Film Edition 2007: Part II

Same rules as music. Because I spend time between France and the U.S., I’m going to include films that I had the chance to see in either location, regardless of their official release date. For example, No Country for Old Men is about to be released in France. Paranoid Park will come out in March in the U.S. and Faith Akin’s Auf der anderen Seite doesn’t appear to have an American release date, although it promises to blow everyone’s mind when it gets there. (You heard it here first, folks.)

I haven’t been able to seen There Will Be Blood, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Starting Out in the Evening, My Blueberry Nights, American Gangster, Grindhouse, Superbad, The Savages, Persepolis, 3:10 to Yuma, The Assassination of Jesse James…, Sweeney Todd, Les Amants Reguliers, Black Book, Away From Her, After the Wedding, Bamako, anything from Romania, anything about Iraq, or that apparently awesome film about French monks, Into Great Silence. And Waitress. I really want to see that. I might see Juno, Breach, Shooter, Into the Wild, La Vie en Rose, The Kite Runner, Interview, Southland Tales and Lust, Caution someday. I probably won’t see Lars and the Real Girl, The Namesake, Across the Universe, or the new Paul Panse-de-Brebis-Farci film, no offense.

Constellation:

This is England (Shane Meadows) – I left the theatre with an ineffable sense of discontent. I enjoyed the film, especially the young leader of the gentle Droogs, but something crucial went wrong. Then I read Nathan Lee‘s review in the Village Voice: ‘Meadows undermines this theme by reducing it all to daddy issues. Facile pop psychology is the real tragedy here, a double disappointment given the film’s smart take on pop culture.‘ Exactly. Meadows devotes an entire film to the familial seduction of gangs, and then says, ‘Oh, that was all because he was rejected by this girl. Everything else turned out dandy. Danny Skinhead was just a phase.’ Usually, one rotten aspect of a film shouldn’t spoil everything, especially in a film so competent. But this misstep compromises the engine of the story and makes any morals we derive from it gratuitous.

2 Day in Paris (Julie Delpy) – I have never before had a film so retroactively spoiled by reading a review. Leave it to my arch-enemy Anthony Lane in The New Yorker: ‘It would be wrong to call 2 Days in Paris a vanity project. It is written and directed by Julie Delpy. It stars Julie Delpy. The parents of Marion, the character played by Julie Delpy, are played by… the parents of Julie Delpy. The original music is by Julie Delpy… [T]his is not a vanity project. It is an insanity project… Though Delpy gets a laugh out of this, her camera is forever doing something similar, getting in Jack’s face and checking his reactions.’ I giggled regularly during the film (perhaps because of its vague similarities to my own life), but Lane’s point about the ineptitude of Delpy’s camera and the (somewhat unfair) discomfort with her megalomania made me reconsider my enjoyment. Don’t ask me to defend this, but this is what happens in your average funny French scene: some idiot does something stupid, his straight-laced companion slaps his forehead and says, ‘This guy’s head is screwy,’ and everybody laughs. (Is that better than a good old American kick in the crotch, or the respectful British gentleman wearing a frilly dress?) Delpy does the same thing with Adam Goldberg, her boyfriend in the film, but she and her family are always the punchline, and after every joke we see him going, ‘Are these people crazy or what?’ I still admire the final confrontation between Delpy and Goldberg (N.B., the two have since been involved in a bitter public dispute). Realistic emotional misery would have been out of place, so Delpy instead crafts an evocative montage of their argument and narrates the denouement. It’s a deft cinematic maneuver in a film otherwise so unbalanced.

Control (Anton Corbijn) – Two films were released this year about the lives of music icons. This is one. (The other is about a certain shrill, inauthentic wisenheimer who never should have been anything more than a songwriter. I’ll develop a longer discussion of biopics when treating that film.) When I was 18, I had this poster of Ian Curtis on my wall. I’m still the president of, as far as I know, the most official Joy Division fan club, Dead Souls, at New York University. (25 members.) Yet, I wasn’t very excited to see this film. And, having seen it, I’m still not very excited. It’s beautifully shot (I love photograher-directors), beautifully acted (for a functional script), and Alexandra Maria Lara is just plain beautiful. (If you’re reading this, Alexandra: did you know that my family is also of Eastern European descent?) But that’s it! Linear storytelling with well-lit pretty people is not a crime. Far from it! (I saw Cruel Intentions three times in the theatre.) But there’s only so much it can offer. You know what, Control? You were supposed to be Bronze, but I just remembered that you had a Killers cover of ‘Shadowplay’ on the soundtrack. Demotion.

Once (John Carney) – Criticizing this film feels like deflating the Jupiter Jump at your little sister’s birthday party. It’s so sweet! I can understand how someone could like it, but can one enjoy the story if one doesn’t enjoy the music? The director assumes that you’re sitting there thinking, ‘That is an inspirational, beautiful song,’ when you’re actually thinking (if you’re like me), ‘Please, stop. That is annoying.’ This is a tricky objection. I’ve seen 8 Mile three times, but I would never force someone that doesn’t love rap to watch it. The dialogue in Once is superb, really, and the performances are fluid. My favorite thing to tell actors is that the best film performances are often by non-actors (cf. Pickpocket, The Bicycle Thief, Two-Lane Blacktop, Killer of Sheep). No one is going to confuse Once with Bresson, but there’s a naturalness here that gives the film a casual beauty, perhaps too casual.

Bronze:

We Own the Night (James Gray) – I’m on this movie’s side: I love hard-ass cops, Baltic thugs, drugs and Joaquin Phoenix. Unfortunately, it doesn’t come together that elegantly. Three things ruin it for me, largely echoed in reviews. First, Mark Wahlberg is prosaic here. It’s not his fault: his character is underwritten, and having him in a role akin to his tour de force in The Departed can only lead to unfavorable comparisons. Second, the film is supposed to be set in Brooklyn in the late ’80s. You wouldn’t know it, though. It’s not a crime that Gray can’t recreate the flare of an era with the mastery of a Scorsese, but the half-baked suggestion only exacerbates the film’s other shortcomings. Finally, the climactic showdown is a bizarre disappointment. I won’t detail it for those that haven’t seen it, but its power relies on a rivalry between two ‘mighty opposites‘ that is insufficiently established. Nonetheless, a fun little film featuring Phoenix in top form. And, yes, the car chase is one for the ages. So is the terrifying raid. ‘These drugs got me feeling light as a feather.’ Great line.

Paranoid Park (Gus van Sant) – Films of any genre or era can inspire thoughts in me like, ‘Oh, sometimes I get sad like that,’ or ‘Yes, I know how it feels to be betrayed.’ But rarely, if ever, have I identified so intensely with a character in a film. The setting is Portland, Oregon, which is kind of like the cool cousin of the town where I grew up, Tulsa, Oklahoma. The kids hang out at skate parks and get alternately punked and egged on to do stupid shit by scary, older dudes. I’ve been there. (The official skate park currently on the west side of the Arkansas River was after my time, but anyone that ever tried to skate at Bartlett’s Square will remember that feeling of humility.) I even had a squeaky, facetious girlfriend. (And the same thing happened to me when I, er, officially lost my virginity, wealthy house and everything, except the cell phone was replaced by a bunch of giggling friends waiting outside the door). I was more outgoing at that age than the protagonist, though, and my home life was more stable, but I feel like we shared the same emotional tenor: cautious, guilty, incongruous among some more traditionally ‘bad’ friends. . . But how does that affect your experience of a film, feeling even more reflected in cinema’s mimetic capacities? Your response will either be positive or negative, but it will either way be more visceral. Office workers’ heightened delight in The Office is the same dimension that makes In the Bedroom unbearable for families who have lost a son. My experience with Paranoid Park was positive. I was enthralled by the movie, more keenly sensitive to its poetry, its serenity, its horror.

The awareness also made me more sensitive to the Paranoid Park‘s faults. One of the great works of 20th century aesthetics is Arthur Danto’s The Transfiguration of the Commonplace. (My Peruvian friend once took a course called Kant, Hegel, Danto if that gives you an idea of his status in some quarters. He still writes for The Nation.) Danto’s proposition, and it’s a convincing one, is that art as we know it is over. That isn’t to say that art is impossible now, or that nothing since Duchamp put a urinal on a pedestal has been art, but merely the evolution of art since the beginning of recorded history has finally reached its logical end. The domain of art had always been the sublime: tragic figures, religious icons, royalty. But as soon as Warhol stacked a bunch of laundry detergent boxes in the corner of a gallery and called it Brillo, the game was over. The commonplace had become the sublime. The history of art had been the history of the identification of the sublime in the world, and now nothing was not sublime. The French translate the ‘commonplace’ of the book’s title as ‘banal,’ and now I’ll explain my problem with Van Sant’s film. It’s banal. There’s poetry in showing us the quotidian in a beautiful way; I had never appreciated the ethereal weightlessness of a skateboarder in a half-pipe, or the chaos of shower spray. But these moments have to be selective. If not, the film is ponderous. I feel like Van Sant only had 40 minutes footage, and extended them to 80 by showing every single frame in the slowest motion. How many times, and for how long, do we really need to admire the detective’s chubby, suspicious face? Not that long. It’s a fine story with a credible emotional center, but it’s too self-reflective, even for a film whose subject is the gestation of private of guilt.

Gone Baby Gone (Ben Affleck) – In two respectable publications, reviewers of this film referred to Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River, another adaptation of a Denis Lehane novel, as a “modern classic.” I’m not a fan of that film (despite Kevin Bacon): Tim Robbins’s volcanic attempts fizzle like a bubbling mud hole, Marcia Gay Harden is a one-trick phony, and Sean Penn annoys the shit out of me no matter what he’s in. Affleck has also been praised for depicting Boston’s gritty realism in another Lehane adaptation. It was a great idea to feature actual people from the block: few things represent reality like reality. But the suggestion quickly borders on the grotesque. Affleck is no Diane Arbus. There’s a difference between showing us a bizarre-looking person and showing us how they are bizarre, the same way Cronenberg can show us violence and show us why it’s violent. The freak parade also makes you wonder why the main character and his girlfriend, with their delicacy, morals and good looks, could ever have come from or choose to still live in the neighborhood. (Also, I know it’s the 21st century, but I think even the most feminist cotillion instructor would advise against bringing your girlfriend into the lair of the homicidal cocaine kingpin.)

Gone Baby Gone
is a great example of what you might call a pyrite plot. One story develops, unfolds, and apparently settles before you’re dragged into another plot. (Hint: they’re related. Think Chinatown: missing person? Water company? My sister my daughter my sister my daughter!). It might play junior varsity to Michael Clayton in ensemble acting this year, but everyone here is solid. Casey Affleck is one of those actors (like Joaquin Phoenix, Viggo Mortensen, Christoper Walken, John Cazale, and Marlon Brando) whose mere presence suffices. He doesn’t make any sense in the role, but he’s perfect for it, which would be ironic if it didn’t always turn out that way. (Hard-boiled detective Sam Spade? How about a shrimpy wise guy with a lisp? Facile Lothario? I’ve got just the guy.) Michelle Monaghan, the screenwriter wrote your part in a telegram, but I still love you. Ed Harris, Amy Monigan and Amy Ryan are all convincing. Titus Welliver’s farewell sobriety scene almost makes you want to be an alcoholic just so you can give it up–and then of course start drinking again. One beer and three shots of Cutty: pure class. (That whole scene is great. I wish I could say more.) All the faults of the film are Ben Affleck’s. Why so many voice-overs and flashbacks? Stop indicating! Who edited the film? Bertolt Brecht? And no matter how pretty they are, the wide-angle ‘Boston: who knows what kind of bad shit goes on in this big city?’ shots are nonsense. The film is chamber music; we can’t hear it from a helicopter. Undistinguished cinematography isn’t a reason not to return to a film, but I’m maturing into the realization that the image might be the most compelling aspect of the medium, after all. (No, cinema?). But, please, slap me the second a hue makes me salivate.

In the next week, I’ll post the finalists and how I felt about them.

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~ by ohkrapp on January 18, 2008.

One Response to “Film Edition 2007: Part II”

  1. […] turning off the internet and finishing my final paper before Friday. (You can read parts one and two here, featuring some thoughts on of the films.) Like the 2007 music post, there will be no […]

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