Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Eccentricities of a Blond-Haired Girl (Thursday, September 30, 2010) (125)

Manoel de Oliviera made The Eccentricities of a Blond-Haired Girl when he was 100-years old (he's now 102). He started making movies in the 1930s in the silent era and is still working today. None of this really really means anything significant, but it's impressive as hell - especially considering how good a movie this is.

More than anything, this is a visual pleasure to behold. Oliviera's use of color, texture and scale is absolutely masterful, making this one of the most beautiful works I've seen in a long time. Based on a short story by Jose Maria de Eca de Queiroz, the 19th Century Portuguese novelist, this movie basically plays like a short story at only 64 minutes long. And like a good short story the economical use of dialogue, explication, detail and atmosphere is the key here.

Macario is a young accountant who works in his uncle's fabric store. At work above the shop one day he looks out the window and sees a girl in the window facing him across the street, Luisa, keeping cool by waving a fan on herself. At first he notices the fan, but then he notices the girl. She's only a few years younger than he is and is absolutely gorgeous. Immediately he falls in love with her.

After meeting her and meeting her family, he wants to ask her to marry him, but his traditional uncle doesn't want her to distract him from his work. The very conservative man feels that it is inappropriate for the two to date and also worries that he is not very good at his work and throwing a woman into his life might make him make more mistakes. He must prove to his uncle and to Luisa's family that he is a good, honest man who can take care of himself financially and use good judgment.

One thing that is a bit surprising about the film, but something that I really liked, is that the story is basically not updated at all from the old-fashionedness of the short story. We basically are watching a 19th Century story played out in modern times. The very mannered acting and dialogue underlines this point and shows how that much has changed in the world in the past 200 years, still some similar things remain.

There is a gorgeous quality to the photography here (by Sabine Lancelin) that has incredibly rich colors in each and ever shot - turning each set-up into a beautiful painting. This is not super intense colors, like you might find in a Fassbinder film, but rather single bold colors that fit in naturally to the other tones of a room or landscape. In some cases it's just a simple yellow curtain by the window in the corner, in other cases, it's the pinkish tone of a building exterior.

It seems like as much time went into showing amazing textures to us as well. One of my favorite elements in the film is the nearly-tactile travertine frame around the window that Luisa stands in. This beautiful texture meshes amazingly with the plaster wall of the building that surrounds it. Making this whole set-up even more wonderful size of the window (almost bigger than human-sized) and the frame the window creates within the overall shot. It's a simple thing, but it's absolutely gorgeous. If this were a painting in a museum it would be a masterpiece.

There is an interesting element of memory and idealization in this film that is very important. We see many wide-angle shots with incredibly deep focus. This reminds us of how deep memories go and how for Macario beautiful things (beautiful girls) can be idealized and remain perfect forever.

I appreciate how small and gentle this film is. It is technically tremendous but also has a beautiful, simple story as well.

Stars: 4 of 4

Monday, September 27, 2010

Made in Dagenham (Monday, September 27, 2010) (124)

Made in Dagenham has been described as the British version of Norma Rae, and that's basically exactly what it is. The film follows the story of Rita O'Grady, who in 1968 led a strike by the women in the Ford factory in Dagenham, England to get equal pay for their work. The plant was one of the biggest in the world and the center of Ford's European production center.

The 140-or-so women who worked there were considered unskilled laborers for their work sewing vinyl seats for the interiors of all the Ford cars produced in the factory. With such a classification, they were paid less than people with semi-skilled or skilled titles. The problem, however, was that even if the women got the semi-skilled designation, they would still be paid less than men at the same level.

O'Grady (played by the bright and sunshiny Sally Hawkins), with the help of her union organizer, Albert Passingham (Bob Hoskins), got the women to strike for several months, ultimately resulting in a shut-down of all car production at that factory, as they couldn't complete cars with no interior seating. O'Grady had to deal with the constant onslaught by male factory workers who didn't see the labor issue similarly as well as a growing friction with family and friends. Her loving husband Eddie (Daniel Mays) struggles with wanting to support his wife and her causes and feeling emasculated that she is the boss of the house (and keeping the factory idle as well).

This is a very nice story filled with all sorts of wonderful tearful moments where women assert themselves and demand equal pay, but it is banal and somewhat lifeless. O'Grady is a very important woman in world labor history, to be sure, but there's not much here other than some rather dull history.

To make matters worse, the script, by Bill Ivory, is much too long and complicated and the directing, by Nigel Cole, is rather styleless and badly done. The film should have been been no more than 90 minutes, rather than the 113 that it clocks in at. There is a lot of time wasted on side stories, like the lady who led the women's section of the union before O'Grady and how her husband is an dusty old war vet, or the hot-stuff young woman who is a symbol of '60s sexual liberation while trying to fit into the old factory mindset.

Cole really does a terrible job of letting us know exactly what will happen to characters three scenes ahead of time. When one character gives a passionate speech about how proud he is of the women strikers, it is clear in context that he is going to die in the next few minutes. The most upsetting is that once the women's demands are basically met and the Minister of Labor (who is a lady) agrees to a pay hike for them, we get a horrible back and forth between O'Grady and the Minister about the clothes they're wearing - because they might be important union and labor people, but at the end of the day, women just love talking about clothes. Ugh.

These things are not all that terrible, though. The film is OK and not brilliant - but not terrible. It's not as good as Norma Rae, because there's just too much going on, but it's nice and inoffensive.

Stars: 2 of 4

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Enter the Void (Sunday, September 26, 2010) (123)

I only know writer/director Gaspar Noé from his 2002 film Irreversible, which got a lot of attention at the time for it's unusual structure and the very, very violent rape scene with Monica Bellucci. I guess I was prepared for Enter the Void to be a difficult film, but I could have never expected what I got. Watching this film is a totally arduous experience. Noé uses bright, flashing lights and odd focus tricks, unusual moving cameras, sudden and loud noises and some of the most direct sexual and violent material I have seen in recent years. Beneath these elements, the film is rather dull as the underlying story is banal and difficult to connect with.

The basic story is of American loser and waistoid Oscar who lives in Tokyo for some amount of time. At a certain point he begins to deal drugs in the expat clubbing community. His younger sister Linda visits him and falls in with a Japanese pimp. Ultimately when a drug deal goes bad, Oscar is killed by the Japanese vice squad. From there we see backwards, how Oscar got to that point, and forwards, about what his sister does after his death.

The main focus of the film is the unusual points-of-view of each of the three acts. The first act (about Oscar dealing drugs and getting iced) is interestingly shown from his subjective point-of-view - as if we were looking out of his eyes and hearing in voice over his internal thoughts. There are some clever camera tricks use here (like when he looks in a mirror at one point). When Oscar takes some drugs, we go into his brain to see what he is "seeing" internally - which is basically some trippy psychedelic stuff reminiscent of the third act of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Mostly this is showy and annoying (it's basically a long hand-held camera shot with some Windows 95 screen-saver computer animation in the middle).

The second act is told from behind Oscar's head (sorta like the shots of Olivier Gourmet in the Dardenne Brothers' Le Fils). We are following Oscar as he goes about doing and dealing drugs and fucking all sorts of whores and girlfriends (heckuva life, buddy).

The last act seems to be from the point-of-view of Oscar's spirit or soul (ugh, even writing that makes me sorta sick). Everything is shot from above with a very "floaty" camera. We go through walls and fly around the city from one sinful location to another seeing what Linda after he's gone. Not to ruin anything, but we get to go into Linda's vagina as she's having sex and see her male partner's penis pushing toward us and ejaculating. Uh. I don't know what to say about this, other than it's totally unnecessary and pretty fucking dumb.

But that's really the whole movie. Oscar and Linda are really boring characters who are never sober and have nothing to say of any interest (there's a back story that they were orphaned when they were young when their folks died in a bad car accident). Their expat friends are lowlifes. The drug stuff is boring and only style with no substance.

I got rather motion sick watching this, with all the moving cameras and drug-addled views of the world. There is a recurring thing where Oscar remembers the car accident that killed his parents - which means that at just about any moment there could be a tremendously loud and sudden car crash into the middle of the screen (just in case we were getting comfortable in our seats as we're getting jizzed on by gigantic cocks). The script structure is just as showy and unnecessary as the drug visions and camera work. Big deal that it's not linear. That makes it annoying, not interesting. I guess I give Noé credit for being brave enough to do what he wanted to do - I just didn't particularly like it.

Stars: 1.5 of 4

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Howl (Sunday, September 26, 2010) (122)

Howl is a multi-form film about Allen Ginsberg around the time he wrote his masterpiece poem and about the obscenity suit that was brought against the publisher for it. Apparently, we are told, the dialogue all comes from interviews with Ginsberg and the courtroom transcription from the trial.

There are four threads that mix and cut through this piece. In one we see Ginsberg (played by James Franco) in his apartment in 1957, about two years after the piece was published talking to an interviewer (in color). Another one is the courtroom (in black and white) with David Strathairn as the prosecutor, Jon Hamm as the defense attorney and Bob Balaban as the judge. There are several "literary experts" brought to testify about the value of the poem and whether or not it is obscene. In another thread, we see (again in black and white) Ginsberg (again Franco) reading the poem to a crowded nightclub with his crushes Jack Kerouac and Neal Casssady and his boyfriend Peter Orlovsky looking on. The final section is an animated expression of the poem playing out with Franco's voice (as Ginsberg's voice) reading the poem on top.

The impressive thing about the film is that it presents the entire poem in a way that becomes rather easy to understand through all the different ideas that swirl around it. Just as you hear one section in the animated part, you see a discussion of that part by the courtroom "experts" and then see Ginsberg explaining it himself to the interviewer. Sometimes his stand-up reading of it gives more tone to that section, so we once again understand it better.

On top of this, we see a good amount about who Ginsberg was at the time. He was a very sad gay man who was constantly in and out of mental hospitals. We get the sense that he was sent to these places not necessarily because he needed it, but because he was weird and gay and many doctors didn't know how to deal with him (he might have had some anxiety disorders, though he was never particularly crazy). We see how his love for a few men (straight men) like Kerouac and Cassady was a painful burr in his side through much of his 20s. He was able to hook up with them once in a while, but never felt that he got the same love he gave them.

This is a very interesting movie and a very clever, creative presentation. I have always appreciated the poem, but always found it a bit cumbersome and dense. The formal elements of the film help to break down the wall I've always had with the piece and make me appreciate it more. In the end, though, it is very small and just about a single poem. That's a bit unfair of me to say, I know, but it doesn't have a tremendous amount of depth beyond some interesting insights in to Ginsberg's life.

Stars: 3 of 4

Buried (Saturday, September 25, 2010) (121)

Rodrigo Cortes' Buried is a great example of a tremendous idea that is terrible executed and how the end result is pretty horrible. The film opens with a black screen and a some panting and fumbling from a man. After a few agonizing minutes (it might actually only be a few seconds, but it feels like it's going on forever) a Zippo lighter is lit and we see a man (Ryan Reynolds) who is tied bound and gagged in a shallow coffin, dirty and bleeding. He screams and tries to push is way out, but he seems to be buried under sand.

After a few minutes a mobile phone rings near his feet. He reaches down to grab it and misses the call. He begins calling numbers he knows: his wife in Western Michigan; 411 information; the FBI field office; the company he works for. He is a contractor in Iraq, a truck driver, and it seems that his convoy was hit by an IUD. He blacked and and all he knows is that now he is where he is. (We find out later that it is October 2006.)

Ultimately he gets a call from the kidnappers who tell him they need $5million by 9pm or they will let him die in the coffin. It is about 7:30 at this point. He calls the State Department and they put him through to a hostage negotiating team in Iraq and a guy who can help to find him or at least try to calm his nerves. It seems he's not only running out of time on the clock, but his phone is running out of batteries and he might also be running out of air.

The premise is great and sorta reminiscent of a clumsy Hitchcockian idea (actually the poster and the opening titles are clearly inspired by Saul Bass and give a very Hitchcockian feeling even before the film begins). But the execution of the film is nothing even close to Hitch. At nearly every turn Cortes makes bad decisions and goes more for the shock/thriller aspect of the story than the interesting psycho-terror-drama aspects of the story that Hitch would have certainly enjoyed more. Basically the script is full of cheap gags and a bunch of unexplainable details.

At one point Reynolds is told by the hostage helper guy that he should conserve his phone battery life by putting the phone on a sound ringer rather than a vibrate. He doesn't do this- and for no particular reason. Later he takes a brief nap and wakes to find a black snake in his pants. Huh?! How did a snake get in his pants? We see the snake slither out of a hole in the side of the coffin (a hole that was never there before) - so are we to believe that the snake came into the box, found the leg of his trousers, went up one side and then down the other side and then out the hole again? Smart snake!

I am impressed that the entire film takes place inside the coffin with the camera only on Reynolds for 95 minutes and doesn't get particularly dull, but this feeling is tempered by the absolute idiocy of most of the writing. Reynolds frequently gets furious and yells a people he calls when they don't understand the situation he's in. I totally get that he's frustrated and panicky, but at some point shouldn't he figure out that he can get more help if he's calm than if he's worked up?

I would love to see this done again with a better script. Screenwriter Chris Sparling clearly has horror movies on his mind more than good suspense films and I think this does the film a disservice. I know this concept can be done better.

Stars: 1 of 4

Friday, September 24, 2010

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (Friday, September 24, 2010) (120)

OK - so this film is the sequel to Oliver Stone's 1987 movie Wall Street - but rather than calling it Wall Street 2 (or Wall Streetest?) Stone gave it a long title that basically means nothing. I never considered money to be able to sleep, so that now I find out it never sleeps I'm sorta like, "No duh, dude". Oh - and this movie is set during the 2008 Wall Street collapse, because, you know, there were greedy people then who made a lot of money on things failing and stuff. Ugh.

This is a pretty complicated story, so bear with me. Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf) works as a trader in an investment house that is basically Lehman Brothers. His father-figure and mentor is and old guy named Louis Zabel (Frank Langella) who also has a seat on the New York Fed Board (or something). His company is going down the tubes because of toxic assets and the Board is trying to help him sell it. Ultimately he jumps in front of a subway train and dies. Jake, a bit lost and sad because his girlfriend, Winnie Gekko (Carey Mulligan - yay two Carey Mulligan movies in a row!), is out of town working on her blog.

Jake meets Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas again) when he's on a book tour and gets to talking to him. It seems Winnie doesn't like her dad because he's an asshole and was locked up in jail when she was growing up. Gekko wants to get back with his daughter, so he makes a deal with Jake that he will help Jake take down Bretton James (Josh Brolin), a guy Gekko says led Zabel to kill himself (and also a guy Gekko himself had dealings with in the Bud Fox days). There are a bunch of crosses and double crosses and proposals and bankruptcies and pregnancies and nothing all that incredibly exciting.

This is really one of the worst scripts for a movie I can remember in a long time. Every line sounds like a canned cliche ready-made for a fortune cookie - not that that was not the case with the first Wall Street movie ("who am I?," Bud Fox asks looking off his midtown balcony).

The acting here is also pretty terrible, from LaBeouf, Douglas, Mulligan, Brolin, Langella - everyone. Because Stone is such an egomaniac, he has himself in two small cameo moments as well as Vanity Fair's Graydon Carter. (Was that a deal to get good press from VF? Ridiculous.) In the most surprising performance, Susan Sarandon, as Jake's mom who is under water on three houses on Long Island (Get it?! Oh, I get it!) is terrible and ridiculous beyond words here. She has a silly New Yawk accent and looks jittery and unhinged. Very sad.

Somehow Stone thought that we would forget what city the movie was set in, as every single scene begins with helicopter overhead shots of Manhattan (in the day, at night, downtown, uptown, midtown). It's really dumb and amateurish.

The only mildly good element in the film is that most of the music is from David Byrne's last album "Everything that Happens will Happen Today". It's weird to credit a director for using music from a two-year-old album, but it is good stuff and sounds better than the dialogue, so I guess we should be grateful.

Other than the use of old music, there is nothing good here. It's a sequel that is so dumb it ruins whatever good memories I have from the original (which was, honestly, not all that brilliant either). It would be like making a sequel to Citizen Kane if Rupert Murdoch were to die. I'm not interested in how you can oversimplify financial info, Oliver. Just tell a good story. I don't care that you think you once created this Harry Lime-like super-villain; Gordon Gekko is at best two-dimensional and not very interesting (if anything, Bud Fox was the interesting character in the first film, not Gekko). This is basically just big-scale public masturbation by Stone and not worth ever watching.

Stars: .5 of 4

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Never Let Me Go (Sunday, September 19, 2010) (119)

I will be very careful here with the film Never Let Me Go, as I never read the highly regarded book and don't have any emotional connection to the story, beyond what I saw on the screen. I will say that one thing that baffles me about the film is that the trailer totally gives away the entire story and even some important details that are only revealed in the last ten minutes. I really don't know why they did this - I don't think knowing major plot points going into the thing enhanced my viewing experience. Mostly I was just waiting for these revelations to happen, thinking the whole time that somehow the trailer was cut in such a way that it was not as straightforward as the marketing department made it look. Alas the film was exactly as simple as the trailer.

The story here is about an orphanage for kids who we quickly find out are part of a national organ donation program in Great Britain (in some alternate space-time universe). They are all clones of people living in the world and the idea is that they will be able to donate three or four organs before their bodies expire and they die. The story follows three kids, Kathy (Carey Mulligan), Tommy (Andrew Garfield) and Ruth (Keira Knightly), who are friends and sometimes lovers. Tommy and Ruth hook up early, though Kathy and Tommy probably have a closer connection. The three remain friendly for about a decade until they grow up and grow apart.

The structure of the story is pretty simple: The first act has the kids in their school, Hailsham; then the second act has them moved to a sort of half-way house where as young adults they live in a cottage in the countryside preparing to either become organ donors or caretakers of organ donors (like Kathy, who will also donate her organs ultimately); finally the third act has them out in the world either getting cut up for their organs or helping others.

Throughout the film they are constantly looking to see if they can find the original person whose genetic material they are based on. This connects to the rather boring theme of whether or not they have souls and whether or not they are real people (or simply organic things that grow organs for transplants). I gotta be honest and say this was not at all compelling or at all original. This could have been some SciFi film from 60 years ago about whether or not a robot was human because it too had some sort of emotional life. Who cares?

Director Mark Romanek's work here is really pretty terrible as he telegraphs the emotions and the symbolism of each and every moment with the most ridiculous objective correlatives. We see garbage blowing in the wind just after Ruth goes on a long rant about how they are "modeled on trash and garbage" (oh - I get it!). When Kathy feels isolated in the cottage, we see her in big, wide shot sitting alone in the middle of emptiness. Ugh.

There is the root of an interesting discussion here - a post-modern question that comes up in the first act (and rather fades away by the end) about what is the nature of these kids existences if they are just created to be destroyed. They are given only certain amounts of information about their situations and are given a very limited language set to better control them. This is very similar to what Giorgos Lanthimos does in Dogtooth, but it's a lot simpler and dumber. By the time the film ends, it doesn't really matter that there was this interesting opening.

This is an interesting concept for a story, but it's done so ham-handedly and so boringly that it's really not all that interesting. On top of this, if you watch the trailer, you basically see the entire film - and that's only two minutes long! There is almost no depth in this film and no real emotional interest in the characters. Ruth is always a bitch; Kathy is always a smart geek who is emotionally distant; Tommy is sorta dim and child-like. They are like this as kids and they remain like this as adults. They don't grow at all. Maybe this is what the story is about - being denied the tools of socialization, they are emotional outsiders. But that's not really all that interesting either.

Stars: 2 of 4

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Kings of Pastry (Saturday, September 18, 2010) (119)

Kings of Pastry is a fun documentary by D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus about the preparation and competition to become a Meilleurs Ouvriers de France (or MOF) in pastry. It is basically the highest honor a pastry chef can achieve and the competition is one of the hardest imaginable. It's a lot like the Food Network Challenge show - with gigantic wedding cakes and insane sugar constructions - but much bigger and more important. The final competition takes place over the course of three days and as it occurs only every four years, the chefs prepare for months and months for it.

The main person we follow is Jacquy Pfeiffer who runs the French Pastry School in Chicago, but is originally from Alsace. He is a very warm and charismatic guy who has spent his life working with pastry and is surrounded by MOF winners in his work (two of his colleagues have the blue, white and red collar already). We see him producing some of the most magnificent sugar and chocolate treats in his test kitchen while testing out the taste, timing and execution of his desserts. He then moves his operation to his home region in France where he works in the kitchen of an old friend just a few weeks before the competition.

We also meet young pastry chefs Philipp Rigollot and Regis Lazard two of Pfeiffer's competitors (although, I guess they're not really competitors as there is no limit to how many winners there are and each man is able to win... they're really just other chefs trying to win the title).

We see all the crazy things they have to do to win and all the stress they are under to be perfect on the three days of the challenge. We see one chef's hopes of success all but crash on the ground when his sugar sculpture creation (which stood almost five feet tall) shatters and falls apart. He begins to cry as it will not be for another four years that he could try again.

There are a bunch of rather lazy and silly things that the directors do here that I don't like. One thing is that the film opens in Paris with a pretty banal shot of the Eiffel Tower as seen from the top of the Grande Roue in the Tuileries. Not only does the shot look like it was taken on a tourist's Flip camera and is so deeply trite, but the film has almost nothing to do with Paris - the competition takes place outside of Lyon (there is some dinner that Sarkozy throws for the winners that we see at the beginning, but that's it). Are we that dumb that we can't understand "France" without seeing the "Eiffel Tower"? It's pretty annoying.

This is a sweet (no pun intended), but not brilliant movie. At most, it should be seen on DVD and not in the theater.

Stars: 2.5 of 4

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Town (Friday, September 17, 2010) (117)

The Town is Ben Affleck's latest Boston-based crime/action film and much like his last film, Gone Baby Gone, it is adapted from a novel by him (and a few others). Having not read the (Prince of Theives by Chuck Hogan) it is hard to say whether what is wrong with the script is Affleck's fault or if some of the problems are also in the novel. What is clear is that this is a decent film with a really bad, facile script that I've seen a million times.

Part of the problem with the film is that there are just too many parts to the story. Doug (Affleck) is a bank robber who lives in Charlestown, Boston, a neighborhood known for producing some of the most prolific thieves and criminals in the area. He and his best friend Jem (Jeremy Renner) along with a few friends have a successful operation, knocking off banks in the Boston region. At one point when a robbery goes wrong they kidnap bank manager, Claire (Rebecca Hall) only to let her go a few blocks away. Once they discover she lives around the corner from them, Doug moves in to romance her and try to find out what she saw of them during the stick up. Of course the two fall in love and begin dating.

Meanwhile the gang is being pursued by FBI agent Adam Frawley who is hot on their heels, but always comes up just short. He basically has no leads on them, but they make his job easier and easier by continuing to rob places under his nose. There are a few other sorta dumb and unnecessary plot items: Blake Lively plays Jem's sister who has had an on-again-off-again thing with Doug and has a young kid who is maybe Doug's kid, but probably isn't; Pete Postlethwaite is some sort of mob/gang boss who organizes the robberies and then hands them off to Doug; Chris Cooper plays Doug's dad who is in jail also for robbing banks.

Mostly this is just a really messy story with way too much going on. At it's core, it is pretty dull fare that is not all that interesting. Doug is hiding his identity from Claire in a pretty pitiful way - and we watch knowing that at some point the truth will come out and ruin the relationship. There is a thing with the "one last score" that Doug and Jem will run before Doug retires from his criminal life and moves to Florida where he can spend his stolen money alone. Ugh. (Oh - and sorry to ruin it, but the last score is in Fenway Park - possibly the holiest place in Boston. Nothing like being careful. What a dumb mess.)

I think the acting is pretty good throughout the film, despite the silliness of the story. Rebecca Hall is very good and pretty sympathetic. We see her getting bamboozled into her relationship with Doug and know that she's just a victim of her own situation. Affleck is also good, though his character is much more straightforwardly dull.

The film moves pretty well, but is just so recycled that it becomes frustrating. Did Doug never watch movies as a kid and see that the "one last score" is never as easy as it sounds? If he doesn't have that perspective and I do, why do I have to watch him making the same mistakes I've seen hundreds of times before in other movies and books?

Stars: 2.5 of 4

Sunday, September 12, 2010

I'm Still Here (Sunday, September 12, 2010) (116)

It is important to note before I start this post that I saw this film on September 12, 2010 thinking it was a legitimate film about a man's mental and professional collapse. I didn't write about it immediately and by September 17, 2010 or so, it was clear that the film was a hoax, an art piece, a stunt. Now a week or so after that, I have to analyze the film that I viewed knowing that somehow what I saw and how I reacted were part of a bigger project. One could argue about whether or not this is fair, and I think this debate is very interesting. I think the whole process of this film is interesting, not only what we see onscreen, but the reactions to it in the press.

I'm Still Here is ostensibly a work of non-fiction directed by Casey Affleck about his friend and brother-in-law Joaquin Phoenix during 2008 and 2009 as he tried to transition from an actor to a rapper. Phoenix's life is falling apart during this time as his music career is not coming together they way he would want it to and he begins to lose his grip on normalcy, not shaving for weeks (and looking more and more rugged and homeless as a result), snorting cocaine off the asses of prostitutes, performing a terrible show in Miami and vomiting after a fight with a belligerent audience member. It was during this time that he notoriously went on the David Letterman show and had a career collapse while promoting the beautiful film Two Lovers.

The film is in fact is a pseudo-documentary where everything we see is part of a set-up and not real. Phoenix and Affleck conceived of the whole thing (though there was certainly some improvisation) and many of the most uncomfortable moments (like the Letterman thing or a weird scene where Ben Stiller tries to get Phoenix to play the buddy in his film Greenberg) are either written ahead of time or conceived of with the participation of the other people. (I clearly don't know what went into every scene and there has to be some fooling of people along the way. Phoenix's publicist clearly is not in on the joke as her reaction after the Letterman debacle is just too real; I'm not sure Diddy is in on the joke as his reactions are also too painful, uncomfortable and hilarious to be fake.)

Throughout the film as we see Phoenix fall deeper and deeper into a black hole there is a constant question of what Affleck is doing letting these terrible things happen to his friend. Why is he staying mostly behind the camera and not coming out to help his friend and lend him a hand. This might be one of the biggest tip-offs that the film is not totally what it seems. But just as you start thinking Affleck is being a cruel enabler watching his friend fall down a cliff, the last 10-or-so minutes of the film are a rather beautiful quiet sequence where Phoenix goes to Panama to visit his father. With no dialogue, this scene conveys emotion, sympathy and compassion in a way most young filmmakers are not able to do. For me this segment was so convincing that it led me directly into the "believing it" camp.

But considering it's not real, credit has to go to Phoenix for one of the best performances I've seen in awhile. He is totally disgusting physically and socially and totally believable. Throughout the piece, Phoenix is constantly defending himself from people who think he's faking it (of course he was) and he deals with this very well - as if he was really a man going through a life crisis that nobody believed was real. Affleck also does a great job of placing enough doubt in the first part of the film to make us ask the question "is this real?", as a way of doubling down the prank. I had trouble accepting that the film was a hoax as I felt Affleck did too many things that a director would only do if the story was real. I couldn't get past the fact that the film was so self-aware that it was just a fake.

Now that mainstream reviewers are aware of the hoax, many of them are very angry with the situation. I think this is an interesting lesson in how the Hollywood media machine makes "hits," and how reviewers covet their "access" to early screenings of movies. That the announcement came after basically all the major reviews had been written, but before many people in the world had seen it is interesting - and basically a big Fuck You to the reviewing establishment. There certainly were a handful of reviewers who thought the story was too weird to be true, but I would chalk those up to lucky guesses as I think there is simply not enough evidence in the film to know that for a certainly that the piece is phony. I think many reviewers now are upset that they were fooled and are letting this affect what they say about the picture rather than looking at the merits of the piece itself. Do they not think a well-executed hoax is an impressive feat?

I am also interested in what this film tells us about our media culture and our obsession with so-called "reality". Everything from Twitter and Facebook to reality TV comes down to the fact that we expect everybody to be available at all times. We don't flinch as much as we used to at a man who is clearly suffering onscreen (or convincingly playing like he is). That we can watch him do some of the most disgusting things we've ever seen onscreen (like having a friend shit on his face as a prank) is just par for the course these days. We have all become voyeurs complicit in the evisceration of a man and his career.

The title, I'm Still Here, reminds me of Todd Haynes' biopic of Bob Dylan, I'm Not There, which told his story with multiple actors playing different aspects of the musician's life and mythology. Here we get one man with multiple aspects of his character (a jerk, a frightened kid, a friend, a phony musician, an artist) and we don't know what is real and what is fiction anymore. Clearly what we see is not "real", but are there not some honest moments hidden in there somewhere?

Stars: 3 of 4

Monday, September 6, 2010

A Film Unfinished (Monday, September 6, 2010) (115)

Yael Herzonski's A Film Unfinished is an interesting film, but not something all that fabulous. It is a documentary about a Nazi propaganda film that was shot in May 1942 in the Warsaw Ghetto. Herzonski shows clips from that film and then adds to it journals and first-hand accounts by some of the Jews who witnessed the filming first-hand. She then also shows survivors of the Ghetto and the camps watching the footage and reacting to it. All of these documents help to show us how the people lived and how the Nazis clearly exaggerated simple situations or staged fake ones to make a political point. This is a documentary about a documentary.

One thing we see clearly here is how desperately hungry the people in the Ghetto were and how the Nazis rather brazenly brushed past this fact. Historians over the years have known full well that this Warsaw documentary was a propaganda piece and that much of what we see was not nearly the truth. What Herzonski's research shows - and especially what the interviews with survivors show - is that even basic scenes of Jews going to a restaurant for a nice lunch were also pure fabrications. The survivors joke about how nobody went out to eat at restaurants because there was just simply no food to be found in the Ghetto. Not only that, but the interiors were much shabbier than what the Nazi's present. One man jokes about how nobody would have had a vase of flowers on a table because they would have eaten the flowers!

I always appreciate a critical analysis of the documentary form - I think it's one of the most compelling topics in film theory. The idea that a movie exists as a "non-fiction document" is an absolute red herring, allowing lousy and lazy technicians get away with all sorts of formal transgressions from outright propaganda and polemic to simply cheating with framing. All film - all art - is clearly subjective and subject to any number of outside influences. This film shows how even accepting the Nazi film as a propaganda piece doesn't mean that we fully understand the truth on the ground entirely. She shows how there are deeper levels of meaning to any single image.

As interesting as this dissection is, Herzonski's film is not really all that interesting or compelling. I think most Holocaust films play too strongly on our human emotions and reactions and I think the director sometimes lets our natural visceral reactions rule over a stronger insight. Basically, I think most films about the Holocaust are intellectually cheap and emotionally easy. The digging into the truth about the original film is lightly interesting, but it doesn't go incredibly deep with further questions. This could have been an effective doc short and I think it doesn't pull off the significance of a full feature.

Stars: 2.5 of 4

Last Train Home (Monday, September 6, 2010) (114)

Last Train Home is a fascinating documentary by director Lixin Fan about the massive human migration from Chinese cities to the country side at the time of the Chinese New Year. Some 130 million people whose families live in the country commute over days and weeks from hundreds of main industrial metropolises back home to see their loved ones. The film focuses on the Zhan family and how this annual trip both affects their relationships as a unit and how it is a symptom of a greater erosion of the family structure in modern-day China, among the working class at least.

As the film opens in 2006, Changhua and Suqin Zhang are a husband and wife living in the massive production capitol of Guangzhou. They are having difficulty getting a train ticket to go back to her mother and father who are looking after their teenage daughter and preteen son, Qin and Yang. After striking out several times, they finally get two tickets to take the two-day trip back to their home in a rural part of the Sichuan Province, thousands of miles away.

Once they get back it becomes clear that there is a dramatic schism between them and their children. They never had much luck in school and left at a very early age to work in factories. Their kids are both smart and doing well in school, but there is a strong pull from the outside world and life factors to take Qin, who is now 16, out of school and send her to work in a city factory. This happens, and it basically ruins her life. She immediately is overwhelmed by the bigger world. She gets depressed and falls in with a bad group of friends. She is never happy and carries her bad attitude around with her everywhere.

At the following New Year's reunion back home, the parents can barely recognize the character of their formerly respectful, joyful daughter. They consider stepping in an changing her life again, but also know that the money she makes in her factory is drastically needed for their family. They discuss how they want to send their son Yang to work too, but now they can't because they can't let what happened to Qin happen to him.

For the Zhang family, it is a fundamental question of what is the true value of the money they get from Qin's work. Is it worthwhile if she is unhappy as a result? Is it worthwhile if it ruins their family bonds? What is the most important thing for everybody and do they even have a choice in the first place?

This is a fascinating debate and wonderful to look at next to Zhang Ke Jia's brilliant pseudo-documentary 24 City from last year. In that film the director shows how brazenly the Chinese government pushed farmers from the country to the cities and how the people responded to the change with happiness and hope. It then shows how now that some of those new cities created in the 1950s and 1960s are now dying (as new cities crop up), the people are left totally rootless. Last Train Home is a story of how people are trying to keep their connections to their native places (perhaps this is a post Cultural Revolution change in culture), but how difficult it is to stay absolutely traditional in such a difficult and modern environment.

I especially appreciate how the director doesn't really judge the bigger facts of the situation - that people are forced to move to big cities to work in sometimes substandard environments for pennies an hour. Rather he shows that taking those facts as a given, the people on the ground are faced with an impossible dilemma about the need for money, the hope for education and upward mobility and the love of tradition and history.

Most interestingly this film points out how very "here-and-now" contemporary China is both policy-wise and psychologically. There is no greater government body looking out for people's interest in China; people look out for themselves. As a result, most have to make dramatic decisions about their lives from one moment to the next, sometimes hurting themselves down the line in order to save themselves today. There is no long-term strategy for most in China and on a human level that is desperately frightening.

Stars: 3.5 of 4

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Machete (Sunday, September 5, 2010) (113)

Machete (co-directed by Robert Rodriguez and Ethan Maniquis) is a gonzo B-movie spoof based on a trailer for a phony movie in the middle of the Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino double feature Grindhouse from a few years ago. Machete (Danny Trejo) is a renegade Mexican Federale who runs into the powerful world of Mexican drug lord Torrez (Steven Seagal).

He escapes to Texas a few years later and is hired by a guy named Booth (Jeff Fahey) to assassinate Senator McLaughlin (Robert DeNiro) (who, it turns out, Booth works for), an anti-immigration demagogue gaining strength in the polls for the upcoming election. When the shooting goes wrong, Machete must go underground into a network of Mexican immigrants (called The Network!) to save his skin and fight back against a rising tide of anti-immigrant venom coming from McLaughlin and the renegade border sheriff Stillman (Don Johnson).

Typical of a good B-movie, he is assisted along the way by scantily clad hot women with big boobs (who are all too happy to show them). Machete not only kills people but he's a prolific fucker, bedding the head of the Network, Luz (Michelle Rodriguez), as well as the head of an I.C.E. task force, Sartana (Jessica Alba), who herself is conflicted about her position on immigration. (He also has a brief three-some thing with Booth's daughter, played by Lindsay Lohan, and wife - who are both thrilled to strip nude as well).

This is a totally fun and hilarious film to say the least. The ridiculous story seems to have more and more levels of intricacy as a way of thumbing us in the eye and keeping us focused on the immediate actions of characters rather than the bigger picture. The dialogue is full of amazingly written horrible one-liners, very self-aware of how they will be received. The main problem with the script (written by Rodriguez and his cousin Alvaro), and with the film overall, is that it is too long. Clocking in around 105 minutes, it should have been cut to closer to 90-minutes as it drags significantly in the middle third.

This is not a "smart" movie, per se, despite the rather heavy-handed pro-Mexican, pro-immigrant political text. This is a ridiculous gorefest where people are chopped apart by blades and blown up by bombs as a matter of fun. It very cleverly plays with genre conventions and constantly alludes to schlocky B-films, Blaxploitation pieces and bad crime flicks (think of Machete as a more rugged and Latin Shaft). It is not for everyone - if you don't get it, you're just not going to get it - but I think it's really enjoyable.

Stars: 3 of 4

The American (Sunday, September 5, 2010) (112)

Anton Corbijn's The American is very similar stylistically and emotionally to his 2007 piece Control. On paper the two films would seem like complete opposites. The latter is a very small biopic of the moody and suicidal Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis shot in black and white. The former is an action flick from a major studio about an assassin played by one of the biggest movie stars in Hollywood.

I guess it is an achievement that Corbijn is able to put so much angst and pathos in a film that would otherwise be so superficial, but it really just comes off as a funny marriage more than anything. Guns, car chases and explosions are not a good match for such long, slow, emotional scenes we get in The American. It mostly makes us keep looking at the movie stub thinking went into the wrong multiplex theater.

George Clooney is a mysterious hit man who doesn't have much of a past that we know about. As the film opens he's in some Swedish wilderness with a hot and naked girlfriend as a gang of bad guys roll up on him and try to shoot him dead. Of course he kills them (and the girlfriend for good measure) and escapes to Rome. There he meets his boss who tells him to go to a remote mountain town to wait for further instructions.
He goes to the town and quickly begins a romantic relationship with a prostitute (who is totally appropriately businesslike with all her clients, unless they look like George Clooney, of course). He then meets a woman who has him design a special gun for her - a gun she presumably needs for a murder job she has coming up. He gets to work on the gun, continues his relationship with the hot hooker and tries to dodge the pesky Swedish gang who has followed him to Italy to finish the job they started in the snowy North.

This is a very, very slow film with much more silence than dialogue. It plays almost like an art film (like Control) than it does a summer blockbuster movie. We don't really know anything at all about Clooney or what he does. Is making guns just a side project that goes with assassinations or is that his main gig? Does he have some particular pain in his past - like a dead wife or a mistake that killed a friend? We really don't know much of anything. (And, by the way, why the film is called The American is also unclear - he is American, but so what? He's also got some tattoos and likes doing push ups and staying in shape. Why isn't it called The Gymrat?)

Clooney is seen with a butterfly tattoo on his back and clearly knows about the creatures (he actually reads a book about butterflies at some point too). This seems way too blunt for my tate - that the guy is obsessed with these creatures that metamorphosize from one thing into another and then die quickly. Do you get it? That's what he does too! Oh!

The structure of the film is also problematic as we see Clooney getting the assignment to be in this small village in Italy and then nothing happens for about an hour. At the very end there's an action sequence, but it's very late in the game. This slow pace would work much better on a movie not about crime and guns, but it doesn't work well here. I was dying for something to happen through most of the film.

I was very surprised by Corbijn's use of basically totally unnecessary nudity throughout the film - mostly with the whore (though Clooney gives a show to those who would like his rippled body). A few times we see her stripped naked waiting to screw him - entirely unneeded for the course of the story (not that I minded, but it was weird and again, more "art house" than "multiplex").

I appreciate what Corbijn was trying to do here, but I think it's the wrong fit for this story. I think a more traditional fast-paced flow would have suited this film much better. George Clooney is not Ian Curtis (for a lot of reasons) and there's no reason to make him so similar and morose.

Stars: 2 of 4