Wednesday, October 27, 2010


American women have come a long way, baby, as that annoying cigarette ad used to say, so if something’s holding one of us back these days, it’s as likely to be an internalized barrier as an external one. But those internal barriers can be the hardest ones to get past. All that conditioning most of us get to put other people’s needs first and sublimate our own desires makes it hard to map out and stick to a path. As Kathryn Bigelow told 60 Minutes, when she was asked why there are still relatively few female directors making feature films: “I think the journey for women, no matter what venue it is — politics, business, film — it's a long journey.”

So it’s no wonder a lot of people treated Barbara Loden the way Samuel Johnson did female preachers (“the marvel is not that it was done well, but that it was done at all”) when she released Wanda in 1970: After all, she was the first woman since Ida Lupino to direct a major American feature. But, as a lot of cinephiles now know, this still-obscure movie is actually done very well. An emotionally honest character study of a woman sleepwalking through her own life, Wanda looks at a type often encountered often in life but rarely seen in the movies.

Loden, who starred in the movie as well as writing and directing it, put a lot of herself in the title character, a rootless beauty who takes up with anyone who will have her. “I used to be a lot like that,” she told the Los Angeles Times the year after Wanda’s release. “I had no identity of my own. I just became whatever I thought people wanted me to become.”

The film starts out slow, and it takes a little while to get adjusted to the often muddy sound and the grainy look of 16mm blown up to 35. Loden shot it for just $100,000 with a crew of three, and you can almost feel them getting better as the movie progresses. At first, too many non-professional actors give labored line readings, and too many medium or long shots of people walking or driving go on for too long. But there’s a lot of information in those shots about Wanda’s hardscrabble coal-mining town: worn-out women toting crying babies, empty beer cans on linoleum counters, the constant hum of coal-mining machinery, the barren black strip-mined hillsides. So when the story kicks into gear, about half an hour in, you have a good sense of who Wanda is and where she comes from.

The tempo changes when Wanda bumps up against Mr. Dennis, a small-time crook with a hair-trigger temper (Michael Higgins, a professional actor who nails the part). They click instantly into a codependent relationship that’s at once highly unstable and the most stable thing in Wanda's life. Along for the ride, she seems to have no ambition and no illusions about being in control of her own life, and things spiral farther and farther downward as she starts out as his barely tolerated companion, then helps with the driving as they travel cross-country, then becomes his getaway driver and a full-fledged accomplice.

The shoot was partly improvised from Loden’s script, and it sometimes takes on a near-documentary feel as the two drive through the heart of late-60s America, stopping at places like a fundamentalist church built over catacombs whose grounds are bristling with hand-lettered calls to Jesus. And when Mr. Dennis gets drunk in a field where they’ve pulled off the road for a rest, waving a whiskey bottle and shouting at a fleet of model planes that buzz overhead, Loden finds a distinctive, dark vibe that’s part North by Northwest, part Easy Rider, and all her own.

Wanda’s relationship with Mr. Dennis is hardly equitable — for one thing, she calls him “Mr. Dennis” and he calls her “Wanda” — yet she’s not exactly a victim. She seems to expect abuse and accepts it without complaint, but she doesn’t cringe or collapse when it comes, standing her ground with a stubborn strength that may be an inchoate form of self-esteem.

The downbeat ending leaves little hope that Wanda will escape the trap she’s in, but Loden did, starting as a model and a showgirl and graduating to small parts in films. She met Elia Kazan when she auditioned for Wild River (she played small parts in that film and in Splendor in the Grass), becoming his mistress and eventually his wife and bearing him a son. He helped her in her acting career, but judging by Richard Schickel’s patronizing description of her in his biography of Kazan, he doesn’t seem to have taken her seriously as a director. “She was young, drop-dead gorgeous and basically from a poor-white-trash background—all passionate feeling, unmediated by any inkling of abstract ideas,” Schickel writes. “She was, of course, blonde.”

When Loden died of cancer at 48 in 1980, Wanda was still the only film she had directed. She was planning a shoot of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, though. That sounds about right.

Written for The L Magazine

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest

A girl-power revenge fantasy that sounds good in theory but hasn’t played out so well in practice, especially onscreen, Stieg Larsson’s Girl With … series ran out of steam way before it ended. I liked the first book, and the movie Niels Arden Oplev made of it, well enough and wanted to like the rest, but halfway through The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, the third and final film, I just wanted to shoot the poor thing and put it out of its misery.

Oplev says he decided not to direct the two sequels because the studio’s rushed schedule didn’t leave him time to do justice to more than one. Besides, as he noted, the first book was the best of the three, more character-driven and complex than the others. So it’s not entirely – maybe not even mostly – director Daniel Alfredson’s fault that the next two films in the series are so lifeless. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest is a little better than The Girl Who Played with Fire, but only in the sense that catching a cold is better than having the flu.

Hornet’s Nest opens with a clumsily staged massacre (Lisbeth Salander’s creepazoid brother kills a couple of cops) that reminded me of a ‘60s-era martial arts movie. You know the ones I mean, where the hero goes up against five or six bad guys at once and defeats them easily – because they obligingly hang back at the edge of the frame, watching their brothers get killed one by one before rushing in single file to meet their own fates.

But conjuring up the style and energy of those Hong Kong chop-sockies just makes this film feel even flatter. While Oplev’s movie condensed the first book’s complicated narrative neatly and kept the tension growing, Alfredson’s are repetitive, clumsily paced, and visually bland. Lurching between bursts of melodrama and long periods of undramatic exposition, they’re the cinematic equivalent of the books’ clunky prose and uneven plotting.

Hornet’s Nest doesn’t even tell us much of anything new, recycling facts unearthed in first two books. It feeds these to us on two parallel tracks: the story Larsson alter-ego Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) is preparing for Millenium magazine to clear Lisbeth’s reputation and Lisbeth’s seemingly interminable trial on murder charges trumped up by the cabal of evil white men who keep conspiring to keep her down.

The biggest shocks come from the DVD Lisbeth recorded in the first film of her rape by her guardian. I thought that scene was justified, hard as it was to watch, because violence against women was the story’s subject, so showing a brutal example or two felt appropriate, perhaps even necessary. But this movie’s replaying of snippets of the same tape didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know, so it felt different – more about exploiting than exposing violence against women.

Noomi Rapace, who plays Lisbeth, came off a little too obviously vulnerable in the other two, depending too much on her clothes and makeup – including that much-fetishized tattoo – to convey the hard-won attitude that encases Lisbeth in the book. But this time she earns the rave reviews she’s been getting all along. Her ebony eyes as hard and flat as stones, she emits a near-palpable force field that keeps everyone at arm’s length. She looks stronger than ever physically, too, maybe because we see her work her way back into shape after a severe injury, training like a boxer preparing for a fight – or like The Bride in Kill Bill.

Unfortunately for her, Rapace won’t get a do-over with a better director. But the rest of us will when the American remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo comes out next year. Director David Fincher (Fight Club, Zodiac, the Social Network) excels at dramatizing obsessive investigations, intellectual torment, and physical hardships, and his star, Rooney Mara, was convincing and compelling as a strong-willed young woman in The Social Network. Maybe they’ll give us the Lisbeth Salander story we’ve been waiting for.

Written for TimeOFF

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


I’m a sucker for a movie with a giant wave in it, so you can trust me when I say the tsunami in the opening sequence of Hereafter is a masterpiece. A seamless mixture of CGI and good old-fashioned tank time, it recreates the Asian disaster of 2004 with devastating verisimilitude and intensity. My fellow tidal wave freaks won’t want to miss this one. (UPDATE: It's been pulled from theaters in Japan, since the tsunami opener is too realistic for traumatized audiences there.) As for everybody else, I’m pretty sure you can find a better way to spend your ten bucks.

The movies Clint Eastwood directs have the emotional intensity and bluntness of the Depression-era Warner Brothers pictures he probably saw as a kid, the ones starring people like Humphrey Bogart and Jimmy Cagney. That hyped-up realism works well in combination with a subtle script like Bird or A Perfect World, but when Eastwood starts with a simplistic script it can feel punishingly heavyhanded, as it did in Flags of Our Fathers/Letter from Iwo Jima and Changeling.

Hereafter started as a screenplay by Peter Morgan, who made a sharp turn from the dramatizations of historical turning points that he’s best known for (Frost/Nixon, The Queen) to grapple with the question of what happens after death. Morgan bats aside religious fanatics and phony psychics to focus on regular people grappling with death, sidestepping the melodramatic dice-loading that throws some of Eastwood’s movies off balance. So far so good, but Hereafter bends too far in the other direction, leaching nearly all the drama from a screenplay studded with death and disaster.

Morgan braids three stories together, in the trendy style spawned by Babel and Crash. The individual stories are told well enough, unfolding at an unhurried but efficient pace and only sometimes lapsing into clunky exposition. Morgan packs information into each of the three as generously as a deli chef stuffing a Reuben, and Eastwood’s direction tells us even more (we always know where we are when we switch cities, for instance, because of the landmarks his camera lingers on).

The three main characters are Marcus (the role was shared by twin brothers Frankie and George McLaren), a sad English boy pining for his recently deceased twin brother Jason; Marie (Cécile De France), a French journalist who lost her coveted job as a 60 Minutes-type reporter after being brought to the brink of death by the tsunami; and George (Matt Damon), an American who found he could communicate with the dead after briefly dying and being brought back to life as a child. George used to do psychic readings for a living, but he quit because, as he keeps telling the older brother who tries to convince him to cash in on his gift: “It’s not a gift, Billy. It’s a curse. It ruins any chance I have at a normal life. I feel like a freak.”

But when the three ultimately converge, their meeting feels hopelessly contrived. Morgan, who name-checks Dickens heavily throughout, may be reaching for a Dickensian feel with this and the other melodramatic coincidences that stud the plot, but Dickens’ outlandish coincidences feel of a piece with his artfully exaggerated characters and plots, while Morgan’s carry us out of his generally prosaic story.

You’d think a film about what happens after death would have the courage to address the issue more directly, but Hereafter just gives us clichéd images of the afterlife and periodic protestations about how much scientific evidence there is to back them up. Does science have anything to say about whether the bright light and weightlessness and so on are transitory sensations we experience as we die, some final firing of the neurons, or a new state of being we enter into indefinitely after death? And if it’s the latter, why are our loved ones always right at hand and ready to talk, at least in the movies, as soon as a psychic makes contact with them? Even Ghost Town, which took itself far less seriously than this one does, had the grace to invent a story to explain that.

The longing Marcus feels for his lost family (he also loses his drug-addicted mother when she checks into a rehab facility after Jason’s death) is the only genuinely affecting emotion in a film that wants us to feel the strength of the ties that bind the living to the dead. Poor Matt Damon is given two romantic interests, but one feels more preposterous than the next. In the first, the hysterically overacting Bryce Dallas Howard flings herself at George like an Irish setter in heat. And in the second, Damon’s doughy regular-guy American is paired up with De France’s ultra-chic Parisienne to make the oddest couple since Matthau and Lemmon.

Meanwhile, Eastwood indulges his penchant for letting shadows puddle in the faces of his actors, which are often half or even wholly obscured. He’s obviously fond of that style, which worked in noir-tinged stories like Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby. But here, it just makes an overdetermined, underdeveloped story feel even muddier.

Written for TimeOFF

Friday, October 15, 2010

Public Housing

If you watch enough cop shows or movies, you might think you know something about life in American ghettos even if you’ve never spent time in one. But the more preconceptions you have about housing projects, the more Frederick Wiseman’s 1997 film is likely to surprise you.

Filming in the Ida B. Wells projects, a combination of high-rise, low-rise and medium-rise buildings with an emphasis on the low, Wiseman and longtime cameraman John Davey shot their film the year after the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) took over control of the projects from the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA). Public Housing never mentions that changing of the guard, but Ron Carter, a former NBA star turned HUD economic development expert, functions as one of its two magnetic poles. Carter preaches a gospel of energetic self-improvement, offering himself – the product of a Pittsburgh housing project – as an example.

If Carter is the film’s North Pole, resident council president Helen Finner is the South. A self-promoting but apparently effective advocate for her fellow residents, Finner loves to fight for their rights, one case at a time, against the system she sees as the enemy. When Carter suggests that Ida B. Wells’ residents create a company to maintain their elevators, adding that any company that hires mostly residents is guaranteed a contract with the housing authority, Finner scoffs. We’ve been promised things like that before, she says, and they never delivered.

Carter and Finner are just two of the film’s many authority figures – including teachers, social workers, cops, and a warmly sympathetic nun. They’re an impressive bunch, their sensitivity, respect, and genuine concern for the residents infusing Public Housing with a sense of brotherhood and human dignity. Nothing I’ve ever seen about cops working in poor neighborhoods prepared me for the moment when a woman waiting to buy drugs on a street corner thanks a CHA cop for trying to chase her off. In a long exchange that sounds like a big brother’s lecture, he starts by telling her she’s getting on his last nerve before working his way around to urging her to stop doing drugs – for her own sake and soon, because “You still got a little bit of beauty in you.... I’m gonna remember you,” he says. “You’re gonna be my special project. Every time I see you, I’m gonna pull over.”

The sincerity of the cop’s concern is clear, and so is the fact that it may not be enough. The same is true in a mesmerizing scene between a deeply empathetic intake counselor and the sad-eyed user whose history he is taking. After probing the man’s psyche with delicate precision, the counselor declares him sincere and ready for the hard work of rehab. It’s a shining example of the system at work – or would be, if the counselor didn’t then add that there’s no guarantee the man will get into rehab just because he needs and wants it.

Another roadblock facing the film’s social servants is the passive resistance of many of the residents, whose capacity to hope and dream has apparently been snuffed. In one darkly funny sequence, a well-meaning woman delivers a detailed, animated lecture to a group of young women about how to use male and female condoms – while facing the stony faces of the girls and fighting to be heard over the cries of the babies many of them are already tending.

As always, Wiseman uses no voiceover, title cards, or other authorial devices to impose an agenda on the footage he finds. Instead, a series of long shots give characters and stories time to reveal themselves, while snippets of street scenes between the set pieces help establish the context. The film’s meditative pace and long (200-minute) running time open up space for the viewer’s own thoughts.

I don’t what you’ll think while you watch Public Housing, but I kept being reminded of the legacy of slavery, which is in the residents’ plantation-like relationship with the government that keeps them housed, fed, and dependent and in the learned helplessness or cynicism that makes many of the residents so impassive. I wondered what allows some people to transcend dehumanizing treatment while others give up and give in. And I felt deeply grateful to all the kind and caring people whose gallantry reminded me that altruism, community spirit, and simple decency are a lot more common in real life than they are in the stories we tell ourselves.

Written for The L Magazine

Thursday, October 14, 2010


Michael Mann’s first theatrical feature and one of his best, Thief is part operatic tragedy, part film noir, part heist movie, and all Mann. The story of a loner who almost escapes the trap he was born into only to find that the only way out is to leave everything he loves, Thief is a prime example of what Matt Zoller Seitz calls Mann’s Zen pulp.

In the gracefully choreographed set piece that runs over the opening credits, Frank (James Caan, in a role that makes brilliant use of his stiff-legged cowboy swagger and his powderkeg fuse) breaks into a safe and makes his getaway with the help of his partner, Barry (Jim Belushi in his first and least showboat-y movie role). As always, Mann, who cowrote the script from a novel by a professional thief, was fascinated by what his characters do and how they do it, so he took pains to get every detail right. That included buying a $10,000 safe for Caan to crack, hiring professional thieves to teach him how to crack it, and giving him a real safecracker’s tools to use in place of props. The preparation pays off, giving Caan a confidence and competence that make the burglary look real. But the alchemy happens as Mann’s distinctive style turns the heist into a propulsive ballet set to the electronic beat of Tangerine Dream. At times, the camera pulls in so close that the drill cutting through the safe door becomes a gleaming collection of still and moving metal parts, a near-abstract – and surprisingly beautiful – portrait.

The talk, when it comes, is just as believable and just as strikingly stylized. Frank, an ex-con in a rush to create the life he envisioned in the joint, doesn’t have a minute to waste. Besides, his mentor, Okla (the always wonderful Willie Nelson, who makes the most of his too-brief appearances), tells him never to lie. So Frank speaks with blunt urgency, hammering home every word, and his dogged honesty and sparing use of contractions make for some indelible speeches. “Let’s cut the mini-moves and the bullshit and get on with this big romance,” he says to the woman he wants to woo (the excellent Tuesday Weld, doing to her truncated part what Nelson does to his), in an electric exchange that Caan says is “probably the scene that I’m most proud of in my career.” And when a mobster named Leo (Robert Prosky, hitting the ground running in his first role) tries to recruit Frank, he says: “I am self-employed. I am doing fine. I don’t deal with egos. I am the boss of my own body.” This is great dialogue, idiosyncratic, chewy stuff that tells you a lot about his character and makes you feel something. It might even make you laugh, the way the truth sometimes does when it catches us by surprise.

The Chicago of Thief is a forbidding fortress of glass and steel and neon and glistening, rain-soaked concrete, a place where corruption is so deeply embedded that it’s not worth remarking on. When Frank hires a lawyer to get Okla out of prison, the lawyer openly arranges the proper bribe with the judge by exchanging easy-to-read hand gestures in a crowded courtroom. The cynicism and machismo feel authentic, probably in part because Mann cast some actual thieves and cops and other local characters in supporting roles – including Dennis Farina, who was then a Chicago detective and had never acted before. Most of the thieves play cops, in a sly variation on one of Mann’s favorite themes: the thin membrane that separates cops from criminals.

Mann shoots mostly at night to maintain the noir feel and the sense of claustrophobia, and every shot is intelligently conceived and beautifully composed. He often boxes Caan in, caging him beneath strings of lights or amid diagonal lines to make us feel the trap that’s closing in around Frank. Big cars cruise down near-empty streets like sharks, feeding the sense of instability and danger, and when Frank first meets up with Leo, the mobster’s silky words are belied by the deep shadows on his underlit face and the way it seems to float eerily in the darkness as his black clothes fade into the night.

Thief is an astonishingly assured first feature, as powerful and streamlined as those cars that glide down its streets and every bit as glossy.

Written for The L Magazine

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

My NYFF 2010 favorites

For more on the festival, you'll find the wrap-up I did for The House Next Door along with my colleagues Aaron Cutler and Kenji Fujishima here.

I’ve been going to New York Film Festival’s press screenings for several years now, catching as many films as I could in a schedule that was always both leaner and richer than most film festival lineups. NYFF shows fewer films of generally higher quality than most film festivals, and they always include new works by some of the world’s best filmmakers.

In the past, I was lucky if I got to half the movies I wanted to see, since it was hard to fit weekday press screenings around my paying work. I did better this year, seeing nearly 20 films, so I wanted to share my favorites with you.

The bad news is, most of the NYFF’s films won’t ever to make it to theaters in most parts of the country -- if any. The good news is, there are lots of other ways to see movies these days. And a well-curated film festival is one of the best ways to find things to add to your Netflix list or seek out on your computer or TV.

I’ve already caught one of this year’s offerings on TV, and my DVR is set to record another, which may still be playing when you read this. Martin Scorsese’s heartfelt tribute to director Elia Kazan, A Letter to Elia, aired on Channel 13 last week as part of the American Masters series. It’s a respectful and loving introduction to Kazan and his work that is also, like most of Scorsese’s tributes, about Scorsese’s own evolution as a filmmaker, but it didn’t add much to what I learned from Richard Schickel’s excellent biography of Kazan. I expect more from Carlos, Olivier Assayas’ epic dissection of international terrorist Carlos the Jackal, which was one of the best-reviewed as well as the longest (more than five hours) of this year’s NYFF offerings. I’ll be watching Carlos this week on the Sundance Channel, which has split it into three parts.

My favorite NYFF film this year may be Certified Copy, the latest by the great Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami. It’s the first film he shot outside Iran, and it may be his most accessible, thanks in part to the magnetism of its star. Juliette Binoche plays a woman who up with meets a man, apparently for the first time, after he gives a reading from his new book. They spend a day together, first arguing about his book, which claims that a well-made copy in art is valuable because it leads you to the original, and then abruptly switching gears. By mutual if unspoken consent, they begin acting like an estranged married couple, fast-forwarding through the ups and downs of a 15-year relationship over the course of one afternoon. Were they pretending at first to be strangers or are they pretending later on to be married? I don’t know, and I don’t really care. Simultaneously mining our emotions and reminding us of what it’s doing, Certified Copy is a master class in how a well-made movie can illuminate our emotions by artfully imitating life.

My other favorites included Korean director Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry, a powerful story about a woman who makes a wrenching decision involving her grandson, finding her voice through poetry just as Alzheimer’s is making it fade. American Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff is an existential modern Western about a wagon train party that gets lost en route to Oregon’s Willamette Valley and then has to decide whether to exchange one untrustworthy guide for another who may be even worse. Both films are shot from the point of view of women who have to gather their evidence and make their decisions from the sidelines, patronized or ignored by the men in charge.

Beautifully constructed, darkly funny and ultimately heartbreaking, Post Mortem is the second in Chilean director Pablo Larraín’s loosely conceived trilogy about ordinary people who get swept up against their will in the social upheaval and killings of the 1973 coup. (He’s currently working on the third, and the first was Tony Manero, which NYFF screened in 2008.) Also well worth seeing, though not as deeply engaging, were Boxing Gym, documentary pioneer Frederick Wiseman’s latest; Another Year, Mike Leigh’s look at the limits of friendship and loving kindness; and Tuesday, After Christmas, a dissection of the breakup of a marriage by Romanian director Radu Muntean.

Written for TimeOFF

Saturday, October 9, 2010

NYFF 2010: Revolución

Like most omnibus movies, Revolución is uneven and sometimes underdeveloped. It can’t be easy to tell a powerful story in 10 minutes or less, which was one of the conditions posed to the 10 filmmakers (the others were that it be set in the present and – most importantly – that it say something about the legacy of the Mexican revolution, which began 100 years ago with the ouster of Porfirio Díaz). Maybe that’s why the segments that worked best for me were more about setting a tone or creating a metaphor than telling a story.

They also tended to be the least talky ones. In The Welcome Ceremony, San Felipe Otlatelpec, the kind of rural town that’s always being neglected by Mexico’s ruling elite, prepares a welcoming ceremony for visiting dignitaries who never arrive. The film follows Armancio, the tuba player for the local band that is supposed to play at the ceremony, giving us a good sense of his life and the significance to him of this performance in a lovely, near-wordless sequence that starts one afternoon and ends the following morning. Director Fernando Eimbcke, whose Duck Season was a drily funny tale of adolescents run amok, shoots this one in a creamy black-and-white that brings out the beauty in the landscape and faces. It also evokes classic images of Mexico from the early days of photography (in the Q&A after the press screenings, Patricia Riggen, another of the film’s directors, said the look was “clearly styled on Juan Rulfo’s still photography”), underscoring how little has changed in Armancio’s daily life and village since the revolution.
This is My Kingdom uses a barbecue as a metaphor for Mexico’s deteriorating social fabric. The party starts out more or less sunnily, as people of all ages, skin colors, and social classes gather to groom and tease one another or to engage in animated conversations while several people with video cameras record it all. But as the sun sets, the behavior degenerates. Drunks pass out and are treated roughly; kids start trashing a car and are joined by grownups, who eventually set it on fire. Director Carlos Reygadas (Silent Light, Battle in Heaven) doesn’t wrap things up neatly, ending with a scan of firelit faces. Some wear the impassive mask of the powerless and a few are excited by the chaos, but most look distressed and uneasy.

Another bleak parable is Gerardo Narajano’s R-100, which I took to be about the cycle of violence Mexico is mired in these days. Completely wordless, it follows two men, one of them badly wounded and the other trying to save his life, as they emerge from a field to a sparsely traveled highway. When nobody will stop to pick them up, the healthy man kills a biker, drags his bloody body into the underbrush that the man and his friend just emerged from, and rides off on the bike, his friend’s blood-soaked body draped across the back seat.

Revolución ends with another dialogue-free segment, 7th and Alvarado. Director Rodrigo Garcia introduces a Mexican neighborhood in LA with scenes of everyday street life, shot in that slo-mo so slow and so fluid that people look as if they’re floating through gravity-free space. Then he brings on the cavalry: a group of Mexican revolutionaries, who ride in straight out of the early 20th century, looking dismayed at the banality that surrounds them “Is this what we fought for?” they seem to be wondering. The segment lasts too long, the sting of its point fading, but it creates a strong and sad mood that feels right.

Revolución doesn’t delve into anything too deeply, but certain themes surface often enough to coalesce into a spotty and impressionistic picture of life in Mexico. The importance of Catholicism comes through loudly if not always clearly, as do the often sere beauty of the landscape and the prevalence of poverty and violence. Casually callous inhumanity is all too common. The ghost of the U.S. diaspora haunts life in Mexico, and vice versa.

In the Q&A, Riggen talked about the hard times Mexico is going through but said the movie itself was a hopeful sign, since the government sponsored the film with the clear understanding that the filmmakers would question as well as celebrate the revolution. “I find that a really big step in our society,” she said. That kind of free speech would have been impossible as recently as 10 years ago, she added, but “We never had any censorship. Nobody ever asked us anything or questioned anything.”

That does sound like a hopeful sign – and, perhaps, an explanation for the fact that this film feels like an often inchoate sophomore effort. Most of the filmmakers here are just beginning their directing careers, having made only one or two features (although, perhaps not coincidentally, the only ones with more experience – Reygadas, Naranjo and Garcia – directed three of my four favorite segments.) Maybe they, like Armancio the tuba player, just need a little more practice.

Written for The House Next Door

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Blue Collar

Paul Schrader directed Blue Collar from a script he and his brother, Leonard, based on a story he “ripped off from a black screenwriter named Sydney A. Glass, who foolishly came to Schrader with his idea,” according to Peter Biskind’s Gods and Monsters. (“According to Cineaste Magazine, Schrader subsequently paid Glass off with $15,000, a screen credit, and 1 percent of the film,” Biskind adds.) The screenplay hammers home its points as hard as one of the machines in the Checker cab plant where the story is set, but the potentially deadening didacticism is brought to life by the raw realism of the lead performances (Richard Pryor in by far his best movie role as Zeke, Yaphet Kotto as Smokey, and Harvey Keitel as Jerry, the best friends at the heart of the story). The sets are just as resonant, from the actual factories where a lot of the footage was shot to the dive bar where the men drink after work to the plastic that covers the couches in Zeke’s living room.

The blunt talk about race, class, and the plight of the working man in a capitalist society (“Buy this shit, buy that shit, all you got is a buncha shit,” says Jerry) aren’t the only thing that makes Blue Collar unusual, especially for an American film. Whoever put it in the lineup for Film Forum’s heist series was onto something, because this movie also includes one of the most original heists I’ve ever seen on film. Schrader sidesteps the usual elaborate planning scenes and fetishized break-in, playing the robbery as black comedy. Then, just as you think the three friends’ half-baked plan has fizzled out, it sputters back to life in a whole new form, and playtime is officially over.

Written for The L Magazine

NYFF 2010: We Are What We Are

The characters and motivations are often muddy, but the message is always clear in We Are What We Are, a broad-strokes horror movie with a pitch-black sense of humor. Writer-director Jorge Michel Grau wants us to think about how civilization and the rule of law are failing in late-capitalist society—specifically in Mexico City, which he paints as a place so full of corruption, callousness, and predatory behavior that even cannibalism barely raises an eyebrow.

The cannibals here are a family that consists only of three siblings and their mother after the sudden death of the husband and father, which gives the movie its strong opening: We see Dad first lurching, then crawling and spewing black bile in a busy shopping mall. People pass by without paying the slightest attention—until he's gone, at which point a cleaning crew promptly shows up to dispose of his remains. The mixed feelings the family experiences at his death (most of them grieve, but hotheaded Julián seems glad to be rid of the old man) are complicated by their sudden vulnerability, since Dad was in charge of bringing home the victims the family apparently subsisted on.

I say "apparently" because it's not clear whether Mom, Julián (Alan Chávez), soulful Alfredo (Francisco Barreiro), and eerily cool Sabina (Paulina Gaitán) live on human flesh or just indulge on special occasions. It's also unclear why they do it, though frequent references to rituals and rules suggest that they're practicing some kind of cult or occult religion. Broad strokes like these sometimes make Grau's story feel mythic, but more often they just feel clumsy, leaving out the detail and motivation that bring characters and relationships to life.
He does work in some nice little nuggets of black humor, like the positive-thinking message a beggar hands out on the subway that inspires Alfredo in a way she surely never imagined, or the cops who scoff when they're asked to look into the father's killings, saying they don't investigate cold cases—or any cases, for that matter.

But it sometimes feels as if Grau is reaching too much to make his point about the degeneration of society, between the incest blooming between Sabina and Julián, the dance club where a sweet young man unaware that he's been singled out as prey warns Alfredo against "wolves" who want to "eat you up," and the whores who act as a kind of Greek chorus, witnessing and judging the family's deeds.

The actors in the main roles are all very good, fleshing out their underwritten roles as well as anyone could, and the sickly green-gray tone of this literally dark film, with its Texas Chainsaw Massacre interiors and its long, deadpan shots, layer on the dread. It's resonantly creepy to watch the camera gaze at the family members as impassively as they stare at each other while they go about their gruesome business. But in the end, We Are What We Are feels too obviously, and sometimes awkwardly, stage-managed to lodge itself in that corner of the subconscious we reserve for cautionary horror stories.

Written for The House Next Door

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

NYFF 2010: Another Year

Another Year is a tale of haves and have-nots—those who are touched by grace and those who are not. In collaboration with a gifted group of actors he's been working with for years, director Mike Leigh illuminates the gap between life's haunted loners and those lucky enough to be able to form deep and long-lasting relationships.

At the center of the story are Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen), a loving couple whose warmth and ease—with themselves, with each other, and with other people—makes them and their cozy home a magnet for their longtime friends, particularly Gerri's workmate Mary (Lesley Manville), a nervous wreck who tries to camouflage her crippling anxiety with torrents of chitchat.

A social worker who treats her friends and family with the same kind consideration she bestows on her clients, Gerri is a more mature and less effusive version of Happy-Go-Lucky's Poppy, able to see the good in everyone and unafraid in the face of psychological instability or free-floating rage that would frighten most of us. As usual in his movies, Leigh presents us with a set of fully realized characters, decent people whose precisely life-sized problems and emotions draw us in as naturally as Gerri offers a visitor a cup of tea. And as usual, he finds drama in the moral decisions that arise in the course of everyday life. The main one this time is Tom and Gerri's dilemma over whether to let Mary remain in their family circle when she becomes a threat to their son's happiness.

The staunch realism of the look and feel of the film and the actors' resolutely unglamorous faces ("Obviously, Ruth and I don't do anything peculiar with our faces off screen," said Manville in the Q and A after the New York Film Festival press screening) creates the illusion that we're watching the lives of ordinary people unfold. And as in life, drama can develop quickly, even when nothing out of the ordinary seems to be happening. The tension grows particularly thick when Tom's furious nephew bursts onto the scene, leaking danger as surely as a cocked gun. And unsettling music, sparingly used, and lingering close-ups of the increasingly abject and twitchy Mary help make the agony of alienation painfully palpable.

Watching Mary's steady deterioration under Gerri's luminous gaze raises interesting questions about the benefits and limits of friendship. Does Gerri and Tom's friendship keep Mary (barely) afloat emotionally, or does it just make things worse, immersing her in a family she longs for but will never quite be part of? How much of the couple’s feelings for their friend are based on love and mutual interests and how much on a perhaps unthinking, and perhaps somewhat paternalistic, impulse to be kind to the needy? And can kindness be a form of cruelty, if it leads to a severely lopsided relationship?

Written for The House Next Door

Monday, October 4, 2010

NYFF 2010: Boxing Gym

Frederick Wiseman's latest documentary is as much about movement and discipline as La Danse, which he interrupted the editing of Boxing Gym to shoot. But where ballet is about translating feeling into movement, boxing is about controlling violence, so it probably shouldn't have surprised me as much as it did that the most striking quality of the gym Wiseman documents—and of the film itself—is its Zen-like aura of peace and loving-kindness.

Wiseman's setting is Lord's Gym in Austin, a threadbare place whose borderline rattiness (the upholstery on some chairs is gutted) takes a while to sink in, since it's such a warm and nurturing community. In his director's statement, Wiseman says he chose the gym partly because it's "an American 'melting pot.' The people training at the gym are men and women from all social classes…people of many races, ethnicities, and ages boxing and working out together in an amicable and collaborative way." That's partly Austin: One of the main things that kept drawing me there as a young woman was the laidback, respect-differences vibe that removed a lot of the venom from the race and class divisions that poison most of America. But, as Wiseman slowly reveals, the other main ingredient here is Richard Lord, the retired boxer who founded the gym and runs it with unflappable calm and a steady, empathetic gaze.

There's no narrative and no star (unless you count Lord, who gets marginally more screen time than anyone else)—just layers of information accumulating like paint on a canvas, in the old-school direct-cinema style Wiseman helped invent. He even uses 16mm on this film, though he has since had to switch to HD because even he now has difficulty getting funded to use film (Boxing Gym was underwritten largely by several PBS outlets). "I regret that," he said of his switch to HD in the Q&A after the screening. "I don't think the image quality is quite as good, and I don't like editing on an Avid—perhaps because I have 150 years of experience on a Steenbeck."

His editing keeps the film's many narrative threads taut while mirroring the laidback feel of its subject as he moves seamlessly from one scene to the next, each one a short story in itself. The gym's resident philosopher gives self-help advice to a grateful fighter; children's games are made purposeful as people play leapfrog or jump rope to train; a man takes a break from training to cup his baby's face with his gloves; street fighters learn how to fight properly—and, more importantly, how to avoid fighting in the first place. Meanwhile, the walls tell their own stories, fight posters and photos hanging next to Milton Glaser's psychedelic drawing of Bob Dylan.

The rhythm of the gym dictates the rhythm of the film, from the thud of fists on leather bags and training pads to the timing bell to the dancing footwork the filmmakers keep returning to, staying on one pair of fighters practicing in overlapping circles long enough to hypnotize us. The almost always stationery camera occasionally does something showy, like when a speed bag being worked in the foreground strobes the image of a woman training in the background, but for the most part the imagery, like the sound, delivers information clearly and intelligently without drawing attention to itself. Cinematographer John Davey frames his shots elegantly, often capturing multiple perspectives at one time, like when he sets up behind a fighter training in a mirror, holding the shot long enough for us to study him, what's on the walls beside the mirror, and the action reflected in the background.

Wiseman isolates some of the key elements of boxing and focuses on each in turn, from footwork to strengthening exercises to mental discipline to learning how to punch (Wiseman and Davey make the effort of working a bag so visceral your arms practically ache as you watch). But unlike in La Danse, which left me with a heightened appreciation of the art form as well as the institution that houses it, the component parts we see here never coalesce into an illuminating portrait of the sport.

Two of the pros who train in the gym share a ring at the end, but their bout is just another in an endless round of rounds. The fight has none of the added meaning that infuses the performances that end La Danse, which we see through the polarizing filter of the background Wiseman has just laid down. I guess that's why this one's called Boxing Gym, not Boxing.

Written for The House Next Door.


In the ‘60s and ‘70s, the French New Wave inspired American filmmakers, helping to birth a generation of smart, talky movies with gritty settings and psychologically complex antiheroes. Then Jaws ushered in the era of the Hollywood blockbuster and American movies became the coolest kids on the block again. And now French directors are mimicking American films, cranking out slick, sunny, unsophisticated entertainment like Heartbreaker. It’s the cinematic version of the circle of life.

Thoroughly predictable, instantly forgettable, and a lot of fun to watch, Heartbreaker feels more American than French – but American circa 1950 or so, since we don’t make ‘em like this any more. If real life worked the way things do in Heartbreaker, someone would hire Romain Duris to free Kate Hudson and Katherine Heigl from those lumbering rom com vehicles they keep getting trapped in.

Duris is Alex, the title character of Heartbreaker, a tousle-headed semi-hipster so charming he seduces women for a living. But Alex has ethics: he only goes after women who are in such bad relationships that someone who loves them wants them free for their own good, and he leaves as soon as a target has regained enough self-confidence or perspective to dump the cad who’s holding her back. He works with his highly efficient sister, Mélanie (played with antic gravity by Julie Ferrier) and her comically inept husband, Marc (François Damiens), who help mastermind the scenarios that set him up to succeed. The three make a cosy unconventional family unit, though Alex is a little lonely sometimes. But we know he won’t be mateless for long, since the laws of romantic comedy dictate that he will soon meet his match.

Cue Juliette (Vanessa Paradis), a gap-toothed beauty whose rich father hires Alex to break up her impending marriage. Juliette’s fiancé looks pretty perfect on paper – he’s attentive, adoring, good-looking and rich, and she says she loves him – but daddy is convinced that he’d bore her.

It’s not clear why, since Juliette doesn’t seem very interesting herself. That’s partly due to Paradis’ too-cool performance – she’s more Tippi Hedren than Grace Kelly – and partly because the script doesn’t tell us much about her, except that she’s an entitled rich girl who loves George Michael music and the movie Dirty Dancing. Juliette’s lack of magnetism is the film’s main weakness, since she’s the prize that motivates most of the action, but Duris almost makes up for that deficit with his surfeit of charm, vulnerability, sly humor, and sheer sex appeal. The Dirty Dancing theme is good for at least one thing: It gives Duris a reason to break out the swivel-hipped dancing he used in Paris, and I’m happy for any excuse to see more of that.

The setups Alex and his partners use to monitor and seduce his targets can get ludicrously elaborate, providing a welcome counterpart to the slow-blooming romance between Alex and Juliette (the scenario that opens the film is essentially a comic exaggeration of the setup in Cairo Time, a movie in serious need of taking itself less seriously). The humor sometimes takes on a gracelessly manic, borderline desperate edge, though, usually either when Alex or his brother-in-law are flinging themselves about like human sock puppets or when an obnoxious old chum of Juliette’s, who shows up to party with her before the wedding, torments Alex by forcing herself on him or sticking sharp objects in his thigh (never mind why; it’s a long story). And a subplot involving a large Serbian thug who shadows Alex, periodically beating or threatening him because of a debt, feels overly familiar.

But Duris’ appeal is strong enough to float right over those minor roadblocks, keeping this lightweight, lighthearted meringue of a movie aloft. There will always be a need for movies like this, so I’m glad somebody’s still making them.

Written for TimeOFF

Friday, October 1, 2010

NYFF 2010: The Tempest

The Tempest is Shakespeare for Dummies—but I mean that in a good way, for the most part. Shakespeare always played to the cheap seats as well as the intelligentsia, and Julie Taymor's production picks up on his populism, dialing the romance, buffoonery, sorcery, and soulful suffering up to 11.

The opening scene is a bad omen: The roar of the waves and the fire on the king's sinking ship drown out most of Shakespeare's words. But the language is almost always rendered faithfully and delivered clearly and well for the rest of the film, and the colors and sounds Taymor wraps around Shakespeare's dialogue add more than they detract.

The anchor to this Tempest is Helen Mirren's titanic performance as Prospera. Changing Prospero's gender changes surprisingly little else, other than a few pronouns and the vowel at the end of the name. Mirren's Prospera may project a more nurturing love than usual for Miranda and Ariel, but then maybe it's we who are doing the projecting there, reading maternal love as more tender than paternal. Either way, what makes her performance memorable is not the novelty of her gender, but the greatness of her soul, as she rides Prospera's outsized emotions like a champion jockey to a moving finish.

Just about everyone else plays second fiddle to the costumes and set design that are Taymor's trademark. As usual in her films, these sometimes amplify themes and emotions nicely and sometimes degenerate into cliché. Lanai, the small but geographically diverse Hawaiian island where the movie was filmed, provides Caliban's lair, Ariel's prison, and the cliff from which Prospero conjures up storms ready-made. It also photographs beautifully, adding its own drama to Shakespeare's already heady mix. But a lot of the CGI effects are trite and reductive (a hippy-trippy zodiac mandala Prospera draws in the sky could have come straight out of Taymor's Across the Universe). So are images like the silhouetted figures Taymor sends dancing along ridges and melodramatic setups like the golden-lit love scene between Miranda and Ferdinand. And Prospera's fashionably frayed island garb and the Neapolitan nobles' zippered suits draw attention to themselves without having much to say other than "Look at me!"

The best use of CGI is the androgynous Ariel, who whooshes about like the airy spirit he/she is. Often popping up in two or more places at once, he/she trails wispy traces of afterimage. Ben Whishaw underplays the part, letting his hair gel and body paint do most of the talking, but most of other performances are broader, stretching to fit Taymor's larger-than-life canvas. As Caliban, Djimon Hounsou scuttles like Gollum, roars like a wounded bull, and sucks up Uriah Heep-style to Stephano (Alfred Molina, excellent as always), making Shakespeare's victim of colonialism more fool than tragic figure. Russell Brand fits into this company surprisingly well, with his colorful scarves, waggling ass, and anti-RSC accent, as one of the fools who provide comic relief. Like the movie as a whole, Brand made me wince now and then, but not nearly as much as he made me smile.

Written for The House Next Door.

The Terminator

Give him a bloated budget and he’ll make a bloated movie, but when he had to be creative on the cheap, James Cameron was brilliant—and never more so than in The Terminator, the first feature he directed. (He’s listed as codirector on Piranha Part Two but was replaced after two weeks, so this is the real deal, the first to declare itself A James Cameron Film in the opening credits.)

Most of the acting is pretty wooden, including Linda Hamilton’s as Sarah Connor, the human lead (the real star, of course, is the killing machine who’s come back from the future to terminate her). But Cameron and his cowriter/producer (and about-to-be wife) Gale Ann Hurd maintain the tension with the assurance of old pros, setting up the generally bland, early-decline capitalism of Sarah’s pleasant-enough present only to rip it open with the naked arrival of the amazing Arnold. The Terminator was the role of Schwarzenneger’s career, making perfect use of his inhuman physique, Teutonic accent, rigid posture, and even stiffer line readings. From the moment that still-naked cyborg shoves its hand into a punk’s chest and pulls out his beating heart, we’re in for a steady succession of seminal images (the Terminator driving through the door of the police station) and vivid sight gags (the toy truck the camera focuses on in the gutter as the Terminator pulls up, smushing it flat).

Both the story and its main character were so startlingly original that they still resonate after more than 25 years of riffs and ripoffs, including the Transformers series and the progressively less interesting Terminator sequels. The Terminator is one of the great horror movie monsters of all time, as focused as his Uzi’s laser sight and as hard to keep down as Halloween’s Mike Myers. It’s scary enough to watch him stalk past cowering people or nervously barking dogs, but when the filmmakers switch to his point of view, showing his potential targets through an infrared sensor with streams of data scrolling down the sides, you realize just how screwed they are. This is no product of a damaged childhood or sociopath with a screw loose: it’s a perfectly calibrated killing machine with every screw right where it’s supposed to be. And that image resonates like a Japanese gong because, like all good movie monsters, the Terminator personifies one of our shared primal terrors: in this case, fear of where our rush to develop artificial intelligence and technologically sophisticated war machines may be taking us. As usual, Cameron flip-flops between fetishizing totally awesome killing machines and delivering earnest anti-war messages. His vision of a future in which computers are the dominant species remains a potent worst-case scenario, and his unmanned predator drones, which were still a sci-fi head rush in 1984, are currently wreaking havoc in Afghanistan.

And as in John Carpenter’s Halloween and the Alien franchise Cameron was soon to contribute to—and in precious few non-genre movies of the time—there’s a great female role at the center of this story. Starting out patronized and apologetic and slowly learning to appreciate her own power and skills, Sarah is a girl-power twist on the generally male revenge-of-the-nerd template.

Cameron told Wired that greatest challenge of the movie for him—and, apparently, the greatest thrill—was figuring out how to create a humanoid hit man with “a true robotic endoskeleton.” After months of development, Cameron and Stan Winston developed models detailed enough to make for eerie scenes like the one where the Terminator repairs himself in a seedy hotel room, revealing the machinery beneath his skin. The special effects were amazing at the time, but they sometimes look a little crude, even in the low lighting Cameron presumably used to mask imperfections. When the camera gets close enough to the silicone, clay and plaster casts of Schwarzenneger’s face and arm to show how plastic they look, or when stop-motion makes that robotic endoskeleton move as haltingly as a Harryhausen monster after its flesh is burned off, the Terminator can look as hokey as those rivetingly ridiculous 80s hairstyles. The flashbacks to the future are a little corny, too, between the unconvincing melodrama of the human dugout and the insufficiently scary hunter/killer machines: It’s hard for eyes spoiled by 21st-century CGI to ignore the wobble in the flying drones or the early-video-game look of the intersecting laser beams they throw down. But then, rough edges like that are part what make great B movies feel so alive.

The moral to this story may be that too much freedom isn’t always good for a filmmaker. If Cameron had less cash and more collaboration on his scripts, maybe he’d still be making movies this good.

Written for The L Magazine