Talking Out of Frame: Vivre sa Vie, Yes Men, and An Education
Talking Out of Frame: Art House Cinema on DVD
Cities seem to be on the brain this month, with a variety of releases looking at where we live, how we live, and what the two things have in common. French writer/director Cédric Klapisch attempts to tackle the entire city of Paris in our lead film, and the aptly titled Paris could be said to exemplify a theme in a lot of cinematic work: the subject of life is often too big to tackle in one go.
Paris focuses on several mildly interconnected stories, tracking an all-star cast through mostly one neighborhood. There is the attractive college girl (Inglourious Basterds star Mélanie Laurent) stalked by her history professor (Fabrice Luchini, The Girl From Monaco), who in turn is sharing some bonding time with his younger brother (François Cluzet, Tell No One). Unbeknownst to Laurent, she is also the object of affection for a young dancer, Pierre (Romain Duris, a Klapisch regular, including his excellent Russian Dolls), who has recently been told if he doesn't get a heart transplant, he will die. His sister, played by the remarkable and lovely Juliette Binoche (Flight of the Red Balloon), moves her three kids into his apartment to take care of him. The older woman, Elise, also has a flirtation with a fruit seller (Albert Dupontel, Irréversible), who has his own stories with his pals from the market. Then there are the immigrants from Cameroon, one of whom both takes out the trash in Pierre's apartment and goes to see Elise to help with their immigration problems. We follow that man's brother (Kingsley Kum Abang) on his trek across the continent, but to what end, I am not sure. We even see him flirt with a young model who then ends up trying to sleep with the fruit seller.
Such tenuous connections between disparate characters has been all the rage for the last couple of years, and to Klapisch's credit, his romantic tale doesn't push the all-are-one theme to the point of annoyance the way a movie like Babel or The Air I Breathe has. Though there are maybe a few coincidences too many, including a final car ride where everyone happens to be on Pierre's route, it's not really crucial that all of these paths must cross. Then again, the flipside of that is that we're left wondering just what's it all for. These characters all seem to be circling something, but Klapisch never figures out what it is. Even at 129 minutes, he doesn't get enough room to deal with it. Most of these tales add up to little more than vignettes.
If one film won't do, Portuguese filmmaker Pedro Costa will up the ante. He created a trio of movies to try to capture life in a Lisbon slum in the new Criterion boxed set Letters from Fontainhas: Three Films by Pedro Costa. This presents a bit of a difficult puzzle, and those entering his new boxed set cold (such as I did), may find themselves a bit lost at the outset. Criterion's bundling brings together films made between 1997 and 2006: Ossos (Bones), In Vanda's Room, and Colossal Youth. These ponderous, ethereal films show realistic portrayals of the denizens of the Fontainhas slums in Lisbon, ultimately letting us peek around corners we might not otherwise see or even consider looking into; yet, the films also leave a queasy ambiguity in their wake.
The stark aesthetic style of the lead film, Ossos (1997; 97 minutes), doesn't pretty-up the rundown neighborhood or the people who wander its streets in search of food, money, and human connection. Costa's script has zero exposition and barely any dialogue. Costa demands his viewer fill in the gaps when his characters fail to share their feelings or explain about themselves. The story centers around a baby born to Tina (Maria Lipkina), a suicidal teen who tries to gas herself and the infant shortly after its birth. The homeless father (Nuno Vaz) takes the child from her, but when the kid gets sick, he nearly loses him. A nurse named Eduarda (Isabel Ruth) tries to help, but she is soon victimized by the father's selfish silence. He threatens without speaking, acting on his own impulses with little regard for the child, the mother, or any of the women he touches. Only a whore (Ines Medeiros) whom the thug tries to sell the baby to tells him the truth, that she can't stand him.
Ossos is slow-going and it requires effort, and I warn you, it doesn't get any easier from there. In the second film in Letters from Fontainhas, In Vanda's Room (2000; 171 minutes), there is a character who, throughout the movie, is trying to untangle a skein of yarn and has little luck. Many may feel the same way watching the film. Pedro Costa's approach in In Vanda's Room is to get as reductionist as possible, somewhat paradoxically given the length of the film. He shot the movie alone on digital video, blending documentary into a kind of fictional structure by observing his subjects and then arranging his film from over 180 hours of footage. The Vanda of the title is Vanda Duarte, one of the neighborhood girls Costa hired for Ossos, and she quite literally has invited him into her room. He shot there for six months, watching Vanda and her sister Zita freebase smack, before moving over to another house where a group of male addicts were living. There is little by way of narrative construction here, the only central conflict is that the Portuguese government was demolishing the Fontainhas slums while Costa was shooting.
The DV allows Costa to get right in the thick of real life. With no crew encumbering him, with no equipment limiting his space, he can actually shoot inside Vanda's bedroom or from a vantage point down the alley or in a dark crack den with only one candle to see by. It also serves him well when the spaces open up, as they do in Colossal Youth (2006; 156 minutes). The third film in the series picks up in the transformed Fontainhas, now an unfamiliar limbo. The relocation efforts have put the people of Fontainhas in newly constructed, sterile tenements. The high-rise apartment buildings reach to the sky, towering over the displaced. Where once they were cramped and buried in their own poverty, they are now small amongst the government's attempts to mask that same poverty. There is also a lot of white--the outer walls, the inner walls--and it makes the people look like stains against the too-clean backdrop.
It's hard to tell if there is hope to be found in the Letters from Fontainhas trilogy. Is survival enough of a happy ending to make these films about the durability of the human spirit rather than wallowing in our most dismal of lows? Writing about In Vanda's Room in the accompanying booklet, Thom Andersen notes that the last sound we hear before the credits roll is laughter. Colossal Youth's penultimate scene shows us a park, the first signs of nature we've seen in any of the films. It's idyllic, sunny, healthy. The last shot shows us Ventura and his granddaughter, the young and the old, the granddad at rest and the child at play. Surely these are meant to give us some belief that regardless of what these people go through or are put through, they will carry on.
The Yes Men Fix the World expands our scope even further. Yes, as Dana Carvey imitating Mickey Rooney might say, the world. Brian Orndorf writes, "It's been six years since the release of The Yes Men, the Chris Smith/Sarah Price documentary that brought Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno (the titular devils) to the mainstream. In the intervening years, their prank efforts have been ingenious and dangerous, but they've failed to make a lasting impact. Growing frustrated, the Yes Men have returned to the big screen, armed with a new round of hoaxes and misdirection, hoping to achieve their ultimate goal: changing the world. The world's been through so much since 2004, and in the eyes of Bichlbaum and Bonanno, matters have become dire. The free market has created beasts of industry, with corporations expanding to enormous proportions and few in power willing to step up and leash the disorderly cult of greed. Enter the Yes Men, who use their anonymity to conceive and execute pranks that underline the absurdity of corporate interest, hoping to create a bizarre impression that will allow true issues of importance to have a moment in the media spotlight. Armed with cheap suits, various faux corporate websites that attract interview and speaking opportunities, and considerable nerve, Bichlbaum and Bonanno travel around the world stirring up trouble for the betterment of humankind.
"The pranks in Fix the World are actually quite clever. To spotlight the continuing environmental devastation in Bhopal, India caused by Union Carbide, Bichlbaum poses as a Dow Chemical spokesperson for a BBC broadcast, where he announces the corporation has decided to assume responsibility and spend billions to repair the enormous damage. To underline oil company greed, the Yes Men infiltrate a conference as Exxon reps, passing around candles made from a special source of fuel: humans. And as HUD employees, Bichlbaum and Bonanno crash a New Orleans seminar on redevelopment to highlight the grip of corruption, also presenting inflatable survival suits to interested parties failing to see the ridiculousness of an inflatable survival suit. The pranks are cruel to a certain extent, and what surprised me about Fix the World is how Bichlbaum and Bonanno address the discomfort that comes from spreading false hope. Obviously, they don't crucify themselves (footage of the needy praising the team for their antics is included), but the guilt is refreshing, even admitting that some of their tactics just aren't all that funny."
Similar pranks are also at play in the latest from Barry Levinson, a Jason Bailey-reviewed movie called PoliWood. "Levinson wisely puts his cards on the table right up front; the opening credits don't include the customary 'A Barry Levinson Film' but instead 'A Barry Levinson Film Essay.' There's something about that phrase, film essay, which changes our expectations; the last movie that I remember willingly embracing that label was Orson Welles' wonderful F For Fake, and it was a better picture for it. The connotation of that label is looser, more personal and freewheeling. The film was inspired by Levinson's work with the Creative Coalition, a non-partisan (but, come on, mostly liberal) organization of entertainer/activists. It's loosely organized around the 2008 presidential campaign, as Levinson uses the group's visits to the Democratic and Republic national conventions to examine the role that mass media plays in present-day politics, and if actors and other entertainers should take advantage of their celebrity to voice their opinions and raise awareness about their causes.
"He finds a good format for the film, alternating (often non-chronological) documentary footage and interviews with his own, straight-to-camera commentary breaks. Those bits are among the film's high points. In one, he talks about JFK's 1959 TV Guide editorial on the danger of allowing television to influence political campaigns; Levinson then notes how Kennedy's own campaign, and the subsequent Reagan administration, marked the beginning of the 'television president.' In another, he makes an interesting comparison between the story of 'Joe the Plumber' and the classic film Meet John Doe, which turns into an incredibly insightful (and bruising) analysis of Joe's subsequent attempts to battle his own obsolescence.
"What's surprising about PoliWood is that it turns out to be about more than we anticipated; yes, the issue of celebrity-as-pundit is addressed, and thoroughly, but Alterman makes such a compelling case for it early in the film that we don't require much more in the way of logical argument. What Levinson does that is so interesting and unexpected is his subsequent shift to a larger analysis of mass media and political discourse. There is some frank and astute discussion of how, in today's 24-hour news cycle, handlers must 'create the character' of the politician, just as these actors create the characters they play in their films. From there, it's no leap to draw parallels between Hollywood and Washington, D.C.--and between the negative connotations of both cultures."
The world gets small again, and we look at more schisms between the real and unreal, as Tyler Foster reviews The Pleasure of Being Robbed. "Josh Safdie's The Pleasure of Being Robbed comes close to being well-rounded, giving us a great character and several vividly-painted scenarios in the film's first 40 or 50 minutes, but a late-breaking tonal stumble and some of the constraints of the mumblecore style block it from being a minor classic. Eléonore (co-writer Eléonore Hendricks) is a kleptomaniac. The film is called The Pleasure of Being Robbed, but all of the happiness is probably projected onto the targets by Eléonore herself, who gets plenty of joy out of taking what isn't hers. There isn't any rhyme or reason, and Eléonore is not doing it to be cruel, but if she sees something interesting, she is compelled, body and soul, to take it, in the same way that someone would scratch an itch despite a doctor's orders. There is a sense that she is just curious about other people, as if the contents of a stranger's purse allow her to take on a new persona, that she can live their lives vicariously simply by using the owner's belongings. She moves from person to person, with no clear sense of direction, or any pressing matters or responsibilities to speak of.
"Lingering over the movie in an increasingly distracting way is the unanswered question of whether Eléonore is insane. Her flighty, no-boundaries attitude occasionally hints at deeper, more complex problems, but maybe Safdie and Hendricks are uncomfortable making the character or the movie too serious. That's fine, but at the same time, the movie tries to have its cake and eat it too with a bizarre little interlude while Eléonore is at the zoo, almost demanding that the audience both notice this possibility and the fact that the movie won't explain. It's definitely interesting to see things through Eléonore's eyes, but is this literally what's going on inside her head? Safdie leaves it up to the viewer. In addition to being frustrating, the scene also feels tonally detached from the earlier parts of the movie, when Eléonore appears normal aside from her addiction to picking pockets. I know the mysterious is appealing, and things should be open to interpretation, but in this case, I think the film needs to explain further, or hint at less.
"Ultimately, Pleasure reveals an interesting limitation of mumblecore. I don't know how long Safdie spent shooting The Pleasure of Being Robbed, but I feel that if the shooting had continued, he and Hendricks would have been able to unearth more facets of Eléonore's personality, eventually compiling enough footage from which to craft a tighter, more satisfying film, containing the same basic material the film does now, accompanied by another 20 or 30 minutes worth of footage that could have brought the film to a more complete conclusion...the film runs less than 75 minutes, and Safdie even cheats further by playing a 7-minute song during the 4-minute credits (the last three minutes, which are used to stretch Robbed across the 70-minute mark, are just the music over a black screen). When all is said and done, I'm left with the pleasure of meeting Eléonore, and the sadness of not knowing her. Who is this person, and why is she the way she is? Will she ever change?"
If things in The Pleasure of Being Robbed seem small, then get ready, because Casey Burchby is ready to go Bigger Than Life. Criterion brings us a little seen but highly regarded classic, and Casey writes, "... Nicholas Ray's groundbreaking Bigger Than Life [is] a claustrophobic, small-scale portrait of 1950s suburbia torn apart by a family man's addiction to prescription codeine. James Mason (who also produced) gave a defining performance in the lead role, undergoing a gripping transformation from middle class dad to psychotic would-be prophet of anti-middle class revolution. Released in 1956 to a largely negative reception, it's no surprise that Americans of the 1950s - eased into self-satisfaction with the realization of the postwar American dream - rejected this depiction of small town lives being violently rent asunder by a repressed subconscious cut loose.
"Ed Avery (Mason) is a middle class schoolteacher, who lives in a large house on a pleasant street with his wife Lou (Barbara Rush) and young son Bobby (Christopher Olsen). Plagued by mysterious recurring pain, Avery is prescribed codeine, a then-new 'miracle drug' that saves his life. The side effects, however, cause creeping madness in Avery, who begins to envision himself as a hero to society, the savior of his family, and the protector of all morality and ethics. With the help of his friend Wally (Walter Matthau), Lou struggles to escape Ed's increasingly tight clutches and seek aid from his doctors.
"There is a lot in this film that prefigures David Lynch's Blue Velvet, primarily the conception of suburban life as harboring deep-set layers of delusion and darkness beneath the well-manicured lawns and shiny, detailed vehicles. Also of note in this sense is the production design, which utilizes dark, saturated earth tones that anticipate the palette of Lynch's film - there are huge walls of deep gray-green and slate blue, as well as dull browns and tans. These heavy colors absorb light, sapping the environment of happiness - especially in the case of the Averys' home. As Ed's madness grows, Lou and Bobby are effectively made prisoners in the house, and it's at this point (about midway through the film) that the set grows into a frightening, oppressive character all its own. Those colors make the walls look impenetrable, and the house begins to bear down upon the family like looming death.
"Bigger Than Life is a unique contribution to American cinema of the 1950s. A wholly original and very dark look at the rip current beneath the surface of suburban existence, its relevance and impact are, if anything, stronger today than ever before. Mason's performance alone makes this worth a look, but a solid screenplay and imaginative direction by Ray push it into 'classic' territory."
Casey also looks at a specific period of life in the past with another Criterion reissue, this one the Merchant Ivory drama of social manners, Howards End. "Watching Howards End is the cinematic equivalent of eating a heavy slice of some magical hybrid dessert - say, tiramisu ice cream pie. It's so delicious and richly layered that it's impossible to enjoy all at once. Multiple viewings are required in order to fully absorb all the ingredients of this masterful movie: the intricate story and screenplay, the characters, the lush production design, the music, and the harmonious conducting of the lot by director James Ivory. True to the source book by E.M. Forster, Howards End is a densely-packed novel on film, consistently driven by detailed character dynamics, which, in turn, are rooted in a very British social hierarchy and the tangled garden of emotional responses that grow from it.
"With a film this satisfying, it's tough to know where to begin assigning the superlatives. Ruth Prawer-Jhabvala's Oscar-winning screenplay layers character development, situational tension, and broader thematic material with a level of care that belies the organic effortlessness of the finished film. Dialogue maintains the sound of a past era, without seeming quaint or self-conscious in the mouths of the contemporary actors. Despite Forster's interest in class, the screenplay (like the novel) remains firmly grounded in its characters - there are no monolithic constructivist attempts to portray "society" as capable of acting of its own accord, either with or against our characters. All of them - Wilcoxes, Schlegels, and Basts - are individuals who move within particular social strata, but they are not 'types,' nor are they vessels for an authorial voice or viewpoint. This, more than anything else, is what makes such characters compelling and memorable - their perceived ability to make choices and decisions independently of their author.
"James Ivory's direction has always been pretty affectless, and I mean that as a compliment; he has tended to focus on the actors and the technical crew without imposing an enormous stylistic ego. There are no extravagant directorial flourishes, only smart storytelling devices and a lush, fluid narrative flow. The story is patiently layered, introducing us to each group of characters with measured efficiency. Howards End takes its time, but maintains our focus with unwavering forward momentum and the fascinating interplay of its characters, whose dynamics continually evolve from start to finish."
Young English girls of a certain class also get their due in the 1960s-period drama An Education. If Howards End is like a magical dessert, then An Education is like the cinematic equivalent of a bad boyfriend--and I mean that in the best way possible. Based on a memoir by Lynn Barber, it's actually a film about a bad boyfriend, and director Lone Scherfig (Italian for Beginners, Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself) uses the pick-up technique of just such a scoundrel, seducing us into an exhilarating crush at the start, breaking our hearts by film's end
More important than An Education being about this rotten boy, this is also a film about Jenny, the girl upon whose behalf our heart breaks. Played by Carey Mulligan (Bleak House) in a career-making performance, Jenny is a smart girl, too smart for England in 1961. Studying hard so she might get into Oxford in a year, the 16-year-old is tired of looking at the world from the safe vantage of books and her bedroom window. If she could wait a few years, she'd discover the whole of youth culture is experiencing the same malaise, but as of this moment, she's stuck at home. Her father, Jack (Alfred Molina), prefers a life of no muss, of no extraneous distractions. Everything must have purpose, and so Jenny plays cello in the local youth orchestra because it looks good on a college application, but dad would never let her waste the time to go see an actual concert. One gets the sense that maybe her mother (Cara Seymour) was once like Jenny, but she gave it all up to have Jenny.
Enter the boy, in this case actually an older man. David (Peter Sarsgaard) offers Jenny a ride home in the rain, seemingly with no concern for her age, talking to her about things she never hears about at home. He charms her, and then he charms her parents, and before she knows what happened, David is taking Jenny to hear classical music and meet his friends. It's all terribly fancy and altogether perfect, and so naturally, too good to be true. After a few times out with David, Jenny realizes that he's really a con man. The good life he lives is ill gotten, but moral relativism being what it is, he easily talks Jenny out of her initial indignation. It's only the first layer of the deceit, however, and Jenny will heed no warning--not from her teacher (Olivia Williams) or her school's headmistress (a wonderful cameo by Emma Thompson, taking us back to Howards End), and especially not her own nagging conscience.
An Education just hit me in all the right ways. Its chilled confidence, the smartly written characters, the natural way in which the actors conduct themselves--all of these factors contribute to a coming-of-age tale that carries actual weight. As a genre, it's one that is very easy to do by the numbers. The commonality of the teenage experience means certain marks are going to be hit over and over again, and though Jenny experiences some of the same pitfalls as other girls her age, the way she tumbles and the way she climbs out doesn't feel like what we've seen before. Even as the girl discovers she can be just as dumb as any other fickle adolescent, An Education shows us that she really isn't.
The boy in An Education may be on his way to being a hideous man, in which case he'd have a place in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. Jason Bailey tackles actor John Krasinski's directorial debut, an adaptation of the late David Foster Wallace. "...it feels more like an adaptation of a play than of a book--it has the rhythm, efficiency, and brute force of early Mamet (particularly Sexual Perversity in Chicago), and it has a highly theatrical mood (that's meant as a compliment), particularly in the stylized language of its many smart monologues and an extended (and rather brilliant) duet scene between Christopher Meloni and Denis O'Hare. This is not to say that the picture is stagey or claustrophobic--indeed, the debuting director is clearly having fun playing with form, exploiting inventive voice-over and circular editing like a kid playing with a new toy. Wallace's book was a collection of short stories, which Krasinski expands into a full narrative by creating the character of Sara Quinn (Julianne Nicholson), the unnamed interviewer of the original, now a graduate student pondering the male psyche. Some of the title interviews are just that, a man in a room, talking into a microphone; others are overheard, or pontifications by the men in her life, including her thesis advisor (Timothy Hutton), a neighbor (Will Arnett), and, most devastatingly, a recent ex (played by Krasinski himself).
"The first half of the film is more successful than the second; early on, it functions primarily as a comedy (albeit a dark and occasionally disturbing one), with the laughs often found less in the sharp turns of phrase and more in the perfectly-timed pauses and half-beats. The back half of the picture, in which Krasinski starts to take the material more seriously, has some problems; an extended piece with Frankie Faison talking about his father works just fine as a self-contained short film but doesn't have jack squat to do with the rest of the movie, though the difficult sequence that follows (a sharply-sliced combination of several confrontations with a combative, repulsive student) is undeniably effective."
Cold Souls appears to be another troubled comedy that doesn't quite succeed in tackling everything it goes after. Casey Burchby tackles it in turn: "Cold Souls is the first feature film by writer and director Sophie Barthes, and it certainly left me feeling chilly. It's a meandering quasi-comedy with a fun gimmick at the heart of its story. However, the plot never really develops in a substantive way, rendering themes and motivations impenetrable and opaque. The gimmick, therefore, remains a static McGuffin, and by the time the film ends, it's not really clear what has happened or why.
"Paul Giamatti plays a fictionalized version of himself. Not a happy man, Giamatti is struggling with the lead role in a production of Chekov's Uncle Vanya. The play is about to open and Giamatti can't get a handle on the character. An article in the New Yorker seems to hold the answer to his problems. It's a profile of an emerging company that offers 'soul storage. ' Giamatti meets with the company's head, Dr. Flintstein (David Strathairn) who enthusiastically encourages him to partake of the company's services. After parting with his soul, Giamatti feels empty, which he then backfills with the soul of a Russian poet - a woman who sold it on the international black market. When this, too, fails to satisfy his existential crisis, Giamatti asks Flintstein for his own soul back, but it has disappeared - stolen by a Russian woman named Nina (Dina Korzun) for her boss's wife back in St. Petersburg. Giamatti follows the trail of the soul traffickers, looking for his soul.
"It sounds like something Charlie Kaufman might have come up with, but Cold Souls is devoid of the inventiveness and wit Kaufman is known for. The movie plays out in an odd, detached, antiseptic way, with no rising or falling story or character arcs - just a bland clean flatness. Giamatti is, as always, excellent, and his performance improves upon the dry script. Cold Souls should have been a comedy - it was marketed that way, and it is tonally a comedy in many ways - yet it is played completely straight and the script contains no real humor...None of the rich and interesting thematic material that might grow from such fertile soil - souls as physical and even commercial objects - is ever developed beyond mere suggestion. The consequences of Giamatti's soul's removal and transference are vague at best; he feels bored, detached, mildly ill, but never explicitly 'different.' What are we to draw from this? Likewise, Nina's feelings about the business she is a part of are transmitted by the actress's facial expressions, but hardly by her dialogue or the movement of the plot. Her valiant performance beats the odds; it's affecting despite being under-written. "
Things get decidedly more down to earth in Henry Cartier Bresson: Collectors Edition. Burchby gives us the lowdown on Bresson: "The father of photojournalism, Henri Cartier-Bresson is not as well known for his films as he is for his photographs. Known for his unromantic portraits of urban life and coverage of war-torn corners of the world, the co-founder of the international cooperative Magnum Photos and author of the book known in English as The Decisive Moment was also a documentarian. (He also served as second assistant director to Jean Renoir on two films, one of which was The Rules of the Game, in which he also acted!) This two-disc set from New Video thoughtfully compiles all of Cartier-Bresson's films, as well as a collection of short subjects about the man and his art." The two-disc package compiles films made by Bresson on one DVD, and material about the photographer on the second DVD. "New Video has assembled a very thorough record of Henri Cartier-Bresson on film. His own documentaries are valuable historical artifacts, and the material about the artist on the second disc is wonderfully diverse and informative. For anyone interested in the development of photography in the last century, Henri Cartier-Bresson is without a doubt a central figure."
Some of that same low-key realism is applied to Yen Tan's Ciao, an unpretentious, quietly emotional feature film that sets out to explore the way individuals care for one another and how loss can make our personal connections all the more acute. Co-written by Tan and actor Allesandro Calza, Ciao is driven alternately by dialogue and silences, but rarely by events. The weekend it covers is not about doing things, but about two men being together and sharing the absence of the one that is gone.
There is not much more to Ciao than that. There isn't a lot to dissect. The handful of supporting characters only ever appears briefly, including short glimpses of the dearly departed (Chuck Blaum), and the entire picture passes between the two left behind, Jeff and Andrea. Both lead actors, Adam Neal Smith and Allesandro Calza are good in the roles, though not outstanding, their lack of polish as professional film actors serving double duty to also be the discomfort of two strangers meeting for the first time. The writing gradually eases them toward their friendship, amusingly pleasant small talk eventually giving way to deeper revelations while still thankfully eschewing showy dramatics. There is a casual air to Ciao, from the minimal music by Stephan Altman to the almost sterile photography of Michael Victor Roy. It's both unfussy and clinical at the same time.
The only nagging problem with the script for Ciao is that, like the acting, it's hard to tell how much of it is merely skating the surface by design or if the writing simply isn't very deep. Either way, it doesn't really matter, as it mostly works. Ciao charms slowly, and as Jeff and Andrea grow accustomed to each other, so too does the viewer grow accustomed to them.
While Ciao stays focused, more exposure is the important key to We Live In Public. Bill Gibron joins us to say: "Ondi Timoner should be a lot more famous. Her already celebrated career should be cinematically supersized. She should be right up there with Michael Moore, Errol Morris, and any other noted fact filmmakers. Her devastating look at life on the margins of the music business, DiG!, remains a true documentary masterpiece, and her latest lament to the dangers of taking technology too far, We Live in Public, is equally pristine. What makes this movie even more fascinating, however, is Timoner's direct connection to the content. She was part of Josh Harris' Internet experiment, a 24/7 voyeuristic experience known as 'Quiet' where dozens of dedicated progressives decided to live their extroverted lives out in the open for a collection of web-based cameras to capture. Over the next few weeks, the test turned tentative, and then terrifying. As the only filmmaker ever to win the top prize at Sundance TWICE, Timoner stands as an important artist. As with DiG! ,We Live in Public proves her substantial creative mantle.
"Josh Harris was one of those prescient technology entrepreneurs. He made most of his money with 'Pseudo,' a company that provided streaming web content as early as 1993. He then took that hunk of cash and turned it on itself, creating the aforementioned 'Quiet' as a way of giving the imagined audience exactly what it wanted - more and more of themselves. Things turned ugly rather quickly as a life lived in front of the camera proved overwhelming for more than one participant. But Josh wasn't done yet. When he met and fell in love with Tanya Corrin, he even brought her into his next online brainstorm. Calling it 'We Live in Public,' Harris had his New York loft fitted with hundreds of recording devices (including one inside of the toilet bowl). The couple then simply went about their daily existence. But as the Dot.com bubble burst and their relationship disintegrated, Josh went from being a media-savvy mad scientist to simply mad...and his eventual self-destruction occurred in real time, for everyone to witness and watch over...and over...and over again.
"There is no more insightful or frightening documentary than We Live in Public. Sure, it tells the slightly complicated story of a man who made too much money, who was allowed to indulge in his most personal, perverted technological fetishes, and who almost died by his own obsessed hand. If George Orwell were alive and Googling, this might be his post-modern 1984. Films rarely get to the heart of a harrowing truth as readily as Public...."
Jason Bailey also looks at the consequences of life on the internet as explored in the doc Talhotblond. "The anonymity of the Internet is both its blessing and its curse. Make no mistake about it, the protective cloak of clever screen name and eye-catching avatar can, at times, allow us to be a bolder, tougher, more 'pure' version of ourselves; we can talk tough without having to back it up on message boards and in chat rooms, we can blow off steam in comments sections and dispense with niceties. But there's a danger to that lack of accountability. 'You can say anything you want online,' we're told early in Barbara Schroeder's documentary Talhotblond. And you can be anyone you want. But those kind of fantasies can create a tangled, complicated web, and sometimes people get hurt. Ask Thomas Montgomery. You can't ask Brian Barrett, because he's dead.
"The film is narrated from Barrett's point of view (an odd choice that indicates either a quest for originality or a love for Sunset Boulevard), as he relates the tale of the man who killed him, and how that came to happen. The murderer is Montgomery, a blue collar guy from upstate New York in his late 40s who became dissatisfied with his life--his factory job, his floundering marriage, his overall malaise--and found an outlet, as many do, on the Internet. He began playing online poker, and striking up chat conversations with his fellow players. And then he met her. Her screename was 'talhotblond,' and she was beautiful, athletic, flirtatious... and 18 years old. 'I knew I wasn't gonna meet this girl,' he remembers, so he made up an identity--a younger, idealized version of himself named Tommy, screen name 'marinesniper.' Tommy was 18, youthful, jubilant, about to deploy, and crazy about 'talhotblond,' whose name was Jessi and lived in West Virginia. 'It made me feel like a kid again,' he says of creating and living as his alter ego. He liked 'Tommy' so much, in fact, that he wanted that life to eclipse his real one, for 'Tommy' to take over his personality, to live as the younger man, to be with his online love. As you might guess, it didn't go so well.
"Everyone's heard horror stories about stalkers and pedophiles and the various creeps that are lurking in the Wild Wild West that is the World Wide Web. And many of us have, at one time or another, tip-toed into a chat room to see what all the hubbub's about, and might have even told a fib or two in the process. The cautionary tales about both tend to have a 'well, duh, of course not' air to them, but Talhotblond goes beyond those generalities into deeper territory--places were emotions run high, and motives are dark. The film has its flaws, but it has an immediacy and intensity that is tough to shake."
From the madness of the internet to pure cinematic madness, Terry Gilliam returns to the screen with his latest vision: The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus. By Gilliam's own admission, his latest is a "compendium," a mash-up of what makes a Terry Gilliam movie a Terry Gilliam movie. It features performers, liars, a fear of mortality personified, a healthy respect for storytelling, and a division between the real world and a fantasy world that requires those in the real world to invest a little belief. It is not exactly a return to form, but it climbs a lot of the way back toward the top. And given the beleaguered production's tragic history, a damn sight better than one could even have expected.
Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) is the proprietor of a shabby traveling show. He and his troupe perform old-fashioned shows where ticket buyers are ushered through an illusory mirror. On the other side is the Imaginarium, a place where one's inner fantasies blossom. Imagination is a double-edged sword, however, and participants are faced with a choice: the road to enlightenment, which is difficult and long, or easy pleasures, which is at arm's length. Choose the former, and you are claimed by the Devil. Literally. Parnassus and Mr. Nick (Tom Waits) have been locked in battle for centuries, seeing who can claim the most souls. With Parnassus's trade on the wane in the modern world, Nick is winning, and when his daughter Valentina (Lily Cole) turns 16 in only a matter of days, he will take his rival's daughter.
Enter the mysterious Tony (Heath Ledger), a man in a white suit rescued from the bridge where he hung himself. Unable to remember who he is, Tony joins the travelers and helps them make their way while searching for his identity. Brief flashes of the news let us know that Tony is a bad man who is likely running a con on the hapless actors, but it's going to be some time before they find out. In the meantime, he is going to help them work to their goal. He is a charismatic hawker, popular with the ladies, and full of new ideas; he is also distracted by his secrets. Ledger filmed all the scenes of Tony in the real world before he passed away in 2008. The production was on a break before going to a soundstage to film all the Imaginarium scenes, which are brought to life with a wondrous combination of old-school models and new-school CGI. It looks like the 21st-century version of Gilliam's old Monty Python animation. Rather than lose his movie and Ledger's final performance, Gilliam quickly brainstormed a solution: since Tony is most often in the Imaginarium as part of someone else's fantasy, then it stands to reason that his appearance would change to match their perception of their ideal man; when it's his fantasy, it's the nature of a man of his ilk to have many faces. Thus, in three separate sequences, Tony is played by Jude Law, Johnny Depp, and Colin Farrell.
There are many awesome scenes in Dr. Parnassus--and I mean that in the old-school way, that looking upon them fills me with awe. The world of fantasy that Gilliam creates gives us the best of everything. It is coated in bright candy, but with darkness on the edges. The filmmaker is messing around in the duality of creation. Every demon we exorcise has a pit it had to crawl out of, every joy has a pain. Valentina dreams of escape, but her escape could have a price. One of the more dazzling effects is when she dances with Mr. Nick in a hall of broken mirrors. It's like Lady from Shanghai meets Scent of a Woman.
Also a bit of his rocker is director Werner Herzog, whose latest, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is no more on its rocker than the man behind the camera. (Plus, it takes us back to that whole city theme.) Bill Gibron once again takes the stage. "Terence McDonagh (Nicolas Cage) is a drug-taking, smack-talking jackass who views the entire Parish police department as his own personal den of iniquity. He beds a prostitute (played by Eva Mendes) while he avoids the prying eyes of fellow detective Pruit (Val Kilmer) and evidence room supervisor Mundt (Michael Shannon). When an immigrant family is killed, execution style, McDonagh makes it his goal to discover the perpetrators. Turns out a local gangster named Big Fate (Xzibit) had a hand in the heinous crime. Using his street contacts, as well as his own fevered brain, McDonagh tries to entrap his felonious prey, all while taking advantage of the vices available in the Crescent City.
"Let's get one thing straight, right up front. This is not a remake. That mighty maverick Herzog has said that producers forced him to use the Bad Lieutenant name, hoping the connection would equal a little curiosity cash. It was never his intention to copy or compete with Abel Ferrara's intense urban mediation on faith, duty, and morality. Instead, Herzog hoped that his standard subtext about man vs. nature (and by consequence, man vs. his own nature) would carry the day - and he was right, thank god. In the tame and treading water medium of film, an art form growing more artificial than Heidi Montag's fame (and physiological façade), it's nice to see someone following their own unique muse, and in turn, making the most of it. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans (BLPOFNO from now on) takes the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, welds it to a standard crime story whodunit, and then slowly deconstructs both the genre and the people populating it. We aren't supposed to gain greater insight into the city or its struggling citizenry. Instead, Cage's character is meant to thwart all that is good, wholesome, decent, and hardworking about a major metropolis post-disaster, and then add another level or quirky histrionics to drive the decision home.
"But more than mere grandstanding, BLPOCNO takes the truth and filters it in a way that makes us see everything in a whole new, far more expressive way. Sure, we can laugh as Cage curses out a couple, or snorts coke, but these are parts of a portrait far more fiery and provoking. What we are supposed to see is something far more chilling, an illustration of how deadening, and defeating, a pursuit of justice can be. McDonagh is not bad because he's wicked. He's awful because people are awful. Because criminals will do anything to avoid capture and culpability. Because everyone is on the take, they just don't realize it. In Herzog's universe, human beings are pawns as part of some comical cosmic game where no one knows the rules and few can follow the various moves."
Themes of redemption and bad deeds can be dealt with more seriously than Herzog's film, as in the Film Movement release Troubled Water. Thomas Spurlin opines, "Coming to grips with past mistakes and making peace with transgressions, whether someone's entirely guilty of them or not, are themes that have been explored extensively in various forms throughout cinema. The ability to ceaselessly dissect this topic perpetuates on the individuality within each story, creating different challenges -- both physical and internal -- for those re-emerging into society to react against. Troubled Water (DeUsynlige), Erik Poppe's examination into the mind of a man recently released from prison, also integrates an outlook on religion and the fervor of maternal instinct within its challenging sketch of post-trauma piousness. And it's exceptionally handled, backdropped with musical elegance and a daring point-of-view.
"The screenplay, written by Harald Rosenløw-Eeg, riffs on a story that'll seem familiar to those who have seen the likes of American History X or Boy A, with melancholy happenstance echoing Mean Creek as its driving force. It's about Jan (Pål Sverre Valheim Hagen), otherwise known to us by his middle name Thomas, who has recently taken a job as an organ player after his release from prison. His reason for being in jail is somewhat murky, but we're aware that an accident along the bank of a river made him, and his friend, responsible for the death of a young boy. We're led to believe that the church had its reluctance in taking in the ex-convict until he works a little finger magic on the organ's keys, impressing with his talent and his ability to immediately start work. Along the way, he timidly befriends a female priest and her son, a boy of the same age as his 'victim.'
"Troubled Water transitions into a portrait of coping with a half-caused sin, an event that leaves us wondering whether Thomas should or shouldn't be held responsible for something he did when he was younger. He strikes a chord of empathy with us, though, mostly because on his timid, affected disposition. There's a sense of both time-weathered numbness and vivacity about him, conflicting as expected from a man somewhat wrongfully put in prison. Personal interpretations of his guilt will differ because of the focal event's heartbreaking nature, shown to us in fragmented flashbacks throughout the film, and that complexity adds to the fervor within Poppe's film. As we see Thomas shed his cast from a prison injury, swallow down the pain, and attempt to dazzle church folk with his talents before being dismissed from the opportunity, he -- a presupposed child killer -- earns our reserved fondness. "
Veteran indie filmmaker Hal Hartley has a new release of one of his early works with Hal Hartley's Surviving Desire. Orndorf elaborates: "An American Playhouse production, Surviving Desire furthered Hartley's fascination with the cold mechanics of love, dreaming up a relationship between a caustic, questioning college professor named Jude (Martin Donovan) and his student Sophia (Mary Ward), an inquisitive, forward bookstore clerk who craves a romantic connection. Together they banter, trade philosophies, and work out their insecurities on the perilous path toward what they believe is love.
"Experimental in structure, but operating from a pure Hartley blueprint, Surviving Desire represents the filmmaker massaging his droll twitches between his triumphant work on Trust and the equally intoxicating pull of 1992's Simple Men. Running only 50 minutes in length, the picture sprints through this game of askew courtship at top speed, skillfully interpreting Hartley's metronome-tight dialogue as a verbal dance between two intellectuals attempting to suppress their magnetic attraction.
"To Hartley, love is impossibly physical, soulfully demanding, and often embarrassingly mechanical (Rebecca Nelson appears as a homeless woman asking strangers to marry her), and the emotion provides the proper jolt of agitation as Jude and Sophia tango briefly with their paralyzing uncertainties. The film also erects a sturdy literary foundation, with an opening and closing centered on discussions of Dostoevsky, while the rest of the picture roots itself in written confessions and verbal jousting, communicated expertly by the porcelain Ward and Hartley stalwart Donovan."
An industry vet gives us an early silent classic, restored to life by Flicker Alley. Rene Clair's The Italian Straw Hat is a hilarious farce. In this 1927 comedy, the day starts out innocently enough for its frustrated hero. On the morning of his nuptials, Fadinard (Albert Prejean) sets out in his carriage to go meet the wedding party, which has gathered around his wife-to-be (Marise Maia). On the way, a distraction causes him to be thrown from his buggy, and when he returns, he finds his horse chewing on a hat made out of Italian straw. A solider, Lieutenant Tavernier (Vital Geymond), emerges from the bushes and demands the hat be returned. Easy enough, except the horse has already eaten half the brim. A woman comes out of the bushes next. She is Anais Beauperthuis (Olga Tschekowa), and it's her hat. She is a married woman, and were she to return without the headpiece, her husband (Jim Gerald) would be suspicious. Lieutenant Tavernier demands Fadinard replace what his horse ate, his wedding be damned. Threats, misunderstandings, and comedic complications ensue.
Rene Clair has a wonderful sense of comic timing, and though he maybe lets some of the conversations go on a little long (a strange idea for a silent film), the playful invention that is a hallmark of his best films is also present in The Italian Straw Hat. Not only does he pay tribute to the origins of motion pictures (he sets the story in the year movies debuted), but he also gives a loving wink to the stage. When Fadinard finally explains his story to someone, we see how the desperate man envisions his plight: as a silly drama performed in front of a flat theatrical backdrop. Immediately following, though, when the listener begins to put the story together, his point of view is purely cinematic. His version of events features characters fading in and out, objects merging, and other clever camera tricks. It's a meeting of old and new, with Clair showing true reverence for both.
The Italian Straw Hat may be little more than goofball slapstick, but there's really nothing wrong with that. We all need a hearty laugh from time to time, and when the goofball is done this well, it never stops being funny. Not even 80 years later.
To close, we move from one of the early pioneers to a man who broke cinema apart and remodeled it to be something else entirely. Criterion has reissued Jean-Luc Godard's 1962 masterpiece Vivre sa vie (a.k.a. My Life to Live), at long last replacing a shoddy 1999 DVD with one of the best restoration jobs you're ever likely to see. It stars Anna Karina as Nana, a rootless woman whose acting career has derailed into a career as a street walker. As the notorious JLG himself described it: "A film on prostitution about a pretty Paris shopgirl who sells her body but keeps her soul while going through a series of adventures that allow her to experience all possible deep human emotions, and that were filmed by Jean-Luc Godard and portrayed by Anna Karina. Vivre sa vie."
In terms of style and form, Vivre se vie is one of the more exciting and lively Godard films from the 1960s, even as it is also one of the most melancholy. This is a sad movie, one that even questions the very possibility of happiness. It may be less playful than some of Godard's other films from the period, but he trades that for a tighter control. Vivre se vie strikes me as the film where the director was most in command of the production, where he knew each move and calculated how that move would affect the overall whole.
This seems necessary on his part if we are to accept Nana as a metaphor for cinema, and that the start and end of this movie is to be the star and end of a singular life. Indeed, the very last shot seems to show us the camera itself dying, as if wounded by the gunshots that just rang out. In the last seconds, the camera drops its gaze, as if it were gasping its last breath, before smashing to black and the last title card: FIN. It has a devastating effect, but one that is also exhilarating, akin to religious ecstasy. Martyrdom crystallizes the cause, makes way for reinvigoration and rebirth.
Nana gave herself for the sins of cinema, and Anna Karina and even Jean-Luc Godard have subsumed themselves to the force of the narrative on her behalf.
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, Casey Burchby, Tyler Foster, Bill Gibron, Brian Orndorf, and Thomas Spurlin for their contributions.
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