Talking Out of Frame: In the Loop, Kobe, and Beautiful Losers
Talking Out of Frame:
Well, it's a new year...whatever that means. For film fans, I suppose, we're going to see a lot of early-in-the-year DVD releases of Oscar contenders. This will pick things up after the regular slowdown in late December and early January.
One movie that is getting the year kickstarted rather quickly, however, is In the Loop. Helmed by Armando Iannucci, creator of the BBC series The Thick of It. That series, which has so far run four seasons since 2005, details the ins and outs of the day-to-day work of British government. In the Loop is a spin-off of sorts, and it features the show's foul-mouthed politico Malcolm Tucker, played with saliva and brimstone by Peter Capaldi. Don't let that scare you, though. I have never seen The Thick of It (something I plan to rectify immediately), and I understood In the Loop just fine. You don't have to pass a test, there is no prior knowledge required for entry.
Set in a period of time where a possible Middle Eastern war is brewing, In the Loop details how minor politicians move both the United Kingdom and the United States toward conflict. A slip of the tongue by a minor minister, Simon Foster (Tom Hollander), nicknamed Simon Fluster due to his regularly tripping over his own words, makes a similarly minor U.S. official, Karen Clarke (Mimi Kennedy), think she has an anti-war ally in the British government. Simon's backpedaling takes him so far away from his original statements, however, that he ends up on the radar of Karen's hawkish rival, Linton Barwick (a remarkable David Rasche, last seen in Burn After Reading). This farcical satire is more than its cat's cradle of a plot, though. In the Loop has drawn rather obvious comparisons to David Mamet and Barry Levinson's Wag the Dog, and the coupling is more than a superficial relationship of narratives about building phony wars. Armando Iannucci, who wrote In the Loop alongside Simon Blackwell, Jesse Armstrong, Tony Roche, and Ian Martin, also have the same gift for the poetry of profanity that distinguishes Mamet's more Mamet-y efforts. The difference is that these fellows aren't shackled to Mamet's usual syncopation, and so they are free to let the invective fly at whatever pace suits their mood.
In the Loop is so stirring because of the realstic, if comedicallly charged, portrayal it creates of politicians on the job. In the new documentary, Kobe Doin' Work: A Spike Lee Joint, noted filmmaker Spike Lee takes a look at another kind of job: that of basketball player. Jason Bailey writes, "Spike Lee's new documentary, Kobe Doin' Work, is a great movie for sports fans and a passable one for the rest of us; when it was over, I was still ready for a new Spike Lee joint. Make no mistake, it does what it does very well--presumably as well as it could possibly be done. What may come into question is whether it needed to be done at all...On one hand, it's a bit of a wax job. On the other, Lee isn't making some kind of a comprehensive documentary portrait. The conceit of the film is right there in the title--this is Kobe going to the office. It takes place over the course of one evening, during one important game (playing the Spurs in the Staples Center on April 13, 2008). Lee and his cinematographer, the brilliant Matthew Libatique (Pi, Iron Man), shadow Bryant as he suits up, stretches, watches game tape with Jackson, and gets ready for the game. Once it begins, they put 30 cameras on the game and put a wireless mic on Bryant, getting into his space and his head during an important play-off game.
"The cutting is fast-paced without going overboard; it moves, yes, and the multi-camera set-up is fully exploited, but this isn't an MTV job. Lee stays with shots during slower moments and lingers on close-ups when necessary. Visually, the film is at its best when Spike stops worrying about the game and starts to play--he trots out some pretty inventive tricks. Slow motion is used at a couple of key moments but not abused; on a couple of other occasions, he shows a play or a trick move in a series of black and white stills rather than moving images (shades of his very first feature, She's Gotta Have It). He also spotlights a couple of crucial moments with a series of quick replays; I don't mean this in the style of a TV-sports 'instant replay,' but rather showing the sinking of a decisive basket from three different angles, rat-tat-tat, with the sound (say, Kobe saying 'gotcha') repeating each time. It's a neat trick and, again, not overused."
From an artist on the basketball court to artists of the more traditional painterly kind--though with a quirky modern sensibility. Beautiful Losers is a documentary named for a recent art show reuniting a group of NYC-based artists who had come through the same galleries and reached prominence in the early 1990s. This documentary film chronicles the road to that retrospective, looking at the disparate backgrounds of the various creators and searching for the commonalities that brought them together. Some of the people profiled will be familiar to pop culture junkies, some will not. Mike Mills, for instance, is a filmmaker and artist who has directed music videos for the Beastie Boys and the movie Thumbsucker, and Shepard Fairey is the designer behind the Barack Obama "Hope" poster. Harmony Korine wrote Kids and directed Gummo. I imagine many of the others will be under most people's radar unless they read Giant Robot or keep up with other arts publications.
The movie tracks how all of these artists came together, digging into their background and what compelled each artist to begin creating. Interviews are illustrated with generous helpings of archival footage and actual images of their art, and the knotted storytelling style tangles everyone up in one DNA strand. Their focal point was a shabby New York gallery called Alleged, run by Aaron Rose and encouraging a do-it-yourself philosophy. Incorporating skate boarding, punk and indie rock, and street art, these talented folks discovered, like most famous misfits, that they were actually speaking for a far greater audience than they had realized. Soon, they were creating high-end advertising campaigns and designing album covers for Sonic Youth. There is a little bit of self-mythologizing going on in Beautiful Losers. Aaron Rose, the man behind Alleged and the organizer of the titular art show, is the director of Beautiful Losers, as well as one of its more active commentators. The question of how one can go from street art to accepting huge advertising contracts from global conglomerates is pretty easily swept aside, with only Stephen Powers, a.k.a. ESPO, expressing displeasure at the supposed subversion of letting yourself be used by the man. He actually does something about it, too, and his project to repaint Coney Island is an admirable and quite impressive practical application of his artistic skills. It seems like there could be a whole extra documentary just on that.
The arty folks at Wholphin have released the 10th volume of their DVD anthology. Francis Rizzo III writes of Wholphin: Issue 10: "Wholphin, part of the McSweeney's empire, releases a quarterly DVD magazine, which collects, as the subhead says, rare and unseen short films. The material ranges from old to recent and well-known to incredibly obscure, and as a result, the issues are an amazing gift for anyone open to unique entertainment. Nine issues have been released previously, and DVDTalk has reviews of all issues." He then goes on to explain about his reactions to all ten films, concluding: "I'm a fan of a lot of TV shows and creative types, but nothing, honestly nothing, gets me more excited to warm up the DVD player than when a Wholphin DVD arrives at my door. I know, without a doubt, I'm getting something good, something odd and something I've never heard of before that will blow me away. This collection is a touch below the more amazing issues I've reviewed, but even so, it was a joy to experience, and the quality was of the level I've come to expect."
The review I am most jealous of not having written this month is for Argentinian director/writer Lucrecia Martel's The Headless Woman. John Wallis got the assignment, and he says, "...Martel has taken up the mantle of exploring the existential crisis of the idle rich much like Luis Bunuel and Michelangelo Antonioni so deftly did throughout their careers...A pair of boys and a dog are playing in an empty canal by a dirt road. Soon, a middle-aged bourgeoisie woman, Veronica/Vero (María Onetto), distractedly drives by and violently hits a bump. She looks in her rear view mirror and sees a dog lying in the road. Upset, she stops for a moment, then goes to the hospital where she gets her head scanned. Something is not quite right with Veronica. She walks away from the hospital without filling out her forms. She avoids speaking much, just blankly smiles while others chatter around her. It is like she is sleepwalking through her life. She confesses to her husband that she thinks she may have run over and killed a child. A local boy is missing. A body is drug from the canal. Life continues around her but without her. On the surface, one would assume the central aspect of the film is whether or not Veronica actually hit the child or just believes she hit the child. But, The Headless Woman just uses that mystery (which is left ambiguous and unresolved) as a linchpin to explore guilt and the ennui of the pampered social class.
"Lucrecia Martel creates an amazing sense of mood, paranoid, off kilter, dour, yet painted with naturalism. Her unobtrusive camera always keeps Veronica within in the frame in tight close-ups or slightly out of focus as everyone bustles around her. Small moments speak riches about self-condemnation and the difference in social classes, be it between lowly workers and the rich or between women and men: Veronica reacting to a knocked-out child on a playground, listening to her husband and brother-in-law's matter-of-fact conspiratorial talk as they look over her car for damage, or Veronica nervously doting over a boy the family hires to do chores."
We stay down in Argentina for Lion's Den, one of my favorite surprises of 2009. Lion's Den pretty much had me from the word "go." It's been a long time since I've seen as good an opening to a thriller as the first ten minutes of this film. Following a disconcerting animated credits sequence featuring a sing-a-long with South American children--I wondered it they had switched screenings on me--we get a series of quick-cut scenes where the film's heroine, Julia (Martina Gusman), slowly comes out of a state of shock to realize that there have been two bloody murders in her home. The way director Pablo Trapero (alongside three other writers) pulls you into the plot is deftly executed, moving rapidly to knock the audience off balance and put us in Julia's shoes.
Because from there, Lion's Den isn't really a thriller, but a prison drama about a young mother in a situation that has gotten out of her control. Unable to give a feasible account of the evening--which involved her lover and his boyfriend in a knife fight, leaving the boyfriend dead and the lover, Ramiro (Rodrigo Santoro), badly wounded--Julia is locked up pending trial. Since she is a couple of months along in a pregnancy, she is assigned to a maternity ward where convicted mothers can raise their own children until they are four. Depressed and nauseous with morning sickness, Julia takes a while to adjust to life inside, but eventually she becomes part of the community, even taking a lover, Marta (Laura Garcia), and using her outside connections to get goods for the inmates. Several years pass, and all the while Julia keeps fighting for her freedom. When her mother (Elli Medeiros) tricks Julia into taking her young son away, however, everything unravels. Lion's Den is a harsh story filmed in a gritty style and lacking in any overt sensationalism. The script taps into a universal fear--of being caught in a legal system you can't get out of and incarcerated--and adds a specific and unique wrinkle I don't think we've seen in cinema before. The maternity prison is like a daycare center in Hell, a lethal combination of violence, boredom, and dirty diapers. A unique setting is nothing without a great character, however, and Julia is a fully realized human being with a real journey to undergo.
Happier times are to be found in AnimEigo's Tora-San: Collector Set 1, the debut North American collection of the venerable Japanese comedy hero, bringing together his first four films (forty-eight movies were released nearly two a year from 1969 to 1996, starring the same actor in the lead and almost all directed by the same filmmaker). I was less than half an hour into the lead film, 1969's Tora-San, Our Lovable Tramp (Otoko wa tsurai yo), before I was completely smitten with this quaint yet effective comedy. There is something undeniably endearing about the hapless blowhard Tora-san and the universality of his familiar (and repetitive) predicaments that are identifiable beyond all culture lines. This drifter with a mouth matched only in size by his heart is played by actor Kiyoshi Atsumi, a man with the face of a bulldog and a demeanor to match. They seem gruff and fearsome, but they're really kind of sweet once you get past all the snarling and the slobber. As Tora-san tells us in voiceover, he is a drifter, having left his family some time before. His mother was always absent, his father has died, and he has left his last immediate relation, his sweet half-sister Sakura (played faithfully episode to episode by Chieko Baisho), with an aunt and uncle in Shibamata, a suburb of Tokyo. He is returning to visit them for the first time in many years, having wandered Japan as a "salesman." Read that as con man, a pitch man if we are being kind. He calls himself "yakuza," but Tora-san is too harmless to be a gangster. His crimes are not ones of ill intent; rather, he's paving the road he travels with misplaced good.
There's a pleasing formula to the Tora-San movies. In each installment, the film basically begins with some kind of predicament that doesn't go Tora's way, often centering around the return to his family in Shibamata (in this way, being a little like the movies themselves, visiting the audience periodically). If Tora-san doesn't return home at the start, such as in the fourth film Tora-san's Grand Scheme (Shin otoko wa tsurai yo), the middle act ends up being the reunion. The second act generally has Tora-san reacting to the fallout of his latest misstep, and usually meeting his love interest for this particular movie. The final act is when he finds out that this love interest is already betrothed to another, and in a lot of cases, he helps her secure her situation before he heads out on the road again, disappearing into the sunset via whatever mode of travel will carry him.
Another set of old films, but one that is far less satisfying, is the 3-movie The Brigitte Bardot Classic Collection, bringing together one of the buxom actress' earlier efforts with one from her internationally popular period in the late 1950s, as well as her last film, 1972's Don Juan (or If Don Juan Were a Woman). Brigitte Bardot is one of those interesting figures from cinema, an iconic actress known more for her image than her acting. A sort of French combination of Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield, she lacked the former's filmography even if she was more talented than the latter. Bardot's reputation is built largely on a series of tease films she made through the 1950s and 1960s, many of them alongside her husband, Roger Vadim. Consider them the model for Bo and John Derek, with hubby coming up with film scripts that were more concerned with the various states of undress he could show his wife in. You know, the way there is always water around for her to either fall into or have poured over her. I know I come off as judgmental, but I'm not saying this is necessarily a negative. You get what you expect with a Brigitte Bardot film, at least in terms of the three movies on the three discs that make up The Brigitte Bardot Classic Collection.
The earliest film is Plucking the Daisy, and it's also the most entertaining. The light sex comedy, which sees Bardot playing a naïf from the country trying to make her way through the big city, is as enjoyable as it is inoffensive. Absolutely rotten, however, is 1958's The Night Heaven Fell, a troubled production from the Vadim formula that puts schoolgirl Brigitte on a road trip/flight from justice with a hardened laborer and details the various perils that await a young woman's clothes. Better is the last picture, also directed by Vadim, Don Juan. The mature and gorgeous actress plays a woman scorned who sets about breaking hearts of deserving men as a kind of revenge. There is an arty pretentiousness to Don Juan that makes it kind of fascinating, but Vadim has no idea how to end it. To get out of the jam he created, the director neutralizes her, literally burning her down. Don Juan in Hell. The film seems to display delusions of something more, but really, it's just more soft-core titillation
We end this month with another oldie, but this time a goodie! John Sinnott tackles the lost gem Miss Mend, "[an] unusual film [Miss Mend] is a three part serial, with each chapter running about an hour and a half. What's more interesting is that it was made in communist Russia by a pair of directors who were trying to emulate western adventure films. The result is a very good flick that will have viewers entranced for the entire five-hours that it takes to watch the show. Set in the United States (something that's not clear at the beginning and had me scratching my head in a few spots) this action starts at a cork factory (??) where the workers are striking and demanding a living wage. The evil Organization has a member on the cork company's board and he sends the police in to beat and arrest the men.
"Boris is sent to cover the strike for his pro-company newspaper along with a photographer Vogel, and a clerk for the company, Tom. When they arrive the police have just gotten to the scene and the captain is about to attack the union leader, only to be stopped by a plucky typist for the cork company, Vivian Mend. The three men are taken with her bravery and help her to escape from the resulting riot. In order to escape, Miss Mend jumps into a passing car and meets a man who introduces himself as 'Engineer Johnson.' He too is attracted to the rather homely Miss Mend and not only drops her at her home (where he discovers that she's raising her dead sister's child all by herself) but also prevents the police from arresting her when they arrive. That's because he's really Arthur Stern, the son of the cork factory's owner."
"Now this wouldn't be a serial if there wasn't a convoluted plot," Sinnott reminds us, and there is plenty of more story to be had. That's just the beginning. "[Miss Mend] was a fun series that has a lot of action and chase scenes as well as an interesting and twisting plot. It's easy to tell that they were really trying to mimic Western movies and that this was a conscience departure from the more well-known Russian films from that period such as the work of Eisenstein. They do a good job overall though it's not quite up to the standards set by the best action films Hollywood was putting out at the time. Even so, there's plenty of action. One chase scene features a car trying to drive through a field followed by the three reporters on horses that they stole from the police, who are being chased by a motorcycle and finally the three horse-less cops on foot. The directors really tried to insert a sense of fun and comedy into the adventure, and for the most part it worked. The serial does have its serious side though, and people are killed on screen to point out the gravity of the situation.
"It's easy to tell from the synopsis that this serial is filled with propaganda, but the message is never too overt and it's not as bad as many US movies (especially B-films released during WWII). The Organization is a typical evil group trying to take over the world and while they're targeting communists they are not any more over-the-top than your typical serial villains...Miss Mend is also an interesting historical footnote which makes it even more enjoyable to watch. Flicker Alley and their associates have done another magnificent job with this release. The picture looks much, much, better than it has any right to, the orchestral score is very good, and the extras are interesting. This is another Flicker Alley release that comes Highly Recommended."
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. His most recent work is the forthcoming hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, drawn by the incomparable Joelle Jones. This follows his first original graphic novel with Jones, 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, all published by Oni Press. His next project is the comedy series Spell Checkers, again with Jones and artist Nicolas Hitori de. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.
Special thanks to Jason Bailey, Francis Rizzo III, John Sinnott, and John Wallis for their contributions.
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