Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Films of the Decade: ZODIAC (David Fincher, 2007)

In lieu of a traditional Best of the Decade list, I've decided instead to do a series on notable films from the last ten years. These might be the Best of the Best, these might be noble efforts. They might, in your eyes, be total failures. They're certainly my favorites, and they are, I hope, films very much worth discussing, and that qualification is much more valuable than simply being really damn good.


I really didn't think too much of the film going into it, at a preview screening a couple days before its release in early March 2007. Director David Fincher returning to the serial killer genre after Seven seemed like a pretty rote decision, and although I had heard it was a lot better than anyone expected...well, Fincher tended to be a little overrated.

It'd be nice to say the film blew me away right off the bat. I thought it was pretty exceptional, a real step forward for Fincher, but although I was home for Spring Break on the first week of its release, I didn't make a special effort to go out and see it again.

And then, before I knew it, I was at the video store the day it came out on DVD, desperate to rent it. So desperate, I woke up a little earlier than I probably would've otherwise and got to the store a few minutes after it opened, afraid the twenty or thirty copies they had stocked would somehow be whisked away.

This, I tell people, is the thing about Zodiac.

It's all well and good to say the film's about the nature of obsession, but it's another to realize how obsessive we've all become about it. Two and a half years later, whenever it comes up on any blog, even if it's not the main thrust of the post, the comments section inevitably descends into people picking apart each scene, pointing out the many tiny moments that make the film a masterpiece.

And the cast...what a cast! It's become rote to pick on Jake Gyllenhaal, who in the end does fine work, but is so totally out of step with the lived-in, fully-fleshed people, who are yes, based on reality, but truly built by Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey, Jr., Anthony Edwards, Brian Cox, John Carroll Lynch, Chloe Sevigny, Elias Koteas, among many others. The interplay between these people in every scene is so acute, so clearly played out again and again and again to Fincher's specification, but never less than vital, fresh, and totally real.

In nearly every conceivable way, the film is absolutely perfect. James Vanderbilt wrote, hands down, the finest screenplay of the last decade, not only in his total creation of each character, but also - and this is the thing that stood out to me right away - that I was actually able to follow the damn thing. One of my greatest weaknesses as a viewer is keeping track of names, which gets me in a lot of trouble when it comes to detective movies and police procedurals. That was never an issue with this film. We know exactly who everyone is and what their role is in the story at every turn (never mind our intimate familiarity with the locations - Washington and Cherry, Lake Berryessa, ETC.), and this, ultimately, is why the diner scene towards the end between Dave Toschi and Robert Graysmith is as thrilling as it is. It's easy to talk about the concept of building scenes throughout a movie that don't pay off until much later, but it's hard to think of a finer example than Zodiac.

Of course, this ambitious structure doesn't help its running time. I knew right away that the film was too long for a lot of people. I heard complaints in the days that followed, but even right in the screening, there were audible groans in the last few scenes whenever it faded out of black. Even I was smiling, sort of amused that they just kept this thing running and running and running, but it was only a few minutes from exiting the theater when I realized that was the entire point. If time wasn't a tangible presence, its slow, agonizing march onward towards the complete impossibility of a solution the real enemy, the entire film would fall apart.

And for this...we have David Fincher to thank, who quickly went from a very stylish director to a man with true vision, one of the most important filmmakers of the 21st century, and, as Kent Jones put it in the essay included with the Criterion Collection's release of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a man with "a vision of time so heartbreakingly acute as to rival those of John Ford and Orson Welles."

There are many people who still don't understand what a director does, and Zodiac is one of those films you could watch with them (perhaps forcibly), and point out in every scene several aspects that define David Fincher's role in the film, and by the end you'd have a complete understanding of direction. On a commentary track for The Third Man, Steven Soderbergh says you could learn everything you need to learn about directing a movie from watching it, and I strongly believe the same is true about Zodiac. Every scene is pitched just so, the pace so exact. The whole film is so finely-tuned in a way that nearly every film does not. Fincher's imprint extends beyond the typical auteur definition of "you should be able to tell after thirty seconds who made this movie." It's pervasive, ingrained, essential to the way the film operates. It's clear that everything that's in the film is there for a reason, and that the way it's in there is intentional. It's odd, but even if I didn't know it, I could probably guess that Fincher does several dozen takes of many shots; nothing in the film feels "good enough." It has to be perfect. And it is.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Review: NINE (dir. Rob Marshall)

I love Frederico Fellini's 8½. It deserves to be amongst the realm of the greatest films ever made, and I relish every chance I get to watch it (no surprise that I'm dying to get my hands on Criterion's Blu-Ray in January). So imagine my surprise that the biggest problem with Rob Marshall's adaptation of an adaptation of Fellini's classic is that it is just that - a remake of one of the most intimate films ever made. is so personal to Fellini, it goes beyond the typical proclamation that "this film would not exist if the director had never lived." It's not just Fellini's candid revelation of his many flaws, or the film's very particular style...it's almost intangible, in the little touches like Marcello Mastroianni dancing down the hall, singing the overture of "The Barber of Seville" to himself.

It's, actually, the magic that Daniel Day-Lewis' Guido talks about at the beginning of Nine, that accidental joy that comes from the right montage, or Guido's dissection of why the screenplay is the last thing that matters to the audience - it's the glint in an actress's eye, the particular way she moves within the frame and the frame moves around her. THAT'S 8½.

So, as noted, Nine's biggest problem is existing in the first place, but it largely redeems itself by not trying to be all over again and just being a rather spectacular romp through 60s Italian culture. Except the end (vague spoilers follow until the next paragraph), which nearly ruined the good favor the film held with me up until then; it's far too neat and tidy, and puts a much more dramatic spin on the proceedings than is really necessary. I suppose your typical audience needs a bastard to pay for his wrongdoing, but there was something so great about the way Fellini just through up his hands and said "what'll you do!" with the way he ended (and I mean, you're making a musical of a movie that randomly explodes into a dance number at the end...how do you NOT follow suit?)

But boy, up 'til then, it's pretty damn sensational. I mean, sure, who wouldn't want to spend two hours (or three...go see La Dolce Vita!) drenched in that 60s Italian culture? And it's pretty refreshing that it hits many of the same emotional beats did when they mean to at the same time - some scenes are lifted whole cloth, but they still work within the context of what is necessarily a very stripped-down version of the original. It's playful in a way similar to Fellini, but without aping the touch that made it so much fun (music instead of mise-en-scene, typically).

What really makes the movie tick is the cast, which could have easily been populated with totally incapable of-the-moment stars, but was pretty damn well selected all things considered - Day-Lewis just having a ball putting on his best Mastroianni impression, Penelope Cruz oozing sex appeal and hopelessness, and Marion Cotillard...when I heard she was playing this role, I knew we'd be in for something special, but I'm slowly learning that whatever we expect from Cotillard, she's always better. Even Fergie's weirdly good, in every definition those two words could produce.

Marshall could still learn to tone down his camerawork and editing a touch - he and his cinematographer, Dion Beebe, produce such lovely images, and boy it'd be swell if they just took a second a let us savor them (particularly the black and white, I say, diving headfirst into being that old guy bitching about movies these days). The songs range from spectacular (the opening number, "Be Italian," Cruz's first number, Cotillard's last) to "wha?" (Kate Hudson, the only cast member who walks away having brought nothing to the table, but it sort of fits in a way that you know couldn't have possibly been on purpose).

In a year chock-full of the most disappointing of splashy "entertainments" (The Hangover being the notable exception, and I still have yet to see Sherlock Holmes), I'm shocked critics have by and large dumped over what is perhaps sacrilege, but damn entertaining and more than competant all the while. I don't usually wrap up reviews with a recommendation, but just see the damn thing; it's a hoot.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Films of the Decade: GERRY (Gus Van Sant, 2003)

In lieu of a traditional Best of the Decade list, I've decided instead to do a series on notable films from the last ten years. These might be the Best of the Best, these might be noble efforts. They might, in your eyes, be total failures. They're certainly my favorites, and they are, I hope, films very much worth discussing, and that qualification is much more valuable than simply being really damn good.

In February, 2003, when this film came through my town, I had no idea there could be movies like this. I was 16 - I hadn't seen any Bela Tarr, or any of the other inspirations people point to when discussing director Gus Van Sant's post-Forrester, pre-Milk period. What followed was nothing short of hypnotic. When I'd recommend this movie to people (some would take me up on it, too), I'd tell them they absolutely have to have a space all to themselves, turn off their phones, bury their watch, remove anything that could at all distract you from the film. You must invest, and the result is at once a cocoon and an open plain of the sound of rocks underneath your feet, sun in your eyes, sand....everywhere, and some of the most beautiful desert photography since Lawrence of Arabia. I was left mesmerized and speechless.

Grounding Van Sant's venture into the unknown are Matt Damon and Casey Affleck. Damon is building a career filled to the brim with fascinating choices in which ego never enters the equation. Even his performances as Jason Bourne, his franchise-spawning, cool-as-ice action hero, come tinged with regret, confusion, and the simultaneous exhilaration and incarceration that comes with the constant awareness of one's surroundings. IFC's choice of him as Actor of the Decade did not surprise me one bit. Affleck, meanwhile, spent the decade quietly informing people that he is (much) more than the younger brother nipping at the heels of his hilariously famous brother, culminating with The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, in which he gave one of the finest performances of the last ten years.

Van Sant would go onto make two more films in the same vein (and one in another altogether) before returning to mainstream studio work, and rarely has the concept of the frame been more important than his work during this period. Whereas his full-frame compositions perfectly convey the claustrophobic nature of high school and the depressed creative mind in Elephant and Last Days, respectively, his widescreen compositions in Gerry are wonderful compositions of the vastness of the desert and the impossibility of escape. These shots may take five minutes, maybe more, but what we're left with eventually, shot to shot, and in a total portrait, is not simply the portrait of two men lost in the desert, or even modern man's inability to come to grips with the natural environment, but in a larger sense the very nature of hopelessness.

Though tempting to insist that there's very little to leaving lots of negative space in a frame, or simply following two people walking (or, in one of the film's most mesmerizing shots, driving), the value of this sort of work seems, to me anyway, self-evident. It's impossible to create work like this without being attuned to the rhythm at which the world turns pressed against the way we process it, never mind the technical bravado and sheer patience needed for its execution. It's cliche to say, "Michael Bay could never do this," but it's also true, of him and most other filmmakers. It's telling that even when truly talented directors make attempts like this, even in parts, in which the man's movement through space, and the space itself, takes precedence over issues of plot or even character (Soderbergh with Che, Jarmusch with The Limits of Control, Campion with Bright Star, Penn with Into the Wild), the result is slightly rushed. Shots are terminated before gliding to their natural conclusion, plot points or emotional landmarks covered up even as they happened.

Nothing is spared in Gerry. Not the filmmaking, not the story, not the characters, not the actors, and certainly not the audience. What's often left out of discussions is how damn tense a film it becomes; this is a much more harrowing journey through the desert than T.E. Lawrence's was, largely because we feel every step of it. Everyone works, or the film crumbles, and in an age when the audience is expected to do less and less in the cinema, it's no wonder this film has gone down with it. It's an absolute marvel of modern art cinema, a testament to its continued revival in the face of claims of its demise.


Wednesday, December 23, 2009

REVIEW: Avatar

Someone...somewhere...mentioned that watching Avatar is somewhat equivalent to dropping LSD (is LSD "dropped"? I really have no idea) and staring at one of those old sci-fi covers where some space man is fighting a giant lizard or something. They didn't take it this far, but I will - not only does that convey the visual experience of the thing, but also the pure emptiness one must feel afterward.

To say Avatar is writer/director James Cameron's worst film (and, like everybody else, I'm discarding Piranha Part 2: The Spawning from consideration because, like everybody else, I haven't seen it) is a complimentary way into pointing out its many, many flaws. What does it say about Cameron that something this extravagant, ambitious, and in many respects fully-realized counts as his worst film? Can you imagine what kind of filmography that must be that Avatar is your worst film? So believe me when I say, when it comes to Avatar and James Cameron, everything is relative.

And don't get me wrong, it's as visually extravagant as everyone, including Cameron, has promised. Is it a game-changer? I'm not really sure. My guess would be "yes," but at this point we're into improvement by degrees, and it seems completely unlikely to me that any movie will come along at this point and show the audience something they cannot believe they are witnessing. But like a lot of people, I don't know enough about CGI to say if this will truly change the way people make movies.

What I do know is that the sequences on Pandora, the main place in the film that Cameron created whole cloth, are, visually and aurally, staggering to behold on every level from conception to design to execution. I don't really buy it as a real place the way Cameron wants me to, but I was too overwhelmed and in awe to care that much. Do you have to believe a painting represents a real place, or is it better to get lost in  the beauty of it? I'd say the latter. And the 3D works here in a major way, nearly as strong an argument for the process as an artistic tool as Coraline was earlier this year. The way we fall into this world is so wonderful and truly magical in a way movies rarely are.

But what has dawned on me over the last day is how truly empty and underdeveloped the film is, especially once you find your footing visually, and especially considering Cameron wrote the original treatment in the 90s and has been developing it, to one extent or another, ever since. And no, these problems cannot be excused by saying "film is a visual medium" and leaving it at that. Simply creating pretty pictures is not enough. If you say "film is a visual medium," what that means is that the visuals accomplish something that cannot be accomplished with words, or that something is being conveyed through the visuals that you could not effectively or artistically communicate any other way. That is not the case with Avatar; the only thing that's communicated visually is "this looks really God damn cool." The camera, in and of itself, is never used to create emotion or thought.

Of course...neither is the script.

Shots like these, and there are a lot of them, with little bits of whatever floating around, are breathtaking in 3D

A lot has been made about the film's racial politics, and while I think it's an interesting point to discuss, it has absolutely nothing to do with the quality of the film. If a movie wants to be bigoted/stereotypical/simplistic towards its representations of race, I suppose that's a choice; it's certainly a point of view. And I don't knock a piece of art for the artist's opinion. Along those same lines, while I really, really respect the environmentalist/anti-colonialist message Cameron is hammering away here (and using so much of Fox's money to do it), my appreciation for his total evisceration of humanity's more selfish tendencies does nothing to elevate my general opinion of the film.

(by the way, as a side note, in a year in which replacing black people with aliens was considered biting social commentary, I don't understand why more people don't consider replacing Native Americans with aliens to be the political statement of the decade)

My problem is that this simplistic representation of Native Americans (and it is very clearly supposed to be that) contributes to the script's fundamental lack of a reason for Jake Sully, the film's protagonist, to exist at all, besides giving the audience a white guy to latch onto. In the end, Jake's purpose (spoiler alert for anyone who's never seen a movie in their life) is to lead the Na'vi (those are the aliens who replaced the Native Americans) in a fight against their human (white) oppressors. This of course implies that the Na'vi are completely incapable of fighting their own fight without the White Man, in spite of the fact that we're told near the beginning of the film that, although they're limited technologically, the Na'vi are very dangerous and very capable. Again, I have less a problem with the racial implications than I do with the dramatic.

Nether Cameron nor Sam Worthington, the severely incapable star of the film, give Jake anything other than that. He just has to be a Marine at the start, gathering information to use against the Na'vi, and then change his mind about it after meeting the hottest Na'vi chick ever. At no point was a single important question asked about his character, nor any other character, except "how does this person push the plot forward?"

For instance...How does he feel about his brother's death? How does he feel about the Na'vi, and more importantly, about how they and their planet are treated before visiting Pandora? How did he develop this viewpoint? How much of his change is based on genuinely appreciating their way of life, and how much is based on hormones? Any one of these questions, and a thousand others that could have been made up from nothing (does he like soup?) would have improved this shell of a character, as would Worthington changing the way he read any line. His performance is exactly the same throughout the film.

And guess what? The supporting cast isn't any better. The entire film is full of stock characters who we understand solely because we've seen them in another film. We have the tech guy who doesn't trust the brash new guy; the benevolent scientist working under a military regime, covertly trying to improve the lives of the natives while not ruffling any feathers with the board of directors; the noble savage (who also happens to be a slammin' hottie who has no problem putting out), true to her people but fascinated by the mysterious outsider; the gruff, tough-as-nails, no-nonsense, militaristic general (maybe he's a captain?); the totally uncaring bureaucrat, concerned only with the bottom line; the tribal chief who doesn't trust the mysterious outsider, largely because they're both gunning for the same woman (don't worry, they'll get along later). Am I forgetting anyone? Oh, yeah, and Michelle Rodriguez, who might as well be starring as herself at this point (I wonder if Rodriguez is secretly great at playing some other type of character, and so resents the fact that she's relegated to the same role over and over again that she never gives a good performance as a result).

The thing is, Cameron's used ALL of these types before (except for the Native American ones), and many other stock characters, but guess what? In every other film he, or the actor playing them, gave them some layer or texture that made them compelling. Every single character in this film fits perfectly into one of these slots, and not a single one of them has anything to offer besides that. Zoe Saldana, as the hottie savage, actually manages to give a good performance, but always in the precise range noted above. Nothing she or the character does will surprise you in the least.

For most of the first half of its running time, Cameron manages to make it work. The visuals are so overwhelming, the filmmaking so precise and measured, all set to a very fine flow, that I was caught up in something truly pleasant. It's only around the turn at the start of the final act, or maybe just before that, that every one of these characters falls into the role the story dictated for them, when it really becomes a problem. Because, suddenly, I realized that I didn't care about any of these people, at all. And what should have been the most thrilling part of the movie (the final showdown) becomes totally rote, predictable, and (worst of all) completely free of any tension.

Cameron's three greatest strengths, thus far, have been a) creating and quickly establishing unique, compelling characters, b) putting them against an oppressive force, and c) driving narrative like the T-1000 drives a truck - relentlessly. When he's at his best (which, for me, is the Aliens-Abyss-T2 run), his narratives bowl over so fast, he is constantly introducing unpredictable elements and slight obstacles, and he simply never lets up, which is why most of us don't worry too much about the clunky dialogue. That all of this typically takes place against some unstoppable force (the Terminators, the aliens/space itself, the bottom of the sea, a sinking ship) means we're constantly involved in conflict, constantly on edge. It can be, and often is, really thrilling.

None of that is present in Avatar, and, with the exception of creating compelling characters, would not be a problem if he had strengths in the areas he wants to be strong in (and for most of the middle, it seems like he really wants to be Terrence Malick). It's not our basic knowledge that good will conquer evil that prevents tension from setting in. It's not like we really thought the aliens would kill Ripley and Newt, or that the T-1000 would kill John Connor, or even that Jack and Rose would get off the ship (hell, we know for a fact that Rose makes it). But there's a special touch Cameron had to create white-knuckle sequences within that larger framework that made those movies so exciting, and which is entirely absent at any point in this film (the sequence of Ed Harris swimming between airlocks in The Abyss is more tense and commanding than the whole of Avatar). And what's left is often quite pleasant, but once he saddles up and ramps up the "conflict," nothing has been established that feels like it's worth the effort.

Avatar is now playing...gosh, everywhere really. If you haven't seen it yet and still want to, see it in 3D. Preferably at Cinetopia.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Two Kinda Boring Things, And One Truly Exceptional Thing to Make Up For It

First, the Golden Globe nominations were announced today. Whoo. Obviously, I haven't seen all the nominated films due to release dates and such, but by the time the actual show airs, I will. I'm not gonna do that thing of complaining about all the stuff they gave a huge shaft to (and there are many, mostly of the Serious Man variety), but there's also nothing this year that makes me especially giddy (unlike last year, when out of nowhere they nominated the hell out of In Bruges, which at the time was not getting talked about nearly as much as it should have).

Anyway, the Oscars are the ones I care about. That might make me boring and pedestrian to my more cinephiliac brethren, but, whatever, I still get excited about them, and will have too much to say when that time arrives.

The other truly boring thing is the trailer for Ridley Scott's Robin Hood. It amazes me that the man who tapped into the genuine working-class environment and sheer tension of Alien, and followed it up with something as beautiful and lyrical as Blade Runner, has been reduced to being so terribly predictable, and even more amazingly, so unexciting as a director. But I guess that's the state of things. I can only start to count the totally lazy, predictable decisions being made here ("gritty" "realism," making it a God damn origin story...) before nodding off.

Anyway...the irony of the truly exceptional thing is that it won't make you feel better about the industry, but it's always refreshing to hear from someone who's worked the beat long enough to know the score tell it like it is. When The New York Times posted Dargis' piece last weekend on the state of female directors in the industry, I muttered to my girlfriend, "Oh, Dargis is on her yearly rant," which I say every year or so, but always end up a) fascinated by her analysis, and b) deeply frustrated by the state of the industry as she explains it. So, predictable or not, it's mighty effective. But I cannot recommend enough that you click on that first link.

Later this week, reviews of The Messenger, Me and Orson Welles, and Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans, the latter of which I still need to do some thinking on. Luckily, it's vacation week!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

REVIEW: La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet

Ultimately, your opinion of this film is going to depend greatly on your temperament. For 159 very long minutes we're plunged headfirst into the inner workings, operation, and daily activities of the Paris Opera Ballet through the rehearsal and execution of several shows. I say "several" because it's clear they are showing us more than one, but as a guy who knows next to nothing about ballet, it was difficult to tell exactly how many more. If I were to guess, I'd say four or five.

There's no narration, no interviews, no intertitles or captions to explain anything we see. Consider it a bonus that it comes with subtitles for the parts in French. I'm told this is standard practice for director Frederick Wiseman, and I found it absolutely thrilling.

It does help that, if it's on film, I can be fascinated by watching people do absolutely anything. Maybe this makes me creepy, but I prefer curious. I never watch those shows that explain how a tree becomes a baseball bat, but I would watch hours upon hours that showed people going through the process of making a tree into a baseball bat. I think it's absolutely amazing to watch people go through what is to them a routine, and the ways they execute rote movements and exercises and process new ones.

And the process of assembling something as complex as a ballet is absolutely mind-bending. I can't dance, and I have no sense of rhythm or beats or anything, so watching people just naturally fall into this working rhythm...like I said, I find this stuff captivating.

It also helps that the film is at times bouyed by a meditation on the fleeting nature of dance as a career, what that means practically, philosophically, and (though we naturally only get a glimpse of this) emotionally.

The thing is that, because it's so spare and never once announces its intention, what you take from it will totally be your own thing (which is really one of the better results of art). This is what I saw in it. If you have the stamina for it, though (honestly, you've never felt 159 minutes go by so slowly), and if anything I described above sounds at all appealing, you'll flip for this thing.

La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet is now playing at Cinema 21 through Thursday, December 10th.

REVIEW: Brothers

In my Senior year of high school, a friend and I wrote a one-act play that got chosen for the school's Playwriting Festival. When it came time to cast the thing, a musical, my friend wanted to go with a proven musical theater talent and I wanted to go with someone totally off the beaten path who I know would put in ten times the energy. The result would be different, and perhaps not technically as good, but it would feel more infused with life and, more interestingly, show the regular audience for the school plays a talent they didn't expect.

This is sort of why Brothers is as good as it is. Since showing great promise in films like The Ice Storm, The Cider House Rules, and Wonder Boys, Tobey Maguire has mostly been sidelined over the last decade, greatly improving the Spider-Man films but never really given the chance to a) invest himself totally in a role, and b) show people that he had other talents. Jake Gyllenhaal has proven one of the most uneven actors of his generation, either turning in tremendous performances in Donnie Darko or Jarhead, middling efforts in Brokeback Mountain, Moonlight Mile, or Proof, or almost distractingly uncommitted performances in The Day After Tomorrow and Zodiac. Natalie Portman, meanwhile, has almost always done something totally different, a little risky, and surprisingly challenging.

So color me surprised that Natalie Portman is the least compelling aspect of an otherwise astounding ensemble. Maguire's performance is a revelation, and even when he's not up to the task at hand, his sheer commitment and unrelenting effort is more than commendable. He never once hedges or withholds; it's all out there. Gyllenhaal, however, is the best part of this, and this is the best part of his career. He's given the framework for a fairly stock character and invests it with so much humanity, grace, and tenderness. There are so many obvious ways to play a guy trying to turn his life around, and Gyllenhaal is never given, nor does he seek, a shortcut. It's just there in his face.

Portman's problem is that she's handed a character with nothing we can latch onto. In terms of screentime, she's easily the main character, but we never really know her beyond her role in this story. When she begs Maguire to stay home, is it last-minute desperation and a natural desire to hold onto the person you love, or does she fundamentally oppose his career? Theoretically the former, but we never know. It's a small detail, but those sorts of things are essential to building a character. What we don't find out about her doesn't seem purposeful; this isn't Charles Foster Kane or Daniel Plainview. This is a person we're supposed to feel for and invest in, and we never know if she means what she's saying, or what she means by it.

And she's what holds the movie back from being among the year's best. Believe me when I say that for such a rote story that was also saddled with a trailer that gave away the whole story, this is a deeply moving film about how we relate to the people we're born with. I shouldn't have doubted writer David Benioff (adapting a 2004 film by Susanne Bier) after 25th Hour, and I certainly shouldn't have doubted director Jim Sheridan after In America, which, to whatever extent it was actually based on his story of coming to America, was incredibly formulaic but never less than profoundly moving and inspiring.

And pretty much, we get the same for Brothers - every time he gets close to cliche (Sam Shepard's character is one wrong move away from saying "The wrong kid died!"), he twists it or invests the situation with deeper meaning, executed by something as simple as a baby crawling around a corner. His delicate balance of several family conflicts around a dinner table, slowly mounting through the sound of a balloon, is a masterstroke, and one of the best scenes of the year.

If I've focused more on acting in this review than is typically the case, it's because (surprise, surprise) it's an actor's film. This is a story best told through the performances, and the real thrill of this film is seeing something new in actors we thought we had pegged (as though it were possible to like Clifton Collins, Jr. even more, he's in here too, and he's SO much better than he has to be). In its best moments, this is the product of assembling the right people for the job, and getting the best work out of them.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

In Defense of Sentimentality

How's this for relevance - this post will be a reaction to a piece Todd McCarthy wrote eight years ago!

To be fair, I found it through a recent re-posting of it on Hollywood Elsewhere (Lord knows why Wells drudged it it up), but nevertheless, I'll let McCarthy start things off (for the record, this was written in October, 2001):

At the recent Telluride Film Festival, Peter Bogdanovich, who did as much as anyone to champion Hollywood's great early masters in the '60s, when many of them were professionally being put out to pasture, had to admit some films by his old favorites, particularly John Ford, were looking a little creaky. Ford, because of his sentimentality and indulgence of matters that meant a lot to him, simply doesn't play so well today, Bogdanovich admitted, even when it comes to some of his most widely admired films, such as "The Grapes of Wrath"; the same can be said of Griffith and Chaplin.

By contrast, other directors from the classical era, especially Buster Keaton, Ernst Lubitsch, Howard Hawks and Preston Sturges, look as good as ever or even better, Bogdanovich argued, because of their comic bent and aversion to sentimentality; Otto Preminger also continues to soar in his estimation. "The cold directors are the ones who look better today," Bogdanovich judged, "while the warm ones look old-fashioned. It's the times we live in."

This is a trend in film evaluation and criticism that I always found a little troubling. Basically, it goes that anything warm, positive, sentimental, and optimistic will inevitably feel boring, staid, and cliche, while a film that's cold, cynical, and calculated will have a much greater chance of standing the test of time and remaining relevant ("relevance" is a wholly overrated mark of a good film, just as "dated" is a wholly overrated mark of a bad one).

But even if we remove the cold and warm qualifications (after all, Keaton, Lubitsch, Hawks, and Sturges could be quite warm themselves). What it really comes down to is this idea of sentimentality, which is really just the full expression of an emotion that supposedly greater directors would bury. Bogdanovich said, "It's the times we live in," and even eight years ago he was right. I've often complained about the age of irony we seem to be trapped in, which frowns of the direct expression of emotion and celebrates burying it. True, many people do bury their true feelings in daily interactions, largely for fear of being ridiculed for caring about something deeply and passionately, but a) some of us try not to, and b) isn't art there to express things we dare not put into words?

[M]y objection to The New World is that it introduces a heretofore unknown quantity into the Malickean universe: that of sentimentality. Too often what is strange and striking and, yes, new about this vision is undercut by a seepage of pious treacle. As in, to name one for-instance, the bit in the section titled "A Proposal" in which Q'orianka Kilcher's Pocahontas communes with a tree. "Other people direct movie. Terrence Malick builds cathedrals," pronounced one of this film's most passionate champions, Matt Zoller Seitz. Too often in this film Malick seems to be announcing that he's building a cathedral, and there's a concomitant sogginess of thought in that which skews the detachment that makes the beauty of his prior films so bracing and unusual. I prefer cinematic poetry with a somewhat stiffer spine, finally.
-Glenn Kenny, "Possible sins of omission" (12/5/2009)

At least Kenny was able to admit personal preference, and I'll gladly follow suit - I love The New World precisely because Malick is totally unafraid to let his characters express passionately and directly. In his post, Kenny lists a number of other admirable traits of the film, but the thing about it that hooked me the first time I watched it was just how fully felt it is. One man's sentimentality is another's emotional catharsis, I suppose, but I guess what I'm getting at is the tendency to discuss anything but emotion in films, while I think art's chief goal should be emotional (it was good enough for Samuel Fuller, anyway).

Is there such a thing as "overly sentimental" then? Of course there is, but the problem isn't an abundance of sentiment, it's that the film isn't fully felt. Where that line is will differ from person to person, but what's the use of film criticism if it isn't a little subjective?

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Best of the Decade Round-Up

Man, a week since I last updated? Many apologies, and I'm feeling a lot of Catholic guilt for it (I've long considered myself 3/4 Catholic, but that's another thing for another time), but there'll be a TON to talk about next week as I have no less than seven (SEVEN) new releases to cover before a quick vacation on the 17th, which'll mean a delayed viewing of Avatar, and then the next onslaught of Christmas movies (at least six).

In the meantime, a lot of people have been posting their Best of the Decade lists, which a) as I've stated before, I won't be posting until February, and b) has reminded me how many really, truly great movies have come out over the last ten years, and c) has made me realize that there are so, so, so many I haven't seen.

First up, he The A.V. Club picked Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind as the best of the decade, which I know would make a friend of mine very happy, and which I can respect, but my appreciation of the film has been deeply hampered by too many high school friends liking it for the wrong reasons. They do get mad props for putting 25th Hour so high though.

The Times Online has one of the most baffling, ocassionally joyful lists (Team America at number five? Why not!), and there's really nothing wrong with their number one choice, a movie that's had me constantly thinking and re-evaluating since I saw it over the summer.

The one I admire the most, hands down, is TimeOut New York (although I wouldn't be surprised if Reverse Shot had a more compelling one by the end of it). Little surprise given the participants, but their top five is flawless and their number one pick is more than admirable - I finally saw that film last Spring and I can't stop talking about it.

Jeremy Smith, the smartest cinephile to be writing for any of the geek sites, still has his Top 25 to post, but catch up on the rest in the meantime.

And finally, in listening form, Battleship Pretension, my favorite movie podcast, listed two top tens in two parts. Plus, overlooked and underseen films of the decade.

And with that, I'll be back maybe later this week if I think of anything, and definitely next week.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

"Hey, I've Heard of That!"

Honestly, I haven't read all of Devin Faraci's write-up on his visit to the offices for the upcoming feature film adaptation of the board game Battleship, but what I did read sounds slightly righteous. It also sounds nothing like something that in no way should be associated with the board game. In fact, I'd probably be way more interested if they called it something other than Battleship. I know that makes me a huge snob, but even more than most of these kinds of movies, it's abundantly clear they're just calling it Battleship for name recognition.

But Who Would Want to Watch It?

"And we generally say, 'Well, if that was in a movie, I wouldn't believe it.' Someone's so-and-so met someone else's so-and-so and so on. And it is in the humble opinion of this narrator that strange things happen all the time."

About a year ago, I was taking a class called Cinephilia: Forests and Trees. The title of the class would take another post to explain, but essentially we were diving into Auteur Theory head first. We were discussing Bringing Up Baby, which I was shocked to hear the majority of the class didn't care for. My professor was as well, and was probing people for why it didn't work for them.

And then it happened - "It wasn't very realistic, and the characters weren't believable."

This is one of the most common uses of shorthand criticism that actually doesn't say anything evaluative about the film. It completely dodges the concept that an unrealistic film could actually be a damn fine piece of entertainment. Or art.

We've become a culture that seems to prize reality very highly. It wasn't always this way; people weren't stupider in the 30s, they just didn't give as much of a shit that their entertainment be 'realistic.' It's why your grandparents didn't need some kind of device to explain why people were singing in a movie musical, it was just great to have people singing. Nobody cared how Superman managed to fly, it was just awesome that he did.  And I suspect that adults watching The Wizard of Oz in 1939 weren't 'fooled' by the painted backdrops, they just enjoyed the scenery for what it was.

None of that happens anymore. Photoreal is the buzzword in special effects, despite the lingering, nagging feeling that many of us have that we will always be able to tell a scene contains major FX work. We're no longer interested in suspending our disbelief but in having it completely vaporized. Movies about giant robots punching each other or a guy dressing up in a batsuit to fight crime must be mired in realism, in backstory and in minutia. On top of that, we demand naturalistic acting at all times, which is why so many people think the exaggerated and theatrical acting style of 300 is just 'bad' acting.

That's Devin Faraci in a recent article over at CHUD.com. He addresses a lot of the concerns I have about the way people evaluate movies nowadays, typically by asking themselves how closely it approximates the world they're familiar with. Which, inevitably, negates the possibility of an alternative artistic vision. It's not that art and realism are antonymous (Lost in Translation and Summer Hours are prime examples of how they can go hand in hand), and I think Faraci doesn't give audiences enough credit for how they approach scenery (the unreality of the production design of The Royal Tenenbaums did nothing to turn people away; then again, Eyes Wide Shut was critiqued for building sets of New York streets that were too wide - I swear to Christ this was actually a concern), but he's certainly right in regards to acting and character.

Recently, I saw Broadcast News for the first time. It was mostly a fine enough film, but I couldn't help think how much better it would be if done in the style of (or better yet, produced during the time of) the Golden Age of Hollywood, where people didn't have to act like real people. The whole thing could've used a lot more humor, a lot more life, and specifically my girlfriend and I debated the merits of William Hurt's character. Both of us agreed it was a fair, realistic portrait of a smarmy asshole, but I insisted he could have been given a lot more charm and a lot more life instead of being so vacuous. Yes, that's probably how he would be in real life, but what's so interesting about that?

Kubrick had this thing about acting that realism was fine, but interesting was better. As a result, he got some of the most memorable performances of all time from actors who either a) never did anything of much note besides that (Vincent D'Onofrio, Malcolm McDowell), or b) were rarely or never as much fun as they were with Kubrick (George C. Scott, Jack Nicholson). I've heard the "overacting" charge leveled again and again, but dammit if I'm not drawn in by their performances time and time again.

Really, who would you rather watch for 2+ hours?

And Bringing Up Baby, too. Yeah, obviously, most conversations wouldn't be so dragged out with misunderstandings and the rest. But it's HILARIOUS.

As for story concerns, well, I'll let David Denby take the reigns here...

Alfred Hitchcock used to complain about moviegoers who refused to yield to the pleasures of narrative. “The plausibles,” he called them—viewers who, rather than enjoying one of his stories about two ordinary people caught up in some sort of sinister affair, would nag at minor details or ask, “Why don’t they call the cops?” To narrative filmmakers, the plausibles ask the wrong questions and make the wrong demands. They should care not whether a thriller is absolutely consistent but whether it gives good, nasty jolts.

Upon reading that again, I had to laugh, because I actually wrote an outline for a thriller* for this screenwriting class I was in, and my professor would not stop asking why the main character wouldn't call the cops, insisting that any person "like you or me" would call the cops as soon as things got a little sticky. The answer, of course, is that anyone who reacted to situations like me would make for the most boring movie on the planet. I'm terrified of upsetting authority figures, and no decision I would ever make would make for a compelling thriller. Nobody would ever watch a movie about me of any genre really. So you make things up. You have fun. You engage the audience with something they did not see coming; maybe because it's a little outside the realm of realism.

I'm not saying to totally work without some sort of structure. I'm just saying I enjoy it when a movie goes a little off the rails. What it really comes down to is the insistence that a film can only be a handful of things, and one of those things is, increasingly, "realism," or finding artistic truth in the mundane details of our own reality. Look, I'm surrounded by people who act like real people all day. Sometimes, it's nice to engage with a story that feels nothing like the world I know. Some people seek this escapism in the summer blockbuster, and that can be a great portal, but there's an increasing concern with trying to hook those into the realm of "realism" when really, what's the point? Why is one of the highest praise for summer blockbusters, or any movie for that matter, "it felt like it was really happening?"

This is one of the reasons I love Speed Racer so dearly. It absolutely departs from any semblance of reality, which is pretty thrilling in and of itself, but it also has more real heart and truth in it than the combined running times of Christopher Nolan's attempts at realism in the Batman films.

*Which wasn't really all that good in the end, but for none of the reasons my professor insisted on.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Six Movies Every Guy Should See at Age 17

Or eighteen. Basically, second-half of high school. At least, that's when I saw these movies, and they made an indelible impression on my life.

There are a few factors at work here - first, all of these movies are totally accessible to anyone who's grown up watching movies. Nothing too eclectic, nothing too off-the-beaten path. Second, all of these have valuable life lessons for anyone making the transition from young punk to adult (and trust me, not everyone makes this transition). Everything from girls to school to responsibility...it's all here. And lessons aside, they're damn slick, enjoyable movies to watch.

Eyes Wide Shut - Okay, this is pushing the "mainstream" requirement a little (it is a pretty good thriller for a bit there...and there are a LOT of boobs), but if you're willing to roll with it, the film is here for you. Basically, when I saw this the summer before my Senior year of high school, it blew my head apart. I had no idea women thought this much about sex and had the same desires and fantasies my Catholic-raised ass was struggling with. Of course, the next year I would go to college and find out (alas, not through direct experience) that girls are even more obsessed with sex than guys (some, anyway), but for the time being, this was...very valuable.

Oh, and anyone who says this is "lesser Kubrick" can shove it. This and Barry Lyndon for the win.

A Clockwork Orange - Hey, two Kubrick movies! Hey, boobs aside, they really couldn't be any more different. Another movie that, when I saw it the first time (in a theater, what what)...well, it was one of those movies I saw and couldn't believe it existed. I had a vague notion that something like this could exist, but...wow. The lesson here is basically to question authority. That's something no respectable 17-year-old has ANY problem with, but I'll also say that for the most part, guys enjoy this movie a lot more when they're younger than when they're older. I mean, I'm only 23, and I still think it's a fine film, but I don't think half as well of it now as I did then.

Chasing Amy - Near and dear for a lot of men, for a reason. Young men, take notice - the girl you're crazy about was around before you, and there's a good chance there'll be an "after you" too. Don't get hung up on it. Try to trust her, especially if she says she loves you. If you get burned, you get burned, that's life. But don't get all jealous about stuff that has no bearing on you. I'm still learning the damn lesson Holden learned in this film, but I'm glad as hell that I had a few years' head start on it.

Fight Club - YeeeeAAAAHHHH. Like A Clockwork Orange, I don't like it half as well as I did when I was 17, but I fucking LOVED this movie when I was 17. Sure, I didn't catch onto the biting social commentary that was underneath the surface (that is to say, don't get caught up in ANY cult, be it mainstream corporate environment or anti-establishment underground), but everything that's on the surface (that is, everything that Tyler spouts in the pre-terrorism section of the film) is stuff genuinely worth considering whether or not you end up agreeing with it. Again, like A Clockwork Orange, it gets you thinking about stuff you might not have before, and is damned entertaining while it does it.

Clerks - More Kevin Smith! A little repetitive, maybe, but Kevin Smith is a guy who appeals pretty directly to young men. Certainly did to me. Anyway, two major things here: a) recognize a good lady when you land one, and don't keep chasing after what you think is your dream girl, because she probably isn't, and b) work a job you don't mind working. It doesn't have to be your dream job or your career, but really look around and find something you're comfortable with. It's not worth minimum wage to hate your life for up to eight hours a day (unless that's REALLY all you can find).

Dazed and Confused - And dude, just enjoy it. It's high school. Even if they don't end up being the best years of your life, there are so many opportunities to have so much fun. Soak it up. It's the last years you'll be given a roof over your head and food on your plate. Don't worry about the future, just do the best you can and find things you enjoy doing.

Bonus Religious Pick: The Last Temptation of Christ - Okay, if you're any denomination of Christian, get your ass out and see this movie. First, it's a good barometer to determine if you understand the concept of art, and second, it forces you to reconsider your idea of Jesus. I was raised non-denominational Christian and went to Catholic school for all of my formative years, and this was really powerful stuff. Don't let anyone tell you The Passion of the Christ is a better portrait, either.

My girlfriend has some thoughts on movies to recommend to high school age girls. Blog tie-in...ACTIVATE!

REVIEW: Bronson

Movies like this...really should get wider audiences. Totally audacious, always compelling, ridiculous, over-the-top, and all the words used to describe this movie in its trailer (except maybe "Beethoven"). Yeah, there's little mystery to why a pull-quote on Bronson's poster compared it to A Clockwork Orange - if A Clockwork Orange didn't exist, there'd be nothing out there remotely like Bronson, and it's not even THAT similar to Kubrick's most dangerous film.

Ostensibly the story of Britain's most violent prisoner, born Michael Peterson, incarcerated Charles Bronson, the film has all the shock value and fearless entertainment to draw in the punk-rock crowd (if only such a crowd still existed), and all the political commentary and just-scraping-the-surface character study to leave them stunned and utterly fascinated.

As much as you have to commend director Nicolas Winding Refn for daring to take this approach on a story based on fact, it's his total harmonious collaboration with his lead actor, Tom Hardy, that defines the film. True, Refn clearly sought an actor capable of what Hardy is willing and able to do, but Hardy is so forceful in this role it feels at time like he's committing mutiny within the film itself; as though Hardy is the Bronson to the film's prison.

This absolutely is Hardy's film. He's the one anyone will be talking about, whether they think about directing style or not. It's a shame that the Academy would never dare touch work this dangerous, because I think it's just as deep a performance as it is sheerly entertaining. Once you settle into the rhythm of his performance, he never totally surprises you, but there are unmistakable layers to his showboating - ramped up when he needs to get the authority's attention, balled up and contained when he's not in control of his environment. To watch him out in the real world is at once heartbreaking and unbelievably tense. There aren't any big scenes where he cries about not being able to adjust to life outside of prison or anything like that, but watch his eyes and you just know.

Refn, wisely, doesn't try to keep up with Hardy in the prison scenes, when the actor is absolutely out-of-his-mind dynamic. For such an energetic film, Refn's aesthetic is remarkably restrained, yet assured. He knows the right way to shoot a scene, sticks to it, and just unleashes Hardy within his frame. He never tries to keep up with him by accelerating his visuals. The result is this uncontainable man constantly contained.

I'm not sure it's great film; like I said, I really have no basis for how to process this thing, but that's a pretty exceptional thing to say about a film. I do know it absolutely has to be seen.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

REVIEW: Fantastic Mr. Fox

I complain about this a lot, but it's really hard writing reviews of movies I love after only seeing them once. I can write pages about the ones I've seen over and over again, but when a new movie comes along that I totally fall for, it can be a little tricky.

Wes Anderson is a big reason I'm as into film as I am. The Royal Tenenbaums was a movie I heard about in the A&E section of the newspaper when I was fifteen, and after a summer that brought me Zoolander, I was absolutely ready for anything with Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson. It didn't need to be as good as it was to satisfy me, but at the time, it was better than anything I'd ever seen. It felt real and fresh and, even though I didn't have the words for it at the time, artistically vital. When you're fifteen, you see a lot of movies that anyone could have made - nobody else could have made The Royal Tenenbaums. That's powerful stuff when you're fifteen and came off a summer that included Rat Race, Evolution, and America's Sweethearts.

My unbridled joy at discovering this whole other...THING out there in this world was matched only by my disappointment that Anderson was unable to reclaim that magic with The Life Aquatic and The Darjeeling Limited, two films I've come to appreciate and even like quite a bit, but which always seemed to lack that certain...something. Had I just gotten my fill of Anderson's vision, or were they really lacking the touch that made Tenenbaums, and later Rushmore, mean the world to me?

Fantastic Mr. Fox, an indescribable work of unbridled genius, suggests the latter. Anderson's overflowing aesthetic inventiveness is right at home is a world built literally from scratch, but this isn't as simple as a diorama in motion, though it'd still be pretty wonderful for that. No, like other memorable Anderson creations Royal Tenenbaum and Steve Zissou, Mr. Fox is a showboat well past his prime, dependent on his ability to maintain a version of himself that probably never actually existed, who must come face to face with the reality of who he is. There are few dramatic scenarios more sympathetic than watching someone realize they aren't half the man they thought they were. Even when acted out with puppets.

It doesn't hurt when that puppet is voiced by George Clooney, who has the good fortune to possess one of the most compelling voices in modern cinema. Plus, Wes Anderson films benefit tremendously from a main actor bringing an outside sensibility to the project. A big part of the reason The Royal Tenenbaums works so well is due to Gene Hackman and Ben Stiller; Owen and Luke Wilson, Angelica Huston, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Bill Murray are all totally on Wes Anderson's wavelength, which is tremendous, but a big reason The Darjeeling Limited is so, well, limited, is that all three leads are totally keyed into what Anderson wanted. It's clear that Clooney made some choices Anderson wouldn't have suggested, and the character, and thus the film, benefit.

For that matter, I really think Anderson stepped up his game here. In his last two films, he ached to create moments as spontaneously brilliant and deeply moving as the moment when Margot steps off the bus, Richie releases Mordecai to the swelling moment of "Hey Jude," or Max flying his kite as he dictates a list of guests to Dirk. As inspired by the music Anderson curates as those moments are, they were truly earned by the dramatic momentum up to that point, the particular rhythm delicately crafted not just in terms of narrative structure, but all the way down to the rhythm of the dialogue and the particular cadence of Anderson's populace, never mind his impeccable aesthetic. In Aquatic and Darjeeling, Anderson made the mistake of most audience members in assuming the right song could totally define such moments.

The film doesn't have nearly as many musical interludes as his previous work, and amazingly there are quite a few original songs in here (one of which leads to the funniest moment in the whole film), and every emotional moment is brought about purely through the characters and Anderson's mise-en-scene. Nothing is forced or goes unearned. There's a scene between Mr. Fox's son, Ash, and his nephew, Kristofferson, in the bedroom they're sharing, that's played out entirely in one shot and contains a world of emotion due entirely to the lighting, framing, and pace of the scene, and a few choice words of dialogue.

Like all of Anderson's movies, it feels much longer than it is. Not because it's slow or ever boring, but because in a mere 87 minutes, he's somehow able to create a world that is totally realized, artistically developed, and completely lived in. The past is a tangible presence in the Anderson universe, the agony of regret and ache for new opportunities permeates every scene.

I should mention that it's a lot of fun to watch, too, certainly more comedic than any of Anderson's films to date, but no less moving. It's a true joy, and I cannot recommend it enough.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

"Accept the Mystery"

There are two types of people in the world, artists and scientists. Both are fascinated by the mysteries of the world; things that seem inexplicable. Scientists will seek to find an answer, discover why things are the way they are. Artists revel in the mystery.

In the fifth grade I had a teacher who was more than a bit of a science fiction fan, and spent an inordinate amount of time on stuff like the Bermuda Triangle (why would any fifth-grader need to know about it at all?) and the theory that aliens built the pyramids (we actually spent class time watching a video on this). What I came away learning from this is as much as we understand some parts of the way things are, we really don't have a God damn clue.

Call me lazy if you like, but I'll gladly revel in the mystery.

The thing is that there's very little that's "ambiguous" about these things. There's a lot that isn't explicated, but you always end up knowing everything you need to know. Anything left out is not only unessential, but made more tantalizing by its omission.

I once got into a heated debate about these sorts of endings, specifically as relates to Martin Scorsese. A friend claimed his movies didn't have endings, that "they just stop." I always wonder what one would have to gain by finding out whether or not Mark Wahlberg pays for what he did at the end of The Departed, or what happens after the screen goes to black at the end of Raging Bull and The Aviator (did we need to follow these people until they died?). And what's up with the ending of Taxi Driver?

In his commentary track for L'Avventura, Gene Youngblood mentions that he's amazed at the number of films that tout themselves as mysteries when they end up simply revealing everything, and he's right - I'm far more thrilled by the questions swirling around in my head as the final shot of L'Avventura plays out than I am by hearing the psychiatrist's explanation of Norman Bates' condition at the end of Psycho. As thrilling as that film otherwise is, that brings all momentum to a complete hault - how much more satisfying would it have been to simply cut to the final sequence of Norman sitting in the chair?

Art leaves us asking questions, or at least it should. Leave the answers to the sciences, but only when we absolutely must have them.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Beyond the Infinite

"I think that 2001, like music, succeeds in short-circuiting the rigid surface cultural blocks that shackle our consciousness to narrowly limited areas of experience ans is able to cut directly through to areas of emotional comprehension...

"I think one of the areas where 2001 succeeds is in stimulating thoughts about man's destiny and role in the universe in the minds of people who in the normal course of their lives would never have considered such matters. Here again, you've got the resemblance to music; an Alabama truck driver, whose views in every other respect would be extremely narrow, is able to listen to a Beatles record on the same level of appreciation and perception as a young Cambridge intellectual, because their emotions and subconscious are far more similar than their intellects. The common bond is their subconscious emotional reaction; and I think that a film which can communicate on this level can have a more profound spectrum of impact than any form of traditional verbal communication."
-Stanley Kubrick (The Film Director as Superstar, 1970, reprinted in Stanley Kubrick: Interviews)

I picked that book up today at the library on a whim, months after listening to a thoroughly fascinating interview with Kubrick from the early 1960s (I can't locate the link at the moment, but will post it when I can). Needless to say, only a few interviews in, it's a fascinating read.

Kubrick is one of the few guys who can get away with saying a) that 2001 is exactly as important and profound as he claims, and b) that an Alabama truck driver and a young Cambridge intellectual would have the same level of appreciation about anything. He's not wrong, that's not what I'm saying; rather that, because he never went to college, and learned everything entirely on his own or through direct interactions with other people, he has a foundation for believing a truck driver and a Cambridge intellectual could think the same way about anything. Not that one's reaction is more valid than the other's, but because of life experiences, the odds that they would approach any sort of art the same way are extremely thin.

BUT...Kubrick's also smart enough to know that when film is at its absolute best, it has the capacity to reach anybody, regardless of background. That film, when it's working purely within its own terms (that is, visually and non-verbal auditory), requires no intellectual background, only an open mind. Anybody can understand 2001: A Space Odyssey, because even though it's bolstered by a background in philosophy, theology, and computer science, it is absolutely capable of delivering on a visceral level, and stir the same areas of thought in anyone of any given background. Assuming you come to it with an open mind, you can't help but walk away from 2001 thinking about the universe and man's place in it and a billion other things, even if you can't fully form those thoughts.

I'm working on some best-of-the-decade stuff, and looking through it now, it made me realize just how unique Kubrick was. Because nobody will ever make a movie like 2001 again, never mind making it a movie many people would bother to see. The Fountain drew a lot of comparisons, but much as I love that movie, it's not nearly as BIG as 2001 is, and comparatively addresses a rather narrow area of thought. Really, how many films speak to such fundamental concerns the way 2001 does? This isn't to say "things were better back then," because they were as shitty just as often as they are now, but more to illustrate how wonderfully singular Kubrick was.

Needless to say, if you haven't seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, for God's sake, do it. Inspired by all this, I'll be watching it again shortly, probably this weekend, as my girlfriend has yet to see it. And she must.

(Although, all things considered, Barry Lyndon is still my favorite of his films)

Sunday, November 15, 2009

REVIEW: Pirate Radio

Pirate Radio is one half of a good movie. When it's about a crew of DJs hanging out on a boat off the coast of London broadcasting the only rock-n-roll available to Brits, it's gold. When it's about the clash of ideologies between popular music and the establishment, it's gold. When it's trying to tell a coming-of-age story about a totally bland central character, it's absolutely dead.

In its best moments, it captures the fleeting experience once-in-a-lifetime experiences bring about, and in its worst, it's almost impossible to sit through. It, like so many others (including The Men Who Stare at Goats, which I might find the energy to review), suffers from the awful desire to introduce us to this world via a totally bland, completely uninteresting and devoid of any trait that would ever make him human, central character.

Luckily, those don't stick as hard as the joy of rebellion and the freedom of pop music; the total expression of the feeling evoked by The Beach Boys, The Kinks, The Supremes, or Dusty Springfield. Or it could just be that the music itself is unbelievable. There's such an onslaught, it can be difficult to decipher exactly where one ends and another begins.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

REVIEW: The Damned United

As I've said many times before, I believe firmly that a film is not about what it's about; it's about how it's about it.

The problem is that what The Damned United is about is absolutely fascinating stuff. The main character, Brian Clough, would be an absolutely ridiculous creation if he weren't based on a real person. His story of an otherwise ambitious soccer ("football" to the film and its native England) manager who gets caught up in outdoing another manager because of a relatively minor slight when they first met is...well, it's wild stuff. And the transformation Brian goes through over the course of six years is stunning, and aptly portrayed by Michael Sheen, in what is surely his more exciting performance to date.

Now if only they'd given it to us straight. This is where the "how it's about it" comes into play, and in a bad way. Sometimes there's a use for telling your story out of order - in this case, cutting back and forth between two otherwise chronological stories, one taking place in 1974 after Brian Clough has taken over as manager for Leeds United, the other taking place between 1968 and 1974 as we see everything it has taken for Clough to get to where he is in the parallel story - but there is absolutely no reason to do it here. All it feels like is a cheap attempt to be clever, one of those notes you get about "keeping the audience interested," as though we're a pack of four-year-olds who need something shiny dangled in front of us every five minutes, rather than a storytelling technique that felt integral to the story.

The extent of your appreciation with thus hinge on the extent to which this bothers you, because everything else in the film is top-notch. Even the overactive camera, mixed with too many cuts and not enough tripods, is often quite striking (especially in director Tom Hooper's use of the camera's focus). As previously noted, the basic narrative, and every performance, is genuinely great, but it's all servicing a tragic misfire of a screenplay.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

REVIEW: An Education

What does it say about a movie when you have to restrain yourself from applauding as the main character blows out her birthday candles?

There are several levels of artistic engagement, but the worst and the most immediately rewarding is emotional engagement. This is one of the most wonderful things about talking about movies with people who don't really know movies that well; they'll tend to talk mostly about the things they love. For those of us who know what we're talking about and take it (that is, cinema) very seriously, we tend towards conversations around the essay-ready movie, films with myriad themes and allusions, films that open themselves up to interpretation and which defy easy categorization.

This gets to the problem of emotional engagement, which is that discussing those films becomes very, very difficult. And God help the person who disagrees with you. Some of the worst fights I've had in my life have been over Crash (a truly contemptible film) and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (which, don't get me wrong, is a fine film, but many a man has claimed it the best film of all time and met with much contention on my part).

This is all to say that I loved Lone Scherfig's An Education deeply (until the last couple of minutes, a true tuck-and-roll ending that is thoroughly unsatisfying in every possible way). Jenny is exactly the kind of character I clamor for in movies, and Carey Mulligan's performance is as revelatory as I'd been hearing for the past ten months since the film's premiere at Sundance. Absolutely admirable in her ambition, interests, and clear knowledge of the sort of life she wants, yet totally unsure of the precise form that life will take, open to the possibility of the result, and firmly clueless in how to go about any of it, Jenny is the kind of precise creation that comes along very rarely.

So, too, is the world she lives in. What could be more predictable than, upon entering into a relationship with a man nearly twice her age, have parents absolutely, firmly against the whole affair? But that wouldn't be in keeping with the times, and her parents' desire to see her attend Oxford ends up being less about carving an exceptional future for herself than it is about the closest option to a totally secure future, financially. If another option comes along, like a husband, why not go for that?

What continues to fascinate me since seeing the film are the many things the title comes to mean. Without running off a list of them, the one that I love it for the most, than I love Jenny for the most, is the fact that the very education she's turning her back on is what made her the person she is. Without an education, she would have never had the desire to invest in French culture; read their books, listen to their music, see their films. She would never have even know these things existed. Who but an educated person would sit in a cafe and discuss Camus?

I don't blame Jenny for these faults - I love her for them, because, I'll admit it, she reminds me so much of myself (even at 23, I have some hindsight and self-awareness), contemptible of my own rather privileged education, yet constantly, unknowingly drawing from it. They say youth is wasted on the young, and without a doubt they're correct in this assessment, but in a time when young people are so often portrayed as totally uncaring in even an indirect way of the benefits of education, I cannot overstate how refreshing it is to see a character as intellectually curious as Jenny. This is the kind of person schools should be aiming to create; not an army of overly-ambitious salary-seekers, but people deeply invested in what they're learning, and eager to continue their education in whatever form that may take.

And I've barely even touched the wealth of material in a relatively short film, especially the romance that's theoretically at the center of the thing. This is part of the reason I felt so short-changed by the ending; the film had clearly decided it was primarily about the romance, so once that story was more or less concluded it had no use for truly finishing the character's arc. It's a frustrating, all-too-common side effect of the cinema of the situation rather than the cinema of the story, but although it undermines its ambition, it doesn't take away an ounce of its accomplishment.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Vitality of Cinema

"I’m not able to name the moment I wanted to be a director because I also didn’t know the word for that. I couldn’t distinguish between producer, director, and author."
-Arnaud Desplechin 

"I think the first director I was ever aware of was Alfred Hitchcock—before I even understood the idea of a director. I was aware of Hitchcock because of The Alfred Hitchcock Collection. That was the first time I was aware that there’s a guy who is not in the movie who’s on the front of the box. He’s responsible."
-Wes Anderson

"Audiences don't know somebody sits down and writes a picture; they think the actors make it up as they go along."

-Joe Gillis

I've long held a simmering belief that one of the primary reasons most people have a hard time appreciating film as art is because the artist is not immediately evident. With nearly any other art form - music, literature, painting, sculpture - the artist is present and readily identifiable. Their name is on the cover, on a placard accompanying the display, etc. Sure, the director's name is usually one of the most prominent credits in a film, but who pays attention to the credits?

I'm not saying most people don't know films are directed. Most kids don't, and those kids become adults, who may recognize that films are directed - usually through brand name directors like Kubrick, Hitchcock, Spielberg, or Shyamalan - but already have their basic approach to film cemented in youth. And, to be fair, unless you're an avid moviewatcher, most directors don't call attention to their work the way a painter does.

But they'll be aware of a director's presence, even if they're unsure about what that presence determines. And this knowledge will be key for the first crossover film. The first film that person will see that will make them go, "This...this is different from everything else. This couldn't have existed in any normal way. Somebody created this." Then...they will know, even if they can't articulate, what a director means for a film. For some, this film was Pulp Fiction. Others, Fight Club. I take great joy in knowing there were hundreds, perhaps thousands, thinking that as they took in Inglourious Basterds this summer.

And this is a major reason I feel, very strongly and in spite of the constant cries that film is dead, that film is the most vital of all forms of art. Our cultural approaches to...really, any other art form I can think of, our approach has become so codified. We grow up taught and explained the importance of painting and other visual arts. The theater is the place for fine drama. Music is so integral to us as people, we seem to have such a total understanding of it before we could even begin to understand it, that whatever it means to us is totally individual, totally universal, and totally unchangeable.

But film is totally different. We're surrounded by it almost as early as we are music, but while film can express essential truths about who we are, film isn't a part of us the way music is. But it is a nearly constant part of our lives as far back as we can remember, and nobody tells us how to approach it aside from "here, sit down and watch this. You'll enjoy it." How you enjoy it and why you enjoy it is totally up to you. You come to that conclusion completely reflexively, and completely on your own. Literature is similar in this way, but will soon become completely divorced as academics typically decide what you read more than personal interest.

As you grow, film becomes a part of social life in a way that no other art form could be. Music...sometimes is (how often do we hear music for the first time with other people, devoting total attention to it? Quite rarely). Few people grow up visiting art galleries with friends, or going to the theater. And anyway, those activities weren't ones we participated in privately as children, and our approach to them is already codified - "this is art...this is important." You go to a gallery or museum to experience art. But film is typically something to do on a Saturday night; an entertaining diversion as you hope the girl next to you will brush up against you for just a second.

Very few people have someone to tell them film is important. They'll decide that on their own. Or not. If they do decide that, they'll have come to that decision totally organically, and because of an artist. More than any other art form, in the way art exists today, an artist will have told them what the medium can mean. And that's an incredibly powerful notion. It's what keeps film vital, important, and living. Music is alive because it's a part of who we are. Theatre is alive because it's happening right in front of you. Film is alive because it's constantly happening, constantly redefining itelf for millions of people.