28 April 2008

Stuff and Dough

Directed by: Cristi Puiu
Written by: Cristi Puiu & Razvan Radulescu
Full Credits from IMDb

Grade: B-

Rarely have I ever taken so few notes during a movie as I did during Stuff and Dough (Marfa si Banii), a maddening exercise in anticlimax that does for the Romanian New Wave what Cars did for Pixar: interrupt the winning streak. After near masterpieces like 12:08 East of Bucharest and 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days, the film movement manages to disappoint with this (previously unreleased-in-this-country) debut feature, from the director of the heralded The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, that serves as a clear demonstration of how using the ordinary trials of ordinary people as a cinematic device can go so wrong. The film could approach the extraordinary, if it wanted to, as a tense road movie along the lines of Duel or The Wages of Fear, but instead settles as an ambling road trip full of minor conflicts that never quite develop and therefore never quite compel the audience’s attention. It is shot almost entirely from the backseat of a van, focused on the bull sessions, the false boasting and funny stories, between two pals and their female accessory.

Alexandru Papadopol has dreams of moving out of his parents’ house and getting his own food stand, bigger and better than the meager one his folks struggle to operate; so when a nose-picking local man offers him two years’ wages to deliver six packs of “medical supplies” from Contanta to Bucharest, a mere four hour drive, he jumps at the chance. His buddy Dragos Bucur tags along with his latest catch in tow, the nose-picking, Juliette-Lewis-type, Ioana Flora.

Deliver the stuff, get the dough—it sounds so simple and…basically it is. Stuff and Dough feels like it’s about to pick up after a few reels, at least for a moment, but the knuckles quickly unwhiten. The trio runs into trouble when a red jeep asks them to pull over and then attacks without provocation, bashing in the driver’s side window with a bat and smashing Papadopol’s legs in the passenger side door like they were Frank Vincent’s head, but Puiu doesn’t seem interested in sustaining tension; at most, Stuff and Dough is quick bits of foreplay interlaced with downtime. Though the red jeep continues to pop up menacingly from time to time, most elegantly in glimpses from the rear view mirror, the two groups do not confront one another again, and our band of heroes’ apprehension wanes easily. And if they’re not worried, why should we be?

I suppose we’re not supposed to, but if this isn’t a chase movie—as some critics are making it out to be—then what is it? A neorealist slice of life in post-Ceausescu Romania? Behold the Romanian countryside, its highway system, its wholesale markets, and its callow youth? At least the filmmakers use the running time to comment on the state of their motherland, on how the pressures of moving into modernity can tear comrades apart and about how one cruel and corrupt system has simply been replaced by another. Stuff and Dough is reflective and cautionary: young men just clear of their mother’s apron strings, like young nations recently freed from dictatorship, ought to proceed cautiously into their freedom-filled futures, lest they wind up in over their heads—that is, under the control of criminals, gangsters, killers and drug dealers. But to make the point, the filmmakers simply stick a dizzy camera in a car and let the cast shoot the shit. The actors all do an admirable job of achieving effortless authenticity, and the camerawork is at times graceful if shaky, but Stuff and Dough is hardly more compelling than actually driving for four hours through Romania with your friends to deliver a duffel bag of drugs. That is, despite its potential for action and adventure, thrills and chills, it’s pretty mundane. If that’s a rejection of Hollywood cliché, don’t let’s forget that some things become standards because they work so well and that repudiating convention is not a virtue in and of itself.

Watch the red van confrontation scene without subtitles:

Forgetting Sarah Marshall

Directed by: Nicholas Stoller
Written by: Jason Segel
Full Credits from IMDb

Grade: B+

Wouldn’t the state of modern, mainstream, multiplex American cinema be so much stronger if all its generic romantic-comedies were as hilarious and sincere as Forgetting Sarah Marshall? (Its irritating, contemptible ad campaign not withstanding.) With a firm grasp of the workings of seriocomedy, the film (often) succeeds in moving beyond its superficial hilarity because it’s serious but refuses to take itself seriously; usually laughing at itself, it subtly succeeds dramatically, masking its emotion in self-deprecating humor so that it’s heartfelt but rarely sappy. (“I didn’t know it was a comedy,” star Jason Segel says at one point, a possible metamoment, of his show-within-the-movie, “but then someone told me and it really just opened things up.”)

I qualify with “rarely,” however, because unfortunately, with the irrepressibly prolific Judd Apatow producing, the film trips over the same failing that seems to do in most of his films, including that other Apatow gift to a former Freaks and Geeks cast member, Knocked Up: it goes on too long and has too many plot lines to wrap up, often involving secondary and even tertiary couples, that it has to pause the comedy for second-rate drama. But Sarah Marshall has a strength not even Apatow can diminish, the infinitely likable Segel, who also wrote the (presumably much-tinkered-with) script. He not only possesses the natural comic gift common to those in Apatow’s circle, but is able to bring a subtle measure of pathos to the film, best encapsulated by his, ahem, Dracula rock opera with puppets. When Segel sings, in a Count Chocula accent to Jim Steinman-inflected piano music, “if I see Van Helsing, I will slay him,” it’s first and foremost guffaw-worthy; but at the same time it’s also sad, with, absurdly, a bit of pitiable truth.

Though not often featured lately in Apatow productions because studio execs find him excessively strange, Segel has always been one of his most amiable players because he’s so easy to feel bad for. Here, he elicits our sympathy from the first reel when his long-time girlfriend, the eponymous Marshall (Kristen Bell) dumps him in a state of defenselessness, without even a towel to hide [his] behind. (The Simpsons Movie seems to have broken down the wall for full frontal male nudity in American comedies.) A man brandishing his penis on-screen is funny—isn’t it?—but a man butt-naked and weeping is also endearing. (Questionably endearing, however, is Segel’s unhealthy obsession with his own penis, which he twice reveals to the audience in book-ending scenes; he also has his doctor declare, “it’s a good-looking dick, it’s a beautiful dick” and, eventually, he goes so far as to cast it as his moral compass, when it refuses to become erect for a woman he probably ought not be sleeping with.)

When a series of awkward hook-ups prove unfulfilling, the broken-hearted Segel—established as such by his choice of songs, “Nothing Compares 2 U” and “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now”—packs it up and heads to Hawaii for a holiday. The archipelago is the perfect post-break-up comic backdrop, with its contrapuntal surfeit of newly weds, engagement proposals and happy couples, but the decision to head for the Pacific seems more motivated from a desire by the pasty Apatow Gang to catch some sun and treat themselves to pastel-colored drinks. (As though, to paraphrase a Simpsons catch phrase, “the freaks and geeks are going to Hawaii!”) It must be nice to be able to procure sizeable Hollywood budgets to indulge your vacation whims. As one character notes, “Hawaii is a place for people to escape, for people who can’t deal with the real world.”

That, in a nutshell, sounds like the prototypical Apatow hero—a manboy who can’t function in the real world, at least not without the love of a good woman to set him straight. In accordance with the tropes of the genre, the length of the film serves as a means for Segel to get to know a nice girl, Mila Kunis, so he can eventually not bed her but make love to, er, with her. The plot may carry a touch of sexism, as A.O. Scott suggests—what with a plethora of fetching lookers fighting to claim a piece of Segel’s schlub so that he may be redeemed—but the relationship is good for Kunis, too. It encourages her to “go back to school”. (Uh, maybe.)

To his credit, Apatow has refined his formula, making it a bit more sophisticated (or, “he has become cautious enough to preempt the brand of criticism that met Knocked Up”), by turning the tables a bit near the end when he exposes the hero, Segel, not as a victim but as a bad boyfriend, a lazy and inattentive lover who got what he had coming. (But then Stoller has to spoil it all by cuing something stupid like a soft guitar riff.) Some couples break up because they can’t grow up if they’re still together, the filmmakers suggest. That’s an interesting twist, adding a measure of complexity to the characters, at least by date movie standards, but is it really necessary? Above all else, Apatow & Co. are naturally hilarious and have the remarkable ability to repeatedly provoke out loud laughter. So the question is, why does Judd see it necessary, time and again, to try and prove his hand as a dramatist? Is it a halfhearted, even condescending nod toward the female demographic, following the American Pie formula for success in which there’s ribald humor for the boys and romance for the girls? Apatow has yet to direct or produce a well-told story, not just a stack of comic set pieces in which his drama runs away with him. He needs to leave more for the (admittedly already crowded) deleted scenes section of the DVD and allow the stories wrap up a bit more quickly, even if it means they wrap up sloppily. (Regardless of its hilarity, even Superbad could have lost a reel or two.) Segel succeeds because he hides his emotions behind his comedy; Apatow ought to follow suit by playing up his comedic strengths, not hiding them behind layers of storytelling that never arises above the level of conventional. If you can’t be Woody Allen, it’s better not even to try.

Watch the (red band) trailer:

23 April 2008

Flight of the Red Balloon

Directed by: Hou Hsiao-Hsien
Written by: Hou Hsiao-Hsien & François Margolin
Full credits from IMDb

Grade: B+

In Flight of the Red Balloon (Le Voyage du Ballon Rouge), Hou Hsiao-Hsien, like many a “foreign” filmmaker before him, abandons any and all clichés of moviemaking—that is, the tried and true conventions of Hollywood storytelling—in favor of something…pure? Simple? Fresh? His manner is gentle—the film begins in silence, and the soft murmurs of traffic slowly fade in—but the end result here is oppressive; set mostly in a cramped and cluttered apartment or in the narrow, shaded streets of Paris, Red Balloon largely keeps us tethered to the quotidian, making the audience feel like its star, the vividly frazzled, strung-out-on-stress Juliette Binoche. From an early shot through a moving subway train’s windshield, Hou informs us that, in today’s hectic world, Westerners are always, exhaustingly, pushing forward.

But, in contrast, he digs out life’s balloonality, the occasional, floatingly graceful respites from the taxing everyday: playing pinball in a café, collecting newspapers and empty bottles from an apartment floor, grabbing brass rings while riding a carousel horse. Captured through Hou’s lens, these small moments take on a nimble, empyrean elegance, one paralleled by the film’s titular red balloon. In contrast to the perpetually plowing ahead Binoche, the too-infrequently featured, free flying balloon floats upward and bobs back and forth. It is a piece of Eastern enlightenment that, like Hou, has drifted across the Urals into France. In the hands of a lesser director, shots of a floating balloon could fall into pretension, a la American Beauty’s “beautiful” plastic bag, or, even worse, it could be voiced by Eddie Murphy. In Hou’s hands, however, it really might be the most beautiful thing in Paris—his version of it anyway.

Flight of the Red Balloon is a self-described homage to, rather than a remake of, the French children’s-classic. It is a slice of life, sans much of a narrative arc, the story of single-mother Binoche as she takes puppetry lessons and raises her sweet son Simon Iteanu, with the help of immigrant nanny Song Fang, whose French, like mine, extends little beyond a polite “d’accord”. (As an Asian transplant and a filmmaker with a thing for red balloons—and Lamorisse’s film—she clearly seems a stand-in for Hou.)

Throughout the film, Hou places an emphasis on shadows—the balloon’s, the carousel horses’, Iteanu’s sisters’. His film is a contrast of light and dark, of East and West, of happiness and sadness, best represented in a serendipitously discovered painting in the Musée d'Orsay, awash in accidental symbolism, of a boy chasing a red balloon, his parents only visible in the far distance. (The film was commissioned by the museum, whose one requirement was that a scene be set there.) Bionche loves her son, but she’s a frantically upending presence, persistently panting and constantly disrupting the calm tableau of domesticity that Song has constructed for Iteanu, invading her Eastern tranquility with her Western neuroticism.

Binoche usually seems dissociated from her son’s life; when her friend asks Iteanu where she is, he replies, “probably tied up with her puppets.” At one point, she is yelling at, presumably, the boy’s father. “There’s no one beside me!” she shouts. “What about me?” the boy asks. (Hou, to his credit, plays out that last exchange quasi-comically.) So when the balloon hangs in the family’s flat’s window, watching the boy and his nanny prepare crepes, it seems to directly parallel an earlier scene of Binoche spying on her son and daughter playing in their living room. And then the first scene makes sense: Iteanu tries to coax the balloon down to his level, but it refuses and he gives up. It is a rejection from Hou to surrender his film’s ability to literally rise above the mundane, but also a rejection of the boy by his mother.

The balloon, then, is Binoche, or the balloon is God, the balloon is the viewer; all three might be true, specifically, but that’s too literal, an imposition of the prosaic onto the poetic; in a more general sense, the balloon is a merely a touch of the ethereal, so close and yet, with the characters’ heads so low to the ground, always just out of reach. It also functions as a means of cultural exchange, the object that allows Hou, the foreigner, to invade the West with his particular brand of meditative filmmaking. Too bad that style of filmmaking just doesn’t quite translate. In its own way, Flight of the Red Balloon is as exhausting in its languor as the febrile culture Hou seems to criticize.

Watch the trailer:

16 April 2008

The Ruins

Directed by: Carter Smith
Written by: Scott B. Smith
Full credits from IMDb

Grade: B-

The Ruins ought to satisfy anyone (i.e. me, a few nights ago) jonesing for a horror movie, but that’s not to condone it; while commendably maintaining a palpable sense of discomfort, the filmmakers forget the most important thing in scary movies, the thing that made recent entries like Wolf Creek or Cloverfield so effective: recognizable and sympathetic characters.

An Anton Yelchin look-and-sound-a-like (Jonathan Tucker) and his girlfriend, a Jena Malone look-a-like—oh wait, that is Jena Malone—play turistas on holiday down Mexico way, along with their equally vanilla pals, Shawn Ashmore and Laura Ramsey. On the ill-considered advice of a German tourist—with the Hostel films, the bad advice of Europeans is becoming a horror movie convention—they travel to the off-the-beaten-path (in trailerspeak) ruins of a Mayan temple. Once there, savage natives start shouting at them—and not, to the dismay of our pidgin-tongued heroes, in Spanish—and drive them to the top of the temple, where they remain captive for the rest of the movie.

As horror movie filmmakers go, the Smiths display a measure of chutzpah: they not only lock their film into one location—not easy to pull off—but they keep nearly all of their characters alive almost to the very end, refusing to indulge the built-in demographic’s splatterlust. (Though at times the film is a bit gruesomely procedural, obligingly slipping into torture porn along the lines of “we’ll break your bones with a rock, then cut your legs off with a hunting knife and cauterize the stumps with a hot frying pan.”) The tense and terse storytelling—no extraneous subplots, no wasted time—that lets the filmmakers get away with the shortage of settings leaves little space for character, though. Tucker in particular, a stony C-lister, is a major drag on the film, offering, for example, little verisimilitude to the overt expository dialogue, eg. “each of us needs half a gallon of water a day to survive”; he certainly doesn’t possess the ability to create a credible character. (Malone, on the other hand, does a fine job; I don’t know whether to celebrate her for raising this film up a notch or scold her for wasting her time.) The filmmakers still manage to keep the film bopping along; unfortunately, however, they run out of steam and rush through the requisite slaughter/denouement, as though another group of filmmakers needed to use the set.

We are left of course with our last woman standing, although Smith defies convention a bit by making her anything but virtuous and sober; whereas horror films usually function as a means of punishing promiscuous teens, our redeemed survivor here is a heavy drinker (she spends the film hungover) and an infidelious girlfriend. The filmmakers are up to something other than giving our arrogant American heroes their comeuppance. (“This doesn’t happen!” Tucker tells his friends. “Four Americans on a vacation don’t just disappear!”) Our straight man, a med student, sacrifices himself for the team; the Smiths display a conservative bent here, showing little pity or clemency for the resident man of science and his complicit pals. (They gleefully offer a close-up of his dead body.) In The Ruins, the Native American savages, not without a method to their madness, serve only as secondary villains; our protagonists’ central nemesis is Mother Earth and its carnivorous vegetation. (Whose leaves bear a conspicuous resemblance to those of the marijuana plant.) The Ruins makes a point to remind us, along with every hurricane season, that nature isn’t exactly our friend. But the marketing team took it one step further. “Terror has evolved,” the movie poster’s tagline reads. Apparently our greatest enemy is evolution itself.

Watch the (red band) trailer:

10 April 2008


Written & Directed by: Aleksandr Sokurov
Full credits from IMDb

Grade: B-

In its analysis of mother Russia’s historical thrust, Aleksandr Sokurov’s 2002 film Russian Ark (Russkiy Kovcheg) spoke specifically to its native audience; but it captivated foreign audiences as well, thanks in large part to the sheer mastery of its form—through the astounding gimmick of its unbroken and yet wildly mobile single take. To boot, its main character was hopelessly lost and confused from the first frame, and thus easy for the perplexed audience to latch on to. (Even better: the film plays out from his point of view; the first-person camera essentially makes the viewer the main character, particularly as other characters speak directly into the lens.)

The main character of his new, almost self-titled film, Alexandra (Aleksandra), on the other hand, is rather self-assured and thus doesn’t exactly welcome outsiders in. She knows exactly where she is, even if we don’t, and exactly what she thinks. The film works universally, in some ways, as a snapshot of the toll that war—especially endless war—takes on the individual and national psyches (as well as the physical landscape), a snapshot that could be loosely applied to, say, the War on Terror. But more so Sokurov is once again speaking directly to the Russian condition, including the generation gap and its causes; for international audiences, then, Alexandra slides into thematic esotericism. Despite its hefty and often beautiful images (one character is neatly summed up in an introductory shot of his abraded bare feet), as well as its sound performances, Alexandra lacks the gliding, first person dreaminess that made Russian Ark so accessible. The latter was entrancing, stupefying; Alexandra is just slow.

Perhaps if the film were more inviting, it might not seem to have the pacing problems that it seems to have. But, particularly in its first half, watching Alexandra is like strolling, slowly, down the street with grandma; there is a pleasure to be had from soaking in the world with such patience, but it can easily turn frustrating. Let’s get where we’re going already. Pick it up, lady.

Galina Vishnevskaya, a well known Soviet soprano, plays the title character, a stern old lady and natural materfamilias—she doesn’t hesitate to literally and figuratively push armed soldiers around as though they were small children or uxorious husbands—who arrives at a military outpost to visit her grandson (Vasily Shevtsov). She wanders the jerrybuilt barracks, and its rocky paths, in what look like painted-on shoes, talking to the soldiers; she also travels off-base to talk to the townspeople, the army’s enemies, all the while assessing the state of the motherland, doling out wisdom and receiving a bit of her own.

Alexandra’s dialogue is often a bit unbecomingly overt—“you can destroy,” Vishneyskaya tells the soldiers, “when will you learn to build?”—but its pace is so sleepy and striding that it manages to avoid feeling heavy-handed. In fact, Alexandra could almost be a comedy, a clash of cultures and generations, were it not for the unremittingly bleak surroundings.

Oppressively soaked in sunstroke orange and camouflage green, Sokurov’s frames capture the fragile and temporary quality of life during wartime. Every opening of a door on the military base rattles the walls, as though the tents and shanty shacks are about to fall down, while the buildings in town (presumably in Chechnya) are crumbling, folded-over, and bombed-out. Sokurov suggests that because the situation is so dangerous, or more so because it’s gone on for so long—the guns are remarked to be old, the tanks have dusty, creaky hatches—long-term construction becomes infeasible.

But, presumably to get past the censors, Alexandra strives to be even-handed, to fairly represent the points of view of the Russians and the Chechens, the soldiers and the civilians. No matter how much airtime Sokurov gives the disparate sides, though, his main point is that war, even beyond its life and death powers, doesn’t do anyone any good in the long run. (The surrounding fields are dusty, the vegetation just budding—as war prevents plants from growing, so too does it stall Russia’s “growth” as a nation.) But Alexandra, while at times sublimely moving, is for the most part too listless to be funny or sad or sweet, tearjerkingly or otherwise. It’s just a stern and somber lesson that mostly goes straight over my non-Russian head.

Watch the Trailer: (no subtitles)

09 April 2008

My Kid Could Paint That

Directed by: Amir Bar-Lev
Full credits from IMDb

Grade: A

My Kid Could Paint That touches on a lot of Big Ideas, but above all it focuses on the nature of narratives. Four-year-old Marla Olmstead of upstate New York became a media sensation when her professional-level—whatever that means—abstract paintings began selling for thousands of dollars, and then became an object of scandal when it was suggested that her amateur-painter father may have had a hand in her works. (“Prodigy Schmodigy,” one headline read.)

If that sounds like a tailor-made media storyline, it might be because the news organizations covering the story concocted it. Director Amir Bar-Lev takes little Marla’s rise and fall as a jumping off point, using her as his subject but not his focus. His film tackles the essence of art, life, storytelling and the requisite imposition of narratives—even the problem of documentation itself. It’s a story about grown-ups, a local reporter says, and it’s also “a story about what happens with stories.”

From the start, My Kid Could Paint That is very conscious of its own construction: the film opens with the director interviewing Marla and her brother (or trying to interview, as the two prove reticent interlocutors). Many of the film’s shots include cameras, crew and boom mics, while the director is often audible during the talking head interviews. (Thus violating the usual documentary standard of the invisible creator; only The Fog of War, when Errol Morris occasionally, and angrily, questions Robert MacNamara from off camera, comes to mind as another recent example. Michael Moore and his followers are obviously excluded.)

My Kid Could Paint That raises, if not exactly deals with, many more complex intellectual concerns than the typical indie doc. It examines, for example, the Western world’s obsession with the child prodigy. (“If a kid is performing at an adult level,” an art critic for the Times says, “it’s like a magic trick.”) It also looks at the way celebrity diminishes the natural joy artists get from creating, as well as the way parents can relish the fame of their celebrity children; that the father, who seems like a nice enough guy, craves the limelight and the company of artists to the extent that he’ll exploit his child is a strong subtext that runs through the film. The film also looks at the relationship between the artist and the admirer, and the way fans stamp their own personalities onto the artist’s, especially when it’s a personality as easily dominated as a child’s. Finally, it examines, and to an extent explains, the theoretical underpinnings of modern art.

For starters, is abstract art bullshit if my kid can make it? Not necessarily, critics explain. Modern art often frustrates viewers because, unlike traditional modes of painting, it no longer clearly explains itself—that is, its story—to the audience. Figurative paintings, though static, still impart a story—Seurat tells us something, but Pollock tells us nothing. In abstract painting, the artwork by itself is no longer sufficient; it doesn’t tell a story, but rather comments on a “story” that we’re already expected to know. It requires a bit of homework.

Bar-Lev runs up against a similar issue in the making of his film: is the film itself, as it’s coming along, sufficient to explain itself? That is, is the story he’s constructing the whole story? Or does his presence, and the presence of other reporters, cameramen, art critics, etc., on the film’s fringes make him a part of the story? Paraphrasing Heisenberg, Marla’s mother notes early on that, “once you measure something, you alter it.” One of the key problems in the story is that no one but the parents can capture footage of Marla creating her paintings, footage that would potentially dispel the accusations of inauthenticity. (When an interview subject assumes the role of interviewer and asks the director what, exactly, he wants, he answers, “I want footage of Marla painting that would put my doubts to rest.”) Does the presence of strangers and a camera make Marla behave uncharacteristically, cause her to paint like a typical four year old, or is the whole thing a hoax?

Bar-Lev leaves it up to us while he cleverly puts himself into the film; by admitting his own presence he clues the audience in to the fact that his film is simply a story that he’s created, and though it deals in real people and facts, it’s not necessarily “the truth”. While the rest of the media turns against the family (because every rise needs a fall in a 60 Minutes world), the family expects him to exonerate them. But he has his own doubts that make him uncomfortable, raising the issue of, what are the documentarian’s obligations to his subject? Honesty and fairness, of course, but Bar-Lev realizes that the developing scandal is good for his own film; and as a human being with a moral compass, it makes him feel guilty.

Bar-Lev comes to understand the inherent unfairness of storytelling, which involves imposing a narrative structure on the chaos of reality that doesn’t lend itself easily to such simple strictures. The film climaxes in a tense interview with the parents when Bar-Lev all but accuses one or both of them of lying. Has the filmmaker betrayed them? Because they both look awfully betrayed. The mother eventually breaks into tears, which she recognizes is perfect for the film. “It’s documentary gold,” she snidely remarks before walking out; by the end, everyone realizes they are no longer actually living their lives but acting as characters in a manufactured story. That may be fair to do to adults in a media saturated world—but to kids? “What have I done to my children,” the mother asks near the end, “putting them through this?”

Watch the trailer: