Elsewhere: “Review: Wes Anderson’s ‘Moonrise Kingdom'” on Ruelle Electrique

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Ruelle Electrique has just posted a movie review I wrote of Wes Anderson’s ingratiating paean to youthful love, “Moonrise Kingdom.” My fondness of Benjamin Britten’s music certainly helped drive me to the theater, but Anderson’s Polaroid fairy tale didn’t need that advantage to win this curmudgeonly reviewer over. (Not by a long shot). I give this summertime treat my heartiest Ebertian two thumbs up. Watch it, but before you do…

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Review: “Somewhere” (2010)

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Sofia Coppola

Rating:  ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

In Sofia Coppola’s “Somewhere,” the story doesn’t move at breakneck speed; instead it drifts. And a drifting pace fits it just fine. Some might rile in boredom at the seeming lack of a plot–the story is in many ways a prequel to an actual journey–and I would call that a valid reaction. Coppola’s is a kind of film dependent on a viewer’s mood:  If you’re up for looking closer at scenes seemingly yielding nothing at first blush, then you might just get “somewhere” with it.

The story centers around Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff), a successful American actor staying at the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood. We see him in his natural state:  Idling, drifting on the success of his movie career. When not being whisked away to press conferences and photo shoots, we glimpse him boozing, smoking, partying, or on the lookout for sex–and a constant stream of buxom women galore are eager (often for comic effect too eager) to offer themselves. But to Johnny, sex, like most pleasures, has become so commonplace that watching pole dancing twins serves a similar purpose as watching television to fall asleep. Sex, as many pleasures in his life, no longer has the kick it once had, as, in one of the film’s funniest moments, he falls asleep while performing cunnilungus on the catch of the night. An image of Johnny floating idly on a pool, a seemingly throw-away image, says everything about his life.

Enter Cleo (Elle Fanning), Johnny’s eleven-year-old daughter whom his ex drops off as part of their custody arrangement. Cleo isn’t a hindrance per se;  she doesn’t “cock block.” In fact, on one occasion, Johnny has breakfast with a woman he’s just slept with, skipping any explanation to an uncomfortable Cleo also present at the table. Father and daughter get along–we see them goofing around and playing “Guitar Hero”–but more in the way of friends come to visit for the weekend. There’s a shallowness to their relationship, much like the shallowness of his knowledge of the world, i.e. he doesn’t view acting with any depth (at one point, a fan asks him about method acting, the definition of which he clearly bungles), nor does he view it in terms of its effect on the world (he asks for clarification when asked about postmodern globalization at a press conference). During one scene, Cleo showcases an ice skating routine, and he’s surprised to learn she’d been taking lessons for three years; as a father he has let the shared custody detach him too much from his daughter. When her mother goes away for an indeterminate amount of time, Cleo breaks down to tears, both parents’ distance having magnified her father’s distance from her. Though both parents still live, she is essentially an orphan, abandoned.

Dorff plays Johnny without too much of an edge, with enough softness. There’s a politeness to him that gives you a sense that he’s gone along with his success as opposed to driven it. Unlike most actors we see portrayed in these kinds of films, there’s no egotistic malice to him; he’s more blind than self-absorbed (in one of the film’s most memorably odd scenes, we see him sitting alone beplastered, breathing heavily through the nose holes, with monster masks behind him–himself having become a sort of monster unbeknownst to himself). It is this sort of innocence in the character that allows Johnny even the possibility of change. As he drops Cleo off to camp, muffled by helicopter noise, he yells out to her, “Sorry I haven’t been around.” Later, he calls his ex and admits, “I’m fucking nothing. Not even a person.” (Yes, not the most original of epiphanies, but the variation on the epiphany is a good one). Compelled by the realization of the utter emptiness of his existence, of being somebody but being nothing, he checks out of the Chateau Marmont as well as his faineant life. The title of the film then takes meaning; “Somewhere” is his destination. By film’s end, he starts out on a journey to complement, and at the same put meaning to, his role as a “somebody.”

Though not exactly laugh-out-loud, it should also be said that the film succeeds as comedy. There are several funny moments splattered throughout, such as when a chauffeur takes Johnny for a quick stop that turns out to be for a “quickie”; a scene involving a stripping male masseur; an odd musical number during his acceptance speech at an Italian awards show; Johnny calling for a tow truck while his Ferrari is stranded beside a “tow-away sign”; and a model getting her hair dressed on a balcony with her top off.

Elsewhere: “Review: Mike Mills’s ‘Beginners'” on Ruelle Electrique

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Aren't we all just beginners at love?

Rating:  ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ 1/2

Guess what I did this weekend? I went to the Los Angeles Times Book Festival and, after being inundated by books galore, I attended a special screening of writer/director Mike Mill’s new film, “Beginners,” due out June 3. It’s a madly clever romantic comedy that centers around three “beginners” at love (Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer, and Melanie Laurent). Quirky without being grating, poignant without overreaching into sentimentality. High recommend from me. Read the full review at Ruelle Electrique.

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Elsewhere: “Review: Mike Leigh’s ‘Another Year’ (2010)” on Ruelle Electrique

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Lesley Manville in "Another Year."

Rating:  ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ 1/2

I have a review up of Mike Leigh’s latest oeuvre, “Another Year,” on Ruelle Electrique. Lesley Manville is an absolute marvel to watch as the emotional wreck Mary, and it’s a travesty that she didn’t even make the shortlist for “Best Actress” at this year’s Oscars. (I felt the same way as she looks in the photo above about her being locked out, haha). Mike Leigh’s script (which was nominated for Best Original Screenplay but lost out to Alan Sorkin’s “The Social Network”), though not flawless, brings on the laughs and brims with so much humanity.

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Review: “Catfish” (2010)

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Searching for love in SO the wrong places.

Rating:  ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Warning: spoilers ahead. New York-based dance photographer Yaniv (Nev) Schulman starts a seemingly innocuous online friendship with Abby Pierce, an eight-year-old prodigy from Michigan who makes paintings out of his photos. It’s a sorta business relationship (they share proceeds from sales of the paintings) blessed by Abby’s mother Angela, a beautiful (at least Nev thinks she’s beautiful, based on a painting by Abby) matriarch who coolly keeps behind the scenes. Pretty soon, Nev finds himself immersed in Abby’s attractive family, counted as a Facebook friend in the family’s social network. Enter Megan, Abby’s gorgeous nineteen-year-old half-sister. She’s a winsome blonde beauty, and it’s a no-brainer from a narrative standpoint that 24-year-old Nev soon strikes up a romantic online relationship with her. Everything seems so fairy-tale; this story’s Prince Charming seems destined to find the love of his life in Megan, with a wholesome Midwestern family to go along with the prize. But things soon begin to unravel when, after a bit of googling and YouTubing, Nev discovers a lie that turns out to be only one of many in an elaborate hoax.

This, folks, is a documentary. But it plays out like enviably good fiction. You may have by now heard of the controversy surrounding the authenticity of the film, given how so narratively smooth it is. I personally don’t really care that much about how true the story is (don’t even get me started on the James Frey hooha from years back). But even if the whole deal were fabricated (which would be rather fitting: An elaborate hoax within an elaborate hoax), it would just mean directors Ariel Schulman (Nev’s brother) and Henry Joost are some pretty damn good storytellers. One man’s manipulation is another man’s good story, ha ha. Bottom line is, the film is engaging.

Part of the story’s allure is the “characters” (if I can call them that). Nev (who for some reason initially reminded me of a more likable Evan Lysacek) is the perfect “lead.” Our somewhat hirsute and at one point cutely retainered hero is undeniably attractive and brimming with charm. It’s understandable how Angela, the culprit behind the hoax, could have fallen in love with him. Though I know I am not meant to view him as I would an actor, the climax of the film–the confrontation between Nev and Angela–is Nev’s shining moment. His eyes, as Angela observes, belie his soul, heartbroken over an illusion of love. You can’t help but feel for the guy.

But there’s also a certain humanity in the way Angela is depicted by the guys (that is, Joost and Schulman; at one point, Joost refers to Angela’s sham in this way:  “It’s not malicious. It’s just sad”). Despite the deception and the overwrought machinations of her mind, your heart equally breaks for her need to sustain the lie. There’s a symmetry to the fact that she, the woman with broken dreams of once being a dancer, seeks out a dance photographer. As a way to compensate for her personal emotional loss, to create a story for herself better than the frumpy reality she’d had to settle into. Not much seems to be going on in Ipsheming, Michigan, and though I don’t condone her acts, I can understand them (a credit to the filmmakers). I must admit, it’s definitely much more narratively intriguing to have the reveal with Angela the resourceful pathological liar living out a multiple personality disorder of sorts via Facebook (“fragments of myself,” as she refers to them), over a potentially sappy happy ending in which the guy (Nev) simply gets the girl (Megan). Angela was definitely quite a catch, so to speak, for the filmmakers, as the catfish (in her breezily naive husband Vince’s anecdote) who keeps everyone–Nev included–on their toes. (By the way, I also liked the way the film juxtaposes the beautiful and the well, “real,” I suppose, through Nev and Angela. Nev and the guys, along with Angela’s concocted family, are hip and beautiful; while Angela and her real family are at the least plain. Two worlds that never usually meet end up colliding in this story).

Yaniv Schulman talking on the phone with the imaginary Megan Faccio.

The film also plays well, unwittingly or not, on the idea of representation. As the philosophical argument goes, people, when filtered through a lens (or whatever), are really presenting a different version of themselves–a “representation” of themselves. So, unstaged or not, whatever “reality” we are viewing really isn’t all that real. And I think the key to enjoying this film is being at one with this idea. To notice the resonance of the “represented” (photoshopped) image of Nev with Megan lasso tooled beside him; Megan’s plagiarized recordings; and even the very idea of Abby painting Nev’s photos (themselves representations).

I also liked the tech savvy element of the film, i.e. the use of Google Maps’s street view, Facebook, YouTube, and texting, to show just how so overexposed we all are yet so concealed enough as to be able to scam viewers of our online selves. This is the new paradigm we have to get used to now, and the Schulmans and Joost have presented a lovely and heartbreaking film depicting this new reality.

“Catfish” was released on DVD yesterday, and it’s a gem you just have to watch now if you haven’t already. Fiction or not, it is one of the best films of the past year.

Review: “The King’s Speech” (2010)

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Colin Firth, headed on his way to a potential coronation at the Oscars.

Rating:  ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

At the dawning of the golden age of radio, it’s requisite for a public figure to speak well and inspiringly. Prince Albert (Colin Firth), the man who would be King George VI, cannot hide behind just the mere patina of royalty, as he possesses a debilitating stammer that stands in the way of potential greatness. His speech impediment diminishes any air of stateliness a simple photograph of him, say, may evoke. So with a bit of cajoling from his supportive wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), he seeks the help of a speech therapist, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), an Australian-born former actor. Bertie, as Lionel brazenly prefers to call HRH (familiarity being essential to his treatment), has had his fair share of impotent treatments from various quacks, and is duly dubious of Lionel’s seemingly equally outlandish methods. But a breakthrough–Lionel’s methods surprise Bertie when a recording of himself while headphoned yields none of his usual stutters (he’d been distracted enough by the music so as not to focus on his speech)–leads to a business deal between the two that would lead to effective results on the speech front, as well as a lifelong friendship.

It’s a simple, somewhat subdued story, with no big frills. The climax, as many might already know, is a speech the king must make to his country on the eve of war with Germany. It’s a rather monumental task making a mountain of a seeming mole hill, especially when the speech is juxtaposed with World War II, a giant of an event fraught with both figurative and literal explosions. But David Seidler’s screenplay, which brims with such authenticity (a sure by-product of tapping his own personal experiences with a stuttering problem), manages this sleight of hand very well, amping up simple internal tensions to the point that we care about the speech’s significance to both king and country.

The film’s success is majorly a result of Colin Firth’s bravura performance as Bertie. He gives us not just a peek, but a virtual tour of the emotions, the stresses that accompany the king’s burdens. I know it may be premature, but I’ll place my bets on Firth for Best Actor come Oscar time. Also notable is Geoffrey Rush, who plays his Logue convincingly and with such likeability. You can’t help but root for him as he roots on for his king.

As I’d mentioned, there no big action scenes, no major plot twists here (especially if you already know how the story goes from real life). But “The King’s Speech” is an unassuming delight that, mirroring the controlled manner of the royals, will have you chuckling and feeling silently good. A definite recommend.

Review: “I Love You Phillip Morris” (2010)

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Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

I didn’t necessarily love “I Love You Phillip Morris,” but I did have a memorable fling with it at the movie theater. Memorable enough to call it one of this year’s best.

The film is based on the criminal antics of real-life con man Steven Russell (Jim Carrey), who is currently serving an overlong prison sentence for his numerous jailbreaks. Persistent and devoted, you gotta give it to the guy for being so fixed on his sightline. What he seeks he gets. And what he wants is to be with his true love, Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor).

I don’t know much about the real Steven Russell’s personality, but Carrey’s blindered and delusional version of him is a great and not too distracting variation on the typical Jim Carrey clown persona. It plays off well with Ewan McGregor’s Phillip Morris, which he plays with a convincing softness and loveliness that makes Russell’s fixation on him believable. He pulls off the Arkansan boy next door without resorting necessarily to an offensive sissy boy parody.

The film is actually quite deceptive, much like its main protagonist. I didn’t know beforehand about Russell’s AIDS ruse, so I truly thought the real-life Russell succumbed to the disease. But thankfully that wasn’t the case, because as the AIDS bit was unfolding, I was starting to worry that the story would go the way of being maudlin, its arc too plain and predictable. The film is indeed as sly as its main character; it totally fooled me.

Much has been made of the gay element of the film. I was initially taken aback by the scene in which we first see Steven sodomize a man; but honestly, that was more to do with how dissonant it was to view Carrey, dripping with sweat, as even remotely sexy (I have yet to find a sexy clown). I don’t really get the hullabaloo surrounding the gay issue; substitute Phillip with Phillippa (that is, make this a heterosexual romance) and the movie as a whole would be treated as rather mundane. I actually thought the handling of sex in the movie, though probably not appropriate to gauge based on tastefulness, was nonetheless tame, not overly distracting.

As romantic comedies go, “Phillip Morris” is not conventional, which is part of its charm. I don’t know if Jim Carrey will get an Oscar nod, but it definitely would be justifiable with his performance here.