Monday, September 05, 2011

Seen in August

The Tree of Life image via

I'm surprised I didn't watch more films but I guess I was busy just re-watching some old favorites and streaming online stuff instead. August was a loud noisy blur to me but here's what I watched.

Damages Season 4
I thought I was done with Patty Hewes and Ellen Parsons, but when season 4 appeared on Netflix I couldn't help myself and now I'm hooked. Like a meat hook in a side of beef.

*update: being halfway through the season I can report that this is NOT up to Damages par. Terrible expository dialogue mixed with mediocre performances (it looks like John Goodman's first read-through?) and some of the most ridiculous red herrings in any drama — a middle eastern man has a map with a giant "X" and delivers a duct taped box that contains — a medallion!? Who delivers a medallion in a shoebox taped closed with duct tape? WTF? Eye rolling ensued.

The Tree of Life
Seeing a critically acclaimed film by a critically acclaimed director in the official theatre of the Toronto International Film Festival feels very grown up. I can't explain this movie, so I won't try. I will say it is a meditative, contemplative, poetic and weirdly trippy movie. At times it is strangely moving and it is one of the few movies to accurately portray the fluid dynamics of brotherhood. Sean Penn plays a man at sea yet seems to be experiencing some kind insight on, what I assume, is the anniversary of his brother's death. This "insight" seems to encompass humanity's place in the cosmos (I think — this is all just a theory). Not so theoretical is Brad Pitt, who is convincing as the menacing, bullying, self-doubting father.
Designers take note, there are two or three scenes set in a striking mid-century home full of museum piece furniture that is so beautiful it may distract you from the emotion of the moment.

The Apartment
Jack Lemmon & Shirley MacLaine classic. I have never got past the suicide attempt before and for some reason I'd completely forgotten this movie was set at Christmas. Some people are "takers" and some people "get took". What did Beck say about a "young Shirley MacLaine"? That he wished she would be his girlfriend? C. C. Baxter would agree.

Cowboys & Aliens
The joke is that the title of this movie was exactly its pitch in the boardroom and, simultaneously its script and title. I was sort of hoping it would be Wild West meets Independence Day but it never amounts to quite that much fun. All the Western clichés are present and accounted for but the filmmakers never have enough fun with it. Daniel Craig has been described as having a head chiseled from wood. The same could be said of his zero body-fat physique. His quiet performance looks as though he's trying his best to channel Clint Eastwood of yore. Olivia Wilde provides an alert eyed Western babe while Harrison Ford's taciturn Dolarhyde is pretty high on the "dialed-in-mode". The sound design of the alien craft is great, giving the effect of WWII spitfires. Likewise, the mothership is evocative of a crackling Apollo lift-off. Those details are important for a summer movie especially if it lacks in other ways.

Whatever Works
Larry David and Woody Allen sounds like a match made in heaven — or Brooklyn at least. Not so much.

Dinner for Schmucks
The mouse dioramas were nice. There are a couple of scenes that are so bad you feel embarrassed for everyone involved.

El Bulli: Cooking in Progress
A documentary that reveals the process of developing a new menu for the famously experimental 3 Michelin star Catalonian restaurant of Ferran Adrià. The filmmaking itself is incredibly boring but as with most good documentaries the subject is fascinating. The strange, alien and futuristic techniques used at El Bulli include "vaccuumizing", "foaming", freeze drying or flash freezing with liquid nitrogen. The results such as cocktails of water and hazelnut oil, sweet potato meringues, or ice chips in pine nut oil vinaigrette bewilder, become magical or seem merely like intellectual exercises. This isn't about odd & eccentric food but the creative process and the iterative explorations necessary for true innovation. In general, I think most people other than hard core foodies would find this film dull but I think any creative professional will fall into the world that Adrià and his cohorts inhabit.

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger
"It is a tale. Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury. Signifying nothing."
That's the quote from MacBeth that this Woody Allen film begins with and it pretty much sums it up. Especially, the "signifying nothing" part. It sort of reminds me of something Homer Simpson said while the other Simpsons tried to glean the moral of the episode they just experienced, "It didn't mean anything. It was just a bunch of stuff that happened." In a pinch, I'll quote Homer rather than Shakespeare.

Curb Your Enthusiasm, Season 8
Larry David looks very comfortable as the unlucky asshole Larry David.

Treme, Season 2
Sometimes I'm not even sure what this series is about; the music, the people, the city, all of the above? Whatever it is, it can be funny, dramatic, moving, insightful and inspirational.

The Notorious Betty Page
Gretchen Mol bears a striking resemblance to Betty Page and actually is great portraying a God-fearing woman innocently posing in S&M photos which she sees as more game-play than role-play (if you know what I mean). The film, like Boogie Nights, depicts this tamer, softer porno as just some folks having fun and the authorities who aim to shut them down as fuddy-duddies. As tame or "classy" as these photos may appear to us now, it's not hard to see the early "normalization" of pornography that has led to teen-agers sharing explicit web-cam or cell phone images over the Internet. Maybe we do need healthier and more tolerant attitudes towards different sexual identities and proclivities but most pornography isn't about self empowerment and personal identity, it would seem to be about power over another and degradation. I guess the overall easy going feel of the film is intended to frame that time through Betty Page's eyes though it does feel a little dismissive of some of the more serious issues such as Page's sexual abuse (did that really happen?) It's also interesting how the film shows the pornographers as making "lite-hearted" bondage and never really shows those that enjoyed those creepy images as anything other than harmless oddballs. By the end, you are sort of rooting for Betty to get out of the business if only to reconcile with her faith. Strangely, Page's early retirement only enhanced her status as pin-up because there are no photos of an old Betty Page wielding a horse whip. Praise be to God.

Win Win
This well reviewed movie didn't fare well at the box office but I have no idea why not? It delivers laughs, finely tuned performances, high and conflicting emotions all served up with modern complications. Paul Giamatti is a small town, put-upon estate lawyer and high school wrestling coach who makes a poor judgement call. Through circumstance of that decision, an all-state wrestler arrives on his door step. Actual All-state wrestler Alex Schaffer is excellent as fictional All-state wrestler Kyle Timmins, as is Amy Ryan who plays Giamatti's better half. The story is pretty good at placing this couple as a parental tag team which gives Ryan plenty to work with as Kyle's proxy Mom. No one is perfect in this story of second chances and that's crucial to finding the sweet spot that is sweet but never saccharine.

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