A Single Man, dir. Tom Ford (2009)
There’s a moment in the film where George (Colin Firth)—an English professor—lectures about a book written by Aldous Huxley. In the hands of another director and another actor, this would have been a misguidedly rousing moment. George talks about fear and love and aging, all the themes that, in another film, would be seized on to convey a heart-warming, trite, and hollow message about homosexuals. In the hands of Tom Ford, though, there’s nothing falsely rousing about this speech. (more…)
Crazy Heart, dir. Scott Cooper (2009)
There’s nothing surprising or radical in Crazy Heart. Instead, the film serves as a brilliant reminder: it reminds us of Jeff Bridges’ greatness and urges us to recall how irritating and overindulgent a performance by Maggie Gyllenhaal can be. The film also reminds us about a particular kind of movie made in the United States during the 1970s—films with strong main characters and stronger performances. Crazy Heart exists very much in the tradition of those films. Bridges quiet, genuinely soulful portrayal of how country singer Bad Blake gets his groove back carries the film into serious character study territory and keeps it from veering into overly sentimental, saccharine territory while also deftly covering up the film’s heavy reliance on music. (more…)
For All Mankind, dir. Al Reinert (1989)
For All Mankind begins with JFK’s announcement that our technology–put together, he says, more perfectly than the finest watch–will take us to the moon. Speaking, JFK looks comfortable in a dated, ancient way. Kennedy’s announcement sets the tone for the rest of the film: it’s not laudatory or patriotic, though it depicts one of the proudest moments in American history. For All Mankind is a strangely distant film, refusing to revel in the triumph of the moon landing and instead constantly wondering what it means to have sent anyone into space anyway. (more…)
(The beginning of a series on my own favorite films of the aughts.)
Crimen Ferpecto, dir Álex de la Iglesia (2004)
Crimen Ferpecto is a deliciously wry and bloody satire of contemporary consumer culture—in fact, the last film with such a sharp edge against consumerism was 1978′s Dawn of the Dead, where muzak still rang amongst the flesh-eating zombies. In this film, Rafael (Guillermo Toledo) is a dapper and libidinous clerk at a Madrid department store who aspires to playboy perfection. After he accidentally murders his competitor, Don Antonio (Luis Varela), he covers up the crime with the help of the one sales girl he hasn’t slept with—Lourdes (Mónica Cervera), whom he describes as “not the kind of person you would see on TV.” (more…)
Los Abrazos Rotos (Broken Embraces), dir. Pedro Almodóvar (2009)
Almódovar, as he is affectionately known, is admired as a kind of Iberian Fellini. His films are filled with extravagance characterized by flesh, passion, color, drama with a clear debt to melodrama and telenovela style, and above all a clear love of cinema itself. Broken Embraces continues that tradition (more…)
(One of my entries in the Best of 2008 discussion.)
Two Lovers, dir James Gray (2008)
At a time when films get progressively more expensive and more explosive, the pleasure in the films of James Gray comes from their smallness. His films are crafted with care and subtlety as opposed to largesse and glossiness. Two Lovers is no exception: it is an intimate story fused with place and the visible power of actors in the hands of an intelligent director. (more…)
(The first in what is hopefully an ongoing series of reflections of the best films of the 90s–a decade that began twenty years ago and perhaps hasn’t yet ended.)
The Big Lebowski, dir. Joel Cohen (1998)
Bowling involves a straight shot down a smooth wooden lane. It’s a mechanized ritual; mediated by the apparatus that replaces the pins (perfectly), the chute that returns your ball. Nothing confused about it. The Dude (Jeff Bridges), Lebowski, a California tumbleweed leftover from an era when your opinion, man, was respected; Walter (John Goodman), Vietnam vet who, though the haze of his profanities, is obviously haunted by the ineffectiveness of his sacrifice; and the peripheral Donnie (Steve Buscemi), transparently born to die as a narrative cop-out—but who wasn’t? Together they form a bowling triumvirate: straight shots, the three of them, focused on rolling a heavy ball down a lacquered runway from which they never take off. (more…)
by Adam Hirsch
(The recent DVD release of The Hangover offered the opportunity to remedy the missed chance earlier in the summer for a review. Also: DVD Christmas gifts!? Check out Giampaolo’s DVD review of Star Trek here.)
One of the most harrowing moments in The Road comes early, when the boy’s father (Viggo Mortensen) reminds him how to kill himself: put the gun in your mouth, aim upwards, and pull the trigger. When the time comes you’re gonna have to do it just like everybody else. The moment perfectly encapsulates the film’s unpretentious bleakess. I must seem to you like I’m from another world, the father tells his son. Mortensen’s pale, emaciated body carries encyclopedic knowledge of a world that has passed to ruins—when he dies, it will die also, making room for the innocence of the child (Kodi Smit-McPhee), and his overwhelming humanity. It’s something, we’re reminded at the end of the film, the father may have been close to forgetting. (more…)
(Adam Hirsch’s review of Avatar can be found here.)
Avatar, dir. James Cameron (2009)
I can only imagine how much fun James Cameron had designing every aspect of Pandora. Its luminescent landscape, shiny-coated animal life, and floating islands all convey the sense of wonder Cameron himself must have felt in the face of his technological toys. The film’s 3D is barely noticeable, which I consider a victory. 3D has always been a distraction; in Avatar it seems—ironically—natural. (more…)
by Adam Hirsch
Avatar (Dir. James Cameron, 2009)
All right, I’ll say it.
Avatar might very well be the most deeply racist film made in Hollywood since World War II. The film functions on the basis of James Cameron’s fetishization of the native and never breaks from that original persuasion. This is nothing new; the West has long objectified and idealized aboriginal and indigenous populations. Avatar, however, might be the first major piece of Orientalism put out in the last forty years by an author (read: filmmaker) completely, it seems, unawares. It’s also, at $230 million dollars, the most expensive film ever made. (more…)
Up in the Air, dir. Jason Reitman (2009)
There was a time when the kinesis depicted in Up in the Air was synonymous with rebellion. The life lead by Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) in the film is not so dissimilar from, say, the life of the unnamed protagonist in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up. Despite the necessary divergences, both signify the triumph of mobility. In Antonioni’s film, David Hemmings takes pleasure is his perpetual motion, rootlessness, and cruelty; his lack of relationships or even identity. Bingham is peripatetic in a more obvious sense: he movies through the gleaming, super-sanitary corridor of international travel and identical airport Hiltons; the film makes it painfully crystalline that this “lifestyle” has distanced him from everyone he knows. He takes an almost melancholy pride in the difficulty of his heatless job—travelling around the country to fire people. Despite the “miles” he’s so proud to have racked up—ten million by the end of the film—it would be fair to say that he hasn’t moved at all. The homogeneity of airports and hotels and the ubiquitous “lounge” ensures that all of Bingham’s movement is merely illusory. What Up in the Air signifies is the transformation of movement from an element of vibrant, youthful counterculture to a way of life for millions of corporate cogs. (more…)
The Fantastic Mr. Fox, dir. Wes Anderson (2009)
It’s been widely remarked that, in a sense, Wes Anderson has been making animated films all along: consider the seeds of his kid-in-a-candy-store stylizations in Bottle Rocket, the prep-school pretensions of Rushmore, the whole-hearted storybook sentimentality of The Royal Tenenbaums; through to The Life Aquatic’s more playful and adventurous scenarios and The Darjeeling Limited’s barely-there characters and overpopulated, super-symmetrical frames. Anderson’s pop-baroque style necessitates that he take a heavier-than-heavy hand in the design of his films, culminating perhaps in his collaboration with Louis Vuitton on the animal-print suitcases for Darjeeling. Animation, then, gives Anderson the opportunity to exert near-total control on this film: not only the shots and performances, but every set, object, and character was cut from whole cloth to Anderson’s specifications. The Fantastic Mr. Fox, though, was animated in London, while Anderson spent most of the shoot in Paris, issuing commands via a barrage of emails, telephone calls, and other fiber optic channels. He literally phoned this one in. (more…)
(The recent DVD release of this summer’s Star Trek film deserves some consideration and–ta-da!–here it is.)
Star Trek, dir. J.J. Abrams (2009)
“Each epoch,” said Jules Michelet, “Dreams the one to follow.” That dream rests on our conception of ourselves, now. As a genre, science fiction has always rested upon our vision of ourselves in the future. This is a responsibility from which the Star Trek franchise—consisting of television shows both live-action and animated, many films, and various incarnations—has decidedly never shirked: Star Trek in the 1960s was suave, sexy, and cool—just like us. Pavel Checkov, the Russian aboard the Enterprise, let us know that in the future the Cold War had ended and (don’t worry) we won. Later tales, which featured Patrick Stewart’s Shakespearean pomp, were more self-important though decidedly less political: it was the late 80s/early 90s, late Reagan and the fall of the Berlin Wall. It signaled the arrival of the comfortable Clinton years.
Its most recent imagining is no different. (more…)
In an interview with USA Today, Roland Emmerich announced that 2012 would be his last disaster movie. “I said to myself that I’ll do one more disaster movie,” he explained. “But it has to end all disaster movies. So I packed everything in.” The film is meant to serve not only as the end of the world, but as the end of a genre and the end of a chapter in Emmerich’s career.
What’s bizarre about 2012 is that the scope of the disaster is so immense and the characters are so close to death that the necessities of the genre itself become all that matters. There are pretenses here, to be sure—but the only logic is the logic of Hollywood itself. As Woody Harrelson says in the film, “This is a plot that only could have been hatched in Hollywood.”
The Men Who Stare at Goats, dir. Grant Heslov (2009)
The opening credits of The Men Who Stare at Goats roll beside footage of the War in Iraq set to an infectious pop song. The film never really gets beyond this sequence, which encapsulates the film perfectly: what seems sketched out to be political content—pixilated war footage, pop music—comes out as stifled, unfunny, and vacuous. It becomes apparent that the film is attempting to pull the wool over our eyes. But to what? (more…)
A Serious Man, dir. Ethan & Joel Coen (2009)
The Coen brothers have been celebrated in the United States as filmmakers of reliability, intelligence, and, in a certain sense, esotericism. This means that their films are understood to be not only good, but also smart, and that their films are decidedly “not for everyone.” Liking films by the Coen brothers, furthermore, connotes that one is a person of good taste. This is how the very experience of going to see a Coen brothers picture should be understood: by its status as a kind of iterable event which is valued due to the status of the Coens as filmmakers who are unquestionably “good.” In this sense, the Coen brothers are representative of the pervasive decay of criticism, in that all arguments against them can be deflected with the use of sheer opinion: if you don’t like the Coens, their films are “not for you,” which in turn means that you are not a person of good taste and thus not reliable or intelligent. Presumably, you should be next door, watching The Box and eating popcorn. (more…)
(Quick note: This review, which takes the form of an essay, does contain spoilers. If you haven’t yet seen the film, you should.)
The Passenger, dir. Michelangelo Antonioni (1975)
In his time, Michelangelo Antonioni was a melancholic enfant terrible. L’Avventura caused impassioned boos at Cannes, while Zabriskie Point is now recognized as a hysterical mega-flop where everything laughable about European artistry converges with American 1960s kitsch. The Passenger, a film surrounded by noir conventions yet shot in blistering color in 1975 with Jack Nicholson as a man outrunning his own identity, has a strange reputation. On the one hand, the film saw Antonioni crawling out of the grave in which he’d been prematurely buried by the failure of Zabriskie Point (Nicholson met him half way, digging from the surface); on the other, he seemed to emerge weakened by his tribulations: gone was the force of his play with space, replaced by the speed and diligence of his camera. Antonioni himself, perhaps, was on the run. (more…)
I saw Robert Gardner’s Dead Birds this weekend, when Gardner received and honorary degree at Bard College. A panel preceding his award featured Stanley Cavell, Luc Sante, Ian Buruma, Susan Meiselas and Gardner himself. The panel (d)evolved into a celebration of Gardner the Man (he mentioned, casually, that he flies his own plane) and a defense of Gardner the high humanist, who operates with the utmost respect for the autonomy of his subjects, never interfering in the world he records. Gardner, everyone seemed to agree, was a prophet of the objective camera.
by Adam Hirsch
(Notice: Any film that creates a real dialogue about it has really done its job. Matt’s review of Where the Wild Things Are is here. Giampaolo’s review of it is here. Also, I discuss some plot points of the film but try not to spoil anything; however, if you want to see the film fresh, you might want to read this after watching it.)
When Bonnie & Clyde opened in 1967, it was heralded as the quintessential baby-boomer film. Even though the subject matter was over thirty years old, and the script was written by a hollywood outsider, and the direction was old school (almost archaic) formalism, everything about it seemed to bear some reflection on the current social and political atmosphere.
Where the Wild Things Are, forty years later, is the new generation’s Bonnie & Clyde.
(Note: Matt’s previous post on Where the Wild Things Are can be found here. Also, this review contains some spoilers on the film. Just to know.)
Simply put, childhood does not exist. Its existence is contingent on its status as memory, not as experience or reality. Childhood has value only once it has actually disappeared, only has reality in the mind of the adult who conceives of his past, its purity and its frustrations–which are so “moving” because they remain our frustrations as we grow older. This means that childhood–no matter how liberating its primal scream, is really a call for conservatism, for a construction of the past as we imagine it. It has no forward motion and denies memory: it seeks to be without place or time, yet remains only in the place of our mind and the time that has past. Childhood is not real.
by Matt Paley
Films by Stephen Soderbergh fall into two categories—those like Ocean’s 11 that immerse themselves in the high sheen of Hollywood (even when the luster is dark, like Erin Brockovitch), and those like Ocean’s 12, which seem irritated that a place like Hollywood exists at all. The Informant! seems more the latter, though its anger is more focused and smaller.
“Facts can be so misleading,” says the S.S. colonel Hans Landa, played by Christoph Waltz as a truly devilish take on Claude Rains, towards the beginning of Quentin Tarantino’s new film. He prefers to stick to rumors, in a sense, to dreams: the collective dreams and whispers that form rumor, eventually codified into some kind of historical record, to be proven or proved apocryphal. By the end of the film, as the colonel discusses the terms of his heroic surrender over the radio, he makes sure to emphasize that when the history of Operation Kino is written, he will be recorded to have been a crucial member from the beginning (Operation Kino is the name given to a successful plot to kill the German high command). Before Tarantino, Ronald Reagan was the last person to exhibit such a preference for the Hollywood version of history.