Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Double Hour

"The Double Hour" is a depressingly derivative film following a pair of two-dimensional characters (the kind who are defined by a single character trait, such as liking to swim or listening to bird calls) who seem to be darting into a serious relationship when they are interrupted at a crucial moment. It apparently has a thesis along the lines of Kryzsztof Kieslowski's frustrating but technically captivating "The Double Life of Veronique," but it doesn't ever really realize it. By leaving its parameters slightly obscured, it may leave the impression that there is a method to its montonous madness, but it doesn't even connect the dots to open up interpretations. It's a bleary film where we queasily view tropes that feel extremely familiar.

Giuseppe Capotondi's film has been much compared to "Tell No One," a mildly successful movie which many consider some sort of masterpiece. This is valid: "The Double Hour" rips off much of its predecessor's plot, imagery, and dialogue. To add to recycling that film's woozy, calm-before-the-blackout score, we even have the motif of the pop tune in English here (which is strange since neither film is in that language): whereas "Tell No One" featured U2's "With or Without You" in a bizarre interlude, here we have The Cure's "In Between Days." I'd recommend watching neither film, but if you had to choose, that one is stronger.

Anyways, we follow a hotel maid named Sonia who wants to find Mr. Right, one who'll distract her from her very depressing job (stumbling in on people committing suicide isn't out of the question). Speed-dating, she has one of those "meaningful conversations" with Guido, who apparently gives the owner a lot of business. They soon decide they're in love and go take walks in the woods and listen to bird sounds and stuff. But hold your horses: this ain't a romantic comedy or a film about their relationship (which would be not very interesting, since there's no real indication of their connection). They end up having picked the worst time to have a forest sojourn, as in a fumblingly handled scene, the estate on which they are chilling is pillaged. That's just where I'll stop, since that's where the poster and the reviews have drawn the line. I can't say I exactly understand the film's middle section, which ends up looking just like time killed (running time padding?) or its ending, which is strangely arresting in its inexplicability. I miss something? It's possible.

At the center of the film is Ksenia Rappaport, who won Best Actress at Venice two years ago. I don't know why that is, though, since she stumbles around as if in a trance, boringly stressed and polite. She's a cross between Kathy Griffin and the woman in this Waverly Films video in looks but not in performance style, which would have been insane but in some ways that would satisfy what this film needs. She stars alongside Benito Mussolini from "Vincere," Fillipo Timi, but it's really her movie and the film is simply as listless as she so often is. Save for one contrived-feeling but gripping first-person POV scene (that may be a rip off from a film I haven't seen), and tinges of interest worked up by the film's strange loose ends, "The Double Hour" fails to be as mundanely remarkable as the occurrence its title describes. C-

Friday, April 29, 2011


45 minutes longer than it should be (a bad thing for a movie that is only 75 minutes long), "Circo" showcases debut documentarian Aaron Schock's immense technical proficiency but also a lazy dependency on padding. Shooting against a beautiful background of sunsets and pastels, he charts a few months in the life of a family whose entire life is spent on their circus. It has glorious aspects to it, to be sure, but it also takes its tolls. The father, Tito, feels it is his calling to continue the circus in honor of his father (all of his other siblings have moved on), but his wife, Ivonne (who he ran off with at a young age), is sick and tired of the instability of the venture and worried that her kids are just as unsatisfied. They have been taught to do pretty amazing things, yet they are essentially illiterate and will have a hard time adapting to the world outside of the big top if they choose to leave.

The film drifts between unpretentious intimacy and cliched superficiality, and is much the lesser for the latter. Schock is not an intrusive filmmaker, but he still adorns the movie with trademarks of intrusive filmmakers (such as using too many captions and holding the film to a strict arc), and the film gets somewhat lost in that contradiction. Along with this misstep, Schock also doesn't keep a long enough focus on certain elements (such as the actual circus performing), and jumps around too much, showing us things not entirely related to the plot and giving us the same information again and again.

I hope that Schock gets his content flaws down before his next outing, because if he does, he may be a strong documentarian. But even though "Circo" has some good insight, it didn't grip me and as a result I was waiting impatiently for its conclusion. C+

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Source Code

"Source Code" toys with profound thoughts, arrestingly subverts and traps you in its narrative structure (similarly but with higher stakes than the frequently compared "Groundhog Day"), contains moments of provocative dialogue, and builds a complex relationship between its main characters. However, it goes wrong somewhere along the way and, by the end, I felt like I was watching a film made out of a first draft of a screenplay. It needed to be revised and taken care of, not thrown together like it needed to make a deadline. There are so many different angles that this film could have taken on its plot, some of them cliche to be sure, but none quite as bizarrely murky as the one that it eventually decides on.

I'm actually okay with it not making sense, a problem that many people identified with the film. It works pretty well even though the ending doesn't entirely compute. It's just the slapdash lameness of the final line, the philosophies that the film decides to take on for the lack of time to explore more interesting ones, and the way that director Duncan Jones and his writer Ben Ripley seem to be struggling to find somewhere to pull out that make any such rationalizations useless.

The same thing happened with Jones' first film, "Moon," an extremely astonishing achievement of atmosphere and ideas that lacked the execution to work those things into a movie just as great, largely because of the confusion of its climax and ending. "Source Code" is throughout a better carried out film, and it uses many of "Moon"'s strengths (making the audience claustrophobic and thus creating an intense interest in the mechanics of the plot) to its advantage. But it has plenty of its own missteps.

Jake Gyllenhaal does work well in the lead role, applying a mix of incredulity, manners, and sarcastic menace to his character. However, he is somewhat shaky at times, as he is not an exceptional actor by any means, and his limitations don't let the movie get to where it could have gotten. He plays Cpt. Colter Stevens, who has gone straight from being the military to waking up on a train. He stumbles around, wondering what the hell is going on, since he's (apparently) been placed in medius res into an operation where he's taken someone else's body to find out who put the bomb on the train he's on, a man who has more attacks ready to go. Since he has no idea what his objective is the first time through, he cannot complete it, and only goes to alienate the woman he's traveling with, Christina Warren (Michelle Monaghan). Monaghan, who plays surprised often in this film, gives the film's strongest performance, making the contact she shares with Colter (or, as she knows him, Sean) feel like something to behold. She's what makes the film move through its weaker portions.

Maybe her character is more interesting because she's given in small doses, but in any event Monaghan is only in half of the scenes, and in the other half of the film, we are on our own. That's because we have to deal with the interplay between Gyllenhaal and Vera Farmiga, who fails to realize a potentially compelling role due to one of the dullest acting jobs I've seen in a while. I guess it's like that by design, but that doesn't change the fact that I dreaded her scenes. She plays Goodwin, one of the people behind the mission that Colter is undertaking. She is affectless and talks and behaves as if she hasn't been outside in a long time. No wonder she says she got divorced. She's joined by Jeffrey Wright, who enunciates words strangely and who isn't successful in making his crutch look like anything more than a slapped on character trait. He's there to sound cool explaining big concepts, but he's barely less stodgy than Farmiga. It doesn't help that the interior decorator of the Source Code facility hasn't upgraded the place up to the current digital era. It doesn't seem like anyone has heard of an Apple computer or a wireless keyboard. Perhaps this is done to both add analogue flavor and to further concentrate the suffocating spaces on us, but it doesn't work too well, and it just goes to underline even more that this is much boring section of the film.

So perhaps Gyllenhaal should be credited for livening things up a little bit thereabouts, along with the help of some nice compositions by Don Burgess, strong editing by Paul Hirsch (especially in the train section), and a (sometimes more than) serviceable score by Chris Bacon. But "Source Code" is another near miss by Jones, who has now twice danced near making a masterpiece but bowed out both times because he hasn't tightened the bolts. B-

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Cannes 2011 Power Rankings: Selection Day Edition

Palme d'Or (Best Film):
1. The Tree of Life, Malick
2. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, Ceylan
3. The Skin I Live In, Almodovar
4. Le Havre, Kaurismaki
5. We Need to Talk About Kevin, Ramsay

Just outside: Pater, Cavalier; This Must Be the Place, Sorrentino

Gran Prix (2nd place):
1. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, Ceylan
2. We Need to Talk About Kevin, Ramsay
3. House of Tolerance, Bonello
4. Footnote, Cedar
5. Polisse, Le Besco

Jury Prize (3rd place):
1. House of Tolerance, Bonello
2. We Need to Talk About Kevin, Ramsay
3. Footnote, Cedar
4. Polisse, Le Besco
5. The Skin I Live In, Almodovar

Best Actor:
1. Lior Ashkenazi/Shlomo Bar-Aba, Footnote
2. Antonio Banderas, The Skin I Live In
3. Sean Penn, This Must Be the Place
4. Ryan Gosling, Drive
5. Nanni Moretti, We Have a Pope

Just outside: John C. Reilly, We Need to Talk About Kevin

Best Actress:
1. Tilda Swinton, We Need to Talk About Kevin
2. Noemie Lvovsky, House of Tolerance
3. Emily Browning, Sleeping Beauty
4. Elena Anaya, The Skin I Live In
5. Cecile de France, Boy With a Bike

Just outside: Cary Mulligan, Drive

Best Director
1. Maiwenn Le Besco, Polisse
2. Alain Cavalier, Pater
3. Lynne Ramsay, We Need to Talk About Kevin
4. Joseph Cedar, Footnote
5. Nicolas Winding Refn, Drive

Just outside: Takashi Miike, Hara-kiri: Death of a Samurai

Best Screenplay
1. Julia Leigh, Sleeping Beauty
2. Lynne Ramsay and Roy Kinnear, We Need to Talk About Kevin
3. Aki Kaurismaki, Le Havre
4. Radu Mihaileanu, The Source
5. Joseph Cedar, Footnote

Just outside: Pedro Almodovar, The Skin I Live In; Hossein Amini, Drive

Cannes 2011: Competition Preview

I've imposed an exile from Twitter on myself while writing this feature, so that these are my and only my reactions to the news about the festival today. (I will, however, use IMDb to get plot information.) Like last year, I want to evaluate my eagerness to see each film and each film's chance at winning awards, and I will do this in this feature. I won't tackle the sidebars (the main ones being Un Certain Regard and Director's Fortnight) for a couple of reasons: not knowing about them yields surprises later on in the year, and also, the work in covering each of those films on top of the Competition would be too hard.

So as to avoid delaying too long, here goes (organized by director's last name, as I'm getting this info from the press release):

The Skin I Live In (Pedro Almodovar, 120 minutes)

Almodovar is said to be pushing his comfort zone with this one, and I'm very excited. Apparently this one goes all out, and although "Broken Embraces" and "Volver" (the two films of his that I've seen; I know, I'm incredibly behind on his work) inspired uneasiness, I think this'll be in another ballpark. Antonio Banderas in the lead could really be something to behold, and my hopes are up that he'll turn in one of his better performances. All-in-all, one of my most anticipated films of the year. If I could pick a film from the Competition to watch right now, this would be towards the top. The plot summary from IMDb: "Based on Thierry Jonquet's novel "Mygale", this revenge tale tells the story of a plastic surgeon on the hunt for the men who raped his daughter."

Could it win the Palme? Certainly. With the abrasive tone and subject matter, it could be a bit of a stretch, but Almodovar is due for a Palme after coming to Cannes three times and winning Best Director and Screenplay.

House of Tolerance (Bertrand Bonello, 122 minutes)
I've never heard of this director before, which, as I've always said, creates the perfect arena to be blown away. Bonello does have some prior Cannes experience: his "Tiresia" was up for the Palme in 2003. The synopsis, from Films Distribution, is as follows: "At the dawn of the XXth century, in a brothel in Paris, a man disfigures a prostitute for life. She is marked with a scar that draws a tragic smile on her face. Around the woman who laughs, the life of other girls, their rivalry, their fears, their joy, their pain...From the external world, nothing is known. Their world is closed." I have really no clue what to say about that synopsis, but it sounds better than worse. The reviews will decide it for me.

Could it win the Palme? I'm thinking a Best Actress trophy for the portrayal of the prostitute in question is more likely to happen. If a major award is won for the film itself, it will be probably either the Grand Prix or Jury Prize, as it sounds like the type of film that would cop one of those, but I'm not too sure. It will probably not win the top prize.

Pater (Alain Cavalier, 105 minutes)
Another director I'm unfamiliar with, Cavalier has been in Competition a couple of times, winning the Jury Prize for "Therese" in 1986 (which won a bunch of Cesars as well). I cannot find any information on his new work, and thus I will have to wait until the Cannes website develops synopses (probably I should wait until then to do this feature, as it would have much more depth, but then again, I want to get something out today).

Could it win the Palme? On the basis of his previous Competition brushes, I would say that Cavalier could possibly walk out of the festival with either a Palme or a Best Director. And maybe the actor who plays the titular character (if it's a father) will get something? Who knows until we see the synopsis.

Footnote (Joseph Cedar, 105 minutes)
Cedar is best known for his Oscar-nominated film "Beaufort," which I haven't seen and which played Berlin a few years back. Never before in Competition, Cedar's new film, as described by IMDb, "the story of a great rivalry between a father and son, both eccentric professors in the Talmud department of Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The son has an addictive dependency on the embrace and accolades that the establishment provides, while his father is a stubborn purist with a fear and profound revulsion for what the establishment stands for, yet beneath his contempt lies a desperate thirst for some kind of recognition. The Israel Prize, Israel's most prestigious national award, is the jewel that brings these two to a final, bitter confrontation." I think this sounds very interesting, and I'm glad to see that an Israeli film is playing on the festival circuit's biggest stage.

Could it win the Palme? A Best Actor prize, dual or singular, is most likely, but other awards (the main three prizes, Best Director) are not out of the question.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 150 minutes)
Now, here's an artist I know much about. I think his photography is (much) better than his filmmaking, but "Distant" was decent and "Climates" did look pretty nice as well. No plot summary yet, or at least not on the big sites, but nonetheless I'm glad to see a big new film from this guy.

Could it win the Palme? This is a film that I think has one of the biggest chances to get it. Ceylan won Best Director for "Three Monkeys" (unseen by me) and directed his leads to a dual Best Actor prize with "Distant." He's ready to take the next step.

Boy with a Bike (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, 87 minutes)
I've seen two films by these guys ("The Son," "Lorna's Silence"), and their among my favorite filmmakers as a result. Experienced Competition veterans, the two have won the Palme TWICE and, on top of that, directed an actor to Best Actor and won Best Screenplay. These guys get something every time they bring a film in. The synopsis from IMDb: "Abandoned by his father, a young boy is left in the hands of an unqualified childcare provider." Whom, I'm assuming, is played by Cecile de France, who didn't really help the cause of "Hereafter" that much in my opinion. But who knows? I'm willing to go where the Dardennes take me, although this seems like something a little different than their usual (this production shot allays that especially).

Could it win the Palme? No. Not gonna happen. Three Palmes?! Nope. Best Actress is always a possibility, since the Dardennes seem to be on their way to being the first directors to win every single award available.

Le Havre (Aki Kaurismaki, 103 minutes)
A much noted filmmaker, I have never seen any of his films. He's won the Gran Prix (for "The Man Without a Past"), being nominated three times for the Palme. No synopsis as of yet, I don't think.

Could it win the Palme? Yes. This could be his year.

Hanezu No Tsuki (Naomi Kawase, 91 minutes)
Kawase's "The Mourning Forest" is a film I've been meaning to watch for a very long time, as it won the Gran Prix. No synopsis yet.

Could it win the Palme? Another definite possibility.

Sleeping Beauty (Julia Leigh, 104 minutes)
First films in Competition are rarities, and here is the first of two (!). Why is this here, since most filmmakers have to climb the ladder? Leigh is a "novelist" (according to Wikipedia) and (according to the Playlist) the screenplay was on the Black List. Synopsis as follows, from IMDb: "A haunting erotic fairytale about Lucy, a young University student drawn into a mysterious hidden world of beauty and desire." This movie has (minor) star power, with Emily Browning, famous for "Lemony Snicket," "The Uninvited," and (though she'd probably like to forget) "Sucker Punch." I don't know exactly what to think about this... Trailer is here, which tackily says that Jane Campion presents and then goes on to quote her in praise of the film.

Could it win the Palme? Best Actress for Browning is far more likely, as well as Best Screenplay.

Polisse (Maiwenn Le Besco, 121 minutes)
Like her sister Isild, Le Besco also first acted then directed, and here's her forth film, under the credit "Maiwenn." The synopsis from IMDb, goes as follows: "A journalist covering police assigned to a juvenile division enters an affair with one of her subjects." Okay-sounding.

Could it win the Palme? Yes. But after Mathieu Amalric won Best Director last year for his first feature helmed, Le Besco, in the same position as him with her first Competition entry, might win that award instead.

The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 138 minutes)
Do I need say anything about this? Everyone's most anticipated film of the festival. If you haven't heard about it, you've been living under a rock. Go find the synopsis and watch the unbelievable trailer on your own (partially because I don't want to expose myself to the former just yet). One note: I thought this film would be much longer. My friend says he knows that it was cut down, but this still seems short for a film this ambitious.

Could it win the Palme? THIS WILL WIN. No question. I thought they would play fair and play it outside, but since not, it's got it in the bag, especially with Robert De Niro as the jury head (although he runs TriBeCa, he has a bias towards American cinema) and with Malick having never won the Palme before (though having won Best Director the only other time he bowed in competition, in 1978 for "Days of Heaven"). The rug could be pulled out from underneath, but this is the frontrunner as of yet and the Goliath to everyone else's David.

The Source (Radu Milhaileanu, 135 minutes)
Known to me from his mediocre-sounding, Golden-Globe nominated "The Concert," Milhaileanu has scored the first Competition birth of his career. And this sounds just as mediocre, from the synopsis given by IMDb: "A comedy/drama set in a village and centered on a battle of the sexes, where women threaten to withhold sexual favors if their men refuse to fetch water from a remote well." The full translation of the French title is "The Source of Women."

Could it win the Palme? Possibly. But comedies don't usually win.

Harakiri: Death of a Samurai (Takashi Miike, 126 minutes)
Totally unexpected to see Miike get in (especially with Brilliante Mendoza, Lou Ye, and Giorgos Lanthimos nowhere to be found). Reportedly the first 3D entry ever in Competition, this is crazy shit, which can only be expected on a regular basis from Miike, who himself has never played in the big dance before. Synopsis from goes as follows: "Set during the 17th century, the story centers on Hanshiro (played by Ebizo Ichikawa), an honorable, poverty-stricken samurai requesting to commit hara-kiri in the courtyard of feudal lord Kageyu's estate. Trying to dismiss Hanshiro's wish to save face, Kageyu (played by Koji Yakusho) recounts the tragic story of a similar plea years ago from young ronin Motome (played by Eita). But the arrogant lord is unaware of vengeful Hanshiro's bond to Motome." Ok, I'm mildly interested.

Could it win the Palme? Probably not, but, in a move of wild card insanity, maybe.

We Have a Pope/Habemus Papam (Nanni Moretti, 102 minutes)
"A story centered on the relationship between the newly elected Pope and his therapist." (IMDB). Um, what does that sound like to you? A comparison that has already been made, but needs be noted. Not too interested. Nanni Moretti stars and does his thing, apparently.

Could it win the Palme? Well, maybe this template won't win another major award, but who's counting? Most likely, though, Moretti will sit this one out, having won the Palme before.

We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay, 110 minutes)
I've never seen "Morvern Callar" or "Ratcatcher," but I've heard great things about them, and thus I'm looking forward to Ramsay's new film. "The mother of a teenage boy who went on a high-school killing spree tries to deal with her grief -- and feelings of responsibility for her child's actions -- by writing to her estranged husband." says IMDb. Admittedly, it sounds corny, but with John C. Reilly, Tilda Swinton, and "Afterschool"'s Ezra Miller, it could work. But...

...could it win the Palme? Most definitely. She's gone through the Cannes system, and now could be her time. Keep in mind: these are relative statements, since I think "Tree of Life" holds an overwhelming lead. And Swinton or John C. Reilly could pull something out as well.

Michael (Markus Schleinzer, 94 minutes)
The other debut, about which there is no information. Apparently Schleinzer acted as casting director on a bunch of films and appeared in "The Robber." No synopsis on the major sites.

Could it win the Palme? An out-of-nowhere upset? Unlikely, though it would be interesting.

This Must Be the Place (Paolo Sorrentino, 118 minutes)
Relatively high-profile as these things go, Sorrentino's latest feature length film (after "Il Divo," which won the Jury Prize a while back as well as a nomination for Best Makeup at the Oscars) has Sean Penn at his most garish-looking. Derived from the title of a great Talking Heads song, the synopsis here comes from IMDb. DON'T READ IF YOU WANT TO GO IN COLD: "Cheyenne, a wealthy former rock star (Penn), now bored and jaded in his retirement embarks on a quest to find his father's persecutor, an ex-Nazi war criminal now hiding out in the U.S. Learning his father is close to death, he travels to New York in the hope of being reconciled with him during his final hours, only to arrive too late. Having been estranged for over 30 years, it is only now in death that he learns the true extent of his father's humiliation in Auschwitz at the hands of former SS Officer Aloise Muller - an event he is determined to avenge. So begins a life-altering journey across the heartland of America to track down and confront his father's nemesis. As his quest unfolds, Cheyenne is reawakened by the people he encounters and his journey is transformed into one of reconciliation and self discovery. As his date with destiny arrives and he tracks down Muller, Cheyenne must finally decide if it is redemption he seeks ....or revenge. Starring two time Academy Award winner Sean Penn and marking the much-anticipated English-language debut of acclaimed director Paolo Sorrentino, THIS MUST BE THE PLACE is a gripping examination of a man on the precipice of obsession." Interesting stuff.

Could it win the Palme? Yes, but Best Actor, with Penn going-for-broke, could happen.

Melancholia (Lars Von Trier, 130 minutes)
The trailer is here, and I've said that this movie looks like "Birth" meets "Another Earth" meets "Antichrist." An interesting combo, to be sure, and this looks like prime Von Trier, especially with the logo at the end. IMDb says: "Two sisters find their relationship challenged as a nearby planet threatens to collide into the Earth." But I'm only moderately anticipating, as I have some minor issues with what it seems to be.

Could it win the Palme? Unlikely. This is just a trip to the Crosiette for Von Trier, and I don't think it'll play very competitively, since Von Trier has already won for "Dancer in the Dark." Expect some gasps to be drawn, though maybe not as many as from "Antichirst."

Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn, 95 minutes)
I've highly disliked both of the films I've seen by this guy ("Bronson" and "Valhalla Rising"), a hipster standby who gets by on little more than hyperstylized violence. Thus, you may be surprised to hear that I'm willing to give this guy another shot with "Drive," which sounds good (again via IMDb): "A Hollywood stunt performer who moonlights as a wheelman discovers that a contract has been put on him after a heist gone wrong." Ryan Gosling and Cary Mulligan are the leads, and the film is adapted from a book by James Sallis. I'm looking forward to it, but if this is a dud, I don't know if I can offer any more of my time to Refn.

Could it win the Palme? I would say no, mostly due to the genre but also because this guy hasn't played many major competitions (save Sundance).

Here are my first predictions for the awards (to be expanded into power rankings soon):

Palme d'Or: "The Tree of Life," Terrence Malick
Gran Prix: "Once Upon a Time in Anatolia," Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Jury Prize: "House of Tolerance," Bertrand Bordello
Best Actor: Lior Ashkenazi and Shlomo Bar-Aba, "Footnote"
Best Actress: Tilda Swinton, "We Need to Talk About Kevin"
Best Director: Maiwann (Le Besco), "Polisse"
Best Screenplay: Julia Leigh, "Sleeping Beauty"

As for Un Certain Regard, I'm looking forward to "Loverboy" by Mitulescu, "Arirang" by Kim, and the year's Sundance film, "Martha Marcy May Marlene" by Durkin.

More to come, people.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

City of Life and Death

"City of Life and Death" finds its biggest success in its tremendous handling of large-scale scenes. With intense cross-cutting and strong use of the close-up, Lu Chuan finds a way to get across many a POV in a scene where it seems hard. In doing this, he imbues these moments with a remarkable intimacy. However, when the film observes a naturally personal episode, it can't quite get the tone right, and it ends up feeling superficial and sudsy.

Even though it takes a while for it to get a coherent rhythm down, and even though it sometimes diverges into corny subplots involving sentimentalized prostitution, "City of Life and Death" still manages to give you an extremely startling sting. I shook as I watched this film, which displays a large amount of arbitrary cruelty, which makes shreds out of lives and bodies.

We see the Japanese come into Nanking, China, and not only take the city, but proceed to execute, separate, and commit other horrible acts upon the people living there. Referred to as the Rape of Nanking for a definite reason, this is a period in WWII that I was unaware of before I heard about this film and the documentary "Nanking." I wonder what other elements of this and other wars film is yet to cover.

The film follows various characters more than others, mostly from the Chinese side. One exception is Kadokawa (Hideo Nakaizumi), a member of the Japanese military who feels some remorse for the horrible things that he does, unwittingly and not. He also becomes attached to a "comfort woman"; cue the subpar dramaturgy aforementioned. We also have, among others, Miss Jiang (Yuanyuan Gao), who is dedicated to the survival of the population of Nanking; Mr. Tan (Wei Fan), a man working for and living under the protection of a visiting Nazi (John Paisley); and a revolutionary (whose name I cannot find), who does what he feels must be done.

Filmed for a good reason in b&w, and with a score that at times hits, despite some wrong notes, the exactly right ones, "City of Life and Death" stands as a strong work that will inform and disquiet. It definitely could have been better in a multitude of areas, but it operates often on a level that transcends its shortcomings. B+

Monday, April 11, 2011

My Joy (Philadelphia Cinefest)

I had big expectations for Sergei Loznitsa's "My Joy," a Cannes 2010 Competition film that piqued my interest from early on and has held it for the 11 months since then. Unfortunately, when I got to seeing it, it began to lose it. This is a film where a little tightening up would go a long way, as it develops a weighty thesis for much of its running time but loses its focus too often to come through. It is also an extremely dispiriting work, and its final scene sears with its notion of irreparability. If you don't want to be emotionally rocked, do not see this film. If you're sensitive, you may come out with some sort of scar. At the same time, it both is and isn't as harsh as people have said it is. You have been warned.

If you're okay with that... This film follows Georgy (Viktor Nemets, channeling sincerity and apathy), a trucker with a flour shipment who, after getting stuck in a traffic jam, travels with a girl prostitute (played pretty well by Olga Shuvalova) back to her hometown so he can get to where he's going faster. His sojourn, intended to take a day at most, ends up costing him much more time than he imagined and also goes to highlight that he wasn't really going anywhere in the first place.

The (nameless) town where he stops is the archetypal town which no one leaves, where people stop to lay low and end up staying forever. Loznitsa is perhaps somewhat trying to move people to action with this film, in a sort of Sherman Alexie-esque sort of way, but instead of showing positive action, Loznitsa instead is observing its counterpoint, crippling lethargy.

Georgy just centers the film, which operates in the way of Richard Linklater's "Slacker," by moving around to follow the people who come into contact with him. We see a man who was forever broken by the execution of his father by returning soldiers, and the execution of officers by a major who loses everything, including his fiancee and his name, as a result (due to his hiding away in the town). These characters foreshadow the person Georgy will eventually become. Their stories are dealt with in scenes set in the time of Second World War, shot with lenses and costumes that remind one of Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds" and Elia Suleiman's "The Time That Remains." This chronological scramble offers opportunities for Loznitsa opportunities for creating disorientation, and the fact that you don't know when the winter of the film's final third takes place is interesting.

The film's strongest asset in disorientation (and otherwise, perhaps), though, is Oleg Mutu's camera. It pulsates with intensity as it watches characters, and constantly favors busy compositions that are uncommon in cinema. At certain points, the screen shows many different actions occurring at once, which creates both the feeling of spontaneity and contrivance. There is also some beautiful embellishment of strange developments in the plot, such as a sex scene that is more interesting because it can't be entirely understood. (The art direction in the deteriorating house where it takes place is also sterling.)

So there's a lot going on here. It just doesn't all work. If this film was 10-15 minutes shorter (I would cut the scene in the prison and the one with the soldiers carrying the coffin), it would be much more successful. If it understood when to, as critics have said of it, lay it on thick and when to restrain itself, it would pack an better punch, betting meaning harder on an ideological level. But instead it pulls on too long and leaves you on the floor with your wind knocked out, locking the doors and leaving no one to assist you. I hope that "In the Fog of Latvia," Loznitsa's next work (set to be his second as a fiction filmmaker after many documentaries), proves more refined. B-

Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Robber (Der Rauber)

"The Robber" by Benjamin Heisenberg follows a man who simultaneously strives for recognition and wants to stay anonymous. He's a runner-cum-bank robber, Johann Rettenberger, and when he's released from prison on parole (after serving a sentence for armed robbery), he continues to be both of those things. He ascends in the sport out of nowhere (making his parole officer happy), and seems as if he could be poised for great things. But he is tied down by his theft, which leads him to steal cars (sometimes right under their owners' noses) and sometimes, rather sadistically, to leave people stranded in random locations for safety's sake. Yet, in retrospect, these events are pretty much inconsequential to the film and the character's arc. This goes to show how disconnected the film is; it really has little clue what it's about with a name like "The Robber."

The film is centered around Andreas Lust's performance in the lead. His sense of desperation helps the film out quite a bit, but at the same time, his insecurity in the role can be seen, especially in the scenes with the parole officer, where he verges on histrionics. This is a role where the actor has to be impeccable, and Lust, despite being strong, falls short. But he doesn't have the best support in the world, either: Heisenberg, working from a fictionalized novel by Martin Prinz (who collaborated on the screenplay), can't do much with banal plot developments, like a subplot with an obligatory love interest (Franziska Weisz) who obviously ends up causing a bit of trouble for Johann, and the film thus takes its place alongside the other films of the genre.

That's not to say it doesn't have its perks. There are some quite disarming moments. For example, one scene, set in a movie theater, does a lot by going "Shirin"-style and not showing the film playing, but only focusing on Johann and his girlfriend, and the effect is nicely curious. And, in general, the film's cinematography and lighting are stunning. There is bravura motion photography, and there are also more than a couple striking images, such as a follow shot that creates an extremely disorienting effect. Much of the film looks like it was painted. But that only partially makes up for the film's narrative fumbling, and the final shot is nowhere near as powerful as it could have been. Maybe remaking the film in America, with a younger actor (Andrew Garfield), will lead to greatness, but the parts will probably not be in order, and I think we'll have to simply regard "The Robber" and long for what could have been. C+

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Shall We Conclude? Cinema's Great Last Scenes and Endings

I got some film writers to choose one of their favorite final scenes (or endings) to write a short piece on. The results came in different varieties: paragraphs succinct in their passion, or long-winding compositions with much to say. I let them stand as they came to me, and thus I think a more interesting feature resulted than I originally intended. I have provided each writer's website and Twitter feed so that you can check out more of their work. This is a pretty lo-fi feature, and I hope you enjoy.

IMPORTANT: this list is not meant to be a conclusive list of the best endings ever, despite what I was going for in the beginning. This is a list of endings people felt like writing about. Thus, if there is a movie that we didn't write about, it does not mean that it is not one of the greatest endings of all-time. In other words, we picked SOME of the great endings of all time. I thought I explained that above, but I perceive that there have been people who misunderstood and thought we were going for a complete blanket list. On the other hand, I realize the title may suggest otherwise. I dunno, but it sounds better than Some of Cinema's Great Last Scenes and Endings, eh? Either way, take heed of these words.

Dedicated to the late American Polymath, whose "panels of experts" provided the inspiration for the layout of this feature, and Time Out New York, whose "50 best" lists provided another impetus. Their newest is here.

“2001: A Space Odyssey” by Michael Mirasol (, @flipcritic)

It begins with an elderly man on what appears to be his deathbed. His surroundings convey a bareness of clinical classicism, while his eyes betray a presence in the room. He reaches out in frailty towards a towering black monolith, perfect in its form, its authority, and its indifference. And as we stand in awe of its imposing equanimity, we come to discover that the elder is now an infant, but of a very different sort. Encased in a sac of light, aglow as a halo, undisturbed, unperturbed, and aware. Two perfect beings now inhabit the room. And from the once human perspective, we zoom into the monolith, with Zarathustra starting to speak.

Is the monolith an alien intelligence, satisfied with our progress, content to trigger our next evolutionary step? Is the monolith death, who has come to usher man to a new kind of existence? Is the room what humanity knows, and the monolith the unknown? As we ponder these very human concerns, we can't help but feel humbled by their use in Stanley Kubrick's incredible interpretation and amalgamation. All within just the first half of this final scene (perhaps the greatest of all final scenes), which ends with even more power and haunting indelibility.

We are back in the infinity of space, the moon in sight, panning slowly to Earth. As our home comes to full view, another glowing celestial seems to be nearing beside it. It is the starchild, gazing at it, gazing at us. And as Richard Strauss's "Also Sprach Zarathustra" booms its climax, we ponder once more. What thoughts lie behind those baby blue eyes? The answer lies in the music; the prophet has come to speak to mankind.

“Cinema Paradiso” by Donald G. Carder (, @theangrymick)

I like to think of the cinema as a hallowed place - a holy temple where indelible imagery is implanted on the minds and memories of an audience held captive by the persistence of vision made possible by the flickering mechanics of lamp and shutter. Like all the best religions, the cinema offers up exemplary moments that can be inextricably linked to one’s personal experience, presenting the perfect moment at the perfect time to bring definition and enlightenment to souls struggling with this journey we like to call “life.” All you need to do is watch, and be willing to learn.

When I first saw Guiseppe Tornatore's Cinema Paradiso, I came out the theater convinced that I had found a champion that not only shared my faith in the power of film, but the majesty of humanity itself. Tornatore’s story, about a man returning to his village for the funeral of his childhood friend and mentor Alberto, hit just about every emotional note with an accuracy that pierced my very soul. His was a voice speaking directly to me, using the language of light and shadow to conveying a message of love and hope so personal and so timely as to prove literally life changing.

Tornatore’s gift, or, blessing, if you will, is his ability to present the lives of his characters in such a way as to mirror the memories of the audience - pulling them so deeply into the story that they become a part of it, proxies to the experience. It is a masterful stroke of cinematic transference - the perfect marriage of memory to moment, watcher to watched - that uses sentiment to present a picture of an imaginary life that touches the real.

At the end of the film, as Toto sits alone in a screening room, weeping tears of grief and gratitude as a lifetime of stolen kisses unspools before his enraptured eyes, we, the audience, are transported back through cinematic time on the wings of our shared memories of what has come before. With the same shock of recognition that brings Toto to tears, we realize that Tornatore has bound his characters so completely to our own lives that we see what Toto sees, we feel what Toto feels.

This is the sacrament of cinema. This is why we watch. Tornatore’s film not only honours the history of its characters, but the art of film itself. With each recollection, he invites us to share in his profound love for the form, and a heartfelt appreciation for the gifts it can bear.

“City Lights” by Edward Copeland (, @edcopeland)

Throughout the course of film history, many movies have managed to produce great endings, but it's rare to find one worth labeling a "perfect" ending. What's even more remarkable in the case of City Lights is that Charlie Chaplin did it in a silent film made in 1931, well after sound films had firmly become the norm of the industry. Playing the Little Tramp for the second-to-last time, the tramp becomes enamored of a poor blind girl who makes a meager living for her and her grandmother by selling flowers on street corners. Through a series of coincidences, the blind girl comes to believe the tramp is a rich tycoon and dreams of escaping her bleak existence. The tramp, thanks to an unexpected friendship with a tycoon (who only remembers him when he's sober), comes up with enough money for the blind girl to get and operation to regain her sight while he goes off to prison. A few months later, after the tramp is released, he encounters the now sighted girl who has her own flower shop. Her and a co-worker laugh at this vagabond who seems taken with her and as the tramp drops his own flower and tries to sneak away, the girl rushes out to give him a fresh flower and some change. When she touches his hand to give him the change, she recognizes from the feel that the man who did so much for her wasn't a rich man at all but a man worse off than her, living on the streets. "It was you?" she mouths. He nods yes and notes that she can see now and she confirms and then Chaplin the director closes in on the tramp's shy smile. It's the greatest use of a close-up in the history of movies, arguably what the close-up was invented for in the first place, and one of the best endings in film history.

“Fargo” and “No Country for Old Men” by Gaël Schmidt-Cléach (, @gschmidtcleach)

The Coen brothers’ Fargo opens with a drive through a snowstorm and an argument between crooks, and for a while it seems that it’s going to be about the badly thought-out kidnapping orchestrated by desperate and not-so-bright car salesman Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) so that he can swindle his father-in-law out of $1 million. But as soon as Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) enters the picture, some thirty minutes into the film, it becomes her story, and it remains so until the very end. A lesser movie would end with Marge arresting the psychopathic Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare) as he’s stuffing his accomplice’s body into a wood chipper, or with a half-naked Lundegaard trying to escape from the police by climbing out his hotel window and getting dragged back in weeping, kicking and screaming. But Marge’s story cannot end with her driving off in her police car, muttering “I just don’t understand it” as Grimsrud stares at her blankly from the back seat. Marge’s story has to end right where it started, in her Brainerd home, with her husband Norm (John Carroll Lynch).

As Marge and Norm lie in bed watching TV, they don’t discuss the triple murder and kidnapping case Marge has just solved. They didn’t when a telephone call in the middle of the night summoned Marge to the crime scene, nor did they when Norm brought Marge lunch at the police station; why would they now? What they do discuss is Norm’s painting of a wild duck, which has just been selected to be featured on a three-cent stamp, and Marge’s pregnancy, which is soon coming to an end. In other words, nothing that has anything to do with the film’s main events. After an hour and a half of lies, hilarious displays of stupidity, and wanton acts of violence, Fargo’s coda (because this is really what it is) seems to take place in another world altogether. One that is perhaps a little boring, with its extended discussions about postage stamps, but one that at least makes more sense than the one Lundegaard and his co-conspirators live in (I don’t want to belabor the point, but Marge’s husband is called Norm for a reason). “Heck, Norm, you know, we’re doin’ pretty good,” Marge says as she snuggles in closer to her husband. This could have been a desperate attempt at self-deception, but it’s not. Marge may not understand why people like Lundegaard or Grimsrud would do what they did “for a little bit of money,” but as far as she’s concerned, it’s a good thing she doesn’t.

No Country for Old Men, another Coen masterpiece and perhaps the perfect companion piece to Fargo, ends in a superficially similar way, with newly-retired Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) sharing a domestic moment (here, breakfast) with his wife Loretta (Tess Harding). The scene is similarly removed from the main events of the film, and doesn’t reference them in any way, creating the same coda effect the ending to Fargo does. Yet the two scenes couldn’t be more different in tone. While the Gundersons celebrate Norm’s small but very real artistic success (and, indirectly, Marge’s professional success), Sheriff Bell finds that he is at a loss what to do with himself now that he is retired, just as he was at a loss what to do to stop Anton Chigurh’s (Javier Bardem) rampage through south Texas (“I feel overmatched,” he says to justify his quitting). Marge finds strength and comfort in Norm; the last scene of Fargo is one sustained medium shot of the two of them snuggling together in bed. Bell’s wife, though she tries, cannot provide the same level of comfort to her distraught husband; they sit at different ends of the breakfast table, and the Coens’ use of shot reverse shot only accentuates the distance between them (after three over the shoulder shots of Bell early in the scene, which show Loretta’s ultimately unsuccessful efforts to connect with him, the Coens exclusively use close-up shots of Bell’s and Loretta’s faces).

Bell, like Marge, doesn’t understand why someone like Chigurh would do what he does. Unlike Marge, he finds no comfort in that thought. The world no longer makes sense to Sheriff Bell, whose only solace is in dreams of his father, now twenty years dead. He pictures him carrying fire in a horn, like some mythological hero, and waiting for him somewhere up the road. An illusion Bell cannot sustain. “Then I woke up,” he says, and the film ends with a prolonged close-up of his face as he seems on the verge of breaking down, both emotionally and physically (Tommy Lee Jones has never seemed as old as in that one shot). There’s no such melancholy in Fargo, no such sense of nostalgia for a lost world. The Gundersons are very much looking forward to the future; the last words of the film are “two more months” (referring of course to their child’s upcoming birth), said first by Norm, then repeated by Marge. The ending to Fargo, so subdued yet so powerful, nicely counterbalances Bell’s (and No Country for Old Men’s) nihilism. And if you ask me, Marge Gunderson makes for a pretty good carrier of the fire.

“The Ghost Writer” by Nictate (, @nictate)

To best describe the ending of Roman Polanski’s origami-tidy thriller The Ghost Writer, I need to start at the beginning. Early in the film we meet an author played by a bemused yet earnest Ewan McGregor (named in the credits only as The Ghost). Over a meal, he and his agent discuss a possible new gig. The project? Completing the memoirs of a former British Prime Minister since the previous ghost writer met an untimely end.

“Now, you realize I know nothing about politics?” challenges The Ghost, to which his agent counters: “You voted for him, didn’t you?” This seemingly innocuous, expository exchange gets to the heart of what Polanski’s exploring here: sociopolitical guilt by complicity.

Story similarities to Tony Blair’s checkered days as Bush’s whipping boy are barely veiled, but Polanski desires more than a cathartic, cinematic conviction of the Coalition. He seems to want us to take stock of our own responsibilities as citizens. Is there such a thing as an innocent bystander anymore?

Quickly losing his own bystander status in the film, The Ghost becomes dangerously enmeshed in solving a mystery uncovered during his book research. Making thrilling use of Hitchcockian touches, Polanski threads us through a needle of intrigue leading to the final, fateful stitch: a publisher’s party celebrating the release of the memoirs.

In the midst of the champagne toasting, The Ghost has an epiphany and hides himself away in a side room with the original ghost writer’s manuscript. A fevered discovery is made as he slides a felt-tip marker under the first word of each chapter, forming a sentence that reveals the Prime Minister’s wife, Ruth, played by a terse and terrific Olivia Williams, was a CIA agent during her marriage. Scribbling his damning discovery on a sheet of paper, The Ghost folds the page neatly, writes Ruth’s name on the front and returns to the party.

The next sequence is breathtaking in its jarringly analogue elegance. As Ruth stands onstage giving a tribute to her husband before the gathered crowd, The Ghost hands his note over to a guest on the perimeter of the throng. The guest peers down at the addressee’s name and then hands the note to the person in front of him to move it along to Ruth. Guest by guest, the note drifts across the party like a butterfly alighting on one hand after another, all at a heart-in-the-throat molasses pace. The camera drifts alongside, tracing the paper’s path in close-cropped claustrophobia, almost rubbing elbows with the crowd.

Fluorescent light from above fuzzes the close-quartered edges of the revelers’ fine wool and silk garments and turns half-drunk glasses of alcohol into lustrous swinging lanterns of crimson and amber. This masterfully choreographed assembly-line sequence serves as a strikingly eloquent metaphor for the way complicity touches so many.

As Ruth finishes her speech to warm applause, the missive reaches her hand. Balancing a microphone while unfolding the paper, she smiles tightly. The camera coils below her, dramatically canted, as if preparing to strike. Reading the message, her world-weary face contracts in grey anger. She looks up and spots The Ghost, who raises his glass to her in a sarcastic, wordless toast before slipping away.

As he hurries into the street with the manuscript evidence clutched to his chest, it is twilight. The sky is a trembling, dim blue and the asphalt is wet from London rain, distorting the golden beams from the streetlights. The Ghost shuffles nervously, trying to hail a cab. It skims by him and after a moment’s hesitation in the middle of the lane, he continues across the street and out of frame.

From further down the road, a car approaches, accelerates and barrels out of the same corner of the frame. A muffled impact is heard, then the screech of brakes. People in the street react ever so slowly, as if dumbfounded. Now fluttering into frame from the corner of impact comes a single sheet of manuscript paper, immediately connecting us to the ugly truth that The Ghost has been crushed by the car. Cops and bystanders hurry out of frame to the accident scene, but the camera remains stubbornly fixed. Another manuscript sheet, and then another, spiral into frame until a torrent of pages twist in the wind away from us like a tipped-over tornado. It’s as if we’re seeing the life’s blood draining from the victim’s body in paper form. The sense of futility is smothering. Even if we are brave enough to take action against complicity, is our resistance against the misuse of power ultimately hopeless?

Some found the ending of The Ghost Writer to be an F.U. to the audience: Polanski rubbing his cynicism in our faces. Quite the contrary. There’s a sorrow that leaks through the film like watercolors. The Ghost Writer may have a slick surface, but Polanski’s heart is bleeding underneath in empathetic grief, as the splash of red in the gut of almost every shot seems to represent.

As with the ending of his revered classic, Chinatown, Polanski leaves us on a darkened city street facing the death of a pawn at the hands of the powerful. “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown,” is still Polanski’s sentiment in The Ghost Writer, only now he’s expanded the scope of his frustration as if to say: “Forget it, Jake. The whole world’s Chinatown.”

“Let the Right One In (Låt den rätte komma in)” by Sarah Ward (, @moviebuff15)

For this list of great and memorable movie endings, I nominate the intriguing and ambiguous conclusion of Låt den rätte komma in, or Let the Right One In. The plot: a slight, bullied twelve-year-old boy, Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) is the child of incompetent parents and the victim of sadistic classmates. He fantasizes about bloody revenge and simply tries to survive, angry yet naïve.

He meets a strange girl named Eli (Lina Leandersson) one night outside their apartment. She is like him, solemn, lonely. “How old are you?” he asks. “Twelve.” She says. “Only- I’ve been twelve for a very long time.” To make a long story short, Eli survives on blood, and she encourages Oskar to stand up to his victimizers. After hitting the main perpetrator self-defensively in the head with a stick, the kid’s friends pretend to be impressed and trick Oskar into coming to the swimming pool.

As one of the boys marches to techno music and Oskar childishly grins and treads in the water, the boy who was galumphed in the head’s older brother comes and gives him a proposition- stay under water for three minutes, or lose an eye. The teenager is much bigger than him, and has a knife. Oskar is grabbed by the hair and pulled under.

We see a great underwater shot of Oskar struggling in the pool, not seeing as severed body parts fall into the water. The teenager’s grip on Oskar loosens, then let’s go completely, and as all but one kid lies dismembered and bloody, Oskar breaks the surface and smile at his friend.

The final scene is harder to read. Oskar has left his old life and parents behind. He is on a train looking through the window, and taps out morse code (he and Eli’s form of communication) on a trunk, where Eli hides. Where they’re going, I don’t know. But they’ll go together.

It has been suggested that Eli was leading him along the whole time, looking for a replacement for her aging pedophile minion Hakan. Call me an idealist, but I don’t believe it. There are even theories Oskar died in the swimming pool, or turned into a vampire, or a fate equally strange. Whether or not he goes over the edge under Eli’s influence, it was people, not her kind, that stole his innocence. And no one will pick on him ever again.

“Lost in Translation” by Greg Salvatore (, @litdreamer)

About a year before I went to Japan, I saw the movie Lost in Translation. I had wanted to see it in the theater, but kept waiting and waiting until my chances ran out. Seeing it on DVD for the first time, I wish I hadn't waited, but was glad that I saw it at all

In the future, people may remember this film for including Bill Murray's best performance, or for making Scarlett Johansson a star, but I'll remember it for introducing me, more than the anime series I was watching at the time, to that mysterious land called Japan. Indeed, the first time I crossed the street in front of Shibuya Station in Tokyo and walked on the stepping “stones” in the pond at the Heian Shrine in Kyoto, I thought of how cool it was that my foot was touching the same places that Johansson's feet had touched.

The story is a simple one: two lonely souls with marriage problems meet in Japan. He is a washed up actor there to do a whiskey commercial; she has followed her husband there on a photo shoot. The man is much older than the woman, but Bob Harris (Murray) and Charlotte (Johansson) are connected by their circumstances. As foreigners suffering from identity crises, they find comfort in each other, and then love. When Charlotte says, “Let's never come here again because it would never be as much fun,” she is reiterating the great truth that it's not where you go or what you do, but who you do it with, that matters.

The opening scene is rather strange, as we get a shot of Charlotte (though we don't know who it is yet) lying sideways on her bed in her hotel, wearing see-through pink panties, a blue shirt, and a t-shirt. Cut so that her feet and the upper half of her body are missing, all we can focus on is the movement of her butt and legs. From there, we hear a jet landing and an announcement welcoming travelers to Narita Airport. We then get our first shot of Bob Harris, in which he wakes up in a limo and looks out the window. While he is in focus, what is outside his window is not. We continue to follow his ride to the Park Hyatt Hotel in Tokyo. He is given gifts upon arrival and takes the elevator, where he is surrounded by Japanese businessmen, to his room. Unable to sleep, and with nothing on TV, he heads to the bar area, but soon heads back to his room after being spotted by some fans. Still not able to sleep, he receives a fax from his wife asking him which cabinets he wants installed in his study. The time is 4:20 am.

Now we meet Charlotte, who is also unable to sleep. Like our first shot of Bob, she is shown alone and looking out of a window (though we hear the snores of her husband). Unlike Bob, the scene outside of the window is in focus before she comes into focus. Also, while we first saw Bob sleeping and then waking up, in her first scene she is awake and unable to fall asleep.

Bob and Charlotte first meet the next day on a elevator, but their paths continue on different trajectories until a third meeting, when Charlotte sits next to Bob at the bar, both of them still suffering from insomnia.

While they continue to have their separate adventures (Bob with the “Johnny Carson of Japan,” Charlotte with a trip to Kyoto), it's their moments together that they (and we) most look forward to (though I find Charlotte's solo trip to Kyoto one of the highlights of the film, and a lesson in how to tell a story through music and imagery alone). These moments include their first night out, at a nightclub in Tokyo, which leads to the famous karaoke scene where Bob sings More Than This (watch how Murray and Johansson look at each other during this song) and another great scene, in the latter half of the film, in which they talk to each other, in bed, about life, marriage, kids, and meaning. Which reminds me, this is one of the few romantic movies I can think of where the two love interests sleep together, but don't have sex. Coppola is right to have Bob cheat on his wife with someone else, for he cares too much about Charlotte, and Charlotte too much about him, for them to ruin it with sex. Sex would cheapen what they mean to each other.

In addition to this relationship, what Coppola gets so right is the mood of Japan, especially as perceived by foreigners. Even baffling scenes like the one in which Charlotte, Bob, and her friend Charlie (Fumihiro Hayashi) are chased out of the club feels right for people (like myself) who spent a significant amount of time in Japan or, in this case, Tokyo. One factor in this is her excellent choice of music, which combines with the imagery and camerawork of each scene to suggest the mood. Some examples including the awe-inducing music that accompanies Bob's ride into Shinjuku at the beginning of the film, where all the buildings are lit up in an equally awe-inducing display, or the melancholy music that plays when Charlotte sits on her windowsill, looking out over the vast expanse of Tokyo: buildings in a foreign landscape. Or the simple music that plays when she visits Kyoto, which reminds me of raindrops and the passage of time. At the same time, Coppola also knows when there should be no music, such as in the scene where Charlotte is smoking in the hallway outside Charlie's apartment and Bob joins her, taking a drag on her cigarette before passing it back to her. The sounds from karaoke muted in the background, she rests her head on his shoulder and takes a drag from that same cigarette (in this scene, I always notice how her fingers open and close around that cigarette). How much is conveyed in these simple gestures, without either person saying a word, and how much the addition of music would have destroyed it.

Another great aspect of this film is that it's funny if you don't know Japanese or Japanese customs, and funnier if you do (concerning Kelly, Anna Faris's airhead of a Hollywood starlet, I'm also sure that it's funnier the more you know about Hollywood celebrities. Her press conference in which she mentions how she and Keanu Reeves have so much in common – like how they both live in L.A., own two dogs, and like Mexican food – makes me smile every time). When I first saw Lost in Translation, I had no idea what any of the characters were saying in Japanese, nor that Japanese people confuse 'r' with 'l' sounds because—in Japanese—it's the same sound. Now that I can understand most of the Japanese being spoken, scenes like the one in which the Suntory whiskey director gives Bob lots of instructions, which his translator summarizes as “look in camera,” are even more hilarious, since I can understand both the director's frustration in not getting his message across, and Bob's confusion about what message he's supposed to be getting.

And that is the sign of a great film: to be so true to what it is trying to convey that it becomes a greater film the deeper one digs. Another sign is a great script. Coppola richly deserved the Oscar she won for Best Original Screenplay, and while I can fault her inability to create more empathetic characters in Lydia (Bob's wife) and John (Charlotte's husband, played by Giovanni Ribisi), they are not the focus of the film: Bob, Charlotte, Japan (specifically Tokyo), and the relationship between the three are. Also, making their spouses too likeable might have shifted focus away from Bob and Charlotte's relationship, and needlessly complicated the story.

Lost in Translation also benefits from having one of the great cinematic endings. It gives audiences what they want, without being false to the reality that its characters live in. And what is it that Bob whispers to Charlotte? If we knew, it wouldn't be as good of a moment. It's great because we must imagine what he said to her, and what we imagine he said will always be better than what he actually said.

Though Sofia Coppola always makes good movies (she also directed The Virgin Suicides, the underrated Marie Antoinette, and the slightly overrated Somewhere), this is her best work, and one of the greatest films of the past ten years. When I first saw it, it made me fall in love with Japan. When I watch it now, it makes me miss it.

“Magnolia” by Erik Anderson (, @awardsprophets)

By the time we get to the end of Paul Thomas Anderson’s audacious and talky 188-minute masterpiece, Magnolia, we’ve seen cryptic religious scripture allusions, characters simultaneously break into an Aimee Mann song and frogs literally raining from the sky; all in a film world of 24 hours. This epic mosaic of interconnected people in the San Fernando Valley culminates though in a gorgeous, quiet, single take of cokehead troublemaker Claudia (the brilliant Melora Walters) sitting in bed while kind-hearted and beleaguered cop Jim (John C. Reilly) talks to her. We can’t hear anything he’s saying and we don’t need to; it’s all on her face. It goes from panicked child to relief at knowing that someone cares for her.

Ultimately though, my favorite final scene is even more a favorite final shot. When Claudia turns directly to camera and cracks the tiniest of smiles, as if it takes a series of mechanics to slightly turn the corners of her mouth, we feel…relief. After all of the cacophony, the crazy, the frogs, we, through Claudia, are given a vestige of hope. Hope that something as simple as love (yet so seemingly intangible) can make our lives better.

“Michael Clayton” by Seongyeong Cho (, @kaist455)

There are many movies with great final scenes, so it is not easy for me to say which one is the best. But I can say that Tony Gilroy’s Michael Clayton, which I recently watched again, is one of the best. After the captivating opening sequence powered by the intense monologue by Tom Wilkinson, who plays Clayton’s unstable colleague Arthur Edens, we see how Clayton(George Clooney) comes to the crucial moment in his life. We come to know that he has lots of problems besides his exhausted soul after so many years of working as “the janitor” of his law firm. He has gambling addiction. He is financially broke. His private business is collapsed with the huge debts thanks to his irresponsible brother. His position in the firm is unstable due to upcoming merger. And his boss and others still demand his service.

The movie starts as a thriller, but it ultimately works as a gray morality play about the characters and their choices. In his latest job, Clayton finds himself between Edens, who suddenly decides to work against his client, a major corporation company named U/North, and will do anything to disclose its corruption, and Karen Crowder(Tilda Swinton), fiendish but neurotic chief legal counselor of U/North who will also do anything for covering it up. As a jaded realist, Clayton knows what he has to do as the expert fixer. He initially does what others expect him to do as much as he can. But his tarnished conscience keeps coming back to him, even after when he decides to follow the others. Eventually, he has enough after the incident that happens to him in the opening. He decides to cross the line, like Edens did.

After the final confrontation scene, Clayton gets out of the building and takes a cab. A cab driver asks him, “So what are we doing?” He replies, “Give me fifty dollars worth. Just drive”. The movie closes with Clayton in the backseat while Robert Elswit’s camera calmly focuses on his face for around two minutes. He does not speak, but his facial expression, still entangled with complicated feelings, tells us that Clayton’s internal struggle is far from being over. He has finally done the right thing, but there will be another problems waiting for him in the future because of that. Accompanied with James Newton Howard’s somber score, he feels relived at last but he also feels worried. Now, what will happen to him? - He really needs more time to think than fifty dollars worth.

“Taxi Driver” by Wael Khairy (, @waelkhairy88)

It’s been thirty-five years since Taxi Driver shocked the world with its brutal honest and terrifying portrayal of a loner desperate to fit into a decaying rotten society. Since its release, Taxi Driver has risen to highest status of cinema, an all-time masterpiece. One simply can’t argue against a near perfect film. The argument that follows any viewing of Taxi Driver isn’t a questioning of its quality but rather a discussion on what the final moments actually mean.

On the surface, the disturbing final scenes showing the media glorifying a sociopath as a hero are the film’s ultimate revelation. We live in a corrupt society where the lowest of human beings can rise to the highest of standards, not because of mental issues but because the exposure of a society’s unsettling reality forces one down this pathway. Because no matter how safe and secure you think your neighborhood is, there’s no such thing as a perfect world. If a taxi driver who has gone on a killing rampage can be set free and be labeled a hero, then what does that say about human nature, media, principles and civilization as a whole? This gut wrenching slap in the face of a finale has its counter argument and film fans have been debating the true meaning of Taxi Driver’s ending for decades. The heated discussion won’t end anytime soon.

The dispute amongst film fans is whether the ending actually took place or is part of a wish-fulfilling Travis Bickle fantasy. Some believe the iconic shot of Bickle pointing his bloody finger to the side of his head contain everything one needs to know about the ending. For one Travis acts out a suicide, slowly pretending that he’s shooting himself, before finally resting his head suggesting his definitive demise. Symbolically this image may indicate that by pointing to his head, Scorsese through Bickle is cinematically telling the audience that all that follows is indeed as he literally points out -all in his head. Therefore it’s all a final imaginary flash into what Bickle would consider a satisfying ending to his miserable life. Fans usually use the fact that the film is filled with symbolic shots as evidence. In addition to that, one can’t argue that realistically speaking the ending seemed realistically improbable.

Cinematically, Scorsese teases with dream like camera angles such as the floating head of Betsy in the rear view mirror or the famous ceiling shot when the camera simply drifts away from the crime scene. This may imply that we’re no longer seeing the world through Bickle’s eyes but we’re rather experiencing an out of body occurrence of a departing man’s satisfactory concluding dream. While this take makes a lot of sense. There’s one final split of a second that demolishes the whole “it’s all in his head” analysis. After dropping off Betsy, a neck-scarred Bickle resumes his night cruise when suddenly something catches his eye in the rear-view mirror. Bernard Herman’s score peaks with high note, Bickle snaps, and adjusts the mirror to get a better look when the end credits start flashing. In many ways, this is Scorsese’s final twist ending. Travis Bickle has found something else to occupy his mind. Something caught his attention and the psycho is about to embark on a new mission. If that is the case, then Bickle did survive the shoot-out and isn’t even slightly cured of his sickness. Either way, there’s no definitive meaning to the ending of Taxi Driver. All we can do is wonder debate and look for more clues to support an essentially flawed perspective. The dispute and arguments are what kept this film fresh and interesting to this day. One thing is for sure, the final scenes of Taxi Driver have ensured its timelessness through artistic ambiguity.

“Tokyo Sonata” by Nick Duval (, @flickpmonster)

Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Tokyo Sonata incorporates some truly original elements that make it entirely its own movie and a sentimental favorite (if not quite a masterpiece), but perhaps its most skillful gambit comes when it turns a potentially cliché scenario into a completely spectacular closer. After a father has lost his high-income job, his friend has committed suicide, his wife has been kidnapped, and one of his sons has joined the military, much would have to be done to remedy things. But what happens in the end does on a certain level: his youngest child, a kid who has a bad rep in school, showcases his innate, developed-on-the-sly piano skills in a recital, playing “Claire de Lune” by Debussy. You can feel yourself groaning when you read this, but the execution of the scene is so good that it feels totally earned.

First off, the scene relies on the reaction of the father, played Teriyuki Kagawa, who is quite good in this film. His face is key to the film’s emotional current, and here it adds a good deal of resonance, when he starts to soften and tear up. To add to that, the classical piece played, one of both serenity and drama, serves as a metaphor for the whole film (and thus was used in the movie’s trailer). Also in terms of evocation, the curtains in the scene recall the beginning of the film, another small moment of elegance.

The cinematography is in the scene is sterling. From the moment the kid sits down at the piano till the end, it is told entirely in stationary shots and mid-to-long takes. The de-stylization of the camera as well as the editing lets the action take center stage (as it should), letting you invest more in what’s happening.

Framing plays a huge part in this scene. Since the song and reactions are occupying your attention, the artful moves made by Kurosawa and his DP Akiko Ashizawa are practically subliminal. They shoot the piano at first from mid-range, but then progressively get closer and closer each time after cutting back from the people in the crowd. Then, they shoot again from mid-range, showing that many people have gathered to the right side of the piano, where only a couple of people were before. After this, they toss in another couple of close shots, including one looking through the opened top, before pulling back to show an immense curve of people watching. It is a composition to remind one of both the scene where the birds come together near the school in Hitchcock’s The Birds and the homage in the second part of Steven Soderbergh’s Che, though in this instance, the gathering takes place mostly off-screen. This is the final shot of the scene and the film, clocking in at a little under 2 minutes, and it extends to show the family come to pick up the son (the father giving his kid the praise he deserves) and take him home. The moment when the heads of the entire crowd turn to watch the prodigy leave the building sends a chill up my spine every time I see it.

The brilliantly measured isolation of the scene, though, is probably its most important and ideologically powerful attribute. This structural choice goes to show that whatever happens next, no matter how screwed the family is, for a few minutes they were above it all. As a family member, as an artist, as a human being, this rings true to me. This is a must-see for anyone who thinks that art means nothing, cause they’ve got another thing coming.