Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Troubled Water (2008)*****

Story wise, this impressive Norwegian import has more layers than a box of smoked salmon and before we are through, director Erik Poppe will have methodically revealed all of them. Troubled Water is at heart a psychological thriller, and is characterized by superb casting, exceptional acting and a brave willingness to confront murky and difficult issues without resorting to easy answers.

Convicted of the abduction of a child, Jan (Pal Sverre Valheim Hagen, in a stunning performance) is granted early parole to take a job as a church organist, in the same small town where he was tried and sentenced years earlier. Jan flourishes in his new environment for awhile but, despite changes in appearance and taking on a different name, eventually the shocking details of his past slowly encircle him, and his attempts to rebuild his life are mortally threatened.

Troubled Water then unfolds with the telling of two stories, or rather two perceptions of the same story, as we become intimately acquainted with the mother of the dead child (Trine Dyrholm, whose work here is breathtaking) and the deep mental trauma inflicted on her by the tragedy. Along the way there is significant collateral damage; in particular Dyrholm’s husband (Trond Espen Seim), whose desperation to spare his wife further pain is both palpable and self-defeating and Anna (Ellen Dorritt Peterson), the beautiful church pastor who will have her rote platitudes about Christian redemption severely tested.

The film tilts slightly toward melodrama in the final scenes, but that is due more to the subject matter than any conscious decision by director Poppe, and he quickly rights the ship. Important questions are raised about the differences between forgiveness and acceptance, and how in some cases the former may be beyond the capacity of human beings, regardless of the depth of one’s religious convictions.

Troubled Water is a small-scale film made with great skill and meticulous attention to detail. Poppe, Dryholm, Hagen and Seim all acquit themselves very well here, and this absorbing drama may well represent a major turning point in their respective careers.



Sunday, March 28, 2010

Goodbye Dragon Inn (2003)***

Tsai Ming-liang’s somnambulistic ghost story takes place in a seedy, crumbling Taipei movie palace, complete with a leaky roof and an abundance of feral cats. On the enormous screen is Dragon Inn, a popular martial arts action film from the 1960s. The theatre is virtually empty, save for a handful of restless patrons who to tend to aimlessly mill about during the show for no particular reason.

The theatre is run by a disabled woman, whose painful trips up and down the building’s serpentine staircases account for the only real action in the film. This is a difficult film to watch, an even harder one to understand, and there are times when you will be tempted to eject the disc and hurl it Frisbee style across the room. And this reviewer would not blame you in the slightest. But those who elect to tough it out will have their patience, if not exactly rewarded, at least vindicated.

There are some beautifully composed shots here that are gorgeous to look at; good thing too, because Tsai sits on all of them way too long. Sometimes to the point of pain. There are allusions to other films as well, particularly the strange relationship between the theatre manager and the projectionist which has Wizard of Oz overtones, and Tsai’s obtuse way of pointing out all the magical elements audiences derive from cinema - sex, intrigue, fantasy worlds – and how only the cinema can deliver them.

There are no doubt other references here as well, but gleaning those may be dependent on one’s knowledge of Asian cinema history, specifically Taiwanese cinema, and not only the movies themselves but the social act of seeing them in large, crowded hippodromes.

Perhaps Goodbye Dragon Inn is best described as Cinema Paradisio on a lethal dose of Demerol, and while this challenging film has some rewarding moments, it will cause most viewers to reach for their own medications.

Queue It (I dare ya)

Friday, March 26, 2010

Rohmer in Retrospect: A Summer's Tale (1996)*****

Director, writer and critic Eric Rohmer passed away on January 11, 2010, at the age of 89. In this series, we will be examining some of his lesser known films.

Eric Rohmer closed out the 20th Century on a high note, creating two of his best films back-to-back. Autumn Tale, produced in 1998, was a frank and poignant look at the cold realties of searching for love at middle-age, and A Summer’s Tale from 1996, which marked the last time Rohmer would ever deal with his signature subject: modern youth overcome by ennui.

Young Gaspard (Melvil Poupard) disembarks at the town of Dinard on the Britannic coast, for a few weeks of fun in the sun before he begins a new engineering job. Gaspard has tentative plans to link up with Lena (Aurelia Nolan), his nominal girlfriend; a high maintenance beauty summering in Spain. Rohmer dispenses the exposition with an elegant economy, and in a few short, virtually wordless scenes, presents Gaspard slowly adjusting to the relaxing pace of life at the shore.

At breakfast one morning, Gaspard gains the attentions of a brainy waitress named Margot (Amanda Langlet), who also happens to have a PhD in Ethnology. It is a credit to both Rohmer and Langlet that this character layer doesn’t play nearly as far-fetched as it sounds.

Margot also has a lover who’s far away, and she and Gaspard strike up a low-key friendship, consisting mainly of long oceanside walks during which the pair expound on their favorite topics: life, love and themselves. Langlet is a bit of a tease here, as she pushes the friendship to its platonic limits. Rohmer is guilty of teasing as well, as he makes us want Gaspard and Margot to forget their absent lovers and double-down on their instincts.

But there are many fetching young gals roaming the beaches of Dinard, and soon Gaspard finds his head turned by a leggy brunette named Solene (Gwenaelle Simon) whose claims of high moral fiber are belied by her seductive actions. One lazy afternoon - in Rohmer films, all afternoons are lazy - she performs a song Gaspard has written and before long, he imagines them making all sorts of joyful noises together.

However, Gaspard’s dreams of whoopee are short-lived, for there is another shoe to drop, or in this case another beach sandal, and soon Gaspard is juggling women the way a circus performer juggles chainsaws…and with the same high degree of peril.

A Summer’s Tale may well be Rohmer’s best-paced film. It moves with an engaging and spirited jauntiness and never gets bogged down with the incessant yakking that marred many of his films of the 70s and 80s. He didn’t really do anything different here; the film has the same loose-leaf scrapbook feeling of his earlier work, the same long take vignettes, the same lack of editorial time-compression. Yet the film is so well conceived that it organically and hypnotically flows, like the relentless ocean waves that serve as the backdrop to the film’s most important scenes.

The film ends with Langlet standing on a dock, waving goodbye to a departing ship. Once again she’s channeling the director, for he was waving goodbye to a genre; a genre he arguably created. Eric Rohmer would live another 14 years, and during that time he would make 4 more films - not bad for a man in his 80s - but he would never again revisit the romantic foibles of the young, privileged and bored. Eric Rohmer, having perfected The Eric Rohmer Film, proudly turned and walked away.

More on "A Summer's Tale"


Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Quickies #3

Prime Suspect 7: The Final Act (2006)*****

Typical Prime Suspect entry. In other words, fantastic. This one has an edge of sadness as Tennyson (Helen Mirren) reluctantly faces retirement, mortality and some most unpleasant facts about herself. Tough, gritty, exciting; the mystery will have you guessing right up to the end. A most fitting finale to this excellent series.


As It Is in Heaven (2005)****

Charming Swedish romantic semi-comedy, a sort of Northern Exposure meets The Chorus. Big cheese orchestra conductor (Michael Nyqvist) returns to his one-horse home town to rest, but instead gets involved with the local church choir, and the lives of its singers. The ending is a bit over-the-top, but otherwise good acting and writing all around. I hope we see more of Frida Hallgren in the future.


Happy, Texas (1999)**

Lord knows, the idea of a small Texas town fawning over a gay couple who can bring them beauty pageant glory is not only funny, but also highly believable. Yet this idea is squandered on poor execution. Happy, Texas is neither funny nor interesting, but it does manage to somehow bore and insult at the same time.


Diana Krall: Live in Paris (2001)*****

Vancouver Island’s favorite daughter brings her silky smooth show to the French capital, complete with an all-star jazz combo and string section. Krall is renowned mainly for her sultry vocal stylings, but here she displays some righteous jazz piano chops as well. In all, an evening of romantic melodies and amazingly tasteful musicianship. It’s been said that Krall’s music all sounds the same. Yes and all diamonds sparkle.


Monday, March 22, 2010

The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005) ****

An aging pensioner facing a potentially serious illness and the exhausted, overworked medical staff who care for him are the central elements of this comedy – yes, comedy – from Romanian director Cristi Puiu. 63 year-old Mr. Lazarescu (Ion Fiscuteanu) is having a rough Saturday night.

Addled by a headache and occasional vomiting, he also has to endure a rather nasty telephone argument with his sister over finances, as well as the care and feeding of the many lazy, mewling cats strewn about his tiny, ill-kept Bucharest flat. With the help of his hilariously self-absorbed neighbor (Doru Ana), Lazarescu is loaded into an ambulance manned by a kind-hearted paramedic (Lumintina Gheorgiu) and her not-all-there driver (Doru Boguta), for what we think is going to be a fairly straight-forward trip to the ER.

But a horrible bus crash has pushed every hospital in town to capacity, and Lazarescu’s quest for care begins to resemble a dingy version Homer’s epic poem “The Odyssey”. Along the way, we meet an assortment of the world’s drollest doctors, all of whom dispense prescriptions and sarcasm in equal measure. The film features some amazing comic acting, particularly by the various medical professionals who attempt to diagnose Lazarescu, yet the performances all take place within the grittily realistic world created by director Puiu.

We sense the pressured and exhausting lives of these doctors and nurses, who manage to do their jobs professionally despite competing agendas and egos; their sanity maintained only by their brusque, and at times grim, humor. Like most 2 ½ films, this one drags a bit toward the end, and could have used a little editorial pruning. But “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” also contains surprises and comic joys aplenty. It manages to frankly and realistically portray the perils and pratfalls of modern medicine without negativity or condemnation.


Queue It

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Dogville (2003)***

“Dogville” at times manages to overcome both appalling artiness and interminable length to deliver an experience that’s haunting and hypnotic. Set in the 1930s, this Wagnerian version of “Our Town” features an astonishing performance by Nicole Kidman, as an apparent runaway gun moll who seeks sanctuary from her gruff pursuers in a remote Colorado backwater. The film is shot entirely on a stage environment using only the merest suggestion of scenery, an idea that at first seems heavy-handed and a bit silly.

But as the film progresses, this Spartan visual treatment takes on an odd sort of logic, as it enables a fascinating, and at times shocking, voyeurism into the characters’ everyday lives. The interdependency of small town life, with all its shifting loyalties and murky personal dynamics, is captured with credibility. The acting by the large ensemble cast is really quite remarkable, and the film serves as a clear reminder that the stage is truly an actor’s medium.

Paul Bettany, as Kidman’s protector Tom, strikes a compelling balance of cold calculation and wide-eyed innocence. Patricia Clarkson is at her best as a wounded, but far from defeated, spirit; a character type she has had little opportunity to portray in recent years. And veterans such as Blair Brown, Ben Gazzara, and legendary Lauren Bacall lend excellent, if under-utilized, support.

The only disappointment is the usually superb Stellan Skarsgard, who grunts and huffs and slurs his way through some line readings that are memorable only for their unorthodoxy. Perhaps that’s why there were no sets: Skarsgard ate them during rehearsals.

But this is Kidman’s picture, as she again slums in a cutting edge art-film; serving notice that she has the acting chops to compete with the elite talents of her profession. It is only her beauty and some questionable project choices that have kept her from obtaining that status.

The script is about as allegorical as a story with an actual plot can be, and is subject to a head-spinning number of interpretations. There is obvious anti-American sentiment here, but the scope is much larger than that; indeed the target seems to be the last 200 years of the History of White People. There are allusions to slavery, the Holocaust, the repression of women, the exploitation of labor, religious tyranny and just about every other horrid thing that white men in well-tailored suits have ever been a part of.

But von Trier is not content with a mere Earthly narrative arc. In the final act, the film veers toward a Yahweh vs. Jesus smackdown, and rarely have the thematic differences in the testaments been rendered in such stark opposition. It’s not entirely successful and, like just about everything else in the film, ultimately overstates its case. For a filmmaker who deals so heavily in symbolic mysticism, at times von Trier seems awfully worried that audiences won’t really get it, so he starts drawing big red arrows to his clever metaphorical constructions. We end up with a conclusion that feels sloppily devised, and a weak pay-off for a three hour investment.

For all its strengths, “Dogville” is very nearly undermined by the typical excesses of director Lars von Trier, who has yet to find the line between artistic and annoying. His cameras sputter and shake and jitterbug their way through quiet and poignant moments that scream for technical simplicity. Von Trier is clearly a passionate filmmaker, with a real gift for directing actors, but his stubborn insistence on indulging every experimental instinct often works to the detriment of his product.

The Skinny on Dogville

Friday, March 19, 2010

Quickies - Episode 2

The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency: Season 1 (2008)*****

The gentle, amusing adventures of intuitive detective Precious Ramotswe are brought vividly to life in this well made miniseries. Talented Jill Scott is an inspired choice to play Precious, as she perfectly captures the spirit of the character as presented in the novels and adds a sensual layer of her own. I have a feeling Ms. Scott may soon have an Emmy to go with all the Grammys she has won. Anika Noni Rose is a hoot as Precious’s tightly wound, yet slightly daft assistant. The stark beauty of Botswana provides a fascinating backdrop for these charming tales, and is almost a character unto itself. The airing of this series was delayed due to the deaths of producers Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella, but I am sure both men would be proud to have this show as part of their legacies.


Amateur (1994)**

Not even Isabelle Huppert can save this meandering, poorly acted comedy or tragedy or whatever it is. Mr. Hartley needs to either direct his actors more or less. I'm not sure which. The best part is the 1980s era football-size cellphones. I used to have to lug around one of those things, and half the time they didn't even work. But I digress. At least I can now truthfully say I have seen a Hal Hartley film. It's done.


An Affair of Love (1999)***

Director Frederic Fonteyne has delivered a well photographed and competent film about the bourgeois behaving badly. Mysterious Nathalie Baye advertises for an anonymous sexual liaison and debonair respondent Sergio Lopez is happy to comply. But as habit begins to overshadow lust, the couple's trysts become routine and we see them straddle the razor's edge between detachment and codependency. In all, this film is a straightforward and sophisticated look at the effects of compartmentalized intimacy.


Feast of Love (2007)**

Not much happens in the first 30 minutes of this movie. Morgan Freeman and Jane Alexander dreamily mill about like one of those middle-age couples from the Cialis commercials. Greg Kinnear is badly miscast (was Mark Ruffalo not available?) as a panicky slacker whose wife is having a lesbian affair, and there is a young Goth couple who bond over conversations consisting entirely of recovery-speak. Something interesting may happen later in the movie, but I wouldn’t know because I turned it off and went to bed early. After a good night’s sleep, I woke up feeling great and had a very productive day. If you need rest, I highly recommend Feast of Love.


Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Rohmer in Retrospect: Le Rayon Vert (1986)****

Director, writer and critic Eric Rohmer passed away on January 11, 2010, at the age of 89. In this series, we will be examining some of his lesser known films.

Delphine, a thirty-ish Parisian office worker, is about to begin eight weeks of vacation, and is absolutely miserable about it. Eric Rohmer’s breezy account of a young woman who mistakes solitude for freedom, features one of his favorite leading ladies, Marie Rivere, as our rather confused heroine.

In search of the perfect holiday, Delphine manages to traipse from Cherbourg to the Alps to the Pyrenees, with nothing to show for it but torn ticket stubs and some bewildered new acquaintances. Marie is one of those people for whom life is nothing but a series of complications, and Rohmer does some elegantly simply storytelling in showing us how her psychological make-up is her biggest impediment. Delphine has every reason to be cheery, but she prefers to wallow in gloom because her original vacation plans have fallen through.

Yet, virtually everywhere she turns, her concerned friends offer her idyllic respites at beach houses or mountain cabins, but to Delphine, these offers are second rate and somehow beneath her standards. Eventually, she accepts an invitation to stay with a friend’s welcoming and hospitable family at their ocean-side retreat, where Delphine mopes and sulks and passive-aggressively complains until everyone shares her misery. When Delphine suddenly and unexpectedly decides to return to Paris, no one is too sad to see her go.

Rohmer uses repeated references to astrology and fortune-telling as a device to depict Delphine’s lack of involvement in the real world and her penchant for extreme and debilitating navel-gazing. He then travels this thematic path to a surprising conclusion, as he hints that our nearest star, the sun, may actually hold the secret to Delphine’s elusive contentment.

In all, despite a couple of tiresome scenes, this is a typically well executed Rohmer light drama, involving and rewarding to those willing to invest a bit of patience. And we all know someone like Delphine; a person who passionately searches for reasons to be wretched.

For some reason, the film was released in North American under the title "Summer", which has created some confusion over the years. This film is not part of Rohmer's "Tales of the Four Seasons", but is part of his "Comedies and Proverbs" series.

Production Details

Saturday, March 13, 2010

In Praise of Love (2001)

Godard has always been a creator of beautiful and arresting images; a fact often obscured by the director’s tendency to present his work as a platform for the startling and the impenetrable. “In Praise of Love” bears all the deconstructive trademarks of Godard, although toned down somewhat, yet the audience is granted the time and thematic space to fully appreciate the visual and aural beauty on display.

The film is broken into two parts and deals with a young writer named Edgar (Bruno Putzulu) and his efforts to launch a film based on his research into the Catholic Church’s possible involvement in the Holocaust. In the first act, shot on b/w film, Edgar’s interviews potential actors and discusses financial details with his producer (Claude Baignieres), an elderly art collector who blames the Musee d’Orsay for the theft of much of his collection during the Nazi occupation of Paris.

Typically, the narrative – if one can all it that – is intentionally difficult to follow and mainly serves as a canvas for the Director’s pointed commentary about international politics and class struggle, as well as some distinctly anti-American rhetoric. The Bosnian conflict, which was still prevalent in the news in 2001, provides Godard with a springboard for wider philosophical musings on the nature of war and violence, and its aftermath is incorporated as a story element.

The second part takes place two years earlier, as Edgar scours the French countryside for first hand accounts of life during wartime. This section, shot on heavily processed SD video, features an understated race against time, as Edgar finds himself one step behind a well-heeled group of American film executives (called “Spielberg Enterprises”) who are in pursuit of similar stories for a potential production. Here, Godard’s invective toward the American film industry is fully unleashed, in a manner both scathing and ham-fistedly amusing. He appears particularly upset with Juliette Binoche, who does not appear in the film but is mentioned several times, and Godard clearly regards her as some sort of turncoat.

How deeply to delve into the Director’s bilious crankiness is at the viewer’s discretion, for the film offers copious amounts of lyrical beauty that can simply be appreciated and savored. The b/w scenes are composed with precision and formality and are a joy to behold. The night shots of wet Parisian streets crackle with energy and intrigue. One shot is a particular stunner: a low angle view of a train station that features such perfect aerial perspective it seems almost three dimensional.

The video sequences in part two are starkly surreal, featuring the saturated colors of a drug-induced hallucination. And underneath it all is a surprisingly gentle and seductive piano score; a lilting sort of Eric Satie meets George Winston. While Godard’s oeuvre, which has now exceeded half a century, ranges from the sublime to the unwatchable, I’m happy to report that “In Praise of Love” leans heavily toward the former.

Production Details