25 December 2010

Everyone Else / Alle Anderen (Maren Ade, 2009, Germany)

Alle Anderen is about a youngish German couple on vacation in Sardinia. He's an architect just starting out. His backside is strong but his hair is beginning to thin. She's a publicist for a band nobody has ever heard of. The relationship is one of those where the partners are attached to each other despite being fundamentally incompatible. If you've ever been in a relationship like this you know that although there is a small chance of making this sort of relationship work, the pair must necessarily act out all kinds of drama that stems from the uncertainty produced by such an unfortuitous pairing. This movie definitely knows what it's talking about and that's part of why it's hard to watch. The way the characters behave dysfunctionally even when they must know they're not making things better feels disarmingly authentic. I guess what I felt was lacking in this movie was anything to pull you in other than the familiarity of the dysfunction. I'm not sure the film is beautiful enough to hold its cruelty, although I find it growing on me as it has time to settle. C+

Sweetgrass (Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor, 2010)

Sweetgrass is a documentary about a sheep ranch in Montana. From the 19th century until about 2003, if I'm remembering correctly, ranchers would take their livestock to graze in the mountains during the summer. The film starts off with the most enchanting, beguiling, and sometimes gently disturbing series of episodes in which the sheep are the central characters. The people almost seem like machines and there's something uncannily reminiscent of a Holocaust film in some way. I thought that might be me reading something into it because I just spent a semester contemplating the Holocaust but my boyfriend said he was thinking the same thing. As the film progresses the perspective gradually shifts to the men of the ranch. This is done pretty craftily but I have to say that the film kind of lost me by the time this shift was complete. Part of me this morning, the morning after, wonders if it might have hit kind of close to home since those are the sort of unintelligible, emotionally immature salt of the earth types that to some extent populated my early years. I kind of wish the filmmakers had included less footage of the guy's lunatic rampages. I think it crosses the boundary from pathos to pathetic and that's unfortunate because if the characters didn't devolve into such infantile wretches there might have been more weight to the yearning towards the comfort of modernity that seemed to propel their discontent. I mean, I guess it's sort of a real life version of that Marilyn Monroe film, The Misfits inasmuch as it's about people who have been passed by by the world's progress. It's really sad in this case because what's modern is likely much more barbaric than the primitive. I'm happy this wasn't any sort of dumbed down IMAX nonsense like March of the Penguins or something but I guess I was hoping for something more. Or less. C+

24 December 2010

Rabbit Hole (John Cameron Mitchell, 2010)

Talk about a tough sell. I was initially thrilled about Rabbit Hole because I love John Cameron Mitchell's two previous films, Shortbus and Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Then I heard about the subject matter and got nervous. It could have gone terribly wrong but I think it went mostly right.

I've seen this film dismissed as "grief porn." My first problem with this is that it implies that movies about grief are as hollow, perverse, and pandering as "torture porn" or actual pornography and this is not something I think is even true in bad movies about grief. Certainly there is an element in exploitation in many of the movies about grief that have popped up in recent years, particularly since In the Bedroom, and that this charge might even be leveled against a pretty good film like Ordinary People. Whatever. I personally feel that all but the cheapest of these films are valuable because they provide the purifying vicarious experience that the word "catharsis" was pretty much born to represent. I also feel though that this isn't one of the cheaper films so the term is empty regardless.

I found the picture of grief presented in this film honest enough. The performances are great. Sometimes Diane Wiest reminded me of Brenda Blethyn's somewhat campy turn in Lovely & Amazing but I liked that thing so it worked for me. Anyway, I also found her performance reminiscent of the role(s) she played in Synecdoche, NY. I guess there's something about this movie that felt like a revision of Revolutionary Road but I think it's less crass than that film. The performances are great. Everybody knows that by now. What I loved about this movie was how gently it evoked an authentic experience of grief. I don't agree with critics who have suggested that this film offers no light to the viewer. I kind of feel that anyone who feels that way has never really experienced that sort of loss. I will say that some of the plotting felt a little off, particularly some of the details of the story involving Sandra Oh. B+/A-

Toy Story 3 (Lee Unkrich , 2010)

Toy Story 3 is one of those movies about which I feel so at odds with the prevailing opinion about (even among my friends) that I start to psychoanalyze myself as a result. I thought this movie was at least as dull as the others. I found a couple of the toys cute and I liked the girl and thought the movie would have been more interesting if she had been closer to the center of it. I thought the ending was unforgivable schmaltz and I thought the plotting seemed almost color-by-numbers. I guess one thing that's always bothered me about this franchise is its aggressive lowbrow Americana. It's nostalgia and kitsch and the exultation of empty consumerism and smug bourgeois mediocrity. Whenever people talk about these movies I always think to myself, "Is this really how you want to program your children?" Fortunately, I've grown polite in my old age and I've learned to use my alienation as a springboard to the comforts of endless introspection.
As my best friend shockingly took to the defense of this film, I turned toward introspection. It occurred to me that I didn't care for any of these toys as a child. I got to thinking about how I didn't have many toys as a child, how we grew up in the middle of nowhere and how playtime meant going out and making believe in fields and forests or communing with horses, barn cats, and other animal life. This led me to my troubled childhood and something I've realized at least since high school, which is that I have always felt at odds with the physical realm. This is naturally a problem but although a film like Toy Story 3 calls a number of related issues to mind, I'm pretty sure I don't want any remedy nor any solution to which the appreciation of empty crap like this is part. D+

PS: Give me a hollow Care Bears redux over this quatsch any day. :-*

Coming Back to the Five and Dime and a Carey Mulligan Double Feature

I've been so overwhelmed with being back in school that I have hardly had time to watch movies, let alone keep up with this journal. I'm going to try to fill in some of the gaps over the next couple of weeks, with all due respect to any friends who may have enjoyed the sudden decrease of activity on Google Buzz that coincided with my Rodney Dangerfield back to school moment. For my second post today I present a double feature that illustrates that it takes more than a delightful turn by Carey Mulligan to rescue a weak script.

I can't remember why but I expected more than this from Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. I feel like I heard an interview with Oliver Stone talking about Gordon Gekko and about how his new movie was going after Wall Street. The final product is far too silly and poorly written to worthy of its subject matter. Not even a charming performance from Carey Mulligan can redeem this movie. Shia Leboeuf is serviceable here and could have seemed better if the material hadn't been so rotten. Michael Douglas, on the other hand, manages to be worse than the screenplay. His anachronistic hamming that might have served the original Wall Street (which I also dislike) render this 2010 film as absurd, particularly since he looks like a withered sack of reasons to take it easy on the cosmetic surgery. Maybe it isn't even just Michael Douglas who's doing his best attempt to portray an old man in 2008 who's thinks he's still a young man in 1988. I feel like the whole movie is dated. The cameo by Charlie Sheen didn't help things, let alone the cheap gag about the 1980's cellphone. It almost seemed like the movie was waiting for Molly Ringwald to show up and ask where's the beef. I haven't had the time or opportunity to watch Inside Job yet but I'm hoping that'll be the movie this should have been. D-

Never Let Me Go reminds me of Perfume in that it was a relatively faithful adaptation of a book that I found both dazzling and unsatisfying. It's not quite as faithful as Perfume of course, because otherwise the audience would have have sat there for half the film wondering where Carey Mulligan and Keira Knightley were. Ishiguro has an amazing gift for conjuring life and sensitivity but I wasn't really convinced by his book and I was probably convinced even less by the film, despite an effective performance by Carey Mulligan. The movie certainly lacks much of the depth and texture that made the book so enthralling but it doesn't even attempt to answer the holes in the book. In fact, the weaknesses of the book are laid bare when Ishiguro's sensitive prose and thicket-like progression are stripped away. When you aren't as invested in the mind of the character, the willingness to suspend disbelief falters detrimentally in this film adaptation. They needed to have found a way to trim less from the book. I understand that the stars of the movie needed to be at its center but even a cheesy solution like telling the story of her childhood in a series of several flashbacks would probably have been more effective. Other than adding depth, this would have given the excellent supporting cast more screen time. Sally Hawkins, Charlotte Rampling, and Nathalie Richard were perfect for this movie but their characters were robbed of the gravity they possessed in the book such that their performances emerge as odd curiosities that leave the viewer wondering what Charlotte Rampling is doing in this movie anyway. I don't know, the film struck me as much too morbid, where the book was haunting. I felt like the book failed in not providing an adequate justification for itself and the movie didn't even attempt to address this. C

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (Ricki Stern & Anne Sundberg, 2010)

I've always found something compelling about Joan Rivers. Even before she looked like she might be Amanda Lepore's biological mother. It's clear that she's intelligent and funny even though much of her humor is unintelligent and unfunny. It's like she's this great star devoured by her insecurities and half defeated by her own bitterness. I felt like the scene where Melissa talks about how her mother unconsciously works to make people dislike her could be expanded to cover her career. I guess the trouble with her is that her humor isn't clever enough to make up for how hostile she is.

The movie is engaging but it doesn't really rise to the same level of, say, The Eyes of Tammy Faye, which I confess to adore. She may certainly have opened a lot of doors for a lot of comediennes but I wish the film had paid tribute to other early comediennes like Rusty Warren or Fanny Brice or spent a moment talking about her relationship to other comediennes in the cannon. Of course, that would have turned this into an A&E special. I just felt like the scope was too narrow at times and it lacked the dramatic intensity and vulnerability that made the Tammy Faye piece so compelling. Even when I compare this to other recent profiles like the Jimmy Carter documentary or The September Issue, I'm just not sure it was as layered or ambitious by comparison. C+

15 December 2010

The Social Network (David Fincher, 2010)

Instead of working on my finals and so forth I ended up reading best of the year stuff and The Social Network seemed like the favorite. I haven't seen many new movies since the spring and wasn't in a big rush to see this movie but it was all right. I feel like it's overrated but it's more effective than I expected it to be. I guess I got sucked into the plot but it didn't really make me think about much other than how awful most of the characters were. I guess that caused me to think more about my relationship to Facebook in particular and to the internet in general. The acting was good, I suppose, although Justin Timberlake's performance has been exaggeratedly praised. I thought the most interesting thing about his performance was that the most interesting thing about it was contemplating the changes in his face. I guess I hoped that he got all Marilyn Monroe and hired a deranged Russian acting coach to turn him into a legend but he seemed like the next Mark Wahlberg (or Ryan Phillippe?), at best. Not that that's necessarily something to scoff at.

I'm just not sure the story as it was told was the story that should have been told. It's interesting because Facebook plays such a central role in the lives of almost everybody I know but I guess it seemed like it was missing something. Whether it was context or depth or humanity I don't know.

I guess I liked the way Fincher handled the business with the privileged Winklevoss brothers. I guess that aspect of the movie might have been the most worthwhile for since it showed an aspect of our culture that is rarely acknowledged seriously (or at all) in popular media. One of my literature professors said that what she's noticed about American students compared to Europeans or Canadians is a tendency to focus on extracting a moral purpose or didactic intent from works. I guess for me that's what interesting, from a sociological or psychological standpoint. When I think about it, I suppose I appreciate that they depict more realistically what kind of assholes men are than you usually see. That's really a running theme here. Men are assholes and women are crazy. People in suits are just as bad as you thought they were. It's interesting though that the movie is book-ended by two of the three sympathetic characters in the movie: first the girl who dumps him (and of whom he's thinking in the final scene) and then the lawyer lady who kindly tells him how it is at the end. The only other character who seemed particularly sympathetic to me was the discarded best friend. I feel like I'm dancing around what was missing in this movie and I can't put my finger on it. C