Thursday, August 30, 2012

Hit & Run

HIT & RUN (David Palmer and Dax Shepard, 2012)

The choice Charlie Bronson (Dax Shepard) faces in HIT & RUN is tough but simple. He can support his girlfriend Annie (Kristen Bell) and move with her to Los Angeles, where she is virtually assured of getting her dream professorial job if she makes the scheduled interview, or Charlie can let her go and end a meaningful relationship so he stays safe and secure 500 miles away in witness protection in Milton, California.  She’s willing to sacrifice the opportunity to remain with him, but he can’t allow that to be an option.

While Annie knows her boyfriend is under the watch of bumbling U.S. marshal Randy Anderson (Tom Arnold), she doesn’t know the extent of Charlie’s past.  He was a getaway driver who testified against his friends and accomplices.  He’s been away from L.A. for four years and now goes by an assumed name, but returning to his old stomping grounds could still be dangerous.  Charlie throws caution to the wind, eases his 1967 black, custom-built Lincoln Continental out of storage, and sets out for the big city with his best gal.  

The car is in impeccable condition.  It’s also the one thing that can connect Charlie to his history.  Annie’s jealous ex-boyfriend Gil (Michael Rosenbaum) has long been suspicious of Charlie, so when he sees him leaving town with her in the Continental, he calls in the license plate number to his police officer brother Terry (Jess Rowland). From the license plate Gil learns Charlie’s real name, which he uses to dig up news of his old partners in crime and inform dreadlocked Alex Dmitri (Bradley Cooper) that his turncoat pal is coming their direction.  What was to be an inconspicuous return trip becomes a chase, with Gil, Alex and associates, the police, and exasperated fed Randy on the lookout for Charlie and Annie.
There’s no mistaking HIT & RUN as a showcase piece for co-director, writer, and co-lead Shepard, but it’s not the one expected from its set-up.  He’s made a chatty romantic comedy with bitchin’ cars and coarse humor rather than the action movie it might be mistaken for at face value.  Shepard grants equal respect to the mechanics of relationships and automobiles in accommodating the unknown history that comes with being involved with a new person or a used vehicle.  Unlike a lot of relationship-based films, this one understands the need for accepting the mileage that can’t be rolled back.

While the discursive nature of the screenplay can stall HIT & RUN a little too often, the conversational detours often rate as the best parts.  Charlie and Annie’s pillow talk in the opening scene performs spectacularly in establishing their personalities and vulnerabilities.  While on the road their discussion about what he considers an inoffensive use of a slur and her objection to it beautifully and humorously dissects language and intention.  Alex’s shared opinion and object lesson on dog food stands among the comedic highlights while giving shading to the film’s ostensible villain.

Shepard has consistently proven to be a funny but often underappreciated contributor in supporting roles.  His performance ought to draw attention to the appealing, offbeat actor he is.  As a writer and director Shepard proves to be generous with the other actors. (Co-director David Palmer surely deserves credit in this area too.)  Bell, his off-screen partner, receives one of her best roles since VERONICA MARS ended.  HIT & RUN’s Annie is more than a stock girlfriend who needs to be saved or is holding back the male protagonist.  Bell’s timing is sharp in the comedic give and take, and she sells the equality and emotional stress in her relationship with Charlie.  Cooper does weird and funny work without running wild.  HIT & RUN isn’t always a smooth ride, but the quirks and misfires make it as distinctive as the actor behind many of the film’s creative choices.      

Grade: B-

Wednesday, August 29, 2012


360 (Fernando Meirelles, 2011)

360 is predicated on the idea that everyone is connected in the circle of modern life, but the shape it calls to mind is the triangle in a pyramid scheme. Above the title on the poster are a lauded director, screenwriter, and international cast to serve as the lure. What appears to be a worthy investment of time and money yields nothing but the realization of being hoodwinked.

The drama opens in Vienna with a Slovakian woman getting her profile photographs taken for a website offering high-end prostitutes. Mirka (Lucia Siposová) is looking to earn a lot of money in a short period of time and has decided that this is the best way to do so. Although her bookworm sister Anna (Gabriela Marcinkova) disapproves, she still accompanies Mirka on the bus rides from Bratislava to the Austrian capital when work beckons. Mirka’s first client is supposed to be London businessman Michael Daly (Jude Law), but before he can approach her, a fellow salesman (Moritz Bleibtreu) points out the woman of ill repute in the hotel bar.

In Paris a 36-year-old Algerian widower (Jamel Debbouze) stalks a woman in a red beret. He’s smitten with her but doesn’t dare share his feelings because she is a married co-worker. While he knows how he must act, the lovestruck man speaks to a psychologist and his imam about the dilemma.

In London Michael’s wife Rose (Rachel Weisz) breaks off an affair with Brazilian photographer Rui (Juliano Cazarré), who then learns his girlfriend Laura (Maria Flor) was wise to him cheating on her. Laura chooses to return to their native country. On a leg of her trip going to Denver she befriends an older man (Anthony Hopkins). With nasty weather delaying all outbound flights, they intend to meet up for dinner. Also at the airport is Tyler (Ben Foster), a newly released sex offender bound for a halfway house in Louisville.

Hopkins’ character travels on to Phoenix and ends up at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. There Valentina (Dinara Drukarova), who has come from Paris to visit her sister, shares her story and begins the film’s path back to the city where the whole thing started.
Most of the vignettes in 360 might have made compelling features on their own if expanded. Except for the lousy, weirdly resolved sections with Law and Weisz, the scenes don’t flounder in miniature but feel incomplete. It’s as though notable plot-divulging portions have been plucked from other films and linked by director Fernando Meirelles and screenwriter Peter Morgan making like the insistent drive-thru order taker in DUDE, WHERE’S MY CAR? And then? And then? And then?

Even when 360 happens upon some strong moments, like Hopkins and Flor’s sweet interactions as strangers and the pay-off for him, they are mucked up by another thread spliced into the proceedings. Interrupting their time together for the struggles of Foster’s ex-convict suggests the possibility that he could be responsible for Hopkins’ lingering pain. Luckily 360 doesn’t fall victim to the all-caps irony that such a development like that would be. Unfortunately it converges Foster and Flor’s storylines in a most thoroughly unconvincing fashion.

As much as these tales of injured souls are bungled, 360 holds some interest because it posits that the road less traveled doesn’t necessarily lead to better destinations. Falling for someone new and taking a particular risk could be big mistakes. 360 doesn’t possess the conviction to follow through all the way on such an anti-romantic notion. At best Meirelles and Morgan soft sell it, but the flirtation with the idea is contrary to the norm.

According to 360 the world is united in broken dreams and wounded hearts. It’s too bad that playing R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts” on a two-hour loop could have expressed the sentiment more effectively.

Grade: D+

The Expendables 2

THE EXPENDABLES 2 (Simon West, 2012)

When the stars of yesteryear lose their luster, it’s common for them to keep working and try to remain relevant by parodying themselves, sometimes to the point of debasement. The faded action heroes in THE EXPENDABLES 2 aren’t making mockeries of themselves for the general public’s amusement, but they’re toeing that line when Chuck Norris turns up essentially to play along with his own meme.

The group of mercenaries led by Sylvester Stallone’s Barney Ross are persuaded once again by CIA operative Mr. Church (Bruce Willis) to do a job for him and to include Maggie (Yu Nan), one of his own personnel, on their crew.  This time the Expendables, including Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), Gunnar Jensen (Dolph Lundgren), and newcomer Billy the Kid (Liam Hemsworth), are dispatched on a recovery mission in Albania’s Gazak Mountains.  

They retrieve the desired item but are forced to hand it over when Jean Vilaine (Jean-Claude Van Damme) and his men intercept them.  Vilaine gives them reason enough to want to hunt him down before Maggie reveals that they’ve given him a map to the hidden location of five tons of plutonium.

The makers of THE EXPENDABLES 2 can claim to have given audiences what they want.  You want action stars, you got ‘em.  In addition to the primary cast of Stallone, Statham, Lundgren, Terry Crews, Randy Couture, and young blood Hemsworth, also on hand to get their hands dirty are Willis, Norris, Van Damme, Jet Li, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Scott Adkins.  Looking for numerous action scenes?  Here you go.

At issue, though, is that most of the biggest names are present for what amount to glorified cameos.  Schwarzenegger and Willis get to do more than they did in the first film, but they’re hardly reliving their glory days in the genre.  Director Simon West doesn’t skimp on shootouts, which would be all well and good if they weren’t spatially incoherent and nonsensically cut.  A brief sequence of Jet Li battering baddies with pans is more pleasing to follow than all of the time in which shots are held for about as long as heavy artillery can fire off a few rounds.

THE EXPENDABLES 2 isn’t a parody, yet it doesn’t help its cause naming the villain Vilaine.  The oldies on the soundtrack are reminiscent of what scores erectile dysfunction pill ads.  One-liners like “rest in pieces” and “I now pronounce you man and knife” are artlessly added and overused.  The movies that many of these guys made in the 1980s and ‘90s were hardly bulletproof, but this is a cynical exercise in settling for what is expected to be passable. THE EXPENDABLES 2 doesn’t give the impression that anyone is making a serious effort, not when they can coast on nostalgia.

Grade: C-

TIFF12 schedule

The good news about the new package redemption system TIFF put in place for this year’s festival is that it is easy to use and didn’t crash or get bogged down. I also suspect that the opportunity to pick the films one wants, assuming they’re available, keeps films on-sale longer than under the previous system. Previously you submitted your first and second choices, hoped you snagged a good draw in the lottery, and then received an e-mail listing what tickets you got.

I was shut out of four picks on my shortlist, which is a much better percentage than last year’s process turned out for me. If monitoring an unofficial festival blog’s commenter reports are accurate, Michael Haneke’s AMOUR went off-sale an hour or two before I took my place in the virtual line. Derek Cianfrance’s THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES, Joss Whedon’s MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, and Ramaa Mosley’s THE BRASS TEAPOT were also unavailable. For now I’m planning to rush or redeem vouchers for the last three if the opportunity presents itself, although I do have a ticket for something else during THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES screening.

You may notice some tweaks to my original shortlist. I was stunned that the first non-premium screening of the new Terrence Malick film was still available. (I assumed I’d need to purchase a ticket for the premium screening when single tickets go on-sale.) I read a less-than-encouraging tweet about FOXFIRE: CONFESSIONS OF A GIRL GANG that led me to drop it. I added the new Rob Zombie film mainly because I am working with 23 or 24 tickets to redeem and needed to fill the slot. By the time I leave, I should have seen 25 or 26 films.

Thursday, September 6

*6:15-8:05 p.m. TABU (Miguel Gomes, 2012) (Portugal/Germany/Brazil/France) TIFF Bell Lightbox 1

*9:15-11:30 p.m. DIAL M FOR MURDER (Alfred Hitchcock, 1954) (USA) TIFF Bell Lightbox 4

Friday, September 7

*12:00-2:30 p.m. RUST & BONE (DE ROUILLE ET D’OS) (Jacques Audiard, 2012) (France/Belgium) Ryerson Theatre

*3:00-4:35 p.m. THE GATEKEEPERS (Dror Moreh, 2012) (Israel/France/Germany/Belgium) Bloor Hot Docs Cinema

*5:30-7:29 p.m. KON-TIKI (Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, 2012) (Norway/Denmark/United Kingdom) Winter Garden Theatre

*9:30-10:56 p.m. FRANCES HA (Noah Baumbach, 2012) (USA) Ryerson Theatre

Saturday, September 8

*7:30-9:40 a.m. ANNA KARENINA (Joe Wright, 2012) (United Kingdom) press screening

*12-15-2:09 p.m. THE END OF TIME (Peter Mettler, 2012) (Canada/Switzerland) Cineplex Yonge & Dundas 2

*3:15-4:55 p.m. JACKIE (Antoinette Beumer, 2012) (The Netherlands) Cineplex Yonge & Dundas 7

*6:30-8:03 p.m. THE LEBANESE ROCKET SOCIETY (Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, 2012) (France/Lebanon/United Arab Emirates/Qatar) TIFF Bell Lightbox 3

*9:00-11:02 p.m. SOMETHING IN THE AIR (APRÈS MAI) (Olivier Assayas, 2012) (France) VISA Screening Room (Elgin Theatre)

*11:59 p.m.-1:25 a.m. NO ONE LIVES (Ryûhei Kitamura, 2012) (USA) Ryerson Theatre

Sunday, September 9

*9:00-10:49 a.m. LIKE SOMEONE IN LOVE (Abbas Kiarostami, 2012) (Japan/France) Cineplex Yonge & Dundas 7

(*12:30-2:17 p.m. MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING (Joss Whedon, 2012) (USA) Isabel Bader Theatre--currently planning to rush or redeem voucher)

*3:30-5:43 p.m. THE LAND OF HOPE (KIBÔ NO KUNI) (Sion Sono, 2012) (Japan) Cineplex Yonge & Dundas 3

(*6:45-8:25 p.m. THE BRASS TEAPOT (Ramaa Mosley, 2012) (USA) Cineplex Yonge & Dundas 5--currently planning to rush or redeem voucher)

*9:00-10:58 p.m. BYZANTIUM (Neil Jordan, 2012) (United Kingdom/Ireland) Ryerson Theatre

Monday, September 10

*11:00 a.m.-12:50 p.m. THANKS FOR SHARING (Stuart Blumberg, 2012) (USA) VISA Screening Room (Elgin Theatre)

*3:00-4:36 p.m. WRITERS (Josh Boone, 2012) (USA) Ryerson Theatre

*6:00-7:32 p.m. BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO (Peter Strickland, 2012) (United Kingdom) Bloor Hot Docs Cinema

*9:00-10:45 p.m. IN THE HOUSE (DANS LA MAISON) (François Ozon, 2012) (France) VISA Screening Room (Elgin Theatre)

*11:59 p.m.-1:40 a.m. THE LORDS OF SALEM (Rob Zombie, 2012) (USA/United Kingdom/Canada) Ryerson Theatre

Tuesday, September 11

*12:00-1:43 p.m. THE ICEMAN (Ariel Vromen, USA) Ryerson Theatre

*3:00-4:52 p.m. TO THE WONDER (Terrence Malick, 2012) (USA) Princess of Wales

*8:00-9:38 p.m. PASSION (Brian De Palma, 2012) (France/Germany) Winter Garden Theatre

Saturday, August 25, 2012

TIFF12 schedule, first draft

With the help of invaluable site--I’ve scraped together a tentative schedule for the Toronto International Film Festival 2012. The hours of work that went into planning it are likely to be destroyed once it’s time for me to redeem my package tickets and find that half of my preferred choices are off-sale, but it’s a starting point. I’m publishing the schedule here because I thought it might be of interest, especially to fellow TIFF-attending friends, and to help me keep everything straight.

I’m sorely tempted to see Paul Thomas Anderson’s THE MASTER, but with it scheduled to open in Columbus on September 21, it’s hard for me to justify doing so, even if it will be projected in 70mm. Among those films of interest screening after I will have departed are Marco Bellocchio’s DORMANT BEAUTY, Hong Sang-soo’s IN ANOTHER COUNTRY, LEVIATHAN, MOTORWAY, and ROOM 237. While they aren’t currently on my schedule, I may--so help me--check out the new films from Harmony Korine and Rob Zombie.

Even if each ticket redemption were to fall in my favor, which it surely won’t, I’m likely to tweak this schedule, be it due to not being committed to all of these or hearing festival buzz. For now, these are the tickets I’ll be pursuing.

Thursday, September 6

*6:15-8:05 p.m. TABU (Miguel Gomes, 2012) (Portugal/Germany/Brazil/France) TIFF Bell Lightbox 1

*9:15-11:30 p.m. DIAL M FOR MURDER (Alfred Hitchcock, 1954) (USA) TIFF Bell Lightbox 4

Friday, September 7

*12:00-2:00 p.m. RUST & BONE (DE ROUILLE ET D’OS) (Jacques Audiard, 2012) (France/Belgium) Ryerson Theatre

*3:00-4:35 p.m. THE GATEKEEPERS (Dror Moreh, 2012) (Israel/France/Germany/Belgium) Bloor Hot Docs Cinema

*5:30-7:29 p.m. KON-TIKI (Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, 2012) (Norway/Denmark/United Kingdom) Winter Garden Theatre

*9:30-10:56 p.m. FRANCES HA (Noah Baumbach, 2012) (USA) Ryerson Theatre

Saturday, September 8

*7:30-9:40 a.m. ANNA KARENINA (Joe Wright, 2012) (United Kingdom) press screening

*11:00 a.m.-1:20 p.m. THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES (Derek Cianfrance, 2012) (USA) Ryerson Theatre

*3:15-4:55 p.m. JACKIE (Antoinette Beumer, 2012) (The Netherlands) Cineplex Yonge & Dundas 7

*6:00-8:07 p.m. AMOUR (Michael Haneke, 2012) (Austria/France/Germany) VISA Screening Room (Elgin Theatre)

*9:00-11:02 p.m. SOMETHING IN THE AIR (APRÈS MAI) (Olivier Assayas, 2012) (France) VISA Screening Room (Elgin Theatre)

11:59 p.m.-1:25 a.m. NO ONE LIVES (Ryûhei Kitamura, 2012) (USA) Ryerson Theatre

Sunday, September 9

*9:00-10:49 a.m. LIKE SOMEONE IN LOVE (Abbas Kiarostami, 2012) (Japan/France) Cineplex Yonge & Dundas 7

*12:30-2:17 p.m. MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING (Joss Whedon, 2012) (USA) Isabel Bader Theatre

*3:30-5:43 p.m. THE LAND OF HOPE (KIBÔ NO KUNI) (Sion Sono, 2012) (Japan) Cineplex Yonge & Dundas 3

*6:45-8:25 p.m. THE BRASS TEAPOT (Ramaa Mosley, 2012) (USA) Cineplex Yonge & Dundas 5

*9:00-10:58 p.m. BYZANTIUM (Neil Jordan, 2012) (United Kingdom/Ireland) Ryerson Theatre

Monday, September 10

*11:00 a.m.-12:50 p.m. THANKS FOR SHARING (Stuart Blumberg, 2012) (USA) VISA Screening Room (Elgin Theatre)

*3:00-4:36 p.m. WRITERS (Josh Boone, 2012) (USA) Ryerson Theatre

*7:00-8:52 p.m. TO THE WONDER (Terrence Malick, 2012) (USA) Princess of Wales

*10:00-11:43 p.m. THE ICEMAN (Ariel Vromen, USA) Princess of Wales

Tuesday, September 11

*1:00-2:40 p.m. TAI CHI 0 (Stephen Fung, 2012) (China) TIFF Bell Lightbox 1

*3:30-5:53 p.m. FOXFIRE: CONFESSIONS OF A GIRL GANG (FOXFIRE, CONFESSIONS D’UN GANG DE FILLES) (Laurent Cantet, 2012) (France/Canada) Cineplex Yonge & Dundas 7

*8:00-9:38 p.m. PASSION (Brian De Palma, 2012) (France/Germany) Winter Garden Theatre

TIFF11 schedule review, a year later

The time is upon me to set a wish list for my Toronto International Film Festival 2012 schedule. Of course it’s filled with many tough choices, a matter made all the worse because, like last year, I drew a lousy time in the lottery for getting my selections fulfilled. I got just eight of my fifteen first choices, a percentage I’d like to improve on this September. Nevertheless, it ended up working out fairly well in 2011. I saw most of the films that were top priorities for me.

In anticipation of learning what I’ll be able to secure tickets for and what vouchers I may have to parlay into desired picks, I thought it would be interesting to examine how I did last year in terms of seeing what films have been accessible to me between festivals. There’s no single correct way of choosing films, but for the expense involved, it makes the most sense to me to catch movies that won’t be showing up in local theaters in the following couple months, if not before the end of the year. After all, without accounting for travel and accommodations for those who don’t live in or around Toronto, festival ticket prices are higher than regular admissions.

To my surprise, a majority of what I viewed at TIFF11 have still not hit Columbus screens. Ten of the twenty-three films I saw in Toronto have opened here:

-MELANCHOLIA (December 2, 2011)
-CRAZY HORSE (February 17, 2012)
-RAMPART (March 2, 2012)
-THIS IS NOT A FILM (IN FILM NIST) (March 30 & 31, 2012 only)
-YOUR SISTER’S SISTER (June 29, 2012)
-I WISH (KISEKI) (July 27, 2012)
-KILLER JOE (August 24, 2012)

Of these ten, only one (THE RAID: REDEMPTION) enjoyed a wide local release. DAMSELS IN DISTRESS, KILLER JOE, and YOUR SISTER’S SISTER played on two screens at their peak. The others appeared on just one Columbus screen.

Here’s the status of the other thirteen films:

In limited release - no Columbus screenings scheduled

Scheduled New York City/Los Angeles release date
-FROM UP ON POPPY HILL (KOKURIKO-ZAKA KARA) (2012 Academy Awards qualifying run; March 2013 - limited)
-GIRL MODEL (September 5, 2012 - limited)
-THE LONELIEST PLANET (October 26, 2012 - limited)

Unscheduled New York City/Los Angeles release

Available on DVD

No U.S. distribution

For comparison’s sake, here’s what happened with the first choices I didn’t get or received and traded in for something else:

Opened in Columbus
-MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE (November 11, 2011)
-LE HAVRE (January 13, 2012)
-A DANGEROUS METHOD (January 27, 2012)
-PINA (February 17, 2012)
-TAKE THIS WALTZ (July 13, 2012)

Scheduled Columbus opening
-360 (September 7, 2012)
-SAMSARA (October 12, 2012)

Available on DVD

I don’t suppose that knowing this will make missing out on something I really want to see at TIFF12 any easier, but it shows that not getting every top choice won’t ruin the festival experience either.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Skuriels 2012: The Greatest Films Ever

Following in the tradition of Sight & Sound’s Greatest Films poll and recent announcement of its decennial results, participants in the year-end film polls the Muriels and the Skandies combined forces as the Skuriels to determine what these cinephile communities consider the best movies ever.  The results can be found on the official awards site.

As a voter in the Muriels, I was invited to make twenty unranked selections.  I did not have time to contribute any commentary on the individual films in the group’s top 20 or my picks, so I thought I’d use this space to talk a bit about my methodology.

The task at hand was to name the twenty movies that best represent to me the greatest that cinema has to offer.  It probably goes without saying, but trying to winnow the history of cinema down to a list of twenty feature-length films is a foolhardy assignment.  On top of that, how do I distinguish between greatest films and favorite films?  Should I?  And how much consideration should I give to post-1968 films that have had a hard time making inroads in the S&S Top 10?

Although there’s no shortage of certified masterpieces, I decided that my list should be an accurate representation of my tastes and not merely a rubber stamping of canon.  I could have easily voted for twenty films made before I was born, but how interesting would that be?  (As it turns out, nine of those making the cut have been made in my lifetime.)  I made a conscious effort to put all decades on relatively equal footing.  Ultimately I selected the films that have made the biggest impressions on me and that I couldn’t bear to cut from the list.

I’ll note that, for all intents and purposes, BEFORE SUNSET represents it and its predecessor (BEFORE SUNRISE) and THREE COLORS: RED stands in for the trilogy.  Except for CHUNGKING EXPRESS, which I’ve only seen once, I’ve seen these listed films at least twice and count many of them among my most meaningful moviegoing experiences.  These aren’t merely films I like a lot; these are films that have left marks.  This unranked list isn't comprehensive--how could it be?--but it should provide a snapshot of the movies that matter deeply to me.

-The 400 Blows (Les quatre cents coups) (François Truffaut, 1959)
-2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)
-After Life (Wandâfuru raifu) (Hirokazu Kore-eda, 1998)
-Annie Hall (Woody Allen, 1977)
-Before Sunset (Richard Linklater, 2004)
-Chungking Express (Chung Hing sam lam) (Wong Kar-wai, 1994)
-Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)
-Man with a Movie Camera (Chelovek s kino-apparatom) (Dziga Vertov, 1929)
-Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927)
-Mulholland Dr. (David Lynch, 2001)
-Playtime (Jacques Tati, 1967)
-Rear Window (Alfred Hitchcock, 1954)
-The Red Shoes (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1948)
-Singin’ in the Rain (Stanley Donen, 1952)
-This is Spinal Tap (Rob Reiner, 1984)
-There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)
-Three Colors: Red (Trois couleurs: Rouge) (Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1994)
-The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011)
-The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Les parapluies de Cherbourg) (Jacques Demy, 1964)
-Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)

Friday, August 17, 2012

Under African Skies

UNDER AFRICAN SKIES (Joe Berlinger, 2012)

By most measures of success, Paul Simon’s 1986 album GRACELAND counts as a smash hit.  It has sold over 14 million copies and continues to enjoy a sterling critical reputation.  The album and title track won Grammys.  GRACELAND also was something of a career rebound after the disappointing commercial performance of his previous record, HEARTS AND BONES.

To others, hailing the album’s creative achievements in blending American pop and rock with South African musical styles was secondary to the political questions surrounding its creation.  Going against advice, Simon did not seek the approval of the African National Congress to collaborate with South African musicians and violated the cultural boycott the United Nations placed on the country during apartheid.  The documentary UNDER AFRICAN SKIES marks the 25th anniversary of GRACELAND’s release by revisiting the making of the album and the controversy associated with it.

Director Joe Berlinger organizes the film around Simon’s 2011 trip to Johannesburg to perform a concert celebrating the landmark album.  The singer-songwriter is reunited with those who played on the record and the tour and sits down to talk with Artists Against Apartheid co-founder Dali Tambo.  Although equal weight isn’t quite shared between Simon’s recollections and opinions and Tambo’s perspective, UNDER AFRICAN SKIES wrestles with the issues that differentiated these recording sessions from any other cross-cultural musical efforts.

Whether through naïveté or arrogance--or, more likely, some combination--Simon traveled to South Africa to work without accounting for the political consequences of his actions.  The points in contention are not minor.  Although he was not expressing support for racial segregation by going to South Africa, his critics suggest that ignoring the cultural boycott signified tacit approval of the National Party government.  Questions are also raised if he exploited South African musicians who made integral contributions to the songs.

UNDER AFRICAN SKIES is inclined to side with Simon’s view that as an artist he should not be required to submit to the disagreements and decisions between politicians and that he gave credit where it was due.  Short of parsing the liner notes, the archival footage of energetic recording sessions goes a long way in clarifying how important these hired musicians were in forming the songs’ foundations.  His justification for not following the cultural boycott is exceedingly idealistic, but it leaves open a topic that remains worthy of discussion.  South African music producer Koloi Lebona mentions that this album gave them a chance to make their music mainstream rather than keeping it confined to the Third World.  Does that make defying the boycott a nobler cause?  The lyrical contents of Simon’s songs were not at all political.  Should that matter?  

Berlinger tends to go over a lot of the same ground in UNDER AFRICAN SKIES in a bid to be thorough.  The repetition bolsters Simon’s defense while demonstrating that objections were also valid.  Even though, to some degree, the debates about Simon and South Africa are moot on this side of history, UNDER AFRICAN SKIES takes what could have been a puff piece glossing over the protestations related to GRACELAND and teaches the controversy.

Grade: B-

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Queen of Versailles

THE QUEEN OF VERSAILLES (Lauren Greenfield, 2012)

The numbers for the Orlando, Florida home of David and Jackie Siegel are astounding:  26,000 square feet, seventeen bathrooms, and a staff of nineteen employees, which includes more than one nanny.  More unbelievable is that the wealthy couple don’t think it is large enough.  The documentary THE QUEEN OF VERSAILLES begins as the Siegels are building what is reported to be the biggest home in America.

The gargantuan house is inspired by the royal Palace of Versailles during the Louis XIV period, albeit with many modern amenities.  The 90,000 square foot home will feature thirty bathrooms, ten kitchens, a bowling alley, health spa, two tennis courts, a full-size baseball field that can also be used as a parking lot, and an ice rink.  Versailles practically makes their current residence seem like a studio apartment.

Constructing a $100 million home just seems like the natural progression for the Siegels, for whom money is seemingly no concern.  74-year-old David is the founder, president, and CEO of Westgate Resorts, the largest privately owned timeshare company in the world.  43-year-old Jackie spends as if hundred dollar bills grow on trees and they own millions of acres of large denomination currency-yielding groves.

Then the September 2008 banking crisis hits.  As David explains, his business depends on easy access to cheap money.  The Siegels’ finances are intertwined with the company, so when the banks stop making loans, the impact on Westgate Resorts and the family’s fortune is severe.  The company lays off thousands.  The Siegels slash their house staff to four, move their eight kids from private to public schools, and look to sell $350 million in assets.  The unfinished Versailles, which they’ve already invested $50 million in, is placed on a market that essentially has no prospective buyers.
Considering the subjects and the wealth they flaunt, THE QUEEN OF VERSAILLES could have easily become SCHADENFREUDE: THE MOVIE. With their vulgar displays of moneyed privilege, the Siegels aren’t exactly going to win sympathy points from viewers who may earn less in a month than a financially pinched Jackie spends on a caviar treat for herself.  A former model and Mrs. Florida 1995, Jackie looks and plays the part of a trophy wife, an observation even one of her children makes.  David comes off as a loathsome person whose purpose in life is to accumulate as much cash as he can.  To top it off, the timeshare industry in which he made his riches seems particularly scummy.  Who wouldn’t take pleasure in seeing these people taken down a peg or ten?

Complicating the desire for the well-off to get their comeuppance is Jackie.  The initial impression is that she could be the template for any number of the horrid socialites and fame seekers with reality television shows.  Still, having once been a computer engineer, she’s likely smarter than her aging beauty queen appearance lets on.  While she comes from humble roots, she’s lost touch, as is in evidence when she goes to rent a car and asks the stupefied sales clerk who her driver will be.  Despite her witnessed shortcomings, Jackie cannot be effortlessly dismissed, especially when her generosity seems to come from a genuine place.  Jackie isn’t a blameless victim of circumstance.  She’s just been susceptible to the funhouse mirrors of extreme wealth around her.

Although director Lauren Greenfield documents several instances in which it’s apparent that the Siegels’ lifestyle is so alien from the vast majority that they might as well call Mars home, she hasn’t set out to eat the rich.  Like it or not, the Siegels are symptomatic of a culture at large that defines worth and happiness through consumption.  The difference between them and the rest of western society is a matter of proportion.  It’s easier to spot the motes in the Siegels’ eyes, but they are certainly not the only ones afflicted with chasing the idea that too much is not enough.  In the end, being forced to live paycheck to paycheck may provide more trappings of comfort in their surroundings, but the mental toll of financial distress is just as costly.

Grade: B+

Friday, August 03, 2012

Total Recall

TOTAL RECALL (Len Wiseman, 2012)

In TOTAL RECALL factory worker Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell) has a vivid dream in which he and a woman are being pursued by synthetic soldiers.  He wakes up to remember that he doesn’t live the thrilling life of a spy and that the beautiful woman beside him in bed is not the one which he fantasizes spending adventures with.

Quaid lives in The Colony, which used to be called Australia and is essentially the rundown home for the blue collar laborers in the United Federation of Britain.   A global chemical war has left much of the planet uninhabitable at the end of the 21st century, so working stiffs like Quaid must take an elevator-like transport--a sub-subway, if you will--that passes through the Earth’s core to the more affluent territory.  Times are tough in The Colony as the UFB’s Chancellor Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston) seeks to crack down on terrorists fighting back on the downtrodden’s behalf.

Feeling as though his life is missing something, Quaid eventually decides to visit Rekall, a company that can implant memories as if one actually experienced them. The only caveat is that customers cannot select memories that overlap with their real lives.  Quaid chooses the spy package, but things go wrong almost immediately.  The Rekall employee (John Cho) accuses Quaid of lying about his past, and next thing he knows the room is surrounded by law enforcement.  Through an exceptional display of physical skill and mental calculation, Quaid escapes and returns home to his wife Lori (Kate Beckinsale).
Are Quaid’s experiences part of what he purchased, or is he really a secret agent?  The appearance of Melina (Jessica Biel), the woman from his dreams, further confuses Quaid as to what is real. Director Len Wiseman’s remake doesn’t have much interest in the thematic questions the premise raises.  This TOTAL RECALL is less humorous and contemplative than Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 adaptation of the Philip K. Dick short story that is the basis for both films.  Nevertheless, it succeeds on the modest aims of a self-contained action/science fiction film.  The action scenes mostly work, particularly some chase sequences, although Wiseman thoroughly botches the spatial element of a fight in an elevator.

While clearly inspired by other films--BLADE RUNNER is liberally borrowed from--the production and art design are quite beautiful.  Considering that Wiseman utilized an almost monochrome palette for the two UNDERWORLD films he directed, it’s nice to see him utilizing more color in the noir-like gloom of TOTAL RECALL’s dystopia.  

Wiseman is better off when he frees himself from the strictures of replicating Verhoeven’s version.  The obvious nods to the other film are more distracting than anything.  The hat tips feel less like homage and more like dutiful item box checking. While Wiseman’s slick update probably has no good reason for existing other than a rights owner wanting to cash in a chip that takes advantage of today’s special effects, this TOTAL RECALL is a solidly entertaining blast of summer movie spectacle.

Grade: B