Monday, January 31, 2011


     Mathieu Amalric's Tournée, about a producer taking a group of American neo-burlesque performers on tour in his native France, has quite an unusual cast. Dirty Martini, a large and commanding woman who carries her rolls of voluptuous fat with great confidence, is played by the famed burlesque dancer Dirty Martini. Same goes for the rest of the women; Mimi Le Meaux, Kitten on the Keys, Evie Lovelle, Julie Atlas Munz, and Roky Roulette, are all well known practitioners of this emerging art form. And after seeing this movie I do think neo-burlesque qualifies as some sort of art-form. As skeptical as I had been about the feminist message that's supposed to be behind the G-strings and spinning tassels, the shows that these ladies put on really do celebrate the female body. There's a good deal of visual playfulness in their acts, which are often more funny or touching than titillating.

 Much of the movie is spent with the girls--naughty antics and touching moments come in equal measure both onstage and off--but where they fiercely claim independence for their performances ("this is our show!"), the movie is really their producer, Joachim's show. Where the dancers are big, loud, and usually cheerful, Joachim, played to perfection by Amalric (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), is thin and a little louche; in one of the first scenes we see him pocketing a little bit more than his fair share from the night's proceeds. Joachim is beset by a slew of seemingly conventional problems--estranged children and ex-wife, old friends that he pissed off and who don't want to give him the time of day-- which provide enough conflict without weighing the movie down. There's a redemption story here, and there are some intimations of actual redemption, but given that this is a French movie, it's no surprise that ambiguity trumps resolution and easy life lessons.When Joachim's sons show up for a few days, they sit around the dressing room surrounded by nubile dancers, get picked up by the police when they leave their hotel room at night, and are sent back by train to Paris as planned the next morning, all with so little drama involved that the film's attitude could pass for nonchalance.

There is indeed a matter-of-factness with which the film greats everything from jiggling breasts and quickies in public toilets to Joachim's encounter with a cancer stricken friend. But by not attaching too much importance to any one conflict and by preventing structure from getting in the way of a rather loose narrative, Amalric creates space for people to emote. Perhaps more than with any other film, I was aware of what the characters were feeling at any moment, or of a feeling that I could attribute to them and identify with.

Whether this also has anything to do with the fact that I'm an uprooted american dealing with unfamiliar territory, I don't know, but I do like the way French and American sensibilities collide here, how Showgirls was able to hook up with Pierrot le Fou. Tournée can be slow and ponderous while being free-spirited and exuberant, and it's able to deal with disappointment and uncertainty without being glum. Everyone here, especially Joachim and Mimi, who's given special attention as someone who's had her own troubled past, is caught in his or her own existential dilemma--they're trying to find their way in life, trying to find out how they fit in. Being comfortable with your body, capable of stripping in front of a crowd, is undoubtably part of this attempt, even if it doesn't solve everything. Still, sometimes the only thing you can do is shed some clothes and let those tassles fly.

8.5 Best French movie of the year (2010 that is).

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Red Shoes


     The Red Shoes opens with a mob of university students forcing their way in through the locked doors of the Covent Garden theater to get their seats at a production of "Hearts of Fire" put on by the famed Ballet Lermontov troupe. They storm up the stairs to the balcony and wait out the hour until the show starts with squeals of excitement and eager anticipation. Somehow, I doubt that any group of students--at any time in history--would get that worked up about a ballet performance, but this is a Powell and Pressburger's production, and it's their duty to glorify the spectacle, to render it at once sacred and accessible.
     The Red Shoes is really two spectacles; first, it's a movie, with characters who triumph, argue, fall in love, and perform. There's something of a love triangle going on between rising star Vicki Page (Moira Shearer), composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring), and director Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook). And then there's the famous ballet within the movie--not the first one that the students are wetting their pants over, but the ballet called "The Red Shoes", which lasts for about 20 minutes and, even if it only comes in about halfway through, is the films' real climax. But unlike the movie, which is presented to the audience as a work that's finished and whole, the spectacle that makes up the ballet is dissected even further. First Lermontov has to conceive the piece, and then attention has to be put into set design and choreography. Julian must compose the score and conduct the orchestra, and dancers must sweat, and bitch, and moan as dancers do. And then, when we have invested enough of ourselves into the enterprise and understood the enormous effort that goes into realizing such a creation, we are ready to see what happens when all of this comes together.
     What happens is something quite splendid. Vicki spins her way though extravagant set after extravagant set with fiery grace, and eventually--as the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale of "The Red Shoes" goes--dances herself to death. I'm not usually drawn to classical ballet, but I found much to admire in the intense physicality of the performance here. I also see why Powell and Pressbuger were so drawn, and why they wanted to detail ballet so thoroughly. Like cinema, it's a compound art form that places attention on movement, aesthetics, and music. Also like cinema, it was misunderstood for much of the early 20th century (Dhiagilev, the model for Lermontov, brought ballet back with the Ballets Russes in the 1910s). As one character says in the film "some of us think of ballet as a rather second rate art form." But most importantly, it's the perfect canvas for the tale of passion and obsession that P & P are so intrigued by. If dance replaces the religion and spirituality of Black Narcissus as the battleground where the rational and the irrational clash, it's because dance--for those who practice it--is a religion.
    Unsurprisingly given the similarities in the theme and plot of these two movies, The Red Shoes falls prey to the same mistakes that plagued Black Narcissus. The majority of the film is so mild-mannered-- reserved, yet sparkling with wit and subdued eroticism--that the intensity of the actual climax is overwrought and not entirely convincing. But the film is a delight to watch, and with books about Dhiagilev making an entrance into the literary world and with Black Swan tearing up screens across America, it's as relevant as ever. There may not have been any riot to get into the showing I attended (just a few grumbles from the docile and scholarly crowd when the ticket seller didn't show up in time) but The Red Shoes is definitely something to get excited about.


P.S. Like The Leopard, this is one of Martin Scorsese's favorite movies of all time.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

War Zones: Ajami, Harry Brown, and After Hours

Ajami (2009)

     Ajami, an Israeli movie that was nominated for best foreign film last year, is commendable for its fairness and its relevant and necessary message about violence in the middle east. Israeli Jews, Israeli and Palestinian muslims, and Israeli Christians all see their lives torn apart by violence that's so entrenched in their culture and their part of the world that it's inescapable. Try as they will to do the right thing, they're unable to avoid conflict. 
    The movie opens with gunfire as a teenager is killed in front of the car he just bought. Turns out his neighbor, Omar (Shahis Kabaha) had sold it to him and was the one who was supposed to die.  A local tribe actually wants Omar's whole family dead because his uncle killed one of their members, who tried to shoot up the restaurant where he worked. The uncle is dead, and the family has to pay a huge fine if they don't want to end up like him. Convoluted, yes, but that's the nature of violence in the middle east, where grudges are kept and where irrational hatred reigns. And Omar is just one of a large cast of characters in Ajami who are caught up in some sort of mess. The movie intertwines (a la Arriaga) his story with about half a dozen others, and they're all jumbled chronologically, which serves to heighten the sense of disorientation. Ajami occasionally trips over the narrative when it gets needlessly complicated, but for the most part, the movie builds methodically, and the pieces start to come together in illuminating ways (the ending is a little iffy).
     If Ajami's message demands that we pay attention to it (keep in mind that it was co-written and directed by Yaron Shani, an Israeli Jew, and Scandar Copti, an Israeli arab), it's the way the story is told that makes that the film all the more essential. It has the gritty intensity of the best of its genre, such as City of God, Gommora, or A Prophet (also a contender from 2009). "Ajami" is the name of a neighborhood in the city of Jaffa, and everything about the streets and the people in them feels alive and authentic. Many of the actors are non-professionals, but they all give excellent performances, and their characters come off as more sympathetic and relatable than I could have expected. Binj, Nasri, Malek, and Dando all play tough, but they're a vulnerable bunch, more scared than anything else. And when tragedy strikes, it's all the more appalling for feeling so real.


Harry Brown (2010)

      Harry Brown takes place in the dreary and run down housing projects of South London and somehow manages to make England look like far scarier place than that peaceful and scenic paradise we call the middle east. Most brits would probably be content to call the "chavs" (those errant British youths who are always up to no good) a nuisance, a bother, or an unfortunate consequence of Tatcher's destruction of the working class. But this movie declares full out war on the young. It's a call to arms for septugenarians who are mad as hell and aren't going to take it anymore. 
       Of course, you're much more willing to trust an old man with a gun when the man is played with effortless ease and gravitas by Sir Michael Caine. There are few actors more calm and reassuring than this distinguished gentleman, so naturally, we're willing to follow him anywhere. In fact, I was eagerly awaiting the movie to kick into its action gear so that Caine could start getting medieval on all of the hoodied gangs that have been making his life a living hell. He does, and the movie gets to be as violent as anyone could have asked, but it's hard to say that it's any fun. Harry Brown doesn't tread lightly: it's  not disingenuous or hypocritical, and doesn't offer half-hearted preachings about the moral degeneracy of violent youngsters while giving those same kids all the gunfire and blood they want.
     What it offers up instead is bleakness, melancholy, and righteous anger. This is best in the first hour or so when Caine/Brown is grieving the loss of his wife and his friend and building up to his decision to take the law into his own hands. Here, the direction (from first-timer Daniel Barber) is surprisingly heartfelt in it's willingness to focus at length on Brown's pain. Some of the later violent scenes are gripping as well, even if they go a little overboard. As Brown enters the lair of two druggies to buy himself a firearm, he is treated to the sight of two shirtless addicts, their emaciated bodies covered with scars, as they inject heroin, snort cocaine, and smoke crack through a gun. And that's not even mentioning the industrial sized weed farm, overdosing girl sprawled out on the couch, and hard core porn video playing in the background. Nice lurid detail there, even if we do get the point fairly quickly. Maybe they wanted to remind those of us who live in a more civilized country how lucky we are to be able to put the same goods Brown spent so much trouble looking for in our Walmart shopping carts.
      But eventually, the film simply loses control, staying all too serious while the events on screen become more and more ludicrous. And when a movie takes itself this seriously, you kind of have to take its message at face value, which in this case, gets you into a moral quandary. Do we really need vigilantes killing every single wayward youngster to make the world a better place?  A ridiculous notion, obviously, but the direction is assured enough and the movie is good enough to make you think that it actually means it.


After Hours (1985)

     If there's one thing that makes Scorsese's After Hours fit in with these two other movies, it's its distinct sense of place. The New York of the 80s (SOHO to be exact) is shown here in all it's dangerous, seedy, and completely crazy glory. Many people nowadays seem to miss the air of unpredictability that was in the city; as far as I know pre-Giuliani New York is the only thing that has ever gotten people nostalgic about higher crime rates. 
      If Scorsese's brooding Taxi Driver was a hidden love letter to the grime of the Big Apple, After Hours does little hiding, instead presenting all of the strangeness and scariness with a good deal of humor and affection. This movie is like Taxi Driver would be like if Travis Bickle was a sane man and it was the streets around him that were going hilariously mad. 
     The driving force behind the plot is conveniently summed up with a simple phrase from the owner of a coffee shop: "It's after hours... different rules apply." Soon after deciding to spice up his dull life with some spontaneous romance with a mysterious girl he meets in a different coffee shop, Paul Hackett (Griffin Dune) figures out that he wants nothing more than to return home. Only, the rules have changed--drastically--and there's no way of escaping the series of increasingly surreal and bizarre events that keep our hero from making the 80 block trip back to his warm bed and familiar corporate life. Paul's travails soon reach epic proportions, with a vigilante mob and an ice cream truck chasing him, dead and/or heartbroken women left in his wake, and ominous ceramic bagel paperweights popping up in unexpected places. Speaking of "epic," After Hours really is the Odyssey, albeit with a heavy Lynch influence and by way of Cheech and Chong. The similarities are endless, but suffice it to say it's the city itself--savage and untamable--that plays the role of Poseidon. 
       But if New York City is one of the most important characters of After Hours, the film makes no pretense of representing reality. The danger and tension may be real, but, like the Odyssey (and unlike Harry Brown) it uses myth and exaggeration to convey something fundamentally true. And where Homer was commenting on the nature storytelling while telling stories with great dexterity, Scorsese tells a great story by reveling in the language of cinema. His camera swoops and glides around with so much energy that there has to be some self-parody involved. In fact, he's more of a jokester than ever here, providing intrigue and clues that lead nowhere, refusing to give the audience anything to make sense of, and turning expectation on its head; when a woman sullenly tells Paul that she was raped for six hours, it's an inexplicably funny moment. After Hours may be morbid, but it has a joy to it that's contagious and deadly. If there's one thing that separates it from everything else I've seen recently, it's its enthusiasm in creating a world that can only exist on film.


Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Visconti: Death in Venice and Senso

Senso (1954)

     Visconti's Senso opens in an opera house. Actually, it opens with a good two minutes of the opera production itself--Verdi's Il trovatore--which made me think I had been tricked into watching an opera production staged for the camera. I wouldn't have been that far off; all of the Visconti movies I've seen thus far have that same operatic scale, elegance, and sense of inevitable tragedy and loss. He treats his characters with varying degrees of compassion or disgust, but nothing can change the fact that they're a doomed bunch, grappling with forces--social change, history, time--that are out of their control.
      Here, fairly traditional romance and melodrama replaces the grand family drama of The Leopard (1963) as the conduit for Visconti's depiction of the changing world (the historical backdrop of the Italian Risorgimento remains the same). La Contessa Serpieri is a wealthy Venitian lady, married to both her husband and the cause of Italy's unification, and she betrays them both to find true love with Franz Mahler, a charming Prussian soldier. He goes on about how war forces men to become peons fighting for a cause they have no interest in, and is perfectly happy to give up glory, honor, and patriotism for her. Or not. Lest we give into idealism and start thinking that happiness can be found by escaping social constraints, the story turns sour, and the two lovers turn from heroes into degenerates.
       There's one scene in particular, where all the sentimental veneer is stripped away, that shocked me in it's cruelty. It appealed to the side of me that likes my movies dark. But then again, this is a story where a woman is punished for foolish desire (something that always leaves me uneasy), where connection is impossible between two people who are supposed to be fighting each other, and where patriotism and fidelity matter above all. I was impressed with the intelligence, visual acuity, and attention to detail on display in Senso, but the more I think about it, the more I'm convinced that this just wasn't the right story to carry out Visconti's vision. Senso may be good, but the best thing about it is that it was practice for The Leopard.


Death in Venice (1971)      

Thomas Mann's Death in Venice novella, on the other hand, provides source material that fits the director like a glove. Not to say that Visconti is a pedophile who enjoys staring at 14 year old boys who are supposed to embody the very idea of beauty and perfection. But the director admitted that he tried to approach auditions for the role of the young Tadzio with the lustful gaze of aging protagonist Gustav von Aschenbach, and judging from the footage we have of him marveling over the cuteness of some shirtless Scandinavian fellows, he seems to have had an easy go at it.
      Now, now. Before I get too carried away with tasteless remarks about pederasty, I should say that there is a lot more here than mere perversion. Death in Venice is about beauty, loss, and powerlessness, and like many of Visconti's films, it takes place in a a world that's coming apart; a cholera epidemic has swept down upon Venice, although it seems to have enveloped the city in a mournful haze instead of filling it with an air of dread. But, most importantly, the story is about the creative process; von Aschenbach (Dirk Bogarde), unable to find real beauty in his own art (he was a writer in the book and is a composer here), discovers it in something forbidden, in his love for the young boy (Bjorn Andreson). The movie shows the poor man as a rather sad and sometimes pitiful character, but it also treats him with with a sympathetic gaze. Von Aschenbach is a more than an old man that we have to shake out heads at and feel a little bit sorry for. As Mann said, "something comes out in illness that is more important and conductive to life and growth than any medical guaranteed health and other words: certain conquests made by the soul and mind are impossible without disease, madness, crime of the spirit."  
Strangely enough, Death in Venice, which should be a more flawless and distinguished work than Senso, falters in its direction where Senso does not. The affection that Aschenbach has for Tadzio is shown through an endless series of zooms. We get a zoom in on the mustachioed and decrepit Aschenbach and then a zoom in on the rosy cheeked Tadzio and it gets to be a little silly after a while. The music is often mushy and sentimental, and the film can be formless and long-winded at times. But ultimately, it's the personal connection that Visconti brings that elevates the movie. Death in Venice nearly reaches the level of beauty and sadness that it aims for.


Monday, January 10, 2011

Ivan the Terrible, Parts I and II


    It's easy to appreciate Sergei's Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin. The film revolutionized editing and provided propaganda so convincing that even Joseph Goebbels liked and admired it. And even then its politics are hardly reprehensible; in 1925 Lenin had just died and Stalin hadn't had the time to start killing dissidents left and right, so there was nothing wrong with showing some malnourished workers rising up against a repressive Tsarist regime. Plus no one has a difficult time remembering what makes the film great--all you have to do is visualize the Odessa steps sequence.
      The same can not be said for Ivan the Terrible. For one, there are no baby carriages falling down stairs. But mainly, the movie was made in 1944 (part II was made in 46 but only released 12 years later and Eisenstein died before he could make part III), meaning Citizen Kane had already been unleashed by the gods of cinema, and Russia's film industry, instead of being a cutting edge innovative force, was years behind. Heavy symbolism and dialectic montage didn't have nearly the effect they once did, and Stalin, with his obsessive authority over what could and couldn't get made, made William Hayes of the "Hayes" (or Motion Picture Production) Code look like Ray Bradbury.
     Ivan the Terrible, therefore, wasn't just made in the interest of shedding light on the rule of a historical figure. Stalin may have opposed the ruling class in the Bolshevik Revolution, but he held a great affinity for Tsar Ivan "Grozniy", whose name has also been translated as Ivan the Awesome and Ivan the Awful ("awe inspiring" seems to be a more appropriate and less confusing term). Ivan turned Russia into an empire by expanding it and centralizing it's rule under his autocratic leadership (while reducing the authority of the "boyar" noblemen), and he established the idea of a guard as a means of political control. It's no wonder Stalin wanted Eisenstein to glorify the man.
     So glorify he does. During Ivan's coronation, Eisenstein keeps cutting to religious iconography and ceremonial attire. When Ivan's subjects raise their goblets to him, the cups form an ascending V in perfect symmetry. When Ivan urges his men to start an attack on the city of Kazan, he repeatedly bellows "A Kazan", in a way that sounds uncannily like Oprah announcing to her guests that she's taking them to Australia. Almost every shot is composed to enhance the Tsar's position as an imposing and commanding figure, and the few that aren't are still composed to say things very loudly. When Eisenstein isn't overtly concerned with making his images as powerful as possible, he makes them flamboyant, as in a raucous dance sequence at one of Ivan's banquets that's inexplicably the only scene in color in the entire 3+ hours of movie. That one scene is quite lively, but unfortunately most of the movie is a little too static; the focus on theatricality diminishes the film's resonance.
     That said, Ivan is far from terrible. Stalin eventually decided that he wasn't so fond of his association with the Ivan portrayed in part II, and banned the film (which in itself gives the movie cultural and historical interest). Everything that Stalin disliked is what makes the film great; Ivan is shown as ruthless, conflicted, and pained--perhaps too close to Stalin himself for him to admit. And Eisenstein is indeed able to create his distinctive moments of formidable power, although the glorification is most successful near the end when Ivan has become slightly more humanized. Finally Nickolay Cherkasof should be applauded for his embodiment of Ivan. He stubbornly resists being humanized by somehow conveying superhuman authority and importance even when he's at his weakest. Maybe it's just that badass beard...


Saturday, January 8, 2011

Point Break (1991)


     Feminists would probably frown on me if I described Kathryn Bigelow's filmmaking as masculine. She's a woman who directs action movies. Isn't the only reason we find this unusual because society creates certain roles for women and expect them to fill them? Who's to say that shootings, bank robberies and intense car chases are reserved exclusively for dudes?
    Well, Katheryn Bigelow says it. There is one important female character in Point Break--the feisty Tyler (Lorry Petty), who takes shit from no one and can surf with the best of them--but she just gets relegated to a role as Keanu Reeves's romantic interest, and eventually even becomes the damsel in distress. No, Bigelow is definitely interested in men. In their aggression, the way they bond and connect, and most notably, in their constant search for the ultimate rush. And she directs her tale of driven men with admirable force; Point Break is a movie about adrenaline that is full of the stuff.
     The men in Point Break do a lot of things to get that adrenaline pumping. Reeve's plays Johnny Utah, formerly a college football star in Ohio and now starting his career as an FBI agent in L.A. There, he works with partner Pappas (Gary Busey) to try to find the identity of the Ex-Presidents, a gang of four bank robbers, who have robbed more than 30 banks in the past few years, and who leave no clues behind. Pappas has a hunch that they're surfers, so Keanu goes undercover and learns to ride the waves. There he meets Bodhi the Bhodisattva (Patrick Swayze) and his followers and learns about the spiritual dimension of catching 20 ft breaks. Then come some of the most exhilarating scenes I've seen on film; a shootout, a car chase, and a foot chase are brutal and intense. And then there's an extended skydiving sequence that is truly breathtaking.
     That seems to cover the gamut of risky male behavior. I would go so far as to say that Bigelow is as fetishistic about violence and thrills as any of her subjects, given how thoroughly and lovingly she details the experience. But if Bigelow enjoys all the action as much as, say, her ex hubby James Cameron, there's still something that sets her apart, and that something has to do with gender (sorry if I keep having to bring this up). No matter how fascinated she is with this world, she knows she's not a part of it. In Both Point Break and The Hurt Locker, Bigelow maintains a critical distance, an ability to truly observe the motivations of these men who, as one FBI officer puts it, are "young, dumb, and full of cum." In the best scenes of the two movies violence is shown as a game and a connecting force for these men; the joviality of the bank robberies in Point Break, the quasi homoerotic rough housing in the Hurt Locker, and even all that surfing, which one surfer claims is "better than sex". And this violence is above all destructive. As Bodi says, "If you're looking for the ultimate, you have to be willing to pay the ultimate price."
     The message may seem contradictory, even hypocritical. Why would Bigelow devote herself so enthusiastically to the pursuit of the ultimate rush, while at the same time showing where it leads to? Actually, it makes perfect sense. When James Cameron gives Sigourney Weaver a platform to kick ass, he's preaching female empowerment and the joys of escapist, cathartic violence. When Bigelow uses violence, it's not feminine, it's not about empowerment, and it's not a force for good. But it is something that makes you feel good, and it is something that you can't get enough of.

Well, that's it for my analysis. As far as the actual quality of Point Break--there's a reason that it's not the Bigelow movie known for taking home the Best Picture award. Keanu's acting in certain scenes is downright bad, there's occasional cheesiness, and the ending is terrible. The Hurt Locker (2009) tackles the same themes as Point Break, but it pares down much of the excess, and is more focused and formally impressive. Still, The Hurt Locker lacks the charm of this modern cult classic. I doubt anyone's going to learn all of Jeremy Renner's lines by heart, the way PB fanatics do for Swayze or Busey.


Thursday, January 6, 2011


     Sofia Coppola is only forty years old, but her latest film indicates surprising maturity in her career path. By this I mean that she's behaving like a 75 year Woody Allen, who might have a few original ideas left in him, but felt no need to waste them on his latest cinematic effort. You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger came out earlier this year and dared to ask probing questions about religion and life's meaninglessness (gasp). In Somewhere, Coppola, also, settles into comfortable and familiar territory, framing the ennui and existential numbness of the wealthy and narcissistic in a way that draws almost everything from Lost in Translation (and repeats the themes of Marie Antoinette).
     The main difference, however, between Sofia's movie and Allen's is that I get the sense that she actually cares. Her main character might be self-loathing, but I think Coppola has quite a bit of affection for him. Stephen Dorff, an actor who's fallen out of fashion since Blade (1998) plays the role of the down on his luck Johnny Marco. This being Hollywood, down on his luck means that he's America's most popular actor, drives a Ferrari, moves from four star hotel room to four star hotel room, sleeps with a bevy of beautiful women, and even has a daughter who loves him. (Well, there's some bad too--he's divorced from his wife, and some anonymous woman keeps sending him angry text messages). This being Sofia Copolla, the loneliness is pervasive; it's in the opening scene where he's driving his Ferrari around in circles and in the even less subtle scene where he hires two strippers to perform in his hotel room. He can't even make spaghetti without looking pathetic; we get a brief glimpse of an overflowing colander and realize that he knows neither how to take care of himself, nor the definition of excess.
     All of this is certainly predictable, but the film still worked for me. This is due, in large part, to Elle Fanning's role as his eleven year old daughter. She brings radiance and innocence into Johnny's life and into the movie, but no one's teaching anyone lessons here. Cleo does her best to act mature, but even she can sense how confused her world is. And Johnny doesn't reform his life and turn into a good person just because his daughter is around; he has merely found someone to share his isolation with. Unlike Murray and Scarlett Johansson, these two are somehow not enough for each other.
    All in all, I would say I liked Somewhere. I liked the mood, I liked the colors, I liked the look at the emptiness of the Hollywood lifestyle, and I liked looking inside the Hollywood lifestyle. I think I even had a sort of perverse wonder/admiration for the relative glamour of all the emptiness. But I also can't evaluate Somewhere on its own terms, I can't avoid comparing it to Lost in Translation. Obviously, both have famous actors in swanky hotels, and both introduce important female characters to shake up some of the initial monotony. But everything else from Lost in Translation is replicated as well; from the significant role of cars and traffic, to Murray's incomprehension during Japanese interviews, which finds its counterpart in Johnny's confusion at an Italian awards show. It's all intentional--but for what reason, I don't quite know. Directors have often returned to past works--whether it's Haneke making an American version of Funny Games or Hitchcock redoing The Man Who Knew Too Much--so perhaps Coppola just feels the need to reinforce her vision. Or maybe the repetition is supposed to make some kind of statement, and Sophia's apparent creative rut mirrors her subjects' inability to escape from whatever's troubling them. Whatever the case, Somewhere is very good at making you think it isn't going anywhere new. And perhaps it isn't. But it's a little like Johnny and his magnificent piece of Italian engineering; wherever it's going, it gets there in style.


Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Best of 2010

The Social Network is the best movie of the year. 

     Not that I would ever make so definitive a statement, but the critics have spoken, and as a whole, they have chosen Fincher's "facebook movie" as the champion of 2010. has collected about 85 top ten lists so far, and The Social Network graces three quarters of them, while making it up to first place on 21 lists. The love bestowed on TSN is no great surprise; the general populace would undoubtably vote Toy Story 3 or Inception as their favorite, but Mark Zuckerberg, in real life and in film, is the undisputed man of the year (sorry Julian Assange). The rest of the top 10 metacritic compilation features predictable awards favorites Black SwanToy StoryInception, The Kids are all Right, and The King's Speech, but it does have a few that seemed to come out of left field. The number two (with seven top places) is Winter's Bone, a drama about poverty in the Ozarks, which went largely unnoticed by audiences in its summer release.  And while Polanski was making headlines for his arrest in Switzerland, his latest thriller, The Ghost Writer, quietly slipped into place as the 6th best movie of the year. For foreign success stories, we have Carlos, a 5 1/2 hour French miniseries about terrorist Carlos the Jackal, and Un prophète which actually came out in 2009, ranked 8 and 10 respectively.

Of course, general consensus can only say so much. For truly puzzling choices, I decided that I would have to see what the good people at "The New Yorker" were up to. It was almost comforting to see The Inception and Black Swan on lovable curmudgeon David Denby's worst film list, but alas, no such luck for The Social Network, which made the cut for all three resident critics, and was number one for Denby. It goes along with his idea that the theme of 2010 is "the year of Boston"--a good point given the success and/or quality of The TownThe Fighter, and The Company Men. I like Richard Brody's summary of 2010 a little better though. For him, we're in a "new golden age." While some may mourn the loss of the Hollywood studio system, Brody claims that it has merely changed: " now the system is something of a blunderer that often flings itself into follies or even crushes inspiration under it's weight, but sometimes gets carried away, for reasons good and bad, and hands surprising control of vast resources to artists who make stunningly audacious and personal use of them." I might not agree that any Hollywood film is "stunningly audacious," and some in the business may disagree with Brody's later point that it's easier than ever for an independent director to get his movie made and seen, but I like his optimism. In this past year, great directors like Nolan, Fincher, the Coens, Scorcese, Aronofsky, and Danny Boyle have made the films they wanted to make, and the endless reliance on tiresome 3D, useless remakes, and summer blockbuster loudness do little to diminish their accomplishments. In case you were wondering what Anthony Lane thinks of 2010, he seems to think that it's 2009, which is when seven of his top ten picks came out.

But enough about other people's opinions. I've had my busiest year yet at the theaters--I've seen 39 2010 movies (foreign leftovers like A Prophet or I am Love are not getting counted)--and this gives me the right to make some judgements of my own. The only problem is that 39 turned out to be not nearly enough. Still missing are Winters Bone127 HoursBlack SwanThe King's SpeechTrue GritSomewhereBlue ValentineThe FighterShutter IslandGreenberg, etc... And when I realized that I elected not to see Jackass 3D when the one and only John Waters had it as one of his favorites, describing "Steve-O chugging down a a glass of sweat collected from the ass-crack of an obese man and then vomiting at you in 3D" as "the purest moment of raw cinema anarchy this year," I chastised myself for my poor viewing decisions. To make matters worse, I'll have to wait another two months until most of those movies make their way across the atlantic. Oh well. Life moves on, and lists must get made. Here is my year in new movies:

1. Uncle Boonmee who can recall his past lives- The only movie that I love that has ever gently lulled me to sleep with it's surreal, pastoral imagery. I'm a little ashamed to admit that I went in and out of various states of awakeness for a good 15 minutes. But then a sex scene between a woman and a cat fish put the fear of Buddha back into me. I've heard that Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul (I swear, I had that memorised) has other films as strange, rich, and beautiful as this masterpiece, but Uncle Boonmee was a revelation to me.

2. The Social Network- In 200 years, long after Citizen Kane has been turned into dust (or pulp), mutant cave dwellers will tap into their collective electronic brain-cloud to watch The Social Network. Not only will they gain insight into one of the most important developments in technology and communication of our time, but they will experience pleasure for the first time as their desensitized silicon neurons find a way to transmit the wonders of Aaron Sorkin's witty script, Jesse Eisenberg's iconic performance, Trent Reznor's chilling score, and David Fincher's precise direction.

3. Exit Through the Gift Shop- The definitive street art documentary, and a clever look at the absurdities of the art world. Its principle subject, Thierry Guetta, is crazy enough that some Werner Herzog narration wouldn't have seemed out of place. Actually, Exit through the Gift Shop replaces Grizzly Man as the most surprising and original documentary (prankumentary?) I've seen.

4. Inception- Nolan may play it a little too straight for all his narrative trickiness, but no film this year, other than Enter the Void, comes close in ambition and sheer awesomeness.

5. Poetry- This Korean film about a grandmother learning to write poetry is indeed poetic, but definitely not as unassuming as I had assumed. It starts off  sweet and simple, but gets more challenging and unusual as it goes along.

6. Des Hommes et des Dieux (Of Gods and Men)- French director Xavier Beauvois' tale of Gallic monks weathering rising violence in Algeria.  It's a profound study of the power--and the limits--of brotherhood, faith, and duty.

7. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World- Heart, humor, and visual splendor in Edgar Wright's heavily stylized, videogame-esque comic book movie.

8. The Ghost Writer- Polanski's political thriller is smart, gripping, tense, and very satisfying.

9. Enter the Void- Gaspard Noé's psychadelic trip is dumb, gripping, drawn out, and crazy amazing.

10. The Kids are All Right- It's like toy story 3-- laughter, tears, and a kids going off to college story. I guess the "toy" here would be the dildo that the son finds in his lesbian moms's drawer. Jokes aside, this is a movie that made me feel very close to its relatable, yet complicated characters.

11. Tamara Drewe- Pitch-perfect black comedy from Stephen Frears. Frears has major competition from fellow countryman Mike Leigh and his pitch perfect drama, Another Year, but the funnier of the two films gets my vote (partly because it's so under appreciated).

12. Ovsyanki (Silent Souls)
13. Another Year
14. Biutiful- I must be the only one who didn't find this oppressively depressing. Javier Bardem's excellent performance made it graceful and poignant instead of deliberately bleak.
15. The Town- I had my qualms with Affleck's sentimental look at criminal bankrobbers, but I can't argue with how much I enjoyed it.
16. Toy Story 3
17. Four Lions
18. Inside Job
19. Machete
20. Vénus noire (Black Venus)

21. City Island
22. Get Him to The Greek

23. La princesse de Montpensier
24. Simon Werner a disparu- The best teenage drama I've seen (granted, I don't know if I've seen many). The ending is a bit of  let down, but the build up is as superb as the original Sonic Youth score.
25. Outrage
26. Unstoppable
27. Harry Potter
28. Basquiat
29. Cyrus
30. You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger- Inessential but harmless Woody Allen. After this is when things start getting iffy. Some are movies that I liked in part (The Last Exorcism, Paranormal Activity 2, even if I gave it a negative review) but just weren't that good. Burial and Kick-Ass are the only two movies this year that were well-made, but that I had some sort of active dislike for, mostly because they pretended to be better than they actually were. Of course, both were fairly well received, so maybe it's just that other people wrongly perceived them to be better than they actually were. 
31. Buried
32. Kick-ass
33. The Last Exorcism
34. Paranormal Activity 2
35. L'Homme qui voulait vivre sa vie
36. Ces amours là

37. The Tourist
38. Twilight Eclipse
39. Jonah Hex- I guess being dead last is an honor too. These last three were the only movies that I saw while fully aware of their terrible reputation, and they did not disappoint.


Saturday, January 1, 2011

Out with the Old

In the hope of starting off the new year without any leftovers from 2010 waiting for a write-up, I'm putting everything that I've seen since I started this blog out there. The first three are from the past week or so and deserve a normal review, but are getting a brief one instead. The two Melville movies are from further back; I just never built up the courage (i.e was too lazy) to do the research on the director that would give the movies the context they needed. The rest, I'm writing down in the interest of documentation. I told myself that I didn't have the time to mention any movies that I watched on DVD (all of my reviews are movies I saw in theaters), but in 15 years, how else will I remember how much fun I had watching Jonah Hex? 

The Party (1968)

Peter Sellers as Hrundi V. Bakshi, an Indian wannabe actor inadvertently wreaking havoc at a Hollywood mogul's party. He was supposed to be on the blacklist but instead ended up on the guest list. Sellers is up to his usual clumsy schtick here, but there's a good deal more pathos than in The Pink Panther, which was also directed by William Blake. Hrundi is a sympathetic character, a misfit with a habit of accidently embarrassing himself rather than a baffoon. What's more ridiculous is the faux sophistication of the Hollywood elite and the fancy home they find themselves in, which Sellers/Edwards mocks in the same way Tati did in Playtime (which Edwards admits having been inspired by). Like in Playtime (1963), where an elegant restaurant falls apart and transforms into a raucous dance club, the austere modernity gets turned into good natured mayhem. The Party has a similar leisurely pace as Tati's movie, taking its time to reach its frantic conclusion, but it's more laugh-out-loud funny, even if some of the gags fall flat. It also boasts some distinctive '60s flavor and a message about the value of outsiders and misfits that's really kind of sweet.


THX 1138 (1971)

     George Lucas's first film bears more resemblance to Tarkovsky than to his later SFX extravaganzas. It's certainly as emotionally cold as Solaris, which is fitting given that the main characters, THX and LUH, live in a world that doesn't allow any emotion whatsoever. The two do find love together early on in the movie but instead of being the sentimental kind, it's brief, elusive, and hardly recognizable. Actually, since Solaris came out in 1972, it's fun to imagine Tarkovsky looking to a George Lucas movie to get the ponderous art-house feel he wanted.
     THX opens with creepy music, electronic bleeps, and blank and white images on screens being monitored by an army of bald thespians in white suits (this includes the women). Nothing entirely original about Lucas's dystopia; there's Orwellien surveillence and mandatory emotion suppressing pills à la Brave New World. Robotic police forces patrol the city and mindless consumerism has become the new religion. But it's the little things that count; Lucas has created his world with such inventive detail and care that I couldn't help getting enthralled. The little machines that stick tubes inside noses at the hospital, the wall-to-wall whiteness of the dreamlike prison sequence, the hologram entertainment and robotic masturbation machine (apparently added in for a recent release), the robotic confessionals, the futuristic courtroom... it's all fascinating. Lucas has almost the same aesthetic control as Kubrick in, say, A Clockwork Orange.
     But if Lucas already knew how to manipulate his audience's eyes, he hadn't quite figured out how to manipulate their minds. Moviegoers didn't fall for a love story where love not only loses, but doesn't remember to show up in the first place, and THX failed to make a dent in the box office. I liked the story, despite some of its familiarity, but I had to wonder if Lucas was being sincere with his anti-authoritarian, anti-capitalist vision. After all, Lucas has become that authority.
     Turns out the message might not be as incongruous as I had believed. Here's Lucas in his own words: "why do people go see these stupid popcorn pictures when they're no good? Why is the public so stupid? That's not my fault. I just understand what people like to go see, and Steven has too, and we go for that."If Lucas really is that cynical, than THX is a movie that comments on its own director. George Lucas might have made a world where people are controlled by technology because that's the fashionable and obvious way to make a dystopia, but I think the man might have a genuine interest in mind control. Only instead of being the observer, he soon figured out he could earn a much better living being the practitioner.


Inside Job (2010)

     Director Charles Ferguson covers the mess of the 2008 financial melt down with clarity, justified anger, and the soothing voice of Matt Damon. Government officials Summers, Geithner, Bernanke, Greenspan, Paulson, Gramm, and more get plenty of blame heaped on them for being inextricably linked with Wall Street and Wall Street gets shown as the mecca of greed, high risk behavior, and insane practices it really is. Banks bet against their own securities, rating agencies get paid to label even the worst derivatives bundles AAA (the highest rating), and bankers snort cocaine, hire prostitutes, and kick back in their penthouses and private jets. I'm sure most of this is familiar ground for those who keep up on these things, but the movie does an exemplary job of tying all the abuse and insanity together and showing the extent to which it's ingrained in our system. A little more surprising is the way business schools are exposed as a main cause of the distortion of economics. It's fun watching the futile evasive tactics of Glenn Hubbard, who heads the Columbia business school, was the chief economic advisor for Bush, is on the board of Met Life, and gets major moolah as a consultant for various firms. If the conflicts of interest aren't bad enough there, consider the case of Columbia professor Frederic Mishkin, who was payed 125K to write a report on financial stability in Iceland (Iceland went bankrupt shortly thereafter). When Ferguson asks him why the title of the report now reads Financial Instability in Iceland on his resumé, he squirms a little and says that everyone makes typos. It's a very thorough film, but one should be warned that the main focus is definitely on Wall Street. The effects of the recession on the American people get a cursory glance, but I'm guessing Capitalism: A Love Story is a better movie for examining the impact of the crisis on Main Street.


Army of Shadows (1969)- There's not much glory in Melville's movie about the French resistance. The resistants spend most of their time hiding, killing people who sell them out, and rescuing or not rescuing captured fellow members. They spend very little time collecting Nat-zi scalps. And the only thing they can cling on to is their willingness to sacrifice everything for their ideology--which makes them heroes, in a way, but not especially heroic ones. Melville has made the definitive resistance movie here; it's powerful and sad, and death hangs on in every shot. 8.7

Le Samouraï (1967)- Melville's minimal and highly stylized gangster movie also features a certain resignation towards death on the part of its main character. Pretty boy Alain Delon plays Jef Costello, a hitman who does everything from killing to feeding his canary with expressionless cool. The film is directed with the same precision that Jef uses to carry out his jobs, but Melville is considerably more detached from his story than he was for Army of Shadows. Still, it's a pleasure to watch. 8.5

Movies seen on DVD

Elephant-8.3- Gus Van Sant's take on Columbine feels very personal.
Jonah Hex-3.1 A masterpiece.
Apocalypse Now-10 As brilliant as always
Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay-6.3 Fun but very minor.
Une Partie de Campagne- 8.5 Renoir's famous short is poetic and wise.
Purple Rain-6.4 Prince is pure sexiness.
Solaris-8.8 Tarkovsky's sci/fi masterpiece.
Un Conte de Noel-7.1 Depressing, boring, masterful. Didn't like it, but points for being good.
LoL-6.3  Popular French teenage comedy. It's only redeeming element is the incredible Émile Bertherat in the role of Paul-Henri.
The Inglorious Bastards (1978)- 7.4 War-sploitation at it's best.

Movies that I saw in film class and that we only saw part of

The Servant-awesome
La chambre verte-decent
Le plaisir-super duper
New York Stories-eh
The Unbearable Lightness of Being-yes
Death of a Salesman-no
Le Diable au Corps-hmm