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Entries in Drama (69)

Friday
Mar092012

The Forgiveness of Blood

There’s no point in denying it. Foreign customs, practices and laws are seen as odd to a typical American. They generally don’t reflect our own and it’s easy to write them off as archaic and nonsensical. The predicament a family struggles to live through in the Albanian film, The Forgiveness of Blood, is a good example of that. After the father of one family kills a member of another over a dispute over who is the rightful owner of a piece of land, the grieving family has the right to take the life of a male in the offender’s family as retribution. Such a thing happening in the United States would go against every moral code our country stands upon, but it’s a common practice when an event like this occurs in Albania. While it’s hard to get past the justification of such a cruel practice, it nevertheless allows for a gripping, tense, wonderful little drama that isn’t to be missed.

This blood feud would seem to have a fairly simple resolution—kill the father who killed the man—but when he goes into hiding, the only two males left in the family are Dren (Elsajed Tallalli), who is far too young to be a mark, and Nik (Tristan Halilaj), the oldest son, thus making him the primary target. Nik is a carefree kid. He goes to school, he plays soccer, he rides around with his best buddy and he has a crush on one of his beautiful young classmates who is reciprocating his feelings. He has done nothing wrong, but his life is at stake due to his father’s petty and selfish actions. While the film does hint that his dad may not have actually killed the victim in haste, but rather defended himself from an oncoming attack, the situation remains the same.

There are some rules to these blood conflicts, however, which allow safety to the family of the perpetrator. The victim’s family can only attack if the target leaves their home, so Nik is essentially under house arrest, shut off from the rest of the world. He stops going to school, his buddy only stops by periodically and his school crush communicates mostly through video messages on her cell phone. Nik’s life is at a standstill for something he had no control over, an unfair situation if there ever was one. He becomes unhappy and starts sneaking out of the house at night just to feel a bit of freedom, even though he knows he’s putting his life on the line when doing so. When his father emerges from hiding to be with his family, Nik understandably wants him to turn himself in so this senseless feud can end and he can go back to his normal life, an idea his father strikes down as selfish. Perhaps their customs dictate such a request as selfishness, but viewers will sympathize with Nik and by this point, if you haven’t already decided to be against him, the father becomes an evil entity, himself selfishly weighing his family down by forcing them to live in constant fear and danger.

This conflict isn’t only affecting the men in the household, however. Because of their inability to leave the house, the women must take the reins and do what needs to be done to make a living. Nik’s sister, Rudina (Sindi Lacej), is a grade A student. She wants to be in school and loves learning, which is most notable in a scene where she comes home one day and enthusiastically details the ins and outs of sea sponges to her father, clearly fascinated by their eccentricities. She’s a smart girl who wants to make something of herself. Unfortunately, she now has to hop in the horse drawn carriage and ride about town selling bread to ensure her family has their own food on the table, which effectively forces her to stop attending school.

Each character in the film loves and appreciates their family, but also has their own mapped out life plans. They have minds of their own and that’s why the drama works. They feel real. The Forgiveness of Blood takes richly drawn characters, gives them some wonderful dialogue to recite and places them in a hard hitting, emotional narrative that could end in a number of different ways. It’s one of those rare movies that you know is great as soon as you reach the credits, but the more you think about it afterwards, the more brilliant it becomes.

The Forgiveness of Blood receives 4.5/5

Friday
Mar092012

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

I’ve put a lot of thought into it and I’m pretty sure Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is the most boring movie title I’ve ever read. Going into it, you can’t help but hope it’s not one of those titles that’s spot on like Snakes on a Plane or Zombie Strippers. You hope it’s a metaphor for something else that is perhaps a bit interesting, but it’s not. Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is, at its core, about salmon fishing in the Yemen, yet it’s not boring. It’s actually kind of heartfelt. It’s certainly no perfect movie and not good enough to be considered a surprising gem, but the performances are grand and its story is life-affirming. It won’t blow you away, but it’s worth a look.

The film follows Fred (Ewan McGregor), a fisheries expert who is approached one day by Harriet (Emily Blunt), a consultant whose boyfriend has just gone off to fight in the war. Along with a visionary Sheikh (Amr Waked), she wants to start a project that will bring the sport of fly fishing to the Afghanistan desert. To do this, they need a lot of money, manpower and even more luck, considering the area’s aridity is unfit for such a project. So with the backing of the British government that is looking to shed some positivity on foreign relations, they embark on a plan that only has a minor chance of success.

When taken as a whole, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is underwhelming. Looking back on it reveals many narrative problems and contrivances. But in the moment, individual scenes work brilliantly and it makes you feel good about what the people onscreen are trying to do. Despite its flaws, it’s inspirational to watch these people from all different backgrounds come together to work toward a common goal. Such diversity is absent in most films and although such a simple fact certainly doesn’t make this movie anything special, it’s worth noting all the same.

What Salmon Fishing in the Yemen does best is develop relationships. Although it does rely too heavily on soapy, feel good dramatic tricks at times, you come to care about everyone you’re watching. McGregor and Blunt, two terrific performers in their own right, craft a believable relationship that blossoms over time. At first, they’re at odds, Blunt ever the optimist that they can pull the project off and McGregor a cynical man who thinks it has no shot, but eventually they spur a friendship. McGregor’s character begins to find hope and passion for the project, which brings the two together in a sweet and charming way. Unfortunately, as is expected with nearly any movie these days, a man and woman can’t simply be friends and a romance sparks between the two. This is precisely where the film begins to go downhill, not only due to the fact that it’s not unlike every other movie romance you’ve ever seen, but also because this inevitably leads to forced drama late in the movie after a surprise plot twist involving Blunt’s boyfriend.

The events that transpire in the film are grounded and simple—this is not a fast paced movie, to be sure—except for perhaps a couple of remarkably silly moments, including one where Fred saves the Sheikh’s life by swinging his fishing reel towards an oncoming attacker and hooking him, forcing the gunshot to stray off course. It’s moments like these that make the film so hard to love. To hear that many didn’t like it much at all would even be understandable, but what can I say? It worked for me. It made me laugh, it moved me and it ended. In the end, that’s what we go to the movies for and despite its problems, that’s why Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is recommendable.

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen receives 3.5/5

Friday
Mar022012

We Need to Talk About Kevin

Now that the awards season has come and gone, it’s time to look back on what the Academy may have overlooked when deciding who and what was good enough to be up for an Oscar. The first film that comes to mind is Nicolas Winding Refn’s brilliant Drive, which found itself left out of the Best Picture category despite critical praise (and the fact that only 9 of the 10 Best Picture slots were filled this year). Another notable snub, at least according to those who had seen it prior to the show, was Tilda Swinton for Best Actress in We Need to Talk About Kevin. Having finally seen it with its DC release right around the corner, I have to join those who scoffed at the idea of her not nabbing a nomination. A fearless actress in any role, she is downright brilliant here. One could argue over whether or not she deserved to win when up against other spectacular performances like Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady or Michelle Williams in My Week with Marilyn, but to not even give her a nomination is, quite frankly, insane. But We Need to Talk About Kevin is more than just a performance. It’s a damn fine film in its own right that is mesmerizing, haunting and eerie.

The film opens giving little information. It intercuts between past and present, from a time when Eva (Tilda Swinton) met her soon-to-be-husband Franklin (John C. Reilly) through the birth of their son Kevin (played by three different actors, the oldest version by Ezra Miller) and to the aftermath of a tragic event that has taken place. That event serves as the film’s central mystery and though you know it wasn’t pretty, you don’t know what happened and certain early moments in the film manage to confuse even more. Eva runs into a random woman on the sidewalk, for instance, who slaps her and tells her she hopes she rots in Hell. Then a young man in a wheelchair calls her over and tells her that his doctors say he may be able to walk again one day. All of these events are connected, but the how is left intentionally vague.

We Need to Talk About Kevin is a tough movie, both thematically and structurally, to sit through, and it demands that you pay attention and start fitting the pieces together. Without some heavy thought, motivations and reasoning will be left unexplained. This isn’t a film that tells you everything. You have to discover it yourself, a refreshing change to be sure. Eventually, however, the movie slows down and the shifts between the two time periods become less frequent, making it much easier to become invested in what’s happening. You begin to really learn about Kevin and Eva and when the mystery is revealed (if you haven’t already figure it out beforehand, which is a good possibility), these moments put it into perspective.

Kevin was a detached child, seemingly evil to the core, and he treated his mother like garbage. He tormented her and got a sick pleasure out of it, showing resentment even while still in diapers. He used her when he had to, like when he was sick and needed someone to take care of him. He destroys one of her rooms when she has her back turned and then he fools his father into thinking he did it out of love. He is a disturbed person and the film gets that point across crystal clear. His motivation for those acts isn’t necessarily explained, but some behavior simply can’t be explained. Even as a baby, when he was far too young to know what he was doing, he cried and screamed constantly, but only when he was with Eva. The film makes the point that some behavior is so deeply rooted in us there’s nothing we can do to change it, a frightening, but certainly interesting notion.

Eva isn’t so happy herself either. When she tries to play with Kevin and he doesn’t respond, she becomes frustrated. When he won’t stop crying, she gets so annoyed that the sound of a construction site jackhammer gives her some peace. In the present day, after the mysterious event, she is isolated, shunned and disillusioned, the latter expressed beautifully with blurry visual cues. She has her own demons to fight, a metaphor expressed perhaps a bit too literally when trick-or-treaters circle her car when driving home on Halloween night.

We Need to Talk About Kevin is a great movie that could nevertheless stand to be trimmed up a bit. A nearly two hour runtime isn’t overly long by any means, but Kevin’s early years are stretched thin. At a certain point, you get it. You understand that Kevin is a troubled kid and wish for the movie to move along. When it finally does, it’s gripping to the end and that slight loss of momentum becomes easily forgivable.

We Need to Talk About Kevin receives 4/5

Friday
Feb242012

Rampart

A great performance does not make a great movie. People tend to forget that sometimes. The best example in recent years is The Wrestler. Although still a good movie and certainly recommendable, its story wasn’t as captivating or as complex as it thought it was. Mickey Rourke was breathtaking and deserved to be standing on that stage during awards season clutching an Oscar just as much as Sean Penn was for Milk, but the movie that surrounded that performance simply wasn’t up to his level. The same can be said for this week’s expanding release, Rampart. Woody Harrelson is terrific in the lead role, even as the movie struggles to find what it is it wants to say. It’s good, but given its lack of awards recognitions, it fell far short of film glory.

The film takes place in Los Angeles in 1999, during the famous LAPD Rampart scandal where more than 70 officers were charged with misconduct that included everything from covering up evidence to unprovoked murders. Harrelson plays David Brown, one of the cops suspected of unethical behavior, who, after being caught on tape violently beating a fleeing motorist after an accident, goes under investigation for his behavior.

All of that is fine and dandy and it creates a perfect backdrop for what could have been a wonderful drama. There’s corruption, violence, cover ups and all kinds of struggles, both internal and external, that the character has to face. With a clear idea of what it was going for, Rampart could have been a intriguing character study, but as is, you never truly get a sense of Officer Brown’s personality, despite Harrelson’s gripping performance (which is one of the main reasons this movie still succeeds), because you never get to see it. Instead, most of his personality traits are simply read off in passing dialogue. At one point, his daughter calls him homophobic, yet he has no interaction with a gay person throughout the entire film. She also calls him a racist, but as far as the viewer can tell, he’s only called a racist because the person he’s caught beating up on camera is black (and you get the feeling he would have done that no matter the person’s race). She even goes so far as to label him as sexist, but no scenes support that claim. In fact, the only four people in the entire world he cares about are female. Sure, when he picks women up at bars, he’s a little forward, but sexual aggression does not equate to sexism.

The only thing she gets right is when she calls him a misanthrope. As he expressly states, he hates everyone equally and, although this fact negates nearly every other label attached to his character, it provides for the most interesting sections of the film. His cold demeanor and brutal tactics don’t seem to stem solely from his reckless disregard for the rules. They seem to have evolved from the practices of those he works with. For instance, after making the news for beating that motorist to the edge of death, he is greeted with cheering and applause by his fellow police officers. Only a select few, mainly the ones investigating him, seem to have a moral compass. His brutal behavior reflects the culture of his job and those around him. As time goes on, his past actions begin to look more like inevitabilities than poor decisions.

Nevertheless, the meaning of all this is left vague. Whatever Rampart is trying to say about Officer Brown, the Rampart scandal or simply police corruption in general gets lost in its own maze of contradictions, but Harrelson keeps the movie afloat, even though his supporting cast isn’t the strongest in the world, especially Ice Cube, whose proven ineffective screen presence is that much more noticeable when opposite a veteran such as Harrelson. One could make the argument that the potency of the supporting characters is what makes a character study, especially one like this where the protagonist’s line of work forces him to interact with others. It’s a completely valid point and a suitable critique of this movie, but Harrelson is so good, he makes you forget all that and appreciate the film for its strengths rather than its weaknesses.

Rampart receives 3/5

Friday
Feb172012

Coriolanus

How do you review a movie that is of top notch production values, features a handful of amazing performances, tells a gripping story and gets nearly everything right, but you just can’t recommend? I wish someone would tell me because Coriolanus is one of those movies. There’s so much good, so many things to admire and rave about, but there is one giant problem with the film and it pervades its entirety. Watching the movie is like eating a gourmet meal where the main course is only slightly overcooked. It shouldn’t ruin the whole thing, but it kind of does. I want to do nothing more than tell you to watch Coriolanus, but my dismay at one of the most ill-advised decisions I’ve seen in a film in quite a long time is keeping me from doing it.

The film is based on the William Shakespeare play from the early 17th century and it stars Ralph Fiennes as Roman general Caius Martius Coriolanus who, after years of duty to his country, is banished and decides to take revenge on Rome with a man who used to be his enemy, Volscian army general, Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler). It’s a tried and true story, one that is wrought with tension, suspense, drama and meaning that can be tied to modern times in our treatment of soldiers during and after wartime. There is nothing inherently wrong with this story, but the way it’s adapted is a pity.

What Coriolanus does is take an old play that was written over 400 years ago and modernizes it, setting it in the present day and in the current political and societal climates. However, it retains the old Shakespearean dialogue from the early 1600’s and, plain and simple, it doesn’t work. It’s beyond silly to watch a group of soldiers run through the streets with their AKs shooting each other up followed by those same soldiers speaking archaic rhetoric that doesn’t fit the modern time period. Although this decision does allow for some intense monologues, most notably from the terrific Fiennes, these moments only work by themselves and not when analyzed within the overall picture.

Coriolanus is an odd mash-up of two different time periods that don’t work well together and it drags the entire film down because it’s not just one tiny aspect of its production. It’s a major narrative decision, a persistent problem that runs throughout its entire 2 hour length. If writer John Logan wanted to retain that old language, he should have set the film in the appropriate time period. Nobody these days talks like this, about how “thou art lost” and how someone doesn’t hate you, but instead hates “thee.” It’s an artistic decision that is nothing more than laughable.

It’s such a shame because in his directorial debut, Fiennes crafts a beautifully shot film with a handful of outstanding performances that could have made for a powerful experience. He has a distinct visual eye and shoots each scene appropriately within the context of where the story is at that point and he, perhaps because this is an obvious passion project for him, gives what may be his single greatest performance. He’s a sight to behold in this film and the fact that he wasn’t nominated for an Oscar this year is a crying shame.

It’s rare that one bad decision can sour an otherwise solid production, but there you have it. It’s far too hard to blend two different time periods together, your eyes showing you one thing while your ears tell you another, which is most notable in a scene where political pundits argue on the television. Their debate comes off more like gossip between guests at a costume party in 1607 than actual political discourse. Moments like that are indicative of the entire film. Even when you’re watching scenes with breathtaking performances (of which there are many), you can never fully shake how ridiculous the whole affair is. Set this in 17th century Rome and you may be onto something, but as is, Coriolanus is an anomaly: a movie that gets 95% of its content correct and still fails.

Coriolanus receives 2/5