Thursday, February 5, 2009

Cahiers du Cinema

By Luke


Cahiers du Cinema is the famous French film magazine that back in the 60's launched the careers of critics-turned-directors Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard. While it's reputation isn't quite as lofty today as it once was, I assume it's still an interesting place for film criticism (not that I can find English translations of their articles anywhere on the internets).

Anyway, Cahiers has made their top 10 of 2008:

1. Redacted (DePalma)
2. Colossal Youth (Costa)
3. Cloverfield (Reeves)
4. No Country for Old Men (Coens)
5. Two Lovers (Gray)
6. Waltz with Bashir (Folman)
7. Dernier Maquis (Ameur-Zaimeche)
8. Hunger (McQueen)
9. A Short Film about the Indio Nacional (Martin)
10. On War (Bonello)

It's an interesting departure from the usual top 10 lists we see, and it raises some interesting questions. First of all, "Redacted"? I haven't seen it, but that's because it got almost universally brutal reviews. To provide a little context, Cahiers favors specific directors like no other. "Mission to Mars" was their #4 of 2000, "Snake Eyes" was their #9 of 1998, "Mission Impossible" was their #7 of 1997, and "Carlito's Way" was their #1 of the 1990's! I wonder if even DePalma thinks those recent efforts were worth such high rankings. Somewhere, Armond White is smiling.

One of the major criticisms of "Redacted" in America was the bad acting, and I wonder if a French audience is less inclined to care about the performances in an English speaking movie. It's also interesting to see "Cloverfield" at #3, since from what I know of "Redacted," the two movies use similar "handheld" techniques, exploring the possibility that characters within the film are shooting the action. I doubt even "Cloverfield"'s biggest supporters in the US would make a case for it being a "greater" movie than "No Country for Old Men," but it's an interesting juxtaposition.

Candid photo of a French audience as they watch Brian DePalma take a dump.

The recently announced Oscar nominations have shown, at least to me, that the US hasn't quite figured out what the "best" movies of a given year are; they favor Hollywood-produced prestige dramas ("The Reader," "Frost/Nixon," "Benjamin Button") over more interesting, innovative movies. Why are we so quick to dismiss a movie like "Cloverfield"? I would have found that a much more satisfying Best Picture nominee. And are there other ways of seeing movies that Americans can't grasp, hence the love for "Redacted" and "Lady in the Water" (another recent Cahiers favorite). I want to live in a world where film criticism isn't in such lockstep, where top 10 lists aren't just the last 10 movies those critics saw in December. I don't know whether or not I'll like "Redacted," but I applaud Cahiers for finding a way into that movie and for being willing to put it at the top.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Secret of the Grain/Rachel Getting Married

By Luke


If you haven't heard of "The Secret of the Grain," you are part of 99% of America. Despite New York Times critic A.O. Scott calling it one of the best movies of the year and it winning the Cesar Award for Best Film (France's equivalent of the Oscars), it was only released in New York and Los Angeles (one theater in each city) and as far as I can tell will never get any further.

This is really a shame because "Grain" is a completely involving movie, full of intense human drama. Slimane is the elderly patriarch of a large Franco-Arabic family, torn between the wife and children (and grandchildren) he left after thirty-five years and the woman and her daughter he lives with now. To make matters worse, Slimane is being laid off from his job, a victim of modernization and, he suspects, some bias against his culture. However, all the characters have their own personal story lines, and "Grain" weaves in and out of lives young and old, male and female, never losing an acute eye for detail. Some of the conflicts are trivial (the 2 year-old won't stop using diapers), some are tragic (Slimane's ex-wife enables one of her sons to cheat on his Russian wife), but all of the characters share an awareness of their imperfections and a desire to improve their lives. "Grain" is not just a "French" movie or an "art" movie. It's not going to do "Dark Knight" or even "Milk" box office, but the way it's been buried is a travesty. All you have to do is have a pulse to relate to these characters and be drawn into their lives, and "Grain" never loses its firm grasp on the drama of the everyday.

Conversely, "Rachel Getting Married," which has been fairly popular in the US and netted Anne Hathaway a Best Actress Oscar nomination, struck me as fake and overdone. While Jonathan Demme's portrait of two families getting together for a wedding has some wonderful moments, they are overshadowed by screenwriter Jenny Lumet's need to push the Hollywood cliche of the proverbial "fuck-up" (played by Hathaway) in our faces. She has huge screaming matches with her family, then feels unwanted, makes hateful toasts at the dinner table (a classic movie device that was recently satirized in "A Christmas Tale"), then gets drunk and drives a car into a tree. In "Rachel"'s most contrived scene, a joyous full-family gathering in the kitchen suddenly goes south when Rachel's dad sees a plate drawn by his dead son. The whole movie feels manufactured to make us "feel" what family life is really like, but it's overloaded with so much melodrama (and one movie star acting like "one of us" with Oscar dreams firmly planted in her brain) that it feels removed from anything "true."

"Rachel"'s success concerns me because it's been treated as one of the great movies of the year, which is reflective of what passes for artful drama these days. People, spend some time with "The Secret of the Grain," bask in the wonderful, lifelike performances, and tell me why it can't make a blip in theaters.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

10 Best Movies of 2008

By Luke


My top ten list...with stupid quips intended to convey my main impression after each title.

1. A Christmas Tale
Too good to write about.

2. The Wrestler
The best American movie of the year. Premise is a man in suburban Jersey caught between two "families" and The Sopranos comparisons only start there.

3. Reprise A cinematic novel

4. Vicky Cristina Barcelona I don't get what people who say this is B-grade Woody see in some of his other movies that they can't find here. It's funny and fresh from beginning to end, with some very good performances.

5. Mister Lonely Lyrical is not a word I would use in real life, but it might be the best way to describe this movie. It's funny too.

6. Be Kind, RewindSort of a guilty pleasure, but Mos Def, Danny Glover, and Jack Black are all so charming and the movie has good vibes to spare.

7. Chop Shop A true "indie" movie that lives up to the "slice of life" label so many Sundance pretenders flaunt. There isn't a false note in the whole movie and it extracts some fascinating performances from local nonactors.

8. Milk

Gus Van Sant's opera.

[See Luke's review of Milk here.]

9. Flight of the Red Balloon The Indiewire critics poll is the best place to figure out what the "best movies of the year" were because of the number of high caliber critics it includes. I've lost the link to this year's list, but I know Flight of the Red Balloon was #1, which is reason enough to check it out.

10. Speed RacerClever, creative, exciting. A kids' movie I actually liked because it was too busy being insane to hit all the predictable kiddy story beats.

The next 10 (in order of appearance vis a vis the alphabet): Blindness, Burn After Reading, Che, Cloverfield, The Dark Knight, Encounters at the End of the World, The Fall, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Gran Torino, In Bruges, Step Brothers.

Some of the significant movies I didn't see and might have liked: Waltz with Bashir, The Class, Gomorrah, Silent Light, In the City of Sylvia, The Last Mistress.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Is This Reality?: "Wendy and Lucy"

By Luke


Wendy and Lucy is a "small" movie. It's small in size (80 minutes with credits) and it's small on story - there's just Wendy (a girl), Lucy (her dog), and a handful of other nameless characters who occasionally appear. Wendy is "passing through" rural Oregon and headed to Alaska, and the movie documents a rough couple of days along the way. But there is no backstory or explanation for the journey, the story is too "small" for that.

What we get instead is an apathetic heroine who doesn't seem desperate so much as indifferent. When a security guard pontificates that in society, "everything's fixed" against people, Wendy replies, "that's why I'm going to Alaska," and that is as close as we get to her intentions. She phones her sister's husband, tells him simply, "I'm in Oregon," (her roots are in Indiana), which he casually accepts. Her sister comes onto the phone, says shrilly, "We can't give you anything, we're strapped," when Wendy adds that her car has broken down, the sister replies skeptically, "What can we do?" This sounds more dramatic than it is, from the way they are speaking, they might as well be discussing the weather. A moment later, Wendy's sister has already become disinterested and gotten off the phone, and Wendy tells the husband, "It sounds like you're busy, I'll talk to you later," which he accepts and they hang up.

Movies "small" in budget tend to be big on "reality," using their relatively low-tech circumstances to their advantage when creating gritty, "natural" films. But "Wendy and Lucy" feels comatose, somehow less dramatic than real life. It isn't helped by the amateur actors playing some of the supporting roles, all of whom deliver their lines with blase non-energy.

Finally, close to the end of the movie, there is a scary moment that causes Wendy to have a meltdown. The moment is shocking because we are jolted into feeling emotion again...and maybe that has been the movie's intention all along. For the first time, Wendy seems to grasp the reality of her situation, which "brings her back to earth." But, it is too late for the audience to be invested in her hardships. The movie feels like watching the aftermath of a car crash from your bedroom recognize the drama, but are personally removed from the outcome.
All of which leads to one conclusion. It's a struggle for me to say it because of how cliche it sounds, and because it alludes to the misconception that all movies have to make you "feel" all kinds of things...the more the better. But in this case, the conclusion holds true: Wendy and Lucy is small on heart.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

In Opposition of the Chinatown "Bust"

By Luke


Charles Lindbergh once said, "I'll always pick the side of the argument with a pun in the title." And he was right.

Above: Charles Lindbergh. Not to be mistaken for Tony, who has the same goggles.

Obsession in "Che"

By Luke


For better or worse, Che isn't interested in either glorifying or demonizing Che Guevara (which some might classify as giving him a pass). It makes no effort to get inside Che's thoughts or motivations. For the most part, he doesn't even seem human. Even though we see his first several interactions with his future wife, there is no hint of romance or even the consideration that Che sees her as anything other than a "comrade." Che is an object of singular focus and, coincidentally, so is Che.

Benecio Del Toro at a premiere of Che: Part 1 (aka The Argentine; Che: El Argentino)
There isn't much narrative arc to Che, some critics have called it "boring" or "monotonous." There isn't much variation either, just a lot of training sequences and ambushes in the jungle (with one B&W sequence of Che in New York City mercifully showing up from time to time in Part One). There are emotions, but only a few: frightened locals, angry government regimes, and, mostly, the soldiers who are either heroic or cowards. At one point while being interviewed in New York, Che tells the interviewer that the most important quality for a revolutionary to have is "love," and the word hits you hard because you realize that's exactly what this movie has been missing.

Which isn't necessarily a bad thing. Che's personal trait that fascinates director Steven Soderbergh (below) is the same trait which guides the movie: unwavering, detail-oriented obsession, and if you wanted something else...well, too bad. Soderbergh (who serves as his own cinematographer) has shot a beautiful movie which revels in the monotonous, slowly ticking off the days even when new developments are few and far between. All of this gives Benecio del Toro plenty of time to scowl, pace, bark orders, and train, always train, in preparation for revolution. Part One focuses on the Cuban revolution, and more than two hours later, just as the first signs of victory appear, it ends. Part Two doesn't resume until eight years later when Che has arrived in Bolivia, and then that part concentrates on the (very similar) attempt to bring about revolution there. Like Che himself, the movie lives for the revolution, and isn't interested in the extraneous...or the consequences (the splendors or ills of victory). This movie is about the journey, a journey in which one has to, in Che's words, "live like you've already died." The film's MO in one sentence might be, "Rome wasn't built in a day."

is not for all tastes, and it makes little effort to convert the skeptics. If you criticize movies for "being too slow" or "not being about anything," this is not for you. But, if you are going to see this movie, see it in the theaters. See both parts at once (and see it during the roadshow, so you only have to pay one admission). This movie demands nothing less than your full attention, and the spell will be broken on DVD.
Personally, I found the experience worth it, it's a great showcase for Soderbergh and del Toro's respective talents and the roadshow environment (the two parts played together, with an intermission in between) is rare and exciting. But it's likely to elicit different reactions from every audience member, depending on who you are, you'll consider that a weakness or a strength.

Drama Done Right: Doubt and Milk

By Luke



Part of a continuing series of previously neglected thoughts on movies that are out or about to come out... America, it's your birthday.

Late December can be a time when theaters drown in prestigious, starry-eyed bloat. The running times lengthen and the stories get more serious (Holocaust! Terminally ill! Neglected genius!) but nothing is really gained as far as we, the viewers, are concerned. Movies are manufactured with getting Oscars in mind and the results on screen are pretty, but empty (like Rob's dream girl). Based on the reviews it's been getting, "The Reader" seems to be an early 2008 example of this phenomenon. Color me uninterested.

But really, this has been a long way of saying Doubt and Milk are both immensely satisfying Hollywood dramas, driven by ideas and images, not just big name stars or "safe" story formulas. This is Oscarbait at it's finest, which is to say it's not really Oscarbait at all.
In Milk, Sean Penn (seen right) gives the performance of the year (a premature statement considering there are probably thousands of movies I haven't seen this year, but award-hyperbole is as common this time of year as eggnog). I was very skeptical going into Milk because nothing raises my suspicions like "biopics," and only when the New York Film Critics named Milk Best Picture did I decide it was worth my time. One of the most tiring elements of biopics is the syndrome of "stars-getting-serious," which involves a movie star dressing down, doing drugs, singing songs, and getting lots of close-ups. It's an immense relief that Penn doesn't act in this movie so much as live in it, just like Marion Cotillard in La Vie en Rose, he is surrounded by a huge world of a movie, and he manages to stand out through sheer character-wattage (and therefore there are no super close-up reaction shots or break-down-crying-alone scenes or anything else of that ilk).

This is not a biopic. We don't start at Milk's birth and follow him through his misunderstood childhood and early life, etc. etc. etc. We don't cut back and forth all over his life or waste time introducing characters to perform psychiatric analysis (so, unlike biopics, no one ever says "You're not like everybody else, you're special," or "Gosh, you could be great some day!"). This is MILK, the man, the symbol, the movement, this is a Greek tragedy. Early on Harvey Milk explains his love of opera to a skeptic, saying "Listen, can't you hear all the emotion?" and opera becomes a bit of a motif throughout the movie (most notably at the end).

Gus van Sant (left) and Sean Penn (right) on the set of Milk
After exercises in minimalism (Gerry, Elephant, Last Days, Paranoid Park), Milk is Gus van Sant's opera: full of splendid color, smart performances, and most importantly, brilliant scenes that keep the story speeding at a perfect pace. Like the man himself, Milk gets a lot accomplished in a reasonably short period of time (128 minutes is nothing for most biopics) and the credit lies with both screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (who, improbably, has earned his full-screen credit in the trailer) and van Sant who has left the Hollywood formula days of Finding Forrester and Good Will Hunting (sure, it's a decent movie, but unspectacular) behind and planted his name firmly on the A-List (or my A-List anyway). I went in expecting to be underwhelmed, expecting to be led along all the predictable plot points, to be told explicitly why I should should care. I came out enthralled and thirsting for more.

Doubt isn't the epic that Milk is, but it's not trying to be. Its source material isn't a man's life, but a Broadway play which unfolds entirely on the campus of a Catholic school and church. I can't remember the last Hollywood movie to be at once this contained and this satisfying, the best comparison I can think of is Chop Shop, which also utilizes only one location and crafts an engaging narrative without much really "happening." Like the title suggests, Doubt is a movie about human uncertainty, and the fact that the main characters are nuns in a faith steeped in rules and tradition makes their inertia even greater.

It is left to the cast to bring the drama to life, and Merryl Streep, Amy Adams, and Philip Seymour Hoffman (seen below) do just that. I was pretty much alone last year when I thought Hoffman gave one of the year's best performances in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, my guess is his comparably brilliant work here in another small, adult drama will also go ignored.
Let's hope he doesn't trade these roles in entirely for showier stuff like Charlie Wilson's War. I'd read disparaging reviews of Streep, mainly comparing her with the play's original actress on Broadway. I can't speak to that, but her role is certainly the hardest to pull off--it must be broad, but not parody. In my opinion, she just about nails it, and considering the Actress races are always less crowded than Actor, she's probably deserving of yet another Oscar nomination. Finally, Adams is solid as the innocent caught between the two titans, even if she sticks around just long enough to introduce the audience to the conflict before becoming useless and practically disappearing.

Most of the rest of the cast is kids, and if the youths can't keep up with their thespian elders...well, picking at weak spots seems needless with a movie this satisfying. It's even more time efficient than Milk (just about 100 minutes) and if it lacks the overt MESSAGE we can typically count on finding in "Oscar dramas," well, that's because with "doubt" and in Doubt, nothing is that simple.