Saturday, May 30, 2009



Directed by Olivier Assayas

Olivier Assayas teams up with his ex-wife Maggie Cheung to make the effective and quite enjoyable "Clean," a story about one woman's long road back from substance abuse.

Cheung plays Emily, the wife of an over the hill rock star Lee who tries to manage her husband's career but more than often simply gets in the way of his success. Emily and Lee are also longtime heroin addicts. Their drug abuse turns tragic in, of all places, Hamilton Ontario where Lee, after a fight with Emily, overdoses and dies. Emily is taken into custody and sentenced to six months in prison for drug possession. Upon her release she meets with her father in law (played by Nick Nolte) who has been looking after he young son, Jay. Emily leaves for Paris and begins the long and difficult process of rebuilding her life in an ultimate effort to someday see Jay again.

Movies dealing with drug use are rather common but films such as "Clean," which focus on recovery from drug use as opposed to the abuse of narotics, are much more rare, perhaps due to the fact that recovery, unlike self destruction, doesn't lend itself as well to dramatic adaptations. Assayas's film proves, however, that the road back from drug addiction can be a fascinating subject matter indeed. In "Clean" Emily's recovery, and not her past excesses, is the focal point but the cost of her former lifestyle is not smoothed over by Assayas who quite effectively uses his picture to show the life altering effects of drug abuse, even years after the habit is finally quicked to the curb. At the same time, Assayas tries to get inside the mind of a drug user and explain why, exactly, individuals often give themselves up to substance abuse.

What truly elevates "Clean", however, is Cheung whose performance here is spectacular. This comes as no surprise to audiences familiar with much of her previous work but hr ability to convincingly play Emily, a brash and reckless junkie, flies in the face of much of her better known work where she primarily starred as a demure, reserved, and mannered woman. Cheung's ability to switch from English to French to Cantonese also gives some added credibility to her character's background as a globetrotting rocker even though Cheung's real life persona is as far removed from that as possible. Nick Nolte is also solid and his character is surprisingly three dimensional. Rather than being a bitter, remorseful father who blames Emily for his son's death, he is rather a mild mannered and caring character who attempts, not without trouble, to raise Emily's child while still keeping her as much a part of her son's life as possible. It's touching stuff, for sure, but it also feels more authentic than having Emily face off against a spiteful father bent on keeping her away from her child, a choice the writers of "Clean" could easily have made.

"Clean," although not one of Assayas's premier works, is an satisfying film that handles its subject matter both fairly and effectively.

Friday, May 29, 2009



Directed by Catherine Hardwicke

As much as I try to deny it, I'm a sucker for huge blockbusters. If a film is exciting popular interest I'll more than likely end up watching it just to see what the fuss is about. I often, however, resist the urge to check these types of films out in the movie theater where I would have to shell out my hard earned cash on what would likely prove to be a mildly disappointing or at best mindless and superficial outing and succeed in waiting until these types of movies are available on DVD or even, dare I even say it, on the internet. Catherine Hardwicke's "Twilight," the film adaptation of Stephanie Meyer's wildly succesful vampire novel for teens, certainly qualifies as a blockbuster but I can safely say that I'm glad I waited for it to be out on DVD before I viewed it since this is not, in any terms, a very good film.

To those of you unfamiliar with Meyer's mega bestseller, "Twilight" focuses on the young Bella Swan, a girl from the Sunbelt who is sent to live with her father in the rainy and damp Northwest. She enrolls in the local high school and is immediately mesmerized by the dreamy, pasty white Edward Cullen. Bella's interest in Edward and his mysterious family only deepens as he tries to stear clear of her, a further indication that ladies love guys who are hopelessly aloof. As hard as he tries, however, bad boy Edward can't seem to stay away from Bella as she comes closer and closer to unconvering the truth about Edward and his family.

Vampire films have enjoyed something of a revival in the past few years with the real gem of the movement being Thomas Alfredson's "Let the Right One In." "Twilight," although a similar in its re-imagination of vampire mythology, is obviously no in the same vein as Alfredson's film, being aimed squarely at the same demographic that have so religiously read Meyer's book. As such, Hardwicke's primary goal in adapting "Twilight" to the big screen was likely to stay faithful to the book and deliver the type of swooning, PG Rated romance that "Twilight" readers crave. In Having not read the book it is difficult for me to come out and categorically say that Hardwicke failed in this regard but it seems top me that the essence of "Twilight" was not captured by Hardwicke's adaptation. It must be said that most "Twilight" fans weren't huge supporters of the film adaptation either, which many felt failed to accurately capture the essence of Meyer's novel. Not surprisingly, Hardwicke was swiftly canned after "Twilight" opened to mixed reviews from critics and outrage from fans.
As a viewer with no vested interest in the "Twilight" franchise I must say that on a purely cinematic level, "Twilight" is not a very good film. The story meanders along at a pedestrian pace, the acting is for the most part average and the romantic chemistry between Pattison and Kristen Stewart is lacking, which is probably "Twilight's" biggest failure since the books are in the end a romance between Pattison's Edward and Kristen's Bella.
Despite the failures of the first installment of "Twilight" all is not lost for the franchise which can still bank on the popularity of actors such as Pattison who, despite his inability to fully sell me on his romance with Stewart's character, is not that bad of an actor, as well as the fact that its source material, Meyer's books, have already been given the thumbs up by millions worldwide. All that is left to be done for "New Moon," "Breaking Dawn" and the third book, whose name escapes me at the moment, is to put someone mildly competent at the helm and simply interpret the books accurately.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Boy A


John Crowley

John Crowley's fantastic "Boy A" is a meditation on guilt and the human capacity for change that is a terrific example of how a film can tackle a controversial issue in a way that avoids moralizing and actually stirs healthy debate.

"Boy A" open with the release of Jack, a young offender now in his early twenties who, we learn slowly throughout the film, was incarcerated for a violent crime committed when he was still a young boy. With the help of his parole officer Terry, Jack attempts to rebuild his life in a new city, taking a job as a delivery boy in a local plant. Things begin smoothly for Jack who makes friends quickly with his coworkers and even succeeds in landing a girlfriend. Jack's new life, however, is constantly threatened by his past, a past the he and Terry try hard to hide from those around him.

Crowley's film is truly remarkable on many levels. The acting, most of it done by relative unknowns, is fantastic. The work of Andrew Garfield, who plays Jack, is especially worth mentioning as Garfield gives a textured, multifaceted performance that reveals Jack to be what Crowley no doubt wanted him to be--a kindhearted young man who is nonetheless deeply affected both by the guilt of his actions as well as by the burden of having to hide his previous life from those around him. Crowley's direction is superb and he does what most directors often fail or simply refuse to do by taking himself as far out of the story as possible and allowing the characters and story to develop on their own. "Boy A's" veracity and emotional poignancy come mostly from the fact that Jack is a character who appears authentic; his existence is not simply in order to drive home a point about the nature of young offenders or the shortcomings of the penal system in the UK or even the nefarious effect of media on the recovery and reintegration of criminals into society.
As terrific as "Boy A" is I still must admit that I was disappointed by Crowley's refusal to make some tough choices in telling the story. There was a great opportunity here to tell the story of the rehabilitation of a young offender in the wake of a horrible crime that he had gladly or at least willingly participated in, a more potent storyline that would have given audience much more food for thought than "Boy A's" portrayal of Jack as the unwitting participant in a murder committed by the more emotionally scarred Philip. The audience is therefore forced to feel outright sympathy for the kindhearted Jack as opposed to any other mix of emotions which is unfortunate since the subject matter touched on by Crowley lends itself very well to a fascinating study of guilt, culpability, and the ability of human's to truly change, all fascinating subjects that are not often enough skillfully touched on in the cinema.
Nevertheless, there is far too much good in "Boy A" to ignore and Crowley's film deserves not only to be seen but the issues he raises on the rehabilitation of young offers and their reintegration into society are both pertinent and necessary to consider.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Rocket Science


Directed by Jeffrey Blitz

Jeffrey Blitz, the director of the enjoyable and riveting "Spellbound," tries his hand at directing feature films in the truly awful yet still critically lauded "Rocket Science." The film provides further proof that film critics have been seduced by the increasingly awful "quirky comedy" genre that has birthed some of the worst American films in the past few years.

Hal Hefner, a young, sinewy kid with a stuttering problem, is recruited out of the blue for the debate team by hot shot and fast talking debate queen Ginny Ryerson. Not exactly sure what Ginny sees in him but nevertheless intrigued by her interest in him, Hal joins the team and tries to kick his stutter to the curb. Things don't go smoothly, however, and Hal soon finds himself in deep both with both the debate club and Ginny who he has fallen hopelessly in love with.

I had originally bought a ticket to see "Rocket Science" at last year's Fantasia Film Festival but had been unable to attend the screening due to a time conflict. That's too bad, because if I had been able to attend live I might have been able to publicly boo this film as loudly as it deserves to be. "Rocket Science" is riddled with flaws, but overall it could best be described as pretentious, unfunny, poorly written, and derivative. It might not be the worst "quirky teen comedy" ever but it is certainly right up there. It "borrows" freely from films such as "Rushmore" and "Thumbsucker" but is nowhere near as good as either, making the inspiration it culls from both films seem like sloppy plagiarism more than anything else.
The most annoying aspect of a film like "Rocket Science" is that like its "quirky" brethren such as "Juno" and "Gigantic" it insists on giving younger characters a voice that is both irritating and completely lacks any credibility. No teen talks like Juno or acts like Hal Hefner, period. Someone might object and say "Wait a minute! You love "Rushmore" and no one talks like Max Fisher!" This would, of course, be missing the point that Anderson's films are not simply quirky for the sake of quirkiness but rather worlds in which everything is surrealistic and a bit off kilter, a type of hermetically sealed reality that only succeeds because Anderson, unlike Jeffrey Blitz, is a supremely talented writer and director. In films like "Rocket Science," the quirks are just there because they're there and the characters mostly serve the prupose of proving to everyone how smart the writer or director is.
Every contrived bit of "Rocket Science" from Hal's stutter, to his friend's parents "music therapy" which consists of piano and cello Depeche Mode arrangements, to Jonah Hill's cameo as the head of the 'Junior Philospher's' club is hackneyed, predicable, and ultimately annoying. The whole thing just made me want to pop the DVD out of the player and snap it in half. Unfortunately, it was a rental.
Americans have always been great at making comedies and many of the world's funniest films have been American creations. It's a shame that most of the present comic output in American film consists of either raunchy gross out comedies or impossibly pretentious "indie comedies" such as "Rocket Science."

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Flags of our Fathers


Directed by Clint Eastwood

Clint Eastwood's adaptation of John Bradley's nonfiction book of the same name is a glossy and heartfelt homage to the men who took Iwo Jima that is unfortunately undone to some extent by a lumbering, ham fisted script delivered by none other than repeat offender Paul Haggis.

"Flags of Our Fathers" follows the 28th Marine Regiment, 5th Marine Division as they assault the beaches of Iwo Jima, plant the flag, and eventually capture the island amidst fierce Japanese resistance. The story is told in flashbacks, alternating between the battle and the near future where three of the Marines who planted the flag, Ira Hayes, John Bradley, and Rene Gagnon, go on a nation wide "Heroes" tour to help the US government raise money for the war effort via war bonds. The fates of the other Marines involved in the flag planting are also followed as is the eventual denouement of both the Battle of Iwo Jima and the aftermath of the bond tour and the effect of both events on Hayes, Bradley, and Gagnon.

Part one of Clint Eastwood's double bill focusing on both sides of the Battle of Iwo Jima, part two being "Letters from Iwo Jima," is an effective if somewhat sloppy adaptation of Bradley's book. Eastwood certainly knows how to direct action sequences and the battle scenes are fantastically directed, gritty and authentic with the right doses of violence which allow for realism without wandering into the realm of the gratuitous.
The gritty Clint Eastwood direction is significantly hampered by the Paul Haggis co-written script which is about as lacking in nuance as anything Haggis has written for the big screen. Characters are semi-three dimensional, moral lessons as delivered at a blistering clip, and everyone finds out that even though they were heroes abroad, some of our boys were still not accepted for who they were back home. Hayes is portrayed as the drunken native, misnderstood by the white man and unable to come to grips with the horrors he has witnessed abroad. Gagnon is a fame seeker who wishes to capitalize on his fame in the most vulgar ways possible. Bradley is a stud of epic proportions. No more details beyond these are made available on any of these characters.
As far as I'm concerned, allowing Paul Haggis to work in any capacity on a film is essentially giving it the kiss of death; he has no idea how to tone down the preachiness of his scripts and everything he writes comes off as self indulgent, pseudo intellectual stabs at delivering "serious" film fare that nonetheless panders hopelessly to the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Science. "Flags of our Fathers" would have been considerably enhanced if Clint had left Haggis on the dock when the crew shipped out to make the movie.
That said, Eastwood's film is still gritty and gory yet beautiful to look at, the black and white photography of Tom Stern a perfect compliment to the rugged, naked landscape of Eastwood's Iwo Jima. The battle scenes don't really depart from the "Saving Private/Band of Brothers" mold which gives the viewer a distinct impression of cinematic déja vu but that doesn't mean Eastwood's film isn't gorgeous to look at. The film's most important accomplishment, however, is to once again capture the sacrifice of the Greatest Generation and commend the actions of those who served during the War. The fact that the Greatest Generation gave birth to probably the worst generation who then gave way (not without kicking and screeming) to my own generation which, although a slight improvement is still far from great, just goes to show that those who fought and died in World War II were from a bygone era and made scrifices that most of us wouldn't even dream of making today.

Monday, May 11, 2009



Directed by Mel Gibson

Mel Gibson's most recent bank busting super epic ma be disappointment to those seeking the sweeping scale of "Braveheart" or the no-holds barred controvery of "The Passion of the Christ" (though I don't know why anyone would want to relive that circus...) but to those seeking some superficial excitement (albeit blood soaked), "Apocalypto" hits the mark.

Gibson's film focuses on the rough and tumble existence of Jaquar Paw, one of the male leaders of a smile tribe of indians living in a Mesoamerican jungle who scrapes out an existence by hunting the forests around his village and helps his beloved wife rise his son. Their relative transquility is shattered, however, when a band of marauding warriors arrives and sacks their village, kidnapping the adults and bringing them back to the Mayan capital to serve as human sacrifices to appease the Sun God, Kukulcan. Jaquar Paw, fueled by a desire to see his wife and young child again, decides he has better plans than to be served up to the non-existant Sun God and plans a daring escape.

One thing Mel Gibson has always done well is make an expensive movie look like an expensive movie. "Apocalypto" is sleek and massive in scale, sometimes reminiscent of early Indiana Jones adevntures and at other times of big Cecile B. Demille epics. The scenes in the Mayan capital are nothing short of amazing, especially when you consider that almost none of it was done with the help of CGI, and I tip my hat to Gibson and his crew for even taking on such a massive workload.
Nevertheless, I couldn't shake the feeling hile watching "Apocalypto" that with such a huge budget and extreme attention to detail, Gibson's film could have been more thant what is essentially a hugely expensive, gory, action adventure that is too superficial for its own good.

Although "Apocalypto" is far from perfect, I have difficulty believing that Gibson's film wouldn't have been more critically acclaimed if he didn't direct it. Gibson's "Passion of the Christ," which many critics saw as overblown and pretentious, had soured some film critics on his work and I have little doubt that "Apocalypto," which enjoyed mediocre reviews, suffered from it.
The historical accuracy of Apocalypto is somewhat questionable. Gibson and co-writer, seemingly unable to decide why exactly the Mayan Empire collapsed, provide us with every single explanation at the same time; crops fail, disease afflicts the population, the Euros even arrive at some point. Gibson seems to indicate that even if all of these many obstacles were not tormenting the Mayans, they would have till gone the way of, well of the Mayans, due to the fact that their society had in fact began to rot away form the inside, a fact he makes quite clear by prominently displaying a quote by Will Durant to that effect at the outset of the film. Such a conclusion is no doubt a controversial one to make but at least Gibson has the guts to give an alternate view of to the decline of a great Mesoamerican Civilization that doesn't simply blame it on colonialism.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Divorce Italian Style


Directed by Pietro Germi

One of the great Pietro Germi's greatest achievements, "Divorce Italian Style" is the epitome of the 'commedia all'italiana,' a rollicking comedy of errors which hilariously roasts Sicily's machismo society.

None other than the face of Italian film himself Marcello Mastroianni plays Fefe Cefalu, a thirty-something member of the monied class in the Sicilian town of Agromonte.
Despite his bourgeois credentials, Fefe's family's wealth is quickly dwindling and he and his overbearing and suffocating wife Rosalia and the rest of his family are now confined to a single, crumbling wing of the old Cefalu Namor. Exasperated by his wife, furstrated by his aimless existence and hopelessly attracted to his nuble, underage niece Angela, Fefe decides to take action and break free of his opressingly dull existence. The first step in his reinvention is to find a way to ditch Rosalia, no small feat in Sicily where the law forbids divorce. Fefe must therefore turn to the only viable option to free himself of the bonds of holy matrimony--murder!

"Divorce Italian Style" takes a rather dark premise and turns it into something irreverent and genuinely funny, a molotov coctail thrown in the direction of outdated legal and social conventions. In "Divorce Italian Style" Germi, like in most of his comedies, mines heavy, almost sacrosaint material in search of humour, in this case relying on the legal bonds of marriage to provide him with some comic material. It is important to note that Germi does not glamorize or condone adultery in "Divorce Italian Style," unfaithfulness being shown here as a losers game. Rather, he uses it as a platform by which to relentlessly skewer Sicillian social mores, taking hilarious jabs at anyone he sees fit to mock along the way. You can almost feel him giggling gleefully as Fefe, barred by social and legal conventions from divorcing his unfaithful spouse, is encouraged by the villagers to go out and kill her to avenge his honor. Germi takes great pleasure in pointing out the rampant double standards endorsed by the residents of Agromonte and pulls no punches when mining them for comic relief.
Since Germi's comedies are first and foremost genuinely funny films, viewers often overlook how technically sound they are, which is a shame considering the work Germi and his crew obviously put into constructing a film like "Divorce Italian Style." As Martin Scorcese comments in his introduction to the Criterion release of the film, the technical merits of "Divorce Italian Style" are significant and had a profound impact not only on the 'commedia all'italiana' as a genre but on numerous filmmakers working in several different genres and styles. Scorcese points most specifically to Germi's camera work in "Divorce Italian Style" which shifts radically depending on whose point of view is being shown throughout the film, as a technical innovation that was refined by Germi in this film.
"Divorce Italian Style's" technical brio, however, is still overshadowed by the film's comedic merits which is no doubt what Germi was going for when he made this movie. It's a film that even close to 50 years after its release is still hilarious and witty, a testament to how well Germi's film has aged.