Feb 28, 2011

Famous Last Words

Oh, well! Predictably, pretty much everything that was expected to win won and the Academy once again picked a perfectly safe crowd-pleaser over more interesting choices. Best director was rather disappointing.  Fincher looked pissed throughout.
The ceremony was rather weird. Long in places and rushed in others. Devoid of real star power, as far as I'm concerned. Where are the cuts to the stars being bored out of their wits or saying catty things to each other?
The opening montage was nice if a bit long. James Franco seemed shellshocked and devoid of his usual charm, but Miss Hathaway was a trooper. She seemed to be having a good time, which is more that can be said for anyone else, both there and watching at home.
I love Kirk Douglas as much as anybody, but I don't understand why they chose him to give the supporting actress award, or any award. There are a lot of older stars in Hollywood.  Did they have to pick the oldest one? 
Except for Natalie Portman and Colin Firth, who gave articulate and gracious speeches, actors who win Oscars should have Aaron Sorkin write their acceptance speeches and memorize them, instead of making asses of themselves as Melissa Leo and Christian Bale did. Leo is a great actress, but I like her characters much more than I like her.  I wonder if all that plastic surgery is going to land her more of the gritty roles that make her a living.
As far as I could tell, Bale thanked everybody in the galaxy, except the director who hired him. He also seemed to blank out on the name of his wife. But that is more understandable.
Good for Charles Ferguson for reminding everybody that criminals are still at large.
Yay for Trent Reznor! 
I'm pleased that Biutiful didn't win, as it did not deserve to.
Poor Roger Deakins. He's becoming the Susan Lucci of the Oscars. And not a consolation bone for True Grit. Still, Hailee Steinfeld was spared the curse of the supporting actress win. Lucky girl.
Why bring out Eli Wallach, Coppola and the other guy for a nanosecond without properly explaining what for?
My favorite part, the obits, was marred by the presence of Celine Dion, who mars everything with her presence. Also, it was too short.
I miss the introductions to the Best Picture nominees. Jumbling the 10 of them together was confusing. Each film deserves a tiny bit of spotlight, no?
The rest, frankly, is a blur. 
ABC is not to be forgiven for not having a red carpet where we can actually see the stars and the dresses. I'm going to write a letter of complaint.

Feb 27, 2011

Predictions Shmedictions

The game of predicting who is going to win the Oscars is a little maddening. On the one hand there never seem to be any surprises and the people who win all the other awards, win this one too. On the other hand, predictions are made (unless you got money on it) with a combination of wishful thinking, conventional wisdom, past awards and resignation.
Everybody seems to think that The King's Speech is a lock. It is deeply popular, it has won everything under the sun and it is a classy feel good movie, in a style that tends to be adored by the apparently overwhelmingly geriatric contingent that votes.
Having said this, I believe there is a strong possibility for an upset. And that would be The Social Network, a bona fide American movie about something that is not only happening in this day and age, but that is literally changing the world as we know it. Just like last year, improbably, but absolutely rightly, the Academy awarded The Hurt Locker because it was a statement about Iraq, even though nobody saw it and it didn't really make money (and it was competing against Avatar!), this year, they may decide to vote for a homegrown quality product that reflects the world we live in, not some Hallmark Card fantasy of the past.
At least that would make the proceedings more exciting.

Feb 25, 2011

On DVD: Two Creepy French Films

A poetic French horror movie by Georges Franju, Eyes Without a Face (1959) is one classic film that no lover of horror should miss. You are not going to jump 13 times out of your seat. You are not going to see lots of gore and torn limbs. This movie burrows under your skin, a deeply disturbing fantasy on the destructive power of love and guilt. I don't like cheap scares like obvious music cues and gratuitous jumps. Gore bores and disgusts me. Eyes Without A Face has little of these, but it is the stuff of nightmares, and a masterpiece of atmosphere. A famous plastic surgeon (the wonderful, bone dry Pierre Brasseur) is trying to create the first successful face transplant. His daughter has lost her face in a car accident and now he wants to replace it. For that he needs another fresh, young human face. And it can't be from someone dead. So we're off to a good start. Behind all great horror movies there is a personal, human story that transcends the scares. The Shining is not about twin ghosts or rivers of blood coming from an elevator. It's about a man who hates his family. Rosemary's Baby is about the subconscious fear of having children, not about a satanic cult of adorable old geezers. Great horror stories go to the deepest recesses of our subconscious and deal with primal, heavy stuff. So here, Dr. Genessier, a tyrannical control freak who apparently provoked the accident with his arrogant driving, wants to make it up to his poor daughter Christiane, who now doesn't have a face. For that purpose, he is able to forgo his human sympathy for anybody else. He enlists, as a willing accomplice, a woman (Alida Valli) who is beholden to him because he once restored her face. She will do anything for him, including murder. And the kicker is, they are doing horrible things for love!
Franju trusts that our imagination can provide the gory details. We never really see her disfigurement (had it been made today, we'd have endless close ups of severed arteries and live nerves). Christiane has a mask, and you know how effective masks are at creeping the bejesus out of anyone. Her mask is like a mannequin's face through which we only see her big, sad eyes. It is creepy and beautiful at the same time. Still, I'm pretty sure this must have been the first time someone showed quite graphically, although thankfully in black and white, a scalpel cutting through a human face and then lifting it off. This reminded me of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a truly frightening movie. The villain in that movie did not have the luck to have Dr. Genessier as his plastic surgeon. Dr. Genessier is one of the most accurate portrayals of a doctor I've ever seen on film. He has the self-importance of someone who saves lives, is coldly professional and quite arrogant (a pre-condition for sociopathy). He looks at everyone as if they were amoebas under his microscope, but in one scene, he visits a little boy in the hospital and he is tender and caring. For some reason that I can't comprehend, his warmth in this scene makes him all the more creepy. 

The Butcher (1969) is one of Claude Chabrol's many elegant incursions into evil. In his movies, evil blooms in broad daylight, among the commonplace. Here it dwells in the bucolic French countryside, where the principal of a school, the great Stephane Audran, meets a war veteran from the French adventures in Algeria and Indochina, who is the town's butcher (Jean Yanne). The movie starts with a long wedding banquet scene that has one wondering why Chabrol is not in any rush to get his story going. You get tickets for a thriller and you are stuck in a pastorale. But soon murdered women start appearing in the woods. We kind of expect the butcher to be the killer. He has been in the war, and seems embittered and alienated, though he also could be an inoffensive schmo (albeit with a butcher knife). He's the guy that instead of bringing flowers to the schoolteacher, brings her a leg of lamb.
But you have to pay attention to the details. He talks about his father with too much contempt, and in an amazing bit of dialogue, to the townspeople in his shop that are traumatized by the murder of one girl, he counters, calmly, that he was in two wars and saw many men blown to pieces, as if one measly girl wasn't such a big deal.
There are 2 amazing set pieces in this movie. One involves a schoolgirl innocently eating a sandwich and thinking it's raining in a sunny, cloudless day, and the other one is Audran, a master at sangfroid, suddenly becoming afraid in her own house. One flick of a switch and Chabrol has you trembling with fear. 
These are the thrills I love best. Smart, rooted in reality and wicked. There is nothing scarier than human nature.

Feb 21, 2011

Roll Credits!

Thanks to my fellow film blogger Ernesto Diezmartinez for alerting me for this nifty list of the 50 best opening sequences in the history of film
A wonderful way to procrastinate! Enjoy!

Feb 19, 2011

Cold Weather

Who was the critic who said he liked Cold Weather (was it you, Richard Brody?), because I'd like to murder him.
When will I learn to trust my own instincts and not believe the hype of people who sit at mumblecore movies, desperately looking for reasons to like them?
A character blinked: OMG! Action!
I liked two things about Cold Weather: the music and the cinematography. But to think that I spent 13 dollars and wasted almost 2 hours of my time on this amateurish non-event really pisses me off. I cannot fathom why young writer-directors like Aaron Katz deem it worth our time to populate their films with actors with zero personality, passive non-entities who keep asking "why?" and saying "I don't know". This is what passes for dramatic dialogue. Scenes of nothing happening succeed each other without much reason. They don't create intimacy or shed light on their opaque and uninteresting characters. I could care less about what a bunch of childish, overprivileged twenty-something moronic hipsters in Portland don't do with the oodles of time they seem to have that I don't. A scene where the protagonists, an affectless brother and sister team, entertain themselves crushing grapes against the sidewalk made me want to commit vandalism against the screen. I cannot abide the smugness of this showy contempt for ambition.
Like my mother would say, "with all the starving children in Africa..."
Cold Weather starts as a rambling, and turtle paced meditation on aimlessness and then it becomes some sort of a detective story, starring really obnoxious and clueless characters. My lids perked up with the promise of action, and to be fair, there were a couple of moments of creepiness. But Katz does not know how to write a scene to completion and he leaves everything hanging: characters, dialogues, sequences, the plot. I don't mind an immature filmmaker, someone who shows promise but is just getting started, but the veneration of adult immaturity, unless it is funny as is sometimes the case in the oeuvre of Judd Apatow or Will Ferrell (who actually make fun of it), is something that unleashes the wrath of Khan in me.

Feb 17, 2011

I love this man:

"To me, smart is sexy".
Stephen Frears, purveyor of crisp, smart movies:

My Beautiful Launderette, where I discovered Daniel Day Lewis.

The Snapper, where I discovered Colm Meaney

Prick Up Your Ears, where I discovered Gary Oldman and Alfred Molina

The Grifters, where I discovered Annette Benning

Dangerous Liaisons, with an unforgettably evil Glenn Close and John Malkovich

The Queen, a great movie.

Rabbit Hole

Nicole Kidman is great in this movie, as are all the actors (Aaron Eckhart, Dianne Wiest, Sandra Oh, Tammy Blanchard, Miles Teller). Many people think that Kidman and other impossibly gorgeous women, like la Jolie, are not good actresses. This is a myth. Kidman is very good. Her celebrity persona notwithstanding, when she is on the screen, she holds your attention with vast reserves of feeling. She is a movie star who can act. The lip problem is a different story. She may have been nominated for her work here, besides her obvious acting chops, for the sheer fact that she let herself be unflatteringly photographed in several scenes. Her new lips are hugely distracting. Her formerly exquisite features, as we all know by now, have been through some extensive renovations that have not improved them. One grieves for the characters in the movie as ruefully as one does for what happened to her face.
Directed by John Cameron Mitchell from a play by David Lindsay-Abaire, Rabbit Hole is an exploration of the unbearable loss of a young child, and what I liked best is the way it is written (screenplay by Lindsay-Abaire). How do people deal with loss? As Lindsay-Abaire knows, with profound sadness, anger, resentment, bewilderment and a dark sense of humor. There are some wonderfully observed heartbreaking moments that  ring totally true and others that seem slightly contrived and melodramatic, but in general the material avoids slipping into bathos. Mitchell's direction is mostly finely calibrated and very sensitive towards the characters. It gives the actors plenty of room to explore deep and conflicting emotions. I was very impressed with young Miles Teller, who has a number of scenes with La Kidman in which he more than holds his own. He and Diane Wiest could be contenders for best supporting actors, as is the always fantastic Sandra Oh, a woman who seems incapable of hitting a false note.
But there is something about the film that doesn't seem to jell. 
At one point it looked to me like the movie was sloppily shot, but I think that it is being screened at the wrong ratio at the Sunshine. The movie is larger than the screen, so in some shots the frame seems totally off balance. Having said this, Mitchell relies too much on coverage (shooting a conversation from the point of view of each character) and the staging seems a little stiff. I was hoping to see more scenes with two characters sharing the frame, instead of all that back and forth with close ups. The symbolic conceit of the rabbit hole is lost in part because of the very conventional, dare I say pedestrian, staging of the film. Obviously, an intimate story like this does not require visual pyrotechnics, but a little visual elan would have helped. However, Mitchell gets a lot of credit for nailing some very emotional scenes in a fresh, realistic way. What makes Rabbit Hole different from any tearjerker of the week is that it challenges the conventions of people who suffer on screen: the characters here are not saints or martyrs, nor is the deck too obviously stacked against them (as is the case in Biutiful). They are regular, grieving humans with wildly different, inappropriate, selfish, and confusing reactions at their loss. Some scenes feel absolutely emotionally raw: a screaming match between Kidman and Eckhart; an astounding moment where Kidman dissolves in tears at an unexpected sight that is all the more true for being almost random and deeply devastating; the not always soothing dynamics of bereavement support groups. All is handled with great intelligence and care. There are, however, several scenes that break this spell of reality and remind us of the artifice of drama: a mother-daughter confrontation at a birthday party in a bowling alley, for instance, feels a little forced. It's a very tough balance, but the movie is poignant and heartfelt without being sentimental. You will tear up, but with good reason. Which is always a plus.

Feb 14, 2011


A very interesting but flawed Argentinian noir by Pablo Trapero, with my honey Ricardo Darín and Trapero's wife Martina Gusman, Carancho is a gripping story about Héctor Sosa, an ambulance chaser who wants out (Darín) and who falls in love with Luján, an ambulance medic (Gusman). The story is phenomenal and Darín as always, excellent, but the movie is marred by some wrongheaded choices. First thing that bothered me was the spastic editing, which feels like the filmmakers don't trust their own story and they barely let their actors breathe life into their roles; they keep cutting abruptly and before the scenes get a chance to bloom. There are several scenes that seem to serve no purpose, while one pines for scenes that illuminate character, particularly hers.
I don't know if Darín is such an authoritative actor that he can create character where it is barely written, but Gusman's character doesn't fare as well. She is sketchily written and although I didn't have issues believing that she would fall for this man, a hack whom Darin succeeds in making not only credible but sympathetic, I had to supply most of her motives because the writers don't bother. At first Luján appears as a no-nonsense, competent medic with a bit of a drug problem. For two thirds of the film, she takes command of every situation with cool headed aplomb. But by the third act she becomes whiny and clingy and even though one can understand her reasons, this seems to be totally out of character. She is like another person. Crying and clinging are supremely uninteresting choices for an actor. The movie collapses under the weight of many incomprehensible choices: there is no real passion between the two main characters. A stylistic reliance on too much blood and a relentlessly dark color palette veer into the grotesque and strain credibility. Plus, the movie has a very contrived ending that is meant to be ironic but had the audience actually laughing. This film is weirdly oblique and baroque at the same time: it skimps on telling detail and overdoes the obvious.
Still, I enjoyed big chunks of it, mainly because the story is so good.
I really liked the fact that it features an Homme Fatale. He is the one who insinuates himself and his attendant chaos into her life, which is great, for a change. And I loved that it depicts a never-ending spiral of endemic cynicism and corruption (lawyers, ambulance drivers, doctors, police: everyone is tainted). In movies involving ambulances and medics, the focus is always on the dangers suffered by the victims, but Carancho shows that ambulance personnel are vulnerable to danger themselves. In one scene, an injured drunk harasses Luján as she is trying to tend to him in the ambulance and there is a darkly comic violent fight between two injured parties that takes place as they are both lying in the E.R. Both incidents are treated with a bracing dose of dark humor. Some of its twists make Carancho feel like a refreshing addition to the genre, but it is a not altogether satisfying film noir.

Feb 9, 2011

Cinema Quote of The Week

This is why I read Anthony Lane:
"What will our planet be like a hundred thousand years from now? All we know for sure is that somewhere in a fetid bedroom, a blogger will still be explaining how amazed, and frankly, insulted he feels that Christopher Nolan was not nominated as best director for Inception at the Academy Awards of 2011".