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.

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