Catherine Stebbins – CriterionCast Thu, 16 Jul 2015 18:58:49 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Catherine Stebbins – CriterionCast 32 32 Catherine Reviews Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella [Theatrical Review] Fri, 20 Mar 2015 12:00:11 +0000 cinderella

Note: We’re all familiar with Cinderella, so I’ll spare us a plot synopsis and get right to it.

The old feels new in Kenneth Branagh and Disney’s live-action retelling of its 1950 animated feature (itself an adaptation of the Charles Perrault fairy tale). When did a classic take on a fairy tale become refreshing?

The answer is sometime during the current blockbuster cycle of revisionist live-action fairy tales. As Disney leads the way in the Revampathon of iconic properties, we’ve witnessed digitized world expansions, CGI battles galore, villains in the spotlight, needless mythology and lots of flavorlessness. Some of this has been successful (Maleficent translating the devastation of rape trauma) and most of it has not (everything else?). I step into this review admittedly on the defense. Singing the praises of Cinderella also means pushing against the kind = passive = bad line of thinking which has become prevalent regarding the titular character.

The “have courage and be kind” message of Cinderella may not be “rule the world”, but anything less should not automatically imply regressive sexual politics. What matters most for me on a foundational level when servicing women in film (outside of the central issue of desperately needing more women storytellers) are questions like; do they resonate as individuals? Are they more than cardboard cutouts or narrative props? Does the film do justice to a female-centric story? If all women are to be depicted as strong, ruthless, fierce creatures, we’re doing girls a different kind of disservice to the full range of women that should occupy our screens. I want to see girls like Katniss, Hermione, Merida, Matilda, Kiki, and yes Ella brought to life (and hey, can we get some non-white heroines?). And courtesy of Lily James, Ella is brought to life.

Playing a fairy tale heroine tends to eat actresses, even good ones, for breakfast. Working within the ‘princess’ archetype (whether revisionist or traditional) is deceptively difficult. Much of the battle is fought during the casting process. Cinderella and her peers operate within archetypes that tend to register in a Practically Perfect in Every Way brand of irritating or worse; a non-entity. Yet somehow Lily James’s steadfast eyebrows and infectious luminescence makes ceaseless positivity endearing. For all its additional delights, Cinderella triumphs primarily thanks to the lead performance. Chris Weitz’s screenplay provides her with ample support, ensuring she is not relegated to the pitfall function of being a vacant gateway into a fantasy world.

Ella’s outlook on life is sustained by a promise made to her dying mother (a glowing Hayley Atwell) to live by the aforementioned motto. Critically, Ella’s optimism never suggests oblivious ditz. James’s face constantly communicates the effort it takes to live by these words, as well as the earnest attempts to comprehend the heartlessness around her. The only way she knows how to survive is to cling to happy memories and to what is good. Everyone has survival mechanisms, ways of coping with fearful situations; denial, escape at all costs, optimism, hope, self-loathing. What some are seeing as Ella’s doormat weakness is actually quietly defiant survival, and survival has worth in this or any world.

Prominence is given to understanding Ella’s ‘Cinder’-fall-from-grace predicament. In one scene a peripheral character asks why she stays with her stepmother (played with succulent relish by Cate Blanchett) who treats her so horribly. She replies that the house is all she knows (not to mention she has nowhere else to go). This is an only child whose sole meaningful relationships were to her parents (her father is played by Ben Chaplin), and the house is a physical connection to them she is unwilling to sacrifice. The narration explains that she welcomed servitude after her father’s death because the constant work provided much-needed distraction from grief. Her entrance into submission is a gradual and almost imperceptible descent full of small compromises which add up to something much bigger. Her chin-up demeanor may be outdated and regressive to many, but it’s made meaningful here. In a critical additional scene, Ella is given an opportunity to adamantly refuse a mutually advantageous proposition by her stepmother. This is no small act of rebellion.

Living up to one’s parents also occupies the mind of Prince Kit (Richard ‘King of the North!’ Madden). The king (Derek Jacobi) is dying (even by fairy-tale standards this is packed with parental death) and Kit doesn’t want to disappoint his father by not marrying royalty. Theirs is a warm and quite moving relationship, especially considering it takes place on the sidelines. The scenes they share help take the Prince out of the role of Savior, and into the role of, as with Ella, human being. The father-son relationship is just one example of how this story we all know by heart is given a little extra padding. Some choices work (rooting everything in Ella’s relationship with her parents, particularly the father-daughter relationship) and some miss the mark (using the stroke of midnight for an elaborate set-piece, Helena Bonham-Carter’s one scene performance, human lizards?).

In another narrative tweak, Ella and Kit encounter each other in the forest before the ball. And stop the presses because Lily James and Richard Madden (who has blue eyes for days to the point of questioning CGI enhancement) actually have chemistry! Kenneth Branagh’s camera seizes upon their open faces and the performances shine out of them. The energy of their eyes could light a city. Anchoring the stakes is Cate Blanchett as Lady Tremaine, ripping through the scenery with a wily smile, wild-fire eyes (this film is all about the eyes) and big glimmering costume jewels to match. Sandy Powell dresses Blanchett in chic modernized glamour; her clothes proudly project the illusion of power and status. Key cutaways are used to infer how she views herself within the narrative. Ella’s presence suggests a resentful reminder that the world has turned her bitter.

Kenneth Branagh channels his directorial bluster into Cinderella by putting grandiosity side-by-side with a combination of human emotion and the impressions that make up life. With plentiful help from the lavish production and costume design, everything becomes sweeping and magic becomes magical again thanks to that lost onscreen virtue; moderation.

The golden carriage! That blue dress! Those glass slippers! The enchanted objects-on-a-timer are corporeal and intimate and oh-so-pretty. We perceive just how much this temporary transformation means to Ella. Because the ball is not primarily about seeing Kit; it’s about having a night that belongs to her. And she soaks up every moment. So does Branagh. That he and Ella find endless wonder in something as simple as the twirl of a dress suggests there is hope yet for magic at the movies.

Catherine Reviews Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook [Theatrical Review] Thu, 06 Nov 2014 13:00:04 +0000 the-babadook-1200x630

It is altogether rare when a horror film works as equal parts psychological character excavation and a genuinely scary piece of cinema (to be fair, not all horror aspires to both). In Jennifer Kent’s debut film The Babadook, the two are bone-chillingly inextricable by making a grief-ridden mother-son relationship the nucleus from which a storybook monster’s infiltration is born. Statements like this are not usually in my deck of words, but after seeing this heartbreaking and deeply disquieting tale of woe, it is hard to deny The Babadook‘s status as the best horror film of the decade so far.

Amelia (Essie Davis) is spent. Her husband died in a car accident while driving her to the delivery room. She is raising their child Samuel (Noah Wiseman), now six, on her own. He is, to put it mildly, a handful. He suffers from serious behavioral problems and has trouble connecting to peers. He is beholden to impulses and outbursts; usually some form of shrieking is involved. And he is fixated by the idea that there are monsters lurking about. He has built dangerous defense weapons he has and brings them to school, resulting in his expulsion.

A paragraph that started about Amelia instantly became about Samuel. That’s because as we witness her everyday routine in these opening scenes, it is clear she is a non-entity in her own life. Samuel’s name is shouted countless times; we hardly ever hear hers. She is depleted; her frayed blonde hair, bare face, and barely pink uniform make her look like a shabby peach. Hell, she can’t even masturbate in peace. She has exhausted the good will of her sister (who doesn’t like to come round to her house because it’s too ‘depressing’) and a potential romantic interest turns out to be a total non-starter. Samuel is all Amelia has, and vice versa.

One night, as per their nightly routine, Samuel picks out a bedtime story book from the shelf called Mister Babadook. Amelia has never seen the book before, but nevertheless begins to read it aloud. The grotesque pop-up illustrations, which channel Dave McKean, are simple and prophetic in their black-eyed directness. And so the Mister Babadook of the macabre tale begins to invade their already vulnerable domestic space.

The Babadook of the title is a specter, an invader, a possessor, and a curse of sorts. He looks like an upright Lon Chaney in London After Midnight; its mobility is contrasted with unnerving stillness. In another of several invocations of silent cinema (magic is another through line, with Georges Méliès bridging the two) it often faces Amelia, Samuel and us dead-on and from afar, a projection of fears and the unspoken. The equally utilized use of sound tracks the insect-like clickity-clacks of unseen movement, and of course that croaky scrawl of “Bab—ba–doook. Dook. Dooooook”.

The titular creature is all of these things, and disturbing in his own right, but he is first and foremost a metaphoric manifestation of Amelia’s grief, the lurking presence of unresolved loss. Horror is so often about the lingering, about spiritual entities that have yet to reconcile their own stories. And it can easily become an uninvolving cliché because its inherent function as expository resolution. Here, the lingering belongs to the living, the Babadook an outgrowth of the taboo feelings of resentment and futility Amelia has towards her son. She loves her son, yes, but she also kind of hates him too. This film is chockfull of uneasy emotions and depressions laid bare that films tend to sideswipe and/or simplify.

Writer/director Jennifer Kent uses the roots of domestic horror to amplify the increasingly isolated central dynamic. What is supposed to be a safe space becomes distorted, the nature of family turned upside down. Amelia and Samuel’s home looks dreary despite its otherwise lovely essence. The monochromatic color palette of remote blues and grays, colors that are warm and familiar in small doses, are cold and claustrophobic in their totality, like a more naturalistic (by comparison) Possession.

Ambiguity is upheld, but Kent does not stake a claim there. At the end of the day, the question of the Babadook’s existence doesn’t really matter. What matters is that either way, all the film’s terrors and evils are borne out of real emotional turbulence. Roles and control shift into upsettingly resonant formations.

How have I drifted this far without mentioning the film’s true anchor, Essie Davis? A marvel by any measurement, her Amelia is fragile, achingly lonely, and at a loss. And then a force of nature; looming, ferocious, and unhinged. She is fighting with herself, giving in and getting out with everything she has got. She hits every single beat with an all-too relatable humanity, especially as she struggles in more way than one to be a person again. We watch as she registers the unfamiliarity she has with herself.

It is a testament to the writing and performance by Noah Wiseman that Samuel, for all his grating qualities, remains sympathetic. This is crucial; for all its other qualities, the film would not work if we felt no empathy for him. Sure, there’s no way we would want to spend a day with him, placating and smoothing things over. But Kent is always clear on the fact that Samuel is troubled and not an insolent brat. At one point, he asks his mother “Why don’t people like me”, and it is heartbreaking. The character is a tricky high-wire act of acting, editing, and directing.

Jennifer Kent brings a classical eye to her compositions, assured and stoic. The hard-hitting frights play for keeps (in other words, simple jump scares not wanted). In-camera effects are heavily relied on and it makes a considerable difference. Never underestimate the power of tangible physicality. And rest assured horror aficionados, this one gets under the skin; ambiguous without hinging entirely the internal, terrifying without ever playing its scares as an exercise. An exacting nightmare portrait of single motherhood, grief, and the unspoken complexities that can come with child-rearing, led by the ferociously powerful performance by Essie Davis, try as you might; you can’t get rid of The Babadook.

Catherine Reviews Charlie McDowell’s The One I Love [Fantasia 2014 Review] Thu, 14 Aug 2014 07:05:13 +0000 the-one-i-love-header

Warning: This review discloses the film’s central conceit which is being kept under wraps in the marketing

What if the need to recreate, repeat, or reset the good ol’ days of a relationship were replaced with the option of idealized perfection? Recognizable but tweaked, this is everything you’ve ever wanted from the person you love. But then you have to walk out of guest house paradise and talk to your actual significant other, facing that slump of disappointment. That’s what Sophie (Elisabeth Moss) grapples with in the Charlie Kaufman-lite The One I Love, a flimsy but highly amusing ‘what if’ relationship fantasy, anchored by the flummoxed curiosity of Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass.

While Sophie (Moss) and Ethan (Duplass) attempt to salvage their marriage through couples therapy (the therapist is played by Ted Danson in a cameo appearance; he is the only other person to appear in the film), they are sent to an isolated retreat for the weekend guaranteed they’ll return with a new lease on each other. They soon discover the guest house, which, when entered one at a time, contains alternates of each other; versions of themselves considerably more desirable than the real thing. Yes indeed, it’s yet another 2014 film with doppelgangers.

Alternate Sophie is like a casual Stepford wife; accommodating, cooker of bacon, docile, and even more comfortable with herself. Ethan sees Alternate Sophie not as a temptation (seriously, not even once, which somewhat problematically turns the film into Ethan vs. the world) but as a curiosity. Alternate Ethan poses the real threat. Sophie is entranced by him. He’s “20% cooler”, but also more charming, wittier, flirtatious, and articulate. In an early encounter, Sophie walks in to see a portrait Alternate Ethan has made of her and she doesn’t like it. But it doesn’t matter. She is attracted to the earnestness of the attempt and his subsequent ability to quip and make light-hearted jabs about the end result.

Sophie insists in seeing the weekend through as a trust exercise for each, but it’s clearly more than that for her. This new abstract confusion takes them to the next step, beyond misguided attempts at reclaiming the opening stage of a relationship. They are introduced to a literal newness of each other. As Sophie gradually turns her back on Ethan for something that seems to be better than what’s in front of her, he slips further into hapless habits of paranoia and wounded male pride that only serve his concerns. He sees what is happening, but not why it is happening.

The One I Love is pleasantly diverting. That it, at times, feels like a rough cut (in screenplay, direction, and edits) can only derail it to a point. The script has a tendency to work against its potential by rushing to repetitive surface developments instead of exploring what happens when couples lose the ability to exist in the long-term. Disappointments crop up, and spark dissipates, replaced by a habit of looking to the past instead of the future. Writer Justin Lader understads this (look at the first scene), and despite a reluctance to get into the metaphysical meat of his delightfully bizarre premise, he does a commendable job addressing what we look for in our significant others.

But this is truly anchored by the two (well, really four) gamely loose performances by Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass. With the improvisational spin that goes hand-in-hand with Duplass Brothers Productions, the two playfully spar off each other in a chess game of different combinations, full of rebuffs and by turns clueless, hesitant, renewed, and searching. And that doesn’t even cover work as the doppelgangers.

Another wild turn in the third act triumphs by testing the dark undercurrents of its conceit, but it walks hand-in-hand with half explanations and conceptual rot. Answers are kind of discovered, and they make zero sense, even within this cinematic space, and it unnecessarily complicates a world where explanation doesn’t belong. It’s as if Phil in Groundhog Day discovered a conspiratorial cause for his never-ending loop of a day. If it had a semblance of impact it’d be creepy. But mainly it distracts from the low-fi deconstruction of relationships that it sets out to be.

Charlie Kaufman was mentioned at the outset, and he seems to be a natural reference and/or selling point for the film. There is a tendency in indies of the Kaufman ilk to conclude on a note of unsettling entrapment. As a whole, The One I Love suffers from a similar effect, but it has a light-on-its-feet quality and enough insight to satisfy much more than it probably should.

Catherine Reviews Xavier Dolan’s Tom at the Farm [CT LGBT Film Festival 2014] Mon, 09 Jun 2014 16:00:42 +0000 tomatthefarm_headerimage

In his 25 never-stops-moving years, Canadian director Xavier Dolan has five films in the can, upping his own accelerated game each time. However one feels about the young polymath, it’s impossible to deny how accomplished he is. To be reductive about it, he’s known for a showy visual flair (what detractors call a ‘film school aesthetic’); a tendency of putting music front and center, with slow-motion always in tow as relationships are dissected. But with his fourth film, Dolan departs from most of this and shows us what else he can do. Turns out it’s quite a lot. With Tom at the Farm, he’s swimming in the nefarious waters (or rather corn stalks) of the genre film (in this case, a thriller), adapting himself without ever losing himself.

When Tom (Xavier Dolan) arrives at his deceased lover’s family farm it is, at first glance, abandoned. Gradually, he is introduced to Guy’s spindly mother Agathe (Lise Roy). Soon after that, Tom learns that Guy had a brother, the volatile and strangely needy Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal). Turns out Tom’s arrival threatens to blow the cover off the alternate heterosexual history Frances concocted of Guy for Agathe’s sake. Frances wants Tom gone, while Agathe agonizes over why ‘Sara’ (Évelyne Brochu) didn’t show up to the funeral. And things only get more complicated from there.

I still haven’t seen Xavier Dolan’s first two films, but from what I know about them, and having seen Laurence Anyways, it’s safe to say this is a significant departure; certainly more austere (by his standards) both in content and aesthetic. His penchant for music video executions has been whittled down, replaced by a streamlined, but equally present, Bernard Herrmann-like score by Gabriel Yared. So what can Dolan do with a genre film? He keeps the vague structure of a chamber piece psychological thriller. The aforementioned heightened string score, withheld secrets, violent sex-tinged dynamics, slowly boiling tensions, and an isolated location are just some of the tropes present. But there’s no throughline of conventionality. The recognizable signposts are there, but it’s to support what is at the center; a twisted obscurity.

Tom at the Farm isn’t narrative heavy, nor is it really a character study. It’s all about the warped locked-in dynamic at the center between Tom and Francis; the grief, repression, sadomasochism, and the mutual acts of substitution occurring between the two. Tom is not so much trapped at the farm, as he is a willing contributor and guest. Francis bullies Tom, asserting dominance at every turn, physical abuse of some kind usually a guarantee.

How Tom feels about this is, at first, clear-cut. He’s frightened, intimidated, and angry. But soon a kind of Stockholm syndrome develops; we stop identifying with Tom and start questioning his reasoning, and then he starts questioning his own reasoning. Francis, Agathe, the farm, the chores; it all has a connection to Guy which Tom, for better or worse, isn’t willing to part from just yet. Milk the cows. Eat the pie. Do what Guy did.

How Francis feels about Tom is, at first, also clear-cut. He wants Tom to keep the heterosexual deceit going for his mother, and for him to leave. But his motives soon become conflicted, and a counterintuitive strand of neediness emerges. They need each other, and neither can quite pinpoint why, though Tom at least seems aware of the raw materials present. All this may lead to a conventional climax, but getting there is captivating business.

Dolan puts himself front and center, the majority of the frames filled with his own face. But guess what? It works. He is exceptional at showing the different cuts of Tom’s fragility. Pulling constant focus on Tom heightens the gradual elusiveness of the character, thrusting it in our face. The most striking shot emphasizes his binary tailspin, putting that ambiguity at the center. It’s a long take of Tom behind a screen door. One can’t help but be reminded of Jack Torrance by the way he’s lit. He pushes his flaxen locks against the screen, eyes dead and looking out. The longer the take lasts, the more uncertain we are about him.

Tom at the Farm is enveloped by the distinctly smothered absence of homosexuality. The alternate hetero history ‘protector’ Francis makes up for ‘protected’ Agathe’s sake strikes as rickety and outrageously needless. And isn’t that the point? That the never-directly-addressed homophobia underneath such an elaborate lie is the impetus this thriller hinges on sort of says it all. Americanized touchstones mark everything. The dirty and desolate muddy golden-chestnut palettes hold in Dolan’s face. Francis and Agathe are introduced hesitantly by the camera, obscured in close-up for some time, creating mystery around them, before bringing them full-on into the narrative. The aspect ratio changes three times, for brief intervals. They function as a sharpening of focus, black bars of signifying the momentary internal clarity of desire; tussling that literally changes the frame.

Even when Xavier Dolan is taking it down a notch, as with Tom at the Farm, he’s still doing things as audacious and playful as changing aspect ratio. Not to signify time periods as in this year’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, but as sexually charged signifiers, a black bar erection if you will. That this formal inventiveness still shines through as he tests the limits of his own prowess, both in restraint and indulgence is why he’s become such a commendable presence in modern cinema.

Catherine Reviews John Maloof and Charlie Siskel’s Finding Vivian Maier [Theatrical Review] Wed, 26 Mar 2014 20:00:02 +0000 Maier Header.jpg

In 2007, young local Chicago real estate agent and historian John Maloof purchased roughly 30,000 prints and negatives from a local auction house. Upon realizing the girth and quality of the photographs now in his possession, he eventually purchased the rest of the boxes from the same buyer. Maloof now owned over 100,000 prints, negatives and undeveloped film rolls of one Vivian Maier as well as all personal belongings kept in her storage locker. Unable to find out anything about Maier, Maloof happened upon her obituary shortly afterward, giving him a foundation on which to access, preserve, arrange, and investigate her life and body of work. Knowing he owned something substantial, the photographs did not take long to gain traction, and in a short period of time Vivian Maier’s street photography gained worldwide attention.

Part of my attraction to Finding Vivian Maier is that it intrinsically addresses archival concepts such as provenance, establishing value, and the ethics of decision-making for the deceased. Despite some red flags as to what Maier may have wanted, the film makes the moderately convincing case that her posthumous exposure is ultimately a good thing. Her work gets immediate widespread recognition, the kind that pronounces her as a major figure in photography, while the crucial loss of anonymity blissfully comes after death. Of course it is easy to come to this conclusion when looking at the work, but it is more complicated than that.The small but important proof that she had inquired about her work being published at one point goes a long way to alleviate some uneasiness that may come with her involuntary exposure. The film rightly, and also in its best interests, makes a big deal of this discovery of unrealized intent. Being a form of promotion for Maier’s work, and being co-directed by Maloof, the film resolves itself in the name of good (it kind of has to, right?)

I know next to nothing about photography, but it’s apparent that Vivian Maier’s endless body of work is revelatory, something not even the art world can deny forever, though they will likely try. Some expansion on the art world’s resistance would have been welcome, although one gets the sense (not through this film, but just in general) their collective reasoning is often exclusive and elusive. Looking at her street photography, it doesn’t take long to be singularly struck by her ability to elevate the everyday with observed dignity. The subjects often waver between caught and aware, her expert timing and camera placement allowing her this middle ground. She often catches an innate tenderness in humanity just as often as the decrepit disarray and the inconsolable loneliness of others and their environments.

As much as Finding Vivian Maier is about the work, its primary focus is her life, or rather, our lack of knowledge on the woman behind the photos. Can we even begin to know and speculate about someone who was obsessively determined to remain anonymous? The answer is a resounding no. What the swathes of acquaintances, former children and employers (including Phil Donahue!) all recollect adds up to little concerning the mystery of Vivian Maier. Obsessive. Paranoid. Hoarder. Abusive. There are some basic constructed throughlines but nothing substantial, which I took to be the point of the film, purposeful or not. We get as much insight as we can, but the life she so desperately tried to keep under wraps remains so, even as she is now exposed to the general public. She kept her work, newspapers, and her everyday transactions intact, but the substance of a personal life or identity is systematically erased, nonexistent, or vague even down to the murky French accent and shapeless wardrobe. Her work remains the most telling, and surely it is fate to have someone as compulsive as John Maloof come into possession of her belongings and take up the major task of preserving and arranging her work.

So little is known about Maier that the ‘biographical’ aspects, which are less biography and more speculative reminiscing, are addressed by topic rather than a straightforward account of her life. The quirkiness of some of the interviewees is revealed but not exploited. Ample time is spent on Maier’s photographs, and the filmmakers never let the intrigue of her life quite overshadow her body of work. The construction of the narrative is admittedly uneven at times, such as when the filmmakers overtly play up eventual dead-ends, or fail to follow through on more unpleasant discoveries of abuse on the part of Maier.

Vivian Maier is exactly the kind of enigmatic recently discovered recluse, with a game-changing talent no less, that we can’t help but want to solve. She is a quintessential rabbit-hole subject for the endless nature/nurture unknowables of what makes a person who they are. Looking like Anna Massey’s long-lost cousin, she is a dream subject for a documentary. The film gets the best of both worlds in that it fuses two documentary tropes together; the spotlight on the undiscovered artist and the probing investigative mystery. Though the ethics of Maier’s involuntary exposure may be somewhat questionable, it simply feels right that this body of work is recognized, and all without Maier ever having to deal with the likely unlivable burden of being known.

Finding Vivian Maier is available in select theaters March 28th and VOD March 30th. 

Catherine Reviews Eugenio Mira’s Grand Piano [Theatrical Review] Sat, 15 Mar 2014 03:00:31 +0000 Grand Piano_Headerimage

Pressure cooker thrillers with a dash of high concept are often an exercise in narrative self-constraint which can ideally and conversely push the filmmaker(s) to think outside the box. Grand Piano falls into that category, carrying its preposterousness out with commitment and confidence while astutely making music the center of all things. Literalizing the pressures of a concert pianist to play perfectly and an untouchable tautness at seventy-five minutes keeps the film going even as it gradually deflates before our very eyes.

A grand piano once owned by the deceased mentor of genius pianist Tom Selznick (Elijah Wood) ushers us into the story as it is hauled to the venue Tom will be performing at that night. After very publicly failing to complete a notoriously difficult piece of music five years before, Tom is reluctantly set to take the stage for the first time since. Racked with stage fright and generally irritable at the prospect of performing (the comeback was his starlet wife’s idea, not his), he nevertheless takes the stage only to be presented with something far worse than the prospect of artistic failure.

At the concert’s start, Tom sees that his sheet music is noted with threats in red marker which state he and his wife’s life are in danger if he plays a single wrong note during the concert. Tom eventually acquires an earpiece and talks to the sniper assailant (John Cusack) while being forced to flawlessly perform.

The strong first act set-up combines self-aware exposition dumping and the palpable anxiety radiating from Tom by making him, and us, feel like we are playing catch-up; like everything is happening a beat too fast. That sprinting quickness comes through as his transportation plans change last minute and he hurriedly gets changed in the limo while dealing with an aggressive phone interview. That first-act professional anxiety is amped up that much more once Tom realizes the kind of trouble he’s in.

The sweeping camera amplifies the distance between Tom and his audience (and assailant) by bridging the two. An exhilarating pace structured around music and a darting and fidgety Elijah Wood keeps Grand Piano eminently watchable. The template stimulates some inventiveness in sustaining real-time tension and is bolstered by elongated framing and shout-outs to giallo in its use of red and green. A welcome supporting turn by Alex Winter adds the bulgy-eyed lurking menace that John Cusack’s gravelly voice (I actually forgot it was him until two thirds of the way in) can only aurally represent.

Then the generic contrivances through the B-movie guise start to show themselves, and not even the film’s rushed swiftness can cover them up. In order to fill out the runtime and keep the conversation between Tom and his assailant going, the sniper attempts to psychologically attack the pianist using his professional failure, his marriage and his wife’s success. But they are empty attempts with no clout, and nonsensical in the notion that the antagonist needs Tom to be focused on his playing. Speaking of Emma’s (Karry Bishe) success, she ends up sitting in a theater box the whole film, her starlet status set up and left to fizzle. Two supporting characters are awkwardly established as future fodder. Even the mostly lovely camerawork is at times distracting in its digital artificiality, and a De Palma split screen homage feels played out on sight. All of this leads to a mano-a-mano showdown we’ve seen countless times before.

Grand Piano blends the lonely arduousness artists of the musical persuasion may feel and the isolated-in-an-unsuspecting-crowd constriction experienced by protagonists in high pressure films such as this. Screenwriter Damian Chazelle has a knack for depicting, and in this case, heightening, a musician’s strife, which looks to continue with his upcoming Sundance hit Whiplash. Its conventions and inability to rewardingly fill itself out knock it down considerably, but director Eugenio Mira established a real taut flair that always remains entertaining, even at its weakest.

Catherine Reviews Catherine Breillat’s Abuse of Weakness [NYFF 2013] Sat, 12 Oct 2013 07:10:13 +0000 abuse

One of the most appealing things about the films of Catherine Breillat, if describing her work as such is possible, is the way she refuses to psychoanalyze her own characters. Her films are often about the unknowable actions (or lack thereof) of people, particularly women. These actions (or lack thereof) tend to be rooted in the masochistic, the transgressive, or the incomprehensible. That predilection for the unknowable sometimes offsets a stationary structure that can overtake her films. Abuse of Weakness heads into this territory at times, introducing a complex bond between two people but circling over it again and again instead of taking it in any direction. It comes back around for a remarkable final scene, but what really makes Abuse of Weakness is the contextual knowledge that it is autobiographical, resulting in a film both chillingly revealing and purposely opaque.

In 2004 Catherine Breillat suffered a stroke. Three years later she met a known con man named Christophe Ranconcourt who she wanted to star in her next film. Periodically over the next two years she loaned him almost all of her money. This is the outline used for Abuse of Weakness with Maud (Isabelle Huppert) and Vilko (Kool Shen) playing director and con man respectively.

The film is mostly about Maud’s relationship with Vilko, but it begins with a wrenching depiction of the initial onset of her stroke. The stark-white visuals and horror-tweaked strings emphasize bodily contortion and the ceaseless willfulness to have physical agency within oneself. Maud is a fighter, someone who can bounce back from the brink of paralysis no matter what it takes. Isabelle Huppert never lets us forget the minute effort involved in this kind of daily existence, from its first jolting presence to its long-lasting impediments.

Breillat decides to interlope the story of Maud’s stroke, and the incomprehensible powerlessness that comes with it, with the story of the duplicitous Vilko. This establishes separate physical and emotional branches to their locked-in power play, a long-standing mutual attachment containing acknowledged manipulation and needs from both sides. Vilko is a bulging presence, seemingly having the physical upper hand, but the way Maud relies on him for everyday tasks puts her partly in control as well. Why? Vilko often mentions that he is her slave and that she enjoys getting men to do things for her. She has a tendency to milk her impairment as a source of joyful command.

On an emotional level Maud has the unreachable veneer that Isabelle Huppert has mastered as her signature manner. The script puts Maud at a severe distance from her family and loved ones; she seemingly spends much of her time in Vilko’s company. She uses coy spurts of laughter as a defense mechanism and he is alternately frustrated and captivated by his inability to provoke a reaction from her. Vilko is a pet project for Maud, someone dangerous and unapologetic, someone she wants in her life for better or worse. And so in this way she apparently has an at-arms-length emotional upper-hand. Then it gets away from her. It goes without saying that though their bond never crosses into the sexual, this being a Breillat film, and dealing with a complicated sadomasochistic-like power-play between a man and woman, the undertones are always cautiously present.

Maud casually dispensing of her money reveals that Vilko is in control of far more than she thinks. Part of what makes this dynamic compelling is that he is introduced to Maud (and us) as a semi-famous con man. Then Vilko’s intentions become entirely transparent to the audience, but arguably not to Maud. In the beginning we are thrown in the trenches of her profound physical suffering; the lack of control strikes right through us and we are thus dialed into her experience. The transparency of Vilko’s intentions cuts us off from Maud, leaving us to watch from a distance as draining financial transactions become commonplace.

Maud is both swindled victim and willing participant. Breillat offers up her own autobiographical tale of fiction with the detached presentation she is known for. We understand what Maud and Vilko get out of each other but her acquiescence defies explanation with a such-as-it-is stamp I found brave and, though it may not immediately seem so, honest.

Catherine Reviews Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim [Theatrical Review] Mon, 15 Jul 2013 18:35:56 +0000 Pacific Rim_headerimage

I don’t know about you, but I prefer my action to involve actual human beings; hand-to-hand combat, chase sequences, and the like. Executed poorly, as they often are, it can be just as tedious as anything else. Executed well and there’s a chance I’m watching in awe. Big-scale action set-pieces involving monster and machine (or Kaiju and Jäger), all conceptualized and constructed with CGI can only interest me so much. Once the human element goes chances are, so does my investment. This is not to disregard the countless men and women who poured their sweat, blood and souls into these special effects. Because I want to be clear; the special effects work on Pacific Rim is often stellar and all-encompassing. Creature design, machine logistics and how the two meet and try to destroy each other on the battlefield is top-notch from a technical standpoint. My aforementioned preferences make it tempting to write Pacific Rim off as an ‘it just wasn’t for me’ miss. But there are far too many fumbles, including piss-poor writing and combative redundancy, for that to be the case. Putting it simply, too much is too much; at a certain point Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em overkill renders everything onscreen null and void.

To very simply sum up the story, Pacific Rim is set in the near future where Kaiju, Japanese for strange creatures, have come through tectonic plates in the Pacific to attack major cities. The bulk of the film takes place in Year Seven of the attacks which show no sign of stopping. By this time, mankind has responded by building giant machines, or Jäger, which are manned by two co-pilots who must build a neural bridge, or handshake, so they can physically operate the machine. There’s a cast of characters headed by Raleigh (Charlie Hunnam), a has-been who hasn’t piloted in five years.

The groundwork for something worthwhile is here, spearheaded by Guillermo Del Toro’s giddy reference-littered boyhood passions. Del Toro’s obsession doesn’t quite transfer to the screen (though it’s concentrated in the Charlie Day character) instead existing in sheer volume, a staunch unwillingness to let up or trim the fat. The idea of the anticipatory build-up is not a concept that appears in Pacific Rim, making everything we see unearned. He gives the audience what they want right out the starting gate and doesn’t let up until the credits roll. This kind of structure simply does not work. Everything we see gets appreciated less as a result and any sense of trajectory for the audience is lost. When the fighting does let up, it’s only for table-setting and painfully lazy character arcs and dynamics.

An example of necessary fat-trimming: the fifteen minute prologue sequence featuring Raleigh (Charlie Hunnam) and his brother doesn’t need to be there. Keeping the initial voiceover narration and saving other world-building elements for later would have yielded the same result. It is clear from the first moment how this will end. All that time is poorly utilized, failing to establish any investment in Raleigh and his brother. We could have learned about his past the same way we learned about Mako; during the drift. Mako’s flashback is far more effective than Raleigh’s prologue sequence even though it substitutes the predictability of revenge motivation for character development. It also helps that the girl they cast as young Mako has freakish emotive abilities.

Back to the original point; extract the emotional essence of that first sequence and save it for later as a memory. Then we’d first meet Raleigh on the wall. When Stacker (Idris Elba) helicopters in to see him, it could have been an intriguing introduction for both characters. Make us wait for the first battle. There is no difference between the opening set-piece and the next couple outside of the prologue’s use of editing to demonstrate the necessary cohesive teamwork between co-pilots and Jäger. But Del Toro has such an itchy trigger finger, immediately laying everything out on the table. Instead of a gripping opening set-piece, it is a trailer for what is to come, the answer of which is more of the same. And then, then the title appears. We’re supposed to think, ‘I can’t wait to see what else is in store’. But my thought was ‘Good Lord, we’ve only just begun and I’m already staving off waves of disinterest.’

Most of the fights lack interest due to a blandly monochromatic color palette which makes movement, sense of space and action murky to look at. The Kaiju and Jäger often fight in the rain and in the ocean, giving everything we see onscreen a dark blue-grey tint. It may help the effects work smoothly blend in with environment, but it washes over design detail and makes the causal effect of fighting blurry and therefore uninvolving. The later set-pieces improve on this. One set-piece late in the film, which takes place on the emptied streets of Hong Kong, is legitimately fantastic. Awash with a reflective neon rainbow backdrop, the Kaiju and Jäger become color-hued monstrosities that interact with their environment on a level other than destruction. It is no coincidence that the meat of the fighting becomes easier to discern as well as far more engaging to watch.

What is so upsetting about Pacific Rim, is that Del Toro clearly fancies this a humanist film. Believe it or not, he actually does care about the emotions behind these characters, what drives them and brings them together, the teamwork and completely underexplored connective tissue of the drift and how the Kaiju affects humanity on a global scale. But such a harmful imbalance of priorities leads to far too much of what could have been a good thing and far too little humanism, clearly meant to be a major contributing factor. What we get are cardboard archetypes led by a bland-as-can-be-lead, apologies to the talented Charlie Hunnam who is unable to turn nothing into something here, and some unforgivably stilted dialogue. I’m not looking for great characters in a film like this; but archetypes need to be well executed and these decidedly are not. The surrogate father-daughter bond between Idris Elba, who is unsurprisingly able to get a lot of mileage out of his character, and Rinko Kikuchi has a lot of potential (what’s there is quite good) but is given short shrift. The script uses characters as a delivery service for packaged up largely artificial emotion and it is too little too late.

There’s no doubt that Guillermo Del Toro world-builds like a master. But his sense of proportion leaves Pacific Rim a mostly hollow sluggish experience despite having an excellent director, a wonderful diverse cast of actors, top-notch effects work and a solid premise. With so much talent on display everywhere you look, it is a shame I was fully unable to appreciate its more successful elements (production and creature design, effects work) because I was too busy being suffocated by redundant cacophonous destruction.

Catherine Reviews Kim Ki-duk’s Pietà [Theatrical Review] Fri, 24 May 2013 21:43:04 +0000 pieta-framed

To put it bluntly, Pietà is a baseless experience posturing under the guise of arthouse profundity. I’m not quite sure what Michael Mann and fellow jury members were thinking when they awarded it the Golden Lion. I’m also not sure how so many people are being tricked into finding meaning in this faux infant terrible submission. It comes down on us like a sloppily blunt object but without the impact. Kim Ki-duk’s limply affected ‘realism’ is a creative cop-out as he shamelessly uses his name and reputation to wrongly excuse his barely present content. It’s a defense mechanism that only goes so far; you only have to remove his proclamation ’18th film’ statement to realize this entire film, from its unpracticed camera to its cheap shock tactics, is a pile of bull.

Kang-do (Lee Jung-jin) is an unfeeling loan shark who spends his days sadistically crippling his industrial citizens after they can’t pay up on unreasonable interest rates. He has no friends, he barely speaks and his life is generally soulless wasteland. One day, Mi-son (Jo Min-soo) shows up claiming to be Kang-do’s mother who abandoned him at birth. He dismisses her claims, becoming more and more irate as she insists on coming into his apartment, washing his dishes and following him everywhere he goes. Kang-do finally concedes to acknowledge her presence, and humiliates her in various ways including slapping her, making her eat a part of his cut off thigh (seriously) and finally raping her. From there, the film veers into a lazy uncommitted land of revenge, redemption and dysfunctional familial bonding.

Reading interviews with Kim Ki-duk makes it clear that his idea of dealing with criminals isn’t necessarily to punish, but to remember compassion as a virtue and that redemption is within reach if one is willing to open themselves up to feeling and remorse. Kang-do is not so much seen as a monster, but as an unfeeling child-robot victim who is the way he is because his mother abandoned him. This kind of distorted naivete is everywhere in Pietà and the misplaced empathy that Kim so kindly and unjustifiably heaps onto his typical loner character Kang-do is nowhere to be found amongst his other characters.

For those who have claimed ‘it’s more complicated than that’ in regards to Kim’s recurrent misogyny; if this isn’t misogyny, what is? When it comes to Pietà, the word complicated is as antithetical to its petty affectations. I generally call myself a fan of Kim Ki-duk’s, at least from the films of his I have seen and yes, that includes The Isle. 3-Iron in particular struck an indelible spiritual chord of offbeat human connectivity. But the women in his films are almost always relentlessly victimized, complete with crumbling upper lip and guttural anguish. They rarely register as actual characters and are usually punching-bag substitutes.

In Pietà, the absent mother is directly blamed for Kang-do’s lack of empathy or maturity. And it is only when she is punished via rape that reconciling is possible between them because the act is disgustingly seen as putting them on equal footing. Later narrative developments may put this causal argument into question, but at that point in the story all information points to this reasoning. Kim stated that he purposefully cuts away from violent acts in the film so the audience is left to fill in the blanks of cruelty. It says a lot about how he defines violence because rape apparently doesn’t qualify for him; that act gets the distinction of being shown unlike the cutaways to other kinds of physical harm.

There is also zero sympathy for the drowned-in-debt industrial workers. Kang-do consistently asks why they borrowed the money in the first place. Basically, the viewpoint is that they dug their own hole so now they deserve to lie in it. All of this oversimplified cause-and-effect not only makes the film rudimentary, but it makes non-entity of an antihero Kang-do a misguidedly sympathetic savior.

Kim Ki-duk’s films usually provoke extreme responses, but the prodding here is entirely superficial and not in service of any thought-provoking idea or layered whole. There is a line between challenging provocation with intent and empty provocation borne out of malignant rage. The ugliness of the film capsizes all, especially since it is unsupported by thoughtfulness or purpose. It all goes back to him using his reputation in the title credits as a carte blanche, a get-out-of-jail-free card where all offensive and brutal content is used as a false prompt to read into supposed depth. And it can conveniently be backed up with ignorant claims of ‘well it’s not supposed to be pleasant to watch’ and a misperceived truth that in the arthouse world, unpleasantness equates meaningful truth. With Pietà; look closer – there’s nothing there.

Most of its length consists of repetitive name-calling exchanges and abuse, with slapping every which way and suicide and crippling abound. Pietà comes out of Kim’s charred disappointment at how money and loan sharks have affected South Korea as a contributing factor of monetary obsession and a high suicide rate. The filming of the Cheonggyecheon’s area of industrial labyrinth certainly leaves an impression as does that final image. Kim Ki-duk’s raw inner turmoil at the world he observes are the material with which Pietà exists; he just forgot to mold those emotions into an actual film. The result is truly artless and repugnant with zero return value adding up to the oh-so-grand statement that, ya know, money is bad. Revelatory stuff Kim; truly.

Catherine Reviews Brandon Cronenberg’s Antiviral [Theatrical Review] Tue, 23 Apr 2013 07:59:17 +0000 Antiviral Header

Just because taking a swing at our swarming addiction to celebrity is a can’t-miss target, doesn’t make it any less pertinent. And just because we can lay a falsely prideful claim that, no, we don’t know what’s going on in the lives of the Kardashians, doesn’t make us any less culpable. There’s a line in Brandon Cronenberg’s sickly little debut Antiviral that stands as its central statement, and it is the film’s biggest takeaway. One character calls celebrity “a collaboration we choose to take part in”.

It’s a piercing statement because it rings true in a more openly direct way than other kinds of pot shots. Just because you don’t read tabloids, doesn’t mean you and I aren’t taking part in the collective. It pervades everywhere, through involvement in casual gossip and speculation, fandom, idolization, victimization and on and on. It’s not necessarily something to feel guilty about, as it’s out of our individual hands, but it is there.  Antiviral posits what the next step is. What opportunity, if given, could serve as a new level of celebrity commodification? How to complete the connection and devotion people feel towards certain mega-stars?

In Antiviral, competing clinics harvest viruses and illnesses from celebrities and puts them on the market for those willing to pay for injections. From them to you: one degree of separation.  It is a disturbingly intimate process, not to mention anything about the context of said shared fluids.  It is ultimate marriage in devotion and masochism. The news is littered with the latest embarrassing celebrity snafu and all the characters are caught up in events not theirs. Even the clinic employees are not above the bullshit and their water-cooler substitution setting is the line to pick up various infection strands.

One employee is the cryptic freckle-faced Syd (Caleb Landry Jones), representing the Lucas Clinic. We soon learn he injects himself with viruses to smuggle them out and sell them on the black market to a man named Arvid (Joe Pingue). After a co-worker is arrested, he is sent to make a house call to one of the Clinic’s star contributors Hannah Geist who is looking to sell her latest illness. But when Syd takes a sample from the incapacitated Hannah, and decides to inject himself without knowing what it is, things get hairy. Soon word leaks that Hannah has died from said unidentified virus, making the now-infected Syd highly sought after.

This is the kind of debut where my interest lies more in the promise of Brandon Cronenberg’s future endeavors, rather than outright praise for his first effort. The ingenious concept gets him far, which strikes a balance between being amusingly outlandish and legitimately plausible. One detail that makes the idea feel entirely plausible is that it seems reserved for only the tippity-top superstars’ take part in these kinds of transactions. It brings to mind when Scarlett Johansson appeared on Jay Leno several years ago with a cold.  She blew into a tissue which she then signed, and sold it for $5,300 that went to charity. Like I said: plausible. There are many other treats and insights into the habitual meat-market of celebrity culture, such as a literal meat market, skin grafting, copyright discussion and a machine that puts a distorted face onto viruses.

If the plot trajectory feels pedestrian and the characters empty ciphers, it’s because the focus is on an underworked tone. Since celebrity as an abstract is the name of the game, the characters don’t have discerning characteristics outside their immediate actions. They live and die by their clients and all conversations stem around them. The tone maintains an assuredness, but strikes a been-there done-that vibe of obvious clinical white non-color palettes and timed beats between sentences of dialogue. The body horror aspect, a type of horror that the young filmmaker’s father has commanded in the past, and a type that will always resonate with me, isn’t explored enough. Body horror gets its mileage out of the details of fleshly decay. Outside of a few hallucinatory images that stand out, the virus makes up a largely vague bodily takeover.

Thankfully, Caleb Landry Jones in the lead is exactly the kind of presence needed for a character that is a cipher more than anything else. He’s got the uncompromising stare and offbeat face of a Calvin Klein model. With his hunched posture, punctured cheekbones and pale unblinking canvas of a face, like a cross between Crispin Glover and Burn Gorman, Jones helps significantly to keep Antiviral afloat. He’s the kind of actor that wears ambiguity like a shadowy glove, diving into his role as smeared blood and disheveled hair replace stoic stateliness.

It all comes back to the “collaboration we choose to take part in”. Antiviral may not be able to capitalize on its potential through its unflappable commitment to an undercooked and somewhat obvious tonal monotony, but its ideas, lead actor and intermittent moments of merit carry it through a steady intrigue. More importantly, the question is what does Brandon Cronenberg have up his sleeve in the future? His debut convinced me to anticipate the answer.


Catherine Reviews Sam Raimi’s Oz the Great and Powerful [Theatrical Review] Wed, 13 Mar 2013 08:34:58 +0000 Oz the Great and Powerful_header image

Oz hath no fury like a woman scorned. Disney teamed up with Sam Raimi in the hopes of reigniting the magic of Oz, a la 2010’s decidedly unmagical Alice in Wonderland. Said film made over a billion dollars worldwide, so it makes sense why they’d go back to the formula for a second round. The ingeniously strategic March release is the only inspired thing about this formula. In both cases, money and talent are in abundance, but the results are flatly forgettable.

In a full-screen black-and-white prologue that could have stood to be trimmed, we establish the life and cons of Oscar aka Oz (James Franco), a small-time magician working for a traveling circus in 1905 Kansas. He’s always got a duplicitous smile plastered on his face as he manages to cheat everyone around him. His act is made up of illusions but so is he. He treats his partner Frank (Zach Braff) like a servant, never appreciating him and taking his loyalty for granted. He gives the old one-two routine music box spiel to a pretty but dim lady who is to be his assistant; once again, it’s all an act. After a particularly bad performance, he gets chased by a Strong Man into a hot air balloon at the exact moment a twister arrives. He is then swept off, as the screen expands and the color seeps in, to the Land of Oz.

In Oz, he quickly meets Theodora, the first of three witches in the film, a gullible and naive young woman who quickly falls for him. Oscar is grateful for a second chance at life but still selfish and scheming as ever. He accepts Theodora’s proclamation that he is the Wizard in a foretold prophecy (of course there’s a prophecy) which states that a wizard will come and defeat the Wicked Witch. His incentive is all the gold that waits for this ‘wizard’ at the Emerald City, provided the witch is defeated.

Along the way we meet our cast of characters including the other two witches, Theodora’s sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) and Glinda the Good (Michelle Williams). There are also two characters that have counterparts from the prologue. Finley (voiced by Braff), a monkey who devotes his services to Oscar and China Girl (voiced by Joey King), a sprightly little, you guessed it, china doll.

The main problem I have with films like Oz the Great and Powerful is the lack of visual spectacle in a film all about visual spectacle. There are very few companies who know how to oversee this much CGI and make it work. When Sony Pictures Imageworks takes on films of this scale, the result is remote, transparent and featureless. With CGI, the possibilities are endless and there’s infinite potential. Ideally, there should be a mix of techniques and endeavors like this have got to be about looking at all the options, digital and practical, to figure out how to truly wow us. That’s a tall order these days; audiences have been indoctrinated to take everything we see onscreen for granted. It has had a similar effect on a lot of studios like Disney who automatically only see one solution for every challenge.

Because of this, Oz the Great and Powerful has a respect for the purpose of wonder whilst lacking it itself. I want visual proof; without it, there’s a wall standing between me and a pretty screensaver. The film has a nice enough spirit and you can feel the desire to entertain, to enchant, but it gets lost on not just its visuals but its overwrought script.

The film feels about an hour longer than it is, at least it did to me, and there are some solid story elements that never take off. The forward motion of the plot is upended by the stasis of Franco constantly pretending to be someone he’s not. The point, I know, but it needed to be more interesting. He needs to find himself amidst the shams, the cons, and the illusion; it all takes a long time. Of the three witches one is expected, one is a cipher and one is a wasted opportunity. It gives an origin story to the Wicked Witch of the West, and there could have been something there, but the critical scenes needed to be sturdier.

I’m going to attribute some of the lack of feeling to miscasting. The right casting choices can make plain material come alive and this just doesn’t happen. James Franco is in theory good casting. He fits the bill with his conman smile and his opportunistic boasting. I’m not sure if he just doesn’t take these projects seriously enough to bring his A-game, or if he genuinely is unable to convincingly appear in a blockbuster. He goes through the motions, but it never feels sincere. Luckily, a lot of the performance is about insincerity, but he doesn’t come through when it counts. Unfortunately, the same can be said for Mila Kunis, who just cannot pull off naiveté to save her life. She fares better in the final half, but her arc doesn’t have the necessary dose of innocence to it, which would have made us care more about her transformation.  Rachel Weisz does what she can with very little and Michelle Williams rehashes her breathy Marilyn for the task of Glinda, which thankfully works.

When I went into the film I was already dreading the idea of Zach Braff voicing a monkey. And yet, much to my pleasant surprise, I was more attached to Finley than to any other character. Sure, he’s got some dumb lines, but he’s got some good ones too. Franco and Braff do a fine job establishing their at-odds partnership in the prologue, and it carries over to Oz nicely.

For all the negatives about the visual effects, I can give credit where credit is due, and the effects work of China Girl is spectacular. It’s an example of a smaller-scale but equally challenging effects piece (she’s in a lot of the film) that gets it right. In the trailer, it didn’t look so hot, but in context, she’s a wondrous, shiny and fragile concoction. It makes up for her cloyingly irritating character.

There’s a one mold fits all trend going on in these revisionist fantasy films; jacking up the stakes as high as they can go and a full-scale battle climax. Oz the Great and Powerful fits this mold, but there’s an inventively clever spin on it that calls upon the power of illusion. Despite everything, Sam Raimi and company have a respect and fascination with old-school illusion that they are able to articulate, especially towards the end.

The costumes and makeup work are on-point and the film consistently succeeds in being for all ages, a task that isn’t as easy as it seems.

Oz the Great and Powerful is certainly better than Alice in Wonderland; not an impressive feat but an important one.  It self-extends its mythology more successfully without completely gluing itself to its inspiration (thanks to dense copyright issues). But you should at least be able to remind us why we’re so attached to the Land of Oz and make us glad we have a chance to go back.

Catherine Reviews Mark Kitchell’s A Fierce Green Fire [PIFF 2013 Review] Tue, 26 Feb 2013 09:23:11 +0000 fiercegreenfire_header

A Fierce Green Fire is a sort of crowded history lesson. Covering a broad overview of environmentalism’s historical trek and split into five equally broad sections, this is more a schizophrenic introduction than anything else, bound together by chronology. This makes it informative but also a little dry and surface-level. It covers a lot of ground to be sure, too much ground, but it effectively rounds up a lot of information resulting in the kind of film that feels more suited for the classroom or something you stumble upon channel flipping than essential viewing.

The first section, “Conservation”, covers the beginnings of awareness. The title of the film comes from a young forest ranger named Aldo Leopold, who claimed to see a fierce green fire in a wolf he had shot. It becomes equated to the personal experience one has that makes clear the effect our actions have on nature in one way or another and always for the worse. Kitchell covers the founding of the Sierra Club by John Muir and later in history, the battle against dam-building in the Grand Canyon.

Act 2, titled “Pollution”, is one of the more rewarding segments, covers the Carter-era case of New York’s Love Canal neighborhood which doubles as the dumping ground of 20,000 tons of toxic waste. It’s a people-centered case which sees Lois Gibbs and company fighting for themselves, for their children and their unborn children. These were ordinary housewives and husbands, conducting studies and acting as protesters and negotiators. When they have to, people will fight.

The film peaks when it goes how much pollution affects minorities who lack comparable political standing, the emergence of environmental justice (which I wish there was quite a lot more on) and the internationalization of environmental issues. After a chapter on Alternatives, Greenpeace, whaling and what grew out of the counter-culture movement, there’s a profile on Chico Mendes in “Going Global”, the film’s most stimulating segment. A rubber tapper who united forest communities against ranchers to protect the Amazon and their homes, his assassination prompted even more action. His segment also illustrates that victories though there may be, the fight over the Amazon continues despite major successes achieved. The Chico (“tree-huggers”) in India gets a small piece of the focus as well.

There are some unimaginative music choices and having five narrators, one for each chapter, doesn’t make much sense. The narration isn’t heavy enough to justify it. The last segment on climate change is pretty weak. Maybe it’s because it’s so overwhelming that to cover it in twenty minutes seems useless. Maybe it’s because it almost feels like water doused on all the fiery success we see over the decades. In a sense it’s supposed to say the battle has just begun, but it’s a crucial example of A Fierce Green Fire casting the net too wide. Plus, I would hope people watching the film in the first place would already realize climate change is, spoiler alert, an issue of incalculable proportions. Ultimately, it feels more like a wholly serviceable introductory piece than anything.

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Catherine Reviews Werner Herzog and Dimitry Vasylukov’s Happy People: A Year in the Taiga [PIFF 2013 Review] Fri, 22 Feb 2013 05:31:29 +0000 Taiga

Apparently there are few sounds I love more than that of wood being split open. This is what Happy People: A Year in the Taiga taught me. Oh, it teaches other things too, as we spend a heavily compressed year with the seasonal ongoings of the Baktia village in the Siberian taiga; population 300. But with a passive streak and a tendency to oversimplify by romanticizing self-reliant villagers sans a semblance of modernity, this remains mildly interesting but largely forgettable fare.

Which is disappointing coming from Werner Herzog. Well, Werner Herzog and Russian director Dimitry Vasylukov who is credited as co-director. Vasylukolv and his cameramen shot the footage over the course of a year, and Herzog obtained the rights and permission to splice together and narrate his own version.

The year is spent mostly with a few trappers, binding together the notion of being one with nature in the frigid challenging void of Siberia. Being a trapper is a year-long process. Everything done contributes to their livelihood in a critical way. Chainsaws, snowmobiles and firearms are the only real signs of technology. Everything else, in building, trapping and basic ways of getting by, comes from traditional methods passed down from long ago. Canoes are carved, traps and skis are built, fish are caught, propellers and homes are properly protected, each with their own just-so process that can only be acquired from living there.

The trappers thankfully get to have voices of their own, at least some of the time. They explain to the camera the how and why of age-old processes. The main trapper, whose name isn’t said, separates himself from the kinds of stereotypes that oftentimes cling to his profession. Those that are desperate for whatever they can get for what they catch, those who are cruel and greedy. It goes without saying that this kind of life comes not only with the mere fact of being born into it, but growing the thick-skin necessary for living off the land in such constantly harsh conditions. But living in Baktia comes with a humble pride and a fondness for one’s work.

What Herzog lends to his version is his always welcome anthropological strand of elusive and deadened narration. But what he also lends is unfortunately an overkill air of reverence that comes with looking at those living in Siberia with a Western eye. And what’s more, this is entirely because of Herzog’s slant on the narration. This is especially hammered home in the actual trapping months, the time of year where all preparation pays off and man is simply one with their dogs and nature. Yet no time is spent on the women or children of the village, who see their husbands and fathers rarely if at all. What do they do all year? Herzog’s perspective narrows and oversimplifies, making this duller fare than it might have been.

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Catherine Reviews Moussa Touré’s La Pirogue [PIFF 2013 Review] Tue, 19 Feb 2013 07:01:35 +0000 lapirogueheader

“Between 2005 and 2010, lured by the mirrors of the West, over 30,000 West Africans have attempted to brave the Atlantic Ocean, using simple pirogues. Over 5,000 of them perished. This film is dedicated to their memory.”

This is the text that ends La Pirogue, a Senegalese film by Moussa Touré charting the common seafaring expedition of illegal immigration from West Africa to Spain in the midst of the current European economic crisis.  They do this in pirogues, in a trip that is very dangerous and often results in death. Compassionate but carefully avoiding saccharine sensibilities, the risks, struggles and hopes of these characters are the center of focus. Seeing a film from this region isn’t common, so it is a privilege to get a peek into a cultural representation from this Senegalese filmmaker.

The people on the pirogue represent a widely varied grouping with stark differences in religion, clothing and cultural influences, ambitions and dispositions. Fisherman Baye Laye (Souleymane Seye Ndiaye) is the reluctant captain. He eventually accepts the job, leaving his wife and child, for the payment and the hopes of finding something more lucrative now that fish are scarce in the waters around his home. His contentious younger brother Barry (Salif Diallo), who is more clued into Western influences, hopes to become a musician. Throughout, we get acquainted with the pirogue’s passengers as well as some backstory. Among them are Lansana (Laity Fall) the no-nonsense coordinator of the trip, a tribal leader named Abou (Malaminé ‘Yalenguen’ Dramé) and a young stowaway woman named Nafy (Mame Astou Diallo) who sneaks onboard.

The brightly colored pirogue has two levels of shelter on the inside. They have rice, water and a GPS. The journey to Spain is meant to take about a week. Touré gives his characters many realistic problems to face, never letting us forget the risk every person onboard is taking or the threats commonly faced with such a voyage. At one point, they come across another boat floating due to a broken-down engine. They are adrift at sea and out of water. The instinct is of course to help. After all, it could just as easily be their pirogue in this awful predicament if fate determined otherwise. The instinct is to help, but of course they cannot.

At the start of the voyage, the passengers are running on the adrenaline of their decision. They are anxious and scared but keyed up and lively. People inevitably clash, tell jokes, share stories and scuffle about things both crucial and extraneous. There are touching moments and devastating ones too. Touré never lays it on too thick. Featuring a marvelous versatile score by Prince Ibrahima Ndour, this is a humanistic story about people who risk everything for the chance at another shot.  It thankfully is not heavy-handed nor does it sanctify the people onboard. It lucidly depict the hopes and struggles of these men and woman. Immigration is an extremely complex issue but Touré uses his moving film to communicate about it in universally relatable terms.

Full Schedule for the 2013 Portland International Film Festival

For details and more information

Catherine Reviews Jean-François Laguionie’s The Painting [PIFF 2013 Review] Fri, 15 Feb 2013 14:00:56 +0000 The Painting_Header

The opening of Jean-François Laguionie’s animated film, which takes place inside the idiosyncratic personality of a populated painting, is like a fairy tale. Instead of starting with the image of an opening book, inviting us into the story a la Disney, we see the ornate gilt frame of a painting and then slowly zoom inside of it. The painting bursts with impressionistic colors of all kinds.

Our narrator is Lola; she is a major player in The Painting and also a ‘Halfie’. What does this mean, you ask? You see, the titular painting in question was never quite finished, leaving three classes or races of people, which could be read as an abstract representation of any number of conflicts. The ‘Alldunn’s’ are the upper-class, completely finished and haughtily elite, living high up in a grand estate. The Halfies are incomplete (one woman is merely missing the color in a corner of her skirt), living together in the wild. Roma (an Alldunn) and Claire (a Halfie) are in love but cannot be together.

The ‘Sketchies’ have it the worst. They are what their name suggests; mere scribbles who can barely finish their sentences, the lowest of the low. So low to the Alldunn’s in fact, that they’d like to wipe the ‘Sketchies’ from existence. In one early scene that took me by surprise in its cruelty (up until then I had thought of the Alldunn’s superiority complex as akin to “The Sneetches”), the elite literally stomp a Sketchie named Gum out of existence. The story gets into gear once Roma, Lola and a ‘Sketchie’ named Quill end up on the run, into the supposedly dangerous forest. This begins a journey beyond the world of the painting, into other paintings and the artist’s studio as they try to find their Creator.

The groundwork concepts and accompanying animation truly stand out. Putting the painter in the Creator/God position makes the artist all-powerful and appropriately elusive. The characters, especially Lola, have a natural curiosity and want to know more about him. There’s a nice touch where they get the chance to talk to a self-portrait of the artist. Just as the characters explore the world beyond their own, there’s a parallel exploration of the artist and the independent life his/her creations inhabit by their mere existence. Art lovers will be, forgive the pun, particularly drawn to the film. It also links art and creation to questions of identity and acceptance that kids will be cued enough to pick up on. In fact, this is a great film for kids for its level of imagination, adventurous spirit and color.

Beyond that, The Painting never quite gets off the ground the way it should as a story, steadily losing steam in its final half though it is somewhat upheld by its ideas. The only complaint regarding the animation is that the characters’ faces are inexpressive and stiff; a considerable damper because every character is broad at best. The flat characters assist the film as parable but fail it as a consistently engaging work. The Alldunn’s are introduced and then largely forgotten while the climax made me realize I did not care much what happened to these painted explorers and lovers. The story lacks nuance and it shows. It is a film carried through by its ideas and visual palette and in this case that is enough.

Full Schedule for the 2013 Portland International Film Festival

The Painting will be shown at the Whitsell Auditorium on Sunday, February 17th, 2013 (5:30 p.m.) For details and more information

Catherine Reviews David Redmon & Ashley Sabin’s Girl Model [Theatrical Review] Mon, 22 Oct 2012 14:00:09 +0000

Always lingering in the back of the mind while watching the new documentary Girl Model is the opening sequence, featuring scores of barely-clad teenage girls in Siberia being strutted forth like cattle in order to be critiqued as they fight for the decidedly awful position young Nadya Vall finds herself in.

Girl Model takes a cinema  vérité approach, which just happens to be my favorite kind of documentary. It may have a distance that prevents a true excavation of the issue at hand, but the tip-of-the-iceberg strategy works better because of the narrow first-hand look that we do get. We don’t have to be geniuses to conclude that these are not regionally restricted issues. I’ll take a documentary that is constricted but more intimate over a broad but deeply investigational doc any day of the week.

At 13 years old, Nadya is a blank slate. She describes herself as a plain ‘grey mouse’, but she’s at an age where everything is unformed, as up for grabs as it gets. She doesn’t know who she is or who she wants to be; but is at that point where possible answers to such big picture questions will begin to emerge. What she does know is that home life is unfulfilling and she wants to expand her horizons, experience the otherness of city-life and help support her family. Nadya isn’t exactly compelling subject fodder, that is precisely what makes her cipher-like representational qualities all the more resonant. She’s just one out of a never-ending number searching for a needle in a haystack. Lucky for her, she fits the pre-pubescent aesthetic the Japanese market so preciously covets.

The involvement of her parents is a tricky one. Sure, they love and care about her. Yet they pin their hopes of rebuilding their house on the money they expect their daughter to make abroad. They do not suspect being had, but the central action of sending their barely teenage daughter to Japan by herself is hard to justify and even harder not to judge even if modeling is seen as an ‘˜only way out’ option to strive for.

The well-oiled scamming machine these modeling agencies demonstrate is more than a little reprehensible if not at all  surprising. And surely Noah Models represents neither the best nor worst of the bunch. Certain agencies must at least adhere to some kind of respectable age range and/or not employ largely exploitative contractual obligations. On the other side of the coin, modeling scout Ashley Arbaugh speaks of the elephant in the room, underage prostitution, as something that is relatively commonplace for agencies to engage in simultaneously. Of course, in typical Ashley fashion, she absolves herself of complicity by stating that while she knows of this trend within the industry, she stays away from those kinds of transactions. She then doubles back, pondering whether modeling at that age is somehow harder than prostitution. Ahh, but that’s Ashley for ya; more on her later. The central issue at hand in Girl Model is in the title; 13 is an irreparably damaging age for girls to be throwing themselves, and all of their hopes and dreams, into this industry.

This    vérité approach of directors David Redmon and A. Sabin make the topic’s girth of humanistic and developmental evils readily apparent. Nadya is abandoned at the airport, left to figure out where she is staying despite being in another country alone and unable to speak the language. For two months she is schlepped around to go-sees where she is judged and subsequently not chosen, all while being further isolated by the language barrier. She does intermittent photoshoots but is not paid for them (despite being supposedly promised a minimum of $8,000 worth of work in the contract) or given any access to the people who hired her. Her apartment is dingy and she is left to support herself, putting her and her family into debt. The contracts at the agency are purposely elusive, and in English, giving Noah total control and the model none. Nadya is depicted as a deer caught in the headlights for the film’s entirety.  Exhausted, confused and hurt, she just wants to go home.

Ashley Arbaugh, who suggested the subject of the documentary to the directors, is an odd duck. An odd and almost impossibly self-absorbed duck who sees the doc as a twisted vanity project. As a teenager, she tried her hand at modeling, going to Japan just like the girls she recruits. She loathed it and kept a video diary that, as far as the chosen clips suggest, support her claims of misery. Yet she stays in the industry, now making promises she knows will not be kept to other young girls. Her business associates are troubling men. One is Tigran, a skeevy slimeball of a man who has convinced himself he is educating these girls in a biblical kind of calling. He goes so far as to bring the ‘hard-headed’ ones to the morgue to look at fallen youths and occasionally to witness an autopsy’¦? Yeah, I couldn’t tell you the logic behind it either; everything about him is vague. His appearances  are bizarrely manufactured in a way the filmmakers cannot get a handle on or control (based on interviews with the directors, this was certainly the case). His agency, whatever part he has in it, is a machine. All we know about a Japanese businessman we meet is that he evades questions that are asked of him by the documentarians and that he, as Ashley says with clear discomfort, ‘likes girls’.

Ashley is a diametrically opposed combination of completely narcissistic and a hot mess of insecurity-driven denial. Most of her used interview footage has her talking about not being passionate about what she does, her hardships in the industry, and that her associates do not know or care what she does as long as she ‘brings them the girls’. She is a fascinating figure,  not  for the reasons she would hope for, who  makes a living lying through her teeth to others and herself. What makes her even more of an oddity is the way she evidently thinks her present-day confessionals reek of honesty, when in fact they just read as an ever-contradicting headspace of self-justification. Hell, she can’t even face the cameras at any point in the film, always obliquely looking off into space, talking herself out of moral quandaries.

The money and flexible schedule is worth it to her, even if it comes at the cost of living in a haze of denial. Her glass house is empty and barren with nothing on the walls. She very much lives in her own world, at times speaking of things that must only make sense to her. Those creepy-ass dolls for one thing, which have a normalized place in her universe. Not to mention the endless snapshots of models feet. Does she have friends? Or are her only interactions with her business partners? Granted, we’re only seeing one sliver of this woman’s life, but gracious me does hers feel like a lonely existence going off the evidence provided.

The highlight of the film comes when the two halves of the fly-on-the-wall narrative intersect. Ashley goes to check in on Nadya and fed up roommate Madlen. It is the only time we see her check in on the girls, but it is unclear what other kind of contact they have with members from the agency. It is the kind of awkward scene that comes around once in a blue moon. It is so awkward that uncomfortable laughter became a side effect. There is something morbidly funny seeing Ashley squirm, trying to save face by purposely misreading Madlen’s somewhat broken but serviceable English and subsequently having nothing to say. And there is also something morbidly funny in Madlen purposely exploiting the awkwardness, trying to make Ashley uncomfortable while shooting her death-stares.

The end of Girl Model suggests an inevitably morose and frustrating continuation of the cycle. Were Nadya’s experiences not all bad? Does she just think there are no other options? Unsurprisingly, Nadya (who hasn’t seen the film but heard of its content) and the agency are appalled with the way they were depicted. There were even some disturbing allegations thrown around that feel like mud-slinging, but bare mentioning all the same. Rachel, a 23-year old model, pops up in the film from time to time to frankly discuss the problems that plague the modeling industry.

Many others like Rachel have defended the film saying it struck a personal and familiar chord with their experiences and confirmed the accuracy of the issues addressed. Girl Model unsettlingly tackles the unregulated meat market aspects of modeling with a digestible tip-of-the-iceberg approach that slaps a face on the roles of the recruiter and the recruited.

Catherine Reviews Rian Johnson’s Looper [Theatrical Review] Fri, 05 Oct 2012 22:31:55 +0000

With three films under his belt, it’s clear that Rian Johnson loves to tinker with genre form, structure, presentation and expectations. With 2005’s Brick, an audaciously bold vision of Hammett-style noir set in the emptied outskirts of high school suburbia, Johnson presented two tried and true genres and welded them together to create something that had not been done before. It was a concept that could have and should have fallen to pieces for, well, pick a reason. But it didn’t. His third film Looper sees a repairing of the director with now bona-fide star Joseph Gordon-Levitt. This time, they take on sci-fi, using high concept to ask questions about cycles, or loops if you will, of violence, selfishness and stepping outside routine monotony to look at who we have become and the choices we make.

Looper gets the world-setting out of the way in its first act with expositional narration delivered by Levitt with grade-school lesson preciseness. The basics are this; the year is 2044. Time travel has not been invented yet but it will have been in 30 years only to be immediately outlawed. Since circumstances make it impossible to get rid of a body in the future, the criminal underworld send those they want gone back to 2044 to be killed by ‘˜loopers’.

Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a looper. He spends his days executing, taking drugs that are administered via eye drops and partying at the club that his boss Abe (Jeff Daniels) owns. Being a looper means you make serious change, which from the looks of things, cannot be said for the greater populace. He is saving up to go to France. Lately, contracts are increasingly being terminated as loopers are being forced to kill their older selves, thereby ‘closing the loop’. This means they get a ginormous payday, an early retirement and the knowledge that they have 30 more years until they bite the dust.

The story kicks into gear when Bruce Willis, playing the older Joe, is sent back but escapes with a questionable agenda of his own. The younger Joe has to track down his eventual self so he can save face with Abe and his goons who are now after him.

The near-future Johnson creates is shrouded in big-picture ambiguity and is brought to life by minutiae and the immersion into an underground subset of life in 2044. The technology has progressed but has a tinkered rusty old-world feel to it. The big picture gadgetry and panoramic views that can potentially drown out other sci-fi is smartly nowhere to be seen, mostly because the budget does not support it. Looper keeps small-scale dystopia in check throughout, throwing expectations out the window by having the second half set far removed from what we commonly think of as sci-fi settings. In fact, it comes to feel more like a ‘˜protecting the ranch’ kind of Western.

The marketing for Looper reminded me of the marketing for Brave. Both decided to focus on the basic ideas, and exclusively cover the first third to first half of their products. There were audience members who were thrown by the turns each film takes. Frankly, we need more marketing of this kind. While there are problems that emerged for me upon reflection, the unpredictability of most of the film was thrilling. It is a sensation that does not come around often, that sense of not knowing where a film is going. There are a couple of sequences that took me by such surprise that I felt like a kid in a candy store. There are moments when Looper had me gleaming. Most of this can be attributed to the non-formulaic storytelling, but some of it can be credited to how the film was sold to the public. It is proof that we rely far too much on what we see from trailers and that trailers have for the most part lost the art of intrigue. I hope more marketing campaigns take this route in the future.

Johnson and Levitt have gone on record talking about the cycle of violence the film comments on. It humanizes the concept by pointing out that at the center of violence in the abstract, you have people making decisions. What is this catalyst and how can it be changed? What drives a sense of responsibility? Would our actions be unrecognizable to our former selves? Johnson successfully walks that fine line between indulging in onscreen violence without it compromising what he is trying to say.

Johnson’s cinematic eye consistently excites me, particularly in the way he uses the horizontal streak of the frame for maximum effect. By using widescreen to have multiple planes of movement happening at once, he utilizes back and forth stationary panning to follow the action as opposed to a more traditional cutting technique. This touch can be seen quite a lot in Brick as well. He calls attention to the different ways action can be shot and cut by having the scene where Willis escapes Levitt shown twice. The first time the camera is right up with the action, employing point-of-view shots and expected cutting choices. The second time we see the scene the camera is placed far away and the awkwardness of the scuffle is caught and even played for laughs. It’s a delightful moment that calls attention to how thoroughly formal elements dictate how we perceive what happens onscreen.

The hiccups in Looper feel more marked because it gets so much so right. This is one of the best films I have seen this year, and certainly a sci-fi flick for the books, but it cannot make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.

The older version of Joe, played by Willis, faces a surprising antihero-based dilemma. The groundwork is laid for a captivating older Joe and Willis brings to the table what he can. But the script increasingly treats him like a lazy subplot presence as opposed to a co-lead who is facing very tough decisions, confronting the fact of what he is willing to do at a chance for self-preservation. His role starts out strong; the diner scene between him and Levitt is probably the film’s highlight and I would have sopped up the glory of that scene more had I known it would sadly be the two actors’ only significant time onscreen together. Then older Joe is quickly demoted to provide a forcibly injected pacing jolt and to try and justify the existence of Piper Perabo’s wholly disposable character.

The ideas introduced are carried through to the end, but the character focus shifts too dramatically. Despite always keeping the younger Joe’s arc in eyesight, the central focus of the Emily Blunt’s Sarah and Pierce Gagnon’s Cid (both doing fabulous work) cannot help but take away from the impact of the younger Joe’s conscience building. Sarah is introduced with a nice touch that immediately pushes her into a level past ‘˜love interest’ (a category I’d argue she does not fit in the first place). Johnson gives her perspective and right off the bat she becomes a character with feelings, motivations and backstory in her own right. If only the film could have succeeded at keeping Joe’s arc in the foreground throughout all of this.

The climax highlights how the two Joe’s become a footnote in their own film. The telekinetic piece of the Looper world puzzle (10% of the population has TK’¦?) is the only bit to feel out of place, and yet it becomes central to the story. Joe steps into a story bigger than him and the addicting dichotomy between the two Joe’s becomes underexplored. While I love the jagged curveball that Looper throws at us, Johnson struggles to keep what was introduced at the beginning in focus and the centrality of the two Joe’s, especially Willis, is somewhat compromised as a result. These shortcomings, while notable, do not change the fact that Looper remains an invigorating genre-affirming piece of science-fiction.

Catherine Reviews Joachim Trier’s Oslo, August 31st [Theatrical Review] Mon, 27 Aug 2012 04:18:12 +0000

Norwegian director Joachim Trier burst onto the international film scene in 2006 with Reprise, a stylistically inventive debut about two young writers which alternates between overindulgence and the flashily sublime. Overall, the film left me cold but with the internal understanding that yes, I would make it a point to see all of Trier’s future output. His second feature, Oslo, August 31st, capitalizes on the evident potential seen from his debut as he reins himself in for a more subtle, somberly reflective work that is markedly more rewarding.

Set over the course of one day, Oslo, August 31st follows Anders, played by the marvelous Anders Danielsen Lie of Reprise, over the course of 24 hours. 34 years old, he leaves his drug rehabilitation center for a day to attend a job interview. He takes the opportunity to reconnect with his past, roaming around the city visiting old friends and relatives.

There is something ever-so-slightly vague about Anders’ existential quandary that, despite the specific nature of him and his struggles, cannot help but propel a similarly existential spirit in the viewer. It pulls you along in its ability to promote simultaneous self-reflection, without losing the story it wants to tell. By the end it becomes clear that in a subtle way, Oslo August 31st feels as if it is representing something bigger than itself.

A very early scene depicts Anders unsuccessfully attempting suicide by drowning. A consequential unshakable sense of fragility follows Anders around for the rest of the film. We know that with every encounter, with every stroll through Oslo, a question is eating away at this man; what’s the point? This might sound miserablist but it strikes such a sincere tone as to avoid becoming a mess of self-indulgent sulk.

What makes Oslo stand apart from other ‘˜drug addiction’ films is that it is not about the struggle to stay clean. It is about what one is left with after the fact and questioning the point of continuing. Anders has money, friends, family, looks and talent. But when addiction comes to define and ruin, at the end of the day, what is left when a layer of disconnect invades him, his former haunts and his interactions with others? That ever-palpable ‘˜why bother’ and the honesty with which it ponders this question is what stood out for me most in Trier’s sophomore effort.

Anders spends the day looking for some sort of sign to continue living. A series of conversations and experiences bring him closer and closer to his fate. A planned meeting with his sister does not materialize. His job interview is at first promising and then awash in the self-destruction that eats at him. He continues to call his ex-girlfriend and leave messages for her even though she is in New York. A party where old friends abound reminds of lost time and a place he cannot get back to.

There is a stand-out early sequence in which Anders makes his first visit of the day to see an old friend. Thomas (Hans Olar Brenner) is now married with a kid but the two friends used to live it up with booze and drugs as they intellectualized with each other. Those days are gone and after a scene with Thomas’ wife, the two speak alone. It becomes clear that while Thomas may be in a conventionally better place in his life, he has lost something. He is somehow unhappy. And he cannot reach any real level of insight when it comes to Anders. By the end of the scene it feels like neither can really do anything for the other though each vaguely wants to and it is heartbreaking.

Thankfully the film doesn’t victimize Anders. We feel badly for him and want him to pull through but it is also evident that he has screwed over many a friendship and family member in his efforts to fuel his addiction in the past. While the audience is given tidbits of backstory, each encounter he has only supports the immediate understanding that these are very complex and history-filled relationships. He wants to want to live, but he just cannot seem to find any reason to keep going.

It also serves as a love letter to Oslo. There are two scenes that broaden the scope of the individual experience of living in a city. The capital is highlighted throughout as Anders wanders the streets like a ghost of himself. Trier uses the setting to make a point about the collective memory a city holds for its many inhabitants. For all the good and bad times that come with it, the result is the magical significance of a city unattainable by any one individual but enjoyed, despaired and contributed by all.

The juxtaposition of broadening the Oslo experience and then focusing on Anders highlights the importance of each individual life and the joys, heartache and crises that come with it. Many films that try to do this sentimentalize or overtly make this point, but again, Trier strikes a perfect note here. Bleak but not miserablist. Gently nostalgic without a drop of saccharine. Oslo, August 31st overcomes the many pitfalls of the addiction drama, making for a haunting and contemplative existential journey through Norway’s capital over the course of one day.

Catherine Reviews Brenda Chapman and Mark Andrews’ Brave [Theatrical Review] Mon, 02 Jul 2012 04:06:48 +0000

Is it a crime to be a minor Pixar film? Apparently so. While it is fair to have high expectations for the animation studio’s output, which has reached great heights in the past, Brave seems to have been hit with backlash that suggests that this is forgettable fare that plays it entirely too safe. Brave has its weaknesses, but overall this is a gorgeous female coming-of-age story about independence, maintaining identity in the face of tradition, and the complicated bond between mother and daughter. It takes the Disney Princess formula in a fundamentally progressive direction if not nearly radical enough in execution.

At first, the story follows a familiar structure. Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) is a princess and her mother Eleanor (Emma Thompson) has spent her entire life slaving to get her daughter ready for the responsibility of being a queen. This goes against everything Merida wants. She has devoted her life to archery, riding her horse and exploring the endless forest around her. She lives for these days. It is apparent that the conversations between the two have long taken a repetitious route of rejection and scolding. When the day comes, Merida rejects custom by boldly claiming her own hand via an archery competition. A particularly intense fight between the two sends Merida off into the woods devastated, and from there’¦well you will have to see the film and discover its developments yourself.

Female protagonists in children’s films can and have been feisty, independent and true-to-themselves. Yet, despite several of these films being outstanding achievements, at some point we must remove the fact that these stories are all being filtered through romance. This does not have to go away, but there must be additional contexts with which we deal with female characters and their stories. Brave goes a long way in setting us in the right direction. It is easy to take for granted how meaningful it is to see this kind of story being told.

Merida jumps out at the screen from frame one; her fiery red mop-head hair, her rambunctious nature, her obstinacy and passion. She may be an adolescent, but she knows who she is. She does not want to be forced into a marriage and life that do not feel true. It goes past not being in love with the three particular boys. It is the principle of the thing; this is not what she wants. Not only is she not ready, but for the unforeseeable future, she holds no stock in this as an eventuality. Between Kelly Macdonald’s voiceover work and the Pixar animation team, Merida is fully realized. Her movements, mannerisms and speech patterns all have a specificity and spontaneity that make her, without a doubt, one of the most memorable characters the studio has produced.

Brave is ultimately about the relationship between mother and daughter, an under-explored arena in children’s films to say the least. We always seem to be dealing with father and daughter, with the mother often long deceased.

This is where Merida’s character arc lies. She must learn to listen and see through Eleanor’s eyes and vice-versa. The film stresses the lapse in communication between them throughout, and the film’s central event forces them to build the way they communicate with each other from the ground up. Part of growing up is learning not to take your mother for granted. The journey their relationship takes is where the heart of the film lies as well as its strongest bits of humor. The marketing, at least what I was exposed to, was smart in that it managed to keep its central event a surprise.

Many of the complaints against the film are not unfounded; they are just not enough to derail what Brave is doing. It does not make the most of its time. By having a tendency to draw out and repeat scenes (such as the men fighting), it loses a chance to do more with its runtime. I wish it strived for a deeper whole, though it has sections that reach that level. A sharper execution was needed for some of the humor. It never falls flat, but it does not often stick the landing.

The magical aspects are confusing and feel like a rough draft. Suspending my disbelief is one thing, but how the hell do we come to the conclusion that fixing the tapestry will solve everything? Finally, the supporting characters could have been more distinct and were underwritten. When I think of how many memorable characters Finding Nemo has, still a shocking number to process, surely the characters surrounding Merida and Eleanor could have had a bit more to them. Although, the way the film shows the three brothers and the other men shamelessly making fools of themselves as a representation of the kind of behavior men can get away with was a nice touch.

Brave is about a young woman staying true to herself and maintaining the courage to be who she is. It is about the bond between mother and daughter and the evolution of communication and understanding between them. Pixar is always at the top of its game from a technical standpoint and here is no different; the Scottish highlands are endlessly rich and watching Merida’s hair is alone worth the price of admission. Brave is entertaining and heartfelt and a step in the right direction for the types of children’s stories about girls being told. Its only crime is that it is not a masterpiece; I would hope we can forgive Brave for being merely accomplished.

Catherine Reviews Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz Tue, 05 Jun 2012 03:22:33 +0000

‘Take This Waltz’, a song by Leonard Cohen, with loosely interpreted lyrics from a Federico Garcia Lorca poem, is crammed with images of beauty, sadness, longing and passion. Sarah Polley’s second feature, executed with an acute assuredness, is named after the song, a film that combines all of these elements into a candidly adult look at the matter-of-fact cyclical nature of relationships.

Margot (Michelle Williams) has been married to Lou (Seth Rogen) for five years. They live in their house in Toronto (some of the best modern-day art direction in years). She writes things like tourist information for attractions, and he is working on a cookbook of chicken recipes. Overall they are still quite happy and love one another, even if he is preoccupied with his book, she is in a constant state of unacknowledged restlessness and sex is a rare occurrence. Oh and did I mention the foxy artist/rickshaw driver who lives across the street?

All of this sounds like a recipe for yet another indie film that takes the middling approach to relationships with some quirk thrown in, misguidedly putting on airs as something authentic. Luckily, Take This Waltz is authentic and goes far in representing a mature, mercilessly honest look at a situation with no easy answers. As Margot allows herself to spend time with Daniel (Luke Kirby), she immediately understands that his presence will complicate things. They are instantly drawn to each other, and the more they spend time together, the harder it becomes for her to repress her desires. She is racked with guilt, while he puts no stock in the institution of marriage. He remains patient, never pushing too far and always waiting for her to be the one to take the next step.

Refreshingly, there are no helpful shortcuts provided by writer/director Polley. Lou is a genuinely good-natured guy without it being overkill. When Margot tells him she loves him, she isn’t lying. Daniel does not turn out to have nefarious baggage or commitment issues. There is no circumstance in plot that allows one of these men to be taken out of the picture, nor does it shy away from forcing Margot to solve her dilemma.

Take This Waltz is about what often happens with two people have been together for a long time. With familiarity comes comfort. But once the novelty of comfort wears off, all you are left with is familiarity, and with that comes longing, melancholy and unfulfillment. Daniel forces Margot’s latent feelings to surface in a big way. The idea of cyclical love runs throughout; the newness of Daniel gleams before her.

Especially when her dynamic with him is much different than it is with Lou. Margot and Lou have a playful interplay. In this way, Polley captures the idiosyncratic nature of long-term relationships and the individuality of a world you create with someone else that is entirely your own. Most of the playful material between the two will likely be irksome to viewers; but isn’t that the point? That is why the world created by two people remains largely private; because it’s often silly, obnoxious, childish and most importantly, endlessly repetitive. Polley gets the awkwardness of being an outsider looking in on this stuff, and she plunges us into their daily lives. In this way, the film reminded me of the central couple in the 2010 German film Everyone Else, albeit in a much healthier form.

Margot and Daniel, on the other hand, have an erotic charge whenever they are together. Some of Polley’s best work are the scenes between the two that are dripping with lust despite them simply talking, going on a ride, swimming, walking, etc. Although, there is some graphic sexual dialogue between the two that happens to be almost illegally sensual. Considering that sex is the major thing missing in her marriage, Daniel dangles infinite sexual possibilities in front of her that are increasingly impossible to resist. Williams is drenched in sunlight during her scenes with him; she is once again vibrant, attracted by the shine of the new.

Michelle Williams does not really need to continue proving that she is arguably the actress of her generation, but she nevertheless does with her reliably astonishing work here. Margot is a complicated and flawed figure, and Williams fleshes her out to the point where no doppelganger of her character exists in any other film; a rare feat. She is guilt-ridden, awkward, childish, loving and empty. We feel an all-too human empathy for her situation because its unfortunate common occurrence in the real world is all too recognizable. It is all the harder to take because films tend to skirt the complexities of this everyday issue, sugarcoating reality and constructing circumstances that make the choice an easy call for characters.

There are a few missteps here and there. Kirby’s character is painted in strokes a bit too broad. We get a sense of him and his unconventional views, but he never feels characterized enough, despite the fact that this is Margot’s story. One speech early on about ‘being afraid of being afraid’ is a stereotypical indie-movie-monologue nightmare. Sarah Silverman’s character placement, Lou’s recovering alcoholic sister, feels too ‘written’. We can see from the start what her eventual purpose will be and Polley’s hand setting the cards in place is distractingly deliberate. And lastly, can we kill the trope that says a couple watching TV automatically means a relationship is in a rut? Seriously.

‘There is always going to be a gap’, Sarah Silverman’s character says, and this is pretty much the message of Take This Waltz. It does not shy away from its scenario which goes relatively unexplored in film, at least in ways that feel relevant. This feels relevant. It’s also nice to feel respected by Polley as a receptive audience member. There are so many moving instances, scenes and performance moments to be had and its final act is quite the bold move. It is apparent pretty much at the outset that some are going to be very annoyed by this film, but frankly, it comes with the package. By the end I was extremely thankful that Sarah Polley had successfully executed a serious and awkward romantic drama that comes from the female perspective.

Take This Waltz is currently available in a Pre-Theatrical run OnDemand.


Catherine Reviews Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb’s This Is Not a Film Sun, 13 May 2012 17:00:56 +0000

I am unreservedly ashamed to admit I have never seen a Jafar Panahi film. The seminal Iranian filmmaker, whose work which includes Crimson Gold, The Circle and Offside, is familiar to me in name only. But you do not have to have seen anything by Panahi to feel the staggering act of defiance that this non-film represents.

It also serves as a treatise on the stifling state of Iranian cinema where talent is certainly in abundance (case in point; A Separation, the first Iranian film to win the Foreign Language Oscar). The Culture Ministry’s recent decision to disband the House of Cinema, the only domestic independent film organization, has been a critical obstruction to the already censorship-ridden national cinema. Painstakingly constructed subversiveness is no longer an option for Jafar Panahi. The 51-year old Iranian filmmaker has been handed a 6-year jail sentence and a 20-year ban on filmmaking, leaving the country or giving press interviews of any kind.

This Is Not a Film, shot by Panahi’s documentarian friend Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, seemingly takes place over one day, although it was shot and edited over ten days. Panahi and Mirtahmasb clearly have some idea of what they wanted to be contained within, although how much of that was discussed we do not know.

The finished self-described ‘˜effort’ shows Mirtahmasb coming over to film Panahi, who is under house arrest and has been waiting for the verdict from the court appeal of his sentence. Mirtahmasb expresses how important it is to document Panahi’s struggle. Mirtahmasb’s presence slyly exonerates Panahi from formally directing. If he is merely in front of the camera, in his natural state, he is breaking none of the bans placed on him.

There is a structure to This Is Not a Film. We start with Panahi and the camera, which Mirtahmasb left with him and told him to keep on. He eats his breakfast seeming somewhat awkwardly aware of the camera’s presence. He speaks with his lawyer on the phone. Then Mirtahmasb comes over. Neither knows what the end goal of this ban-dodging experiment is or should be. This uncertainty is what lends the non-film its structure.

Panahi’s thought-process launches an intellectual and emotional journey beset with rumination. He spends much of the film working through his recent rejected screenplay, trying his best, with descriptive mise-en-scene and masking tape, to paint any semblance of the picture he meant to one day create. To see this is to see an artist at work; it is heartbreaking to witness the man’s crystal-clear filmic map merely described, and his and our simultaneous understanding that it will never come to life.

Describing the story and its blocking does bring it to a sort of half-life in this film, and its seemingly meek half-existence is a courageous statement within the larger courageous statement that is this ‘˜film’. Panahi eventually stops, overcome by the apparent pointlessness of trying to create something in an unnatural fashion. He goes through clips of a couple of his previous films, frustrated by what actual production brings and what he no longer can do through paltry reenactments. He wistfully speaks of the unpredictable nature of working with actors, how the act of filming captures something that cannot be planned, blocked or staged. Showing clips from his previous films incorporate his works into a new artistic context, and is another way Panahi exercises as much control as he can over a situation he has no control of.

We see Panahi taking pictures and videos with his iPhone (because surely he can make use of the phone’s video features), on the day of Fireworks Wednesday, signifying the Persian New Year’s. He ponders aloud, goes online where most websites are restricted, watches the news, and looks outside. A neighbor comes by and asks him to temporarily watch her yelping dog Micky. His companion throughout is his pet iguana Igi who languidly slurps around.

There is constant fascination by the film’s very existence and its contents. At times it became surreal that I was actually sitting in a theater and seeing this complete with trailers and ads. Hell, there was even a spot for the new ABC Family show ‘Bunheads’ before the film started. That this made its way into a theater that was accessible to me and everyone in the surrounding area goes beyond words.

Throughout, the sense of restlessness that we can only imagine he experiences minute-by-minute is forced upon us. There is also a simultaneous transmission of suffocation. We cannot imagine what he is going through, but this effort gives us a sad and bitter taste of his claustrophobic experience. Is it a coincidence that Buried, the story of a man helplessly and powerlessly encased in the ground, is the most visible DVD on display?

The immediate affinity that we feel for Panahi somehow heightens this already heartbreaking human rights issue. He comes off as kind, mild, realistic and emotionally beaten down by his circumstances (though this work’s existence proves him as anything but). We immediately care for him, beyond the empathy inherent in the situation.

The spontaneous final scene and image is something to behold.  I will let you discover it on your own.

There is so much to think about and unpack in This Is Not a Film, and hopefully these initial thoughts do some basic pondering. This may be the last participating effort from a director whose voice has been irrevocably muffled. It represents the concrete fact of creative expression being snuffed out. To say this film should be seen is an understatement; it must be seen. This statement has been made many times in relation to this film but I make it again; if you care about cinema, about the right we have to tell stories and why we tell them, and about human rights, you must seek out This Is Not a Film.

Catherine Reviews Lauren Greenfield’s The Queen of Versailles [IFFBoston 2012 Review] Sun, 06 May 2012 04:56:15 +0000

When filmmaker Lauren Greenfield began filming the Siegel’s, the billionaire family was living on top of the world. They were in the process of constructing the largest home in the United States, the 90,000 square ft. Versailles, inspired by Louis XIV-era architecture. $260 million was put into the still-incomplete palace, which was to contain everything, and I mean everything, you could possibly imagine and then some. Even to see the thing half-done is overwhelming. This was the reason Greenfield started filming in the first place. And then the economic crisis hits, effecting even the richest among us. Greenfield became inadvertently able to track the before-and-after of what David Siegel himself refers to as a riches-to-rags story.

David Siegel is CEO of the real estate and time-share company Westgate Resorts. He comes from a humble background, building his fortune from the ground up. He firmly believes that if you have it, spend it. His fortune and success has also turned into his fatal flaw. Maintaining success of his scale does not come easy, and David’s world revolves around his business. His wife and family clearly matter to him, but there is a sense that he merely tolerates his wife Jackie as opposed to truly loving her.

There are judgments and preconceptions that will undoubtedly be heaped onto Jackie, the much younger queen, as the film begins. By the end, some of these will be disproved, and some become heightened. She seems genuinely kind-hearted yet entirely oblivious, living in her own world. There is not a purposely callous bone in her body. There is also genuine love she has for her husband, but he is quite cold to her by the film’s end as his stress continually mounts.

Jackie is a compulsive shopper and a bit of a hoarder. She spends because she can and it is pretty disgusting to see her spending habits in all its excessive glory. Seeing her go to Wal-Mart to buy, amidst carts and carts of toys, three copies of the game Operation and a bike which she brings home, only for it to get thrown in a mountain of unused bikes is nauseating. And that is just the tip of the iceberg; the most miniscule of endless examples. This woman has no shame and spends millions every year on herself and her family simply because she can.

There are pets everywhere; dogs, snakes, lizards, fish, peacocks, a tiger and who knows what else? They are frequently neglected once most of the staff has to be let go and the lizard starves to death. They have seven kids plus Jackie’s niece who the Siegel’s have taken in. Jackie states that once she realized that she could have nannies look after her kids, she just kept having them. Like David, she also comes from humble beginnings (she also has a degree in engineering), and has had her fair share of hardships, including an abusive first marriage. For someone so filthily rich, she seems uncommonly down-to-earth; she just happens to spend obscene amounts of money on herself and her family. She also sees no reason why going to McDonald’s in a limo may be a bit inappropriate.

The obvious question is why should we care about billionaires who are forced to become merely millionaires? The Queen of Versailles allows us to feel both disgust and sympathy for these folks, without forcing them to be mutually exclusive reactions. We may laugh, scoff and shake our heads in repugnance at them.   But they are human and their very real struggles register as far more legitimate and dire than one would think possible.

Jackie is trying to maneuver in what seems to be a non-existent marriage. David, trapped by his own success, is trying to grasp onto what he once had, determined to his dying day to get back what he spent his life working for. Lauren Greenfield uses the absurdist 1% world of the Siegel’s to stand-in as a representative of what everyone went through due to the economic crisis, no matter what the scale.

It also represents what happens when the American Dream gets realized to such an extreme, that its inherent flaws of naïve greed and gluttony manifest in frightening ways. The teenage niece, who Jackie and David took in, lived in a very poor household. There is a point where she talks about how she used to watch people on TV with their huge mansions and think, if she lived like that, she would wake up every day with a smile on her face. She goes on to say that when one acquires that level of wealth, it is shocking just how quickly you gets used to having everything you want, constantly expecting more and more.

Watching people lose so much, yet still maintain more than what most people would dream of having, is tough at times. It may seem laughable and even distasteful to a point, to want to sympathize with their plight, but we do. Greenfield makes sure we get the sense of what they are going through. The film acquires an appropriately game-changing vibe to match the family’s situation. This is a huge ordeal for them. We get to feel the validity of their financial crisis and, up to a point, there is bona fide sympathy to be had for the Siegel’s.

The Queen of Versailles raises a lot of conflicting feelings in the viewer; and that is a good thing. People will argue about why we should care about these people. The Siegels become human to us; when we learn that Versailles cannot happen, we realize that this is someone’s dream being crushed. A ludicrous, outlandish dream that took unimaginable amounts of money, that surely could have been spent more productively, but a dream nonetheless. The Queen of Versailles is going to be an understandably tough sell for some, and Greenfield knows this, working this potential dealbreaker to her advantage. In the end, for all their misgivings, I honestly came to care for the Siegel’s.

Catherine Reviews Stephen Kessler’s Paul Williams Still Alive [IFFBoston 2012 Review] Sun, 06 May 2012 04:39:31 +0000

The minute I saw that there was a documentary about Paul Williams playing at IFFBoston, I knew I had to go. My knowledge of Paul was admittedly limited. I first became formally aware of him much later than was retrospectively acceptable, considering how long his music had been unknowingly making such an impact on me from an early age.

It was about four years ago that I first watched Phantom of the Paradise, Brian De Palma’s awesome and excessively glittery glam-rock musical take on Phantom of the Opera, starring and featuring music and lyrics by Paul Williams. Williams is just about the opposite of the heartthrob Hollywood star; tiny but always swaggering and smirking with a scrunchy round face and a mop of blond hair. That he and the lanky bug-eyed and recently deceased William Finley were the co-leads of this film is just about the perfect antithesis to the standard leading man. I looked up who Paul Williams was and lo and behold, the man was responsible for having written some of the most important songs in my life.

I speak less of songs like ‘Evergreen’ and ‘We’ve Only Just Begun’ and more of his work on The Muppet Movie, The Muppet Christmas Carol and “Emmet Otter’s Jugband Christmas”. Laugh if you will, but it is impossible to quantify the place these songs hold in my heart. He has a penchant for consistently striking the perfect balance of expressing sentiment without being too saccharine whether it be a longing-filled ballad or a joyful jaunt. Songs like “The Rainbow Connection”, “Brothers”, “Movin’ Right Along”, “Thankful Heart” and “One More Sleep Til Christmas” are perfect creations that go right for my jugular, containing purified and encapsulating representations of joy, gratitude and acceptance.

All of this lengthy background sets up the fact that this was an individual that automatically had a personal connection with my interests, and at least on that level, the film would already be a success in my eyes. Director Stephen Kessler has this same connection which prompts him to make the film in the first place. Those looking to satisfy the seedy curiosity inherent in tell-all’s with Williams recounting firsthand experiences with drug and alcohol addiction, and his subsequent recovery, will be somewhat let down.

It turns out that Paul Williams has little interest in talking about the past. He is twenty years sober and living a more fulfilling life now than he was then, so what is the point of looking back? Paul Williams Still Alive is more about Kessler providing a narrative of the filming process as he slowly realizes this is not going to be quite the  exposé he imagined. More importantly, it is about the evolution of Kessler and Williams’ relationship, which starts with passive-aggressive hesitancy and ends with what seems like the making of a lifelong friendship.

It cannot be denied that disappointment sank in as it became clear the film would be just as much, if not more, Kessler’s story than Williams. The film’s subject, admittedly admirably, refuses to be pushed into the biographical mold of the ‘˜rise and fall’. Yet even basic reflection on what led him to finally start taking steps towards recovery is not divulged. Nor is there any discussion of his music outside of a statement about his songs falling into themes of loneliness and isolation which, let’s face it, is pretty obvious. During the director Q&A, Kessler mentioned that Williams clearly loved music (he is the current president of ASCAP for goodness sake) but had little interest in talking about his work. So what is this documentary about?

There is certainly some biographical information, and Williams does touch on topics, even if it is sometimes vague. He interprets his own actions, equating his appearance in seemingly everything at the time to being addicted to attention, to feeling like part of the club. He talks a lot about the difference between being special and being different; how he always felt different and his fame was a constant strive towards being special. There is also a ton of archival footage that is effectively used to give that sense of being in that part of the 70’s where he really did seem to be everywhere.

Kessler captures the often unspoken awkwardness that organically comes about when a documentarian is incessantly following his subject around. Kessler gives the film a narrative streak littered with humor throughout as he continues to be unaware that he is the elephant in the room. Williams is at first quite passive-aggressive, and the director lingers on depicting the uncomfortable silences and the push-and-pull between filmmaker and subject. At one point Kessler uses a blatantly manipulative method to get a planned response out of Williams. It works, and he narrates that he felt bad and that he had gone too far. Throughout, Kessler bravely showcases just how unnatural making a documentary can be.

The director’s constant narration provides an in-the-moment interpretation of what the experience of filming was like from his point of view. There are times when Kessler allows Williams to get too far away from the film. In select portions it feels less like Kessler telling both his and Williams’ parallel stories and more like Kessler telling his own story that Williams happens to be present for.

Stephen Kessler is clearly devoted to his subject whom he can now proudly call a true friend. Paul Williams would not conform to a comfortable rise-and-fall arc. He is too happy and satisfied with his current life to immortalize himself in a documentary as just another musician who ‘˜lost it all’. He rightfully does not see it that way. Sadly, this leads to limited (but not absent) reflection on the ups and downs of fame, drug addiction and the road to recovery. Though unable to dig deep into its subject, Paul Williams Still Alive continuously entertains and amuses. Without being revelatory in any sense, it manages to examine the relationship between documentarian and subject. If the past of Paul Williams does not matter to Paul Williams, then maybe, just maybe, it should not matter to us. Now excuse me while I go listen to ‘The Hell of It’ for the twentieth time today.

Catherine Reviews Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights [IFFBoston 2012 Review] Tue, 01 May 2012 06:37:32 +0000

Let’s just get this right out in the open; I do not like the story of Wuthering Heights. The novel, from the little I remember having read it in high school, never appealed to me. Cathy and Heathcliff’s dark and unresolved passion is admittedly bold as is the novel’s frank use of natural but ugly emotions such as revenge and rage. Yet I could never get past how unlikeable the tortured couple is. Even if this is purposeful, I am unable to locate a reason to care about their suffering-ridden plight. Part of my response to Andrea Arnold’s third full-length feature can be attributed to these pre-established feelings; but only part of it. To put it bluntly, the final hour of this refreshingly unconventional adaptation approaches intolerability. This is a shame, because by the end of the first half I was ready to proudly declare my love for Andrea Arnold’s bracingly original take on Wuthering Heights.

Two sets of actors play Cathy and Heathcliff and the film, which is succinctly sliced into two halves. Shannon Beer and Solomon Glave depict them as youths while Kaya Scodelario and James Howson play the ‘˜older’ youths.

Visually and aesthetically, Andrea Arnold is at the top of her game. There are few directors currently working with an eye that is entirely their own, and hers is distinct and freakishly unforced. After only three feature films, the word auteur is entirely applicable. Shooting once again in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio, her voice is a vital and cherished one, with Wuthering Heights serving as further evidence of her immense talents. She takes the symbolically charged moors and portrays a fully-formed all-encompassing depiction of nature and the elements that encapsulate the wild and unexplainable urges at the core of this romance.

Has there ever been a film that has more fully entrenched the viewer in its natural environment? The effect is awe-inspiring.The audience is more than an observer; we tumble face-first into the mud of this unstable environment. Arnold’s priority lies with the landscape, concentrating on the environmental surroundings the characters inhabit. There is no score here, and all-natural lighting is used, allowing us to perceive their lives as they experience it. The intricate soundscape constructed to enhance the sense of being there is likely the most impressive that will be heard this year. Arnold alternates, entirely with handheld camera, between tightened close-ups and sparse wide shots.

The director has a knack for being able to show endless shots, of both the larger landscape and the miniscule components that nature is comprised of, without it ever feeling repetitive or redundant. It goes far beyond superficiality reaching the point where it becomes a central source of deeper beauty because of the muted absence of glorification.

As a young Cathy, Beer is well-cast; she has a gruff and adventurous spirit. Glove is fine, but the impenetrability of the character translates as a bit of a blank slate rather than someone filled to the brim with conflicting but incomprehensible emotions. Their chemistry is a bit lacking, but Arnold is largely able to cover this up. She has a way of allowing moments to play out viscerally and subjectively, seemingly in slow motion but not; in the first half we feel what they feel whether we want to or not.

This all sounds like a glowing review, and despite the unfortunate horrors that come next, this is still recommended viewing. Its strengths cannot be overstated.

When the film shifts into its second half, not even the visual palette that remains can pull it up out of its own misgivings. Arnold’s artistry is still present as ever but everything surrounding it sours, leaving a bad taste in the mouth. Some time has passed; Cathy and Heathcliff have gotten older. Thus we arrive at the first problem.

The actors playing Cathy and Heathcliff are a downgrade of the first degree. Beer and Glove, non-actors  Ã  la Katie Jarvis, share a natural interplay that feels like a real unspoken connection. Scodelario and Howson, two professional actors, are pretty people who simply cannot act (at least judging by this film). Scodelario is a stunner and Arnold takes advantage of this. Howson is capable of crying and banging his head against a tree and a door but somehow he never shows any actual emotion. It is clear from the get-go that these two are acting and incompetently at that.

The two have zero chemistry or depth, are devoid of presence and incapable of effective line delivery. Worst of all, the pair come off as wholly uninteresting characters. Cathy and Heathcliff are stripped of any iconic complexities and replaced with an angsty set of temper tantrums that give Bella and Edward a run for their money. Finally, the crucial carnal element that is supposed to drive the film is absent between the two actors.

This is only partly their fault; they have nothing to work with. The second half of this story is distancing enough as it is, as both characters actions are wrought with a selfishness that the audience cannot connect with, or even marvel at with perverse fascination.

Olivia Hetreed wrote the screenplay, with a rewrite from Arnold. The end result is scrawny and sparse in all the wrong ways. The first half of the film allows a certain freedom where Arnold can shine and the dialogue can comfortably fit the take-it-or-leave-it mold required of it. The second half of the story has a much higher degree of plot-oriented obligations. When the dialogue, what little there is, has to deliver, it cannot stand on its own two feet. Furthermore, with actors this dead-on-arrival, the raw emotion and self-destructive nature the two are supposed to generate never materializes.

Arnold is restrained by the story she has to tell in its final hour. That freedom is gone and a distance between her and material, and thus between us and the story, persists as it moves towards concluding. She desperately tries to remind us, through edits of moments between the two younglings, of what brought us to this place; that these are the characters we spent the first consistently moving hour with. The second half is also drawn out far past its capabilities and at a certain point, sadly, it almost becomes unintentionally funny.

Like any rational person I accept that everybody experiences films differently, each with their own unique take. Yet Wuthering Heights had me seriously questioning how anybody could feel caught up in, moved or satisfied by the final half of this film.

What ends as an empty masochistic jaunt through the moors, starts as a startlingly realized story of two people whose dark passion for each other simmers beneath the surface as children. In the first half, the level of subjective transference is uncommonly high. We feel what they feel, from the blustering wind and the harsh rain to the unspoken declarations and the physicality of their unknowable urges. The final half is the opposite; we become uninterested observers. Events take place but the film transforms into a fully passive viewing experience. Instead of feeling the characters emotions, we watch from a great distance while they self-destruct, as the film becomes more intolerable the closer it gets to ending.

Wuthering Heights begins as a must-see and ends as a must-avoid. Andrea Arnold is a master at her craft, and what she brings to the table is a first hour that is wholly immersive and rewarding on many levels. While my hatred for the second half has stayed with me perhaps more than my love and admiration for the first, Wuthering Heights demands to be seen, not least because the voice behind it is invaluable. Yet it just so happens that its final hour is one of the more insufferable chunks of film these eyes have had to see in years.

Be warned; there are a handful of murderous incidents of animal cruelty primarily involving a goat and a rabbit.

Catherine Reviews Bart Layton’s The Imposter [IFFBoston 2012 Review] Sun, 29 Apr 2012 19:55:46 +0000

Warning: There are spoilers contained within this review for those who do not know this story.

There are certain films that provoke an externalized reaction that at some point you become conscious of. It is safe to say that I spent the majority of The Imposter, a stranger than fiction true-crime documentary that evokes a combination of Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line and Tabloid, with my jaw hanging open in utter disbelief.

San Antonio, 1994: 13-year old Nicholas Barclay goes missing. 3 years and 4 months later, he is miraculously found in Spain. Except it is not Nicholas Barclay. It is a 23-year old Frenchman named Frédéric Bourdin.

Bourdin does not belong anywhere. He pretends to be an adolescent in order to be accepted into a shelter for children. Desperately in need for a false identity, Bourdin infiltrates the shelter’s office at night, makes some phone calls and stumbles across Nicholas Barclay’s name. He decides to make a go of it, astoundingly convincing officials that he is in fact the missing teenager. But that is just the beginning of this peculiar tale.

The situation reaches the point where Nicholas’ sister, Carey Gibson, travels to Spain to meet her supposed brother and bring him home. Bourdin’s luck has seemingly run out. He looks nothing like Barclay and speaks with a French accent. Improvising, he quickly manages to dye his hair blonde, receive identical tattoos and cover himself up with sunglasses, a hat and scarf. Surely Carey Gibson will immediately recognize that this is not her brother’¦

This covers roughly a third of The Imposter. What happens next is pretty wild and Layton gives the tale an appropriately sensationalistic spin. The director displays a careful control over facts as well as imperative speculation, making it the film equivalent of a page-turner through the precise hierarchy and ordering of revealed information.

Frédéric Bourdin is at the story’s center and Layton allows for him to seemingly control the telling of his own story. Bourdin knows how to spin a tale, relishing his time in front of the camera. Looking like a young and in-shape French version of Joe Pesci, the man has a snake-like charm and undeniable smarts; the fascinating spell he casts makes it easy to forget that the man is a cruel and duplicitous liar. Bourdin is very upfront about his motivations for his actions and is even able to manipulate a drop of sympathy from his audience. Layton withholds his actual identity, and the context that comes with it, until close to the end, so that we have a blank slate of an imposter with no strings attached to contend with.

The Barclay family, which includes a mother, sister, brother-in-law and a deceased brother who overdosed, do not go far in disproving any Southern stereotypes. At times their comments inadvertently lend humor to the proceedings. Charlie Parker, a private investigator who is quite the character, speaking of ears and hotcakes, enters the story when he begins to notice discrepancies between Barclay and the imposter who has replaced him.

Cinematically produced reenactments are dispersed throughout the film. They often provide the right atmosphere that narratively situates the film and the actors who portray the real-life participants are freakishly uncanny doppelgangers. But in the first third these reenactments threaten to distract as events are meticulously tracked, paving the way for overuse of Layton’s techniques.

The Imposter ponders the impenetrability of truth with its outlandish story. The entire situation makes it clear that perception, denial and lies replace whatever factual reality once existed, becoming an irreplaceable artificial truth. The film leaves us with far more questions than answers, not unlike Capturing the Friedmans.

Did Barclay’s family actually believe that they had Nicholas back? Were they so desperate to believe that they accepted this stranger into their homes? Or were they actually dim enough to truly believe this man was Nicholas? When Bourdin is taken in as Nicholas what did I feel? A speechless pity to be sure, but also the realization of the impossible coincidence in Bourdin matching up with the one family who could be duped to this scale.

The Imposter takes a turn late in its runtime as it suggests a much more disturbing and haunting Southern Gothic twist to this true-crime scenario. Layton pushes his angle as far as he comfortably can without any actual evidence. He introduces the notion by having one of Bourdin’s statements inserted as fact. The film then pulls back and reassesses the statement, clarifying its speculative nature, but the point is explicitly made. I am not entirely sold on the suggestion, but the introduction of the mere possibility of it made my hair stand on end.

On the one hand, Bourdin is a pathological liar, making it is impossible to believe anything he says that substantiates suspicion. On the other hand, there are other people (an FBI Agent named Nancy Fisher, Charlie Parker, neighbors) who clearly suspect some level of foul play. The film touches on the troubling domestic dynamic of Nicholas, his mother and drug-addict brother Jason. The cops were at the house 2 or 3 times a month. Jason and his mother did drugs and Nicholas frequently got himself in trouble. At 13 years old, Nicholas had 3 tattoos, something that is not touched on but is certainly troubling. The Imposter gives too little investigative time to Nicholas’ home life and the film returns its focus on Bourdin when there is a craving for any other information on this family.

Everyone involved is duplicitous in some way and the film turns the supposed victims into seriously questionable folks. Either way, despite their enormous suffering, they become objects of bewilderment, whether that is because of their foolishness or their possible horrific actions.

That there are no answers is perhaps most unsettling of all and The Imposter ends in a way that leaves us wanting. Where is the line between unconscious and conscious denial? Going further, where is the line between conscious denial and hidden motivations for knowingly accepting the most ludicrous of situations? We will never know for sure if the second question even applies. No matter the case, the power of delusion is strong at hand.

In the end, we return to Frederic Bourdin, whose manipulative scheming brought us into this mess. Ending with transfixing footage of a younger Bourdin dancing, as Layton inserts Johnny Cash’s ‘God’s Gonna Cut You Down’, an image that visual representative of how bizarre these real-life events were. Yet it all starts with the actual disappearance of 13-year old Nicholas Barclay, a child whose unknowable fate looms over us. The Imposter is a stranger than fiction tale that will have you aghast on the edge-of-your-seat; it is truly mind-boggling to watch unfold.

Catherine Reviews Marius Holst’s King of Devil’s Island [DVD Review] Mon, 02 Apr 2012 03:52:36 +0000

There are a considerable number of films featuring adolescents driven to the far reaches of suffering in reform schools, correctional facilities, institutional homes or rigid private schools. At this point, many stock characters have been established; the newcomer who shakes things up, the stern and unwavering headmaster, the martyr and of course the ultra-evil authority figure.  All of these and more can be found in King of Devil’s Island, director Marius Holst’s bleak as bleak can be tale of what happens when power goes awry.

Like several others in a similar vein (such as The Magdalene Sisters to name a more recent one), King of Devil’s Island is based on a true story. It depicts Bastøy Island in 1915 Norway, a reformatory secluded from the rest of the world where it housed wayward boys from the ages of eleven to eighteen. The environment is hopelessly desolate and frigid. One can feel the sharp stinging chill of the air while watching. There is no escape. It is frighteningly simple to get shipped to Bastøy; one character is sent for stealing out of a church donation box. Once there, it is exceedingly difficult to obtain release, taking many years. The workload is dire and labor-intensive and they are underfed. The punishment and abuse are dealt out at a moment’s notice and retain the status quo of cruelty expected in films of its kind.

In short, you would not want to find yourself here. But inmate newcomers Erling (Benjamin Helstad) and Ivar (Magnus Langlete) sadly do. Erling, a harpooner who is rumored to have killed, immediately starts plotting an escape plan. Ivar, who is much younger, experiences the worst possible form of welcome by unwittingly attracting the attention of house father BrÃ¥then (Kristoffer Joner). The admission procedures strip them of their clothes and name. They emerge naked in front of their fellow students, part of the nomenclature with their new identities C-16 and C-5.

Bestyreren (Stellen Skarsgard), the school’s governor, is far too resolute in his misguided sense of reform to consider how damaging his methods are. Finally, there is student leader Olav (Trond Nilssen), who emerges as the heart of the film. He is inches away from being released after six arduous years. But as tensions rise, he must question whether or not securing his release is more important than standing up for the injustice he witnesses.

Stories of justified adolescent uprisings are always going to be engaging, to me at least. Marius Holst’s paint-by-numbers film is entirely predictable yet still manages to be a justly moving experience. Holst moves beyond the empathy implicit in the basic storyline, emphasizing the stark environment and the human elements buried deep within the struggle. Almost every frame is entrenched in hollow blues and grays. This may seem an obvious aesthetic choice but, again, Holst moves beyond the obvious with his execution. It is a rich film to look at, but the environment is never glamorized. This is a truly miserable place, and the visuals all support this.

Unfortunately, there is not much room for the actors to wiggle around in their archetypes. Unsurprisingly, Skarsgard manages quite a bit with a character that is so deeply mired in stern self-denial, that the film does not allow him even an honest moment with himself.

It is the child actors though who come through strongest. The governor says early on that at  Bastøy “the past and future don’t exist. There is only present”. The film follows this proclamation relatively closely, focusing on the youths roles in the here and now of their predicament. Even without learning much about him, Helstad always makes sure we see Erling’s motivations come from immediate and tacitly sensed injustice.

Trond Nilssen’s Olav lends the film its most humanistic element. He has spent six years adapting to life at Bastøy. He has obeyed and proven a faithful inmate. There is a sort of reliance he has on the way things work at the school. Sure it is brutal and harsh, but if something were truly aghast, appropriate action would be taken; right? Surely he can expect his word, after six loyal years, to be worth something. From the moment we set our sights on Olav, we know where his arc is headed. Nilssen cancels out any negative effects of our awareness; the arc is all in his eyes and he is heartbreaking in the film’s successful through-line.

The strength of Helstad and Nilssen also force the friendship between Olav and Erling into the forefront of the film’s memorable aspects. The final ten minutes are inescapably emotional.

Filled with somber strings and heavy-handed and repetitious symbolism to drive home this grim tale of rebellion, King of Devil’s Island never feels substantial but is never less than entirely involving. When the uprising arrives it is shown as desperate and humanized rage. These kids do not turn into monsters and Holst smartly never allows that to come across. Holst is less interested in what happens when the breaking point is reached and more interested in the journey to that moment. The King of Devil’s Island is about unmonitored hierarchies of power and the disturbing results that can yield from a sharp schism between those in control and the unlucky defenseless.

Film Movement’s April 10th DVD release includes a trailer, bios and a short film called Bale by Al Mackay.

Catherine Reviews Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s 21 Jump Street [Theatrical Review] Tue, 20 Mar 2012 04:11:00 +0000

’21 Jump Street’ is a gaping hole in my pop-culture knowledge. I knew of its existence and that it had something to do with cops. I knew it launched Johnny Depp’s career and that it featured Richard Grieco who remained a stagnant fixture in the 80’s. But that is it. I have never seen an episode and was unfamiliar of even its basic concept. When the news of its reboot came about, my reaction was likely that of many: yet another shrug-and-eyeroll combo with a reiteration of the oh-so-original thought that Hollywood has run out of ideas. From my limited understanding, not even the basic genre, tone or characters are kept here. It is a reboot mostly in name only.

Yet, lo and behold; 21 Jump Street is a mostly fantastic film. Save for a third act that comparatively falls apart at the seams, this is an engagingly uproarious and surprisingly sincere comedy that is taken to the next level by the pairing of Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum.

The first half is almost shockingly good. The pacing is razor-sharp and it clicks along with an at-times remarkable speed. Take the first five minutes which manage to accomplish what some films fail to do in their entire runtime. It establishes Jenko (Tatum) and Schmidt (Hill) in their respective high-school personas. Schmidt was a 2005 unpopular Eminem wannabe whereas Jenko was your typical douchebag jock. This sets up a really refreshing role-reversal that will take place later on when they return to high school as undercover cops. Years later, they encounter each other when they train at the academy. Jenko is dim and needs help with the exams while Schmidt cannot power through the physical training. They begin to help each other out; through montage we see the roots of a clearly meaningful friendship which has a genuine immediacy that carries throughout. All of this resonates within the first five minutes, making everything that comes after all the more absorbing.

21 Jump Street contains a manic energy akin to Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (screenwriter Michael Bacall had a hand in both screenplays) without the kinetic comic-book visuals. Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller of the perplexingly well-received Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, quickly establish a gleeful fluid mania that permeates through everything. Early on they show how they will use the camera and music to present something in a more subjective fashion, only to pull back and show the amusing reality. It works every time.

Two sequences that do this perfectly are arguably the films two funniest sequences. The first is the pair’s first attempted arrest. The second is the pair’s drug-addled excursion during school hours. The latter switches back and forth from a first-person perspective, showing how they experience the various effects of the drug (whose supplier they have been assigned to track down), to a third-person perspective which displays just how ridiculous they really look. I can honestly say I do not know the last time I laughed this hard as this played out.

There is something about the experience of high school that is captured here, inducting it into the pantheon of memorable high school films. It helps that Jenko and Schmidt graduated high school in 2005, the same year as me, giving it an added dose of personal resonance. It presents high school as a toxic environment where peer approval not only reigns above all, but legitimately defines you as a person. Going back to high school terrifies Schmidt whereas Jenko is thrilled with the assignment. But the tables have turned. The high school experience has changed enough in seven years allowing Jenko to be unpopular and allowing Schmidt a place in the school’s top clique.

High school is its own universe and 21 Jump Street gets this. It capitalizes on the idea that going back after a number of years would be somewhat surreal. It is surprising just how much we feel when Schmidt, in his newly acquired popularity, distances himself from Jenko, who is looked down on by the popular crowd for his low intelligence level. This role-reversal allows for both the story and performances to go in some nicely unexpected directions.

As far as the two lead performances go, the brilliance of the Jonah Hill/Channing Tatum, pairing cannot be overstated. In the end, they make this film the success it is. They raise the bar for onscreen comedic pairings in our modern times. These are no exaggerations. Together that not only possess perfect comedic timing, but their ‘˜bromance’ (hate the term, but if it applies anywhere, it applies here) feels completely authentic and is respectfully played straight. When Tatum says he would take a bullet for Hill, it isn’t played for laughs.

To think of Hill in Moneyball and then in 21 Jump Street is a bit jarring and the weight loss only accounts for part of it. It is evident at this point that he can filter variations of his persona into a variety of different characters. Here, his character is equal parts insecure, misguided and intelligent. It is very easy to overlook Hill’s considerable talents and here is hoping we do not start taking him for granted any time soon.

As far as Channing Tatum goes, his work here has single-handedly made me a fan. Saying he is revelatory may be an overstatement, and yet to simply say he shines would be an understatement. There is no straight man between the Hill/Tatum pairing. Not only does Tatum go for broke with the comedy, but the majority of the humanistic elements fall on him. The vulnerability on display is flat-out moving and he sells the hell out of all the facets of his character. This role represents a turning point in his career.

The last third of the film does not destroy everything that came before, but it certainly threatens to. There are still laughs and earnest storytelling to be had, but an unskillfully apparent chaos comes into play. The controlled tightness unravels and an unappealing messiness takes over.

The action scenes are somewhat incoherent. In concept there is a lot of potential, but the execution fails to translate what could have been exciting and vibrant set pieces. It does not help that distractingly bad post-production work both in effects and sound further take away from the experience. And while the crisp editing works in non-action scenes, it weakens every chase and fight scene. This is a great comedy that also happens to be a weak action film.

21 Jump Street remains self-aware throughout, acknowledging its own lack of originality. But it never allows that one-joke gimmick to define the film; far from it. This is a mostly great comedy (and how few comedies can even be defined as ‘˜mostly great’ these days?) that thrives on being hilarious and sincere in equal measure. The rocky road the central friendship takes is clearly just as important to the filmmakers and actors as the laughs. Only time will tell, but I predict that Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum will go down as one of the best onscreen pairings of our time. Yep. I said it.

Catherine Reviews Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca [Blu-Ray Review] Thu, 01 Mar 2012 07:44:11 +0000

Rebecca represents a major turning point in Alfred Hitchcock’s career. It was his first American-made film, allowing him to capitalize on the hopes and dreams of working with a bigger budget and more equipment, furthering the masterful technical control so central to his style.

Looming large over the entire picture is the involvement of that sleepless memo maniac David O. Selznick. With Gone with the Wind inching towards release, he moved forward on an adaptation, or as he put it ‘˜picturization’, of Daphne du Maurier’s much-loved classic Rebecca. Selznick was as intrusive as a producer gets, managing to stay on top of the production even through the Gone with the Wind preparation which took up almost all of his time. It is easy to under-appreciate what Selznick contributed to Rebecca, even though Hitchcock purists may see the final product as damaged goods. This new Blu-Ray reminds us of the singular combination of Selznick’s prestige, Hitchcock’s recurring themes and embedded psychology and du Maurier’s sumptuously enticing exploration of the Gothic.

Revisiting the film, in more pristine shape than ever before, allows us to take in Rebecca in all its glory, and even its limitations. Selznick had an unrelenting sense of grandeur and a lavishness with which he strove to do justice to a book he near-worshiped. This comes to serve Rebecca well, most prominently with Manderlay. The mansion is so imposing in its physical representation of the suffocating spirit of the deceased Rebecca that it becomes a central character. The   first Mrs. De Winter and Selznick are united in their paralleled enduring influence that seeps into every scene.

As contradictory as Hitchcock and Selznick’s agendas seem, they inadvertently coalesce to create something mostly harmonious. As far as Hitchcock goes, he also had a strong connection to the book, wanting to buy the rights earlier but not having the money to do so. Here, he gets to astonish with his lusciously multi-layered compositions. The lighting in particular is something to behold, alone begging repeat viewings with its majesty.

The mogul’s insistence on a conventionally faithful adaptation provides a basis for Hitchcock to wield his inquiring camera into what is going on underneath it all. Selznick’s top-of-the-line template doesn’t hurt either. He pokes and pries, peeling back the layers as Joan Fontaine treks into the nightmare world of Manderlay. Again, Rebecca solidifies Hitchcock’s unmatched control, all the more impressive for working on a production as big as this.

The performances remain a varied bunch, from Laurence Olivier’s constantly brooding and callous Maxim to the ever-reliable character actors Nigel Bruce, Reginald Denny and Florence Bates. Joan Fontaine is aware of herself every moment in her first starring role and Hitchcock uses that to showcase the character’s vulnerability and at times frustrating naiveté. She is a fragile stranger in a strange land, both on and off screen, and it appropriately looks like she could crumble any minute. All apprehensive eyebrows and second-guessing, Fontaine shines because she natural exudes a quality that she herself seems unaware of.

It is of course Judith Anderson whose performance has more than held up over the decades. Her Mrs. Danvers is one of mostly passive and increasingly apparent insanity. She exists entirely in her own world, a heightened past broken up with patches of lucid denial and resentment. Anderson’s spacy passion makes for a justifiably iconic villain. There is the moment when Rebecca realizes that Mrs. Danvers is not completely sane. The camera stays with the horrified unnamed protagonist as she moves away to deal with said realization, leaving Mrs. Danvers in the background, carrying on in her own world.That scene and moment express all, remaining as creepy as ever.

The final twenty minutes is largely where Rebecca falters. We see the baggage lifted between Maxim and our The Second Mrs. De Winter, and they are allowed to connect freely, banding together against Rebecca’s hold on posthumous hold on them. This is all well and fine, but at this point the story itself becomes laborious. Hitchcock can only do so much to alleviate the shortcomings found here. Thankfully, George Sanders’ slimy presence is always a welcome treat.

The extras on Rebecca carry over from a previous DVD edition and are more than satisfying in their abundant quantity, largely supporting a contextual view of the film via the Hitchcock and Selznick collaboration. Richard Schickel’s commentary is pretty basic and his views of the film appear to be largely lukewarm. ‘˜The Making of Rebecca’ and ‘˜The Gothic World of Daphne du Maurier’ further expand on adding contextualization. Also included are radio plays of the story, an isolated music and effects track, interviews with Hitchcock and, my personal favorite, original screen tests with Margaret Sullavan and Vivien Leigh.

Rebecca may not be a ‘˜pure’ Hitchcock film, lacking in his trademark acidic humor, and balancing out the expectations of another formidable force. Yet it remains one of my favorite Hitchcock films (indeed I far prefer it over Notorious) for its Gothic psychological thriller that seamlessly weaves in and out of an amalgam of other genres; the woman’s picture, melodrama, romance, mystery and horror, to name some. The Blu-Ray offers a stellar picture with very little grain and minimal kinks; it is a more than worthy purchase to make for one of the master’s largely exemplary works.

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Catherine Reviews Julia Murat’s Found Memories [PIFF 2012 Review] Wed, 22 Feb 2012 05:45:06 +0000

A desolate, tucked away Brazilian village that has eleven remaining inhabitants; all of them are elderly. They are part of a collaborative routine that slowly but surely chugs along, and are inching towards their end with assured complacency. They are closed off from other civilization, surrounded by nature and long-standing stone structures that hark back to a time where all was more active and productive. The remaining villagers go about their days if only to keep themselves going. The village exists in its own cut-off ghostly place and self-discovery is but a myth.

Found Memories, Julia Murat’s delicate first feature-length narrative film, is a meditation on how the presence of the young can affect the old. Madalena (Sonia Guedes) is one of the last inhabitants in the village where the film takes place. Every day she gets up, makes bread, spars with and helps Antonio (Luiz Serra) stock empty shelves so they can sit on a bench for a cup of coffee and goes to church and eats a meal with the other villagers. She ends her days by going home and writing to her deceased husband. One day, a young photographer named Rita (Lisa E. Favero) enters the village looking for a place to stay. She is interested in capturing the village through her camera. Her presence forces Madalena to reflect on her own life and its end, and the village itself is subtly transformed into a heightened awareness of existence.

In many ways, this is the type of festival film that comes with its own set of clichés. Found Memories has sparse and stable compositions, minimal dialogue, a deliberately slow pace and an overall faintness that presides over all. Yet Murat’s   compositions are a beautiful regional tribute. The dialogue accurately reflects a village so caught up in its own inaction, making what is said all the more relevant. Its slow pace is integral, appropriately fitting the setting it depicts. And finally, its faintness suggests the fragility of the village as relic, and its people as trapped in a cloudy haze of existent yet unacknowledged memories.

Rita is less of a character in her own right and is more of a plot device. The film incorporates her perspective, but it does little to make it feel her journey matters nearly as much as how she affects those around her. Something that makes Found Memories work is that Murat circumvents the tired direction in which this story could have easily gone. The director has far too much respect for these characters and their simple unpolluted way of life to make Rita a forceful woman who predictably shows the villagers what life is all about. Instead, it is Rita’s presence and youth that make an impact rather than her actions. The inhabitants stop in their tracks when they see her and look with a hesitant hostility. Thankfully, Murat never overly concretes the breakdown of the population’s coldness or the impact Rita has. If she had, Found Memories would not have worked. It is the subtlety in the storytelling that renders this a warming but mournful venture.

Most importantly, Found Memories focuses on how Rita’s presence affects Madalena. The film begins by embedding us in her routine. She does not seem to mind it; it is what she knows. The camera is forced into a rigidity that mimics the confinement of her day-to-day life. Rita’s arrival makes Madalena acknowledge her age, her short time left and the fact that death will soon be approaching. She begins to focus on the past and to reminisce. All it took was for this photographer to stroll into town looking for a place to sleep, which signifies just how barely she had stayed these feelings pent up inside her. Unfortunately, Rita’s character and purpose within the story never feels organic. Murat makes up for that with the way she, and the marvelous Sofia Guedes, portray Madalena’s largely silent recognition of the thoughts and feelings rising within her.

Found Memories has been picked up for distribution by Film Movement and is scheduled for a second quarter release. It has its missteps; a symbolically locked up cemetery (keeping death at bay), hitting a bit too hard with the fact of Rita’s youth, and a final plot development that too easily establishes the film’s point. As a whole though, Julia Murat has made a gently sincere film with her keen eye for powerful visual simplicity. She firmly places us in the world of this decaying village so in need of the slightest of sparks to awaken it into a plain but indispensable awareness. The familiar fondness we grow for this esoteric place, and for the sturdy Madalena within it, is at the heart of Found Memories.



Catherine Reviews Corinna Belz’s Gerhard Richter Painting [PIFF 2012 Review] Mon, 20 Feb 2012 04:07:33 +0000

Watching Gerhard Richter paint is an experience damn near revelatory. I went into this film knowing nothing about modern art, and admittedly, having my own baggage of hesitancy towards its more extreme sides of abstraction. I was also shamefully unaware of just who Gerhard Richter is, and why he is such a long-standing and significant figure. This outstandingly insightful observational documentary is not just about Richter, but about all aspects of the creative process, an artist’s relationship to their own art, other art, and to the outside world.

Corinna Belz’s ponderous pace equably matches her subject. Gerhard Richter is thoughtful and articulate but very internal. He easily retreats into himself and seems more comfortable doing so. But the film is less about the man and more about his methods and artistry. Filmed over the course of several years, we see gallery openings, archival footage, and Richter being questioned by historians, the press and Belz herself. Yet the film always comes back to its most central element, which could not be made any more explicit by the title, and that is Gerhard Richter painting.

Through an intermittent series of tracking shots that follow miniature exhibition models of Richter’s works, the sense of his seemingly infinite breadth of styles and phases is immediate. It effectively displays, without needing to be said, just how much ground Richter has covered throughout the decades. When he paints in Belz’s film, he is captured indulging in his current favored modes and styles of creation. These include abstract pieces that start with sweeping brush strokes and are continually modified with a giant squeegee that takes all one’s strength to manipulate.

Richter never truly knows what the final product of his creations will be. As he describes, he does not start with a concept. The canvas guides and speaks to him just as much as he to it, and he creates with a kind of semi-calculated intuition. After a time, he stops and steps back, inquisitive from various angles and reflects on what he has done. Richter painting is   an indeterminate series of revisions and reflections. When he feels it is done, it is done.

Watching Richter, a man who knows his craft like the back of his hand, is a singular experience for several reasons. The abstract and somewhat improvisatory nature of his paintings instills a sequentially organic development, almost as if following a narrative’s progression, not knowing where it may end. Even the creator himself does not know when his piece will be finished or what it will look like, aligning Richter the artist, we the consumer, and Belz the filmmaker.

Sometimes he assesses in his head, other times he lets Belz know what he is thinking. His pieces go through many revisions and tweaks before he decides they are complete. At any stage of creation, Richter’s pieces could potentially be done. The difference between what looks like a finished abstract painting to the audience, and what feels unfinished for the artist is something Belz makes a point to distinguish. Belz allows us the freedom to observe and respond to Richter’s canvases as we would in a museum. The difference here is that the artist simultaneously takes part in the assessment, and the audience’s observations are of partially done works. Seeing and taking part in all of this, even as a bystander after the fact, is startlingly involving. Periodically, Belz will show the evolution of paintings using a series of dissolves, to illustrate the markedly transformative changes Richter, and artists in general, make to their creations over time.

Gerhard Richter Painting is also about the subject’s struggle with cameras, the media and the public. Being forced to elucidate on his work with explanatory expectations and the application of artistic theory and movements is daunting for him. Richter is articulate, but at the same time is unable to really express his process. In his eyes, painting cannot be described with words. So we see him deal with stress and frustration when asked to contextualize his own process and work in the same ways those who analyze and contextualize do.

Richter’s discomfort with the camera’s presence brings up a lot of stimulating broader questions about the documentary form. The fly-on-the-wall approach becomes compromised amidst the distraction that the camera brings for the subject. Belz is trying to create at the same time as Richter, and the collision of attempted creation across two mediums proves to be understandably difficult for Richter. He is always aware that he is being watched, and it halts his ability to paint with the internal mindset and somewhat spiritual sense of intuition needed to exert a satisfying creative output.

The compromise does not reflect a negative outcome here. It cakes on an additional layer with its inherent questions about observational filmmaking. It makes clear that capturing a naturalistic reality is on some level impossible when cameras enter a room. The acknowledgment and time spent (by Richter speaking of it, and Belz’s purposeful inclusion of the footage) on said interference makes it yet another thought-provoking element of Gerhard Richter Painting, instead of it being unintentionally implicit, and thus problematic.

Gerhard Richter Painting explores the universality of creation and the individualistic relationships between artists and their visions, process and products. It confirms that these individualistic relationships belong only to the artist. As gratifying as the insight that Belz gets and gives us is, neither a witnessing camera, nor words from the creator himself can truly represent the process of creating. What Belz and her marvelous film assert is that it makes being a bystander to the process is no less meaningful, and that our own individual relationships and responses to any work of art are no less essential.

Gerhard Richter Painting will be playing again on Sunday, February 26th at 12pm at Cinema 21 during the Portland International Film Festival


Catherine Reviews James Watkins’ The Woman in Black [Theatrical Review] Tue, 14 Feb 2012 05:48:15 +0000

There is an ornate decaying delicacy that comes with the period haunted house film. The Woman in Black is a classic back-to-basics Gothic tale that boasts an impressively patient and confident execution of familiar tropes, successfully piling on spook after spook. This may be all the film has to offer, but it garners enough satisfaction to ward off disappointment.

Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe) is a young widowed lawyer with a son. He is given an assignment (which his job hinges on) in a secluded English village where he is to sort through the estate of a deceased woman named Alice Drablow. The villagers are troubled by Arthur’s arrival. He gradually learns that many of the villagers have children who have died, including two hospitable citizens’ played by Ciaran Hinds and Janet McTeer.  It is only when Arthur is alone, in the entirely isolated and haunted estate of Eel Marsh, that he is able to put the pieces together amidst a ghost who means harm.

The vast majority of ghost stories are all essentially the same. There is a ghost. This ghost has been somehow wronged in their former life. The ghost wants to invoke suffering to others because of what they were forced to endure in life. This suffering could be targeted at nobody in particular, at a specific type of person, or at the ghost’s perceived wrong-doers.

With this in mind, it is imminently clear what is going on in The Woman in Black after about thirty minutes. The trick is to have this not matter. It does matter here, and in that case, the story needs to be stronger. To be an effective ghost story, the basis may be obvious (because at this point they almost certainly will be), but the particulars should be more vague, and at least as intriguing as what can be easily ascertained. The Woman in Black lacks the mysteriousness in story that it puts forth as having.

The story’s shortcomings are largely made up for by the macabre atmosphere and revivified use of tropes that go far in filling the void.  The scares themselves are not unfamiliar, but they work because of the impressively sustained ambiance that figures in far beyond the ‘˜jump’ moments themselves. James Watkins makes the entire journey one long successfully sustained spook.

Gothic tropes are heartily embraced with an appreciation for creaky doors and hallways, madwomen, shadows and fog, and a grandiose and decaying house that reign supreme over any character or story element to be had. Watkins wrings out a lot with a little; without him and an impressive technical crew (the production design here is stellar), this would have been entirely forgettable as opposed to the somewhat satisfying film that it is. A special kudos to those responsible for the props, who conjure up what is easily the most unsettling collection of antique wind-up dolls one is likely to ever see.

Much has been made of the fact that this is Daniel Radcliffe’s first post-Potter role and I am one of those, being the Radcliffe fan myself. Sadly, there is nothing much asked of him, and it is hard not to ponder if an actor who can make something out of nothing (there are not many that can) might have been able to lend some much-needed gravitas. For one, Radcliffe is oddly callow here as a lawyer with a four-year old son. He spends his time mainly reacting to creepy goings-on within the broadly defined quietness of his character. It does not help that the characterization of Arthur Kipps hinges entirely on the continuous lamenting over the death of his wife, and the constant reminder that he loves his son and wishes he could spend more time with him. This is all he is given to do and he is serviceable.

The problematic end, which I will not explicitly spoil, is impossible to overlook for its painful mawkishness. This kind of ending has always been a personal pet peeve, for the pitiful strain it reveals in insuring that the audience is sent off with a modicum of the ‘˜happy ending’, no matter what the contradicting circumstances. It is corny, evasive and cowardly.

The Woman in Black is in some sense following the type of film that nobody watches for plot or characterization. There are plenty of horror films, indeed many, that offer nothing in story and are heralded for their aura alone (many Hammer Films included). I was tempted to stride towards the ‘˜but it wasn’t meant to’ line of reasoning. But The Woman in Black seems to want to simultaneously intrigue with its story. The film neither backs up its plot-oriented ambitions nor goes forward with a bold proclamation of plot scarcity. The result is a potentially involving tale lost as well as a residue of intention that leaves an unfulfilled mark. But its primary reason for being, the resurrection of Gothic atmosphere and tropes used effectively is something The Woman in Black has in spades, and this is almost enough.


Catherine Reviews Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire [Theatrical Review] Tue, 14 Feb 2012 05:39:31 +0000

Haywire is a moderately empty exercise in formalism that lights up only when the physical, rigorous skills of retired mixed-martial-arts fighter Gina Carano (receiving the Sasha Grey treatment) get the spotlight. Thankfully, Carano’s physicality is not only called into action plenty, but looms over the film’s entirety.

Steven Soderbergh’s strongest directorial contribution (along with his use of sound as throughout) takes place during the fight scenes, with his decision to cut out all non-diegetic sound, and shoot with a clean distance. Every single one is a livewire delight. He allows these scenes to be entirely Carano’s show, and with his use and non-use of filmic devices says ‘˜pay attention folks; this is why I spent and time, money and effort to make this’. They are worthy and exhaustively fierce set-pieces.

Mallory Kane (Gina Carano) is on the run; but why? Told largely in flashbacks, we learn that Kane works for a private contractor and is hired for covert secret operations but is soon quitting and taking with her a lot of clientele who rely specifically on her abilities. After a mission to rescue a Chinese journalist in Barcelona goes according to plan, Kane is double-crossed whilst on a last-minute assignment in Dublin. On-the-run, Kane needs to figure out who double-crossed her and why, as well as connect it all back to the Barcelona mission where the attempted frame-up against her began.

Soderbergh and returning screenwriter Lem Dobbs make sure not to give Carano more than she can handle acting-wise. To answer the question ‘˜can she act’, the answer is not really, but the camera sure does love her. Some have found her demeanor of seemingly one-note indifference distracting, but for me her smoky no-nonsense presence is actually far more engaging than any other actor here. The goal here was never to turn Carano into an actress; it was to give her a chance to showcase her physical prowess. And this she does with aplomb, with the added bonus of her alluring je ne sais quoi throughout.

Aside from Carano and her action sequences, there is not much good to say. Haywire is too clean, too barebones without intrigue or consistency to support it. Its transparency is progressively evident and it is this, and not Carano, that becomes distracting. It feels like Dobbs struggled to stretch this to a full-length running time. Since its existence is to showcase Carano, the many scenes meant to fill in the blanks come off as expositional chores and tiresome meaningless table-setting.

At a certain point it becomes clear that Carano is all Soderbergh has to offer, and so the viewing experience becomes a waiting process in the hopes of arriving at the next action scene. The supporting characters played by Michael Douglas, Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender, Channing Tatum and Antonio Banderas all fail to register in the slightest, and I say this having gone in with the very low expectations set for supporting character development in action-thrillers. Only Bill Paxton is able to make something with his screentime.

Nothing falls into place the way it should. For one thing, no stakes whatsoever can be felt. Even if said stakes never really feel up for grabs they should still be remotely palpable, or at the very least, there to begin with. Sure, the double cross is elaborate but in a spinning its wheels kind of way. The screenplay by Dobbs wins the award for efficiency, but the rickety framing device is beyond weak, aligning the audience with a teenage non-character (the sadly thankless Michael Anagrano) who is present to repeat names of important people and places for us.

Soderbergh uses his skills to show off here with his typical precision and flair for shooting sequences in fairly off-kilter ways as he attempts to evoke a 70’s B-movie sensibility (this includes the purposefully simplistic plot). With the half-baked and unengaging story backing the formalist presentation, the final product emits an air of false superior ‘˜cool’ that is unearned. Hanna pulled off this sort of schtick a hell of a lot better. Taken as a whole, Haywire is surprisingly dull, and Soderbergh’s various aesthetic decorative touches read as empty self-consciousness. In the end, there are two impossibly strong reasons to seek it out (and please do if only for these elements) despite its indifferent nature; the mesmeric presence of Gina Carano and the cleanly shot action scenes that come with her.

Catherine Reviews Lech Majewski’s The Mill and the Cross [Theatrical Review] Sat, 31 Dec 2011 05:49:43 +0000

There are a multitude of ways in which we as humans deal with the world and the various tragedies that can surround us. There are countless instances in which cultures or societies are taken over by ensuing horrors of all kinds. One way of coping is using art, skill and creativity to depict what one sees with complexity, symbolism and catharsis. Not many films deal with how humans have always used art to cope and reconcile what we experience and see. The Mill and the Cross uses a recent medium to show how an older medium lends itself to creative expression that gives desperately needed meaning to the inconsolable atrocities that can occur.

The Mill and the Cross does this in a most unconventional way that at times feels like a filmed piece of performance art, if not for the carefully mapped out visuals on display. I know very little about Polish director Lech Majewski, but it is apparent that he has considerable experience working in both the theater and with installation pieces.

It is 16th century Flanders where Spain occupies and religious persecution reigns. The film renders art becoming, in the form of Pieter Bruegel’s epic painting ‘The Way to Cavalry’. The piece is filled to the brim with activity and townsfolk with 500 figures occupying the spatial landscape. Among the acts within the painting there is a representation of Christ’s procession. In the film, we witness the daily subdued goings-on of the people who will be represented in the painting. Among the mundane, atrocities committed by the Spaniards are a regular occurrence and are shown with the same hushed quotidian scrutiny. Bruegel, as played by Rutger Hauer, watches and speaks, describing his painting as we see its various elements come together. Michael York plays his patron and Charlotte Rampling plays Bruegel’s mother and his model for the Virgin Mary.

There are several nameless characters that go about their business, unknowingly contributing their collective experience to the canvas as Bruegel sees it. The film is almost entirely without dialogue, with visuals being the communicative language. This aligns the film with Bruegel’s painting which also, it goes without saying, communicates through its vision. Using different technologies such as green screen and matte backgrounds, The Mill and the Cross transfers how Bruegel saw everything around him and makes it the actual physical text of the film; almost like a spin-off of the painting. But The Mill and the Cross ponders the act of a representation of a representation. Film, by nature, represents but arguably does not present. Using the power of filmic representation, Majewski shows a progressive literalization   of Bruegel’s eventual representation of Flanders in ‘The Way to Cavalry’.

The point of depicting these characters, nameless and otherwise, is not to get inside their heads. It is to show how environment of people, landscape, circumstance and persecution get filtered by inspiration into timeless expression and catharsis.

The Mill and the Cross is filled with stunning contemplative visuals. As a whole, it is unlike anything else and there is plenty to admire and relish. I preferred the segments without the minimal dialogue. What little there was felt didactic and clunky. The film also felt too forcibly stretched to feature-length. Its a rewarding and beautiful film, but it also strains to keep itself afloat for the entire running time.

The film gets you thinking about how art comes to be with the where, the what and the why. It exists in artistic limbo, inviting us to explore motivations and the surface of historical context. Awkward chunks of execution aside, this is for the most part a bewitching rumination.

Catherine Reviews Michelangelo Frammartino’s Le Quattro Volte [Blu-Ray Review] Fri, 09 Dec 2011 06:04:43 +0000

Ancient Greek mathematician/philosopher Pythagoras theorized that all souls transmigrate into man, animal, vegetable and mineral. It is on this tenet that Michelangelo Frammartino’s Le Quattro Volte is based. Part minimalist observations, part docudrama; it is a trancelike rumination that shows everything and tells nothing, allowing us to drift in and out of our own ponderous observations. Kino Lorber’s Blu-Ray release amply captures this meditative wonder.

The first half is occupied by an elderly goat herder (Giuseppe Fuda) in an Italian village. He spends his time going about his daily routines. His tasks are revisited using the same camera placements, capturing the repetition in routine. Eventually, the goat herder passes on, beginning a cycle of passage that transfers to the life of a goat, a fir tree and charcoal. Each segment monitors how the subject encounters its daily life and its routines. We follow interactions with the surroundings and how other beings interact with the subject whether it be creation, destruction or a mere encounter.

Le Quattro Volte contains no dialogue, no music, no narration and almost no camera movement. Frammartino emphasizes observation at all times; it is necessary that everything we see must feel like something the camera just happens to be catching. Nothing can feel artificially placed. Nothing can feel staged. It all must flow with a precise stoicism, showing us the matter-of-factness of the life cycle, but capturing the miracle of it through its normality.

The theory of transmigration adds a level of spiritualism to the proceedings. This further shines a light on this idea of the simplicity of existence, lending itself to a greater recognition of the phenomenon of it all that we take for granted. Thankfully, the film never tells us we take this for granted; it is just an understanding that comes through the film implicitly. Didacticism is nowhere to be found, and Le Quattro Volte is all the better for it.

This basic level of existence is emphasized through the film’s depiction of nature. This rural village is surrounded by hilly landscape. Once the goat herder passes, gradual steps are made towards the unfettered natural world. The baby goat still encounters herders and is contained within the village but ends its story abandoned under a tree after losing the herd. The third segment starts out as entrenched in nature as it gets; a fir tree sturdy in its expected territory. The tree is then chopped down; nature is infiltrated and by the end of the film, which depicts how charcoal is made, we are brought full circle.

All things are connected in Le Quattro Volte, but this is no hippie-dippie piece of filmmaking. The film shifts from object to object with a respectful and appropriate fade-out; a visual passing of the baton. The director makes sure never to come off as imposing, placing crucial importance on what we see and how we see it. Most of the film takes on a static fly-on-the-wall position.

What will surprise many is how amusing the film can be. In one of the single best, not to mention funniest, scenes of the year, the birds-eye view camera observes an Easter processional that takes place down a long road. The goats are fenced in on the left, a truck is parked on a hill on the right and a sheepdog nags at the villagers as they continue their ritualistic reenactment. All of the elements are set into place for the events that will unfold before us. The way the camera slowly pans and tracks how it all happens is an example of the type of experience only this film can give. The film constantly surprises with the minute details it catches and how often it can make us smile.

The hushed spatiality of Le Quattro Volte allows us inordinate room to think about the images we see at our leisure. Each person will be drawn to different details or segments. I admit that the first half of the film containing the goat herder did not mesmerize me much. This is entirely preferential and not a knock on the film at all. Rather, it was the goat, the tree and the charcoal that had me entirely within the film’s grip. These segments entranced me and had me floating above the subjects along with the camera, often times not thinking at all but just soaking in the environment. You are free to move in and out of Le Quattro Volte; to engage and not engage and to simply take it all in. It puts all of its stock in this one conceit of transmigration and beautifully observes rather than trying to tell us anything; and by that, it tells us everything.

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Catherine Reviews Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar [Theatrical Review] Wed, 16 Nov 2011 20:38:59 +0000

Is it possible to, knowing a film cannot sum up a historical figure’s life, make enough of an artistic impression through layered dramatic representation to make a reductive but meaningful impact? Biopics are sticky material to work with, but with an understanding of creative license and severe necessary truncation, great films can come out of the form. On the other hand, disaster is sometimes inevitable, making the notion of Hollywood’s attempts to portray significant figures through the medium a joke to historians, film buffs and the general public. J. Edgar is an example where the industry comes off as children adorably attempting literature. This is an out-and-out turkey that fails to establish a modicum of interest, with some of the most amateurish filmic devices on display in recent memory. It is a bloated, empty, hollow bullet-point presentation with nothing to offer.

Where to begin? Dustin Lance Black’s (who penned Gus van Sant’s Milk) first-draft-like script is a travesty to behold. Every element is transparent beginners work. The framing device is forced, as Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) strains to secure his legacy by telling his story to many biographers and thus the audience. While we’re at it, let’s throw in some clumsy unreliable narrator gobbledygook. Yeah; that’s clever! We are subjected to seemingly endless voiceover narration and a major percentage of dialogue that purely serves as exposition. To boot, there is nothing to make us understand Hoover’s accomplishments and cruxes beyond information being meaninglessly thrown at us ad nauseum. Character flaws, themes and historical significance airily float around but never reach anything resembling gestation. To sum up; Hoover cherishes loyalty, presentation and efficiency, is severely repressed and has mommy issues that plague him throughout life. His actions are morally questionable; he is paranoid and has no problem hypocritically breaching privacy to feverishly protect his principles. He never really stopped being a child; there is your film.

All of this is displayed in a simultaneously hammered and hazy fashion. J. Edgar is all tell and zero show. How do we know Hoover cherishes loyalty? He tells us multiple times! How do we know his actions are morally questionable? In case we cannot discern this on our own, he is lectured at constantly by Clyde (Armie Hammer) and Miss Gandy (Naomi Watts) at every turn saying something to the effect of ‘Isn’t this illegal?’ It pinpoints these focuses, boils them down to parodic simplicity and throws them at us again and again and again.

No momentum is built with the heavily episodic non-linear structure. A scene occurs, dialogue is said, things happen (or as is more the case, things are explained to us), either speechifying or sympathetic repressive moment ensues and we move on to another similar instance. Instead of linking together ideas and facets, headlines and factoids are played out with the depth of, well’¦.headlines and factoids. That well-known presumption that Hoover dressed in drag culminates in a scene where he dresses in his mother’s clothes. Nothing is done with it; it is shown for its cliff notes impact as if to say, ‘˜see, we didn’t forget about the cross-dressing rumors’.

Eastwood and Black have no idea how to cover this man’s life. He has ideas but they just sit there, never going past basic existence. It plays out like a bland, astronomically reductive and uninformative history lesson that could have been better summarized with a paragraph of text in an outdated elementary-school history textbook.

The quality of Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance is questionable. Sure, he is a dedicated performer and he tries his utmost to bring something to the material. But he is an amalgam of accents, speech patterns, speechifying and broad characterization. He uses those beady eyes that desperately cry out from within to good effect (he does get in some nice moments), but this is a performance that very much screams ‘˜acting’! There is not one moment that goes by where I became lost in the performance; it always registers as a failed ambitious showcase. One cannot help but feel the Oscar clambering going on by not just the film, but from DiCaprio in particular.

Collectively, the acting feels like kids playing dress-up and at times can be a little pathetic to witness. Naomi Watts is fine but wasted as longtime assistant Miss Helen Gandy whose character is present only because of her loyalty to Hoover. There’s that loyalty again. She appears in every other scene so Hoover can say ‘˜Miss Gandy’ for the three-hundredth time. In one scene he calls her Helen in an obvious indication that this is an important moment, so pay attention everyone.

Armie Hammer is the only one whose character comes through as professional and personal companion Clyde Tolson. His earnest unyielding devotion injects actual feeling into this story. He is even able to shine through at times through his embarrassing old-age makeup.  Through no fault of his own, it is so poorly caked on it evokes the sorry display that is Joseph Cotton’s stiff grumbling elder Jedediah in Citizen Kane. And yet he falls into stagy theatrics during moments that threaten to undo any resonance he may have.

Even technically, J. Edgar falls short. Eastwood’s phoned-in monochromatic aesthetic only contributes to the flat line effect of the entire picture.   The look is devoid of sensation or memorability. Eastwood’s score is also typically sparse; it becomes funny just how dully on cue those sluggish notes are. Oh, and the film takes itself more seriously than Hoover himself likely did, which is saying something.

What more can be said about this lumbering bore? J. Edgar is a total failure to the point where is offends me for existing. Likely too harsh for some, I just could not abide by its inflated self-importance and unashamed bastardization of history. It is two-and-a-half hours of Eastwood making excuses for the central figure. Certain scenes verge into laughable territory, particularly Hoover’s interactions with Robert Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan) which are painful. This monotonous slog egregiously insists on telling and not showing through its overly serious gravity, slopped on characterization, rickety structure and palm face inducing transparency. Some have been able to find things to like about this film; as much as I wanted to, there was nothing here for me to grasp onto in a positive way. It desperately claws at the walls for relevance with absolutely no groundwork to do so. There will be others who can more specifically and analytically dissect where J. Edgar goes wrong; I am not the person for that job. But if someone could point me in the direction to a lauded biography of the man, I would be much obliged.

Catherine Reviews Lars von Trier’s Melancholia [Theatrical Review] Thu, 10 Nov 2011 07:33:12 +0000

This review does contain spoilers

It may seem contradictory to say that Lars von Trier’s end-of-the world opus is the director as his most peaceful and life-affirming; but it is. This isn’t to say that Melancholia is sunshine and rainbows; just look at the title and basic plot synopsis. But this is the Danish auteur reaching out and making a human connection with his audience as much as he likely ever will. It is a meditative exploration of the unexpectedly dichotomous nature (and the ways the two converge) between depression that renders one immobile in life, and having to face that which we will all eventually come to meet; death.

The film is split into two equal parts, both of which take place at a remote castle. The first part, titled Justine after Kirsten Dunst’s troubled character, illustrates the night of her wedding reception. The second part is titled after Justine’s sister Claire as played by Charlotte Gainsbourg. It also takes place at the castle, during the five days before the planet Melancholia’s supposed fly-by passing. Claire becomes convinced the planet will collide with our own while Justine, who is visiting due to her debilitating state of depression, remains indifferent by the idea of human existence coming to an end.

The first part, Justine’s wedding, is not concerned with the apocalypse at all but with the bride’s gradual and inescapable slide into what are obviously long standing depressive habits. Von Trier and Dunst are unapologetic in their collaborative exploration of depression which stands as one of the most realistic and honest looks at the condition I have ever seen.

She starts out apparently effervescent on her way to her wedding reception. She is married to Michael, her hapless and misguidedly devoted husband (Alexander Skarsgaard). They share some amusing moments as their limousine has great difficulties making it up a hill on the way to the castle. As the wedding progresses, we get some wonderfully odd-ball humor (including the genius casting of Udo Kier as a wedding planner), these minute absurdist moments that hint at dense and complex family histories. We come to see she is nearly surrounded by toxicity in both her family and work.

This is not used as an explanation for Justine’s depression; that none is really given is what the film so resonantly depicts about the illness. When you suffer from depression, there is often no direct cause for that state of mind. The film refuses to explain Justine’s actions or mood swings and that is what strikes true about it. She is monumentally dragged down by mere factual existence and the necessity required by living. Hell, it renders her damn near immobile. As the film progresses, we realize that her radiance at the film’s start is far from the norm for her. Eventually, it becomes a wonder that we ever saw her smiling in the first place.

Justine’s regroup efforts as the night progresses are futile and account to mere moments of barely pulling herself together for a forced smile or any sustained human interaction. Her efforts manifest themselves in moments of fierce agency, cruel neglect or hushed unsuccessful cries for help to both her parents (a caustic Charlotte Rampling and a gleefully vapid John Hurt). Dunst and Trier, both having first-hand experience with depression, make painstaking connections with Justine that culminate in an uncompromising understanding and loyalty to her. They are unwilling to cater to standard rules of characterization or to apologize for the frustration and lack of sympathy she can elicit.   For those of us who know what bouts of depression are like, this reveals it in all of its extreme truths and ugliness. Von Trier’s previous film Antichrist was made as he went through a severe depression, and no matter what one thinks of that work, looking at Melancholia in the context of a follow-up to his previous film will make for worthwhile discourse someday.

Von Trier further illuminates the main focuses from his first half by carrying it through the second. Juxtaposed are Justine’s now barely functional self (and the theme of depression) against Claire’s increasingly fragile state as her very correct fear of doomsday approaches (the theme of approaching death).

Even though Claire’s very relatable state-of-mind headlines the second half,it is more focused on the ways that Justine, Claire and her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) come to terms (or don’t) with death as it considers humanity’s various approaches to our ultimate fate. Justine is indifferent and entirely okay with Earth being extinguished. She is more than capable of handling oncoming death; life is her weakness. She remains calm in the face of expulsion, as the roles between her and Claire reverse by the end; Claire is dependent on Justine for support and Justine becomes her protector in their final moments. Claire is anxious but keeps a stiff upper lip for her husband and son as well as taking care of Justine. Once the disaster is confirmed, Claire desperately seeks escape but it is useless; she faces death with heaving sobs of fright. Her character’s journey is the one that audiences will most relate to; she provides the emotional core of the film.

Then we have poor denial ridden John. John is going the rational route, citing scientists’ claims as well as his own observations as an astronomy enthusiast, that Melancholia will simply fly-by. He is excited for the event, and the once-in-a-lifetime experience of unique beauty that it offers. On the side, John starts to stock up on some supplies. He slowly becomes privy to the direness of the situation at hand and chooses to handle it with yet another possible human response to knowing of one’s own end.

Lars von Trier is hyperaware of the pointlessness of it all and he deals with Armageddon in a similarly matter-of-fact way. There is no silver lining here. But he does give Justine an essential transformative moment in its final scenes that signify a kind of catharsis on von Trier’s part through Dunst’s character. She is unable to muster together any kind of catering sympathy for Claire who needs consoling to the umpteenth degree. The world is going to end. She is upset. Her son will not get to grow up. Everything will end. But Justine spews nihilism at Claire, mocking her final wish to ritualize their deaths through being together on the patio and holding hands (amusingly enough, I cannot remember if the latter was Claire’s suggestion or Justine’s mocking).

Throughout the film, Justine actively seeks out Claire’s son Leo (Cameron Spurr) who she has a connection with (Leo does the same in seeking her out in separate moments). Their moments together earlier in the film set up Justine’s selfless act. She pulls it together in their final moments on Earth, facilitating the illusion of a protective magic cave for Leo as they use sticks to build their haven. Justine’s empathy extends even to Claire and their symbolic cave functions as the ritual that Claire so badly needed (though she is still a wreck as the end arrives). At the very end of the film, Justine looks at Claire in a way that shows an appreciation on Justine’s part for her sister, for being with her at the end and a coming-to-terms with life, death, and everything in between. It shows she is capable of emotion that she never expected to have. For as great as Dunst is in this film, and believe that she is as great as everyone says, these final moments are her best work to date. There is so much happening there on the inner workings of her face, so much being said in her looks, that they serve as the film’s climax rather than the physical destruction surrounding them as Melancholia collides with Earth.

There is an opening montage that serves as a sort of ‘˜greatest hits’ of what is to come. Moments are captured in time using the ultra-slow-motion method that similarly opens Antichrist. Some of these moments we see, some we do not and some never happen but are representational of something a character describes or sees. Right off the bat we are sucked in by these shots that function as beauty incarnate and as the visual tapestry of what this film is getting at.

Also notable is the distinct sense of place that will be immediately recallable as time goes by. Instead of taking the typical broad approach to depicting disaster via widening scope, Melancholia‘s world is within one castle in its entire Baroque, romantic and otherworldly glory. Using Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde prelude for the music is perfect; it gives everything an appropriately pastoral quality and a peripheral imprint of something coming that cannot be pushed back. It is not overly present, but it is a quality in the music that is just enough for the pastoral purity to be ruffled. There is an utter lack of technology to be found. Outside of Claire stumbling onto an archaic looking website that charts out Melancholia’s ‘˜Dance of Death’, nobody is glued to their TV sets, frantically looking online for updates, listening to the radio or even making phone calls to loved ones. Von Trier goes entirely against the grain here by pushing out the use of news footage and technology in relation to a cataclysmic event. We hear about what scientists are saying, not because of any communal anxiety we see, but through John’s word-of-mouth dialogue. Though John has a telescope, the primary tool Claire uses to see if the planet is moving farther or closer to Earth is a simple handmade device that John and Leo made together. Finally to top off the distinct sense of place, the remarkable cinematography by fellow Danish filmmaker Christoffer Boe’s regular DP Manuel Alberto Claro utilizes hand-held camera and alternates close-ups with a distant eye to magnificent effect.

Melancholia is one of those films that successfully fulfill their ambitions in dealing with profound and fundamental subject matter on a grand level of intellectual-based intuition. You come away with, yes lots to talk about, but just as importantly, a feeling that a filmmaker has come upon something almost indescribable that gets at how we experience life, death and what it all means (or ultimately doesn’t mean). Synecdoche, New York is one of these films. This year’s The Tree of Life is another. Some might call these films pretentious but this is reductive and dismissive. Lars von Trier’s latest film is his most accessible, but is no less thought-provoking. In fact, if there is one film that will temporarily win over his detractors, it would be this one. It takes us through the cathartic process of grieving mankind with a scrutinizing look at depression, death, acceptance and world annihilation with an uncharacteristically humanistic eye.

Catherine Reviews Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In [Theatrical Review] Fri, 04 Nov 2011 18:05:19 +0000

Pedro Almodóvar made a horror film? Oh the possibilities! Well, apparently not. The Skin I Live In feels like any other Almodóvar film, which is always a great thing, but in this case is also a bad thing, and it culminates as a missed opportunity. You can expect all the delicious goodies that one of his outings has to offer; a film entirely dependent on melodrama complete with plot twists, interweaving storylines, time jumps, stylish pop-infused décor, lustful sexual exploits and themes of obsession, desire, fate and identity. It is all there in spades. This work may be able to shed the absolutely inconsequential Broken Embraces, but it does not quite qualify as top-tier Almodóvar by any means.

I fully admit I may just hold the director up to the impossible standards that he has set for himself. That he accomplished one of the great directorial streaks in film history with All About My Mother, Talk to Her, Bad Education and Volver can account for that. Hell, I would even throw 1997’s Live Flesh into that streak, his most underrated output. The Skin I Live In as a largely missed opportunity, where the groundwork for a great film lays (and certainly pops up from time to time within the finished product), but it never reaches that level of success we come to expect from him.

A review for this is nearly impossible without going into spoilers, and indeed an insightful dive into the inner workings of the picture will be largely avoided in reviews marking its theatrical release (including mine). When enough time passes to be able to really get into the thick of it, the meaningful analysis of the film will really come into play. For now, reviews can only be vague. This will sound like a largely negative review when it is not meant to be. This is because what I loved about the film almost entirely involves a reveal that radically alters audience perspective. I will not be divulging it here, but it is the resulting thematic implications that make up my admiration.

The basic plot involves an innovative plastic surgeon (Antonio Banderas) who has a kept woman (Elena Cruz) in his house against her will. The audience enters this situation in media res, of what looks like a dynamic that is years into its existence. The film starts out vague and eventually falls into a flashback which explains the circumstances of the why, when and how it all came to be.

A big reason the unmentioned reveal works, despite being able to figure it out before its disclosure, is because it lends some much needed layers to the proceedings. The first third is meant litter the audience with questions; to hook us into wanting to know what is going on, and how this situation that has clearly been normalized by the characters, came to be. That element of intrigue never grows organically out of these scenes and they misuse critical time that could have been spent truly grabbing the audience and establishing meaningful characterization. With that, the film gets off to a rickety start.

An example of a scene that does not do what it could is a set-piece that takes place about half an hour in. Marisa Paredes plays a shady matriarchal figure (in what could have been a much juicier role for one of the filmmaker’s great regulars) whose son Zeca (Roberto Alamo) pays her an unexpected visit. Without giving anything away, the way this scene plays out should have slowly ratcheted suspense before giving way to the set-up’s conclusion. It could have had the audience on the edge of their seats akin to the opening scene in Inglourious Basterds (not to insist that the set-piece should have been exactly like that, but it provides an example of a situation that slowly reveals itself simultaneously to the audience and characters and finds suspense through that alliance). Instead, the scene, while interesting, just sort of plays out without reaching that sense of suspense that it clearly means to have.

Another major factor of disappointment is the way it essentially wastes former male muse Antonio Banderas. Granted, to see him back in action with the Spanish director that helped catapult his career back in the day is an unbridled joy. Banderas was always usually given darker characters to play in their collaborations and this case is no different. The actor does a wonderful job with what he is given to work with, but unfortunately it is not much. His character somehow gets lost amidst everything and we never get a sense of him. His actions suggest some potentially incredible characterization but the filmmaker never goes there. Banderas’ more than capable star presence is depended upon too much to carry his character through.

If only Pedro Almodóvar had stepped outside of his comfort zone a bit. His aesthetic will always be a feast for the eyes and will more than carry its weight in worth and skill. But there is a twinge of sadness that he did not branch out even slightly within the horror territory. In fact, The Skin I Live In hardly even feels like a horror film. For some this will be a great thing, showcasing how he can make any kind of material his own. That is fine, and without having hoped for something too dissimilar, I still was optimistic for a fusion between melodrama and horror that does not exist here.

There is a lot to admire here, and even a disappointing film by this director ismore than worth seeing. Elena Anaya as Vera Cruz give a smashing performance in a really difficult part as she emotes through her self-consciously porcelain beauty. The sharp use of strings in Albert Iglesias’ score is perfection and perfectly in tone with the film. He uses a different sound that evokes ‘Twin Peaks’ during a fabulous scene featuring windy back roads (this is the music used in the trailers). The way Almodóvar uses nudity and sexual assault are unprecedentedly remarkable. It is thematically rich and on that level has a lot going on and does not disappoint. It is sprinkled with greatness throughout despite missing the mark as a whole.

In many ways, it demands one sees it twice. A film should be able to carry its weighty impact on a first viewing, but it almost feels like there cannot be a true assessment on general thoughts without seeing it again. In fact, it is probable that the film would mean more if one knows what is going on and I fully acknowledge that.

Despite its misgivings, the film holds throughout, goes to some pretty fantastically implicit territory and features the filmmakers’ reliable skill level. A lot of expectation comes with a Pedro Almodóvar film and he falls short here of creating a great work, though inklings of it can be seen. Ultimately The Skin I Live In feels somewhat hollow; too obsessed with surface beauty to get under the skin of the title, and into the meat of things.

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Catherine Reviews Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter [Theatrical Review] Wed, 26 Oct 2011 03:43:36 +0000

Warning: this review contains spoilers.

Jeff Nichols does not play the ‘˜is he or isn’t he’ game with his audience; Curtis (Michael Shannon) is succumbing to paranoid schizophrenia. We are invited to simultaneously experience events as the protagonist does and to see the reality of the situation’¦at the same time. Take Shelter is an astonishing second feature by director Nichols whose first feature Shotgun Stories, plays out as pre-destined Greek tragedy. The interplay between conscious choice and being pulled further and further into something that was always going to happen is present in both films. In Take Shelter, poor conscious decisions are made by Curtis but he is also being helplessly dragged down by family legacies and a general feeling of doom.

Michael Shannon has rapidly made his way into being one of my favorite working actors. He is always playing with a push-and-pull between quiet and loud and he knows how to portray a wide variety of troubled characters. He gets to be front and center in one of the year’s best performances as a man who knows what is happening to him but cannot stop it. Curtis is suffering from visions of apocalypse. His visions also entail the people he knows turning against him. His wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) remains out of the loop for a long time even though she knows something is wrong. When she does find out, it is her job to hold everything together even though it is clear everything is falling apart.

Take Shelter affected me quite heavily, mainly because it preyed on my fears and depicted them in ways that service the sad reality of the situation as opposed to the heightened subjective journey. After death, going insane might be my biggest fear. It is the suddenness of certain disorders existence that strikes me. Some of the heavier psychological disorders don’t creep their way into you; they make sudden and grandiose entrances. I have a friend who has been with someone for ten years. Everything was fine; no mental problems to speak of. Out of nowhere, he starts having urges to choke her, to hurt her and to hurt others. Next thing you know, he is admitted to a center and diagnosed with bipolar disorder. He has a history of mental illness in his family, and that disorder tends to present itself in one’s twenties. They are still together and working through it, but it is something that has completely and irrevocably altered the dynamic between the two and everything they spent years building together.

The reason I tell this story is because hearing my friend tell it affected me much in the way this film did. It really gestates on the idea of a disorder going from nonexistence to rapidly coming to define a person. These things cannot be helped; at least not in their arrival and what the film does is focus on the reality of the involuntary nature of these serious disorders. It goes without saying nobody chooses to have them; but the obviousness of that fact has prevented this facet of the topic from being explored in film as much as it should have despite the abundance of films about madness.

While the reality of the situation is a focus of the film, so is what is going on in Curtis’ head. Scare-tactic horror tropes are doled out for the dream sequences and while this felt misguided at first, the further the film engrained itself in his mind, the more it registered as the right choice (that it does not take over the film but lends itself as one working element helps it succeed as well). One reason it was questionable at the start is there are a couple of moments that play as scares solely for the audience. These early moments have the audience seeing something Curtis does not see, meaning they exist for us. While they take up no time at all and are barely plural in number, it plays false to have things happening in his dreams that we alone experience.

The film only does this briefly at the start and the horror trope decision ends up working really well. It allows a connective immediacy between the audience and Curtis. Films that depict mental instability via the subjective experience of the protagonist tend to be psychological thriller/horror fare. At its heart this is an intimate drama, but meshing genre conventions from both the horror and disaster genres give it the appropriately apocalyptic feel it needs for its metaphoric center to work.

It is always up-in-the-air whether I will get onboard with a film that is not subtle in the metaphor department. Financial problems loom over the film as heavily as the stormy clouds. Co-pays, insurance coverage, loans, expensive surgeries and lay-offs galore pop up everywhere. ‘Something is coming’, Curtis says. His psychological descent clearly represents the current state of America, and the film never tries to hide this. Nichols wants you to know what he is really getting at. There are a couple of reasons it works. One is that the film does not feel preachy even in its openness; in fact, its message feels necessary. No matter what your political inclinations are, it is difficult not to feel the growing sense of dread all around us, and how Nichols takes that familiarized feeling and translates it into a different filmic context. In that sense, Take Shelter is frightening with just how resonant it feels.

Another reason the metaphor works for me is that there are more subtle streaks that Nichols engages in that coexist with the other overt qualities. A key component of Take Shelter is that Curtis recognizes what is happening to him and still surrenders to his convictions. He checks out books on mental illness, visits his mother (Kathy Baker) to ask him questions about her psychiatric roots, and goes to a counselor. For every step he takes to acknowledge and pinpoint what is going on, he takes another step towards surrender. He takes out a loan, steals equipment from work, gives away his dog, builds the tornado shelter and asks for his good friend Dewart (the excellent Shea Whigham, who can also be seen on “Boardwalk Empire” every week) to be taken off his crew after a troubling dream. It is the knowing what is happening but not being able to stop it that not only makes the film alarming as a straight piece of storytelling, but it supports the metaphor by supplying the powerlessness of the average man

It is worth mentioning the beguiling ending which drives home the primary metaphoric motivation by having the courage to make a metaphor literal in its final moments. Looking at it in this context, it is not really beguiling at all, but it still leaves your head spinning after leaving the theater. It may undo some of what had been built up with Curtis by ending the film this way, but it is the sacrifice it makes for a bold move that will stay with you no matter where you stand on it.

Take Shelter works on its two operating levels; a very intimate drama about a man whose family legacies catch up with his mental state while his wife desperately tries to keep everything from falling apart, and a metaphor for our current economic climate. It may manifest itself openly, but it works hauntingly well because of Nichols’ precision and ability to have his film make its mark in more ways than one. Michael Shannon brings all of this together with his portrait of a man whose paranoia initiates a series of poor decisions that damage everyone around him. He makes us understand why he makes these decisions, and while we cannot stop him from doing so, we sure as hell wish we could.

Catherine Reviews George Clooney’s The Ides of March [Theatrical Review] Tue, 11 Oct 2011 04:55:23 +0000

It is difficult to pinpoint why The Ides of March never quite had me in its grip. All of the elements are there with across-the-board talent working on the production. And yet while it has been overall well-reviewed, I take issue with several criticisms against it, which will be addressed forthwith. It is more than watchable and never a drag, but it is bogged down by various misgivings. These include an arguably miscast lead with Gosling’s protagonist instilling only indifference in yours truly. The story carries no impact by its conclusion, never escaping the inherent trappings of fiction and ultimately feeling artificial. The Ides of March is serviceable but forgettable, unable to establish itself in the pantheon of political thrillers outside of nicely showcasing the influence of those that came before.

Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling) is a young and ambitious Junior Campaign Manager, who happens to truly believe in Mike Morris (George Clooney), a Governor and Democratic dream candidate full of lofty and grand statements (he comes complete with overt Shepard Fairey inspired artwork). The film takes place in Ohio as time closes in on the Democratic Primary. Morris competes with an Arkansas senator for the slot. When Stephen gets a call from the opposing candidate’s campaign manager Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti) who wants to meet with him, he grapples whether or not to go and whether he should tell co-worker, Morris’ campaign manager Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a man with a fierce streak of loyalty. Meanwhile, a budding romance with young intern Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Wood) has consequences of its own. Stephen’s choices allow him to see firsthand that nefarious backstabbing, betrayal, hidden agendas, manipulation and deal making are just an everyday occurrence in the world of politics.

Clooney’s Lumet-like directorial approach values logically streamlined presentation. He smartly focuses on the interplay between characters that are rooted in history, feeling lived-in with all-encompassing cynicism radiating from all the major players. The writer of ‘Farragut North’, the play The Ides of March is based on, and screenwriters Clooney and Grant Heslov, make sure we feel the years entrenched between people who know how the game is played. Paul and journalist Ida (Marisa Tomei) are ‘˜friends’ but know that they will turn on each other at any second for any reason. Not only can you not trust anyone, but all the years of hard work are bittersweet because in this world, you are instantly replaceable. Our understanding of this is what transfers to the audience more than anything. Considering one of the film’s major purposes is to showcase the ‘˜behind-the-curtain’ interplay in politics, it is the highlight of the film.

Some are annoyed that the political corruption in the film is meant to be revelatory, stating that we are meant to be shocked when it is revealed that’”surprise!’”politics are dirty. The Ides of March never struck me as meaning to be revelatory. The film is advertised as a political thriller (somewhat misleading but the point remains). Blaming a ‘˜political thriller’ for posing revelatory through corruption is like chastising an action film for daring to showcase something as predictable as a car chase. The film presents corruption as very matter-of-fact and its job is to keep us engaged even though the audience senses the kinds of tropes that will likely come into play. This is where the film fails to deliver.

While The Ides of March is not meant to be revelatory, it is meant to get the audience to feel the cynical reality of its world like a punch in the gut. Yet because the plot feels artificial, it ends up being inconsequential. The turns the film takes should not, in theory, have been a hard sell. The story treks along, and goes where it needs to go, but the twists and choices being made never click. It always feels strung along in a paint-by-numbers way, where things merely happen because the script says they have to. What the film does want to have it gravitas and it only does when Philip Seymour Hoffman or Paul Giamatti are on screen. Only when these two appear does the film feel like it has the weight the loftily epic title suggests.

The film rests on Ryan Gosling’s shoulders and a combination of miscasting, lack of believability and uninteresting protagonist are large contributors to this film not quite working Performance wise, it is difficult to believe Gosling as a doe-eyed idealist in the beginning, making it hard to care about his arc, which brings him to some surprising places. The second half of the film demands from him a wide teary-eyed panic stare of disbelief in scene after scene which becomes tiresome.

All in all, Stephen is just not very engaging and the audience caring about his transformation is essential. The choice to have his arc forgo a gradual process, favoring a 180 degree turn in one scene has a lot of potential, as long as the film can make the audience believe it. Since the prelude of Stephen’s journey does not resonate, how can we care about the severity of his survival-mode choices we suddenly see him making?

There are several issues involving the Gosling character that undermine the film’s plausibility. The first is that the decision Stephen makes early in the film to meet with Tom Duffy rings absolutely false. In Hoffman’s speech on loyalty (the film’s best scene), he speculates on why Stephen made what he so precisely calls a ‘˜choice’ as opposed to Stephen’s claim of making a ‘˜mistake’. I do not buy into his speculations. Stephen is not some new kid on the block. He is an experienced up-and-coming campaign manager. When the opponent’s campaign manager calls up and asks for a meeting, you simply do not go. There is nothing we see of Stephen before this decision is made to make us understand the choice. This event sets everything in motion, and since it rings false, as a result the whole film rings false. Let’s not even mention that the entire film takes place within around three days.

The Ides of March features wonderful support from all. George Clooney’s small role carries the right levels of elusiveness in an eerily appropriate bit of self-casting. Marisa Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood are both excellent, particularly Wood who does a lot with somewhat constricting and unbelievable material.

Another complaint that keeps popping up in reviews is the lament that the films dialogue was not characteristic of Mamet or Sorkin. I do not know when it became necessary for a film’s dialogue to need an auteurs streak in order to be smart. The dialogue taken on its own is quite strong, and it is characteristic of Clooney’s Lumet-inspired desire to not have any distracting style whether it is in directorial choices or writing and so on.

Despite smart dialogue, sleek succinct direction and a bevy of noteworthy performances, The Ides of March feels inconsequential. Between an air of going through the motions and a protagonist whose choices ring false from the get-go, headlined by a performance that feels inappropriately distant, the film never gets past serviceable.

Catherine Reviews Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene [Theatrical Review] Fri, 30 Sep 2011 05:17:37 +0000

Seen through Cinecache’s Free Preview Screening at Brattle Theatre on September 27, 2011

How far will people delude themselves in order to fulfill a desired sense of worth? Whatever leads Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) to believe that joining a cult in the Catskills is the best option for her, it is clear what keeps her there through the moment she decides to flee is the feeling of belonging somewhere. It is a misguided justification from a very confused and lost young woman, drawn in by a seemingly wholesome communal setting and stubbornly refusing to acknowledge the wrongdoings she has surrounded herself with. That is, until her breaking point arrives and she realizes she has to get out.

Sean Durkin’s first film, surely one of the best debut features out there, explores Martha’s time in said cult, led by dangerous patriarchal figure Patrick (John Hawkes), and what happens after she flees. The film begins with her escape. She makes a call to estranged older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) who picks her up. From there, Martha cannot acknowledge the ever-present societal disconnect she faces because she is lost inside her own head. She is unable to definitively distinguish past from present or past trauma from present safety. This inability materializes through Martha’s increasing paranoia and erratic behavior which becomes more and more worrying to Lucy and husband Ted (Hugh Dancy). They have been in the dark about Martha’s whereabouts for two years. Martha does not tell them about the cult, making her behavior even more perplexing to the couple.

The film moves back and forth between Martha’s life during and after her time in the cult (where she is renamed Marcy May by Patrick). Both sections of the film have a centered location where almost all of the scenes take place. In the Catskills, there is a farmhouse everyone lives in together complete with communal duties and shared space. Compare this to Sarah and Ted’s affluent Connecticut lake house getaway. The two parts signify wildly differing environmental parallels. They also highlight her struggle to belong in either. By the time she gets to Lucy’s house, her past experiences in the life she fled are so embedded within; her ability to function with a sense of normality is compromised.

While the two lifestyles contrast each other greatly to the audience, Durkin forces Martha’s jumbled perspective at us through the disorienting fluidity between time periods. Martha’s mental state is a mess, and we experience her jumbled perception of time where all experience and trauma coexist. Thus, the camera focuses close on Martha enough for it to take time for the audience to discern which time we are in. This structure proves how much can come of fiddling with narrative. Everything we see means that much more through parallel storytelling. Martha’s inner psyche is transferred to the audience and there is an even more layered characterization through the juxtaposition and how segments are thematically paired together.

In case it is not clear by now; I loved this film. It is unsentimental and harrowing. It is a sin to have gone on this long without mentioning Elizabeth Olsen who carries this film into another realm. In her cult scenes she plays a woman eager to be a part of something, so much so that she discards common sense and allows herself to take part in some truly unsettling activities. Olsen shows layers of conviction, susceptibility and hesitancy through an additional heavy layer of necessary ambiguity. Post-cult Olsen displays societal disconnect beautifully with her bluntness, immaturity and more importantly her train wreck of a mental state. We are inside of her head and yet she remains distant from the audience. We feel her paranoia but cannot break through. It is a performance that has been rightly hailed across the board; simply put, she nails it.

In a reliably impressive supporting turn, John Hawkes is menacing; we are taken in by him even though at the outset it is clear he is dangerous. He convinces as someone who presents his ideology as persuasive common sense. He manipulates on the basis that the people around him get their sense of self-worth from him. And we buy that Hawkes as a figure with this kind of power.

The film is first and foremost a character study and a hell of a lot can be said about Martha.  As the title clearly states, this is someone going through a serious identity crisis. In addition to her incapability to reconcile her past experience, she has no idea who she is in any way, shape or form. Her identity is in its infancy. This is really nicely shone through lingering ideology the cult’s influence has on her. There are several lines of dialogue by other characters that get reiterated by Martha on later occasions; it is clear she is incredibly naïve and cannot as of yet think for herself.  The excessive flurry of near-delusional paranoia that takes her over is partly because she has too little assuredness as a human being to battle her increasingly unstable mental state.

There is something refreshing that Durkin does with his script, possibly even more so than the overall structure. An unchallenging film would have Martha begin attempts to abandon the cult after it is clear things are not as wholesome as she first thought. The film passes that point quite early on. We witness a disturbing event in the first third of the film and then watch Martha actively put the experience behind her. She allows herself to fall deep into a web of abuse, manipulation and subservience. As a character study, it says much about how alone and desperate she must be to belong if she accepts this situation upfront. As a script, it shows how unafraid Durkin is to distance the audience from relating to his main character in order to give us a much more compelling story. As a storytelling device, the groundwork for suspense exists through the thought; ‘˜If that won’t get her to leave, what will?’ And so we bite our nails waiting for what is to come.

Martha Marcy May Marlene wisely uses elements of psychological thriller to function as overtones rather than letting it suffocate the character work, which in this case it likely would have. While the film wants us to question whether or not the looming danger Martha imagines post-cult has any backbone in reality, I never truly felt she was in danger. It becomes almost even more impressive that despite this, I was still on the edge of my seat because Martha’s paranoia becomes the audience’s paranoia. As we learn more about Martha’s experiences as Marcy May, her scenes at Sarah’s lake house fill up with more and more dread. By the end of the film, we are as tense as she is.

The characterizations outside of Martha tend to be on the broader side, particularly when it comes to Lucy and Ted. The parallels inherent in the juxtaposition say a lot. Yet Lucy’s characterization is hammered home a bit too overtly at times to allow us to see her as a human being, even though she is the only other character Durkin gives individual perspective to. The other character that takes the audience into explicit ‘˜okay we get it’ territory is fellow cult member Zoe (Louisa Krause). There are a couple of scenes that go too far with dialogue in showing the cult members’ universally skewed mindset. That mindset is inherent in the actions and there are a few statements that Zoe makes that are a bit much and are not needed.

Sean Durkin is one to watch out for. How many debut features are this refined? He uses all of the aspects of filmmaking to the utmost. In the post-cult scenes, Martha is often shot from behind reflecting her unyielding elusiveness with Lucy. One scene in particular, Lucy asks about a bruise on her ear. The conversation is presented mainly through audio, while the camera only lets us see the side of Martha’s face. The score is used for ever-present dread. In one scene where Martha has a troublesome outburst, the music swells in a chaotic wall of free-form noise representing her overwhelming inner chaos in that moment.

The cinematography by Afterschool‘s Jody Lee Lipes is superb; quite possibly the most impressive of the year and at the very least my personal favorite. It is shot with a sullen ashen hue that evokes 1970’s cinema, hinting at sandy grain. There are so many ways a film could look visually and what Lipes comes up with here is something special.

Martha Marcy May Marlene disturbingly displays the susceptible nature of the mind and what mankind is capable of subverting through mutual groupthink. It is a complicated character study about a young woman unable to assimilate herself in any environment, and is left with heaps of traumas, sadly stubborn lingering ideologies and zero sense of self. She is a nearly broken being. Sean Durkin wrote and executed this story with staggering maturity. The complex characterization headlined by Olsen and the tension that instills the audience makes for a fearless film from a debut filmmaker.

Catherine Reviews Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive [Theatrical Review] Wed, 21 Sep 2011 18:53:55 +0000

It is an all too uncommon feeling when a film ends and you realize you are not yet ready to leave its world. This is the feeling I had when Drive ended, Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest film (and his first American one). It is a slick retro ride, filled with homage and influence, operating as a nostalgic demonstration of American genre filmmaking and oozing European sensibilities, complete with existentialist sleaze and minimalist touches. It is a hybrid creature that dabbles in a number of genres that are all in harmony through Refn’s infectious appreciation for using cinema to create mood and atmosphere.

Ryan Gosling plays The Driver, part of the class of ‘˜strong silent type’ who has popped up in many films as varied as The Man with No Name Trilogy, Le Samourai and Taxi Driver, to name a few. Through a newly found connection with neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) and a series of unfortunate circumstances, The Driver gets himself caught up in a sticky situation which he ultimately takes control of via the unwavering conviction he displays once he has made the decision to protect.

Since the characters and story of Drive take a backseat to presentation, the film is told with simple efficiency. Drive is working in full-on archetypal territory and it is a clear purposeful choice. As much as Refn creates something evocative from a directorial point of view, I would argue that Gosling’s anchoring of the material provides an almost equally satisfying and necessary contribution. The Driver may belong to an archetype, but like many of his previous incarnations, Gosling (with the help of Refn and screenwriter Hossein Amini) makes his version singular. His ability to emote layers through silence is not only impressive but transfixing. Gone is the hard masculinity one expects to find with this type of role. Even when taking into account the brutal acts of violence he commits, in large part he is seen as a child. This is clear through The Driver’s scenes with Irene’s son Benicio (Kaden Leos). The Driver is referred to as ‘˜Kid’ by several other characters. In one scene where he and Benicio are talking, another character shouts for ‘˜Kid’ to come over. Both man and child shuffle over in response.

Through careful observance, we get to know The Driver as he interacts with others. What gets him to lift his head, to verbally respond, intervene or snap at someone? Since Gosling keeps you watching with intent, we in turn care about the answers to these ‘˜what gets him to’ queries. The audience barely knows him but through his first interactions with Irene, it is easy to tell this is a situation outside of his comfort zone as he responds with passive hesitancy.

The scenes between The Driver and Irene are largely silent. Drive dips into heist territory at its start but primarily begins as a romance in its first third. Their scenes are unspoken and pure. And in a conscious choice to emphasis the silence over dialogue between the two, when they do speak, their communication lacks comparatively.

It is clear that Refn has been influenced at every turn. But it is not a hollow experience; far from it. Perhaps what impressed me the most about Drive is the smoothness with which Refn blends what is a clear unabashed love for both high and low art. He lets them bleed together in what can be succinctly described as effortless cool. There is a stable assuredness in every shot, every movement and every creative choice made here. One cannot help but want to revisit Drive and explore those choices, the motivations behind them and why they work as well as they do. This is confident filmmaking on display. The mere construction of it is something to behold.

Topping off this retro vision is Cliff Martinez’s score which is very clearly tipping its hat to 80’s synth Euro-pop, particularly Tangerine Dream with a delicate touch of Kraftwerk. At the point where the opening credits sequence enter with its splayed cursive hot pink font accompanied by Kavinsky’s ‘˜Nightcall’, it is practically begging for cinephiles to drool all over it with worship; Drive knows how cool it is and it is not afraid to show off. The lyrics of Martinez’s songs are just overt enough, amusingly walking a fine line between kitsch and corny.

Violence is used to great effect both in how much is shown and exactly when Refn and editor Mat Newman decide to show it. It has an unexpected jolt because it brings the mood-setting to a halt. Instead of making the violence part of the film’s identity like so many do (to widely varying degrees of success), here violence is used to interrupt the film’s sense of self, existing as a combative force

There are two characters that make Drive rewarding as a piece of storytelling. One is the Driver and the other is Bernie as played by Albert Brooks. Bernie is in many ways The Driver’s opposite; he largely communicates by telling stories; by speaking. What makes Bernie startling is that the film first humanizes him and then shows us what he is capable of. Brooks has been given a juicy part and he really makes the most of it; it is a terrific performance.

If I have one problem with Drive it is that with archetypes come thankless female characters, and as a result, thankless roles for its actresses. Where Gosling and Brooks (and to a lesser degree Ron Perlman, Bryan Cranston and particularly Oscar Issac) make something of their character types, Carey Mulligan and Christina Hendricks are basically pretty chess pieces within the story. Unfortunately archetypes mean traditional and thus archaic parts for women as Mulligan is there to be protected and Hendricks is there to be a conniving moll.

Style over substance is worth it when there is substance within the style; and that is what Drive has. It tells a simple story with easily identifiable characters, functioning primarily as an exercise in ‘˜coolness’. But it creates its own world through a mish-mash of influences, thereby forming its own recognizable identity that becomes addictive. With Drive, Refn represents cinema at its most assured plowing into the heart of genre filmmaking.

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Catherine Reviews Asif Kapadia’s Senna [Theatrical Review] Wed, 07 Sep 2011 05:19:57 +0000

Note: Senna had no subtitles in the theater I viewed it in. A moderate chunk of the film is spoken in Portuguese. Keep in mind that any audio interviews by Senna’s family, sports commentators from Brazil and some interview footage of Senna himself was lost on me.

Senna plays more like a narrative feature than any documentary in recent memory. Gripping from the start and refusing to let go, this immersive story will enthrall the viewer regardless of their ignorance of Formula One racing and/or three time Grand Prix world champion, Brazilian driver Ayrton Senna. Entirely comprised of archival footage, Senna offers a rare privilege of access for a documentary, resulting in a wholly distinct experience. It does not feel like you are watching something that has already happened; instead it largely unfolds as if for the first time. Director Asif Kapadia inputs foreshadowing throughout, adding a haunting layer of impending doom leading up to Senna’s fatal crash in 1994.

Thousands of hours of archival footage were sifted through to construct the feature-length film before us. Formula One clearly kept meticulous visual records of everything and it is at times overwhelming just how spoiled the audience gets to be in what they see. A camera was mounted to Senna’s car, allowing us to be in the car with him and the effect is magnificent. Pre-race meetings with the heads of the track and all the drivers were recorded. Instead of hearing from newscasters that Senna walked out of a meeting because of objections regarding pole position, you get to see that meeting.

Additionally, there are home videos of Senna in Brazil as well as footage from his early days of go-kart racing, which prove thematically important, as Senna himself recalls these as his fondest racing memories, citing that it was ‘pure driving’ and absent of politics. There are no talking heads; only audio interviews heard during the archival footage. The absence of talking heads allows a flow of story seldom seen in the medium.

The pacing and structure of Senna revolves almost entirely around his career including several key racing seasons in the late 80’s and early 90’s, his partnerships with McLaren and Williams and his tumultuous rivalry with McLaren teammate and fellow World Champion Allan Prost. It skirts around family and love, largely leaving out anything not having to do with racing; and that’s okay. It allows the film to have an alarming sense of focus. Senna’s rivalry with Prost takes center stage as the Frenchman represents the opposite of his relationship with the sport. Where Senna drove based on intuition and an effort to achieve a closer connection with God, Prost was calculated in his strategy and very plugged into the politics of the game.

His partnership with Williams late in the film is devastating to watch as the film carefully illustrates the events leading to his death. He was clearly not happy with the arrangement and very uncomfortable with the car itself. He gets as close to hesitant acquiescence as a man who has no intention of not racing could get. Knowing what is coming but not being able to stop it, these scenes become increasingly distressing.

Senna was a captivating individual whose sense of self was deeply challenged with all the politics and baggage that came with Formula One. At once deeply religious and patriotic, he was a great source of pride for poverty-stricken Brazil, a position which he clearly took seriously. There was a softness amidst his serious nature that is hard to look away from. On the track he was a risk-taker and off the track he was never afraid to speak his mind, even at the risk of reputational injury within Formula One. Senna’s ability to speak openly about his feelings via interviews allows the man to have a primary voice in a documentary about him after the fact. He was honest, thoughtful and reflective.

If there is a complaint to be had, it is only that it falls slightly short of cracking the nut that is Ayrton Senna as much as one can in 100 minutes time. The film is vague at most concerning the man’s flaws. For example, his recklessness as a driver could have been more examined or at the very least questioned. When a reporter asks him a question that confronts him with this, Senna has a very defensive response. While his reaction to the wording of the question was justifiable, there is a sense that he may have led with his intuition a bit too much. While not an outright knock against the film, there could have been a slightly more layered examination of Senna the man. (Note that the lack of subtitles contributed to this point).

Senna straps the audience to their seats and asks them to hold on. Aided by a memorable score by Antonio Pinto, Asif Kapadia has crafted a loving tribute that briskly and effectively lets you up close and personal with the career of Aryton Senna. There is a tension that feels ever-present, taking the audience back to those Forumla One seasons as if they were happening for the first time. It is impossible not to grow attached to Senna himself. He is admirable and humble with an infectious and unwavering devotion. As the film ends, one is filled with a surge of heartbreak that overwhelms. In short, Senna is a must-see; do yourself a favor and do not miss it.

Catherine Reviews Stephen J. Anderson and Don Hall’s Winnie the Pooh [Theatrical Review] Fri, 29 Jul 2011 19:20:49 +0000

Looking at Christopher Robin’s room at the start of Winnie the Pooh, we see that the boy has not been tainted by modernity. His abode remains as it always was; chock full of books, stuffed animals, old-fashioned toys and an assortment of collections. It is doubtful any child’s room looks like this anymore, signifying that this is a film that will be a return to what once was. Recent animated features like Rango and Toy Story 3 are more accomplished fare with their complex and/or exquisitely executed themes balanced with wondrous storytelling, but sometimes it is nice to return to something as gentle and pure as A.A. Milne’s world of ‘Winnie the Pooh’. The new film may not stick with viewers amidst everything else out there, but it is a joy through and through.

A.A Milne’s ‘Winnie the Pooh’ stories are episodic in that each chapter contains a new story following the characters in Hundred Acre Wood. The film tells one story over the course of its shockingly short length (clocking in at sixty minutes), but by basing it off of three of Milne’s stories the film still feels episodic in nature. Winnie the Pooh wakes up and immediately goes in search of honey. He runs into Eeyore who has lost his tail. Christopher Robin and friends hold a contest to see who can find the best replacement for Eeyore’s tail, the prize being a large jar of honey. Christopher Robin leaves a note that is misinterpreted by Owl to mean he has been captured by a monster called the Backson. They try to find and save the child by setting up a trap. All the while, Pooh remains desperate for honey.

That pretty much sums up the plot. It is a simple tale with a simple but meaningful message about friendship that children can effortlessly grasp. There is no pop-culture of any kind to be found. Hundred Acre Wood remains untainted by the outside world and it is all the better for that. The humor grows out of the characters we know and love through their facial expressions, the way they interact with each other and the situations they find themselves in. Something the film expands upon is the idea of the narrator’s presence. The characters interact quite a bit with the narrator, voiced by John Cleese, without it ever becoming too much. The animation is hand-drawn with crisp lines in the foreground and a watercolor aesthetic in the background. The effect is understated pleasantry.

The appeal of Winnie the Pooh for children is hopefully still present in today’s culture. At the very least, I imagine toddlers would enjoy this film and not just the adults who grew up with Winnie the Pooh in their lives via the 1977 collection of featurettes titled The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh or the Milne books. There is an everlasting appeal to the title character. He is a dimwitted fool but at the same time so lovable and precious. Christopher Robin’s famous line ‘Silly old bear’ remains the perfect response to his many foibles, misunderstandings and addictive predilection for honey. What is so wonderful about the character is that children have the advantage of knowing what the bear doesn’t. They are given the opportunity to understand a situation before he does, allowing them to be superior in their knowledge to the characters they see.

The voice work is solid but it is still jarring not having Sterling Holloway or Paul Winchell at the helm. It is the only real sign that times have changed in the Hundred Acre Wood, and that change exists outside of the films construct. The songs are serviceable but nothing more. Zooey Deschanel surprisingly does not overstay her welcome with her presence on some songs but they remain the most forgettable part of the film.

A part of me questions whether or not the film was necessary. Sure, the film succeeds with grace as a return to the sweet world of Milne in all regards to the point of that clearly being its overall goal. Yet with Walt Disney Animation Studios rarely working with hand-drawn projects at present, part of me wishes they had invested thirty million dollars on an original project.

It is difficult to stay on that thought for long with the result of the film. Winnie the Pooh may be slight but it works because of its slightness and not in spite of it. The filmmakers had a determined commitment to keep the modern world at bay and the film is all the better for it. So sit back, relax and revisit your friends from the Hundred Acre Wood.

Catherine Reviews John Carpenter’s The Ward [Theatrical Review] Thu, 14 Jul 2011 06:35:41 +0000

John Carpenter’s best work exudes a kind of subtle magnetism rooted in minimalist atmosphere. Mainly I speak of Halloween and The Thing. Halloween stands among a golden few in the mostly empty slasher subgenre as an exercise in build-up. The Thing is all about environment and the paranoia that can wreak from it. Slasher tropes and environmental stigma mundanely come into play in Carpenter’s latest feature The Ward, his first full-length narrative since 2001’s Ghosts of Mars. The Ward shows off none of Carpenter’s abilities; it is a paint-by-numbers horror which can be thrown into the heap of forgettable and rote films the genre manages to produce year after year.

The year is 1966. A young woman runs through the woods in tattered undergarments. She approaches an abandoned farmhouse and sets it on fire. As she watches it burn, she drops to her knees; a big weight has clearly been lifted from her. Police find her and she is taken into custody. Her name is Kristen (Amber Heard), and she wakes up in a psychiatric hospital where she is put in a special ward with four other troubled girls; Iris (Lyndsey Fonseca), an artist, Zoey, (Laura Leigh) a girl who has retreated into child-like behavior, scattered Emily (Mamie Gummer) and prim nymphomaniac Sarah (Danielle Panabaker). Dr. Stringer (Jared Harris) heads the ward, showing both concern and a clear knowledge that goes far past what the girls know about their situation. Nobody gets better on the ward; they simply disappear one by one. A ghost named Alice Hudson is haunting them, and Kristen cannot get any of the girls to reveal what they know about her. Sick of not getting answers, she becomes determined to escape the ward, going up against whoever decides to get in her way.

Every spooky scene contains a stylized thunderstorm. The ghost jumps up right on time after attempted suspenseful set-up. Nothing is effective enough; I was hoping Carpenter would be able to play with cliché and make something of it. But he plays the scares too straight, which would have been fine if the screenplay hadn’t been one of the most atrocious in recent memory. The material is unworkable, but the question still lingers whether Carpenter has lost his touch. It has been a while since he was able to scare, and The Ward is a throwaway film at best. With none of his trademark feats on display, it is sadly impossible to discern that this is a film made by someone considered a master by many.

Written by Shawn and Michael Rasmussen, this script carries the bare-bones minimum requirements for a story. The characters can all be poorly described with one word, and each scene displays wooden dialogue meant to push forward its superbly weak plot in some way. The film clocks in at eighty-eight minutes, and feels like it’s actively striving to fill up that time. Then there is the matter of the film’s final twist, a flat-out stupid faux clever add-on that desperately wants to surprise, but merely astounds in its idiocy. Final act shocks like this are a dime-a-dozen nowadays, and if you aren’t going to do it right, there is no point in doing it. With a perplexing one-minute explanation that sums up what we have just witnessed in a slipshod manner, the twist is the icing on the cake for a film that has zero original instinct.

Sorry to say, but a John Carpenter return-to-form seems less and less likely. The more he continues to wait long stretches and disappoint, the further we get from seeing what we loved about the filmmaker. It is beyond me why this first feature in many years was this written drivel. You can just see this screenplay getting tossed around in limbo for years and years before somehow getting saddled with the director. I stop to wonder if anyone involved actually saw something in this material or if everyone was going through the motions.

Catherine Reviews André Øvredal’s The Troll Hunter [Theatrical Review] Wed, 29 Jun 2011 07:16:23 +0000

Found footage films, almost always taking place within horror, have certainly made themselves a cozy spot in the bevy of subgenres within cinema. Every time one of them comes out, its detractors call found footage played out and tired. Because these films have such an immediately recognizable and visually set format, it begs to be railed against every time a mediocre offering is released. Yet just because REC 2, The Last Exorcism, Paranormal Activity and now The Troll Hunter underwhelm, does not mean I will write off found footage. They offer a different way of presenting a story; one that places the audience front and center in any given situation, giving it as much potential as any other kind of storytelling. It is hasty to take down found footage just because The Troll is Hunter stuck in its own mild and forgettable limbo.

College student filmmakers Thomas (Glenn Erland Tosterud), Johanna (Johanna Morck) and Kalle (Thomas Larsen) investigate the recent illegal bear hunting taking place in their area. They quickly come upon Hans, played by Norwegian comedian Otto Jesperson, an eccentric hunter who they believe is the culprit. It turns out Hans is a troll hunter sanctioned by the government to control the troll population in the surrounding area. Out of spite for his superiors, he invites the students along while he baits and kills trolls with his UV light, which either turns them to stone or makes them explode.

The Troll Hunter can be appreciated for its humor and take on Norwegian folklore. It boasts an amusing lead performance by Jesperson and is occasionally clever. Perhaps its subtlety would have been more at home within a traditionally executed narrative. Found footage is anything but subtle, thus making itself tonally at odds with its format.

The claim cannot be made that the film is not scary enough because this never seems to be its goal. Not much here is even meant to be scary; the trolls themselves function as creatures to be marveled at more than anything else. They do not function they way other horror movie monsters do; the threat they pose exists only because Hans and the students are actively hunting them. Suspense is rarely built and scares are hard to find, but again, that was never its purpose.

So what is its purpose then? The film is an amusing take on folklore, but it is simply not enough. Never moving past being an agreeable way to spend ninety minutes, the film has a hard time eliciting anything more than the occasional smirk. Still, the creatures are impressively executed and we get a much better look at them than one might expect. There is also some lovely Norwegian landscape on display, albeit with the cinematography required from a found footage film.

Any and all characterization gets thrown onto Hans. Jesperson is putting on a one-man show with his dedicated earnest kook character. He delivers the goods, but the found footage format comes occasionally close to burying the performance. Jesperson is good enough to narrowly avoid that pitfall. The film may be called The Troll Hunter, but that should not mean all of the character development we get from the students consists of basic emoting without differentiate between the three characters. Amazement, amusement, fright and concern are doled out in equal measure. The students are very well cast; I just wish they each had even one simple layer of distinction to make them feel like individuals.

The Troll Hunter never gets off the ground the way it should, always staying one level above dormant. Its decision to steer away from straight horror is not substituted with anything else by writer/director André Øvredal. It may be kind of funny, kind of interesting and kind of clever, but ‘˜kind of’ is not enough.

Catherine Reviews Kihachi Okamoto’s The Sword of Doom Sun, 12 Jun 2011 05:38:28 +0000

We open on a mountaintop. An elderly man (Kamatami Fujiwara) and his granddaughter (Yoko Naito) emerge. He tells her the Buddhist origins of the lands surrounding them. They stop to rest and eat their lunch before beginning their downhill descent. The granddaughter, whose name is Omatsu, goes to find water. The elderly man prays for death so that his granddaughter will be happy and ‘no longer a pilgrim’. Suddenly, a deep voice calls out ‘old man’. He turns around and sees a man in black garb, his hat covering his face, smoke all around him. He approaches the elderly man and tells him to step forward and look to the west. The elderly man realizes what is about to happen, but before he can elicit a response; he is struck down with his wish cruelly fulfilled. The murderer is a samurai named Ryunosuke Tsukue (Tatsuya Nakadai), and he is The Sword of Doom‘s protagonist.

The Sword of Doom, a jidaigeki set in the tail end of the Edo period, follows the likely psychopathic Ryunosuke through several ‘˜incidents’. The first involves an upcoming duel with Bunnojo (Ichiro Nakatani). Bunnojo’s wife Ohama (Michiyo Aratama) goes to Ryunosuke begging him to lose the match because Bunnojo is so scared to face him. Ryunosuke agrees to if she gives up her chastity to him. She does, but Bunnojo ends up dead anyways. Outcast, the samurai now lives with Ohama (they also have a son) as a member of the Shinsengumi. It turns out Bunnojo’s brother Hyoma (Yuzo Kayama) has been training with a master swordsman (Toshiro Mifune in a rare supporting role) in order to exact revenge on his brother’s killer. We also follow Omatsu, the young woman from the film’s opening scene, as she tries to find her place in the world and makes a connection with Hyoma.

It is difficult to give a synopsis of The Sword of Doom because the film is, to a degree, open-ended. The source material is “Daibosatsu Tobe” (The Great Buddha Pass), a newspaper serial by author Kaizan Nakazato that ran for three decades. Many versions of the tale have been told, and it is presumably a very familiar story within Japanese culture. There were supposed to be sequels to Kihachi Okamoto’s adaptation, but they fell through, making The Sword of Doom forgivably scattered at times.

At the center of Okamoto’s standout samurai film is the great and legendary Tatsuya Nakadai, forever searing himself into the memories of all who watch The Sword of Doom. Ryunosuke seems at least partially convinced he is thrust into situations that force him to kill, and he does so with a sense of duty and fierce indifference. Nothing affects him; his eyes are glassy and empty but with the slightest hint of longing. He stares off into space, rarely the active participant in a conversation. His interactions with others suggest boredom. He waits for something to instigate a reaction; it is almost an unspoken challenge to everyone who speaks to him. He lives entirely in his own world, without feeling, remorse or connection.

Once Nakadai and director Okamoto get the concrete lifelessness of Ryunosuke across, the viewer’s fascination comes from seeing our protagonist slowly unhinge. Take Shimada’s (Mifune) swordfight in the snow and Ryunosuke’s reaction to the decimation of his associates. For the first time, we are seeing fear on Nakadai’s face. That fear emerges as he realizes he might have met his match in Shimada. That fear carries over into the next scene with Ohama, which Okamoto executes to marvelous effect. The camera is close to Ryunosuke, on his right, and we see that he is still very much shaken over Shimada’s swordsman skills. The emptiness in his eyes has been stirred and something frightened now lies behind them. The camera cuts to Ohama’s perspective, on his left and much farther away. It is clear that she cannot see any difference in his behavior, and from her point of view, it certainly looks like he is acting the way he always does. That first shot though, has shown us that he is not. We can see that Ohama is not failing to see what is in front of her face, because Ryunosuke’s internal dilemma truly is invisible from her point-of-view. Okamoto uses the camera to show how both Ryunosuke and Ohama perceive their conversation within the same scene.

Choreography becomes equivalent to performance art in The Sword of Doom. It is said throughout that Ryunosuke’s style of swordsmanship is very unorthodox; and it does not take an expert to see that. His stance and body language are off-putting and methodical; it is impossible predict what he is thinking, doubly so during a fight. He is alert yet slack and swift as a machine. My experience in this genre may be limited, but Ryunosuke’s style is unlike any samurai fighting I have seen. Several scenes show us how Ryunosuke fights, so we can compare said scenes to the final ten minutes.

The final ten minutes of The Sword of Doom are justifiably well-known to samurai film enthusiasts. It is gutsy and exhausting, showing a kind of physical representation of nihilism. Yes; this is what insanity looks like. Okamoto uses subtle theatrical techniques with lighting and space as Ryunosuke destroys everything in his path. Nakadai is entirely frightening here, and when I say this is a piece of performance art, I mean it. The use of choreography to represent psyche here is shockingly effective. Ryunosuke is haunted by his guilt as he slashes alternately at nothing and at dozens with uncontrolled precision. He stumbles with broad movements. How long can he last like this? This is a man truly unhinged. The Sword of Doom may leave us wanting the sequel we would never get, but in a way, it doesn’t get any more final than that concluding freeze-frame shot.

Catherine Reviews Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men First Class [Theatrical Review] Thu, 09 Jun 2011 07:13:39 +0000

When it was announced that X-Men: First Class was being made, many including me, groaned. After X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the prospect of being put through a likely awful prequel was disconcerting. Luckily, the result is surprisingly good; director Matthew Vaughn puts forth an uneven but fresh and pulpy experience that delivers on multiple levels. My experience with X-Men is limited to a few volumes of Ultimate and Astonishing X-Men, the previous films, growing up with the animated show and their general pop-culture presence. So this review will not be looking at the film from a comic-driven perspective. That can be left to those much more knowledgeable and experienced with the comics.

The film starts by giving us insight into Erik’s (Bill Milner) childhood. In 1944, Erik and his mother are separated in a concentration camp. When Nazi doctor Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) sees Erik’s power he calls him into his office, asking him to repeat his abilities. When he cannot, Erik’s mother is shot. From then on, vengeance and anger drive him into adulthood. In the meantime, young Charles Xavier (Lawrence Belcher) meets a blue and scaly young girl named Raven (Morgan Lilly) with nowhere to go, and the two form an instant bond.

As an adult, brilliant and somewhat arrogant Xavier (James McAvoy) is on his way to becoming a professor with best friend Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) at his side. Erik (Michael Fassbender) travels the world looking for clues to Shaw’s whereabouts, set on revenge. Shaw and his Hellfire Club have a nefarious plan to trigger war between the US and Russia. Then we have CIA agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne), who learns there are mutant powers and asks Xavier for help. Once Erik finds his way to Xavier, the film tracks their initial friendship, the gathering of other mutants via Cerebro, and their efforts to stop Shaw and his potentially catastrophic plan.

Clearly, the most successful aspect of X-Men: First Class is the friendship between Xavier and Magneto. Both actors, particularly Fassbender, are outstanding and lend considerable gravitas to a popcorn summer flick. Their friendship is doomed from the start but their conversations are really what these films are about. Questioning the capacity of humanity to accept differences as well as the inherent isolation that comes with feeling disconnected from society, no matter what the cause. Are humans worth the trouble it will take to work together with them? Every X-Men film has these conversations and they always hit the same beats. The film conquers the repetition with the great acting at its center and by keeping future events looming over the conversations.

The two seemingly simple tasks that First Class succeeds in are that it is both consistently entertaining and emotionally satisfying. The breakdown of Xavier and Erik’s friendship actually has impact. The understanding that Erik’s rage will always define him has impact. I felt involved, and that level of investment in this genre is an almost entirely new feeling to me. Xavier’s first encounter with Cerebro left me with an almost giddy aftertaste. The scene when Xavier allows one of Erik’s memories to resurface is genuinely affecting. The same can be said for the way McAvoy plays the realization of his paralysis. Finally,watching just how desperate Xavier is to delay the inevitability of Erik’s desertion, is not just something the audience sees but feels. Yes, all of these examples involve Xavier and Erik, but their dynamic is at the center of this film, and it is enough to anchor any mediocrity or even flaws it is surrounded by.

As for consistently entertaining, many other films in this genre fall apart in the third act. This one does not. The uses of the mutants’ powers are imaginative. The set-pieces worked and the film is well-performed outside of January Jones who, between this and Unknown, is continuing to leave me flabbergasted by how Matthew Weiner is able to brilliantly uses her on “Mad Men”. The establishment of character relationships and seeing how everything starts is a treat as well. In short, it is entertaining.

Striving to give Raven an arc is inspired, but her final decision is lacking in believability. How does a girl with a strong and lifelong sisterly bond with Xavier end up becoming Mystique? X-Men First Class attempts to answer that question, and does so rather well, or so it seems. Every scene with Raven is meant to make us understand why she chooses to go with Erik by the end. She sees her mutation as a physical deformity. As Raven matures into an insecure woman, Xavier is unable to give her the kind of assurance she needs. Her interactions with Hank (Nicholas Hoult) confirm her need to be told she should not have to hide. Xavier misreading what Raven wants to hear, in addition to Erik telling her what she does want to hear, affect the way she views mutants place in the world. I wish Raven’s arc functioned more as the groundwork for her switch to Magneto’s side as opposed to fitting everything into one film. As groundwork, it would have been successful; as it is, something felt lacking by the end. The ‘mutant and proud’ line did not exactly help matters.

As for some of the flaws, the film is somewhat tonally inconsistent. There are camp elements seeping in from the edges during certain scenes, and there are other times where that sense is nowhere to be found. The film could have also used violence more intelligently. The film plays as the tamest PG-13 action film imaginable. Violent things happen, but we never see them. This would be fine, but   Vaughn is incapable of making those moments have any punch without showing violence. Thus, those moments promote an indifferent and passive audience reaction. Despite my somewhat negative opinion of Kick-Ass, the action scenes were executed wonderfully there. None of that punch can be found here.

X-Men: First Class is the kind of rare superhero film that mostly works. It is a joy to watch, and it manages to ‘˜preboot’ a franchise whose last two films were laughable. It fuses story with character, making sure each is of equal importance, and that prioritizing is part of what makes X-Men: First Class a rewarding time at the movies.

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Catherine Reviews Mitch Glazer’s Passion Play [DVD Review] Sat, 28 May 2011 19:11:27 +0000

Back in April, Mickey Rourke made a brutally unhinged comment about two of his upcoming films, Passion Play and 13. He called them both ‘˜terrible’. Naturally, this sparked curiosity on just how bad the former, Mitch Glazer’s straight-to-DVD directorial debut would be. Is it terrible? In a word, yes. Yes, it is terrible. Passion Play is so misguidedly earnest that it garners the kind of response one has when a toddler tries to walk but is not quite ready. ‘˜Oh, look at him trying to walk! Isn’t that sweet!’ has been replaced with ‘˜Oh, look at him trying to make a film! Isn’t that’¦oh’¦’ Bogged down in painful noir clichés and rote sentimentality, Passion Play has enough unintentional laugh-out-loud moments that will hurdle it into turkey infamy.

Rourke plays Nate Poole, a down-on-his-luck trumpeter who is in some trouble with gangster Happy Shannon (Bill Murray), after sleeping with Shannon’s wife. Narrowly escaping death (he is saved by random snipers, who are never explained) Nate finds himself at a traveling circus where he meets Lilly (Megan Fox), a woman with wings. She has been brought up by Sam (Rhys Ifans), who runs the circus. Nate and Lilly apparently have enough of a connection in one conversation to escape the clutches of Sam and run off together. Nate secretly plans on exploiting her with Shannon in exchange for his life. As the two enter a relationship, Nate regrets his betrayal and sets out on saving Lilly from the predicament he has put her in.

The weakest element of Passion Play is the script. For all the inertness of the film, the amateurish and nonsensical script is where the films disastrous seed was sown. For starters, the plot is thoroughly implausible, never making us forget how ridiculous its base concept is. Another filmmaker could have scrapped the script, started with the concept and created something delightfully weird and bizarre. Instead, we get a film that takes itself so seriously, clearly believing it has crafted an engaging modern-day fable. The feeling that Glazer was really trying hard to make something good out of a script he clearly believes in, makes the film so awkward to watch. It is sad that anybody, including Glazer who wrote it, would take this script seriously.

Conversations begin with lines like ‘Have you ever seen the ocean?’ Yeah; it’s that bad. The connection between Nate and Lilly is in no way convincing. Let us put aside the fact that we are supposed to buy Mickey Rourke and Megan Fox as two people who fall in love. The way their relationship comes about is too abrupt, feeling about as realistic as Lilly’s wings. How are we supposed to care about these two when Nate is scheming against Lilly during most of their scenes together? Instead of crafting a tale of redemption, the film never points out the moment when Nate’s regret starts to seep in, leading us to believe that it is only when the two sleep together (yes there is a love scene, complete with Rourke fondling Fox’s wings) that he feels differently about her. And if that is the case, Nate comes off as even more of a sad-sack schmuck than at the start of the film.

There is blatant awkwardness throughout, whether from the acting, dialogue or direction. So much of the film is oddly staged, as if we are looking in on an underworked rehearsal. Some of the beats between lines of dialogue do not feel natural. The same goes for the timing between certain shots. There is something entirely off-kilter about a lot of Passion Play, and there are times when Glazer cannot execute simple scenes. For an example of this, look to the early scene with Rourke and Ifans in his abode. Scenes like this come around about once every ten minutes that force the audience to contemplate the mere existence of this film.

Mickey Rourke is clearly coasting here. His worn-out face allows him to fit into these types of roles very easily. Sometimes his heart is in it, sometimes it is not. He cannot even pretend to play the trumpet correctly, in one of the film’s laugh-out-loud scenes. Megan Fox clearly wants to be taken seriously here, but she has chosen the wrong film for it. She is just there to look stunning, doing little to negate the notion that her character is just an object for others to gawk at. The film is using Fox the same way Happy Shannon, Sam and Nate all try to use her. It is hard to take Fox seriously when she is stuck in a constant state of crying gullibility. With Fox, Passion Play becomes a maudlin Victoria’s Secret commercial, complete with wings.

Finally, Bill Murray as a gangster sounds inspired, and admittedly he comes closest to an actual performance. Yet he is coasting as well, relying on his usual droll line deliveries to come off as menacing due to the content of the dialogue. For a perfect example of Rourke and Murray coasting, watch the scene in which Rourke makes his proposition to Murray during lunch. Neither looks like they want to be there. It is all too easy to picture them sitting around and waiting for action to be called so the scene can creep all too willingly towards completion.

What is good about Passion Play? Well, there is some typically wonderful photography by Christopher Doyle, the film’s only saving grace. Passion Play may just seem like a merely terrible film while watching it, with occasional moments of so-bad-it’s-funny moments. But the film’s leap into infamy is made concrete in its final minutes, which needs to be seen to be believed. Hint; there is flying involved.

There are no special features on this DVD.

Buy the DVD or Blu-ray from

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Catherine Reviews Giuseppe Capotondi’s The Double Hour [Theatrical Review] Wed, 18 May 2011 02:52:24 +0000

Plot twists are inherently risky. Over recent years, they have become much more complicated. Certain genres, like horror or thriller, naturally invite the convention to the point where inclusion instantly subjects the film to a battle with predictability. Mostly, the risk comes from the chance taken on losing the audience. Will the twist enhance or muddle the films intentions? Will the audience go along for the ride or will they disengage themselves? The Double Hour, the Giuseppe Capotondi’s debut film, shows promise, but loses itself within its labyrinthine twists.

A plot description for The Double Hour begs vagueness to keep this review relatively spoiler-free. Sonia (Kseniya Rappoport), a hotel maid who is somewhat withdrawn and solitary, attends a speed-dating event. She meets Guido (Felippo Timi) , an ex-cop and widower. They start up a relationship and everything is going well, until they are subject to a home invasion robbery that results in’¦well, you will have to find out yourself. Other figures in the plot are Sonia’s co-worker Margherita (Antonia Truppo), hotel regular Bruno (Fausto Russo Alesi) and detective Dante (Michele de Mauro).

As for the inner workings of The Double Hour, it is apparent the story was carefully considered outside its plotted nature. Through the twists and turns, a character-driven exploration of one person’s guilt is meant to be examined through the enhanced perspective said twists offer. There are moments when that deepened sense of guilt comes through nicely. The complex ambiguity of Sonia pays off as often as it does not. Yet the film gets lost, and everything is eventually stifled and fruitless. By the end, character development is suffocated by the complicated plot, when it is meant to have the opposite effect.

Theoretically, the twists force the audience to go back and rethink through the film, allowing for deeper and deeper examination of Sonia. The first twist changes what we think of Sonia thus far as we are asked to reshape our perception of her. The second twist is meant to do the same; enhance character development through the revelation. It is different from the first twist because Sonia and the audience learn it at the same time whereas Sonia is in on the initial twist. It is a jarring and risky move in which now Sonia and the audience have to, again, entirely reconfigure how the new situation at hand. The attempted leap falls short, making the film’s entire conceit unsatisfying. It also provides one simple explanation for a hell of a lot of intrigue it sets up, coming off as a cop-out, even though the middle section of the film would admittedly work better on a second viewing.

The Double Hour does not take enough of a stance in genre. It is rarely a detractor if a film does not line up cozily with a genre; in fact I welcome it. It is a detractor when the material is not strong enough to tell the story it wants to. It made me wish it threw itself much more heartily into its thriller origins so it had a grip on something specific. It dips its toes into many genres for a short period of time, but backs off too soon to establish anything of worth.

Finally, there is perhaps the central reason The Double Hour underwhelms and the main catalyst for the twists’ failures. The romance at its center is flat and uninspired despite the chemistry between the two leads. Both Sonia’s character development and the romance between her and Guido need to work in order for the twists to make have the intended impact. The former is moderately strong and the latter is too little too late. Without a relationship the audience is invested in, it becomes difficult to care, especially in the final third.

The only truly palpable reason to see The Double Hour, despite it being engaging enough to merit a look, is for Kseniya Rappoport’s performance. She makes the film almost single-handedly gripping. She is morose, racked with guilt, has hidden agendas and is appropriately vague in her emotions.

The twists in The Double Hour are too much, and the story becomes less and less investing as the film heads towards the end of its runtime. It does not do nearly enough in most aspects to have the kind of impact it strives towards. There is a lot of talent in Capotondi, but this is too unpolished, too undercooked to truly recommend as a whole. Remnants of a recommendation come mainly because of the beguiling performance from Rappoport.

Catherine Reviews James Marsh’s Project Nim [IFFBoston 2011 Review] Sun, 08 May 2011 05:17:57 +0000

Beginning to write about James Marsh’s documentary Project Nim, it becomes tempting to immediately spring into all-out praise mode. Marsh approaches stories from different angles. 2008’s Man on Wire functions as a heist narrative. Project Nim is a chimpanzee biopic. Herb Terrace’s experiment was amateurish and botched from the start. By default, this allows Marsh to focus all his energies on telling Nim’s heartbreaking story, using archival footage and some very honest and candid interviews by the many people who came in and out of Nim’s life.

James Marsh clearly wants to tell stories that are special; tales that one does not hear every day. The year is 1973 and Professor Herb Terrace, a behavioral psychologist of Columbia University, wants to conduct an extended study on the potential communication between species. The idea is to take a chimpanzee and bring it up as a child. This includes no contact with its own kind, eventually teaching it sign language. He asks a woman named Stephanie LaFarge to take Nim in. She is delighted to, being the free-spirited hippie that she is, as well as a wife and mother of several children.

The problematic nature of the experiment shows itself right off the bat. It becomes clear how undeveloped the project is, and that the two people involved at this point, are coming from different directions. Herb Terrace is the straight-out villain of the piece. Marsh does not even have to try hard to mold him into this role. The archival footage, his interview footage, and the comments made from the other interviewees are more than enough to see the kind of guy Terrace is. He is media-obsessed and craves professional recognition, as well as the female researchers he works with. LaFarge develops a deep connection with Nim, as she was there from the beginning when he was taken away from his mother. She breast-feeds him and lets him become a bona-fide member of the family, much to the annoyance of her husband.

In comes Laura, a young research student whom Terrace appoints to start babysitting Nim. She creates a schedule for him to, you know, actually start using sign language (something any competent individual would have implemented from the beginning of the study). Lafarge does not want this, believing he should be let alone. Eventually, Terrace and Laura turn against LaFarge and take Nim away from her. This only takes us about twenty-five minutes into the film. It is only the first of many parts of Nim’s journey. From here on out, Nim travels from place to place and is only visited by Terrace when he has photographers with him. Since these are the only people in Nim’s life, they become all he knows, only to be repeatedly taken away. Things take a turn for the worse when the project ends, and Nim is placed in LEMSIP, a medical research facility. There is a lot that happens before, during and after LEMSIP, but I will let viewers discover this sad and amazing tale on their own.

Project Nim is structured as a biopic that allows us to be acquainted with Nim as well as understand our incapacity to truly know a wild animal. All of the action is focused around the chimp, but the film says so much more through the story it tells. It is about humanity and our need to control and manipulate everything to be more like us. It is about the incompetence of man. It is about the well-meaning individuals like Joyce Butler, who care so deeply but are powerless in the bigger picture, and those like Bob Ingersol and Dr. James Mahoney, who never give up on making a difference.

Would the study have worked if it had actually been organized or well-conceived? Questions start lingering in the mind and are brought up as the film draws to a close. Regardless of the level of competency involved, should this study have ever happened? The film takes on communication and asks what the study could have taught us. Ingersol and several others achieved something very meaningful with Nim, (which was clearly coming from both sides, not from humans misguidedly anthropomorphizing him) but not just because of the sign language; there was a deeper connection taking place. At the same time, there was no communication happening between the adults, who were supposed to understand exactly what this project was. That Nim was communicating with humans is impossible to deny, but the achievements of the project are so debatable and so poorly recorded that it can only be deemed inconclusive. Terrace, in his conception of Project Nim, fails to take into account that while chimps have human qualities, they also have ‘˜chimp’ qualities. This becomes a huge obstacle very early on.

Nim is a chimpanzee; not a human. He has two to six times the strength of man and does not know it. He is unpredictable and capable of just about anything. Raising Nim as a child can theoretically work when he is very young. Once he starts growing, there are so many other considerations to take into account that are damaging to both Nim, and the people around him. There are several incidents recounted in the film that prove this as we briefly tiptoe into Planet of the Apes or Monkey Shines territory.

Many documentaries have a person at its center that, by the end, one should have a sense of. That James Marsh is able to do this with every talking head is remarkable. The interview subjects in documentaries rarely stand out as individuals; our job is to get information from them. The many people who were involved with Nim all shine through as distinct personalities. Almost all of them are willing to be impressively open and honest about Nim and their experiences and regrets. That Nim changed all of their lives is all too clear; most of them get emotional at one point, and the lucidity with which they talk about Nim makes it feel like it happened much more recently than it did. The subjects are shot in front of a grey background. The camera pans left or right when they make their entrance and exit from the story, which nicely visualizes the fact that so many people went in and out of Nim’s life.

Something that stands out in Project Nim is the way all the issues addressed (communication, animal-rights issues, nature of man, power struggles, etc.) is done indirectly, and through the telling of Nim’s story. For a film that asks so many questions, it is natural to assume the film is too crowded and trying to tackle too much. But the film only directly has one goal; to tell the story of Nim through the structure of a biopic. It is through this that everything else comes naturally to light, and is evident through the events and interviews.

There is humor in Project Nim, as he is shown in suits, doing somersaults as he indulges in his affection for cats and is given joints to smoke. There is charm in seeing a chimp treated as a human that is naturally appealing and is amusing. This all gives way to despair. By the end of his story, Nim is bitterly angry and resigned. He has given his trust to humans too many times and they have let him down. In an incident late in the film, LaFarge goes to visit him at his latest location after not having seen him for many years. She can see he is not a baby anymore; he is no longer cute. He is gaunt and ragged. She says she felt no connection with him. A comment like this shows that even the humorous moments, which are entertaining and lighten the mood, mean something more. The amusement that comes with a baby chimp only prolongs the true nature of the beast. LaFarge’s visit showed her what they were dealing with right from the beginning; a wild animal. Those who see Project Nim will be heartbroken. It works on many different levels, but people will remember first and foremost the story of Nim’s unstable life. James Marsh has told an unforgettable story and Project Nim is a true accomplishment.


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