Friday, April 28, 2006

United 93 - Movie Review

United 93 2006

When faced with the notion of watching a fictionalized retelling of the doomed flight of “United 93” on that infamous September morning – we had to pause and reflect. For you see, amongst the flag waving and the collar wringing surrounding the dramatization of one of the U.S.’s darkest days, there sat a lone figure named Paul Greengrass who in wanting to retell the story faced a barrage of questions.

“Was it too soon?”, “Is film meant to be entertainment or educational?”, “Why isn’t Bruce Willis playing the pilot?”, and of course our favorite Did it really happen? Honestly. Apparently you have been waiting for our reply – so here it is.

It is never too soon to examine historical events, if they are done with a sense of respect and at least a passing nod to facts. While it is true that previous films based on real events may be fictionalized gloss, this does not always have to be the case. And while the dramatic reenactment of political events are often powerful and emotional, it is usually true that filmmakers have resorted to “little white lies” in their depictions to help flesh out the characters, motivations and plotholes.

Some very fine films have been made based on actual events, from the landmark “The Battleship Potemkin”, to “The Battle of Algiers”, “All the President’s Men”, “Missing”, “A World Apart” to last year’s “Munich”. Some films, like the infamous “JFK” have managed to entertain the public and charm the critics while simultaneously infuriating the fact checkers and armchair historians.

In this age of documentary fever, we are fully aware that even a film labeled as non-fiction can hedge the facts in order to hit home the dramatic moments, so we actually applaud the filmmakers of “United 93” for attempting a dramatic recreation of the fourth plane hijacked on September 11, 2001. As we all know by now, the other three planes wrought devastation and terror on an unsuspecting public. For many, that morning is transfixed in their memory with the famous visuals of the second plane to hit the World Trade Center. By focusing on the fourth plane to be taken down by terrorists, the filmmakers are attempting to recreate this tragically bleak moment in time in the human terms of the heroic attempts by the passengers to regain control of the plane.

Writer / Director Paul Greengrass who is most well known stateside for his strong handling of the second film in the spy action franchise “The Bourne Supremacy” starring our future husband Matt Damon, has seemingly gone the extra mile in attending to the honest and straightforward portrayal of this politically charged drama. Casting the roles with little known character actors and in some cases the actual participants – he created a film that is a rare hybrid of fact and fiction.

Now, some have raised the issue as to what audience this film is aimed at. Who in their right mind would want to see this tragic moment reenacted before our helpless eyes? It is attempting to appeal to voyeurs? We find this line of thinking to be hilariously hypocritical. Expanding on Jean-Luc Godard’s famous aphorism describing the nature of cinema: “All you need for a movie is a gun and a girl.” We ask this question in return: “How many scenes of death and violence have you watched in your moviegoing lifetime?” Arriving in cinemas in the same season as a third “Mission: Impossible III” and the remake of “Poseidon” – “United 93” may be based on a particularly rough piece of history, but it certainly does not change the landscape of movie violence as we know it. If anything, it manages to depict violence and terror in purely human terms that makes the emotion not only believable, but truly cathartic to watch.

We think the larger question is what exactly do you think film is? It has always walked the fine line between fact and fiction. From the very dawn of moviemaking, the creators involved have attempted to illicit emotional reactions by portraying events that appeal to our most base qualities. We go to the movies to be entertained, shocked, regaled, tempted, and beguiled or in most cases bored to tears. While this film may be many things, it is not boring.

The scenario takes an omniscient point of view by focusing its camera on the cabin crew, passengers, air traffic controllers and military personnel who are slowly drawn into the horrifying realization that United flight 93 has been hijacked to act as a guided missile to some undisclosed political target. Despite our knowing the final outcome, we find ourselves becoming more engrossed in the proceedings. Credit the strength of Paul Greengrass’ blessedly restrained pen for not demonizing the terrorists out of proportion and for avoiding “Rambo” like heroics from the passengers. Either lesser approach would have sunk this flick.

This is not a film about dramatic performances, or heroic actions per se. It is a film concerning the way we react under the direst circumstances. Some of the people involved where heroic, some were concerned, most confused and some were possessed by a fervor undreamt of to many Americans at the time. The performances are uniformly fine, with one or two exceptions from the real life participants who recreate their roles as confused air traffic controllers, et al. Clearly they are not looking for a future with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and ultimately that is not necessary. We understand the need to pay homage and to compress believability into reality. And ultimately it works.

The main focus for many people will be the doomed passengers and crew aboard the plane. The casting here shines through. Our future husband Cheyenne Jackson portrays the out and proud Rugby player (although there is no mention of his sexuality in the script), who helps provide the muscle in the final scuttle.

Christian Clemenson as Thomas Burnett and David Alan Basche as Todd Beamer provide able support, in particular with their un-Movie Star looks.

As one of the hijackers, Khalid Abdalla is perhaps the most noteworthy of the cast. His ability to handle and modulate the mounting hysteria necessary to pull off the crime is the central dramatic thrust of the entire film. For in waiting to attack the crew of the plane, the initial hesitation by the hijackers provides the passengers with enough time prior to reaching their target to begin to form their plan.

When the attempted overthrow occurs, it is not one typically seen in Hollywood action flicks. It is brutal, panicked, bloody and hectic. The final moments of a desperate bid to enter the cockpit and resume control form the hijackers is the visual definition of on your seat tension. If we had to pick one defining moment of the film’s ultimate success, it would be the visual of various hands struggling to regain control of the death spiraling plane.

There will certainly be moments to quibble with. The film opens and ends with the sound of prayers. From the Salah to the 23rd Psalm – there is no escaping the implied parallels between Islam and Christianity. We appreciate that Mr. Greengrass attempted to use this motif as a dramatic leverage, but still question its ultimate success. Then again, to ignore the religious aspect to the historical moment might have been too gloss over the reality of the conflict. Time will tell, we suppose.

We may always wonder what actually happened aboard United flight # 93, but by staying grounded in his storytelling capabilities – writer / director Paul Greengrass has created a film that pays tribute to all the lives affected by the events of September 11, 2001.

Bless you all!

Written & Directed by Paul Greengrass

Cheyenne Jackson as Mark Bingham
David Alan Basche as Todd Beamer
Christian Clemenson as Thomas E. Burnett, Jr.
Trish Gates as Sandra Bradshaw
Peter Hermann as Jeremy Glick
JJ Johnson as Captain Jason M. Dahl
Gary Commock as First Officer LeRoy Homer
Denny Dillon as Colleen Fraser
Ben Sliney as Himself
Khalid Abdalla as Ziad Jarrah
Lewis Alsamari as Saeed Al Ghamdi
Omar Berdouni as Ahmed Al Haznawi
Jaime Harding as Ahmed Al Nami

Cinematography by Barry Ackroyd
Film Editing by Clare Douglas, Richard Pearson & Christopher Rouse
Production Design by Dominic Watkins
Art Direction by Romek Delmata & Joanna Foley
Costume Design by Lorraine Carson, Dinah Collin & Liz McGarrity
Original Music by John Powell

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Zui hao de shi guang / (Three Times) - Movie Review

Zui hao de shi guang / (Three Times) 2005

“Rain and tears
both I shun
for in my heart there’ll never be a sun”
Aphrodite’s Child

One of the most difficult emotions to capture honestly on film is love. What? But what about all those romantic comedies, dramas, epics, etc? Yes, well, when was the last time you went to any film labeled “romantic” and genuinely felt that the two characters were in love? Besides those cowboys. Almost never, in our expert opinion. Which is why there is great reason to cheer with the U.S. debut of the international critic’s darling “Three Times” by Taiwanese auteur Hou Hsiao-hsien. Hsiao-hsien, a favorite of the Cannes Film Festival where most of his films seem to perennially be up for the Palme D’or, when they are not actually copping the grand honor returns with a movie that examines the courtship ritual surrounding two lovers. Or six. Depends on your point of view.

The trick up his crafty little sleeve is that he has imagined three separate couples throughout the past century and opted to cast the same two actors as the leads in each separate storyline. The film begins in 1966, with a stunning dance around love; continues backwards into 1911 with a look at a star crossed duo and finally ends up in the present day with a feisty young pair of lovers. The time traveling sets of lovers are portrayed flawlessly by Shu Qi and Chang Chen.

A Time for Love” is the title of the opening act set in and around a local billiards parlor within the industrial landscape of Kaohsiung City. We meet Chen, a young soldier who spends his free time shooting pool with his eye firmly on the young hostess in charge. When his favorite gal departs for a different billiards parlor, his lingering gaze falls upon her replacement, the gorgeous young May. (Seriously, May is played by the stupefyingly gorgeous Shu Qi! What a looker! And those outfits she wears! Tasteful yet kicky. Love!) Soon, they are circling each other in one of the most ravishing and tender depictions of young love we have ever seen depicted on the silver screen.

Hou Hsiao-hsien establishes a tone and pace for the first film that can best be described as that first blush of romance. The camera lingers, never calling undue attention to itself as it flows throughout the scenes. His color palette is filled with the bold patterns and rich colors of mid-60s design elements set against the urban grit of a crowded cityscape. This is not a film that dwells on action, complicated plots or intricate dialogue. It is a film that attempts to explore the emotions surrounding romantic love through its tonality, pacing, ravishing visuals, sound (particularly in its careful selection of music) and the chemistry between its talented young leads.

When Chen and May exchange their first few looks, we feel it right down to our bones. As the edge closer and closer to each others hearts, we were held enraptured in their glow. The first part of the trilogy of films that comprises “Three Times” may be one of the most powerful depictions of love we have ever seen. It was pure bliss from playful start to wistful finish.

A Time for Freedom”, the second act of the film set in 1911 during the Japanese occupation of Taiwan is the most stylistically daring of the pieces. Taking a cue from its timeframe and his apparent love for cinema, Hsiao-hsien opted to play the piece as a Silent Film! Cheeky devil. It tells the tale of a young courtesan whose friendship with a married diplomat turns to love over the course of their conversations. His sense of pride, respect and honor forbid him confusing his need to satisfy his lust with engendering love. Which is just what the young courtesan needs most from a seemingly caring man who has captured her heart completely. But, as is the case in their time and place they must never reveal their deepest emotions knowing full well it can never become a reality.

And finally, “A Time for Youth” set in present day Taiwan2005. We find our time traveling actors portraying two outwardly brash and emotionally stifled young hipsters who careen through the streets of the city on a speeding motorcycle. Their romance, if you can call it that echoes their outwardly careless nature. Jing lives a freewheeling lifestyle and sexuality incorporating her emotionally clinging girlfriend and her bracingly cool boyfriend who vie for her affections. Their love affair – not quite doomed but certainly not flourishing is played against the cool color palette of a neon glow. They express more emotion via text message conversations than they do in person.

While this film dances around the various aspects of love, it absolutely blindsided us with its complex range of emotions. The tender fear of intimacy that the young couple feels in 1966 as they begin to feel each other out is the starting point for the second act. When we meet the Silent Lovers of 1911, we discover two people who are too intelligent and mature to play any adolescent charades as they explore their relationship. When the time tossed duo has reached the present day, any sense of flushed timidity or respectful adoration has been replaced by tactless mind games and animal urges.

While a case may be made that the director is implying we have lost our sense of romance over the years and replaced it with pure lust, we think the real glory of this wonderful movie is how Hsiao-hsien manages to incorporate all the emotional ranges within each storyline. The young soldier in Act One is hardly noble in his fluid ability to replace one lovely young lass for another.

The courtesan and client in Act Two understand too well the societal framework for their relationship and dare not cross its boundaries. The two hipsters in Act Three may seem shallow in their inability to communicate on any level besides sexual if it weren’t for the genuine emotion they obviously battle to express and suppress.

What Hsiao-hsien has done is to paint three involving, visually intoxicating and emotionally honest portrayals of the many facets of love. We have never felt so in love with the possibility of young love and the pure spirit of moviemaking in quite awhile. If the film seems to linger too long in places – each act is roughly forty minutes long – it more than compensates by the power of its storytelling. Some of the images are so gorgeous and so heartfelt in their connectedness to the central characters emotions; we can forgive the slight excess. We would gladly have sat through one more scenario all for the glory of bathing in the opening and closing shots that capture this beautiful films essence. One of the loveliest films about love we have ever seen. Bless you all!

Directed by Hou Hsiao Hsien
Written by Chu T’ien-wen

Shu Qi as May / Courtesan / Jing
Chang Chen as Chen / Mr. Chang / Zhen
Mei-fang as Old Woman
Liao Su-Jen as Madam / Jing’s mother
Di-Mei as May’s mother / Madam
Chen Shih-shan as Haruko / Ah Mei
Lee Pei-hsuan as Hostess / Micky

Cinematography by Mark Lee Ping-Bin
Film Editing by Liao Ching-Song
Costume Design by Wang Kian-Yi (Stylist 1911), Tsai Yi-Tsen (1966), Wu Mei-Hui (2005) and Tan Hsin-Wem
Production Design by Hwamg Wem-Ying
Art Direction by Wang Chih-Liang


Friday, April 14, 2006

Hard Candy - Movie Review

Hard Candy 2006

Maybe I’ll meet someone
And make him mine
Me, I’ll be just
Fine and dandy
Lord it's like a hard candy Christmas
I'm barely getting through tomorrow
But still I won't let
Sorrow bring me way down
”- from “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas

Hard Candy” details an encounter between a handsome charming thirtysomething year old single man and a spunky fourteen year old girl. Now if this were set in Kentucky, you might think it’s just another romantic comedy. It isn’t. For you see the fourteen year old girl has a bit of an agenda if you will, on her mind. She is out to snare herself a real life chat room stalking pedophile, hold him hostage for a bit, snip off his manhood and toss him to the curb. And who can’t relate to that scenario. If we had a dime for every date that ended up with bondage, threats to our mortality and shame – we’d be billionaires.

The script is by Brian Nelson and the direction is by David Slade. We think Mr. Slade should be commended for attempting his best to make the experience a cinematic one, filling the screen with saturated color, carefully arranged set ups and dizzying camerawork. Mr. Nelson needs to attend a writers seminar post haste or get out of the house more. While the set up might have been interesting for a half hour NC-17 episode of “The Twilight Zone”, it can barely sustain an hour and a half movie. What does sustain the mood, anxiety and shrillness throughout are the two central performances, up to a point.

Patrick Wilson is the Broadway heartthrob who racked up two Tony Award nominations for his prancing and strutting, moved on to the glorious HBO mini-series adaptation of Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America and attempted to conquer the screen with lead turns in the little seen “The Alamo” and the excruciatingly shrill film version of the Broadway warhorse “The Phantom of the Opera”. Here he is allowed to cut loose the reins and tackle head on every emotion known to man. His performance is not only spot on, it is unabashedly raw and manages to hit all the right notes in a screenplay that is all too often off-key.

Ellen Page as the prepubescent terrorist comes mighty close to a star making turn in her gutsy and vitriolic portrayal. All of seventeen when she filmed the part, she is to be commended for her “beyond-her-years” approach to the role. While we think her passion and technique are without question, she lacks that indefinable extra spark that sets a great actress apart from a solid working actress. The notes are there. The music is not.

And the very talented Sandra Oh turns up briefly to portray a slightly nosy neighbor who may or may not know more than she unveils. An Asian Junior League Gladys Kravitz, if you will. Although, after her scene was over we were left with the feeling that she was only there to provide a moments respite from the central action and ultimately useless to the dramatic flow. Still, nice to see you Sandy!

With the strong performance by Patrick Wilson as Jeff, and the lesser but still impressive turn by Ellen Page as Hayley we had to wonder where the film went wrong. And to this end, we must fall back on our dislike of the scenario and the all too technical focus from the director.

Director David Slade’s visual stylings clearly reflect his music video background. The man does not like to stand still for over two seconds. And while this may have been a logical choice with such a claustrophobic setting as the “victim’s” apartment which dominates the film, it is ultimately too choppy and jostling to inspire the desired sense of dread or terror. If we are too believe that the character of Jeff feels completely trapped in his own home by this wickedly smart and feral young girl, we should not be distracted by the crazed swinging arcs and lighting fast editing moves that continually suggest freedom of movement and vast space. In other words. Hold the fucking camera still for a few minutes, will ya?

As for the screenplay, we understand full well that the nature of online dating and chat rooms have opened up a veritable wolf’s den of pervs out there upon an unsuspecting populace. But if we are to believe some of the more melodramatic moments of the film, it would have been more powerful and commanding to restrict the unbelievable subplots. Although we did enjoy some of the spicy dialogue which landed some well aimed barbs at the current fad of online dating. And whoever is to blame for the horrifically bad visual metaphor of the “Little Red Riding Hood” moment towards the end, should be taken to a lonely shack in the sticks and beaten to death.

There do remain some powerful moments in the film, but we cannot help but think they stem from a very basic human fear of evisceration rather than strong writing and directing. Who would not wince when threatened with a scalpel wielding fourteen year old lecturing you on your sexual proclivities while holding your balls in a vice. And while the notion of a seemingly defenseless young girl being able to physically and mentally turn the tables on a potential predator may seem noble or even heroic in a better screenplay – the underlying manipulations and schemes of Hayley’s are far too contrived to be believed. She sadly emerges to be less and less of a vigilante / heroine and more and more of a “B Horror Movie” mustache twirling ogre who is one “Bwa-ha-ha” knife waving moment away from camp.

And so kids, we must leave you with this morality tale – since clearly this film will not. Patrick Wilson, good. Online sexual predators, bad. Bless you all!

Directed by David Slade
Written by Brian Nelson

Patrick Wilson as Jeff Kohlver
Ellen Page as Hayley Stark
Sandra Oh as Judy Tokuda

Cinematography by Jo Willems
Film Editing by Art Jones
Original Music by Harry Escott & Molly Nyman
Costume Design by Jennifer Johnson
Production Design by Jeremy Reed
Art Direction by Felicity Nove
Set Decoration by Kathryn Holliday

The Notorious Bettie Page - Movie Review

The Notorious Bettie Page 2006

The near impossible has happened, we actually enjoyed a film featuring a lead performance by Gretchen Mol. Now, for those of you who have no idea who Gretchen Mol is, we can hardly blame you. Since the infamous publicity blitz that helped to prematurely launch her career back in 1998Miss Mol has fallen far short of the alleged “It Girl” dreams. We might have felt sorry for the poor bint, if it weren’t for the simple fact that nothing she ever did excited us. And while we enjoyed aspects of “Rounders”, “Celebrity” or “Cradle Will Rock” – they certainly were not on account of her presence. Perhaps the best film in her repertoire was Woody Allen’s lovely comic fable based on a fictional jazz musician “Sweet & Lowdown” – although the brief scene involving our heroine of the day was hardly setting the screen on fire.

Turns out that Miss Mol is a talented actress, perhaps not the next Greta Garbo or Meryl Streep, but certainly capable of delivering a solid performance. And with the new biopic concerning the life of “The Notorious Bettie Page”, she finally begins to deliver on the over pitched buildup she garnered years ago. (Cautionary note to young starlets everywhere, just because your manager and publicist blow a junior editor or two to land you the cover to a national distributed rag – doesn’t mean you will have a career.)

Back to our biopic. As many a perv will tell you, Bettie Page was the ultimate “Pin-up Girl” of the post war years. Her perky talents and saucy charisma helped to pitch many a tents among the nation’s loneliest bachelors and degenerates. And when the theme of the photo shoot became slightly risqué or a tad blue – she was apparently game enough to grab the whip and slap on the ballgag. And honestly, we applaud that gumption. Unfortunately for our heroine, the nation’s leaders held a different viewpoint on pin ups and their place in society. Before you could scream “Uptight cunt!” – the conservative government censors began to officially probe into the sweaty underbelly of the innocuous pin up. (Turns out they were more concerned with the fear that the fictional Batman might be donkey punching his underage ward, Robin on cold nights in the Batcave. But that’s another story.)

As the 1950s progressed, the dawn of the “Playboy” era was just beginning, allowing our heroine a place in their immortal lineage of tits and ass. But our gal Bettie was not to reign for long as the most famed of pin-up girls. Soon she would retire and remove herself from the public eye to lead a very reserved life. In short, she fell off the face of the celebrity map and much like the aforementioned Garbo who walked away from her own legendary status at the tender age of thirty six; her fame grew exponentially larger the more she remained hidden away. But did Bettie Page deserve all the attention given to her?

Director Mary Harron and her co-screenwriter Guinevere Turner had been itching to portray our gal Bettie, for a few years now. At one time, the lovely and talented Miss Turner was set herself to essay the lead. But while time and financial backing may have placed the kibosh on those daydreams, they have produced a tightly written and entertaining biopic on the less than perfect life of Miss Page. One of the many things we enjoyed about “The Notorious Bettie Page” was the heavy use of vintage cityscapes and atmospheric stock footage dropped into the storyline. For in tracing the rise and slow fade out of Bettie, we are taken across various vistas from Nashville to New York City to Miami from the Depression to the late 1950s.

While the real Bettie Page has taken on the status of mythology over the years, we were surprised how textbook biopic fodder her real life was. Part of a large Midwestern brood, a child of divorce and a young victim of abuse her dreams of stardom led her down a path that has chewed up many a young girl in search of fame. Certainly there have been hundreds of thousands of pretty young things that posed for cheesecake shots over the decades, but Bettie Page has emerged as the most famous of them all. After all, she is known primarily as an iconic vision of the post war era. While it is true that she filmed some grainy homemade fetish stag films, the public at large knows her for her trademark bangs and perky breasts.

What remains curious about her tale is the brevity of her contemporary fame and the gradual manipulation of her image to incorporate such lofty ideals as feminism, the sexual revolution and brand marketing. Bettie Page has become an industry over the past sixty years, and it all started with a young woman hoping to escape her tattered past.

In many ways, Gretchen Mol is the perfect choice to eschew the lead role. She too has been saddled with a notorious past and dreams of stardom. Her transmogrification into the mid-century masturbatory fantasy is complete. Not the least for her ability to incorporate a free wheeling sense of sexuality while maintaining a believable innocence. We never question her naiveté, for the director and screenwriter tackle it head on. Bettie may be ignorant of some less than worldly views, but she is perfectly game to learn and master the ability to brandish a whip and slap on the thigh-high-lace-up-boots when necessary. (Pay attention girls, this could come in handy in life. Trust us.)

When the world around her begins to act in shock and dismay to Bettie’s daily craft, she is mystified at the uproar. As far as she’s concerned they were merely harmless pics made for discerning clients. Any perverse qualities attached to the act seem to reflect more on the voyeur than the model, in her opinion. Perhaps Bettie Page was indeed the progenitor for a more fluid sexuality that would be embraced by future generations. Or perhaps she was just a dumb slut who avoided the nine-to-five desk-job doldrums by shaking her moneymaker. Either way, the film seems to present our heroine as a simple lass who let history mold her, instead of taking the lead.

Supported by a cornucopia of acting talent from film, television and the Great White Way – notably indy fave Lili Taylor as a photographer / mentor and David Strathairn portraying a crusading senator (Nice flip flop on his Oscar nominated role of last year.) – Gretchen Mol finally begins to emerge as an actress in her own right. We disagree with the notion that this is a “comeback”, since she never actually arrived to begin with.

Let’s just be happy that Gretchen is up to the job handed to her in such a succinct and well made package by Mary Harron and Guinevere Turner. While this may not be a spectacular or epic biopic on par with the best, it remains an entertaining stroll down one of pop history’s steamier sidestreets. Bless you all!

Directed by Mary Harron
Written by Mary Harron & Guinevere Turner

Gretchen Mol as Bettie Page
Chris Bauer as Irving Klaw
Lili Taylor as Paula Klaw
Jared Harris as John Willie
Sarah Paulson as Bunny Yeager
Cara Seymour as Maxie
David Strathairn as Estes Kefauver
John Cullum as Preacher in Nashville
Matt McGrath as Nervous Man
Austin Pendleton as Teacher
Norman Reedus as Billy Neal
Dallas Roberts as Scotty
Kohl Sudduth as Police Officer

Cinematography by Mott Hupfel
Film Editing by Tricia Cooke
Costume Design by John A. Dunn
Original Music by Mark Suozzo
Production Design by Gideon Ponte
Art Direction by Thomas Ambrose
Set Decoration by Alexandra Mazur