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Column Fri Oct 09 2009
Selections from Chicago International Film Festival, Couples Retreat, A Serious Man, Good Hair and Trucker
Today marks the first full day of screenings for the Chicago International Film Festival, this year a rather subdued affair all taking place at the AMC River East theaters. There are slightly fewer offerings this year, but in most cases, there are more showings of each film, which is always a good thing. Forgiving the open-night selection Motherhood, an abysmal self-important treatise on hipster parents starring Uma Thuman (more on the film when it opens in a few weeks), the rest of the festival is a promising mixture of accessible art house fare, a solid selection of foreign films that have been gathering acclaim on the festival circuit, and even a couple of films that feature Oscar-hopeful performances. Here's a quick rundown of some of the films playing in the first week of CIFF that you might want to consider checking out.
In what was the most divisive film at the Cannes Film Festival, and may end up being the most divisive of the year, period, Lars Von Trier's Antichrist opens with what is the most beautiful prologue you will see in 2009. It ends with acts of sexual brutality (inflicted by a man and a woman against each other and themselves) that are difficult to describe even on the filterless internet. In between these unforgettable book ends is actually where the controversy occurs. There's a whole lot of psychobabble between a distraught wife (the wonderfully neurotic/psychotic Charlotte Rampling) and her therapist husband (the remarkable Willem Dafoe). I found the on-the-go, free-flowing analysis fascinating; others have found it mind-numbingly inane and insufferable. And I don't think I'd pick of fight with people who feel that way. The cabin-in-the-foggy-woods setting and the bizarre, excessive mutilations in the film's final minutes gave the entire experience a fairy tale quality to it, and I think it's possible that Antichrist actually hypnotized me. If less intriguing and talented actors were at the center of this movie, I don't think I would have liked it as much. But Dafoe and Rampling maneuver through this murky plot like masters. If you have the stomach for the violence, the rest of Antichrist will probably impress you. My first reaction after the film ended was that it was neither as bloody or shocking as I'd been led to believe. It was the emotional trauma of the entire work that stuck with me and not simply the shocking visuals. Give this one a try, if only to celebrate the fact that Von Trier is still making movies that people cannot stop talking about.
An excellent true-crime doc that actually managed to scare me one or two times while filmmakers Barbara Brancaccio and Joshua Zeman search the woods of Staten Island (the borough that time forgot) for clues to the mystery of a handful of mostly special needs children gone missing over the decades near an abandoned mental hospital. The film examines the elements that make up an urban myth about a child-kidnapping creepy old guy, and turn the myth into a reality that got him locked up for decades with absolutely no evidence beyond circumstantial and unreliable witnesses. The entire film is genuinely creepy and disturbing, especially the unsubstantiated belief that former mental patients still roam the woods and live in the underground catacombs beneath the hospital, or that a seemingly limitless number of Satanists live in Staten Island. (Actually, looking at all the track suits in play here, I could believe the latter.) The bottom line on Cropsey is that it works as both a mystery that can never be solved and a profile of a community shaped by its own collective fears. And the cast of characters is so colorful and ridiculous that you couldn't cast actors to play them any better than they play themselves. This is a great little movie.
I walked into this fantastic little British production knowing next to nothing about who was in it or what it was about. So as each new layer of the story revealed itself, I was more and more impressed as time went one. From an original script by author Nick Hornby (High Fidelity, About A Boy), An Education is a coming-of-age tale about a high school girl (played with youthful elegance by newcomer Carey Mulligan, who I believe is supposed to be 16 here) and an older suitor, played by Peter Sarsgaard. When Sarsgaard's character enters the schoolgirl's life, he takes her off her path (more specifically, her father's path for her) to Oxford and introduces her to a world of luxury, glamour and, yes, sex. But we realize early on that something is slightly hidden and off about Sarsgaard aside from the fact that he's pursuing an underage girl. He's got a secret concerning his job that she finds both disappointing and thrilling all at once. The film would be worth seeing if only for Mulligan's performance. An Education is ground-zero in the world taking her seriously as an actress, and she's set the bar high for her acting career. I also liked Alfred Molina as her father, who starts the film as the typical overprotective dad, but whose weaknesses are quickly exposed and exploited by Sarsgaard as he somehow gets the girl's parents to approve of his intentions of their daughter. I may be making the film sound a bit on the sleazy side, but the truth is, the film operates on a largely sophisticated level. Danish filmmaker Lone Scherfig (Italian for Beginners) does a tremendous job with this character study, which not only examines our leads, but also takes the time to get to know and peer into the lives of the supporting cast, which includes Emma Thompson, Olivia Williams, Sally Hawkins, Lynn Barber and Dominic Cooper. The film is, at times, lighter than air and heavy beyond words. For such a small film, it takes you on one of the biggest life journeys I've seen in ages.
The Girl on the Train
Whenever you get a chance to see Catherine Deneuve in a new film, you simply go see it and don't ask question. At this year's Chicago Film Festival, she's in two film: Hidden Diary and Andre Technine's The Girl on the Train, a rambling but still intriguing work about stunning young woman Jeanne (Emilie Dequenne), who seems against the idea of working steadily and has no trouble lying in small amounts, sometimes for no reason. Deneuve plays her understanding and perhaps overly indulgent mother. Jeanne gets involved with a rebellious young man, who is sent to prison for being involved in a drug trafficking ring. She responds to this heartbreak by inventing a wild fiction about being attacked by white supremacists on the train. After most of the nation including the French president decries what happened to Jeanne, portions of her story begin to get examined in detail and don't hold up. If that were all the story this film had to offer, I think I would have liked it even more. As it stands, more is piled on, some of it quite interesting, but also distracting as all hell. There's a Jewish lawyer (Michel Blanc) who Jeanne interviews with for a secretary job and later is involved in the investigation of her case. Turns out her mother knew and was in love with him many years earlier, which further complicates matter. Then there's the lawyer's grandson, who is preparing for his bar mitzvah. Most of these characters probably deserve their own films, but in The Girl on the Train, many of them get the short shrift. Still, I wouldn't pass up any opportunity to spend time with the mysterious and complicated Jeanne for any amount of time, so I'm certainly recommending the film.
So many of the films set in or made about the current wars in the Middle East have such broad and lofty goals, that they scare away audiences. What I appreciated about The Messenger, from writer-director Oren Moverman) is that it has such simple and clear motives. It isn't trying to tell every soldier's story through the two in this movie; it simply wants us to get to know these two men, faults and all, and understand them. Ben Foster plays Will Montgomery, who has just returned stateside after being injured in a heroic effort in Iraq. He has been assigned the unenviable task of notifying the next of kin of dead soldiers. He is partnered with Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), who has done this job a while and knows all the rules. The two men simply do not click, to the point where Will handles himself at these homes quite badly. But as he learns the emotional and psychological means to handle his awesome responsibility, he begins to be able to cope with what he went through while on the front lines. The Messenger is a tough film to watch at times, especially during the notification scenes. The film peppers a few familiar faces among the family members, including Steve Buscemi as the father of one dead soldier, and Samantha Morton as a now-single mother who Will latches onto, looks after (which goes against protocol), and eventually grows attached to. There are no easy answers in The Messenger, and, in the end, this might be the most emotionally charged of all the Iraq War dramas; it's certainly the most satisfying. In his feature work, Foster tends to overplay his characters (see him in Pandorum, in theaters now, for proof), but he is beautifully dialed back for most of his time on screen and it shows a real maturing and understanding of the material on his part. It was bizarre seeing Harrelson in such an intense and focused role just days after whooping it up watching him play free and loose with the world around him in Zombieland. But the two work well together, and end up having the right kind of chemistry to sustain this working relationship and still draw the other out of their respective shells. The Messenger is a gripping work that you won't soon forget, and, along with The Hurt Locker and In the Valley of Elah, it may end up being a defining film about this war years down the road.
Released in China as two lengthy movies but cut down to one two-and-a-half-hour effort, John Woo's masterful epic Red Cliff will, in all likelihood, make you crave the longer, two-part film as you savor every splash of blood and every reflection off a blade. Despite his long and impressive history with action films, Woo hasn't made a true period film since the early to mid-'80s. Set in the early third center, the story focuses on Zhou Yu (the incomparable Tony Leung), his wife Ziao Qiao (the stunning Lin Chi-ling), and his mortal enemy Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi), who holds a deep red flame for the wife. Woo unleashes a cast of thousands in this awe-inspiring work that does an incredible job showing us how strategy can outdo number on the battlefield in so many instances, and how finding your enemies' most vulnerable points can take the place of brute force. I was almost as engrossed in the scenes of planning the next move as I was watching the move itself. Woo spares us nothing in terms of the scope of Red Cliff, but he never forgets that this is a story about people as well. Holding most of the pieces together is Tony Leung, who may be China's finest asset as an actor in such works as Lust, Caution, the Infernal Affairs trilogy, Hero, In the Mood for Love, High Risk, and Woo's own Bullet in the Head and Hard Boiled. He's a handsome devil who makes the dangerous seem romantic and the romantic seem dangerous. Woo gives us an unflinching yet highly stylized mixture for his battle sequences; he spares nothing when it comes to how messy and bloody war can be. But he drinks it all in like some sort of savory concoction, and I loved this movie from the first frame. Now let me watch the entire two films before I slice someone's head open like a melon.
I love the idea behind director Kerry Prior's The Revenant. It's a buddy comedy along the same ilk as Pineapple Express, but one of the buddies is a sort of rotting zombie-vampire creature, who can still joke, walk around, and commit crimes like a normal dude despite being undead. Soldier Bart Gregory (David Anders) dies in combat, but is somehow brought back from the dead with his not-so-likable personality intact. His girlfriend doesn't take long to slip into bed with his scuzball best friend, and before long, Bart and his buddy are taking full advantage of his dead state to commit crimes and occasionally quench Bart's need for blood. Here's the problem: the film isn't as funny or clever as it thinks, and while it doesn't spare the blood and gore, it doesn't really do much to further the zombie or vampire genres. I love the idea far more than I love the overlong, meandering results. Even as the film's action and violence levels get ramped up as the film goes on, I wasn't impressed, and I'm not that hard to impress when it comes to violence. The film simply felt like it was lost and out of control for huge chunks. It starts with a fantastic premise and doesn't capitalize on it, which is a shame because Anders seems to have the acting chops to pull off pretty much whatever is required of him. There's an enthusiasm and passion for this material by the filmmakers that is undeniable, but the results don't quite get where they need to be. I'll accept that I may be in the minority on Ain't It Cool when it comes to The Revenant, and somehow I'll live with that. I just didn't have much fun watching the movie, and there's no getting around that.
Women In Trouble
I'm going to direct you to my very substantial Ain't It Cool News interview with Women In Trouble writer-director Sebastian Gutierrez and his life partner Carla Gugino (who also stars in the film), and I think you'll get a sense of what the film is about and just how much I loved this funny and smart offering.
Now, on to this week's new releases.
I know it may seem like an obvious question at this point, but I'll ask it anyway: Why do people ruin everything? I'll attempt to explain. For about the first three-quarters of the new star-studded comedy Couples Retreat, I was right there with it. I've seen better and more insightful comedies about relationships this year, but most of those films have been about male friendships. Couples Retreat bravely tackles four very different male-female couplings (although a gay pairing might have improved things), all of whom head to a tropical island for intensive counseling and guidance. Look, I know a working vacation when I see one, and not a single member of this cast broke a sweat getting through this project, believe me. But the fact is I laughed, more than once, and keeping four very beautiful women in bathing suits or underwear for most of the movie didn't diminish the entertainment value either.
But then we enter the film's final, hideous act. Again, I understand the general public's need for happy endings in their romantic comedies. God forbid things get too heavy. But you've got a movie with four couples, for Christ's sake. Can't the most dysfunctional pair of the bunch maybe not end up madly in love after about three or four days of sun and sorta-fun? I don't want to ruin which couple I'm talking about, but they spend the entire movie not liking each other. They would probably be better off apart; no one watching this movie would question that decision. They're cheating on each other whenever possible, insulting each other viciously. It gets downright uncomfortable at times. But after one night of drinking and dancing, all is fucking forgiven and everybody is shooting sunshine out of their asses.
Vince Vaughn and Malin Ackerman are probably the most normal of the four couples. They have two young kids, and seem fully capable of working their way through every problem that comes their way. Vaughn is a bit selfish with his time and insists that most of the family's plans revolve around his schedule, but he's manageable. When Jason Bateman and Kristen Bell call their group of friends together to announce they are contemplating divorce but giving things once last try on this island-bound therapy program, they insist that the whole gang come along. Probably the funniest spouses of the bunch, Bateman and Bell are playing characters who schedule and PowerPoint every aspect of their lives, and it has drained the fun and spontaneity from their home. They are also struggling with getting pregnant, thus added more anxiety to the relationship. Vaughn's Swingers partner Jon Favreau is married to Kristin Davis. They got pregnant in high school, and have a daughter about ready for college, a moment they are eagerly awaiting. And finally, we have the recent divorcee Faizon Love, who has brought along his new and much younger girlfriend (Kali Hawk) he's been dating about two weeks.
Naturally, the island itself in inhabited by an eccentric cast of creatures, including Jean Reno as the guru who custom-designs counseling regimens for each couple. Shaun of the Dead's Peter Serafinowicz as the uptight, sort-of cruise director. The always-welcome Temuera Morrison is also on hand as one of the island employees. Among the legion of therapists are Ken Jeong and John Michael Higgens. The elements of funny are all around us, and for much of the film, there are laughs. They may not come rapid-fire and a lot don't hit the mark, but the four men in particular are good together, which should tell you something about how much the filmmakers (writers Favreau, Vaughn and Dana Fox, and director Peter Billingsley) value the comedic abilities of their female cast members. At least the women aren't treated as shrieking harpies, but they also aren't given much to do by way of comedy.
The problem is every time I start to remember the handful of things I liked about Couples Retreat, that miserable ending keeping popping back into my head. It's really is like watching a 2-year-old force square blocks into round holes. It just doesn't fit, tonally or logically. And here's the other problem that the filmmakers don't seem to grasp. It is rarely fun to watch other people have fun. Watching your cast swim in tropical waters or jet ski or dance or drink or play Rock Band may have made production feel more like a party, but it's kind of boring watching others do the fun stuff that you'd rather be doing instead of watching their subpar movie. Couples Retreat is hardly criminal, and that's almost more frustrating. There are hints that this might have been something better at one time. What we're left with is exactly — and I mean EXACTLY — what you might expect. For some of you, that might be enough, but I need something a little less forced and predictable. When I see the poster for this movie now, all I see is missed opportunity for something truly funny. Next time, guys.
A Serious Man
In what may be the Coen Brothers most personal film (which is a far cry from calling it their most autobiographical, although I'm sure there's some of their lives here), A Serious Man, acclaimed theater actor Michael Stuhlbarg plays Larry Gopnik, struggling physics professor in late-1960s Minnesota. Larry is struggling and suffering for a host of reason, chief among them is his wife (Sari Lennick) is leaving him for a douche-bag named Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed, who employs a calm, soothing voice that makes you want to throttle him). Larry's daughter (Jessica McManus) is shrill and demanding, and his son has trouble with authority and seems woefully underprepared for his forthcoming bar mitzvah. And then there's Larry's imposing brother Arthur (Richard Kind), who lives with the family and spends all his time in the bathroom draining a giant cyst on his back. Larry has bribes being thrown at him for grades, lawsuits are being threatened, letters of complaints being put in his file, and a tenure hearing days away. He turns to three different rabbis (and a lawyer to help with the divorce) to help him find ways to cope with the pressures of his day-to-day life. Did I mention that A Serious Man is a comedy and is extremely Jewish?
Joel and Ethan have made what might be my favorite of their films. It somehow manages to fit right in with everything else they've done — from Blood Simple to Fargo to No Country for Old Men — and still manages to be radically different than all of their previous works. It's a master stroke of character development, pathos, and an acute sense of what is so completely wrote with both a life of solitude and a purely secular living. It's quite clear that Larry has zero interest in visiting any rabbi, but he also is smart enough to know that if he doesn't, his community to say he didn't try to fix his life. There's a great opening sequence in A Serious Man, in which young couple living in Poland in the early 1900s are visited by what they believe to be a demon in the shape of a long-dead rabbi. Attempts to kill the creature fail, and he disappears into the snow-driven night. The wife declares that this visit is a statement that their family is cursed. A lot of very wise people are going to interpret that scene differently, but to me it connects to Larry's situation by simply stating that some people have shitty luck and will always have shitty luck. That's your Larry in a nutshell.
Stuhlbarg is so alarmingly good that he makes his fellow cast members seem like mere stereotypes, but the Coens are simply too talented to let that happen. Everything and everyone in Larry's world seemed designed to plague him and demoralize him just a little more than the day before. There's a slow, creeping quality to the film that fells like it may be building to Larry snapping and killing everyone around him, but the true ending of A Serious Man is far less predictable and easy to process. I almost fell out of my chair when the movie ended. But to presume that Larry was a man meant for suffering is to run the risk that we won't actually feel for the guy. No danger of that here. Stuhlbarg's performance puts us right there in Larry's shoes, looking through his piercing eyes at those around him who never seem to care that his emotional, financial and physical well being are being chipped away. Not since Police Chief Marge Gunderson waddled through the snow to a crime scene have I felt so much for a Coen Brothers character. It is my firm belief that no one will go see this movie, and that's the crying shame of the decade. With no major stars in the lead roles and the Jewish emphasis, I think even the Coens' usual band of well wishers may stay away. It's with that in mind that I need to make it abundantly clear — this is among the finest films that the Coens have every made, and if you don't see it and are able, then you don't give a shit about quality cinema. I don't know how I can put in more plainly. That said, I'll take a cue from the writers-directors and simply end this review by alerting you to the fact that this movie sure is swell. It opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.
Chris Rock can be a bad liar sometimes. He told me that the goal of his new documentary examining the elaborate world of black (usually black women's) hair is to make people laugh, and I guess technically that's true. But the fact is, Good Hair has just as much bite and social commentary/criticism as any Michael Moore film. The only difference is that Chris is a little more worried than Michael about offending people. Sparked by a conversation with one of his two young daughters about why she doesn't think she has "good hair" (defined as straight hair, achieved by either relaxer or a weave), Chris set out on a journey to discover when natural black hair stopped being considered beautiful and discovered a billion-dollar world he never knew existed. Rock is a masterful interviewer, and an even more masterful commentator on the black community. He takes the discussion of hair etiquette to a barbershop full of men, he interviews dozens of famous and not-so-famous people and gets them to reveal their hair secrets, and he travels to a hair show in Atlanta to watch one of the most ridiculous and fascinating competitions the planet has ever known. By being famous, Chris can get away with asking far more audacious questions of his subjects than a civilian journalist might, and the results are laugh-out-loud hysterical.
But you can tell when Rock is casting a critical eye over what he is beholding. Chemical tests on relaxer are juxtaposed with images of a 4-year-old girl with tons of it in her hair. The admissions by women that they always look for a boyfriend when it comes time to get a new weave, which range in price from $1,000 to $5,000. And men are dumb enough to fall for it every time. Perhaps my favorite interview of the bunch is with poet Maya Angelou, who describes a woman's hair as her "glory." That will get a few people applauding at every showing. I also really liked Raven-Symoné, who is perhaps the most forthcoming about her hair regimen, emphasized by little tug on her weave to show that it's not real. Rock even drags Michelle Obama's hair into the argument. If the First Lady has chemically treated hair, why shouldn't everyone?
By the real function of Good Hair is twofold: to show us the craziest hair styling competition you will every encounter, and to let us know that what's under the hair is more important than what its made of. It's pretty much impossible not to be entertained by Good Hair. And you won't have trouble thinking between the laughs either. On that plane, the film is just about perfect. I could have gone with a little less of the hair show, but there's no getting around the fact that those scenes are the crowd pleasers. These are the kind of reports that Rock used to do on his HBO talk show "The Chris Rock Show." So it should come as no surprise that one of his regular segment directors on that show, Jeff Stilson, is the director of this film. The perfect mix of humor, seriousness and more humor makes for some of the most enjoyable time you'll have all year watching a documentary.
To read my exclusive interview with Good Hair star Chris Rock, visit Ain't It Cool News.
This ultra-low-budget-indie lives and breathes because its star Michelle Monaghan makes it so. So strong in movies like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, North Country and Gone Baby Gone, Monaghan is that rare combination of good looks and talent combined in a woman who seems blissfully unaware she has either in such large quantities. In Trucker, she plays Diane Ford, a single woman who lives the life of a long-haul trucker. When we first meet her, she's having loud, sweaty sex with a man, but when she's done, she's done and ready to split. You should see the way her conquest lies on the bed with that "Call me?" look in his eyes. You just got used, dude. Diane is a hard drinker off the road, and a tireless big-rig driver on it. Her best friend Runner (a nice turn by Nathan Fillion) is a married man who she has managed never to sleep with despite the constant drunken flirtation between the two.
One morning, a woman named Jenny shows up at Diane's door with 11-year-old Peter (Jimmy Bennett, who plays young James T. Kirk in Star Trek). Turns out Peter is Diane's son, who she hasn't seen since just after he was born. Not surprisingly, she was a wild girl growing up and fell in love with the strikingly handsome Len (played as an adult by Benjamin Bratt). Even as a teenager, Diane knew she was not cut out for motherhood, and Len agreed to raise Peter. Jenny is Len's current wife, Len has a debilitating form of cancer, and Peter needs a place to stay so Jenny can attend to her man. Diane is clearly against the idea, but does what she can to make the arrangement work, including dragging the boy around her on some of her shorter runs, which out to be a disastrous move.
Trucker is a movie that doesn't necessarily need you to sympathize or even like its main character. Diane a child-abandoning, foul-mouthed, road-sex-having woman with a laundry list of qualities that you would never find in a conventional Hollywood "chick flick." But the truth of the matter is, there are probably more people in the world like Diane than there are Meg Ryans or Sandra Bullocks in the world. One of the most interesting aspects to Diane is her relationship with Runner, who is clearly in love with her, but both are just smart and sober enough not to act on their mutual attraction. Runner ends up taking care of Peter from time to time while Diane is driving, and for a brief time a makeshift family begins to take shape.
Of course, this is supposed to be a temporary arrangement, and when it comes time for Peter to leave, Diane has gotten used to him just long enough to maybe want to keep him. The struggle seems very real and the outcome is not guaranteed. No matter what the rest of their lives are like, nothing about the end of Trucker seems certain. We know even before Diane makes her decision that if she tries to raise her son, they will come to blows on a fairly regular basis. If she hands him off again but they keep in touch, he'll be resentful of her. And if she flat out abandons him again, she'll screw up his life worse than if he'd never met her. At the core of Trucker, Monaghan is devastating and so worthy of notice. This film has been on the shelf for more than two years, and the fact that its coming out at all is tantamount to a miracle. But here it is, and if it's playing anywhere within 100 miles of you, hitch a ride with a pretty lady driving a semi and get to it. This is a great movie that captures the vibe of the great character studies of the 1970s, complete with the same gritty look and matter-of-fact way of letting the story unfold. I loved this movie, and I even loved Diane despite her best efforts to keep the world at a distance. The film opens today at Facets Cinematheque.
Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interview with Trucker star Michelle Monaghan.