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.