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Column Fri Mar 13 2009
Crossing Over, The Last House on the Left, Brothers at War, Race to Witch Mountain, Tokyo! & Everlasting Moments
I was not a Crash hater; I don't think it deserved to win the Best Picture Oscar a couple years back, but I was a supporter of the film that featured intersecting storylines to illustrate the fractured state of race and human relations in the world. I even went back a second time to watch it just to try and understand why those who despised it did so with such fervor. I never quite figured that part out. Cut from the same cloth (at least in theory) is the long-delayed Crossing Over. (Side note: have you noticed that just about every film from The Weinstein Company these days can be preceded by the phrase "long-delayed"?) The biggest difference between Crash and Crossing Over is that the latter film takes a great idea and compelling structure — exposing the current state of immigration and earned citizenship in America with several stories about different types of legal and illegal immigrants — and then forgets even some of the most basic fundamentals of filmed storytelling, like credible acting, editing that makes sense, believable scenarios, and not feeling like the film's message needs to be broadcast from a megaphone atop the tallest building in the land.
I was a huge fan of writer-director Wayne Kramer's earlier film, The Cooler, which was a mostly quiet character study. His last film, Running Scared, was just insane enough to be entertaining. When I heard about the concept of this film, I got excited because I'd anticipated a collection of fine-tuned personal stories, much like The Cooler, but that he might also show the often-seedy side of coming into this country illegally. We get little touches of both sides of Kramer, and as a result, neither makes much of an impact. The film feels like watered-down, movie-of-the-week garbage. Nearly all of the performances seem to hit the wrong note, as if Kramer was afraid to tell actors like Harrison Ford, Ashley Judd, Ray Liotta and Sean Penn (whose part has been completely edited out at Penn's request) how to reign in their emoting. As a result, everyone is hitting different notes from one scene to the next, and often one actor is hyped up while another in the same scene is attempting to underplay the moment. You may think this won't mean that much to the untrained eye, but trust me, it's infuriating.
I did like a few of the actors playing the immigrants caught up in political red tape and post-9/11 paranoia (a well-earned paranoia, I might add). In a weird way, I would have rather watched these stories as separate movies than have them all crammed together like this. The sleazy tale of an Australian actress (the ravishing Alice Eve) who gets cast in a big American TV show only to realize her work Visa is about to expire might have made for an interesting stand-alone movie. She gets involved in a bizarre sex-for-papers relationship with the very immigration applications adjuster (Liotta) who can push her extension application through, but he begins to fall in love with her. In its current state, the segment feels like a freak show and exploitation, especially since Eve plays many of her scenes naked. I know I shouldn't be complaining, but you want it to feel fun at least.
The story of a young Korean teen (Justin Chon) who is torn between his soon-to-be-naturalized family life and the Korean gangs reminded me of elements of Gran Torino, but an explosive climax to that story crosses into parody and undercuts what is otherwise a collection of nice performances in that plot. I also liked the story of a teenage girl from Bangladesh (Summer Bishil from Towelhead), who reads an incendiary essay in class that results in Homeland Security taking an interest in her and her habits. Again, this might have made a great stand-alone film, but as it is, it feels rushed, underwritten, and ends with a breakdown scene that may be a new benchmark in snot-filled crying for a drama.
The biggest surprise about Crossing Over is how the name-above-the-title actors let us down. They're either sleepwalking through their roles (as Ford does, playing a immigration agent who is losing his taste for deporting people) or they emote so that those in the third balcony can feel it (Judd's immigration defense lawyer character is incredibly self-righteous, and Cliff Curtis as Ford's partner is just ridiculous). In a film that should have been about compassion, struggle, family and what it means to be an American, Crossing Over spends its running time calling attention to how noble it's being. The end result is a film that skims the surface of the immigration issue. Watch last year's The Visitor to see how uncompromising and moving a story on this topic can be. The Visitor remembers that these people aren't nameless, faceless statistics, whereas Crossing Over reveals itself to be nothing more than a heavy-handed, wretched message movie.
To read my exclusive interview with Crossing Over star Summer Bishil, go to Ain't It Cool News.
The Last House on the Left
I was an admirer of last year's sadistic thriller The Strangers, the story of a young couple who are terrorized in their proverbial cabin in the woods by three masked assailants, featuring one of the most somber endings of any studio-made scare film in years. We've seen a lot of films that have glorified the pain and injury criminals, monsters and evil doers can inflict on the innocent, but this remake of Wes Craven's groundbreaking (and hardcore amateur production) The Last House on the Left offers up this question: What would happen if the victim(s) or relatives of the victim(s) got a chance to exact a little revenge? They aren't so much fighting back as they are just unleashing decades of film victims' rage on their attackers.
It may seem like a subtle difference. Graphic violence is graphic violence, right? Actually, I don't believe that for one second. Intent is everything in these movies, and I believe that Craven's original intent was to shock us with rape, humiliation, torture and sheer brutality. The good news about this remake is that the brutality is intact, but the humiliation and torture has been curbed (the rape is still there; you should know that going in). But along with absolute, undiluted meanness of the villains, The Last House on the Left delivers something that the source material didn't have much of — great acting and a visual style. In truth, Craven did have a style, a documentary look to his story that made it seem far too real for many to stomach. But Greek director Dennis Iliadis (Hardcore) has a real eye for capturing the suffocating woodland surroundings in which the film is set, without making anything about this movie seem slick or polished. He also makes the movie as scary as shit.
Screenwriters Adam Alleca and Carl Ellsworth have trimmed the fat from Craven's screenplay, removing not only the most sadistic moments, but also the out-of-place comic relief. I'm in no way knocking Craven's film — I just watched it the other day, and it still shakes me up 36 years after its initial release. But the acting in the new film just sends it into the stratosphere. Garret Dillahunt's Krug isn't some raging maniac with a smirk on his face whenever he does something naughty. He's an angry, hateful man who holds no value in human life, but he's no monster. If anything, he's all too human. His sidekicks (Riki Lindhome as Sadie, Aaron Paul as Francis and Spencer Treat Clark as Krug's son Justin) are all kind of disposable as characters, but their sheer numbers make them so much more threatening as they kidnap and torment young Mari Collingwood (Sara Paxton) and her friend (Superbad's Martha MacIsaac), while Mari and her parents are on vacation.
I've seen some people refer to The Last House on the Left as a "rape movie." This movie isn't about rape; there's rape in it, and it's about as awful as you can imagine. But the film is really about what actions would drive two peaceful parents (Tony Goldwyn and Monica Potter) into the abyss of violence to avenge what has been done to their daughter. Without giving too much away (especially to those of you who have seen the original), the bad guys end up at the doorstep of the parents looking for shelter on a rainy evening. The parents have no idea who these seemingly kindly strangers are, but they soon discover they are responsible for what happened to their daughter and take action. These third-act scenes are the film's absolute best, as Iliadis transfers the fear we felt about Krug & Co. and turns it into anticipation about what the parents are up to. Bring oxygen, because you're going to be holding your breath for minutes at a time.
A fellow critic friend of mine floated his concluding thoughts on the Last House remake, saying it was the best horror film remake since Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead. I can't argue with that, but I actually think Last House is the better remake of the two. It took a great film that needed some improvements and did just that while still honoring Craven's messed-up vision. I might also argue that Last House isn't a horror film at all; it's an intense drama with very little blood (if you exclude a final shot involving a microwave that is silly but still 100 percent satisfying) and some of the best performances you'll see in a film like this. It makes a difference and maybe studios churning out horror these days will take note that solid acting sells these movies, not young actors borrowed from shitty television shows. The Last House on the Left is not for everyone, let's make that clear — but you know who you are and what you are and why you love this stuff. This film is best of its breed, but even outside of the realm of scare films, it hold up. And if it gets too much for you, just remind yourself, "It's only a movie."
Brothers at War
The motivation and objective behind the making of this exceptional documentary isn't to glorify the U.S. military or war or any right-wing agenda. No, I believe that director Jake Rademacher had one very simple, sincere goal in beginning this death-defying project — to better understand, and perhaps close, the rift between him and his two brothers, both of whom were serving in Iraq when the film was made. Rademacher packed up a small camera crew, got his credentials in order, and went over to Iraq in the hope of discovering firsthand just what fighting men and women go through and perhaps determine why their return home is often so difficult. Perhaps better than any other film on the current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Brothers at War makes some degree of sense out of this phenomenon that affects soldiers who are rich or poor, black or white, male or female. And Rademacher does so not by allowing the soldiers to tell us stories about battles and other interactions with the Iraqi people but by actually putting himself in the thick of it and talking to them both on the battlefield and at home attempting to melt back into society after living a daily life that required intense focus, high adrenaline, and the willingness to kill when threatened.
Rademacher's first tour of duty was fairly uneventful, although a segment where he sits with snipers on the Syrian border looking for potential insurgents crossing over into Iraq is interesting just for the conversations, including one soldier who readily admits to not really knowing why he's still fighting in this war. After coming home and still seeing that his brothers were unimpressed with his journey since he didn't really see any combat, Rademacher returns as an embedded journalist on the front lines. His focus stays on the family and the rough turn his once-close relationship with his brother Joe has taken. When he's home on leave or between tours of duty, Joe fights with his fiancee. In some of the most revealing and uncomfortable interviews I've seen, we see the fiancee discuss how Joe gets angry when she cries, so now she doesn't cry as much. She's seeing a very different man return home from the one she fell in love with, and it scares her, but it's never directly addressed by anyone in the family or the film.
What Rademacher does best is portray the soldiers as human beings. They aren't all killing machines, but I don't believe for a second that any one of them would hesitate to shoot a potential enemy if they felt they needed to. Jake's access is incredible, and the longer he's in trenches, the more they open up to him. One particular sequence in especially telling. The Army troops are training members of the Iraqi Army, many of whom are still a little green, but when a skirmish flares up, the Iraqis don't hesitate to get into the thick of it, and one of them dies. The aftermath of this event between the two groups of soldiers is particularly moving and exceptional filmmaking. When the war is over, Brothers at War might be looked at as a definitive statement on certain aspects of it. It reminds us that in order to truly understand what these folks are going through over there, we must examine them both here and abroad. For me, simply listening to stories told after the fact isn't going cut it quite as much as it used to. This film has me hooked on seeing the stories happen before my eyes. The experience is incomparable, and so is Brothers at War.
To read my exclusive interview with Brothers at War executive producer Gary Sinise and director Jake Rademacher, go to Ain't It Cool News.
Race to Witch Mountain
Look I know this film wasn't made for my demographic — 25-45 years old, male, critic, mature — and I'm no great lover of Dwayne Johnson as an actor (although I think the guy has a lot of potential and a handful of pretty solid performances), but, man, he's not even fucking trying with this one. This sort-of remake of the live-action Disney film remains a Close Encounters ripoff (although today, maybe people would see it as a low-rent Men In Black) about two kids who are really aliens whose ship crashes on Earth and need human help to get them back to their ship to go home. The stakes are a bit higher in this film — the kids need to return home to tell their planet's leaders not to invade Earth — but somehow the drama is still nonexistent.
Johnson plays Las Vegas cab driver Jack Bruno, whose gift of gab seems limited to jokes and the constant denial that any of this is really happening. AnnaSophia Robb and Alexander Ludwig are the children/aliens Sara and Seth, who are being chased by a Predator-like creature/robot from their homeworld. They are also being pursued by government types led by scientist Ciaran Hinds (how the hell did they get this guy?) Once Jack and the kids find each other, they never stop moving. The team enlists the help of one of the scientists who also believes in alien life, played by the lovely Carla Gugino; the filmmakers were at least wise enough to keep her in tight blouses for the duration to give me something to look at during this ridiculous movie. And please, whatever you do, don't ask me to explain why Garry Marshall is in this movie playing the leading alien conspiracy theorist in the nation, because I'd fail that pop quiz.
The film is essentially one giant run through all sorts of wacky settings, including a sci-fi convention at the Planet Hollywood Hotel & Casino. But this is one of those conventions that was clearly designed by someone who has never been to a convention. And here's another news flash, the subtle humor of Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson is somewhat diluted in a film geared at kids. Go figure. I thought I might be in trouble when I noticed that Race to Witch Mountain was directed by Andy Fickman, the maker of The Game Plan, another kiddie comedy and a successful one at that. And I'm sure this film will make a mint, but at what price? Have we lost another promising action hero for our generation to brain-dead kids flicks? Probably. In a lot of ways the film is such a throwback that it seems like it was made by and for people who have never seen an alien invasion film before. Gee, that's fun for someone like me. You may not be able to resist the muscle-bound pull of a new Johnson film, but do yourself a favor and go see any of the other films that came out today. Seriously, any of them would be better money spent.
I first saw this three-film anthology at the Chicago Film Festival last year, and it kind of blew my mind. I'm not exactly sure what the common theme between these three fascinating films is meant to be, if anything. But the one thing they do have in common is the location, one of the most bustling cities in the world. I think the main character in each film could be said to be a metaphor for three different versions of the human condition, but I might be simplifying and minimizing the astonishingly clever nature of these works.
The three stories are all so strong that it's impossible for me to select a favorite, but if I had to, it would probably be Michel Gondry's Interior Design, about a young Japanese couple that have just moved to Tokyo. The man has his sites set on being a film director, but the ambition of the woman is less clear. She feels she's losing herself in her boyfriend's world and is feeling less and less significant in the world in general. It's a wonderful character piece just as an examination of the occasional disassociation we have with the world around us, especially in large cities, but Gondry never misses the chance to get all Gondry on our asses, and the woman undergoes a figurative and literal metamorphosis that will make your jaw drop. She feels like an accessory in her man's life, and then she becomes one. I can't say I understand everything Gondry is saying and doing here, but it's is a blast to watch it unfold.
The second film is Merde, from French director Leos Carax (The Lovers on the Bridge, Pola X), about a foul creature (played by Denis Lavant) that crawls out of the city's sewer and causes terror and chaos on the streets. Eventually the man-creature is caught, turned into a media hero, and put on trial. When the creature's (labeled Merde, which means "shit" in French) attorney arrives, things get even stranger when it turns out the lawyer speaks the Merde's indecipherable language and argues that his client is a stranger in a strange land that doesn't understand him. To reveal that Merde is sentenced to death doesn't give away anything about this bizarre work, worth viewing if only for Lavant's disturbing portrayal of the creature.
Shaking Tokyo, from Bong Joon-Ho (the South Korean director who gave us the masterful monster movie The Host) is the most contemplative of the bunch. Teruyuki Kagawa stars as an agoraphobic man who hasn't left his apartment in years. He has managed to successfully keep contact with the outside world via his phone, and an intricate series of deliveries have become his way of life. The sight of hundreds of neatly stacked pizza boxes in his hallway is a sight to behold. One day, a stunning woman delivers the shut-in's pizza. At the exact moment she's at his door, an earthquake hits the city and she faints inside his apartment. The dude falls for the girl something fierce. After she leaves, he realizes that the only way to see her again is to leave his familiar confines and step out into the world. Love makes people do crazy things, I guess. Kagawa plays the shut-in role beautifully, not as a greasy-haired lard ass, but as a neat freak, who keeps in shape and keeps things very tidy. One gets the sense that he might actually thrive in and benefit the world outside, and that makes his struggle to cross the threshold of his front door all the more urgent and important. Director Bong keeps the film as quiet, sparse and minimalistic as his hero probably would if he made the movie.
The cumulative effect of watching these three works gives us hope that the short film is alive and well and thriving in the hands of proven feature directors as well as filmmakers who haven't gotten their shot yet. Works like Tokyo!, Coffee and Cigarettes, and Paris je t'aime are ones I look forward to, and I'm kind of desperate to see the Paris' sequel, New York, I Love You, which I pray makes it to Chicago and other cities someday soon. These three shorts are perfect little segments of magic meant to be savored, contemplated, and embraced. Find this film at an art house near you. It opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre, with director Michel Gondry doing Q&As after certain screenings. Go to MusicBoxTheatre.com for details.
This morose Swedish gem was that nation's official contender for the Best Foreign Language Oscar this year, and I can see why. This decades-spanning tale of a long-suffering mother and wife in turn-of-the-20th-century Sweden embodies the turmoil and emotional upheaval that has been at the core of Swedish cinema since Bergman was in short pants. When a woman named Maria wins a camera in a raffle. Rather sell it for food money, she decides to hold onto it and becomes a rather strong portrait photographer with the help of a much older camera store owner/photographer named Sebastian. He buys the camera from her, but allows her to hold onto it and see what she's capable of.
Maria's philandering drunk of a husband, Sigfrid, is an embarrassment in the community, and isn't thrilled with his wife earning her own living and essentially keeping the family fed and clothed. But since he's frequently out of work, he tolerates it. Being the hot head that he is, Sigfrid wrongfully begins to suspect his wife and Sebastian of having an affair, the worst kind of hypocrisy coming from a man with a regular mistress on the side. That said, his violent outbursts and overall mean nature does drive Maria to the only man in her life who respects her as an artist and a person. Everlasting Moments is a kind of non-physical love story, which are typically very difficult to pull off convincingly. But the puritanical nature of the region and the church-going people keeps everything quite believable.
As infrequently as they are made, I love films about photographers, especially ones that really show how their work is done. We see Maria in her tiny homemade dark room, experimenting with exposure and lighting. I was moved as much by her struggles as I was by her triumphs, and I wanted to see her succeed as a portrait photographer and finally make enough money to live a decent life. One segment of the film where Maria is brought in to take pictures of a neighbor's dead daughter at her open casket funeral is unnerving and opens your mind up to the possibilities of Maria's future. Maria's career through the years follows a nation that goes to war, sees strike after strike, and just generally sucks most of the time. In a way she is Sweden itself, and she survives every obstacle. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.