Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Intouchables (Tuesday, May 15, 2012) (49)

Toward the end of last year, I kept hearing about a French movie called The Intouchables (which, as far as I understood means "The Untouchables"... I don't understand the weird semi-translation... because of the De Plama movie? What about the two Crash movies?) that was setting all sorts of box office records in Europe. Today it is the highest-grossing film not in English of all time. This has to be a brilliant and amazing film, right?! Well, no so much.

The Intouchables, directed by Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano (from their script), is based on a true story (a concept that always makes me gag for its worthlessness) and is filled with all sorts of post-neoliberal racism and bizarrely blind classism. I would hope that white people who go to see this movie feel really proud of themselves for witnessing the assistance of a single African immigrant, who lives in the housing projects. Clearly such magnanimity is the key to moving our world forward in a peaceful and beautiful way where all children are loved regardless of their color... just like The Help.

Philippe (Francois Cluzet) is a billionaire living in an amazing house in Paris (it seems to be on Ile St. Louis... or maybe that's just where it should be). He is a quadriplegic and has a gigantic staff of helpers and attendants who look after him at all times. One morning, he and one of his assistants are interviewing new caretakers who will wash, dress and chauffeur him around all the time. In walks Driss (Omar Sy) a tall and dark black man who is clearly not taking the interview process seriously, but simply is looking for a signature on his unemployment form (in France you have to prove that you're applying for jobs and not getting them before you can get your unemployment benefit). 

He proceeds to give incredibly rude and unprofessional answers to basic questions, and hits on Philippe's hot assistant (Audrey Fleurot). This has the opposite result than he was hoping, of course, and Philippe hires him, seeing his unpolished and direct style as a welcome change from the sycophantic treatment he gets from most people in the world. Naturally, Philippe and Driss become best friends, each one helping the other see the world in a different light and each one showing the other that friendship can be filled with real emotions and real connections. 

Also, naturally, there's lots of stuff about Driss being a hoodrat who has never heard opera music, only listens to Earth, Wind & Fire (Really? A contemporary black dude who only listens to '70s funk/disco? Not Jay-Z?) and is the world's best dancer. We are aghast that Philippe's friends react to Driss in such a callous, superficial way ("because he's black," we whisper) -- even though his behavior really is mostly  unpredictable and sometimes offensive. 

But then there's a scene when, for Philippe's birthday, everyone gets dressed in black tie for a concert and Driss looks amazing (insert house-slave stereotype here) and that aforementioned hot assistant says that he looks "just like Obama". Let's be absolutely crystal clear: Omar Sy looks NOTHING like Barack Obama, aside from the fact that both of them have skin that's not lily white. This is not played as a comment designed to make us see Philippe's world as unchangeable and eternally racist; this is a scene to show us that a black man in a suit is an object of sexual desire (again, house-slave theme) and the assistant's comment is supposed to be what we are all thinking -- that is if we were all living in 1952 Mississippi. ("They all look alike to me."l

The third act is a total structural mess, with Driss being sent away to his aunt in the projects for some bizarre and unexplainable reason, and then being brought back for equally unclear motivations. We understand that Philippe and Driss are two halves of a pair and that they complete one another like a black and white cookie (look to the cookie!). And then we all sit back in our seats an groan because it's such a hackneyed idea (when it's not being totally offensive). Meanwhile, Philippe does nothing to help Driss' family or anyone not inside the walls of his urban chateau -- because Marxism is a terrible thing and that would be punishing Philippe for working hard... or something. 

This is such a silly trifle of a film, and so offensively post-racial it's shocking anyone has said anything mildly kind about it. It should be looked at with contempt. Sure, there are some brief, sweet moments between the two guys... and Sy is a really fantastic dancer, if you can put your "magical negro dance number" glasses on the top of your head... but it's overall message, that we should all get along better -- but only on the terms of the white guy and the billionaires -- is deeply disgusting. 

Stars: 1 of 4

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Dark Shadows (Saturday, May 12, 2012) (48)

I have absolutely no connection the the TV show "Dark Shadows" that ran in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I have no context for the tone of the show, the relative merits of the acting or writing of the show and no hangups about excavating some remote and sacred part of my past and my psyche. So I went into Tim Burton's new film Dark Shadows (based on the TV Show) as a totally blank slate... except for the fact that it's a Tim Burton movie and features Johnny Depp and Mrs. Burton, Helena Bonham-Carter, whom he works with always.

Regardless of what one might think of the television show, this is a generally enjoyable, pointless movie. There is really nothing terrible about it and it falls in line with much of the very average Burton has put out for much of the past 20 years. He has taken "weird" to such an extreme that the style and concept has folded back on itself, making the uncanny and strange become banal in his universe. What saves this film (if only slightly) is the very bright acting of Depp and the generally snappy writing of his character here.

Barnabas Collins (Depp) is a colonial-era rich man living in a town his family owns in Maine. One day, as he's chasing his girlfriend, the witch Angelique (Eva Green) turns him into a vampire, ultimately leading to his burial in the town graveyard for safekeeping. Flash forward 200 years to the 1970s and Barnabas' coffin is exhumed (by mistake) and he gets out. His family still owns his mansion, but has lost a lot of their status in town, particularly their cannery. His rival Angelique is now the king (er... queen) fisher in town.

He is introduced to his family members, including Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer), the head of the household, Dr. Julia Hoffman (HBC), a live-in shrink and Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcote), the kids' tutor, who bears a striking resemblance to Barnabas' old girlfriend from way back when. It seems Angelique hopes to ruin the family (again) as long as Barnabas doesn't fall in love with her.

The story is a bit convoluted, and, frankly, unmemorable... though it is pretty fun as it rolls along. Depp has a great sense of comic timing (and a strange resistance to playing characters who don't have English accents) and the script (by Seth Graham-Smith) showers him with great moments and lines to ham up. That the the film is so forgettable is probably the main factor in saying it's not really all that great. It's not that it's really bad, the good stuff is pretty good, but the rest doesn't really any connections and slides away into the ether.

Stars: 2 of 4

Cabin in the Woods (Friday, May 11, 2012) (47)

We've reached a point where sarcastic horror movies (like the Scream franchise) are no longer interesting and gonzo sick ones (like the Saw movies) are no longer serious enough to gain much traction. Now we're into a world of post-modern horror movies -- thinking man's films that are deconstructionist (like Derrida with crayons) and meta and self-referential. The Cabin in the Woods is such a movie. It's fun and funny and silly, with as many jokes about the horror process and rules of the game as it is a spectacle. 

As the film opens we see two office everymen (Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins) at their job. They're talking with one another and with their colleagues about seemingly innocuous stuff, something about the failures of the Japanese office and something with needing to close their deals today. We then cut to the typical prologue to your average slasher flick: a bunch of college kids (a cute virgin girl, a beefy jock, another guy and girl couple and a weirdo) are going to the cabin in the woods owned by one of their cousins. 

On the way to the place, they stop to get directions and a creepy gas station where they're scared by the creepy old man who works there. As they leave (having not been killed) we cut back to the desk jockeys once again, this time upset that the group of kids got away. It seems these guys in the office have some control over the world of the kids. 

From here forward we see a clever interplay between the office guys laying traps for the kids and the kids falling into them (and dying in ever more exotic bloody ways, natch) or narrowly escaping through their wiles. The stakes seem to get higher and higher as the office clerks seem to have pressure from "their boss" to end the charade and kill all the kids with their available resources (zombies and madmen with cleavers and meat hooks). As we start to worry for the lives of the kids in the cabin, we also worry that the office dudes will get in trouble if they don't succeed in their task. This split interest is rather ingenious and fresh in this, or any other, genre. 

I like this movie, though after all the very elegant twisting and turning, the pay-off is a bit medium. I feel writers Joss Whedon (yes, that guy again) and Drew Goddard (who also directs here) get a bit lost in the weeds and don't deliver as strong a finale as the build-up requires. What we get at the end is a bit cheesy and random, rather than arch and self-aware like the tone in the rest of the film. Ultimately the film devolves into mediocre explosions and blood, a disappointing conclusion to an otherwise smart movie.

Stars: 2.5 of 4

First Position (Wednesday, May 9, 2012) (46)

Yet another documentary about amazing things cute kids do... Oy vey! Yes, First Position shows how teens (and pre-teens) from around the world compete in an annual New-York-based ballet competition to get scholarships to some of the premiere ballet theaters of the world. 

You have your high-strung girl from California who is pushed harder and further by her Japanese mother, your young American boy, the son of an American Naval officer based in Italy, who now trains in Milan, your affable teen adopted by Philadelphians from her home in war-torn West Africa who is fighting to disprove the industry concept that black women don't have the body shape to be ballerinas. It's all very sweet with tons of built-in drama based on the inevitable falls, injuries and egos. 

Most annoying about the film is that what director Bess Kargman shows us is mostly what she has access to. The fact that she focuses on these kids is because they are the best in their relative age groups and divisions, so their success is relatively guaranteed. That we only see one competition is simply a matter of it being the one that she was allowed to shoot. That the competition we see seems to jump around through the various rounds in an inconsistent and sometimes confusing way, is only a matter of the end (their ultimate success) being more important than their stories.

It's all a bit too banal for my taste. This really isn't an examination of kids who do ballet or the weird world of junior ballet (the crazy schedule, the weird diets, the psychological trips the kids must go through), but rather an small glimpse of these few, hand-selected dancers for this short period of time. 

This is a nice movie, but nothing really special. It's probably more worth it for dancers to watch and reminisce about their youth than it is for dancing novices like me.

Stars: 2 of 4

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Avengers (3D) (Sunday, May 6, 2012) (45)

The most important component in the dumb Summer blockbuster movie is escape. That is to say, I don't expect much intelligence -- and quite the opposite -- I'm looking for dumb visceral fun. Loud explosions, big settings, maybe some good ol' T&A. They are more spectacles than pure cinema, having more in common with a circus, a freak show, a sight seeing trip to an unknown land where I can turn my brain off and enjoy the experience washing over me. The Avengers is nothing like that. It is a slow, dull, dialogue-heavy Russian novel of a film that is so complicated in its detail that I was unable to just "sit back and enjoy" because I was trying to figure out and interpret what was going on -- mostly because it was so goddamn stupid!

It seems Disney and Marvel have been anticipating this film for a few years now, releasing individual monograph films relating to many of the prominent characters. Last year there was Thor, Captain American and Iron Man 2. There was also a re-boot of the Hulk story (though that featured a different guy playing him). I thought that Thor movie was a horrible abortion of storytelling and excitement and only saw the first Iron Man (which was pretty fun). So at the beginning of The Avengers the idea is that we understand who all the characters are and what they are doing in the world.

It seems Thor's (Chris Hemsworth) little brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), is upset that his big bro is all godlike and living in America, so he steals some blue rock that has magic powers (though I didn't catch what kind... something about connecting beings from his world to our world... or something). A guy named Nick Fury (Sam Jackson), who has an eye patch and who I only sorta remember from the first Iron Man movie, rounds up all the super heroes, Thor, Cap America (Chris Evans), Iron Man (RDJ), Hulk (Ruffalo), some lady who's good at kickboxing (ScarJo) and a dude who's a really good archer (that dude from that Iraq movie that lady won the Oscar for), and makes them work on an invisible flying aircraft carrier. Seriously, I'm all about fiscal responsibility and I think that's the first thing the Republicans should cut from the Pentagon budget next year. It seems... too much.

They are all individuals and firmly believe in doing things on their own. Cap likes working with others, but he's from the 1940s and is prolly a Red. Bruce Banner doesn't like being the Hulk because it fucks up his clothes, but is generally an amiable guy. Tony Stark is too rich to give a shit about working with others... so he should prolly just become mayor of New York and break FAA helicopter laws on the weekend. So all these people proceed to sit around tables talking about the rules their drawers have given to them about what they can and can't do (Hulk can't be controlled; Thor has issues with his magic and sometimes can't lift his awesome hammer). Oh - and these two norms, ScarJo and HurtLocker, waste time and screen space trying to be interesting, but failing badly.

Let me say this again: in a world where you have a Norse god (even if he's from another planet), a billionaire who builds unbreakable rocket suits, a green super beast and a dude who represents all that is great with America (that's a lot to represent!), why do you need a lady who's a super spy who doesn't dress in revealing clothes and a dude who's really good at archery? (Also - as this is the second movie with archery prominently in it in recent months, what does that say for America's chances at the Olympics later this year? Why can't Gina Davis get work, people?!) Hawkeye and Black Widow (oooh - such scary names!) are as lame on screen as their names suggest. Neither actor is very talented, they're given terrible, boring lines to read (by director/writer Joss Whedon) and they have no powers or traits that the remaining team couldn't live without. If you're going to give me a useless woman, at least make her show me some skin and sex.

Aside from all this on-screen dramaturgy, there are basically two big action sequences, one at the beginning as all the heroes are fighting not together and one at the end, when they realize that they should work together (again, they're all fucking commies... Stark is clearly a Randian fundamentalist and should be ashamed of himself for working with less-than-capable teammates). This movie basically has two enormous acts and crumbles under the weight of this structure. This is not a fun movie to watch because you're mostly waiting for the next thing to happen... but it never really seems to come. And, no, I don't think this is some Marxist film theory that Whedon is getting into. I think this is just a misfire of a script and film.

This movie is not particularly loud or big. The second battle sequence destroys most of midtown Manhattan (thank god!) but isn't really memorable and just feels like the similar sequence in the third Transformers movie (I think that was Chicago they were blowing up there). The 3D I saw the film in added nothing to the experience for me.

Mostly this feels like a story forced together by its constituent parts. There had to be an Avengers movie because there was a Hulk movie and a Cap America movie, etc. This is clearly setting up a franchise now, but I have no interest in it. What is coming next? Loki is going to come back with a bigger bluer rock? Whedon will cast Wally Shawn and Andre Gregory to discuss the relative merits of gamma ray poisoning around an Upper West Side dinner table? Actually, that sounds a lot more appealing!

Stars: .5 of 4

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Elena (Thursday, May 3, 2012) (44)

Andrei Zvyagintsev's Elena is a quiet psycho-sexual drama reminiscent of films by Hitchcock, Hawks and Wilder. That's a hell of a group to compare any contemporary work to, but this is no ordinary film. The story revolves around the title character Elena (Nadezhda Markina), a woman in her late-60s who works as the caretaker/housekeeper for Sergei (Aleksei Rozin) a millionaire in Moscow and is also married to him. She lives in separate, modest quarters from him in his modernist condo flat, wakes him in the morning, makes him food and sleeps with him when the mood is right (in the middle of the day).

She's from a poor suburb where her grown son and his family still live in a housing project. They are struggling to get by and rely on money she brings them when she visits them by train several times a month. Her son is unemployed and claims he can't get a job, but she believes he's not trying hard enough. She asks Sergei for help in getting a letter of reference for her grandson to go to university, thus avoiding military service, but the old man is not interested in helping her.

He doesn't see why he should help her family. She feels like he's being too rigid and points out that Sergei takes wonderful financial care of his own daughter, a twenty-something clubgirl who has never worked a day in her life. When Sergei says that he's going to change his will to leave her and her family out in the cold, Elena realizes she's running out of time and running out of options, and that she might have to murder him before he gets to talk to his lawyer.

The film is very serene and deliberate. Elena and Sergei, both older and in no particular rush in general speak to one another respectfully and carefully. The beautiful cinematography, by Mikhail Krichman, washes the interiors in a cool blue-gray that makes everything seem peaceful (if a bit morose). This is a psycho-drama in the grand tradition of the genre, with the action taking place much more in Elena's head than on screen in physical action.

On top of this, for the score, Zvyagintsev uses a Philip Glass's 1995 Symphony No. 3, a very typical minimalist work that is slow and easy. It's an interesting choice not only for tone, but because it, like most of Glass' music, is as much about the space between notes as it is about the sounds themselves. This creates a lovely parallel between Elena's anguish and the score.

The curious relationship between Elena and Sergei is unsettling and interesting. It is clear that they are married, however they share almost no bright, outward love together. They clearly care for one another, but she really does feel more like his nurse and housekeeper than his wife or lover. It seems in this new Russia -- where a man can be a millionaire and lives in a beautifully appointed building, whose wealth comes from some unknown, possibly unethical business -- people are separated from their natural state of family and love. Both characters seem to be stretching traditional family life to its extreme in this inhuman world. As much as this post-Communist world has freed people to do and think as they wish, something has been lost as people become isolated and relationships are formal and unfeeling.

There are not a lot of moving parts to this film. It is very efficient, though never seems rushed. It is sympathetic to both Elena and Sergei, even considering their opposite goals. Near the end of the film, we see Elena's newborn grandchild laying on its back in the middle of a bed. It looks helpless and isolated in a sea of bedspread. This baby is who everyone in this film is: somewhat immobile, unable to help himself, in a desperate struggle to make the next move.

Stars: 3.5 of 4

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Sound of My Voice (Saturday, April 28, 2012) (43)

Oh, shit. Here we go with what is sure to be a rash of hipster, post-mumblecore indie sci-fi flicks that are totally under-cooked and rely more on young people's love for small and niche things than for anything about good filmmaking and effective storytelling. Following on the heels of Brit Marling's film Another Earth last year, which she co-wrote and starred in, comes Sound of My Voice (there really should be an article there, guys), another movie she co-wrote and stars in (is it just a co-incidence that she co-writes movies and her partners direct them? Seems sorta fishy to me...).

This one tells the story of Peter (Christopher Denham) an intrepid journalist in LA (those exist?) who takes his girlfriend Lorna (Nicole Vicius... who got a vicious nose job as a teen, apparently) to a strange cult where they listen to a young woman named Maggie (Marling) who claims to be from the future. It's not clear what exactly Maggie wants them to do or why. She seems more like Jack Lalanne telling them to eat healthy food than Jim Jones or Charlie Manson. Apparently she will ask them to do something soon.

As the film opens Peter is sure that Maggie is a fraud (duh!) but is interested in the scope of her plan. As they spend more and more time with her, and go through more and more unusual tests (there's a handshake they have to do that's an elaborate paddy-cake hand game; at some point Maggie makes all the followers puke on a tarp), Peter and Lorna begin to fall apart as he becomes obsessed with Maggie and Lorna sees her for what she is.

Director Zal Batmanglij does a very nice job with the process part of the story, showing us how the followers have to bathe, get blindfolded and taken to a mysterious spot in the Valley to meet Maggie. There is a lovely dynamism to these sequences. He also does a nice job showing the intimate spaces of the basement and the very quiet, calm moments when the followers meet Maggie.

In the end, this is a decent concept that really doesn't have enough going for it to be a feature (a short about Maggie would probably have been very interesting). By the end of the film (not really giving anything away) it's clear that she is probably a fraud, with only a slim chance that she might be legitimately from the future (again, it's never clear what she's doing now that she's back in our time), but this really isn't all that interesting or important to us. I never felt at all invested in any of the characters, Lorna is rather sympathetic but underdeveloped, Peter seems like an idiot, Maggie is more phantom than person, and the scrappy simplicity of the story belies the fact that it's just not that interesting.

I don't totally get what Brit Marling is doing in this world of ours. She's pretty gorgeous, seems to be a better-than-average actor and a decent co-writer (Another Earth was much, much better than this, though it had issues too with sentimentality). Will she continue to work on the edges of the industry in indie sci-fi or will she be used, for her looks, in more big-budget and studio stuff? I guess I shouldn't blame her for keeping it small for now, but what she's doing is so unusual that it totally makes no sense to me.

Stars: 1.5 of 4

Goodbye First Love (Sunday, April 22, 2012) (42)

There's something about Mia Hansen-Love's films that just don't work and don't connect for me. Her last film, The Father of My Children, never really came together and seemed like a good movie with a bad script and an unpolished concept. It's clear that Hansen-Love is a talented director (although I can't say yet that she's more than just merely "talented"), but I would say that she's a mediocre screenwriter and that her films suffer from garbagey melodrama that connects more to banal ideas of "romance" than to any real-world in which her stories take place.

Such is the problem with her new film, Goodbye First Love. It's the story of a high school girl, Camille (played by the fetching Lola Créton), who has a deep love for her teen boyfriend, Sullivan (Sebastian Urzendowsky). He's a few years older than she is and when he forgoes college for a shapeless trip to South America (the French love Ché!), the two lose touch. She takes this very hard and tries to kill herself (natch) and then comes out of the hospital without the lust for life she previously had.

She then goes to architecture school and begins to work for her professor, Lorenz (Magne-Havard Brekke), who she also starts to sleep with, date and move in with. He's an older Norwegian man with an ex-wife and kid in Berlin who loves Camille's sensibility and reserve. Meanwhile, she struggles with her never-ending love for Sullivan and the constant wanting what she can't have.

I guess this isn't really the kind of movie I would ever relate to. I don't go in for sentimentality much and never really understand stories like this. For me, the concept of "first loves" is trite in the deepest possible way, and something that is more forced on us by gossip magazines and "girl culture" than by anything particularly psychological or human. What the hell is so special about Sullivan for Camille? He seems like a typically nice, distant and youthful boyfriend and their connection is much more suggested (by the fact that she can't ever get over him) than shown to us. When she ends up with Lorenz (as gross and cliche as it is to fuck your professor... seriously), it's maddening that she can't just be happy with him, but longs for Sullivan.

Herein lies an interesting dilemma for me. If film viewing is really an experience of identification and alignment with certain characters, it's impossible for me to connect to this film because I'm supposed to identify with Camille, but I can't because I think she's a fastidious moron. Meanwhile, I understand that many people (most people) would totally align with her because of how they're wired emotionally.

This leads to a bigger problem about the film, buried in the script, which is that Hansen-Love really doesn't do much to link us to Camille other than giving the briefest of outlines of her character. We only see the biggest moving parts of her persona, namely that she's 17 at some point and madly in love with a boy. This shorthand functions as the only information we get about her. For many this is enough to totally understand everything she feels at all moments. For others, like me, this seems under-written and under-developed.

Hansen-Love is truly a good director and is able to show a pretty movie with a nice use of technical factors. She is, however tripped up by her reliance on middlebrow scripts that don't show her skills as well as possible. I hope she continues to grow and make better films in the future.

Stars: 2 of 4

The Day He Arrives (Saturday, April 21, 2012) (41)

Hong Sang-Soo's film The Day He Arrives fits squarely in a category of "oblique movies," films that function as much as a pure art film as it does as storytelling. There is basically a beginning and end, but the middle gets rather murky -- on purpose -- and it is in this fog, and because of this fog, that the tale comes alive and turns something banal into something wonderful.

Concentrating again on the reflexive world of "film culture," as he did with his last film Woman on the Beach, the movie focuses on the day film professor and director Sangjoon arrives in Seoul to meets up with his friend Youngho. Sangjoon first visits an ex-girlfriend, and walks down the street meeting and talking to several strangers. He meets a trio of film students who recognize him and invite him to eat a meal with them. He later meets up with Youngho and a woman who works with him. The waitress at this restaurant is flirty and they all four begin to talk. At the end of the night they leave as normal.

The next thing we see, without any explanation is the same story beginning again (or, at least beginning after Sangjoon leaves the ex's apartment). Most of the specifics about the thread are different, conversations has some similarities although people meet in different places and go in different directions, but the important structural elements (such as Sangjoon eating at a restaurant and leaving with a woman) remain intact and recognizable. We see three full cycles of the same story, each a bit different.

Of course, the first thought in any film-goer's mind is that this seems like a twist on Rashomon-type story, where the reason for the variations is because different people remember the situation differently. However it doesn't seem to be that straightforward. This isn't so much about different points of view of the same story, but different possibilities of the same very small events. It also doesn't involve multiple narrators, but just a single third-person omniscient one.

It's never clear, nor does it matter, whether each of these scenarios actually plays out in Sangjoon's life, if he imagines the same situations happening differently (maybe he ends up with the waitress at the end of the night, maybe with Yongho's colleague), or if it's just Hong riffing on a small idea -- possibly a meta work on the nature of the medium with screenwriter/filmmaker playing god at the human chessboard. There is a sense that Hong is improvising on a theme the way a Jazz saxophonist might twist and expand a standard, so you know what you're hearing, though you never heard it this way before.

Hong really gives us no clear answers about what he's looking to achieve here (unlike with the Kurosawa, where it's pretty clear he's exploring the nature of subjectivity) and this is what makes the film interesting and fun. It has a playfulness and an alacrity that raises this essay from purely theoretical and alienating to familiar and warm. We get into the game of the film, waiting for the next story rhyme, enjoying how variations from past events will come back. At one point a highway sign flashed for less than a second in the first shot of the film comes back near the end -- not creating any great meaning, but highlighting that the act of film viewing is deep and should be engaging.

Stars: 3.5 of 4

Monday, May 7, 2012

Post Mortem (Friday, April 13, 2012) (38)

The final sequence in Pablo Larrain's Post Mortem is one of the most interesting, evocative and incisive images I can remember in any film in a long time. After watching the main character Mario (Alfredo Castro) deal with his uneventful and lonely life for 90 minutes, he finally cracks and starts acting out the psychological difficulty that's inside him. Out of emotional desperation he has become friends with his neighbor, a stripper and cabaret star, Nancy (Antonia Zegers). Theirs is really not an emotional friendship, nor really much of a friendship at all. They both function as some external power forcing the other to connect with something else in the world.

They both are struggling to deal with the events of the moment, namely the Pinochet coup d'etat over Allende in 1973 Chile. Mario works in the morgue and is involved in the autopsy of Allende himself, after his assassination. This act, and the coldness and passivity of his job shakes him to his core. He is rather incapable of connecting to people on an emotional level and his very gray life seems to be filled with nothing but difficulty. In one magnificent scene, Mario and Nancy sit at opposite ends of his small kitchen table and quietly begin to weep, for no particular reason, though we know it has to do with the overwhelming pain and struggle of their respective lives.

Back to the last scene of the film, through a series of events, Mario gets involved in helping Nancy's family who are leftist radicals. He hides her brother in the shed in his back yard and after finally cracking, starts to pile stuff and junk in front of the door. Tables, chairs, coffee tables, small things, big things. He's literally trying to keep his feelings inside, lest they get out and overwhelm his life.

This might seem like a bit obvious (the tightly wound man breaks down and seems to go crazy with a physical action that represents his internal turmoil), but it's performed and produced beautifully and deeply emotionally. What's more is that it's not a simple act, but a long and drawn-out one that seems to go on past the point of normal limits, past the point of our comprehension. It moves from a simple, superficial psych tick to an important symbolic action, to an extreme cry for help, unlike what you find in typical storytelling.

Meanwhile, as is typical of the New Chilean Cinema style, this scene, and the whole film, has a rigorous naturalistic, neorealist tone. Everything is washed-out gray-brown-yellow, shabby and bleak. People are more interested in simply fucking their co-worker (not Mario, but people he works with) than making any real connections. The inner turmoil every character suffers is internal and poorly expressed because they're all broken people.

Larrain does a wonderful job with this very small story and makes it much more powerful than it might seem on the page. The film runs on an internal inertia that seems contained mostly in the gaps between actions. It's not the Allende autopsy that throws Mario, per se, but the constant pushing of his workaday life and the difficulty he has making connections. There is a lot of silence in the film and that becomes very powerful. Castro's performance, in particular, really leads this film and moves it along. He always seems on the edge of a cliff, about to jump off, but terrified of making any action. Larrain uses this dual tension brilliantly to create an eerie but relateable tone.

Stars: 3.5 of 4

Monsieur Lazhar (Friday, April 13, 2012) (37)

French-Canadian Philippe Falardeau's film Monsieur Lazhar was one of the nominees for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2012 Oscars. It is a celebration of everything that is wonderful about modern multiculturalism and how people are good inside if you give them the chance to show you what's in their heart. This sentiment makes me a bit sick as it's so sunny and saccharine it's almost impossible to be interesting. Even with a story that has some rather dark and challenging moments, the film really only falls into the predictable category of "movies about teachers and students who seem different but connect with love." 

Bachir Lazhar is an Algerian immigrant to Montreal who turns up at an elementary school the day after a popular teacher has hanged herself in her classroom on a school morning. As the administrators and kids come to grips with the loss of their friend and guide, he explains that he was a teacher in a similar school in his homeland and is the process of getting his asylum status in Canada. At first he's an odd fit for the school, which has a rather liberal view of educational (teachers are called by their first names, students are encouraged to sit in a circle rather than rows). He has a more traditional process, including an autocratic style and dictation from old texts involving complex, arcane language. 

As he comes to learn about the pain the students are feeling (one boy and one girl who witnessed their teacher killing herself moments before class began), Monsier Lazhar begins to relax and thrive in this environment. At the same time, it seems he wasn't entirely forthcoming about his background and his status in the country and in the school could be in doubt. 

This is a nice film, but nothing very interesting. The real tension rests on whether the kids accept him as positive force, but we've seen this movie dozens of times before and know they always do. Then there's a bit of tension based on the silly and incidental fact that the school doesn't do a thorough check of his life before hiring him... but that's not really interesting and has nothing to do with the emotional development of the story. 

This feels much more like a prescribed series of events than any story I can become particularly invested in. We know there will be tension with the students and other teachers, we know he'll come to be loved, we know there will be ongoing cultural disconnections, we know it probably can't last. At no point do we really care what happens to the moving parts, because they really only function as parts in the greater banal story. 

It's very nice that this was nominated for the Oscar, but it's clearly not as good as other foreign language films that were also (it's not even the best French-Canadian film from 2011). It has all the hallmarks of sweet movie (and I generally like any movie that begins with a grizzly hanging), but none of the oomph of something I really care about. 

Stars: 2 of 4 

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Deep Blue Sea (Tuesday, April 10, 2012) (36)

Filmmaker Terence Davies makes really beautiful, interesting and eerily personal melodramas and psycho-sexual dramas. He's clearly inspired by masters of the genre, like Douglas Sirk, but also imbues his films with an organic normalcy that you don't find in some of the great 1950s melodramas, which highlighted physical beauty and colorful technical details, functioning almost like fairy tales. Davies' pictures are gritty and bleak, mostly set in post-war England (Davies grew up in 1950s Liverpool, one of the bleakest places ever imagined by industrial-era people), and mostly dealing with impossible love, the burden of memory, and the general sense of dissolution entropy.

The Deep Blue Sea, adapted by Davies from a play by Terrence Rattigan, opens with a few big crane shots of post-war London, its gray rubble and sad honor made lush by such a classic technique. Yes, these grand shots foreshadow the pain and destruction that is to come, but they also invoke some of the more memorable shots of classic high melodramas (think of the romance of The Wind Will Carry Us).

This is the story of Hester Collyer (Rachel Weisz), a woman who marries an older, more-well established man, Sir William Collyer (Simon Russell Beale). She has a young lover on the side, Freddie Page (Rom Hiddleston) whom her husband knows about. Sir Williams lets his wife cheat, because he knows their marriage is already a bit non-traditional (due to their ages), and because he's madly in love with her beauty and mind.

Hester, on the other hand, is uncomfortable with the situation and decides to leave her husband, throwing away his money and status, for the upstart Freddie. The only problem is that, for Freddie, the relationship was perfect when she was a married woman and he was merely her lover; he doesn't really want to be with her all the time, as he deals with his post-war troubles (PTSD, bleak job prospects, poverty). After she throws herself into her lovers arms, she finds that she might have ruined the thing she had going before as well as that which she was trying to create.

The story is mostly told in flashback, after Hester has seemingly ruined her life, and Davies explores the concept and weight of memory in a beautiful formalist fashion. Most of the film is shot, by Florian Hoffmeister, with very low lighting, making most scenes somewhat obscured and muted. This not only translates a sort of warmth and nostalgia, but also suggests that Hester's memories of the events are less than totally clear. Living in each moment, she might not have seen everything clearly at the time, and might have a somewhat overly emotional feeling about them now. There is also an interesting break between moving cameras in the present and static cameras in the past, a suggestion, perhaps, that our memories are very specifically fixed and difficult for us to understand completely.

In the past, with films like The Long Day Closes and Distant Voices, Still Lives, Davies used juxtaposition and montage beautifully to tell a story from disparate elements and strong contrasts. The cutting style here is much more naturalistic and human (less artistic), but still beautifully helps to tell the story in a particular way. Davies, more than most other directors working today, uses editing and shot sequence in an efficient and haunting way to tell a story from a narrative point of view, but also from a psychological one. We see jumps from one moment to another, sometimes creating surprisingly strange connections between two elements, only explainable through the character's innermost feelings.

As much as it is a riff on the melodramatic form, the film feels much more set in our world than some of the great works by Sirk and Delmer Daves. It seems to be less dreamy and more tied to our human experience. Those classic films seem to function on pure emotion, even if they have cynical social commentary in them, whereas this one seems connected to our world as a gritty drama. This is really a romantic short story, told in a melodramatic style.

The most evocative question this film leaves me with is whether Hester is a response to the stereotypical trope of women who turn their good lives into bad ones through their sexuality (like Jezebel) or if she is merely a pawn in the bigger societal problem of women necessarily depending on men. Is she pushing back against a system in which she has no rights, or is she a victim of that system? Is it her fault that she got into her complicated relationships or is she just a symbol for the post-war degradation of English (or world) culture.

Stars: 3.5 of 4