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.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Muriels Sprint 2010- Part the Second

Title: The House of the Devil
Director: Ti West
Potential nominations: Female lead (Jocelin Donahue), Breakthrough (director Ti West), Best use of Tom Noonan
Notes: One of my biggest pet peeves as a moviegoer is when a movie pulls me out of the point of view it has carefully built for most of its running time. Most movies out there have a fairly omnipotent perspective, so there’s nothing to switch, but when a director makes the effort to make a character’s perspective more or less our own, it’s sort of disappointing when he decides to jump out of this POV without having a damn good reason to do so. For an extreme example of this, consider a purely theoretical version of A Clockwork Orange in which we see Alex’s parents at their day jobs, hard at work to be able to afford the lifestyle for which Alex shows such disdain. I posit that these scenes wouldn’t work, precisely because the key to Clockwork is that we’re with Alex every step of the way, and to turn his parents into pathetic breadwinners whose son doesn’t appreciate the work they do would undermine the strange and darkly comic tone that Kubrick went to such effort to achieve.

Such perspective-oriented hiccups are especially damaging to horror movies like The House of the Devil, in which the effect comes from experiencing the horror through the protagonists’ eyes. But although West has made a fairly sturdy thriller, he tips his hand at a key moment in the film in a way that pulled me right out of the story (you’ll know what I mean when you see it). That’s not to say that shifting perspective is automatically bad- when West cuts away from heroine Jocelin Donahue to the eventually fate of best friend Greta Gerwig, it’s done to establish the threat that Donahue is up against. But I can’t for the life of me imagine why West felt the need to show us what was behind the mysterious door. It removes the mystery- and therefore, much of the anticipation- from the film’s final reel, all for the sake of a fairly cheap shock tactic.

This lapse in judgment would be forgivable if the movie could rebound from it, but it never quite does. Much of the problem is that West is far better at setup than he is at payoff, as evidenced by the half-assed way the film’s climactic burst of violence plays out. However, for roughly an hour House of the Devil is surprisingly sure-handed. West shows a sure hand with atmosphere and tone, and is wise enough to take his time to really creep out his protagonist before the really bad stuff goes down. I especially liked the scene in which Donahue pops on her Walkman (this is set in the 80s, by the way) and dances around the house to the Fixx- an extended bit that wouldn’t pass muster with a less confident filmmaker.

Like many genre filmmakers who’ve emerged in the post-Tarantino generation, West clearly grew up watching junky horror movies on video, and it’s hard not to admire his attention to detail even down to the font of the opening credits. But House of the Devil isn’t self-referential kitsch. West certainly loves horror movies, but he also respects the genre in a way that demands that he take it seriously. He may lack the judiciousness of a horror savant like Bryan Bertino (director of last year’s nerve-jangling The Strangers), but when House of the Devil is on, it cooks. And that final scene is, in its strange way, sort of perfect.
Rating (out of 10): 6.

Title: 35 Shots of Rum
Director: Claire Denis
Potential nominations: Best Film, director, male lead (Alex Descas), cinematography (Agnes Godard), music (Tindersticks et al), cinematic moment (“Night Shift”).
Notes: Having seen damn near everything that Denis has made, I nonetheless feel like my critical facilities are inadequate to capture what really makes a film like 35 Shots of Rum work. It’s not that 35 Shots is an especially complicated film- to the contrary, really. Yet it’s this very simplicity that makes it such a challenge for would-be critics like myself. Part of the problem is the nature of criticism itself, with so much of it still rooted in traditions of the literary and visual arts. But while most movies can be reviewed (and fairly satisfactorily so) through these traditional means, much of Denis’ work tends to confound old-guard techniques and theories. Like her fellow Level IV favorite Apichatpong “Joe” Weerasethakul, Denis’ most characteristic work is not about shuffling through a narrative, but about creating a vibe much like a favorite song or a place you like to visit. And as you might imagine, there really aren’t words to repackage that for the reader. Oh sure, I could do the usual “blah blah Africans in France blah blah father-daughter relationship blah blah Ozu blah blah ooh purty.” But that’s a description, not a review, and that’s not how I roll. So I’ll just say this- if you already love Denis, you’re already on board. If you already hate Denis, this movie won’t change that. And if you’ve never seen a Denis film, this could be a pretty good gateway drug. As for me, I was hooked from the beginning. To these eyes, 35 Shots of Rum is a definitive hangout movie- the kind of movie I look forward to revisiting from time to time just to relax with these characters and in their world.
Rating: 8.

Title: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.
Director: Terry Gilliam.
Potential nominations: Supporting male (Tom Waits).

Title: Broken Embraces
Director: Pedro Almodovar.
Potential nominations: Music (Alberto Iglesias).

Notes on both films: Both The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus and Broken Embraces are the works of veteran filmmakers who are working squarely within their cinematic comfort zones, so it sort of makes sense to consider them together, despite not having much in common from a superficial stylistic standpoint.

In many ways, Parnassus feels like a textbook Gilliam film, with all the filmmaker’s gifts and flaws located in plain view. For one thing, it seems like he was even less in control of the film he was making than usual, which of course is saying something. This comes through most clearly in the performances, coupled with Gilliam’s increasing disregard for maintaining a consistent level or pitch of performance from his cast. This works out well for performers who are comfortable with onscreen riffing (little wonder Tom Waits gives the best performance here), but it hangs others out to dry- in the case of this film, the title character has almost nothing to do, and Christopher Plummer too often recedes into the background while those around him shtick it up. With Parnassus, Gilliam uses his actors predominantly as camera objects, particularly Lily Cole, who has an almost extra-terrestrial sort of girlishness that Gilliam utilizes to good effect.

But no actor in Gilliam’s film gets the same level of camera love as Almodovar gives to his longtime muse and Broken Embraces leading lady, Penelope Cruz. Ever since their collaboration began a decade or so ago, Almodovar has never missed a chance to make Cruz look her best (which is pretty darn good, after all), and this impulse comes to the forefront here, not least in a scene in which we see Cruz being made up and bewigged like the stars of yore- a Marilyn wig here, Sophia Loren eye makeup there, and so forth. Broken Embraces is above all a film made to illustrate Godard’s quote that states, “cinema is the history of boys photographing girls.” Accordingly, the majority of the story’s male characters- the controlling sugar daddy, his gay voyeur son, and above all her director/lover- carry on relationships with her in part through the camera lens.

It’s a solid germ for a movie, but alas, Almodovar’s tendency towards overloading his stories drags down Embraces. In addition to Cruz and the three men in her life, it’s also about the director, years later, coming to grips with his lost love, and about his relationship with his ever-dutiful assistant and her son, and about Almodovar’s love for the cinema itself. It’s hard for me to hate on a movie that’s so clearly steeped in cinephilia (Pedro throws out references to everything from Peeping Tom to Belle de Jour), but it all becomes suffocating after a while. That the film-within-a-film is a virtual remake of Almodovar’s own Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown doesn’t help matters, hearkening back to a time in which the director’s imagination was just as feverish, but to a more outrageous end (this is what makes Talk to Her Pedro’s best in a walk, since it lends the outré stuff real soul and emotional weight). By the time Pedro decided to resolve damn near every possible plot strand in the final reel, I was too busy paying attention to the self-reflexiveness to care. What does it say that I would rather have seen the proposed vampire movie than this one?

Of course, in its freewheeling way Parnassus is just as overstuffed as Broken Embraces is, and I suppose my preference for Gilliam’s film over Almodovar’s has something to with my taste in their filmmaking styles. However, I also think that while Embraces mostly finds its maker re-jiggering his personal obsessions rather than treading new ground, Parnassus is a film from a director incapable of treading water. For better or worse, Gilliam can’t make a lazy film, and given free rein here he sometimes flails about, but at other times creates some truly wondrous images. The Imaginarium sequences are especially vivid, and perhaps the closest he’s come to finding a big-screen equivalent to his classic Pythonimation bits. You could levy a lot of criticisms at The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, but let it not be said that Gilliam is coasting.

Rating: 6 (Parnassus), 5 (Embraces).

Title: My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done
Director: Werner Herzog.
Potential nominations: Film, director, male lead (Michael Shannon), screenplay, body of work (Herzog [w/Bad Lieutenant: POCNO], Willem Dafoe [w/Antichrist and Fantastic Mr. Fox), music (Ernst Reijseger).
Notes: One thing I find off-putting about most movies about mental illness is that there tends to be a fairly comprehensible method at the heart of the madness. This isn’t the case with My Son, etc., which most cinephiles know primarily as that other film Herzog brought to Toronto this year. And that’s kind of a shame, since while it’s not as flamboyant as Bad Lieutenant: POCNO, it’s a unique and fascinating film in its own right. But back to the psychological aspects of the film- or lack thereof. Throughout his career, Herzog has been drawn to various forms of madness in his work, from the violent obsessiveness of Aguirre, to the bone-deep damage suffered by the heroes of Stroszek and Kaspar Hauser, to the antisocial behavior of Grizzly Man’s Timmy Treadwell. But with few exceptions, Herzog has been less interested in psychoanalyzing his protagonists than in exploring the effect their illnesses have both on others and on themselves, and empathizing with them as he does with all the world’s oddities. So it is with Brad (Michael Shannon), a part-time actor and full-time mama’s boy who at the beginning of the film is discovered to have run his mother through with a sword. In the past few years, Shannon has become one of my favorite character actors, due primarily to his talent for playing unhinged characters. But his knack for insanity transcends his creepy mien- it’s almost as though he’s able to shift his mental gears into those of his characters, so that when Brad dances to his own psychological rhythm, it never feels like he’s simply “acting crazy.” And Herzog, for his part, puts Brad’s mind at center stage, marveling at his strange trains of thought without shying away from how dangerous they are for everyone around, not least himself.
Rating: 8.

Title: Bronson
Director: Nicholas Winding Refn.
Potential nominations: Male lead (Tom Hardy), breakthrough (Hardy).
Notes: It’s one thing to say that an actor runs away with a film, yet another to say that an actor more or less IS the movie. The difference between the two is demonstrated by Bronson, in which the film’s leading character thoroughly dominates the proceedings to the point where there’s almost nothing else to the movie. Aside from a few memorable directorial flourishes- notably a party in a mental hospital- the movie lives and dies by Hardy’s performance. Thank goodness, then, that the actor is up to the task. An actor I was previously familiar with solely as the wussy protagonist from Star Trek: Nemesis, Hardy is a revelation here, with an eternally puffed-out chest and a tonsorial style that makes him look like Col. Blimp’s scary grandson. Hardy is actor enough to sell his subtler moments, but the meat of the performance comes when he’s over-the-top. This makes perfect sense, since the film’s central idea is that Charles Bronson (not his real name, duh) lived his life as a kind of performance art, with a commitment to be the most violent and notorious prisoner in the service of Her Majesty (30 years in solitary confinement don’t lie). Refn illustrates this both in suitably grotty prison scenes and in a framing device that shows Bronson onstage, telling his story to an audience that hangs on his every word. Ultimately, Bronson may be shallow, but it announces Hardy as a talent to watch.
Rating: 6.

Title: Passing Strange
Director: Spike Lee.
Potential nominations: Film, director, ensemble performance, music (Stew and Heidi Rodewald).
Notes: It would be easy to dismiss Passing Strange as a filmed performance piece, with Lee capturing Stew’s Tony-winning musical on HD for posterity. But to do so would be to overlook how exciting and imaginative this is as a film, with its whip-crack editing, precise framing, and close-ups of the performers that are so tight that one can almost feel the sweat pouring off the actors’ bodies. It seems all the more miraculous an achievement to consider that (a) everything was filmed during live shows with paying audiences, and (b) the editing makes it feel like it was shot during one continuous performance. Of course, it must have been discussed at some point to turn this into a more conventional adaptation, with location shooting and the like, and with Stew’s music playing under the action rather than having him onstage with the actors. But then, I don’t think it would work nearly so well- the story needs Stew there to comment on the action and even confront his teenaged alter ego, and the use of the same actors to play the surrogate “family members” the hero collects wherever he goes would surely have been lost in a (now thankfully purely hypothetical) big-budget adaptation.

Strangely enough, for a director who made his name on being a maverick (long before John McCain made the label fashionable), most of Spike Lee’s best recent films have been collaborative efforts. But then, perhaps it’s not so strange- Lee’s original efforts have become increasingly digressive and polemical in the past decade, but he tends to collaborate with people he trusts, and these collaborations force him to find ways to inject his sensibility into the mix without allowing it to overwhelm the material. For the most part, it’s working- sure, there’s the occasional misguided Miracle at St. Anna in the mix, but most of his collaborations are spot-on, and Passing Strange is no exception. No doubt part of this was a personal connection to the material, dealing as it does with growing up in the African-American middle class, the youthful urge to seek the “real” in art, and other issues of race and skin color. However, I also think that Lee, having attended Passing Strange on opening night, was simply overcome with joy, and he wanted to convey this joy on film by sharing it with moviegoing audiences. And in that aspect, he succeeds magnificently, creating as good a piece of pure pop entertainment as any this year.
Rating: 9.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Muriels Sprint 2010- Part the First

For four years now, the lead-up to the Muriel Awards has caused me to look back at the films I watched in the past year. And with this looking back has come the invariable assessment of the movies I haven’t yet seen. Because of this, it has become an annual tradition for me to view as many eligible releases as possible throughout the month of January so as to leave as few stones unturned as possible before filling out my ballot. I’ve taken to calling it “The Muriels Sprint”- a full-on, month-long cinematic cram session.

And since I’m all about keeping you folks in the loop (the title of a movie I’ve already seen that probably won’t be watched again during the Muriels Sprint), I’ll be posting some thoughts on every Muriel-eligible movie I see over the next month. Nothing fancy, mind you- just a few sentences worth of review, along with a list of categories in which the movie could potentially contend. And since I’m going to be fairly busy with everything else in my life on top of the movies themselves, I reserve the right not to finish any movie that isn’t doing it for me. Generally, I’ll give it an hour before shutting it off, but this isn’t by any means a hard and fast rule, as you’ll see below.

Now, without further Apu…

Title: Up in the Air
Director: Jason Reitman
Potential nominations: Male Lead (George Clooney), Female Supporting (Anna Kendrick).
Notes: Since his debut four years ago with Thank You For Smoking, Jason Reitman has become Hollywood’s reigning king of “pretty good” movies, which are sturdily made and boast some fine acting, but don’t really make a very deep dent in my memory. Up in the Air is par for the course for him, although of the three he’s done it’s probably the best. Clooney gives a fine star turn as a guy who treasures his solitary, forever-on-the-go lifestyle, while Kendrick is predictably awesome as the young tyro he takes under his wing. Some timely plot points about our current economic conundrum have given some reviewers the impression that this is a Movie of Our Time, but it’s best enjoyed as a classy, star-driven character study. Demerits for a script that’s often distractingly on-the-nose, as well as a somewhat misguided revelation involving a fellow traveler played by Vera Farmiga (who’s also good here). Still, hard to hate a movie that contains a scene as good as the one between Clooney and J.K. Simmons. If this dominates the Oscars, you won’t hear me complain.
Rating (out of 10): 6.

Title: Humpday
Director: Lynn Shelton
Potential nominations: Best Film, Director (Shelton), Male Supporting (Joshua Leonard), Screenplay.
Notes: If nothing else, Humpday is fascinating in the way it affords audience members a glimpse at male bonding rituals as seen through the eyes of a woman. Had this been made by a male filmmaker, Ben and Andrew’s antics would no doubt have been portrayed as charmingly dunderheaded, a la Step Brothers. But because Shelton is under no obligation to defend the male gender, she portrays her quasi-heroes as the machismo-driven idiots they clearly are, unwilling to back down from the asinine challenge they’ve set for themselves. But in coming up with their particular challenge- namely, to film themselves having gay sex with each other (they’re both straight, by the way) for a local art-porn festival- Shelton is also to be commended for tackling some fruitful thematic territory. Not only does she hold up to scorn the male-infantilization culture that has become more prevalent in the last decade or so, but she also tackles the balls-before-brains “No Fear” undercurrent of this culture, while sending it careening smack-dab into the barely-buried homophobia that still afflicts many men (and women) today. Plus it’s really funny. Of course, your mileage may vary depending on how much of Ben and Andrew you can tolerate. But what can I say- I laughed.
Rating: 8.

Title: Adventureland
Director: Greg Mottola
Potential nominations: Male Supporting (Martin Starr), Ensemble Performance.
Notes: Comparisons with Dazed and Confused are a little excessive, but Adventureland is a little charmer all the same. Perhaps the best thing about the film is how lived-in its eighties-era setting is. Mottola never calls too much attention to the period in the that kitschy “I Love the 80s” way of most Hollywood movies set during the Members Only decade, but allows them to become a natural element of the story, as when the midway employees depair of having to listen to the Musik Express play “Rock Me Amadeus” for the 20th time that day. Likewise, I dug how the movie didn’t demonize its potentially villainous characters- even the married handyman (played by Ryan Reynolds) who’s having an affair with Kristen Stewart isn’t a flat-out bad guy (plus I love how his bit about jamming with Lou Reed pays off). Unfortunately, Mottola can’t resist throwing in some forced slapstick, such as the guy who repeatedly socks our hero (Jesse Eisenberg) in the balls, or the barn-door-broad characterizations of Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader. Still, when the movie concentrates on the realities of working a soul-sucking summer job, and the fun one can have with it when the boss isn’t looking, it’s pretty great. And Martin Starr is awesome, obviously.
Rating: 7.

Title: Thirst
Director: Chan-wook Park
Potential nominations: none.
Notes: With each passing movie, it becomes harder for me to push past Park’s ugly worldview. In Oldboy, the filmmaking was so kinetic that one barely had time to think about the subtext, but one of the biggest problems I had with Thirst was that the direction was so slack that I could hardly think of anything else. It’s not enough that the female lead be engaged to a man she can’t stand, but Park shows her as being groomed for the part from childhood, and dominated by her goonish fiancé and abusive mother-in-law-to-be. In addition, the dichotomy between protagonist Song Kang-ho’s good and evil sides (he’s a priest and healer, but he’s also a vampire who’s carrying on an affair with the betrothed heroine) is interesting up to a point, but Park really doesn’t do anything interesting with these opposing forces in his life. I wasn’t really digging it from the get-go, and I finally gave up about an hour or so in, during a hallucination in which the vampire priest humps away at his lover and the smiling body of one of his victims appears sandwiched between them. Man, classy AND subtle- Thirst has it all!
Rating: Not applicable.

Title: Anvil! The Story of Anvil
Director: Sacha Gervasi
Potential nominations: none.
Notes: I have no doubt that first-time director Gervasi (longtime Anvil fan, one-time Anvil follower) was completely sincere in his desire to give the band he loves a documentary tribute. However, it’s sort of amazing how comfortably Anvil! fits the template that was laid down by This Is Spinal Tap a quarter-century ago. Of course, many of Anvil’s woes are similar to those faced by any number of bands who’ve gone on the road. But in scenes such as the one in which Anvil gets lost in the way to a gig (one band member’s girlfriend is the band’s manager, no less!), it undeniably feels like life imitating hilarious, hilarious art. Heck, it’s entirely possible that Gervasi’s goal was to invite the comparison (e.g. the scene in which Lips and Robb Reiner- the guy’s real name!- discuss their first song a la David and Nigel talking up “All the Way Home”), in order to show how sad the Spinal Tap arc is when applied to real life. But at the same time, it feels like Spinal Tap did all the groundwork for this, and all Gervasi had to do was to fill in the template with documentary footage. By the time the group performs at a heavy metal festival attended by literally hundreds of fans, I was half-awaiting the scene in which Anvil performs as the bottom half of a double with a puppet show. Not saying it’s fair, but I just couldn’t let go of the comparison. Maybe if I liked heavy metal more, or if the movie didn’t look like total ass, it might have been easier for me. Alas, it never quite happened. Still, diverting enough.
Rating: 5 out of 10.

Title: Avatar
Director: James Cameron
Potential nominations: Director, Screenplay (ha ha, just kidding).
Notes: In this blockbuster-driven age, movies that cost hundreds of millions of dollars have become fairly commonplace. However, it’s rare to see one that so unmistakably displays its creator’s fingerprints. This is most obvious in the film’s somewhat conflicted portrayal of the military-industrial complex, a hallmark of the majority of Cameron’s films. On the one hand, Cameron has always been drawn to state of the art technology and weaponry- the bigger, the better. Yet this enthusiasm has always been tempered by a mistrust of gung-ho militarism run amok, most apparent here in Stephen Lang’s Marine officer, who’s just aching for a reason to mow down the forest-dwelling Na’vi in the name of deep-space Manifest Destiny.

Part of this comes from an undeniable love for the idea of Pure Science, here embodied by Sigourney Weaver and her team of scientists, whose quest to understand the Na’vi has led them to a devil’s bargain with both the Marines and a sniveling corporate scientist played by Giovanni Ribisi. Yet despite Cameron’s disdain for both of these mindsets (Marine and corporate), he can’t keep his impulses toward largesse in check, which leads to lingering shots of futuristic aircraft and cyborg-esque suits, both of which are used almost exclusively by the film’s baddies. But this seeming contradiction, troubling though it might be, only makes the film as a whole more fascinating, as Cameron is working through these conflicting urges with this story in a messy, compelling way, as compared to the rah-rah patriotic fetishism of Michael Bay’s Transformers movies.

As for the Na’vi themselves, they’re somewhat more simplistic, a group of forest-dwelling hunter/warriors inspired by Native Americans except, y’know, 12 feet tall and blue. And Cameron’s narrative debts to Dances With Wolves are already well-documented. Still, what the film lacks in narrative inspiration, it makes up for in pop spectacle. While it’s certainly true that the effects in Avatar aren’t as jaw-dropping as they might have been to an audience from a decade or so ago, they’re nonetheless leaps ahead of anything the big screen has seen. Much of the film is stunning on the pure eye-candy level, especially the shots of the Na’vi’s forest at night time (parts of which seem to be inspired by Jim Henson’s underappreciated TV special Song of the Cloud Forest). Whatever Avatar’s faults may be, visual wonderment is not one of them.
Rating: 7 out of 10.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Beg, borrow, and... okay, maybe not steal...

Most of you will recall that a few weeks ago I voiced my feelings about my need to be selective when playing catch-up with movies during Muriels voting season. But while I won’t even attempt to match the volume of movies I have in years past, I nonetheless have a number of glaring holes in my viewing for 2009, at least some of which I should probably patch up prior to filling out my ballot.

Naturally, there are a handful of movies that I’ll be able to catch on the big screen before the ballot is due at the end of January, some of which are currently occupying theatres nationwide. Chief of among these is Avatar, which even if it doesn’t pose a serious threat to my Muriels favorites, is the kind of pop-culture phenomenon which I really ought to see just to keep abreast of what the kids are up to nowadays (a la Titanic). Likewise, Up in the Air could be a contender- Jason Reitman is a fairly solid director, Clooney’s a reliable indicator of quality in movies that don’t involve goats, and it’ll be nice to see Anna Kendrick get a good role again. And if I get the chance to see The Road and even Precious (a movie I’ve more or less resigned myself to watching sooner or later), so be it.

Of course, the local distributors don’t simply stop opening movies in Columbus once the first of the year arrives. From now until the end of January, certain titles of interest will filter into local cinemas, beginning with the January 8 release of Bronson at the newly-revamped* Gateway Film Center. January 22 brings a pair of Best Actor contenders (on top of Bronson’s allegedly revelatory Tom Hardy) to the Drexel: Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart, and Colin Firth in A Single Man. And even if the critics haven’t been kind, as a long-standing fan of Peter Jackson I feel compelled to check out The Lovely Bones when it drops here mid-month.

But as any non-pro critic and awards voter can attest, a great deal of awards-season catching-up is done not in theatres but on DVD. I’ve kicked my Netflix membership up a few notches for the occasion, in the hopes of squeezing in some interesting “smaller” titles that skipped local venues. Of particular interest are a pair of movies featuring comedians in somewhat darker roles- Patton Oswalt in the blue-collar football-obsessive tale Big Fan, and Robin Williams in Bobcat Goldthwait’s allegedly acerbic comedy World’s Greatest Dad. Likewise, Spike Lee’s Passing Strange may be little more than a filmed stage production, but with Lee’s name attached that’s enough for me. However, I’m also looking forward to catching up with a handful of titles that I somehow overlooked in local release. The one that sticks out for me is Lynn Shelton’s Humpday, which has been riding a crest of great buzz since Sundance. Also of interest: Greg Mottola’s 80s-era comedy Adventureland, Sam Rockwell in Moon, and the crowd-pleasing heavy metal doc with the incredibly redundant name, Anvil!: The Story of Anvil.

But unfortunately, some of the most egregious holes in my viewing have yet to get a DVD release. Because of this, I’m trying to chase down screeners of them in time for them to make the ballot. Of the titles that I still need to see, these are my top 10:

1. 35 Shots of Rum (Claire Denis) – this one particularly hurts, since it played a few days at the Wex in October, but the only screening I could have possibly made coincided with the local beggar’s night. And I couldn’t in good conscience miss out on spending time with my son for Halloween. Do I regret this decision? Heck no. I guess it’s just annoying that I live in a city that tries to act like a teeming metropolis, but can only manage two nights for a critically feted new release from one of world cinema’s most celebrated filmmakers. I mean, I love the Wexner Center, but some of those limited engagements can be difficult for those of us with lives to catch. Anyway, I see that this is coming to the Gateway sometime in the future, but no firm date is set on the site, and I really don’t want to take a chance on not seeing this prior to voting.

2. Still Walking (Hirokazu Kore-eda) – Kore-eda’s a favorite of mine, and I’ve heard great things about this, the only movie in the Movie Nerd Top 10 of 2009 which I have yet to see. I noticed that this is streaming on Netflix, but I’m not sure my crappy computer is up to the task.

3. The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke) – I mean, come on. Besides, even if it does suck, chances are that the black and white cinematography should be gorgeous.

4. Night and Day (Hong Sang-soo) – Honger goes to Paris. Based on that pitch alone, it sounds like it’s right up my alley.

5. Afterschool (Antonio Campos) – D’Angelo has been raving about this one since NYFF last year, and I’m sort of sick of being out of the loop.

6. Black Dynamite (Scott Sanders) – This one played locally as well, but I have a pretty good excuse for missing this one, since it had a whole four showings, all of them at 11 PM. Still, felt bad missing what was supposedly an awesome blaxploitation homage.

7. Home (Ursula Meier) – Because no awards ballot of mine is complete without at least one nomination for Isabelle Huppert.

8-10. Broken Embraces (Pedro Almodovar), My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done (Werner Herzog), The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (Terry Gilliam) – Three reliable directors. Mixed buzz on their latest works, but I’m curious all the same.

Honorable mention: Bright Star (Jane Campion), La Danse: Paris Opera Ballet (Frederick Wiseman), House of the Devil (Ti West), Mammoth (Lukas Moodysson), Police, Adjective (Corneliu Porumboiu), Red Cliff (John Woo), Ricky (François Ozon), Storm (Hans-Christian Schmid), Tokyo Sonata (Kiyoshi Kurosawa).

So how will I manage to see these? This, friends, is where you come in. If you know of somewhere I might procure a screener of any of the above titles, let me know in the comments section or shoot me an e-Mail. Really, any help you can give will be greatly appreciated, and I’d be happy to reimburse you for shipping. Besides, the Muriels get more interesting when the voters see more diverse movies. And as much as I dig The Hurt Locker, it’s time to give another movie a chance to win, don’t you think?

* The Gateway (which began its life as a Drexel before becoming a Landmark) recently acquired new management, and one of the first acts of the new regime was to strike a deal with the Film/Video department at the Wexner Center for the Arts. The deal basically entails that the Wex will program two of the Gateway’s screens per week with arthouse fare. This is, of course, good news for those of us who have been decrying the often-paltry selection of non-Hollywood fare in Central Ohio, as well of those of us who love the Wex but can’t always make it on Friday and Saturday nights. This new arrangement should prove ideal both for titles that would otherwise skip Columbus (e.g. The Girlfriend Experience, Julia, most of the above list), plus movies that prove to be audience favorites in their limited Wex runs. Also, being able to get the Members’ discount for Gateway screenings will be awesome.