Volume 3, Number 9
This Week's Reviews: The Mexican, The House of Mirth.
Shooting Gallery Reviews: The Last Resort, When Brendan Met Trudy.
This Week's Omissions: Carman: The Champion, See Spot Run, Venus Beauty Institute.
(Dir: Gore Verbinski, Starring Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts, James Gandolfini, Bob Balaban, Luis Felipe Tovar, J.K. Simmons, Michael Cerveris, David Krumholtz, Jeremy Roberts, Richard Coca, David Windsor, Carlos Lacamara, Gene Hackman, and Sherman Augustus)
BY: DAVID PERRY
Often mixing stars can do only one thing: turn a motion picture into a war of the egos. Whether it is the classic example of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane or the modern teaming of Joan Allen and Gary Oldman in The Contender, there is a presence of two stars constantly butting heads. Sometimes the size of the actors play off each other (like Robert De Niro and Ben Stiller in Meet the Parents), other times they get lost in each other (like Meg Ryan and Russell Crowe in Proof of Life), but the sad fact is that most instead create an air of inflated self-worth.
There is a great deal of this feeling in The Mexican, where Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts come head-to-head in the competition of People's "sexiest man" and Hollywood's box-office darling. Had they not been divided into their own stories by the end of the first act, this might had more casualties of war behind the scenes than in the film.
I am not one of Julia Roberts' biggest fans, I'll admit to it. In fact, I have come near detesting some of her performances in the past (was I the only person that felt incredibly sick when she received an Academy Award nomination for her mediocre-at-best performance in Pretty Woman) ranging from Runaway Bride to Something to Talk About. Hey, I'll admit to liking her in Erin Brockovich and Michael Collins, two performances in which she did not spend the entire duration attempting to look like a lovable, adorable young lady. In fact, the frank and caustic attitude to her portrayal in the Steven Soderbergh film was incredibly refreshing.
But I am a Brad Pitt fan. He has long been an actor to keep in eye on, ever since his charming performance in Robert Redford's A River Runs Through It and his evil performance in Dominic Sena's cult classic Kalifornia. I still remember trying to convince people that the real treat in Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles was Pitt, not costar Tom Cruise (who, admittedly, has grown into a respectable actor over the years) and have been rather happy that he has become a type of modern James Dean, leaving the ladies and the critics in awe. Before The Mexican, I had not seen a performance from Pitt that did not seem like he was taking a shot at something new (even in films that I otherwise disliked, including Sleepers, The Devil's Own, and Snatch).
Yet I was not in awe of seeing these two together for the first time, because I knew exactly what was going to happen in the long run. Pitt does have a more chivalrous quality than most actors these days (read: Leondardo DiCaprio), and he is the only of the two that makes it out of the film retaining any inch of respect. You have an impression that he is not as guilty of the screen hogging, as the film would like you to think. It is more the work of director Gore Verbinski, in a sad attempt at making each actor look like the star through his helming. Roberts, on the other hand, practically screams "I'm ready for my close-up, Mr. Verbinski" with every shot. Boy, do I pray for an Ellen Burstyn win at the upcoming Academy Awards.
Pitt is Jerry, a mild-mannered regular Joe with the mob on his heels. A traffic accident landed him in the hands of a mob overlord named Margolis, who needs Jerry to fulfill some needs from middleman Nalin (Balaban). For his final chore, Jerry must go to Mexico and find a beloved gun called The Mexican, which is evidently important to everyone corrupt both north and south of the border.
Now, this task would not be so bad if it were not for the fact that he and his girlfriend Samantha (Roberts) have planned to go to Las Vegas for the week, which the cancellation of the plan is enough to lead her into a violent frenzy and head out in the direction by herself. En route, she becomes the prey of two hitmen, both of whom hope to use her as a compromising token to get the gun from Jerry. The one that finally gets his hands on her is Leroy (Gandolfini), a very untrusting soul that becomes more of a confidant than a threat to Samantha as time progresses.
Of course, things go awry for Jerry and he must forge his belongings and his energy to regaining the gun. As Jim Morrison said, "people are strange when you're a stranger" and stranger still when you are a very worried American tourist with a decrepit truck and a rabid dog in Mexico. All the while, Jerry and Samantha bicker back and forth without the other even being around. It's a loving, happy film.
One of the keys to this film is whether or not you can stand the experience of being with these two for so long. In my mind, it was like sitting through The Story of Us again, where you are supposed to be entertained by two people viciously fighting for nearly two hours. More trouble still, in the fact that The Mexican feels like it is three hours in length, following every false climax with an additional story arch to make one of the most convoluted films of the year so far.
I had nothing against Gore Verbinski, who did a fine job four years ago with Mouse Hunt, but could not help but feel that he was not suited to direct a film like The Mexican. He does it in a style that would work only if this film were more light-hearted. Had there been a little less death and dark undertones, this film might have worked under the direction that Verbinski gives, but as is, there is nothing to keep it in check, like Joel Coen did with the similar in tone but far superior Fargo.
I haven't the slightest idea how The Mexican will
fare with audiences. Some of those in the same theatre as me seemed to have the same
feeling, while others were having a nice time. There is nothing really redeeming to this
feature, yet I feel that some people will turn it into a hit based on the fact that it has
two of their favorite actors headlining the film. I guess there is some good that can come
from the dueling egos after all.
|The House of Mirth
(Dir: Terence Davies, Starring Gillian Anderson, Eric Stoltz, Laura Linney, Elizabeth McGovern, Jodhi May, Anthony LaPaglia, Dan Aykroyd, Eleanor Bron, Terry Kinney, Penny Downie, Pearce Quigley, Helen Coker, Mary MacLeod, Paul Venables, and Serena Gordon)
BY: DAVID PERRY
Edith Wharton is a tough sell, no matter what the style the director might take. With Wharton comes a feeling of grace in depression, her novels are like many of the other realists at the time, who created art in the sadness of their subjects. The deep undertones and ironies of her works are tough to get on film, they are so much clearer and more resonate on the page.
I have read some of her works over the years, but have only seen two adaptations: Martin Scorsese's The Age of Innocence and John Madden's Ethan Frome, both in 1993. Both of those films show what a task Wharton can be, Innocence is a beautiful filming of the novel but lacks the impact of the source, and Frome retains the engrossing story but lays it out in such a way that makes it look sloppily put together. Now comes Terence Davies (director of the forgotten The Long Day Closes and Distant Voices, Still Lives) with his adaptation of The House of Mirth, giving us the closest celluloid realization of a Wharton novel to date.
The novel follows Lily Bart (played here by the incredible Anderson), a young socialite in 1903 New York. She is not one that would be considered part of the elite, but her ingenuity and the money her aunt hold over her head is enough to get her foot in the door and allow her to search the in crowd for friends and, perhaps, a husband that will forever station her in the privileged class. But she is too defiant and self-imposed to allow debasement through an advantageous marriage; she can only be the wife to the man that she loves.
The perfect man for Lily is Lawrence Selden (Stoltz), who is often the focus of her playfulness. They often find themselves courting in the fields around the country estate Bellomont, and even occasionally share a small kiss. But they are not to be, as the film makes clear, for Lawrence is too situated in the upper class to allow himself to be sullied by the downward trajectory Lily finally falls into.
She is a friend to Bertha Dorset (Linney), a very rich and very spoiled lady who is more interested in receiving everything she wants than in keeping friends. She knows that she will forever be untouchable -- her money makes her more powerful than most men at the time -- and hasn't the least interest in anything besides the retaining her glory. Lily does not know this, or at least does not acknowledge this. She does know that Bertha is having an affair with Lawrence despite her doting husband, but she does not see the evil within Bertha. A trip to Monte Carlo on the Dorset yacht is the beginning of the end for Lily simply because Bertha has a spoiled fit.
The film's end (which I shall divulge for analysis, so be forewarned) is one of the great haunting finales of literature. Bringing this to the screen was the biggest task for the film -- fashioning it in the wrong direction can only leave it close to melodrama, to catch the needed impact, it must be treated in a certain way. Terence Davies understands this and does his best to make the finale as close to the novel as possible. When Lily lies there on her bed, a wreck having fallen into the working class and an illness that leaves her unable to sleep, she has her sleeping medicine in hand (the prescription for which she stole from a former employer). Holding it frailly in her left hand, the bottle tips allowing the red fluid to spill onto the sheets like a wound to her gut. She lays there, unmoving and 'bleeding' -- her life in shambles, despite the long-awaited arrival of her $10,000 inheritance, which she is already indebted to give to Gus Trenor (Aykroyd) after he made sexual advances to her through money without her knowing the intent of the generosity.
By the last moments, we are left in wonderment of this: has Lily committed suicide or has fate final taken that final felt ambush on her. She is finally paid up on her debts and can go onto a job that might make her enough to allow her to live. Yes, she can never again live the life she once had, but she is not completely done-in yet. We, like Lawrence, are left to question the finale of Lily's life. The difference is that we have understood her problems throughout, he, on the other hand, can only understand now when it is too late. For him, condemnation is not enough to make up for the fact that he has shunned the love of his life until her last breath, only to love her in the lateness of the hour.
The House of Mirth does not moralize like some of
the other realist writings of the time, and perhaps that is the reason that the film
adaptation resonates more now than Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urburvilles or
Kate Chopin's The Awakening would. There is not a preaching moment in this film,
just a collection of censures and denouncements towards the times. The novel ends in 1905,
the same year it was published, and Wharton meant it as the vilification of society at the
time. As she once wrote about the novel's stance on the period's elite: "A frivolous
society can acquire dramatic significance only through what its frivolity destroys. Its
tragic implication lies in its power of debasing people and ideals."
Shooting Gallery Reviews: Thanks to the kindness of Shooting Gallery releasing and membership in the Online Film Critics Society, two new screeners have come in. As is customarily the return for screeners, I have written reviews for each of the releases, The Last Resort (currently in select cities) and When Brendan Met Trudy (opening in wide release on 8 March).
|The Last Resort
(Dir: Pawel Pawlikowski, Starring Dina Korzun, Paddy Considine, Artion Strelnikov, Lindsey Honey, Perry Benson, Katie Drinkwater, and Dave Bean)
BY: DAVID PERRY
Stonehaven is a dropping spot for political refugees in England -- they are left in tiny apartments with a small monetary stipend. The name of the town is a bit of a misnomer -- though the area is surrounded by a stonewall, it is far from a safe haven. In fact, they are watched at all times and kept inside the confines of the wall by 24-hour policing and barbwire. This is the UK's version of America's treatment of South American refugees.
For Tanya (Korzun), it is her only choice. She and her 9-year old son Artiom (Strelnokov) have been placed in Stonehaven when their original plans fall flat. They have come from Russia to meet Mark, Tanya's fiancé and the ensuing marriage would make her a British citizen. But Mark does not meet them at the airport and she has nothing to tell the immigration officials when they ask for a reason to let her into the country. Finally she lets them put them down for political asylum and thinks that she will be able to get out of the bureaucratic hassle once Mark comes through. They cannot and he never does.
In Stonehaven, Alfie (Considine), the local arcade owner, befriends Artiom. He has an interest in Tanya but knows that she is not ready to be with anyone besides Mark, nevertheless he decides that he should at least show Artiom a good time for the moment. As time progresses and a return looks more and more distant, Tanya becomes desperate for both love and money. Luckily for her, Alfie loves her and he is a reliable person to be with, but he is not rich and money must come no matter what cost. Tanya must compromise her dignity when a chap named Les (Honey) offers her a job. He is not a pimp, like Artiom predicts, but is in the business of sex -- though his is of a safer type, streaming sex shows across the internet.
As she questions her own morality, Artiom learns the street at too young an age. He walks the broken streets with his friends, drinking contraband vodka, vandalizing anything in reach, and stealing from the local businesses. Both he and Tanya begin to adapt to their surroundings, though only one sees the moral degradation that is occurring in the process.
By the end of the film, it is no surprise to learn that Pawel Pawlikovski has earned his directing wings as a documentarian -- there is certainly a feeling of non-fiction filmmaking to Last Resort. The real life realizations, characters, and scenarios all make for a film that could easily serve as a 60 Minutes special or an Academy Award nominated documentary feature. Pawlikovski puts a great deal of heart into his creation of this story and it shows in nearly every shot of the motion picture.
However, Last Resort feels like it's missing something. By the finale, there's a certain slice that seems to have been left out -- not that the film's ending is wrong, but the moments working up to it fall short. The length of this film, a surprising 73 minutes, could have easily been extended to give us more weight in the final moments, as we are left wondering what this existence is doing to Artiom. While loose ends are not the problem, empty spaces are. The connection between the second act and the last shot is a barely visible screen of cinema juxtapositions thrown together to make an ending that might not create too much thought into characters that had before been reflective but now look like the movie of the week personnel speaking in occasional Russian.
But there is something that comes out of the finale unscathed, the remarkable performance from Dina Korzun. She evidently comes from the Emily Watson School of Acting, where every little thought and emotion come from the face, not the mouth. Korzun is nearly unknown in America, but she has a strong following in Russia, where she hails. If there ever were a film to make a breakthrough to English-speaking audiences, this is the one. We have embraced everyone from Watson to Björk over the years in their portrayals of women in the midst of great personal pain for their loved ones. I do not think that this film will make it as far around as Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark, but hopefully it will expose Korzun to people who might give her more chances to enthrall American audiences.
Once again, as has become custom over the last year when
writing reviews released from this company, we must thank Shooting Gallery releasing for
getting this film into American theatres. The third series from them, beginning with this
film, looks to be just as impressive as the last series (which included the art house hit Croupier).
Three cheers for the fine people over at Shooting Gallery, with films like these, the
normal blues of spring movies look far more impressive than usual.
|When Brendan Met Trudy
(Dir: Kieron J. Walsh, Starring Peter McDonald, Flora Montgomery, Marie Mullen, Pauline McLynn, Don Wycherley, Maynard Eziashi, Eileen Walsh, Barry Cassin, Niall O'Brien, Rynagh O'Grady, Ali White, Julie Hale, Chris McHallem, Jack Lynch, Robert O'Niell, Eoin Manley, George McMahon, and Sean O'Flanagan)
BY: DAVID PERRY
Just when it seems like the spring dumping ground has only created the worst films imaginable in the comedy genre, here comes our friends over at Shooting Gallery to save the day. With a regular release schedule of foreign and independent films, they have created a nearly flawless calendar of must-see movies for film aficionados. Their latest release, an Irish import called When Brendan Met Trudy, is far above the type of films that any of the so-called big studios have brought us over the last two months.
This film is about so much more than simply the pairing of two people. This is not some contrivance used as an excuse to place Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts on the screen at the same time. I have been on the case of Hollywood over the past few weeks, especially when dealing with romantic dramas, thanks to recent repertory releases of Anthony Minghella's The English Patient and Alain Resnais' Hiroshima, Mon Amour. But, really, there is no excuse for this pandering to gushing couples that Hollywood has produced in mass quantities over the past few years.
Thinking it over after finishing When Brendan Met Trudy, I finally realized what set this film apart from those movies created by the establishment: it does not base its entire existence on its romantic plot. For dramas, it's slightly easier -- treat the subjects in an adult fashion without losing the human touch needed and you can succeed like Frédéric Fonteyne's An Affair of Love. But that is not the case for the comedies -- they cannot be too quirky or too uplifting, otherwise they cannot succeed with the target audience.
When Brendan Met Trudy understands this, it stands on its own. Take out the romantic elements and you still have a very enjoyable little film. I will be first to admit that I had reservations at first, but once the film hit its stride, it become pure bliss. Yeah, it is a little quirky, but the eccentricities works for it unlike, say, Giuseppe Tornatore's Malèna.
Definitely, the early moments of the film fail to capture where the rest of the film will go, arguably the film's only major fault. I was very weary when it I thought it was becoming too conscience, but the film's finale, which pushes the envelope of film in-jokes, makes it all worthwhile. When Brendan Met Trudy is much more than a spoof of the films it notices, it is a testament to the love of those films. Its lead, schoolteacher Brendan (McDonald), loves the films that he has grown up with. In his fantasies, he is dressed like Jean-Paul Belmondo in Breathless speaking French with English subtitles.
There are many moments in this film with a nod to older films. These are not nods in jest like those in Scary Movie, but in respect. When Brendan makes a very subtle gesture from The Usual Suspects, it is not meant in the same way as Scary Movie did it, but in the same reverence given to The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Producers, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. This film, like its protagonist, loves movies to a fault and lets it dictate its being (gee, sounds unusually familiar).
Just when you feel that the in-joke has died and the
pretentiousness is ready to set in, the film saves itself from making one final, felt
swoop. The iffy feeling that I had when the film came to a conclusion was thrown out the
window as it went into a nice finale and terrific credits sequence (the first title alone
had me laughing more than the entire film Runaway Bride). For my money, When
Brendan Met Trudy is not as good as the film in which its title comes from, but it
certainly could become this year's closest variation on that When Harry Met Sally.