Sunday, May 29, 2011

Illegal (Sunday, May 29, 2011) (38)

One thing Euro filmmakers (an almost totally Left or ultra-Left cadre) love are stories about the dignity of illegal immigrants. Recently, there has been Lorna's Silence by the Dardennes and Welcome, by Philippe Lioret (just to name two) (and not to say anything of the Dardennes masterful La Promesse from 1996). One big hit at the recent Cannes festival was Le Havre, another story in the same vein. Most of these movies are character-driven and move along on the energy of our communal outrage at the stubborn governments who won't let these honest, good people live and work in peace. As an ultra-liberal myself who doesn't have a big problem with illegal immigration, I generally find these stories a bit shallow and mostly uninteresting in style and substance (with the obvious exception of the Dardennes who can't help but shit gold when they shit).

Illegal, by Olivier Masset-Depasse, is yet another Belgian/French film about a well-meaning illegal immigrant mother being torn apart from her young son and her dreams by a heartless immigration system. In it, Tania (Anne Coesens) is a middle-aged woman from Russia who moves to Brussels for some job opportunities as an industrial building janitor. The films opens with her finding out her immigration paperwork won't come through and her responding by burning off her fingerprints with a hot iron.

A few years later, her son is in elementary school and totally socialized into Belgian society. She insists they speak in French on the bus and not Russian (so as not to tip off the Belgian authorities, who are apparently suspicious of all Russian speakers... because Belgium is a police-state, dontcha know). One day, the says something to his mom in Russian and the authorities are right there to demand her papers. When she can't produce them, she's arrested and gets stuck in a Kafkaesque tale of bad decisions on her part and ruthless regulations from the government. At some point she's shockingly beaten and there's a suggestion that the Belgian immigration services rapes some female detainees (not Tania, but some of her friends).

This is all a very black-and-white sorta story. Tania is good and the government is bad. Her decisions, sometimes rashly made, are never seen as anything but understandable and good. The State and its various police forces are seen as blind and hapless, with a few silly keystone-copsy moments of extreme foolishness (apparently cops who are moving prisoners are easily fooled by cunning immigrant women). It's all very tiresome.

Throughout the film we are led away from the obvious fact that Tania is in Belgium illegally (her son is illegal too, by the way) and really shouldn't be there. We never see why she should be allowed to get a pass from the law - it's just assumed that because she's the main character and we like her she should be able to stay. I'm not saying her cause is pointless, but why should I be forced to root against the government who is simply doing what it's supposed to be doing? Wouldn't a government with immigration laws it didn't enforce be a lame bad guy?

And I guess that's exactly the problem with the film. This shouldn't be a good-guy/bad-guy story. This should be a character study of this woman who makes quick decisions in panic that turn her case into a nightmare situation. There's no need for such government bashing. It just strikes me as easy and lazy on a script/concept level and banal as a final product.

Stars: 2 of 4

A Screaming Man (Sunday, May 29, 2011) (37)

Mahamat-Saleh Haroun's film A Screaming Man is a lovely work and a wonderful example of a how all you need is a short story, not a novel-sized plot, to make a wonderful little movie.

Adam (Youssouf Djaoro) is known as "Champ" to his friends because he was a Central African swimming champion in the 1960s when he was a kid. Now grown, he works as the pool attendant at a swank hotel own by Chinese investors and patronized by European tourists and rich people. His son is his assistant, but is always a bit of a disappointment to Adam who sees work as a duty, while his son sees it as a gateway to meeting women.

Meanwhile, the violent civil war in Chad is heating up outside the walls of the hotel and Adam is constantly pressured by his friend, a recruiter for the national army, to sign his son up to fight against the rebels. Adam is not political in the least and utterly uninterested in the war. One day he gets to work and finds he has been demoted and will now be working the security gate at the front of the hotel. That same day his son is taken by force into conscripted military service. Adam's work falls apart.

It's clear that Haroun, a Chadian writer and director, has watched and studied the films of the great Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembene. This film moves along from one scene to another in a very similar way to Sembene's film Xala. Granted, that's more of a comedy than this is, but Adam seeks guidance from elders, doctors and friends and becomes emasculated in a similar way to El Hadji in that Senegalese film. (And, no, there is a real allusion here - it's not just that I'm making a racial/geographic connection.) The film is about Adams fall from power to impotence how how civil wars are destructive to men emotionally and spiritually as much as they're destructive to their bodies. Adam is constantly called "Champ," which of course is ironic because he's the champion of nothing anymore and has absolutely no status. He's facing a crisis of faith similar to the one El Hadji faced.

Haroun has a wonderful style with short, intimate scenes between a few people (generally no more than two at a time) interspersed with interesting transition sequences. One of these shows Adam sitting in his guard uniform at the front gate of the hotel staring directly at us as the camera slowly zooms into his face from far away (the shot goes on for a few minutes). The idea that the harsh reality of his situation is hitting him is impossible to ignore.

As the film moves along, we hear more and more sounds of airplanes and helicopters, a gradual reminder of the war that can't be kept at bay. The lush colors and dark shadows of the hotel and the pool start to seep away and we are left with a more burned-out palette that makes us uncomfortable on a visceral level.

I have to make a special note of Youssouf Djaoro who gives a magnetic and wonderful performance. He does not overdo it at all, but just plays an proud and average man whose life gets totally turned upside down. He's a quiet and internal man, not prone to shouting or fighting, but when his typical way gets disturbed his world crumbles and the joy on his face evaporates until he's a near-zombie.

This is a very efficient little story and is really a beautiful one. It borrows strongly from African cinema and literature, but is fresh and interesting in its own right.

Stars: 3.5 of 4

Friday, May 27, 2011

The Tree of Life (Friday, May 27, 2011) (36)

If you go into Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life expecting a standard narrative film with three acts and a story that moves forward in time from one point to another, you will be disappointed. The film has a structure unlike just about anything I have ever seen before. It is really a visual symphony - and I do not mean that in the superlative sense that it is just really beautiful (though it is really beautiful, of course). I mean that the film has more in common with the architecture of a symphony than it does with standard narrative feature films.

There is one big story that's broken up into movements that are each broken up into smaller passages that tell a rather complete story when experienced together. Almost nothing is told in standard narrative scenes with dialogue, rather atmospheric, impressionistic memory moments are shown and impressionistically convey story and emotion. Individually these elements are very pretty and really function as short stories, but their impact can only be fully experienced when connected to the other moments. There are visual motifs that pop up in various places (trees and water are very common) that allude to bigger themes and are not always specifically thematically relevant to the moments they are in.

The overall narrative of the film deals with the life of Jack O’Brien (Sean Penn). As a middle-aged man he remembers back to his childhood on the anniversary of his younger brother's death years earlier. He grew up in a middle-class neighborhood in Waco with a stern father, Mr. O’Brien (brilliantly played by Brad Pitt), and loving mother, Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain). His father was a failed-musician-cum-mechanical engineer who was never really happy in his own life and always a tough disciplinarian with him and his two younger brothers. Most of his time was spent playing with them and other boys in the neighborhood, doing what kids do: running around, breaking windows, launching frogs on rockets and getting interested in girls.

Malick takes the unusual step of not just showing Jack's life, through his memories, but rather showing a history of the universe up until Jack, and then showing the boy’s story. There is the Big Bang, the first sea-creatures in the water, dinosaurs, an asteroid collision into Earth that killed the dinosaurs, and the ice age. Despite the fact that this is ostensibly the view of the world of the grown Jack in the present day, it seems like his memories are some sort of collection of everyone’s memories or a projection of what he imagines unseen events looked like. Clearly there is a connection between his intimate memories and the story of all things everywhere.

To understand this link, it is necessary to examine the symbolic story Malick presents. The film opens with an epigram of two lines from the Book of Job (38; 4 and 7) where God tells Job that he is the creator of the universe and suggests that Job is ignorant, saying: "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth ... when the morning stars sang together?" Immediately after this, in voice-over, Mrs. O’Brien, the much more religious parent, says that there has always been a dichotomy in life between Nature and Grace, where Nature is a harsh, unforgiving, unbending character and Grace is a loving, accepting, nurturing force. This duality is the emotional and thematic center of the film.

As the story moves along, the conflict between Nature and Grace exists in almost every moment. On the surface, Mr. O’Brien is Nature (stern, unrepentant, sometimes cruel or apparently irrational) and Mrs. O’Brien is Grace (happy and loving, willing to overlook mistakes). But the relationship is actually not so straightforward as this. Despite his base in Nature, Mr. O’Brien seems to be like God - he's certainly the dominant force and ruler of the house - but he lacks the understanding and kindness that really leads to Grace. It almost seems that he is the Old Testament God, the God of Job, who would be cruel, punishing and unclear about his desires, while the mother is a New Testament, Christian God, a loving and forgiving one. It seems that Malick is showing the real conflict between the God of the Hebrew and Christian Bibles. One is a God of creation-out-of-chaos, floods, wrath, exactly what one thinks about the cruel side of Nature. The other is a God of love and peace, of understanding, exactly what one thinks about the New Testament and Jesus’ teachings.

The Job story is very important for understanding the film. In that story a man has lost everything and is asking God why he has done this to him. God's response is cryptic and Job is left to figure that only his deep faith will pay off in the long run. In this sense, Jack as a boy (or Jack as a grown man looking back on his childhood) could be a man of faith who sees that he was either being tested by God with a very difficult father or that his father, as the wrathful weather God, was always testing him, ultimately making him see that the only choice he had was to submit to his father entirely.

From the point of view of Jack as an observant and faithful person, the entire history of the universe lead up to his birth and childhood and everything in the world conspired to test him - that the history of the universe (dinosaurs and all) is God and he feels, much like Job did, that God had it out for him for some unexplained reason (suggesting that the history of the universe sequence in the film is grown-up Jack's own view of history).

But on a secular level, a Nature level, there is the idea that Jack and Job are just merely overly self-centered and don't understand the hard ways of Nature. Sometimes things just seem random and unfair; there is not a cosmic plot against individual people. Sometimes people have strict fathers, sometimes their wives die and they lose their money, sometimes a bigger dinosaur comes to step on their heads or they die when an asteroid collides with their planet. It's all very cruel and bitterly irrational, as Nature frequently is.

The non-traditional structure of the film, brilliantly allows one to watch and take in all of the biblical matter, or merely watch the secular story and enjoy the amazing technical details: the amazing photography and camera work of Emmanuel Lubezki (who previously worked with Malick on The New World), the wonderful score of Alexandre Desplat (most of the music is from the classical cannon; Desplat just adds smaller elements, frequently on the piano), and the beautiful editing of a team of editors. This is a sensually rich film filled with bright colors and beautiful sounds. Much like a symphony with beautiful passages, each shot of this film gives a powerful image and functions as small sub-story within a bigger work. Each shot, being only a memory in Jack’s mind, is filled with nostalgia and melancholy for a time long gone. Even though Malick only shows small or partial moments, a bigger picture of those stories emerges and, in an impressionistic way, whole subplots emerge from only a few incidents.

Almost all of the film is shot in a style that falls somewhere between a Steadicam and a hand-held camera, giving the view of a camera that seems to float just behind or just above all the action. This gives the sense of a third-party observer to the action, floating in every room just above the action, who is constantly present, non-judgmental and all-knowing. This is God's view of the action. This is not a typical third-person voice/view for story telling; the audience becomes a constant party to all the action, a strange, kind-hearted, voyeuristic viewer. Much like how the story of the Universe is not just Jack’s memories but a collection of everyone’s memories, so too is this view not any one person’s view, but a communal view, a sort of collective window into this one family’s actions. Just as how God is all things and states of being, so too is this God’s view and everyone’s view.

Being that this is a symphony, the use of music is a crucial means of telling the story. Symbolically, classical music represents Jack's dad as he is a failed classical pianist and still plays the piano in the house and the organ in church. That individual moments of grown-Jack's memories include specific sound leitmotifs is an important thing when dealing with Jack's relationship to his father. Grown-Jack is haunted by the man who cast a shadow over everything he remembers from his childhood. He is obsessed with the way his father wielded his power, the way Job ultimately recognizes and succumbs to God's power. He clearly remembers his father as rigid and difficult, but is impressed by his force and majesty.

Given the title of the film, it is no surprise that trees appear frequently throughout the film, however in the world of the grown Jack, many of these trees appear in relation to buildings. Grown Jack is an architect, a man in charge of building structures (the same way that God is in charge of building life). Several times Malick shows the lobby of his office building, which has a big tree growing in it. This shows that people try to control Nature (that is, try to control violent forces), but don’t really understand it. It is such a strange juxtaposition as it seems very healthy and green, but is totally surrounded by constructed materials.

Clearly humans can never totally know and understand Grace, but we can try to control things on Earth, like trees and land. In effect we become the heartless controller of Nature, an unforgiving, graceless disciplinarian, unaware of our cruelty. We are the dinosaur stepping on weaker one's head, the father who tells his son to stop talking at the dinner table. Our narcissistic search for Grace has turned us into truculent beasts.

Stars: 4 of 4

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Thor (Tuesday, May 24, 2011) (35)

There's something special about the size and slickness of an action movie released in May, which these days they all seem to be comic book movies. Big stories of Good vs. Evil; great computer-generated special-effects; lots of explosion. It all adds up to a big "popcorn" movie experience where you can turn your brain off and watch something fun and easy. Thor offers none of those things - it's neither fun nor easy. It is slow, cumbersome and confusing.

Based on the Marvel comic book, this is the story of Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the oldest son of Odin (Anthony Hopkins), king of a land called Asgard, which is in some other part of the universe, but where they wear Viking costumes, speak English and have Celtic design motifs on their weapons and clothes. The idea is that the Asgardians had a major battle with the beings from J├Âtunheim who are "ice giants" and freeze people wen they fight them (see: Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze in Batman & Robin, un film de Joel Schumacher). This fight happened in the not too distant past in Norway (so the idea is that the Norwegians got the whole viking thing from the alien Asgaridans who brought it...).

Anyhow, Odin took the ice giant's source of power, a blue crystal that has icy goodness in it. There's a confusing thing where the ice giants try to steal it back, but fail, so Thor goes to fight them at their place and when he gets back, his dad is angry that he went to fight them there, so he banishes him to Earth without his super powers. Then Thor's runty brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) takes power from his dad and organizes a confusing thing where he tries to work with the ice giants to destroy Asgard. Meanwhile, these people can travel between Asgard, Earth and J├Âtunheim on a special worm-hole maker that's controlled by a big black dude with a sword (Idris Elba).

Oh, and on Earth, Thor works with Natalie Portman, Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings, who are astrophysicists looking at weather or something... and there's a thing with a men-in-black-like government organization who wants to research all these things coming from outer space (never seen that one before). And they're in New Mexico, which is (also) home to wonderful tax breaks for film productions. And Thor's mom is played by Rene Russo, who literally hasn't been in anything since 2005... or anything you've seen since 1999. In the meantime, she apparently lost her tongue because she doesn't have a single line here... Oh - and this movie was directed by Kenneth Branagh. Wha...?

This is one of the loudest movies I can ever remember seeing in my life. Every time the Asgardians go from one place to another in Idris Elba's teleporter, there is such a gigantic noise with lighting and crashing that I really wished they would have skipped that part totally (I mean, I get it - it's a teleporter). It was one of the most painful movies I've ever been in - and I mean that physically painful to my ears.

There are so many problems with this movie it's hard to know what to mention. For reasons that are never clear, the Asgardians speak in a proper English accent, even though their king is Welsh and prince is Austrialian. Hemsworth really struggles with the accent... and with the acting. Why can't all the characters speak whatever accent the actors speak with? Did the Asgardians also give English to humans when they were in Norway? Why don't they speak Norwegian? And who exactly are the bad guys in this? Loki? The Ice Giants? The men-in-black?

This movie is a big mess and gets worse the more you think about it. Of course it's set up for a sequel - or at least they'll bring Thor back for more movies in The Avengers... I wish they wouldn't. Ugh.

Stars: .5 of 4

Monday, May 23, 2011

Bridesmaids (Monday, May 23, 2011) (34)

Lord help us. Beginning what is sure to be a never-ending trend in girl gross-out comedies, Bridesmaids come out swinging (and talking about giving blow jobs, swallowing cum and having explosive diarrhea). What begins as a funny movie in the first half devolves into a rather banal rom-com way off-target for what it should be. The worst part is that considering this is such a long movie, at 125 minutes, 40 minutes could have easily be cut out, making the final product near perfect.

Annie (Kristen Wiig, who also co-wrote the film) is a sad middle-30s woman in Milwaukee (home of great tax breaks for filmmakers, dontcha know!) who is unlucky in love and in life. Her best friend, Lillian (Maya Rudolph) is having better luck as she's getting married to a very wealthy guy in Chicago who moves in a circle of a very rich set. Lillian asks Annie to be her maid of honor and introduces her to the other bridesmaids. One of them is Helen (Rose Byrne), the rich wife of one of Lillian's husband's work buddies, who immediately gets into a competitive battle with Annie over who is a better friend to Lillian. Of course, Annie is dirt poor, after her baking business collapsed in the recession, and Helen is a fancy housewife with nothing to do but be a fancy hostess. This back and forth sets off a series of silly vignettes where Annie ends up looking like an ass as her average style doesn't cut it with Lillian, Helen or the other bridesmaids.

Somewhere in the second act, this turns into a pity-party for Annie, who alienates everyone and screws up every wedding event by pushing too hard against Helen. There's an aborted trip to Las Vegas (hello, The Hangover 1.5: Girls Gone Wild), a bridesmaid's dress fitting with tainted food that causes everyone to get sick, and a tantrum at the wedding shower. Everything goes downhill for Annie (and for Lillian's wedding). Meanwhile she meets and sparks a relationship with a local cop... from Ireland... uh... (to say nothing about her English roommates... it seems that Milwaukee is some International City of Significance for the English-speaking world).

Aside from the need to have jokes that you would be embarrassed to tell to your mother, the main motivation of the movie is to show scenes that make women in the audience say "oh -that happened to me too" (but, of course, these things have never happened to anyone because they're so over-the-top). It's really just a bunch of pretty girls saying ugly things. That's a lot of fun, but it doesn't have the freshness of Harold & Kumar, Superbad or Observe and Report.

Wiig, not being much of a veteran of the big screen, reverts to her signature Saturday Night Live characters too frequently, sometimes saying things under her breath like that woman on the Weekend Update (whose name I don't know, because I mostly watch it in fast-forward). She does have some good acting moments, though; probably the best moment of the movie, which died in the theater I was in, is when Annie sees Helen falling apart from stress and self-pity and she gives this fantastic smirk overflowing with schadenfruede. (I guess the audience I was with was not looking for subtlety, but just for shit jokes.)

Aside from not being particularly funny, the second half gets a bit preachy, like when Annie is told by one of the (fat) bridesmaids that she should pick herself up and dust herself off and stop feeling bad for herself. I get it, but it's totally not the right tone for this movie. This is a juvenile, silly thing, not a self-help dissertation. Yes, Annie, should stop moping around and hook herself up with the Irish cop, but she should do it through burping and saying "shit" and "fuck", not through baking a goddamn cake!

Girl gross-out movie, to thine own self be true. Motherfucker.

Stars: 1.5 of 4

Friday, May 20, 2011

L'Amour Fou (Friday, May 20, 2011) (33)

L'Amour Fou, or "crazy love", is a documentary ostensibly about the relationship and partnership between Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Berge. It shows how they met in the late 1950s, fell in love and then worked together for the next 40 years. The film was shot after YSL died in 2008 and just as Berge is about to have all of their belongings crated up and sent to auction in 2009.

The problem with the film is that it's a bunch of information about Yves Saint Laurent, Berge, their art collection, their auction and their relationship, but there is no sensible structure, so we don't know what to make of what we see. On the surface this seems like it could be a bio-doc, or a double bio-doc (a bi-bio-doc?) about who YSL and Berge were and how they created the House of Yves Saint Laurent, what it did and what its legacy is. We actually get only a smattering of history, finding out that they met through YSL's mentor, Christian Dior (although it's not clear how Berge knew him), and set up a new couture house later.

Major facts about YSL, like how he popularized (or invented?) pret-a-porter lines and pant-suits, are alluded to in passing, but never really underlined. There are a few interviews with a few women who worked with them, but they're never identified and their recollections are trivial.

Bizarrely we see a lot of footage of art handlers packing up works of art and sending them to New York, then London and then to Paris for the auction of their stuff. There seems to be a fake poignant moment when Berge is watching their stuff be sold for gigantic prices (a total of $484 million the midst of the worst economy in recent memory) and his face is somewhere between sad because he's giving up his stuff and happy because he's making so much money with it. This doesn't really lead to anything and we don't really know enough about his relationship with the art to know how he feels.

I can't say this movie teaches you much about YSL, Berge or the auction of their stuff. It's a prefect example of how documentaries need a script or an outline in order to make sense. This doesn't seem to have either and as a result we bounce from one house to another (it seems that they had three homes together, in Paris, Marrakesh and Normandy), from one time period to another and from one anecdote about collecting art to another. We never learn what motivated YSL in his designs, what motivated Berge to be a fastidious manager, how they worked together while loving one another, why they collected the art they collected and how they came to purchase it all. We sometimes get the suggestion of answers to a lot of these things, but nothing direct or specific.

Stars: 1 of 4

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Heartbeats (May 17, 2011) (32)

I never saw Xavier Dolan's first feature from last year called I Killed My Mother, but I heard very good things about it. When his second feature, Heartbeats, came out, I was interested to see it. To say Dolan is a wunderkind is an understatement, having written, directed and acted in two highly regarded films by age 22. (Shit. My life is a fucking waste.) He is super handsome, gay and lives and works in Montreal; he embraces youth culture and is very smart and apparently very well-versed in film history.

Heartbeats is about two friends, Marie (Monia Chokri) and Francis (Dolan) who both fall in love with the same guy, Nicolas (Niels Schneider). It is never clear to them nor to us whether Nicolas is gay or straight, so it seems totally reasonable that they could both have a chance. They both pursue him with cold-bloodedness, possibly ruining their own friendship in the process and possibly making themselves unattractive to him.

More than anything, Heartbeats is an examination of narcissism and how the presence of a narcissist makes those around him feel amazing. The magnetic power of such blind self-confidence is intoxicating for the less-than-confident souls who follow them. I feel like we have all been in a situation where we fall for a person (in a sexual or a friend sense), until we realize that we don't even register on their radar, because they are so narcissistic. Once they drop us, because we no longer help them with whatever they use us for, there is an emptiness left in us. We've just given something of our own away in exchange for the illusion of something substantial that was never there.

Dolan has a really beautiful style reminiscent of early Almodovar or Lynch films. He uses a soundtrack beautifully as well as slow motion and daring lighting choices. (Slow motion is very hard to pull off well and is hardly used these days because it is so hard to do right; Dolan does it wonderfully.) There is a melodramatic quality to the story, that the characters are just playing "types" and that the forces of the story are bigger than the characters inside it. Though I normally don't go in for such false formality, it works interestingly here in a near-operatic way.

One major gripe I have is that Dolan uses an epilogue after the story has effectively wrapped up that somewhat ruins the previous culminating scene. There is a suggestion at the end that although Nicolas might be a narcissist, Marie and Francis are partly to blame for falling so head-over-heels for the guy. I think this subverts the argument of the film and would have been better to leave out. It also suggests that the duo are bitter jerks, rather than helpless victims. I'm not sure I like that idea as much.

Clearly Dolan is a writer/director to look out for in the future. His maturity surpasses his years and his technique is second-to-none.

Stars: 3 of 4

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Incendies (Sunday, May 15, 2011) (31)

The French-Canadian film Incendies, adapted for the screen and directed by Denis Villeneuve from a play by by Wajdi Mouawad, is a very interesting exploration of a family's complicated history. The film opens with twins Jeanne (Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin) and Simon (Maxim Gaudette) sitting with the lawyer and friend of their mother Nawal (Lubna Azabel) in his Montreal office, after she has recently died. He tells them that her estate will be split between them equally, but that they have to search for their father (who they presumed was dead) and brother (who they didn't know existed) in her native Middle-Eastern country. It seems their mother had an eventful life before she immigrated to Canada, a life that included a lost son.

At first they are dumbstruck that their mother kept these people from them, then they are angry that she was "making things difficult from beyond the grave". She was probably not a wonderfully loving mother to them, and hunting for their family members is the last things they want to do.

Jeanne sets out first to find the brother, going to the mother's remote village (in a country that is given no name on purpose, but is something very much like Lebanon) to get information from anyone who might remember her. She finds that her mother was an outcast who has no friends left where she came from. As the story unfolds to the twins and to us, we realize that their mother was a political activist who left a trail of pain behind her.

The structure of the film is very complex and not-totally linear, making it sometimes difficult to establish place and time as we move from one chapter to another. We see Jeanne flash back to a moment just before her mother's death where she was suddenly and literally dumbstruck at a public pool, we then jump to the mother's life back when she was in her twenties and fighting for a rightist Christian agenda in the largely Muslim country (see: Lebanon). This disorientation is important for us to understand how head-spinning these revelations are for the twins. Sometimes the story they are discovering is so strange and unexpected that even they can't believe it.

Still, there is a tension and a sense that we never quite know exactly what we should be knowing but that we are very close, the comprehension equivalent of having a word on the "tip of your tongue". Many of the stories we see or hear are so elliptical and subjective that we never get enough space to figure out a full meaning. I think this is an effective device, but it is a bit showy and overdone at times I really would rather there was a more standard sequence of scenes.

Technically Villeneuve does a beautiful job with the look of the film and the framing of the shots. He uses a lot of hand-held cameras and near-point-of-view shots putting us relatively in the subjective position of the characters (mostly Nawal and Jeanne). He brilliantly uses the frame to conceal parts of bigger images and give us a very interesting selective view of things. This approach is used brilliantly in the climactic moment when the identities of the father and son are revealed. In many ways this style is all used to foreshadow that one shot - a very literary technique used beautifully in the visual here (how nice!).

The penultimate scene of the film ties the story up elegantly, but Villeneuve, unfortunately uses an epilogue that is totally unnecessary and very annoying. After we've just come to the end of a very complicated story, the epilogue has one character reading a letter explaining exactly what we have just seen. It's as if Villeneuve goes from thinking we are the smartest audience in the world to the dumbest in a matter of minutes. Aside from being intellectually frustrating, the epilogue is banal, leaving a very common, simplistic idea in our heads.

I feel like this is a very good movie, but has a bunch of problems that should have been washed out over drafts and re-writes of the script, not to mention stage-productions. This is a beautiful, emotional roller coaster of a story that gets us deeply into this family, but some of its formal qualities are too distancing. I think Villeneuve sometimes tries too hard to impress us rather than just telling a good story.

Stars: 3 of 4

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Puzzle (Wednesday, May 11, 2011) (30)

Maria del Carmen (Maria Onetto) is a soft-spoken, middle-aged, middle-class, Argentine housewife with a very loving auto-mechanic husband, Juan (Gabriel Goity) and two high school sons. She leads a common, uncomplicated life where she cleans the house, goes shopping, cooks and keeps everyone in line. On her birthday she's given a jigsaw puzzle by a friend and discovers that she can complete it herself in a very short time. She goes to a puzzle store to buy more and sees a sign for a man who needs a partner for a puzzle competition.

Her husband doesn't approve of her wasting time on puzzles, and in an act of defiance, she seeks out this man, Roberto (Arturo Goetz). Together the two practice to improve her puzzle-solving system (organize by colors and shapes, spread out the pieces, one partner works on the boarder while the other works on the interior) and speed. As she's doing this, she's discovering her sense of self and letting some of her daily jobs fall by the wayside. She has to figure out how to do what she now loves and is good at while keeping a steady ship at home.

Like many Argentine films from the so-called Argentine New Wave, this is a very simple story with a limited context. Sure, there is a Feminist and Marxist subtext to the narrative (Maria is upset that she doesn't really have agency in her own life and she struggles with her job as a worker in the household), but at the end of the day, it's a small kitchen-sink drama without many branches. I like the smallness of it a lot - reminiscent of the house-wife parts of Charlene Ackerman's film Jeanne Dielman. The story only alludes to greater battles in the world, but is just a small story with a beginning, middle and end.

Also similar to other Argintine New Wave films I've seen, there is an examination of social class that is suggested, but not really fought over. Clearly Maria is uncomfortable in Roberto's fancy Palermo townhouse, her life doesn't have things like spare puzzle-solving rooms or a maid to cook and clean. There is no anger in this realization from Maria (or Smirnoff), but just a constant idea that the two teammates come from very different places.

Not only does writer-director Natalia Smirnoff do a nice job with the script, but she is talented in a technical sense as well. Much of the film is shot with handheld cameras, most of it either in close-ups or 2-shots (there are very few establishing shots to speak of). Much of what we see is out of focus or somewhat limited in focus. This all leads to a very intimate, cozy environment. It also ties in the "puzzle" theme well, as we frequently see small parts of bigger things and can't tell exactly what we're looking at - a metaphor for how Maria sees the pieces of the puzzles.

One shot is particularly elegant where you see Maria on the phone in her kitchen in focus. She walks to the back of the room and out a door there and out of focus before coming back in the room and back into focus. The effect with this long-lens shot is the same as a rack focus, but there's no movement in the camera or the lens, it's all with the actress.

Smirnoff does a very similar "puzzle" thing with the score, which is not one piece of music, but several pieces from different musical traditions. In one moment we hear African percussion, in another a Jew's harp, in another a Japanese flute. Again, the idea is that she's thinking of these different styles as she works on the puzzles and that they make up a texture and a tapestry of sound, like how pieces make up a puzzle. It's entirely possible that this is the soundtrack going through Maria's head as she is inspired by one puzzle picture or another.

This is not an incredibly deep film. It really only glances at big issues of "a woman's work" and "self-determination in the household". It knows how big it is and doesn't try to be too preachy. This is a very nice, well-made movie. It's a bit precious, but more for its subject (about middle-aged people doing puzzles) than it's style or technique.

Stars: 3 of 4

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Salt of Life (Tuesday, May 10, 2011) (29)

Gianni (writer/director Gianni di Gregorio) is a lovable man in his mid-60s who is besotted by women of all sorts. He deeply loves his daughter and wife, to say nothing about his 95-year old mother (Valeria de Franciscis) who he looks after. He's infatuated with every woman he seems and they seem to love him, but only in the way a daughter loves a father. He's an old guy and seems to have totally lost his sexual mojo. His downstairs neighbor, his mother's nurse, the daughter of his mom's best friend all seem to love the attention he gives to them (he's in love with all of them), but are not able to return the interest. At some point when his best friend tells him he should get a girlfriend to get his youthful juices flowing, he tries, but fails miserably.

This is a very nice, very simple follow up to di Gregorio's even simpler film from last year, Mid-August Lunch. Just as with that one, this film is not flashy and moves along with a clever story, great dialogue and a naturalness that is very refreshing. Di Gregorio's style is reminiscent of early Woody Allen stuff, but he's a bit more self-aware than Woody and not as gonzo or as much of a nebbish. This is what Woody's film should be like today - but instead, he makes his older male leads get the bombshells he pursues (in a ridiculous, gross way with Whatever Works).

Di Gregorio is old and wise enough to know that it is true that most women in their 20s and 30s don't look at men in their 60s in a sexual way, despite what many sextagenarians would have us believe. Instead he shows us an interesting thing about how the "male gaze" changes as men get older and become less threatening and visible to younger women. He gawks at these babes, but they don't look back at him or even realize he's looking at them because they don't see him as a sexual being. This becomes a pretty funny jokes as he stares at their boobs and butts without them knowing the difference. He would be much better off just just enjoying the wonderful Roman life he has with his wife and daughter.

This is a fun film, a bit more of a story than Mid-August Lunch, but similarly delightful.

Stars: 3 of 4

The Salt of Life will open the Open Roads: New Italian Cinema 2011 festival at the Film Society of Lincoln Center at 6:30pm on June 1 and will play again at 9pm on June 4.

Friday, May 6, 2011

The Beaver (Friday, May 6, 2011) (28)

I first heard about The Beaver, when it won first place on the 2008 Black List, an annual industry round-up of the best unproduced scripts (it's important to note that the script for Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds is #11 on that list... and was one of the best scripts of 2009). It came up again when Jodie Foster became the director of it and cast Mel Gibson as the lead. Then, after production had wrapped in the summer of 2010, the audio tapes of Mel calling his wife terrible names (and other things) came out and the film's release (scheduled for the fall of 2010) was held indefinitely. So finally it's out in theaters (well, sorta... I think it was on 22 screens across the country).

The Beaver is a terrible movie, having nothing to do with Mel Gibson being an anti-Semitic bigot. It has what is actually one of the worst scripts I've seen in a long time that takes shocking, gonzo steps as a way of avoiding banality. It has no structure and the premise, based on a quick read of the psychology Wikipedia entry, is bizarrely naive about what it's getting at. That this movie was ever produced is a testament to how stupid and navel-gazing the movie industry is.

Walter (Gibson) is a massively depressed businessman who also seems to suffer with with mania and schizophrenia. One day, while on a drinking and suicide bender, he finds a stuffed beaver puppet in a dumpster, puts it in his hand and begins to talk to himself in a cockney accent. This externalized superego then gets Walter to go back home, after his wife (Jodie Foster) has kicked him out, and make amends with her and his two sons. His older son, Porter (Anton Yelchin), is a high school outcast who writes papers for his classmates for cash. He hates his father and is trying to do anything in his power to not be like him.

At some point, Porter is contacted by the school valedictorian, Norah (Jennifer Lawrence), to write her valedictory address. He agrees and comes back to her with an offensive piece about how sad she is that her brother overdosed on drugs. Oh - and she likes to paint graffiti, but isn't allowed to do that because her mother doesn't want her to. Are you bored yet? Remember how this was a about a guy who talks with a puppet? Right.

It's a real surprise to me how much of this story is not about Walter and the eponymous puppet. Almost half of the film is about Porter, a secondary character, and about half of that story (a quarter of the film) is about Norah, a tertiary character. I think the idea is that the beaver is for Walter what Norah and Porter are for one another, that is some sort of external force that guides their struggles. The problem is that this simple nugget of an idea is so convoluted that it's almost totally lost. For most of the third act, there is no Walter and there is no beaver. This is stupid.

One amazing thing about the script, by Kyle Killen, is that it seems to be about psychology on the surface (it's about a crazy guy and it's pretty clear that the writer has some idea of what an id, and ego and a superego are), but it's not a very deep examination of anything psychological at all. We see that Walter goes to shrinks in the opening montage (and apparently lays in the couch at one), but he then comes up with the beaver "cure" on his own without any medical guidance (as if the treatment of depression was somehow easy and good for a punchline). After not fundamentally improving with the help of the puppet, he hurts himself in a pretty grizzly way, and then is checked into a psych hospital, medicated, treated off-screen and healed (well, it's a happy ending, so the idea is that he's on his way to recovery). The film isn't really critical of psychology, but it deals with it so lightly that it becomes either a joke or a proxy for "all that's wrong in our world". This is stupid too.

Gibson's performance is much more subdued than he is normally. It's certainly showy - he's really playing a blank cypher for a cockney beaver - but it's not as loud and crazy as he is frequently and he doesn't chew up too much of the set. Foster's direction is fine, if unnoticeable, but I give her as much blame for the terrible structure and script as Killen gets. How on earth could she have let this movie be made with this script?

Hollywood loves movies about shrinks - because everyone in Hollywood is in therapy. Hollywood is not filled with smart people, however. This is the perfect storm of those two things. Somehow people read this script, saw it was a gonzo take on psychotherapy/psychiatry and decided that it was a winner. Nobody ever had the depth of interest or knowledge to pick out the interesting nut of an idea and re-write it. This could have been an interesting and hard-hitting film. Instead it's a joke and is terrible.

Stars: 1 of 4

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Le Quattro Volte (Tuesday, May 3, 2011) (27)

Michelangelo Frammartino's Le Quattro Volte is a beautiful and challenging film. It has a light narrative structure, but feels more like an experimental art piece than anything particularly plot-driven. It relies entirely on the beautiful cinematography of Andrea Locatelli, employing no score and no dialogue. The sound we hear is created by the natural situations we witness: a truck driving up a hill, the bells of a herd of goats as well as their collective bleating, a crowd of people getting together in a village square for a celebration. This is a very slow-moving film, but is quite lyrical and interesting.

It opens with an old goat herder walking with his sheep in the hills in rural Italy. He has a terrible cough and stops his work to hack away for awhile. When he gets home, he mixes an unknown substance into a glass of water. The next day as he makes his rounds in the village delivering milk he picks up a pack of dust from the church after a nun has blessed it (this dust is what he drank in the water the night before). Later we follow a goat kid from its birth to its first trip out with the flock into the hills, where it gets separated from the group because it can't keep up. Finally we see the villagers cut a tall tree and put it up in the square for a celebration. The tree is taken down and burned to make charcoal.

These little episodes all deal with the cycle of life and relative life-spans for each kind of being (a man, an animal and a tree). It seems the title (The Four Times, in English) refers to a theory of Pythagoras that life has four stages from beginning to end: human, animal, plant and mineral. I have to admit, I caught the four parts, but it's still rather cryptic (and had to look up the meaning after I saw the film... I'm a cheater).

I was struck a few times over the course of the picture about how much it reminded me of some of the more exotic fare of Tarkovsky, notably his Solaris from 1972. Clearly that is a story mostly set in space, but it deals with ontology in an interesting, abstract way. This connection was particularly clear to me with the way Frammartino uses shots of natural textures to fill the screen expressively between more narrative moments. Even though it is stylistically very different from Godfrey Reggio's Koyaanisquatsi (there's no music, the shots don't have much movement in them at all), they both share a similar poetic quality.

This is not an easy film, but it is interesting and beautiful. It's not often a film can capture your attention for 88 minutes without nearly any sound. This one does.

Stars: 3 of 4