Monday, March 28, 2011

RED RIDING HOOD (2011)

Written by David Leslie Johnson


Directed by Catherine Hardwicke


Where & When:  Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood, CA, March 21, 2011 2:05PM



Everyone should be familiar with the classic fairy tale of "Little Red Riding Hood", the story of the little girl whose trip to her grandmother's house is interrupted by a big bad wolf. Now, Hollywood feels that there is a romance missing from that story, which brings us, "Red Riding Hood", the latest film that uses that tale for inspiration but is nothing more than a lame attempt to try and recreate the box office triumph of the "Twilight" films.

Amanda Seyfried plays Valerie, a beautiful young girl who lives in a secluded  medieval village. She is in love with Peter (Shiloh Fernandez) who makes a modest living as a woodcutter. Valerie's parents ("Twilight"'s  Billy Burke and Virginia Madsen) don't approve of Peter because he can't properly provide for their daughter, so they are giving her hand to Henry (Max Irons, son of Jeremy), the son of a wealthy blacksmith.

Valerie and Peter plan on running away to be married when the alarm sounds, which means that the werewolf has struck. It has killed Valerie's older sister. The town is outraged because they had made a pact with the wolf to offer an animal sacrifice every month so that it would stay in the surrounding woods and leave the village in peace. A group of men, including Peter and Henry, set off to track down the werewolf and destroy it. They find a large wolf, kill it and cut off it's head but Henry's father is killed in the process.

The entire village celebrates that the werewolf is gone but it is short-lived with the arrival of Father Solomon (Gary Oldman) who was summoned to the town because he had experience dealing with these creatures. He informs them that they have not killed the wolf since the head would have turned back in to a human. He knows this first hand and show them the arm of a werewolf he had killed that also happened to have been his wife. Father Solomon tells them that the wolf has been living among them for years and it could be anyone.

Valerie becomes the prime target when after she is cornered by the wolf, she is able to communicate with it. Father Solomon discovers her secret and accuses her of being a witch. He sets her out as a sacrifice to lure the wolf so they can try to finally destroy it once and for all.

By the time we finally discover who the werewolf actually is, (it's the least likely suspect) and after they proceed to spend another ten minutes explaining their actions, I could care less.

Catherine Hardwicke has made a career of making films involving teenage angst which have included skateboarders ("Lords Of Dogtown"), sexually active girls ("Thirteen") and the mother of God ("The Nativity Story") but her biggest success involved the first film of the best selling books about the love triangle of a girl, a vampire and a werewolf. With her fifth film, she has attempted to try and recreate a slight variation of that winning formula but Ms Hardwicke has failed to realize that "Twilight"'s success had more to do about the hard-core fans of the book than her filmed version of it. "Twilight", the film was mediocre at best and it would be much too generous to call "Red Riding Hood" even that. Mr Johnson's illogical script didn't do Ms Hardwicke any favors by not offering a single moment that felt fresh, imaginative or unpredictable.

The actors are left to fend for themselves which leads to a variety of different accents and acting styles, making the film feel even more disjointed. Mr. Oldman, a terrific actor who showed so much promise at the beginning of his career, has become Britain's version of Nicolas Cage who seems willing to take part in any movie for the paycheck. The wonderful Julie Christie makes an appearance as Valerie's eccentric grandmother who gives her the red riding hood and I'm sure, in her case at least, she is taking the best of what is available to her.

My favorite cinematic take on the "Riding Hood" story is a low-budget little gem called "Freeway" (1996). It was set in Los Angeles that stared a young Reese Witherspoon as a trashy teenage girl who is trying to get to her grandmother's house but is being chased by a serial killer played by Kiefer Sutherland. It was filled with sex, violence and  great humor and I loved it. If you have never seen this film, do yourself a favor and put "Freeway" on your Netflix queue.

As far as "Red Riding Hood" is concerned, it should be dropped in the middle of a deep, dark forest, never to see the light of day again.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

CRACKS (2011)

Written by Ben Court, Caroline Ip and Jordan Scott


Directed by Jordan Scott


Where & When: Laemmle's Sunset 5, West Hollywood, CA. March 18, 2011  7:30PM


Cinema has had a history of portraying all female schools as a hot house of developing bodies, raging hormones and budding sexuality but luckily, these young girls have the guidance of their nurturing teachers to help them sort out these confusing times."Cracks" is the latest to explore this world but proceeds to show the very dark side of it.

Set in Britain at a Catholic girls boarding school in the 1930's, a group of six students room together and are part of the school's swim team. The ringleader is Di (Juno Temple), a controlling and manipulative sourpuss who calls all of the shots. She has a crush on their teacher, Miss G (Eva Green), a sophisticated young woman who encourages the girls to be self-empowered and fills their heads with wonderful stories of the world beyond the school walls.

The principal, Miss Nieven (Sinead Cusack) announces that a foreign student is joining the school and she expects the girls to be kind to her despite her being a Roman-Catholic.

After Fiamma (Maria Valverde), a pretty and aristocratic asthmatic, arrives from Spain, Di sizes her up and decides that Fiamma is a snob and she promptly becomes an outcast. However, Miss G is very intrigued by the new student which causes Di  to dislike Fiamma even more.

Di and the girls throw a bag of supplies at Fiamma and force her to leave the school. She is glad to leave but has no where to go. Fiamma is found and returned to the compound. The girls, feeling slightly guilty, try to make amends and decide to have a midnight party with food and booze.  Miss G interrupts their gathering and discovers Fiamma very drunk. The teacher decides to take the young girl to her room, which Di finds a little strange. Di sneaks over to Miss G's room and is shocked to discover what she is doing to the passed out Fiamma.

The next day, Fiamma rejects Miss G and, fearing for her job and reputation, the teacher uses Di and the rest of the girls to angrily confront Fiamma which leads to very tragic results.

"Cracks", which has been completed since 2009 but is just now receiving a theatrical release in the US, is the first feature of Jordan Scott and she has all of the right elements in place; a great cast, the Oscar nominated cinematographer, John Mathieson and two very experienced producers, her father, the director, Ridley Scott and her Uncle, Tony Scott but the film still falls flat.

There are three writers credited to the screenplay, which is based on a novel by Sheila Kohler, but they didn't seem to communicate with each other as it's unclear of what type of film they were trying make; since there are elements of a coming of age story, a psychological thriller and a cheesy B-movie but they do not fit well together. In fact, "Cracks" plays like an exploitation movie all dolled up as a high art film but there isn't much fun or camp.

Although  I don't think Ms Green's performance is to blame but the rapid transformation of Miss G from a worldly educator to an unhinged  psychotic is jarring and unexplained. The rest of the actors do the best they can but I think they were probably also left in the dark on what direction the film was supposed to take.

I was really looking forward to "Cracks" after seeing the terrific trailer but the film was a disappointment although Ms Scott does show some potential as a film maker. I'm sure she will get another opportunity to show us what she can do.

Friday, March 18, 2011

CERTIFIED COPY (COPIE CONFORME) (2011)

Written & Directed by Abbas Kiarostami


Where & When: Laemmle's Pasadena Playhouse, Pasadena, CA  March 15, 2011  4:10PM



"Certified Copy" is probably one of the most strangest, confusing and unconventional love stories I have ever seen. I'm not sure what to make of this film but I have to say that I found it completely engaging..

James Miller (William Shimell), a British art historian, is speaking to an audience in Tuscany about his new book about how a copy of an art piece is just as important as the original work. Elie (Juliette Binoche), a French antique art dealer living in Italy, is a fan of the book. She is attending the lecture but is unable to stay because she has to go and feed her teenage son (Adrian Moore).

Elie invites James to come to her shop later so she can further discuss his theory but he doesn't want to stay indoors. He wants to go out and see the city, so Ellie drives James to a part that she thinks he might want to see, where they proceed to talk, and talk. However, we assume that they have only just met but through their discussion, we are not sure whether they are an estranged couple pretending to have just met or they are truly strangers pretending to have had this long relationship.

It's not a spoiler to say that we do not find out the actual status of this couple but that isn't what the film is about. It's about discovering the emotional journey of these two people, as we watch them argue, tease, seduce, and aggravate each other and it doesn't seem important whether it's an authentic or just an imaginary relationship. "Certified Copy" makes me think of the terrific 1995 film, "Before Sunrise" where a young couple meet in Vienna and spend the entire day (and the movie) just talking and getting to know each other. While nothing but conversation worked very well for that film, but in "Certified Copy", I found that it was intriguing to a degree but because it is not clear what is the true nature of their relationship, it made frustratingly difficult to completely connect with these two people.

Mr. Kiarostami, the acclaimed veteran director of over forty films and this is his first film outside of Iran, feels no particular need to explain and would much prefer to let the audience interpret from the characters' conversations, actions and the visual cues to what is actually true.

Mr. Shimell. who took a break from his day job as a celebrated opera singer, makes his film debut and he delivers an authoritative performance. He and Ms Binoche have a warm, easy-going rapport that is quite enjoyable to watch.

As for Juliette Binoche, she is the main reason to see "Certified Copy". She is one of my all-time favorite actresses and I think Ms Binoche is among the best currently working in the world today and in this film, she is transcendent. She not only impressively speaks French, Italian and English competently but that luminous, expressive face conveys the many thoughts and feelings her character is going through that words could never properly explain. She won a well deserved Best Actress Award at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival for her role.

If you prefer your cinema easily digestible, then "Certified Copy" is definitely not for you but if you enjoy  seeing films that can be challenging and thought provoking, then you might want to check this out.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

HEARTBEATS (LES AMOURS IMAGINAIRES) (2011)

Written & Directed by Xavier Dolan

Where & When: Laemmle's Sunset 5, West Hollywood, CA. March 8, 2011  1:50PM


I first became aware of Xavier Dolan when I saw his semi-autobiographical first film, "I Killed My Mother (J'ai Tue Ma Mere)" at last year's Outfest Film Festival. I really loved this delightful film but I shocked to learn that the lead actor of the film also produced, wrote and directed the film and he was only twenty years old at the time. The French-Canadian filmmaker would also pick-up three awards for the film at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival.

Now at twenty-one, Mr. Dolan has returned with his latest, "Heartbeats", in which he has not only repeated all of his previous film duties, he even found time to create the costumes. This film was screened in the Un Certain Regard category at last year's Cannes Festival and won the top prize at the Sydney Film Festival.

The story is the classic love triangle that seems somewhat inspired by Truffaut's "Jules & Jim" except "Heartbeats" is much lighter in tone and the golden haired beauty is now a boy named Nico (Niels Schneider).

Francis (Dolan) is cute, aloof and gay. Marie (Monia Chokri) is stylish, dramatic and straight. They are close friends who completely understand each other. While attending a party, they witness the blond Adonis charming everyone there but they are not particularly impressed by him. However, when Nico invites each of them out separately so they can all three spend time together, they both see him in a different light and as a potential love interest.

Nico enjoys having a good time and he loves to flirt which leaves Francis and Marie unclear on who he may actually be interested in but each feels they have a good shot. Since neither one dares to ask Nico directly on his intentions, perhaps fearing his answer, Francis and Marie are forced to share him while quietly resenting the other. Nico becomes an obsession to both of the friends to the point where he consumes Marie's thoughts and Francis masturbates using Nico's dirty clothing but we are not sure whether it's because of true feelings or simply just winning him from the other.

During a trip together at Nico's parents' weekend home, jealousy and misunderstandings lead to a physical brawl between Francis and Marie while Nico stands back watching, slightly amused.

Will these two friends come to their senses or will they allow a pretty face to tear them apart?

While I found "Heartbeats" to be bright, captivating and sharp, I didn't find it as compelling as his debut, "I Killed My Mother" which dealt with the complex relationship between a mother and son in an insightful and humorous way. "Heartbeats" feels like the emphasis is more on style than substance but that certainly doesn't mean the film doesn't have something to say about relationships, romantic and friendship,and how complicated, frustrating and wonderful they can be. However, there are several nameless individuals, inter cut throughout "Heartbeats", sharing their views and experiences about love but they really don't add much to the film and feels more like filler. I think it would have been better to keep the focus on  the three main characters.

At such a young age, Mr. Dolan shows so much skill and confidence right now as a film maker that he puts to shame some older directors who have made many films for many years and still haven't made anything particularly memorable. I think Mr. Dolan has a promising future ahead of him and I can't wait to see what he does next.

"Heartbeats" is an appealing work filled with youthful energy and dazzling elegance by an important new film maker that you should pay close attention to right away.