Sunday, January 31, 2010

Montreal Film Diary or: The Fantastic Mr. Firth

Broken Embraces (2009). Unlike Rainer Werner Fassbinder, that other European disciple of Douglas Sirk, what seems to interest Pedro Almodóvar about Sirk's late period technicolor melodramas are their soap opera story lines and flamboyant mise en scène, which he's detached from any social commentary with surgical precision. At best, in all his films since Live Flesh (1997), he displays a generosity towards his characters that might pass for humanism; not having seen Almodóvar's earlier pictures I can't comment on them, but his most interesting recent film is undoubtedly Talk to Her (2002), which challenges viewers to empathize with a rapist. Even here, where the story has a clear-cut villain, he's actually a rather nice fellow to begin with, but is twisted by jealousy. Still, despite Almodóvar's obvious mastery as a storyteller and a stylist, the film is limited by its lack of a connection to any social reality, and he's done this sort of thing before in films like Bad Education (2004), his previous neo-noir meta-narrative which itself struck me as overly cautious and apolitical. It's flashy and fun, but it left me wanting more.

Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009). Now see if you can wrap your head around this: Wes Anderson's new film--despite being his first literary adaptation and his first animated movie--is, like the Almodóvar, very similar to Anderson's previous films in both style and story, and it doesn't represent any social reality either, but almost from the moment it began and until it was over, I stared at the screen with an unceasing sense of wonder and delight. I also laughed a great deal. First of all, I was just blown away by how detailed Anderson's mise en scène is. There's too much happening on screen to notice everything that's there, especially in those endless lateral tracking shots which have become Anderson's signature, but that's clearly by design; this is a film that's meant to be seen more than once. And the story is delightful. Anderson and his co-writer, Noah Baumbach, not only expand greatly on Roald Dahl's original story in terms of character and incident, but without exactly betraying the source, do this in a way that makes the material thoroughly Andersonesque. In Dahl's story, Mr. Fox (George Clooney) had no choice but to steal chickens or else starve to death; but as the film opens, he renounces a life of danger at the behest of his wife, Felicity (Meryl Streep, in the Angelica Huston role), and gets a steady job as a newspaper columnist ("Fox About Town"). However, like Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) and Steve Zissou (Bill Murray), the "quote-unquote fantastic" Mr. Fox is a rogue patriarch whose reckless behavior betrays an ambivalence towards the constraints of family life. (As in the original story, his nighttime raids on the nearby farms endanger his family by bringing down upon them the wrath of the three farmers.) Yet, rather than feeling like a retread of Anderson's earlier movies, by making the protagonist's animalism literal and adapting his style to animation, he defamiliarizes his usual style, which is exactly what Almodóvar failed to do.

A Single Man (2009). I didn't use to be a fan of Colin Firth, who in films like Girl With a Pearl Earring and Love, Actually (both 2003) struck me as rather mopey. So part of what's surprising about his performance in this film is that he manages to be at once mopey and debonaire, like a depressed Cary Grant. His character, George, is a gay English professor living in Los Angeles in the early 1960's who's only slightly better dressed than a character in an Antonioni film. And for lack of a better word, Firth's performance is very British in its restraint; he's playing some one who's holding a lot back, choosing his words with great caution so as not to give himself away (as one of George's students observes, he doesn't say everything he knows), and feigning detachment so that it's only when you look into his eyes that you see that his heart is breaking. It's a great performance.

This is the first feature by fashion designer Tom Ford, whose main influence appears to be the early work of Martin Scorsese. One scene in particular, shot in slow motion, in which a neighbor's son pretends to shoot George with a toy gun as the latter drives to work, and George, holding his index finger like a pistol, pretends to fire back, is an obvious nod to Taxi Driver (1976). But apart from this self conscious homage, Scorsese's influence is felt less in specific references than in the way that Ford, through his style, strives to put the viewer inside of George's head. Instead of "invisibly" recording the performances, Ford's camera techniques suggest a way of looking at something. The huge close-ups of eyes and mouths imply a close, scrutinizing gaze. And whenever George feels a connection to another person (or gets a boner while looking at some college boys playing tennis), the colours suddenly become more saturated. It's a remarkable debut.

Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire (2009). The first thing one notices about Lee Daniels' film is its extraordinary verisimilitude. Apart from the heroine's relatively glamourous, light-skinned teacher (Paula Patton), all the characters look and speak like "real people"--that is, not movie stars. The film makes this contrast explicit in the fantasy sequences where the title character (Gabourey Sidibe), an overweight African-American teenager living in Harlem circa 1987, imagines herself as a fashion model. The scenes, brightly lit and edited like a music video, stand in stark contrast with the scenes representing reality, which take place entirely in drab, colourless settings. The performance by Mo'Nique as Precious' verbally and physically abusive mother is remarkable for its unvarnished naturalism, and the actors playing Precious' skanky classmates (almost a trashy Greek chorus) are so dead-on that there were moments when I started to forget that I was looking at a movie. All this inevitably begs the question of how realistic this story actually is as a representation of African-American life, but whatever you decide, you have to concede this: It's not boring.

This is only Daniels' second film as a director after Shadowboxer (2005), which I haven't seen, but looking back on the films he produced prior to his directorial debut, it's clear that he was an auteur even then. Like Precious, Monster's Ball (2001) and The Woodsman (2004) are both heavy, performance-driven films about extreme human behavior (Daniels doesn't do anything in half-measures), and child abuse is a theme in all three. Indeed, the scenes of Halle Berry's character berating her overweight son in Monster's Ball so closely prefigure Precious' relationship with her mother that you gotta wonder: What's this guy got against black single mothers? As the film opens, Precious is pregnant with her second child after being repeatedly raped by her father, but Daniels seems to view this primarily as an instance of bad mothering. Precious' father is absent completely except when he turns up to molest her, and in the fantasy sequence where we see Precious being abused, her mother is shown standing in the doorway to the bedroom, letting it happen. She even blames Precious for the abuse, insisting that the latter intentionally stole her man. And in the film's climatic sequence, where we learn how the incest began, the film again puts the majority of the blame on the mother for not preventing it from happening--as if the father couldn't control himself, and therefore isn't responsible for his actions. Seriously, what's up with that?

Youth in Revolt (2009). The fourth feature and first studio film by indie director Miguel Arteta, who made Chuck and Buck (2000) and The Good Girl (2002), neither of which I've seen, is a dumb teen comedy that's a little too smart for its own good. The film's idea of a cool girlfriend for the pasty protagonist is one who likes Jean-Paul Belmondo and Serge Gainsbourg, and knows that Tokyo Story (1953) was directed by Yasujiro Ozu, not Kenji Mizoguchi. If you know that films like Tokyo Story exist, you're probably too intelligent to be making a movie about a dorky teenager trying to lose his virginity. At the very least, you should be trying to make a smart teen comedy, like Allan Moyle's Pump Up the Volume (1990) or Terry Zwigoff's Ghost World (2001).

Insofar as the protagonist invents a badass alter-ego for himself, the story could be said to resemble that of Bernardo Bertolucci's Partner (1968), which was made at a time when the young actually were in revolt. But this film, in addition to lacking any stylistic interest whatsoever, is conspicuously apolitical as well. The only characters with any political convictions at all, liberal or conservative, are portrayed as entirely foolish: The love interest's strict parents (Mary Kay Place and M. Emmet Walsh, both squandered) are red state religious whackos, and the hero's neighbor (Fred Willard, who at least gets one funny scene) is a "bleeding heart" who harbors illegal immigrants in his basement. (Eventually, all three are unwittingly fed hallucinogenic mushrooms.) As an example of its genre, this is obviously superior to the likes of Superbad and Juno (both 2007), the two previous teen sex comedies starring Michael "Douche Bag" Cera. (Unlike the bland, white bread heroes of the former, in this film Cera's character actually gets into some real trouble, and unlike the latter, the film doesn't seem to care if we like him.) However, I kept wishing that it would edgier and angrier, like Gary Burns' memorable Kitchen Party (1997). Maybe with less money and fewer guest stars (Steve Buscemi and Ray Liotta are both wasted), Arteta would've been freer to make a more intelligent movie.

Avatar (2009). In 1961, John Cassavetes wrote that, "Audiences go to the cinema to see people: they only empathize with people, and not with technical virtuosity." James Cameron seems to believe something closer to the reverse to the point that technology is the explicit subject of all his films. (After all, like the Terminator, the Titanic, and the hero's avatar body in this film, what are Cameron's movies if not expensive pieces of technology?) And with the possible exception of David Cronenberg, no other filmmaker is as obsessed with prosthetics. When I was thirteen and thought that Aliens (1986) was the greatest film ever made (but wouldn't even consider going to see Titanic [1997]--that's girls' stuff), my favorite part was the metal suit that Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) wears during the climatic fight sequence. In Avatar, which brings back both Weaver and the metal suits, the generic protagonist (some white guy; I don't know his name) is a paraplegic who has his brain hooked up to an alien body, allowing him to walk around and have some less than freaky forest sex with a blue Pocahontas (some chick whose face we never see). However, despite the film's environmental message (backed up with lots of new age hooey about a mystical force that connects all living things), this lacks the ambivalence about technology expressed in Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991), a pre-millennial doomsday fest about machines rising up against humanity in which the butch heroine (Linda Hamilton) and her ambiguously gay son (Edward Furlong) nevertheless have to rely on an ass-kicking Austrian android (Arnold Schwarzenegger) for their survival. (Not having seen the 1984 original, I can't say whether or not that ambivalence was there already.)

The film has caught some flack for its unoriginal story and weak dialogue (upon being shot, Weaver quips, "This is gonna ruin my whole day"), but as Youth in Revolt demonstrates, you don't want a dumb commercial movie to get too smart. (That doesn't, however, rule out the existence of smart commercial movies, like Fantastic Mr. Fox.) If nothing else, I don't think Cameron, who has the clout to make any movie he has a mind to, is cynically dumbing down his material; I think this is the story he wanted to tell. Meanwhile, no one seems to have noticed how racist the film is in its portrayal of the alien race (who are obviously based on the Native Americans) as noble savages. That said, neither of those things has any real bearing on what I liked about the movie--specifically, the colours and textures of the aliens' skin, which looks really cool in IMAX and 3D. If I was thirteen, I'd probably think it was the greatest movie ever, but for better or for worse, I'm not thirteen and it's just pretty good.

Crazy Heart (2009). Scott Cooper's first film (which I keep wanting to call "Crazy Horse" for some reason) starts out like a Wim Wenders movie with its hero, a washed-up country 'n' western singer, Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges, looking not unlike Kris Kristofferson), traveling in his SUV to different gigs across the southwestern United States. But Cooper is far more tunnel-visioned than Wenders, who in his recent films, like Don't Come Knocking (2005), is more than willing to go off on a tangent. In that film, Sam Shepard's aging cowboy actor wasn't the whole show, but shared the screen with a large and colourful supporting cast. Crazy Heart, on the other hand, is essentially a vehicle for Bridges to win an Oscar, and as such, is monomaniacal in its focus on his character (I don't think there's a single scene in which he doesn't appear), so even actors as talented as Robert Duvall, Colin Farrell, and Maggie Gyllenhaal fail to make much of an impression. Also, this is much more tightly plotted than a Wenders film. Once redemption rears its head in the form of a good woman (Gyllenhaal), which is fairly early on, nothing happens that doesn't in some way lay the groundwork for a late-film crisis that predictably motivates Blake to turn his life around (i.e., quit drinking and write some new songs). Even worse, Cooper has none of Wenders talent for composing sounds and images; he seems perfectly content to merely "cover" a sequence and move on. It's not a terrible film, but there isn't any compelling reason to see it; Don't Come Knocking is a bit of a mess, and it's certainly not one of the great Wenders films, like Alice in the Cities (1974), The State of Things (1982), Paris, Texas (1984), and Wings of Desire (1987), but there are good things in it that I remember.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Heather's Half-Hearted List of the Decade

Alright, it's Heather: the generally invisible partner in this blog. Weakened under massive bullying from Michael, the actual blogging fellow, I have decided to throw in my own two cents regarding The Greatest Films of the Past Decade. Now, disclaimers are boring, and give perhaps an unpleasant flavour to what is to follow them, but I feel I need to say that I have not seen enough films to make some sort of definitive statement on the topic. The following is simply a list of films that I would be able to say I love. And it's really only two cents worth:

10. Oh yeh, I put them in order.. Starting off light (love-wise), since I really only could think of eight films off of the top of my head, I decided to throw in Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts. I haven't seen Shine, or anything else by Scott Hicks, but this was pretty good. Best film I've seen recently, maybe since I haven't really been watching a lot. One thing I liked about this film was how false and staged it was, despite its At Home feel. Not being sarcastic; I liked that. In the age of 'reality' tv, this is something worth looking at, for me. Images like Philip's current wife vacuuming up broken glass seemed like hopelessly corny (and empty?) metaphors or puns or something. But maybe they were just honest coincidences. The things I remember most from the film are a shot of Chuck Close in his wheelchair in a doorway, with a walk light carefully visible in the highly composed but "hand held documentary rugged messy" shot, and also how jealous I was of Philip Glass and his success and his Qi Kong. Something personal which I need to work on.

9. Sorry that the documentaries got shunted to the end of the pile, but next: When the Levees Broke (Spike Lee). I can't put this any higher on the list, because it isn't really the filmmaking that's so moving, but of course the content. I guess there's an argument lying inside that statement as to what filmmaking really is, and I seem to be making the assumption that form is what's important. Which is the opposite of what I often claim. Hmm. Nevertheless, this film is an endlessly important and heart-rending documentation of Hurricane Katrina, and therefore its human and political impacts. This is the power of "George Bush doesn't care about black people" presented in a respectful, articulate filmic format. It broke my heart so many times.

8. In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-Wai) Yes, Michael, when I couldn't make ten, I started pilfering your list. Such a beautiful and elegant film, though. Form at its finest. The dresses, of course, the mise en scène on the whole, the music, the pace, the sweetness, the performances. Really lovely. Yep.

7. Inland Empire (David Lynch) I've written about this film before, on this very blog. It f---ed me up. In that good way. I had such a visceral reaction: my body was stiff from intense tension for hours later. David Lynch is the King of making people uncomfortable. And usually I whine about things like that - screwdrivers in guts, lengthy descriptions of holes in reproductive organs, etc. I am anything but a fan of gore. But here it is used to such effect that I almost embrace it. I'm such a wimp that I still haven't psyched myself up for a second go, knowing this time around what I'm in store for. But from a filmmaker who is soooo male voyeur, this film really surprised me with its thoughtful representation of women and their ... struggles? in society. And on such a broad spectrum. It's like he finally stepped back and hit himself with a feminist reading of his entire previous body of work (which I do like, but come on ... misogyny abounds). It disturbed me how deeply I connected to such a dark, dirty film. But the presence it made in my life makes it a very important work for me personally. (I'm not a maniac.)

6. Brand Upon the Brain! (Guy Maddin) I think I saw this roughly around the same time as Inland Empire, and so now I'm not sure if I am relating the two solely because of that connection, but they definitely both deal with sexuality and gender in disturbing, great ways. Maddin's film is a lot more fun, and funny, yet still quite dark. The style is elegant to no end, the humour is smart and just plain funny, and I like this movie! (I told you Michael's analyses were gonna be better...)

5. Uzak {Distant} (Nuri Bilge Ceylan) This movie gets a vehement Frig Yeh from me. I have never seen another film that made me agree with every second of its pacing. It's a wonderful representation of family and awkward connections. Somehow, Ceylan manages to make a masterwork out of every single shot, even though it takes place mainly in the same apartment. Although I loved the plainness of the script and its dawdling pace, watching Ceylan's other films (none of which I liked) (haven't seen them all - I know Michael will correct me there if I don't) does make me question whether the simplicity of this film was effective because it was excellent, or because it's all he can do. I guess either way it's effective, and I can say I loved it wholeheartedly. [A Turkish girl I met complained that this film makes Istanbul look depressing and dirty, but I couldn't agree less. The shots that are outside of the apartment and in the city (or dans le paysage) are just overwhelmingly beautiful.]

4. The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson) For years, when someone asked me to name my favourite film, this was the first thing to pop out of my mouth, and I won't turn my back on it now. Of course Wes Anderson equals production design, and this film is just gorgeous to see. I love the scene where Gene Hackman drags Luke Wilson into the closet that's full of vintage board games. Beautiful! I have seen it so many times I can perhaps never watch it again. I more likely will. 'Why do I connect with it so strongly?' I have asked myself. Two answers: Dysfunctional Family and Nostalgia. Both run rampant in this film, and in my own life. I think those are two themes that are just about universally interesting in our times. Maybe not. Also, it's hilarious. (Remember when Gene Hackman tries to reach out his hand to Ben Stiller who slaps it childishly away as he walks by?) All-star performances. This movie will be a classic, at least for me.

3. I'm Not There (Todd Haynes) I don't think I've seen another film by this fellow, but, man, it was great. I was mesmerized during the first two viewings. It's just so friggin engaging. You're with him (Haynes) every step of the way. It's beautiful, and thought-provoking, with spot-on performances and excellent music (of course), poetic, etc = basically all the things that great films should be. It's entertaining and interesting for a single viewing, and can't be easily exhausted on subsequent turns. Great stuff.

2. Bamboozled (Spike Lee) I don't know that Spike can ever top this one, but if he can, I am at the front of the line. This film serves as an entry point to a much needed dialogue on race in cinematic history, and how that relates to our society on the whole. These are topics I have always been drawn to, so this film certainly caught my attention. I think its success, and the success of Lee in general, lies in the fact that he explores ideas rather than presenting them. He does not tell us what we are supposed to think, but rather sets up a space where we can do that for ourselves. (Lee himself complains that artists are too often expected to have answers. He jokes that a general criticism of Do the Right Thing was that he did not produce within it an answer to racism.) I think this is his best example of that thoughtfulness, although, of course, Do the Right Thing rocks. But Do the Right Thing has more emotional strength (I think) whereas Bamboozled does a friggin excellent job of combining those emotions (which can never be discounted, or separated) with sobre discussion. I prefer that sort of bridging of intellect and emotion. I can't overstate how much I love this movie. I may just watch it tonight.

1. Number One! I've also only had the opportunity to see this one once, but Les Amants Réguliers took my breath away. (I like it so much I don't even care how cheesy that sounds!) It's my first entry into the world of Philippe Garrel, and I'm anxious for more. Anxious! In my journal, after watching this film, I (disconnectedly) started thinking about what things are important to remember. Maybe my mind went in that direction because of the way that Garrel deals with history, and connects historical periods in such a personal way. Re-enactments of the French Revolution sitting beside the events of May '68 don't feel heavy-handed in this film, but very simple and fitting. Garrel doesn't glorify anyone or anything, he observes and then he passes it on. I might say this is the best film I've ever seen, but before I do, I need to see it again. Another good point about this film: who doesn't love love? Look at that image: this relationship is as awesome and difficult as any I've ever experienced.