Tuesday, August 30, 2011

FOREIGN CORNER: Pierrot Le Fou (1965)

Different movies exist for different reasons. They stir in us varying emotions. Some films make us cry, some scare us, some make us laugh. Sometimes, a film exists to show us the art of film itself. These are unique experiences and challenging endeavors for many. Films meant to display the art of filmmaking often do not follow a linear path the way most conventional films do; they have asides and fragments and sometimes they break the all important fourth wall. Jean-Luc Godard began toying with the conventions of cinema with Pierrot Le Fou, his first foray into color. Until this moment, Godard had crafted a handful of small masterpieces, and his transition into color opened up new avenues for his distinctive eye. Pierrot Le Fou is, in some ways, a companion piece to Breathless, his greatest film. But at the same time it is something entirely individual.

The film stars Jean-Paul Belmondo, whom Godard used in Breathless. Belmondo plays Ferdinand, a man tired with his wife and the society types they spend time with at parties. An early party scene is filmed as an avant-garde sequence, with scenes bathed in solid green, blue and red Technicolor hues, where the inhabitants of the parties speak as if they were in product ads. Fed up with his lot in life, Ferdinand leaves with the babysitter, his former lover Marianne (Anna Karina). In a famous scene in Marianne’s flat, Ferdinand lays in her bed smoking while Marianne walks around the flat singing. The camera catches sight of a dead body in the other room, and the appearance of the body, while it changes the tone of the scene and the direction of the film, is handled in a very passive way. Ferdinand sees the body, glances at Marianne, an explanation is given that Marianne is being chased by gun-runners, and the two of them hit the road.

Road pictures have a certain freedom in their narrative direction. Anything is possible. In Pierrot Le Fou, Godard attempts to acknowledge the history of film, having the two lovers steal cars, commit crimes, spend a little time on a desert island reenacting Robinson Crusoe, all the while reciting their dialogue primarily as a poetic undertone to the proceedings. The couple drift apart eventually, but never completely apart. Belmondo appears drastically older than Karina (they were separated by ten years), as is the point, and Karina carries her sexuality subtly and without fanfare. The dialogue bounces back and forth between the two, picking up a rhythm.

A couple of times the fourth wall is broken, and the characters address the audience directly. This is a risky move for any film. It takes a certain suspension of disbelief away from the audience and tells them “look, you’re watching a movie. Remember that.” It can be a damaging move for a picture to do this, but Godard has set the stage effectively so when it happens, we may not expect it to happen but we accept it. Godard toys with convention throughout the film; sometimes it works more effectively than others, and sometimes scenes may last a bit too long. But the attempt is part of the journey.

Godard uses color brilliantly in Pierrot Le Fou. Everything is bright and vivid, the colors clean and sharp. The sun is always shining and the sky always cloudless so the sun can add brilliance. His actors are subjects in his moving piece of art. Many find it difficult to get into the work of Jean-Luc Godard, but his films are about evoking emotion. Not sadness or happiness or fright, but just a mood and a feeling that you would get walking around an art museum. You allow paintings to wash over you, and with Pierrot Le Fou, if you do the same thing you will be pleasantly surprised.

Friday, August 26, 2011

FRIDAY SCATTER-SHOOTING: Fall Fever Edition

* Will anyone see this Colombiana movie?

* You know, September is actually shaping up to be a solid movie month for a change. First of all, Ryan Gosling’s Drive is the main attraction. I am pretty excited about Apollo 18 as well.
Contagion. Moneyball. Looks like maybe most of the crap has been dumped here in the end of August.

* This Warrior movie, about the MMA fighting brothers, is getting a lot of buzz right now. But I just don’t get it. Doesn’t intrigue me at all.

* Speaking of being confused… Hugh Jackman and this Real Steel movie? This is Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots, only surrounded by the Over the Top narrative. Count me out.

* George Clooney is going to be all over the awards circuit this season. Along with Ryan Gosling.

* Of all the sports movies, football has to be the toughest sport to film realistically. I can’t think of one football movie where the action looks the least bit authentic.

* I think Ben Affleck will win a Best Director Oscar one of these days.

* I’m not sure about the trailer for The Rum Diary, with Johnny Depp returning to Hunter Thompson land. Maybe it will be good, but as of now I am pretty skeptical.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

THURSDAY THROWBACK: Straw Dogs (1971)


In his time, Sam Peckinpah was always the director to test the limits with his cinematic opinions on violence and sexuality. He took the direction away from violence in his films, never allowing his films to be predetermined as to who might wind up in the crosshairs. His masterpiece is The Wild Bunch, one of the finest of all Westerns. But one of his smaller films, and one that has been remade and set for a Septmeber release, is Straw Dogs. It is a slow-burning picture on a much smaller scale than The Wild Bunch. But it too examines the violent side of human nature, albeit with a different approach.

The picture stars Dustin Hoffman as David Sumner, a mathematician who has moved to a small English village with his new wife, Amy (Susan George). The two live in a quaint cottage in the outskirts. Amy has a past in this village, as evidenced early on by the leering eyes of the men in town. Amy is a tart, a natural flirt, and the rogues of the town desire her. David is conscious of these men, but he is an intellectual and not a brute standing on equal ground with them. He attracts slanted stares when he walks into the pub; he comes off as spineless in countless early scenes. Clearly Amy is attracted to David’s mind, but the men in town bring with them a base, animalistic hunger Amy cannot ignore.

There is a great deal of tension straight from the opening scenes of Straw Dogs, where the stage is set and the story divided between the writer with the glasses and the carpenters with the hammers. These men, led by nobody in particular, enjoy playing torturous mind games with David and Amy, even going so far as to hang their cat in the closet. They push and poke David, and he does not return the aggression for quite some time. We get glimpses into what separates David from the ruffians, specifically a quiet, introspective hunting sequence where David shoots a quail and feels a great deal of remorse. He is not one of these men, and they can smell it on him.

There was a great deal of controversy surrounding Straw Dogs, especially a rape scene near the end of the second act. Amy appears, at one moment, as the men are attacking her, to be enjoying the assault more than abhorring it. There is the smallest hint of a smile from Amy as she weakly fends off her attacker. This is a turning point in the film, and a source of anger for many when the film was released in 1971. Peckinpah has always held women with a certain sensual opinion, and here he pushes his objectifications to the brink. But I see a purpose in his actions; perhaps David’s attempt to civilize Amy was never an idea that would work. She is of this world. On the one hand, you feel sorry for Amy, on the other you pity David. But never the two at the same time.

The final act of Straw Dogs is David standing up for Amy, and for a simpleton they are protecting after a tragic accident. But more than this, it is David standing up for himself. The last twenty minutes is a series of violent assaults and attacks from both sides. David gets the better of the men as they fight to break in to David’s home. There is a bear trap and boiling whisky and, eventually , a fire. But Straw Dogs is never really about brains versus brawn; instead it is about growing a backbone when there is no other choice.

Dustin Hoffman serves the character of David admirably, growing into the role of a fighting man. And Susan George manages to ooze a sort of juvenile sensuality with ease. Peckinpah uses editing rather than music to emphasize the tension in his story. Quick jump cuts and flashes show Amy thinking about the rape in the middle of a party, so much so that she has to leave. Peckinpah makes good use of the canted angle in the final act, keeping the viewer off balance until David gains his strength and confidence.

I understand this Straw Dogs remake takes place in the south, which stands in for the barbaric medieval European village in the original. Fair enough. I am always willing to give remakes a chance if I feel the original is not exempt to being polished in one way or another. Sure, the original is not particularly a classic, but in 1971 Peckinpah was able to pull a few things off that will be frowned upon if they are transferred respectfully to the remake. This original has its place in the realm of controversial cinema. I can almost assure there will be no smile this time around. And, of course, there will be no Peckinpah.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Where Can A Guy Get Some Action Around Here?

When was the last time you saw a good action flick? Now, I’m not talking about any film with superheroes or CGI robots, I am talking about a good old-fashioned shoot ‘em up with car chases and explosions and one liners and some wit. What has happened to the modern action picture? It has changed, and not for the better in my opinion. Sure, Jason Statham does his best to make action films entertaining, and from time to time he manages to pull it off, but even then his action films exist on a different plane. Action films have gone the way of pop culture, an assault on the senses and pandering to the ADD America. Studios and producers have opted not to waste their time on any character development or back story beyond what they deem necessary to drive the action. In place of character, they have a second helping of action. They have a kinetic, mind-numbing assault on the senses that ultimately means very little.

I will be using the original Die Hard as a reference point here, because for my money Die Hard is the most complete action film ever made. My arguments for this belong in another article, so for the sake of time just accept it. Die Hard is a grand action spectacle with fabulous set pieces, gunplay, and explosions. There are also elements of Die Hard that you will not see in modern action films. Die Hard has a great deal of suspense, a buildup of tension not manipulated by an overbearing score. There was humor, sure, just like all action films, but there was also character development beyond drawing a rough sketch. John McClane was having problems in his marriage, and things had boiled over just before the terrorists seized control, so there is more than the immediate issue to handle. And, of course, there was the perfect villain in Alan Rickman, a subtle and effective foil.

If you would like to see how Die Hard would be made in these modern times, look at Die Hard 4 where McClane wound up fighting an F-16 in the streets of D.C. The villain was an afterthought, and the stunts grew to a point where believability didn’t matter anymore. Everything was big and over the top and, thus, completely lacking in any emotional resonance. Remember the rooftop explosion in the original Die Hard? That carried consequence and a certain level of realism, so much so that when McClane leapt from the roof with the fire hose tied around his waist, the audience had a unique reaction: feeling. They felt the action and held their breath, and the result is a memorable explosion sequence. Now try and remember a single explosion in the fourth Die Hard. Nothing sticks out.

Of course this is comparing the quality of caviar from one era to the next, so what about the big dumb action films? They have just gotten dumber. Sure, the effects are smarter and the technology greater, but no time is spent on anything in action pictures these days. Van Damme’s run in the 90s was undoubtedly one of idiocracy, but there was still a level of patience in the direction of the story. As horrible as he was as an actor, the films still bothered to tell a story amid the action. Tell me one plot point about The A-Team? Aside from what you know from the series. I dare you.

Action films are about excess these days, and the attention to detail is lost. Consider another franchise in the Mission: Impossible films. The original picture from Brian DePalma was the thinking man’s action flick, with stunning set pieces but a great deal of development and suspense. Now check out the trailer for the new Mission: Impossible film, Ghost Protocol. In a two minute montage, the Kremlin is blown up (obviously CGI), Cruise’s Ethan Hunt must roll to dodge a car falling out of the sky, and he also must outrun a giant cloud of gas or smoke or something. It is an assault of action, and all three of these things I just mentioned are CGI. Action films have suffered with technology because they have lost the boundaries of realism. When you know something is impossible in the real world, you lose a level of investment in the fake one.

CGI has destroyed attention to detail because everything can be filled in or sharpened in the editing room. The bus jump in Speed would be all CGI these days, rather than the need to actually jump a real bus off a ramp and edit it later. But CGI isn’t the only real issue. The demographic has changed. Action films have always been tailored for males 15-25, and in the 80s and 90s this demographic had the capacity to focus for more than a few seconds. Technology is not only affecting the action on the screen, it is affecting the way action directors must direct their film. There cannot be any down time anymore. Never again will you see something like the heartfelt speech from a desperate John McClane, telling Al Powell to tell his wife he is sorry for not being a better husband. We don’t have time for that in our action films anymore, we need more fire.

There are still solid action films. Just a few short years ago The Hurt Locker stole the Oscars. But it’s not necessarily the fact they must be award winning. What is wrong with a little patience and a little attention to detail? Even in the cheesiest action flicks? Studios and action directors have their hands tied by the desire of the demographic, and the advancement to technology. I don’t know if there is any way to get a grass roots movement back to realistic action films. I have high hopes for Drive, the Ryan Gosling chase film that looks nothing short of amazing. It appears to be using real cars in real situations. Perhaps that’s a start.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

DVD REVIEW: The Beaver

It is too bad Mel Gibson has, in a few short years, ruined his reputation as an actor and a human being. Even though his disease has gotten the better of him, Gibson has been one of the most magnetic and commanding actors going into his fourth decade. His face can no longer hide the damage he has done to his body and his mind, and it shines through his eyes, once glimmering, now glossed. Maybe that is why his last two roles have been so dark and dreary. Edge of Darkness had Mel playing an angry man who lost his daughter violently and is looking for revenge. And here, in The Beaver, Gibson reaches even further inside his own life, playing a deeply depressed alcoholic losing his family and his company. I say all that to say Gibson is not the problem with The Beaver. He is perhaps the one bright spot.

Gibson is Walter Black, the CEO of a toy company who is depressed. We are told this through narration by The Beaver himself. Walter seems way beyond depression, into an even lower area of psychological dismay. He has two sons. The youngest, Henry, just loves his dad. His teenage son, Porter (Anton Yelchin), hates Walter, and is collecting a list of things he does similar to his father so that he can work on ridding himself of those things. Walter’s wife is Meredith (Jodie Foster), and in the opening scenes has had enough of Walter’s depression. She kicks him out, reluctantly, where Walter stocks up on booze and tries to kill himself unsuccessfully in a hotel room.

Walter finds a beaver hand puppet in the garbage outside his hotel, and after his suicide attempt goes awry he finds himself communicating with this beaver, which is on his hand and speaking back to him with a Cockney accent. This isn’t going on in Walter’s head; Walter is actually speaking, but as The Beaver. He finds this therapeutic, and returns to his life with a blue index card he gives to everyone explaining that Walter is under the care of The Beaver. Walter has some success with his family (although Porter naturally rejects the idea of The Beaver) and has some fabulous success with his company. Meredith goes with it because she loves Walter, and if this helps then maybe he is getting better. Of course, when the time comes to shed The Beaver and return to some semblance of normalcy, Walter cannot process living without his little furry friend.

If this sounds absurd, well, it kind of is. The notion that Walter would re-enter his life with a beaver puppet attached to his hand is a wild premise that seems hard to accept. But in the world of the film, you accept the idea. That is not to say you don’t grow weary of the idea, which is where the problems begin to arise. Early on, The Beaver is intriguing as Walter seems to be getting progressively better. But about the time Meredith grows tired of the bit, so do we. Walter refuses to surrender the puppet, and he begins to reveal his depression as madness. He is not depressed so much as he is psychologically unstable. The whole endeavor becomes repetitive.

I think part of the problem is the disconnect with Walter from the beginning. The Beaver commits a basic sin in storytelling 101; it tells us when it should be showing us. The Beaver tells us Walter is depressed, and tells us the things his depression is doing to his life. Sure, we get glimpses of Walter floating in a pool or falling asleep or crying in his therapist’s office, but they are backed by The Beaver telling us everything in a brief montage. We need more showing. We need a development of Walter’s depression, or perhaps we need to see that moment in his life where he became so desperate. As it is we are just supposed to accept his depression without back story or motivation, which really takes the wind out of the narrative sails before anything ever happens.

Gibson does a great job as Walter, maybe because he has a certain comfort level in playing a man emotionally and psychologically damaged. Foster, who also directed, seems appropriately tense, but never has another gear. Yelchin’s Connor is an interesting teenage character, fighting to not become his father. But there is a subplot involving his flirtation with the valedictorian (Jennifer Lawrence, wasted here) that ultimately goes nowhere and feels like an entirely different film. There are very few interesting ideas in The Beaver, and the picture is undone by a screenplay in too much of a hurry to get to The Beaver and remain there much too long. We could have had less time with the puppet, and maybe more time investing the audience in Walter’s plight.

C

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Fright Night


FRIGHT NIGHT: Colin Farrell, Anton Yelchin, David Tennant, Imogen Poots (106 min.)

Fright Night is a horror flick with a smirk. It’s a good-humored remake of a 1985 horror film which carried with it the same amount of tongue-in-cheek wit and energy as this modernization. The main alteration this time around is, rather than setting the events in Anytown Suburbia, this Fright Night takes place in the very alienated suburban cubes of Las Vegas, where desert surrounds stamped out houses where people work at night on the strip. So it’s not that unusual when Jerry, the new neighbor of Charley Brewster and his mother, Jane, moves in next door and keeps odd hours.

Charley, played by Anton Yelchin, begins to suspect his new neighbor, Jerry, is a vampire. He is convinced by his former best friend, Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), after a few amateur investigations leads to a few clues popping up. Charley does some detective work, and his investigations draw the attention of Jerry before long.

Jerry is played by Colin Farrell, and it is clear Farrell is enjoying his work here. In this modern age of vampire saturation, Farrell eschews the Edward Cullen stigmas and the super-charged aggressive attitudes of True Blood vamps to deliver Jerry as a calm, cool, sauntering vamp. He oozes a sex appeal that the women around the block, Charley’s mother Jane (Toni Collette) included, cannot get past. Until, of course, they begin to believe Charley’s suspicions and Jerry gets tired of hiding who he is. The original Fright Night took a little more time developing the story and getting to the action; this time around we are dropped into the action fairly quickly.

After Charley and his mom, and his lovely girlfriend Amy (Imogen Poots) are forced to flee their home in a thrilling car chase through the desert streets (pay attention to the way the camera rotates inside the car during the chase scene. It’s an inventive and engaging way to film the action inside and outside the car), Charley seeks the advice of Peter Vincent. In the original, Vincent was an aging host of a late night vampire slaying horror show played by Roddy McDowall. This time, Peter Vincent is a drunken sot, the leader of a vampire-slaying magic show on the strip in Vegas. David Tennant plays Vincent as a jaded Vegas celebrity with a quick wit and a sardonic attitude. Tennant lights up the screen as Vincent, bringing the humor into the forefront of the story.

The proceedings follow a predictable arc once Charley and Peter team up to destroy Jerry. But the acting is devoted and the players are having a good time; and you can sense them enjoying what they are doing. That enjoyment translates through the screen. Fright Night isn’t here to win any awards, but you have to credit a film that knows what it is and has a good time going through those motions.

B+

Friday, August 19, 2011

FRIDAY SCATTER-SHOOTING: Remakes of Reboots of Sequels to Prequels

* I think it’s time to take the camera away from Ridley Scott, as much as I hate that. It’s been a while since Ridley made a decent film; Robin Hood was a bore and so was that other one with Russell Crowe (can’t even remember the name of it). Now, after he’s been working on some remake/prequel thing to Alien called Prometheus, he’s announced he wants to remake his own classic, Blade Runner. Blade Runner?!?! You cannot remake this, Sir Ridley. This is equivalent to Francis Coppola redoing The Godfather. Blade Runner is a classic, a brilliant film, so don’t touch it. Move. On.

* Remember the rumor floating around in the early 2000s that Coppola was working on a fourth Godfather film? It was to be a prequel surrounding the rise of Sonny Corleone (James Caan, of course) and starring Leo Dicaprio. Now I love both Coppola and Dicaprio, but isn’t this world a little bit better, just a little, after this never materialized? I think so.

* Certain remakes are just fine. Fright Night is a fun 80s vampire flick, and remaking it is quite alright with me. This is no sacred cow.

* Something I noticed while watching the original Fright Night, when considering the time and place of this remake. The original was released at a time when teen slashers were the entire craze in Hollywood. Roddy McDowell’s Peter Vincent character even makes mention of this. Freddy and Jason had the horror market sewn up in 1985, so a vampire film was something off the beaten path and out of the ordinary. Nowadays, that vampire path is well beaten by True Blood and Robert Pattinson, so there is immediately something working against Fright Night.

* That being said, Edward Cullen can go straight to hell.

* Even these new photos of Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel look too… Zack Snydery. Every picture has that steely-hued palette and looks like it’s being filmed for the purposes of digital slow-motion. I really hope this Superman is good, it’s been thirty years since there’s been a decent Superman film. I just don’t have very high hopes.

* And you know what a better title than Man of Steel is? Superman.

* First Footloose, and now Dirty Dancing… the heads of thirty-year old women all around the world are exploding. As much as the guys are pissed about Blade Runner, hey, none of us guys ever tried any of the dance moves in Blade Runner endlessly for “that one special summer” in our formative years.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

THURSDAY THROWBACK: Road to Perdition (2002)

Road to Perdition is about doomed men, about fathers and sons searching for a way through the world of sin they created. Yet somehow, through it all, Sam Mendes is able to find a glimmer of hope. That is a specialty of Mendes whose debut feature American Beauty, a film of great despair and yet the tiniest, paper-thin gleam of optimism, stormed the Academy Awards in 1999. Road to Perdition is his follow up, a gangster picture set in the 30s around the time of the Depression. It may have not received the endless accolades of his first picture, but here is Sam Mendes’ masterpiece.

The story involves generations of a family. Of sorts. Tom Hanks plays Michael Sullivan, adopted at a young age by John Rooney, a powerful Chicago gangster played by Paul Newman. Naturally, Michael becomes involved in the family business and takes on the role of the muscle for Rooney. He becomes the son Rooney never had, treated with much more respect by Rooney than Rooney’s own son, Connor (Daniel Craig, pre-Bond bulk), who is a miscreant and a spoiled brat. Michael has a family, a wife (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who knows not to ask questions about Michael’s work, a young son, and a teenage boy, Michael Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin), whose growing curiosity about his father’s work drives the beginnings of the plot.

One night, when Michael leaves to “talk to” a disgruntled store owner whose brother has been murdered, young Michael stows away under the back seat. He witnesses a murder, is discovered, and is immediately a liability. And things change and shift within the “family” Michael has known his whole life. Rooney appears, taking inventory of Michael’s family and making certain young Michael will remain silent. There is an assassination attempt that goes awry, leaving Michael and Michael Jr. to hit the road and hideout from Rooney and Connor. Loyalty only goes so far in the underworld, until livelihoods are threatened.

Michael plans on getting Michael Jr. to his relatives’ home in Perdition, but first he has an idea. He plans on collecting enough money for the two of them to be comfortable, so he travels across Illinois cleaning out banks holding Rooney’s money and Al Capone’s money. In the meantime, a bounty hunter has been assigned to track them down. The bounty hunter is Jude Law, seething and gruesome with long nails and a sick habit of photographing the people he kills. This second act of the film is also a way to get Michael and Michael Jr. alone together on the road, where they learn to love one another in ways they never did before. Michael’s work has withdrawn him from his son, made him a cold person, and as the two of them travel the bond they form will forever change them.

Predestination is a big factor in Road to Perdition. These men have sinned, are wicked men, and have but one lot in life. Michael wants nothing more than to free his son of the path he has laid. There are thrilling moments of action, a great deal of introspective moments, and scenes existing somewhere in between the two. The final showdown between Michael and Rooney is one such moment, a thrilling action sequence shot without the sound of gunfire or the display of gore. It draws us into the ramifications of the moment rather than the sensationalism of the violence.

These gangster films are nothing unfamiliar to cinema, ones existing in the world of fedoras and Tommy guns. But there has never been a more beautiful film set in this world. Cinematographer Conrad Hall, who also filmed American Beauty for Mendes, captures a deliberate mood and coldness in his elegant compositions. The rain-soaked streets, the snowy fields, the sunny beaches, all drive the mood of the story and make it something more than a gangster film. Road to Perdition is one of the most beautiful films ever in my opinion. And within these serene settings exists some powerful, yet subdued acting from Hanks, Newman (who would get his final Oscar nomination here), and the saucer-eyed Hoechlin. And Jude Law’s bounty hunter rages below the surface of the father/son story, appearing like a wicked messenger of death.

Even in the direst films, ones he is very adept at creating, Sam Mendes manages to create the thinnest sliver of hope. He did it with American Beauty, Jarhead to an extent (Revolutionary Road not so much). Here, despite the subject matter, Mendes leaves us with the possibility of redemption for young Michael. Even in the biggest tragedy, in a world predetermined for the sinners, there still may be a chance to save the innocent.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

DVD REVIEW: Trust

Trust is a movie with a scenario, one that is frightening in its realism and devastating in its results. It is about a very real problem, one which has existed for a long time, but is much too easy in this new age of technology. David Schwimmer may be best known for playing the lovably put upon Ross in Friends, the defining sitcom of a generation, but here, as a director, Schwimmer is not concerned with laughs. He is conveying a message through his film, through some of the most powerful performances of the year in any film I have seen thus far.

Clive Owen is Will, father of a very ordinary family in the Chicago suburbs. That is to say, the family is happy, well-to-do but not wealthy. His wife, Lynn (the always excellent Catherine Keener), is nothing more than a good mother. Will and Lynn have two children and their son is headed off to college. This leaves Annie, their fourteen-year old daughter played by newcomer Liana Liberato. Annie is a good kid, raised in a good home with good parents. She is trying out for the volleyball team and trying to get the older kids at high school to like her. She has the normal pressures of acceptance and adolescence familiar to every fourteen-year old on the planet. But kids these days also have new technological outlets; they carry them in their hands and sit staring at them in their bedroom.

One night in a teen chat room Annie meets Charlie. Charlie says first he is a fifteen-year old volleyball player from California, and he and Annie spark a relationship. They exchange numbers and begin texting. Their relationship evolves, and Charlie has a confession: he is really 20. Then later he says he is 25. Annie feels hurt but Charlie continues to sweet talk her and manipulates her fragile emotional state. He pinpoints the insecurities of a young girl whose father may be a little too busy or preoccupied, through no fault of his own, and who may be having a tough time fitting in at school. Annie agrees to meet Charlie one Saturday afternoon at the mall. When Charlie arrives, he is clearly well into his thirties. But Charlie is a smooth talker, and he gets Annie to “just walk around” with him. The walk turns into ice cream, then a car ride, then a trip back to the motel room.

Annie is raped, and Schwimmer handles this scene with a supreme amount of tact. There is nothing graphic necessarily, but the chilling way in which the scene unfolds was more than enough to turn my stomach. The moment in the motel room is a disgusting moment, appropriately, and sets the stage for the rest of the film. It has been quite some time since a film affecting my sensibilities the way this one does in a few minutes.

Annie returns to her life and, despite her calls and texts, she cannot get in contact with Charlie. It isn’t long before her secret is revealed to the school authorities and she is taken to the police station where her parents find out. From this moment, Trust becomes less about Charlie and more about the family and how they manage the situation. Charlie is almost never seen again, almost, and serves like a nagging specter floating outside this crushed family unit. While Lynn has her moments to approach the situation with Annie, it is Will and Annie we focus on. And rightfully so.

Will feels helpless, failed as a father, and desperately tries to go around the FBI agent investigating the crime. He zones out at work, imagining violent things. He grows obsessed with finding Charlie, and loses sight of the issues he could take care of at home. I am a huge admirer of Owen as an actor, and here (especially in the final scenes) Owen delivers some of his most compelling work as an actor.

Meanwhile, Annie is dealing with her emotions with the help of a school counselor (Alfre Woodard in a small but effective performance). I cannot remember a more grounded, more powerful performance from a young actress like the one here from Liberato. The conflicts she feels seem so genuine and so realistic, her performance pulls you deep into the confused mind of a fourteen-year old girl who has been violated, but struggles with her emotions towards her attacker. She misses Charlie, as crazy as it seems, and Liberato conveys these emotions so effectively that we have no choice but to believe them.

Trust may work conventionally as a family drama, but the convention of the story is the point; this is something that can and does happen to the most normal families. Young girls are assaulted in this way through pedophiles trolling chat rooms at an alarming rate, and not all of these girls live in broken homes. They may live in busy homes with busy parents who mean well, but is that not the status quo in this day and age? Trust is a profound piece of filmmaking, one of the most important films of the year, and one of the best. As the story may follow convention, the film then relies on the authenticity of the performances, and from top to bottom these actors make you believe.

And there are no easy answers or solid resolutions in Trust, there is simply an end. The final scene running alongside the credits will send chills down your spine. Trust will make any parent reevaluate the importance of technology in their childrens’ lives, and reconsider the way they parent altogether. This is a changing world, and there are dangers all around for the children of this modern society. Parents cannot be everywhere all the time. But they must stay more aware today than they ever have been in generations past.

A

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

TUESDAY TOP 10: The Best of Matt Damon

With Contagion just around the corner (the movie, not an actual pandemic – everybody stay calm), I felt it a good time to take stock of Matt Damon’s career to this point. You could really divide his career into four parts, similar to high school classifications. There was definitely a freshman year where he was the freshest, most promising face; there was undoubtedly a sophomore slump with his failed attempts at Oscar bait like Bagger Vance and All the Pretty Horses; his junior year was resurgence into the new area of action and a return to leading-man status once again. And now as we enter Damon’s senior year – not to say he is getting old, he’s just become a complete, mature actor – it’s a nice time to look back on his better roles.

10) The Informant! – While I didn’t particularly care for this film, about a Midwestern buffoon turned FBI informant, I did appreciate Damon’s dedication to the role. Damon plays Mark Whitacre as a clueless, witless, pudgy middle manager with delusions of grandeur that carry him right into prison – by accident of all things. Steven Soderbergh’s small picture is a mishmash of tone and forgettable for the most part; but Damon puts a lot of great energy and effort – and a ridiculous moustache – into this role. It shows a range Damon has to switch from comedy to drama in the same character.

9) Ocean’s Eleven –
This was about the time of Damon’s resurgence, as he would pull himself out of the depths of box office purgatory. Of course, Ocean’s Eleven has one of the biggest, most entertaining ensemble casts in any movie. But Damon, playing Linus Caldwell the pickpocket with the famous father, shows that he can more than hang with the likes of George Clooney and Brad Pitt. The caper relies on his quick wit and his intelligence, quite the opposite kind of role from The Informant! (yet, the second Soderbergh film on this list already), and this is the picture which reminded audiences Matt Damon was still around and still had something to show us.

8) Saving Private Ryan – Once again, Matt Damon is not the central draw to this ensemble piece. Here is the best World War II picture ever made, one focusing on a group of soldiers trying to track down the last surviving brother of a family of soldiers. While the focus may be on the great collection of actors in the platoon, and of course on Tom Hanks’ subtly brilliant work as the Captain, the Private Ryan in the title is Damon. What is so interesting about Damon’s portrayal of Ryan is the way he changes perception of the character. Before we even meet him, through the words of a bitter platoon, we have a negative opinion of Ryan. But it turns out he is a courageous man, unwilling to leave his men behind regardless of his situation. It’s a small role, but perhaps the most vital of the whole film.

7) Rounders – Every self-respecting poker player has seen Rounders. And every person who has ever had an interest in the game even though they have never played it beyond their computer screen or their buddy’s basement wants to see Rounders or has seen it. This is poker’s own version of Paul Newman’s The Hustler, about a down-and-out Texas Hold ‘Em shark trying to fly straight and keep his relationship intact. Damon is Mike, the more than capable card player who is managing to keep himself in line until his brother, played by Ed Norton, gets out of prison and gets him right back into the underground poker world. Damon is a great straight man for the action, perfect for a cast of colorful characters surrounding him.

6) Dogma – Damon and his close friend, Ben Affleck, have always had a close relationship with director Kevin Smith; which typically means they have a role in his films, big or small. In Smith’s examination of organized religion, Damon plays Loki, the mischievous God of War. His friend, Bartleby, is Affleck here. Once again, Damon is a portion of a larger ensemble cast, a role where he seems to be quite comfortable. While the cast sprawls out around him, it is Loki who is the central villain of the film, shrugging off Bartleby’s more reasonable approaches and opting for violence. It’s an interesting role for anyone, but especially for Damon whose golden-boy sheen was still quite bright in 1999.

5) True Grit – Once again, Damon is part of a larger whole, and fills out his role admirably. He is LeBoeuf, a cocky Texas Ranger on the trail of Tom Chaney, right alongside Rooster Cogburn and Mattie Ross. It is clear Damon really enjoys this role, playing it always with a slight grin, a wink to the humor of the character. He also shares some chemistry with Jeff Bridges, as Cogburn, that is interesting more than fluid. They seem to be complete opposites of each other, and typically they are. As LeBoeuf, Damon is at first unlikeable, but soon grows as a character to become the important third lead in the picture.

4) The Bourne Identity – So the second and third films in this trilogy, Supremacy and Ultimatum, might be tighter, more succinct, and more thrilling overall, there is no denying the impact of The Bourne Identity. Remember, this is the film which changed James Bond, however indirectly. Damon plays Bourne, a trained assassin with amnesia and a case of moral conflict. I remember thinking Damon was an odd choice when the film was released, because he had never done anything physical like this. But he is more than up to the task of making Jason Bourne a quick, athletic killing machine. And Damon’s demeanor makes the moral conflict inside Bourne more than believable. This was the film that got Damon back on top.

3) The Departed – Maybe Martin Scorsese should hire Matt Damon more often. One picture together, one Best Picture statue, one Best Director statue. Of course, the awards weren’t all directly linked to Damon’s portrayal of Colin, one side of a duo of double-crossers on opposite sides of the law. But his role as one of the three leads is crucial. Despite the outward action of the film, it is the inward acting of Damon which makes his character equally as fascinating as Dicaprios. Colin must be always on his toes as he works inside the State Police, supplying Jack Nicholson’s Frank Costello with inside information. He stays a step ahead for the majority of the film, until things catch up to him. We all remember that great last line from Colin as he stands in his apartment looking at Mark Wahlberg…

2) Good Will Hunting – Damon had been working for several years before Good Will Hunting, but not many people remember that. If they do, they might have a hard time remembering any of the films he was in before making a huge splash here, with the picture for which he and Ben Affleck would win Best Original Screenplay and have one of the more memorable Oscar speeches of all time. Damon is the focus of the film, Will Hunting, an abused and impoverished Boston kid who also happens to be a certified genius. Damon is perfect in this role, and the chemistry he shares with Robin Williams as his mentor and father figure is top notch.

1) The Talented Mr. Ripley – While it may not have the re-watchability (not even a word) of some of the films on this list, this is Matt Damon’s most complex, compelling, and challenging role of his career. The film, an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel (there are a few more adaptations of “Ripley” novels, one starring John Malkovich) follows Tom Ripley as he cons and murders his way into high society. While Ripley is a brilliant con artist, he is also a sexually confused and insecure young man, and Damon portrays this complexity with such brilliantly subtle nuances and inner actions. Damon was great here before falling into his sophomore slump. This was an early indication of Damon’s power as an actor willing to take risks.

Friday, August 12, 2011

FRIDAY SCATTER-SHOOTING: Monster Movies, Oscar Movies

* We have hit the wall for summer movie season. The big release is 30 Minutes or Less. Beyond this, we have Fright Night next week and then… garbage time.

* As much as I get annoyed by remakes and reboots and all this nonsense, I am looking forward to the Fright Night remake. The first one is campy fun, not a classic, so a remake suits me just fine. Colin Farrell looks like he’s having a good time.

* Remember how werewolves were going to be the next big monster hit and take over vampires? That never materialized, mostly because every werewolf movie has been terrible.

* I just remembered, we have more Twilight movies to endure. Gross.

* Sometimes, George Clooney’s films look really dull in their trailer. Beyond the stellar cast, The Ides of March trailer didn’t excite me one bit. But I have a feeling it will be an excellent political drama.

* I think Ryan Gosling gets an Oscar this year. He has a few chances. Even though Drive is primarily an action film, the buzz around it might keep it alive for Oscar time.

* I haven't heard any buzz yet for many Oscar movies coming out this fall. Typically, you catch wind of a handful by now, but nothing so far. And I don’t think there was an Inception in this summer movie season.

* I never understand how certain actors and directors don’t watch their own work. Some of the people who do that are missing out on some great films. Now, if you’re someone like Ashton Kutcher or Josh Hartnett, I don’t blame you for not watching them.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

THURSDAY THROWBACK: Gattaca (1997)

For the most part, science-fiction films can be loosely categorized into two types. There is the alien type, heavy on invasions and monsters and horror. Then, there is the science fiction of ideas, films which examine the direction of humanity and play with the fringe idea of modern technology. There are good and bad films of both types, and one of the most intriguing examples of the science fiction of ideas is Gattaca, a sleek, sharp futuristic noir examining the notions of genetic engineering. If people were created in labs, without the disadvantages of illness or sub-par intelligence or any inferior human traits, would we in a sense lose our social identity?

In the near future, as the title card suggests, science has perfected genetic engineering, so much so that prospective parents are given the option to genetically create their children. These are test tube babies, built by the strongest genetic traits of each parent so that they may live long, healthy, productive lives. This is not a requirement, however, and some children are still born naturally, with the threat of flaws. At birth, the natural-born children have their blood tested and are given a life expectancy and probability of disease or affliction. These “In-Valids” as they are called, then grow into the worker bees of the community, cleaning office buildings and taking out the garbage, while the test-tube children grow into productive and privileged members of society.

Our navigator through the picture is Vincent (Ethan Hawke), a natural-born citizen intent on bucking the system. Vincent has never accepted his lot in life, always challenging his genetically-perfected brother in his youth. And now as he works in a space-travel office, Gattaca, Vincent is determined to become one of the elite and join the rare excursion to one of Jupiter’s moons. He hires a black-market identity broker who then sets him up with Jerome (Jude Law), a genetically-engineered man who suffered an injury which has confined him to a wheelchair and cast him out of the space program. Jerome supplies him with blood, urine, fingerprints, everything Vincent will need to take on his identity at Gattaca.

Gattaca is a cold and sterile office, swept clean of human debris daily. There is a murder of a mission director and the investigation by two detectives (Alan Arkin and Loren Dean) who begin to suspect someone may be cheating the system. This is the hook of Gattaca, the driving tension, as Vincent must strategically fight a system where identity is confirmed at every turn. He falls in with Irene (Uma Thurman) a worker at Gattaca who, despite her engineering, has been passed over for space travel because of some test scores.

There is a great deal of tension and suspense in Gattaca, dealing with the murder investigation. But we know Vincent is not guilty. Where the tension arises is where the investigation tightens on Vincent and the detectives get closer to discovering he is a fraud. Gattaca is less an action film, however, and more of a calm thriller where the notion of what makes us human is under constant scrutiny. People become genetically engineered, and are more or less perfected as humans, but aren’t the very things which make us human are our flaws? This conundrum is made clear in the offices of Gattaca, where workers type away in endless rows of desks without any glimpse of imperfection.

Hawke is a perfect fit as Vincent, mixing humanity with the forced sterility as an imposter in Gattaca. He and Jude Law have wonderful chemistry, living in an apartment together and each getting their own satisfaction by cheating the system. Gattaca is a sharp looking film, angular and with beautifully composed set design and camera work. The hints of green, a natural color, accent the antiseptic world of the genetically superior. This was the first film from Andrew Niccol, who has yet to achieve the look and feel and supreme direction of this debut. This is a science fiction film tackling ideas of humanity, defining it through visual and expository exploration. It leaves us with the answer; if we lose our human flaws, it may very well make us less human.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

DIRECTOR SPOTLIGHT: Francis Ford Coppola


Francis Ford Coppola no longer makes his films to make money; he doesn’t need any more money, and even if he does he has his vineyards for that. No, Coppola has been making movies the last few years that he wants to make, movies for himself. One of the trailblazing auteurs of the early seventies, Francis Coppola re-shaped American cinema along with Altman, Scorsese, Beatty, Friedkin, Hopper and Fonda, Spielberg and Lucas. But Coppola’s films never felt as commercial, no matter how massive the scope or the success or the eventual popularity. There has always seemed to be a burning desire in Coppola to make films of less scope, less magnitude, more personal pictures outside the studio system that are there for only the most devoted fans of fringe cinema. And he has taken on the marketing and filmmaking aspects in a different way over the years. He was never one to succumb to studio demands too easily, and his stubbornness may have been what made him great. And that is why he has moved into these more personal pictures over the last decade. That’s not to say his biggest films are not his best, they very well may be; even the one that almost killed him.

Coppola, who turned 72 this past April, didn’t take long to gain notoriety in Hollywood. After co-writing the screenplay for Patton in 1970, he would take on an ambitious new project two years later, adapting the Mario Puzo novel The Godfather. Coppola wasted no time in butting heads with the studio suits at Paramount, casting who he wanted where he wanted them cast. Paramount was in financial trouble at the time and needed a big hit, so Coppola’s reluctance to play ball caused a great many rifts on the set. Coppola grew more paranoid as the studio execs flirted with replacing him and shadowing him with another director throughout. Production and budget expanded and tensions arose, until the film was released to critical and commercial success.

The Godfather was a game changer. Until this point in film history, gangster films were all tough talking, fedora-wearing, cops-and-robbers pictures where the crooks held their pistols at their hip. The realism and epic scope of The Godfather was a revelation to the genre and to the way films would be made henceforth. The film would go on to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards, and would open every door for Coppola that may have been closed forever had the film not been a success. Two years later, Coppola’s sequel, The Godfather Part II, would have even more success at the Academy Awards, where Coppola would win Best Director and the films would be the first sequel to win Best Picture. That same year, however, Coppola showed he was more than a hired studio hand, directing a smaller, more intimate thriller, The Conversation.

The Conversation stars Gene Hackman as a surveillance expert, and a cripplingly private man, who believes his surveillance job is leading to the murder of two people. While not as commercially successful as his Godfather films, The Conversation is a film Coppola had been wanting to make for years, and was able to do so after the success of The Godfather. It is widely seen as one of the best thrillers of the decade, and would win the Palm D’Or at Cannes that spring. Coppola’s next film, Apocalypse Now, unarguably one of the finest war films to ever see the silver screen, definitely took something out of him.

The production hell of Apocalypse Now is an article in and of itself, and is documented in the film Hearts of Darkness, a behind-the-scenes documentary about the production filmed by Coppola’s wife. Coppola was convinced the film would be a disaster, but it turned out to be a darkly revelatory bit of filmmaking, a tour-de-force the likes of which has never, and may never, be challenged. Coppola poured his soul and his sanity into the production of Apocalypse Now, and despite all the heartache and emotional strife of the production he wound up making a staple of American cinema.

The 80s were much more low key for Coppola, as he would direct smaller pictures like Rumble Fish, The Cotton Club, and perhaps his most popular film of the decade, The Outsiders. In 1986 he would direct his nephew, Nicolas Cage, in Peggy Sue Got Married. The film would become a modest success, and would launch Cage’s career. Coppola directed only four films in the 90s, the first one being the final piece of the Godfather trilogy. While it collected a hefty number of Oscar nominations, The Godfather Part III is undoubtedly the black sheep of the trilogy, clumsy at parts and suffering from a poor acting job by Coppola’s daughter (and much more successful director than actor), Sofia. Two years later, Coppola would ambitiously remake Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

The film is wild and sporadic and quite messy, but thrives on the creative ambition of Coppola and the dedication of Gary Oldman as the Prince of Darkness. While not a completely satisfying picture, Coppola’s version of Dracula became one of the highest grossing films of 1992. From there, Coppola made his most confounding decision to direct the Robin Williams comedy, Jack, a sterile and melodramatic comedy about a boy who ages rapidly. A year later, he would direct a John Grisham story, The Rainmaker, and the film would come and go without making more than a dent in the film landscape. This was not where Coppola was best anymore, making studio films. It would be a decade before he would direct again.

It was clear, in 2007, that Coppola had turned his back on the conventional studio system. He directed Youth Without Youth, a bewildering, time-traveling, linguistically-based drama that is even more confusing than that description. The film was panned, and rightfully so as it is disastrously confusing and visually murky. Coppola would go deeper into independent filmmaking in 2009 with the deeply personal Tetro, a film starring Vincent Gallo and focusing on an Italian-American family. This year, Coppola is directinf a supernatural thriller, Twixt, starring Val Kilmer. The promotional trailer can be found on YouTube, and shows the makings of a lurid and compelling gothic thriller.

Some may argue that Francis Ford Coppola has lost his touch as a director. I don’t think this is the case. What I see is an auteur trying to change the way he makes movies, experimenting on a smaller scale, with more introspective pictures. He has made all the mainstream blockbuster studio pictures he will ever need to make; why not challenge himself and the audience? It is rare to see a filmmaker or an actor reinvent himself in his later years instead of mailing in performances and films. Just look at Robert DeNiro. And it’s apparent the directing style of his daughter, Sofia, has influenced his filmmaking recently. He is shrinking the scale, trying something different, and while the result may not always be the best, you cannot blame him for giving the effort.