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Lost River (2014)
Not as bad as the reviews would have you believe
Lost River received a critical drubbing so vicious upon its Cannes premiere that nearly a year later WB, who had naively bought the rights back when it was still considered a promising and thrilling project, dumped it on VOD after vacillating nearly a year on how to release it.
It's really too bad that VOD was where Lost River ultimately wound up because the real saving grace of the movie are the techs which include beautiful bold cinematography by Benoît Debie and a melancholy score by Johnny Jewel that would no doubt have played well on the big screen.
The movie opens with one of the few residents of Lost River (a fictional fairy tale city standing in for the actual filming location, Detroit) fleeing in his car for greener pastures and warning Bones (a completely forgettable Iain De Caestecker) to do the same. But Bones is just a teenager and despite his declaration that he'll leave as soon as he manages to fix his car he has the same loyalty to the broken down ghost town as his mother Billy (a luminous Christina Hendricks) who, in an attempt to keep her house from being destroyed like the rest of the town, turns to sex work in the form of macabre stripping where she literally peels the skin off her face to the delight of her flesh-hungry customers.
This is a film that wears its overt metaphors on its sleeve and its a fairy tale technique that works for the most part. Where Lost River really loses its way is that it simply has nothing new or innovative to say and without a new perspective aside from America in decay! Housing crisis bad! The result is a beautifully filmed but exploitative, empty film.
Punk Jews (2012)
Despite the eye-catching title Punk Jews is a rather tepid documentary, an attempt to look at subcultures within mainstream Judaism with so loose and broad a focus it ends up meaning very little. The problem is perhaps that the filmmakers defined punk so loosely and found no shortage of worthy subjects: a Yiddish theatre troupe, a man trying to bring about awareness of sexual abuse in the orthodox community he left behind, black orthodox Jews who also rap etc. The documentary lurches from one subject to the next, only giving cursory appreciation to people whose individual endeavours would be worthy of a full length documentary themselves.
Still Punk Jews is an enjoyable, fast-paced film and for those interested in Judaism, sub-cultures or who just want something quick and easy to watch it's an interesting way to kill an hour.
Empire of Dirt (2013)
Empire of Dirt is a rather clichéd tale, the story of drop-out single mom Lena who, despite managing to get herself clean and working as a community leader for other struggling aboriginal youth, finds herself struggling to support her troubled teenage daughter. When her resources run out she returns to the town of her birth and reconnects with the family and friends she was once so quick to let go of as a pregnant teenage mother so many years ago.
Despite the trite storyline which neatly skips over the usual beats of the story, the movie is somewhat rescued by the lovely performance of its three leads. Newcomer Cara Gee appears in nearly every frame of the movie and acts natural and graceful and Shay Eyre as her teenage daughter Peeka matches her beat for beat with the two having a believable mother/daughter chemistry.
The movie is also lovingly shot and the camera luxuriates on the outdoor beauty of the town of Lena's birth.
Marie Antoinette (2006)
A comedy of excess
Marie Antoinette is most famous for her extravagant excess and her tragic demise, but in her biopic of the last French queen Sophia Coppola makes the interesting choice of focusing only on her years at Versailles, a period which spans roughly 15 years, from 15 to 30.
The story is a familiar one to anyone who has ever watched (or read) a female-focused story about a European royal. A rich woman is sold off through marriage to a cold/unkind/unfaithful/un-relatable equally wealthy royal and she spends the rest of the movie tragically flitting around the extravagant scenery, looking ravishing while bemoaning the fact that she can buy everything but her husbands love. What makes Marie Antoinette rather unique in the royal biopic tradition is that Coppola decides to bypass most of the melodrama in order to celebrate the up-beat, witty, teen-queen who charmed France and handled her royal problems with grace and dignity.
I've never been a fan of Kirsten Dunst, but her sunny disposition and little girl looks are perfect here. She is at once graceful and naïve, over-spending but at the same time dutiful and eager to please. Dunst's comic timing in this movie is impeccable. When she is forced to speak to Madame du Barry, she nails the casually bored voice that demonstrates the ridiculousness of the situation and her reluctance to be a part of it. She is also careful to portray Marie Antoinette as innocent and ignorant rather then out and out stupid. In one particularly cute scene the queen declares that she would like to have large trees planted all along a walk-way. When she is reminded that money in the royal coffers is tight, she generously decides to go with the "little trees" rather then spend all that money on the larger ones.
I must admit I was also extremely skeptical when I heard that Coppola had cast her cousin, Jason Schwartzman, as Marie Antoinette's husband but he too handles his (mostly silent) role perfectly. He is the quiet, shy, foil to Dunst's sunny queen, the dweeb to her cheerleader. Coppola plays up the differences between them for comedic effect, and it works well. You can imagine that if Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI were average teenagers in modern day France, they wouldn't even talk to each other, and yet because of the age they live in and their political positions they are forced into a bizarre, yet friendly, marriage.
The ensemble is incredibly tight, with cameos by many accomplished actors. Judy Davis steals every scene she's in, Molly Shannon and Shirley Henderson (random side note: Shirley Henderson is hilarious AND brilliant. Someone needs to give her a leading role.) play the two bitchy tantes to perfection, Asia Argento is slimy and seductive as the trashy Madame du Berry, Rose Byrne is sumptuous as the saucy Duchess du Polignac and on and on.
The movie itself works best in its first half. The painfully funny inability of Louis XVI to consummate his marriage provides the plot for the first half of the movie. As Marie Antoinette learns the ridiculous rules of the French court and makes room for her own traditions she is constantly kept grounded by the fact that her husband refuses to bed her and that she has yet to provide any heirs to the throne. Coppola lovingly flits from the church, to the dining hall, to the bedroom giving us a feel for the whirlwind of monotony that becomes Marie Antoinette's life. Like many directors, she is fascinated by the golden cage imprisoning her heroine and yet unlike so many directors she openly invites her audience to laugh at the excesses and childish naïveté of her characters. When Marie Antoinette's brother drops by for a visit he is the one who must explain the act of sex to young Louis by using a key and lock metaphor, hilarious since the only thing Louis seems to show any interest in are locks and keys. Sadly, once the marriage is consummated and the longed for dauphins and dauphines arrive any narrative thread is dropped and the movie instead becomes a series of cobbled together vignettes. Marie Antoinette takes a lover, loses said lover, has some children, and then loses some children. Not that the vignettes are not beautiful and effective, only that the treatment of Antoinette's twenties seems hurried compared to the fun, easy-going pace of her teens.
In one of the touching final scenes of the movie, Louis and Marie Antoinette eat an opulent dinner together as they have done since their first meeting and marriage. As in their first dinner there are many ridiculous rules and protocols to be observed but the difference between that first meal and this one are striking. With most of the royal court forced into exile there is no one but the servants there to observe them. Rather than an orchestra to provide them music to accompany their meal there is the unceasing angry chanting of a mob. But Marie Antoinette, looking at her husband the same way she did at their first meal together, many years ago, reaches across the table in order to hold his hand and provide him with comfort. They know the years of indolence and extravagance which made their teen years a never-ending party are over. And yet, together, they are still willing to stay at Versailles now that the party is over; to try and rule and to face the consequences of their ignorance.
Coppola seems to be taking a bit of a breather between films in order to take care of her new baby but I hope she returns to the camera and soon. I'm not a huge fan of the Virgin Suicides, but her work on Lost in Translation and Marie Antoinette show that she's a director with a vision and a message, and I can't wait to see what she does next.
Le silence de Lorna (2008)
The Price of Silence
The titular heroine of the Dardenne brothers latest movie is Lorna, a recent immigrant to Belgium who spends her days earning paychecks from a dry-cleaners while earning more substantial money by selling herself off as a bride to a Russian man looking to immigrate to Belgium himself. Before she can marry the Russian however, Lorna must obtain a divorce from her current husband, Claudy, a broken-down, pathetic, drug-addict who only married Lorna in order to obtain the cash to fund his habit.
The relationship between the young couple is complicated. Lorna, with a boyfriend back home and another potential husband eager to obtain Belgian citizenship waiting in the wings, has no romantic attachment to Claudy. Early scenes show her disgust and impatience for her lazy, feeble husband who does little more then shoot-up, play cards and follow her around like a puppy-dog. Nevertheless she can't help but feel sympathy towards the man she is using solely to obtain her citizenship. Claudy's feelings are equally muddled. He is aware that Lorna is using him and yet is devastated when she talks about divorce. He plays on his weaknesses to illicit Lorna's sympathy and then plagues her with childish demands. Their relationship, masterfully played out by Arta Dobroshi and returning Dardenne brother favourite Jérémie Renier, is utterly, intensely fascinating. They're both the victims and the aggressors in their relationship and who you root for and who you find repulsive flips frequently from scene to scene.
But the movie isn't focused on the relationship between Claudy and Lorna. As Lorna struggles to earn her money quickly she is forced to choose between protecting Claudy, whose desire to kick his drug-habit is problematic for her divorce proceedings, and her desire to protect her own small dream of owning a café with her long-distance boyfriend. Her optimism and strength are quickly torn apart when the man responsible for arranging both her marriages quickly yanks her down to reality by reminding her that she is little more then a pawn for people who want to cheat the system. The movie falls apart in the final third, the twists and turns a bit ridiculous given the slow, yet gripping, pace of the previous sections. And yet the movie is still compelling, quietly questioning a system in which people must go to such violent lengths in order to obtain simple and innocent desires.
The lack of music, gritty cinematography and superb acting all lend itself to the feelings of realism that pervade the film. The Dardenne brothers make us believe in Lorna's plight, her struggle between what she feels morally is right and the silence that will enable her to live out her dream.
Wendy and Lucy (2008)
A Woman and her dog...
Wendy & Lucy follows a nearly impoverished young woman on her quest to Alaska where she hopes to find some decent work. Travelling and living in her ancient, run-down car disaster hits when said car breaks down and her only friend (a dog named Lucy) disappears forcing her to stay stagnant in a tiny town. That's about all that can be said for the plot and about the movie as well.
At the q & a for the screening I attended, Kelly Reichardt (the director) briefly talked about how she wanted to capture the struggles that millions of Americans are going through, finding themselves one misplaced dollar, or accident, away from complete disaster.
The movie definitely portrayed these things but there was nothing I felt I could really latch onto to make me feel for the title character. Michelle Williams turns in a decent performance but the movie really drags her down; we all know what's going to happen to her but it sure feels like it takes forever for her to get there. The slow, methodical pace and almost complete lack of any characters aside from Wendy doesn't help in this respect. The movie is only about 80 minutes long and it felt twice that. Production values weren't so good but it's hard to criticize that as the film was obviously made on a tiny shoe-string budget.
I'm honestly miffed as to why this film got such great critical reviews. With the American recession more and more people are struggling with poverty in the same way Wendy does but just because it's realistic doesn't mean it's a good film.
Den du frygter (2008)
Jekyll & Hyde
Got a chance to catch the world premiere of Fear Me Not, directed and written by Kristian Levring, at the Toronto Internal Film Festival.
The film examines the deterioration of the life of a man in his mid-40's facing a mid-life crisis exasperated by the fact that he has become addicted to a prescription medication with nasty side effects.
Ulrich Thomsen dominates the movie as Mikael, a doctor who has recently taken a sabbatical from work only to find himself bored and at a loss at what to do with his time. On a whim he enters into a medical study examining the side effects of a newly developed anti-depressant. When he, and other patients, begin to exhibit violent tendencies Mikael finds that he is both unable and unwilling to stop taking the drugs. Fascinated by the positive outlook on life that he gains from the little pills Mikael finds himself acting out increasingly aggressive and violent fantasies on strangers and even his own family and friends.
Ulrich Thomsen does great work here portraying the mostly docile and kind Mikael with great depth and persona. Even in the midst of acting out his most cruel fantasies Thomsen displays a sense of uncertainty and bewilderment at his own actions as if he, along with the audience, is shocked at the dramatic results that the pills have produced. Paprika Steen, in a supporting role as Mikael's wife Sigrid, turns a mediocre role into something exciting. Even small scenes, like when Mikael and Sigrid are playing scrabble, are filled with tension as we watch Sigrid drift between anger, annoyance and hurt as she tries to convince Mikael to go back to work.
The cinematography is gorgeous and includes plenty of lush scenery. The editing really adds to the overall mood of the piece, the frequent jump-cuts helping to enhance the fragmented, jittery feelings as Mikael finds himself being splintered between two sides of himself.
As a whole the movie is decent but a last minute twist in the final act turns the movie into full blown melodrama. Despite the histrionics of the final ten minutes and the rather disappointing conclusion told mostly through voice-over, the movie is still worth watching for Thomsen and Steen's performances as well as the enticing and astonishing build-up as Mikael goes from a placid family-man to a malevolent, abusive husband.
Levring and Thomsen were actually at the screening and had a brief q & a afterwards. It was really cool, Levring talked a bit about his inspiration for the film and mentioned Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde which really came across in the way that the pill popping scenes were filmed and edited.
The Silent Partner (1978)
If you're ever depressed and in need of a good comedy see The Silent Partner. It was marketed as a thriller but this movie falls into the "so bad it's brilliant" category. Elliot Gould plays a fish obsessed mild-mannered bank teller who manages to steal some cash off of his bank when it's held up by a mall Santa (played by a heavily mascarad Christopher Plummer). Susannah York joins the cast in a thankless role as a fellow bank teller who is inexplicably seduced by Gould. The main plot of the movie basically has Christopher Plummer mercilessly stalking Gould's character demanding the extra money which Gould has skimmed. It's basically an excuse to put Plummer in a series of increasingly bizarre outfits each more ridiculous then the one before it.
I have no idea how this low budget movie was able to nab such incredible actors but it just makes the experience that much more fun. I don't think I've ever laughed as much in a movie theatre as I did with this movie. Hilarious campy fun.
This Is Wonderland (2004)
It really *is* Wonderland
This is really an excellent show. Despite being only an hour long the show manages to cram in wonderful stories and sub-plots without feeling rushed at all. It really is like Wonderland. Every character is insane, with their own personal, quirks, twitches and attitudes. The only exception is Alice herself (played by Cara Pifko). Unfortunately she has the task of playing the straight man, the one earnest character who isn't there for laughs but to balance out all the other weird characters. This makes her character remarkably dull. However since this show does have 3 to 4 plots going on at the same time it leaves little time for Alice and more time for the rest of the characters.
Don't flip the channel when you come across this show. It's one of the few shows worth watching.
While watching this show one has to ponder the inevitable question who the hell would produce such a sad unappealing cartoon? The gist of the plot line is that Stripperella is Erotica Jones a stripper by night and a super hero by "later" night. In the premiere episode she fights an evil doctor who enjoys inflating super models. The plot line, dialogue, and attempts at humour all fall flat but the worst scenes are those showing the cartoon Stripperella stripping. I find myself wondering who would enjoy watching a cartoon character strip. This show has nothing going for it and I wouldn't be surprised if it was swiftly cancelled. 0/10