Archive for March, 2008

The Brave One

Tuesday, March 11th, 2008—Film

The Brave One (USA/Australia 2007, Crime/Drama/Thriller), Writers: Roderick Taylor and Bruce A. Taylor; Director: Neil Jordan

Jodie Foster was my childhood idol. I thought she hung the moon. In junior high, I turned my best friend, SM, onto her after my class presentation on the actor. (I might have traumatized my other classmates by showing clips from The Accused and The Silence of the Lambs…) Anyway, after that SM and I started renting a lot of Foster’s earlier work. I loved her strength and intelligence, and the attention to detail she gave each of her characters. I can’t think of anyone else quite like her in the industry.

These days it seems that Foster has largely retreated from acting, stepping out only now and then to make an appearance in commercial fare to bring home the bacon. Not that I blame her. Who wouldn’t want to spend most of their time enjoying a personal life (not to mention a professional life on the other side of the camera), and then resurface every couple years to capitalize on their reputation and considerable talents to rake in a cool million or ten? Still, it doesn’t mean that fans like myself don’t miss the caliber of Foster’s earlier films.

All this to say that I really didn’t like The Brave One. I recently rented it because Foster was starring, and because it’s directed by The Crying Game’s Neil Jordan, so I figured it couldn’t be that bad. And yet…

I disliked the film from the get-go. It begins with an over-zealous attempt to sell us on just how very much in love New Yorkers Erica Bain (Foster) and her fiancé David Kirmani (Naveen Andrews) are. And then, quite quickly, the couple leads us down the garden path to a brutal attack in Central Park that leaves David dead and Erica in a coma.

When she awakens, Erica struggles to return to the life she used to lead. But she finds it impossible, and sets out on a quest for vigilante justice. Along the way, she befriends Detective Mercer (Terrence Howard), the cop who is investigating her crimes.

In my review of 3:10 to Yuma, I referred to the benefits of bringing a director with a history of more “sensitive” films to the action movie genre. It worked in 3:10 to Yuma. It doesn’t work in The Brave One. Rather than bringing a human touch to the excitement of a thriller, The Brave One is left somewhere in no-man’s land; it’s neither poignant and sensitive, nor exciting.

One example of this failed merger occurs just after Erica and David have been attacked. As the medical team handles their bodies and removes their clothing, we cut back and forth to the couple making love, caressing those same body parts and removing clothing in a very different context. It should work; it’s a beautiful concept, a stark contrast. But it just doesn’t. The first cut to the love-making is confusing and feels out of place. It was too early in the film for me to believe in their all-consuming love and to feel a sense of loss at the end of their relationship. But mostly, the camera direction and editing weren’t very good.

In fact, the direction was disappointing throughout the film. The attack in Central Park was badly done; it was so unconvincing that I was actually able to watch it all without covering my eyes. After Erica recovers physically from the attack, Jordan chose to convey her confusion and inner turmoil by tilting the camera at dizzying angles. Wheeeee! Nothing says character development like tossing the camera back and forth.

I’ll leave the direction alone now and move on to the story itself. Erica hosts a radio show about New York. After the attack, she begins to reflect on-air about reports of her own crimes, and eventually takes questions and comments from listeners. Erica’s ponderings and self-analysis come off as contrived, adding to the film’s self-consciousness.

The concept of a woman turning to violence after being horribly assaulted calls to mind Patty Jenkins’ 2003 film Monster, with Charlize Theron playing real-life prostitute turned serial killer Aileen Wuornos. Monster is much more convincing than The Brave One in many ways, but the biggest one for me is the transition the film’s leading characters go through. Played phenomenally by Theron, Wuornos doesn’t stand back and analyze her actions or motives the way that Erica does. Violence against men is the only way she knows how to respond to the horrific violence that was committed against her. It seems genuine and believable, although disturbing and tragically sad. But with Erica’s process, it feels as if she’s holding the viewer’s hand, explaining herself through voice-overs and radio scripts just in case we couldn’t make the leap ourselves.

All of this adds up to The Brave One coming across as silly; just another blatant vigilante justice film that fails to add anything new to the dialogue about when right is wrong and wrong is right.

And if that wasn’t enough, there are a couple of oddly-placed references to the Iraq war. Are we supposed to draw a link to Bush’s “lawful” violence and the “vigilante” justice the terrorists are forging? Is the attack on Erica meant to represent the 2001 attack on the city itself? I don’t have a problem with drawing that parallel, but it can’t be accomplished with two asides about Iraq. Better to leave it out entirely.

Foster and Howard are excellent actors, and it’s worthwhile watching them in action. But if you’re looking for great performances and great movies all in one, see Foster in The Silence of the Lambs, The Accused, Taxi Driver or Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (among others). And for Howard, it doesn’t get any better than Hustle & Flow: “You know it’s hard out here for a pimp/When he’s tryin to get his money for the rent/For the Cadillacs and gas money spent/There’s a whole lotta bitches jumpin ship.”

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (4 luni, 3 saptamâni si 2 zile)

Sunday, March 9th, 2008—Film

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Romania 2007, Drama), Writer/Director: Cristian Mungiu

[Spoiler Alert: I give away a few plot points, but none that aren’t revealed relatively early in the movie. And this film’s worth lies in the telling at least as much—if not more—as in the story itself.]

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days packs a solid punch. It’s incredibly powerful. But it doesn’t throw any quick jabs. Instead, it plays out slowly with very few cuts. Writer/director Cristian Mungiu pulls back the curtains on several moments in a difficult day in a young woman’s life, and lets us watch what unfolds.

The film opens with two students in a dorm room in 1980s communist Romania: Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) and Gabita (Laura Vasiliu). Otilia has just agreed to help Gabita with something, but we don’t know at first what that something is. It soon becomes clear that she has committed to helping Gabita get an illegal abortion.

And so begins Otilia’s day. We follow her on the bus; trying to get her favourite brand of cigarettes, which happens to be on the black market; re-arranging plans with her boyfriend; trying to book a hotel room for the abortion; meeting Bebe (Vlad Ivanov), the man who will perform the abortion.

The way in which the day’s dark and disturbing events are mixed in with the minutia of Otilia’s everyday life is disconcerting. Lying appears to come very easily to her, presumably a result of the nanny state she grew up in. The ease with which she moves from running errands, to arranging an illegal abortion for a friend who is nearly five months pregnant, makes you wonder what other terrible things Otilia has had to endure just to survive.

Because Mungiu lets most of his scenes play out in a single long shot, we see Otilia’s life in greater detail than most films allow; little slices of life cut out from a very heavy day. The dinner scene in which Otilia first meets her boyfriend’s parents is one of my favourites. Otilia is packed into the middle of the crowded frame, flanked by her boyfriend’s relatives and family friends. She’s visibly uncomfortable, both physically and psychologically. The scene plays without cutting to the dinner guests who sit off-camera. Instead, the focus is on Otilia as she tries to cope with the tedious and needling conversation, all the while preoccupied with Gabita’s plight back at the hotel. We begin to feel as trapped as Otilia.

Another wonderful moment takes place when Otilia checks in to the hotel. The details of the conversation between Otilia and the receptionist are impeccable. It’s the kind of thing that might seem boring in real life, but because it’s captured on camera it becomes imbued with a larger-than-life quality; it somehow takes on greater importance and meaning.

As a result of its heavy subject matter, some of the “everyday” detail in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is a little hard to take. The scene in which Bebe very matter-of-factly describes the procedure really upset me. I felt nauseous, faint, even shaky; completely knocked off my feet. It took me awhile to peel myself off the ropes and unfurl for the rest of the movie.

The abortion scene itself I couldn’t watch. I had hoped that it would happen off-camera, as another of the film’s upsetting moments does. But no such luck. From the little I did see, Mungiu doesn’t show anything graphic or gory. The scene was shot from a side angle. But just knowing what was going on was more than I could handle; I had to close my eyes and plug my ears for most of it.

Despite the fact that even writing about those two scenes has me feeling a little queasy, Mungiu clearly knows how to get as much impact out of what he doesn’t show as what he does. When Bebe demands money that the women don’t have before agreeing to carry out the procedure, Otilia consents to having sex with him as a tradeoff. But instead of showing us what takes place, we leave the room with Gabita and wait with her in the bathroom, sharing in her dreadful anticipation, imagining the worst.

When it’s over, Otilia rushes in to the bathroom wearing only her t-shirt. It’s perhaps the least gratuitous example of film nudity that I can think of. Gabita rushed out of the hotel room without a thought about getting dressed; her only concern was getting away from Bebe and washing him from her body.

I was shocked to discover that this film was written and directed by a man. I’m sorry if that offends, but to find that a man could have such empathy and appreciation for these things—a woman’s perspective on love and sex; her moods, which are presented here as having perfectly logical, understandable explanations; the emotional impact of a man invading her body, whether invited or not, whether medical or sexual—and that he would feel compelled to write about them, is not something you come across every day. I think it’s wonderful that he put this film out there.

I highly recommend 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. The actors are outstanding, particularly Marinca who appears in every scene and absolutely carries the film. And you’d be hard-pressed to find a recent movie with as much impact; as a testament to this, it won the top prize at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, the Palme d’Or.

You might still be able to catch the film in some repertory theatres, and it’ll be available to rent soon. Just be forewarned that it deals with some heavy subject matter. And if you’re at all squeamish about gynecological topics, you may need to plug your ears and avert your eyes for some of the film. I’m still reeling from a couple of those scenes.

In the Mood for Love (Fa yeung nin wa)

Wednesday, March 5th, 2008—Film

In the Mood for Love (Hong Kong/France 2000, Drama/Romance), Writer/Director: Wong Kar-Wai

There’s nothing like being snowed in (again) to make you cancel your plans and get back to writing your blog. It’s actually pretty cozy; I’ve got candles burning and music playing, and am almost convinced that winter would be welcome to stick around awhile longer.

I recently rented In the Mood for Love thanks to a recommendation from MF, who thought it was a good fit for some of the themes in a script I’m developing. He was right; the film was really inspiring and affirming, both on a creative level and on a human level. It’s worth renting, and watching more than once.

Set in 1960s Hong Kong, In the Mood for Love opens with two couples moving in to an apartment building on the same day. But Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung) and Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung) soon find themselves spending many nights alone in their apartments, with their respective spouses frequently working late or out of town allegedly on business or family matters.

After running into one another on the way to and from take-out restaurants and solo evenings at the movies, Su Li-zhenand Chow Mo-wan eventually start spending time together as friends. Each suspects that their partners are having an affair. At first, neither says anything, but eventually they speak out about their fears. What they never give voice to is their own feelings for one another. At least, not directly.

The neighbours begin acting out scenarios between their spouses: what they imagine happened when they first got together; who might have made the first move. Gradually, the line between fantasy and reality starts to blur. We’re left wondering how far these two will take their growing attraction.

Like Once, In the Mood for Love is another beautiful study of what happens when two people with an incredible draw to one another resist acting on it. In this film, the love takes on a tangible life of its own, one that is captured in Kar-Wai’s unusual visual approach. He experiments with different styles—mixing tantalizing slow-motion with close-ups of hands and objects, sometimes showing us only the shadows of his characters—as if to reflect the way the two characters experiment with their feelings. It’s organic, changing, sometimes confusing, but always hypnotic.

One of Kar-Wai’s most striking stylistic decisions is not to show Su Li-zhen and Chow Mo-wan’s spouses. There are several dialogue scenes between each couple where the camera stays on the protagonist the entire time. It’s interesting because it completely defies what we’ve come to expect from films. Even a viewer who hasn’t studied film will subconsciously anticipate what’s coming, and when we don’t see a cut to the other character in the conversation, it challenges what we’ve come to accept as the norm.

That’s what In the Mood for Love does with romantic love itself. As we see with Su Li-zhen and Chow Mo-wan, love isn’t always where you thought you’d find it or in the form you expected it to take. And it can exist endlessly between two people who may never see one another again.