Friday, December 31, 2010

Rabbit Hole

Through cinematic rearrangements, visualizations, and updates, "Rabbit Hole," a very good play by David Lindsay-Abaire, is made into a botched adaptation by the very same individual. It's filled with a ton of clutter, of which the play was gladly free. Plus, some details about the characters are lost or lessened. I know from attending the film with people who hadn't read the stage version that there's a good chance it will play better with those unfamiliar with the original. However, there also may be some who find the film the same as I did: a slog in a way other than that which it was intended to be, though admittedly I was less keen than usual on letting myself be engaged.

The film starts off with Becca (Nicole Kidman) gardening and turning down the offer of her neighbor to go to dinner. Significantly, the neighbor steps on the flower she spent time planting. At this moment, we can see the fraying of something, which will come to be revealed: Becca and her husband Howie (Aaron Eckhart) are weathering the loss of their child, who's been gone for eight months, hit by a car when following the family dog into the street. (This is an elephant that hangs over every scene at least in the play; in the film it's most scenes.)

They attend group meetings for people who've lost children, and are not really helped (Becca hates them and quits; Howie just goes). They are also not especially helped by the fact that Becca's reckless sister (Tammy Blanchard) is having a baby or how Becca's mother (Dianne Wiest) incessantly wants to give them support (and how she keeps recalling the death of Becca's brother). And then there's that kid that Becca keeps following home from school, who turns out to be Jason (Miles Teller), the guy who drove the car in the accident with their son. (I wish that Lindsay-Abaire had followed the arc from the play instead of making Becca into essentially a stalker. The relationship between the two was much better handled before.)

The film is mediocrely put together. It's not that well directed (John Cameron Mitchell, making a film that's seen as a departure for him) or edited (Joe Klotz) and it has a score (by Anton Sanko) that messes with the mood many times, despite its solidity. The performances are decent from everyone, with some nice moments drawn by Mitchell, but Eckhart, in one scene, is laughably over-the-top in his "anger." Many people have snapped this movie up; I recommend instead skipping the movie and perusing the far superior play. C

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Best Cinematographers of 2010

Too exhausted to do write-ups of these (except for #1), but I do have a ranked list with honorable mentions. I run this blog by myself and thus cannot crank out as many lists as the multi-person staffs of other film websites.

10. Matthew Libatique – “Black Swan” and “Iron Man 2”

9. Danny Cohen - “The King’s Speech”

8. Robert Richardson – “Shutter Island”

7. Robby Ryan – “Fish Tank”

6. Yves Cape – “White Material”

5. Roger Deakins – “True Grit”

4. Michael McDonagh – “Winter’s Bone”

3. Matyas Erdely – “Tender Son – The Frankenstein Project”

2. Eric Gautier – “Wild Grass”

1. Luca Bigazzi – “Certified Copy”

Please don’t be the one to point out this film is released in 2011 in the United States; I’m well aware of that. Even if you’re a stickler, I think you can agree with me that Bigazzi deserves a moment of glory (even though he has “This Must Be the Place” in the future), as next year will be crowded with Lubezki on Malick’s “The Tree of Life” and whoever is shooting McQueen’s “Shame.”

There are many things to savor: the prodigious roving shots; the composition during the wedding photography scene which has a seat in the foreground and, through the door, off a mirror, the main characters having their picture taken; the close-ups (fitting for a film by Abbas); the framing at the end; the tones. Bigazzi lays out the imagery for Kiarostami’s vision to come together.

Honorable Mentions:

Jeff Cronenweth (“The Social Network”)

Yorick Le Saux (“I Am Love”)

Edward Lachman (“Life During Wartime”)

Martin Ruhe (“The American”)

Adam Arkapaw (“Animal Kingdom”)

Laurent Brunet (“A Screaming Man”)

Yaron Orbach (“Please Give”)

Morten Soborg (“Valhalla Rising”)

Monday, December 27, 2010

True Grit

"True Grit" is neither one of the Coen Brothers' best films nor one of the best films of 2010. I would even go as far as to say that the Golden Globes were maybe right for shutting it out of their nominations. It has the great technical facets that one has come to take for granted with the Coens (the screenplay, the cinematography, the editing), but this time not the narrative. There was a sense of emptiness that I felt throughout the film, and even when both shoes apparently dropped, I was left pretty disappointed.

The film, which apparently ignores the 1969 film starring John Wayne and goes back to the source material (Charles Portis' 1968 novel), both unabsorbed by me, follows Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), a 14-year-old smart aleck who's father has been killed over a business deal by a much-sought criminal named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin, from hunter in "No Country" to hunted here). In the Oklahoma town where her father was slain, Mattie asks Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a drunken but menacing marshall, to chase down Chaney. He accepts, but tries, along with the ranger sent by her mother to take her back home (La Beouf, Matt Damon), to ditch her. Of course, she is unable to be sent away and she goes with them.

There is a lot of bantering between La Beouf and Cogburn, some of it that breaks the group apart for portions of time. These events lead the audience to believe what the characters believe, that the search is aimless and not going anywhere. But perhaps that's not true. See for yourself if you want to, I won't spoil.

The acting for everyone is varied. There are high marks hit by pretty much everyone (referring to the touching Bridges, the hilariously hammy Damon, the solidly articulate Steinfeld, the deceptively dumb but scary Brolin, the stolid Ed Corbin as a man wearing a bear head, and the hard and soft Barry Pepper as the gang leader Ned), but at times everyone's work (bar Corbin's) comes off like bad playacting. The writing, which apparently was the key reason that the Coens wanted to pull off this reworking, is pretty funny indeed. But the true sure thing is the cinematography, by the go-to man for westerns, Roger Deakins. It is extraordinary, especially in capturing the snow and the dusty light. He outdoes the Coens (even in their editing prowess, where they apply a good many cartoonishly abrupt fadeouts a la "A Serious Man"), and he is the validating reason for seeing the movie, which is not really much of a standalone success. (It makes me want to maybe even reevaluate "Meek's Cutoff" - I had some hankerings for that film, even though it wasn't tolerable viewing and "True Grit" was.) C+

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Best and Worst Films and Best Performances of 2010

I did up my top ten list in the style of Roger Ebert’s, with the top ten ranked and the rest in alphabetical order. Like Entertainment Weekly’s, I have also included a five worst films list, bound to be disagreed with but fun for me anyways, as well as a list of the year’s best performances. A list of best technical achievements will come later on.

I wrote about the films to varying degrees of length, as sometimes I didn’t feel as if I could pump out 3 paragraphs of new insight about each movie. Hopefully you can understand. ;)

I tried to wait to see as much as I possibly could, but I was unable to see "Another Year," "Blue Valentine," "Biutiful," "The Illusionist," "Rabbit Hole" (which I could wait just a bit for, but I've decided against it), and "Somewhere," movies I thought may have had an impact on the list.

In all of its splendor, here it is:

10. Please Give (Nicole Holofcener)

The best “fun night out” comedy of the year, with great characters, amusing writing, and appealing actors (Catherine Keener makes nearly any movie watchable).

9. The Ghost Writer (Roman Polanski)

A truism: the ending, not the beginning, is what counts. I’m glad that Roman Polanski is well aware of this, as he turns “The Ghost Writer” around from a plodding and hardly faultless set-up (where I was sure I had all the answers). The second half of the film is incredible: a completely charged, horrifying mystery (Tom Wilkinson and all!) with an astonishing twist (read: sometimes bad writing CAN serve a purpose) and a much-discussed and superb final shot. Seeing it again proved that the film altogether may be better than I originally thought.

8. Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami)

Abbas Kiarostami comes back to his interest in doubles (most prominently displayed in “Close-Up” twenty years ago) with a disarming, mind-blowing, formally remarkable film. Juliette Binoche and William Shimell (so unfairly maligned) give two sterling performances as either friends or lovers, one French and one English (meeting in the middle ground of Italy), one revealed to be a romantic and the other keeping his critical blinders on the whole time. The last scene is perhaps the most transcendent to be projected this year.

(This film opens in the US in 2011. I just didn’t feel like waiting until next year to include it in my top ten list.)

7. Greenberg (Noah Baumbach)

Noah Baumbach is a dauntless filmmaker who makes every film a bit more draining than the last. As a result of this, as well as the fact Ben Stiller fans not ready to be tested by their boy, “Greenberg” was thrown to the wayside, much in the same way its predecessor “Punch-Drunk Love” was, maybe even more so. Taking cues from Bellow, among others, Baumbach fashions an intricate character for Stiller to play, and Stiller runs with it. He’s superlative, as is Rhys Ifans. Altogether, it’s a film witty, harrowing, and, in the end, divine.

6. Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik)

Extremely well-acted (Jennifer Lawrence, phenomenal in perhaps the year’s best performance; John Hawkes up there) and masterfully shot, this is “Frozen River” with more punch.

5. Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold)

A very fond memory of my film-going year was being packed into the small, specially-curated screening room at a theater I used to go to a lot (where they showed more obscure films) to be completely engaged by “Fish Tank.” Robbed of a Palme d’Or at Cannes ’09 (though a Jury Prize is good consolation), this is a significant cinematic and thespian achievement.

Katie Jarvis I underestimated originally, as I now realize that she’s so good that she calls no attention to her part. Many say that her character’s dancing is poor, but she convinced me it wasn’t. Michael Fassbender is also quite fine, given a chance to exhibit an exceptional screen personality. Robbie Ryan shoots the film tremendously, and Andrea Arnold as a result becomes one of my favorite active directors. It isn’t entirely perfect, but it was pretty much all I thought about in the days afterward. And I’ve developed a pretty big soft spot for it. This proves all the more that indelibility is much more important than impeccability.

(Apparently there has been some question of what year this was released during. I’m including it this year.)

4. White Material (Claire Denis)

A difficult film that has split people into believers and shruggers. In my opinion, to dismiss it would be very foolish. It’s wistful, understated, resonant, and has Claire Denis’ (as well as cinematographer Yves Cape’s) adept artistry. Isabelle Huppert supplies some of the most touching moments of the year. And Isaach de Bankole, with a faraway look in his eye and a bullet in his side, playing the Boxer, gives us just the right amount of exposition.

3. Toy Story 3 (Lee Unkrich)

The best narrative feature film of 2010. Finally a Pixar work on target both in terms of humor and emotion (the bookending scenes are grand examples of the former and latter, respectively). Most importantly to me, though, is that it hints at a world with no limits, where anything is possible. That, to me, is Pixar’s most valuable contribution. Maybe the Academy will finally get off their Pixar high and deliver their top prize to “The Social Network,” but if there is any time to be so taken with this company’s output, it’s now. Will they ever do better?

2. Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg)

This is the anti-“Exit,” in that it’s about as typical a documentary as possible, but it’s just as good in its own way. After watching, the audience feels familiar enough with Rivers to be her friend. Like Toback’s “Tyson” (which it tops), it gives a dismissed subject a chance, and does so to great effect.

1. Exit Through the Gift Shop (Banksy)

A critic was quick to denounce “Exit Through the Gift Shop” for having “a limited worldview.” To say something like this is to treat “Exit” like a normal documentary, which is most definitely not. It is as incendiary a piece of street art as Banksy has ever created, and so by definition it must have a “limited worldview.” That’s what this sort of thing is: one man with a stencil, railing at the establishment, whether it be of politics, art, or something else.

This is the syringe to pump life back into the documentary, which is being used less and less as an art form and as more of a way to transmit imperatives to the audience. In its exploration of a very vital niche of underground culture, it’s a throwback to movies that inspired you into action because of a necessity driven by interest, not by environmental safety.

We get as tantalizingly close to Banksy as possible without finding out who he is, even seeing him construct art pieces. But who is to know what or how much he’s giving us? The audience is at his mercy, a delightful position to be put in.

I would await the arrival of another Banksy film with anticipation, but I doubt he could ever top the heights he reaches here. “Exit Through the Gift Shop” is a debut to be treasured and a contorting classic to stand among the hallmarks of documentary cinema.


The Art of the Steal (Don Argott)

Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky)

How to Train Your Dragon (Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders)

Inception (Christopher Nolan)

Iron Man 2 (Jon Favreau)

Live Tape (Tetsuaki Matsue)

Marwencol (Jeff Malmberg)

The Kids Are All Right (Lisa Cholodenko)

The Social Network (David Fincher)

The Town (Ben Affleck)

Also notable: Animal Kingdom (David Michod), Restrepo (Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington)

Worst Films:

5. Wild Grass (Les Herbes Folles) (Alain Resnais)

One of those movies that goes down a detrimental path that ends up making you laugh very hard. Beloved by many, but loathed by me for its sappy romantic ideology reeking of “The Seven Year Itch.” Saved from being utterly awful by the camera of Eric Gauthier.

4. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (Niels Arden Oplev)

This film caught the zeitgeist at exactly the right time and catapulted to box office glory. However, to me it’s both dull and appalling, with only its main character to save it.

3. Valhalla Rising (Nicolas Winding Refn)

Nicolas Winding Refn makes another unpleasant film that lacks the level of meaning it needs to make it come through. Surpasses “Bronson,” though, which is some sort of advancement.

2. Looking For Eric (Ken Loach)

Exceptionally boring, with a very small amount of humor and a very high amount of profanity. Loach seems to be entering an Eastwood period.

1. Babies (Thomas Balmes)

An exercise in why editing is so important. Potentially an interesting film, but utterly destroyed by lacking in coherence. Not fun to watch in the slightest, even at 79 minutes. Observing audience members at this film made for an interesting social experiment.

Best Performances (not really in any order):

Jennifer Lawrence and John Hawkes, Winter’s Bone

Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis, and Barbara Hershey, Black Swan

Ben Mendelsohn and Jacki Weaver, Animal Kingdom

Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network

Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, and Helena Bonham Carter, The King’s Speech

Juliette Binoche and William Shimmell, Certified Copy

Katie Jarvis and Michael Fassbender, Fish Tank

Ben Stiller and Rhys Ifans, Greenberg

Jeong-hee Yoon, Poetry

Sam Rockwell, Iron Man 2

Ciaran Hinds, Life During Wartime

Entire Cast (Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Josh Hutcherson, Mia Wasikowska), The Kids Are All Right

Tom Hardy, Inception

Isabelle Huppert, White Material

What are your favorite films and performances of 2010? What were your least favorite?

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Shoah (25th Anniversary Re-Release)

"Shoah" by Claude Lanzmann is a mesmerizing documentary, one which, over the course of 503 minutes, uses image and narration to evoke the experience of being in and around the concentration camps of Treblinka, Auschwitz, and Sobibor (as well as Jewish ghettos) during the Holocaust. It ruminates on the disturbing silences and screams of the camps, their procedural nature, the trains circulating in and out of them, their abominations, and their survivors and perpetrators.

Many of these, as well as people who lived on the fringes of the ordeal, are interviewed by Lanzmann, and a few in particular are exceptionally captivating: Filip Muller, who powerfully recounts the palpable atrocity, most horrifyingly the gas vans; Abraham Bomba, who speaks of cutting hair in the pre-crematorium "undressing rooms" and having to act as if everything was normal with his clients; Rudolf Vrba, who was involved in the coordinating Resistance efforts; Franz Suchomel, a German (whose interviews are on grainy and low-quality video, doubling their impact) who explains the operation and layout of the crematoriums. The film is also filled with magnificent, long take cinematography by three cameramen, which, as noted above, mimics the POVs of those at the time. Their surroundings permeate the viewer as a result.

To be frank, the film is 9 hours long, and it's a bit of a hard sit. And Lanzmann's technique isn't the tightest (in how he sometimes places mildly inexplicable images on-screen). But such things are completely insignificant in the long run. It uses cinema other than for dramatic sensations. Lanzmann is able to do this in a way that Charles Ferguson (of "Inside Job" fame) and other similar filmmakers cannot. Lanzmann deals with the Holocaust in a different way than Spielberg did with "Schindler's List," still a great film, but pinning the experience of many down to images. "Shoah" channels commonality (as it should), but (as my friend and others have said) does so mostly verbally, so as to summarize but not to limit. Altogether, "Shoah" is multilayered and jarring, and one should not let the film's re-release go by without giving it a viewing. A

Essential Killing

"Essential Killing" has the same problem that "127 Hours" had: it doesn't sufficiently re-create, for the audience, the experience of the main character of the film. Instead of staying mostly within the realm of first-person shots and close-ups, Jerzy Skolimowski throws in far ones. He also breaks perspective a number of times, which even Danny Boyle avoided. These things add up to detract a lot from the film's impact. There are only a couple of scenes where the desired effect is created.

The film, which apparently was the only film to ever win multiple awards at the Venice Film Festival, keeps an admirably contained narrative focus following a man (Vincent Gallo), whom the audience assumes is some sort of extremist, who kills prospectors in a cave in the Middle East and is taken to an American prison (meant to evoke Guantanamo Bay and Abu Graib, what with its dogs, rampant insulting of "foreigners," and, as has been noted, water-boarding). When he's being carried between jails, pigs in the road cause for a pileup and for the man's truck to swerve off of the road. He gets away, hiding before killing the driver of one of the trucks and moving out from there. Which is not too far, as he's forced to abandon the truck and run without heed into (as Skolimowski himself noted) a wintry climate unknown to him.

The rest of the plot can be easily summarized, so I will refrain from doing so. I will address (and agree with) the speculation, though, that there are appalling scenes in the film. There is one in particular, that is maybe made even more abhorrent in how it is entirely self-contained. I understand it on some level, but it's still pretty despicable. This is when the character, when he sees a woman with her baby lying on the ice after falling off of a bike, holds them at gunpoint while he sucks breast-milk from her bosom. He then runs away, leaving her brutalized and unconscious on the ground, as authorities are heard in the distance. Sure, he does have moral qualms about this afterwards, but I don't think that's enough to account for it.

Skolimowski, who considers this his greatest work, got into an amusing back-and-forth with pissed-off audience members at the screening I went to. They accused him of both "glorifying the Taliban" and using unwarranted symbolism. He denied both, adamant in saying that the main character is a "civilian" and that the end shot (treated in a way I hated) was done because it was "a nice image." I found these responses incredibly coy and disrespecting of the audience's intelligence. To name the main character Mohammed shouldn't create an immediate connection to fanaticism, but I think Skolimowski was asking for it. I personally found a woman's thoughts that the film was about "mistaken ideology" a la "Four Lions" and, to use her example, "Das Boot," the most valid approach.

It must be said that Gallo is excellent or close to it in the lead, though, dropping every shred of his swagger, not talking at all throughout the whole film. His taking of Best Actor at Venice was merited. The film's Special Jury Prize win, though, I'm not quite sure about. C

Sunday, December 19, 2010

An Interview with Lucy Walker, documentarian and director of "Waste Land" and "Countdown to Zero"


"Waste Land" won the World Documentary Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival, was on the 2010 Academy Awards shortlist for Best Documentary, and is now playing across the country. Edit (January 26, 2011): the film is nominated for the 2010 Best Documentary Feature Oscar. "Countdown to Zero" premiered at Sundance, played at Cannes in a Special Screening, and had a theatrical run this summer.

Flick Pick Monster: First off, how did “Waste Land” come into being? Was it developed at the same time as “Countdown to Zero”?

Lucy Walker: It was developed before and how it came into being was [with a] very organic conversation between myself and Vik Muniz, the artist in the movie. We were just both really interested in each other’s work and we had a conversation about, if we were to make a movie together, what might that movie be. It was very open and in a way I didn’t really think it was going to go anywhere; in hindsight, of course, it was perfect, but at the time I didn’t know if it was really going anywhere. I was trying to think how to make a film about an artist and really show his process and I thought it would be really interesting to follow one project.

I also knew that Vik did these social projects; he really enjoyed working with people outside the art world. He was at this sort of mid-life crisis point in a way where he wasn’t sure what art meant or he was feeling quite constrained by the art world. Talking to him I really picked up on that and I thought that would be really interesting, to see him do a social project, maybe a social project that was so challenging that it might fail or might be really dramatic or he’d meet some really interesting people from the edges of society. I thought that that would be really wonderful.

And I guess I was also thinking about my movie “Blindsight,” because in a funny way it has a very similar structure to “Waste Land” in terms of this one, [privileged, successful] guy who goes on an adventure in collaboration with people who really had some rough luck. In the case of “Blindsight,” that was blind mountaineer Erik Weihenmayer collaborating with the blind students in Tibet and in the case of this it’s obviously Vik collaborating with the Catadores. But I sort of knew that that was maybe a good structure for a documentary and I was looking for really challenging project and I knew that that would make the most interesting film. And in the course of just [these] conversations with Vik, both in the UK and in New York, we realized we both were obsessed with garbage and I said, “Have you ever thought about working in a land fill, with all the garbage which you could work with as your materials?” and he said yes, that he actually wanted to do a project but he thought it would be too dangerous. And I said that would be really interesting; that would be a film.

I liked that project because I knew that waste and recycling were really, really important topics and that a landfill was a really fantastic location and that the Catadores would be really interesting people to meet. So as soon as we sort of had this idea, I just knew it was the one, and I insisted that if anything when we film it, if anything happens on this project, we should just film the whole thing from start to finish and that’s exactly what we did.

FPM: Your documentaries are so varied in subject matter, from nuclear weapons in “Countdown to Zero” to the Amish community in “Devil’s Playground”, to blind mountain climbers in “Blindsight.” What would you say is the “connecting thread” throughout your films, if there indeed is one?

LW: I could get more complicated but on a simple level, it’s exactly what I’m interested in in the world. It’s people I want to meet and places I want to go and subjects I want to think about, whether that’s Tibet or blindness or wealth and poverty and where the arts transform life or the work of Vik Muniz or going to Brazil or going to Amish country and [what it’s] like to grow up Amish, [or] nuclear weapons… These are just really interesting subjects that I like to think about and I found stories that were sort of [excuses] to sort of really challenge myself to immerse myself and really figure out what I think. [To] make a film is the sort of ultimate figuring out and expressing what is going on. And so I sort of feel like, on a deep level, [that] a very selfish way of answering that question would be these are just projects that I most of all have burning questions about and the films are sort of the answers to the questions that I’m most excited about thinking about.

FPM: “Countdown to Zero” is somewhat of an “activism doc,” in that it was created to bring awareness (like “The Cove,” “Food Inc.,” “An Inconvenient Truth”, and to a lesser extent “The Art of the Steal”). “Waste Land” and your other documentaries seem to be more in the interest bringing the audience’s attention to an interesting happening that doesn’t have a direct effect on their lives. Are you more interested in more prescient material, or do you find yourself more drawn to more off-the-beaten-track stories?

LW: I think in a way “Waste Land” is like my first two films. It really follows a group of people on a journey in an interesting world with a beginning, middle, and end, whether that’s Amish young people turning 16 and having to make the decision whether to go back or not, going through a grown-up period, or in the case of “Blindsight,” it’s about these blind people climbing a mountain which has a very clear narrative arc of, you know, here’s a mountain climber, beginning, middle, and end, do they get to the top?; it’s got a very clear structure and you meet some really amazing people in a really fascinating place which is Everest in Tibet.

And then with “Waste Land,” the same thing: you’ve got Vik and the Catadores [going] on a journey with both the art project and meeting each other, collaborating, going on this amazing journey, and through all this you get to know them. Whereas “Countdown” winds up being much more about the issue and the topic. I did actually try to shoot more people in “Countdown” and it really just became really hard, [as] there were no stories or journeys in a way that we could get access to, as it was such a sensitive subject and everything was so classified and even when we did try to film things it didn’t really work. So I could find a journey to follow in the same way apart from just really understanding the issue. So that wound up being a little bit of a different film.

I love them all and I’m not sure what I’m going to do next. I’ve got some different projects that fit different templates- some of them aren’t even documentaries, some are fiction films. I think of it [as] challenging to make a film about a topic. It is challenging to get people’s attention and I think, when you’ve got a 90-minute film, it makes it a lot easier when you’ve got a story to follow.

FPM: Are you interested in experimenting with the “form” of the documentary (as has been said of Banksy’s “Exit Through the Gift Shop” or, a film that conceptually “Waste Land” reminds me of, Varda’s “The Gleaners and I”), or do you prefer “documentary-style” documentary filmmaking? Or both?

LW: I love “The Gleaners and I”; it was a film I thought about a lot. I sort of think of myself a filmmaker first and foremost and, for me, a filmmaker is someone who really uses all the possibilities of the craft. I don’t think that I’m like a journalist with a camera. I like to think of myself as really trying to find different ways.

Sometimes you can do small things- I really liked how with my film “Blindsight” I opened the film on an empty black screen with sound effects. I thought that was an interesting way of getting people to figure out what it was like not to see, to sort of color out the images. With “Waste Land,” there’s time lapse and different ways of using the montage and the editing—different ways you’re trying to tell the story using the different possibilities—great music, great cinematography.

I love the more experimental structures and experiments that people are bringing to documentaries like “The Gleaners and I” and I hope that with each project I can find the most interesting way of telling each story. Experimenting as much as possible with the form I think would be fantastic.

FPM: How was working with Moby on "Waste Land"?

LW: It was fantastic. He’s as generous as he is genius. I’m very fortunate that he’s been like a big brother to me—I’ve known him for 15 years--- and just a incredibly kind friend. I actually originally was going to use music on “Countdown” and the producers didn’t want that [laughs]. So, I suddenly, crazily thought about using it for “Waste Land” where I’d wanted to use Brazilian music but I couldn’t find any Brazilian music that seemed right. And then, when we weren’t using Moby’s music for “Countdown,” I was upset about that, but then I suddenly had the idea we could use it for “Waste Land.” That’s exactly how that happened and it turned out to be absolutely perfect. I found out that was really the perfect thing.

I think it universalizes the story because it’s set in Brazil but it’s not just about Brazil, it’s really about human nature, I think: it’s about art, it’s about spirit, and all kinds of things. It’s not really about just Brazil or Brazilians specifically. I just couldn’t find the right stuff. I really, really liked Moby’s music and I think it works really, really well as it’s really beautiful and emotional. Lots of people watching the film get really emotional and cry and have a sort of real heart-opening workout. (Moby even talks about the film as being a sort of heart-opening exercise.) I really like that and so I think that his music since it’s so beautiful and so emotional enables the audience to go there emotionally. That’s why I like it so much.

FPM: Who (and what films) has an influence on your filmmaking?

LW: There are so many. Agnes Varda is a good example, specifically with this film. Obviously I was lucky enough to be taught by Barbara Kopple, who I think is just such a powerhouse and just brilliant. She taught me so much about integrity---everything from integrity to sound recording [laughs]. She really taught me everything. I also, especially with my first film, and ever since, have been really inspired by a couple of films.

One is “Streetwise,” which is a 1984 film about Seattle street kids and it was made by Martin Bell and his wife who is an amazing documentary photographer. I just couldn’t believe the access. Martin managed to be in the room with some incredibly intimate scenes between these people and I couldn’t believe how he’d managed to pull that off. That was really inspiring to me [in that] he could get honest moments which were so incredibly compelling.

Another film was “Hoop Dreams.” I just think Steve James is a genius. His patience and persistence and sort of perceptiveness meant that he found these sort of twists and turns in ordinary life that just were amazing.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Fighter

A film that has no control on tone and that has the attention span of the main characters watching Fernando Trueba's Oscar-winner "Belle Epoque" (read: none at all), "The Fighter" is an unsuccessful hybrid of different ideas, styles, and sensibilities. Why anyone thought David O. Russell, the filmmaker of "I Heart Huckabees," "Three Kings," and "Flirting With Disaster" should be associated with a sports film, much less a movie about boxing, is way beyond me. It's a miscalculation that plays out sloppily, as the film is wrongly tinged with Russell's quirky flourishes. At the same time, he overall gets rid of his previous directorial mindset, so that the film is a result of him being stuck between gears, when he should have gone one way or the other.

If you don't know the background of the making of this film, you may be a little hard pressed to explain the film's biggest mistake: the focus being put on Mickey Ward, not on his brother Dicky Eklund. The film, in its confused intentions, still covers Ward and Eklund on the same level, but it would be substantially better if it just looked at the unreliable, cocaine-addicted Dicky. Since Mark Wahlberg's persistence was apparently the reason "The Fighter" got made at all, it makes sense that he would put himself front and center and chose the character that a) he thought (fallaciously) was more intriguing or b) he looked more like to base the movie around. However, that hardly warrants the film, which, ultimately, was not really worth making, no matter who the lead was.

The beginning of the movie is a strange meta-film, as HBO documentarians come to Lowell, MA to ostensibly shoot the comeback of Eklund (Christian Bale), who is famed for supposedly knocking out Sugar Ray Robinson (when Robinson probably just tripped). In the periphery is Mickey, who is training to get some fights. There is no sense of how long Mickey has fought or anything like that, as that would just be pesky exposition. (No one but stuck-up cinephiles who like "Belle Epoque" needs that stuff.) We do know that he hasn't been in top form recently (he's collected notice as a "stepping stone"), and that he needs a nice and easy fight to regain footing. He has one slotted, but it turns out that the guy gets sick, someone else steps in, and Mickey gets routed. Such is his luck, we assume.

The people of Lowell are supposedly ashamed of his losing reputation, but the film doesn't manage to make you think that Mickey is truly ostracized. We get more of a sense that his family (notably his mother, played by Melissa Leo) disapproves of his "MTV" girlfriend (Amy Adams), which further underlines how the film is not really about boxing. It's more about talking about and preparing for it, which is a good part of why the film is boring.

I found this film a waste of two hours that could have been improved with some switcheroos (directional, directorial, etc.). It's worth avoiding just for the unintentionally soul-destroying, hard-to-watch scene when Bale and Leo sing one of those "duets for old times" with "I Started a Joke." Plus because my friend, a Massachusetts native, says that Leo's accent (as well as the, to use his words, "self-parodic" view of New England) is somewhat of a disgrace. Her performance in my view is cartoonish, to be sure, but also pretty solid. Bale is good but not exceptional in his drugged out exaggeration, and Adams is alright, a moderate factor. I agree with Roger Ebert: Wahlberg, with a mediocre performance lacking in charisma, lets the film down. The notes he hits of anguish are valuable and heartrending, but since those are few and far between, a recast would have been a good idea. "The Fighter," with no modifications made, is one of the weakest contenders in the 2010 Oscar field. C

Friday, December 17, 2010

An Interview with Kornél Mundruczó, director of "Tender Son - The Frankenstein Project"


"Tender Son - The Frankenstein Project" was In Competition at Cannes, and played at Toronto and Philadelphia. My review of the film is here.

Flick Pick Monster: Would you say that the character of The Director (who you play in “Tender Son”) is autobiographical? Do you believe as a director that “the camera must make the actor act,” as the director does in the film?

Kornél Mundruczó: The character I play obviously carries a lot of characteristics of the problems and challenges I see in this film but, at the same time, I wanted to introduce a film director almost in a documentary way, in the same way I use my characters. That’s why it had to be a film director playing the part.

Then I came to the conclusion that if it was not an actor playing the part, the only honest solution would be my playing it and that I could not bring anyone into a situation where he would observe my ego with critical eyes. Is it my ego anyway? If there is such a transformation, I have to face all the problems, which is very hard. Then of course, the character should become neither someone full of longing nor a terrible bully but someone in-between these two, a man in the real situation of being on a quest. And it was important that he should be played within these boundaries all the time. But I think – and this is the important transformation – that I am not this figure, I am not this film director, the one whose part I play. If you accept and understand this, you get closer to the film.

So in that sense, it is not a secret diary in which I would write. The same construction and the same art of drama build the film like any other of my films but here I should give the keys to the film.

There are thousands of such examples in the cinema. Naturally, if I may use this formidable example, it is a sort of Chaplinesque act – who’s who: Chaplin being Chaplin or Chaplin not being Chaplin? Who’s Chaplin in real life? Of course these are figures and play. It was never intended for me. The most difficult decision took place during the preparation, that I must say. At first I had thought of some actors, as this movie has a theatre version in which it is an actor who plays the character. Then I thought how it had to be a filmmaker, so we made up a list of many names and reflected upon how they each made it onto the list, etc.

Then somehow I crossed out the list completely and said that I couldn’t do that to anyone and that I myself had to do it because it would be the most accurate, the most difficult, the most composed, in other words, the best answer. I enjoyed the challenge quite a lot, but it was awfully tough to place these two things together in my head.

In conclusion, I would really enjoy acting in a film at any time for any director but I wouldn’t like to be an actor again in one of my own films for a while because it was so complicated to put the two things together.

FPM: There seemed to be references to Michael Haneke (with the jagged blood stain), Gus Van Sant (the opening shot of the car reminded me of “Gerry”), and Andrei Tarkovsky (the film had the feeling of “The Sacrifice”). Did you create homages to these filmmakers or any others?

KM: I don’t think that homage would be the right word but I do respect indeed the work of Bresson, Fassbinder and Ozu. I wouldn‘t like to follow their way, but the coherence of their film language and philosophy inspires me.

FPM: Have you cut the film since it played at Cannes and Toronto? I say this because there are production shots that I’ve seen (notably a white-haired man being struck in the neck with a can and Rudolf putting a stethoscope on his own chest) that were absent from the film when it was screened for me at the Philadelphia Film Festival.

KM: No, we haven’t cut the film since Cannes. The production shot you saw was from the theater play, where the stepfather is played by János Derzsi.

FPM: I understand that “Tender Son” was a play before it was a film. How did you change “Tender Son” from drama to cinema?

KM: I changed almost everything apart from the person playing the main character, Rudolf Frecska. We made a new structure, but we did it in order to save the contents of the material. If we had only recorded the theatre production, it wouldn’t have worked. I have only seen terrible examples in that regard. Although I myself had a go at it when we did a theatre-film or film-theatre version of the theatre production of “The Nibelung Residency;” with it I precisely wanted to prove that recorded theatre does not exist or if it does, it is a completely different genre.

But if the question of theatre came up: there are a lot of differences between the theatre version and the film, not only the actor playing the film director.

The content hasn’t changed but its workings have. It’s like translating a poem into a different language. If you want to render the truth of the original material, you usually have to use different words, because the same words usually don’t mean exactly the same thing in a different language. So a film cannot render the content of a theatre production in the same language. You have to change the language in order for the content not to suffer.

FPM: How did you originally conceive of the idea for the play and the film?

KM: With "The Nibelung Residency" the recording of the production was commissioned, with "Tender Son-The Frankenstein Project" whether or not [we were] making a movie wasn’t even a question: only the ground idea was similar to the theatre play. That is the reason why we changed the title as well. This is in every respect a different material, in spite of dealing with almost the same problem as the play. The play is very ironic, with lots of humor, while the film is a lot dryer, more documentary-like and tries to operate more subordinately with regard to the genre. We also would have liked to play a little with elements of the horror and thriller genres in our own way, so that was also a challenge generated by the making of the film.

FPM: How did you expect people were going to react to this film?

KM: This is a very difficult question as I don‘t know how people will react. I would just like to find a way to reach out to their attention and soul. I do hope that in my stories we can drive people toward catharsis and the story stays with them for a long time. Some feedback fortunately confirms this.

FPM: Do you have anything in the works?

KM: I am working on my new film’s script at the moment. In January there will be a documentary shooting and from February I will start rehearsal for a new theatre production in Hamburg.

(Note: I also asked a question about the film's mise-en-scene, but it was either cut off or not answered.)

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Black Swan

"Black Swan," like the production of "Swan Lake" at its center, depends much on its lead performance to carry it. And so it's a good thing for the film as a whole that Natalie Portman is extraordinary as Nina Sayers, a Lincoln Center ballerina who aspires to become the Swan Queen in a revival of the aforementioned ballet. Director Darren Aronofsky is able to coax out of her some tones unseen by audiences before. This may be as good as she'll ever be. This is paralleled in the film with the ballet's director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), who is insistent that she must abandon her restraint and high focus on hitting all the marks to master the part of the Black Swan (just as important as the White Swan, whom Nina is excellent as).

Nina is so intensely driven and absorbed by the part that her own life soon develops into a mirror of the play. (The film's credits take this idea and run with it.) She encounters Lily (Mila Kunis), who she resents, since she is considered a more natural dancer than Nina. Even though Nina manages to win the part of the Swan Queen, she remains convinced that Lily wants to steal it from her. However, Nina still goes out tippling with Lily, after which she's so drugged out that one can't help but wonder where the cut-off point of reality is.

On the side is the underexposed character of Nina's mother (Barbara Hershey), who apparently sacrificed her career for Nina (no mention of a father anywhere). She acts as Nina's moral center and tries and tries to wrench her away from Lily's and also Thomas' attempts to turn her into an ideal Black Swan. Just like many seemingly happy mother-daughter relationships, there are layers underneath that, when provocation abounds, can blast the whole thing apart. Another cloudy individual is the suicidal Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder), who used to be the centerpiece of the company and who, when the film takes place, is basically being let go of. She further emphasizes Thomas' lecherous streak, suggesting (with a repeated term of endearment) the path that Nina may ultimately go down.

The film plays interestingly and contrastingly against Aronofsky's "The Wrestler" (especially because the two were originally thought of as a diptych). One follows the ascendance of someone who still has a long way to go in their career, the other observes the downward spiral of someone far past their prime. One is flashy and fantastical, the other is almost entirely a product of realism. In both, there are strained familial relationships, seen from different perspectives (as the main character is in one the child and in the other the parent). And finally, both end metaphysically, though it's interesting that the ending is left wide open to interpretation in the realistic film and clearly explained in the fantastical one.

The acting in "Black Swan" is outstanding from all corners, not just from Portman. Kunis (a winner at Venice), Hershey, and Cassel (in perhaps the most uncharacteristic role of his career, despite echoes to past performances) should be in the consideration for supporting acting awards. However, the film as a whole leaves something to be desired. It's vapid, garish, at times laughable (the mutilation; the masturbating while Mom slumps in the chair), and (due to the overall abundance and intensity of the images of Nina's insanity) onerous. By design, of course, but still, these are flaws to me. Aronofsky doesn't manage to improve on "The Wrestler," which found more power in having its devastation mounting and forseeable (an attribute that drew much criticism) than "Black Swan" does. Granted, Aronofsky does well in creating an edge-of-your-seat uncertainty, but such things easily slip from your mind. "The Wrestler" in its verisimilitude for me is harder to shake than "Black Swan," despite all of its successful scenes, masterful production design (including magnificent compositions by Matthew Libatique), and ability to unsettle at the moment. B

(Just to let you know, this film is rated R for a reason.)

The trailer for "The Tree of Life," which played before the film and is unavailable online (update: here it is), is perhaps the greatest I've seen. I nearly cried at it. Terence Malick seems as if he's pulled something unbelievably spectacular off.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Boxing Gym

"Boxing Gym," a film not extraordinarily stimulating but with some gripping snippets, is the first film that I've seen by Frederick Wiseman. He aspires to be a literal fly on the wall, as he did for countless previous films. This means no interaction with the subjects of the documentary, no overlays in sound, (as has been said) no traditional interviews. He strips the documentary down to its roots and makes documents, with no particular activistic charge to them (though it's possible that his earlier works, such as "Titticut Follies" and "High School," worked to some degree in that way).

The film is 91 minutes of boxing training, akin to what it would be like to walk through R. Lord's Gym and observe. The film only leaves the parameters of the gym for about 4 to 5 minutes of the film's entire running time. From this, you should be able to tell whether or not you will enjoy this film. Personally, I wasn't blown away by it (note: the film might play better when I'm better rested). That is, as a whole. There are couple of sections that I found quite engaging, such as the extended dialogue between a newcomer and a longtime patron of the gym, who stresses that his favorite part of boxing is "the buzz that comes from being punched in the face." And, at times, the watching of people training can be rather absorbing, with Wiseman often focusing on the ever-important feet of the boxers.

While the film has the ability to sometimes has this ability to get us involved in conditioning, I'd imagine that I will come to forget it rather soon. I agree with the speculation that this is due to the film's lack of a truly captivating subject. I am looking forward to looking through more of Wiseman's back catalogue (such as "State Legislature," "Domestic Violence," and "Basic Training"). I hardly think that "Boxing Gym," with its only glints of pull, is one of his essentials. B-

All of Wiseman's works, much thought to be hard to find, are available at

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The King's Speech

Tom Hooper's "The King's Speech," on the strength of blasting out of both Toronto (Audience Award minted) and Telluride, is making a serious push for the crown of Best Picture. A win there to me would seem a bit unfair. It is a film with a disconnected narrative and ideas, that becomes groaningly hokey, tiresome, and cliched when it continues to overplay many a moment in its second half with its cloying score. This is not to suggest that this film does not work at all. It is a very visually arresting film, which is surprising for a period picture. And, most importantly, in it Colin Firth gives the best performance of his career and Geoffrey Rush does quality work as well.

Firth plays the man who would become King George VI, who cannot speak with the proficiency that someone in his position is required to have. He fails in his first public appearance as the Duke of York, and the need for assistance becomes more evident than ever. The only problem is that he's gotten abrasive towards those therapists who have to help him, and, with his lack of patience and the doctors' inability to get him to keep going, he feels that his ailment is impossible to fix.

His wife, soon-to-be Queen Elizabeth (an underutilized, very good Helena Bonham Carter), goes without telling him to one more speech therapist. This is Lionel Logue (Rush), who has his office in a dank and abstractly wallpapered basement. Logue writes her off at first, falling under the impression (due to the alias used) that this is just another case. However, in what develops into a sort of running joke, Elizabeth reveals who she actually is and Logue comes to take George on.

Logue has the audacity that the other doctors lacked. He insists on staying on a first-name basis with George (whom he incessantly calls Bertie, his family nickname) to have the intimacy that he finds necessary. He tries to find and use the points where George is able to avoid his stutter (when he cannot hear himself speaking, when he's singing, when he's swearing). And he, also prods George to a level that he's never been before, so much so that George considers Logue the "first normal friend" he's had.

While George is gaining this training for personal life (telling stories to his daughters) and smaller public appearances, it begins to become apparent that he might need it for something much larger. His prickly father George V (Michael Gambon) passes, and his womanizing brother Edward (Guy Pearce) becomes king but is taken by a love strong enough to marry (Wallis Simpson, portrayed by Eve Best). Which comes as a problem, seeing as she is a divorcee. So even though George doesn't have the ambition to be king, that comes to hardly matter.

As I noted earlier, the film has masterful visual stylism, with its unpredictable and palpable cinematography by Danny Cohen that is one of the year's highest technical achievements. The typical period sobriety is not what he's aiming for, although he does bounce off of some of the hallmarks of the genre. The camera is packed into a small elevator along with the king and queen; it follows George around as he rages or as he follows one of Logue's treatments; and it employs the architecture of the period in marvelous ways (it reminded me of Matyas Erdely's extraordinary work on "Tender Son: The Frankenstein Project"). It is the perfect compliment to Jenny Beaven's costumes, and a fabulous addition to the film as a whole.

Firth could also be called this. He plays George with an exceptional naturalness. He sometimes locks the film down, but in retrospect that's exactly the point. He plays the polar opposite of his rival in the awards competition, Jesse Eisenberg as the unusually breakneck Mark Zuckerberg. I found his work in last year's "A Single Man" rather overrated, but here he's getting deservedly lauded. I found Rush also suited his part, charmingly playing what may become one of his signature roles.

They are brought up and then let down by David Seidler's script, crafting an auspicious start and then a detrimentally sentimental followthrough. Even if most of the cogs in the machine are working, when one as big as this one goes down, the film is affected. Enough to make it a bore as it progresses and thus to hinder the course of a potentially top-notch film. B-

Friday, December 3, 2010


Taken from Mark Millar and John Romita Jr's graphic novel, "Kick-Ass," like fellow comic book adaptation "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" (which it name-drops), has problems with sustenance. In its multilayered first half, it does something moderately excellent. It follows Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson), as he goes from geek nobody to famous superhero Kick-Ass; the criminal operations of a much-hated crime lord Frank D'Amico (Mark Strong) and his outcast son Chris (Christopher Mintz-Plasse); and the efforts of rogue crime fighters Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) and Hit Girl (Chloe Moretz), as they try to bring D'Amico down. This is rich in humor, and transcendent of the shallow boundaries that it automatically sets for itself. But, in the later portions, as the film stretches a little too long, it isn't able to hold together. Director Matthew Vaughn makes the mistake of taking Kick-Ass offscreen and leaving the stage set for Hit Girl. (Much criticism has been spouted due to the level of violence and bad language perpetuated by someone as young as Hit Girl. I would dismiss such claims as mostly idiotic, due to the overblown nature of the earlier Hit Girl moments of the film. Onward into the film, however, I see what the haters are talking about.) When you have as electric a character as Kick-Ass, you don't want to do that. Subtracting the power supply, the film loses its charge (which continues even after he's brought back), and along with that, common sense (for some reason forgetting entirely about the romantic interest of the film at the end; the last shot is a mumbled echo of an earlier incident, with no real bearing on the plot whatsoever).

Pulling back to explain a bit more of the plot: Dave Lizewski notes that nothing really distinguishes him from anyone else. He has only a couple of nerdy friends (played in very adept comic performances by Clark Duke and Even Peters) and his designs for a girl (Lyndsy Fonseca) are entertained by the object of his desire only because she thinks he's a homosexual and because she wants a "gay BFF." (He also, in one of the film's biggest misplays, a cringe-inducing development, has sexual thoughts about his English teacher.) He is also routinely mugged and stunned by how people refrain from helping, only watching dumbfounded (the quote "Evil can only exist when good people do nothing" comes to mind). He decides to suit up to combat the crime of the city, and soon enough he's widely known as a real superhero. This causes commotion among the felons, such as D'Amico, even though Kick-Ass isn't responsible for a lot of the things that people think he did. Big Daddy and Hit Girl are the ones accountable, going for revenge against D'Amico, who sent Big Daddy to prison through planted evidence and is now peddling a lot of cocaine.

This is both more appealing and more negative than it sounds, well-played by Vaughn and his solid set of actors, including a winning Johnson (who I hope to see more of), Cage pushing too far to diverting effects, and Moretz, who has (perhaps too much) facility. These performers and amusing (if flawed w/r/t narration) writing make it a real pain in the ass that the film goes down the road that it ultimately does. B-

Friday, November 26, 2010

White Material

Having only seen "35 Shots of Rum," a pretty good but also pretty overrated film, I was a little skeptical of hugely admired director Claire Denis. However, her new "White Material," a film about the end of stability and trying to continue afterwards, is a great work. This is a movie that grows and grows, one that I had doubts about at the beginning that were answered by the end. It is a piece to relish and (it has been said, believably so) to see more than once. It will not have a unanimous appeal, that's for sure. For example, it has a twisty, hard-to-follow composition (beginning at the near-end and cycling in and out, through past and present) that has been criticized. I, though, find it entirely inherent to the film and its success. The film also seems to be about very little, but in its quietly sprawling nature, it rises above.

Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert) is an unsuccessful French coffee proprietor staying in Africa even though her country's army has left and her workers have abandoned her. She's caught in the middle of a standoff between officials and rebels, personified by José (Daniel Tchangang) and the on-the-ropes and bleeding Boxer (Isaach de Bankole). Her ex-husband André (Christophe Lambert) is trying to sell their plantation to José and her son Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle) is a slacker whose supposed streak of "insanity" is exposed after he gets robbed and stripped naked.

Anyways, the film shows Vial as she presses on, trying to carry on her normal life as it is starting to crumble. I won't say much more on the plot than that, as there is not a lot to say, other than that it travels familiar roads with transcendent results. What must be mentioned and praised is the excellent work by cinematographer Yves Cape (who's shot for Bruno Dumont before). Whether it be a stationary spread, a shaky follower, or a swift tracking shot, Cape does it right. (And although it seemed dubious to employ, as has been said before, Dardennes-like close-ups, they are well validated.) Stuart Staples and the Tindersticks' score (similar to the one by Wasis Diop in "A Screaming Man") is also first-rate. Finally, Huppert, in a much-lauded role, is always solid with some amazing moments (for example, the scene where she berates her son in his bedroom). "White Material" is the type of film that many are bound to turn off early or to not even bother with. That's their loss. A

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Leaving the Parlor: Facebook and The Exterminating Angel

I saw Luis Bunuel's "The Exterminating Angel" two nights ago, an intense and draining film considered by many to rank among the best of all-time. It left me a little cold, but it provided me with very profound insight. The situation in the film, that of people who psyche themselves out of leaving a parlor and who go on to consider the simple act of walking away impossible, strikes me as relevant these days. After about a year and a half (with a couple of breaks in between), I tossed my Facebook account.

Excuse my heavy-handedness when I say that Facebook is the veritable Parlor of the Internet. It works much the same way as Bunuel's, based on the same "herd mentality" (as Zadie Smith noted) and desire to keep the status quo. It's hard to quit: why leave when no one else is leaving? To stay may seem innocuous, as Facebook is "free." But is it really? Monetarily, yes. But there are other things one can lose by continuing to be a member of the site, such as time, and, most disturbingly, dignity. For the latter: consider Facebook Stalking. This is defined by as "a covert method of investigation using; good for discovering a wealth of information about people you don't actually know." Would a good person do this in real life? Probably not. But Facebook is transformative, just like Bunuel's parlor, and people aren't who we think they are. It is tempting to say that they "aren't themselves" online, but who is to really know? Maybe this is the "real them." When the options are available, people are capable of a lot of things.

Friends have seen Smith's New York Review of Books article "Generation Why?" and Gary Shteyngart's novel "Super Sad True Love Story" as effective anti-Facebook advocates. But I find the parallels between the website and Bunuel's film especially chilling. There are people who fancy themselves casual users of the site. Of these, there are some who actually are. But then there are those who say that they are just staying the morning, and who end up there a whole lot longer. For them, a wake-up call (or a piano piece played again) is necessary.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

These Will Be the Winners: My Early Oscar Predictions (November 2010)

Having read websites such as The Film Experience and In Contention, I have a pretty good idea of what the field of play is going to be like at the Oscars (pre-nominations). So here goes:

Best Picture: The Social Network

I have a strong feeling about Toy Story 3 as well. Inception may have an outside chance.

Best Actor: Colin Firth, The King's Speech

Best Actress: Natalie Portman, Black Swan

Best Supporting Actor: Christian Bale, The Fighter

Best Supporting Actress: Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit

Best Director: David Fincher, The Social Network

Best Original Screenplay: Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg, The Kids Are All Right

Best Adapted Screenplay: Aaron Sorkin, The Social Network

This is a lock. People haven't stopped talking about Sorkin's script, and even if The Social Network doesn't come out on top on Oscar night, this most certainly will.

Monday, November 22, 2010


With excellently done blown-up photographs and stop motion animation, Jeff Malmberg makes viewing the town of "Marwencol" as absorbing for the audience as it is for its creator Mark Hogencamp. This is a good first documentary, flawed (it can be aimless, repetitive, and a bit trite) but well-deviced and observant all the same.

Hogencamp was accosted by people in a bar (apparently after he revealed his penchant for cross-dressing). This assault impaired his brain functionality and wiped all memories of his life before out. (It also, beneficially, did away with his alcoholism.) After he recovered his motor skills, etc., he set to work on building Marwencol, Belgium, set during the Second World War and a convergence of soldiers forced to be kind with one another. (The Nazis, whom Mark equates to his drinking problems, invade at times.) He filled this with replicas of his acquaintances, which of course creates a strange parallel with the people they represent. Not only is his mom there, but also the married woman he developed a very strong attraction to (and married in Marwencol) and waitresses at the restaurant at which he works (when he kills off one of them, the person in question is a little perturbed).

Hogencamp took very meticulous photography of the miniature town, which eventually got its own art show. We see two people who expose the work to the broader world: a photographer (who's also Mark's neighbor) and a magazine editor. The photographer sees the pictures without patronization. The magazine editor purveys condescension, noting that there's "no irony" in Mark's shots. Malmberg and his film admirably for the most part lean towards the photographer's perspective.

The film paints a big picture of Hogencamp. It sometimes shows him as a bit unusual (what with his marriage to a doll and his fictionally-realized relationship with his married neighbor). It also allots him commentary, which is unabashedly sentimental. These things, both of which could be seen as negative traits (the former as exploitative, the latter as slightly truistic), balance each other out, and the film with both is altogether better. "Marwencol" should have been granted a spot on the Academy's documentary shortlist; it's not formally polished, but what it does makes up for that. B

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

With "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World," director Edgar Wright deftly mixes and matches the plot points of Bryan Lee O'Malley's moderately indelible comic book series to come up with a workable but ultimately far too hurried adaptation.

But there is much to be said for it. Wright shows his capabilities as an accomplished director here; this is his best film to date (I say this only having seen his in my opinion mediocre "Shaun of the Dead"). How he plays the world of the spaced-out Scott is superb. In the book, Scott is notably at the mercy of time, but this isn't quite as intense for the reader. In the film, Wright excellently accentuates this to the point that the scenes slide and slam together. And, in his script with Michael Bacall, he does a great job of filtering the book's sardonic and eccentric humor through a cinematic lens.

The actors fit the characters' shoes admittedly to varying degrees of success, but at least they're all on the high end of the spectrum. Michael Cera, who I had doubts about in the role of the title character, does well, as do Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Ramona, Kieran Culkin as Wallace Wells, and Jason Schwartzman, delightfully glib if slightly over-the-top, as Gideon.

For the uninitiated (who, to me, will be much better off when viewing this film as they won't have the books to think about in the back of their minds), Scott Pilgrim (Cera) is a Toronto-based layabout without a job who's floating in the world just outside of college, living in a crappy apartment consisting of stuff mostly owned by his roommate Wallace (Culkin). He's got a band (Sex Bob-Omb) and a girlfriend in high school (Knives Chau, played simultaneously as worthy and as pathetic by Ellen Wong) who he's not serious about but who's serious about him. He sees a hot girl in his dreams (much better explained in the book; I'll leave it at that), who comes into his life soon afterwards as an American moving to Canada for some quiet time. This is Ramona (Winstead), and according to those on the party scene, she's too much for him. But this is not the case, as they come to a relationship.

Not as simple as that, however. Scott is faced with the challenge of having to dispatch a whopping total of 7 "evil exes," who make up a sort of "league." They range from flames she had very minor encounters with in grade school to the one that she's still not over. I agree with the speculation of at least some that these battle scenes were dense and probably should have been wider spaced. Wright would have had to make a film 2 and half to 3 hours to do that, but still: except for the first two, which are meticulously re-created, the rest are sped through, cutting off huge developments (one wouldn't understand the true power of Envy Adams' devastation from this film) as the film goes headlong towards the ending. This is on some level good: I disliked the drawing-out of some of the conflicts in the book and it would be a pain to see them played out again on-screen. But overall, it's a bit slipshod.

The second half plays as if Wright took apart the end of the series, threw it in a box, and blew it up with dynamite. Strands of the plot are all over the place, as the film is very simplified. As I said before, this is well-done by Wright but, of course, disconcerting for the observant reader. The construction of the ending is completely foreign to that of the book, simultaneously refreshing and bizarre, using Knives Chau to a very profuse extent. She feels like an intruder in the messily observed climax and ending. It works at times, but it is not exemplary craftsmanship on Wright's part. Also: his decision to dance around the book's emotional pieces nicely lightens the mood but backfires in that it shuts out very important content.

As a gamer and a jester, Wright is able to do an admirable job with much of this film. He makes "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" absorbing and at times even surprising for me as a previous reader. But he didn't entirely make it work. Although I may be slightly off, I think those taking in this story for the first time will appreciate this film version better. However, if you were going to pick between the comics and the feature, I'd say go with the reading. B-

Friday, November 19, 2010

127 Hours

Danny Boyle (as Mike D'Angelo noted) subjects all of his films to the same "hyperkinetic" (as it has been called) style. With "127 Hours," his follow-up to "Slumdog Millionaire" (which I have very mixed feeling about), this proves to be a faulty decision. This is a film about an adventurous hiker named Aron Ralston who falls down into a cavern, getting his arm stuck, as the title of Ralston's memoir states, between a rock and a hard place. If there ever was a story deserving of Romanian New Wave-level realism or a POV treatment, it was this one. But instead, Boyle turns it into a movie resembling Van Sant's "Gerry" on stimulants, continuously spiraling away from the center, charting Ralston's thoughts instead of his experiences. It's an understandable approach, but considering, as D'Angelo also noted, what an audacious filmmaker could have accomplished, it's a path of cowardice.

The film opens with Ralston setting off on his fateful trip without, importantly, telling anyone where he's going. We see him as the reckless, brash guy who takes shortcuts to cut off time from "what the guidebook says." Early into his excursion, he meets two fellow backpackers (Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn, stiff and stepping on pretty much every line), who I suppose are there to be his final connection to the outside world. The fun they have furthers the extremely breezy tone of the beginning, which is jarred completely when, a few minutes after they part, Ralston slips and plummets.

As you might expect, Boyle is pretty focused, showing Ralston trying to chip at the rock with his low-grade knockoff multi-tool (as the prologue shows, he's left his Swiss Army Knife at home). That is, for maybe a good 30 seconds. Then, he breaks away, enough times that one could argue that more time is spent outside of Ralston's fix than in. Boyle compromises, when he should be uncompromising. The method works in a way: it shows us visually what he's thinking, and offers (if extremely confusing and half-cooked) exposition. (To it's detriment, it also overloads on massively sentimental imagery.) In my opinion, if it had really wanted to be effective, it would have viewed Ralston as someone who would have found him would have viewed him: as a man who's fighting against deterioration, mental and physical. The scene where he imagines that he's on a talk show could have been more interesting if it had not contained itself (i.e. added the applause in the background).

James Franco is the actor who takes on Ralston, and he does well. If there was an actor who could have played this part better, Franco makes us forget. (In a more intensive version of this film, he may still have been the go-to guy, though in large doses I feel he could be a little annoying, meaning that Boyle's guerrilla editing regiment maybe benefited Franco). However, the real character of Ralston is underexposed. Whether that's the fault of Boyle or Franco is unclear, but what is certain is that the film does not go far enough in its look at the man.

Of course, since this is a Boyle film, there is technical show-offing which (as they say) gets your adrenaline pumping. But this is not the film for it. This is the film where you sacrifice being bravura for being getting in touch with your subject. In this way, Boyle is not a mature filmmaker. He has all the control in the world when it comes to the small aspects of his mise-en-scene (if you can even grant that level of sophistication to his direction), but it doesn't occur to him that the right idea may be to switch the game-plan altogether. C+

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Cannes Competition Distribution Report 2010

Competition Films With American Distribution:
Another Year (Mike Leigh) - Sony Pictures Classics
Of Gods and Men (Xavier Beauvois) - Sony Pictures Classics (Gran Prix)
Outside the Law (Rachid Bouchareb) - Cohen Media Group
Biutiful (Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu) - Roadside Attractions (Best Actor, Javier Bardem; tied with Elio Germano)
A Screaming Man (Mahamat-Saleh Haroun) - Film Movement (Jury Prize)
The Princess of Montpensier (Bertrand Tavernier) - IFC Films
Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami) - IFC Films (Best Actress, Juliette Binoche)
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul) - Strand Releasing (Palme d'Or)
The Housemaid (Im Sang-Soo) - IFC Films
My Joy (Sergei Loznitsa) - Kino Lorber
Poetry (Lee Chang-dong) - Kino Lorber (Best Screenplay)
Outrage (Takeshi Kitano) - Magnolia Pictures
Fair Game (Doug Liman) - Summit Entertainment

Competition Films Without American Distribution:
Tender Son - The Frankenstein Project (Kornel Mundruczo)
Route Irish (Ken Loach)
On Tour (Mathieu Amalric) (Best Director, Mathieu Amalric; FIPRESCI award)
Our Life (Daniele Luchetti) (Best Actor, Elio Germano; tied with Javier Bardem)
Burnt By the Sun 2 (Nikita Mikhalkov)
Chongqing Blues (Wang Xiaoshuai)

Friday, November 12, 2010

Four Lions

"Four Lions" is a sloppy movie that shows in every single scene that it is the work of someone experienced with television and not feature films. Christopher Morris is apparently very famous in England. I see from his IMDb page that he's only written and directed television shows, like "Nathan Barley" and "The Day Today." This is a great way to build up a fan base, but it may leave you out of touch with cinematic instincts. That's what's happened to Morris. For example, he uses a lot of establishing shots and thus makes the film come off as episodic. As I said in my review of "Hereafter," this reeks of a sitcom. A real filmmaker puts their faith in the audience and segues right in with regular shots.

But I wouldn't care about this as much if the film delivered. Let me tell you: it really doesn't. This is a British comedy and satire that is reported to produce many laughs. Nearly all of mine were forced. When these types of films don't work (like Winterbottom's "Tristam Shandy"), they can be very middling, and that's exactly what this is.

This film barely even has a plot: we follow a group of inane terrorists as they try over and over again to orchestrate a suicide bombing. Omar (Riz Ahmed) is very serious about it all, the most diehard of the group. Barry (Nigel Lindsay), a sometime panelist, is hellbent on blowing up a mosque so that he can get Muslims to rise up. Waj (Kayvan Novak) is basically a puppet, who can be easily swayed ideologically with the promise of going on theme park rides when he's in heaven. Fessal (Adeel Aktar) earnestly buys chemicals at the same store with "different voices," and one of the more minor members of the group. And finally, we have Hassan (Arsher Ali), who joins the group later on after he pulls an audacious but senseless stunt in the audience of one of Barry's talks. We follow them through their mishaps, in terrorist training camp, videotaping themselves, and sometimes just blowing up microwaves for good measure. This is all put together in a way devoid of sense, somehow not developing characters enough to really make us care about them. It must be said, though, that at a certain point, I stop finding people failing and arguing about silly stuff humorous. There are people that do like this kind of thing, and they will be satiated. However, they won't be enriched by a quality film experience.

When we get to the ending, set during the London Marathon, Morris doesn't flinch at surprising violence. But even this he ends up making repetitive. He struggles a bit with tone, which doesn't help. It's really not his business. He's in it for setting up the music and the image, as that's what I assume he does with his television programs.

Morris hits some nice marks with his jabs at the faulty ideology of the terrorists. They completely misunderstand the meaning of jihad. Omar feeds it both to Waj (through the whole theme park meme) and his own son (through a story about "The Lion King") in misleading ways. There is also the idea of "following your heart," which is brought up in a scene between Omar and Waj where Waj obviously has doubts and where Omar has to convince him that "his brain really is his heart."

I will finally speak of the acting, which is a maker or a breaker in a comedy. Sad to say that "Four Lions" gets let down on this front. Ahmed in the lead role admirably plays a straight man, but he's not very good at delivery of jokes and this costs the film. Also underperforming is Lindsay, who swings and misses when it comes to making an endearingly annoying character and ends up just with the latter half. I didn't much like Novak either and had mixed feelings about Ali (who is admittedly better than his lookalike Aasif Mandvi, which is not saying a whole lot). Good work is given in my opinion is by Aktar making a comical character out of Fessel (providing salvation like David Rasche did in "In the Loop"), but he's such a small part of the film that it really doesn't matter that much.

I don't tend to get into the groove of cult films that cause unstoppable laughter. That was why for me "Four Lions" was a dissatisfactory movie. It definitely has an audience, which you may be a part of. Speaking for myself, though... C

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Town

Ben Affleck didn't know how to end "The Town." Considering that the rest of the film is as atmospheric as Peter Yates' similarly Boston-set "The Friends of Eddie Coyle" and twice as good, this is a shame. Pre-ending, it's entertaining, evocative, satisfying, and just about worthy of Affleck's "Gone Baby Gone." It wouldn't have caused the same sort of philosophical debate that resulted from that film's ending, but it would have been mighty fine. However, Affleck sends the film down maybe the wrong road, trapping himself in a corner only escapable through a terribly sappy resolution.

This film focuses on a neighborhood in Boston called Charleston, where (I believe) "Gone Baby Gone" was also set. Tragedy is in the air every second, since a ton of criminals operate from here. Ex-hockey-player Doug MacRay (a good Affleck) is one of them, along with his friend from childhood James (Jeremy Renner, playing a character similar to the one in "The Hurt Locker") whose drugged-up and promiscuous sister (Blake Lively) he dated and had a kid with, and a couple others (Owen Burke and Slaine). They work for Fergie Colm (Pete Postlethwaite, in a nice bit part), a mob boss who has a long history with Doug and his prison-sentenced father Stephen (Chris Cooper).

Doug and his cohorts are considered experts by the police. They are extremely meticulous in all of their robberies, making sure to wash their DNA off the crime scene and to deal with any dangerous witnesses. They take on a bank at the film's start, and are forced to kidnap the bank manager and release her at the water. This is Claire (Rebecca Hall), who is unsettled by the ordeal. She talks to the FBI (namely Adam Frawley, played solidly as a Landa-esque passive-aggressive by Jon Hamm) but doesn't say much.

Doug, who stole her license at some point during the robbery, follows her from her house to a laundromat and ends up carrying on a conversation with her as just some guy. She brings up her horrible situation, and he must contain his knowledge while comforting her. This encounter escalates into having a drink, and then further. This is a love that is bound to collapse, but Doug is not thinking as the levelheaded robbery planner that he is. This provokes relevant thoughts and doubles as a look at love in the information age.

As the relationship progresses, Doug wants more and more to back out of his dangerous activity. The jobs get increasingly riskier, from robbing a truck to stealing from Fenway Park (which is an anti-American and -Bostonian offense on top of a federal one, if you ask me), with the gunfights taking place in more and more closed spaces. This arc is a bit hard for Affleck to handle. Maybe he bit off more than he could chew. All I know is that he did a very nice job with the ending of "Gone Baby Gone," and that here he turned to schmaltz. B

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Fair Game

"Nothing But the Truth" by Rod Lurie viewed the revealing of Valerie Plame's CIA status behind a fictional lens and from the perspective of the person who wrote the explosive article. That was a disappointing and confused film, but, despite my objections, I feel ultimately that it had more going on than Doug Liman's "Fair Game." I fully expected that Liman (also his own bravura cinematographer) was going pull something much better off with this Cannes Competition entry, what with his choice to make it a fly-on-the-wall biopic rather than a fictionalization. But instead, the result is dreary, repetitive, and unsatisfying, a film that really doesn't go anywhere.

I have my qualms about Naomi Watts (chosen due to her close resemblance to Ms. Plame) in the lead role. She's tediously solemn, the polar opposite of Vera Farmiga's overacting in "Nothing." It's decent and everything, but it does the film no favors. We see her going off to a ton of different countries, like Malaysia and Iraq, trying to get lists of people involved with projects, always under an innocuous cover before she turns all CIA on the person she's with. She's a workaholic, often absent from home, to the detriment of her marriage to Ambassador Joe Wilson (Sean Penn).

Wilson makes dinner parties and social gatherings less fun with his inability to keep himself from speaking his mind ("Have you ever actually been threatened by Saddam? Then you don't know what you're talking about."). He's also unable to contain himself after he's gone to Niger to investigate White Cake uranium. He hears Pres. Bush's State of the Union saying that there is indeed this sort of uranium in Africa (and thus a threat of nuclear weapon production), and must do his duty as an American to tell everyone that this stuff isn't there (in a New York Times article). He isn't thinking about what consequences will come from writing this. This isn't the article that brought Plame to her demise (although it definitely had an indirect effect), but one would be forgiven for thinking that, because the whole Judith Miller aspect of the scandal (the subject of "Nothing But the Truth") is left basically unexplored.

The film is at points moderately expansive, detailing relations in Iraq between Plame and a doctor and her brother (which ultimately and shatteringly fall apart) and also covering inside the government (with both Scooter Libby and, awkwardly, Karl Rove portrayed). Liman can't avoid an erratic tone in these portions. However, they do provide more stimulation than the reacting-to-television-clip and picking-up-the-phone scenes (unfortunately not like this) that are interspersed throughout. The film, parading Sam Shepard around on the way, drags to a conclusion that could easily be called a cop-out. When we're speaking in these terms, we know we don't have a success on our hands. C