Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Kickin' it Old School

If there's a common theme linking the six films I watched on my last two trips to Montreal, it's that they're all resolutely old-fashioned. The best film that I saw, Noah Baumbach's Greenberg (2010), self-consciously positions itself as a throwback to the American auteur cinema of the 1970s, particularly at its most writerly. Our first tipoff is the retro font used in the opening credits, and there are moments when the film, shot by Harris Savides, looks almost like a '70s movie: the repeated close-ups of the heroine (Greta Gerwig) in profile while driving; a high angle shot slowly zooming in on the hero (Ben Stiller), alone in a crowd. Baumbach's previous film, Margot at the Wedding (2007), was virtually a remake of Woody Allen's Bergmanesque bitch-fest Interiors (1978), and this film contains echoes of Annie Hall (1977)--the protagonist is a New Yorker adrift in Los Angeles; the heroine an aspiring singer--although its tone is far less comedic. This is a quiet, sad, sometimes funny film about three very unhappy people, and I loved every minute of it.

Part of what makes this movie old-fashioned is that it's a character study rather than a genre film. The story is about a forty-one year old carpenter, Roger Greenberg (Stiller), and his relationships with three other people and a dog. Florence (Gerwig) is Greenberg's brother's personal assistant, whose job is to run various errands such as picking up dry-cleaning and walking the dog. When his brother's family goes on vacation to Vietnam, Greenberg arrives in Los Angeles to take care of the house and the dog. And since Greenberg can't drive, Florence has to take care of him. (Having just been released from a mental hospital where he was treated for a nervous breakdown, he's like a big baby.) One night, Greenberg calls Florence to see if she wants to go out for a drink with him, and they wind up going back to her apartment. There, Greenberg starts eating her pussy, but Florence stops him, saying that she wants more than just sex. However, Greenberg (who says that he's trying to do nothing for a while) isn't sure if he wants the responsibility of a serious relationship.

The film isn't so much about whether Greenberg gets the girl as whether he chooses to continue living in the moment or starts acting his age and accepts some responsibility. (If you haven't seen the film, you should skip the next four paragraphs.) Late in the film, when Florence learns that she's pregnant by her previous boyfriend and decides to have an abortion, Greenberg offers to take her. ("How's that going to work? Am I going to take you to take me?") After the operation, Florence decides to spend the night in the hospital, and Greenberg goes home to find Sara (Brie Larson), his sister-in-law's twenty year old daughter from a previous marriage. Sara is flying to Australia the next morning and invites Greenberg to come along. In so many words, Greenberg can act like a twenty year old and go to Australia, or be a man and pick up Florence from the hospital.

The other important characters are two people from Greenberg's past. Beth (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a former girlfriend who's now going through a divorce, is introduced as a more age-appropriate rival to Florence, who's fifteen years younger than Greenberg. Early in the film, he runs into Beth at a party and says that he'd like to call her. He makes a first attempt a few nights later, but when Beth picks up the phone, he immediately hangs up. Then he picks up the poster Florence gave him on his first visit to her apartment, advertising a gig she's playing in a bar downtown. On his birthday, Greenberg asks Florence to meet him at a restaurant, but as soon as she arrives, he excuses himself to call Beth to ask her out on a date. Later, when Florence asks Greenberg if he could love her, he freaks out, saying at one point that he should be with a thirty-eight year old divorcée like Beth. However, when he finally has his date with her, Beth makes it plain that she has no intention of getting back together with him.

The Florence-Beth connection is reenforced through a motif. At the party where Greenberg first sees Beth, she points out her young son who's dressed as the devil (or maybe The Flash). Later, during Greenberg's first visit to Florence's apartment, she shows him the puppets she intends to give her four year old niece as a birthday present, one of which is a devil character. On his second visit there, Florence gives one (a blue witch) to Greenberg as a birthday present, since they're too old for her niece. Although Greenberg initially agrees to go to Australia with Sara, he changes his mind when the sight of a giant, red hot-air man at a used car lot reminds him that he has to pick up Florence. In the final sequence, after taking Florence home in a cab, she gives Greenberg the second puppet as a gift.

The other major subplot involves Greenberg's relationship with his friend Ivan (Rhys Ifans). The first time he sees Greenberg, Ivan tells him that he's having a trial separation from his wife, whom Greenberg detests, and that he'd like for Greenberg to get to know his eight year old son (an idea the latter seems apathetic to). We subsequently learn that they were in a band together fifteen years before, but the group broke up when Greenberg blew their chance at signing a record contract. It was the demise of the band--and by extension, the life that Ivan dreamed of living--which forced him to grow up and accept responsibilities, quitting drugs and getting a job fixing computers. (Significantly, he met his wife in rehab.) This was by no means an easy process, and Ivan still nurses a grudge against Greenberg for the breakup of the band. When Sara throws a party for her friends, Greenberg calls Ivan to invite him over only to discover that he's gone back to his wife. When Ivan does make an appearance, it's to end his friendship with Greenberg (who's wired on coke and Duran Duran, as if regressing to his twenty-five year old self) over the fact that he tried to hide it from Ivan that he'd been in a mental hospital. The last thing Ivan says to Greenberg is that it would've been nice if he had made an effort to get to know his son.

This is the kind of movie that really depends on the quality of the dialogue and the performances. Stiller played an angry character before in Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), and his performance here is like an extension of that one, but this time more fleshed out and finely shaded. And Gerwig, who has eyes like Sean Young from Blade Runner (1982), brings to the role an appealing vulnerability and sweetness. In the scene where Florence asks Greenberg if he could love her, her plea is so direct that it caught me off guard with its emotional impact. Similarly, when she invites him to stay the night on his second visit to her apartment ("The dog's at the vet. Hint hint"), there's something about her delivery that's sad rather than sexy. They make an interesting couple: Where Greenberg uses hostility as a defense ("Hurt people hurt people" is a key line), Florence seems to have no defenses whatsoever. It's only April, but I doubt I'll see a lovelier new movie this year.

Lovely is not a word I'd use to describe Felix van Groenineg's coming of age tale The Misfortunates (aka The Shittiness of Things, 2009), but it deals with some of the same themes as Greenberg. As the film opens, Gunther Stobbe (played as an adult by Valentin Dhaenens) is an unpublished author whose girlfriend is pregnant with a child he adamantly doesn't want. When she goes into labor, he says in voice-over that if the baby were black or stillborn, he'd find it hard to conceal his delight. Like Greenberg, Gunther's reluctant to accept responsibility for another person.

Told mainly in flashback, the story plays like a Flemish white trash version of Precious (2009) with a similar whiplash tone, alternating between crude, raucous humor and violent domestic squabbles. In 1988, Gunther was a mulleted teenager (Kenneth Vanbaeden) who seemed destined to follow in the footsteps of his father (Koen de Graeve) and three uncles, who are all trapped in a cycle of abject drunkenness and unwanted pregnancies, and live at home with the boy's grandmother. Gunther has a passion for writing that could save him, but when he says that he wants to go to a boarding school, his father (who sees this as a betrayal) beats him viciously. Unlike the mother in Precious, he's nothing if not a loving father, however unfit he may be as a parent.

I realize this summary doesn't sound like a high-spirited comedy, but the surprising thing about the film is how much humor and joie de vivre it finds in this bleak material. When the family's TV is repossessed and they want to watch a Roy Orbison concert, the Stobbe men decide it's time they met their neighbors, a young Persian couple. The Stobbes believe that Orbison's sudden resurgence in popularity is a sign that their own fortunes are about to change as well. (As Orbison goes, so goes the nation.) It doesn't exactly work out that way, but there are small victories along the way, as when one of Gunther's uncles wins a drinking contest and then crashes his car into the getaway vehicle of some criminals on the run, making him a hero twice over. Appealingly crass and often hilarious, the film more than lives up to its shitty title--and I mean that as the highest possible compliment.

Roman Polanski's films are as much about mood and atmosphere as story. An old-fashioned Hollywood thriller (made entirely in Europe), The Ghost Writer (2010) moves between downtown London and small town New England, but wherever the characters go, dark, menacing clouds hang in the sky. The title character (Ewan McGregor) stays at an inn in Cape Cod with more vacancies than the Bates Motel. And there's a running gag, very Polanski, where characters are constantly making ominous statements to him. When the protagonist says that it's his first time on a private jet, his interlocutor (Kim Catrall) replies optimistically, "Let's hope it's not your last." Between this film and Shutter Island (2010), another rainy Massachusetts thriller, the tourism board must be furious.

The story, based on a novel by Robert Harris (which I haven't read), is old school Polanski to the point of feeling almost like a remake of The Tenant (1976). That film was about a Polish émigré who takes a flat in Paris after the previous tenant attempts suicide. Gradually, the hero comes to suspect that the last tenant was the victim of a complot, and he could be next. As he identifies more and more with the girl who attempted suicide, he even starts dressing in her clothes. Here, the unnamed protagonist is hired to ghost write the memoirs of a former British prime minister (Pierce Brosnan) after the previous writer dies in an apparent suicide. (As in Chinatown [1974], the cause of death is drowning, and the Prime Minister even has an Asian gardener and maid.) When his motel is suddenly swamped with reporters, the ghost moves into the Prime Minister's house in Cape Cod. Sleeping in the same room as his predecessor, at one point wearing some of his clothes, the ghost comes to suspect that the previous writer was murdered, and that his own life could be in danger. I won't spoil the ending except to say that, unlike Shutter Island, this film has a genuinely satisfying (if almost equally far-fetched) conclusion, and the last shot is a real doozy.

Above all, this is a work of consummate craftsmanship. The storytelling is patient and clear, and I can't think of any director who's as skilled at paranoid suspense. There's a gripping, nearly wordless sequence in which the ghost thinks he's being followed by a black car that's as suspenseful as any movie sequence I've seen in years. And Polanski's compositions in 'Scope are elegant in their simplicity. I particularly admired the Bresson-like tracking shot following a handwritten note as it's passed from one person to another at a posh book signing, which Polanski holds for an unusually long time as a means of drawing out the suspense. From the opening sequence, I felt that I was in the hands of an authoritative old master.

Lixin Fan's Canadian documentary Last Train Home (2009) is an old school vérité job about China's 130 million migrant workers, who move from the countryside to the cities in search of low-paying, industrial jobs. But unlike The World (2004), Jia Zhang-ke's film about the same subject, which pointedly blurs the distinctions between fiction and documentary (and whose main documentary subject, a cheesy Beijing theme park, is patently fake), this is a more traditional non-fiction film, shot on grainy digital video, which presents its story with a minimum of overt commentary. The implication of this style is that the filmmakers are merely unobtrusive observers. The best moment in the whole film is when one of the subjects, in the middle of a domestic dispute, turns to the camera and says, "You want the real me? This is the real me!" Fan goes to great lengths to mystify his role in filming these people's lives, and then they go and bring it up themselves.

Still, this is a fascinating glimpse into modern China. The migrant workers only go home once a year to see their families at Chinese New Year, and the film contains astonishing images of crowds of literally thousands of people waiting for trains. Fan and his crew follow a single family over the course of a few years, leading up to the 2008 world financial crisis. As the film opens, both parents are working in a dimly lit sweatshop so that their children (who are being raised by a grandmother in the country) can have a better life. So it comes as a particular blow to them when their rebellious teenage daughter decides to drop out of school and takes a factory job in a city close to the one where her parents are living in a cramped single room. (The factory mass produces jeans for westerners, and at one point, an employee marvels that a person could have a forty-inch waist.) Contrary to the received wisdom in Hollywood, the world we live in is always the most interesting subject for works of art.

Though not the worst movie I saw in Montreal (that would be Joann Sfar's shapeless biopic Gainsbourg (vie héroïque) [2010]), Atom Egoyan's Chloe (2009) was certainly the most disappointing. A sexed-up, dumbed-down remake of Anne Fontaine's Nathalie... (2003), this begins well but eventually devolves into a simplistic stalker thriller. The main difference between this film and the original in terms of plot is that here the heroine (Julianne Moore, in the Fanny Ardant role) winds up boning the bug-eyed wench (Amanda Seyfried, who's no Emmanuelle Beart) she pays to do a sting operation on her husband (Liam Neeson, who looks less like Gérard Dépardieu than Odo from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, especially when he squints). While the film's second half isn't as much of a hoot as Clint Eastwood's Play Misty for Me (1971), the lesson of both films is the same: There's no such thing as an NSA booty call. However, to the credit of this film, Seyfried's character isn't crazy (like the Jessica Walter character in Eastwood's film) so much as really persistent; when Moore rebuffs her and Seyfried decides to seduce the former's hobbit-like teenage son, it's not an act of revenge but a form of substitution.

Though ostensibly set in Toronto, the film really takes place in an interior designer's wet dream of fancy bourgeois living spaces (complete with framed Ed Burtynsky prints on the wall), which miraculously manage to stay organized all by themselves, as Moore (a busy gynecologist) and Neeson (an even busier professor, who commutes by plane everyday) don't appear to have any servants. Although some of the exteriors capture the awful blandness of an architecturally unremarkable medium-sized city (such as a brief scene of Moore getting some cash from a Royal Bank ATM), the interiors feel only slightly more authentic than Barbie's dream house. And despite Egoyan's stated ambition that the film be a showcase for Toronto as itself (rather than a cheap stand-in for New York or Chicago), there are fewer black, Middle-Eastern, and Asian people in this movie than there are in the stadium during a Maple Leafs' game. At one point, Seyfried is standing in front of the newly renovated AGO (are we to conclude that her character, like Egoyan, is a Cinémathèque regular?), but there appears to be some kind of forcefield keeping her from entering Chinatown while not letting any Chinese people out.

The movie's saving grace is Moore, who gives an extraordinary performance, especially when Egoyan lingers on her reactions in close-up as she listens to Seyfried's reports. The latter, who played Meryl Streep's daughter in Mamma Mia! (2008), is adequate for the role, and it's a relief simply to see Neeson in a film that isn't Taken (2008).

So, is there anything really new, or is everything just a throwback to something else, whether it's classical Hollywood cinema (Chloe, The Ghost Writer, Greenberg), or to a simpler time when one could believe that film represented truth--whatever that is--twenty-four times a second (Last Train Home; the Dogme 95 aesthetic of The Misfortunates)? Obviously I don't mean something like Avatar (2009), which uses state of the art technology to tell the same damn story we've seen a thousand times before. Some of the most original films of the last decade were hybrid movies that blurred the usual boundaries between fiction and non-fiction, narrative and non-narrative, such as Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Mysterious Object at Noon (2000), José Luis Guerín's In the City of Sylvia (2007), and Steve McQueen's Hunger (2008). Cinema isn't dead, but it can feel that way when you're spending too much time at the multiplex.

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