Saturday, October 30, 2010

Tell No One


Directed by Guillaume Canet

Gauillaume Canet’s “Tell No One” is a complex, suspenseful and deservedly acclaimed work which serves as an A to Z exposĂ© on what a great thriller should look like.

Alexandre Beck, a paediatrician vacationing with his wife and sister, is brutally assaulted, seemingly without reason, near his lake house by an unknown assailant. He awakes several days later to find out that his beloved wife was killed in the attack. Eight years after her death he is sent an anonymous e-mail containing a link to a live webcam that, inexplicably, shows his wife in real time. Alexandre begins a deadly chase to uncover the mystery, hampered at every turn by the police, a group of hired assassins, and his own family’s doubts about what he claims to have seen.

« Tell No One » does absolutely everything a good thriller should. It’s gripping, intelligent, paced extremely well, and it delivers a truly brilliant payoff to its seemingly far fetched premise. Many very good thrillers go down the drain in their final act when they can’t develop an adequate explanation for the film’s suspense but “Tell No One” takes a seemingly impossible premise and slowly answers the viewers questions as the film progresses, leading to a totally plausible yet nonetheless astounding denouement. In between, however, I wasn’t just twiddling my thumbs waiting to find out the how and the why of the film’s plot. Canet does a fantastic job of keeping the film fresh and exciting throughout its lengthy running time and keeps the proceedings immensely entertaining without resorting to any over the top plot devices. Indeed, Alexandre remains a believable victim throughout, never going on a vengeful killing spree or teaming up with a buddy to dish out some street justice, but doggedly chasing the truth like most people in his situation likely would. Canet wisely introduces enough peripheral characters that we are too busy following the action to wonder who did what to whom which makes the film’s final revelation even more surprising and, ultimately, believable.

It's a great experience for lovers of a good suspense. I recommend it highly.

Fallen Angels


Directed by Wong Kar Wai

Wong Kar Wai’s “Fallen Angels” is one of the director’s best known works and unquestionably part of his core oeuvre. Although I don’t feel that it measures up to his best films, it’s still a solid effort from a narrative standpoint and an absolute tour de force visually.

Leon Lei plays Wong Chi-Ming, a contract killer working in the seedy underbelly of Hong Kong, whose hits are arranged by a female handler that he never sees (Michelle Reis). Unbeknownst to him, his handler, whos is also responsible for cleaning up his squalid living space while he is out, has become interested in him after hours spent rifling through his stuff. At the same time, in a mostly unrelated parallel storyline (A recurring motif in WKW’s films) Takeshi Kaneshiro plays an excentric mute who begins an unconventional (and unilateral) romance with a jilted woman still obsessed with her former lover.

“Fallen Angels” reprises many of Wong Kar Wai’s classic themes—loneliness, urban isolation, unrequited love and the search for connections in a disappointing and cold world. Although “Fallen Angels” is much less adept than other WKW films such as “Chungking Express” or “Days of Being Wild” at exploring these themes, it doesn’t completely miss the mark either. It’s much less structured than either of the latter two films (or most of his other work, for that matter) and there’s a fair amount of throwaway scenes (particularly those involving Karen Mok), but it’s still infused with the same loneliness and melancholy that are trademarks of WKW’s core works.

Visually, however, this is no doubt Wong Kar Wai’s seminal film, the fullest realization of he and Christopher Doyle’s unique aesthetic vision. The crisp editing, neon drenched color palate and radical camera angles that came to typify Wong and Doyle’s work dominate “Fallen Angels” and the resulting sensory overload makes the films a highly polarizing, love it or hate it (or at least dislike it) experience from an aesthetic standpoint. Although I preferred the visual and audio bravura of “In the Mood for Love” or even “Happy Together”, there is no doubt that “Fallen Angels” offers a unique opportunity to see Wong and Doyle throw caution to the wind and go for broke. It also highlights Doyle’s incredible versatility with the camera and his uncanny ability to excel in diverse genres while still retaining a very distinct visual style. I recall watching “Temptress Moon”, a rather standard nineties costume melodrama, without knowing that Doyle was in charge of the cinematography and realizing, probably five minutes in, that he was behind the camera based solely on how distinctive the visual experience was.

Doyle’s collaborations with WKW remain some of the most visually fruitful in film history mostly because his visual excesses are never (or rarely) restrained by the director. It’s a collaborative approach that’s difficult to pull off but, when done well, can yield wonderful results as evidenced by Doyle and WKW’s excellent body of work together.

Thursday, October 21, 2010



Directed by Tetsuya Nakashima

Tetsuya Nakashima’s tale of revenge swings for the fences with its ambitious, scandalous premise but comes up short on the delivery, offering an awkward, overly serious take on a pretty absurd subject matter.

A middle school teacher, following the death of her young daughter, informs her class that she is quitting. Before she does, however, she lets her class know that her daughter’s murderers are in her glass and that, due to the fact that they are both protected by Japan ’s juvenile criminal code, she has taken the law into her own hand and has spiked the milk they drank earlier that morning with a deadly virus. The rest of the film follows the fallout from the teacher’s actions and the two infected students as they struggle to regain control of their lives after the incident.

I don’t have any issue with films that go for the shock factor, but there’s certainly a way to do it that demands a certain amount of tact and skill. Oftentimes films which try to shock work best if they tinge their approach with a fair amount of humor, usually of the absurdist variety, not so much to take the edge off (though it helps) but more to keep a measure of context to the far fetched nature of the plot. While watching “Confessions” I repeatedly thought of another Japanese director, Sion Sono, and couldn’t help but feel that he could have taken the subject matter of “Confessions” gone way, way further with it and still made a film that was entertaining and watchable. Confessions takes itself much too seriously which doesn’t sit well in a film that has such an absurd plot. There are certainly elements here and there in Nakashima’s film that have some promise and a teacher taking revenge on her students is probably a cathartic subplot that a number of individuals in the teaching profession might perversely take pleasure from. But the execution is lacking and despite its considerable length, “Confessions” covers surprisingly little ground.

On the plus side, the technical aspects of the film are for the most part well done and there’s an interesting, if not altogether original, camerawork that runs through “Confessions”. This goes to show, once again, that even a lacklustre film can at least be partially redeemed by attention to more technical details.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Summer Hours


Directed by Olivier Assayas

Talented french director Olivier Assayas' "Summer Hours" is a wonderful and incredibly perceptive meditation on family, art, and the importance of objects and their relation to memory.

Following the sudden death of their mother, siblings Frederic, an economist living in Paris, Adrienne, an industrial designer living in New York, and Jeremie, a businessman living in China, come together in Paris to decide the fate of their family's summer house and its collection or objets d'art.

"Summer Hours" is a film that lacks big moments, fiery acting, or anything else that really grabs the attention at first glance but it leaves a deep impression nonetheless due to Assayas' deft skill at weaving together an intricate storyline that is filled with wonderful and witty observations. One of the main threads of the film is the erosive effects of globalization on middle and upper middle class families whose sons and daughters often leave the home to pursue their education or careers, never to return. Assayas' film doesn't necessarily pass judgement on these decisions but only observes that they are now the norm and will, inevitably, contribute to making some things, like passing on the family's cottage from one generation to the next, a thing of the past.
"Summer Hours" is also one of the better films about art that I've seen in awhile, insofar has it touches on the lost "art" (pun intended) of collecting objects without interest in financial gain but rather to pass them on, as objects of beauty, to your kin. In "Summer Hours" the children's refusal to hang on to some of their mother's prized collection of art and furniture, although financially shrewd, nonetheless demonstrates their lack of interest in continuing the family heritage or rather their lack of understanding of why these objects mattered to their mother.

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps


Directed by Oliver Stone

Oliver Stone’s follow up the one of the most influential films of the eighties, "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps" is unfortunately a rather unworthy follow up to Stone's groundbreaking essay on greed and the rot of capitalism gone crazy.

After eight long years in prison, disgraced financier Gordon Gekko returns to New York City in an attempt to reunite with his estranged daughter (Carey Mulligan). Unfortunately for Gekko, his daughter has decided to marry the risible Shia Lebeouf who plays Jake (yeah, I know it's just acting, but Mulligan actually started dating Lebeouf during shooting! Bad choice, Carey!) , an ambitious prop trader working for one of Wall Street’s biggest investment banks. Jake’s firm quickly goes south, however, when a rival financier named Bretton James (Josh Brolin) aggressively shorts its stock leading to the collapse of the firm and the suicide of its managing director who was also Jake's mentor. Jake seeks revenge with the help of Gekko, a onetime rival of James, much to the dismay of his fiancĂ©.

Despite Michael Douglas’s return as Gordon Gekko and a premise that seems ripe for some richly deserved skewering of the financial sector, “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” is a pretty big disappointment. My feelings were pretty much summed up by a guy who accosted me immediately after the end of the film and exclaimed “What a waste of eight bucks!” Indeed.

Probably the biggest disappointment for fans of the original Wall Street is the minor role Douglas plays in « Money Never Sleeps » as Gordon Gekko. Douglas ’ Gekko is one of the most well known villains of American cinema, a brash, arrogant, morally bankrupt power broker responsible for such awesome quotes as “Lunch is for wimps!” Douglas is back as Gekko in “Money Never Sleeps” but he’s given far too little screen time to light it up like he did in the first instalment and that’s a major bummer, especially since most of his screen time is stolen by the rather blah Shia Leboeuf. It’s a puzzling decision on the part of the screenwriters, especially since Douglas appears to be in vintage form in the few scenes he’s given.

“Money Never Sleeps” also misses the mark in its portrayal of post housing market collapse America and the decrepit financial services industry that brought the system to its knees. The late 2000’s recession is certainly fertile ground for a “Wall Street” sequel since its causes--avarice, greed, and wild speculation--are eerily reminiscent of the anything goes 80’s that the original “Wall Street” was based on. Nevertheless, whereas “Wall Street” came to define an economic chapter in American history, “Money Never Sleeps” doesn’t feel nearly as important. Sure, there’s some decent barbs taken at the architects of the financial collapse but there’s nothing as compelling as Gordon Gekko proclaiming that “Greed is good” before dismantling a decent company just to make a quick buck. Part of the problem is that that scathing social critique of “Wall Street” never comes close to being duplicated in “Money Never Sleeps”. Stone has certainly turned down his rhetoric somewhat over the past few years. Even “W” was pretty tame. Although I dislike a lot of Stone’s earlier work for being too overtly biased in its politics, a movie like “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” would have been well served by pulling no punches. The fact that it does is what ultimately sinks “Money Never Sleeps”, though not enough Gordon Gekko is an almost equally important factor.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Ride with the Devil


Directed by Ang Lee

Ang Lee's unjustly obscure "Ride with the Devil" is a wonderful and unfortunately misunderstood film from one of the uncontested masters of world cinema.

Toby Maguire stars as Jake Rodell, a young Missouri boy who joins the Confederate "Buschwhackers" with his friend Jack Bull after his parents are killed in a raid by the Unionist "Jayhawkers". They boys participate in a number of skirmishes before retreating to the wilderness to wait out the winter where Jack Bull falls in love with the beautiful Sue Lee.

In what is no doubt the biggest irony of Ang Lee's venerable career, the very american "Ride with the Devil" was made before Lee came to the attention of American audiences with the very chinese "Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon". Indeed, despite its all star cast, wonderful direction, and the fact that it was inspired by american history, "Ride with the Devil" was an epic flop at american box offices. Interestingly, "Brokeback Mountain", a commercial and critical success without precedent for Lee in the US is similar in many ways to "Ride with the Devil" except that the latter film benefited from better marketing and, most importantly, a far more controversial subject matter that succeeded in getting moviegoers into theatres. It's a shame though, because "Ride with the Devil" is a very good movie. The acting is truly fantastic, the visuals are sumptuous, and the subject matter, although given a predictable and somewhat disappointing cut-down-the-middle treatment, is still relatively well handled.
One of the reasons The Criterion Collection is so widely respected is that it takes an independent minded view of what films deserve to be seen by a wider audience. Sure, they've refurbished several classics that are touchstones of cinema and beloved by all, but "Ride with the Devil" is a movie that received mixed reviews from critics and didn't even register on the radar of moviegoers when it was released. Nevertheless, the good people at Criterion decided, rightfully so I might add, that more people needed to watch this movie and it therefore got the Criterion treatment. A wonderful decision and a credit to Criterion's continuing importance to cinema.