Saturday, December 31, 2011

A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg, 2011)

David Cronenberg throws the audience for a loop from the start of A Dangerous Method. The stately opening credits, unfolding gracefully over close-ups of ink blotting the pages of correspondence, is so elegant that it cannot even be taken for a sort of proto-Rorschach test. It is as conventional and soft a commencement to a costume drama as credits can be. Then, Cronenberg cuts straight to a shot of Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) shrieking, cackling and hissing against the glass, resembling less her usual, composed and corseted ladies than Jane Eyre's Bertha, the embodiment of the repressed female id. In an instant, the director pushes under the "proper" surface of the period drama to confront its twisted secrets. The fact that most of the film occurs in bright daylight is no coincidence; the monsters that eat at these characters are not creatures that come out in the night. They are in all of us at all times, whether they're visible or not.

Cronenberg's style has always been formal, but A Dangerous Method is so classically composed that a newcomer would never guess its maker had also directed such body horror classics as Videodrome and Crash. Yet by placing Sabina's "hysteria" upfront, the director clues us in on his basic aim: the film is merely the psychological root of his horror movies. As Knightley writhes around in mental agony, Cronenberg fully subsumes his tumorous grotesqueries fully into the mind, which can torment the body well enough without tumorous growths or other icky, hyperbolic infections. As Glenn Kenny rightly put it on Twitter shortly after the film's premiere, Sabina, and her sexuality, is the traditional monster in a typical Cronenberg film.

2011: The Year in Review

The last year-end post, I swear. Last year I did a similar round-up separate to my best-of list, but this year I had even more reason to hand out "awards" for various accomplishments. I joined the Online Film Critics Society in October, and just last week I sent in my first ballot for their awards. Since I had all that written down, why not post it here along with other final mentions I wanted to make to close out this excellent year in film? Besides, this year has been so wonderful that I'm almost reluctant to let it go without one last good celebration. So without further ado, the awards:

Friday, December 30, 2011

The Best Films of 2011

[Note: Films chosen by non-festival U.S. release date]

With best-of lists having trickled in since the start of the month, I've seen more than one critic alleging this year to be a particularly weak one for film. A great deal of this list contains films I watched after reading such statements, and I still couldn't believe the lunacy of those proclamations. I have known since September that I wouldn't be able to limit my selections to a mere 10 or even 15 picks, and the intervening months have given me such an embarrassment of riches that to even make a selection of 25 films feel constricting. Indeed, there are more than 10 other features that I shuffled around for days, more than willing to give them a spot on this list but unable to remove others. Admittedly, much of the Oscar bait fell flat, or succeeded in much smaller, human ways than the insipid, spoon-fed Academy crowd likes to honor. And yet, 2011 also featured more grand artistic statements than any year in recent history, sporting two films that potentially redefine the possibilities of the artform itself (and maybe even three, if, unlike me, you managed to see This Is Not a Film). And heck, one of the best of the year's films, Certified Copy, isn't even on my list, because I saw it last year and put it on that year-end round-up.

More than that, this year has been fun too. Oh, not with the summer blockbusters, which, with the exception of the surprisingly fine Captain America, were lifeless and dull. But this has been a great year to simply see great directors play in the sandbox, whether it was Gore Verbinski and Steven Spielberg playing around with animation to beautiful effect or David Fincher making something of a career summary out of an unnecessary remake or Martin Scorsese making a family film that reveled in the timeless ability of cinema to make us all kids. In fact, Scorsese actually made the best Spielberg film in a year where that director made two movies of his own! And no one made a movie half as playful as Raúl Ruiz, whose final release (but not final completed work, the prolific bugger) before his death sent him out in glorious style. Any way you slice it, 2011 ruled, and I can only feel pity for anyone who can't find at least a few items to love among these 25 excellent works of film.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

War Horse (Steven Spielberg, 2011)

Like his other release this year, The Adventures of Tintin, Steven Spielberg's War Horse indulges in the best and worst of a particular facet of the director's talent. Tintin lacks a proper dramatic arc and works largely without any stakes, yet it showcases Spielberg's talent for choreographing dynamic, vast setpieces of eye-popping visual marvels. War Horse, the more low-key, Oscar-friendly picture, contains moments of such beauty as to border on the poetic, matching the most abstract and haunting shots of the director's canon. But it is also such a hand-holding, tedious affair as to display the most immature, irritating traits of Spielberg's storytelling. In other terms, if Tintin displays Spielberg at his most childlike, War Horse shows him at his most childish.

War Horse barely even gets started before it's in your face with forced wonder, opening on a young English farm boy, Albert (Jeremy Irvine), watching the birth of a foal with fascination. But the film moves through a quick series of shots that continue to convey Albert's instant love of this creature, even as the edits clearly hop over a significant portion of time. Within seconds of screen time, the foal grows into a yearling, but Albert has that same dopey look on his face. Does that mean he walked around like the village idiot for weeks, even months, gawping at a damn horse? And when Albert's lovable alcoholic father (Peter Mullan) buys the horse at an auction just to get one over his landlord, the lad is so overjoyed that the very real possibility his dad just made them homeless matters nothing next to owning "Joey," All the while, John Williams score insists you take a handkerchief, regardless of whether your eyes are wet. This is not the organic Spielberg who could masterfully manipulate an audience to genuine reaction; this is a battering ram methodically slamming against the portcullis until it can break through and shove the intended emotional response down everyone's throat.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Books I Read in 2011

I fell shamefully behind on reading when I went to college, first overburdened by an engineering course load then spending so much time writing stories for journalism assignments or delving deeper and deeper into film to tend to my literary interests. This year I vowed to get back into the groove and challenged myself to read 40 books before New Year's. Just last week, I succeeded. For the most part, I read a lot of great books over the year, so I thought I'd share some brief thoughts for them after the jump.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Capsule Reviews: Trespass, My Week With Marilyn, We Need to Talk About Kevin

Trespass (Joel Schumacher, 2011)

Having premiered at TIFF in September and come to DVD not two months later, Trespass couldn't possibly have been any good, but its badness is still striking. Shot with colors so artlessly exaggerated it looks merely as if someone adjusted the color balance rather than composed anything, Trespass wouldn't be interesting if it were lensed by Emmanuel Lubezki. A bog-standard house thriller with a simperingly moralistic message about family, the film proceeds with hilariously random flashbacks, endless narrative diversions, and hopelessly absurd dialogue. Nicole Kidman still can't get her emotions to match her starched facial expressions, while Nic Cage plays the fast-talking diamond dealer with his usual incoherent yelling. (I confess that his agonized cry of "You shit fucking animals!" is something of a highlight.) The film does improve (by which I mean becomes even worse) when someone socks Cage in the mouth and he speaks with a thick voice the rest of the film. But not even the delight of Cage at his worst can make up from Schumacher's clumsily overactive direction or the constant addition of conflicts thanks to useless reveals.

The 10 Worst Films of 2011

Given that I do not do this for money and therefore mostly have complete freedom in my film selections, my worst-of list is always void of some of the more popular choices. Indeed, not a one Happy Madison production makes my list this year despite all three 2011 efforts from the company making the rounds on damn near everyone's worst-of list. I did almost see Jack and Jill out of sheer morbid curiosity, but sanity prevailed. Nevertheless, I still saw my share of absolute duds this year, for as much gold as 2011 offered, it also had more than its fair share of god-awful pieces of trash. So if I may, let me purge but 10 of these miserable experiences from my mind forever.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Capsule Reviews: Submarine, The Iron Lady, I Melt With You

Submarine (Richard Ayoade, 2011)

Referencing The Catcher in the Rye with equal parts sincerity and irony, Submarine likewise moves so awkwardly between self-aware hipness and uncomfortable neediness that it never settles into anything other than an attempt to make some Welsh kitchen-sink version of a Wes Anderson film (think the cutting scene of The Royal Tenenbaums stretched to feature length). Ayoade, so effortlessly quick on The IT Crowd, languishes behind the camera, holding some potentially funny and/or insightful moment until it simply collapses. There's a lot of potential here, and I like that Craig Roberts' (a fine newcomer) character arc is paced with an exponential growth rather than a facile epiphany, but I was still left wanting more from this.

The Iron Lady (Phyllida Lloyd, 2011)

To say that The Iron Lady resembles a television movie is an insult to television. Incoherently assembled into a downright hysterical mélange of randomly ordered shots that turn the political career of one of the most controversial figures of modern international politics into a you-go-girl story of a gung-ho women sticking it to all those men who thought she couldn't do it. Not that I'm a supporter of Thatcher's in any respect, but to reduce her life to such shallow nonsense is laughable: upon arrival at Parliament as the only woman, she opens the female bathroom to find naught but a chair and an ironing board. And I haven't even broached the subject of its handling of Thatcher's dementia, which it uses so unsubtly as to generate compassion for the real Thatcher not for her deeds or motivations but merely out of disgust for this level of exploitation. Jim Broadbent plays her hallucinated, dead husband like Jacob Marley come to haunt Scrooge; well, that or he's Margaret Thatcher's peevish but affable Tyler Durden. As the entire film branches out from this addled present, perhaps that explains why the movie is so completely chaotic in its construction, but whatever the reason, I ended up feeling sorry that an old woman had been so crassly used for a film that combines the worst of The King's Speech and J. Edgar into one garish whole.

I Melt With You (Mark Pellington, 2011)

I Melt With You is a glibly nihilistic tour through a midlife crisis that really thinks it's saying something. Four friends meet up for a yearly drug vacation in a house on Big Sur's shoreline that looks as if it would cost more to rent for a week than most houses are to own, where they engage in brotastic antics edited with masculine zeal. But when a cruel twist after one too many Oxycontin orgies uncovers a 25-year-old pact that the men made in college, which they decide to honor because that is what grown men do. Pellington, a music video director, packs the film with great but horrifically misapplied tunes that he seems to prioritize over the actual narrative, which vaguely trundles about dealing with some unexplained past as the present becomes an increasingly incoherent hodgepodge of fatalistic statements. Its self-flagellating tone borders on the parodic, and every intended shock is but one more unintentional laugh. The men are bad enough, but I was perhaps most irritated by the waste of the always-excellent Carla Gugino as the world's most clueless police officer, who basically comes in just to vent the smell of unwashed dude yet gets bizarrely emotional over the fates of these idiotic, self-immolating strangers. An utter piece of trash from start to finish.

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius, 2011)

Much as I desired some kind of return for silent filmmaking in the 21st century, Michel Hazanavicius' The Artist does not resemble a silent picture so much as a talkie with the audio track removed. Lacking all the propulsion of silent cinema, the capacity for rich visual storytelling that seemed fast ay any speed, The Artist lethargically moves through its pastiche. As a billet-doux, the film is sufficiently earnest to be charming, but it never displays any particular insight into the silent era, making even its homage thin.

But then, Hazanavicius' jumping-off point appears not to be the silents themselves so much as Singin' in the Rain, the 1952 masterpiece that also dealt with the change from silents to talkies. The Artist is the flip-side of that, not about the song-and-dance people who made up for the camera's loss of lyricism but those on the other side of the spectrum, unable to adapt to the new format. In a sense, the hero of The Artist is Lina Lamont, albeit more likable and earnest. But if Kelly and Donen's work was a sincere, if teasing, testament to the event that gave their own careers a boost, The Artist too often feels suffocatingly nostalgic in a lecturing way, even as it does not capture the tone the silents.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Poetry (Lee Chang-dong, 2011)

Poetry, like Lee Chang-dong's previous Secret Sunshine, is suffused with cool blue, from the daytime sky to clothes to interior decorations. Not a single shot lacks this calming color, yet like Secret Sunshine, Poetry is a film of intense, devastating emotions and tragedies. Its very first scene drifts over from the idyll of children playing to a girl's corpse floating facedown in the river, and the story only becomes more wrenching from there. However, Lee does not use this juxtaposition of sunny visuals with dark narratives as an ironic counterpoint; his stories do not undermine the beauty of the world around them so much as make that beauty all the richer. Even in a world so besotted with ills, there is still unfathomable, almost spiritual grace and pulchritude.

More so than Secret Sunshine, Poetry stresses that point at every turn. The protagonist, Yang Mija (Yun Jeong-hee), lives on government welfare and the money she gets caring for an elderly man who cannot be but a few years older than her. From the moment we meet her, Mija displays a troubling forgetfulness of words, and when she goes to a clinic to get her arm checked, the doctor on-hand sends her to Seoul to have her head examined. Her own problems are bad enough, but certain revelations threaten to send the film into an abyss of pain. But Poetry is a film about perseverance, of passing through the terrible sights right in front of us to experience that glorious world around us. Naturally, art is the means of seeing the full picture, yet Lee does not use expression to simplistically ignore the reality it transcends.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (David Fincher, 2011)

Stieg Larsson's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is to sexism what Kathryn Stockett's The Help is to racism. Both work less as attempts to grapple with serious topics than shallow wish-fulfillment fantasies by those unaffected by the subject matter. For Stockett, a white woman, it was the harshness of the Jim Crow era as catalogued by an author stand-in so emphatically not racist that black people not only trust her but risk their lives to secure her book deal. For Larsson, who helplessly witnessed a gang rape as a teenager, it is Sweden's startling patterns of sexual abuse as catalogued by an author stand-in so emphatically not sexist that the avenging fury of violated Woman herself not only trusts him but screws him. Furthermore, as it was written while Larsson was in hiding over his reporting, the book also addresses his longstanding issues with toothless investigative journalism and Sweden's lingering extreme-right element.

Yet David Fincher's adaptation is not really about any of those things. Tossing out Larsson's self-righteousness entirely, the film also reduces protagonist Mikael Blomkvist's almost comically active sex life—it's amusing that the novel's version of Blomkvist gets laid as much as James Bond, and he's played here by the man himself, Daniel Craig. But Fincher even hacks out the questionable feminist empowerment of Lisbeth Salander, presenting her violence with a coldness that robs her vengeance of its bloodlust. Instead, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo acts as a retroactive bridge between several of Fincher's films: it links the religion-tinged carnage of Se7en with the analytical anti-whodunit of Zodiac, as well as that film's painstakingly slow-going, interpersonal analog with The Social Network's ultra-fast, beyond-humanity digital. If Larsson's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is about the late author's preoccupations, then Fincher's is about his own.

Film Socialisme — First Thoughts

I had planned to hold off on seeing Jean-Luc Godard's latest feature until I had caught up with the director's filmography. However, my Godard retrospective got incredibly side-tracked, and my impatience got the better of me, even as I knew I should have waited. Having stalled out in Godard's mid-'70s period, I am unfamiliar with his subsequent "return" to cinema and the more poetic and autobiographical tone his work from the '90s-on purportedly evokes. As such, I was unprepared for the sheer beauty of Film Socialisme, as well as some of its more obscure touches, some of which, I'm told, have roots in the filmmaker's epic Histoire(s) du Cinéma while others appear to be things one simply must know about the director and the philosophies and personal information he's parsed out over the decades in interviews.

Ergo, this will be merely a preliminary assortment of thoughts, largely aided by the invaluable annotations of David Phelps, whose relatively brief but dense article is a necessary acknowledgment of the film's rich tapestry of allusions, which are impossible to sort out even with the fully translated subtitles. I know some will instantly reject the notion of having to read notes on a film to understand it, but I have no issue asking for help. I could not read Ulysses without the help of three consistent sources and scattered support for certain sections, so why should I be so arrogant as to dismiss Film Socialisme for not being "gettable" enough for me? (People can be quick to assert superiority over anything that exists outside their reach.) Phelps' annotations were a fantastic launchpad to figuring out some of the film's stranger moments, yet even without the benefit of Spark Notes—hell, even without the benefit of understood language—Godard's most recent feature is such a work of art that it mesmerized me from the start.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Mysteries of Lisbon (Raúl Ruiz, 2011)

Shot with oil-on-canvas-toned cinematography and dovetailing into so many random narrative threads that Laurence Sterne might have expressed his approval, Raúl Ruiz's epic, penultimate completed feature Mysteries of Lisbon scarcely looks like the usual period costume drama. Instead of the director falling back to let the art design do all the work, Ruiz makes his camera the most visible and alluring aspect of the whole production. His direction moves in pendulous swings, oscillating back and forth between conflicting perspective, truth and fiction, past and present (if a present even exists), all within the same elegant long take.

Having previously seen but one other Ruiz film, I am sorry to say I cannot comment on how much of the filmmaker's tics and themes are reflected in the gargantuan adaptation of Camilo Castelo Branco's novel. And as the book itself does not seem to have an English translation, I cannot even say whether the oddities contained herein are those of the author or the director. Nevertheless, the film—actually edited down to its four-and-a-half-hour running length from a six-hour miniseries—certainly feels like a summation, and I could easily spot structural and stylistic similarities between this and Three Crowns of the Sailor: idiosyncratic, rhythmically arrhythmic editing patterns; unorthodox shot placement; and a narrative style that hinges on a constant intrusion by a new voice who seizes the reins to tell his own story that sends any hint of plot consistency out the window.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Capsule Reviews: Bellflower, Happy Feet Two, Tucker & Dale vs. Evil

Bellflower (Evan Glodell, 2011)

The focal properties of Evan Glodell's self-made camera as seen in Bellflower seem to work not along lines of length, clarity and fuzziness instead defined along the horizontal axis of the 2D screen. The yellow-toned haze makes for a fitting mirage feel, given the characters' fixation on a Mad Max-like post-apocalyptic future of oily conflagrations in scorched-earth deserts. Having seen George Miller's films as kids, Woodrow (Glodell) and Aiden hope to make the ultimate death machine on four wheels, complete with a whiskey fountain in the glove compartment, because what is the point of life after The End if you can't get loaded? Yet the film doesn't present, or at least does not ultimately present, Woodrow's childish obsession as some charming quirk despite his initial "indie" feel as a socially awkward but adorable dork. Eventually, however, Glodell upends the macho posturing as Woodrow slowly spirals off his axis.

Impressively technical given its paltry $17,000 budget, Bellflower manages to tell its story primarily through images, sinking further and further into Woodrow's demented point of view as his boyish imagination carries through to its logically violent endpoint. Unfortunately, the visual storytelling is undercut by any and all dialogue, which is typically delivered in the manner of the poor kid who has to be the narrator for a school play. Furthermore, its lugubrious movement becomes less a hypnotic tour through a stunted, aggressive man's psyche than a mere slog, the flights of hyperviolent fantasy not revealing so much as absurd. Glodell's film aligns along several parallels with Nicholas Winding Refn's superb Drive: both deal with spaced-out car fixations, both feature psychopathic protagonists waiting to be unleashed, both sport throbbing electronic scores (though Cliff Martinez leaves the work here in the dust), and both offer their makers the chance to strut their stuff. It's a testament to Glodell's almost innate skill that at times he can be as visually exciting as a proven stylist working with his biggest budget yet. Nevertheless, Bellflower's descent into grim fantasy bears out all the isolated flaws of Drive and blows them up, and for all the film's impressive elements, its most lasting impression was the hope that Glodell gets offered something better off the strength of it.

The Adventures of Tintin (Steven Spielberg, 2011)

Written as one extended climax, The Adventures of Tintin can be a draining experience, and one generally bereft of traditionally dramatic human elements. Yet the film bursts with such exuberance and imagination that even the Uncanny Valley limitations of motion-capture animation vanish in Brobdingnagian sequences so vast they make the special effect showcases of the Indiana Jones films look like the Super-8 pictures Spielberg made as a teenager. However well or poorly Spielberg's crack team of British writers capture the spirit of Hergé comics, Tintin is remarkable first and foremost for allowing one of cinema's biggest dreamers the opportunity to do anything he wants to do.

Spielberg's camera, already so active and eager in his live-action films, is here unmoored from any hindrance, be it spatial dimensions, production safety or physics itself. Every shot swoons, tilts, zooms and soars with elegance, creating such fluid motion that scenes routinely flow into each other through sudden inversions of  scale and setting. A massive setpiece shrinks into a puddle of water stepped in as the focus shifts, or a camelback trek through an endless desert forms on the back of a hand. Such segues make the film even more vertiginous, a dizzying, unabashed exercise in style over substance, one constantly in motion as the 3D communicate the unstoppable momentum, not unlike action lines in a comic. But when the artist in question is one of the medium's great stylists, sometimes it's more rewarding to simply sit back and be wowed.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Young Adult (Jason Reitman, 2011)

Jason Reitman's and Diablo Cody's Juno showed a self-consciously "quirky" high-school girl growing up quickly to deal with an adult problem, her cloyingly quirky lingo falling by the wayside as she matured into an empathetic, responsible person. Young Adult depicts the inverse of that story, of the prom queen who never outgrew that period of her life where she was some form of royalty, her preserved physical beauty akin to Dorian Gray's aesthetic mask. Soulless and resolutely conceited, Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) is a profoundly unlikable character, a vile creature who despises anyone kind enough to spare her pity and insists on remolding the scariness of the real world back into the teenage years she ruled. Some may blanch at Mavis' sheer mean-spiritedness and unbending attitude, but whom do we see more in real life: the Junos who can quickly adapt and mature, or the Mavises?

Theron plays Mavis as if using the part as a screen test for her upcoming turn as the evil queen in Snow White and the Hunstman. She peers at the world with narrowed, confrontational eyes, perpetually disgusted by the normalcy of adult life but unable to see that she's encased herself in amber. Living in a high-rise tower in Minneapolis, Mavis ghostwrites young adult fiction that allows her to hang onto her perversely stretched youth, and her friend drips steel-melting acid as she sarcastically reassures Mavis that she's completely moved beyond the one-horse town she talks about incessantly. That fixation on her glory days compounds when her old flame sends her a birth announcement, inexplicably prompting a decision to return to her hometown to win him back. Cody and Reitman sell it like the starting point of a romantic comedy, but as Mavis obsessively replays Teenage Fanclub's "The Concept" from a mixtape that ex- made her in high school on the way home, her drive resembles Travis Bickle heading for the pimp instead of the usual chasing a lover at the airport. Reitman even zooms into the innards of the cassette, the meticulous overview of its parts visualizing just how completely Mavis has crawled inside her teenage shell to hide from adulthood.

That gutting of traditional romantic comedy mechanics extends through the whole film, which never fails to present Mavis' dream of breaking up the happy marriage of her beloved Buddy (Patrick Wilson) as predatory, not affectionate. As a director, Reitman wisely stays out of Cody's way, but he films everything in harsh, revealing terms, casting unwelcome light on the wrinkles forming on Theron's face to the dirty trackpad of her clearly well-used Macbook. Even wretchedly obvious shots that disdainfully linger on chains like Staples and KFC work by conveying Mavis' stuck-up, hypocritical POV, the immaturity of this film school-grade "commentary" reflecting a character, not the director. Rather than throwing an arm around a lazily superior audience to coddle them, the film practically sets itself against the crowd by mocking such holier-than-thou distaste of mass culture as childish.

And if that doesn't set you on edge, Mavis takes back over after this early montage to seize control of the rest of the movie, and her actions continuously the viewer's patience with her sheer nastiness. Greeting Mavis back in Mercury is not Buddy but Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), a doughy nerd who was left crippled by a homophobic beating in high school. But Matt's bitterness soon crowds out any instant sympathy, and he proves as unable to move beyond his past as Mavis. Oswalt brings some of his buried aggression from Big Fan to the part, forming Matt into a mound of impotent fury so hell-bent on feeling sorry for himself that he even hates other disabled people for stealing attention from him. Oswalt essentially plays Mavis' unheeded conscience, but Matt is so unpleasant in his own right that his warnings about leaving Buddy seem to stem more from practical worry than moral concern. The comedian gets most of the film's outright punchlines, but he delivers them with an edge; when Mavis airily explains what a zombie is, Matt snaps, "I'm a fat geek, I know what a zombie is." On paper, that joke reads as mere banter, but Oswalt reads it as if barely keeping his temper in check, anxious to keep check of that myopic grasp on pop culture that constitutes the only territory he knows and controls.

Mavis and Matt make a hell of a misanthropic double act, sniping at everyone within eyesight, including each other. Both receive so much pity from those around them that the brutal takedowns they lob between them are perhaps the first honest assessments they've ever heard of themselves. Matt, who knows he would have no shot with someone like Mavis even at his best, can taunt her for failing book series and her emotional cocoon. Mavis, so unconcerned with hurting someone's feelings, can harangue Matt for being so unapproachable because of his personality, not his disability. (And as a YA writer, she naturally uses hacky, clichéd lines that play on his crutch to do so.)

But not even these confrontations can shake something loose in either character, and Young Adult routinely sets up the usual plot points designed to offer some kind of breakthrough—a drunken kiss, the aforementioned exchange of critical evaluations, even an almost painfully sad scene of shared grief—only to collapse back into self-delusion. I winced all during a party scene near the end, waiting for the explosion that had to come, which it did, albeit in a wholly unexpected manner that managed to sidestep the easy way out but revealed a clarifying piece of information that does nothing to alter one's opinion of Mavis.

This is not easy stuff, and even those who typically have no problem with unsympathetic characters have responded viscerally to the film's unrepentant pessimism. But Cody is no mere nihilist, and Young Adult is filled with good people living contented lives. But they are not the stars, and their lives are not glorious and remarkable in the way they need to be to counteract the two principal players, who view such prosaic happiness as beneath them yet can attain nothing better. One of my notes for Young Adult said it was a better horror film than Jennifer's Body, but upon further reflection, I cannot call it such because it all feels too real and unexaggerated. Some people will never learn, so close-minded that nothing will penetrate years of self-deception and insecurity manifested as perverse haughtiness. Those who dismiss Cody as someone writing what she thinks is teen slang have already had two demonstrations of her criticism of youth and all its inexperience and arrogance. If Young Adult cannot convince them of her rejection of such self-involved attitudes, then perhaps Mavis and Matt aren't the only ones clouded by shallow prejudices.

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Interrupters (Steve James, 2011)

Too many shots of curbside shrines litter Steve James' new documentary, The Interrupters. Too many goddamn shots of goddamn patches of decorated dirt with names and final ages fading up over the soggy teddy bears and perfunctory "R.I.P." scrawls on taped-up cards. James captures so many ambulances racing down Chicago streets to the next act of violence that the vehicles become a sort of active transition, a Kurosawa screen wipe between scenes. With such chaos raging on American streets, it's no wonder so many in the film compare urban Chicago to a war zone, and oddly fitting that the founder of a program to address the uncontrollable waves of brutality is an epidemiologist by trade.

Gary Slutkin speaks of the titular Interrupters, a sub-category of his original Cease Fire program, in such technical terms, referring to them as the "initial interruption of transmission." Not, as you may have noticed, the "cure." James is not so presumptuous as to suggest a clear path to more peaceful streets, and his subjects are too battle-scarred to even speculate about such a lofty goal. But it is precisely that temporary aberration, that minor impediment to the unmitigated outbreaks, that sets the stage for a cure. James has always been a filmmaker with a fair hand but a clear point of view, but here he finds a topic without an opposing side. Viewers can form their own opinions about the two basketball prodigies and their families, as well as whether Stevie's crimes should be handled with empathy and study or swiftly condemned and punished for their vile nature. But no one can honestly take a position against CeaseFire, which looks out upon a community where few poor minorities live past 30 and says this cannot continue.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (Pedro Almodóvar, 1988)

Pedro Almodóvar's Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is one of the wildest farces in the lurid melodramatist's oeuvre, even as it is also one of the least shocking. The director's pet narrative tics of rape and other forms of abuse are nowhere to be found, with the worst cruelty inflicted by a male upon the female protagonist that of dumping her via answering machine. Even when sexual relations with a terrorist come into play, it is solely in terms of pure comedy, an absurd twist that adds just one more damn hurdle in the heroine's desire to kill herself. Some days you just can't win.

Only a director with a filmography like Almodóvar's could put this material into a film and have it be the one movie of his that isn't a black comedy. Instead, Women is a lighthearted take on his usual gender politics, where the women are hysterical, overwrought and dangerous, but still more appetizing than the men, who are lustful and cowardly and afraid to show the emotions that the women personify. But at the end of every crying jag over deceitful or departing lovers is the realization that they were too good for those assholes anyway, a Lifetime movie message made effervescent and utterly, joyously insane by Almodóvar's singular postmodernization of kitsch.

Project Nim (James Marsh, 2011)

James Marsh, director of 2008's spellbinding, playful documentary Man on Wire, initially presents Project Nim, the story of a mid'-'70s language acquisition experiment on a chimpanzee, with a similar sense of wonder and magic. The baby chimp, though harshly removed from his mother, finds warmth and love from the people who handle him, and photographs and archival footage of his bulbous eyes, too big for the head that has not yet grown into them, too cute to handle. Every breakthrough of communication feels like a triumph, with every word of sign language Nim learns opening new possibilities not merely in linguistic study but for fundamental questions about nature vs. nurture, the mental potential of other species, and more.

Soon, however, Project Nim becomes something else entirely. Marsh shifts his focus from the late chimpanzee to those who came into contact with the animal as what initially seemed a straightforward study spiraled wildly out of control. The basic structure of the experiment soon falls apart, and those in charge of it try to fix the situation by taking steps that essentially invalidate any data gathered. Further ethical violations turn the entire procedure into a farce, with more than one female member engaging in trysts with the NYU professor who created the study, hippie assistants giving Nim beer and weed, and the original caretaker and primary teacher losing it and obsessing over Nim's sexual identity instead of teaching him language.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, 2011)

Asghar Farhadi at once places A Separation within Iranian social critique and moves far beyond it from the first static two shot that follows the credits sequence. Nader (Peyman Moaadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) talk to a judge about getting a divorce, and the official's refusal to grant it reminds Western audiences of the religious hold still in effect on nations like Iran. Even the nature of the marital dispute invokes the country's strict social regulations, with the rift coming from Nader's desire to stay in the land Simin so desperately wants to leave. But the shot never leaves the couple, never shows the symbol of governmental oppression who will not grant their request. Soon the two seem to stop noticing the third party altogether, bickering with each other and only turning to the befuddled judge to ask for his support, not in any legally binding sense but in the manner someone asks a friend to agree with a minor dispute. Within minutes Farhadi firmly repositions the film's focus from a potential social commentary to a complex human drama that, like the husband and wife do the judge, demands the audience pick a side, only to make every set of choices too passionately argued to make a decision easy, if at all possible.

Farhadi wastes no time setting up intractable feuds. Simin's desire to raise her daughter outside Iran's constrictive theocracy naturally earns sympathy from this secular viewer, but she callously disregards Nader's reason for wanting to stay, namely, his Alzheimer's-stricken father who needs his son's care. This is but the first of the film's many quandaries of responsibility and ethical obligation: Simin has grown weary of caring for her father-in-law and feels no inherent accountability for the man, while Nader could not live with himself if he shuffled off the onus of caregiving to a stranger and left. Who's wrong here? Not even a judge can say, and when the couple returns home, Simin decides to cut off the whole argument by moving back in with her parents, leaving Nader and their pubescent daughter Termeh to fend for themselves.

A Warrior's Heart (Michael F. Sears, 2011)

Take the lifeless romance of Twilight, add two of that franchise's side players, then mix it all together with a family channel movie about lacrosse and you've got A Warrior's Heart, a film that makes neither its characters nor that private school wank of a sport engaging. Shot like an overeager parent's filming of a game, A Warrior's Heart tries to teach us about maturity and filial responsibility through a sport so marginally popular that they couldn't even find enough extras to fill bleachers at matches presented as national events. Also, lacrosse's Native American history gets dragged into this, because if there's one thing WASPs love, it's to feel like a part of cultures they marginalize and patronize. I didn't hate this movie as much as my picks for the true bombs of the year, if only because it's clearly something meant for a sappy TV channel that fell into theaters by unhappy chance. Still, that doesn't mean I don't loathe the thing.

My full review is up now at Spectrum Culture.

Monday, December 12, 2011

City of Life and Death (Lu Chuan, 2011)

Few words are exchanged during the first 45 minutes of Lu Chuan's City of Life and Death, an account of the infamous atrocities that occurred with the fall of Nanking to the Japanese in 1937. Lu confines the dialogue to barked orders, frantic cries and warrior yells from the vanquishing and vanquished. Mixing the black-and-white moral gulf of Schindler's List with the shaky-cam "realism" of Saving Private Ryan, the director draws out the Japanese entry into the city in such a way to create a mood of unending chaos and carnage while also emphasizing a suddenness to the breakthrough, of the KMT soldiers and civilians within the walls having anticipated the city's fall but not on such an overwhelming scale. Fortifications that repelled who knows how many enemies for centuries are reduced to rubble in seconds by Japanese tanks, and a mass panic by the leaderless KMT enlisted only leads them to the waiting arms of the surrounding invaders. Those who stand and fight only prolong the inevitable, making further pandemonium as the bodies keep falling.

City of Life and Death is not a film about the few who survived. The best comfort anyone can hope for is a quick, painless, dignified death rather than one by torture or rape, where mercy killings are the gentlest show of grace. Emphasizing the sheer vastness of the killing, the most prominent KMT fighter of the first act dies by the end of the siege, his corpse discovered by a comrade whose brief shock soon melts to numbness. And when the Japanese take total control of the city and its inhabitants, the terror only becomes more random, more incalculable. Everyone is vulnerable, and Lu introduces his primary cast of characters solely through their actions, each dealing with the takeover in his or her own way. To define them with dialogue and exposition would make them stand still to long, making them too vulnerable for any passing Japanese.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (Niels Arden Oplev, 2009)

I only ever saw a piece of Niels Arden Oplev's original film adaptation of Stieg Larsson's exposition-heavy bestseller The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Barely 10 minutes into watching it from start to finish, I wish I'd left it that way. Replicating all the source material's overreliance on plot and painstakingly spelling out not merely every event but every feeling, Oplev's film omits Larsson's ocasional grasp of atmosphere and the tease of his parceling out of information. I'm still working through the book, but so far I've found Larsson at least playful enough to, from time to time, have a character acknowledge the long-windedness of the speech and backgrounds. Oplev, however, recreates without wit, and his direction manages to feel plot-heavy even when no one is speaking.

Looking like the miniseries it actually is, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo frames its chilled cold case mystery in flat, serviceable terms. Much as thrillers hinge on a sharp screenplay, they ultimately require great direction, great coordination of cinematography and editing, to stand out. Oplev's film feels like Masterpiece Theatre, not a sinister, gripping, immediate experience. At 150 minutes, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is long but still within the realm of potential suspense. But Oplev's pedestrian assembly cannot even faithfully recreate the fits of tension within Larsson's own book, much less add any of his own with the aided power of cinema.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Best Albums of 2011

I'm never on top of new music at the best of times, but 2011 proved an even more pathetic year than usual, with me belatedly catching up on every recommendation I could get. Still, I did manage to hear some fantastic albums, as well as discovering more than a few talents that demanded my previously distracted attention. I was also happy to discover more jazz, as I'm always woefully behind on that front when it comes to new sounds. I can rarely write about music, so forgive me if my justifications for each album sound a bit by-the-numbers. I do greatly enjoy all of these records, though, and I hope you'll give them a spin or two.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Immortals (Tarsem Singh, 2011)

Dressing up 300's presentation ancient Greek carnage with even more slow-motion, gore and fussy but meaningless art direction, Tarsem Singh's Immortals represents a significant step backward for the director whose long-gestating labor of love, The Fall, made him an instant cult icon. Immortals, sadly, resembles more the director's prior The Cell, a thin, borderline offensive premise made both more alluring and more repellent by Singh's grandiose, immaculate designs. Most of the shots in this film display an intricate control of mise-en-scène, but the florid colors, precise blocking and refreshing use of tactile objects where possible only make it more frustrating that no one apparently stopped to take stock of how awful all those obsessively arranged objects were.

Awkwardly inserting itself between a revisionist exposé of how great but mortal deeds become godlike and an endorsement of supernatural mythology, Immortals never properly finds its footing. Vaguely retelling the story of Theseus (Henry Cavill), the film depicts the mythological hero as a peasant who has honed his fighting skills from childhood under the tutelage of a kind old man (John Hurt) who just might be more than meets the eye. Theseus' village, a stacked network of homes etched into a sheer cliff face near Mount Tartarus, comes under fire by Hyperion (Mickey Rourke), the king of Crete, who seeks to free the Titans caged in the giant mountain to bring about the death of the gods he despises. We soon learn that gods do indeed exist in this world, but despite the threat of unleashing the Titans, they force the humans to fight their battle for them.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Warrior (Gavin O'Connor, 2011)

From the second the camera settles on Tommy (Tom Hardy), a former Marine sitting on his father's doorsteps drinking, no one could fail to see that something is wrong with him. Tommy carries scars not only from Iraq but his childhood, and at times it seems as if the ones from the latter affect him more than those of the former. Any good sports movie (and quite a few bad ones) is never about the sport itself, but Warrior is, appropriate to its chosen activity, especially blunt in its placement of the sport as incidental to the real story told through it.

But then, everything in Warrior is blunt, from Gavin O'Connor's meaty, intimate fight scenes to the hyper-masculine dialogue to the borderline shameless appropriations from other fighting movies like Rocky. Despite that thick-headed approach, Warrior routinely subverts expectations and rearranges clichés into something fresh. By casting Tommy as a Marine, the film links the impulses of war and sport (the latter originally a means of staying in shape for the former) as a way for broken people to act out their latent aggression. And by ultimately pitting him against his brother, O'Connor presents us with two rivals equally worthy of the audience's sympathy. What seemed from its marketing to be a formulaic cash-in on a fad instead emerges one of the most even-handed sports films I've ever seen.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Gallants (Derek Kwok & Clement Cheng, 2010)

[This film is being considered for 2011 end-of-year lists.]

Like my favorite Chinese genre films, the kung-fu movie Gallants is as much a comedy as an action movie, and as sloppy as it is elegant. Perhaps the funniest joke of all is its half-hearted insistence that martial arts brings only pain, a message it immediately scissor-kicks with a gonzo celebration of asserting one's dominance. Yet Gallants is, on the whole, too clever to corner itself as a mere paean to beating the crap out of other, and for all its slapstick, the film has moments of surprising grace in its treatment of the weak and forgotten standing up for themselves, even if Derek Kwok and Clement Cheng mercifully toss out the maudlin Big Theme moments for the sake of more action.

A sardonic wit infuses the film from the start, with narration that casts the banality of the story in epic terms and uses wonderfully pulpy animation to make the tiniest quibbles between fighters into legendary duels. When the narrator settles on Cheung, a lanky, bespectacled bottom-feeder who accepts abuse from everyone (including children), he makes plain his contempt for the lad, referring to him as "pathetic" more than once. Looking to rid himself of the scum, Cheung's boss sends him on a trip without pay to settle a disputed contract between the owners of a tea house and the property's lessor. When Cheung arrives, he finds himself caught up in a deep rivalry between martial artists that is so laughably provincial that only a scrawny fool like Cheung could mistake it for something inspiring.

The Descendants (Alexander Payne, 2011)

With its blocky opening narration and almost immediate diagnosis of hopelessness, Alexander Payne's The Descendants seems destined to hobble itself out of the gate, with not even its parched wit capable of saving it. Slowly, however, it emerges one of the most honest, least insistent films Hollywood has ever made on the subject of saying goodbye, with all its regrets, frustrations and revelations both welcome and unwelcome. Payne, who co-wrote the adaption of Kaui Hart Hemmings' novel with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, uses the few plot hinges merely to explore the contours of human reaction to a tragedy, making for one of the most subtle, interior movies I've ever seen get greeted with almost universal, instant praise.

The title refers to the unexpected ancestry of protagonist Matt King (George Clooney), a lawyer who resides in Oahu. King is the descendant of Hawaiian royalty, a princess who married a white missionary. And as he explains to the audience, his lineage gives him and his extended family ownership of a 25,000-acre land trust, which is set to expire in seven years. Rather than wait for the land to legally fade from their hands, his cousins want to sell the property for development, making them all extremely rich. Matt, the trustee of the land, is all on-board with this plan, until a boating accident leaves his wife in a permanent coma and changes the way he thinks about everything.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Page One: Inside the New York Times (Andrew Rossi, 2011)

Forget the title: Page One: Inside the New York Times quickly establishes a protagonist, and it is not the hallowed (and expensively redecorated) halls of the Gray Lady. It is David Carr, the Times' media reporter and knight in shining armor for anyone trying to justify journalism as a relevant career in the 21st century. A former crack addict who put his life back together and even raised two kids by himself, Carr has a personal history that could make for an Oscar-baiter, but the forcefulness of his cigarette-ravaged voice makes an instant impression that instantly steals the show from Andrew Rossi's intended overview of the Times and the state of journalism at large.

Page One deals with the uncertain fate of America's most prestigious newspaper, and the print media in general, as news aggregates, technological innovations and simple mismanagement threaten to topple an entire industry. But all I cared about was seeing Carr blaze into action in debates with upstart pygmies looking to throw the last spear into print's dying white elephant, his airy rasp condescending to the likes of Shane Smith of Vice, Markos Moulitsas of the Daily Kos, and Michael Wolff of Newser. Each walks into an argument with confidence bordering on arrogance, and Carr slices them all to ribbons. Whatever the Times pays him to write, he's worth it just to be the rock star spokesman for that old journalistic spirit. He may have a headset, an active Twitter account and a brand-name coffee always in hand, but Carr captures the spirit of the papermen as seen in classic movies: witty, unrelenting, but fair, albeit perfectly willing to hang you if you tied your own noose.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Tomas Alfredson, 2011)

Expanding upon the style that brought him international fame with 2008's Let the Right One In, Tomas Alfredson makes a chilly, claustrophobic character drama out of John Le Carré's classic spy thriller Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. This is even more impressive considering that the film primarily takes place in vast sets colored in warm, oaken browns (albeit the kind Joyce used to signify death and ossification). Alfredson's vampire film similarly used its expansive white space to actually constrict the frame, and here he goes one step further, swapping out intense but myopic angst for loyalty fears with global consequences. Where youth merely think the whole world is against them, it truly could be if one of these spies slips up, hence why the members of the organization seem to spend more time monitoring each other than anything going on in Russia.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Last Emperor (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1987)

Benardo Bertolucci's The Last Emperor offers no sense of comfort for its titular subject. Its present, set in a post-Mao China, is cast in pallid grays, a deathly sense of decay and necrosis emanating from its shots of soldiers lined up to take war criminals off a train and transfer them to an old prison. However, its first flashback, of the deposed emperor ascending the throne as a child, swaps out the drabness for soft yellow tones so warm they become suffocating. Communist China may hold no quarter for the last emperor, but the sheltered, obsolete world into which Pu Yi comes to briefly rule is just as incompatible for a child of the 20th century.

Made with an unprecedented level of cooperation by the Chinese government, The Last Emperor provides a mournful microcosm for the upheaval of the early 20th century. Still a toddler afraid to be separated from his mother and bonded with his wet nurse, Pu Yi is suddenly a god to the eunuchs and concubines, who must treat this child as such even as they attempt to handle his age-appropriate tempers and playfulness. But his status as a supreme being only truly applies to the walls of the vast but finite palace in which he lives. The film's first half remains within the Forbidden City until its gargantuan size feels claustrophobic, the sounds of rapid social change in surrounding Peking buzzing with inevitability. Eventually that world will shatter Pu Yi's own, allowing Bertolucci to fully explore his passion for national and sexual politics as the emperor, like China itself, makes up for centuries of static social systems with tumultuous changes in a short period of time.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin, 2011)

I have always defended cynicism, even outright despair, as a valid form of creative expression from those who feel that all art must affirm. One cannot tell an artist how to feel, and to deny very real human emotions from the artistic equation, or to insist that those emotions be subsumed into a more palatable conclusion, is naïve nonsense. But Martha Marcy May Marlene, Sean Durkin's feature debut, displays such tawdry, put-upon nihilism that I would have preferred the most reality-blind Hollywood cheese to its technically immaculate wallowing.

The title refers to three names the protagonist uses at different times over the course of the film, "Marcy May" joining two of the words into one rustic sobriquet. Her real name is Martha (Elizabeth Olsen), a title she gets back upon escaping a cult in upstate New York and contacting her estranged sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson). Despite sporting a bruised ear and audibly trembling when she calls Lucy for help, Martha does not get taken to a hospital, the police, or even a therapist. Instead, Lucy and her husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy), bring Martha back to their vacation home in Connecticut where they behave as if everything is now instantly back to normal. But as flashbacks illuminate what happened to the younger sister, the belligerent attitudes of all three in the present become not merely grating but noxious, and Martha Marcy May Marlene quickly establishes itself as a movie in which things only ever get worse, not for dark comedy but plodding, hopelessly tedious stabs at psychological drama.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Shame (Steve McQueen, 2011)

Michael Fassbender only just exploded on the international scene a few years ago, but to see him in Shame, one half expects him to keel over any second. After coming to everyone's attention as the physically emaciated IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands in Steve McQueen's debut Hunger, Fassbender re-teams with the director to play a spiritually hollowed figure. The soullessness of sex addict Brandon pokes through the actor's buff frame, turning his pale flesh gray, his lined face turned skeletal with self-consuming lust. It is a deeply unsettling performance, one that uses Fassbender's attractive physicality and body language against itself to make every seductive pose more predatory than smoldering.

McQueen and editor Joe Walker establish the prison Brandon has erected around himself with a circular opening defined by the harsh sounds of a light switch turned on after nights of carnal pleasures, the disgusted whipping back of blinds to let in the light of the world from which Brandon hides, and the grinding subway train where he scopes out potential conquests on his way to work. As he hungrily gazes upon a married woman who struggles vainly against his devilish spell, the audience sees Brandon's routine of sex, be it hiring prostitutes, watching Internet porn or masturbating at work. So effective is the opening that mere wisps of recurring images—such as the bathroom door at work—instantly trigger graphic memories. But that closed-loop cutting only locks the film itself into the icy bourgeois surroundings of its protagonist, allowing McQueen to show off without having to do anything with his technical skill.