Mad Men goes to Chile in the Oscar-nominated No. Also, our takes on Shanghai Calling and A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III.
Just because Michael Haneke's Amour is a mortal lock to win the Best Foreign Language Oscar come February 24th doesn't mean that you should pass on the chance to see the category's finest runner-up. Pablo Larraín's No tells a fascinating slice of recent Chilean history, one that involved the country's transition from a dictatorship controlled by Augusto Pinochet to a democracy. Bowing to the demands of international leaders, Pinochet was forced to call for a referendum on his leadership in 1988, presenting the citizens of Chile with a simple Yes or No vote. "Yes" meant that he'd continue to remain in power for another eight years, while "No" would lead to new presidential elections. Both campaigns were to be given an equal amount of airtime -- 30 minutes of primetime airspace -- on the national television network and while the "Yes" party seemed assured of an easy victory, the "No" group made the outside-the-box decision to hire brash young ad man Rene Saavedra (Gael Garcia Bernal) to wage their media battle. The Chilean answer to Don Draper, Saavedra proceeded to market the country's proposed turn to democracy like an aspirational soda commercial, complete with upbeat slogans and even a catchy jingle. (The resemblance to Ronald Reagan's famed "Morning in America" ads are eerie and all-too pointed.) The "Yes" campaign didn't realize what their rivals were up to until it was almost too late, leading them to take some drastic steps to try and hold onto power. Part political thriller, part meditation on the mutability of public perception through advertising (seriously, if you're a fan of Mad Men, you owe it to yourself to see this film), all terrific, No is a timely and dramatically rich feature that's among 2013's finest offerings so far.
A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III
Based on his feature film debut CQ, there's a small, but vocal contingent out there that believes Roman Coppola -- rather than his more celebrated sister Sofia -- to be the true heir to the Coppola filmmaking throne. I wonder if those folks still feel that way after watching Coppola's long-awaited sophomore effort, which stars Charlie Sheen as a philandering L.A. graphic artist who vanishes into his own head after breaking up with the love of his life (Katheryn Winnick) dumps his cheating ass. Now, I happen to be a casual admirer of CQ as well (not to mention some of the films that Coppola has co-written with Wes Anderson, including the lovely Moonrise Kingdom), which has a real affection for '60s Eurotrash cinema that offsets its more obnoxiously naval-gazing tendencies. Unfortunately, this movie is nothing but naval-gazing, the story of a self-absorbed asshole whose wild flights of fancy are apparently intended to be amusing and/or profound, but instead come across as meandering ramblings of a dull mind. (To be fair, Sofia Coppola's films aren't without their naval-gazing elements, but she has a command over tone -- not to mention a rapport with actors -- that her brother lacks.) Calling on such relatives and family friends as Jason Schwartzman and Bill Murray to populate his main character's life (both the real one and the one going on inside his head), Coppola can't assign them anything particularly interesting to do. As for Sheen, he walks through the movie in a stupor, conveniently hiding behind Swan's ever-present shades. In Coppola and Sheen's hands, Charlie Swan is somebody you wouldn't want to spend five minutes alone in a room with, let alone 90 minutes inside the mind of.
How do you make your typical rom-com premise about a work-minded guy and the kooky girl he falls for, yet can't seem to commit to, more interesting? Well, moving the story to China -- specifically the neo-futuristic city of Shanghai -- is a good start. Switching out the usual Ryan Reynolds-like white guy hero for a handsome, appealing Asian actor (Daniel Henney) is a smart move, too, as is tapping Happy Endings spitfire Eliza Coupe to play said love interest. (And hey, bringing it ringers like Bill Paxton and Alan Ruck for small roles can't hurt.) The result of these alterations is Shanghai Calling and while the film, deep down, your standard issue rom-com, the change of scenery coupled with its fresh-faced leading man and lady makes it a diverting enough time-waster. A second-generation Asian American, Henney is a fish out of water in China and he relies on relocation specialist/single mom Coupe to show him the ropes. In the process, he winds up falling for her, but has trouble putting his career ambitions on hold to pursue romance. Yada yada yada, you can probably guess where all this is going. Getting there, however, is a modest pleasure.
If you thought Steven Spielberg's Oscar-friendly biopic Lincoln was too flat and stagy, you'll likely change your mind after watching Salvador Litvak's Saving Lincoln, which covers the 16th President's entire time in office -- from his election to his assassination and the entire Civil War in between -- from the perspective of his bodyguard, Ward Hill Lamon (Lea Coco). Obviously lacking Spielberg's more substantial budget, Litvak films the actors (including Penelope Ann Miller as Mary Todd Lincoln, Bruce Davison as William Seward and Tom Amandes as the Prez himself) performing in front of a greenscreen displaying black-and-white Civil War-era photographs. Meant to evoke some of the spirit of that era, this device instead makes the film feel even more like a corny Colonial Williamsburg-style historical reenactment, a feeling not helped by the stiff performances (let's just stay that Daniel Day-Lewis has nothing to worry about when it comes to anyone usurping his status as the ultimate big-screen Lincoln) and dialogue that frequently sounds cut-and-pasted right out of a history textbook. In the end, it's the audience -- not Lincoln -- that needs to be saved from this well-intentioned, but artistically-challenged production.
The Jeffrey Dahmer Files
In the tradition of Errol Morris's groundbreaking The Thin Blue Line, Chris James Thompson's documentary about the notorious serial killer and cannibal intersperses re-enactments (not of Dahmer's murders, thankfully) with talking head interviews with some of the people involved in the original case, including a neighbor, a cop and a medical examiner. But that's about where the similarities end as Line famously exposed a gross miscarriage of justice, whereas Files mostly reinforces what we already knew. The primary purpose of the film appears to be illustrating just how Dahmer (who was murdered in prison in 1994) was able to fly under the radar for so long; the re-enactments portray him as a grown-up wallflower, moving through the world in a quiet, unassuming manner -- all the better to avoid detection. While it's occasionally chilling to hear the different interview subjects describe the ways he hid in plain sight (the neighbor's testimony in particular is riddled with disbelief and regret), The Jeffrey Dahmer Files lacks the interest in personality over procedure -- not to mention the compelling visual style -- that makes Morris's brand of true crime storytelling so gripping. He makes honest-to-god movies; this feels like more of a legal dossier that happened to be filmed.
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