Monday, May 31, 2010

A Movie a Day, Day 15: Sex and the City 2

I hadn't planned to write about this one, since just about everyone else who covers movies has already weighed in on it, but it was the only new movie playing in Central Jersey that I wanted to write about this week, so I wound up seeing it yesterday and writing it up for TimeOFF. Anyhow, I have a longstanding love-hate relationship with SATC, so I wouldn't have wanted to miss this one.

Here's my TimeOFF review.

Sex and the City 2

I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with the women of Sex and the City, but they make it awfully hard to feel the love these days. Like a copy of a copy made on a bad machine, each episode or movie since the last year or so of the TV show has been cruder than the last. Sex and the City 2 is close to unwatchable.

Twelve years after the TV series debuted, the four best friends are still a collection of one or two character traits each – Samantha the sex machine, Miranda the type A lawyer, good-girl Charlotte, and perky Carrie, the writer who’s spinning these stories by twisting together strands from their lives. A lot has been written about how the four – especially Samantha – are really gay men in drag, what Seattle Stranger reviewer Lindy West nicely summed up as “giant Barbie dolls” being manipulated by their gay creators. (Columnist and novelist Candace Bushnell based the characters on herself and her friends, but they were reworked for the screen by Darren Star and Michael Patrick Smith, who wrote and directed Sex and the City 2.)

A certain kind of gay sensibility probably does account for the show’s focus on 24/7 fabulousness and high fashion, which leads to ludicrous situations like Charlotte wearing a “vintage Valentino” skirt in SATC2 to bake cupcakes with her pre-school-age daughters. It probably also explains why these BFFs defend each other so fiercely, in a world that can’t be trusted to appreciate or nurture them. As Samantha puts it, in SATC2, “We made a deal ages ago. Men, babies, doesn’t matter. We’re soulmates.”

That unshakeable bond is what I’ve always loved about SATC. What woman wouldn’t love to be part of a posse for life who can be counted on to run to her side whenever she needs them? It’s the female version of Entourage.

I’m right there for that part of the fantasy, but I hate the consumerist part, which is supposed to be a lot of SATC's appeal. I could roll with it for the first few years of the TV series, when the four were still single and most were struggling financially. SATC was always an escapist fantasy, so they looked great and lived well even then, but you knew Carrie had to make sacrifices to buy those $500 shoes.

Besides, if I had a dollar for every time I’ve seen a movie grind to a halt while a pretty woman went on a shopping spree, I’d have enough to buy one of those big diamond bracelets myself, so I can take a certain amount of that in stride. At least the women in SATC usually bought their own stuff, and getting and spending wasn’t the whole focus of their lives. But as they’ve have gotten richer, their conspicuous consumption has gotten downright disgusting. The camera in the SATC movies is forever ogling clothes and real estate with nosebleed-high price tags. The main object of desire in SATC2 is their tacky $22,000-a-night Abu Dhabi hotel suite, complete with a separate butler for each one. As Matt Zoller Seitz put it, “Ladies and gentlemen, this is why they hate us.”

That and what Wajahat Ali in Salon called the movie’s “stunning Muslim clichés” and its minstrel-like approach to gay male culture, which some gay men find offensive. But the movie’s worst sin, in my eyes, is how badly it treats its main characters and how their strident insistence on self-empowerment can turn even a girl-power advocate like me into a skeptic.

Sarah Jessica Parker used to radiate a warmth and vulnerability that made Carrie endearing even when she was spouting fortune-cookie aphorisms in her sophomoric voiceovers. She may not have been as deep as she thought she was, but she was being true to herself. Now Carrie seems neurotic, nagging her husband of two years, the callow Big (Chris Noth) to get off the couch and go out with her for fear of turning into a boring married couple. And Samantha is a boor and a bore, the aggressive sexuality that used to seem bold now more of a tiresome obsession. Her fixation on her own vagina makes her so culturally insensitive that I couldn’t root for either side when the movie pitted her against the kind of Middle Eastern men who hate sexually assertive women.

Carrie and her girlfriends used to wrestle with real problems, like whether to have kids or how to balance your job with the rest of your life. It was important stuff and they took a while to figure it out, hurting themselves or people they loved in the process. The movies assign each woman one problem, which is neatly resolved by the final credits.

Much as I hate to judge a woman for her physical appearance, ignoring how the SATC women look would be like failing to notice the violence in the Saw movies. So it must be said that Samantha is dressing too young and looking desperate as a result, as people try to tell her in a gruesome sequence that starts in some high-end store and winds up on the red carpet with Miley Cyrus. And Carrie, who kept her girlish charm for so long, is also starting to show her age. Not that there's anything wrong with that, or that she isn't still gorgeous, but her flouncy skirts and flowing curls look a little out of place on her ropy frame and leathery face. The camera’s penchant for crotch shots and an unironic use of slow motion as people walk toward the camera also feel old.

When a book of Carrie’s gets a nasty review in SATC2 her friends spin the news, assuring her that the reviewer was threatened by a strong female voice. Their support would be touching if they weren’t so wrong. It’s past time for their old friend to come up with a new shtick.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

A Movie a Day, Day 14: The Father of My Children

I couldn't get to my aunt and uncle's place on Long Island and to a movie theater yesterday, so my husband and I checked out the movies on demand on TV. There were lots of good options, including The Father of My Children, which I'd just added to my wanna-see list (it opened here on Friday). At just $6 for the two of us, seeing this one on TV wasn't just convenient, it was a welcome break from the $12.50 or $13 apiece that you have to pay these days at most New York theaters.

What we saw was an elegantly made French film that pulled me in with deceptive ease. Like Things We Lost in the Fire, The Father of My Children is about a beautiful, happy family that seems unusually blessed until they lose their father and husband and have to learn to cope without him. But where Things We Lost in the Fire was off-puttingly histrionic, The Father of My Children is deeply affecting without ever being showy about its emotions.

It's also the movie equivalent of a roman à clef for indie film lovers, a behind-the-scenes look at the difficulties of making and marketing arty movies studded with thinly disguised versions of real filmmakers. Even the father of the title, Grégoire Canvell (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing), is based on a real person, a producer who was about to make writer-director Mia Hansen-Løve's first movie when he died unexpectedly. Being able to play the inside-baseball game of guessing who's who may add another layer of enjoyment for people who are into that kind of thing, but it's hardly the main attraction. The Father of My Children is about everyday truths: the comfort and joy a happy family bestows on its members, the pain of losing a cherished parent or mate, how people cope with the death of a loved one, and the importance of accepting the worst and enjoying the best that life brings you.

Grégoire is a good-looking, vital young-middle-aged man with a lot to live for. Constantly on the move and on the phone, he's working even when he's supposed to be on vacation. He's got a million little worries: a prickly Swedish prima donna who's going way over budget, a celebrated Korean director and entourage who require the royal treatment, and a moody actor who's giving his cheery director agitas. But one big worry overshadows all the others: the mountain of debt that threatens to crush his business.

Grégoire's family is his only refuge, but what a refuge it is. His house is light-flooded and warm, open and welcoming. Talking to his adoring wife, Sylvia (Chiara Caselli), playing with his three daughters, or taking his family to beautiful old places and telling them stories about what happened there, he drops his guard, sometimes looking almost like one of the kids.

The Paris of this beautifully photographed movie is the city of our collective imagination, full of light and effortlessly chic women with golden skin. Even Grégoire's low-rent office is an object of desire, housed in a majestic old building with picturesquely flaking paint and spiral staircases.

By the time Grégoire dies, we feel the weight of his loss—not only his family's sorrow at losing him, but our own sadness for all that he's missing. Hansen-Løve could have ended there and had a good movie, but she's just halfway through, and her story keeps going deeper.

Plenty happens next, including Sylvia's struggles to keep the production company alive and the secret eldest daughter Clémence (Alice de Lencquesaing) uncovers, which her parents had been keeping from her. Clémence also has a brief affair with a young filmmaker her father was planning to produce, which may be, you sense, another way of keeping her father's memory alive. These moments are all played out with the same understated naturalism as what came before, but we don't need a lot of drama to understand their significance. It's as if Hansen-Løve brought us far enough into the life of this family in the first half of the movie to let us see what comes next the way we see our own families, our antennae tuned to the most delicate of emotional vibrations.

Of course, a lot of the credit for this emotional immersion goes to the actors. I was particularly impressed by Alice de Lencquesaing, a young actress of great subtlety and range. Louis-Do de Lencquesaing's daughter in real life, she also stood out in an excellent cast in Summer Hours.

The title of The Father of My Children is a little misleading. The story is told from the omniscient point of view, and it doesn't focus any more on Sylvia than it does on Grégoire or Clémence. But the name does signal one of the most important things about this movie: It understands the importance of family life. Maybe it also helps direct our attention to Sylvia, whose graceful way of dealing with her children's grief as well as her own as she tackles the business problems that defeated her husband is quietly heroic.

Self-controlled but suffused with feeling, The Father of My Children is a grownup love letter to life. By the time Doris Day's "Que Sera" plays over the end credits, you're primed to hang on every word.

Written for The House Next Door

Saturday, May 29, 2010

A Movie a Day, Day 13: George Romero's Survival of the Dead

I've always had a weak spot for zombie movies, which give me permission to wallow in guilt-free survival fantasies. I mean, how bad can it be to kill somebody who's already dead, especially when their whole purpose in un-life is to snack on your brains?

Like a lot of people, I'm particularly fond of George Romero's zombie movies. I like their lightly scruffy, homemade feel. I like how they're always set in or near the blue-collar town of Pittsburgh, Romero's home base for most of his adult life, and how their heroes are generally can-do types, working-class or middle-class people used to relying on themselves—just the kind of folks you want to hang out with during a zombie invasion. But most of all, I like the way Romero uses his zombie movies to say something about the cultural soup we're all simmering in.

Romero has always made his zombie movies more for money than for love, so they're a little hit and miss. Diary of the Dead felt dashed off and didactic, one good idea stretched way too thin. Three years before that, Romero came up with what may have been his best zombie movie of all, the ferocious Bush-era satire Land of the Dead.

I say "may have been" because I can't always trust my memory of his movies, which often resonate so deeply with me that it takes a while to see their flaws. A few years ago, I re-watched Dawn of the Dead, which I'd loved on its release, and was surprised to see how bad it was, though the images of zombies stumbling through a shopping mall still struck me as a pretty great satirical comment on consumerism run amok. And though I always like Night of the Living Dead when I watch it, I can't recreate the thrill of my first encounter: the raw scariness of my first sight of zombies lumbering out of the woods to grab for people running through a graveyard or cowering in a boarded-up house; the satisfaction that the African-American friend I saw it with got from seeing a black hero, still a rare thing at the time; and the resonance of its Vietnam-era vibe of things falling apart and fascistic authority figures who just made things worse. That point of view wasn't uncommon in movies at the time, but I don't remember ever having seen it in a horror movie.

My first reaction to Survival of the Dead was to like but not love it. The imagery is not as intense as some of what Romero has done (the zombies living underwater here, for example, aren't nearly as creepy as the ones who rose up out of the river in Land of the Dead to storm the gated city.) Still, Survival of the Dead has me thinking the next morning—always a sign of a good movie. But I'm wondering whether I'd like it more if Romero weren't challenging my beliefs this time around, instead of reinforcing them as he usually does. Being challenged can be a good thing, of course, but I brushed off the film's warnings (about needing to make peace with our zombie brothers) like so many pesky flies until I got home and started thinking about it.

The zombies in Survival of the Dead aren't the main problem: we are. Specifically, the human tendency to start wars that just won't end, and demonizing the enemy to excuse the killing. Once again, Romero has zoomed in on one of the biggest issues of the moment, but he put enough of a twist on it to get past my knee-jerk reaction and make me question my own prejudices a bit. The heads of two old Irish clans on an island that's belonged solely to the two families for generations, Patrick O'Flynn (Kenneth Welsh) and Seamus Muldoon (Richard Fitzpatrick) have always kept their distance from each other. When the zombie plague comes to the island, that distance erupts into a full-fledged feud as they part ways on how to deal with the dead: O'Flynn wants to shoot them all in the head so they're dead for good and can't transmit the virus to the living; Muldoon wants to keep them locked up so they can't do any harm while he tries to find a way to get them to eat other animals and leave people alone.

Like the captive zombies in Day of the Dead and Land of the Dead, the zombies in this installment are more victims than victimizers. They can still be pretty scary when they show up in droves, but one at a time, they annoy people more than they terrify them. The living kill them casually, almost cockily, like soldiers too long at a war. But Muldoon doesn't see zombies as alien creatures. He sees them as part of the clan he's pledged to protect—a pledge that doesn't end with death.

Survival of the Dead sets you up to sympathize with O'Flynn and hate Muldoon, siding with the interests of your own kind in this fight for survival. But it keeps pushing that prejudice to the surface and prodding at it, so you can't just settle complacently into your seat to cheer on your team.

Romero's zombie movies have been doing something quietly subversive for a while. Even as he finds inventive new ways to blow the creatures away, he challenges the impulse that makes us want to see them slaughtered, in much the way that James Whale's Frankenstein movies made us empathize with the monster.

Damn, George. Are you trying to tell me I can't demonize anybody?

Written for The House Next Door

Friday, May 28, 2010

A Movie a Day, Day 12: Metropolis

The newly restored print of Metropolis, Fritz Lang's gorgeous, disturbing, and sometimes absurd silent masterpiece, is a revelation. (It's due out on DVD and Blu-ray later this year.) Part Romeo-and-Juliet love story and part science fiction, it's also about class warfare, alienation, and exploitation in the capitalist Machine Age — but that's the muddled part of the story.

It's hardly one of my favorite movies, yet its iconic, beautifully composed images, and almost laughably intense expressionistic acting suck me in every time I come across it on late-night TV. The plot and message strike me as incoherent and fascistic, but maybe its lack of clarity is part of its power, since it leaves the movie open to interpretation. There are people who find it profound.

Metropolis is a huge city created and ruled by one man, Joh Fredersen (played by Alfred Abel, whose restrained, naturalistic performance sits like a rock in the middle of a fast-flowing river of emoting). Fredersen is a grim control freak, but his son, Freder (Gustav Fröhlich), is a softie, an idealist who wants to befriend the workers who live and toil in a whole separate underground city beneath the glamorous one where the ruling class lives. When Freder catches a glimpse of Maria (Brigitte Helm), a demure blond goddess from the workers' world who has emerged for a moment into his, he's a goner. Like Theseus and his friend in pursuit of Persephone, he runs after Maria and gets all tangled up, trying to protect Maria as she's threatened by personal vendettas and political upheaval.

Like an Ayn Rand novel, Metropolis is too enthralled by its own symbolism and big ideas to pay attention to trifles like character development or logic. Fredersen and the other autocrats who rule the city, we're told, are its head, and the workers who keep it alive are the hands. The gulf between the workers and the overlords seems unbridgeable, so Maria, a kind of secular saint who preaches to the workers in an underground cave, calls for mediation. In title cards that are studded with exclamation points and often in all caps, she declares: "The mediator between brain and hands must be the heart!" (Huh?)

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Rotwang the wild-haired inventor, the granddaddy of all mad movie scientists and a sworn enemy to Freder's father, creates a robot woman who looks just like Maria. He sends her out to mislead the workers, inciting them to bring down the city. There are also a lot of muddled Christian references, including more than one warning of the coming Apocalypse, and an ambivalent message about machines, which are seen as both taking and saving the workers' lives. The view of the workers is muddled too: Sometimes idealized as brothers or sentimentalized as helpless victims of oppression, they're ultimately portrayed as mindless and childlike, pathetically easy to turn into a bloodthirsty mob.

The streets of this great city feel oddly dead and deserted, since you never see people going about their daily business. But then, daily life does not interest the filmmakers. The organism that fascinates them is the city itself, and that is presented in God's-eye view shots that must have been thrilling when the film debuted. The new version revives these images so completely that you almost feel as if you were watching parts of the movie live. In a few spots the image is obscured by those streaks that can make an old film look as if it were shot through a heavy rainfall (these may be part of the 25 minutes or so of new material, since the print these came from was badly damaged), but most of the footage is stunningly clear, free of the cloudiness, flickering, scratches, and tints that often make old movies look old. It's as if Metropolis were restored from past to present tense. The original orchestral soundtrack has also been restored and provides an aptly bombastic background.

Some of the new content fleshes out the story, adding back subplots that had been lopped off. Some add detail and drama to scenes that were shortened. And some lengthen reaction shots, restoring the film to the slower rhythms of its pre-ADHD era (it was released in 1927). The new footage was part of a 16mm copy of the original director's cut discovered two years ago at the Museo del Cine in Buenos Aires. It was digitally restored and integrated into a meticulous earlier restoration of the film, creating something close to a brand new director's cut. (This article by Glenn Erickson provides some interesting details.)

This movie has been copied so much in the past 80 years or so that many of its images feel as if they've always been part of our DNA. Majestic aerial shots of a forest of high-rises bisected by elevated highways and train tracks so high up that they cross paths with biplanes and blimps reminded me of Blade Runner and The Fifth Element, but you may have an entirely different set of equally apt references. The workers so welded to their machines that they moved like mechanical parts, in a terrible/beautiful mechanized dance, were echoed in Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times and who knows how many other movies. The transference of Maria's essence to Rotwang's robot in a room filled with bubbling, steaming, lighting-up machinery and crisscrossed by miniature lightning bolts and the mob that chases Maria bring to mind all those Frankenstein movies, and aerial shots of mobs flowing in mesmerizing patterns rhyme with Busby Berkeley's high-camp choreography of showgirls. And so on…and on. (Matt Zoller Seitz put together a slide show of references over at Salon, if you want to see more.)

Some of the visuals in Metropolis resonate strongly with current events, like the way the false Maria uses sex to distract and divide the masses so she can impose her creator's will, or the waters that pour into Metropolis's underground, flooding the area where the poor people lived. Others are stained, maybe permanently, by historical events that were still in the future when the film was released. I couldn't stop thinking, while watching all those scenes of mobs mesmerized by a crazed sociopath, that they were shot in Germany less than a decade before Hitler's rise to power. In fact, Lang's wife, who wrote the screenplay for Metropolis (the couple developed the story together), became a fanatic Nazi in 1933. The Nazis loved the movie too, which doesn't surprise me: Its unclear but urgent message, overheated emotions, and stirring visuals are as good a recipe as any for the fascist propaganda that played such a big part in Hitler's rise. (On a side note, I wouldn't be surprised if the Nazi connection were the reason this print was discovered in Buenos Aires, since Argentina sheltered so many Nazis after the war.)

But Metropolis outlasted the Nazis, so it can no longer be bent to their will. With this new print in circulation, it should last a lot longer, its meaning open to interpretation by generations to come. I have a feeling it won't ever stop feeling surprisingly relevant.

Written for The House Next Door

Thursday, May 27, 2010

A Movie a Day, Day 11: Men Behaving Badly - Solitary Man and Greenberg

In these confessional, porn-saturated days, it's getting harder for fictional characters to do something so outrageous that we can't empathize with them. One of the biggest risks left for a filmmaker to take is to focus on a main character who is so narcissistic he hurts everyone he gets close to—particularly the women who love him. Both of the movies I saw yesterday, Greenberg and Solitary Man, take on that challenge, and I wanted to see if they could win my sympathy for their Hurricane Harry main characters.

It's always been tough for women to get by with that sort of thing in the movies. From the evil daughter in Mildred Pierce to the bad mom in White Oleander, selfish women tend to get their comeuppance on screen. Even in film noir, where bad girls behave very badly and get away with it, we don't usually like the femmes fatale, though it's obvious why the hapless heroes fall for them.

The movies have a long, rich tradition of celebrating male leads who act like jerks, men who are adored in spite of—maybe even because of—their near-sociopathic callousness toward women and other living creatures. Like Bond, James Bond, for example. But that may be changing. The male self-pity of The Wrestler, which asks you to cry for its main character even as he strews pain in his wake like Hansel and Gretel laying down bread crumbs, felt a little retro to me. More typical of recent movies is the psychological approach taken by Crazy Heart and Roger Dodger. Rather than unquestioningly adopting their bad boys' point of view, the people behind these movies look at their pain-dispensing protagonists with a nearly objective eye. They also ask us to identify with the people their protagonists victimize, wanting what's best for them even when that means breaking free from our dysfunctional heroes.

Jesse Eisenberg, one of those appealingly non-macho young actors who seem to be everywhere these days, is making a career of playing the anti-Bond in character studies of men behaving badly. In Roger Dodger he played a young man who starts out idolizing his uncle Roger, a smooth-talking ladies' man who takes it upon himself to teach the boy the ropes. But the kid, who has scruples and sensitivities the older man ditched long ago, winds up schooling his uncle -- and seeing him for the damaged goods he really is. Eisenberg played similar roles in Zombieland and Adventureland, and now in Solitary Man.

Ben Kalmen (Michael Douglas), Solitary Man's aging alpha dog, is a car salesman clinging to the far side of middle age who has betrayed everyone who ever counted on him. Still full of pizzazz and gorgeous in the right light (though he can look pretty rough in the morning), Ben is a serial, maybe even compulsive, womanizer. He doesn't seem to get much joy from his conquests (or from anything else), but his fast talk and size-'em-up stare make him fun to watch in action (his specialty is summing people up when he first meets them, like a psychic who's worth the 10 bucks).

A born salesman, Ben is always pulling people close, but he never lets them in, pushing them away with flashes of cold fury or contempt if he doesn't lose them through indifference and neglect. True to its title, the movie often shows him on his own, usually caught in a wide shot that exaggerates his solitude as he strides through a landscape or stops for a rare moment of introspection.

It's when he's alone that we see him most clearly. Douglas drops the macho swagger he usually wears like a trenchcoat—a swagger this character probably shared when he was younger—to do something subtler and a lot more interesting. Ben acts like a master of the universe, and years of practice have made him very good at it. But the way Douglas barrels down a hallway toward a man who he knows will probably reject his pitch, the panic that flares up now and then in his eyes, and the weariness in his face when he's in private clue us in on the effort it takes Ben to pull off that act.

Even so, I don't think I would have cared about this slick operator if his ex-wife (played by Susan Sarandon and her lushly displayed breasts, in full earth-mother mode), daughter (Office sweetheart Jenna Fischer), and old friend Jimmy (Danny DeVito) weren't so loyal to him. Having felt the pain he's inflicted on them, you figure there has to be some pretty powerful good in Ben to make them love him still.

Greenberg asks for our sympathy for the victims of its train-wreck title character right from the start. Instead of opening on Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller), it starts with Florence (Greta Gerwig), the lovely young woman Greenberg takes up with and then treats abominably. When Randy the Ram mistreated Marisa Tomei's saintly stripper in The Wrestler, we were supposed to root for them to get together anyhow, but Greenberg's writer-director Noah Baumbach makes you want to shout at Florence, like the minstrel in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, "Run away! Run away!" And yet, as in Solitary Man, we need Florence to stay if the movie is to work, since her faith in Greenberg is one of the few things that keeps us from giving up on him.

Greenberg is a hollow, panicked man who has no idea what to do with himself (he's visually paired—twice, in case we missed it the first time—with one of those windsock men that flutter and bend with the breeze). He shows up in his hometown of Los Angeles, after a long absence, to look after his brother's house while the brother and his family are on vacation.

No sooner has Greenberg hooked up with Florence and an old friend from his past, Ivan (a kind and careworn Rhys Ifans), than he starts to abuse them both, and he barely seems aware of, let along sorry for, his own cruelty and selfishness. Stiller, whose résumé includes a whole gallery of neurotic jerks, makes Greenberg into a hedgehog of a man: a stiff, defensive mass of nervous tics and temper tantrums. There are just enough hints of humanity—his growing attachment to his brother's dog, moments where he shows us the vulnerability Florence sees from the start—to make him bearable. And then there's the love that Florence and Ivan continue to feel for him. "Hurt people hurt people," Florence murmurs to explain Greenberg's bad behavior. That could serve as the tagline for this movie—and for Solitary Man.

Greenberg's neatly constructed plot is intentionally undramatic, flowing from one slice-of-life incident to the next. Greenberg, who can't drive, enlists Florence to help him take the dog to the vet. Greenberg goes out at night to hear Florence sing at a near-empty bar, where he stares at her hungrily but can't join her and her friends afterward. Greenberg's friend takes him out for a lonely birthday dinner, which livens up when he invites Florence on impulse. And so on, up until the cathartic not-quite-apology and explanation Greenberg delivers.

Ben made the same kind of speech at the end of Solitary Man. Both of these clear-eyed character studies stop short of a happily-ever-after ending for their flawed protagonists, who seem perfectly capable of screwing things up again. But they made me empathize enough to move them from my mental reject pile to the maybes.

Written for The House Next Door.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A Movie a Day, Day Ten: Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo

Is Jessica Oreck, the writer-director of Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo, trying to make a point about how modern life has alienated us from nature? Or did she and her editor just choose the wrong images to document her story? Either way, I've never seen a documentary with a bigger disconnect between voiceover and visuals.

Oreck's poetry-laced voiceover copy (it's read in Japanese and translated in subtitles) outlines traditional Japanese beliefs regarding the sanctity of all living things. The narrator reads with girlish glee, undercutting the seriousness of Oreck's attempt to equate those traditions with a longstanding Japanese craze for capturing and keeping insects. The laugh in the narrator's voice is about the only hint of humor in this movie other than the incongruous title, which feels like a leftover from a very different early cut.

Beetle Queen is an intermittently interesting primer on Japanese culture for those of us who don't know much about it. It provides a gloss on Shinto, "the belief that everything in nature — trees, mountains, animals — all have spirits," and mano no aware, the philosophy that beauty is found in the transience of life and "the gentle sadness felt as it fades." It also draws thoughtful parallels between the traditional practices of haiku, bonsai, and creating Zen gardens, noting that all three involve the creations of miniature worlds that function as "representations of the universe, scaled down for everyday contemplation."

Philosopher Takeshi Yoro, a sage and likeable presence, also provides context, first in voiceover and then as a talking head. His observations about the role of insects in Japanese life tend to be more oblique than Oreck's, but they often go deeper. Insects aren't teachers, he notes, so they won't teach you anything unless you pay attention. But if you look and listen closely and keep an open mind, you can learn a lot from them.

I suspect he's right, but you'd never know from watching this movie. Virtually everything Oreck shows us about the relationship between Japanese people and insects, from videos games to coin-operated dispensing machines and stores devoted to selling devices to capture and preserve insects, reveals how people treat insects like things to be acquired, not living beings to be respected. The narrators' statements about reverence for nature play over footage of things like a little boy chunking several big-horned beetles into a small plastic box and laughing happily when they start to fight, or a man who hauls out a shadow box full of dead butterflies only to talk about how each reminds him of the moment when he caught it. We hear about how Japanese people identify certain types of insects with certain human traits.

Interspersed with these scenes are shots of life in the big city, many of them aerial views to emphasize the masses of people moving across vast public spaces. Seemingly taken at random, these fleeting scenes generally lack subtitles, title cards, or any other explanation of what we are seeing, which makes it hard to figure out their purpose and easy to watch them purely as exotic window dressing. It's particularly frustrating to watch traditional ceremonies without being told what, if anything, they have to do with insects.

Capricious editing confuses things further. I get that the sock-clad foot an unseen passenger keeps jiggling on a train is moving kind of like a butterfly that's about to start fighting its way out of a chrysalis, but what purpose is served by cross-cutting so many times between the two? And what was the purpose of a handful of near-psychedelic montages of lights and such, some of which are so abstracted you don't know what you're looking at, let alone why? My guess is that they were intended to show that manmade environments can be as beautiful as nature, but whatever the intent, they did nothing for me.

There are a few fascinating close-ups of captive insects, including that butterfly emerging from its chrysalis, but we rarely get to see the bugs in their natural habitats, so we're limited to admiring their shapes and colors as they perch on someone's hand or scrabble about, trapped in Plexiglass. The filmmakers' attempts to capture the natural beauty that is so often discussed mostly fall flat, aside from a beautiful shot of a waterfall and the artfully landscaped, fog-shrouded field at its base.

The voiceover never stops trying to convince us that the people anthropomorphizing and chloroforming these insects are doing it out of love and respect, but I remain unconvinced. Maybe Oreck, who's a docent at New York's American Museum of Natural History, has more tolerance for this sort of thing than I do because the animals at the museum where she works are mostly dead, hunted down years ago so we humans could admire them in their lifelike tableaux. Personally, I just felt sorry for the poor six-legged suckers in Beetle Queen, who seem so defenseless against us even when they're armed with fierce-looking pincers and horns.

If only one of the insect-obsessed people in this movie would create a miniature camera insects could wear as they get captured and held hostage. Now that would be a documentary I'd like to see.

Written for The House Next Door

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Documentary Comes to Harlem: The Maysles Cinema

Gentrification puts its best foot forward in a storefront just north of 125th Street in Harlem. The welcoming space houses a three-part business headed by documentary pioneer Albert Maysles (Grey Gardens, Salesman, Gimme Shelter.)

At Maysles Films, the film production arm, Maysles, his directing partner Bradley Kaplan, and their production team make documentaries as well as ads and other commissioned projects to help pay the bills. (Their latest doc, Muhammad and Larry, was part of ESPN's 30 for 30 series.) The educational branch of the operation, which includes after-school programs, a summer intensive, and a new class for adults, teaches people from the neighborhood—mostly middle school and high school students from Harlem and the Bronx—how to make their own films. And the Maysles Cinema screens a rich lineup of documentaries and a smattering of realistic narrative features, many of them tied directly to the life or history of the neighborhood.

The cinema's screenings illustrate what its mission statement describes as "the Maysles Brothers' principle that the lives of ordinary people not only deserve, but demand, our attention." Each is followed by a discussion between the audience and people who were somehow involved with the film, usually as filmmakers or subjects.

The business was started when Al Mayles and his wife, Gillian, moved from the Upper West Side to Harlem five years ago. "After seeing a screening at the old Pioneer theater, they thought they'd contribute to their new neighborhood. It was really my mother who came up with the idea of starting a small movie theater," says their son Philip, now the co-programmer of the cinema in collaboration with Jessica Green, the former editor of Stress magazine.

Two of the couple's three daughters also work there, both as volunteers. Facilities Manager Rebekah Maysles manages the space; Sara is new media director. The small staff also includes Development Director Jason Fox and Education Director Vee Bravo.

True to the collaborative spirit that animates the cinema, the staff take turns fielding interview requests. I talked to Philip Maysles and Bravo at the cinema on a recent Friday afternoon. Read the interview on The House Next Door, Slant Magazine's blog.

A Movie a Day, Day Nine: Micmacs

If Terry Gilliam and Charlie Chaplin had had a love child in France, he might have grown up to be Jean-Pierre Jeunet. The director's latest film, Micmacs, is another Gilliamesque mishmash of complicated but retro gadgets, stylized environments, sight gags, and fey little stories-within-stories, all acted in an exaggerated style that hasn't been seen — or missed — much since the silent era.

I liked that combination in Amélie, a piquant little piece about making the most of your life, and I loved it in A Very Long Engagement, where the antic tone was leavened by the gravity of the war scenes and the emotional heft of the love story. But it doesn't do it for me in Micmacs, a clunkily connected series of whimsical set pieces intended to convey a serious anti-warmongering message.

It starts well. A beautifully executed montage introduces our hero, Bazil (Dany Boon), without a word. Here and throughout the film, artfully orchestrated sounds do a lot to establish context and convey meaning, as Jeunet and his crew play with the full box of tools available to them like an overgrown Talented and Gifted class. After an accident loses him his job and leaves him homeless, Bazil befriends a cheerily communal band of losers and loners who live under an overpass, in a cave-like dwelling made of scrap metal. As soon as they learn that Bazil is out to take revenge on a pair of arms dealers (one of the dealers manufactured a landmine that killed his father, and the other made a bullet that almost killed him), they're in. And we're off, heading for a series of elaborate set pieces as the motley misfits outsmart the bad guys.

In the press notes, Jeunet says he based Bazil's friends on the characters in Toy Story, giving each "a character trait, something distinctive that serves the story." Of course, Toy Story is hardly the only movie to employ that action-movie cliché of the band of brothers (and occasional sisters) with one essential quirk apiece, but the comparison seems apt, since these characters feel a little like action figures.

Jeunet directs his actors to hit their lines and work their faces hard. That sits better on some than others, getting tiresome fast in the contortionist (Julie Ferrier) who falls for Bazil. Ferrier is near 40 and looks it, so it's a little grotesque to see her act like a tomboy tween in the throes of her first big crush, picking puerile fights with Bazil just to get his attention. The bad guys are too comically exaggerated to feel truly evil. Bad in every way (they torment their employees, and they're nasty to their own kin), they too have one quirk apiece.

Jeunet says in the press notes that he got interested in doing something about war profiteers after frequenting a restaurant where some of the other regulars were arms dealers. They had, he notes, "nice-looking faces." This might have been a more interesting movie if he could have gotten some of that shading into his characters.

But Micmacs is not in the subtlety business. This is the kind of movie where homemade stand for integrity; mint-condition signifies soullessness; and just about any trick good enough to be used once is good enough to be repeated.

Bazil's light touch, mournful but sympathetic face, and periodic sampling of various acting styles make him appealing and keep his character, who is only slightly more developed than the others, from losing our interest. But the best part of Micmacs is its elaborate sets and moody cinematography—and those brilliant sound effects, of course. After a while, I stopped caring what happened next and started just admiring the effects, like a kid sneaking off to explore the stuff backstage while the play meanders on without her.

Written for The House Next Door.

Monday, May 24, 2010

A Movie a Day, Day Eight: Babies

The first time I saw the trailer for Babies, I thought it looked like the perfect high-concept doc: Pick four picturesque and far-flung parts of the world and film one baby in each for a year. Who could resist that? I thought. Well, apparently the answer is: me.

Not that I hated the movie. Who could hate all those adorably intense little people? But it started feeling redundant long before it ended—and it's only 80 minutes long. Here's my review of it for TimeOFF.


Mommy had a little baby.
There he is, fast asleep.
He's just a little plaything.
Why not wake him up?
Cute, cute little baby.
Little pee-pee, little toes.
Now he's comin' to me.
Crawl across the kitchen floor.

--Talking Heads, Stay Up Late

Babies is a Benetton ad come to life, an impeccably art-directed vision of a multicultural utopia. It was sweet enough to keep me entertained for a while, appealing to that baby love the Talking Heads were singing about, but the charm wears off before the end credits roll.

The concept couldn’t be simpler: The movie follows four babies from birth to age one, capturing highlights of their lives. There’s no narration, talking heads, or subtitles; just a series of intimate moments captured by a small crew that spent a long time with each family, enough that the babies took the camera for granted, though the grown-ups sometimes struggle to avoid looking into it.

The four live in very different cultures – Mari in ur-urban Tokyo, Hattie in beatific San Francisco, Bayar in a yurt on the Mongolian steppe, and Ponijao in a small village in the Namibian desert. The filmmakers like to stress the differences in child-rearing habits between cultures, lingering on the Mongolian nurse tying newborn Bayar into a tight swaddle or Ponijao’s mother teaching her toddler daughter how to balance a cup on her head while walking. But in the end, all four baby girls live in the same, Disney-esque world, a loving, laid-back place where the sun always shines but it’s never too hot and it never rains, where grown-ups are always kind and reasonable and kids deeply loved and well cared for.

Loosely structured montages in roughly chronological order highlight some of the basic stages of a baby’s development, from birth to learning to walk. The kids, all pretty adorable and relentlessly intense, make these highlights intermittently engaging or funny. I know you’re not supposed to have favorites, but I found Ponijao and Bayar particularly charismatic, their primal emotions impossible not to identify with.

There are lots of domesticated animals in this movie too. Every one – not just cats and dogs but cattle and goats and chickens too – are impressively tolerant of the babies, even when they’re being banged at, stepped on, or dragged across the floor by a toddler with a makeshift collar and leash.

Adults are often seen as headless collections of body parts or heard as disembodied voices, the way the babies presumably experience them. They’re mostly moms – men are barely visible in most of the segments, though Mari’s father seems to be almost as involved in her upbringing as her mother is.

The babies have a lot more similarities than differences, but it’s kind of interesting to see what other cultures consider appropriate behavior for toddlers and parents. Some of those differences read as shockingly risky in our own increasingly phobic culture: When Ponijao picked up stones and bones from the earth to gum them while her mother sat nearby without comment, the people behind me gasped.

The expansive Mongolian and Namibian settings provide some visual juice. The filmmakers often use majestic panoramics as transition shots, and the African scenery is so gorgeous that my eye sometimes wandered from the babies in the foreground to the soft colors in soft focus behind them. The mothers in Africa often function as scenery too, their soft chitchat and laughter providing a lulling soundtrack to the  beautiful sight of their dark brown faces, gold jewelry, and mud-daubed and decorated braids framed by the taupe earth in the background. The camera is particularly taken with Ponijao’s mother and another young mother, apparently a close friend or relative, whose slightly older child often plays with Ponijao while the two mothers sit and talk.

Babies is probably a good family film: At least half the adults in the theater where I saw it yesterday came with kids under the age of 10. But if you don’t come with a kid, you may find the concept a little too thin. At just 80 minutes, it felt too long to me by half.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

A movie a Day, Day Seven: Looking for Eric

Eric Bishop (Steve Evets), a Manchester postman, is half-beaten by life. With his bent, bony shoulders, scruffy beard, and worried eyes, he’s a “scrawny thing,” as he puts it. It’s as if failure is literally eating away at him. But Looking for Eric is a Ken Loach film, so Eric is no helpless or pitiable pawn. He’s a fully realized character, and his working class background has endowed him with strengths as well as burdens.

A single parent to two teenage stepsons who treat him as if he were invisible, Eric is deeply ashamed of himself for having left his first wife and infant daughter, who he still adores, for reasons that remain a mystery to him 30 years later. He can’t even let loose any more at the Manchester United soccer games he and his mates used to go to, the one place where they could feel free (soccer tickets in Britain, like baseball tickets here, have gotten too pricey for working men).

Aside from his own good heart, Eric has just one thing going for him, but that turns out to be all he needs: Those mates, a burly bunch of aging lads, have had his back since he was a boy and would no sooner abandon him than they would root for another team.

After an exercise in boosting self-esteem organized by one of his lads, who's into self-help, Eric starts to conjure up the role model he chose, who appears like Bogey in Play It Again, Sam, listening gravely to Eric and giving him private lessons on how to dig himself out of his hole. Eric Cantona, a former Manchester United star known as much for his sometimes cryptic pronouncements as for his brilliant moves on the soccer field, plays himself here, bringing gravity and a touch of self-parody to the role. His exchanges with Evets are charming, shifting from daffy to dense and back again.

It may take a little while to get used to the Manchester dialects, which are thick as a milkshake, and Loach and his cinematographer and set designer make us peer through a lot of dingy lighting and cluttered environments to find our man. For the first half or so of the film, we see Eric only in long or medium shots, dimly lit or with his face half obscured. Not until about halfway through, when he's starting to emerge from the fog he's been living in, do we get a good close-up, and then the sweetness and light in his bony face, with its bad English teeth and furrowed brow lines, comes as a minor revelation.

Just as they build our sympathy for Eric, Loach and his longtime screenwriter Paul Laverty introduce conflict and tension nicely after a perhaps too talky beginning. Aside from one dinner party at Eric's house that has to shoulder more dramatic weight than any one occasion should be asked to handle, the drama emerges organically from the naturalistic setting.

Eric's love for his first wife, Lily (a lovely Stephanie Bishop), his relationship with his lads, and his journey from defeat to a renewed sense of self-worth are all moving, but my favorite part of this story was its thoroughly original and good-natured twist on the classic revenge tale.

Another new movie from England, the much more loudly hyped Harry Brown, is currently showcasing the standard approach to vigilante stories: A lone avenger goes on a bloody crusade to wipe out a plague of amped-up bad guys who threaten to stamp out civilization as we know it.
Looking for Eric offers a refreshingly realistic, sometimes even lighthearted alternative to that paranoic cliché. The nemesis this time is Zac (Steve Marsh), a sociopathic drug dealer who lures in Eric's son Ryan (Gerard Kearns) with parties and seats in his box at the soccer games, only to use him as an unwilling accomplice. When Eric finds out what's going on, he tries to free Ryan from his entanglement, which turns out to take plenty of cunning, creativity, and help from his friends.

Laced through with enough wit and grit to keep its unabashed sentiment from getting gooey, Looking for Eric gives us a life-sized, lovable working-class hero—and a whole new way to fantasize about revenge.

Written for The House Next Door.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

A Movie a Day, Day Six: Mother and Child

The new week’s movie schedule in Friday’s paper triggered the same old frustration: Everyone Else, Teza and The Square all left before I had a chance to see them. I guess I need to watch a lot more than a movie a day just to keep up with the new ones that sound promising.

I did get to Mother and Child, a tasteful tearjerker written and directed by Rodrigo García. García, who’s Gabriel García Marquez’s son, has done some interesting work in cable TV, helping to develop and produce the English-language version of In Treatment for HBO and directing episodes of The Sopranos, Six Feet Under and Big Love, among others.

His films tend to be ensemble affairs as well, cutting between multiple characters whose stories overlap. I’ve only seen two of his features — this one and Nine Lives — but the acting in both is outstanding. Between that and the emotional content of the stories, both movies had me groping for my Kleenex, but the insights and confessions are a facile enough to make the tears feel more coaxed than cathartic. It’s like that old saw about Chinese food: a couple of hours later, you’re hungry for something more substantial.

García makes what used to be known as “women’s pictures,” structuring most of his drama around his female characters’ feelings, frustrations, and secrets. All the parents and children in Mother and Child are female, with the exception of one baby boy who makes the briefest of appearances. In a common thread that soon feels reductive, even a little formulaic, almost every one of these women and girls is defined primarily by her relationship—or lack thereof—with her mother or daughter.

Much of the movie's tension comes from crosscutting between Elizabeth and Karen (Annette Bening), a mother and daughter who were separated when Karen put Elizabeth up for adoption after giving birth at age 14. That was the era of closed adoptions, so they have no idea who or where each other is. That one fact has tragically warped both of their personalities, making Elizabeth a control freak incapable of trust or intimacy and Karen a bedraggled, tight-lipped mope. As she tells Paco (Jimmy Smits), the improbably perfect man who pursues her with even more improbable persistence: "Every idea, every thought in my head takes me back to [her missing daughter] … I have nothing else, that's my life. I have nothing to give."

The other main storyline belongs to Lucy (an immensely sympathetic Kerry Washington), an infertile woman desperate to have a child. We also spend some time with Ray (Shareeka Epps, the fiercely gifted actress who debuted in Half Nelson), an aggressively assertive pregnant teen who's auditioning Lucy as a prospective mother to her son. And of course, we also meet Ray's mother. She's played by Lisa Gay Hamilton, who radiates her usual sanity, strength and good humor in her few brief scenes.

Actresses of that caliber keep showing up. The great Cherry Jones plays a nurturing nun who's pretty much the polar opposite of the grim reaper she embodied in Doubt on Broadway. S. Epatha Merkerson is Lucy's sharp-tongued but supportive mother, and Amy Brenneman makes a poignant impression as a gynecologist. Elizabeth Peña is the shrewdly competent boss who hires Elizabeth after she runs away from her last job.

Watching these thoroughbreds go through their paces is enough to make this movie worth seeing, but I wish they had a better track to run on.

Written for The House Next Door.

Friday, May 21, 2010

A Movie a Day, Day Five: Welcome

You can tell you're early in the evolution of a society's acceptance of a minority group when most of its movies about that subculture star people from the dominant culture, focusing on how their eyes are opened or their lives enriched by their contact with someone from the minority. That template fits most of the movies I've seen about the illegal immigrants pouring into the U.S. and Europe these days, and Welcome is no exception. But it's better than most, a modestly scaled movie that's a minor success.

A little too pat and simplistic, Welcome is not nearly as good as Laurent Cantet's emotionally raw and complex The Class or Jacques Audiard's searing A Prophet, but it's a whole lot better than the overpraised The Visitor, which was to illegal immigrants what Gentleman's Agreement was to Jews and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner to African Americans.

The main character in Welcome is Simon Calmat (Mademoiselle Chambon star Vincent Lindon), a sad-eyed former swimming champ who makes a living teaching water aerobics and swimming at a public pool in Calais. In the midst of a divorce from a wife he's still crazy about, Simon has slid pretty deep into a major depression when Bilal (Firat Ayverdi), a bright-eyed Kurdish kid from Iraq, pops up in his pool.

Bilal has emigrated illegally from Iraq to Calais in a difficult and dangerous journey that included a stint on a cargo truck, his head inside a plastic bag so his breathing won't activate the sensors installed to detect the presence of carbon dioxide. He manages to get 4,000 kilometers from home, but his goal is the other side of the English Channel, where the girl he loves has recently moved with her family. He asks Simon to teach him to swim, figuring that's his best shot for getting to England.

Calais has erected a thicket of barriers to discourage illegal immigrants. At first, Simon seems to have done the same, but Bilal breaks down his resistance. Simon sees himself in the boy, identifying first with his athleticism and then with his romanticism. And as the two grow closer, Simon takes more risks to help the boy achieve his dream.

We learn a lot more about Simon's life than we do Bilal's (we never see where Bilal sleeps or get a sense of how he spends his time when he isn't with Simon), but their stories are given almost equal emotional weight. What's more, letting Bilal into his life doesn't magically transform Simon or solve any of his problems, and Simon's help is not enough to help Bilal triumph over all the obstacles piled up in his path. Paired with Lindon's and Ayverdi's emotional transparency and both characters' fundamental decency, that humanistic orientation and relatively realistic story arc give this heartfelt movie some emotional heft. But in the end, what resonates most is the political context in which the filmmakers situate this twist on a father-son melodrama.

To surface the dehumanizing brutality routinely encountered by the political and economic refugees who are flooding the Western world and largely ignored by the rest of us, we hear both from and about cops who arrest immigrants and the people who help them. We also see several examples of a perhaps even more chilling trend: the collusion of private citizens, like the xenophobic neighbor whose welcome mat earns a sardonic look from Simon and gives the movie its title.

All that demonization and repression reanimates the ghost of another evil time in France's not-so-distant past—and our own. As Simon's ex puts it, after trying to stop a supermarket security guard from ejecting a couple of immigrants while Simon and several other customers watched mutely: "You know what banning people from stores means? Want me to buy you a history book?"

Written for The House Next Door.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

A Movie a Day, Day Four: Breathless

While Cannes was all a-Twitter with talk of Jean-Luc Godard's latest feature yesterday, I was at a press screening of his first, soon to be re-released in a restored print for its 50th anniversary. Which was just fine by me since I always love watching Breathless and haven't liked much of what Godard has produced in recent decades.

The film was shockingly new when it was released in 1960: It was the first feature to be shot entirely with a handheld camera and the first to make liberal use of jump cuts, which were then considered sloppy and unprofessional. But Godard needed to edit down his first cut considerably, and rather than lose whole scenes, he chose to highlight just the most dynamic parts of each scene and cut out the rest, creating the sense that characters and objects are jumping from one position to another between shots. Both of those techniques are tiresomely overused now, but the beauty of Breathless is how vital it still feels in spite of that—still crazy after all these years.

In creating his character study of a gangster poet and his reluctant moll, Godard was paying homage to the Hollywood noir and Hollywood-influenced New Wave French directors and actors whose work he was steeped in at the time. He wasn't trying to create a museum piece or an academic deconstruction. He wanted to make a movie movie, something as alive as the genre movies he loved, only fresher and more realistic (his use of handheld camera was an attempt to escape the sterility of the soundstage and make the action feel spontaneous).

He didn't succeed in making it realistic: Part of what makes Breathless engaging is how it never lets us forget that we're watching a movie. But boy, did he ever bring it to life.
Breathless is a fast-running current that draws you in and carries you along with it. This is a movie that moves. Raoul Coutard's camera circles and soars, and Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo), the gangster whose killing of a cop at the start of the film has him on the run, seems to be in perpetual motion.

ichel is amoral, aimless, and probably ADHD. He's a wannabe Bogey, playing at being a gangster and aping a lot of the star's mannerisms, right down to the thumb he keeps using to self-consciously trace his lip. What he doesn't seem to realize is that he's a natural-born star. Belmondo's joli-laide face and his tightly muscled boxer's body are the main landscape and true subject of Breathless.

At one point, Patricia (Jean Seberg), the American girl he takes up with, tells him she has been staring at him for 10 minutes yet knows nothing about him. When she says that she feels as if she needs to keep looking until she figures out what's behind that façade, she seems to be speaking for us. She's definitely speaking for Godard. "This film is really a documentary on Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo," Godard told a Le Monde interviewer.

Like most of Godard's female characters, Patricia is underdeveloped and sometimes improbably passive, less subject than object. But since she's an object of desire for Michel, she has a fair amount of power, and when the camera isn't ogling him, it's generally ogling her. Seberg projects a vulnerable but defiant sense of self that jibes with the jousting dialogue Godard wrote for her character.

Watching this glamorous pair, the prickly pragmatist and the narcissistic romantic, parry and thrust their way through some of the most beautiful parts of Paris is pure cinematic pleasure.

Written for The House Next Door.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

A Movie a Day, Day Three: Mademoiselle Chambon

Yesterday’s movie was a press screening of 12th & Delaware, a quietly horrifying HBO documentary about the campaign to end abortion, but I can’t tell you about that now. 12th & Delaware is the opening selection for the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, so Ed at Slant Magazine's blog, which is hosting this series, wants me to review it early next month, just a few days before it plays there. But rather than give you just that tease of a stub, I thought I’d tell you about another movie I caught at a recent press screening, which will probably be available on DVD in a few months after a very limited release in theaters.

A high-class soap opera about longing and missed chances strictly for and about grown-ups, Mademoiselle Chambon is kin to Eastwood’s The Bridges of Madison County, Ulu Grosbard’s Falling in Love and David Lean’s Brief Encounter, the granddaddy of them all. It starts with a picnicking family of three as the attractive middle-aged parents help their kid do his grammar homework by puzzling out a circular definition in his textbook. It’s a sweet, funny scene, and an economical introduction to the family we’re about to spend time with—and maybe lose.

As it turns out, this is mostly the father’s story. Jean (Vincent Lindon), a macho yet sensitive guy whose blue-jeaned butt the camera keeps ogling, is a Gallic version of the romance-novel ideal Eastwood played in Bridges. He builds houses, takes tender care of his aging father (Jean-Marc Thibault, whose beautiful, craggy face is used to good effect in a couple of scenes), and comes home to a lovely and loving wife (Aure Atika, whose warmth and emotional intelligence gives heft and dignity to an underwritten role). It’s a good life—or so he thinks, until he meets his son’s teacher, Mlle Chambon (Sandrine Kiberlain).

Everything about her, from her pale, freckled skin and sinewy hands to the classical violin he loves to hear her play, speaks to a kind of refinement this blue-collar guy presumably hasn't had much access to, and he longs to peel off her tasteful pastel clothes and immerse himself in it. Writer-director Stéphane Brizé and co-writer Florence Vignon fill this small plot with almost obsessive care, creating a beautifully composed, deeply felt story in which every emotion is given space not just to breathe, but to gulp in lungfuls of air.

The filmmakers sometimes linger too long for my taste, holding a shot for what feels like minutes as one or both of the two moon over their forbidden love. A pervasive melancholy colors almost all the interactions of these two conscientious people, who are too burdened by a guilty awareness of the suffering they would cause if they got together (she is, after all, his kid's teacher) to lose themselves in the joy of their mutual attraction. Though that makes them more sympathetic, it also gives their love affair a sodden and tone that gets downright oppressive at times.

But the look and feel of this delicate meditation on longing is what lingers most. Cinematographer Antoine Héberlé floods most scenes with plangent, golden-hour light, artfully blurring the backgrounds to keep the focus on the would-be lovers. And the chemistry between the two feels painfully real, perhaps because Lindon and Kiberlain were married but separated when they made the film.

The filmmakers find inventive ways to tell us just enough about the main characters' backgrounds, including a presentation he gives to her class about his job and a voice mail message from her mother that she receives as we watch. Body language is filmed with unusual subtlety too. Jean and Mlle Chambon's awkward first kiss is nicely staged, and so is the distance he develops from his wife as he's falling for the teacher. And when he and Mlle Chambon are together, you feel the intimacy of bodies self-consciously sharing a space, avoiding each other with exquisite care because they so long to touch.

Written for The House Next Door.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

A Movie a Day, Day Two: Iron Man 2

I know, I know; I'm late on this one. I liked Iron Man enough to be a little nervous about the sequel, especially after seeing the film's star, Robert Downey Jr., marooned in Sherlock Holmes, which reached for that same mix of cool special effects, kinetic camerawork, clever dialogue, and mildly kinky characters and missed by a mile.

I didn't even plan to see the sequel yesterday. I'd set out to see Everyone Else, but my train got stuck in the station, delayed by an investigation down the line. So I walked upstairs and down the block to another theater, where Iron Man 2 was starting in 15 minutes.

As he did in the original, director Jon Favreau tells a story as streamlined as Tony Stark's Iron Man suit. The premise is set up and the hero (Stark) and nemesis (Ivan Vanko) are introduced before the credits finish rolling. The pace never slackens or bogs down in tangents or tedious exposition, though a couple of the fight scenes feel superfluous or overly familiar.

Mickey Rourke, that ruined mountain of a man, is smartly cast as Vanko, a sociopathic Russian thug with a thing for birds and an unshakeable grudge against Stark. Walking slowly toward Stark on a racetrack, his long graying hair loose on his massive shoulders and electrified metal whips trailing from his arms while racecars upend themselves and burst into flames in his wake, he's the scariest coldblooded killer to come out of Hollywood since Javier Bardem carted that cattle-killing machine through No Country for Old Men.

The years have been good to Stark since we last saw him. Always rock-star rich, now he's rock-star famous for having "successfully privatized peace," as he puts it in a comically bombastic Senate hearing. He even has his own Shepard Fairey-style poster.

As sleek as Vanko is surly, Stark is all cocky confidence and preening self-regard. In the first movie, he wanted to atone for his weapons-proliferating past; now he just wants to burnish his shiny reputation. "I don't care about the liberal agenda any more. It's boring," he tells his assistant turned CEO, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow).

Only Vanko, who's convinced that his own future was stolen when his father's Iron Man blueprint was taken by Stark's father, still wants Stark to pay for "all the lives the Stark family has destroyed." You can't help but root for Stark when he's fighting Vanko or Justin Hammer, a corrupt weapons manufacturer gleefully played by Sam Rockwell, but he's a seriously compromised hero. Vanko isn't so much his nemesis as his evil twin, a bitter reminder of what he could have become with a little less luck—or larceny.

That makes for a pretty chewy comic-book movie, but Iron Man 2 never feels self-important or dense. A little overloaded, maybe, but too much of a good thing is good here, for the most part. I didn't mind the ongoing tease about whether Stark's best friend, a straight-arrow soldier, will become his sidekick, and though I never doubted that Stark would win the race against his own ever-weakening heart, it was kind of fun to see how he did it. And if your interest flags for a moment, there's always something to look at or ponder, like: Whose lips are more pillowy, Rourke's or Scarlett Johansson's?

My mind wandered a lot when Johansson was on the screen, since she made a remarkably unconvincing lawyer-slash-model-slash-martial arts expert. Samuel L. Jackson's phoned-in cameo didn't add much either, and I hated to see the great Don Cheadle wasted in the lame best friend role. But the Iron Man franchise has been great for Paltrow. The actress, who sometimes seems stiff and unsympathetic, almost patrician, in her dramatic roles, comes alive in her prickly, often overlapping exchanges with Downey. It reminded me of what screwball comedies did for Katharine Hepburn, and of how invigorating fast, funny talk is—for audiences as well as for actors.

The trailers for Iron Man 2 stress the superhero suits, the sex, and the showdowns. But it's the smart, snappy dialogue, at least as much as any of those things, that gives this movie its energy.

Written for The House Next Door.

Monday, May 17, 2010

A Movie a Day, Day One

For years, I've reviewed movies on the side while doing something else for a living. I'm not complaining (who wouldn't want to get paid to watch movies?), but it's frustrating not to have time for everything I want to keep up with. I've always got a long list of films playing here in New York that I want to see, and I'm forever triaging that list, ordering some through Netflix and skipping others altogether.

So when my main paying job evaporated this March, one of the first things I thought about was all the movies I'd be able to see. I decided to watch a movie a day, prioritizing new releases playing in first-run theaters; I want to get to everything on my wanna-see list, for a change. I'll also go to press screenings, and I'll watch movies online, on TV, on DVD, at repertory theaters, and at film festivals.

At first I was thinking of this mainly as a way to structure my wide-open days. Then I realized I should write about what I was seeing. This experiment could prove a theory I've had for a while: that there are more good movies available these days than any normal person can keep up with.

If you find that hard to believe, check into my Movie a Day series for the next hundred days at Slant Magazine's blog, The House Next Door, and see what you think of the movies I'm watching. And if you have something to say about one of them, or if I missed a movie you've just seen and loved, please leave a comment and tell me about it.

Meanwhile, here's my TimeOFF review of the first of my movie-a-day movies, Nicole Holofcener's Please Give, which I saw with my husband yesterday.

Please Give

Writer/director Nicole Holofcener grew up on Woody Allen’s sets (her stepfather was his producer), and her movies have a lot in common with his – not the comedies or the deep-dish ones, but the ones, like Hannah and Her Sisters or Crimes and Misdemeanors, that draw a detailed topographic map of their characters’ internal landscapes. Like Woody’s movies, Holofcener’s have a strong autobiographical streak, so her main characters are always women, but her male characters are as strong as his female ones.

Ever since her first feature, 1996’s Walking and Talking, dissected a pair of best friends who were pushing 30, Holofcener, now 50, has chronicled the internal lives of people like herself and her friends. With her latest, Please Give, she enters the sandwich generation, splitting her time pretty equally between a middle-aged couple, Kate (Holofcener muse Catherine Keener) and Alex (Oliver Platt) and the twenty-something sisters, Rebecca (Rebecca Hall) and Mary (Amanda Peet) who care for the couple’s 91-year-old neighbor, Andra (Ann Guilbert, The Dick Van Dyke Show’s Millie Helper).

Most movies with multigenerational casts favor one generation over the others, but Holofcener trains the same loving but clear eye on everybody. Her creations are alternately unreasonable, ridiculous, and deeply surprisingly sympathetic.

There are a few moments when this comedy of bad manners touches on something approaching profundity, like when Kate, who sells mid-century modern furniture she buys from the children of people who have died, talks to another woman about how used furniture is haunted by the ghosts of its previous owners. Holofcener also has something to say about how one person’s loss is often another person’s gain – particularly, though by no means only, in Kate and Alex’s business, where things they bought cheap from clueless heirs sell for thousands of dollars.

But for the most part, Please Give sticks to what Grace Paley called the little disturbances of man. Things like Abby’s mortification over the pimple that is “eating my face,” Kate’s unshakeable liberal guilt and her sometimes comic attempts to appease it, and Alex’s determination not to let his self-flagellating wife “wreck my fun.” Holofcener is also a connoisseur of poignant moments, like the tenderness with which Kate and Alex peer around a corner at Abby when they come upon her in the drugstore.

It’s not as if nothing big happens in Please Give. People have affairs, fall in love, even die. But those things, which would be the focus of a more conventional narrative, are just part of the warp and weft of this story, which is more interested in what people say and leave unsaid, and how they help and hurt one another.

It’s easy for this kind of movie to go more wide than deep and wind up feeling shallow. That happened to Holofcener’s last feature, Friends with Money, but Please Give sidesteps that pothole. A lot of the credit for that goes to the universally excellent cast.

Keener, who has starred in all four of Holofcener’s feature films, told the LA Times that “all the great actresses want to work with her.” Several got their chance in this film. Keener keeps us close to Kate even at her worst, letting us see what could have read as self-indulgence or neurosis as the suffering of a painfully sensitive soul. Mary is so tightly defended she comes off as selfish and mean, but Peete gets at deeper truths with her measured stare, her snarling smile, and the awkward clumsiness with which she finally lowers her head onto her sister’s shoulder. Hall has an even bigger challenge in the quiet, self-effacing Rebecca, whose repressed emotions only just peek out from her soulful eyes or work the corners of her generous mouth, so it’s a great relief to see her finally let loose, grinning at her new boyfriend or crying in Kate’s arms. Guilbert earns a little sympathy for the brusque, tactless Andra when she dips her head or hardens her jaw, making clear the loneliness and vulnerability Andra’s working so hard to hide. Sarah Steele is funny and furious as Kate and Alex’s teenage daughter, Abby, a bundle of raging, pimple-ravaged hormones. And distinctive but underused actresses keep popping up onscreen in small roles. Amy Wright and Elizabeth Berridge are memorable as adult children Kate buys furniture from, and Lois Smith is luminescent as a big-hearted patient of Rebecca’s (she administers mammograms).

Intimately intertwined and perfectly life-sized, the people in Please Give are often filmed in bed, but they’re hardly ever making love. Instead, they’re lying on their sides, sitting by the remote control, or sprawled on their bellies and doing what they – and we – do most: talking to each other. Watching this film is like eavesdropping on a family you never knew you had.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

My 50 Favorites (as of last year or so)

Just realized I never linked to my 50 favorite movies list, which Iain Stott asked for a while back for his blog. Those lists are always fungible; I could quibble with my own already. But I'm pretty sure those first 20 would be on any list of favorites I'd ever make.

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Secret in their Eyes

The Secret in Their Eyes is this year’s Oscar winner for best foreign-language film, but don’t hold that against it. A murder mystery, a romance, and a running rumination on the limitations of memory and the ways in which we rewrite the past, it’s the kind of thing Hollywood used to excel at but doesn’t much bother with these days: an expertly crafted adult entertainment that always entertains and never insults your intelligence.

It starts with an artfully blurred scene of a man getting on a train as a woman watches intently. Then she runs after him and catches up for a moment to his car, pressing her hand against the outside of his window while he presses his against the inside. Stylish camerawork and all, that would be a tiresomely clichéd opener – except that the next shot deconstructs it, showing us the man who wrote the scene as he thinks the better of it, striking out lines.

That man turns out to be Benjamín Esposito (Ricardo Darín), a retired investigator for the district attorney in Buenos Aires. The movie, which was adapted from a novel by Eduardo Sacheri, toggles back and forth between a gray-haired Esposito in the present and his younger (though still a bit too worn-looking) self 25 years earlier, when Argentina’s already repressive political system was degenerating into outright fascism.

The ruthlessness and corruption of the ruling junta adds to the story’s underlying sense of dread and gives its talk about what people can’t remember and what they can’t forget a deeper resonance. You also get a sense of the corruption of the court system and its systematic protection of the powerful at the expense of the powerless, but these are the least developed parts of the movie. Like 2008’s Headless Woman, Secret examines Argentina’s politics and past mainly through sideways glances – and by showing how the gulf between classes affects personal relationships.

Esposito is consumed by two passions. The first is his determination to figure out who killed a beautiful young bride 25 years earlier, leaving her new husband bereft. Most of the movie’s plot is provided by his quest first to find the killer, then to find out what became of him after a plot twist involving the junta.

Esposita’s other obsession is his boss, the bright and beautiful Irene Menéndez-Hastings (Soledad Villamil). Esposito is a charmer, funny, loyal, empathetic and good-looking in a boyish yet weathered, Pete Hamill/Richard Thompson kind of way. Yet he’s so sure Irene is out of his league that he never voices his adoration, though it pours out of him so eloquently that everyone around them is aware of it. She’s quite a bit younger than him and a lot better educated, but the real gulf is class: He’s a blue-collar guy, while she comes from one of Argentina’s ruling aristocracies. Or, as a corrupt cop puts it: “She’s untouchable. You’re not.”

Darín and Villamil have a lovely and lively chemistry, the warmth in their eyes and the pepper in their words making them easy to root for.

Esposito’s relationship with his assistant investigator, Pablo Sandoval (Guillermo Francella) is also cleverly written and beautifully acted. Part comic sidekick, part loyal best friend, Sandoval is a hopeless drunk with a black sense of humor and hidden depths. When he figures out how to find the killer, emerging from his alcoholic fog to do a good piece of investigative analysis for a change in a scene that’s funny, touching, suspenseful, and refreshingly original, his evident pleasure with himself is a delight.

There are a few clunky metaphors, like the office door Irene is always opening or closing or the typewriter that leaves out the As, which seems to lead to Esposito’s revelation that his “temo” (I fear), a word he wakes up thinking of in the middle of the night, should have been te amo (I love you).

But for every weak link there are several great scenes, like Irene’s cagey interrogation of the killer or Esposito’s twisty reunion with the husband 25 years after the murder. And when the killer steps onto an elevator with Esposito and Irene, it’s one of the creepiest things I’ve seen in a movie lately, a scene Hitchcock would have been proud of.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The 2010 Orphan Film Symposium: A Crash Course in Film History

Now that half the population seems to be filming the other half at any given moment, now that YouTube uploads 24 hours of new video a minute, how do moving image archivists decide what to save?

I’m thinking about that because I just went to the seventh Orphan Film Symposium, a biennial orgy of watching and discussing neglected, mostly uncopyrighted moving pictures from around the world. Going to Orphans is like standing behind a favorite uncle’s shoulder as he rifles through his old treasures in the attic: Some stuff is purely wonderful, some is strange enough to be fascinating, and some doesn’t interest you nearly as much as it does him.

The films and videos shown at Orphans, all shorts or excerpts, don’t always last as long as the talks that precede them. Each gets an introduction, sometimes from the filmmaker but more often from the archivist who catalogued, studied, and restored it. The presenters talk about how and why the films were made, placing them in artistic and historical context.

The symposium is just the exclamation point that punctuates an ongoing exchange among its participants, showcasing some of the work they’ve been engaged in since their last meeting. A collegial vibe unites the 300 or so arty-academic preservationists, curators, filmmakers, professors, students, and assorted other film buffs. They’re predominantly American, but there’s a large and growing contingent from other countries – including 17 of this year’s presenters.

You get a sense of their sense of this community in Streible’s affectionate introductions of the people introducing the films, who may be half-jokingly described as "the world’s most famous film archivist – for the last two years, anyway" or "the world’s leading expert on 17.5mm film in Europe before 1910." You also see it in things like the thank-you gift Streible got from the group, a clock in the shape of a frog to commemorate the star of Ro-Revus Talks about Worms, a funky educational short starring a rubber hand puppet in the shape of a bullfrog that has become the Orphanistas’ unofficial mascot.

So what do they preserve? Mostly newsreels and other commissioned short films, advocacy films, home movies, underground or experimental films, and short animations, plus a smattering of outtakes, raw footage, and other equally noncommercial odds and ends. There’s even some vintage porn, most of which looks touchingly innocent by today’s standards.

The politics of the orphan films are solidly liberal-lefty. Most date from the first half of the 20th century, but some are older and many are newer, a few even brand new. Two young women won this year's Helen Hill Award for recently completed work, Jodie Mack for Yard Work is Hard Work, a whimsical mixture of animated and filmed footage that sends up the notion of marriage as the land of "happily ever after," and Danielle Ash for Pickles for Nickles, a stop-motion film about Brooklyn's rapidly changing storefronts.

Most orphan films are by and about people you've never heard of, but even archivists aren't immune to the star factor. Streible, who teaches cinema studies at New York University, says he's looking for things that have "kind of a wow factor." That often seems to translate to neglected works by well-known artists, like the intermittently interesting Warhol factory films screened this year, or Henri Cartier-Bresson's first film, With the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in Spain. Made by Cartier-Bresson and Herbert Kline in 1938 to raise funds for Americans wounded in the fight for republican Spain, Abraham Lincoln Brigade is a beautifully composed mixture of dignified individual portraits and group shots that vibrate with idealistic energy.

Some of the orphans are interesting mostly for their historical significance, like Tales from Tamiment, a promotional film from 1932, and a remarkably clear partially restored version of the seminal A Trip Down Market Street.

Shot in 1906, A Trip Down Market Street records the view from a cable car moving down San Francisco's Market Street to the Ferry Building, then surveys the scene to the left before ending. As the streetcar makes its leisurely way down the street, pedestrians, horse-drawn carriages, and early automobiles cross in front of it seemingly at random, since the streets are too new and the traffic too slow to require lanes or laws, let alone lights. It's a mesmerizing view of a thriving city just before the earthquake of 1906 changed everything. The Orphans screening was accompanied by a moody score, which seemed to foreshadow the coming quake.

Tales from Tamiment is a jauntily captioned silent portrait of a Socialist summer camp in the Poconos in the early '30s. Its energetic, apparently unstaged footage showed campers participating in a wide range of physical activities, competing in a beauty contest, mugging for the camera, or just hanging out. The spontaneity, collegial close-ups, and gently self-mocking humor made it feel surprisingly contemporary, despite a range of tints that made it look as if it had been left to seep in a series of pots of differently colored teas.

Episode 4 of Orson Welles' Sketchbook, a slyly subversive and deliciously entertaining tale, is a reminder of how much surveillance we've come to accept in these terrorized times. Part of a series Welles recorded shortly after the end of WWII, it starts with him sketching a line drawing, marker squeaking on the page. Then he shows us the drawing and starts to spin the rambling story that goes with it, facing the camera or looking down as if lost in thought. Welles' orotund voice draws us in as he slides from one masterfully told anecdote to the next, winding up with a rant about the then-new practice of demanding documentation and personal information when people cross national borders. "There's something about being ticketed and numbered that gives a man a feeling of being a piece of baggage or a convict," he says before calling on his listeners to refuse to go along with this outrageous invasion of privacy. You can see it on YouTube, divided into parts one and two.

The Cry of Jazz, a 1959 film, anatomizes a volatile junction in the racial evolution of the United States. The film was introduced by a very enthusiastic Jonas Mekas, who called it "a masterpiece" and remembered seeing it first when it came out, in "a busy, very busy time" for New York independent filmmakers. The only film ever made by composer Edward Bland, who shot it on a shoestring, it's aggressively uncinematic, essentially an essay captured on celluloid. It starts painfully slowly, the only action a stiffly acted and worded argument between an uneasily biracial group of jazz fans in Chicago. But it warms up when one man commandeers the discussion, carving out a coolly intelligent case for how the structure of jazz mirrors the barriers faced by black people in America. Bland illustrates some of his points with documentary footage shot in segregated Southside Chicago, but unlike the well-meaning white liberals who made One Tenth of Our Nation, a 1940 documentary also shown at Orphans, he doesn't focus only on deprivation and hardships. Instead, he looks at how black Americans faced with "a futureless future" react by making the most of the now, showing supple dancers jitterbugging, beautiful young men striding down the street with rhythmically asymmetrical steps, and other vivid examples of people making the most of a moment.

Other orphans are notable mainly for their artistry. Rebecca Baron and Douglas Goodwin of CalArts are conducting inventive experiments with the medium of film, exploring how digital compression affects the 35mm image by digitalizing iconic film sequences and then taking out the key frame. They showed five of their short films at Orphans. The originals they started with were always clearly recognizable, yet their footage looked entirely new. Galloping cowboys and Indians from The Searchers dissolved into and out of the background as if birthed by the earth, breaking up into pixilated squares of color that flowed past the stationary background. The dancers in a floral-themed Busby Berkeley bit devolved into purely organic shapes, their individual bodies disappearing into the larger pattern. And, in the pair's most interesting experiment, Ernie Gehr's Serene Velocity, a mandala-like meditation on a hallway in which metronomically timed changes in focal length create a sense of movement, is converted into pure lines of bright white dancing on a black background. It's an utterly stripped-down abstraction, nothing but light, dark, and movement—and yet, almost magically, it clearly evokes the original.

Other highlights:

  • let's just kiss + say goodbye: This witty 1995 Robert Blanchon film pieces together nonsexual bits of gay porn films, often scored to the 1976 song that gives the movie its title. Absurd, badly acted, and patently staged, these encounters somehow add up to a poignant sideways look at the specter of death that was then stalking the gay community (Blanchon died of AIDS in 1999.)
  • A scene from a Warhol factory film showing Warhol with a clueless reporter. A mirror image of the one in Don't Look Back where Bob Dylan spars with reporters, this shows Warhol as bemused as Dylan was contemptuous. He deflects a series of dense questions by spacily admiring the light reflected onto the ceiling by a giant disco ball, gently inviting his interviewer to join him. The reporter winds up on the floor next to Warhol, clutching his mike as they stare at the ceiling.
  • A didactic German short from the early '30s about how to create a soundtrack by drawing soundwaves directly onto celluloid.
  • A kitschily vivid excerpt from 1908's The Life of Christ in which Jesus moves soulfully through the stations of the cross while actors in colorized clothes emote in the background with the stylized gestures and expressions that dominated during the silent era.
The 80 films shown at Orphans 7 spanned almost the whole history of filmmaking, providing a crash course in filmmaking technique and the creative process and teaching us something new about our shared history. I left Orphans—just after midnight on a Saturday night—feeling grateful to the people who save all those frozen moments in time, making sure they come to life for at least one more audience. Film is a shark that must keep moving to stay alive, but without archivists and preservationists and historians to keep track of where we've been, how would we know where to go? Written for The House Next Door