Saturday, January 31, 2009

2 Days in Paris-a truly romantic comedy

For the purpose of full disclosure I'll start off by saying that I'm completely in love with Julie Delpy and have been for the past few years. I'd seen her in various movies before, but after seeing her with Ethan Hawke in the Richard Linklater masterpiece Before Sunrise and its equally brilliant follow-up Before Sunset, I was totally smitten. Delpy was born to 2 French actors, and she began acting on stage at the ripe old age of 5, starting in movies not too much later, and moving to New York City to study film at 21 (becoming a naturalized US citizen in 2001). She's spoken at least 3 languages on screen (English, French, and German) and even released a self-titled album in 2003. She's an obviously diversified person, but it's still surprising to see her credits on 2 Days in Paris, where she serves as director, writer, producer, lead actress, editor, and composer of the score (one of the songs from her album is also used in the movie). It's a romantic comedy about Marion (Delpy) and her boyfriend Jack (Adam Goldberg) coming back from vacationing in Venice and stopping in Paris for a couple of days to see her friends and family before going back home to New York. The movie is classified as a romantic-comedy, and it really is, but it's a much higher quality movie than that classification might normally suggest.

Unlike many rom-coms, 2 Days in Paris is both funny and romantic. Much of the comedy comes from Jack being a fish out of water in France. He doesn't speak French (more than a few words), he doesn't like France, and he definitely doesn't understand the French people. Being back in Marion's hometown, staying in the apartment she bought upstairs from her parents, dealing with her outrageous father, and running into a few ex-boyfriends along the way really puts a strain on their relationship. One hilarious scene in particular that stands out is when Marion and Jack eat a lunch prepared by her father consisting of a sort of rabbit stew. Jack mentions that he had a pet rabbit when he was a kid and isn't thrilled about munching down on his kin, but will do it anyway so he won't offend Marion's father. When the conversation between Marion and her dad angrily flares up a minute or two later (in French), Jack insists that it isn't a big deal, really, he'll eat the rabbit, which is not even remotely what they were fighting about. The romance in the movie comes out of whether or not their relationship will endure these torturous two days. Both keep themselves at somewhat of a distance, she still flirts with ex-boyfriends (always keeping someone on the backburner, relationship wise) and he's obsessed with photographing everywhere they go (constantly removing himself from the moment to take a picture). Sometimes you think they will endure, and sometimes not. And this not exactly being a Meg Ryan movie, you're not even really sure how it's going to end.

It's a wonderfully written movie, with realistically intelligent dialog and characters. For the most part we just follow Jack and Marion, I think every scene has one or both of them in it, so it's a blessing to see that it's so well acted by Goldberg and Delpy. I find something inherently likable in both of them, possibly swayed by previously seeing and loving Delpy in Before Sunrise/Sunset and Goldberg in Dazed and Confused, the other of director Richard Linklater's masterpieces. Delpy also steers the movie in the right way as a director, never letting it become just about the laughs (although there are many) or just about the romance, or just about the weird art that the French love so much (she even lets us laugh at that more than once).

It's a terrifically real romantic comedy, wonderfully written and directed by Julie Delpy, superbly acted by Delpy and Adam Goldberg, and well worth joining them on the hysterically hellish ride through these 48 hours.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Gran Torino

Clint Eastwood's 29th time in the directors chair is one of his best. Gran Torino is the story of Walt Kowalski, a racist retired auto worker in Detroit who isn't exactly excited that an Asian family has moved in next door. His wife just died, and he's annoyed at the mere presence of his emotionally disconnected sons and grandchildren at the funeral (both are understandably distant, Walt's not the easiest guy to live with). One night Thao (first time actor Bee Vang), the bookish son of the Asian family, tries to break into Walt's garage and steal his prized 1972 Ford Gran Torino. Walt catches him, but Thao gets away. The robbery was supposed to be the initiation of Thao into his cousin's gang, something Thao didn't even want, so when the gang shows up a few nights later to offer Thao another chance, he refuses. They try to forcibly drag him away, and end up on Walt's property. Walt responds by shoving his M-1 rifle in their faces and telling them to get off of his lawn.

Saving Thao like that (although Walt's only intention was to get "those gooks" off of his lawn) opens up a relationship with Thao's family. Thao's sister Sue (the beautiful Ahney Her, also a first time actor) takes it upon herself to connect with the old man, educating him on her culture and people. Walt finds out that like many of the Asian immigrants in the area, they're Hmong, a "hill people" from Southeast Asia who fought on the American side during the Vietnam War before mostly immigrating to the U.S. Walt, after grudingly attending a cookout next door (and only because he was out of beer and Sue told him he could drink theirs), is flattered when the Hmong women insistently shower him with their delicious food. Sue also takes him down to the basement where the kids are hanging out, including Thao. Walt tries to give Thao advice on a cute girl at the party, well, his version of advice anyway, which includes calling Thao a "big fat pussy" for not talking to the girl who obviously likes him. After Thao's mom finds out that he tried to steal the Gran Torino, she sends him over to work off the debt to Walt, who reluctantly agrees. This starts a friendship between the two, with Walt having a kid who listens to him and eventually cares about him, while Thao finally gets some semblance of the father figure he's missing at home.

Eastwood the director handles all of these developments with remarkable ease. He also handles the changes in tone in tremendous fashion, as Gran Torino actually has a surprising amount of comedy in it, especially in the scene with Walt's barber as they try to teach Thao to talk like a man, and in the subsequent scene at a construction site. Still, Eastwood never lets us down, powerfully strengthening the dramatic tension in the final act. The performances he gets from his first time actors are very effective, although not completely free of the expected pitfalls of first time actors (occasionally awkward line readings and such). Although there's nothing really new in the story, it never drags and feels shorter than its 2 hour running time might suggest. I hope we get to see more of Ahney Her in the future, she's beautiful, has a good presence onscreen, and I think she could be a star in the right roles. Eastwood the actor has probably never been better. He's terrific as the initial racist Walt (a little over-the-top at times, but never unbelievable), and wonderfully shows us Walt opening up and changing, even if it's only a little bit. We start to see real affection in his eyes and voice as he connects with these two kids. Eastwood is also quietly devastating in his emotional scenes, and makes a strong case for the first acting Oscar of his career.

Gran Torino isn't the best movie of Eastwood's career, that's still Unforgiven by a wide margin, but I think it's probably his best since then, and definitely one of my favorite movies of last year. Although it didn't open across the country until this year, it technically came out in '08 in limited release so as to be eligible for this years Oscars, so that's why I consider it an '08 movie.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Charlie Chaplin's Monsieur Verdoux-a comedy of murders

I have stated before that I'm not a huge fan of Charlie Chaplin's. Outside of his great silent film The Gold Rush, I've not thought any of his movies were anything special. But in 1947 he made a movie called Monsieur Verdoux, a black-comedy set in France about a man who marries women so that he can kill them and take their money. The project came about from an idea that Orson Welles had for a movie, and he wanted Chaplin to star in it. Chaplin had never been directed by anyone but himself, and didn't intend to start at the age of 58, so he bought the script from Welles, re-wrote parts of it, and made the movie himself. It was a resounding flop when it was released, mostly due to Chaplin's personal and political scandals at the time. It has since come to be one of Chaplin's most fondly remembered movies, and one that Chaplin reportedly said was "the cleverest and most brilliant film of my career".

I was actually most impressed not by Chaplin's writing or directing abilities (he also wrote the score, as he often did for his movies), but by his performance as the title character. This was the first time that he'd fully stepped away from his signature character of The Tramp, and he does it in brilliant fashion. He's a quick talking, intelligent, diabolical ladies man who swiftly sweeps middle aged women off their feet and gets them to marry him, so he can get to their money quicker, so that he can move on to the next one. He doesn't go for the richest women, just ones who're living comfortably or at least have a bit of land or a house to sell. He sees himself as a business man, not a murderer, only killing these women because that's how he happens to make money.

It's quite a dark subject matter, but Chaplin is so likeable and energetic in the lead role that it never gets bogged down in its subject. At the end, while he's awaiting the guillotine (it was 1947, you didn't expect him to get away with it, did you?), he's interviewed by a couple of newspapers. While laying in his bed thinking about the vile way he's being treated by the press, he talks about how people who profit on war are not executed, but he will be, and dryly says to an interviewer "One murder makes a villain, millions a hero", which is the most famous line from the movie. Chaplin had some problems getting by the production code of the day, but was mostly able to get around it and never had to cut out anything of significance.

It's long by about 20 minutes or so, but I was never bored, mainly because Chaplin was so brilliant in the lead, and he's in basically every scene. I still don't think Chaplin is on the level of genius that Buster Keaton is on, but maybe there are more of his movies I need to check out before I say that he's not a genius at all.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009


Although I'm an atheist, and was not Catholic before I rejected religion, I find the rigidity and ritual of Catholicism fascinating. I have no idea if Doubt gets the details right, but it works terrifically on screen. Doubt was originally a play written by John Patrick Shanley in 2004, which went on to win 4 Tony awards (with 4 other nominations) and a Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It deals with the uncertainty surrounding a priests association with a young boy at a Catholic school in 1964 New York City. The school's principle, Sister Aloysius, becomes convinced that Father Flynn has had an inappropriate relationship with the young boy, while Father Flynn maintains that his contact is strictly paternal, looking out for a lonely kid that needs a friend and a mentor. Caught in the middle of their struggle is Sister James, an innocent young nun teaching history at the school, whom Sister Aloysius had begun to take under her wing.

One of the most fascinating pieces of the writing is the subtle power struggle between Father Flynn and Sister Aloysius. As principle, Sister Aloysius is in charge of the school, its students, and its teachers. But as the priest of the church, Father Flynn outranks Sister Aloysius in all matters. A delightful subtlety we see is how both fight over who is sitting in the Principle's chair during meetings. Father Flynn seems to be a fun loving, friendly, and compassionate priest whom most of the kids like, while Sister Aloysius runs the school through fear, like she is the warden of this Catholic prison. Still, Sister Aloysius is not a one-sided caricature, she genuinely cares for the students and her fellow nuns, but something rubs her the wrong way about Father Flynn. Sister James is stuck in between the two, using the very effective advice that Sister Aloysius gives her about dealing with students, while also sharing Father Flynn's desire to bring the church into the new generation of America post Kennedy assassination. Father Flynn believes that Sister Aloysius is accusing him of these things (despite only circumstantial evidence) because of her dislike of his belief in change. She insists that "nothing has changed under the sun" when Father Flynn suggests that maybe they should include a secular song like "Frosty the Snowman" into the Christmas pageant because people have changed and want a friendlier, more relatable church.

The movie is impeccably cast, with two of the greatest actors the movies have ever known filling the two lead roles. Meryl Streep fits perfectly into the hawkish role of Sister Aloysius, nicely adopting a New York accent for the role. Philip Seymour Hoffman proves yet again that he is an endlessly versatile performer, putting his peers to shame as he shows once more why I think he is (and has been for years) the best actor working in movies. Also pitch perfect are the supporting performances, with Viola Davis heartbreaking as the mother of the young boy in question, and Amy Adams as the perhaps overly naive Sister James. Adams, showing that her Oscar-nominated turn in Junebug wasn't a fluke, takes what could've been a bland part that gets blown away by the juicier leading roles and imbues it with a genuine and intelligent goodheartedness. You can see in Adams' eyes and hear in her voice the different shades of understanding and thought that she gives to Sister James. Both Father Flynn and Sister Aloysius sound right, but both cannot be right. Thankfully, there is no black-and-white writing among the characters. Like Sister James, we're not sure who to believe and we're never given a straight answer.

John Patrick Shanley is one hell of a writer. In addition to the accolades he won for this work, he previously won an Oscar for the screenplay of the 1987 hit Moonstruck. He then went on to write and direct one of the most sadly overlooked movies of the next decade in the bizzare Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan comedy Joe Versus the Volcano. For Doubt, he adapted his own play, and directs for the first time since the flop of Joe in 1990. His script is crackling with great exchanges between the characters, and it never rang false to me. It doesn't play like a Tarantino movie, where the dialog is wonderful but unrealistic, the dialog in Doubt works so well because it is so realistic. Even if Sister Aloysius is the stereotypical strict nun, she still always feels like a real person, which I think is the accomplishment of the script and also a credit to Streep's performance. There is electricity in the confrontational scenes and in the dialog because of what it means to these characters and their lives. Thankfully, Shanley never makes this feel like a filmed play, bringing enough cinematic vision to make it feel like a story that just happens to have a minimal number of characters in it.

Hoffman, Streep, Adams, and Davis are well worth the price of admission, and with the classy way that Shanley handles a tricky subject matter, there's not really anything to be put off by about the story. Doubt will certainly be on my final list of the best movies of 2008.