Saturday, June 27, 2009

The International

"The International" is a poorly-structured, lackluster thriller by the director of possibly the most energetic film in years ("Run Lola Run", the only film of his that gets mentioned by anyone besides Ebert, and by a lot of sites, including The Playlist) Tom Tykwer. It's about the tracking down of a seedy bank called the IBBC by two agents: Louis Salinger (Clive Owen), a troubled man with a bad record with Interpol, and Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts), the straight woman who's trying to keep Salinger in line while trying to stop the bank's force.

The IBBC tries to take hold of the debts of conflicts and buys missiles from China and sells them to help do so. They are headed by Jonas Skarssen (Ulrich Thomsen), a horribly rounded, steel-braced, and accented man at the top who's currently trying to make a deal with a revolutionary group in Liberia. The bank keeps the operations clean by killing every man who steps in the way. Basically, the film is about Salinger's hopes of bringing the corrupt financial institution to justice. This, of course, leads him to many locales around Europe and the globe. Although there is some intrigue injected into this insipid film, there is no real interest.

The film and its advertisements are built around a fight scene in the Guggenheim Museum. This is in fact very well-done, although all the art has been replaced with just screens thus detracting the realism just for a single choice mechanism (a reflection). Other than that, Tykwer's efforts here to create excitement are foiled. In the end, "The International" spouts an odd, perhaps brilliant take on how effective the whole investigation was, and leaves you wondering. I guess that's really the best that can be said for it. The screenplay, by rookie movie screenwriter Eric Singer, is cliche and massively boring. As with the film, there are one or two nice moments, but altogether, it reeks of oldness.

This is purely a theoretical film, not visually grabbing but pretty well composed (although the cinematography is pretty standard by means of the genre). Owen and Watts are very tepid, as is the support by Thomsen and Armin Mueller-Stahl as a Communist who's also involved in the bank. Really, the plot behind "The International" doesn't seem like it could fuel much, although it's conceptually interesting. Neither could the visuals, acting, or anything else associated. Was I pulled in? Only slightly. That's okay, but there needs to be more here. C

The Hurt Locker

Kathryn Bigelow's "The Hurt Locker" is a hard-hitting, loud, and realistic take on the war in Iraq, much like "Three Kings." As screenwriter Mark Boal said (at a Q & A session following the film last night), this is a "combat film," as opposed to "In the Valley of Elah" or "The Lucky Ones," both of which did mediocre at the B.O. (although Bigelow said that she didn't really care about entering a revenue-low genre). And man, is the film intense. Practically every scene is.

It begins (after quoting thrill-seeking journalist Chris Hedges) with a small robot running through the streets of Baghdad. This is piloted by Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Thompson (Guy Pearce), the resident bomb defuser. The explosives don't reach their target, so we see Thompson go into action. He's killed by a massive explosion (one of the most well-orchestrated I've ever seen), calling for a replacement and threatening the balance between Sanborn, Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), and the defuser. The replacement is intensity-craving, brash Will James, played by Jeremy Renner. He shows that there is a new force on the team, which resonates harshly with straight-man Sanborn. Mackie is very affecting here, and perhaps helps the audience enter into this sandstorm of a movie, a stylistic but true-to-life piece. Boal also said that he had been on "runs" with the bomb defusers, observing the action enough to put together a screenplay. It feels as deep as it is.

Beyond Pearce, there are also two other actors in bit parts as contractors (although I won't reveal who they are so you can have the surprise of spotting them). Other forces that shouldn't go unnoticed are the FX team, who create amazing explosions, and the director/writer team, who elicit the right amount of tensity. There were a couple problems, though. There was a lack of real resting time within the film. I mean, one crazy thing happened one after another (sometimes amounting to three major events in one scene). This could have been solved with padding the film a little bit with a little stoppage time, thus moving the length from 131 minutes to 150 or 155. That could have made a pretty sizable difference. Otherwise, "The Hurt Locker" is a very good war film, but this time about how war can fuel the cravings of violent, masculine men. A-

Note: The title of the film was also discussed at the Q & A. Boal attributed it to a term used in sports and war. I thought possibly it could have been referring to the suit of a defuser. Am I the only one?

Friday, June 19, 2009

Goodbye Solo

"Goodbye Solo" is Ramin Bahrani's follow-up to his previous success "Chop Shop," a sad film about a young auto mechanic and his sister living in New York. Set in the director's home state of North Carolina, specifically Winston-Salem, "Solo" doesn't measure up exactly, but it still has a lot of good going for it. It chronicles the relationship between optimistic, outgoing, Senegal-born cab driver Solo (Souleymane Sy Savane) and one of his "valued customers," a sad, shaken old man named William (Red West). It goes to show that the casting is top-notch, also in the way that Diana Franco Galindo was chosen to play Solo's Hispanic stepdaughter Alex who he is teaching French (as I believe that language is one that they speak in Senegal).

Since Solo is a naturally cheerful individual, he tries to change William's mind about committing suicide on a mountain, while trying to get a job as a flight attendant, and to help his wife. Savane is a talented and charismatic actor, and his work here is stunning and affecting. West is less impressive, but still puts in enough and a little more to keep things on track. There's also something about the film and the setting that also quite appealing. It's hard to describe, but perhaps it is the combined force of Savane, West, and Galindo.

Somehow, however, this venture seemed to be lacking something. There was not as much of a punch as Bahrani's previous work, and the story seemed to go pretty much unfulfilled. Bahrani and Bahareh Azimi, his screenwriting partner, go 90% of the way to where they need to be. The 10% is a pretty glaring omission. For "Goodbye Solo" to be a full film, there needed to be a little more fleshing-out involved. Don't get me wrong: the opening sequence was one of my favorite film moments of the year. The absence of non-diegetic music was refreshing as it always is. And Savane's performance might end up being a real contender (unfortunately, I think chances may be slim due to the release date and the lack of Academy-style appeal). There just wasn't enough. It needed to be 10-20 minutes longer, and possibly that time could be used to establish backstory between the two leads. That block wasn't there, which doesn't render the film mediocre. It's a very good film, and almost a fantastic one. B+

Best Films of 2008 (Re-Issue)

1. The Wrestler (directed by Darren Aronofsky)
2. Hunger (directed by Steve McQueen)
3. Waltz With Bashir (directed by Ari Folman)
4. Synecdoche, New York (directed by Charlie Kaufman)
5. Man on Wire (directed by James Marsh)
6. Doubt (directed by John Patrick Shanley)
7. Happy-Go-Lucky (directed by Mike Leigh)
8. Gomorrah (directed by Mateo Garrone)
9. Rachel Getting Married (directed by Jonathan Demme)
10. Milk (directed by Gus Van Sant)

Friday, June 12, 2009

Tokyo Sonata

Kiyoshi Kurosawa's "Tokyo Sonata" is a profound and extraordinary yet flawed film. It follows an affluent Japanese family who start to lose control since the chemical balance of position is disrupted. How exactly? It's a ripple effect. The father (Teruyuki Kagawa), who maintains a steady hand in the family and has the same disconnect that many fathers do, gets discharged at work, and falls into the unrelenting grasp of unemployment. As his friend does, he tries to hide his misfortune from his family. Why exactly? Well, because control and dignity are important in an affluent Japanese family. This is felt since he's lost both, and he can't bear to show it.

His younger son Kenji (Inowaki Kai) wants desperately to play the piano (for good reason), and his older son Takashi (Yu Koyanagi) wants to enlist in the American army. Since he's consumed by his losses, the father tries to restrict them. His wife (Kyoko Koizumi) understands and sees beyond the literal plain. This also helps when she's held at knifepoint by a desperate ex-locksmith (Haruka Igawa), whom she helps with insight. It's a bizarre turn of events, but Kurosawa turns it into a unique and amazing piece of transcendence.

The film is like a Japanese adaptation of Ian McEwan's "Saturday," what with the constant realism sprinkled with insanity. But there's even more than that here. "Tokyo Sonata" concludes perfectly and shows how beauty triumphs over currency and need of dignity. There's much more to life than the father first realizes. Kurosawa, Max Mannix, and Sachiko Tanaka create a great script on these ideas, one that's at once sad and subtly funny. The acting is also very good as well. The real flaws of "Tokyo Sonata" come from the editing department. Like Teruyuki Kagawa's character, Koichi Takahashi (the film editor) has a hard time keeping a steady hand, and like the character again, sometimes is a little too strict. If it was a little tighter, the film could be in control. Kurosawa’s brilliance, however, should not be overshadowed, and “Tokyo Sonata,” I reiterate, is a very strong representation of despair and its destruction, but furthermore what can be salvaged and finding the place where you are most comfortable. A-

Friday, June 5, 2009

Summer Hours (L'heure d'ete)

"Summer Hours" is a skillfully but tiredly made film caught in an ocean of melodrama and disconnect. It's about a French woman (Edith Scob) who has a ton of valuable pieces of art (display cases, paintings, vases), and how her family reacts and deals with her death. It's a movie with very limited potential that doesn't get that far since it's not that interesting and kind of dreary. It shares many similarities with last years much better "A Christmas Tale," not only because of its reunion-based structure and French roots, but because Emile Berling has parts in both films, the one in the former being much more significant. The other piece has an advantage because of two things: a standout performance (by Mathieu Almaric) and a story of much more dramatic weight, interest, and connection.

Here, the plot could possibly be done well with (since it has kind of an interesting idea, like my friend said and others said, about how art has lost significance, and it has that whole grand family thing going on; if only it was a little more interesting), but Olivier Assayas is content with leaving it at ground level, and that's not enough. The three children, Adrienne (Juliette Binoche), Jeremie (Jeremie Renier), and Frederic (Charles Berling, who I bet has some relation to Emile) all seem to be straying from their mother. Frederic is the one that Helene (the mom) wants most of the assorted art to stay with, since he stays in France most of the time and the other two are mostly around the globe. Frederic is most devoted to the inheritance, and he thinks it's a fine idea to keep the house in the family. The other two disagree, wanting to auction off most of the art. Apparently, Jeremie needs money, but the movie hardly goes into that beyond a couple of words. There is also the subplot of Frederic and his rebellious, doobie-smoking daughter (no, this does not imply the film is of the "marijgenre"), and also of the maid Eloise and her ties to the house and ex-owner. These plots were cliche and sentimental, respectively.

I thought the most interesting facet of the film was the supposedly fictional artist at its core, one that Helene apparently had some sort of incestuous relationship with (the artist is her uncle). Most of the valuable art is his creation, but the film is much less about him. It's more about the auctioning of the art (which is super-duper-EXCITING). Is this enough to make a movie about? Not really. I've grown to expect at least little more out of cinema. C