Monday, December 27, 2010

New Year's Wrap Up

My last reviews of 2010 cover a mixed bag of films, from the solid (The Red Chapel) to the mediocre (everything else). Better off checking out The Strange Case of Angelica which I reviewed for Slant during this year's New York Film Festival and which now begins a short run at the IFC Center or Derek Cianfrance's excellent Blue Valentine, also opening this week.

The Way Back (Slant)
Biutiful (The L Magazine)
The Red Chapel (The L Magazine)
The Sound of Insects (Village Voice)

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Village Voice Film Poll

For the second year in a row, I was asked to participate in the Village Voice's annual film poll. I was gratified to see the support among fellow critics for my favorite film of the year Our Beloved Month of August. Click here to see my ballot.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Somewhere and Some Reflections on "Personal" Cinema

While Somewhere’s obvious film-opening symbolism of a car driving in endless circles or a later image of the film’s aging movie star protagonist Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) relaxing on a float in a hotel pool, straying aimlessly offscreen, is meant to suggest the repetitive driftlessness of that character’s booze-, drug- and sex-fueled lifestyle, they speak just as eloquently to the impasse of director Sofia Coppola’s career. Her fourth feature, and fourth to deal with the isolating nature of celebrity – from the local (The Virgin Suicides) to the world-historical (Marie Antoinette) level - this is the one where the trail has officially run cold. Anyone with a reasonably good eye and Harris Savides as her cinematographer can frame a decent image, and, whether taking in an amateurish double stripper pole dance performed for Johnny’s purported pleasure (mostly he just looks bored) or the aforementioned car looping its way around a private race track, Coppola’s largely fixed takes are certainly handsome enough. Similarly, the director occasionally nails the absurdity of the rituals of celebrity, particularly in an amusingly offhand press junket and photo shoot that gain their disorienting power from the fact that they’re just one more non-emphatic event in Johnny’s life. Things change slightly when his young daughter (Elle Fanning) comes to stay with him at his L.A. hotel. At least he has to pass on most of the sexual opportunities that present themselves with credulity-straining frequency, perhaps because, as Miriam Bale suggests, he learns to see women as women through the lens of his female offspring, but also, undoubtedly, because of sheer logistical difficulty. Still, by the time the actor’s whining out the film’s thesis “I’m not even a human being” and wandering off down the road to nowhere in a film-ending gambit that last worked forty years ago in Five Easy Pieces, the limits of not only Johnny’s lifestyle, but Coppola’s trademark themes have most definitely been reached.

A problem with so much of recent American cinema is an insistence on that old Creative Writing 101 saw, “Write about what you know.” Whether it’s the insular mumblings of filmmakers like Joe Swanberg, the privileged wallow of Lena Dunham’s overpraised Tiny Furniture that makes a virtue of its deliberately narrow world-view or the wave of look-at-me-and-my-family first-person docs, our national independent filmmaking has become practically synonymous with what often feels like a round of glorified vanity projects. Critical responses to such self-reflective films have ranged from ambivalent pieces like Dan Callahan’s consideration of Coppola and Dunham’s efforts (he finds the latter promising, while disliking the former) appropriately titled “On Rich Girl Cinema” to Richard Brody’s ample praise of a strain of filmmaking that allows sheltered youth the privilege of self-expression, a position most clearly articulated in his consideration of the recent book of essays What Was the Hipster?. Taking to task the book’s chief contributor Mark Greif for chiding middle-class whites who focus on “their struggles for their own pleasures and luxuries… rather than asking what makes their sort of people entitled to them”, Brody counters by praising the art being made by “young people” that “depicts themselves and the specifics of their own lives,” including “their economic circumstances, the places in which they live, the assumptions on which their choices are based.” Brody’s own assumption seems to be that all subject matters are uniformly valid, and that Greif’s prescription is essentially anti-democratic.

But are all subjects equal? Just because you’re white, middle- (or upper-) class and apolitical does that make your story any less valid than those of less privileged people? (Certainly if a film’s focus on working-class life consists of an unholy mix of sentimental heroics and class contempt like David O. Russell’s The Fighter, it doesn’t). But whether dealing with Coppola’s filthy-rich movie star, Dunham’s wealthy recent college grad or the aimless twenty-somethings of Joe Swanberg's and Kentucker Audley’s films (presumably the latter two examples are what Brody has in mind), I would say that the answer is that these films' subjects are simply not terribly interesting objects of study. Not everybody’s life is.

As a young, white, middle-class (by lifestyle if not income), though hardly apolitical person, I wouldn’t think of turning my life into a film; it would probably be the dullest thing ever committed to celluloid. But at least I can say this: Unlike the protagonists (and directors) of most American independent films, my interests extend beyond my own daily existence. In reading my Tiny Furniture review one can take me to task for putting my set of cultural references above Lena Dunham’s and asserting my superiority to the filmmaker and her character. My response would be that my interests aren’t more valid because they’re more highbrow, but because they don’t begin and end with the specifics of my personal existence. As someone interested in the cinema (like Dunham’s character), I don’t try to limit myself by declaring a blanket dislike of “foreign films”, but try to engage with all forms of movies. And rather than assert that my social life is more important than the larger issues facing the world (impending climate catastrophe, growing wealth inequality, endless wars abroad - or the politics of sexual inequality that play out daily in less dramatic theaters), I freely admit my personal insignificance. In the final analysis, what’s ultimately lacking from the vast majority of independent American films being released to groundswells of critical acclaim is any kind of political awareness.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Slant Magazine's Best of 2010: Film

Slant Magazine's year-end film feature, highlighting the top 25 movies of 2010 as selected by seven staff critics (myself included), has gone live. Check out my capsule reviews for the films that ranked 22nd, 21st and 7th. Then click here to see my personal top 10 (along with honorable mentions).

Monday, December 13, 2010

Casino Jack and Alien Girl

My latest reviews, both for Slant Magazine, cover Casino Jack, the late George Hickenlooper's docudrama about the downfall of Jack Abramoff, which as I argue, is considerably less effective than Alex Gibney's recent documentary treatment of the same material, and Russian director Anton Bormatov's scuzzy gangster picture Alien Girl.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Company Men and The Temptation of St. Tony

The Company Men

This year’s Up in the Air, but bleaker, without the leavening humor. Also, (see the title) more male-centric. In theory, there’s no subject unfit for cinematic treatment, but the chastening and redemption of an obnoxious corporate player forced to adjust to a less gilded lifestyle (George Clooney’s professional downsizer in the Jason Reitman picture; Ben Affleck’s sales exec in John Wells’ current feature) puts that theory rather severely to the test. Unlike Clooney’s charmer, Affleck’s Bobby Walker is pretty much all asshole, defining himself by the luxury life (Porsches, Patriots season tix) that he can barely afford on his middle-class salary. When he gets the axe in a round of corporate downsizing, he can’t pay his mortgage, suffers a crisis of class-sliding dread and is finally forced to take a job hanging drywall for his contractor brother-in-law. Ennobled by his brief contact with the working class, he’s (spoilers ahead) free to rejoin the white collar world, netting a more ethically responsible position, albeit at half his old salary. As if there was any question of Affleck’s character ending up a full-time laborer.

Semi-upbeat ending aside, this is a world of corporate double-crosses, humiliating employment agency exercises, suicides and small businesses that can’t break even, where anyone above the age of 30 is seemingly unemployable, a state of affairs that emerges through the stories of the other “company men” of various levels of seniority also terminated from Walker’s company. Bloated CEO pay and outsourcing are the culprits according to the film’s endlessly reiterated talking points, but for all its attempts to speak to our moment and address the larger picture of economic failure, this is one more redemption-of-corporate-man melodrama, in this case effecting the ethical deliverance via a dubious embrace of the purity of working class labor, a “lower” world which it eventually discards as beneath its white collar characters.

The Temptation of St. Tony

A mourner at a funeral reflects that everything in the world is evil. A priest denies a feeling of any connection with God. A sinister figure of occult power mocks notions of goodness and laughs at protestations of love. And they all live in a bleak Estonian landscape of rocky expanses dotted with the occasional ultra-modernist structure (the incongruity of post-Soviet capitalism). Against such a backdrop, the semi-ironically nicknamed “Saint” Tony (Taavi Eelmaa), a factory manager with a cheating wife, a recently deceased father and a pitying love of dogs, searches for something like redemption (or at least some alternative to the void). The priest, a man blessed with superhuman omniscience, tells Tony the only thing he believes in is individual accountability, a lesson not lost on the industrial manager. But no matter if he’s reporting the discovery of a pair of severed hands to a provincial policeman only to narrowly escape ill treatment from that petty bureaucrat or trying to save a comely factory worker’s daughter from a sinister network of sex slavery for which he nearly suffers far greater punishment, Tony proves a perennially impotent figure. Whether or not one is inclined to take all this as allegory (at one point a nearly naked Tony wraps himself in the Estonian flag and runs across a snowy field), Veiko Õunpuu’s stunningly photographed second feature (shot in tactile black-and-white by Mart Taniel) presents a sardonically bleak picture of man’s existential, and Eastern European man’s political, state (though not untempered by ample doses of black humor). If the film works best in individual moments, there are few in the recent cinema as memorable as a posh dinner party where the guests go from discussing swinging to dancing drunkenly in various male-female-female combinations or, better, the climactic Eyes Wide Shut-inspired set-piece which takes the notion of the hidden sinister farther than even Kubrick (or Arthur Schnitzler) could have imagined.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Two Up, Two Down

This week's reviews cover two films very much worth seeing and two that are best avoided. Which are which? Click below to find out.

Rabbit à la Berlin
All Good Things (Slant)
Queen of the Lot (Slant)
Bhutto (Time Out New York)