Saturday, May 29, 2010

A mother determined

Mother is the new film from South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-Ho, who made the excellent monster movie The Host (2006) It's a murder mystery wrapped in the story of a mother (Kim Hye-ja) frantically devoted to her mentally retarded son Do-joon (Won Bin). The nature of their strange relationship is established in the first scene in which she is chopping herbs in her shop (she sells herbs and practices acupuncture) while simultaneously keeping a cautionary eye on her son who is fooling around across the street with his friend Jin-tae (Ku Jin) who to say is a bad influence is a gross understatement. Mother and son also sleep in the same bed, a mattress on the floor.

The story is underway when a schoolgirl is found murdered on the roof of an abandoned building and Do-joon is immediately arrested and charged with the crime after evidence easily linked to him is found. Mother is dead certain her son could never commit such an act and with intense focus and drive she goes into action as an amateur detective trying to find the real killer, if there even is one. Bo-joon's trouble maker friend even lends a hand in the investigation, able to succumb to violence against possible suspects while Mother watches close by.

Mother takes elements of conventional murder mystery/wrong man convicted films and twists them in disturbing and unexpected ways. The mystery is further complicated when unsettling layers of the characters are revealed. Mother may not be the reliable protagonist we'd expect her to be and we learn that her past behavior with her son may not make her the dedicated, however weirdly, mother she appears to be. No one is clearly innocent but never clearly guilty either.

Kim ja-Hye carries this entire film on her shoulders. Her strong performance is the centerpiece of the picture and she plays a complicated character who tangles with the audience's emotions and expectations. How crazy is this woman? Is she just so devoted to her son or is she truly disturbed?

The film is stylishly directed with an eye for great details. There are brief bursts of visceral violence that are shocking. With his earlier film The Host, Bong took the monster movie and added in a poignant story of a family. In Mother he does something similar. Taking a murder mystery and mixing it with a devastating character study of a woman trapped and doomed by her mental state, trying to help her son but only making things worse. The film may leave you scratching your head as it concludes ambiguously, leaving more questions than clear answers. But it holds your attention with it's powerful and convincing performances and masterful storytelling and direction.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Letters to Franco

I wonder how many moviegoers know of the pleasure of seeing Franco Nero on top of a horse. The ruggedly handsome Italian movie star is famous for such action adventure films such as his spaghetti westerns Django (1966) and Keoma (1976) and his crime thrillers like High Crime (1973) and Street Law (1976). He also appeared in such regal Hollywood epics such as The Bible (1966) and Camelot (1967). He even played an evil drug lord in Die Hard 2 (1990). He is married to Vanessa Redgrave and together they share the screen in the new romantic chick flick Letters to Juliet, in theaters this Friday. The leading lady is Amanda Seyfried, who has made a name for herself acting in other gooey romantic outings such as the recent Dear John and the big musical showcase Mamma Mia!

Seyfried plays Sophia, an aspiring journalist who works as a fact checker for The New Yorker. Her fiance is a gregarious Mexican chef (Gael Garcia Bernal) who seems more in love with the various lengths and thickness of his noodles than his beautiful wife to be. They travel to Verona, Italy for a "pre-honeymoon" so he can check out some potential suppliers for his new restaurant. Uninterested in his passionate love for food and pretending to be an Italian, Seyfried decides to sightsee on her own and soon discovers a wall in the streets posted with letters asking for romantic help, sent to "Juliet", a kind of Italian version of Ann Landers I guess. She follows a woman who has taken all these letters to a house where a group of middle aged women sit together at a table and write responses to the romantic letters. Charmed by their work, Sophia decides to stay and write responses with them after she finds a lost letter hidden in a hole in the wall. Her response letter is found by Claire (Vanessa Redgrave) and her whiny, pessimistic grandson Charlie (Christopher Egan) who seem to have all the free time in the world to travel to Italy and magically find the source of the letter. Claire decides to travel all throughout the countryside with grandson and Sophia, with nothing better to do and her fiance busy with work, in tow to find Claire's lost love from her youth. The lost male lover in question is Lorenzo Bartolini (Franco Nero) but before they find him, the trio spend the entire film searching for him, only to discover along the way that Verona is filled with what seems like dozens of horny or lovelorn old Italian men with the same name. During the journey, Sophia and Charlie bicker and argue the way two good looking leads in a generic romance film do before they discover that the screenplay requires them to fall in love.

At the center of this is Redgrave, who has a charm and graceful dignity that you can see from many great actresses of her generation. Seyfried is a beauty who has much appeal and talent as an actress but what she needs are better leading men. Bernal and Egan both play petulant tools who are lucky enough to have a sweet, patient and gorgeous woman like Sophia spending time with them. It's not until Franco Nero finally enters the picture, fittingly on top of a white horse, do you get an idea of what a real romantic leading man should embody. Being a fan of Nero's, it's a shame to see him wasted in what essentially is a role serving as a point plot to the film instead of being a full realized character.

Letters to Juliet is a perfectly pleasant, predictable, paint by numbers movie that goes exactly in the direction you expect it go in. Characters meet in oddly convenient ways. Seyfried is able to take time off from The New Yorker, which would probably be a seven day a week, 16 hour a day job, to fly to and from Italy on a whim to solve her love woes.

Think of how interesting this movie could be if Nero's character was fully developed and came into the picture earlier. He has a magnetic screen presence whether as an action hero or sensitive romantic lead. At the age of 69, he has aged well and is still in great shape.

Men comfortable enough with their sexuality are willing to admit that Nero is a big slab of handsome. This movie needed more of him and since he is married to Redgrave in real life, their scenes together could have had the potential to be natural and believable, unlike the forced romance between Seyfried and Egan which I didn't buy for a second.

It wouldn't have hurt to see more of Franco on the horse either.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Iron Man 2 is a solid second installment

Robert Downey Jr. proved to be the prototypical anti-hero superhero in Iron Man. A self aggrandizing, cocky war profiteer who under pressure and captivity builds a suit of armor and changes his ethos to become the man who brings America into an era of world peace. Yet at the same time retaining his character flaws, like the best superheroes before him, but without the sincere earnestness of Superman or the brooding scowl of Batman. Tony Stark is a superhero in the age of political polarity and the anxiety of terrorism. Who better than a hard drinking, conceited billionaire to save the day?

Of course Stark is hiding something in Iron Man 2. Beneath his arrogant but charismatic public persona is a frail and lonely man whose synthetic heart is dying on him and poisoning his blood. Can Stark withstand government interference (they want to confiscate his Iron Man suits) and battle a new enemy amidst his health problems? The enemy in question is Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) a Russian physicist who has a grudge against the Stark legacy. No doubt if you've seen the trailers, you know what he's physically capable of. Vanko is hired by sleazy arms dealer Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) He's a kind of Lex Luthor type who gets in way over his head in his devious dealings.

We also get Samuel L. Jackson expanding his Nick Fury role and Scarlett Johannson in a sexy and confident turn as Stark's new secretary who may be more than she seems. Gywneth Paltrow gamely reprises her role as Pepper Potts, Stark's long suffering but loyal secretary who gets promoted to CEO of Stark Industries. Taking over the role of Col. James "Rhodey" Rhodes from Terrence Howard is the talented and versatile Don Cheadle.

Iron Man 2 delivers the goods the way a proper sequel should. It carries on what the first film started with a fast and breezy pace. It balances it's dramatic action with sly humor and in the middle of all the improbable chaos are likable and human characters. Even in his first scene, Ivan is allowed some humanity.

Before the film started, I sat through the trailers and saw at least three coming attractions that were of course upcoming 3-D movies. As this resurgence in the old fashioned craze of 3-D continues toward the summer movie season, it's refreshing to see a blockbuster that not only keeps things in 2-D but also gives us a smart and witty screenplay (by Justin Theroux) and sequences where shit gets blowed up real good. Who says you can't have it both ways?

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Illegal MACHETE!

Danny Trejo scowls at the camera and declares a "special Cinco de Mayo ARIZONA!"

Yesterday the new trailer for the forthcoming Robert Rodriguez production of Machete premiered online. Machete was a faux movie trailer featured at the beginning of the Rodriquez/Quentin Tarantino double feature extravaganza Grindhouse (2007). Machete is played by Danny Trejo, a character actor with a Bronsonesque face that suggests a past life of rugged hard living. Trejo was a convict who spent much of his youth in the California penal system until he redeemed himself by turning into an actor after working as an extra in the prison scenes in Runaway Train (1985). This led to small roles in B-action pictures and years later he began collaborating with Robert Rodriguez, who it turns out is a distant cousin of his. Rodriguez wrote Machete with Trejo in mind. He claims he shot at least half the movie while shooting the faux trailer.

After Grindhouse was released and subsequently bombed at the US box office, it was announced that Machete would become a full length feature for the home video market. Then 20th Century Fox announced they would be releasing it as a theatrical feature set for a September 2010 release.

Once the cast was announced, heads began to spin. The film would feature not only Robert DeNiro, Cheech Marin, Jeff Fahey and Don Johnson but also Steven Seagal, Jessica Alba AND Lindsey Lohan?!

This obviously has shaped up to be an unusual project that goes beyond it's gritty exploitation inspiration. The most interesting casting in my opinion is that of Michelle Rodriguez sporting sexy tank tops and a black eye patch. Don Johnson seems welcome and well suited in the role of a dirty lawman, "There's nothing I'd like more than to see that Mexican dance the bolero with the end of a rope." Johnson coldly says.

The first trailer had the scratches and faded megenta you'd expect to see in an exploitation trailer of old. The new trailer is clear and clean and seeing DeNiro sporting a cowboy hat and a fake southern accent seems to transcend it into another cinematic universe. Maybe it would have been better if Rodriquez had stuck with lesser known character actors instead of big stars, but who knows, perhaps this movie could be silly, bizarre fun.

Check out the trailer for yourself:

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Foolish Cowboys

The 1960s was a time where profound changes in American cinema took place and one of them was the rise of the revisionist western or in the case of the films Hud (1963) and Lonely Are The Brave (1962) a new kind of cowboy: a foolish, stubborn and rowdy individual who doesn't fit in a conformist society or is losing touch with their own sense of self and whose behavior is seriously driving them towards a downfall.

Hud tells the story of the character of the same name, played by Paul Newman. Hud is a hedonistic, self centered country boy whose lifestyle clashes with his father's (Melvyn Douglas) who runs the family farm. His father's pride and work ethic are foolish in the eyes of Hud, who spends his nights in town getting drunk and chasing women. Hud's younger brother Lonnie (Brandon De Wilde) looks up to him and even begins to emulate Hud. What we see here is a really great character arc that makes us realize that the story isn't really about Hud, but about Lonnie, who begins to follow in his older brother's footsteps and eventually rebels against the rebel to come into his own and abandon Hud's empty lifestyle and leave town after the family farm fails.

A friend of mine has a great theory about Hud. He believes that Hud is part of a "trilogy" or sorts that begins with Shane (1953) which also featured De Wilde as the young boy who looks up to Alan Ladd, followed by Hud where he's a teenager entranced by the rebellious, hard living man's man lifestyle before abandoning it by boarding a bus out of town to go to the big city. Here enter Midnight Cowboy (1969) where De Wilde emerges as Jon Voight, a naive cowboy who comes to New York to escape small town life and make his living as a male prostitute before he ends up back on a bus once again. Pretty funny but oddly fascinating, isn't it? When my friend shared this theory I thought it was a strange coincidence that made perfect sense to me.

Of course the character not included in this theory is Hud himself. Hud becomes trapped by his life. It's too late for him, but not for Lonnie.


Lonely Are The Brave shares themes with Hud. Paul Newman plays John W. "Jack" Burns, a lone cowboy whose only companion is his horse Whiskey. Burns is another stubborn old fool. A man who is on the surface good natured and even tempered but in the film's most illuminating scene he displays volatility. He runs afoul of a one armed man in a bar where Burns goes to get liquored up alone. The one armed man (Bill Raisch, who actually played the One Armed Man on The Fugitive TV series) trips Burns and while he reacts without anger and sits down with his bottle of booze and is all smiles, One Arm continues to provoke Burns while Burns tries to ease the situation with wry humor.

This leads into a massive bar fight in which Burns is left undefended and then arrested. The police decide not to jail him and in defiance, Burns punches a police officer. It turns out, he wanted to be jailed all along as a plot to be reunited with his incarcerated friend Paul (Michael Kane) whose wife Jerry (Gena Rowlands) has decided both men, and the gender entire, are stupid. "Believe you me, if it didn't take men to make babies I wouldn't have anything to do with any of you!" Jerry exclaims.

Burns' eventually makes a break from prison which leads to a chase led by the local sheriff (Walter Matthau) and to Burns' end in a highway crash where he is hit by a trick, striking him and his horse.

Hud and Burns are men imprisoned by lifestyles that are meant to them as liberating and detached. Their compulsive actions committed in their seemingly all-in-good-fun, free wheeling nature are really dead ends that cause hurt. The difference between the two is, Hud ends with some sense of ambiguous hope for Lonnie.