30 December 2009

Essay: "Today's Hollywood Has No Place for Personality"

"Ultimately you can't beat the studio," Richard Kelly recently told the New York Times. "They’re the bank, so you’ve got to just figure out how to work with it. I’ve learned that the smart way to go about it is to learn how to play ball." It sounds dispiritingly cynical from the director of Donnie Darko, The Box and, above all, Southland Tales, the decade's most glorious piece of batshit. But it seems an idea that more and more younger directors are embracing: Spike Jonze recently released Where the Wild Things Are with backing from Warner Bros.; 20th Century Fox just gave Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox a wide release. Michel Gondry is currently in production of Seth Rogen’s Green Hornet movie, produced by Sony and to be distributed by Columbia Pictures. David Gordon Green, whose George Washington was an indie cause célèbre less than a decade ago, is now the go-to guy for Danny McBride comedies. This could all be a great development for mainstream cinema—except, judging from Kelly, Jonze and Anderson’s latest films, the directors aren’t very good at making bankable big-budget movies with broad appeal. It promises to be a short-lived trend.

Keep reading this essay at The L Magazine

29 December 2009

A Serious Man

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

The Coen Bros. could stand to be more serious men. But at the start of A Serious Man, an exploration not of God’s silence but of the inscrutability of His message, they’re up to their old shit again. The brothers’ problem has always been their propensity for characters that are goofier than their context allows—madcap caricatures where real(ish) people ought to be. Their last two films, though antithetical in tone, have avoided the problem: No Country for Old Men might have been called Some Serious Men, as it was as drained of all humor as their moody debut Blood Simple. (Beth Grant, in a small part, was a notable exception, but the brevity of her screen time makes it forgivable.) Burn After Reading, on the other hand, was a zany satire of D.C. politics that demanded silly performances—and got them, from A-list or top-shelf masters (Clooney, Pitt, Malkovich; Frances McDormand) who know how to be nutty without crossing That Line.

But A Serious Man opens with a Yiddish ghost story that nearly ruins the film, not only with its broad archetypes (which are never as funny as the Coens think) but with its undermining message. Thankfully, the film quickly moves to the Midwest ca. 1967, a heartland suburbia of manicured lawns and one-level houses that’s positively Wonder Years, and focuses on the Jews there trying to retain their heritage while taking advantage of America’s promise of prosperity. This is a world the Coens know—it’s the one in which they were raised—and so they bring to it a serious authenticity; even when it’s funny and silly, it’s undergirded by an emotional gravity. The Coens are comfortable here. The eccentric characters—particularly a series of rabbis—feel like they truly belong in this absurd place where religious tradition butts heads with political realities.

Michael Stuhlbarg, the great eccentric stage actor beginning his much-welcome inroads into the pictures, stars as Larry Gopnik, a physics professor and 20th Century American Job: his wife is leaving him (for the hilarious Fred Melamed); his brother (a humorously repellent Richard Kind) is sleeping on his couch; his son, on the cusp of bar mitzvah, is a stoner chased down the street by dealers to whom he is indebted; the success of his tenure-review is threatened by a series of anonymous, disparaging letters and an attempted bribe from a South Korean student; he is as deplored by his red-meat neighbors for his persuasion as A Single Man’s protagonist is for his orientation. (Though, as one scene makes clear, Jew still trumps Chink.)

Why the string of bad luck? The Coens compare humanity’s relationship-to-God to a rooftop antenna: just as the Gopniks can’t get F Troop to come through clearly, so too is humanity receiving a garbled signal they can’t decipher. Why does God supply us with the potential to ask questions when he won’t give us any answers? Why is he penalizing us when we haven’t done anything wrong? (The Coens find a brilliant symbol for this in the Columbia Record Club, which keeps charging you for albums precisely because you haven’t done anything.) The brothers cloak their bleak theology in the cover of comedy, but the pain and injustice of a world in which God only takes and does not give—in which he punishes the seemingly unoffending—is clear and deep. So why that stupid opening, which suggests we can attribute Gopnik’s trials to a 100-year-old curse? Less than establishing a sins-of-the-father theme, it merely suggests an easy answer for the complex existential conflicts the Coens do such a superb job of laying out through the rest of the film. Grade: A-

Watch the trailer:

The Fantastic Mr. Fox

Directed by: Wes Anderson
Written by: Wes Anderson & Noah Baumbach
Full credits at IMDb

Miss The Fantastic Mr. Fox’s opening credits and you’d still figure out, in a matter of minutes, that this is a Wes Anderson movie; all of his trademark motifs are there: the on-screen text; the deep album soundtracking (“Heroes and Villains”!); the horizontal compositions; the astounding level of detail. But it’s also animated in stop motion, making it the divisive director’s most visually complex film yet. It’s also his funniest, his most emotionally rich, his most thematically complex, and his first political picture. It’s not only one of the year’s best movies—it’s Anderson’s long-missing masterpiece, the film for which fans have been waiting since the director followed up near-perfect The Royal Tenenbaums with a couple of (wonderful but) regressive digressions.

Adapted by Anderson and sometimes-collaborator/director-in-his-own-right Noah Baumbach from Roald Dahl’s children’s book—retaining some of the narrative shape while piling on complicating layers—The Fantastic Mr. Fox revolves around the title character (voiced by George Clooney), whose central dilemma is similar to that of Mr. Incredible: he has promised his wife he won’t do the dangerous thing he’s good at anymore—here, catching chickens—but he can’t control himself, even after having switched careers to become a newspaperman (a choice that reflects Anderson’s love of the anachronistic). It’s a classic case of the human, er, vulpine nature versus the refining forces of civilization. “How can a fox ever be happy,” Mr. Fox muses, “without a chicken in its teeth?”

He plots one last great scheme, which attracts an Old Testament-level of vengeance from the mean, nasty, ugly English farmer-barons he’s wronged, who sport the deliciously Dahlian names of Boggis, Bunce and Bean. An endless stream of one-liners and running gags—as painstakingly calculated and contained as the film’s startling mise-en-scene (because the characters and sets are constructed models, the frames are exponentially more detailed than Anderson’s usual sets; he not only revels in the minutiae here, he must)—flow through the film’s action-packed structure: one heist and scheme after another. But the film’s charmingly creaky sheen doesn’t obscure the dark emotional core; The Fantastic Mr. Fox doesn’t feign ignorance of the natural world’s violence: Anderson’s foxes eat like animals, ferociously scattering their food with their maws. An old man has a real tantrum and trashes his trailer; an unctuous, serpentine rat suffers an inglorious death. There are inter-family jealousies and humiliations (Mr. Fox’s son suffers from a cousin rivalry, as well the pains of being overshadowed by an accomplished father), welling eyes and ferocious anger. Mrs. Fox, exasperated with her husband for the trouble he has caused, scratches his face, leaving claw marks, drawing not only blood from her husband but tears. Heartbreaking tears. “Why’d you lie to me?” she asks. “Because I’m a wild animal,” he answers.

Anderson’s films have always been about self-obsessed characters, navigating their own hermetic relationships without an eye for the larger world or communities around them. Mr. Fox breaks with that tradition, largely a result of the source material. On one level, the film seems to be about animal rights—or, at least, for the rights of animals to be treated like animals. (Not in the Cartesian sense!) On another, it’s about a working class revolution against the ruling class, pitting the humble and inclusive animals against a stingy cabal of homogenous monopolizers. Anderson’s most radical suggestion—and this certainly isn’t from Dahl—might be that, between animal rights and workers rights, there’s little distinction. Grade: A+

Watch the trailer:

The Best of 2009 and The Best of the Decade

Get your read on: My Best 10 (er, 15) Films of 2009 list is up at The L Magazine. You can read it here. To cut the suspense, the top 5 are Tokyo Sonata, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Adventureland, Summer Hours and Kabei: Our Mother.

Also up at The L is my Top 20 of The Decade list, which you can read here. Again: the top 5 are Zodiac, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Elephant, Mulholland Dr., and The Royal Tenenbaums. Pretty bold choices, eh? (Seriously, though: they're all American. I love American movies!)

Crazy Heart

Written & Directed by: Scott Cooper
Full credits at IMDb

This is above all An Actor’s Showcase, and I’m so tired of those: films that think they can cut narrative corners because they make up for it with Performance. Crazy Heart is competently executed, but we’ve seen its characters before, just as we’ve tracked their journeys to redemption. Will [Maggie] Gyllenhaal inspire [Jeff] Bridges to start writing songs again? Will a doctor warn Bridges that the drinkin’ will do him in? Will a small child cause Bridges to re-evaluate his life? Etc. etc.

But there is pleasure to be had from watching Bridges work off of his fellow actors, whether it’s the sweet-smiled Gyllenhaal, the respectful [Colin] Farrell, or the grizzled [Robert] Duvall...But, you know, I respect Bridges’ performance, in which he grumbles to himself when he’s not growling at others, but I don’t really like it. Of course, it’s one of those oversized performances Academy voters love so, and it’s got a real chance of snagging an Oscar. But it’s so thoroughly conceived it starts to cross the line from messy, Method-y emotional realism into the meticulous design of Olivierian contrivance. Should we be congratulating Bridges, or the team that mussed his stringy hair and made him look positively Bukowskian (albeit with a cowboy hat)?

Keep reading my conversation with Benjamin Sutton at The L Magazine

Watch the trailer:


Directed by: Rob Marshall
Written by: Michael Tolkin & Anthony Minghella
Full credits at IMDb

When I got home from the Nine screening I attended, I started writing a short story. I felt I had to do something, no matter how small, in order to appease the gods of the arts, who undoubtedly have been affronted by Rob Marshall’s film. It might as well be called “Mambo Italiano: The Musical” because it seems to be adapted from that Dean Martin song. In fact, it’s adapted from a decades-old stage musical that itself was adapted—the gall!—from ; the show’s score is almost all flashy numbers with bold-faced motifs that signify Italianness. “Style is the new content,” a reporter for Vogue (Kate Hudson) says, and that about sums up Marshall’s filmmaking.

Keep reading my discussion with Benjamin Sutton at The L Magazine

Watch the trailer:

15 December 2009

The Headless Woman

Written & Directed by: Lucrecia Martel
Full credits at IMDb

How you receive Martel’s enigmatic The Headless Woman (La Mujer Sin Cabeza) will depend in large part on your mood: is it an arthouse soporific or a meticulous masterpiece of mise-en-scene and ambiguity? I watched half the film in a torpor and felt the former, then finished it off well rested and came around to the latter. The film requires a vigorous attentiveness—it’s best seen in a dark theater by a properly caffeinated viewer—but pays off for those willing to put in the work.

In a tremendous but subtle performance, María Onetto stars as Vero, a bourgeois Spaniard who, while driving on the eve of a storm and reaching for a cellphone, hits something with her car. Was it a dog? Or one of those innocent boys on whose antics the film opens? Vero doesn’t get out of her car to find out, and spends the rest of the movie quietly unraveling amid jarring, memory-piquing parallels. (It would almost be reminiscent of Carnival of Souls if it didn’t evoke Antonioni so strongly.) As Vero’s husband begins an apparent cover-up, Martel suggests an allegory about class dynamics that’s hard to parse—“this storm has hurt thousands of people,” one character says. “It’s not just unfortunate. It’s shameful”—but even on its most basic terms, as a portrait of mushrooming guilt, it’s a wonder.

Martel, filming in long takes, alternates between keeping the camera exhaustingly close on her protagonista and carefully composing frames that marginalize Vero, though she always seems to dominate the frame, even when just wearily smiling, awkwardly shuffling or furrowing her brow from its corners. The camera is tightly focused on her even when it seems to be ignoring her, just as Vero obsesses over her (possible) vehicular manslaughter, even when she appears apathetic. Grade: A-

Watch the trailer:

The Hurt Locker

Directed by: Kathryn Bigelow
Written by: Mark Boal
Full credits at IMDb

In The Hurt Locker, an a(geo)political Iraq War nail-biter, Bigelow and Boal (a catchy name for an artistic partnership!) essentially take that old “red wire or green wire?” routine familiar from countless movie bomb-squads, and ratchets it up into an entire film by reworking it again and again into a handful of cliché-defying permutations: what if the eyes of dozens of would-be assassins are on you as you work? What if one wire leads to five other wires? What if you can’t find the wires at all? In Bigelow and Boal’s Iraq, every face peering out from a terrace or rooftop is suspect, every cell phone a potential weapon, every pedestrian a potential combatant. The characters’ justified paranoia in such a setting creates tension to spare. Toss in the tightly filmed bomb-defusing and it’s unbearable.

Within that stressful setting, the filmmakers foster a portrait of masculinity-and-its-many-faces under siege, a character study of reckless bravado; Will (Jeremy Renner), an American staff sergeant and the staff deactivator, is a fearless—he even smokes cigarettes!—John Wayne type, deromanticized; he’s portrayed as irresponsible and unstable as much as heroic. “War is a drug,” according to the title-card quote from Chris Hedges that opens the film, and the film explores the mess that is soldierhood during wartime: the allure, the guilt, the addictiveness, the death. Should the U.S. be in Iraq? Did the Bush administration lie about W.M.D.s? Yawn. Save it for the Oscar-bait. “The bottom line,” as on character says, “is, if you’re in Iraq, you’re dead.”

Bravo for Bigelow and Boal for bucking the Iraq-movie trend—for ditching the somber forced-feeling of sleeve-worn liberalism—and for sticking complicated characters into thrilling and well-crafted set pieces: for chancing to allow the audience to draw its own conclusions from witnessing the realities on the ground. But the filmmakers’ intelligence wavers and, as the film progresses, the movie slips into eye-rolling clichés and manipulations, culminating in a phone call from Will to his wife in which he doesn’t say anything—and then hangs up! Bigelow is a merciless director. Boal, despite his war-reporter background, turns out to be a sucker for schmaltz. Grade: B+

Watch the trailer:


Written & Directed by: Greg Mottola
Full credits at IMDb

Greg Mottola directed Superbad, in which he distinguished himself as more than just a director-for-hire with that film’s final shot, the most moving in all of 2007: the camera assumes Michael Cera’s point of view, watching Jonah Hill at the head of an escalator, slowly disappearing as Cera rides down. In a single shot, Mottola expressed everything about how men grow up and grow apart that screenwriters Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg had struggled to say in the previous 113 pages.

In Adventureland, Mottola directs from his own script, and therefore has 107 minutes to demonstrate the tenderness that appeared only fleetingly in his previous film, obscured beneath a nearly impenetrable layer of obscenity. (Superbad was funny as hell, but structurally it was sloppy, and is a bore on repeated viewings.) Jesse Eisenberg, doing a Michael Cera impression, plays a young adult whose dreams of spending his summer between college and grad school in Europe are dashed when his parents can’t foot the bill; instead, he stays in Pittsburgh, working the only job he can find—running games at the amusement park that gives the film its title.

The characters are broad enough to warrant the film mass appeal, but the film is never, except in Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig’s unsubtle comic turns, anything but stalwartly sincere, from the bumbling awkwardness of the academic to the employees’ camaraderie in shared misery, familiar to anyone who’s ever worked a shitty gig for minimum wages. The authenticity of working class desperation underlies the film: everyone’s parents have been downsized; half the kids are overeducated, the other half seeming-dropouts; the rock stars front shitty bar bands; grown-ass men still live with they moms. The dramedy builds to conflict that’s predictable as much as it’s inevitable; and yet, because of the emotional honesty in which Mottola steeps the film, it’s harrowing. The climactic reconciliation? Obvious. And fucking heartbreaking. Grade: A

Watch the trailer:

12 December 2009

35 Shots of Rum

Directed by: Claire Denis
Written by: Claire Denis & Jean-Pol Fargeau
Full credits at IMDb

In 35 Shots of Rum (35 Rhums), one character informs another that the university is closing the anthropology department. Because it doesn’t see the value in it. Director Denis thinks differently, and her film serves as a testament to value of studying the everyday lives of a peoples: in this case, the mostly black working-class in a Paris suburb. While some drama seeps into the film—jealous lovers, even a suicide—for the most part, nothing happens: cab drivers gripe, a man broods over his retirement, a family cooks dinner, students debate third-world debt, friends go out for beers, a man shops for a CD, another goes for a run, and everybody rides the trains. Every scene is acted with warmth and humanity, filmed coolly yet sympathetically by Denis; it adds up to a seemingly authentic portrait of the immigrant and children-of-immigrants experience in contemporary France that puts to shame Cederic Klapisch’s recent Paris, with its melodramatic, self-pitying and predominantly white bourgeoisie. Grade: B

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Bright Star

Written & Directed by: Jane Campion
Full credits at IMDb

It’s slow going at first for Bright Star, which chronicles the Twilight-chaste romance between John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and an (anachronistically?) outspoken dressmaker (Abbie Cornish) near the tail end of the poet’s life, as it seems to fall victim to the familiar pitfall of the period piece: an over-reliance on surfaces, from accents and syntax to costumes and setting. Campion’s film is certainly beautiful on the outside: the ornate outfits, the painterly frames—evoking Seurat, Rembrandt et al.—and, especially, the sumptuously lit frames, all candles and sun streams, bathing the richly colored rooms in complex layers of shadow and light. Even more impressive are the exterior shots, revealing a natural world of lush gardens and alternately ripe and barren forests, which evoke a fantasy realm, a version of earth that has since become extinct.

But does Bright Star offer any pleasures deeper than these superficial ones? At first it would seem not: aside from some competent performances (and a marvelously volatile turn from Parks and Recreation’s Paul Schneider), the film revolves around a love story stilted, pretentious and twee, essentially Garden State moved to London, ca. 1818. But the failings of the first quarter give way to a glorious middle, in which Campion pitches poetry, love and nature as a Holy Trinity, each possessing a capacity for transcendent ecstasy; Camption beautifully sums up the intersection of all three in the image of a bedroom swarming with butterflies. Meanwhile, the characters work through some complex problems: the necessity of station; the conflict between love and art, work and women. In its third act, Bright Star falls back into coasting on appearances and the familiarities of the tragic love story. But by then, it’s much easier to go along for the ride without complaining. Grade: B

Watch the trailer:

A Single Man

Directed by: Tom Ford
Written by: Tom Ford & David Scearce
Full credits at IMDb

If anyone was wondering what it’ll feel like in the future, when Vanity Fair’s ad pages contain short films on paper-thin screens rather than static images, the answer is: a lot what it feels like to watch A Single Man, which is obsessed with the styles and textures of the early 60s: the haircuts, the vending machines, the clocks, the wood-paneling at the bank. (Ford employs a palette of almost exclusively browns and grays, with some blacks and curdled greens.) I like an exquisitely aestheticized movie as much as the next guy, but Ford gets carried away here with the copious slow motion set to Haunting Strings. There’s an emphasis on the superficial here—making it the kind of movie that cuts a great trailer (see below)—that not even Firth’s layered performance can overcome.

Keep reading my discussion with Benjamin Sutton at The L Magazine

Watch the (pretty!) trailer:

[Rec] 2

Directed by: Jaume Balagueró & Paco Plaza
Written by: Jaume Balagueró, Paco Plaza and Manu Díez
Full credits at IMDb

Like its nearly identical and essentially interchangeable American remake Quarantine, the Spanish horror film [Rec] was literally a thriller of escalation: as the movie progressed, and the tension mounted, our characters climbed the stairs of the Barcelona apartment complex in which they’d been, um, quarantined, the last surviving characters ultimately meeting their violent ends in the building’s penthouse. In the sequel, [Rec] 2, which in the Grand Horror Tradition of The Bride of Frankenstein and Halloween II picks up where its precursor left off, the characters move around the premises more liberally: while making a quick survey of the splattery remnants of the last film’s carnage, our heroes go straight to the top floor, then down a few flights, then back up to the penthouse, into a crowning crawlspace (for a nod to Alien, of course), and so on. The excitement follows suit: the dread in [Rec] mounted relentlessly; [Rec] 2 is a lot of ups-and-downs.

Keep reading at The L Magazine

Watch the (unsubtitled) trailer: