31 January 2008

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

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Written & Directed by: Cristian Mungiu

Grade: A-

Not much seems to be happening at the beginning of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (4 Luni, 3 Saptamani si 2 Zile), and if I didn’t know better I’d think it might be shaping up to be a modest slice of life film that evokes, perfectly, the decrepit character of late-Communism/late-Ceauşescu Romania—something like the first half of 12:08 East of Bucharest, especially as 4 Months… is even kind of funny at points. All that humor completely evaporates, though, in due time, as one realizes that the descending character of the title is a countdown of sorts, one that parallels the gripping propulsion that drives the film forward to its rattling blast-off.

4 Months… has a decidedly simple story: an abortion is arranged, performed and…curtain; but Mungiu, a master director, delivers it with devastating pathos and a terrifying authenticity, providing a blunt look at the horrors—that is, the simple reality—of (illegal) abortion. His camera hardly ever cuts within scenes; it simply observes and follows, avoiding the manipulative sensationalism—there’s also no score, for instance—a lesser director might easily have fallen into.

The only problem with 4 Months… is that it comes too soon; an emotionally exhausting second act—featuring the act itself—leads to a mercifully relenting third (that, once again, is even kind of funny at points), but the state of numbness the film produces is hard to get out of, leaving the audience more trapped than captivated, much like the two goldfish, swimming in a tank inarguably half-empty, on which the film opens. (As Armond White writes, the new Romanian directors “have inherited Ceausescu’s fascistic egotism: Their movies make audiences suffer as they claim to have suffered.”)

In the film’s 1980’s Romania, with its chipped wooden-walls and peeling paint, one imagines that even water for the fish is hard to spare. No amenities seem available outside of the thriving black market; nothing worth having, anyway. (One character has a taste for orange tic-tacs—hey, it’s just like Juno, though devoid of any and all cuteness.) Also available on the black market are abortionists, as abortion is against the law in the Communist dictatorship, one of whom Laura Vasiliu has enlisted to terminate her pregnancy. But the film’s focus is on her friend and dormmate, Anamaria Marinca, who is the one who must do all the legwork: renting the hotel room, meeting the man who’ll perform the procedure.

As there’s more than one way to perform an abortion, especially in a country where you can’t even score a pack of Kents, Mungiu is able to amass an incredible amount of tension building up to the procedure’s execution. Don’t worry, there’s no coat hanger involved, but it’s still agonizingly intense: the film’s second act plays out in a nearly unbroken take as the pregnant girl, her friend and the abortionist, Vlad Ivanov, sit around the rented room and discuss the procedure in troubling detail—it’s unsparing in its procedural description—and engage in an intensely heated negotiation of terms that mercilessly concludes in devastating sexual exploitation. Vasiliu, in her vulnerability, is heartbreaking while Marinca is astounding; still, neither commands the screen quite like the bullying Ivanov, and once he’s gone the film flags. “Don’t put the fetus down the toilet, because it’ll clog it up,” he advises horrifically. “Whole or in pieces,” he adds, teasing up the vomit that’s already collected in the audience’s throats.

4 Weeks… spares us having to watch the passing of the fetus, as Marinca, whom Mungiu stays with, leaves the hotel room to attend her boyfriend’s mother’s birthday party. This trip to the see the charming bourgeoisie and listen to their trivial conversation is clever act of suspense building by Mungiu—placing a stationary camera across the table from Marinca, tightly packing her into the frame, and not moving it for what seems like forever—not to mention a necessary respite from the horrors just endured. It might even be a bit of comic relief, if we weren’t already so upset and in no laughing mood. In an act of clemency, the film’s harrowing-ness peters out after the first hour, despite some graphic images and striking sequences to follow; by that point, the audience has been inured to the film’s horrors—the abject misery of the hotel scene can’t be topped (spoiler), even by an extended, full-on shot (no mere glimpse) of the lifeless fetus or the tossing of it down a garbage chute. (end spoiler)

For American audiences, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days addresses the abortion issue with a measure of neutrality, without partisan determination anyway; abortion is terrible, the film evenly shows, but it’s especially terrible, and gruesome, when it’s illegal and performed in backrooms. It serves as a persuasive lesson: make something illegal, and a black market will simply supply it—candy, cigarettes or abortions. Making abortion illegal only makes a bad situation that much worse.


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Written & Directed by: Michael Moore

Grade: B-

Michael Moore has a knack for devising compelling theses on the state of American society and its maladies, but unfortunately he all too often undermines them with his style of argument—that is, his style of filmmaking. It’s not his snarky tone, which admittedly is often quite funny, but his regrettable habit of falling into gimmicky set pieces and cheaply earned sentimentality. In short, he is, disappointingly, a chronic oversimplifier. In Sicko, Moore does a commendable job of avoiding many of these shortcomings for a chunk of the film’s running time, but he continually slips as the film progresses until, by the last half hour, he has given in to his worst impulses—egotism, exploitation and disingenuousness.

Rather than focus on the few dozen million Americans who lack health insurance, Moore’s film surprisingly, at least initially, focuses on the 200+ million who do, and in the process reveals a callous, profit-driven insurance system without conscience, one that rewards medical professionals for denying potentially life-saving procedures to those that need them. Moore also spends a little time, though not enough, establishing the troubling connections between the executive & legislative branches and the health insurance industry in an effort to show how the industry sustains such misanthropic policies. (Moore lets Hillary Clinton off the hook a little too easily for her universal coverage fiasco while first lady, but nails her when he notes that today she comes in second among Senators with the highest amount of contributions from insurance companies.)

There are a few slips into mawkishness—Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” played over the damning congressional testimony of a healthcare executive is one of the most ridiculous—but Moore balances it with some arguably effective anecdotal journalism, mostly in the form American HMO horror stories, while wisely keeping his controversial self out of the frame. (He serves as narrator and off-screen interviewer.) At least, anyway, until the film packs up and visits foreign countries to see how (well) socialized medicine works in Canada, England and France, where Moore walks around, on-camera, with a faux-naivete that makes him look shallow with fawning adoration. Scott Tobias breaks down the typical exchanges: “Moore: ‘So how much are you paying for [this incredibly expensive procedure]?’ Patient: ‘Nothing.’ Moore: ‘Really?! Wow!’”

In the end, if you can judge a society by the way it treats its least-fortunate, as Moore suggests, then, despite its individuals’ propensity for charity and generosity, our culture as a whole gets low, low marks. But however righteous Moore’s position might be—and as one of the uninsured Americans, I’m on his side—his argument is weak; he counters conservatives’ arguments against government-run healthcare, and backs up his own reasons for it, with anecdotes, but anecdotal rebuttal or support aren’t particularly strong forms of argument. Surely a member of the opposing camp could come up with a similar string of anecdotes to support their position and tear down Moore’s?

You get the feeling that Moore is cherry-picking his supporting examples, and the film is so easy to take issue with at so many points that it’s more likely to inspire skepticism and divisiveness than it is to build a consensus around such a seemingly self-evident principle: that Americans need a healthcare system for all that serves people over profit. In his refusal to fairly address his opponents and the shortcomings of the foreign systems he upholds as ideals, or to delve more deeply into the cultural roots of the issue he examines, Moore is bound only to draw ire from his ideological opponents and laurels from his supporters. That is, in the end, Moore simply stokes an already-raging conflict between opposing camps; instead of solving the problem or draw attention to a pressing issue, he only raises his own profile.

An interview with an Englishman briefly provides the essential context for why Americans are abused by the for-profit health industry: helpless people, like the sick and bankrupted, don’t vote, and educated, healthy and confident people are harder to govern that the sick, ignorant and fearful. An American expat in France puts it this way: in France, the government fears the people; in America, the people fear the government.

But such moments of revelation are too far and few between in Sicko; Moore prefers, in the end, to deal in stunts: after laying out a terrible irony—that terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay receive full health-care while 9/11 volunteer rescue workers get none—Moore gets a bunch of the latter on boats in Florida and sails them down to Cuba. It’s, at best, sappy—especially a long sequence in which Cuban firefighters hug their American counterparts—and at worst, well, Michael Moore’s typically insufferable shtick. Moore wraps the movie in a nutshell at the end, when he boasts of anonymously donating several thousand dollars to one of his fiercest critics when he can no longer keep his website up because, ironically, he’s a victim of the American healthcare system. Those who brag about their anonymous donations in major feature films expose themselves, with little comment necessary, as far more egomaniacal than altruistic.

24 January 2008

Cassandra's Dream

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Written & Directed by: Woody Allen

Grade: B+

Decades ago, critics and audiences, unhappy with post-Interiors indulgences like September, implored Woody Allen to stick to making comedies; now, ironically, after dismal comic outings like The Curse of the Jade Scorpion and taut, intelligent thrillers like Match Point, the public’s position has reversed. In his old age, Allen’s proving his propensity for drama is becoming stronger than his comedy—no small feat, or arguable tribulation, for such a naturally funny man.

With Cassandra’s Dream, Woody Allen, still in his self-imposed London exile, forgets the diversion of his previous film, Scoop, and returns to the serious matters of murder, morality and the English class system that he previously visited in 2005’s Match Point, itself an Anglophized retread of his 1989 masterpiece, Crimes and Misdemeanors. Allen has become like an old uncle at a holiday gathering, telling the same old story year after year, but it’s such a good story and he tells it so well (and, hell, you love the guy) that you can’t help but want to hear him tell it again and again, with all the little changes that the years add.

Cassandra’s Dream is, if nothing else, particularly well-crafted; Allen’s form is becoming more reliable than his content, and his years of experience behind the camera are on full display in the way he builds some excruciating tension with the story of two two-bit brothers, Ewan McGregor (charming) and Colin Farrell (mopey), who are enlisted by their rich uncle Tom Wilkinson, spoken of with a Harry Lime-like reverence for a third of the film, to kill a former business associate who plans to testify against him. It takes a few reels of marvelously mounting suspense to perform the act, not so much of a “will they or won’t they?” variety—of course they will, it’s a Woody Allen thriller—but of a “oh my how and when is this going to happen?” sort.

Bearing a conspicuous though surely unintentional resemblance to last year’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (fellow New Yorker Lumet didn’t find it necessary to cross the Atlantic in order to rediscover himself), Cassandra’s Dream has a pair of brothers in over their heads with debts and financial obligations, but who aren’t fit for the lives of crime that they thrust themselves into. The film opens with promise—Farrell’s gambling successes, McGregor’s idyllic trip to the country, the loving women in their lives—but Allen subtly undermines it, foreshadowing the predictable misfortune to follow: in an early scene at a marina, the brothers are seen planning to buy themselves a modest boat. Sounds great, but a two-shot of Farrell and McGregor finds the latter behind a chain-link fence, indicating of course that he’s symbolically caged in contrast to the false freedom that the boat may initially signify.

As anyone who’s ever seen a film set, wholly or in part, on a boat before knows, it never ends well. (Knife in the Water, most glaringly, but also Dead Calm, even the final scenes of Funny Games or Key Largo.) “Ain’t life grand?” the brothers ask, quoting Bonnie & Clyde no less, but their father, John Benfield, is the one with the right idea: “the only ship sure to come in,” he says, “has black sails.”

In Allen’s world, business and upward class mobilization are built on the exploitation of others, here in the form of blood, and the film is about the potential, and obvious, moral conflicts therein. (“If we were in the army,” McGregor argues, “we’d be expected to kill strangers all the time for the profit of people up to here,” raising his flattened hand to eye-level, “in corruption.”) It also, like just about every other film lately, attacks the institution of family, for it’s out of “family obligation” (and a cash bail-out) that the brothers commit their crime, to keep their uncle out of jail. It’s only quite late in the film that Farrell finally realizes the obvious, that maybe their Uncle Howard (Wilkinson) deserves to go to jail, even if he “never forgot his family” after becoming rich and successful.

Cassandra’s Dream turns out to be a bit more moralistic than Allen’s previous forays into similar territory—and as such is a bit more old-fashioned, earning a PG-13 rating with a lack of on-screen violence or sex—with Farrell able to provide the chainsmoking superego to Ewan McGregor’s, or Jonathan Rhys-Myers’ or Martin Landau’s, id. “We broke God’s law,” Farrell says of the murder, to which McGregor responds, “God? What God, you idiot.” Farrell’s drunken, woeisme boohoohooery gets a bit tiresome as the film progresses, but it serves as a necessary contrast to McGregor’s cool acceptance that to get anywhere in the world, one must be prepared to kill, that men are either failures or murderers. Once again, it’s Benfield who gets it right when he observes, “nobody wants to be selfish, but everybody is.” But for perhaps the first time in Allen’s oeuvre, the characters actually pay for it.


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Directed by: Matt Reeves
Written by: Drew Goddard

Grade: A

Cloverfield looks, intentionally, like a home movie; the raw video that makes up the film is passed off as found footage a la The Blair Witch Project, an exhibition of tape recovered by the Defense Department from the “area formerly known as Central Park.” But, more than a mere retread of the Blair Witch approach to the filmmaking, Cloverfield is the first film to successfully use the internet’s dominant YouTube aesthetic and to reflect the “shoot first and let computers sort it out” ethos of today’s shutter-happy generation. Notice that not-exactly-hip critics like The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane are complaining that the shaky, amateur camerawork induces dizziness.

Cloverfield starts off as a camcorder document of Michael Stahl-David’s going away party and the ensuing WB-style drama between he and his hip, affluent (and white) New-York-yuppie friends. (Director Matt Reeves is credited with penning 64 episodes of Felicity and directing five.) But it soon takes a turn for the worse—it’s Stahl-David’s last night in New York, as he’s about to start a new job in Japan, but the film does him the dubious favor of bringing Japan to him, in the form of a Godzilla-esque, city-demolishing, run amok monster.

The party is interrupted—bummer, dude!—by the creature’s attack on the city, which, first things first, sends the Statue of Liberty’s head crashing down into the streets; the survivors gather-round with their cameraphones, natch, before they’re sent running for their lives. As a monster movie, Cloverfield is unique, a new breed perhaps—it doesn’t serve as an environmentalist and/or anti-nuclear allegory, like the original Godzilla or the more recent The Host (or plenty of other flicks in between), nor is it really even about the monster. If Cloverfield’s monster represents anything, by its rare appearances, resistance to the methods of modern warfare and anti-New York inclination, it’s Terrorism. (Notice the monster’s first victim is Lady Liberty, just as 9/11 robbed us not only of our right not to be killed but also of our right not to be wiretapped.) Exposition is handled perfunctorily, doled out via speculation by people on the street, quickly captured news broadcasts and brief encounters with the military; we hardly even see the monster at all.

But we do see its trail of destruction, as a few people from the party improbably make their way uptown to save a friend trapped in the rubble of what used to be her apartment. Cloverfield is about terrorism’s human effects, not its spectacle. (Unlike, say, Independnce Day, whose most, if not only, memorable moments were the obliterations of iconic American structures.) Of all its cinematic forefathers, Cloverfield owes its greatest debt to Children of Men (though that’s not to say it’s on par with it); above all, it’s an exercise in cinematic urgency, immediacy and naturalism, with the unbroken takes, the handheld, first-person camera and recognizable if not exactly likeable characters working to suture the viewer into the middle of the action. It exploits memories of 9/11, obviously, as well as provides a vicarious experience of the Iraq War when our heroes stumble upon the military in the midst of an urban, street-level firefight, but those are only jumping-off points; the film’s pleasures derive not from (re-)witnessing the leveling of New York landmarks but from sharing the emotional experience of the characters amid the carnage. Reeves & Co. keep the film compelling from end-to-end, balancing the grueling action and attacks, including a terrifying one by giant spiders (?) in the abandoned tunnels of the No. 6 train, by maintaining a sense of humor in the downtime with a running commentary from cameraman T.J. Miller. Despite the occasional levity, though, Cloverfield is relentlessly draining and depressing as a human story of surviving through, and bearing witness to, unimaginable destruction. It’s really about cinema’s capacity to deliver a vivid emotional experience—when asked why he’s kept the camera on, Miller responds, “people will want to know how it all went down.”

“You could just tell them.”
“No, that wouldn’t work,” he answers. “People will want to see this.”

23 January 2008

In Between Days

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Directed by: So Yong Kim
Written by: So Yong Kim & Bradley Rust Gray

Grade: B-

In Between Days is a remarkably faithful chronicle of the teenage experience, especially as, just like those years, it turns out to be so inconsequential. Shot with a handheld digital camera without the use of non-diegetic music, the film tracks Jiseon Kim—a non-professional actress who makes a fantastic debut as a mumbly, mousy teen with a sweet and dimpled smile—over the course of several days in her life as an immigrant living in Canada. It plays out in a series of brief glimpses into her activities: at English class, making dinner, washing the dishes, doodling, riding the bus. But most of all, it’s about her awkward relationship with her best friend, fellow Korean-speaker Taegu Andy Kan, as they buy each other presents, leave each other voice mails, engage in juvenile delinquency, push each other away, make each other jealous, and try just to figure out how to talk to one another.

Though both seem to have some sort of attraction to the other, neither can bring themselves to say it. And so it goes unsaid. In Between Days is about the difficulty of learning how to communicate with one’s peers, particularly those of the opposite sex, while also about the strain in communicating with a culture that isn’t one’s own, one that literally speaks a different language. (Kim and Kan seem brought together by their shared mother tongue more than anything else.) Being a teenager is like being an immigrant, the film suggests; as if each on its own wasn’t tough enough, being both seems impossible.

In Between Days is set, or at least shot, in Toronto, which the filmmakers present as a cold city both in its temperatures, emphasized by the juicy sound of snow crunching underfoot, and in its alienating landscape of metal towers, apartment complexes, highways and chain-link overpasses. Sarah Levy’s heavily Antonioni-inspired cinematography (nod to Gianni Di Venanzo) highlights the marginalized character of Jiseon Kim’s existence, as not only an immigrant facing a language barrier but also as a teenager, with each estranged experience informing the other. In Between Days, as a study of the loneliness of teen age, the uneasiness of being a nonnative and the complexity of navigating the fickle waters of romance, is slight and inconsiderable, but at least it avoids slipping into pretension; it’s sweet, subtle and pointless.


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Directed by: George Ratliff
Written by: George Ratliff & David Gilbert

Grade: B-

As the latest entry into the horror subgenre of the “wicked child picture” (eg. The Omen), Joshua covers, by and large, pretty familiar territory, but it at least grounds its story in the ambiguity of reality; there’s no talk of devil spawn, portals to hell or a secret entrance to a witch’s coven behind a closet wall, merely some increasingly nefarious goings-on—only a few dead animals and a crying infant, at first—that may or not be the doing of one weird kid, the film’s eponymous Joshua.

Joshua’s peculiarity is established early on by his affinity for atonal music (which should be enough to send him for counseling), and by a scene a little later in which he tears the stuffing out of his panda doll, mimicking the funeral rites of the pharaohs. “Does he seem like your typical 9-year-old?” his mother, Vera Farmiga (fantastic), asks.

Boasting strong performances from Farmiga (hopefully the performance will be one more rung on the ladder to fame and good roles), as a woman driven madder than her bizarre son by her colicky newborn, and Sam Rockwell as her husband, Joshua still doesn’t quite work because it won’t pick sides; while obviously a horror movie, it tries to avoid being pigeonholed as another mediocre genre film by stressing its domestic-drama aspects. But too often its domestic drama is sidetracked by its stabs at being a thriller—Joshua has a tendency to pop into the frame unexpectedly (BOO!)—while its credentials as a horror film are undermined by the film’s emphasis on the pressures of child rearing.

In its favor, Joshua does make an effort to address intriguing themes; for starters, like its genre brethren it challenges the generally-accepted notion of childhood innocence, and goes even further to question the sacredness of the family unit. Sometimes, children are terrible little things, both the cause and symptom of unhealthy, unstable family units and sometimes families, Joshua suggests, can do more harm to kids, parents and grandparents than good. “All this shouting and this rage and anger,” Joshua’s grandmother says of Rockwell & Fermiga’s home, “you know, that infects a soul.”

But the real terror within Joshua is the creeping idea that family is an artifice, something people tend to hide within to calm their fears of going through life unloved. “You know,” Joshua tells his father, “you don’t have to love me. It’s not like a rule or something.” Are families arbitrary? If we don’t like our parents, can we pick new ones? Joshua’s cryptically threatening refrain is all the more terrifying for not being something commonplace, a threat of violence for instance, but rather: “no one will ever love you.” Now that’s a scary thought.

16 January 2008

There Will Be Blood

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Written & Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson

Grade: A

Though set around the turn of the 20th Century, There Will Be Blood is, in its pitting of capitalism against revivalism, conspicuously more about the state of the union at the turn of the 21st. (There’s even an oilman, or oilboy, called “H.W.”!) Daniel Day-Lewis tears through the film as an oilman, father of H.W. (though the character’s name is Daniel, not Prescott), who picks up a few thousand oil-ripe acres out west—beginning with those belonging to Paul Dano, a young preacher, and his family, in exchange for the promise of a tithe—and starts drilling. Forget films about the American Revolution or the Civil War—this is the true document of the birth of the nation as it stands today, when Texas tea met the Christian church.

Possibly because Day-Lewis fails to let Dano perform a blessing on the first derrick before it starts pumping—“a simple blessing,” he says, “but an important one”—tragedy ensues; soon, an accident sets the derrick ablaze, and through director Paul Thomas Andseron’s lens it looks like hellfire escaping from Hades through a hole in the ground, the devil come to earth with a pitch-black, soaked-in-oil Day-Lewis as his one man welcoming committee. Not that Dano is some kind of saint; not long thereafter, Day-Lewis cuts him down to size by pushing him into a puddle of oil on the ground, a reminder to Dano and to the audience that the two are not so different.

There Will Be Blood announces its grim and somber heft from the onset, through its austere style characterized by uncut long takes, solemnly muted colors and frames packed with sweaty and serious men. (Religion and industry are the domains of men, and as such there is hardly a speaking role for a woman in the film.) Though Dano plays a central role in the film, he can’t help but be overshadowed; There Will Be Blood belongs to Day-Lewis, whom Anderson emphasizes by shooting in unbroken close-ups; but Anderson contrasts this intimacy with a tendency to allow the action to unfold in the frame’s distant rearground. There Will Be Blood is meant to be understood microcosmically, an illumination of one barbarous tycoon in a expansive country full of them, in a world that turns on their dollar.

Although Day-Lewis doesn’t seem like much of a villain at first; not so much cold, callous or cruel, he comes across as simply arrogant. But midway through the film he delivers a speech that clues us in to his bitter and rampant misanthropy, which he has hitherto successfully hidden from his public: “I have a competition in me,” he says. “I want no one else to succeed.” In Anderson’s film, the hubris and greed of unchecked ambition yields tragedy, as Day-Lewis, to his undoing, slips into sin: from lust and drink to abandonment and, finally, murder. At the film’s start, Day-Lewis falls down a crude mine shaft and breaks his leg, though it doesn’t stop him from crawling out, like an animal, to stake a silver claim; he walks with a limp through the rest of the film, his unquenchable yearning for power through money manifest as a physical handicap.

Dano, for his part, is also nothing more than a mountebank, finally exposed, in no big surprise, as nothing more than a manipulative “man of God” out for his own piece of the oil pie. Day-Lewis, like the Cheneyes of the world, co-opts Dano’s religious agenda to push his own oil-money agenda, while Dano forms an uneasy alliance with Day-Lewis to gain control of his small religious community and further his own career. There Will be Blood presents two self-destructive forces, the dominant strains in America—Jesus and oil—as they battle against one another; as a result, the film follows through on its titular promise as one consumes the other, leaving but one: miserable, impotent and alone.

It’s no accident, then, that the film ends during the unraveling of the American Dream known as the Great Depression. If There Will Be Blood begins by showing where the country came from, it moves on to show how it ends. Anderson slyly uses history to predict the future, and to warn Americans that their country is falling in on itself.

10 January 2008

2007: The Year in Film (A Review)

During my midyear review of the year in film, I bemoaned the lack of strong American cinema in 2007. Turns out that American studios were just waiting for the second half of the year to unleash their best work. Curiously, the top three are all Westerns, in their own way.

1. There Will Be Blood

Paul Thomas Anderson's latest uses the past to illuminate the present; set among oil tycoons and revivalist preachers around the turn of the 20th Century, Anderson shows how America's two dominant strains—Jesus and capitalism—are bound to destroy each other and, in the wake, the whole country. The film is a serious and epic piece about American endtimes, but what's more, There Will Be Blood is gorgeous and Daniel Day-Lewis is, no surprise, phenomenal in the lead.

2. No Country for Old Men
(Full Review)

Cormac McCarthy's novel, one of the lesser in his canon but still a rip-roarer, reads like a screenplay in its terse description of action and total lack of psychology, and the Coen Bros. wisely stick close to it in their cinematic adaptation. The only problem: if Tommy Lee Jones' character is so important, why is there so little of him? Anyway, that's easily forgivable: the Coens finally make the most of their filmmaking talents by abandoning their tendency to descend into the zany, and what emerges is an intense, dourly hilarious West Texas crime saga, a masterwork of form and grammar, that eventually sheds its humble genre-ness to shape up into a lesson on violence and American culture. "This country's hard on people."

3. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
(Full Review)

Andrew Dominik's meditation on the dark side of fame, the tragedy of ambition and how criminals become lionized as legends; it's this generation's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, with far more poetry and patience, even cynicism. Casey Affleck, the year's best new actor (when considered along with his performance in Gone Baby Gone), doesn't grow up to be a Senator after cravenly killing the badman James; instead, he's doomed to the cruel fate of repeating the cowardly act on stage for the rest of his foreshortened life.

4. Ratatouille
(Full Review)

If we disregard 2006's misfire Cars, we can fairly say that Pixar can not only do no wrong, but just keeps getting better and better. Sure, Finding Nemo may have more sentimentality, Toy Story may have better jokes and Toy Story 2 might have more pathos, but no Pixar film until this one has had such an abundance of all of those traits; it's also a fascinating examination of the artistic process and drive, not to mention populist cinema at its finest.

5. Southland Tales
(Full Review)

There's quite a bit that doesn't work in Richard Kelly's mishmash tale about current events, pop culture and the space-time continuum—foremost, its stabs at comedy (Sarah Michelle Geller excepted)—but what does is astounding. Kelly gets an A for effort, for that scene where Justin Timberlake lip-synchs "All These Things that I've Done," for making two cars have sex with each other, etc. etc.

6. Syndromes and a Century
(Full Review)

More of the same from Apichatpong Weerasethakul, meaning one more fantastic out-an-out redefinition of the medium's potential. It's like one long and confounding dream, beautiful and overwhelming. Its complexity can be frustratingly boggling, but the sheer beauty of its execution is enrapturing.

7. Sweeney Todd
(Full Review)

The bloodiest musical since...well, ever. Sweeney Todd achieves a level of tragedy worthy of the opera hall and addresses America's propensity for war by warning: beware of vengeful impulses because they never end well. It's Burton doing exactly what he should be doing—Gothic horror—while getting a chance to do what he wants to do—a musical, and the result is a wonderful mix of the two informing each other.

8. Day Night Day Night
(Full Review)

Luisa Williams channels no less than Falconetti in her performance as an adolescent suicide-bomber-to-be in Day Night Day Night, a beguiling film that makes no effort to offer any answers to the mysteries it poses, namely: WHY? Despite the edge of your seat tension as she wanders Times Square with a backpack bomb, Day Night Day Night is less about terrorism than, wildly, how tough it is to make it in New York.

9. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead
(Full Review)

What's wrong with America? Everybody's strapped for cash and it makes them do terrible things, like hold up their parents' jewelry store and go on killing sprees. Sidney Lumet finally churns out a solid film after two decades of clunkers, one that, by far, features the best ensemble acting of the year.

10. 12:08 East of Bucharest
(Full Review)

Modest and hilarious, the Romanian New Wave scuttles along with this entry from Cornelius Promoboiu. What if they had a revolution and everyone came ten minutes late? Well, we could argue about it years later. The point of this simple comedy is that sometimes a revolution isn't all it's cracked up to be.

Runners up:
The Darjeeling Limited, Zodiac, The Simpsons Movie, Paprika, Sunshine, Black Book, Triad Election, U-Carmen, Time (Shi Gan)

Best Documentary:
No End in Sight
(Full Review)

Sure to become dated when the Iraq War is, hopefully, just a painful but distant memory, for now No End in Sight is the a straightforward, unbiased breakdown of what went wrong and where to lay the blame. Everyone should see it just to make sure that they understand what's happened thus far.

Best Movie Released Decades Ago:
(Full Review)

This gem out of Italy finally made its American debut earlier last year, though it dates from 1962. What starts out as a culture clash comedy between Northern and Southern Italians becomes a serious exploration of the clash between the safety of modernity and the dangerous violence of old-fashioned living.
(N.B. I still haven't seen The Killer of Sheep!)

Best Cinematographer:
Roger Deakins

From the West Texas landscapes of No Country for Old Men to the plaintive wash-outs of The Assassination of Jesse James... Deakins wins hands down. He's responsible not only for one of the best cinematography jobs of the year, but two.

Best Actress:
Carice von Houten

Von Houten's performance in Black Book as a spy for the Nazi resistance who falls in love with a Third Reicher was on par with those from great movie stars of the past.

Best Actor:
Casey Affleck

He's got stiff competition from the boys of Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, Daniel Day-Lewis and even his Assassination of Jesse James... co-star Brad Pitt, but for putting in two revelatory and top-notch performances this year, in Gone Baby Gone and Assassination..., Casey Affleck wins.

Best Supporting Actress:
Amy Ryan

Ryan's filthy performance in Gone Baby Gone as a strung-out, odiously selfish and yet sympathetic mother added to the film's most redeemable virtue: its keen sense of place. She seems nothing if not pure Boston.

Runner-up: Cate Blanchett, I'm Not There (Full Review). She looks like Bob Dylan—but she's a chick!

Best Supporting Actor:
Hal Holbrook

Just about the only redeemable thing about the abysmal Into the Wild is Holbrook's devastating performance as one of the many people Christopher McCandless abandoned in the course of his life.

Runner-up: Albert Finney, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. A towering turn as a shaken old man who never liked his son and eventually comes to hate him.

08 January 2008

City Lights (1931)

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Written & Directed by: Charles Chaplin

Grade: A+

Without looking back, so to speak, at the silent cinema it was gleefully abandoning, moviegoing audiences embraced the novelty that was the "talking picture" as the norm almost immediately upon its introduction. That wasn't enough, though, to deter Charlie Chaplin from sticking with silent movies as late as 1931—when no one was making silent movies anymore—the year he released City Lights, a whole four years after The Jazz Singer had premiered. (Granted, because of his perfectionism, Chaplin's film had been in production for three of those years.)

City Lights makes no secret of Chaplin's faith in the silent film or in his distaste for the talkie; in its first scene, a group of public officials are making speeches to celebrate the unveiling of a new statue—or, at least we can only assume they're making speeches, as we see their mouths moving but Chaplin, as director, has replaced what would've been dialogue with so much amusing squawking. It's a good gag, but it has more serious undertones: he's not only aggressively mocking the talkie, but challenging the value of speech itself. Aren't mere words deficient, Chaplin provokes us to ponder, against the purity of physical expression?

After all, as hilarious as the Marx Bros. or Woody Allen are with their verbal one-liners, no one is, comic pound for comic pound, as belly-bustlingly uproarious as Chaplin. (Sorry folks, not even Keaton.) But as Chaplin demonstrates in City Lights, nor are most filmmakers capable of producing such a startling degree of poignancy. Not only is City Lights incontestably hilarious—rarely, in the movie theater (where I was fortunate enough to see the film recently), does one get to hear the strange sound of people laughing from the gut for so long—it's perhaps the purest example of the cinema's potential for pathos.

City Lights is constructed as a series of slightly interrelated vignettes, each a modest masterpiece of moviemaking in their inventive uses of form, comic timing and romantic expression. Together, they add up to filmmaking at its very best, the unadulterated visual expression of high-end slapstick flawlessly combined with the most basic, and most powerful, elements of love and romance. The two comic highlights of the film are two bonafide tours-de-force: an extended nightclub sequence with the iconic Tramp and a drunken, suicidal millionaire in which one hilarious gag follows another, and a brilliant, balletic boxing sequence that, as it's unedited, proves to be a triumph of complex comic choreography; Chaplin's comic sequences are not just a whole bunch of jokes thrown together all higgeldy-piggeldy, but they're each like one big, overarching master joke, constructed like short stories with each gag building on one another like sentences in a paragraph.

But balancing out the laughs is a serious story (even though it still provokes the occasional joke) about the tramp's courting of a blind flower girl who mistakenly believes him to be a rich man. In the end, City Lights is, like Annie Hall, less a comedy with a romantic side than a romance with comic highlights. I never cry so sincerely or so much at the movies than during the end of City Lights; all summed up in its final shot or two, it's the movies at their most tender and satisfying.

07 January 2008

The Orphanage

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Directed by: J.A. Bayona
Written by: Sergio G. Sánchez

Grade: B

Seeing as Guillermo del Toro produced J.A. Bayona's The Orphanage (El Orfanato)—and since his name is slathered all over the advertising—I think it's only fair for us to run through the "essential elements of a del Toro movie checklist," via The Devil's Backbone and, to a lesser extent, Pan's Labyrinth, to determine how much of an influence he may have had on the film. Do we have an imaginative, wide-eyed kid? Check. How about a contrasting creepy-looking kid? Check. A cavernous underground space, like a cave or a basement? Check, check. Really? What about a remote country house? Check. How about the accidental drowning of a child? Check. Well then, sounds like a del Toro film to me; all that seems to be missing is some mention of the Spanish Civil War.

Alackaday, there's no backgrounded war in The Orphanage; in fact, there isn't much sense of the setting at all, beyond the eponymous orphanage's property lines at least. Without that sort of context, historical or otherwise, The Orphanage, to its detriment, is tough to pin-down up until the very end, if at all. When a young boy goes missing and his mother, Belén Rueda, comes to believe that he was taken by the ghost-orphans that may or may not haunt their home—a former orphanage—the film seems headed toward serving as an allegory about injured ghosts (of history? that might make sense) that need to be satisfied and put to rest so that future generations—our children's—may thrive. It plays out as a classic tale of the return of the repressed, save for one little thing, that is: our hero, Rueda, hasn't repressed anything! Any grievances these ghosts might have don't have anything to do with Rueda who, while once a resident of the orphanage, was adopted and spirited away before the nefarious goings on, which might merit revenge, that we discover to have occurred.

The filmmakers seem to be trying to leave it up to us whether the film is meant to be taken symbolically or not, but if we were to take it that way it wouldn't make any sense. So rather than function as ghastly historical allegory, then, I suppose The Orphanage shapes up to be, with a debt to 1961's The Innocents, a mystery more psychological than paranormal, an expressionistic tale of a woman gone mad after the disappearance of her son. "I'm not crazy," Rueda roundly declares, but it's tough to believe her; after all, isn't it perfectly plausible that a woman who has lost her dear child might just be imagining that her house is haunted by a gang of school-aged ghosts who've kidnapped him? More so than believing the ghosts to be real, anyway—no? As a psychic medium tells Rueda, "seeing is not believing, it's the other way around." With that maxim in mind, as in Pan's Labyrinth, the film's happy ending is thankfully only deceptively so (though to make it a question at all is arguably a cop out)—that is, a happy ending ought only to be seen by those who believe that they're seeing a happy ending. But the filmmakers don't seem to realize there's two kinds of ambiguous filmmaking: the cleverly so, like the ending, and the slipshodily so, like the preceding eighty or so minutes.

Starting Out in the Evening

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Directed by: Andrew Wagner
Written by: Fred Parnes & Andrew Wagner

Grade: C

Curiously starting out in the daytime, Starting Out in the Evening at least gets right down to it; in an efficient diner scene, the basics are quickly established: that Frank Langella is an ailing writer with four books out of print, that Lauren Ambrose is a go-getting grad student writing her master's thesis on his work, and that they're about to embark on developing a complex relationship. If only the rest of the film were as crisp as its first scene; instead, it ambles about, not exactly sure of what it's about or what it wants to say. A potent conflict between an aging writer and his young student is lost amid the clutter, too often undermined by a saccharine score, diminished by dreadful lines like, "maybe the characters in your books have the luxury of grappling with moral issues, but I'm in the real world," and side-tracked by a worthless subplot involving the rote and lame romance between Langella's daughter, Lili Taylor, and her boyfriend Adrian Lester. (No disrespect to Taylor as an actress, but plenty of disrespect toward the filmmakers for creating such a whiny and tiresome character.) It's the sort of sloppy film in which a character looks at a photograph and, for our sake (oh don't bother!), speaks to it. "Where are you?" Ambrose stupidly asks a photo of a young Langella.

Last year, Langella bowled over New Yorkers, and tourists too I suppose, with his blustering and commanding performance on Broadway as Richard Nixon in Peter Morgan's Frost/Nixon. His performance here is far more painstakingly dignified and composed, but no less titanic; unfortunately, like his aging, fading character, the surrounding film lacks focus, drive and, most of all, enthusiasm; in effect, his performance goes wasted. Somewhere buried inside Starting Out in the Evening there's an intelligent and fascinating film about aging, relationships and the artistic process, but for every genuine or cleverly subtle moment there is another that rings twice as false or twice as loud. Its worst crime is that the filmmakers apparently truly believed they could add depth to Langella's story by telling it parallel to a yawn-inducing tale of an unlikable couple's fundamental disagreement over whether or not to have children.

If Starting Out in the Evening were much shorter, it would be more easily forgivable; as Nathan Rabin recently wrote, "I always appreciate movies that end after seventy-five or eighty minutes. It’s as if they’re saying 'Look, we know we aren’t very good. But we won’t take up too much of your time. In fact we’ll let you go fifteen minutes early so you can get on with your busy life.'" With its subplots and strolling pacing, though, Starting Out in the Evening unnecessarily pushes the two hour mark, and what was merely a nuisance of a film becomes, as the running time improbably drags on, aggressively irritating. As Rabin continues, "movies that linger past the two-hour mark are like teachers who keep you after school."

Most infuriating of all, Starting Out in the Evening seems fully aware of its shortcomings, as it blithely criticizes itself throughout. Lester describes one of Langella's books as "soft and sentimental...it's one of those relationship books, two couples and all their problems and all of that, yadda yadda yadda." Are the filmmakers really so dense that they fail to appreciate that that's what wrong with their film, or do they think they're being cheeky while proudly staying above the put-downs? Do they really, I mean really, think their film is better than that? "Following your characters takes time," Langella says of his writing method; yeah, but it shouldn't take this long. Finally, Langella laments, "my characters haven't done anything interesting." Phew, you could say that again.

01 January 2008


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Directed by: Joe Wright
Written by: Christopher Hampton

Grade: B+

At the very least, director Joe Wright, together with screenwriter Christopher Hampton, can be commended for fashioning a remarkably efficient filmic adaptation out of Ian McEwan's titanic tour-de-force of a novel; what takes McEwan 300 pocketbook-sized pages to accomplish, the filmmakers knock off in 45 minutes, without sacrificing too much substance that it would offend the book's fans. McEwan's novel is thoroughly internal and deeply psychological, but the filmmakers turn it into a tale of both revealing gestures—the film is full of close-ups of hands, whether furtively brushing beneath a table or spooning sugar into coffee—and pithily significant remarks. In short, they make it cinema.

But Atonement: The Movie has more to offer than mere efficiency. Opening in the English countryside during the build-up to WWII, the film shows no sign of any expense having been spared in its pursuit of visual opulence; it's a gift to the senses, with the lush feel of a grand, old-fashioned period piece. Thankfully, however, it replaces that genre's characteristic stuffiness with pulsating vitality. The sense of 19th Century, Victorian propriety is undercut by a throbbing 20th Century sensibility of violence and sexuality; the film is propelled forward by a quivering lust that appears in nearly every character's glance. (Fine performances are delivered across the board.)

In one ravishing sequence—and the film is full of lavish visuals—Wright cuts between his two central lovers, played by James McEvoy (phenomenal) and Keira Knightley (excellent) as they prepare for dinner; Wright soaks the halcyon country life in a sunstreaked, smoky haze and the gorgeous glow of nostalgia, but he soon punctures the film's misty romance by confronting us with that most vile of English words, cunt, being spelled-out on a typewriter. (Welcome to the 20th Century!) As a tale of love and misunderstanding, Atonement's first half could easily be reworked as romantic farce; instead, the story unfolds as tragedy, exposing a world in which repressed veneers of propriety lead not to healthy sexual expression but to rape (statutory at least), and where disjoined lovers find not reunion but the rampant destruction of the second World War.

By leaping, midway through the film, a few years into the future to find our hero on the march to Dunkirk, Atonement suggests that its central romance is so troubled that it rivals the failed Anglo-Franco resistance to the German invasion of France. The wartime violence isn't excessive but is still unsparing, from the discovery of a field full of schoolchildren's lined-up corpses to the systematic assassination of horses at Bray Dunes. (The uninterrupted tracking shot upon our hero's arrival at the Bray Dunes is a masterpiece of form and the year's most technically impressive sequence.) The colors go muted in the film's second half, though the light remains brilliant, and the haze that was once so romantic takes on a character of menace. Gradually, love is smothered by war.

McEwan's novel is told in three spatiotemporally distinct sections, each with tremendous cinematic potential. (As though begging to be set in celluloid!) Hampton, however, by necessity—for the sake of a trim and decent running time—pares down the novel's latter sections, especially the second, and as a result the film's three segments, taken together, don't quite add up properly; by retaining the novel's tripartite structure but stripping some of those episodes' narrative purpose and intensity, the film winds up feeling flighty and unfocused. Why, exactly, are we in France during WWII? Or a London hospital?

Finally, McEwan's subtext about the nature of artistic creation, namely its ability to improve upon the dreary misery of real life, feels incongruously set within the film's romance; by trying to stay too faithful to its source material, Atonement winds up a bit muddy. Some novels just won't make good films, but if Atonement just had to get made as a feature film, I don't see how Wright and Hampton could have done it any better. From its settings to its leads, it sure is pretty, at least.


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Written & Directed by: Vincent Paronnaud & Marjane Satrapi

Grade: B-

Over the last decade or so, comic books, as a medium, have assumed a position of cultural legitimacy under the banner of the "graphic novel," becoming a respectable, and commercially viable, form in which artists and writers can tell the stories they want to tell. Comics no longer have to be aimed at children, nor must they only concern the adventures of superheroes anymore; they can now be about ordinary people and ordinary life—just like ordinary novels.

The animated Persepolis marks the graphic novel's transition to the world of movies; it's not the first non-fantastical comic to be adapted to the big screen—the live-action Ghost World immediately pops to mind, as do A History of Violence and The Road to Perdition—but perhaps the first to be adapted, visually, from page to screen so faithfully. By retaining its source material's black-and-white aesthetic simplicity, Persepolis plays like a comic book, er graphic novel, in motion, and not like a film merely "adapted from" one. Its origins are unabashedly conspicuous.

Not least of all in its fluidity, the animation, particularly that of two wormlike women who condemn our hero's Michael Jackson button, vaguely recalls the Fleischer Bros., like a Betty Boop cartoon with a bit more verisimilitude in the character design. Its hand-drawn style, even if it doesn't all look hand-drawn, is a welcome change of pace, no matter how stunning Pixar's films are, from the turn to computers that's dominating the animation industry. (Disney doesn't even employ animators to animate by hand anymore!)

Unfortunately, the shallow depth of field of its two-dimensionality reflects the flatness of its story, which concerns one woman's experiences growing up in Iran. Creator and co-writer/co-director Marjane Satrapi tells us her life story, first of herself as a young girl before the overthrow of the Shah, later as an adolescent during the country's increasingly restrictive turn to Islamic rule, then her life abroad and finally back in Iran. (She now lives in Paris, though that creeps into the film only marginally.) Satrapi feels a stranger wherever she goes, not fitting in under the oppressive strictures of Iran nor adapting to the relative freedom of Austria, where it only takes simple boy problems—and, in fairness, some encounters with racism—to provoke her undoing. (The point being that shit sucks, albeit for different reasons, no matter where you go.)

Satrapi proves a sympathetic everywoman, even in her relatable moments of vanity and selfishness, but there's nothing truly fresh, remarkable or provocative about her coming of age tale; the only aspect that provides any bit of distinction is that she's Iranian, but that fact alone is not enough to raise the tale above the level of boilerplate misadventures in search of an identity. Added to what Noel Murray calls its "and then this happened" structure, Persepolis, despite its inventive and pleasing animation, drags on dully.

Not to mention that it's uncomfortably conceited, not only in its reduction of the surrounding political turmoil to its effects on one woman—since we don't meet many Iranians outside of her simplistically noble family, she doesn't serve as much of a universal representation of a people; it is less the tale of Iran told through one woman than the tale of one self-absorbed woman incidentally set in Iran—but also in the very fact that she's telling us her story at all. (And not least of all in the fact that she presents her young self as a prophet with a direct connection to God!) At root, Persepolis' narrative arc is as simple as this: Satrapi grew up, felt out of place everywhere, and eventually got over it, though not entirely; couldn't anybody on the street tell a similar story? Oh, did I mention that it takes place in Iran, though?