March 2007


A couple more film reviews before the Barcelona blogging begins.

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The director Ken Loach has veered between making two different kinds of films: contemporary dramas about the struggles of the working class and historical dramas about people caught up in conflicts. His latest, The Wind that Shakes the Barley, is one of the latter. I saw the film at Toronto, where it was coming off its win of the Palme d’Or at Cannes. Despite the award (or maybe because of it), the advance word was decidedly lukewarm. Maybe it was those lowered expectations, but I found a lot to like.

It’s an historical drama set in Ireland in the early ‘20s. The war for Irish independence is escalating, with the “old” Irish Republican Army adding men and weaponry to its numbers and the British government sending paramilitary forces to quash the revolt and subdue the populace. The main character is Damien (a fine Cillian Murphy) who, spurred by a vicious British attack on his village, gives up his dream of being a doctor to fight in the fledgling IRA.

The first third of the film is a bit much, as the Black and Tans (British soldiers enforcing British rule in Ireland) run roughshod over everything, beating men to death and taking others prisoner to torture and execute them. I don’t doubt that there were situations like that at the time, but they don’t work in a narrative context. It feels like Loach is stacking the deck and, given his past films, he probably is. The Irish are simple folk just fighting for the right to govern themselves and practice their culture. The British, on the other hand, are nameless, almost faceless entities who barge into people’s homes and grow irate when they hear a foreign tongue.

wsbmaster116.jpgThe movie gets much more interesting, though, when the IRA starts achieving some success. For the theme shifts from “ragtag army versus British oppressor” to how this revolutionary force will transform itself into a governing body. How does such an army deal with issues of justice? When is it right to compromise on the finer details to achieve a larger goal? And what happens when the members of the rebellion can’t agree to lay down their arms? While Loach certainly has his favorites in the argument, all sides get to make their point. The conflicts within the group over whether and how to compromise are still timely today, not only in Northern Ireland but around the world, and the difficulty of finding an end to violence is explored with aplomb. Some of the discussions are a bit schematic, with characters talking like they’re in a history book rather than a movie, but I found the arguments compelling, though that may say more about my own interest in politics and especially leftist politics.

Loach also knows how to tell a compelling story, as Damien has to confront various people he used to know as friends. That builds to scenes of great emotional power. The acting is strong across the board, with Murphy carrying the story on his shoulders. Ignore the romance, though, as Loach clearly has no use for it but to broaden his audience. Finally, the outdoor cinematography is particularly fine, and the production is, to use an old-fashioned word, handsome. The squeamish should be warned, however, that the torture sequences are short but brutal.

The Wind that Shakes the Barley: three 1/2 stars, out of five

0400_d32_122.jpgMy friend Garth just emailed me the latest article from Variety editor Peter Bart. He talks about how the most successful movies of the year so far (in box office terms) have also been the ones most panned by the critics. This is not a new argument. In fact, Bart tends to write the same article every three months, trying to remind the world that critics are irrelevant. In this missive, he actually goes out of his way to remark that movie reviewers tend to be fat, as if that’s somehow relevant. Bart used to be a studio executive, which means that he has little use for film critics. As you might imagine, film critics have little use for him.

The problem is that this hissy fit obscures a more interesting and important issue. What is the purpose of a film critic? Most Hollywood types assume we’re supposed to be their cowboys, helping herd the cattle to the nearest theater to see whatever blockbuster they’re growing these days. Readers assume that we’re supposed to be the cultural gatekeepers, letting you know what’s worth seeing and what’s avoiding. But as anyone who reads movie reviews has to know, that’s a quixotic role at best. Given the subjective nature of moviegoing, how likely is it that you’re going to agree with your local critic? Furthermore, there’s a fundamental difference between seeing 250 movies a year (a normal load for a critic) and 10 to 20. If I see 20 romantic comedies in twelve months, I’m likely to watch the next one in a different frame of mind than you will. And if I’m seeing it because it’s my job (admittedly one I enjoy thoroughly), that also creates a different frame of mind than those who are seeing the movie purely for pleasure.

No, I would argue that the film critic has two different purposes–to help you think about movies in a slightly more sophisticated way and to alert you to movies that don’t have the weight of Hollywood’s marketing machine behind them. In other words, movies you might not have heard of. Yes, you’re familiar with 300, and I’m sure you have a pretty good idea of whether that will be your cup of tea. But have you heard of The Lookout? If not, you should.

0493_d44_037.jpgIt stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a young man named Chris who, in the opening scene, is involved in a horrific car accident. Four years later, he looks like he’s fine, but his head injury has affected his ability to think clearly, put things in order, or remember the most basic activities. He lives with a blind roommate and works at a bank as a night janitor. He’s frustrated with his life and how difficult it is to perform the most routine tasks. Then one night he meets an old high school acquaintance, a man who taps into that frustration and offers him a way out, a way to grab power. He asks Chris to help him and his gang rob the bank.

Set up like that, the plot might sound like any blockbuster thriller. But writer and director Scott Frank (who wrote the screenplays for Out of Sight, Minority Report and Get Shorty and now makes his directorial debut) uses a much more understated approach. This isn’t a crime drama with stereotypical characters. This is a character study that focuses on what happens when someone gets tired of his life. That distinction is why The Lookout is being distributed by a small studio with little fanfare.

The movie is anchored by another fantastic performance from Gordon-Levitt. He starred as the kid in the tv show “Third Rock from the Sun,” and is quietly turning into one of his generation’s most interesting actors. Largely eschewing roles in blockbuster films, he’s making a name for himself with rich, intense performances (Mysterious Skin and Brick). Here, he avoids the showy tics usually associated with disabled characters and offers a tight, nuanced portrayal. We see Chris as he interacts with his wealthy parents who can’t get used to their less-than-normal son, and his relationship with his roommate (a nice performance from Jeff Daniels) is thoughtful and compelling. And once the characters are established, then the noirish crime elements are that much more satisfying.

I’m not arguing The Lookout is some kind of masterpiece. The bank robbery is fairly paint-by-numbers, and the blind character is one we’ve seen many times before, despite Daniels’s charisma. But this is the sort of movie Hollywood should be making–and getting behind. Movies that don’t insult your intelligence or make you feel dirty for watching. But because The Lookout has a small marketing budget, this is a movie where it’s up to the critics to let you know what you shouldn’t miss.

The Lookout: three 1/2 stars, out of five

I know I haven’t been updating my blog with any kind of frequency, but I hope to change that substantially in the next couple weeks. I went to Barcelona last week and had a marvelous time. But instead of just offering a travelogue, I hope to write several reflections on things I saw.

In advance of that, however, I want to post several film reviews I’ve written in the last couple months. Nothing especially profound or noteworthy, but hopefully you’ll enjoy them anyway. I posted The Lives of Others first (which you can find below), then The Italian, and now The Host. Look for Barcelona posts beginning tomorrow, with links to lots of pictures.6-resized.jpg

I’ve written before about how the way we see a movie can have an enormous impact on how we experience it. See something by yourself in your living room, and you’ll probably see it differently than if you saw it in a movie theater with several hundred people. I wish you could experience The Host the way I did at the Toronto Film Festival. It was a huge Midnight Madness crowd–well over a thousand people–all excited to see a monster movie from South Korea that had everyone talking.

“A monster movie?,” you ask incredulously. Yes, a monster movie. I know I lean toward the quiet and metaphysical, but I also enjoy a good genre picture, and The Host is a very good genre picture. It focuses on a sad-sack family, with a dim-witted snack vendor (the funny Song Kang-ho) at the center. When his cute-as-a-button daughter is taken by the aforementioned monster, it’s up to him and his brother, sister and father to rescue her.

8-resized.jpgUnlike many monster movies, which delay revealing the monster until the climactic moment, director Bong Joon-ho lets his audience grab a glimpse early on (imagine a T-Rex dinosaur crossed with something out of Aliens). It certainly worked for my Toronto audience, as oohs and aahs jumped out of the crowd. But that early sighting has nothing on the spectacular set piece that follows as the monster comes out of the river and rampages through the city streets. It’s safe to say I didn’t see anything more exhilarating last year. Bong and his incredible special effects team are able to beautifully integrate the CGI monster with the chaotic crowds, and the result is an incredible twenty minutes of mayhem.

What makes this sequence (and the entire movie) so effective is that the script is also wickedly funny. So a frightening “gotcha” moment is often paired with a deadpan joke or a comically exaggerated facial expression. In the aforementioned mayhem, the father grabs the hand of a girl who he (and we) thinks is his daughter, but after a few seconds he realizes he’s grabbed the wrong hand and left his daughter behind. Later, a hysterical funeral sequence becomes hysterically funny when the media arrive. Furthermore, sight gags abound, as do knowing nods to other monster flicks.

Complementing the special effects is a marvelously loud sound design. But Bong also knows how to contrast loud screams with deadly silence, and the shift from loud to soft and back again acts like a musical soundtrack, manipulating the audience’s emotions and heightening the tension.

Still, it would be just a genre exercise if not for the tender and even emotional family dynamics. The father is a bit of an idiot, but he genuinely loves his daughter, as opposed to so many Hollywood flicks where you’d never guess people were related if the script didn’t tell you. So when the daughter is taken, there’s a real depth to the scene. And when one character is unexpectedly killed, it’s like a punch in the gut.

On top of all this, the movie adds a pro-environment/anti-America message. The monster is created because the U.S. Army dumps dangerous chemicals into the city’s river. Apparently, this is based on a real-life event–the chemical dumping, I mean, not the monster. But the movie compounds the message by introducing sadistic American doctors who want to operate (think torture) even when it’s unnecessary. I found the propaganda a bit too obvious, and the digression into a hospital slows the movie down just as it should be rushing towards the climax. It’s also somewhat unfortunate that the longer the movie goes on, the more serious and less funny it becomes. As my friend Garth put it afterwards, “Bong seems to forget that he’s making a comedy.”

1-resized.jpgFortunately, the acting is strong. The sister is played Bae Doo-na, who will be familiar to audiences from her roles in Linda, Linda, Linda and Take Care of My Cat. She has such an expressive face and a crazy sense of humor that it’s always a pleasure to watch her on screen. Ko A-sung, as the daughter, looks much younger than her 13 years, and is completely convincing as a frightened but determined child. And Song forms the emotional core of the film even as he’s also the comic relief.

I can’t imagine that you’ll have as much fun as I had, just because you won’t see The Host with such an enormous and raucous crowd. But I expect that you’ll enjoy it anyway, as its pleasures are many.

The Host: four stars, out of five

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One of the first pieces of dialogue in a new movie called The Italian is of a man in a car looking out on a foggy, snowy landscape and heartily proclaiming, “Look, this is real Russia.” Why a movie called The Italian takes place in a Russian orphanage makes more sense when you see the movie. But it’s also a testament to the fact that moviegoers are more likely to see something with a sexy title than one named “Russian Orphanage.” And if Miramax taught us anything in the ‘90s, it’s that a sexy title (Cinema Paradiso, Life is Beautiful) paired with a wide-eyed moppet can equal box office gold.

In The Italian, that wide-eyed moppet is six-year-old Vanya (Kolya Spiridonov). He lives in a run-down but largely pleasant orphanage where the director might get drunk every night but still takes care of his flock. Older kids actually look after the younger ones, organizing various illicit activities and then communally distributing the profits. Still, when foreign couples arrive to inquire about adopting a child, the excitement runs through the place like Chicago before the Super Bowl. A happy orphanage can’t compare to a happy home. So things are looking golden for Vanya when a genuinely nice Italian couple show up and choose him. Now only two months of paperwork stand in the way.

When a mother of one of the orphans shows up one day, however, Vanya realizes that going to Italy means forsaking any chance of ever meeting his parents. So he starts working on a plan to escape and track down his mom. Parts of the plan are far-fetched to say the least, but a train trip across the Russian landscape is full of pleasant encounters with stock characters.

01-italian-resized.jpgIf the story feels familiar, director Andrei Kravchuk frames it with care and a strong eye for detail. Many of his shots are lit as if he were making an Old Master painting, and his documentary background shows up in the evocatively tight close-ups on faces. If the sentiment becomes a bit much when he pans across a room of sleeping boys (or when the music moves up in volume), Kravchuk avoids any gross manipulation ala Oliver Twist.

So the film’s emotional pull rests entirely on young Spiridonov’s shoulders, and he delivers. His huge eyes certainly don’t hurt his appeal, but he’s also a compelling actor, making the audience understand why he’d give up the chance to move to Italy for a long-shot quest to find his mom. His interactions with the other children are believable, and his sentimental affectations fit the story. I enjoyed the secondary characters as well, particularly two older girls, one who acts as the house mother and one who helps Vanya escape. Kravchuk has an obvious affinity for child actors, as the large group scenes work just as well as the ones with more seasoned actors.

The film displays little of the rigor I’ve seen in other recent Russian pictures, but the happier tone is a pleasant contrast to most orphan-in-peril movies. Kravchuk understands what his middle-brow audience is looking for and provides plenty of it. It’s a crowd-pleaser and rightly so.

The Italian: three 1/2 stars, out of five

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It’s amazing to think that it was over 17 years ago that the Berlin Wall fell. For anyone in high school, the Cold War is just a part of history books and old movies (or new movies about old history). I guess it’s even old history in Germany if the new movie The Lives of Others is any indication. How else to explain the superficial treatment of secret police surveillance and interrogations that the movie trots out, unless people have largely forgotten what it was really like?

The Lives of Others is set in East Berlin in 1984. The Erich Honecker government is at the height of its power, and its foundation is the Stasi, the East German secret police. Widely regarded as one of the most efficient security services ever, it’s estimated that the Stasi had 91,000 employees and an additional 300,000 informants out of a total population of just 15 million.

The movie’s main character is Captain Wiesler, a hard-nosed Stasi agent who teaches interrogation techniques to new recruits. He also can sniff out a subversive at 100 yards, as we see in one of the movie’s early scenes. So when a government minister asks him to start bugging a prominent writer, Wiesler is enthusiastic. He even starts handling some of the surveillance himself, eavesdropping on the writer and his actress girlfriend as they entertain guests, talk about politics and engage in tender lovemaking in the bedroom.

01-resized.jpgIf you’ve already guessed that Wiesler, moved by the joys and sorrows of real people, will have a crisis of conscience and be forced to choose between what he’s always believed and this new-found reality, then you’ve seen too many movies (as have I). The film even sets us up with an early conversation at a party where the government minister and the writer argue over whether people can change. The evil minister, of course, pooh-poohs the idea, asserting confidently that people are stuck in their sins. If you detect a note of cynicism in my words, you’re right. It’s not that I believe people can’t change, but this middle-brow film makes it sound like all you need is just to meet the right people. The movie even posits with a straight face that anyone who truly loves music can’t be bad. Excuse me if I’m reminded of the great Simpsons quote about Sideshow Bob, “No one who speaks German can be an evil man.”

It doesn’t help that the film’s visual style is banal with a dull color palette and repetitive two-shot editing. As I told my friend Garth, it’s an old-fashioned political drama with the old-fashioned cliches. The music kicks in on cue whenever there’s even a hint of drama. The camera lingers over every detail, not because it’s beautifully photographed (it’s not) but so that the dim-witted audience doesn’t miss what’s going on. To the movie’s credit, though, the story moves along and I never got bored. Writer and director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck may not have any sort of directorial flair, but he at least knows how to keep the audience’s attention.

In that, he’s helped enormously by the strong cast. Martina Gedeck, who plays the girlfriend, is one of Germany’s finest actors, and she carries off each cliche (again, it’s no surprise that she’ll eventually have to sleep with the government minister) with strength and poise. Even better, though, is Ulrich Muhe, as Captain Wiesler. His carefully controlled facial expressions convey Wiesler’s transformation with convincing grace. In fact, I was swept up in his character and didn’t realize until much later how ludicrous it was.

It goes without saying that the audience at the Toronto Film Festival loved it. Loved it. Ate it up. But then who wouldn’t be moved at the sight of a Stasi officer renouncing everything he’s lived for, just because he’s moved by the words of Brecht and the melody of Beethoven? Now if we can only get those Guantanamo guards to listen to some Elvis.

The Lives of Others: three stars, out of five

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My grandpa turned 90 last week. So I took the train home to Michigan to be with family and celebrate the happy occasion. He doesn’t get around as well as he used to, but his mind is still wonderfully sharp. He appreciates any good joke, and I think his memory might be better than mine is. Until a few years ago, he still played golf in the summer, and he was hiking the Appalachian Trail even in his eighties. That’s his 80s, not the ‘80s.

I grew up about 90 minutes away from my mom’s parents, so I saw them occasionally but not all the time. We’d celebrate holidays together, and I would stay there for a week or two in the summer. One of my favorite childhood memories was when we were visiting and had gone to church on a Sunday morning. When we came out, the rest of the family went in one vehicle, but my grandpa took me alone to his car and started driving. I wasn’t sure where we were going, but he had a twinkle in his eye. It turns out we had tickets to a Tigers baseball game, just him and me. And there we sat in the centerfield bleachers in the old Tiger Stadium on a brilliantly sunny summer day. I don’t even remember who won. I just remember I was with grandpa.

104-0421_img-resized.jpgAnother of my favorite memories happened much later, when I was around 30. My dad, brother, and I used to golf once a summer—when Matt came in from Boston and I came from Chicago. So one summer, my dad decided to invite my grandpa to play with us. Now my parents had divorced when I was a kid, but my family (in all its permutations) has always got along well. And so my dad, grandpa, brother, and I duffed it around the Forrest Akers course in East Lansing. My grandpa had been a caddie as a boy, so he spent just as much time finding golf balls that round as he did hitting them. I think he found a couple dozen balls that day, including a few of mine, and did his best to give all of them to my dad. The only tense moment came when my dad insisted on paying for the golf (my dad, stepdad, and grandpa are all fierce check grabbers). My grandpa would only agree to this arrangement if he could pay for lunch. My dad still laughs about that.

One last memory, this one about movies. It was Christmas Day, and I was about 21 or 22. The tradition on my mom’s side of the family is that the nuclear families open gifts that morning, and then the whole extended family comes together in the afternoon for dinner and “family gifts.” I’ve always loved my cousins and uncles and aunts (I consider myself most blessed to get along with everyone in my family). But I went through a phase in my early 20s where I didn’t feel like I belonged. I had gone away to college and changed significantly, or so I thought. But my family still treated me like a teenager. I didn’t fit in with my younger cousins, but I didn’t fit in with the adults either.

So on holidays, like Christmas, I tended to find a corner of the house and read a magazine. Sure, if someone sat down next to me, I was polite and made small talk, but it felt awkward. It was one of those Christmases when an hour or two after dinner my grandpa came up to me, again with a twinkle in his eye. He had something to show me. I was briefly excited until I realized it was a program he had recorded off the tv. A PBS program on Buster Keaton, and it was three hours long! Ugh. I had no idea who Buster Keaton was, but I knew (in my arrogant early adult frame of mind) that any movie star my grandpa liked had to be boring. And now he was gleefully inviting me to watch all three hours with him. What else could I do?

So I reluctantly headed to the tv room with my grandpa and then proceeded to laugh myself silly for three straight hours. It didn’t take long for the whole family to congregate around the tv, and three generations of Nagodes howled with delight at the slapstick, sight gags, and deadpan expression of Buster Keaton. It wasn’t for another few years until I fell in love with movies, but I’m convinced that, today, part of my love of silent and classic Hollywood dates back to that Christmas night when I saw the joy a whole family could experience around a tv set/movie screen.

My grandpa turned 90 last week. Hopefully, my memories will last at least that long. Happy Birthday, Grandpa!