Sunday, December 28, 2008

Recent Viewings: Waltz with Bashir, The Secret of the Grain and American Teen

As in a handful of films I discussed in a recent essay (Fearless, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, I've Loved You So Long), the operating principle at play in Ari Folman's animated semi-doc Waltz with Bashir is to dance around the circumstances of a central event in the main character's past, teasing the audience with hints about the incident's particulars. While structuring a narrative around the delayed revelation of a single event may occasionally prove a useful strategy, ensuring the audience's continued interest by playing with its (implied) curiosity, it can also be presumptuous, the director cynically banking on the viewer's personal engagement with the film's narrative to deliver a calculated bit of "all is revealed" plotting with the force false of revelation.

But more than most movies that make a big production out of their delayed reveal, Bashir's project seems to necessitate such an approach. As both an act of memory and a reflection on the way memory operates, Folman's film is built around the process of restoring lost consciousness, so, in the film's structuring, any revelations come to the viewer and the lead character at the same time. A soldier in the Israeli army during the 1982 Lebanon campaign, Folman (the onscreen figure, given the same name as the director, represents a version of the filmmaker's real-life self) has repressed all memories of the war until a friend awakens him in the middle of the night to relate his own PTSD-induced nightmare. From there, Folman embarks on a quest of rediscovery, teasing out his own memories through psychoanalysis and conversations with old army-mates, the whole process teetering around the exact circumstances of a single event, a massacre in which Christian Lebanese soldiers slaughtered a group of Muslim refugees with the tacit approval of the Israeli army. The film's central question: what role exactly did Folman himself play in these atrocities?

But memory, as the director understands, is a tricky thing. And any revelations centered around a single human conscious (as opposed to an omnipotent narrator) are bound to be more than a little spotty. So with the exception of a lone bid for visceral impact - the image of a Lebanese soldier gunning down a family against a wall, overlaying live-action footage on the film's animated backdrop - Folman plays coy with the details of the slaughter. Then, too, the exact degree of his involvement is never clearly established. Which is all to the director's credit, especially since his real subject is the vagaries of selective memory and not the specific circumstances of the war. And yet, the result is a certain sketchiness in the telling, not exactly a refusal on Folman's part to "go the distance" in his investigation of acts of atrocity, but nonetheless the feeling that the film doesn't quite add up to anything, each sliver of memory destined to remain unassimilable into any whole. Which might be precisely the point, but despite some lively moments of absurdist whimsy (the titular sequence in which a shell-shocked soldier pauses in a dangerous no-man's land, firing off random rounds from his Uzi, shuffling around in odd dance-like bursts), the sharp, inky animation which both distances the viewer from the horrific war-time events and creates its own moments of unexpected beauty and Folman's shrewd understanding of the way in which memory (fails to) operate, Bashir comes off more as sketch than completed project. As a preliminary gesture at reclaiming a personal past, however, it's at least an admirable first step.

***

I'll never be a fan of an aesthetic approach that combines hand-held camerawork with near constant close-ups (the former method negating the sole advantage of the latter by obscuring the intimate detailing of the characters' faces), but I like just about everything else about The Secret of the Grain. A messy family drama centered around an extended North African clan living in a French port-town, Abdel Kechiche's film gets down the texture of daily life by devoting large chunks of screen time to extended conversations among the various family members as they sit around the dinner table or pay visits to each other's houses. Yeah, they've got their problems. For starters: the patriarch, the almost perversely inexpressive Slimane (Habib Boufares), has just been laid off from his job on the docks, while his son's philandering threatens to rip apart his marriage. So despite the films' obvious similarities (a pseudo-verité approach, a focus on the "dead time" of family interaction), this is no feel-good Rachel Getting Married-type celebration, but there is a current of authentic family feeling running between the characters and, more importantly, a grounding of defiant determination that keeps the whole operation running. Eventually a narrative emerges: Slimane decides to turn an abandoned ship he's acquired into a restaurant featuring his ex-wife's couscous; when he has trouble getting funding and city permits, he invites the town's notables on board for a trial meal. And so the film's ending unexpectedly becomes a bravura set piece, hypnotic rhythms alternating with the silence of despair as Slimane's companion's daughter keeps the restless guests entertained with a belly-dance while the old man wanders around a deserted housing complex, the director switching at last to long shot to isolate him against an unforgiving backdrop. As the evening wears on (and on), there's no resolution in sight. Things fall rapidly apart and Kechiche simply refuses to fit them back together. So it goes.

***

In American Teen, a documentary about the lives of five high-school seniors in small-town Indiana, director Nanette Burstein operates with a ruthless efficiency. Which means her film is compulsively watchable, but also ridiculously reductive. I have no idea what the five kids are like in real life, but I certainly know what teenie-flick cliché they're supposed to represent once Burstein's been through with them. There's the jock, the nerd, the... and, well, so forth. Yes, it's true that high-schoolers often fit into certain social roles, but the director seems little interested in exploring the intricacies of the teenage social dynamic, content to simply repeat these roles as a given. Even when the boundaries threaten to blur, as when the jock dates the "alternative" girl, it's simply presented as one of those weird quirks of high-school life. Burstein's ability to turn what must have been hours of footage into a tight 95-minute Brat-pack drama with nary a narrative element out of place can't fail to impress but, like the silly animated interludes designed to add some aesthetic spice to the director's drab visuals, it represents a fundamental failure of conception.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Gran Torino

I don't think I'll ever be a convert to the films of Clint Eastwood, but Gran Torino is such a huge step up from his other recent work that at least now I can see what all the fuss is about. Avoiding the simplistic notions of good and evil that pitched Changeling to a child's moral worldview or the egregious piling up of calculated unpleasantness that turned Million Dollar Baby from a mediocre boxing picture into an artless weepie, somehow managing to brutalize and insult its audience at the same time, Torino creates a compelling moral testing ground, populates it with interesting and plausible characters and lets the consequences play out in complex, surprising ways.

At the center of the film is Eastwood himself, starring as newly widowed Korean War vet Walt Kowalski, as out of place in his fading, gang-riddled rust-belt suburb as he is in the company of his family, especially his opportunistic, nouveau riche son who wants to ship him off to a retirement home. Kowalski trades good-natured ethnic insults with the other old timers, still placing importance on distinctions between Polish, Italian and Irish, while to the town's mostly non-white residents, they're equally a bunch of old crackers. Unabashedly racist and perpetually locked into a Korean War mindset, Kowalski's narrow assumptions come into question when a family of Hmong immigrants move in next door.

His relationship with his new neighbors gets off to a rough start. In a forced gang initiation, the family's teenage son, Thao (Bee Vang), tries to steal Kowalski's beloved vintage car (the Gran Torino of the title) causing the older man to pull out his rifle and chase him away. Turning his gun on the gang when they next appear, he frees the boy from their immediate clutches, but ends up making powerful enemies, the gangbangers surfacing periodically throughout the film to make threatening noise. He also gets to know the Hmong family, his racist orientation gradually - and convincingly - melting away as he grudgingly befriends young Thao and sets about teaching him how to "be a man".

Apart from Kowalski's racial attitudes (and his penchant for calling Asian people "zipperheads" is shown to be an obvious holdover from his Korean war days and not borne of any sort of intrinsic hatred), the film highlights two other questionable assumptions central to his character that Eastwood at least partly calls into question. The first is Kowalski's self-casting as a Dirty Harry-type vigilante. Although he cuts a rather ridiculous figure from the start - his outmoded attitudes toward sexual behavior and his constant disapproving scowl mark him out (at least initially) as a near-parody of a wizened, hyper-masculine movie type - he proves surprisingly effective when he translates this seemingly anachronistic personality into action. Cruising the town in a pick-up truck as out-of-date as he is, he pulls a gun on a group of three menacing thugs, delivers a slightly ludicrous catch phrase ("Ever notice how you come across somebody once in awhile you shouldn't have fucked with? That's me.") and saves the neighbor's daughter from presumptive sexual assault. If this scene seems vaguely implausible, it nonetheless establishes a certain viability behind Kowalski's pose without which the film couldn't function. Yes, Eastwood suggests, the grizzled vigilante is a cinematic cliché (and one, of course, that he helped to forge), but even as he critiques that iconic figure, he suggests that it's not without its uses. And if these uses can easily spill over into dangerous acts of aggression, then at least Kowalski learns in the end just how far to take his act.

The second assumption of Eastwood's character, and closely tied to the first, is his very specific ideas of what it means to be a man. When we first see Thao, he's being verbally abused by a Mexican gang as he walks down the street. Rather than respond, he simply keeps reading his book and ignores them. It's just such behavior that causes Kowalski, in his initial interactions with the boy, to deride him for being a "pussy". But as the older man begins to take an interest in his young charge, he starts to instill in him a certain code of masculine behavior which includes learning how to engage in man-to-man banter, asking girls out on dates and, above all for the notoriously passive Thao, asserting oneself. Although Eastwood never fully calls into question these thoroughly entrenched, and at least partially outdated, notions of masculinity, some of Kowalski's assumptions - such as his ideas of how men should talk to each other - are allowed to seem thoroughly ridiculous, while others are imparted to Thao as important life lessons. As easy as it is to dismiss the old man's attitudes, the film never lets us reject them entirely; there's always a layer of hard truth underneath his crusty scowl.

But in the end, after much cogitation, Kowalski comes to understand masculine action as being as much a question of strategic self-sacrifice as simple balls-out bluster. If Torino's climax comes down to the same type of all-or-nothing moral accounting that proved so risible in Million Dollar Baby, in this film, Kowalski's choice feels like the result of a carefully considered reflection on his specific, complex circumstances and not as a simplistic attempt of the director and screenwriter to force significance onto an otherwise thin piece of work. Modifying without rejecting his conceptions of vigilantism and masculinity, Kowalski devises a clever way out that leaves Thao spotless while setting the boy a better example to follow than that offered by either his impotent family or the destructive gangs that dominate the Hmong community. If this ending somehow feels a little too neat, it's the only conceivable way to bring together the film's conflicting ethical strands, tweaking Kowalski's assumptions while still asserting him as a viable character. Eastwood may retain his penchant for blunt moral confrontations that occasionally lapse into hysterical badgering, but at least in Gran Torino they're tempered by a more nuanced understanding of the reasons for that hysteria. And if that's not enough to qualify the director for any kind of cinematic greatness, then at least it's a convincing step in the right direction.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Best Films of 2008

In the world of cinema, 2008 belongs to the French, even if most of the Gallic entries to make their way to American screens this year had their international debuts in 2007 or earlier. At the extreme end is Philippe Garrel's exquisite J'entends Plus la Guitare, a 1991 film making its US theatrical premiere this year thanks to the auspices of fledgling distributor Film Desk. Its omission from this list is a question of too much time passed, not of quality. The year's biggest story, from a strictly artistic viewpoint, is the triumphant offerings of two Nouvelle Vague masters: Jacques Rivette's The Duchess of Langeais, certainly the movie of the year, and Eric Rohmer's The Romance of Astrea and Celadon; if the latter is indeed its director's final film, it's certainly a fitting cap to a terrific career. In addition, French directors gave us Before I Forget, Boarding Gate, The Class, La France, The Secret of the Grain and The Witnesses while Spanish director José Luis Guerín's In the City of Sylvia, another of the year's finest, was filmed in Strasbourg with dialogue (what little there is) spoken in French. Not that it was a bad year for American films, not with Kelly Reichardt cementing her status as one of the nation's essential filmmakers with Wendy and Lucy, two strong offerings from Gus Van Sant (Paranoid Park and Milk) and a score of exciting non-fiction films such as Profit motive and the whispering wind and Moving Midway.

Below is my tally of favorites (the same ranking I had in my Slant Magazine list) with brief annotations for each entry:


1. The Duchess of Langeais - Jacques Rivette








Anything but a stuffy period piece, Rivette's adaptation of the Balzac novella, about the romantic seesaw between a society duchess and a Byronic war hero (the great Guillaume Depardieu in one of his last screen roles) is endlessly fascinating. The whole thing's drenched in an air of perpetual mystery and, even as the director keeps us at a certain intellectual remove from the characters, the film proves sneakily affecting as the hero's exhaustive and exhausting search runs (figuratively) aground on the rocky shores of Majorca.


2. Still Life - Jia Zhang-ke








Among Jia's strengths: a knack for hitting on precise images to illustrate the absurdities and contradictions of China's amnesiac modernization. In this film, which takes place in the town of Fengjie as it's being evacuated for the construction of the massive Three Gorges Dam, the director gives us images of cell phones buried in rubble, tight rope walkers mysteriously appearing amidst ruins and towers shooting off into space, but never loses sight of the human consequences of the project.


3. In the City of Sylvia - José Luis Guerín








A young man eyes a succession of woman at a Strasbourg café, then follows one around the city streets. This ode to voyeurism's not half as creepy as it sounds, creating instead a rare aesthetic uplift out of a conjunction of quotidian sights and sounds (not least its gallery of beautiful young women), especially during the immersive 20-minute café sequence that stands as the film's centerpiece.


4. The Romance of Astrea and Celadon - Eric Rohmer








Rohmer's final film is an ecstatic romantic idyll, set in an utterly alien world of nymphs and druids. After a silly lovers' misunderstanding, boy and girl spend most of the movie apart, but for all the separation of its leads, the picture brims over with joyousness at the prospect of an unspoiled romantic consummation, a prospect that the director treats with nary a hint of irony.


5. Wendy and Lucy - Kelly Reichardt










This deceptively simple story of a woman travelling to Alaska and getting stuck in a small Oregon town when she loses her dog and her car breaks down, metes out its details with absolute precision. From Michelle Williams' restrained performance and Reichardt's panoramic tracking shots that take in the scope of the landscape to a gallery of supporting figures both sympathetic and treacherous and a subtle evocation of a certain desperation in the American air, everything in the film is both neatly understated and deeply felt.


6. Profit motive and the whispering wind - John Gianvito











A reading of the United States through its monuments and memorials, Gianvito's film offers eloquent tribute to the oppositional figures who helped shape our country's hidden history. As signs of modernity (highway traffic, commercial development) slip in through the cracks of the frame, they create an odd juxtaposition with the plaques commemorating the forces of opposition, the dialectic serving as a lament for a more engaged past.


7. My Winnipeg - Guy Maddin










A work of great imagination, in the transformative, revelatory sense of the word, which is to say a work of cinema. Recreating his experiences (real, imagined, fantasized) of his home town of Winnipeg, Maddin crafts a snowy fantasia that takes in hidden alleyways, the ghosts of hockey greats, a suicide-obsessed TV program called Ledge Man (pictured above) and Ann Savage as the filmmaker's "mother".


8. Paranoid Park - Gus Van Sant











Van Sant's "pure" aesthetic - drawing on super-8 skateboarding footage, a dense sound mix, and off-kilter angles that turn (for example) a shower into a full-on sensory experience - divorces image and sound from context, mirroring his teenage hero's lack of involvement, at least until young Alex accidentally kills a railroad guard. By the end, the boy's no longer under suspicion, he's made clear his lack of interest in the wider world (or at least Iraq) and he's returned to being just one more kid in school. So Van Sant fires up one last stunner of a shot: impressionistic footage of Alex burning his diary, a moment of pure imagery to cement the lack of content in the boy's life.


9. Happy-Go-Lucky - Mike Leigh










Mike Leigh's latest film grounds its lead character's irrepressible peppiness in a world of anger and disappointment. As played by Sally Hawkins (justly hyped as an Oscar front-runner), Poppy is by turns inspiring and unbearable; at times quite fully in her element, at others coming off like some unsocializable nutjob. Her showdown with Eddie Marsen's disturbed driving instructor is a heartbreaker. As Poppy learns the hard way, some people you just can't reach.


10. Boarding Gate - Olivier Assayas








Forget Asia Argento. Despite all the critical love, she barely skirts self-parody. The same can't be said for Assasyas' film, an impressionistic, international thriller for our relentless century whose air of perpetual motion slows only for a single moment of sublimity: an opened window on an airplane set off against a Brian Eno drone, the light overwhelming our senses, the world suddenly transformed.


Honorable Mentions:

Alexandra (Alexsandr Sokurov)
Before I Forget (Jacques Nolot)
The Class (Laurent Cantet)
4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu)
La France (Serge Bozon)
The Man From London (Béla Tarr)
Moving Midway (Godfrey Cheshire)
The Secret of the Grain (Abdel Kechiche)
Timecrimes (Nacho Vigalondo)
The Witnesses (André Téchiné)

Monday, December 15, 2008

Slant Magazine: The Year in Film 2008

This year, I was asked to contribute a top-ten list to Slant Magazine's Year in Film feature, along with Ed Gonzalez, Nick Schager (who also offer brief annotations) and Bill Weber. Click on the link and scroll down to see my selections, headed by Jacques Rivette's incomparable The Duchess of Langeais.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

In the City of Sylvia

The centerpiece of José Luis Guerín's In the City of Sylvia's a stunner: an immersive 20-minute sequence that seems to expand the medium's possibilities of expression. Basically a succession of alternating shots cutting between a young man at a Strasbourg cafe and a series of p.o.v.s as he scans the tables for a long lost love, this scene gets us about as close as cinematically possible to sharing a character's aesthetic headspace. Mostly taking in a succession of comely young women - this pleasant voyeurism troubled slightly by a few dissonant elements, a waitress bringing the wrong order, a glass knocked over, a street peddler aggressively pushing his unwanted knickknacks - the man lingers over his beer, sketches in his notebook and above all looks, but it's Guerín's sound design as much as anything that accounts for the sequence's sense of total immersion. At once disassociated from any specific source and viscerally felt, the swirl of sounds - whispers, footsteps, the clang of glasses - mix together in a heady stew that pounds home the (not unpleasant) cacophony of daily experience before ceding to a pair of street violinists who take over the soundtrack for the segment's conclusion.

In fact Guerín's periodic absorption of diegetic music into the film score represents one of his more fascinating areas of inquiry. In a later scene, he crafts a little mini-essay on the (mis)uses of just such background music to dictate emotions. Fixing his camera on a winding side street, taking in the chatter of young boys or the pounding footsteps of pedestrians, he films a car driving toward the front of the screen, a rousing pop song blaring from the speakers. As the car gets closer, the song gets louder, but, as before, the sound seems disassociated from the image, so that while the increasing volume of the music dictates the imminent occurrence of some outstanding event, the screen shows no activity of any commensurate significance. Cued as we are for action, all we get is the passage of the vehicle. After which the music stops abruptly; the scene's promise of drama left unfulfilled, we have nothing left but to reflect on the (misleading) power of film music.

Sylvia is the second movie opening this week to take the act of looking as its central subject. And as in Nacho Vigalondo's Timecrimes - which, coincidentally, also makes use of a Blondie song during its narrative climax - the potential oppression of the so-called "male gaze" is addressed more or less directly. In Vigalondo's film, the act of spying on a unconscious nude woman involves the protagonist in a labyrinthine time-travel odyssey in which the burden of causality (is she nude and unconscious because of his actions or are his actions simply recreating the reality that's already existed?) becomes the pivot on which the film's moral inquiries balance. Sylvia's concerns are somewhat less knotty, though the young man's obsessive quest to locate his lost Sylvie involves him not only lasciviously eyeing as many young lovelies as possible, but following a terrified woman through the city streets, her alarm made clear when he finally confronts her on a crowded tram.

The street chase scenes may look terrific - slightly low-angle tracking shots of two attractive young actors walking through a medieval town - but what saves these segments from empty aestheticism is the film's eventual acknowledgement of what exactly it is we've been watching and - since in Guerín's conception to watch is to participate - sharing in. When not-Sylvie tells the young man of the serpentine path she took trying to shake him, for all we may question our involvement in what amounts to an act of proxy-stalking, the pleasures of the act thankfully remain. Guerín ultimately points up his character as a potentially unsavory voyeur (though also perhaps a hopeless romantic), but only by entering the sensory headspace of this questionable young man have we been able to experience such richly satisfying moments of aesthetic immersion.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Contenders: The Wrestler and Frost/Nixon

The Wrestler
Darren Aronofsky's tale of fifty-something wrestler Randy "The Ram" Robinson adjusting - poorly - to middle-age is pretty standard stuff, but the devil, as they say, is in the details. From the casette tapes (filled with his beloved '80s hair metal) and original Nintendo set that fill up Randy's modest trailer park home and mark him out as a walking anachronism through fly-on-the-wall scenes of wrestlers plotting the course of their matches in pre-bout strategy sessions to actor Mickey Rourke's ritual tapping of his elbows as he saunters up to the ring, Aronofsky's film builds its power from an accumulation of objects and gestures. The Wrestler's at its best when it focuses on the physical - the surprisingly graceless in-the-ring pounding, the post-bout doctor exam, Rourke's heavy breathing whenever he walks - or when it positions its central figure as a fish-out-of-water in a particularly dismal suburbia - dishing out potato salad behind the counter of a supermarket deli, his strings of blond hair absurdly done up in a sanitary net. Less successful are the scenes between Randy and the women in his life, stripper/love interest Marisa Tomei and estranged daughter Evan Rachel Wood, which represent something of a failure of imagination for Aronofsky and screenwriter Robert D. Siegel, refusing as they do to push much beyond the standard expectations signalled by "stripper/love interest" and "estranged daughter". But setting this claptrap aside, Aronofsky pulls out one late triumph - for himself as well as his hero. As Randy returns to the ring for one final bout, climbing up the ropes for one last body slam, his bum ticker barely chugging along, Rourke's character - along with the actor who embodies him in all his vulgarity and intense physicality - finishes where he started, positioned rather firmly in his element indeed.

Frost/Nixon
Frost/Nixon makes for more or less dull viewing, but how do you generate cinematic interest out of a set-up that revolves almost entirely around a series of static television interviews? If you're Ron Howard, you don't do much of anything. Or rather you rely on your actors to carry the show. In the film's final twenty-minute-odd showdown, the filmmaker draws heavily on a succession of shot/reverse shots, the occasional establishing shot and the (very) occasional reaction shot - the latter of which aims to ensure that the audience knows exactly how to feel about the proceedings unfolding on screen, while Howard's classical cutting defers to his much lauded performers. But neither Frank Langella as Nixon nor Michael Sheen as popular television host/turned crack interviewer David Frost manage to carve out particularly convincing characterizations, the former slathering on his adenoidal crackle with a strained air of affectation, the latter never quite selling the switch from frivolous TV personality to a man capable of taking down the eminently self-possessed 37th President. Actually, the film zips right along for an hour and a quarter before its Syd Field screenplay (adapted by Peter Morgan from his own play to which it presumably hews pretty closely) demands that the lead character (Frost) hit his low point. From that dreary moment on, the film never recovers its pacing - and can no longer paper over Howard's lack of imagination - so that even a drunken phone call from Nixon to Frost in which the ex-President attempts to establish a biographical connection with his antagonist fails to capitalize on the set-up's obvious dramatic potential. From there, only the final interview remains and by the time Langella delivers his now famous line "I'm saying that when the President does it, that means it's not illegal" in his signature rasp, the film's devolved, if not quite into self-parody, at least into a singularly uncompelling bit of cinema, whatever the contemporary implications (Nixon=Bush?) of the line may be.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Slumdog Millionaire

Combining Alejandro González Iñárritu's skittery stylistics, Fernando Meirelles' conception of slum life as an aesthetic wonderland and his own unhealthy reliance on calculated sentiment, Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire (co-directed by Loveleen Tandan) manages to synthesize most of the unfortunate cinematic strategies of the contemporary globally "aware" movie. Visually and aurally assaultive from the opening shots, Boyle's aesthetic - a mass of jittery camerawork, aggressive cross-cutting, pounding Indo-rock music and bold splotches of color - betrays an essential distrust for his story. But considering that this story is both absurdly overwrought - the life of one young man encompassing the entire arc of recent Indian history - and ridiculously sentimental - all that man's actions are centered around retrieving his long lost love - perhaps we can't blame Boyle for being a little bit skeptical.

In the film's intriguing central conceit, uneducated call-center worker Jamal Malik (Dev Patel), one question away from winning the top prize on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, falls under suspicion of cheating. After all, the officials reason, how could a mere "slumdog" know all this useless trivia? Under interrogation by the show's investigators, Jamal explains how he learned all of the answers, each question triggering a flashback to a formative event in his life where he picked up the relevant bit of information not, of course, through book learning, but through the happenstance of a hardscrabble street life. So Jamal's catalog of misery begins: he learned one answer when his mother - a Muslim - was killed by militant Hindus; he learned another when he was nearly blinded and forced to sing in the streets for pay; a third came to him when his brother gunned down a local gang-leader.

But none of these horrific events - many of which mirror the central strands of contemporary Indian history (religious conflicts, a rapidly globalizing economy) - are allowed to have any real emotional impact; they're all swallowed up in the overwhelming gloss of Boyle's aesthetic overload. When a young Jamal and his friends are chased through the slum by police, we're scarcely given a moment to get our bearings. The assaultive rock score, the blur of bodies in long shot, the relentless cutting - rather than give the impression of dizzying motion and imminent danger, leave the viewer feeling simply dizzy instead. Then there's the question of Boyle's color saturated palette. From the wares in the crowded marketplaces to the fabrics being dyed in the countryside, the director constantly dots his frame with little squares of vivid pastel. Call it the Gabbeh effect: these colors add a welcome vibrancy to Boyle's otherwise negligible compositions, but they're also a bit too close to a dangerous exoticism, dressing up an impoverished "foreign" milieu for the romantic contemplation of Western viewers.

There's nothing that will seem foreign to these viewers, though, in Slumdog's ending. Having proved the validity of his knowledge, Jamal returns to the Millionaire set to answer the final question. Meanwhile, the love of his life, Latika, escapes her imprisonment and rushes to meet him. At the same time his brother commits the ultimate act of self-sacrifice. Yes, it all comes together in the film's final segment, including the 20 million rupee question that directly recalls Jamal's first meeting with Latika when they were just two homeless kids on the streets of Bombay. Cutting between Jamal on stage, his brother getting gunned down, his woman inching her way through stalled traffic and a series of flashbacks that reference each of the film's major episodes, Boyle's heavily labored finale wrings out every last drop of sentiment from the film's overstuffed catalog of events. But having so inadequately prepared the viewer for any kind of authentic emotional response - the director's "humanism" continually submerged in a visual/aural onslaught - Boyle gravely miscalculates the impact of his severely strained conclusion. Where he shoots for sob-wracked cheering, he elicits only groans.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Timecrimes and Adam Resurrected

There's no shortage of interesting films hitting theaters this coming week - at least for New York viewers. Among the openings are Doubt, In the City of Sylvia, the sublime Wendy and Lucy, Che - playing in a one-week Oscar-qualifying run, Gran Torino and the two films I reviewed for Slant Magazine, Timecrimes and Adam Resurrected.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Milk

At first blush, it seems a little odd that Milk's scads of critical supporters should be somewhat apologetic about their enthusiasm for the film. "Milk is nothing if not conventional," Nathan Lee declares at the beginning of his recent Film Comment piece before going on to outline the ways in which the film flips the inscrutable inwardness of Gus Van Sant's recent oeuvre and offers up a communal celebration that makes it the "movie of its moment." J. Hoberman is no less emphatic in his characterization of the filmmaker's "caution" in his Village Voice review: "[Van Sant] directs his Harvey Milk biopic so carefully," he writes, "there might be a Ming vase balanced on his head". But Hoberman too comes around on the film; like Lee, he posits Milk as a work that speaks insistently to our times, even labeling it the first "Obama-iste movie."

But doesn't all this sound a bit too much like wishful thinking? While the critical-objective side of writers like Lee and Hoberman is quick to point up the film's obvious shortcomings, the liberal-humanist side can't help but rally around the work's undeniable social import, especially given the recent passage of California's loathsome Proposition 8. In short, Milk is a film that people - critics and public alike - want to get behind, a celebration of gay civil rights at a time when those rights are once again under attack and a sympathetic portrait of a minority politician whose unlikely rise to power mirrors that of our incoming president. And if that film is schematically organized and aesthetically drab what does it matter? What counts is that it bears a few superficial resemblances to our current political situation.

Or at least that's how it seemed to me before I saw the picture. For one thing, the film - its cookie-cutter structuring and occasional moments of bathetic indulgence notwithstanding - isn't quite as conventional as advertised. Although Van Sant forgoes the aesthetic flourishes of his recent films, the director finds plenty of ways to bring visual interest to what has to be considered a fairly mundane screenplay. From his skillful mixing of both real and re-created historical footage into the film's everyday world to his fluid tracking shots around Milk's apartment and camera shop which link the protagonist and his fellow activists in a communal plane of visual continuity, Van Sant has a knack for calling on the appropriate aesthetic strategy for a given situation. Then, the film is genuinely rousing, a work of carefully contrived public art that, while wary of alienating its audience, presents, convincingly, a figure of great appeal and integrity, telling his story with both ample good humor and inevitable sadness. That this story happens to mirror recent political events is clearly not incidental, but it scarcely accounts for the film's power. Credit instead Van Sant's obvious feel for the material and his understanding of what makes his protagonist such an indelible public figure as well as star Sean Penn's natural charisma - even as the latter's standard screen persona is largely submerged in the Milkian wrinkles of his scrunched-up forehead.

Which is all to the good, but where the film finally runs into trouble is in its conflation of the public and the private, a necessary strategy given Harvey Milk's insistence on coming out as an essential political act, but one for which Van Sant and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black seem ill prepared. Milk is at his best as a populist figure, inspiring San Franciscans from his soapbox or leading rallies through the streets, but when the attention turns to his private life, the lack of depth in Penn's characterization becomes quickly apparent. Which is why the film feels so leaden whenever Milk's relationships - first with subway pickup/turned campaign manager James Franco, then with emotionally unstable roustabout Diego Luna - take center stage, draining off whatever momentum Van Sant's built up to and wallowing in the kind of character's-calling-takes-toll-on-personal-life nullity that tends to give biopics a bad name. To be sure, there's a certain transgressive thrill in seeing two straight male movie stars smooching on camera in a big budget Hollywood flick - and just as Milk's political activism is based on getting people to come out, forcing people to realize that they actually know gay people, so Milk's is based on forcing audiences to accept the physical embrace of a pair of popular actors - but beyond the fleeting seconds of on-screen intimacy, the complications of Milk's relationships register as little more than a dull distraction from the meatier business of the character's public agitation.

But setting these moments aside, Van Sant has crafted a fine bit of popular entertainment whose flaws should not be overlooked, but perhaps should not be made too much of either. And yes, Milk may be a movie of our times, at least superficially, but I wouldn't want to make too much of that either. It's probably unlikely to have any kind of significant social impact and it's best if we take the movie for what it is: a rousing, well told story with a charismatic, but ultimately inscrutable central figure, a film that avoids the rote feeling of so many biopics but can't entirely escape the structural flaws of that genre either. If in the end I liked Milk in spite of myself, and if finally I sound rather defensive about it, then I guess that is to say that I understand where critics like Lee and Hoberman are coming from after all.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Comanche Station

With the recent release of Sony Pictures’ Budd Boetticher box set, our understanding of the late 1950s western – that high-water mark of the genre when it had achieved an advanced level of self-awareness but before it dissolved into apocalypse and self-parody – becomes considerably expanded. The set contains five of the seven films that Boetticher made with star Randolph Scott – then at the twilight of his own career – between 1956 and 1960. Quickly and cheaply shot on location, these films are locked into the dusty landscapes of the American west, a rocky, unredeemable terrain over which Boetticher’s camera takes in both fast-paced shoot outs and complex moral/psychological drama (in Andrew Sarris’ formulation the director’s vision is “elemental but not elementary”).


To read the rest of the article, please continue to Not Coming to a Theater Near You.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

An Insidious Strategy: Delayed Revelation Cinema

As a nascent 13-year old cinephile, I was so taken with Peter Weir's Fearless that I immediately declared it the film of the year (a claim that was quickly amended when I caught up with Robert Altman's Short Cuts a few weeks later). Nothing could dampen my enthusiasm for that tale of redemption wrung from heaviest tragedy, with Jeff Bridges as a survivor of a plane crash who walks away from his family responsibilities in an air of perceived invincibility only to be recalled through revelation to the importance of his prior existence. Chief among my enthusiasms was the film's bravura climactic sequence in which Bridges' character, nearly dying from ingesting a strawberry (his lifelong allergy to the fruit, in abeyance since the crash, suddenly returns) relives the circumstances of the tragedy, Weir intercutting between shots of the plane ripping apart and Bridges suffering the torments of his near-fatal reaction. At once aesthetically adventurous, thematically satisfying and emotionally resonant, this bit of "impressionistic montage" as enthusiast Todd McCarthy labeled it, seemed to me then to represent the very peak of cinema.

But not everyone shared my enthusiasm for Weir's showy setpiece. A film-critic friend-of-the-family who had been rather influential in shaping my developing tastes loathed it. "It's so manipulative," she explained. "You know the whole way through that they're going to show the crash at the end. And then when they show it, it's completely overblown." Needless to say, I hadn't known that the entire picture was leading up to that one moment of revelation, so it had taken me quite by surprise. But, while I haven't revisited Weir's film in the 15-year interim and while I'm not particular fond of the term "manipulative" as a critical descriptor - all narrative film plays on its audience's expectations to one degree or another - this critic was quite shrewd in her identification and characterization of a particular mode of narrative structuring.

An increasingly common strategy in what I'll call, as a convenient short-hand, the middle-brow art film, the delayed revelation of past event is a highly problematic approach. This structuring device saves for the film's conclusion the full disclosure - either through dialogue or through visual reenactment - of a formative event in the characters' lives about which the audience knows some, but not all, the details. There are two variations to the approach: in one, which generally relies on dialog, the chief function is the imparting of a key piece of information to the audience. In the other, of which Fearless' ending stands as an example, and which relies wholly on reenactment, the audience already knows most of the factual details about the event and the filmmaker's aim is to wring emotion from the viewer by forcing him to experience the moment of tragedy along with the character.

Both approaches betray an unpleasant degree of arrogance on the filmmaker's part. "Here I've created a situation and a set of characters so fascinating," he seems to be saying, "that all I have to do is withhold this key bit of information and I can string the audience right along until my revelatory conclusion." In theory, such an approach can prove valid - after all, the delayed imparting of information forms the very crux of the mystery genre - but when taken, as it often is, for the structuring principle of an otherwise drab domestic drama, this approach seems less like an essential organizing strategy and more like a bit of haughty presumption about the audience's narrative needs. Ultimately condescending toward their perceived middle-brow viewers, these pictures' endings provide the art-film habitué with the same superficial payoff that the action movie fan gets from a much anticipated explosion or shoot-out, while allowing their supposedly more sophisticated viewers to partake of the simulacra of art. Flattering rather than challenging their audience, these films relieve the viewer of the troubling burden of ambiguity. "Here," they say, "don't worry. All will be revealed. And in a scene of great cinematic artistry, to boot."

While I didn't share the distaste of many of my colleagues for Julian Schnabel's 2007 art-house hit The Diving Bell and the Butterfly - I thought it created a coherent and compelling inner world for its paralyzed protagonist - for me, the ending nearly negated the film's numerous achievements. Rendered immobile after suffering a stroke and retaining movement only in his left eye, former playboy and fashion editor Jean-Dominique Bauby learns to "speak" by blinking his one working organ, eventually dictating a book through this unlikely mode of communication. Partaking of the same narrative strategy as Fearless, Schnabel defers his big dramatic payoff for the film's conclusion. Carefully skirting the circumstances of Bauby's paralysis, the film withholds any information until its final moments, when it offers a comprehensive reconstruction of the event. Schnabel's presentation of the incident is thankfully restrained, but his unwavering faith in the audience's essential curiosity regarding the full details of the paralysis is indicative of his troubling presumptions about his viewer's narrative expectations.

If Diving Bell stands as an archetypal example of the revelation by reenactment approach to delayed exposition, then a more recent film prefers to fill in its audience through dialog. Philippe Claudel's I've Loved You So Long spends most of its running time dancing around the circumstances of its lead character, Juliette's (Kristin Scott Thomas), long ago killing of her 6-year old son for which, 15 years later, she has just been released from prison. Coming to stay with her sister and her family, she initially registers as icy and distant, but gradually warms to her surroundings and successfully builds a new life for herself. As Juliette becomes more acclimated to her post-imprisonment lifestyle, we learn more about her past and come to suspect that her crime must be tempered by extenuating circumstances. But we don't know for sure until the film's concluding sequence when Claudel satisfies the audience's final curiosity in an exchange that plays as a near-fatal misstep in what had been a mostly restrained bit of character-driven drama. Finally confronted by her sister about the exact details of the killing, the formerly self-possessed Juliette gives in to a bout of hysterical screaming (showing too the "range" of Oscar-hopeful Thomas' abilities) before explaining the painful and fatal disease that her son had been suffering from, thus recasting murder as generous act of euthanasia and obliterating our last doubts about her character.

But if Claudel miscalculates by withholding a bit of information that we've already suspected and that wasn't really too interesting to begin with and then revealing it in a moment of overheated revelation, he may betray a certain distrust of his viewer, but he's hardly alone in his approach. As I learned back in 1993 and I've been reminded every year since, when a filmmaker - whether low-brow genre director or art-house maven - has no respect for his audience, he falls back on certain strategies for making sure the viewer gets his point. Delayed revelation may be among the more insidious of these strategies, flattering the viewer even as it insults him, but it allows the filmmaker to have it both ways: he ensures himself that the audience doesn't miss a key bit of information and makes a virtue out of this spoonfeeding by tarting it up in sufficiently fancy dress. But don't confuse the simulacra with the real thing: any film deserving the name of art, whether a B-picture by Edgar Ulmer or a high-flown masterpiece by Andrei Tarkovsky, demands that the viewer meet it squarely on its own precise terms.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Blue

As a way into Blue, Derek Jarman's densely constructed and aesthetically daring cinematic tone poem, we might take as a point of reference a quotation from the film's soundtrack. Well into the advanced stages of AIDS, and struck with a form of blindness (his vision reduced to a field of blue with occasional bursts of red and black) due to lesions in his retinas, the director, who narrates the film, describes the sensation in the following terms: "Awareness is heightened by this, but something else is lost. A sense of reality drowned in theater."

And so the film sets out to recreate the odd confluence of hypersensation and lack of grounding experienced by the suddenly blind. Stripping the visual plane down to a single image of light/medium blue - although necessarily flecked with splotches from the film emulsion - which continues unchanged for the entire film, Jarman whips up a dense aural collage whose sounds, by turns assaultive and comforting, mirror the heightened awareness of the non-visual senses that characterize the filmmaker's condition. The sophisticated density of the sound design reaches an early high as Jarman describes the noises made by several of his household appliances and immediately follows by concocting a nightmare soundscape compounded of the whirr of domestic machinery: the spin cycles of a washing machine, the buzzing of a refrigerator.

Then Blue is nothing if not a good show. Betraying a taste for the theatrical, Jarman's voice-overs - part matter-of-fact detailing of the day-to-day miseries of sickness, part lyrical reverie on friends lost in the past, the nature of image, the various associations of the color blue - reverberate with the authority of a resounding articulation and the film's sophisticated aural collage, set front-and-center in the audio mix, sounds like it's being broadcast over the soundsystem of a first-rate theater. Singing dirty songs with the help of a chorus of long-time collaborators (Tilda Swinton, Nigel Terry) or intercutting his reading of a horrifying list of medication side-effects with a round of obscene circus music, dropping bits of Blake and Shakespeare into his discourse or spitting off happy formulations like "cum-splattered nuclear breeders," Jarman is every bit the showman. Though Blue may approach levels of intimacy rare even in the context of confessional first-person filmmaking, the impression remains of an alternately amusing and heartrending (mostly) one-man stage production.

Of course the stage in question is restricted to the film's audio track. The blue screen may exercise a form of hypnotic draw, but its essential function is to force us to focus attention on the movie's sound design. "Pray to be released from the image," Jarman intones, "the image is a prison of the soul." And so in his film as in his life, the primacy of seeing is undercut. Blue makes apparent how much we tend to rely on the visual as our primary means of orientation in the cinema, but it also shows us that this need not necessarily be the case. And yet, as Jarman notes of his condition,"something is lost" in the exchange. For all the film's brilliantly conceived aural montage - and Jarman's appealing showmanship - it's a very difficult work to find one's grounding in. And that, quite clearly, is the point. Blue defies critical judgement as much as it does rigorous analysis; as a final testament, it confirms for all time the joys of artistic invention; as a work of cinema, it is thrillingly, maddeningly sui generis.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

JCVD

JCVD might resonate with the Van Damme faithful, but for the rest of us, it's just one more bit of (not so) clever self-referential filmmaking. In Mabrouk El Mechri's meta-fantasy, the Muscles From Brussels stars as himself, that is, a 47-year-old out-of-work actor fighting for the few roles still available to aging action stars with archrival Steven Seagal. Following an unsuccessful custody battle in Los Angeles (his fate sealed when his daughter informs the judge that she doesn't want to live with her father because her friends make fun of her whenever he's on TV), he returns to his native Belgium and, arriving at a bank to receive a much needed money transfer, stumbles into a robbery in progress.

The film's central joke is that while Van Damme can't seem to land any onscreen roles, as soon as he returns home to take some time off, he's thrust, quite unwittingly, into the part of a lifetime. Seizing on the actor's popularity - he's something of a folk hero in his hometown - the robbers cast him as their lead; the police having mistaken the action star for the perp, the crooks force him at gunpoint to continue the charade, articulating their demands to the cops over the phone. In one of the film's more inspired bits, Van Damme draws on a lifetime of B-movie knowledge to help orchestrate the negotiations - recalling a conceit from an early role, he suggests that the cops strip down to their underwear before approaching the bank so that the robbers can be sure they're unarmed. As in any meta-movie, film informs reality as much as the reverse.

But J.C.V.D.'s captors have him completely miscast; as everyone knows, he always plays the hero. Except, perhaps, in this film. In the picture's celebrated centerpiece, Van Damme steps out of character - or rather "Jean-Claude" becomes Jean-Claude - and delivers an unbroken monologue reflecting on his life's successes and (mostly) failures - touching on his early days as a scrawny, penniless kid, his drug use, the cruelty of the movie industry - and finally dissolving into tears as he wonders, "What have I done on this earth? Nothing." As uncompelling a figure as Van Damme has been throughout the film - and El Mechri's chief miscalculation is to build an entire movie around such a flat "character" - his monologue is curiously affecting, getting at the reservoir of self-doubt beneath the confident movie star exterior - even as it seems something out of an entirely different picture.

Van Damme's heroic image largely undercut throughout the film, in the end he can only imagine his customary triumph: a moment of crowd-pleasing ass-kicking that rewinds to reveal that it was all in the actor's head. Instead our hero winds up in jail, and on the undignified charge of extortion to boot. All told, El Mechri's hit on an interesting conceit with JCVD - and no doubt it's a real fillip for the film's underutilized star - but told as it is through a drab heist narrative, spiced with perfunctory, if occasionally amusing, bits of reflexive observation and filmed in an ugly near-monochrome palette, the execution falls far short of the considerable promise.

*****

Sony's Budd Boetticher box set seems likely to be the DVD release of the year. Collecting five of the seven films the director made with Randolph Scott (Seven Men From Now is already available on DVD from Paramount and Westbound is by all accounts negligible), the set rescues these works (all previously unavailable on region-1 DVD) from the stuff of semi-legend and restores them to their proper place alongside the other great works of the late-western (Man of the West, The Searchers, Rio Bravo). What strikes me about the films in the set - and I haven't made my way through all five just yet - apart, of course, from their stunning location shooting and deftly staged action sequences, is their concern with rethinking the norms of social organization. From The Tall T's obsession with testing out different arrangements of domesticity (a topic I've written about here) to Decision at Sundown's unmasking of patriarchal notions of female sexuality, these films are, if nobody's idea of radical critiques, at least fascinating in their ambiguous relation to the traditional assumptions of the western. Well worth checking out.

Monday, November 10, 2008

An Alphabet of Favorite Films (after Ed Howard)

Taking up Ed Howard's challenge in a recent meme (which originated on the Blog Cabins site), inviting readers to construct an alphabetical listing of favorite films (one per letter), I've essayed my own list. As Howard notes, the result of such a project is inevitably "very different than what [one] might pick if simply asked for favorite films without such restrictions". I've paired each film selected with an accompanying review and, just as I've limited my selections to one work per director, so I've restricted the reviews to one piece per critic.

Angels with Dirty Faces (Michael Curtiz, 1938)
Review by Travis Mackenzie Hoover

The Black Cat (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1934)
Review by Josh Vasquez

Céline and Julie Go Boating (Jacques Rivette, 1974)
Review by David Phelps

Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler (Fritz Lang, 1922)
Review by Ian Johnston

Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick, 1999)
Review by Michael Koresky

F for Fake (Orson Welles, 1974)
Review by Robert Castle

Gertrud (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1964)
Review by Eric Henderson

His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks, 1940)
Review by David Bordwell

Inland Empire (David Lynch, 2006)
Review by Keith Uhlich

Judex (Louise Feuillade, 1916)
Review by Ray Young

The King of Comedy (Martin Scorsese, 1982)
Review by Roger Ebert

Life of Oharu (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1952)
Review by Gary Morris

Man of the West (Anthony Mann, 1958)
Review by Andrew Schenker

Night and Fog (Alain Resnais, 1955)
Review by James Leahy

The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)
Review by Wagstaff

The Puppetmaster (Hou Hsiao-Hsien, 1993)
Review by Nick Schager

Quintet (Robert Altman, 1979)
Review by Nick Pinkerton

The River (Tsai Ming-Liang, 1997)
Review by Jonathan Rosenbaum

Solaris (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1972)
Review by Acquarello

They Drive by Night (Raoul Walsh, 1940)
Review by Bill Chambers

Unknown Pleasures (Jia Zhang-ke, 2002)
Review by J. Hoberman

Vengeance is Mine (Shohei Imamura, 1979)
Review by Leo Goldsmith

Werckmeister Harmonies (Béla Tarr, 2000)
Review by Fred Camper

Xala (Ousmane Sembene, 1975)
Review by Fernando F. Croce

Yeelen (Souleymane Cissé, 1987)
Review by Ed Gonzalez

Zero for Conduct (Jean Vigo, 1933)
Review by Jeffrey M. Anderson

***

My review of House of the Sleeping Beauties has been posted at Slant Magazine.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Heavy Hitters

As awards season begins in earnest, this weekend sees the opening of two films that deal with particular weighty subjects: child abduction/sex slavery and the Holocaust. Unfortunately neither Damian Harris' Gardens of the Night nor Mark Herman's The Boy in the Striped Pajamas seems to have much of an idea of how to treat its material. Click on the links above to access the reviews at Slant Magazine.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Chop Shop

Ramin Bahrani is no Rossellini. But even if he were, his dry aping of the signature neo-realist aesthetic - location shooting, skittery camerawork, use of non-actors, a certain foretold sense of doom - seems regressive, an attempt to revive dead forms through slavish copying. Filmmakers as diverse as Abbas Kiarostami and the Dardenne Brothers may make pointed use of some of the central features of the form, but with Bahrani it never amounts to more than an act of uncritical appropriation. Whereas the neo-realism of the former directors is always complicated either by a self-conscious reflexivity or impressive technical refinements that go some ways toward invigorating the genre, Bahrani, by contrast, films as if he invented the approach, as if cinema hadn't developed much beyond 1945.

Which is not to suggest that Bahrani's films are unpleasant to watch. If anything, given their grimy milieus, they go down too easy. 2005's Man Push Cart may have suffered from the introduction of some melodramatic bits of plotting - itself a staple of neo-realism - but 2007's Chop Shop wisely pares the exposition down to narrative essentials. Set amid the semi-legal garages and trash heaps of Queens' soon-to-be-demolished Willets Point neighborhood, the film follows 12-year old Alejandro (Alejandro Polanco) as he ekes out a living for himself and his older sister, a part-time prostitute. A bustle of activity, Ale always has his eye on the next hustle, belying his scant frame with his ecstatic motion and his relative success in turning a buck. Saving up with his sister for their own food truck, he supplements his income as an auto-garage gopher by trying every scam in the book: shopping bootleg DVDs, selling candy in the subway (with that well-worn refrain familiar to any New Yorker: "I'm not gonna lie to you. I'm not trying to raise money for my school basketball team..."), even robbing purses at the U.S. Open.

In his unflappable energy, endless capacity for work, and single-minded pursuit of the profit motive, Ale would seem to be some sort of prototype of the up-by-your-bootstraps American. Locked into decidedly unpromising circumstances - emphasized by Bahrani's occasional long-shot framings of his protag dwarfed by the distant Manhattan skyline, that other New York standing as simultaneous goal and reproach - Ale's opportunities for advancement are notably limited. There's a certain inevitability to the boy's defeat, as if, like with the Pakistani street vendor in the director's earlier picture, Bahrani had foreordained his failure from the start. And indeed, amid the film's self-contained world of one-room squats, rusty junkyards and forty dollar blowjobs, Ale never had a chance.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

W.

An odd and largely unsatisfying mix of parody and trite psychodrama, Oliver Stone's W. can't decide if its central figure is a shrewd calculator eager to play up his religious conviction for votes, an earnest sap who really believes he's doing what's best for the country or a figure of outright ridicule who can barely form a coherent sentence let alone run the most powerful nation in the world. But one thing's for sure, in the simplistic view of Stone and screenwriter Stanley Weiser, just about every action taken by President Bush (played here by Josh Brolin) is done with one eye toward his father, a man whose desperately sought admiration always seems to elude him. Shuffling back and forth in time between the eve of the Iraq War and the embryonic stages in their subject's personal development - from his rabble-rousing frat boy days at Yale to his first aborted run at local politics to his eventual rise to the Presidency - the filmmakers attribute the hubris of the current administration to a desire on the chief executive's part to not only earn the senior Bush's respect but to outdo him at his own game. George W. may be speaking in earnest when he tells his cabinet that invading Iraq will help protect the United States (the motivations of Cheney and Rumsfeld on the other hand are predictably more sinister), but the film has grounded the President's psychology so firmly in filial neurosis that we have difficulty accepting any other motive but the desire to impress his implacable Poppy.

If that sounds reductive, it is. The film works better when taken as something approaching parody, allowing us to savor the unsettling sensation of seeing the near likenesses of contemporary public figures repeating their now signature lines (Bush worrying about Saddam's "misunderestimating" him, the bit about trading Sammy Sosa) for our amusement, but without the explicit just-for-laughs intent of a late-night comedy sketch. In those sequences where elementary "psychobabble" (the term itself figures in the script) is set comfortably aside, Stone offers us the chance to see the most powerful people in the world rendered as puffed-up grotesques, an impression heightened by Stone's frequent use of the wide angle lens, as the various stupidities, hypocrisies, and power plays of Bush and his cabinet members are injected with a frightening measure of exaggeration. Stone systematically deflates the image of these men (and one woman - Condoleezza Rice played by Thandie Newton as an unbearably high-pitched squeaker), while at the same time bringing to their presentation a sort of hyperreality - rendering Bush and his cohorts as at once larger-than-life and pitifully, despicably human. As Stone zips us through a narrative that we've already learned by heart (no surprises figure in the film's catalog of events), the portrait of its central figure becomes, finally, incoherent, as the director's desire to play fair with his subject is undercut by his obvious disdain for the administration's policies. But Stone's Bush registers, too, as oddly endearing, an impression heightened by the director's establishment of an unsettling proximity - always tempered by a certain quasi-mythical distance - between audience and principal character. In the end, this push-pull relationship between viewer and subject ensures that Bush remains as before, a man at once overly familiar and hopelessly remote from an America that likes to pretend it knows its public figures far better than could conceivably be possible.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Mary

In Mary, Abel Ferrara throws a lot of information at the viewer in a little amount of time and most of it's not without interest. But amidst all the film-within-a-film formal play, interviews with real life theologians, interpolated television footage of Middle East unrest, and earnest discussions of personal faith, the central throughline boils down to little more than a story of a man coming to accept a personal engagement with Christ and vowing to live a better life when confronted with tragedy. Yet even this story, intellectually dull where much of the film is stimulating, gets over on the heightened intensity Ferrara brings to its presentation and the impassioned emoting of Forest Whitaker.

Whitaker plays Ted Younger, a talk show host whose program consists of surprisingly measured discussions about the nature of Christ. (Astonishingly such a program - engaging as it does in intelligent discussion of various conflicting doctrines rather than mere hysterical proselytizing - has earned him top ratings.) But there's little indication that Younger takes any personal interest in his subject, content to confine his involvement to the level of the intellectual. Still when his wife goes into labor and complications threaten both her life and that of his newborn son, he begins to reflect on his own spiritual condition, ruing his past sexual infidelities, vowing to be a better husband and accepting a more doctrinaire view of Christianity. Younger's conversion finds its vivid apotheosis in an impassioned church scene in which, like Harvey Keitel in Bad Lieutenant, Whitaker emits various tortured squeals while speaking out his appeal to a wooden Christ. Ferrara cuts between the actor's face enshrouded in darkness and the icon surrounded by the light seeping through a window. The symbolic juxtaposition may be obvious, but as a statement of a hard-won faith, the scene's earnestness is tough to dismiss.

Running parallel to, and intersecting with, Younger's crisis is the story of Tony Childress (Matthew Modine), a filmmaker who has just wrapped a production of This is My Blood, a revisionist take on the Christ story, especially with regard to the role of Mary Magdalene. Taking his cue from the apocryphal Book of Mary (whose contents are expounded for the audience by Gnostic Gospels author Elaine Paigels), Childress fashions his story from the idea that Magdalene was not a whore, but one of Christ's disciples, challenging Peter for leadership and finally marginalized in historical accounts because of her gender. The film-within-a-film, of which Ferrara includes ample chunks, hardly seems very accomplished, striking a tone of pedantic solemnity and consisting of dark, nearly illegible close-ups, but it allows the filmmaker to explore another, more feminized, understanding of Christian doctrine and then, later, to confirm Younger's conversion by having him reject, on his television show, the reading offered by Childress' film.

Childress, for his part, is at once unbearably self-obsessed and admirably serious, a man who, only half-jokingly, cites the financial success of The Passion of the Christ as his reason for making his own film, but then brings an impressive commitment to the project. At the movie's premiere, as picketers both Jewish and Christian protest the screening and the theater is evacuated due to a bomb threat, Childress locks himself in the projection booth and screens his film for an audience of one - the ultimate expression of directorial egotism - as Ferrara brings his own film to a typically overheated close. As far as explosive moments go, this ending scarcely compares to a few that the director's already given us - an attempted carjacking shot in jerkily incoherent handheld, a bomb blowing apart a Shabbat dinner table in Jerusalem, Whitaker's aforementioned histrionics - but conjuring the very real possibility of annihilation seems the only proper way to end such a heavily charged exploration of modern faith. Ultimately, what defines the film's method is the alternation of these hysterical rhetorical outbursts with measured, intelligent discourse, the juxtaposition of theological complexity with a simplistic acceptance of doctrine. Ferrara doesn't try to sort out all these contradictions of tone and meaning, he simply lays them all in the viewer's lap and lets him make out of them what he will. This is finally what makes Mary both so exhilarating and so frustrating.


***

My review of Tomas Alfredson's Let the Right One In has been posted at Slant Magazine.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Tokyo Sonata

Tokyo Sonata is a film of a profound sadness, not peppered lightly across the picture's surface, but wedged so deep into its marrow that it's impossible to shake off. A thoroughgoing critique of the demands of patriarchy in contemporary Japan, Kiyoshi Kurosawa's film unfolds not as political tract, but as affecting family drama, a balancing act that impresses through its skillful subsuming of abstract thematics into the particularities of individual lives.

Taking in the familiar milieu of the Tokyo salaryman, Sonata begins with the dismissal of Ryuhei Sasaki (Teruyuki Kagawa) from his middle-management post. Summoned into his boss' office, he's asked what other positions he may be qualified for. He remains silent, his back to the camera. Cut to him silently boxing up his belongings and he's off to his comfortable single-family dwelling to break the news to his wife. Or, as it turns out, not. In a system that's based so heavily on the assertion of male authority (in the workplace, in the home) there's simply no way to accept the sudden dismissal of that authority. Above all, one mustn't let on to one's family.

So Sasaki continues to dress up every morning in suit and tie, tells his wife he's off to work and then sets out to suffer the dual humiliations of the employment agency (In one scene he's forced to sing a song for the amusement of a foppish job counselor. He lets out a single tortured note before Kurosawa mercifully ends the sequence, cutting to Sasaki thrashing discarded applicances with a metal rod in a junk heap.) and the free food line at the park. But Sasaki is hardly alone. He soon uncovers a whole culture of out-of-work businessmen, determined, above all, to keep up middle-class appearance. In one of the film's moments of bitter humor, a fellow unemployed salaryman programs his cell phone to ring five times every hour, illustrating the painful level of commitment that these men are forced to bring to their act of deception.

But what are the larger costs of this enforced maintenance of social roles? Expanding his critique, Kurosawa widens his purview beyond Sasaki's perspective, giving equal weight to the lives of the other family members; his wife who, for all her intelligence, finds her social function reduced to baking donuts; his older son, a drifter who eventually joins the American army and gets deployed to Iraq; and the younger son, an aspiring musician who is forced to take piano lessons on the sly since Sasaki forbids them. Eventually the plotting becomes a tad labored, as Kurosawa and his screenwriters attempt to involve all four characters in suitably dramatic adventures, pushing each to his inevitable breaking point, but when we consider the comprehensive scope that these manipulations allow Sasaki to bring to his view of contemporary capitalist society, and the delicacy with which he continues to handle his characters even as he puts them through their exaggerated paces, a few bits of credibility straining melodrama hardly threaten to undermine the whole project.

Especially when it becomes clear just how devastating Kurosawa's critique really is. In a society that demands above all the assertion of male authority, the psychic cost on its inhabitants quickly tends toward the unbearable. The desperate affirmation of that authority, at all levels of society, means that it inevitably manifests itself in violence and the attempted humiliation of others, especially when it feels threatened. When Sasaki's wife learns of his dismissal, the father's misplaced attempts to reassert his lost authority result in the beating of his youngest son. When that son's teacher finds his control over his students threatened he resorts to acts of humiliation. When a would be kidnapper finds his hold over his female victim to be all too tenuous, he makes half-hearted stabs at sexual aggression. But whether this questionable authority stems from the film's literal patriarch (Sasaki), his daytime stand-in (the teacher), or from a broader jurisdiction (George Bush, implicated through the Iraq War subplot), Kurosawa takes pains to continually undermine its propriety. In stable socio-economic times, the ethical backbone of the power structure may go unquestioned, but when the system starts to break down, the uses of authority become more and more desperate until it can only express itself in increasingly oppressive measures against its own citizenry.

But with the breakdown of patriarchal control comes the opportunity for an openness to other kinds of experience. In the film's breathtaking final scene, Sasaki sets aside his prior opposition to his son's piano playing - a serious pursuit of the arts being antithetical to the accumulation of wealth and therefore anathema to capitalism except as an ornament of "culture" - and attends a recital in which the boy interprets Debussy's "Clair de Lune", the piece played in its entirety, Kurosawa introducing a few visual cutaways, but allowing the soundtrack to continue uninterrupted. After the performance, both parents walk over to their son, the father laying a kind hand on the boy's head. A bleak, increasingly difficult life may await the family, but, with this single irrepressible gesture, Kurosawa grants them the possibility of a newfound humanity, a humanity open to aesthetic experience and more importantly, to the possibility of a self-assertion for all members of the family. This one gesture doesn't wipe away what must still be deeply entrenched notions of domestic structuring, but it represents a hard won, if preliminary, step in a far more sustainable direction.

***
My review of Joe Swanberg and Greta Gerwig's Nights and Weekends has been posted at Slant Magazine.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Ballast

A modest triumph, Lance Hammer's Ballast marries a calculated indie aesthetic (hand-held camera, elliptical editing, de-emphasis of narrative event) to a low-slung portrait of the Mississippi Delta and its inhabitants, with local non-actors enlisted to embody the film's characters. The story of three black residents of an impoverished farming town, the film is the product of an extended immersion in the region by the director/screenwriter, himself a white Californian. Hammer brings an outsider's detachment to his observations, but his obvious familiarity with the region results in an unforced authenticity, whether taking in the generosity of a neighborly gesture or a drug-dealing subculture that seems oddly similar to its urban counterparts.

In keeping with the languorous pace of the geographical region, the film's narrative reveals itself slowly, taking its own time to spell out the connections between its characters. Following his brother's suicide and his own botched attempt at self-murder, Lawrence (Michael J. Smith, Jr.) spends his days rotting away in a state of spiritual vegetation. Visited regularly by a young boy, James (JimMyron Ross) who pulls a gun on him and takes his money to buy drugs (with the man's tacit consent), Lawrence eventually arises from his torpor and re-establishes a relationship with the boy and his long-suffering mother, Marlee (Tara Riggs), the exact nature of which only gradually becomes clear. Eventually the three, all at various personal lows by film's midpoint, reap the benefit of the mutual association, opening up modest possibilities of fulfillment (financial, emotional) through each other.

To watch Ballast is to continually navigate the tensions between artifice and naturalism that arise from the gap between the film's very deliberate aesthetic and its unforced presentation of character. The result is a push-pull relationship between film and audience, the actors' presence drawing us in with its lack of affect while the camerawork keeps us at a measured distance. And nowhere is this tension more evident than in Hammer's repeated use of his most consistent visual strategy, the rack focus. With rare exception, he and cinematographer Lol Crawley never allow multiple planes to remain in simultaneous focus, preferring to shift between foreground and background within single shots. The result is that even as the three desperate characters draw closer together, any question of the establishment of a sustainable intimacy is continually undercut by the filmmaker's separation of the trio through the distancing strategies inherent in his mise-en-scène.

When late in the film, Lawrence and Marlee share an unexpected scene of Platonic intimacy and the former ruins it by making romantic advances, we've been prepared for this moment of misunderstanding by an aesthetic which has refused to allow the characters any visual cohabitation. There's no question that the three exert a mutually beneficial influence on each other, with Lawrence returning to some semblance of life, Marlee re-opening Lawrence's general store and turning it into a profitable enterprise and James avoiding the temptations of crack, but there remains the sense that certain gaps of comprehension - partly the result of characters' past actions, partly inherent in the nature of interpersonal relationships - remain unbridgeable.

Perhaps the film's most telling shot occurs late in the narrative, when James sits behind the counter of the store watching his mother and Lawrence talking in the building's doorway. Although there are no direct POV shots in the film (a point Hammer stressed in a post-screening Q and A), this shot is clearly meant to take in the boy's perspective even as his head remains visible in the corner of the frame. The appearance of the two characters in the background takes the director's strategies of focusing to new extremes, the figures of Lawrence and Marlee barely visible, abstracted into outlines of pure color. James may have benefited from a change of perspective thanks to his renewed relationship with Lawrence, but if we take this blur to be any indication of how he sees the two people closest to him, then the young man may be more frightfully alone than we ever might have imagined. So, then: a potential intimacy continually undermined by contradictory visual evidence. In the last analysis, that seems to be Ballast's reading of the possibilities of human interaction.