Posts Tagged ‘John Malkovich’

Frenzy on the Wall: Everything Old is Old Again

Monday, October 18th, 2010

I had no interest in seeing The Expendables this summer. I loved ’80s action movies as much as the next person; hell, I grew up watching movies like Commando over and over again. Even now, if I catch an old Schwarzenegger or Stallone flick on cable, I find I still have a sentimental attachment to those “classics.” Of course now I understand that they aren’t actually “good” movies, but I can overlook those flaws and enjoy them as a reminder of how much I enjoyed them when I was younger.

But I’m not crazy about the idea of seeing a throwback to a time when Hollywood movies were ruled by stars that could barely act – although I do think Schwarzenegger and Stallone have done good work – in outlandish films that barely made sense. Films have evolved past those kinds of action movies for a reason.

The Expendables was supposed to be a punch in the gut to these newfangled action films like the Bourne series or Batman Begins; you know, movies that have good actors in smart scripts made by intelligent filmmakers. Jeez, who wants that, right? We want washed-up, aging movie stars starring in dumb films with lots of gore and violence!

Actually, apparently that is what “we” want, since The Expendables did big business and now RED is doing similarly well at the box office. And after seeing RED this weekend, I find myself once again at odds with the movie-going public and certain film critics who have given the film a pass. I decided to see RED because it’s got an excellent cast and the idea seemed fun enough; besides, I felt with all of those excellent actors, there’s no way they could all be doing it for the paycheck. But I guess Helen Mirren needed a summer home and I don’t blame her or most of the other actors.

But, can someone wake up Bruce Willis? Other than the few scenes where he’s shooting a gun or punching somebody in the face, Willis seems utterly unfazed by everything in the movie. I don’t even know if it’s a bad performance, maybe he’s researched retired CIA agents thoroughly and found that this is truly how they act, but it’s not just a lack of emotion in every line or action, it’s a lack of energy. Everyone else in the film is chewing scenery like crazy, mugging constantly, meanwhile Willis is just shrugging. Karl Urban has the most straight-laced, buttoned-up role in the film and yet he still somehow is able to do everything with conviction.

I’m worried about Bruce Willis. If you look at the last five years, there isn’t a single performance where you’d say, “yes, that’s the Bruce Willis I love.” The strange thing is that he keeps picking films that should be right in his wheelhouse; it’s just that most of them are terrible films where he doesn’t seem particularly motivated. When Willis is great (see: 12 Monkeys, Sin City, Unbreakable, Pulp Fiction, Death Becomes Her), he is one of the most interesting and charismatic actors out there, but when he’s bad he’s just boring. The last time I saw Willis in a film where he really hit it out of the park is in his one scene in Fast Food Nation. Since then it’s been a string of mostly disappointments. And between RED and Cop Out, this has been one of the sorriest years in Willis’ career.

The real problem with RED, though, is not Willis’ performance. The issues with RED run much deeper than his casting. While the script is your standard fare about conspiracies and CIA agents, a throwaway plot that mostly has to get our heroes from one set piece to the next, it’s adequate enough. But director Robert Schwentke has made a film that lacks momentum and progression and it starts with the first scene. This is an action film and we spend the first five minutes of the film on various conversations that Willis has, over the phone, with Mary Louise Parker.

It’s not that it’s boring, it’s just shrug-inducing. Of course the problem starts with the script, but the editor should have been figuring out a way to juggle things around and cut out non-essential business. In fact, you could easily cut those scenes in the beginning right out of the movie and it wouldn’t make a lick of difference in terms of character-building or plot progression.

And there are a lot of issues like that throughout the film. This is a film that begs to be 80 minutes long and move like a freight train. Instead it’s 110 minutes and moves like … well, a slower train. And the look of the film isn’t very interesting, either, and that rests on Schwentke’s shoulders more than the DP; it just doesn’t seem like he figured out what the look of the film should be. I actually wonder what Michael Bay would have done with this material (but of course he’d probably make everyone thirty years younger and played by models).

There’s always an element of fun in the “let’s build the team” but it takes too long for the team to get assembled and by the time they do, they don’t stay together very long. The joy in the idea of this film is to watch these cool actors interact with one another for as long as possible, but there are very few scenes in which the whole glorious cast gets to play together. And there are too many tangents so that another cameo can be shoe-horned in. It’s fun to see Ernest Borgnine for a scene, but did we really need more than one appearance from the man? There’s too much re-hashing.

There is a way to make a film fun while also being silly. For example, look at a previous Willis film, The Fifth Element. That’s a film that has a kind of deranged logic to it as it careens through outer-space at warp speed with quick cuts and vivid colors. But the reason it works is that it gets committed performances from its cast members, who take their ridiculous lines seriously – thereby making them even funnier – and because of those aforementioned quick cuts, which leads to a frenetic pace. In making films of this nature, nothing is more important than pacing and commitment, two things RED sorely lacks. It doesn’t make it a film any more original or intelligent, but it makes an audience give a crap.

Look, the bottom line is that people are going to see this movie and say, “well, as long as you turn your brain off, it’ll be a good time!” This is one of my least favorite phrases. Perhaps I’m not as highly evolved, but I don’t know how to turn my brain off. Mine always seems to stay on and tell me when something is stupid. It’s not that the film is completely devoid of pleasure, it’s not flat-out awful, it’s just uninspired.

Yeah, I enjoyed Malkovich playing unhinged for a few scenes, but it’s a joke that wears thin really quickly. And that’s what’s true of everything in this film. The action scenes are not exciting and the jokes are mostly lame. Everything about the film feels recycled and repackaged. It’s the same movie you’ve seen countless times except…everyone’s retirement age! I’m just sick of filmmakers trotting out the same old crap and putting some silly twist on that crap and calling it original. And it’s even more disappointing when critics can’t even sniff out a crappy film just because it’s gussied up with award-winning older actors.

Ultimately, RED is not a film that should inspire great hatred or great affection because it’s really just disposable. And that’s when the defenders of the film will say, “yes, but it’s meant to be disposable!” Listen, if you can enjoy a film that proudly wears its uselessness on its sleeve, then more power to you. Call me crazy, but I think we should hold our art to a slightly higher standard than that.

Wilmington on Movies: The Chicago International Film Festival, Red, Conviction … and more

Thursday, October 14th, 2010

The 46th Chicago International Film Festival

The Chicago Film Festival was the first film fest I ever attended, and it only whetted my appetite for other fests, and other Chicagos, to come.

It was 1970, and the festival’s two Honorees in that Vietnam War-torn year were Howard Hawks and George Stevens. (Great picks.) Since Hawks was (then and now) one of my all-time favorite directors, I traveled eagerly by car the relatively short distance between my college town, Madison, Wisconsin, and the Windy City, to see him in person. Joe McBride was there too; and we’d soon be embroiled in the John Ford book, which, for better or worse, kind of rolled the dice and cast my lot from then on as a movie critic, instead of the actor and fiction writer I’d always wanted to be. (Still do, in fact.)

Now, let me tell you, that was one hell of a great experience for a movie-drunk twenty-something from Wisconsin. The theatre was packed and Hawks was introduced on the stage, first by festival founder-artistic director (then and now) Michael Kutza and interviewed by Charles Flynn, co-editor (with Todd McCarthy) of the anthology Kings of the B’s and one of a prime Chicago movie buff wild bunch of that era (and afterwards) that included McCarthy, Myron Meisel, Dave Kehr, Henry Sheehan and many others.

I still remember the way Hawks looked on stage: 75, trim, tall, healthy, white-haired (as he‘d been since his heyday as the “Silver Fox of Brentwood“), impeccably dressed in suit and tie, and very quiet, poised and unflappable. As I recall, he reacted to Charles’s fulsome intro with a little impatience. Then he launched into his show.

Hawks tended to tell the same stories over and over again — in life as in his movies — and the tales he told Flynn and the audience that day were mostly the same ones I’d already read in Peter Bogdanovich‘s “Movie” interview — and mostly the same ones he‘d tell me, several years later, when I drove up with my friend “Little Michael” Shovers to interview him at his house on Palm Springs. Not his fault. I guess we tended to ask the same questions. And, as with his movies, he figured out a way to spin or re-spin them all that kept them fresh and funny. Joe later wrote up the whole audience discussion in an article for “Sight and Sound” called “Hawks Talks.”

Think of it: Not only were Howard Hawks (and Stevens) still alive, still able to share their memories with the movie-lovers who loved their films, the cinephiles who’d grown up on Rio Bravo and Shane, His Girl Friday and Woman of the Year, The Big Sleep and A Place in the Sun. But so were Orson Welles and Billy Wilder and Otto Preminger and Vincente Minnelli and Abel Gance and Satyajit Ray and Robert Wise and Don Siegel and Luchino Visconti and Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Francois Truffaut (to name just some of the directors, and none of the many stars, from Gloria Swanson to Liza Minnelli, who came too) who either came before or eventually, made it to the stages of the Chicago Film Festival, to be introduced by Kutza and others, and to share their stories with passionate movie lovers who loved to hear them. Even if it wasn‘t for the first time.

Chicago’s fest debuted in 1964, with Bette Davis, King Vidor and Stanley Kramer as the guests. And this year, it was still here: the 46th Chicago Film Festival, all of them hosted by Kutza, who has now (almost) outlasted two Mayoral Dick (or Rich) Daleys and become as much a Chicago fixture as, say, The Art Institute, Tribune Tower or Wrigley Field. He still has a lot of snap and wit, a lot of stories — some of which I’ve heard before — and a grin that won’t quit. The 2010 Chicago honorees included Ron Howard, Forest Whitaker, Guillermo Del Toro and Paula Wagner.

So once again, I’m going from theatre to theatre, wearing my Festival credentials (with my head shot) on a lanyard again, and I’m also wearing the last Chicago Film Festival credential card ever issued (with her head shot) for my mother Edna, the Singin’ in the Rain-loving lady whom Kutza always greeted and treated like the queen she was, and who once told me that going to film festivals and galas were the happiest times of her life.

The happiest of mine too. From Howard Hawks on. (Howard, tell us the one about how you and your wife Slim picked Lauren Bacall from some fashion shots for To Have and Have Not, and how you how you thought her Have Not costar Bogie was the most insolent guy on the screen, but you intended to make her even more insolent than Bogie, and how they fell in love….)

All the following movies were fest choices this year. Red and Conviction open their runs Friday.

Red (Two and a Half Stars)

U. S.: Robert Schwentke, 2010

The name “Red” stands for “Retired: Extremely Dangerous,” which is the legend stamped on the files of Bruce Willis, as 50-something Black Op specialist Frank Moses — and also on the files of his longtime colleague/buddies, played by top-chop actors Helen Mirren, John Malkovich and Morgan Freeman.

In addition, it’s the title of a long comic book, a.k.a. graphic novel series, by Warren Ellis and Cully Hammer, all about old retired C. I. A. pals uncovering plots and going on rampages, and of the cleaned-up, fairly entertaining and likable, but basically kind of silly action thriller that director Robert Schwentke (The Time Traveler’s Wife) and writers Jon and Erick Hoeber have made from it.

Mind you, I like all these actors — and many of the others in Red — quite a lot. They should always be working, and in roles worthy of them (or at least in roles that pay well, like this one). But Red‘s script is the same old stuff, the same old malarkey, only with an older, better, brainier cast.

And listen, if I have to read one more review about how this is a movie especially for AARP members, or the geriatric set, or card-carrying Medicare moviegoers, or old folks, I think I’ll throw my walker at them. Give me a break. What do these clowns want, a life spent perusing nothing but Jesse Eisenberg, Michael Cera, or Hannah Montana movies? (Gauging from the response to The Social Network, part of that may actually happen.) Should we look at stuff like the Transformers and say that they’re movies targeted for the young (dumb) punk audience? Even if they obviously are?

Well, you get my drift. Any movie that casts all the above actors — and others here like Brian Cox, Richard Dreyfuss, James Remar, and for the love of God, 93-year-old Ernie Borgnine as Henry, the C. I. A. records keeper — maybe deserves a medal. But it also lays itself open for ageist cracks and youth-crazed dopey biases, which are far too rabid in movies and TV these days anyway.

Red tries to attack those biases, make fun of them. But there’s a problem. Like many modern movies with older actors, this picture has them playing too constantly young and spunky (Freeman as the more vulnerable 80-year-old Tom Matheson honorably excepted), when they’d be more effective playing older, more vulnerable but smarter (like John Wayne, Robert Mitchum and Arthur Hunnicutt in El Dorado).

The idea seems to be that Frank should show us he’s as good as he ever was, better than the young punks in his face, and the older creeps behind them. And he is, but maybe his superiority would be better shown in different ways than this show seems to value: killing a bunch of bad guys who have superior firepower and government backing, and screwing young women. Especially when Helen Mirren is around.

The plot has Frank falling for young Sarah Ross (Mary Louise Parker) a chatty phone operator at his C.I.A. pension number — and then nearly getting rubbed out at his home by a hit squad that seems to be under the command of fashionable C.I.A. stud William Cooper (Karl Urban). So Frank grabs Sarah, and takes off on a transcontinental, multi-location jaunt/chase to find and warn and recruit his old pals and colleagues: Freeman as the wry-smiling Matheson (who’s actually in an old folks’ home), Mirren as two-gun Victoria (who can practically juggle automatics, and recovers almost instantly from bloody torso shots), and Malkovich as Marvin Boggs, the recluse/weirdo of the bunch. (It’s another of Malkovich‘s “Don’t-rile-him-he’s-crazy” roles.)

Along for support is the gang’s old friendly antagonist, and Victoria’s From Russia with Love ex, Ivan Simonov (Brian Cox). And lurking in the background are Robert Stanton (Julian McMahon), a hypocritical Vice President, and far-right Presidential candidate, who apparently hasn’t yet gotten his automatic candidate/host slot on Fox News.

Also lurking and smirking is evil arrogant rich bastard Alexander Dunning — played by Richard Dreyfuss, whom Dick Cheney might accuse of a Tina Fey job, or of Sarah Palinizing him. Jesse Eisenberg seems a natural for the missing part of the young C.I.A. trainee or Internet expose reporter, who defects to Frank’s gang, but maybe they figured they didn’t need him, with Parker around. Or maybe they‘d already made enough changes to the source — which I haven’t read.

The movie is fast and pretty funny and it gets around. It’s not too good, thanks to the script, but I liked the company, and you probably will too.


Still, let me make a suggestion. Red would be a much better, punchier show, if it didn’t make lovebirds-on-the-run all the way through, of Frank and Sarah, but instead had made Sarah a villainess, had her betray Frank, and had her join up with the bad guys — and if Frank salved his wounds by hooking up with a willing Victoria, taking her away from Ivan. (Tovarich!) That’s a better match than Frank-Sarah. The movie also needs a big, crazy villain to counter-balance Malkovich’s wild man Boggs. (Gary Sinise, maybe.) And the cinematography’s a little drab, maybe on purpose. But hey, thanks everybody, just for being there — and for bringing Ernie Borgnine with you. (“What do you wanna do tonight, Henry?” “I don’t know, what do you wanna do tonight, Marty?“ “I don‘t know…”)

Conviction” (Three Stars)

U. S.: Tony Goldwyn, 2010

Movies about travesties of justice always get my blood boiling — and I felt a lot of the old simmer and rage while watching Conviction. (This whole review, by the way, is potentially SPOILER ALERT, but you probably know the story anyway, and if you don’t, knowing it won’t really hurt the movie much. But, if you want, quit reading here. See the picture anyway.)

Tony Goldwyn’s real-life crime and courtroom saga, which is a very good job all around, is about the unjust incarceration (for murder) of a reckless working-class guy named Kenny Waters (Sam Rockwell), who was suspected of killing a lady friend, got framed for the murder by a vindictive cop, Nancy Taylor (Melissa Leo), a bully who didn’t like his manner, and got him sent up for life — but whose determined, loving, indefatigable sister, Betty Anne (Hilary Swank) refused to give up on him.

Instead, Betty Anne studied law, became a lawyer, dug up every record, re-interviewed the witnesses, and finally after nearly two decades, and after her own family and marriage fell apart, connected with Barry Scheck (Peter Gallagher) and Peter Neufeld’s Innocence Project, which uses DNA evidence to clear wrongly incarcerated, even condemned, prisoners. It was still a chore, because, as in many cases like this, the police and the prosecutors don’t like to admit mistakes.

The movie should make you happy on several levels. It shows us believably, that love counts, that the little guy can beat back even the most stubborn abuses of power, and that no matter how huge the task and long the odds, the heart and brain may find a way.

Swank plays Betty Anne with just the right mix of guts, slightly pain-in-the-ass grit and raw devotion — and though I hesitate to say it so semi-schmaltzily, she creates a character here both achingly real and a real role model. Swank has probably gotten her quota of Oscars for a while. But Rockwell, who gets both the good and bad sides of Kenny — he makes us like him, makes us understand why Betty Anne loves him, but also shows why he can be dangerous — is worth the prize talk he’s generated. I just hope he’s nominated in the lead actor Oscar category, which is winnable for him, and not supporting actor, a seemingly more probable slot, but a game-plan that’s not really fair to most of the other supporting candidates — then forced to compete against this movie’s lead male role, against something so deep and rich, and, as any actor will tell you, the best acting part this movie has to offer.

Elsewhere, Melissa Leo (a powerhouse in Frozen River) is a chillingly blank-eyed Officer Taylor, and Minnie Driver is the best, toughest, warmest gal-pal Betty Anne, or this movie, could have. The smaller roles are equally high caliber — like Gallagher as the sharp-eyed Scheck, or Juliette Lewis in one of her sleazy-sexy roles as a bad witness. And the movie has that actor-friendly, perfectly staged Sidney Lumet feel I’m sure Goldwyn wanted.

Back in 1999, Goldwyn made a moving family drama called A Walk on the Moon, set in 1969 in the Catskills, and back-dropped by Neil Armstrong’s moon landing and Woodstock. Goldwyn’s very talented screenwriter then was Pamela Gray, and she also wrote Conviction, which has some of the same qualities, the same laser eye on part-dysfunctional but loving families, the same sure structure, the same kind of meaty roles. I’m sure all the actors were glad that her name, and her words, were on the page. Thanks to Gray and all of them, and thanks above all to Betty-Anne Waters, this is a bio-drama full of feeling, strength and the right sense of justice.

Except for one thing.

SPOILER ALERT (seriously, this time).

Roger Ebert brings up something important in his review, that had puzzled me, and that may actually be a notable script flaw. In the final pre-credits notes, we learn what happened to the main characters, but not what happened to Kenny. According to Roger, Betty Anne’s brother died in an accident a half-year or so after being released from jail, while going over a high wall on the way to his mother’s house.

When I read this, I was stunned. Why in the world wasn’t this information in the movie? Was it cut out of the script, or the film? Was it nixed by some exec with a rulebook and a happy-ending fetish? It’s hard for me to believe that Goldwyn and Gray would have wanted that scene, or even just at mention in the crawl, deleted — or that Rockwell and Swank would want it gone either.

Doesn’t anybody in power realize what a potentially great sequence they threw away (Kenny saying goodbye, and then Kenny taking the leap, falling, dying), what an unforgettable piece of real-life drama and irony they just ignored? The ending right now in Conviction is a piece of more conventional uplift. The real-life ending (if that’s it) just rips your heart out, tears your guts open — besides reinforcing and driving home as strongly as possible the movie’s core theme of injustice, and of how it can ruin lives, and why it’s so necessary to fight it every chance you get.

By the way, Peter Neufeld, of Neufeld and Scheck, and the Innocence Project, is an old college friend of mine, and a fellow movie buff; I once tried to get him a spot on the UW Memorial Union Film Committee, with Joe McBride, Gerry and Danny Peary and the rest of us. Now, I’d just like to thank him and his partner Barry for the incredibly good jobs they keep doing. And thanks too to all the people who made Conviction, for the good work they did here as well, in this picture, in this heartfelt story. They really meant it; we can tell.


Certified Copy (Four Stars)

France/Italy/Iran: Abbas Kiarostami, 2010

My favorite film of the festival so far is Kiarostami’s first non-Iranian production, a jewel of that director‘s special brand of stylized cinema realism, and a meditation (like Orson WellesF for Fake) on artistry and fakery.

Shot in Italy (seedbed of neo-realism, homeland of Rossellini and De Sica), starring a French leading lady (Juliette Binoche) and an English leading man (William Shirnell), this splendidly shot (by Luca Bigazzi) European/Iranian co-production is partly one of Abbas Kiarostami’s chamber road movies — one of those Kiarostami pictures in which much of the action and dialogue transpire in a traveling car’s front seat between characters in the driver and passenger sides — and partly a pastiche of Rossellini’s great but controversial 1953 romantic travelogue drama Voyage in Italy (or Strangers), with Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders as a couple on vacation whose marriage is crumbling.

The setting, as with the recent arty George Clooney thriller The American, is on the roads and in the mountain villages of provincial Italy. Shirnell (an opera star) plays James Miller, an opinionated and somewhat self-absorbed best-selling author, who has just written a best-seller on the validity of artistic or painterly copying. Binoche is an unnamed single mother who takes Miller on a day date and drive in the country, and who likes to argue and provoke and meet new people.

Somewhere along the way the two begin impersonating a married couple (with problems, like Bergman and Sanders), and they slide into their roles with strange, unexplained fullness. The movie is enigmatic, and full of talk and ideas, but it also feels as natural as breathing. Akira Kurosawa, expressing his sorrow at the death of Satyajit Ray, named Kiarostami as Ray’s obvious successor, and Certified Copy recalls late Ray (The Home and the World), in its beauty and psychology. Kiarostami though, is one of a kind. He‘s really like no one else, even when he makes a copy of someone like Rossellini. (In Italian, French and English with English subtitles.) (Chicago Film Festival)


Thunder Soul (Three and a Half Stars)

U. S.; Mark Landsman, 2010

Conrad “Prof” Johnson was a great teacher who inspired his students, created something marvelous, was treated very badly by the system, but who here, in this film, near the end of his life, got his due and received a glorious tribute from his students. The Prof was a high school music teacher of extraordinary talent and skill. He was a local legend who turned his Texas high school student orchestra, the Kashmere Stage Band, into a top-notch funk outfit that gave tremendous concerts, won every local and national award in sight in its ‘70s heyday, and produced funk music records that were dynamic, terrific and equal to the products of the best professional bands of the era. His students loved him, his city loved him, and the world loved his band and his music.

Then the Prof got ensnared in bureaucracy and office politics. A new Kashmere school administration, and the local education establishment, composed apparently of too many jerks, jealous jack-asses and pompous meddling fools, harassed him, drove him out, and ruined the unique program he created. He’s a sweet man, and it looks like he didn’t fight back, just walked away. By the time we pick up the story, now, decades later, the entire school is sunk in mediocrity, and on the verge of collapse.

So the Prof’s ex-students from the Kashmere Band’s great ’70s heyday, decide to come back, get together, reform the band, and put on a last concert for the Prof. It isn’t easy. Some of them are working professionals, but some haven’t picked up their instrument for years. The Prof is 92, sick, and, as the concert approaches, he suffers a heart attack and has to be hospitalized. But when the spirit is moved, the soul will find a way. I defy you not to be deeply moved by the last scenes of this movie — a picture that shows how much you can do with a tiny budget, one camera and a great, great story. This is one wonderful documentary/concert film, and my only complaint is that it left me wanting more.

No — I’ve got another carp. The sabotage of the Prof’s program and of his band is an inexcusable, infuriating episode, and I want to know the names of the swine who wrecked that program and destroyed the beauty and art that this fine, gifted man and his gifted, loving students created — and I want to know why the local powers did it, the political dirt, the story behind it all. Director Mark Landsman knows, but he sort of slides by it; you get the impression he thinks it’s too hurtful to dwell on, that he just wants to shine a light on the Prof’s shining hour. He does, and as you watch the Kashmere Stage Band‘s Farewell Concert for their leader, the anger abates and you think: God bless great teachers like the Prof. They’re really heroes. (Chicago Film Festival)


Bitter Feast (Two Stars)

U. S.; Joe Maggio, 2010

A vain, heartless star chef and TV show cook/host named Peter Grey (James LeGros) gets trashed in a New York City blog by a mean critic named J. T. Franks (Joshua Leonard), which costs Grey all his jobs and destroys his career. Incensed, Grey kidnaps the nasty little blogger/critic, ties him up in the cellar in his isolated mansion in the woods, and proceeds to torment him with sadistic cooking lessons (forcing him to make an egg over easy or a perfect medium rare filet mignon) that turn into real torture.

I thought this one was going to be tasteless but funny. Instead it’s tasteless, unfunny and frequently ridiculous. One blogger, with a reputation for hating everything he reviews, has this much power? Come on. And what kind of idiot would invent torture games based on making eggs over easy? It would have been funnier if they‘d both been forced to eat the chef‘s increasingly vile dishes — which could have been Baby Jane Hudson kind of culinary rat and bug concoctions — and then write reviews on the spot saying that they‘re wonderful, tantalizing, four or five star stuff. But director-writer Maggio seems hung up on the idea that critics can’t do what they criticize. That may be true, but it’s not particularly funny or frightening.

Bitter Feast is not badly shot, but it’s weakly, over-obviously written. Horror director (and this film’s co producer) Larry Fessenden shows up and behaves very stupidly as a sleazy Dennis Franz sort of private eye, and Amy Seimetz, as J. T.’s more compassionate wife, gets tied up in the cellar too. Still, the whole thing struck me as about as scary as a fallen soufflé. But please…This may be a blog, and I may be sometimes mean, but I don’t want to be kidnapped, tied up in a cellar and forced to watch this movie and The Human Centipede — and maybe even remake them — over and over again. (Chicago Film Festival)


Circus Kids (Three Stars)

Israel/U.S.A.: Alexandra Lipsitz, 2001

Circus acrobatics cross all boundaries. Or so it seems in this good, lively documentary about a racially and socially diverse St. Louis Kids‘ circus troupe, Circus Harmony‘s St. Louis Arches, who travel to Israel to join hands and do back-flips with a mixed troupe of Jewish and Arab kids in Israel. The message is obvious, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t get delivered. The only thing this movie really needs is more circus acts. (Extras on the DVD, maybe?) Director Alexandra Lipsitz does a fine job throughout, and she’s also a really excellent cinematographer. (In English and Hebrew, with English subtitles.) (Chicago Film Festival)


Uncle Boonmee, Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Three and a Half Stars)
Thailand; Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2010

“Call me Joe,” Apichatpong Weerasethakul told me when I met him at a dinner at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, and I couldn’t have guessed then that, within a few years, this trail-blazing, friendly young Thai filmmaker would have won the Cannes Palme d’Or — as he did this year with “Uncle Boonmee…:” I’m happy for Thailand, happy for Joe, who’s now made the kind of international breakthrough Akira Kurosawa once made for Japanese cinema, Satyajit Ray once made for India, and Tran Anh Hung for Vietnam. He’s put his country on the cinematic map.

Uncle Boonmee is a beautiful little film about what it means to die, or to watch a family member die. The central character, Boonmee (Yukantorn Mingmongkan) is a farmer in the Thai countryside, dying of kidney disease. His family gathers around him. So do his ghosts, including the spirit of his dead wife and his son, who has become a “monkey ghost.” No one is too shocked or unsettled by the appearance of the ghosts; they’re just another part of the family. And death, the film says quietly and touchingly, is just another part of life.

Much of Uncle Boonmee… is shot at night, in the gentle enveloping dark, or in the hazy green brightness of the day, or in a cave where the family wanders, or the church where Boonmee gets his last farewell. Before he dies, he tries to make peace with everyone, even worrying about “all the Communists” he killed for the government. Then he’s gone. So will all of us, and all those we love or hate or simply know.

I don’t know that I would have given Uncle Boonmee the Palme d‘Or. Joe’s visual style is a little rough and hazy for me, though maybe that’s Thailand. But Joe is a devotee of the American underground (Warhol, Baillie) and he’s not trying for the visual sophistication of either American mainstream movies or a Kurosawa, a Ray, or even a Tran Anh Hung. He’s telling his story, a Thai family’s story, a tale of life and death and how they interpenetrate each other. And this is life, this is cinema. (In Thai and French, with English subtitles.) (Chicago Film Festival)


Copacabana (Two and a Half Stars)

France/Belgium: Marc Fitousi, 2010

Isabelle Huppert is one of the greatest living movie actresses, no doubt about it. And her performance as a footloose, Bohemian, counter-culture mother, Babou — whose more establishment-oriented daughter Esmeralda is too embarrassed by her mom’s endless antics to invite her to her wedding with her bourgeois in-laws-to-be (Shame, Esmeralda!), driving Babou to try to turn a late leaf and settle down as a real-estate time share agent — is vintage Huppert: saucy, alive, bemused, totally real.

The film though has some twists that make little sense, even given Babou’s reckless nature, and the visual/cinematographic style is a bit bland and fuzzy. Bravo Huppert though. Babou and Copacabana may let us down, but Huppert never. (In French, English and Flemish, with English subtitles.) (Chicago Film Festival)


Hitler in Hollywood (Two and a Half Stars)

Belgium/France: Frederic Sachjer, 2010

A playful mockumentary in which on-camera investigator Maria de Medeiros, filming a tribute documentary to legendary French actress Micheline Presle, uncovers a Fascist/C.I.A. plot to hamstring European cinema and inundate the continent with Hollywood trash. It’s a widespread plot; even legendary French cinematographer Raoul Coutard is indicted as a C. I. A. agent and Breathless and the whole Nouvelle Vague as a C. I. A. plot to wreck classical French movie-making.

As the elfin Pulp Fiction cutie-pie de Medeiros delves into the vast conspiracy — which starts to unravel when Presle reveals the existence of a lost 1939 Presle film, directed by the mysterious moviemaker/mogul Luis Aramcheck (who also, they tell us here, made another post-war film called “Hitler in Hollywood” and tried vainly to combat the C. I. A./Hollywood plotters) — she has to cope with film partners who keep quitting, a cinematographer in love with her, and the plotters themselves, who are now hot on her trail.

Obviously, this film, shot imitation verite/documentary style, is a cinephile’s playful goof. And director Sachjer spiffs it up by taking us to the Cannes Film Festival (where de Medeiros interviews ex-Cannes head Gilles Jacob), and dropping in cameos with European cineastes Volker Schlondorff, Wim Wenders, and Emir Kusturica, and actresses Nathalie Baye and Arielle Dombasle.

The last person she interviews is her great fellow Portuguese moviemaker and Cannes mainstay, Manoel de Oliveira, still making films after turning 100 in 2008. Presle by the way, who’s 88 herself, still holds the camera as she did when she played the older woman to Gerard Philipe in the 1947 erotic classic Devil in the Flesh. How can Hollywood compete with that? (In French, English and Portuguese, with English subtitles.)

Review: Secretariat

Friday, October 8th, 2010

Secretariat, the horse, was a big, glossy chestnut colt who won the Triple Crown and is widely regarded today as perhaps the best racehorse who ever lived. Secretariat, the movie, is big, glossy cinematic comfort food for the family in troubled times, grilled cheese and tomato soup wholesomeness to soothe the soul and take the viewer back to simpler, happier times.

In spite of its title, though,the film is not the story of how Secretariat the horse won the Triple Crown for the first time in 25 years — not exactly, anyhow. This is the story of his owner, Penny Chenery, who’s played in the film by a luminous, angelic, glowingly lit Diane Lane (and can I just say as an aside here that, if you have reason to have someone make a movie about your life, you could do worse than having Lane play you on the big screen).

Equally well cast is John Malkovich as Secretariat’s eccentric French-Canadian trainer, Lucien Laurin. Malkovich handles playing the flamboyant Lucien as effortlessly as you would expect of him; every time he’s on the screen he dominates your attention, and yeah, he occasionally munches a little scenery, but he’s fun as hell to watch.

Lane, to her credit, plays Chenery as befits honoring the woman who became one of the first female members of The Jockey Club — with spunk and vivacity, charm and fierce determination. It’s an excellent performance on Lane’s part, which makes it unfortunate that the story almost completely excises the most interesting feminist aspects out of the film, making Penny Chenery into almost a mildly rebellious PTA-mom extraordinaire, well-coiffed and resplendently elegant in heels and dresses even as she takes on the men of the racing world and kicks their chauvinistic asses.

What with the film being set roughly from 1970 to 1973, it surely must have been tempting for someone involved in this film to play up more the political aspects of the story. We have all the key ingredients here: Chenery, who held a B.A. from Smith College and had attended Columbia Business School, married Columbia law student John Tweedy and spent the next 18 years playing housewife and mother before getting roped back into her father’s racehorse business when he grew ill 1968.

But the script, based on a book about Secretariat by Bill Nack, skimps on showing us the prejudices Chenery surely faced as a woman in a predominantly male world.

There must surely have been a lot more marital tension, resentment, and familial strife in her Denver homebase when Chenery abandoned her post as general of hearth and home to pursue a racing dream than what’s depicted in the movie, which makes it seem like it all happened seamlessly. The former housewife turns prominent career woman, while her endlessly supportive husband and fresh-faced, perpetually happy and understanding children cheer her on from the sidelines. Really? Only in a Disney movie. I’m sure in retrospect her husband and kids are proud of Chenery’s achievements, but I just didn’t buy at all that her victories in her career came without any cost on the homefront.

Speaking of homefront, wasn’t there a war (excuse me, “conflict”) going on around then too? There’s complete lack of cultural context in the film, which barely tosses a reference to the political stew brewing in America at the time by giving us A.J. Michalka (who, together with her sister Alyson, compromises popular Disney group AJ and Aly) as daughter Kate, a well-off white girl who wades in the shallow end of the political pool by playing dress up with hippie clothes, painting protest signs, and writing a political play.

But this is a Disney movie with a Disney star as the daughter, kids, so Kate is a clean and wholesome sort of hippie with clean-cut, wholesome wannabe hippie friends who don’t, apparently, believe in the free sex, power to the people and pot-smoking of that era. Or at least, they certainly don’t inhale. This film could have taken some lessons from, say, television’s Wonder Years, which at least attempted to address the tension of those times within its storyline while still being entertaining.

Also, while we see Chenery get some crap from men around the racetrack, we never once see another woman question Chenery’s commitment to her husband and children because her work requires her to travel away from her family. I get comments about that myself in 2010 over my own work travel, and I just find it impossible to believe that no one ever pulled that on Chenery in the 1970s.

On the other hand, while I do think the film considerably glosses over the politics affecting the country at the time, I don’t see it as particularly being bait for conservative Christians in flyover states or Tea Party wives. Penny Chenery was no obedient little wifey. The real Penny Chenery may or may not consider herself a feminist, but certainly by the actions she took she certainly set a feminist example that a woman can be a wife and a mother and also chase a dream. And that’s not a bad message for a little girl, even one living in 2010, to get.

I’m not saying I disliked Secretariat overall. It’s well paced and edited, glossy and golden and gorgeously shot. Every scene, practically, is bathed in a golden glow, as if we’ve died and gone to horseracing heaven. The horses coats glisten with sheen, there are slow-mo shots where we see every muscle rippling under shiny coats in exquisite detail. There are shots during the racing sequences here that could be framed and hung in museums, and the visuals alone make Secretariat compelling to watch.

Director Randall Wallace does a good job as well of overcoming the considerable hurdle that we know going into the film how it ends. I mean, it’s Secretariat. It’s not a spoiler to say that he wins the Triple Crown and goes onto become a prolific producer of very valuable racehorse semen. The excitement and tension in the film doesn’t really come, therefore, from there being uncertainty as to the outcome, which is a challenge from a filmmaking standpoint.

Wallace makes the race scenes thrilling to watch, even though we know that (most of the time) Secretariat, in spite of his habit of starting at the back of the pack, would come out of nowhere with a near-miraculous burst of speed to win. The racing montage of Secretariat’s wins leading up to the Triple Crown races in particular was edited artfully, and the horse’s big battles against rival Sham are tense and exciting even though you know the outcome already.

But I almost felt sorry for Sham, a beautiful, athletic racehorse in his own right who also had the heart of a champion but here is painted as the “bad guy” standing in the way of what feels in retrospect like Secretariat’s foreordained place in racing history. And this is a problematic element in the film, one that’s not similar, actually, to the issues I had with The Social Network‘s portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg as a villain for the sake of storytelling.

Here, the role of necessary bad guy is played by Sham’s trainer Pancho Martin, played by Nestor Serrano (presumably because the script and director so guided him) as a dark, smoldering, cocky, chauvinistic and inherently unlikable asshole of a guy. And hey, for all I know maybe Martin was that kind of guy, but this portrayal of him felt unnecessarily over-the-top.

Sham and Secretariat were rivals on the racetrack, yes, but Sham really was a good horse who just had the misfortune (or bad karma, maybe) to be born the same year as perhaps the best racehorse in history. It’s too bad for him, really, and I think a bit of a disservice to that horse to paint him as a classic Disneyesque sidekick-to-the-bad-guy character.

Think of the story from the point of view of Panco and Sham: Pancho has this great colt, maybe the best colt of his career, in Sham — who, in fact, also broke track records even when he lost to Secretariat. But poor Sham was doomed to be relegated to the horse beaten by Secretariat, kind of the racing world equivalent to playing “second shepherd on the right, recognized only by his mother” in the church Christmas pageant.

Andrew O’Hehir made some interesting points in his write-up of the film about Secretariat being custom-made for the same Christian segment that made a surprise hit out of last year’s The Blind Side, and as a story it’s certainly true that it follows that film’s successful formula almost to a tee. I’m not sure I’d argue for an Oscar for Lane for this role, but neither would I discount the appeal of the chipper, perky, ladylike woman who overcomes odds to the Academy voters.

I’m not sure I agree, though, with O’Hehir’s accusations of blatant Tea-Party pandering and overt racism in Secretariat, other than perhaps to a degree in the portrayal of Pancho-as-villain. Is it true that the only other significant minority in the film is Secretariat’s groom? Well, yes. Secretariat’s groom, Eddie Sweat (Nelsan Ellis) was black, there’s no getting around that. I can see the argument that the portrayal of Sweat in the film is perhaps a little “Uncle Remus,” but I don’t know that it’s an unrealistic portrayal, given the time and setting of the story.

The world of horse racing is a sport that’s almost exclusively the domain of rich white men and their rich white wives who like to wear big hats to the Kentucky Derby while they sip mint juleps, which is what makes Penny Chenery’s place in racing history that much more interesting. I guess I take issue more with the castration of the feminist element, as it were, than with any latent racism in the film.

Overall Secretariat is to me an interesting blend of the feel-good Disney family movie and an attempt to make a classier, artsier movie out of a racehorse story while maybe angling for the Oscars, but that doesn’t make it an unenjoyable film. As a film to see with the kids, it’s not a bad choice, even if for me, it’s painted a little too broadly and uninterestingly to launch it significantly into year end or awards consideration. Secretariat plays as more of a feel-good crowd-pleaser than compelling art, but for what it is, that’s probably good enough.

Wilmington on Movies: Secretariat, Life As We Know It, Buried, You Again, and Let Me In

Friday, October 8th, 2010

Secretariat (Three and a Half Stars)

U. S.; Randall Wallace, 2010

If you’ve got a great story, in life or in movies, the best thing to do is usually to let it fill your heart, tell it clearly, keep it straight and pure, and don’t load it up with agendas and tack-ons. The new movie Secretariat has a great story, an almost unbelievable (but mostly fact-based) story — the incredible saga of the horse who won the 1973 Triple Crown, blew away the field, set unmatchable records, and is still regarded almost universally as the greatest race horse who ever lived and ran. (Almost?)