StinkyLulu's FilmLog - 2008


Movies Screened since January 1, 2008...

(The "+" or "-" indicates general yay/nay sentiment about a given flick.)

AUTHOR'S NOTE: The following are generally unedited and routinely rambling riffs on the films in StinkyLulu's haphazard screening rotation. Comments on this post will read as comments on the entire year's filmlog. But if you've got something to say about these random ramblings, or if you feel strongly I should promote a particular rambling to the mainpage, I genuinely invite you to just holler. Your POV is always especially valued.

• Young at Heart (-)
• The Visitor (+)
A surprisingly simple yet effective drama, infused with a fascinating blend of romance, melodrama and social commentary. The basic premise is simple. Walter, a depressed academic, discovers an illegal immigrant couple - Tarek and Zainab - squatting in his long-neglected NYC apartment. Walter kicks the couple out into the street but, in a fateful act of empathy and/or fascinated boredom, invites them to stay. In short order, Walter is utterly enthralled by the couple and his life soon becomes forever transformed by them. Richard Jenkins expertly portrays the central role of Walter with utter plausibility and acute vulnerability. He's an arrogant ass by habit and conditioning (years of academentia will do that to a person) and he's currently wandering through his days with little sense of purpose, passion or meaning. (The film implies this depression is the result of his beloved wife's death, who knows how many years prior; likewise, the film implies that, with his wife's death, Richard has lost touch with music in his life/soul.) Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) is an impossibly beautiful man with incredible charisma who just happens to be a thrilling drummer; Tarek awakens something in Walter's being and he soon falls hard for Tarek's infectious enthusiasm. (Haaz Sleiman, the actor who plays Tarek, gives Tarek a luminous smile -- a megawatt blast of teeth that is its own charm offensive. Sleiman's work here isn't necessarily nuanced, but it is stirring, haunting, effective -- the character must be the center of emotional gravity for this piece and Sleiman's Tarek makes that completely believable.) The title is an evocative device to suggest the uncertainty of place (who, really, is the visitor in a global circuit) while also underscoring the core circumstances that frame most relationships in the film (an uninvited guest in one person's home; an unwilling detainee in an immigrant prison). Like La Misma Luna, director/screenwriter Thomas McCarthy addresses the core social tension in the film (illegal immigration) as an essentially human issue, and the film adeptly demonstrates all the academic and jingoistic posturing about globalization do little to address the complicated emotional landscapes of global im/migration. The two women in the film -- Danai Jekesai Gurira as Tarek's fiancee Zainab and Hiam Abbass as Tarek's mother Mouna -- are as efficiently brilliant in the film as Jenkins and Sleiman. What's more: Gurira, Abbass and Sleiman are each astonishingly beautiful. Some of the prettiest people I've seen on screen ever. And though I could get all cynical about the "magical negro" aspects of the narrative (pasty white guy has life transformed by multicultural beauty), to do so would likely miss what is smartest about the film: its deployment of social melodrama as a politicizing device. As Walter becomes radicalized by the circumstances of globalization (which he has studied but not experienced), so too are we. A social melodrama, structured by three distinct romantic narratives, comprising an effective drama of surprising intelligence and humanity.
• Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay (-)
• Smart People (-)
An adequately engaging comedy of manners for mildly intelligent grownups. The film benefits from a relatively undertstated approach to the sitcom scenario characters: a widowed, misanthropic and egotistical middle aged professor ignores both his precociously overachieving young-republican daughter and his sullen son who writes poetry while he fumes at the injustice of being passed over professionally, both for by his department as they select a new chair and by all the potential publishers of his new book. An unexpected health emergency coincides with the arrival of his underachieving brother and also instigates an awkward flirtation with the attending ER physician. Madcap hilarity ensues as these crazy characters rediscover in each other the power of love in making life worth living. That's basically it, and it's to the film's credit that the journey is not as noxious as might have been. The cast is nearly uniformly likable and most of the scenarios are nearly plausible. The supporting cast (Thomas Haden Church and Ellen Page especially) are generally effective and even Sarah Jessica Parker is generally effective/appealing. The main problem is Dennis Quaid in the lead role, a role that would have likely gone to William Hurt a generation or so ago. It's as if Quaid misunderstood the direction to "turn down the charm a couple notches" and undertook instead to make this embittered but decent man into a complete toad. Jack Nicholson's made something of a second career out of this kind of charming asshole role, and unfortunately it seems Quaid modeled his performance on that Nicholson style. It also doesn't help that Quaid clearly has no idea why anyone would make their career reading 19th century British literature, which debilitates the not inaccurate depictions of academic life. Quaid is the emotional and narrative center of the film and his blithely superficial performance diminishes the whole. Page and Haden Church work wonders in their scenes together, though something's been edited from the relationship which tosses it off balance. With additionally distracting gaps (the son's relationship with the father's student and Christine Lahti in a role that must have been larger in some earlier version of either the film or the screenplay), the film comes to rest on Quaid's arc -- which is the least effectively explored in the film. I basically enjoyed the film, however. And was grateful to be in the company of these kinds of characters. I just found something to be more than a little off-kilter about the general narrative balance.
• Stop-Loss (+)
Perhaps the most intelligently empathetic war movie I've ever seen. Kimberly Pierce's film has been resoundingly praised for its opening sequence, uniformly criticized for its pacing/structure, frequently faulted for filmmaker Pierce's "good intentions" and righteously lambasted for its posterboy ad campaign. All of which seems to me to be utterly conventional commentary encrusting upon a defiantly unconventional film. And, frankly, it's beginning to piss me off. I found Stop-Loss to be a profound -- and fundamentally moving -- explication of the soldier's dilemma: the alternately existential and moral and personal challenge of staying invested in the fight. It seems to me that Pierce built this film around the oxymoronic notions of passionate ambivalence, of righteous uncertainty, of resolute confusion -- metaphors that seem as apt as any for life during wartime. Moreover, these contradictions seem absolutely real when you, as Pierce had done here, attempt to take on the subject of an ongoing war from the soldier's POV. What I perhaps admire most about the film is that Pierce allows her hero map his journey back to his own integrity: in the course of this film, Ryan Phillippe's Brandon encounters the limits to each of his rationale for "why" he fights (respectively -- 9-11; his country; his hometown; his buddies; doing the "right" thing) as he finally struggles toward a clarity about why he does anything (the love of his beloveds). Ultimately, the film's controversial conclusion underscores this simple lesson: Brandon lives for his beloveds and he elects to fight so that he might be returned to them. We know that he knows that its a might big "might" but Pierce helps us to understand that little else gives life meaning. I cried at least 4 different times in this film, for at least as many different reasons (and I'm becoming emotional again as I write these notes). All of which fuels my pissed-offed-ness at the general swirl of commentary around this film. It's all so petty -- faulting the film for its perceived flaws in narrative or stylistic coherence. Whatevuh. Pierce's film endeavors to prioritize a kind of cultural work that few artists in any media seem to be engaging. The film doesn't speak clearly for or against THIS war (though it doesn't seem to be too fond of war as a general concept), which I suspect is a problem for some viewers (on both "sides"). What this film does do is ask hard hard hard questions about what it means to be at war, what are the costs of thinking seriously about being at war, what are the costs of NOT thinking seriously about same. The film allows us into the soul of this set of contradictions and challenges us to feel our way through them, with Phillippe's Brandon and Abbie Cornish's Michelle as our guides. It's a brave piece of filmmaking, accomplished with formal precision and humane respect. I hate that the film has been so dismissed for what seem self-flattering reasons, rather than engaged respectfully as a film that's trying to use this medium as a device for critical, communal reflection. The work of the actors ranges from just fine to very fine (with Linda Emond a standout for her galvanic but quiet turn as a mother grieving her son's experience of war even before he's dead from it). And any movie that has Margo Martindale in a voiceover cameo is one to make my heart quake. But this film ain't about the performances, but rather the journey of going with these simple characters on the very complicated journey of life during wartime. I remain astonished at this movie's haunting power and long for a cinematic companion with whom I might share my unapologetic appreciation of all that this film actually DOES accomplish (in stalwart defiance of the general tut-tutting consensus that's gathered to dampen this film's power)...

• Snow Angels (-)
A nearly fascinating account of the devastating consequences of non-communication. In this complicated tale, the emotional aftershocks of a child's accidental death rock the foundations of a whole constellation of relationships in a small town, fortifying the strength of some while causing others to tumble terrifyingly down. This is the kind of novelistic narrative that requires a sublime directorial talent to execute effectively. Unfortunately, David Gordon Green is not quite there yet and the result is a generally tentative melange of great moments that fail to cohere into a meaningful synthesis. Of course, the fault is not entirely Green's. He's saddled with a bunch of Lifetime movie acting (both great and not so great) with two or three independently excellent performances (Sam Rockwell as the dead girl's despairing father, Jeanette Arnette as the mother of the teen who found the body) to emphasize the banality. Indeed, I have to lay a good deal of the blame for the failure of this film upon Kate Beckinsale's pallid performance as the dead girl's mother. If the film had a female lead performance as elemental as Rockwell's, the other pieces might have just fallen into place. Toss Marisa Tomei in this part and you've got a real movie. Unfortunately, we're stuck with Beckinsale, which is just too bad. Olivia Thirlby is fine and Michael Angarano is utterly delightful (but I'm always gonna say that) and Amy Sedaris is adequate in a role that really needs someone bigger, both physically and emotionally. Nicky Katt continues in his crusade to think him one of the most annoyingly lame actors of his generation (as the trailertrash lothario Katt's beyond wrong -- gimme Donal Logue or Jeremy Sisto or Mark Eddy or someone else PLEASE). Unfortunately, the filmmaker got lost in all the details and lost track of what the movie's actually about: a young man learning that choosing NOT to communicate about things that matter almost always leads to disaster. A message -- which in the context of this film -- is problematic as the poor dumb people don't know how to communicate while the rich college types do. Too bad. I usually love this kind of movie...

• La Misma Luna/Under the Same Moon (+)
An efficient -- and effective -- sentimental melodrama, which also happens to be one of the more startling political films of recent years (at least among narrative/non-documentary features). First time director Patricia Riggen (herself a native of Mexico who emigrated to the US for film school) maintains an steady balance, layering the socio-political dimensions of the "illegal" immigration story as ambient texture for the essentially human story of a child separated from his parent. I can't think of another narrative feature film that either takes point of view of an "illegal" as empathetically as this one or which structures the story so explicitly as an im/migration narrative. While the kid's-eye view permits the film to jump through a handful of empathetic hooks, most of the narrative twists are not necessarily easy jumps. Riggen assembles a professional cast, mostly recognizable Latin American television stars doing roles that break from their most typical. (Kate del Castillo and Eugenio Derbez are both really solid, with both delivering top-notch work.) Even more interesting are a handful of genuinely supporting turns -- like Gabriel Porras as the kind-hearted Paco and Carmen Salinas as Doña Carmen (La Coyota) who is just perfect as the single character capable of connecting all the missing pieces. (Unsurprisingly, with her garish makeup and streetwise harshness, I just loved Doña Carmen -- she's a great La Chata type role and Salinas gives her all the right edges). I was additionally impressed with Riggen and screenwriter Ligiah Villalobos' ability to layer the political context of border crossing, policing and militarization via a carefully wrought soundtrack of corridos and Spanish-language radio broadcasts. This film does not shy from the political stakes of this story even as it exploits (and I don't mean that in a bad way) the universally human contours of the dramatic scenario. I can only think of two other films that have mined the emotional complexities of the Mexican border crossing as poignantly -- Nava's Mi Familia and Sayles's Lone Star -- though both of those had the border as an incidentally illuminating secondary plot. And unlike Babel, which dodged some of the dicier aspects of the political issue of illegales by hardening the border itself as a rigidly militarized zone, La Misma Luna acknowledges that the border exists as an emotional, experiential terrain on both sides of, not just at, the border itself. (This film also is only film I know to take an unqualifiedly empathetic but critical view of those involved in human trafficking.) It's a simpler, more soapy story than some might like but, at a moment where Lou Dobbsian anti-immigration rhetoric heats to a scald in mere moments, the poignant deliberateness of this film is simply extraordinary. It would be great if this film went all Tyler Perry phenomenal for the Latino immigrant communities (of the sort who seemed to be in attendance at my midday ABQ screening - MrStinky was the only white boy in the house, with only a handful or two white ladies) but I doubt it. And I don't expect this film to carry much crossover appeal. But it's a worthy film, truly worthy -- one I expect I'll teach if ever I do a latino popular performance course again. Made me laugh, made me cry, made me really appreciate the power of the sentimental melodrama ala Uncle Tom's Cabin (which I write and talk about all the time -- melodrama is much better for politics than satire, it seems) - La Misma Luna is an unusual and remarkable film...
• 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days (+)
This ain't what they had in mind when they were talking about socialist realism, but jeepers. The suspense of this basic story (the myriad risks attendant an illegal abortion) is textured in extraordinary ways by the grim realities of the film's devastated, stark backdrop (Milosevic's Rumania). Filmmaker Cristian Mungiu holds the reins of this piece with a steady reserve -- and occasionally brutally long single shots -- that emphasize the banality (and thus the humanity) of this situation. It's hard to find the words, really -- to describe the ways that Mungiu delivers on the essential ordinariness of the situation even as he plumbs the extraordinary depths of injusticae and inhumanity in it. What I found most startling was how heroic the central character of Otilia was (Anamaria Marinca). Basically, the way I see it is that Mungiu's film draws upon the perhaps surprising fact that one of the most debilitating brutalities of life under the dictatorship of Milosevic was not all the material deprivations and humiliations, but rather that such a society devalues basic human kindness in fundamental ways, transforming each individual into a private mercenary. (Then add a layer of brutally casual yet rapacious misogyny -- the overwhelming forces of dehumanization are depicted with unflinching honesty.) Yet I admire the simple screenplay as a startling hero's journey, albeit with a hauntingly ambivalent conclusion. By constantly considering how her actions might or might not help another, Otilia is waging a personal resistance against this dominant cultural trend toward base selfishness. It's an extraordinary journey and struggle to watch, as this young woman takes risks and makes sacrifices to help another person -- a person who may or not deserve Otilia's help, but who Otilia chooses to help because this person needs help. It's an exceptional film. Brutal, to be sure (barring the ouevre of David Lynch, I can't remember the last time I considered leaving a film simply because I found it to be so unbearably tense), but worthy of all kinds of notice. (I also want to see more of Mungiu's cinematic documentations of life under Milosevic -- this was an extraordinary homage to the difficulties of life in Rumania. I empathetically comprehended aspects of Soviet-era life in ways I have previously never even considered.) A truly exceptional accomplishment. Another thing: I was struck by how patient this film was, especially in its seemingly arbitrary displacement of our gaze. I certainly didn't expect to see some of the extended shots that I saw here, even as I was impressed at the things Mungiu chose not to show us. Smart, antagonistic, elegant filmmaking.
• Caramel (+)
A film of deceptive simplicity, containing a subtle and surprising depth. The scenario is basic: a collection of unmarried women working in female trades in Beirut. Three of the women operate a beauty shop, another takes in sewing across the street while another tries to find work as an actress/model after her husband has left her with two teenaged children. In a patriarchal society, the lives of these unmarried women might normally be pitied or mourned, their purpose as women unrealized for a defining relationship with a husband. Yet the film does not attack the patriarchy of Lebanese culture per se. Rather, it takes a more substantially incisive approach, by staging the story of the film within these overwhelming patriarchal expectations while subtly defying them. What I admire about the film is that the filmmaker does not pause for a moment in her conviction that the lives of these women absolutely matter, even if their heartfelt, poignant struggles remain largely illegible to those around them. In a US context, the characters would be the stuff of chicklit stereotypage. The beauty pining for her married lover. The strong one readying for her marriage to a domineering man while anxiously maintaining secrets of her past. The aging beauty who only knows herself as a young woman and so she engages in elaborate rituals of deception that fool few but provide her incredible solace. The already older woman -- never married -- who catches a quick glimpse of the romance she's never had only to feel it slip through her fingers as family obligations, once again, intervene in her private happiness. And, then, perhaps the most radical character: the proto-lesbian, a tomboy who thrills at a fleeting flirtation with a woman who comes to the salon to have her hair washed. What's poignant about this film is that, even though it concludes with a wedding, the film does not lapse into a misplaced confidence that romantic realization will solve these women's struggles. Rather, the wedding becomes a valuable but limited palliative for such hopes of self-realization. This is, of course, most pungently demonstrated when the "good omen" doves poop in our heroine's eye -- literally -- as the marriage bouquet is tossed. Moreover, it's underscored when the titles scroll past an image of the films "saddest" figures, the aging spinsters -- as they dance in the street. It's an extraordinary, tender and contrary film -- a quiet, stubborn, contradictory cinematic feminism virtually unparalleled in contemporary US filmmaking. I suspect, too, that it would be an easy film to misunderstand, without careful recognition of the middle eastern cultural context.
• Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (+)
A sweet trifle, not much depth or surprise but delicious nonetheless. The premise is precious: a prim governess, desperate for work in London just before the war, hustles her way into the temporary employ of an impetuous, mildly trashy aspiring actress (who happens to be American) who's juggling the affections and attentions of three starkly different suitors (the shady club-owner, the callow son of a wealthy producer, and the sincere piano player). It's the kind of very British sex comedy that would make almost more sense on a stage with an opulent unit set. (Indeed, the scenario is very Boeing Boeing, albeit with a girl at the center.) This film, though, exists almost exclusively to showcase the comedic treats of Amy Adams and Frances McDormand, both of whom deliver delectable performances. Adams, once again, utilizes her preternatural cuteness as both foundation and gilding for a very specific and surprisingly human characterization; her Delysia LaFosse is giddy, uncomplicated and basically shallow, but Adams permits her a surprising depth that only enhances the farcical delight. McDormand lays everything a little thicker as Miss Pettigrew, but still makes the character utterly endearing. The two women have a great time playing together, with their best scenes being simply between them. A few other performances -- all generally effective -- punctuate the margins of the narrative's happy idea. Shirley Henderson's performance (as the snide, mercenary complicator) was just short of being adequate, which is too bad -- the character's a hoot and I do find Henderson a fascinating screen presence (at some level, I don't really care that she's not very good, just so's I can listen to her deliver lines with that incredible voice). The boys are all attractive enough, though the show really belongs to Adams and McDormand. My biggest consternation? I don't think I consider Adams a supporting actress, though she will almost certainly be pitched that way. I feel it's a co-lead and I wonder if I'll be one of the only ones.

• Honeydripper (+)
Cute genre experiment with surprising, subtle depth. Sayles takes the radical approach by allowing the char/actors time to maneuver the simplistic formula and stock character tropes that this narrative provides them. It's the digging at the edges of the characters and the scenarios that allows for a differently dimensional kind of storytelling here. This is the kind of movie that inspires my instinct to defend. Yes, it's slow. Yes, it's sweet. Yes, it's predictable. But it's also John Sayles who - for better and worse - is ever interested in the surprise and depth hidden in plain sight along well-worn, ostensibly familiar paths. The worst aspects of this piece come from the central male performances -- Danny Glover who's both too old and too ostentatious for this piece and Charles S. Dutton who demonstrates that he's tone-deaf to the subtleties of style that this genre riff requires. Yaya DaCosta is adequate but beautiful/compelling nonetheless. The main kid is wonderful, as is the guitar ghost guy. One aspect of the film that's also nice is how the two white characters are just as cliched/stock as the black characters and they too are afforded surprising depth in expert cameo/supporting performances by Stacy Keach (as good as he's ever been) and Mary Steenburgen who's just beyond good as the depressed southern housewife who Lisa Gay Hamilton's character works for. A secondary plotline of rabbling cottonpickers is handled well with solid/excellent performances throughout (especially from Kel Mitchell who should just have much more of a career he's so interesting). This isn't a great movie but is surprisingly deep/rich/nice. (I'm also struck by how much the barely hidden spiritual message of the film -- get out of the way and allow the miracle to happen -- so resonates with my own experience this week.) Plus, I just love Lisa Gay Hamilton.
• Be Kind, Rewind (-)
Cute but limited experiment. The premise -- a gaggle of loser outsiders band together to craft a grassroots cinephile community through the magic of vhs -- creates a number of setups for a whole range of homages to home video trash. The film doesn't make sense on a certain level (why vhs?) but there's a lot of pleasures in the film (mostly observing the wacky crafty clevernesses of the scenery/props/costumes in the remakes). The cast -- Jack Black, Mos Def, Danny Glover, Mia Farrow, Melonie Diaz -- are all just fine, each doing their characteristic schtick. This, of course, creates a dilemma...if you don't hook into the charms of a particular performer, their component of the piece becomes a real charm gap. And since this movie totally depends on the CHARM and WHIMSY and CUTENESS, that can be a problem. Diverting enough, most of the time, but ultimately sorta dumb.
• Boom! [1968] (!)
Wow. Well. That was an experience not to be missed. Probably an experience not to be repeated either. The film is an extraordinary, incomprehensible mess. Elizabeth Taylor's too young for the role of an elderly wealthy woman staving off paranoia and insanity as she desperately clings to her fantasies of herself. Richard Burton's too old for the mysterious, masculine drifter capable of stirring the souls of women on the verge of death, reawakening long dormant desires and longings while pressing them ever closer toward surrendering to final mortality. Noel Coward's too glib for the role of Taylor's queer corollary, his gentility cutting awkwardly across the lascivious and lurid bitchiness of his character's lines. Plus, the whole scenario makes next to no sense. All of which, however, doesn't stop the extraordinary excess of the production from bringing some genuine thrill into the proceedings from time to time. Like when Noel Coward arrives to Taylor's mountaintop abode riding upon the swarthy shoulders of some mediterrannean macho. Or when Taylor arrives to a patio dinner consisting of many beasts roast on spits wearing a spangly caftan and a giant headdress sculpted, it seems, entirely from paper mache, dixie cups and soda straws. Or when Burton melifluously intones the Xanadu-Kubla-Khan poetry to which Taylor responds with a shrieking "Whaaaaaat?!" An extraordinary, excessive mess that must be experienced.
• The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (+)
Surprisingly, deeply effective film. The screenplay and cinematography work brilliantly to enhance the incredible drama of the situation -- a paralyzed man who can only communicate by blinking one eyelid. The ensemble of women surrounding the central guy are great, especially the wife (Emanuelle Seigner) and the speech therapist (the simply extraordinary Marie-Josée Croze). What I found so surprising about the film is that it works outside conventional narrative structure, using the cinematic apparatus to construct an empathy of consciousness. At our Friday afternoon screening, the whole crowd of 16 audibly squirmed when a fly landed on the tip Jean-Dominique Bauby's nose (the adorable Matthieu Amalric, freaky paralyzed here). And I surprised myself by bursting into tears when Bauby's friend Laurent -- who's a disaster working on the alphabet techique -- comes to read Balzac to him. I don't have much profound to say about the film, beyond the simple fact that it worked on a visual and emotional level in ways that so surpassed so many films. I've not been a fan of Schnable until now really and I think this film marks a really important cue into how to access his films: using visuality to explore the narrative and emotional dimensions of consciousness. (Max Von Sydow is also really good here.) A good movie. Surprising, pensive, subtly intense...
• Persepolis (+)
Tender and pensive, Marjane Satrapi's graphic memoir/novel receives an apt cinematic adaptation here. Gorgeously animated in (mostly) black/white 2-dimensions accomplishes something marvelous in conveying the aesthetic sensibility of Central Asian/Islamic cultural practice as it collides with Western visual principles of perspective and chiaroscuro. Notably, I feel the animation fundamentally and aptly centers the story in a Middle Eastern cultural perspective, thus "making strange" the visual and cultural predispositions of Western Europe. I especially like the telling of Iranian/Persion pre-history using the techniques of Turkish shadow puppet theatre. Works on so many levels, both humorous and poignant, while also conveying the essential historical context to which most Western audiences would be otherwise completely naive. The b&w also does a nice job of deracinating the story so that the political and/or cultural distinctions between the characters become the most legible markers of difference. Poignant, pensive, sensible. A generally gratifying film. As MrStinky noted immediately upon its conclusion: "I want to see the sequel." A strong testament to the effectiveness of the film's style of life narrative.
• I'm Not There (-)
A possibly brilliant failure. The second pass through Todd Haynes explication of persona, celebrity, identity, biography, history and Bob Dylan wasn't much more entertaining than the first time. The art of the intertwinings is more evident, as well as the thematics underlying each characterization. However, while the 2nd pass permitted me a greater appreciation of the art of the intersections, it also emphasized the emotional vacuity of the enterprise. Without the aspect of emotional aspiration of surprise, it seemed all the more clear that this is a film of images and ideas and occasional exhilarations. There are perhaps two actual relationships staged in film - Blanchett's Jude with the journalist Keenan and Charlotte Gainsbourg with Heath Ledger's character. However, even there, the characters are in relationship with their ideas of the other. All told the film is an excellent explication of the same celebrity dynamics elaborated in Joseph Roach's IT, with Dylan being the abstracted role-icon that ghosts each narrative as they are each deployed in implicit tension with the other. It's an intriguing enterprise but, again, I found it emotionally vacuous. Only Gere and Bale have a clear handle on their character's emotional reality. Ledger's good, appropriately interior but ultimately obtuse. The kid is fine, more so than I originally thought, as is the interrogated poet. The only manifestation of the Dylan role-icon that I found to be entirely dissatisfying was Blanchett's Jude. I can't tell if I'm reacting to the fact that Jude's supposed to be Dylan at his most self-satisfied/terrified and solipsistic, but there's an affect of interior detachment that Blanchett adopts that I find really annoying. Blanchett's Jude seems to be watching himself act out, with only Keenan and/or perhaps the Michelle Williams figure able to really distract him from his self-fascination. This makes intellectual sense to the architecture of the film, but Blanchett's accomplishment in crafting this creature does not extend to tethering Jude to any actual emotional reality. Blanchett's Jude is an object lesson in self-abstraction, of getting so caught up in one's idea of one's self as to become estranged from the experience of life. Again, it's an amazing accomplishment that Blanchett's characterization is so convincing, but the one thing it's not is alive. Blanchett's Jude is absolutely vivid in the word's sense of producing clear mental images, but not in the word's more basic sense of being emotionally lively. The thing is -- as much as I feel that Blanchett nailed the ideas Haynes needed, I feel just as strongly that she neglected to invest these ideas with necessary humanness. The characterization is as a strange creature, not a man estranged from his experience of self... Moreover, although Blanchett's characterization is the most clearly memorable of them all, watching the characterization in isolation (as you can on the website) from the other aspects of the character reveal the simplistic -- even tediously repetitive -- dimensions of the characterization. Incredibly accomplished work, without the emotional texture to elevate beyond the level of occasionally enthralling stuntwork.

• American Gangster (-)
A paint-by-numbers gangster epic, overlaying a civil rights "uplift" narrative in the conventional template of the cop/criminal love affair. It's just a really bloated, self-consciously serious epic featuring two of the most self-consciously serious A-list actors in contemporary film. I haaaaaaated it. It's very well done and loaded to the rafters with interesting actors but none of them get to do anything that's at all emotionally compelling. It's pretty much all about the spectacle of criminality in 1970s New York, with the actors all inhabiting ideas instead of characters. I can't believe that people like Chiwetel Ejiofor and John Hawkes and Joe Morton are made to be so negligible and generic by the massive operations of the film. Some actors have somewhat showier moments (like Roger Bart as a racist State Department functionary or, more prominently, Armand Assante and Josh Brolin as, respectively, a supersleazy mafioso or a supersleazy cop) which are diverting but nothing seems to bring the film anywhere near the realm of emotional impact. The closest thing we get to an emotional reality is the relationship between Carla Gugino and Russell Crowe. Gugino -- who is just surprisingly, subtly good -- plays a handful of scenes as Crowe's exhausted ex-wife, and her presence is perhaps the only piece of the film that jolts with an emotional integrity (which, to his credit, Crowe participates in -- she makes him better). Less effective are the women in the Denzel Washington storyline, Ruby Dee and Lymari Nadal, both of whom are much better than their roles but who can only do so much when overwhelmed by the soul-sucking, stentorian superiority of Denzel Washington's approach to the role. The character may have kept his emotions at a distance but it feels here that everytime Denzel's acting opposite a woman he lets her do all the work which he barely acknowledges. That may be an apt character choice, but as an acting choice it's deadly, creating a vacuum in which the work of Dee and Nadal get stifled by Denzel's emotional silence. Washington's better with men, as with the impossibly hot Richard Guenver Smith (who, once again, just slays me with the force of his strange attractiveness).

• 27 Dresses (+)
A paint-by-numbers romantic comedy, redeemed by intelligently appealing lead performers in the lead roles. Katharine Heigl is great - so beautiful, yet somehow plausible as a young professional woman with a vacuum of self-recriminating fantasies that actually explains how she could be "looked past"... With virtually any other equally attractive performer in the role, the character would have almost certainly not work, but Heigl's performance makes the character plausible. James Marsden, too, is very very good - his suspect/suspicious charm suits the character and he's equally likable. Even Judy Greer as the wiseacre best friend is very very good - she's got some great laugh lines and, while she's no Emily Blunt (who salvaged a full characterization from comparable material) at least Judy Greer here avoids her tendency toward the self-congratulatory. The wedding conceit of the film is really nice, with the commentary on the wedding industry providing a nice corrective to the boilerplate plot. Beyond those three principals, the secondary characters are, almost as a rule, badly written and banally performed. Malin Akerman is especially poorly cast as the "pretty sister" - a role which required a Cameron Diaz complexity but, with Akerman, remained a shallow cliche. Very cute, very harmless -- with adorable and intelligent leads. If you don't like Marsden or Heigl, you ain't gonna join the party.

• The Savages (+)
An aptly empathetic portrait of difficult people encountering a difficult situation. The script is solid, mature and intelligent. I wish we could see more movies about basically grown up people dealing with situations that bear a passing resemblance to real life. (I think this is why I cut Noah Baumbach some slack.) Anyway, Laura Linney plays a prickly, neurotic princess. Philips Seymour Hoffman plays a rumply, self-absorbed ween. And Philip Bosco plays an imperious, thoughtless bully. And all are great. I'm not a big fan of any of them. Indeed, PSH and La Linney both stress me out a little. I admire them more than I like them and both make me feel like I would be really uncomfortable in their presence. But here those qualities suit the characters and both performers give performances that seem to be among the most relaxed I've ever seen. Neither has any of the "floating above it all with mild superiority" that I tend to fault them for and both seem to convey genuine empathy for these broken, lost souls. I also admire the casual way that the characters seem to carry a storied, mild humiliating intimacy. You get that each knows things about the other that the other wishes they didn't and that punctuates the most banal interactions with a weight and history that is really nice. I don't love Bosco's performance, though I do admire its fearlessness and seeming lack of vanity. He has that one great moment in the car, where he turns off his hearing aid in order to hide from the accusatory shrieks of his children. I honor the filmmaker for the brutal honesty of the whole endeavor -- the scene on the airplane is one of the most incredible depictions of the humiliations of elder care that I've ever seen. And the whole film "gets it right" when it comes to the anxious imperfections of the nursing home process. The ending is, gratefully, nominally upbeat - though MrStinky questioned the clarity of what happened (ie. what was with the dog?). My answer -- that the whole time Wendy just wanted to offer care to a creature in pain but that her father was beyond such care, that caring for Marly the dog was her way of doing right by a creature in pain whom she loved -- is I think what the movie sets us up to appreciate but it was still a little odd. But thank goddess there was some hope at the end. An admirable effort, one which reminds me how much I admire Hoffman and Linney even as I really don't enjoy either much at all.

• The Orphanage/El Orfanato (+)
A vivid tale of emotional horror. The scenario is pretty conventional: young family with a precocious kid moves into a big scary house. A house with a creepy history. A house on a violent beach complete with caves. A house where the mother has unfinished personal business. Yeah, yeah, yeah - only in a scary movie. So, of course, the kid -- a moppet prone to imaginary friends -- goes missing. Has he been taken by the spirits? Is all the creepiness in the mother's head? The film maneuvers the scenario with emotionally resonant economy, which is to be admired given the cliche traps at every turn. But the scenario itself is perhaps the least interesting part of this effective genre piece. Essentially, it's a ghost story along the lines of Rebecca: equal parts a story of a haunting and a fairly straight-up whodunnit, with the added, evocatively contemporary "missing child" aspect. This duality is what is both superficially frustrating and ultimately exciting about the film. I sorta love that there are two possible explanations for the events that transpire -- the forensic version (the truth according to medicine and the police) and the fantastic version (the truth according to authorities of the heart and the spirit). This duality taps into a very Iberian/Catholic spiritual epistemology as it also dodges one of the more annoying trends in contemporary horror ("explaining" the terror through some psychological defect). I love that the main character might be stuck in a form of mild, grief-induced psychosis...but, then again, she might also be seeing real ghosts, that her traipse toward the brink of sanity might open her to spiritual realms beyond conventional consciousness. It's Guillermo Del Toro's especial genius to allow a multiplicity of possible explanations and, though this film is more 2nd-tier Stephen King than Del Toro, I do enjoy traveling this sort of terrain. The female performances (Belén Rueda in the lead, Geraldine Chaplin as the aptly named medium Aurora, as well as some great women in several cameos: Mabel Rivera as the shrink Pilar; Montserrat Carulla as the whackjob Benigna; and Blanca Martínez as anonymous grieving mother) are deliciously dimensional, even if none of them blew me away; for his part, the hubby (the yummy Fernando Caya) is a treat all unto himself (and I really like how he doesn't get mean when his understanding of the situation departs from his beloved wife). Another thing I appreciated about the film was how it dangled a whole range of red herrings before returning us to the simplest answer. An effective, smart, mature piece of scary -- the kind of film that, say, Birth might have been had they not shied so from the paranormal when crafting the resolution. Also, it's worth noting that the section with the medium Aurora (Chaplin's incredible vivid presentness serves her gorgeously here) works incredibly well, easily as well as -- if not better than -- the paranormal expert scenes from The Exorcist or Poltergeist. (Just went to the review over on fourfour cuz I remembered he hated it: reading his critique, which is all about how the film gets gummed up in its preponderance of recognizable cliches, I'm struck at how Scream-y his critique is, how there's a certain stripe of horror aficionados who are invested in the genre for the purposes of sheer surprise, for the gratifications of new experience, sort of a fetishistic innovation. His main beef was that the movie was without surprise, that the conspicuous foreshadowing robbed the film of whatever pleasures it might have had because, in a strange way, the foreshadowing itself evacuated the surprise. I see his point, but find myself interested that I found the careful, meticulous construction to be a crucial part of the movie's meditative appeal. It's clearly trying to operated (hear the Del Toro here) on an archetypal level, where there's dimension to consciousness that cannot be explained through reference to objective reality. I sorta like that the film put all that shit on the table. I could get annoyed by the psychoanalytic obviousness of the cave as birth canal in which the adoptive child is lost. But I like the way the film plays with the consciousness knot that Aurora describes: when something traumatic happens, or when someone nears death, the separation between realms gets confounded and things beyond explanation happen. I'm thrilled that there was no talking cure in this, that it was her experience of the new and old psychic traumas that proved to be her guide. I don't think it was a great movie, but I do like it for exactly what fourfour likes about torture porn: it's honest about what it is -- a horror film about the terrors of consciousness. It's not a plot flick - 2nd tier Stephen King, remember - but it is doing something I'm glad to spend time with...)

• I Am Legend (-)
A ripe hollow stunt. It's built on a gorgeous conceit: a scientist discovers a cure for cancer through genetic mutation only to have the "cure" turn viral and devastate the world's population save for a small handful of infected zombie creatures and a smaller handful of those who happen to be mysteriously immune to infection. But the movie's flummoxed by a lame, empty screenplay/story. The visuals (of a New York City overrun with weeds and wildlife while entirely bereft of people) are, at times, stunning and the astonishingly fit Will Smith fully earns his status as the most reliably accomplished box office superstar performer of the current moment. Indeed, for nearly 2/3 of the film's overlong running time, Smith carries the film on his well-developed shoulders with admirable humor and aplomb. But there's something oddly missing from the heart of the piece. An emotional clarity, perhaps. And the monsters provide more in the way of stress than actual fear. (What I found most curious but compelling was the way the first encounters with the zombie creatures were staged: dark hallways reminiscent of the descriptions of "the piers" in the 1970s, around the corners of which you find the heavy breathing bodies huddled in hungrily in a circle. The whole thing really carried the homo-allegory of infection and survivor's guilt in very interesting ways. Basically, John Legend as the only one among his beloveds who has not succumbed to a surprising and terrifying infection; he now lives a solitary life, assiduously avoiding the night where the only others still alive gather but carry with them the peril of deadly infection; so he lives carefully alone in his well appointed apartment, surrounded by evidence of his past life, with a dog to whom he is devoted. The metaphor of AIDS-survivor guilt is not too much a stretch. But I made all that shit up, mostly because, even as I was visually stimulated by I Am Legend, I nearly constantly bored on an emotional level.) The film just doesn't GO anywhere interesting at all. It just made me wonder about the source material and whether or not the queer allegory was there or whether it was all in my imagination. Finally, the neo-spiritual dimensions of the story -- that Legend must surrender his being in control, he must surrender to a faith that something beyond himself might provide redemption, that he is part of something but that he is not in charge -- did hook me emotionally at the very end. And I keep thinking about how the end of I Am Legend and The Mist are basically the same: that you don't always know how things are about to turn out. But, again, I made all that shit up because I was mostly bored. Frequently anxious and stressed by the movie, but bored. Not awful but pretty perfunctory, and -- worst of all -- oddly shy of the actual metaphysical dimensions of the gorgeous conceit.

1 comment:

whip-smart said...

I didn't like The Orphanage much. The mother goose ending would have been touching, perhaps, in another film, but not this one - I have a feeling that the film would be a lot scarier if you watched it until about halfway through and then left the theater.

Speaking of Blanca Martinez, I really enjoyed her. Whereas Belen Rueda couldn't create a fully dimensional person out of a tired grieving-mother cutout with the entire script resting on her character, Martinez near made me well up in four or five lines. Bravo. I liked Geraldine Chaplin a lot - after watching Nashville the other day I found her funny but annoyingly insular, refusing to be a screen partner and attempting to fill the screen herself, but I really liked her here. From the minute she enters (in the most intriguing shot in the film, standing with her back to the camera, the light shining through the window like a river with her body as a dam, her arms by her sides but her hands fanned out) she had me rapt - if only she was in the film for longer!

This is my full review, copy/pasted:

The Orphanage

I went into this film with very high expectations, and they certainly weren't met... from the incredibly cheesy opening credit sequence it is clear that the film is incredibly presumptuous about its own ability to scare. The director is a first-timer, so a lot of the film's thematic slip-ups can be forgiven. He shows some impressive use of tension and suspense, but all the scares seem like previews for something much more frightening - we are given the tease but not the goods. The ending twist is well done, however.

The acting is average for the most part. Belen Rueda is very capable, but she's saddled with a part too generic to provide much of an impact, and her distraught mother role doesn't tread any new territory. The supporting actors are also given short shrift - Fernando Cayo as the father of the missing child and Mabel Rivera as a police psychologist are given roles that could have been interesting had they been fleshed out more. The only actor to make an impression (apart from a quite good speech from a mother in a parents-of-missing-children's support group - the actress's name eludes me) is Geraldine Chaplin, who commands the screen from the moment she enters the story (and she enters quite memorably). Unfortunately, the performance is too brief. Montserrat Carulla has another potentially interesting character with the part of a suspicious social worker, but she isn't given the opportunity to explore it (the character's story is cut short in a completely superfluous moment of gore that is dulled of an impact by the fact that it is revealed in a much scarier fashion with a split-second shot a moment or two before it is actually shown in entirety - another sign of a director who doesn't know when he's gone too far in some instances, and how far to go in others). An interesting but flawed piece, and all the more disappointing considering its massive festival buzz. If only we had Alejandro Amenabar at the helm! He did wonders with the thematically similar but far superior 'The Others'.