Welcome to January, folks – the month when studios tend to dump their dogs into the theatres. If you are not looking to play catch up on the pre-Christmas derby of Oscar hopefuls working their way to a wider release or partaking of the blockbusters deemed too ‘holiday’ for the summer season, you may be on the prowl for one of those buried gems of quality nestled amongst the Hollywood trash heap. Steven Soderbergh makes a solid case for the no-nonsense action thriller, and a bid for a few of your shekels, with Haywire. The film does nothing particularly novel. Another expendable super-spy chase slash revenge picture of which there were at least three of last year – Colombiana, Hanna and Ghost Protocol – and features neither an extravagance for expensive set-pieces nor the over-inflated high stakes. But what then separates this from last year, or a multitude of straight-to-video Jason Statham vehicles is this classic Roger Ebert bon mot, “It’s not what you do but how you do it,” which certainly applies here; even something that feels like this particular filmmaker could do in his sleep has such a precise polish and rhythm that not a second of this film feels superfluous. There are enough little touches and intangables to forgive Haywire for having nothing whatsoever to say other than Soderbergh knows his craft. The film is a walkthrough of all the things that director favours and have been showcased in his prolific c.v. The film knows to be lean and mean and is completely unpretentious about its execution.

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Whit Stillman Comeback?


Writer/Director Whit Stillman, whose 1990s trilogy of American socialite foibles – Metropolitan, Barcelona, The Last Days of Disco – was a major influence in the 1990s indie world (Noah Baumbach, for instance) has not made a film for more than a dozen years. After a distressing number of potential projects have fallen through over the ensuing years, Variety indicates that he has a ‘micro-indie’ on track to be shot in the fall called “Damsels in Distress” (aka Diorissimo.) And this makes me mighty pleased.

Wonderful bloggy resource, The Playlist has a synopsis:

[The picture] centers on a group of college girls who take in a new student and teach her their own misguided ways of helping people. Lily, a new student at Seven Oaks University, winds up filling in with a dynamic and highly individualistic group of girls, addicted to the elegance of the past: Heather, Violet and Rose all volunteer at the campus Suicide Prevention Center, convinced that musical dance, sharp clothes and good hygiene — the Dior perfume “Diorissimo” is their trademark — can all contribute to staving off the inevitable self-destructive impulses that follow hard on the heels of failed college romances. Despite their sophisticated talk and savvy use of perfume, the girls are plagued by Cupid’s arrows and must adjust their psyches to the onset of amour.

Related tidbit 1: Criterion has been in the process of acquiring Barcelona for their catalogue in the near future. Since they have already put out handsome releases for Metropolitan and Last Days of Disco, I smell a definitive box set in the near future.

Related tidbit 2: Last Days of Disco Finite Focus entry.

Promo Trailer for Iñárritu’s “Biutiful

Here’s hoping our own David Brook can get to a screening for Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Cannes entry Biutiful during the few days he’ll be attending the festival. The critical reception I’ve read so far has been very much all over the place. Some loving it, some hating on it quite a bit and many in the middle talking about how well it’s shot and the actors’ performances are terrific, but also a little bit on the boring side and some have even suggested “pointless.” Ouch. So it’d be nice to have one of our own give us some insight. But either way, after his pretty terrific death trilogy and some early Oscar talk for star, Javier Bardem, I’d say I’m on board no matter what whenever a wider release hits the states; probably later this year.

The film stars Javier Bardem as Uxbal, a former drug addict living on the fringes of Barcelona, Spain, who has cancer and only two months to live. Amplifying his problems are his two kids, a part-time prostitute ex-wife who suffers from bipolar disorder, African immigrants, gay Chinese lovers who supply his bootleg goods and his touchy relationship with a crooked cop. [playlist]

Cannes released the following promo trailer with some bits from the film as well as shots of Iñárritu directing his cast and crew.


Review: Vicky Christina Barcelona

Vicky Christina Barcelona One Sheet

In Bernardo Bertolucci‘s The Sheltering Sky, John Malkovich and Deborah Winger explain the philosophical difference between a Traveler and a Tourist, the former going all the way, immersing himself in the experience, the latter (spoken derisively) opting for the sites and gently drifting along before going home. Woody Allen, and the American ladies whose names form the title of his latest film, Vicky Christina Barcelona, are most definitely tourists. That is not to say that the film is as dreadful as some of Allen‘s recent work (Match Point being a notable exception in this century). It is really quite a lot of fun, a breezy cinematic truffle that plays very much like Woody‘s Spanish vacation, filming a lot of the picturesque sites of Barcelona as well as the island of Oviedo.

The film’s ho-hum first half hour introduces the attractive Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Christina (current muse Scarlett Johansson in her third outing with Allen) as they are arriving in Barcelona for an extended summer stay. This is done in one of the most grating voice-overs in recent memory, the purpose of which seems to exist to either add bits of exposition and flavour that were not organically integrated into the script (perchance a result of Allen popping out a film a year) or simply make the film feel like it is moving forward while Vicky and Christina sit in cabs or take pictures in the various marketplaces. While the ladies are dining together in a cafe, Juan Antonio, a well known local painter, known as much for his work as for the fact that his ex-wife public stabbed him with a knife during a heated argument, comes over to their table with the bald and bold suggestion that they both have sex with him during a weekend island getaway. A small plane is standing by. They go because Christina wants to, and Vicky, the practical one with a wall-street drone of a fiance, decides she should act as a chaperon. The sex does not go according to plan, and Juan spends a surprising amount of time talking about his Ex, even during the seduction of both ladies.

Despite all of this talk of three ways and plenty of attractive flesh on display, the film is a tad bland and a more than a bit boring during all of this. Javier Bardem hams it up as the Spanish, sensitive super-stud, Hall is fine and Johansson is much better than she was in Match Point. The film comes alive when Penelope Cruz enters the picture. After being hinted at and talked about, much like Harry Lime in The Third Man, she drops on the picture like a nuclear bomb bringing everything to life. Juan Antonio is in a semi-serious relationship with Christina which expands to include ex-wife María Elena. The film spends much of the remainder skimming the surface of American ‘puritan values’ and the desire to ‘let loose in Europe’ hampered by an inability to follow through. It turns this over using both Vicky and Christina’s relationship to Juan Antonio. And by the arrival of Vicky’s LaCoste and Dockers wearing fiance, Doug. Handsome yet bland, Doug is the ‘villain of the piece’ if only because he is constantly mauled by the films romanticism of the Christina-Juan Antonio-María Elena threesome. I’m curious what Tom Cruise would have brought to this performance, because Chris Messina keeps seeming to affect a Cruise-like manner (and there is the whole former Cruise/Cruz relationship which could have brought in a bit of meta playfulness). As Vicky-Doug seem to be floundering, even after their quick marriage in Barcelona, the threesome seems to be a hive of creativity and sexual energy. It turns out that Christina is the cool buffer that prevents tempestuous eruptions of Juan Antonio and María Elena bound together, but the nature of an American tourist in Spain begins to get fickle after the summer starts to run out. Things get complicated once again involving Vicky and some meddling by her Barcelona host, Patricia Clarkson (wasted in miniscule supporting role which mainly consists of greeting people as they get out of cars) and come to rather abrupt, somewhat satisfying, if only for its slightly non-standard, conclusion.

Despite its somewhat slapdash nature, and annoying voice-over, Vicky Christina Barcelona is a pleasant enough diversion which blossoms to full entertainment any time Penelope Cruz thunders into the frame. Her chemistry with Johansson and Bardem are the selling point of the feature, captured nicely in the films catchy One Sheet. Too bad that Rebecca Hall is really the main arc of the film, it dampens the fun promise of a romp in Spain. Ahh, the romantic celebration of tourism!