Wednesday, January 27, 2010

If I Ran the Oscars

Like a lot of cinephiles, I have a real problem with the Oscars a lot of the time. Aside from their dips into brilliance (pretty much all of the major awards in 2008, when No Country for Old Men won Best Everything), they largely award the obvious contenders, and many an impersonation (nothing gets my goat like the near-automatic Oscar for Best Performance as a Major Historical Figure). So, in addition to my yearly complaints (which, unless Invictus wins anything, will likely only be heard by friends and family), I decided to take matters into my own hands, and take note of the major achievements of 2009 in the very categories they will use come March.

A few general, I stuck to the number of nominees the Academy uses, with a couple of exceptions (I nominated an extra song, and a few extra films in the technical categories). The winners are in bold with a few words, and the rest of the nominees follow.

I took out Best Picture in all its forms, as I'll be posting a Top Ten (which, I suppose will be pretty easy to suss out by what I nominated, but I know there'll be a few surprises in there) in the next few days and it would pretty much be redundant, along with the Shorts categories, as it's pretty difficult to keep up on such things until the Academy unveils their own nominees. And I lumped together Sound Mixing and Editing, because although I do know the difference, I don't know how to apply that in my own analysis (then again, the Academy never seems to, as they almost always only have one difference between the two lists).

And so, without further ado...


    Jeff Bridges - Crazy Heart     Let's face it, it's not Jeff Bridges finest performance, but it's still representative of a lifetime of performances in service of the character over the actor. This, oddly enough, is not a practice the Academy typically rewards, but one I admire greatly. As always, Bridges delivers a totally realized character, without once calling to attention that this is the case. It's brilliant work.

    Matt Damon - The Informant!
    Michael Stuhlbarg - A Serious Man
    Tom Hardy - Bronson
    Jaoquin Phoenix - Two Lovers


    Christoph Waltz - Inglourious Basterds     Okay, now here's an instance of it being okay for the actor to be totally showing off. The style of the film more than allows for this - it encourages it. Every second of Waltz's screentime is dedicated to capturing our attention, and though I know many others disagree, I maintain that he isn't just completely off the rails. This is, too, a fully realized character, and there are limits Waltz puts on his performance; he just sets those limits a little beyond reality. As Kubrick said, realistic is good, but interesting is better.

    Martin Starr - Adventureland
    Peter Capaldi - In the Loop
    Jérémie Renier - Lorna's Silence
    Fred Melamed - A Serious Man


    Carey Mulligan - An Education     No question. This goes beyond the breakthrough status everyone's applied to it; this is legendary. I realize a large part of my response to this character is that I knew so many girls just like Mulligan's Jenny, girls who carried themselves like they knew it all, and who were quite intelligent and, more importantly, intellectually curious, but who still had so much to understand. And Mulligan absolutely nails the excitement, naivete, arrogance, and vulnerability of this kind of girl, and boy is it just a thrill to witness.

    Melanie Laurent - Inglourious Basterds
    Arta Dobroshi - Lorna's Silence
    María Onetto - The Headless Woman
    Sasha Grey - The Girlfriend Experience


    Miriam Toews - Silent Light     This is some heavy lifting, man. As the betrayed wife in this film about a man's affair that is as much religious as it is sexual, Toews has a scene or two where she's really allowed to cut loose, emotionally, but it's her reaction when Johan (her husband) says a very simple line, "You've always been so good at making the soap, Esther," that is just devastating in how simply it sums up everything Johan has put the family through.

    Samantha Morton - The Messenger
    Marion Cotillard - Public Enemies
    Rachel Weisz - The Brothers Bloom
    Julianne Moore - A Single Man


    Nelson Lowry - Fantastic Mr. Fox     These are all pretty amazing pieces of art direction, but when I force myself to pick, who can go wrong with these creations? Far more idiosyncratic than the typical Wes Anderson eccentricity (what can we even begin to make of those paintings that adore many a wall?), they nonetheless contribute to the pure whimsical joy of the film.

    David Wasco - Inglourious Basterds
    K.K. Barrett - Where the Wild Things Are
    Magnus Renfors and Elin Segerstedt - You, the Living
    Anastasia Masaro - The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus


    Alexis Zabe - Silent Light    I often have a problem with the Academy automatically awarding the most beautiful of all the nominees, but...good Lord is this a breathtaking film. There are such odd effects pulled off in the camera (the whole bathing sequence is just mind boggling), and totally audacious accomplishments (the opening shot and the closing shot, the dolly into the garage) that some may say are purely for their own sake, but even if that's the case, it certainly deserves to be called the greatest achievement of the year in cinematography.

    Christopher Doyle - The Limits of Control
    Robert Richardson - Inglourious Basterds
    Greig Fraser - Bright Star
    Lance Accord - Where the Wild Things Are


    Uncredited - Fantastic Mr. Fox     Admittedly not the usual process for this sort of thing, and that's probably why no one person is credited as the costume designer, but if it's all about creating physical costumes for characters to wear, I can't think of one more delightful than this.

    Michael Wilkinson - Watchmen
    Jacqualine Durran - The Soloist
    Anna B. Sheppard - Inglourious Basterds
    Janet Patterson - Bright Star


    Kathryn Bigelow - The Hurt Locker    While I'm typically a pretty straight auteurist - the best film of the year coincides with the best director - there's something to be said for calling attention to direction this forceful and, in almost every conceivable way, perfect. So no, The Hurt Locker is not the best film of the year for me. It's serviced by a fine screenplay and some damn good performances, but everything that's great about this picture is so because of Karthryn Bigelow. But...more on that later.

    Quentin Tarantino - Inglourious Basterds
    Carlos Regaydas - Silent Light
    Olivier Assayas - Summer Hours
    Joel and Ethan Coen - A Serious Man


    Roderick Jaynes (a.k.a. Joel Coen and Ethan Coen) - A Serious Man     In the special features for Che, Steven Soderbergh comments on how there are very few films that take into account each edit's place in the picture as a whole, how they, combined, create a rhythm and pace and mood of the film. This has rarely been a problem for the Coens, and with this film and No Country for Old Men they've really taken their game to a whole new level, creating a meditative atmosphere amidst the sheer chaos they've been creating for decades.

    James Haygood and Eric Zumbrunnen - Where the Wild Things Are
    Steven Soderbergh - The Girlfriend Experience
    Chris Innis and Bob Murawski - The Hurt Locker
    Frederick Wiseman - La Danse


    The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus     Making four people look vaguely similar, Christopher Plummer an ancient monk or a homeless dreamer, and face-painting galore, really, how does this not just automatically go to the latest Terry Gilliam venture?

    Crank: High Voltage
    Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
    Star Trek


    Carter Burwell - A Serious Man      Burwell's consistent collaborations with the Coens have created more memorable scores than this, but his blend of meditation and the Hebrew music that pervades the picture is really wonderful stuff.

    Alexandre Desplat - Fantastic Mr. Fox
    Marvin Hamlisch - The Informant!
    Karen O. and Carter Burwell - Where the Wild Things Are
    Michael Giacchino - Up


    "Fantastic Mr. Fox AKA Petey's Song" - Wes Anderson and Jarvis Cocker     Not the best song of the year as such, but it puts a smile on my face every time I hear it and perfectly suits the film.

    "Almost There" - Randy Newman and Anika Noni Rose
    "You Got Me Wrapped Around Your Little Finger" - Ben Castle and Beth Rowley
    "The Weary Kind" - T. Bone Burnett and Ryan Bingham


    Star Trek      Of all the many forgettable things about this film, it's hard to truly forget how beautiful it sounded.

    A Serious Man
    The Hurt Locker
    District 9


    Avatar     While District 9 and Where the Wild Things Are win for integration, and The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus wins for, well, imagination, you really can't deny the sheer accomplishment of Cameron's latest. That said, I'll say it again - this is the ONLY award this film deserves.

    District 9
    Where the Wild Things Are
    The Imaginarium of Dr. Panassus


    Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach - Fantastic Mr. Fox     I find it hard to believe Anderson's claims that he and Baumbach were trying to be faithful to Roald Dahl's book, because it's just too...Andersonian to not be mostly guided by that vision. That said, I LOVE their vision of the world when it's this unleashed and yet so refined.

    Henry Selick - Coraline
    Scott Z. Burns - The Informant!
    Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers - Where the Wild Things Are
    Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner - Up in the Air


    Joel Coen and Ethan Coen - A Serious Man      A really brilliant piece of writing, one of the Coens' finest. I can't stop turning it over in my head. Memorable characters that aren't quite real people, an absolutely drumtight narrative, and a structure that can knock you on your ass if you're attuned to such things, this is in many ways the most audacious accomplishment of the year.

    Quentin Tarantino - Inglourious Basterds
    Olivier Assayas - Summer Hours
    James Gray - Two Lovers
    Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Armando Iannucci, and Tony Roche - In the Loop

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

For All Those Wondering How the Academy Can Come Up With Ten Films...

I've seen 90 movies that were released in 2009, and I've only got one to go (Crazy Heart) before I call it a day and put together my Top 10. Now, granted, a) I'm late, most people posted their lists weeks ago, and b) that's not that many movies compared to critics. Well, a) Portland gets a lot of December releases in January (and beyond - The White Ribbon and many others will not be able to be considered for this year), and b) Considering I'm paying for these things out of pocket, seeing 90 films is pretty damn good.

Anyway, all of this is to say that I made a "to be considered" list of films that I would have no problem putting in the Top Ten, most that I actively WANT in the Top Ten. It's a list of 30 films. If any Academy member can't find ten worthy films to nominate this year, that Academy member has not done their job. Hell, even leaving out several foreign films that I'm told are ineligible, that's still...probably twenty or twenty-five films.

I'm just saying.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Review: THE LOVELY BONES (dir. Peter Jackson)

As anyone who finds themselves in such a position is required to acknowledge, I have to admit that I have not read the novel upon which co-writer/director Peter Jackson's latest film is based. I have no idea if it's the masterpiece many have proclaimed it to be or the tepid fare so often assumed of bestsellers.

This is just to say that I ultimately don't know what sunk Jackson's film, if it's reverence for the beloved novel or an almost startling lack of creative chops. At the very least, he and his co-writers, Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh, are apparently incapable of recognizing basic contrivance and the necessity of cross-checking your instincts. For as bad as The Lovely Bones often is, it's very clear that Jackson, Walsh, and Boyens went all the way with their idea, which I always respect, even when I don't particularly like the result, which can only be described as an honest failure.

Because, honestly, nobody would ever make a film like this if they didn't believe in it wholeheartedly. The movie is, frankly, too stupid for anybody to ever make this as a side project, on a whim, or with pure profit in mind. There's nothing crass or cynical about the film. There are just scenes either too dramatically excruciating (without spoiling anything, a kiss at the climax of the film, for example), too derivative (a cleaning-up-the-house montage), or too absurd (a fall down a cliff reminiscent of The Simpsons, but played for drama) to be included not just in this movie, but in any movie. I'd like to believe Jackson was stretching himself with some of the things he tries here (particularly that kiss), but the truth is that there are parts of this film that nobody could make work. And many of the parts somebody COULD make work, Jackson is too eager to make them work on his terms to ever make them work on dramatic terms. In an interview with the man we know to be Susie's murderer, Jackson cuts between the police detective and the murderer looking through bits of the murderer's dollhouse to talk to each other, which is just one of the many absurdly suspicious behaviors the murderer has (others include standing in windows staring at people).

There are many parts that work, if only coincidentally - give Jackson a suspense scene, and he'll milk every drop from it. The two major suspense sequences in the film - one involving the lead-up to Susie Salmon's murder, the other involving Susie's sister rooting through the house of the man she (correctly) believes murdered Susie - are gangbusters. They twist your stomach to the point of breaking, and Jackson's much-admired, much-maligned (depending on who you talk to) camera style (constantly swerving, whooshing, craning, panning, etc.) is perfectly suited to such moments. And also, dammit, the scenes in the in-between, where Susie goes after her murder and before Heaven (i.e. where she spends most of the film's running time), are genuinely delightful and really well realized. Considering all the breaks Avatar's been getting for its visual design, I'm more than happy to cut The Lovely Bones some slack for its really wonderful creation.

But like Cameron's absurdly successful movie, Jackson's achievement in those areas does not make up for his complete failure in others. Unlike Cameron's film, Jackson's passion for the film does carry over, which for me anyway, made it a much more interesting watch, even if I wasn't nearly as caught up with it as he was.

Oh, and on a final note, they could not have cast Mark Wahlberg's part better. If anybody is better suited to expressing the film's completely unearned sentimentality, it's him. His sincerity in nearly every role he takes is astonishing, considering how few times neither he nor the film ever earn it. Sure, a better actor might have made the role, and consequently the film, work a lot better, but there's something about having an actor on exactly the same wavelength of the film - so sincere it's silly - that makes it feel so much better.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Films of the Decade: Art in Action

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.

The 21st century marked the point at which action cinema took a mighty leap forward. Though it was revolutionized in the late 70s and its modern definition was cemented in the 80s, the 2000s saw directors, for the first time in awhile, willingly opening up film form to meet an audience overwhelmed by scale, but still hungry for spectacle. It's telling that the action movies on the biggest scale over the last ten years - Godzilla, The Day After Tomorrow, The Core, Transformers: ROTFL - movies where the entire PLANET was in jeopardy, failed on some level (financially, critically, or in terms of lasting appeal; sometimes all three). Even the Matrix sequels, spawned from the film that arguably made inventive use of the camera necessary for all action films from that point on, sunk from covering more ground than the original even hinted at.

Of course, pretending that all the films I've about to discuss were audience hits, much less critical darlings, would be a lie. But I'll fight for them any day; why not today?

And while there are many great films worth calling attention to, I believe there are four films that made the argument for action cinema as art better and more forcefully than any others - in chronological order, Bad Boys II (Michael Bay; 2003), Domino (Tony Scott; 2005), Crank (Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor; 2006), and Speed Racer (The Wachowski Brothers; 2008).

A few months back, Drew McWeeny of HitFix asked when ambition became a bad thing. Whenever I think about Domino, I think about that question. I think about when experimentation not just stopped being encouraged, but started being actively discouraged, even by the nation's film critics, who are (mostly) just like most of the audience they tend to disdain - they have a set criteria of the things film can be, and that's that. Domino is not at all like any other film; this alone is something worthy of praise. That, over one hundred years since the invention of motion pictures, Tony Scott still found a way to use the basics of film technology (that is, not much in the way of digital manipulation) to create what I've termed an ever-moving picture.

It would be impossible to come up with an average shot length for Domino, not only because the cuts happen so fast, but also because we're often unsure where those cuts are, exactly, as his use of hand-cranked cameras forever layer images on top of each other (I discussed this process here). The result of this is a new definition of the motion picture, not just people moving within a set frame, and not just that frame moving to keep up with those people, but the frame itself evolves, the people evolve, and at its finest moments of true invention, the cinema itself seems to be moving. When the film dives headfirst into surrealism - most obviously in the desert sequence that contains one of cinema's strongest arguments for artful depicitions of sex (and, in an unrelated moment, the continuation of Tom Waits' acting career) - it becomes extraordinary.

In the action sequences, our inability to make sense of what exactly is happening is not reflective of Scott's lack of craftsmanship (as if, by 2005, Tony Scott needed to prove he could coherently present an action scene), it's a surrealist reflection on the nature of battle. This is one of the few movies where it feels like, in a gunfight, a bullet could come from anywhere, and that your life is truly on the line.

Although I saw Domino first, I was unprepared for how to contextualize it. By the time Crank came out, I realized there was a real movement going on, of coercing art into the mainstream action film, or in the best of cases, making art disguised as a mainstream action film. As wildly, vividly expressive as Domino is, there are few things as absolutely unleashed as Crank. It's a common complaint to note that a character feels unmotivated in a film, and only takes certain actions because the screenplay needs him or her to do so. In Crank, that becomes the entire point. Chev Chelios' whole motivation is to keep alive by continuing to move, yes, but the lengths he goes to in order to achieve this are purely through the demands of the film. In an age of the cinema that follows, Neveldine and Taylor propel Chev (Jason Statham) towards each new action, their camera at once urging him onward and eager to explore every nook and cranny of his environment. Neveldine and Taylor's touch can only be made sense of by its exact opposite - Michael Bay.

If Neveldine and Taylor are doing all they can to push the action forward, Bay's cinema can be defined as wildly trying to keep up. When, in Bad Boys II, Martin Lawrence yells "sidewalk!" in order to get Will Smith to drive on the sidewalk, we're not even aware of that as an option until the car's already barreling along it. While many note this as Bay's failure, it is, at its best, what makes his movies so compelling - in the age of "you-are-there" cinema, his movies put you in the front seat of the action, riding just above a car, underneath it, beside it, flying next to a bullet as it moves through the air, running alongside a gunman, spiraling with a car as it flips over, shaking just as a machine gun starts's all about keeping up. It's as though there are two Michael Bays - the one who orchestrates the action and the one who films it. Transformers: ROTFL fails because the action is too massive to keep up with, and the result is muddled. Bad Boys II is genuinely thrilling because every shot is designed to follow the most exciting thing happening at that moment, while still forming an overall clarity rarely topped in modern action films.

If all of that seems more craft than art, I'd argue otherwise, as Bay's soundtrack accompanying his car chases - informed, it would seem, by Two-Lane Blacktop - not only puts you in a car of your own, riding alongside the action, it helps enormously to heighten the pace of the set piece, shifting down to note transitions and revving back up when things inevitably escalate. And as conductor, Bay is rarely rivaled in how he calls upon his various instruments - people, cars, gunfire, and explosions - to play their parts at just the right moments. And as loud as possible. Add to that his eagerness to allow for mistakes and roll with them. Going frame-by-frame through the film's big car chase was fascinating, and often left me with images resembling a Bob Clampett cartoon - totally out of whack, but completely in motion. Eagle-eyed viewers will be able to spot this fascinating, fraction-of-a-second study in motion and, in many ways, cinema itself - it's the sort of inclusion in the film that reaffirms that Bay, whatever his transgressions, is a true believer:

The inclusion of these elements also illustrates Bay's willingness to get his hands dirty and his equipment damaged to keep up with the mayhem.

And yet, there was still a movie that brought all these elements together - Scott's experimentation, Neveldine/Taylor's design, and Bay's orchestration, into one big glourious number.

I've made little secret of my love for Speed Racer since first I saw it, and as I recently told my girlfriend, I don't think I'll ever go long not talking about it, because it meets at that rare intersection of truly great, wonderful movies that hardly anyone else seems to appreciate, making it the most valuable topic of conversation. There's so much I could say about the film as a whole, but it's telling that if I need my fix of the film and there's only so much time in the day, I go right to the climax - The Grand Prix race Speed finagles himself into, and aside from the climactic car chase at the end of Death Proof, the absolute best action scene of the decade.

Every beat is absolutely right, and it can proudly join the ranks of film that plays like music - it gets off to a fiery start, only to almost immediately fall off as the tempo quickly increases to fire us away as the movement builds and builds and builds...and then shuts down. Almost crashes, and as we tense up for the bridge to end and the final chorus to start, we wonder if the artist can finish as well as he started. We lean forward in anticipation until the final section explodes forward with every ounce of feeling in every member of the orchestra.

Speed's race towards the finish line in this final section is nothing short of miraculous, the true collaboration of every aspect of cinematic art, and every way the idea of "moving pictures" has been used - from montage to music to expressive faces to animation to surrealism to expressionism. That Dave Bowman's journey beyond the infinite can be praised in film classes across the country but this absolute masterful section remains overlooked by most of the nation's bloggers is staggering (not to take anything away from Kubrick, mind you, only to highlight the Wachowskis' achievement). It takes what should be the most rote, boring part of the sports film (the seconds before the inevitable victory) and, instead of adding unconvincing tension, uses the "motion picture" form to EXPRESS Speed's victory.

There are many other action films from the past ten years worth discussing - Paul Greengrass' Bourne films, 300, Mission: Impossible III, Public Enemies (a fairly boring film that comes to life in its shootouts), Kill Bill, Children of Men, and more I'm sure, but I'm more sure there are people more enthused about those films than I am. These four were the films that got my heart racing and set my soul ablaze.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Is It...POSSIBLE...just MAYBE...That The Spider-Man Reboot is a Good Thing?

I don't typically do entertainment-news-related posts, but the recent cancellation and subsequent rebooting of the Spider-Man franchise has gotten the proverbial Internet so tangled up and righteously (though not rightfully) indignant about the whole affair. The problem isn't that director Sam Raimi's next effort was going to be anything revelatory - I'd be surprised if anyone seriously thought Sony was bringing him onboard to give us his final vision of who Spider-Man is and what he defines him, not after Spider-Man 3 was simultaneously the worst film in the franchise and the most financially successful (when accounting for the foreign market, and considering the perception created by, at the time, beating the opening weekend record).

Since yesterday, I've heard everything from how this signals the end of cinema (but Devin Faraci is blowing that horn a few times a year) to how this really, really sucks. The real problem seems to be that people feel this is a shift in how studios approach blockbuster filmmaking, and by extent films in general. Faraci wrote, "It's the depths of creativity and the apex of shittiness, as far as I'm concerned." Over at Cinematical, Elisabeth Rappe, in her always-astutue column "The Geek Beat," wrote, "What does the adult moviegoer think when they go to the multiplex and the same movies they saw a decade ago are the only ones playing? How does that build a future for movies, marketing, or the industry in general?"

I don't see it as a studio problem - as I tend to, I see it as an audience problem. We, the audience, have made it necessary for sequels to follow continuity. Continuity has been the major problem sinking the comic book industry (I can't tell you how many comic books I would have bought over the past few years if I knew I could just get one good contained read from them), and it's sinking the film industry. I long for the days when even the same director did two movies in the same franchise, they were set in totally different worlds - who believed that Batman Returns was actually a continuation of Batman, or Batman & Robin a continuation of Batman Forever? For that matter, it wasn't until the last two movies that the Bond franchise gave any thought to what happened in the film before that.

Let another director tackle Spider-Man. And another. And another. I WANT to see a lot of different versions of the character, rather than the same one over and over - that sort of long-form storytelling is for television. I want to see a movie.

I know another big concern is that they'll go straight for the Twlight and Venom crowds with this one, but I find it baffling that comic book fans think the idea of sending Peter Parker back to high school couldn't possibly work after the tremendous creative and financial success of Ultimate Spider-Man. Maybe I'm biased, because that was the comic book that made me realize that Spider-Man is a pretty awesome character, but there's also the little matter that Sony's quite keen on the James Venderbilt script, which has the advantage of being written by the guy who gave us one of the finest screenplays of the last decade with Zodiac.

So while I share a lot of the same fears as Faraci, Rappe, and apparently the entire Internet put together, I also seem to be alone in thinking it's possible that it could totally work. Personally, I'm quite taken with Drew McWeeny's suggestion of Anton Yelchin, consistently the best part of lesser films, as Peter Parker...

Although I really hope they don't do a straight-up origin story. I'm sick to death of origin stories.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Quick Update for Portland Film Fans

Cinema 21, currently showing the rather stupendous The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, will be running a five-week European Grindhouse Film Festival. These movies usually aren't my bag - although I'll freely admit I'm probably not watching all the right ones, I've been let down enough by them not being nearly as balls-out awesome as their passionate fanbase claims them to be, but there's something about unleashing 70s and 80s horror movies from Europe that has my interest piqued. Especially Torso, which features " an incredible soundtrack, stylish cinematography, a hacksaw, and non-stop nudity." They'll be showing them every Saturday, starting this Saturday - come join me for Torso on the 23rd and watch me try to stay awake after waking up for work at 4:40 that morning!

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Films of the Decade: THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON (dir. David Fincher, 2008)

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.

Note: I swear to God the next entry in this series will not be a David Fincher movie. Although I did like Panic Room quite a bit...


When I first saw The Curious Case of Benjamin Button in December of ’08, I was underwhelmed. Granted, the film that I was thinking about most prior to this was Zodiac, director David Fincher’s previous film, so almost anything would pale in comparison, but I did have major issues with the screenplay in terms of its dialogue and overexpository voiceover that often just said what we could see for ourselves.

And I still have those problems with the film. But somehow, they haven't mattered as much lately. And whereas I generally agreed with the film’s detractors that Benjamin (Brad Pitt) was perhaps too passive, that hasn't bothered me a bit since seeing it a second time. I've found him instead an active man when he needs to be—say, when making a trip to sea, when deciding when it was time to leave home, when it was time to return, when it was time to chase Daisy (Cate Blanchett), and when it was time to back off. Those who found Benjamin too passive also apparently missed an enormous choice he makes after his daughter is born that (if we've been watching closely) fundamentally changes the way we see him. There’s a line in the film about life being defined by opportunities, even the ones we don’t take, and like a lot of us, Benjamin doesn’t take every opportunity he’s presented with, and doesn’t make an opportunity every time he could. If you strongly believe cinema should be populated with only goal-oriented characters, well, you and I just don’t see the possibilities of cinema the same way.

I've also gained a new admiration for Pitt’s performance, which I definitely found lacking the first time through, but upon this last viewing, I noticed the subtleties in his wonderful performance—how his eyes flickered and moistened when he saw Daisy with another man, his quiet reaction to hearing she’s pregnant; the wonder with which he sees new sights and feels new emotions. It’s as subtle a performance as you’re likely to see in a lead character in a mainstream film, but the film is better for it.

Everything I loved about the film originally have only magnified the more it's sat with me. I love the way Fincher, in this film and Zodiac, has presented the passing of time, and its effect on his characters. As I wrote in my piece on that film, time is a tangible presence, and the ways the film's characters flow with it or battle against it runs so close to my own views on mortality and the neccessity of making every moment count (for a character so often criticized for his passivity, Benjamin Button lives a life worth envying). That Fincher accomplishes this without much in the way of a long take is astounding - compare this with Bright Star earlier this year (there are many examples of this, but this was the first that popped into my head), and you'll find two movies that take place over a great many years, but Campion's story seems to take place over a couple of weeks (whereas she's trying to communicate years) and Fincher's seems to genuinely last a lifetime. That may seem like a minor achievement, but it's only after seeing it done wrong so many times that you realize the accomplishment in being done right.

It's been especially interesting reconsidering this film in the wake of Avatar, which has been praised to the ends of the Earth, mostly for its visuals, even when its champions recognize that it's narratively hollow and stocked with one-dimensional characters, two of the complaints lodged against Benjamin Button that seemed to stick far more (and Fincher never got the credit for his tremendous visual and technical accomplishment with this film, probably because creating a little old man isn't as forcefully impressive as a ton of 10-foot-tall blue people). If science fiction should be considered as often for awards as any other genre, it should also be held to the same standards - pretty pictures are not enough.

Visually, the film has always stunned me, and when I wrote my first review of the film I dreamed of a cut that simply excised the dialogue. But I maintain that Fincher's film is not just a display of pretty pictures, and no amount of overwritten dialogue can take away from the way Fincher portrays space, and characters inhabiting it. Close-ups are rare in the film, as the world around the characters, Benjamin especially, is as important to how they experience it. No one lives in a vacuum. The lighting, beyond being just pretty, highlights moments of tranquility, exuberance, sorrow, and regret. Fincher's compositions are impeccable, proper and thought out and thematically resonant in a way that not only Avatar isn't, but much of cinema of any era is not.

It’d be impossible to take away the feeling I got from seeing Benjamin out at sea, Daisy seducing him in the moonlight, or kissing him when he's grown to be a little boy. Or Benjamin working as a parking attendant (which, it should be noted, was second-unit work, but for some reason that image will never leave my head). These, and many others, are images to last a lifetime.

[for those who saw the film at all, I highly recommend this piece by Matt Zoller Seitz, which solidified my newfound appreciation of the film a few days after revisiting it]

Monday, January 4, 2010

You Know...They Make 'Em Pretty Well Today, Too

Look, we all love The Criterion Collection. In a recent New York Times article, David Kehr referred to it as "a national treasure," and honestly I couldn't agree more. Their contribution to awareness of and exposure to some of the greatest films of all time (typically of the foreign persuasion) is unmatched; that it all took place on the home video format became oddly prescient given how much of our cinematic consumption takes place on the couch. And for this, and all the while presenting these films in incredible quality, we are eternally in their debt.

The weird thing that's resulted from it is an odd sense of ownership many feel towards Criterion. A certain "how dare they release that when they haven't released this," always preceded or followed by the notion that CinemaFan21 knows the movies that REALLY matter.

Over the last year, it's gotten much worse, as Criterion has--*gasp*--taken an much more active interest in modern cinema, starting with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a film not only not as bad as many would have you believe, but actually quite good in structural, aesthetic, and performance terms (I've rarely seen a good film so quickly and thoroughly decimated largely for bad dialogue). The scourge of modern cinema reared its ugly head more forcefully when a deal was announced between IFC Films and Criterion, in which the latter would have first pick of the former's distribution line-up when it came time for a DVD/Blu-Ray release. A deal that I thought, at the time, made a lot of sense - brings more attention to great, deserving works of modern world cinema (Criterion isn't obliged to release anything IFC has the rights to), and gets Criterion the sort of extra revenue that comes from a New Release title.

Apparently, not everyone feels this way. The latest rant comes from a just-published Newsweek article in which Daniel D’Addario basically calls Criterion out for releasing films that didn't need restoration. What's more, he has an odd bone to pick with recent cinema purely because of the qualifying adjective - describing such films as Gomorrah, A Christmas Tale, and Che, "they're decent enough, and Che's cinematography, [Criterion President Peter] Becker says, may be groundbreaking. But classics? Even if they seem perfect now, they couldn't have passed the test of time in only two years."

I wonder if D'Addario even saw these films. I understand Che isn't for everybody, and I wasn't 100% sold on Gomorrah, but A Christmas Tale? Who really hates A Christmas Tale? And looking at some of the films Criterion will release as the year rolls on, we find Summer Hours, an absolute masterpiece that will, without a doubt, land in my top three for 2009. Never mind that it's been named the Best Foreign Language Film of the year by the Boston Society of Film Critics, Los Angeles Film Critics Association, New York Film Critics Circle, South Eastern Film Critics Association, and the National Society of Film Critics. If critical and academic consensus are all D'Addario is seeking, then that's not too bad. And honestly, I'd take A Christmas Tale or Summer Hours over Charade or Autumn Sonata, both movies from the Criterion Collection I like quite a bit in their own right.

[Note: I realize D'Addario doesn't mention Summer Hours in his article, but given that he's writing for Newsweek, I assume he's done his research and knows some of the already-announced titles]

Is this merely a cash-in for Criterion, or a larger artistic claim long before academic consensus can be made? I like to think it's a bit of both. If it is merely a cash-in, they could do (and have done) a lot worse - it's not as though Che is going to do Transformers 2- (or even Benjamin Button-) level sales, but it obviously has a bit more mainstream appeal than Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (although I think each has a lot for fans of either) or, even moreso, Science is Fiction: 23 Films by Jean Painleve. If this is what it takes to keep Criterion afloat financially, cinephiles can still rest easy. And for the hardcore, old-films-only sect...for God's sake, they managed to restore Roberto Rossellini's War Trilogy! There's always something worth celebrating from Criterion.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

"Moving is Living" - UP IN THE AIR (dir. Jason Reitman)

This may sound strange to a great many people out there, but American film used to have a certain tone or tenor distinct not only from other world cinema, but from other American arts. If you watch a great number of American films from the 30s and 40s (and even onto the 50s and 60s), you'll find a cinema defined by work, work ethic, and how our work becomes our lives, on making your own way in the world but unable to resist the call of love when it finally comes knocking, and on achievement, some sort of sign that you've succeeded in this life, however small.

This is also a cinema that America has almost given up on, even though the way we make our lives has changed very little. If it does find its way into popular entertainment, it's always in the refuge of the "chick flick," which manages to produce maybe one quality film a year if we're lucky. Now we're stuck in a system that mainly allows for the occasional auteur statement amidst a sea of multinational product, the kind of film that feels vaguely American, but isn't so specific that it can't be sold overseas. The closest America has come to a distinct cinematic voice is a sort of hipster/twee/ironic cinema that takes its cues almost entirely from music (literally and figuratively, in films such as (500) Days of Summer, Away We Go, Juno) alongside the Apatow child of "bromance" - each suggesting our relationships are the thing that primarily consumes our time, when in reality, as they said at the training for my latest job, "we spend more time here than we do with our friends and family."

So there's tremendous relief for those of us passionate about distinct, classical American filmmaking in viewing Jason Reitman's Up in the Air, not just in how fine it is but in how honest it is about the decisions and situations put before us, and how we approach those. Reitman has made a film that is monumentally important for what it says about who we are, what we want, and finally, what we have to make that from.

It's also a fascinating study in the delicate balance of creating perfection, and how quickly that can all tumble. Minor spoilers follow.

Let's start with the perfect, some of the finest character-building I've seen all year in American cinema. Starting with archetypes (George Clooney as the couldn't-be-happier-to-be-single jetsetter who is about to undergo a major change in priorities, Vera Farmiga as the woman who can play tough with the guys, and maybe a little too tough, and Anna Kendrick as the career-focused recent college grad), Reitman and cowriter Sheldon Turner deconstruct these people slowly, and just subtly enough to be obvious, but without having them just say it. When Farmiga says towards the end of the film, "See, you don't even know what you want," we realize that, because of everything Ryan (Clooney) went through to get to that point, he knows exactly what he wants but is far too proud and/or embarrassed to admit it.

Ryan is the modern man - savvy, smart, self-centered, and (as we would all like to be) in love with his work. Or rather, in love with the circumstances surrounding his work - air travel, hotels, the illusion of V.I.P. status that comes with spending a lot of money to earn it. The modern man (Ryan as our surrogate) has actually accomplished very little, but is continuously rewarded for it in completely meaningless ways (cutting to the front of the line, special frequent-flyer cards, a pre-programmed greeting).

And, like most modern men, he has no idea how to fit women into this worldview. It's one thing to say, "we're all equal," but in cinema that so often comes in the tired form of a woman written exactly like a man. What makes Alex (Vera Farmiga) so compelling is that she is resolutely feminine, and her certainty of this in the "What Happens in Vegas" era makes her Ryan's equal. Watch Clooney in the scene in which Alex consoles Natalie (Anna Kendrick) after her boyfriend breaks up with her - his quick changes between fascination, attraction, and discomfort are the work of a marksman who knows secretly that he is the target.

Modern man's other challenge comes from the young, represented here by Natalie, the other side of Alex's coin (where Alex's certainty of her womanhood makes her strong, Natalie tries desperately to position herself as masculine, which becomes her undoing when genuine feminine impulses take over). Natalie's ultimate challenge to Ryan is the willingness and ability to streamline the skill in his line of work, which has taken a lifetime to build, into a flowchart and iChat. Like most men of his generation, and by birthright men in general, Ryan is completely unable to keep up and takes offense almost by the mere gesture.

And so he fights back, sometimes directly (in the "fire me" scene), and sometimes abstractly. Modern Man is increasingly battling his own irrelevance as a distinct gender, and the ways in which he tries to compensate for this feeling are insignificant in their nature, and pathetic in their representation - Ryan's goal of ten million frequent-flyer miles wouldn't be so empty were it not for the pride with which he sets out on this mission, not unlike the notches on one's bedpost.

If all this seems rather lofty for a movie about "The story of a man ready to make a connection," as the advertising material for the film claims, it's not only because these issues are woven into the fabric of the story, but also because Reitman's one major, destructive flaw in the film is so blatantly calling attention to them. In some films, you'll see these tracking shots that follow a character for several minutes at a time, and anyone who's been a part of them will invariably talk about the anticipation and nervousness one feels towards the end of the shot, when the slightest mistake by the lowest-level crew member can destroy hours worth of work in setup and execution. Watching Up in the Air is like that. It's such a rewarding film, so delicately written, with truly compelling characters and a fascinating, timely story, you really wonder if it can make it.

Major spoilers ahead.

And it almost does. Then, right at the very end, when we're reaching our emotional climax with Ryan, Reitman inserts some interviews he did with people who were really laid off, and how they wouldn't be able to make it through anything in their life, big or small, if not for their loved ones. Okay, at this point, this is something Ryan is realizing all on his own, and is about to state it through voiceover. The interviews are not only unnecessary, but actually destructive to the film, and anyone who insists that a small fumble cannot undo a great film needs to come around to the fact that films are not a series of moments - they're a whole piece. What happens at the beginning should affect the end, and what happens in the end should affect the middle. Everything matters, and because Reitman's grand fumble takes place at such a crucial moment in the film, the film becomes 1/10th as good as it would've been without it.

That said...that 1/10th is still very impressive stuff. It's expertly written, with an ear for the different ways people express themselves through speech and the application of this at work, in relationships, between acquaintances, and amongst family. It keeps an eye out for who we are in those different situations, and how we adjust and change who we are to suit circumstance. Clooney's rarely been in better form (but, to be fair, Michael Clayton also asked a lot more of him), this will hopefully be the film that puts Vera Farmiga over the top, and after a solid debut in Rocket Science, Anna Kendrick seems to have really found her footing and is off sprinting.

I barely touched on the relationship aspects of the film, which are wondefully addressed in sort of calling out the silliness of the trepidition with which we approach romance (the aversion/encouragement of labels, the uncertainty of one's place in a new person's life, the arbitrary rules preceding intimacy) while at the same time celebrating the exhilerance implicit in such an endeavor. I guess it's just that the film makes such a big, obvious point of it all that, even though it's done quite well, I felt little need in talking about it. It does please me immensely, though, that this film feels like Reitman's first grand achievement, after his thoroughly entertaining debut with Thank You for Smoking, and his very earnest, honest, but ultimate stumble with Juno. Up in the Air is a marriage of those two intents, and incredibly successful at that.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Not Just Another Load of Studio Ads: Nine Movies REALLY Worth Looking Forward to in 2010

There's something intangible that annoys the hell out of me of the countless 2010 Previews that only highlight the movies either a) you've already heard of, or b) will be hearing about indefinitely preceding their release. You know, your Iron Man 2 or Clash of the Titans or...God help me...Tron: Legacy (I don't know why I'm so predisposed to hate it, but...I am). So instead of just seething over this fact, I decided to be a part of the solution and throw together a quick list of some movies you won't necessarily be hearing about that seem genuinely interesting.

I do, however, want to give a shout-out highly in favor of big-studio products Inception and The Social Network. Christopher Nolan and David Fincher, respectively, directing, and they are for my money the two best studio directors working today (I don't actually know if that's true, but they'd make a Top Five I'm sure...Fincher absolutely would be the top).

You should also know that I purposefully know very little about these films; I prefer to know as little as possible about a film going into it, and this becomes very easy with those less marketed.

Oh, and yeah, I did this same thing last year and had ten movies that time, but give me a break, we haven't even gotten to Sundance yet. I know there'll be more stuff worth seeing later.

Red Riding Trilogy - So this is a British film series revolving around a series of crimes in Yorkshire that looks at, I think, the bureaucracy of police investigation. IFC is releasing this, and God love 'em, it'll be on their OnDemand service starting February 5th.

A Prophet - So the trailer for this one has a quote from Kenneth Turan saying, "By general consensus, the best film at the Cannes Film Festival," and that's no lie. I kept up with the reviews coming out of Cannes, and in a Tomatometer sense, this was by far the victor. It walked away with the Grand Prix, the second-most prestigious prize at the Festival (The White Ribbon, opening on February 5th here in Portland but technically a 2009 release, won the Palme d'Or). This is coming to New York and Los Angeles at the end of February, but I'll be keeping tabs on other release dates as they become available.

Wild Grass - One of the films I'm anticipating most this year, hands down. I've made no small mention of my love for director Alain Resnais, and just the fact that he's still working at 87 is stunning. Nevermind the fact that he's apparently made one of his best films with this one. No release date yet.

Everyone Else - So I crack open my copy of Film Comment one month to find an article by Kent Jones, one of my favorite film critics, about this movie I've never heard of, let alone seen, called Everyone Else. Although I hate to read articles of films I've yet to see, I figured, what the hell. There, I happened upon this section:
"Their film is harrowing because they understand that when you're part of a couple with an unnamed problem to work out, you often feel like you've been dropped into the Bermuda Triangle without a life preserver. Funny, because once the impasse has been resolved, viewed from a distance and condensed into a story, the essential ridiculousness of it all seems obvious. Moving, because [the director and her actors] understand the everyday poignancy of all human efforts to simply be understood."
Dude, ticket SOLD. Cinema Guild is releasing this, and although they're a small company, I'm holding out hope it'll get more play than New York and LA. It just has to...

Get Low - Literally, all I know about this movie is it has Robert Duvall and Bill Murray giving some of their best performances ever, and that is all I need. I often note how empty a film can be if all it has are good performances, but there are a handful of actors who can get my money just for that. No release date yet.

Somewhere - New Sofia Coppola movie. I love all her stuff (yes, even Marie Antoinette). One of those directors who could film almost anything and have me captivated.

Black Swan - So, APPARENTLY, this is about a rivalry between Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis, who are both ballerinas, except maybe one of them is a figment of the other's imagination. And there's hot, angry, lesbian sex in it? Like I said...apparently. It IS the next film from writer/director Darren Aronofsky, he of Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain and The Wrestler, so I'm there.

The Fighter - This was supposed to be Aronofsky's next film, but he moved on and it became David O. Russell's (he of Three Kings and I Heart Huckabees), which, all things considered, will make for a very interesting movie. Apparently Christian Bale is amazing, playing the trainer/brother to a boxer played by Mark Wahlberg, one of cinema's most uneven actors who gave great performances for Russell in the aforementioned films.

Tree of Life - Okay, so I wrote about this last year because word around the campfire is that the distributors were intent on getting this out in 2009. Now they're saying writer/director Terrence Malick, my favorite director of all time, has locked himself away, editing indefinitely. Although I find Malick to be stronger the less he fine-tunes and the more he relies on his insticts (I prefer the original, 172-minute cut of The New World to the wide-release, 135-minute cut), y'know...give the man what he wants I guess. Whenever it comes out, it's a guarantee I'll be there though.