August 28, 2013

The Way, Way Back

The Way Way Back feels like a missed opportunity at times. It tries to be a profound comedy-drama, but its simple story works against those ambitions, for the better. (Simplicity is so underrated that even the simple movie is trying to complicate itself.) This is an enjoyable comedy-drama that's full of interesting characters, but they never develop beyond the predictable. There's pouty teenager Duncan (Liam James), stuck at a New England beach town with his mother (Toni Collette) and her asinine boyfriend (Steve Carell). Then there's Susanna, a chronically annoyed teenager who lives next door with her mom (played by Allison Janney, who's funny but tries too hard to be endearingly obnoxious) and her little brother, whose lazy eye is a point of amusement for his mother.

The film is about Duncan's finding acceptance. He takes to wandering the town and eventually wanders into a water park run by Sam Rockwell and Maya Rudolph. Rockwell's Owen is a man-child who doesn't take anything seriously. But he tries too hard to be funny, and you feel the effort in every line. (He still manages to be likable much of the time.) Rudolph's part feels under-written. She has what amounts to a glorified cameo, and when she gets annoyed with Owen for being so immature, it's never addressed. She just gets over it and that's that.

I found much of The Way Way Back to be charming and refreshing. The film represents for me a conundrum. It's mostly well-acted, and the cast is appealing, as is the story. (That ending was wonderfully understated and really made up for the stupid water-slide-passing moment.) But I kept wondering why on earth Toni Collete was dating Carell's character--who's such an obvious jerk-- in the first place. She provides some shoddy reasoning: "he said it was too late, we were already in this together." It's the kind of dumb movie-writing that is all to easily relied upon when a writer is running out of credible ideas. With AnnaSophia Robb, Amanda Peet, Rob Corddry, Jim Rash, Nat Faxon, Robert Capron, and River Alexander. Directed and written by Fason and Rash.

August 23, 2013

On the Bigness of Cinema (and Ben Affleck)

Remember when everyone pitched a fit about Daniel Craig being chosen as the new James Bond? And now, more than ever, people are putting 007 movies on their ten-best-films lists at the end of the year. Nothing ever prevents the naysayers from making all their garbled noise, but when you read about people complaining of an actor's casting in a franchise, you wonder if anyone is aware of the real problems going on in the world today. Comic book-movie lovers are fuming about the fact that Ben Affleck will now be playing Batman. They're apparently ashamed and embarrassed, and haven't gotten over their Christian Bale crush yet. They may rattle their cages and scream of cinematic injustice, but frankly, I think this is a good choice. Christian Bale? No sense of humor. On the other hand, Ben Affleck can't possibly take himself that seriously after an immaculate record of bad movies. And yet, he's been redeeming himself with movies like The Town and Argo of late. Affleck may be just what's needed for a franchise that has always struggled with heavy-handedness. (Come to think of it, I'd like to see a truly left-field casting choice for one of these movies. Perhaps, Florence Henderson as the next Iron Man?)

What frustrates me, and, is doubly frustrating because few seem to care, is the fact that studios have just set a new precedent in making a superhero movie that will feature both Batman and Superman. A movie like this will surely usher in a new wave of even bigger, heavier, more gargantuan movies. The movie-going public is like an ever-expanding stomach, engorged on the excessive offerings of the studios, and our collective appetite for small movies generally always contracts in the process. (The Town and Argo seem like small movies compared to the bloated franchises that repeatedly inundate the screens from May to September every year. That's saying something.) We seem perpetually entranced by quantity and increasingly less interested in or appreciative of quality.

The only real solution to this is for the public to lose interest in these big movies. But that doesn't seem like a realistic possibility. I'm constantly perplexed as to the success of films that offer the same things over and over again. The summer blockbusters are so indistinguishable that one must assume the public either doesn't notice or doesn't care, that they consider bigness in a movie to be an indication that they've gotten their money's worth.

More likely than not, folks will make the "mindless entertainment argument." People often argue: "I don't want to have to think about something. I just want to sit back and enjoy something mindless for two hours." (Make that two hours and forty-five minutes. But I'll grumble about overlong movies another time.) This argument makes no sense to me, because I find these kinds of movies mentally exhausting and boring. How are others so enthralled by them? Are they kidding themselves? Are they utterly oblivious to the fact that they're being snowed in by a sedentary film industry? Perhaps.

Or perhaps audiences have settled for television, where they're more likely to find smarter entertainment these days. (Re-watching a few episodes of 30 Rock, which is brilliant in a kind of mile-a-minute, hyperactive way, I'm struck by how few movie comedies could ever keep up with its insane comic ingenuity.) Yes, in an odd way movies have become a breeding ground for stupidity and television a site of creativity. (One might argue that subtlety has been lost altogether, but that is for another day.)

Granted, there's still an oversupply of crap on television (Duck Dynasty comes to mind), but television now offers more fascinating writing, more interesting characters, and seemingly more chances being taken. (30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, Arrested Development, and even HBO's Veep are some of the funniest, cleverest shows in a very, very long time.) I can't speak for the dramas, because I avoid them, but I hear good things about certain dramatic shows on cable and regular television. I can only trust the opinions of people I respect who claim they are smartly written, well-made shows that offer more than your average mindless movie does.

Mindless movies, by the way, have their place. But in answering the question, "of what ingredients is a good mindless movie made?", I suppose we must all decide for ourselves.

August 20, 2013

Belle de Jour

The lovely Catherine Deneuve plays a Parisian newlywed who becomes a high-end prostitute in Luis Buñuel's Belle de Jour (1967), which captures the convoluted mixture of guilt and excitement in acts of transgression. For a while, Belle de Jour is a sympathetic character: her doting husband (played by Jean Sorel) is certainly nothing to complain about. His worst problem is that he's bland; but he's handsome and loving and a good provider, and reacts good-naturedly when his wife turns him down in the bedroom night after night. No, Belle doesn't turn to prostitution out of an unhappy marriage, even though she feels that she is incapable of making love to her husband. She's a little bored, a little scared of the permanence of marriage, and, possibly, is unable to be with men who respect her. And that curious mixture of indignity and taboo adds to the allure, even though it takes Belle a while to work up to the demands of her clients. (There's also a hint that she may have been abused as a child; this would give credence to the idea that she can't allow herself to be treated right.)

Despite the subject matter, Buñuel's film is tastefully done, never fetishistic or exploitative. This film's aim is not to titillate the audience in a perverse fashion; it's instead interested in exposing the uncertainties people grapple with and the tremendous amount of fear that drives very ordinary people to decidedly outre patterns of behavior. But it's rather difficult to want to throw a pity party for Belle, because she gets entangled with a client who's obsessed with her, and he eventually finds out about her husband, whom he sees as an obstacle. We can only suspect that this man will harm Mr. Belle de Jour, such an affable boy scout. 

You really start to appreciate the normality of blandness in Belle de Jour, because Buñuel offers the fantasy of doing something outlandish and shows us both the excitement and the ugliness of it. It makes the not-so-hip normal life seem rather more appealing, and particularly pathetic when the not-so-hip normal guy is cast down by a cruel twist of fate. 

With Michel Piccoli; Genevieve Page, who gives a wonderfully sympathetic and vulnerable but assured performance as Madame Anais, the lady who runs the brothel; Pierre Clementi as Marcel, the man who becomes obsessed with Belle de Jour; and Francoise Fabian and Maria Latour as two other prostitutes. Written by the director, Jean-Claude Carriere, and Joseph Kessel, on whose 1928 novel the film is based. 100 min. ½

August 17, 2013

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie

On the surface, Luis Buñuel's surrealist film The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) is about six people who keep meeting up for meals together and never actually get to eat anything. It starts out with four of them arriving at the home of the other couple, only to discover the invitation was for the following evening. The would-be dinner guests drag the lady of the house (played by Stephane Audran)--whose husband is out--to a restaurant, but they're turned off when they discover that the owner has just died unexpectedly, and the staff is weeping over his corpse in another room. 

What seems to be going on in Discreet Charm is a critique of the middle class and their good-natured apathy towards the problems of the world. Their lives revolve around meals, where they chatter about things of little importance in a world that's enduring Vietnam and all kinds of political unrest: One of the characters, played by Fernando Rey, is a Venezuelan ambassador who's being targeted by terrorists; meanwhile, both he and his colleague (Paul Frankeur) are cocaine addicts living in fear that they will be busted by the police at any moment. Also, did I mention that the ambassador is having an affair with his friend's wife, Simone (Delphine Seyrig)?

Buñuel keeps things moving in Discreet Charm, and his sense of humor shines through some of the film's bleaker moments. There are a number of disturbing dream sequences--some of which are convincing enough to take advantage of one's gullability--that are like little shards of glass penetrating the well-manicured exterior of the bourgeoisie culture. There's also a marvelously funny scene where Jean-Pierre Cassel (father of Vincent) and his wife (Audran) sneak out of their own house to make love while their four hungry guests are waiting for them in the living room. 

Many times you will find yourself wondering what in the hell is going on in this movie, but the film manages to be unwaveringly fascinating, even at its most bizarre. Buñuel is clearly a master of the surreal: his playful mingling of fantasy and reality tends toward the comic, and the humor is perfected by the banal seriousness of the characters. I don't mean to suggest that they're boring, but rather that they play the roles with the utmost sincerity: they're sincerely upper-middle-class people with the trappings of normality on display to conceal their real selves: pure id, pure appetite. (When they finally get to eat some food, near the end, a trio of machine-gun-wielding gangsters ambushes them. Rey sneaks under the dinner table, and we see his hand reaching up to grab a slice of beef.)

With Bulle Ogier, Michel Piccoli as a Catholic priest who becomes a gardener, and Milena Vukotic as the maid. Written by the director and Jean-Claude Carriere.  

August 15, 2013

The Earrings of Madame de...

A spoiled woman (Danielle Darrieux) pawns the earrings her husband, a well-regarded French general (Charles Boyer), gave her because she's in debt and wants to keep him from finding out. Then she has an affair with a baron (famed actor-director Vittorio De Sica), who by chance buys her the earrings at a shop in Constantinople.

The Earrings of Madame de... (1953) is like a corny Warner Bros. soaper from the 1940s, only there's no Bette Davis to redeem it with her delicious histrionics. It's one of those films people talk about in breathless, measured tones: they admire its opulent beauty, its brilliant subversion of its own superficial superficialities, its assertion that even the vain, pampered rich can be tragic figures and unlucky in love. But more likely than not, you'll be completely bored within the first thirty minutes, despite all the whirling of the cameras as Madame de... dances the week away with her charming baron.

The director, Max Ophuls, apparently thought himself terribly clever in refusing to reveal Madame De's full name. Instead it comes off as a mere contrivance. (At least Daphne du Maurier's excuse for giving us an unnamed heroine in Rebecca was because she simply couldn't think of one; and there it actually worked with the theme of the book.) One might sympathize with Charles Boyer, if he weren't having an affair too. Although it's enjoyable to see Madame De... get her comeuppance at the end, when Charles Boyer forces her to give the earrings to a sick woman. Madame De... acts like losing the jewels is a worse tragedy than the plague. Perhaps the only depth in Madame de... that's of any interest is the fact that she's addicted to material possessions. But it's barely enough to sustain one's interest. The rich are always more entertaining when they aren't supposed to be pitied.

The music was pretty, though. And there are a few amusing bits--most of them involving the well-meaning jeweler who keeps being handed the earrings. There's also a duel at the end. So it can't be all bad. Overall, Madame de... passes for a bit of gooey society fluff made high-brow by effective lighting, music, camera-work, and being French. 100 min.

August 11, 2013

Cries and Whispers

Cries and Whispers (1972) is like a Jane Austen novel with postpartum depression. It's from the great Ingmar Bergman, and tells the story of three sisters: Agnes (Harriet Andersson), Maria (Liv Ullmann) and Karin (Ingrid Thulin), living together in 19th-century Sweden. Agnes is dying of cancer, and her sisters are unable to comfort her. All three are plagued with painful memories of their childhood and later experiences of discontent. It's the kind of feel-bad movie you would need to balance out the sunny disposition of a Pride and Prejudice type-film. As is to be expected, this is the kind of film that relies more on silence than on witty banter (it's Swedish, not British), and watching it is kind of like sitting in a hospital waiting room, if the experience were filmed with fine European craftsmanship and lavish, garishly red set designs.

After Karin tells Maria she has hated her all her life and that Maria's attempt to reach out to her is insincere, she lets out a gut-wrenching groan from the very bowels of her soul, releasing years of calcified hate and contempt. Suddenly she begs Maria's forgiveness, and there's a kind of redemptive rekindling of a friendship that never was between the sisters.

Cries and Whispers captures listless family heartbreak at its most unattainable: the subtle torture of years of quiet desperation and their numbing affect on the soul. If that makes you warm and fuzzy, watch this movie. Written and directed by Bergman. With Kari Sylwan as Anna, the sisters' dedicated housekeeper, who has her own quiet miseries, and Erland Josephson, Anders Ek, and Henning Moritzen. 91 min. ½

Suddenly, Last Summer

How could you not love a movie like Suddenly, Last Summer (1959)? It's a delightfully over-the-top Southern family drama from the mind of Tennessee Williams, in which Elizabeth Taylor plays a troubled woman whose dotty millionaire aunt (Katharine Hepburn) wants a prominent surgeon (Montgomery Clift) to perform a lobotomy on her. (Tennessee Williams's sister Rose was lobotomized and it was naturally a tragic moment in the life of the playwright, one which he fixates on in Suddenly, Last Summer.)

Aunt Violet (Hepburn) wants to put certain memories of her niece's to rest, particularly those about Violet's late son Sebastian, an eccentric poet with whom his mother had a bizarre, unhealthy, emotionally incestuous relationship. Sebastian's sexuality is the great big not-so-secret here: he used his mother and his cousin to procure young men for him. The film is of course somewhat coy about this, but only enough to avoid the moralistic but naturally insipid eyes of the Production Code that expurgated all of the Tennessee Williams adaptions at the time. (In Violet's house, we see lots of statues and portraits of muscly nude men in the background. And yet she was in complete denial!)

It's a satisfying bit of glossy trash that pushes all the right buttons, and once again proves how wonderful Taylor was at being campy but sympathetic. And of course, Hepburn flits around like an addle-headed butterfly, spouting her self-deceived monologues about her son as though we're supposed to believe she's the sane one. (But she is the one with the money, and she lures Clift's boss with a million-dollar-check, provided he can deliver the unpleasant surgical procedure.) Montgomery Clift gives a wooden performance, but he's not given much of a character here. His surgeon is just a device used to bring out the madness in the film's stronger characters. There's also cannibalism, and family quibbling, and a wonderful example of Hollywood's obsession with insane asylums. Madness never seemed so glamorous then with the raven-haired Elizabeth Taylor. Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. With Mercedes McCambridge, Albert Dekker, and Gary Raymond. 114 min.

August 09, 2013


A real stinker from the writer-director of District 9, Neill Blomkamp. In that film, aliens and humans co-habitated in a dystopian futuristic Earth. In Elysium, the world is just as dystopian and just as cruddy: decimated (presumably) by nuclear war and ravaged by disease and overpopulation (as contradictory as that may sound), the humans co-habitate with computers, which in some cases have become a part of their own bodies. The wealthy have long since gotten the hell off of Earth, retreating to a man-made outer-space habitat called Elysium (borrowing its name from Greek mythology, the heaven for the people who had connections), where they sip cocktails and swim in their own private pools, and are instantly healed of any ailment by sliding into a glass scanning device called a Medbank. (The film relies on some clumsy captions to set up this story rather than tell it to us visually.)

The people of earth are drab and haggard looking, while the residents of Elysium look like Harvard Business School alums at a business casual brunch. Jodie Foster plays the defense secretary--for our purposes she's sort of the head of Elysium--adorned in smart pantsuits and dresses, and she's like the corrupt politician who's slightly more corrupt than everyone else around her. Foster employs a semi-British accent to sound evil in a sophisticated, calm way. If she's not careful, she may become our next Katharine Hepburn: overpraised and overloaded with awards just for showing up in a film. Here she does lend the film a kind of sickly charm, but her coy vindictiveness is lost in a movie that is ever so carefully contrived.

You can feel the plot connections sliding into place before they happen: every relationship, every bad line that's infused with a kind of self-conscious would-be lyricism. Matt Damon, who plays Max, the main character, keeps having flashbacks of his friendship with Frey (Alice Braga), a friendship that apparently dissolved over time but that is semi-rekindled as he attempts his journey to Elysium. He's been exposed to an extreme--and soon-to-be-fatal--level of radiation at work, so his only chance of survival is one of Elysium's coveted Medbanks. But Frey, now a nurse, wants him to take her young daughter with him because she's dying of leukemia.

The whole time I was criticizing the movie because its protagonist seemed bent on such a self-centered mission, Neill Blomkamp was waiting with a dying kid to make it all right: she's there to make his mission selfless and human and poignant. When our hero is facing possible death, he tells her mother, "tell your daughter I liked her hippo story." Earlier, when the little girl told told him said story, he wasn't interested in talking to her. He couldn't save her, and he didn't want to get involved. But you see, Blomkamp put that scene in there for later use: he could rely on it to pull at our heart strings in the eleventh hour.

Those of you who like grim dystopian stories will probably find Elysium to be your cup of tea. It certainly grabs at a lot of ideas, such as the coming computer takeover, and the possibility that we might make our world unlivable. But there's very little in Elysium to give you hope or pride in our kind. They're either rogue criminals or bland preppies hoarding all the health cards. Elysium is a sci-fi thriller for those who think this is the only kind of story worth telling. And when it comes to a sense of story, why bother with anything original? The usual will do. This is the kind of pre-packaged movie that makes you feel the studio system is either full of contempt for its audience or full of apathy. Possibly it's both.

With Sharlto Copley, Diego Luna, Wagner Moura, and William Fichtner. 110 min. ½