Friday, November 26, 2010

Letters to Juliet. (2010) Gary Winick

Sometimes cardboard cutouts still remind me of life's need and purpose. Meg Ryan, Julia Roberts and Sandra Bullock have sucked me into card-box thinking before, and now it's Amanda Seyfried, with her big pretty eyes and playful though predictable dialogue. Oh, I'm not going to get all mushy about this romcom -- if you can even call it that (it didn't have much com for its rom) -- but I want to go easy on a film I give a Netflix 2-out-of-5 stars to. It's not as bad a story as it deserves to be rated as a film.

There's a lot here showing characters who need the plot to drive them -- they wouldn't exist if they weren't meant for the next scene. And there are some awful moments where the back(d)flop of music adds elements of cheese we wish weren't there -- not that Taylor Swift's song is bad (I really don't think it is), but here, when it's added, it's like three weeks past the sell date on Aldi's Swiss cheese. Who didn't know that she would be, "Crying on the staircase," begging him to please not go?...

But once you get past the cheese and cardboard, there's a felt need here, and I won't say I wasn't somewhat affected. I will say that I didn't buy any of it -- at least how it's represented here, in this film -- but the idea that we really do need love is still there, and that's the part that got me.

So sue me. I need love. And I liked a film that I still only give a predictable lovey-dovey 2/5 for a predictable lovey-dovey huggie-bear film. There are turns in the dark halls of everyone's twisted journey.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Don't Look Back. (2010) Marina de Van

This is the second film from Marina de Van which pits a middle aged, pretty French woman against her mind, body and identity. It would seem de Van likes characters not at ease with living in their own skin.

She tackles the body/mind and identity/soul themes at as high a level as anyone, artfully exploring them in ways that can truly capture your attention. Her previous film, In My Skin, would almost be considered horror if it weren't for the fact that cutting, an ancient tradition showing loyalty to the gods, now seems normal in today's teen angst (and film enhanced) culture. De Van sidestepped the teen issue and brought greater weight by giving us a woman in her thirties who not only cut, but took her case study to a whole new level, eating her flesh and licking up her own blood, a literal reading of the self-destructive addict. Whereas that film was a hard, dark trip steeped in emotional preoccupation and the dark corridors of psychology, it made for a mesmerizing case study, nonetheless. It's a directorial debut I'll never forget, setting de Van's name as a high priority for any follow up.

The follow up is here, de Van finding two stellar, well-known actresses to pull off a new idea for body/mind identity exploration -- and add to that a character's belief that she's being manipulated through hidden reality and her family's deception. Sophie Marceau and Monica Bellucci each play Jeanne, a biographer aiming to change over to fiction and an apparently normal and loving wife and mother of two. Marceau plays Jeanne from the beginning of the story, Bellucci morphing into her half way through, which of course is a jolt to the system when no one else sees the change. Her mother, husband and children also turn unrecognizable, and even the furniture in the house travels to new locations. These things seem to happen very quickly and may allude to her recent writings, in which she's digging in her past in order to work this fiction out, or amnesia she experienced as an eight year-old.

Don't Look Back has an approach that's less sick than In My Skin, and certainly not horror, but rather a slow boiling mystery that gets into your head and has you grasping at straws at the film's device of identity.

What de Van does with interiors here is as fantastical as anything in In My Skin. Like that film, the story telling is at its best when Jeanne is trapped in several small rooms (the use of lighting and mirrors and reflections a recurring motif), as well as trapped in the meltdown of her own mind and body. The interiors, physical and mental, bring a claustrophobic feel, perfect for the stifling tension coming on this house. The creeped out soundtrack adds to the intensity, too, informing the insanity and disintegration the family goes through as Jeanne's transformation slowly tears her from them.

The story wraps up, but not in a nice little bow. In order for Jeanne to figure out what is happening, she'll return to her childhood and start again from there. In a sense, she's always been that little girl that's trapped in a woman's body, and that might be at the heart of what de Van seems interested in delving into. Some strands are left undeveloped in the end, but they're not the ones we care about the most -- we go from the surreal to the bizarre, but then there's way made for the poetic, too -- but a sense of brokenness will permeate the final frame.

If anything, Don't Look Back made me a firm believer in the strength of de Van as a filmmaker, and not just a one-hit wonder with In My Skin. I'm looking forward to what she does next as much as I looked forward to her second effort, and I'd happily add her name to any of the younger French directors getting known.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Secret of Kells. (2010) Tomm Moore

I may have found the number one on my Top 10 of 2010. I never -- EVER -- thought I'd say that about an animation. But The Secret of Kells is perfect in so many wonderful ways, that I can't deny it's the greatest combination of film and art this year. My kids were stunned at it, too.

I'm going to let it seep with time. I'll definitely be revisiting it soon. But there are going to have to be some absolute masterpiece power-house releases for anything to have a chance to beat this out. We'll see.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Jesus of Montreal. (1989) Denys Arcand

Here's another solid entry into our Top 100.

Voted #88 this year, the film revolves around a ragtag group of actors performing a passion play for the local Catholic church. What they come up with is unorthodox, but well accepted by everyone except the church itself. "Institutions," claims a broken priest, "live longer than individuals."

It's too bad that the church has to cancel this production -- it was the most honest passion play I've seen. Those involved seem affected by the story, too -- they are somewhat disciples rather than actors in the end.

Here's a movie staging a theater production of a 2000 year-old story, a story which still brings me to tears. I can't imagine any real church having the budget of the church here, but it's an ideal to aim at for anyone interested in telling the gospel story.

The film is streaming at Netflix only for a few more days. My friend, Peter Chattaway, wrote an excellent blurb Here.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Come Undone. (2010) Silvio Soldini

Why is it that you can have a relationship or steamy sex, but never both? At least that's the way it works in the movies.

Maybe Anna just needed to be noticed again, not for her great career, not for her caring spirit. Maybe she needed to be noticed for being gorgeous. Maybe she missed the days when her boyfriend Alessio dove into her for her luscious beauty. Maybe if he'd lose some weight and pursue her like the madman he no doubt was when they met, she wouldn't be tempted at the thought of someone else. Or maybe life in Milan has become way too predictable. It's really hard to tell.

I love how this story begins. Anna and Alessio are awakened in the middle of the night by her sister Isa on the phone. Isa's husband is working a night shift, her water just broke and she's going to have this baby now. Anna and Ale, with a car in the shop, wake up a neighbor and ask to borrow his vehicle. They make it to the hospital, and then the delivery, and Anna gets to cut the cord. They've made it through a midnight emergency, and joy is the end result -- but they couldn't have made it through without each other.

That we get to see Anna and Alessio in the middle of an emergency and dealing with the fallout later (Anna, devastated, admitting she never knew birth was so "violent") reveals a couple experiencing the spectrum of life's emotions. They are barreling through and even enjoying life's crazed moments -- together. The next night, tired as he is, Ale makes dinner for her and they chat. The next morning he helps pack her car. He's a handy man -- he puts a door on their shower, and she won't have that nasty curtain touching her in the shower again.

He mentions in passing that maybe it's time they thought about a baby. A business woman by day, she's hesitant at first, but then later she's suddenly willing to go off the pill. Her decision seems tailored to make him happy. Their relationship is a close one, and if any couple is truly in love, they seem so.

So why does she make a date with a caterer she barely knows? Is she feeling the ticking clock after her sister's delivery? Is she bored with life? Or is it basic animal instinct -- Domenico is tall, dark and handsome. Does she need something wild on the side?

She claims her career keeps her busy and never bored. She seems content with Ale and their circle of friends. She doesn't want to tear down years that she's built up. There's something conflicted in her, but the film keeps us guessing about her motives. Perhaps she's guessing, too.

Another thing I like about the film is its shift in perspective. For the first part we only see the world through Anna's eyes. When she first falls for Domenico, he remains a mysterious figure, only popping up as we watch the course of Anna's days play out. But then they sleep together, and we finally follow him home. To his wife. To his newborn baby and five year-old girl. To a job that doesn't pay enough and a brother, willing to loan him money, but whom he resents nonetheless.

There's no one to root for here. It's a story about an affair that's about as real as it gets. These are real people that have real desires, desires that lead to real hurts. We don't root for Alessio or Domenico to finally win the heart of the babe, or the right to take her home. Anna's not some trophy you might find on "Big Brother." The parts here are all played to perfection, but this is heartbreaking stuff. That old song, "Torn Between Two Lovers" comes to mind.

You might recognize Anna from her role as the lesbian sister in another film set in Milan, I Am Love. Though that film played more to art-house audiences, it's interesting that the two, both released this year, deal with an aging blonde falling for someone working in the food business. The films differ, however, in approaching their key affairs -- each film has a different focus. And while Come Undone is no smoldering filmic masterpiece like I Am Love, it deals with its conflicted characters so realistically that you can't help but be drawn into the fallout of its story.

The movie went through a name change and had a few minutes shaved off before appearing at the Chicago International Film Festival and being released by Film Movement this fall. Come Undone could be a double entendre for the euphoria one feels in the arms of a strange, new lover. More likely, it's about the unraveling that takes place in a person's life when they've focused so hard on one thing that they forget to take all else into account. Anna and Domenico both have everything they need, but in the heat of the moment they risk it to grasp at that something extra. It's probably something most people in their shoes never understand -- how you can have it all, and be planning for more in that context, but still be willing to throw it away for the cherry on top -- so quickly eaten, and soon there's nothing in your hands.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

How I Ended This Summer. (2010)
Alexei Popogrebsky

Hiding something is often the same as lying. How I Ended This Summer is an exploration into the fear that turns into hiding, the cover-ups as a lie explodes, and the ramifications as it tears into already fragile relationships.

These cold relationships are exacerbated by the harsh atmosphere on an arctic Russian island. In the winds and rain of this frigid climate, Sergei and Pavel are forced to live together, trying their best to get along as they work a meteorological station. Sergei, a calloused blue collar tough old geezer has been at this work for years. He's the head of the Archym Island Weather Station, and he knows his stuff. Young Pavel seems to have only approached the job like it's temp work, here for the summer season, hoping to write a paper on his experience at the place. He finds Sergei harsh and intimidating, a tough pick for a workmate. Sure, he knows his stuff. It doesn't make him any easier to live with.

Most workmates only have to deal with water cooler gossip and the occasional cubicle cornering. These two have to tough it out in the arctic and get along. They're the only two on the island, it's not like there's gossip around every corner.

It's trout season, and Sergei decides to take the boat out for a day or two. Maybe he really loves the trout at this time of year, or maybe he wants to see if Pavel can handle the work while he's gone. Regardless, while he's out fishing and AWOL from his work, Pavel receives a CB radiogram relaying the distressful message that Sergei's wife and son have been in an accident. The company is sending a vessel to their location to give Sergei the opportunity to get home as fast as possible. Pavel winces at the thought of relaying this message to the grumpy old man. A ship might take five days to get there. Should he relay the message now and bear the bear for the next five days?

He initially takes down the message from the CB, writing it down word for word, but fear keeps him from relaying it. After choosing to not relay it, fear becomes a central character in Pavel's existence. Nervousness chokes him while he keeps the truth from his workmate. And does Sergei really want to kill him when he later learns the truth? Is he really as deranged as he seems? The viewer might not think so, but it's easy to see why Pavel does. Earlier, Sergei told him another story of two men that were also on the island, at an earlier point in time. Things for those two didn't turn out so well. Pavel seems to think that Sergei is capable of repeating history.

So the lie leaves Pavel running for his life and isolated against a dangerous environmental backdrop with little knowledge of how to actually survive. This is the deeper dig into the human nature of the story -- that lying causes distance, when our actual human need is communal. Pavel probably didn't realize how ill equipped he was to take on the island by himself, but as he's forced to -- or thinks he is forced to, anyway -- the island seems to become a much smaller, and stifling place.

There are quite a few moments where the passage of time is relayed through the frigid elements in time-lapse photography. Clouds, fog, the passing sun, the fading of day. They rush by quickly, speeding up the monotony of life on the arctic island. Later, as Pavel seeks every crevice of rock to hide in, his bunny-like nervousness seems to slow the day down, even as fast as he chooses to move. Time on the island moves quickly when you're moving slow, and slowly when you're running for your life.

I can think of two film comparisons to How I Ended This Summer. Because it's a "Russian arctic" movie, the first thing that comes to mind is (obviously) Russian Ark. But two films have never been more different. Everything about Russian Ark screamed majestic and grandiose, with a thousand characters in mis-en-scène, abundant and energetic, like several classic films thrust into one. How I Ended This Summer is minimalist: two characters, one island, one problem, one big cover-up. The films are polar opposite.

And yet it's also comparable to an indie-style film that's in theaters right now, Buried. Reviews of that film have sprung up all over the Internet revealing astonishment at how captivating it actually is. In Buried, the amazement is because the entire 95 minutes are claustrophobic, shot completely inside a coffin; similarly, in How I Ended This Summer it's that only two actors reading telemetry in the arctic could pull the story together. In both cases there is but a device that either fails or excels, based on the viewer's interpretation.

I'm hesitant to say it does either of these things fully. I think it does a little of both.

So I'm not going to hide or lie about How I Ended This Summer. With its crawling pace, typical of many Russian films, it won't be an easy film for some to sit through. The lack of dialogue, too, makes me wonder if the script is even ten pages long -- and with thirty-three minutes left I thought there wasn't enough story for even five. I think the film can on some level be called a success, with the two actors pulling off a coup for minimalism. However, this is not a film I will be revisiting soon. At 130 minutes, it's like watching a Russian arctic snail.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Heartbreaker. (2010) Pascal Chaumeil

Equal parts Runaway Bride and a French romcomian Mission Impossible, Heartbreaker satisfies in ways the feel-good audience needs.

I'm not usually a big fan of the romcom. Other (obviously English speaking) reviews that I read before seeing Heartbreaker made comparisons to recent American films I hadn't even heard of. I don't know whether this is beneficial when reviewing Heartbreaker, but for what it's worth, I'm right there with the feel-good camp.

Romain Duris has had my respect since his commanding performances in both The Beat That My Heart Skipped and Paris, but seeing him in a setting like this brings more understanding to the depth of his abilities. In those films he was undeniably fine, but those serious roles were more simple -- simply serious roles that called for simple seriousness. In Heartbreaker we get to see a brand new Duris with an energized and flamboyant side that, to me, was unexpected, but fully rewarding. I had some great laughs at this little romcom adventure, and Duris was having the time of his life.

Although somewhat predictable, the story is fine for the genre: Duris plays Alex, who runs a business with his sister and her husband in which they're hired to break up relationships. Maybe a relative or an ex-lover, maybe even just a good friend will hire the team to intervene, to somehow get in the middle of a blossoming love affair and with whatever means necessary, bring that relationship down. In a montage at the beginning of the film the team goes first person, directly confronting the camera, explaining their rules and their goofy codes of conduct, like never take a job based on religion or race, and never sleep with anyone to close a deal. But codes aside, they're handsomely paid to crack into a couple's courtship using deceit and seduction to splinter it.

Of course, Alex is the seductive romantic, using his charming good looks and an act he's put together to win the heart of a female mark. He's found that at just the right moment a sad story from his made-up life and a bit of hilariously conjured up tears can win even the hardest of hearts. When a girl has fallen for him to the point of wanting to leave her other, he always stops short. He says he's "far away," that it's "too late" for him, but that it's never too late for her. If the seed of another is planted, so the thought goes, it's enough for her to still pick up and leave.

Obviously when the lovely Vanessa Paradis strolls in as Juliette, a mark for Alex but a girl he just can't figure, things change for Alex and he actually starts to notice someone. The lengths he goes to to get her attention, and her unresponsive nature, make the story as much of a hoot as when she actually begins to notice him back. The problem is that Alex, still in character, a made-up man in a made-up world, needs to now decide whether it's right to come out of hiding and betray the dad that paid him or stuff it away and finish the mission.

The film plays with the idea of the "mission", too, with his teammate sister and her husband working behind the scenes security, or creating roles of their own -- hostess or maintenance man, bartender or race car driver. We begin to see Heartbreaker as not just a puritan romcom, but a Heist film as well -- a comedic one in which things in the background are as laughable as Alex's fumbling. The team spirit going into the breakup and the endless possibilities of what goes wrong are as funny as watching Alex flounder between liking Juliette and sticking to his agreement to thwart her engagement.

Contacting dad and digging into her history is a huge aid to finally reaching her. When Alex discovers how much Juliette loves WHAM and Dirty Dancing, his new mission is memorizing lyrics and 80s soundtrack dance moves. "Wake Me Up (Before You Go-Go)" is especially appealing, and the results he gets and nods to each are stitches of great enjoyment, especially for us closet WHAM and Dirty Dancing fans, decades of hiding later. (These might also be a reason for the rumored American remake.)

Heartbreaker won't be Duris's defining role, but I'm convinced he'll have a role in the next few years where we'll see it. He's just too good and on too good of a roll for it to escape him at this point.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Pi: Screenplay and Guerilla Diaries. (1998) Darren Aronofsky

This is only my second book review here at Filmsweep, but I had so much fun with this quick, fun read, I just had to share the experience.

It's about the humble beginnings of that knock-out film Pi, the black and white sci-fi mind melter that launched Darren Aronofsky's career. You know Aronofsky, right? You've probably heard of Requiem For a Dream, The Fountain, The Wrestler, or the upcoming Natalie Portman film, The Black Swan. All of these were made post-Pi, on big budgets, long after Aronofsky got the attention of the film industry in '98 by bringing it to Sundance, where it premiered, and got him the prize for Best Director.

What a great moment that must have been. The diaries don't extend that far, in fact they only lead up to four days in front of that moment. But knowing how he toiled for two to five years, depending how you count, knowing his dedication to the project when the funds weren't there and how he labored to keep everything afloat, the win at Sundance must have been his life's most fulfilling moment.

It's neat to see how Pi was conceived, launched, formed into a collaboration of some thirty workers and whittled down to five reels of 35mm film. As the diary progresses, some of the members of the team have to leave the collaboration and move on -- some very late in the project, which frustrates Aronofsky to no end. In his own words he confesses the desire to lash out, but knows it won't do any good. As an up and coming director he knows his goal, which is not just Pi, but directing greater, more massive and well funded films years from now. He is very smart to contain himself in restraint against the enormous feelings inside that beg him to lose his cool.

The film Pi has so many philosophical and spiritual ramifications that have created mounds of discussion in film groups for the past twelve years. The book dives into just a little bit of Aronofsky's spirituality, answering some of the common assumptions that are made by viewers of the film. He doesn't necessarily believe in a God that has a face and a name, but like Max, the main character in Pi, he sees patterns in the universe -- even in the microverse and how they compare when contrasted with universal design -- that lead him to believe in, well, in something. At various points on the set he has the entire crew gather in a circle and hold hands in a prayer-like stance. They don't really offer a prayer as much as submit to the idea of unification. His exact words describe a group moment of "economic and artistic partnership, a socialist collective."

Never mind that Max is half insane -- he and Aronofsky are undeniably linked. Max's graphing of the stock market for emerging numbers is akin to Aronofsky's musings on nature's shapes and connectivity: he finds it fascinating that our DNA and the Milky Way are (by his estimation) so visually connected. "Personally," he says, "I don't think it's this end-all universal form connected to God. But I do think it's awfully strange that our smallest ingredient (DNA) and our largest macro-structure (The Milky Way) are so similar in shape."

At the end of Pi, Max is having an existential moment. Viewers often muse that it is very similar to an existential moment he had at the beginning of the film, but at the beginning he was in a state of crisis, whereas in the end his state is more esoteric. The diary describes it as a moment when Max is fully present -- in the "here and now" -- for the first time, at the end of the story. I chuckled a bit reading those lines, thinking that Henri Nouwen would have loved this. He may have found a rich tradition of Christian spirituality in simply sitting still, observing, meditating, listening. It's hard to say whether Max's cyberworld really goes this far or not, and Aronofsky doesn't really say. It's actually one of the more intriguing mysteries that keeps your eyes glued to both the film and the written diaries.

The second part of the book is the actual script for the film. If you've seen and enjoyed Pi, even if it was years ago, this is a highly enjoyable read. As you glide along the words of the script your memory wanders back to those stark, sometimes horrible and freaked out black and white images -- and you remember in writing the fascination the film has in mathematical code, number theory (specifically the number 216), spirals, the Torah, ancient Kabbalah texts, and the anomalies of human error.

I can't say I'm a great reader or that I read a lot of books, but if they were all as much fun as this one I'd aim to read more.