Archive for February 2010

More people who hate fun complain about the Oscars

February 26, 2010


The Film Experience’s yearly Oscar Symposium has begun, wherein people who hate the Oscars even more than me compare The Lovely Bones to moldy cheese (including LA Weekly’s Karina Longworth, who has always looked like one of those record store clerks who died in that terrible Yo La Tengo concert fire.)

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Morvern Callar

February 26, 2010

Watching Lynne Ramsay’s Morvern Callar I could only decipher about 60% of the dialogue. Even when I turned up the volume to levels that probably annoyed my neighbors. Most of the characters speak in a heavy Scottish accent. But this was less relevant than for most films. This is a film about an individual’s internal life; a life not communicated in words to anyone during the course of the film. While I wished for a DVD version with subtitles, looking back I don’t feel I missed much. All that needed to be conveyed was painted on the face of the titular young protagonist (an incredibly nuanced and restrained by Samantha Morton) and through the canny use of pop music, visual motifs and idiosyncratic motivations.

The film is set during the holidays. Morvern comes home to her costal Scotland flat to find an unexpected gift under the blinking lights of their small Xmas tree: her boyfriend dead by his own hand. His note tells her to be brave. He leaves wrapped gifts: a leather jacket, a walkman and a mix tape. The film that follows consists of the next 10 days of Morvern’s life as she deals with the pain and confusion that this act has caused.

One thing that struck me immediately was that Morvern, as evidenced by her accent, is not Scottish. While she is Scottish in the novel that the film was adapted from, this detail helped me to better understand Morvern’s unusually restrained reactions to this event. It lead me to imagine a scenario whereby she moved North as a teenager, alienated from her family, to live with her boyfriend in a strange town. She is not able to develop a strong emotional bond with anyone, even her best friend – a rather vacuous party girl. When she finds herself in this situation she has no release. It’s not that she’s holding back because either she’s numb or callous, it’s because she does not have anyone she can trust with her feelings. Morton’s performance is marked by actions that seem selfish and absurd to the viewer. But they become more explicable if seen as the acts of a vulnerable, lonely, scared, confused, immature teen set adrift. The choice of making Morvern English, necessitated by Morton’s admitted inability to put on a believable brogue, becomes an effective device for explaining subsequent decisions that appear otherwise absurd and morally questionable.

Finally, one cannot talk about this film without mentioning music. Morvern’s boyfriend’s mixtape gift (“Songs for You”) is the one thing that Morvern is able to hang on to throughout the journey. Laden heavily with some unsettling/psychedelic tunes (Boards of Canada, Can, Stereolab) that are all the audience hears when the ear buds are in. Thankfully, Ramsay avoids most of the sort of “music video interlude” clichés that are the trademarked province of Tarantino or Spike Jonze and, frankly, are just trite when not done with significant originality and panache (for a wonderful example of how to use this trope see “(500) Days of Summer.) Ramsay is forgiven for the scene of Morvern walking in slo-mo into the supermarket for work while playing Nancy and Lee’s “Some Velvet Morning if only because that is such an evocative and delirious song with such an ambiguous tone to it. Ramsay avoids incorporating any songs with any on-the-nose, immediately applicable to the situation lyrics. Moreover, because these songs will not be immediately recognizable to most viewers and, at the very least, probably will not be tainted by any other previous pop-cultural associations, Ramsay can create definition for moments of the film through music in a way most films cannot without coming off as campy or derivative. She demonstrates the rare effective use of the pop-music soundtrack to add to the film without taking one away from it.

After watching this I immediately purchased it online because I know that I missed so many subtle moments on first viewing, not only in the acting but in the repeated thematic devices (such as the chthonic bugs and worms that fascinate Morvern, perhaps referring to her desire to understand another entity now one with the ground or the repeated use of slowly flashing red light.)

Recommended for those who appreciated the similar themes and light touch of The Sweet Hereafter as well as any other fans of Morton’s other stellar work (such as Control and Synecdoche, New York.)

The Lives of Others

February 23, 2010

The Lives of Others won the Oscar in 2006 for Best Foreign Film, and rightly so. While this award was once given to some truly impressive pieces of cinematic art (Bergman has won multiple as has Fellini and they even gave it to the surrealist master Bunuel) it has, in recent years, become instead a recognition of the best foreign imitation of the bland/pandering/self-important American pseudo-indie (see Juno or Shakespeare in Love or American Beauty) that makes your average American yuppie feel good about themselves for going to the local Landmark theater and watching subtitles for two hours. This is the reason more creative and non-traditional films (recently The White Ribbon, Waltz with Bashir, The Class or even Pan’s Labrynth) do not win this award. They have spice that can offend a voter’s tongue.

This is not to say that The Lives of Others is not a very effective film. A story of a playwright in East Berlin in 1984 and the no-nonsense Stasi agent that is assigned to spy on him, at times, quite effectively and chillingly is able to convey the level of paranoia present in that specific time and place (see the scene in the lunch room as a low-level Stasi agent stops short a joke about a Communist leader and turns pale once he realizes a superior is sitting 5 feet away.)

When I finished the film I felt quite underwhelmed. I felt like something was missing, and that thing was an artistic touch. There was nothing wrong with the film. Each shot, each performance, each piece of swelling music during the dramatic denoument, each pan, each montage was so by the book. Technically it all came off very well but in the sense of a good made for TV movie – it was all done so safely. It was as if you programed a robot to make a film. It was both thrilling (in it’s plot twists) and boring. It’s the definition of a B-minus film.

Ok, I suppose I’ll finally do a top 10 of 2009

February 11, 2010

Keep in mind I haven’t seen the following films, but it’s getting a bit late in the year for anybody to care anymore, right? Perhaps I can figure out how to get studios to send me screeners! Any tips?

Have not seen: Precious, Invictus, Ponyo, Princess and the Frog, Broken Embraces, A Simple Man, An Education, 35 Shots of Rum (still not even a limited release in the US), 9, Tulpan, The Informant!, The September Issue, La Danse, Bad Lieutenant, Import Export (ditto 35 shots), Me and Orson Welles

1.The Hurt Locker

On my third viewing I think I realized that what I loved most about this film was it’s unusual ability to convey some of the less depicted relationships that exist between soldiers. The scene in the desert with the sniper, wherein Sgt. James prepares and feeds Sgt. Sanborn a pouch of juice as Sanborn keeps his scope on the target was a moment in war that I’d never seen before. It had the intimacy and loving touch of a parent feeding a child.

2.In the Loop

Funniest film I’ve seen in years and slowly creeping up my list of favorite comedies ever. I spent a couple of weeks being tormented and amused by some of the lines of this film in the same way a commercial jingle will refuse to leave your consciousness.

3.Inglorious Basterds

Tarantino made a film that nobody else could pull off. For a filmmaker so self-conscious and referential it’s impressive how much he just doesn’t care about other people’s notions of good taste. He just wants to entertain and continues to see film as a medium that could even go so far as to single-handedly end the Thrid Reich.

4.Children of Invention

This did not get picked up by a studio this year, which is a shame. It’s a wonderful understated tale about an immigrant experience and the wonderful naievete of children running right up against the dangers of a contemporary American city.

5.Goodbye Solo

The best tear-jerker of the year. Ramin Bahrani has made three incredible films in a row. I hope he continues working outside of the Hollywood mainstream because, with his non-professional leads and unglamorous examinations of the lives of outsiders in America (especially that of immigrants) he has made three of the greatest films of the last decade. Red West pulls off such a wonderful, cantankerous and tragic character.

6.We Live in Public

Another film that hasn’t been picked up and released yet (though you may see it in the running for awards once it inevitably does.) Ondi Timoner, of Dig! “fame,” creates a film about a visonary and repulsive genius, a trend of American’s elimination of the private sphere, and a man who pulls off a wonderful sociological/psychological experiment that doubles as the greatest, longest, dirtiest, most claustrophobic party in New York.

7.Humpday

A slight film examining the transition of a friendship come adulthood (similar to Old Joy even down to the hippie dude with a long beard!) Quite a slight film but there are some touches that made me laugh with recognition. One of those films that I definitely appreciate more because of my personal cultural circumstances.

8. Sugar

Another quite small film less about baseball than about almost acheiving the dreams of youth but then having to make your own way as a non-english speaking immigrant in the US. A wonderful performance by another non-professional actor Algenis Perez Soto.

9. Hunger

Quite self-consciously arty and exacting in it’s aesthetic. I appreciated it less at the outset due to it’s overt political agenda and manipulative scnees (see the hallway beating scene with the crying guard) but I am haunted by absolutely stunning images of a naked man standing in front of prison bars as snow comes through and peppers his chest or a close-up of a man’s hand as he plays with a fly. Looking back at Michael Fassbender’s performance (as well as experiencing his very nuanced turn in this year’s Fish Tank) has made him one of my current acting favs – he’s goanna blow up into a big leading man in the next year or so – just you wait!

10. A Serious Man

I had a hard time picking a 10th for this year so I just did a snap judgement and chose the Coen Brothers – always a good choice. By far my favorite scenes are those of the protagonist professor with the maderately-English-speaking Korean student and his father. The Coens do comedy of manners like no others!

Honorable Mentions: The White Ribbon, (500) Days of Summer, Star Trek

Guilty pleasure of the year: Terminator: Salvation

I’m a sucker for the whole future robot war concept, even though Christian Bale played John Connor essentially just like his one-note Batman without the cape. Ugh!

Acting Performance of the Year (Male/Female is bullshit): Christopher Waltz

That’s a bingo!

Prettiest movie of the year (cause I don’t feel qualified to judge cinematography): Hunger, though The Limits of Control is a close second.

I’m very much looking forward to Steve McQueen making more feature films. I’d also love to see one of his installations sometime if he ever tours them…which he probably has – I don’t have my ear to the ground on these things.

Best screenplay: In the Loop

Example of the amazing dialogue: “Within your ‘purview’? Where do you think you are, some fucking regency costume drama? This is a government department, not some fucking Jane fucking Austen novel! Allow me to pop a jaunty little bonnet on your purview and ram it up your shitter with a lubricated horse cock!”

Biggest disappointment: The Road

How could a film version of my favorite novel of all time not disappoint. Though I must give big respect to Robert Duall and Michael K Williams for their small but quite effective roles.

The Limits of Control

February 9, 2010

Most films are lucky to succeed in one way. Sophomoric gross out comedies succeed in making one laugh and cringe. “Based on true events” prestige films succeed in conveying a sense of the importance of certain historical events and how they’ve shaped the present (generally in progressive ways according to western standards.) Slasher horror films make you jump and recoil at the sight of their gore. Many films that succeed in only one manner can be quite good. Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control is a film that succeeds in three ways.

Its visuals are gorgeous and very striking and meticulously arranged in a technical sense – it’s an unusually painterly piece of work that I applaud the DP for without reservation. The sound production approaches the levels of achievement of a master like David Lynch (to say nothing of the excellent multiple uses of a song by the noisy soundscape band Boris) – it’s use of low-pitched background noise and the resonant twang of a guitar as it’s case is closed is quite stunning. And the flat, emotionless tone of the film is adhered to with intense discipline, specifically by the stone-face of Issach de Bankole’s Lone Man. Nonetheless, the film fails for me on almost every other level. Perhaps I am the butt of Jarmusch’s joke that is the title of the film: The control of all of the technical aspects and the doggedly ascetic nature of the film has removed any and all resonance on a level beyond the intellectual. Moreover, its tossed-off philosophical conceits seem to mistake laziness for meaningfulness. (While this aspect may be superficially similar to the navel-gazing dialogue and playful, stoned meanderings in Waking Life, Jarmusch’s wankery is significantly more pretentious and less fun.)

The penultimate scene, sort of the opposite of a Grand Inquisitor’s scene, is especially offensive in that it tries to throw some contemporary (or, perhaps just past it’s time) politics into the mix completely out of nowhere. It seemed pretty clear to me that Bill Murray’s character is intended to be Dick Cheney (who calls out to his aide David Addington once The Lone Man’s intentions become clear.) The intended catharsis of this scene isn’t earned as this film is not political in any sense that justifies bringing in the global and moral issues that Cheney evokes.

What this film may be able to give on repeated viewings is a good excuse for a drinking game. Take a shot every time one of it’s recurring themes is spotted: the repeated dialogue that repeated like ritual, the references to obscured, false images or unusual perspectives, and the visual motif of eyes and the symmetry of two objects, demonstrated in scene after scene by cups of espresso, streetlamps, car headlights and (in a demonstration of a lack of symmetry that perhaps turns off The Lone Man) breasts. And boy, was that one sexy Spanish vixen!

PS: I suppose that somehow, even though I really didn’t care much for this film as a whole, the fact that I was able to write a 500 word blog post about it says more for it than, say, the perfectly adequate but less interesting and less ambitious Bright Star, which I saw recently as well and just yawned my way through.

Wherein I bloviate anew about the Oscar Noms

February 2, 2010

Nom nom nom!

Best Picture

What should win? Inglorious Basterds or The Hurt Locker

What will win? God, I really think it’s going to be Avatar. Or fucking Up in the Air. Pft.

Snubs? In the Loop, Goodbye Solo, Hunger

WTF? The Blind Side has just invalidated this whole “expanded to 10” thing in it’s very first year. Then again, it’s the Oscars and they’re dumb anyhow.

Best Actress

Should – I didn’t see any of these movies. I haven’t seen many impressive fem performances this year – it’s been quite dude heavy.

Will – We’ll all wake up the next morning with Streep throat

Best Actor

Should? Renner

Will? Bridges, becuase it’s like Mickey Rourke in the Wrestler, only about Country Music. I also didnt’ see it. I discovered this year that I really don’t have much interest in seeing most of what the academy thinks is good. I think the academy only has good taste in years like 2007 when the cup overflowed-eth with Coens and PT Andersons and such.

Supporting Actor

Should? Waltz

Will? Waltz

Snub? Peter Capaldi in In the Loop

Supporting Actress

Should? Dunno, I only saw one of these

Will? Kendrick

Screw this, I hate the Oscars I think. 2007 dragged me back into believing the academy had taste, only to be shot down by poverty porn mediocrity last year and forced to consider The Blind Side as a great film this year.

Cinematography – the snub and what should win was Hunger, but nobody saw it. They’ll probably give it to Avatar, though comparing Avatar to the rest of the films is like comparing an A-Capella performance to a symphony.

Costume design….I don’t like this award. Costuming is important in films outside of those that are musicals and historical costume dramas. I imagine a film like Precious is at least as reliant on costumes (and probably shows a greater deal of creativity and verisimilitude in costuming) than any of these. Pfft.

I’m such a curmudgeon.