Saturday, June 30, 2012

June 2012 Rundown

The Interrupters (2011) – Mark it 8.

Steve James, director of the classic documentary Hoop Dreams, returns to Chicago to highlight an incredible group’s fight against its city's epidemic of violence.  James’ camera follows a group of CeaseFire employees, the “violence interrupters,” who intervene in violent situations around the city with the goal of resolving conflicts without bloodshed.  These are very charismatic figures, often with their own violent pasts which earns them respect and trust in the community.  Throughout the film, we get to know three “interrupters” very well (Ameena Matthews, Cobe Williams, and Edie Bocanegra), seeing them do their amazing work and understanding their motivation. There are harrowing scenes to behold but the dominating feeling is a sincere sense of inspiration.  These problems are not limited to Chicago but exist in my city and cities throughout the country.  To know that there are people out there giving their lives to such important work helps me restore some faith in humanity.

The Intouchables (2012) – Mark it 5.

France’s The Intouchables is a by-the-book story about the unlikely and saccharine friendship between a wealthy quadriplegic man, Phillipe (François Cluzet) and his caregiver, Driss (Omar Sy), an amiable ex-convict.  Naturally, the initially odd pairing quickly learn how to work together, then how to have fun and help each other find love.  Once these two men unite, every crowd-pleasing cliché is used to progress the plot just right until a rather forced and undeveloped third act twist adds a little hint of drama.  Despite being a film that is precious to a fault, The Intouchables remains watchable due to the great performances by its two leads, Cluzet and Sy.  The great chemistry that develops between Phillipe and Driss is clear from the opening scene on, and it remains exciting to see them on screen together throughout.  However, these actors are not enough to make The Intouchables any better than average.

Shame (2011) – Mark it 6.

Visual artist turned director Steve McQueen takes us deep into the seediest sides of sex with Shame.  Michael Fassbender is excellent in this tough to watch film, as a handsome and successful New Yorker, Brandon, afflicted with a terrible addiction to sex.  Acts of intimacy are not special to him, but rather a compulsion that must be satisfied continuously via random hookups, prostitution, pornography, or his own hand.  It is impossible to build strong relationship when dealing with such issues; a fact that becomes clear when his troubled sister (my girl, Carey Mulligan) invades his privacy to reconnect.  Being NC-17, Shame is as sexually graphic as movies can get but McQueen’s careful direction and Fassbender’s pained performance never allows it to be erotic (and it shouldn’t be because sex addiction is far from “sexy”).  Talented people have their fingerprints all over this film, however it is not one that is especially enjoyable.  Shame’s strengths are undeniable, but it is not a film that I can heartily recommend.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Melancholia (2011)

Directed by Lars von Trier
Starring Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Keifer Sutherland

In a film that begins with Earth being absorbed by a giant gaseous planet, I feel like this will be a rare review where I can reveal some spoilers.  While Melancholia is structured around the premise of a planet, previously hidden by the sun, entering our orbit and destroying all life, the bulk off the plot is about the tremendous weight of depression and the crippling anxiety felt by a pair of sisters.  Danish, and rebellious, filmmaker Lars von Trier has made a unique and dour little big film.  This is a powerfully painful human drama disguised in its catastrophic science fiction premise.  Melancholia is more about the emotion, melancholy, than its titular rogue planet, and that is quite alright because the two things converge in the climax to spectacular effect. 

Before splitting up into its two parts focusing on each sister’s emotional descent, Part One: Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Part Two: Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), Melancholia opens with an epic 8-minute overture set to the prelude from Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde.”  This beautifully acts as Melancholia’s theme, becoming more and more powerful the closer the planet comes to impact with Earth.  During this overture, we see haunting and seemingly incongruous images in beautiful slow motion (images that make increasing sense throughout the narrative part of the film).  Strange occurances build upon one another until the music and images crescendo toward Melancholia’s engulfing of Earth.  We are aware of the dire fate awaiting these characters from the onset, which adds a tremendous black cloud (or beautiful blue planet) that will hang over the story that follows.

From the overture, we enter the awkward (and long) reception of a wedding doomed from the start.  Dunst’s Justine is a severely ill woman who struggles to put a happy face on what is meant to be her special day.  She is adored by her new husband (True Blood’s Alexander Skarsgaard) and surrounded by caring friends and family, but the depression always overpowers every other emotion.  This wedding should have been an extravagant event, with Justine’s sister, Claire, and brother-in-law (Keifer Sutherland) paying for wedding and hosting it at their palatial estate.  As plans for the most brilliant wedding ever go disastrously wrong, von Trier even inserts many instances of dark humor that lightens the mood a bit.  As the wandering planet turns from a curious speck (during the wedding), to an imminent threat in the film’s second section, Melancholia’s moments of humor are fondly remembered.

The wedding sequence can feel overwrought at times (clocking in at almost an hour), but I enjoyed how it slowly built up the seriousness of Justine’s depression while planting seeds of how Melancholia will soon weigh heavily on everyone’s minds.  The sisters reunite some weeks, months, or years later (the film never makes it entirely clear) when Justine’s depression has worsened to a critical state.   It is in these scenes that depression’s ugly face is painfully clear as Justine can barely get out of bed, bathe, walk, or eat.  Her whole existence amounts to becoming lost in Melancholia’s blue glow.  Throughout part one of Melancholia and early in the second, Justine has hit rock bottom and become somewhat contented with it.   Von Trier then turns his attention to highlighting the psychological descent of the other sister in the family, Claire.

Charlotte Gainsbourg’s performance as Claire in the film’s second part is one Melancholia’s highlight.  Throughout the wedding, she tried desperately to be the rock in her dysfunctional family and when she is needed to remain that steady caregiver for her seriously ill sister, her anxiety over the world’s impending cosmic disaster strips all her strength away.  No matter how much her husband recites the calculations of reputable scientists, the fear that Melancholia produces is crushing.  Having not been completely turned off by the world like Justine, Claire is the character the audience can relate to.  It is an uncomfortable question, but one that we all must wrangle with during Melancholia:  how would you act during Earth’s inevitable last days?  It seems awful to say, but severe depression almost appears to be a welcome escape in such a catastrophic situation, as Justine ironically becomes Claire’s caretaker in the world’s final minutes.

Melancholia is an emotionally draining experience and never uplifting, but I loved it from beginning to end.  The nerve Lars von Trier displays by making such a wrenchingly bombastic picture is impressive.  From its virtuosic opening sequence and deliberately paced exposition to free-fall toward Earth’s last moments, every scene moved me deeply.   He forces us to consider our insignificance in the universe as two hours of character development (and billions of years of life on Earth) can be wiped away forever in one, amazing, blink of an eye.  Yet somehow, I left this heavy subject matter more moved by the beautiful artistry on display in its telling than shaken by what it says about our existence.

The first and final 8 minutes of Melancholia are hard to forget, especially when watched with the volume very loud.  With the Wagner blaring and worlds colliding (literally), this film will shake you to the core.  The beautiful visuals and excellent performances make everything in between almost as memorable.  You may not have the most fun when watching Melancholia but it is a weirdly enjoyable experience nonetheless.

Mark it 8.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Prometheus (2012)

Directed by Ridley Scott
Starring Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Charlize Theron

As the summer blockbuster season approached, Prometheus was among one of the leaders on my “must-see” list.   Taking a quick look to the right-hand column of this page, you will find Ridley Scott’s 1979 classic, Alien, firmly placed among my all-time favorite films, so the idea of Scott returning to this universe for what may or may not be an Alien prequel was more than enough to get me to the theater.  While the dangers in the original arose quite accidentally with a mining expedition gone wrong, the crew in Prometheus’s mission has far more existential aspirations.  Prometheus seeks god-like figures, or “Engineers,” to ask, “what it all means” but only finds the horrors that brought these figures to their doom.

In the beginning, I was completely sold by Prometheus.  Its intro is at once mysterious, beautiful, and haunting with a chiseled god-like being drinking a black substance and falling victim to a horrific death.  We have no idea what is going on but it is amazing to behold, and once that familiar Alien font slowly reveals the title, I was so ready to re-enter this world.  What follows is a feast for the eyes and many moments of great suspense, but its grandiose themes and stock characters hold it back from being truly great.

In the year 2089, two archeologist lovers, Elizabeth Shaw and Charlie Halloway (Noomi Rapace, of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo fame, and Logan Marshall-Green), unearth what is seemingly proof of the existence of extraterrestrial “creators” who brought life to the planet.  Four years later, they’re in a cryogenic sleep aboard a trillion dollar expedition to a moon in a distant solar system where these beings are supposedly to be found.  It is their hope to have deep conversations with their creators to reveal the meaning of life.  Of course, things don’t go as planned.

It is unfair to compare Prometheus to Alien, but one of the original’s strengths is one of Prometheus’ most glaring weaknesses.  Where Alien took careful time to develop each member of the Nostromo’s crew so that when the monster is finally wreaking havoc aboard the ship, our hearts are racing for every character’s well being.  This tactic is not effectively used in Prometheus, as the crew just becomes a string of uninteresting bodies.  When the expedition takes its turn for the worse, they are just stand-ins for cool ways to show an alien attack.  Even when heroic sacrifice is needed, the emotions just felt a bit hollow.  The film is a pleasure to look at but the emotional substance is lacking no matter how hard it tries.

Prometheus does take its time to effectively develop a few characters; it also takes its time to develop Charlize Theron’s icy corporate supervisor, Vickers, and Idris Elba’s down-to-earth Southern captain, Janek, but neither were all that interesting.  The lead roles, which warrant the most attention in the film, belong to Rapace’s Shaw and David (Michael Fassbender), the obligatory android in the Alien universe.  Shaw is no Ripley (damn Alien comparisons again), but there is depth behind her motivations that instills a rooting interest in her survival that is lacking for most of the others.  This makes your heart pump extra hard for her well being during Prometheus’ most suspenseful sequence.  The time given to develop David’s character is also worthwhile.  Fassbender portrays him as the soulless android he is, but there is just a hint of humanity underneath.  We understand that David has spent the trip carefully studying what it means to be human, through the reading of his shipmates’ dreams or embodying Peter O’Toole from Lawrence of Arabia.  David's actions may be programmed and calculated but Fassbender’s complex, robotic performance is one of the film’s highlights.  However, some of his seemingly “programmed” actions have grave consequences but little explanation.  For that, David can remain somewhat a mystery, which can be okay sometimes, but was more frustrating in Prometheus

Many huge questions are posed throughout the film while the crew searches for the god-like beings that created life on Earth.  Prometheus tries to tackle issues of creation, the meaning of life, and immortality but the pseudo-science that is used to help explain these issues feels forced and becomes distracting.  I love to be challenged by a film when the writing is worthy of that challenge.  Unfortunately, Prometheus often feels like it's trying to be smarter than it actually is, which is exactly when the plot drags.  Like Alien, Prometheus is at its best when it takes itself a little less seriously and amps the horror. 

I’ve been highlighting a lot of the negatives I found in Prometheus, but I want to make clear that there is a lot about this film to admire.  The special effects are excellent throughout, the aliens provide the right amount of creepiness, and the suspense during the alien sequences is always at full throttle.  I just wish that Prometheus embraced its horror and action aspects a little more (like Alien or James Cameron’s Aliens) rather than trying too hard, and not quite achieving, to also be intellectual.

Overall, I found Prometheus to be a solid effort at times, though mostly disappointing.  Its good aspects are excellent, but there were too many parts of the film that dragged to prevent it from becoming something special.  As is, however, I’d definitely recommend it to people if you were a fan of the Alien saga.  The scene that proclaims Prometheus as an “official Alien prequel” alone is cool enough to make me excited to see if there are more adventures to be told in the lead up to Ripley and company’s entrance into the story aboard the Nostromo.

Mark it 5.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Contemporary Iranian Cinema Marathon (Part 1)

The Filmspotting podcast has a running feature that separates it from other sources of film discussion shows, its “marathons.”  A marathon provides Filmspotting an opportunity to take a thorough investigation into the work of a particular filmmaker, genre, or topic, which are often overlooked but necessary to have a well-rounded film education.   In the past, these marathons have included the works of filmmakers such as Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, and Werner Herzog.  Also, they could take on particular genres such as westerns, musicals, and animated films.  Listener participation in these marathons is always encouraged, and now that I am a committed Filmspotting fanboy, I decided that I would play along with the next marathon whatever the topic. 

Iranian cinema was brought to the forefront in many film buffs' eyes in 2011 with A Separation's Oscar win for Best Foreign Film and Iranian filmmaker, Abbas Kiarostami's breakthrough English-language debut, Certified Copy (though I am ashamed to admit that I have watched neither at the time of writing this post).  Yet Iranian cinema did not begin in 2011, obviously.  It has a rich history that has long been ignored in the United States, so this marathon will be my tool to tap into that history.

This topic is a perfect example of what the idea of a marathon seeks to accomplish because I will be introduced to six films by its end that would have never caught my attention otherwise.  In doing so, my film education will be enhanced to include a whole cadre of films that would have certainly been ignored had I not taken part in this activity.  In this post I will cover the first three films included in Filmspotting’s marathon of “Contemporary Iranian Cinema.”  I plan to write another post in the near future to complete the marathon.

So here it goes, my marathon through contemporary Iranian cinema (part one)....

Close-Up (1990) – Mark it 7.

Directed by Abbas Kiarostami
Starring Hossain Sabzian, the Ahankhah Family, Mohsen Makhmalbaf

One entry into the Iranian cinema marathon and I have already been introduced to a film unlike any I’ve ever seen before.  Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up is a documentary, of sorts, that blends real life trial footage and interviews with reenactments of the scenes described in court.  Kiarostami seamlessly blends the real footage and reenactments by mixing up the timeline of events and by using the real people (both the plaintiffs and the defendant) as his actors.  Close-Up acts as a grand filmic experiment but the hook of its story is so compelling that it makes the film accessible to more than just the art house crowd.

Close-Up's story begins with a newspaper article about Hossain Sabzian, a man who dreams of being a filmmaker but struggles just to get by, who was caught impersonating another filmmaker, of much higher stature.  This article caught Kiarostami’s eye and inspired him to dig deeper into the story.  It turned out that a family (the Ahankhah’s) mistook Sabzian for a famous filmmaker, Mohsen Makhmalbaf.  Having never been able to earn the kind of respect he gets as “Makhmalbaf,” Sabzian plays along with the rouse.  Obviously, the family figures out what he is up to, and Kiarostami enters the story when Sabzian is in jail for fraud and waiting his trial.  Throughout the film, you gain glimpses into Sabzian’s psyche as a troubled man whose sincere love for Makhmalbaf’s artistry leads him to make such a foolish attempt to gain some sense of that talent for himself.  Though Sabzian broke the law, it is nearly impossible to view him as a bad guy.  Even those whom he duped also wish him the best the end.

I found it fascinating to witness a justice system so different from our American version.  Close-Up presents Iranian trials (in 1990) as a participatory activity where the judge, the defendant, and witnesses all take part in a sort of conversation that leads to consensus and a verdict.  It is a refreshing take on justice, and completely unexpected when one makes their ill-informed assumptions about Iran.  Of course, Sabzian’s crime is relatively small-scale and Close-Up does not investigate Iran’s procedures on more heinous acts.  It would be just as irresponsible to use one film as the basis of my understanding of Iran as it would to solely use what we are force fed about them in the media.  It’s just exciting to know that during this marathon, my perspective on a group of people so often misunderstood in the United States will be widened by experiencing six works of their art.  Close-Up was my first experience and a very impressive introduction.

Taste of Cherry (1997) – Mark it 6.

Directed by Abbas Kiarostami
Starring Homayoun Ershadi, Abdolrahman Bagheri

** NOTE:  Taste of Cherry is not part of the official Filmspotting marathon on Contemporary Iranian cinema.  Their second film in the marathon, Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s A Moment of Innocence is not available on Netflix or in the Milwaukee County library system, so I am unable to view it.  I have therefore replaced it with another Iranian film, Taste of Cherry, which was part of Filmspotting’s past marathon of Palme d’Or Winners at the Cannes Film Festival. **

Like Close-Up before, Abbas Kiarostami has introduced me to a film unlike any I had ever seen before with Taste of Cherry.   This is a mesmerizing and beautiful film to behold, but can be painfully slow at times.  For most of the film, the audience is placed in the car of a man named Mr. Badii (Homayoun Ershadi) as he drives around the outskirts of Tehran, looking for someone to assist in his suicide.  We know nothing about this man’s past or the reasons behind his monumental decision.  We only know that he has come to the decision to end his life and wants to pay someone to check his body the next morning; if he responds to their call:  help him out of the hole he has prepared, and if he does not:  cover his body with dirt so he can die with dignity.

The film is structured around three conversations Mr. Badii has with prospective assistants.  We are mere flies on the wall as he discusses his plans with these people, and receives different responses.  One is a terrified young soldier who wants no part of his plan and another is a religious man who debates Badii over the morals of suicide.  The third and most emotional conversation comes with an old taxidermist whose survival of a suicide attempt has instilled him with profound wisdom.  Throughout these three conversations, Kiarostami is able to make a case for the gift of life and shows Badii weigh both sides of the argument without ever definitively giving us his answer.  You can only watch and hope that the urge to see more sunsets and taste more cherries will sway Badii’s decision.

While I see the many strengths within Taste of Cherry, I must admit that it can be a struggle to get through this film (even I didn’t make it to the end until my third attempt).  When I say that this film follows a man having conversations in his car, it is quite literally of a man having conversations in his car.  You have to prepare to be challenged by a film to enjoy it (including an ending that I am still trying to wrap my head around).  But once you are willing to endure its slow and meditative pace, you will be rewarded by a very powerful film experience.

Fireworks Wednesday (2006) - Mark it 8.

Directed by Asghar Farhadi
Starring Taraneh Alidoosti, Hedye Tehrani, Hamid Farokh-Nejad

There are a lot of mysteries about life in Iran to us Americans, but if Asghar Farhadi’s fantastic drama is any evidence, it is clear that relationships’ complexities are universal.  Fireworks Wednesday throws a innocent maid and bride-to-be, Rouhi (Taraneh Alidousti), into the midst of the highly combustible marriage of her new employers, Mojdeh (Hedye Tehrani) and Morteza (Hamid Farokh-Nejad).  When we meet Rouhi, she is happily riding to work with her fiancé, goofing around with her co-workers, and admiring her wedding dress as she tries it on.  Though poor, and working on the day before a holiday (hence the fireworks that Wednesday), Rouhi views the world with nothing but optimism.  However, one day with Mojdeh and Morteza will challenge that worldview.

As the audience, our understanding of this marriage’s details is just as mysterious to us as they are to Rouhi.  From the onset, something is awry.  The home is a mess, with broken glass on the floor and bandages covering Morteza’s hand.  When he leaves for work, Rouhi meets his unstable wife who immediately fires Rouhi only to hire her back to investigate a neighbor she suspects is the root of her husband’s infidelity.  Needless to say, poor Rouhi is completely confused but follows along out of curiosity, because she needs the money, or because she is just a good person who wants to help out someone with concerns (it is never made clear).  Whether Morteza was faithful or not flip-flops in Rouhi’s mind, and in mine.  As we learn more about the Morteza and Mojdeh, the only certainty is that keeping a healthy marriage is difficult work.  When the workday is over and Rouhi reunites with her fiance, we can only hope that this experience did not sour her optimism that was initially so appealing.

While the majority of this film takes place in one apartment and between only a handful of characters, Fireworks Wednesday is still an heartpounding piece of drama.  The plot is so perfectly constructed to lead us from the lightness of Rouhi’s life before this day to the darker parts of life she witnesses with Mojdeh and Morteza.  Yet neither partner in this marriage is a monster; thanks in large part to the outstanding performances by Tehrani and Farokh-Nejad.  They are just two normal people who’ve hit a rough patch and are dealing with it as best they can.  Taraneh Alidousti is just as strong as Rouhi’s innocent perspective gets tarnished by the ugly truths that can come with marriage, and must figure out how to avoid that ugliness in her soon-to-be married life after the credits roll.

*click here to read my reviews of the other films in the marathon.