Friday, October 30, 2009
Thursday, October 29, 2009
Tuesday, October 27, 2009
Saturday, October 24, 2009
Tuesday, October 20, 2009
Monday, October 19, 2009
Friday, October 16, 2009
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
I treated myself last night and ordered a Pedro Almodóvar set (with two films: 1983's Dark Habits and 1984's What Have I Done to Deserve This?) and The Fiery Furnaces' 2004 LP Blueberry Boat. I had trouble choosing which album to purchase. I hope the shipment arrives sooner rather than later.
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
The New York Film Festival screenings completely took the life out of me. The ball smashing and clitoris cutting of Antichrist, the child abuse of The White Ribbon, the beauty of Penélope Cruz in Broken Embraces... it was thrilling. Still I think the Film Society of Lincoln Center needs to reboot the festival in a way, attendance seemed to be at almost at an all time low. I was so exhausted yesterday when I went to see Spike Jonze speak at the Apple Store in SoHo. Catherine Keener was there, but the sound system was very poor so it was difficult to make out what Jonze, Keener, and the crew of Where the Wild Things Are were saying. Neon Indian's Psychic Chasms was released today by Lefse Records. Pitchfork named it "Best New Music" and I love "Deadbeat Summer" so I believe there is a good chance I'd really enjoy it. I attempted to make scrambled eggs with a Mexican blend of cheeses and feta today, but when it finished cooking it had the consistency of risotto. At least the coffee I made in my French press was good. I finished Kerouac's Visions of Cody, finally. I think I'm going to go back to Pynchon's Gravity Rainbow now. I'm coming home this upcoming weekend, and hopefully seeing Where the Wild Things Are sometime soon. I wanted to see New York, I Love You, but now my interest has gone down for some strange reason. Oh well, until next time...
Monday, October 12, 2009
A film noir, suspense thriller that quickly descends into melodrama, Pedro Almodóvar’s latest, Broken Embraces, exists as both a vehicle for Penélope Cruz and homage to cinema itself
Pedro Almodóvar / Spain / 2009 / 128m
Less emotionally intact than 2006’s Volver, Broken Embraces is more concerned with creating a lasting impression. Pedro Almodóvar structures his film through frequent flashbacks and casts the classically beautiful Penélope Cruz as the love interest of both a wealthy businessman and a film director. She has a screen presence that is eerily similar to Audrey Hepburn in Billy Wilder’s Sabrina, exuding splendor and confidence. Almodóvar has not lost his sense for color, giving the film a kaleidoscopic quality – easily his most visually ravishing. The film is also his longest; the third act is when the viewers’ interests begin to wane, as it is bogged down by melodrama of the tedious sort. Broken Embraces is obsessed with image and cinema, the power of both and how they shape and affect people, but it also turns out to be Almodóvar’s least emotionally resonant.
Harry Caine is a screenwriter who was in an accident that left him blind, an accident that left his original self dead. Mateo Blanco, is original self, was a film director. Magdalena “Lena” Rivero’s dream is to become an actress, but she settles as being a secretary and sometimes call girl when she realizes her dreams will never be realized. Ernesto Martel, a rich financier, is her boss. One night, in an attempt for find work at her call girl job, she receives a phone call from him. He falls in love with her, and they live together for two years. At this time, Mateo has written a script called “Girls and Suitcases” (a near replication of his Almodóvar’s own 1988 masterpiece Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown) and is looking to cast the part of Pina. Enter Lena, who is introduced to Mateo by Ernesto’s homosexual son Ernesto Martel Junio. She auditions for him; he falls in love with her. The story of the film is told by Caine, who finds out that Ernesto Martel has died in the first scene and then is visited by his son, Ernesto Martel Jr., who now calls himself Ray X and wants to make a film about him and his father’s life.
The third act crumbles when Judit, Mateo’s production manager and now Harry’s personal assistant, reveals the truth about what happened when Lena and he ran away to Lanzarote so she could escape the wrath of Ernesto, who had already injured her in previous instances. The only positive aspect of the end of the film is that it provides the audience with one evocative image, which is almost directly lifted from Godard’s Prénom Carmen. Harry, now going by the name Mateo since he decided to re-edit Girls and Suitcases, tells Diego, Judit’s son, to put on Elevator to the Gallows, only to find out that the making-of documentary that Ernesto Jr. was told to make by his father is in the DVD player already. Mateo asks Diego what is happening onscreen. Diego tells him that he and Lena are sharing a kiss as they are stopped at a roundabout. Mateo puts his hands up on the screen. The camera closes in to one on the blue, static television screen. It’s the clearest image of the film, Almodóvar being able to convey exactly what he wants to successfully – that of a blind man attempting to grasp an image that is forever lost.
The scene in which Mateo and Lena go away to Lanzarote recalls the Pompeii scene in Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy. The sea and mountains are gorgeously shot by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, as Cat Power plays softly in the background. José Salcedo’s editing ties the narrative of the film together quite well. Alberto Iglesias’ score matches the texture of the story, bringing to mind a few Hitchcock classics. Visually splendid, Broken Embraces is another colorful tapestry by Almodóvar that just doesn’t match up to his other works.
In a quasi-sequel to Happiness, Todd Solondz ponders what it means to forgive with his typical downbeat worldview
Todd Solondz / USA / 2009 / 96m
Life During Wartime basically picks up where Happiness left off, but this time around Todd Solondz has chosen to switch it up, ala 2004’s Palindromes, by selecting different actors to play the original roles. Make no mistake, this choice is a gimmick, but it also allows for different portrayals of certain characters, although they are still the same deep down inside and no physicality will change that.
The film opens with a scene in which Joy, now played by the frail and aggravating Shirley Henderson, and Allen, delicately played by The Wire’s African-American Michael K. Williams, are out to dinner for their anniversary. The waitress knows Allen from his voice and then Joy finally figures out that Allen will never be able to stop Allen’s perverted ways. She leaves him and goes to Florida, first visiting her mother, and then her sister Trish, whose pedophile husband Bill just got released from jail, and then her other successful, but unhappy sister Helen. All the while, little Timmy, whose repeated line “But I’m almost a man” becomes a mantra for the film, is about to have his Bar Mitzvah, but not before he finds out his father’s tendency to touch little boys which landed him in jail and his mother is dating a “normal” man who gets her wet.
There are only a few moments that truly resonate, although the film’s sense of humor will appeal to Solondz’s fans. These moments include an encounter between Bill and a woman at a hotel bar, wonderfully played by Charlotte Rampling, and an encounter between Bill and his college-bound, druggy son Billy. Ciarán Hinds conveys much through minimal dialogue. Life During Wartime is Solondz’s best looking film yet, meticulously shot by Ed Lachman, but it also shows him as a filmmaker that is in a creative and artistic rut thematically.
Composing her images like a painter, Catherine Breillat infuses a fairy tale with her notorious interest in sexual politics
Catherine Breillat / France / 2009 / 78m
A tame entry by Catherine Breillat, known for subversive depictions of sexuality, Bluebeard is still filled with more ideas of gender and sexual curiosity than most films today. Images measured to the inch, it still cannot escape the fact that it looks like a BBC rip-off.
Adapting the Charles Perrault’s tale Bluebeard has been done before, many times, as early as 1901 when George Méliès made it into a short. The story hasn’t changed. Marie-Catherine and her sister Anne have recently lost their father, and their family is poor. She turns to wealthy Lord Bluebeard, who she sees as kind and soft while everyone sees him as an ogre and monstrous. They get married. Marie-Catherine asks to sleep in a different room from him, smaller to fit her size. She has power over him with the fact that she is a virgin and she’s not ready to give it up just yet.
Breillat frames her story with two sisters reading the story in an attic in the 20th century, the 1950s to be specific. The younger, more provocative sister seems to be a stand in for Breillat herself, while the older, more fragile sister seems to be stand in for Breillat’s actual sister. These two girls keep the film entertaining, as the younger sister reads the story and they both add their own commentary along the way.
Bluebeard shifts between the magically enchanted and the socially-aware, sometimes merging the two. In this sense, Breillat is successful, but the film just isn’t that powerful. There is a scene in the middle, after Marie-Catherine and Bluebeard get married, where he is getting undressed and she is seen spying on him. She watches, with the expectation of seeing some kind of beast, only to find out that Bluebeard is just a hunk of human flesh, vulnerable and yielding like any other man. If Breillat continues on this fairy tale path, she better get new costume and set designers. As it is, Bluebeard is a minor inoffensive film in a European provocateur’s filmography.
Sunday, October 11, 2009
Less elliptical and more firmly rooted in plot and structure, Claire Denis’ White Material is still an impressive piece of filmmaking and a welcome addition to her film canon
Claire Denis / France / 2009 / 100m
Tackling a story about an unspecified war torn African country and its people, it might seem like Claire Denis is treading unusual terrain. Her previous films include Beau travail, L’intrus, and 35 Shots of Rum, and are clear cut masterworks of international cinema. They are ethereal and provocative, and have staying power. White Material, on the other hand, has a story that is far more rigid than her other films. Its aesthetic composition is nothing short of a usual Denis affair, beautifully evocative images that transcend time in a way. She effectively conveys the breakdown of Maria, a divorced French woman who doesn’t even know she’s experiencing one, through scenes showing the rebellion of her own son and parallels between herself and a conflicted, crumbling postcolonial region.
Maria, played by the stunning but rough-looking Isabelle Huppert, works at her family’s coffee plantation. She is seen actively engaging in the harvesting of coffee beans. Denis shows this with intense scrutiny, and creates a sort of rhythmic thrill in the process. Her ex-husband is scheming behind her back to sell the plantation, as he and many others from the area deem it unsafe to continue living in the area. Her father-in-law lounges around the house in kimonos, and her son stays in bed all day. The local army is battling with the rebels, who include children of both sexes, while the French military urges everyone to evacuate. Maria decides not to follow these orders, and when her workers leave she goes and finds more. She is headstrong, but to the point where it could cost her and her family their lives.
Not shot by Denis regular Agnès Godard, Yves Cape takes over and cleverly uses handheld cameras to create a fluidity within turmoil. When a rebel known as “the Boxer” is found dead in one of the first scene of the film, Cape composes the image so that the only light the viewer can see is the frantic light of a flashlight. The film is told through a series of flashbacks that tie together the opening scenes of the Boxer being found and a white male stuck in a burning house while militia watches him slowly die. There a particularly unsettling scene in which one character is killed by someone who wouldn’t seem to have any motivation to kill them. But that’s not the point, to question the motivation of the character is of no concern to Denis, as she stated during the Q&A. Although White Material is conventional, it is Denis’ most exhilarating film to date – and her visual sense doesn’t seem like it’ll be weakening anytime soon.
Saturday, October 10, 2009
Mother examines the bond between an overbearing maternal figure and her dim son, and although its tonal shifts are sometimes jarring and do not always work, Kim Hye-ja’s performance is a revelation
Bong Joon-ho / South Korea / 2009 / 129m
Unconcerned with proving the crime and punishment system of South Korea ineffectual, Bong Joon-ho’s Mother exists in a very similar community to his 2003 breakthrough Memories of Murder and also follows a similar procedural format. A love/hate relationship of genre filmmaking emerges, and the film is held together entirely by Kim Hye-ja’s performance as the mother of a mentally challenged young man who clearly would not be able to live without his mother.
Surrealism takes over the first few frames, as a woman is seen dancing in a vast field by her lonesome self. The camera observes this lady from a distance as she gets her groove on in a crazed manner. Enter Do-joon, the woman’s slow son, who, in the next scene, is hit by a Mercedes Benz on the side of the road. The mother comes to his rescue, claiming that he is bleeding when, in fact, she is actually the one who cut her own finger in her apothecary. Too distracted by her son’s wellbeing to care about her own, Do-joon’s mother is on the phone in the next scene trying to find out if he is okay. Do-joon is then accused of killing a local schoolgirl, and his mom sets out to solve the case herself and prove his innocence. Her search leads to Jin-tae, her son’s best friend, whose innocence is proven and who then assists her in her search for the real killer.
Bong’s shifts in tone, from slapstick comedy to familial drama to suspense thriller and back again, weaken the impact of the film overall. Thankfully, it ends gracefully on a high note with an elderly dance party on a bus in which Kim Hye-ja once again gets to show off her sweet dance moves. Known for playing caring mothers in numerous television series and films, Hye-ja shines in this beautifully understated and subtle role. The score, by composer Lee Byeong-woo, is powerful in appropriate dramatic scenes. All in all, the narrative works for the most part and Mother proves that the matriarch is the most important person in a boy’s life.
Friday, October 9, 2009
Thursday, October 8, 2009
Michael Haneke examines the social ills of another time in The White Ribbon, his negative worldview still strong but inflected with a slight humanism
Michael Haneke / Germany, Austria, France, Italy / 2009 / 144m
Set amongst a small community in the north of Germany during the year 1913 on the brink of World War I, The White Ribbon (ironically subtitled “A German Children's Story”) is much less concerned with shocking its audience than it is with painfully recreating a time and place in history for its characters to exist within. Sure, there are alarming instances of animal cruelty and child abuse, but it wouldn’t be a Haneke film without those nasty bits. Tame compared with his other films, Haneke structures his film around a string of wicked events happening to and by the villagers of this small community.
The film begins with voice-over narration; a man’s voice tells us that this is the best of what he can remember of the story and most of it is based on hearsay. In the first scene, the local doctor is injured when his horse stumbles over a trip wire intentionally set us across a field on two trees. The next horrific act, not seen on screen, is that of a farm worker’s wife falling through the Baron’s barn floor. The farm worker’s son decides to lay the blame on the Baron for his mother’s death and wrecks his employer’s cabbage crop. The son of the Baron and Baroness is then found badly beaten and tied upside down in the barn, thankfully still alive.
The White Ribbon might sound grim on paper, and it is a film filled with its share of malicious characters, but where Haneke’s period piece really shines is the depiction of youthful innocence and human kindness. A very young boy asking his nanny about death, and finding out his mother is actually dead and not on a long trip is a particularly poignant moment. The schoolteacher, who also acts as the narrator years after the events of the film, is the most pure character, with wholesome intentions to court coy but outspoken Eva, a nanny at the Baron’s estate.
By analyzing the power structure of the village, Haneke is working with familiar themes like oppression and the lower class versus the upper class. Haneke does not provide easy answers, as he said in his own words during the Q&A, he “refuses to give instructions on how to interpret his films.” A viewer of this film should not go in expecting Haneke to answer the film’s central mysteries, but allow him to take them to a time and place that seems eerily familiar to today’s society.
The film is shot in monochromatic black and white so it is easier for the viewer to interact with it and also so the feel of it fits the time period, when black and white photography reigned supreme. Christian Berger fills each image completely, rich in detail and utilizing the foreground, midground, and background entirely. The costume design by Moidele Bickel is meticulous and impressive, while there is no traditional score, just music that comes from within the set-up world of the film. The White Ribbon has a lived in quality, and sustains interest throughout its 144 minute running time – it is both sprawling, but tightly wound thanks to the editing by Monika Willi. It is quite an impressive feat for Michael Haneke, a true European auteur.
Wednesday, October 7, 2009
With a familiar formalist look, the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man has all their stylistic and substantial trademarks, but it’s also their most mature and personal film yet
Joel and Ethan Coen / USA / 2009 / 105m
What better way to start off A Serious Man, the Coen Brothers’ new mystery of a film, with an enigmatic Yiddish parable shot in a different format than the rest of it? Prior to this scene, the film opens with a French rabbi Rashi quote, “Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you,” which sets the tone perfectly – and which Larry Gopnik, a physics professor living in Minneapolis in 1967, struggles with the entire duration of a serious midlife crisis. His wife tells him that she’s seeing someone else and asks for a traditional ritual divorce, his son is forever on the run from his pot dealer, his brother is being sought by the police for gambling, and his daughter steals from him wallet and doesn’t go to Hebrew school because she needs to do her hair. All the while Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” plays over key scenes in Joel and Ethan Coen’s successful attempt to integrate autobiographical bits into a smart, black comedy that is more serious than it gives itself credit.
By loosely adapting the story of Job, The Coen Brothers are asking some weighty questions. Does God exist? Why do bad things happen to good people? What role should religion play in a man’s life? Most of which are not answered, depending on the viewer’s interpretation of the film. Larry is also being blackmailed by Clive Park, a Korean student from his class, to change his grade from an F to a more favorable mark. Clive’s father comes to Larry’s house, stating that he will sue him for defamation if he keeps the envelope of money Clive left of Larry’s desk. The conversation ends with the father whispering, “Accept the mystery,” a motto most viewers should take seriously, although a deeper look into the themes of this work should also be considered.
The Coen’s script is specific to the era. Drugs and rock and roll music were becoming more culturally relevant in the suburbs. Michael Stuhlbarg is pokerfaced in his portrayal of Larry, working from a particularly dense and almost literary screenplay. Carter Burwell’s score is appropriate and Roger Deakins’ lensing is crisp and crafty, aligning flawlessly with the Coen’s editing (under the usual pseudonym Roderick Jaynes). After working with big names in No Country for Old Men and Burn After Reading, The Coen Brothers decide to fill the supporting cast with mostly unknowns, who are all brilliant in their performances nonetheless and there is no reason why they should stay unknown for much longer. A Serious Man has staying power, and the bewildering ending only proves that there is no order in the world and begs the question of why we even ask questions like, “Why me,” to begin with.
Monday, October 5, 2009
Exorcising his personal demons, Lars von Trier has purged one of the most mesmerizingly cinematic films of the year; Antichrist does not disappoint and must be experienced
Lars von Trier / Denmark / 2009 / 109m
It’s a fact: self-identified “greatest director of the world” Lars von Trier evokes strong reactions from critics with his controversial films. Antichrist is no different as it was simultaneously booed and applauded at the Cannes premiere, although it received more positive responses from Toronto and New York crowds. Von Trier said that he could offer no justification for the film, except his absolute belief in it and that it is the most important of his career. Working out of a two year depression, von Trier made Antichrist as an exercise in writing and a therapeutic way of overcoming his condition. Believe it or not, Antichrist is a work of art – a pure, thought-provoking piece of filmmaking teeming with a constantly engaging visual sense, intense sexually violent, violently sexual and religious imagery, and two performers who are completely dedicated to their craft.
The structure of Antichrist is as follows: Prologue, Chapter One (Grief), Chapter Two (Pain), Chapter Three (Despair), Chapter Four (The Three Beggars), Epilogue. The Prologue has the sense of an opera, as the aria "Lascia ch'io pianga" from Handel's Rinaldo permeates the perfectly executed mise-en-scène. An unnamed couple are shown making passionate love, while their child, Nic, gets out of his crib and climbs onto a table by the window. After Nic brushes three figures with the names of the chapters off the table, he plummets to his death. She is seen climaxing and the snow continues to fall. The whole sequence is monochromatic and slowed down, utilizing a different kind of film stock that stretches seconds of footage out to several minutes, creating a dreamy atmosphere. Every aspect works in conjunction, the couple having sex and the laundry cycle working at the same rhythm.
In Chapter One, aptly titled “Grief,” He, a therapist, believes he knows better than She’s doctors and attempts to guide her through the grieving process. She is apprehensive to his cognitive therapy techniques and has frequent outbursts where she tells him that she doesn’t think he cares about her and questions his own grieving. He thinks that traveling to a cabin in a forest ironically called Eden will help her overcome her fear of this place where she brought Nic the previous summer to write a thesis on gynocide.
The imagery is frequently horrific, particularly that of a fox disemboweling itself and a deer with a dead calf hanging from its rear. There is genital mutilation, of both sexes, and it is no laughing matter. At the end, it becomes somewhat of a cat and mouse power play between the two and loses its grasp, but this misstep is helped by a particularly ambiguous Epilogue that depicts hundreds of faceless women obscuring Willem Dafoe’s character on a hill in the woods. Charlotte Gainsbourg keeps up with her character’s emotions to the extent that it could be considered one of the bravest female performances ever committed to celluloid. Anthony Dod Mantle’s cinematography is admirable, making the woodsy setting otherworldly, magical, and sinister at the same time. There will not be a shortage of interpretations when it comes to Antichrist, an important film made at one of the pinnacle moments for art cinema that should be required viewing for film students. It simply needs to be seen.
Friday, October 2, 2009
War is hell (surprise! surprise!) in Samuel Maoz’s visceral debut Lebanon
Samuel Maoz / Israel / 2009 / 92m
Taking a stylistic cue from Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat, Samuel Maoz’s Lebanon takes place completely inside of a tank, with the exception of the first and last shot. This presents a challenge to both the filmmaker and the viewer. Maoz’s film is not completely successful, although it works on an aural and visual level. Comparisons to Waltz with Bashir are only indicatory of the time and war, while comparisons to The Hurt Locker are unfounded on another plateau – director Kathryn Bigelow understands the rhythm of war and knows how to express it, while the spatial restriction controls how much Maoz is able to convey, and the confidence he must have in his actors. Unfortunately, Lebanon’s impact is weakened by the cast’s theatrical acting and Maoz’s uncertainty about the message he wants to convey.
Within the confines of the dank, limited space, Maoz introduces four soldiers – the shooter, the driver, the shell loader and the leader of the troupe. A commanding officer appears here and there to relay the group’s mission, but the film concentrates on these four young men who are clearly not ready to be fighting any kind of war. Shmulik, the man in charge of firing, is loosely based off Maoz’s own experiences in the 1982 Lebanon War. In the beginning, when the enemy is coming straight at the tank, he is unable to gun them down. This ends in the death of an Israeli soldier from the outsider of the tank, who is then thrown in and acts as a constant reminder of his hesitancy. The viewer never gets to know the soldiers well enough to care about them, and this is a major problem as Maoz has no other choice with the gimmick he chose to employ but to script the action solely around them. The dialogue exists as purely functional to pass the time and advance the story.
The film opens with a beautiful, straightforward eye level shot of a field of limp sunflowers. Maoz returns to this image at the end, but with a tank driving through it. So painful and hackneyed is one of the obvious messages he is trying to express – war is hell and beauty is destroyed by the carnality of human behavior and politics – that it is hard to understand why the film won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. Also, by the end it’s hard to remember the aspects of the film that were actually successful, like Alex Claude’s perfect sound design and the minimalist score by Nicolas Becker. Giora Bejach’s photography is particularly striking with the way light plays on the actors’ faces. Maoz also successfully explores the soldiers’ feelings and their tenuous relationships. In one of the most powerful and affecting scenes, one of the soldiers shows compassion towards a Syrian war prisoner. In the end, Lebanon never does rise above its gimmicky premise and experimental style.