Monday, December 14, 2009

Backwards and Forwards: 2002

Film I Keep Trying to Adore: Through the 90s, Ralph Fiennes was to me what Sean Penn is/was to me in the 00s, and if you don't know what that means, you're obviously new to this site. So the idea of Fiennes hooking up with David Cronenberg, not only one of my favorite working directors but one uniquely well-matched to cerebral thesps, yielded shock waves of anticipation. Amy Taubin, easily my favorite publishing critic for quite a long spell, loved Spider so much at the Cannes Film Festival that she instantly promoted it to her list of top ten films of all time, and I haven't noticed that she has retrenched from that position. Lots of people I know are passionate about the film, and even experienced it as the occasion when Cronenberg's experiments with subjectivity, his exploration of constitutive melancholy, and his bracing knacks for framing and formal tension all came together most succinctly, hauntingly, and despondently. I can't say I have ever quite connected. Of course I bum-rushed the movie on opening night, only to experience my coolest first impression of a Cronenberg film since The Dead Zone. (I don't count M. Butterfly and would prefer if you didn't either.)

I felt similarly about Spider as I had about Almodóvar's All About My Mother—which would actually be a great replacement title for Spider. That is, the "distillation" of several ideas, formal and thematic, that the filmmaker had been exploring for some time had, for me, the deleterious effect of rubbing down a lot of the edges and odd excesses that I most adored in his work. It had even pushed him, from my point of view, toward a worrying precipice of blatant overstatement. The webs, cracks, and zigzags all over the mise-en-scène, the triple-casting of Miranda Richardson, the gas motif, the transparently artificial sets and collapsed depth of field... all of it was handled with consummate proficiency, but the flip side of this, for me, was a certain lack of excitement. And rather than troubling the boundaries between the real and the solipsistic, as Dead Ringers and Naked Lunch do to such devastating effect, Spider is emphatically marked as at all times subjective, to such an extent that the stakes of what Spider did, remembers doing, didn't do, or fantasizes having done seemed significantly lowered. Many people had that reaction to Cronenberg's previous film, eXistenZ, but all of the weird gristle and unexpected humor of that movie allowed Cronenberg to connect with the audience in new ways, while still following his point to some pitiless extremes. Spider strikes me as similarly dogged, but not actually new. It doesn't even feel new to itself: what you get in the beginning, or at least what you intuit, is still what you're getting at the end. That said, it's hard not to admire on all technical grounds, and the edits and images have exerted more emotional power on my latest retry, earlier this month. As it happened, as critical enthusiasm intensified even further around A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, both of which I found even less subtle, I have grown more interested in Spider as a sort of pivot-point in Cronenberg's hypnotic body of work. I'll be due for another revisit in a few years, though the poor flick is probably doomed to be inadequate to the combined force of my initial hope and my now-desperate beggary that it make itself available to me as an object of love.

More Films I Might Have Underestimated: Nothing so dramatic to espouse about these others, but I've suspected for a while that Distant/Uzak has more going for it than I initially conceded, if only from the standpoint of framing and palette. Strangely for a queer-studies scholar, I really hate it when every other kind of conflict or problem in a movie has to be overcoded as a sexual hangup, so I got sour on City of God as it increasingly packaged the villain's multiple treacheries as doomed compensation for his sexual impotence. Boring, reductive, and, uh, boring. I already thought the film was a bit heedlessly sensationalizing of itself, but I could probably coach myself to be less actively, additionally annoyed by that particular trope. I liked The Man without a Past but have never understood why people who love it love it; when I'm in those positions, I wish I had a clearer memory of the movie to go on. The narrative distension and uneven performances in Minority Report and every single awful thing in Road to Perdition probably got in the way of my taking their formal achievements more seriously. I'll never be a full-on fan, but I'm curious, perhaps perversely in the case of the Mendes, to at least dip my toe one more time.

Films I Might Have Overestimated: I already demoted In America from its initial Top Ten placement once the sensual vibrancy and emotional immediacy of the film, on first impression, translated the second time as a kind of embarrassing naïveté with regard to plot, setting, and character. I still like the filmmaking and the acting, but it's impossible to cozy up completely to the film and its airbrushed sensibilities. I thought Full Frontal was quite a pip at the time but have never heard another positive word about it, and since I can barely remember the film, I'm curious to re-investigate. My assertion that Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood is no better or worse than Nicole Holofcener's critically embraced Lovely & Amazing should perhaps have come at the severer expense of the latter picture than as an indulgent B–'ing of the first, though I'm not going to lie, I did like a lot of the Ya-Ya performances (especially Judd's) and its candid, brassy playing to the rafters. 25th Hour is a bit goopier than I initially felt, and Edward Norton's narcissistic star persona seems even more smeared across the protagonist's arc: HELP me be less handsome! he implores. Please TRY! Still love Pepper, Cox, Hoffman, and Prieto's photography, though.

One Way or Another, I'm Curious to Re-Encounter: This is a rum bunch, but if you invited me to cherry-pick five movies from 2002 that on first introduction I half liked and half didn't, albeit to varying degrees, and which I can imagine reacting to in absolutely any way on second pass, I'd look for the graceless but powerful documentary Afghanistan Year 1380; the gorgeously scored and designed Punch-Drunk Love, which just fell apart for me in its strident and truncated final third; the potent but too bluntly miserabilist Lilja 4-ever; the almost fully imitative but nonetheless unexpected and intriguing Gerry; and the engagingly cock-eyed, annoyingly self-loving Divine Intervention.

Performances I'm Most Eager to Revisit: The rise of Kristen Stewart has probably ruined things for Agnes Bruckner, who's just enough of a lookalike, and with a similar screen persona, that at best, she'll be shuffling through Stewart's leavings for a few years to come. Still, Stewart has never been as interesting as were Bruckner and her predictably excellent scene partner David Strathairn in Blue Car, from Dead Girl director Karen Moncrieff. I was a little snoozy during The Quiet American and could have given Michael Caine a fairer shake; plus, I get irritated that every time he stars in a new picture, he insists that it's the best work he's ever done, but we're out of that off-putting PR moment now. I had plenty of problems with About Schmidt, many of them spread around the supporting cast, but I remember Jack Nicholson acquitting himself rather well, and would like to reassess just how good he is. Parker Posey got all the acting buzz from Personal Velocity, and she deserved a lot of it, but I remember Fairuza Balk being just as strong, and just as deft in flexing her usual typecasting. Eddie Griffin was rather a joy in Undercover Brother, a giddy blast of mall-movie oxygen that I'd be happy to pick back up for any number of reasons.

Top Ten Films Still to Catch from 2002:
1. Abouna (Chad), dir. Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, from Tim's Top 100
2. Bloody Sunday (UK), dir. Paul Greengrass, before he officially ruled
3. The Politics of Fur (USA), dir. Laura Nix, updating Petra von Kant
4. 24 Hour Party People (UK), dir. Michael Winterbottom
5. Japón (Mexico), dir. Carlos Reygadas, his first time out
6. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (South Korea), dir. Park Chan-wook
7. K-19: The Widowmaker (USA), dir. Kathryn Bigelow
8. Madame Satã (Brazil), dir. Karim Ainouz, with Lázaro Ramos
9. Waiting for Happiness (Mauritania), dir. Abderrahmane Sissako
10. The Business of Fancydancing (USA), dir. Sherman Alexie

Runners-up: The Oscar-nommed documentary Balseros; Argentinean attention magnet El Bonaerense; Carnage, a trophy winner for Delphine Gleize; South Korea's Chihwaseon, co-winner of Best Director at Cannes; the noted Bangladeshi drama The Clay Bird; the dark cult comedy Death to Smoochy; the Bollywood juggernaut Devdas; Dog Soldiers, from Descentmeister Neil Marshall; Mumblecore kick-starter Funny Ha Ha; the film version of The Laramie Project; Susanne Bier's Dogme film Open Hearts; Thornton Wilder with urban style in OT: Our Town; well-reviewed street drama Paid in Full; John Malkovich getting his Highsmith on in Ripley's Game; Stevie, a strongly received documentary by Hoop Dreams helmer Steve James; the legendary David Gulpilil in Rolf de Heer's The Tracker; The Uncertainty Principle, from the indefatigable Manoel de Oliveira; Jia Zhangke again, this time for Unknown Pleasures; the drag king documentary Venus Boyz; and Women's Prison, a cousin of The Circle. Extra citation for David Lynch's web-based animated series DumbLand.



Blogger David said...

These retrospectives are incredible and ceaselessly interesting. Thank you very much for posting them, as they have been reviving my interest in film. For whatever reason, I've hit the theater probably once, maybe twice, in 2009. I don't know what happened but somewhere along the line I just stopped investing time in film. But you have reminded me that film is its own language and that it has a lot to bring to the table and is very much a unique, important art form. I think what contributed to my disillusionment with cinema was a lack of intellectual stimulation. But you are so intellectual in your approach to cinema that I can't help feeling that I just wasn't looking hard enough! Seriously, I know I always say this stuff but I really do appreciate your writings. Maybe one day I'll revive my film blog and jump back into this very exciting discourse.

1:59 AM, December 14, 2009  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

A huge compliment, David, not least coming from you. Thanks, and I hope all is well with you, whatever you're up to these days.

2:10 AM, December 14, 2009  
Blogger David said...

Oh, and I'm finally glad to hear some of your thoughts on City of God. I always wondered what lay behind the "B." It's interesting: I regarded that film as an undeniable masterpiece back in 2004 when I finally convinced my parents to let me see it. But lately it hasn't seemed quite as undeniable. I felt this initial punch to the gut, maybe because I was 15 and had never seen anything like it, even formally speaking. Now, I feel there is something missing, but I can't put my finger on it (I have to say, I never even picked up on the violence as sexual compensation thing). It seems to just roll along, episode after episode, until the conclusive implication of cyclical violence. Sometimes, despite what you've identified as a one-note political agenda, I even feel more satisfied by The Constant Gardener as a viewing experience (and I just cannot get over how much I love Rachel Weisz).

2:12 AM, December 14, 2009  
Blogger Sam Brooks said...

Great write-up, and I'm really enjoying all of them, especially the different films you mention. You don't often see Spider, Road to Perdition or Abouna in the same post and I'm loving these.

I think Punch-Drunk Love is the hardest sell of any of PTA's films, even Hard Eight. I've always thought that in the context of his filmography, it perhaps might mean more than it does on it's own? But I've been able to love it as much as I do his other films; it seems like such a tart, simplistic effort from an ambitious filmmaker. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.)

In saying that, I think Emily Watson is underappreciated in the film, and that's the only concrete thing I can say about it. It's an odd beast to comprehend, much moreso than his larger, more complex films

2:42 AM, December 14, 2009  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@David: Well, having not seen it since its theatrical release, I'm not in a position to say, but I can easily imagine having your experience... including being more satisfied by Constant Gardener as entertainment or as storytelling, despite its being less "good" as a movie.

@Brook: Thanks, as ever. You have nailed exactly my residual sense of Punch-Drunk Love and the respective contexts in which it does and doesn't seem like an "important" film. And I agree, based on nine-year-old memory, that Watson was doing yeoman's work in that part and making it look effortless. More than that: charming, winning.

3:09 AM, December 14, 2009  
Blogger Tim said...

I have to say that you've inspired me to revisit City of God and make sure I like it as much as I think I do; I'd been fairly unthinkingly letting it hang out in my decade top 10, but I haven't seen it in two years... never, ever picked up on the sexual nature of the violence, so I certainly want to take a good look for that.

If you're looking for another positive word about Full Frontal, here's one: the use of deliberately crappy video as a means to "break" cinema beat David Lynch to the punch by four years, and it gets bonus points for being, if I recall right, the only Soderbergh film to actively engage with the fact that people like to have sex. I'm actually giving some thought to writing a full-on review about that movie in the next couple of months as part of my own decade retrospective, so I want to hang on to most of my thoughts. But know that someone out there things it's a real nifty film. I actually prefer it, by a good margin, to Solaris.

Of your "still to catch" list, I will stake all my reputation on Bloody Sunday as an outstanding docudrama, and maybe my favorite Greengrass film (ah, but I do love Ultimatum...); it's everything good about United 93, but it does a much better job of justifying its own existence.

3:59 PM, December 14, 2009  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@David and @Tim: So now I'm worried I'm inventing a memory. Doesn't it come out at a certain point that not only does Lil Z&#233 have his eye on the same gal (the Alice Braga character) that the hero feels sweet on, but that he has some kind of impotence or small-endowment problem, or an inability to grasp why he has been rejected by the woman he "loves"? Let me down easy if it turns out I'm crazy.

4:06 PM, December 14, 2009  
Blogger Robert Hamer said...

I don't think so.

From what I remember, Angélica (the Alice Braga character) was Rocket's dream girl but ended up with Li'l Zé's best friend Benny. Li'l Zé was never "in love" with any female character, nor did he have a problem with impotence or size, though later on in the film Rocket narrated that Zé had a problem with women because he was ugly and treated them like crap.

Damn, now I want to watch it all of the sudden...

5:55 PM, December 14, 2009  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

That could easily be what I'm thinking of. I just never want to hear about the supervillain's trouble with women. The same trope came up, even more heavy-handedly, in This Is England, and though I'm not trying to call this out as a deal-breaker for me, it's just usually the sign for me of a movie that already has annoyingly simple lines of good and evil and a moralizing or schematic approach to sexuality. (None of which is meant to cover over the fact that it sounds like, in the particulars, I plum remembered wrong!)

6:16 PM, December 14, 2009  
Blogger Glenn Dunks said...

The Tracker is definitely worth watching, but Death to Smootchy is truly abominable.

9:00 PM, December 14, 2009  
Blogger Ed Howard said...

For what it's worth, I pretty much agree about Spider, which I found very disappointing in comparison to earlier Cronenberg films. Ditto History of Violence, though I thought Eastern Promises was a return to form precisely because it was messier, less controlled, more lurid in its images and ideas.

Gerry remains a favorite for me from this year, after I saw it in a press screening at Willard Straight Hall, all alone in the theater, alone with that big expanse of sand and sky stretching above me: probably the perfect way to experience that lonely and harrowing film. I love its opening, subtle tribute to Derek Jarman's Blue, as well: a flash of a blue screen before the film proper starts, a preview of the bleakness and death ahead.

I remember seeing The Business of Fancydancing and absolutely hating it, but I couldn't tell you why now.

A 2002 favorite for me is Marina de Van's challenging, terrifying In My Skin. Also, two relatively obscure documentaries: Jonas Leddington's Balance Beams, about a festival of experimental music in Tokyo, and Martina Kudlacek's In the Mirror of Maya Deren, a great tribute to the avant garde filmmaker.

I'm loving these writeups, what a great idea. I don't know how you knock them out so quickly, either; I can never keep up.

8:39 AM, December 15, 2009  
Blogger CCW said...

I totally agree about Bruckner and Strathairn in Blue Car. It's not without its flaws, but, to me, a much truer coming-of-age tale involving a May-December relationship than An Education. Too bad it was one of the films that Miramax basically threw away before the departure of the Weinsteins (and don't even get me started on what they did to the DVD cover - ugh!). I didn't admire The Dead Girl as much as this one, but it had some powerful moments (and a great cast) and I'm interested to see what Moncrieff will come up with next.

4:32 PM, December 17, 2009  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Ed: Thanks for such a detailed comment. I remember you cited Gerry in WSH as a pivotal experience for you. I'm definitely an In My Skin fan, and I've heard great things about that Deren doc, though I've never heard of Balance Beams. Thanks for being so kind about the series.

@CCW: Wonderful to hear! The DVD box-cover art for Blue Car is truly a horror show, considering the perspective of the movie, and I think it absolutely counts as a one-film dressing-down of An Education. I wish more people could see it, even though I regret that the people for whom it will probably register most have almost inevitably lived through something they'd prefer to forget.

11:28 PM, December 17, 2009  

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