Monday, November 29, 2010

Review: Prick Up your Ears

     Or your rears. Pretty funny innit? It's a title that doesn't really have anything to do with the movie itself, but it still manages to describe it quite well; Prick up your Ears is full of cheeky British humor and has enough pricks going up rears to make Gus Van Sant blush.
     The movie opens with the discovery of playright Joe Orton's body in his London flat. It then uses interviews between writer John Lahr (Wallace Shawn) and Orton's secretary (a very sharp Vannessa Redgrave) to frame the story of Orton's rise to fame and his difficult relationship with boyfriend Kenneth Halliwell. We have to wait until later in the movie to uncover what actually happened to Orton, but none of this will be new territory for who knows the actual story of Orton's death in 1967 (told in the book version of Prick up your Ears by John Lahr.)
     It's good then that the story is not built on suspense, but on wit, strong performances, and comedy so black that it becomes tragedy. The interplay between Orton and Halliwell is key; their's is an imbalanced relationship, but even if Orton leaves Halliwell emotionally devastated, they are too close after 16 years together to separate. Gary Oldman is excellent as the charismatic Orton. He's highly intelligent, but behind all his affable cleverness, he's calculating and even malicious. And Alfred Molina is even better as the vulnerable Halliwell, who taught the young Orton everything he knew about art and literature, but now has to live in the shadow of his fame.
    Behind the cameras, we have the always reliable Stephen Frears, a true master of the british comedy and a master of the adaptation. Frears claims he's not an auteur--and this is true by definition--but he sure chooses good scripts; here the praise goes to screenwriter Alan Bennet. What makes the humor in movies like Ears special is that nothing is just played for laughs, but everything from a funeral to a fake wig can become hilarious. Also, the timeless British tradition of the "wank" is given the significance that it deserves.
    All in all, a very smart movie. I'm not sure if it makes us think better of Joe Orton, who rallied against a prude and restrictive British society that he felt was rotten on the inside, but who might have benefited from some restraint. Joe certainly lived the life he wanted to, but nothing is more telling about his fate then the speech he gave as he accepted the best play of the year award from the Evening Standard; "My plays are about getting away with it, and the ones who get away with it are the guilty ones [...] I've gotten away with it so far. And I'm going to go on." Clearly, he didn't get away with it after a certain point.


Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Germany, Year Zero

     Roberto Rossellini's Germany, Year Zero (1948) opens and ends with shots of a devastated post WWII Berlin, its buildings reduced to empty shells and rubble. Its inhabitants, we soon find out, aren't doing much better. We follow the Kohler family as they struggle to support themselves; the father is dying, the daughter does what she can to help him out, the elder son won't leave the house for fear of being imprisoned for his role in the war, and the younger son (Edmund, age 12) gets involved in all sorts of nefarious activities as he runs loose through the streets. What we have here is the textbook definition of neorealism--the realistic (and depressing) setting, the abandonment of artifice, and the focus on the struggles of the poor. For a bit of context, Rossellini's Open City (1945) was one of the defining works of the movement (the first neorealist film might be Visconti's 1943 Ossessione) and it started Rossellini's post-war neorealist trilogy for which Year Zero was the conclusion.
     Does this description make neorealism seem limited and predictable? Wouldn't endless repetition of lower class suffering would come off as pedagogical instead of inspired at some point? Well, yes and no. It's true that the neorealist movement was limited. It's considered to have ended after De Sica's Umberto D. in 1952 because there wasn't much else to say after such a beautiful and desolate movie. And the French New Wave produced a greater variety and breadth of work in a shorter time period. But even if there aren't that many neorealist movies, the few I've seen so far are masterpieces, and Germany Year Zero is no exception.
     Perhaps the movement's greatest triumph is its ability to portray characters instead of symbols. De Sica may have been out to make a point, but bicycle thieves and poor old men are not just bicycle thieves and poor old men. Rossellini may not have quite as much compassion for his characters--and Edmund's evil acts are at times representative of the rise of fascism-- but there is much more here than allegory. Rossellini is sympathetic with the plight of the Germans, even with the older son, Karl-Heinz, who fought the allies until the bitter end, and we get a true sense of what makes the family members act the way they do. The sister, Eva, for example, behaves the way any young girl would, going to bars with her friends and flirting with men. Only, when she's offered a cigarette, she casually tucks it in her bag to sell later on.
     Germany, Year Zero is also surprisingly dark. Edmund, who is only trying to make money for his family, soon falls under the influence of his old school teacher, a pedophile who harbors an old Nazi officer and who uses children to sell recordings of Hitler's speeches and other Nazi memorabilia on the black market. Said school teacher caresses and kisses the oblivious Edmund and is creepy enough to rival Peter Lorre in M. Eventually, Edmund gets caught up in activities even worse than his rackets and street gangs, and this is when we really see that hopelessness can have profound moral consequences. All right, maybe a little heavy handed at times, but still very good. 8.4
     So that was the first thing I've seen by Rossellini. There's a movie theater here that has a neorealism festival going on, so I hope to see a few more (as well as some Visconti). And now, because I feel like it, I am going to make a list of my favorite Italian movies (though not necessarily the greatest). I feel like I've been overlooking Italian cinema lately, now that most of what I see is French.

1. The Conformist- Bernardo Bertolucci
2. 8 1/2- Federico Fellini
3. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly- Sergio Leone
4. Nights of Cabiria- Federico Fellini
5. Amarcord- Federico Fellini
6. Last Tango in Paris- Bernardo Bertolucci
7. The Battle of Algiers- Gillo Pontecorvo
8.Bicycle Thieves- Vittorio De Sica
9. Umberto D.- De Sica
10. Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom- Pier Paolo Passolini
11. Blow Up- Michelangelo Antonioni
12. L'Avventura- Antonioni
13. L'Eclisse- Antonioni
14. A Fistful of Dollars/For a Few Dollars More- Leone
15. La Dolce Vita- Fellini (I was too young. What I remember seems very good, but I would be dishonest if I put it higher)
16. La Strada- Fellini
17. Once Upon a time in the West- Leone
18. Germany, Year Zero- Roberto Rossellini
19. Cannibal Holocaust- Ruggero Deodato
20. Nuovo Cinema Paradiso- Guiseppe Tornatore

Honorable Mention:
Life is Beautiful
Profondo Rosso

Monday, November 22, 2010

Review: Ovsyanki

Called Le dernier voyage de Tanya in France and Silent Souls in America.

     You have to hand it to asian cinema. Nothing coming from America or Europe deals with the metaphysical and spiritual in the same way as the movies I've seen this year from Thailand, Korea, Japan, or Russia (I'm counting it as part of Asia). Well, A Serious Man, for example, was a pretty serious reflection on God and existence, but there's something unique in the feel of asian movies. They're often very calm and leisurely paced, and they have a sense of simplicity to them. Thai director, Apichatpong Weerasethakul said this about making the Palme D'Or winner Uncle Boonmee Who can Recall his Past Lives: "I wanted to strike a balance between the abstraction of death and a form of simplicity and naiveté, a childlike approach to cinema." The same ideas can be seen in Chang-dong Lee's excellent Poetry (another Cannes favorite) and to some extent in Ovsyanki, which played well at the Venice Film Festival.
     This is not to say that Ovsyanki isn't thematically complex. It tells the story of paper factory owner Miron (Yuriy Tsurilo) who enlists his friend Aist (Igor Sergeev) to help him with the funeral rituals for his deceased wife, Tanya. These include tying ribbons to her pubic hair, burning her on a pyre after dousing her with liquor, and "smoking," a tradition that involves Miron confiding (mostly sexual) details about Tanya with Aist. There are flashbacks to sexual encounters between Miron and Tanya and flashbacks to Aist's childhood and his relations with his father, a drunk amateur poet who seems like he came out of a Dostoevsky novel. Actually, it's all adapted from  Aist Sergeyev's novel Buntings, and it keeps a lot of voiceover as Aist talks about memory, death, love, water, and the slow disappearance of the customs of the Merya people. The part in the film's narration where Aist talks about "writing this book" (when what we are watching is obviously not a book) proves that it doesn't stray very far from its source material.
     And now I have to explain what the hell I meant with "simplicity."It has something to do with how in touch with the natural world Ovsyanki is; we keep returning to long shots of flowing water or of Aist's caged buntings (small birds). The desolate Russian landscape, with its gray forests and crumbling factories, is an integral part of Aist and Miron's existence. The world is also a bigger and more mysterious place in movies like Ovsyanki and Boonmee than in eastern cinema. And in the end, it all comes down to love and death. Love as in the scene where Miron bathes Tanya with a bottle of Vodka and then tenderly dries her off as she stands shivering in the cold air. Death as in Tanya's ashes being carried away by the Neya river.

Ovsyanki is very much like something by Tarkovsky; he too was very focused on nature and his films like Mirror, Andrei Rubliov, and Solaris are all spiritual meditations. Tarkovsky was also greatly influenced by Japanese cinema and especially Kenji Mizoguchi's Ugetsu monogatory and Hiroshi Teshigahara's Woman in the Dunes. And that brings my argument full circle; Russian cinema is just wordier "Asian" cinema. Other great things about Ovsyanki include the mournful music and the cinematography, which won an award at Venice.


Friday, November 19, 2010

Review: Unstoppable

      Tony Scott puts his hyperactive directing style to good use in his third film in four years starring Denzel Washington. It's also his second in two years to star a train. Who would have thought that a giant machine that travels at varying speeds on a fixed path could be interesting?
     Well, Scott apparently does, but he still has to do a lot to make this story about an unmanned, explosive filled train palatable. For one, there's that typical Tony Scott flair; few shots last more than five seconds, and in the ones that do, the camera finds enough time to spin 360 degrees around characters, trains or helicopters. Scott rarely finds time to linger on anything; the characters are given some cursory back stories--just enough to build them up, without boring us with details. Even the action flies right by, one expensive stunt making room for another before we even have time to think about what happened. To add some depth, there's (minor) conflict between rookies and old timers, working class heroes and corporate big shots. The movie is made to feel timely; Denzel's character has just been laid off, and worn down Pennsylvania towns form the setting.
     All of this is good because the movie is as entertaining a movie about a runaway train as I can imagine, and it's more entertaining than many other movies that aren't about runaway trains. The movie may be entirely forgettable, but at least it isn't weighed down by self importance or too much emotion. Unstoppable can be enjoyed for its frenetic energy alone.


Review: The Bad Lieutenant

     It's no surprise that Martin Scorsese named The Bad Lieutenant as one of his favorite films of the 90s. It plays like a hybrid of Taxi Driver--in that it's a gritty New York City drama that focuses our attention on one man's madness--and Mean Streets--in that it deals with redemption, sacrifice, religion, and Harvey Keitel. Abel Ferrara has the same natural ability to capture the life the New York streets and the will to deliver scenes of extreme violence that make no apologies in their attempt to be iconic. According to Ferrara, "there's gotta be an event that you're gonna turn the camera on for".
     The main thing that makes Abel Ferrara stand out is that he's a lot more depraved than Scorsese (for evidence of his disregard for limits or taste look no further than his first feature length film, the porno 9 Tales of a Wet Pussy). His subject matter may be no darker than that of Taxi Driver, but the final product feels even more dangerous. So for a movie about forgiveness, the first person you'll have to forgive is the director himself. His main offense is sexualizing and stylizing the rape of a nun. In a film that's all about realism, there was something about the close-ups and inserted shots of Jesus on the cross (all set to a hip-hop version of Kashmir) that felt out of place. I'm betting Ferrara was excited by his own transgression.
     The movie's most memorable scene is even more disgusting, but here the purpose is to show just how sick Harvey Keitel's bad lieutenant is. The lieutenant stops two underaged girls for a broken tail light and threatens to get in touch with their father. He then offers an enticing proposal, "I do something for you. You do something for me." That something ends up being that the girls have to pretend to perform fellatio while Keitel masturbates and mutters obscenities;  "You ever sucked guy's cock. Show me your mouth when you suck a guy's cock. Cummon, show me your mouth." The screenwriter Zoe Lünd originally just put in "humiliating sex scenes" that last until dawn, but Ferrara goes further while showing less; he's a true original when it comes to perversity.
      All of this wouldn't be so scary if Harvey's lieutenant character didn't feel so real. Keitel is astounding in what must be one of the most intense screen performances of all time. Perhaps the most striking thing about the character is that it's almost impossible to find anything recognizable in him. He operates in his own moral sphere, in a continual drugged up haze, and for most of the movie, empathizing with him is out of the question. There seems to be nothing but hatred and brutality behind his cold glare. The lieutenant is laid bare before us (in one instance, literally; apparently it was Harvey's idea to get naked and wave his arms about) but all we see is ugliness.
     That is, until the lieutenant asks for forgiveness. After getting deep into debt over bets on the world series and doing little else but smoke crack, sniff cocaine and inject heroin, our hero goes to the nun who was raped to offer an opportunity to avenge herself (his previous opinion was something like, "women are raped every day, why should we care just because they're wearing penguin suits"). There, he learns that she has already forgiven her attackers and has asked for god's help so that she can love them. The lieutenant is at first deeply confused, and then he cries, screams, and pleads with Jesus in a genuine attempt to become something other than what he is.
     And here we are, asked to forgive the unforgivable. I've never seen such an unlikeable character used this way in a movie; the audience is challenged, plunged into territory that's morally ambiguous. And Keitel's character becomes a strange sort of icon; he represents humanity at it's lowest, but he still tries to do the right thing. In the end we see that his sacrifice is real and we understand his pain. And bravo to Abel Ferrara; that fact that the film itself feels complicit and reprehensible only helps to takes us further into the bad lieutenant's world.


Review: Lola Montès

     Can a woman ever be happy in a Max Ophüls film? Passion can't help Louise escape her unhappy marriage in Madame de... and the first of the three stories in Le Plaisir shows a woman who suffers because of her husband's infidelity. Lola fares no better in Lola Montès. Though she is sexually liberated and chooses the men she wants to be with, she has no more control over her life than the wives in Le Plaisir or Madame de.... The only difference is that instead of being a subject of her husband's will, she is left at the mercy of the judgement of others.
     Don't worry, I'm not giving away the Lola's unfortunate fate, as this theme is made very clear in the beginning. The first scene of the film takes us inside the circus where Lola has become the main attraction; she's the scandalous dancer/courtesan who shared a bed with artists, aristocrats, bankers, and in her moment of glory, King Ludwig I of Bavaria. Her life is acted out with lavish choreography and trapeze artists, and at the end of the spectacle, audience members are invited to touch her for the added price of one dollar.
     It's an interesting symbolic set-up, and the way I see it, it says two things about desire. First of all, it's pessimistic about female sexuality.While Lola initially passed heedlessly from lover to lover, she eventually had to realize that her search was futile. In the end, her indiscretion was what ruined her. On the other hand, I'm not sure if Ophüls attaches any blame to Lola herself. It appears that the men (or the audience) are at fault in that they are unable to recognize or acknowledge desire. In other words, they're the ones that make a big deal out of nothing, turning the commonplace into a grotesque spectacle.
     Lola Montès reminded me a lot of Marcel Carné's Les Enfants du Paradis (1944). The circus has replaced the theater, but both span a number of years and in both of them, love and desire do not lead to happiness. Lola Montès also has the same classical style (especially in the dialogue) and elegance, even if it's more modern, extravagant, and risqué. If I use Les Enfants du Paradis as an example instead of Madame de... it's because Madame de... felt much more reserved, and dare I say, a little lifeless (Andrew Sarris would be mad).  Really, there's a league of difference between Madame de... and Lola, which is surprising given that the former was shot only two years earlier (it feels much older, and not just because it's in black and white). Both of them have beautiful cinematography and fluid tracking shots. Watching Ophüls is good because you get to talk about Ophülsian camera movement in other movies and sound really knowledgeable.


Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Review: The Last Temptation of Christ

      Scorsese's 1988 Last Temptation of Christ (based on a book by greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis) caused quite a scandal when it came out. Well, to be more precise, the scandal started about 5 years before the movie came out. In 1983 Marty had his sets built and set up in Jeruselum, but Paramount pulled the plug when they started getting 500 letters a day protesting the film. By the time Temptation actually hit theaters, fundamentalist groups were rallying in the streets, Scorsese was getting death threats, and an antisemitic campaign was mounted against Lew Wasserman, the head of Universal Studios. A Parisian theater was attacked and burned to the ground, leaving 13 people injured. And Mother Angelica, famed nun/TV host famously predicted that if the film were released, "California gonna fall into the ocean."
     So just how blasphemous is Scorcese's examination of Jesus? As far as theology goes, it strays from the ideas of the bible in that it shows Jesus as flawed. Scorsese was interested in Christ as being both "fully divine and fully human." How could he know what it was like to be a man if he didn't know temptation, have doubts about himself or fantasize about sex? Does his humanity not make his suffering that much more important? The counter argument states that there is absolutely no sense in having a Christ who sinned (and being tempted by another woman is indeed a sin according to Matthew). The whole point of the New Testament is that an innocent man sacrificed himself for all mankind; if Jesus was tempted by Mary Magdalene, then what makes his life different than the lives of thousands of others who have remained "pure" in the face of temptation?
     Well, that's the debate over ideology--it's not exactly scandalous stuff. Scorcese almost became a priest before he turned to filmmaking, so this was a very personal project and not an attempt to take on the religious establishment. But ideas and images are two separate matters. The Last Temptation is still a shocking film. When we first find Mary Magdalene, she's not only practicing her profession, but she's writhing in ecstasy with a client as half a dozen other men look on sullenly. Jesus watches as well, and when he goes up to Mary afterwards she tries to get him to satisfy his own sexual urges. "You're just like the others. You just won't admit it" she says. It's certainly not the understated spiritual meditation I was expecting.
     In fact, The Last Temptation seems almost determined to avoid solemn reflection. It's filled with stonings and torture, and everything seems violent; from John the Baptists baptisms, to Jesus's voice-over about pain, to his speeches about love. At its worst, it can be campy; the initial scenes of Jesus making crosses for the Romans and crying out for God are over the top. Peter Gabriel's score includes pounding  drums and lots of ululating, but it becomes cheesy in a few scenes. And someone is going to have to explain to me what the hell Harvey Keitel's Judas is doing with a Brooklyn accent. But at its best, The Last Temptation succeeds in showing the world as Jesus found it as one of chaos and uncertainty. It made me see why the arrival of a Messiah was necessary, why people needed to believe in something.
     Perhaps the greatest thing about the movie is Willem Dafoe, who makes Jesus seem more like Ken Kesey than Mother Theresa. He's a psychedelic warrior who tears his heart out of his chest and hallucinates about magically growing trees, talking lions, and sexy snakes. Many Christians have praised the movie saying it made them feel closer to Christ, but to me he was presented as bat-shit insane. I think Dafoe probably sounds like a madman while ordering breakfast, but he was especially frightening while declaring "I am God" with his menacing smile. He can be playful too, as shown in the scene where he turns water into wine. This time, his smile betrays mischievous pride. And if The Last Temptation affirmed my atheistic beliefs more than it made me into a  believer, the final shot of Jesus suffering on the cross as he repeats the words "it is accomplished" is still chilling.
     All in all, it's a fascinating movie. By forgoing reverence, Scorsese tries to make real what many people think of as distant or abstract. And Scorcese and Dafoe may struggle to get to the heart of the sacred and the divine in the story of Christ, but all of the wackiness makes it a lot more fun than it should have been.


Saturday, November 13, 2010

Review: Enter the Void

     At his Cannes press conference for Enter the Void, French (but Argentinian born) filmmaker Gaspard Noé was asked what he thought about violence in films. Noé quoted Douglas Sirk (as he supposedly told Fassbinder), "to make a good melodrama you need sperm, blood, and tears." Noé hasn't been the only "edgy" director to praise Sirk; Godard, Quentin Tarantino, John Waters, and Lars von Trier have all paid their respects to the master of "dramas with swollen emotions."But Gaspard Noé seems to be oblivious to the most important part of Sirk's legacy; his reputation as a supreme ironist. Enter the Void has sperm and blood in spades, but few tears because the story and emotions are much too obvious and trite.
     We follow Oscar, an American drug dealer in Tokyo, first in PoV shots as he wanders through the streets, then from the back of his head as he uncovers past memories. Eventually, the camera just starts floating all over Tokyo. The story is rooted in the ideas of the "Tibetan Book of the Dead" which, according to the film, says that people's spirits wander the earth after death, floating through time and space before becoming reincarnated. But it's clear that Noe doesn't care much about budhism or new age philosophy; he's not trying to  mess with our brains like Jodorowsky did in Holy Mountain. The characters mention the book a few times to make sure the audience knows what is happening, but sentimentality is what takes center stage here. We're supposed to care about Oscar and his sister as they say things like this; "Do you promise that we'll never leave each other?" "Never, ever?" "Never, ever." Also, Freudian implications abound. Gaspard Noe definitely has a thing for his mother's nipples.
      But if Enter the Void fails as melodrama, it wins as pure cinema. It's simply the most incredible thing I've seen all year, and offers the visual breakthrough that Avatar--with it's giant blue elves and fantasy video game aesthetics--failed to. The film starts with a DMT trip, as waves of bright fractal-like organisms ebb and flow, and things just get crazier from there. The initial point of view shot is about 20 minutes of un-interupted steady cam maneuvering through the streets of Tokyo, but we're definitely in a heightened reality; everything seems more dangerous and disorienting, and there's a lot more neon. And I'll take back what I said about the film being incapable of provoking tears; my brother said that all the bright flashing lights made him cry. Some of the trippiness comes in the form of 2001/stargate inspired sequences, but the continually oscillating lights and the soundtrack that feels like a warm sonic bath make the entire film feel like a drugged up and transformative experience. It's enough to either drive you insane or force you into submission as you watch in rapt amazement.
      So while I could have sighed in annoyance as Noé kept repeating the scene where Oscar sees his sister dragged away to an orphanage, I just decided to go with it. I really only have one word for this film: waaaaaaoooooh.


Thursday, November 11, 2010

Everything You Wanted to Know about the State of French Cinema but were Afraid to Ask: Conclusions Arrived at After Having Seen L'Homme qui Voulait Vivre sa Vie and La Princesse de Montpensier

     In glancing at some of the American reviews for La Princesse De Montpensier , I came across a brief Cannes write-up denouncing the film as a return to the "'Tradition of quality'-- dull 'respectable' literary adaptations or historical dramas--the French New Wave tried to kill off 50 years ago."And this got me thinking about the undeniable quality--the maîtrise--that characterizes modern French movies and renders them at the same time intelligent and, yes, a little dull. I know I should judge Princesse on its own merits, but I don't have as much to say about the movie itself (which I nevertheless found quite compelling) as I do about the film as part of this continuum of French cinema that I'm just now beginning to understand. It's a difficult topic in that there are always exceptions to the generalizations that I'm about to put forth, and also in that I'm incapable of making my up my mind. My attitudes towards French filmmaking shift abruptly from respect to annoyance, often in the space of a single scene or even a single line of dialogue.
      But let's start with this tradition de qualité which was most famously criticized in Truffaut's 1954 Cahiers du Cinema essay Une certaine tendance du cinéma Français. Basically, Truffaut spent much of his time as a critic lambasting the popular screenwriters Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost, and in particular their adaptation of the novel Le diable au corps. According to Truffaut, Aurenche and Bosc cut out all that they deemed unfilmable, jumbled scenes around, and generally failed to consider mise en scène or the fact that cinema has a power that is entirely seperate from that of literature. In America, at least, "screenwriters and directors are not failed novelists but intellectuals in the service of spectacle" (from L'adaption litteraire au cinema, published in 1958).
      Well, 50 years have gone by, and the New Wave has come and gone. Nowadays, France has many highly esteemed and competent directors (Bertrand Tavernier, Francois Ozon, Claude Lelouche) but it's true that there's a certain complacency in the films they put out. Everyone working now has soaked in the ideas of the New Wave, but instead of becoming emboldened, they seem resigned to entrench themeselves in an entirely new sense of tradition that formed after that brief surge of vitality. With the greatness of French cinema already affiirmed, most directors seem unwilling to prove anything at all. I feel bad for using La Princesse to launch this reflexion because it's not much more than a beautiful and well thought out 16th century costume drama, but I do think that it remains academic and literary despite some directorial flourishes. It certainly doesn't show the full extent of what an auteur can accomplish.
     But now, there are much bigger problems in French cinema than literary adaptations and historical dramas. Without the budgets of their Hollywood counterparts or the idealism (or ideas) of their historical counterparts, French directors have to show their mastery in another way. They accomplish this by focusing their considerable talent on the nuances of the vie quotidenne, attempting to replicate the way real French people eat, talk, fight and make love. It's honorable and refreshing on some level (even the better Hollywood movies can seem obvious and contrived in comparison) but realism doesn't accomplish much on its own. And this particular kind of realism--the accurate portrayal of the French lifestyle--doesn't exclude other kinds of ridiculousness. In a popular film I saw in theaters today called L'Homme qui Voulait Vivre sa Vie, the protagonist (played by popular French actor Roman Duris) encounters all kinds of implausible situations, the story seems haphazard and poorly thought out (despite being based on some sort of respected novel), and the conclusion is dumb. But before the movie turns into the meandering thriller that it is, the audience is subjected to almost one hour of Duris interacting with his estranged wife, his mother, his children, and his friends in a way that poignantly conveys the gravity and importance of our daily interactions. To French people, the ideal isn't to be found in the distant interactions of some stars in Hollywood, but in their own lives.

Catherine Deneuve in L'Homme qui voulait vivre sa vie. She shows up in approximately 84% of all French movies

     This wouldn't be such a bad thing if a) this wasn't the collective goal of French filmmakers or B) French people weren't so annoying at times. I don't have enough space to discuss why French people are annoying, or if they are any more annoying than any other group of people in the world, but they can be, and are, annoying. And they are annoying in all their stunning, realistic glory in almost every genre of French Film. From the teen sex comedy of LoL (which can be admired for it's frank and realistic look at generational differences) to the depressing drama of Contes de Noel (which can be admired for putting even more depressing realism in the very real realism of its portrayal of family life). Sometimes this can make a legitimately great movie; Entre les murs (La Classe) showed us a totally unsympathetic teacher dealing with mostly unsympathetic kids, but was powerful only because one was able to condemn and distance oneself from what was happening onscreen. However, much of what I see seems more narcissistic than critical.  The worst offenders seem to be the most popular films; Les Bronzés, Camping, Les Petits Mouchoirs. Many of the better French films are too modest to make their way out of the country and too modest to make much of an impact. 

Here are some exceptions: French directors who care more about creating cinema than translation life or literature. I don't want to seem like I care more about style than substance, but I think that it shouldn't be overlooked.

Jacques Audiard- Audiard's films--notably De battre mon coeur s'est arreté and Un prophète--  are visceral, powerful, and have their own style of gritty realism. Un prophète, in particular, is incredible. But what's the difference between good realism and bad realism? In my opinion, the good kind is used to heighten an emotional response. The violence in Un prophète is shocking because it feels real. The bad kind is anything that accompanies a story that's not worth telling.
      I will admit that it's all a matter of opinion. I was engrossed by the honest portrayal of a lower class black family in Clair Denis' 35 rhums (although this description is unfair; the film is much more than that). But a film has to be really good if it wants me to care about the daily lives of the upper middle class. Contes de Noel didn't cut it. Des hommes et des dieux is a great film because partly because the story (monks and war in Algeria) deals with greater obligations and more important decisions than the average theater goer would normally face.

Un prophète. damn that movie was good

Gaspard Noe- Unfortunately, I haven't seen Irréversible, which is supposed to be brutal. But I did see Enter the Void yesterday. Wow. Say what you want, this guy is definitely trying to create something memorable. I've only seen Bluebeard from Catherine Breillat, but she's supposed to be equally provocative.

Jean Pierre-Jeunet- Ah Amelie! A little cute and whimsical, but still very enjoyable and touching. Delicatessen (1991) is just as good.

Sylvain Chomet- Of Triplets of Bellville fame. His new one, The Illusionist, is based off a Jaques Tati script and is supposed to be excellent. Persepolis is another excellent French animated film, but it's not directed by Chomet. 

Here are some more thoughts. What I've basically realized while writing this is that, considering the talent involved, there aren't as many good French movies as there should be.

-France does have some more esteemed films that appeal to American audiences, but I'm not impressed by a lot of them. Examples include Guillaume Canet's Ne le dis a personne, Cedric Kapisch's L'Auberge espagnole and Les poupées russes, Anthony Zimmer, La môme (called La Vie En Rose in America: one good performance and little else), and Les choristes (good for high school French classes).
-Many of the greats, such as Godard, Resnais, and Varda, are still putting out movies. Varda's Glaneurs et la glaneuse is superb and I've heard that Les plages d'Agnes is awesome.
-Gondry, Aja, and others are now firmly established in America.
-Some foreign directors are now firmly established in France, but they don't really count. No one can say that Polanski makes French movies. Haneke's Cache was in French, though, and it was excellent. Julian Schnabel, an American, directed a French movie that is better than almost all other French movies this decade with The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. In fact, this movie proves my point about the cowardice of French directors better than anything else. Everything about it feels French--the sex, the dialogue, the pacing, the intelligence--but it also realizes that more is not always less.
- Ces amours là, by Claude Lelouche, is one French film that thinks that more is more. And it's terrible. 

The actor is Mathieu Almaric. His most recent directorial effort, Tournée, is supposed to be great, so the situation isn't all that bad.

- I do realize that there are many, many great French films that I haven't seen (L'Enfant and I've Loved You so Long for example) but until someone proves me wrong, I'll stand by my points. In any case, if I were evaluating the state of Hollywood, I would be a lot meaner.
-Princesse de Montpensier: 7.5
-L'Homme qui voulait vivre sa vie: 6.3

Anyone agree? disagree?

Friday, November 5, 2010

Review: Buried


       Has anyone else ever had the idea of setting an entire movie inside a coffin? Ever since I saw Uma Thurman punching her way to freedom from her casket in Kill Bill Volume 2 I knew that someone would have to eventually subject an audience to such a claustrophobic scenario (the excellent Dutch film Spoorloos plays on this fear as well). So congratulations to director Rodrigo Cortes for actually having the balls to do it.
      The problem with Buried is that once the initial admiration wears off, we aren't left with much. Ryan Reynolds plays civilian contractor Paul Conroy,who was a truck driver in Iraq until he came under enemy fire. He then has the misfortune of being imprisoned in a coffin and used as a hostage to extort money from the U.S government. Reynold's starts the movie with some convincing panting, screaming, and general helplessness, and then starts to make some calls with the cell phone left with him. All of this is filmed up close with the aid of the blue glare of the phone and the warmer flame of Conroy's zippo lighter. The novelty is intriguing, but even at it's best, the result isn't quite as uncomfortable as one might expect.     
       The story doesn't get much better from there; we're entertained by a fast moving plot, but it all seems a little artificial. Conroy deals with Dan Brenner, who is the head of some sort of hostage finding squad, and their conversations are supposed to reveal something about the futility of the war in Iraq. In reality, the political discussion is more anemic than insightful; "I didn't expect it would be like this" says Conroy."I don't think any of us did" replies Dan. Cortes also feels the need to apply plenty of distractions, whether it's the sweeping music that would suit some panoramic helicopter shots of the windswept desert, or a snake that enters the coffin and starts crawling down Conroy's pant leg. Clearly if anyone wasn't feeling claustrophobic, menacing reptiles would put them over the edge. If that doesn't work there's also some self mutilation with a pocket knife.
       Still, I'll give credit where credit's due. The movie had its share of suspense--the director is apparently a huge fan of Hitchcock-- and held my attention for 90 minutes. The strong anti-war stance is bold and so is the decision to keep the camera enclosed with Conroy (there are no flashbacks). But in the end, it's just mindless escapism--even if that's the last thing the director had in mind.


Thursday, November 4, 2010

Review: In a Year with 13 Moons

       From Woody Allen, Bergman, and Antonioni to Sofia Copolla and Paul Thomas Anderson, directors have often tried to show man's primary object as an attempt to find meaningful connections with the world around him. A more optimistic viewpoint shows that men can find acceptance with their past and meaning in life  (Bergman's Wild Strawberries) or love with fellow loners (Sofia's Lost in Translation), but often directors put their characters through a continued alienation that they are unable to escape (Antonioni movies like l'Eclisse). At the end of Crimes and Misdemeanors, Woody Allen's character is unable find love and thus "give meaning to the indifferent universe," to use a phrase from the narration.

     Add Rainer Werner Fassbinder's In a Year with 13 moons to the top of the list of films that deal with what it means to be alone. After her boyfriend leaves her (in that cruel way that is so characteristic of German movies), Elvira, a transgendered female who used to be a man called Erwin, goes in search of past memories and loves. She visits the slaughterhouse where she used to work, the orphanage where she was raised by nuns, and searches for Anton Saitz, the man for whom she got a sex change in the first place. She also tries to reconnect with what used to be her wife and daughter.
     But while 13 Moons deals with profound loneliness and failed reconciliation with one's past, it is remarkable in that it is not in itself aloof and alienated. This stands in marked contrast to Antonioni's films and also with The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, a Fassbinder film that is superficially similar in almost every way but that seems intent on making its main character despicable. It's not that Fassbinder pulls out all the stops to make us empathize with Elvira--she's an enigmatic character for much of the film-- but by the end I felt a strong connection with her and an understanding of her pain (maybe this has something to do with the male fear of castration...).  If Elvira is initially repulsive, we realize quickly that she deserves not just pity, but respect. 

      As far as filmmaking goes, it's more vibrant the Petra von Kant which was restrained but masterful in its own way. 13 Moons is often realistic (the lead performance by Volker Spengler astounds with its honesty) and sometimes exaggerated and intentionally ridiculous (just look at that picture). But above all, it is incredibly powerful; the slaughterhouse scene, where Elvira calmly details her past romances while the camera lingers over the incredibly graphic proceedings, is unforgettable. So is the scene where Elvira falls to the ground while listening to one of the nuns (Fassbinder's mother!) recall details of her past. And so too is one in while Elvira watches a man hang himself with casual indifference, as if it were the only logical conclusion to life.
     And if 13 Moons feels extremely personal, thats because it is; Fassbinder made the movie after his boyfriend Arman Meier committed suicide as an attempt to deal with his pain and the culpability he felt. Much of Elvira's past is taken from Arman's life. This probably also explains why the film feels like memory-- or a mix of private and cinematic memory to be precise. It certainly doesn't feel constructed; the imagery flow naturally and the dialogue seems almost like poetry at times. Well, I could keep trying to describe it, but if these last sentences prove anything, it's that the film has a certain quality to it that is indescribable. It's transgressive, uncomfortable, and tragic, while still recognizing the presence of beauty and love in the world.


Monday, November 1, 2010

Review: Paranormal Activity 2

       Not my first choice of what I wanted to see on a Monday afternoon. That would have been The Other Guys, the decent looking Will Ferrell comedy that opened in America a while ago, and that I hoped would add some levity my regular schedule of artsy fartsy foreign fare. Paranormal Activity wasn't even my second choice; I would rather have seen Clooney in hitman mode in The American. But these two were sold out, so I found myself nevertheless getting ready for the second installment of a franchise that promises to settle in for a while. By this, I mean that we should prepare ourselves for one of these babies every Halloween weekend until people stop caring or until some other new and exiting thing takes its place. Just as the era of Saw ends with number 7, a new horror dynasty entrenches itself with the best opening weekend for any horror film ever (40 million).
      To be fair, I don't really have anything against Paranormal Activity. When the first one came out of nowhere last year, it was a pleasant surprise,and it put its handheld, cinema verite gimmick to use quite effectively. The actors, while not perfect, made their characters feel real and their actions somewhat plausible. Its horror felt real too because it was stripped down, for the most part, to what we deal with every day; a creaking door, an odd noise in the night, flickering lights. Of course, it expanded further into the supernatural from there, but the initial basis in reality was important in establishing some sort of plausibility. And I think many Americans might not have that much trouble with the leap of faith it takes to believe in the kinds of demons shown in P A. The numbers are pretty astounding; according to a 2003 poll 51% of Americans and 65% of those aged 25 to 29 believe in ghosts. Check this out for some stats that are just as scary: Astrology? Really?
       Anyways, the second one picks up right where the first one left off, or rather before, during, and after the time when the first one takes place. We follow the family of Dan and Kristi, who is the sister of Katie, the protagonist turned evil demon of the first movie. More characters are added to the mix this time; there's a dog, a nanny, a teenage daughter, friends who stop by (including Katie and boyfriend Micah), and most importantly, a newborn boy, who is supposed to arouse feelings of anxiety and danger in the audience. But really, the anxiety and dread just don't build like they should. The new director, Tod Williams, does a nice job of introducing us to this new family as they splash around in their pool and play with their cute baby, but doesn't do much from there. Cupboards open, pots drop from the ceiling, the pool cleaner develops a mind of its own. We get it, we get it, our houses are scary places. The good thing for the filmmakers is that all of this should be easy to come up for future films. It's not like they have to keep designing gruesome traps to maim their victims. Let's think of some ideas right now...telephones that keep ringing even when you unplug them, spontaneously breaking mirrors, shaking furniture. Everything goes, as long as they avoid creepy music boxes and children's toys; those have been done to death in every single horror film since the fall of the roman empire. Oh wait..too late. Little baby hunter's toys do indeed move about and play sinister jingles. How original.
       The fact that there's nothing new here is one of the few problems of a decently made movie, but it's a major one. The Paranormal Activity movies can be commended for a few things--a certain control in their pacing, a believable and interesting recreation of real American lives and relationships--but this is certainly not enough to save a genre that is as stale and derivative (at least in Hollywood) as it has ever been. And in the end, all Paranormal Activity 2 does is let us know of its intentions for a sequel, with the possessed Katie leaving with little Hunter to terrorize more families who just happen to be videotaping their daily lives. Let's hear it for more of the same!