Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Movie Review: Upside Down

Upside Down
Directed by: Juan Solanas.
Written by: Juan Solanas.
Starring: Kirsten Dunst (Eden), Jim Sturgess (Adam), Timothy Spall (Bob Boruchowitz), Frank M. Ahearn (Flynn), James Kidnie (Lagavullan), Vincent Messina (Tommy), Holly O'Brien (Paula).

I almost admire writer/director Juan Solanas for making Upside Down. The movie is so unabashedly over the top in its visual stylistics, melodrama and romance, that you have to admit that at the very least Solanas went for broke on the movie – threw everything he had into it. I admire when a director tries to do something so boldly different than everyone else. There’s just one problem – Upside Down is an absolutely awful movie.

Upside Down takes place in a world where two planets co-exist – one on top of the other, but each with their own gravitational pull. What this means is that if you are one planet, the other planet appears to be upside down. Now, rather than occupy the vast majority of these two planets that do not intersect, everyone seems to live in the one place that they do intersect. You cannot move from one world to the other easily – some hocus pocus involving a weighted vest is required – and things from one world will eventually catch fire in the other world. And of course, the people on top are rich, and the people on the bottom are poor. And of course, one man from below – Adam (Jim Sturgess) will fall in love with one woman from above, Eden (Kirsten Dunst) – and their love will forever change everything.

As with most time travel movies, it’s probably best not to think too hard about the paradoxes and logical inconsistencies that this duel world brings up. The whole two worlds things make absolutely no sense – but then I think Solanas knew that (I hope he knew that), and was really just an excuse to have his cool visuals – and those visuals are cool, as long as you don’t think about them in the slightest (why for example, is EVERY floor of the skyscraper Adam and Eden work in have an upper and lower – that makes no sense, because then you would have people from above, actually below the people from below, but upside on a lower floor, and … - well, you can see why I told you not to think about this stuff). But having one set of people on top, talking to the people below – and especially when Adam decides to go rogue, and has to get from the bottom to the top. The visuals, of course, don’t make much sense – but hell, they look cool! To Solanas, I guess, that’s enough.

So the science fiction elements of the plot are a mess, and the characters are even more so. Poor Jim Sturgess seems to be stuck in one movie after another where he’s required to do little except making goo-goo eyes at a pretty actress – he’s very good at that (even under a bunch of CGI and makeup like in Cloud Atlas), but his sensitive routine is wearing thin for me. If it’s possible, Kirsten Dunst is given even less to do than Sturgess – especially since the movie gives her amnesia for much of its running time, so she’s asked to look confused for most of her role – and to be fair, she does look really confused (maybe she’s wondering about how the hell these two planets are stack upon each other like I was). The wonderful Timothy Spall at least seems to be having fun in his throwaway role as one of the good upper people – who befriends Adam. There are various bad guys – all executives of apparently the only corporation that exists in these worlds – and they scowl effectively, but leave no impression on you (do they even have names?)

I have a feeling that Solanas came up with the idea of his visual scheme – stacking one world on top of each other – and fell so in love with it, that he tried to build a story around it. And make no mistake, although the idea of these two worlds on top of each other makes no damned sense, the visuals in the movie are quite cool. But there is nothing else in the movie that isn’t completely and utterly ridiculous. I tried to go with the movie – tried to get on its overwrought wavelength, but just couldn’t. The movie goes for broke, and for that, I kind of admire Solanas for attempting to do what he does here. But in the end, other than the cool visuals, the movie doesn’t work at all. Please, move onto something else – and not the sequel the end of this movie seems to promise.

My Answer to the Most Recent Criticwire Survey: Best Comic Book Movie

The best movie based on a comic book or graphic novel is clearly David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence. However, considering just how much has changed from the book – the movie is far less lurid than the graphic novel – and the fact that apparently Cronenberg was unaware that it was based on one when he agreed to direct the movie, and did not read the original before making the movie, I’m not going to pick that one. If I were inclined to pick an “alternative” choice rather than a superhero movie, I’d be more inclined to pick something like Robert Pulcini & Shari Spring Berman’s American Splendor, which had a ton of respect for Harvey Pekar’s source material, or one of two films by Terry Zwigoff – his adaptation of Daniel Clowes’ teen girl story Ghost World, or his documentary Crumb exploring the life and work of Robert Crumb. But even though I think all of these films are better than my actually choice, I think all of those seem to be a cop out – the critics way of dodging the real question being asked, so they can continue to look down their noses at superhero movies – which since this question was inspired by the upcoming release of Iron Man 3, is clearly what was intended.

So on that note, I’ll say the answer is The Dark Knight. True, I could have picked Batman Begins, but I think The Dark Knight is everything a great comic book movie should be – faithful to the source material, but providing a fresh spin on it. A great villain, a wonderful hero, good action sequences and a hell of an entertaining film to boot. Out of all of the recent comic book movies, this one is the best of the lot.

Friday, April 26, 2013

The Best Films I Have Never Seen Before: The Pride of the Yankees (1942)

The Pride of the Yankees (1942)
Directed by: Sam Wood.
Written by: Jo Swerling and Herman J. Mankiewicz.
Starring: Gary Cooper (Henry Louis 'Lou' Gehrig), Teresa Wright (Eleanor Twitchell), Babe Ruth (Babe Ruth), Walter Brennan (Sam Blake), Dan Duryea (Hank Hanneman), Elsa Janssen (Christina 'Mom' Gehrig), Ludwig Stössel (Henry 'Pop' Gehrig), Virginia Gilmore (Myra Tinsley).

When most people think of Gary Cooper, they think of his strong, quiet, heroic leading man roles. People remember him for his two Oscar winning roles as the Sheriff in High Noon, who stands up when everyone else backs down and for playing Sergeant York, a pacifist who became a WWI hero to fight for the country he loves. And they also remember him for playing Lou Gehrig in 1942’s The Pride of the Yankees. I have expressed my opinion in this series already that I prefer Cooper in his more comedic roles – in films like Ball of Fire, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town or Design for Living, where his awe shucks demeanor and expert comic timing worked wonderfully well. But there’s no denying that Cooper was able to play heroic roles better than most other actors in history. And his work in The Pride of the Yankees ranks among his best.

Cooper originally didn’t want the role. He was far too old for it – already in his early 40s, and the script called on him to play Gehrig from his days in college until the end of his life in his late 30s. He also hated baseball, and apparently threw like a girl, which was bad enough, but the fact that he was right handed, and Gehrig famously a leftie was even worse. But through training and some movie magic (lighting and camera angles to get rid of the lines on his face, and apparently giving him a uniform with everything printed backwards and then reversing the footage, so when he threw right handed, it appeared on screen that he was throwing left handed), he was able to pull off the role. Now, it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing it.

In many ways, The Pride of the Yankees can be looked at as the prototypical baseball movie. They didn’t really make a lot of sports movies in the 1940s, because they were considered box office poison – women didn’t like them, and research showed that women picked the movies couples saw more often then men. So when watching The Pride of the Yankees, and seeing all the sports movie clichés it pulls it, perhaps we need to be a little forgiving in that regard. And yes, The Pride of the Yankees piles on one cliché after another. Less forgivable, however, is the overly sappy and sentimental romance between Cooper and Teresa Wright, as Gehrig’s wife. Wright was a gifted actress, and she is quite good in the role considering its limitations of being “the wife” (she was nominated for an Oscar for it), but it’s a little much to take. The same could be said for Babe Ruth, who plays himself in the movie, and is more of a distraction that anything else.

Yet, despite these flaws, I could not help but be won over by The Pride of the Yankees. Through Cooper’s Gehrig’s integrity and work ethic comes through in every scene. He is a man you cannot help but root for – kind and generous with his teammates and his immigrant parents. In an age where fans have become more and more cynical about sports figures, it is refreshing to see a portrait of a sports star that was truly heroic.

The movie is best known for its final scene, and for good reason. It’s a doozy. I defy anyone with a heart to watch that scene, where the quiet, humble Gehrig takes to the field at Yankee stadium to give his farewell speech, and not break down in tears. It is played brilliantly by Cooper, and makes The Pride of the Yankees one of the most memorable sports movies ever made.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Movie Review: Happy People: A Year in the Taiga

Happy People: A Year in the Taiga
Directed by: Dmitry Vasyukov & Werner Herzog.
Written by: Rudolph Herzog & Werner Herzog & Dmitry Vasyukov.

Werner Herzog is one of the mad geniuses of the cinema. Reading his autobiography, Life Itself, following his death, I was struck my an observation Roger Ebert made about Herzog – that he has never made an unworthy film, never made a film simply for commercial reasons. Ebert is correct of course – even if I haven’t loved all the Herzog films I have seen (and although I have seen many, there are many more I haven’t seen – he’s one of the most prolific filmmakers in the world). Herzog goes out and makes precisely the film he wants to make each and every time. So even if I remain unimpressed by films like My Son, My Son What Have Ye Done? or The Wild Blue Yonder, or a few others, I admire that Herzog remains true to himself. He makes the films he wants to make – you can like them or not. I don’t think he really cares.

With Happy People: A Year in the Taiga, what Herzog did was take the four documentaries made by director Dmitry Vasyukov about trappers in Siberia, and edited them together into one, coherent 90 minute film – and added his own narration, which is invaluable, because Herzog has perhaps the best voice of anyone in the world. It’s so calm and confident, and seemingly intelligent, that sometimes you miss how hilarious the narration can be – like in the wonderful documentary Encounters at the End of the World, set in Antarctica. Happy People isn’t quite on that same level – it’s more matter of fact than that. But it is gorgeous, fascinating, little documentary.

The Taiga is a huge area in Siberia, where trappers have been plying their trade for generations in pretty much the same way. True, now they use snowmobiles and chainsaws, but aside from that they pretty much go about their trade as they always have. Their traps are primitive – but they are that way because they are more effective than anything man has come up with since. They make their own skies, because doing so allows to travel greater distances with ease than factory made ones. They spend months on their own, moving from one hut to another, checking on their traps for the sable they catch, with no one but their dogs for company. And their dogs do everything for them – without the dogs, they couldn’t survive. No matter what the political situation is, it doesn’t affect these men. The most lighthearted moment comes when a politician shows up in the small village on a boat asking for re-election – and finds for the most part, no one cares, until he breaks out the flour that the villagers want.

I am fascinated by a movie like this – that shows a way of life much different than most people live. It is a simple life, but as Herzog (and the title) point out, it is a happy life –precisely the life these people want to live. They do what the want, they are experts at their craft, and have no plans on changing. There is nothing wrong with that.

Happy People: A Year in the Taiga is a simple film. The footage by Vasyukov is beautiful – especially in the winter months. And it shows us the type of people we rarely see in films. While the film does not rank among the best of Herzog’s career, it is yet another example of him doing precisely what he wants to do. How can you argue with that?

Movie Review: Broken City

Broken City
Directed by: Allen Hughes.
Written by: Brian Tucker.
Starring: Mark Wahlberg (Billy Taggart), Russell Crowe (Mayor Hostetler), Catherine Zeta-Jones (Cathleen Hostetler), Jeffrey Wright (Carl Fairbanks), Barry Pepper (Jack Valliant), Alona Tal (Katy Bradshaw), Natalie Martinez (Natalie Barrow), Michael Beach (Tony Jansen), Kyle Chandler (Paul Andrews), James Ransone (Todd Lancaster), Griffin Dunne (Sam Lancaster).

One of the problems with movies about political corruption these days is that they seem to pale in comparison to the real stories of actual corruption coming out. True, the story told in Broken City involves murder, which is rarely the case in real stories, but other than that it seems like a fairly typical case of corruption – of men using their position of power for their own gain. We’re just much harder to shock anymore.

The movie stars Mark Wahlberg as Billy Taggart a cop, who when the movie opens, is being charged with murder, although the case never makes it past the preliminary hearing – but it is enough to get him booted off the force. Now, 7 years later, he is a P.I. in New York, struggling to pay the bills. That is when his old friend Mayor Hostetler (Russell Crowe) calls him up. He thinks his wife Cathleen (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is cheating on him – which could cause him embarrassment is his tightly contested re-election campaign. He wants Billy to follow her and see who she meets – and for this job he’ll get $50,000. Billy does so, finds the answer, and when that man turns up dead, decides to keep on digging and discovers much more to the story that he thought.

The film was directed by Allan Hughes – half of the Hughes brother combo who made a great debut in 1993 with Menace II Society – a tougher, more cynical version of Boyz in the Hood (which helps to explain why it isn’t as popular as the later, even if it’s just as good). For whatever reason, the Hughes brothers haven’t made a lot of films in the two decades since – just Dead Presidents (1995), American Pimp (1999), From Hell (2001) and The Book of Eli (2010). This represents the first feature Allan has made apart for his brother Albert (Allan did a short as part of New York, I Love You by himself) – and Albert has a solo project of his own in the works. I hope the two haven’t split up, and continue to make movies, because together they can be excellent. And Broken City, it must be said, has a gritty visual look – New York has rarely looked this dirty, which matches the subject matter.

The problem with the film has little to do with the direction, and far more to do with screenplay by Brian Tucker. In short, it is a fairly uninspired script, full of perfunctory dialogue, supporting characters who don’t go anywhere – like Wahlberg’s girlfriend played by Natalie Martinez or his assistant played by Alona Tal – and twists you can see coming a mile away. The basic plot outline isn’t bad, but it isn’t enough, and the film has numerous plot holes.

With the material he is given, Wahlberg does as well as can be expected. He has cultivated a screen image of himself as a tough guy – but a realistic tough guy, someone who audiences can relate to and root for, even if they are flawed. And that pretty much describes Billy Taggert. Had the rest of the cast matched him, Broken City probably would have been a better movie – not necessarily a good one, but a decent time waster. Alas, they do not. Russell Crowe sleepwalks through his role – the movie seems to have been little more than a paycheck for him, and it shows, as Crowe who can be as intense as anyone, barely seems to give a shit here. You can’t really blame Catherine Zeta-Jones for her lackluster performance, because the movie gives her nothing to work with. The same could be said for key supporting roles like Jeffrey Wright as the Police Commissionor or Barry Pepper as the mayor’s rival. Neither are bad per se, but they aren’t really given the opportunity to be very good either.

In short, Broken City just kind of sits there on the screen. Hughes does what he can with the script he has, but there is nothing really to sink your teeth into. In total, this is a pretty lazy effort all the way around.

My Answers to All 56 Criticwire Survey Questions Part III

Our Most Wanted Prequels
For this one, I think to my two favorite films. I wouldn’t mind seeing Colonel Kurtz’s descent into madness and then ruling over his jungle compound before Willard shows up to kill him in Apocalypse Now. But the one I really wanted to see is for Taxi Driver – what the hell happened to Travis Bickle in Vietnam that made him so crazy, or was he already that crazy. I should say this – I don’t actually want ANYONE to make either of these films, but I would have been interested in Coppola and Scorsese had done so decades ago.

Old Directors, New Technology
What old director would be benefited by all the new technology available to him today? I’m tempted to say Georges Meilles, who was a special effects wizard before there were special effects. But I’ll go a different way and say John Cassavetes. Why? Because today, Cassavetes could make his independent films with ease, on the cheap, and not labor for years in Hollywood movies to get funding for one film. His output could have expanded massively – and more films like A Woman Under the Influence and Love Streams are desperately needed today.

The Perfect Summer Movie
When I think of summer movies, I think BIG BLOCKBUSTERS, so although I am tempted to say Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire, because I first watched it on a sweltering July night with no air conditioning, so I was as sweaty as Marlon Brando by the end, I’ll go with Steven Spielberg’s Jaws – the one that started it all. Say what you want about Spielberg and Lucas ruining Hollywood with Jaws and Star Wars (it’s bullshit by the way), but Jaws is the perfect summer blockbuster – big, bold, audience friendly, terrifying – and it all takes place at the beach. Summer movies don’t get better than Jaws.

The Ultimate Midnight Movie
Another hard one for me – since I watch movies at midnight all the time (it’s the only chance I get after my wife and infant daughter go to bed on Friday and Saturday nights) – so I’ve seen everything from rom-coms to action movies to docs to foreign films in the wee hours of the morning. But what is the ultimate one? I’ll go back to by teenage years, and say the first time I watched Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre starting at midnight, it scared the shit out of me, and I barely slept afterwards. So it gets my vote.

When Actors Attack!
This was a question is response to Samuel L. Jackson attacking A.O. Scott for his review of The Avengers, and asking if actors have the right to criticize critics. The answer, of course, is yes – actors do have a right to criticize critics, although they’re probably better off not to. Critics spend their lives criticizing the work that others do – so it’s only fair that their work is also open to be criticized. Critics critique others critics all the damn time, but for some reason get defensive when an actor does it. Samuel L. Jackson can criticize all he wants to – but it does make him look petty, defensive and angry. He should probably have the attitude Abbas Kiarostami has about critics – saying he realized when Roger Ebert called The Taste of Cherry horrible, and then Jonathan Rosenbaum called it a masterpiece, that both were equally useless. Artists are better not to think about critics, and just go about their work. But they have the right to say whatever the hell they want to.

The Sight & Sound Greatest Film Poll
This question was about the 2002 Sight and Sound Results – basically asking you to drop one film, and replace with a more worthy title. So, I guess we need to see what the top 10 in 2002 were:
1. "Citizen Kane"
2. "Vertigo"
3. "The Rules of the Game"
4. "The Godfather Parts I and II"
5. "Tokyo Story"
6. "2001: A Space Odyssey"
7. "Battleship Potemkin" (tie)
7. "Sunrise" (tie)
9. "8 1/2"
10. "Singin' in the Rain"

As tempted as I am to say drop Battleship Potemkin, it’s place in cinema history in unquestionable. So, what I will drop off is Singin’ in the Rain – a great musical to be sure, but not the best one ever made by a long stretch – that long sequence in the middle drags the movie to a dead stop. What should replace it? The greatest movie of all time – Apocalypse Now. Since Coppola has a film in the top 10 though, perhaps I should say Taxi Driver.

Your Dream DVD Commentary
What DVD commentary would I most like to record? This is a tough one, because it would have to be a film I know inside out and backwards. So out of the many choices, I’ll go with Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers. There is just so much to talk about with that film – the technical prowess, the brilliant screenplay, the acting, the themes, how it has become even more relevant in the 18 years since he made it. I’ve probably seen this film more than any other, so I’ll go with it.

Talent Deserving of Wider Recognition
This question was asking about film writers in need of more recognition, and it’s a tough one for me. I read A LOT of film criticism, but have few critics who are not well known that I read constantly. Everyone knows how great Glenn Kenny and Manhola Dargis are right? So the one I’ll go with is James Bernardnelli. Yes, he is fairly well known, but with Roger Ebert’s recent death, he’ll be the first critic I go to from now on to get his opinion on a film BEFORE I see it. He doesn’t review films deeply – neither do I – but I trust his opinion, and trust him not to spoil an anticipated movie for me, just because he can. Considering he still has to work a full time job, I guess he qualifies as someone who needs wider recognition and money.

Your Favorite Horror Film
Narrowing this down to one film is nearly impossible. Do I pick The Shining of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre? Halloween or Peeping Tom? Frankenstein or Bride of Frankenstein? Dawn of the Dead or Alien? Surprising, even to me, though I think I’ll go with Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. I saw it a few times on VHS and DVD and loved it, but didn’t see it as Hitch’s best – but then I got to see on the big screen, and was blown away by it. I even found myself quite frightened, even though I knew what was going to happen. Picking just one is impossible, but I’ll stick with the stock answer.

Your Most Embarrassing Cinematic Blindspot
Easy – Claude Lanzman’s nine-hour Holocaust Documentary Shoah. I have an excuse – it’s 9 fucking hours, and it hasn’t always been easy to find. However, since Criterion is releasing it this year, I’m out of excuses. I plan to rectify this oversight in 2013.

The Best Review I Ever Wrote
This one is hard, since I have approximately zero self-confidence, and feel am I very poor judge of my own writing and reviews. Having said that, I think my dual reviews of Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island back in 2010 stands out in my mind – reviewing it with no spoilers, and then reviewing it again, and putting it in its proper context among Scorsese’s films. Those are my favorites.

My Answers to All 56 Criticwire Survey Questions Part II

The Best Film Criticism of 2012
Without a doubt, the best single piece of film criticism I read in 2012 was Kent Jones’ excellent piece of The Master in Film Comment, that put Anderson’s masterpiece in the proper historical and religious context, and deepened my understanding the film tenfold. A runner-up? Although it didn’t appear until January 2013, Roger Ebert did a blog entry on Django Unchained which was the single best review of the most talked about film of 2012 that I read.

Recommended Movies For Audiences Over the Age of 60
So, what films would I recommend for the senior set? Of recent films, I know they adored The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel – it’s senior citizen wish fulfillment after all. Lincoln would be good for them also – classical moviemaking at its finest. Of all time, I’d recommend Tokyo Story if they don’t mind foreign films – or the film that inspired it Make Way for Tomorrow – if they don’t want to read.

The Movie Critics Got Wrong in 2012
A lot of critics seemed taken in my Julie Delpy’s 2 Days in New York which I found insufferable – many also seemed to like The Comedy or Klown or Dark Horse or Pitch Perfect or Hope Springs or Damsels in Distress or Armitrage or In Another Country – not all are bad, but none are great. On the flip side, I don’t get all the hatred for Lee Daniels’ purposefully over the top The Paperboy.

The Best Performance of the Year
Easy – the best performance of 2012 was Joaquin Phoenix in The Master. I’ve written enough on that one by now, haven’t I?

A Film Book Gift Guide
What movie books should every cinephile read? There is Francois Truffaut’s interview with Hitchcock which is excellent, or Mark Harris’ Pictures at a Revolution, which I admire. You can never go wrong with the latest edition of Leonard Maltin’s movie guide – I still use it, even with IMDB on my iPhone. Scorsese on Scorsese is a great one for me – but I’m sure any of the series is good. But for me, I’d choose anything by Roger Ebert. His great movies collections are golden, his book on Scorsese, wonderful, and his autobiography Life Itself is honest and heartfelt. Perhaps, I’m just saying this because he recently died, but I don’t think so. They are indispensable.

Underrated Hitchcock
I’ll go with 1956’s The Wrong Man – a film that never gets any respect, but I happen to think is marvelous. With Henry Fonda as a musician charged with a crime he didn’t commit, and how it forces his wife – the wonderful Vera Miles – off the deep end, this films get me every time. Also one of his final films in black and white, so that’s always good.

Movie Mulligans
What film in 2012 had a good idea, but horrible execution, so perhaps a redo is in order? I’ll say Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly – which is based on a great novel by George V. Higgins, but is too slow and pretentious to be a truly great movie. Yes, the final scene is perhaps the best final scene of any 2012 film – but most of what preceded it was not very good at all. Perhaps all the film needs is a re-edit?

Your Favorite Bond Film
Since this question was posted as Skyfall was being released, I guess I cannot say Skyfall, although it’s probably the truth. I am tempted to say Casino Royale, as I thought Craig nailed it the first time out. But I’ll stick with the classic – Goldfinger. It is everything a Bond movie should be.

Movies You're Afraid to Watch
I’ve covered this in a previous post a few years back, and although I’m not sure I’d say I’m scared of watching it – I have absolutely no interest in seeing A Serbian Film – which has been banned in some countries.  I heard it was elected the most disturbing movie of all time, so I looked it up, ending up reading a detailed plot synopsis, which I cannot get out of my head as much as I try, so I have no use for actually watching the film. I don’t need to prove myself brave enough to watch the film – I did that already when I watches Salo and The Human Centipede, right?

The Perfect Halloween Double Feature
Most pick are going to pick classics – Psycho, The Exorcist, The Shining, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, etc. I’ll pick the two scariest films of recent years that deserve a wider audience – David Moreau and Xavier Palud’s 2006 film Them and Tom Shankman’s 2009 film The Children. The two make an excellent double bill, because there are some similarities between them – not to give anything away – and both terrified me, even though I watched them at home, where’s I’m harder to scare. Both should be more widely seen.

The Best Seat in the Theater
Back when I started going to the theater, I took Roger Ebert’s advice – as far back as the screen is wide, and on the aisle so you have a direct sightline. The problem now is that with stadium seating, this is impossible – and even if it isn’t, the effect is different. No, unless it’s 3-D, I like to sit in the first row of the back section of stadium seating – not the front section with three rows – but the back section with the majority of seats. The reason is simple – I like to look up at the movies. They have more power to me that way.

Films About Filmmaking
So many great choices here – from Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom to Francois Truffaut’s Day for Night to Godard’s Contempt to Burton’s Ed Wood, to Fellini’s 8 ½ to Anderson’s Boogie Nights, to DePalma’s Blow Out to Scorsese’s Hugo to Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels, to Wilder’s Sunset Blvd, to Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. or Inland Empire to Kiarostami’s Close-Up to Bahr and Hickenlooper’s Hearts of Darkness, to Kaufman’s Adaptation to Kelly and Donen’s Singin’ in the Rain to Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful – and I’m sure I’m missing some as well. But for me, the ultimate film about filmmaking – it may not be better than all the titles listed above, but is better about filmmaking if that makes any sense – is Robert Altman’s The Player. No film was as deeply cynical about the filmmaking process, and how Hollywood bastardizes it than that one – a brilliant satire, with one of the most perfect endings in history. A masterpiece.

Most-Wanted Criterions
What movies do I want the Criterion Collection to release? How about some I have trouble finding – Mizoguchi’s The Story of Late Chrysanthemums or Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating? Out of films I have seen and think that the full Criterion restoration magic should be applied to, how about Welles’ Chimes at Midnight? And how about Ben Wheatley's Kill List to expose more people to a great recent film.

The Best Time Travel Movie
I love time travel movies – Back to the Future, Primer, Looper, 12 Monkeys, The Terminator (and T2) spring to mind. But this time, I have to be one of those pretentious film nerds and say the best of all time is Chris Marker’s La Jettee. A brilliant short film, by a brilliant filmmaker, and a one of a kind film to be sure. I love many time travel movies, but Marker’s is the best.

Time Capsule Movies
This question asked what single movie you would put in a time capsule that best sums up the movies of the 2010s. For me the answer is simple – The Avengers. No, it’s not the best film of the decade so far – not even close. But to me, it represents the mentality of Hollywood right now – a large scale blockbuster, full of movie stars, superheroes, explosions – and of course is part of a giant franchise. I could be cynical and put a horrible sequel in here, but I won’t. The Avengers does everything it does very well. It isn’t the best movie of the decade so far, but it probably best encapsulates what we see on the screen week in and week out.

Paul Thomas Anderson's Best Film
The answer right now would be There Will Be Blood. However, I think before Inherent Vice hits next year, I will go back and watch all of Anderson’s films. He is my favorite filmmaker working right now, and while my gut tells me There Will Be Blood is the best, watching them back-to-back may make me change my mind to Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love or The Master. In short, they’re all great.

Movies To Remember During Award Season
Also outdated, as it asked what films from the first 8 months of 2012 were worth remembering. The answer should have been Compliance, Moonrise Kingdom and Once Upon a Time in Anatolia.

Fall's Must-See Movies
This one is out of date, as it’s for last fall. But at the time I did a list of my 10 most anticipated and topping the list was Django Unchained.

The Least Expendable 'Expendable'
This question asked who has had the best career – Stallone, Schwarzenegger or Willis. The answer is clearly Bruce Willis, who did many great action movies, but has also been able to slide into character roles for directors when he feels like it. Can you imagine Stallone or Schwarzenegger in Pulp Fiction or Moonrise Kingdom or Looper or Nobody’s Fool or The Sixth Sense or Unbreakable or 12 Monkeys or Fast Food Nation. Die Hard may not be the franchise The Terminator is (at least the first two installments), but for a career overall, it’s definitely Willis.

Franchises Worth Continuing Without Their Star
This is a rather bizarre question, but I’ll give it a shot – how about Wolverine without Hugh Jackman? I like Jackman just fine, and he’s quite good as Wolverine. But he’s also just about the nicest guy on the planet (or seems like it), and I don’t Wolverine has ever been as dark as he could be with Jackman in the role. Jettison Jackman, scale back the budget, and give a serious filmmaker a crack at the character.

The Movie Title That Describes Your Life
I have to admit, I was tempted to be a smart ass and say the movie Dave and be done with it, but I decided against that. Titles I did consider are The Watcher, since I do spend a lot of time watching things, Whatever Works, because I think that may be the best way to get through life, The Man Who Wasn’t There, because I tend to fade into the background a lot – which is why The Perks of Being a Wallflower was also considered. But when all is said and done, I think the best answer is simple – The Quiet Man. I don’t talk a lot.

Movie Theater Memories
Three memories stand out to me as being the most memorable experiences I had in a movie theater. One was seeing Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, not a few days before its release, but a few weeks (I work for a company that made it possible). The theater was packed, and the energy never dimmed – unlike when I saw Episode I or II. The audience loved it, and so did I (it’s better than Return of the Jedi, but still cannot hold a candle to the original or Empire). The second would be seeing Slumdog Millionaire at the 2008 Toronto Film Festival at the HUGE Ryerson theater. This is my favorite TIFF venue, and I have never, ever been at a screening where the audience’s energy was so palpable. Seeing the movie later, in a nearly empty theater, something was definitely missing. But my favorite moment may have been seeing Michael Haneke’s Cache in a packed Cumberland Theater (RIP) in Toronto – and when the film’s climatic, shocking moment comes (you know the one if you’ve seen the movie),the audience collectively gasped, and then fell completely silent – I’m not sure anyone was even breathing. There are many great movie theater memories, but those three stand out to me.

Critical Mea Culpas
What film did I get wrong the first time I watched it? I’d probably have to go with some early Coen brothers movies. The first movie of theirs I saw was Fargo, back in 1996, when I was 15. I loved it, so went back and watched their earlier films – Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Barton Fink and The Hudsucker Proxy. I have to admit I was more confused by them – especially the later three – then I really enjoyed them. Those later three are the kind of absurdist Coen brother humor you either love or hate. I love it now, didn’t think much of it then. I’m not sure I would say I was wrong – I still don’t think much of Raising Arizona, sorry, but I will say that the Coens are an acquired taste that it took me a while to get used to – now that I am, they are among my favorite filmmakers.

Most-Watched Movies
It has to be GoodFellas, Pulp Fiction, Natural Born Killers, Fargo or Boogie Nights– films I returned to again and again and again during my teenage years in a way I rarely, if ever, do anymore. If I had to pick one, I’d say it was probably Natural Born Killers – although it could be anyone of them – I lost track with each one.

Underrated Auteurs
For this, I’ll go with Korean director Lee Chang-dong. His Secret Sunshine (2007) is an absolute masterpiece – perhaps the most underrated film since the year 2000, and his follow-up Poetry (2010) is nearly as good. I just recently watched his Oasis (2002), and while it isn’t as good as the other two, it is still excellent. What Lee Chang-dong does is take difficult subject matter – a romance between a socially retarded man and a woman locked with cerebral palsy, the murder of a child and it’s aftermath, a gang rape and Alzheimer’s – and instead of exploiting it, makes thoughtful, fascinating brilliant films out of them. One of the best filmmakers in the world, and it’s about time people realize it.

Pixar's Best Movie
I love Pixar, but this is a no brainer – Wall-E. Hands down, no debate necessary. I don’t say this often, but if you don’t agree with me on this one, you’re just plain, flat out wrong.

Recommended Viewing For An Aspiring Cinephile
The question here was specifically geared towards a 14 year old African American girl who wanted to start watching more “art” films, because she is tired of mainstream Hollywood films, and what single film you would show her to start on her cinematic journey. For me, the film that came immediately to mind was Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. I wouldn’t want to start an aspiring cinephile too heavy – no silent films or foreign films, nothing too old. But Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing offers a take on race relations that is as relevant today as it was in 1989 – perhaps more so. And if she can get past the outdated rap music, I’m sure that anyone could relate to the characters in this movie –as I do. It’s only a start, but it’s wear I would begin.

My Answers to All 56 Criticwire Survey Questions Part I

Over at Indiewire, they do a weekly survey of Film Critics on a variety of subjects. They’re never going to ask me to participate, so I’m answering them myself (they can’t get mad at that, right?). I think I’ll provide my answers weekly from now on, but for now, I thought I’d go back and answer all 56 previous questions. I’ll post this over three posts, starting with the most recent, and working my way back.

The Best Film of the Last 25 Years
Off the top of my head my head: Do the Right Thing, GoodFellas, JFK, Unforgiven, Pulp Fiction, Natural Born Killers, Fargo, Boogie Nights, The Thin Red Line, Magnolia, Fight Club, Mulholland Dr. A.I., Punch-Drunk Love, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Kill Bill, A History of Violence, Cache, The Departed, There Will Be Blood, No Country for Old Men, Zodiac, Synedoche New York, Wall-E, Inglorious Basterds, The Social Network, The Tree of Life and The Master could all lay claim to that spot. What’s that, I can’t name a 28-way tie? Ok, if forced I can narrow it down to 2 – Mulholland Dr. and There Will Be Blood. No further.

One Movie to Save Humanity
The question here is that you can show one film to aliens to convince them not to blow up the earth, what would it be? For me, it would be The Shawshank Redemption. A clichéd choice, I admit it, but it is one of the most inspiring films of all time, and shows just why humanity is worth saving. Let’s hope the aliens understand English.

Ebert's Greatest Criticism
I have read a lot of Ebert’s film criticism over the years, and picking just one review is nearly impossible. So many Great Movie Entries would qualify – Ikiru probably more than most - as would something like his review of Django Unchained, from just a few months ago, or The Tree of Life, from last year, which explained why he connected with it so much. Or his praise of Synecdoche, New York. Or anything he wrote about Scorsese. Or Fargo. Or Hoop Dreams. Or on and on and on. But if I had to single out one – Do the Right Thing – which explains why Spike Lee’s film is a masterpiece succinctly, and clearly.

The Dud You Love
Given all the hate it received last year, I’m tempted to go with Cloud Atlas. Or anything by Rob Zombie, since he’s seems to get slammed like he’s Eli Roth or something. Or Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales, since it is one of the ambitious films of the last decade, no matter its failings. But I’ll go with a popular target, and say I enjoy all three Star Wars Prequels. Okay, other than Revenge of the Sith, none of them hold a candle to the originals and Sith is better than Jedi – Search your heart, you know it to be true – but all three films are entertaining, space operas. The originals have their problems as well, which the prequels magnified, but all six films are extremely entertaining. In short, George Lucas didn’t rape your childhood.

Overrated Masterpieces
I love Francois Truffaut, but I was left cold by Jules and Jim. Perhaps, I watched it too early in my film going life, and didn’t fully grasp it, but all the rapturous praise the film has received somewhat mystifies me. If you permit me to go on, I’d add Carl Dreyer’s Gertrud, D.W. Griffth’s Intolerance, Max Ophuls’ Letter from an Unknown Woman, Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible films, Godard’s Two or Three Things I Know About Her, Michael Snow’s Wavelength, Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice, Robert Wise’s The Sound of Music, George Stevens’ Shane, Luis Bunuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, the Coens’ Raising Arizona, Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures, Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (the original critics were right!) and Joseph Cornell’s Rose Hobart are among the films on They Shoot Pictures Don’t They? top 1000 list am I not overly fond of (not necessarily bad, but certainly not masterpieces in my mind).

The Best 'Die Hard' Knock-Off
I’m going to be a lemming here, and follow along with what everyone else said – Speed aka Die Hard on a Bus. A square jawed action hero? Check. Insane terrorist? Check. Confined space? Check? Beautiful girl? Check. Lots of kick ass action? Check. Do you care about the logic flaws in the movie? No, you do not, because you’re having too much fun. The sequel hurt the original’s reputation, but it shouldn’t have.

Your Least Favorite Movie By Your Favorite Director
So, my favorite director is Martin Scorsese, as you well know. There are a few “least” favorites to choose from. Boxcar Bertha, but that is an early film, and fascinating if you know the rest of his career, even if it isn’t very good. New York New York is an ambitious failure, but I hate punishing ambition. Cape Fear is a genre exercise – but a well done one, with a Scorsese twist. Kundun is more than a little dull, but gorgeous. So my answer has to me The Color of Money – the only film on Scorsese’s resume that doesn’t feel anything like a Scorsese film. It plays like a film by a director for hire – which essentially it was. I know it was too good an opportunity to pass up – working with Paul Newman – and it helped his career, so it’s not all bad news. But The Color of Money is the film on Scorsese’s resume I am least likely to watch ever again. Others? The Coens’ Raising Arizona, Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain or The Trouble With Harry, Polanski’s The Ninth Gate, Allen’s Scoop, Spielberg’s The Lost World, Eastwood’s Hereafter, Lee’s Girl 6, Altman’s Cookie’s Fortune, Cronenberg’s M. Butterfly, Lynch’s Dune and Wong’s My Blueberry Nights.

Best Rock Docs
Again, there are lots of choice. Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz, the Mayles’ Gimme Shelter, Wadleigh’s Woodstock, Berlinger & Sinofsky’s Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back would all be fine choices. But I’ll go with Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home, the greatest film ever made about Bob Dylan, and the most fascinating rock documentary of all time. True, it owes something to Don’t Look Back, but Scorsese’s film deepens what was there before.

The Oscars' Biggest Surprises
From the show itself? Not much. I guess Christoph Waltz winning Supporting Actor was my biggest surprise of the winners. The biggest surprise overall? The outrage that greeted Seth McFarlane’s goofy song about boobs. Calm down, people.

A New Oscar Category
Two categories I would like to see created – best ensemble cast – with the Oscar going to the casting director, not an individual for everyone in the cast like they do with the SAG awards – if they did that, every actor in Hollywood would be an Oscar winner, and we don’t need that – but the concept is still a valid one. I would also like to see Best Directorial Debut – to a filmmaker making their first film. Hopefully, this would give young, indie filmmakers a leg up.

Critics and Twitter
Should critics tweet after they come out of a movie? I honestly don’t care. I’m not on Twitter, and unless it’s about the LA Kings, I don’t read twitter. To me, it’s yet another attempt by critics to yell FIRST! like that obnoxious first commenter on message boards. The theory being I guess, that you don’t have to have anything interesting to say, as long as you say it first.

Soderbergh's Best Movie
I did a list of his films – from best to worst – at the time Side Effects was released. I named Traffic his best film then, and don’t see any reason why I should change that now.

The Worst Sequel Ever Made
So many choices here. Do you go with Cars 2, Taken 2, Speed 2: Cruise Control, Superman IV: A Quest for Peace,  Jaws The Revenge, The Hangover Part II, Miss Congeniality Part II, Legally Blonde 2, The Whole 10 Yards, Spider-Man 3 or so many others they all cannot be listed here. For me, I’ll go with Batman and Robin – the film in which Joel Schumacher almost succeeded in killing Batman for movie lovers forever. Luckily for us, Christopher Nolan was around.

Overlooked Festival Films
I used him for overlooked auteur, so I guess I shouldn’t say Lee Chang-dong and his Secret Sunshine – although this Cannes/TIFF etc. film deserved more love than it got. I’ll say Tim Blake Nelson’s Leaves of Grass, which I saw at TIFF a few years ago, and enjoyed immensely – especially the great duel performance by Edward Norton – but then the film completely disappeared from view. Shame. The great Aussie horror film The Loved Ones deserves a mention as well.

The Best 'Terminator'
The best Terminator is Terminator 2: Judgment Day. I understand if you love the original, low budget version, with Linda Hamilton and her huge hair and the rather bland Michael Biehn. Hell, I love it too. But Terminator 2 takes everything to another level, is more ambitious and is far more entertaining. One of the best action movies of the 1990s – and gets credit for using Guns N’ Roses.

Preparing For Movies Based On Books
This question asked if you read books that are the basis of movies before you see the film. To answer simply – most of the time, yes I do. I find that reading a book and then watching a movie allows a deeper understanding of the material. I know going in that the director and screenwriter probably had to change a lot, but still it allows an interesting compare and contrast. It’s not a hard and fast rule – I don’t NEED to read a book before I see a movie, but I like to whenever possible. Plus, it allows you to read some great books, even if the movies don’t turn out all that great – like Charlie Wilson’s War or The Good German.

The Most Anticipated Movies of 2013
I’ve already done a post on this, so I’ll keep it brief – Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, John Wells’ August: Osage County, Spike Lee’s Old Boy, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives, Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity and most of all, the Coen’s Inside Daisy Llewyn.

Tarantino's Best Movie
Pulp Fiction will always be his most historical important film – how can it not be, it changed American movies forever, for better or for worse. But his best film, to me, is clear – Inglorious Basterds. All that love of movies and dialogue that many critics dismiss as Tarantino’s ego-boating (or worse, masturbation) actually had thematic relevance in Basterds. It’s also the most entertaining film of his career – an endlessly re-watchable masterpiece.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Movie Review: Oblivion

Directed by:  Joseph Kosinski.
Written by: Joseph Kosinski and Karl Gajdusek and Michael Arndt based on the comic book by Kosinski and Arvid Nelson.
Starring: Tom Cruise (Jack), Morgan Freeman (Beech), Olga Kurylenko (Julia), Andrea Riseborough (Victoria), Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Sykes), Melissa Leo (Sally), Zoe Bell (Kara).

I quite enjoyed Joseph Kosinski’s Oblivion for the first two-thirds or even three quarters of its running time. This is a visually stunning sci-fi film more concerned with characters and ideas than action sequences – although it has a few great ones in it. No, the ideas are not particularly original – borrowing for films like 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Matrix and Moon among many others, but at the same time I prefer a movie like this to something that uses a sci-fi concept just as an excuse to have a lot of things blow up. And it must be said that this is Tom Cruise’s best performance in years – and he’s more than ably supported by Olga Kurylenko and especially Andrea Riseborough. But the conclusion of Oblivion isn’t nearly as satisfying as the setup. It’s true that in movies like this, the answer to the question is rarely as satisfying as the questions themselves – and most audience members will probably be able to guess the “twist” from fairly early on in the movie (I did, and spent the rest of the movie hoping I’d be wrong).

The film takes place on Earth in the distant future. Aliens known as “Scavengers” attacked the earth, and in order to survive, humans had to use nuclear weapons – winning the war, but all but destroying the planet. On earth now are a few surviving “Scavs” – and two people with a base perched high above the ground. This is Jack (Cruise) and Victoria (Riseborough), whose job is basically drone repair. The rest of humanity has taken up residence on the largest moon of Saturn, and there is a giant space station known as the Tet floating above earth that gives them their orders. There are giant machines harvesting the earth’s water supply for the rest of humanity – and the Scavs are trying to stop them, which is why humans need military drones to take them out, and why Jack and Victoria need to be there. Victoria runs things from their home base, but Jack goes out daily in his cross between a plane and a helicopter to fix the drones that break down. He cannot travel too far on the ground, because they are surrounded by “radiation areas” that will cook him from the inside out.

A crash landing of a spacecraft changes everything. A Scavenger signal was sent off into space, and the result is a crash landing of a spacecraft that Jack races to investigate. Before he does though, the drones also race there, and kills all but one of the crew. This is Julia (Kurylenko) – who wouldn’t you know it – is the woman Jack has been dreaming about.

Cruise hasn’t been this good in a movie in years. While Victoria blindly accepts everything they are told by the Tet, and is counting down the days until their tour is over (they have just under two weeks to go), Cruise’s Jack is haunted by dreams and memories that he should not have. To protect the mission, both he and Victoria have had their memories wiped before coming to Earth, but Jack still has dreams about a woman he should not know or remember. He doesn’t really want to leave Earth, unlike Victoria, because to him, something makes it feels like home. He even has an idyllic little hideaway next to a stream with books and records from humanity’s past. Cruise is excellent as a man trying to piece everything together in his mind, even though his mind is not all there. The two women in the film are also excellent – Kurylenko as the personification of female perfection, and Riseborough as the cold, analytical woman who may well be haunted by her own memories, but will never admit it to Jack – and wishes she wasn’t. For much of the movie, it’s just these three characters – and the drones – that make up the entire cast.

The film was directed by Joseph Kosinski, who directed Tron Legacy a few years back. What the two films prove is that Kosinski is great at using special effects to maximum impact. The more special effects driven movies I see, the more I realize how utterly uniform they all are – how no matter who the director is, they all look the same. That is not true of Kosinski, who created a distinct world in Tron Legacy – building off a 30 year old movie – and does an even better job in Oblivion. This film has an original, and spectacular, visual look – and it uses special effects in support of its story, rather than in place of it. I’m growing increasingly weary of big, special effects driven movies, but I will look forward to whatever Kosinski does next.

The problem with the movie is the ending, which simply does not work as well as the rest of the movie. If the opening and middle parts of Oblivion were involving, if derivative of other, better movies, than the ending pretty much undoes that goodwill by taking the lazy way out – the path of least resistance if you will. Instead of doing something bold and original, the ending is simply uninspired.

That’s not enough for me to say that Oblivion is a bad movie – it isn’t, and I would suggest you see it on the biggest screen possible to fully soak in the terrific visuals. But it is enough for me to be slightly disappointed in the film. After a promising start, I was hoping for more out of the film.

Movie Review: The Central Park Five

The Central Park Five
Directed by: Ken Burns & Sarah Burns & David McMahon.
Written by: Ken Burns & Sarah Burns & David McMahon.

In 1989, five black and Latino teenagers were arrested, tried and convicted of attacking and raping a white woman who was jogging through Central Park. The case garnered national attention, and certainly was horrifying to everyone in New York City – a city that was already deeply divided along racial lines (remember, this was the same year Spike Lee directed his masterpiece – Do the Right Thing). The media had a field day with the attack – describing the teens as a “wolf pack” and popularizing the term “wilding” – to describe such attacks by these large groups of non-white teenagers. This is a case that everyone heard about – even me, who was only 8 at the time.

How many people remember however that The Central Park Five were eventually exonerated? After spending anywhere between 6 and 13 years in prison, new evidence came to light. A man named Matias Reyes, who was arrested not long after the Central Park Five, and was convicted of being the East Side Rapist, responsible for many similar attacks. He eventually confessed to the crime – saying he committed it alone – and whose DNA was linked to the crime.

So, if they didn’t do the crime, and if they had no DNA evidence to convict them, than how did these five men get convicted in the first place? Simple – they confessed. But as we are seeing more and more often in the American Justice system, confessions are not always accurate. In this case, you have five teenagers – between 14 and 16 – who were questioned for hours on end, without a lawyer present, who eventually just gave in and confessed – although none took responsibility themselves, they all pointed the finger at the others, perhaps thinking that this way they could go home. Despite the fact that the confessions do not match each other, and have some glaring factual flaws in them, and despite the fact that now reasonable timeline could be established to make the prosecutions timeline fit, and despite the fact that even before trial, the DA knew the DNA evidence did not match any of the defendants, they pushed forward with the case – and got convictions.

The documentary The Central Park Five has been directed by Ken Burns, best known for his PBS documentaries, along with his daughter Sarah and son-in-law David McMahon. The movie is clearly not impartial – few documentaries truly are – and the filmmakers are clearly on the side of the five men – Kharey Wise, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Yusef Salaam and Anton McCray – all of which are interviewed (although one does not want his face shown). Perhaps this closed with these men can account for the film’s single biggest flaw – the fact that the filmmakers never really question the five on what they were really doing at the time of the attack. It’s pretty much undeniable that they are innocent of what they were charged and convicted for – but by their own admission, they were in Central Park that night as part of a large group of teenagers – perhaps up to 30 – and participated in other crimes that night. So while The Central Park Five were innocent of what they were charged with, they aren’t really completely innocent, are they? A more complex documentary would address this issue.

Yet, perhaps the movie doesn’t need to address it. After all, they weren’t charged with anything other than the attack and rape of the jogger – a crime which they are clearly innocent of. They served years behind bars for something they didn’t do – something that should not happen to anyone, despite what else they may be guilty of. What the movie does do is lay out a step by step process of how the cops and the DA got confessions and then convictions out of the suspects, and how the media ate up everything up they were fed, without ever questioning what really happened. The city was horrified by what happened, and in a race to sell papers, the different New York City papers piled on, seeing who could be the most outraged by the crime.

The Central Park Five joins the ranks of documentaries like the Paradise Lost trilogy and West of Memphis – all about the West Memphis Three, convicted of the murder of three young boys because of a confession by one of them. It makes you question the justice system – a system that seems more interested in getting results than getting correct results. This was a high profile case the police needed to close – and close it they did, even if they should have known they didn’t have the right people.

Movie Review: The House I Live In

The House I Live In
Directed by: Eugene Jarecki.
Written by: Eugene Jarecki & Christopher St John.

The War on Drugs is hugely expensive and not very effective. Most people have known this for years now. Eugene Jarecki’s excellent documentary The House I Live In goes back and looks at the history of American drug laws, and the War on Drugs, to figure out why it hasn’t really worked in practice. The answers he comes up with shocked and saddened me.

The case The House I Live in makes is that the War on Drugs is basically racist. The earliest drug laws in America were to criminalize opium in California. Why? Because California had a lot of Chinese immigrants, largely unpopular among the white citizens, and this was a way to arrest them. The same thing happened later with marijuana laws that targeted Latinos. And the same thing is going on right now with African Americans. Why is it that although African Americans make up just 13% of America, and studies show that they make up about the same percentage of drugs users, that 90% of the people arrested and jailed on drug charges are black? And why, until recently, did people get the same sentence for possessing 5 grams of crack that they got for possessing 500 grams of cocaine, when there is no real difference between the two of them? The answers are simple – more young black men sell crack than cocaine, and as street level dealers, they are easy targets for the police – who want to show they are making arrests, even though the ones interviewed in this movie admit they aren’t really making a difference. And also, prisons are big business. They are an increasing number of for profit prisons in America, and even the ones that aren’t, still need to buy a lot of stuff from private companies. Locking up drug users doesn’t really help them, but it ensures a continual profit for business, and don’t we all want that? And more prisons mean more jobs, and don’t we need those as well?

Politicians don’t want to be seen as “soft on crime” – something that they will be hit with during every election, so as such, they pass laws like “mandatory minimums” so “bleeding heart” judges won’t let people go with nothing but a slap on the wrist. They have no choice but to sentence people to long prison terms, even if it won’t actually help curb drug abuse.

What Jarecki’s point really boils down to however is this – drugs are mainly a result of poverty. For many growing up in the slums, they see little opportunity to become successful, and selling drugs seems to be the quickest, easiest way of making money. For years, this was mainly young, African American males being arrested, but this has started to turn around in recent years – as there are many more unemployed, disenfranchised white men out there – and they have started to sell crystal meth. Throwing these people in jails doesn’t solve the main issues however – that with more and more people unemployed, or struggling to make ends meet, there are going to be more and more people who turn to drugs.

Now, I am advocating making drugs legal? Not really, although drug laws do certainly seem to serve only to drive the prices of drugs up, which in turn increases the amount of crime drug users commit in order to satisfy their addictions. But I do think that more emphasis needs to be on rehabilitation than punishment – getting people clean, instead of locking them in jail for decades. And more effort needs to be made to give the disenfranchised of every race more of an opportunity to make something of their lives, so that they do not turn to drugs in the first place. You want to get people off drugs, don’t give them a reason to go drugs in the first place. Some will undoubtedly still use drugs – it’s a fact we must learn to live with – but something needs to be done to stop the number of people going to jail for non-violent drug offenses – especially since it does not appear that justice is meted out equally among all users.

Friday, April 19, 2013

The Best Films I Have Never Seen Before: Love on the Run (1979)

Love on the Run (1979)
Directed by: François Truffaut.
Written by: François Truffaut & Marie-France Pisier & Jean Aurel & Suzanne Schiffman.
Starring: Jean-Pierre Léaud (Antoine Doinel), Marie-France Pisier (Colette Tazzi), Claude Jade (Christine Doinel), Dani (Liliane), Dorothée (Sabine Barnerias), Daniel Mesguich (Xavier Barnerias), Julien Bertheau (Monsieur Lucien).

Through four features and one short over a 20 year span, Francois Truffaut tracked the progression of his alter ego, Antoine Doinel. Love on the Run came nine years after the fourth in the series – Bed and Board – and is easily the weakest of the entries. Truffaut himself said he was not satisfied with it, and as such, he was never going to make another Antoine Doinel film. Had he lived longer, perhaps he would have changed his mind. And yet, despite the fact that Love on the Run is the weakest of the series, that doesn’t mean it is a weak film. It is still expertly crafted, with star Jean-Pierre Leaud effortlessly filling out the lead role once again. Once again, Antoinne seems to have changed little with time – he is still a man running from one woman to the next, never quite sure of what he wants.

It is now 10 years after the end of Bed and Board, which saw Antoine and Christine (Claude Jade) get back together after a brief separation caused by his affair with a Japanese woman. Apparently, in the decade since, Antoine has had more affairs, and the two were in a constant state of quasi separation – together for a while, apart for a while over and over. They have finally decided to get a divorce, but it remains amicable. They are the first couple in France to get divorced by mutual consent, and Christine still loves Antoine, but can no longer be married to him – not even for the sake of their child Alphonse.

It hasn’t taken long for Antoine to move on. He is already in a relationship with Sabine (Dorothee), although he remains only half committed to it – proclaiming his love when he’s with her, but constantly dashing out the door. Then he runs into his old love Collette (Marie-France Pisier, reprising her role from the short Antoinne et Colette) – and the two start talking again, especially after Colette reads the way Antoine portrayed her in his “novel”.

Truffaut said the reason he was not happy with Love on the Run, is because of the flashback or memory sequences in the film, that he feels he did not integrate well enough into the rest of the movie. Throughout the film, there are numerous clips from the four previous installments of the series, which act as a kind of memory for the film, and shows the characters progression from where they were to where they are. I have to admit, Truffaut has a point. Not all of the memory sequences really work all that well – although Truffaut certainly does what he can with them, and they are necessary to the plot, as the film is, in part, about the different way everyone remembers what happened. The problem is, that the films show the objective truth, not really memory, so Truffaut has to pick and choose the scenes carefully, to show not the difference between what happened and memory, but on the different moments each chooses to emphasize in their own mind. It’s a tricky gambit, that only partially pays offs.

But I did quite like the present scenes in the movie, that shows Antoine’s refusal to grow up and have a real relationship, and yet how the women in his past cannot help but love him anyway. It’s somewhat telling that when he hits a rough patch with Sabine, that both Christine and Colette go to her apartment to try and smooth things over on his behalf - she isn’t home, but the two run into each other and talk of Antoine. This may be the best scene in the movie, and it underlines just how self involved Antoine is. After all, in Stolen Kisses (the third installment), Antoine ran into Colette on the street, with her husband and daughter, and now she seemingly appears single. But Antoine is too self involved to even ask what happened, whereas it is the first question Christine has. Christine is soft hearted and caring, whereas Antoine remains self involved.

Truffaut has said that while Antoine Doinel started off very autobiographical in The 400 Blows and Antoine et Colette, as the series progressed, Antoine grew further away from him. Perhaps that’s why, by the time we get to Love on the Run, Truffaut seems a little disconnected from the material. After all, by the time Truffaut got to be the age of Doinel in Love on the Run, he had made himself into a successful filmmaker. Whereas Doinel is still drifting. Perhaps that’s why Truffaut felt he could stop this series after Love on the Run – because any further adventures in love that Doinel may have had are all just going to be repeats of what has come before.