Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Take This Waltz (2011)

Take This WaltzIt’s summer in Toronto when married Margot (Michelle Williams) meets painter and bicycle-rickshaw driver Daniel (Luke Kirby). He awakens the desire missing in her relationship with Lou (Seth Rogen). Once they realize they are neighbors, things get complicated.

Margot and chicken-recipe creator Lou engage in juvenile discussions. Lou cooks away and Margot hangs on him. (Twice, it looks like a burn accident waiting to happen). Their interactions are klutzy. For most of the movie, I was certain Margot was suffering from some form of mental illness. By the end, she just seemed awkward.

Margot’s yearning for Daniel consumes her, but she also can’t leave Lou. Her guilt overwhelms her but she can’t stay away from Daniel. Margot and Daniel relate on different level. When she makes a decision, her life with Daniel is happy but after seeing Lou again, she leaves sad. Her time with Lou wasn’t bad, just beige. They had a connection, albeit a different one that was no longer sustainable.

Take this Waltz has its peculiarities. Lou and Margot’s relationship is stuck in junior high. When he’s taking an important business call, she is sticking her fingers in his mouth, making it nearly impossible for him to respond. They regularly banter about the violent things they will do to each other, trying to one up on the scale of disturbing. Rogen’s limited acting skills didn’t bother me. In fact, it worked with the role of the blank-page guy who simply wants the girl to love him.

There’s a subplot involving Geraldine (Sarah Silverman), Lou’s sister in recovery. Her relationship with Margot is genuine but it gets little time, which is unfortunate because it gives insight into Margot from a platonic perspective. Silverman does a good job with a role that doesn’t center on scat jokes. To celebrate Geraldine’s sobriety, Lou and Margot throw an excellent party with food, dancing and a stand-out song by Feist covering Leonard Cohen’s Closing Time. (Loved it.)

The movie’s hazy colors and depiction of summer intertwine with the plot’s complex feelings. I bought the kooky Margot-Lou pairing and I understand how it worked until it didn’t.

Writer/director: Sarah Polley

Country: Canada

Genre: Drama

Run time: 95 minutes

Scale: 3

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Hodejegerne (Headhunters) 2011

HeadhuntersHeadhunters, based on the Jo Nesbø novel, centers around Roger (Aksel Hennie), a recruiter who will get you the fantasy job if you are hungry enough. And, if you own any one-of-a-kind art, even better because Roger is an art thief—a successful one.

He thieves to finance the high-rolling lifestyle he maintains for his art-gallery owner wife Diana (Synnøve Macody Lund). This is the life Diana is accustomed to. She has model good looks and loves Roger but Roger has been cagey about giving her the thing she wants most—a family. Roger’s insecurities, including his short stature, have led him to create distance from Diana and engage in an affair.

When mystery man Clas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) appears at Diana’s gallery party, Roger believes he may have found his golden egg. Clas is a perfect candidate for a job Roger is looking to fill and has in his possession an original Rubens. If Roger and his thieving partner can get their hands on the Rubens, their futures will be secure. That is, unless Clas beats him at the game and moves in on Diana and maybe even makes a play for Roger’s life.

Headhunters initially paces its plot and then, hits a sudden sprint—it’s abrupt but works. The ending is unexpectedly satisfying.

Director: Morten Tyldum

Country: Norway

Genre: Thriller

Run time: 100 minutes

Scale: 4

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Holy Motors (2012)

Holy shit, I loved Holy Motors.

As the movie rolls, we are introduced to a blind man (the director, Leos Carax) waking. He and his dog guide us into a viewing room where we are introduced to protagonist Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant) leaving home very early morning. His house is Holy Motorsenormous and white, resembling a land-locked submarine. He walks his long, heavily guarded driveway down to his waiting white limo where Céline (Edith Scob), his elegant driver, awaits him. Oscar takes calls and we are led to believe that he is a heavy hitter in the business realm. But, then, Céline provides the details for his first “assignment.” He reads the portfolio and we watch him prepare with make-up, wig, clothing.

During the drive, we are treated to the view of the tranquil green-line roads that will eventually lead us to the City of Lights.

(Spoiler Alert: Read at Your Own Risk!)

Assignment #1: Oscar disembarks from limo to stand on a busy Paris street dressed like an elderly woman—hunched over, babushka’d and asking for spare change. People pass him/her on the street but no one interacts. Following this assignment, he’s back in the limo, conducting the same ritual: reading the assignment, dressing a new part and being dropped off. And, so it continues. But, why? For whom?

Assignment #2: Oscar is dressed in a black skintight body suit adorned with pellets. He is holding a scepter as he enters a building and into a simulated video and porn shoot wherein your senses will feel the impact of this visual feast.

Assignment #3 is what might happen if the Leprechaun from the ‘80s horror flicks came to life and wreaked havoc onto unsuspecting visitors at the Père-Lachaise cemetery. Eva Mendes has a non-speaking yet unforgettable role as Kay M, a high-fashion model (rumor has it this role was written for Kate Moss but she dropped out due to a conflict). One of the words uttered in this scene is weird. Yes. Very.

Assignment #4 is a father-daughter fight that escalates, leaving emotional scars that will be the source of resentments and recriminations that will surface any time either hears Kylie Minogue’s Can’t Get You Out of My Head.

Assignment #5 is a musical intermission of accordionists and, of course, Oscar is leader.

The next few assignments revolve around death, assassinations and lost dreams.

We get insight into Oscar when his limo collides with another limo transporting Eva, an “actor” on her way to an appointment—someone who Oscar knows (we know her too because it’s Kylie Minogue). While the drivers discuss the accident, Oscar and Eva scamper into a vacated mall strewn with mannequin bits. She sings to Oscar. If you pay attention, she’s telling him about a child they may have had together. (Is this segment simply another assignment?)

Oscar is dropped off for his final assignment (or is it his real life?). He and Céline say goodnight. Oscar enters a house and greets his wife and child who are chimps. Does this symbolize a less complex life with fewer disappointments? Is there a real Oscar or is this part of the commentary—that we are always playing roles and may not really know ourselves, after all.

In this Facebook/Twitter/Tumblr/selfie era of instant fame, is each appointment a new chapter or episode in “reality” shows in which Oscar stars? Has he compromised himself for fame? When he takes his lunch break, he turns on the TV; instead of watching a show or the news, he watches the Paris streets and longs for forests.

Acting? Longevity? Life and death? What are the themes in Holy Motors? We’re taught to interpret surroundings and deconstruct tones and expressions. Holy Motors challenges our ability to do this. The way we’re socialized makes it difficult to not try to extract an absolute meaning. Is it not enough we have the gifted Lavant who carries the film with precise body movements, his ability to embody each new role and his expressive face?

I don’t guarantee you will like Holy Motors. You may watch it and have a WTF moment. It’s a kaleidoscopic romp through nine (or ten) assignments, many which will linger. For me, it was a spectacular viewing adventure. My only regret was missing it on the big screen.

Writer/Director: Leos Carax

Country: France

Genre: Drama with fantasy elements

Run time: 115 minutes

Scale: 5

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Dans la maison (In the House) (2012)

Dans la MaisonIn the House takes voyeurism, adds a dash of humor and cooks it over low heat. The plot simmers to a rolling boil until it overflows into a disturbing and epic implosion.

It’s a new school year. Mr. Germain (Fabrice Luchini), a jaded English teacher, assigns his students an essay to describe their summer. The results are disappointing to him. His students lack imagination. That is until he reads the essay from Claude Garcia (Ernst Umhauer). The essay divulges that Claude’s summer was spent spying on classmate Rapha (Bastien Ughetto) and his parents from the park outside their house. His goal, he admits, was to get inside that house.

Germain reads the essay to his wife Jeanne (Kristin Scott Thomas) who deconstructs it by adding a psychological spin. Germain thinks the essay is ironic. He talks to Claude who is flattered but confused.

What if Rapha were to read it?” He repeats Germain’s question.

“I wrote it for you,” Claude declares.

They spar on the matter of whether or not Rapha and his family are okay fodder, but they are both hooked—Germain sees raw talent in Claude’s writing and Claude wants to become a better writer. Claude continues writing essays telling the tale about how he gets into the house and the drama that unfolds once he’s in. Germain begins to work with Claude on writing outside of class and this draws attention from the school administration and other students.

The movie parallels the process of watching a novel unfold. Surreal details are thrown into scenes. Occasionally, it’s difficult to decipher what’s actually happening from Claude’s imagination. We delve into complex characters with a lot at stake: relationships, friendships, adolescent challenges and the banality of reality. None of the characters remains untouched by Claude existence. His actions will result in the destruction of everyone’s lives as they knew it pre-Claude. Claude brings forth several personal apocalypses.

Director: François Ozon

Country: France

Genre: Drama that plays like a thriller

Run time: 105 minutes

Scale: 3

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Atmen (Breathing) (2011)

This offering from Austria presents a trifecta win: visually stunning, acting that makes you feel tremendous blows and unexpected highs and a profound character-driven plot.

Eighteen-year-old Roman (Thomas Schubert) is dead inside. He lives at a juvenile detention facility. His social worker/parole officer is frustrated that Roman keeps screwing Breathingup his go-sees. He’s up for another parole hearing and a job would help. He implores Roman has to care.

It’s still early days in our getting-to-know-Roman process when he hands his PO a job ad and declares that this is the job he wants—the reaction conveys all. This man who has been grumbling for Roman to get a job is dumbfounded and wonders if the serious Roman is joking.

Roman leaves very early for the first day of a trial work period at the mortuary. Roman takes in every experience as if seeing dead bodies for the first time. We learn that five years ago, he committed a crime that landed him at the detention center. At the new job, one of his co-workers alludes to Roman’s crime (we, the audience have yet to been enlightened) and hazes him.

Roman learns bodies are heavy, they stink and there is a process involved in this work. What shakes up the plot is the day he handles a corpse sharing his surname. We learn that Roman doesn’t know his own mother’s name. The mystery deepens.

Schubert, as Roman, carries Breathing. His loneliness is heavy and he shares this burden with the viewer. He’s sweet, he’s hard, he’s hurt. Breathing takes its time telling us the story. The dialog doesn’t bore us with filler. When Roman meets his mother Margit (Karin Lischka) for the first time, she’s testing a mattress at IKEA. They converse as if polite acquaintances. Their real conversation goes down in the IKEA cafeteria. It’s a darkly comedic yet gloomy moment. (Makes you wonder how many pivotal conversations germinate over Swedish meatballs or seafood salad?)

Another rich aspect is experiencing what gaining freedom looks like to a teenager who has been raised in institutions his entire life. Each outing—each train ride to work, each house he visits to pick up a dead body, each item in people’s home and even the inside of IKEA—is a rebirth. And, Roman’s expressions convey this. You experience freedom as Roman deconstructs it. It’s an incredible experience to capture for an audience. I watched it twice and no detail is there by chance.

One detail was opaque. Roman swims on his own in the pool at the detention center. The other boys don’t swim until he is done and I don’t know why. Does it mean they won’t swim with him or is there a reason he must complete his laps alone? Additionally, the European furlough system is shocking to an American used to our system where offenders are locked up and not released until the sentence ends and with little preparation for the outside world, employment and assimilation back into society.

Breathing is simple yet profound. The writing is strong and the cinematography is lush and impressive—many shots able to pass as exquisite photographs. It’s the acting, though, that will sock you in the heart. You feel Roman’s loneliness, his pain, his mother’s shame. You warm to the parole officer in the end because any of these characters could be you. I’m not a criminal, a parolee nor was I a teen mother but Breathing made me feel what they experienced.

Here’s a nice morsel. If you saw, the award-winning Austrian movie, The Counterfeiters, you will recognize the director of Breathing, Karl Markovics, who played the lead role.

Writer/Director: Karl Markovics

Country: Austria

Genre: Drama

Run time: 94 minutes

Scale: 5

Die Welle (The Wave) (2012)

The WaveDie Welle opens inside a car careening around corners while the driver belts along to a cover of The Ramones’ Rock and Roll High School. Mr. Wenger (Jürgen Vogel) is at the wheel. He’s on his way to school where he’s teaching a segment on autocracy. Wenger is a dynamic teacher but he’s disappointed because he preferred to teach anarchy. Wenger begins a discussion on dictatorships. When Nazi Germany comes up, the students make a collective eye-roll. Being Germans, they are exhausted on discussing the topic because it would “never happen again.” Couldn’t it though? Wenger counters and thus it begins.

The class discusses the attributes required for a dictatorship: uniforms, a code of conduct, discipline. The students begin wearing white shirts, they exclude those who dissent. The usual traits that help students excel, such as smarts and the ability to verbalize a point are ignored. Following the code is most important. And, what starts happening? A logo and a hand gesture are created. New members can join at the invitation of current members. They name their movement, The Wave. They graffiti. They use body guards. They tattle on dissenters. Students are dropping other classes to attend this one. In one week, the students have gone from being ambivalent to cult-like reverence for Wenger, who is drinking his own Kool-Aid. Sounds familiar? This is Hitler and Third Reich fodder. The sense of belonging and conformity appeal to most, except a few who are squashed. All in less than one week in Wenger’s class.

Within this week, the majority of the class is aggressively crossing lines with an anything-for-the cause attitude. One student takes things to the extreme with a gun and, while seeming plausible, it comes off as forced.

The movie was inspired by true events that happened in the Palo Alto classroom of history teacher Ron Jones in the late 1960s. He said the experiment results scared him deeply because of how fast and easily the students fell into the conformity when just days earlier they guffawed as they argued that history couldn’t repeat itself.

Director: Dennis Gansel

Country: Germany

Genre: Drama that plays like a thriller

Run time: 107 minutes

Scale: 4