Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Giulia Doesn't Date at Night

This movie, made by Giuseppe Piccioni, an affable guy (he made some remarks before and after the film as part of the film festival perks), had many elements that were almost superb--depiction of awkward early teen love, spoof of what it takes to become a famous writer (the protagonist is a fiction writer whose books are constantly praised yet no one seems to be able to finish one), characters from the writer's stories that vie for primacy by entering "reality," gorgeous underwater shots of swimmers in a swimming pool, multiple direct and indirect references to some of my favorite films and filmmakers--Umbrellas of Cherbourg, A Special Day, Bunuel, and a significant nod to Mimmo Calopresti's excellent film The Second Time. Though it was easy to watch, and I appreciated all these details, the film, alas, did not add up to very much. Characters were never truly developed and too many themes and plot lines were left dangling without it feeling intentional. And about half way into the film, what promised to be a quirky (hate that word but it's apt) story with a honed European film sensibility, became a predictable melodrama.

Monday, 26 October 2009

Fantastic Mr. Fox

I very much wanted to love this film and there was so much to love. The foxy foxes, George Clooney's voice, the far out animation, and all of the very thoughtful details, especially the train that every so often shoots through the scenery. But I didn't love this film, I couldn't love this film, because yet again, practically the one female who has any role at all, Mrs. Fox, is not only a passive, risk-adverse, naysayer, but the reason Mr. Fox has spent a lifetime living contrary to his wild animal nature. (Is she not a wiley fox, too?) Roald Dahl was certainly a misogynist but even he didn't blame Mrs. Fox for the animals' predicament. There is another female fox, a friend of the Fox's son Ash, whose only role is to humiliate the boy (who is teased because he wears a cape???), by shifting her affections to his cousin the super metrostud Kristofferson. When Mr. Fox is giving his evolutionary biology/men's movement speech towards the end of the film, asking each creature to tap into his wild inner nature, he identifies only the male members of each species--mole, badger, rabbit, squirrel, weasel etc., the females presumably irrelevant except as offspring reproducers and burrow cleaners. One might defend Anderson and say that he was remaining faithful to the original story, but he didn't remain exclusively faithful to the original story so he could have done any number of things to include a viable, active, female in his story. Why didn't he make the cousin a girl? How interesting would that have been? It astounds me that Wes Anderson didn't make even the slightest attempt to appeal to girls in his film. No girl seeing this film can directly identify with any character in it, and any boy seeing this film gets fed once again the message that girls are not protagonists and if they are their function is to thwart the male. It makes me sick and sad to see someone as talented as Wes Anderson fall into this age-old trap out of laziness or expediency. What's even more frightening is that no one seems to be paying attention, much less thinking seriously about how we represent the female in our stories any more at all.

Saturday, 24 October 2009


Easily the best film I've seen at the London Film Festival 2009, and certainly one of the best films I've seen this year, if not the best. Bong Joon-Ho's filmmaking is some kind of strangely wonderful mix of Almodovar and Hitchcock, with a bit of Cassavetes, Rossellini, Goddard and Melville thrown in, and Satyajit Ray is in there too. Bong Joon-Ho knows his film history and it shows gloriously throughout his movie. The opening credits alone are genius, and later ingeniously figure back into the narrative. The story is simple: a mother tries to prove her mentally-damaged son innocent of the muder he has been accused of. She is fiftyish, attractive but not beautiful, smart but not educated, worn out by life and worries. She is in just about every frame of the film and thoroughly commands our interest in each one. She is a true diva (played by the very popular veteran Korean actress Kim Hye-Ja). The theme of a mother's iron-strong, complicated, perverse bond to her child is an old one, but such is the filmmaker and the actress's talent that the trope becomes new and compelling all over again. But Bong Joon-Ho is interested in more than Greek tragedy and soon echoes of Medea, the Bacchae, Phaedre reverberate through The Wrong Man to Dirty Harry as the mother becomes a ruthless, lawless, justice-seeker. And only then do the real twists and turns begin. Humor, of course, is ever present, lurking, absent, or causing belly laughs. The rich storytelling is in exquisite dialectic with equally lavish and intense images, and with a sublime sound track. For me the height of filmmaking is when image, word, and sound are each of similar mass and brightness, a constant yet constantly shifting constellation. Antonioni and Almodovar are the masters. Bong Joon-Ho's ambition to join their ranks is a joy.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl

In some ways this film should be required viewing for any young filmmaker or short story writer. Made by the now very old Portuguese director, Manoel de Oliveira, it is a primer in basic narrative taken from a worn but still sturdy carpet bag full of tools: image, gesture, word. The film begins on a train with one stranger (handsome young man) telling another stranger (attractive older woman) the "terrible" story of what has happened to him. This scene alone could take a dissertation to dissect, but what it perfectly establishes is a backdrop of irony against which the rest of the film will play out. The story, which of course turns out to be a rather banal love story involving the blonde of the title, then proceeds in cuts back and forth from the train to flashbacks. We are compelled to pay attention to details, juxtapositions, and influences imitated and cited. This last element is perhaps the most significant, and certainly for this filmmaker. His movie is based on a story by a well known Portuguese writer, Eca de Queiroz, to whom the film is also dedicated and within the film there is further homage paid in a formal description of his accomplishments and a shot of a marble bust made in his image. And at the center of the film, a poem by the great Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa is read in full at a salon. Oliveira's film is also an homage to old world cinema, and to that great, decandent European city, Lisbon. The movie unfolds with a loving slowness and joyful simplicity that we are no longer used to, that we no longer really even know how to respond to.

An Education

The first film I've seen at the London Film Festival to get a solid round of applause when the credits rolled. Now what does that say exactly? That Nick Hornby has the golden touch (this is surely more his film than the director's), that he knows deep in his gut what it means to entertain, that his script is solid and sharp, that his ambition is no greater than his talent, and though that may sound like a slur, I see it as a great gift. The story is a good one (true, but that matters I think only in terms of helping to publicize the film), linear and uncomplicated. I was always engaged, never irritated (which means a lot for me), and I laughed out loud at many lines, especially "it's better to know a famous author than to be one." I didn't think Peter Sarsgaard was at the top of his game. I understand the hype about Carey Mulligan but I think it's cruel that the press is comparing her to Audrey Hepburn. Rosamund Pike did very well with the one-dimensional character she had to work with. And the same was true for Alfred Molina. Both actors had perfect timing and wrung all the laughs and then some from the good material they were given. In terms of sheer cinematic presence and the ability to fully mine any character, Emma Thompson stole the show. Visually, the movie was fun to look at, the period detail convincing (incomparable to Bright Star but perhaps that's an unfair comparison since Campion's film was in many ways about period detail.) The opening credits were the most visually interesting part of the film, but that is often true of many a fine film. I'm all for the applause. Needless to say, although I was most assuredly entertained, I didn't clap, but I'm filmfatale.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Bright Star

Doesn't come anywhere near The Piano in terms of its ability to surprise, amaze, transform. Still, it's the best film I've seen at the London Film Festival 2009 so far. [Aside: the Festival trailer of pasty British faces staring awestruck into flickering projection light accompanied by an abominable sound track is even worse than last year's. It's a disgrace and insult to both the filmmakers and the audience.] Bright Star is beautiful to look at (though one too many scenes with flower picking for me), perfectly cast and exquisitely directed. But what saved it from being a superior BBC-type creation were two things: on a minor scale, the glorification of Fanny's incredible skill at sewing, raising consciousness about "women's work" being its own kind of poetry. This reclaiming and empowering of the denigrated pastimes of women is very much in the zeitgeist, as periodically occurs, but just for how long this time we'll see. Indeed, the clothes designer deserves an Oscar. More significantly, but somehow connected to the artistry of the practice of sewing, was how Campion managed to show the commonplace nature of Fanny Brawne and John Keats' youthful love, even against the backdrop of the creation of some of the greatest poetry in the English language. The film, through its meticulous attention to detail and daily routine, lent to the whole idea of "greatness" a random, even trivial element that is usually absent from any biopic. A remarkable feat. I did regret, however, at the very end of the film when the postscript appears describing what became of Fanny, Campion chose to leave her wandering mournfully about Hampstead Heath instead of telling us that she went on to marry someone else and have a very full and interesting life. This omission in my opinion was a serious mistake and served to undermine the great strength of her film: the wondrous banality of true love and how it actually resists Romantic convention.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

The Limits of Control

2nd film of the London Film Festival 2009. So far so bad. I always suspected that Jim Jarmusch was a wannabe--is it David Lynch with hidden Antonioni aspirations or is that giving him too much credit? There were also a few Almodovarian touches or was that just Spain? (Why is everyone making films in Spain these days? Tax breaks I guess.) I was not bored, like I was watching The Single Man, I just kept waiting for the movie to stop being pseudo, to actually make me laugh or feel clever or sad but it never did. By the end of the movie, whatever was initially at all intriguing had long ago become wrung hopelessly dry with the endless repetitions of phrases, symbols, and images which were then parched some more but never enough to become crushing or, gasp, meaningful. Anyway, Jarmusch knows how to choose his actors, I'll give him that. Isaac de Bankole was fabulous to watch as was Tilda Swinton et al so the film wasn't a total loss, although Bill Murray as some kind of Dick Cheney was completely thrown away.

A Single Man

My first film of the 2009 London Film Festival. Ugh. A very, very long photo shoot for GQ. I was so incredibly bored by this film. As anyone who truly knows me knows, I should have been a gay man, so with respect to the film's ingredients this should have been a film for me: extreme color palettes, lots of retro kitch, multiple references to classic film, camera lingering extensively on gorgeous male bodies and faces. And yet I loathed it. The film was quintessentially trite as in "all style and no substance" but with the most embarrassingly strained attempt at Substance. Poor Christopher Isherwood (the script is based on his excellent novel) must be rolling in his grave. Colin Firth tried very hard to be an actor, as is his wont, but every dragged out close up of his face was simply a painful struggle for subtlety which he could not achieve. Julianne Moore couldn't do the posh British accent--mostly she just slurred and on her face all that could be read was "Am I drunk or am I British?" (Not entirely fair as the one almost decent scene in the movie was hers when she and Firth dance after dinner.) Poor Nicholas Hoult was entirely miscast. He couldn't pull off the seductive ingenue in the least and he wasn't even that great to look at. And doesn't Tom Ford know that the de rigeur sitting-on-the-toilet scene has by now become a mark of the amateur? As for technical issues, trying to create profundity with sudden whooshes of color, slow motion sequences, and fragemented shots, please, not even worthy of a student film, and especially not a gay student film.

Monday, 19 October 2009


Wow. What's not to like? Good old fashioned story-telling and nice to look at too with all those colorful balloons and a gorgeous South American waterfall. And a story about an old person! Who gets a second chance! You're wrong F.Scott, there are second acts in an American life. I kept thinking about The Wizard of Oz and the flying house, the anthropomorphized animals, and the disgraced old wizard (in UP it's a self-exiled explorer who has been wrongfully shamed which makes him turn evil). Reconfigure a few of these cherished concepts and they stimulate all the right memes in the parents' brains. Now for the choice of the Asian-ish boy. I wish I'd been at the meeting (not really). "And the kid will be fat, slanty-eyed, and let's see, he'll have an absent father! Any other banalities we can use?" Well, of course there are! But by now it's not a banality but a given: the poor long-suffering selfless wife who never gets to live her dream (when does she give it up? around thirteen perhaps?) trading it in to play help meet to her husband for her whole life. And of course she can't have children (ever hear of adoption?) and then she dies and her husband gets to live her dream. Now how sorry is that? Yet again the straight white men, albeit old (does this say something about Pixar's executives), still have all the power and most of the fun. Does anybody really want to identify with the fatherless fat kid or the dead wife? After all, there are no second acts but just the same old act. Oh well.

Friday, 2 October 2009

Broken Embraces

Pedro Almodovar is my favorite living filmmaker. This is not his best film. Each frame is fabulous to look at but as a whole not on a par with All About My Mother or Talk to Her or even Volver. I adore his mixture of noir and melodrama, his combining of Raymond Chandler and Douglas Sirk. But there were too many plot problems and unworthy implausibilities to keep me entirely in Almodovar's thrall, which is where I want to be. Almodovar is all about making the implausible plausible only to finally reach some ecstatic and transcendent level of implausiblity that is ART, but here he gets stuck too often in the first level of implausibility. Furthermore, by the end of the film there are too many plot twists tied up or not tied up in unsatisfactory ways. Film quoted was Rossellini's Voyage in Italy. Like Hitchcock's signature walk-ons, in nearly every Almodovar film a classic movie plays briefly on a television. Voyage in Italy is an odd film with Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders about a marriage falling apart. I think Broken Embraces firmly establishes Penelope Cruz as our only living Diva. (It was also clear in Woody Allen's Vicky Christina Barcelona, a dreadful film saved by Cruz's performance alone.) Does any other actress out there even come close to her Diva status? I can think of plenty of great actresses but none of them true divas. Despite my disappointment, I have little doubt this will be by far the best film I see this fall.

Fish Tank

More poverty porn? The lead actress--"discovered" in a mall yelling at her boyfriend--was sublime but I didn't like feeling the constant sense of blatent voyeurism I had the entire time I was watching the film. All art is voyeurism but all voyeurism is not art. It was unpleasantly distracting. The filmmaking was certainly very adequate but I couldn't help wondering why I was watching life on a housing estate. What exactly was I supposed to take away from this film other than the usual mothers are to blame for everything under the sun and thank god I don't live on a housing estate. My big question is who exactly is the audience for this film? Certainly not the housing estate dwellers. I fear it is people like me--white, liberal, upper middle class intellectuals who by watching this film and feeling empathy for how badly people live somehow feel exonerated from participation in a society that perpetuates such gross unfairness. Many beautiful images here but many condescending ones too (shots of toys, animals, fluffy cliches). Michael Fassbender was fantastic to watch but he was probably miscast. His inexplicable Canadian accent confused me as well.

(500) Days of Summer

I nearly left this film after the first twenty minutes the script was so terrible, but it did improve. There was a very funny, edgy romcom dying to get out of what was not quite a total disaster of a film. There were a few truly funny lines and the bollywood/disney song and dance sequence in the middle of the film to express the male lead's euphoria at sexual conquest was pretty great. Zooey Deschanel is wonderful to look at but her range seems terribly limited and I don't think the script can be blamed entirely, though as I said that was a huge problem. (She was equally flat in Gigantic, another dull film, but somehow I thought her flatness in that film was acting. I guess not.) A lot of it the film was astoundingly dull and predictable, but then every so often the characters or action would verge towards the surreal and the whole story would become momentarily interesting. The film's structure--jumping back and forth in time--was simply annoying and oh my god it's been done to death. Ever since that genius of a film Memento, filmmakers have been trying to play with structure mostly to disastrous effect. I'm afraid I can't think of much more to say about this film because I've already forgotten it even though I saw it three days ago.

The Hurt Locker

The Hurt Locker Katheryn Bigelow has more testasterone than most men. I had to keep my eyes closed through a lot of this but that's a compliment. Of course, anyone who makes a film about a bomb squad and isn't able to muster megadoses of tension would be truly deficient. Some have objected to her using the Iraq war as just another roller coaster ride for moviegoers but I have no such complaint. I have also read that the film is entirely implausible but implausible is a feature filmmaker's business. It just needs to feel plausible enough to us within the rules of the world Bigelow has created. Her message is that war, violence in general, is an adrenaline addiction for men. Nothing new or earth shattering. She leaves women out of the equation, which we're awfully used to. (I did enjoy a glimpse of the actress from Lost.) The whole idea of the film is a big cliche, but cliches dramatised well make for satisfying movie watching. The subplot of the wimpy doctor was a shame. I knew he was a gonner the moment he came on screen and watching his fate play itself out was unpleasant in that his character was totally unsympathetic, his liberal condescension towards everyone too easy. The more I watch and think about movies, the more I have come to understand that they all have some level of porn, and this is war porn, artfully enough done. The acting was excellent, except for the doctor, but then again his part was poorly written. What I think I liked the best were the spots in which Sergio Leone and Ennio Moricone were referenced. This film will never be on a par with The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, but you've got to like a girl who has such ambition.