Monday, February 4, 2013

Never Trouble With the Cosmopolitans

     In today's round of DVD reviews we cover a baseball road movie, a documentary about an artist and activist & David Cronenberg's rather odd (imagine) 2012 offering.  Might as well start there...

  Cosmopolis - From The Fly to A Dangerous Method, a film from director David Cronenberg is always a unique experience, and his latest is certainly no exception.  Almost the entire picture takes place inside a limousine being driven around a city in riot on the way to a haircut.  Seriously.  It's a very talky film, while also an overtly sexual film.  I guess not getting any for three and a half of five films in his former franchise left Robert Pattinson a little horny.  Oh, and yes, it stars Robert Pattinson.
     The script has a lot of brilliant ideas but is a little labored.  It is difficult to build drama in the back of a limousine, even with a host of interesting characters popping in and out from scene to scene.  The dialogue is also a little stilted, almost like the characters are speaking in verse.  It was a little like the dialogue in the television show Deadwood in this regard, but the rhythms were more jagged, less fluid.
      I'm not sure if this was a help or hindrance to star Pattinson.  At times he seemed to struggle with his lines, but it is perhaps this struggle that helped him to achieve a much greater depth of characterization than I've ever seen from the actor before.  I'm sure that working with such a seasoned director, known for pulling new things out of his actors, didn't hurt.  While it was a far from perfect performance, he's strongly in the running for most improved actor of the year.  I'm not sure that I buy him as a Wall Street whiz kid, but I came a lot closer than I expected.
      Both Juliette Binoche and Paul Giamatti find the text less of an obstacle, and are able to make the odd phrasing their own (and English isn't even Ms. Binoche's first language).  She plays an older woman who both works and occasionally sleeps with Eric (Pattinson).  The scene she shares with him is the first high point of the film.  Giamatti comes in very near the end, but plays a pivotal role.  Oddly, some of Pattinson's worst work is opposite this accomplished thespian.  Maybe Mr. Giamatti intimidated him.
     The real stand out of the film, however, is Samantha Morten.  She absolutely shines as Eric's minister of theory.  Her scene with him in the limo is without a doubt the high point of the whole movie.  She owns this style of dialogue, sounds like she has spoken this way her entire life.  Much of the thematic core of the film arises from her and Eric's interaction.  Her character, though very passive, comes across as both incredibly brilliant and slightly unhinged.
     Before I finish with the cast, I should also mention virtual unknown Sarah Gadon, who plays Eric's new and newly estranged wife Elise.  If anyone gives Ms. Morten a run for her money it is Gadon, who plays frigidity with steamy chemistry.  You could cut the tension in her scenes with a knife (if it was REALLY sharp). Really observant movie geeks might remember her as Emma Jung in A Dangerous Method...vaguely.  I hope this role gets her some attention, she's a beautiful girl whose talent shows great promise.
     Finally, the production is just as sleek and stylish as you would expect a Cronenberg film to be.  His team managed to make the film far more interesting visually than any film with such a stifling primary location should be.  The interior of the car is absolutely stunning to look at.  More impressive, however, are the images passing by in the windows, revealing the exterior of the city.  Cinematographer Peter Suschitzsky (The Empire Strikes Back, Eastern Promises) did a fantastic job on this movie.
      While Cosmopolis didn't score big with critics or at the box office, I found it to be an admirable effort, well worth checking out.  I expect it was an unusually difficult story to adapt.  The casting of Pattinson was also a huge risk.  It is refreshing to see successful directors who aren't afraid to continue to push and challenge themselves.  Available on DVD.  4 of 5 stars.

  Trouble With the Curve - Clint Eastwood was supposedly done with acting after Gran Turino, but it seems that, like the Rolling Stones, he retires only as a prelude to the next reunion tour.  I'm not sure if his return to the big screen is an effort to help longtime producer Robert Lorenz out with his first directing project or just an attempt to stay relevant after the travesty that was J Edgar.  Whichever his motivation, I am sorry to say that Trouble With the Curve roundly failed to achieve either of these two possible goals.  The film was a forgettable, predictable mess.
     The problems start with the script of first time screenwriter Randy Brown.  The screenplay is trite in dialogue, formulaic in plot structure.  The whole concept is such a cliche:  little girl loses her mother young and grows up a tomboy, constantly seeking the approval of a father who feels like he has no idea how to raise a girl.  Now all grown up, she must try to come to terms with her aging father and their relationship.  Stop me if you've heard this one before.  Try to venture out of the cave you live in occasionally if you haven't.
     Of course, even such a hackneyed concept could be spun into gold if the take on it was fresh enough.  Unfortunately, this picture's individual scenes and the actor's lines are so stale that your matronly aunt would be too embarrassed to serve them as fruitcake.  "You are my sunshine" is used as the theme song of the movie, but with none of the delicious irony employed in Primary Colors.  Eastwood actually sings it to his dead wife at her graveside.  Matthew Lillard made real steps toward respectability last year with a small but pivotal role in The Descendants.  After having to deliver the line "But she's a girl!" to imply that Adams' character knows nothing about baseball with serious indignation like a mid-twentieth century fourth grader picking a kick-ball team, he might as well go back to playing Shaggy.  They actually worked the film's title, word for word, into the penultimate scene of the film.
     It would be nice to blame all the film's shortcomings on the script, but it is painfully obvious that the actors are given no quality direction either.  Justin Timberlake has proven to have real potential as an actor, but he is practically aimless here.  Eastwood actually regresses to the crusty monotone delivery of his Dirty Harry days throughout most of his scenes.  Amy Adams, apparently better equipped to operate rudderless (or maybe ignore bad advice), fares a little better, but even she has trouble making lines like "Because I'm a girl?" fly believably in 2012.
     This is usually the point in this sort of review when I point out the one or two things that redeem the movie somewhat......................I got nothin.  Available on DVD.  1 of 5 stars.

  Ai Wei-Wei:  Never Sorry - I personally found 2011's crop of documentaries to be a little weaker than the year before, but I'm happy to report that 2012 seems to be rebounding most successfully.  Documentaries about famous artistic personalities seem to be particularly flourishing this season with Jiro Dreams of Sushi, Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present, Oscar front runner Searching For Sugarman, and director Alison Klayman's debut film:  Ai Wei-Wei: Never Sorry.  If I did not know that this slickly made and inspiring picture was her first, I would never believe it.
     Like Jiro, Ai Wei-Wei is a fascinating character, but of an entirely different nature.  He is mischievous and gleeful, yet this playful inner child is just one side of his personality.  An artist who became world famous for his work on the Beijing Olympics, he has used that fame to fight for personal and artistic freedoms amid the stifling culture of his homeland.  He has held the government accountable in a way that few Chinese citizens could ever manage, utilizing social media to shine a light on China for all the world to see.  He is deadly serious about the causes that matter to him, but approaches it all with humor and an all encompassing love for humanity.  As much as he has been made to suffer for his efforts, he certainly appears to enjoy being the gadfly, the instigator, the idealist, the example, and the jester.
     Unlike many docs of this nature, Never Sorry is far more than just a portrait of an interesting artistic personality.  It is an interesting commentary on the place of the artist in the world, and the power of art to change it.  Wei-Wei IS an example, and this film is every bit as much of an inspiration to fight for what is important to you as How to Survive a Plague.  The two films are also alike in that they delve deeply into the meaning and purpose of self sacrifice in our contemporary world.
     Never Sorry is also an interesting look into the culture of modern China and the fight for personal liberties in a culture that has long kept them subjugated to the will of the state.  It bears some interesting correlations to many of this year's narrative films thematically, particularly A Royal Affair which illustrates a turning point in the history of western Europe during which many idealists were facing many of the same struggles that Ai-Wei Wei faces in the China of the present day.
     To his credit, Wei-Wei never seems to let any of these weighty concerns keep his inner child from coming out to play.  He does a silly little dance over the closing credits of the film, his gift back to all of those who have contributed money toward his activism induced legal expenses.  I highly recommend this film.  Available on DVD and Netflix Instant Play.  4 1/2 of 5 stars.

Related Posts:  Martha's Certified Method (A Dangerous Method review), Jiro Waltzes With Vampires (Jiro Dreams of Sushi review), Surviving the Alps is a Rush (How To Survive a Plague review),  To Royal Effect (A Royal Affair Review)

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