Thursday, February 28, 2008

2007 DVD Review: Margot at the Wedding

Noah Baumbach continues his dogged commitment to being the bracing, realist yin to friend and collaborator Wes Anderson's gentle, whimsical yang. Rushmore is a recreation of adolescence from the perspective of adulthood. Moments of pain and growth are ordered and executed with the affection and meticulousness of a Max Fischer production. Nothing stings too bad because Anderson and his audience surrogates are looking backward, and the pain of that time has been softened by time and the knowledge that things turned out alright in the end. Baumbach's The Squid and the Whale, on the other hand, is a representation of adolescence in the present tense. All of the powerlessness and confusion and this-problem-is-the-end-of-the-world angst that gets blurred over time is painfully, brutally present. Anderson's carefully staged theatrical shots are replaced by the jogs and pans of a handheld camera. His teenaged protagonists experience desire not in a capital-r Romantic fashion, but with the squirmy, flushed eroticism of burgeoning testosterone levels.

Wes Anderson's next film, The Royal Tenenbaums, deals in a his patented magical, nostalgia-drenched way with the topic of upper class New York family dysfunction. Baumbach's Margot at the Wedding responds with a similar tale, but laces every frame with barbed wire.

When Margot (Nicole Kidman) and her son Claude vist her estranged siste Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to attend her wedding to moustachioed slacker Malcolm (Jack Black), a lifetime of resentment, hurt, and mistrust bubble to the surface. Actually, bubble is the wrong word: more like come to a rolling boil. What's remarkable about the film is just how fraught practically every line of dialogue is. Every exchange of wordsreveals facets of the relationship between the characters and unspoken personal history. More painful to watch is the way that language is used as a weapon by all parties, with each interaction a zero-sum battle in which there will always be a winner and a loser. The whole film practically vibrates with versimilitude. It's so real, and the relationships depicted are so poisonous, that the viewer can't help but bring their own memories of familial angst to the proceedings. You're left feeling nauseous, especially since there is so little hope of healing or true reconciliation between these people; their wounds are too deep and picked-over, their character flaws are too intractable. Margot, in particular, is so trapped in a morass of solipism and self-pity that she can't reach out of herself to connect with anyone around her on equal terms. She's sort of a female version of Daniel Plainview: people essentially repulse her, and are only useful to her if she can be certain of her absolute control over them. If her sister, or her husband, or her son attempt to exert any autonomy or to call her out on her terminal narcissism, she wields cutting remarks like Plainview swings a bowling pin.

This film was largely ignored by critics and audiences upon its release last winter, but is not because it isn't great: the level of realism, the vividness of the characters and the richness of the dialogue all place it in the top tier of 2007 releases. I think Margot largely failed to draw raves because it's just too uncomfortable and dark to watch for most people. In some ways, it's darker than Oscar winners and certified downers like No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood. Those films revel in philosophical bleakness and unflinching examination of evil, but their period trappings and genre plot mechanisms serve to comfort the viewer. As awful as it is to watch Anton Chigurh press his captured bolt gun to someone's forehead, it's not something that most people can relate to their daily lives. Margot at the Wedding, on the other hand, is a portrait of misanthropy and emotional trauma that feels queasily real to anyone who has ever experienced a disasterous family get together. It cuts too close to the bone.

Score: 9.2

MYOFNF #8: 8 1/2 (dir. Frederico Fellini, 1963)

Fellini's hallucinatory semi-autobiographical film is ostensibly about movie making, but it's really about a dude (modeled on Fellini) who can't stay faithful to his wife, and his struggles to find out why and what will make him happy. The backdrop of the film industry offers some rich symbolism and imagery. It certainly illustrates why Fellini was so keen on the carnivalesque: its a pretty close metaphor for a film set. The film contains some of the most gorgeous black and white cinematography I've ever seen, and some of the imaginary set pieces are striking and memorable. I'm still not a huge fan of this style of head-buried-six-feet-up-your-own-ass filmmaking, though.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

David Luhrssen: Champion of the Middlebrow

Let's get something straight from the jump: the Oscars are a joke, a ridiculous parade of self-important meat-puppets stroking each other off in a frenzy of ego and delusional granduer. The Academy Awards have as much to do with recognizing excellence in American film as the invasion of Iraq did with creating democracy in the Middle East. Nevertheless, I always find myself getting invested in the nomination process and I inevitably watch the whole turgid mess on Sunday. Partly, I enjoy handicapping the winners in the same way I like fantasy baseball and political prognostication, but I'll admit that I root for my favorite films when they're nominated and am usually somewhat annoyed when they fail to win. Much as I find myself secretly dreaming that a Barack Obama presidency might (just might) lead to a mass political movement for social democratic reform at home and abroad, the hidden, starry-eyed idealist in me hopes that Oscars being awarded to excellent films will result in more people demanding excellence in film. Unlikely? No doubt. But goddamn it, a motherfucker can dream, can't he?

That's why shit like Shepherd Express film critic David Luhrssen's article Embracing the Dark Side: Have the Oscars Left the Public Behind? chaps my ass. In the piece, Luhrssen shits all over what is without a doubt the strongest slate of Best Picture nominees in decades for being too dark and challenging. Instead of downers like No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood, Luhrssen suggests that the Academy should have nominated American Gangster and Charlie Wilson's War, which he calls "engaging films on important subects, dramatizing reality through memorable storytelling and brought to life by stars that light the screen with charisma." Besides sounding like an Us Weekly review, this article is notable for just how incredibly wrong it is about everything. From the premise to the most basic facts, there's nothing but dumb all the way down to the bedrock here.

To start with, Luhrssen's essential premise: that movies like American Gangster are superior to ones like No Country because they are just as "serious" in their content but are more engaging to a popular audience, is astoundingly wrong. On the merits, No Country is a vastly better film than American Gangster. Luhrssen claims that Gangster has "something to say about the challenges and ambiguities of politics and society while packaging (its) message entertaingly." On the "entertainment" tip, American Gangster has its moments, but the film as a whole is unfocused and riddled with crime film cliche. As for the claims of being a relevant commentary on the contemporary world, the only real stab the film makes for social context is a repeated and insanely lazy trope. Whenever the filmmakers want to illustrate the realities exisiting outside of the world of the film, they show one of the main characters watching television news reports on exactly what they want the audicence to have in mind. It's cheap, easy, and fails to weave the social context into the lives of the characters. Luhrssen also makes the bizarre claim that No Country and Blood are "not entertaining in any normal sense." This kind of shit should be grounds for impeachment. Does this mean that Luhrssen watched Javier Barden and Josh Brolin play cat and mouse in the deserted streets of a Texas border town or Daniel Day-Lewis navigate the thunderous majesty of the Little Boston oil derrick fire and wasn't entertained? If that's true, I honestly don't know what to say to the man. If he did find those scenes entertaining but ended up forgetting about it because the rest of the films bummed him out, I do know what to say to him: you're lame.

My central objection to Luhrssen's premise is his apparently belief that the role of the Academy Awards should be to celebrate the joys of big budget, star-studded period pieces that are embraced by audiences. This has certainly been the MO of the Oscars until recently, and what has it resulted in? A parade of "Academy Award Winning" films that will be forgotten within a decade. Does anyone really think that A Beautiful Mind or Forrest Gump or Crash or Gladiator will live on in the minds of anyone a generation from now who isn't watching them on basic cable at that very second? If we're going to go to the trouble of staging a grindly-long Hollywood circle jerk every year, I say we might as well use the opportunity to expand the horizons of what constitutes a "great" movie. It isn't just production value, star charisma and "grand scope" (whatever the hell that means). It's courage and vision that make films "great", and that's just what this year's "dark" nominees have and what pedestrian shit like American Gangster sorely lacks. Yes, film is a profit-maximizing engine and a popular source of entertainment. But it's also an art form, and art is at its most vital when it challenges the viewer. Challenging films don't tend to win huge audiences, but they do stand the test of time. People remember the films that stick with them, that haunt them like that shot of Tommy Lee Jones' eyes as the screen goes black at the end of No Country. People also remember Oscar winners, if only because it gives them an edge playing Trivial Pursuit. When you look back at those winners in years to come, wouldn't you rather think "damn, that's a great movie, I need to see that again" than "wow, that fucking thing won an Oscar?" Yes, it's meaningless, but in a culture that is obsessed with convienence at all costs, including the destructon of the planet, any current that moves us as a people in the direction of embracing the difficult and the thought-provoking is to be encouraged.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

MYOFNF #7: Aguirre, the Wrath of God (dir. Werner Herzog, 1972)

Werner Herzog is considered the foremost auteur of obsessive personalities and Aguirre, is considered the centerpiece of his cinematic vision. Watching the film, I was surprised to notice how little Klaus Kinski's title character registers. This isn't a tightly focuses study of monomania like There Will Be Blood. Herzog's camera spends much less time zooming in on Kinski's rebellious conquistador than it does covering the hostile, wild tangle of Amazonian jungle surrounding him and his band of adventurers. Herzog is conveying to the audience the terrifying vulnerability and giddy freedom that comes with struggling through an untrammeled wilderness. Aguirre's individual psychology is less interesting than the universal reaction to such an environment. It's sort of like what No Country For Old Men would look like if Llewllyn Moss never made it back to the trailer park with his loot, but rather spent the film running around the scrub brush of West Texas.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

MYOFNF #6: The Seventh Seal (dir. Ingmar Bergman, 1957)

This movie hits me right where I live in terms of subject matter: the inevitable horror of death and the essential unknowability of god, and some of the imagery, like the train of flagellates, especially that closing shot of the train of shackled, doomed pilgrims being led by to their demise, is striking and memorably. Unfortunately, the arch style and overtly symbolic trappings (Max Von Sydow really does play a chess match against Death, who does, indeed, wear a big-ass black cloak) mute some of the horror. The whole business is a little more buttoned down than I tend to like: most of the sequences felt more like theatrical set-pieces than immersive realities. I understand that this is a general condition of most films made before the mid-60s, and that the Swedes aren't known for their free-wheeling ways, but the austerity undercut the terror of death. How can you fear for the loss of life when life itself seems to consist of a parade of stiff, somber interactions? The real power of the film lies in its refusal to offer the audience, who is just as thirsty as their surrogate, Von Sydow, for absolute knowledge of their fates, any sort of relief from their maddening ignorance.

Friday, February 08, 2008

MYOFNF #5: The 400 Blows (dir. Francois Truffaut, 1959)

I normally don't like movies that feature child protagonists: they're either really precocious and hyper-verbal and therefore unrealistic, or they're realitically monosyllabic and therefore boring. The teen protagonist of Truffaut's first film, Antoine Doinel, strikes just the right mixture of sullen stoicism and bright-eyed youthful enthusiasm. Watching this film, it's easy to see how Truffaut almost single-handley jumpstarted the French New Wave with it: the subject matter and especially the strong directorial vision behind the camera radically break from the conventions of filmmaking until that point. Not only was it revolutionary to film a movie entirely from the point of view of a child, but Truffaut's camera work fully embraces that point of view. This film ushered in the era of the auteur with restless camera movement and nakedly autobiographical content that strongly announces the director's point of view. It's hard to imagine many of the films of the past forty years that have dealt with the pain and confusion of growing up being made the same way without the powerful example of The 400 Blows.

Monday, February 04, 2008

2007 DVD Review: The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

Your first reaction while watching this movie is, "wow, what a bunch of dorks." That sentiment doesn't totally go away by the end of the film, but it is tempered by the knowledge that Donkey Kong scores may be inconsequential in the big picture, but we don't live our lives in the big picture. People find day-to-day meaning by finding something they can do, no matter how objectively meaningless it is, and focusing on doing that thing well. By the end of the movie, you're totally rooting for hapless nerd (and failed baseball player/musician) Steve Weibe to get the highest ever score in Donkey Kong. And you're rooting for reigning champ and giant douchenozzle Bill Mitchell to get herpes or something.

Score: 8.0