27 August 2008

The Touch (1971)

Written & Directed by: Ingmar Bergman
Full credits from IMDb

A little ways into The Touch, Bergman’s disowned and largely unseen English-language debut (screened at BAM for a day in a pinkened print borrowed from Elliott Gould), a teenage-or-so boy comes home from a night out. “Did you like the movie?” his father asks. “No,” he answers. “Too much hugging and kissing.” The problem with The Touch itself, on the other hand, is not so much its copious lovemaking, but that the hugging and kissing amounts to very little.

Sticking out among Bergman regulars, Gould stars as an archaeologist on a dig in Sweden, where he befriends his doctor, Max von Sydow (in an uncharacteristically quasi-comic performance), and bemorethanfriends the doctor’s wife, Bibi Anderson. (Gould is excavating a statue of Madonna, as he will soon excavate Anderson’s hidden passions!) A dark, curly-haired Jew amid fair-haired Swedes, who speaks in that condescending native-to-non-native-speaker tone, Gould seems to have been cast, in large part, for his appearance—his character plays a disrupting force, the dark stranger upending the Scandinavians’ domestic order.

Though it’s a bit of a stretch to call that order “upended”. Beyond the language spoken, this film departs from Bergman’s moviemaking M.O. most strikingly in that most of its characters seem largely content for much of the film. (Less strikingly, but notable, it’s so ‘70s, from its hairstyles and fashions to its household gizmos.) The Touch even includes a zippy montage, scored to bouncy pop music (!), in which Anderson, giddied by the attentions of another man, tries on a series of outfits. (Woody Allen seems to have recreated it near the end of the recent Vicky Cristina Barcelona.) It must be speaking Swedish that ordinarily makes Bergman so dreary?

But, as the film opens with a sobbing fit following the death of Anderson’s mother, the director clues us into the fact that such bliss won’t last. Soon enough Gould reveals another side of himself: churlish, loutish, violent and feral. He slams doors, breaks furniture, tears down posters, makes love like Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet (“don’t look at me!”) and slaps women; in contrast to the Swedes’ gentle intellectualism, he’s a man of temper tantrums. Those primitive Americans!

At first, I thought this might be a knock at American culture, maybe even a sly rebuke of its post-Bonnie & Clyde filmmaking, but as the film drags on toward the two hour mark it doesn’t feel like Bergman has any such commentary in mind. These are merely scenes from a marriage (wink wink), and an affair, which Bergman uses to explore modernity’s neuroses through a romantic lens darkly: self-loathing and its destructive effects; the inability to make decisions and accept their consequences; and how provincialism’s ideals, like habit, marriage and children, can’t protect their adherents from the corrupting influences that can invade insular small-town life.

Bergman might seem the right fit for such themes, but he fumbles. The Touch is second-rate Bergman—not that that’s much of an insult. The acting, of course, is exceptional and Sven Nykvist deftly handles the camera, but scenes of laid-out themes and psychoanalysis only weigh down the characters—and the film. “It’s hard to live two lives.” “You hate yourself and so you hate me.” “All of my family died in concentration camps.” And on and on. Is it because Bergman’s dialogue, when spoken in English, can’t get away with the pretension that his Swedish usually masks? Or is that the director was insecure working in another language?

Either way, The Touch feels too American, applying some of this country’s more questionable filmmaking tendencies, particularly blatancy. In contrast, in the middle of the film, Bergman covers a six-month interval by showing Gould and Anderson in direct address, reading letters sent. Then, later, Bergman reveals the excavated statue to be infested with termitic beetles, destroying it from the inside out. That’s the kind of Bergman—the maverick of form, the master of symbol, the abstract stylist—of which The Touch could’ve used more. Grade: B-

26 August 2008


Written & Directed by: Jeffrey Nachmanoff
Full credits at IMDb

Grade: C

For writer-director Jeffrey Nachmanoff, who helped pen The Day After Tomorrow’s pretext-for-FX script, the best way to tackle terrorism in film is to follow old formulas and make the kind of movie everybody has seen already — just add Muslims. Lots of Muslims. Traitor, a film about jihadis orchestrating attacks across the globe, opens as a prison movie, slips into a mob movie and goes off into a heist picture, all along intertwined with a police procedural. The film exploits all of those genres’ tropes: rival prison gangs, good cop-bad cop routines, assassins in black leather jackets, even a prison break straight out of Prison Break. But it has Muslims! Lots of Muslims. Traitor may aim to capture the zeitgeist with all the Mohammedans, but it’s still rooted in decades-old Hollywood clichés.

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A Girl Cut in Two

Directed by: Claude Chabrol
Written by: Claude Chabrol & Cécile Maistre
Full credits at IMDb

Like his feature before last, The Bridesmaid, Chabrol’s latest, A Girl Cut in Two ( La Fille Coupée en Deux), sounds like a thriller on paper but plays out as anything but. (Also like his last two movies, it is a family affair, with multiple Chabrols popping up in the credits.) And while not quite a thriller, it’s not not a thriller, either. Loosely based on the 1906 murder of Stanford White, an eminent architect and philanderer shot by a jealous husband at Madison Square Garden (which White had ironically designed!), Girl concerns torrid murder, but it plays out only as low-boil love triangle intrigue. Make no mistake—that water will bubble eventually, but the only hint of the depravation and violence to come is the opening sequence, as the camera winds down French roads, filming through a blood-red filter. You could be forgiven for thinking you were watching Cabin Fever.

But in fact you are watching something far more French, and of far better quality, than anything by Eli Roth. Chabrol is a paragon of patience, more interested in fleshing things out than in moving things along or getting to the point (quel Americain!) because, for him, inching the characters along organically to where he needs them to be is the point. Chabrol acknowledges, and defends, the slow going in what would otherwise be a throwaway moment at a bookstore between customer and proprietor: the shop owner recommends a book; the patron declares, “I like action”; the owner replies, “there’s action,” but more importantly, she says—the book has style.

A Girl Cut in Two certainly has style, thankfully as the plot, about two men each seducing and discarding a loveable weathergirl, offers few surprises and simplistic psychology: all of the younger women are looking for father figures; the older men are looking for sexable nymphets. (Older women and younger men are consequently lonely.) There might be something objectionably Woody Allen about the film’s pairing of graying lotharios with women half their age, but Chabrol is not so vain; ultimately, he casts nearly every character in A Girl Cut in Two as a villain, save notably for the victimized young girl at its center. (This seems to me to be an allegory for modern France; I write more about that here.) Ultimately, Chabrol sides with neither of the film’s suitors, dismissing both as creeps and fools, making A Girl Cut in Two something of an empowerment flick: watch Sagnier used and abused by man after man, then stand up, still in a single piece and beaming to the rafters. You go, girl! (Or, Tu vais, mademoiselle?) Grade: B+

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Tell No One

Directed by: Guillaume Canet
Written by: Guillaume Canet & Philippe Lefebvre
Full credits at IMDb

A twisty thriller, alluring like an episode of Unsolved Mysteries (but without the recreations), about a man (François Cluzet) whose dead wife might not be dead after all, Tell No One (Ne Le Dis à Personne ), is a bit routine—“the movie equivalent of a beach book,” as Maitland McDonagh wrote—with its Hitchcockian innocent man on the run. But for a while it works as a poor man’s Vertigo because Canet directs with an élan that separates the film from the Harrison Ford vehicles it so conspicuously resembles.

The director generates a few lovely scenes of stinging contrast: cutting between a boy & girl in a honey-colored flashback and the girl’s dead adult-body as it’s fed to the crematory fire; printing the image of applauding guests at a wedding over the somber faces of funeral attendees. But the real attraction is the director’s addiction to small details, the authentic touches that permeate the film, coming together to reveal an extensive portrait of all levels of contemporary France. For at least the first hour, no character in Tell No One is ever just sitting around: a photographer is introduced taking pictures of a young man in a rubber duck tube, holding up its neck as though it’s his “thingy” and making as if to lick it; detectives are shown arguing over recycling regulations; a police chase ends in a race riot. Outside of the high-end restaurants where Cluzet takes his meals, Tell No One’s France looks like little but a gang-ridden war zone or the eccentrics-capital of the world.

But for every one of its virtues, the film has a failing to match. Canet takes some shortcuts, like the one cop who believes in Cluzet’s innocence or the gangster with The Godfather tattoo who has the doc’s back. (That’ll come in handy!) But Tell No One’s real downfall, its inexcusable shortcoming, is its last half, which succumbs to the Gone Baby Gone dilemma, drawing the narrative to a near standstill as various characters sit around and wrap up the plot, which has by now become convolutedly draining. It ties up ends you didn’t even know were loose. Adding insult to injury, scary themes, like the return of the repressed or the idea that we don’t know our loved ones as well as we think, are cast aside for more comfortable and doughy ideas of wish-fulfillment, like: you know that terrible thing that happened to you once? Nah, it didn’t really happen. Or, the government might be corrupt, but at least your wife ain’t. (And, don’t worry, “it’ll work out”.) In the end, Tell No One is no triumph as some critics have claimed , just a diversionary end-of-summer time-killer, preparing the audience, with its third act disappointments, for the letdown that is autumn—Mother Nature’s annually problematic third act. Grade: B-

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22 August 2008

Rushmore (1998)

Directed by: Wes Anderson
Written by: Wes Anderson & Owen Wilson
Full credits from IMDb

Before Rushmore’s theatrical release, supernerd Anderson arranged a private screening for one of his adolescent heroes, the critic Pauline Kael. Predictably, the film mystified Kael, then retired and nearing 80: Rushmore, like Indian food, ain’t for grandmas. In fact, Anderson, like MySpace, often elicits confusion in those as young as 30. Some one-time enthusiasts feel they’ve since outgrown him. But a decade after Kael asked the director “Did the people who gave you the money read the script?” Rushmore’s jokes still snap and the director’s distinctive leitmotifs look and sound as fresh as they did at the film’s premiere: the deep-album soundtrack and Futura fonts, the baroque set-dressing and meticulous horizontal compositions. (Anderson’s juvenile characters move laterally because they’re incapable of “moving forward”.) Though a Gen-Xer by birth, Anderson is Generation Y’s defining (pre-Mumblecore) filmmaker and the
solipsistic, apolitical Rushmore is still the L train era’s signature film. With its simultaneously under- and over-achieving hero, a generalist and a monomaniac, and its metacynical deadpan, Rushmore is the missing link between ‘90s slackerism and aughties hipsterism. Unfortunately, the film’s self-indulgent heirs, from Mutual Appreciation to Juno, have lost Anderson’s adult perspective and abandoned his trademark moral: that growing up means getting over yourself.

From the program notes for The L Magazine's SummerScreen series. Rushmore screens on Tuesday, August 26, at Brooklyn's McCarren Park Pool.

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Blue Velvet (1986)

Written & Directed by: David Lynch
Full credits from IMDb

Isabella Rossellini appears early in Blue Velvet, draped in enough of the titular fabric to make Costanza green with velvet envy. But, by film’s end, she’s wearing nothing but a black eye. Roger Ebert, known Lynch-hater, cried misogyny but time and better sense has drowned him out—critics now regard Lynch’s film as one of the Reagan era’s finest. Opening amid candy-colored Americana, Velvet quickly undercuts its “Morning Again” innocence with violence, and Lynch’s camera swoops beneath a manicured lawn to reveal a civilization of seething black beetles. What evil lurks below the surface! Kyle MacLachlan’s discovery of a severed human ear launches his descent into a Nancy Drew nightmare of suburban depravity (which includes a PBR party, long before they were fashionable), but Velvet tackles more than red-county debauchery; it’s not only about sex in America but sex in movies. In a single scene, MacLachlan objectifies, becomes
objectified and finally witnesses his (and our?) fantasy perversely realized: Dennis Hopper (post-hippie, pre-corporate spokesman) squealing for mommy while he beats and rapes Rossellini. In short, Blue Velvet plays out like the baddest of bad dreams. But Lynch ultimately has the magnanimity to reassure us, with the closing shot of a bug-gobbling robin, that love can still conquer Mr. Hopper.

From the program notes for The L Magazine's SummerScreen series. Blue Velvet screens on Monday, August 25, at Brooklyn's McCarren Park Pool.

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19 August 2008

Hamlet 2

Directed by: Andrew Fleming
Written by: Pam Brady & Andrew Fleming
Full credits from IMDb

As should be obvious from its title, Hamlet 2 is a comedy, though it packs a subtle seriousness. First, the comedy. Steve Coogan stars as a bad actor, in exile from Hollywood and teaching high school drama in that most godforsaken of places—Tuscon, Arizona. Though designed as a star vehicle for Coogan, providing him the opportunity to American-accent his affable but irascibly defensive Alan Partridge persona, Hamlet 2 is stolen by Catherine Keener as his passive-aggressive, alcoholic wife. Still, she’s not in many scenes, so Coogan ultimately carries the film. While it features some physical gags and comic signage, Hamlet 2 thrives comedically, above all, in Coogan’s face; 90% of the picture seems shot from his shoulders on up. Aside from his multiple BBC series, the actor made his mark with a pair of seriocomic roles in Michael Winterbottom films, 2002’s 24 Hour Party People and 2005’s Tristram Shandy, and though here he has little straight drama to handle, it’s his ability to overact, to overblow the wrong emotions in the wrong scenes that makes Hamlet 2 funny: the way he explodes at a 14-year-old drama critic or collapses in self-pity when told that, due to budget cuts, drama will be cut from the curriculum.

A musical that his character has written, a sequel to Shakespeare’s tragedy, is his one chance to attract attention and maybe save the program. With his theater class full of forcibly registered, mostly-apathetic Hispanics, Hamlet 2 follows the Take the Lead trajectory. Or, it’s School of Rock, but un-Disneyfied; it builds not to a sappy finale but to bigger and bolder things—a finale of almost “Springtime for Hitler” proportions. (While The Producers came too soon, Hamlet 2 builds up to its biggest joke, as a comedy should.) Hamlet 2 uses the Hollywood clichés only to get by; it’s more at home sending them up—Coogan invokes everything from Mr. Holland’s Opus and Dead Poet’s Society to Dangerous Minds while struggling with his students, exposing those films’ artificiality. Burning beneath the film is a bitter Hollywood critique, not only of phony films and pretentious actors (a la the recent Tropic Thunder) but also of the system’s cruelty, best expressed by Elisabeth Shue, playing herself and frequently railing against the studio system.

But it’s not in its movie biz opprobrium that the film finds its poignancy, but rather in “Hamlet 2,” the play within the film—the thing wherein Coogan will catch his own conscience. Or subconscious. In the musical, Shakespeare’s Hamlet uses a time machine to travel back in time and save the first play’s befallen. (Along the way, Einstein and Christ show up, too.) Though largely a vehicle for a handful of comic songs—“Raped in the Face” and “Rock Me Sexy Jesus” stand out—the filmmakers use the show to underplayed dramatic effect, conflating Hamlet’s daddy issues with Jesus’. And Coogan’s. The Danish Prince, in tears, forgiving his father, followed soon after by Coogan as Christ doing the same, provides a surprising amount of unforced feeling. That’s the seriousness. But the filmmakers, craftily, never take themselves as seriously as I might. During all that “I forgive you, papa!” business, Fleming cuts to the high school’s crusty principal. (Think the mean ol’ dean from a college comedy.) My father molested me as a child, he says with graceful comic phrasing, adding, Maybe that’s why I’m so mean. As such, Hamlet 2 mocks the sudden revelations and easy answers to which Hollywood can so often, so unfortunately, be prone. Grade: B+

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15 August 2008

Pineapple Express

Directed by: David Gordon Green
Written by: Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg
Full credits from IMDb

Like its stoner protagonists, Pineapple Express often forgets what it’s supposed to be doing and does something else instead. Ostensibly an action movie, it frequently stops its car chases to digress—to smoke a joint and chill out. That’s where half of its comedy stems from: the characters’ drug-induced dim-wittedness and paranoia. That seems an easy target, just one step up from Monica Lewinsky jokes, but Dean of Comedy Judd Apatow’s regulars—Rogen, doing what feels like a long Lewis Black impression, and James Franco, playing against post-Freaks and Geeks type as a goofy drug dealer—pack in enough one-liners to give it a sense of freshness. (Comparing the strain of marijuana from which the film takes its name to “God’s vagina,” or smoking something so rare to “killing a unicorn”.) This is a comedy of bowl hitting goofiness, but its sense of humor is still more in line with Knocked Up’s culture riffing than with “Dave’s not here.”

Pineapple Express culls the other half of its comedy from its action sequences, which indie expat Green plays, to an extent, believably; at least, in such a manner that should be relatable to his unheroic target demographic. Rogen and Franco play two schlubs who stumble into a badass drug war and (disregarding the finale, in which the tone changes to that of ultraviolence) they never break those character types. Fisticuffs play out awkwardly because they are two men who’ve likely never been in a fight before. Bad guys cry when they get hurt. Franco apologizes after he shoots someone. Like Hot Fuzz, Pineapple Express’ characters belong to a generation reared on action movies and model themselves thusly: from a long scene in which they rehearse their action-movie poses and ironic one-liners, treating guns like props, to a chase in which Franco tries to kick out an obscured windshield (“isn’t that what they do?”) only to get his foot stuck in the unshatterable glass. But Pineapple is superior to its English counterpart; Green’s film, too, takes much of its action spoofing seriously but, unlike Hot Fuzz, never more so than its smaller-scale, character-driven moments.

And it’s in those moments, like a chase paused for an idyll in the forest—in which Rogen & Franco try to get a caterpillar high and play leapfrog—that Pineapple Express finds its core, since it’s after something other than Cheech & Chong gags or Shane Black-esque gun battles. At root, this is another boy-on-boy romance courtesy the prolific Apatow (who makes a cameo as a biker on a bus stop bench). Rogen & Goldberg’s previous collaboration, Superbad, ended with a hint of tragic pathos—with females tearing the adolescent male leads apart. Hos were placed before bros, but this film works as fantasy corrective; “bros before hos” is declared as guiding philosophy twice, with total seriousness.

Homoerotic undertones bubble much closer to the surface here than in most straight male American comedies—and not even (always) for gross-out effect! Franco suggests he & Rogen should spend the night in a motel; “imagine if I gave you a handjob,” Franco says to Rogen in a Freudian slip; Rogen lends Franco his jacket when they spend a cold night in the woods; and on and on, culminating near the end in an extended scene of accidentally simulated kinky-sex. Featuring post-college characters, in contrast to Superbad’s high schoolers, Pineapple Express is about how to recapture surrendered pubescent fraternity. The recent Norwegian film Reprise showed such a quest to be a pernicious, romantic delusion, but Green’s film is a man’s Hollywood daydream. A subplot about Rogen’s romance with a high-school girl is left as a loose end; or, more to the point, it’s rendered extraneous. She’s pushed aside so the boys can be together again, without feminine interference, in order to revel in one another’s company. The film ends with the characters sitting around a table, discussing some of the film’s most memorable moments, a bit of self-indulgence meant perhaps to parallel the audience’s own post-film recaps; it more strongly suggests, though, that these manboys have little interest in anyone or anything outside of each other. Well, maybe in weed, but certainly not in any chicks. Grade: B+

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14 August 2008

Killer of Sheep (1977)

Written & Directed by: Charles Burnett
Full credits from IMDb

Burnett’s long-delayed, post-neorealist classic, The Killer of Sheep, is set in Los Angeles’ Watts, which he presents as a dusty, shelled-out wasteland. About black poverty and malaise, the film is sauntering slice-of-lifery set against a sweaty, shirtless ‘70s; with ghetto as war-torn cityscape, it resembles The Bicycle Thief, though absent a bourgeois, heartstrings-tugging narrative; or, with its tightly-packed neighbors and urban blight, it leans towards The Little Fugitive, but without that film’s Coney Island idyll. The kids turn the neighborhood’s vacant lots into makeshift playgrounds, but Watts offers no real escape, only mean streets full of decimation, television thieves and afro-picking idlers. Kids exercise their pent-up aggression through heaving—rocks at freight trains and signage, dirt clumps at each other. The setting transcends the role of a metaphor for its characters’ lives—it simply is their lives.

In this milieu, Burnett fashions a slight narrative, a few days in the life of one representative man (Henry G. Sanders) as he struggles to stay straight in the face of depression, both economic and emotional. Though a narrative film, it functions strongest as historical document, a ground-level sociological study. His eye for setting is as sharp as his eye for detail, and the film is best in its small moments of kitchen-table intimacy, both poignant and funny—a mother checking her reflection in the dirty lid of a saucepot, a teenager pouring half a box of sugar atop his Frosted Flakes, husband and wife stiffly, sadly dancing to Dinah Washington’s “This Bitter Earth”. Burnett’s style is loose and digressive; he’s happy to spend a good 60 seconds or so following two men as they carry a motor from an apartment down to the bed of a truck. It’s in these frames, these moments of real inner-city struggle, that Killer of Sheep finds its strength.

As well as its clever symbols, such as a car trip cut short by a blown tire: with no spare, the travelers are forced to drive home on the flat, as the characters of the film push through their lives in comparable fashion. But the most stirring symbol is the image of the title’s sheep (Sanders is the killer) led to the slaughter, then skinned and gutted, to which Burnett cuts after we see a few horseplaying boys or a woman announcing that she’s pregnant. With such despondent cynicism, Burnett looks ahead to the future of his people, but by scoring the film with the sounds of black musicianship—jazz, soul, blues—he looks at the past, too. The soundtrack gives the story historical context and, as such, is essential—worth the 30-year wait. Killer of Sheep is not so much about one family at one point in time as it is about one family at one point within an ongoing cultural continuum. Grade: A

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Henry Poole Is Here

Directed by: Mark Pellington
Written by: Albert Torres
Full credits from IMDb

Grade: D-

On director Mark Pellington’s official MySpace profile, “movies” ominously rank thirteenth on his list of general interests, several spots behind “eating in bed” and “massages”. And though on the same page he cites Mike Leigh and John Cassavetes, among other lofty directors, as his influences, his preference for backrubs over films shows in the cluelessly directed Henry Poole is Here. This is a step down even for Pellington, best known hitherto for poorly received thrillers like The Mothman Prophecies. While I encourage more movies with “Henry” in the title to offset the still-reverberating negative effects of 1986’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, the sappy and patronizingly simplistic Henry Poole only makes the world’s Henrys, not to mention cinema itself, look bad.

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