Archive for August, 2013

Closed Circuit

Year of Release: 2013     Directed by John Crowley.           Starring Eric Bana, Rebecca Hall, Ciaran Hinds, and Julia Stiles.

Perhaps I am overly lenient when it comes to mysteries and thrillers, but I thought Closed Circuit had just enough strengths to overcome its copious flaws and make for a diverting and mostly enjoyable hour and a half mystery.

The premise is fascinating.  Defense barrister Martin Rose (Eric Bana) has been assigned to a high profile case in which a suspected terrorist is being tried for a bombing which resulted in the deaths of one hundred twenty people.  After the previous defense barrister committed suicide, Martin is selected to pick up the case.  An unusual aspect of the case involves classified information pertinent to the defense that is being withheld from the public, the accused, and the defense on the grounds of national security.  Before the public trial on the bombing, there will be a special closed circuit case in which another defense barrister, Claudia Simmons-Howe, (Rebecca Hall) will defend the right of the accused to have access to all the information being used against him.

However, Claudia and Martin have had a past affair, which compromises their ability to work together on the same case, but they withhold that information from their superiors, because this case is too important for their careers for them to decline it.  As both of them investigate the case, they discover that officials from British intelligence agency MI5 are spying on them and have reason to want this case dealt with as clandestinely as possible.

The biggest flaw with the film is that the plot is rather predictable, primarily regarding the identity of the corrupt government officials and the nature of the mystery.  There are also way too many cuts to the security camera point of view, constantly reminding the audience that someone is watching and spying on the actions of Martin, Claudia, the accused, and his family.  Those cuts give away too much of the plot too far in advance, undermining some of the suspense of the mystery.

As an intelligent barrister, it does not really make sense that it took Martin as long as it did to figure out who was spying on him and Claudia.  He told only one person about the same cab repeatedly picking him up, and then the next cab mysteriously (as he noted) had a different identification number.  That same person is also the only one who knew that he and Claudia had an illicit affair, which MI5 uses to threaten them.  But it takes a couple more slips from the character before Martin figures it out.  The audience is then supposed to be surprised when this spy is seen meeting with the head of the corrupt agency.

Julia Stiles essentially has a glorified cameo as a New York Times reporter that serve two purposes.  She asks the obvious questions that any alert audience member would already be asking, and she makes the semi-obvious parallels to the recent controversies regarding government spying with Snowden and Greenwald.  Her questions are topical, yet the film’s presentation of them is not particularly new or insightful.

All that said, I did enjoy it overall.  The entire cast gives strong performances, and the pace moves along briskly, just fast enough to stay engaging and not so fast as to be overwhelming.

I should add that I thought Closed Circuit had one of the stronger scores I have heard this year (not that I have actually heard any really noteworthy film scores this year.)  The quiet rhythmic piano music had a less is more approach which added to the atmosphere of the film without distracting from it.

As an entertaining mystery Closed Circuit mostly succeeds due to its cast, good pacing, and interesting concept.  Better camera use and fewer early revelations would have helped the film tremendously by creating a stronger aura of suspense.  While the questions it raises about government surveillance are relevant to many recent news stories, the film could also have explored the consequences of such procedures in greater depth rather than abandoning them to the generic mystery.  Nevertheless, a well acted generic mystery with a decent premise is not a bad film.

Content Advisory: Some rough language, a non-graphic murder, two attempted stranglings, and references to an affair.                 MPAA rating: R

Suggested Audience: Teens and up with discernment.

Overall Recommendation: B-

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The World’s End

Year of Release: 2013     Directed by Edgar Wright.  Starring Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine, Eddie Marsan, and Rosamund Pike.

One of the strongest and funniest aspects of The World’s End is the way that it blends genres.  The film starts out as a buddy comedy and then becomes a science fiction/horror film and then an apocalyptic thriller as well.  No genre is ever abandoned, rather each one is maintained and blended with the others as the film takes increasingly absurd turns.

The film opens with Gary King (Simon Pegg) in an alcoholics anonymous meeting recounting the “best night of his life.”  After graduating from college, he and his four buddies attempted the golden mile in their home village Newton Haven.  The golden mile is when in one evening, they would each drink one pint of beer at each one of the twelve bars, beginning at The First Post and ending at the famed World’s End.

They didn’t make it.  After nine pubs and nine pints of beer as well as several shots all five of them were completely wasted and collapsed unconscious in a nearby park.  Nearly twenty years later, Gary is living at a sobriety clinic and the other four have gotten prestigious jobs.  However, recollecting that night reminds him of his dream and ambition, and he decides there is no time like the present to attempt the golden mile again.  With carefully calculated lies and manipulations, Gary manages to talk all four of his former friends into joining him on his quest.

A large percentage of the film’s humor is derived from Gary’s narcissism as his selfishness and his alcoholism continually create more and more outlandish and dangerous situations for himself and his buddies.  The terrific chemistry between all five of the men heightens the absurdity of each situation.  Gary is so caught up with himself that he has never matured over the past twenty years.  Consequently, he has no awareness of common expressions, which is underscored by an hilarious if vulgar exchange.  Gary also obsessed over his one night stand with Samantha (Rosamund Pike), which he finally moves on from in one of the funniest Casablanca parodies I have ever seen.  Another funny scene pays tribute to Star Wars as Gary attempts to become an action hero.

Once the five friends arrive in Newton Haven, it becomes clear that the town is different than it was twenty years ago.  Gary insists that they are the same and it is the town that has changed, while the other four try to tell him that they have matured and thus a town known solely for its pubs seems different.  It is obvious that Gary has not matured, and as Andy (Nick Cross) begrudgingly says, Gary is never wrong.  Humorously playing on that repeated line, The World’s End becomes a parody of classic science fiction and horror films as the friends try to discover what is wrong with the town.

Gary’s basic personality never changes; he desires to have a good time and be the king among his friends.  In the end Gary’s free will and right to live as an alcoholic screw-up is affirmed, yet the film also shows the shallowness and selfishness of this lifestyle as well as some of the dramatic consequences.

It is a well established fact that British humor is hilarious.  The World’s End does not fail to deliver many laughs as five friends participate in a Friday night of drinking that will have the most surprising, lengthy, and memorable Monday morning.

Content Advisory: Recurring crass and obscene language, some profanity, several sexual references, fleeting rear nudity, much comic action violence, a drug reference, and frequent drinking and inebriation.                     MPAA rating: R

Suggested Audience: Adults

Overall Recommendation: A

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Life is Beautiful (La Vita É Bella)

Year of Release: 1997     Directed by Roberto Benigni.           Starring Roberto Benigni, Nicoletta Braschi, Sergio Bustric, Giustino Durano, and Giorgio Cantarini.

If one knew nothing about Life is Beautiful, the opening thirty minutes would convince a first time viewer that the film is a romantic comedy.  The film opens with Guido (Roberto Benigni) and his friend Ferruccio (Sergio Bustric) driving through the Italian countryside, cavalierly reciting poetry, and not paying attention to the road.  When Ferruccio says, “the brakes aren’t working,” Guido assumes that that is the next line of the poem, and only realizes that their car has no breaks once they begin continually accelerating down the hillside.

After crashing through a solemn state procession, they manage to stop the car on a farm where Guido convinces a young girl that he is a prince, he owns all the land, and a beautiful princess will fall from the sky into his arms.  At that moment, a young woman named Dora (Nicoletta Braschi) falls from a second story window and Guido catches her.  Over the next few weeks Guido continually runs into Dora in increasingly unusual ways and pursues a whimsical romance with her.

Meanwhile Guido has moved in with his Uncle Eliseo (Giustino Durano) and begun working as a waiter in his uncle’s restaurant.  While he can remember the complex rules regarding the proper way to serve chicken, simply serving lobster as is, is too simple for him to remember.  Nonetheless, Guido’s warm buoyant personality endears him to most of the restaurant’s patrons.

At the end of the first half-hour, there is one event that clearly foreshadows the coming tragedy, and begins the shift of the film to a Holocaust survival story.  Uncle Eliseo’s horse is painted green with slurs and death threats to Jews written on top of the paint.  Before this incident, there was no way to know that Guido and his family were Jewish, which emphasizes the tragic absurdity of the anti-Semitism prevalent in the axis countries during World War II.  People whom everyone loved and who were respected members of society became the victims of racism.

Before the incident with the horse, there are a few subtle suggestion that Life is Beautiful will be a story about the Holocaust.  The opening titles establish the year as 1939, and at one point Guido impersonates a school inspector, where he is expected to lecture on the supremacy of the Italian race.  However, it is easy to forget the significance of the latter event, because is treated so humorously as Guido sings the praises of his Italian ears and Italian bellybutton, asks Dora on a date, and then runs out by the widow when the real inspector arrives.

All of the opening comedy makes the shift to the Holocaust much more poignant and tragic than it would have been had the film started with the violence of World War II.  By portraying the beauty of life as Guido, Dora, and Eliseo joyfully go about the daily routines, unaware of the looming danger, the film adds to the horror of the Holocaust by showing the beauty that it destroyed in addition to the brutality of terrorizing innocent people.

Guido’s sense of humor pervades the entire the film, even the harshest moments in the concentration camp.  He never fails to find a positive outlook and reassure his young son Joshua (Giorgio Cantarini), who was born in the intervening years, by telling him that the concentration camp is a game, and the first family to collect 1,000 points by following the orders of the German soldiers will win a real tank and go home.  A more cynical person might consider Guido’s optimism and deception living in denial, but it is the same fantasy world in which Guido has comically operated throughout the entire film, earlier claiming he was a prince and then a school inspector.  This comic fantasy world is the only way he knows to preserve his son’s calm and safety.  Therefore, he will go to any lengths and sacrifices to himself in order to preserve his son’s well-being.

If Life is Beautiful has any flaws at all, it would be that a few of the scenarios substantially stretch credibility.  A single instance of voiceover implies a recollection that would not be physically possible.  At another point, Joshua wants to leave the camp, claiming that it is not a game.  In an attempt to reassure him that there is no danger and they can leave if they want, Guido goes dangerously close to threatening his son’s safety.

However, there are many touching scenes as Guido risks his life with clownish antics to preserve his son’s safety.  For instance, after Joshua, impersonating a German boy, makes a slip and speaks to a Nazi in Italian, Guido quickly begins teaching all the German children Italian.  When a few Nazis might discover Joshua’s hiding place, Guido endangers himself to distract them.  These scenes more than make up for any small flaws.

Guido’s optimism and perpetual humor enables him to make all aspects of life beautiful, even the most brutal and unpleasant ones.  This sunny outlook is endearing and hilarious while life goes on as it should, but it also highlights the tragedy when it is threatened.  Ultimately, the most touching aspect of Guido’s personality is that it drives to him to make any sacrifice out of love for his family.  In a true allegorical fashion, when a person preserves his sense of hope while making the sacrifices that Guido makes, life truly is beautiful.

 

Content Advisory: Restrained depictions of concentration camp atrocities, some violence, and a few mild sexual references.                        MPAA rating: PG-13

Suggested Audience: Teens and up.

Personal Recommendation: A

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The Page Turner (La tourneuse de pages)

Year of Release: 2006     Directed by Denis Dercourt.             Starring Déborah François, Catherine Frot, Pascal Greggory, Clotilde Mollet, Xavier De Guillebon, Antoine Martynciow, and Julie Richalet.

Before I begin, I should confess that I have an affinity for cautionary tales as well as revenge stories, provided that the revenge is portrayed as destructive and disturbing.  In both regards, The Page Turner does not fail to deliver, succeeding as a chilling cautionary revenge tale.

The movie opens with ten-year-old Melanie (Julie Richalet).  She lays awake in bed air-practicing her piano repertoire.  She then gets out of bed, goes to the piano, and practices the most difficult passages before playing the entire piece.  Her behavior is that of a skilled and conscientious student, and it is clear that she has a promising future as a pianist.  Unfortunately, Melanie also suffers from a dangerous level of perfectionism, manifested when she tells her parents that she will permanently quit piano if she fails her examination.  Her parents do not share her obsession, and reassure her that they will continue to pay for her lessons even if she fails, because her playing is beautiful and she enjoys it, and her enjoyment is most important.  However, Melanie is determined; if she does not pass, she will quit.

The examination starts very well; Melanie is calm and plays accurately and expressively.  Halfway through the piece, an eager fan bursts through the doors seeking a signature from Ariane, (Catherine Frot) one of the famous pianists on the jury.  Ariane obliges, and Melanie stops playing distracted and afraid that she is playing poorly and the jury is no longer interested in her playing.  Ariane lectures Melanie that she need not have stopped and tells her to continue where she left off.  By that point, the damage is done; Melanie cannot refocus her concentration and badly stumbles through the remainder of the piece.

Interestingly, the film never shows the audience the jury’s verdict.  Although they were disappointed with the second half of Melanie’s playing, it is still possible that she could have passed based on the first half of her performance or from sympathy due to the distraction.  That does not matter to Melanie; she did not play at the level she wanted, and her piano career is over.  She leaves the room crying, and on arriving home locks-up her sheet music and her miniature bust of Beethoven, and she then locks the top of the piano.

Several years later, the adult Melanie (Déborah François from L’Enfant) is working as an intern at a law firm.  Her boss (Pascal Greggory) needs a nanny for his young son, and Melanie offers to do the job.  When she arrives at his home, she discovers that his wife is Ariane.  It then becomes apparent that Melanie has never outgrown her obsession, and she has harbored a grudge against Ariane for nearly a decade.

Initially, it is hard not to feel sympathy for Melanie.  As a child, she was an eager and slightly anxious pianist.  Her perfectionism and obsession were a weakness, but they did not define her, and one hoped she would overcome them.  The distractions on her exam, which Ariane encouraged, would have been unnerving for even a professional performer.  Indeed, after a car accident Ariane suffers from performance anxiety, which surrounding distractions heighten.  However, Melanie’s increasingly ruthless attempts at vengeance show that she has allowed her unhealthy obsession to define her personality.

Melanie’s actions become increasingly sinister as she attempts to ruin not only Ariane’s life but Ariane’s entire family’s as well.  The most shocking scenes of Melanie’s cruelty are those as she threatens Ariane’s son under the guise of helping him.

There are two scenes which stand out from the otherwise sinister proceedings, contrasting the old Melanie and the woman who has allowed her obsession to consume her.  At one point an old friend meets Melanie while she is shopping with Ariane.  They quickly catch up with a friendly and heartfelt discussion.  The other scene is when Melanie calls her parents and shows herself to be a devoted, caring daughter.

It is slightly surprising that all of Melanie’s plans play out as well as she intended.  A major portion of Melanie’s plan is dependent on Ariane’s accident, which is a coincidences that Melanie could not have foreseen.  To the film’s credit, Melanie handles each situation, occasioned by luck or by her planning, with such naïveté and innocence that it would be easy for her to manipulate people the way that she wants, which makes her plan for vengeance mostly plausible.

As would be expected, Jerome Lemonnier’s score prominently features piano.  Surprisingly, the main theme is not a virtuosic piano solo suggesting the prodigious talent of the two leads, but rather a register-shifting melody with a sparsely textured accompaniment suggesting the uneasy mental state of both Melanie and Ariane.  The main theme also utilizes many repeated notes to underscore Melanie’s destructive obsession.

Like most good revenge stories, The Page Turner’s premise allows the perpetrator of vengeance to treat the victim the same way that the victim initially treated the perpetrator, emphasizing that revenge makes one into the person that one wanted to destroy.  Melanie’s conniving may or may not be successful, but she plays on the same nerves of Ariane that she allowed to destroy her own career, hoping to have similar results with Ariane.

Despite a few plot points occasioned by coincidence, The Page Turner is still a competent story about revenge, a story that makes intriguing observations and worthwhile use of the viewer’s time.

 

Content Advisory: A scene of explicit groping, fleeting nudity, a subtle lesbian seduction, a gruesome stabbing, and some menace towards a child.                               Not Rated.

Suggested Audience: Adults.

Personal Recommendation: B+

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Farewell My Concubine

Year of Release: 1993     Directed by Kaige Chen.         Starring Leslie Cheung, Fengyi Zhang, Gong Li, Qi Lu, and You Ge.

Being a big fan of Together with You, director Kaige Chen’s skilled and heartwarming 2003 film about the relationship between a young prodigy violinist and his father, I had high expectations for his earlier, more highly acclaimed work Farewell My Concubine.  Alas, the empathetic believable characters and compelling storytelling which made Together with You so memorable and enjoyable, are nowhere to be found in Farewell My Concubine.

That is not to say Farewell My Concubine is a bad film; its problem is that it is too ambitious a film.  Even with a two hour and fifty minute run time, there are so many storylines and themes that none of them are fully developed.  The film initially focuses on Chinese opera and the schools that trained the boys who would become opera stars.  It then shifts to a Chinese history lesson as it covers the conflict between China and Japan in WWII, as well as the multiple stages of the Chinese Civil War and Communist Revolution.  Throughout the entire film the relationship between the two opera stars Dieyi (Leslie Cheung) and Xiaolou (Fengyi Zhang) forms  center of the story, but how their struggles relate to the rest of the film is constantly changing.

The film opens with the two aging opera stars slowly walking on stage and reminiscing about the days when they were the famous performers.  The film then flashes back to their childhood when they first met in the opera school.  Dieyi’s mother was a prostitute, and she abandoned him to the school, because she could no longer care for him and so he could have a career.  Xiaolou quickly befriended him, and both of them helped each other cope with the harsh milieu of the school run by the no-nonsense teachers, who would severely beat the students at the slightest provocation.

At this point it seems like the film is going to focus on critiquing the perfectionist work ethic and merciless expectations that performers are held to.  Dieyi was born with a sixth finger, an abnormality which would have kept him out of the opera school, but his mother numbed his hand in the snow and then cut off the finger with a knife.  There are countless shots of the naked rear ends of the boys being beaten with the broadside of swords by the teachers.  Training exercises consist of kneeling while holding a large bowl of water for a straight twenty-four hours or standing on one’s head for an entire day.  At one point, Dieyi weeps, “How many beatings does it take to become a star?”  To add to the misery of the boys, it is implied that a famous opera singer rapes one of them after a guest performance.

All of this tragedy is jettisoned as the film shifts to the next idea that it explores without fully developing.  Once Dieyi and Xiaolou are young adults, they have landed the lead roles in one of China’s most difficult and important operas: Farewell My Concubine.  At this point Dieyi is so obsessed with the opera and his role as the King’s Concubine Lu (no female performers in the 1930’s) that he starts failing to differentiate reality from the fantasy of the opera.  When he was a young, he could not sing a nun’s line: “I am by nature a girl,” until he believed he *was* a girl.  As a result, when Xiaolou gets engaged, Dieyi feels personally betrayed and interacts with Xiaolou’s betrothed, Juxian (Gong Li), like a spurned ex-girlfriend.  Later in the movie, another character insinuates that Dieyi may have actually been a male concubine to one of the theatre’s patrons.  But all this is forgotten as well.

The next major focus is the changing political climates in twentieth century China.  Regardless of who is in power, Dieyi only wants to perform opera.  Xiaolou and Juxian are more concerned for their own safety and to remain loyal to China.  Conflicts of interest eventually lead several characters to run afoul of the Communist Party, but for an unexplained reason they are forgiven or allowed to escape.

I understand that the overarching theme was supposed to be the danger of a slavish obsession to fame and a specific art form, but the film abruptly shifts tone too many times for that theme to connect.  Each one of the sections makes a compelling part of the film, but the whole is much less than the sum of those parts.  There are a few throwaway references to earlier events towards the film’s conclusion, but mentioning an early event later in the film does not constitute tying it into the story, especially if it has no relevance to the scene in which it is mentioned.  That is a weak attempt at creating continuity in a story that desperately needs more.

The opera performances are beautifully staged, and Chen shows that he has a real flair for directing musical numbers, grand sets, and large scale events.  The costumes and colors are exquisite.  In many ways, the film is like a grand opera: spectacular sets, costumes, and performances mask a weak, absurd, and bloated storyline.  In Farewell My Concubine, it works just well enough to hold the viewer’s attention.

Sunset Boulevard (blurring fantasy and reality due to the dangerous underside of fame), Amadeus (rivalry and dangerous consequences of envy between two musicians), The Pianist (pursuing music in an increasingly hostile political environment), and Fanny and Alexander (children coping with the harshness of their environment) are all different movies (and all masterpieces I would argue).  Farewell My Concubine wants to be all of them, which is simply not possible.  It is an impressive attempt, and it pulls it off better than one would think possible, but ultimately the film bit off more than it could chew.

 

Content Advisory: An implied scene of child molestation, gruesome violence including an amputation, drug use, many harsh scenes of child beating, an implied encounter, several scenes of nonsexual nudity, sexual references, and some obscene and profane language.                                MPAA rating: R

Suggested Audience: Adults with discernment.

Personal Recommendation: B-

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