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.