Saturday, September 27, 2008

Married Life **

Director: Ira Sachs
Cast: Pierce Brosnan, Chris Cooper, Patricia Clarkson, Rachel McAdams

We get it, life in the 1940's wasn't any better than life in our times.
Which is why one has to look beneath the surface to explain why does Hollywood choose to go back to this time to deconstruct the picket fenced, pastel colored lives of its inhabitants.
A reminder perhaps that old isn't necessarily better? Or a bitter attempt to bring our illusions about nostalgia down to Earth?
Whatever the reason is, and judging from the result of this film, director, Ira Sachs himself has no clue of why he chose this path as he explores love and relationships through the eyes of four characters.
Harry Allen (Cooper) is a successful man in his fifties married to Pat (Clarkson), a devoted wife who believes that love is best embodied by sex.
This leads the romantic Harry to fall in love with young war widow Kay (McAdams) who breathes new life into his existence.
The trouble with Harry is that he just doesn't know how to leave Pat without causing her too much pain and decides that the most humane way would be murder.
When his best friend, and narrator, Richard Langley (Brosnan) becomes infatuated with Kay, the plot gives path to a hybrid of noir, Sirk and Hitchcock on style and dark comedy and drama on genre (with none of the factors coming out unscathed or slightly clear).
With a flawless eye for detail (including title credits that promise more than they deliver) "Married Life" is beautiful to behold, but unlike films of the era to which the aesthetics were inherent and to postmodern essays that choose this setting to deliver a specific message, Sachs goes to the 40s because they sure look pretty.
Shot with a European sensibility, the film often lacks some sort of soul, which is luckily provided by two of the performers.
Cooper brings a sense of decency to this man who contemplates murder in such a complex way that for a minute or two you might find yourself understanding his motives.
While the endlessly surprising Clarkson gives Pat a duality one would've thought was inexistent for a character like hers. She can be completely sweet and dedicated, just as easily as she can become wickedly seductive (and her raspy voice does wonders for this).
McAdams never really musters any sort of passion in order for us to believe she'd make men act like this, but if the intention was to go for a frigid Hitchcock blonde, she's as pretty an ornament as she ever was (and you can argue more if the intention was to sexualize her all American goodness).
But one of the film's major problems comes in the shape of Brosnan, while it's undeniable that he's growing as an actor, the plot throws him into the mix and never really knows what to do with him.
His voice is a perfect choice for noir narration and in theory his looks and charm make him tailor made for this role (one that would've probably been played by Fred McMurray back in the day) but the director makes the fatal mistake of also turning him into his own opinion, a sort of anachronistic intruder that is supposed to work as our mediator.
When events start unfolding and he becomes key part in the futures of the other characters we realize that the film doesn't have the guts to turn into a full farce, has no real respect to be an homage and it also lacks the winks to turn into a parody, making it as lost as the emotions of the people in it.
It's even worse when it's unable to sustain ideals its characters were supposed to have, not because characters aren't allowed to change which would be a ridiculous suggestion, but because it's yet another proof of how the film slips so much in its attempt to distract us with smoldering style.

Paul Newman (1925-2008)

He was beautiful (in every single way).
May he rest in peace.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Mamma Mia! **1/2

Director: Phyllida Lloyd
Cast: Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth
Christine Baranski, Julie Walters, Stellan Skarsgard
Amanda Seyfried, Dominic Cooper

During a decade long career where they sold over two hundred million records, Swedish pop group ABBA marked an entire generation (and their kids) by providing them with some of the greatest (or is it catchiest?) songs ever made.
Despite the popularity of their music, the group has always lacked the snob approval to deem them transcendental and to some their work remains vapid bubble gum confections.
This film, adapted from the wildly successful musical, delivers the goods in the same way. Nobody watching it can say they didn't enjoy it, but does that make it great art?
One can say the director looked to achieve this effect intentionally, but that would be wishful thinking considering what sloppy work she provides in telling the story of Donna (Streep), a free spirited single mom living in a Greek island.
Her daughter Sophie (Seyfried) is about to get married and wants to know who her father is. With this in mind she peruses through her mom's journal and comes up with three candidates: Sam Charmichael (Brosnan), Bill Anderson (Skarsgard) and Harry Bright (Firth), all of whom her mom had sex with around the time she was conceived.
She invites them secretly to her wedding, where joined by Donna's lifeling friends Tanya (a sensuous Baranski) and Rosie (scene stealing Walters), and every other inhabitant of the island, they will give path to mistaken identities, screwball situations and more singing and dancing than you'd expect in under two hours.
Truth is that for all we care the story could've been about a martian in love with a cow and the raison d'etre would still be finding a way to insert the ABBA songs in it.
First time film director Lloyd proves that she lacks the cinematical eye to make the theater to film transfer come off as something more than bellbottom camp.
The musical sequences, which come one after the other in what could be called "greatest hits filmmaking", are staged as if a drunken karaoke singer decided he wanted to continue the party on his way home.
It's true that the infectious beat of the music and all the colors and pretty people (Seyfried is especially good) can help achieve some joy, but once the party's over, the hangover will reveal all that went wrong before.
The problem with "Mamma Mia!" is basicallly that it looks cheap; with musicals the director has to be very careful into creating suspension of disbelief by making non musical moments segue into the songs invisibly.
For Lloyd it seems, this meant not rehearsing a single thing (what was up with those dancing divers?) and giving her actors a chance to improvise, which ironically makes the film look stagey and chaotic. During one of the first musical moments you will make up your mind on whether this is kitsch heaven or punishment worthy of boot camp, with "camp" being the key word.
The one undeinable thing is that the film fully belongs to the great Meryl Streep.
Gifted with a voice that gives the songs the dramatic dimension they were accused of lacking, she turns "The Winner Takes It All" into a somber, regretful moment of love long lost, while on "Super Trouper" she rejuvenates thirty years right in front of your eyes.
But it's on the title track with her sly smile, scarily contagious joy and fearless approach towards building a character that she is at her most glorious.
Whether you like the film or not, you really have to take a chance on Streep, how she does it is a mystery, yet you can't help but dig her, she truly is the dancing queen!

Friday, September 19, 2008

Knowing Her, Knowing You.

After watching "Mamma Mia!", I couldn't help but wonder: is there anything Meryl Streep can't do?

Monday, September 15, 2008

Happy-Go-Lucky ***1/2

Director: Mike Leigh
Cast: Sally Hawkins
Eddie Marsan, Alexis Zegerman, Samuel Roukin, Sylvestra Le Touzel

It's ironic we've come to live in a world where the idea of happiness can't be taken without a grain of salt or a hint of cynicism.
It's even more surprising that Mike Leigh, known for his takes on the trials and tribulations of the British working class, comes up with a film that deals with happiness as something that resides out of bourgeoisie dreams and is perhaps possible.
After pushing his characters (and the actors and actresses playing them) to explore the darkest confines of human nature, he now gives us Poppy (Hawkins) a thirty year old, single Londoner who can't help but be happy all the time.
She works as an elementary school teacher where she is loved by her students, she lives in a rented apartment with her best friend Zoe (Zegerman), goes to pubs, jumps on trampolines after work and dances the night away in clubs.
In a sense she has attained the careless kind of life everyone both fears and desires, which also leads the audience to take an almost immediate position on where Poppy stands (leading us to examine where we stand in our world views as well).
Poppy's either a Pollyanna-like role model or a delusional woman who would be better off in a mental institution.
Whatever the case is, during the first part of the film her combination of boldly colored clothing and an incessant, chirpy giggle accompanying all her lines will either become the most annoying thing you have ever seen, or charming qualities that make you fall for her.
She begins taking driving lessons, after a bittersweet incident occurs during the opening credits, and her instructor Scott (the outstanding Marsan who travels through emotions effortlessly), a homophobic, racist, paranoid pessimist might very well be everything she's not. When she asks if he's a Satanist, he tells her he's the exact opposite, leading her to innocently wonder "are you the Pope?", which also comes as a wink from Leigh who never says no to the possibility of a debate.
Less preoccupied with storytelling than with sketching a character, the film consists of vignettes where we see how Polly interacts with different people and environments.
Particularly interesting are the men in her life with whom Leigh seems to be representing his duelling vision of who this woman is. While Scott accuses her of "celebrating chaos" after listening to her joyful views on life, for social worker Tim (Roukin), who first comes into her life out of a bleak event involving one of her pupils, she is a breath of fresh air (it's magical to see how Leigh is able to sexualize someone who could've easily gone into celibate, saintly territory).
With no pressure to take the plot anywhere, the director takes his time putting his heroine in varied situations which include a poetic encounter with a homeless man (an ethereal Stanley Townsend) and, in which might become the movie's trademark scene, out of the blue Flamenco lessons with a passionate, fiery instructor (scene stealing Karina Fernández).
In a sense it's as if Leigh is experimenting how Poppy will react, this doubtful approach comes as no surprise considering that Hawkins makes the performance and the character all her own.
Her bubbly, brilliant performance is the film and she makes of Poppy a breathtaking being to behold. Her restlessness is small only compared to her joy.
You watch Poppy not with envy, but with doubt as to why is she that she has become able to see only the good, when the rest of us obsess with the bad.
Hawkins' layered work leaves us no doubt that there must be some pain within this woman and sometimes the film becomes a battlefield between the overflowing joy of the actress and the unabashedly human conscious work of the director. Especially in scenes between her and Marsan who works as a unique counterpart.
He builds situations that make us wonder if this will be the moment when the rug is pulled from under our feet and Poppy will reveal a big, dark secret. Slightly more disturbing is the fact that somehow we take the inevitability of this as a sure thing and even feel the need to find out something bad that will justify everything else.
When that moment takes longer to arrive the film poses existential questions regarding how comfortable we've become with misery and how scary the prospects of happiness seem.
Near the end of the film, there is a slight twist which seems as if it's about to solve all our issues regarding Poppy, considering that Leigh has taken little interest in building a backstory for us.
As we wonder whether she's a phony or the real thing the most miraculous thing occurs and we realize that perhaps neither Hawkins or Leigh know for sure themselves.
"Happy-Go-Lucky" may be a film that never really knows where it's going, but like it's lead character it isn't afraid of what's coming next.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Another Reason Why I Love Musicals.

It takes them three minutes to tell what took James Cameron three hours.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Pain in the Actress.

She has exactly four scenes, roughly twenty minutes of screen time, in a film filled with far more interesting characters in every sequence, and still Eleanor Parker managed to get an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress for her role in "Detective Story".
The nomination itself is not the surprise (even if this means the Academy thought she was worthy of being in a lineup that included Katharine Hepburn for "The African Queen" and Vivien Leigh for "A Streetcar Named Desire"), the thing that bothers me is that the element that made her performance different from the rest is that her character has a secret, something that for the era was terrible, but nowadays is instantly obsolete (just take a look at how easily the Academy went and nominated "Juno" this year).
Of course all this has a lot to do with changes in society, but the one constant is that the Academy simply loves subjugated women; the more their character suffers, the better the performance.
Why do you think that pain (even when it's only referred to in the film) is associated with good acting?

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day **

Director: Bharat Nalluri
Cast: Frances McDormand, Amy Adams
Lee Pace, Ciarán Hinds, Shirley Henderson
Tom Payne, Mark Strong

"What a difference a day made and the difference is you" goes the 1934 standard that fits this film like a glove.
Set in 1940's London, with the kind of naivete reserved for fluff entertainment of the era, the plot follows governess Guinevere Pettigrew (McDormand) over the length of a day when she finds herself out of a job and is forced to steal another colleague's client: the extravagant, bubbly American cabaret singer Delysia Lafosse (Adams) who has to choose between a club owner (the seductively wicked Strong), a young theater producer (Payne) and a penniless jazz pianist (Pace).
For Miss Pettigrew, who is used to dealing with children, and has gone through extreme poverty, Delysia's misadventures come off as a a bit of a slap in the face.
While for Delysia, who must deal with fashion and boy trouble, Pettigrew's old world knowledge serves as an instant rock of wisdom.
But what the film lacks is a midpoint between these too obvious extremes, which bode well for children's fairy tales, but lack the spice needed to work as an adult farce.
McDormand, although reliable as usual, is completely miscast, in a role that merely uses her to deliver "inspiring" lines that would fit Mary Poppins better.
The director seems to ignore that McDormand is a brilliantly dark comedienne who would've had no trouble exploring what lies beyond the "too good to be true" facade of Pettigrew.
This leaves the entire film to be owned by the ever improving Adams, who is so good at playing airheaded, that you never doubt her sincerity in the part. Watching her combination of sensuality with innocence is a real pleasure and during a musical sequence, she even gives Delysia shades of real, heartwrenching humanity.
The plot leaves no room for surprise (other than what fabulous gown will Adams sport next) because it uses every single element to lead us to an expected resolution.
This film could've easily been served from what it shows the most and uses the less: its divine eye for period design, which is left on a second level as it tries hard to deliver cheap philosophy intended to remind us that every day must be lived as if it was our last.
What "Miss Pettigrew" doesn't know is that the feeling it tries so hard to express, was effortlessly conveyed in movies of the era (think "Bringing Up Baby" or "To Be Or Not to Be"), which for their cinematic qualities also made the audience's lives much better in the process.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Hellboy II: The Golden Army *1/2

Director: Guillermo del Toro
Cast: Ron Perlman, Selma Blair, Doug Jones, Jeffrey Tambor, Luke Goss, Anna Walton

The minute when quantity was confused with quality and self gratification mistaken for artistic vision, Guillermo del Toro became a successful filmmaker.
Boasting more strange creatures than a "Star Wars" brothel, this sequel to "Hellboy" begins by telling the story of a truce made by humans and mythical creatures ages ago to end a war that involved the title army.
Flash forward to our era where the truce is about to be broken by the rebel Prince Nuada (Goss) who believes the human race has done enough harm to the planet and plans to bring the golden army back to life to destroy civilization.
With this threat reaching beyond usual parameters, it's up to the members of the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Development to stop Nuada from his goal.
The most notorious member of the bureau is Hellboy (Perlman), the troubled demon who is now going through a rebellion against authority while he deals with his relationship with the fiery Liz (Blair).
Coming back is also Ben Sapien (Jones), the fish like erudite who develops a crush on Nuada's twin sister, the noble Princess Nuala (Walton).
Working with baroque myths and tracing back fairy tale elements to reasonable and logical sources, del Toro delivers a visual spectacle the likes of which only he knows how to do.
There's action and detail going in almost every thing in the film, with creatures springing from unexpected places and layered setpieces that demand to be seen in awe.
But unlike better filmmakers del Toro has never been able to justify his need to put all these things up on the screen and much less why the audience needs to pay a movie ticket to endure this constant selfidulgement.
It's good that his ensemble sometimes takes your mind off this, with the phenomenal Perlman making the movie all his own (despite the forced dialogues which wink at you more than they should). The characters however always are left on a second plane, while del Toro pushes himself into the realm of "what next?".
Style over substance doesn't always have to be a bad thing and in fact it can be very good when it's worked for a reason other than to exploit art direction and visual effects, but del Toro isn't very apt in this sense and during one key scene when one of the characters could perform a simple action that would save us a whole hour of film (without taking into consideration the unused factor of dramatic tension) del Toro instead chooses to unleash an unnecesary gigantic creature with which he sends out an environmentalist message and shows off his imagination's works.
Hellboy and the others end up looking like incompetent idiots, but let's face it, in "Hellboy" it's a del Toro world, and not even his characters are invited.

Suddenly, Last Total Eclipse of the Sun

Watching "Little Shop of Horrors" my mind couldn't help from wandering off into the degrees of separation games I often play.
Chuckling that the evil plant was named Audrey, and after wondering if this is a name for both men and women, I remembered my favorite Audrey of them all; Miss Hepburn of course.
Hepburn led me to remembering Katharine and of course the whole evil flesh eating plant thing immediately made me recall "Suddenly, Last Summer" in which Kate plays Violet Venable, a slightly deranged mother trying to get Elizabeth Taylor lobotomized, who also happens to love venus fly traps.
Later when Audrey performs the wicked "Mean Green Mother From Outer Space" I had an epiphany, or something like it: Audrey II in a way is none other than Violet Venable in her ultimate form.
The Tennessee Williams character had now evolved and merged her not so good parenting skills with the plants she obsessed about the most.
As that plant, and its little offspring, sang and laughed at poor Rick Moranis, I couldn't stop thinking that after escaping it would go out and get Liz's lobotomy done.
I also couldn't help but wonder how good Kate would've been playing the part...

- This post is part of "Musical of the Month" hosted by Nathaniel Rogers of "The Film Experience".

Tuesday, September 2, 2008