Monday, January 28, 2013


Until the last five minutes Bart Layton's The Imposter had me firmly in it's grasp. This riveting true crime doc tells the story of Frédéric Bourdin, a Franco-Spaniard con artist who in 1998 successfully passed himself of as Nicolas Barclay, a young boy who had gone missing in San Antonio several years earlier.

It's a difficult deception to pull off. Frédéric is a 23 year old brunet, Nicolas would be a 15 year old bond with tattoo's. Somehow he pulls it off. Whenever Nicolas's family or the authorities has a suspicion, Frédéric finds some slick answer. Even then it's hard to believe that the family buy's it. The film has some suspicions but it appears that their need to believe really was that strong.

What's interesting is that while the film features interviews from most of the particulars, it focuses on Bourdin and ends up being narrated largely by him, making this a documentary in the loosest sense of the term and the film is conscious of that. Stylistically, Layton wants us to know right away that something is off, that this film exists partially in "Movie-land." First off, the image uses the 2.35:1 aspect ratio we associate more with thrillers and action epics than docs. The film uses music interestingly, at one point the narration literally fades away so we can have a sequence centered around a David Bowie song. The talking head interviews are professionally composed with a photographers eye that emphasis the stageiness of the whole thing. Then there's the reenactments.

Reenactments are tricky. As an audience we know that they're an unreal vision of real events, but presented in documentary context we subconsciously trust them. The best ones present themselves as sportive illustrations rather than unassailable truth. But the reenactments in Imposter go far beyond that and become full blown sequences owing more to Alfred Hitchcock than Errol Morris. As if to drive home the unreliability of the film, Layton sometimes uses an actor as Bourdin, but sometimes slyly inserts Bourdin himself into them and has him narrate within them (a la Farris Beuler).

The idea of the intentionally unreliable documentary is nothing new, Catfish and Exit Through The Gift Shop being recent notable examples. None of them do it quite as amazingly as Orison Well's F for Fake. Layton's effort is no slouch. It's best viewed less as a documentary and more as a thriller that happens to have real people in it.

As a thriller it's excellently staged and told. Bourdin's actions are deporible, but he's such an effective narrator that you almost begin to admire the skill it took to pull this thing off for as long as he did. I'm reminded James M. Cain's novel Double Indemmity which speaks of the outrageous audacity required to pull off a masterful crime. Bourdin has that audacity as does Layton in his telling of the story.

It doesn't all work. The film builds wonderfully only to unravel in the final sequence by indulging in a journalistic stunt more suited to Geraldo Rivera than an ambitious art doc. It's a gripping thriller, but by the end even Layton forgets that there is a real tragedy in here that needs a certain amount of respect.

Grade: B-

Note: The Imposter is currently streaming on Netflix Instant 

Sunday, January 27, 2013


It's odd that so many films are aimed at teenagers, but almost none are actually about them. This wasn't always the case. In the 80's there were the films of John Hugues and Cameron Crowe, but they faded away. Outside of Superbad and Mean Girls, my generation didn't have a large cannon of our own, so we clung to those 80's hits that had been so popular with our older siblings and younger parents. We all loved Breakfast Club in highschool, but I preferred Fast Times. I'm probably too old to claim The Perks of Being A Wallflower as part of my generation (though the book was published in the late 90's and takes place in '91), but I'm so glad the people just under me will have it to call their own.

The film follows Charlie (Logan Lerman), a freshman who's having trouble making friends and is on medication to help him deal with the emotional fallout of a series of personal tragedies suffered over the years. Eventually he's taken in by a pair of seniors: Patrick and Samantha (Ezra Miller and Emma Watson respectively). They too have issues. Patrick is openly gay but is in a difficult relationship with a closeted jock. Sam struggles with grades and the unearned "reputation" she got in Freshman year. Charlie worships them both, and it's easy to see why. They frequent midnight scereenings of Rocky Horror and have excellent taste in music, mostly post-punk and glam-rock.

Between all the Dr. Frank N Furter and David Bowie, it doesn't take long for Charlie to develop feelings for Sam, leading to all sorts of difficult complications. In the wrong hands Sam could have been an unfortunate collection of Manic Pixie tropes, but Watson's smart performance avoids most of the traps. Yes she has her quirks, but she's also very down to earth. A real person who makes some fairly typical and relatable mistakes. Ezra Miller is also excellent as Patrick, who's allowed to be actually gay vs. being forced to play "movie gay." It's really outrageous how rarely movies portray gay people without resorting to camp caricature.

Lerman also does fine in the lead, even if he's sometimes let down by director Stephen Chbosky (who also wrote the script based on his own book) who unloads the mystery of Charlie's emotional issues a little too slowly. Also, as much as the film gets it, there's still a tiny bit too much fantasy here. But more often than not it all works, and it all gels together in one of the best endings I've seen all year.

Perks didn't get that wide a release, but a film as heartfelt as this is probably destined for cult status. Pacing issues aside, it may very well earn a place in the cannon of great Teen Movies.

Grade: A-

Tuesday, January 22, 2013


The new film by Leos Carax is Holy Motors and it's one of the most wondrous, joyous and confounding films in recent memory.

Its subject is an extraordinary man named Oscar (Denis Levant). The first time we meet Oscar he's a businessman, but that isn't always the case. Every day he's picked up by a limo and whisked around Paris to different appointments where he adopts some sort of amazing disguise and practices what can best be described as spontaneous method acting. At first these displays look like pranks or performance art, later we learn that they are scenes for movies, but that technology has progressed to the point that cameras are invisible.

The film settles into an episodic structure, where each segment covers different genre's of cinema. Carax gives us melodrama, silent comedy, animation, teen angst, gangsters and even a musical number in one giant, anarchic stew. The most memorable vignette is a rip-roaring horror homage featuring Oscar as a flower eating sewer monster who kidnaps Eva Mendes from a graveyard fashion shoot Phantom of the Opera style.

With all the absurd imagery and overt homages, it would be tempting to simply call the film a "journey through cinema" and leave it at that. It's a valid reading but a bit reductive. The films main thrust seems to be commenting on the ways that modern technology has altered the way we interact. For instance, I kept wondering to what degree Oscar's "co-stars" know that they're being filmed. Some of them are clearly other actors working for the same mysterious agency, others seem to be innocent bystanders who's privacy is arguably being invaded by Oscar's activities. Perhaps it doesn't matter. We now live in a world where everyone has a camera phone and the internet documents everything, we've come to expect less privacy. Our public selves are becoming more calculated and less real. Someone like Oscar, who lives his life only through constructed avatars, seems like a logical extreme of how technology might alter the way we interact.

Carax shows us not just the artifice of Oscar's acting jobs, but the craftsmanship behind it. We see Oscar apply a dizzying array of wigs, scars, beards, contacts, etc.. We know it's fake, he shows us it's fake, yet Levant's performances feel so real. In the space of ten minutes he is equally believable and compelling as a disappointed father, a hit man and a dying old man. We don't know if any of these versions of Oscar are the real him, but we sense that they all could be. Levant's performance is absolutely mind blowing. Not having seen any of Lavant's other performances, but after Holy Motors, it's tempting to declare him the worlds greatest actor, in this film he can literally "play anything."

There's been a lot of talk in the past year about whether cinema is "dead." Personally, I feel that an art form cannot die, it can waver in overall quality and evolve, but not die. That said there's a valid argument to be made for Motors being an intentional elegy. In interviews Carax has been cynical about both the direction of cinema and the modern world and despite the films giddy emotional heights, the film does have a vaguely funereal vibe to it. But if Carax is trying to usher cinema into the grave he has failed in the most wonderful way anyone can. Holy Motors very existence proves how vibrant, magical and alive movies still are and leaves one excited for the next 100 years of the medium. Long live cinema!

Grade: A

Note: Holy Motors is currently streaming on Netflix Instant 

Thursday, January 17, 2013


I don't review a lot of horror films on this site. It's not that that I don't like the genre, it's just that I'm fickle about it and a lot of the stuff out there doesn't interest me, but every now and than I'm inclined to dip my toe in. I did have some raised expectations for Mama however as it was produced by bona fide horror master Guillermo Del Toro and boasts an intriguing premise.

After the 2008 financial crash a banker goes mad, kills his wife and takes his 2 young daughters to a cabin in the woods for a murder-suicide. The girls survive, the father doesn't. Years later the girls are found still living in the cabin, now feral. When asked how they survived all those years, they point to an "imaginary" guardian named Mama.

After being cleaned up, the girls are placed with their uncle Luke (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, trying desperately to hide his accent) and his rocker girlfriend who, for some reason, is played by current Oscar nominee Jessica Chastian. If nothing else, this will be remembered as the movie were Jessica Chastain plays bass guitar and dresses as Lisbeth Slander light.

Unfortunately, that may be all it's remembered for as the film grows tedious and repetitive. We get lots of scenes of Luke and Chastain going about their day-to-day lives as the girls wonder around being wired, occasionally startling their foster parents by suddenly appearing next to them. Actually, I don't think it's the girls startling everyone as much as it's the loud sound effects that seem to follow them around. The sounds also strike during seemingly every scene transition to hilarious effect. It's as if first time director Andrés Muschietti was playing cinematic peekaboo with the audience. It's often startling, but never scary.

Scary would have involved tension and dread of some kind, but all the jump scares kill any sense of atmosphere the film might have had. It might have also helped to build some sort of relationship between the foster parents and the girls instead of just having the kids parade around on all fours. A really interesting movie could certainly be made about a pair of feral children reentering society but being haunted by a monster of some kind. It could be a fun mesh of psychological and supernatural thrillers the way The Shining or Halloween were. Starting with something real or believable before venturing off into the unknowable, but instead we get jump-scares.

Then there's the monster. Rarely have I gone into a movie so excited for a monster only to leave so disappointed. She looks completely conventional and moves in a jerky manor that suggests all sorts of recent monsters. I kept thinking she looked like an adult version of Samara from The Ring with more leaves in her hair. Also, it would have been best if the film didn't try to explain Mama. Instead, we're given a fairly extensive history complete with odd-colored flashbacks (the only time the film adopts a visual style of any kind) that play like C-grade Stephen King.

The end kind of pulls itself together. There are some effective moments near the end when it seems as if Mama has turned on the girls. There's a great tracking shot (which Muschietti copies from the short film on which this film is based) that follows the girls through the house that has all the tension, fear and dread that we should have been feeling throughout the film. We also get some of the missing character moments but by then it's too little too late. I love Del Toro as a director, but if he's going to keep producing movies, he's got to bring the same level of dedication he brings to his directorial efforts. Somewere in here is a movie I want to see, instead I got a film that affirmed my prejudices against modern horror. 

Grade: C+

Friday, January 11, 2013


Documentaries are all about the editing. In theory the Siegel's would be the perfect hateful reality show family. The husband David, is the grumpy owner of Westgate, the world's largest Time Share company. His much younger wife, Jackie, is a former pageant queen with dubious plastic surgery, 8 potentially bratty kids, and a propensity for displaying her stuffed, dead dogs around the house. To top it all off. They've outgrown their already gigantic mansion and are in the midst of building a new one, modeled after the Palace of Versailles. Charlie Kane would blush if he saw the Siegel Versailles which, when completed, will be the largest home in North America at 90,000 square feet, with 30 bathrooms, 10 kitchens, a sushi bar, 2 tennis courts, etc. etc.. These people were tailor made for E or Bravo.

Indeed it seems like that's the initial direction of Lauren Greenfield's documentary, The Queen of Versailles. Focusing a bit on family background but unable and unwilling to ignore the families disgusting wealth and questionable business. But then the film shifts along with the family fortune as the 2008 housing bubble bursts around them. The Siegel's had never thought to save and now face real poverty as Westgate, built on sub-prime mortgages, crumbles and all their liquid capital is tied up in Versailles which remains unfinished and unsellable.

What makes Versailles work so wonderfully is that it sympathizes with everyone. With the exception of David, the more we learn about these people, the harder it is to dislike them, particularly Jackie who despite looking every inch the trophy wife stereotype, was once an engineer at IBM and genuinely cares for her family. Greenfield expands her scope to cover David's eldest son who runs Westgate day to day and finds himself being a buffer between his estranged father and thousands of angry employees who now face mass firings. We even get to know the nanny, a Filipina immigrant who's been separated from her biological children for 11 years and clings to the Siegel kids as surrogates.

This could have easily been a kitchy, one dimensional documentary, instead Greenfield's journalistic instincts flesh out all the right details. At times the film becomes an almost eerie microcosm of rescission era America. The Siegel's are ultimately a family suffering because they wanted a home they couldn't afford. The deeper irony that they made their fortune selling homes to people who coulnd't afford them isn't lost on Greenfield. I wonder if the footage that goes into the average reality show could be molded into something this special if they weren't so limited by a rigid agenda and the need to fill 10 23 minute slots every season.

Grade: A

Note: The Queen of Versailles is currently streaming on Netflix Instant

Monday, January 7, 2013


Haywire, one of 2 films outrageously, prolific director Steven Soderbergh released in 2012, is something of a minimalist thriller. Soderbergh and screenwriter Lem Dobbs (Dark City) know that their plot, about a burned spy trying to clear her name, is completely out of the manual and use it as window dressing, getting it out of the way as a efficiently and unobtrusively as possible to make way for the main event.

The main event is Gina Carano who plays Malory Kane, the burned spy. There really isn't much to her other than "spy."  The film doesn't make her into much of a person and instead features lengthy scenes of her running, jumping and beating the ever loving shit out of her enemies.

The choice to dehumanize Kane must have been at least partly practical. Carano was not hired for her minimal acting experience, but her incredible MMA fighting skills. Which explains the incredible all-star cast Soderbergh has including to support her including: Ewan McGreggor as her boss, Channig Tatum as a co-worker, Micheal Fassbender as a mystery contact, Micheal Douglas as a government official and Bill Paxton as her dad. But the dehumanization also says something interesting about female action heroes in general. There are plenty of exceptions but it seems that Hollywoods general idea of what to do with women in action movies is to write them as boys, but with more revealing costumes and less interesting personalities.

In Haywire, Kane's lack of personality is strangely the thing that makes her interesting. She reminded me of Val Kilmer in Spartan, who was also defined almost solely by his commitment to work. Late in the film, one character says that it would be a mistake to think of Kane as a woman. Indeed, it might be a little much to think of her as human. Her idea of relaxing is that she allows herself a glass of wine while she cleans her gun. If she ever had any humanity, she scarified it long ago in order to join the boys club of private sector espionage. Maybe all spies are like this to a degree, it would seem to come with the territory.

I like that the film doesn't cheat. It's as utterly dedicated to its vision of this dehumanized lifestyle as Kane is, and doesn't do anything to artificially soften her or sexualize her in any way. In fact, when the plot calls on for her to wear a dress, Kane looks unfathomably uncomfortable in it, as if it were some sort of alien concept to her. All she cares about is the fighting.

The fighting she does extremely well. Carano's skills are amazing to behold. I foresee that Carano may very well become a great action star, she certainly couldn't have a better showcase. She has a number of brutal, bone crunching fights. Each one is expertly and inventively choreographed, all achieving that tough balance of looking realistic wile remaining aesthetically beautiful. Soderbergh's laid back style lends itself well to capturing action. He doesn't try and sensationalize it with wild camera movements or overly choppy editing. Instead he respects the work that Carano and many of her co-stars put into performing all those great feats of athleticism.

Haywire is a fun, engaging 93 minutes, it delivers on the promise of seeing its star hit people very hard wile also serving up an interesting nugget about the masculation of women in action movies turning into complete dehumanization. But the idea feels vastly underexplored here. It's a rough sketch of a film begging to be filled in.

Grade: B+

Note: Haywire is currently streaming on Netflix Instant

Saturday, January 5, 2013


It's no surprise that Quentin Tarantino has made a Spaghetti Western. Even while he spent the 2000's exploring the artifice of every other exploitation genre on God's green earth, it always seemed that those Italian Westerns were foremost on his mind. He lifted shots, music cues and the general surrealist vibe from them. What is a surprise is that he's using the form to tackle one of the most taboo subjects in American cinema — slavery.

The film opens in the deep south just before the start of the Civil War. Django (Jamie Foxx) is a slave who was recently sold after he and his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) tried to escape. He is branded and covered in scars from repeated whippings. While being transferred, he is intercepted by dentist turned bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Walz). Shultz needs Django's help tracking down some targets, and in return the good doctor is prepared to give Django his freedom, bounty hunter training, and assist him in rescuing his wife from her new owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), owner of Candyland, the most infamous plantation in the South.

Candie is a real piece of work. We meet him in a posh parlor cheering two slaves being forced to fight each other to the death in a sport known as Mandingo fighting, which Candie trades in. The scene itself is mesmerizing. Tarantino's camera keeps the fight obscured and slightly out of focus, forcing us to imagine the brutality. Only cutting to clear shots of the fight momentarily, as if anticipating the audiences flinches. Mandingo fighting may be fictional (we shouldn't expect reality from the man who blew up Hitler in a movie theater), but the sequence wonderfully illustrates how toxic the spirit of slavery was. He certainly didn't invent details like the whippings, hot boxes and dogs ripping apart runaway slaves. Quentin may be known for his stylized action violence, but here he shows us that he can just as easily do the brutal, harrowing kind as well.

Upon reaching Candyland, Django and Schultz meet Steven (Samuel L. Jackson), Calvin's slave butler. He enters the film as a cringe inducing Uncle Tom, but the moment he and Calvin are alone, Steven drops the act, makes himself a drink and asserts himself as the power behind the throne and the one man in the film more racist than Calvin. Tarantino isn't content with illustrating the hypocrisy of slavery in the country were "all men are created equal," but goes further into its legacy of hegemonic racism with Steven and even with Django who's almost too good when called upon to impersonate a slave trader himself. The implications of these characters, not to mention the anachronistic soundtrack (Rick Ross and the RZA both provide new material) are loud, righteous reminders that the scars of history are still very much with us.

This is not to say that Django Unchained isn't fun, on the contrary, the darkness of the film works because the film's genre elements refuse to let us get overwhelmed. There's a bunch of Spaghetti Western tropes like snap zooms and music cues from Luis Bacalov and Ennio "Greatest Living Composer" Morricone, though there is far too much talking for it to feel like a proper Italian Western. Waltz is a blast doing a more cuddly variation on his Basterds performance. There's a hilarious, albeit gratuitous, aside involving proto-KKK riders who can't see out of their hoods. Also when the film does switch into revenge mode, Tarantino gives us enough of his more entertaining school of violence to please any Kill Bill fan.

There's much to admire about Unchained, but it is a notch below Ingourious Basterds. The film isn't quite as well engineered as it should be. There are long scenes, particularly near the beginning, that feel like they're doing one thing at a time when they should be doing three. This might be Tarantino's most serious film since Jackie Brown, but it's not quite up to snuff structurally.

Grade: A-