Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding [film review]

Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding finds Jane Fonda taking on just her third acting role in the last 21 years in director Bruce Beresford's latest film. It's not difficult to see what drew Fonda to the showy character of Grace, an eccentric hippie that allows her to send up her liberal Hanoi Jane image. What is hard to figure out is why she pulled herself out of semi-retirement for a dramedy that has little else going for it, as Grace inhabits a cinematic world that surrounds her with dull characters and uninventive storylines.
The plot: Diane, a repressed, conservative New York City lawyer (played by Catherine Keener) separates from her husband of 20 years and decides to take her two kids Zoe and Jake (played by Elizabeth Olsen and Nat Wolff, respectively) to visit her mother (Fonda's character) in Woodstock, New York. Diane and Grace haven't spoken in 20 years, an estrangement apparently stemming from an incident where Grace tried to sell an attendee at her daughter's wedding some pot. Seems a little harsh, but okay. We know Grace is wacky because she lets chickens stay inside her house and still lives like the 60's never ended. Naturally, Diane's kids come to love their cool new grandmother because she represents everything their uptight mother isn't. The gang's earnestly transformative trip finds Diane and Grace trying to heal their relationship, while Diane and the kids also all laughingly set off on their own romantic adventures, as Diane hooks up with a carpenter/singer-songwriter played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Zoe with a butcher played by Chace Crawford, and Jake with a diner waitress played by Marissa O'Donnell.
Joseph Muszynski's and Christina Mengert's script suffers greatly from an unimaginative overreliance on the theme of opposites to create dramatic tension. That might be fine if they played this card once or twice, but they go to the well three times with it in pairing characters with diametrically opposed beliefs and ways of life. Along with the mother/daughter relationship we also have Zoe, a staunch vegetarian, falling for a guy who slices and dices dead animals for a living, and Diane fights her ingrained repression (and the fact she's mere days removed from leaving her husband) as she falls for Morgan's free spirited character. By the way, Morgan's tone-deaf singing performances in this film are alone enough for me not to recommend it. The other major problem with the script is the reunion of Diane and Grace and the introduction of the kids to their grandmother for the first time. There's some mild awkwardness, but other than that it just feels completely devoid of any emotion or basis in reality.
Fonda's performance is one of the few redeeming parts of the film, even if Grace does veer somewhat towards being a caricature of an aging bohemian. Despite being 73, Fonda still brings a sexiness and energy to her work that's a good fit for her mischievous character - her "cock block" line is one of the funniest I've heard in a film this year. Otherwise, Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding disappointingly plays it safe and straight up.
Rating: ★★★★

Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Lady [film review]

Director Luc Besson steps out of his comfort zone with The Lady, a biopic about Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese politician who spent almost 15 years under house arrest in her family compound for leading a democratic uprising that opposed Burma's oppressive and corrupt government. Best known for high energy movies like La Femme Nikita, The Fifth Element, and Leon: The Professional, Besson reins in the action for this expansive drama, which surprisingly focusses as much (if not more) on Suu Kyi's relationship with her family as her political history. In performances sure to generate Oscar buzz, Michelle Yeoh plays the titular character and David Thewlis plays her husband Michael Aris, a professor of Tibetan and Himalayan Studies at the University of Oxford.
Suu Kyi lived abroad in England for most of her adult life, where her and Aris raised two boys, until returning to her native country in 1988 to tend to her sick mother. Once there, she is approached by locals to lead efforts to form a new government that will bring democracy to the country, ending the iron-handed rule and human rights abuses of the leaders in power. This is one area of the film where the exposition felt clumsily handled; it's jarring and confusing when Suu Kyi rapidly goes from seemingly being a simple Oxford housewife to the high profile leader of a politically chaotic country. No background is given on her adult years before her return to Burma (was she politically active while in England?) and there's no real probing into her motivations or qualifications for taking on such a weighty and dangerous position, other than the fact that her father aspired to be a figure of change in the country before he was killed by opposing military forces when Suu Kyi was a child. That was obviously a factor, but a deeper exploration of this critical point in Suu Kyi's life is needed, especially when we see the massive sacrifices she makes for her beliefs (she misses years of her family's lives and is unable to be with her husband as he fights and ultimately succumbs to cancer in 1999). Thewlis gives an excellent performance as Aris, who devotedly shared in his wife's struggle and unremittingly fought for her freedom.
Yeoh delivers a dignified, compassionate portrait of Suu Kyi, but is handcuffed somewhat by Besson's and screenwriter Rebecca Frayn's rather pedestrian summation of her struggle. Despite its lengthy running time (145 minutes), the film feels rushed and fails to resonate quite as deeply that a story as remarkable as Suu Kyi's should. Yeoh met the politician in Burma last December, a month after Suu Kyi was finally freed, and attempted to visit her again in June while on a break from shooting The Lady in Thailand, but was deported and blacklisted by Burmese officials.
I'd never heard of Suu Kyi until U2 brought her name to a wider audience with the song "Walk On" and during brief segments about her at every show on their last couple of tours, for which Besson gives the band a couple of shout-outs in his film, however awkward they are (one of Suu Kyi's sons wears a shirt from the band and one of their songs plays on the soundtrack). The Lady, although flawed, is a well-intentioned effort that will bring further attention to her extraordinary life and the ongoing fight for human rights in Burma.
Rating: ★★★★

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Pearl Jam Twenty [film review]

* Written for Toronto Screen Shots
Director Cameron Crowe revisits his rock journalist past with Pearl Jam Twenty, a retrospective of the Seattle band's career and the first film that was accepted at this year's festival. The screening I attended came a couple of days after the film's world premiere and was sandwiched in between a couple of concerts in town for the band, so the numerous hardcore fans in attendance were exuberant and clearly in the midst of a Toronto Pearl Jam love-in. More casual or "lapsed fans" (such as myself), who lost touch with the group following their first decade of megastardom, might find themselves struggling to maintain a heightened level of interest as the story unfolds, however.
That story begins with a pre-grunge band called Mother Love Bone that featured future Pearl Jam members Jeff Ament (bass) and Stone Gossard (guitar), who go on to form Pearl Jam after the drug overdose death of Mother Love Bone singer Andrew Wood. Crowe appropriately handles the material on Wood with delicacy, but the reverence afforded the marginally talented singer's unmemorable work by his peers is overstated and completely failed to connect with me. Ament and Gossard are left to start over, adding guitarist Mike McCready and vocalist Eddie Vedder, which collectively form the core of the new group. All four members have stayed together since, with somewhat of a revolving door procession of drummers that the film humorously addresses in a short segment (the position is eventually stabilized with the addition of former Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron). The standard rock doc/Behind The Music fare is covered: the band grappling with the effects of their meteoric rise to fame, group power struggles, striving to stay musically relevant, and significant moments from their career, notably their noble attempt at taking on Ticketmaster, and the 2000 Roskilde Festival tragedy in Denmark, where nine fans were crushed to death during the band's set.
Crowe was the benefactor of a band that was very forward thinking in documenting their career, allowing the filmmaker the luxury of having approximately 1200 hours of archival footage at his disposal. Much of it is rare or previously unseen, such as the clip (which had been long rumoured in the circles of Pearl Jam and Nirvana fans to exist) of Vedder meeting supposed rival Kurt Cobain at the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards. As Vedder explains it, the two bickered with each other in the press, although the media blew their dislike for one another far out of proportion. Other memorable clips include one where Vedder barely manages to contain the rage he feels towards an overly aggressive security guard during one of their Vancouver shows, plus the numerous video examples that show Vedder's dangerous propensity for scaling to the upper levels of various venues while performing and launching himself into the audience. Scattered throughout the film are Crowe-shot live performances, including a version of "Alive" that only served to remind me that if I never hear that, or any of the other singles off their overplayed debut album again, it'll be too soon. Band interviews reveal individuals who come across as a little less serious than is probably their public perception, which is probably because Vedder, who appears to have mellowed with age, was more than insufferable enough for the entire band.
I probably expected more out of Pearl Jam Twenty, just because a big-name director like Crowe was at the helm. He does a thorough, competent job in presenting the band's colourful story, an integral part of which has been their desire to divert from the status quo career path that rock band's are supposed to take, but the film far from stands out in the rock documentary sub-genre.
Pearl Jam Twenty received a worldwide one-time only theatrical screening on September 20th and will air on PBS' American Masters series on October 21st, followed by a DVD and Blu-Ray release on October 25th.
Rating: ★★★★