31 March 2008

Shine a Light

Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Music performed by: The Rolling Stones
Full credits from IMDb

Grade: B+

Despite Mick Jagger’s lively prancing—his energetic frontmannery—a Rolling Stones concert is above all a sonic affair, rather than a visual event. A concert film, then, would seem pretty straightforward, at best: something to hear, but not much to look at—the sort of thing that goes straight to DVD or PBS.

Martin Scorsese, however, through his ever-moving concert cam, manages to make Shine a Light both. Through fast-paced editing and vigorous camera movement, Scorsese and his team imbue the par for the course proceedings with palpable vigor, without ever lapsing into cheap concert-movie cliché. (There are no canted shots of Keith Richards from below, for example.) The Rolling Stones may be commanding showmen, but on a screen they would be little more than clownish, costumed dinosaurs without Scorsese, who understands how to translate their performing prowess to film. (See: the Bridges to Babylon DVD.) Together, the two are a hell of an entertaining pair. Shine a Light doesn’t so much provide a “you are there” experience as a distinct experience all its own; it’s not just a document, but a living document—a loud, dizzying and overwhelming experience of pure cinema, all shaky close-ups and dancing tracking shots.

Coordinating such a complexly choreographed film was no easy task, logistically and otherwise, Scorsese is sure to let us know. The first fifteen minutes are dedicated to the concert and the film’s arrangements, a choppy and comical behind the scenes/making of—a special feature built into the film—in which Scorsese and Jagger risibly butt heads. Making a movie is tough! Especially when it involves a neurotic New Yorker dealing with easygoing, non-committal burnouts. Finally, someone tries to explain it to Scorsese: “this is rock n’ roll.”

Those first 15 minutes are about all the back-stage/offstage footage we get, distinguishing Shine a Light from its most obvious antecedent, 1978’s The Last Waltz, in which Scorsese spends a good deal of film interviewing the Band and watching them shoot pool or jam. But why waste time, Scorsese’s and the Stones’, shooting B-roll with a band that has decades worth in the vaults? Every two or three songs, Scorsese punctuates the concert (two concerts actually, at the Beacon Theater in Fall 2006) with archival interview footage that superficially fills in the Stones’ backstory, usually some ironic clip of an interviewer asking a question along the lines of, “how long do you fellas think you can keep this up?”

A long time, obviously! All yuks aside, that’s the point—the Rolling Stones are old but the band still sounds tight, demonstrating the sort of fine-tuned collaboration that gets honed over 45 years on the road, and Jagger is still as limber as a teenager. Not only that, but the boys, even if they’re mugging a bit for the conspicuous cameras, give off the feeling that they genuinely love one another, that they have a blast doing what they do and doing it together. In the end, Shine a Light is a celebration of perseverance from a long-working director who only recently got his best director Oscar—a tribute to doing what you love for as long as you can still do it. In the Rolling Stones, Scorsese has found himself, despite their superficial dissimilarities.

Watch the Trailer:

26 March 2008

Love Songs

Written & Directed by: Christophe Honoré
Original Music by: Alex Beaupain
Full Credits from IMDb

Grade: B-

Love Songs’ opening credits display the names (last names only) of the cast and crew in big block letters, a nod to Godard & the French New Wave, director Honoré’s most obvious filmmaking antecedents. But behind the text run images of a gray, drab and overcast Paris—despite the cafes, it’s not quite the romantic Paris of postcards. As such, Honoré gets straight to his central theme, the one that also popped up in his previous film, Dans Paris—the conflict between romance and reality; between idealized history and bleak modernity; between Godard and the Bros. Dardenne; between love affairs and death.

But whereas Dans Paris maintained 90 minutes of joie de cinema, balancing Roman Duris’ melancholia against Louis Garrel’s playful buoyancy, Love Songs (Les Chansons d’Amour) falters by falling into self-seriousness. That is, Love Songs aims to reach dramatic heights within the pretense of the movie musical, whose emotions can never, inherently, reach more than a level of superficiality.

Garrel returns in Honoré’s latest to play a young graphic designer (I think), involved in a ménage a trois with Clotilde Hesme and Ludivine Sagnier. (Following The Dreamers and Dans Paris, it’s become to difficult to imagine Louis Garrel in a bed without two additional bunkmates.) Time Warner Cable describes the film pithily and perfectly: “a young French threesome express themselves with sex and pop music.” For the first several reels, Love Songs is as fun to watch as Time Warner makes it sound, thanks in large part to Garrel and his irrepressible likability as he treats a couch cushion like an infant or slides across rainslick macadam in his rubber soles, to the squealing delight of his lady friends.

After Dans Paris, some critics criticized Honoré as rather cloying in his aping of New Wave, et al. styles, but I find his mismash pastiche style of filmmaking to be palpably and infectiously impassioned: a character “walks away” by gliding as though standing on a conveyor belt (a favorite trick of Frankenheimer); Honoré suddenly cuts to still photos like he’s Chris Marker; the three characters lay in bed together, reading books with titles like “Perfect Happiness”, “Voluptuous Pleasures” and, of course, “Politics”. (It is, after all, a French film.)

The very first scene of dialogue in Love Songs is an argument over whether it’s morally acceptable to see a bad movie on purpose; Honoré takes his cinema seriously, so seriously he’s not afraid to treat the medium with an excited measure of playfulness. (Someone is holding a book? Cut to a page of the book!) Late in the film, a song sung by Yannick Renier sums it up nicely: “Have you ever loved,” he sings, “for the sheer sake of it? Have you ever taken a bite of the apple for the taste of the fruit—its sweetness and its zest?” If cinema is a glass of water, Honoré and Garrel are two tablets of Alka Seltzer.

Unfortunately their carbonating effects wear off after about 45 minutes and the glass of water that is Love Songs goes tepid again. A sudden death interrupts the love story and kills off most of the lightheartedness as well. Music, in Love Songs as in most any musical, is used as a means for the characters to sing through their feelings, to externalize the internalized. At first, it’s a means to brighten up dismal dialogue about jealousy or rain, saving the audience from prattling French characters. When Garrel is criticizing Sagnier with lines like, “little bitch, go to hell,” it’s much more fun to hear it sung.

But Love Songs takes on an unbefitting solemnity as Garrel and those around him try to cope with the sudden death. The film loses its pep; the songs follow suit, shedding their toe-tappingness. But its sourness rings hollow; Love Songs, from start to finish, is never emotionally credible. At its best, early on, it’s simply uninhibitedly joyous and when it loses that, it loses everything. If it’s between romance and reality, Honoré ought to err on the side of romance.

Watch a musical clip or
Watch the (misleading) trailer:

Funny Games

Written & Directed by: Michael Haneke
Full credits from IMDb

Grade: A

Michael Haneke has said that his 1997 German-language film Funny Games was intended, most of all, for American audiences. Of course, the way to reach Americans, particularly those with the bloodlust Haneke’s film is meant to admonish, is not through subtitles, so the director, in an unprecedented move, has changed the actors and the language but otherwise produced a shot for shot remake of his own film. (Thus distinguishing himself from, say, Alfred Hitchcock, who remade his own The Man Who Knew Too Much, but not shot for shot, or Gus van Sant, who remade Psycho shot for shot, though it wasn’t his film originally.)

Haneke’s got good timing, if nothing else; if Funny Games, which uses cinematic hyperviolence to criticize hyperviolence in cinema, were ever coming stateside, on the heels of 2007, a particularly violent year for American movies as has been extensively noted elsewhere—from critics’ end-of-the-year essays to letters-to-the-editor—would be the time. But is Funny Games legitimate metacriticism, or is it merely glorified torture porn?

Watts and Tim Roth star as a husband-and-wife team who are terrorized, along with their prepubescent son, by two perfectly pleasant and yet sociopathic young men (Michael Pitt & Brady Corbet) who invade their idyllic Hamptons vacation home. A perfectly innocent domestic set-up—a squirm-inducing scene over borrowing some eggs—leads to a not-so-innocent result: Roth slaps Pitt in the face and the boys retaliate by breaking Roth’s knee cap with a golf club, turning one of his many bourgeois accoutrements against him, the ones Haneke obsesses over in gorgeous, fetishized close-ups. The boys proceed to beat and humiliate Watts, jump on Roth’s busted knee, wrap the kid’s head in a pillow cushion and terrify all of them with their blithe violence and lack of reason. (One of Haneke’s cheekiest moments is when he has his two torturers jokingly run through a list of conventional motives: Pitt says Corbet is a gay, white trash, drug addicted, thrill-seeking, spoiled rich kid with divorced, alcoholic parents—and a mother fucker. Another, more subtle suggestion of motive, comes when Haneke shoots Corbet standing in a door jamb, holding up a golf club like a mighty, solid phallus.)

Plus, they kill the family dog and reveal its corpse with a cruel and possibly hilarious game of “hot and cold”. If it’s true, as Haneke argues, that Americans eat-up violent movies for their violence, then Funny Games is their punishment, like the father who, catching his son smoking, makes him smoke the whole pack in succession. But what if the kid likes chain smoking? The film provokes an unbearably visceral reaction as Haneke relentlessly tortures his protagonists and, by extension, the audience. (It’s a tour de force of acting, from Pitt’s gleeful sociopath to Roth’s excruciating evocations of physical pain and emotional exhaustion; even Devon Gearhart, as the little boy, is terribly convincing as a scared shitless rugrat.) But it’s tough to believe that there’s much overlap between the multiplex crowds and the arthouse audience; that is, how many of the people filling the seats at Funny Games are torture porn enthusiasts tricked into Haneke’s scolding, and how many are masochistic arthouse junkies who thrive on Haneke’s spanking?

Therein lies the rub; Haneke may say his film is meant for American eyes in particular, presumably the kind that dole out millions in tickets for violent fare like the Hostel films, but really it’s only going to be seen by a different kind of American audience, who may still enjoy their violent movies, just with a bit more fine-tuned scripting, professional acting and intelligent direction.

Up against such audiences, Haneke’s film inevitably repels viewers if not by its sadistic violence then by its smugness. Where does this Haneke character get off thinking he’s fit to hold a mirror up to us? But if he can be forgiven his holier-than-thou attitude, he does provoke a conversation worth having about whether or not there is something terribly perverse about reveling in film violence of any kind, whether through voyeuristic pleasure or through catharsis. (Haneke’s film cruelly teases the audience and rejects the possibility of either.)

Near the film’s end, Pitt sums up Haneke’s controversial position when he posits that fiction is “just as real as reality.” (To his credit, Haneke has Corbet answer: “bullshit”.) For Haneke, it’s just as disturbing for us to not be repulsed by a violent film as it is for Corbet to sit in Watts and Roth’s posh living room and watch Nascar on the widescreen, high-definition television set while the couple sit next to him bound, gagged and in pain. (And, in Watts’ case, half-naked.)

More to the point, though, Haneke’s film is perversely entertaining for audiences with a taste for violent movies. Is there a fundamental contradiction between Haneke’s contempt for violence and his relishing in a violent attack on his audience, one that negates his intellectual argument? I saw Haneke’s original film for the first time, on DVD, a little over a year ago and I remembered it as being, above all, academic. I’m not sure if it was that my memory failed me, but watching the new version I was on the edge of my seat, feeling as emotionally distraught and tortured as his diegetic victims. The moments of metacinema, as when Pitt turns to the camera for Ferris Bueller-like asides on cinematic identification, nearly went right past me.

I suspect it may have been a result of expectations—I don’t expect movies in which people speak English to teach me overt lessons in film theory. Or perhaps it’s that subtitles rob a film of some of its potential emotional wallop; there is something to be taken from a work of art in its original language. Funny Games U.S. is far more thrilling than its ivory-tower predecessor; watching it was akin to watching any other horror movie, though with the emotional involvement raised exponentially. Funny Games offers up nothing to enjoy, only things to get upset about and lessons to learn; that is, it certainly does provoke an intellectual reaction, but much more so it elicits a pure emotional response, both awful and profound. At that point, there seems a disconnect between Haneke’s attempt and his end result—there’s still something perversely entertaining about his punishing cinematic exercise, and it’s not the stern talking to he tries to dish out.

Watch the Trailer:

19 March 2008

Ace in the Hole (1951)

Full credits from IMDb

Directed by: Billy Wilder
Written by: Walter Newman, Lesser Samuels & Billy Wilder

Grade: A-

It would be easy to say that the trenchant and blistering Ace in the Hole was “ahead of its time,” but it might be more accurate to simply admit that things have just always been bad. It’s troubling to think so, but Billy Wilder’s dramatic treatise on how and when journalists cross the line—and how the audience eats it up—feels incredibly timely, as it must have upon its release, too. A ripping and bitter yarn, Ace in the Hole never mutes its caustic view of the world, nor does it let the audience off the hook for one second. Accordingly, it flopped upon its release, probably because America wasn’t willing to look into such a sallow mirror.

Kirk Douglas, acting a bit too hammy, stars as a hard-drinking, troublemaking east-coast reporter stationed out west, in exile after being fired several times over from all the big city papers. Stuck in what he calls a “sun-baked Siberia,” he bemoans, as though out of a Bugs Bunny cartoon, the lack of garlic pickles and chopped chicken liver. “Even for Albuquerque,” Douglas says, “this is pretty Albuquerque.”

Douglas is doing time, waiting for a big story that’ll get him another job back east—that is, wishing for disaster for the sake of a juicy story. “Bad news sells best and good news is no news,” Douglas says. “If there’s no news, I’ll go out and bite a dog.” But before he can, he stumbles upon a cave-in at a mine with a fella, Richard Benedict, trapped in the rubble. Good news for the dog, bad news for the fella.

Colluding with the sheriff to keep Benedict trapped as long as possible, Douglas dictates how the news story progresses, seemingly ignoring that a man’s life is at stake. He does what he has to, even slaps a dame around, in order to get the story shaped just right, transforming the lonesome desert valley site into a full-blown media circus of the absurd in the process, complete with rides and ice cream—the film was re-titled, in an effort to give it a more box-office friendly title, The Big Carnival—all centered on Douglas’ ace, literally in a hole.

Early on, Douglas says of himself, defensively, “I don’t make things happen, all I do is write about them.” But that’s entirely untrue, we quickly learn—Douglas, to scoop the national story that could get him back to New York, crosses the line from impartial observer to active participant. (A conundrum revisited decades later in Capote.)

Wilder highlights, through Douglas’ cruel extension of the miner’s confinement, how journalism, at its most unctuous, compounds tragedy for the sake of a story. It’s what Douglas’ old publisher calls “phony, below-the-belt journalism.” (Douglas replies, “not below the belt, right in the gut!”)

At first, it seems like everyone’s making out from the tragedy—the trapped miner and his wife are making some serious scratch, Douglas is working towards getting his old New York gig back, his photographer-slash-apprentice is furthering his career, the sheriff is getting votes, and the public is being entertained—so why does it feel so downright filthy?

Probably because it’s obviously journalism at its worst—tearing democracy down rather than building it up. Douglas shores up support for the crooked sheriff to enhance his puff piece, while he ought to working his ass off to, say, expose a corrupt official. Not to mention that, in reality, more than a byline is at stake. Wilder skillfully undercuts the slick media perfidy, Douglas’ constructed “human interest” story, by interrupting scenes with genuine human interest: the grieving mother passes through a scene, on her way to light a votive candle to the saints, in prayer for her son’s life.

And that tragedy is just as much our fault as anyone else’s. Slowly, Wilder implicates the audience in the film’s treachery, accusing us of being complicit in such dirty dealings because we’re the ones who go out and buy the newspapers. In the end, of course, things don’t work out and the situation that seemed best for everybody turns out to the best for nobody, even the media consumers. The tragedy stings most pointedly when Douglas says in the middle of the film, “tomorrow this’ll be yesterday’s paper and they’ll wrap a fish in it.” So what’s the point?

Watch the Trailer:

Michael Clayton

Written & Directed by: Tony Gilroy
Full credits from IMDb

Grade: B

It should be obvious that Michael Clayton is a character piece, since its title bears its main character’s name, but you’d have to read the back of the DVD to know that it’s also a piece of high-class corporate intrigue. Unfortunately, it stumbles in its attempts to reconcile the two, as well as in trying to reconcile the fact that while it’s made for adults, in that it doesn’t spoon-feed its audience, its earnest outrage at corporate corruption is at best naïve and at worst facile.

A Byzantine legal saga that opens in media res, Michael Clayton forces its audience to slowly make sense of it as it plays out. Director Gilroy allows scenes of dialogue to play out, only to explain in the middle of the next scene what the characters were talking about. In accordance, the picture opens with the ending and works its way back to how it got there.

Clayton is a lawfirm’s fixer, a “janitor,” sent to clean-up the mess made by an off-his-meds, manic-depressive Tom Wilkinson, a partner at Clayton’s firm who’s stripped naked in the middle of a deposition. Even worse, he’s begun to amass a case against the client he’s supposed to be defending, the manufacturer of a (poisonous) weed-killer that’s facing a class-action lawsuit from affected farmers—those noble American farmers.

George Clooney plays Clayton as a hangdog urban loser—introduced playing cards at midnight in a Chinatown basement—your standard sadsack (divorcee, custody on the weekends, losing his business on the side) who’s been screwed over by everyone, especially himself. As Tom Hanks is our Jimmy Stewart, Clooney has always been our Cary Grant, but Clooney continues to mature as an actor. As Clayton, he adds a bit of throaty husk to his voice, undercutting his movie star charisma. In effect, he’s added a measure of rugged Bogart to his graceful Grantness.

But Clooney’s performance is outdone by Wilkinson’s turn as the litigator who has flipped both his position and his wig. Wilkinson, captivatingly mad, rocks back and forth nervously and fidgets manically as he speaks, but never tips over into histrionics, impressively delivering nonsense lines—like, “I am Shiva, the God of Death”—with surprising credibility.

Tilda Swinton gives a fine turn as well (all three were nominated for acting Oscars, but only she won) as the cool-headed head-counsel. Gilroy cleverly clues us into her trembling vulnerability by belying her steely public professionalism through parallel editing; he introduces her by cutting between her confident delivery of public testimony and a private moment practicing the same speech, crying in the bathroom and topless but for a bra. (It’s her Marion Crane moment.)

With inspired bits like that, Gilroy commendably keeps the film deftly moving—it’s tight and terse without allowing its scenes to drag. (A tricky feat for a talky thriller.) Clooney, at one point, is leaving a dramatic message on Wilkinson’s voice mail but when enough’s enough Gilroy cuts him off. The mailbox is full; let’s get on with it.

But that’s because Gilroy’s got to move as quick as he can to cover all the ground he’s set up for himself. One of Michael Clayton’s biggest problems is that it spends a considerable number of its frames establishing aspects of Clayton’s character that don’t seem to have much impact on the corporate thriller that he’s a player within.

Gilroy’s other major problem is his immature indignation. Despite boasting one of film’s most chillingly clinical and procedural murder sequences, Michael Clayton is not a very chilling film. Corporations do terrible things and immoral law firms cover for them; it takes Clayton nearly an entire film to figure this out and to decide that it’s bad. If that’s a character arc, Clayton’s a little old to be learning it—it’s a simple lesson that college freshmen learn every fall.

The film ends with a bit of old-fashioned, self-righteous triumphalism incongruous with the bleak picture painted by the preceding film, and it makes sure that the audience isn’t implicated in the corruption that the film presents, leaving them free to tsk-tsk a corrupt, corporatized America from a comfortable and self-satisfied distance.

Clooney, with his earnest Murrowphilia, seems to appeal to one demographic above all—graying Democrats, who appreciate lessons learned and a dreary situation turned hopeful. Feel free to feel good—Clayton’s got a son, who he tells, “you’re not going to be one of these people that goes through life wondering why shit keeps falling out of the sky around them.” So there’s hope yet. In the real world, the Fed bails out Bear Sterns. It’s only people rich enough to buy an umbrella who don’t have to worry about shit falling out of the sky.

Watch the trailer:

11 March 2008

The Bridge to Terabithia

Full Credits from IMDb

Directed by: Gabor Csupo
Written by: Jeff Stockwell & David Paterson

Grade: C+

Katherine Paterson’s The Bridge to Terabithia is one of those books that always ends up high on the list of novels that censorious administrators love to ban from school libraries. For starters, it has not one but several instances of young people taking the Lord’s name in vain, as well as allusions to paganism, a refusal to stand for the pledge of allegiance, underage smoking, a kid who calls her parents by their first names and a wild, allegorical scene involving the milking of a cow.

So why would Walden Media, with its known Christian agenda (including The Chronicles of Narnia franchise), want to produce a film version? Was it with the best of intentions—to rescue the novel’s touching core story from the book-burners? Unfortunately, it seems more for the purposes of Christianizing an ungodly book. Gone are all of the aforementioned objectionable aspects, and in their place, an expanded evangelizing subtext.

Two bullied young outcasts and new neighbors, Josh Hutcherson & AnnaSophia Robb, form a friendship over their shared creative impulses—Hutcherson is an artist, Robb a writer. Together, they invent a fantasyland in the woods behind their homes where they can escape from their humdrum lives, a magical kingdom they call Terabithia (where, for example, dragonflies are “warriors from the Tree Top Provinces”).

Conflicts that they duo face in Terabithia mirror and inform the conflicts they face in real life, with bullies manifest as giant trolls or flying squirrel monsters. Director Csupo doesn’t let the fantasy overwhelm the reality, and as a result he establishes an intriguing contrast between the wealth of imagination and the poverty of existence. But he relies too heavily on literalizing the kids’ fantasies, showing us Terabithia as it appears through the eyes of the children’s imaginations. For a film that propounds the importance of a healthy and active imagination, it doesn’t trust the audience to have one of their own.

That problem is endemic through the film, particularly in its use of an over-the-top soundtrack, including selections from Disney Radio (Miley Cyrus!), that leaves nothing open to interpretation. But the film's most objectionable aspect is surely its bullying Christianity. Robb is the secular child of fun-loving intellectuals who never goes to church, in contrast to Hutcherson and his family. (A notable contrast to the book, in which Hutcherson’s character’s family only goes to church on Easter, and only then begrudgingly.) So the Hutchersons take her to church one Sunday—first getting the tomboy into a proper dress, of course—where she literally fills her purse with the light of the Lord.

Afterwards, on a truck bed, there’s a frank discussion about religion between the kids, which Robb concludes by declaring, of Christianity, “you have to believe it and you hate it. I don’t, and I love it.” But she doesn’t love it properly, with the proper reverence of belief, and so for the head-in-the-clouds heathenism that she and her parents represent, the girl dies one rainy afternoon. Scared yet, pagans? But don’t worry—the film makes sure to let us know that Robb isn’t going to Hell. God kills little girls, but he’s not a monster. And that’s all the more reason to love Him, in all his merciful grace. Isn't it?

Watch the trailer: