Tuesday, April 9, 2013

These Are Not the Loneliest Words

     Today's at home viewing reviews include Bradley Cooper's OTHER 2012 vehicle, an unusual documentary from one of Iran's greatest narrative film makers and a critically acclaimed but painfully slow indie drama.  Might as well hop in...

  This Is Not a Film - This movie definitely gets the "most interesting back-story" award for the year.  Iranian film maker Jafar Panahi was punished for producing films that the government of his home land found objectionable with a sentence of six years in jail and a twenty year ban on the writing, directing, and/or production of films.  While at home on bail awaiting the ruling of the appeals court, he began looking for ways around this.  He already had one unproduced screenplay that he had written before the ban, which technically did not him from acting or reading screenplays that were already completed.  He invited a friend who was a camera man over to tape him reading from (and to some extent, acting out) said screenplay.  Technically, he was not disobeying the court order and technically "This (Was) Not a Film".  Of course, these technicalities did not deter the film maker from cautiously smuggling the picture out of the country in a birthday cake before its release on the film festival circuit.
      What starts out as a mere reading of the completed script ends up being a meditation on art, film-making, Iranian culture, and many other things.  For fans of the director, it is an intriguing look into the mind of a master of his craft.  For general audiences, it may be a little dry.  I found it to be not only an interesting look into Panahi's thought processes, but into the plight of a film maker who loves his people but finds the constraints pf the oppressive government that rules them to be too constricting to allow the artistic process to flourish.  Furthermore, it is a look into how any artist MUST struggle to express themselves no matter how difficult their current circumstances have made that task.  If any of these themes sound particularly intriguing, by all means check the film out.  If it doesn't sound like your particular cup of I said, a little dry...4 out of 5 stars.

  The Loneliest Planet - The sophomore effort from writer/director Julia Loktev, this film follows a young American couple as they take a trek through the man's ancestral homeland in Georgia (the nation, not the state)'s Caucus mountains.  I am unfamiliar with the director's previous effort (2006's Day Night Day Night) but regret to say that The Loneliest Planet did not really inspire me to seek her earlier work out.  The problem lies primarily with the screenplay, especially the first hour, which plays more like high quality excerpts from someone's vacation video than like a narrative picture.  NOTHING happens.  Okay, that's an exaggeration, there are a FEW bits of characterization and foreshadowing that lend to the storyline.  However, with a run time of an hour and fifty odd minutes, the movie's first seventy-five could easily have been cut to thirty without detracting from the (minimal) story that the script sets out to tell.  Without the lovely cinematography contributed by Inti Briones, the first half of the film would be practically unwatchable.
     Gael Garcia Bernal (The Motorcycle Diaries, Y Tu Mama Tambien) and Hani Furstenberg (Yossi and Jagger) do respectable jobs as the vacationing couple, but are not really given enough dialogue or activity to really show us what they are capable of.  First time actor Bidzina Gujabidze actually outshines them both as their tour guide, his "local color" helping to bridge some of the more debilitatingly slow passages of the film, but even he is fighting an uphill battle.  I can appreciate the point of Loktev's story, but it just didn't constitute a two hour movie.  It might have made a nice short film...2 1/2 of 5 stars.

  The Words - This movie had a long road to The Movie Frog.  It was on my 2012 viewing list for a while, then fell off as it became obvious that Bradley Cooper's awards play this year was definitely going to come from Silver Linings Playbook.  Then I saw a great preview a few weeks ago, and back on the list it went.  The Words is the premeire feature from co-directors (and writers) Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal (who had previously written the rather disappointing Tron Legacy together).  It was a somewhat mixed bag of a film.  I don't feel angry about the hour and a half of my life that I spent watching it, but I don't feel that my coverage of this year's best films would have lost out much if I had skipped it, either.
     The picture had an interesting premise, but the script becomes a bit of a mess.  We're dealing with three (sorta four) different time periods that create fictions within fictions.  The narrative structure is further confused by flashbacks within these different levels of fact and fiction and it all becomes very confusing.  Thematically, this is done to an extent on purpose, as the film tries to explore the nature of the thin line between fantasy and reality, especially as it applies to the life (lives?) of a writer.  It's meant to make you work at cohesion, but for this viewer, the film's truths became ambiguous to the point of inaccessibility.
     The film making pair DID seem to fair better as directors than as writers, however, and got some admirable performances out of their cast.  Bradley Cooper continues to prove himself as a leading man of great depth and range, highly deserving of his newly elevated status among his peers.  Dennis Quaid also reminds us clearly of why he used to be such a big star.  Jeremy Irons's stern eyes and crisp diction are put to excellent use.  The women's roles provide a little less meat to chew, but Zoe Saldana and Olivia Wilde still manage to turn in respectable performances as well.
     Like the Loneliest Planet, The Words was a great concept thematically, but didn't quite translate into a great movie.  Unlike the other film, The Words is packed with enough memorable moments and strong acting turns to keep it watchable, if a little incomprehensible in places...3 1/2 of 5 stars.

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