Saturday, January 29, 2011

An Interview with Jon Foy, director of “Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles”


“Resurrect Dead” played at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival in the U.S. Documentary Competition. Foy won the award for Best Director.

Flick Pick Monster: How did you conceive of this project and why did you choose this to be your first film?

Jon Foy: I think that for me a lot of this stuff happens on a gut level, so it’s really hard to know exactly why. I wanted to do something that seemed kind of fantastical, like magical realism, but this is all a documentary, it’s all true. And so I sensed that I could kind of present it is being this fantastical thing—that’s the mode of delivery, but it’s all real information and real events. That really appealed to me on that level. I’ve seen this kind of trend in Hollywood of doing films that are presented as found footage—stuff like “Blair Witch” or “Cloverfield” or things like that--- and that’s pretty cool, but to me it seemed interesting to me to go in the opposite direction, to take something as real and present it as unreal as possible [laughs].

FPM: I understand you composed the music and also edited the movie. How was that and do you like controlling all the aspects of the movie?

JF: Well, I self-funded the movie as a house cleaner. I spent 5 and half years working odd jobs. And the whole time I did clean houses. I did some other stuff: I did drug studies, I stocked shelves at a local food store. I did all sorts of crazy stuff. I was able to do everything myself because there was nobody that was controlling the money that was able to say, you’re crazy, directors don’t get to write their own scores.

I taught myself how to score specifically so that I could score this project. The score’s pretty key to the movie. I would say that goes back to what I said before about this being like a cinematic delivery: I wanted it to feel unreal, I wanted it to feel cinematic, like you’re actually seeing something that’s fictional. But again, it’s all very true-we’re not literally making anything up, it’s just that there’s this fantastical, whimsical music, and mysterious music going underneath that sort of elevates the mood of it.

I did compose the score, I edited, I shot it, I funded it, I directed it. I also did other smaller things, like the sound design and the sound mixing and the color. Pretty much everything, although I had a lot of helping as far as like dealing with concepts from Colin Smith, who also was producing the film. He would do a lot of quality control, of watching the film and letting me know, this part goes on too long, things like that, and he worked on the pacing…

FPM: What films and directors have influenced you? When I heard of this documentary, I was thinking it sounds kind of like Banksy [and his "Exit Through the Gift Shop"].

JF: We loved that movie. Well, that movie came out late in the game, in the last year or so, when our movie was being more or less wrapped up. But, yeah, certainly: we were so happy when we heard that movie came out that we actually went to the theater and saw it as soon as we could because we thought, oh my god another movie that’s kind of like ours [laughs].

I would say my influences were around the time that I was growing up—maybe around like 10 years old, I was seeing all these wonderful films that a lot of us probably grew up with. The Spielberg stuff, the early Tim Burton stuff, Star Wars-- all these wonderful escapist Hollywood films. That was the stuff that really planted the seed for me to want to be a filmmaker.

And then what happened was I got into punk rock, and that shaped my understanding of this raw approach to art and feeling as if you can do things yourself, you don’t need to hire professionals. You can just do things, and if they’re a little rough, then whatever, they’ll come across as being more honest anyway.

It is a very lo-fi film. I pretty much learned how to do everything as I went [laughs]. Not a whole lot of training or anything. So I would say a mix of those two things: those wonderful, fantastical films, and then, as viewed through the lens of someone who cobbles together things very raw and immediate, through the lens of punk rock, that’s how you end up with stuff like this [laughs].

FPM: Without spoiling anything, do you feel like you’ve found a satisfying answer to the mystery of the tiles in the making of this documentary?

JF: Well, the answer is yes and no. We leave people to decide what they think, but we present our evidence, we’re satisfied with what we discovered, and where the story took us. We felt like it was an adventure, and we shared that on film. We hope that people will enjoy it as well. And I guess people can make up their own minds, because a lot of it is conjecture, a lot of it is guesswork; we bring together things from the past… And so I guess it’s kind of interesting: we leave people to debate it afterwards and leave them to decide what they think of what we found. But hopefully it’ll be entertaining, regardless of what people come up with.

Another Year

Mike Leigh's last film, "Happy-Go-Lucky," may be a bit more consistent than his new work, "Another Year," but the latter is much more heartrending. It sees geologist Tom (Jim Broadbent) and his counselor wife Gerri (Ruth Sheen) through one year of their life (with season-titled sections a la "Rushmore"). People who see this film are bound immediately to think of them as "happy," but if their life is as taxing every year as it is in the year profiled in this film, maybe not entirely.

They are routinely imposed upon by clingy work friend Mary (Lesley Manville), who always gets embarrassingly hammered when she comes over and who wears her emotions on her sleeves. When she comes over for the first time in the film (obviously following many unseen occasions), we are let on that the patience of Tom and Gerri is nearing its end. Also making appearances is old friend Ken (Peter Wight), way overweight and sinking into extreme excess. Ken has a thing for Mary, but Mary makes no pretense in admitting that she wants him to go away. This is similar to her courtship of Joe (Oliver Maltman), the witty only child of Tom and Gerri, who is a bit more tactful in his rejection of her. A horrific scene, though, results when Mary icily receives Joe's lover Katie (Karina Fernandez).

There are also characters that come in on the bookends. In an intriguing non sequiter which is supposed to be a sort of entry point for the audience, we meet a client of Gerri's, Janet (Imelda Staunton), who is having a terrible time trying to sleep. And at the end, Tom's brother Ronnie (David Bradley) and his caustic son Carl (Martin Savage, aptly named for the character) come into the fray when Ronnie's wife dies and there is a funeral.

Leigh's meticulous and traditionally droll script deserves to the win the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, the only nomination that the film has garnered. It's impressively controlled and subtle (letting on instead of screaming out), putting it above any other screenplay in its field this year. Not that all of the sections are equally good ("Summer" and "Fall" work much better than "Spring" and the "You, the Living"-esque "Winter" in my opinion), but that would be nearly impossible to do.

The acting is seriously good from everyone. Manville has gotten a lot of attention, and she deserves a good portion of it. She makes some great choices in how she plays scenes, and maybe, if you really want to scrutinize, a misstep or two (the first drunk scene, possibly). I totally agree with those who say that she's unbearable, which is exactly what she needs to be, a combination of needing and spiting. Should she have gotten an Oscar nomination? Yes. Either field, Best Actress or Best Supporting Actress, has at least one less deserving candidate than Manville. I admire Sheen, too, who should have also garnered some attention.

The biggest criticism I've heard of this movie is that it is that it "invites you to revile its characters." I can see that in a couple of instances (especially the final shot, an instance of bravura camera technique but on some level misplayed), but I find that the film mostly transcends this by captivating and distracting you. Unfortunately overlooked in both the 2010 Cannes competition (yet another film better than both the Palme and Gran Prix winners) and the Oscar field that was originally supposed to serve as consolation, "Another Year" is a film that I will want to revisit (like last week's "The Illusionist"). Maybe I'll even do that on an annual basis. B+

Friday, January 28, 2011


This review is full of spoilers, so I recommend not reading it if you haven't seen the film first.

"Catfish" is a moderately entertaining look at how Facebook and other online communication breeds obsession and strange franticness, for its first 3/4. But when the film in its last quarter decides to make a big reveal, it becomes much less interesting, much less direct, and much less ethically sound.

The filmmakers, Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost, have not gone the Casey Affleck route and admitted that they've made a mockumentary, so there still is legitimacy in the positions of considering it real or fake. Thinking of it as real, I side with my reader Cristina Acuna, who asked: "Why is nothing private anymore?" The film is about how Ariel's brother Nev talked to people he'd never met or seen before. However, it drifts beyond the innocuous. It begins when a girl from Michigan sends Nev paintings of his photographs. He engages in insane amounts of talk on email and chat, branching beyond the girl, Abby, to her mother Angela, and finally to her half-sister Megan. He starts to, through Megan's Facebook photos, develop an interest in her. They get up to the point (with sweet talk and everything) where if they met each other, they'd really be in a relationship. So Nev decides, when out west, to go.

When they are at another stop, Nev starts to find some problems. He finds that Abby's supposed art gallery hasn't been in operation for years, that Megan keeps sending him songs she apparently covered, but instead ripped off of Youtube and the rest of the Internet, and that her ranch is empty. But what should be an anvil drop isn't when we find Angela at home, holding Megan's phone as well as hers, painting, and updating over ten different fake Facebook profiles. If this film is real, it's exploitative to the max and I don't think that it should have been made into a movie for everyone to see. That they did means that either the Schulman and Joost are the imposing scoundrels everyone says they are, or they set it all up.

I think the film could get off pretty much unscathed (if a bit cheesy) if it were fake, save one thing: at the end of the film, there is a listing that one of Angela's mentally-challenged sons died. To create that sort of stuff in the way that Schulman and Joost (may) have to me is somewhat inexcusable. If the film is fake, they obviously put it in there to try to fake authenticity. But it just sort of makes me sick.

So it's a paradox: the film is shaky either way (much like Simon Abrams noted about "Exit Through the Gift Shop," in a piece I disagree with all the same but still admire). Ariel told me that it was as real, and if he wants to go that way, let him, though I'm unsure of what good that does the movie. C+

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Ten Worst Oscar Snubs - 2010

The third edition of this annual feature. This time, I've limited it only to films (and aspects of films) that appeared on the longlists for Best Picture, Best Animated Feature, Best Foreign Film, and Best Documentary Feature. So that means no ineligible films on this list, like "Fish Tank," "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work," or "White Material." Also, as has always been the case, one spot per snubbed film. Not that I thought all of these people/films would be nominated, but still. Finally, if a film has already gotten a certain amount of attention, I don't go apeshit if it doesn't get more (i.e. "Exit Through the Gift Shop," which I think is the year's best film, got its due in the Best Documentary Feature category and since documentaries don't usually get nominated for Best Picture and all that, I'm satisfied). Influenced by other Oscar pieces including the one on The Film Experience.

10. Robert Richardson, Shutter Island (Best Cinematography)
9. TIE Christopher Nolan, Inception AND Ben Affleck, The Town (Best Director)
8. Andrew Garfield, The Social Network (Best Supporting Actor)
7. Julianne Moore, The Kids Are All Right (Best Actress)
6. Eric Gautier, Wild Grass (Best Cinematography)
5. Barbara Hershey, Mila Kunis, and Vincent Cassel, Black Swan (Best Supporting Actress/Actor)
4. Ben Mendelsohn, Animal Kingdom (Best Supporting Actor)
3. Ben Stiller, Rhys Ifans, and Noah Baumbach, Greenberg (Best Actor/Supporting Actor/Director)
2. Roman Polanski, The Ghost Writer (Best Director)
1. Ryan Gosling, Blue Valentine (Best Actor)

More Oscar coverage coming soon.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Dogtooth (Kynodontas)

"Dogtooth," perhaps the year's most abrasive film (and the winner of the Un Certain Regard Award at Cannes 2009), puts you in the company of people you would never, ever want to know and makes you feel awkward about it for every one of its 94 minutes (especially with its contracted aspect ratio). It sees a family with parents who control the lives of their college age children, who've never actually left their property before. They do this by redefining words that are connected to the outside world, by manufacturing stories about a brother who left the house and who was slaughtered by a house cat, by neglecting to give them names (perhaps to swat off the implications behind each), and by convincing them the only way that they can exit the expanse is by car (which is what the father, played by Christos Stergioglou, uses to go to work).

The children can go off "when their dogtooth falls," but only learn to drive when it grows back (which makes it I'm pretty sure impossible to ever get out, though my knowledge of dentistry is limited). The film gives no motivation behind the parents raising their family like this, which viewers may complain about. But that's entirely beside the point. "Dogtooth" is about how parents try to shield their children from the world, and how that's not necessarily a good thing.

The parents of the film do allow one other person into their system, a parking attendant named Christina (Anna Kalaitzidou) who comes periodically to have sex with the son (Hristos Passalis) and who is valued by the two sisters (Aggeliki Papoulia and Mary Tsoni) as a contact with the outside world. Things get a bit out of order when Christina gives the girls contraband items (a "sparkling" headband, "Rocky," "Jaws," and "Flashdance") in exchange for the oral sex their brother won't give her. When she exits the picture later on, and I won't say why or how, the parents decide to have their children practice incest. (Just to let people who are hanging on to the thread of hope that this is still viewable with young children know, full-frontal nudity and explicit sex are present here.) At this point, director Giorgios Lanthimos proves he will leave no rock unturned, which qualifies as an achievement of some sort. This is one guy who knows he'll never have another crack at this same material, and that when you've gone a certain distance, it's best to go all the way.

"Dogtooth," believe it or not, is also a pretty comical movie. It's enjoyably unpredictable in its etymological invention, sprawling to cover "zombie," "pussy," and "keyboard" (possibly the biggest zinger in the entire film). It's one of those works that bends familiarity for laughs, but whereas in others this is an extremely annoying technique, here it produces some good results. (Also amusing: the mother's threats of "giving birth" if her children don't behave.) The film also knows how to agonize you. There are a few instances of this, none more prominent than the one involving a weight.

The film's oppressiveness is both its biggest strength and flaw. If it made concessions, it would be a lesser film, yet the audience may retain more of a connection with the characters. Also, like the film I just saw, Chomet's "The Illusionist," the scenes sometimes feel disconnected and poorly put together. This could be deliberate (as so much of this movie is), but perhaps not. Finally, the ending is very logical in a "1984"-conclusion sort of way but noticeably abrupt. If the rest of the film is a kick in the groin, the very end is a middle finger thrown on top of it. But I'm not upset at Lanthimos about it, in the way that I was with Godard over "Film Socialisme." With solid acting and atmosphere, and a director who's definitely not asleep at the wheel, "Dogtooth" earns Greece's spot on this year's Oscar Foreign Film Shortlist (and perhaps even more than that; we will see tomorrow and in upcoming weeks). B+

Friday, January 21, 2011

The Illusionist (2010)

"The Illusionist," while still being one of the most depressing films I've ever seen, is a definite improvement on the intense scathing and hopelessness of animator Sylvain Chomet's last film "The Triplets of Belleville" (a film that lessens on repeat viewings). This one is still ripe with pessimistic observation, to be sure. It sees how the power of illusion fades as time goes on, as rock music and television surge and the only sort of magic anyone cares about is that which can be used to sell merchandise. But it seems as if Chomet has matured since his first work, as he's created a much more refined film, that happily refuses to clutter its narrative. Instead of punching you, this one takes smaller jabs, and is all the better for it. Maybe Chomet needed a Jacques Tati screenplay for this sudden growth, but who knows?

In its opening quarter, the film seems to be going down the wrong path. The Illusionist (voiced by Jean-Claude Donda), a real magician (in that he really can pull things from thin air on a day-to-day basis) goes from audience to audience, no one appreciating his work. (They're more impressed by a fictionalized version of the Beatles.) That's until he performs at a Scottish pub, where, despite a jukebox being installed, people seem to respond to the tricks. The person who does most of all is Alice (Eilidh Rankin), a poor waitress who secretly follows the Illusionist when he sets off for Edinburgh (when the film arrives there, it starts to step right).

The film centers its social/economical satire on Alice, as she becomes assimilated into the constantly upgrading culture foreign to her. The Illusionist gave her red shoes before, but now she wants the white shoes and the Cinderella-type dress in the storefront windows. The film goes full-on critical when it completes a rhyming shot of Alice, now all primped up in expensive finery, walking as a country girl who looks just like her looks on in admiration (Alice was in this role earlier on). The film also places the Illusionist and Alice (as well as the Illusionist's abrasive hat-rabbit) in a hotel alongside a ventriloquist, a clown, and a trio of acrobats (all, except maybe the acrobats, heading towards a downfall) to chart how the times are a-changin'. And, as per usual, greedy businessmen take money that's not theirs when it's left unattended.

Chomet is nowhere near as good of a filmmaker as he is a visual artist or composer (the animation and music are both frequently astounding). He gives more establishing shots of Edinburgh than you can count, so many that it feels like one a minute. The man also needs to work on his skills of cohesion. The scenes never really flow together, and the movie would be better off if they did. But critics go crazy over his works, so why change a single thing? "The Illusionist," though, definitely deserves a nomination for Best Animated Film, and I want to at some point see it again (when I'm in a good enough mood), which is a good sign for a movie. It's actually pretty interested in being sublime, and it's hard to be cynical in the face of that. B

How I Ended This Summer

Alexsei Popogrebsky's "How I Ended This Summer" has a shaky, underwhelming plot with good doses of emotional manipulation. While watching, I was hung up by the bewildering way the film was developing. However, it at least partially transcends this with incredible, incredible cinematography that should not be missed. There are certain shots in this film that really sum up for me what cinema can do. To describe one: Pavel (Grigoriy Dobrygin) has just tried to flag down a helicopter with a flare. He drops the flare to the ground in front of a wall of fog. The camera lingers on the scene for at least a minute, as Pavel heads towards the background and the fog clears to reveal a green backdrop. It's remarkable, one of many great shots that utilize composition, landscape, and (somewhat desaturated) color in great ways.

The film concerns Pavel's internship at an Arctic weather establishment, where he and Sergei (Sergei Puskepalis) take down esoteric data again and again and report it people in some place that's probably nowhere near as cold. Why Pavel decided to come is beyond me; he seems consistently lonely, bored, and tired, listening to music to relieve the difficulty of living there.

One day, Pavel receives a transmission that Sergei's family has been killed in some accident. Since he feels that Sergei will be terribly upset, he withholds the information, much to the chagrin of the people who gave it to him. The film makes an obvious attempt at evoking dread when it has Sergei, unknowing of the deaths of his loved ones, tell joyful personal stories. It works on some level, but seems somewhat cloying.

I wish there had been more to this film. I guess there is other action (frantic dashes from one side of the island to the other; hiding in remote places; the proverbial gun in the first act being, if mutedly, fired later on), but its all not terribly well thought out. Pavel Kostomarov (interesting coincidence) definitely deserves plaudits, though, for shooting the film in the way that he does. It's a "technical achievement" that sometimes feels as if it breaks out of being labeled solely as such. It hasn't the strength to quite do that, in my opinion, but it may qualify for some viewers as a nice finding (sitting as it is On Demand). B-

Wednesday, January 19, 2011


I remember Quentin Tarantino speaking about Sofia Coppola's "Somewhere" at the Venice Film Festival awards show (where it won the Golden Lion; in the next year we'll learn what film it got stolen from), saying that he and his fellow jurors "kept coming back to it." I find that pretty hard to believe, since I saw "Somewhere" two days ago and I've already almost completely forgotten it. I don't really get it (except on, you know, that fabled "certain level") any more now then I did then. The prospect of understanding it is not something that entices me, since that would require for me to allot more of my time toward it and, even if I did, I'm almost positive that I'd be unsatisfied with what I'd learned from that experience.

Anyone remotely interested in seeing "Somewhere" will be better off watching "Lost in Translation," since that film sates what most people probably will be seeking in this film. Bill Murray's acting is superior to Stephen Dorff's in just about every way possible, despite the fact that Dorff could more easily pass as an action star than Murray could. Dorff has a small degree of pull as Johnny Marco, who spends all of his days drinking, watching pole dances in his hotel room, sleeping with any woman he can, and getting abrasive text messages from an anonymous source. He's unsatisfied, but, since he's not exactly the sharpest tool in the shed, he doesn't possess the willpower to really do anything about it.

He's not really in touch with the life of his daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning), since he doesn't have custody over her, but since his wife is on one of those trips that could end tomorrow or never, he (as they say in "Animal Kingdom") "gets to see more of her." Cleo and by way of virtue Fanning is winning, and that (as well as Dorff, to some degree) keeps the audience at least somewhat absorbed. But look: viewing "Somewhere" is basically watching people doing shit that you and I do all the time. Whether or not that's in the service of any sort of profound notion (read: it's not really), it is what it is. I'm not too sure that a normal person would really want to pay money to see that. Nor do I think most will be too enthralled in the film's scrutiny of Johnny, which manifests itself in long takes of strippers, cars circling racetracks, and cars driving down LA freeways (observed in follow-shots behind the car in exactly the same way as every film Harris Savides has ever shot). I had a little nostalgia for the week I spent in LA a few years back, playing ping-pong and swimming like the characters do in the film, but found little pleasure more than that.

I apologize that this review cuts to the quick a bit fast. I just was tired of practicing the same restraint that Coppola did. When she gets out of her own way, I think that she will continue to make films as good as "Translation." C

Note: Many were frustrated with "LiT" in the way I was with "Somewhere." My take is that the former was enjoyable and watchable and worth my time, and the latter wasn't, or at least much less so.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Golden Globe Predix and Preferences - 2010

Didn't have time to do all the movie categories, but here are most of them:

Best Picture – Drama

In order of my preference:

1. The Social Network

2. Black Swan

3. Inception

4. The King’s Speech

5. The Fighter

In order of their likelihood of winning:

1. The Social Network

2. The King’s Speech

3. Black Swan

4. Inception

5. The Fighter

Best Picture – Comedy/Musical:


1. The Kids Are All Right

Haven’t seen: Alice in Wonderland, Burlesque, Red, The Tourist


1. The Kids Are All Right

2. Alice in Wonderland

3. Burlesque

4. The Tourist

5. Red

Best Actor –Drama:


1. Ryan Gosling, Blue Valentine

2. Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network

3. Colin Firth, The King’s Speech

4. James Franco, 127 Hours

5. Mark Wahlberg, The Fighter


1. Colin Firth, The King’s Speech

2. Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network

3. James Franco, 127 Hours

4. Ryan Gosling, Blue Valentine

5. Mark Wahlberg, The Fighter

Best Actor – Comedy/Musical:


1. Kevin Spacey, Casino Jack

Haven’t seen: Jake Gyllenhaal, Love and Other Drugs; Johnny Depp, The Tourist AND Alice in Wonderland; Paul Giamatti, Barney’s Version


1. Paul Giamatti, Barney’s Version

2. Johnny Depp, Alice in Wonderland

3. Kevin Spacey, Casino Jack

4. Jake Gyllenhaal, Love and Other Drugs

5. Johnny Depp, The Tourist

Best Actress – Drama


1. Jennifer Lawrence, Winter’s Bone

2. Natalie Portman, Black Swan

3. Michelle Williams, Blue Valentine

4. Nicole Kidman, Rabbit Hole

Haven’t seen: Halle Berry, Frankie and Alice

Likelihood (after 1 and 2, kind of hard to determine):

1. Natalie Portman, Black Swan

2. Jennifer Lawrence, Winter’s Bone

3. Nicole Kidman, Rabbit Hole

4. Halle Berry, Frankie and Alice

5. Michelle Williams, Blue Valentine

Best Actress – Musical/Comedy:


1. Annette Bening, The Kids Are All Right

2. Julianne Moore, The Kids Are All Right

Haven’t seen: Emma Stone, Easy A; Anne Hathaway, Love and Other Drugs; Angelina Jolie, The Tourist

Best Supporting Actor


1. Geoffrey Rush, The King’s Speech

2. Andrew Garfield, The Social Network

3. Jeremy Renner, The Town

4. Christian Bale, The Fighter

Haven’t seen: Michael Douglas, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps


1. Christian Bale, The Fighter

2. Geoffrey Rush, The King’s Speech

3. Andrew Garfield, The Social Network

4. Jeremy Renner, The Town

5. Michael Douglas, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

Best Supporting Actress


1. Jacki Weaver, Animal Kingdom

2. Mila Kunis, Black Swan

3. Helena Bonham Carter, The King’s Speech

4. Melissa Leo, The Fighter

5. Amy Adams, The Fighter


1. Melissa Leo, The Fighter

2. Amy Adams, The Fighter

3. Jacki Weaver, Animal Kingdom

4. Helena Bonham Carter, The King’s Speech

5. Mila Kunis, Black Swan

Best Director:


1. David Fincher, The Social Network

2. Christopher Nolan, Inception

3. Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan

4. Tom Hooper, The King’s Speech

5. David O. Russell, The Fighter


1. David Fincher, The Social Network

2. Tom Hooper, The King’s Speech

3. Christopher Nolan, Inception

4. Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan

5. David O. Russell, The Fighter

Best Screenplay:


1. Aaron Sorkin, The Social Network

2. David Seidler, The King’s Speech

3. Stuart Blumberg, Lisa Cholodenko, The Kids Are All Right

4. Christopher Nolan, Inception

5. Simon Beaufoy, Danny Boyle, 127 Hours


Same as above

As noted in the comments, I didn't post my Best Musical Comedy Actress prediction since I was in a rush, but I'm pretty sure I thought Annette Bening was going to win.

Blue Valentine

"Blue Valentine," in its looping of the joyous past and the violently sad present, ends up being much more shattering than it would have been if it had gone linearly from point A to point B. Also, by placing the present before the past (i.e. using flashbacks instead of flashforwards), we see (to use the wording of a character) the couple the film follows at their worst before we see them at their best. Although the film's setup (a seemingly aimless 20-minute section) is a bit long and the staggering of time is a bit awkward, both are ultimately essential to the film.

Dean (Ryan Gosling) was, when he met Cindy (Michelle Williams), a type not unlike George Bailey from "It's a Wonderful Life." By the end of the film, he's like Bailey if he hadn't snapped out of his downward spiral. He's a drunk who can barely function, who manages to be a pretty good father but a terrible spouse.

Cindy is nearing the end of her rope with him, so he decides to book a parents' night out at a motel. This gives them some one-on-one time, which is not a good idea at this point in their marriage, suffice to say. The film's title is apparently a reference to the dominant color of the room in which they stay, which illuminates the action in a sad candor.

We come to learn, through the past, that Dean was the driving force in the relationship. He saw her for the first time in a nursing home and pursued her from there. Cindy is coming off of a hard time with a college wrestler (Mike Vogel), but she responds to Dean's self-assertion (he claims that he'll never die). What develops is a courtship not unlike the ones in "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" and the "Before Sunrise" diptych - it's one that you'll remember. But whereas those films have uplift and thus outward appeal, this one is sad and conclusive.

Gosling is tremendous in this film, giving perhaps the year's best male performance. His acting rarely if ever actually feels like acting. In my opinion, it's his Oscar to lose (which, of course, he will, to either Colin Firth or Jesse Eisenberg, who are not undeserving). Williams is similarly outstanding, playing Cindy as distraught and desolate, as well as delightfully sunny. I also admire the script by director Derek Cianfrance (who, as has been speculated, looks very similar to Gosling, or vice-versa), Cami Delavigne, and Joey Curtis. Though it is sometimes sudsy and flawed, it has some disturbing exposition (for example, how it has Cindy tell a child molester joke and goes on to reveal her prematurely sexual past) and natural-sounding writing. The much-mentioned cinematography by Andrij Parekh is also noteworthy. And the soundtrack, which has also been much remarked upon, is good, while the music by Grizzly Bear is not really anything to write home about. (edit: When talking about "the music by Grizzly Bear", I was referring to the instrumental stuff. The band's songs, including "Shift" and "Alligator," which I didn't know were theirs at the time, I liked a lot.)

Even though the film does have a large amount of sexuality (some it, as has been said, disconcerting), I'm glad that the film moved down from an NC-17 to an R. It may not be put together completely smoothly (I'm not sure how I felt about the overall editing), but that doesn't mean a ton when you take note of how engaging, endearing, and crushing the movie is as a whole. B+

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Time That Remains

Elia Suleiman's "The Time That Remains" pretty much cuts its viewers off from any sort of emotional involvement (as at least one has said of the very similar Coen Brothers film "A Serious Man"). It makes few, if any, of its characters relatable in any way. This is deliberate, apparently, but it does the film absolutely no favors and will drive a lot of people away from it. To add to that, the film also overloads on cheesy wry humor. Since it's not backed by solidity, it makes the film plod along. Sure enough, by the final third of the film, I was nearly asleep.

However, if we look at this film on a formal level, it is truly phenomenal. Marc-Andre Betigne's cinematography, always beautifully lensed, always brilliantly composed with meticulous camera placement, is some of the best I've seen in a long, long time. Every shot is staggering. Suleiman's nostalgic evocation of 20th century Israel is much bettered by it. (For the look of the film, think "You, the Living" crossed with "Life During Wartime" and, of course, "A Serious Man.")

But alas, as Matt Zoller Seitz perceptively pointed out, this will not assuage the doubts of someone not delighted by cinema technically. I'm pretty sure that those people will not particularly enjoy this film. Not that this movie was made for a wide audience, exactly, but arthousers: don't make this be the cross-over film for your mainstream friend. It might not even be the film for you.

The film, after a pre-title sequence that allows one of its characters a slight degree of emotion, follows the director's family in 1948 Nazareth as they react to military occupation and Israel's inception. (We even see the mayor of the city signing it over to the Israeli army.) Suleiman's father Fuad (portrayed by Saleh Bakri) is an infamous gunmaker who is being sought after by the army and being told by his family to stop his intense participation in the rebellious effort. He's nearly executed, but instead just left for dead.

Think to yourself: this is a section that could mine sentiment from the audience. Somehow it doesn't. Suleiman may be trying to do this, which makes some sense stylistically, but it's an affectation that plays out poorly. Most filmmakers would have wisely exploited these events for drama. Though it's good that Suleiman strives to dodge convention, this may have not been the best place to do it.

We also are privy to daily life in the Suleiman family which mostly consists of putting up with drunk and myopic neighbors alike and fishing at night. These scenes, along with a confrontation between Elia and his teacher, are repeated many times. They are sometimes amusing, but are more likely to cause annoyance than anything else.

The last 40 minutes or so of the film, a confusing and disheartening clutter, lets on to you slowly but surely that there is no other shoe that will drop anytime soon (with an ending that sort of reminds me of "Wild Grass"). Those who liken the fictional version of Elia Suleiman (played in this portion of the movie by the director himself) to Buster Keaton seem to be forgetting that that man was actually fun to watch. Suleiman makes a dirge into even more of one. The film deserves a bit more slack than I'm cutting it, but in being too clever by half, and (again like "Grass") excelling only its look, I don't think I'll grant it that much. C+

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Casino Jack

In the opening scene of the late George Hickenlooper's "Casino Jack," Jack Abramoff (played pretty well by Kevin Spacey in a Golden-Globe nominated performance) screams an interior monologue of sorts into the mirror as he's brushing his teeth. He remarks that people think he "moves too fast" (but that him doing this separates him from the rest). This sets the tone for the film, a very swift charting of the events that sent him on a descending arc from "superlobbyist" to federal criminal. It dabbles in a ton of different moods, most prominently that of broad comedy. This has led to people calling the film "clunky" but I felt otherwise, more in the vein of the critic who called it "loopily entertaining."

There is one thing, though, that the film really stumbles with: the screenplay by Norman Snider. I don't think I can remember the last time that I cringed at so much dialogue. Some of it is good, to be sure, but much of it is pathetic sub-sitcom discourse littered with an unrealistic amount of one-liners. The script also overloads on grating mannerisms. We understand from quite early on that Michael Scanlon (played by Barry Pepper, putting up an admirable struggle) is informal and womanizing and that Abramoff likes movies, so do we need to keep underscoring that throughout the entire film? It's sad to see this happen, since when the writing doesn't let the actors down, we can see what might've been.

But, moment-to-moment, one can put this huge flaw to the periphery and focus on the rest of the film, which is actually solidly watchable. It sprawls to follow both Abramoff and Scanlon, lobbyist extraordinares and partners-in-crime, and all of the many other threads that crisscross through their dealings. We see the two at their best, schmoozing and swaying congressmen (such as House Majority Leader Tom Delay). But we also see them losing control, their reaches exceeding their grasps. They devote an extremely dubious amount of time and energy in a cruise ship casino venture (called a "ship to nowhere" for a good reason), trying to funnel the funds for it from less-than-willing Indian tribes and using an disbarred, alcoholic, unreliable lawyer (Jon Lovitz) as their point man.

While this is falling apart, so is Abramoff. His marriage (to Kelly Preston, portraying a character very underexposed) is heading for its close, he's struggling to pay his mortgage while at the same time opening restaurants and Jewish schools, his reputation is becoming muddied, and, most importantly to him, his influence is fading. It's good that the film has somewhat of a sense of humor (like a character says of Abramoff), or the movie's rising unease would have had created the same degree of drags as the insanely depressing "Vincere." Or, for that matter, Doug Liman's more recent Washington saga "Fair Game," which could have used a smile or two. C+

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle

"If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle" works and falters much like other genre films that I've enjoyed, like Ben Affleck's "The Town" and Matthew Vaughn's "Kick-Ass," in that it collapses underneath itself. It seems to offer more than it does, which comes as an unfortunate realization for the viewer at the end. However, the film would not be the same without the huge gamble that it takes, which is astonishing despite the fact it doesn't quite pay off. It jumps from a relatively easygoing first hour to a final, heightened 34 minutes from which there is no return.

Adapted from a play by Andreea Valean (but not feeling truly stagy until the very end, my guess being that they were more lenient in the transposition of the beginning), the film (the Best Foreign Film Oscar submission from Romania) follows Silviu (George Pistereanu), who's been stuck in a juvenile penitentiary for 8 years. He's apparently not caused too much of a fuss and has even helped out the head in naming names when the time was right. As the film opens, Silviu is left with under a month until he's set to be let go and seems to be cruising along. That's until his younger brother shows up telling him that he's going to be taken away to Italy by the two's absent mother. We learn (through a pretty excellent confrontation scene that signals that a change is coming) that Silviu's childhood was ruined by his mother's careless promiscuity and see that Silviu fears that his brother will experience the same neglect (and may end up in jail like he is).

The screenwriters' (and by way of virtue playwright's) command of exposition is superb. With (I believe) not ever naming the crime that Silviu committed (which is a common MO for crime movies, but still), nor giving away too much about his pre-prison life, the film is able to keep what comes from not drifting entirely into the surreal (which it threatens, and at some points manages, to do). But the film's observation of Silviu is not always impeccable. Florin Serban and Catalin Mitulescu sometimes make him do weird things for the plot to advance. The film also presents him as having limited skill in dealing with those of the opposite sex. I understand that it's tough for someone who was shut off from the outside world before he was an adolescent to carry on with a woman. But the film may push a little too far, presenting him as essentially insane when he desperately tries to court Ana (Ada Condeescu), one of the people who interviews the soon-to-leave prisoners. How his relationship with her plays out I will leave for you to see. I will only comment to say that it's pretty harrowing.

Another interesting uncertainty is how Silviu is perceived by the other inmates. They at first seem to be happy with him, but there also appears to be conflict regarding what he reveals to the superiors about illicit activity and also his incessant demanding to use one guy's phone. Silviu is seen to only have one true friend, a quiet one who listens to him and who at one point springs himself from the prison. But what Silviu does at the end inspires some degree of awe from everyone. I guess that's what happens when something out of the ordinary occurs and when one man steps out from the rest. (On a side note, these characters are apparently played by people who go through the same experiences that they do.)

The cinematography by Marius Panduru must be mentioned here. Dabbling a bit in crime-cinema technique (i.e. follow shots, utilization of the photogenic decaying buildings) but also doing some extremely impressive compositions and some eye-capturing one-takes, Panduru boosts the film during the down-time. Also significant is the work by Pistereanu, making his debut. Out of the gate, the script doesn't do him a lot of favors, but in the aforementioned confrontation scene as well as the climax he excels.

The film has a tight resolution may be off-putting to people. It was and still is for me. An argument can be made that it highlights the bizarre psychology and limited ambitions of Silviu. "If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle" is provocative enough for it to be tempting for me to make that rationalization and excuse it. It deserves a small recommendation, but as a whole, I find it too flawed for my taste. B-

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Cinematic Resolutions: 50 Films on DVD/Instant Watch I Will See in 2011 + 50 Films I'm Anticipating In Theaters

Structure of this whole post inspired by this.

Here are 50 films I would like to see in 2011 to fill my cinematic gaps. Some of it is from the TIFF Essential Cinema List, others I just feel the need to catch up with, and others I started but never finished:

1. Au Hasard Balthazar, Robert Bresson (which I have out from Netflix)
2. Fanny and Alexander, Ingmar Bergman
3. La Dolce Vita, Federico Fellini
4. The Passion of Joan of Arc, Carl Theodor Dreyer
5. Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino
6. Ran, Akira Kurosawa
7. The Battle of Algiers, Gillo Pontecorvo
8. Playtime, Jacques Tati
9. Sonatine, Takeshi Kitano
10. The Decalogue, Krzysztof Kieslowski
11. Silent Light, Carlos Reygadas
12. Battleship Potemkin, Sergei Eisenstein
13. Andrei Rublev, Andrei Tarkovsky
14. The Ballad of Narayama, Shohei Imamura
15. The Koker Trilogy (Where is the Friend's Home?, And Life Goes On..., Through the Olive Trees), Abbas Kiarostami
16. The Apu Trilogy (Pather Panchali, Aparajito, The World of Apu), Satyajit Ray
17. Blissfully Yours, Apichatpong Weerasethakul
18. Satantango, Bela Tarr
19. The Conformist, Bernardo Bertolucci
20. Scenes From A Marriage, Ingmar Bergman
21. Band of Outsiders, Jean-Luc Godard
22. Casablanca, Michael Curtiz
23. Diabolique, Henri-Georges Clouzot
24. The Wages of Wear, Henri-Georges Clouzot
25. L'Avventura, Michelangelo Antonioni
26. Grand Illusion, Jean Renoir
27. The Rules of the Game, Jean Renoir
28. Black Girl (La Noire de...), Ousmane Sembene
29. Tokyo Drifter, Seijun Suzuki
30. Peeping Tom, Michael Powell
31. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Robert Wiene
32. Amarcord, Federico Fellini
33. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring, Ki-Duk Kim (surprisingly in the IMDb Top 250)
34. Ikiru, Akira Kurosawa
35. F for Fake, Orson Welles
36. Sans Soleil, Chris Marker
37. The Birth of a Nation, D.W. Griffith
38. Jeanne Dielman, Chantal Akerman
39. Platform, Jia Zhang Ke
40. Shadows, John Cassavetes
41. A Woman Under the Influence, John Cassavetes
42. Three Times, Hsiao-hsien Hou
43. The River, Tsai Ming-Liang
44. The Child, The Dardenne Brothers
45. Persona, Ingmar Bergman
46. Rififi, Jules Dassin
47. Topsy-Turvy, Mike Leigh
48. Still Walking, Hirokazu Koreeda
49. Ugetsu, Kenji Mizoguchi
50. Yi Yi, Edward Yang

Others: Distant Voices, Still Lives, Terrence Davies; Chungking Express, Wong Kar-Wai; Beau Travail, Claire Denis; Ratcatcher, Lynne Ramsay; films by Otar Iosseliani; The Piano Teacher, Michael Haneke

50 Anticipated Films of 2011

Note: This is a list heavily inspired by the Time Out London and lists. Some are 2011 premieres, some are festival films I haven't had the chance to see that will have their US releases next year. Of course, when I see this year's full Cannes and Berlin lineups, this list will change quite a bit.

1. The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick
2. My Joy, Sergei Losnitza
3. Shame, Steve McQueen
4. 13 Assassins, Takeshi Miike
5. The Skin That I Live In, Pedro Almodovar
6. The Grandmasters, Wong Kar-Wai
7. The Housemaid, Im Sang-Soo
8. City of Life and Death, Lu Chuan
9. The Congress, Ari Folman
10. We Need to Talk About Kevin, Lynne Ramsay
11. A Dangerous Method, David Cronenberg
12. The Last Circus, Alex de la Iglesia
13. Le Quattro Volte (The Four Times), Michelangelo Frammartino
14. We Are What We Are, Jorge Michel Grau
15. Outrage, Takeshi Kitano
16. The Future, Miranda July (even though I couldn't finish her last film)
17. Take Shelter, Jeff Nichols
18. Kinyarwanda, Alrick Brown
19. Tyrannosaur, Paddy Considine
20. Melancholia, Lars von Trier
21. Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, Tsui Hark
22. Mysteries of Lisbon, Raul Ruiz
23. Nostalgia for the Light, Patricio Guzman
24. Submarine, Richard Ayoade
25. Tabloid, Errol Morris
26. Vanishing on 7th Street, Brad Anderson
27. Curling, Denis Cote
28. Cold Weather, Aaron Katz
29. Kaboom, Gregg Araki
30. Promises Written in Water, Vincent Gallo
31. The Trip, Michael Winterbottom
32. On the Road, Walter Salles
33. This Must Be the Place, Paolo Sorrentino
34. Black Venus, Abdellatif Kechiche
35. Attenberg, Athina Rachel Tsangari
36. The Ditch, Wang Bing
37. Post Mortem, Pablo Larrain
38. Carancho, Pablo Trapero
39. Passione, John Tuturro
40. Cold Fish, Sion Sono
41. Silent Souls, Aleksei Fedorchenko
42. Martha Marcy May Marlene, T. Sean Durkin
43. Another Earth, Mike Cahill
44. Coriolanus, Ralph Fiennes
45. Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow, Sophie Fiennes
46. Project Nim, James Marsh
47. Bobby Fischer Against the World, Liz Garbus
48. The Guard, John Michael McDonagh
49. Restoration, Yossi Madmony
50. Tuesday After Christmas, Radu Muntean (but since I was shut out in a rush line for this movie, my enthusiasm has dropped)

Others include Best Foreign Film submissions Incendies by Denis Villneuve and In A Better World by Susana Bier, which are technically 2010 movies but I wasn't able to see them then, plus Heartbeats by Xavier Dolan, The Time That Remains by Elia Suleiman, and The Princess of Montpensier by Bertrand Tavernier.

And (drumroll) I'm planning to go to the 2011 Telluride Film Festival! Which means that I'll be able to catch a bunch of premieres, Cannes flicks, and other stuff. Hopefully (as my resolution states) I'll be able to see upwards of ten films (in 3 days, mind you, which is hard business).

What are your most anticipated films? What classic films do you need to see that you haven't?