Saturday, January 30, 2010

The White Ribbon

Today I saw The White Ribbon, starring Susanne Lothar and Christian Friedel.

Black and white film can't make a story work, but it most certainly can enhance a story that's already good. This is the case in this moody, quiet drama from director Michael Haneke.

Once you get the characters straight (some of them look similar, and well, they all dress alike) you're led into an unconventional whodunnit featuring a village full of suspects.

The pre-World War I German setting itself builds suspense, as the audience knows what becomes of the nation in the decades to follow. Each scene passes along to something more that you realize will build and turn into something bad.

And that's how it unfolds: first, the town doctor has a freak accident (one that couldn't have taken place without the help of a human), then another person turns up dead. This is followed by a tortured child and the list goes on.

In between these ghastly happenings, we get to know many of the townspeople including the teacher who is narrating our journey (Friedel) and the scorned mistress of the doctor (Lothar). The revealing peek behind the curtain doesn't endear us to many of the citizens; it in fact does the opposite.

We witness abuse, we question motives, we sympathize with the children—well, at least some of the children—and we wonder if karma is just simply playing its punishment cards for all of the heinous behavior that goes on behind these closed doors.

True to form, Haneke (who attracted attention in 2005 with his thriller Caché) isn't going to spell it out for us.

There are many 'suspects' and layers of people to keep track of, but no clear-cut answer unless you're willing to believe the theory that's presented near the end. It certainly could be true, but if it was that easy, would our journey have been so rough?

Monday, January 18, 2010

A Serious Man

Today I saw A Serious Man, starring Michael Stuhlbarg and Richard Kind.

Larry Gopnik (Stuhlbarg) will remind you of every Jewish man you've ever met. Not in a stereotypical way, but in a cultural way.

He seldom feels the need to raise his voice. His appearance is neat and tidy. His wife is bold and controlling. His work and his children and his property mean a lot to him.

Though he appears to be a dedicated husband, father and professor, each part of his world is slowly being dismantled by external forces. His wife is leaving him for his friend, his children are stealing and taking drugs, and a disgruntled student is attempting to sue him because he won't unfairly inflate his grade.

He also has a frightening militant neighbor, a live-in brother (Kind) who is in trouble with the law and difficulty getting an appointment with the sought-after rabbi at his temple. What would bury most men simply piles up in his mind, causing unavoidable nightmares.

I felt sorry for Larry—not just because he didn't appear to deserve all of the bad things that happened to him, but because his meek nature allowed it to continue. He solves most of these problems by throwing money at them (retaining a lawyer, paying for a motel room to sleep in when his wife kicks him out), but at least he's pressing on.

His resolve in the face of adversity is admirable, and though the scenes and situations are undoubtedly comical, it is refreshing to see a main character who doesn't run from his problems or throw things against a wall when things don't go his way.

Stuhlbarg plays the character expertly with quiet intensity. We can feel his tension and pain, but he doesn't burden us with it; it's all kept inside for him to manage. That is partly a credit to the odd, yet solid script from The Coen Brothers. It feels like a screenplay they spent time on, much like The Man Who Wasn't There, and their Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men.

There are many layers to A Serious Man that us viewers don't get to see, but what we do witness is endlessly satisfying. If how we react to things in life defines us, Larry Gopnik serves as a good example of how to deal.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

Today I saw The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, starring Heath Ledger and Lily Cole.

Christopher Plummer plays the Doctor, who runs a traveling show with his daughter Valentina (Cole) and a couple of male freaks. He's truly ancient and has made a deal with the devil in return for his immortality (meaning: the daughter goes to the darkness at age 16 unless he does something to reverse the arrangement).

Tony (Ledger) is a man who Valentina and her sidekicks save from a hanging noose (and yes, since this is the first scene we see Ledger in, in the last movie we'll ever see Ledger in, it's especially difficult to watch). He soon proves to be the most valuable member of the traveling show, earning them heaps of money and spicing things up (he joins it because it provides a good front for the people he's hiding from).

Though Ledger doesn't play the main character, his presence does wake the audience up every time he dances (sometimes literally) into the frame. Aside from the rescue scene where he first turns up, the first 45 minutes of this film had me yawning. Circuses have always creeped me out, and as a plot device I think a traveling show with built-in freaks is kind of a screenwriting cop-out.

But anyway, the rumors are true that once the characters enter the Imaginarium, the film does pick up, if only because we want desperately to jump through the screen and create our own version of paradise along with them. It's visually stunning, if you're the romantic, rolling green hills type.

The transition in the Imaginarium from Heath Ledger to Johnny Depp (the first of three actors to take over the part when Ledger died) is utterly flawless, and Depp having all those years in the Tim Burton School of Weirdness feels right at home in the role. He even looks like Heath. Not so flawless: Jude Law, who looks like Jude Law with bad eyeliner.

That leaves the final portion of the role to Colin Farrell, who really gets better and better every day. The man appears to be channeling Ledger here and his charisma and good looks only help seal the deal.

But aside from the cool visuals, the typically great performance from the late Ledger, and the competency of his understudies, Director Terry Gilliam has again led us into an incomplete world of his own making, which simply begs to be properly grounded.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Leap Year

Tonight I saw Leap Year, starring Amy Adams and Matthew Goode.

I'll start by saying, yes, I knew it would be terrible. But I needed a mindless girl movie tonight, and I suppose I deserved what I got.

Adams plays Anna, and the "A" stands for "Type-A." She stages apartments for a living in Boston and organizes the life of herself and her boyfriend for fun. Jeremy (Adam Scott) is an impressive cardiologist who is good to her, but has not yet popped the question, though they've been together for four years. When he travels to Dublin on business, Anna sees it as her opportunity to follow an Irish superstition and propose to him on February 29. All she needs to do is make it to Dublin and surprise him before then. She has one day...or maybe two days until the 29th. Ah, who cares? You know where this is going.

First, there's (scary, sudden) turbulence on her plane so they have to make an emergency landing in Cardiff. This is handled by the airline almost as nonchalantly as running out of gas with a AAA truck behind you on the highway.

Once Anna lands in Wales, she tries to convince the ticket agents to "re-open" the Dublin airport and when that (shockingly) doesn't work, she rents a boat. Somehow instead of ending up in Dublin, in the midst of the storm she finds herself on a tiny road in a remote Dingle village.

The locals nearly laugh her out of the pub she wanders into (tugging her Louis Vutton bag closely behind), but she has nowhere else to go, so she stays there for the night. What follows is the scene I was hoping wouldn't happen: the obligatory American Woman knocks out the town's power trying to plug in her Blackberry™.

But wait, it gets worse.

The pub owner just happens to be Declan (Goode), who is rough around the edges, but undeniably cute. He agrees (for a large sum) to drive her to Dublin the next day. Small talk turns into sexual tension (via "arguing") and then a herd of cows delay their trip. You heard me: a Herd of Cows. On an Irish country road. The only thing surprising about this scene was that it was cows, not sheep.

Anyway, because of some ridiculous chain of events caused by Anna's American princess impatience, they're soon car-less and back on the road. And they miss a train. And they have to stay in a charming Bed & Breakfast, pretending of course to be married because the old Irish folk wouldn't rent the room to a sinning couple.

I won't even bore you with the rest because you already know what happens. How it happens isn't even difficult to decode.

I'm just incredibly disappointed these delightful actors took the roles because the material was way beneath their talent. Perhaps they just wanted the free time in Ireland? I should hope that was the reason.

And I hope they never do it again.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Me and Orson Welles

Tonight I saw Me and Orson Welles, starring Christian McKay and Claire Danes.

Richard (Zac Efron) is a high school student with dreams of succeeding on Broadway. He gets his foot in the door with a small part in Julius Caesar, which is directed by Orson Welles.

Soon he falls for the beautiful Sonja (Danes) who works at the theater and is heartbroken to learn that in addition to sleeping with him, she'll also go home with the married Welles (McKay) believing it will further her career. It does.

During the production of the show, we see cast members overworked and left in the shadows of the big star, but always willing to make the sacrifice. As they rehearse and take jabs of criticism from their director, it is clear what it must have been like to work with such a polarizing figure in theater, radio and film.

Of course Richard is too immature to mask his anger toward Welles' transgressions and gets himself fired. What happens next in the production and between the two male leads is not entirely unpredictable, but I won't reveal it here.

The reason to go see his movie is the almost eerily accurate performance by Christian McKay. Not only does he physically resemble Welles, he emulates his mannerisms and speech patterns with unbelievable accuracy. He conveys the brilliance and the arrogance of the famed man just as effortlessly as Claire Danes looks beautiful in red lipstick.

But if the theater bores you, or Zac Efron annoys you, the pace may be too slow for your taste.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Crazy Heart

Today I saw Crazy Heart, starring Jeff Bridges and Maggie Gyllenhaal.

It was the topic of Cinebanter #85, which is available here.

The Young Victoria

On Thursday I saw The Young Victoria, starring Emily Blunt and Rupert Friend.

The longest reigning female monarch, Queen Victoria, had a very melancholy childhood. Her mother raised her in a cold, isolated environment so she wouldn't be exposed to anyone that would influence her unfavorably. As a result, Victoria had no friends (save for her dog) nor private time, as her mother shared a bedroom with her until she became queen (at age 18). Her mother believed she as a regent, and later Victoria as queen, would restore the good name of the monarchy that had been tarnished in recent years due to the less-than-honorable behavior exhibited by her deceased husband's family.

Unfortunately for her mother, there was never a need for a regent, so when it was time for Victoria to assume the crown, she turned the tables on her and moved her to another part of the palace where she wouldn't interfere. Shortly thereafter, Victoria also married the man she was in love with (her first cousin, Prince Albert) and ruled the way she wanted to rule, confiding in a close political adviser for much of the time.

This film traces that portion of the legendary Queen's life and goes no further than her young, married years. Emily Blunt was in fact perfectly cast to play the role, as she can appear both delicately innocent and brilliantly controlling at once. The real monarch's complexities were revealed clearly in everything from Blunt's posture to the adoring way she looked at her on-screen husband (Friend).

He doesn't do such a bad job either—Friend is enamored, but not desperate over the young beauty, and perfectly conveys this in his portrayal of Albert. He gives him enough of a backbone to be respected, but balances that with a tenderness to be envied.

The film doesn't do a remarkable job explaining why the country turns on Victoria early in her reign, nor how she reclaims their trust, but it does create a beautiful couple in the two main characters, who by all accounts really did love one another until the end.

If you can make it through the chess games and important conversations between those fighting for control over the young queen, watching this will prove to be a pleasurable experience, mostly due to Blunt's flawless performance.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Broken Embraces

Today I saw Broken Embraces, starring Penélope Cruz and Lluis Hómar.

Magdalena (Cruz) is a secretary who wishes to be an actress. Ernesto (José Luis Gomez) is her wealthy boss, and the man who helped her family when her father grew gravely ill. She repays him by becoming his live-in mistress. Ernesto also has an annoying son (Rubén Ochandiano) who acts as his lap dog.

Mateo (Homar), a charismatic film director, no longer goes by that name. Since the accident that caused his blindness, he's been Harry Caine. He is taken care of by his agent Judit (Blanca Portillo) and her son Diego (Tamar Novas).

Through a series of flashbacks that rewind their lives back to 1992, we see how all of their worlds fit together. Director Pedro Almodóvar does this in such a way that you can't get lost in one era or the other—you're always clear on "when" you are mostly due to Mateo's eyesight or lack thereof (though I did wonder why he wore a non-digital wristwatch in one of his blind scenes).

There is love, betrayal, jealousy, anger, violence, sex, nudity, sensuality, humor, sentiment, creativity, redemption, resolution and color. Lots and lots of color.

From the cherry red suit Lena wears to the rich blues of the beach and the vibrant crosses that grace the walls of two of the main characters' homes, with few exceptions, this movie is drenched in prominent hues.

Those hues help distinguish when we're watching Mateo's movies from when we're lounging in the mansion, or making love at the beach house. They help the characters express their feelings, though we may not realize it until after it's happened.

All of the players are well cast and especially nice to watch is Lluis Homar, who moves seamlessly between a man with sight and a man without. And though I've seen Cruz do better work, it almost wouldn't feel like an Almodóvar film if she weren't the token siren.

You won't get bored in this one, and you'll delight in the aural assault of its visuals.