Thursday, December 20, 2007

End-of-the-year entertainment


It's almost the end of the year, and time to haul out what studios think/hope will be the holiday blockbusters. Or at least movies that people, including grownups, might want to see. Let's see what happens.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Directed by Tim Burton

Tim Burton + Johnny Depp = some pretty interesting cinema. These guys have collaborated quite a bit over the last couple of decades, and they certainly seem to be on the same wavelength. Their latest project is Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, based on the Stephen Sondheim musical first produced on Broadway. Because film and theater are such different mediums, the material changed significantly when it was adapted. To further complicate things, Johnny Depp and his co-star Helena Bonham Carter, although fine actors, aren't really singers. The bad news: if you loved the musical on stage, you'll find that the film is different from the play, including the fact that songs are missing or truncated. The good news: the film looks great, the performances are strong, and for a couple of non-singers, Depp and Bonham Carter sound pretty darned good. TVOR has not seen the stage version, so didn't miss the missing bits at all. The supporting cast includes Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall, and Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat), but the real standout in that group is young Ed Sanders, as Toby, the orphan boy who ends up working in Mrs. Lovett's pie shop.

This type of film really isn't TVOR's thing, but it was well done, and she enjoyed it. One thing to be aware of, though: this movie is bloody. REALLY bloody. It is, after all, about a guy who slits people's throats, after which his landlady grinds the victims up and bakes them into meat pies. It's very stylized, definitely over the top, and therefore easier to watch than something more realistic, but even so, the film is not for the squeamish. Yet in its own creepy and disgusting way, it's a thing of beauty.

Charlie Wilson's War
Directed by Mike Nichols
Screenplay by Aaron Sorkin

If for some reason you're not into serial murder and cannibalism as holiday entertainment, Hollywood has an alternative for you. And I do mean Hollywood. Charlie Wilson's War is Hollywood movie making. As in movie stars playing people who are supposedly real people but you're always aware that they're movie stars, speaking dialog that is witty and intelligent in ways that we wish actual conversation was, in a story that could be sort of real but not really.

That said, Charlie Wilson's War is Hollywood on a good day. It's the true story (Hollywood-ized, of course) of U.S. Congressman Charlie Wilson of Texas who almost single-handedly managed to get arms and money to the Mujahideen in Afghanistan to aid in their fight against the Soviet army in the 1980's. "But wait", you're thinking, "aren't the Mujahideen the fighters who were in the mountains of Afghanistan and then some stuff happened and then there was Al Qaeda a few years later?" Well, that's a discussion for another time. This is a Hollywood movie. It's well-directed (by Mike Nichols), well-written (by Aaron Sorkin) and the Hollywood stars glitter appropriately (although Julia Roberts wears bad blonde wigs). The film comes alive, though, when Philip Seymour Hoffman is on screen, playing a CIA agent. Fortunately, he's around a lot. This isn't the greatest film, but it's light and entertaining. It could come in handy if you need to keep some people entertained.

Video notes:

TVOR's favorite Tim Burton/Johnny Depp collaboration is their first--Edward Scissorhands. It's beautiful and sweet and there's even a Christmas connection, for those who are looking for seasonal entertainment.

Mike Nichols has directed a lot of good movies. The early ones are the best. He made the amazing Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, The Graduate, Catch-22, and Carnal Knowledge, just to name a few. Talk about a portrait of an era. You could do a lot worse than to have yourself a mini Mike Nichols festival. In fact, TVOR thinks she might need to have one herself.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

A couple of films by people who know how to make them


The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Directed by Julian Schnabel
Screenplay by Ronald Harwood from the memoir by Jean-Dominique Bauby

This movie sounds at first like something you'd want to stay away from. Don't. It tells the true story of Jean-Dominique Bauby, the editor of Elle, who at the age of 42 suffered a massive stroke, leaving his mental faculties intact, but his body paralyzed, with the exception of his left eyelid. You've probably seen inspirational weepers with a basic story outline something like this, but The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is not one of those. This is not a disease/accident/medical drama, where the noble afflicted person and/or family bravely make lemonade out of lemons. This film is about the life that was going on in the brain, behind the blinking eyelid, which he used to spell out, letter by letter, the book on which the film is based. And it’s also about the film-making style of Julian Schnabel, the artist and filmmaker who directed the movie. Schnabel gets into the head—as he imagines it, anyway—of Bauby, and the film is made very much from that perspective.

TVOR doesn’t want to say too much more. Just that you should see it. It’s going to be showing up on a lot of 10-best lists for the year and that’s entirely warranted. The excellent cast is led by Mathieu Amalric. (The money men originally wanted to have Johnny Depp play the part, and the movie made in English. Instead we got Mathieu Amalric and French. And filming in the actual hospital where much of it took place. This is all good.) See The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. You’ll be in for an amazing experience.

I'm Not There
Directed and co-written by Todd Haynes

TVOR liked this film. She didn't totally get it, but she liked it. It's about Bob Dylan, but there's nobody in it named Bob Dylan. There are six characters who represent certain aspects of Dylan at different times, and the characters and the filming style surrounding each are very different. Yet it somehow makes a whole. The best Dylan-like character was played by Cate Blanchett, although there was an African-American kid who was awfully good too. Do you get TVOR's drift here? The soundtrack was excellent--some Dylan by Dylan, some Dylan by other people. If you like Bob Dylan, and are willing to sit back and just experience this consistently interesting film, go for it. Because I'm Not There is not just about Bob Dylan, it's about the times. Which are a-changing. If this sounds like it's a bit much for you, you may be right, you should probably just stay home.

Video notes:

Mathieu Amalric may not be familiar to you. He had a smallish role in Steven Spielberg’s Munich, but really shines in Arnaud Desplechin’s Kings and Queen, a French drama in which the characters’ stories unfold in surprising ways.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

TVOR goes PG


Directed by Kevin Lima

TVOR had an unusual experience recently. She went to a PG movie--a Disney movie, no less. She rarely goes to movies with people under 30 in the audience, much less actual children. She is happy to report that, based on her experience, there is at least one movie out there right now that is entertaining to both children and adults. At least this adult. And girl children. Little boys were pretty scarce in the theater where TVOR saw the movie, so she's not sure about them.

Enchanted starts out in familiar Disney territory. There's Giselle, an animated heroine, singing and working in her forest home in the kingdom of Andalasia with her little animated animal friends. We learn that there is a handsome prince in search of a bride, and his wicked stepmother is determined to make sure he doesn't find one. Then, of course, things happen, and our heroine is suddenly and rudely transported from animated Andalasia to the very real (at least, to the extent that anything is real in a Disney film) Times Square. Giselle is now played by the three-dimensional Amy Adams, and is, not surprisingly, very disoriented. Then more things happen, most of which are very entertaining. And tuneful.

Enchanted is both a celebration and a send-up of Disney-style fairy tales, and it works remarkably well. Amy Adams is wonderful as Giselle--she really makes the movie. The film falls apart a little bit at the end, but its faults are minor and forgivable. If you plan on going to the movies soon with a little girl, this is the one to see. And if you're not, you might just need to see it anyway.

Video notes:

Amy Adams was nominated for an Oscar for her supporting role in Phil Morrison's Junebug. This little film travelled the festival circuit, but wasn't widely seen in theaters and is a nice one to catch on video. In it, a Chicago art dealer travels with her new husband to the rural south to meet her in-laws. The film isn't predictable and respects all of its characters, refusing to make them caricatures. This is the first time many of us saw Amy Adams, and she was impressive.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Bring on the quality!


It must be December. Some really good films are coming out.

Directed by Joe Wright
Screenplay by Christopher Hampton, from the novel by Ian McEwen

Putting novels on screen is a tricky business. Especially when they're good. There's so much more at risk than when they're trashy, pulp fiction. So it was with some trepidation that TVOR approached Atonement, a novel she had read and liked. A novel that didn't seem like a great candidate for a screen adaptation. But fortunately, the filmmakers involved with this project did it right. Christopher Hampton wrote an excellent script, and the license that was taken with the novel made it, for the most part, a better film than a stricter interpretation would have been. (TVOR has a quibble with the final minute or two of the film, but that's a fairly minor flaw.) Joe Wright, the director, has only directed one film previously, the recent adaptation of Pride and Prejudice starring Keira Knightley. He really got this one right, though.

The story is one of a horrible mistake that is made, and the effect it has on all the people involved. The cast is made up of talented actors led by Keira Knightley and James McAvoy. Many of the others will not be well known to American audiences, although Vanessa Redgrave shows up in a small but important role.

TVOR doesn't want to say too much about this film, but will leave you with this: This is a film in which sometimes bad things happen to good people. But it's one of the top films TVOR has seen this year. She thinks it's worth it.

The Savages
Written and directed by Tamara Jenkins

Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney. Need I say anything more? Well, yes, actually. Tamara Jenkins. She wrote the script and directed these two fine actors in her excellent second film The Savages, a film that gives them fascinating, complicated characters to play, and room to work their magic. And they really do it. They play siblings whose father is losing it and needs institutional care. This isn't a film about the aging person falling apart, however. It's more a film about how two people, somewhat damaged but doing the best they can, deal with this and attempt to move on with their lives. It's the kind of subject matter that could get really goopy, and TVOR is happy to report that the goopiness level is zero. Jenkins' script and direction, and the actors' ability to be utterly convincing, make sure that doesn't happen. See it.

Video notes:

Tamara Jenkins made her first film almost ten years ago. (She's not prolific, but you can't argue with the quality of her work.) The Slums of Beverly Hills is a semi-autobiographical story of a teenage girl and her siblings whose divorced father is determined to keep his kids in the Beverly Hills school system. He accomplishes this by dragging them from one crappy apartment in the famous zip code to another. (Yes, there are crappy apartments in Beverly Hills). Natasha Lyonne plays the daughter, and Marisa Tomei and Jessica Walter are in the supporting cast. This is definitely one to check out on video.

The Namesake, Mira Nair's adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri's novel, is now out on video. The film tells the story of a family of Indian immigrants to the United States, but the issues are relevant to most of us in this country populated by immigrants. Take a look.

Waitress, writer/director Adrienne Shelley's last film, is also available on video now. It's lovely film and a wonderful tribute to this artist, who was deprived of the long career she should have enjoyed.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving!


Rumor has it that many families (or parts of them, at any rate) gather around the television and watch football on Thanksgiving Day. This is not TVOR's thing. As far as she's concerned, there's only one reason to gather around the tube (other than the moon landing, or the last episode of Seinfeld), and that's to watch movies. Here are a few Thanksgiving treats--stories of families having a worse time than you are:

Hannah and Her Sisters
Written and directed by Woody Allen

This probably isn't the movie to watch if you're in too much of a turkey-induced stupor, but if you have any brain cells left, this excellent film is a great way to give them a little exercise and keep yourself well entertained. Hannah and her Sisters is the kind of Woody Allen film that people complain he doesn't make any more. The film begins and ends with Thanksgiving dinners, in keeping with our theme.

The Ice Storm
Directed by Ang Lee

This is another one that should not be watched if you're too comatose. It's a little more demanding, but well worth it if you're able to focus. The film is set during Thanksgiving 1973 in suburban Connecticut and you will spend much of the film being really glad you're not there. Neither the adults (including Kevin Kline, Sigourney Weaver, and Joan Allen) nor the kids (Christina Ricci, Tobey Maguire, and Elijah Wood) are doing well. This is a powerful, well-done portrait of a place and an era.

Pieces of April
Written and directed by Peter Hedges

TVOR particularly likes this sweet yet not goopy film, which goes down a little easier than the first two. Katie Holmes, in her pre-Tom days, played the black sheep of a family who decides to host her estranged and dysfunctional family, complete with dying mother, ancient, senile grandmother, marginally coping father, and a couple of siblings, for Thanksgiving. Patricia Clarkson is particularly good as the mother, who is definitely not going gently into that good night.

Home for the Holidays
Directed by Jodie Foster

This film isn't the most original ever made, but a wonderful cast led by Holly Hunter, Robert Downey Jr., Anne Bancroft, and Charles Durning make it worth watching. Especially Robert Downey Jr.

All of the selections above are easy to prepare and have no calories.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Now in theaters!


There are some pretty good movies out there now, some a little difficult to watch, some a little difficult to find.

No Country for Old Men
Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
Based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy

Let's start with some basic math. Cormac McCarthy + Joel and Ethan Coen = a beautifully crafted view of a grim, apocalyptic world, with amazing amounts of violence, plus some humor.

If you're considering seeing No Country for Old Men, you need to ask yourself a few questions, such as: What is my capacity to view violence? Am I a fan of the Coen brothers? What do I think of Cormac McCarthy's novels? Because this is a beautifully made film, technically superb, with memorable characters and excellent performances by Josh Brolin, Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem and others. It's also a movie that is very violent. Life is cheap and the blood flows. The world it portrays is not one that most of us would like to be a part of, but the film showing us this world is a work of art.

So enter at your own risk. TVOR is glad she did, but she spent much of the time hunched over in her seat, with her eyes half covered.

Wristcutters: A Love Story
Written and directed by Goran Dukic
Based on a story by Etgar Keret

Now on to something more upbeat, something more about a movie about suicide? Yes, Wristcutters: A Love Story is, not surprisingly, a movie about suicide. Or more accurately, what happens after suicide. And it is a love story. That is, a love story happening after suicide. It is also life-affirming and sweet and funny and definitely worth seeking out. Although it probably won't be easy to find. A film called Wristcutters: A Love Story has got to be tough to market. Especially when it's by a first-time director nobody has ever heard of. Patrick Fugit plays Zia, a young man who, as you may have guessed, commits suicide, and the film is the story of what happens to him when he ends up in the place where all suicides go--a place that's pretty much like the here and now, only worse. TVOR won't go into too much detail as she wants you to enjoy experiencing the world created for the film without too much prior knowledge. And she does want you to experience it. If you can't find the film in a theater, catch it on DVD in a few months.

Directed by Anton Corbijn

Here's another one that can't be easy to sell. Control is a rock biopic about a guy in a British band that many of us are only dimly aware of (if at all), by a first-time Dutch director who had previously done only done music videos, with a largely unknown cast (Samantha Morton is the biggest name in it). Oh, and the guy kills himself at the age of 23. Doesn't that sound like a great movie? Well, actually, it's quite good. The film tells the story of Ian Curtis (Sam Riley), the lead singer of Joy Division, a British band which had its rise and fall in the late 70's. You don't have to have paid much if any attention to the band at the time to appreciate Control. And maybe it's even better if you haven't. TVOR wasn't bothered by any knowledge of the real Joy Division, so could appreciate the version on screen without reservation. And in spite of the story's sad end, the film is lovely to behold. It's beautifully shot in gorgeous black and white (to the extent that black and white footage of grim northern England towns can be gorgeous). The acting is excellent, and the cast even performs the songs themselves.

Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten
Directed by Julien Temple

And speaking of rock bios, Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten, is a rock documentary not to be missed. Even for those who weren't big Clash fans, the film can stand on its own. Julien Temple gathered together friends, fans, family, and band mates and mixed the talking with all sorts of images, film clips, and an audio track by Strummer done initially for radio. It's not just about Joe Strummer, it's about a time in history. Check it out.

Video Notes:

Joel and Ethan Coen have made many fine movies. TVOR particularly likes Fargo and The Big Lebowski. And she has a special place in her heart for O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Patrick Fugit first got noticed in Cameron Crowe's 2000 film Almost Famous, playing a Cameron Crowe-like character, a high school kid hired to write an article for Rolling Stone. He tours with a band and has experiences most fifteen-year olds can't even imagine. Although they'd like to. In 2004's Saved!, he plays the pastor's kid in a send-up of teen flicks taking place in a Christian high school.

Joy Division figured in another recent film, Michael Winterbottom's wonderful 24 Hour Party People. The film is based on the life of impresario Tony Wilson, who signed Joy Division to his Manchester-based label. Wilson, played by Steve Coogan, narrates the film and like any larger than life individual, bends it to suit his own ends. The film is wild and very funny and requires no prior knowledge of the subject.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Happy Halloween!


TVOR doesn't much like to be scared, so you're on your own when it comes to scary movies for your Halloween viewing. She can handle Alfred Hitchcock (although she draws the line at The Birds) but once people start jumping out of dark places with any frequency, she has left the theater.

She has seen and can recommend a couple of documentaries that are pretty scary in their own way, though. They're both in theaters now.

Lake of Fire
Directed by Tony Kaye

Tony Kaye worked on this thorough look at the abortion debate for over 15 years, and it shows. He has great footage, some of it shot for the film, and some taken from other sources. It's in black and white, which is good thing because there is some graphic footage that most of us would not like to see in color. There is no voice-over narration, and the film's dialogue consists of people talking (and occasionally yelling) about abortion. Pro and con, from articulate advocates to ideologues to downright loonies, the famous and the obscure are represented. It's long, but it's beautifully shot, well put together, and always interesting. This issue has been with us for years, but is not going to go away anytime soon. As we get closer and closer to the time when Roe v. Wade may be overturned, we should make sure we're paying attention.

My Kid Could Paint That
Directed by Amir Bar-Lev

This is a documentary about a four-year old girl who liked to paint, got a show in a gallery, had a profile written about her in the New York Times and a story on 60 Minutes, and then had a documentary film made about her (the one you're watching). It looks to TVOR like a cautionary tale for parents. What started as fun for the child ended up being all about the grownups around her, who are much less cute than she is as egos, money and fame get tossed into the mix.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Oh, brother


There are have been a lot of brothers at the movies lately. Three brothers, played by Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, and Jason Schwartzman, try to reconnect in Wes Anderson's new film, The Darjeeling Limited. Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Wahlberg play brothers on different tracks in We Own the Night. Meanwhile, Ben Affleck directs his real-life brother Casey in Gone Baby Gone. All this brother stuff probably means something, but TVOR won't go there. She also can't help but notice that there's not much in the way of interesting sister movies out there (other than the occasional treacly chick-flick) but she REALLY won't go there. Now, down to business.

Gone Baby Gone
Directed by Ben Affleck

It's not unreasonable to approach a film made by an actor (and particularly one who has had a tabloid-worthy private life) with some fear and trepidation. Well, you can relax, at least this time. Ben Affleck proves in his directorial debut that he can actually direct. Gone Baby Gone is based on a novel by Dennis Lehane, who also wrote Mystic River, which Clint Eastwood turned into an excellent film. Gone Baby Gone isn't quite of that caliber, but it's definitely worth seeing. Based on the genesis of the material, you might get the idea that the film is not exactly happy-go-lucky. That idea is correct. People are complicated and flawed, and sometimes it's not clear what is right or wrong. There is also a real, and dark, mood, and sense of place--the film is set in Boston, but it's not the Boston of Back Bay, the Old North Church, and Faneuil Hall. In Gone Baby Gone, Casey Affleck plays a kind of low-rent private detective who, along with his partner/girlfriend, gets pulled in to help look for a four-year-old girl who has disappeared. The cast (including heavyweights like Ed Harris and Morgan Freeman) is excellent. There is also an award-worthy performance by Amy Ryan as the child's mother.

The Darjeeling Limited
Directed by Wes Anderson

The Darjeeling Limited isn't Wes Anderson at his best, but it is Wes Anderson, so the film has something going for it. Nice pictures, deadpan performances, a quirky wit...isn't that enough? Well, it depends on what you want. Wilson, Brody, and Schwartzman all do good work, but ultimately TVOR just wanted to give these man/boys a good shake and tell them to grow up. On the other hand, the visuals were great. The brothers travel by train through India, an India which TVOR believes may exist in a parallel universe, due to its remakable cleanliness and lack of plastic bags littering the landscape. The shot of Adrien Brody running to catch the train may alone be worth the price of admission. This film is fun if you're a Wes Anderson fan, but that's about it.

Something you should definitely take a look at, however is Hotel Chevalier, a short (13 minute) prequel to The Darjeeling Limited, which gives us some back story on the Jason Schwartzman character. Schwartzman is joined by Natalie Portman in this film, which is much better the than the feature showing in theaters. The word is that sometimes the short will be shown with the feature film, but you can get it on iTunes for free.

We Own the Night
Written and directed by James Gray

We Own the Night is a well-done genre film, a crime drama that's pretty predictable, yet a little bit subversive. Sort of obvious and sort of not. If this is confusing, don't worry about it. It just makes the film more interesting. Mark Wahlberg and Joaquin Phoenix play the two sons of retired high-ranking police officer Robert Duvall in late 1980's New York City. Mark is the good son, also a cop who's rising in the ranks, and Joaquin is the bad boy son, who runs a nightclub, lives the high life (literally) and uses his mother's maiden name. Things happen and Joaquin goes under cover to help find some drug baddies. The writing is good, and the performances are good to excellent. This is really Joaquin Phoenix's movie, and he does a fabulous job. Just as an aside, TVOR wonders whether the title is ironic. Not only do these people not seem to own the night, they can't even rent it.

Video notes:

Early Wes Anderson tends to be more fun than later Wes Anderson. Definitely check out Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is also worth a look, but it's not as good as the earlier two.

And since TVOR is such a Joaquin Phoenix fan, she recommends a few earlier performances of his. He does good supporting work in Gus van Sant's To Die For, an earlier TVOR video pick because of Nicole Kidman's performance. Casey Affleck is in that one too. Phoenix was also excellent in Gladiator, as the creepy Commodus, alongside the virtuous Russell Crowe. And of course, he played Johnny Cash in Walk the Line.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

A good movie with an unusual premise


Lars and the Real Girl
Directed by Craig Gillespie

The premise of Lars and the Real Girl would make most reasonable people run far away from the film. Don't do it. You would miss a lovely, sweet, fairy tale of a film. Stay with TVOR here, and believe that she would not lead you astray. The film tells the story of Lars (Ryan Gosling), a young man who, not doing very well in his relationships with family and friends, falls in love with a life-size, anatomically correct plastic doll. Which he thinks is a live woman. Amazingly (and this is where the fairy tale part comes in), he is not institutionalized, nor is he mocked and shunned. Instead, he is loved and accepted and cared for by his community--as is his plastic pal. Don't try to make sense of it, just see the film and enjoy. The script (by Nancy Oliver, of Six Feet Under) is clever and original, the acting (by Gosling, Emily Mortimer, and Patricia Clarkson, among others) is excellent, and the film never goes for the cheap, easy joke. Instead, the characters stay true to their own world and their own concerns, and the result is very satisfying. Lars and the Real Girl opens October 12th. Check it out.

Video notes:

This film looks like a real change of pace for Ryan Gosling, who usually appears in far more serious fare. In Half-Nelson, he plays a dedicated inner-city teacher, fighting his own drug addiction while trying to help his students. In The Believer he plays a skinhead anti-Semite...who also happens to be Jewish. These are both worth a look on DVD if you've missed them along the way.

And then there's The Notebook. Don't see it (it's sappy and predictable) but don't hold it against him either. The talented cast couldn't save that one.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Ang Lee's Lust, Caution--a movie for grown-ups


Lust, Caution
Directed by Ang Lee

A lot has already been written about Lust, Caution, winner of the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, some of which is very favorable, some less so. TVOR will keep her comments fairly brief--she liked it a lot. Lust, Caution is based, like Ang Lee's last film, Brokeback Mountain, on a short story, this time by Eileen Chang. The film is set in China in the late 1930's and early 1940's, when the Japanese occupied the country. A young woman joins her university theater group, and after some stage success, the group decides to use their acting skills to get friendly with one of the more appalling men collaborating with the Japanese, and then assassinate him. The collaborator is very security-conscious and the young woman becomes his lover in order to allow her co-conspirators to get close enough to do the deed. The film is rated NC-17, and yes, the sex is explicit. It's not gratuitous, though--it's actually character-driven. The acting is very good, particularly Tony Leung Chiu-Wai (of In the Mood for Love and 2046) as the bad guy and Joan Chen as his wife. The young woman is played by a newcomer named Tang Wei. In this film, emotions, motivations, and desires are complicated and not always easily understood. Let's see, what does that remind TVOR of? Oh, yeah. Life.

Video notes:

Ang Lee has directed a variety of films in both Chinese and English. If you've missed any of these, you might want to check them out: The Wedding Banquet, Eat Drink Man Woman, Sense and Sensibility, The Ice Storm, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and Brokeback Mountain. TVOR has not been able to bring herself to watch The Hulk, so can't comment on that one.

And do check out Tony Leung in Wong Kar-Wai's In the Mood for Love if you've missed that one along the way.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

A good legal thriller!


Michael Clayton
Written and directed by Tony Gilroy

George Clooney plays the title character in Michael Clayton, a legal thriller written and directed by Tony Gilroy. Gilroy has been around for a while as a screenwriter, responsible at least in part for all of the Bourne movies, but this is his directorial debut. The result is definitely not cookie-cutter Hollywood product. Clooney takes on a serious role, as a fixer in a large corporate law firm, a child of the working class, valued as a cleaner-up of messes for clients and fellow attorneys...but not enough to make partner. His marriage and an attempt to open a bar have failed, and life is not looking all that great to him when he gets the call to tidy up another potential disaster. The structure is not strictly linear, but not so convoluted as to be confusing. Just don't get there late. And pay attention.

Michael Clayton has some excellent performances, by Clooney, Tom Wilkinson, Tilda Swinton, Sidney Pollack, and others. Gilroy the screenwriter gave his actors interesting characters to play and good dialog, and Gilroy the director let the actors do their thing. See it!

Video notes:

We all know by now that George Clooney is not just another pretty face. Not that there's anything wrong with a pretty face. TVOR particularly likes his more serious work in Good Night, and Good Luck, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (both of which he also directed), Syriana, O Brother Where Art Thou?, and Three Kings.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Three fall movies--one of which is good


We're one for three on the new films TVOR saw this week. We'll start with the good, go to the bad, and then, finally, the ugly.

Into the Wild
Written and directed by Sean Penn (based on the book by Jon Krakauer)

First, the disclaimer: TVOR hasn't read the book. Any comments she makes about the film are just that--about the film, and not the film as compared to the book. Or the film as compared to what really happened, as much as that can be known. Strictly as a film, Into the Wild works, and works well. It's a true story about a young man who graduates from college, gets rid of his money and his belongings, and without a word to his family, takes off hitchhiking around the country. He experiences nature, meets people, and works his way toward Alaska where he plans to go into the wild and live off the land. He ends up dead.

The beauty of the film is how the story is told. It's not really a depressing movie, although there is a sense of sadness. Chris, the young man, makes various connections with the people he meets along the way, reads, and writes, and we come to know him a bit throughout his journey. We also see the pain of his family, not knowing where he is, or how he's doing. The beauty of the scenery, the sense of place--the actual places Chris traveled--and the music by Eddie Vedder add to the texture of the film. Most of all, though, it's the fine acting, with Emile Hirsch as Chris, and supporting players including Catherine Keener, Vince Vaughn, Hal Holbrook, William Hurt, Marcia Gay Harden, and Jena Malone, who make you care about this young man and the people in his short life.

The King of California
Written and directed by Mike Cahill

The King of California isn't horrible, it's just not that good. Michael Douglas does good work as a manic-depressive discharged from the hospital and returning to live with his 16-year old daughter, played by Evan Rachel Wood. She's also good. Unfortunately, it's the movie itself that's not so good. I think it's trying to be charming and quirky. TVOR just wasn't that interested.

The Heartbreak Kid
Directed by Peter and Bobby Farrelly

This "comedy" has one fatal flaw. It's not funny. Even though it's by the Farrelly brothers and has Ben Stiller in it. It was painful to sit through. Don't go. It would be a mistake.

Video notes:

Michael Douglas, Evan Rachel Wood, and Ben Stiller have all done much better work elsewhere than in these latest releases. See Michael Douglas' performance as a writer with a serious case of writer's block in Wonder Boys. See Evan Rachel Wood in Thirteen (or better yet, in the still-in-theaters Across the Universe). Watch Ben Stiller in any one of a number of films ( The Royal Tenenbaums, Zoolander, There's Something About Mary, Flirting with Disaster, etc.). Or watch the original 1973 version of The Heartbreak Kid, directed by Elaine May and starring Charles Grodin and Cybill Shepherd. Just don't waste your time on The King of California or The Heartbreak Kid (2007).

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Men on the Moon and Lucy in the Sky


There are a couple of films now in theaters where the lines will be short and the concession stands uncrowded. They're both worth your time, though, and both are best seen on the big screen.

In the Shadow of the Moon
Directed by David Sington

In this documentary, all of the surviving Apollo astronauts (with the exception of Neil Armstrong, who declined to participate) are interviewed about their experiences in the program and during their moon missions. This is paired with some amazing footage, some taken by the astronauts themselves. In the Shadow of the Moon is much more interesting than you'd think a movie would be that mostly consists of talking heads, but these men are very articulate and interesting. They've been doing some thinking about things in the last 40 years. And the pictures from space are spectacular!

Across the Universe
Directed by Julie Taymor

OK, here's the premise. You make a movie (with an actual plot, and actual characters) about a group of young people in the '60, and you do it as a musical, using only songs by the Beatles. Sure, it's not the greatest movie ever. But the fact that it works at all, and is actually pretty darn good, is truly amazing! I mean, who'd think?

Julie Taymor has directed films including Frida and Titus, but is mostly known for her stage work, particularly as the Tony award-winning director of The Lion King. The woman does know how to put together a musical number. And that she does, big-time, in Across the Universe. TVOR particularly liked I Want You (She's So Heavy), sung by Uncle Sam and some robotic soldiers in puppet heads in an army induction center. And then I Wanna Hold Your Hand, sung by one cheerleader to another, as football players do cartwheels in the background. And there's the psychedelic stuff too--well, it was the '60's, after all. Across the Universe isn't deep, but it's sweet and a lot of fun, and the music and visuals are definitely worth the price of admission. The acting and singing, mostly by relative unknowns, is good too. There are some interesting cameos to keep you on your toes, some so short it's hard to be sure they are who you think they are. And yes, Bono is the Walrus.

TVOR is, of course, of a certain age, and the Beatles were the music of her formative years. Her advice: if you know and like the Beatles, and just want to have a good time, Across the Universe is for you. If you're not a Beatles fan, and want a definitive, serious assessment of the '60's, you'll probably want to skip it.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Fatih Akin!


The Edge of Heaven
Written and directed by Fatih Akin

TVOR was in Toronto at the tail end of the Toronto International Film Festival and actually made it to a screening. This was not easy, as Fatih Akin's The Edge of Heaven, the movie she selected, was a very hot ticket. Fortunately, it was worth it. The film is the fifth feature by Akin, and this guy is good--and only 34 years old. The Edge of Heaven tells the stories of a number of German and Turkish characters whose lives intersect and intertwine in both countries. The film's themes of forgiveness, redemption, and grace are beautifully expressed and TVOR thought this was a pretty swell movie.

At this point The Edge of Heaven does not have distribution in the U.S., but if there is any justice in the world, it will soon.

Video notes:

Fortunately, a few of Fatih Akin's earlier works are available on DVD, and TVOR has seen a couple, which she highly recommends. Both films have Turkish and German characters and locations. In July, made in 2000, is a lovely road movie, a different take on the genre. Head-On, made in 2004, is a gritty story of two immigrants who meet and marry, mostly so the young woman can escape her traditional Turkish family. These films share a sense of optimism with The Edge of Heaven, and even though bad things sometimes happen, there is a sense of hope at the end of the road.

This guy has the goods. He should be big.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Summer's over, bring on the serious films--


In the Valley of Elah
Written and directed by Paul Haggis

TVOR didn't much care for this film. It was written and directed by Paul Haggis, the same man who made Crash, which won Oscars for best picture and screenplay in 2006. TVOR didn't much care for Crash, either, so maybe she's got some sort of Paul Haggis-related taste issues. In the Valley of Elah, like Crash, has a world view that the viewer may or may not share, and it is difficult to get fully into the world of the film without sharing that world view. There are questions about that world view that would be interesting to pursue--but unfortunately the film doesn't do that. It takes that view as a given and goes on from there.

In the Valley of Elah is about a father (played by Tommy Lee Jones) trying to discover the truth about his soldier son's disappearance shortly after returning home from service in Iraq. Charlize Theron plays a detective from a town near the son's base who tries to help. There is nothing wrong with the performances--Jones does excellent work as the father, and Theron is fine (although all attempts to make her look plain are doomed to fail). Susan Sarandon doesn't have much to do as the young soldier's mother.

TVOR won't say much more, in case you want to see it, as it is better to let the story unfold without a lot of foreknowledge. And if you liked Crash, maybe you'll like this one. TVOR has her doubts, however.

Video note:

Away from Her, the debut feature from the young Canadian actress Sarah Polley, is out on video this week. Ms. Polley wrote her own script, using a Alice Munro story, and the result is one of the best films TVOR saw this year. It stars Julie Christie and Gordon Pinsent as a couple, married for decades, whose lives are ripped apart when she starts showing signs of Alzheimer's. It's not depressing or weepy (which, given the subject matter, could easily have been the case), but instead it's a wonderful story about love, and definitely one to see.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007



King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
Directed by Seth Gordon

TVOR has a new favorite word, and that word is "chumpetize". It means what you'd think it means--to make a chump of. But it sounds way better. It's used as both a passive and an active verb, and it's really useful, as in "He totally chumpetized you", and "Don't get chumpetized!" Thanks to one of the inhabitants of the world of classic video games we meet in King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, we now have a word to describe something we rightly fear in this complex world, full of people and organizations that would think nothing of chumpetizing us, and would probably even enjoy it. But enough of the vocabulary discussion. And TVOR's paranoia.

King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters is a documentary about world-class Donkey Kong competition, something probably 99.9% of us didn't know existed. It tells the story of Steve Wiebe, a nice guy from Redmond, Washington, who, after being laid off from Boeing, polishes up his Donkey Kong skills, which are considerable, and takes on the Donkey Kong establishment, another thing that 99.9% of us didn't know existed. Steve fights to have his top score acknowledged by Twin Galaxies, the official record-keeping entity, and to engage the current champion in a live, head-to-head match. Will the nice guy finish first? Or will he be chumpetized? And who are all these people? Don't they have lives? Am I that weird about the things I care about?

This film doesn't really need the wide screen, so it's not necessary to run out and see it in the theater--but you probably won't regret it if you do. It's definitely worth catching on video when it becomes available, though. The cast of characters is way more interesting than any you could make up. Which makes you wonder about the remake that's being planned, using actors. What's the point?

Video note:

New on DVD today--

The Wind That Shakes the Barley, Ken Loach's Palme d'Or-winner from 2006, is a good movie with a bad title. Cillian Murphy stars in this tough, beautiful film about a young Irish doctor who becomes radicalized and joins the IRA in the 1920's.

Monday, September 3, 2007

A western worth watching


3:10 to Yuma
Directed by James Mangold

This western, based on a short story by Elmore Leonard, is a remake of a 1957 film of the same name. There's a very good guy, played by Christian Bale, an injured Civil War veteran struggling, and failing, to keep his ranch going and his wife and two sons fed. There's also a very bad guy, a murdering, stagecoach-robbing outlaw, played by Russell Crowe. The very good guy, desperate for money, signs on to deliver the very bad guy to the town of Contention (great name or what?) to be put on the 3:10 train headed for Yuma and prison. For this job, the very good guy is to get $200. Needless to say, things do not go smoothly. There is blood and shooting and things blowing up and much talk, as the very bad guy is intelligent and articulate as well as a vicious killer.

This is one of those westerns that's about the big issues of justice and right and wrong and heroism and honor. That could be really hard to take, but it all works in 3:10 to Yuma, because the acting is excellent and characters are interesting. Russell Crowe takes over the movie when he's on screen, and that is as it should be. Christian Bale, in a less showy role, is strong too. With these guys, there is no shortage of intensity on the screen. The rest of the cast supports them well, particularly Ben Foster as one of the baddie's henchmen, and Peter Fonda, as a bounty hunter. TVOR swears she saw Luke Wilson at one point, but he wasn't credited, so she may be hallucinating.

For those of us raised on Bonanza and Wagon Train, it's a pleasure to see a western several decades later that's actually interesting. The look, the action, the script, the's a contemporary take on a genre piece, and very well done.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Movies I'd rather watch than the latest version of the pod people


Most recent releases are not doing it for TVOR. They just don't look good. Although there are a few interesting things out there, the summer blockbusters (some of which were good) are already out, and the classy stuff, the stuff designed for grownups, won't be released until after Labor Day.

The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (the book, that is) has spawned four films. The first, in 1956, had the same title. Then came two other ones. Then, this summer, came The Invasion, starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig, and directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel (although apparently the Wachowski brothers were brought in to juice it up a little). TVOR plans to avoid this film, but not because of any lack of affection and respect for the work these folks have done. The stars and director of The Invasion have been involved in a lot of very good films, which are definitely worth taking a look at. She’s just not so sure about this new one. It would seem that other people aren't so sure, either, as it doesn't seem to be doing that well at the box office.

Here’s a partial list of what Daniel, Nicole, and Oliver have been up to over the years:

Daniel Craig films—

Casino Royale—TVOR has always felt that Sean Connery was the only Bond worth watching, but even she gives a thumbs-up to Daniel Craig in the latest film. Plus, there’s Parkour in the opening chase scene!

Infamous—this is the other Truman Capote film, the one nobody saw, the one that Philip Seymour Hoffman wasn’t in. It’s worth seeing, though, for Daniel Craig’s performance as Perry Smith. He’s human, charismatic, and chilling.

Munich—Stephen Spielberg makes one of his occasional good movies. In it, Craig plays one of the Mossad agents who go after the Black September terrorists. TVOR has some problems with the film (it's based on a true story, but there's a lot of fiction in it) but it is well-done and thought-provoking.

Layer Cake--see TVOR's blog post of August 6th.

The Mother--Craig plays a man having simultaneous affairs with a woman and her mother. It's a very well-done film, directed by Roger Michell from a screenplay by Hanef Kureishi, and not as trashy as it sounds.

Nicole Kidman films--

The Hours--she won an Oscar for this. Her performance is more than just a prosthetic nose, although TVOR couldn't stop looking at it.

To Die For--Kidman's performance in this Gus Van Sant film was Oscar-worthy as well. She is perfect as a TV personality wanna-be who will do anything to advance her career. Really. Anything.

Flirting--made early in her career, this lovely Australian film coming-of-age film was directed by John Duigan. Nicole has a supporting role as a kind of scary/popular older girl in the school.

Cold Mountain--Nicole and Jude Law. It's always dangerous to make a movie based on a popular book. It's not great, but it's worth a look.

Oliver Hiersbiegel has directed some very good German-language films, two of which TVOR can heartily recommend--

Downfall--this film tells the story of the last days in the bunker before Hitler's death, viewed, in large part, through the eyes of a young secretary. Bruno Ganz turns in an amazing performance as Hitler (even though he doesn't really look like him at all), and the supporting cast is excellent as well.

The Experiment--this "what-if" film is a fictional take on the Stanford Prison Experiment of the early 1970's. Twenty men are paid to participate in an experiment where ten are chosen to be prisoners, and ten, guards. Not surprisingly, this does not bring out the best in human nature, and nobody sings "Kumbaya".

So it's time to fire up the DVD players, and settle in with some videos.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Serious stuff


No End in Sight
Written and directed by Charles Ferguson

Charles Ferguson is a dot com millionaire and Ph.D. in Political Science who worked at the Brookings Institution. In his excellent first film No End in Sight, he lays out the decisions and planning (or lack of it) that went into the U.S. occupation of Iraq. To do this, he goes to the source--he relies on interviews with those who were directly involved (those who would talk to him, anyway) in Washington D.C. and Iraq, and some press members and soldiers. These people were not administration critics. Most were actually trying to implement the policies of the U.S. government. The bulk of the information in the film is not shocking news, and a well-informed viewer might already know or suspect most of it. But Ferguson puts the story together very effectively, and without editorializing, has made a film that is both compelling and damning. There’s something about having things laid out in an organized way, with pictures, that makes the story even more maddening, horrifying, and all sorts of other adjectives.

No End in Sight is certainly not standard summer escape fare, but it’s definitely one to see. It raises all sorts of questions, questions that need to be raised even if we don’t have the answers.

Video note:

The Lives of Others, the winner of this year’s Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, is now out on video. Probably a lot more people saw another nominee for the award, the Spanish film Pan’s Labyrinth, and were disappointed when it lost. But this one is good. It was written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (a very tall man with a very long name). The Lives of Others is set in East Germany in the mid-1980’s, before the wall came down. A loyal Stasi agent spying on a playwright and his actress girlfriend gradually starts to question why he is spying on them, whether they are guilty of anything, and the consequences of spying on the innocent. It’s beautifully acted, thought-provoking, sometimes funny, and ultimately hopeful. Check it out.

Both No End in Sight and The Lives of Others made TVOR ponder what it is to be a good person, and what the responsibilities of the dissenter are when those in power abuse it. Not what one normally thinks about in summer movies, but a few serious films mixed in with lighter fare is not a bad thing.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Ode to the Danes


The Boss of it All
Written and directed by Lars von Trier

This is the first Danish-language film Lars von Trier has made in several years. Recently, he’s been making English-language films—ones that TVOR cannot force herself to go to—like Dogville and Manderlay. This film, however, is a comedy. It doesn’t have any stars (at least, not ones most Americans would know), it’s obviously low-budget, and it’s a lot of fun.

This is the set-up: the real owner of a company (we have no idea what the company is or what it does) has invented an imaginary boss so he can escape any blame when he makes an unpopular decision. After years of successful buck-passing, he finally must produce the imaginary boss in order to complete the sale of the company. To accomplish this, he hires an out-of-work actor, and sets him loose with no information of any kind, including such basics as a name. To make things even more difficult for the fake boss, the owner has developed extensive e-mail relationships between the “boss” and the employees of the firm, with a different “boss” persona developed for each employee. There’s a lot of comic potential here, and von Trier satirizes the business world, actors, filmmakers, and people in general.

The look of the film is odd. There is no cinematographer as such, for von Trier uses a technique called Automavision, where a computer randomly points the camera. TVOR does not understand why removing the human element from the creation of art is a good or desirable thing. It does make for an unsettling feeling film, which is what the fake boss would probably be going through too. At any rate, the film has resonance for just about anyone who has had a boss, or been one.

The Boss of it All isn’t exactly in wide release, but it is out there, and will be playing for a week at SIFF Cinema in Seattle from August 17-23.

Video notes (love those Danes!):

TVOR loves Danish films. Not indiscriminately, of course, but more often than not, the ones that show up in the U.S. are quite good. It’s a very small country, after all. How do they manage to put out all those good films? Here are some that are worth checking out:

Ulrich Thomsen is the lead in a couple of films where family goings-on rise to Shakespearean heights. Celebration, written and directed by Thomas Vinterberg, tells the story of the worst family birthday dinner ever. The Inheritance shows the downside of going into the family business.

Susanne Bier’s After the Wedding was nominated for the foreign film Oscar earlier this year. The film tells the story of a Danish man (Mads Mikkelsen, the blood-weeping baddie from Casino Royale) returning home from India in order to try to get a large donation to support an orphanage he’s running. The film lost to The Lives of Others, but it’s still good. Bier’s earlier film Brothers is about, not surprisingly, two brothers, one who is married, responsible, and in the military, and one who is none of the above. In Open Hearts, a still earlier film, an accident that paralyzes a young man results in new and changing relationships among an extended group of people.

Christoffer Boe’s Reconstruction tells a weird but compelling story of a man who steps out on his girlfriend, then finds he can’t return to his former life. Literally.

If some of these are a little intense for you, Anders Thomas Jensen wrote and directed Adam’s Apples, a black comedy telling the story of a racist skinhead ex-convict who does community service at a church run by an unnaturally upbeat vicar. Ulrich Thomsen plays the skinhead, and Mads Mikkelsen plays the vicar. Jensen also wrote, co-wrote or did the stories for many of the other films mentioned here.

And if you want something much lighter, try Mifune. In it, a young man leaves his life in the city to return to the family farm, so that he can care for his mentally disabled brother. He does this with the help of a prostitute on the run, a development that is not appreciated by his urban fiancé.

In Italian for Beginners, some Danes looking for love think learning Italian is a good first step. It’s funny, sweet, and fun.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

More current films


2 Days in Paris
Written and directed by Julie Delpy

Julie Delpy. She wrote and directed 2 Days in Paris. And produced. And edited. And starred in. And composed the music for. And sang the song that ran over the closing credits for. This is a Julie Delpy film. Totally. That could be a scary prospect, but actually, it’s pretty good light entertainment. 2 Days in Paris tells the story of a French woman bringing her American boyfriend to Paris to meet the family and spend a couple of days. The boyfriend is played by Adam Goldberg. He’s neurotic, jealous, and suffering from severe culture shock to boot. All of this results in some pretty amusing conversations.

The Bourne Ultimatum
Directed by Paul Greengrass

If you’ve been conscious in recent days, you know this is the third in the Bourne series. Identity was first, then Conspiracy, then Ultimatum. TVOR is not quite sure what ultimatum they’re talking about, but it’s probably not important. This is a well-made action film, with Bourne as the anti-Bond. This man is tortured. In every sense. There’s an impressive supporting cast including Joan Allen, David Strathairn, Albert Finney, and Scott Glenn, who all play CIA types. The Bourne Ultimatum is a very post-9/11 film, and it turns out that the CIA has some bad people in it, who do bad things. Julia Stiles is back, and she may have been paid by the word. She says very few, which is a good thing.

This film is good for what it is. If you’re a Bourne fan, you’ve probably already seen it. If you’re not, you can probably skip it.

Video notes:

Daniel Bruhl plays small roles in both 2 Days in Paris and The Bourne Ultimatum, but he’s the lead in a couple of good German films available on DVD. Good Bye Lenin! tells the story of a young man living in East Berlin in the late ‘80’s who tries to keep the news of the collapse of East Germany from his sick mother, a devoted Communist. The Edukators is about a group of activists who break into the mansions of the rich and rearrange furniture and generally mess with them. Things escalate from there, especially when a girl enters the picture. These are both worth checking out.

And do take a look at the first Bourne film, The Bourne Identity. It’s more character-driven, and it has Franka Potente, Clive Owen, and a great car chase (well, it is an action/spy film, after all) involving a Mini.

Paul Greengrass, in addition to directing the last two Bourne films, made the excellent film United 93. It’s difficult to watch, but definitely worth seeing.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Coming soon to a theater near you

We’re going to have some very entertaining films coming out in August, and TVOR has seen a few of them. It’s time to go to the movies!

Directed by Matthew Vaughn

This is a PG-13 rated fairy tale/fantasy that people who don’t like that sort of thing, who consider themselves too adult for that sort of thing, can go to and have a great time. TVOR speaks with some authority on that as she is one of those fantasy-shunning types who tend to avoid films attended by people under 35. There’s a shooting star that takes on the form of a beautiful young woman, an evil witch (several, in fact), a magical kingdom, and a pirate played by Robert De Niro. But mostly there’s a clever script, a great cast, and a reliance on character more than spectacle. Definitely one to see.

Rocket Science
Written and directed by Jeffrey Blitz

Rocket Science is a lovely little coming-of-age film. Our protagonist joins his high school debate team based on his admiration for a beautiful girl on the team. The fact that he has a stutter doesn’t really enter into his thought process. The writing, the direction, the acting by a not-particularly-well-know cast—all elements are in place. See it.

Black Sheep
Written and directed by Jonathan King

Killer mutant sheep. Terror in bucolic New Zealand. It’s a comedy horror film and that’s all you need to know. It’s bloody, but killer mutant sheep are an aggressive lot. See it.

Video notes:

Two of these films are second features, proving these guys are not one-shot wonders.

Before Stardust, Matthew Vaughan directed Layer Cake, a British gangster film starring Daniel Craig. This man is not just James Bond, he really can act. The film is gritty and bloody, and definitely entertaining.

Jeffrey Blitz’ earlier film was the wonderful documentary Spellbound, about the National Spelling Bee. It’ll have you on the edge of your seat. Really.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Two French movies about real people—but the similarity ends there


La Vie en Rose
Directed by Olivier Dahan

Marion Cotillard delivers an amazing performance as Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose. According to the film, Piaf’s life started out pretty horribly and continued in that vein until she died at the age of 47. She was very talented and famous of course, but if any good things ever happened to her, we don’t see them. The film hops around in time a lot, and that generally works, although there are big chunks of years that are left out entirely—World War II, for example. Apparently Piaf worked with the resistance during the war, but that didn’t make it to the movie. Maybe it wouldn’t have fit with the film’s general theme of misery.

Directed by Laurent Tirard

This film could easily be called “Moliere in Love”. Everybody says this, but that’s because it’s so true. This isn’t a biopic. The film places Moliere in a fictional world where, amazingly, people and situations evolve that are very similar to the plays the real Moliere wrote! It’s a very light, very entertaining romp. Romain Duris plays the title, role, and a wonderful supporting cast behaves in ways anybody who has seen a Moliere play will recognize. Not that that’s a problem, of course.

A video idea: Romain Duris played the lead in one of TVOR’s favorite films in recent years, The Beat that My Heart Skipped. A young man must choose between the family business (property management/thuggery) and playing the piano. I know, it sounds strange. But it’s really good. See it.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Still more movies currently in the theaters


Lady Chatterley
Directed by Pascale Ferran

This lovely French film is based on an early version of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, one that is not generally read. As TVOR has not ready any versions of the story, I can’t say whether the film adheres closely to the text or not. What I will say is that the film works well on its own. The characters retain their English names, but don’t seem very English—and they’re speaking French, of course. The story is of an affair between Lady Chatterley, whose husband has been seriously injured in World War I, and the estate’s gamekeeper. In spite of a nearly three-hour running time, the film is consistently engaging, and does not drag. And, yes, you do see naked bodies. Including the naughty parts.

The Golden Door
Written and directed by Emanuele Crialese

This Italian film tells the story of a group of immigrants making the journey from Sicily to the United States early in the 20th century. It follows them as they prepare for the journey, travel on a crowded boat, and attempt to negotiate the bureaucracy of Ellis Island. They are, for the most part, poor and illiterate, but dream of an America full of wealth and promise. This is a movie that is absolutely gorgeous on the big screen—do try to see it in a theater.

Rescue Dawn
Written and directed by Werner Herzog

In this English-language film, German director Werner Herzog tells the true story of Dieter Dengler, who as a child in Germany watched his town get demolished by Allied bombers. His response to this experience was to develop a passion for flying, which led him to emigrate to the United States, enlist in the armed services, and become a Navy pilot during the Viet Nam war. On his first mission, he was shot down, captured, held as a prisoner, and eventually escaped and was rescued. If it occurs to you that Dengler was an unusual guy, I think it’s safe to say you’re right. As portrayed in the film, he takes pluckiness to new heights. The film is beautifully shot, and well-acted and directed (it is a Werner Herzog film after all), but TVOR never really got a handle on Dengler’s character. The film was interesting, but not very engaging.

Video notes: Ten years ago, Werner Herzog made a documentary called Little Dieter Needs to Fly. In it, the real Dieter Dengler tells his story, with narration by Herzog. This is one to check out.

The big video news today as far as I’m concerned is that Hot Fuzz is out on DVD. This is another winner from the people who brought you Shaun of the Dead. Whereas Shaun spoofs zombie films, adding a bit of romance (I believe they called it a rom/com/zom or something like that), Hot Fuzz gives us a comedy cop buddy picture. And fortunately for viewers like TVOR, you don’t have to have any experience with the genre being spoofed to enjoy the result. I’m sure there are many inside jokes and references that went right over my head, but no matter. It’s hilarious no matter what your level of cop picture sophistication is. So watch Hot Fuzz and if you can’t lay your hands on that one, give Shaun of the Dead a try. A warning—both are rather gory. But zombies and buddy cops are like that.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Ingmar Bergman 1918-2007


Ingmar Bergman died today. A prolific and talented man, he will be remembered for not only his films but the influence he had on other directors. Real film critics will write well and at length about that. Bergman films can be very challenging, and TVOR must admit she frequently cannot rise to the challenge. There is one Bergman film she loves, however, and that is Fanny and Alexander. Loosely based on Bergman’s early life, it is beautiful and watchable and everyone should see it. So do.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

More of what's out there right now


Written and directed by John Carney

This is a really lovely film that you should go see. It’s short, it’s sweet, it’s got great music, good performances, and appealing characters. What more could you want? The basic story is that two musicians meet on the streets of Dublin and make music together. The musicians are played by the real thing, Glen Hansard (of the Frames) and Marketa Irglova. See it.

Written and directed by Michael Moore

Sicko is a Michael Moore film so you will see a lot of him, and it’s one-sided, and it’s very funny, and that’s just the way it is. The good news is that you see less of him than usual, and it’s still very funny. And it is one-sided, of course, but who is going to go onscreen and make the case that the health care system in the United States is working really well?

Michael goes to Canada, the U.K., France, and Cuba to make his point. The visits to the first three countries are more successful than the Cuba portion, where the shenanigan level rises abruptly. See it, unless you really like how health care works in the United States.

A Mighty Heart
Directed by Michael Winterbottom

A new Michael Winterbottom film is always worth checking out. He’s made all sorts of films, from pure entertainment like 24-Hour Party People and Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, to docudramas (The Road to Guantanamo), to a weird combination of porn-meets-music in 9 Songs. This is Winterbottom’s first venture into mega movie-star land, though, as Brad Pitt produced the film and Angelina Jolie stars in it. A Mighty Heart is a drama based on a real event, the kidnapping and murder of the journalist Daniel Pearl, and Ms. Jolie plays Pearl’s wife Mariane, also a journalist. She does a good job with the role, and the supporting cast is good as well. Daniel Pearl is played by Dan Futterman, and Irfan Khan (who appeared earlier this year in The Namesake) plays a Pakistani official working on the case.

The film is at its best when it tells the story of the journalists and police who are trying to find Mr. Pearl, and the U.S. and Pakistani governmental officials who are sometimes helpful and sometimes not. The film is less successful when it tries to show the love between the Pearls. I think we are supposed to think that their love was somehow special. I’m not buying. The film is worth seeing, though. The story of the search is very well told, and even though we know the tragic end, we’re still kept interested as it plays out.

You Kill Me
Directed by John Dahl

In this black comedy, Ben Kingsley plays a hit man Frank Falenczyk whose alcoholism is interfering with his job. After he muffs a hit, his family (who are family in both the DNA and the mob sense) bundle him off to San Francisco to dry out. Why San Francisco? Don’t ask. It’s not good to dwell on some of the plot details. Just accept them. A friend of the family sets Frank up with an apartment and a job in a funeral parlor, directs him towards an AA meeting, and he’s on his way. Tea Leoni plays a potential love interest. The performances by the leads and supporting cast are all very good, and the films is sweet in sort of a murderous way.

Related video suggestions:

Check out some other films by Michael Winterbottom and John Dahl. Steve Coogan is great in the leads of both 24-Hour Party People and Tristram Shandy. Linda Fiorentino is a femme fatale that Peter Berg is no match for in Dahl’s The Last Seduction.

And if you think that Ben Kingsley is un-Ghandi-like in You Kill Me, you should see him in Sexy Beast. He plays a gangster who refuses to let another criminal, played by Ray Winstone, retire. He’d probably convince you to come back to work, too.

And do take a look at Capote, written by A Mighty Heart’s Dan Futterman. The script, the Oscar-winning performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman, the supporting cast—just about the whole thing is excellent.

Friday, July 27, 2007

the first real post


It has taken a while to gather my thoughts, but reason doesn’t always come quickly.

The Voice of Reason (on film) is a blog by a movie-lover. It’s not a movie review site. There are reviewers out there who are really good, and I love to read their work. I read it regularly, in fact. I’m just not one of them. I aspire to be the blog equivalent of the water-cooler conversation, where you might ask a coworker who pays attention to movies and who has reasonable taste what is good to see that weekend. What I like is less likely to be Hollywood product than something foreign or independent (or quasi-independent, since independent stuff is pretty rare), but if you want good stuff, you usually have to stray away from standard Hollywood fare.

And now for what’s out there right now:

Directed by Danny Boyle

First, the disclaimer: I’m not really a sci-fi sort of person. The story is interesting, though. The sun is dying and a group of scientists fly out to it to shoot a big bomb into it to get it going again. Or something like that. Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, Shallow Grave, Millions) and a good cast (Cillian Murphy, Chris Evans, Cliff Curtis, Michelle Yeoh, etc.) made the whole thing worth watching—at least until the last third or so when it sort of fell apart. There are nice visuals, good performances, and interesting psychological goings-on. I was happy to be along for the ride, suspending disbelief and all that—at least until that last plot point was introduced. That said, I know there is a group of folks out there who will really like the direction the film took. Maybe the really deep people. Maybe you’re one of these deep people. If so, you can tell me what went on and what the point is. In spite of this flaw (at least from my point of view), I did enjoy the film. If you’re going to see it, do yourself a favor and see it in the theater as it does look pretty darned good on the big screen.

Directed by Steve Buscemi

This is basically a two-character film. Steve Buscemi directs and plays one of the characters, a serious journalist who is apparently being punished by being forced to interview a B-movie star tabloid-fodder type played by Sienna Miller. The acting is good, the characters are complicated and interesting (although you probably wouldn’t want to spend much time in a room with them), and it does deal with some of the issues of celebrity. These are not issues that I have to deal with, though, so mostly I was glad that I didn’t know anybody like that in real life.

My Best Friend
Directed by Patrice Leconte

Ah, Patrice Leconte. This isn’t his best work, but it’s still worth a look. This is a story about an antiques dealer (Daniel Auteuil) whose colleagues challenge him to produce a friend, as they don’t believe he has any. They’re right, of course. The dealer embarks on a quest, and finds a cab driver (Dany Boone) to coach him in this quest—to find a friend. This film is sweet, charming, and funny.

Which reminds me—here are some ideas for video viewing:

Patrice Leconte has made some wonderful films which would make great rentals: The Man on the Train, M. Hire, Intimate Strangers, and others. Especially The Man on the Train.

Also opening this weekend is No Reservations, directed by Scott Hicks. I haven’t seen it, but I do know that it is a remake of a wonderful German film called Mostly Martha, directed by Sandra Nettelbeck. The film tells the story of a workaholic chef who is suddenly forced to become a parent to a young niece who is orphaned when the chef’s sister dies. And then there's this new guy who works in her kitchen...It’s sweet and romantic without being manipulative, and the emotions are true to life. I can’t comment on the new film, but the old film is definitely worth a look on video.

Monday, May 21, 2007

day one

The voice of reason is collecting her thoughts and will be back later.