Lita On Film

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Carnage – NYFF 2011

In Film Reviews on September 28, 2011 at 1:13 pm

Roman Polanski’s latest effort is the film version of Yasmine Reza’s French play “God of Carnage.” After being favorably received onstage in Reza’s native France, both Broadway and the West End mounted productions, to mostly positive acclaim. It seems natural, then, that a film version—a 90-minute set piece in which the characters barely leave the room—would attract a cast interested in flexing their stage-acting muscles, and that’s exactly what Polanski’s stars do. Not only do we have Jodie Foster and Kate Winslet facing off as dueling mothers, Christoph Waltz plays an unbearable lawyer (husband to Winslet’s character), and John C. Reilly holds his own as Foster’s husband. There are three Oscars and god knows how many nominations between them but, while that certainly shows, “Carnage” still feels very much like a stage play, having inherited both the pleasures and restrictions inherent to that mode of performance. However, the overall result is funny, engrossing, and maybe a bit disturbing—it makes you wonder what your neighbors really think of you

The film starts with a playground fight between the two couples’ sons (shown to us briefly under the opening titles, from afar). One child has bashed the other in the mouth with a stick, and the two sets of parents agree to meet one afternoon to try and work out an amicable solution. So, for the film’s entire runtime, we scarcely leave the well-appointed living room of Foster and Reilly’s characters.

As the adults discuss the incident in question, their different philosophies on everything from childrearing to politics quickly become apparent. Waltz and Winslet are rich, stressed-out professionals: Waltz is constantly interrupted by his Blackberry, and Winslet portrays the practiced politeness and inner distain of the upper class perfectly (at least at first). Foster and Reilly are supposed to represent a less-intense, slightly hippier demographic—the Brooklyn to Waltz and Winslet’s Upper West Side. However, these class distinctions aren’t as sharp as Polanski and his production designer seem to think they are; Foster and Reilly’s apartment is nothing short of palatial (have you house-hunted in Brooklyn lately?), and Foster’s character must be independently wealthy, since she works as a part-time writer while her husband is a traveling salesman.

The differences between the couples are more philosophical than strictly financial. It seems that what Polanski and company are trying to lampoon, more than anything, is the “conspicuous authenticity” of people like Foster’s character, who spends her time writing books about plagues and genocides in Africa, and keeps reminding the feuding couples that they’re all “citizens of the world.” Though Waltz’s character is a soulless shark and Winslet’s a stuck-up bitch, somehow the film doesn’t condemn them as directly as it does the hypocritical do-gooderism of Foster’s character.

As their meeting devolves from conversation to debate to all-out argument, the four characters form and break alliances; sometimes the women gang up on the men, sometimes it’s one couple against the other, and everyone comes off badly (though it makes for great comedy). It’s almost titillating to watch Reilly’s character revealing his true, un-PC—and very un-Brooklyn—opinions in crude terms, and to see Winslet’s character drink too much and sound off on her sleazy husband. You’re secretly urging the characters to really speak their minds, because the pleasure of the film comes from delighting in their barely-concealed prejudices. If only we could all say what we really think, the film seems to say, perhaps a life would be a whole lot simpler.

The stars of "Carnage" with their director, Roman Polanski

 

“Carnage” opens December 16th in NYC and LA.

© Lita Robinson 2011

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NYFF 2011

In Film News on September 28, 2011 at 1:08 pm

The 49th New York Film Festival has kicked off–or at least it has for those of us with press passes!

If you want to start your Oscar predictions, this is the festival to pay attention to.  Buzz is already circulating about Michael Fassbender, who stars in Steve McQueen’s “Shame” and Cronenberg’s “A Dangerous Method”; Keira Knightley in “Method”; everybody in Polanski’s “Carnage,” and even Antonio Banderas as a creepy surgeon in Almodovar’s “The Skin I Live In.”

Stay tuned to LitaOnFilm as I bring you reviews of some of the most anticipated films of the year from giants like Polanski, Cronenberg, Almodovar, and more!  And if you’re in town, stop by for a screening or two; the Film Society has wonderful screening venues, and is next door to the Met, the NYC Ballet and Juillliard–the heart of fine art and entertainment in New York City!

New “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” Trailer!

In Film News on September 23, 2011 at 7:05 pm

See it over on Empire!

Poster for “Human Centipede 2” Lands

In Film News on September 23, 2011 at 7:02 pm

Loathsome as I found the original “Human Centipede,” I have to admit that the brouhaha over its sequel, particularly in the UK, has been an instructive episode in the history of film censorship.  For more on that, see the excellent piece from the Guardian, which outlines all the issues in depth.

And without further ado, the poster…


Apollo 18

In Film Reviews on September 18, 2011 at 10:02 pm

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: there is nothing more disappointing than a film that throws away a perfectly good premise only to find itself subsequently wallowing in mediocrity. Take for evidence, if you will, the last-gasp-of-summer thriller “Apollo 18,” which lurched into theaters two Fridays ago. Its promotional clips and trailers all looked tantalizing; it billed itself as the unholy offspring of “Apollo 13” and “Alien.” In short, it looked awesome.

What could go wrong, you might ask? Well, as it turns out, just about everything—starting with Spanish director Gonzalo López-Gallego‘s decision to frame the entire film in the very tired found-footage meme. That’s right, just like last year’s “The Last Exorcism,”–which was similarly disappointing—and the “Paranormal Activity” films, “Apollo 18” pretends to be found footage; this time official, redacted NASA footage mysteriously recovered and uploaded (we are told via helpful titles) to a website called lunartruth.org.

 

If you visit the site, you will discover that it contains no content and no links. However, a legend along the bottom of the page states, “This website was forcibly censored. Its contents can be seen in the film. DISCOVER THE TRUTH.” Leaving aside the ridiculousness of the website (isn’t all censoring “forcible”?), the story of the film is pretty straightforward: NASA covered up an 18th Apollo mission in the late 70’s because its three astronauts all died under mysterious circumstances that may have involved aliens, the Russians, or both.

“Apollo 18” feels tired before it even gets off the launch pad; by way of prologue we’re treated to faux-grainy footage of the three astronauts (Warren Christie, Lloyd Owen and Ryan Robbins) enjoying a barbeque, with their accompanying voiceovers explaining the secret new moon mission. The motive for the mission isn’t clear even to them; the Department of Defense is invoked repeatedly, which is supposed to signal to the audience that only Very Bad Things are in store for the astronauts.

After spending no time at all on the actual voyage to the moon, two of the astronauts land on its surface and begin looking around. Soon, they notice strange things like tracks in the dust—some from a dead Russian cosmonaut (Lopez-Gallego rewrites history here with breathtaking nonchalance) and some from…something else. After a lot of build-up and clumsy foreshadowing, the astronauts are finally exposed to the aliens, which are apparently some sort of shapeshifting hybrid that’s part spider and part rock. By the time the little monsters finally show up, you’re wishing they hadn’t bided their time.

 

Things go downhill from there, and you already know how it ends. What’s most disappointing is that the film wastes what was clearly a carefully constructed set and a respectable budget on nothing more than lots of purposely overexposed film and a few “gotchas.” I spent most of the running time willing “Apollo 18” to magically transform, like the spidery aliens, into something more like “Moon,” a film which balanced action and atmosphere perfectly to genuinely creepy effect. In different hands, this could have been a fantastic summer movie; what doomed it to failure were the silliness of the found-footage premise, the laughability of the aliens, and the lack of any sort of character depth or development for the audience to latch onto. Retrospectively, this film made me appreciate “Alien” all the more for taking none of these elements for granted.

A Russian poster for this film...slightly ironic?

“Apollo 18” is currently in wide release.

© Lita Robinson 2011

No Direction – a new short by my former classmate, Melissa Finell!

In Film Reviews on September 5, 2011 at 2:41 pm

The new short “No Direction,” written and directed by Melissa Finell, follows a young college graduate named Jamie, who happens to be a lesbian, as she tries to figure out what on earth she’s going to do with her brand new philosophy degree. After some disappointing interviews and general aimlessness, Jamie falls in love with the soothing, Teutonic voice of her parents’ GPS and fantasizes about all the different paths her life could take. Eventually, she reenters the real world resigned to the struggle and drudgery that is modern post-grad life—and discovers that it might be exactly what she needed.

Those of us who graduated from college in the past few years can definitely identify with Jamie’s plight, especially in light of the dismal economic conditions that college grads have found themselves tossed into since the start of the Great Recession. Several hilarious scenes of Jamie waiting for interviews alongside hyper-overachiever types (“I’m just back from a Fulbright in Malawi…”) pinpoint the extreme competitiveness that educated young adults currently face; even a degree from a top school doesn’t guarantee much of anything anymore, especially when one has chosen to major in something double-take worthy like philosophy (or film studies!).

Finell’s treatment of Jamie’s character (played by newcomer Harper Gernet-Girard) is completely straightforward; she is a fully realized character whose development, while hilarious, feels honest and true; her sexual orientation is figured as an essential part of her character, not a spectacle to be highlighted. If only Hollywood features had the courage to present gay characters as un-histrionically as Finell does here!

That said, the film is still wildly funny and delightfully imaginative. During a dream sequence, Jamie imagines herself working a corporate job, marrying the beautiful GPS woman (Flavia Prado), and having a baby (“We used artificial insemination,” Prado’s character states in her over-the-top accent). Then, suddenly, Jamie sees the pressures that would come with such a lifestyle; her boss yells at her, the baby starts crying, and the GPS woman seems much less alluring when she talks about needing money for formula and diapers. Once again, Jamie is left directionless.

Eventually, Jamie meets up with Rachel, another young lesbian (Rebecca Newman) who is also a recent college grad. After an awkward first date, the two run into each other again and start off on the right foot, with both of them acknowledging the humiliation and bafflement that go with the territory of having a degree and no idea what to do with it. Once Jamie and Rachel accept the uncharted nature of their futures, things finally seem to go in the right direction. Finell’s careful treatment of her characters and her story make this short charming and touching in just the right proportions.

“No Direction” has already racked up an impressive list of appearances, having screened at the Frameline Film Fest in San Francisco, QFest in Philadelphia, NewFest in NYC, and the LA Shorts Fest, among several others. Director Finell is currently an MFA student in the renowned filmmaking program at UCLA, where she will produce more shorts and, eventually, feature films. Here’s marking her down as one to watch!

Director Melissa Finell

Visit http://nodirectionthemovie.com/screenings/ to find a screening of “No Direction” near you.

Griff The Invisible

In Film Reviews on September 5, 2011 at 1:40 pm

Writer/director Leon Ford’s feature debut “Griff The Invisible” is a cute, quirky film that, for all its good intentions, just doesn’t quite come together the way it should.

Starring Ryan Kwanten (“True Blood”) and Maeve Dermody (“Black Water”), this all-Aussie production takes its cues from beloved awkward-rom-coms like “Amelie” and “Benny & Joon.” Like Depp’s character in that film, Kwanten’s character, Griff, seems to suffer from some sort of vague mental illness; he’s convinced that he’s secretly a superhero crime fighter by night, not merely the cubicle drone he’s forced to be during the workday. And who can blame him? At work he’s tormented by a bullying colleague, and at home he’s all alone, visited only occasionally by his much more socially-apt brother (Patrick Brammall).

Eventually, Griff meets the dreamy Melody (Dermody), who briefly dates Griff’s brother, and she becomes smitten with him. Melody seems just as divorced from reality as Griff is—she considers herself a sort of metaphysical scientist and repeatedly tries to walk through solid walls—but as the film goes on, we discover that she, unlike Griff, has the ability to put her eccentricity aside when necessary, and fully inhabit the “real world.” This creates tension between her and Griff, and becomes the main conflict of the story: is it morally wrong to allow Griff to keep indulging in his superhero fantasies? Is it enabling his unnamed psychological problems?

Everything turns out well in the end, of course, but the film’s treatment of Griff’s fantasies and Melody’s strange experiments is ambiguous enough to leave the viewer without the strong “aww” factor that was clearly intended. Ford wants to have it both ways: he wants the fantasy world of the film to be seen as a metaphor for his characters’ idiosyncratic imaginations, but at the same time he doesn’t want to lose the narrative’s footing in the real world. This is all well and good, but it makes for some incongruent character development on Melody’s part, when she suddenly shows that she’s not a true believer in Griff’s fantasies, and it creates confusion when things happen in the “real world” of the film that aren’t actually possible (at one point, Melody does fall through a solid wall). Not knowing whether the events we’re watching are real or imaginary, and not feeling a strong logic behind that ambiguity, makes it difficult for the audience to get totally invested in the story.

Nevertheless, “Griff” is perfectly enjoyable for its unusual characters and judiciously splashy special effects. It’s especially fun to watch Kwanten take on a persona that is entirely the opposite of his character on “True Blood.” I didn’t think he’d be able to carry off shy and introverted, but he manages to navigate the script’s ups and downs with aplomb. This is a great date movie, especially if you’re a bit more interested in your date than in whatever it is you end up watching.

Griff the Invisible” is currently open in limited release.