Monday, January 31, 2011

Second Chance Cinema 2011

“For once, it’s not predominantly American independent films. It’s more international, and there are more films from France than anywhere else,” says McCarter Special Programming Director William W. Lockwood Jr. of the lineup he assembled for the 16th annual Second Chance Cinema series. Of the 11 films in the series this year, nine never played at all in the Princeton area, while the other two had theatrical runs so brief that most of their audience never had a chance to find them.

The three American movies include a USA/UK coproduction by English graffiti artist and trickster Banksy. “It’s really a hoot, but you never really know what the joke it, though I think ultimately it’s on us,” says Lockwood of Exit Through the Gift Shop, a nominee for this year’s Best Documentary Oscar. “We don’t really know for whom this film was made or who made it. Is it a real documentary or not? I think it’s a gloss on the whole modern art scene, where the artists become their own objects of desire. It’s like one of those boxes in boxes that keep unfolding on each other.”

There aren’t a lot of laughs in the other two American offerings. Winter’s Bone is a powerfully spare mystery set in a secretive Ozarks community with a fierce and merciless code of honor, and The Messenger follows two soldiers from home to home as they notify next of kin who have lost their husbands, sons, mothers and daughters in Iraq or Afghanistan.

The strength of Winter’s Bone lies mainly in its realistic settings and performances, which director Debra Granik achieved partly by casting many locals and using their homes and yards as the setting for most of the action. “They’re real people,” says Lockwood of the film’s characters. “Emotionally, the film has a lot in common with Wendy and Lucy.” In our late January talk, Lockwood anticipated several of the Oscar nominations Winter’s Bone would soon scoop up (it’s a candidate for best picture, actress, supporting actor, and screenplay). “It’s not going to win, of course, but a lot of people recognized it for the fine piece of work it is,” he says. “I’m surprised it never played here.

“It just goes to show you how inundated we are by films these days. Not from the major studios, who only released 110 films last year, but there are hundreds of others. Ten or 20 movies opened every week in New York last year.”

Another film that never made it to Central Jersey is The Messenger, which Lockwood admires for “the fine acting, by Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster in particular,” and for “reminding us that the war is still going on. Usually the war films we see are things like The Hurt Locker and Restropo, which are about the fighting and the interfacing between the soldiers and the people in the occupied country. What we haven’t seen as much is this side of the war, which is the effect on the families that have lost someone.”

The French entries in this year’s series include features by some of that country’s – and the world’s – best living filmmakers: Claire Denis (35 Shots of Rum), Alain Resnais (Wild Grass), Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (Lorna’s Silence -- pictured above), and Jacques Audiard (A Prophet).

The story of a father and daughter, 35 Shots of Rum is “a lovely poem, really,” says Lockwood. “It’s just delightful in how it captures the mood of loving people and the difficulty and the cost of breaking bonds. It reminds us of how complicated families are and how painful it is when they break up. The essence of it, I think, is what isn’t said – it’s the spaces between the dialogue.”

Silence is also of pivotal importance in Lorna’s Silence, whose heroine must decide whether to endanger herself by speaking up to save someone else. “The Dardenne brothers are old favorites of our series,” says Lockwood. “There’s a very moral approach to everything they do. People in their films are always having to address their ability to compromise in this world.”

Lockwood describes A Prophet as “a story about prison life and what it can do for you, in the end. This illiterate kid enters jail and comes out a man, outgrowing his reliance on the Mafia man who controls the prison and becoming a self-reliant criminal. This is not a film for the squeamish,” he adds, “because it’s pretty grisly, especially when he has to kill somebody with a razor blade he hides in his mouth.”

Wild Grass, the story of an awkward, sometimes comic mid-life romance, feels much lighter. “If Renais is still making films at 87, everybody should see them,” says Lockwood. “How many masters are still going at that age?” (Actually, quite a few. Last year’s New York Film Festival included new works by Portugal’s Manoel de Oliveira, who’s still prolific at age 102, and by Jean-Luc Godard, Frederick Wiseman, and Clint Eastwood, who were all born in 1930 – apparently a good year for filmmakers.)

Last Train Home is a documentary about the greatest annual human migration on earth, in which 130 million laborers leave cities all over China to spend a few days at home over the new year. It is the only trip home for most, including the couple the film focuses on, whose son and daughter are being raised by the man’s mother. “It shows us a side of China we don’t know about,” says Lockwood. “To see your parents just once a year….”

Japan’s contribution to the troubled-family theme that runs through this year’s series is Tokyo Sonata, the story of a family’s slow disintegration as secrets drive people apart. “It is, very apropos, I think, in terms of the problem we have with continuing unemployment and its effect on people in the United States,” says Lockwood. “A guy loses his job and he can’t bear to tell his family. It tears them apart. I think the resolution is somewhat suspect, but nevertheless [director Kiyoshi] Kurosawa is going to be a major filmmaker. I love the kid who sneaks out for piano lessons and turns out to be really pretty good.”

Set in a working-class English housing project, Fish Tank is another story of a fractured family, this one focused on the teenage daughter. “Talk about breakthrough performances,” says Lockwood. “There are two this year, both by young women. One is Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone, and the other is Katie Jarvis, who played this role. They discovered her on a subway platform in London.” Jarvis’ Mia, says Lockwood, is “almost a contemporary cousin to the Truffaut character, Antoine, in The 400 Blows, because she’s very angry and she destroys everything. She’s thrown off balance by her relationship with her mother’s boyfriend, played by Michael Fassbender, who you may remember from Hunger. He take a little too close an interest in her and she responds. But you never know what she’s going to do, because Jarvis is an untrained actress. Mia’s foolish and she’s fearless – she’s almost feral. It’s another in the youth-in-trouble school, but I thought this one really stood out.”

Lockwood had to pull two of the films he had planned to show – Police, Adjective and Life During Wartime – when he learned they might not be released on DVD in time to be shown. In their place, he is showing Exit to the Gift Shop and I Am Love, a lushly melodramatic love story that was a critical favorite last year. “This one is really out of the [director Luchino] Visconti playbook, and Tilda Swinton steals the show,” says Lockwood. “It almost couldn’t have been made without her. There’s a lot of eating in it, and the sexy guy is a chef, of course. You have to have one movie in every series on cooking and love. Sex and food go together, especially in the movies.”

Written for TimeOFF

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Sundance 2011: Septien

An appealing little oddball of a movie, Septien is ironic and yet genuinely sweet.

Writer/director Michael Tully’s hipster Southern Gothic starts slow, its long takes giving us plenty of time to adjust to the laconic rhythms of a family farm that’s home to two brothers who get paid by the government not to work the land. Amos spends most of his time in the barn, making cartoonish paintings that serve up an American goulash of football, sex and violent death. Wilbur, the brothers’ sweet but slow former farmhand, lives outside in a tractor tire and spends his days like Of Mice and Men’s Lennie, stroking his kitty or digging up buried treasures. Ezra plays mom, cooking, cleaning, and clucking over the others.

The first hint of trouble in paradise arrives with the third brother, Cornelius, who appears after an unexplained 18-year absence with Joaquin Phoenix’s stiff posture and I’m Still Here beard, but the real drama starts when a creepy local plumber drives up to unclog the old house’s pipes. The psychological shitstorm the plumber unleashes, like the missing puzzle piece Ezra finds at the end of the movie, is just one of many comic bones tossed our way by this deadpan drama, which breaks into a riot of quick cuts and hysterical action in a climax as overheated and quintessentially American as Amos’ paintings.

Part spoof and part homage, Septien plays with psychological-horror tropes while creating a pungent little universe all his own, peopled by characters you find yourself actually caring about.

Written for Slant Magazine

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Johnny Mad Dog

Straddling the line between education and exploitation, Johnny Mad Dog is a visually sumptuous, sometimes stagy story about beautiful children doing horrible things.

Based on a novel about child soldiers by Congolese writer Emmanuel Dongala, it’s set in an unnamed African country engulfed by civil war. Johnny Mad Dog (Christopher Minie), a gorgeous 15-year-old who was conscripted into the rebel army when he was 10, takes his orders from the only adult we ever see on his side of the conflict. Johnny is in charge of a ferocious contingent of soldiers who are mostly even younger than he is. Like the marauders of some post-apocalyptic road movie come to life, they trudge past burned-out cars and smoldering trash or pile onto carjacked trucks to spread terror in the name of freedom. Amped up by their general’s constant yelling, the drugs he feeds them, and the chants he leads (“You don’t wanna die? Don’t be born!”) and costumed in things they loot along the way, like the wire-frame wings that earn one boy the nickname Butterfly, they play at being “death dealers” until the role becomes real.

At its best, Johnny Mad Dog bears witness to the horrific abuse perpetrated against and by child soldiers. I’ve read about most of the atrocities it depicts, but even so it was wrenching to watch child actors, some of them former child soldiers themselves, act out the killing, rape, and terrorizing of civilians. It’s also a stark reminder that the rules of war are made to be broken, and that even “legitimate” armies are made up mostly of soldiers not much older or less impressionable than Johnny. These feral kids’ earnest imitations of Hollywood hard guys are also a reminder of how Western weapons and war imagery have spread, a cancer that has infected the whole world.

But at its worst, like when a stiffly self-conscious Butterfly sings a bawdy GI death dirge over a dead comrade’s body, flicking glances at the camera, Johnny Mad Dog feels awkwardly staged or didactic. The story of a stoic young civilian trying to escape the rebel troops with her little brother and her legless father, which is intercut and periodically intersects with Johnny’s, is so underdeveloped that she feels like a symbol clumsily inserted in a realistic movie, more ghost than girl as she wheels her father through city streets. And a simpleminded attempt to assign the blame for the war falls flat in a scene where the kids file past a cemetery while a long passage from Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech from the Mall booms forth.

Worse yet, director Jean-St├ęphane Sauvaire sometimes seems to be getting off on the brutality he’s depicting. When he exoticizes an ecstatic nighttime dance around a bonfire or uses slo-mo, stutter cuts, and a curtain of sound to dramatize the kids’ point of view as they open fire on a town, he completes the circle, turning the dreams of these Hollywood-worshipping kids back into cinematic glamour.

The scourge of child soldiers is a 21st century scandal, and closing our eyes to the facts won’t make them go away. But I’m not sure how it helps to bathe in images like these, either. Is Johnny Mad Dog part of the problem or part of the solution?

Written for The L Magazine

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Dilemma

The Dilemma stumbles along like an amiable drunk that can’t quite find his footing. The worst he’s likely to do is annoy you, but your best bet is to stay out of his way if you can.

Vince Vaughn plays – well, you know what he plays. Ronny Valentine is a paunchy party boy on the verge of a panic attack, his motor-mouthed patter designed to draw attention away from the vulnerability in his eyes. Ronny’s pudgy best friend and partner (they co-own a small auto development business) is Nick, the Barney to Ronny’s Fred Flintstone. A nerve-shot little nerd, Nick (Kevin James) relies on his big pal for practically everything.

Their bromance is (very conspicuously) set in Chicago, but it really takes place in that arid Hollywood no-man’s land where every scene is a brief setup followed by a lame bit of schtick, and where you can see just about every plot twist a mile off. As soon as Ronny declares that Nick and his improbably pretty wife, Geneva (Winona Ryder) are his “hero couple,” for instance, you figure something bad is about to happen to them. And sure enough, Ronny soon spots Geneva making out with a hot boy (Channing Tatum) – and he’s off. As he agonizes over when and how to tell Nick, Ronny wades deeper and deeper into the morass of his friend’s dysfunctional marriage, learning things he never wanted to know while making things worse with his bumbling interference.

In a four-way dinner conversation that opens the movie, Ronny riffs on whether we can ever really know another person. It’s an interesting question, which the script explores in other ways too – mainly through Geneva, an intriguingly unpredictable character brought to brooding life by Ryder. Jennifer Connelly unearths some layers in a less well-rounded character as Ronny’s adoring girlfriend, who stays loyal to the big lug as he bangs around the joint, bruising her delicate sensibilities. But not even the almost always charming Queen Latifah can redeem the maniacally upbeat Susan (“I got lady wood!”).

Susan is a consultant hired by Chrysler to shepherd Ronny and Nick through the process as they rush to create an electric muscle car prototype they can sell to Detroit. That project is an origami tiger, just one more temporary roadblock to keep Ronny from telling Nick about his marital problems, since Ronny doesn’t want to distract his engineer friend from his work until he’s finished the car.

Director Ron Howard presumably could have made a pretty good drama about all that – not to mention the questions of loyalty and honesty that the script periodically raises -- or turned it into a sweet little comedy of misunderstanding, along the lines of his early hit Splash. Instead, he mashed together a lumpy mix of comedy and drama in which the comic bits are often awkward and the emotions realistically raw. When Ronny calls his sister, fishing for her advice on whether he should tell Nick about Geneva’s affair, his coded questions convince her that her own husband is cheating, but when she rages at him for choosing such a cowardly way to deliver the news he just raises his eyebrows and hangs up the phone. The scene is mean to be funny but it plays out all wrong, the intensity of her agony making his cluelessness seem less comic than cruel.

But no sooner has he done something obnoxious than Ronny does something sweet or goes off on another of Vaughn’s patented run-on riffs. You get the feeling the actor is doing for his movie what his character is doing for himself: tap dancing as fast as he can in an effort to salvage a desperately uncomfortable situation.

Written for TimeOFF

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Getting Ready for Oscar

There are less than 50 days left to catch the nominated films before the Oscars air on the last Sunday in February, so here's a rundown of movies I expect to see nominated in a couple of weeks. Even if they don’t get any love from Oscar, most are all well worth watching.

The Social Network's combination of first-class filmmaking and social significance is catnip to the Oscars, as it has been to just about every other awards program this year, so I’m betting it’ll be nominated for best picture, director, and screenplay and for at least one acting award. All three of its leads (Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, and Justin Timberlake) deserve the statue, but Garfield has gotten most of the awards so far, maybe because his character was the only one of the three you can actually relate to.

The King’s Speech is another kind of Oscar candy, a beautifully acted historical drama with snob appeal (we Yanks just can’t get enough of those royals) and a strong populist streak (the king’s quirky self-taught therapist treats his crippling stutter by daring to treat him as a friend). The movie is likely to be nominated for an Oscar, and Colin Firth is almost sure to get a best actor nod for his buttoned-down yet emotionally flayed portrayal of King George VI, a very private man forced to assume a very public role.

Black Swan is all but certain to be nominated for best picture, best director (Darren Aronofsky), and/or best actress (Natalie Portman as prima ballerina Nina Sayers in the title role that slowly drives her mad – and, of course, as her choreographer incessantly reminds us, in the white swan role Nina inhabits so effortlessly).

Inception, 127 Hours, and The Town are all likely contenders for best picture and/or director too, and James Franco should get a best actor nod for his impressive physical and emotional work in 127 Hours. True Grit, The Fighter, The Kids Are All Right, Winter’s Bone, and Blue Valentine are also likely to get best picture or screenplay nominations and almost sure to nab some in acting. I thought Mark Wahlberg’s unshowy but rock-solid performance in The Fighter was the best work he’s done since Boogie Nights, but he’ll probably be passed over by the Academy as his character was in real life, overshadowed by his crack-addicted brother Dicky (Christian Bale), whose motor mouth alpha-dog antics are just the sort of thing that wins trophies. That said, Bale has earned whatever accolades he gets for his Dicky, a volatile antihero with electric eyes, a hungry stride, and a comically outsized ego that might actually be almost justified.

Jeff Bridges will probably earn another richly deserved nomination for his laconic Rooster Cogburn, an outlaw disguised as a lawman in True Grit, the Coen brothers’ pitch-perfect adaptation of Charles Portis’ martini-dry Western satire. Bridges’ teenage costar Hailee Steinfleld may get some love in the supporting actress category for nailing 14-year-old Mattie’s humorless self-righteousness and unbending backbone. I’d like to see Matt Damon recognized too, since he’s very funny as a preening Texas Ranger who turns out not to be as useless as you’d expect, but I think Oscar prefers Damon as a more conventional hero.

And The Kids are All Right may well earn a supporting actress nomination for the amazingly intelligent, emotionally transparent Annette Bening. Bening turned in a standout performance last year in the tasteful tearjerker Mother and Child, but I liked her even better in the funny and warmhearted Kids, which takes the temperature of family life in a particular place and time in American history as precisely as a John Updike novel.

Melissa Leo in The Fighter, Jacki Weaver in Animal Kingdom, and John Hawkes in Winter’s Bone could all win best supporting actor or actress nominations for their work in much darker family stories (Jennifer Lawrence may also get a best actress nomination for her real-as-dirt work as Winter’s Bone’s Ree Dolly). Hawkes’ Uncle Teardrop is the closest thing Ree can find to an ally while scouring her fist-tight and lethal Ozarks community in search of her missing father. Leo and Weaver both portray toxic moms, though Leo’s is all head-tossing sound and fury while Weaver’s coyly aging “Grandma Smurf” is a piranha disguised as a goldfish.

Other possible nominees worth catching include:

  • Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling for their exquisite acting in Blue Valentine, a realistic domestic downer about the birth and death of a love affair;
  • Likely best foreign film nominees Mother, A Prophet, Biutiful, and Carlos;
  • Best documentary candidates Exit Through the Gift Shop, Inside Job, A Film Unfinished, Marwencol, Last Train Home, The Tillman Story, and Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work;
  • Toy Story 3, which is almost sure to win Best Animated Feature, and Despicable Me, The Illusionist, and Megamind, which may also get nominated; and
  • The excellent ensemble casts of Mike Leigh’s Another Year (Lesley Manville is a likely supporting actress nominee), Rabbit Hole (Nicole Kidman could nab a best actress spot for this one), Please Give (Catherine Keener is a long shot for best actress) and Greenberg (mumblecore queen Greta Gerwig was widely and deservedly praised for her sort-of-mainstream debut in this one).

Written for TimeOFF

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The L Magazine's Second Annual Film Poll

This was the second year the regular contributors to The L magazine's film page came up with a list of the year's top films -- and the first year I participated, since I started writing for The L this year. I think it's an interesting list since, as film section editor Mark Asch notes in his intro, his reviewers are a pretty varied group.

Last month The L's senior film writers, myself included, unveiled their year-end Top 10 lists; now, in an attempt to define, beyond our (sometimes profoundly) individual tastes, the sensibility of the L's film section—which, despite the somewhat chance-filled way in which our roster of critics has been assembled, seems now to exist—we present our second annual poll of our regular contributors.

Read the rest of Mark's intro and see the list on The L Magazine