Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Haywire


As any frequent reader will know, I am not a fan of action films; even less am I a fan of martial arts films. So Haywire is not the kind of film that would normally attract my attention, even if it’s directed by Steven Soderbergh and stars the likes of Michael Fassbender, Michael Douglas, Ewan McGregor and Antonio Banderas. But most of my favourite critics gave Haywire a thumbs-up, so when it got to the cheap theatres ($1.75 on Tuesdays - amazing), I decided to check it out.


I won’t say I didn’t get my money’s worth, but I will say I was disappointed. The protagonist of Haywire is a young woman named Mallory Kane, played by Gina Carano, a martial arts expert who obviously wanted to try out some acting. Carano’s performance wasn’t terrible, but her character lacked personality and her great fighting skills interested me not at all. In fact, the character development in Haywire was almost nonexistent, despite opportunities, and the plot was just plain lame, not to mention preposterous.


I did enjoy some of the acting (Fassbender was my favourite) and some of the locations (Dublin, Barcelona, upstate New York in winter) and found the score (and its use) intriguing. I also found myself intrigued by the mystery of why everyone was after Kane - until the lame ending, that is.


One interesting piece of trivia is that when Haywire was over I was astonished to see that only 95 minutes had passed (it felt like two hours). I thought to myself: Not since Dark City (one of my very favourite films of the past twenty years) has a fast-paced film felt so much longer to me than it actually was. Haywire’s writer? Lem Dobbs, who co-wrote Dark City.


Haywire’s unique style and music make me want to give it ***, but that feels really generous to me, because this is basically a mug-down film that is not worth your time. Too bad.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Into the Abyss



Werner Herzog’s latest documentary contains the following great lines, delivered by Herzog as he is interviewing someone: “The death penalty seems rather Old Testament wrath of God to me. Jesus would probably not have been an advocate of capital punishment.”


While I take exception to the need for the word “probably”, these lines are harmless enough and would be fascinating to explore in the right context, but in Into the Abyss, they seem to come out of nowhere, just one example of many odd things about the film.


Into the Abyss relates the story of two young men in Conroe, Texas who killed three people because they wanted to steal a car. Each man says the other did the killing. One is sentenced to life, the other is sentenced to death, a death which happens during the filming of this odd documentary (though it is not part of the documentary).


I have used the word odd twice already, so let me use it a few more times: Herzog’s selection of interview subjects is odd, his questions are odd, the editing is odd, the film’s structure is odd and I was constantly shaking my head. Yes, there were many profound moments (and even some funny ones) in the interviews of various people involved in the story, and yes, Herzog’s heart is certainly in the right place (he states from the outset that he is opposed to capital punishment), but I found the viewing experience deeply unsatisfying.


Roger Ebert found Herzog’s low-key interviewing style compelling and gave Into the Abyss four stars. I certainly appreciated the honest sad responses of those being interviewed, and the interview of Fred Allen, a guard who was in charge of 100 executions before coming to the conclusion that he opposed the death penalty and walking away from his job, was particularly effective, but that interview is just another example of a lack of context. The way this film was made just didn’t work for me.


For me, the film’s greatest contribution was not on the subject of capital punishment but in the way its interview subjects reflected on their lives. Many of the interviews therefore worked well on their own, though Herzog’s frequently irritating questions (which Ebert thought brilliantly effective) didn’t help.


Perhaps if I lived in a country which still carried out such a barbaric practice, I would be more moved by the film’s flawed attempts at providing objective slants on the issue (flawed because Herzog makes it so clear where he stands - see my first paragraph). Fortunately, I do not live in such a country, and my problem probably lies in my inability to take the subject seriously, as if anyone could ever provide a remotely legitimate argument (let alone a theological one) for a civilized state taking a person’s life.


If you want to see a great film about capital punishment, see Dead Man Walking instead (or even The Green Mile). I give Into the Abyss *** for effort. My mug is up but the stuff inside has an odd flavour.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Albert Nobbs


You won’t find too many films in which two women are pretending (successfully) to be men. That Glenn Close and Janet McTeer do so almost effortlessly is what makes Albert Nobbs fun to watch - that and some good cinematography. Close and McTeer very much deserve their Oscar nominations.


Unfortunately, their brilliant performances are somewhat wasted in a rather lacklustre story that just never managed to engage me. Albert Nobbs tells the story of a lonely, unhappy hotel butler/waiter in 19th century Dublin who is actually a woman (Close). Nobbs has dreams and is saving money to buy a shop of his/her own, but it is hard to imagine her ever being happy until she meets a painter named Hubert Page (McTeer) who is also pretending to be a man. This discovery is followed by brief glimpses of hope and vitality in Nobbs, but she doesn’t have the social skills to do anything with these.


Albert Nobbs has the potential to be engaging but the character of Nobbs and the side story about one of the maids (played by Mia Wasikowska) just don’t let it happen. The most interesting characters in the film are Page (McTeer) and the hotel doctor (played well by Brendan Gleeson), who don’t get enough airtime.


I will give Albert Nobbs *** for the acting. My mug is up, but the stuff inside is another one of those bland blends.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Coriolanus


For decades now, I have maintained that Ralph Fiennes is one of the best actors out there. His performance as Coriolanus only serves to cement that impression. What I didn’t know is that he is also capable of directing. Coriolanus is Fiennes’ film and he has done an outstanding job, with the help of an impeccable cast.


Coriolanus is not one of Shakespeare’s better-known plays and I will not argue that this is a mistake. Coriolanus is a dark tale, set in Rome, about a military leader (Martius, who gains the name Coriolanus after an impressive victory) who feels nothing but contempt for the common people who benefit from the risks he takes as a soldier. When two tribunes stir up the masses against him (for their own political ends, it seems), Martius/Coriolanus is banished from Rome and takes up with his mortal enemy Aufidius (played well by Gerard Butler, getting to speak with his own Scottish accent) to attack Rome in revenge.


Fiennes does a brilliant job of putting a contemporary slant on Coriolanus, which is set in a fictitious Rome in 2011. This not only reveals the timeless genius of Shakespeare’s work but provides the opportunity for reflection on some of the insane political and military conduct (think Middle East) of our time (the contemporary relevance was especially noticeable to me after just having watched the documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell, about the recent civil war in Liberia and how a determined group of women put a stop to it). Unfortunately, this does not alter the fact that Coriolanus is a violent and depressing film about a lonely unsympathetic (almost sociopathic) soldier (his mother obviously had a lot to do with the unsympathetic part of his character) with, at best, ambiguous things to say about the world today.


Nevertheless, for what it is, Coriolanus is an excellent film. Brian Cox (as the patrician Menenius) and Vanessa Redgrave (as Martius’ mother) are perfectly cast. The score has a contemporary documentary feel which adds to the realism of the film. Coriolanus was filmed in Serbia (mostly Belgrade), which is an appropriately bleak and relevant setting for this story.


The only filmmaking flaw for me was the ending, which didn’t quite make sense given a short scene between Martius and Aufidius only moments before, a scene which, from what I can determine, is not faithful to the source material.


I watched Coriolanus with about fifty people. Eight of them walked out during the film, something I rarely see. Did the trailer focus on action and neglect to mention that this was Shakespeare? Was it too violent for Shakespeare fans? I don’t know, but I do understand that this is the kind of film which will have limited appeal. As for me, I have to give it a solid ***+, though it will not rank among my favourite films. My mug is up.

Saturday, 11 February 2012

A Little Help


Even when small independent films contain a variety of flaws, they often provide a much more fulfilling viewing experience than most of the box office giants. A Little Help, written and directed by Michael J. Weithorn, is a perfect example. Despite the flaws identified below, I thoroughly enjoyed watching A Little Help and recommend it to all you indie film fans.


A Little Help stars Jenna Fischer as Laura, a dental hygienist struggling to be a good parent to her 12-year-old son while suspecting that her husband is having an affair. She’s right about the affair, but her husband dies before that is confirmed and now Laura has to figure out how to be a single parent. This might be easier if she wasn’t constantly being “helped” by her controlling sister, Kathy (played by Brooke Smith), and her critical nagging mother (played by Lesley Ann Warren). To make life even more complicated, Laura discovers that Kathy’s husband, Paul (Rob Benedict), has been in love with her since high school and recently she has found herself attracted to him.


Laura is such a flawed, immature infuriating character (she is not exactly a role model for good parenting), that we should not be sympathetic towards her, but Fischer does a tremendous job of making Laura look vulnerable and picked on, so I did want to support her struggle to get out from under her overbearing relatives and greedy lawyer and find happiness.


Nevertheless, as I mentioned, A Little Help has its share of flaws. For example, individual scenes are better than their sum (the story does not flow the way it should), the direction does not feel very tight and the comedy often felt forced to me. Still, like I said, I enjoyed the film very much and am giving it ***+. My mug is up.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Carnage



For those readers waiting for me to say something more critical about a film’s acting and directing, your wait is over.


Roman Polanski’s last film was my second-favourite film of 2010 (The Ghost Writer). This time he has taken a well-known play by Yasmina Reza and turned it into a film that doesn’t quite work. Carnage is an eighty-minute conversation (and heated argument) between two New York City couples who end up consuming an entire bottle of expensive Scotch, with predictable consequences. The couples, who are meeting for the first time, have been brought together because one of their boys hit the other in the face with a stick.


Polanski assembled a great cast for Carnage, including Kate Winslet, Jodie Foster, Christoph Waltz and John C. Reilly, but I was decidedly unimpressed with all of the performances. Perhaps Polanski is to blame for the over-the-top acting and unrealistic reactions (which might work on stage but not in a film), but none of the actors were particularly believable (the men fared slightly better than the women).


Carnage does show how unhappy all four of these characters are, despite what they generally display to the outside world. One is a workaholic, one is his neglected wife, one is a peacenik who is not at peace and one is her insecure husband whose patience is waning. The characters themselves were entertaining and the dialogue was often quite funny, with a few profound moments, but, in the end, the screenplay and direction were disappointing.


Given my critique, it might be surprising that I am giving Carnage ***, but the fact is that I want to see it again. My prime criterion for *** (as opposed to less than that) is that I would like to watch the film again. So my mug is up but the taste of the stuff inside sure did not live up to the expectation generated by the ingredients.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Monsieur Lazhar




Here is a link to the review in Media Matters

I am reviewing this film for Media Matters (Third Way Cafe), so in two weeks I will provide a link to the full review. In the meantime, I will say that Monsieur Lazhar, a French-Canadian film written and directed by Philippe Falardeau, is top-ten film material (it was also nominated for Best Foreign Language Film). If you have a chance to see what filmmaking at its finest looks like, don't pass it up. Monsieur Lazhar gets ****. My mug is up.