Jul 27, 2008

Man on Wire

What this poignant, entertaining documentary about Phillipe Petit, the man who walked a tightrope between the twin towers, brings to mind is this:
The idiotic bastards who brought those towers down had the same level of obsession, a similar degree of preparedness, the same degree of human impossibility, the same amount of singlemindedness, and were equally illegal and suicidal, but Petit and the people who helped him performed a feat that brought wonder, beauty and poetry to the world.

Jul 26, 2008

Step Brothers is Meta

I hate Summer movies. But what better thing to do on a sticky day than watch a silly Will Ferrell vehicle?
I was not swayed by the humorless review the otherwise estimable Manohla (I love the spelling) Dargis gave it. It seems to me that Ms. Dargis missed the point. I too, am a bit tired of the immature man genre. I agree with Miss Dargis that it is starting to get boring and stale. However, Step Brothers seems to me to be a parody of the genre. These guys are so Meta! And as opposed to the almost cloying man-sweetness beneath Mr. Apatow's oeuvre, Step Brothers is slightly darker and willing to go to slightly more uncomfortable places (like Americans in general stop being such pop culture retards or hitting children in their little nuts and showing them for the brutal tyrants they can be). Step Brothers is the story of two 40 year old men who behave like 5 year olds. The premise is funny because they are still living at home with their parents, the very sporting and wonderful Mary Steenburgen and Richard Jenkins, who proves to be surprisingly adept at comedy. Of course there is too much gross out humor but there are also very funny digs at the state of affairs of the American man-child today and very funny skewering of the kinds of things that obsess the minds of nerds. John C. Reilly is a perfect buddy for Ferrell, and I like to remember that I saw him shine on Broadway in True West, a Sam Shepard play, and that before he started hitting it big with silly comedies, he was a damn fine actor. And still is. Truly sweet, even when he is super mean.
Yes, Step Brothers doesn't come close to the levels of genius of Talladega Nights, which if you must know is one of my all time favorites, or Blades of Glory, which I found a total hoot, or Anchorman, which is the eminence grise of the Ferrell canon, but it's funny enough.

Jul 24, 2008

I'm not going to see these movies

1. Batman. The Dark Knight. I simply don't have the koiches (the strength). I don't have the strength for car chases and violence and explosions. These things bore me as much as an Eric Rohmer film.
And the shameless publicity with the departed Heath Ledger... no wonder my boyfriend (unbeknownst to him) Christian Bale was mean to his family in London. He's Batman and no one is paying any attention to him. Let me say this again: Heath Ledger was overrated when the poor thing was alive. Now they are talking about giving him an Oscar. I don't think dead actors should compete in the best acting category. Dead actors, like Leona Helmsley's dog, have no idea that they won. Or conversely, in the case of that stupid dog, that instead of 25 million dollars, now they only get to keep two.

2. Mamma Mía!. I love Abba (anybody got a problem with that?), but this movie sounds like an extended giant cringe. I prefer my Abba in the original version, mostly when drunk. I also think that musicals that are based on pop hits that were never intended to be narrative or part of a show should be banned. I still get nausea when I remember that I sat through the Billy Joel/Twyla Tharp extravaganza (please don't ask).

But I will see Man on Wire, a documentary about Phillipe Petit, the Frenchman who walked a tightrope between the twin towers. And I will see Boy A, which I know nothing about except that Peter Mullen is in it and we love him.

Jul 22, 2008


Hate to break it to you guys, but I didn't love it. I liked a lot of it, but something left me dissatisfied. I recently watched Ratatouille, another Disney/Pixar production, and had the same reaction. Certain moments are wonderful, but the whole leaves me rather cold.
Racking my brains to see why I am such a killjoy, these are my conclusions:

• I have yet to see a Pixar movie where the human characters have some edge, some charisma. I call it the Mickey Mouse vs Daffy Duck theory. Mickey Mouse is a cloying little creature -- he is essentially good and therefore, boring; Daffy Duck is a sociopath, a deeply narcissistic nutjob. I am wholly in the camp of Daffy Duck. The Pixar heroes, however, have Mickey's kitschy genes. They are always these blobs without edge, these American innocents. The meanies are not much better. There is no joy in them. They get talented actors to do the voices and, in some cases, the characters are unmemorable ciphers. This is the case with the two lovers in Ratatouille. The guy is simply not funny. They got Janeane Garofalo to voice the female cook and they took the bite and the sass out of her, which is quite an achievement.
The heroes tend to be immature bumbling idiots, while the love interest is the feisty (or actually quite aggressive) female who is so much more mature and no-nonsense than the nerdy guy. She always needs to be melted, her defenses stripped away by the shy, painful advances of the poor guy. If this is not a myth, I don't know what is, but it is the currency in American movies today, including Pixar's. It is certainly an improvement over a dumb blonde, but it is starting to get super stale. And it worries me about the panicked state of the American male, that they are so cowed in the presence of females.
Now, Wall•e is truly adorable. Sweet and efficient and quirky, he is a great silent film comedian (and strongly indebted to E.T, particularly the voice, which is lovely). I just wish they would have spent more time developing his quirks. Eve is gorgeous, an egg shaped, white metallic wonder, (as one critic said, she could have been invented by Apple), but her character is boring. The fact that she is quick with a trigger doesn't mean she has an edge. She is kind of a humorless scold. She is no match for Wall•e in terms of charm, and that's a pity.

• Having said this, the way these characters are infused with feeling is quite marvelous. You can see Wall•e fall in love and the process is movingly realized. (SPOILER ALERT)
There is an amazing scene towards the end where he loses his personality/soul/memory. He becomes a lump of junk and you realize all the life the animators have infused him with. It is kind of show-offy but it is really stunning.

• It doesn't matter whether the story takes place in Paris or in a depleted Planet Earth or in space. The stories are always deeply conventional bromides. "Believe in yourself", "Love conquers all", "It's good to be special", etc. Not that there is anything wrong with these sentiments, but they are tired, and no amount of fabulous animation can disguise them. Now, if the writers would expend the same amount of creativity in the stories as they do in the conjuring up of the settings, and the creation of characters, these movies would truly be artistic genius. Since animation is the realm of the impossible, they tend to come up with stunning worlds. Axiom, the starship where humans are lounging away from Earth, is wonderful fun. My favorite scene in Ratatouille is when the mouse is carried away by the rapids in the Paris sewers. The way the water moves and swallows him is truly a wonder. But then there is something formulaic and mechanical and constraining about the obligatory chases and the set pieces and the conventional plots. The animation is so rich and complex, and the stories are so basic.

• Every time I see a Pixar movie, while I may marvel at the increasing technical excellence (and wonder why they still can't make truly enduring human characters), I end up pining for conventional animation; for the expressive power of the line of the flat drawing. (I strongly recommend Persepolis.)

• My favorite Pixar film so far is The Incredibles. It is not only gorgeous, but it is a very sly poke at Bush and the loss of standing of America in the world, quite a topic for an animated film.
Wall•e is an overly didactic cautionary tale about the environment. Even though we all harbor green sentiments, nobody likes a lecture, no matter how couched it is in splendid animation. My sister reports that the Mini Enchiladitos, who are rabid and discerning filmgoers, did not like Wall•e. I don't blame them; it isn't really a movie for kids. It does poke some harsh criticism at our lazy, spoiled American ways, and it presents a very sobering and scary future where the Earth has become a giant landfill, but it's some nerve for Disney to be giving us lip about all the junk we buy and about the evil of giant corporations. I wonder if they are not giving away plastic Wall•es in the Happy Meals as we speak.

• Lastly, the movies are too long. Animation is very difficult to sustain in a long format. The way Pixar solves this conundrum is by piling up the action sequences at regular intervals., but the adult mind is so cluttered that one gets bored. And if I got bored, I wonder about the children. Wall•e also has a jerky rhythm. No sooner do they indulge in a beautiful, lyrical scene (and there are two or three of them, magnificent) when they seem to remember they have to get to the crazy action. It doesn't flow.

Before the film they showed a Pixar short about a magician and his ravenous, and therefore uncooperative, bunny rabbit. Although it was executed with all the Pixar gloss and panache, it was a classic violent cartoon in the vein of Tom and Jerry or the Warner Brothers cartoons. It was fast, funny and exhilarating. The kids loved it.

Jul 8, 2008

Short film = toddler

Making a short film is like having a toddler. Once he's out of the womb, it's a full time job to keep the creature alive and in festivals. It is also as expensive, almost.
This is mainly the reason why I haven't been able to write this week.
I'm happy to report that our humble short Close Relations has been selected for the Palm Springs International Film Festival, the first festival in US to invite our short. Close Relations was screened at Swansea Life in Wales (in competition for best short) and is due to be at the Salento Film Festival in Italy, all of which makes its mother extremely proud. But until Palm Springs came calling, I was wondering why the Americans did not want to play with my child. As the very perceptive Magnificent Arepa pointed out, perhaps the demographics of Palm Springs (retired people) make it relevant for the festival (my short is about an older gentleman hitting on his niece).
I'd like to think it's because it is a brilliant piece of filmmaking, but I'm the mother.

Jul 5, 2008

Tell No One

An epic tale of yank my chain. 
I wonder if our poor film critics watch so much crap that they get overly excited by stuff that just isn't that great. The movie in question is Tell No One, by Guillaume Canet (not to be confused with Laurent Cantet of Human Resources and this year's Palme d'Or winner), a French movie that tries too hard to be American and fails in any nationality, as far as I'm concerned. It is based on an American pulp novel, and I'll be damned if Hollywood is not getting the rights to do a remake as we speak. This may be the first case in history where the end result (explosions and chases included) may actually be an improvement. At least it will certainly be shorter.
Tell No One starts promisingly, and extremely leisurely, as a thriller about a wrongly accused man who is confronted by revelations that come to haunt him from a tragic past. But for a thriller, it is way too long and too obsessed in tying all the knots, which are way too many and too complicated. As much as I like movies in which the audience is kept guessing, after a while I felt I was not only kept guessing but I was being twirled around on an endless revolving chain for the sake of intricate plotting. At the end, one needs the Paris phone book to keep track of who did what to who. It's all very clever, but it almost seems like an empty exercise in genre. I say almost because some of it is quite good. The acting is mostly superb, particularly by the character actors, a who is who of French actors. I enjoyed Kristin Scott Thomas immensely, and Jean Rochefort, and François Berleand and Nathalie Baye (no botox, people, and looking fabulous). But the main hero, François Cluzet, a taller, Gallic Dustin Hoffman, although a very good actor, seems to have no discernible character. Is he supposed to be an Everyman? Perhaps, but how boring. An interesting point of the movie is, do you really know who you love? Do you really think you know your spouse? Do you even know your life? This poor man's convictions are sorely tested, but one never really feels that he could be hiding something himself. It would have been more interesting if he had motives or ambiguities, or he wasn't such a saint.
There is one extremely well staged chase scene, where he escapes on foot and the climax is a thrilling, masterfully executed action sequence. I also liked the fact that this nice man, a pediatrician who works for the state, is connected to all the layers of French society, from street hoodlum patients to his well connected wife, and both are related by family or community to bureaucrats, aristocrats, entrepeneurs, the police and the dispossessed. So in the course of his ordeal we see the gamut of a society where, like everywhere else, the rich get away with murder because they can, there may be plenty of liberté, but not much fraternité and much less egalité.
This kind of thriller is contrived by nature. People in real life who are wrongly accused usually end up in death row without the luxury of chase scenes or glamorous games of cat and mouse. Therefore, in order to be more meaningful, the plot movers, the characters, should have lots of intriguing personality. Otherwise they are like levers that are there to keep the plot machinery going. The third act of Tell No One is an endless, unwieldy exposition of what indeed happened. It feels like you've been taken for a ride, you've been slightly toyed with. At almost three hours long, it's rather Proustian if only in length, and quite exhausting, yet without the richly observed personal detail that would have made it far more crisp and enjoyable. It's all very smart, but it lacks major bite.
But this is the power of gushing reviews: sold out on a holiday weekend. You could certainly do much worse than Tell No One, but I expected much better.