Friday, March 27, 2009



Directed by Phillip Morrison

Phil Morrison's "Junebug" enjoyed a great deal of film festival success when it was released in2005, and was even nominated for a Grand Jury prize at that year's edition of Sundance. Are the jury's at film festivals that easily pleased? I guess so.

"Junebug's" unfortunate existence kicks of in Chicago where highfalutin gallery owner Madelaine meets southerner George at an auction. The two obviously hit it off because they are soon married and heading down to George's birthplace to visit his parents. The trip has ulterior motives, however, as Madelaine tries to lure a reclusive but brilliant artist(or so they tell us--his art is, and I say this as kindly as possible, garbage) to show his work in her gallery. Upon their arrival, Madelaine is met by George's family, a motley crew of southern charicatures who proceed to be blown away and/or scared off by the urbane Madelaine. Cultural sterotyping insues.

I hate it when people get up in arms about how a film unfairly portrays a certain group of individuals as if they are the only ones aware of the only fair and balanced way of portraying the offended group. I must say, however, that the portrayal of southerners in "Junebug" is ridiculous, ham fisted, and at times pretty offensive. Southerners, contrary to what "Junebug" might want us to believe, are not all bible thumping dimwits who lack a formal education and are wowed by the fact that you've visited Japan. Every single member of George's family is stupid and uneducated, save for George himself whose intellect was saved when he moved to Chicago.
What truly offended me, however, was that Morrison, instead of just sticking with the "Southerners are idiots" plotline, attempts to flip the script and tell us that maybe Southerners are stupid BUT they are, for the most part, better, more honest and family oriented people than the emotionally vacuous, shallow northerners. Morrison indeed succeeds in insulting everyone he writes into his script without ever intending to do so, a feat which is owed some credit, I suppose.
Although "Junebug" is largely irredeemable due to its risible characterization, Amy Adams attempts (in vain, but she comes close) to save the entire movie by giving a radiant, beautiful performance at the eternally optimistic Ashley. Adams takes Morrison's stupid script and works wonders with it, crafting an entirely sympathetic and wonderful character that makes sitting through Junebug somewhat worthwhile instead of a total waste of time. The rest of the cast ranges from quite good (Embeth Davidtz) to awful (Benjamin Mackenzie) but everyone is overshadowed by Adams which creates a noticeable assymetry in any scene she is in.

I know that "Junebug" has quite the cult audience and I'm sure if this blog at more than two readers I would be swamped witn accusations that I just didn't get it. Maybe I didn't, but in the words of the immortal Charles Barkley, I doubt it.

Thursday, March 26, 2009


A (for Concordia students) B+ (for everyone else)

Directed by Ben Addelman and Samir Mallal

A fascinating retelling of the Netanyahu riots at Concordia University in 2002, Ben Addelman and Samir Mallal's "Discordia" casts a passionate eye on contemporary student activism as well as the rifts caused by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on North American campuses.

In the summer of 2002, Jewish student group Hillel invited former Israeli Prime Minister Benjami Netanyahu to speak at Concordia University, a Montreal institution with a large and very vocal arab student population. After getting wind of Netanyahu's visit, a number of pro-Palestinian students gathered around Concordia's Hall building in an effort to stop Netanyahu from speaking. The resulting confrontation with Montreal's riot police squads resulted in the arrests of a number of students, the cancellation of Netanyahu's speech, and grabbed headlines around the world, from CNN to Al Jazeera. The aftermath of the incident vaulted a number of student activists to local and international of media attention, among them Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights VP Samer Elatrash and Concordia Student Union VP Aaron Maté. These two students, as well as Noah Sarna, the president of Hillel Concordia at the time, are the primary focus of Addelman and Mallal's film and provide a riveting portrait of the misunderstandings and often bitter animosity that can characterize campus politics with regards to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at Concordia.

Although I was not yet a student at Concordia at the time of the Netanyahu riots, I still remember the incident quite well. It caused a media uproar in Montreal and had significant reprcussion for many of the students involved. Although Netanyahu's 2002 tour of North American campuses had been met with protest at several other universities, most notably Berkeley and Northwestern, the tension his visit to Concordia caused was completley unique for the simple reason that unlike schools like Berkeley and Northwestern, who have large swaths of pro-Palestinian students but few of whom are actually Arab or Palestinian, Concordia had at the time (and still does) a huge Arab population that included a number of Palestinian students, some of whom had relatives or family members suffer directly due to Netanyahu's intrasigence while in office. As such, the suituation was much more explosive and volatile, something that is readily obvious during the first few minutes of "Discordia."
The biggest issue raised by "Discordia" is the place of free speech on college campuses and where the line should be drawn when it comes to allowing different groups to voice their opinions. Although Hillel (and Maté) invoked Netanyahu's right to free speech in arguing for him to be allowed to speak on campus, the wisdom of inviting a man directly responsible for the deaths of thousands of Palestinians to speak on a campus where the families of some of his victims studied was at best inconsiderate and at worst open provocation. The film captures Noah Sarna, who spends most of the film looking into the camera wide eyed claiming that he doesnt understand the university's anti-semitism, shouting to those who had come to see Netanyahu that the very presence of Netanyahu in "the viper's nest" of Concordia is a victory for Hillel and Israel, a statement which shows that Sarna and other members of Hillel knew full well what they were doing.
On the flip side, the CSU's decision to ban Hillel from campus following their 'recruitment' attempts for the IDF (another unsavory decision by Hillel) was highly suspect and led to considerable backlash against the CSU and the school. Mallal and Adelman do a good job of honestly showing the mistakes of both the CSU and Hillel in the wake of the incident and the decision of the CSU to simply block out Hillel from campus politics is shown as an unequivocally poor choice.

As a political film "Discordia" also quite riveting especially for those who have knowledge of subsequent CSU politics at Concordia. After turning off most of the electorate by banning Hillel, the CSU supported left leaning "Clean Slate" in the 2003 CSU elections only to see their chosen slate defeated by Hillel supported "Evolution, Not Revolution." The triumph of "Evolution, Not Revolution" slate gave a number of Hillel affiliated nuisances such as Steve Rosenshein a viable platform to push through their agendas at Concordia and further marginalized the pro-Palestinian students who consequently began working mostly through SPHR and Tadamon! to get their voice heard as opposed to ever working with the CSU again. Six years later the result has been a nepotistic CSU executive that has lost all credibility in the eyes of the students and fosters no real dialogue with SPHR or other pro-Palestinian groups on campus.

Addelman and Mallal's documentary is an interesting experience for any viewer interested in student activism or questions of free speech in North American universities but "Discordia" is most rewarding for individuals who actually have some knowledge of politics and activism at Concordia. The consequences of the Netanyahu riots are still readily obvious at Concordia and watching the events unfold on film is an especially riveting experience for Concordians.

After the Wedding


Directed by Susan Biers

The melodrama is often derided as a serious form of cinema which is too bad because under expert guidance, melodramatic films can be outstanding. "Susan Biers "After the Wedding" is a case in point, an unrepentant, weepy melodrama that shamelessly wears its heart on its sleeve but is nonetheless genuinely affecting and superbly pulled off.

Mads Mikkelson (the guy who bleeds from his eye in "Casino Royale") is Jacob, a Dane working at an orphanage in Mumbai. Facing the prospect of bankuptcy, the orphanage's manager orders Jacob to fly to Denmark and meet with a prospective donor. Jacob begrudgingly acquiesces and flies off to Copenhagen to meet with the financier, an intense yet jovial multi-millionaire named Jorgen Hansen. After talking business with Jacob for awhile, Hansen invites him to his young daughter's wedding. Jacob agrees to attend but is shocked to find out that Hansen's wife is an old flame from his youth. So begins a slow realization for Jacob and Jorgen's wife and daughter that all is not as it seems and this chance encounter may have in fact been premeditated.

As indicated previously, "After the Wedding" is an no holds barred melodrama. Emotions run high throughout the film. Every character weeps several times, often while making an emotional speech to another sobbing character right after having yelled at someone and right before passionately embracing someone else. In the case of the female leads, tears flow at an almost uninterrupted rhythm from around the midway point of the film until it's denouement. What is essentially a melodrama, however, turns into so much more under the expert handling of Biers and her team of actors, elevating "After the Wedding" from potentially maudlin to genuinely moving. "After the Wedding's" melodramatic tenor also masks a number of moments of deep intellectual rumination on weighty issues such as the nature of personal responsibility and, perhaps most strikingly in Biers' film, individual's attempting, but in the end failing, to come to terms with their own imminent mortality. Indeed, "After the Wedding" shows in a rather unvarnished manner how attempts to peacefully and bravely face one's own mortally are often woefully inadequate, death being an uncertainty for many (especially the non-religious) that is daunting to face. Although death is a topic dealt with in many, many films, Biers highlights the inability of many individuals to deal with such an enormous issue in an honest, almost brutal, manner.
The movie should also be commended for its actors, without which it could very well have proved a substandard effort. Mads Mikkelson gives a moving yet instantly believable performance as Jacob while Rolf Lassgard, Sidse Babbett Knudsen, and Stine Fischer Christensen are fantastic as Jorgen, Helen, and Anna, respectively. The film is also beautiful to look, and added bonus considering everything else it has going for it.


Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Wind That Shakes the Barley


Directed by Ken Loach

Winner of the Palme d'Or at Cannes in 2006, Ken Loach's "The Wind that Shakes the Barley" is a riveting, suspenseful picture of Ireland's bid for independence from English rule as well as the roots of its subsequent civil conflict. Loach's film is gripping, beautiful to look at and faultlessly authentic, making it a superior entry into the "historical drama" genre.

The multi-talented Cilian Murphy plays Damien, an Irish lad headed to medical school in London despite the looming threat of armed warfare between the Irish and English forces. Damien, feeling a sense of guilt at abandoning his countrymen in their time of need, returns to Ireland to help his brother Teddy wage guerrilla warfare against the dreaded "Black and Tan" forces sent to Ireland by the English to stamp out the rebellion. Following a number of rebel successes, and subsequent retributive actions by the Black and Tan, the English government feels compelled to sign a truce with the Irish. Despite this resounding victory, Damien and Teddy disagree over the correct path to take to insure Ireland's unconditional freedom and their differences lead to an irrevocable split between the two siblings.

"The Wind That Shakes the Barley" is historical drama as it should be--thoroughly riveting yet faultlessly authentic. Loach's talent as a director is undeniable yet his assured and confident handling of the historical material in "The Wind That Shakes the Barley" is still pleasantly surprising. Loach's film is helped immeasurably by superb acting from Cillian Murphy, Paraig Delaney, and Liam Cunningham, all of whom give nuanced yet passionate performances. Loach's decision to make the diaologue between his characters as authentic as possible also strengthens the film and gives it a veracity that is all too often lacking from such pictures. The bombastic, rehearsed speeches about pride and country that are often featured in these types of films are replaced here with honest, passionate, and often angry arguments between Loach's characters about the nature of freedom and at what cost Ireland's sovereignty should cost. In one particularly riveting scene, Damien and other hardliners debate the conditions of the peace agreement with Teddy and other free- staters in Dublin in a manner so raw and believable that you almost need to remind yourself that this isn't very well preserved documentary footage of the incident actually occuring way back in 1920.
Despite the obvious strengths of Loach's film, "Teh Wind That Shakes the Barley" comes apart to some extent towards its end. As the Free Staters and the more radical Irish separatists split and begin to wage open civil war, Loach's film unfortunately turns maudlin and predictable, culminating in a rather unbelievable "brother vs. brother" face-off that is disappointing considering Loach's amazing restraint up to that point. The manner in which the question facing both Damien and Teddy--how best to insure Ireland's true and enduring freedom--is framed in a way that simplifies the debate far too much. Teddy is shown as the statesman who wants to free Ireland by working through official chanels while Damien is portrayed as the radical, unwilling to allow even a blade of Irish grass to be ruled by the English. Neither brother appears to be open to compromise or even wants to listen to the other and they are simply content to engage in open conflict, convinced of their respective beliefs. Consequently, the end result feels a bit formulaic and contrived, the once united brothers having been ripped apart by civil strife, as if the director is trying to remind us that Ireland won its freedom at a cost, a fact readily obvious to anyone who knows the first thing about Ireland's fight for independence.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Counterfeiters


Directed by Stephen Ruzowitzky

Winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 2008, Stephen Ruzowitzky's paper hanger suspense is an umpteenth cinematic rendering of the Holocaust, this time highlighting a little known operation by the Nazis to counterfeit huge amounts of foreign currency to finance their crumbling empire. The end result is an enjoyable suspense that nonetheless suffers from a lack of depth as well as a superficial portrayal of many of its characters.

Salomon Sorowitsch, one of Europe's greatest counterfeiters, is enjoying a life of luxury in Berlin until he is busted by the CID for attempting to pass off fake US bills. A jew, Sorowitsch is quickly swallowed up by the concentration camp system and would likely have suffered the same fate as 6 million other jews had it not been for the establishment of "Operation Berhard" which aimed first to flood Britain with hundreds of millions woth of pounds and destabilize their currency but eventually focused on producing large quantities of American dollars to prop up the Third Reich in its final days. Sorowitsch is recruited by former CID agent Friedrich Herzog to lead the project for which he and this fellow participants are given safe haven and good living conditions in Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Sorowitsch's efforts to successfully counterfeit the dollar and thus save himself and the rest of the counterfeiters are trumped, however, by Alfred Burger, a counterfeiter who has decided to ruin the operation by sabotaging the counterfeit prints.

Does the world really need another film about the Holocaust? Probably not, but it got one nonetheless and I suppose we can all be thankful that "The Counterfeiters" is not all that bad. Ruzowitzky crafts a rather suspenseful narrative that succeeds in putting the audience on pins and needles but not necessarily in fostering any further understanding of the psychology behind the perpetrators of the Holocaust nor in eliciting the types of emotional reaction to the suffering of their victims that the film obviously aspires to. This film certainly will spark some heated debates about collective responsibility vs. individual loyalty and I admit that the tension created between on one hand Burger's attempt at derailing the Nazi's plan and his fellow prisoners desires to simply survive does raise something interesting questions about the nature of human's responsibilities towards each other.
On the other hand, Ruzowitzky's portrayal of the camp's guards is about as semi-three dimensional as it comes. Herzog is presented as the reluctant, Eichmann-esque bureaucrat just trying to make his way up the Nazi career ladder while his fellow guard Holst is the evil, heartless SS guard that enjoys killing for its own sake. Neither character appears in any way realistic although I have no doubt the film's director would take offense to this criticism. I must say that I've always felt that using a tragic, complex event like the Holocaust as a backdrop for an almost anecdotal story--something "The Counterfeiters," despite its strengths, certainly is--strikes me as a bit cheap. The only films I've ever watched that I felt truly delt with the Holocaust in a manner deserving of its grave historical importance were those that delt solely with the tragedy itself rather than focusing on some human interest type story that happened to take place during the Holocaust. Ruzowitzky obviously had no choice to set "The Counterfeiters" during the Holocaust because that is, after all, the context in which the operation took place but I still felt that Ruzowitzky's film had nothing of note to say about this dark chapter of human history.



Directed by Royston Tan

Singapore's film scene is still relatively underdeveloped but has nonetheless produced a few directors who have had some success garnering international attention towards the city state's cinematic offerings. Unfortunately, one of the most successful Singaporean film on the international stage in recent years is Royston Tan's awful "15," a Larry Clarke style docu-drama which follows the aimless lives of a group of 15 year old boys living in the city and, much like Clarke's films about the state of modern youth, is over indulgent, at times repulsive, and fails spectacularly to deliver the type of social commentary it aspires to.

Tan's film opens with friends Vynn and Melvin practicing for a school talent show where they want to show up their nemesis the principal by offering a bawdy and irreverent performance. Clips of Vynn and Melvin practicing their number are inter-spliced with some background information on their relationship which to put it mildly is tortured and rather unhealthy. It is also revealed that Melvin and Vynn were at one point in a gang with a kid named Shaun who has since broken off and formed another gang with his friend Erik. Vynn and Melvin are pretty much left hanging by Tan midway through the film and we are whisked off to join Erick, Shaun, and their buddy Armani basically being slackers, doing drugs and getting into fights with other lawless Singaporeans. The rest of the film is basically a collection of scenes of any mix of the five individuals mentioned above hanging out or doing something illicit.

I suspect that Tan believed that a film which highlighted subcultures of wayward, violent youths exiting in a city state known for its rigid social control would be enough to get him into a number of top flight film festivals without actually worrying about, you know, making a film. Sadly it appears that such an assumption would have been proven correct as "15" benefited from a rather warm initial reception at many film festivals around the globe even though critical opinion on the film eventually soured. Tan's film lacks plot, it lacks narrative focus, and most of it all it clearly lacks a message. What is Tan trying to tell us about these kids? Should we pity them? Should we loathe them? Are they simply bums or are they the product of the oftentimes oppressively rigid Singaporean society? Tan gives us no clear cues as to what we are to take from this and I suspect that he hadn't though about it much himself when he began filming "15." When watching "15" I immediately began comparing it to Shunji Iwai's vastly superior "All About Lili Chou Chou" which deals with roughly the same subject matter, namely disillusioned youth stifled by the constraints of a society dominated by tradition, but does so in a far more nuanced and effective way, not only highlighting the problem but providing the viewer with a lense through which to view the issue. "Lily Chou Chou," despite being a fairly depressing film, is also far less exploitative than a film like "15" which seems to revel in the misery of its characters as opposed to despair in it. Regardless of the reasons for its failure, "15" does nothing more than present a nihilistic snapshot of Singapore's youth that is not only offensive but also flat out uninteresting to watch.

The Darjeeling Limited


Directed by Wes Anderson

In the amazing Wes Anderson's latest work the director of such quirky classics as "Rushmore" and "The Royal Tenenbaums" shows us some flashes of brilliance while unfortunately delivering a film that is uneven and emotionally vacant.

Owen Wilson plays Francis Whitman, a rich New Yorker who organizes a train trip through India with his brothers Jack (Jasdon Schwartzman)and Peter (Adrien Brody), hoping to reconnect with his siblings on a journey of 'spiritual enlightenment.' It quickly becomes apparent, however, that neither Jack nor Peter particularly want to be on the trip as both of them have bigger issues going on back home. Despite Jack and Peter's reluctance, the trip carries on, not without some difficulties, until Francis lets his brothers know that their trip may have had an ulterior motive (involving Angelica Huston!)

I doubt Wes Anderson will ever make a film that I don't enjoy on some level. His aesthetic is so unique and the tone of his films so fresh and so unlike anything else being produced today that there is always something great to be found in a Wes Anderson picture, even in one of his lesser works. In the case of "The Darjeeling Limited" there is certainly plenty to enjoy, from the often hilarious interplay between Shwartzman, Brody, and Wilson to the meticulous detail Anderson brings to the film, a trademark of his that never ceases to delight. Despite all this, however, "The Darjeeling Limited" is still a vacuous movie that almost completely fails to deliver anything of emotional weight, a comedy that attempts to veer into the bittersweet territory of "Rushmore" and "The Royal Tenenbaums" but is much more akin to "The Life Aquatic" in its tone-- amazing, until it attempts to get serious. Like all of Anderson's films, "The Darjeeling Limited" deals primarily with individuals seeking a father (or in this case, mother) figure, be it one that is connected to them biologically (Life Aquatic, Royal Tenenbaums, The Darjeeling Limited) or not (Rushmore, Bottle Rocket). The problem with "The Darjeeling Limited" is that the brothers yearning for a parental figure is never palpable so when they finally do reconnect with their mother, we are neither moved nor really care. Nevertheless, I think that watching a Wes Anderson film to derive something deep out of it is likely an error and his work should be enjoyed for what he does best, namely recreate hermetic worlds that are familiar yet strangely and wonderfully foreign, something Anderson does better than anyone.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009



Directed by Prachya Pinkaew

Prachya Pinkaew, the director of now legendary Thai martial arts film "Ong Bak," delivers an unfortunately yawn inspiring effort that does not justice to its awesome star, dimunitive Jeeja Yanin in her first ever martial arts role.

Yanin plays Zen, the autistic child of Yakuza parents, who subsists on a diet of chocolate and learns martial arts by watching Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan movies. When Zen's mother tells her that she has been diagnosed with cancer and can't pay her medical bills, Zen and her childhood friend Mangmoom set of to collect on bills owed to her mother. Most of the shady individuals who owe money to Zen's mother, however, have no intention to pay up so Zen finds herself forced to bring the pain in an effort to generate some cash flow.

I'd heard some great things about this film but I must say that I was sorely disappointed. The action sequences are plentiful but I was still somewhat disappointed, maybe because I had memories of Tony Jaa going buck wild in Ong Bak and Jeeja Yanin, although amazing in her own right,just can't match the physicality of someone like Jaa. The film's biggest and most glaring failure, however, is its maudlin, melodramatic subplot that unfortunately comes to dominate the film when it should have just been a simple narrative crutch for the action to lean on. When it comes to martial arts films, the success or failure depends on nothing more than the action sequences. This does not mean that no story should be present but rather that the story should always have second billing and that the movie should concentrate on delivering the action before anything else. "Chocolate" goes through extended periods of time without any action to speak of and the beginning of the film is dominated by a vague backstory involving Zen's father and mother and their criminal backgrounds. Pinkaew's film is also just plain sloppy, from the editing to the acting to the script which further detracts from the often satisfying fight scenes.
The work of Yanin in this film should be commended, however, as the physical toll making this picture took on her is readily obvious, even without the bonus scenes of her injuring herself on multiple occasions that run during the credits. It's too bad her debut had to happen in this lackluster flick but rest assured that Pinkew or some other action director will no doubt find an opportunity to exploit her talents in another, hopefully better film.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The World


Directed by Jia Zhang Ke

Chinese director Jia Zhang Ke rose to prominence on the world of film after directing a number of independent films outside the confines of state control in his native country. Most of these films, which were mostly concerned with the plight of the working class in an economically emergent China, were unsurprisingly banned by the Chinese government which has never been too keen on the country's filmmakers developing an "indie" scene operating beyond the reach of the SARFT. "The World," however, was something of a homecoming for Jia Zhang Ke since it marks the first time he was allowed to shoot one of his films in China with the (relative) blessing of the SARFT and the Chinese government. The end result, although laudable just by the fact that Zhang Ke actually got it made, is a bit of a disappointment, suffering from a rather obvious lack of narrative thrust that leaves the film feeling frustratingly anecdotal.

Tao is a performer at a kitschy amusement park outside of Beijing where the world's most well known monuments, from the Eiffel Tower to the Pyramids of Giza, are recreated in miniature. Her boyfriend and security guard Taisheng also works at the Park and, along with Tao and the rest of the park's employees, enjoys a rather relaxed existence that nonetheless does not have "success" written all over it.

Truth be told, I was mightily impressed by Zhang Ke and crew's development of the amusement park, an attraction that is big and ambitious and gaudy in the way so many tourist attractions springing up around China are today. After the initial interest in Zhang's "world" subsides, however, the viewer is left with relatively little of substance to (chew on) for the remainder of the film. Indeed, the thorny relationship between protagnists Tao and Taisheng as they attempt to find a measure of satsifaction living together in the amusement park is probably the only plot element of interest but it isn't fleshed out nearly as mcuh as it should or could have been. Jia Zhang Ke has prided himsefl on making films that expose the proleterian ennui of China's massive emering middle class, a group trying desperately to get a piece of the "Chinese Dream," so to speak, embodied cleverly in "The World" by the amusement park, a fake, cheap reproduction of far away opulence. The irony isn't lost on the viewer and the director does a good job of delivering some biting social criticism that is nonetheless expertly hidden away in a seemingly innocuous story, a talent many filmmakers working in authoritarian countries seem to possess in spades. Despite Jia Zhang Ke obvious skill, there is still no escaping the fact that "The World" is a film that lacks the narrative substance to actually deliver a story that can adequately complement in social message.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Out of Time


Directed by Carl Franklin

Carl Franklin's "Out of Time" is another film that I have, for a long time, confused with another, in this case the vastly superior "Man on Fire." As you may already know, the only commonality between these two films is that they star Denzel Washington and feature guns and explosions at some point. Since I thought "Out of Time" more or less equaled "Man on Fire" I checked out the former film from the BANQ thinking I would get a rather healthy dose of Washington helmed action, only to find myself knee deep in a messy, directionless film that completely fell apart after the first thirty minutes.

Denzel stars as Mattias Whitlock, a recently separated detective slaving away in the Banton County, Florida police precinct. Whitlock strikes up a relationship with a local girl Ann who informs him that she is terminally ill. Hoping to pay for an expensive cancer treatement only available in Switzerland (what?), Ann quickly enlists Matthias's help to defraud her abusive husband via an insurance scam. All appears to be going smoothly for Matthias (or at least as smoothly as he could hope a felony would go) until he finds out Ann and her husband, unbeknownst to anyone besides Matthias, fake their deaths and take off, leaving Matthias to cover his tracks as the FBI searches for clues to the pair's disappearance that will, invariably, lead to the discovery of Matthias's fraudulent dealings!

"Out of Time" was the last of what I like to call the "Denzel Slump," three very bad movies (the other two being "Antwone Fisher" and "John Q") which he starred in following his Oscar winning role as crooked cop Alonzo in Antoine Fuqua's "Training Day." Of the three, however, "Out of Time" is probably the best (that isn't saying much) and I must say that the first half of the film was surprisingly gripping stuff. Indeed, I found myself ignoring the bad acting and awkward script and enjoying the film for what it seemed to be--a mindless, forgettable, but still entertaining film. As anyone who knows me will attest, I'm a big fan of films without pretensions that aim strictly to please the audience and nothing more. However, even films that don't plan on delivering anything profound or spectacular still need to keep it together for their duration, something "Out of Time" fails to do. Indeed, right around the halfway mark of Franklin's films, things start to go off the rails. Too much time is spent on establishing some type of bond between Washington and Mendes' characters, a useless endeavor if there ever was one, and the actual nature of the treachery Washington's character is involved in is revelaed too quickly, robbing the film of its suspense. Furthermore, Franklin and company waste time with a number of tangential plotlines that bring nothing of value to the film, further straying from the essence of the plot.
If Franklin would have focused primarily on Washington's characters attempt to keep his cover safe while still participating in the ongoing investigation, this film would have been a winner. Washington is a great actor and using him as your meal ticket is always a good bet. Unfortunately, "Out of Time" tried out this winning combo during its first half, then inexplicably failed to go back to the well during the second. It reminds me of basketball teams that work the low post for the first half en route to a big lead, then comes back in the second throwing up three pointers from all over the place.

Thursday, March 12, 2009



Directed by Samson Chiu Leung Chun

Of the errors committed by filmmakers which can derail an otherwise promising film, excessive ambition is likely the most destructive. Indeed, many a film has been undone by s director's refusal to edit, tone down, or simplify all sins that "Mr. Cinema" director Samson Chiu Leung Chun is unfortunately quite guilty of committing. Oh, and not showing up to the set with a decent script. He's guilty of that one, too.

Cinema technician Zhou (Anthony Wong), lives in Hong Kong with his wife and his young son but pines for the socialist utopia only a few miles north of the border. His dedication to socialism is shared by a small cell of fellow devotees who, like him, live in grinding poverty as they attempt to eek out a socialist existence in the booming metropolis. As Zhou son Luk (John Sham) grows older and begins to challenge his father's ideological leanings, Zhou is forced to consider the effect of his dedication to the socialist cause on his son and his long suffering wife.

"Mr.Cinema" fails primarily due to the apparent absence of a script which causes the story that the director obviously intended to tell to get lost in a muddled heap of criss-crossing, transgenerational intrigue that is at once confusing and pedestrian. Zhou's struggle to remain committed to the socialist cause even as his friends and neighbors find success in the new capitalism of Hong Kong, a dynamic that had some real potential, is treated in a rather ham fisted way, Zhou being presented as a rather naive, simple minded believer who never questions his ideological beliefs even as his family suffers in poverty alongside him. The rationale for Zhou's patriotic fervor towards the communist motherland, even after China abandons its communist ideology and embraces the free market, is also never truly explained nor is the internal anguish he likely feels as he sees a lifelong commitment to a failed ideology crumble before him.
The interplay of the actors in "Mr.Cinema" is also puzzling. Anthony Wong, probably too used to playing grizzled cops in Johnnie To films, gives a performance rich in restraint while John Sham breaks out the histrionics, making Luk an unlikeable, hyper excitable character that grates on the nerves rather than currying empathy. Teresa Mo is great, as always, and her presence alongside Wong save "Mr. Cinema" from being completely devoid of merit.
The sloppiness of "Mr.Cinema" is disappointing since its director obviously had a clear idea of the type of film he wanted to make, one that was a sort of ode to a time and place that has disappeared, to Hong Kong as he probably remembered it from his youth. Chiu Lung Chun's empathy for his characters is palpable and it is obvious that this is a story that was close to his heart. It's just a shame he couldn't have told it any better.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Tokyo Story


Directed by Yasujiro Ozu

Often cited as one of the best films of all time, Ozu's "Tokyo Story" is the director's masterpiece and stands as a towering, monumental achievement in the career of a filmmaker whose body of work was practically overflowing with superb films.

"Tokyo Story" opens with elderly couple Shukishi (Chisu Ryu) and Tomi (Chieko Higashimaya) leaving their small coastal town to visit their children in Tokyo. Upon their arrival they discover that their children have little time to entertain them. Shukishi and Tomi are subsequently pushed out of the way for most of their visit, kept at arms length while their daughter Shige (Haruko Shugimura) and her husband attempt to go about their normal lives despite the presence of her parents. Only Shukishi and Tomi's daughter in law, Noriko (Setsuko Hara) spends any significant time with them, taking them on a tour of Tokyo and entertaining Tomi in her small apartment one evening while Shukishi is out with an old friend. Upon Shukishi and Tomi's return to their hometown, Tomi falls ills and her children must now make the trip to visit her as her health quickly deteriorates.

Like all of Ozu's films, the deceptively simple plot of "Tokyo Story" quickly reveals itself as so miuch more, evolving into a fascinating and engrossing character study and societal critique. This is Ozu at the peak of his craft, reworking familiar themes to perfection and in so doing creating a dense and complex tapestry of human emotions that is compelling in its authenticity, at once unique to a specific time and place and yet undeniably universal. It is this universality that makes "Tokyo Story" such a monumental achievement. Despite the fact that "Tokyo Story" was made more than five decades ago and was concerned mostly with providing a clinical deconstruction of the societal tensions present in the modern Japanese family, it still connects to viewers in an intimate way, providing a cast of characters whose conflicts and disappointments almost all of us can connect with on some level. Ozu's characters are so expertly and deftly crafted that we have little difficulty sharing in the frustration Shukishi and Tomi feel as they find themselves being pushed out of their children's life or understanding Noriko's disappointment with her own life which has failed to materialize in the way she had hoped.

From a technical standpoint, this is probably as close to a flawless film as anyone will ever make. No frame is wasted, no gesture is uneccesary, no line of dialogue should have been removed or added. Everything fits perfectly and falls into the rythmic cadence that is unique to all of Ozu's best works.

Ozu regulars Chisu Ryu, Haruko Sugimura, and Setsuko Hara are all present here doing superb work and lending credence to Ozu's story in a way only actors of their caliber could. Hara's performance is especially noteworthy as Noriko, a character she returned to two other times in Ozu's work, in both "Late Spring" and "Early Summer." I would contend that Hara's Noriko is one of the cinema's most fascinating characters, the embodiment of a young women devoted to her family and tradition who nonetheless shoulders the burden of societal pressures to marry, have children, and move away from home and be happy doing so even if that is not necessarily what she wants. In "Tokyo Story" Noriko's disappointment with the world is brought to a timeless climax when her younger sister in law Kyoko, frustrated by the greediness of Shige, asks Noriko why children drift apart from their parents as they grow older. Noriko attempts to explain to Kyoko that this is simply how life works and that things are the way they are, whether we like it or not, to which Kyoko asks, as an adolescent might, "Isn't life disappointing?" Noriko simply smiles and responds "Yes, it is."

As Donald Richie has commented, Ozu is a master at delivering such moments of emotional weight where the mounting frustrations of his characters, repressed throughout the length of the film, finally bubble to the surface and are released, not in a torrent of emotion and tears but rather in a simple statement that betrays their true feelings. Ozu's expertise in revealing the emotional state of his characters can also be seen in Shukishi's comment to a neighbor who stops by to offer her condolescences on the death of his wife when he says: "Oh, she was a headstrong woman ... but if I knew things would come to this, I'd have been kinder to her." He then pauses, smiles, and says,"Living alone like this, the days will get very long." These two short sentences, delivered at the very end of the film, serve both as a mea culpa for Shukishi's sometimes callous behavior as a husband as well as a veritable outpuring of grief at the death of his wife and demonstrate the full extent of Ozu's abilities at delivering moments of subtle yet devastating emotional impact.