A Single Man1/18/2010

            Of all the Oscar contender type films filling the theaters in the December of 2009, A Single Man was not one of the ones I was looking forward to.  While the film had a pretty nifty trailer, most of my enthusiasm disappeared as soon as I learned that the film’s director, Tom Ford, was a first time filmmaker who up to this point had made a significant fortune as a fashion designer.  The world of fashion designers is something that I hold the upmost contempt for; it’s a pursuit for vain rich people with far too much time on their hands.  Given that Ford dumped his own money into the film; the whole thing was displaying all the signs of being a vanity project.  But there was one name that floated to the top of all discussions of the film: Colin Firth.  Firth is not someone who would normally draw me to a film, in fact I’ve only ever seen three of the films he’s been featured in (The English Patient, Shakespeare in Love, and Girl with a Pearl Earring), and I barely remember his role in any of them.  But everything I’d heard about his work in this film was stellar, he’s been in the running for the Oscar for a while, and for the most part the film had been well received; so I decided to give the movie a chance.

            The film is a study of a man named George Falconer (Colin Firth), a British ex-patriot living in Los Angeles circa 1962 who teaches English literature at a local University.  Falconer is at a low point as the film opens, his gay lover has died in an auto accident and because he’s pretty deep in the closet he must retain his composure in front of most people; consequently, he’s been contemplating suicide.  One person he can confide in is a woman named Charley (Julianne Moore), with whom he is a good friend.  The Cuban Missile Crisis is in full swing, but Falconer hardly seems to care, he’s in the midst of his own personal crisis.  The film takes place over the course of a single day, the day where Falconer will decide whether his life is still worth living.

            It’s no secret that Colin Firth’s performance in this is the main thing this movie is being sold on both to the public and to award bodies, and this is mostly for good reason; Firth gives a really strong and restrained performance here.  George Falconer is a very repressed character; he’s repressed in general just as an extension of him being a stiff professorial type, but these tendencies are multiplied by the pressures of being a closeted gay man during a time where being outed would have been disastrous.  What’s more, he’s in a state of crisis and he’s not allowed to show his emotions in public.  Consequently, Firth needs to be able to emote to the camera while showing minimal external displays of his internal feelings.  That’s a really challenging place for an actor to be in, but Firth is able to carry it burden really well.

            Unfortunately, Tom Ford as a director was a little to aware of the challenges the script posed and made a pretty big rookie mistake in trying to help Firth carry the burden.  Throughout the movie the camera will go out of its way to highlight things that Falconer is looking at.  Worse yet, Ford has ordered cinematographer Eduard Grau to increase the lighting whenever Falconer is feeling better and then saturates the picture whenever he’s on a particular down note.  This intrusion is really unnecessary, mainly because there’s enough communicated by Firth’s performance that the information Ford is conveying is simply redundant.  Ford should have just trusted his actor to do what needed to be done, instead he added in a bunch of distracting shots that sort of wreck the film’s style, especially during the first half.

            There are, however, two really string scenes that salvage the movie from some of the director’s rookie mistakes.  The first is the film’s opening sequence, in which Falconer is told of his partner’s accident over the phone and is forced to maintain a stiff upper lip to the man on the other end while he’s clearly distressed on the screen.  This scene is an early highpoint in Firth’s performance and it clearly sets up the problem he faces for the rest of the film.  The second great scene is a ten minute sequence late in the film’s second act in which Falconer visits his long time friend and confidant Charley (Julianne Moore).  Because his friend is in on his secret, this is the one scene where Falconer is able to relax and be himself.  It isn’t an entirely happy sequence but the audience is able to relax along with Falconer. 

            A Single Man reminded me in many ways of the 2000 Curtis Hanson film Wonder Boys, another film which showed a day or two in the life of a professor going through a personal crisis.  Really, these movies that follow people through ordinary days that prove to be turning points are sort of a stock formula, but it’s a convention that usually works pretty well.  I don’t want this to merely be seen as a movie that’s only good because of a performance, because I do think that there’s a lot more to enjoy than simply watching Firth’s performance, and yet I must admit that this performance is the key to why the film’s other elements work so well.  I think what’s important is that I did feel for George Falconer the whole way through, and I enjoyed peeking in on him throughout this day, and that alone means the film pretty much accomplished what it set out to do.

***1/2 out of Four

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DVD Catch-Up: Sin Nombre(12/25/2009)

            Sin Nombre is the first feature film from the New York based filmmaker Cary Joji Fukunaga, a man of Japanese and Swedish ancestry but who is not making a Spanish language film about the issues facing Latin America.  The film’s production is similarly a melting pot, with financing coming from both the United States and Mexico, even if the characters hail from Honduras, and a glance at the crew list reveals list of names that are half Latino and half Anglo-Saxon.   Descriptions of the film since it debuted at Sundance have been a bit confusing; some of what I heard made it sound like a movie about immigration while others made it sound like a film about Latin American gangs. In truth, the film is about both of these things and a little more, and the two issues tend to collide in interesting ways.

            The film begins by telling two seemingly separate stories.  The fist is of a boy who is dubbed “Smiley” (Kristyan Ferrer) after he is initiated into a gang in the opening scenes by a pair of older gang members named El Casper (Edgar Flores) and Lil’ Mago (Tenoch Huerta Mejía).  El Casper seems like an older version of “Smiley,” he’s a criminal by necessity and while he likes the lifestyle he tends to avoid some of the excesses of it.  Lil’ Mago on the other hand is an out of control psychopath covered head to foot with menacing tattoos.  Meanwhile, we witness a parallel story of a girl named Sayra (Paulina Gaitán) who has embarked on a journey to America with her father and uncle.  She plans to illegally cross the border and meet up with family in New Jersey to give herself a new life.  Along their journey the family begins to ride on top of trains, and it’s on top of one of these trains that the two stories are going to collide and remain linked for the rest of the film.

            That the film has an unconventional sense of perspective is something that sets it apart from the average indie.  The movie looks like it will mainly be about Smiley at first, and then Sayra, and then El Casper, and even once it makes these shifts it doesn’t forget about the other characters it had left behind.  This bucks common screenwriting conventions and makes for a story that can be nicely unpredictable at times even if it does ultimate begin to fit pretty well into the mold of a chase movie in its final act.  That said, this universal perspective can be a double edged sword as there really isn’t enough time in this 90 minute film to fully explore all three of the characters that it follows at various points.  We’re never given great insight into Sayra’s desire to make a new life, we never get a great idea of what being in the gang means to Smiley, the only character with a reasonable arc is El Casper.  This is the dark side of trying to make a movie that’s really tight and fast moving, sometimes you really need those extra minutes and if Fukunaga wanted to make a multi-character epic he probably should accepted the need for a relatively epic runtime.

            The movie is not overly political and it shouldn’t offend anyone on either side of the immigration debate who has an even slightly open mind.  Really, immigration isn’t what this movie is about, even though one of the characters is trying to cross the border.  The film is certainly tying to show how much trouble immigrants go through in order to make it over the border, much the way the 1983 classic El Norte did, but for the most part the film is matter of fact about this and is not trying to enter into a debate with Lou Dobbs.  The gang material is similarly matter of fact and offers no easy answers.  All in all this is just not a politically partisan film.

            In American crime films, Mexico is a place to escape to.  Whenever a criminal finds himself “on the lamb” his last ditch plan is to head for Mexico in hopes of finding himself out of the jurisdiction of the police or to disappear from the reach of his less legal enemies.  What’s interesting is that here the reverse proves to be just as true. Seeing a Latin American criminal attempt to escape from his troubles out of Mexico and into America, makes one think harder about how Mexico feels about being a vacation destination for criminals.  Being able to see things like this from the other perspective is one of the best things that a movie like this can do.  Sin Nombre is not the greatest film you’ll see this year, but it is a pretty effective look into this world and by the end you’ll be pretty interested in seeing if the people can get out of their predicament.  It’s a pretty fun watch, at least as fun as anything with this kind of subject matter is going to be, and it’s never preachy.

***1/2 out of Four

DVD Catch-Up: Thirst(12/24/2009)

            Just about any time there’s a wave of movies coming out of a country or region there’s almost always one particularly famous movie that spearheads the wave.  For the French New Wave it was Jules and Jim, for Italian Neo-realism it was Rome: Open City, and for the 90s American independent scene it was Sex, Lies, and Videotape.  I bring this up because the movie which played this role in the “Asia Extreme” sub-genre that’s been huge in genre circles as of late has been the film Oldboy, from the South Korean director Park Chan-Wook.  That revenge epic has become a pretty substantial cult hit and has lead viewers to other Chan-Wook films like Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Lady Vengeance, and Joint Security Area.  These are all strange and kind of twisted films with wicked undercurrents of pitch black comedy.  Sometimes I think he goes a bit too far, as was the case of those two films with “vengeance” in the titles, but in spite of his habits of extravagance he’s still one of the pre-eminent directors of international genre cinema.  His newest film, Thirst, has generated a lot of excitement because it deals with vampirism and the combination of Park Chan-Wook and vampires sounds way too good to resist.

            The film is about a catholic priest named Sang-hyun (Song Kang-ho) who volunteers for a very dangerous medical experiment in which he’ll be infected by a fatal illness.  Sang-hyun surprisingly survives this test while the other forty-nine subjects succumb to the illness; possibly because of a mysterious blood transfusion he was given.  After he returned to his duties as a priest, he comes to learn that after the blood transfusion he can’t stand the sunlight and begun to have an urge for blood and sex.  Meanwhile, Sang-hyun finds himself drawn to a young woman named Tae-ju (Kim Ok-bin), who’s married to a sick man (Shin Ha-kyun) that Sang-hyun has been counseling in his capacity as a priest.  Tae-ju is similarly attracted to Sang-hyun’s newfound powers and the two begin a depraved affair, but love and lust can get pretty weird when bloodsucking monsters are involved.

            The vampires here aren’t too far removed from your typical nosferatus, they can’t take the sun, they need to drink blood, they have superhuman strength, and while they can’t fly or transform they can jump really high and land on their feet.  Perhaps the biggest departure from the average vampire is that they don’t have any fangs and need to pierce their victim’s jugular with a blade before they can begin to slurp down their plasma.  The larger alteration to the typical vampire story is that Sang-hyun is a priest and that he feels a very inherently catholic type of guilt about his situation.  The character never wanted the situation he’s in but he’s being driven both by necessity and by urges to chomp down on innocent people and by an overwhelming lust to do some very un-priest-like things with Tae-ju, who is a lot more comfortable with being a creature of the night than Sang-hyun is. 

            The film has a very promising set-up and it more or less delivers on this by the end, especially in the last twenty minutes where the movie really comes alive.  Unfortunately I think this movie is really marred by a laggy and muddled middle act which plays out like some sort of supernatural version of The Last Tango in Paris.  Large quantities of screen time are taken up by scenes of Sang-hyun and Tae-ju fang-banging in their apartment.  The whole affair sub-plot just plays out in a very awkward way and the dynamics of Tae-ju’s family are clouded by a lot of inaccessible comedy that I didn’t think much of.  The relationship does prove to be more interesting than the similarly oddball romance in his 2006 film I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK, and there is payoff to a lot of it at the end, but it’s tough sailing to get to that point.

This is unfortunate because this is a movie that could have lived up to last year’s vampire film Let the Right One In, which I’ve grown to like a lot more since my first viewing.  I can’t say that this works as well as foreign counter-programming to that other vampire series which will go unnamed, but it has its moments.  If anything I’m just disappointed that this wasn’t better than it was.  In its best moments it comes close to matching Park Chan-Wook’s work in Oldboy, but the uneven and padded really brings down the film in a good way.  It’s worth seeing for the cream that will float to the top of your memories shortly after seeing, but the actual churning is quite a chore.

*** out of Four