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Pleasing movie, visually compelling, great actors
Eight aging Brits respond to an online hotel brochure that brings them to Jaipur, India, where their pounds will go further, and where they can pursue unfulfilled dreams. Imagine Eat Pray Love with a grittier, more realistic focus on the chaos and jumble of life in India as backdrop. Like Eat Pray Love, the problems of the lead characters revolve around love, mainly coming to terms with how they have managed their relationships so far, but also about the possibility of starting new things despite being past middle age. The story of these British pilgrims intersects with that of a young Indian man who is reviving the hotel that his father once ran, with too little capital and competence, and who is on the other side of the aging process, trying desperately to establish his manhood so that he can escape maternal constraints and marry the girl of his dreams. One is occasionally reminded of Slumdog Millionaire, which also featured Dev Patel as the young hero, particularly when the Bollywood music kicks in. But the resemblance is only a passing one. There is nothing to compare with the best British actors (minus Colin Firth) working as an ensemble. Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Tom Wilkinson et. al. take perfectly adequate writing and moderately predictable plot twists and invest them with passion and pathos. Maggie Smith has the toughest task, in the form of an embittered and prejudiced spinster who must come the furthest in terms of changing her character, all within the relatively short time span covered by the movie and without leaving her wheelchair. Anyway, Marigold is entertaining and diverting, though maybe a little too facile if you think about it too hard. But don't, just enjoy the journey and the view.
The Descendants (2011)
Engaging drama about relationships - not just for 'chicks'
'Descendants' focuses on the life of a family during the days when the mother lies in a coma after a boating accident, poised between life and death. Nothing crashes or blows up on screen, but there are plenty of emotional detonations as her husband and two daughters struggle to meet the challenges and, oddly, the obligations of the unexpected, tragic crisis. This is neither a perfect family nor a perfect mess of a family - it's something in between. They are well off - definitely 1 percenters - live comfortably, and are each very engaged in their lives and communities. The girls, Mom included, are hell raisers to some degree, but in ways that attract more than repel - they each make friends and play well with others, at least some of the time. Yet the members of the family are subtly estranged from each other, and we learn from Clooney's narrative and monologues with his wife's inert form that the marriage was a source of some disappointment for both of them, a disappointment that was not confronted or resolved in their years together. The movie takes us through the resolution of this family crisis, revealing progressively what each character has withheld from the others, and loops in a larger plot involving their extended family and, in effect, the entire Island community.
Clooney gives a consistent, effective performance, and is one of the reasons this movie should work alright for the average guy (Women on average tolerate him pretty well, I believe) despite it's focus on relationships as the subject matter and rather slow pace. He maintains a strong masculine 'hero' persona throughout, and definitely rises to the tragic occasion. Along the way, he responds in ways, some comic and some cliché, that make him an attractive 'male' perspective from which to view the events of the film. He is strong, well meaning, active, and ultimately prevails to a large degree in the terms of the film.
I really enjoyed the performance of Shailene Woodley in the role of his daughter, poised on adulthood. Her character's response to Clooney and their work with one another represents the visible 'love story' - father-daughter in this case - that makes the movie work moment to moment.
The comatose patient is very much a character in several of the most important scenes. I was struck by how silent the relatively full theater was during some of these climactic moments. The audience was neither restless nor tearful, just intent, during even the long, slow, quiet moments. Never sentimental, the film focuses on the experience of confronting death in others as an argument for living life authentically, acknowledging and resolving conflict rather than lapsing into comfortable disengagement.
All in all, a fascinating couple of hours of storytelling, acting, and thought-provoking cinema. A notch or two above the average theater experience, and way higher than the average among films that tackle this category of emotional experience.
Margin Call (2011)
Quietly gripping morality tale - a near perfect movie
Saw this last night. Set at a Wall Street firm on the night in 2008 when the leaders realize that changes in the market will wipe them out if they don't immediately stop selling the products that have been making them all rich, the movie centers on the moral dilemma - recognized by some characters but dismissed by others - that they face in unwinding their positions, saving themselves but shifting the pain to others.
The movie finds a way to hold the mirror up to our civilization, showing how we are all complicit in a collective 'dream' (one character says at one point, in response to another who says he feels like he is in a 'dream', 'Funny, it seems like I just woke up'). The dream is the illusion of easy, risk-managed wealth that the financial markets manufacture, again and again, since the emergence of capital markets 200 years ago, until the illusion morphs overnight into a panic. Reality intervenes, fear takes over, and the 'survivor' is the guy who first reaches the lifeboat. So there are no villains in this movie, just people, richly drawn, beautifully acted characters realized by some of our best actors who relish the opportunity to show what they can do given a killer script and enough screen time between lines to actually be the people they are portraying.
Central to the movie's success:
1) It gets across the essence of what is going on in the financial markets without bogging us down or dumbing it down
2) finding a moral question that can be resolved in a night, yet which is nevertheless a perfect allegory for the whole set of moral questions raised by an economy that works the way ours does, rewarding false confidence, recklessness, and deceit as often as industry, skill, and integrity
3) the placement of young, innocent but perceptive characters at the center of the drama, who function as our eyes and ears, who are like stand-ins for all of us who weren't there, at the heart of the dream machine, when the latest fantasy of easy wealth was exposed as a collective delusion
4) really 'gets' the trader ethos and manner - they are a kind of warrior caste, foul-mouthed, impulsive, deeply selfish, surviving by their ability to outplay their counterparts, and yet living by a warrior code that sets boundaries on what they will and will not do to one another (having spent three years on Wall Street several panics ago, it rang as true as any movie I have seen on the subject)
It's like Mamet, except you don't have to work as hard to figure out what everyone's up to. It's like Chinatown, except the 'crime' is something far worse than molesting a single young girl. These guys f****d the entire planet, for Ch*****sake. It's like the best movie I've seen in a little while.
What an incredibly sure hand from a director on his maiden voyage! Who is this guy? Whoever you are, please don't stop. I would pay a lot to see what he could do with topics like 'the decision to go to war', or 'the emergence of China/India/Brazil/Indonesia from poverty to global player'. Hell I would go see him revive Mother Goose, after this debut.
I'll calm down now. Enjoy.
The King's Speech (2010)
Five Reasons to see King's Speech
1. The actors - Firth compels attention and sympathy, Rush is irresistible, and Bonham Carter brightens every scene she enters. The supporting roles are studded with familiar British actors (Jacoby, Ely, etc.) being, and celebrating being, very British. 2. The visual experience - Scene after scene that is arresting. Shades of gray predominate. I particularly liked the royal car being led through foggy London streets. 3. The story - Revisits familiar dramatic ground, the lead up to the war and the English royal family, but finds new life by focusing on the future King's struggle to live up to the role thrust upon him 4. The writing - Provides a string of satisfying payoffs on the way to a solid dramatic conclusion, with witty repartee between the principles that is amusing but never overdone 5. The period - Costumes,settings, radio paraphernalia, autos, streets, palaces, royal hobby horses, ordinary British homes, everything fits together to conjure the time, which is really starting to feel distant.
All Good Things (2010)
well-executed 'exhumation' of an unsolved murder
In All Good Things, the director/writer has created a plausible fiction to account for a series of actual crimes. The evolution of the supposed killer from carefree youth to malignant immoralist is depicted, step by step. The strength of the movie as a story lies in its focus on a web of characters and their relationships to one another, rather than on the crimes themselves. We never see actual violence, but only its effects on characters, and their subsequent efforts to conceal the truth, to escape from their situation, or to satisfy some personal need. The movie functions mainly as a kind of indictment, and I wonder if it would work were it not for the 'documentary' angle, the movie as crusader for the truth, bringing to light the possible culpability of a real person, abetted by certain friends and family, a man as yet unpunished.
The motivations of this character, the object of the indictment, are accounted for in the course of the story, as various traumatic and painful incidents from his life are shown or recalled, and by allusions to deviant mental conditions or sexual preferences that are not. Whether these revelations are served up clearly or merely hinted at, they somehow fail collectively to satisfy as explanations for the barbarism that emerges as the story proceeds. At the end, the inner life of the putative killer remains obscure, a source of dissatisfaction for a movie that is about character.
So, not a great movie, but an engrossing entertainment if you are in the mood for a dark story that leaves you wondering how closely real events in fact matched up to this clever reconstruction.
Fair Game (2010)
Faithful adaptation mixing political and personal stories
A movie that performs a service in an engaging manner, Fair Game brings back a time that is just starting to feel distant, the frantic aftermath of 9/11 when we went to war, first in Afghanistan and then in Iraq. Valerie Plame makes an extraordinarily convenient vantage point from which to tell this story, as she was at the center of the drama, first in the run-up to war and then in the beginning of its unraveling. The spy scenes that open the movie were eye-openers for someone who never read Plame's book or spent much time on her story. The story of personal conversion and marital discord that follows once her identity is leaked worked for me, holding my interest as the aftermath of her 'outing' is replayed.
The movie wants to remind us of how sinister and unacceptable it was that the leaders of our government took us into war based on a shaky premise in the face of persistent doubt from the organ of the state, the CIA, created to provide insight into the facts and intentions of our enemies. It sticks to the known facts, in that only those figures ultimately shown to be culpable or potentially culpable, Libby and Rove, are given fictional form. Whatever role Cheney or Bush played happens off-screen, or via their public appearances, which are woven into the narrative as the main characters' attention is occasionally drawn to a television set.
What a great thing to bring Naomi Watts and Sean Penn into collaboration, by the way! Two of our great artists, getting to play off one another.
So, know you are attending a morality tale, and probably don't go if you are predisposed to feel that invading Iraq was a good idea and that whatever excesses committed by our leaders in 2001-3 were likely justified by personal patriotism or prior events or whatever. The movie takes sides, but it is more interested in the story of those who rise up to challenge oppression and misuse of authority than in establishing the guilt or culpability of those whom the story's heroes challenged.
Cairo Time (2009)
bored in Cairo
About two scenes worth of plot and dialog function as an excuse to string together a couple of hours of beautiful footage of Cairo. Our heroine is placed in an impossible situation, met at the airport by an attractive, exotic swarthy debonair 'Middle Eastern' guy when she is expecting her husband. Alone in Cairo pursued by lecherous, uncivilized types whenever she leaves her hotel room. Virtuous super hero husband interminably delayed saving free world in nearby Gaza refugee camp - impossible to resent neglectful spouse, even as he stands her up for days and days. What's a hard working, repressed, glamorous, New York, magazine writer to do? Coy titillation ensues as relationship with brainy Egyptian hunk with car and time on his hands slowly develops. Though 'develops' definitely overstates what occurs. Perhaps most distressing is the dialog. No one says anything that is not banal, the one Arabic word she learns early on is endlessly repeated. Put on some appropriate music, turn off the sound, and display as background to conversation. What a waste of a good actress.
Män som hatar kvinnor (2009)
Deeply disturbing content not worth enduring for minor dramatic payoff
'Girl' exposes us to brutal behaviors and images, serving up a revolting stew of behaviors (sexual, political, religious/ethnic violence and just plain sadism) in the service of a simple, improbable love story between an avenging Goth girl and a crusading journalist with writer's block, organized in the form of a whodunnit. The book was probably great. The movie is grisly. The actress at the center gives a game performance, but the movie never earns the right to display its endless disturbing examples of destructive human behavior by illuminating their origins or consequences in any discernible way. So it becomes, unfortunately, a kind of soft-core snuff film disguised as a suspense drama.
Taking Woodstock (2009)
High times in the Catskills
I'm just young enough to have missed Woodstock. I went to a theater to see this with my 16 year old daughter, who enjoys the music and is curious about the event.
Taking Woodstock recreates the 60's with tremendous fidelity. Having grown up in a relatively rural part of America, I found the re-creation of that time wonderfully reminiscent. The colors, the gadgets, the pace, and, above all, the silence combined to create a pleasant, innocent, but also somewhat torpid atmosphere. The blooming chaos of the concert as it takes over the movie is thus effectively illustrated by contrast, as we experience it much as it might have felt to the residents of this Catskills backwater.
Daughter and I enjoyed the performances, but the movie is more about story and revisiting a pivotal moment in time than individual acting. Framer Yazgur is particularly fun, as is young Michael Lang, the promoter/impresario who presides like a combination of Oberon and Puck over the merriment.
Don't go for the music, its not the point. Do go if you are wondering what an LSD experience looks like from the inside, or wish to be reminded of it.
The movie worked as well for my already curious 16 year old as it did for me. Though it helped that she had seen the original documentary once or twice, so she had an idea of what was going on off camera as we followed the characters trying to find their way among the half million who made it to the farm.