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Uses for the Internet

January 30, 2014

Uses for the Internet

New Blog

January 1, 2011

Sorry about this short lived blog, BUT no worries because I have continued writing film reviews. This time they are on every film I watch, so the consistency of posting is not to worry. And the length is a lot shorter because of the informal aim of it, rather than trying to turn out essay after essay. Anyway, I hope you will visit and enjoy reading it as much as I enjoy creating it.



Two Women (1960) – Vittorio De Sica

May 15, 2010

(I wrote this review for a paper assignment, I edited a small bit of it, but please excuse how didactic and mechanical this must seem in comparison to my past reviews.)

(P.S. Just on a coincidental note, in Precious there is a scene where her and her mother are watching this film on television.)

The year 1960 is an interesting time to make a film about Italy’s World War II experience.  The war is long over and all are recovered.  Two Women is considered a main piece of the Italian Neorealism movement, yet most all other neorealist films were made between the years 1945 and 1953, a logical time to document, through fictional narratives, the parallels to Italians post-war feelings.  Then why did Vittorio De Sica chose to make such a late post-war neorealism film focusing on a mother and daughter enduring the abrupt effects of fascism?

The neorealism movement wasn’t just any film with a realistic tone; rather they were populated with regular people of the lower to middle class often, but not always dealing with everyday life amidst the effects or after effects of World War II.  These are films of tragedy; disappointment; poverty.  To achieve realistic effects, the filmmakers were often known to use regular people instead of high profile actors and were often shot using available light and locations.  And perhaps most importantly, they concentrated on simplicity; the simple devastations to simple people through simple storytelling.  Unlike films that came after them, such as the existential crises, formalistic films from the heart of Fellini, Antonioni, and Bertolucci’s oeuvre, these films weren’t as concerned with such reliance on central and constant visual metaphors.

Two Women follows this pedigree rather closely except that De Sica did employ real actors, and not only real, but famous actors.  Sophia Loren plays the main character, Cesira, and it goes without saying that Sophia Loren was no amateur actress, in fact she won the Academy Award for Best Actress for the film.  Also featured in the film is Frenchman Jean-Paul Belmondo, playing Michele, who was garnering huge amounts of fame at the time for his work in Jean-Luc Godard’s breakthrough Breathless, and Belmondo’s fame would continue to snowball as the 60s went on thanks to more Godard films as well as other notable filmmakers like Jean-Pierre Melville.  But let it be known, De Sica’s earlier, notable films such as The Bicycle Thief, are famous for their non-actor employment.

Also, as mentioned before, the time the film was made doesn’t exactly fall into the thick of the neorealism films.  Especially considering Fellini and Antonioni had both begun making considerable stylistic changes as well as moving on to films that comment on the upper class malaise and intellectual poverty with the former’s La Dolce Vita and the latter’s relatively plot-less La Avventura.  So, one must question why did De Sica chose to make this film at this time.  Obviously, the war was something that still weighed heavy on De Sica’s conscience.  But it is more than that; De Sica made this film in attempt to remind Italians about their choices of the past.

De Sica wanted to awaken Italians from the attempt at forgetting why they found themselves in the positions they did.  The Italians weren’t merely conquered victims of circumstance, but rather a country who was conquered because of their serious and baneful delve into fascism, which was still in effect at the beginning of this war.  Now, it may come without saying, but not all Italians were to blame for this suffering.  It was the middle-upper class Italians who were known for their conformist proclivities towards fascism in the first place, of course there were also those who considered themselves Anti-Fascists among the Italian population, and many of whom were also in the middle-upper class.  This now leaves the lower class, and the ordinary; those who took no specific stance against fascism, for whatever variety of reasons.  This is one of the main areas of examination in the film: the grey area.  The titular characters Cesira and Rosetta as helpless lower class women represent this group of people who really are examples of Italians who were victims of circumstance; a mother who had not more capacity than what looking after her daughter and her shop took, not that she should have been more able, especially in such social circumstances.  This exact description, amidst wartime, reeks of neorealist ingredients.

The film’s storyline is concerned with Cesira and Rosetta’s refuge from Rome, which is being bombed by allies.  They are escaping towards Cesira’s land of origin, which in itself is an unavoidable metaphor.  Her escape towards home is De Sica’s way of saying these simple characters are trying to escape to somewhere they know, or something they know, because they obviously do not relate to what is happening.  They are the grey area.  As mentioned before, neorealist films do not rely on metaphors, however, certainly De Sica, as any seasoned storyteller does, uses certain conceits, images, and situations to reach depths beyond ostensible content.

A routine theme on their travels is the misogyny of men towards the two women.  The film even starts with a man more or less taking advantage of Cesira; she does nothing more than let a man sleep with her.  She is ogled on the train by a fellow Italian male, a man asks if he can take an obscene picture.  De Sica uses misogyny to comment on how men’s foolish decisions have put these two women in these constant positions of discomfort and impurity.  While they are en route, they reach a village in which to break in.  They come across villagers who accept them and are almost immediately engaged in conversation of the war.  Belmondo’s Michele stands out as the most significant of the company.  He is a young adult full of intellectual insight.  Though it is played out (as romantic) for the sake of dramatic conventions, Michele is taken by the two women, especially Cesira, and eventually becomes close to them.  Cesira does not think seriously of Michele’s romantic interest, she calls him “subversive.”  She thinks of him as a man with good intentions; a good heart, but impractical and flawed when set to their reality.  Symbolically, Michele acts as a sort of counterpart to the women, the mental side to what they physically stand for.

The centerpiece of the film happens as they make their way back toward Rome.  While in a town, Rosetta is found in a church by a band of soldiers who surround her and rape her.  This is such a strong image because of the duality of the virgin and the church.  This is a complete mark of the loss of innocence given Rosetta’s strict Christianity.  We are left with an omnipresent light from above.

The film’s ending proves just as moving; Cesira holds Rosetta in her arms.  Michele, who represented their conscience, has been murdered.  It is also important to note that Michele’s death happened off screen, a very non-heroic characteristic of the neorealism movement.  Anyway, the two women are interlocked, crying silently as the camera slowly pulls out.

Two Women is a film made by a man who didn’t want his countrymen to forget, a man with a conscience that put his talents to use in order for others to remember or learn about the past in a less filtered shade; to see the general, yet horrible damage war has on people as well as how dangerous decisions of conformism that once negatively affected others, had soon after caught up to themselves as well as those unconcerned, or the grey area.

Precious (2009) – Lee Daniels

May 12, 2010

Precious was a case that before I saw the film, my expectations went through somewhat of a rollercoaster ride. Towards the Oscar ceremony it was picking up a lot of speed and I was somewhat in a rush to see it. It was getting generally positive reviews from the few people I know that had seen it already, and then it picked up the lion’s share at the Independent Spirit Awards. Then, for some reason, maybe it was right after Oscars, I don’t recall exactly from whom, but I got the feeling that more people had seen it and the underwhelming responses were slowly rising. Nevertheless, I still wanted to see it, especially after I saw the DVD artwork. This was a film that from its posters to its DVD artwork had some very nice to at least interesting design, which is more often than not a mark of the actual film’s quality. This may sound shallow, but unfortunately intelligent graphic design is something that, if not rock bottom, is still definitely not something often considered worth spending time on in this business.

That being said, I wasn’t exactly sure why my feelings after the film ended were not exactly enthusiastic.  In other words, while watching the film, I wasn’t immediately turned off by it. I watched hoping for something that would differentiate this from the Dangerous Minds and Coach Carters besides its relatively raw and unveiled approach. Though the ending of the film did prove quite evocative and even moving for a bit, the 100 minutes before it lacked that complexity and humanistic penetration.

I will get to that moment later, but first: my qualms. When I mentioned in conversation that the film didn’t bring anything new to this well tread story, I was confronted with the opinion that no, it didn’t, but what it did was do it better. I can definitely agree with that, but only that. It is more accurate, but all that means to me is that the inspirational moments and where the film leaves the character are less superficial (as I said earlier, it is less veiled). As bad as this may sound, I found it troubling to sympathize with the character of Precious. I feel bad for people in that situation, surely, but what I felt here, or was unable to feel, is by way of the film’s fault. One main reason was the lack of complexity of her character. I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say that Precious is deified in the film, but she is missing some serious flaws.  When she does certain things that “aren’t right” the film seems to justify them. For instance, when she steals a basket of chicken, it’s because she is hungry; surely something we can all identify with, but it’s also the way it’s filmed. She runs out and the film goes to some energetic and cool song.  And whenever she acts out violently, the film seems decidedly on her side. Such as when she throws things at her mother, hits the boys who tease her sexually as she passes, or the girl in her class who calls her fat. This is a problem that I wonder if is fleshed out more in the novel.

The other reason I didn’t exactly sympathize with this girl is just the plain fact that the film didn’t get me inside her head. Precious is a girl who has trouble articulating things, at least intelligently. I wanted to see this simple-ness used as a tool of evocation; sometimes the most visceral things are the way underdeveloped minds express their feelings. This is no secret in cinema; from Herzog’s moving Stroszek to even Tropic Thunder‘s spoof of this idea in “Simple Jack.”

Anyway, THAT is exactly why the mother character was the center of the film for me! She was villainized, surely, but we got to see a glimpse into this woman’s soul and trouble rather than just a sad face. Don’t get me too wrong, Gabourey Sibide did a fine, though not exceeding, job. She was able to convey a certain shyness brought on by sheer embarrassment, but Mo’nique was incredible. We saw a woman who did horrible things, things people know not to do yet she seemed unregretful, such a troubled character. And then at the end (the scene I mentioned earlier as the highlight) when she meets back up with Precious in the social worker’s cubicle, she explains herself. She explains why she let Precious get raped, and how she felt the first instance (when Precious was only an infant) and why she hates Precious for it. We know she is completely wrong for her abhorrence towards Precious, but we get why. Not that it is now excusable, but (without going too much into detail for the sake of ruining it) it shows us what love and acceptance drives someone to, and then what losing that love and acceptance can drive that same person to do. And when we, as the audience (not just of a film, but of a person), get to that point, we so suddenly stop judging them, and that is moving.

It is scenes like that that really make you wish the rest of the film matches it. I don’t want to say that the film was plagued at its subject matter, because it wasn’t. Rather, the direction and screenplay spent too much time trying to get into Precious’ head through crappy opaque dream sequences and not enough time of the poignancy that lie in a character like that’s thoughts or even poetic and subtle shot compositions that express her turmoil. When I say that this film differs from the rest in the pedigree because of simple accuracy, it’s almost makes it a worse experience just because of the disappointment. Luckily, we have actors like Mo’nique that come as close as they can at single-handedly saving a film; I can’t wait to see more from her.

Cassandra’s Dream (2007) – Woody Allen

May 10, 2010

If you are even slightly familiar with Woody Allen’s films, you more than likely know they are routinely about characters filled with existential and basic moral anxiety. Recently, someone said (and this wasn’t from an Allen-phile exactly) that the director is incapable of making a bad film. It struck me as obvious and yet revelatory, and during my second viewing of Cassandra’s Dream, I thought it might be the way he handles this leitmotif that makes that sentiment accurate.
At least that’s a large reason why whenever questioned on my most favored filmmaker, the answer invariably comes back to Woody Allen. I find great comfort in his films; warmth comes to me as his signature credits roll, like the response of Pavlov’s dogs. Sure he has made a couple clumsy or clunky films, Hollywood Ending and Celebrity come to mind, but they are merely specks on such a prolific career.
After my first viewing of Cassandra’s Dream, I was left slightly underwhelmed though not unhappy with it. My second viewing unveiled not only a nice little film, but what must be a personal success for Woody Allen. It plays out like a Greek tragedy, of which it is certainly aware of, and is nice in how simply and straight-forward it gets from point A to B. I say a little film because of how determinedly low-key it is. I often find it hard to sort out why a film feels a certain way, and this is no different. It has three large-name actors, yes, but the film seems so uninterested in using its plot devices to exploit audience reaction. Think of this film in juxtaposition to Allen’s Match Point, both murder mysteries, but one an edge of the seat thriller that hits every note correctly in terms of both plot and point. Cassandra’s Dream instead plays out like a parable, it never even hints at trying to be comedic the way his earlier film did so naturally. This isn’t to malign Cassandra’s Dream in the least, instead in works in its favor; it would have been a complete failure as well as uninteresting if it were an attempt to recapture the tone and quality of Match Point. This brings up another thing I love about Woody Allen: though his films are sometimes preached as merely being retreads, he actually has quite a repertoire. He made three films in a row, each in the same area (one Allen is not native to), each a murder mystery, and each totally unique as well as successful, as far as I am concerned.
The film follows two brothers who each need financial help and therefore call on a rich uncle. In order to receive this help, they are then commissioned by him to murder a man the uncle deems as potentially detrimental to his career and life, which they carry out without flaw. Allen uses the two brothers to show two sides of humanity: the ones who feel guilt and the ones who try to avoid it for personal gain. Terry, played by Colin Farrell, is overcome with guilt, unable to forget the murder the way Ian, played by Ewan McGregor, is. Terry falls into a deep depression, while Ian is trying to persuade him that everything is alright. Eventually, Ian and their uncle, played by the always spectacular Tom Wilkinson, out of fear that Terry will out them, devise a scheme for Ian to kill Terry first. The brothers go out on the boat they were initially enamored with at the film’s opening but then neglected. The sea’s fresh air is unable to take Terry’s mind off of the murder and tells Ian he is certainly going to report it to the police. Ian erupts and attempts to murder his own brother, but out of self defense, Terry ends up accidentally murdering Ian as he is thrown on his back onto the lower level of the boat. We discern from the policemen’s conversation that Terry then took his own life.
Like I said, it is an homage to the Greek Tragedies. In that respect, it is almost surprising that the Ian character doesn’t end up walking away free, that he didn’t get away with killing his brother and the earlier man. I say this in terms that it is a Woody Allen film; I’m surprised that he didn’t want to leave us with perhaps the greater moral tragedy that the world would let a man like Ian live on. But instead, and rather adroitly, Allen shows us the tragedy of a man already so filled with guilt that he wants to kill himself who actually ends up killing his brother as well.
It is in that scene when Terry kills Ian, where Allen’s technique becomes most apparent. The camera closes in on Farrell’s shocked face and Phillip Glass’ music comes in, but Allen does not use these devices or the actor to makes us feel the sadness of Terry the way a different film would. Instead, the music seems to bridge this scene with the next. And the acting is appropriately two-dimensional almost, as are the characters, but it is more evidence of Allen’s ability to direct than an inability in the two leads. I think many have misdiagnosed actors’ abilities based on performances in Allen films based mainly on misunderstandings of the man’s style. His scriptwriting is often more akin to playwriting than most audiences are used to, as is his directing, which is famously filled with master-shots lasting in the double-digits and even minutes at times. But it is this shot of Colin Farrell that I most fully realized this film’s parable-like quality; think of how different it is from the end of Allen’s Manhattan where we feel immediately saddened and understand the inner turmoil of Isaac just by looking at Woody Allen’s face as he realizes he screwed things up with Tracy. But here, we don’t feel Terry’s guilt, instead Allen makes us think about what this means in terms of the film’s moral agenda; it’s a smart step from a director, who in his seventies, is still refreshing.

The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner (1974) – Werner Herzog

May 9, 2010

Werner Herzog has an obsession with making films about men who have an obsession with flying, kind of like how James Spader has an obsession with playing roles about men who have an obsession with sex fetishes.  In other words, this film could’ve been called Little Walter Needs to Fly, to make a really lame Herzog joke.  The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner is a 45 minute documentary about German ski jumper Walter Steiner; a modest man who just likes to fly.

The film opens with a strangely hypnotic slow-motion shot of Steiner seemingly floating in air in the middle of a ski jump set to strange guitar music. It’s the type of thing Herzog viewers have become accustomed to over the years. As if you couldn’t guess just by Herzog’s name on the film, this isn’t the typical sports documentary, though at times Herzog may use those certain conventions to his advantage.

It becomes clear rather quickly that Steiner isn’t the fearless egoist filled with madness that usually ends up as Herzog’s protagonist. Instead, he seems extremely considerate, modest, and above all, afraid. It’s a strange and almost disorienting sensation. Walter immediately speaks of the danger of ski jumping and comes across as scared, but says he would rather not hear people speak of fear. He says he wants to jump off higher ramps, but it may cause accidents, “we are pushing the limit.” Herzog appears on camera during a practice run and tells us he is about to attempt a jump larger than he has before and tells the camera that he is in great danger, “this is where ski jumping starts to be inhumane.” Now, when Werner Herzog is telling you something is dangerous, you’re in trouble. But if he is so afraid, why does Steiner jump time and time again knowing of the dangers?

Later in the film, Walter speaks of an incident when he was a child in school. A teacher catches him daydreaming and was asked what he was dreaming of. He says he was thinking about flying; planes, model planes bigger than he could ever build. All he could ever think about was taking off. “Maybe that’s why I suddenly took off one night and began flying,” he says. Walter says he dreamt of seeing himself in slow-motion mid air on skis, and as soon as one recalls the intro, Herzog plays it again. Speaking of the present, Steiner says when suspended in air, “that’s when you become aware of what’s really going on,” and another clip of him in air plays which is nicely edited before we see him land. To try to do justice to Walter’s speech about it is just foolish, so I will not. But, it’s not that he’s modest about his courage, he is genuinely afraid, and it’s not his complete madness that leads him to such dangers, but his poignant urge to fly.

But part of me wonders if Herzog is attracted to Steiner’s madness, or just the ostensible madness of ski jumping. Herzog even differentiates between ski jumping and what Steiner does: ski flying. Steiner relates the feeling of fear right before a jump to the sensation you feel right before a significant automobile accident, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Herzog was very interested in someone who puts themselves through that time and time again. After all, Steiner states, as Herzog plays clip after clip of him crashing, “the thrill of flying so far that nevertheless gives me a kick.”

The centerpiece of the film is a jumping event where Steiner breaks the ski jumping record. He was concerned about the height of the ramp; feared it would be dangerous to all the jumpers. Even after he sets the record, he is concerned and persuades them to change the ramp, but he still attempts another jump. He ends up falling once he hits land; it doesn’t seem drastic as he just rolls on his side, but Herzog plays it again in slow-motion and you can see his face dragging along the bumpy, hard snow for many yards. The injury still isn’t too severe, but Walter’s face is bloody and he seems mentally out of it. After he recovers somewhat, he disappears into the woods surrounding the event. When he resurfaces, he is put off and disturbed at the judges not listening to him. He is pressured to jump a 3rd time and is even more angered. He rants that they are just waiting to see him die. Herzog edits away from Walter into a kind of montage that starts on a flock of birds. He follows the flock for an extended period of time that resembles a moment of astonishing beauty in one of Herzog’s more recent and most brilliant documentaries: The White Diamond. The montage continues of a shot of a helicopter and many ski jumpers in mid jump as the music builds.

Just watching Walter, as Herzog captures a long voyeuristic shot of him frustrated, you get the sense that he barely even cares about the record breaking, he just wants to enjoy his moments of flight, the ones he dreamed about as a boy. And at that moment, Herzog goes back to a talking head shot of Walter and he tells a wonderful story about a young raven he had while growing up. It would wait at the corner for him to come home from school. But as the days went on, he started to lose feathers and was plagued by his own kind. Eventually, Walter had to shoot the raven and says it was a torturous task.

I was recently reading the book of interviews Herzog on Herzog, which in it he actually calls this film one of his most important, but he reveals something very interesting in it. He basically says that he treats his documentaries the same as his fiction films, more or less. In most all of his documentaries, he gives his subjects things to say or specific ways to say certain things; otherwise known as scripting. Herzog says he is trying to further bring out emotional truths that he knows the subject has in them. Now first of all, I wish I hadn’t read that because it kind of ruins the experience a bit (not that I think Herzog’s technique is wrong), but anyway, I’m not positive if this last speech by Walter is one of those incidents of Herzog scripting, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was because of how perfectly it works. I thought about Herzog’s technique while watching this film and came across an idea that makes Herzog seem like even more of a genius. What he is doing can be thought of as the same way as a fiction film, but by using real events and real people playing themselves, not only does he get assured natural acting, but he also doesn’t have to pay for or organize the huge sets, extras, or stuntmen. That’s just practical filmmaking. It’s quite interesting, though I’m sure some genre purists might have problems with Herzog’s authorial intrusions, but I don’t think anyone has ever been able to or has ever wanted to pin Herzog down to any one set of genre conventions.

The introduction we get of Steiner, in one of the film’s first scenes, we see him in a room with one of his woodcarvings. He goes into detail about how he feels about the piece and a bit about his carving technique. The viewer’s natural thought, based on the title of the film, is that the film will keep coming back to similar scenes, but this is the only mention of woodcarving. Herzog doesn’t differentiate between Walter’s ski jumping and his woodcarving; he uses it to introduce us to an artist, and Herzog’s definition of an artist is rather admirable.

Alice in Wonderland (2010) – Tim Burton

May 5, 2010

It’s as if you can tell what movie Tim Burton will make next just by making an educated guess. Is The Wizard of Oz next? I actually just heard he was planning on making The Adams Family movie; you see what I mean? Either way, it’s no secret that Tim Burton has lost his edge. Maybe it’s one of those things that just happens to some people once they have kids; it happened to Jerry Seinfeld. After all, he seems to be almost exclusively making children’s films nowadays (though Sweeney Todd was rather bloody…and also more enjoyable) and Alice in Wonderland, more so than before is devoid of even hints at welcome mature content.

I should preface this by saying I wasn’t planning on seeing this, but the opportunity arose that I could see it for free. I was going to say I lost interest in Tim Burton right around a couple months after I saw Big Fish, but really my only Tim Burton enthusiasm has been solely contained in a few lovable films, mostly Batman and Edward Scissorhands, and where he really hit his stride in Ed Wood. But anyway, if Charlie and the Chocolate Factory wasn’t very desirable for you, stay away from Alice in Wonderland. If for no other reason, Johnny Depp is in it less.

The last time I watched Edward Scissorhands, I hadn’t seen it in quite a while and I was quite taken with Tim Burton’s production design. I have a weakness for directors who use small models in their films; Hitchcock comes to mind. Even besides the models, Burton’s slightly surreal design of the 1990s suburbs was delightful with its matching pastels and such. Unfortunately, most all of that Tim Burton is lost here. Alice in Wonderland is awash in tacky CGI, and I only saw it in 2D. I can only imagine from seeing the film and from what I’ve already heard, how bad it would be in 3D. What really irks me is just how much the film loses from its appearance. It doesn’t take an especially astute mind to know what a visual tale this is. The CG is simply of an intangible quality and makes you feel like you are watching a computer screen. Most embarrassing is Crispin Glover’s character Stayne, a very tall Prince-like character. Once he arrives on the scene and gets off his horse, he walks in the direction of the camera and you immediately see his whole body moving asynchronously to his head in a rather ridiculous fashion. I’m not sure what the story is there, but in this age of CG, though I don’t think it’s even close to its peak, this sort of stuff is inexcusable. As he is very tall and Tim Burton had troubles (or lack of energy) inventing some other, better way of making him appear on screen simultaneously with other characters, this continues through the rest of the film. If I could just digress for a second, filmmakers watch every part of their films over and over again until the edits become second nature, which means Tim Burton watched this part more than any casual viewer ever will and after just one lethargic viewing it was quite agitating to me. Basically, I would think a project as outlandish and idiosyncratic as this would seem an oddball director’s wet dream and he would take delicate care of it instead of leaving it to the calculated execution of a computer.

So, the real question arises: Is Tim Burton such an oddball director anymore? These days, it seems just his subjects are of much more quirky derision than he makes them and more importantly, Burton avoids the dark territory that at once, is found in the original material and secondly, that the Burton that made his name famous would have took pleasure indulging in.

The film has a framing device; Alice’s “real world.” She is a child of the London upper-crest, in a pathetic portrayal of the English. Just because you throw in a few “bloody”’s here and there doesn’t mean you’ve covered the American-ness of the film…but I digress again. Once Alice comes of age, she is matched with a young man against her will. The actress playing Alice, Mia Wasikowska, looks an awful lot like Claire Daines, who I never cared much for, but Wasikowska has a look that’s just interesting enough. Alice is rebellious against the idea, and yearns for a world of freedom and natural love. It’s apparent from this moment, the film is rather shallow. Right as the male, Hamish, proposes marriage in front of the terrifyingly large audience she gets sucked into the well known rabbit hole. Once she’s down there, it seems a while before we get to the film’s main attraction, Johnny Depp. Maybe it’s because Wasikowska, while cute, hasn’t the charm to guide a film. But it’s also because Wonderland just isn’t wonderful enough. All the little creatures don’t have the memorable characterization the y should either. Thankfully, the film does have that main attraction of Johnny Depp. His wonderful eccentricities are about the only thing that still makes sense in a Tim Burton film. And he’s pretty much the only thing that breathes creativity into this film. Burton’s wife Helena Bonham Carter is good, as usual, playing the Red Queen. Anne Hathaway’s White Queen appearance seems more like an attempt to cramp in the book’s major characters into the film, though I’m not too familiar with the original source. I didn’t even know Crispin Glover was in the film until he appeared and usually his awkward, uncomfortable weirdness is at least an indulgence, but he is completely stiff here.

At the end of the film, Alice defeats the towering Jabberwocky and the whole Wonderland celebrates except the Red Queen. And Johnny Depp does his famous dance he has mentioned throughout the film. The result is a CGI’d teeth clenching and weird affair, and not in a way usually associated with Depp or Burton either. The film seems to have totally steeped to childish stupidity. Eventually, the story returns to the “real world” and Alice confronts everyone she has a problem with, mainly Hamish and both his and her parents, in the most non-spontaneous fashion. This, together with her defeating of the Jabberwocky, makes the film take a shallow turn towards blunt feminism. If it wasn’t apparent before this point in the film, it is now clear Burton truly isn’t interested in the wonderful space of dreams. In Alice in Wonderland, he seems more caught up in his archetypal heroine and going-through-the-motions storytelling.

The Break-Up (2006) – Peyton Reed

May 3, 2010

I don’t remember exactly how I ended up watching The Break-Up the first time around, but I’m sure it was in a fix to satisfy some rom-com junk food desires. I do remember it being released, mainly from the countless TV spots memorable because of Jennifer Aniston’s nude prancing in front of her then real life boyfriend Vince Vaughn. It didn’t make too much of a splash, critically, but for a couple reasons I paid attention to it. One reason being Jon Brion did the score, which seemed a bit odd that he would deviate from his usual quirky, high profile director fare. The other and main reason being Peyton Reed directed the film. Now, I’m guessing the name Peyton Reed doesn’t do much for most, but he did a film I absolutely adore called Down With Love back in 2003. It’s a lovely and clever homage to the Rock Hudson-Doris Day films of the late 50s and 60s that was doomed to not find a place among the young public. Since 2008, I’m not sure how much weight Reed’s name carries even for me after the extreme misfire Yes Man (though its light fare was a nice theatre-hopping come down from bore-fest Benjamin Button), but I think he did some nice things here in The Break-Up.

The film starts as anyone would assume; Vaughn’s character, Gary, picks up Aniston’s Brooke at a baseball game, and then we flash forward to the night of the fight. They’ve been living together; they’re having a dinner party, Gary was supposed to bring home twelve lemons, misunderstands the order and brings home three lemons. The misunderstanding washes away and the dinner starts. At dinner, we meet Brooke’s sister Richard, the closet homosexual who loves being in his barbershop quartet, which the always loveable John Michael Higgins (from Christopher Guest’s improve comedies) saves from being what on paper was a staple bad convention of the rom-com. Once the guests leave, Gary goes for the Playstation, Brooke goes for the dishes, and the break-up ensues. The argument starts like many in the genre; the woman gets mad at the man for not pulling his weight around the house. After a minute or two, it becomes clear that this film isn’t the date movie you’re used to, not because of the obvious handy-cam cinematography, but the acting escalates into a serious territory rarely seen in date movies. Rather, I should say Vaughn’s acting ups a tier and Aniston acts just as mediocre as usual, but she’s going off a much more realistic script than usual. Gary goes back to playing video games and Brooke tells him she’s done as she walks off; Gary lingers and then Vaughn does something very small here that I like a whole lot: he throws the controller. I know that just sounds miniscule, but it comes off as a completely spontaneous moment of frustration that I’ve witnessed in real life. It’s moments like this that  really add texture to a film.

The middle of the film basically revolves around a plot to reel in laughs which appeals more to the couples crowd. Neither of them will give up the apartment; Gary feels he got dumped and should at least be left with the apartment, and Brooke feels it was his fault they broke up and she deserves it. Anyway, they set up boundaries and you can imagine the sort of situations that ensue. Another genre convention arises; the friend. In every date movie, there must be a friend that each half of the couple goes to for consolation. Brooke’s is played by the always lackluster Joey Lauren Adams and Gary’s friend is played by the favorable Jon Favreau, Vaughn’s long time friend. Favreau’s character plays up the typical attitude of being convinced Brooke is cheating on Gary, which leads him to constant vengeful plottings. Justin Long (aka the Mac guy) shows up in a small part as a rather overdone super-fem character, but makes the most of it. Jason Bateman also makes a small appearance as the couple’s friend and realtor and is good for one solid dry joke. Gary’s job highlights one of the recent trends showing up in all kinds of films whose genre includes comedy; the quirky occupation that no one you know would ever hold. Gary is a tour guide in Chicago, and along with his brothers, he is trying to do not only bus tours, but eventually move to boats and planes. This trend was one of the things that really bugged me about last year’s otherwise usually successful (500) Days of Summer.

The third act of the film is the film’s best feature. We get closer to Gary and I’m not sure if we do to Brooke or whether it’s just my feelings toward Aniston that keep me at bay, but she does surprise me in the film’s finest scene. Brooke gives Gary another chance and when he doesn’t pick up on it, she is caught back in her room at the apartment crying. Gary is confused and tries to figure things out as Aniston let’s Brooke’s frustration out by raising her voice in perhaps the only scene I’ve seen Aniston be vulnerable. Peyton Reed should not be overlooked for making this what it is; a pared down, tense, lingering scene. The end of the film sees them some months later running into one another and being what seems to be an attempt at something sweet to one another but comes across as rather fake. It’s a largely disappointing cap of a film that has shown us a self consciousness (although it is a lot better than the alternate ending that I hope was just filmed to throw on the DVD for laughs).

Maybe the most important thing this film does relative to its genre is the way it portrays the male. During the break-up the viewer can clearly identify with Brooke’s problem, but the rest of the film isn’t devoted to having the male character trying his hardest at making the female accept him. Instead, each character realizes what sort of changes they need to make in order to know they have done what they can, which happen at different times. We are left wondering whether things would’ve worked out if they were on the same page, but the main fact that they aren’t on the same page points us in the right direction. Anyway, no one is seen as more immoral than the other.

I’m not saying this is a great film or even a very solid film, but it has moments where it transcends the genre that I really admire and Vaughn and Favreau’s natural charisma make up for some of the film’s more trodden path tendencies. There’s a negative review of this film by one Michael A. Smith where he says “The Break Up may go down with Fatal Attraction as the worst ‘date’ movie of all time,” but I just don’t see how that’s really a bad thing considering it obviously isn’t trying to win over lasting smiles. Rather, the film draws attention, if only for moments at a time, to a potent sense of relational frustration.

Brødre (2004) – Susanne Bier / Brothers (2009) – Jim Sheridan

January 18, 2010

Early this year, I saw the promising trailer for Jim Sheridan’s Brothers and I remembered the Danish film Brødre and how I had started watching it a few years back but never finished it. And if there’s one thing I’m happy about with the remake, it’s the fact that it got me to watch Bier’s original. Now, I’m not super well-versed on Sheridan’s ouevre, but I went in to Brothers knowing In America was a pretty satisfying drama, but I also went in knowing I really only care for one of these actors (save under Nichols’ direction) and that’s more or less based on one character (this guy), not that I have let that stand in the way of many films I’ve enjoyed before.

This leads me to one of the main reasons Bier’s film works: the acting. It doesn’t hurt it has Danish powerhouse Ulrich Thomsen, playing the war-sent Michael. Nikolaj Kaas, who plays the just-out-of-prison Jannik, also proves super effective. But what’s interesting is when first watching Brødre, the acting didn’t stick out as much as it did after watching Sheridan’s remake. The character Kaas created was extremely closed off at first and slowly likeable. Gyllenhaal’s corresponding Tommy is annoyingly accessible and goofy, not to mention the actor is just embarrassingly incompetent at playing a drunk.  There’s a scene in the original that’s exactly echoed in the remake. It wraps up the first act and we see the characters finding out the misinformation about Michael dying in war. Jannik returns the car he borrowed to his sister-in-law drunkenly and she tells him about his brother, and he has an angry reaction to her in a gust of confusion. As cliche as it sounds, these are the scenes that good dramatic films are made of; the type that shows us people as they get emotions and don’t know what to do with them. It’s quite fascinating to see something like sudden confusion acted out, at least when it’s done well.

If you want to know what it looks like when it’s not done well, watch Jake Gyllenhaal try to do this scene in Brothers, it’s not a pretty sight. As well as highlighting the vast contrast in acting ability between the two versions, it also illuminates the difference in tone and presentation. Bier’s is wonderfully understated for such dramatic material; it’s tone is quiet and the camera even has slightly blackened edges that even makes it literally less clear and invites a closer look. And the camerawork, which when I first visited the film a few years ago, I was turned off by because it seemed almost obligatory and stale in the context of Danish cinema (the Dogme 95 movement), but now I wasn’t bothered by it at all and felt it actually created subtle tension (i.e. in the drunk scene).

The camerawork in Sheridan’s film, which I had moderately high hopes for when seeing Frederick Elmes’ name come up in the opening credits, like the rest of the film, was disappointing. I read a review that lauded it for presenting the setting as a sort of an Anywhere, USA town, and I agree to a point, it was definitely generic. You can exude anonymity without being bland, and by the way, I don’t even know what the film would prosper from by being set in Anytown, USA; that whole “it can happen in your town too” thing is a bit passe.

But, back to the acting for a second. Tobey Maguire just got a Golden Globe nomination for his work in this film (let me also point out Sandra Bullock was also nominated for both The Blind Side and The Proposal) which is a bit troubling to me as well. I will say I thought the scene in the kitchen at the end was as close to powerful this film came, and it was because of Maguire’s performance, but that was still only in the context of the road he/the filmmakers chose to take, which was more an exercise in Post Tramautic Stress Syndrome than basic complicated emotions and situations shared between family members. And it’s fine for a remake to try and explore new paths (if that’s what they are doing, I’m not sure) and be totally different, but the problem here, for me, is that the literary concept was developed because of and so lends itself to the latter more than the former. In Bier’s film, you don’t have Thomsen walking around with a gun everywhere and harboring an uninteruppted stiff face, he appears normal and lets the underlying emotions of the character, that you are sure exist, come out gradually. Sure, he’s re-stacking the cups obsessively in the cupboard, but he doesn’t look like he wants to smash them like Maguire does. By bringing in the element of what is so clearly Post Tramautic Stress Syndrome, not only do they have a tag to add, but it so easily can comes across as two-dimensional. I might also add that in the original, when Thomsen’s character gets upset at his wife (in two different scenes) he actually grabs her and throws her, Maguire’s character doesn’t ever come close to this level of domestic abuse if he even touches her aggressively at all. I’ll let you take that for whatever it’s worth.

My other big beef with Sheridan’s film was the relationship between the father character and Tommy. I’m even a Sam Shepard fan, and I know a lot of it was the script he was following, which when it wasn’t merely being transcribed from the original, it seemed to be following an almost Made for TV mold, but Shepard’s acting just seemed phoned in from the beginning. Check the scene in the kitchen after the funeral where the father and son are making up to see these two substandard elements collide.

On a minor note, another usually dependable contributor that failed in this remake was composer Thomas Newman, whose score was almost immediately distracting, especially the electric guitar stuff. And while I’m on the music, I’ll add that ending your “powerful drama” with a U2 original (another Golden Globe nomination) doesn’t do it any favors either. It’s like the hangover that comes after a long night of drinking really cheap whiskey.

As is typical of American remakes of European films, their endings leave no stone unturned. Now, I won’t ruin the ending, but let’s just say if the American remake is really cheap whiskey, at the end they give you quite a gulp of it at once, whereas the Danish original gives you a nice taste of some top shelf Scotch. I know what I’d rather have.
I know this is a pessimistic way to start out a blog, but I seriously and unfortunately haven’t had the ambition to see almost any films in theatres for a long time and it’s movies like Sheridan’s that have made me lose that excitement.

About Dr. Strangeblog

December 14, 2009


Once upon a time, [Peter and] I had a blog called A Blog Ain’t Too Much To Love, which was your run of the mill music blog. It died. So, now we present Dr Strangeblog or: How I Learned A Blog Ain’t Too Much To Love, because I guess blogging ain’t too much to love either. Dr. Strangeblog at this point is going to be a blog in which I write reviews of films and Peter makes corresponding illustrations. Now, the films I review will be most everything I watch; this includes the highest and the lowest of brows, hopefully this will make for an unexpected and interesting mix. Lastly, this blog is still at its burgeoning stage obviously, so don’t be surprised if it changes shapes as it comes of age.