Saturday, July 31, 2010

A Movie a Day, day 76: L'Affaire Farewell

If you’ve ever wondered what led to the collapse of the Soviet empire, L’Affaire Farewell offers an intriguing answer. Based on a true story, it introduces us to a high-up KGB officer who smuggled hundreds of pages of key top-secret Soviet documents to NATO in 1981 and '82, apparently doing as much as any other single person to bring down the Russian bureaucracy.

Recapturing that slice of long-buried history is just one of the pleasures of watching this surefooted thriller, which samples a multiplex's worth of genres—odd-couple bromance, Cold War suspense, Dr. Strangelove-style farce, and old-fashioned spy-vs-spy—to come up with a wryly witty, understated style of its own.

Emir Kusturica plays the real-life double agent Vladimir Vetrov, who the movie calls Sergei Gregoriev. Guillaume Canet, looking a lot like Ryan O’Neal circa 1981, plays Pierre Froment, the courier Gregoriev uses to get his information to France, since no one would suspect the French civilian of being a spy. The two start off mutually suspicious, even contemptuous, but they come to respect, rely on, and finally love one another in an understated and moving progression that forms the heart of the film. Read the rest on The House Next Door, Slant Magazine's blog.

Friday, July 30, 2010

A Movie a Day, day 75: Life During Wartime and Happiness

Todd Solondz movies can be hard to sit through. Up to now, I’ve always watched them from a bit of a remove, braced for whatever might come next, so I was surprised when his latest swept me clean off my feet. I would say Life During Wartime is his best work yet—but maybe I’ve changed more than he has. I say that because this movie made me revisit Happiness, his first film about the spectacularly dysfunctional family of Life During Wartime, and the second viewing was a revelation.

The first time around, watching Happiness was like watching a good horror movie: The suspense was almost unbearable at times as I waited to see who would do what to whom. Will Billy’s pedophile father rape his own son? Will Allen, the obscene caller, kill the neighbor he’s obsessed with—or be killed by the other neighbor who’s obsessed with him? Will poor joyless Joy’s viciously passive-aggressive family drive her to suicide? Enormously compelling and repellent at the same time, this was no audience-flattering suburban dystopia, but it went too far in the other direction for me. Almost all of Solondz’s characters were doing their best to lead good and fulfilling lives, but they fell so stunningly short of the mark, and hurt other people so badly along the way, that I just couldn’t relate to them. I felt the director looking at all his characters with love, seeing their humanity and forgiving them their sins, and I admired his Christlike compassion, but I just couldn’t share it. I mean, some things are unforgiveable, aren’t they?

That's one of the questions that gets kicked around a lot in Life During Wartime, which may have helped me surrender to it. If Happiness is mostly about the terrible things people do to one another, Life During Wartime is mostly about the consequences of those actions. As painful as it was to see Billy ask Bill about his sickness in Happiness just after learning that his father is a child molestor, it's even more wrenching to watch their tormented reunion years later in Life During Wartime. After years of silence, the love between the two is still palpably there, but the trust is irrevocably broken, and Billy's life is so clearly warped.

There are some new twists in Life During Wartime, like the just surreal enough dream and fantasy sequences that help us see what's inside people's heads, or the talismanic objects cinematographer Edward Lachman lingers on at times, including an enormous moon that hangs just above the Florida horizon in one of Joy's dreams. But overwhelmingly, the things that made me succumb to Life During Wartime were the same things that made Happiness work for me the second time around. It's the operatic music and emotions; the camera's way of lingering on people when they're not doing much, giving us time to really see what they're feeling; the smart dialogue and searing humor. It's all those scenes in restaurants, where people work so hard to rein in or outright deny their immense sadness to keep up public appearances. It's the lies they tell even themselves ("I'm not a scab; I'm a strikebreaker," Joy insists after crossing a picket line in Happiness.)

But mostly, its the way Solondz nails some important and generally unspoken truths about life in America right now and the human condition in general. I can't think of a filmmaker working now who's better at capturing the soul-crushing cruelty that can masquerade as family love, but his real subject is the emptiness at the core of modern life and the tidy environments, Photoshopped Sears portraits, platitudes and pills we use to paper it over. As Stuart Smalley liked to say, denial is not just a river in Egypt. In Todd Solondz movies, it's a tsunami that threatens to swamp any genuine emotion. In that environment, anyone brave enough to face the truth about himself deserves our respect, even if the truth is that he's a child molester.

So why did I resist Happiness before and find it so moving last night? Maybe it helped to know just how far people were going to go, so I didn't have to brace myself against some unforeseen horror. And maybe I'm just getting less judgmental as I get older. I think I'm just starting to believe something Bill says in Life During Wartime, which Solondz seems to have felt from the start: "People can't help it if they're monsters."

Written for The House Next Door

Thursday, July 29, 2010

A Movie A Day, Day 74: Lebanon and Restrepo

Both Restrepo and Lebanon are war-is-hell movies, be-glad-you’re-not-here postcards about young men marooned in outposts at the outer edges of intractable wars (the U.S occupation of Afghanistan and Israel’s battle with its neighbors, respectively). But where one uses reportorial techniques in search of clarity and objective truth, the other creates a choking miasma of claustrophia, confusion and deepening panic to approximate its main character’s state of mind.

Lebanon is a fictionalized version of writer/director Samuel Maoz’s experience in the 1982 Lebanon war, which will open next week (I saw it at a press screening a couple of weeks ago). It takes place almost entirely inside a dank, noisy tank whose mentally deteriorating officer and tiny crew bumble their way into a Lebanese town to “clean up” after an Israeli attack and then get hopelessly lost in Syrian-controlled territory. The tight quarters and growing desperation create a convincing sense of hellish chaos—to a fault, at times, since it isn’t always clear where things are in relation to each other even inside the tank. But it all feels a little too scripted at times, like when a soldier asks if his parents can be alerted that he’s all right, only to die a while later.

Lebanon isn’t nearly as thought-provoking or moving as Waltz with Bashir, another Israeli soldier’s reconstruction of his experience in Lebanon that year. But there are things in this movie too that I don’t expect to forget any time soon, like the people who drop into the tank from the turret above like visitors from another world, the grief-crazed Lebanese woman seen through the gunner's crosshairs, or the field of dying sunflowers that opens the movie and takes on new meaning at the end. If you think of a tank as an impermeable behemoth operated by faceless men, this film will make you think again.

Codirectors Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger shot their Afghanistan documentary in classic fly-on-the-wall mode. You're almost never aware of the filmmakers' presence in Restrepo, except when they capture the men one by one against a black backdrop, asking ask them about their experiences at Restrepo. The soldiers manned the American outpost, then the deadliest one in Afghanistan, from May 2007 into 2008, and the filmmakers are there for most of that time. Their film describes the situation clearly—we always know just where the men are and what they're doing there—but never editorializes, neither criticizing nor praising the mission the men are on (no Hans Zimmer-scored heroics here, thank goodness). A sense of futility does leak through at times, in things like one soldier's observation that they're losing ground with the local village elders in spite of meeting with them every week, but the focus is on capturing the rhythms of life and death at the outpost.

Hetherington and Junger made 10 trips to Korangal Valley over a 10-month period, shooting 150 hours of film. The camera pushes right into the soldiers' faces for the talking-heads interviews, shooting just from eyebrow to lower lip as the men, who come across as honest, observant and thoughtful, talk about their experiences. The rest of the time we watch their characters and camaraderie emerge as they go about their daily lives at Restrepo, doing things like dancing ecstatically to hip-hop, playing soulful acoustic guitar and video war games, or memorializing Juan Restrepo, the fallen comrade the outpost is named after (they shoot off eerily beautiful nighttime flares a year after his death.)

We see them shoot and get shot at too, but those aren't usually the most memorable scenes, though they were no doubt the most intense to experience. Junger and Hetherington put us right in the middle of the fighting, starting with an IED explosion that shakes the cameraman's vehicle as he films their first ride into camp. We also see scenes from the three-day maneuver they describe as their worst, including one soldier's breakdown after seeing a dead comrade. I felt uncomfortable about my own comfort as I watched those scenes from my cushy theater seat, but there it was. The dead bodies certainly had a weight they wouldn't have in a Jerry Bruckheimer testosterone fest, and so did the loss of Restrepo, whose spirit the filmmakers summon through the affectionate stories and impressions of his friends and a few seconds of blurred video.

I left Restrepo full of respect for the soldiers and sorrow over the deadly flypaper they and the Afghan civilians in the valley were stuck in, but a noncombatant like me can never really know what a soldier at war is going through, no matter how hard the filmmakers work to reenact it or I work to understand. And even if I could share the men's feelings, I wouldn't share their fear of death when they go on that maneuver, since I'm watching after the fact and safe in the knowledge that they survived to tell the story. It's the catch-22 of war-is-hell documentaries.

Written for The House Next Door.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

A Movie a Day, Day 73: The Box on The Box

Springsteen’s song about 57 channels and nothing to watch was playing in my head last night as I rounded through my favorites on the remote control. Not that there wasn’t anything good to watch—the season premiere of Mad Men and the latest episode of True Blood, my favorite soap, were waiting in the DVR queue, and when they were done I stumbled on the second half of the always awesome Clueless. But when I searched for a movie to watch from the start, the best I came up with was The Box, a long shot that didn’t pay off.

I’ve avoided The Box since it came out last year because the blurbs on the home page of Rotten Tomatoes (which, I now think, summed it up nicely) didn’t make it sound like something I’d like. I’m not even a Richard Kelly fan, though I know there are a lot of them out there (or there used to be, anyhow): I haven’t yet seen Donnie Darko and I found Southland Tales inchoate, choppy and ultimately forgettable. But the premise to this one had promise, in a comfortingly hokey kind of way. Norma (Cameron Diaz) and Arthur (James Marsden) get a chance to transform their lives, but at what price? A mysterious stranger shows up with a box that contains a big button. Push the button, they’re told, and they’ll get a millions dollars—but someone they don’t know will die. It’s a classic Twilight Zone dilemma—in fact, the short story it was based on was made into a Twilight Zone episode in the mid-‘80s.

The faint hope of seeing a new spin on an old-fashioned moral allegory kept me interested enough for the first half hour or so, though there were warning signs from the start. Read the rest on The House Next Door, Slant Magazine's blog.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A Movie A Day, Day 72: Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters

Yesterday's movie was the recently re-released 1985 film Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, another one I missed when it came out and have been wanting to see for a while. It was actually in my Netflix queue, but when it showed up at Anthology Film Archive I decided to see it there instead. I'm glad I did, since sitting right in front of a big screen made it easier to succumb to its odd mix of intensity and abstraction, chaos and control.

Paul Schrader, who directed the movie and co-wrote the script with his brother and sister-in-law, gets the setup out of the way with a couple of title cards, telling us that Yukio Mishima was one of Japan's most popular postwar writers, the author of scores of novels, short stories, essays, poems, and plays. This may be a biopic, but it avoids every cliché of the genre, roaring past boilerplate like courtship and marriage and eschewing psychobabble like the childhood trauma that explains everything. Instead, Shrader uses Mishima's own writings to construct four chapters ("Beauty," "Art," "Action," and "Harmony of Pen and Sword") centered around cornerstones of Mishima's philosophy. Together, the four trace the evolution in his thinking that led him to take his own life, gathering the young acolytes in a paramilitary group he had formed and driving onto a military base to commit seppuku. Read the rest on The House Next Door, Slant Magazine's blog.

Monday, July 26, 2010

A Movie a Day, Day 71: Salt, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and other Tough-Chick Flicks

Judging by the forest of fingers that sprang up to wag at Kick-Ass this spring, a lot of people still think girls can’t play, at least not action heroes. I haven’t heard anyone complain about the ass-kickings Jaden Smith gets or hands out in Karate Kid, have you?

But try telling that to the crop of tough-chick flicks – most recently Salt and The Girl Who Played with Fire – that sprang up this spring and summer. This heartening trend started with the purple-wigged preteen heroine of Kick-Ass. (I guess you could argue that it began with Avatar’s snarling blue princess, but I don’t count Neytiri since she’s just a white-boy fantasy, Pocahontas with a crossbow.) Then there was the genetic mutant in Splice, all too compliant and feminized until she breaks out with a vengeance. And now Evelyn Salt and, once again, that girl with the dragon tattoo.

The newest kick-ass chick in the bunch, secret agent Evelyn Salt is also the most convincing. As a spy who goes from working for the CIA to running from its agents after being accused of being a double agent, Angelina Jolie brings home the bacon and fries it up in a pan she could turn into a deadly weapon on a moment’s notice. That’s girl power, all right, but we wouldn’t buy it if Jolie didn’t sell it so well. In a role initially written for Tom Cruise, she both dishes out and absorbs the rough stuff as well as any male action star. Maybe even better, since we get the added satisfaction of seeing Salt use those big eyes and lips to hypnotize her targets, blinding them with their own desire so she can go about her business unimpeded.

But she’s much more than just another Mata Hari. Like Uma Thurman’s Bride in the Kill Bill movies, Salt is an extraordinary woman motivated by ordinary needs: She aches for the happy marriage she never thought she could have. When she pauses in mid-flight to chat with a young neighbor about her homework, Jolie freezes for a moment, just looking at the girl, and her still face and sad eyes tell us all we need to know about Salt’s longing for a daughter of her own. Heroes who go on a rampage to avenge the death of a loved one are a dime a dozen, but I haven’t seen one whose emotional scars I believed in or cared about this much since Daniel Craig’s lugubrious Bond in Quantum of Solace.

Salt the movie is far from perfect – some of the action is too choppy or blurry, making it hard to follow or thrill to, and some of Salt’s escapes, like the car crash she causes and then walks away from, push through suspension of disbelief and out into cartoonish absurdity. Then there’s the odd way the movie pits the U.S. against Russia in a death race for world domination, which makes the whole thing feel a little musty. But Salt the character is a revelation, a truly female action hero.

If Jolie makes Evelyn Salt fully human, Noomi Rapace brings Lisbeth Salander only half alive, creating a sullen female Pinocchio in the film version of Stieg Larsson’s series. The Girl Who Played with Fire, like the book it’s based on, is disappointingly flat, not much more than a placeholder between the first and last installments, with its preposterous villains and talky stretches of exposition about Lisbeth’s character and her past. But Larsson’s Lisbeth was intense and intriguing enough to make me overlook a lot of the book’s flaws (besides, you can always skim the slow parts in a novel), while the movies drain her of nearly all her power and mystique by bringing her vulnerability too close to the surface.

Rapace’s impassive deadpan is meant to be like Jolie’s, a mask donned by a wounded warrior to protect herself from further harm. But Jolie constantly shows us her character’s fearless heart, leaking out just enough pain to make her sympathetic, while Rapace’s soft eyes pour out buckets of hurt for every flash of ferocity, and that ratio’s all wrong. We need our kick-ass heroines to inspire awe, not awww.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

A Movie a Day, day 70: Three-Minute Stories

I meant to watch the 1933 version of Alice in Wonderland on the big screen at BAM last night, but the heat chased me inside instead and onto my computer, where I watched Three-Minute Stories on SnagFilms.

You might wonder if the world really needs more short films these days, but Cinelan, the series’ producer, is trying to give gifted documentary filmmakers more visibility and a chance to make some money online by distributing their short films on the web. You have to sit through an ad before their movies start, but that’s over pretty soon and then you’re home free, watching a very short (the credits usually start before the three-minute mark) documentary. Some are better than others, of course, but the production values are always excellent and the subjects usually well chosen, and the length makes it hard not to keep going. I went through every one I could find on Snagfilms and then headed over to the Cinelan website, where I watched two more by Steve James Read the rest on The House Next Door, Slant Magazine's blog.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

A Movie a Day, day 69: Dersu Uzala

Emerging from deep inside a noisy restaurant last night, where we’d had dinner with friends, my husband and I skirted a huge curbside puddle and realized we must have missed a big rain. Turns out a fierce thunderstorm dumped inches of rain on the city and nearly killed a man in Brooklyn (he was struck by lightning). So I was primed to appreciate Dersu’s quiet critique of the artificiality of city life (“How can men sit in box?”) when I got home and popped in the DVD of Dersu Uzala that I’d started watching the day before.

I first saw this movie years ago, in a class on Slavic film that I took as an undergrad. I remembered star Maksim Munzuk’s kind, weathered face and the feral beauty of Dersu's homeland, a stretch of forest in Russia’s far east. I also remembered liking it, but I’d forgotten more than I remembered about this late-life Akira Kurosawa character study. I guess I just wasn’t ready to appreciate it then, since it’s hard to imagine forgetting it now. Read the rest on The House Next Door, Slant Magazine's blog.

Friday, July 23, 2010

A Movie a Day, day 68: Smash His Camera

Toward the end of Smash His Camera, an excellent HBO documentary about self-described “paparazzi superstar” Ron Galella (it hits movie theaters next week), a young woman tours an exhibition of Galella’s photos. The subjects are all icons from the photographer’s salad days, which extend from the Eisenhower era through the Reagan years, and the young woman knows almost none of them, from Jackie O to Brigitte Bardot (or, as she sounds out the name, “Bar-dot”). It’s a funny scene, and an economical reminder of the fleeting power of fame and the short shelf life of Galella’s life’s work.

One of the photos in that exhibit is of Muhammad Ali, the subject of another stellar documentary by director Leon Gast. As he did in When We Were Kings, Gast makes it look deceptively easy to make an energetic, highly entertaining biopic with something to say, not just about its main subject but about us. Read the rest on The House Next Door, Slant Magazine's blog.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

A Movie a Day, Day 67: Bronson

Lauren Wissot’s review of Valhalla Rising pushed me off the fence I’d been on about seeing the movie yesterday—especially the part about its being almost wordless. Ever since The Road Warrior drove off with the top of my head in 1981, I’ve loved movies that use camerawork, editing, acting, art direction, and other components of film language so well they barely need any words. Talk can be great too, of course: my favorite period in Hollywood is the ‘30s and ‘40s, when all those screwball and absurdist comedies were having such brilliant fun with dialogue. But I’m so sick of all the empty-headed movies that get stuffed with tone-deaf chatter these days—do the people who made them really think so little of us, or are they just too lazy to find more creative ways of telling a story?—that I’ll check out almost any movie that has the courage to be quiet.

The first two chapters of this macho mood piece intrigued me, but after the third or fourth variation on the same theme, it started feeling ponderous: too slow, too one-note, and leaden where it wanted to be weighty, the electric guitars on the soundtrack too loud and monotone too, like vuvuzelas at the World Cup.

But cowriter/director Nicolas Winding Refn clearly has a vision and a strong sense of style, so I decided to see if I’d like his second-to-last movie better than his latest one. Bronson, which came out in 2008, is hardly wordless, but that’s fine by me, since it’s wildly inventive and evocative.

Based on a book by the real Bronson, a career prisoner who's still doing time and who prides himself on being "Britain's most violent prisoner," it's narrated by Bronson himself (an astonishingly good Tom Hardy). Refn cuts between more conventional scenes, in which Hardy and others act out the story, and Bronson's highly theatrical narration, in which he addresses the camera directly or plays to an adoring theater audience, often in face paint or a mask ("I always wanted to be famous," he informs us). It's the thug version of All That Jazz, except that it's hard to imagine anyone envying or admiring Bronson.

There's something about gangsters and other violent sociopaths that will always fascinate us, though, and Refn plays to that fascination. Turning up his amp to 11, he makes his movie pulsate with adrenaline-charged music, hallucinogenic colors, frequent bursts of black humor, and recurrent explosions of intense, unpredictable violence. In an early scene that sets the tone, Bronson shadow boxes in his cell, preparing for one of many all-out battles with his guards. All we see are the black bars of his cage-like cell and his naked body, which is bathed in blood-red light and multiplied by jump cuts and double exposures.

Stiff and muscle-bound whenever he walks, Bronson is painfully awkward in social situations, so unaccustomed to normal human interaction that a kiss from a pretty girl makes him tremble uncontrollably. It may sound harsh when the warden of one of his prisons calls him "pathetic" and "pitiful," but it's not far off the mark. Bronson may make violence into a performance art, but he doesn't seem fit for much of anything else.

Written for The House Next Door

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A Movie a Day, day 66: Terribly Happy

As we get acclimated to the flat, almost featureless landscape outside the dead-end Danish town of Skarrild at the beginning of Terribly Happy, an affectless narrator tells the tale of a cow that sank into the local bog. It seems the cow reappeared six months later and give birth to a calf with two heads, one of them human. The farmer kept the cow, though “everyone knows” that’s the wrong thing to do, and all the local cattle and women went insane, until the men of the town took things in hand and buried the cow in the bog for good.

That twisted little tale is an economical introduction to this rural town, where everyone knows everyone else’s business, there’s a right way to do everything—even hang up your wash—and whatever the townsfolk want to get rid of winds up in the bog. It’s also a good introduction to the movie, which maintains the same slightly absurdist tone throughout its streamlined, suspenseful, and always entertaining 90-minute run. Terribly Happy plays things almost straight (the movie is based on a novelization of a true story), but its perspective is just a little bit askew, like the low camera angles that mirror Robert Hansen’s sense of disorientation when he arrives in Skarrild. Read the rest on The House Next Door, Slant Magazine's blog.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

A Movie A Day, Day 65: 35 Shots of Rum

I missed 35 Shots of Rum last year, so I caught up—and fell in love—with it last night on Netflix.

The main characters are a magnetic father and daughter, the self-contained Lionel (Alex Descas) and Joséphine (Mati Diop), a young woman who alternates between radiant self-confidence and diffidence. The two live alone in a compact but tidy apartment in the suburbs of Paris, since Jo's mother died when she was an infant. Neither talks much (especially Lionel, a Metro conductor who loves the solitude of his cab), so we learn how they feel mostly by watching their eyes and body language. Director Claire Denis seems to be observing rather than directing the action, capturing the rhythms of her characters' daily lives and their deepest thoughts and feelings.

As they make dinner or clean up afterward, curl up on the couch, or bring home the dueling rice cookers that become a symbol of their relationship, the intimacy between Jo and Lionel is amplified by the small spaces they inhabit. Their apartment isn't big enough to offer much privacy, and the motorcycle they get around on brings them that much closer, Jo hugging Lionel tight on a seat big enough for just two. Their life is comfortable, cosy, and loving, yet we feel something missing even if they can't. Like Jo's German aunt, who they visit when they take a road trip together, we want to see them open up more to other people. "We all lead such withdrawn lives," her aunt says. "Everyone in his corner."

Lionel insists that they have all they need, but Joséphine is clearly ready for a mate and so is he, much as he resists the idea. Conveniently—or maybe not—father and daughter both have suitors right there in the building. Gabrielle (Nicole Dogué) has longed to join Lionel's family since Josephine was a baby, and Noé (Grégoire Colin) clearly feels the same way about Josephine, though he's too guarded to express his feelings as freely as the soft-eyed Gabrielle. We watch these four circle around one another until Jo and her father realize—separately and, typically, without any discussion—that its time for them to part.

The music is an organic and essential part of this quiet, deliberately paced story. A contemplative, poignant theme song helps set the emotional tone, and soulful songs like Sophia George's "Can't Live Without You," Harry Belafonte's "Merci Bon Dieu," and the Commodores's "Nightshift" sometimes float to the forefront, always as an integral part of the scene as the characters dance to a song in a bar or turn it up on a car radio.

Denis says the film is a tribute to Ozu, and I can see why: It's a truthful, unsensationalized, beautifully acted story about family life that builds slowly to a profound emotional climax. But 35 Shots of Rum doesn't have the stately stillness of an Ozu film. From the opening montage, shots of moving trains intercut with images of Jo on a train and Lionel waiting for her, this film seems to flow, moving seamlessly from one moment or one person's perspective to the next. That's not to say that cinematographer Agnès Godard's camera keeps moving in that ADD way of way too many movies these days; on the contrary, it often lingers on a beautifully composed shot of a face or a significant item, like the white lace gloves on a table at the end of the movie. This flow comes more from the editing and maybe the script, which cut out all fat and connective tissue to cut from one significant moment to another, juxtaposing them to show us how one person's actions affect someone else.

In the midst of all this motion, the main characters are like rocks in a stream, each defending his or her turf or leaning toward someone else in a long-held position. Denis doesn't load the dice with them, showing them in all their often prickly complexity. And though there is a wedding at the end, she leaves things open-ended, respecting her characters and her audience too much to placate us with a fairy-tale ending.

But that ambiguous ending is much more satisfying than some tacky tacked-on happy ending. We may not know what happens next, but when do we ever? What matters is that Jo and her father have come out of their corner to join the flow of life.

Written for The House Next Door

Monday, July 19, 2010

A Movie a Day, Day 64: Inception

Inception touches on some classic questions. How can tell if we’re dreaming? Is “real” life more valid or meaningful than dreams? Can we control our subconscious minds? Should we?

If you like philosophical or scientific explorations of mysteries like these, Inception is not for you. The thrills in this expertly constructed summer movie are more visceral than conceptual, its thinly developed characters careening from one level of consciousness to the next only to dodge falling objects and run from men with big guns. Think of it as a highly realistic, beautifully art-directed video game that becomes interactive only after the fact, when you go online to kick ideas around with other fans.

Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a professional “extracter” who gets paid to enter people’s minds and alter their subconscious minds by manipulating their dreams. As A.O. Scott pointed out, that’s also a pretty good description of what movie directors do, and I sometimes wondered if writer/director Christopher Nolan was sending us a message in Inception about what it takes to make a blockbuster. Subconsciously, at least.

My favorite of Nolan’s movies is still his second feature, Memento, which got a lot of respect from critics but didn’t make much of a dent on the public consciousness. With his two Batman movies, Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, Nolan learned how to manage a blockbuster Hollywood budget and pile on cool special effects. He also learned to dumb down his dialogue, overlay an avalanche of emotion-cuing music, and amp up the psychobabble. He’s gotten better at making tentpole movies with each one he makes, so The Dark Knight was much less lugubriously paced and less painfully self-serious than Batman Begins, and Inception is more fun than The Dark Knight. With this one, Nolan has become one of Hollywood’s chainsaw artists, getting surprisingly subtle results from tools that seem crude in the wrong hands.

Inception cobbles together its narrative from a lot of familiar parts. Cobb, a brilliant man haunted by the ghost of his departed wife, gets a challenging assignment from a powerful client: Instead of going into someone’s mind to extract information, he’s supposed to do an inception, planting an idea so subtly that the subject thinks it’s his own. After accepting the job, Cobb assembles a group of crack specialists, introducing us to the main characters and giving him an excuse to explain what he’s up to. Then Cobb and his team get to work and go to sleep, entering a treacherous world of dreams within dreams where they race against dream-distorted time to complete their task and dodge that barrage of bullets. Meanwhile, Cobb struggles to get a handle on his own demons, which threaten to subvert every mission he sets out on.

Like Ariadne (Ellen Page), the architect who creates the lifelike dreamscapes the team operates in, Nolan seems to be fascinated by the mechanics of his imagined world. Much of the dialogue – maybe even most – is exposition about how things work and what can go wrong in the world of shared dreaming. I found something satisfying in all these rules, which make the impossible seem just plausible enough, but they kept me at arm’s length emotionally, watching the movie rather than getting lost in it. But I think all those rules and explanations are just what draw its fans in so closely. By spelling out the laws that govern his world, Nolan is inviting you in to play with those ideas yourself as you think and talk about it afterward. And, like a video gamer learning a new game, the more you do that, the more attached you get to it.

I'm not a gamer, so I guess it's not surprising that I wasn't drawn in. But there was enough cool stuff on the screen to keep me interested while it lasted, starting with the careening chase scene that upends a van the team is sleeping in, making their dream worlds do cartwheels or become gravity-free as the van does its stretched-out free fall (time lasts longer when you're dreaming than when you're awake, so it takes the van minutes to fall in dream time). There was the city that folded into itself, like a convertible top coming down, as Adriane explores her new powers, and the crumbling world Cobb and his wife created and then left to fall into the sea, which has the apocryphal feel of a prophecy. And I loved the old-school movie star glamour exuded by Ken Watanabe (as the man who hires Cobb) and Marion Cotillard (as Cobb’s wife).

But the most interesting thing about Inception is the inception Nolan pulls off on his audience. Judging by all the analyses already being spun online, it looks like people will be sharing their thoughts and theories about this movie all summer long, and watching it again so they can test them. That’s the trick every director wants to pull off, and I suspect Nolan did it by following his own rule for inception: Make your idea as simple as possible, so the next guy can make it his own.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

A Movie a Day, day 63: Exit Through the Gift Shop

I saw Exit Through the Gift Shop soon after it came out and liked it a lot. Banksy, the street artist who made this "street art documentary," is dryly funny as he tells the story of Thierry Guetta, an eccentric Frenchman who loves this form of art. We see and hear from Thierry himself as he obsessively films street artists, and his footage and a smart voiceover read by Rhys Ifans give us a quick gloss on the form in general and the work of Banksy and Shepard Fairey, both of whom play with iconic images to critique popular leftie targets like corporate control, the military-industrial complex, and consumer excess. We also learn that Banksy has tweaked pretension and power with some pretty good visual jokes, like hanging some of his goofy drawings alongside the certified masterpieces in the Tate Gallery and the British Museum, where they stayed undetected for a surprisingly long time.

Up to this point, Exit Through the Gift Shop is an entertaining but apparently conventional documentary. Then it takes a left turn and gets a lot more interesting, becoming an exposé on the art world. To get this movie done, Banksy tells us, he had to take over Thierry's footage himself, since Thierry couldn't finish the task. And while the street artist turns filmmaker, the filmmaker turns street artist, churning out hundreds of canvases to put on a show that's described as L.A.'s "hottest art event of the year." Thierry's art is pretty awful: mindless, baldly derivative, and often outright ugly. But he promotes it brilliantly, whipping up a froth of anticipation that apparently hasn't died down yet, since I just passed a gallery in the Meatpacking District that's showing work by Mr. Brainwash, Thierry's street art alias. Banksy has no illusions about the quality of his friend's work: His film sardonically presents the selling of Mr. Brainwash's art for tens of thousands of dollars per canvas as a symbol of all that's wrong with the hype-happy commercial art world.

But the best part of this film was yet to come. As usual, I'd read as little as possible about the movie before I went, so it wasn't until I got home and Googled it that I learned what you probably already know: A lot of people think Exit Through the Gift Shop is not a documentary at all, but a film-length Banksy prank. Some people think Thierry is just pretending to be a bad street artist. Some even think Banksy himself plays Thierry, which is unlikely but possible, since Banksy is fanatical about never letting himself be photographed except from behind or with a facemask or hoodie obscuring his face.

Feeding the art world dreck just to prove that it will gobble up anything while using the prank to burnish his own image sounds like the kind of thing the smartly satiric and cannily self-promoting Banksy would do. It also sounds like just what the art world deserves. I found myself wanting that theory to be true, so I went back to the movie last night with my husband, planning to watch it the way I watched Memento and The Usual Suspects the second time around, searching for clues I had missed to the twist I hadn't seen coming.

This time I was more aware of the relentless hyping the film did of Banksy. He's treated as Thierry's Holy Grail, the most mythical and elusive of the street artists, and described in the tongue-in-cheek hyperbole that peppers the voiceover as "taking vandalism in a whole new direction." I also noticed that we never see Thierry actually creating any art, and that he is laughably inarticulate and evasive whenever people ask about his work. I wondered if the clandestine footage he supposedly took of graffiti artists was staged, since we often see him in the shot (who's filming him?).

I also questioned things that had nothing to do with Thierry, like how Banksy could have spent all that time painting visions of escape along the concrete wall built to separate Jews from Palestinians in the West Bank without getting shot at, or at least arrested. All that wondering even made me wonder if there was a message for us in the funny Paranoid Pictures logo that opens the film by knocking off the Paramount logo. But the more I wondered about how and why this movie was made, the more I liked it.

I still don't know if Thierry's art is for real, though I hope it isn't. But whether it is or not, the reaction it's getting from gallery owners and collectors is clearly real, very entertaining, and more than a little horrifying. As Banksy says: "I always used to encourage everyone I met to make art. I used to tell everyone they should do it. I don't really do that so much any more."

Written for The House Next Door

Saturday, July 17, 2010

A Movie a Day, Day 62: Around a Small Mountain

Another day, another film by an aging French auteur that I expected to like more than I did. There was enough to keep me interested in Around a Small Mountain, but it was a lightweight, emotionally detached sort of interest, which started floating away as the end credits rolled.

The pace is so slow it took a while to slow down enough to meet it, but once I did I was able to relax, since Rivette and his editor (Nicole Lubtchansky, whose daughter Irina did the cinematography) lead us through this ambling journey with a sure hand. And I enjoyed watching Jane Birkin as Kate, a melancholy woman making a temporary return to the family circus she left years before after a tragic accident. Birkin is one of those magnetic people you can’t help watching, even when she’s doing something as simple as sitting on a riser or dyeing cloth. Which helps, since we mostly just watch her doing that sort of thing, or listen as she engages in a series of brief and prickly exchanges with Vittorio (Sergio Castellitto). A traveling businessman who fell for Kate on first sight, Vittorio stops for a while to court her in a beautiful old French town where the sparsely attended little show has set up its tent.

Vittorio gets drawn into the old-school circus act and so do we, since Rivette keeps showing bits of what appears to be a very French circus, more existential than exhilarating. Read the rest on The House Next Door, Slant Magazine's blog.

Friday, July 16, 2010

A Movie a Day, day 61: Get Low

I spent a few years in Knoxville, Tennessee, and I love Robert Duvall and Sissy Spacek, so I was eager to see Get Low in spite of a trailer that looked sappy and sanctimonious. Duvall plays Felix, an old coot who's been holed up in a log cabin in East Tennessee for decades. He's nursing a secret that half the people in the county, including his old girlfriend (Spacek), would love to hear. The twist is that Felix is planning his own funeral, which he wants to host while he's alive so he can hear the stories people have been making up about him. That's something I'd pay to see, though I didn't have to thanks to a press screening last night (it opens in two weeks).

Get Low wanders off and gets temporarily lost in a couple dead ends (is Felix really near death or not? What are his plans for that casket full of cash that he makes the funeral director keep for him?), but the story I just laid out, which you get from the trailer, is basically the whole movie. And it would have been plenty, if only I could have believed that these people would have behaved in that way.

Movies like this are all about authenticity. When they work, it's because they give you a guided tour of a closed world you'll probably never visit in life — and would never be allowed into even if you did. Mind you, I'm not claiming to be an expert on Tennessee's hill country just because I lived in its capital city for a few years: I came there a stranger and I left the same way. I'm just saying Get Low didn't ring true to me the way, say, Coal Miner's Daughter or Winter's Bone did. Read the rest on The House Next Door, Slant Magazine's blog.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

A Movie a Day, day 60: Nina Simone Great Performances

This hour-long portrait of Nina Simone at the height of her mesmerizing powers is an effective anecdote to the unacknowledged white privilege that poisoned the well in Mugabe and the White African.

Nina Simone Great Performances: College Concerts and Interviews consists almost entirely, as promised, of footage of Simone performing on college campuses in what appears to be the late '60s or early '70s and talking to the camera about her art between interviews. (The movie never got a theatrical release, but it came out on DVD last year and is now available through iTunes and Amazon.) On the other side of the camera was Andy Stroud, who was at the screening last night and spoke a bit before the movie, which he said he funded by cashing in his police pension fund.

Stroud was Simone's husband and manager when he filmed the footage (though he didn't edit it into a film until recently), so he got excellent access. That includes watching Simone perform from backstage and capturing soundless sequences of her playing with their young daughter. Much more importantly, it also means getting access to the artist at her best—relaxed, undefensive, and confident that her audience understands and appreciates her.

There's nothing artful about Stroud's film, which includes clumsy tricks like cutting to white or black for a few seconds between takes or focusing on blurry discs of light, presumably to approximate the feeling of a trippy '60s light show. Yet it feels powerful and alive, capturing the vitality and significance of a politically engaged artist in her joyous prime. Stroud mainly keeps the camera on his glamorous, dazzlingly self-assured wife, lingering on her full-cheeked Nerfertiti profile as she sings her throaty, intense songs or pulling back for long shots of the West African-style dances she breaks into when the mood takes her. Her songs and the still photos of lynchings, blighted black neighborhoods, police dogs attacking protesters, and other atrocities that Stern sometimes inserts amount to an illustrated tour of America's shameful racial history. At the same time, her pride, defiance, and awesome artistry offer a vision of transcendence and triumph.

Simone was so far ahead of her time (she tells Stroud at one point that she's convinced she is not from this planet) that it's not until he turns the camera on the kids in her thrall that he captures the cautiously giddy optimism of the early stages of the Black Power movement his wife helped catalyze. You can actually see these fired-up young people, so used to holding themselves back in public—at least when there are white people around—learning to adopt the then-revolutionary habit of living out loud. Most are still tentative, holding themselves too stiffly or clustering shyly around Simone after a performance to search her face for clues, but some are clearly feeling the freedom. One young woman in the audience at Morehouse has a grin as wide as her face will hold. Stroud keeps going back to her, and no wonder: Looking at that smile is like feeling the sunshine after a wild summer storm.

After all these years and all the progress African Americans have made in mainstreaming their culture, it's still exhilarating to hear Simone say of the young black people in her audience, with her characteristic measured force, "My job is to somehow make them curious enough, persuade them, by hook or crook, to get more aware of themselves and where they came from." But even if she hadn't said it, Nina Simone Great Performances would have left no room to doubt what she's doing.

Last night's showing, which was sponsored by Target and the Maysles Cinema, was held in a Harlem church where I sat near a welcome but noisy electric fan. That got in the way of the music a bit, but it was more than made up for by the near-capacity crowd, which became an extension of the onscreen audiences. Simone refers more than once in the film to the legacy she hopes to leave. At one point, she tells Stroud that, even though her music is so firmly rooted in the political realities of her time and place, she thinks it's universal enough to live on after she's gone. If she could have seen her audience last night as they clapped, laughed, called out in response to things she said, and rose at the end for a standing ovation, she would have known she was right about that too.

Written for The House Next Door.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

A Movie a Day, day 59: Mugabe and the White African

The makers of Mugabe and the White African, like their subjects, seem to have an almost touching faith in the European legal system, yet they ask us to find their antagonists guilty as charged without so much as hearing their case. And so, though I was horrified by the violence encountered by Mike Campbell, the white African of the title, as codirectors Lucy Bailey and Andrew Thompson wanted me to be, I wasn’t swayed by their insistence on the righteousness of his cause.

Mike and his son-in-law, Ben Freeth, are among the white farmers who refused to leave their farms in Zimbabwe after President Robert Mugabe voided their deeds, claiming the land for black Africans under his "Zimbabwe for Zimbabweans" program. (Mike's and Ben's wives and Ben's kids are there too, but they're shown only rarely and almost always from a distance, mute symbols of what the men are fighting for.) The Campbells and Freeths have been essentially squatting on what used to be their land for nearly a decade when we first see them in December 2007, enduring constant threats and occasional beatings (though those seem to be borne mainly by their guards) by groups of vigilantes who are unofficially supported by Mugabe. This is a camera-ready setup if there ever was one: You could cut the tension with a machete when white-haired Mike and his suntanned son-in-law get chased down a road near their house by armed men who’ve tried to trap their car at a makeshift roadblock, or when Mike and Ben pile a bunch of guards onto a pickup truck and head into the night to flush out armed interlopers hiding in their own backyard. But the filmmakers aren't so good at illuminating the issues that have led to these charged standoffs.

Always taking Mike and Ben at their word, never questioning their assumption that what's good for them is good for Zimbabwe, and rarely offering any evidence to support their assertions about what's ruining the country's economy, this film put me in the awkward position of playing devil's advocate for a man I believe to be one of the worst of Africa's many brutal and self-serving despots. I'm no apologist for the beatings and worse Mugabe reportedly doles out to people who oppose him and there's no disputing that Zimbabwe's economy is a mess (the unemployment rate is over 90%), but I needed more than just the Mike and Ben's opinions to be convinced that Mugabe's land redistribution plan is just a cynical ploy to consolidate his power. The film does show just how Mugabe awards the confiscated land to his cronies and allies, but then, isn't that pretty much what Cecil Rhodes did about 100 years ago, when he annexed what he then named Rhodesia for Britain? I'm not saying that excuses it—two wrongs don't make a right, as my mother used to say—but there's a certain rough karmic justice in what's happening to Zimbabwe's white landowners now, especially when the farmers are as blind as Mike and Ben are to their own power and privilege.

The black Africans in the film are almost always seen and not heard, and what we see of the white landowners' relationship with them is shockingly reminiscent of our own plantation past. Mike professes his love for the men who work for him ("we're trying to help them," he says), but their body language reveals a distance and lack of ease that belies his words: This is clearly a relationship of unequals. We learn that the farm supports about 500 people in addition to the white family that owns it, but we know almost nothing about these farmhands and guards and their families, since they speak, if at all, in the smile-heavy, yes-laden, monosyllabic language of the subservient. This could have been a much more interesting movie if the filmmakers had moved out from the big house to find out where and how the workers live and whether they think white farmers like Ben and Mike are good for their country.

By the time we finally hear from a black African who does more than mumble or grin, he's so furious he can barely speak at first, though he winds up landing some sharp verbal jabs. A minister's son, he shows up at the Campbells' farm to claim "my land," which was granted to him by the government four years earlier. When Mike replies that it's his farm, duly paid for, he asks: "Who did you pay? Did you pay the government of Zimbabwe or did you pay another white fella?" The government has reclaimed the land, he says, because "We are so tired of you. You come here and you grab up all the best stuff…. We don't want to have anything to do with you people any more. We have shifted from you people to the Asians."

Serenely immune to his arguments, Ben and Mike seem clueless about the poisonous legacy of Zimbabwe's colonial past and the potential offensiveness of their conviction that their leadership is good for the people of Zimbabwe. Despite their insistence that they are Africans, these two and their friends and relatives share an old-school English sense of propriety and certitude. I was moved by the quintessential stiff upper lip exhibited by Ben's mother, who spoke in measured tones about her support for his stance, insisting that "it's right to stand for what's right" as tears coursed down her cheeks, but I found Mike and Ben's smug head lawyer, a man so English he wears a white wig in court, a little hard to take as he pontificated about the patent absurdity of the opposition's case and the "distinctly racially discriminative" nature of the system.

As Ben started talking about how God put them there for a purpose, I started thinking dark thoughts about the forbearance shown by the vigilantes toward these arrogant white fellas. After all, I thought, they've let them stay there for years, and when they do kick them out, they let them go in peace and take their stuff. Which is probably more than you can say for the way the white people's ancestors took the land in the first place. Yeah, yeah; two wrongs don't make a right. I'm just saying, it could have been a lot worse.

I even started to question the way Mike and Ben invoke the rule of law as a cover for defying their own country's law. People who own private property are never happy when it's seized by the government, but isn't obeying laws we don't like part of following the rule of law? Well, yes, so is trying to overturn the ones you don't like, which is what they're doing. But do they really expect the government of Zimbabwe to change its laws just because some court in Namibia says it should? I mean, please. If an international court convicted the U.S. of war crimes for our invasion of Iraq or our treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo, do you think we'd pull out our troops or shut down the prison?

Mugabe and the White Africanis a fascinating document, but it's not the inspirational story its directors intended. Instead, this half-digested chunk of modern history is an inchoate case study of the contemporary face of colonialism.

Written for The House Next Door

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

A Movie a Day, day 58: Orlando

Tilda Swinton's lamb-to-lion transformation in I Am Love made me want to see (or re-see) more of her work, so yesterday's movie was a press screening of Orlando.

I missed Sally Potter's adaptation of Virginia Woolf's novel when it came out in 1992 and haven't seen it since, though I kept meaning to, so I can't say whether the digital work recently done to the film changed it in any way or if it just restored it to its original state. I can attest, though, that Orlando is a beautifully shot, imaginatively constructed, occasionally absurd but more often tartly funny reverie on the limits of human existence and the possibility of transcendence. In part by translating some of Woolf's pointed commentary into asides that Orlando directs to the camera (not that he always gets the joke, since he's often the butt of it), the movie preserves the book's satiric stake on stupid human tricks like colonialism, classism, and the glorification of war. And, first, last, and always, it takes on gender stereotyping. That's done in countless small but tasty ways, like when Queen Elizabeth is played by a wink-free, regal Quentin Crisp. It also accounts for Orlando's second magical transformation, which is one of the story's main hooks. Read the rest on The House Next Door, Slant Magazine's blog.

Monday, July 12, 2010

A Movie a Day, day 57: Cyrus

I wrote a bit about Cyrus for The House Next Door a few months ago, after seeing it at South by Southwest, but it just opened in central Jersey. So today’s Movie a Day writeup is my longer review for TimeOFF.


For months after I saw The Puffy Chair at the 2005 South by Southwest film festival, I waited for it to open in New Jersey so I could tell my TimeOFF readers about it. It wasn’t the best movie I’d seen that year, but it was one of the most likeable. A low-key but laugh-out-loud story about a relationship-testing road trip, The Puffy Chair is just the kind of warmhearted, humanistic comedy a lot of the people I know would like to see more of.

But it never had a theatrical run, and Baghead, brothers Jay and Mark Duplass’ second feature, never got to Jersey (both films are now available on Netflix). That makes Cyrus is the first Duplass brothers movie to play at a theater near you, so I’m sorry to say it’s not their best work. Still, it’s a lot better than most of what makes it into the multiplex.

Jonah Hill is Cyrus, a terrifyingly passive-aggressive man-sized boy with an Oedipus complex Freud would have loved to sink his teeth into. Not that it’s hard to understand his fixation, seeing as how his mom, Molly (Marisa Tomei in earth mother mode), is as warm and nurturing as she is juicily sexy. The two seem very happy in their too-tight little family circle until John (John C. Reilly) falls for Molly and bumbles in. Then the fight is on, as Cyrus and John wage a clandestine war for the affections of the blithely clueless Molly.

For better and worse, the Duplass brothers carried techniques they developed for their indie films into their first studio-funded feature. One of the better things is the improvisation they’ve always required of their actors. A lot of directors use improv these days, and not always well. Movies like Grown Ups, in which big stars riff away, cracking themselves and each other up, can easily become shapeless, self-indulgent messes. But the Duplass brothers use improv thoughtfully, letting their actors make the dialogue their own and find new humor or truth in their scenes while making sure they stay grounded in their characters’ personalities and relationships. That helps give their movies the lived-in, true-to-life texture that is their best trait. As Reilly put it, at a Q&A after the South by Southwest screening, the improvisation the Duplasses encourage is always “going after an emotional truth.”

But it’s too bad the brothers hung onto their penchant for zooming in on people for no good reason, which whips up a sense of urgency often at odds with the tone of a scene. They also rely too much on laying down dialogue over jump cuts of people silently interacting, a technique that draws attention to itself, making you momentarily aware that you’re watching a movie. Which would be just fine, of course, if that feeling enhanced the experience in some way, but it seems out of place in a movie so bent on creating a feeling of everyday reality, especially since it’s often used in scenes that are trying to establish a sense of intimacy.

Other directors might have played Cyrus as social satire – Molly is, after all, the ultimate helicopter mom – but the Duplass brothers want us to laugh with, not at, their characters. That puts a heavy onus on the actors to make us connect to the people they play, since Cyrus is downright monstrous, John is another of those sloppy, self-pitying man-children that are all over the movies these days, and Molly is so underdeveloped it’s hard to know what makes her tick. Fortunately, the cast – which includes the always wonderful Catherine Keener as John’s patient ex-wife – is up to the challenge. Hill is particularly impressive as a kind of human Chuckie doll, the round-eyed innocent act he plays straight in more conventional comedies taking on a whole new meaning as Cyrus uses it as a cover for his ruthless plotting.

The Duplass brothers are at their best when they’re finding the humor in everyday situations and relationships, so you feel them straining a bit to domesticate the sick scenario at the heart of this movie. But if you like quirky comedies, Cyrus is well worth seeing.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

A Movie a Day, day 56: A Tale of Two Sisters

I was in the mood for something moody this morning, so I caught up with A Tale of Two Sisters, which fit the bill. A South Korean horror movie I missed when it came out in 2003 (it’s already been remade in English, as The Uninvited), Two Sisters is slow moving but consistently creepy. It’s told from the point of view of Su-Mi, the older sister, who’s just gotten out of a mental institution when the story starts. We know she’s not quite right, but the film keeps us guessing about just how deluded and dangerous she may be until the final 10 minutes or so.

Two Sisters takes the hostility and mutual mistrust that can keep "blended families" from blending and turns the dial up to 11. Are Su-Mi and her cowed little sister the victims of their new stepmother, or is Su-Mi's overactive imagination making her blame her stepmother for things she never did? And what's the deal with that stepmother, anyway? Is she hysterical and homicidal, vulnerable and a little pathetic, or some of each? Or is she just a well-meaning but wary woman trying to protect herself and her relationship with Su-Mi's mysteriously unresponsive father?

The answer is unexpected, which was nice: I hate it when I can see the end coming a mile away in movies like this. I also liked the way A Tale of Two Sisters made everyday things—-a whistling teakettle, a hairclip, a wardrobe full of dresses—-feel downright sinister. And I appreciated its judicious use of violence and blood, which are inserted mostly in the form of little shards of sound and fury that are over almost as soon as you've figured out what's going on. But best of all is the way it took the common complaints of people who feel victimized by a remarriage ("Why am I the one who always has to understand?" "Why aren't you happy to see me or grateful for all I do for you?") and made them into grounds for murder. There's so much emotional brutality in that stuff in real life that it's cathartic to see it played for thrills.

Wirtten for The House Next Door

Saturday, July 10, 2010

A Movie a Day, day 55: The Kids Are All Right

If there were a cinematic equivalent of the Great American Novel, The Kids Are All Right would be a contender. Not that it's weighty or self-important (on the contrary, its self-aware humor is part of its charm), but it takes the temperature of family life in a particular place and time in American history as precisely as a John Updike novel.

I've been watching everything I could find from director/co-writer Lisa Cholodenko (she co-wrote this one with Stuart Blumberg) ever since I saw High Art back in 1998. There wasn't a lot to find. Aside from a few episodes of high-quality TV shows (Six Feet Under, The L Word), she directed just two movies: Laurel Canyon and now The Kids Are All Right. As Spencer Tracy says of Katherine Hepburn in Pat and Mike, it ain't much meat, but what's there is choice. All three of Cholodenko's films explore the blurriness of the lines we try to draw around our sexuality as their characters are drawn, almost despite themselves, into "forbidden" sexual relationships. As Jules (Julianne Moore) tries to explain to her son, Laser (Josh Hutcherson), in The Kids Are All Right: "Human sexuality is complicated, and sometimes desire can be counterintuitive."

Jules is on the spot because Laser just discovered that his two moms, Jules and Nic (Annette Bening), sometimes get off by watching gay male porn. The film plays that realistically odd preference for laughs, but there's none of the shame-inducing sniggering we've gotten used to from movies like American Pie. Like good parents, Cholodenko and Blumberg understand and embrace everything about their characters, loving them not despite of, but because of their absurdly flawed humanity.

The taboo relationship this time around involves the sperm donor for Laser and his sister, Joni (Mia Wasikowska), the catalyst who brings some long-simmering family conflicts to a boil after the kids decide it's time to meet their biological father. The tone of this warmhearted comic drama never darkens too much, but there's a strong sense of what's at risk: This is a family you don't want to see broken up. Sure, it has its internal scuffles, but they're just the inevitable jockeying that goes on inside intimate relationships as people—particularly teenagers and long-married spouses— work to maintain their autonomy and sense of self. Being part of this family, you sense, would be like getting hugged by your big-breasted grandma. You might feel a little suffocated sometimes, but you wouldn't really want to break free.

The acting is universally excellent, as it always is in Cholodenko's well-cast movies. Mark Ruffalo is likeable but sometimes laughable as Paul, the charming but a little too self-satisfied sperm donor dad, an aging New Ager who's "working the alternative thing pretty hard," as Jules puts it. Moore makes Jules touchingly awkward as she grapples with her unwanted attraction to Paul. Hutcherson's best moment comes in an early scene as Laser watches an obnoxious friend wrestle with his testosterone-charged father, his excited face and hesitant body language telling you all you need to know about his father-hunger.

But the standouts in this outstanding cast are Bening and Wasikowska, who keep showing us the layers of repressed emotion their characters are working hard to hide. The emotions so clearly roiling under their tightly controlled surfaces made those two feel like mother and daughter even more than the pale coloring and delicate cheekbones they share, just as the matching vulnerability and yearning in Wasikowska and Ruffalo's big brown eyes made them look like father and daughter in their final goodbye. Of course, it was nuts to search the faces of unrelated actors for signs of each other, but I couldn't help myself: That's just how right this movie got its portrait of a family.

Written for The House Next Door

Friday, July 9, 2010

A Movie a Day, day 54: The Peasant and the Priest

I heard about The Peasant and the Priest from my sister, Judith, who went to art school with the film's director, Esther Podemski. Podemski is a New York City filmmaker who has taught at the New School, but my sister knows her as "a fabulous painter." Having seen her latest documentary, I'm not surprised to hear that. The Peasant and the Priest, a protest against the price we pay for globalization, captures the texture of a vanishing way of life with delicate precision.

The priest of the title is Oreste Benzi, who ministers to sex slaves in Florence. The first words we hear from him say is to one of his "daughters," a roadside prostitute. "Be joyful," he tells her, before blessing her. He clearly follows his own advice, finding meaning and joy, as well as frustration and sorrow, in tending to his bedraggled flock. The peasant is Sergio Ermini, who lives 12 miles south of Florence on the small estate farm he manages. The last of the sharecroppers in his part of Tuscany, Sergio does almost exactly what his father and a long line of fathers before him did, tending to grapevines and trees (in one of the parallels Podemski draws between the two, he refers to his plants as his children) and turning their fruits into wine and olive oil.

Both men were in their 70s when Podemski started filming, and both are portrayed as among the last of a dying breed. Her premise is that the social fabric that supported men like Sergio and Father Oreste has been shredded by "the financial and political realities of the world," as the owner of Sergio's farm puts it. We hear from many people—social workers, neighbors, and others as well as Sergio and Father Oreste themselves—about how those forces are changing Tuscany, even its softly rolling hills now lost to long rows of machine-made furrows. Podemski also provides context in the form of a 14th-century Italian mural, an allegory about good and bad government whose three parts show a happy, well-functioning society, a sick society ruled by despots and the just rulers who stand between one possible fate and the other. Returning frequently to the mural to tease out its messages, the film keeps the image fresh by using animation to separate it into a series of layers, which we float through before closing in on the relevant part. (This film's co-editor and animator, Gregory Loser, was co-editor of Godfrey Cheshire's excellent Moving Midway.)

It's not clear why Podemski sees Father Oreste as an endangered species or why it should be any harder now than it ever has been for priests like Father Oreste to do what they can to counteract the effects of an evil system. I also had my doubts about Podemski's portrayal of sharecropping as a kind of paradise lost. After all, as Sergio's daughter points out, her father's way of life is dying out partly because none of the young people in the area want to live like that any more.

But if Podemski's movie can be vague about the political and economic forces changing Italy, it does make it clear that those forces are destroying lives, and it's crystal clear in conveying the dignity and meaning of its main subjects' work. When we see Father Oreste talking to his "daughters" or hear from them ourselves, we feel the urgency of our need for people like him, and the quietly observant camera makes life on Sergio's farm and in his community look achingly beautiful and fulfilling. The ambient sound also helps, piping in such realistic sounds of farm life that my cat, who could usually care less about the movies I watch at home, leapt up to search for birds until I plugged in my earbuds.

And, though I may not agree with Podemski that Good Samaritans are on the way out, I resonated to the sentiments expressed by her final voiceover. "When the last peasant and Good Samaritan are gone, we will have lost the wisdom they acquired over many centuries," she said. "Their watchfulness over the fleeting moment. Their insistence upon justice in a world of unending scarcity. Their suspicion of progress. This is why we will miss them."

Written for The House Next Door

Thursday, July 8, 2010

A Movie a Day, day 53: Winnebago Man

The subject of Winnebago Man hardly ever goes anywhere, but the movie covers a tremendous amount of ground. One of its themes is the journey director Ben Steinbauer took in making this beautifully transparent documentary, which wound up nowhere near where it started.

Mark Twain, who was a kind of connoisseur of cursing, once wrote: "When it comes down to pure ornamental cursing, the native American is gifted above the sons of men." Maybe so, but Jack Rebney, whose operatic swearing in outtakes from an industrial video for Winnebago RVs won him the title of Angriest Man in the World on the Internet, makes the average American look like an amateur. Steinbauer lays out Rebney's story neatly in the first few minutes, showing us choice excerpts from the outtakes and explaining how they went viral, passed around on videotape before YouTube and watched and rewatched by a growing group of "fans," including Steinbauer. He puts Rebner's video in context by interviewing some shaggy and insightful talking heads about why we love to watch people melt down or make fools of themselves.

Then he tracks down Rebner himself, 20 years after the video was made, and things get really interesting. At first, Steinbauer is motivated by a mixture of guilt (after a segment on how the subjects of other viral videos were humiliated by the mocking attention they got, he wonders aloud if the same thing happened to Rebney) and curiosity (as one of the people he talks to later puts it, "The Internet's like the modern-day freak show, except you don't have to pay a nickel to get in. [Meeting Rebner would be] like meeting the three-headed boy or something.") But his motivations and expectations keep changing as he and his subject get into a prolonged battle of wills over how Rebner should be portrayed in the film.

The Rebner Steinbauer gets to know is a lot savvier and more complicated than the hapless victim of his guilty imaginings. A former broadcast newsman who quit "on principle" when the business started to degenerate into the mess it is now, Rebner is 76 and a self-described hermit when Steinbauer finds him. He's utterly disdainful of modern-day media, especially the Internet (in a request for information that he posted online, he calls electronic devices "the work of the devil"), yet he wants an audience for his jeremiads, which are mostly about how Dick Cheney is ruining America (the Bush Administration was still in office while Winnebago Man was being filmed). Steinbauer is convinced that people want to hear Rebner talk about his personal life, not his politics, so he keeps cutting him off to redirect the conversation. And that pisses Rebner off, sometimes resurrecting the ghost of that angry man of the Winnebago video.

That's not all we see of Rebner, of course. We learn about his kinder, gentler side mostly thanks to his best friend, with whom Rebner drops the guard he usually maintains around Steinbauer. We hear his articulate and insightful descriptions of thing like his descent from vision impairment to total blindness, which he calls "having my vision leave me. It's almost like a divorce," he adds. "I couldn't understand what I had done." Also revealing and moving are his interactions with fans at San Francisco's Found Footage film festival. You can almost see him shed a long-held layer of defensiveness as he talks afterward about how surprised he was to learn that these people—well, most of them, anyhow—watched his video not to mock him, but to get a vicarious thrill from his volcanic venting. "That really is the human condition, in the end. We're all facing a tremendous amount of adversity," he says.

That's a seminal moment, but it wouldn't pay off as big without the lively push-pull that gives Winnebago Man so much of its vitality and tension. There were times when I wondered if Steinbauer was just perpetuating the wrong he initially wanted to right by making this film. I mean, imagine being a former journalist, gifted at using words and brimming with urgent opinions, becoming famous in a medium you hate for going ballistic while shooting a training video, of all things, and then having a filmmaker offer you a chance to show the world your true self -- only to keep shutting you up whenever you start talking about what's on your mind.

But that's the whole point of this movie. A beautifully constructed collaboration between filmmaker and subject, Winnebago Man is about a lot of things, but mostly it's about the frustrations of fame in our savvy, superficial age.

Written for The House Next Door

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

A Movie a Day, day 52: Despicable Me

"Is everything in 3D these days, or does it just feel that way?" a woman near me asked her friend yesterday at a screening of Despicable Me. I didn't agree with Roger Ebert when he wrote in Newsweek that 3D "adds nothing essential to the moviegoing experience," but I thought he was on to something important. Most of the time, 3D is just a transparently tacky way for Hollywood to extort more cash from the shrinking theatrical audience—and a typically shortsighted one, since cheap tricks and expensive tix will only speed up the inevitable switch to watching movies at home.

But the fault is not in the technology; it's in how it's being misused. Now and then, a movie comes along in which 3D is an important part of the experience. Even in these movies it may not add anything essential, to use Ebert's criterion, but maybe that's setting the bar a little too high. Pare any movie down to its essentials and you'd lose a lot of little things that play a big part in making it succeed or fail. And done right, as it is in Despicable Me, 3D can be a pretty powerful tool.

Take Coraline and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. 3D helped plunk us right into the middle of their imaginative animated worlds, the added element of unreality somehow making those environments feel more concrete. Both of those films also used 3D to create memorable, sometimes even meaningful effects. When Coraline's false father's arms bow out from the screen as if to embrace the whole world, for instance, you feel the unreality of the comfort he's offering. And the sinisterly huge needle that sewed up a doll in Coraline's opening credits, its tip sometimes poking out as if to stab us, made a great prologue to a story about evil disguised as motherly love.

3D can jazz up some otherwise disposable movies too, like Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, whose critters sometimes delighted the kids in the audience by doing that shtick of seeming to run right off the screen and into the theater. Several kids at the screening I attended sidled up to the screen during the end credits, drawn to the cheery drawings that seemed to float just in front of it like magnets to a refrigerator. And let's not forget Avatar, another thoroughly forgettable and derivative story made somewhat interesting by CGI and 3D, which created an imaginary world you could get lost in for a while.

Technology—not just 3D, but CGI in general—is a little too essential to Despicable Me. I kept feeling as if the filmmakers had constructed the story to showcase the technology instead of the other way around: "Hey, let's have the evil mastermind take the kids to an amusement park so we can do a 3D rollercoaster ride!" But that rollercoaster really is cool, and so are things like the visceral velocity of a rocket that hurtles up past one of the film's little yellow "minions," jostling him out of the bubble of anti-gravity-formula-induced bliss he's floating in. And I loved watching some of those minions vie to see who could get the farthest into the theater during the final credits.

Unfortunately, Despicable Me's story is almost as formulaic as its visuals are inventive. It has some Austin Powers-type fun with Gru, its misunderstood boy-turned-would-be evil genius. It sets up an entertaining premise—Gru is competing with a younger, more techno-savvy evil genius wannabe for funding from the Bank of Evil (formerly Lehman Brothers) to finance his next evil deed—and it has a lot of fun with its settings, from the elaborate vacuum-tube delivery system that gets Gru to his underground lair to the increasing bowed caryatids that support the pillars at the bank, the last of which is squished flat. But almost as soon as Gru adopts three plucky orphan girls, you can hear the air whoosh out of the movie's narrative tires, since the filmmakers barely tap into the emotions that should be the whole point of setting up a situation like that, flattening it out into a predictable progression of set pieces. If Pixar had made this movie, you'd have been groping for your last soggy Kleenex by the last scene, instead of just tearing up a bit for the first time.

Like Sally Field, Despicable Me never risks enough to win our love, but it makes us really, really like it. And its clever use of 3D is a significant part of its appeal.

Written for The House Next Door

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

A Movie a Day, day 51: I Am Love

A mediocre melodrama with a great performance at its center, I Am Love is often torpid, sometimes laughable, and occasionally deeply moving.

Writer/director Luca Guadagnino seems to be going for a Visconti-style epic with historical resonance. The Milano manufacturing family that’s choking the life out of our heroine, Emma (Tilda Swinton), exemplifies the ambitious bourgeoisie who took economic control of Italy from the bluebloods in the late 19th and early 20th century. Emma’s husband is even named Tancredi, presumably after the up-and-coming young officer in Visconti’s The Leopard, which chronicled the end of the road for an old-school southern Italian aristocrat. The director also tries for Visconti-style political context, inserting a subplot about the family-owned company being streamlined and sold, becoming part of the global economy and passing references to how the Recchis acquired their wealth (through exploiting workers, fueling the Axis war machine during WWII, and making shady deals with local, possibly Mafioso, leaders). But resurrecting the old master’s ghost only makes I Am Love feel that much more hackneyed.

It feels long at just over two hours, dragging in several places. I could have done with a lot fewer shots of people opening and closing drawers, serving sumptuous meals, or milling about in formal clothes for parties in the Recchis’ mansion. The camera work is lackluster too, calling attention to itself mostly in negative ways, like when it pans awkwardly from one person to the other in a conversation or focuses on suffocatingly close shots of plants or parts of people’s faces and bodies for no apparent reason. Even the gorgeous Italian countryside mostly looks merely pretty here, like something from a Hallmark greeting card. And I didn’t even try to count all the visual clichés, though I did make notes about statues “crying” in the rain, a bird symbolically trapped in a church where Emma tries to find sanctuary, her lover’s pickup truck and sweet-looking yellow Lab, and their Lady Chatterly-like sex in the grass, a muzzy mix of too-close shots of flesh and close-ups of the reproductive organs of plants. As for Emma’s husband, all you need to know about their incompatibility is that he switches channels when she’s watching the scene in Philadelphia where Tom Hanks listens to opera, right? And just in case you missed the point, Guadagnino shows us Hanks’ ecstastic little dance and Denzel Washington’s empathetic gaze once again.

But then there is Swinton, who undergoes an astonishing transformation over the course of the film. Emma starts out a quivering beastie in a gilded cage. With her thin body clothed mainly in monotone sheaths, her pale skin making her look almost flayed, and her hair encased in one of those buns that always spells repression in movies like this, Swinton even looks unhealthy at first, but it’s her acting that tells the tale. Her tentative movements, uneasy smiles, and the way she’s always scanning everyone else’s faces all telegraph how thoroughly her sense of self has been gutted by this patriarchal family, with its unshakeable confidence in its own primacy and its insistence on everyone’s proper place.

Then she falls for Antonio (a cute but innocuous Edoardo Gabbriellini), the delicately earthy chef her son Edoardo brings into the house, and Swinton lets her inner lioness out. That doesn’t happen all at once, of course, and Swinton details the birth pangs of Emma’s liberated self as beautifully as she portrays the newly empowered woman who emerges at the end.

It all starts when she savors some glistening prawns prepared for her family by Antonio. Overcoming even one of those inappropriate close-up (the camera suddenly focuses on one side of her face as she masticates), Swinton shows us just what that meal means to Emma. Her eyes widen in surprise, then flutter shut as she savors each bite, chewing with increasing sensualism. When Antonio comes to her table to see how they liked the food, she’s too embarrassed to look at him, as if they’ve already shared a forbidden intimacy.

If you love great acting, you’ll want to see this performance.