Friday, April 30, 2010

Film Review | The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Lurking pigs, hidden dragon

by Thomas Delapa

Nancy Drew she’s not.

To solve the mystery of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the one bluntly obvious clue may be its original title: Men Who Hate Women. In this unpleasant Swedish import, misogyny is so rampant and murderous, it’s a rare man who isn’t branded as a sexist beast.

Clocking in at a porky and pokey 152 minutes, The Girl broke box-office records in Europe last year and won Sweden’s Best Picture award. It also makes Ingmar Bergman’s bleak Scandinavian dramas seem as cheery as Little Miss Sunshine. If this movie reflects the zeitgeist of modern Europe, someone needs a long weekend at Euro Disneyland.

From a posthumous 2005 best-seller by Stieg Larsson, director Niels Arden Oplev inks out a derivative and sensationalized thriller that features not one but two of the most repellent rape scenes in recent memory, doubling your voyeuristic fun. Oplev traces the rambling story of Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), a journalist who’s hired by an elderly tycoon (Sven-Bertil Taube) to investigate the cold case of this beloved niece, Harriet, missing and presumed dead since the 1960s. The film awkwardly opens in medias res, with Mikael being found guilty in a corporate libel case.

In the land of the midnight sun, dark shadows fall everywhere, exposing a stew of unsavory villains that would fill five potboilers. Sinister corporations, venal families, street thugs, ex-Nazis, serial killers and a monstrous parole officer all take their place, threatening either Mikael or the eponymous tattooed girl, Lisbeth (Noomi Rapace) arbitrarily tossed into the mix. A raven-haired goth with a record and an attitude, Lisbeth secretly investigated Mikael for a security firm, and she suspects he was set up. Now she’s gone rogue, hacking into his computer just as he begins his search for Harriet.

Oplev laboriously inches the story along with pace of a pre-climate change North Atlantic iceberg. In parallel but only coincidental plots, he cuts back and forth between Mikael’s investigation and Lizbeth’s repeated victimization at the hands (or hooves) of her sick and twisted parole officer (Peter Andersson). His demand for sexual favors escalates into a full-blown sadistic rape, which the supposedly street-smart Lisbeth seems to walk right into. Our punky heroine’s revenge is just as brutal, hog-tying this pasty-faced pig and forcibly making him, ugh, get in touch with his feminine side.

While Lisbeth is pictured as bad-ass martyr, the filmmakers cheaply Photoshop Antonioni’s Blow-Up into the plot as Mikael enlarges his serpentine search for clues to Harriet’s disappearance. Both leads spend much of their time staring at computer screens; that is, when they’re not staring off into space, contemplating the icy existential void.

However clumsily drawn, the ugliness and perversity pictured in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is nothing that can be described as skin-deep. It cuts all the way down to the bone.


Thursday, April 29, 2010

Movie Review: Bong Joon-Ho's "Mother"

By Steven Rosen

Movies, especially suspense movies, have taught us that motherhood isn’t always as nurturing and character-building as it’s cracked up to be. See Hitchcock’s Psycho, which clearly showed how it can be too much of a good thing for some lonely, troubled boys.

Mother, from the gifted South Korean director Bong Joon-Ho (The Host), isn’t Psycho, but its mixture of darkly humorous eccentricity and equally dark psychological anguish (plus some flashes of ugly violence) makes it an impressive film. He has a wonderful eye for composition and lighting, and for staging some scenes to make them seem weird and possibly funny, but then letting them flow into something more dangerous and chilling.

Bong also has one of his country’s most well-known veteran actresses, Kim Hye-Ja, as the mother — a role she has played more sweetly many times in her country, especially on television. Here she is as maternal as a wolf holding off predators from its young — spying on, hunting down, pleading with, crying at and deceiving those who can help prove her 27-year-old son is not guilty of the murder with which he's been charged.

Wandering home drunk one night, her son Do-joon (Won Bin) inadvertently follows a schoolgirl through a rundown urban area. He mumbles some sexual advances, she chases him off and the next day her body is found hanging over a building’s rooftop barrier. Police arrest him, despite the lack of physical evidence, after tricking him into a confession.

As the mother, Kim is an unbridled, emotional force of nature, and Bong emphasizes that by having her walk in pouring rain, or swaying and dancing in an open field as if the wind is moving right through her bones. Her black hair is in constant need of brushing and she wears mostly drab clothing that makes her look weary and tired. It’s a phenomenal performance, especially since she takes it into difficult territory, some of it David Lynch-style erotically kinky and some of it Shakespearean in its tragic overtones.

Director Bong, 40, has such a command of the visual language of film that the key plot point — the revelation — hinges on an editing technique (the fast cutaway) rather than anything in the screenplay. Because it doesn’t announce itself when it happens (it fits perfectly into his overall approach of lots of short, sharply delineated scenes), you’ll probably want to watch it twice to see what you missed. In that regard, Mother is like Michael Haneke’s 2005 thriller Cache. But it’s also a bit of a trick, since you can’t see it coming. (Boon wrote Mother with Park Eun-kyo and Park Wun-kyo — the director wanted a vehicle to show off actress Kim’s capabilities.)

There’s also an unpleasant sadistic strain in Mother — both in its language and depiction of violence — toward high-schoolers, especially when dealing with their views on their sexuality. One girl creates a “pervert phone,” for example, and a boy gets his teeth kicked in during a vigilante-style interrogation about that phone that goes on much too long.

There’s something of an immaculate-conception-gone-wrong nature in the mother’s raising of son Do-joon. She is single, living more or less in squalor in a small city and relies on collecting/bundling herbs and amateur acupuncture for her income. It can’t be much. She smothers her son in love and concern; he still sleeps in her small bed with her.

She's also almost telepathically (and maybe physically) close to him, a relationship Bong establishes early in a scene where he cuts from her chopping herbs to Do-joon being hit by a car in the street outside. When he’s hurt, she’s hurt — she loses control of the cutting blade and cuts her finger. Talk about being a self-sacrificing mom!

But something isn't right with the relationship or with Do-joon, who not only looks child-like, with his Beatle-style bowl cut and boyish eyes, but also because he acts like he’s developmentally disabled. He’s also apparently a virgin. Others call him a “retard,” a slur that provokes him to fight.

Further, he harbors a passive-aggressive hostility to his mother, which she seems to bear like a cross. Boon brings that out in a weird scene in which she watches him urinate on a wall. After he leaves, she even tries to clean up.

If she’ll do that, what won’t she do when he’s charged with murder? She knows he’s innocent, but she also doesn’t really care. “Even if you really did it, you should deny it,” she tells him, after police coerce him into confessing. That outburst comes during one of many dramatic, explosive scenes that take place in the jail’s visiting room. Boon shoots these well — his cinematographer, Hong Kyung-pyo, keeps focusing in and out of the little windows in the glass partition to create an otherworldly effect.

Like Lynch’s Twin Peaks, Boon approaches some of the characters with a perverse humor, such as when the lawyer the mother hires bellows to her through a microphone at a karaoke bar. But that offbeat humor subsides as the full dimensions of the nature of the mother-and-son relationship are revealed.

Mother also benefits from a beautifully subtle score by Lee Byeong-woo that features folky, jazzy acoustic guitar. It accentuates the strangeness of the relationships and is used especially well in a late sequence on a bus — a dance scene, strangely enough — that is positively ghostly. It’s a strange final scene for a very strange mother.

From Cincinnati CityBeat; April 21, 2010

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Film Review | Nicholas Ray's Bigger Than Life

Father Knows Best

by Thomas Delapa

Of all the classic directors celebrated by auteur critics, few have generated the controversy—or the cult-like following—of Nicholas Ray. In his brief Hollywood career, Ray’s official reputation primarily rests on Rebel Without a Cause, which made a legend of James Dean rather than its director. While a few of Ray’s films have found a niche audience—like Johnny Guitar and In a Lonely Place—none has achieved the kind of pop-culture status of, say, Hitchcock’s Psycho or John Ford’s The Searchers.

If Ray’s critical stardom rose in the 1960s and 1970s and dimmed since, a new Ray revival is long overdue, particularly with the lustery, long-awaited DVD release of Bigger Than Life, the 1956 masterwork that may be his greatest film.

Big things can come in small packages, which is one reason to applaud Criterion’s release, which boasts a new 35mm digital transfer, deft audio commentary by Ray scholar Geoff Andrew, several short interviews (including one with Ray himself), and an essay booklet. Like many Ray films, Bigger Than Life has been practically insignificant as a video, even though it’s often regarded as one of the 1950s’ best (and most subversive) Hollywood features.

An acid test for classic auteurism that focuses on the director’s unique, subtextual style, Ray’s film adds up to much more than the sum of its parts: a script (partially written by playwright Clifford Odets) based on a New Yorker article on the ill effects of cortisone, the decade’s “wonder drug”; a wondrous range of acting by British lead James Mason, who also produced; and Ray’s grand feeling for mise-en-scene, which vividly blends color expressionism with the 20th Century Fox studio sets.

Mason plays Ed Avery, a frustrated teacher who moonlights for a cab company to pay the bills for the cozy suburban home he shares with his devoted wife Lou (Barbara Rush) and TV-loving son, Richie (Christopher Olsen). Not only does Ed hide his second job from his wife, but so too his mysterious affliction that strikes him with painful seizures.

For Ray—who studied architecture under Frank Lloyd Wright—the above-average Avery home is an organic embodiment of Ed’s dreams and frustrations. Decorated with travel posters, downstairs presents his (and his wife’s) public face, an image of success and normalcy. Upstairs is his private realm, where his inner self is exposed, revealing repressed demons of grandiosity and Nietzschean superiority. A potent Ray motif, he stages much of the defining action on the staircase, the off-kilter nexus between Ed's opposing worlds.

The catalyst for Ed’s transformation is a bunch of jagged little pills, namely cortisone, which have the potential of saving his life. But the side effect is Ed’s Jekyll-and-Hyde makeover into a nightmare version of patriarchy. In the Eisenhower decade of Father Knows Best and Leave It to Beaver, Ray makes room for Daddy all right, exposing him as a doppelganger father, a tragically diabolical cross between Vince Lombardi and the Biblical Abraham.

Not only does Ed deliver one of the most acrid speeches ever on the American education system (on P.T.A night, no less), he also devotes quality time to terrorizing his son, at one point turning an all-American glass of milk into his version of Capt. Queeg’s stolen strawberries. Always cowering in the background is Lou, fearful as much for preserving middle-class appearances as saving her own life.

While Ray’s Freudian undertones loom large, so does his prescient feminism that punctures the post-war masculine mystique. As Andrew treats in his commentary, Ray’s themes include aging and death as well as drug abuse (which Ray knew all too well). Yet his tight direction never sags under melodramatic weight, brilliantly allowing the acting and widescreen compositions to express the sizable themes.

Like many small-budget genre gems of the decade, Bigger Than Life truly came from the beneath the Fifties, drawing away the curtain to reveal the angst below the angora, the fear under the facade—and the monsters from the id.


Monday, April 12, 2010

The End of Film Criticism?

Short cuts

by Thomas Delapa

Over a century ago, the philosopher Nietzsche infamously declared that God was dead.

In the post-print era, is it past due to proclaim the death of film criticism?

Read it and weep: Film critics across the country are expiring fast, downsized by newspaper and magazines reeling in red ink. Large or small, fewer media outlets even bother to carry regular film reviewers anymore; the latest bad news comes from the Hollywood bible Variety, which cut its longtime critic, Todd McCarthy, supposedly to be replaced by a variety of part-timers. Disfigured by cancer and unable to speak, Roger Ebert may yet become the last critic standing, a symbol of the profession’s agonizing fade to black.

Only a few years ago, we could still stay that film critics mattered. Do they anymore? The singular, onetime sacrosanct, notion of critical opinion and expertise has long been on the retreat, marginalized by an indifferent public and an increasingly fragmented and uber-individualistic consumerism.

For many, if not most, film critics rate a big fat thumbs down: Movies aren’t art anyway, so why bother with hoity-toity ideas of aesthetic judgment? In our era of chain-store DVDs, cable, video-on-demand and the movies-by-mail Netflix empire, the cinema has been fully fed into the consumer universe, to be packaged and sold like Big Macs. The self-serving “Have it your way” jingle is the new cultural order, whether burgers or movie blockbusters.

Of those surviving film critics who actually earn a living, many—or their timid bosses—have tacitly decided that resistance is indeed futile. Bold, informed criticism is as rare today as a socialist at a Tea Party rally. Better to rave about the latest, greatest “thrill ride” of the summer than to be left out in the critical cold. A tyranny of the majority rules on the Internet, exemplified by the soft and squishy Rotten Tomatoes Website, where legit critics are outnumbered by the brave new world of unschooled buffs boyishly (and they’re mostly young guys) eager to add their voices to the buzz of the Internet Babel.

Ultimately, what culture is telling us is that movies don’t matter, aren’t a proper subject of debate and reflection, despite their overwhelming presence in our lives and in the national culture. Surfing through the vast wasteland of cable TV, you can dial in a plethora of politics and sports channels, airing all sorts of outspoken punditry. But when it comes to movies, all you get is either gossip, hype or box-office.

The same polarization that we’re witnessing in American politics may also help explain why the public at large isn’t buying into the old-school medium of film criticism that reached its zenith in the 1970s with the likes of Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris, Stanley Kauffmann, et al. Opinions have hardened, crystallized by bitter, no-nothing cultural ideologies derived increasingly derived from fear and isolationism. “I know what I want and like, and I don’t want to hear anything different” is the new social mantra, otherwise known as “Don’t tread on my movies, Dude.”

As for film critics? We don’t need no stinking film critics.


Friday, April 2, 2010

Boom Time for the Cleveland Film Festival

Northern Exposure
Cleveland Film Festival has much to teach Cincinnati (and everyone)
. . . . . . .

If you ever wonder what we’re missing by not having a strong regional film festival here, it’s worth taking a visit to Cleveland in March. There, a festival that does not garner national/ international publicity — in other words, it’s not a rival to Sundance or Toronto — nevertheless seems to captivate the city with its strong programming.

The 34th annual Cleveland International Film Festival occurred March 18-28, and I attended opening weekend. All told, some 140 features and 170 shorts from 60 countries were presented this year.

It’s a shot in the arm to the city culturally and economically, especially impressive given the recession’s impact in that Great Lakes metropolis. In fact, while I was there, early in the event, already some 50 films were on standby, evidence of what a hot ticket the fest has become. Organizers were predicting a strong turnout, maybe as strong as last year’s, which experienced a 27 percent increase in attendance to almost 66,500.

At this year’s festival’s conclusion on Sunday, The Cleveland Plain Dealer reported a new attendance record (71,000) and said it had doubled since 2003.

Just how much allure does the festival have? One indicator is that the official car, used to transport guests, is Mercedes Benz. And the official headquarters hotel is Ritz Carlton. Beyond that, the list of sponsors and partners occupies three pages in the 146-page program. And the wide age range of the attendees showed just how well the festival is reaching out to the community.

I know that, to everyone in Cincinnati who often has wondered why we can’t have a film festival (and who has suffered through some of the underfinanced, underperforming and under-programmed attempts), this kind of success might seem a pipe dream. Maybe that’s why nobody seems to discuss it as a possibility here anymore.

But it can happen — and a key ingredient is a strong nonprofit corporation with a board and officers, like Cleveland Film Society, in place to run it. Another is solid corporate, governmental and public support locally. The result is a film culture far deeper than ours.

The Cleveland festival is held at downtown’s Tower City Cinemas, an 11-screen multiplex run by a local chain, Cleveland Cinemas, at the Tower City Center indoor shopping mall. The center is part of a civic landmark, a mixed-use complex (including a train station) that features the 52-story Terminal Tower skyscraper. Tower City Center is run by Forest City Enterprises, a major Cleveland-based developer that’s also a Platinum Sponsor of the film festival and offers free parking for fest-goers.

While the center has struggled during the recession, it still has shops, a food court, some restaurants and two hotels, including the elegant Ritz, which ran a hospitality suite for pass-holders and visiting filmmakers. (The other hotel, a historic one much like the Netherland Plaza, is run by Renaissance.)

All in all, Tower City is a model of urban planning, culture and vitality — which gives it credibility and importance as a place to go to see films. It’s an agreeable place to spend at least several hours at a time, seeing several movies. The closest thing to the site in Cincinnati would be the AMC complex at Newport on the Levee, a short walk or shuttle-bus ride from downtown.
Surprisingly, the festival only moved to Tower City in 1991 from an art-house complex in Cleveland Heights. That was the beginning of the growth spurt.

Cleveland is a city where ethnicity is important, and the festival’s artistic director, Bill Guentzler, plays to that strength by soliciting “community sponsors” for appropriate foreignfilm screenings. The Hispanic Alliance, for instance, sponsored a Uruguayan movie called Bad Day to Go Fishing; the Cleveland chapter of the Czech and Slovak Society for Arts and Sciences sponsored a special screening of a 2000 Czech film, Divided We Fall, with director Jan Hrebejk present.

That film, an Oscar nominee about a Czech family hiding a Jew during the Nazi occupation, was widely released. But the fest also brought in an earlier, little-seen Hrebejk film, Cosy Dens, a wonderfully sardonic comedy about families tentatively searching for freedom during the Prague Spring of 1968.

Not all the movies I saw were great — some had substantial flaws — but all deserved to be seen by a film-aware audience. The well-acted but credibility-straining French film Queen to Play had Sandrine Bonnaire as a married Corsican chambermaid so fascinated by chess she was willing to court scandal to spend long hours at the home of an American doctor (Kevin Kline, speaking French) to learn it.

Saviors in the Night was a gripping story about a family in German farm country (Westphalia) that hides Jews during World War II, despite having a daughter in the Nazi Youth Group. The story is true. Turtle, a British documentary about the long, difficult 25-year oceanic migration of the loggerhead turtle, had beautiful cinematography but was confusing about how it was filmed and had one scene, involving a fisherman, that seemed staged.

And Out of Place was a fun locally made documentary — with good music and a nice street-culture feel — about people who like to surf Cleveland’s often cold and unglamorous lakefront.

While tickets were $10-$12, Cleveland Film Society estimates it spends $29 per seat per screening to produce the 11-day festival. To make up the difference it had an unusual fundraising campaign going on. Before each screening, a representative would tell the audience that Cuyahoga Arts Culture — a voterapproved agency that uses a cigarette tax to fund the arts — would match all donations up to a total of $34,000.

I realize people in Cincinnati and elsewhere like to make fun of Cleveland, probably dating back to the 1970s when the city seemed to be falling apart economically. But it isn’t falling apart when it comes to running a good film festival and finding strong community support for it.

By Steven Rosen

Cincinnati CityBeat

March 31, 2010