Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Edge of Heaven (2007)

A common storytelling technique in films is to introduce multiple characters, establish each one individually through parallel story lines, and eventually connect them through one common bond. However, what is less common with this technique is when that one common bond is death.

These are the exact themes that Fatih Atkin's The Edge of Heaven explores -- how death and sadness can bring people closer together.

The film is a prime example of beautiful storytelling. The story begins when an elderly man named Ali (Tuncel Kurtiz) befriends a prostitute named Yeter (Nursel Kose.) Ali, widowed and lonely, enjoys Yeter's company and tells her that he will double her salary if she chooses to come live with him. She agrees, and moves in with Ali and his son Nejat (Baki Davrak), who is a college professor. Where as Ali is a very crude and reactionary man, Nejat is very calm, respectful and intelligent.

The trio are all Turkish but live in Bremen, Germany. It turns out that Yeter has a daughter, Ayten (Nurgul Yesilcay) who she hasn't seen in years. She lives in Istanbul but she doesn't know how to track her. Nejat, who takes a liking to Yeter, travels to Istanbul to find her.

The movie is told in two "chapters," and each one is given a title of "The Death of ____" which lists which character is going to die. It obviously plays as a spoiler, but the movie was never going for suspense and surprise. The purpose of the movie is to show how the characters react to the death. In this case, it motivates them to seek human connection.

The movie's title, The Edge of Heaven, is a commentary on the feeling that one attains when death stares them right in the eye. How they behave in these circumstances is the essence of human nature that Akin, who wrote the script, tried to capture, and does so resplendently. Another theme of the film that derives from this is one of forgiveness.

Patrycia Ziolkowska and Nurgul Yesilcay in The Edge of Heaven.
The corresponding story line involves Yeter, who is a political activist involved in a group attempting to rebel against the Turkish government. But when she gets in trouble with police and is forced to go on the run, she ends up in Bremen, and finds solace and friendship with a German woman named Charlotte (Patrycia Ziolkowska) and her mother Susanne (Hanna Schygulla.) All the while, she has no idea that her mother has sent Nejat on a quest to find her. 

The film contains some beautiful cinematography of Turkish and German cities and landscapes, but the whole movie is a success all around. From the script to the acting, the whole film is an experience to behold. Davrak, as Nejat, was exceptionally proficient in his role. 

Though The Edge of Heaven revolves around death, it never gets too existential or religious. It simply tells a story, using a technique that is neither uncommon or overused, but does so in a tasteful way. It's a movie that asks the same questions we all ask, without providing any real answers, all while taking us to the edge of Heaven and back.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Jeff, Who Lives at Home (2012)

Jeff, who lives at home, is just looking for the answers in life. Portrayed affectionately by Jason Segel, he believes in the divine forces of the universes, and that every action serves a purpose in the grand scheme of things. His belief is that everything has meaning, and that one day, it will all bind together and that life will make sense.

Of course, Jeff is also a stoner and a moron. He lives at home in his mother Sharon's (Susan Sarandon) basement and his job status is unclear. His belief system is established right off the bat, as the film opens with a monologue, as he compares his blind faith in the universe to the movie Signs, saying that the movie "kind of meanders, and then everything comes together in this one perfect moment at the end... you start to see that all this randomness is leading towards this perfect moment." This sentiment, while admirable, only proves that Jeff beliefs don't derive from his steadfast faith, but more so because he's too stupid to know any better. But we love him all the same.

Jeff, Who Lives at Home is the latest concoction from the Duplass brothers, Jay and Mark, the latter of whom may be best known as a co-star on the FX show, The League. But the pair have now both written and directed three films (one being Cyrus starring John C. Reilly and Jonah Hill), and they are all dark comedies with a quirky touch.

The movie takes place throughout the course of one day. The adventure begins in the morning, when Jeff -- shortly after his Signs diatribe -- receives a phone call. The caller, from a wrong number, is looking for a man named "Kevin," and begins cursing at Jeff when he is told he dialed incorrectly. Though most rational beings would become annoyed by such a call, Jeff shoves asides the rudeness and thinks on a metaphysical level, and views it as another "sign."

Meanwhile, Jeff's brother, Pat, played by Andy Helms (who plays an unlikable character for a refreshing change), is having marital problems with his wife Linda (Judy Greer). It's unclear if Pat was always a, for lack of better word -- an asshole, but he has become one and it's killing his marriage.

Jeff finally leaves the house and finds his curiosity heightened when he spots a young man with the name "Kevin" draped across the back of his basketball jersey. He follows him, and that sets him on a quest that eventually leads him towards his brother.

The two don't get along at all, and have very different personalities, but eventually join forces when they discover that Linda may or may not be acting unfaithfully towards Pat. The two follow her around town to find out the truth.
Ed Helms and Jason Segel in Jeff, Who Lives at Home.

A corresponding subplot involves Sharon receiving an anonymous email at work, supposedly from a secret admirer. Though she plays it off and even suspects that she may be the victim of an office prank, it's evident that Sharon -- who is widowed -- welcomes the sense of mystery to her otherwise mundane life.

Throughout the film, the viewer may find themselves wondering where exactly the movie is going. There is an inevitable confrontation between Pat and Linda, as well as between Pat and Jeff, but like Jeff's initial soliloquy about the movie Signs, we're wondering where all of this randomness is leading to. But along the way we get many sincere and touching scenes, including one between Jeff and Pat at a cemetery, and another with Sharon at work with her coworker Carol (Rae Dawn Chong).

The dialogue is simple, but endearing and captivating. The film, merely 83 minutes long, almost feels as if the entire thing is just one single scene. It's not an easy movie to find a place to pause when needing a bathroom break.

The Duplass brothers use a lot of close-up shots, which helps place an emphasis on the character's facial expressions. It helps us focus on exactly what they are saying, which is key, because it is all of the character's very different perspectives towards life is what defines them. The acting is fine, as recognizable actors and actresses all give the performances that you'd expect from them.

But when it's all said and done, and the randomness finally does come together, the movie will surprise many people. The film -- from the title, to the character's names, to the dialogue -- is quite simple and ordinary, but then it will take your breath away when it takes a mega turn for the extraordinary.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

In a Better World (2010)

Just before the midway point of In a Better World, a father, named Anton (Mikael Persbrandt) sits with his son Elias (Markus Rygaard) on a bench in their backyard. Elias asks his father if he intends to enact revenge on a man who humiliating him by slapping and cursing at him in public.

"You don't go around beating people up. That's not the point," Anton says to his son. "What kind of world would we live in then?"

Although Anton tries to preach idealism to Elias, the fact of the matter is that there is too much negativity out there to skew his perception. Anton works as a doctor in a Sudanese refugee camp, and is exposed to the atrocities that the Sudanese people endure through disease, and namely, heinous and violent crimes that they commit on one another. Anton understand the malice in the world, and you can see it's with a sense of halfheartedness that he tries to keep his son innocent.

In a Better World is a Dutch film directed by Susanne Bier. The film is seen through the eyes of Anton, Elias, and a boy named Christian (William Johnk Juels Nielsen), who Elias befriends at school.

Bullying is a recurring theme in the film. It starts out on a smaller scale, with Elias being bullied by a fellow student, and then escalates when we watch Anton manhandled by a another father (Kim Bodnia) at a park after he tried to break up a scuffle between their infant children in the sandbox. But then we see it on possibly the most heinous scale, when Anton faces a moral dilemma at his refugee camp after a known war criminal comes in seeking aid on his injured leg.

Anton is married to Marianne (Trine Dyrholm), but the two are separated and contemplating a divorce. As if that wasn't enough negativity for one movie, Christian's mother has recently died of cancer, and as a coping mechanism, is irate at his father (Ulrich Thomsen), claiming that he "didn't do enough" to save his mother.

Markus Rygaard, left, and William Johnk Nielsen.
Dealt with bullying, divorce and death at such an early age, the movie serves to show how two children, Christian and Elias now view the world after they have experienced this loss of innocence. Instead of playing sports and watching television like any adolescent boys, the two children sit atop of silos, staring at the skies and wonder how their worlds fell apart. Having been faced with adversity, they handle it differently, and things take a turn when Christian convinces Elias to take a violent approach in order to start getting the things they want. But after what they've experienced, it's hard to blame them for not knowing any better.

The film is beautifully shot by Bier, who also wrote the story with Anders Thomas Jensen. For such an ambitious task -- attempting to encapsulate the loss of innocence among two young children -- the material is handled delicately and beautifully. The film tried to capture, in my opinion, almost what Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life tried to capture, but in a much more linear and focused way.

The acting across the board is sensational as well, primarily between the three main characters, portrayed by Persbrandt, Rygaard and Nielsen, but it is the latter who impresses the most. How he manages, as Christian, to shield off all emotions and make his character seemed deadened to the world is almost frightening to see.

Though it is littered with sorrow, the film doesn't aim to be cynical, but hopeful. Just like with Anton's preaching to his son at the middle of the film, it tries to teach us that although acts of kindness may not be rewarded as they should, that they are still the right way to life your life if you one day wish to be living in a better world.

~ Review by Ddubbs

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Kid with a Bike (2011)

Sometimes it is the simplest tales that evoke the most emotion. Stories of rare individual triumphs or catastrophes can certainly lead to a few tears, both happy or sad, but it is the situations in which we can relate to that truly make us feel something.

The Kid with a Bike (2011) is directed by Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne. The principle language of the film is French. The story revolves around a 12-year old boy named Cyril, played by Thomas Doret, who is in foster care. His father has abandoned him, and his mother is out of the picture for unspecified reasons. But all that matters is that he has no one.

Cyril leaves his foster home and goes looking for his two most treasured items -- his bike and his father. But he soon discovers that his father's apartment is empty, meaning that he has moved on with his life without so much as a goodbye. He finds his way into the a store of a hairdresser named Samantha, played by Cecile de France (Hereafter) who takes a liking to young Cyril. Shortly after, Samantha delivers his lost bicycle to him, informing him that she bought it off another child. Cyril asks Samantha if he could stay with her on weekends, and she agrees.

Even though he has found a loving caretaker, Cyril still desperately wants to see his father. Understanding this, Samantha takes him on a quest to find him, only to discover that his father (played by Guy Catoul) wants nothing to do with him. He tells Cyril and Samantha, quite simply, that he can't handle the responsibility of being a father.

Already a temperamental adolescent, Cyril becomes inconsolable, and finds himself in a vulnerable state in his life. Riding around streets on his bike without supervision, he finds a new friend in a young gang leader (Fabrizio Rongione) who is nice to Cyril. He offers him drinks, money and lets him play video games. But in reality, he's trying to recruit Cyril, a naive youth, to do his dirty work.

It's a prime example of how a young child can easily fall through the tracks. Parentless and rejected, he is simply a young boy looking for attention. Although Samantha loves him, and treats him like her own son, she is still not his a biological parent.

The film is shot in a very naturalistic style, almost as if it is a handheld camera. There aren't many characters, and Cyril and Samantha dominate the screen. The film conveys the bond that begins the form between the two, and the sacrifices that Samantha must make to consider herself Cyril's primary caretaker.
Thomas Doret and Cecile de France

But the mood of the film is hopeful. It shows that just because you do not have a traditional upbringing, that it does not mean you still can not have a good one. It preaches resilience, understanding and acceptance. The Kid with a Bike is a very real film about real situations, and a film that tells us that we need to not necessarily avoid making mistakes, but to learn from them.

The acting across the board is fantastic. Doret and de France share a wonderful chemistry that only adds to the realism. The two also do a superb job hitting home the emotions of the film, which become heavy at times. Although music is not heard often in the film, when it is, it is powerful at just the right moments.

The Kid with a Bike will certainly not be one of the most unique or original pieces of cinema that you've ever seen, but it flourishes on telling a simple story that many people will find no trouble relating to.

~ Review by Ddubbs

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Safe House (2012)

Let's be real here. Nobody should be watching Safe House with expectations of receiving any type of intellectual stimulation. The film is anchored by two A-list actors in Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds. The former of which has formed a niche playing the anti-hero in action films who mentors a younger, more ignorant up-and-comer, whether it's Mila Kunis, Chris Pine, or now, Reynolds.

Directed by Daniel Espinosa, who was making his major-motion picture directorial debut, Safe House is an overall decent effort. The script, penned by David Guggenheim, is pretty much as straight forward as it gets. A young agent in the United States Central Intelligence Agency named Matt Weston (Reynolds) is in charge of manning a "safe house" in Cape Town, South Africa. His job is to simply occupy the house until it is needed -- if ever.

Weston is bored, feels unappreciated and underused -- evidenced early when he complains to his CIA superior David Barlow (Brendan Gleeson) over the phone. But that soon changes when former CIA agent-turned American fugitive Tobin Frost (Washington) seeks refuge at an American Consulate after being chased by some mean people who are trying to kill him. After deliberation by Barlow, fellow CIA operative Catherine Linklater (Vera Farmiga) and director Harlan Whitford (Sam Shepard), the decision is made to transport Shepard to the nearest safe house, which is Weston's.

The film is very cynical towards American politics, as Frost is immediately subjected to waterboarding and other forms of torture upon arriving at the safe house. At one point, an incredulous and naive Weston questions the legality of the practice, to which he receives no answer.

Shortly thereafter, the safe house is attacked, and Weston and Frost go on the run. The film mainly revolves around the interactions between Weston and Frost. Frequently, Frost gives advice to Weston on a number of topics, ranging from work to women. Weston doesn't listen at first, but soon realizes he'd be better suited to listen to the wily old veteran.

Ryan Reynolds and Denzel Washington
There's plenty of action along the way, and as in any political-thriller, some character's agendas aren't always how they appear. The relationship between the youthful Weston and the worn Frost evolves, and we come to learn that the fugitive may not be as guilty as he's accused. Subsequently, Weston, who is on the run with Frost, starts to wonder who exactly he should waver his loyalties toward.

But for an interesting topic, full of CIA agents and fugitives, the plot stays remarkably flat, even for an action movie. Espinosa does the best he could, using the "shaky camera technique" often, especially during the many action sequences.

You know what to expect out Washington as an actor, but Reynolds' performances in films recently (with the exception of Buried (2011)) have left me underwhelmed. However, I actually enjoyed him in this movie. Perhaps side-by-side tutelage from Washington benefited him during the filming. Also, a subplot involving Weston's romantic interest, Ana, portrayed by a beautiful french actress named Nora Arnezeder is thrown in, but she mainly just exists to serve as eye candy.

At 115 minutes, the film is easily 20 to 25 minutes longer than it needs to be. But if you're a fan of car chases (there's plenty of them), shootouts (plenty of those too), or even a good old-fashioned man-on-man brawl (one of those), then Safe House shouldn't let you down. But for a movie that had so much potential to educate and enlighten, it is surprisingly unintelligent.

~ Review by Ddubbs

Monday, June 4, 2012

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011)

A group of men venture out into the Anatolian steppes in search of a dead body. On the surface, that plot synopsis reads like something that would make fans of big budgeted action-adventure movies gush, but in truth, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is an intense character study full of deep philosophical subjects that foray deep into the human psyche.

It's a windy, sometimes rainy and thunderous night in the grasslands of Turkey, far removed from civilization. The two murder suspects have already been apprehended, but one, Mukhtar (Ercan Kesel) is mentally ill, and the other, brother Kenan (Firat Tanis) is slow-minded and was intoxicated at the time of the burial. That's not a good combination, and the result is an all-night search party that elapses into the following morning.

The group is full of doctors, lawyers, militia, grave diggers and policemen, but only three of them matter to us. The three prominent men are grizzled veterans of their crafts, middle-aged and have long been desensitized to the ill-conceived acts that human beings are capable of. One is prosecutor Nusret (Taner Birsel), another is police commissioner Naci (Yilmaz Erdogan), and the other is Doctor Cemal (Muhammet Uzuner).

The three men are simply known by their titles and their last names. It's all you need to know because it is what they have become after years of honing their crafts. All three were married at one time, and two ended unhappily. As three battle-scarred professionals, the men respect each other, and throughout the night they talk about various topics, both work related non-work related, which range from death, marriage, politics to even lamb chops. Some scenes depict characters going off tangents concerning these topics, while the camera shows wide-angle shots with the speaker not even on screen, showing that it is the words, and not the speaker, that are crucial.

Though they are searching for a body, the men are really looking for something much deeper in their lives -- meaning. In between the conversations, they stare longingly into the night, the moon reflecting their faces, revealing lines and creases that can only come with the trials and tribulations of every day life. It is these scenes, which tell us what the characters don't say rather than what they do say, that are the most revealing.

Directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, the film is beautifully shot, contrasting closeup shots of the weary characters with the wide Turkish landscapes. The isolated, barren scenery corresponds perfectly with the mood of the film, which is introspective and unfulfilled.

The group of men searching for body in the Turkish steppes
The script, penned by Ceylan, Ebru Ceylan and Ercan Kesel cleverly manages to weave mundane talk with deep philosophical musings, accomplishing this by using metaphors and prolonged conversations. The film tackles all the subjects that every human being ponders throughout the course of their existence, without delivering any real answers. The actors are all superb, which is impressive considering their lack of experience. Not that one would expect many Turkish actors to be household names, but checking their resumes, it doesn't appear that many of the actors in the film had an extensive film career beforehand.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia will cause viewers to ponder the meanings of their own lives, and what exactly it will take for them to find satisfaction. In the film, the three men have gotten close to the top of their respective career paths, but still seem like they are simply going through the motions while they work. Rarely, over the course of their near 18-hour search party to do they complain, and that's because they all knew what they signed up for when they chose their line of work.

The search for the body becomes a little less relevant as the film progresses -- called it a "McGuffin" if you will -- but with the aforementioned clever script, the investigation does manage to come home in the end and tie into the movie's primary themes. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is indeed an example of great storytelling, but the furthest thing from a fairy tale as the title of the film suggests.

~ Review by Ddubbs

Friday, June 1, 2012

In the Loop (2009)

At the 82nd Oscars in 2010 there was a rare sort of nominated film on the ballot for Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay.  Some of that has to do with its being a foreign film (produced by BBC Films) but the larger part of its distinction was due to its genre: comedy.  In the Loop would go on to lose in that category to Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire which is the sort of film you might expect to win.  However, it did win at the 2009 British Comedy Awards for Best Comedy Film - so you know as far as being British and funny it was peerless among other releases that year.

Strongly based on director/writer Armando Iannucci's BBC television series "The Thick of It" on which pace, style and even some characters are borrowed, In the Loop is set in the political domain of both the US and UK.  In the British government we follow Simon Foster (Tom Hollander) who is the Secretary of State for International Development.  His notoriously ambiguous parlance that "war is unforseeable" sort of kicks off the diplomatic madness that ensues in this film.  Meanwhile, Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi) who absolutely steals any scene he's a part of with his vituperative scowling (thinka pissed off Ari Gold with a Scottish brogue) oversees Foster as the Director of Coomunications for the Prime Minister.  His job is to make sure Foster doesn't massively bumble anything as the PM would see it.  Additionally, there is Toby Wright (Chris Addison) who has begun his very first day as a Special Advisor to Secretary Foster.  He is young, generally bright but cocky to a fault.  Finally there is Judy Molloy (Gina McKee) who also works for Foster's department.  Judy seems to be just about the only one on top of things and as a result is usually ragged on and blamed for every slipup.  Perfectly backwards which is to describe the mood in this film to a tee.

British actors: Peter Capaldi, left, and Chris Addison, right. 
Both starred in Iannucci's sitcom The Thick of It.
On the American end we have Karen Clark (Mimi Kennedy), Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomacy, who is trying to stave off war and her assistant, Liza Weld (Anna Chlumsky), who wrote the only paper and/or set of facts cited throughout the many committee sessions for and against war.  In cahoots with Clark's anti-war push is Lt. Gen. Miller (James Gandolfini) who lumbers around the film carrying clout and attempts to balance the scale with the UK's Tucker in terms of boisterous mouthing off and sentiment.  Also, for the US there is the dry and efficient Linton Barwick (David Rasche), Assistant Secretary of State for Policy, who is hawking for war.  He manipulates Liza's paper and is at odds with Karen Clark.  Lastly, there is Chad (Zach Woods), who is a junior staffer at the State Department.  Recognizable from The Office (US version) as Gabe, he mainly gives Liza a hard time and provides additional humor as a stereotypical D.C. sycophant.

The majority of the film revolves around the two U.S. Assistants to Secretary of State, Clark and Barwick, butting heads regarding the war.  Foster and thus the whole ensemble of British characters gets dragged into this because of his aforementioned misinterpreted quote with the press.  Both Clark and Barwick view it as a weapon either can use.  In truth, Foster is anti-war but he tries to "walk the line" as a result of Tucker's insistance.  This leads to his inability to ever clearly voice himself which Barwick seizes to his advantage leaving Clark in the dust, nonplussed and frustrated.

Filmed on location in D.C. and London, the similarities between the two Western Worlds' governments are endless to the point where it all seems to blend.  At one point Clark is patched through to Foster where she demands that someone who leaked information to the Press be fired.  It takes a moment for him to realize that as a member of the U.S. government she has no authority over him, a member of the Prime Minister's cabinet.

U.S. actors: Mimi Kennedy and James Gandolfini.
The story's turning point comes when after Simon Foster's first disasterous trip (of two) to the U.S. he returns to a constituent meet where he comes across Paul Michaelson (Steve Coogan).  Coogan is hilarious as a ticked off memeber of Foster's district who is livid about an actual wall belonging to the International Development that is collapsing slowly onto his mother's property.  Though Toby and Foster both try their best to assuage his worries, their attempts at providing Paul with weak buttresses (seen even to the "untrained eye") and empty promises.  Eventually it is this seemingly non-issue that brings down Simon Foster, capping off the ridiculousness perpetuated in In the Loop.

The film takes on something like a mockumentary style, though there are no one-on-one confessionals made directly to the camera or anything like that.  Regardless it is mostly hand-held camerawork, and at plenty of times Christopher Guest's style shines through.  Any fan of his work will surely appreciate the humor here.  On that same note, those of us who appreciate the unbridled satirization of government's inner workings will get a kick out In the Loop

Perhaps the clearest message I got in watching In the Loop was that every character seemed to have his or her own unique agenda, while none seem to heed each other, the facts, or for that matter the people who put them in power.  Thankfully, not only does this make for extremely dysfunctionl government, it makes for great black comedy.

-Review by Mike Dorfman