In the Loop may be a comedy, but it’s also one of the most depressing movies of the year. It’s political in a way only the British usually are—bitter, brittle and more bitchy than Noel Coward (House of Cards anyone). It’s also a study of contrasts between how the British get things done and how the Americans get things done. In England one bullies and threatens, at times becoming physically violent. To survive an assault, one simply stands up to it and refuses to let anyone get a leg up (a friend of mine says it’s all the outcome of British private schools and there are times you can almost hear someone say, “Sir, may I please have another”). In the U.S., one is manipulative and sneaky, dancing around everything, outfoxing someone while trying to find their weak spot. The only thing the two groups have in common is the number of four letter words they use. The story is all about the events leading up to a declaration of war between the U.S. and the Middle East. Though the country is never mentioned by name, it’s ridiculous not to realize the target is Iraq. Because of this, the movie begins to resemble French playwright Jean Giraudoux’s The Trojan War Will Not Take Place, in which a valiant Hector tries his best to stop a war that will not be stopped. In the end, even though there comes a moment when you think the good guys will win, it becomes clear that conflict is a foregone conclusion because the war with Iraq indeed did take place. The comedy then gives way to tragedy. The ensemble cast is first rate with Peter Capaldi the foul mouthed stand out doing his role of mid-level bureaucrat one better than the one he played in the terrific TV series, Torchwood: Children of Men. The script (by Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Armando Iannucci—who also directed, Ian Martin and Tony Roche) is bollocksy brilliant, full of poetic vulgarities. The only problem here is that the script is so brilliant, it sometimes seems so carried away with itself, that one loses track of the some of the characters’ motivations. Somewhere along the way, I became a bit unclear just why some in England wanted to go to war and join forces with the U.S. and why others didn’t. See this as a double feature with Dr. Strangelove.
In the Informant! (with an exclamation point—excuse me), Matt Damon as Mark Whitacre joins the great sociopathic liars of the silver screen like Harriet Craig (Craig’s Wife), Stephen Glass (Shattered Glass), and Mary Tilford (The Children’s Hour). Not a bad group to be a member of. The story is about an FBI investigation into price fixing in the corn industry, but the real suspense is not if the FBI will make their case—the real suspense derives from how long Whitacre can keep up the lying and how often he can dig himself out of whatever hole he’s crawled into. I’m not sure it’s a brilliant performance. Damon is good, but there is a certain flatness to his performance. At the same time, there’s a certain flatness to everything: the cinematography, the bland 1970’s décor, the dated music by Marvin Hamlisch (though this last rises above the flatness). Of course, the 1970’s was a bland decade and director Steven Soderbergh seems to make the most of it and though I’m not sure how, it does seem to add something to the proceedings. The supporting cast also has that somewhat 1970’s look about them as well with the Smothers Brothers perhaps the most recognizable. It’s a well written entertainment (script by Scott Z. Burns) with perhaps its major flaw being the character of Ginger Whitacre, Whitacre’s wife, played by Melanie Lynskey. The author either couldn’t, or even worse, couldn’t be bothered, to try to understand what made Ginger tick. What little character she has is provided by Lynskey’s lovely, lilting voice. But the actress deserved better.
Coco is played by Audrey Tatou with a dour face and an uningénue type temperament (which means she’s getting beyond what she began as, the French Audrey Hepburn). Her performance is impressive; perhaps not as impressive as Marion Cotillard’s turn as Edith Piaf in La vie en rose, but then Tatou hasn’t been given all the heavy breathing and melodramatic acrobatics Cotillard was (though it is odd the same thing happened to both characters; their married lovers died tragically—is this a French thing?). She also does what George C. Scott as Patton and Sean Penn as Harvey Milk did—in the future when you think of Chanel, whose face will you see? The original or Tatou’s?
When all is said and done, it should be noted that Coco Before Chanel falls into the standard women’s biopic in which what the character does with her life is not as important as is her relationship to the men in said life. Her life is defined not just by her achievements, but in how she relates to the opposite sex. To understand what I mean, consider that if Patton was a woman, the central dilemma would be not how he defeated the Germans, but in her having to chose between a husband and children and fighting the Battle of the Bulge (and no, I don’t mean weight loss). What may be doubly disturbing is that though this may be a chauvinistic approach, it is also what makes Coco Before Chanel the success it is. What may be even more curious is it was written by two women, Camille Fontaine and Anne Fontaine (who also directed).
My One is Only is an ice cream sundae that comes equipped with whip cream and a cherry on top. The whip cream is provided by Mark Rendall’s performance as Robbie, the somewhat swishy younger brother who gets the running gag of always landing the lead in a school play (including Oedipus of all things—what high school does Oedipus Rex) but never actually making it on stage. The cherry is the revelation that the central character in all this, Robbie’s older brother George, is actually a famous movie star—George Hamilton. The ice cream is provided by Renee Zellwegger as Anne Deveraux, a mother who divorces her cheating husband, takes her two kids, and goes gunning for old boyfriends to see if she can marry into money.
She sets her designs on, as has already been pointed out by other critics, a series of actors better known for their TV roles (shades of Julie Andrews as Gertrude Lawrence in Star!). Steven Weber is a hoot as an alcoholic gold digger who sticks Anne with a dinner bill. Eric McCormack has absolutely nothing to do as a rich playboy and proceeds to do absolutely nothing with it. Chris Noth doesn’t quite convince as an abusive army officer. That leaves David Koechner to rule the day in his role as the least sexiest, a charming and sweet natured scion of a wealthy family with a surprise mental problem.
There is nothing that wrong with the movie and the audience seemed to like it the more it went along. But it never quite rises above what it is. Some blame this on Zellweger who many didn’t buy as a fading southern belle. But the problem may lie with the director Richard Loncraine who played every scene of the clever screenplay by Charlie Peters for pathos whereas it might have worked better as a broader comedy, more Christopher Durang’s version of Tennessee Williams rather than Tennessee himself. It might have worked better if Zellweger had based Anne more on Bridget Jones than Blanche Dubois. But there is much to like here and the art direction and period detail help make it all a pleasant enough road trip.
Fanny Brawne is also a designer of clothes and from what I understand, she was suppose to have been known, at least among friends, for her taste. Personally, I found her fashions, as seen in the movie Bright Star, a bio film of her relationship with the poet John Keats, to be rather gaudy and all over the place. The same could not be said of the movie written and directed by Jane Campion. It’s a down to earth, anti-romantic depiction of a very romantic love story set during the romantic period. I greatly admired what Campion did with Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady, but I’m afraid I found this to be as dull as any Ivory/Merchant concoction. Even more dishwatery perhaps. I’m not sure why. It could be that the two leads, Abbie Cornish as Fannie and Ben Whishaw as Keats, who seem to be perfectly fine actors, just didn’t have enough fire in their roles. Perhaps this was Champion’s choice as well. Perhaps the last thing she wanted was the grand passion of Lawrence Olivier and Merle Oberon in Wuthering Heights. But for me, it didn’t even have the restrained sexual tension of a Jane Austen novel. The most interesting performance is given by Paul Schneider as the misogynistic cad Charles Armitage Brown who has the most fascinating line readings of any actor in some time. One almost hates him not just for his lines, but for the way he says them.
Zombieland is what is known as a post modern zombie movie, i.e., it’s not about how we got zombie’s so much as being about how we live in a world in which zombies are assumed. It’s also post modern in the way it is self aware of what it is, which is very tongue in cheek, at least when the cheeks are not throwing up vile vomit. It revolves around Columbus, a germaphobic loner played by Jessie Eisenberg in his usual nerdy persona. Columbus has 32 rules for surviving zombies, all very smart ones. Unfortunately (for me and apparently for me only, because everyone I talk to loooooooves this movie), the writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick don’t seem to think they have to play by any rules at all, especially when it comes to the actions of the characters, who tend to do things more in accordance with the style and objective of the authors rather than what they would really do in such a situation. This means that the characters are extremely smart when Reese and Wernick need them to be, and extremely and inexcusably stupid when Reese and Wernick need them to be. On the plus side, this allows for some clever scenes, especially a very funny Saturday Night Live type sketch starring Bill Murray in a cameo (though the basic comic idea here has already been done in Shawn of the Dead, a movie I preferred overall). At its worst, you can feel nagged and annoyed at the arbitrary nature of much of it. At its best, you can just relax (well, relax as much as you can with the fear that the next bathroom door you open will have a zombie in it) and go along for the ride. The characterizations and dialogue are above average, the most clever aspect of it being that though Columbus’s obsessive compulsiveness and various phobias are the parts of his personalities responsible for his survival (imagine a world in which only Monk and Felix Unger survive), at the same time, the arrival of zombies is the impetus that cures him of his germaphobia and saves him from his destiny of masturbation being his only method of sexual release. Abigail Breslin, as a 12 year old con artist, gives perhaps the best performance here (she’s almost unrecognizable). Though everybody works very hard, both behind and in front of the camera, and the apocalyptic scenery of empty streets and deserted landscapes have a certain beauty to them, in the end, for me, it never really rises to what it wants to be.
In spite of the questionable philosophy behind the story line itself, there is much to admire here. The animation is remarkable and the action sequences exciting. But the real star of the whole shebang may be the sound designers and engineers. The film is filled with strange clicks and berplunks, eerie whinings and buzzings, doing as much to create the reality of this world as the animators themselves. At the same time, the voiceovers may be a matter of taste. For me, only Christopher Plummer’s menacing evil bass really carries the day. The others, like those of Elijah Wood and John C. Reilly, seem a bit awkward, more like voices used to dub anime rather than actors used to create original characters
Though the time is the future, it really has more in common with post World War II Europe. The animation style resembles that of cartoons coming out of post-Communist Eastern Europe. The machinery has an old timey feel as well buoyed by a guest appearance of a crank up Victrola (somehow this world bypassed CD players and iPods). Though the theme is universal, the politics steer clear of anything U.S. of A. with the use of key words by the bad guys like “comrade” and “the state”. One character, dressed like a concentration camp survivor, spends his time creating drawings in a style called concentration camp gothic. And the scenes of a city bombed out use backgrounds that look like the devastated cities of Dresden and Berlin in the 1940’s. In other words, though the destruction of the world is all our faults, some political views and philosophies are more to blame than others. Nothing like hedging one’s bets.
The ending resembles something more anime than something made locally. It sorta, kinda makes sense, but not really and not if one tries to figure it out. The way the evil machine is destroyed feels arbitrary and the characters returning as ghouls perhaps means something to the filmmakers, but it went over my head. The final scene, which I suppose is suppose to be hopeful (it starts raining and the drops contain what seem to be the beginning of life), struck me as incredibly depressing. It’s hard to say what you’re suppose to make of a happy ending which says that everything is going to be all right, or at least it will in 25 million years when evolution again recreates human life as we know it.
In many ways, he was ahead of his time. He immediately saw the potential greatness of film as an art form and believed it could be the beginning of the revolution he dreamed of (especially once the poor witnessed on a regular basis how much better their betters were living, which he believed would make them want to rectify the situation). His hopes were quickly dashed when he realized that for a film to make money, it would have to appeal to as many different people as possible in as many different countries as possible, which would require the dumbing down of the ideas and morality Shaw saw as essential to changing the world (how often have we heard that complaint made today). He soon saw an art form dominated by greed (his most famous quip, the one given to Samuel Goldwyn “[t]he trouble with you, Mr. Goldwyn, is that you’re interested only in art; while I’m only interested in money” was not said by Shaw, according to Mr. Castello, but by Howard Dietz, a Hollywood press agent; Shaw at another time said “You cannot combine the pursuit of money with the pursuit of art”). Perhaps his most interesting idea was to suggest to the U.S. that the government put a limit of $25,000 on the making of a film, which he thought would be an huge improvement in the way films were written and produced (can you imagine if studios were limited to spending no more than one to five million on a movie—how would Spiderman defeat the bad guys).
Where Shaw seems to have missed the boat was his belief that movies should be no more than an extension of the legitimate stage and that the visual aspect of the cinema was less important, though it could be beautiful. He had little use for silent films which he called dumb shows. He did think that movies could have a beneficial effect on the theater, though. Since the stage could never compete with the realistic sets of the movies, he hoped that the theater would start backing away from the realism of the well made play which had become de rigueur for the stage for some time. He hoped the theater would go back to depending even more on words and ideas.
The Baader Meinhof Complex is the last movie I needed to see in order to fill in the best foreign language film nominees for the 2008 Oscars. TMBC (as I affectionately call it) is an exciting and exhilarating movie that you can’t stop watching. Whatever else you might say about it, you can’t say it’s boring. But at the same time, though based on a true story, once I was through watching it, I had more questions than answers. As the credits took to the screen, I realized I still wasn’t sure who the Complex was or what they were trying to do, or more accurately, what their short terms goals were in trying to achieve their long term goals. Because of this, the most engaging character was Horst Herold, the head of the German police force, the man brought in to bring them down (portrayed by the great Bruno Ganz who also played Adolf Hitler in Downfall—coincidence or conspiracy, you be the judge). Herold didn’t just want to arrest the Complex, he wanted to get rid of the root causes of their existence. Since no one else agreed with him, today with have this film. One does feel for Harold. After all, if the screenwriters Bernd Eichinger and Uli Edel (who also directed) couldn’t help us understand what it was all about, it’s a bit hard to believe that Herold could fare much better. At times it feels like a final round of Wheel of Fortune in which the audience has been given the most commonly used letters and vowels, but must now guess a few more and hope to get enough to figure out the final phrase. The best known here of the actors in the U.S. is probably Moritz (Run, Lola, Run; The Experiment; The Walker—the last as Woody Harrelson’s lover) Bleibtreu. He plays the racist, chauvinistic Andreas Baader as if he were the schoolyard bully who thought he was entitled to everyone’s lunch money and couldn’t understand why everyone else didn’t agree with him. He’s very good. All the actors are. In the end, you can’t help but wonder whether the whole thing worked better for a German audience who may have been better able to fill in the blanks more easily that someone in the U.S., in the same way we might be able to fill in the blanks about a movie about the Kent State shootings. But whatever the movie’s faults, it is highly entertaining.
Paris is a series of several different stories about people living in Paris that sort of, kind of, but never really, and certainly never convincingly, interlock. The most successful of the several story lines is the one with Romain Duris, he of the odd chest hair and the perpetual sneer that even a goatee can’t fully hide. Duris is one of the finest young French actors today, the male Audrey Tautou (I call him that because he is an ingénue and is in every other French film these days—he’s even played a young Moliere while Tautou has played a young Coco Chanel). Duris plays a dancer with a Follies Bergere looking type show who develops a heart condition that will kill him if he’s unable to get a transplant. Juliette Binoche, one of the more amazing French actors, plays his sister who moves in with her children in order to take care of them (it’s wonderful seeing these two together). The other stories, with some of the more recognizable French characters actors these days, all have their moments, but are never as interesting or dramatically satisfying as the one with Duris (who achieves true pathos in his final scene). The others also all wear out their welcome long before they should; they keep on going and going like the Energizer Bunny and become just as annoying. The screenplay, by the director Cedric Klapisch, known for the much more enjoyable While the Cat’s Away and L’auberge espagnol, often feels like a movie based on a book of short stories which the screenwriter is desperately trying to weave together into a satisfying whole (can you say Short Cuts). But it never completely works.
At any rate, the next set of critiques are going to focus on a series of foreign films I have recently seen. I’m going to say it and shame the devil. I find foreign films to be more fascinating, interesting, challenging (anyone have a Roget’s handy) than most of what is released in my own country. I’m no idiot, of course. I know if I lived in France, a large number of movies made there are often as boring, bland and just plain bad as those made locally by the usual suspects. But all in all, it is foreign films that get me to the multiplex these days.
I don’t know why they are so superior. Maybe it’s the economic system under which they’re made which doesn’t require them to amass the same amount of profit as they do here (to paraphrase the Bible, the love of money is the root of all bad art). Maybe the themes and ideas that filmmakers from foreign shores are interested in have an audience they don’t here (Europe is the cradle of Existentialism, after all). Maybe familiarity breeds talent there (in the U.S. everyone wants to be the next Spielberg, whereas oversees you often get the idea everyone dreams of being the next Truffaut or Bunuel, or in today’s world, the next Almodovar or Haneke). But whatever the reason, this is where I find my film fix lately.
I know I’m not the only one. I know that in spite of the fact when someone I know asks whether someone has seen anything good lately and I mention Revanche or Tokyo Sonata and a glazed look comes over their face as they quickly pretend not to hear me or they change the subject to District 9, I know that someone else also attends these movies. They must since these movies play here and I see other people in the audience besides me. But sometimes I do think it’s a lonely world out there. Of course, if I didn’t sound so pompous, maybe I wouldn’t alienate myself from others and they’d be more open to what I enjoy.
But at any rate, here goes the first installment.
I saw The Headless Woman last year at the AFI film festival and it made the Howies, my list of the best films of the year (well, in this case the shorter list of films that were the best but only played one night stands at film festivals and such—I wasn’t sure whether I should include movies like that with my Howies, but since I couldn’t be sure, especially these days, that these films would ever open here, I went ahead and did it, even if it might screw up my list for the next year if they did open), Oh, and Maria Onetto made my best actress list. Whether one likes this film or not may depend on temperament. I found it incredibly engrossing, other people find it excruciatingly slow. In fact, The Headless Woman could actually be the sort of movie those friends of yours who won’t go with you to foreign films use as an example why. Onetto plays Veronica, a woman who accidentally hits something in the road and then begins acting oddly: she loses her memory, but tries to pretend as if she hasn’t. This may be the make or break section of the movie. If you don’t realize what is going on, it’s quite possible you will be bored and want to become headless yourself. If you do catch on, then you might find the suspense unbearable and the story line fascinating. When Veronica does recover her memory, she believes she might have hit a child with her car and the story then shows how her husband and lover work to first convince her she only hit a dog; and then when it seems she was right, show how the two cover up the accident. The moral quandary here is interesting. Veronica was involved in a hit and run, but she didn’t leave the scene maliciously—she lost her memory. You know the police will probably never believe her, so you end up hoping she gets away with it; at the same time, you feel a tad queasy at the idea of a crime going unpunished. In the end, though something highly melodramatic happened, there’s little melodrama or heavy breathing here, which again may alienate movie goers use to tent pole films or American film noir with numerous chase scenes and over the top action sequences. It’s a quiet film filled with quiet moments of quiet intensity. The writer director is Lucrecia Martel and I’m one of the few people who didn’t seem to care for her last film The Holy Girl, which I did find slow. What a difference a year can make.
Still Walking is not necessarily the best title for a film. Whenever I think of it, I’m reminded of those scenes in movies where tourists are taken on a tour of the White House and the guide says “We’re walking, we’re walking”. And I’m still uncertain just what the title is suppose to tell us. But Still Walking, from Japan, may be another one of those movies friends use as the excuse they won’t go to something subtitled with you. It’s about a family that meets once a year to remember the passing of their oldest son who died while rescuing someone else from drowning. You might think, especially if you’re American, that there would be a lot of sturm and drang; but in actuality, it’s all still moments, unspoken grievances and repressed emotions. It’s a film that is about nothing, while being about everything. The conflicts are the familiar ones found in families everywhere: the daughter wants to move in with the parents to take care of them, but the mother doesn’t want it because it will be a nuisance and interfere in her routine; the father is distant father and the mother nips at the bottle a bit too much; and most central, the younger son has donned the difficult mantle of seniority now that the elder, but favorite, son has died, but he is also saddled with a father he can’t please. The most chilling scene is when the mother reveals the real reason she insists on inviting every year the man her son rescued, a pathetic, overweight, awkward, young slacker who can’t find his way in life. What seals the emotional punch is the off the cuff way she lets her son know. The Japanese family film in which the members don’t yell and scream at each other like the Tyrone’s of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, but instead live their conflicts quietly and with dignity (for better and for worse), is a Japanese subgenre all its own. The most famous practitioner of this sort of film known in the U.S. is probably Ozu. Here the writer/director is Hirokazu Koreeda, the creator of the heartbreakingly beautiful Afterlife and the moving Nobody Knows. Still Walking is one of the finest films of the year.