Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Muriels Spring 2010- Part the Third

Title: Black Dynamite
Director: Scott Sanders
Potential nominations: Male lead (Michael Jai White), breakthrough (White).
Notes: Michael Jai White has been kicking- sometimes literally- around Hollywood for most of the past two decades, working steadily but never quite finding a signature role. So he cannily took a page from the Matt Damon playbook and penned his own star vehicle with this, a frequently hilarious winking homage to the blaxploitation genre. Note that I didn’t call it a “spoof,” a word that implies barn-door broad riffs on movies that the makers don’t seem to care about a whole lot (as if making the likes of Date Movie makes you better than the directors of the real movies you’re parodying). Don’t get me wrong- Black Dynamite is winking at the conventions of blaxploitation movies, but it’s also clearly from an affectionate place, as evidenced by how many details White and Sanders capture. For example, I love the use of music here- not only does Dynamite get his own fanfare whenever he springs into action, but there’s even a repeated incidental bit that marks the transitions between scenes. Likewise, Sanders gets the look of blaxploitation movies just right- not just the flared collars and afros, but also the sets (wood-paneled rooms and anonymous alleys) and even the editing (sometimes clumsily cutting off scenes or letting them run a few beats too long).

Unfortunately, there are moments when Sanders goes too far into parody territory, as when he accompanies a funeral scene with a song with overly literal lyrics. But at the same time, even the more over-the-top stuff is pretty spot-on at times, like the way Black Dynamite and his crew puzzle out a convoluted conspiracy using arbitrary information. And that conspiracy is inspired- on one level, it’s basically a dick joke, but at the same time it also makes sense considering the genre. After all, one of the touchstones of blaxploitation was the unabashed sexuality of its protagonists (lest we remind you of the black private dick who’s a sex machine with all the chicks?), in contrast to the servants and neutered “good Negroes” of earlier decades. So if the whitey wants to bring down the black man, what better way than by robbing him of his sexual power?

In a just world, Black Dynamite would make its leading man a star. Even in this comedic context, Black Dynamite is a truly badass mutha, as well as a kind of ultimate blaxploitation hero. Not only is White physically up to the demands of the role (truth be told, his muscle definition is probably too good for the 70s), but he’s got the look and the swagger down cold. Moreover, he manages to duplicate the maverick spirit of the blaxploitation heroes of yesteryear, capable of leading a group of men to accomplish his goals, but mostly preferring to work alone so that nobody slows him down. Having written the screenplay, White knows just how funny the material is, but he never winks at it, even when it’s at its most absurd (and it does get mighty absurd by the finale). Black Dynamite shows not merely that White is a talented action hero- which we already kinda knew- but that he’s an inspired comedian as well. Personally, I’d love to see Black Dynamite become a franchise- Black Dynamite Goes Undercover, Black Dynamite Goes to Africa and the like. Just as long as they remember to pay homage to the epic fight scene in Bucktown, I’ll be down.
Rating (out of 10): 7.

Title: Night and Day
Director: Hong Sang-soo
Potential nominations: Screenplay.
Notes: Generally, when a filmmaker decides to lens a movie in another country, one can expect him to make a film that expresses his point of view about this foreign land, using his outsider’s perspective to find a unique angle that might not be readily available to a native artist. So it seems fairly perverse that Hong has taken the money given him by the Musée d’Orsay (who also funded Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Paris-set Flight of the Red Balloon) and used it to make more or less your basic Hong film. Of course, when a director has built a career on making films that can best be described as variations on a theme (the way Hong, much like Ozu before him, has done), much of the interest comes from scoping out the details that make each movie unique. Most obviously, there’s the setting here- Paris is far more classically-styled than Hong’s usual Korean settings, which can lead regular Hong viewers to experience a disconnect between the director’s archetypal characters and the old-world settings they’ve suddenly found themselves in. More specifically, it’s pretty hilarious how Hong seemingly goes out of his way to avoid having his hero encounter anyone who doesn’t speak Korean- aside from a surreal opening scene in which he encounters a Frenchman outside the airport who warns him to “be careful,” Night and Day doesn’t contain a single major character who isn’t Korean. Another difference I found interesting was that his male protagonist was less of a flat-out dumbass than usual- perhaps the Frenchman’s warning turned him into an overly cautious lump, capable of doing little besides lying in bed, wandering around the city, calling his wife every once in a while, and half-heartedly pursuing younger Korean students. As a result, Hong’s use of intertitles to delineate specific dates (a Rohmeresque touch) becomes hilarious, seeing as how little changes from day to day.

The other side of the coin is that, for those who consider themselves Hong fans, it can be just as rewarding to see how each film is of a piece with the rest of his work. One of the more interesting aspects of his work has always been his self-critical streak, as he scathingly portrays most artists as being idiots and charlatans, not to mention quick to use their artists’ credentials as leverage to get women into bed, and that’s the case here as well, with the added touches that (a) our hero can’t even bring himself to pick up a paint brush, and (b) the object of his affections is an art student whose portfolio turns out to be plagiarized. Then, of course, there are the twin Hong obsessions with drinking and sex, both of which are surprisingly muted here (for Hong, anyway- there’s no nudity to speak of, and the drunken bullshitting is kept to a minimum compared to most of his work). I suppose my big complaints are twofold- that the film really doesn’t contain a classic Hong bit (e.g. the diagram scene from Woman on the Beach), and that nothing about the movie justifies a running time of just under 2 ½ hours. Still, Night and Day is exactly the Hong film that Hong followers would expect from him, and that’s fine by me. In other words, meet the new Hong/ same as the old Hong.
Rating: 7.

Title: Home
Director: Ursula Meier
Potential nominations: Film, director, male lead (OIivier Gourmet), female lead (Isabelle Huppert), screenplay, ensemble, cinematography (Agnes Godard), body of work (Godard, Gourmet).
Notes: Ever since I stopped writing for The Screengrab, I’ve tried to avoid getting too much information about movies whenever possible. And while it can be tricky to go into a movie cold in our information-saturated age, it’s not impossible to do so, especially for less mainstream releases like this one. Home is exactly the sort of film that benefits from a viewer knowing as little as possible (because of this, I’ll tread lightly, but people who are interested in watching this in future would be advised to heed the rating below and skip the content up to that point). Watching the opening scenes, one could be forgiven for thinking that Meier has made a film about a post-apocalyptic world, or even some unstuck-in-time backwoods. But no- Home is set in the present, albeit in a family largely removed from the world. Yes, the husband leaves for work every morning, and the two youngest children leave for school, but we almost never see the family members very far from their house, and indeed the mother and eldest daughter never leave the property at all. Yet strangely enough, the family doesn’t come across as a bunch of antisocial shut-ins. To Meier’s credit, she does such a good job at establishing their perspective on the world that they come across simply as a family who has become more or less self-sufficient, capable of entertaining and supporting each other without any outside help.

Of course, when one is largely removed from the world at large for long enough, it’s easy to lose one’s bearing socially. Each member of the family has a certain level of craziness, although this may not be apparent with each of them at first glance. It’s only when the abandoned highway outside their house is opened again (seemingly overnight) that these issues become clear. When it first opens up, they treat it as a curiosity, listening to the traffic station on the radio for news and so on. However, it quickly takes a toll on the family. First it’s the daily routines- the husband has to park his car on the other side of the highway since he can’t drive across, the wife can no longer hang her clothes in the sun, and the garden is littered with garbage and suffocated with CO2. Moreover, the sudden intrusion causes the family itself to suffer, as each family member’s particular psychosis is exacerbated by the difficulty of the situation (the exception is the eldest daughter, who continues her daily sunbathing routine as yet another in her seemingly endless arsenal of defiant gestures).

In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, Home’s plot developments in the final reel or so would come off as contrived, or as overly leaden symbolism. However, Meier doesn’t step wrongly, with the film giving off a vibe similar to that of Haneke’s The Seventh Continent, though Meier’s film is less of a screed. For one thing, Meier never makes a statement the noise that drives her family inside, much less the consumerism that Haneke so blatantly condemns. But the film wouldn’t work had the family dynamic not rang true, and thanks to her cast it does. Naturally, any film headlined by Huppert and Gourmet would be distinguished by its acting, but the younger cast members- Adelaide Leroux (from Bruno Dumont’s Flandres), and newcomers Madeleine Budd and Kacey Mottet Klein- are just as good, and just as integral to the success of the film. For me, Home is one of the more surprising discoveries of the 2009 movie year, and marks Meier as a director to watch.
Rating: 8.

Title: Big Fan
Director: Robert Siegel
Potential nominations: Male lead (Patton Oswalt), breakthrough (Siegel, Oswalt).

Title: Ricky
Director: Francois Ozon
Potential nominations: None

Notes: On the surface, it seems like these two movies- one about an obsessed NY Giants fan, the other about a very special baby- would have next to nothing in common. Yet what interested me about both Siegel’s and Ozon’s films was how they came off as interesting short stories, forgoing ambitious plotting and sprawling ensembles in favor of character details (Big Fan) and anecdotal storytelling (Ricky). The level to which the films succeed is largely due to these very storytelling limitations.

Of the two films, Big Fan is the less ambitious, and as it happens the one that’s better at accomplishing what it sets out to do. It tells the story of Paul (Patton Oswalt), a thirtysomething who has next to nothing going for him. He has a dead-end job as a parking attendant, he still lives with his mother, and his siblings’ relative success only underlines how little he’s made for himself. All he has going for him is his love for the Giants- sure, he can only afford to sit in the Giants Stadium parking lot with his best pal watching TV on game day, but in his mind he’s still where the action is, and he’s got a smidge of celebrity for his impassioned rants on a local late night sports-talk program, despite their occasional interruptions from his annoyed mother. Like The Wrestler, which Siegel also wrote, Big Fan is about a man who will sacrifice everything for the sport he loves, and the painful, stupid, destructive ends he’ll go to prove his love for it. His directing debut is undistinguished stylistically, but it has a good feel for his run-down Staten Island setting, and is blessed by a strong performance from erstwhile stand-up genius Patton Oswalt, who doesn’t so much surprise his fans (myself included) by the depth of his performance as finally get an opportunity to demonstrate a level of acting talent he hadn’t had a chance to show before. Big Fan is very funny in spots, but in its way, it’s also one of the saddest movies of 2009.

Compared to Big Fan’s down-to-Earth portrayal of city life, Ricky tells an entirely different sort of urban tale, this one a fable about a most peculiar baby. However, for much of its first half, Ozon focuses not on the child himself but on his family and the life into which he is born. In these early scenes, Ozon does a fine job of establishing a life for these people, who work hard but aren’t unhappy, and even have room in their lives for joy. But the film gets considerably odder in its second half, when (SPOILERSPOILERSPOILER) little Ricky sprouts wings and gradually learns to fly. The flying-baby plot is the sort of thing that tends to be better suited to the page than in cinema, where a magical idea such as this one must be made literal (though the film’s effects are charmingly lo-fi). But more specifically, Ozon just doesn’t have the knack for magic realism that’s necessary to pull these scenes off. Ozon has injected the fantastical into his work before, but by and large he’s simply too much of a fatalist and a prankster to make the sort of bold leaps necessary to sell a tale such as this one. Yet Ricky isn’t without its charms, not the least of which is its oddly blinkered storytelling style. Even more than most films that feel like short stories, Ricky’s scope is limited to the events contained therein. Once Ricky is born (and even before that, really), he becomes the focus of everything in the story- sort of like a real baby, come to think. For some, this narrowness will be frustrating, but I found it to be in keeping with many of the best true short stories, and it goes a long way toward making the film such a fascinating curiosity. I came to Ricky having loved Ozon’s 8 Women and Under the Sand, while despairing that he hasn’t really made anything that good since then. And though Ricky has done nothing to dissuade me from this opinion- and frankly, the dude could stand to slow down his filmmaking pace- I’m glad to see him at least trying something new.

Rating: 6 (Big Fan), 6 (Ricky).

Title: Still Walking
Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda
Potential nominations: Film, director, screenplay, ensemble.
Notes: Much like last year’s Rachel Getting Married and A Christmas Tale, Kore-eda’s film chronicles in depth a family gathering in which the death of a beloved sibling hangs over the proceedings, and like the recent Summer Hours it deals with the subject of how a family deals with a loved one’s memory. But even more than these films, Still Walking takes as its primary subject the psychic space the deceased occupies within the family, years or even decades after his death. One of the major differences is the age of the departed family- Demme and Desplechin’s deceased siblings were young children, and Assayas’ was an elderly woman whose life was more or less fully lived, but the son in Still Walking was taken from his family as a young man, full of promise but also beginning to make a name for himself as an adult.

It’s this difference that sets up the film’s primary theme, the need to reconcile our own memories of our departed loved ones by constructing our own narratives about them. In the eyes of his parents, Junpei was their great hope- a doctor like his father, and heir to his practice, and in the first years of a marriage. His death (saving a child from drowning) is of a piece with the rest. In many other films, there would be some great revelation showing that Junpei wasn’t the saint his parents make him out to be, but that’s not important to Kore-eda. Instead, Still Walking is about how their perception of Junpei has colored the rest of their lives. The father’s relationship with his surviving son Ryota is practically nonexistent, so overwhelming is his feeling that Junpei was more worthy than his younger brother. Of course, some of this resentment is no doubt fueled by the film being set on the anniversary of Junpei’s death. Yet even in smaller moments, the parents’ natural preference for Junpei is clear, as when the mother fondly recalls something Junpei did as a child only for someone to say that it was actually Ryota who did it.

In this sense, the film’s key sequence comes with the visit of the young man, now grown up, whose life Junpei was saving when he was killed. The young man is, quite frankly, a mess (overweight, slovenly, neurotic) and even though he does his best to express his grief and promises to devote his life to the man who rescued him, the meeting is incredibly awkward. Later, the mother confesses that this is by design, since he’s only alive because Junpei is dead, so why not remind him of this? Is this petty, and even sort of unhealthy for the mother? Of course it is. Yet after years of carefully constructing memories of Junpei that paint him as a hero and a martyr, and then making this revisionist narrative of her son a cornerstone of her life, how could a sweaty twentysomething possibly measure up?

Kore-eda has always had a fascination with the ways in which people deal with death, and his best films have allowed him to approach the subject with a warm yet complex humanism that avoids moroseness without giving short shrift to the issues in play. In Still Walking, Kore-eda doesn’t sidestep the more damaging aspects of his characters’ compulsion to venerate Junpei so much as paint this tendency as an inevitability. In fact, he integrates it so subtly into the framework of the film that I almost managed to misread the film’s final minutes as a submission to sentimentality. But when we see Ryota’s family paying their respects at his parents’ graves and Ryota telling his kids some of the stories his mother used to tell him, isn’t he doing the same thing he once took her to task for doing? Still Walking is Kore-eda’s best and most complex film since his masterpiece After Life, and confirms him once again as one of the world’s finest directors.
Rating: 8.

1 comment:

Steve C. said...

Glad I'm not unique in seeing echoes of THE SEVENTH CONTINENT in HOME. Good shit, that film.