27 December 2008

Milk

Directed by: Gus Van Sant
Written by: Dustin Lance Black
Full credits from IMDb

Proposition 8 aside, the 70s were not like these post-Will & Grace days. Milk, a middlebrow, awards-season biopic about one of the country’s first openly gay elected politicians, opens with archival news footage of gays being arrested en masse for patronizing gay bars. Through these clips, Van Sant suggests that anti-homosexual prejudices in America have waned somewhat in the last several decades. But by raising the specter of bias he urges the audience to recognize the prejudice that homosexuals still face today, as perhaps the last sizeable demographic to be denied, on paper, their full civil rights. Milk throbs with gay pain: midnight phone calls from suicidal strangers, fear of every stopping car on the nighttime streets and of violent parents, gruesome threats of death and castration, forced discretion for fear of employment termination. When spontaneous political protest breaks out mid-film, stoked by Anita Bryant’s much-publicized homohating rhetoric, the eponymous Harvey Milk (a flamboyant Sean Penn) addresses a crowd with shrieking fury. “I know you’re angry…I’m angry!” That anger is palpable, stirring and fist-clenchingly infectious.

Elected San Francisco supervisor, akin to a city councilman, Milk served nearly a year before a fellow supervisor, Dan White (a moody Josh Brolin), assassinated him in 1978. The film opens eight years earlier, taking us through Milk’s move to Castro Street, his rise to political figurehead, and his ultimate death. But more than merely profile a person, Milk chronicles an era, a population and a mood; as much as it concerns the many lost elections of Harvey Milk, the film is about fear and despair transformed through the efforts of a political leader into something like optimism. There’s a conspicuous Obama parallel here, particularly as Milk, after several failed campaigns, successfully runs on a platform of “hope”; the film’s penultimate lines are “without hope, life is not worth living.” (Sorry McCain!) The film’s timeliness extends into the recent battle in California over Proposition 8; here, the villainous referendum, which would have fired all gay teachers and their supporters, is Proposition 6. But, more than tease the audience with easy parallels to contemporary headlines, the film aims to educate it about the deplorable discrimination homosexuals faced and continue to face—the arguments about preserving the American family in the film, set 30 years ago, are frighteningly familiar—and to promote Mr. Milk’s idea that gays should come out of the closet because if straights and squares know a gay personally, they’re less likely to support legislation that oppresses them.

As advocacy and history lesson, Milk is surprisingly affecting, brought to life by the actors and period setting’s emotional details; to many, including myself, the abuse of homosexuals throughout the 20th Century is as foreign as the realities of the Jim Crow South. As a film, however, it’s a dully familiar exercise in lifestory. Director Van Sant seems to have reverted to his Good Will Hunting self after nearly an entire decade, and four brilliant films, as an indie darling—the “IFC Bela Tarr”—crafting challenging cinema from the margins of the moviemaking community. Milk, in contrast, is a conventional, Oscar-baiting Prestige Picture, particularly on the page; its story flows too neatly—Milk switches from Republican businessman to radical activist nearly overnight—and follows the tired formulas of the cut-down-hero-on-the-rise storytelling arc, including, shamelessly, a climactic goodbye phone call between torn-asunder lovers. While Van Sant uncharacteristically ties up most of his loose ends here, he neglects the only one he needed to. His last several films have highlighted action over motive, and it’s one of the few motifs to continue into Milk. But because this film’s trappings are so mainstream, the lack of a credible motive for Milk’s assassin comes off not as provocative but as screenwriter oversight. The “he’s a closet case” rationale the filmmakers offer up several times seems nearly as absurd as the killer’s real-life “Twinkie Defense,” in which White claimed that a night of junk food binging had created a chemical imbalance in his brain.

Van Sant is too smart a filmmaker, though, to let his film collapse entirely under the weight of the mass-digestibility that accompanies award-worthiness. From the onset—the introduction of a framing device: Milk dictating his life story—the film seems destined for hagiography; everything I did was done with an eye on the gay movement, Milk says. But the director maintains a mature skepticism, which, in tandem with Harris Savides’ richly lighted compositions, helps elevate the film towards something like Art. The next scene features Milk as an unctuous, on the cusp of 40 insurance salesman in NYC, 1970, picking up a poofy-haired boy (James Franco) in the subterranean corridors of the subway system. There’s nothing quite heroic about a man looking to get laid on his birthday by a pretty young hustler. With such scenes, the filmmakers gently undermine their case for Milk’s apotheosis, accentuating his imperfect humanity—for someone pushing his staff to come out of the closet to their families, Milk himself never revealed his homosexuality to his parents before they died—though this is still a largely celebratory film that, reflecting its hero’s unhip affection for opera, deals in outsized emotions and exaggerated affection. But in a short and haunting scene, in which Van Sant follows White down a hallway between murders, recalling the graceful high-school driftings of Elephant and Paranoid Park, Milk nears poetry in a way to which none of its fellow Oscar contenders come close. This is about as good as this kind of movie gets; it is, after all, a message movie aiming for wide distribution and mass consumption. It might not be lauded in the film history textbooks, but gay-bashing America needs it right now. Grade: B+


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Wendy and Lucy

Directed by: Kelly Reichardt
Written by: Kelly Reichardt & Jonathan Raymond
Full credits at IMDb

Writer-director Kelly Reichardt has the gentlest way of using film to scrutinize the American condition, probing it with people, characters, until she teases out some devastating truths. Her films are political without political utterance, which somehow maintain a modicum of optimism, too. Wendy and Lucy’s bleak but hopeful outlook is serendipitously tailor-fit to these pre-Obama days of both promise and despair, just as her last film, Old Joy (2006) was a perfect product of its time. Centered on two grown-apart friends, that film’s deceptive simplicity left it open to a wide variety of critical readings; I took it as an exploration of the culture wars, then raging under Bush’s stoking. Her latest, Wendy and Lucy, is again about two pals—this time, a girl and her dog—and once again it’s a simplistic and symbolic story, a portrait of this mean old country and its economic disparity.

Michelle Williams, her hair darkened and cropped, stars as a wearied woman, beaten down into equability, crossing the country in a rust-colored car—a tribute to the dying automotive industry?—with her dog in tow. She’s headed for work in the fisheries and canneries of Alaska, America’s final frontier. Stopping in Oregon, and low on cash, she pockets a few cans of Iams at a supermarket without paying, is caught, and spends the day in a holding cell. Returning to the scene of the crime, she finds her dog missing and spends the rest of the film trying to find her: visiting the pound, hanging up fliers, walking around town shouting her name.

As in Red, a dog takes on a hefty metaphorical load here, though with Reichardt at the helm it never feels burdensome. Still, that Wendy has lost her Lucy highlights everything else that she, and the U.S., has lost: honest pay for honest work, decency towards one another, and the inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness. (That she hangs one of her Lost Dog fliers underneath a different Lost Dog poster hints that the problems are systemic, as does the long lateral tracking shot of barking pups behind bars at the local pound.) The brand names that appear—Pedigree, Walgreens—feel less like product placements than mockeries, domineering symbols of undistributed American wealth, far out of the ordinary citizen’s reach. As Williams wanders a supermarket’s aisles, Reichardt, through simply pointing her camera, draws a stinging contrast between a country with such abundance and a people with so little.

She has an eye for authentic images of economic hardship: washing in gas station bathrooms, sleeping in parking lots, collecting roadside bottles and cans for the deposit and the line of crushed men waiting to use the bottle return machines, so vividly represented that they nearly can be smelled. Reichardt, working again with writer Jonathan Raymond (who also penned the story on which the film is based), posits these hardships as new, or at least atavistic. The older folk in the film have a quality of mercy missing from the younger ancillary characters, particularly the callous supermarket employee who turns her in for shoplifting and insists on making an example of her. More than any of the dog troubles, surprisingly, the film’s most moving moment comes when Wally Dalton, an elderly parking lot security guard whom Williams befriends, gives our heroine all the help he can—$7, cash. People want to help when they’re able, but their own economic condition makes it difficult to do so. The whole country is down and out.

Simply observing the hardscrabble life of one off-the-grid yet prototypically luckless American, Reichardt illuminates the national condition—the vulnerability and heartbreaking loneliness necessitated by penury. There might be some sort of illegal immigration parallel to be drawn at the end (in which Oregon is Mexico and Alaska is the continental 48), among others; once again, Reichardt’s spare style lends itself to multiple readings. And once again she clings to hope, too. As depressing as Wendy and Lucy can be, it doesn’t wallow in misery or pity; the director ultimately suggests that we could possibly make this country great again. That is, while we’re losing the battles, the winnable war rages on as long as we keep fighting. Grade: A-


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Revolutionary Road

Directed by: Sam Mendes
Written by: Justin Haythe
Full credits from IMDb

Painstakingly, to the point of painfully, faithful to Richard Yates’ source novel, except as far as Frank Wheeler’s ultimate fate, the screenplay streamlines the key scenes into an efficient narrative but sacrifices all insight as a result. The filmmakers’ tightly focused rush leaves no time to establish the suburbs as credibly oppressive (seem fine to me), no time to let the audience wonder whether the Wheelers are truly extraordinary suburbanites (they’re clearly not) or whether their dreams of expatriation are idealist but noble or brash and shallow (they’re the latter). A gorgeous and empty Cliff’s Notes literary adaptation, Revolutionary Road is this year’s Atonement.

Read the full review at The L Magazine's blog.


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25 December 2008

The Best Films of 2008

Read my full list at The L Magazine, with brief write-ups for each.


1. Synecdoche, New York


2. Wall-E


3. Be Kind Rewind


4. Paranoid Park


5. Mad Detective


6. The Fall


7. In the City of Sylvia


8. Rachel Getting Married


9. Reprise


10. Nights and Weekends

Runners-up: Wendy and Lucy; 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days; Let the Right One In; A Girl Cut in Two; Cloverfield

The Spirit

Written & Directed by: Frank Miller
Full credits from IMDb

Grade: 3/5

Early in The Spirit, the Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson) bashes a toilet over the head of his archnemesis, the title hero (Gabriel Macht). The Octopus gets a good laugh out of it, but the Spirit, a rapid-healing, mysteriously back-from-the-dead policeman turned caped fighter, stands there dazed and straight-faced. Offended, the Octopus defensively declares, “Toilets are always funny!” Such is the ethos of Frank Miller’s goofy comic book movie, based on the series by Will Eisner. Hitherto best known to moviegoers as Robert Rodriguez’s co-director on Sin City, Miller here abandons the gritty for the puerile.

Keep reading at The L Magazine


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Cargo 200

Written & Directed by: Aleksei Balabanov
Full credits at IMDb

Grade: 4/5

When the audience meets Cargo 200’s Angelika (Agniya Kuznetsova), a Chernenko-era CCCP hipster and Party official’s daughter, she’s wearing shin-high white socks and ruby red heels. She’s a virginal Dorothy, later taken hostage by an Ed Gein-ish policeman (Aleksei Poluyan) and tornadoed through a Soviet anti-Oz, during which she’s raped with a vodka bottle, handcuffed naked to a bed thick with putrefying corpses and raped again, this time by a man. We have no choice, then, but to call Cargo 200 (Gruz 200) a horror movie...Like the best horror movies, though, it's no mere revulser but a violent political parable.

Keep reading at The L Magazine


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16 December 2008

Doubt

Written & Directed by: John Patrick Shanley
Full credits from IMDb

I predicted: "It’s been ages since a recent Broadway show successfully crossed over into pictures. The Producers, Proof, Rent — each fizzled quickly, marking the West Coast as the place art from the east goes to die. Doubt should disappear like the others. Writer-director turned playwright turned writer-director Shanley, last seen in Hollywood penning Congo (for cash!), pits Meryl Streep against Philip Seymour Hoffman for the first time, but Cherry Jones and Brían F. O’Byrne did it better — without mugging for Oscar nods."

In fact...
It’s not the art that went west to die but the artist. Streep and Hoffman aren’t really to blame for Doubt, though they’re conspicuously pushing for the accolades of their Tinseltown peers. Both tease out the play’s comedy (there are quite a few zingers) and nail the characters’ moral complexity, in which the movie’s central molestation mystery is rooted. But when the curtain fell after Jones delivered Doubt’s final lines on Broadway, the punctuating darkness delivered a devastating punch to the theatergoers left to slog into the streets. When Streep, in the same role, delivers those lines in the movie, they’re followed by a swooping camera and an angelic choral hymn that continues into the end credits, leaving the audience to drift into the streets atop an ethereal polyphonic current. Such is the problem with Doubt: The Movie.

Keep reading at The L Magazine's blog.


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The Day the Earth Stood Still

Directed by: Scott Derrickson
Written by: David Scarpa
Full credits from IMDb

The Day the Earth Stood Still does more than simply look like The War of the Worlds: it adopts that Spielbergian conceit about destroying the world in order to reunite an estranged family, too. Could anything be more selfish and, well, American? Metal-munching space flies (really) are reducing the earth to wasteland and all the filmmakers care about is: will Will Smith’s son stop worrying about his (movie) father’s death and learn to love his step-mother, Jennifer Connelly? To be fair, the filmmakers also care about how cool it looks to see shit get blown up! To the detriment of boring old things like pacing and storytelling, both as “last century” as the original’s A-bomb anxiety, director Scott Derrickson ensures that every cent of the film’s $100 million budget turns up on the screen — even though the CGI, like that used to create the Doctor Manhattan-sized Gort, looks like it’s out of the late 80s (or an Xbox). But the SFX, the techware, the weaponry, the copious extras, the intricately dressed sets and all the other expenses are, without a compelling context, a bore.

Keep reading at The L Magazine's blog.


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12 December 2008

Twilight

Directed by: Catherine Hardwicke
Written by: Melissa Rosenberg
Full credits from IMDb

I went into Twilight, the CW-style vampire drama that has Hot Topic patrons swooning, already smiling, in anticipation of the hilarity bound to follow: not only the sure-to-be corny dialogue and mushy plotting, but the witty things I would write about it later. Alackaday, the movie is so inoffensively adequate that there was little to laugh about—though still plenty to knock.

Kristen Stewart plays a no-moodier-than-average teen forced to leave sunny Pheonix for the perpetually gray, snow-capped misery of the Pacific Northwest to live with her father. Director Hardwicke has previously set up young characters in a histrionic after-school special milieu (Thirteen), but here she tacks to the opposite extreme. Stewart’s new high school is teeming with plenty of attractive, panracial honors students—who use hip, anodyne slang like “chillax” and “homegirl”—to befriend. But this benign coterie of pre-college time-killers is contrasted with the brooding Tiger Beat pin-up Robert Pattison, her lab partner in, ahem, biology class, who leers at her like she’s a putrefying steak: simultaneously rotten and delicious.

Pale as exhumed corpses, Pattison and his stepbrothers and -sisters are rapidly pegged as…different. So even if you came into Twilight knowing nothing about it—if so, won’t you tell me how?—it’s quickly clear that it’s about vampires living among us. But the maddeningly slow-going script keeps its heroine oblivious to this fact for far too long; it clears its throat, beats around the bush, and pretends that there’s a big mystery to be unraveled. Stewart doesn’t figure out until the middle of the movie what we knew before the credits rolled. The sequel, I hope, won’t be able to be anything but superior, as it won’t have to deal with all this pseudo-suspenseful dawdling.

And a sequel there will be, not only because Twilight made a gazillion dollars on a meager budget but because these are Vampire Times. Zombies and vampires seem to take turns, for a few years at a time, occupying the public imagination. The aughties zombie craze, from new Romero to Romero remakes and Romero homage, seems to have exhausted itself, and so vampires have slowly been returning to the cultural forefront: from Stephanie Meyers’ neo-Anne Rice Twilight books, on which this film is based, to HBO’s sweltering, soft-core romance True Blood, not to mention Sweden’s sweet Let the Right One In, set for a likely not-sweet American remake next year. Zombies are usually used to examine mass cultural trends, since they act dumbly, in groups. So it’s perhaps fitting that they dominated the Bush years, when pack mentality and mass hysteria dominated the cultural discussion: us vs. them culture war nonsense, color-coded terror level vicissitudes, all of it soooo 2004. The Bush-crest is crashing. Times of poverty and Democrats are hotter than times of war and Republicans, and vampire stories are all about sex.

Twilight is as sex-crazed as any of its forebears: Stewart has such an appetizing scent that it sends Pattison into a tizzy; all he wants to do is “bite her neck” and “suck her blood”—wink wink, nudge nudge. But, like an evangelical with an abstinence ring, he has sworn off human blood; he only kills animals, these days anyway. (“I’m designed to kill…I’ve killed before,” he admits, turning on the wives of military men.) The movie serves as celibacy allegory, appropriate for its abstinence-only-education era, in which Stewart, twitchy and frowny, declares she doesn’t like things that are “cold” and “wet”; when a friend holds out a worm on a stick, she cringes. A terrified deer, running through the woods for its life, becomes a visual motif—and guess what it represents. A sloppily, tardily introduced super villain, who wants nothing more than to defile Stewart’s pure…humanity, lures her to her former ballet studio, a crypt for her feminine innocence, and kinkily turns on a camcorder so he can show his enemies later how he “sucked her blood” real good. Maybe he’ll even upload it to the Internet? Rawrr!

All of this sexually symbolic action is relatively innocuous (at least compared to True Blood), but Twilight does turn out to be awfully distasteful—in its view of appropriate relationship behavior. Stewart is 17 and so is Pattison, except that he’s been 17 for 100 years, making her 1/7th his age. And if that alone weren’t bad enough, he follows her around—stalker!—and sneaks into her bedroom at night to watch her sleep. Somehow, the movie passes this off as romantic; maybe it’s every young girl’s dream to have a sexless relationship with an obsessed, much-older man who boasts an unerring fealty to his distressed damsel. Taking a step back, as an adult male, it’s creepy to imagine that this is what (some) women crave. Grade: C+


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Leatherheads

Directed by: George Clooney
Written by: Duncan Brantley & Rick Reilly
Full credits from IMDb

Leatherheads opens with a sepia-tinted, old-timey Universal logo that heralds the film’s anachronistic style, though director Clooney gets a bit too carried away with the subsequent signifiers: Cheers-style fonts, players boozing on the football field, kids smoking cigarettes, Randy Newman-written ragtime. All that’s missing is a mousy girl in a flapper hat. Enter Renée Zellweger in her Chicago costumes. Set in the mid to late ‘20s, Leatherheads is Clooney’s tribute to the screwball comedy. Zellweger plays a caustic newspaperwoman, but she lacks the sparkling timing of Rosalind Russell; and though I’ve long argued that Clooney is his generation’s Cary Grant, I meant of the North by Northwest era. Not Bringing Up Baby.

Goofy comedy (in contrast to the suave deadpan of the Oceans series) has never been Clooney’s strength, which is why his Coen Brothers collaborations usually disappoint, though not always. Leatherheads’ script is stuffed with sharp sarcasm and wit a la His Girl Friday, which it conspicuously emulates. But that’s film virtues were rooted in its actors’ rapid-fire delivery; Clooney’s actors, inclulding John Krasinski, a mere baby-faced schlub when he isn’t breaking a fourth wall, deliver their lines as though their tongues were packed with lead weights.

Set around the advent of professional football, when a group of businessmen turned a gang of mangy miners, ploughmen, factory workers and their scrappy hobby into a national pastime, the film features Krasinski as a war hero and college football star that helps legitimize the game by playing for one of the fledgling professional teams. (Like Pele on the New York Cosmos or David Beckham on the Los Angeles Galaxy—oh wait, wrong kind of football.) Zellweger is the reporter trying to get his story so she can “cook his goose” later; Clooney is a football enthusiast who wants to make the game professional; both need Krasinski, though they conspire to destroy him as well.

As a director, Clooney parses American dark sides: Confessions of a Dangerous Mind exposed a symbiosis between CIA assassinations and pop culture; Good Night and Good Luck addressed McCarthyism and a craven press corps. Leatherheads aims to tackle the same sort of cultural corruption, but only as an afterthought. As the tone slips from a sharp-tongued comedy of words into Buster Keatonish slapstick comedy (again, without the timing), the unfocused movie runs a reel too long while Clooney scrambles to hit several pet political points.

Like, Krasinski’s heroic war story isn’t 100 percent true, and it’s Zellweger’s assignment to get at the truth. At first, she’s pitched as duplicitous for tying to tear him down. “Sometimes this job stinks,” she tells her editor. “A lot of times, kid,” he answers. But unlike The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, Leatherheads ultimately doesn’t argue printing the legend as a noble necessity. Exposing the fraud—and being a card-carrying member of the righteous press—is the true act of heroism because it’s Krasinki’s kind of mendacious mythmaking that leads to George W. Bush re-elections.

And Clooney’s dyed-in-the-wool Democratic partisanship turns up elsewhere in the film—like in its advocacy of regulatory agencies—but Leatherheads isn’t ragingly progressive; Clooney retains a measure of nostalgic and reactionary reverence for the romance of the old ways. Rules tend to make the things they’re regulating boring, and football is no exception. Moving to the left might be necessary, but even Clooney knows it can be kind of a drag. Had I reviewed this film when it was released back in April, I might have laughed that its solidly liberal politics are as old-fashioned as its screwball pastiche. But Obama just won the presidency so, really, it’s prescient. If Leatherheads tells us anything, then, it’s that history repeats itself: as the Roaring Twenties ultimately imploded, paving the way for the New Deal, so too must the Raging Aughties end in Obamanomics. Grade: B


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10 December 2008

In the City of Sylvia

Written & Directed by: José Luis Guerín
Full credits from IMDb

Grade: 4/5

Bound for a slot in countless cinema studies curricula because it puts film theory into practice, the near-plotless and dialogueless In the City of Sylvia (En la Ciudad de Sylvia) alternates endlessly between views of subject and object, the gazer and the gazee. Xavier Lafitte plays the unnamed protagonist, who spends his days at a café, passionately ogling and sketching ladies of all races and ages. It’s like cinema as people-watching on a lazy summer afternoon. With its copious point-of-view shots, the movie revels in the vicarious thrill of seeing through the eyes of another and in the sensation of moving while remaining stationary in the plush theater-seat — that old bit about cinema as a dream. Or, it’s Being Xavier Lafitte. That the actor resembles a young Christ, in his Euro-heartthrob shagginess, seems to be no accident — it lends his gaze-fixing the gravity of theological observation and turns the camera into a domineering godhead.

Keep reading at The L Magazine


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Timecrimes

Written & Directed by: Nacho Vigalondo
Full credits from IMDb

Grade: 3/5

Time travel and headaches are like Chaplin and chuckles: in the movie theater, one necessarily induces the other. But Timecrimes (Los Cronocrímenes) — easily digested, temporal-tripping Spanish sci-fi — is a far cry from Primer, 2004’s lauded headscratcher. It’s built upon a Tylenol-demanding, sleep-depriving paradox — how can problems borne of time traveling cause our hero to time travel in the first place? — but it’s so Hollywood-ready that a remake is already in pre-pre-production. The movie is ultimately about more than chrono-hopping, though; for writer-director Vigalondo, that’s just a means to explore a horror movie trope while fashioning a parable about middle-aged marriage.

Keep reading at The L Magazine


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29 November 2008

Rachel Getting Married

Directed by: Jonathan Demme
Written by: Jenny Lumet
Full credits from IMDb

These last five years, director Jonathan Demme has divided his time behind the camera between star-driven Hollywood vehicles—like The Truth About Charlie—and lefty documentaries, like Jimmy Carter: The Man from Plains. In his latest film, Rachel Getting Married, he combines the two styles of filmmaking, fusing the star-driven narrative fiction film with the vérité approach of on-the-ground non-fiction. The titular Rachel is not the only one tying the knot here—so are two aesthetics.

Unfortunately, American directors don’t make true-to-life movies like this often enough. A reliance on predictability and broad archetypes has come to define the country’s cinema, particularly, as of late, its independent sector. Countless recent films, like Diminished Capacity, Expired and Henry Poole is Here, are ostensibly quirky, but their characters are flat and their narratives are tied up neatly—and unnaturally. They don’t challenge audiences, in any meaningful ways, to reassess their lives or their movies. They simply conform to their expectations.

Rachel Getting Married, in contrast, is a refreshing, confounding and invigorating injection of the authentic. It’s not quirky; it’s down-and-dirty. Demme rejects the usual indie clichés in exchange for something more ambiguous and therefore more honest. He offers the audience little in terms of backstory or resolution; most of that is merely implied, through action and tossed-off dialogue, pushing the audience to confront not only its feelings about the American family but also about the artificiality of Tinseltown storytelling.

Kym (a type-defying Anne Hathaway) takes a leave of absence from rehab to attend her sister Rachel’s wedding at their childhood home in Connecticut. Set over the course of three days, the film covers the preparations, the rehearsal dinner, the ceremony and the morning after while the characters parcel out harbored resentments like early and unasked for Christmas presents. Kym and Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt) do much of the battling, though the rest of the family gets in on it too, from the flamboyantly non-confrontational father (Bill Irwin) to the emotionally distant mother (Debra Winger). Both parents get a Big Acting Moment: when Irwin, forced to confront a past tragedy, sobs, flitting his hands to shoo away would-be consolers like gnats, his clowning background—he graduated, literally, from clown college—gives him the litheness to accentuate perfectly his character’s histrionics. In a late scene, Winger takes a smack from Hathaway before returning it with such brutality that it stands as one of the year’s most emotionally ferocious moments of film violence.

Demme follows the conventions of realistic moviemaking: he shoots the bantering, bickering and bitch-slapping with a shaky handheld camera, using jump cuts and unsteady close-ups to enhance the performers’ emotional intimacy. And he lets the musical score emerge organically from the action. Over the opening credits, we hear a group of musicians practice “Here Comes the Bride.” In a more typical, destined-for-TBS flick, we might have heard the tune played straight through. But here, the musicians clunk their instruments, begin the piece, stop and start again. By opening the film with a crude rehearsal, Demme signals that what’s to follow will be just as unpolished.

In fact, Rachel Getting Married’s director and actors don’t even seem to be working from a script. That’s less a criticism of Jenny Lumet’s screenplay than a testament to the naturalness of the direction and the authenticity of the actors. The film feels like a documentary about real members of a real wedding party. (A lengthy sequence of music and dancing following the wedding, likely not part of the script, is one of the film’s several home-movie-like interludes that wallow blissfully in observation.) The script offers little backstory for any character except Hathaway, but the actors seemed to have worked it out for themselves. The simplicity of the plot gives them plenty of space to experiment, which in turn gives the film an aura of improvisation. The actors talk over each other, finish each other’s sentences, and allude vaguely to personal history without elaboration—just as a real family would. It’s so lived-in that the ups-and-downs of the characters become the audience’s own. If a filmmaker is owed a debt of inspiration here, it’s not the screenwriter’s father, Sidney. It’s Robert Altman. (Indeed, he gets a “special thanks” in the end credits.)

Behind the domestic drama, Demme constructs a celebration of multiculturalism, the promise of liberalism in action. Rachel’s husband (TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe) and his family are African-American, which Demme doesn’t acknowledge, as though unremarkable; the wedding’s theme, in food and dress, is Indian; and the music runs the gamut from English folk to bebop sax. When the wedding cake is cut, it’s by the whole family, a mound of stacked, black-on-white hands that functions as the defining image of the movie’s message of togetherness—not just of multiracial harmony but of family unity.

For all its hostility and shared tragedies, the central characters in Rachel Getting Married are still a family. Fissures are exposed and exacerbated but ultimately set aside, avoiding the sitcom’s impulse for resolution. In the middle of a heated argument, Rachel reveals she’s pregnant and the fight quickly turns into celebration because, for the filmmakers, family’s the worst but it’s also the best. There’s neither forgiveness nor lack of forgiveness, suggesting that when it comes to our kinsfolk, we’re stuck with each other—so love the one you’re with.
During a toast to the bride and groom to be, the groom’s mother notes that this wedding, with families and friends of all races together and celebrating, must be what Heaven’s like. That pan-racial revelry might be the film’s most naïve element, but the credibility with which Demme executes it makes colorblind solidarity seem not only possible but actual. Grade: A


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Synecdoche, New York

Written & Directed by: Charlie Kaufman
Full credits from IMDb

I was depressed for several days after seeing Synecdoche, New York. Not because it’s a singularly depressing film—it’s sometimes funny and poignant, in addition to depressing—but because most other movies (except maybe Inland Empire or Last Year at Marienbad) seem so insignificant and irrelevant now. As does writing about them. That’s not to say that Synecdoche (rhymes with Schenectady) is the pinnacle of cinema, but that it’s an unparalleled, epic expression of one man’s neuroses. No other film, no other piece of art, has mined an artist’s conscious, subconscious and unconscious minds so thoroughly, so honestly, so awesomely. It’s endlessly enthralling, intellectually radical moviemaking and a benchmark in art-as-publicized-therapy.

Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Kaufman’s surrogate (named Cotard, presumably after the syndrome), a modestly successful regional theater director who scans the morning paper for interesting obits and the latest epidemiological news. (“Avian flu has spread to Turkey,” he announces at the breakfast table. “The country, not the bird.”) He’s a sedately neurotic, a real miserabilist, and—like Woody Allen in Hannah and Her Sisters, though neither Jewish nor comically relieving—a paranoid hypochondriac obsessed with death.

His wife leaves him, after which he gets a MacArthur Fellowship and begins creating a lasting masterwork, a play which he stages in a hangar so impossibly spacious that, in it, he can build a working, life-size model of New York City (a la Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, partly, with its searchlighted zeppelin). “We’re all hurtling towards death…each of us secretly believing that we won’t [die],” Hoffman says. “That’s what I want to explore.” The scope of the production becomes so epic that the hangar becomes a part of the hangar. He hires someone to play himself, and an actor to play the actor playing himself. His love interest becomes interested in the actor playing himself, so he has sex with the actress playing her.

In short, it’s a standard-issue Charlie Kaufman mindfuck, though is reaches farther into the outer edges of cinema and the human brain than he has hitherto ever attempted. Most of Kaufman’s previous films, Being John Malkovich to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, have been set, at least in part, within the characters’ minds. Synecdoche follows suit, though not explicitly, like Adaptation’s last third. Hoffman’s manifest hypochondria, from bumps and legions on his skin to discolored urine and stool, is present in one scene and gone the next. He doesn’t age for “years,” he suddenly ages, he ages back again. He sees himself in chemotherapy ads on television and in children’s cartoons.

It’s surreal; Samantha Morton, in a supporting role as love interest, buys a house that’s on fire and lives in it through the film. (“I’m concerned about the fire,” she says as she considers buying it. “It’s a big decision,” the real estate agent answers, “deciding how to die.”) Synecdoche plays out as one long nightmarish and expressionistic fantasy with no clear demarcation, if such a boundary exists at all in the film, between the hallucinated and the real. (Although little seems real in Synecdoche; at one point, Hoffman drips “Tear Substitute” into his eye before he begins to weep.) But Kaufman never acknowledges his own absurdity, legitimizing the film’s lack of logic through his straight-faced acceptance of it, in the tradition of the great surrealists.

Like Last Year in Marienbad, some unspoken tragedy seems to inform the action. Is Hoffman in a coma? In limbo? In Hell? Or simply buried in the recesses of his own mind? But as in Resnais’ film, the answers, of which there are none, aren’t important. The film’s power lies in its emotion, unaffected by whether the proceedings are a comatose dream or literalized psychotic imaginings. Synecdoche demands multiple viewings, but its multiple thematic strands are still immediately clear, at least intuitively.

Like , it’s an artist’s mid-career working-through of his relationships with women—and thus particularly masculine—but it’s also an exploration of loneliness, loss, regret and the ways they intersect with artistic creation. Life is a play without an audience, Kaufman suggests, and so to make his life meaningful—and less lonely—he tries to transform his into a viewable piece of art. Such a project takes a lifetime; he’s literally dying to get at something real. (“I won’t accept anything but the brutal truth,” he tells his actors. “Brutal! Brutal!”) At one point, a member of his cast asks, “when are we going to get an audience? It’s been 17 years.”

Hoffman comes to understand that he is but one person on a planet full of them. “13 million people,” he says, “none of those people an extra. They’re all a lead in their own story.” But Synecdoche isn’t about just any one of those 13 million. Kaufman himself is the film’s lead; despite its universality, the movie remains exclusively his story. The director is no solipsist but he is a narcissist. And the closest the movie gets to a happy ending is the suggestion that this control-freak’s only chance at peace is to surrender his ego. (And to let himself be played by a woman. Maybe he becomes a woman himself? Or a homosexual?) During this epic struggle of self, Kaufman intimates that revolution is on the streets outside the hangar, that the external world is in political upheaval, but he’s more interested in keeping the camera on Hoffman’s face—in celebrating individual worth. “No one wants to hear about my misery because they have their own,” Hoffman says. “Well, fuck everybody.” That is, don't let anyone tell you your private pains aren't worth telling the world about. That’s an idea that starts to cheer me up. Grade: A+


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26 November 2008

Australia

Directed by: Baz Luhrmann
Written by: Stuart Beattie & Baz Luhrmann and Ronald Harwood & Richard Flanagan
Full credits from IMDb

Grade: 1/5

Youthenizing fusty genres — the Shakespeare adaptation, the Hollywood musical — is Baz Luhrmann’s stock in trade. His latest, Australia, which views his homeland through lenses more yahoo than serious, takes on two more: the outpost Western (with copious allusions to Shane, Ford, Hawks and Leone) and the historical epic (with its James Michener-esque title). But Luhrmann is no breather of new life, no reverent epigone. He’s a parodist — and this is his Epic Movie.

Keep reading at The L Magazine


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19 November 2008

Special

Written & Directed by: Hal Haberman & Jeremy Passmore
Full credits from IMDb

Grade: 3/5

In its first act, Special, a quasi-superhero movie that posits the costumed fighter as deluded pillhead, feels like a standard-issue Sundance snoozer: Michael Rapaport plays Les, a lonely outsider, an L.A. (natch) traffic cop like the lovers in Expired, Park City exemplar. He eats microwave dinners alone in front of the T.V. His best friends are chubby stoners — one of whom is a babyfatted Josh Peck, to the assumed outrage of Nickheads and their parents — who run the comic book store where he kills his lunch hour. His love interest is a speech-handicapped convenience store clerk. His diary, read in voice-over to talk us through the movie, includes entries such as, “people shouldn’t give up, no matter how alone they feel, because anything is possible.”

But the indie trappings are a ploy; Special cleverly transforms its quirk into menace, becoming a cultural criticism aimed at the ubiquity of arrogant self-importance.

Keep reading at The L Magazine


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The Betrayal

Directed by: Ellen Kuras and Thavisouk Phravasath
Full credits from IMDb

Grade: 4/5

Before she became a sought-after cinematographer, Ellen Kuras — a frequent concert film camerawoman and Michel Gondry collaborator — began shooting a documentary about a Laotian refugee, Thavisouk Phrasavath. After nearly 30 years of working on the project in between Hollywood for-hire gigs, it’s finally finished. A non-polemical rebuttal to the Palinheads tired of apologizing for America, The Betrayal (Nerakhoon) shows there’s still plenty to be sorry about.

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13 November 2008

A Christmas Tale

Directed by: Arnaud Desplechin
Written by: Emmanuel Bourdieu & Arnaud Desplechin
Full credits from IMDb

Grade: 3/5

Director Desplechin doesn’t keep a comfortable distance from the characters in A Christmas Tale (Un Conte de Noel); he gets in close. Real close. When a doctor drips drawn blood onto a testing strip, Desplechin can’t leave it at that; he must get microscopically close, so he shows several shots of colliding blood cells. The thinking behind it, presumably, is that the nearer the camera gets to the actors’ bodies, the nearer the director gets to revealing his characters’ emotions; the only way to see the unseeable is to get right next to where it would be. So A Christmas Tale, a home-for-the-holidays character drama, is shot at a nose’s length.

Keep reading at The L Magazine


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04 November 2008

Gardens of the Night

Written & Directed by: Damian Harris
Full credits from IMDb

Grade: 3/5

Gardens of the Night deals in inherently sensationalist subject matter: kidnapping, child sex slaves and teenage prostitutes — each, apparently, more widespread in America than I thought. But writer-director Damian Harris does his best to keep the film free from salacity; it’s a tasteless story handled tastefully. An 8-year-old Catholic schoolgirl, Leslie (Ryan Simpkins), is on her way to class one morning when Tom Arnold, playing against type, enlists her in a lost-dog hunt that ends with him offering her a ride to school. You can see where this is headed.

Keep reading at The L Magazine


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03 November 2008

Let the Right One In

Directed by: Tomas Alfredson
Written by: John Ajvide Lindqvist
Full credits from IMDb

Let the Right One In (Låt den Rätte Komma In), a Swedish film about pre-adolescent angst and loneliness, centers on two 12 year olds: Kåre Hedebrant, a pale and friendless pantywaist, and his new neighbor, Lina Leandersson. She ignites his passions with her Rubik’s Cube prowess, and soon they’re sharing solving secrets and candies, the gateway to trustfully confessing their vulnerabilities. It’s a graceful, if somewhat ordinary, tale of young melancholy enhanced by its vampire parallel. Oh—Leandersson’s a vampire.

Slated for an American remake before the original had its American theatrical release, Let the Right One In is the best kind of horror movie, in which the horror isn’t the end but a means of amplifying the core human themes—a supporting story element. Vampirism takes a back seat in this film except when functional—when it’s used to inform the parable of tweenage love and loss. Above all, Alfredson’s interest lies in establishing Sweden’s snowscaped stillness and the emotional reality of the bullied bookworm. He deals not in pools of blood, only in small, occasional streaks and tasteful splashes onto white backgrounds. The remake should be awful.

It’s tough to imagine a Hollywood for-hire possessing the sensitivity with which Alfredson draws a parallel between being undead and being a lonely pre-teen or with which he approaches the blood suckers themselves. A la Chigurgh, though more severely, the vampires treat people like cattle: they stun them, hang them upside down by the hind legs, slit their throats and bleed them dry; the sweet stuff is collected in large plastic jugs. Or they lunge like wolves at unsuspecting humans.

But the monsters are still sadly sympathetic. A lady vampire chews out her family’s breadwinner for failing to properly collect blood, as though he were any un-undead man who couldn’t provide (and answered to a harridan). The vampires kill with guilt, satisfying an unfortunate but incurable addiction. Pitiably, Alfredson’s vampires lilt with hunger, their eyes rimmed with dark circles, their stomachs growling and gurgling with literal bloodthirst. In its view of violence, Let the Right One In ultimately tacks centrist. It says that sometimes it’s morally forgiveable to kill—when you must do it to survive—but it’s unacceptable to do it out of sheer anger. From the country that didn’t sign up with the Coalition of the Willing. Grade: B+


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02 November 2008

Dear Zachary

Written & Directed by: Kurt Kuenne
Full credits from IMDb

Grade: 3/5

As a movie-memorial for a murdered mensch, Dear Zachary could have been terribly dull. Meant as a video letter to the dead man’s son, and built around home-movie footage and interviews with the victim’s family and friends, it might easily have had the effect of looking at an animated Facebook-album’s-worth of strangers’ conspicuously posed friends: so familiar, so foreign, so boring. But, thank goodness, director Kurt Kuenne (the victim’s childhood friend) knows it, so he compensates with copious B-roll and an exhilarating, rat-a-tat editing style. More importantly, though, he always keeps one eye on the titillating true-crime angle. Not merely a tribute to a by-all-accounts great guy, the epistolary Dear Zachary doubles as an engaging news piece; it triples as a cutting critique of the Canadian justice system’s bail procedures, extradition laws and child-custody practices.

Keep reading at The L Magazine


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30 October 2008

Zack and Miri Make a Porno

Written & Directed by: Kevin Smith
Full credits at IMDb

Grade: 2/5

Apropos of nothing, Zack and Miri Make a Porno opens with a car crashing through a churchyard fence. It’s Kevin Smith tearing down the temple, asserting his iconoclasm and hinting at the indecency to follow. But recent ad campaign “controversies” and MPAA scuffles aside, Smith is more conventional than he’d like to think.

Keep reading at The L Magazine


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25 October 2008

Red

Directed by: Trygve Allister Diesen, Lucky McKee
Written by: Stephen Susco
Full credits from IMDb

Artists do it in high art and low, from Of Mice and Men to I Am Legend. But that doesn’t make killing a dog anything less than the cheapest manipulative trick a storyteller can try. More so than killing a baby. So what to do, then, with a whole movie built around the unjust murder of a poor, defenseless dog? Red, a heady and leathery B-picture, uses canicide as a starting point, but it’s about a lot more than that murdered mutt—the callous killing, and its aftermath, stand-in here for an entire country gone wrong.

That’s a lot of weight for a single dog or death to carry, but Red, more or less, pulls it off, thanks mostly to Brian Cox, who plays the dog’s owner. With a Death Wish moustache, an immoveable frown and eyes set deep into his pockmarked, mashed potato face, he keeps the film’s emotional level subdued—his rage is quiet. What could easily have been an exaggerated film full of speechifying and on-the-knees weeping instead plays out subtly; after the dog dies, the directors express Cox’s loneliness not through grand soliloquy but through a simple shot of his bedroom door, the wood scarred with the claw marks of a dog that will scratch it no more.

Cox is fishing (or, fishin’) in the woods one afternoon with his trusty pooch—the film shamelessly begins with them in bed together, him chuckling as the dog licks his face—when a trio of teens approaches. After Cox gently and sagely criticizes one of the boy’s hunting techniques, the now emasculated and absurdly sociopathic teen shoots Cox’s dog. “There wasn’t any sense to it,” Cox says later. “It was just meanness.” He tracks down the boy and approaches his father—not for money or for blood, only for a mild brand of justice. Cox wants the boy to be made aware of his wrong, made to feel sorry; at most, he wants him arrested and scared straight. But the boy’s father, a wealthy and influential local, sides with his son, who predictably denies the wild allegations. (The directors make it clear whose side we’re on: Cox is frequently shot from below and up-close, a towering figure in the frame; the boy’s father is shot from a distance, a speck of a man amid the petty accoutrements of his wealth.)

As parents, police and prosecutors rebuff Cox’s modest demands, Red becomes a class struggle: the bratty, privileged moneyed class and its spoiled children against the God-given rectitude of one tough old American man—a vet no less. (It could be the Kennedys vs. McCain, if McCain weren’t so absurdly wealthy.) As a soldier, the one thing Cox learned was: never stop fighting, so he presses on in his righteous but increasingly quixotic quest for justice. “All this time, work and expense,” muses a country lawyer friend, “for an old mongrel you already buried?”

Peculiarly, many of Red’s makers come out of horror movies: co-director McKee, who shot about 60 percent of the film before falling out with the producer, is best known for indie cult faves May and The Woods; screenwriter Susco made his name on penning The Grudge’s American remake and its sequel; schlockmeister favorite Jack Ketchum wrote the source novel; and Robert Englund, sans claws or striped sweater, turns up in a supporting role as a white-trash father. But Red is not a horror movie, it just deals in horrible things—injustice piled upon injustice, a world sick with senseless cruelty, two generations rabid with irredeemable meanness. (Generations that, significantly, won’t stand-up to their selfish and violent leaders.)

If this sounds like a set-up for a conservative philippic about failed institutions and the decline of American values, the film takes a more subversive turn. (It’s clearly not a right-wing film with its sympathetic portrayal of a member of the liberal media.) “It has been said,” a reporter announces, “that the greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be measured in the way it treats its animals.” But the guilty boys are not only dog-killers but misogynists. The nation’s morality is in undeniable regress.

Cox and his enemies eventually take their series of escalating retributions too far and the film ends with him in tears, self-critiquing his monomania and regretting the damage caused. There’s no justice, no heroism. Violence begets violence and deeper despair. Red exposes the dark side of vigilantism and as such comes conspicuously from this post-9/11 era of perpetual war. Blind quests for “what’s right’ simply lead the avenger to condescend to the level of his enemies—to the spilling of innocent blood, dog and man’s alike. Grade: B


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24 October 2008

Tokyo Sonata

A TARDY DISPATCH FROM THE NY FILM FESTIVAL

Written & Directed by: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Full credits from IMDb

Tokyo Sonata, a gentle and immaculately composed domestic drama, opens during a storm; as with Retribution’s earthquakes, Kurosawa uses weather conditions as stand-ins for cultural ones. Tokyo is in turbulent times; after blustering winds disturb a living room’s unpaperweighted papers, our protagonist, Teruyuki Kagawa, learns he’s been fired from his middle management position. Labor is cheaper in China, so the company is moving his job there. (Outsourcing is not exclusive to the West.) The physical condition of the city, as Kurosawa and his crew film it, mirrors its economy: set in the outskirts of central Tokyo, the film shows the city as an industrial, weedy, peeling-paint miseryland, where ramshackle houses pile on top of one another, surrounded by elevated trains and electrical wires that look like vines surrounding Mayan ruins. Lines at employment agencies stretch down several flights of stairwell.

So, broadly, Tokyo Sonata is about a city, but it’s also about a single family; Kurosawa tackles the cultural crisis by focusing on a representative sample. He shoots the central clan through open doorways; frequently obstructing our view enhances the voyeuristic intimacy. But squeezing his characters into frames within frames also enhances the feeling that times are tight. “We’re like a slowly sinking ship,” says Kagawa’s old friend and fellow unemployed in front of a flaming trashcan. “The lifeboats are gone, the water’s up to our mouths.” Kagawa keeps his unemployment a secret from his family, pretending to go to work each day while taking his meals under cold stone overpasses with the homeless and the crazy. Each member of his family has his or her own secret, too—his wife’s excursion, in which she contracts Stockholm Syndrome, with a home-invading burglar (Koji Yakusho); his youngest son’s furtive piano lessons, paid for with purloined lunch money; and his eldest boy’s desire to join the American Army’s noble, ahem, fight in Iraq.

Kagawa’s economic condition drives him to seething bitterness, to a point that he starts to resemble a certain maverick senator: he promises to give his piano prodigy some “straight talk”; he hypocritically berates his boy for a failing that he shares (lying); and he won’t back down from his absurd positions for the sake of maintaining appearances. But the father’s failure to provide for his family doubles as an allegory for a government failing to protect its people—and an America failing to protect the globe. Following a startling moment of domestic violence, Kurosawa cuts to a news-broadcast announcing The Surge. As in (my reading of) Retribution, the Iraq War becomes an essential subtext. “If America has a problem, Japan’s directly affected,” G.I. Joe-san tells his father, indicating that the failing economy and endless war here in the U.S. help drive the whole world into penury and (“home front”) violence. Not just an attack on the policies of Bush and his potential successor, though, Tokyo Sonata functions at a basic human-level; it’s about how, when conditions reach a breaking point, everyone’s instinct is to run away and start over. But starting over, Kurosawa suggests, has to happen at home. Grade: A


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22 October 2008

Fear(s) of the Dark

Directed by: Blutch, Charles Burns, Marie Caillou, Pierre Di Sciullo, Lorenzo Mattotti and Richard McGuire
Written by: Blutch, Charles Burns, Pierre Di Sciullo, Jerry Kramski, Richard McGuire, Michel Pirus, Romain Slocombe

Grade: 4/5

Using macabre imagery to drive its unsettling storytelling, Fear(s) of the Dark, an omnibus of eerie animated shorts from France, is of the sort of Gorey- and Addams-esque creepery that Tim Burton pastiches for a living. Animated by an impressive list of international illustrators, the film, like Persepolis (also French), has the look of a Barnes and Noble Graphic Novels section set into black-and-white motion. And like Schindler’s List, shades of red occasionally pop up amid the grayscale — not to tint a little girl’s coat, but to color brooding skies and puddles of blood.

Keep reading at The L Magazine


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17 October 2008

Burn After Reading

Written & Directed by: Joel & Ethan Coen
Full credits from IMDb

Whereas the Coen brothers’ last film, No Country for Old Men, opened with low-to-the-ground camera angles, Burn After Reading opens with a theological shot—a Google-Earth’s-eye view of North America that quickly zeroes in on Langley. The Coens stress that, here, we are to be detached observers—that this is not a tense cat-and-mouse chase through the desert but a comedy. A return to form. So sit back and relax. But just because Burn After Reading has Brad Pitt reviving his Cool World coif doesn’t mean that the film has nothing to say. If No Country looked at the decline of the American culture, Burn After Reading examines what determined that fall—the culture of Washington.

The Coens spend the bulk of the film putting the players into place; it’s a complex, multi-character set-up kept going by a martial tick-tock score, which instills Burn After Reading with a gravitas to which it never quite lives up. Set in and around the corridors of power, Burn is a comedy of errors, full of sex-obsessed jokers, in which two gym employees (Pitt & Frances MacDormand) stumble upon a CD-R with the working memoirs (mem-wahz) of a recently fired CIA agent-slash-alcoholic (John Malkovich, wandering hilariously from scene to scene, repeatedly moaning, in a muttering whine, “what the fuck?”). The personal trainers mistake the files for important when they’re merely self-stroking, and the duo’s consequent shenanigans set off a chain reaction that ends in violence and murder.

On a basic level, Burn After Reading is a spoof of the paranoid conspiracy thriller, the type popularized in the post-Watergate ‘70s; here, the Washington backrooms are full of clowns and Princeton alum garbling old college singalongs in black-tie drunkenness. These nitwits would be incapable of concocting and carrying out a conspiracy even if they wanted to. It’s a portrait of the American government as wholly dysfunctional, paralleling the characters’ sexual dysfunctions (see: the wild dildo-equipped rocking chair that George Clooney builds in his basement.)

Malkovich’s wife, Tilda Swinton, is cheating on him with Clooney, who’s cheating on her with MacDormand, who met him on the Internet, where she meets all her beaux. (They meet in person in an oft-returned-to allée of solicitation, a lovely detail of D.C. sordidness.) “They all seem to be sleeping with each other,” notes one employee of the mystified and exasperated CIA, which is keeping tabs on the proceedings and can’t wait to get these crazies out of its life. While the central characters believe state secrets are at stake, the CIA, in the same detached observer position as the audience, recognize the situation as petty psychosexual lunacy transpiring between petty connivers.

The Coen’s reflect the nation’s-capital knuckleheadry in the vacuity and absurdity of popular culture, from fluorescent-lighted, spiritually dead home-repair warehouses to a quick clip of “Family Feud” and a romantic comedy about a girl who won’t get out of a tree. The country’s leaders and powerbrokers, and those that surround them, set the tone of the culture at large. MacDormand sets the mischief into motion in the hopes of getting a series of plastic surgeries; because of her body, “I would be laughed out of Hollywood,” she laments with a straight face. It’s enough to drive her to potential treason. When all of the characters’ selfishness and stupidity leads to a “clusterfuck” of violence, Burn After Reading shapes into an Iraq War allegory in which dimwitted self-interest inevitably results in bloodshed. “What did we learn?” a CIA man asks at the end. “I guess we learned not to do it again.” But the country hasn’t learned a damn thing. It’s even considering voting Palin! Grade: B+


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08 October 2008

Nights and Weekends

Written & Directed by: Joe Swanberg & Greta Gerwig
Full credits from IMDb

Grade: 5/5

From the actor-director who once masturbated to climax on screen, Nights and Weekends begins with hallway-floor lovemaking and equal-opportunity nudity. Greta Gerwig, an extraordinary actress who here stars and directs alongside Joe Swanberg, removes not only her underclothes but her socks. Even her watch. Opening with head-to-toe undress announces the copious toplessness and bottomlessness to follow, but it also hints at what will be a film-long display of emotional nakedness. The two stars strip themselves bare throughout, literally and not.

Keep reading at The L Magazine


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06 October 2008

Essay: Jerk Offs, Rent Raisers & The Open Buffet: New York in 21st Century Film


Starting with Mayor Dinkins’ police force bolstering, and continuing through Clinton boom times and the Giuliani mayoralty, New York underwent a revamping from dump to Disneyland, evinced most conspicuously in the transformation of Times Square from porn-palace Mecca to TRL headquarters. In 2007, the city’s murder rate was the lowest it has been in the 44 years that reliable records have been kept; new census data reveals that decades of “white flight” trends have begun to reverse.

For better or worse, The City is a radically different place than it was 20, 30 or 40 years ago. And now it’s beginning to show in the filmmaking. Two films [Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist and The Pleasure of Being Robbed], both released on October 3rd, offer portraits of Bloomberg’s overhauled New York. One is blithely celebratory, the other quietly critical.

Read the whole essay at The L Magazine

01 October 2008

The Pleasure of Being Robbed

Directed by: Josh Safdie
Written by: Josh Safdie & Eleonore Hendricks
Full credits at IMDb

Grade: 4/5

Steeped in 16mm textures and Bujalski-esque naturalism, The Pleasure of Being Robbed, Josh Safdie’s debut feature, is both an up-close character study and a wider-scoped survey of contemporary New York. And though it features wonderfully un-self-conscious actors cheerfully ambling through comic vignettes, it’s not (entirely) just another kids-in-Brooklyn-apartments movie. Quarter-life-crisisers don’t dissect their romantic relationships ad nauseum here. Instead, they steal.

Keep reading at The L Magazine


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