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 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


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”).

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