The Savages (2007)

October 10, 2008 § Leave a comment

I like a film that has a character throw out a real-sounding, interesting line like “He won’t marry me, but when I fix him eggs, he cries.”  People are complex.  Whitman said, “I contain multitudes,” and he said it without apology.  I do appreciate a film that acknowledges this in subtle ways.  It’s unfortunate, then, that the next scene has the same woman cooking eggs, and her boyfriend eating them and crying.  American mainstream films can be ridiculously heavy-handed, but it seems even in their art films they’re tempted to say “Look, see?  Get it?”

It’s Philip Seymour Hoffman crying over eggs, as a somewhat listless character letting his girlfriend go back to Poland on an expired Visa (rather than marry her), and forced to spend time with his somewhat listless sister, played by Laura Linney, when the two of them need to deal with their elderly, dying father.  Written and directed by Tamara Jenkins, the film is lucky to feature these two terrific American actors, who take a good script and make sure it’s as touching and meaningful as it can possibly be.  Despite these actors, the result is somewhat mixed.  I appreciate films that tell a small story extremely well, and while The Savages is admirable for not flinching away from painfully awkward moments — such as asking your elderly father if he would prefer burial or cremation —  I can’t honestly say those painfully awkward moments elicited much response from me at all, except to note how pretty damn painful and awkward they looked.

It isn’t my intention to sound jaded or uncaring, but I think we can all guess that it’s a difficult thing to take a fiercely independent, decaying man and put him in a nursing home.  Those of us who have been through it already know, and those of us who haven’t can take a pretty good guess.  In between these moments, we get serious hints he was an abusive father, and that the brother and sister (who grew up to be a writer and an academic) can’t maintain relationships.  Why did they both become writers, and what are they trying to accomplish in such a listless, pre-defeated way?  These are interesting questions the film deals with only occasionally, in favour of scenes where the Linney character is racing around the nursing home to find the big red pillow she bought for her father, or her long pause after she’s handed some diapers and told he’ll be needing them.  It isn’t that it’s a terrible film, and certainly a lot of truthful moments about individual struggles and elderly parents are captured here, in scenes that are flawlessly acted.  I just wanted to know a little more about what happened in the Savage family to deserve that choice of name, and these two struggling siblings, who seem to be among the good and the wounded.

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring (2004)

October 7, 2008 § Leave a comment

Given that this is a film with a great deal of sublety and grace from Korean director Kim Ki-Duk, it’s unfortunate that launching into a plot description makes it sound  overly simplistic, and like something you don’t really need to see. But really, this is one of the most beautiful films I’d seen in years. It involves a tiny Buddhist monastery — small enough to be a tiny island in the middle of the lake — where a senior monk and his young apprentice live, and each chapter in the film follows the seasons listed in the title, but also matches a different chapter in the life of the younger character, so in Spring he’s a child, in Summer a young man, and so on.

It’s a slow and pensive film, not even slightly rushed until the Winter chapter, but full of excellent moments, and if it happens to be slightly heavy-handed at times, it more than makes up for it with its intelligence, uniqueness, reverence, beauty and wisdom.

I won’t go into detail describing the scene where the older monk says goodbye to the younger one, except to say it’s a simple goodbye, and one of my favourite moments in film. Comments from the director indicate he not only wanted to cover the cyclical nature of life, but the whole range of emotions it encompasses. He succeeds remarkably well.

The Dark Knight (2008)

October 3, 2008 § Leave a comment

The origin and exploration of any superhero seems to last about two films, with the franchise often struggling the third time out. We’ve seen this over and over: two good Superman films with Christopher Reeve, and then a daft, comic third film with Richard Pryor, or two Spider-Man films that manage to do what they’re trying to do without overextending themselves, and then a third that’s something of a cartoonish mess. Even though it’s all fantasy, a decent narrative and dialogue make the difference between a passable popcorn film and something more interesting and worthwhile.

The Batman franchise has a lot going for it: a small boatload of interesting villains and a compelling — in some ways, completely messed up — central hero. Despite that, when the series was first kick-started with Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989, we still got only two good films (the second was Batman Returns in 1992) before the series was yanked away from Burton and driven into the ground about as quickly as it could be done, thanks to a couple of instantly forgettable films packed with colourful but cardboard villains. The series could have gone on far longer but it became like a kid at Christmas that opens all his gifts so quickly he doesn’t really stop to enjoy anything.

As a result of this swing from huge hits to dismal failures, the franchise was put on hold, then rebooted all over again with Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008), both directed by Christopher Nolan.  While the Burton films were appropriately dark, and operated from a lavishly created, operatic Gotham city, the Nolan films are even darker for being grounded in reality and presenting a more recognizable Gotham, even as it’s filled with decay, and danger. As much as I admire their style, the Burton films had Batman alternately trouncing street punks or facing off against the higher class of villain, but there didn’t seem to be much connection between the two. The Nolan films somehow manage to present Gotham like it’s one massive wounded creation, with the more heavy-hitting villains growing out of a background of street punks, mob bosses, corrupt politicians, or different cops and lawyers.  As far as the level of drama is concerned, this is the sort of thing that makes all the difference.

It’s with this background supporting him that Heath Ledger plays the Joker like a mad squirrel loose in a candy shop — he’s not actually physically imposing, but frantically charged with devotion to chaos, and he’s excellent, but I think it’s also fair to say it’s a performance that would be less potent in a less detailed film.  Even the score supports his performance, with no theme at all whenever he appears, in favour of a low, orchestral rising shriek. I don’t think I’d call it a “richly thrilling crime saga,” as they suggest over at Rotten Tomatoes, but the new Batman film is almost flawlessly done, and certainly a satisfying film. My only complaint is that I think the action peaks with the car chase where the Joker is captured for a time, and the final action sequence isn’t as impressive, particularly next to the unfolding drama with the two ships. And there’s even more after that in a long denoument that isn’t nearly as engaging. But that’s nitpicking — The Dark Knight is the best superhero film ever, and simply a good film on top of that. The question now is, can they pull this off a third time, and accomplish something that has never been done before?

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