Sunday, November 14, 2010

Please Give (Nicole Holofcener, 2010) -- B+

The Upper East Side protagonists of Nicole Holofcener's Please Give transcend easy categorization, placement, and contrast, a welcome bit of self-reflexivity and critical insight that's missing from nearly any of its cynical, solipsistic Indie counterparts. Pondering privileged white guilt with pointed social humor and progressively fleshed out characters, it is the independent American comedy of the year, dispersing pathos with economical precision and ending ironically rather than in affirmation of its own self-worth. Where Greenberg stumbles over its own intelligence and The Kids Are All Right plays like a didactic moral lesson (even summarizing itself in the title!), Please Give successfully wades into the lives of materialistic intellectuals and, while not quite piercing their souls the way a Whit Stillman is able to, Holofcener's simultaneously playful and probing reverence for human dilemma ultimately resonates with an impressive level of honesty and good faith.

The characters and scenario are admittedly contrived: Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), a mammogram technician (sexuality is dangerous, mechanical), is lonely, but looking for love. Her office mates ask: "Don't you want to go see the leaves with us? They change colors!" She doesn't understand the enthusiasm for something so seemingly trivial. She lives with bitchy, tan sister Mary (Amanda Peet), a spa technician (she can only see skin deep) close to their near-death grandmother Andra (Ann Guilbert). Turns out, the next door neighbors Kate (Catherine Keener) and Alex (Oliver Platt) have just purchased Andra's apartment and intend to extend their own...once she dies. They own a furniture store, peddling unique items...that they buy from the relatives of recently deceased loved ones. They buy cheap, jack up the prices, inflating the profit margins. Their daughter Abby (Sarah Steele), insecure because of her acne, covets a pair of $200 jeans, but Kate refuses. "You buy $200 jeans, mom," pouts Abby. Kate responds, "but that's because I'm an adult." Meanwhile, she has no problem dropping $20's in the jars of homeless, at one point even mistaking a black man waiting for a table as a panhandler.

The scenario and character contrivances, though, become gradually drowned out by both the incredibly human and intricate performances of every cast member mentioned above and Holofcener's refusal to merely perform a series of ironic exchanges and incidents. Certainly they are present, but Holofcener deftly eradicates a simplistic aligning through her devotion to each character's emotional considerations. Central to that is, of course, Keener's character, so guilt ridden by her financial status that she can't sleep at night. Holofcener plays this as absurdist narcissism, yet in no way is out to merely condemn either. She is not affirming or condemning, but probing through the character's crisis of self-worth. She wants to volunteer with old people and handicapped children, but is too saddened by their state to go through with it. In no way is Holofcener affirming this stance, clearly evident because of the real volunteers, who recognize her conflicted state as symptomatic of her class status, a rich white woman with nothing better to do than feel sorry for others. Holofcener never has a character speak these words explicitly, but allows the scenario to suggest it, much like how every character's problem is self-inflicted, with the exception of Rebecca, though one could argue the responsibility to her grandmother is used as a crutch to explain away her inactive social life.

Ultimately, the materialism and ageism of the culture (facials, expensive shampoos, hip furniture, designer jeans) is met with neither affirmation or condemnation, but a lack of judgment, a scripting decision that proves wise because it forgoes any kind of summarization. Yet, Holofcener is not ambivalent about her characters' either, since scene after scene lovingly criticizes their privileged way of life. Even the closing scene, as Kate and Alex finally agree to buy Abby the jeans, denies a happy, definitive ending, even though Abby grins from ear to ear. The materialistic lineage is not broken and in a society that prizes brand names and superficiality, it becomes a necessity for adolescent egos. Holofcener is not celebrating this idea, yet neither is she condemning it. She's slyly suggesting that something deeper is taking place, especially for Kate, who's rumination over her inability to help others does not end in epiphany nor elation, but contented dejection, almost indifference, so that the buying of the jeans only problematizes her state, even if it provides (momentary) comfort to her daughter. By examining the behaviors and neuroses of a social class rather than merely indulging them, Holofcener finds depth and meaning, perhaps even in an universal sense, through an examination of a very minute percent of the American population. That's something of a feat, yet she's helped immensely by over a half dozen virtuoso, restrained performances.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

127 Hours (Danny Boyle, 2010) -- C+

127 Hours should have been more honestly titled James Franco vs. Danny Boyle, since the Oscar winning director takes every opportunity imaginable to undercut his actor's magnificent performance. Credit for some of the film's ultimate failure must also be attributed to the screenplay (co-written by Boyle and Slumdog Millionaire scribe Simon Beaufoy), typifying the simplistic dualities and thematic beats that have composed nearly any of Boyle's films. It may be a stretch to call him a hack , but 127 Hours proves, at the very least, that he's completely one-dimensional, unable to forgo his expected tactics of flash cuts, speeding through shots, and split-screen, ultimately amounting to nothing more than noise and visual diarrhea. Here, his cognitive process assumes the only way to tell the amazing true story of Aron Ralston (Franco), whose arm became pinned by a rock in a Utah canyon, is to almost amp up the artifice, with shots from inside his water bottle, laying on thick moments of techno pop, shrill ambiance, and even a moment where he literally goes inside the camera Ralston uses to film himself, quickly showing the rewinding of the digital tape. All of these attempts to bolster the "suspense" reveals Boyle's shortcomings as a thinker, apparently unaware that the gravitas in the film should come from Ralston's slow, delirious realization of the absurd scenario he's been placed in and the nearly unthinkable deed he'll have to perform to get out.

Boyle's solipsism is evident from the opening three-way split screen shots of people exiting trains, cheering in soccer stadiums, and filing through the hustle and bustle of city life. Likewise, Ralston's late night drive into the Utah desert is superimposed with logos of McDonald's, Taco Bell, and several other chains, a lead-pipe juxtaposition of Ralston's reason for seeking solace in the tranquility of the subliminal canyons and underground coves. For Boyle, this simple dichotomy is all that's need to establish motive, but such calculative reasoning denies Ralston's pursuits the depth and sincere spirituality needed to flesh him out to human status. More shenanigans: Ralston meets up with two hikers, Kristi (Kate Mara) and Megan (Amber Tamblyn), persuading them to let him lead their way. Ralston snaps a three-shot of them with his camera, the image freezes, then whisks away like some sort of exited page on a MacBook Pro. Superfluous to no end, Boyle continues to suck any genuine verve from the film's proceedings, never ceasing to indulge his apparently never-ending thirst for formal tinkering.

Moreover, once Ralston takes his tumble and is pinned by the mammoth rock (at about the 20 minute mark), Boyle slyly comes in with the film's title, proposing an almost 24-like race against the clock. Boyle unwisely tries to speed up time rather than slow it down, opting to reflect Ralston's growing sense of doom through more obnoxiousness, including a nearly ten mile, 200 MPH aerial shot from Ralston's perspective to the back of his truck, where he remembers a full, sweating Gatorade, a dreamed monsoon that frees him, and several flashbacks to a past girlfriend, who at one point says to him (no lie), "You're going to be lonely for the rest of your life, Aron," and, of course, being stuck at the bottom of a massive canyon, it looks as though she may have been right. Moreover, it's a further indictment on Boyle's lack of subtlety, having to spell out the pathos literally, through dialogue.

While Boyle's directing tactics remain as suspect as ever, Franco's performance, humorous, sincere, and remarkably free of histrionics, is an antidote to the film's excesses, humanizing Ralston despite Boyle's every attempt to put the attention squarely on himself. It's an actor's film that Boyle tries to make a director's, yet Franco reveals his director's conceit with graceful clarity, remaining compelling and modest while becoming progressively unhinged, and giving what is sure to be the year's finest piece of acting. Likewise, A.R. Rahman's score works well within the diegesis, and the choice of Sigur Ros's "Festival" once Ralston reaches the surface wonderfully evokes inexpressible elation at being alive. If only Boyle had displayed a little versatility, depth, and consideration of his own, 127 Hours may well have matched Franco's brilliance.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Killer Inside Me (Michael Winterbottom, 2010) -- B+

The Killer Inside Me aligns very well with No Country for Old Men and, in some ways, its consideration of cinematic violence is even more astute. To be clear, Michael Winterbottom's film in no way approaches the Coen Brothers' artistry in terms of mise-en-scene and sound design - few can even approach their impeccable abilities on those terms. Yet, Anton Chigurh's choking a deputy with handcuffs, capping a passer-by with a cattle gun, and taking off the shoes to ambush a few drug runners with a silenced shotgun are, unquestionably, "cool." Not just cool, but since the exterior narrative is deemed "worthy" and "authentic," mainstream critics are able to rationalize the destruction as suitable and passable. Winterbottom's polarizing film does not make the violence "cool" (or, in Tarantino/Ritchie lingo, "stylized") - nor does it completely unaestheticize it for some kind of Redacted faux-verite. Furthermore, neither is it "silly-fun" like the 2010 abominations The Losers, Kick-Ass, and Red. The Killer Inside Me deftly deconstructs the serial killer coda and the presentation of violence that accompanies it.

The subversion begins with an ironically colorful credits sequence, differentiating between the real (actors names) and the fictional (the characters they play). A daring, almost virtuoso choice, countering the posturing seriousness that's expected. The film is, of course, adapted from Jim Thompson's famous novel, about Lou Ford (Casey Affleck, having just played Bob Ford, a cinematic link Winterbottom is certainly aware of), a seemingly friendly and law-upholding deputy patrolling a small West Texas town during the 1950's. Fortunately, Winterbottom doesn't simply use the retro setting as means for constructing another brutally banal neo-noir. Rather, he problematizes post-modern inclinations by refusing to engage them, yet by retaining the brutality (especially against women), he's not got his head in the clouds like Steven Soderbergh's The Good German, which completely confuses and offends decent taste through a simple-minded juxtaposition of post-code decorum (swearing, depicted violence) and authentic 40's sheen (he used cameras from the period to shoot the film). The Killer Inside Me is much fuzzier, authentically troubled, and without guilt.

Female critics have torn the film apart for its depiction of violence against women. Ann Hornaday of The Washington Post says: "As for the misogynist brutality, it is indeed depraved, made more so by the fact that its female victims are depicted as loving their abuse right up until it turns murderous." Indeed, lonely hooker Joyce (Jessica Alba) receives a literal spanking from Ford in one of the film's early scenes, and initially responds in pain, before turning into pleasure. Ford's girlfriend Amy (Kate Hudson) likes her sex a little rough too. Ultimately, both women are brutally beaten to death by Ford - repeatedly punched in the face and kicked in the stomach. Winterbottom's choice to depict the scenario in this particular manner reveals just that - that it is a choice, and one totally in the director's hands. Much like Haneke's Funny Games, he is not merely indulging in thoughtless misogyny, but questioning modes of representation altogether and the viewer desire inherent (even better, Winterbottom does it without condescension). So, if he had been a good liberal, he would have made the women resist any form of pleasure from punishment, fight back and remain strong through Ford's murder attempts, and shown their deaths in a "tasteful" way, perhaps one that isn't as literal? Is that how the course of logic proceeds? If so, the hypocrisy is revealed, meaning that violence becomes "acceptable" so long as a check-list of politically correct behaviors and reactions are met - or so long as it's all played for laughs. Winterbottom throws out the checklist on this front, and others as well. Casey Affleck's performance and character in no way adheres to expected scenes of psychological struggle and torment. Winterbottom fumbles only sporadically as he unwisely peppers in a few instances of internal flashback, showing moments of Ford's childhood. Otherwise, the proceedings are anchored by an almost outrageous disconnect from causality, until it unfortunately settles in for a more routine police procedural narrative. Nevertheless, everything in the film is about a tick or two off from the "Oscar" mode many critics and viewers hope to embrace. Winterbottom's film isn't simply anti-cinema or deliberately contrarian either, but on a firm ground between the two, revealing the glibness of politically correct modes and expected cinematic norms.

Monday, November 8, 2010

I Am Love (Luca Guadagnino, 2010) -- B+

Luca Guadagnino's I Am Love is one of the most convincing crib-jobs in recent memory - drawing upon influences like Douglas Sirk, Luchino Visconti, and Stanley Kubrick, the director manages to wring something remarkably adept and perceptive from his overt idols. Even if his film does not rank with the best works of these antecedents, it nevertheless displays the director's ability to replicate and appropriate various styles, then produce something coherent and, in some ways, forward thinking. Ultimately, Guadagnino probes an ontological question - how to produce something "new" or fitfully transition into an evolving filmmaking period when artistic influences are so prevalent. Inherent to this question is identity, and Guadagnino deftly integrates these questions into his narrative of patriarchal dominance spear-heading generational difference. Thus, the diegesis compliments the meta-text, producing a simultaneously cerebral and affecting film, if somewhat overblown or overwrought in stretches.

A gorgeous credits sequence begins the film, as snow falls on Milan, the streets and tall buildings covered in a blanket of cold. Segueing to what turns out to be a prologue of sorts, the Recchi family gathers at their estate near the turn of the 21st century, a night on which the family business (a clothing factory) will be handed-down from father to son. The warm interiors contrast the cold exteriors, which Guadagnino effectively contrasts. A dichotomy of spaces is established, much in the Sirkian sense, as the family members begin filing into the house as the servants hustle to prepare the necessary food and dining arrangements. Guadagnino uses slow zooms and tracking shots a la Kubrick, establishing both the family members and the layout of their elaborate estate with Renoir-like precision. Various comments and snippets of conversations establish a complicated family history, including athletic prowess and traditional decorum, foremost among them an adherence to convention gender and patriarchal roles. The patriarch's son Tancredi (Pippo Delbono) inherits the business along with his son Edo (Flavio Parenti), a track athlete who's just finished runner-up to friend Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini). Edo's mother Emma (Tilda Swinton) says little during the proceedings, but takes notice of Antonio, looking out through a window as he traverses away from the house, through the snow. Desires, feelings, and mores are changing, and Guadagnino forces the question upon cineastes as well - how does one shift filmic modes in order to deal with this? Guadagnino seems to suggest that reverence, oddly enough, is what's needed, especially through a mixing of styles and "pastiching" various filmmakers. Far from a new notion, Gudagnino nevertheless holds steadfast to his convictions, sincere in both formal and thematic concerns, and the film rarely loses credibility because of it.

Jumping to a few months later, the crux of the narrative falls on Emma's pursuit of Antonio, seeking "forbidden" desires in both the racial and social sense. She also discovers her daughter is a lesbian - no one wants to fulfill their "expected" sexual roles, just as cinema can no longer occupy a static space; tensions crop up in both areas and that duality remains fascinating throughout. Less so are forced metaphors like close-ups of budding flowers as Emma and Antonio have sex for the first time. Or a third-act "twist" that unconvincingly brings about the tragic circumstances to end the film. Guadagnino's more melodramatic inclinations don't quite work because of his intrusion, his insistence on having his film be so calculated and tightly wound. Likewise, a concluding image is supposed to be haunting and foreboding, but again seems forced and inorganic. However, these flaws do not negate the film's artistic aim and, on the whole, success of formal and thematic replication. Of course, one could just as easily go to the source of Guadagnino's influences, yet there is something inherently valuable about a well-performed melange and I Am Love remains at least sporadically compelling, even amidst its less formidable elements.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Wild Grass (Alain Resnais, 2010) -- B+

Wild Grass marks one of the most formally ambitious films of the year - not surprising coming from cinematic great Alain Resnais who, at 88 years of age, directs with more awareness, sense of style fitting content, and, most importantly, genuine passion than nearly any solidified director in his 40's. He and fellow veteran Marco Bellocchio (whose Vincere will remain one of the year's best films) aren't even merely replicating the style and themes that composed their great films, but adapting to the changing times with either modern stories (Resnais) or a politically aware period piece (Bellocchio). With Wild Grass, Resnais addresses old age discontent somewhere between the kinetic elegance of De Palma and the soapier, saturated mise-en-scene melodramas of Almodovar. Yet he's never solemn or drowsily serious - he remains playful while poignant, not cynical nor slapdashedly whimsical - there's an odd blend of tones and visual ticks that, while varying in terms of effectiveness, nevertheless demonstrate a filmmaker who has not tired of his chosen medium and, for that reason alone, his film deserves praise.

Thankfully, ambition alone is not all Resnais displays throughout his PG rated film. A prologue establishes the narrative crux - after splurging on some shoes (the narration makes it clear that this woman's feet are deserving of attention) Marguerite Muir (Sabine Azema) has her bag snatched by a thief. The contents of her bag are dispersed, the wallet finding itself behind the left tire of a car belonging to Georges Palet (André Dussollier), a wealthy, married, but discontented bourgeois slackened by a life slowly running out of meaning. The wallet does not preface a meet-cute; rather, Georges' hope that this woman will show some verve in taking the initiative to not only thank him, but meet him as well. Resnais shoots these opening scenes with fluid long takes, oddly placed or unorthodox, with deep neons and monochrome lighting, but embodying his hybridization of melodramatic love story with noirish elements (societal unrest, personal crisis). Even creative split frame shots, as Georges gets a secondary vignette while driving, plotting his nervous phone call. Furthermore, Resnais intercuts shots on blowing tall grass throughout (Marguerite also has a head full of frizzy read hair), the metaphor not literal in the sense that the blowing grass (or wild grass) stands in for the unclaimed desires of Georges, but that nature's untamed allure often falsely enables a sense of lost time in the well-to-do, meaning Resnais' premise (adapted from a novel by Christian Gailly) isn't merely a trite tale of ennui (or midlife crisis, if you prefer), but a grander meditation on contrasting environments - the constructed reality with the real, that which exists outside of the societal - the wild grass, uncultivated, but not meant to be idealized and romanticized, since such fetishizing only leads to death and despair. It's an unspoken portion of the film's larger themes that could go unnoticed amidst its simultaneous flair for the absurd and the sublime.

Ultimately, though, Resnais' film isn't a celebration of either bourgeois complacency/frustrations or charting the unknown - it is about the human spirit, in all of its peccadilloes, idiosyncrasies, and imperfections, seeking solace when a chosen path no longer allows it. Resnais seems to suggest in a closing bit that reincarnation alone is the answer for traversing other paths, but then again nothing is rigidly defined in his world, nor is it required. The fuzzy edges give wonder to not just the characters' anxieties and pursuits, but the act of filmmaking itself.

Winnebago Man (Ben Steinbauer, 2010) -- C+

Winnebago Man is hampered by its director Ben Steinbauer, who only glibly considers the larger foundation of his documentary - that being a culture founded upon ridicule, ironic detachment, and subterfuge, or just plain old schadenfreude as the internet and Youtube age came into full swing. Perhaps that's because Steinbauer acknowledges himself as complicit in the hooliganism, admitting that the underground videos of Winnebago salesman Jack Rebney (also affectionately know as "the angriest man in the world") cursing, swearing and unleashing his frustrations during commercial shoot outtakes give him comfort when he's feeling down, knowing that "his frustrations are shared by others." Fair enough, but that's about as deep as Steinbauer is able to plumb the phenomenon, not just of Rebney, but of viral videos in general - their appeal, fascination, and persistence. His curiosity about Rebney, in particular, inspires him to seek out the man himself, whom no one appears to have heard from in years. Steinbauer's interviews with the knuckleheads who use these kinds of videos for a living are the most revealing, as one guy admits "it's funny if I don't know who these people are. Once they become real people, it ceases to be funny." Willful ignorance, then, fuels the fire of pleasure at pain - the subject must be seen as momentarily non-human in order for the sensation to occur and, on the whole, it's that suspension of knowledge that enables the laughs. Nevertheless, Steinbauer is less interested in these ethical or behavioral questions than Rebney himself, who, turns out, lives secluded in the mountains of northern California. He's scornful, hates what's become of him through the videos, and resents those who've made them popular. That is, until he's invited to a screening of viral videos entitled "The Found Footage Festival" (hosted by The Red Vic Theater in San Francisco, no less), and he discovers that people aren't laughing at him, they're laughing with. Or, at least, that's the narrative arc Steinbauer's film tries to present and while there's admitted poignancy in these closing scenes, as an old man realizes his perception of human ignorance doesn't play as down the line when confronted with actual human beings, it is somewhat forced and shallow, especially in Steinbauer's attempts to "sum-up" his film during a closing monologue. There are interesting premises (especially the display of Rebney's outbursts permeating mainstream Hollywood films and TV shows), but the lack of interest in what drives the relatively new phenomenon cannot be overlooked and needed to be more fully delved into and fleshed out in order to make the film a simultaneous character study and societal expose. It is only moderately successful at the former and almost totally neglects the latter.