Thursday, March 26, 2009

"Cléo From 5 To 7"

Just one of the many reasons I love my film class.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Scheming Love, Rising Tides, And A Nightmare Detroit

3 out of 4

Julia Roberts and Clive Owen are electric together. They have great chemistry, but the real intrigue comes in how this chemistry is exactly created. It's sexual, yes, but strangely enough, the sexual interest comes in the fact that neither of their characters can ever tell if the other is lying. Deceiving and double-crossing has never been this sexy. Julia Roberts plays Claire, a CIA agent, and Clive Owen plays Ray, an MI6 agent. The two of them meet and sleep with each other in Dubai, and from there they enter the private sector working undercover for opposite ends of corporal giants. They hatch a plan to acquire the formula for some top secret project being manufactured by one of the companies, exploit it for themselves, and cash in on millions to split. "Duplicity" is perfectly titled as there is an endless amount of twists and turns full of cheating and scheming. After 2007's Best Picture nominee "Michael Clayton," writer-director Tony Gilroy takes his second feature in the comedic direction. You can tell he's having fun here, and as a result, the movie itself is just a lot of fun.

The title sequence alone is worth the price of admission. The chief executives of two major corporations, Burkett & Randle and Equikrom, start going at on a wet-soaked airstrip between their two private jets in the pouring rain. Their vice presidents and other colleagues stand on the sidelines and begin to intervene, letting their umbrellas blow away in the wind. The sequence is done in slow-motion with James Newton Howard's score pumping away, and it perfectly sets up the rest of the movie. The executive of Burkett & Randle is played by Tom Wilkinson (a large departure from his tormented role in "Michael Clayton") and the executive of Equikrom is played by Paul Giamatti. Both of them are cartoon character additions who add to the frivolity of the entire ordeal, especially in considering the product that is being kept under such life or death secrecy. And while portions of the film borderline dark screwball comedy, there is a certain level of white knuckle tension throughout.

And as would be expected from Tony Gilroy, the script oozes with sophisticated wit that works for the adult crowd. There are actually two movies to watch here: one about romantic intrigue and another about the intrigue of power. And whichever side of the story you find yourself focusing on more, both deliver in their own separate fashions. It creates for a film that could only be considered a romantic thriller that has surprises that don't end until the very final moment. Along with the excellent musical score, the movie is also great to look at thanks to cinematography from Robert Elswit who worked on "There Will Be Blood." The look and sound of this movie alone is something to savor.

This is a movie that continuously plays around with the idea of being fooled and having fun while doing it. "If I told you I loved you, would it make any difference?" Claire asks Ray. "If you told me, or if I believed you?" he responds. It's a dangerous game the two of them play, which makes it all the sexier between them. There are flashbacks to their previous encounters to further flesh out the dynamics of their relationship to find out whether it's based more on business, love, or lust. Each of the flashbacks brings us closer to the present as we continue wondering and second-guessing who is getting played or if their allegiance is actually rooted in sincerity. Such intricacies of the relationship are deftly handled by Clive Owen and Julia Roberts as they've worked together previously in "Closer." A lot of high production values seem to have gone into the making of "Duplicity," which ultimately comes off somewhat as light entertainment. It's really well-made light entertainment. At any rate, it's just great to see Julia Roberts back at it again.

Trouble the Water:
4 out of 4

"Trouble the Water" is not only a documentary about Hurricane Katrina but also a documentary about the American life and the power of kindness and humanity in the face of insurmountable devastation. This is a powerful and astonishing film that puts a face to the tragedy of Katrina beyond mere TV coverage. Real people and real lives were affected in the massive storm's aftermath, and this film presents immediate emotional response from one family, a family whose reactions encompass the entire nation.

Kimberly Roberts, a woman living in New Orleans' Ninth Ward, supplies footage from a handheld video camera before and after Katrina strikes, and most remarkably, even during. There's a tension and urgency to her eyewitness footage of the storm ravaging through her neighborhood as she and her neighbors hole themselves up in the attic as the water keeps rising around them. And it's a stroke of irony when this footage is interlaced with what TV news stations had to offer at the time. A stark contrast, indeed. In this respect, the film provides a perspective on Katrina that would otherwise never be seen, which makes viewing this documentary essential. It has the pull of great drama, except here, the drama is real life.

We follow Kimberly and her husband, Scott, as they're forced to deal with shocking government incompetence. Take this moment, for example: a Navy base is being closed down that could have been used ideally for refuge. It's a housing unit that holds beds where people could sleep with a roof over their heads, but meanwhile, the gates are locked, and people are turned away by gunpoint. And even through such, Kimberly and Scott remain positive throughout their experience and eventually head back to their hometown in New Orleans.

Some of the reactions to Katrina we see by professionals are infuriating. There's an interview with a woman who runs a hotel aimed at tourists to New Orleans. She's pleased with the fact that the tourism parts of the city are perfectly intact. And yet, we get a long take simply driving down a street of the city where there is unspeakable damage. There is no narration accompanying this shot because the scene speaks entirely for itself.

Kimberly Roberts is an aspiring rap artist, as well, who performs one of her songs for the camera. It is a moment startling in its impact and also a moment that understandably received a standing ovation at the Sundance Film Festival last January. Her lyrics strike a chord for the situation of Katrina, and her performance speaks directly to the power of the human spirit.

12th Annual East Lansing Film Festival Exclusive:
The Tower:

3 out of 4

What's so neat about "The Tower" is that it was entirely filmed in Detroit. It tells the story of a long abandoned tower in the heart of what the synopsis so slyly refers to as "a city in turmoil." Perhaps it's just me, but the commentary on Detroit I feel was a little more than subconsciously done. Even though the tower is stripped of all electrical power, there still remains a glowing light at the top of the tower that intrigues a man named Doug. He ends up investigating the tower becoming obsessed with it to the point where he ends up entering one night. His sister, Lucy, begins to worry about him when she receives a voicemail from him telling her that he's heading inside. And so, she follows him inside after having a dream that convinces her he's still alive and trapped within the tower.

This horror film is only contemporary in its storytelling in that we've all seen a story of going after somebody stepping directly into known dangers. All other aspects of the film can be considered strictly experimental from the shooting style to the astounding special effects for a lower budget feature. The way in which Lucy's journey through the nightmarish tower unfolds reminded me of a David Lynch feature, which is the highest compliment I can give. Lucy not only faces terrifying otherworldly creatures as she makes her descent, but she also faces the deepest realms of her own consciousness.

The movie does have its fair share of gore, but it's never gratuitous and works to actually create terror rather than just shock value as in contemporary horror flicks. What starts off as a psychological journey begins to take a grossly physical form with the presence of such gory manifestations within the tower, which heightens the tension throughout leading to a strangely satisfying ambiguous ending. "The Tower" is scarier than any other Hollywood horror movie in recent memory.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

In The Classroom Setting

The Class:
4 out of 4

France's submission for Best Foreign Language Film at this year's Oscars is quite possibly the most true life and honest movie you'll ever see about teaching and the high school learning experience. And this may have to do with the movie being based off an autobiographical novel by a teacher, Francois Begaudeau, who plays himself in the movie. The cast consists of a group of non-actors portraying students, a replication of Begaudeau's class, each playing characters who could very well be just themselves. Here's a film so convincing that it could be mistaken for a documentary. It plunges us in the center of this school, and we immediately become a part of it. In intimately close scenes within the classroom itself, each and every moment suggests more than it tells creating gripping entertainment. Like most French films, there's no clear-cut Hollywood ending and no real plot that emerges until about halfway through. And yet, that's exactly the point in that there sometimes are no real satisfying resolutions to be found, especially when it comes to high school. "The Class" is nothing short of perfect.

Mr. Marin (Francois Begaudeau) teaches French in an inner-city school in Paris that is diverse and acts as a mini sampling of France's culture. The school is known for having some lower-income and troublesome kids, but as we get to know them, I think that's the last word fit for describing them. It's not that these kids aren't intelligent, but more so, they're frustrated learning in a society that may not provide any opportunity for them. They're rebellious and talk back but only because they're smart enough to question. The class is full of different ethnicities of 14- and 15-year-olds, each of whom have very distinct and memorable personalities. Within Mr. Marin's class, they're attempting to learn the formal structure of French, meanwhile they're all speaking their own variation of the language full of slang. It's the irritating lessons of the imperfect subjunctive that formulates the most grief.

The key players include an Arab girl, Esmeralda, who tends to be outspoken and resentful and Souleymane, an African boy who you can tell is intelligent but just doesn't try very hard perhaps for his own personal reasons. He also gets angry easily. Then there's Wei, an Asian boy, who is extremely intelligent but has learned to keep a low profile perhaps due to his own parents' predicament. Other students within the classroom are friends, cohorts, and enemies of these students. And then there are some students who you see but never hear from. In the case of one girl, she doesn't speak up until the end of the school year in a heartbreakingly sincere moment with Mr. Marin. The real-time classroom scenes boil with exuberance, life, energy, and bits of rage. These scenes are hectically kinetic and reveal the essence of teaching, that is the back-and-forth negotiating and battling teachers have to do. Mr. Marin works moment by moment, trying to level with his students while still keeping authority, a tough balancing act that is brilliantly presented here. The revelation is in the fact that the kids are allowed to talk.

Not only the classroom scenes but also the aerial scenes of the students outside during their break reveal much of what they're going through. All of their mental frustrations are acted out here sometimes in physical contact, but more often than not, just in verbal put-downs which sometimes bleed over into the classroom. There's also faculty interaction that we eavesdrop on, and these discussions reveal not only some imperfections in the education system but also the challenging intricacies there are in dealing with the power struggle and limitations between teacher and student. Some difficult moral ground is breached upon in these conversations. Mr. Marin also has to face parent-teacher conferences where he confronts the students' real-life parents simply playing themselves, which yet again adds to the unflinching realism of it all.

Directed by Laurent Cantet, "The Class" cruises through an entire school year full of joy, laughter, pain, and turmoil in a surprisingly quick 128-minute running time. It's an ultimately unassuming film that creates great drama and intrigue out of seemingly separate and light conflicts. And yet, these are smaller incidents that fit into a larger scheme of things in focusing on the struggles of the schooling system not only in France but all parts of the world. The same issues we see here would be similar issues that crop up in a Western inner-city school. We've seen it done in American films before but never to this level of expertise. There's a closing shot of "The Class" that sums it up pretty well. What exactly remains after an entire school year of teaching and learning? What's left except for an excitement and longing for what's next to come?

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

It's Almost A Little Too Faithful

3 out of 4

There are two perspectives that can be taken when seeing "Watchmen." One is from a person who has read the graphic novel and the other is from somebody who hasn't. Both perspectives have their own pros and cons. As someone having read the novel, disappointment is inevitable and yet there is much less confusion. For the person who hasn't read the novel, disappointment is avoidable and yet confusion is inevitable as a newcomer to this sometimes bizarre dystopia. It's hard to say which perspective actually gets the better end of the deal because, in all honesty, "Watchmen" was something that, if ever translated onto the screen, must have been done absolutely right. As such an intricately-woven, dense, and visionary piece of work that made Time magazine's list of 100 best novels, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' graphic novel felt like something that would be impossible to squeeze into a movie. And yet, here we are, looking at the adaptation from director Zack Snyder ("300") that can't be considered anything less than highly ambitious. The film adaptation manages to balance the negatives of both sides of the spectrum into something rather approachable without being too disappointing to fans.

You could say there is a third perspective, as well, and that is looking at this film as stand-alone entertainment while completely ignoring its responsibility as adaptation. In that sense, "Watchmen" proves to be a notably bold departure from the superhero formula. These are superheroes put against their own will and ultimate powerlessness.

There will be non-stop nitpicking about what Snyder decided to include and cut. The thing to focus on, though, should be how much he crammed in while still keeping the running-time under three hours. The movie handles the novel's political themes, layering, images, and backstories with surprising ease. Consider the opening-credit sequence where Snyder slips in the entire backstory of the Minutemen from the 1940s and beyond with all of their downfalls in between. It's a sequence that plays out as a series of snapshots in time with Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin'" echoing in the background. It's a strong opening that's next to one of the novel's most iconic moments when the retired superhero, the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), is murdered to the sounds of Nat King Cole's "Unforgettable." Here introduces Snyder's risky yet effective choice of music throughout the film.

There are other scenes such as that, which are equally astonishing replications of pages out of the novel. These scenes may feel hermetically sealed in reverence, and yet, such is necessary in attempting to remain entirely faithful to the original images. These moments aren't forced, and the striking images hold a similar nearly lyrical quality that was found throughout the novel. As an admirer of the novel, such moments came as a warm welcome to me and even occasionally evoked chills. Snyder yet again doesn't shy away from the use of slow-motion, which he lovingly took advantage of in "300," but here it's thankfully much less gratuitous. Snyder doesn't make it all about the action sequences, either, which is not to say that they're not excellently choreographed. He allows breathing room for some actual narrative development, of which "300" was completely devoid.

After the demise of the Comedian, masked superhero-turned-vigilante Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) seethes with anger and resentment and sets his sights on finding out the conspiracy behind the Comedian's death. He believes somebody is picking off masked heroes and that he and his old friends may be next. Rorschach reads from his journal in a low, gruff voice that's a cross between Clint Eastwood and Christian Bale from "The Dark Knight." He covers his face with a white cloth covered in morphing black ink spots, and when his face is revealed, he's an even more vivid figure of torment. His former superhero colleagues include Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson) and the sexy Miss Jupiter (Malin Akerman). There's also Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), the man who used his superhero fame toward corporate ends. Lastly there is arguably the most fascinating person found in the movie, and that is Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup). He's a man who, after a scientific accident, became a radiating blue, all-powerful human being who was labeled as the keeper of United States security.

The story of Dr. Manhattan provides the basis for political commentary in the film as an exaggerated Richard Nixon leads the country during the threat of nuclear annihilation from Soviet Russia relations. Frustrated with human existence, Dr. Manhattan exiles himself to Mars where he builds himself a marvelous glass structure. All the while, Rorschach still scrounges through the alleys of Manhattan searching for answers. Eventually, the superheroes are brought back into action and things continue to unravel from there. The first half of the film builds upon elegantly implemented flashbacks that are surprisingly coherent and flow with the progression of the novel. Upon breaching the second half, however, the screenplay accelerates as if Snyder realized he had to kick things up a notch. From there, the film catapults itself headlong to its conclusion.

This brings me to the issue of the movie's ending. There is a slight alteration, and all I can ask is why? It doesn't drastically change anything thematically, but it adds to the disappointment factor in that I was looking forward to the ending, an ending I remember so vividly from the graphic novel as another one of the most iconic moments. So, I'll inquire again, why the change?

When all is considered, especially in considering all that could've gone wrong, Zack Snyder's "Watchmen" is an admirable job well done and a pretty good adaptation that definitely has its standout moments. No, it's not the graphic novel, but nobody should be expecting it to be, either. The film adaptation holds true to what it needs to and succeeds with packing in a respectable level of the intellectual complexity and dark nihilism that has made the graphic novel such a classic. The movie is also visually captivating with an exuberant amount of astounding special effects. It certainly has the look of a graphic novel with a style notably signature to Snyder, which proves fitting to the source material. But, let me say this: Obviously a lot of attention went into animating Dr. Manhattan, which, in turn, means a lot of attention must have went to animating his, ahem, manhood, as well. Presented as too big, it becomes distracting. Presented as too small, then, well, same issue arises. And what discretion was used as to how many times Dr. Manhattan would be shown from the waist-up or full-frontal? It's a legitimate question, I think.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

A Third Apatow Outing

As much as Judd Apatow has had his name slapped on many other hilarious (and not so hilarious) features in the past year, his latest movie coming out this July, "Funny People," is the first feature fully written and directed by Apatow since "Knocked Up." I'm extra excited for it. After watching the trailer, I noticed three things:

1) When did Seth Rogen lose so much weight?
2) Why does it feel like the trailer is giving too much away?
3) Unless the trailer is misleading, is this Apatow's cleanest and most touching movie yet?