Archive for March 2010


March 29, 2010

In his newest film about the specific way the White Stillman coined “Urban Haute Bourgeoise” interact, learn to connect and fail to connect in emotionally healthy ways, the Gen-X Noah Baumbach’s connection with my generation’s much reviled mumblecore movement is made apparent. Like Baumbach’s, mumblecore’s films focus on the small lives of individuals the filmmaker’s own very specific cultural and temporal environment. The films are most effective when driven by the minute details of interaction of a social group whose emotions (sadness, anger, hatred, ennui) are not so much suppressed than expressed in smaller, passive-aggressive ways that may not be fully appreciated or recognized by those who don’t know these specific codes. Perhaps Baumbach was before his time. Perhaps his first film Kicking and Screaming could be the key historical touchstone of the movement just as much as John Cassavettes Faces. Anyhow, in Baumbach’s new film Greenberg, Greta Gerwig (mumblecore’s version of Chloe Sevigny) plays the female lead. Mark Duplass (thus far probably the most “Hollywood successful” of the movement’s directors/actors) plays a minor friend of the titular mope.

This is a film that most people will absolutely hate and justifiably so. The title character (played by Ben Stiller, in yet another role that makes me like him as an actor until the next Night at the Museum gets pooped out of Hollywood’s wrinkled butthole) is pretty much completely unlikeable. And he doesn’t get much more likeable by the end. Roger Greenberg is a Brookly-based LA transplant, college educated wannabe carpenter who house-sits his rich brother’s Hollywood hills home while the brother is on a long vacation in Vietnam. He’s recently out of a psychiatric hospital, but moreover, he’s completely self-absorbed with no internal filter. Most of what he says is hurtful to everyone around him. Gerwig plays Florence, the mid-20s, recently single assistant to Greenberg’s brother who becomes involved with Greenberg. Rhys Ifans plays Ivan, Greenberg’s old band-mate and the only person that has been able to tolerate the acid that is Greenberg’s personality and remain friends with him. (Ifans and Stiller also share the most effective scene in the film wherein they are finally able to hash out a life-changing moment in both of their pasts.)

So Stiller inhabits almost every scene (following a 15-minute sequence at the beginning that introduces Florence.) He hates everyone else. He hates American Airlines. He hates birthdays. He hates himself. He’s pretty insufferable, but not unsympathetic. He’s damaged goods and it becomes clear later on that pretty much all of his interactions with people are steeped in defense mechanisms. He pushes people away, storming out of the room one moment and then pretends nothing happened the next. For him, character development consists of going from unwittingly cruel to trying to be less cruel some of the time. But this is the clay that Baumbach uses for his observations and humor.

About three times during the film this 70 year old blue hair sitting in front of me turned around with a scowl on her face after I (and perhaps 1 or 2 other patrons) laughed. Baumbach’s humor is far from broad – in fact, it’s more like a dog whistle. And, as somebody who sees quite a bit of himself in Baumbach’s most caustic characters (Kidman’s narcissist in Margot at the Wedding or Chris Eigeman’s sarcastic Max in Kicking and Screaming) I respond. Moreover, I think I appreciate his films for the exaggerated mirror-image view they give me that allows me to try to keep myself from being as terrible as his protagonists, because I know how much of myself there is in them.

That didn’t however, keep me from going on a Roger Greenberg-esque rant to my friend Marcia about how annoyed I was that that woman begrudged me my knowing chuckles at a film that, frankly, she should be glad she doesn’t get more: if she did she’d probably have to grapple with the same character flaws that I do every day. But those who are like me welcome every new comedy of manners that Baumbach creates, replete with their snarky assholes and light-touch emotional denouements. While they may not be objectively great films I certainly treasure them, god help me.

And thus ends the entry consisting of Jeff’s emotional issues more than info about the film itself.

Are cosmetic procedures revolutionizing film acting?

March 12, 2010

Amanda Fortini (not pictured above, that’s Jessica Lange) has a thoughtful article in New York magazine asking whether the widespread use of botox and other facial-freezing procedures has affected acting styles in Hollywood.

In ancient Greece and through Medieval Europe actors wore masks and thus had to communicate their solely through their words, intonation and their body. Something is surely lost when an actress (as we all know the looks of aging man is accepted and occasionally fetishized in our culture) has to remain icily unaffected at all times. An obvious example is Nicole Kidman, who denies having work done but…

Kidman in Dead Calm, 1989

Kidman, recent

While I find her to be an excellent actress, there are certainly scenes and characters she could never do as well as others who are still all natural. Kidman has the magestic beauty such that she can often be cast as a sort of ice queen (or automaton) these days – chararcters whose aloofness and unflinching demeanor is key to their character. Could you ever see Kidman playing a lower-class character? For example, Frances McDormand’s frumpy frustration in any number of scenes in Burn After Reading was conveyed almost entirely through her pursed lips and furrowed brow.

This issue will be a sticky one for actresses who, as they enter their 40s and 50s, wish to both remain marketable and perform in a more nuanced way. It would be a shame if expressive acting becomes relegated to only the character actors while the leading ladies are, like their gazes, locked in place by the viewer’s own restrictive notions of female beauty.

The Ghost Writer

March 11, 2010

Saw The Ghost Writer last night. A perfectly fine little neo-noir genre film (I found myself the only one in the theater chuckling at the clichés Polanski uses like the creaky hotel sign swaying in the gale during a strong rainstorm not to mention the tonal use of a torrential, windy storm itself during the 2nd act) that demonstrates that he still has the ability to create some serious cinematic tension almost 50 years after his wonderful, teeth-grittingly restrained debut. Olivia Williams is quite strong as the half-estranged and politically astute wife of an embattled Tony Blair stand-in trying to both write his $10 million memoir and not end up in The Hague. I can’t help but lump this film in with Shutter Island in many ways: the late career genre pieces, stormy island locations, government secrets and the attendant and palpable paranoia. Set on Martha’s Vineyard but shot largely in Germany (due to Polanski’s well-known legal issues), keep an eye out for a quick out-door cut-away shot of Provincetown center’s Lewis Brothers Ice Cream store about 2/3 of the way in. I think somebody needs to let Polanski know that if you were to go biking in a rainstorm on Martha’s Vineyard in January you’d need more than just a wool hat!

Not a double feature: Gerry and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls

March 9, 2010

Over the weekend I saw two radically different films. Gus Van Sant’s Gerry and Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls are no one’s idea of a double feature. But I enjoyed them just the same – though clearly with two different parts of my brain.

Gerry is the quiet film, as Van Sant noted the first of his self-described “death trilogy.” The more critically acclaimed Elephant and Last Days followed but I think I enjoyed Gerry more than both of those combined. Gerry stars Matt Damon, Casey Affleck (who also wrote the film with Van Sant) and the desert. The two human actors speak little and nothing is explicitly revealed of their past (aside from Affleck’s briefly noted pride at his video game accomplishments.) Gerry pushes the Samuel Beckett buttons a little too hard (the reference to the unnamed “thing” that they search for on a wilderness trail before getting lost in the Utah scrubs) and the film as a whole is lousy with pretension but the actors earnestness and nature’s incomprehensibility are hypnotic. Especially noteworthy is the camera work of one of my favorites, Harris Savides. Static and patient long shots of the sun rising, setting and clouds passing both in real time and sped-up. Profile dolly shots at the speed of the duo’s ever-slowing gait as the days pass. There’s one particularly devastating extreme long-shot wherein Affleck’s Gerry, exhausted and despondent, slows and slumps forward, encumbered by the empty expanse and the beauty around him that may prove to be his end.

The film’s implications of the smallness of man in the larger world isn’t terribly novel but an old idea reinvigorated with this sort of artistry is always worthy. Especially appreciated is the subjective climax of the characters’ journey – an act of malice, love or compassion? It’s up to you. Warning: Don’t see this if you don’t like films where “nothing happens” for tens of minutes at a time.

At the other end of the spectrum, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (or BVD as it’s screenwriter, the critic Roger Ebert, dubs it) is a twisted image of late 60s LA cum sexploitation dominated by some of the fastest cuts this side of a Mountain Dew ad along with head-spinning dialogue and rapid-fire plot exposition.. I’m not really one for most “camp classic” films (the early films of John Waters leave me yawning.) What BVD has that saves it from it’s otherwise muddled self full of plot points dropped midway through and patently misinformed “hippie” cultural references (Ebert says neither he nor Meyer had any depth of knowledge of the counterculture) is the last 30 minutes and Z-Man Barzell (ahem, I mean Superwoman) – a music Svengali based loosely on Phil Spector. Here film goes wonderfully off the rails as characters dress up as superheroes, take various substances, screw and then apparently lose their minds. Meyer denied his actors requests to act as if they were in on the joke, instead insiting on straight acting throughout. This is a tribute to Meyer’s understanding of what I consider the key to the best camp films: earnest acting. (See Tommy Wiseau’s The Room for an even greater example of this tried and true tactic.)

Note that I watched this film while completely sober – its entertainment value is apparent even to the straight observer – no “marijuana cigarettes” required.