Saturday, December 31, 2011

Mysteries of Lisbon

I suppose I feel right now what the detractors of Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life" felt when they stumbled out of that overwhelming picture. Raul Ruiz's "Mysteries of Lisbon" is a beautiful, painstakingly considered, 272-minute period piece that sags under the weight of its overused devices. The main one that I take issue with dominates the film: the story-within-a-story. The whole film is being narrated/acted-out-with-small-figures by grown-up Pedro (Jose Afonso Pimentel), but within this narration many characters take the time to tell their life stories, usually to the ubiquitous priest Father Dinis (Adriano Luz). The first time this happens, it's actually a story-within-a-story-within-a-story: Dinis is telling Pedro as a boy (Joao Arrais, the most engaging actor in the film by far) about his father arriving at the Dinis' orphanage and him telling about what happened to him. This is executed to dizzying effect (as much of the first 30-60 minutes are). But this narrative ploy is used again and again, and once you've seen it the tenth or eleventh time, you're struggling to concentrate on the technical facets to keep you from going insane.

The other problematic motif in the plot is the interconnectedness of everyone in the movie. We come to find that everyone is someone else's mother, son, father, lover, or belching pirate-esque guard. The appeal is understandable. This is common in books, and one of the big things people say separates this movie from others is how it actually feels a novel, like the one it was adapted from (by Camilo Castelo Branco). And the first time a character was revealed to be someone else from the past, it drew an "oh shit" from me. But, as with the layered storytelling, it got irking and corny to "Crash"-like levels at a certain point.

These two huge annoyances prevented me from appreciating this film as much as others have. Reminiscent (extremely so, in my view) of Lucchino Visconti's "The Leopard," it's a masterfully crafted work: brilliantly shot by Andre Szankowski with impeccable framing, invigorating camera movement, and excellent lighting, pretty well-scored by Jorge Arrigada (even if some elements of the music are used a little too much), and extraordinarily art directed by Isabel Branco. That's not mentioning the way Ruiz has with engrossing you that only abandons him at the end. And the story of a kid with no background who finds out about his history seems like it could lend itself to a dazzlingly immense production. But even if it spirals off in directions, the film comes to feel both too distant and then too limited. At times it seemed like it was struggling to keep moving. Some may make this argument against Malick's exceptional movie as well. Oh well. They won't be reached. I wasn't here. I can admire the skill, but the obvious, intentional emotional punch didn't hit me. B-

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Tuesday, After Christmas

A schlubby, married banker is having a blissful affair with his child's dentist. He's weighed down by this deception, and feels increasingly distanced from his wife and daughter, who are oblivious. He's getting anxious; he knows he won't be able to keep this hidden forever, and he has started to become as insistent and controlling with his mistress as his wife (whom he at one point, indirectly perhaps, refers to as "Mom") is with him. The clandestine relationship has been going on for five months, and he still has no idea how to handle it. He seems to expect to continue onwards with the same arrangement into the distant future. But he knows subconsciously it's inevitable that he'll have to tell.

Even though there's not a whole lot to it in terms of narrative, "Tuesday, After Christmas" is a very hard movie to make. If we don't feel close to these characters, their personal business is going to be quite dull indeed. This seems obvious, but in a film with this sort of subject matter, immersion becomes ever the more important in separating it from other films about the same topic. That Radu Muntean has made as much out of this as he has is extremely impressive. He and his fellow screenwriters Alexandru Baciu and Razvan Radulescu know their characters (surprisingly, given that they're all men, especially the wife) and the relationships between them well and move from scene to finely tuned scene with incredible ease. He and his cinematographer Tudor Lucaciu have chosen to film with a muted palette and with not-too-showy long takes to give the feel of sustained semi-realism and despair (also: the cigarette smoke looks gorgeous). And he and his actors, Mimi Branescu, Maria Popiastu, and Mirela Oprisor, have worked to convey an almost all-encompassing feeling of naturalism; this may be the single most important element of the film, and the whole works only as much as the actors allow it to (which is to say, pretty darn well).

There are a number of smart choices made with regards to the plot details. Setting it at Christmastime creates a parallel between the illusion of Santa to the daughter and the illusion of the affair. In some ways, revealing the fabrication would be just as heartbreaking in each case. Another particular that Muntean plays close attention to is the occupations of the leads. This is most important in the case of the women. Having the mistress be a family doctor sets up an interesting, awkward, and beautifully executed scene in which the parents come to take their daughter to get her braces put on. This moment gets added resonance later on, but is even at the time a telling and overtly choreographed episode. Coming back to the idea of jobs, having the wife work in the courts (presumably as a lawyer) gives her a sheen of precision and a range of knowledge of how to take people down. This, balanced with her often informal demeanor, makes her (at least to me) a recognizable type and a full character. A stronger character than the mistress, I must say, though not overwhelmingly so.

These characters could fail to work off paper. This is not the case, though, because the performers have the abilities required to make them believable. Branescu (who had a role in the exceptional "Outbound") is able to show Paul the banker's isolation, unhappiness, naive defensiveness, and anxiety quite well, even if at times he looks a little unsure (probably the character). Popiastu, given the weakest role and the least number of scenes to bring things together, does what she can with it anyways with charm and agitation, though it isn't entirely convincing. The best performance here is by Oprisor, who gives us both ends of her emotional spectrum to devastating effect. These three, plus the actress who plays Popiastu's mother (I can't find her name), make the film constricting and absorbing (while the actors playing Branescu's parents provide a comic interest). Brilliantly sequenced, with flaws only due to characterization and the resulting portrayal, "Tuesday, After Christmas" definitely fits securely into the rich, remarkable Romanian New Wave. B+

Is Dragos Bucur's character Cristi a holdover from "Police, Adjective"? An in-joke or cameo of some sort? Just a bit strange to give the character the same name.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Drab, obfuscated, and dense, "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy," Tomas Alfredson's equally gray and dreary follow-up to "Let the Right One In," only really grabbed my attention due to the mystery at its core and certain interesting subplots, when Alfredson stops holding us at arm's length and brings us in. The look of the film, minus the astonishing conference room set, essentially washed over me (though the commitment to ambience is admirable) and didn't get any sort of rise out of my visually attuned side, and a few of the actors are dull as dishwater, annoying (Colin Firth, looking at you), or histrionic (Benedict Cumberbatch is the only one who fits all of those). But ultimately, the film ends up overcoming its shortcomings by building many mini-universes and then having them devastatingly blend into one whole.

I wouldn't feel too bad if you find it a little hard to piece together this film while you're watching. It's a complex picture, taken from source material by big water-muddier John le Carré. A meeting gone awry in Budapest is far from what it seems originally, where it's hard to tell who's connected to whom and who's setting up whom (if at all) and what the significance of this event is. (All does come to be explained, maybe even a little too thoroughly.) The experience of watching the film involves both keeping up with what's currently happening on screen and making sure you understand that's come before. This may be irritating to some; some proponents of the movie have neglected to understand this.

The film follows the efforts of dismissed operative George Smiley (Gary Oldman, solid but 90% flavorless) and his still-in-the-system assistant Peter Guillam (Cumberbatch) to track down a double agent high up in "the Circus" (i.e. MI6). I found their antics (and Smiley's day-to-day life) relatively uninteresting, and was much more enthralled by the people they come into contact with. The most prominent one is Ricki Tarr (an engaging Tom Hardy), who, on a dead-end assignment, ended up finding some extremely valuable information via his observation target's abused wife Irina (Svetlana Khodchenkova), who becomes his love interest. Also involving is Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong), mostly because it's surprising what happens with him.

Though what transpires eventually is affecting and thought-provoking, and though the film feels like it has much to it, much of it is tedious and muddled (in plot and in assembly), with one Christmas party scene used as a flashback maybe a few more times than necessary. The last song in the film threatens to drench the film in nauseating Style as well. I can understand what people appreciate about "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" but I have a hard time loving the film to the degree that some do. B-

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Rupert Wyatt's well-directed "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," built on a terrific motion capture performance by Andy Serkis, is a fast-paced, rousing downer that relies more on gestures than dialogue. There's much high concept chatter, but the film brilliantly uses restraint with words for many of its plot points and poignant moments. Along these same lines, as it goes on, it places much more emphasis on the titular animals than on the humans surrounding them, and is all the better for it. It might have been nice for James Franco and Freida Pinto (who is given little room here as his veterinarian girlfriend) to have a couple of scenes not worrying about his father or their ape (i.e. some character development outside what's necessary for the central plot), but I guess you can't have everything.

The film deals with the race to find a cure for Alzheimer's, led by a scientist named Will Rodman (Franco), who tests drugs on apes by measuring their intelligence in the lab. He's looking hungrily for a breakthrough that could help his ailing father (John Lithgow) and satisfy his enterprising boss (David Oyelowo). When an ape breaks out of the lab, the honcho orders for all apes to be put down, though a baby one (soon known as Caesar due to the Shakespeare bent of Will's father) is hidden and nurtured by Will at his home. This ape has inherited genes from its mother, who was given some of the drug, and thus it receives all of the many benefits, including a skyrocketed IQ. As you might imagine, Will, seeing this, gives some to his father as well and it works like gangbusters. But soon Will must make a stronger drug to combat antibodies and of course things don't go well from there.

The events in the film come relatively close to those detailed in "Project Nim," and thus the film gains a bit of topical relevance and, if you know the story of Nim Chimpsky well, some satisfaction. I really started to notice this during the emotionally charged second half, which is in my mind superior to the first. The final scenes have a tense and remarkable grandiosity, the scope of which impresses more than almost anything that comes before. They're a lot more thematically interesting than visually or acting-wise, but that's more than enough, convincing me that a sequel wouldn't be such a bad thing. The whole project could end up being astonishingly ambitious. B

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Best Performances of 2011

I would pick favorites in each of the categories but it's just so hard to choose. Best Actor was by far the strongest field; in some of the other categories I reached a little bit for HMs, etc. Blue and bold means that the perf is from a movie not released in the calendar year that I ended up seeing somehow else. Classifications for "leading" and "supporting" here are not exactly perfect: sometimes I based them on convenience, sometimes on the conventions of the awards bodies (like Berenice Bejo; I would have included her as Best Actress), etc.

Best Actor:

George Clooney, The Descendants

Tom Cullen, Weekend

Jean Dujardin, The Artist

Michael Fassbender, Shame

Peyman Moaadi, A Separation

HM: Lior Ashkenazi, Footnote; Xavier Dolan, Heartbeats; Thomas Doret, The Kid With a Bike; Ewan McGregor, Beginners; Chris New, Weekend; Brad Pitt, The Tree of Life; Michael Shannon, Take Shelter; Andre Wilms, Le Havre

Best Actress:

Sareh Bayat, A Separation

Olivia Colman, Tyrannosaur

Ariane Lebed, Attenberg

Adepero Oduye, Pariah

Ana Ularu, Outbound

HM: Kirsten Dunst, Melancholia; Leila Hatami, A Separation; Elizabeth Olsen, Martha Marcy May Marlene; Anna Paquin, Margaret

Best Supporting Actor:

Raul Castillo, Cold Weather

John Hawkes, Martha Marcy May Marlene

Shahab Hosseini, A Separation

Christopher Plummer, Beginners

John C. Reilly, Terri

HM: Shlomo Bar-Aba, Footnote; Rory Culkin, Margaret; Michael Fassbender, Jane Eyre; Vangelis Mourikis, Attenberg; Charles Parnell, Pariah; Mark Ruffalo, Margaret

Best Supporting Actress:

Nicole Beharie, Shame

Berenice Bejo, The Artist

Melanie Laurent, Beginners

Carey Mulligan, Shame

Shailene Woodley, The Descendants

HM: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Melancholia; Sarah Paulson, Martha Marcy May Marlene; J. Smith-Cameron, Margaret

Technical achievements maybe at a later date. (Edits have been made on this post, due to performances being brought to my attention again.)

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The 18 Best Films of 2011

Films in blue will not receive a US release in 2011. Nonetheless, I saw them in 2011 and, as you can see, they are very much a part of the film landscape for this year. It's 18 because that's the number of As, A-s, and B+s I gave. I have not gotten around to seeing a number of films that may have made an impact on here, among them "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy," "Hugo," "The Adventures of Tintin," "Carnage," "The Arbor," and "Le Quattro Volte." From my reviews of them (if and when I do end up seeing them), you should be able to tell if and where they would have fit on this list.

A special mention goes to Rainer Werner Fassbinder's "World on a Wire," which blew me away during a Janus Films rerelease this year. And a huge omission based on release is Abbas Kiarostami's "Certified Copy," which I included at #8 on my Top Ten list last year and would place at #5 on the first list and #3 on the second. I didn't want to include it in multiple years as that wouldn't exactly be fair.

Dishonorable mentions to "We Need to Talk About Kevin," "Shut Up Little Man!" and "The Man Who Fell to Earth," my three least favorite films that I saw this year (the last in a re-release). "Tyrannosaur" (minus Olivia Colman) is down there too.

18. Pariah (Dee Rees)

Rees showcases her remarkable way around a scene, allowing able actors to give their best in a movie that only really falters when you pull back to survey the entire (uneven) picture. The cinematography is extremely evocative, perhaps even too much.

17. City of Life and Death (Lu Chuan)

Some sudsy subplots dilute the greatness here, but what works emotionally is magnificent and truly devastating. If Lu Chuan can harness the transcendent power given off in fits and starts by this movie and make a fuller film, the results will be breathtaking.

16. Pina (Wim Wenders)

If only Wenders had elected to make the film completely dance-based. The 3D is wonderful, and it helps create a beguiling, enjoyable experience unlike anything I’ve ever seen (even though there are apparently other movies about Bausch’s troupe).

15. Heartbeats (Xavier Dolan)

An exuberant, opulent film that moves adeptly between relaxed and quietly upsetting modes (knowing when to step on the narrative gas pedal and when to kick back and just let the images roll by). Dolan makes it quite entertaining, both by being in it and filling it with wowing design.

14. Cold Weather (Aaron Katz)

Katz takes humorous and incisive jabs at slackers with this well-made, slow-paced, strongly-acted piece. I hope to see Cris Lankenau and especially Raul Castillo again in later films; they rank high among my acting discoveries this year.

13. The Myth of the American Sleepover (David Robert Mitchell)

Enjoyable and with strong cinematic qualities, “Sleepover” disarms with its engaging characters and the smart screenwriting decisions of developing director Mitchell. I wouldn’t call it exactly indelible, but surely meaningful and diverting.

12. A Separation (Asghar Farhadi)

The most beloved foreign film this year, “A Separation” doesn’t quite live up to the colossal hype in my view. But it’s still very good, with four extremely affecting performances that should shake anyone and certain scenes (especially the ones with the judge) that heave with relentless, powerful emotion.

11. Weekend (Andrew Haigh)

Naturalism is tricky, but Tom Cullen ends up hitting all the right notes as the real lead in “Weekend” (as the film is essentially viewed from his POV). Chris New provides the ideal support, as do Haigh directing and Urszula Pontikos shooting, and the result is a terrific character study that looks at being gay in today’s world.

10. The Kid With a Bike (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)

The last scene is what lingers most to me, but “The Kid With a Bike” is absorbing from beginning to end, built on an exceptional performance from child actor Thomas Doret. The casting is exquisite and the storytelling is conventional but wonderfully spiraling a la “Bicycle Thieves.”

9. Attenberg (Athina Rachel Tsangari)

More watchable and less uncomfortable than fellow Greek New Waver “Dogtooth,” but just as observant and unsentimental. Ariane Labed puts on a disturbingly dedicated act in the lead. Friendships and father-daughter relationships have rarely been as weird, but both speak profoundly.

8. Footnote (Joseph Cedar)

I had extremely low expectations going into this film, which was a second choice at the time of the viewing, due to some bad buzz from critics I respect. Yet I haven’t stopped thinking about it since. Cedar’s gripping, transcendent, deeply moral movie about the nature of winning features an excellent performance from Lior Ashkenazi and a screenplay that should win more than just a prize at Cannes. I found the stakes to be very high (the relationship of a father and a son is hardly inconsequential), and the ending shot as haunting as anything I’ve seen this year.

7. Beginners (Mike Mills)

Attacked for being too cutesy, I found it to be sweet and loved it in all of its radiant, blissful, and tragic turns. Mills strikes a superb balance between these different modes. Ewan McGregor, Melanie Laurent, Mary Page Keller, and especially Christopher Plummer are an ensemble to be reckoned with, but they’re not the only ones: the supporting cast is startlingly good as well. I’m sad that I haven’t had time yet to see it again.

6. Into the Abyss (Werner Herzog)

What do you want from a Herzog documentary? You might not be totally satisfied with “Into the Abyss” if you’re looking for the usual Herzog personality, though there are some of his hallmarks. He’s reined in many of his quirks here to deliver some of the most potent moments of his career. Taking apart a Texas town, he closely examines a continuing history of felony that doesn’t look to be ending anytime soon. Not only is “Into the Abyss” wrenching with its intense personal scenes, it’s also an exceptional example of pristine nonfiction craft, beautifully assembled. It’s easily his best film in some time and a strong work of emotional, empathetic, precise journalism.

5. Shame (Steve McQueen)

One of my most anticipated films of the year when I saw it at Telluride, and for me and many other critics at that festival and Venice, it did not disappoint. However, once it hit Toronto (after buzz had started to build), things changed; many of the Twitter tastemakers who are now championing “Margaret” as a cinematic messiah bared their teeth. The film was turned very fast from a superb follow-up to an overhyped piece of Oscar-bait. Now the film isn’t really taken seriously anymore (see the Film Comment and New Yorker reviews, which, due to a quirk of release, both tackily compared it to Julia Leigh’s “Sleeping Beauty”), and I doubt McQueen’s future films will be seen in the same light.

Admittedly, I’m developing apologist tendencies for McQueen, but it must be said that the man is making unique, powerful, atmospheric, artistically sound works about intensely interesting subjects. Though “Shame” appears to be more domesticated due to its urban setting, it’s as alive as “Hunger” was, even as it follows a man falling deeper and deeper into himself. And even though certain parts are vague (which, as I see it, is intended), I doubt many filmmakers working today could make a film with the candor of “Shame,” with regards to both relationships (familial and otherwise) and sex. Oh yeah, and Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan and Nicole Beharie are all astonishing. I have some quibbles about a certain scene (cited by Ignatiy Vishnevetsky and Blake Williams as well) that has some weird connotations, but otherwise, this really isn’t a movie to just toss out. Just like McQueen isn’t a director to just forget about.

4. The Turin Horse (Bela Tarr)

Black and white movies to me provide many of the most memorable and often times excruciating film experiences. “The Turin Horse,” perhaps Tarr’s final film, may eventually come to be seen as the king of the relentlessly colorless. Due to brilliant means of evocation (wonderful sound design, dulling cinematography), the uncompromising director gets his point across and does so while leaving many behind. Definitely not recommended as entertainment (as it serves a similar purpose to “Jeanne Dielman,” a title wisely invoked by Mike D’Angelo that used many of the devices “Turin” does), but as a valuable film that invades viewers and throws them into the windblown environment of its characters.

3. Outbound (Bogdan George Apetri)

It’s hard to understand the lack of distributors chomping at the bit for this formal masterwork. Attention must be allotted to it. Working from an albeit formulaic idea (there were at least a couple of other movies using the same race-against-time device at New Directors/New Films, where I saw it), Apetri employs his incredible craft and tension-building skills to create the year’s strongest, most despairing thriller. I hope this isn’t the last from this amazingly talented director, though his future efforts have much to surpass.

2. Nostalgia for the Light (Patricio Guzman)

Guzman’s extraordinary, revelatory exploration of the human and solar galaxies deserves inclusion in the short list of significant documentaries (like “Waltz With Bashir”) to sit alongside “Shoah” in the canon of remembrance cinema. Among patrons of the independent, this got some attention, but, due to a number of factors (including time of release), it received nowhere near the reverence that it truly commands.

1. The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick)

I don’t think it’s perfect. I can understand some of the arguments against it. But I couldn’t possibly ignore “The Tree of Life”’s unprecedented achievement and the overwhelming feelings of wonder it inspired in me. The bar was set so, so high, and, even if he didn’t satisfy everyone, Malick surely delivered, in that he created a work of historic technical virtuosity and ambition. A film that could have died out as a little project called “Q” but instead came bursting to the best sort of life possible.

A more proper (w/r/t US release dates) Top ten list might look like:

1. The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick)

2. Nostalgia for the Light (Patricio Guzman)

[Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami)]

3. Shame (Steve McQueen)

4. Into the Abyss (Werner Herzog)

5. Beginners (Mike Mills)

6. Weekend (Andrew Haigh)

7. A Separation (Asghar Farhadi)

8. The Myth of the American Sleepover (David Robert Mitchell)

9. Cold Weather (Aaron Katz)

10. Heartbeats (Xavier Dolan)

Best performances of the year coming at later date.

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Skin I Live In

The strong opening hour of "The Skin I Live In" is let down by the second half, which clears things up with unsettling, punch-packing revelations but fails to maintain the extremely precise tone that Pedro Almodóvar set the film up with. The mood of the film is informed greatly by the carefully framed cinematography, the adept art direction, and the brilliant violin-heavy score by Almodóvar regular Alberto Iglesias, which may indeed be the year's finest. The mediocre, repetitive, generally tedious middle section (a flashback that leaves the movie's setting) lets air in on things, but lacks the earlier part's striking control and doesn't fit at all into the grand scheme of the film. It might have been beneficial to the film for Almodóvar to keep tighter reins on the actions, and, furthermore, let only a couple of crazy eruptions result instead of having the film feel almost complete after the conclusion of its first part. This prevents "The Skin I Live In" from getting a truly deep grip on the viewer.

I was certainly affected by Almodóvar's work, however, which has a lot to say about bodies, particularly the command people have over them (the film examines plastic surgery and rape most prominently). He goes a little over the top with this, and the irony in more than a few instances is too much. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the director has some of the problems with sentimentality that made "Broken Embraces" feel sappy. Once he stops being so scrupulous, the film goes in all sorts of directions, only some of which are good for the picture.

I really shouldn't say too much about the plot of the film. It's best to go in absolutely cold. Also because I'm not totally sure I understood the film (even if its supposedly spelled out ultimately), which ultimately didn't make logistical ends meet for me. The biggest reveal is surely disquieting, but, while obviously intended to be pretty bizarre (and raising some strange questions), it ends up feeling very ludicrous. The acting isn't quite as solid as it should've been, and even though Robert Alamo as Zeca makes the deepest impression, he's still wildly uneven (as are Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya, Marisa Paredes, Blanca Suarez, and Jan Cornet for that matter). "The Skin I Live In" is a true original (albeit adapted from a novel by Thierry Jonquet) that would have done better in the long run being more pared down and less brash. But I guess that's what makes it Almódovar. B-

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Le Havre

I've never seen an Aki Kaurismaki movie before, but I've heard much of his style. "Le Havre" displays a unbendingly quirky filmmaker, who lets in only flashes of the world outside the titular French locale. Though definitely pretty amusing at times, "Le Havre"'s happy-go-lucky demeanor undermines a lot of possible interest and suspense, and the film feels very surface-deep. Yet Andre Wilms' superb lead performance redeems things, making the mood of innocuousness feel human and not manufactured.

Wilms plays Marcel Marx, a shoeshiner beloved in his neighborhood but with little money (he's run up insanely large tabs at all the stores in the vicinity of his house that he'll never pay). He lives a modest life with his wife Arletty (Kari Outinen), always cleaning and cooking, and his dog Laika (credited as Laika; Kaurismaki's dog perhaps?). This balance is complicated by two major events: his wife getting really sick and having to be hospitalized, and the finding and taking in of an on-the-run African immigrant named Idrissa (Blondin Miguel) who is looking to find his mother in London.

The idea works better in practice than in theory, but all the same, the freedoms that the movie seems to be on the verge of giving its characters are shut out (by Kaurismaki's intense devotion to his method, no less). The fact that I'm even talking about these things though represents an atmospheric success remarked upon by other critics: the sense of place here is quite solid. But things never come alive to quite the degree that they could, though having Little Bob meet up with his estranged wife (who is supposedly his wife in real life as well) is a nice, interesting way of opening the movie up. B