Sunday, January 25, 2009

Revolutionary Road

Revolutionary Road, the first novel of author Richard Yates, was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1962 along with Catch-22 and The Moviegoer. When it was published by Atlantic-Little, Brown in 1961, it received critical acclaim, and the New York Times reviewed it as "beautifully crafted... a remarkable and deeply troubling book."[1]

In 2005 the novel was chosen by Time as one of the 100 best English-language novels from 1923 to the present.

Set in 1955, the novel focuses on the hopes and aspirations of Frank and April Wheeler, self-assured Connecticut suburbanites who see themselves as very different from their neighbors in the Revolutionary Hill Estates. In the opening scene, April stars in an embarrassingly bad amateur dramatic production of The Petrified Forest:

She was working alone, and visibly weakening with every line. Before the end of the first act the audience could tell as well as the Players that she’d lost her grip, and soon they were all embarrassed for her. She had begun to alternate between false theatrical gestures and a white-knuckled immobility; she was carrying her shoulders high and square, and despite her heavy make-up you could see the warmth of humiliation rising in her face and neck.

Seeking to break out of their suburban rut, April convinces Frank they should move to Paris, where she will work and support him while he realizes his vague ambition to be something other than an office worker. Unfortunately, Frank (from whose point of view most of the novel is told) is a weak reed, doing the minimum to get by at work without developing any alternative self, in contrast with April's taking concrete steps to accomplish their move. When April conceives their third child, their plan to leave America crumbles, not least because Frank is flattered by praise from his supervisors at work and beginning to identify with his mundane job. April realizes that she doesn't know herself any more and that she doesn't love Frank; she tries to abort their child herself, but botches the attempt and dies in her effort to fight the forces keeping her in her suburban housewife lifestyle. Frank grieves, but soon becomes absorbed by the work he had once despised, and "dies" an inward death.

In the October 1999 issue of the Boston Review, Yates was quoted on his central theme: "If my work has a theme, I suspect it is a simple one: that most human beings are inescapably alone, and therein lies their tragedy." The Wheelers are thwarted at every turn. Confronted with the painful truth of their ordinary existence and conflicts in their crumbling marriage, their frustrations and yearnings for something better represent the tattered remnants of the American Dream.

"Revolutionary Road," Richard Yates' 1961 novel about dashed dreams in suburbia, is by no means a pleasant book, and no one who's read it would expect it to make a cheerful movie. The book details the agonies of a young married couple with children, circa the mid-1950s, who suddenly realize that the path they've found themselves on -- defined by the day-to-day grind of making a living, and by the dull, predictable rhythms of life in their cloistered suburban community -- is killing off the intellectual promise they once saw in themselves and in each other. They hatch a plan to cut loose from the drudgery that their friends and neighbors have, seemingly happily, consigned themselves to. They believe their discontent makes them special; they can't see that it only makes them average.

You can understand why that story would be catnip for the English director Sam Mendes, who was lauded as a genius when he poked satirically at the dark underbelly of American suburbia ("American Beauty") but who didn't get nearly as much love when he turned his hand to self-serious adaptations of graphic novels ("Road to Perdition") and heavy-handed readings of contemporary wartime memoirs ("Jarhead"). And so Mendes returns to the subject he seems to have the most contempt for: the American suburbs and the people who live there, either by choice or by circumstance. Plus, he hasn't yet exhausted the visual metaphor of the rose-shaped blood splotch, and "Revolutionary Road" represents an opportunity to put that to use once again -- don't for a minute think he misses it.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays Frank Wheeler, the young husband and father who used to believe he was cut out for some great intellectual pursuit but who now finds himself working for the same business-machine company that employed his father. Kate Winslet is his wife, April, who's in charge of looking after the couple's two children and the family's modest but comfortable Connecticut home. Frank and April have reached their late 20s and know something's wrong with their lives. April makes an attempt to fill that undefined emptiness by getting involved in the local community theater (its first production flops); day after day, Frank goes into the city to work, where he whiles away the hours pushing papers around his desk and babbling into his Dictaphone. He engages in a mild dalliance with a flirty secretary (played by Zoe Kazan), but it doesn't mean anything, and he doesn't want it to. His life with April and the kids means something to him, even in the midst of the amorphous dissatisfaction swirling around him.

Something about the life they're leading -- a life that largely revolves around work and children during the day, and drinking and socializing with their best friends, Shep and Milly Campbell (David Harbour and Kathryn Hahn) at night -- is driving Frank and April apart. She acknowledges it before he does and desperately tries to fix it, only to find that such repair is impossible. She and Frank are stuck in a rut of resentful wheel-spinning, left to despise themselves and each other for everything they can never be.

This is a movie about two people in pain; the last thing they need is for Mendes to turn his cool camera on them. But that's all Mendes knows how to do. He's a clinical director, and whatever feeling he puts into a movie is measured out in careful quarter-teaspoon increments. Some people would call that restraint, but I always get the feeling that Mendes, whose background is in the theater, believes deep in his heart that movies are the lesser art form. Instead of reveling in the glories that are specific to movies -- the ability to reach many people at once, and to foster an intense intimacy by collapsing the distance between performers and the audience -- he always seems disappointed that the movies can't be theater. Mendes' movies always look good, to a degree: He's made it a point to work with the most esteemed cinematographers, including Roger Deakins (the DP on "Revolutionary Road") and the late Conrad Hall. Yet there's something oddly un-cinematic about his pictures: All of Mendes' movies -- including this one, with its thriving manicured lawns and claustrophobically cheery postwar interiors, look beautiful but lifeless. The characters are prisoners of those surroundings, of their meticulousness. They suffer -- oh, how they suffer! -- but they do so eloquently, aided and abetted by the best art direction money can buy.

"Revolutionary Road" is difficult to watch, partly because it's stately and dull and partly because its actors are trying so hard to make the material work, even when their dialogue is either histrionic or just numbingly bland (and in this screenplay, adapted by Justin Haythe, there's almost nothing in between). This is a movie where the quiet, placid surface of suburban life hides many dark corners; the people stuck living these lives tend to either shriek at one another or sit silently, stoned on their own resentment. We've seen this sort of thing in movies and in literature over and over again, done well and done badly. But Mendes presents this simmering, dangerous discontent with a decorousness that gussies up, and softens, its potential rawness; the movie is like an open wound that's lucky enough to have its own stylist.

DiCaprio and Winslet try hard to keep the blood coursing through the picture, and sometimes they get it going pretty effectively: It doesn't hurt that they're simply lovely to look at. These two are complete grown-ups now (as they weren't yet in "Titanic"), and their faces have more to show us. Winslet, in particular, is subtly touching: The almost perpetual anxiety that shadows her character's face is all the more moving because it can't fully obscure her capacity for joy.

DiCaprio is still something of a man-boy, but he uses that quality well here: His Frank is a guy who's just gotten used to the idea of being an adult, only to realize that middle age is creeping up on him. But then there's that dialogue again. At one point, a distraught Frank frets that a doctor "said a lot of things I didn't understand, about capillaries, and . . . Jesus!" He breaks off, as if he were easing his way out of an audition for "Dr. Kildare."

"Revolutionary Road" also gives us Kathy Bates as a prattling, unbearable real-estate broker (she manages to bring a touch of humanity even to this thankless role); and Michael Shannon, desperately overplaying, as her son, John, who's been freshly sprung from a mental institution and who drops in on the Wheelers to play truth-teller, pointing out very loudly just how empty and meaningless their lives are. (Thanks, Bub.)

John is, of course, a character straight out of Yates' book, but his unbearable candor is jacked up even further by Mendes. He can't escape the Mendes touch: A movie's themes, and the most delicate feelings behind them, need to be rendered loud and clear. It's as if Mendes doesn't trust that our hearing, figuratively speaking, is as good as his is.

I concede that "Revolutionary Road" may be the best of Sam Mendes' movies, in that he at least goes through the motions of pretending to care about the characters he puts on-screen. And Yates' novel is hardly a warm one to begin with: At its best, it glimmers with well-observed details and graceful prose. At its worst, it's laced with an unsavory bitterness. Yates always keeps a little distance from his characters, as if he doesn't know how, or doesn't want, to get too close to them.

But I think Yates tries to have compassion for his characters: He blinks hard at them, as if this might help him comprehend their flaws and desires. Does that kind of trying count? I don't know, but I did get more feeling -- or at least a sense that feelings had been struggled with -- from Yates' book than I did from Mendes' movie. To struggle with feelings, you've got to put down your artist's palette now and then. Mendes clutches his with a death grip.

My Blueberry Nights

My Blueberry Nights is a 2007 film directed by Wong Kar-wai, starring Norah Jones and Jude Law. It also features Rachel Weisz, Natalie Portman, David Strathairn and Cat Power. The director describes it as "a story of a woman who takes the long route instead of the short one to meet up with the man she loves." It is Wong's first feature film in English.

My Blueberry Nights was the opening film for the 2007 Cannes Film Festival on May 16, 2007.

Jeremy (Jude Law) runs a cafe in New York City. Elizabeth (Norah Jones) finds out from him that her boyfriend has dined in the cafe with another woman. Elizabeth is angry and leaves him; she gives her keys to Jeremy, in case her ex-boyfriend comes to collect them. Elizabeth returns to the cafe several times, and she and Jeremy become close.

Elizabeth (going by the name of Lizzie) travels by bus to Memphis, Tennessee. She takes two jobs, in a cafe and in a bar, to save money to buy a car. She sends postcards to Jeremy without revealing where she lives or works. Jeremy tries to find out by calling all the restaurants in the area, but fails.

One night at the bar she encounters local policeman Arnie (David Strathairn) grieving about the fact that his wife Sue Lynne (Rachel Weisz) has left him. He confides in her that he has tried to quit drinking many times. After drunkenly threatening Sue Lynne with his gun, he crashes his car into a post and dies. Lizzie comforts Sue Lynne, and the next day Sue Lynne leaves town, giving Lizzie a large tip to put towards her car.

Elizabeth (now going by the name Beth) gets another waitress job, this time in a casino. It is here we are introduced to Leslie (Natalie Portman), a poker player. Beth lends Leslie her savings for gambling after Leslie promises to either win the game, or give Beth her car. Leslie ends up giving Beth her car, saying she lost the game. Beth agrees to give Leslie a ride to Las Vegas, where her father lives, so he can lend her the money to start gambling again. She gets a call, answered by Beth, from the hospital to inform her that her father is dying. Leslie does not believe it, she thinks it is a trick to make her visit him. They go to the hospital anyway, and at Leslie's request Beth goes inside alone to check. Beth finds out Leslie's father had died the night before. Leslie wants to keep the car because it was really her father's, and confesses that she has lied about losing the game. She pays Elizabeth the money she had originally promised, and Beth buys a car.

Elizabeth returns to New York to find her ex-boyfriend's apartment for rent. She crosses the street to the cafe, and discovers Jeremy has been waiting for her, and has a space reserved for her at the counter. They talk, and it is discovered that they actually have feelings for each other.

The soundtrack disc, released on Blue Note, features tracks by Norah Jones, Cat Power, Ry Cooder (who composed the film's score), two-time Oscar-winning composer Gustavo Santaolalla, Otis Redding, Cassandra Wilson and Amos Lee.

May 17, 2007 | CANNES, France -- You have to suspend all varieties of disbelief and float along with "My Blueberry Nights," which opened the 60th Festival de Cannes with a splashy red-carpet premiere on Wednesday night. That's rather like the attitude required by this festival, both so inconvenient and so delightful, and by the storybook landscape of the Côte d'Azur. Reactions to the opening film have been muted here so far, more polite than enthusiastic. Costar Jude Law was the principal focus of paparazzi attention, climbing the steps of the Palais des Festivals in Ray-Bans and a classic tuxedo; with all the gentlemanly grace you'd expect, he tried to deflect the focus toward a winsome, awkward, clearly overwhelmed Norah Jones, the film's unlikely lead. (I'm underqualified as a fashion critic, but did she choose the slightly dorky gown, with the high waist and poofy sleeves, on purpose?)

"My Blueberry Nights" may not quite be what fans of either Jones or Wong Kar-wai -- directing his first film in English -- are expecting. It's a late-night, lovelorn mood piece in a minor key, not complicated or convoluted, finally more confection than substance. I'm not the first person to observe that it bears a startling, if presumably accidental, resemblance to Alan Rudolph's 1984 indie hit "Choose Me." Still, the longer this slice of fanciful blueberry-pie Americana sits with me, the better I like it.

This wistful, unobtrusive film has almost no connection to realism or plausibility. (The director's recent Chinese films, like "2046" and "In the Mood for Love," certainly aren't interested in those things either, and one could debate the naturalism of his early work as well.) It was shot by Wong and cinematographer Darius Khondji in a series of iconic American locations: Manhattan, Memphis, Tenn., the Nevada desert, Venice Beach, Calif. Except for a handful of exteriors, most of it could have been made on a soundstage; you learn no more about what Memphis looks like in 2007 from this movie than you do from listening to Elvis sing "Mystery Train."

Even by Wong's standards, the film has a dreamy midnight aesthetic, along with a supersaturated color palette that throbs with purple, gold, indigo and every other Crayola shade you can imagine. I'm not sure what burnt sienna and raw sienna actually are, but I guarantee you they're in here. The shadows in this movie have shadows; the grains of film shed and subdivide into dark snowflakes of black and crimson and green.

What's the point of all this gorgeousness? That may pose a difficult question for some viewers. I guess it's just meant to put you in the mood for love, as it were. Or at least in the mood to watch a couple of beautiful and lovelorn loners, Elizabeth (Jones) and Jeremy (Law), moon around in an empty New York diner, eating blueberry pie and pining for their lost whoevers. We're not merely supposed to buy Law as a diner proprietor but also supposed to imagine that these two people have been unceremoniously dumped by their true loves, and that Elizabeth wanders off on a no-destination road trip after Jeremy has kissed her. (Pop quiz for female readers: Jude Law has just smooched the pie-à-la-mode stains off your upper lip. Is your very first reaction to buy a bus ticket for parts unknown?)

All that stuff bothered me at first, along with the fact that Jones can't really act. When she's required to display emotion about the former boyfriend, it's more like watching somebody miss the bus or lose her cellphone than undergo a very early midlife crisis. Still, the camera loves her, as they say. (If there's one thing Wong Kar-wai knows how to do better than any other filmmaker, it's shoot beautiful women so they look their best.) She has a little of the young Julia Roberts, or a less extreme Angelina Jolie, about her. As the film progresses Wong seems to make more modest demands of her; on her road trip from one service-sector job to the next, Elizabeth is a likable wallflower, an observer of other people's lives rather than the subject of her own.

Similarly, the chemistry between Law and Jones is nearly null at first -- when Jeremy nuzzles in to give Elizabeth that sleepy smackeroo, I half-wondered if he was really after the dribbles of ice cream -- but Wong and Khondji eventually create it out of images. There's no nudity in "My Blueberry Nights," and if anything it's aggressively chaste. Except for a few cuss words it could probably be rated G. But the curves and swells and furrowed brows and twitching lashes of Law and Jones, captured in one lingering close-up after another, become their own kind of erotic landscape.

But because this is a movie about unfulfilled longing and delayed gratification, Elizabeth can't just hang around Wong's painterly New York night, watching the subway clatter overhead and inhaling pieces of blueberry pie with a really cute guy who happens to be single too. Jeremy's diner doesn't look like anyplace in the real New York, but I eventually quit worrying about that once I realized that no part of the movie happens in the real world. Wong's America is the mythic, heartbroken America of Edward Hopper paintings and rhythm and blues records and Jim Thompson novels, and you can pretty much baste yourself in that flavor or move on.

In some ways, the nonromance between Elizabeth and Jeremy is the least substantial of the three roughly parallel segments of "My Blueberry Nights." Once Elizabeth ends up in Memphis, where she becomes a waitress and bartender named Lizzie, who observes the not-so-gradual disintegration of a drunken cop (David Strathairn), the film's prettiness and artifice finally yield some grit. Sitting in the moonlit shadows of Lizzie's dive bar, Strathairn demonstrates why he's among the finest of American character actors. With his bowed head, a few tired gestures and an almost masklike expression, he shows us a decent man drawing very near the end of a road paved with bad women (the worst of them played by Rachel Weisz) and bad liquor.

In the film's Nevada section, Lizzie becomes Beth, a waitress at a backwater casino -- I'm pretty sure it's the Hotel Nevada, in Ely -- who befriends a vivacious, tough-talkin' Texas card shark named Leslie (broadly and enjoyably played by Natalie Portman, in a bad blond do and a succession of almost-trashy outfits). Wong and co-writer Lawrence Block (the well-known mystery novelist) flirt with cliché here, or maybe they embrace it whole-hog. After Leslie's big showdown at the poker table (her weedy nemesis is Tim Roth, in an almost unrecognizable cameo), she and Beth hit the road in Leslie's Jag for some lightweight "Thelma and Louise"-style adventures.

Neither that detour nor the film as a whole quite manages the emotional payoff it aims for, but by the end of this slight, charming, vaguely silly picture I was enchanted anyway. Art-house devotees of Wong's work may have a tough time accepting the setting or the star (or the lightweight, sentimental tone) of "My Blueberry Nights." And who knows whether Jones' fans want to see her in a nearly plotless movie where she can't make up her mind to snog with Jude Law. Still, this movie will seduce viewers one at a time with slow, lonely smooches and forkfuls of blueberry pie, even if it probably won't be remembered as a major career event for its director and stars.

All in all, it wasn't an uproariously successful opening for Cannes, but anybody left in a bad mood by "My Blueberry Nights" -- not to mention the blue skies, blue sea and pink wine out in the French night -- is just a sourpuss. Beginning Thursday, new films will roll onto the Riviera beaches like waves; among the most promising weekend premieres are Hou Hsiao-hsien's "Flight of the Red Balloon" (inspired by the famous 1950s French short film), Michael Moore's already-controversial "Sicko" and the Coen brothers' violent western, "No Country for Old Men." More soon.

Then She Found Me

Nearing 40, April Epner (Hunt), a schoolteacher in New York who was adopted at birth, wants to have a baby of her own - a desire made that much stronger by the fact that she never knew her biological mother. A snag in her plans presents itself when her sweet but immature husband Ben (Matthew Broderick) announces one night that their marriage was a mistake, leaving April devastated and bewildered. With her life in disarray, one more surprising bolt is thrown April's way in the form of Bernice (Bette Midler), an eccentric local talk show host, who declares herself to be April's birth mother. Despite the influence of her newfound mother and a relationship with Frank (Colin Firth), the father of one of her students, April's once simple life begins to spiral out of control.

Based on the eponymous first novel by writer Elinor Lipman, the film tells the funny and moving story of one woman's very unlikely path towards personal fulfillment.

Wondering why you haven't seen much of Helen Hunt lately? For the past 10 years, the Academy Award-winning actress has been fighting to get her directorial debut, Then She Found Me, off the ground. Co-adapted by Hunt from a 1990 novel by Elinor Lipman, and featuring her as a woman eager to have a child just as her own birth mother (Bette Midler) enters her life for the first time, Then She Found Me premiered at the Toronto Film Festival on Friday. By Saturday it was the subject of the biggest acquisition news out of the festival: ThinkFilm and a Canadian distributor picked it up in a reported $2.5 million-to-$3 million deal.

Over the weekend, talked to Hunt about what took her so long to get Then She Found Me done, the movies that inspired her as a filmmaker, and why she kind of wishes she were a kangaroo.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Congratulations on your distribution deal. Was there crazy deal making going on behind the scenes?
HELEN HUNT: For me, most of the night was about the premiere, 1,500 people standing up at the end. Oh my God, that was one of the big moments of my career, mostly because the audience seemed to be responding to these weird thoughts I have and things I care about. So that was the biggest part of it, and then I went to bed not knowing [if we had distribution], and I woke up to congratulations.

Why did it take you 10 years to make this movie?
Writing it took forever, because [the Lipman novel] was one of the pieces of material that was better than most things, but not yet really ready to go. It's easy when the [source] novel is lousy, but there were characters in [this] novel that I ''loved'', but I had to execute and replace them. And the character has no wish for a baby in the novel, so it took me a long time to get there, to figure out what the movie was about. That took an embarrassingly long period of time, and then it took forever to finance it. And there were a couple of years that I acted in a lot of films. But this movie just walked along next to me and kept my attention.

Did you always know you'd star in it?
No. That was the toughest decision I made for the entire time. I just thought it was every actor's rookie mistake, to put themselves in their movie, but I hadn't seen myself play this part. And I also needed someone who would work 24 hours a day, who would change their clothes in the street, would go to Bette Midler's apartment when she snapped her fingers to rehearse. I had no money, so I was like a desperate woman, and the one thing I could control was the lead actress — I could make her do whatever I said.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You've got a 3 1/2-year-old kid. And your character, April, wants a baby. How closely does April's life line up with your life?
HELEN HUNT: I would say the core elemental things are the same, in my character and Colin Firth's character. In the movie, his character wants to sleep on his kid's floor, and work outside of his kid's school. I don't do those things, but I fantasize about them. I would be more relaxed if I could stare at [my daughter] all day. [Laughs] I used to say I wanted to be a kangaroo: I could put her in my pouch and then go work and whatever.

So we also haven't seen as much of you on screen because you wanted to spend time with your daughter?
It's been about finding my life at home so compelling that it takes a great story for me to say, ''I'm not going to be around this kid every day. I'm just not bored of being with her.'' So if I read a movie that's pretty good, that in my 20s I would've said, ''Yeah, I'll jump on a plane and go to Utah for three months,'' it's just not the same now. One quality I envy in other actresses is their ability to just put their kids on a plane and move and be fine.

So now that this movie is finished, since it sounds so personal for you, does it mark the end of a certain part of your life?
Maybe. When I thought about what to write next, I said to myself that I've put everything I think into this movie. I don't care about anything else. It's all in here.

Were there movies you looked to for inspiration?
Kramer vs. Kramer. That's a perfect movie. I don't think this is a perfect movie, but there's something about the purity of how it was shot, the lack of pretension. I guess if [my movie] has a style it would be a lack of pretension, and you hope it just registers on someone's radar. I love About A Boy. That's a comedy where you find the mother in her own vomit after trying to kill herself, and this is a comedy where some dark things happen. Those are my favorite kind of movies.

Do you have an acting job lined up?
There's one thing that still needs to be financed, but I don't have a next big thing.

La Classe

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Easy Virtue

Easy Virtue is a social comedy based on Noël Coward's play of the same name. The play was previously made into the silent movie Easy Virtue (1928) by Alfred Hitchcock. This version is directed by Stephan Elliott, written by Elliott and Sheridan Jobbins, and stars Jessica Biel, Ben Barnes, Colin Firth, and Kristin Scott Thomas.

The film has been selected to screen at the Toronto Film Festival. It's also scheduled for the Rio Film Festival, MEIFF, | Rome Film Festival and London Film Festival[1] prior to its November 7th release by Pathé in the UK. Jessica will also be making her musical debut singing two tracks which will be featured on the upcoming soundtrack to the film set to be released on the 3 November 2008

A glamorous American widow, Larita, marries a young Englishman, John, in the South of France. On the spur of the moment, they go to England to meet his parents; his mother, Veronica takes a strong dislike to their new daughter-in-law, while his father, Jim, finds something of a kindred spirit in Larita. A battle of wits ensues.

Sir Noël Peirce Coward (16 December 1899 – 26 March 1973) was an English playwright, composer, director, actor and singer, known for his witty remarks and flamboyant lifestyle.

After beginning his career as a child actor, Coward began writing plays in his 20s. His plays Hay Fever, Private Lives, Design for Living, Present Laughter and Blithe Spirit have entered the regular theatre repertoire. The Times said of him, "None of the great figures of the English theatre has been more versatile than he," and ranked his plays in "the classical tradition of Congreve, Sheridan, Wilde and Shaw".

In addition to over 50 published plays and many albums of original songs, Coward wrote musicals, comic revues, poetry, several volumes of short stories, the novel Pomp and Circumstance and three volumes of autobiography. Books of his song lyrics, diaries and letters have also been published. He also continued a substantial stage, cabaret and film career spanning six decades, starring in many of his own works as well as in the works of other writers.

A highbrow festival like Toronto doesn't offer many opportunities to laugh, and I was grateful for this one. Easy Virtue, an adaptation of an early Noël Coward play, is a droll and witty delight, a superb showcase for its cast, and a return to fine form for The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert director Stephan Elliott, who last turned in the unsettling but incomprehensible Eye of the Beholder nearly 10 years ago. Where most TIFF films seemed to glower at me from the screen, this one winked and smiled.

Noël Coward may seem a strange choice for Elliott, whose films have favored the bizarre and the obscure. I don't know what attracted the filmmaker to this project, but I'm glad that something did. The material may seem almost purely verbal, all clever turns of phrase and sardonic interjections (what Americans think of as "Britishness"), but Elliott is constantly concerned with how the movie looks and sounds. Fittingly, he manages to give it a curious, otherworldly feel. This is most pronounced in the opening sequence, which marries choppy black-and-white footage, odd angles, and a jazzy soundtrack to introduce us to the characters and transport us to a universe that is ever so slightly off-kilter. It's a welcome recognition that these hyper-literate, impeccably constructed old comedies – Coward, Wilde, etc. – don't take place in a world quite like ours.

The characters we meet in the haunting opening are Larita Huntington (Jessica Biel), America's first female racecar driver, and John Whittaker (Ben Barnes), heir to the fortune of an aristocratic British family. John meets Larita on his world travels (apparently par for the course for young male British aristocrats) and up and marries her, to the horror of his ultra-traditional mother Veronica (Kristin Scott Thomas). The rest of the film is dedicated to the battle that ensues when John brings Larita to his family's obscenely opulent castle to live, at least for a while, with mom and his two unmarried sisters (Kimberley Nixon and Katherine Parkinson). Veronica is having none of John and Larita's plan to ditch the estate and move to London, and intends to scuttle it by any means necessary. Also there, albeit barely, is John's bored father (Colin Firth), who spends most of his time taking sarcastic swipes at his uptight wife.

Easy Virtue makes no bones about what it wants us to think about the players in this increasingly fever-pitched comedy of manners. Larita is the hero of the story, thrown to the wolves; John's father is a sympathetic but ineffectual kindred spirit; John himself is well-intentioned but trapped by his heritage and his manipulative mother; Veronica is a coldhearted harridan blinded by her dedication to status and image (though the film makes a few half-hearted attempts to humanize her). While this approach may sacrifice some depth and ambiguity, it actually makes the comedy more delicious: we know whom to root for, and don't have to feel bad about it.

The comedy runs the gamut from quintessentially British dry humor ("I don't feel like smiling," pouts one of John's sisters; "You're English dear, fake it," replies Veronica) to high-spirited slapstick. The film's not staid, as you might expect from the setting; in fact, it's often downright goofy, as exemplified by the character of the unflappable butler (Kris Marshall) and the cruel fate of the family dog. It's gratifyingly loose, and unpredictable moment-to-moment. And it's very funny.

The cast proved to be a wonder, despite being filled with actors I've never much liked. Kristin Scott Thomas effortlessly molds into a role that couldn't be more different than the one she played in her other TIFF entry, I've Loved You So Long. Colin Firth unveils the razor-sharp comic timing that he's apparently been hiding from us for two decades. Jessica Biel gives easily the best performance of her career as the stubborn, complex Larita. And I don't know what Andrew Adamson did to Ben Barnes to make him so boring and charmless in Prince Caspian, but on the strength of Easy Virtue, I'm guessing it was surgical.

The film's most remarkable feature, though, may be how visually interesting Stephan Elliott manages to keep it. He never returns to the borderline creepy vision of the first couple minutes, but he never settles into a typically undistinctive period piece rhythm either. He likes bright colors, sharp angles, mirrors and reflections; he keeps you guessing. Festivalgoers may be tempted to call Easy Virtue a "guilty pleasure," but there's nothing to feel guilty about. It's as accomplished as it is lightweight.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Flame and Citroen

That WWII still has many untold stories to tell can be gleaned from films as diverse as the recent Austrian Oscar-winner Die Fälscher (The Counterfeiters), about an enormous German counterfeiting operation set up concentration camp labour; the French biographical drama Un secret (A Secret), about a man's illusions about his parents' idyllic past, and the Dutch Oscar-shortlisted Zwartboek (Black Book), about the infinite shades of gray in the Dutch resistance movement. A new film from Denmark, Ole Christian Madsen's Flammen & Citronen (Flame & Citron), can now be added to the list. The film concentrates on a WWII resistance movement that became increasingly more questionable as some of its members became more ruthless. Flammen & Citronen stars local chameleon Thure Lindhardt and Casino Royale bad guy Mads Mikkelsen as the titular resistance fighters and premiered in Denmark on Friday.

Flammen & Citronen (the names are references to the characters' orange hair and Citroën connections respectively) is an enormous international co-production involving 23 parties in all, with besides Danish partners also German, Czech Republic and Norway. At over €6.5 million, the film's budget is one of Scandinavia's largest budgets ever.

The film is directed by Ole Christian Madsen, whose previous film was the intimate marital drama Prag (Prague), which also starred Mads Mikkelsen. Perhaps tellingly, his new film was co-written by the special effects supervisor-turned-screenwriter Lars Andersen, a collaboration that echoes another collaboration on a European epic that told a war story, Hungary's Szabadság, szerelem (Children of Glory). That film, a splash hit in its home country and a modest hit abroad, was directed by romantic comedy director Krisztina Goda but the spectacular action sequences were directed by UK stunt coordinator and 2nd unit director Vic Armstrong.

Though set in Copenhagen -- where the real "Flame" and "Citron" liquidated Danish and German informers for the resistance -- the film was mainly shot in Germany and the Czech Republic. Besides Lindhardt and Mikkelsen, the film also stars Stine Stengade, the real-life companion of the director who also starred opposite Mikkelsen in Prag, and a battery of German actors as the occupying Nazis, wit the most noteworthy name being Christian Berkel, who also starred in the aforementioned Zwartboek and Der Untergang (Downfall), which told the story of the last days of Hitler through the eyes of his secretary.

There is another connection to the Oliver Hirschbiegel-directed Der Untergang: both films only become possible recently after people who lived through the events finally went on record about what had exactly happened. Though Der Untergang was generally well-received, director Ole Christian Madsen has apparently set himself up for something more revisionist. At least, if the frequent use of the word "terrorism" in the press materials is anything to go by.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009


Gomorrah (Gomorra in Italian) is a 2008 hyperlink crime film directed by Matteo Garrone, based on the book by Roberto Saviano. It deals with crime and the Camorra in Naples and Caserta.

The film weaves together five different stories: Don Ciro (Gianfelice Imparato) is a discreet middleman, responsible for paying the families of prisoners, who finds his loyalties tested as the clan leadership is threatened; Toto (Salvatore Abruzzese) is a 13-year-old boy who falls in with a criminal gang after he hides a gun from the police; Roberto (Carmine Paternoster) is a graduate who becomes slowly disillusioned with his charismatic boss Franco (Toni Servillo) as a result of his new job in toxic waste management; Pasquale (Salvatore Cantalupo) is a haute couture tailor who puts his life in danger when he accepts a job training Chinese competitors; and Marco (Marco Macor) and Ciro (Ciro Petrone) are two cocky wannabe gangsters who find a stash of weapons and decide to make a name for themselves.

Normally, comparing a film to a television program's intended as a slight, a knock against a film that didn't have the sweep and scope you'd expect to witness on the big screen, but when I compare director Matteo Garrone's Gomorra to The Wire, I hope you'll recognize I mean it as a compliment. Set in the provinces around Naples, where the crime organization known as the Camorra is not parallel to the everyday workings of society but instead is the everyday workings of society, Gomorra's a sweeping, stirring film that has the shoot-and-loot tension of the best crime cinema but also has the scope and serious intent of great drama.

Based on the novel by Roberto Saviano, Gomorra follows five separate stories through the slums and streets in the provinces near Naples. Don Ciro is the local clan bagman, dispensing payouts to families affiliated with the clan. He's a civilized criminal, and the uncivilized times are beginning to wear on him. Marco and Ciro are young, dumb and eager to be independent criminals, heads full of dreams of glory and quotes from Scarface. Roberto finds a patronage position assisting Franco in toxic waste disposal, a lucrative business for the Camorra, especially as it involves poisoning the province's wide-open spaces and passing the savings on to their customers. Totò is 13, and eager to take part in the community and opportunities offered by low-level drug dealing work. Pasquale works as a tailor, helping Camorra-linked businesses make couture knockoffs, and he's offered an opportunity that may leave him set for life or marked for death.

Director Garrone (The Embalmer, First Love) manages to put the camera to work in a way that feels both observational and artful; some of the film's silences and spaces evoke the classic films of Antonioni, while some more surreal moments bring to mind the playful perversity of Fellini. (A scene where Marco and Ciro wander through a wetlands marsh clad in just their underwear trying out a stolen cache of high-powered firearms is beautiful, goofy and terrifying all at once, for example.) And while Gomorrah offers shootings and suspense, it also offers a grim view of modern European life, demonstrating the logical-yet-illogical extension of free-market capitalism from mergers and policy to murders and poisoning. Franco asks Roberto "Do you know how many workers I've helped by saving their companies money?" The Camorra isn't the alternative to the way things are; the Camorra is the way things are.

Garrone works with a cast that includes professionals and new faces, and has the urban rubble of modern Italy as his backdrop. Much of the film revolves around a housing development that's almost another character in the film -- huge and sprawling, vital and ruined. But there are real human moments from the characters as well, like when Pasquale sincerely instructs an apprentice knockoffs tailor that the work must be done "with love and feeling," or Don Ciro's confusion at the way the world is changing around him and the old ways are pushed aside by greed and violence.

Favors and intimidation; threats and excuses; this, in Gomorra, is how the world works, and you'd be a fool to argue with it. Gomorra has plenty of virtues to help recommend its broad-canvas portrait of vice; it's vulgar and vital, human and horrifying, and you sincerely care about what happens to these people and you recognize that you're getting a glimpse into a very specific part of the world while also witnessing a series of stories that could be playing out almost anywhere in the modern world. It's hard to imagine Gomorra attracting an audience on American art-house screens -- where "Foreign Cinema" mostly means fun and frivolity among the well-to-do for an older, well-to-do audience -- but moviegoers who aren't afraid of the rough, real raw stuff in modern moviemaking should seek out Gomorra's bleak beauty and cruel clarity by any means necessary.

La Question Humaine

Troisième volet de la trilogie de Nicolas Klotz sur le monde actuel, La Question humaine contraste fortement avec les deux précédents. Alors que Paria se passait dans le monde des SDF, que La Blessure donnait la parole aux sans-papiers tout juste arrivés en France, La Question humaine prend place chez les riches, dans les arcanes d'une multinationale pétrochimique. Ambitieuse tant sur le plan esthétique qu'intellectuel, cette adaptation du roman du même nom de François Emmanuel propose une réflexion sur la nature du capitalisme contemporain ; et tient ses promesses, de bout en bout.

En premier lieu, parce que personne jusqu'à présent n'a restitué avec tant de justesse, de puissance et de talent l'essence paradoxale, séduisante et terriblement angoissante du milieu des golden boys. Tout tiendrait presque dans ce magnifique plan du début, qui montre une poignée de jeunes hommes, tous vêtus de noir, de dos, en train de plaisanter face à leurs pissotières respectives : élégance, jeunesse, uniformité absolue.

Une fois soulagés, ils montent dans un ascenseur, y retrouvent une de leurs collègues. Les vannes fusent, la fille n'est pas en reste. Ils sont beaux, branchés, débordants d'énergie, fous d'eux-mêmes et de leur image. A l'occasion, ils couchent ensemble, éventuellement sur leur lieu de travail. La nuit, ils laissent exploser leur énergie en dansant dans des raves, se défoncent à l'alcool, ou à autre chose...

Nicolas Klotz esthétise ses plans à l'extrême, mais cela ne nuit en rien au regard, sans fard, qu'il porte sur ses sujets. Au contraire. La géométrie au cordeau et la lumière raffinée mettent d'autant mieux en valeur ce qu'ils donnent à voir d'eux-mêmes : une certaine idée de la perfection.

Au-delà de la fascination exercée par ces corps, ce qui intéresse les auteurs (Nicolas Klotz et sa compagne et scénariste Elisabeth Perceval) a lieu en dessous. Le film suit le cheminement de Simon (Mathieu Amalric), psychologue d'entreprise, dont les certitudes vont sérieusement s'effriter lorsqu'une étrange mission le confronte à l'histoire de la Shoah.


A la demande de l'un des directeurs de l'entreprise, Karl Rove (Jean-Pierre Kalfon, très inquiétant), Simon se lance secrètement dans une enquête sur l'état de santé mentale d'un autre dirigeant, Mathias Jüst (Michael Lonsdale), soupçonné d'avoir sombré dans une dépression. Décidé à ne pas se mouiller dans cette affaire qu'il ne juge guère reluisante, le jeune cadre se retrouve malgré lui happé dans des sables mouvants. Témoin de révélations troublantes sur le passé de Karl Rove, né dans un Lebensborn (ces centres où devaient procréer, sous le IIIe Reich, des sujets de pure race aryenne pour constituer l'élite du futur), destinataire de lettres anonymes enfermant des notes techniques sur le processus de gazage des juifs dans les camions des Einsatzgruppen (escadrons SS qui suivaient l'armée allemande pour mettre en oeuvre la "solution finale" hors des camps), Simon est pris de vertige.

A mesure qu'il perce à jour la nature perverse du pouvoir de son entreprise, une effarante proximité lui saute aux yeux, entre la langue administrative nazie et celle qu'il emploie dans son travail. "Sélection", "unités", "rendement"... Pour gazer des juifs, ou virer un alcoolique, la même phraséologie déshumanisante permet de traiter l'humain comme une simple unité de production, valide ou non.


L'enquête n'apporte pas de réponse, ne désigne pas de coupable ni de rapport de cause à effet. Elle ouvre plutôt un gouffre. A mesure qu'elle progresse et que Simon se dérègle mentalement (violence, folie passagère...), la couleur dominante du film tend de plus en plus vers le noir, la narration éclate de toutes parts.

Il y a l'éclatement de la vie de Simon, entre trois femmes, son travail officiel, son enquête officieuse et ses nuits électriques. Il y a aussi celui de Mathieu Amalric, à la fois acteur intégré à une fiction, acteur théâtral qui s'adresse directement à un spectateur imaginaire, et voix off. Et encore la déstructuration des plages sonores : alors que les acteurs parlent parfois sans qu'on entende leur voix, un magnifique et interminable chant de flamenco est filmé en temps réel.

Mise en scène complexe, bande-son radicale-chic (Schubert, New Order, Syd Matters...), casting élégantissime, La Question humaine est un film sophistiqué. C'est aussi un beau film, un film aimable, parce que son auteur aime ses personnages, qu'il les regarde pour ce qu'ils sont et pour ce qu'ils promettent. Tendu par une foi dans l'art et dans l'homme, comme forces de résistance à la machine, c'est un grand film politique.

Heartbeat Detector

"Music is a virus," company HR guy Simon is informed by his girlfriend early on in Nicolas Kotz's Heartbeat Detector, based on the novel by Francois Emmanuel. In case we missed the point, one of Simon's superiors later reminds him, "music doesn't tolerate hierarchy." Their warnings are entirely astute: music -- in a number of incarnations from techno to fado to violin quartets -- is the catalyst of Simon's slow disintegration.

Mathieu Amalric (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) plays the reserved but effective company man whose story could be described as an impressionistic version of Tom Wilkinson's breakdown in Michael Clayton: burdened with one morally questionable task too many, his place in the corporate hierarchy begins to crumble and cave. Trained as a psychologist and experienced as the hatchet man who skillfully picked criteria for a large-scale "restructuring," Simon is asked by the sinister Karl Rose (Jean-Pierre Kalfon) to investigate the CEO, Mathias Jüst (Michael Londsdale), who has been acting peculiar.
Prone to crying fits and paralyzing sorrow, Jüst is likely to become a liability for the company, and cunning Simon knows just how to get close to the the grumbling, directorial boss of it all: Jüst used to play in a company string quartet, and Simon proposes to reconstitute the outfit. Simon balances his day job with weekend seminars that devolve into drunken escapades, and between the house music and the decades-old quartet recordings, Simon stumbles upon truths about the company's history that shake him profoundly.

Shot mainly in drab green and brown office spaces and the bars Simon haunts after hours, Heartbeat Detector leads down a rabbit hole of revelations that finally appear to equate multinational companies with fascism. Obsessed with anonymous letters that detail the engineering of a truck custom-build for the Holocaust, Simon becomes a stand-in for Nazis who hid behind their orders while they carried out genocide. The analogy is strained to say the least -- not even lefty documentaries like The Corporation go quite as far -- and finally distracts from what began as a clear-eyed portrait of a complex, contradictory character.

Sunday, January 4, 2009


Changeling is a 2008 American period thriller directed by Clint Eastwood and written by J. Michael Straczynski. The film begins in 1928 Los Angeles and tells the true story of a woman who recognizes that the boy returned after her son's disappearance is an impostor. After confronting the city authorities, she is vilified as an unfit mother and branded delusional. The events were related to the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders, a kidnapping and murder case that was uncovered in 1928. Changeling explores themes such as disempowerment of women and corruption in political hierarchies. The film was made by Imagine Entertainment and Malpaso Productions for Universal Pictures. Ron Howard was to direct, but scheduling conflicts led to his replacement by Eastwood. Howard and Imagine partner Brian Grazer produced, alongside Malpaso's Robert Lorenz and Eastwood.

Straczynski was told of the case by a contact at Los Angeles City Hall. He spent a year researching it through archived city records before writing the script, most of which was taken from the historical record. The shooting script was not changed from Straczynski's first draft and was his first produced film screenplay. Principal photography began on October 15, 2007 and was completed in November 2007. Filming took place in Los Angeles and throughout Southern California. Visual effects were used to supplement shots with skylines, backdrops and digital extras. Eastwood's noted economical directing style extended to Changeling's shoot; actors and members of the crew remarked upon the calmness of the set and the short working days.

Angelina Jolie was cast in the lead partly because Eastwood felt her face fit the period setting. Several actors had campaigned for the part. Jeffrey Donovan, John Malkovich, Jason Butler Harner, Amy Ryan, Michael Kelly, Colm Feore and Peter Gerety are also featured. Most of the characters were based on their real life counterparts, while some were composites. Changeling premiered at the 61st Cannes Film Festival on May 20, 2008, where it was met with critical acclaim. It had its North American premiere on October 4, 2008 at the 46th New York Film Festival, and was released wide in North American theaters on October 31, 2008 after a limited release that began on October 24, 2008. It was released in the United Kingdom on November 26, 2008, and will open in Australia on February 5, 2009. Changeling's wide release was met with a more mixed response than at Cannes. The acting and story were largely praised, with criticism focusing on its conventional presentation and lack of nuance.

Romanze Criminale

En la Roma de los años 70, tres jóvenes delincuentes, El Libanés, Freddo y Dandy, se asocian con una banda criminal para raptar y asesinar a un poderoso empresario. Así nace la "Banda Magliana", una organización cuyo objetivo es controlar a políticos y millonarios de la ciudad, al mismo tiempo que se lucran con el negocio de la heroína. Cuando las fuerzas de seguridad se enteran de su existencia, no le dan mucha importancia, pero el comisario Scialoja es consciente del peligro real de la banda.

Basada en la novela de Giancarlo De Cataldo, "Romanzo criminale" repasa una de las épocas más convulsas de la historia italiana, a través de una de las muchas organizaciones terroristas que actuaban en los 70, "Banda Magliana". Su director, el también actor Michele Placido (La desconocida), va de la acción a la emotividad, utilizando el primer plano para presentarnos la complejidad psicológica de los protagonistas. La película compitió en la Berlinale 2006, siendo ese año una de las triunfadoras de los David de Donatello con siete galardones.

Kim Rossi Stuart (Líbero) da vida a Freddo, mientras que Claudio Santamaria (Melissa P.) y el ganador de un David de Donatello, Pierfrancesco Favino (El último beso), son sus compinches en la gran pantalla. Otro de los importantes es Stefano Accorsi (No basta una vida), encargado de poner rostro al comisario Scialoja, y Anna Mouglalis (Gracias por el chocolate) que interpreta a una atractiva mujer que cruzará los destinos de Scialoja y Dandy, uno de los miembros más activos de la banda.


Con tres interminables años de retraso toma tierra en la cartelera nacional el que es uno de los filmes más potentes (al menos hasta este 2008 prodigioso de "Gomorra" y "Il divo") facturado en la vecina Italia en el último lustro. Planteado como un verdadero quién es quién del cine transalpino, la última propuesta de Michele Placido presume de uno de los mejores repartos habidos y por haber en la historia reciente del cine italiano. Y como cine de personajes que es semejante apuesta no puede sino saldarse con un balance positivo. Kim Rossi Stuart, el superlativo Elio Germano, Riccardo Scamarcio, Stegfano Accorsi o Jasmine Trinca son la flor y nata del cine italiano sub-40, y aquí encuentran un vehículo impagable para exhibir la excelente salud de las nuevas hornadas de intérpretes italianos.

Un recital polifónico que da vida y oxígeno a un contundente fresco de ecos históricos de la mediana delincuencia en la Roma de los años 70 siguiendo los pasos de las grandes sagas criminales y corales del cine norteamericano. Placido, que adapta con precisión quirúrgica la excelente novela homónima de Giancarlo De Cataldo procediendo con entre trazos perfectamente firmes a dibujar el auge y caída a los infiernos de un hatajo de maleantes, de parásitos sociales de las malas calles perfilados con vívida intensidad en toda su dimensión psicológica. "Romanzo criminale" es una película ambiciosa que se esmera, y mucho, en la reconstrucción ambiental de un país sacudido por violentas convulsiones político-sociales, tomando así el testigo de otras películas italianas que explotan ese filón contextual como "La mejor juventud" o "Mi hermano es hijo único".

Dura, extraordinariamente seca y sin concesión alguna a sentimentalismos de saldo, la propuesta de Placido llega casi tan lejos como su director se propone. Los personajes no son juzgados y sus cuestionables acciones desfilan ante nuestros ojos desde la objetividad de la equidistancia. Pesan francamente las dos horas y media largas de metraje (de hecho existe una versión alternativa y extendida de 180 minutos), pero a pesar de puntuales altibajos, lastre de la excesiva dilatación del metraje, "Romanzo criminale" encierra una ración bien pertrechada de buen cine, vendible además entre las masas y entre el público amante del cine pequeño y minoritario.

Roberto Piorno