December 2006


And, finally, my two favorite reviews of 2006. The top10 of 2006 starts tomorrow.

cache-haneke3-resized.jpg

Michael Haneke’s new film, Cache, opens with a long static shot down an urban street. It’s not clear, at first, what’s going on, as little changes in the composition. The buildings along each side are an imposing presence, and our viewing placement is odd. Where exactly are we standing? A voice off-screen asks “Well?” and receives the reply of “Nothing.” And then suddenly the image “rewinds,” and we realize we’ve been watching a video of a street where nothing seems to be happening. We watch the scene again, this time picking up on little details of the mise en scene but still unsure of what we’re looking at. Why is someone videotaping this street in this way? What are we supposed to notice?

For Georges and Anne Laurent (Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche), those questions have ominous implications. The mysterious videotape was left on their doorstep, and the non-descript scene is actually an amateur surveillance tape of their house. It’s an unsettling feeling, one that grows even worse when another tape appears, this time of their house at night. Georges goes to the police, but there’s nothing they can do. That doesn’t satisfy Georges and Anne, especially when yet another tape shows up, this one a tracking shot of their 12-year-old son Pierrot outside his school.

01-resized.jpgHaneke’s films are well known among cinephiles for their rigorous examination of bourgeois society and especially of the role of violence. His formal control is legendary, but the toughness of the material has often limited his audience. Cache (the English translation would be “Hidden”) should change that. Not only has he cast two of the best and most recognizable French actors, but the story is an old-fashioned thriller, as Georges and Anne try to hunt down the person (or people) who are threatening them and their son.

While the story might be more accessible, Haneke has lost none of his touch. As my friend Garth put it, the film is a master class on how to watch a film and what to look for. From that opening shot, whose long take forces the audience to adapt to Haneke’s rhythm, to the re-viewing of the shot that urges us to notice what we overlooked, to the scenes inside the house that grow more unsettling with each videotape and each conversation, Haneke compels us to watch with an attention we don’t usually bring to the movies. Early on in the film, after we’ve seen the early videotape a couple times, Haneke gives us a point-of-view shot, standing in the Laurents’ doorway looking back up the street. Like Georges and Anne, we’re trying to find the surveillance camera which must be somewhere, if only we could see it. Later, when we see another tape, taken from the same earlier location, we try to imagine the camera’s placement. Is it on top of a car? inside a mini-van? attached to a light pole?

cache-haneke4-resized.jpgThat theme of camera placement becomes central to Cache’s larger themes. As Georges tries to imagine who could be behind the videotapes, he focuses on his childhood and an Algerian boy whom his family initially adopted and then sent away at Georges’s demand. The flashback point-of-view shots are striking, compelling, and just as unsettling as the early surveillance tapes. Haneke raises the point of how hard it is to stand in someone else’s shoes and yet how necessary if we’re going to see the world as it is. Haneke ties this theme to history by raising the events of October 17, 1961 when French police massacred dozens (maybe hundreds) of Algerians who were demonstrating for their homeland’s independence. That day has been almost completely whitewashed even in France. What is hidden? What is out in the open? How do we see? How do others see us?

It doesn’t take much of a leap to connect this earlier event to the current struggle between the West and the Islamic world. Georges comes to believe that this Arab boy (now a man) has a pathological hatred of his family. Is Georges right, or has he mis-read the situation? And even if Georges is correct, what should he do about it?

Lest you be put off by this political angle, the film is rich enough to support numerous interpretations. It can be read as a tale of a couple whose marriage, seemingly secure at first, starts to crumble when Georges can’t be honest with Anne and she starts doubting his every move. You can also see it as a story of class, as the Laurents, secure in their upper-middle-class (and elitist) milieu, are confronted with the lower-class society and people they’ve tried to avoid. Or you can enjoy the film as a simple thriller, as a family of three confront an ominous threat.

What you can’t do is stop watching. And as Haneke shows you how to watch, use those skills wisely, for the final shot is one of the most brilliant, if enigmatic, conclusions to a film you’ll ever see. You’ll be discussing that one with friends long after the movie’s done.

Cache: four 1/2, out of five

tnw00-resized.jpg

Terrence Malick’s The New World opens with a poetic invocation: “Come, Spirit, help us sing the story of our land.” Reminiscent of how epics of various traditions have begun, it is the first indication that the film will be more poetry than prose, more verse than sentence. Indeed any appreciation of the film must set aside our normal expectations for a movie and acknowledge that Malick is working on an entirely different plane.

tnw23-resized.jpgBecause of that, I’m tempted to ignore the story altogether, as it’s clearly of little interest to Malick. But for those who must know what a film is *about*, it’s the well-known tale of the Englishman John Smith (Colin Farrell) and the Powhatan princess Pocahontas (newcomer Q’Orianka Kilcher). Malick imagines that the two weren’t just friends but, at some deep level, lovers and emblematic of the possibilities in an untainted world. In fact, the movie loses its way slightly in the film’s second half when the two characters become simply characters rather than archetypes of possibility. In the movie’s far richer moments, Farrell and Kilcher aren’t called upon to act so much as embody man and woman in their spirituality, their emotions, and their physical bodies, which they do marvelously.

Malick (whose three other films are the brilliant Badlands, Days of Heaven, and The Thin Red Line) is often more concerned with the philosophical and metaphysical, but his attention here to the material world is palpable. When Pocahontas touches Smith’s skin, and vice versa, we in the audience can almost sense what it feels like. The tight close ups are a fantastic counterpoint to the landscape shots of their natural surroundings, which are then a counterpoint to the close ups of water and plants. Not enough can be said of the film’s cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who creates images of spectacular beauty. I used to go hiking as a boy, and I often imagined what the world was like before man came along. Malick and Lubezki come the closest I’ve seen to capturing that feeling. Their shots on the Chickihominy River are especially gorgeous, and the scenes of boats (both large and small) are magisterial.

tnw09-resized.jpg

The sound design (courtesy of Craig Berkey, though it has Malick’s stamp all over it) is a wonder, a central part of the film in the way it evokes glorious tones and waves of emotion. As in The Thin Red Line, the prominent voiceover (taken mostly from letters and diaries written by John Smith and Pocahontas) matters more for the sound that’s created than the meaning behind the words. A male voice and then a female voice undergird the soundtrack, interacting with the music, with nature, with silence. This becomes especially apparent when we’re forced to hear the voices of Smith’s countrymen, whose speech seems almost offensive in its coarseness. Not exactly because of what’s said but by how it sounds. This points to one of the movie’s few faults, as Malick stacks the deck against the “civilized” British, with their repressive clothing and horrible mud, in favor of the “innocent” Powhatans.

No one can take issue with Malick’s use of music, though. The score is by James Horner, but what will stick in my memory for months to come is how Malick incorporates Wagner’s “Das Rheingold” in three spectacular sequences. The first is early in the film as we experience this “new world” for the first time. The low drone slowly builds with Wagner’s quintessential horns to a climax as the Europeans come ashore, experiencing the astounding beauty of what they’d call Virginia. Later, the music anchors the exquisite courtship sequence between Smith and Pocahontas, and then returns in the film’s final stirring moments.

What’s truly phenomenal about Malick, though, is that he’s not just mixing pretty pictures and beautiful music and hoping that it captures something about life. Rather, he’s carefully calibrated both with a striking editing style. The images themselves contrast with each other–from everything to whether the camera is moving or not; to the balancing of close ups and long shots; to how the camera is placed in low, objective, or high angles. These choices mesh seamlessly with the pace of editing, which gains in intensity as the music builds. The film’s final sequence is especially effective, as a swirl of rising Wagner and male voiceover interacts with rapidly edited shots of Pocahontas chasing her young son through an English garden which are intercut with other images of ships and nature. It is strangely reminiscent of Kubrick’s transcendent scenes in 2001, though Malick’s worldview is much less detached, much more in tune. My friend Garth complained that critics he’s read haven’t been able to adequate explain what they like about The New World, but it’s akin to describing why you like your favorite poet or musician. Sometimes a juxtaposition of images and sounds strikes a chord that resonates (to use yet another musical expression) in a way that’s simply ineffable.

Of course, many viewers, unprepared for what they’ll see, will complain about the lack of a linear story or central message. I can almost imagine Malick scoffing and suggesting that those viewers might do better to rent the Disney cartoon. For his concerns have never been with plot and character but with tone and timbre, of conveying a quality (as opposed to simply a feeling) about this world we live in. He’s accomplished this with a glorious merging of image and sound, and The New World is the apotheosis of this approach. A veritable tone poem and a masterpiece.

tree-resized.jpg

The New World: four 1/2, out of five

This is the eighth in my series of favorite 2006 reviews. Note: these are my favorite reviews of the year, not my favorite movies. I’ll reveal that top10 on New Year’s Day.

031000_1-resized.jpg

Concert films are almost always boring, self-indulgent wastes of celluloid designed to flatter an aging star’s ego. The rare exceptions fall into two categories. They capture the zeitgeist in some culturally significant way (Woodstock, Jazz on a Summer Day) or they’re the product of a strong director and an artist willing to play along (The Last Waltz, Stop Making Sense). Dave Chappelle’s Block Party doesn’t quite measure up to those classics, though it comes close, and it does so by being both culturally significant and wildly entertaining.

The most obvious parallel is Wattstax. That legendary 1973 concert film combined footage from a host of soul greats (Isaac Hayes, the Staples Singers, and Rufus Thomas) with political commentary from the stage and interviews done with Watts residents. In 2004, Dave Chappelle set out to create something similar, I suspect. Riding high on the success of his brilliant Comedy Central show, he had the clout to invite almost any black artist, so he hand-picked a series of acts to play at his block party: Kanye West, Dead Prez, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, Mos Def, The Roots, and a reunited Fugees. Then he set up a stage in a corner of the Bed-Stuy neighborhood, arranged for some security, and invited thousands of people to join him.

585220-7-17-resized.jpgThe movie doesn’t start out in Brooklyn, though. Instead, it begins in Chappelle’s home town of Dayton, Ohio, where he’s personally arranging for several busloads of people to join the party. These encounters confirm what I’ve often suspected–the Dave Chappelle on tv isn’t much different than the Dave Chappelle in real life. He’s hilarious, charming, and extraordinarily charismatic. He has a way of interacting with people–young and old, black and white–that makes you smile. And if the movie had never made it to Brooklyn, that would’ve been ok.

Note, I didn’t say that it would’ve been great. Great is what you get when you put some of the hottest artists with an incredible house band, and then turn director Michel Gondry loose. Gondry is best known for his movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but he first made his mark with music videos by Bjork and the White Stripes, and he has a wonderful eye for juxtaposing sound and image. Block Party is edited so beautifully that each musical number builds in intensity, switching from close ups of the artists to long shots of the crowd to medium shots of the musicians interacting. My personal favorite is a Jill Scott song (“You Got Me”) where she’s joined on the chorus by Erykah Badu. But West’s performance is blistering, and the numerous shots of The Roots drummer ?uestlove (pronounced Questlove) are always enjoyable. In fact, the only disappointing performance might be The Fugees, though that may be due to unrealistic expectations.

585220-13-14a-resized.jpgGondry also alternates nicely between concert footage, back-stage conversations, and pre-party preparations. It’s in those last two that Chappelle shines (though he also has a couple great bits on stage). We see him talking with the people who own the abandoned warehouse behind the stage. We see Chappelle hanging out with the kids in a local day care center. We see him, in what seems to be a spur of the moment decision, inviting a local college marching band from Dayton to be part of the festivities in New York. As the movie moves through its 100 minutes, its focus shifts more to the music, but the behind-the-scenes material, including moments of the various artists practicing, always serves as a counterpoint.

This behind-the-scenes footage also provides the political thrust of the film. Obviously, putting Dead Prez and The Roots onstage is likely to result in some political statements (as does a short speech by Fred Hampton, Jr.), but that comes through much more clearly in the conversations away from the crowd. That the movie ends with Wyclef John leading the aforementioned college band in a rendition of his song “If I Were President” makes a political statement as well. Still, those hoping for a groundbreaking Black Power summit should probably look elsewhere. This is clearly not Bush country, but it’s also not a call for revolution.

No, what it is is a gathering. A gathering of relatively like-minded people celebrating their music and what they have in common. That Chappelle and Gondry are able to make us feel part of the festivities is what makes Dave Chappelle’s Block Party so satisfying.

Dave Chappelle’s Block Party: four, out of five

2-resized.jpg

Everyone’s talking about Bubble. Well, not everyone. But everyone in the movie industry and entertainment “journalism” is. Unfortunately, they’re not talking about the movie’s merits, which are considerable, but about how it’s being shown. You see, Bubble, directed by Steven Soderbergh, is the first relatively mainstream movie to be released in theaters and on dvd simultaneously. Tonight, you could head up to the Landmark theater and see the movie projected or you could head down to your local video store and rent it. It’s up to you, and that choice has the industry in a tizzy.

I realize this is not an issue that keeps you up at night, so I won’t bore you with the details. But the question of how films are released will profoundly affect your moviegoing experience for years to come. Will we continue to see them in the theater, projected using celluloid and surround sound in a communal setting? Or are we moving to a system where most people will stay at home, with their advanced home theater systems, and download the latest movies?

Ironically, Bubble won’t be projected on celluloid here in Chicago, even in theaters. It was filmed in high definition video and will be screened using the latest in digital projectors. Part of the debate over viewing environments revolves around the nature of film and whether watching something on film is different than watching it on video. I saw Bubble at the Toronto Film Festival, where it was also digitally projected, and I’m not sure I could’ve told the difference. The technology, both in how “films” are shot and how they’re projected, has made such quantum leaps in the last few years that probably only experts could discern the difference between celluloid and video.

If all directors were as capable as Soderbergh and had access to the kind of equipment he has, I wouldn’t mind if the entire industry shifted to video. But I’m not willing to give up the theater experience. I know my friends, with their fancy home systems, try to convince me that watching at home is just like going to the movies, but I don’t believe them. There’s something fundamentally different about seeing a movie on the big screen in a completely dark environment with a sound system that envelops you. Furthermore, it’s special to “go to” the movies; you can’t get the same rush just walking to the next room. And watching with a crowd of people alters how we see. Admittedly, that crowd feeling isn’t always advantageous (cell phones, boorish talking), but tell me there isn’t something fun about watching a comedy or thriller or melodrama with a huge audience. The communal experience is significant and one of the great aspects of seeing a film.

4-resized.jpg

Well, enough about movies in general. How about Bubble? Simply, it’s well worth your time no matter how you see it. Soderbergh has returned to his roots, concentrating on characters and narrative instead of celebrities and glamour. The setting is a small town on the West Virginia-Ohio border, and the first person we meet is Martha (Debbie Doebereiner). She’s a normal, stocky, middle-aged woman, the kind we almost never see in movies. She’s taking care of her aged father and makes ends meet by working in a local doll factory. On the way to work every day, she picks up Kyle (Dustin James Ashley), a much younger man who lives with his mom and works two jobs. Those aren’t enough to own a functional car, though, which is why he bums rides off Martha. She doesn’t mind, though. The companionship and the little thrill of hanging out with a much younger man makes the day go by faster. That changes, though, when Rose (Misty Dawn Wilkins) starts working at the factory. Rose is Kyle’s age. And though she wouldn’t be considered beautiful by Hollywood’s standards, she’s pretty and catches Kyle’s eye. Martha is left feeling her age.

What I really like about Bubble is how Soderbergh and screenwriter Coleman Hough take their time to develop these characters. Through discussions around the lunch table, in bars after work, and on old couches in their living rooms, Martha, Kyle and Rose come alive. Their dreams and struggles have an earthy reality we so rarely see out of Hollywood. I’ve often mentioned my fondness for films that deal honestly with the working class, and Bubble fits perfectly in that category. These are real people, and you’re going to recognize them and fall in love with them.

It helps that Soderbergh cast non-professionals who actually lived in the town where he filmed, and apparently the story was developed through conversations and improvisations that the actors and filmmakers conducted. But don’t think that this is a documentary. If nothing else, Soderbergh’s glorious widescreen compositions and magic-hour lighting convey a richness to these people and the town, as if they were just as deserving of the Hollywood treatment. And when the plot takes a sharp turn halfway through (I won’t spoil the surprise), Bubble turns into a mystery movie, but one with fascinating characters. I don’t much care how you see Bubble, but do see it.

Bubble: four stars, out of five

#6!!

3-resized.jpg

A middlebrow movie is positioned, as you might expect, between lowbrow (Adam Sandler comedies and horror flicks) and highbrow (challenging foreign and experimental films). My friend Garth came up with the best definition I’ve heard: formula movies for adults. Examples of middlebrow include most costume dramas, most British films that reach Chicago, most Oscar winners (Crash is a quintessential middlebrow movie) and two movies that are playing in Chicago this month.

Friends with Money stars a quartet of fine actresses: Joan Cusack, Catherine Keener, Frances McDormand and Jennifer Aniston. Yes, Jennifer Aniston, who’s trying to stretch her wings (and doing a nice job of it) by temporarily leaving the blockbuster world for the arthouse. All four characters are good friends but with various amounts of wealth. Cusack is the richest. She and her husband are ready to donate $2 million to a local school. Aniston is the poorest. She’s single and works as a maid (no, it’s not the most believable of casting decisions). How the four’s changing economic position affects their friendships is the core of the film.

25-resized.jpgAs with many middlebrow movies, Friends with Money relies on acting and dialogue to carry the day. There’ll be no car chases or spooky ghosts to create conflict. Real-life situations are its domain. And writer and director Nicole Holofcener (Lovely and Amazing) has a fine ear for how friends talk to and about each other. Many of the scenes take place at dinner, as the four (with their husbands) discuss their problems, and then continue with various conversations between wives and husbands on their way home. The dialogue, backed up by some tremendous acting (Catherine Keener is especially great), perfectly captures the way we gossip about people we like. It’s a mixture of warm-hearted concern and subtle high-handedness. It’s not that the characters are being two-faced, but there’s certainly a difference between the public and the private. And when the private feelings burst into the open, both between friends and between spouses, how do the people they’ve been talking about react to the offense?

images.jpegOn a Clear Day is a British film starring Peter Mullan, one of the great film actors of our generation. If you haven’t seen him in My Name is Joe or The Claim, you owe it to yourself to pick those up. Here, he plays a foreman in a shipbuilding yard who’s just been laid off after decades of service. Unsure of what to do with himself and unable to deal with his emotional turmoil, he turns to swimming. Lap after lap in the local pool, until eventually he decides to swim the English Channel. Though he can’t tell his wife (another fine performance from Brenda Blethyn), several of his former co-workers decide to join in his quest and help him train. The movie is burdened with too many swimming montages (not the most exciting of film activities, I assure you), but Mullan gives another ferocious performance that transcends the otherwise flimsy story.

For many cinephiles, middlebrow is a term of derision. I reject that generalization–there are good and bad middlebrow movies, just like there are good and bad highbrow and lowbrow movies–but I understand the feeling behind it. Middlebrow films are daring enough that we feel flattered but not so daring that we feel provoked. They’re sophisticated enough to make us feel like we’re watching something new but not so subtle that a casual watcher will miss anything. They don’t challenge a viewer, they comfort him. For example, Friends with Money has the audacity to actually contrast people of different classes, and I suspect there could be some great after-movie conversations about the subject. But it also introduces one-sided characters and scenes that we can feel comfortable rooting against. Those moments have nothing to do with the plot except to make us sympathize with our main characters and feel superior to everyone else. Lest the movie get too uncomfortable, every 15 minutes or so we can bond together over someone else’s boorish behavior.

on-a-clear-day-9.jpgOn a Clear Day flatters its audience by trotting out the standard set of quirky, British characters: young, goofy man looking for love, older man’s man who needs to let down his guard, stock immigrant (Asian in this case) who suddenly opens up after years of being silent. Yes, we know these people; there’ll be nothing unfamiliar here. True, there’s a conflict between a father and son who can’t quite get along, but the rest of the story is so familiar that we’re not worried this might end badly. If halfway through the film, you’re not sure whether Mullan’s character will swim the Channel and who’ll be waiting for him in France, well you aren’t paying close enough attention. Friends with Money ends in a much more surprising way (abruptly), and yet it’s a classic middlebrow conclusion–a happy ending (he’s rich!) in an “I’m ok, You’re ok” world.

On a Clear Day would be a pointless film without Peter Mullan’s performance and the always welcome opportunity to see Brenda Blethyn. Friends with Money has a lot more going for it. We so rarely get a chance, as we do here, to see four quality actresses interacting, and the plot subtly develops its themes of class and wealth. But that same plot throws in too many distractions, and the conclusion feels like a fairy tale for the Starbucks set.

Friends with Money: three stars, out of five
On a Clear Day: two 1/2 stars

Continuing the series…this is #5.

tristram-shandy.jpg

Michael Winterbottom is well known in film circles for never making the same kind of movie twice. His last was a porn flick, before that a sci-fi thriller, and going further backwards in time: a neo-realist foreign film, a post-modern bio-pic, an old-fashioned western, a romantic drama, a working-class tear-jearker, a contemporary war movie, and a literary adaptation. Having exhausted almost all of the genres (though gross-out comedy and family film are still available, Michael), he’s apparently decided to start combining them. His latest effort, Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, is a post-modern literary adaptation that also involves the making of a movie.

He is repeating himself in one way, though. He’s brought back British comedian Steve Coogan (seen in Winterbottom’s earlier 24-Hour Party People, the aforementioned po-mo bio-pic), and a welcome return it is. Coogan actually plays three characters: Tristram Shandy, Tristram’s father Walter, and Steve Coogan. Now here’s where you have to follow me.

Winterbottom has rightly decided that the best way to adapt the unadaptable 18th-century novel Tristram Shandy is to make a movie about the making of the movie Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story. So at times, we’re watching the actual movie with people dressed up in 18th century costumes playing characters like Tristram and Tristram’s uncle Toby. At other times, we’re watching the filming of the movie, with actors in 18th-century costumes surrounded by a film crew and camera equipment. Then at other times, we’re watching the actors, director, screenwriter, producer of this movie talking about the movie they’re trying to make.

The actual movie (the one we’re watching) starts with the first layer (the one where we don’t see a camera crew or directors or anything) and slowly peels back the artifice (or maybe it’s adding the artifice, I’ll have to think about that) until the last half of the movie (the one we’re watching) focuses almost completely on the lives of the actors and director and screenwriter (who are all played by actors, by the way, though I would be tickled and not quite surprised if someone told me Winterbottom himself shows up in a scene). I’m happy to say that seeing all of this on screen is much simpler than trying to describe it and much, much funnier (funny).

Speaking of funny, let’s get back to Mr. Coogan’s trio of roles. So he’s playing Tristram Shandy. But not really. You see, he plays Tristram as an adult who’s narrating the events of his birth and childhood. This leads to a rib-tickling (does anyone say ‘rib-tickling’ anymore? did they say it in the 18th century? what other word can I use to describe ‘hilarious’? hmmm) sequence in which Steve Coogan (as the adult Tristram) has an argument with the child actor who’s playing the boy Tristram. They’re arguing over how the boy actor should scream when Tristram gets his penis caught in a window (that’s the, uh, uh, “something” part of the Cock and Bull story).

tristramshandy_24a-rc7bw-resized.jpgNow Coogan’s primary costumed role is as Walter Shandy, Tristram’s father. But he doesn’t have much to do in the story, which is probably why the actor Steve Coogan (played by Steve Coogan, in the third of his roles) is obsessed with the height of his shoes. He wants to make sure that he seems more prominent than his co-star Rob Brydon, who Coogan thinks is trying to steal his scenes. And with good reason. Brydon not only is trying to steal scenes, he does steal scenes. He’s a veritable scene stealer, as we see in the movie’s opening scene when the actors Coogan and Brydon (scene stealer) are in makeup arguing over whether Brydon’s role is a supporting or co-lead (my ribs were tickled) (not literally, of course–my friend Garth doesn’t usually tickle me but if he does he prefers underneath the chin).

As the movie Tristram Shandy goes on (that’s the movie we’re watching, not the one they’re making), it becomes more and more about the making of the movie. Steve Coogan’s on-screen girlfriend Kelly Macdonald (who could tickle me anytime) (no, Mr. Editor, don’t take that out…that’s a funny line…no, there’s nothing sexual about it at all, get your mind out of the gutter) shows up with their baby, which is a nice thematic match with the birth of Tristram. Later a literature professor shows up to talk about the book Tristram Shandy (maybe I should’ve done my Master’s thesis on Tristram Shandy. that would’ve impressed my advisor), and it all wraps up with a hilarious (I can’t possibly say rib tickling again, can I? Roget suggests ‘gilbertian’) credit sequence where Coogan and Brydon (stealer of scenes) argue about how to imitate Al Pacino (I wonder who would play me if they made a movie version of my life “Johnny Depp is J Robert” that’s a bit much though maybe Mr. Depp could play me in my real life I’d get the babes then unless Rob Brydon stole them away from me ooooohhh I’d hate him more realistically though Philip Seymour Hoffman is a better choice he could plum the depths of my soul and capture the existential ennui that afflicts my life as I stand in the Co-op trying to decide between Oreo’s and Chips Ahoy I wonder if I can get Oreo’s to sponsor my reviews sort of like product placement Lord knows I need the money more than those fancy Hollywood filmmakers like Michael Winterbottom he thinks he’s so smart with his fancy post-modern adaptations I’ll show him) four stars, out of five (my own life gets three stars out of 5.723 this week…it’s been busy though with small moments of fulfillment…thanks for asking)

Merry Christmas, all. #4 in the series of favorite reviews.

03_300dpi-resized.jpgI’ve often joked that Leonard Cohen is best appreciated in small doses, such as when filmmakers insert a song into a movie or when musicians cover a Cohen song. I still remember the impact of hearing “Everybody Knows” early in the film Exotica or the power of “Democracy” as it plays over the credits of The War Room. Furthermore, Jeff Buckley’s cover of “Hallelujah” is so much more famous than the original that I suspect most listeners don’t realize who sang it in the first place. And that’s not even my favorite cover, which is a gorgeous rendition of “If It Be Your Will” by a little group called The Lost Dogs.

Part of the reason why Cohen doesn’t seem to work as well over the course of a cd is his distinctively low, monotonic voice. One or two songs of that is great, but nine or ten starts to be tedious. But more to Cohen’s credit, his lyrics are so dense and so much like poetry that they deserve to be savored and chewed over. Going on to another song is like eating another main course.

Of course, this is a film column, not a music review, so why am I ruminating on a singer-songwriter? Because a new documentary, Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man, is opening at the Landmark theater this Friday. It’s structured around footage taken from a series of tribute concerts in Sydney in January 2005. Performances of Cohen material by indie faves such as Rufus Wainright, Nick Cave, and Beth Orton are interspersed with lesser-known (but equally good) singers such as Antony Hegarty and Teddy Thompson. And alternating with the songs are testimonials from Cohen fans like Bono and an interview with the man himself.

While your enjoyment of I’m Your Man will depend somewhat on your familiarity with Cohen and/or the various performers, the documentary is wonderfully accessible. Cohen is wickedly funny at times as he reflects on his career, but he’s also insightful on the travails of the writer’s life, and he’s self-aware about the mistakes he’s made and how he’s reached the age of 71. Creative people of any stripe will find much here to enjoy. On the other hand, even Cohen diehards might grow embarrassed by the fawning from Bono, The Edge, Wainright and others. I realize the man inspires devotion on a scale not often seen this side of Bruce Springsteen, but the testimonials lead one to believe Cohen will soon be walking on water.

06_300dpi-resized.jpgFortunately, the concert material is first-rate. My friend Garth positively gushed over the three songs Wainright performs, but I was more impressed with the way Nick Cave both commands the stage and interprets the material. His opening performance of the title song is brilliant, but even better is his subtle rendition of Cohen’s hit “Suzanne.” Antony (his stage name drops his last name) seems as if he’s about to go into a religious trance in “If It Be Your Will,” but that works for that song, and he has a beautiful voice. But my favorite of the concert numbers is Teddy Thompson’s performance of a tune I hadn’t heard before: “Tonight Will be Fine.” Thompson, who’s the son of folk legends Richard and Linda Thompson, lets the lyrics speak for themselves, and the refrain–“But I know from your eyes/and I know from your smile/that tonight will be fine/will be fine, will be fine, will be fine/for a while”–is achingly beautiful.

The concert footage is crisply shot. Debut director Lian Lunson had a good eye for where to place her cameras, and the crossing between close-ups and longer shots makes for a nice rhythm. I also like her decision to film Cohen’s interview with a tight close-up on his face, so that we can register each wry smile and thoughtful frown. I can’t say the same, though, for many of Lunson’s other decisions. She apparently doesn’t believe the material can stand on its own, for she’s constantly gussing it up, adding video and sound effects that are distracting at best and often grossly irritating. This reaches its nadir in the movie’s final performance, when Cohen sings (or is he lip-synching?) “Tower of Song” with U2 as his back-up band. Unlike the live concert footage, this was recorded in a studio, and the atmosphere (and performance, honestly) are more suitable for a lounge lizard. I know that Cohen has had a reputation as a ladies man with a somewhat cheesy ‘70s style, but that’s an absolute contradiction with everything else in the documentary.

Still, those elements can be overlooked, and fans of Cohen will most likely react with rapture at the chance to see the performances and listen to his reflections. It’s just a little ironic that again the covers of Cohen are preferable to the original.

Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man – three 1/2 stars, out of five

Number 3 in my year-end survey.

death-of-mr-lazarescu2-resized.jpg

How can I convince you to see a movie that, at first or second or even third glance, won’t sound appealing? What will it take to cause you to avoid blockbusters like Mission Impossible III” or Poseidon and spend your money instead on an unknown Romanian film? What can I say that will make you take the trip up to the Music Box theater to see a movie called The Death of Mr. Lazarescu? Yes, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu. I know….you’re already turning the page.

My problem is that a simple description of the plot doesn’t help much. Mr. Lazarescu is a man in his 60s who seems a lot older. He’s feeding his cat in his small apartment when he starts having a terrible headache. He calls for an ambulance, but it takes forever, so he knocks on his neighbors’ door. They’re not sympathetic, as Lazarescu isn’t their favorite person, but they soon recognize that Lazarescu’s problems are more than just a hangover. They can’t do much, however, and neither can the ambulance nurse when she arrives, so it’s off to the local hospital. But the doctors there are even less sympathetic than Lazarescu’s neighbors, and soon the ambulance is off to a different hospital. And then another one. And then another one.

The attempt to get Lazarescu sufficient medical help is frustrated at every turn. Over-worked doctors assume that Lazarescu’s problems stem from his drinking, over-filled hospitals don’t have the available rooms or equipment, and under-whelmed ambulance drivers ignore his complaints. In one hilarious moment, Lazarescu is talking about his daughter who’s moved to Toronto in Canada. The cocky driver, who didn’t quite hear him, shouts back, “Torino’s not in Canada, pops.” This strong streak of dark humor both reinforces the film’s tone and at the same time leavens it. It reminds us of how we all react in uncomfortable situations, that sometimes the best (and only) thing you can do is to laugh.

death-of-mr-lazarescu-resized.jpgSo, why should you spend two and a half hours watching a drama about a man in the Romanian health care system? Because it’s absolutely gripping. I’m not exaggerating when I say that the film’s 154 minutes fly by. The story of Lazarescu and his helpful nurse Mioara is universal and will click with anyone who’s been sick. We come to know these people and care for them (despite the movie’s pall-casting title). Their struggles become our struggles.

The acting is amazing. Ion Fiscuteanu is absolutely believable as Lazarescu. Caustic and funny at the beginning, Fiscuteanu is able to portray Lazarescu at every stage of his illness. Because the movie appears to be shot in real time, it’s critical that we believe Lazarescu is getting worse and worse, and Fiscuteanu is up to the challenge, subtly but surely deteriorating as the film goes on. We never for a minute doubt that he’s in a mortal struggle. Luminita Gheorghiu is equally good as the ambulance nurse who’s desperately trying to get help. Her empathy is palpable, and we find ourselves rooting for her even more than Lazarescu.

The most impressive aspect of the movie, though, might be the way director Cristi Puiu has choreographed the interplay between the cast and the film’s cinematography. Much of Lazarescu is shot with slightly shaky handheld cameras that don’t draw attention to themselves but draw us into the story. Their echo of documentary features makes the film seem that much more realistic. Furthermore, as the camera (spectacularly shot by Andrei Butica) subtly moves around first Lazarescu’s apartment and then the various hospitals, Puiu focuses on each character, helping us to understand not only Lazarescu but Mioara and the other nurses and doctors who attend to him. Any budding filmmaker looking for a master class in unobtrusive hand-held cinematography would do well to watch this one many times. We also get the feel of a hospital, its hustle and bustle as well as its frustrating bureaucracy. Don’t think this is some version of “E.R.,” though, where the handheld camera is designed to create tension and energy. Here, its purpose is to make us feel like we’re part of the story, that we’re riding around with Lazarescu trying to get him help. In that way, the film is much more involving than any hour-long tv drama.

The Death of Mr. Lazarescu is also an incredibly sophisticated film. Lazarescu’s first name is Dante, and it’s helpful to think of the movie as a play on the Inferno and one man’s descent into an earthly version of Hell. Lest you think I’m pushing the name too much, the movie begins and ends with a character calling out for Virgil, Dante’s guide in his great epic. Puiu also invokes Biblical themes with the name Lazarescu, a variation of Lazarus. Lazarus is most famous in the Bible for being raised from the dead, and moviegoers will do well to ponder on the film’s title. My friend Garth and I spent the better part of a post-film dinner debating what exactly happens to Lazarescu in the end. But there’s another, and maybe more pertinent, Lazarus in the Bible, a man who, in a parable of Jesus, sits in Heaven while a rich man in Hell cries out for Lazarus’ help. By linking that Lazarus with the obvious Dantean parallels, Puiu endues his film with a meaty philosophical undertone.

The film isn’t just a giant metaphor, however. Rather, the literary and religious allusions add depth to an already rich story. They remind us that the march to death isn’t just a physical journey but an emotional and spiritual one. And while it’s an utterly solitary journey, it’s not one we take alone.

Death of Mr. Lazarescu: four 1/2 stars, out of five

The second in a series of my favorite ’06 film reviews.

freedomland.jpg

A white woman walks into a hospital with cuts on her hands and an empty expression on her face. She’s been carjacked and can barely speak. A friendly black detective arrives to hear her story. She mentions that it was a black man who stole her car. Our hero tries to get more information, but the woman is strangely reticent. Is she overcome with fear? Did she blank out and can’t remember? No, it turns out that her young son is in the back seat of the car. Suddenly, all hell breaks loose. The camera starts swirling, people start yelling, rapid-fire editing kicks in. Our hero has had an asthma attack.

I don’t know what an asthma attack has to do with a carjacking, and that’s one of many questions I can’t explain about the new movie Freedomland. I also can’t explain how a police force could or would want to cordon off an enormous housing project in the hopes of finding the supposed carjacker. Do they think this thief has decided to hang out with the car a block from where he stole it? Also, why does Lorenzo the detective decide to take the woman home to her house and interview her there? Wouldn’t it be better to take her down to the station and look at some mug shots? And what the heck is Julianne Moore doing in this movie as the mother? Is she that desperate for a breakout hit?

134851__freedomland_l.jpgIt goes without saying that Samuel L. Jackson is playing the black detective, the link between the black neighborhood where he’s assigned and the largely white police force that suddenly descends upon it. He’s trying to find out whether the woman is telling the truth as well as keep everyone calm so more violence doesn’t break out. He’s successful in one task and fails at the other. I’ll let you guess which one.

The movie has so many deeply unpleasant moments. Almost every scene ends with characters yelling at each other or worse. In one sequence, a black acquaintance of Lorenzo’s gets hauled into the station by the white cops. We know the young man isn’t responsible, but he was acting suspiciously. Still, that’s no justification for what happens next, when several cops just start beating him up. And not just slapping him around but full roundhouses to the face. Lorenzo tries to step in, only to get clocked himself. The brawl goes on for what seems like minutes, with yelling and screaming on top of punching and kicking. Worst of all, the fight is absolutely irrelevant to the larger plot. The incident is never raised again, nor is the young man, the white cops, or the African-American commanding officer. It’s as if the whole thing vanished into thin air.

I can only assume that the scene is designed to be a commentary on how predominantly white police officers treat black men in their custody. But the situation is so devoid of anything approaching realism and its consequences are so completely ignored by the movie that it’s impossible to take it seriously. The same is true for almost every racial angle in the film. I don’t doubt for a second that some white cops routinely abuse their power and those in their charge, but no one will walk out of Freedomland feeling enlightened. Instead, they’ll feel manipulated by all the red herrings in the script and the hackneyed conflicts. For pete’s sake, the movie’s climax devolves into a riot. As if we didn’t see that coming.

There are some nice aspects to the movie, though. Edie Falco is great as a mother of a missing child, even if her role merely moves the plot along. Julianne Moore gives a committed performance, even when her character loses all perspective. And I’ve always liked Samuel L. Jackson. Even when he flashes that expression we’ve seen a million times before, he still has a charisma that leaps off the screen.

I would’ve loved to have been a fly on the wall through Freedomland’s production process. It feels like there was a germ of a good idea here–we certainly could use more movies that deal with the topic of race–but the potential was overwhelmed by a series of poor choices. Was it nameless producers who insisted on changing the story to make it more familiar and rote, or was it Samuel L. Jackson who demanded big scenes and scenery-chewing moments, or was it director Joe Roth whose ham-fisted direction destroyed any narrative cohesion or subtlety? Or maybe the good idea was snuffed out by the writer Richard Grant himself, as he piled on cliche after cliche in adapting his book for the screen? The problem with assessing blame for a movie’s troubles (or credit for its achievements) is that there are so many possibilities, and it’s rarely clear how much each person is responsible. But one thing is clear about Freedomland–it’s a sloppy mess and a chore to sit through.

Freedomland: two stars, out of five

I’ve been meaning to post old reviews of mine ever since I started the blog this fall, but life has gotten in the way. In the spirit, though, of reflecting on the year that’s passed, I’ve decided to post ten of my favorite ’06 reviews. One a day for the last ten days of the year. And on Jan. 1st, I’ll put up my Top 10 movies of 2006.

Note: each of these reviews originially appeared in the Hyde Park Herald, a small Chicago weekly, and some refer to various Chicago theaters, but you can probably figure that out.

sophieschollphoto06-resized.jpg

In an era when almost every other film is “inspired by a true story” or “based on true events” or “loosely inspired by something we overheard last year,” it’s easy to be skeptical of a movie’s claim to historical veracity. Sophie Scholl–The Final Days, maybe mindful of that skepticism, opens with one of the more detailed disclaimers I’ve seen. “This film is based on historical facts, as yet unpublished transcripts and new interviews with witnesses.” To the movie’s credit, it shapes that material in ways that are utterly compelling without undermining its authenticity.

Sophie Scholl was a 21-year-old college student in 1943 and a member of the White Rose, a small band of students based at Munich University during World War II. The group attempted, through the secret distribution of papers and other materials, to form, inside Germany, a resistance movement to the Nazi regime. When Sophie and her brother Hans were caught laying out leaflets at the university, they were brought before the Gestapo for interrogation.

Before we get to that point, the movie ably introduces us to Sophie (Julia Jentsch), her brother Hans (Fabian Hinrichs), and other members of the White Rose. A delightful opening scene eavesdrops on Sophie and a friend singing along to the radio, and later scenes show the group printing out news from the Eastern Front on Mimeograph machines. The film endues the Scholls’ undercover efforts at the university with all the suspense of a high-speed car chase. When the siblings are linked to the forbidden leaflets, they’re brought in for questioning.

The rest of the film focuses almost exclusively on Sophie’s legal predicament. We watch her as she tries to convince the interrogating officer that she had nothing to do with the papers, and for a while it looks like she might go free. But new evidence comes to light, and she’s forced to confess in the hopes of saving the other members of the group.

sophieschollphoto05-resized.jpgThe actual trial is relatively short, and Sophie herself is only given a few sentences. This has the effect of lending even more credence to the movie’s narrative, as a fictionalized version would’ve certainly allowed Scholl a rousing monologue. Given the film’s title, I’m not spoiling anything by telling you the court decides against her and orders her to be executed almost immediately. The film’s last act chronicles her preparations for that final moment as she writes a farewell letter, prays with the prison chaplain and sees her family one last time. The scenes are deeply moving without being manipulative.

In fact, the movie avoids any kind of sentiment by using a semi-documentary style. While director Marc Rothemund utilizes a refreshing combination of close ups, medium and long shots, he and cinematographer Martin Langer eschew any stylistic flourishes that might distract us from the story at hand. That approach still allows for some gorgeous moments: Scholl praying as the light streams in through a window, an embrace in a barren room. Editor Hans Funck uses simple but effective cuts to keep our interest, neatly side-stepping the dullness that afflicts many period pieces.

None of this would matter if Jentsch weren’t able to carry the film on her shoulders, but she gives an award-worthy performance (she won best actress prizes at both the Berlin Film Festival and the European Film Awards). Her steely verve is gripping, and she’s wonderfully convincing as a young woman whose spiritual beliefs have motivated her to make the ultimate sacrifice. And her screen presence grounds what could otherwise have been a plastic heroine. This is the second chance in as many years for Chicago audiences to catch up with this charismatic actor, who was equally good in last year’s The Edukators.

Matching her note for note is Gerald Alexander Held, as the interrogator Robert Mohr. Their battle of words forms the centerpiece of the film, first as he tries to crack her alibi. Then, when she finally confesses (“Yes, and I’m proud of it”), they spar over the Nazi regime and the morality of dissent. The debate ranges over topics like democracy vs. order, conscience vs. law, and the place of religion in society. Dry topics in the abstract but gripping in the mouths of two gifted actors. And because the dialogue is taken directly from transcripts, it doesn’t slip into cliche but instead crackles with the fire of passionate belief. The issue of dissent in a country at war is still relevant today. And given how much bad press religion has received in recent months, it’s good to be reminded that faith can also motivate people into making the best choices. The movie frames its story in such a way that we’re left wondering what we might have done in 1943.

Docu-dramas about World War II are a genre unto themselves, and Sophie Scholl–The Final Days is a strong addition. By sticking to the historical facts, it makes for a compelling and powerful story.
Sophie Scholl–The Last Days: four, out of five

Next Page »