Saturday, August 03, 2013

movie review: Midnight Express

Midnight Express (1978)
Directed by Alan Parker

This movie (and the book it's based on) did a lot to dissuade Westerners from travelling to Turkey. It's the sort-of true story of Billy Hayes, an American who was caught trying to smuggle 2 kilos of hashish out of Istanbul and was put in prison for it. When Midnight Express was released, Turks were offended at the film's brutish, one-dimensional depiction of their country, and spoke out vehemently against it. Decades later, scriptwriter Oliver Stone admitted he had exaggerated Hayes' original story, and he and Hayes both apologized to the Turks for the overly harsh portrayal of their country.

Upon watching Midnight Express, I definitely thought it was, well, unsubtle. No one would dispute that prison conditions at the time in Turkey had room for improvement, but there is something distinctly unsavoury about the way all the Turks in the movie are portrayed: they're almost all cruel, or stupid, or both. There is a lot of "dark-skinned other" happening here on screen, a lot of caricature and cartoon.

That said, there are still some things that make the film worth watching, chief among them the actors. The late Brad Davis is amazing as Billy. He plays the character as someone who does something unbelievably dumb and then realizes far too late what he has sacrificed in his moment of stupidity. He's capable of acting in anger when pushed over the edge, but for the most part remains surprisingly sweet-natured and open. John Hurt is wonderful as the wry, sensitive Max, a Brit with a drug addiction who seems to spend equal amounts of time nodding off, lavishing affection on his cat, and hating Rifki, the prison's tea-and-all-sundries vendor and chief snitch. A very young Randy Quaid also puts in a good performance as a long-time prisoner who is desperate to escape no matter what.

The movie is definitely sensationalistic and very America-of-the-1970s in its approach, but it's an interesting artifact. If you want to spend a couple of hours getting a feel for what it would be like to be incarcerated in horrific conditions for a seeming eternity, this is the movie for you.

PS: This is totally beside the point, but I was intrigued by how much Brad Davis resembled Brad Pitt when his hair was long, and Channing Tatum when his hair was short.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

movie review: Missing

Missing (1982)
Directed by Costa-Gavras

Missing is based on the true story of Charles Horman, a freelance American journalist living in Chile with his (also American) wife when General Augusto Pinochet bombed the president's palace and carried out a coup d'etat. The country was thrown into violent chaos; curfews were implemented and anyone on the street during curfew could be summarily shot. The military terrorized civilians by patrolling the streets with tanks and machine guns, constantly shooting into crowds. They carried out random arrests, torture, and executions. Many years later, it was officially confirmed that thousands of people had been rounded up and executed in Chile's national stadium.

Six days after the coup, Charles Horman disappeared.

The movie centres around Horman's wife, Beth (Sissy Spacek), who is still in Chile trying to get some answers about what has happened to her husband, and Charles' father Ed (Jack Lemmon), who has flown to Chile from the US after getting nowhere with government representatives back home. The real strength of Missing is the relationship between Beth and Ed, which starts out as tense and mildly combative (Ed thinks Beth and Charles are irresponsible, paranoid "anti-establishment" types; Beth thinks Ed is rigid, judgmental, and hopelessly naive about what the US is really up to in Chile). Over the course of the film, as Beth and Ed fight their way through a gauntlet of evasive, prevaricating American officials, they form a bond over their shared love of Charles and their surprisingly similar passion for justice. Ed begins to understand what the US has really been doing in Chile, and starts to suspect that the American officials not only know more than they were letting on but may in fact be partly responsible for Charles' disappearance.

Spacek and Lemmon are powerful, subtle actors who have instantly believable chemistry as father-and-daughter-in-law. Although Spacek was actually in her early 30s when this was filmed, she looks fragile and delicate and more like someone in her early 20s. However, we (and Ed) soon realize that even though the violence she witnesses affects her deeply and terrifies her, she has an iron strength and the power of her unshakeable convictions to help her continue. As for Lemmon, director Costa-Gavras explained in later interviews why he wanted to cast him over other actors better known for dramatic roles: Lemmon is vulnerable and humane, and, despite his reputation as a comedic actor, able to give a subtle performance of a man who has a strong faith in his country and its leaders, but finds out to his horror that his beloved America may have betrayed him most cruelly.

Costa-Gavras does a beautiful job of filming the chaos in the streets--his simple but effective framing and sharply focused soundscape (there is very little non-diegetic music, for example, but the sounds of gunshots echo in the background of nearly every scene) serve the narrative very well and give it the feeling of a stark, sombre documentary film.

If you are looking for an intelligent, engrossing film that is not an easy watch but definitely a satisfying one, I recommend Missing.

Monday, March 25, 2013

movie review: With A Friend Like Harry (alternate title: Harry, He's Here to Help)

With A Friend Like Harry/Harry, He's Here to Help (2000)
Directed by Dominik Moll

The film begins with a scene familiar to anyone who has driven for too long in a hot car on a family vacation. Michel and Claire, a couple in their 30s, are headed to their summer vacation home with their three small children who are crying, screaming, and kicking the back of the driver's seat. They stop to gather their wits and cool off at a gas station, where Michel runs into an old classmate in the men's toilets. Harry remembers Michel, but Michel does not remember Harry. That's OK; Harry remembers more than enough for the both of them.

It turns out Harry is now very wealthy and is travelling with his beautiful young girlfriend, Plum (Prune, in French), to Switzerland. But before long he has invited himself and Plum to Michel and Claire's for drinks and before you know it, they are ensconced, meddling away busily in the young family's lives.

There's something off about Harry right from the beginning: he is a little too ingratiating, too familiar, too concerned with Michel and what Harry considers his wasted potential as a writer. He remembers details from their school days with a strange, obsessive clarity. This was something I found unconvincing about the film--there are several things Harry says or does that would raise alarm bells for me, but Michel and Claire seem to think he's only slightly odd and continue to accept his and Plum's extremely intrusive presence in their lives.

The film becomes more and more sinister, and Harry's willingness to intervene in Michel's life becomes more extreme. The filmmaker is skilled at creating tension, because we know things about Harry's personality that the other characters do not, so we are often left on pins and needles as we see characters interacting with him as though he is a rational actor. We want to warn them, but our inability to do anything but watch as Harry wreaks his influence on Michel's life is what makes the movie almost unbearably suspenseful. Hitchcock would have been proud.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

movie review: Searching for Sugar Man

Searching for Sugar Man (2012)
Directed by Malik Bendjelloul

Although I think it's best to watch this documentary knowing as little as possible about the subject matter, I can't resist telling you the hook: it's the story of a mysterious American musician named Rodriguez who achieved a tiny amount of exposure in the US in the late 1960s/early 1970s. His sound is similar to Bob Dylan and other singer-songwriters of the time, but he is no imitator or wanna-be; he is clearly a very skilled musician and songwriter in his own right. Unfortunately, Rodriguez never achieved much attention despite this talent, and after a couple of modest albums, he faded away into obscurity... America, anyway. Unbeknownst to him, he was becoming incredibly popular in South Africa, his songs an inspiration to people working in the anti-apartheid movement. He was an influence for many of the prominent anti-apartheid musicians at the time. But despite his popularity, people knew very little about Rodriguez, and he remained a mystery to many of his biggest fans. The film follows the journey that a couple of South African music journalists and fans took to discover who Rodriguez really was and what had happened to him. (Hint: the arrival of the internet helped.)

The movie's cinematography is very well-done: the film is gritty and beautiful at the same time, and manages to incorporate archival footage in a way that feels natural. And although we rarely hear his voice, Bendjelloul is clearly a good interviewer, coaxing out fascinating details and sometimes surprisingly articulate insight from his subjects. And although this is a documentary, the story unfolds like a fictional narrative, with plenty of suspense. The filmmakers have an excellent sense of pacing and structure, and there is not a single wasted minute. Whether we are learning about the censorship and brutality of apartheid in South Africa, or watching Rodriguez' old friends and colleagues talk about his talent, there is a sense that everything fits together into the narrative. It all seems to fall into place as it is meant to. I won't give away any more of what happens, because the movie is such a joy to experience as it unfolds.

I would recommend this to anyone who likes a good mystery, is interested in South Africa of the 1970s, or likes good music. In fact, it's worth watching for Rodriguez' soundtrack alone.

Saturday, February 09, 2013

movie review: Foreign Parts

Foreign Parts (2010)
United States
Directed by Véréna Paravel and J.P. Sniadecki

This documentary was shot by two anthropologists, unobtrusively and in ethnographic style. It is clear that they earned the trust of the residents of Willets Point, Queens, over the many months they shot the movie. Willets Point is the site of many junkyards and small shops, home to many marginalized working class and working poor residents, and it is a vibrant, thriving neighbourhood with plenty of community spirit. People look out for each other. However, it is also prime real estate, and at the time of filming, Citi Field had just been built and Michael Bloomberg had his eye on developing the area for tourism and high-end housing. Of course, this would have meant the current residents would have had to be relocated. As one person puts it in the extras, there are a lot of undocumented people living there, including him. (According to the New York Times, there is one legal resident only). Where are they going to go? What will they do for a living? They will lose their jobs and their homes. But they don't have much political sway. The camera frames some beautiful shots; repetition and patterns inside the junkyard and warehouse are especially good for some lovely images. The camera also follows the residents of Willets Point around and allows them to tell their stories. We learn a little, not much, about their backgrounds. I would have liked to learn more about the homeless couple living in their van, unsure at one point during the cold winter months if one of them would wake up to find the other frozen to death. There is a sweet, charming woman who seems to live on the margins begging the auto guys for "a quarter" (she gets turned down frequently), but she is considered their friend, too; they throw her a nice birthday party at one point with music, dancing, and a beautiful cake. At some points the movie is very slow, and there will be viewers who are understandably impatient with the meandering style. But it is well worth a watch for those who can tolerate slower documentaries. Even though the filmmakers refrain from external commentary, we can put together a picture of a community that functions as a tightly knit organism, in danger of being split apart and scattered. It's not a pretty picture, but Paravel and Sniadecki don't need to tell us; instead, they let the people of Willets Point speak for themselves.

Sunday, February 03, 2013

movie review: The Taking of Pelham One Two Three

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)
United States
directed by Joseph Sargent, based on the novel by John Godey
starring Walter Matthau, Robert Shaw, and Martin Balsam

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

This is an excellent example of a classic 1970s action/thriller set in New York City. The story is simple: four heavily armed, middle aged men wearing trilby hats, dark rimmed glasses, and moustaches take over a subway car and hold the passengers hostage. They call each other Mr. Blue, Mr. Green, Mr. Grey, and Mr. Brown. (Now you know which movie Quentin Tarantino was paying homage to with Reservoir Dogs.) They are demanding that one million dollars be delivered in an hour, or else, they say, they will start shooting the passengers one by one.

Mr. Blue, the head hostage-taker, is in radio contact with Walter Matthau, who plays Lieutenant Garber, head of the Transit Police. Matthau is gruff, witty, and intelligent; watching his radioed conversations with Mr. Blue (Robert Shaw) is one of the film's delights. He is imperfect but very human and warm, a good contrast to Mr. Blue's cold cruelty. Garber knows that the delivery of the money will be late and asks for extra time; Mr. Blue refuses and gets ready to shoot one of the passengers. He's a sociopath who genuinely can't understand why it matters when Mr. Green tentatively asks how he's going to decide which passenger should be shot.

For me, the most interesting part of the movie was seeing just how much North American culture has changed in the last 39 years. There is a fair bit of casual sexism and racism exhibited by the characters--my impression was not that the movie makers condoned it, but rather that they were showing the characters' flaws and unpleasant edges. The movie makes note of the hostility directed at women newly allowed in male-only workplaces; of the condescending dismissal of "foreigners" and discomfited surprise when they are not as stupid as previously thought; of the newness of the idea that a black man could be a high-ranking police official.

It was also interesting to see the attitudes of authorities towards the hostage takers and the whole hostage situation. At first, they are just kind of incredulous. After all, how on earth could someone hold a subway car hostage? Impossible! There is not so much fear of the hostage-takers, or any idea of viewing them as terrorists, mostly just exasperation that the train is being held up. There is the general idea, at first, that agreeing to pay them money is a bit premature because how can we be certain they're actually going to kill the passengers, you know? And besides, everyone knows they'd never be able to get away with it. One gets the idea that they sort of want to call the hostage takers' bluff to see what happens. It's hard to imagine a similar reaction today in this security-and-terrorism-obsessed world.

I recommend this movie to anyone who likes tense, well-paced thrillers with lots of suspense. There is no quick-cut, modern-day action movie feel to this one; instead, it relies on building the tension in a more real-time, naturalistic way. I much prefer it. (Note: Watch for some familiar 1990s sitcom faces in small roles.)

Saturday, January 26, 2013

movie review: The Kid With a Bike

The Kid With a Bike (2011)
directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
starring Thomas Doret and Cecile de France

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I liked this movie a lot. It's a pretty simple story: Cyril is an eleven year old boy who is put in a boys' home after his father abandons him. He spends a lot of time trying to track down his dad, running back to the housing estate where he used to live, heartbreaking in his queries to the locals about whether they know where his dad has gone. The people who work at the home, who always bring him back, are pretty sympathetic, but they know what Cyril doesn't: that his dad doesn't want to be found and is not capable of caring for him.

By chance, Cyril meets a nice woman, Samantha, who agrees to take him in as a foster mom on weekends. Will she be his salvation? It is difficult, because Cyril is a wounded child and acts in predictably self-destructive ways. This sounds like it could be the setup for a melodramatic movie of the week, but it isn't. It's a very simple story, and it's told well. We can understand why Cyril acts the way he does. He's vulnerable, because he desperately wants a father, and he's naive because he's only eleven.

I really liked how this movie unfolded. It's beautifully shot, well paced, and simply told. It has quite a few moments of natural suspense, but it never feels like the directors are playing cheap tricks on their audience. The cast is excellent; Thomas Doret, who plays Cyril, is so natural that I honestly forgot I was watching an actor and started to believe he WAS Cyril. Cecile de France's character Samantha is a little bit of a mystery as a secondary (but very important) character, but she is warm and real and very good in her role.

If you like simple human dramas told with empathy, I would recommend this movie.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

book review: The Restless Sleep: Inside New York City's Cold Case Squad by Stacy Horn

The Restless Sleep: Inside New York City's Cold Case Squad 

by Stacy Horn

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

I find police detective work fascinating, and I've never read a book that focused on cold cases, so I was looking forward to this book when I ordered it through interlibrary loan. Unfortunately, I found it rather disappointing.

One of the biggest problems I had with it was the writing style. It did not seem to suit the subject matter very well, because it was (at times) very chatty and informal. It sort of reminded me of a first draft by a student who has some good ideas but needs to learn how to revise and edit. I also found that Ms. Horn has a fondness for the melodramatic and several parts were quite heavy-handed. I know that murder is bad--I don't need you to convince me, over and over again.

I also had issues with the structure of the book. We are taken from topic to topic with no transitions--first there is a detailed description of a detective or two; then there is a detailed history of the origin of the cold case squad; then there is a brief intro to one of the cold cases. Then, just as quickly, we're back to talking about crime stats, now another cold case, now meet another detective, here's some more history, here's another cold case, let's go back to the first cold case...augh! The result is disruptive and disjointed.

If I had been Ms. Horn's editor, I'd have advised her to cut out most of the history of the Cold Case Squad and police department politics. Just as a cold case chapter was getting interesting, the book would switch back to talking about NYPD politics and the narrative would go back to inching along at a snail's pace. These details were just tedious--not nearly as interesting as the actual cold cases themselves.

As I mentioned, I was interested in the cold cases themselves--to be honest, this is the only reason I actually finished this book. I wanted to find out if the cases were ever solved, and if so, how. Overall, however, I can't really recommend The Restless Sleep. I am sure there's a great book to be written about New York City's Cold Case Squad, but this is not it.

Friday, January 11, 2013

book review: The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

Hmm, I'm pleased that I didn't have to delete too many spam comments after my gigantic blogging hiatus. I get a lot more spam on my work e-mail, which supposedly has heavy-duty spam filters on it. I find it particularly hilarious that the most recent spam e-mails are encouraging me to buy a ready-made university degree (easy! discreet! printed on high quality paper!).

Anyway, rather than let the blog languish further or delete it entirely, I've decided to use it to put all my reviews--books, movies, etc.--in one convenient place. First up:

The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Originally I gave this 3.5 stars, but after thinking about it some more, I've decided to upgrade it to 4, because I feel is so admirably complex and well-written. One of the real strengths of the novel, in particular, is the way that Rowling takes such time building each character so that we are not in the least surprised when one of them acts a certain way. By the end of the novel not a single person in the book acts out of character. Their actions are--with one exception--predictably selfish and disappointing.

I really enjoyed this--the characters are interesting and the weird petty machinations of the small village are fascinating. It's true there are very few completely sympathetic characters, but there are also only a couple who are really truly irredeemable (Simon, Shirley and Howard are unlikable from beginning of the book to the end) and more than a few who are just kind of pathetic, or are sometimes unpleasant but in a realistic, everyone-is-flawed, human and understandable way. We might not LIKE what the characters do, but we understand completely WHY they do it.

The book is fairly tragic but oddly enough, not exactly grim. Rowling includes enough low-key comic touches to keep it from becoming grindingly depressing. I thought her writing was really pretty good in this one; she's developed a good voice and a sharp style. There was one sentence that stuck out awkwardly in the first few pages of the book and then after that, the writing flowed smoothly.

However, I did think the book was a little bit too long. It needed trimming--for example, there was a bit of a lag in places where the tedious machinery of the village council was discussed in too much detail. But even so, I can't fault Rowling for the sprawling cast of characters, because I think she handles them well. And it does all come together at the end--though this was another place I thought the novel faltered slightly. The end was not unsatisfying but was a little bit too tidy, albeit in a gloomy way. [I'm being vague on purpose so as not to spoil it if you haven't read it.]

Overall, though, if you like big sprawling novels with sharp social commentary (and it is extremely sharp--you're not left wondering about Rowling's social views) and you don't mind reading about humans behaving abominably to each other, I do recommend The Casual Vacancy.