1/26/2013

Tabu



TABU, the new film from Portuguese director Miguel Gomes, is a tale told in two parts—one set in the present, and one set in the past. One character, a woman named Aurora, connects the stories. We meet her at the end of her life, then adventure into her past.

TABU’s title and structure are borrowed from the 1931 film of the same name by Robert Flaherty and F.W. Murnau, which told the story of two lovers who flee an idyllic island in Bora Bora (“Paradise”) to a colonized island (“Paradise Lost.”) Gomes inverts the order of these sequences; paradise lost is modern day Portugal, with an elderly but spunky Aurora, and paradise is the romantic, elegant wilderness of life in Portugal’s African colonies, where Aurora was married and became pregnant while also engaging in a bittersweet tryst with another man. But Gomes’s film is ultimately so deeply concerned with exploring the tough-to-grasp ramifications of Portuguese colonialism that those hoping to find something more universal in its narrative will likely be disappointed.

Among the other recent entries of this breed of hard-art foreign film, TABU fits neatly alongside the work of Gomes’s Portuguese contemporaries Pedro Costa and Manoel de Oliveira, both of whom also favor a languid thoughtfulness and narrative restraint. Those familiar with the films of Apichatpong Weerasathekul will also find many corollaries, not only with the film’s two-part structure, but also its heavy blanket of mysticism.
Any frustration with Gomes's modest, plodding narrative is partially forgiven by TABU's second part, shot in black and white without dialogue and set on the African plantation of Aurora's youth, which brings the film’s slow-burn to its climax and releases a brief emotional detonation. But in the end, the journey between these two worlds isn’t compelling enough without the needed subtext, a component which many viewers, especially in the west, will be missing. Ultimately, TABU will reward those attuned to the legacy of Portugal’s 1000-year saga colonial strife, and keep casual viewers at a partial remove.

It’s worth noting that Gomes has also worked as a film critic, and has authored essays on film theory. This puts him in league with directors like Jean-Luc Godard and Fran├žois Truffaut, and hints at why he might favor a highly intellectual, lofty method of filmmaking. There’s plenty of lovely visual poetry on display, particularly in the gorgeous African vistas on display in the much more lovable second part. Music is also used to wonderful effect (including an on-the-nose nod to MULHOLLAND DRIVE featuring a Spanish version the Ronette’s “Be My Baby.”)

Perhaps it’s enough to witness the complicated sins of Aurora’s past and understand her tortured, pampered youth as a stand-in for Portugal’s historical woes. But one can’t help but have the feeling that, in more ways than one, you’re only really responding to half of what’s there.

1/18/2012

Pina



   Philippina "Pina" Bausch, one of the major figures in the landscape of modern dance, founded her Tanztheater in Wuppertal, Germany in 1972, and for anyone whose only encounters with European modern dance is catching a bit of Mummenschanz on PBS, Pina’s work is staggering stuff.


   In Pina, German director Wim Wenders tells the story of Pina’s Tanztheater though the voices and movements of the dancers whom Pina directed, and through the alternately whimsical and serious pieces they created collaboratively for nearly forty years.


   The dances, which occupy the vast majority of the film, build on repetitive gestures and rough staccato motions that look wrenching and at times painful. Modern dance often seems concerned with death, and Pina's are no exception (one dance even features an older dancer shoveling dirt onto a younger as she slowly dances away.) Many (if not all; the film certainly feels comprehensive) of Pina's earliest collaborators share space with newer dancers, and the film finds something in the interplay between young and old, suggesting the passage of time.


   It's often very serious, and Wenders lightens the mood when he can, but eventually all that we are left with is a long procession of dancers, who each appear briefly as a talking head before Wenders gives us their dance. As dancer after dancer has their moment onscreen, most of them offering only mournful platitudes, sincere as they may be, the film starts to feel a little stale.


   Bausch died suddenly of Cancer in 2009, just a few days after diagnosis, and a few before Wenders was set to begin this film. Unavoidably, there is an air of melancholy about the whole film, often examining the work as something in the past, the future uncertain.


   Wenders' takes a welcome, hands-off approach, never inserting himself as a presence, and keeping his focus squarely on the work. It should go without saying that a film about dancing can never quite achieve the visceral feeling of seeing a dancer live on stage, so, to his credit, Wenders abandons the stage as often as possible, bringing the dancers to locations such as industrial parks, forests, and even a quarry.


   It's practically impossible not to compare Pina to Werner Herzog's recent 3D documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Both Herzog and Wenders have traditionally been equally at home in fiction and non-fiction, but whereas Herzog’s films are lately given to rampant flight of fancy and arcane bits of oddness and forced eccentricity, Wenders film, like his subject, feels measured and restrained (though there is one dance scene that feels like it could have been lifted a Herzog film of the same material, involving, of all things, a hippopotamus.) Both films find more than a few interesting ways to use the 3D technology, but if you weren’t convinced of 3D’s merits before, there’s little here to change your mind.


   Though it might disappoint those looking for a more cohesive through-line, Pina is at its best when it examines the role of dance in the lives of the dancers, allowing their movements to tell Bausch’s story as much as their words. It’s a film for, not about Pina, as Wenders instructs us at the beginning, and in the end, what we are left with is not so much a sense of who Pina was, but who she was to her dancers, and what they were to her.

5/17/2011

Cold Weather


















(originally published in the Roosevelt University Torch, 3/20/11.)

Cold Weather, which opened in Chicago last week after premiering at the Chicago International Film Festival last October, is a bit of a mystery. That is to say, there’s a bit of a mystery, which the characters are tasked with unraveling. But only when the film finds time to get around to it.

The film opens on a wet windowpane, giving the viewer a chance to luxuriate in the ultra-crisp images captured by the Red One Digital Camera, the same camera used by David Fincher to shoot The Social Network. These images have much of the same chilly, ultra-crisp character of Fincher’s film, which suits this story equally well.

The film’s plot concerns Doug, a twenty-something forensics school dropout, who has returned home to Portland to live with his sister. Terminally listless, he accepts a low-wage job at a local ice packaging plant with a shrug, and the movie takes its time painstakingly detailing Doug’s shallow, boring existence before finally dragging its feet into “whodunit” mode.

When writer-director Aaron Katz lets the movie simply be a movie, his characters, along with the film, are invigorated. Just about the time you’re wondering when (If ever) the mystery element will come into play, it finally does. The twist goes like this: Doug’s ex-girlfriend is in town, but when she fails to show for a meeting with friends, things take a suspicious turn, and Doug, an avid reader of Sherlock Holmes mysteries, finds himself in the middle of a caper.

Even in its high points, though, Cold Weather is annoyingly anachronistic. The jaunty musical score juxtaposes oddly with the dreary, wet color palette of rainy Portland, and visually stunning landscape portraits are too-often butted up against lazy, boring two-shots.

Cold Weather has occasionally been lumped in with the so-called “Mumblecore” movement—a recent slew of American films which feature awkward, non-communicative post-grads fumbling quietly through early adulthood. Admittedly, this film does fall prey to many of the same tropes. Many viewers might find themselves resistant to the idea of these supposedly college-educated characters expressing themselves in a manner just a few IQ points away from mouth breathers. I assume these filmmakers are aiming for an ultra-realistic style, but I have to wonder—is anyone actually this awkward in real life?

Doug, his sister Gail, and his Ex-girlfriend Rachel all seem to be cluelessly stumbling from one encounter to the next. To its credit, the film never tells us how were supposed to feel about these characters, but my guess is Katz is plenty sympathetic to their plight.

Stripped of their “umms” and “I dunno’s”, there are likely interesting characters buried under the actors in Cold Weather. Unfortunately, we only get to see them in too-fleeting glimpses. Cold Weather is a pretty crackerjack little thriller when it wants to be, but that’s clearly not what Katz is interested in, which is a shame.

12/21/2010

True Grit





















At some point over the Thanksgiving holiday, as my family waited impatiently in the living room for the turkey to roast, the TV spot for True Grit came on.
 
               "Looks interesting." someone said. (It wasn't me.)
 
               "Yeah.. but it's by the Coen Brothers!" my father blurted out in disgust.
              
               Knowing my dad, this unprovoked burst of poorly articulated grumpiness didn't faze me. Nor did I feel the need to counter (my dad couldn't name three films by the Coens if his second helping of pumpkin pie depended on it.) Anyway, I had a pretty good idea why he felt compelled to voice his skepticism. He seemed to think a pair of artier-than-thou writer/directors in their $500 penny loafers were out to track fresh mud all over the hallowed grounds of his cinematic hero, one John "Duke" Wayne. And THAT he simply could not stand for.
 
               It's doubtful that too many would share his vague angst, though. After all, who could think of a more audience-friendly replacement for Wayne's Rooster Cogburn than Jeff Bridges? Having long ago endeared himself to generations of movie fans, last year Bridges cleared the final hurdle to American film immortality, successfully courting the don't-rock-the-boat crowd and snaring an Oscar for his role in Crazy Heart. That film played by the Academy rules, alright, and for the most part True Grit does as well. As usual, however, the Coens ennoble the film with the formidable strengths of their direction and writing, and with their choice of collaborators.
 
               In True Grit, the Coens have everything and nothing up their sleeve. The film is a tale of man-hunting in the Old West. Young Mattie Ross (played with convincing, plucky bravado by Hailee Steinfeld,) has lost her father at the hands of a bandit named Tom Chaney. She recruits Bridge's drunken Marshall Cogburn to find Chaney and bring him to justice. Matt Damon's LaBoeuf, a Texas Ranger, completes the posse. Chaney is wanted in Texas, too, and LaBoeuf is out to see him caught as well.
 
               True Grit is more spared-down than any western in recent memory. There are a few gunfights, and a chase or two, but more often the Coens are content to lean on their strengths, filling the screen with oddball characters and darkly funny encounters. This lends a welcome tone of playfulness to a story that might otherwise have been an austere guilt-and-redemption-fest, like John Ford's The Searchers. Cogburn and Company are out for blood alright, but they're not filled with bloodlust.
 
               It’s a canny little film--It feels small and insular, even as it unfolds against vast western landscapes. It is frequently hilarious, occasionally violent, and it doesn't hit any wrong notes. If it has anything bigger on its mind, however, it's not giving it away. But if you’re desperate for some kind of deeper meaning, it's likely right there in the title. Cogburn, in the employ of the 14-year-old Hattie, and Damon's LaBoeuf, all are working for what is clearly the right cause, and each has a separate burden to bear. But the ways in which their various axes do and don't get ground may have something to say about revenge and redemption.
 
               There's no denying that, on first viewing, True Grit has a distinct air of slightness to it. Coens diehards will probably like it, not love it, if they're being honest with themselves. But mostly, True Grit is a satisfyingly tasty meat-and-potatoes affair. The Coens, like their contemporary Steven Soderbergh, have proven themselves expert craftsmen, able to churn out well-crafted, often excellent work even in the employ of the major studios. Their well-realized hybrids of brilliance and accessibility have endeared them to a diverse crowd of film-goers, and their careers are all the better for it.

               Roger Deakins is a legend in his time, incapable of lensing an uninteresting shot. The music, by frequent collaborator Carter Burwell, is occasionally cloying but mostly standard issue. None of the actors are in particularly unmapped territory, excepting possibly Bridges, whose vocal gymnastics in gargling out Cogburn's guttural expectorations are as impressive as they are entertaining. Coens fans will ultimately return first for the screenplay, packed to the brim (as usual) with dazzling and arcane yokel-isms.
 
               Would my dad actually hate True Grit? It's possible. The dialogue is a far cry from John Wayne's slow-as-molasses drawl, and he'd probably have a hard time keeping up. Apart from that, however, the structure is neat and tidy, the film closes with actual closure (he hates those damn indecisive endings,) and the Coens don't directly impose anything on the viewer that they might not want to deal with.

               True Grit is product, no question--but it's excellent product. Think of it as a really choice cut of Grade A, organic, grass-fed steak. If you're inclined to notice, you'll quickly pick up on the superior flavors, and you'll patiently savor every bite. But if you just came to scarf down a big steak? Well, you'll go home happy too.

11/07/2010

Catfish

















     If you’ve seen the much-derided trailer for Catfish, you’ve already seen too much. The film tells the story of Yaniv, a handsome young New York City photographer, who is befriended via Facebook by an 8-year-old painter from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Her name is Abby, and she loves his photos. They forge an unlikely artistic partnership, and before long Yaniv is receiving paintings in the mail, fielding phone calls from Abby’s mother, and “friending” Abby’s entire family online. Gradually, though, things start to feel amiss.

     Much more than The Social Network, which was mainly concerned with the genesis and business undertakings of the site, Catfish is a film about Facebook. Specifically, Catfish is about the ways in which people present themselves virtually, and the dangers of putting emotional stock in virtual interactions. Yaniv goes on a whirlwind virtual journey with Abby and company--posting, liking, texting, tagging, and eventually even talking. But the folks on the other end of the wires may not be exactly as they say they are. Something doesn’t add up.

     This is where reviewers of Catfish generally shut up, as a good amount of the pleasure of watching the film comes from the anticipation and tension of not knowing what will happen when Yaniv and his cohorts finally decide to investigate the matter (he is accompanied throughout the film by two friends, filmmakers who are documenting the event.) The film builds terrific tension as it approaches this reveal. In fact, it’s so good you begin to wonder if, perhaps, the film itself is not exactly telling the full story. 

     Catfish presents itself as a product of the information age, constantly referencing the gadgets and widgets that fill our lives, like Google street view, Facebook, YouTube, Google Chat, and others. The secrecy surrounding the film had me wincing a bit when it failed to deliver the over-the-top, twisty turns it seemed to promise. It has only one twist, but it's a doozy, if not all that outlandish or outrageous.

     So—is it “real?” Certainly, some elements of the film are wholly verifiable (characters, names and places; others far more intrepid than me have already done that leg work,) but the events are staged and staggered in such a way as to often feel a bit too crafted. It seems incredibly likely that the filmmakers knew exactly what they were getting into, and molded their filmmaking style to accommodate their ideas for a story arch. It’s not acting, exactly, but it’s not far off.

     In the end, though, it really doesn't matter. It's a great fiction film, masquerading as documentary, and the ways in which it masterfully blends fact and fiction only bolster its ideas about the nature of “truth,” online and otherwise. Often, the filmmakers skirt the line well enough that even hardened cynics will briefly second guess their skepticism.

     Far more than The Social Network, Catfish thoughtfully comments on the way we invent personalities for ourselves and people we don't know online. It’s a film about the difference between our virtual selves and our actual selves, and the way our human desire for contact can manifest itself in disturbing ways, particularly in the often consequence-free virtual world. We often do and say things on the web that we would never do or say in real life. Why? What do our virtual selves say about our real selves?

     "There were moments when it really felt genuine," Yaniv says at one point in the film. It’s not stranger than fiction. It's just fiction. ( ..I think.) 

     But, given the subject matter, it really wouldn’t have done it justice any other way.

9/15/2010

Machete



When “Grindhouse” hit theaters in 2007, the twin-bill offering from directors Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez came equipped with its own set of fake trailers in between the two features. Though “Grindhouse” wasn’t a hit theatrically, the trailers were often the best remembered parts of the film. One of those trailers was for “Machete;” the story of a Mexican vigilante who is forced to fight against injustice in America. The original trailer was a hoot, and all of the jokes and characters it contained are recycled in this full-length version. But unfortunately, as is often the case, the stuff that’s in the trailer is all the best stuff in the movie.

“Machete” presents us with a laundry list of characters, among them Robert De Niro as a right-wing senator, Michelle Rodriguez as a taco truck operator, and even Cheech Marin as a cursing, pot-smoking priest. Danny Trejo plays the burly, stoic Machete, and spends most of the film in a growling-and-scowling competition with Jeff Fahey, a dirty businessman who approaches him to assassinate De Niro’s senator. The attempt goes bad after a series of double-crosses more complicated than a good recipe for flan, but along the way there are lots of gruesome kills, and also a fair amount of nudity, courtesy of Jessica Alba and Lindsey Lohan, playing Fahey’s aloof daughter.

Rodriguez is a talented filmmaker who nonetheless owes much of his career to his ties with Quentin Tarantino, who was an early champion of his first film “El Mariachi.” While “Machete” played marvelously as a fake trailer, ultimately the director squanders a golden opportunity to comment on the plight of Mexican Americans (and Mexicans in America) by making something completely disposable and forgettable. Coming from Rodriguez, “Machete” might have had some real staying power if it had anything remotely adult to contribute to the immigration debate, but it never gets its thoughts together long enough to complete a sentence. Trejo, ostensibly the film’s star, only gets about 150 words to say, which breaks down to roughly a word per minute in the film, and that doesn't give him much upon which to build a character. De Niro, like Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando before him, has completely gone adrift and checked out, having not given anything resembling a “performance” in a film since, by my judgment, 1997 (when he made “Wag the Dog” and “Jackie Brown.”)

The film is not without bright spots, however. Jessica Alba (who is currently dueling with Eva Mendes for dibs on being the next Julia Roberts) is excellent as an immigration officer and Machete’s would-be love interest. But ultimately, it is Rodriguez who sinks his own ship. Much as we might admire his 'handmade films' approach, the film is in desperate need of a screenwriter (the dialog is heavy-handed,) and an editor, too (his edits flow like an episode of CSI: Miami.) And, though Jimmy Lindsey is credited as the cinematographer, Rodriguez clearly taught him everything he knows (Lindsey was the camera operator on nearly all of Rodriguez’ previous films,) and his shot selection is downright boring. All this was fine when Rodriguez was making films for kids, such as his please-make-it-stop “Spy Kids” movies (a fourth installment is on the way,) but in “Machete” it’s way too pedestrian, and as a result the film collapses way too quickly.

If “Machete” had been made as part of a second “Grindhouse,” it would have no doubt mercifully been hacked down to 90 minutes or so, which would have been a marked improvement. And, if there's truly justice in cinema, one day we'll start seeing shorter director’s cuts of these popularly over-long films. In the end, though, it’s no coincidence that Rodriguez’ best films (“From Dusk ‘Til Dawn,” “Sin City”) are also the ones on which he worked from someone else’s script, enabling him to focus his craft in one direction, rather than in all directions. Rodriguez has built his career on being a jack of all trades, but just because he can do everything behind the camera doesn’t necessarily mean that he should.

6/27/2010

LOG: Trash Humpers




It's 2010, and there are plenty things to be terrified about in today’s world. Trash Humpers throws one more log on the fire: old white people. Harmony Korine's latest nut-punch of a film is the story of three plucky 70-somethings (2 men and a woman,) wreaking havoc on what is ostensibly the very dirty south. Our heroes go around grinding on garbage bins, breaking shit, swearing in a ear-piercing, glass shattering shrieks, bellowing obtuse catchphrases like insane parrots ("Make it, don't take it, make it, don't take it!!!") and generally behaving like hooligans 50 years their junior. Season all this with a dash of good old fashioned southern deep-fried hatemongering, and voila! Along the way, they also encounter an endlessly colorful coterie of lowlifes and degenerates (including a wholesome evening of ass-slapping with a trio of call-girls.) But tempting as it is to label the film as shit for shit's sake, Korine somehow earns this outlandishness by fashioning the ugly circus into a kind of a warped morality tale.

It’s (probably?) a critique on the trailer trash culture of the Deep South (one character regularly sports a confederate flag t-shirt,) and as such, it’s poignant and truly frightening. One scene finds the three old folks gathered around on a rooftop to watch a scrawny, bearded drifter in a maid’s outfit deliver an impassioned nonsense soliloquy in nursery school rhyme. I couldn’t help but be reminded of a bunch of retirees at a dinner theater as they cackled wildly at him, breaking bottles on the ground, amused not by the words he spoke but with their own authority to make him dance and sing and talk for their disinterested pleasure.

Other moments (such as when a two-headed man servant makes them pancakes, which they flatly refuse to eat) are harder to decipher. But as a portrait of sub-suburban (nearly rural) decay, the nauseatingly intimate tone of the film is effective. The directors hope for the feel of 'found footage' is never totally realized, as he can't resist framing his shots, if ever briefly, and even (*gasp*) holding his camera relatively steady (thank God.) It's to his credit that he doesn't push the grim aesthetic any further, as it would only provoke many more viewers out of their seats and further obfuscate his ideas, which are a tough enough nut to crack as it is.

Trash Humpers ends with a compellingly bizarre and grotesque ending, as inscrutable as it is haunting and scary-sick. Korine's a polarizing figure, and for good reason, but though Trash Humpers is not an enjoyable watch, you may find it, as I did, strangely cathartic and well-aimed. These people do exist, if only in the barely-buried ids of thousands of uneducated, unwashed Americans, their evilness often thankfully reigned in by the chorus of bible-thumpers which overwhelm them in their little backwater towns. Trash Humpers doesn't mock its subject; it's serious as a heart attack about them, illuminating their disgustingness in a surprising and affecting way. It reminds you you're fighting the good fight.

In a cinematic year packed to the brim with shock cinema (The Killer Inside Me, The Human Centipede,) this is comparatively small potatoes (there's only one murder, which occurs off-screen.) But seeing that Korine’s film at least has some kind of discernable thesis behind it, it will probably end up being my favorite of the bunch.

6/03/2010

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call, New Orleans


Werner Herzog gets off on making you wonder if he's finally lost it.  The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call, New Orleans  (punctuate it how you will, it hardly seems to matter,) directed by Herzog from a screenplay by former cop-show scribe William M. Finkelstein, is as inscrutable and superfluous as its deliriously stupid title suggests, and equally grating.  Towing the line between sublime subversion and paycheck-cashing , the film exists as a bizarre, ill-advised lark on the part of Herzog, but one nonetheless rife with critical armor chinks.  The film is, in its way, as much a blatant provocation as Von Trier's Antichrist.  Herzog’s reputation has buoyed him this time, but wrongly so; Bad Lieutenant is trifling and puffy, and it deflates at every turn at the hands of its own dopey bravado.

The original Bad Lieutenant, an excellent if somewhat self-serious cult noir starring Harvey Keitel and directed by Abel Ferrara, does not figure one way or another in Herzog’s film.  What Werner lays on us is (as it has rightly and loudly been touted in the press) not a remake or a reimagining of the original film, except perhaps in the hoping eyes of its producers.  It is a film with a stupid name that follows with a stupid plot, of Cage’s bad lieutenant working his beat in the Big Easy and juggling his hooker girlfriend (Eva Mendes, who is a surprisingly great bright spot, very reminiscent of Erin Brockovich-era Julia Roberts) and his drug addictions, crack cocaine being principal among them.  Right here we can gauge a big part of your tolerance for this dalliance. If you're OK with the idea of Herzog making a wacky, totally-tripped-out-man cop movie with Nicolas Cage pinballing around the screen like a Vaseline-coated superball, then you'll probably love it and not think twice about why.  For me, however, it's like getting talked into sprinting through the funhouse when you'd rather be chilling with a few rounds of ski-ball.

Nicolas Cage remains a problem for which there is no solution.  As has been noted, this is a performance he has been building up to for decades, and undoubtedly a new modern watershed in American screen-actor ridiculousness.  The question is: where does he go from here?  The comparisons to Klaus Kinski, Herzog’s long-time co-conspirator and also a noted basket case, only get you so far. (Although I would concede that both men often found work in spite of their limited abilities as actors.)

 The cavalcade of ridiculous merry-go-rounding that must have had to take place for this film to become what it became is astonishing.  First, Finkelstein writes his lame NY cop movie script and lobs it into the no-doubt waiting jaws of Hollywood.  It's formulaic and easy and, with his background writing for TV, it gets purchased in no time. Somehow it ends up in the lap of Edward R. Pressman, who owns the title rights to the original Bad Lieutenant, having produced Ferrara’s original.  Looking to snowball the uninterestingness of the script into even greater uninterestingness, he, in a flash of brilliance, decides to marry the two.  They start pitching it around to actors, and Nicolas Cage gets it.  They start pitching it to directors, and Werner Herzog (?) gets it (I would pay money to see the contents of his PO Box...)  Neither agrees to commit to the film until, apparently, they hear of each other’s involvement and get a hard-on for working with eachother.  Yet **STILL** what we have on our plate is a dumb-as-shit cop movie mindlessly pimping the title of a bonafide non-classic in a crystal clear attempt to hatch a franchise so ill-conceived it makes Steve Martin's Pink Panther remakes look like works of genius.  But Cage is never one to give pause when a producer waggles a check in front of his face.  And Herzog, obviously enamored with the luxury of basically picking his leading man, signs on as well with a toothy grin.

I must impart what I took away from having the good fortune of seeing this film in a preview screening, as introduced by its two producers, Gabe and Alan Polsky.  Even they seemed at a loss for what they had.  Well, their stupidly brazen devil-may-care shot in the dark has paid off, as critics have lined up in neat little rows to smooch at the feet of their beloved Herzog.  It's as if American critics are so glad to now have this master working in their native idioms that they are inclined to lick up anything Herzog might deposit, as long as he can summon up another of his patented irreverent apologies, fellating his own film in the press like a tarted-up Red Light District madame, as if he somehow needs to.

It's almost as if Herzog has grown tired of serving up slices of his patented ecstatic truth pie.  Fair enough.  Fair enough too that we may be disposed to like or dislike it as we see fit.  He's following his whims, and that's why we love him, right?  Well.. Yeah.. But I reserve the right not to like the direction he may be pointed in at any given time.  Certainly it is true that all sacred cow directors have dusty skeletons in their cinematic closets, and that no director worth anything in the grand scheme of cinema has ever batted a thousand.  But I think it is the duty of those who might cherish his work to inform him when he has possibly lost his way.

As long as it's all hypothesizing anyway, let us attempt to wade into the mind of the 70 year old Herzog.  Burden of Dreams comes quickly to mind, Les Blank’s documentary on the making of Fitzcarraldo.  I have surmised before that were Fitzcarraldo to have been made as originally intended with Jason Robards and Mick Jagger, Herzog's career might have taken a sharp turn right then and there.  Burden of Dreams is, in a way, a document of Herzog's shot at the big time being pulled out from under his feet (although this is not the primary focus of Blank's film.)  So, in a way, Herzog has been fishing for a wider audience since nearly the very start.  He now has it.  And yet, there is still that compulsion in him, as can be seen from some of his very earliest filmic experiments all the way to recent films like Encounters at the End of the World, to document some kind of ecstatic truth.  Bad Lieutenant is nothing if not an ecstatic lie; the tacky turns of the American cop movie subverted with a casual flip of the wrist.

I find myself interested in Herzog's already completed follow-up picture, produced by David Lynch, called My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done.  My gut tells me that it will be played more for keeps, contrasting and emphasizing the comedy of Bad Lieutenant. The question will be, even in the absence of the wackiness: does it work?  Don't we ask the same of journeymen or even hack directors working in these genres?  Don't we expect certain things, a certain standard of quality?   If Herzog's goal is to subvert the American cop film genre, I guess my question would be, why?  It's as simple a target as the broad side of a barn.

 At the very least, Herzog has given us a film to be argued about, although, at the moment, no one seems up to the task.  In his director’s statement, he all but begs for our scorn, preemptively scolding: "I challenge the theoreticians of cinema to go after this one.  Go for it, losers."  Umm.. I'm sorry.. What??  Werner, you have made some of the greatest movies of all time. Why bother with this skanky posturing if you yourself weren't in some way concerned about the film's reception?  Would YOU watch your Bad Lieutenant?  Are you so enamored with Cage's recklessness?

In his great films (of which there are so many,) Herzog does not have time for the sloppy scenes this film and its screenplay saddle him with.  When things are superfluous in a Herzog film, they are generally mood-invoking or at least beautiful, not formulaic and lazy, like many of the beyond-standard cop drama moments in Bad Lieutenant.  And, at the absolute end of the day, though we might enjoy ourselves with this one to a point, how much can we really allow ourselves to like it?  I’ve seen the film three times now, and I have found myself laughing at it at various points each time.  But I am certainly not going to force its tired ideas and sloppy executions on myself on principal alone (and believe me, if any director could inspire me to drink their Kool-Aid, no questions asked, it's Herzog.)  It's funny and it's somewhat memorable, but unfortunately it’s just not that good.

Maybe Herzog is genuinely up to something I'm just not picking up on.  But I've got even money that he's just playing with his food. It's Herzog 2.0, expatriate German maverick turned American, well.. “maverick,” bringing home the bacon on thirty year old stories that still get printed ad infinitum.  Bad Lieutenant is just a new craziness for us all to marvel at, so go ahead and marvel.  It's his American Even Dwarfs Started Small, I guess.  But, lest we forget, he followed up that film with Aguirre, the Wrath of God, and that is why we know his name, and his films. 

Here's hoping that Herzog has got a few American masterpieces in him to go along with his German ones. So far, I haven't seen one.  And I've been looking.

4/22/2010

Log: Beeswax

Somewhere between The Puffy Chair and Cyrus (due in 2010 from director Mark Duplass,) mumble-core, as it is or ever was (big question mark there,) hit a fork in the road.  By then, the critics and audiences had acknowledged it, and dismissed and embraced it in equal measure.  But where was it headed?  How much could be milked from this aesthetic?  Boldly, the filmmakers pressed on.  But much as we all might have held hope for some kind of Cassavetes-style American indie new wave thing to happen, it didn't, really.  A few unqualified hits (Humpday) left a lasting impression, but that was all.

The dregs of upper-middle-class humanity are on display in Beeswax.  It's a story about a pair of sisters who run a boutique, which may be being shutdown due to a disagreement between the business partners.  In between, of course, there's plenty of room for ugly sex scenes, meandering conversations and superfluous exposition.  The dialogue is drowning in a sea of "umms" and "yeahs," leaning on that old "well we just improvised everything" crutch.  But this is nails-on-chalkboard awkward.  It hurts.

I'd like to give the film credit in some backhanded way, as many no doubt have (it's sitting at 92% from Top Critics at Rotten Tomatoes,) by saying that draining the emotion from its characters and story makes some kind of higher statement about the emotionless-ness of people in today's world.  And the film does manage to work up a smidgen of dramatic tension near the end, and, in lock step with tradition, ends with a spectacular whimper.  But in the end, I have to say--people quite simply aren't actually this fucking awkward in real life.  To me, it's just a cheap substitute for having to actually portray the emotions a person might be feeling in a given moment.  People have feelings, dude.  REAL feelings.  And often times, they can actually be articulate about them. There's your movie, man. Get to work.

3/25/2010

My Year at the Movies: 2008

Let's Do It Again: 2008 in theaters:

I could have back-dated this, but I didn't. I'm honest. Very, very late, but better than than never. 
My yearly escapade into the year that was--last year.


No Country For Old Men
Grade: A-

I saw two of big Oscar Horses of 2007 in theaters in 2008 (No Country and There Will Be Blood.) Of the two, it seems that Blood has slid nonchalantly into a "bonafide classic" slot, finding itself on many a reputable critic's Best of the Decade list (myself included. Am I reputable?) No Country, however, continues to spark debate. As for me, my initial reaction to the film was overwhelmingly positive. But as I found myself reflecting in the days after, I was nagged by a realization that the film is among other things, almost totally emotionally non-resonant. I admire Tommy Lee Jones and Benicio Del Toro, as ever, and the film in worth seeing for the totally solid performances alone. I like the movie a lot, in fact. But There Will Be Blood can now be said to easily stand head and shoulders above it.


Sweeney Todd

Grade: A-

I don't actually remember the circumstances under which I saw this in the theater.. Strange. I do remember the movie, however, which I found to be a decent Burton vehicle, if still a mostly lousy musical. I can't compare it to the stage version, as I've never seen the production. As a movie musical, it's a little too drab and unexuberant to register much longer than the time it takes to walk back to the car, or the fridge. Hard to say if this is due to Burton's waning talent/drive, or the source material's nature. Unfortunately, I would guess at the former, as Burton's current project, Alice in Wonderland, seems hellbent on cementing him as a Disney for-hire moneymaker. Look for the DVD, t-shirt, bobble-heads and Nintendo DS game at your local Hot Topic.


Bluebeard's Castle

Grade: B+

Seen at Gene Siskel Film Center, as a one-off showing. Powell's made-for German TV production of the opera, replete with his trademark visual sparkle and emotional heavy-lifting. Though the narrative is sung entirely in German, Powell's knack with musical styling remains eloquent and immediate. A treat, if only for its relative unavailability. Pretty Technicolor candy. I felt like a real movie snob, sitting there amongst a crowd of mostly older, professor types, going on about their favorite and least favorite Powell films.
 

Animal House

Grade: A+

Shown at the Hollywood Boulevard Cinemas in Woodridge, IL. This is the former home of the Woodgrove General Cinema, where I worked for a year or so in my youth, shilling out bags of popcorn wet with extra butter and large Mountain Dews to eager viewers of the latest Schwarzenegger opus. The theater has since (mercifully) transformed into Hollywood Boulevard, a cinema/eatery, which also occasionally books revivals, with guests. (I worked at this incarnation, also, for a total of approx. three shifts, but I'd rather not discuss that.) On this night, Karen Allen, Peter Riegert, and other players of note were on hand to give a Q & A and sign autographs.


There Will Be Blood

Grade: B++ (revised: A+)

I'm not sure what exactly held me back from totally wrapping my arms around There Will Be Blood and giving it a big, wet kiss upon first viewing. Maybe it was the performance of Paul Dano as Eli Sunday, which, rightly or not, I now find unsettling and strange as opposed to ill-measured and jarring. Maybe it was the deliberately wonky ending, which I now find delightfully dark and perfect, as opposed to just plain weird. Whatever it was, I take it all back. I don't know if it's perfect, but There Will Be Blood is probably a masterpiece, and easily one of the best films of its decade, and the best epic since God knows when. Daniel Day-Lewis gives what he always gives--the best acting on planet earth. There Will Be Classes. People are going to teach this thing. Kudos, PTA. You made a fucking barnstormer.


W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism

Grade: B+

Shown at the Gene Siskel Film Center, with introduction and afterword by Jonathan Rosenbaum, the great, former head film critic at the Chicago Reader. I attended many of these. I really, really hope he gets to program another series/class there, and soon. We're friends on Facebook now.. so maybe I'll just ask him!  Anyways.. a weird flick. Very weird. Check it out.



Redbelt

Grade: A

Mamet gets on his high horse again about honor and integrity, dragging out most of the old faces (Mantegna, Ricky Jay, Ed O'Neill,) and a lot of what by now, to Mamet fans, are his same old thematic tropes. Though, I can see why Mamet wears on some people, I still admire the film. Undistinguished as it is, resting beside better films like Spartan, The Spanish Prisoner and Homicide, Redbelt is still a cut above standard fare, and Mamet's love of the MMA sport shines through. Tim Allen is great here, somehow.  More, please.


The Fall

Grade: A-

What The Fall lacks in a believable, well-acted story arch (which is quite a lot, unfortunately,) it easily, EASILY makes up for in its unprecedentedly breathtaking visuals.  As far as empty screen-painting exercises go, especially compared to a certain box-office mega-blockbuster of 2009, I'll take Tarsem over Cameron any day.  AND, by the way, this film was actually PHOTOGRAPHED.  With a camera.  No CGI.  Zero.  Watch it and see if you believe that.  Cuz I didn't.  But it's true.

 

Encounters at the End of the World

Grade: A

Herzog has continued to remain enigmatic and often frustrating in the new millennium.  This film is for me one of his more successful efforts, treading familiar water such as it is.  Critics were quick to sharply pick out the familiar tropes (isolation, mad genius, eccentricity, etc.) and more and more, I was quick to see it that way as well.  Particularly in light of his later The Bad Lieutenant film, whose agenda remains ever dodgier and inscrutable.  Has my main man Werner been selling us snake oil all the time?  I'm inclined to think not, but the next few years will tell.



The Happening

Grade: F

Easily, far and away, the absolute and undisputed WORST movie of the 2000's.  Why does it trump such spectacular crap-storms as Glitter or Gigli?  Because of the unbelievable earnestness by which it nosedives.  Not a single line, moment or scene resonates, but all is played as somber and stone-faced as a funeral.  Truly one of the epic blunders of cinema history.  Not so bad it's good, but so bad it's the worst, most easily and justly hated, and most personally insulting film I have ever seen.  M. Night: go back to Pennsylvania and open a cheese steak stand or something.  I'm gone for good.


The Dark Knight IMAX

Grade: A

From worst to best, Nolan makes a supreme triumph, every bit as engaging and "game-changing" as "Memento."  It's too long, and the false-endings did frustrate me some, particularly on repeat viewings.  But not enough for me not to proclaim this film quite possibly the greatest comic book movie of the last twenty years.  Chicago has never looked greater or grimier.



WALL-E

Grade: A- (corrected: A+.)

Back to back masterpieces clearly demonstrate that 2008 was not nearly as weak a film year as those with lousy memories will attest.  I have a feeling Pixar's long term legacy will shake out much in the way that classic Disney's (which they are so clearly modeled after) does; everybody admires everything, but everybody has their favorites.  The purists will likely never break free of Toy Story or Finding Nemo.  But for me, WALL-E will likely never be topped.  Like it or not, the way Pixar handles real-life problems in fantastic ways (i.e.; the death of a parent in Finding Nemo, earth sickness in WALL-E, even miscarriage and aging in Up,) Pixar have proven themselves braver even than most companies making films strictly for adults.  And better, too.


 
Tropic Thunder 

Grade: B+

Whatever ill-will There's Something About Mary and Meet the Parents might have instilled in me with regards to Ben Stiller, the actor quickly undid, with roles in favorites such as The Royal Tenenbaums and AnchormanTropic Thunder is fairly throwaway, and will no doubt be mostly remembered for the loony black-face performance of Robert Downey Jr. as a white thespian "blacking up" for a role in a film.  Jack Black simply should not be here, as he's practically non-existent anyway save for a couple of lousy fat jokes.  Stiller is funny enough.  And Tom Cruise, paying penance for his crazy couch-jumping ways, officially ushers in the trend of hush-hush uber-celeb cameos in comedies that The Hangover and Zombieland would ape.  Destined to repeat ad-nauseum on cable for decades.



Pineapple Express

Grade: A- (corrected: A.)

This, however, is a cut well above.  David Gordon Green breaks out of the drama-heavy vibe of his previous three features and cranks out the best stoner comedy since "Up in Smoke."  James Franco is the standout.  Watching this again recently, I was inclined to remark that the film was near-perfect; it maintains a consistent and hilarious tone throughout, a rare feat.  And David Gordon Green is still my pick for best of his generation. 



Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Grade: A

Considering the shit-tastic, insert-pistol-in-mouth atom bomb of bullshit that was Whatever Works,  perhaps we should be greatful that Woody still gets about one in three right these days.  Has he just lost grip on his judgement, or does he truly just not care anymore?  Either way, Vicky Cristina Barcelona should hold up fairly well.  In ten years, when Woody's dead (or very near death) and we have the benefit of a bit of distance, I wonder--will we still hold up Match Point as his last great picture?  I kinda doubt it.  But as of right now, this one still sits a few rungs beneath it on the ladder.
 


Religulous

Grade: B++, (corrected: C-)

I laughed my butt off, no doubt about it.  But Religulous has about as much to say regarding religion as Borat did about the middle east (a film, not coincidentally, by the same director.)  It's broad-as-a-board comedy with an angry edge that tips its hand much to heavily (and without recourse) into vitriol and diatribe, thereby effectively stymieing Maher's point.  It doesn't sit well, basically, Maher's "problem of religion."  If you want to be all 'holier-than-thou,' it helps to have some kind of conception of what being holy really is.  Maher seems much happier just pointing and laughing. 



W. 

Grade: A-

Halloween night!  Coming on the heels of Religulous, W. struck me as fairly even-handed, although I suppose that it really isn't.  Stone's ideas are clear, but he is very careful to avoid including anything that might be pot-stirring, instead focusing mainly on the events, as they occurred or are said to have occurred, in the Bush 2.0 Presidency which was, at the time of the film's release, still just barely alive.  An amazing cast makes this one worth returning to, as does the sure hand of Stone, who seems legitimately interested in figuring out and depicting exactly what made this man tick.  Fascinating? Absolutely.  True?  Maybe.  (Probably.)  And I loved the ending.  A great image that has stayed with me.



 The Mummy/The Man They Could Not Hang

Grade: A-/B.

Karloff double-feature, Halloween weekend, Bank of America Cinema.  Was this my first time to this theater???  I think it may have been.  One of the jewels of Chicago, which may be doomed to close (pending a building sale) in the middle of this year.  God, I hope it doesn't.






Synecdoche, NY

Grade: A? (corrected: A+)

Ahhh.. Sin-eck-duh-key.  How you bring out the best and the worst in people.  Ebert thinks you were the best film of the decade.  I disagree, but my love for you is strong.  The buddy I dragged along to see this with me will not let me live it down to this day.  It's become kind of a punchline, as I imagine it has for many people.  It will be interesting to see how this film ages.  Overambitious indulgence or uncompromising vision?  Right now, it's about a 50/50 split.  Maybe it will remain so.  Maybe.. that's OK.  Viva Tom Noonan.  He's amazing.



The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Grade: B++.

Fincher fan though I am, this film looks pretty weak in hindsight.  Cate Blanchett and especially Tilda Swinton made it for me, but all else was essentially effects-laden filler.  Pitt is good enough, as usual, but no better.  Definitely deserved the "Forrest Gump Redux" stamp that got dumped on it.




------------------------------

And then, 
it was 2009.  

Whew.  That was a busy year.