Sunday, March 22, 2009

Review: "Il y a longtemps que je t'aime"

Il y a longtemps que je t'aime (I've Loved You So Long) (2008) is very French. Along with being in the french language, written and directed by Phillippe Claudel (a frenchman), and set and filmed in France, the film has many of the tiresome cliches that Americans have come to recognize in these kinds of ventures; flat, undynamic cinematography, beige and lifeless color palette, laconic dialogue, and an uncomfortable deficit of exposition. longtemps exhibits all of these, and for its initial half hour or so they combine into a sticky molasses of almost unbearable french bleakness. 
The only aspect here that will keep a non-francophile from falling asleep or just giving up is the film's star, English actress Kristin Scott Thomas. How fitting that the most entertaining part of a french film is it's one non-french component. As Juliette, recently released from prison after a 15-year sentence, she is a shell of a woman. Scott Thomas does a brilliant job of suggesting so much about this person with the smallest gesture or expression. 
Upon her release, she is reunited with her younger sister Léa (Elsa Zylberstein) and goes to live with her and her family, which includes Léa's two young daughters, her husband, and his wacky, mute father. Juliette is standoffish, the kids are precocious, and everyone is French. 
Juliette's crime is not immediately revealed, and once it is, the motive for it is left for us to guess at until the final scene. It can be said here, without spoiling things, that this final revelation is handled surprisingly poorly, given the filmmakers' care throughout to craft a detailed and realistic experience. It is especially disappointing because the entire story is built around what Juliette did and why, and whether she was justified. 
I did end up almost losing consciousness, but I cannot determine if this was because the film is boring, or because it slowly creates some dreamlike reality parallel to the real world, where former prison inmates live. 

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Attack of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl

A new film archetype has popped up in recent years - the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. She is always a spontaneous, wacky, beautiful young woman. She has no real soul; her only purpose is to fall in love with some brooding, laconic young man who's usually in the process of 'finding himself'. First appearing in smaller films, and then spreading like a cheery, sexy virus to more mainstream fare, the MPDG is a scourge. She has most recently taken the form of indie princess Zooey Deschanel in two upcoming findies (faux indies) - Gigantic, wherein she fawns over master of broodery Paul Dano, and 500 Days of Summer, which finds our vapid, non sequitur sexpot attempting  to bring Joseph Gordon-Levitt out of his shell. 

Here are the two films' respective trailers. 

Like any overused archetype, our Manic Pixie Dream Girl has gone stale, as is evident in these above film advertisements. Also what is clear, in case it was not before, is that Zooey Deschanel always plays the same exact character in every film. She's sarcastic, hilarious, apparently smart, and gorgeous in that independent record store kind of way. Furthermore, she relies far too much on her gigantic, oppressively blue eyes. She will spread her lids the same way to express every emotion from surprise to joy to sadness to anger to horniness. Those eyes must have their own acting coach. 
The Manic Pixie Dream Girl needs to go away. We are tired of depressed, shlubby guys standing around all mopey until this hollow fairy poofs in and "changes his life FOREVER!!!1!!". We are also weary of Hollywood trying to make indie films; this venture is, by its very nature, a contradiction. A true independent film is made for little to no money (and I mean no money, quite literally, not 1 or 2 million dollars), by unknowns, starring unknowns. No crew, no industry involvement. What the big studios are throwing at us are anything but independent. Big stars, big budgets, popular soundtrack, industry directors (the helmer of 500 Days of Summer got his start directing Green Day and Jesse McCartney videos), and recycled and cliched scripts. They are findies - faux indies. What would be much more artistically progressive, and less expensive (moneymoneymoney), than making these farces themselves would be to go out and find true indie film, buy them and distribute them. This is a win-win. 

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Review "Little Children"

"Little Children" (2006) is based upon a book of the same name, and it's literary roots are inescapable. Beginning with the redundant narration (a character will look out a window, and the narration will intone "Sarah looked out the window". We needn't be told about what is plainly visible on screen) provided by "Frontline" narrator Will Lyman, more and more elements pile up chaining the film to the book. The structure and story feels at once overly busy and lacking, as a bulk of the meat was no doubt stripped to fit the running length, yet not enough care was taken to rework the story so as fit a cinematic frame. 
Sarah (Kate Winlset, brilliant as usual, and only one more nude role away from her obligatory Oscar) is a stay at home mom who spends her days taking her toddler to the park and moping about her huge house and mentally deriding three fellow moms at the park, who each feel distressingly like stock characters from a yogurt commercial. 
One day, Brad (Patrick Wilson, affable yet unbelievably toned for a middle-class, American dad) comes to the park with his small child. He and Sarah strike up a friendship, which starts as an attempt to freak out the other park moms (and it does to a surprising degree, when Brad and Sarah share a kiss. The moms come running; "Come on, kids. You can't see two people kissing, EW!"), but it soon blossoms into something more intimate. 
This is upper-middle-class suburbia, most likely somewhere in New England, and things are accordingly bland and at times pathetic. Brad mopes about his beautiful wife who brings home all the bacon, and wastes time nostalgically watching skateboarders when he should be studying for the Bar exam; we realize that he is probably not that bright. His ex-cop buddy spends his nights harassing a local sexual deviant named Ronnie who has recently returned from a prison sentence for exposing himself to a child. 
Lifted to sympathetic authenticity by Jackie Earle Haley, Ronnie is a lonely, complex, sad individual. He lives with his loving and protective mother (Phillis Somerville), and these two are the only remotely likable characters in the whole drama. Demonized by his neighbors, Ronnie spends most of his time indoors, and eventually unravels quite disturbingly when tragedy finally strikes. 
Throughout the film is the sound of a train in the background. This is not only ambient noise, but a clear signal that some kind of impending and life-shattering event is heading for our protagonists. Once this factor was gleaned early on, this reviewer was expecting something gloriously tragic, or at least some kind of profound climax that would leave the parties involved irrevocably changed. Not to spoil things, but this was not found to be the case. 
The title of "Little Children" does not refer so much to the toddlers, who are treated increasingly, by their parents and by the filmmakers, as mere props, but to the adults. Our stars, Brad and Sarah, each have very good lives that they are inexplicably unsatisfied with, yet we are meant to feel sorry for them. Meanwhile, the "villain" of the story, Ronnie, ends up getting most of our sympathy because he has real issues that he tries desperately to surmount, with the help of his mother, while facing hostility from all sides. What sells him to us and flays open his soul is a scene wherein he attempts a date. He and his date are both supremely awkward at first, but they soon warm up to each other, and there is the briefest of moments when Ronnie perks up when the young lady begins to talk about a personal struggle in her life that he identifies with. Haley, in this moment, shows us that Ronnie is in many ways gentle and caring, and here in lies the tragedy of the man. He would be a perfectly normal and acceptable human being if not for his impenetrable sexual disorder. It is a heartrending realization, and we immediately want to push aside Sarah and Brad and their pathetic non-problems. 
This film real didn't need to happen, not in this form, anyhow. It can't decide whether to be faithful to the book or completely break free from it, and so it is kept from existing completely in the realm of cinema. The whole thing ends up playing like a superbly acted, 2 hour commercial for the book. The only unique element here is Ronnie, and the film really should have been all about him. 
There are some strong points. The cinematography is quite good, being gorgeous with out calling attention to itself. And there are some qatsiesque sequences with excellent use of juxtaposition that suggest that director Todd Field has some understanding of the cinematic language, which makes the literary dependence and lazy, convenient ending all the more curious. 

Monday, March 16, 2009

TV Review: "Kings" (Pilot)

"Kings" (NBC) just premiered this Sunday, and it has promise. It is a speculative fiction series about some alternate present day America that is ruled my Monarchy instead of republican-democracy. Ian McShane (pictured) is the King of a very Manhattan-looking megalopolis city-state called Gilboa. Most people will know McShane from HBO's "Deadwood", and he is no less deliciously menacing and malevolent here (although sans profanity); he is really the main reason to watch this show, it seems. 
The Pilot episode, "Goliath", shows signs of your typical first season shakes, things like as-yet ill-defined supporting characters and rather generic dialogue and story minutia, but it is the opinion of this critic that given a proper run and a cohesive vision, "Kings" could blossom into something quite good.
Directed by Francis Lawrence ("I am Legend"), the show looks great. The camera work is frenetic when it needs to be (a very tense and brilliant war scene) and at other times elegant. Judging from this initial episode, the two main attractions of this new series are the cinematic aesthetic and McShane. 
I fear that one of two things might happen here: either it will be renewed by the network but then decline in quality, or it will get better with each episode and then get prematurely canceled. Hopefully the quality and ratings will be proportional. 

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

TV Review: "24" (Season 7)

Ok, I give up. And I'm sad. 24 sucks now, I don't think it will ever get anywhere near it's former magnificence. 
Season 7 had a promising start. Disbanding CTU and moving the action to DC was a good start, and there were some interesting new characters thrown into the mix. President Taylor, for one, is a vast improvement over her two predecessors, and maybe the best since David Palmer. Also, Agent Renee Walker is a character worthy of her own show. Additionally, the return of Tony Almeida was quite welcomed, but as the season has moved, he has been criminally left in the background. He, too, deserves his own show. 
maybe five episodes in I started to sense that something just wasn't right with one of my favorite shows. I finally figured out that it was the writing, and not even the over all story or the major beats, but the little stuff - dialogue, scene breaks, minute story logic. This perplexed me, as these elements have long been some of 24's strong points. Paying attention to the credits, I found the problem - Brannon Braga. 
If you are a follower of the Star Trek franchise, then you are more than likely familiar with the name Brannon Braga. For those who don't know, he was mostly to blame for running "Star Trek: Voyager" into the ground, and he was the main creative force 
behind the abortion that was "Enterprise". Many Trekkies give him credit for killing Star Trek. Given this, seeing his name associated with 24 is all kinds of horrifying. I haven't the slightest clue why show creators Joel Surnow and Robert Chochran would even consider bringing him on, 
let alone allowing him to actually write some of the episodes. Have they not seen the last 3 seasons of "Voyager"? Braga is like the syphilis of television producers. He infects a beautiful show and rots it from the inside, until it goes insane and it's balls fall off. 
This is just what is happening to 24. It is not as smart as it once was, the pacing is weird, and it all just feels tired. Jack is tired, we are tired. The show has no life to it; it's testicles have shriveled up and sloughed off. We should just kill this mad cow before it suffers further. 

Tv Review : "Breaking Bad" (season 1)

With the exception of "Lost", all the best tv shows are currently on some form of cable or another, and they have been for a while. "Battlestar Galactica", "The Shield",  and now "Breaking Bad" on AMC. The show premiered last year, and, like most people, I did not see it. The word of mouth train has just recently reached my station, and so yesterday I went online and watched the first three episodes. Wow.
Brian Cranston is high school chemistry teacher Walter White. He's got a teenage son, a pregnant wife, and, as he learns in the pilot episode, inoperable lung cancer. He needs to work another job just to put food on the table, and so he begins to worry about how his family will get by once his eighteen month prognosis is up. An idea strikes him when riding along on a drug bust with his DEA brother-in-law: meth. He quickly teams up with a former student (Aaron Paul) who knows the business, and they get to cooking crystal meth, which, of course, Walt is brilliant at, given his vast academic knowledge of chemistry. 
Cranston, many times lauded for his comedic work on "Malcolm in the Middle", recently won an Emmy for "Breaking Bad", and it is certainly deserved. He brings the same wildly entertaining, bumbling frustration to this show, but his Walt White is a truly complex creature. There is pathos aplenty, to be sure, but there is also something sinister in this seemingly mild-mannered chemistry teacher which Cranston gradually, deliciously pulls to the surface. Paired with Paul as paranoid burnout Jesse Pinkman, Walt comes to life as some kind of hybrid of your average middle-aged goober and an insane super-villain. 
Many props to show creator Vince Gilligan, who got his start writing for "The X-Files". He writes most of the episodes and directed the pilot, and he makes evident a gift with dark comedy and realistic story-telling. 
"Breaking Bad" is like a Coen Bros. film multiplied into a tv show. It is a fact that television these days is increasingly better than mainstream cinema, and this show is certainly no exception. The second season recently premiered on AMC; please watch it so that it does not join "Firefly" and "Freaks and Geeks" as an excellent show that was cancelled too soon. 

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Review: "The Wrestler"

Mickey Rourke, Mickey Rourke, Mickey Rourke. "The Wrestler" (2008) redefines what constitutes a proper star vehicle. As washed-up wrestling legend Randy 'The Ram" Robinson, Rourke balances the entire film upon his hulking, creaking shoulders. His raged, leathery frame fills almost every shot, and his labored breathing and grunting make up an integral part of the sound design. He delivers a total character, a more-than-lived-in entity who grabs us and guides us (quite literally, for many of the shots are handheld over-the-shoulder as he walks into the wrestling ring or behind a grocery deli counter) through his tale. 
Set down in Springsteen's crusty old New Jersey, we find the Ram working the amateur wrestling circuit and getting peanuts for it. Most of his 'rivals' (it is revealed here, as many people have already figured out, that professional wrestling is very much staged, and even specific moves are planned by the wrestlers before hand, like a rock band reviewing their set list before a concert) today were children when he was in his prime. Randy is coasting here on the scant fumes of his former glory. 
His only companion outside the ring is a milfy stripper (Marisa Tomei) called Pam. She gives him lap dances while they spit idle conversation about life and stuff that would be normal in any place but a moldy strip club. She's still got it, as they say, but her old age (by stripper standards) makes it increasingly difficult to do her job, that is, get guys off. They are both, the stripper and the wrestler, working past their primes in body-careers that demand to much. Pam and Randy revolve like twin moons, pulling each other out of orbits that have become wobbly. 
The film happens in three very distinct parts. The first meanders through Randy's wrestling routine - buying steroids, visiting the tanning salon, buying "weapons" to use in the ring at a dollar store, getting his hair done. And, of course, there is the actual wrestling. And I mean actual, as Rourke does perhaps all his own stunts, astonishing at the age of 56 and with all the drugs and things he put in his body in the '90s. Most of his fellow wrestlers are played by the genuine article, which is only appropriate; the entire film feels very much like a documentary, by way of a hangover. In one harrowing sequence, The Ram fights a guy who shoots both of them with an actual staple gun. There is also an excessive use of barbed wire and other such bloodletting miscellanea. It is directly after this fight that The Ram collapses with a heart attack. 
So commences part two. A doctor tells Randy that continuing to wrestle would pretty much be deadly. "But I'm a professional wrestler," Randy insists. "That's not a good idea," advises the doctor. Here is the essence of the film's middle - Randy doesn't know how to be anything but The Ram, and no one else can understand this. 
I will not spoil the third act, but you will see it coming. Though the addition of a traditional, forward-moving plot is perhaps a bit jarring after the sublime fly-on-the-wall experience of the opening 20 minutes, this reviewer deems it necessary. There is a side story involving Randy's estranged, grown daughter, Stephenie, that falls flat and serves only to demonstrate, in case there was any doubt, that The Ram can't lead a normal life. Played to the edges of melodrama by Even Rachel Wood, Stephanie Robinson feels like she belongs in another film, or perhaps a television drama. 
Props are due to director Darren Aronofsky for stepping back and letting Rourke do his thing, while weaving around his star a silky web of bleak yet feverishly vivid visuals. Aronofsky is indisputably an auteur of the highest order, but he recognizes that this is Mickey Rourke's film (the actor even wrote much of his own dialogue). 
"The Wrestler", to be summed up unsatisfyingly and inadequately, is about time building up on a person until they are stuck in the mud. The film really is a cinematic experience in the truest and purest sense; we are given information, that info is feed through tribulations and emotions, and we come through in the end with something we did not have before. Never, though, have I encounter such a profound example of this unexplainable ride in the form of an out-and-out star vehicle. Perhaps this is something new. Perhaps this is something unrepeatable. Mickey Rourke has been in our collective consciousness for almost three decades, during which time he rose to stardom and acclaim, fell bombastically from grace, and is now making a dignified return, showing perhaps more talent and power than before. "The Wrestler" runs along side it's star's real life; conversely, Mickey Rourke does everything he can to bring his fictional doppelganger, Randy "The Ram" Robinson, to life, and it is glorious. The fictional and the actual become mixed to the point of inseparability, and what we are left with is a film that has no predecessor, nor can it have a successor. It is an island in cinema could only have happened at this point in time with this exact actor at it's center.