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The Devil Inside (2012)
National Lampoon's Found Footage Movie
If you've seen a couple of thousand films in your life, you know one of the worst films ever made when you see it. Here's looking at you, The Devil Inside, a complete abomination and nothing short of a poor excuse of a movie. It makes me sad to see even a minority of good reviews for it, because it seems to indicate that mediocrity is the new good. If this is not bad, sweet Moses, what is?
The concept and the plot is a rehash of a rehash of a rehash. It's a found footage film - because that's original! - which begins as a mockumentary about a girl whose mother once killed three people during an exorcism, and ended up in a mental hospital in Rome. Now she wants to "understand what happened" - why bother making it more complicated than that, huh? - so she goes to see her mother who seems to be taken out of a Monty Python skit, banging her head against the walls of her institutional room as if this would be scary and not a piece of absurdist humor.
The Vatican has apparently seminars on exorcism and demons to young priests (?!) and on one of these she meets two guys moonlighting exorcisms, that is exorcisms without Church approval. Are they gonna get the demon out of her mother? Might it escape her body and possess one of the others? Will the film end, just like that? Should all the plot threads turn out to only have been the result of amateurish negligence? Should everything be unintentionally comical? Will anything work at all?
The big problem is the use of the found footage concept. I'm a big fan of this sub genre and the point of these films is that they are authentic, credible, that the audience at some level manages to be convinced that the material is genuine. As soon as we get a reason to fall outside of the film, and watch it as mere fiction, the movie is done for. Many found footage films fail because of the discipline it actually takes from the film makers to make a successful found footage film. But The Devil Inside is on a whole other level of bad.
Had the script been the basis for a standard horror movie it would have been like a worse Exorcism Of Emily Rose or any other exorcist film. It had not been good, because the movie lacks any overall quality: the plot is one hundred percent formula, the dialogs are all with no exceptions clichés that are so tired they become nonsensical and void of all believability, and the movie scandalously ignores any kinds of realism and reality. All that said, had it been a "straight" movie it still wouldn't have been such a howler as this one is.
Sure, already in The Exorcist (in 1971, mind you!) we found out that the Church practically don't perform exorcisms any longer, so the idea that the clergy in Rome are given instructions in the subject in 2012 is shockingly stupid. But in a normal movie, you could have said: Yes, but what about the cinematography? How is it directed?
One can not do such things with The Devil Inside, and that's exactly why it has been made. It seems as if the found footage-trend has given "filmmakers" the idea that you don't have to make any effort in anything to make a buck on a movie. This movie lacks any sign of ambition or talent, any meaning or logic, any motivation for even having been made. The girl in the movie wants to meet her mother. Why is that? She has a demon in her. Why? She meets two would be-exorcists? Yeah? Why is this interesting and exciting? It's not original, so where's the other twist?
Directing-wise this movie is worthless, and the acting is absolutely abysmal, taken straight from Overacting 101 for Amateurs. In the very first scene when the girl in the lead role sits and talks about her childhood, we understand that we are watching an amateur actress who pretends that she is part of a documentary. It is not directed in a way to suggest authenicism, it looks more like a cheap American TV- commercial for condoms. After those fateful first seconds - seconds! - of the film it proceeds to one meaningless cliché after another that throws up loose ends everywhere. I won't even go into the ending.
I do not know how they were thinking when they made this movie, but every little effort - like a story, motivating a plot, ending included - seems to have been too much for everyone involved. Or is it so that those who made this movie is just a bunch of drones who discovered that they can cash in by going to Rome with a DV camera and film some stuff. If so, then this movie a little black Armageddon-cloud in the sky of movies. We finally hit the absolute rock bottom in creativity.
The few positive reviews of this movie are unfortunate. Even if you can see beyond the found footage-format - which the film butchers, thereby rendering it meaningless - and perhaps see one or two qualities in one or two tired and old and unconvincing effects, I feel these reviews are still written by people who are way too content with very, very little. This movie is an essential zero star movie. It is a film no one should have to pay to see - and anyone who checks it out should only do so in interest of seeing one of the worst and most worthless things ever produced as an excuse for a film. That should not be misunderstood as a compliment, or a recommendation.
A Lonely Place to Die (2011)
The second half is what the film is all about (vague, mild and user-friendly 'spoilers')
Here we have a rather surprising low-budget thriller from Scotland. Its not surprising in content - because the bulk of it all consists of fairly well known things- but it does manage to keep a plot going from one beginning to another end without being predictable, boring or unreasonably unrealistic. What more could you ask from a movie about people chasing each other? Given the conditions, you have to say that it is a good film.
It starts in one place and ends in another. Within the plot there is a leap that a film like this usually suffers from. I know some have seen the change of perspective midway as the film's flaw but I think the second half of the film really gets to the real issue: What is a human life really worth?
We initially meet five mountaineers in the Scottish Highlands. The film is very wise to invite the audience to a completely credible group of professional daredevils; the acting is naturalistic, and gives the film an air of the documentary. They seem to have full control.
However, all that jolly climbing is soon interrupted by a curious, eerie discovery: Trapped in a box under the earth, someone has trapped a little girl. (How they find her, I will not disclose, and I recommend all not to see the trailer that spoils the fun). She is dirty and frightened and talking in an Eastern European language and, without being able to do anything but accept the situation, they take her away and she follows for the same reason.
I will not reveal what happens next, but we can say so much that the girl has not been left there to die. And if you take a buried little girl who does not seem to belong here, someone will definitely like to have her back. Money and guns are involved.
The interesting thing about the film's structure is that it begins as a rather primitive chase movie in the style of Deliverance, and then switches gear and becomes a high tech action-thriller, letting new characters into the plot. They're on the other side of the conflict, and know nothing about the mountaineers or that the girl is with them. But they bring, I believe, a crucial piece to the film's puzzle. Both our heroes and villains treat life with a sensibility of carelessness, but this time survival might be worth something.
For instance, the second half of the film has got a great set of sequences where two people have a conversation in a bar where they are constantly staring into each others eyes. The conversation is slow and concentrated, and every word is important: The topic of the little chat is about the importance of being a smart consumer. It doesn't matter if you haggle about human life or a piece of meat to barbecue, you should not be fooled by bad salesmen.
And in the end, the fact remains that many people are dead, but a key individual is still living. The film does not explain what that might mean, yet it ends with a poetic streak that I found strangely beautiful. These kinds of movies usually called survival movies. This is the first survival film I have seen where the point seem to be everyone that died
The Godfather: Part III (1990)
It simply doesn't work very well
Being an optimistic fellow I wanted to enjoy The Godfather Part III the first time I saw it - this was easy, since its a competent piece of film making, generally well paced, acted, it's coherent, Al Pacino's in it, Coppola has made this film from A to Z and on its own terms the film doesn't have any inexcusable flaws. (Not even, I might add, the notorious Sofia Coppola; she's bad, but her performance is benefited by the character she's playing, which is also weak). So for a long time I was one of those guys going "Hey, Godfather part III isn't as bad as everyone says. Sure, its not as good as the first two but not many movies are!" Later in life, presumably with heightened standards and a better sense of criticism, I started to suspect that the opposite could be true - that part III was really nowhere near as good as I'd recall - and after seeing all three films pretty much back to back I have to be honest (an approach I think wouldn't hurt the more enthusiastic defenders of this film) and conclude that The Godfather Part III, despite certain qualities, simply doesn't work.
(Excluded passage due to word limit; concerning how Coppola did the film for the money, and that it actually makes the film a little easier to appreciate)
I think the film really, on a whole, is perhaps not 'bad', certainly not horrible, but definitely a failure. The plot is underdeveloped and not engaging - Michael Corleone suffers from guilt. Its not unreasonable to say he did that at the end of Part II already. Where does his search for redemption lead him? Do "they" really pull him in again? Does his character do or say anything really memorable? Once or twice. But the script really is a long filler-session. And while everybody seems to just automatically praise Pacino because, well, he's Pacino I don't think his performance in this film is particularly good either, at least not by his merits. He's a great actor, and this is as fine a performance as any other he's made, but when you consider how truly versatile Pacino can be (compare Godfather part II with Scarface, with Serpico, Devil's Advocate, you name it, he's right there in character) its a disappointment that the aged Michael Corleone has turned into... well, Al Pacino. Obviously the character is not the same man that he used to be, but I never once really believed that I was watching Michael Corleone. He looked, and acted, too much like Al Pacino.
Not to mention Andy Garcia being nothing more than Andy Garcia, Joe Pantanglio, Eli Wallach, Talia Shire in a strangely awful performance (she's not a bad actress at all, but whatever happened here?). And of course Sofia Coppola; she isn't the crucial problem, but in the end she does become responsible for a lot of misfiring. The only one still doing a prime job is Diane Keaton as Kay - truly an unsung hero in these films, and to me one of the main reasons the drama work - and the film's best scenes were the one's she shared with Pacino. Why? Because then I felt like I was even watching a Godfather movie.
Much of everything else simply doesn't work. Whereas the original films were subtle and ambiguous, part III filters the story with melodramatic punches that are un-inspired and obvious. Michael's son, played by Franc D'Ambrosio, seems taken from Days of Our Lives and so many of the questions we ask ourselves - what does he remember from his childhood? What does any of the characters feel about Michael's marriage in Sicily? Did Tom Hagen ever move to Las Vegas? etc - are left completely by the road, as if Coppola truly isn't interested in telling this story. There are instead near-insulting reminders to the audience that the other two movies still exist (like the pointless scene where Michael have kept the drawing Anthony left at his pillow when he was nine or so; "I remember this" he smiles, though I'm not sure if we are to understand this as "I also remember they shot up the bedroom that same night"; once again, it seems Coppola simply forgets his own story). There are also awkward attempts at creating dramatic highlights in line with the horse-head scene and that very shooting in the beginning of Part II, involving a shooting during a parade in Little Italy and a stupid and ugly scene involving a helicopter. Making a Godfather sequel formulaic is truly a depressing insult to the originality of the first two films. The attempts Coppola takes on the Vatican are also pretty flat when you think about how Italian cinema has been doing this for half a century.
There's no reason to watch this film have you not seen the first two. And there's really no reason to watch it if you have seen them either. When you think about it, I don't see why the film's few merits are worth talking about. Movie newbies having seen Part I and II will naturally see III too, and I think many of them will come to the same conclusion. It's not all bad, but so what. It simply doesn't work very well.
Scream 4 (2011)
Only bad if you're dumb enough to take it seriously
I just had to post a review now, after the itching in my fingers got the best of me. The breaking point was a recent comment stating that Scream 4 meant a "sad day for slasher evolution".
Wow. Slasher evolution. My head just exploded. I think those choice of words are so unintentionally amusing that it should have been in the... wait, it is. Only they call it "slasher innovation". That did make me giggle a little too, as I recall. Slasher innovation? Correct me if I'm wrong, but there's no such thing. The height of slasher "innovation" was probably reached when they called Friday the 13th part V "A New Beginning" after calling part IV "The Final Chapter". In fact, I'd say, the very reason a lot of people who liked the original Scream didn't fall for Scream 2 or Scream 3 is due to the fact that there is no innovation to be had in this genre; and that's the point of it. Making a satirical meta-slasher works, because its fun. But the sequels, though amusing to a lot of people (me included), indeed forced the audience to feel more sympathy with the characters than I think the audience really wanted to. The whole soap opera concerning Sidney Prescott wasn't really why the original Scream became such a hit. At all. And around Scream 3 the series really did start to run on fumes.
Its truly delightful to see that Scream 4 goes back to the first movie's core concept; it lets you know instantly that it's a complete Meta Movie. From the very get-go the pacing of Scream 4 is almost at a Mel Brooks level, and the various layers of referencing are so many that you'd think Kevin Williamson wrote the script on a constant caffeine overdose. I liked it, I friggin loved it. This movie had me laughing and jumping at every corner. It even stops to let us know that the original Stab was directed by Robert Rodriguez.
That being said, it's worth mentioning that I'm totally biased towards this series. The movie is 100% nonsense but I was shamelessly enjoyed by it. If you just want to have a fun time with a slasher, I'd recommend it warmly, but if you never cared for the Scream movies to begin with - and never really liked its geeky humor (I admit, I'd even call these movies dorky) - than you are to be warned because Scream 4 takes the whole Scream concept into massive overdrive.
But there also seems to be a few Scream fans out there who are disappointed. I don't know why. Maybe some of them are younger than me and were toddlers when the original movie came out. This might seem like an arrogant line of thinking, but I'm really just thinking out loud.
See, I too grew up with the original Scream, to me it's a classic. I like Scream 2 as well, in fact seeing it for the first time happens to be a great movie memory for me. I can even say I enjoyed Scream 3, though it was flawed. The way I see it, Scream 4 has got the same edge and idea that the original Scream movie had. What was so great about the first one was the fact that it was a genuine post-modern satire. It wasn't just that the characters knew a lot of horror trivia - The point was that they almost knew they were characters in a movie themselves. I always saw the movie as big fourth wall-joke. As I said before, Scream 2 and 3 seemed to put its weight on the plot as if it took place in the real world. To me, the original Scream always took place in a half-real world where one minute you could buy the characters as "real" (Neve Campbell's presence did a lot of the work automatically) and the next you we're laughing at lines like "Behind you, Jamie, behind you!"
Basically, Scream was in on its own joke. That was what made it special. Scream 2 and 3 were pretty entertaining, and jokey, but they didn't have that same hardcore self-awareness. Thankfully, Scream 4 goes back home to Woodsboro once and for all. I think I felt the first REAL vibe of this delight when Gale early on quotes Randy by reminding Sid that "everybody is a suspect". Now, Mr Smartypants will say, how could she know that line? Why is she using it? Randy was saying it to the killers in the video store in the first movie, right?
Well, she's saying it because she kinda knows that this is Scream 4, not real life. Just like the first movie it's kinda real, kinda movie. "This isn't a movie!" Sid says to the killer but to me, Billy Loomis line "It's all a big movie, Sid" is the essential quote of the series (or at least the first one, and this one). Of course, in 1996 it was creative enough to just make a horror film that knew it was a horror film. Scream 4 naturally has got to be a horror film that knows its a horror franchise. It doubles, triples... completely "scr4ms" the fun.
Finally, Scream 4 was a nostalgic experience. I'm not referring to the movie itself. I'm referring to going to the movies, to see a horror film, and have some FUN again. After ten years of pretentious and depressing butcher house sadism (no, Saw isn't any good; not the first one either) its such a relief to see a slasher where one of the cheap shocks involves a dangling flower pot. It definitely falls under the Only-bad-if-you're-dumb-enough-to-take-it-seriously-category.
One of the best and most original horror films of the last decade
Teeth is one of the best horror films I've seen from the last decade. Its great because it transcends it's genre, its great because its about many things at the same time, its great because it is both macabre and bizarre and its also great because its absolutely hilarious. I simply loved this film.
Its also great because it could have been so much worse in so many ways. I'm thinking of two alternative ways in which this film could have gone down a wrong turn. First of all, both plot wise and aesthetically its dangerously close to the American Indie Film ideal as I like to call it. That is to say films being quirky for the sake of being quirky, ending up more or less pointless and tiring - I'm not being scientific here, I really mean just about any film with pop music and catch phrases instead of dialog and acting, from Ghost World and Napoleon Dynamite to Kick-Ass and The 500 Days of Summer. I'm not saying these are all horrible films. But none of them are as good as they could have been.
Another, more obvious, thing this film could be is a sleazy exploitation movie that could have been more or less amusing but nothing else. Oh, I haven't mentioned what this film is about yet, have I? It's about Dawn, a suburban American Midwest high school girl who's a proud and shining member of ultra-Christian organisation "The Promise", promoting the importance of purity. Thou shalt not touch thyself, nor "unwrap your gift" until you meet someone special. However, Dawn is of course only human and have long nights when she lies awake in bed moaning "What's wrong with me? Purity! Purity! Purity!"
What she doesn't know is that her gift is a little unusual. It's called "vagina dentata" and, let's not linger on this any more, basically she's got jaws in her holy garden. One of many funny things in the film is that Dawn discovers this phenomena as any teenager discovers his or hers sexuality in general; gradually, first with fear and anxiety and, eventually, with a enthusiasm and a great sense of power and self- fulfilment. Yes, this is truly a coming-of-age story. One of the best ones I've seen in years, in fact.
For a good forty minutes or so, Teeth isn't even a horror film. It's a satirical, comedic drama about young people troubled with religious guilt having no choice but to go with their cravings. It's even, I'd say, both amusing and gripping. You feel for Dawn, wonderfully played by Sundance Award-winner Jess Weixler, and her poor friends, some of which won't survive the shock of unknowingly trying to deflower a carnivore plant. When they go to the movies, they stare at the theatre in disappointment. "Aw, it's Rated R!" one of them say. "But even the PG-13 ones will have hardcore make-out scenes" Dawn dutifully points out. Their only choice is to see a Disney film.
Dawn's journey, however, is one from childhood to adulthood. Herein lies the brilliance of Teeth. Like all great horror films it deals not only with fears that are deeply rooted in the human psyche - not without a great deal of Freudian twists - but also with the chores of puberty and the bridge between the teenage years and the adult world. The great moment of the film is when Dawn begins to realise that her 'teeth' work at her will. While being on top of a properly disgusting guy who happily admits that he's only doing her for the sake of a bet with a friend, she looks at him in baffled anger when - snap - and she goes "Aw bleep" and leaves him in a pool of castrated whatever-you-had-it-coming-blood.
Much like in Brian De Palma's horror classic Carrie, the young inexperienced and suppressed female lead learns to fight back on her bullies with a nasty supernatural habit. Writer-director Mitchell (son of Roy) Lichtenstein certainly has made a film with a lot more humor. This is understandable, I guess, since there is naturally something both very silly and quite effective with the premise of a toothed vagina. It's apparently a take on an old myth, based on male fear of sex and female sexuality. Uh-huh. It may be an inappropriate thing to claim, but I seriously doubt any male viewing of this film not including one or two quite violent cringes. But, once again like all great horror films, its a lot of bloody fun; even more so when you know that you are affected by something that rings very true.
We don't get to know exactly where Dawn's "gift" comes from, but chances are they might have something to do with the ominous chemical plant spewing out smoke stacks in the back of Dawn's suburban row of houses. While he's at it, Lichtenstein even manages to get the most subtle of apocalyptic hints in there too. He might be saving this for a sequel, but something tells me he's too classy for that. All in all, there's not much to complain about here. An absurd, intelligent, scary, funny, very good film.
Not enough JCVD in JCVD
Oh, I really wanted to like this film. I wish I did. I wish it was funnier, I wish it was more exciting, interesting, entertaining. I wish it would have used its main course instead of focusing on the appetizers. I wish it had been better.
The main course, that is Jean-Claude Van Damme, playing (self-parody- version-of-) himself. In JCVD, the Belgian has got the blues; he resembles a tired dog, unable to pay his lawyer since Steven Seagal cut off his pony tail and snatched the next lead role in a direct-to-video- action film. He needs to pay this lawyer, since he's about to loose his divorce and child custody. Life's murky for poor Jean-Claude. He calls his fat, lazy American agent asking for jobs and money. He informs him absent mindedly about a film called No Limit Injury. "We did that movie six months ago!" Jean-Claude informs him. Then he walks into a small bank that just happens to be held up by some ugly low life-robbers. Soon, there's a lot of people outside the little bank. Why? Well, Jean- Claude Van Damme walks into a bank and moments later it is held up. Who do you think is holding it up?
JCVD is a film that sounds a lot better on paper than it actually is as a film. Any interesting review of the film would have to be about Van Damme himself rather than this film, because its easy to identify its flaws and shortcomings: Its simply not that engaging. The writer- director Mabrouk El Merchi has made a movie with the, by now standard, narrative framework of Tarantino about a bank robbery scenario where he puts way too much focus on the uninteresting robbers and doesn't bring the rabbit out of the box enough many times; Jean-Claude Van Damme is one of the hostages. The people on the outside think he's holding the bank up. Well, do something then! Humor me! I'm not asking for Jean- Claude to be Chevy Chase, but I don't care about these murky robbers whining and arguing until you want to just ask one of the hostages to sneak out the back door. Van Damme is the main reason anyone would want to see this film and yet this film, called JCVD, lets him share the screen time with ugly muggers that aren't realistic or engaging, and make no sense.
In scenes surrounding the bank scenes, we get amusing depictions of Jean-Claude Van Damme being down in the dumps but there's not enough of them. The defining point of the film's failure comes when Jean-Claude suddenly is lifted out of the action, from the film even, and gives a five minute monologue straight to the audience. It's awkward but its extremely sincere and it suddenly raises the bar for this film in a way even I did not suspect to begin with. "Today I pray to God" he sobs. "I truly believe it's not a movie. It's real life".
I mean, that's just amazing! Contrary to belief, Jean-Claude Van Damme isn't that big of a has-been as, say, Steven Seagal. All's relative. While his films have become all the cheaper, some more or less straight to video, they have at least been quite hard boiled and Jean-Claude has obviously tried to make honest acting attempts. Take a film like In Hell for instance, a prison movie-knock off where he's alone against the tyranny of an entire prison, wardens and inmates alike. Right, it ain't Kafka, but it's more than being a Universal Soldier or, cough cough, a "street fighter". The same goes with Wake of Death, a simple revenge film where he's to take down the people who killed his girlfriend. There's no doves in that film. But as QT would have preferred it, revenge is served very, very cold.
I guess its no surprise that I'm a shameless admirer of Jean-Claude. He is both hilarious and charming, and in some strange way sincere and er, "aware" of himself. You'd want to see a lot of it in a film called JCVD and the bits and pieces you get here and there during 90 minutes isn't enough. The five minute monologue he says "It's so stupid to kill people. They're so beautiful!" It's the film's big exception that proves the rule.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)
(Insert your own sleep-related pun here)
Oh my god, what a boring movie. What a lame, dull, routine blah blah blah of a horror film. It's not a remake of Wes Craven's 1984 film. It's a rerun of any given horror film. Even as franchise based, formula horror films go, this is a film that should have been called A Nightmare on Elm Street - Freddy's Hangover.
But what did I expect, right? It's a Platinum Dunes cough-up with a cast full of TV-friendly young faces and a first feature for a director, wouldn't you know, who's previous work has included music videos. But, I'm a fair person. I hated the Texas Chainsaw Massacre one and I was only dulled-out by their Friday the 13th (part 11). And the director of this film, Samuel Bayer, did make the videos to Smells Like Teen Spirit for Nirvana and Disposable Teens for Marilyn Manson. The very titles are apt for a film like this, and their MTV-flashy colourfulness should be enough to make a watchable and stylish horror fair.
But this Nightmare is really quite the opposite. Starting out in grey, solemn, Omen-like colours I quickly began to wonder where the gloom would take us. Yes, this is all supposed to be a slightly more serious ride down Elm street. Jackie Earle Haley's Freddy is pretty covered in shadows, doesn't say very much and is not in the movie as much as you might imagine (much like the Freddy of the very first film). There's quite a lot of mood music here, quite a lot of troubled teenagers (one of them wears a Joy Division T-shirt, "Closer" no less, so we understand he's extra troubled) and there's an investigative plot where we find out more about Freddy's disturbing past.
But, here we go: SO WHAT? I'm not sure if the film realises it, but this Nightmare on Elm Street raises a lot of it's own stakes just by attempting to make it more serious. Seriousness is not a matter of style. Seriousness is not a matter of special effects, or crude violence or lack of humor. Or, as this film seems to think, the mere mentioning of child molestation. No, Mr. Scary Movie Sir, if you go down this path you better deliver. It is especially in that context that this reincarnation of Freddy is a big disappointment, if one were to have any expectations. They seem to believe that just by presenting an idea of an origin, they have automatically made a more serious film. They haven't. Given how much time is spent mooding the movie down all we get are bad actors giving out bad dialog during and after they end up in painfully standard scenarios (don't go out in the middle of the night to look for your dog... I mean, please, just this once, don't do it... oh, well, off you go). This 2010 take on Freddy is more or less equal to any given slasher film, only with zero memorable scares, less visual flair and excitement and a lot more mood music, ending up nowhere.
There are details from Wes Craven's film operated into this film. You know, Johnny Depp's original sweater is worn by one of the actors, there's the bloody body bag, the hand up the bathtub, the coming-out-of- the-wall-shot, so on and so forth. Thus, they failed to listen to the oldest of film making rules: Don't make references to films way better than your own. If they think they can do it because of the vain assumption that this is a remake they are wrong. This is not a remake of a movie, it's a remake of a concept. And it's painfully boring and unexciting. "Whatever you do" the line goes, "don't fall asleep". Insert your own pun here.
Enjoyable display of middle class problems
The thought occurred to me right around the end credits, that I may have very well got it all wrong. The Private Lives of Pippa Lee was a film that I didn't quite get in the beginning, thought I understood after a while but then, right around the end, got confused again.
It might be my high standards or my ruthless elitism but I figured the title of the film must be kind of ironic; it is suggested that there are "private lives" within the one, dull suburban life that Pippa Lee finds herself stuck in. But it seems to me these lives aren't that private at all. Nor are they dangerous or secret. The film tells the story of how Pippa Lee - married to the book publisher Mr. Lee, 30 years older than her - recalls her youth, how she came to marry and how many possibilities really lay ahead of her. In the present, she suffers a kind of identity panic and needs to make her past worthwhile for what future she's got.
But what about the private lives? We learn that Pippa's mother was a pill addict and that she eventually ran away from home. She lived with some lesbian women with a knack for kinky photography. She was doing a lot of drugs (there's a montage) and she liked Mr. Lee for his money. He liked her for... well, who knows, he says she's special but I couldn't figure out what was so special about her. And, so, well, er, what about these private lives?
Young Pippa Lee is played by Blake Lively and middle-aged, present day Pippa by Robin Wright. Mr (Herb) Lee is played by Alan Arkin. Their adult children are played by Ryan McDonald and Zoe Kazan, two young actors I found to be great talents. There's a pretentious younger ladyfriend to the family played by Winona Ryder, there's a pretentious younger boyfriend-aspirant of Pippa's played by Keanu Reeves. Maria Bello plays Pippa's speeded-out mother Suky. Julianne Moore and Robin Weigert are in there, so are Monica Bellucci and Mike Binder. These are all if not great performances then at least greatly amusing ones to watch. Incidentally, Keanu Reeves is the only actor I know of who can say "I love you" and "fish tonight?" and make it sound equally unspectacular.
Basically, the film is an ensemble piece. These actors make the film easily watchable and the slightly soapy plot they are strung into in fact makes it a little hard to stop watching. However, as far as "reading" the film, I am at a bit of a loss still. Directed by Rebecca Miller, based on her novel which I haven't read, I can only speculate what kind of story I'm supposed to receive. As a simple, modest and self-aware telling of, quite middle class, problems it's fine and enjoyable. But I didn't really see any private lives in this film. It was all quite ordinary. Fish tonight?
A film that will keep dancing no matter how many times you shoot it
Bad Liutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans is a film with basically the same premise as Abel Ferrara's scandalous Bad Liutenant from 1992 with Harvey Ketiel, yet the director, Werner Herzog, claims he's never seen it. It's a film about a investigator with a bad back, snorting cocaine and seeing imaginary iguanas all the time. He's played by Nicholas Cage. In Herzog's new, er, "crime thriller". Do I have to mention that this isn't really a good film in the proper sense? Neither is it bad. It's great. It's a turkey. It all depends what you choose. It's a film with Nicolas Cage, by Herzog, and it features a scene where the imaginary iguanas take over the screen for a good couple of minutes, just staring at the viewer for no particular reason. At one point a man gets shot and Cage yells "Shoot him again, his soul is still dancing". As the camera pans over, sure enough, there's a breakdancer jumping around over the corpse. Not until the body is shot again does the dancing soul fall to the ground too.
In other words, you have been warned. Cage plays Terence McDonagh, a fairly (note: understatement) corrupt investigator in post-Katrina New Orleans. The film starts out with him investigating a house full of executed bodies. The investigation goes on as movie investigations tend to go on, the only difference being that it is the everyday life of this Hunter S. Thompsonesque character that is the main attraction. It seems nothing he does is legitimate or within the law. His investigation methods are..... suspect. He's into both gambling and drugs, he collects favours from his partners as if they would be baseball cards. He's addicted to everything, including sex which he gets through bribery with strangers or with his part time lover. Of course, he's got a real girlfriend, Frankie (Eva Mendes), the love of his life who just happens to be a prostitute. McDonagh is so off the wall really, that halfway through he is actually suspended from his duty. Not just "movie cop suspended". No, half of the movie is him using every trick in his book (not the book of the law) to save his ass from trouble that does seem inevitable. What, you can't torture old sick ladies for information anymore?
The collaboration between Cage and Herzog is the first and last reason that this film works. Ferrara's 1992 film has very little to do with it, but as a good comparison that was certainly a parody, with occasional bursts of black humor, but it was also profoundly serious and hard to sit through. Herzog's film is a joke in comparison. But many of Herzog's films are jokey in their own ways. I have always found that absurdity has been his trade, be it his poetically ugly remake of Nosferatu or the larger than life-aspects of Fitzcarraldo, or his narrator of his popular 2007 documentary Grizzly Man. Of course, his eccentric leads have always been doing him favors. The unconventional Nicolas Cage is in a sense such an obvious choice for the director who always seems to be looking for his next Klaus Kinski, that I found myself surprised I hand't thought of them collaborating before. Kinski did Nosferatu, yeah, but Nicolas Cage did Vampire's Kiss. There's sheer collaborative joy on play here, and it's almost impossible not to like if you're into it.
I can see a lot of people walking out of this film way before it's over. Naturally it has been promoted as a standard thriller, which is like a joke in itself. It's very odd, strange, you don't get it. I read someone who believed that Herzog with this film wanted to do a deliberate "so bad it's good". It's not a bad theory. At the same time, it's difficult to get your head around. It's not a remake, apparently, it's just a film with the same title and premise as another film. It's filled with quirky musical choices, weird random lines and sequences you don't really know what to think of. In fact, it feels a lot like the film any American Indie film would want to be, or at least should. Sure, it's quirky. But it has got something that makes it reasonable and, even if it doesn't ring true, meaningful: The purest and most unquestionable form of originality.
Letyat zhuravli (1957)
Russian grapes of war
The Cranes Are Flying is a film just as mesmerizing as the title suggests. It's stark and poetic, emotional but existential, it's about human nature, human life, human circumstance. The story is a simple and often told one, but then again, the stories of life tend to be simple and often told. The heart of the film lies in the very beginning where the two young lovers Veronika (Tatyana Samojlova) and Boris (Aleksey Batalov) stand in each other's arms and watch the cranes flying in the sky. They love each other. They don't know it yet, but they are about to be separated by war. This is the first and last moment of peace, harmony and love in their lives. The rest of their years are going to be filled with heartache, guilt, hardships, hunger, grief, death. The film ends on a hopeful and even joyous note. You have to see it to believe it.
This is the first point. Very simple. It's a wonderful film that you should see. Then there are the historical notes, and the technical qualities to marvel about. Based on a play by Viktor Rozov, who wrote the screenplay, the film was directed by Mikhail Kalatozov who was one of the first Soviet filmmakers to emerge and blossom after Stalin's death (he was his former head of production). He would make tremors with his 1964 pro-Castro documentary I Am Cuba, but The Cranes Are Flying won him the Palme D'Or in 1957. It's no wonder either, not only does the film prove amazing craftsmanship but it would also remind anyone of a more general European art film from the same time (the French New Wave easily comes into mind). At the same time, it seems to have managed to pass all of the demands from the Soviet Union. It doesn't come off as a patriotic spectacle of propaganda but, as I said, it does end hopefully, with the love for the people shining from within the people itself.
Tatyana Samojlova is the heroine of the film, and Kalatozov is occupied following her with the greatest of care. Much of the film is portrayed in silence, but it's not the kind of artistic silent quality you might expect. It's a quiet film, the absence of sound is naturalistic, as are the cranes in the sky and the feelings of Veronika as her childish romance dies out while she grows older in the war times. She loves Boris, lost in field. She marries a man she doesn't love. The film suggests feelings of guilt and shame. We're not sure, Samojlova is too human. There are breathtaking moments of film making in this film that, made in 1956, seems to predate most original methods of film making - and, I'd say, to this day it's not often you see sequences like the one where she is desperate, running along a train seemingly at the same speed, whilst the film itself seems to react at the sudden impact of speed and emotion. It's like the entire film looses control over itself, she almost outruns it herself, and you can't say what will happen the very next second or, once that second has passed, the second after that.
This is a film about human beings, the value of human life, of love and family and hope. But it's not entirely an anti-war film, as one might suppose. This is a film where the characters face their sadness and their emotional tragedies right up front and never tries to deny them or shun from them, or in any way prolong their suffering. There is a higher cause and life must be lived by the citizens of an entire country in hope, because if we loose hope the suffering will have been pointless.