26 December 2008

2008 Quick Takes

The year is winding to a close, prompting lots of year-end lists and top 10s. I've been trying to keep up with this year's films so that I can get a well-rounded opinion, though obvious setbacks like the insane price of a movie ticket and exhausting trips to New York City make it difficult to see everything. In any case, I intend to offer my top 10 on this site (and look forward to it), but not yet. Instead, I decided to give quick quips on some films I saw very recently (mostly all within the last week) since I'm too lazy to write full reviews.

Let the Right One In - dir. by Tomas Alfredson

This is a Swedish vampire film that reworks the famous myth to focus on the relationship between a young, oft-bullied boy named Oskar and his vampire neighbor Eli. The film seamlessly blends horror, comedy, and coming-of-age film genres to create an affecting story that is about vampires as much as it is about not letting the bullies get to you. Alfredson has moments of pitch-perfect dark comedy (a botched murder is especially memorable) that sometimes goes a step further than you'd expect or would like. A fantastic film overall that I dread being remade.

MILK - dir. by Gus Van Sant

MILK is one of Van Sant's more conventionally constructed films (especially in contrast to Paranoid Park, also released this year) and he doesn't seem to have any shame in going full-fledged-inspirational-Oscar-worthy in his treatment of Harvey Milk's story. Key words for the film are "hope" and "change," which evoke another inspiring politician with an endearing smile. In the same way, I allowed myself to be drawn in by the optimism and hope at the center of the film, shedding my cynicism at the door. Beyond the politics of the film, the story of Harvey Milk is one of self-determination, of seeing what needs to be done and doing it yourself. At the center of it for me, however, is Sean Penn's performance, which may be one of the best I've seen all year. Every line in his face is transformed to portray his character, on par with Daniel Day Lewis's Daniel Plainview, and just watching his face provides enough fascination to keep me watching.

Slumdog Millionaire - dir. by Danny Boyle

Slumdog Millionaire is all high-gloss and thrills, trying to push a rather tired, cliched love-deafeats-all story along solely by cool camera tricks and big music. And there are some cool shots, and there are some nice colors, and the music is affecting at times, but the film operates on that high frequency to the point of annoyance. The story's construction relies on a set of flashbacks that seem to try to reveal the horrors of Indian slum life but that largely get undercut by the banality of its love story. Coincidence and happenstance displace characterization and psychology and it thus becomes difficult to really care what happens to these characters, even though you know things will end up working out.

Man On Wire -
dir. by James Marsh

On August 7, 1974 Philippe Petit walked a wire between the World Trade Center towers for nearly 45 min. The images in this documentary of Petit's walk verge on the sublime - pure poetry in motion. Indeed, Petit's life is a poem: an audacious, irreverent, expressive, and sincere poem expressing the nature of life at its full potential that constantly asks, "Why not?" Marsh's documentary is weighed not only by Petit's walk, but by Petit himself, who retells his own story (spoiler alert: he survives the walk) with such enthusiasm and wide-eyed wonder that it is hard to imagine him as anything but a perpetual child. He is one of those people you are glad to know exists and that reminds you of life's possibilities. Beyond that, the film has fantastic archival footage of Petit and his pals mixed with reenactments that trace the painstaking planning, training, and illegal activity that went into pulling off this amazing feat. It simultaneously works as a heist thriller, with the set up of a wire on the World Trade Center being analogous to a bank robbery.

Encounters At the End of the World - dir. by Werner Herzog

Herzog's documentary takes us to Antarctica, which he likes to call "the end of the world." I was largely expecting to see images of overwhelming beauty featuring the frozen tundra (as pictured above), but Herzog instead focuses on the people living in Antarctica rather than the landscape; his encounters are not with the land but with the people living there. Like Philippe Petit of Man On Wire, the people Herzog encounters are dreamers, weirdos, explorers, and perpetual children. These are people who choose to live in an unlivable continent for the sake of adventure, for science, for the hell of it. Herzog narrates and asks many questions, both to interviewees and to us, pondering our existence and its transcience as well as the mental health of penguins (to one expert he asks if penguins ever go mad, after which he shows us a penguin trot off away from the pack to certain death in the mountains for unknowable reasons). A lovely documentary that lets us ask all the big questions without losing its humor and wonderment of it all.

Wendy and Lucy - dir. by Kelly Reichardt

This was an absolutely lovely film, one of my favorites of the year. Reichardt tells a rather simple story of a girl, Wendy, who temporarily loses her dog, Lucy, on her way to Alaska. The film is paced slowly in a "realistic" mode, depicting each of Wendy's frustrations with care and subtlety as things get perpetually worse for her. Though Wendy's homelessness can be seen as a reflection of our current economic turmoil, I think Reichardt is going beyond that to examine life on the fringes of society as a choice, not a consequence. The depiction of the society Wendy is escaping from is seen through the small town in Washington where she loses Lucy, wherein people cope with the creeping madness of day-to-day in their own way, such as the white-haired Walgreens parking lot security guard who just wants to keep a job, any job, and the tired auto mechanic whose job includes bearing bad news. The tone is not critical, but rather objective and nuanced: we know the mechanic wants to cut Wendy a break, but what else can he do? The grocery store boy is perhaps the most overtly antagonistic, but even he is a product of social molding fixed on middle management. Anyway, this deserves a longer review, but I'll simply say it is worth seeing. Oh, and Michelle Williams may have given the loveliest female performance of the year.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button - dir. by David Fincher

The great fear I had about Benjamin Button was that it would be something like Forrest Gump, which is a rather unsubstantial story that pulls on sentiments and flashes the latest technology for Oscar awards. Turns out that's kind of what it was, but better. Button features some incredible digital technology for the use of Benjamin's odd aging process that calls for a shriveled man-child for the beginning of his life. The effect is something that is a little off-putting at first, but that eventually comes to work within the world of the film, which is a bit of a fantastical, story-book New Orleans. And the film is a story-book type of fairy tale that again rehashes a story of true love that transcends time, which is not necessarily a bad thing. The problem, however, is that the love story eventually comes to replace the fantastical elements of the story. It wouldn't be a problem if the love story wasn't so typical and done a thousand times over. The shift basically comes halfway through the film when Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett enter the film as themselves. I found myself more intrigued by the CG hybrid old man getting into wily adventures than I was of Brad Pitt, which isn't a reflection on Brad Pitt entirely but rather the change in worlds and thus in interest. The film was visually arresting, though, so there was always something keeping us afloat (though I tended to drift like dead weight on a sea of banality towards the end of the film). Anyway, at least it was better than Forrest Gump or Titanic.

Synecdoche, New York - dir. by Charlie Kaufman

This has to be one of the most interesting films I've ever seen in my life. The levels of meaning within Kaufman's script reflects his audaciousness and his incredible gift for exploring the absurd. Caden Cotard is a theater director who wants to make something meaningful and full of "truth and honesty" before he dies, using money from a MacArthur genius grant. The production he begins to construct starts to become a reflection of his own life to the point of absurdity - there are actors playing actors playing actors playing actors... - and the more insane Caden's life becomes the more insane the film becomes, not only in its depiction of Cadence's life and his production, but in the film's construction as well. The more Caden tries to find out about what life and art mean the more Kaufman deconstructs our own expectations of what that means within a film. It is a brave attempt on Kaufman's part and I really think he pulled if off well. It is a film that can seem "weird for the sake of being weird" (and indeed the first thing everyone says after the credits roll is "that was so weird," right after "that was so long") but I think each of Kaufman's playful tricks and odd moments work towards a much more poignant exploration on what the cinema can do as an artform. I was reminded of Godard and Pierrot le Fou in its spirit of abandon, but unlike Godard who shoots off the hip, Kaufman is the micro manager (like Caden) - both create a type of screen chaos and anarchy, but in different ways and to different effects: Godard's exploration is more external while Kaufman's is internal. I have to see this again, but these are my immediate reactions as I just saw it today. This may end up being my favorite of the year.

13 December 2008

Add a Caption

This made me laugh today, so I thought I'd share it.

Sophia Loren and Jayne Mansfield

08 December 2008

The Couple-in-Crime Film

I recently finished a rather long essay for my film genres class on the couple-in-crime (sub)genre. It focuses on a study of six films:

You Only Live Once (1937) dir. by Fritz Lang
They Live By Night (1948) dir. by Nicholas Ray
Gun Crazy (1949) dir. by J.H. Lewis
Bonnie and Clyde (1967) dir. by Arthur Penn
Badlands (1973) dir. by Terrence Malick
Thieves Like Us
(1974) dir. by Robert Altman

I uploaded the essay here and encourage you to read it if you have interest in any of the films listed. The insights aren't always brilliant, but there are certainly (what I hope to be) interesting points made every now and then.

(John Dall and Peggy Cummins in Gun Crazy)

Here is an excerpt:

"The couple-in-crime genre is an especially tricky genre to frame within certain thematic or stylistic structures and conventions since its evolution has a somewhat ambiguous starting point. For example, in many ways Bonnie and Clyde marks the genre’s full emergence, but it is a film made in the ’60s, a mid-point in the history of film, that feels like a post-modern revision of itself. Even so, I would suggest certain elements to distinguish the couple-in-crime genre. First, there is the eponymous couple, who are young and in love. Within the couple it is primarily the male gangster who is already involved in crime before he meets a female companion. The female’s decision to stay with the gangster-male despite the dangerous lifestyle cites a thematic element of love displacing fear of death. Second, the milieu which the outlaw-couple occupies is typically rural. Elements of the road movie genre can be seen as the couple constantly flees from town to town, which allows a series of tableau, a structural element of the couple-in-crime film. Third, the couple is punished for stealing/killing at the end of the film through their own death. Often they are forced into crime due to economic or societal pressures or because they are outsiders who cannot fit into society. Whether it is just the gangster-male who dies or the couple, there is a sense of inescapable death and hopelessness from the beginning of the film, not unlike the necessary deaths of gangsters in films from the 1930s. The nature of their death, however, can have different readings – tragic, justified, ambiguous – depending on the director’s depiction of the couple and the social forces (mainly the law) which bring them down."