IMDb member since January 2006
    Lifetime Total
    IMDb Member
    17 years


Me and Orson Welles

Great portrayal of Welles in a charming film
Considering the fanatic cult following that Richard Linklater has developed with films like Waking Life, Before Sunrise/Sunset, and A Scanner Darkly, let me preface this review by saying that I'm not a Linklater devotee. If Linklater is endowed with a species of genius, I must confess complete ignorance to it. Indeed, my favorite Linklater film was School of Rock, and he has always impressed me more by the breadth of his work and his willingness to challenge the conventions of film than by any individual film. It's perhaps this maverick spirit that drew him to do a film about Orson Welles.

Me and Orson Welles, based on a novel by Robert Kaplow, tells the story of a teenager, Richard Samuels (Zac Efron), who is swept from learning about Shakespeare in the classroom to the fast paced world of the Mercury Theater on Broadway when he lands a role in Orson Welles famous 1937 production of Caesar. As Orson Welles struggles to get the production ready for the premier, Richard falls for the theater's resident hottie, a charming and ambitious aspiring actress played by Claire Daines, and finds himself growing up quickly to the realities of show business and the real world.

The movie is entirely carried by it's acting, and the actor generating the most buzz is the British born Christian McKay who plays Welles. I'm very uneasy about praising portrayals of real life figures, because it seems any time an actor plays any historical figure (from Gandhi to Capote and Idi Amin) they receive excessive attention. I think it has less to do with the "acting" involved than it has to do with the fact that most audiences feel much more comfortable passing judgment (and bestowing praise) on mimicry than actual acting. That said, McKay does a masterful job in capturing that mythical image of a young Orson Welles that all of us film geeks have in our head, from the striking resemblance in appearance to the pitch perfect intonations in his voice. Welles is charming and maddening, endearing and brutal, and always larger than life... and McKay captures it all perfectly. It's clearly a role that McKay has been mastering for a long time, as he was doing a one-man-show about Welles on Broadway before being snatched for the role in Me and Orson Welles. From the Q&A session (at the Toronto international film festival), McKay seemed intelligent and passionate about his work, and I truly hope he doesn't get pigeon-holed into spoofing Welles for his entire career.

Unfortunately the other acting foot that the movie stands on, isn't nearly as good. Zac Efron is just so pretty (and I say this as a heterosexual male) that it becomes distracting. Watching Efron act, it feels like he's trying to make women orgasm in every scene he's in, which works well in enough in the many scenes he's trying to court Claire Daines's character, but doesn't work in any other scene. Efron's acting makes it hard for the audience to emotionally connect and prevents the movie from achieving the emotional punch it might otherwise. The audience is never drawn in and they remain spectators, which, fortunately, isn't such a bad thing since the movie is so fun and nostalgically charming. Perhaps even the flighty and ethereal feeling the film gets because of it's lack of punch can be forgiven, since it's a movie about youth and growing up and so much of that involves tempestuous passions that end up being quite meaningless in retrospect.



In the finest tradition of Tarkovsky
Much unhappiness has come into the world because of bewilderment and things left unsaid. -- Fyodor Dostoevsky

This second feature film from Russian director Andrei Zvyagintsev had a lot to live up to considering how great his 2003 debut, The Return, was. I was really a bit skeptical going in because the advanced reviews had been mixed, and I really didn't know how a director who had made such brilliant use of the Russian landscape as almost a perpetually menacing character in its own right, would handle what sounded like a very indoor domestic drama. Boy was I wrong to doubt. Zvyagintsev and cinematographer Mikhail Krichman find an abundance of interesting things to shoot, from drab constantly overcast soviet-era industrial cities to old decaying farmsteads. I love the way these two frame and light almost every shot and the slow stalking way the camera pans and moves is almost deliberately predatory. I'd probably be mesmerized if these two shot nothing but landscapes and people for two hours with no plot whatsoever, which, to be fair, is what the movie feels like at times, considering how minimal and terse the typically Russian script is. The story revolves around a man (played by Konstantin Lavronenko who also starred in the Return), who moves his wife and two young children from the city to his father's old farm in the country where he expects better prospects for work. While in the country his wife reveals something that threatens to tear the family apart. Like the Return, the Banishment is about the tragic consequences of the failure of individuals to make emotional contact, communicate, and ultimately understand each other. Unfortunately the final denouement, which unravels through a few too many twists for a story this simple and sparse, is really unsatisfying because it strips all the characters of any last shred of sympathy, leaving the audience almost indifferent towards them. Still, this was so brilliantly photographed and paced that I couldn't help but enjoy every shot.


Painful to watch
Ulzhan (2007) Ulzhan is just about the worst type of trash that one runs into at film festivals. Ostensibly the story is about a French teacher who mysteriously stops his car on the side of a highway in the middle of Kazakhastan and starts walking East into the steppes. Despite being grounded in a very unassuming and naturalistic performance by Philippe Torreton and set against the very real backdrop of modern Kazakhastan, the film exists in a world of dream logic. Much of the dialog is alternatively poetic or lunatic and the relationships between French teacher and the two guides he picks up are only understandable on subconscious symbolic level, as in dreams.

At a symbolic level, the film appears to be about European involvement with the eastern world. The film takes place in the steppes of central Eurasia, the very border of the occidental and oriental worlds. Throughout the film we're consciously reminded of the cultural ('living in zoo vs. living in the jungle'), economic (international oil drilling), and environmental (aral sea, nuclear testing sites) impacts of occidental involvement in the orient. Unfortunately a lot of the comment seems to be overtly racist. The French man in many ways seems to represent the Occidental world in it's relationship with the oriental world. He is racked with self doubt, and existential concerns over his presence and purpose, which he describes as a search for 'treasure', but seems to be a desire for self-destruction. Despite his wish to remain uninvolved with anyone while on his search, a young local Kazakhastani woman, Ulzhan, who herself works as a French teacher insists on leaving everything to follow the French man and serve him as a slave (oh, the white man's burden). The comment seems to be that as much as Europeans/Americans may desire to remain uninvolved in the oriental worlds they invade for resources (etc.) they will find themselves playing the unwanted role of master to the oriental, even if they had not intended it. The film ends on the note of the oriental slave being the only one that can save the Europe from itself. Needless to say, a Toronto audience wasn't particularly impressed with the message. The film didn't receive a single clap at its conclusion, which is the first time I've seen that at any festival movie.

Dr. Plonk

Dr. Plonk ain't no Chaplin
Dr. Plonk is a silent black and white comedy along the lines of Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin films. The story follows Dr. Plonk and his lazy drunken assistant Paulus, who in 1907 discover the world is going to end in the year 2008 and travel to the future to bring back proof when nobody believes them. For authenticity the film was shot with a hand crank camera using traditional techniques like under-cranking for the filming of chase sequences. While the film is entertaining, and features some fine acting (though the dog really steals the show in this department), what the film does most is remind everyone about how great and inimitable the masters like Keaton and Chaplin were. As an example, given a plot that brings a character from the year 1907 into the future to the year 2007, you'd think there would be some clever and unforgettable visual gags they could pull, poking fun at the absurdity of modern life. Instead, Plonk teleports into the future into such humdrum environments like abandoned warehouses and railway yards where the main gag is rather unimaginative Keystone cops type chase sequences. All in all it feels very much like a film school project, with a lot of homage to classic films, and very little genuine creativity.

Into the Wild

Lots of heart
Into the wild is based on the true story of Christopher McCandless who after graduating college from a well to do family, donated his life savings to charity, left all his possessions, and without telling anyone set off with dreams of roughing it in the wilds of Alaska. After two years of criss-crossing through America and running into a host of interesting characters, he finally managed to hitch-hike to Alaska, where four months after his arrival his decomposing corpse was discovered by moose hunters. He had starved to death, apparently as a result of eating a poisonous variety of seed. It's a simple, but very compelling tale.

While director Sean Penn's treatment is full of heart, the movie is almost sunk early by sheer melodrama, especially in the voice overs given to Jena Malone who plays Carine McCandless, Christopher's sister. It almost seems as if at times Penn is trying to make a messianic figure out of the young McCandless, depicting him wiser than his years, healing the broken lives of those he comes across. It would have been better to just humanize McCandless and have the faith that by those standards he would measure well enough. Once the movie progresses past the family back-story, told in regrettable voice over, the movie picks up. The portrait of McCandless that emerges once he gets some more speaking time is actually quite detailed capturing everything from his bookish idealism and his obstinate wanderlust, to his love of beauty and pure joy in the experience of life. A lot of this has to do with the wonderful performance by Emile Hirsch, who gives just the type of performance that only an actor-director is able to get from their actors. Unfortunately, the movie runs far too long, because of some indulgent editing, and loses a lot of its force because of it.

While I have a lot of reservations about the film, one thing you can't take away from it is that Penn has managed to create an impassioned portrait of a fascinating young man.

Encounters at the End of the World

Antarctica as only Herzog could deliver it...
When you go into a documentary about Antarctica by Werner Herzog, you can't at all be certain about what you're going to get, though you can be pretty sure that whatever it is, it's not going to be about cute penguins. It turns out that Herzog was invited to stay in McMurdo Station as a resident artist along with a camera man, and this documentary for Discovery Films was what came out of that visit. With characteristic eccentricity, what captures the most attention in Herzog's lens is not the pristine landscape or wildlife, but the rather mundane sight of the, albeit colorful, people who work and live in Antarctica. As one of the people Herzog interviews puts it, it's like all of the interesting people who cut themselves loose from conventional life eventually fall down and meet here at the bottom of the world. Here we meet unforgettable characters like the philosopher truck driver, the lady who traveled through south America in a sewage pipe, and even a descendant of Aztec royalty. Their anecdotes and the narration will keep you in stitches. This isn't to say that Herzog doesn't take in the local sights and sounds. We're taken under the ocean into underwater 'cathedrals', we hear the psychedelic sounds of mating seals, we see a live volcano and even catch a penguin or two. However, the narration remains light and funny, and the true focus always remains on the human inhabitants. Don't expect a grand message about conservation or anything else, indeed Herzog's view of mankind seems to be very fatalistic. I think as long as there are interesting human beings doing interesting things, Herzog will be happy ... and busy.


A documentary would have been better...
This film follows two young brothers of the indigenous Tarahumara people of north west Mexico, who are asked to deliver medicine to a nearby town by their grandfather. The boys take their grandfather's horse without permission and end up losing it and each other during their search for the horse. The entire movie was shot on a budget of about $400,000 and all the parts were played by indigenous non-actors. I was hoping this would stand out as a charming example of back to basics story telling, in contrast to the Hollywood system of keeping your attention with gratuitous sex, violence, and special effects. To some degree it did, but ultimately the acting was so bad (and I feel terrible saying this, but it's true) that it was hard to stay in the story. To sell this story the audience really needs to believe and like these two brothers. The fact that the kids weren't trained actors, or even given a script to work off, meant that they took a lot of time deciding what to say, giving their on-screen relationships a very disconnected feel. I appreciate what directors Israel Cárdenas and Laura Amelia Guzmán tried to do with this film for the Tarahumara, and they seemed like genuinely nice people, but this film just didn't do it for me. The most interesting facets of the film were the details about how these people live and I can't help but feel maybe they should have just made a documentary.

My Winnipeg

Funny enough to make Winnipeg seem charming
Guy Maddin described My Winnipeg as 'docutasia' and that's probably more accurate than any other description I could give of it. The film is a very personal, light-hearted, but informative, look at Winnipeg through the eyes of her native son Guy Maddin. The film is shot in black and white, combining stock archival footage (including private home videos) with some new freshly shot material. The film follows a young Guy Maddin (played by Darcy Fehr) on a train trying to escape from 'sleepy, snowing, Winnipeg' and its mystic pull. To affect his escape Maddin must, through the course of the film, come to terms with everything that binds him to the city (family, home, community, and history). Held together by the barest narrative thread, the film is most like Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, though being Canadian it's much funnier and self-deprecating. The film is narrated by Guy Maddin himself, and despite the fact that he seemed to have many reservations about using his own voice, he does a great job (ranging from the fiery sermon of charged propagandist to the soft relaxing repetition of an experienced hypnotist). Made for the documentary channel, with a TV audience in mind, the film is accessible enough for anyone and funny enough to make even Winnipeg charming. While I don't know if it's feature film material, definitely watch if you can catch it on the tube.

No Country for Old Men

Coen brothers a perfect match for McCarthy's No Country for Old Men
This is the one movie that I allowed myself to go into with ridiculously high expectations. The reason was, that the source material, Cormac McCarthy's novel of the same name, was so perfectly suited to cinematic translation, and more specifically, to a cinematic translation at the hands of the Coen brothers. The novel was packed with a great cast of characters, a deliciously dark sense of humor, and set against the backdrop of the vast desert vistas and small towns of the American south. With stuff like this, I thought there was no way the Coen brothers could possibly go wrong, and I was right. The plot follows Lewellen Moss (Josh Brolin) who, while out hunting, discovers a stash of $2 million dollars in a drug deal gone wrong. Without fully understanding the consequences of taking the money Moss, something of a cross between average blue-collar Joe and resourceful survivalist, is thrust into a world of very dangerous men who will stop at nothing to get the money back. The brutal hunt is played against small town Sheriff Ed Tom Bell's (Tommy Lee Jones)own attempts to find and help Moss before it is too late. Cormac McCarthy, who is the premier chronicler of the loss of the American west, is here telling the story of the loss of small town America through the eyes of the over-matched Sheriff Bell who has a hard time coming to terms with the boldness and brutality of this new generation of outlaws. Figures like Anton Chigurh, who draws his victims into discussions about causality before having them flip a coin to decide their fate.

It's hard to comment on the film, because it's such a direct translation of the book, but I do have some complaints about the casting decisions. Chigurh, who is such a larger-than-life, terrifying, and seductive figure in the book really needed to be played by someone with more presence (I personally think Benicio Del Toro would have been perfect). While Javier Bardem does an okay job, he plays Chigurh too much as a pure psychopath and the biggest thing about his performance is his distracting hair cut (what was up with that?). Tommy Lee Jones also seemed a bit out of place in his role. Too often a leading man, it seemed impossible for him to play a thoroughly beaten old man who knows his limitations to draw the type of sympathy the part demanded.

Quibbles aside, the movie is propelled by its plot, and it's definitely a fun ride. Anyone that knows McCarthy's work knows they aren't going to a get a conventional feel good Hollywood fairytale, because McCarthy understands only too well that the world is a hard and pitiless place, and this ain't no country for old men.

4 luni, 3 saptamâni si 2 zile

Raw, Honest, Powerful and Pointless?
This second effort from Romanian film maker Cristian Mungiu was the surprise winner of the Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes film festival. Like last year's winner, the Wind that Shakes the Barley, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is a serious film that uses gritty realism to tackle a politically charged hot button issue. The film, set during the last years of the communist regime in Romania, follows a female university student as she helps her friend get an illegal abortion. Shot with a single unflinching hand held camera, the film aspires to raw realism. It opens in the middle of a conversation and ends abruptly mid-gesture to emphasize, as Mungiu described it during the Toronto International Film Festival screening, that the film is less a movie than a small "slice of real life". Judging by the heartfelt responses of some of the Romanians in the audience who got up after the movie to say that it was exactly what they had lived through themselves, it definitely felt like "real life" to them.

To his credit Mungiu resists all temptations to become polemic. The film is not pro-life or pro-choice, and despite showing some of the bleakness and despair of life under the communist regime, it's not really anti-communist either. What the film aspires to most is honesty, and to that end Mungui has tried to strip the film of any indications of artistic intervention. The film has no background music and was shot with naturalistic (and often minimal) light. Even the title is a numerical enumeration, lacking any editorial comment. By taking the artist so completely out of the piece of art in this way, I can't help but feel in some ways that the work has ceased to be art at all. When what a film aspires to most is historical realism, it runs the risk of ceasing to be a film and becoming more like a historical reenactment, something thats value is archival. For me the job of the artist is not, and cannot be, to capture life and events as realistically or accurately as possible, the real job of the artist is to capture them more truthfully than they ever happen in real life. This trend towards documentary realism in which the director completely attempts to withdraw themselves and any editorial comment seems to me to be shirking the duty of the artist completely. While what is captured on the screen is definitely powerful and honest, without any comment, it's really not much more than voyeurism. To his credit Mungiu seems sensitive to the concern, and the one glaring editorial decision he makes, to not show the sex sequence in a film that hasn't otherwise pulled any punches, seems to indicate his concern for the film being perceived as voyeuristic and exploitive.

Eastern Promises

Unfulfilled Promises
I have to admit that I was very intrigued when I heard that David Cronenberg was filming another brutal mafia drama starring Viggo Mortensen and it wasn't because I thought their last collaboration, A History of Violence, was a particularly good film. It's just that I couldn't shake the feeling that there were so many interesting ideas floating around that film just out of reach (about cultures of violence and regeneration through violence), and hoped that Cronenberg might be able to explore those ideas more satisfyingly in the follow up. Cronenberg has to me always been a director about ideas. Where other directors are obsessed with tight narrative or perfect composition, Cronenberg has never been afraid of getting messy and shaking things up a bit, especially if it means taking the audience out of its comfort zone, making them squirm a little and forcing them to think about some things that they might not want to.

Going into the movie with this mindset, it's hard to overstate how disappointing Eastern Promises was. The movie consists of every mafia film cliché ever conceived, though spiced with the novelty of a Russian accent, and strung together with a narrative out of a Nancy Drew murder mystery. I can't imagine anyone creating a more generic, derivative, and 'safe' mafia movie if they tried. The only significant departure is whereas many mafia films, starting with the Godfather, exist in a world of moral ambiguity, Eastern Promises doesn't even have the courage for that. In this film the bad guys are sickeningly bad and the good guys are (just as sickeningly) good. The only sequence in the film that registers a pulse is the naked fight sequence, and even that seemed too cutely choreographed lacking any of the rawness or intensity that viewers got out of the Borat fight sequence for example. Despite having a wonderfully rich cultural tapestry to work with, Eastern Promises wears its Russian heritage as clumsily as a bad Russian accent.

The film can't be seen as anything other than an attempt by Cronenberg to reach as broad an audience as possible to cash in on the critical success of A History of Violence. As a long time Hollywood outsider, maybe Cronenberg felt it was time to join the ranks of the commercially successful directors with his own 'Godfather'. Unfortunately, the world already has a Coppola, what we need is a Cronenberg.

See all reviews