Thursday, January 19, 2012

Crazy Horse and More

Of the three films I reviewed this week, by far the most significant is Crazy Horse, Frederick Wiseman's strong, if problematic (but what Wiseman film can't be described as "problematic") latest. If it doesn't rank among the director's finest, it does nothing to diminish a body of work that is richer than that of any other living American filmmaker.

Crazy Horse (Slant)
Watching TV witht the Red Chinese (Slant)
The City Dark (Time Out New York)

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Recent Work: Slant, Variety, The L Magazine

My latest published pieces consist of reviews of two very bad films, Beneath the Darkness and Albatross, for Slant, a profile of promising young director Benh Zeitlin for Variety (accessible if you can get past the site's paywall) and my contributions to a final best-of-2011 poll, The L Magazine's fine survey, for which I penned blurbs for films number 12 and 19.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Ten Worst Movies of 2011 (in alphabetical order):

The Artist

Burning Palms

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

The most shameless milking of tragedy for unearned tears in many a year, Stephen Daldry's 9/11 weepie makes this season's other atrocity pics, In the Land of Blood and Honey, Flowers of War, and (from slightly earlier in the year) Sarah's Key look restrained and vital by comparison. Joining such dreck as United 93 and Rebirth on the September 11th shitlist, Extremely Loud focuses on a borderline Asperger's kid's search for a clue that will unlock the meaning of his father's death on "the worst day." Never mind that Thomas Horn's individual quirks are nearly impossible to stomach, it's the kid's sense of self-importance born of tragedy that's especially galling. Yes, he eventually realizes that other people have suffered too and he's not the only one that lost loved ones on 9/11, but for most of the movie he's allowed to roam free as if he's the only person that matters in the world. But Daldry's biggest offense is to include about 10 different emotional climaxes to make sure no opportunity for bathetic tear-jerking goes unrealized. And, yes, we do have to hear the kid's father's final answering machine message sent just before perishing in the towers, but what good that does for either Thomas or his audience is anyone's guess.

An Invisible Sign

The Iron Lady

An unholy mess of a biopic, Phyllida Lloyd's impressionistic portrait of Margaret Thatcher unfolds as a fever dream in the ex-Prime Minister's Alzheimer's riddled brain. The film cuts back and forth between present and numerous different pasts with such rapidity that it never settles down long enough to focus on any single incident in the woman's life (except for a relatively restrained sequence on the Falklands War). Awash in cheap-shit aesthetic touches (canted angles, wide angles, overhead angles) designed to, perhaps, mirror the disorientation of both present-day Maggie's forgetful brain and the experience of being a woman in male-oriented British politics, the film succesfully communicates neither. In fact, its focus on the latter theme attempts to turn Thatcher's life into something like a feminist parable, as if simply being a woman succeeding in politics were enough, never mind what she actually did once she became Prime Minister. I suppose there are those who still think that Maggie did a fine job as Britain's chief executive, and those people will find nothing to challenge that belief in Lloyd's film. But those people will be wrong; a more responsible biopic would at least touch on Thatcher's shameful legacy of strike-breaking and neo-liberal economics and portray the Falkland's incident as the desperate grasping at the last straws of imperialist control that it was - even if it chose to humanize its subject in the process. And as for Meryl Streep's much lauded lead performance, it's a fine act of mimicry, but in the aesthetic wash of Lloyd's incredibly unfocused film, she's given little chance to actually do any acting.

Life in a Day

Like Crazy

Drake Doremus's film is the one that offers viewers the least of any motion picture from the last year. Lazily shot and conceived, it's a tale of thwarted love between two pretty young things whose only problem seems to be that they live in different continents and, thanks to a visa snafu, can't live together. There's no sense of any wider understanding of the complexities of human relationships or international politics - it's simply the story of two people (or, really, two virtual abstractions) that love each other (a fact we have to take on faith) and are prevented from being together. Devoid of context or characterization, there's precious little to grab onto in Doremus's folly and the film's final notes of ambiguity fail to register as anything more than a desperate grasping after complexity because to that point the movie hasn't given us the slightest reason to care about what happens to its vacuous, if handsome, young leads.

A Love Affair of Sorts



Plenty of ink has already been spilled over Steve McQueen's portrait of New York richie/orgasm addict Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender), so there's little left to add to the already well-noted observations that everything about the film is a hopeless abstraction (whether it's Brandon's psychology or the city itself), that it asks us to take the personal sexual problems of a privileged individual as inherently important without giving us any reason to do so, and that it indulges in a rather shameless homophobia by showing its protag stooping to entering the den of inequity that is a gay club, so desperate is he for sexual release. So, I'll just add that the one moment in the picture that seems to me to be at all interesting - the semi-famous restaurant scene in which a nervous waiter adds some comic relief while Brandon takes out a comely co-worker for dinner - strikes me as a pretty specific comment on racial discomfort. Brandon's date is, of course, black, and not only does the waiter never look her in the eye, except for the briefest, most perfunctory glances, but he employs loaded terms such as "pink," obviously meant to signify race. But what the waiter's obvious uncomfortableness with biracial couples has to do with the rest of McQueen's misguided exercise in style is well beyond me.