne Hathaway's who literally ropes him into being her spouse), his growing maturity and self-realization is demonstrated to be hard-won. While we have seen the anxiety of the third leg of a triangle many times in stories of adultery or intermittently requited love, Gyllenhaal wears his passion, joy, hope, affection, longing and desperation on his face so transparently that the audience cannot help but be drawn into his palpable pain.
But Heath Ledger takes conflicted masculinity to a new level, in a way that Jarhead scrupulously avoided. As one of the aggressive women in their lives says in frustration as to why she's now with a new beau: "He even talks." Ledger's "Ennis Del Mar" drawls a concession of "Guess I wasn't much fun." Her tearful riposte: "Don't you understand that a woman doesn't fall in love with fun?" He creates a complete, taciturn, repressed, confused character from a hardscrabble life who tries to force himself to accept being fenced in by the strictures of Western expectations and codes of conduct towards both men and women. His character is totally overwhelmed when his feelings are unleashed and collide, and yet, can shine with exquisite tenderness in sweet romance. His performance leaves the audience exhausted in its pathos. While I've been a fan since his teen acting days, his brief scenes in Monster's Ball only hinted that he was capable of this depth. He embodies tortured loneliness who has to sacrifice too much to learn that no man is an island.
The film is movingly sensitive to the women in their lives and very sympathetic to the women being hornswoggled by adultery where they least expected it. Michelle Williams is a whirlwind as a naive girl who grows into an exhausted working mother suddenly faced with an explanation for the jarring disconnect in her marriage that will always be there through their shared children. (The men take seriously responsibility for procreative sex.) Her interactions with Ledger, in and out of bed, build to fraught climaxes.
The musical leitmotif of the central relationship is repeated operatically relentlessly. The country music jukebox selections are adequate (Tammy Wynette's "D-I-V-O-R-C-E" is a bit too obvious a choice), though the tracks on the soundtrack CD are beautiful but not apparent in the film. Over the credits, Willie Nelson croons a lovely take on Bobby Bare's traditional "He Was A Friend of Mine" that ironically segues into Rufus Wainwright's "The Maker Makes." And when I got home the first song that popped up on the radio was Aretha Frankin belting "I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)" which seemed even more appropriate. (12/19/2005)
a href="http://brokebackmountain.blogspot.com/">original story as it re-appeared at the end of Annie Proulx's collection Close Range: Wyoming Stories (revised a bit from its prize-winning New Yorker debut and now retitled post the issuing of the film), puts the characters into the context of her view of the hard-bitten men and women of the west and should be read with all the stories for that context. It is the only story of true love in the book. It makes absolutely convincing that a fear of violence and retribution for being different is completely justified as each story portrays decades of those who are different bearing the brunt of suffering.
Reading it is also a classic case of seeing how gifted screenwriters can adapt an original source, as the story is more about flashbacks than told chronologically as is the film. Where characters drop a line about something that happened in the past, that casually mentioned incident becomes accurately fleshed out as a whole scene in the film. I have even more respect for Ledger's acting as he takes a crucial concluding paragraph and turns it into a simple heart-stopping gesture. The coda in the film is justified for inclusion as it is also implied in the story. (1/26/2006)
Good Morning, Night (Buongiorno, notte) is an intriguing effort to understand terrorists.
Loosely based on a novel, writer/director Marco Bellocchio specifically re-imagines the kidnapping of Italian party leader Aldo Moro in 1987, with heavy use of television clips. The quaintly naive Cold War rhetoric, emphasized with odd historic black and white newsreel interstices such as of Stalinist parades, may now be seen as an examination of a symbolic precursor for today's gruesome politics, though he was already working on the film at 9/11.
The young idealists we are first introduced to seem as harmless as the radical pranksters in the contemporary The Edukators (Die Fetten Jahre sind vorbei). While it's a jolt to gradually learn their connection to the violent attack, first revealed as they cheer at the initial TV coverage, they seem so bumbling and nervous (one takes leave abruptly for, as it were, a conjugal visit as he feels he's the one being imprisoned; another gets fixated on an overly symbolic pet caged bird), it's never clear if they personally committed murder or if they're just the guardian cell taking orders from those who stage the mock trial and pull the triggers or if that is a moral difference that is intentionally considered irrelevant.
Real world politics do occasionally seep through in silent background commentary, through factory strikes and sarcastic graffiti, but the determined ideologues reject these actions as they see themselves as the true believers. Ironically, the drone of the TV coverage, with reports of related and unrelated violent acts around the country, they anxiously watch becomes as much a recitation as the opening pitch from the bored apartment rental agent.
Their Red Brigade aims seem so diffuse about intending to set off revolutions and counter-revolutions, compared to the more direct motives of the terrorists in Paradise Now (let alone how kidnapping has devolved into a business, as in Secuestro Express), at least to those not intimately familiar with Italian political dialectics, that it seems more understandable than ludicrous that the negotiations draw on. A long side bar scene where one of the kidnappers joins her family in a memorial service for World War II partisans nostalgically singing an anti-Fascist anthem, inspiring her to read a collection of letters resistance fighters wrote before their executions instead of her usual Lenin or Engels reading, makes the dialectics even more ironic as to what fascist behavior is. Her internal struggle to resolve these pressures, including several confusing dream sequences, is the core of the film and Maya Sansa, with very expressive eyes, is captivating as "Chiara."
The kidnapping itself takes on a Ransom of Red Chief feel as the Aldo Moro character, well-played by Roberto Herlitzka and the point of the film's dedication to the auteur's father, is much more of an eloquent, dignified, paternal humanist statesman than a typical politician. The kidnappers seem to be thwarted in provoking political crisis because he will only write personal, non-political notes to his family, particularly his grandson (even if does seem as if he's writing love notes to his mistress rather than to his wife). But his appeal to the pope and the pope's involvement in the negotiations and their aftermath seems as incongruous as an odd séance by political supporters or the kidnappers doing a blessing before eating. Compared to the director's earlier My Mother's Smile (L'Ora di religione: Il sorriso di mia madre), religion is only an ancillary issue.
The auteur's voice, as an artist, seems to speak through a somewhat naive and flirtatious friend of "Chiara"s who has written a screenplay about radicals and quotes the Emily Dickinson poem that inspired the title. He argues that the imagination can be a powerful force in influencing people, though of course the authorities misinterpret his involvement.
I saw it with a defective soundtrack, but other than odd musical commentary with bombastic selections from Aida and Pink Floyd, the film's strength is faces and looking into the eyes of deluded cogs in the wheel of historical forces, though the best sequence is given away in the trailer. (11/16/2005)
Paradise Now is an engrossing effort to put a human face on suicide bombers, until it gets too talky and didactic towards the end.
We are introduced to two young guys in Nablus just getting through another desultory day, at a boring job and with not much to do otherwise but smoke and flirt a bit with a pretty young woman - not that much different from small town life in the U.S. And religion doesn't have much more emphasis in their lives than, say, an evangelical Christian in a small town in Texas. Lanky Kais Nashef (as Said) and Ali Suliman (as Khaled) in their film debuts charismatically hold the screen as life-long friends (so close that one's mother doesn't even put her head scarf on when the other is around so he's become part of the family). We see them as real people, not stereotypes, interacting warmly with their relatives.
So it comes as something of a shock when they get notified that the suicide mission they've been waiting for to do together is set for the next day. The story is kept narrowly on West Bank Palestinians, so can't be presumed to provide answers about such as the London bombers or those who this week blew up hotels in Jordan. Their preparations are both comic and tense, as unfortunately the regularity of these methods have created their own rituals with photographs and statements. It does seem as if the older cell leaders directing the mission are using the younger men as pawns, in how the bombs are strapped on to them, the casual reference to the titular afterlife, and as they get so little information on the mission's context, an omission that will create chaos when they have to deal with being out of the West Bank for the first time in their lives, despite the alleged two years of planning. When one of their mothers profusely thanks the leader for running a school because the boys need education, there's a strong implication through his demurral of what the kids are learning in what is probably a notorious madrassa.
Their transformation from slackers to terrorists is chilling, as they are shaved, shorn and dressed to look like they could fit in with observant Jews. There is a running, ironic joke, that everyone keeps asking them if they are going to a wedding dressed in those incongruous black suits that are hard to keep clean in their dusty adventure. There is a silently touching interlude when "Khaled" sadly watches two boys flying a kite together, clearly nostalgic for his childhood with his friend.
A running theme throughout the film is family history as related to geographical history. The major characters have fathers whose actions reflect on them in the community, either in pride or to rebel against. Despite the long-winded political debates towards the end, it is coldly noteworthy that their target is clearly civilian with no religious or specifically political resonance, in Tel Aviv, the secular, sophisticated, economic heart of Israel, which seems like a city from another planet compared to the evocative scenes we've seen in broken-down, Old World Nablus.
The most interesting character is a young woman, doubtless atypical (played by professional actress Lubna Azabal), as she is a Moroccan who has lived in France and has come to Palestine to work for a human rights group (she's very sensitive that her accent is different). Her exposure to the world has allowed her to see a wider potential for peace that the young men with their claustrophobic existence, that is manipulated by the militants, hemmed in by the border and frequently changing checkpoints, simply cannot understand. She has an ironic interchange with a store clerk about what he charges for videos of last testaments of suicide bombers vs. those of collaborators. Certainly macho pride also figures into their decisions. But exposure to her arguments, delivered literally on the run as she begins to realize what's afoot, has unpredictable consequences.
The weakest part of the film is when the characters express how their philosophies and family histories are affecting their decisions. While "Said"s lengthy monologue is eerily like "Tom Joad"s from the Grapes of Wrath film, both in content and as photographed by director/co-writer Hany Abu-Assad, the setting of delivering it to his revered cell leader doesn't quite make sense and turns the film from a dramatic feature into a political statement.
Even with the monologues and political discussions, the film is as involving as entertainments about terrorism such as Day of the Jackal and 24 as we do not know what will happen at each turn. A running story line is looking people in the eyes and this film does that clear-eyed both visually and thematically about Palestinian suicide bombers.(11/11/2005)
Jarhead is a visually stunning celebration of making an R rated film about enlisted men, ground level troops from basic training through homecoming in a late 20th century war. And that's it.
The first third is a repeat of every movie ever made about basic training, including Full Metal Jacket and even having Jamie Foxx channel Louis Gossett Jr. from An Officer and A Gentleman. Just that now we get to hear a lot of variations of the "F" word in conversations and scatological marching chants. The squadron is even set up as the diversity of the new Army (there's an amusing interchange about unfamiliarity with author Anthony Swofford's Anglo-Saxon surname), as the inevitable kid from Compton now replacing the World War II stereotype of the boy from Brooklyn, with two Latinos, one dark, one light, with one a Cuba Libre proponent. That's just about all we learn about each of these guys, though at least we can tell them apart more than the guys in Black Hawk Down. Peter Sarsgaard is mesmerizing but his character stays a bit of a mystery throughout. Are these any different than scenes from an Qaeda training camp would be?
Just as generals fight the previous war (the lesson learned here was to have overwhelming force and popular support), these guys get hopped up on Viet Nam War movies, though the message of Apocalypse Now seems lost on them and there's only one plaint for their own music (there's actually surprisingly little hip hop on the soundtrack though Thomas Newman's soundtrack and other selections are very effective). This section is tedious and loses the audience too soon.
The second third is the build-up to Gulf War I as it slowly changed from Desert Shield into Desert Storm, and which we at home knew a lot more about through CNN than these troops out in the desert did (and there's no sign of other members of the coalition), as they only get propaganda briefings a la the truism that the first victim of war is the truth. This salacious section is basically Boys Gone Wild with Boredom, that veers close to HBO's Oz territory and you can practically smell the latrines and body odor. The R rating could have been pushed much further here, as the full extent of what isolated men are like together is covered clinically in the voice-over that is only useful in this section and is otherwise too annoying throughout. A beefed up Jake Gyllenhaal is explosive in representing the marines' disintegrating mental state. The military does seem to have learned some lessons from this readiness experience to keep troops in touch with home, as seen in the recently cancelled FX series Over There. The scenes of press interviews have lost a bit of punch since we've seen since embedded reporters.
It is effective at showing how a brutal misogyny can develop in these situations (with a toss-off about fertility as a half-hearted balance) such that the women in their lives become The Enemy in the bitter "Wall of Shame" of cheating wives and girlfriends. (There's a nasty vignette of a wife turning her husband's fondness for The Deer Hunter back on him.) It's a small stretch to understand how in other cultures and at other places rape and pillaging could become a weapon of war as a release. (Homophobia is not dealt with.) War looks like a controlled outlet for testosterone.
The third section is all about Roger Deakins' cinematography, from the blinding white out of the desert to the burning oil wells, to friendly fire and collateral damage. It is starkly beautiful.
There are some political points here as gradually the sniper marines realize they are irrelevant in an air war, but we know that won't be the case in the Gulf War Part 2 that's now urban guerrilla battles. Three Kings is much better at combining the grunts' and the wider cultural and political perspectives, though there's some token discussion about dissent. The film reinforces another truism that troops in battle fight for their buddies, not for ideology (presumably in Qaeda as well).
The concluding coda is heavy-handed, including the closing narrative point: "All wars are different. All wars are the same." Best Years of Our Lives made the same points and almost the same story lines.
While Chris Cooper and Dennis Haysbert seem to get a kick out of strutting around, I doubt the military can use this as a recruiting film, as there's brief points about inadequate equipment and risky issued drugs.(11/7/2005)
Anthony Spofford's visceral, insightful memoir is so much better than the film! While the strongest images and incidents come directly from the book, the decision to untangle the triggered flashbacks and flash-forward's into a straight chronological story dilutes the emotional impact, particularly about his relationships with father and grandfather and their previous wars, as well as with various women (the casual lovers at marine camps around the world are completely eliminated in the film). The book does not have the boring, extended, conventional boot camp training intro that fatally drags down the movie, and provides wry comments Viet Nam era movies and music that did not come through in the film. The film did successfully combine several guys into the colleague played by Sarsgaard, but I think it was his strong performance that made him indelible, not the script or anything from the book, as he embodied the spirit of the book more than any specifics. Many of the most macabre and graphic scenes of war, as well as the rough language, were eliminated. Read the book, don't bother to see the movie! (1/12/2006)
Elizabethtown is a string of vignettes that don't quite pull together for an emotional journey. What I especially didn't expect is a Cameron Crowe movie that feels so much like pieces of other movies.
The opening vignette of corporate rise and fall has a few amusing satiric touches of cubicle life in an entrepreneur's ego-driven company, but feels hastily retooled from the internet bust to an athletic shoe company and is too dependent on the annoying, voicing the obvious, voice-over narration. This part is too much like the weak Just Like Love or even too obviously striving to re-strike the opening of Jerry Maguire.
The "meet cute" vignette establishes immediately that Kirsten Dunst's flight attendant is just plain annoying and continues to be so as we learn nothing more about her. Just that everyone loves her and her occasional southern drawl immediately (at least at the only there for silly comic relief wedding party) and she's a prescient, controlling know it all so that the maybe's of their relationship only seem based on her psychic abilities and not their developing chemistry, and there's no suspense about it. Their extended phone conversation courtship was done better in The Truth About Cats and Dogs. Even the teens behind me got fed up and muttered that she was "an idiot." At least in Junebug, which was also centered around a family's bland golden boy returning to the south, we got insight into the preternaturally peppy woman. As long as this film is rated PG-13 for some reason, more could have been made of the romance.
The family gathering in the titular town stoops to some stereotypes as it's like a southern mirror image of Avalon, and the lost big city guy in the small southern town seems a lot like Doc Hollywood. But the contrasting father/son/grandson conflicts around Cousin "Jessie" (Paul Schneider of All the Real Girls) are so natural, despite a buffoonish conservative Loudon Wainwright as the dad (despite that so much of his own oeuvre is about these same father/son issues) and the mystery of their wives, that he seems to be in a parallel, better movie. Too bad Crowe's boomer musical tastes make the cousin a Lynyrd Skynyrd fanatic as that doesn't make a lot of sense for such a young guy (and greatly confused the teens in back of me who didn't get a single older musical reference so missed the significance of a slapstick funny "Freebird" climax though it uncomfortably recalled a recent tragic accident).
Women's role in such get-togethers is portrayed affectionately. Susan Sarandon's brief comic appearances start out seeming just oddly silly but turn into a gutsily sweet and funny facing down of a family that always saw her as an outsider, though the modeling message that was supposed to be conveyed to her son about romance was a bit muddled. Just that this must be at least the fifth movie recently that considers the song "Moon River" some kind of touch stone.
It is amusing to have some family members note in passing just how handsome Orlando Bloom is, as he doesn't add much else to the film. At least his accent only slips once.
The closing road trip is a music version of the Americana kitsch journey in About Schmidt. I wish that Crowe would do a separate documentary about his musical free association from Kentucky to Memphis and west as it would work better on its own and I would love to see that. Yes, the music selections are terrific, except when they are too distractingly obvious and familiar, such as Elton John, U2 and Tom Petty, and I did want to be able to take in all the selections on the mix CD that we barely glimpse (including an inside joke of listing a Rufus Wainwright song in a notebook that looks just like the one in the teen remake of Cruel Intentions) and hear, as it was nice to hear Ryan Adams, My Morning Jacket and Eastmountainsouth. Evidently the 18 minutes eliminated from the rough cut shown at the Toronto Film Festival were from this section and now it just feels jumpily confusing and not at all revelatory about Bloom's character. What does he learn about himself by visiting the Lorraine Motel, Sun Studios and the Second Largest Farmer's Market other than boogying badly? The seconds of nostalgic flashbacks to connect the past with the present aren't quite enough emotional grounding. Combining a musical journey with an inner one made more sense in Schultze Gets the Blues.
Crowe wonderfully captured '90's young people in Singles and nostalgically those of the '60's in Almost Famous, but his insights just don't seem to flow out of these young folks. (10/15/2005)
Dandelion is a hauntingly beautiful contemporary spin on Splendor in the Grass, with pervasive forebodings of how the endless horizons of the American Western prairie can lead to claustrophobic traps.
Debut director/co-writer Mark Milgard masterfully makes the long hot summer of the lovely Idaho and Washington landscapes redolent with both the magic of young love and the dread of violence in a very Days of Heaven fashion. The sins of the parents are literally visited on the children. The perceptive camera fills in the silent gaps of the inarticulate characters, between parents and their teens, between parents and between teens. The action is moved along not by theatrically explosive explication but by the existential choice that each character makes, even as one gently points out that his passivity at a key point was a choice. Using cinema as a storytelling technique, the director unveils these choices visually.
Key to the success of this approach is Vincent Kartheiser. We certainly had no trouble thinking he was from another dimension in TV's Angel, and here his emotive face and saucer eyes are Garbo-like to the camera. His "Mason" almost non-verbally goes from sullen son huddling under his hair to opaque Billy Budd-like martyr to an achingly enraptured Romeo. His sudden bright smile lights up the screen and forecasts the potential for hope and love as much as his tear-filled eyes drown our hearts. Every feeling felt or shut down is reflected in that face and eyes. Kudos to Kartheiser for not choosing to be another of the WB TV Boyz -- was he in college in between?-- and instead taking an offbeat role.
No wonder Taryn Manning's "Danny" finds the scrawny sensitive kid irresistible even when a more conventionally hunky bad boy Shawn Reaves (of TV's Tru Calling) is a rival (though the triangle plays out in an atypical fashion). She sensitively exudes toughness and vulnerability, in a different way than she did in Hustle & Flow, as she blossoms into what "Mason" sees in her.
The parents are also atypically not inconsequential and the excellent acting by the adults ratchets up tensions (though a post traumatic stressed syndrome Viet vet uncle and a grief-stricken mime out of Springsteen's "Reason to Believe" are a bit too much). Arliss Howard well captures a nice guy who nevertheless commits terrible emotional abuse on his wife and son. Mare Winningham starts out as the usual tippling oblivious homemaker, but brings real feeling to the last part of the film, in both an explosion of frustration and in an almost pieta scene of sympathetically stroking her inconsolable son's hair. Michelle Forbes is commendably almost unrecognizable in a very atypical role for her as a troubled single mom who destroys her daughter's self-esteem. The film well shows how the adults start to perceive their kids' feelings and how that powerful life-affirmation affects them.
Even though what was obviously a minuscule budget necessitated no changes in hair styles or aging make-up etc. to back-up the interstitial "two years later," the weather-beaten buildings and exquisite settings of meadows, creek, endless road and railroad tracks and big sky of bright clouds and overpowering rain are an essential component of the story, though I'm pretty sure the title image only appears once.
While co-writer Robb Williamson's score captures the ominous mood and the indie rock song selections are illustrative, especially Sparklehorse ironically singing of a "wonderful life" and Cat Power covering Lou Reed, the visuals reminded me of a country song: "You know the world must be flat/'Cos when people leave town, they never come back." (from "Small Town Saturday Night" by Alger and DeVito, popularized by Hal Ketchum).
There have been some other films lately dealing seriously with teens and parents amidst death and first love, including the suburban Winter Solstice and Imaginary Heroes, but I was the most moved by Dandelion. This is the most poignant, mature portrait of young people in rural America since Tully. (10/12/2005
Into the Blue beautifully delivers exactly what it advertises -- Jessica Alba in a string bikini and a sun-drenched Paul Walker as the primary flora in a lot of water.
For the record, straight women get a bit cheated, as Alba's attire is a marvel of waterproof tape (especially with the camera constantly down her (or her stunt or body double's) front and up her rear) while Walker wears long trunks and jeans throughout so we get half the view straight men do. Are we not customers too? Can we not get our pound of flesh? Is our money less green? Oh sure, we're supposed to mostly care about cuddling, and we get on the big screen some of Walker's engaging smile and crinkly blue eyes as "Jared" establishes his romantic fidelity to Alba's "Samantha" with less passion than he won over those of us oblivious to fast cars in Noel. I came in a few minutes late so missed some of the most romantic scene, but I didn't seem to miss any explication. I get that the 12 year old boys in the audience are restless during such romance, but older, female members of the audience would have liked more as a break from the confusing action.
The two swimsuits, er, actors do have chemistry together, even though he's at least eight years older than she (so doesn't quite fit my 20something limitation here). Alba is charming as her "Sam" does get to spout morals, as she makes clear that drugs and drug dealers are bad, and is kindly to children, convincing that love is all we need, and she is neither helpless nor super, but does get to use some of her old Dark Angel chops. I'm sure dentists will be happy how sexy she makes brushing teeth look. But I was mostly worried if the actors were using strong sun screen or if they would be eligible for workmen's comp when they develop skin cancer from so much over-exposure.
While the plot gets way overly twisted up levels and levels of corruption and way too many bodies pile up (and I did not think it appropriate that audience members brought very young children due to the violence and occasional naughty word), the morality basics of the slippery slope of compromise are presented well, though there no noir subtlety or comeuppance. I think the confusing elements in the underwater action sequences may be due to editing confusion over which masked stunt double is portraying whom.
As usual in such films, the bad guys do seem to have the most fun. Ashley Scott's party girl brings some ambiguity to her role as an evil influence. Josh Brolin was almost unrecognizable behind his gristle and gruff voice and James Frain was enjoying slumming in what sounded to Yank ears as a working class accent.
The soundtrack includes some good Caribbean song selections, such as by Ziggy Marley, and a few surprising singer-songwriters, such as Loque, but even more would have been welcome. The instrumental music is serviceable, but it ramps up too obviously with surprise villainous attacks.
This is a visually entertaining, mindless ride. (10/3/2005)
Pretty Persuasion crosses Mean Girls with an updated slant on Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour, but its social and political satire feels in too many scenes like an extended Saturday Night Live sketch.
The film is heavy-handedly based on the sociological findings that instead of doing Columbine-like violence, teen age girls lash out with spiteful aggression in social situations. The film makes the extended case that teen girls are more like Machiavelli than Carrie or as in Heathers. The male debut writer and director can't resist adding in dollops of male fantasy about girls and women. Even under the guise of examining how ambiguous male-driven media messages from Britney Spears to Lolita to TV shows, etc. create confusing role models of appropriate behavior for girls in their real lives, males are seen as clueless pawns of younger females.
One effective touch is to replay scenes in flashbacks from different angles to show how miscommunications and misunderstandings can occur and be manipulated.
Individual scenes and caricatures are very funny, particularly James Wood doing a comic take on his Ghosts of Mississippi role. Adi Schnall is touching as a naive Muslim student thrown in with the sharks of the American Dream. Jane Krakowski enjoys making fun of the ambitious bombshell roles she usually plays. Elisabeth Harnois is the most affecting as the best friend, but she is so natural she almost seems to be in a different movie. Selma Blair has a brief funny scene as a wife mocking her husband's fantasies, though a notable episode of TV's Angel did the exact same scene with more dark bite, as well as the general theme taken up more effectively by Joss Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Ryan Murphy in Popular. But most of the rest of the broad, scatter shot attacks on ethnic, racial and sexual PC clichés end up just wooden and go on repetitively for too long. Individual lines like "I can sympathize with the immigrant experience because I'm Canadian." are amusing, as are ongoing jokes about putting on the story of Anne Frank as the high school play, but pile up in dialog that even the commanding Evan Rachel Wood has trouble making seem real.
The closing montage ties all the disparate themes together in a sudden shift of tone, but it was a long time getting there, in moving from the obvious to the touching to twists in using high school as the usual metaphor for the world at large.
The cinematography is all appropriate bright pink. The set design is full of visual jokes, more than the can be picked up quickly.
For a film set in the world of teenagers, there are few songs on the sound track, perhaps due to budget limitations, but more music might have helped the pacing. (9/25/2005)
Thumbsucker is a charming look at an adolescent boy and the constellation of friends and family around him. It has the humor of Napoleon Dynamite through the kind of original prism as Me and You and Everyone We Know and the clear-eyed look at families as Imaginary Heroes.
With an ongoing refrain of "Did you ever really want to change?", the film takes both a humorous and almost Flowers for Algernon serious look at the current trend to label what might be normal, or just slightly unusual, childhood behaviors as a medicatable disorder, particularly labeling a kid ADD and giving him a pharmaceutical solution, and how it affects not just him but his family and others around him in unpredictable ways. Debut director/writer Michael Mills has the camera movements accent the debates, going slowly back and forth, emphasized by the song selections that swing from cheery Polyphonic Spree to depressing Elliott Smith, with a lot of silences in between. It is refreshing to see a film dealing with a kid with a different problem than most recent films, not grief nor dope nor abuse. The family is more functional than most portrayed, as they do genuinely try to reach out to each other and there is plenty of humor amidst the poignancy.
Noting that everyone has secrets that they will allow all kinds of misinterpretations in order not to reveal, the story goes further and explores other sources of a habit and solutions, from the spiritual to recreational drugs to sexual to see them all as crutches for avoiding maturity at whatever chronological age. The ironies are accented through funny dream sequences.
Lou Taylor Pucci of the soulful eyes is captivating as a warmly believable kid and puts in a really vulnerable performance through the roller coaster plot. While not as showy as Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Mysterious Skin, he should be remembered around award time for newcomer, break out performance of the year.
He is surrounded by top notch adult actors who revel in playing against or making fun of their usual types. Tilda Swinton is very maternal, but with a mysterious edge so that you can join her son in being wary of her. Vincent D'Onofrio captures an inarticulate ex-jock dad. Vince Vaughan is almost a caricature of the nerdy teacher who wants to be one of the guys with his students (though the depiction of the workings of his high school debate team is inaccurate, even if the author of the book the screenplay is adapted from does a cameo as a judge). Keanu Reeves is The Matrix's Neo as a cheerfully suburban orthodontist. Benjamin Bratt satirizes celebrity TV stars.
The longing for more than friends relationship with the out of reach girl is a bit conventional for such films but quite touching nevertheless. The character of the girl is more a real person with feelings and a trajectory of issues of her own, which is unusual in this genre.
While the Portland area setting was more exurban than typically suburban, there was a bit of laughter in the Times Square theater I saw the film in when New York City kept being quizzically bruited as an unreachable goal, with the image of Times Square as freedom. And everyone knows that college acceptance letters are the thick packet, not the thin envelope. (9/25/2005)
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (Xiao cai feng) raises the awkward situation of commenting on a semi-autobiographical story which was originally written, then adapted and directed by the person who lived it in the same, beautiful locations where the events that inspired Sijie Dai took place. How much is fiction and how much is docu-drama? And I haven't read the book so I don't know how much he changed.
The basics of the story would seem like a 1940's sci fi allegory of a totalitarian, anti-intellectual society if the Cultural Revolution under the here ubiquitously revered ruler Mao Tse Tung hadn't actually happened, with its anti-literate class-based revenge of kicking the children of the perceived elite out of the cities to rural areas for re-education at rigorous manual labor. In outline, his story is like a real life Fahrenheit 451 and "the Little Seamstress," the teen ager, played charmingly by Xun Zhou, who gets caught up in a triangle between the out-of-towners, like Ninotchka. She, startlingly, has far more ambition than the loyal peasant girl in The Road Home.
So it's hard to tell if the strong condescension in the tone to the local peasantry is what the two young men finally learn to overcome or is somewhat shown to be just as endemic in the Communist Party as is seen at the end they were suppressing the beauty of local traditions almost as much as intellectual influences. Because the premise that transforming aesthetics can only come from outside influences through movies, fashion and Western literature and music just seems anthropologically naive as they poke fun at and trick the locals. We do see that the peasants appreciate story telling, sewing and songs - but only of the most earthy kind until the re-educated sneak in their experiences, disguised as homages to Lenin or Mao. For example, with the almost universality of stringed instruments in human culture, it's hard to believe that peasants would be that skeptical when first exposed to a violin.
The film is at its strongest, and loveliest, when it sticks to the personal relationships that result from contacts with the locals, as human nature is more powerful than ideology and youth is simply irrepressible and non-Orwellian. The romantic triangle plays out beautifully and gently demonstrates male instincts for Pygmalion control, irrespective of politics. The story affirms the Law of Unintended Consequences, heavily symbolized at the end with the coming of a dam on the river that will have the same effect on these towns as the TVA had on now forgotten communities in Appalachia.
This tender and poignant nostalgia is a chronological and thematic prequel to the less optimistic The World (Shijie) in showing the impact of globalization on China and its people.
Games of Love and Chance (L'Esquive) is an involving experiment in giving classic French comedy of errors relevance to today, in a dramatic demonstration of "Plus ça change, plus c'est la meme chose" -- the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Writer/director Abdellatif Kechiche juxtaposes the titular 18th century work by Marivaux with junior high kids in a poor, inner city Arab immigrant neighborhood, for an effect that crosses Larry Clark's Kids with Mad Hot Ballroom. Like any period farce, the real relationships are dizzyingly circular: A loves B who loves C who is in disguise with D. A threatens C, B changes places with D to pursue his suit and use Marivaux like Cyrano, C can't make up her mind, friends of B and C misunderstand everyone, and the course of true love doesn't run smooth.
While marred by wincingly heavy-handed intellectualizing on class social criticism by the literature teacher who is directing the kids in the play and a deus ex machina insertion of biased cops, the frank life and death-ness of adolescent romance strongly comes through in comparison to Marivaux's mannered floweriness, even as these kids communicate amongst each other with four letter obscenities, bluntly crude slang (that may not be too well represented in the English subtitles but I'm sure French subtitlers likewise have trouble with the patois in movies such as Four Brothers), heart-tugging looks of longing, painfully hurt tears, and, finally in frustration, physical action.
It is not clear if "the blonde" as she is referred to in the English subtitles (played by the excellent Sara Forestier, who seems to have been the only member of the cast with some previous experience before the cameras) is also from an immigrant family or Muslim, or if she just picked up use of a couple of Muslim catch phrases in her slang as to whether Kechiche is adding another layer of social commentary. Or she could just be part of the trend in French cinema to fixate on pouty young blonde temptresses, viz. La Petite Lili, À Tout de Suite (Right Now), Lila Says (Lila dit ça). (If her different ethnicity was clarified I would classify this film under ROMEO AND JULIET ACROSS THE ETHNIC DIVIDE).
This film has a lot of parallels with Lila Says (Lila dit ça), not just about sex and social setting, though it dealt with older kids, but also how literature can be an escapist outlet but also a threat that brings hidden emotions to the fore.
The grim mise en scene makes wonderful use of a crowded, high rise neighborhood where the kids hang out chilled because they have little privacy at home, some fathers are in jail, their loving mothers try to keep tabs on them, and cell phones are their expensive lifelines.
While the film goes on a bit too long as scenes meander, probably because it isn't clear how much has been scripted and how much the kids are very effectively improvising particulars around a basic story line, their relationships are enthralling, both the romances and the friendships. Each teen actor creates an indelible and different character.
270 years since Marivaux and the human heart hasn't changed.
Oyster Farmer is a warm, refreshing, Australian take on the old-fashioned genre of the secretive, hunky stranger with a murky past shaking up a small community.
Alex O'Lachlan in his notable debut as "Jack Flange" is very much like William Holden in Picnic and Paul Newman in The Long Hot Summer. While debut writer/director Anna Reeves certainly appreciates his visual and visceral assets, his character's mysteriously tattooed masculinity is a Sensitive New Age Guy metrosexual compared to the hard-working blokes along the mangroves of the isolated Hawkesbury River north of Sydney, which looks a lot like the bayou country of Louisiana that has been similarly used for sultry effect in movies like The Big Easy.
While it's a bit confusing at first to sort out the relationships (let alone the basics of oyster farming), partly due to the accents, in this tight and quirky Brooklyn where everyone knows generations of everybody's paternity, marital disputes, personal business, and, particularly for the plot, their mail, the gradual revelations add to our enjoyment of the comfortable repartee as we are thrust into the ongoing squabbles along with the outsider and learn to appreciate this fading lifestyle as it becomes his home despite his suspicions and other plans.
Jim Norton as a Granddad with an Irish gift of gab is particularly entertaining as he goads his stubborn wiry son, an appealing David Field, to make up with his wife, who has the more successful touch as an oyster farmer. Women in this macho environment have to not only be tough, but resilient as they find ways to still assert their femininity.
Diana Glenn's "Pearl" seems perfectly adapted to the local way of life-- her hitchhiking up the river is a wonderful detail even as she has Sex and the City proclivities --though her flirtation with "Jack" is only frankly lusty.
Kerry Armstrong is a marvelous matriarch, but her character's level-headedness reduces opportunities for jealousy, as the script opts for humor over tension.
Jack Thompson has a small local color role, but key as he becomes an anchoring father figure for the restless "Jack" as we see him grow new roots.
The national park scenery and Alun Bollinger's cinematography are breathtakingly beautiful and that waterfront train looks like a delightful ride, though a bit more geographical context would have been helpful. (7/31/2005)
The Edukators (Die Fetten Jahre sind vorbei) should be adopted as the movie of the "Summer of Live8," with almost as good a soundtrack. It is a wonderful illustration of how all politics is personal -- as one character quotes, "every heart is a revolutionary cell" and compares the hormonal rush from political action to love.
Helped enormously by an appealing cast who perfectly capture the ebullience, exuberance and idealism of twentysomethings, director/co-writer Hans Weingartner brings to life an intelligent film about politics that is also very funny and wonderfully romantic. Just when any character starts slipping into rhetoric in their thoughtful, pointed debates, their conversations suddenly turn on double meanings for their personal lives. Dialectics quickly turns to longing gazes as these are sweet revolutionaries who are irrepressibly human. As probably middle-class products of democracy who want to influence voters for change, they are much more Yippies than terrorists. They are more about what used to be called consciousness-raising, hence the original German title, as they warn rich capitalists "Your Days Of Plenty Are Numbered" and sign themselves "Erziehungsberechtigter," a mouthful which I understand translates more as "guardians" than the nevertheless evocative English title.
The first half of the film has a breathless New Wave feel, and I'm sure it's not a coincidence that one character is named "Jule" as the Jules et Jim triangle is a driving plot point. There's an amusing pattern of repeated visuals that change meanings as we see who is now next to whom, who is asleep and who is awake. Her boyfriend "Peter" is just the kind of seductive guy, played by a leonine Stipe Erceg, who brings her a present of a sexy camisole and thinks she just needs bright colors in her frustrating life. So how can she help but be surprised that his Angry Young Man best friend and "weird" roommate "Jan" can really talk to her.
Music is used marvelously throughout the film (even though covers of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" -no, it's not Jeff Buckley's version, it's Lucky Jim- have been way overused in films lately, the words actually are meaningful in a climactic scene here). Non-German speakers are otherwise at a real disadvantage both for having to tear your eyes away from the charismatic actors and because few of the lyrics are translated in the subtitles, though I presume one is translated because the nostalgic lyrics for a pastoral past gain ironic resonance when the threesome ends up in a soothing sylvan Tyrolean landscape. But we can pick up that the guys play loud, aggressive music in very expressive mano a mano camaraderie throughout and the chick plays a romantic-sounding singer, Jeff Cole. So we can also be surprised when "Jan" admits to having gone to the same concert she did.
While Daniel Brühl was charming in Goodbye, Lenin! and sweet in Ladies in Lavender, as "Jan" he's a heartbreaking movie star. The camera simply falls in love with him, too, in frequent close-ups, and wet opportunities to take his shirt off, as he puts poignancy into every look, even a furtive, frustrated glance in a rear-view mirror.
Just when a baby boomer is feeling nostalgic watching these kids, the film makes the connection with the '60's explicit as it very amusingly crosses The Big Chill with Ruthless People. There are at least two lines from these comparisons that are very laugh out loud funny, while making points about the 1968 of protests, sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. Somehow I had previously missed the generation gap truism: "If you're not liberal when you're under 30, you have no heart. If you're liberal after 30, you have no brain."
The conclusion goes in very surprising twists on bourgeois ethics that leave some questions about who chose to do what to whom when and who is now "a good liar." So it is frustrating to learn that the director went back and added a clarifying scene that is only being shown in Germany. I can only hope international audiences will at least get to see it on the DVD.
The director has explained in the forum on the film's German web site (which also has a still from the missing scene on the yacht that is presaged in the dialog), according to what meininki (Sat Jan 22 2005 03:09:06) says is a "rough" translation on the IMDb message boards: "The scene has always been in the script. It wasn't finished in time for Cannes, didn't "work" yet. Only in the summer, I've found the right music for it and recorded additional dialogue for the cafe scene . . . At the time, the film had already been sold to 44 countries and I couldn't and didn't want to force the local distributors to take the "new" ending. But please believe me when I say that I think both endings are great. In the end they aren't that different from one another. The message stays the same. . . with the "short" ending you have to imagine it. Kind regards, Hans" (He also comments on the genesis of the film, casting and the future of the characters on the U.S. web site (enter the site, wait through the graphics, then click on "Get Edukated" then click on each subject.)
It is refreshing to see a German political film where the context is Europe within capitalist globalism, though there are a couple of frissons of recall to the unavoidable past, as when the rich capitalist they debate comes very close to saying he's just following orders in how he's just followed the system. The subtitles translated one of his points as perilously sounding like "Work will make you free" but I don't know if he actually said "Arbeit macht frei" in the German. I presume the number of English words that have casually become part of their lexicon is also symbolic of globalization.
As I have recalled elsewhere in reviews, I once went to a Herbert Marcuse lecture that concluded with a lengthy Q & A; the last question, from an audience member far older than the rest of us acolytes, heck she had gray hair, was "Why are revolutionaries so grim?" She was hooted at and Marcuse didn't deign to respond to it seriously -- but it's the only thing of substance I remember from the whole evening. How wonderful that a new generation of revolutionaries, at least through this film, has a sense of humor, unlike other efforts to combine politics and romance, such as Conventioneers
This film restores one's faith that youth is not in fact wasted on the young. (7/30/2005)
Caterina in the Big City (Caterina va in città) is a pointed, funny but also good-hearted satire of Italian politics and society that uses the microcosm of high school as a vehicle for exposing cliques and factions as a social system just barely under control.
Like Election or Saved! with a broader frame of reference, director/co-writer Paolo Virzì takes us further into the home lives of the contrasting mean girls and their parents, so that the school groups correspond directly to real world cliques. From the opening shots of bored teens in what looks like a working class, vocational high school, through to the preppie and goth Queen Bees and their courts in what is apparently a more prestigious, upper class public high school, the students look and act authentically like today's kids, complete with text messaging cell phones (and the actors actually look their ages). While naive, socially awkward but obedient to a fault "Caterina" ((a very appealing Alice Teghil) moving from the sticks to Rome bouncing accidentally from one socio-political group to another is the vehicle for the acidly funny observations of somewhat stereotyped behaviors, Sergio Castellitto as her histrionic, ineffectual, hypocritical, toadying but loving dad keeps the comic tone humane, even when the left-wingers and the right-wingers are a bit cardboard. Her voice-over diary interpretations and dutiful reports to her dad are very amusingly contradicted by what we see actually happened to her.
Like Look At Me (Comme une image), this film pokes fun at the irresistibility of TV celebrity to bring out the worst in people from all across the political spectrum, particularly among the literati. I'm sure much of the particulars of Italian politics go by the American viewer, such as the specifics of particular political arguments and digs at the Prime Minister's broadcasting holdings and legal problems (and probably other cameos have significance besides Roberto Benigni), we can certainly appreciate the universal circus of modern media pseudo-debates, social class differences that are of style and not substance, gender and parent relations -- (particularly of Italian men such that as in U.S. films an Australian guy saves the day)-- snobby condescension and currying favor, particularly through the settings that tell us a lot about each family.
The universality of human behavior, especially of the perfectly captured teenage girls (even as they narrowly avoid the most dangerous pitfalls), can be well understood, and the left and right seem to be in for equal barbs. While the hair styles, clothes and make-up of each group is on target, one surprising touch compared to similar American satires is how little the school cliques define themselves by their musical preferences, except for some preppie club dancing and a goth listening to morose singer-songwriter Nick Cave.
"Caterina"s rapturous preference for classical music, Mahler in particular, seems a bit wishful thinking of hopes for the future of high culture as above all cliques - doubtless a conservatory has its own divisions.
Whether in the seats of government or the media, the ironic message that the power elite will shrug, shake hands and go on is demonstrated in a funny scene in the principal's office as all the parents and their rebellious teens get together, in an Italian take on "The more things change, the more they stay the same," as the kids have mimicked their parents throughout.
The satire is not nasty, however, as "Caterina" and her family do learn valuable lessons from their exposure to the powers that be and make surprising decisions to change their lives to pursue their own happiness that leaves a sweet impression. (7/9/2005)
My Summer of Love is a sensual warning that idle hands are the devil's playmate.
Director and book co-adapter Pawel Pawlikowski is very much a visual artist with repeating motifs of watching eyes as he imagines Heavenly Creatures set in a sunny, languid Yorkshire using a similar dreamy pictorial lens and aural envelope as Todd Solondz.
Where American art house films tend to see young women on the cusp of adulthood more as victims as they experiment with their sexual power, such as in Blue Car, or in commercial fare as innocents, like The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, and a spate of recent non-American directors have shown their impact on men, such as in À Tout de Suite (Right Now), La Petite Lili, and The Holy Girl (La Niña santa), this film well captures the kind of intense relationship between young women Carroll Smith-Rosenberg described in Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America for which emotionally distant men are mere side adventures and experiments.
The camera frequently rests on verdant undulating hills as pierced by obvious phallic symbols of a singular smoke stack and then a cross laboriously erected by a brother of one of the girls to literally save her soul, though Pawlikowski goes a bit overboard using seduction symbols like a horse, swan, cello and Edith Piaf. These moors are definitely sensual, with no sign of the fog of 19th century novels.
The initially theatrical contrivance of the central freckle-faced, living-over-the-pub lonely lass buffeted between her born again brother and a bored mansion-on-the-hill, Nietzsche-spouting temptress ("They say I'm a bad influence") actually comes together well in the climax as their inner truths are exposed to free her to find her own way and Nathalie Press gives her real flashes of personality.
Ryszard Lenczewski's beautiful cinematography is bleached out sun-drenched or candle-lit that very effectively crosses the girls' internal lives and fantasies with their every day reality.
The primarily Goldfrapp soundtrack adds to the libidinous and threatening moodiness of the atmosphere. (6/27/2005) (supplemented 7/8/2005)
Lords of Dogtown is a rollicking companion piece to Stacy Peralta's documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys about the very young men who transformed skateboarding into a commercial extreme sport.
Director Catherine Hardwicke has a marvelous, visual instinct for capturing the lightning in a bottle that is the energy of adolescence, as she demonstrated with teenage girls in Thirteen.
While the actors are actually a few years older than the founders of the movement, astoundingly, were, they explode with adolescent fidgeting on the screen that then channels hormonal and emotional frustrations into constant movement on first surfboards then skateboards.
This film fills in many of the gaps in their personal lives that were frustratingly missing from the documentary, with evident artistic license as some characters are composites. Some rough edges are left out or smoothed over to keep it from the usual sex, bad contracts and rock 'n' roll biographies.
I had no idea that suburban-sweet little Emile Hirsch from Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys and Imaginary Heroes was a Venice Beach sk8ter boy in his real life, albeit New School, so that he could so naturally embody the lithe, rebellious Jay Adams, who starts from and rolls to darker places than his cohorts.
Brought much more to the fore is Tony Alva's Chicano family and Victor Rasuk shows that as in Raising Victor Vargas he can passionately portray youthfulness and growing into maturity.
Screenwriter Peralta may be a bit self-serving in how he lets his almost too nice younger self be so sunnily portrayed by John Robinson as the very image of a Southern California beach boy, but an incongruously responsible one -- he actually wears a watch to get to a real job. We learn even less here about his background than any of the other kids.
Heath Ledger transforms himself into a stoner surfer Fagin, revealing better than the documentary the rise and collapse of the odd mentoring relationship the sponsor of the Zephyr Team created with boys who needed some kind of father figure in their lives.
The restless, jangly cinematography races after them like a helmet-cam from the opening shots, on land, sea and especially in empty swimming pools, soaking up their vibes and momentum with quick editing.
While this is more a clear-eyed cautionary ode to too-much too-fast adolescence than to testosterone, the women in their lives are given only a little more acknowledgment than in the documentary. Rebecca De Mornay, who started her career as a teen boy's lust object in Risky Business, ironically now plays Jay's unstable mom, but she is not drawn as substantively as the similar mom in Thirteen.
Just as most rockers admit that they first slapped on a guitar to get chicks, this film is up front that the boys attracted groupies, and makes a half-hearted effort to personalize a couple of the young women for whom they compete, or maybe Nikki Reed is just miscast as Alva's sister. Even the concluding scroll about their futures, much more upbeat than in the documentary, leaves out their detritus of the women in their lives.
The re-created settings and production design of the notorious Pacific Ocean Park Pier well illustrate the class differences between these outlaw locals vs. beach blanket surfer movies and the owners of those prized pools.
The period music is mostly used just for atmosphere, from the opening riffs of Jimi Hendrix's guitar, but occasionally hits home with a character's mood, particularly Neil Young's "Old Man" and Rod Stewart's "Maggie May."
The hair styles, clothes and make-up are also much better done, including the wigs, than most '70's period movies, though why cover up the countless bruises the cast suffered, as presumably in real life the guys must have been banged up besides the one incident shown.
Stay through all the credits to see clips of the real folks, including a sweet tribute to Jay as the font of the style. (6/4/2005)
Mysterious Skin may be the most disturbing film since Kids for a parent to watch. It is by far the frankest film I've ever seen on pedophilia and its victims.
Part of the degree of the viewer's excruciating anguish is the very young age of the two boys when they are abused by a community father figure. The film matter-of-factly goes further than either L.I.E. or The Woodsman in methodically showing how a pedophile picks out his affection-tropic victims, lays his trap and conducts his abuse to attract kids in this age group, including a comparable aged shill or enabler or whatever the technical psychological term is.
Director/book adapter Gregg Araki very carefully had the angelic looking youngsters act in a separate film for which he wrote an age-appropriate script (he should include that with the DVD as a reassurance to viewers) then edited in their actions and reactions, particularly with very intense close-ups. This is intellectually clear because they do not appear in any of the same frames as the abuser, in shots that are as tightly edited as a Hitchcock thriller, but of course the viewer's mind automatically blends the interstices for horrific impact that builds up to a frighteningly matter of fact narrative explanation of the specific acts at the conclusion. The impact of the abuse is heightened further because we see it primarily in flashbacks as the haunting memories come back to the boys in different ways, clear to one and mysteriously to the other.
The film is heartbreaking in exploring how both are severely emotionally crippled from the abuse for the rest of their lives, but in two very divergent ways, partly because one is gay (and we are told was aware of his sexual orientation at even this young age) and one is probably not. As the abuse happens when the boys are younger than the victims in Bad Education (La Mala educación), Mystic River and The Boys of St. Vincent, it even more affects their personality development, their perception and use of their bodies, particularly as sexual objects and especially their incapability to sustain mature relationships.
Brady Corbet is endearing as the kid who virtually shuts down, as the abuse transmogrifies into other thoughts and manifestations. Joseph Gordon-Levitt as "Neil" has the flashier role and plays it to the hilt and with every inch of his skin. He is scarily captivating.
The film is very careful to set the story in a very specific time when parents were more naive about child abuse and before AIDS transmission is widely understood but is beginning to surface so it hangs over "Neil" as a sword of Damocles or a "McGuffin" in a thriller that the audience knows could strike him down at any moment and gives additional tension to the possible consequences of his immature acting-out. It is grievous how the abuse gets re-translated in the gay underground as he gets older, how they take advantage of "the black hole in his soul" even as he thinks he is in control, to the point where he is not.
The weakest part of the film, and I don't know if this is a hold-over from the book as I haven't yet read Scott Heim's novel (and evidently one needs it for an explanation of the title) is that the women are not full-fledged individuals, particularly the mothers. I don't know if the roles are underwritten or if they are being blamed for emotional and physical neglect or just distraction so a point is being made about the neediness that pedophiles pick up on, though these boys seem to be missing fathers in their lives even more. Both mothers seem stereotyped in their oblivious extremes from a Stepford wife in one family to a slut in the other, though Elisabeth Shue endows the latter with warmth.
The boys' cohort girls aren't much more full-rounded, as each has her own neuroses. Mary Lynn Rajskub, "Chloe" from 24, is almost comic relief until she seems even more sad as a possible victim of some other kind of abuse, as the film provides a creative explanation for alien abductions. Michelle Trachtenberg, most familiar from Buffy the Vampire Slayer seems a bit miscast against her usual type as the goth best friend, who at least is not as devoid of common sense as just about everyone else in the film and "Neil" does make wry comments about how different their relationship would be if he weren't gay.
I hope the ending means there is potential for some kind of healing that would allow these boys to become full human beings, but I'm pessimistic.
I do support the NC-17 rating for this harrowing and draining film. (6/2/2005)
I did read the book -- and it is even more searing and moving than the movie, though it is ironic that one character says "Hollywood would never make a movie about us."
First, it is far more explicit than the movie, painfully, tearfully so. Second, it makes even clearer that "Neil"s behavior is a result of the abuse just as much as "Brian"s- and that he recognizes finally--helped by connecting with "Brian"--that what he remembered as his first gay love experience was a distortion just as much as "Brian"s alien transference, that it was in fact abuse. Heim more effectively contrasts "Neil" with another gay kid who has not been abused--and is capable of love.
Third, "Brian"s parents, particularly his mother, are better realized in the book than the stick figures that are in the movie.
The book makes heartbreakingly, crystal clear that sex is not for kids and that abuse scars kids forever into all realms of their relationships.(7/14/2005)
The Holy Girl (La Niña santa) effectively captures the obsessive, all-consuming passions of adolescent girls, like an Argentinean Thirteen suffused by Catholicism instead of California pop culture. Young teens are shown exploring their faith as equally as their bodies and the new found power of their sexuality, as a religious instructor, Mía Maestro of TV's Alias protectively, and finally impatiently, tries to channel their avidity into becoming a nun.
But one of the girls comes into contact with the panoply of the perfidy of adults in an intriguing situation, as part of the family of resident managers of a resort hotel. The film focuses on the week when a medical convention brings partying doctors into her and her mother's sights. Writer/director Lucrecia Martel adds an interesting element, recalling but much less brutally than Blue Car and Fat Girl (a ma soeur), when an older abuser crosses paths with the curious adolescent.
Ironically, he is a nondescript, middle-aged husband and father but he gets off on anonymous rubbing up in crowds (which is eerily accompanied by a street musician playing the spooky-sounding Theremin), that she confuses for more direct attention into what she transfers as her religious "mission" (at least that's how it's translated).
The parallel story with the flirtatious mother is less convincing, even with some sort of jealous motivation because her ex's young trophy wife is now pregnant and her boredom with some sort of ongoing, casual relationship she has with another hotel employee.
The film ends on an oddly sympathetic note for the fetishist as his needed anonymity is gradually lost over the course of the week, with a negative view of the teenage girls as they manipulatively deflect adult notice from their experiments.
The English subtitles are very awkwardly translated. Some of the English words have a disjointed connotation and are downright confusing.
The cinematography is very lush and warm, reflecting the girls' emotions. (6/2/2005)
The Illustrated Family Doctor is a wry, ironic comedy about a neurotic hypochondriac having a "quarter-life crisis."
While writer/director Kriv Stenders described it as very atypical for Australian films, which tend to celebrate masculinity, bringing it to the Tribeca Film Festival was like bringing coals to Newcastle. Stenders claimed in the Q & A to be particularly influenced by Jim Jarmusch, but this seemed more like The Office done by Woody Allen.
Samuel Johnson, who has been seen in the U.S. on The Secret Life of Us on cable TV, was wonderfully appealing as an Everyman who is the par excellence shlimazl (as in the shlimil is the one who spills the soup and the shlimazl is the one he spills it on).
The digs at Reader's Digest type reference and condensed books are particularly droll.
While the pacing is just too slow, it is an amusing critique of modern corporate life, similar in tone to Walter Kirn's novel Up in the Air, with a passing resemblance to the British film How to Get Ahead in Advertising.
The production design beautifully captures the sterility of today's working and socializing environments. (5/25/2005)
Swimming Upstream reveals an intense dysfunctional psycho drama behind a competitive sport.
It is as moving about a macho male athletic culture, here focused on swimming, as Friday Night Lights was about football, particularly as dysfunctionally fueled by alcohol.
Geoffrey Rush gives a searing performance as an alcoholic patriarch who arbitrarily plays his sons against each other for his attention and approval. Judy Davis, who usually masters powerful women, here is memorable as a buffeted mother drained by caring for five children, poverty and her occasionally violent husband.
Claustrophobic family dynamics are well-captured, particularly in showing how childhood experiences shape adults emotionally forever and what was once a refuge becomes torture. When the sons reach adolescence the screen is filled by blue-eyed Jesse Spencer (he's in a crew cut with rippling muscles in the pool so much that I didn't recognize him as the very clothed, longish haired doctor in TV's House) and the young men in small bathing trunks playing his brothers, in heightened scenes of very physical sibling rivalry and closeness.
The visuals and production design well communicate the bloke culture of Brisbane in the 1950's and early 1960's, from the fading docks, to the pubs, to the locker rooms, to the union halls, that is brutally carried into the family.
The shocked smile on Spencer's face as "Tony Fingleton" discovers a wider culture through his swimming, heck with admiring women in it, is heart warming as I thought that if someone doesn't give that guy a hug already I'll reach through the movie screen and do it myself.
Russell Mulcahy's directing, however, frequently undercuts the power, with unnecessary narration and gimmicky camera moves during intense scenes.
The timetable as years go by is a bit confusing, especially as annual tournaments repeat.(