Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Cafe Lumiere (2003)✭✭✭✭✭

Café Lumiere has been praised, analyzed and reviewed to death, and I’m so late to the party I feel like the lonely guy who shows up at midnight with two cans of warm beer daggling from a plastic ring. But this wonderful little movie not only lives up to its accolades, it somehow makes them seem insufficient.

We follow a relaxed, somewhat disorganized young woman named Yoko (Yo Hitito) through the streets of Tokyo as she goes about the simple business of living her life. Yoko has just returned from a trip to Taiwan, and the first half of the film consists of a train ride to the suburbs to visit with her father and stepmother (Kimko Yo and Nenji Kobayashi). Yoko makes a few stops along the way, including a lengthy diversion at a bookstore, where Yoko reconnects with an equally laconic young man (Tadanobu Asano) who may or may not be Yoko’s lover; their pleasantly detached demeanor gives no hints.

Eventually we learn more about Yoko’s past, including a current dilemma that will profoundly affect her future. But Yoko maintains her quiet calmness, much to the bewilderment of her parents, who never seem quite sure what to make of Yoko and her life choices.

Director Hsaio-hsien Hou was commissioned to make a film honoring the style of Yashiro Ozu for the late director's 100th birthday, and Café Lumiere is a fitting and satisfying tribute. Hou delicately explores Ozu’s characteristic themes of ordinary families quietly grappling with generational change. Many of the compositions seem like updates of vintage Ozu stagings. Although much of the film takes place in small houses and apartments, Hou cleverly gives us glimpses into other rooms and vistas from windows to build depth in the frame. Yo and Kobayashi strike the typical domestic poses found in Ozu’s blocking, and the camera assumes the familiar role of locked-down neutral observer.

Hou updates a few classic Ozu visual metaphors as well, including train travel as a symbol for the randomness of life and the passage of time. He also displays some humorous flourishes: the scene where Yoko must borrow some sake from her landlady provides us some welcome sunny giggles.

Café Lumiere manages to be poetic and symbolic while remaining firmly grounded in naturalism. Its pace is slow and deliberate, offering plenty of space to savor the subtle shadings and flavors. And while the culture and setting may be very different from our own, Hou, like Ozu, presents a silken thread of common humanity to which we can all relate.


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Sunday, August 22, 2010

Police, Adjective (2009)****

Despite minimal dialogue, Police, Adjective is a film all about words, specifically how a word can have one meaning in the dictionary, and yet another in the heart. Over the course of the film, we spend a few days in the seedy Romanian town of Vaslui, and become intimately acquainted with a 30-ish detective named Christi (Dragos Bucur), who is in the process of investigating a young man named Victor (Radu Costin).

Victor’s former friend Alex (Alexandur Sabadac), a young man so oppressed by his parents he seems afraid of his own shadow, has squealed to the authorities about Victor’s pot smoking, and Christi has been tasked with collaring this dangerous miscreant. But Christi’s investigation has revealed Victor to be a quiet, responsible and entirely unremarkable young man who simply enjoys a few tokes after work in the company of his pals.

Christi is torn because in his heart he feels this is a victimless crime. Plus the fact that in much of Europe laws against marijuana and hashish usage are rarely enforced. He begins to drag his feet on the investigation, and decides to focus instead on informer Alex’s motives, which are more suspicious and troubling to Christi than anything Victor may be smoking. But the pressure to quickly resolve this simple case from Christi’s superior (Vlad Ivanov) can be resisted only for so long.

As a film, Police, Adjective is the antithesis of a police thriller. Much of the film consists of Christi quietly following various suspects on foot; through decrepit neighborhoods compete with barking dogs and a hither-and-yon scattering of abandoned cars. These repetitive hikes will prove challenging for many viewers, sleep-inducing to others, but director Corneliu Porumboiu uses these gloomily atmospheric sequences to help us better understand the attitudes of both hunter and hunted. In such squalid environs, getting stoned seems like a perfectly logical endeavor.

The filmmaking is amazingly simplistic - static shots with no editing within the scene - and this rudimentary technique creates a powerful and hypnotic sense of reality. Through Porumboiu’s grimy available light compositions, the viewer feels much more involved and integral to the proceedings than in any of the 3-D Hollywood blockbusters currently on the market.

But all is not brooding introspection. In a comedic sequence, Christi and his wife Anca (Irina Saulescu) debate the merits of a pop song that brims with over-the-top sentimentality. Anca, a school teacher, attempts to explain to her literal-minded husband how words can be used to create images that transcend their actual meanings; or, if you prefer, how words can be interpreted and felt in addition to being merely understood. But little does she know that she is laying the groundwork for her husband’s eventual downfall into reluctant compliance with conventional wisdom. This subtle plot construction becomes fully realized when Christi is called into a meeting at his boss’s office and a Romanian dictionary is used to arbitrate Christi’s moral dilemma.

Police, Adjective is a film that manages to ultimately dazzle despite its dark ambience of grime and decay. Like police work itself, it alternates between spiritually exhilarating and mind numbingly dull. But you will come away with the feeling that you have just experienced something real. Warts and all. And isn’t that what movies are all about?


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Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Mad Men: Season 4 (so far)

As Season 4 of Mad Men begins, tremors of change are vibrating across America; as clear and irresistible as a Lennon-McCartney harmony. And Don Draper and company find themselves swimming in a murky sea of challenges and dilemmas that mirror those affecting America itself. Just as a recently assassinated President has committed America to the conquest of space, the mad men have set their sights an equally new frontier: a new agency, Sterling Cooper Draper Price, and the growing pains of this talented, but unruly, newborn are rocky indeed.

Gone is the old brushed steel and cherry wood slave pit formerly known as Sterling Cooper. Gone is the abused gray carpet redolent with upchucked oysters, tragic lawn mower accidents and a million Lucky Strikes smoked in anger. Gone are the gleaming leather divans that supported the illicit intercourse of Pete and Peggy and the lonely, disappointed fanny of Conrad Hilton. In its place is a chrome and glass un-pleasure dome where all the perfect 90 degree nooks and grannies seem to lead right into the dark, confused libido of one Dan Draper (Jon Hamm), a dashing creative maven who has finally reaped what he has sowed, to the detriment of all he holds dear.

Episode One, “Public Relations”, has the thankless task of reintroducing us to characters who are familiar, yet profoundly changed by the events of the past year. As Don is interviewed by Ad Age magazine – an interview in which he stubbornly refuses to divulge much in the way of useful information – we get our first peek into SCDP’s modernly efficient new digs, featuring open offices and clear glass walls. The space is not only a cinematographer’s nightmare, but its fluorescent openness offers precious little room for Draper to hide and sulk with his rye bottle and his gnawing secrets.

We also sense the financial desperation caused by the new agency’s odd management structure: four partners and only one decent account. Their business model is as top heavy as office manager Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks), who is back where she belongs after a year of wrapping presents at Bonwit’s and bashing her husband’s skull with household bric-a-brac.

Draper has forsaken the leafy lanes of Ossining for a decidedly un-swinging Manhattan bachelor pad; a dingy flat so dark and cramped it reminds one of the freezing garret where Franz Kafka spent his last days coughing up blood. It is the last place in the world one would look for a high powered Madison Avenue executive, and therefore it suits Don Draper just fine – a place where he can loosen his tie and channel Dick Whitman safe from prying eyes.

This move, of course, was necessitated by the dissolution of the Draper nuptials, which occurred in Season 3 after Mrs. Betty Draper (January Jones) said to hell with it and opened her husband’s secret treasure box of blurry photos depicting the grimy rural past of the Whitman family, including images of young Don in short pants and sporting a soup bowl haircut. Betty was apparently able to stomach her husband’s serial adultery, but learning that her sleek Prince Charming was actually a hayseed from some place where they say “warsh” was too much for her class conscious nature to bear. Betty has quickly remarried Henry (Christopher Stanley), a Rockefeller apparatchik several years her senior. Henry is emerging as the most civil and level-headed of the lot, which is a good thing considering his new blended family is still living in Don’s suburban two story; a fact that will no doubt grow to be a major source of contention by season’s end.

Episode one has a weird, parallel universe feel to it, particularly when Roger Sterling (John Slattery) decides to set Don up with a disastrous blind date – a young actress of such appalling shallowness she would have ranked among Draper’s dullest conquests. After a boring and awkward dinner, Don tries to wrangle an invitation up to her apartment, but clearly his heart isn’t in it. This is not the same man who passionately ravaged Midge and Rachael and Miss Farrell and made them love it. No, this is a desiccated husk that only vaguely resembles Don Draper. But, as we learn later in the episode, Don has his eye on a different type of woman these days; a type that provides a link to his shadowy past as well as the ability to satisfy a newly revealed and shocking sexual appetite.

Episode 2 “Christmas Comes But Once a Year” is tinged with all manner of creepiness, including the return of unbalanced young Glen (Marten Holden Weiner ) whose cold eyes offer glimpses into a soul that seems to be teetering on the brink of evil. Glen has moved on from his Betty crush (which provided some of Season One’s most poignant moments) and now is quite smitten with little Sally Draper (Kiernan Shipka), who may be closer to his own age but is no better equipped to understand him. Mental Glen (sorry, couldn’t resist) elects to prove his love for Sally by committing a minor act of vandalism – which according to his warped perceptions was not only necessary but heroic.

The loathsome tobacco magnate Lee Garner Jr. (Darren Pettie) resurfaces just in time to royally screw-up the office Christmas party, causing Roger Sterling to give us a demonstration of just how low a desperate adman will stoop and, believe me, it ain’t pretty. Out of a similar desperation, Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) and her new assistant pull a publicity stunt in an effort to sell canned hams that comically backfires.

But leave it to Don Draper to sink to the greatest depths of all, as he gets pants-pissing drunk at the holiday fete and ultimately takes boorish advantage of the kind hearted Alison (Alexa Alemanni ), his loyal, long suffering secretary who took a leap of faith to move with him to this new agency. Even those of us prone to overlook Don’s past transgressions are having a tough time with this one, particularly in light of his demeanor with Alison the next day back at the office. The flashes of sensitivity Don has shown in seasons past utterly failed him here, and it’s tough to believe that a successful ad creator, when it comes to emotions, could have an ear of such heavily galvanized tin.

Episode 3 “The Good News”, is an odd one and seemingly does very little to advance the season’s narrative arc. It almost seems like a generic, multipurpose script that had been lounging on series creator Matthew Weiner’s hard drive for awhile – just plug in the characters’ names and roll film. It also has the distinction of being the first episode in the history of this series to lull this reviewer into a brief nap. Nominally on his way to Acapulco for a Christmas vacation, Don stops off in San Pedro and visits with the real Mrs. Draper (Melinda Page Hamilton) and we get a sense of the life he lived there as plain old Dick Whitman. As was the case in last season’s California episodes, Don seems much more relaxed in these sunny environs than when he’s lurking the corridors of Manhattan skyscrapers. There has always been a striking, if slightly icky, tenderness in the relationship between he and Anna Draper, and she dotes on him the way a proud mother would her favorite son. Don learns a startling secret about Anna’s health, and this information sparks a difficult moral dilemma. Don has faced plenty of those in recent years, and his record is less than reassuring, but here the better angles of his nature prevail and we can almost forgive him for the Alison debacle.

Don returns to NY to find his new agency virtually deserted for the holidays save for the brooding presence of one Lane Pryce (Jared Harris), the transplanted Brit bean counter whose snooty wife has decided to return to London, perhaps permanently. The two lonely men do what lonely men have traditionally done the week between Christmas and New Year’s - go out and get stinking drunk – and the evening is complete with flowing liquor and brazen strumpets.

Episode 4, “The Rejected”, feels more like a typical installment from years past, and is the first indication that the show is finding its footing in this new season. Several new and interesting narrative vistas open, as well as the tidying up of some unfinished business. The Alison issue is ultimately resolved – in a manner as cruelly thoughtless as it began. The Pete – Peggy – Trudy triangle receives its first serious attention of the year, and a surprising new development means there will soon be another piece to the puzzle. And the growing tension – both sexual and professional – between Don and Dr. Faye Miller (Cara Buono) is clearly heading towards critical mass. Like Midge, Rachel and Bobbi, Miller is intelligent, tough and independent, in short another Anti-Betty, so it is only a matter of time until she receives the full Draper treatment. However, Miller has an icy professorial edge that may prove to be immune. Plus, she represents the discipline of research-driven advertising, which is anathema to creative directors the world over. It will be interesting to see if these two stubborn executives – who by rights should be mortal enemies – can resolve their differences long enough to, well, you know.

This episode was directed by John Slattery and that probably accounts for the unusually high number of attempts at comedy. The opening sequence where he and Draper suffer through a conference call with a likely inebriated Lee Garner Jr. is a scream (“No Lee, the jockey smokes the cigarette”). Not all the bits work; Peggy pounding her head on her desk just flat seems wrong. But the good stuff is hilarious and quite memorable. In fact, everyone in this reviewer’s house has been asking “Did you get the pears?” all week. But all is not belly laughs, as we see Peter Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) reach a disturbing new level of ruthlessness and Peggy becomes involved with a group of avant-garde artists who will either broaden her horizons or seriously test her maturity, possibly both.

If we look at this new season as a play and these first four episodes as Act 1, it would be fair to say the start was inconsistent, but the stage is set for wonderment in Acts 2 and 3. And if this season is to maintain the high bar set by past years, wonderment is the word for what’s needed. Another word that comes to mind is disappointing. Yes, so far Season 4 has been a let down, and right now it’s hard to imagine any episode featuring the show’s new dynamic ever approaching the brilliance of such past masterworks as “The Wheel”, “Three Sundays” or “The Grown-ups”. But this is not the first time Matthew Weiner and his labor of love have been doubted, and each time he has left his skeptics in the dust, as his sagging and overburdened awards shelf attests. And, in a way, the imperfections of Season 4 have given us yet another reason to identify with the deeply flawed Don Draper. We miss his old life as much as he does.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Thank You!!!! (2010)

Thanks to all my Regular Readers for checking in. Family commitments and shitty Internet connections have left very little time for writing. Hopefully, posting will return to a more regular schedule in September.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Return of the Quickies

Yesterday (2004)****

Yesterday is a simple, quiet and delicate film about a young Zulu family ravaged by HIV. There are a number of wonderful moments but, as you would expect, this is ultimately a very sad and emotionally challenging experience.


Solaris (2002)****

A bit draggy in the middle, but overall a decent and respectful revamp of the Tarkovsky sci-fi classic. Features the same Zen-like atmosphere of the original, and manages to be equally haunting. This is a film that you'll be thinking about for a few days. Excellent performances from Viola Davis and Jeremy Davies.


Heaven (2002)***

Well produced thriller that’s a little too clever for its own good, but some beautiful Italian landscapes nearly make up for it. Will appeal mainly to ardent fans of Cate Blanchett.


The Last Station (2009)****

A glorious chance to watch a pair of old pros at work. This examination of the tempestuous relationship between Tolstoy and his histrionic wife Sofia earned richly deserved Oscar nods for Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer. The film gets a bit too cute in spots and the ending drones on a bit, but overall the proceedings are a pleasure to watch. Paul Giamatti is refreshingly restrained for much of the film.