26 March 2010

Alice in Wonderland

Directed by: Tim Burton
Written by: Linda Woolverton
Full credits at IMDb

Counterintuitively, if not paradoxically, CGI has had a crippling effect on Tim Burton’s imagination. Computers, you’d think, would liberate visionaries from the limitations of the real—to make the impossible possible—but often it’s those very limits that fuel the artist’s creativity. Computers eliminate the need for resourcefulness, which serves as many artists’ motivating force—Burton in particular. As anyone who’s taken a stroll through his MoMA show knows, he’s an expert craftsman and a sketchbooker of vivid inventiveness. But left to the limitless possibilities of computer animation, he proves a bland imagineer. Ones and zeroes ain’t his medium.

His Alice in Wonderland, better titled Alice’s Re-Adventures in Underland (because Burton is so Dark even his wonderlands are stripped of wonder!), is dreary, ugly and lifeless: it’s gray, despite its colors; flat, despite its three dimensions. It’s so sucked of vim that even Crispin Glover, usually irrepressibly idiosyncratic, seems diminished, reduced to the rank of just another Hollywood supporting man. Seriously—how do you make Crispin Glover dull? Burton’s mode here is predictable fantasticality, smothered by special-glasses layers of perspective. The film was shot in two dimensions and retrofitted in three—big mistake! The new technology works best in giving still shots a depth of field of which cinematographers once could only dream. But Burton’s camera doesn’t stop moving. Without planning for those extra dimensions, the action blurs, rendered as incoherent as a Christopher Nolan fight sequence.

The unimpressive, garishly dull, dizzyingly busy visuals parallel, rather than make up for (as in Avatar), the Planet of the Apes-level, by-committee screenwriting. (Screenwriter Woolverton cut her teeth on several second-Golden-Age Disney scripts.) Alice (Mia Wasikowska), here 20 years-old, is an anachronistically independent young lady who escapes her arranged-engagement-to-a-weasel proposal-ceremony (he is not literally a weasel) by falling into a hole underneath a tree; the portal, something of a birth canal, takes her to the colorless Underland, where a ragtag team of talking animals, misfits, fat heads and dissipating Cheshires is plotting to overthrow the hydrocephalic White Queen, played by Tilda Swinton Red Queen, played by Burton’s wife and muse Helena Bonham Carter, who delivers her requisite “off with their heads!” with gusto. Though pale as raw chalk—@TimBurton: Ricci 2 old? LOL—Alice’s wanness can’t compete with the Krusty-painted face of the Mad Hatter, played by Johnny Depp who, slipping in and out of a brogue, tries only to keep himself amused, like a child playing by himself in a corner.

Burton comes off like something of a lonely child here, too, exiled from the schoolyard for punishing his playmates with torpid adaptations of their favorite adventurebooks. Is it movies like this that turn kids off to reading? Modern, English literary classics—like, say, Charlie and The Chocolate Factory—have not proved a good fit for Burton’s crassly commercial sensibilities when he’s in blockbuster mode (which seems, like, all the time), not least in the way that, in trying to add humanzing backstories to classic characters, he pushes the films way off track. At the end, Alice avoids the unattractive marriage and is offered, instead, to sail with the English to uncharted China, an opportunity for the adventure she has long been denied. Oh, so she’s off to start the Opium Wars? Hoo…ray? Grade: C-

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24 March 2010


Written & Directed by: Jessica Hausner
Full credits at IMDb

Is God good, or is He all-powerful? That’s the driving question—because he can’t be both!—behind Lourdes, a thoughtful, patient and painful meditation on the role of the divine in a miserable and unjust world of cripples and empty religious optimism. Set in the title city, a “touristy” site where the Virgin once appeared to Saint Bernadette (better known as Jennifer Jones), the film takes place over the course of a typical pilgrimage, during which the bemaladied have a full itinerary of visits to potential miracle spots: a sacred stone, blessed springs, a gilded church. A Greek chorus of old ladies gossips about the last person to be healed miraculously and about who could possibly be next. Visitors can only hope it will be them.

Hope seems to be the main target of Lourdes’ mordancy: of all the afflictions to afflict the afflicted, it comes across as the cruelest, more than any spine-paralyzing bug. Even if miracles do actually exist, aren’t they inherently unjust? If God has the power to cure one of us, why wouldn’t he cure all of us? If one person is worthy of a miracle, are the rest of us unworthy? Why? But hope persists because it, and the faith healing as which it manifests, has become an industry, exploited by priests and their higher-ups (to say nothing of a certain president). Institutional corruption is subtly suggested on the film’s periphery: card-playing clergy, flirtatious nurses and gaudy gift shops fill the spaces in Lourdes not occupied by the miracle seeking. The regal church leaders don’t even have the time to bless every un-well visitor who has trekked to town, genuflecting for godly mercy. To cover up its shortcomings, Catholicism (not unlike modern medicine) turns to blame the fetishized victim instead, suggesting that those in wheelchairs stop asking God to heal their bodies and work on healing their own souls: after all, isn’t their infirmity a sort of gift, since it gives them a unique perspective on their life? Oh, don’t make me vomit!

Lourdes is theologically scathing in the questions it raises, but not in the way it raises them. Patiently rolling from place to place—scene to scene, point to moral point—like the wheelchaired pilgrims who occupy its frames, Lourdes (rhymes with “gourd”) starts with the camera perched on high, but slowly, to the ethereal accompaniment of Schubert, lowers to earth, to a man’s-eye level; this isn’t a movie about God’s grace, but about the men who pretend to guard and administer it. As immobile as our heroine, the camera cuts and moves rarely, matter-of-factly depicting paralysis: the spoon-feedings, the liftings into bed. Our guide through this world of rituals both religious and paralytic is Christine (Sylvie Testud), a kind, generally positive, sclerotic woman in a wheelchair. Testud is extraordinary: hope creeps into her face as she brushes the holy rock, and embarrassment at such optimism floods over her immediately after, her visage quickly resettling into its usual contortion of contained fear, exasperation, and hints of jealousy (toward all the able-bodied youths around her), concealed beneath a polite veneer. Like her face, the film is powerful for what it suggests rather than what it stresses, for the way Hausner lets the criticisms creep up from the margins. Lourdes raises richly complex theological quandaries. It isn’t didactic—but it’s devastating, in its quiet, graceful way. Grade: A-

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23 March 2010

Lorna's Silence

Written & Directed by: Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne
Full credits at IMDb

Every scene in Lorna’s Silence (Le Silence de Lorna), a devastating depiction of Western decadence, suggests the point of view of a fly on the wall, or at least a nosy neighbor. But that naturalism is illusory. Though it might feel like Realism, like you’ve just been dumped into la vie de Lorna—watching phone calls, bank visits, work-shifts, preparations for bed—the scenes’ tiny details build to a broader and culturally critical portrait, like the confab with a Yellow Page’s rep in Gus Van Sant’s Last Days. It’s all been meticulously plotted. And just as meticulously scrubbed of any evidence to prove it.

An Albanian national, the title character (Arta Dobroshi) works as a laundress and moonlights as a wife: she marries first for Belgian citizenship, then for extra cash (someone marries her for citizenship) so she and her boyfriend can open that modest snack stand they’ve been dreaming of. Her life of modest crimes requires a certain coldness of character, but Lorna boasts a natural decency that proves her downfall. She goes above and beyond her duties as hired-bride trying to help her green-card husband (Jérémie Renier, a scrawny, veiny, itchy, shaky junkie on the withdraw) from reverting to his addiction; she even bloodies herself in a tricky attempt to save his life. Failing, she becomes complicit in murder.

The Dardennes, eschewing explosive or exploitative melodramatics, omit any bloodletting from the screen, leaving visible only the stress and pain of the everyday hustle. But stress and guilt press down on Lorna, ultimately driving her understatedly mad. It’s an unsettling picture of capitalistic impulses gone crazy, of a culture wherein, for a sackful of Euros, marriage is auctionable, life expendable, babies abortable. (The Bros. Dardennes’ last film, L’Enfant, covered similar territory: it focused on the black-market sale of a newborn.) Is this the cost of Westernization? What’s the solution? The film’s finale suggests that we go back to the starting point and try again: it ends in the forest, a state of nature as far away as possible from the cultural corruption of capitalism and its guns. Grade: A-

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19 March 2010

Shutter Island

Directed by Martin Scorsese
Written by Laeta Kalogridis
Full credits at IMDb

Over the last decade, since the wildly undervalued Bringing Out the Dead, Martin Scorsese has consistently disappointed, his features (Shine a Light excepted) feeling less like the work of the man himself than an imitator—and a poor one at that. He became the Old Master pushing factory line prestige, baiting the Academy for the Oscar long deserved and denied. Now that it finally gave him one, he can get back to having fun—to making good movies, if not substantive ones. Shutter Island doesn’t have the sort of pretensions-to-Best-Picture that accompanied Gangs of New York through The Departed: it’s upfront kitsch and old-fashioned fun, combining a lifelong love of classic cinema with an unabashed B-movie élan, trophies be damned. (Which might explain why the movie’s release date got pushed from awards season ’09 to this year’s dumping grounds.)

On the ferry to the titular isle, which houses an asylum and juts out of the harbor like King Kong’s hideaway, Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo stand against a conspicuously rear-projected gray sky, conversing in mismatched edits. Scorsese’s long-time editor Thelma Schoonmaker has famously said, perhaps apocryphally, that “matching is for pussies,” but the purposefully sloppy shots not only pay tribute to a grindier past but create a sense of unease, helped along by the martial score and the fog on loan from Hammer Studios. For the first hour anyway, you’re not supposed to be taking this creepy cheese too seriously; when a ship captain warns that “a storm’s comin’,” and DiCaprio notes that, “what I’m doin’, it’s not exactly by the book,” how could you be expected to? Especially with all the Rain! Thunderrr! And Striiiiings! that accompany images of a forbidden ward, ominous caves, and an off-limits lighthouse. I wonder if each will be visited in due time?

Set in Bah-stin hah-bah circa fifty-faw, Shutter Island casts DiCaprio, keeping his Departed accent, as a detective investigating a (literal) locked room mystery: a woman who drowned her children (the film uses fire and water like Hitchcock uses red and green in Vertigo) has escaped from her cell, without her shoes or a trace. Ruffalo is his partner; Ben Kingsley, in The Christopher Lee Role, plays the pipe-fondling doke-tuh that runs the facility; and Max von Sydow—whose appearance should clue audience members into the Hour of the Wolf allusions to follow—is Kingsley’s Karloff-like sidekick, a fellow doctor and the requisite Kraut, cheerily chewing-up his dialogue. Speaking of Germans and conspicuous camp, how about some flashbacks to the liberation of the concentration camps?

Wait, what? Ah, yes, the monstrosities of Dachau will come to microcosmically reflect DiCaprio’s own post-war past, also marked by unfathomable savagery but on a non-systemic scale. Knowing something we don’t, Leo seems from the first frame to be taking the material a lot more serious than any other actor or crew member, but the movie eventually catches up with him—Scorsese’s talent is evident in the way he slips comfortably between tones—starting with glimpses of a Nazi with his cheek blown off bleeding to death on a floor, his ice-crusted victims stacked outside in the snow. Are Nazi-style experiments now occurring on American soil? Is the O.S.S. involved? H.U.A.C.?

Red herrings galore emerge as Shutter Island moves into more hallucinatory territory that’s also increasingly gruesome, not only in its remembered historical atrocities but in its blood-soaked nightmares; the movie evokes Bruce Wayne battling the Scarecrow, as frames swimming in fluttering objects—ashes, paper, snowflakes, raindrops—suggest the fog not only of memory but of consciousness itself. The film even makes a sojourn into the aesthetic realm of torture porn, with stone tunnels that open into vast hangars (that forbidden ward!), soaked in leaky rainwater and illuminated by single bare light bulbs whose filaments have a habit of exploding. Shutter Island straddles the divide between horror movies old and new, serving as an after-the-fact through-line.

It fails, though, to become a great horror movie because it lacks any convincing subtext, even a tenuous one. It poses its Big Moral Question near the end: is it better to live as a monster, or die a good man? This, of course, is one of those pseudo-moral questions that novelists and screenwriters like to invent, and Scorsese thankfully doesn’t spend a lot time pretending to examine it. He’s too busy reveling in the schlock, and untangling the complexities of the script (based on Dennis Lehane’s novel). The convoluted conspiracies that DiCaprio uncovers obscure the movie’s larger points, suggesting that maybe it doesn’t really have any. No serious ones, anyway, though the film does present a world so barbaric it’s psychotic, a world of H-bombs, Holocausts, and filicide, a world of competing violences and no surviving moral order. And in such a crazy world, who’s really crazy? Huh? It certainly wouldn’t seem to be the people safely tucked away on a remote island. Grade: B+

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Making Plans for Lena

Directed by: Christophe Honoré
Written by: Geneviève Brisac & Christophe Honoré

Dysfunctional-family dramas have become as French as tarte aux pommes, from Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale and Michel Gondry’s The Thorn in the Heart to Christophe Honoré’s latest, Making Plans for Lena (Non Ma Fille, Tu N'iras pas Danser)...After filming three movies in his homeland’s capital, what he’s taken to calling his “Paris Trilogy” [this, this, and this] Honoré escapes the city for the countryside; shooting with a pale palette, under gray skies and palpably, perpetually damp air, Honoré fashions his Margot at the Wedding, though unlike Noah Baumbach he finds quiet flashes of grace amid the harried realism of strained family relations.

Keep reading at The L Magazine

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Directed by: Marco Bellocchio
Written by: Marco Bellocchio & Daniela Ceselli
Full credits at IMDb

Humanizing portraits of WWII's larger-than-life villains appear on-screen regularly these days, but rarely so sexily: when was the last time the movies treated us to a glimpse of Hitler or Hirohito's member, as Vincere exposes Il Duce's dangler? A fiery melodrama that devolves into an overlong biopic, the high-pitched, epically soundtracked film posits Mussolini (a brooding and excitable Filippo Timi) not as a bad man of history so much as a bad man, period; it's less concerned with his crimes against humanity than against one human, his devoted secret-wife Ida Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno), who gave the pre-dictator her body and bank account, then bore him a baby, just so he could deny her, have her arrested, beaten, stripped of her son and spirited to a series of asylums, where she died. The title means "To Win."

Keep reading at The L Magazine

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City Island

Written & Directed by: Raymond De Felitta
Full credits at IMDb

There's a lot in City Island to roll your eyes about, so much that it's a cinema miracle the movie should be so ultimately likable. For starters, it's packed with crazy plot contrivances and supporting characters straight out of creative writing class assignments—people to talk to, full of wisdom, to serve as catalysts to revelation. Writer-director De Felitta conspicuously admires Woody Allen, even borrowing (crassly) Manhattan's 59th St. Bridge moneyshot. But it's his stated appreciation for James L. Brooks that shows through: the movie's facility, and silly musical cues, come more from classic television than Hannah and Her Sisters. And yet, the movie sports a low-rent loveliness. City Island is this generation's Moonstruck, minus all the Academy Awards I'm sure, with its Italian-American ethnic caricatures and, most of all, its expert comic performances, which successfully walk that fine line between exaggerated and over-the-top. 

Keep reading at The L Magazine

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17 March 2010

The Thorn in the Heart

Written & Directed by: Michel Gondry
Full credits at IMDb

Michel Gondry’s last few films have concerned communities engaged in creation, from Block Party’s Bed Stuy hip-hop hootenanny to Be Kind Rewind’s inner-city indie cinema. In his latest, the non-fiction The Thorn in the Heart (L’Épine dans le Coeur), playing as part of the Rendezvous with French Cinema series, he finds yet another to document. But this time, the community’s creation is the community itself: it’s his family. And, they’re making a movie together.

Gondry’s doc centers on his aunt, Suzette, a septuagenarian in good health and spirits, and follows as she and others revisit the events (figuratively) and locales (literally) from her life, like the countryside écoles where she once taught, many now reduced to rubble. (Those serve as visual demonstrations of the passage of time and the fragility of the material—that is, they’re poignant.) Her life includes minor intersections with French history—Algerian immigrants!—and Gondry tells her story with characteristic whimsy: shots of HO-scale trains to suggest geographic movement; tongue-in-cheek recreations of minor comedic moments that the camera missed; playful experiments with children and special effects; and precious soundtracking.

Keep reading at The L Magazine.

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10 March 2010

Children of Invention

Written & Directed by: Tze Chun
Full credits at IMDb

Suffering little kids, especially those who lose one or both parents and must depend on the strong, interdependent bond they've developed with each other, are an offensively manipulative narrative device—almost as bad as a murdered dog. So, any movie that centers on such characters has to work extra hard to avoid collapsing into cheap sentimentality. And Children of Invention, the feature debut of writer-director Chun, doesn't work hard enough. Cindy Cheung stars as Elaine Cheng, a single mom hustling in double time in the suburbs outside of Boston to provide for her two children (Michael Chen, moody, and Crystal Chiu, adorable) in the midst of the current economic crisis. She loses the house, and the family is reduced to squatting in a demonstration apartment unit (not unlike Arrested Development's model house); she works a million jobs, from morning to night, while looking for more. Then she disappears, and her kids are left to fend for themselves.

Keep reading at The L Magazine

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05 March 2010

The Secret of Kells

Directed by: Tomm Moore, with Nora Twomey
Written by: Fabrice Ziolkowski
Full credits at IMDb

As American animation moves deeper into the realm of computer generated images that require special glasses, the Irish indie The Secret of Kells goes back to basics. Way back: not only is it mostly hand drawn, but it's also as perspectiveless as the medieval manuscripts that inspire its aesthetic (which is also filtered through crude cartooning, Japanime, and artsy—PBS, maybe?—Saturday morning styles, drawing a unifying line from antiquity to modernity.) Set in a dark ages hamlet, the film begins by reveling in a juvenile sense of humor that should get the bairns slappin' their knees: pratfalls, fat men falling in mud, a pig in lipstick and a goose on the loose. But it soon moves into darker and deeper territories, as the film grapples with epistemology, the inspirational and transformational powers of art, and the tension between strength, security and a culture's ideals.

Keep reading at The L Magazine

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