Saturday, August 22, 2009


David Lurie (John Malkovich), twice-divorced and dissatisfied with his job as an English professor in post-apartheid South Africa, finds his life falling apart. When he seduces one of his students, Melanie (Antoinette Engel) and does nothing to protect himself from the consequences, he is dismissed from his teaching position, and goes to live with his lesbian daughter Lucy (Jessica Haines), who shares a farm in the Eastern Cape with trusted black worker Petrus (Eric Ebouaney). For a time, his daughter's influence and natural rhythms of the farm promise to harmonise his discordant life. But the balance of power in the country is shifting. In the aftermath of a vicious attack by three black youths, he is forced to come to terms with the changes in society - as well as his disgrace.

Review by Louise Keller:

Desire and its consequences are at the heart of this complex drama that has the power to shred us emotionally. Based on the Booker prize winning novel by J.M. Coetzee, this is the kind of film that knocks you for a loop. It surprises at every turn, takes you where you least expect to be taken and twists a knife into your heart just after you think you have endured the worst of it. Directed and adapted by the husband and wife team who brought us the quirky and accessible La Spagnola in 2001, Steve Jacobs and Anna-Maria Monticelli have a profound grasp of the subject matter, resulting in a mature, thought provoking work that resonates. Subconsciously, the film throbs with truth as we find ourselves sinking deeper and deeper in a quagmire of redemption, acceptance and reconciliation reflecting the South African divide.

When we first meet John Malkovich's lust-driven University professor David Lurie, we quickly understand his philosophy that there are more important things in life than being prudent. He teaches romantic poetry and listens to classical music, while lust fuels his leisure time. Disgrace is the result of his liaison with his student Melanie (Antoinette Engel). But that is just the beginning of the journey. We take a sharp right hand turn as David drives through the distinctively barren South African terrain to the remote farm where his lesbian daughter Lucy (Jessica Haines) lives. The harsh reality of daily life begins, where desire is examined from a converse point of view. Rape and the confrontation of an unfathomable cultural mindset start life spinning as fast as the hubcaps of the pickup trucks on the desolate, dusty roads.

Malkovich is one of those actors who cannot help but carry loads of gravitas. Here, as always, he is brilliantly credible as a severely flawed man forced to learn the reality of the poetry he teaches. ('One who goes to teach learns the keenest of lessons; one who goes to learn, learns nothing'). Haines gives a staggering performance as Jessica, the strong woman who makes tough decisions as her comfort zone crumbles as she loses everything, while Eriq Ebouaney is striking as Jessica's neighbour Petrus, whose life philosophies must be accepted. There are two especially devastating moments in this film and they arrive unexpectedly. The first is the scene in which Malkovich is crying: we see him as from the back of a car carrying unusual cargo. The second is at the animal shelter, where David helps Bev (Fiona Press) in the heartbreaking task of dealing with unclaimed dogs. Special mention to Antony Partos' exceptional score which accentuates and tugs at our emotions and Steve Arnold's splendid cinematography which captures the starkness of the landscape. Disgrace is a powerful work and one that is not easily forgotten. Sadly, the resonance of life in South Africa feels only too real and familiar.

Review by Andrew L. Urban:
In 1999, Disgrace won the second Booker Prize for Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee. That is both an accolade to admire and a mountain to climb if you're going to adapt the novel into a film; such a different medium. Astonishingly enough, Anna Maria Monticelli and husband Steve Jacobs have pulled it off. There may be quibbles about some aspects and some scenes, but the film works as a piece of cinema, whether connected to the book or not. And as I haven't read the much lauded book, I can only respond to the film.

The saturated self awareness that John Malkovich brings to his roles is perfectly suited to the character of David Lurie, a man whose love of literature, especially the romantic poets, contrasts with his unromantic personal style. When he seduces young Melanie (Antoinette Engel) it is only superficially romantic. (Here is one of my quibbles: I'd like to have seen the precise nature of this seduction; how Melanie succumbed is so crucial to our view of David's actions and thus his character.)

But that's just the start, in a work that jolts us to attention with the vicious attack against David and his daughter Lucy (Jessica Haines) at her remote flower farm, where David has gone after his forced resignation from university. It is here that we are confronted with the demons of post apartheid South Africa that J. M. Coetzee writes about with evident heartache. It's a complex story with uneasy and uncomfortable truths; and it is Lucy - in a wonderful performance by Jessica Haines - who delivers the symbolic and also tangibly real progeny of this traumatised state.

Malkovich and Haines aside, Disgrace features remarkable performances from both Eric Ebouaney as Petrus, the man who shares farming land with Lucy, and whose history sows the seeds that grow the plants of the new South Africa; and Fiona Press as the Animal Welfare League vet who provides a haven for abandoned dogs - and David. She, too, is a symbol, a representative of people of good heart who try to make a difference, often in vain.

Africa plays its soulful, bitter sweet self as the continent where nature's wild beauty is a helpless witness to atrocious actions by mankind, and provides some soul-searching images thanks to Steve Arnold's splendid cinematography. The score is another valuable contribution by the multi awarded Australian composer Antony Partos, and for all its sombre notes, the film is a rich, textured and emotionally engaging experience that challenges our ethical and moral views about South Africa - as I suspect does the novel.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Public Enemies

Every great director has at least one truly bad film in him, and Public Enemies is Michael Mann’s. It is not just a failure, but one of those movies in which the gap between its quality and its maker’s talent is so immense as to be nearly inexplicable. To be fair, it is possible that my expectations for Public Enemies, which chronicles the 1933 FBI manhunt for legendary Midwest bank robber John Dillinger, were unfairly high. But from the man who made Manhunter, Thief, Last of the Mohicans, Collateral, and the masterpiece Heat, a film this empty, dull, lifeless, and—most shocking of all—crudely made cannot be anything other than a major disappointment. This may not be fair, but it is a fact. We expect bad films from the likes of Brett Ratner. We expect great ones from Michael Mann. Such is the price of genius, and in Public Enemies, Mann pays it.

In all fairness, however, it must be admitted that Public Enemies is not just Mann’s failure. It is also another in a long line of equally inexplicable failures to successfully translate the myth of John Dillinger and his eventual demise to the screen. I use the term inexplicable because if the Dillinger legend is anything, it is unquestionably a great story. It has love, violence, friendship, irony, and death. It has a charismatic antihero and, in the person of straitlaced FBI agent Melvin Purvis, who led the manhunt, the stoic nemesis who eventually takes him down. It is a quintessentially American story featuring two classic American archetypes—the free-spirited outlaw and the upstanding sheriff—locked in a duel to the death in a world not unlike that of the Western but much more recognizably ours. In other words, it is a story that seems tailor-made for the movies. And yet, Hollywood has proven consistently incapable of doing it justice.

This is not for lack of trying. Almost from the moment he died in a hail of police bullets outside the Biograph Theater in Chicago, Dillinger has been an object of Hollywood’s affections. Over half a dozen films have been made about him, with John Milius’s Dillinger (1973), produced by legendary B-movie mogul Roger Corman and starring the much-underrated Warren Oates, probably being the best of them, but none have even approached the heights of the great gangster films like The Godfather (1972) or Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Most of them have been, at best, forgettable. It seems that something about Dillinger and his tale eludes the powers of cinema, and the best retellings of it have been in books like John Toland’s fascinating if sometimes inaccurate The Dillinger Days (1963).

The reason for this is probably Dillinger himself. Profoundly evil and, by all accounts, profoundly attractive, he is too complicated, schizophrenic, and disturbing a character for any mainstream film to accurately capture. A violent, charming sociopath, Dillinger was a rapist at thirteen, a convict before he reached twenty, and by the time he was finally cornered and killed by the FBI, a murderer many times over who counted several police officers among his victims. If anything distinguished him from his fellow thugs, it was his unnerving self-awareness, coupled with what seemed to be an instinctive understanding of the role that mass media was coming to play in American life. Decades before Charles Manson and O.J. Simpson, Dillinger was the first American criminal who succeeded in turning himself into a cultural icon. Accordingly, he cultivated a Clark Gable-style mustache, went out of his way to charm the press, never missed a chance for a photo opportunity— especially if it made the authorities look foolish—and became a specialist in such baroque gestures as vaulting gracefully over bank counters and refusing to steal money from poor farmers. He understood, probably because he shared it, that particularly American sympathy for outlaws, especially when their efforts are directed at the vast unknowable systems that seem to govern so much of modern American life. And like most sociopaths, he had a keen sense of what people find attractive, and quickly learned how to exploit it to his advantage.

The real skeleton key to the Dillinger legend, however, is probably the fact that while his chosen profession was somewhat unorthodox, he was very, very good at it. Americans have never much sympathized with Balzac’s observation that behind every great fortune lies a crime. They love a success story, no matter how tawdry the details (witness the recent sickening genuflection before the memory of the odious Michael Jackson), and Dillinger was unquestionably a success, robbing banks with seeming impunity, eluding the best efforts of law enforcement for months, and escaping from jails advertised as impregnable. For a brief moment, he was rich, good-looking, and famous, which is usually all Americans need to at least grudgingly admire someone. In this sense, he anticipated modern American icons like Simpson and Jackson, whose transgressions, however horrendous, are endlessly forgiven in the name of their celebrity.

The Dillinger of Public Enemies is both much more likable and far less interesting than the original. Played by perennial teen heartthrob Johnny Depp, he is both dull and a pretty nice guy, of which Dillinger was most certainly neither. Depp channels none of the sociopathic joie de vivre which so endeared the outlaw to a bruised and cynical American public. Instead, he remakes the outlaw as a sort of emasculated Byronic hero. Sensitive, sentimental, damaged, and driven, this Dillinger rarely speaks above a monotone, and seems more like a shuffling, drug-addled rock star than a gangster. All of the outlaw’s most legendary moments—jumping over the bank counters, letting the farmer keep his money, joking with the press, having his picture taken with his arm on the shoulder of his prosecutor—are portrayed in the film, but Depp’s performance is so woefully blank and uninflected that they pass by with barely any impact. While Mann has often used understated, affectless performances to his advantage (witness Robert DeNiro’s tour de force of underacting in Heat), in this case it serves only to empty Dillinger of what made him interesting in the first place.

Christian Bale’s vacant portrayal of Dillinger’s pursuer Melvin Purvis is equally woeful. Purvis has generally been portrayed by historians as either a stalwart lawman or a bumbling incompetent, and Mann tries to provide us with a little of both, resulting in a character who is both totally incoherent and just as uninteresting as his quarry. As with Mann’s portrayal of Dillinger, the reality was far more compelling and far more disturbing: Purvis was a puritanistic southerner who got the credit for killing Dillinger, though historians now believe there is a strong chance he never fired a shot (Mann’s version of events implies that this was in fact the case, though the climactic scene is so bizarrely edited that it is almost impossible to tell who is firing at who). Some thirty years later, the ex-lawman committed suicide, supposedly using the same gun with which he may or may not have shot Dillinger. The conflicting forces that must have been at work in the psyche of such a man ought to make for great drama, perhaps even great tragedy, but Mann more or less ignores them, and by the end of the movie one is simply left wondering what Purvis is doing in the film in the first place.

The only truly persuasive performance in the film belongs to French actress Marion Cotillard, who plays the ostensible love of Dillinger’s life, Billie Frechette. Cotillard depicts her as an innocent in love, which is probably inaccurate (before she hooked up with Dillinger, Frechette had already married and left another convicted criminal), but nonetheless touching, and at certain points she displays a ferocious carnality sadly lacking in the portrayal of Dillinger himself. She alone seems to be alive in the way legend demands. Billy Crudup, who plays J. Edgar Hoover, is also effective, though his character rarely rises above the shallow caricature which has become the standard Hollywood portrayal of the late FBI director. Nonetheless, there is an eccentric ruthlessness to Crudup’s Hoover that locks him immediately into the mind of the viewer, which cannot be said for the ciphers portrayed by Depp and Bale.

The acting, however, is the least of the film’s problems. Most troubling of all, especially for those familiar with Mann’s earlier work, is the cinematography, which must be one of the most wrongheaded stylistic decisions in cinema history. Put simply, Public Enemies is the ugliest big budget movie ever made. Mann shot the film on high definition video, and while films like the last two Star Wars prequels and Superman Returns have managed to get a reasonably film-like look out of digital cameras, Mann seems to have opted for a more primitive version of the technology, perhaps in imitation of the execrable Lars Von Trier’s equally execrable Dogma movement. The result simply bears out Roman Polanski’s opinion that Dogma films look like the cameraman is masturbating while stricken with Parkinson’s disease. The images have no depth, movement tends to blur in confusing and disorientating ways, even the night scenes feel overlit, and there are endless shaky-cam shots, every one of which ought to have been filmed on a dolly track. The final effect is to induce nausea in the viewer, and total incomprehension as to why Mann would lavish such expense on costumes, production design, and period detail only to photograph them as if he were making a 1970s no-budget BBC drama.

This becomes even more baffling when one considers Mann’s previous work. A notorious perfectionist with a fetish for architectural compositions and modernist styles, the crowning glory of most of its films is their visual beauty, which together with his use of ambient music draws the viewer into that vicarious fugue state which always constitutes cinema at its best. The opening shot of Heat, for example, features an LA commuter train slowly approaching the camera as it pulls into an enormous modernist train station, the train’s gleaming exterior echoing the architecture surrounding it, so they both appear to become part of the same metallic topography. Throughout the shot, a single ominous note plays on the soundtrack. The viewer has no idea where the film is set or what is happening at this point, but by the time Robert DeNiro steps off the train Mann has us in his pocket. We are all asking ourselves: Who is this man? Why are we watching him? What is about to happen? This is pure filmmaking, holding the viewer spellbound with nothing more than cinema’s own wordless, hieroglyphic language.

The worst sin of Public Enemies, however, is that it not only fails as cinema but, in making itself unwatchably ugly, actually seems to be at war with it. Whatever his motivations might be—and I suspect Hollywood’s fetish for digital technology is one of them—Mann appears to have been stricken with a violent hatred of his own medium. This may eventually lead to something of value, but if Mann continues in this vein, there is a strong chance that we will have to evaluate his career as that of wayward master whose ultimate contribution was, sadly, to the degradation of cinema itself.


Departures (おくりびと, Okuribito?) is a 2008 Japanese film by Yōjirō Takita. It won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2009 Oscars and has earned $61,010,217 in Japan as of April 12, 2009.[1]

When "Departures" was announced as the foreign-language Oscar winner in February, it was the first time a film from Japan had won the award in more than 50 years.

Overtaking what were widely considered to be the neck-and-neck front-runners, "Waltz With Bashir" from Israel and "The Class" from France, no one was more surprised to hear "Departures" called than the film's director, Yojiro Takita.
A handful of Oscar prognosticators and insiders had been turning to the film in the final buildup to the event, simply because "Departures" is such an audience-friendly picture. Opening Friday in Los Angeles, "Departures" plays as a gen- tle comedy of manners in its early sections before it slowly transitions into a heart-tugging story of forgiveness and redemption.

When a self-admittedly so-so cello-player (Masahiro Motoki) finds himself unemployed after his orchestra in Tokyo goes out of business, he returns to his small rural hometown. Mistakenly answering an ad for what he thinks is a travel agency, he reluctantly takes a job as an "encoffiner," someone who performs a ceremonial preparation to corpses before burial to ready them for their journey into the afterlife.

At first he hides his new job from his wife and old friends in town. Taken under the wing of his new boss (Tsutomu Yamazaki, familiar to American audiences from the one-time art-house hit "Tampopo"), he comes to appreciate the deeper meaning of his new line of work. Lessons are learned, old wounds healed, etc.

"Departures" has won more than 80 awards from around the globe and has taken in more than $60 million at the Japanese box office.

"There was no way I could have imagined the film would take off like this," Takita said recently through a translator in Los Angeles. "When you have death as a theme, people don't generally tend to get excited about it. So I had no way of knowing how the audience would receive it. We've been fortunate."

The project originated with its star, Motoki, who became taken with a book on the practice of encoffining and thought it would make a good movie. After reading an early draft of the script by Kundo Koyama, Takita, a veteran director with dozens of films to his credit, signed on.

"I knew of the existence of encoffiners, but I had never actually seen it with my own eyes," Takita said. "It's important to emphasize this was not a practice that was very common in Japan at all. It's safe to say that most Japanese people were unfamiliar with the existence of encoffiners before the film came out; it was more of a niche service offered in rural areas."

Yôjirô Takita's Departures was the surprise winner of Best Foreign Film at the 2008 Academy Awards, beating out the urban realism of Lauren Cantet's inner city school drama The Class and Ari Folman's Waltz With Bashir, a personal documentary that recounts a soldier's experience in the Israeli-Lebanon conflict. Departures takes on equally earnest subject matter; the film's title makes reference to the cleansing ritual that prepares dead bodies for burial in Japanese society.

Given its topic, Departures is surprisingly light-hearted: a feel-good film with uplifting music by Joe Hisaish, a composer best known for providing the score to Hayao Miyazaki's animated adventures. For a movie that tackles the subject of death head on, the film has many moments of unmistakable physical comedy.
At the time of the awards ceremony, American audiences had not had a chance to view Departures. In hindsight, the selection makes good sense. The Japanese film is competently made, pleasing to audiences, and in no way controversial. If this sounds critical, it is -- the Academy's choices are usually on the safe side. In 2008, Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, a difficult but also tremendously powerful film about illegal abortion in Romania, received the prestigious Palme d'Or at Cannes but did not even merit an Oscar nomination.

Departures tells the story of Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki), a cellist who loses his job with a symphony in Tokyo and decides to return to his small mountain village with his wife Mika (Ryoko Hirosue) to start over again. Answering an ambiguously worded want ad, Daigo finds himself in the employ of a quirky funeral professional (Tsutomu Yamazaki) who prepares deceased bodies for burial and entry into the next life.

A Lighthearted Approach To Difficult Subject Matter

At first, Daigo is revolted by the work. Many jokes are made at his expense as the squeamish young man learns to become comfortable in the presence of the dead. In Japan, this profession -- one step closer to death than even the undertaker -- is considered especially unclean; Daigo risks becoming a social outcast upon embracing his new employment. Even his wife shuns him.
The film, however, serves to remind the audience that death is very much a part of life. Not only is Daigo's choice of work not to be perceived as dirty, it is unmistakably noble. This point is hammered home. Daigo learns the intrinsic value of his profession from the impassioned gratitude of various mourners. The film documents not only the marked change of perception that Daigo undergoes, but also that of his reluctant wife. By the film's end, Daigo is required to perform numerous departures, the camera following the elaborate cleansing procedure step by painstaking step.

In addition, Daigo frequently plays his childhood cello outdoors in the wilderness of his new environs. The sweeping music and bucolic landscape serve to heap on the emotion to Takita's already heavy-handed manipulation, culminating in the death of Daigo's long lost father. Daigo's new skills serve him well, and the ritual he had previously performed in the service of others brings him much necessary release -- and a neat close to a much too neatly made film.

Departures (2009)
Starring: Tsutomu Yamazaki, Kimiko Yo, Ryoko Hirosue, Masahiro Motoki
Directed by: Yojiro Takita
Produced by: Yasuhiro Mase, Toshiaki Nakazawa
Running Time: 2 hrs. 11 min.