Friday, June 26, 2009

Far North (2007)

If you are looking for a quiet movie that ends with a disturbing bang, Far North is ready to serve. My only exposure had been the enticing trailer, which featured two women living a desolate existence until a rough-faced man enters and their solidarity is challenged. This is what happens. There's a sci-fi aspect in that there's some type of army of men (some with European accents) who randomly kill tribes and stragglers (not sure why).

The surreal barren landscape of the Arctic tundra is prominent enough to be a character. The struggle against it and to survive in it and against the military men that prey on those they encounter.

Saiva (Michelle Yeoh) has been abandoned twice. At birth, her mother was told by a shaman to abandon her. That she would bring tragedy to anyone near her. Her mother didn't oblige, but once her mother died, she was shunned. Then, while all alone, Saiva meets Ivar (Gary Pillai) and a romance ensues.

(Spoiler Alert: Read at Your Own Risk!)

When Saiva discovers Ivar and his clan massacred, she is able to save the lone survivor who is just a baby, Anja (Michelle Krusiec). Saiva gets her revenge with Anja in her arms. The film picks up when Anja is in her late teens/early 20s (never confirmed). Their existence is rough--food is difficult to come by, not much to do beyond survival and company is scarce, until Saiva finds Loki (Sean Bean). He is lying on the ice about to expire when Saiva takes him back to her and Anja's yurt. Saiva and Loki connect but Anja and Loki get together. The scenes with Loki and Anja together while Saiva is in the yurt with them are heart-breaking. When Anja announces to Saiva that she and Loki will leave to be together, start a family and be around others, you wonder if Saiva will unhinge.

Far North is SLOW moving, yet the theme and situation are fascinating. Two women alone navigating in a man's land and dealing with their yearnings for more. Yeoh is a master at communicating the deep dismay under her stiff facade. Because Far North moves so slowly, you aren't expecting the shocking ending. You get the feeling things won't go as planned--that Anja and Loki will abandon Saiva--but I wasn't expecting it to go so wrong. I haven't been able to erase it from my mind's eye.

Director: Asif Kapadia

Country: UK

Genre: Drama

Run time: 88 minutes

Scale: 3.5

Monday, June 22, 2009

The Wrestler (2008)

The buzz surrounding The Wrestler began months before it opened and continued long afterwards. This often works against viewers. Few movies can match the heightened expectations created after everyone tells you how brilliant it is and how feverishly you're going to love it. I'm pleased to report that The Wrestler passed this test.

Randy "The Ram" Robinson (Mickey Roarke) is a weekend wrestler. His body aches, he takes a plethora of meds and drugs to keep his pain in check and his muscles perky. But, he's tired. The money isn't going far, he's lonely and The Ram is thirsting for more. His friendship with stripper Cassidy/Pam (Marisa Tomei) is one of the few real connections he has. While she lap dances for him, he confides in her about what's cooking in his life. After he suffers a heart attack, she suggests he reaches out to his estranged daughter, Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood). He gets in touch with her, but she isn't ready to accept him. Randy and Cassidy get closer but that comes with its own issues.

The Wrestler is another coming-of-middle-age film. Both Randy and Cassidy are at crossroads in their lives. They can't continue doing what they do forever. Pam is making her transition, mostly for her son. Randy begins his and for a while looks as if he will be successful, but when he gets carried away with old habits, the new path is sabotaged.

The Wrestler looks and feels like a documentary. You get grainy close-ups. The camera follows the characters closely as they walk, drive and work. You feel like you are right there with them. Rourke's Randy is animated. He's got his foibles, his charm and his sweetness. He's extremely likeable. It's hard not to root for him. Tomei does equally well in her role as the aging exotic dancer/stripper. (If aging wasn't a theme in the movie, you wouldn't think this applied to her--she looks amazing.) Even Wood, in her small role, holds her own. Rourke deserves the Best Actor Golden Globe he received. (Both he and Tomei were nominated for several awards.) Even the wrestling portion is fun and interesting--the planning of the matches, the chronology of the moves and the discussion of use of props--especially for anyone who grew up watching pre-WWF and WWF.

Director: Darren Aronofsky

Country: US

Genre: Drama

Run time: 111 minutes

Scale: 5

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Dead Man Walking (1995)

Complex. Provocative. Persuasive. Based on Sister Helen Prejean's book, Dead Man Walking presents an exceptional view on the death penalty, murder and the way crime affects the victims' families, the accused's family and those supporting them.

Sister Helen Prejean (Susan Sarandon) meets with accused murderer Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn) at Angola State Penitentiary. He's asked her for help in his bid to get his death sentence commuted. He denies committing the crimes with which he's charged. She helps him secure legal aid. As she gets to know him, she's troubled by his racism as she works with children of color and his denial of involvement in the crimes.

During a hearing, she's confronted by the parents of the couple Poncelet is convicted of murdering. The confrontations leave her shaken. She visits them and hears what they have experienced at the premature death of their young kids with futures. She also meets Poncelet's mother and brothers (Jack Black has a bit role as one of the Poncelet's brothers, while Peter Sarsgaard plays the male victim). The couples have faced the tragedies differently--one couple actively holds on to their anger, while the other has, to a lesser extent, but their marriage has suffered.

When Poncelet is denied a commute of his death sentence and asks Prejean to be his spiritual counselor, the stakes rise. It's a first for her; in fact, it's a first for any woman. She knows the duty she faces in helping him take responsibility and repent in the few days he has left. The movie approaches religion in a way that entices rather than repels the viewer, regardless of spiritual beliefs. The ability to empathize with oppositional characters with varied levels of conflicts is what makes Dead Man Walking special. The death penalty and religion are polarizing issues, yet this movie takes a curious twist.

Sarandon and Penn are excellent. Her character is vulnerable, strong and authentic. At times, she struggles with her support. Penn's character is rough, stubborn and crass. He's also vulnerable and scared. As you learn more about him, you don't condone his viciousness, but you understand him better.

This is Tim Robbins' directorial masterpiece--the cinematography, the emotion his actors bleed and the compelling story. An excellent piece that stands the test of time.

Director: Tim Robbins

Country: US

Genre: Drama

Run time:  122 minutes

Scale: 5

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Funny Games (2007)

Controversial for its gratuitous violence, Funny Games opens with family of three--mother, Ann (Naomi Watts), father, George (Tim Roth) and son Georgie (Devon Gearhart) driving to their lakeside summer home. Upon arrival, they drive past their neighbors' place. We don't see it for ourselves, but we're told the neighbor and his wife are oddly stiff and aloof, a fact that doesn't sit well, especially with Ann.

(Spoiler Alert: Read at Your Own Risk!)

Shortly, the stoic neighbor drops by with a white-gloved companion, Paul (Michael Pitt), whom he introduces as a co-worker. Ann and George's dog barks incessant, reacting to the visitors. Prescient dog. Soon, another white-gloved young man, Peter (Brady Corbet), drops by the house to borrow eggs from Ann. The sadistic games begin.

The plot isn't the draw. It's about two young men on a quest for torture and violence. The movie plays out like a nightmare begging the question--why these folks and why? How did the crime spree begin? The two know what they are doing and they are polite, calm and comfortable carrying out their misdeeds. Which of the two is the mastermind? How did they pick Ann and George and their neighbors? Is there anything Ann and George could have done to prevent their victimization or, once in the predicament, outsmart the torturers at their games?

This is a remake of an eponymous French film from 1997, both written and directed by Michael Haneke (of Caché and The Piano Teacher fame). As and after I watched, I kept asking the same question--Why? Yes, these types of crimes occur. You don't always get the answers and that makes it worse. Without answers, you don't know what to avoid or try and prevent or if anything is preventable. Life is unpredictable. Timing is everything. Is the theme to live well while you can because you just never know?

We don't get much information about Anne and George. Before anything happens, I don't particularly dislike them, yet I don't care much about them. This seems intentional. I come to care more about Ann than George because she takes action, while George resigns himself. Yet, we learn little about the torturers. Does this not create further distance if we cannot connect with anyone? Violent, disturbing and open-ended, Funny Games left me, weeks later, unable to shake the after-effects. Does that deem it good? I cannot decide.

Director: Michael Haneke

Country: US

Genre: Drama/Thriller

Run time:  110 minutes

Scale: 3

Monday, June 15, 2009

Wanted (2008)

When an assassin goes rogue from his league of brothers and one sister, sheer hell erupts and engulfs Wesley Gibson (James McAvoy), a bullied cube denizen. He's recruited to kill the turned assassin--the man who killed Wesley's father--before he kills his new target, Wesley. He learns about his father's acumen as an assassin but still refuses, at first.

Fox (Angelina Jolie) is tasked by the boss, Sloan (Morgan Freeman) to manage Wesley's assassin training. There are several levels of training and young Wesley has found his calling following in his late daddy's footsteps. He struggles with a flick-of-the-wrist maneuver that bends the bullet's trajectory around obstacles to hit the target. When he gets his first assignment (as read and deciphered from the loom threads--yeah, right), he hesitates and misses his window of opportunity. What if the interpretation of the stitches is wrong? How does he know his target deserves to die? When Fox and Sloan assure him he will be saving lives, meek and panic-attack-suffering Wesley starts giving folks a taste of his Wellingtons.

This is a 100 percent Hollywood movie replete with music video shots, gun fights, car chases and explosions. It includes the moment of grand declaration close to the end, followed by the moral of the story. Silly and violent, it also touches upon deception and manipulation of ethics. The chemistry between Jolie and McAvoy kept me watching. Wesley's evolution was compelling and Fox was a potent warrior, dedicated to her cause--doing right by her league. This was consistent throughout but never more so than at the end. The ending, while violent, is aesthetically singular.

Director: Timur Bekmambetov

Country: US

Genre: Thriller

Run time:  109 minutes

Scale: 3

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Girlfriend Experience (2009)

The non-linear narrative of The Girlfriend Experience (similar to the Pulp Fiction format) is confusing at first.

The story centers around an emotionless high-end prostitute called Chelsea (Sasha Grey), her boyfriend, Chris (Chris Santos) and their relationship challenges. Chelsea sells her girlfriend experience to clients by becoming who they need her to be. In voice-over narrations, she describes the designer clothing and accessories she wears on her dates and in what activities she engages in with each client. (The designer bit was distracting, overt in letting us know she's rich and successful. The name-dropping unfavorably reminded me of Brett Easton Ellis's American Psycho.) Too Cool Chelsea keeps her boundaries in place, thus keeping her relationship with Chris peachy. She screens potential clients that phone her for a date with a few questions. She processes a brief numerology reading that, based on the results, will help her decide whether or not to meet the new client. Problems arise when Chelsea falls for a client; something that hasn't happened.

One particularly contrived subplot: Chelsea meets with a stereotypically shady guy to review her services on his blog/web site. She gives him a free sample romp in exchange for an expected positive review. This supposedly savvy business gal gets bamboozled; the predictability generates an eye-roll.

Grey is famous as a daring and spirited adult film star. Daring and spirited are not adjectives to describe The Girlfriend Experience; boring is more its speed. Grey is stoic, except for one scene where she cries; not enough to eradicate the distance between her character and the viewers. The numerology bit is hokey and her relationship with Chris doesn't feel authentic. In conclusion, The Girlfriend Experience is missing a pulse.

Director: Steven Soderbergh

Country: US

Genre: Drama

Run time:  78 minutes

Scale: 2

Monday, June 1, 2009

Burn After Reading (2008)

The Coen brothers are fond of murders and zany characters. This one revolves around middle-aged folks, sex and blackmail. According to Ethan Coen, it's their "Tony Scott/Bourne Identity without the explosions."

Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) and Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) work at Hard Bodies gym, which is managed by Ted Treffon (Richard Jenkins) who has a crush on Linda. Linda doesn't recognize Ted as a possible suitor. She's delved into the online dating scene searching for Mr. Right. Unhappy with her body ("I've gotten as far with this body as I can"), she is determined to get plastic surgery. To her chagrin, she learns her insurance won't cover the elective procedures. CIA actuary Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich) has just been fired and is considering writing a tell-all about his CIA experiences. He is unaware his wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton), is having an affair with Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), a Treasury employee who also trolls the online profiles looking for dates while his writer wife tours, promoting her latest children's book.Disk Goooood. Hair Baaaaad. 

When a CD containing financial information and musings about political figures is found in the ladies locker room at Hard Bodies, Chad and Linda see an opportunity for a good Samaritan act they hope will be fiscally rewarded. When they approach alcoholic foul-mouthed Osbourne Cox to pay up for his disk, a battle and several plot complications ensue.

Plays like a political spoof. You get affairs, unrequited love and murder. The cast is wonderful, juxtaposing actors you wouldn't expect together on-screen with favorable results. McDormand, Pitt and Clooney really shine. J.K. Simmons as the CIA boss is terrific. His scenes are among the funniest. I don't love all Coen brothers movies, but this one is a kick in the pants you don't want to miss. Highly recommended.

Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen

Country: US

Genre: Tragicomedy

Run time:  96 minutes

Scale: 4.5