Wild Things, Capitalism, and George Bernard Shaw
Talking Out of Frame:
Well, the Oscars have come and gone, and while it wasn't exactly an outstanding year in terms of the triumph of art, at least the deserving picture won over the commercial powerhouse. We covered The Hurt Locker here last month. If you still haven't seen it, you definitely should, though frankly, my favorite picture of 2009 wasn't even nominated: Where the Wild Things Are. Jason Bailey says it best when he says, "Holy crap, they pulled it off. After years of preparation, after rumors of behind-the-scenes rumblings, after all of the breathless pre-release hand-wringing (Is it too intense for kids? Is it too smart for family audiences?), Spike Jonze's film version of Maurice Sendak's classic children's book Where the Wild Things Are was well worth the wait. It's an enchanting film, warm and winning, a picture that envelops its audience and holds them in its grasp for its entire 101 minutes, which go by in a blink. The preview audience I saw it with laughed at the jokes, but sat in hushed silence otherwise, lest they break the delicate spell the film casts. It is, in a word, wonderful.
"It is also, yes, 'difficult' and 'challenging' and all those other buzzwords that dull Hollywood types attach to any movie that can't be put into a box that spits out Happy Meal toys. Make no mistake, it is an unconventional family film--but that is a good thing, inasmuch as it is noticeably lacking in pop culture references and bullshit moralizing. What it does, more than any movie that I can think of, is replicate what it's like to be a kid, how it feels, the fierce energy of an imagination untethered, and how that runs parallel to the first, terrifying pangs of sadness and fragility and loneliness and despair.
"Don't worry, this isn't needless psychological hogwash intended to "explain" the behavior of an iconic character (we're not dealing with Rob Zombie's Halloween here). What they do, in those evocative opening passages, is to show Max's world, all the good and the bad of it, richly drawn, deeply felt and beautifully textured, so that we can understand why he would want to escape it--and why, later, he would ache to return. It is not a golden-hued, idealized home, nor is it a thin caricature of domestic melancholy. It is what it is. Jonze's unadorned, mature direction, and the straightforward, naturalistic writing, are a quiet revelation. When the wild things appear, they are frankly stunning--thanks to the flawless designs of Jim Henson's Creature Shop (and some all but invisible animatronic and CG detail work), they look just as they should: real, tangible, alive, there. One can imagine a lazier director slapping in CGI co-stars, Scooby Doo-style, but these creatures have weight and presence, and when they stand on that cliff with Max and howl at the rising sun, it is sheer perfection. Jonze and Eggers' screenplay also gives them psychological depth and dimension, but they don't push it--the subtext is there, but not overdone. "
Fans of Where the Wild Things Are are also going to want to seek out the Lance Bangs/Spike Jonze documentary about Maurice Sendak, Tell Them Anything You Want. The film is made up entirely of conversations Jonze had with the author over the last several years. Subjects include his childhood, his inspiration, and most of all, death. Sometimes hilariously so, especially in a montage where Jonze and Bangs show us just how often Sendak told them he was ambling toward Death's Door. It's morbid, yes, but not seriously so. As with any artist who is aware of the darker things in life, Sendak is also aware of the lighter things. Though Sendak claims he is never truly happy, he speaks with equal candor about what he is fond of as he does what disappoints or scares him. The filmmakers cobble his stories together with photographs and illustrations and arrange the material so we can see how a strange child of the 1930s became such an influential voice in illustrated literature. His fascination with the mysterious and the strange is what makes him so enthralling as a storyteller, and it's why his work resonates with youngsters, who are fascinated with the unknown and mortality. It's a myth that kids believe they will live forever, they know there is much in this world to conquer. Conversely, they also know to have a good time and forget it. The wild rumpus!
Tell Them Anything You Want: A Portrait of Maurice Sendak may be short, but it makes the best of its concise running time. It's funny, chilling, hopeful, and sad. Bangs and Jonze build to an emotional climax, and I got a little teary eyed as Sendak took stock of what has really mattered to him in his eight decades on this planet. In his own grouchy way, Maurice Sendak is as enchanting as the stories he's told. Arguably, there is no differentiation between the man and his imagination. The work is a product of him, and he is a product of the work, and Tell Them Anything You Want ends up showing us exactly how.
Up for a best foreign picture Oscar last year, but sadly deprived of the trophy, was Revanche, finally out on DVD from Criterion. Tyler Foster writes: "When I first heard about Götz Spielmann's Revanche, I thought it sounded like a simple movie. Not in a bad way, mind you; I already knew it was being released as part of the Criterion Collection, and I trust their judgment, but sometimes a film doesn't need to subvert the simplicity of its scenario in order to be great. Then again, it's also not surprising that Revanche deftly weaves away from all of the expected angles presented by its plot, and then weaves equally away from all the easy outcomes its new direction has opened up.
"For one thing, it's not a heist movie. The conflicts in the film may spring from a bank heist, which Alex (Johannes Krisch) hopes will make him rich enough to flee the country with his prostitute girlfriend Tamara (Irina Potapenko), but this is just the catalyst for other events. Most "heist movies" are either concerned with the joyous thrill of pulling a fast one on a slimy nemesis, or the unstoppable flood of loose ends piling up at the perpetrators' feet, but Revanche is not really concerned with the crime, the money, or the threat of capture. In essence, Alex gets away clean, but not before he has a fateful encounter with a local cop named Robert (Andreas Lust) which sends both men's lives spiraling out of control.
"'Revanche' means 'revenge' in German, but Spielmann is not making a revenge picture, either. Revanche is a surprisingly bloodless movie. Alex and Robert are haunted by their encounter, agonizing over each step of their own seemingly minute decisions, clearly wanting to give anything to turn back the clock. Using these two characters, Spielmann carefully executes Revanche as a film with two opposing protagonists and no real antagonist. The audience is in a unique position to see how both of them are suffering, and how these two people might actually forge an understanding if only they would talk to one another, but as cop and criminal, communication is practically impossible. Robert has a wife, Susanne (Ursula Strauss), who, by coincidence, is friends with Alex's father Hauser (Hannes Thanheiser). After the robbery, Alex moves in with Hauser in the country, where he becomes acquainted (if not friendly) with Susanne on the days when she drops by to take Hauser to church or to listen to him play the accordion. Upon learning that she is Robert's wife, Alex starts to spy on the couple from their bushes at night, as well as hanging around the lakeside bench where Robert often goes jogging. This review is already plenty secretive, but without getting too detailed, Susanne reaches out to Alex for her own complicated reasons, and the results create some shockingly dark plot twists. Other films would be unable to resist exploiting these revelations, but Revanche doesn't even mention them, leaving them for the audience to consider."
Criterion also gives us another of the best reviewed films of 2009, Steve McQueen's political prison drama Hunger. Casey Burchby assesses the disc: "Watching Hunger is a painful and illuminating experience. It cuts to the marrow of a tendentious, charged historical moment via flawless visual storytelling. The film starts out by documenting the effects of external brutality upon a group of jailed IRA soldiers. A long conversation between two key characters serves as a kind of entr'acte, wherein we are privy to the logic behind the inversion of that brutality. The second act allows that inversion to play out through Bobby Sands' conscious decision to subvert the external brutality with self-imposed starvation, a tactic that simultaneously takes him out from beneath the boots of his jailers, while condemning himself to an even harsher fate than that of his fellows. The film's structure is deliberate and purposeful. In telling the story of the Maze and Bobby Sands, the filmmakers have eschewed historical context and political angles in favor of focusing almost exclusively on life inside the prison. It's a narrow way of covering true events, but it also allows the craft of filmmaking to intuitively find the heart of the story without becoming stuck in the minutiae of historical re-creation.
"The second act [of the film] exclusively follows Sands' deterioration in unflinchingly graphic detail that avoids seeming gratuitous or exploitative. Hunger was co-written and directed by Steve McQueen, and was my introduction to his work. Hunger is relentlessly sensory. The visuals consist of formally-composed shots that convey the story in a highly-controlled way. Expository dialogue is virtually nonexistent, with the exception of the entr'acte. The camera is the narrator, and it shows what we need to know about the hideous conditions in the Maze.
"One might question the aesthetically-pleasing style of Hunger. Such raw subject matter could have received a grittier, handheld, choppier treatment designed to push our faces into the filth. This, of course, would have also forced an audience to sympathize with the prisoners. (Although Hunger focuses on prisoners' experiences, it also takes time to follow an unnamed prison guard [Stuart Graham], who partakes in violence against prisoners, but appears to know that he's less of a person for it.) I think McQueen's visual choices are mesmerizing and effective. Formal compositions alert us that we are being directed to look at something in particular. Whereas the subjective camera places us in a position that evokes a specific emotional response, formality leaves it up to us to ask why we're seeing a particular image framed in a particular way. Composition is as out of fashion in film as it is in painting, but it's a technique that brings us back to the basic communicative nature of art, and McQueen handles it with care and dexterity."
The Dardenne Brothers have been one of the most influential directing teams to emerge from Europe in the last two decades. Their verite style is widely copied, and Jeremy Mathews has the details on their newest film, Lorna's Silence. " Previously unknown actress Arta Dobroshi offers her heart and soul to celluloid as Lorna, an Albanian immigrant who has been living with a drug addict (Jérémie Renier) in order to gain citizenship. She paid the junkie, Claudy, for the marriage, and the plan is that once she's been married long enough to earn citizenship, she'll marry a Russian to help him get citizenship. While Claudy thinks he will receive more money when the time comes for a divorce, Lorna's handlers have always planned to kill him with an overdose--a divorce would take too long and might be suspicious to authorities. As the time nears closer, Lorna begins to have second thoughts as to whether she can be part of a plot to end this man's life, even if he is an annoying addict.
"Dobroshi exudes urgent desperation as Lorna tries to help her fake husband clean-up and find a way to fast-track a divorce. But the film is almost shocking in the way it moves the story forward, revealing a structure far vaster than what the initial subject suggested. It soon turns into a devastating tale of guilt's affect on the mind and body, and how someone can make up for something that can't be undone."
Uruguay's Gigante has some style in common with the Dardennes. The movie is about Jara, who is a big guy. The kind of guy so big, he is pretty much destined for work as a security guard or a bouncer; or in the case of the actor who plays Jara, Horacio Camandule, a performer in a movie about a guy his size who is a security guard and a bouncer. Because Jara is both in Gigante, a film from Uruguay written and directed by Adrián Biniez. During the day he sits in a tiny room watching the floors of a supermarket on CCTV; nights and weekends, a bouncer in a rock club.
Two somewhat violent jobs for a not-so-violent guy. When he throws two guys out of the club for fighting, one hits him in the head with a rock. When cleaning ladies at the store steal, he looks the other way. Except when it's Julia (Leonor Svarcas), then he keeps staring. The benign behemoth develops a massive crush on the girl, who apparently has moved to Montevideo from the country. She's a little klutzy, and first catches his attention by backing into a giant paper towel display, tumbling underneath the toppling tower. Jara keeps spying on her on the video cameras, and then he starts following her around on their days off. It's kind of stalkerish, but Jara is so meek, he never seems creepy. He is isolated and alone, only really able to communicate with his young nephew. Julia makes him yearn to come out of his shell.
Gigante is a slow burn, with no musical score and very little dialogue, this one rolls at a laconic rhythm that is sometimes more drowsy than it is enticing. Whole scenes take place on Jara's black-and-white TV screen, with just the sound of his breathing. There is no way for he and Julia to have a conversation when he is several paces behind her, trying not to be seen. Biniez livens things up with occasional moments of humor. Jara comically assaults a taxi driver who says something crude to Julia--though I laughed more at how awful and raunchy the driver's pick-up lines were than I did Jara's use of the car horn. Biniez even gives us a sly touch of sarcasm when he has Jara follow Julia into a movie theater where she is watching a fake film named Mutant. Tucked into the tiny theater seats, hulking over his fellow moviegoers, the socially inept Jara is like a mutant himself.
Being from Film Movement, Gigante is also coupled with a shorter film. It's an excellent Danish piece called Dennis (18 minutes). Directed by Mads Matthiesen, it is the story of a shy bodybuilder (Kim Kold) who lives alone with his mother (Elsebeth Steentoft). One Friday night, Dennis decides to ask out a girl (Lykke Sand Michelsen) he's seen at the gym. For all we know, this may be his first date ever. Kold has a sweet, quiet face, despite the fact that he looks like Marv out of Sin City. There is something about this man's presence that instantly makes us feel sorry for him. Matthiesen and co-writer/editor Martin Zandvliet let the conversation tell the story, and a few well-constructed sentences give us a vast emotional world to observe. There is a lot going on here, a heartbreaking dynamic that is slowly breaking Dennis' heart, or at the very least squeezing it so it doesn't grow. The final, sad shot shows just how much his mother has forced him to remain a child.
Going back to 1924, we find another influential director, King Vidor. Warner Archives has released his silent film Wild Oranges. Vidor adapted the silent film from a novel by Joseph Hergesheimer. The movie opens with a tragic event: a young married couple is out for a buggy ride, and when the husband loses control of his horses, the wife is thrown from the carriage and killed. In his despair, the widower, John Woolfolk (Frank Mayo), rejects life and takes to sailing the lonesome seas with his right-hand man (Ford Sterling). Stopping at an isolated southern inlet, they come across a mentally unstable Civil War vet (Nigel de Brulier) and his granddaughter Millie (Virginia Valli). Grandpa has a bit of PTSD, and he is scared to leave his swampy land. Like John, he's rejected outside life. This decision has also condemned Millie to a virtual imprisonment. Their only company in this private wilderness is a demented manchild named Iscah (Charles A. Post). This giant is cruel, stupid, and naturally, sexually attracted to Millie, but without any real knowledge of how to act on his lust. His idea of courtship is threatening to let crocodiles eat her unless she gives him a kiss.
Vidor creates a psychosexual landscape in Wild Oranges, bending this fairly conventional dramatic plot into something that appears normal on the surface but is totally warped underneath. Each character represents some kind of primal urge, be it fear or loneliness or love, and they are as much metaphor as they are human, if not more so. (The acting is appropriately overwrought and often one-note, just as the script requires.) Even the landscape is in on the game. Iscah is a creature of the swamp, both dangerous and thick. Millie grows the wild oranges of the title, which John first tastes and rejects as bitter, before realizing he wants to taste them again. Likewise, he first rejects Millie, choosing his exile over romance, but he's ultimately unable to get her out of his mind. In one of the more inventive sequences, she comes to him as an apparition of his psyche, tempting him with the fruits of her Eden. He tries to ward her off with his bad memories, and Vidor even cuts back to his wife's death scene we saw at the start of the movie, but it's too late, John's addicted.
Some of the tropes in Wild Oranges come out of a southern gothic tradition. The creepy old man staring out of the window of his rundown home, the oaf whose menace is so apparent even dogs bark at him, the raccoons and the spiders and the bats as symbols of nature grown out of control--these are like something out of an old horror tale. When John returns for Millie, it's during a windswept storm, the very weather whipped into a fury by these passions. To be honest, there is more to look at in Wild Oranges than there is story. The narrative is thin, but Vidor packs so much detail into each frame, the mis en scene carries it.
Another master of the form was Max Ophuls, whose final film, the 1955 masterpiece Lola Montes is a long-buried treasure that has finally been given its due in the spotlight by Criterion. By its own billing, Lola Montes is a deconstruction of the femme fatale. This biopic is also a meta-cinematic tour-de-force of show-stopping entertainment. The real Lola Montés, Countess of Landsfeld, was a 19th-century woman of repute--some of it ill, some of it surely false. A self-constructed celebrity, Lola thrived on scandal, and despite apparently being possessed of little talent, furthered her own story by putting on productions of operas and plays that featured her as the star. In the Ophuls picture, Lola ends up working for an American circus, parading herself as the ultimate spectacle. She is the untouchable woman high above the adulation of her audience, eventually falling to the earth, thus fulfilling the fame cycle where all that go up are ultimately torn down by the same two-faced crowd.
I am not sure when the term "media circus" first came into play, but Max Ophuls clearly understood the nature of modern mythologizing. His three-ring entertainment is hawked by Peter Ustinov, a master of ceremonies who cares little for the truth. He tells Lola as much when the two parallel lines of the movie come together halfway and we see him laying the offer on her table at a hotel in the French Riviera. Lola is played by Martine Carol, whose beauty is austere and immaculate. She gives us a sex object that is never anything less than perfect, and in a bold move, rarely sexy. Ophuls teases us with the salacious details of Lola's adventures, but he keeps those mostly off screen. They are the tales the ringmaster tells, and they are even re-enacted within his circus tent. Yet, they are also the parts of the story of the most questionable truth, and perhaps of the least importance.
Watching Ophuls's virtuoso filmmaking, it's hard to understand how more people didn't see how incredible Lola Montés was on its original release. It's like watching Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game or Orson Welles' Citizen Kane. (The latter's subplot with the Susan Alexander character being propped up in self-aggrandizing operas actually sprang to mind in regards to Lola Montés's similar theatrical follies.) These are films that look progressive and innovative even now, with more than half a century of cinematic and technological development coming after. If they are still better than so much of our contemporary best, how in the world weren't they adored in their own time?
I was less impressed with the of-the-times experimentation of Marco Ferreri's Dillinger is Dead, an experimental film that's also newly released by Criterion. The film has left me so nonplussed, I really don't know what to say about it. I have no reaction beyond a shrug. Not exactly a stellar recommendation or a fiery condemnation, I know. In fact, I'd feel more comfortable if I hated it. My review might as well be written on a wet paper bag. Dillinger is Dead is the chronicle of one night in the life of Glauco (Michel Piccoli), a gas mask designer who comes home from work to his wife and maid/mistress, makes a meal, studies some home movies, and finds a gun that may have been John Dillinger's. This is all told in exacting detail, step by step, with many of the tasks shot in real time and without interruption. The action is accompanied by a steady stream of contemporary songs broadcasting over Glauco's radio, many of them lyrically apropos to what is happening. As the film rounds its final corner, there is even one shocking act that so surprised me, I jumped in my chair. Without giving too much away, let's just say that gun in the first act definitely paid off in the last one.
To what end, though, I really don't know. The events of Dillinger is Dead are seemingly random, accurately portraying an aimless night, but maybe they are not. Maybe there is some complex code here that I am meant to put together were I so inspired. I would make a go at it if I were being graded, but I'm not, you are, Maestro Ferreri, and you've done nothing to compel me to want to understand Dillinger is Dead more. The way I see it, it's your job to make me want to know what it all means, not mine to find a reason for your film existing. That's the pact you make with the audience: we're willing to do the work, you just have to make it worth our while.
Stuart Galbraith IV takes us to Japan for yet another inventive film, though one that sounds more successful than Ferreri's. He's pretty excited about the release of Bushido - The Cruel Code of the Samurai. As he explains: "Though widely regarded as one of Japan's greatest filmmakers...Tadashi Imai (1912-1991) is a director whose movies have been frustratingly hard to see in the west. Bushido - The Cruel Code of the Samurai (Bushidô zankoku monogatari, 1963) represents the first official DVD release of an Imai film in America. It's an excellent if almost unbearably, relentlessly depressing film that's innovative and unusual in many ways, and it features a revelatory performance by star Kinnosuke Nakamura. AnimEigo's transfer is excellent, and the supplements help put the film and its story into historical and cultural context.
"Despite telling variations of the same basic story seven different ways, Bushido is an endlessly fascinating, often shocking drama with an impressively versatile Kinnosuke Nakamura at its center. (He deservedly won Japan's Blue Ribbon prize as Best Actor, while the film won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival.) I was never particularly enamored of the Toei star (1932-1997) who specialized in larger-than-life jidai-geki and chanbara roles, but he's positively chameleon-like in this. Viewers not familiar with the actor might reasonably assume seven different actors played the various Iikuras. A few are distinguished by heavy makeup, but mostly their subtle differences are the result of Nakamura's fine performance.
"The best and longest vignettes are the ones with Masayuki Mori (of Rashomon and Ugetsu fame) and Shinjiro Ebara (Under the Flag of the Rising Sun) and the last segment with Ko Nishimura (The Bad Sleep Well). Mori's gay seduction/rape of Nakamura's character is unnervingly realistic; such explicitness was quite unimaginable in a Hollywood film at this time. (Mori's lord bites Nakamura and Kishida, leaving permanent teeth marks of 'ownership.') Even Japanese audiences must have found these scenes quite shocking, especially considering at the time Toei's core audience consisted mainly of working-class men - truck drivers and construction worker-types - hardly an art house crowd. Though not particularly graphic, Mori and Nakamura play these scenes with great honesty and without a trace of self-consciousness."
Another favorite director around these parts is Steven Soderbergh, and Nick Hartel tackles his latest, The Informant!. "The story of Mark Whitacre is almost too strange to believe. Why would a high ranking executive in the corn industry, suddenly approach the FBI with the intention of becoming an informant, when he had no solid evidence that he was implicated in the crimes he was gathering information on? I wasn't familiar with the Mark Whitacre's story and if you told me all the details, I'd likely think you were pulling my leg. The extreme absurdity of Whitacre's story, ultimately makes it a perfect choice for a straight-faced, darkly comic farce from Steven Soderbergh.
"Soderbergh is well known for being a risk taker in Hollywood. While the mainstream viewer is likely to be familiar with his most commercially successful films such as the Ocean's Trilogy or the Oscar winning Erin Brockovich, Soderbergh cements his ultimate legacy with far more ambitious projects such as the remake of Solaris or the five hour epic biopic, Che. The Informant! most definitely falls into that latter category, despite a marketing campaign overselling the film as a broad comedy and associating it with the Ocean's films. As a result, I distinctly recall many people actually falling asleep in the theater during the movie's theatrical run. They were likely not prepared for the end result.
"As stated above, The Informant! uses ultimately dry comedy to tell Mark Whitacre's, very weird tale. Matt Damon delivers a career highlight performance as Whitacre, going to equally bizarre lengths to bring his portrayal to life. He gains extra weight and grows Whitacre's memorable mustache, for reasons I still can't comprehend. For a film that relies so much on the balance of seriousness consequence surrounded by absurd events, Damon hits a home run. He captures all the nervous ticks and nuances one would expect from someone like Whitacre, but also bring some very unexpected character traits to the table."
Just as fun and just as singularly director-driven as The Informant! and Where the Wild Things Are is Wes Anderson's The Fantastic Mr. Fox. Casey Burchby writes, "There are so many things to enjoy and appreciate in Wes Anderson's adaptation of the classic Roald Dahl book Fantastic Mr. Fox that it's difficult to acknowledge the odd chill I felt when it ended. Anderson has created a meticulously crafted stop-motion world suffused with a lovely golden light. The voice performances are outstanding and heartfelt, aided by the dry wit of Anderson's and co-writer Noah Baumbach's screenplay. Anderson's uncanny ability to compose densely-packed shots that narrate themselves, so to speak, meshes well with the anarchistic whimsy that Dahl specialized in. Stop-motion is the perfect medium in which to tell this story, and each frame is invested with Anderson's special touch.
"In a prologue, we meet Mr. and Mrs. Fox (George Clooney and Meryl Streep), a chicken-stealing couple who wind up in a farmer's trap. While waiting to meet their fate, Mrs. Fox tells her husband that she's pregnant, and in response, he promises not to steal poultry anymore. We skip ahead a decade. Their son Ash (Jason Schwartzman) is resolutely 'different.' Mr. Fox is a newspaper columnist, but restless in his career. The family moves from their small den to a large tree that overlooks three large neighboring farms. Mr. Fox can't shake the old chicken-stealing urge, and plots a raid on the farms with his super, an opossum named Kylie (Wallace Wolodarsky). In response, the farmers launch an increasingly aggressive and destructive series of attacks to kill Mr. Fox and his family. The Foxes and their friends work together tunneling to safety and, eventually, escape.
"It's hard to describe the kind of disquiet caused by the final scene [more in the original review]. Prior to it, the film proceeded under Anderson's sure hand and flawless sense of design. Anderson's feeling for the visuals and the hard work of many talented animators have created a fully imagined little world. For those who have tired of Anderson's cinematic bag of tricks, there is no sign here that he's given them up. He's just traded live action for animation. But Anderson's imagination is suited to stop-motion, and Fantastic Mr. Fox is all the more impressive coming from a director with no background in it. The script maintains a gentle wit that bites at appropriate moments, never shying away from Dahl's keen ability to mix the light with the dark while maintaining a challenging sense of moral responsibility. Chickens are killed, not 'kidnapped.' A rat dies, whereas in other hands it would only have been knocked unconscious. Mrs. Fox is deeply angered by Mr. Fox's recidivism, not just befuddled or put out. The acknowledgement of consequences here is a tribute to Dahl's intellectual honesty and the respect he had for children."
George Clooney was on a roll last year, and in addition to Mr. Fox, he played a professional corporate executioner in Up In the Air, a film that looked every bit like a slick studio movie, but was really more in line with classic Hollywood. Jason Bailey tells us, "Last year, Ryan Bingham spent 322 days on the road, 'which means I had to spend 43 miserable days at home.' Most of his travel is for work; in a miserable economic climate, his is one of the few booming businesses. He goes in to companies with massive layoffs, and fires the employees of bosses who are too spineless to do the job themselves. He provides a face for their bleak future, and hands them packets full of vagaries about their "options." When he's done doing that, he packs up his carry-on bag and hops onto another flight to fire more people somewhere else. Occasionally, he'll pick up a gig as motivational speaker for the new millennium; the gist of his message is that possessions and relationships weigh us down, so to get ahead, you must do without them.
"It pretty much goes without saying that, if there is a story to be told about someone like Ryan, it is that he must come to question the logical but empty assumptions by which he lives his life. Up in the Air does that, but not in the way that you might expect. It is too smart for easy answers. It is also too skillful to let you see exactly what it's up to.
"The picture is directed by Jason Reitman, who has put together a three-film body of work that rivals Quentin Tarantino's or Paul Thomas Anderson's at that point in their careers. His first film was the fast, funny, take-no-prisoners corporate satire Thank You For Smoking; his second, Juno, was a heartfelt movie about strong, flawed, likable people. He famously put this passion project (which, like Smoking, he co-wrote from a novel) on hold because he was so taken by Diablo Cody's Juno screenplay, and it's for the best that he did. Here, he combines the best elements of both films, and comes up with his most impressive work to date."
Up in the Air reminds me a lot of the spirit of social drama to be found in Leo McCarey's wonderful 1937 film Make Way for Tomorrow. The film is the story of Ma and Pa Cooper, an elderly couple who have been together for fifty years. They now find themselves as victims of their time, and Leo McCarey's sweet drama is also very much a product of that time. It reflects the economic state of the world the Coopers had aged into. Its title has an ironic double meaning: it's a hopeful looking ahead at change, but it can also be barked out like an order, telling the older people to get out of the way. Nowhere in the movie is this more sharply felt than when Ma and Pa step out on the dancefloor to waltz, only for the music to change to something faster they can't step to.
Make Way for Tomorrow is a portrait of America as it was still finding its way out of the Depression. On one side, the Cooper children are doing all right and finding prosperity again, but on the other is their parents, part of an older generation that never quite found their way back to the way things were. Part of the kindness the old people find in New York is likely down to people having sympathy for them and also being impressed that they have survived this long. Leo McCarey avoids visual flash in the same way his actors avoid histrionic displays of emotion. These are dark times he is depicting, and though he isn't exactly predicting the Italian Neorealists, he does try to show the world as it was and not how Hollywood dreamed it to be. He also avoids copping out at the ending. A cheerful conclusion would have seemed hollow when there were no easy answers waiting for any moviegoers outside the theatre. It's just like how Jason Reitman left us hanging at the end of Up in the Air, one of the few movies to portray the financial hardships of contemporary times. To say it's all going to be okay would be disingenuous.
It would also probably relegate both movies to the scrap heap. Had Make Way for Tomorrow ended with money raining from the sky, I doubt we'd be talking about it today, much less watching it in a Criterion edition. Hell, this movie even makes fun of those kind of movies, the way Ma Cooper describes the predictable genre picture she saw with her granddaughter. Honesty is what resonates through the ages, what makes a story timeless and universal. I find Leo McCarey's film more hopeful because it shows us two people who can make the best of the worst times, who are resolute, and who never let go of what matters, even if they have to say goodbye to it.
The economy is also the topic of the latest Michael Moore documentary, Capitalism: A Love Story. Jason Bailey once again looks at this film: "Michael Moore may not be our most subtle filmmaker, and true to form, his new documentary/political treatise Capitalism: A Love Story is rather all over the place; while some other directors approach these kind of hot-button topics with the precision of laser beam, Moore prefers a shotgun approach, blasting his shrapnel onto whatever side topics wander into his field of vision. I note this as an admirer of his work; this more stream-of-consciousness style, perfected in 2002's Bowling for Columbine, fits the loose, rambling filmed-essay form he's adopted in that time, and if the transitions are a little wobbly on occasion, our interest seldom wavers. Some of his tropes have grown a bit tiresome as well--his children's story-style narration has overstayed its welcome, and while they dig up some awfully good stock and educational footage, the opening interspersion of an historical film about the fall of ancient Rome with recent news footage is too heavy-handed, even for Moore. But once those early stumbles are cast aside and the divisive director gets down to business, he assembles his finest, and most effective, motion picture in years.
"Since its explosion just over a year ago, the global and national financial crisis has fallen prey to mindless partisanship and the 24-hour news cycle; the path to disaster was such a ridiculously convoluted one that most people have arrived at answers and explanations that are just too easy. What Moore's film provides is some much-needed contextualization. He goes all the way back to the 'good old days,' to the comparatively debt-free and comfortable 1950s and 1960s, before bringing us up to the Carter and Reagan administrations (and the dangerous influence of Reagan's Treasury Secretary, Donald Regan). Clinton gets off a little easy (Glass-Steagall was repealed on his watch, after all), but Moore does get in some well-aimed parting shots at his old nemesis, George W. Bush.
"Once the history has been filled in, the second act of the picture wanders a bit, though each of the detours is fascinating. We're told about the 'PA Child Care' scandal, in which two judges were given kickbacks for sending kids, many of them minor offenders, for extended stays in a state-funded private juvenile facility. We're given some mighty scary information about how grossly underpaid airline pilots are. And, most disturbingly, there is an extended, shocking section on (often secret) life insurance policies taken out by corporations on their employees (called, crassly, 'dead peasant' insurance).
"Capitalism: A Love Story is a long film (perhaps a touch too long), but it is rich and thoughtful, and--notably--isn't merely a partisan screed (as some of his other works have been, for better or worse). Yes, there was plenty of proof, even at the time of the film's theatrical release, that the Obama election wasn't going to lead to the kind of financial reform we so desperately need (after all, he appointed Tim Geitner), and Moore kind of lets that go. But he also gives it to Chris Dodd with both barrels, and indicts the Democratic leadership for their complicity in the bailout. Nitpicks aside, this is a smart, funny, entertaining picture, and it couldn't be more timely. It's Moore at his best--rambling, undisciplined, and utterly brilliant."
Perhaps Vogue Magazine isn't the best topic to follow Moore's film with, but that doesn't make The September Issue no less compelling as a documentary. Brian Orndorf says, "Putting together a magazine has always appeared to me to be an impossible gauntlet of stress and dedication. Assembling the obscenely high profile fashion bible during its largest issue is a proposition fit for the loony bin. Enter Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue, and a woman of precise temperament and icy control. Dispatching her underlings, photographers, and models early in the year, Wintour begins to assemble a phone-book-thick beast of a magazine, created for a prime, exalted month devoted to the next big waves in fashion and celebrity. It's known worldwide as The September Issue.
"Director R.J. Cutler was granted astonishing access to the bowels of Vogue during the 2007 ramp-up to the launch of the September Issue. It's a remarkable achievement, not only as an opportunity to observe the working parts of the influential magazine and its daily business, but to spy Wintour in action. A frail-looking fashionista found somewhere inside her trademarked curtain-thick bob, Wintour is the enigma Cutler is hoping to deconstruct, to slip past her frosty stare and robotic body language and capture an industry icon at the center of a cultural storm.
Issue is fairly extraordinary in the manner it grabs the fly-on-the-wall experience of Vogue, underlining the blitzkrieg of labor and ego it takes to piece together the magazine. However, the real draw here is Wintour, and while Cutler can't snatch her essence (Wintour is far too camera-aware to let her guard down), he assembles a combustible mood of aggravation, judgment, and decision-making that makes for a spellbinding documentary."
Plenty of old-time fashion is on display in a box set celebrating one of the most celebrated playwrights of all time. George Bernard Shaw on Film - Eclipse Series 20 gathers three films adapting Shaw: Major Barbara, Caesar and Cleopatra, and Androcles and the Lion. The movies span eleven years, 1942 to 1952. They consist of one wartime love story and two historical movies, one an epic and the other an allegorical comedy. They are linked only in as much as they came from the same mind. Shaw had an interest in human nature, and he was particularly fascinated by and critical of inconsistencies in behavior. From a Salvation Army mistress intent on rescuing the lost from eternal punishment to the vagaries of kings and man's limited capacity for beliefs other than his own, Shaw dissected hypocrisies with a clever wit and often withering disdain.
Ultimately, though, George Bernard Shaw on Film - Eclipse Series 20 is an uneven collection of the Gabriel Pascal-produced trio. Each is an updated version of a George Bernard Shaw play from earlier in the century, and though the historical epic Caesar and Cleopatra is a snooze, both Major Barbara and Androcles and the Lion deliver laughs and poignant messages for their time. Seeing Wendy Hiller get her dander up as Barbara is practically worth the price of admission all on its own.
George Bernard Shaw knew drama, and so does Pedro Almodovar. Brian Orndorf has a review of the Spanish director's latest, the enchanting Broken Embraces: "For his 17th film, Pedro Almodovar doesn't exactly break new ground with Broken Embraces, instead fine-tuning his gifts and decadent cinematic appetites to a satisfying routine. A spiraling, sensual story of noirish obsession and paranoia, Embraces is a riveting sit, due in great part to the filmmaker's incredible storytelling gifts, and the cast, who articulate a dreamy series of toxic encounters with sniper-like precision, tightening Almodovar's noose with exceptional skill.
"Harry Caine (Lluis Homar) is a blind writer who was once a filmmaker by the name of Mateo. When Caine learns of the death of wealthy industrialist Ernesto Martel (Jose Luis Gomez), it sends his mind reeling back to the early 1990s, when he was prepping a film with lead actress, and Martel's lover, Lena (Penelope Cruz), while dealing with a behind-the-scenes documentary effort from Martel's social reject son (Ruben Ochandiano). Engaging in a heated affair with Lena, Mateo learns of Martel's violent ways, hoping to steal Lena away and finish his artistic gamble of a movie. Now over a decade later, Caine feels the rush of memories as he recalls his love affair to assistant Diego (Tamar Novas), unlocking further secrets from his close associates.
"Almodovar, who extinguished his rascally ways long ago to hone his craft as a master of melodrama, doesn't push any boundaries with Broken Embraces. There are no hysterical acts of tragedy or flamboyant characters drawing attention to themselves. While far from hushed, Embraces is the Spanish's filmmaker most relaxed piece of work in ages, calmly turning the pages of the script, working through this knotted tale of despair with a strapping confidence. Perhaps the picture lacks the gravitas of Volver or All About My Mother, but there's no mistaking Almodovar's poise with Embraces, or his technical proficiency (aided by Rodrigo Prieto's sumptuous cinematography)"
Broken Embraces is a film that's in love with film, and so is The Beaches of Agnes, the self-portrait documentary by Agnes Varda. It is the memoir of an inventor, an essay by a prankster, and a documentary about a life in cinema. Altogether playful and seductive, while also at turns heartfelt and poignant, The Beaches of Agnes frames the remembrances of the famed director--the feminine voice of the French New Wave--in a series of mirrors. Varda recreates scenes from her life and from her films, intercut with actual home movies, photographs, and clips from those same films, sometimes side by side with the reenactments. The new stagings reflect the settings as they are now, with the past being taken over by the present that has replaced it. In the case of fallen comrades, Varda casts their children in their roles, including a fantastic scene that conjures her debut feature, La Pointe-courte. Varda takes unseen footage of test films she shot with friends and mounts it on a cart that was pushed through a narrow alleyway in the movie. The man featured in the film died while his children were young, and they never knew him as he is in the grainy black-and-white footage. As they move the cart forward, they watch the old reel--the past leads them on.
In recent years, Varda has created many museum installations that combine actual objects with video, and in its way, The Beaches of Agnes is an extension of that. It's one big art happening, a live multimedia staging, beginning with Varda positioning mirrors along a sandy coastline and ending with her in a room built entirely of film strips. As much of her life has been marked by visits to beaches around the world, the seaside becomes her stage. The constant flow of the tide is just like the flow of time. At eighty, Varda has seen and done a lot and known some of the greatest artists of the 20th century. This film is a tribute to all of them and their accomplishments, be they moviemakers, bakers, or musicians. It is also a tribute to the connections they made along the way.
The Beaches of Agnes is never overly sentimental or self-pitying. Varda celebrates even as she mourns. That's why, even at a near two-hour running time, her peculiar autobiography never gets boring. For some who are not film buffs familiar with the director's work, there may be a feeling of "you had to be there" in some of the cinematic ruminations, but overall, a life glimpsed through such a colorful lens becomes the life of anyone who views it. If Agnes Varda is cinema, and cinema is its audience, then we are all Agnes Varda.
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, Nick Hartel, Jeremy Mathews, Brian Orndorf, and Stuart Galbraith IV for their contributions.
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