Saturday, March 05, 2011

Seen In February

Still from Incendies (2010)

Six French films this month (well, five in French language, one set in France), and a couple from Scandinavia. The theme of February seemed to be seeing depressing films and then trying to temper those with something cheerier. Here's the list.

Dancer in the Dark
Let me just say that Lars Von Trier is a heartbreaking son of a bitch.
Björk plays Selma, an immigrant single mother working for the money for an operation to save her son from the same affliction that is causing her own blindness. Whenever something saddens her, she daydreams of being in a musical, and there's plenty to be sad about. The musical scenes, choreographed to songs by Björk are an opportunity for Von Trier to play and let loose a little. As Selma's situation worsens the musical numbers become more elaborate. This is a devastatingly sad film and Björk is remarkable in it (as is Catherine Deneuve). If I ever meet Von Trier in person I might be tempted to punch him in the throat, but I'm guessing he would enjoy such a pathetic expression of humanity.

Amazing film from Denis Villeneuve about a brother and sister's discovery of who their recently deceased mother really was and the journey to find their previously unknown brother and a father they believed to be dead. It's a trip that takes them from a hate-filled war to a place of immensely, deeply affecting love. Probably one of the best Canadian films I've seen in over a decade.

Sita Sings the Blues
Charming, witty, inventive animated telling of one of those insanely complicated Indian myths that are of the highly soap-operatic type. This great love epic is related by a humorous trio of Indian silhouette puppets (whatever those things are) and re-enacted by a cast of gods, monkey-gods, beauties & villains backed by a score of 1920s jazz tunes. The myth is intertwined with the contemporary and autobiographical story of the director's trials of her own long distance relationship coming to an end. By the way, the three aspects of the film are each assigned a unique style of animation resulting in a wild mix of graphical vernaculars. The primary visual connector is the absolute riot of colours that is so prevalent of Indian artwork. Let me put it this way, this film is so colourful it would make a Bollywood musical seem like it's in black & white. The film was extremely well reviewed which set up high expectations that were not met. Where the film lags is when there are one or two unnecessary musical moments that don't move the story along but otherwise it was refreshing change from the now ubiquitous computer generated imagery typical of contemporary animated films.

The Thorn in the Heart
This is Michel Gondry's documentary about his family, namely his Aunt Suzette who taught generations of kids in her small French town. It becomes obvious how Suzette's sense of whimsy and play influenced Gondry and just how important his family vacations of his youth are to his work as an adult. The title refers to the strained relationship Suzette has with her adult son which is often contrasted by how fondly she is remembered by her past students. Curiously though, near the end of the film she meets two women who were in her last class and they recall that she was pretty mean - punishments included smacks to the head or thrown chalk erasers - but also very "avante garde" and progressive. I wonder if she was equally mean to other classes and time had smoothed out the harsher memories? The other thing you'll wonder while watching this is why should I care. The mother-son tension isn't enough to keep the film from just being a personal family portrait. We never even meet the other family members on the periphery. Occasionally, Gondry breaks the documentary form by revealing re-enactments or showing shot set-ups but this is really just one famous director away from being a family vacation video. Despite some praise it received I wouldn't recommend it.

The Perverts Guide to Cinema
Parts 1-3
Based on a series of lectures by philosopher and psychoanalyst Slavoj Zizek, this is his explanation of cinema as the most perverted art. Not only does cinema show your desires but it tells you what to desire. How does Zizek make this so compelling? His intelligence? His humour? Or his showmanship? Probably all three as he guides us through a history of film as seen through the philosopher's eyes even sometimes appearing within the very films he's discussing. Great stuff that feels like a master class in film and philosophy.

The Illusionist
What did Paul Rand say? A great work of art occurs when Form & Content are in balance. When content dominates, interest lags. When form dominates, meaning is blunted - looks great but what does it mean? I think the end result is the same. If something is beautiful but meaningless who cares?That's what I thought while watching Sylvain Chomet's The Illusionist. It's one of the most strikingly beautiful animated films I've ever seen but it's slow moving and dull. I can't really express just how stunning this film is. It's a fantastic and seamless meshing of traditional animation and digital effects. The backgrounds are stunning inky lines and subtle water colours. It's like a dream. So much like a dream you may feel like taking a nap. Part of the problem is the script is adapted from a Jacques Tati story and recreates Tati's Monsieur Hulot character. Tati's films as Mr. Hulot, (Trafic, Mon Oncle, Playtime) are stylish but sluggish and pretty dull and that is, malheursement, recreated faithfully.

Before Sunrise
A young American man and a young French woman meet aboard a train in Europe and decide to spend their short time together touring Vienna. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy's chemistry seems like the unknown secret sauce that pushes this film beyond the well crafted script. Every woman I know that has seen this film thinks of it as very romantic. I don't really know any men that talk about this film. Slavoj Zizek (see Pervert's Guide to Cinema) says that for men, the sex act is all there is — everything builds up to it — so much so that the "act" is more important than the person they are having sex with and the woman becomes an "obligatory masturbatory object" (yowsers, he's a Freudian…). Women also ignore the sex partner, in fact, the sex itself is secondary, according to Zizek, what is more important is the narrative — the story. He claims that the woman is "narrativizing" during sex. This is why men enjoy pornography and woman don't, because of course porn is all about the act and the story is crap. Which reminds me of an episode of 30 Rock when Jack creates a channel of Porn for Women which is just an attractive man "listening" and nodding. That's what this is, pornography for women. Perhaps this is a stereotype realized in celluloid, not that the film is a cliché but more like a test you should take to determine your own level of romantic DNA. I enjoyed the film but Ethan Hawke's character, Jesse, is an incredible ass. Julie Delpy's Celine is lovely and open while Jesse is a smart ass wanker. Here's the thing, if you read viewer reviews of the movie you'll see exactly what I just wrote. Women love the characters' connection and want Jesse to sweep Celine up and male reviewers think Jesse is a poser asshole. I think it goes back to what Zizek says. Women are fetishizing the narrative and men want to see a resolution in a sex act — thus see Jesse as a rival to be eliminated.

Before Sunset
"In the sequel to Before Sunrise (1995), Jesse and Celine reunite nine years after their initial encounter. While strolling through the streets of Paris, in real time, these two reacquainted strangers continue the conversation that bonded them years earlier. Written by Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, the script was nominated for an Academy Award." Like the first film, this one is beautifully filmed in a beautiful city, but interestingly it takes place in real time and is full of single take scenes (without cuts). Again it's a philosophical discussion and again a Freudian could have a field day (Celine admits to feeling like an old soul and fears getting older while Jesse admits to feeling like he's only 13 and fears that he'll never grow up). Of course, they're still in love — probably because they've only spent less than 30 hours together.

Le Samourai
Jean-Pierre Melville's story of a professional assassin who, having been spotted completing a job, has become a liability for his employers. In the history of film, has there ever been a more patient director than Melville? Everything unfolds at such a natural pace you think you'd have time to order a pizza but you'd be wrong to miss the details that make his films so memorable. When the assassin Costello is wounded we see him attend to his injury, lay down then upon waking, change the dressing. It just reflects an odd attention to detail that most films ignore. Later in the movie, Costello arrives back to his apartment and when he removes his jacket we see a blood stain from the earlier wound. Alain Delon is great as the ever cool killer, who is stylish, clever and alone but not immune to mistakes. In the DVD extras Melville constantly refers to "mes métier" which is translated simply as "my work" but I think it carries more meaning than that — more akin to "craft" or art than just a "job" which is what we see so much of in every beautifully composed shot. It made me wonder if Ghost Dog, is Jim Jarmusch's homage to Melville's Le Samourai. For me, it was also a double dose of Paris (I'd just seen Before Sunset which is lovingly filmed in Paris). There's a great scene on a pedestrian bridge — le Chemin de Fer à Orleans, which looks just like the bridge in Jules et Jim. Then again there might be a hundred bridges like that one in Paris. We'll always have Paris especially the Paris of the movies.

Gentlemen Broncos
I rented this film so now it's a stain on my permanent record. Horrible, horrible, horrible.

This charming French fable of a merry band of eccentric kooks is, well, unfortunately kinda dull. It's the story of a man whose life has been irrevocably altered by the product of two arms dealers. With the help of some newfound friends he hopes to teach these military industrialists a lesson. The film from the makers of Delicatessen & Amelie looks great and is full of Rube Goldberg-esque creations and imaginative set pieces but the story seems to be full of pointless machinations to showcase its own quirkiness. I nodded off a couple of times and rewound to see what I had missed and then I promptly fell asleep again. It's a shame. If it had explained itself better from the outset and cut about 20 minutes from the run time it would have been so much better.

Justified Season 1
This series about a trigger happy federal marshal, Raylin Givens, played with aplomb by Timothy Olyphant sent back to his home state of Kentucky, is a wild ride and the season finale has the body count of a Coen Brothers' movie. Raylin Givens. Men want to be him and ladies want to be with him… but some men want to kill him — as do some ladies.

Homicide (1991)
"Policeman Bob Gold has to capture a murder that not even the FBI has been able to find. But before he can even start he is re-assigned to the murder of an old lady in a black area. The evidence points at a Jewish group and he discovers connections between them and his previous case." - IMDB.
This Mamet script suffers from all the same things other Mamet scripts suffer from. Cartoonish masculine dialogue that is too formalistically theatrical to sound appropriate for a film. Plus, there were enough plot holes to fill all the holes in Blackburn, Lancashire.

American comedian Louis CK's brilliant cinema verité take on his own life and stand-up act is really just all Louie all the time and it is brilliant.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest
The last and dullest of this series based on the character of Lisbeth Salander (the girl of the title). These films all seem to suffer from
far too much exposition and overly convoluted plotting and this last installment is probably the worst offender. Maybe I've steeled myself to dull movies lately but this one didn't seem as bad as reported. The saga of abuse of Lisbeth Salander reaches its conclusion as all those that done her wrong get their comeuppance. The movie is somewhere between a court room drama and a journalist-working-with-sleeves-rolled-up like All the President's men (or something). What's strange about the series is how it seems to have created a super-feminist vigilante hero while simultaneously reveling in the sexual violence it reviles. Convincing details and semi-reasonable computer hacking (they seem to plant Trojan software with a little too much ease) tend to set these films apart from contenders but at the end of the day the story is what we're after.

Cassandra's Dream
Woody Allen's morality fable/thriller with Ewan MacGregor and Collin Farrell is a bit of a let down. Most of the blame goes to Allen's script which seems to skip things like motivation or believable dialogue. Whenever Allen isn't acting in a film we can still hear which of the characters is his stand-in by the oddly phrased or halting lines. Dear Mr. Allen, having characters repeat "we have no choice" doesn't make us believe it. In the story, two brothers with desperate money problems are given an option by their wealthy scheming uncle — kill a troublesome colleague and all of your money troubles will be solved. We find out it's one thing to kill a person but it's another thing to live with it. The really strange thing is that the film unfurls at a slow pace but all of the important decision points happen very (and unbelievably) quickly. The other strange thing is how MacGregor seems sort of at sea in this material while Farrell excels.

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