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.