Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Past imperfect -- 'The Artist' and cinema nostalgia

The way critics are writing about The Artist, you would expect it to be the second coming of Charles Chaplin, F.W. Murnau, and Douglas Fairbanks. It's not. And what's worse, the way critics are writing about this film is so completely hyperbolic, so utterly selective, so clouded by grand rosy nostalgia that it's frankly baffling. You'd think these people were drunk off their asses when they watched this movie.

Maybe that's a little harsh. But The Artist is embroiled in a very nostalgic, very basic history of Hollywood from 1927-1933. Just as lead actor Jean Dujardin looks remarkably like Gene Kelly's silent screen star from Singin' in the Rain, so too does French director Michel Hazanavicius's film fall back into the commonly accepted mythologies that 1952 film purports about Hollywood. It never challenges our conception of Hollywood. It shamelessly endorses them. Which is fine for the light entertainment it is, but more problematic when you pair the film against the discourse surrounding it.

Fears as chamber plays

"A Dangerous Method" is, from my vantage point, getting very unfairly maligned. If you love David Cronenberg, you should like this movie. If you don't, you don't like Cronenberg for the right reasons. Psychology has always been a very strong part of his films, especially when it comes to how we interpret sex and violence (and, of course, how those two come together). In a lot of ways, it makes perfect sense for him to step back into the discourse of psychology and investigate a rift in its theory and practice.

While perhaps a tad "stage-y" (it's adapted from a play by Christopher Hampton), Cronenberg finds some great cinematic ways to shoot scenes: deep focus and mirrors get shining moments. That, and the performances are simply wonderful. Keira Knightley is like a bat out of hell; don't let anyone tell you otherwise. She's over-the-top, wild, and unchained. It's rare to find a performance this fearless because so often we expect our actors to be quiet, reserved, realistic. Knightley is playing a hysterical nymphomaniac. She acts accordingly.

Equally impressive is Viggo Mortensen, whose in-depth research into Freud pays off. He's gruff, disarming, and completely holds your attention when he monologues about his field. Michael Fassbender continues is stratospheric rise as Jung. While most of the film is these three characters (with a brief appearance by Vincent Cassel) sitting and talking, or having masochistic sex, it's a wholly engrossing intellectual outing. It looks like a typical period drama, but plays like a wholly unique film.

There have been lots of reviews and comments I've seen dismissing the film as boring, verbose, and disjointed, but it's exactly the elliptical and lofty qualities in it that I find very attractive. Psychotherapy helps erect and maintain cultural conceptions of gender and sexual behavior, "A Dangerous Method" suggests, and its deepest rewards come from applying its discussions on-screen to what happens to the characters between the scenes.


"Margin Call" is not a film on a lot of radars. It was made cheaply and quickly, but it rattles with a kind of precision and assurance rarely found in productions that cost five times as much. Recounting the first 24-hours of the 2008 Wall St. meltdown through the eyes of an up-all-night session at a single firm as they try to figure out how to survive the impending financial devastation, it's also largely a film of talking. Characters talk about money, about risks, about life, and dreams, and failures. As time goes on, they start to look sweaty and grimy, and it's very clear none of these characters are good, but few are bad. They make decisions that look awful, but they justify it as a no-way-out scenario.

Among the stellar ensemble, Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, and Stanley Tucci stand tall for different reasons. They carry every moment they're in, and it's almost like watching an effortless master class at work. The writing is tight, and the acting sizzles.

The film is also remarkably well-shot. The offices are densely packaged, the lighting appropriately captures a kind of gorgeous blue nighttime hue, and yet there's lots of darkness surround this little world. It could easily work as a play, but the lighting in the close-ups and the editing around the boardroom tables make it come cinematically alive. Writer/director J.C. Chandor clearly has a passion for capturing human moments amidst a broader economic and political blanket (which is not to say the film is ideologically skewed--it is comfortably apolitical for much of the time), and finds plenty of ways to show off his considerable economic talents.

"Margin Call" is a quiet film, where only a raised voice accounts for the biggest action. Yet it feels so deeply realized, so impeccably staged -- in a word, tight.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Where dreams are made

"Hugo" is a rare and wonderful thing -- an openly sentimental love letter, a deeply personal film, and a striking experiment all rolled into a package that feels more like a gift than a highly calibrated exercise. In making one from the heart, Martin Scorsese has defied the odds and made one of the most beautiful films of the year.

If you have any kind of sentimentality for the movies, if the child inside you seeks to rediscover the magic of the screen -- see "Hugo" now.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Reconciling ourselves -- 'The Descendants' review

"In a couple of days, it'll all be over."

It's not until relatively late in Alexander Payne's fifth feature, "The Descendants," that George Clooney says this line almost casually and nonchalantly, but despite his outward tone it carries so much weight and heartbreak. It's just one of many deft, blink-and-you'll-miss-it exchanges of throwaway sentences, grief-stricken faces, and warm humor embedded in Payne's tale of a family trying to pull itself out of a disaster.

To call it an intimate family drama of comedic highs and tearful lows would undermine the much larger project of Payne's film: This is a small epic of chronology about privilege and reconciliation, the interpretation of how families transmit values and connect to each other.

Friday, November 11, 2011

A thirst for adventure -- 'Adventures of Tintin' review


When last we left Steven Spielberg, he had just finished what (for me, at least) was one of the most insipid, uninspired action films imaginable: An "Indiana Jones" follow-up with little in the way of spark and sheer love for adventure, and lots in the way of cheesy set pieces, horrible CGI, and ridiculously inert narrative. Maybe it was enough for Spielberg to realize that he was simply burned out on his own filmmaking. "Indy IV" was bloated enough to make even the most ardent follower of the director balk.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Something to do with death -- "Once Upon a Time in Anatolia"


Its title isn't just a fairy tale construct; "Once Upon a Time in Anatolia" derives its namesake from the films of Sergio Leone ("Once Upon a Time in the West" and "Once Upon a Time in America") (not Robert Rodriguez), whose later works gradually became more and more fascinated with the operations of myth-making as it relates to the construction of a national identity and national perception, always making these arguments in a particularly generic context. Conveniently, that's where I also derive the title of my blog.

Wedding crashers -- 'Melancholia' review

And you thought it was bad having Owen Wilson and Vince Vaugn turn up at your wedding. Try having a whole planet ruin the show. Lars von Trier's apocalyptic drama of dysfunction, "Melancholia," is one of the most poetic, harrowing, and pessimistic films of the year, as one might expect with an even fleeting knowledge of von Trier's career. Those who admire him because of, or in spite of, his enfant terible attitude toward culture and the cultural industry that sustains him, will feel a familiar sense of oppression in "Melancholia" squarely channeled through feminine protagonists.

Similar to 2009's "Antichrist," the style of the film weaves in and out of his naturalistic, handheld style that favors lots of quick zooms, bouncy close-ups, and some extended shots of characters grappling with depression and despair; as well as a hyper-stylized slow motion technique that performs just the opposite function, letting us salvage a sense of beautiful composition in the face of the ugliness of the content.

Monday, November 7, 2011

World on a 'Haywire'


The thing about Steven Soderbergh is that I truly believe he's a "filmmaker's filmmaker." He's almost impossible to pin down, in that he's tackled multiple genres, multiple styles of filmmaking, and vastly different budgets, all while retaining (in fact, increasing) his credibility. He does all this while promoting a basic love for the craft. He makes movies that are enjoyable (the "Ocean's" films, "The Informant!") just as often as he makes movies that are experimental and very personal ("The Girlfriend Experience" or "Schizopolis"). They're all unique films, yet they all bear a mark distinctly his own.

So it is with great pleasure that I can reveal a good two and a half months before you're able to see it that "Haywire" is everything you could hope it to be, if you're one of those people who just wants to watch a great action movie without the frills. This is tight, controlled filmmaking that makes the genre come alive.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Hanging in a trance - "Faust"


I don't even know if I particularly like "Faust," but qualifying a movie like this based on personal enjoyment seems somewhat counterintuitive to the kind of work it's doing to sustain an immersive and very particular mood. Already the winner of the Golden Lion at this year's Venice Film Festival, Alexander Sokurov's film is difficult, occasionally maddening, emotionally empty, and strangely beautiful. It's also one of the best adaptations I've seen in quite some time, and deserves to be taken very, very seriously.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Of power and suppression -- "J. Edgar"



How do we present history? How do we even sit down and begin to recount our own personal lives, let alone connect ourselves to the broader tapestry surrounding us? This is a core question of "J. Edgar," one that is alternately summoned to the fore and relegated to the background. For a historical drama interpreting the life of one of 20th century America's most complicated figures, it is also a core dilemma, torn at the core between the intellectualizing of the screenwriter and the polished traditionalism of the director.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Tattered souls -- 'Martha Marcy May Marlene'

To begin any kind of discussion of "Martha Marcy May Marlene," one has to start at the end. Don't worry, there are no spoilers here. I only mean to suggest that the full force of the film, its true meaning, and its darkest implications, are only visible in its final cut to black. That alone is rare for a film, and in "Martha" it is at the least claustrophobic and the most horrific.