Saturday, March 30, 2013

New Directors/New Films and Other "New" Stuff

As these posts have become less and less frequent, the number of links becomes more and more unwieldy - for which all due apologies. This latest round-up contains a diverse lot of work, ranging from my coverage of New Directors/New Films (and the smaller First Time Fest) to a critical essay on the films of Sally Potter to reviews of such hot new movies as Spring Breakers. It's all below. Enjoy!

Spring Breakers (Slant)
21 and Over (Slant)
Molly's Theory of Relativity (Slant)
The Silence (Slant)
Everybody Has a Plan (Slant)
Dorfman in Love (Village Voice)
Future Weather (Village Voice)
Girl Rising (Village Voice)
Northeast (Village Voice)
If I Were You (Time Out New York)

Festival Coverage
New Directors/New Films Intro (Slant)
The Act of Killing (ND/NF) (Slant)
Rengaine (ND/NF) (Slant)
The Shine of the Day (ND/NF) (Slant)
Towheads (ND/NF) (Slant)
First Time Fest (Indiewire)

Other Work
Why "Ginger and Rosa" is Sally Potter's Best Film (Indiewire)
Lincoln, Obama and a House Divided (Indian Express)
Profile of Mynette Louie (Variety)
Review of J. Hoberman's Film After Film (Cineaste - print only)

Monday, February 18, 2013

New (and Not So New) Stuff

It's been a very long time since my last set of linkthroughs, so without (too much) further ado, here's a set of links to my work from the last... however long it's been since my previous post. I got to tackle an awards contender and reconsider a pair of classics for Little White Lies and to take on a variety of films of disparate quality for a variety of other publications.

Life of Pi (Little White Lies)
The Earrings of Madame De... (Little White Lies)
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (Little White Lies)
A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III (Slant)
Broken City (Slant)
The Taste of Money (Slant)
Girls Against Boys (Slant)
My Best Enemy (Slant)
Supporting Characters (Village Voice)
The Pirogue (Village Voice)
High Tech, Low Life (Village Voice)
$ellebrity (Village Voice)
Let Fury Have the Hour (Indiewire)
Stolen Seas (Time Out New York)

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Wrapping 2012

As 2012 (the calendar year) nears its close, 2012 the film year has long since finished - at least for critics expected to file their year-end lists and ballots well in advance of December 31. The result is that my own contributions to several best-ofs have been already been published. I once again participated in Slant Magazine's collective top 25, although due to the increasing number of participants, my only contribution (writing-wise) to the piece was my capsule of Almayer's Folly (number 22 on the list). I also contributed to the Indiewire, Village Voice and Sight & Sound polls, although the individual ballots for the last of these three have not yet been posted online. Below are links to my year-end contributions plus my complete top ten and honorable mentions:

Slant Magazine's 25 Best Films of 2012
My ballot for the Village Voice Film Poll
My ballot for the Indiewire Film Poll

Best Films of 2012:

1. The Turin Horse
2. Oslo, August 31
3. This Is Not a Film
4. Holy Motors
5. Attenberg
6. Moonrise Kingdom
7. Vamps
8. Almayer's Folly
9. Girl Walk//All Day
10. The Pruitt-Igoe Myth

Honorable Mentions:

Las Acacias
The Color Wheel
The Day He Arrives
The Deep Blue Sea
The Five-Year Engagement
Keep the Lights On
Take This Waltz
Tears of Gaza

Another Five:

Booker's Place: A Mississippi Story
How to Survive a Plague
Silver Linings Playbook
This Must Be the Place

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Take Me to the Promised Land: On This Season's Political Cinema

From Argo to Lincoln to Zero Dark Thirty, this season’s biggest Oscar contenders are all explicitly political films that, whether set in the distant or very recent past, aim to speak to the contemporary moment. Although the attitudes towards American history and its bearing on the present on display in these movies range from the cartoony to the intentionally ambiguous, all three films are problematic in their embrace (in partial or whole) of some of the less felicitous aspects of Obama-iste politics. Instead, it’s another year-end film, more modest in its ambitions and less spectacular in its payoff, that represents the satisfying political narrative unachieved by the more vaunted trio.

While a solid, engaging, attractively lensed piece of cinema, Gus Van Sant’s hydrofracking drama, Promised Land never hits the heights of the other films, offering neither the cross-cut thrills of Argo, the intelligent observation of behind-the-scenes political process of Lincoln or the stunning concluding set-piece of Zero Dark Thirty. What it gives us instead is a balanced look at the false dichotomy between job creation and environmental protection that shows its protagonist moving from one side of the issue to the other as he talks with the townspeople who will be affected by his company’s decision to frack their hamlet for natural gas. If the conversion feels somewhat inevitable - especially knowing that the film is made by good old liberals - it’s still an honest look at political understanding as a process of weighing the benefits of both sides of an equation before reaching the decision that the film’s creators (Van Sant and stars/screenwriters Matt Damon and John Krasinski) have seemingly foreordained.

Damon stars as Steve Butler, a salesman for a natural gas company that heads out with co-worker Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand) to an economically depressed Pennsylvania town in order to sell it on the merits of gas extraction. While many townspeople welcome this potential economic boon, Butler is immediately confronted at his first town meeting by a local teacher, Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook), who proceeds to harangue him with the dirty facts about hydrofracking. As presented by Van Sant, Butler seems a decent enough man (even those in the town who oppose his project call him a “nice guy”) who honestly believes he’s doing the struggling berg a service. On the other side of the fence is a charismatic environmentalist, Dustin Noble (Krasinski), who begins distributing pictures of fracking-induced devastation, visiting local classrooms, and generally turning sentiment against the project.

While it ultimately takes a revelation about the corporate skullduggery of his company to fully alienate Butler from his former position, the path has been paved by his conversations with the locals and their citing of irrefutable evidence as to the dangers of fracking. Van Sant doesn’t push the film’s conclusions into more complex political territory (i.e. posing other solutions, such as green jobs), but by treating the generally overlooked people most affected by top-down decision making as not only viable individuals but as people whose voices need to be heard, whose complex needs must be balanced, the movie allows for the honest possibility of democratic triumph over corporate interest - at least in this one isolated instance.

Alas, for all the film’s flag waving, true expressions of democracy are wholly wanting in Ben Affleck’s Argo. Set during the Iranian revolution in 1979, the film, after dispensing with its almost perfunctory stabs at historical balance, becomes a rah-rah tale of C.I.A. heroism and Muslim duplicity, as Affleck’s agency stalwart, Tony Mendez, leads a daring rescue of American diplomats from the newly minted Islamic Republic. Adding to the film’s irresponsibility are its obvious present day parallels, as contemporary sentiment for war with Iran, a sentiment the film’s choice of historical incident and blinkered perspective on that incident encourages, continues unabated in both the United States and Israel.

Far more complicated are the two other major political films of the season, both, like Argo, centered on true-life events. Steven Spielberg’s Tony Kushner-penned Lincoln details the 16th president’s efforts to get the 13th amendment (the one prohibiting slavery) through the House of Representatives. While geeking out on behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing, the filmmakers present a view of the political process as a corrupt game of give-and-take in which bribes and sought-after appointments are the necessary instruments required to secure much-needed votes. But for Spielberg and Kushner, the American political system is one that ultimately works despite, or even because of, this corruption. What’s remarkable about Lincoln is not that it acknowledges the imperfections of the system, but just how uncynical it is about this acknowledgement.

Read with an eye on the current political situation, which seems inevitable given the set-up of a charismatic president devoted to compromise, the film becomes a tad dicier. Yes, it’s easy to applaud Lincoln (and abolitionist congressman Thaddeus Stevens) for effecting the outlawing of slavery, especially as no one today, excepting racist fanatics, could possibly be against the 13th amendment. But while compromise may have worked for Lincoln - he achieved a great victory for human rights at the price of a few bribes - Obama’s willingness to play ball with conservatives over Social Security and Medicare cuts in order to avoid going over the so-called “fiscal cliff” is quite another story.

More problematic is Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar front-runner Zero Dark Thirty, precisely because its tale of one C.I.A. agent’s decades-long hunt for Osama bin Laden is so scrupulously objective and anti-heroic and because it’s supposedly based on true-facts delivered straight from government agencies to Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal. Recently Glenn Greenwald stirred up a good deal of controversy with an article in the Guardian in which, without having seen the film, he condemned it for “glorify[ing]” torture. While Greenwald’s unfortunate decision to forgo the viewing of the movie before writing about it leads him to mischaracterize the film as a heroic, pro-C.I.A. piece of propaganda and invalidates much of his argument, part of what he says remains wholly valid. While the film’s torture scenes make “enhanced interrogation” look like no fun for anyone involved, the movie does indeed confirm that torture yields useful results, in this case intel essential to the finding of bin Laden. Greenwald argues that this claim is inaccurate, that torture did not lead to the discovery of the whereabouts of the 9/11 mastermind, but either way, the film’s decision to unambiguously confirm the efficacy of torture, even if it can’t be said to glorify it, stands as far too much of an endorsement of the practice.

Because the film hides under cover of its objectivity, it’s difficult to pin it down to a single political position - and that is undoubtedly the point. But a film based on real events does not simply portray what happened, it presents it in a certain way through deliberate choices on the director’s, screenwriter’s and actors’ parts. Furthermore, when dealing with charged political events, the lack of a definitive viewpoint must itself be considered a viewpoint. Thus, while detailing the final raid on bin Laden’s hideout, Bigelow stages a thrilling set-piece that, while it avoids triumphalism and is careful to show the collateral damage inflicted by U.S. forces, nonetheless has us rooting for the Navy SEALS that carry out this illegal assassination. Bigelow even takes a few scenes to humanize these soldiers, showing them hanging out before the operation, the better to forge viewer identification. This may be as close as we’ll get to seeing how the killing of bin Laden actually happened, but it’s still a fictionalized take presented from a specific point of view. That this point of view confirms the dominant narrative of the war on terror makes Zero Dark Thirty a troubling movie indeed.

Friday, December 7, 2012

December Links Galore

No, I haven't been idle, just busy catching up with the major films from 2012 in advance of my participation in several year-end lists and surveys which should be posted soon. In the meantime, my regular reviewing has continued unabated as the below series of links reveals.

Hitchcock (Slant)
Dragon (Slant)
Only the Young (Slant)
Waiting for Lightning (Slant)
Off-White Lies (Village Voice)
Gottfried Helnwein and the Dreaming Child (Time Out New York)
Wagner and Me (Time Out New York)
The Man Who Shook the Hand of Vicente Fernandez (Indiewire)

10 Screenwriters to Watch: Profile of Bill Dubuque (Variety)
10 Screenwriters to Watch: Profile of Ken Scott (Variety)

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Awards Season Mishmash

Awards season is now underway and with it the onslaught of overwrought Oscar-bait - some of which isn't half bad. Among the contenders, I consider Joe Wright's semi-successful take on Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. Also of note among the below links, a profile of Variety's annual Power of Comedy benefit event.

Anna Karenina (Slant)
Barrymore (Slant)
A Royal Affair (Slant)
Burn (Village Voice)
First Winter (Village Voice)
Turning (Village Voice)
La Rafle (Time Out New York)
28 Hotel Rooms (Indiewire)

Comedy Impact Report 2012: The Power of Comedy (Variety)

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Slant Magazine's Best Films of the 1990s

I am delighted to have participated in Slant Magazine's feature on the top 100 films of the 1990s which has now gone live. I contributed blurbs for films number 81, 73, 60, 48, 37, 29 and 12 in addition to voting in the selection process.

My personal list of the top 100 films of that decade, which I submitted for consideration in the poll, is below:

1. Central Park
2. A Brighter Summer Day
3. Goodbye South, Goodbye
4. Center Stage (Actress)
5. Satantango
6. Public Housing
7. Jungle Fever
8. Safe
9. The Mirror
10. The River
11. To Sleep with Anger
12. Naked
13. Through the Olive Trees
14. The Puppetmaster
15. Vive L’Amour
16. Beloved
17. Bitter Moon
18. Eyes Wide Shut
19. Cold Water
20. The Straight Story
21. White Hunter, Black Heart
22. Abraham’s Valley
23. Rosetta
24. Secret Defense
25. Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train
26. Rebels of the Neon God
27. The Power of Kangwon Province
28. Mother and Son
29. A Moment of Innocence
30. In the Heat of the Sun
31. Life, and Nothing More
32. American Dream
33. A Confucian Confusion
34. The Last Bolshevik
35. Lessons of Darkness
36. Maborosi
37. Dead Man
38. Husbands and Wives
39. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me
40. Drifting Clouds
41. Close-Up
42. From the East
43. Clean, Shaven
44. The Decalogue
45. Late August, Early September
46. Hoop Dreams
47. Lovers on the Bridge
48. Hard Boiled
49. The Hole
50. The Player
51. My Own Private Idaho
52. Eternity and a Day
53. Good Men, Good Women
54. Zoo
55. Secrets and Lies                              
56. The Last Days of Disco
57. Histoire(s) du Cinéma
58. The Crying Game
59. Fallen Angels
60. Ladybird, Ladybird
61. Crash
62. All the Vermeers in New York
63.The Long Day Closes
64. Mother
65. Xiao Wu (Pickpocket)
66. Princess Mononoke
67. Totally F****d Up
68. Breaking the Waves
69. Voyage to the Beginning of the World
70. Before Sunrise
71. Short Cuts
72. Blue (Jarman)
73. Underground
74. Faust
75. I Can’t Sleep
76. Get on the Bus
77. Wild Reeds
78. Matinee
79. The Bridges of Madison County                    
80. La Haine
81. Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!
82. Life is Sweet
83. Rock Hudson’s Home Movies
84. Days of Being Wild
85. High School II
86. La Promesse
87. Sling Blade
88. Mahjong
89. eXistenZ
90. Calendar
91. The Dreamlife of Angels
92. Clueless
93. Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies Under America
94. Charisma
95. Career Girls
96. The Glass Shield
97. Irma Vep
98. Flowers of Shanghai
99. Careful
100. Gremlins 2: The New Batch