Monday, April 13, 2009

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Broken English etc

Broken English (2007, Zoe Cassavetes)
This one came as a real surprise to me. To me it's about the purest kind of "romantic comedy" you're likely to get. And I hesitate to use that description because what romance there is, and the comedy, comes directly from the feelings of life. It's incredibly accurate about the way people experience feeling, and it's anchored by two great performances by Parker Posey and Melvil Poupaud. It has similarities to "Lost in Translation" and "Before Sunset" in its adult sense of longing, but it's more earthbound than either of those -- Posey, in particular, is a character who reveals the desperation and loneliness inherent in dating. Some of the film's best strengths are in how it understands the power games that people play -- the little things they say and do to change who holds the "power" in a conversation or relationship. (When, out in a grocery store with Poupaud, Posey runs into a male friend who wants to get together, as Poupaud listens on.) It's a strong statement on the feelings a person can give you, and the loss and confusion it inspires. Poupaud's the much simpler partner of the two, while Posey frantically needs to know whether or not individual moments "mean" something or not (and needs confirmation from her partner either way).

The House Bunny (2008, Fred Wolf)
There's nothing offensive or problematic about the movie from a moral or philosophic standpoint, but that doesn't make it any more entertaining as a light comedy. What few points it makes are conventional ones about "being yourself." The gem quality is of course Anna Faris, the dopiest comedienne since Goldie Hawn or Elaine May. (The physical humor of one of the other actresses has its charms, too.) As a vehicle for Faris it's not quite up to her level, but it doesn't stunt her either. But I long for Faris to be given more demanding material -- she perfected the stoner-doofus role in Gregg Araki's "Smiley Face."

Frost/Nixon (2008, Ron Howard)
About as good as Hollywood historical dramas get, and to our benefit it focuses mostly on acting between two people (although it may work better on the stage). Frank Langella is a towering force and no actor can stand up to him, and his version of Nixon is that Shakespearean thing of a flawed, tragic hero. (The reminiscences that serve as exposition point the movie in the direction of being a topical drama that's more concerned with business than being human, though.) I don't think the easiness of the movie allows Nixon to be explored as thoroughly and deeply as could be possible, but as a light history lesson it makes for decent entertainment.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008, David Fincher)
At its best -- that is to say the opening parts -- it resembles a Jean-Pierre Jeunet fantasy. But Fincher, seemingly trying to combine "The Great Gatsby" and "Forrest Gump," is too earthbound a director to fully let fly with his fantasy. The second half of the film drags, and the slowness doesn't provide deepness or reflection. Some of Fincher's touches have inventiveness to them, like the way a character continually tells the story of how he was hit by lightning on multiple occasions and how the occurrences are shown to us in grainy, old-timey footage for comic effect. But the cleverness of the story -- a man who ages backwards but whose love life still manages to dovetail with that of a young dancer, played by Cate Blanchett -- never fulfills itself into something either emotionally grand or as something with genuine insights into the nature of love -- or aging. (Cate Blanchett's performance as her own older self is so mannered that even if Fincher did have something noteworthy to say about aging it would be hindered by Blanchett's look-at-me performance.)

Compared to his other movies you can admire Fincher's less showy approach here, but he hasn't brought any kind of insight or feeling with him to replace his formerly over-the-top directorial shenanigans. Brad Pitt's work, at least when he's only supplying a heavily make-up'd face on another person's body, is maybe the best of his career -- but it's hard knowing whether it's his, the stand-in's, or the benefit of computer technology. When he assumes his own body he's less effective -- his body movement and voice don't have the strangeness or the sadness that makes his earlier segments interesting. Blanchett's problem is the inverse: She's so luminescent as a young woman that when she's resigned to dying in bed Fincher has short-circuited her natural grace.

In Search of a Midnight Kiss (2007, Alex Holdridge)
I think Alex Holdridge compromises his own vision with some overly comedic touches that don't ring true when compared to the rest of his film -- like a crazy ex-boyfriend -- but at its best the film is an entertaining little movie about the disappointment inherent in our age of disconnection. Holdridge's film does bear similarities to Richard Linklater's love couplet, not just because it's about similar subject matter but because he believes in the light romance that he's telling. What gives the film a little weight is how he doesn't shy away from the feelings of patheticness that come with having to meet lovers online instead of in person, not to mention the first steps towards getting to know someone who you don't know at all. Although it's similarly filmed in black and white it doesn't have the fashionable irony of Jim Jarmusch or Hal Hartley -- when it's funny it's in a direct way, like when one character tells another to wear condoms because his balls are "full of green cards." What makes the drama work is that the characters don't sweep each other off their feet -- they get mad at each other and make up, all within the first night of meeting.

The Puffy Chair (2005, Duplass brothers)
This feature by the Duplass brothers really blew me away. It's such an amazing depiction of a handful of people who are as cleanly and deeply portrayed as any in the movies. (The way Mark Duplass and his girlfriend use babytalk to mask their embarrassment and discomfort.) It's a movie about the tenuous threads that keep people connected and the things we do to destroy those threads -- our obsession with unnecessary gadgets; our ignoring of other people; the way we misunderstand others' best intentions. I can't imagine why someone would criticize this movie for lacking an obvious visual flair when it touches on so many fascinating experiences of life. (Like how we will nonchalantly lie to others and then be furious when others lie to us.) The couple in the film, the frail connection they have, is enough to maintain a film, but the Duplass' also introduce us to Mark's hippie brother Rhett, a character so doofy that our initial reaction is to write him off -- but you can't write him off; to do so would be to reject his complicated actions. When he says he loves a girl he just met, you're not sure whether to be touched or whether to laugh at him. (In a Will Ferrell comedy this would be a punchline of patheticness.) But Rhett's irrational actions make the characters forget their obsession with ultimately inconsequential details (does an artifact couch -- a symbol -- really matter, when you should be reconnecting with your parents?). I've heard this movie referred to as solipsistic, but it couldn't be further from that: its focus on minutia isn't to ignore a bigger world, but to emphasize the uniqueness and the details that we take for granted in our individual lives.

Baghead (2008, Duplass brothers)
I was a huge fan of the Duplass' previous film "The Puffy Chair," and while "Baghead" isn't as immediately mind-blowing as that film it's still a rich, demanding experience. At first it feels as if the Duplass' have moved from intermingling minutia into social critiques, and in some cases they have -- they offer a skewering of the banal questions at film festivals that make you wonder whether we're engaged with the art we watch or only interested in the trivia details of production. When a filmmaker writes off scripts by asking, "Is there a script in real life?" one of our characters scoffs at the pretension of the line -- but it would be a serious detriment to take him at his laugh, since the entire movie follows with proving that way of thinking. (How the characters surprise and shock each other -- that's the element of it that's a horror movie or a comedy, not in the usual way.) If you view it as a story it may be predictable, but its value is in the tones of voice and the way characters try to manipulate each other (without the filmmaker trying to manipulate the audience). The acting by everyone involved is up to the wonderfully specific standards that the Duplass' have set, but Greta Gerwig by nature of maybe just her genetics is particularly fascinating. (But the other woman uses some amazing tones of voice.)

Sound and Fury (2000, Josh Aronson)
Like a human variant of the ethicist Jonathan Glover's book "Choosing Children," this film offers an example of the cochlear implant dilemma in the deaf community. Does implanting deaf children take them out of the deaf community? Should they be taught to embrace their deafness, when so many deaf individuals have succeeded in life? Or is it child abuse to neglect implanting children with a device that can partially correct a handicap that can burden a life? When deaf parents are worried that implanting their deaf children with cochlear implants means that their own lives would have been unsuccessful by comparison, you understand their hurt. But you also understand when people urge them not to let their children remain handicapped purely to keep the deaf community alive. The questions this film raises about identity and moral obligations to help our children are terrifically involving, an example of film broaching the area of personal ethics.

The Last Mistress (2008, Catherine Breillat)
Fitting into Breillat's overall oeuvre rather well, "The Last Mistress" is her latest mixture of blood, tears, and sex. A commingling of two fiery, hot and unlikely lovers (he views her as "ugly" at first), the affair within the film proves the Joyce Carol Oates aphorism that love combined with hate is more powerful than love (or hate). Argento's particular brand of unpredictability goes well with Breillat's temperamental nature, and Aattou is nothing less than extraordinary, particularly when he's filmed in close-up in a discussion with his wife's grandmother's questioning him. Breillat's vision of sex continues to be one of the most tactile and amoral -- and sensitive.

Into Great Silence (2005, Philip Groning)
The reviews for "Into Great Silence" seem stuck between either rhapsodizing over the images as if the film was a travelogue, or pontificating about its length. To get that out of the way: It has some arresting images, and it is indeed very long. But I doubt that either of those points were the point of the film, which seems to me much more rooted, simply, in an approximation of what it means to live a life of solitude and near silence. There are so many interesting avenues that that opens up for us that to focus on length or visuals seems wholly beside the point. The documentary is not a history or an explanation of why the monks do what they do, but a heady chunk of example of them doing what they do.

The slowness, repetition, and lack of external influence like narration helps to slow down our circadian rhythm, but it should be said that viewing of the film should be done when attentive. (To fully appreciate slowness you should be wide awake.) The film is a monumental document of a dwindling way of life, but more importantly it brings us into the act of doing. The questions the film brings up are ones like, Is this a valuable use of one's time, for the rest of your life? (Surely living a monastic life could be beneficial for a short period, in how it would influence regular life after the fact.) It makes you wonder if these highly disciplined and devoted individuals, supposedly worshipping in the name of a higher power, might be better used in the service of people in need. And it makes you ask if a monastic life isn't an inherently selfish one -- depriving yourself not just of human interaction, but refuting the existing tangible society and not contributing to it.

Of course the other side is that these are a brave few who limit themselves so much and have their lives pared down to such essentials that they prove how unnecessary the accessories of modern life are. When on rare occasions the monks do interact, laugh, and do things as surprising as tobogganing (once a week I believe) you realize that their enjoyment of life is not humorless or one of scorn. (Interestingly, for the tobogganing footage, the director films it from afar, as if to let the monks enjoy their "free time" as much as possible.) Is the film slow, repetitious, and devoid of historical context and details? Yes. But it makes you think deeply about how a person can, or should, live their life. If that's not the aim of good art I don't know what is.

Hannah Takes the Stairs (2007, Joe Swanberg)
The biggest achievement of Swanberg's film must be the way he lets loose an inexplicable mess of emotions -- the way that Greta Gerwig falls apart, almost in slow-motion, when her boyfriend does a trick with an ice cube. An unexpected moment for a relationship to unravel, and throughout the film the problems people have in relationships aren't dramatic, they continue to be uncomfortably specific as in that scene. Swanberg's capturing of the late-20s generation comes across as quite accurate (even though I'm sure plenty of 20-somethings would hate to see themselves this way), but the best things about his film are his deeper observances -- like the way people kiss someone not to give in, but to escape from pain.

Wendy and Lucy (2008, Kelly Reichardt)
The initial problem with "Wendy and Lucy" and films like it is that it requires a series of bad things to happen to a character so that they find themselves in a hopeless position. (They have to be caught stealing, lose their dog, and have their car break down.) But getting those narrative roadblocks out of the way, Reichardt's film is a rather gentle view of America. Williams never greets the world with animosity. The manager of a store she steals from is reluctant to call the police (but begrudgingly acquiesces as it is their policy). A security guard follows his procedures in asking her to move her car, but offers suggestions for places she might go, and lets her use his cell phone. Perhaps the more accurate description would be that Reichardt's film has a gentle view of most Americans -- the American system, without being overtly criticized, is up for criticism simply by nature of this woman's situation. The store boy who catches her stealing comes off as a little bit of a prick, but he makes the apt observation that maybe people who can't afford dog food shouldn't have dogs. And yet the larger issue at stake is that how can we go on criticizing the less fortunate and not simultaneously note how the system is fixed? (You can't get an education without money; you can't get a job without an address; you can't get an address without money; you can't get money without a job.)

Team Picture (2008, Kentucker Audley)
I really found myself taken with this unassuming little movie. I loved the alternate ways of life that the film depicted, of the lead character choosing to live life in a different way (willfully choosing to not work for a while). When he quits his job, it's not a dramatic moment, not some major life decision, simply an act that comes from the fact that there are other ways he'd like to spend his time. I loved the light romance with a neighbor that comes when Kentucker Audley (also the director) fumbles his way into interacting with her. Nothing in the movie is underscored, and yet its pleasant amiability (which shouldn't be mistaken for frivolity) maintains subtle observances of life, like how dissimilar Audley and his sports apparel store-managing father seem. Only later do we learn that it's his step-dad, and when we see his biological father the casualness with which Audley lives his life (short shorts, flip flops, unshaven face) makes a little more sense. But it's never a wacky, bizarre indie, nor does it have contempt for any of its characters. (Imagine that: A movie about slackers in the south that's neither fashionably quirky nor hateful.) There's a difference between Audley and his step-father, but we're never meant to laugh at this aging jock; he's understanding when his step-son informs him of his decision to quit working at the store. What makes the film so pleasant, aside from Audley's winning personality (and beauty) is the combo of his interest in the less dramatic moments in life, and his character's slight beguiled feeling in the face of it.

Reprise (2006, Joachim Trier)
Though I found it offputting at first -- it seemed to me too focused on telling a story rather than delving deeply into its characters or ideas -- eventually it won me over. Trier definitely has a sense for visual ingenuity and visual cues -- he can indicate different things with a gesture as simple as air-quotes -- and a talent for creating friction when characters interact. I didn't find Trier's technicalities to be gimmicky -- I think he's made a genuine statement on frustrated youth -- but I think he could go even deeper.

Damned If You Don't (1987, Su Friedrich)
At first you don't quite know where you are. You're not sure if Friedrich is going to give you a revised history of lesbianism in the movies, or if she wants to provide a commentary for the images that enticed lesbians when they were young. The film does contain commentary on the act of viewership, both in the way a woman watches "Black Narcissus" on TV as we watch her doing so, and in the broader scope of Friedrich populating her film with voiceover reminiscences where we can hear the collaboration as the speakers mess up their words or think of new ways of saying something as they are coached to either continue narrating or incorporate their new thought into what they're telling us. It's in this way that Friedrich includes the creative process within the film, and also how she requires that we not get "lost" in the film and remain attentive at all times.

Friedrich's films are not so much narrative as an intermingling of forms -- documentary, fiction, reenactment. They are also demanding aesthetic experiences. I have warmed to her vision more with this film than I did with her previous "The Ties That Bind," which to me was too repetitious and not as wide-ranging or sensual as this film. As I ask less that her films adhere to traditional forms, I welcome them more as they continue to twist and weave as themselves. Her films are preeminent examples of time in film that asks that you stop and consider, to appreciate different and longer experiences, as with an amazing sequence in which a nun watches a dolphin twirl and writhe in an aquarium.

The film becomes increasingly more powerful as it progresses, as elliptical sequences gain an importance when continued later (picking out an artwork; sewing onto it). We begin to appreciate the oceanic waves of subtlety and evasive meanings as Friedrich's themes and observances come together -- but never in a finite way. Friedrich focuses less on the lesbianism of institutions (nunnery) as she does on the more personal process of sex as a tactile and spiritual discovery (a scene without sound). The film's title evokes a complicated rebellious streak, which is beautifully accented as the closing song begins to play: "Break It Up."

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Eternal Summer, Un Deux Trois Soleil, Forgotten, W, Veronica Guerin, Burn After Reading, Animal Factory, Croupier, Quantum of Solace, I Shot Andy War

Eternal Summer (2006, Leste Chen)
This lovely Taiwanese film pleasantly brought to mind memories of being 12 and not quite understanding why I was so drawn to that gorgeous Cowboy Junkies video for "Miles from Our Home," with the Asian boy who timidly wraps his arms around his friend as they speed around on a motorcycle. Like that mini-masterpiece, "Eternal Summer" follows two boys: the sensitive, unspeakably pretty Jonathan and the athletic Shane, who are put together at a young age so that the former can help the latter become a better student (they realize they make a good pair when their grades on an exam -- 67% and 33% -- make a perfect score). As teenagers, their friendship is beautifully detailed in the way Jonathan, despite his feelings to the contrary, pulls away from Shane, who doesn't understand why his best friend is becoming so sullen and inward. The film is fluidly directed, in narrative (occasionally giving itself over to emotion) and visual beauty, with bluish tints and careful compositions. About the only flaw is in the ending, when the music and earnestness of the dialogue becomes too much. But for the most part I was caught off guard by the maturity of the filmmaking.

Un Deux Trois Soleil (1993, Bertrand Blier)
My first foray into the films of Bertrand Blier, and if this film is any indication he must be one of the craziest directors around. The film is incredibly surreal and yet so without any kind of visual trickery, just a fragmented, peculiar way of telling a story about a girl, her lovers, and her parents -- they're portrayed at different stages of life by the same actors, without makeup, and it's often unclear what is literally happening to them and what is a remembrance. The film employs situations where characters talk to each other in one room that occupies both the present and the past, with both characters in different times. Many of the scenes are so downright inscrutable that I felt the film was like an exercise in Dadaist anarchy, albeit with painful childhood memories buried underneath.

The surreal scenes that make up the movie are abruptly integrated into the story, which plays cleanly and openly. (A large black woman revives a dead child who rests on her breasts; a homeowner befriends a boy burglar, who with wide eyes, ears that stick out, and a comically pronounced overbite resembles Nosferatu.) Some of the scenes in the film are simply funny in a quiet way, like how Marcello Mastroianni, as the girl's alcoholic father, keeps finding more and more street children trailing behind him, believing him to be their father. (There's another bold, funny diversion when Mastroianni can't find his apartment -- because teenagers have stolen the numbers and letters off the apartment block.)

The Forgotten (2004, Joseph Ruben)
Unfortunately "The Forgotten" eventually amounts to a run-of-the-mill Hollywood mystery, complete with a supernatural showdown in an abandoned factory. It's unfortunate because the first 20 minutes or so of are genuinely interesting, about a mother who has memories of a child that never existed. (As a symptom of a mother dealing with a miscarriage this could make for very rewarding and challenging material.) Then it shifts into a thriller where government officials and unmarked vehicles prowl around, and even then it's a serviceable throwaway. But when it gets to its third act, it's just the third section of increasing worseness -- it loses whatever skill or interest it's developed, proving further that Hollywood movies, particularly those made by for-hire directors, are incapable of finding a decent conclusion. That awful ending, with strange close-ups and odd angles, seems like it was directed by someone else entirely, since the interesting first section and the enjoyable second section aren't badly directed at all, and the use of music is effectively unsettling. The biggest shame may be in letting down a handful of fine actors: Gary Sinise, Dominic West, Alfre Woodward, even if Julianne Moore, wonderful that she is, manages to seep in some feeling here and there.

W (2008, Oliver Stone)
The comic tone of "W" may be necessary for audiences to be able to stomach a film about George W. Bush so soon, but that palatable tone is also what keeps the film from having the weight of Stone's other two presidential biographies, "JFK" and "Nixon." The all-star cast, as we've come to expect in Stone's films, rely on their combination of physical similarity and weightiness to come across as believable, and Josh Brolin, Richard Dreyfuss, and Toby Hughes are all quite fine in their roles. (Hughes, to me, seemed more interesting than the real Karl Rove.) Jeffrey Wright is an awfully fine actor, but his version of Colin Powell doesn't hit quite the right tone. But he's nowhere near as woefully out of it as Thandie Newton'sCondoleezza Rice, who drifts in and out of the movie muttering lines like she's crashing an SNL political parody.

Veronica Guerin (2003, Joel Schumacher)
For people who knew Veronica Guerin -- those readers of the Sunday Tribune -- the film of the same title should serve as a fine memorial of the woman, and the film works best on that level of a tribute to a folk hero. The film occasionally has some good, naturalistic interplay between Cate Blanchett and the ubiquitous Ciarin Hinds, and both actors are fine enough that their scenes together have feeling attached. (For an actress who can often seem gimmicky and technical, Blanchett, even with her prop Princess Diana haircut, plays her character openly.) While the movie documents the death of a journalist, and serves as a film example of the sad fact that many journalists are killed doing their jobs, it doesn't work much as a serious artwork on what it means to be human (aside from clichés like "I don't want to, I need to") or as good sociology or journalism that looks into why things happen the way they do. (For a death that came as a result of drug trafficking, there is relatively little in-depth questioning of the drug trade, and how her death might have been avoided; just politically-correct mourning and the banishment of drug dealers.) At best, it's a tribute. Then again, I imagine most people would have trouble not caring when a woman gets murdered by thugs.

Burn After Reading (2008, Coen brothers)
The clever conceit behind the film is that it's a shaggy dog story that knows it's a shaggy dog story and notes that within the film. But that simple self-awareness isn't enough to make an entertaining movie, and it's not a notion revolutionary enough to make it work simply as a conceit. The narrative is sometimes unclear, the character associations don't weave together complexly like they should. It might serve as a palate-cleanser after the Coen brothers' success with "No Country for Old Men," but it's not a successful movie in and of itself. Talented actors like Tilda Swinton are wasted, and the only real life the movie has comes from John Malkovich railing against morons and J.K. Simmons being flummoxed by what it all means. The long-standing criticism against the Coen brothers is that they look down on their characters. I'm not sure if that's true, but it's certainly true that they purposely write characters who aren't bright, and the laughter is meant to come from watching them act stupidly while the movie holds itself at a distance, in this case with a clever self-awareness that the buffoon characters themselves don't have. There's a big difference between that snottiness and the outrageous, brilliant stupidity of what the Farrelly brothers do. That the Coen brothers are more respected speaks largely to the holier-than-though attitude our culture likes to adopt (the same culture that drinks up a conceit movie as some kind of major achievement).

Animal Factory (2000, Steve Buscemi)
Essentially a slice-of-life prison drama, neither embellished with dramatics nor overdone with seediness or hopelessness. Buscemi gives a lot of time to marginalized actors -- Edward Furlong, Willem Dafoe, Mickey Rourke, John Heard, Tom Arnold, and an early appearance by the singer Antony Hegarty -- and it's mostly a film by actors for those who appreciate them. In many ways (the music, the unobtrusive visuals) it bears similarities to a TV show like "The Wire," although Buscemi's film has more in common with a character study than that show's sociological insights. He gives an essentially honest portrayal of an older convict and a younger one, possibly influenced by John Cheever's "Falconer." Their relationship isn't sexual, but it is soulful, and that's what separates it from being a TV movie. (Although, ironically, TV shows -- the type that Buscemi has directed -- would serve to give the prison story more complexity by virtue of time.)

Croupier (1998, Mike Hodges)
I wouldn't call "Croupier" a noir, but it's close to the French approximations of noir that Jean-Pierre Melville made. Clive Owen isn't as beautiful as Alain Delon, and he doesn't look quite so hip in a hat, but he's trading on similar vibes. Mike Hodges is definitely interested in style, but that doesn't necessarily make it a fraudulent movie since the premise of the movie is style too -- the attitudes, quickness, and steadiness of being a card shark. It's not a gangster movie like "Casino," it's about a man who sort of lives by a code, in his case honesty, in a world where manipulation exists everywhere. Women hover around the picture but Owen's character isn't exactly a womanizer. Hodges is working with atmosphere -- voiceovers that come in between spoken dialogue, ominous music -- and on that level it largely works.

Quantum of Solace (2008, Marc Forster)
Following in the more brutally efficient manner of "Casino Royale," the latest Bond installment is much closer to conventional action pictures, in the way it uses violence as a means to solve problems, as opposed to wit, cunning, or other traits we would associate with being part of a British franchise. It loses the fun and glamour of Bond pictures as being examples of style, but on the other hand it's not laughable or jokey in any respect. The main problem with the film as a film is that its action sequences are edited in such a rapid fashion, and with such little visual coherence, that they become confusing and the opposite of thrilling. For real excitement, it's always more effective to hold back and show larger shots of dangerous action -- car chases where we see both cars, actors doing things without the safety net of editing -- and Marc Forster, who's never made an action picture before, thinks that making the edits fast will make the film more exciting. (People watch the Olympics to see one runner slowly take over another, not to see close-ups of a runner's thigh, followed by a rapid succession of scalloping feet.)

The other, less bothersome flaw is that the World Issues plot seems heavy-handed, and there are discussions about things and references to people that don't always match up, because they're just not significant enough. (The film partly makes use of the political points with a memorable death involving oil.) It's the actors that make the movie, and thankfully it's not all action. Mathieu Amalric makes for a fine, small, restrained villain who resembles a human being. But it's obviously Daniel Craig's show, and he mostly pulls the film off. I didn't necessarily believe he was doing anything he was doing for the reason the film suggested -- vengeance on behalf of his dead friend -- but, in the moment, his performance works, largely because of his graceful movement and his enigmatic, sheltered personality. He's equally at home in a fashion statement scene, wearing a black polo, sunglasses, and white pants, as he is in scenes that require him to leap off buildings and avoid getting smacked with an axe. He's the proper heir to Steve McQueen: believable, rough, and with star quality, but with a modern sense of devilishness, which is only more pronounced by his impossibly blue eyes.

I Shot Andy Warhol (1996, Mary Harron)
No films can approximate the feel of the Warhol era better than his own films and those of Paul Morrissey. Those films have, decades later, retained a mysteriousness, beauty, and complexity that the documents we have now recounting the times fail to live up to. The images are so iconic and the DIY aesthetic so current that modern approximations seem false. As a story of the violent "feminist" who shot Andy Warhol, the film has a reason to exist. And the backdrop of the Warhol factory is given a little credibility thanks to Jared Harris' distant, wounded performance. But the film is also a little too glib and a little bit nasty. Since it's about an attempted murderess, that may be what Mary Harron was going for. But there's a deeper world in Warhol that we could have seen, when instead we've been given the marginalized world of one fringe psychotic.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Autism, Boy A, Visitor, Bugcrush, For the Bible Tells Me So, Married Life

Autism: The Musical (2007, Tricia Regan)
Good documentaries do a few things, one of which is show you a world you may not be familiar with. To this end "Autism: The Musical" succeeds quite well, as it gives heartfelt, tough glimpses into the lives of a handful of autistic children and their families. (Incidentally it also educates: how some autistic children find eye-contact difficult, and how some can repeat what they hear but have a hard time making original statements.)

The moral and social value of the movie is such that it, like the best art, encourages empathy and feeling not just for people not like us, but for people not given the same privileges that we enjoy. There are times in the film where parents are passionate and angry (occasionally with each other), explaining the treatment their children receive by other people. We see how tough raising an autistic child can be on families; some relationships don't make it. But you also feel that if every family had a special needs child they may grow, gain empathy, and learn to love in more selfless ways because of it. (It's worth mentioning that while autism is a good umbrella for a group of people, like women or baseball players, each of the children have completely different personalities.)

One mother finds it appalling that her daughter is taught to wash dishes ("so she can sweep the floor at McDonald's") while another mother explains that if she can "crack" the autistic wall for even five minutes that means her child will progress five minutes further than where he was before. The most difficult moment may be when one mother muses that if her daughter outlives her, who in society will "value" her daughter the way she does?

The musical that the children participate in may not have the same artistic or entertainment value of one put on by normal-functioning children, but what it does is allow the children to have an opportunity to complete a task, collaborate in an artistic creation, allow their parents to see their children perform, and serve an as extra-curricular activity for children and parents to prepare for together. The end that the musical represents has a lot of value, but the road to getting there gives just as much.

It would seem callous to not mention that the film choked me up a number of times, but not because it was "happy" or "sad" so much as it showed complex situations and real human beings dealing with them. One symptom of autism is that children don't interact emotionally the same way normal-functioning children can. So it's completely without sentimentality -- and all the more affecting because of it -- when one child says to another that he's "smart," which prompts the other boy to respond, "I always wanted to hear that."

Boy A (2007, John Crowley)
Although it takes a sociological position of examining the adjustment period of a criminal released from prison, the movie takes the early position of sympathy for the boy. We, like the people familiar only with his new identity, become acutely aware of his past after we've already gotten to know him in the present; yes, grown to love him. It's a testament to the tremendous acting talent of Andrew Garfield that it never feels cliched or his character overly harried. As a boy who's been institutionalized during his formative years, he has chunks of identity and experience removed from him, and he with frenzy attempts to fill it in with sudden bursts of emotion. The new emotional feelings of having sex, of wanting it to be "right."

The filmmaking in large part attempts to be naturalistic. The problems are literal, society is dealt with somewhat plainly, the acting is "realistic." And while Peter Mullan is one of the most inherently believable actors alive, it's Garfield who imbues the film, performancewise, with the greatest shades of complexity. His is a character who is at a loss to express, constantly in fear of being revealed and torn apart by the inherent dishonesty in that contradiction. The movie's visuals occasionally give us something more than realism -- a poetic imagining near the end on a dock; some horrifying dreams throughout the film. It's already a fine, often beautiful look at a life getting past setbacks, and becomes more complex with the mob mentality and ostracization.

If there's a flaw in the movie it's the predictability of some of the actions. While it's understandable that Mullan's forgotten son would be offended at being seemingly replaced by a recovering criminal, it seems almost too simple to have Boy A be outed by that simple revenge, although it's a cruel act done with the same ambivalence as the cruelty the boy's friend inflicted on others in youth. It's an indictment of the media's callousness in destroying lives, and how simply the social work people do can come undone by an outside citizen.

The Visitor (2007, Thomas McCarthy)
Although the style is perhaps more low-key, "The Visitor" bears a resemblance to the American social realism of a movie like "The Pursuit of Happyness," both movies trying to bring awareness to social phenomena in America by way of character studies. The film is a microcosm of race relations and a portrait of the diversity of backgrounds in America, and in New York in particular. (It's brought home with humor when a Syrian woman asks a dark-skinned man where he's from and he replies, "Queens.") Richard Jenkins' character acts out of perhaps a combination of liberal guilt, kindness, and boredom. His life isn't going particularly brightly and these "visitors" offer a change in his lifestyle. The film is political in the sense that it concerns itself with immigration, but it's more about basic human principles than political ones. Jenkins doesn't want his new roommate to get deported, not exactly out of a political affiliation or opinion on immigration, but because he wants to keep his friend around and see him and his girlfriend happy. (There's an interesting strain throughout the film about the girlfriend feeling beholden and maybe a little ashamed of having to rely on Jenkins' kindness.) The cast is uniformly quite fine, and I couldn't help but feel that McCarthy's casting choices were almost like Jim Jarmusch's or Claire Denis', in the way he brings together smaller character actors of diverse cultural backgrounds. (Hiam Abbass, who plays the Syrian mother, is in the next Jarmusch film, "The Limits of Control.") In the closing image I was reminded of Denis' "Beau travail," in which a ravaged-faced man expresses himself through music and movement, trying to keep a memory alive.

Bugcrush (2006, Carter Smith)
I didn't feel that the horror film "The Ruins" lived up to the intense praise that the book by Scott Smith generated (such as Stephen King proclaiming it as "the best horror novel of the new century"). But Carter Smith's earlier short film, "Bugcrush," available in the "Boys Life 6" collection, has a rewardingly chilly, antiseptic quality that serves as a nice escape from the hopelessly cheery gay romantic comedies we're used to -- even if I found its ending almost oppressively disturbing. Smith is a rarity in the film world: an openly gay horror director whose films aren't campy. (The same can't be said for "Chucky" creator Don Mancini.) His dark, creepy visuals and sense of unease have similarities to a serious-as-cancer director like David Fincher. The short film was based on a story by Canadian artist Scott Treleaven, and before making films Smith learned his visual style by working as a fashion photographer.

What begins as a familiar horror and even gay film cliché -- a group of teenagers wondering about a strange new kid -- becomes a much darker, elliptical, and increasingly horrific story. The claustrophobic style and metaphoric subject matter invite comparisons to Kafka and David Cronenberg, while the grisly seediness of it brings to mind Dennis Cooper. We identify with the shy, pretty Ben as he gets invited into the mysterious private life of Grant, a brooding and not-particularly-gay-seeming boy from school. There's tactile, uncomfortable sexual tension in their initial exchanges. ("It's not like we hang out or anything," says Ben, inviting Grant to respond with, "Yeah, well…we should sometime.") When the two spend a night together after school there's a sense of seduction with the underlying threat of violence, and what results is the frightening glimpse of a naïve boy into a strange world of boys, bugs, and getting high.

For the Bible Tells Me So (2007, Daniel G. Karslake)
A film that operates to both show us the hypocrisy of biblical references being used by literalists as anti-gay propaganda and to reveal the true meaning of the passages by putting them into historical context. The film is also a personal history of the various religious families depicted who have been affected by homosexuality, namely in their children, and how they've come to accept them, not accept them, or, in the most tragic case, learn to accept them only after losing them. I'm thankful for my upbringing -- as a gay person who was raised in an environment free from religious doctrine and yet with a strong sense of right and wrong. Being raised in an environment free of religion means that some of the religious discussions proved educational for me -- how it was an "abomination" when Onan ejaculated outside of his partner's vagina, spilling his "seed" without the potential for procreation. ("Onan" as in "onanism" -- ie: masturbation.)

Married Life (2007, Ira Sachs)
Drawing heavily on the morals and pleasure of Hitchcock and the melodrama of Sirk, Ira Sachs seems equally indebted to Todd Haynes, most obviously in "Far From Heaven" (co-starring Patricia Clarkson), but there's also a scene where Clarkson gasps for air that brings the parking garage scene from "Safe" to mind. The complex interweaving of characters' relationships to one another, and the tragic inevitability inherent when they unexpectedly collide, reminded me of Jacques Rivette's great "Secret Defense." I think Sachs is a little more interested in being sophisticatedly pleasurable -- the opening title sequence, the Doris Day on the soundtrack -- and dealing in artifice; he's said so far in his career he's dealt mostly with deceit, and that seems true. He's got a taste for old-fashioned irony and plays around a little with post-modern techniques like point of view (we're told the story by Pierce Brosnan, a side character), but he does generate genuine suspense in some cinematic flashes like a scene where a bathtub overflows, or when a compound of deceit goes so far that it threatens to take everything away. Sachs may not be dealing with complex emotions, but he is peeling back relationships and showing the conning and self-interest they involve.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Ishtar, Wicker Man, Little Man Tate, Win a Date with Tad Hamilton!, Next, Speed, Bowfinger, Deconstructing Harry, Dolores Claiborne

Its reputation as a bad movie is accurate, mostly because scenes in the desert with Isabelle Adjani shrouded in a scarf have an inherent silliness and her performance is anything but silly. But it's not just her fault: The premise of the movie, two songwriting friends who go to Ishtar and find themselves in some political hot potato, gets dumber and dumber as it goes along. What's mostly disheartening about the movie is that the first twenty minutes, of Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman bantering back and forth and singing out loud their ideas for songs, are funny in the same dumb-comedy way that's become extremely popular now. The montage scenes that Elaine May makes out of their ideas are often pretty funny, and had she just stuck to that the movie could have probably worked pretty well.

The Wicker Man
To make a movie with some kind of spooky, culty quality to it you may need the added benefit of making your movie in a low-budget way. What drains this remake of any scariness is that the plot and the way it's presented to us has been drained of anything remotely archaic, it's glossy and professional and not at all spooky. (Ellen Burstyn's face make-up is so perfectly applied that you admire its perfection rather than find it creepy or ominous.) It's also bereft of any kind of pleasure because Neil LaBute is so humorless in his approach; many scenes of Nicolas Cage crying out in anguish are effective only in how increasingly funny it becomes to see the seriousness of the movie lacquered on with the stupidity of the plot.

Little Man Tate
The benefit of having actors direct movies isn't that they've been around film sets and have a little on-the-job training, it's that most serious actors -- or actors who care about acting rather than being models -- bring a greater attention to human beings than a director would. The downside is that sometimes these actors are not very familiar with the film medium as an art, so while they may make more interesting and truthful choices regarding characterization and behavior, they can lack an overall sense of the film as an art itself; the film can be conventional while the acting is special.

Jodie Foster's film isn't necessarily a great drama, although it obviously has similarities to her own life. (Interestingly, she casts herself as a downtrodden mother with the prodigy child.) What it has going for it is that it has a great deal of empathy, especially for children (as well as their families). While she gives a certain degree of fairness to both the mother of this prodigy and the academic who sees potential in him, eventually she sides with the mother who lets him just be a kid, but who doesn't challenge him mentally. (The academic who challenges him does so with kindness, but also with an order based on book-reading rather than messy life experiences.)

What Foster lacks is a visual flair; she tries to liven things up with dream sequences and images of the way the boy sees the world mathematically, but her staging is overly obvious -- there are a great deal of wide, open shots to emphasize loneliness and a lack of closeness.

Win a Date with Tad Hamtilon!
It's not the type of movie that knocks it out of the park, but from moment to moment it's an affable affair, both due to the enormously appealing performers and the slightly farcical tone (although, save for Nathan Lane, the timing isn't sharp enough to have the quality of good farce). The movie ultimately adopts the outlook that life can be like a movie even though the "right" choice (picking your childhood love over a movie star) isn't very plausible. It might have been more believable for the girl to go off with the movie star first, be crushed when it doesn't work, and then return to her childhood love. But "love" as a notion of ending up with someone as a result of available options would be too depressing for teenage girls to think about, and this wants the optimism of movies with the "true love" message that makes girls feel happy about their boyfriends who've gone to see the movie with them.

Although the ending essentially makes what excitement the movie has generated pointless it's a quickly-paced B movie. It's not ineptly made, just not very plausible. (For a guy who has a superpower with strict rules there seem to be a lot of exceptions.) There's a pleasantly ludicrous quality to Nicolas Cage as a hero, and he's never bothered me the way he bothers some other people. His hair is absurd and his expressions are too, but he's the definition of a stylish actor, and there's something fun about an actor made famous for his risky, offbeat choices becoming the headline star of Hollywood action movies. There's not much that's clever about the film -- the conceit of looking into the future is pretty hokey and never aptly explained (nor is the generic threat of terrorism, with old-fashioned Russian terrorists to keep from any unsettling qualities invoked from, you know, real-life terrorism). Julianne Moore doesn't have many notes to play, but she does the efficient, calculated professional type as well as you can. And the surprise of Peter Falk would make any movie more enjoyable.

The cool, icy opening credits made me take notice and think maybe "Speed" was as good as I remember it being when I saw it at eight years old. It turns out the director worked as a cinematographer for Paul Verhoeven, so he would have some experience in glossy thrills. The opening set piece in an elevator, with its echoes of "Silence of the Lambs," is terrifically sustained, and Dennis Hopper and Jeff Daniels fill the movie out nicely. While the idea for the speed-detonated bomb is often exciting, it loses that excitement the moment the bus jumps over that ramp (all the set-up shots make it look impossible). And when they repeat the entire movie as a subway chase for the last 15 minutes it degrades into outright silliness. But there are enough distractions along the way -- oh no, Hopper has an underground money tunnel! -- that make it entertaining, and ultimately it's Keanu Reeves' show. He was never more sleekly beautiful.

Its good nature makes its shortcomings more acceptable (such as Eddie Murphy's second role as a movie star's geeky brother), and while generally you could say that it's a "satire" of the movie industry it's more specifically satirizing obsession with celebrity and actor pretentions. (There's an exchange of gold when Steve Martin tells Christine Baranski that their film is in a new style, "Cinema Nouveau," and she slowly replies "Ohhh" as if she understands.) Murphy's perfirmance as the movie star reminds you what makes him such a vital, exciting comedy presence (contrasted against Martin's braininess).

Deconstructing Harry
The most jarring thing about it is how full of foul language it is, and then how nonchalant it is about things like prostitution. But it's still as watchable as any Allen movie. The cast seems weirdly dated -- Billy Crystal, Demi Moore -- and Judy Davis' performance is so frenzied it barely resembles a human being.

Dolores Claiborne
I haven't read Stephen King's story, but the characters have been created with such richness that his depictions are sympathetic simply by virtue of his intense interest. The movie has been filmed like a stern melodrama from the '30s -- the stylized, accented performances easily bring to mind Katharine Hepburn (in particular the amazing Judy Parfitt). The cast is incredible, but it's not a stunt assembly; they fall perfectly in their roles. Kathy Bates and Parfitt have the fortune of being able to play two ages, and we can clearly, beautifully see how their relationship changes over time (and how Bates changes from polite and subservient to a hardened woman). The movie will have a sudden burst of violence, as when David Strathairn hits Bates, but more often the drama comes from emotional abuse, how Bates and Parfitt eventually bond over their mistreatment by men, or a bank scene in which Bates realizes her money is gone, or a distressing scene where Strathairn abuses his daughter and her face goes slack when she finally relents. The movie has many beautiful lines, the best being the doctrine that Parfitt passes down to Bates: "Sometimes being a bitch is all a woman has to hold onto." It's definitely a woman's movie, but not necessarily man-hating; even the reprehensible Strathairn character calls his wife the shortened "D," alternating between impotent frustration and wanting her approval. The bleak, rotten blue tones of the present against the warmer tones of the past give the movie a visual beauty.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Love Actually

Love Actually (2003, Richard Curtis)
In what mostly amounts to a cinematic happy pill (a shot of simplistic optimism earned not through depth but from Hallmark schmaltz) the first movie from Richard Curtis gains a degree of levity from his propensity for light vulgarities -- porn stars finding love, a Prime Minister's aid who blurts out "fuck," etc. -- and a cast worthy of more than the gloppy simplicity of his lovey-dovey Christmas movie. (It may Curtis' idea of good writing to have Bill Nighy play an aging rock star who remakes the Troggs' "Love Is All Around" as a Christmas song and also use that song's theme to bookend the movie with images of loved ones reuniting in airports, but it's curious that he would so easily call the song shit -- and it is shit -- and not then be doubtful about the premise of his own movie.)

When it aims to be uplifting it's in a cutesy way that doesn't mean anything, as when a boy chases after a girl he's got a crush on and gets a kiss. That's fine on paper, but when you play it as some major set piece for a movie, and load it up with the pretension of saying that if the kid doesn't chase the girl now he'll regret it for the rest of his life, the movie becomes weirdly top-heavy. Curtis' movie may be thematically and emotionally lumpy, but he's got a keen eye for actors, and a number of them -- Nighy, Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, Laura Linney -- navigate his script without succumbing to sentimentality, and Thompson in particular injects the most shaded performance of the lot by giving her hurt wife role some weariness. Nighy is an absolute hoot, and Rowan Atkinson and Hugh Grant are both pleasurable in their moments on screen. And in their segments that are shamefully neglected at the ending wrap-up, Linney and Rodrigo Santoro (a beautiful and suggestive actor) manage to give a tragically unworkable tinge to their budding relationship of co-workers whose feelings for each other have been left untouched for years.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Brief Crossing

Brief Crossing (2001, Catherine Breillat)
What is it about Catherine Breillat's films that are so beautiful? Aside from her reputation as a gory porn mistress, she is enormously tender (with the ability to make you feel like you're on the edge of a cliff emotionally and take everything away just as easily as she's given it to you). Her camera, documentary-like but often with poetic placement, observes minor, gentle inflections. She very strongly makes her characters exist in an environment -- here, a ship sailing. And even more strongly she can exploit a situation to great effect, such as one scene where the two newly acquainted lovers sit in a lounge, while the camera observes a magic show in the background with its cheesy mystery music scoring their drinking.

Breillat has a definite type -- dark, lean, nubile young men. But her female characters, demanding to be in the forefront with their frequent proclamations, are just as much of a type, intelligent and world-weary. In this, among the most affecting romance-while-traveling movies, she (Sarah Pratt) laments her age compared to his (Gilles Guillain) mere sixteen years. On their first meeting she seems mildly irritable, accepting his help (in the form of a cafeteria tray) only until she finds a better option elsewhere. As the two become more involved her insecurity around him reveals itself further, despite his gentle nature. With the ending you're unsure if this is a woman who breaks hearts along her way or if she ultimately views him as another in the line of brutes she generalizes men to be. This is a woman who isn't afraid to indulge in an affair, and she's not afraid to continue it -- but who selfishly, mechanically cuts herself off from feeling when it's necessary to do so. That's a lot for Breillat to put forth in the film's final scenes, but she does it, and it rests largely on the searching, wrenching face of Guillain, who frantically comes to the realization that, however cruelly, he's a little bit older now.