Friday, December 18, 2009

Backwards and Forwards: 2006

Films I Might Have Underestimated: At some point, I will owe Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth a second try. Cinematography Oscar aside, I thought the lighting was a bit hard and flat, and I didn't care for the way the girl had been directed. Which is to say, I never cared what happened to Ofelia. But the biggest sin for me was that the politics were so flatly uncomplicated (the fascists are brute, obvious savages! the Resistance could hardly be more heroic!), and especially when compared to all the confrontationally strange imagery and tones elsewhere in the movie, that central dichotomy and the relations between the underworld and the "real" world never felt as complex as I wanted them to. Even a clichéd version of the charismatic antagonist would have been preferable, for me, to Sergi López's overt odiousness. Still, I have read plenty of convincing or at least ardent claims to the contrary, and it's worth re-exploring, particularly if it helps me get past my reluctance to engage with other del Toro films. The Host, which I did absolutely like, nonetheless threw me with its emphatic, weirdly parodic emphasis on the idiocy of its characters, over and over and over. Things reached the point where I couldn't quite figure what the film was gaining by having them be such a bunch of klutzes and oafs, but that's transformed in my memory into something I perversely like about the film. My more sanguine response to Bong Joon-ho's Mother this past fall has also made me curious, though I'd love to just forget his dismal contribution to the Tokyo! anthology film. Nathaniel and Goatdog both went bananas for what I would call the hipster-slickster weep-for-the-young-writer drama Reprise, but given that I remember nearly nothing about the movie, I might have needed to pay more attention to it or stay more open to it.

Films I Might Have Almost Certainly Overestimated: So shoot me for bucking the media meme and finding Poseidon completely enjoyable, well-shot, and fantastically art-directed. You could absolutely do much, much worse for summer blockbusters, and every year, lots of people do. But when I think back on it now, I usually think of: a) Emmy Rossum, wet; b) Richard Dreyfuss as a Tragic Gay™; and c) Fergie's positively horrendous attempt at Maureen McGovern disaster-epic balladry, featuring the timeless lyric, "You will be my journey, and I will be your road." Surely that's grounds enough for demoting the B that I handed down? Otherwise, Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus is the kind of crazy-ass side project that I'd love to see more stars taking a risk on, and after Secretary, I probably would have followed Steven Shainberg anywhere. But Entertainment Weekly, a magazine I stopped really reading at the beginning of the decade and whose "film reviews" I often have a really hard time with, opined succinctly and pretty irrefutably that Fur somehow purports that Diane Arbus's artistry lay in finding the beauty and sensitivity in freakish people, when, if anything, the exact opposite was true. That's the kind of pithily damning summary from which it's hard for any film to recover.

One Way or Another, I Need Another Look at: When Christopher Nolan makes sinister, sprawling movies about chiseled, almost interchangeable white men menacing each other in the halls of power, everyone goes gaga, but when Robert De Niro did it, the American press couldn't be roused. Matt Damon is unquestionably too young for his part in The Good Shepherd, and the eleventh-hour release date clearly didn't help. But from the score to the script to the sets to the unnervingly shifting dramatis personae to the unusual narrative structure, I thought this was pretty dark, tangy stuff, and it looked great on the screen, especially if you accept a certain kind of dour, bureaucratic blankness as part of the idiom the film is exploring.

In fact, The Good Shepherd shares with almost every film from 2006 that I'm keen to revisit a proclivity toward re-examining some facet of political history and historiography. I'd never conceived of the movies this way before compiling this list, but programming them as a repertory series under that banner would be pretty fascinating: the purposefully stilted, defiantly weird jury-trial of West African colonialism in Bamako; the lurid, sub-Saharan dictatorship-as-horror-show sensationalism of The Last King of Scotland; the Stasi drama The Lives of Others, which I was nearly alone in finding much too sentimental and conventional, for all its impression of stone-cold severity; the tonally opposite Marie Antoinette, still a prohibitive favorite for the dubious honor of having drawn the most openly sexist batch of reviews for any mainstream release in the 00s; and the virtuoso realism of United 93, whose existence never bothered me, since the film was hardly "entertaining," and I don't understand the national injunction to honor our dead without ever, ever regarding them, or without risking any empathetic, vicarious approximation of their experience. Very possibly the best of the lot is the movingly terse and elegantly visualized Letters from Iwo Jima, which I know I had some reservations about, but damned if I can remember what they were. In fact, damned if I can remember much about the film except the sepia tones, the slow-burning performance of Ken Watanabe, and the creepy underworld of those tunnels and caves. How I wished they'd opened this at a less frenzied time than late December—at the expense, if at all possible, of dropping it into Flags of our Fathers's October release window and abandoning that cruder, lamer, uglier picture altogether. (Note that The Host and Pan's Labyrinth would also fit themselves snugly into this series.)

Best Case for Trying Again: I couldn't believe how hard Casino Royale screeched on the brakes once James Bond and Vesper Lynd starting bumping his Goldfinger against her Octopussy. Honeymoon, schmoneymoon. Everyone in the audience is ahead of you on this one, James. Everyone. The Jeffrey Wright character, that long and weirdly Michael Lucas-y torture sequence, and the Isaach de Bankolé subplot all seem like extra elements the film doesn't need, and/or like juicy bits that Royale would have done well to extend at the expense of something else. I got pretty cranky about all of this, and speaking of, it didn't help that Crank and The Departed had pretty much sated me on grandiloquent action spectaculars by that point in the season. But on second pass, pre-Quantum of Solace, I was thrilled to re-discover how sexy and brainy and vervy the James-Vesper repartee actually is in Casino Royale, and how much energy the movie does whip up when it isn't strangely halting for a bit of extended card-playing or testicle-bashing, or dilating itself beyond reason for an inevitable finale. It's stylish, kinetic, and rather witty for great, long stretches. I should have given it more benefit of the doubt.

Recently Surfaced: By contrast, I gave Open Water 2: Adrift plenty of benefit of the doubt, and hot damn if the movie doesn't repay in spades. If you didn't like the original, don't worry: this was never written to be a sequel and was only titled that way for the American DVD. The scenario: six photogenic friends, conforming to more or less recognizable types, go for a day of sailing on Eric Dane's yacht. As you'll note in the photo, they enjoy a collective dip in the Pacific, but if you're reading the image carefully, you'll spot the problem: no one left a ladder down for getting back onto the boat. I know, you're wondering: surely there is a way around this, and how exactly does one mine a whole film from this predicament? But seriously, I have rarely seen such a mundane, completely plausible mistake get played for such (mostly) convincing ramifications and exquisite tension, especially as the hours pass and the sky darkens. The camera gets placed all over, and it's always scarily suggestive: is anyone or anything ever going to arrive on the horizon? How high is that slippery fiberglass wall, anyway? Is there something underneath them in the water? Is some clue to their rescue hiding in plain sight? Is the gal in the background subtly starting to lose it? Adrift works astonishingly well, up in the Dead Calm league of great open-sea nailbiters. (I haven't seen Knife in the Water, but there is a knife in the water in this movie, and that's not for nothing.)

Altogether a more auspicious, wondrously expectation-defying rental than, um, Phat Girlz, which I checked out to make myself a more fluent speaker of Mo'Nique before my hot date with Precious. Hardly sophisticated, and it's completely patent that the money was scraped together, almost literally: what look like unprocessed takes and non-colortimed dailies are edited right into the picture. But Mo'Nique has got real vitality in several scenes, and though her Buttoned-Down Best Friend is just awful, her Sassy and Thin Best Friend is sometimes kind of fun. The politics of body-image and of pan-Africanism, despite being so explicit, get twisted up in frustrating and occasionally disheartening ways, and whether it's a plus or a minus, Mo'Nique seizes on her one big chance to Act with a dramatic intensity that way exceeds the call for an obligatory sad-breakup montage.

Even If It's Not "Better" Than I Thought: I still don't like what they make Anne Hathaway wear when she starts to "get it" in The Devil Wears Prada, and a lot of the writing is pretty forced and asinine. I don't feel bad about the B–, upgraded as it already was from an initial C+. But Hathaway herself is a linchpin of the film who has never gotten enough credit for that. Streep and Blunt and Tucci all have their succulent bits that I have quoted over and over in the ensuing years, and as perfunctory as the filmmaking often is, there are quick moments where some small formal nuance spring to life, like the scary handheld pan of the room as Tucci and Hathaway arrive late for a design meeting, and the slow, daunting image of Streep gliding forward like a snow leopard about to kill, only this leopard is holding a blue cerulean belt.

Performances I'm Most Eager to Revisit: Maggie Gyllenhaal hasn't quite nailed a part since Sherrybaby, and a lot of the parts she has accepted haven't left a lot of room for that, anyway. I'm surmising that a trip back to this Jersey drama will either rekindle my hopes for her career or underscore certain omens of half-interested performances to come, but no such qualifiers are likely to attach to Danny Trejo's unsung but tremendous supporting performance as her inscrutable friend-sponsor-onlooker. The ensemble in 12:08 East of Bucharest might have been the year's best, although only Ion Sapdaru earned a year-end honor from me at the time. I can't tell you a lot about Leonardo DiCaprio's work in Blood Diamond except that I remember sitting in the theater thinking how much better I thought it was than the risible trailer had implied. Sadly, now all I remember is the trailer, and he doesn't deserve that.

Now that more people are joining me on the Vera Farmiga train, Breaking and Entering is likely to see a lot more rentals, where her spry take on a blowzy Romanian prostitute is bound to win admirers. I hope folks also start clocking Juliette Binoche's interesting work as a taciturn Balkan refugee in the same film. Al Gore finally got America listening about precipitous climate change An Inconvenient Truth, despite giving a pretty canned lecture. How'd he do that? But thank God he did! Lastly, Little Children and Notes on a Scandal are the kinds of late-fall awards magnets whose shelf-life can almost never compete with their gluttonous desire for trophies and prestige in the immediate moment. On those grounds, I was pretty hard on both movies, especially Children, and I think with good reason. Still, the hard-working casts weren't nearly as blameworthy as the overbearing direction, irregular momentum, and dubious dialogue in both projects. Jackie Earle Haley, Phyllis Somerville, and Judi Dench especially merit some more notes, even if I'm still scandalized.

Top Ten Films Still to Catch from 2006:
1. Colossal Youth (Portugal), dir. Pedro Costa, with Vanda Duarte
2. The Water Diary (Australia/New Zealand), dir. Jane Campion
3. Broken Sky (Mexico), dir. Julián Hernández, with Miguel Ángel Hoppe
4. Golden Door (Italy), dir. Emanuele Crialese, with Charlotte Gainsbourg
5. Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis (USA), dir. Mary Jordan
6. Night of the Sunflowers (Spain), dir. Jorge Sánchez-Cabezudo
7. God Grew Tired of Us (USA), dir. Christopher Dillon Quinn
8. Les petites vacances (France), dir. Olivier Peyon, with Bernadette Lafont
9. Taxidermia (Hungary), dir. György Pálfi, if I can stomach it
10. Dance Party, USA (USA), dir. Aaron Katz, with Cole Pensinger

Runners-up: The inevitably creepy documentary exposé Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple; Time, a Kim Ki-Duk film that scored the top prize at that year's Chicago Film Festival; Abbie Cornish and Heath Ledger bottoming out in Candy; the documentary Small Town Gay Bar, in competition at Sundance; Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche's Algerian feature Bled Number One; Comedy of Power, from the not entirely reliable Claude Chabrol; Paolo Sorrentino's divisive The Family Friend; and gay-themed Berlin prizewinner The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros. At some point, I'll need to see Jean-Pierre Melville's 1969 feature Army of Shadows, which numerous critics cheated onto their lists after it finally got its first commercial release—which only makes more obvious that 2006 was not far behind 2003 for bleakness on the cinema front. Once more, my Top Ten was more than usually replete with holdover releases from the previous year.



Blogger Colin Low said...

Speaking of formal nuances in The Devil Wears Prada (a film that, frankly, could've used more of them): I've always loved how Miranda's "cerulean" speech, ending with "... from a pile of stuff," cuts away instantly to the shot of an egg toast hissing on a pan, as though in commiseration to the offscreen Andy. Ha! Although that scene continues with Andy complaining loud and long, irritating me no end. Honestly, is it not evident that The Devil Wears Prada, despite not occuring in two different timelines, is split almost identically to Julie & Julia? Both Andy and Julie even get that disgusting sequence where their socialite friends gab at a restaurant table over how miserable their pathetic metropolitan lives are.

And I'm one of those people for whom Quantum of Solace really put the deftness of Casino Royale's location shooting, narrative momentum, action sequences, Bond/girl exchanges and (it must be said) Daniel Craig exploitation into sharp relief, by being so completely inferior in all those aspects. (Plus nothing in Quantum had the simple charge of Bond chugging pepper-water and trying to configure a makeshift defilibrator while sweating bullets.) I really hope Bond 23 will be an improvement, and even Daniel Craig agreed; thank goodness the Vesper angst is out of the way.

12:44 AM, December 18, 2009  
Blogger Daniel Smith said...

Someday I'll bring the world around on Flags of Our Fathers, a film that's even more fascinating and probing than its (excellent) companion piece. It's Eastwood's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (Iwo Jima is his They Were Expendable.)

But I really want to suggest A Lion the House for your to-see list. It premiered at Sundance in the Documentary competition, and then played a few individual theatre bookings before playing on PBS. (It won an Emmy.) It's four hours, set in a pediatric cancer ward, following doctors, caregivers, patients and family members as they deal with the disease. Usually, if I have a DVD of a four-hour film, I'll break it up and watch part in the morning and part at night if I have the day free, but this was so gripping that I watched it all with about a half-hour break between the two parts. (Siberiade is the only other film of comparable length that I watched all at once.) Everything's there: The joy and happiness of days where the pain isn't so bad, the pain of parents and doctors and patients having to face tough decisions about their diseases and treatments. It is devastatingly sad at times, and I don't want to give too much away or oversell (it's a very modest film, and that's one of its virtues) it, but it's one of the few (only) films that I can say I'm a better, more empathetic person for having seen. When I put together my top films of the decade, this will most likely sit at the top. It's an absolute must-see.

12:44 AM, December 18, 2009  
Blogger Colin Low said...

(Oh, and apropos of nothing, when you get around to Avatar I really hope you watch it in 3D. Otherwise you might as well start watching colour films in 8-bit colour.)

12:54 AM, December 18, 2009  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Colin: Well, I still love the sort of constant sourness and pique of Quantum, especially when it starts seeming as though Judi's getting so peeved that she might have to have James put out of commission, one way or another. I kind of love that he's so bitter and petulant in his grief, despite all the mythic sangfroid, and some of the moments of action choreography are really inspired (though some assuredly are not).

Fair point about Andy & Miranda & Julie & Julia, but I only wish that J&J had had the cojones to bring its two characters together even once, to explore Julia's fascinating disapproval of her would-be acolyte. As for Avatar - I'm doing just that, in eight hours and 46 minutes.

@Daniel: You'll have a heck of a time bringing me around on Flags, but who cares... this rec for A Lion in the House is spectacularly up the alley of what I was hoping to elicit with this series. A fantastically personal endorsement for a fascinating-sounding and, apparently, a little-remarked film. I've already located two copies in the local library and will be sure to investigate, sooner or later. I'll reciprocate that, from the sound of your reasons for loving Lion, I think you would find Jennifer Dworkin's Love and Diane comparably engrossing and important. Hard to track down, but see what you can do.

1:16 AM, December 18, 2009  
Blogger tim r said...

And what a great shout-out for Adrift -- such a good little film, gripping and surprising in all the ways you say. I was genuinely impressed with the cinematography, and how obnoxious it dared make almost all the characters: so it's even stranger when the rain comes pelting down and you start actually caring. Great endorsement, and a movie everyone should be renting when they're in the mood for genre trash that knows what it's doing.

4:28 AM, December 18, 2009  
Blogger Sam Brooks said...

The Devil Wears Prada is a film that I enjoy immensely, but I do confess that I always turn it off after Andy walks away from Miranda in Paris. It just felt like that was the moment where the film should've ended. The remaining fifteen minutes does nothing for the film or for any of the performances. I also have a lot of anger for the whole friend sections of the film and how anti-career it seems to be. But I still enjoy it!

I find myself visiting Notes on a Scandal embarassingly often as well, and finding Judi Dench working against the movie quite actively; she makes Barbara a much darker and complex person than the film wants to allow her to be. You can almost hear her voice working against some of the ridiculous dialogue thrust on her in some voice-overs. I also had fun with Cate Blanchett in the part, it's nice to see her lose it in some scenes, and the director certainly wants to beatify her less than Kapur and Fincher have recently.

4:46 AM, December 18, 2009  
Blogger Guy Lodge said...

I've also never been quite as sold on "Pan's Labyrinth" as I wanted to be -- though my concern lay less with with its politics (which, you're quite right, are disappointingly flat) than with its narrative mechanics. Ofelia's three tasks are achieved so perfunctorily, and with such minimal obstruction, I kept waiting for a second gear that never came. As a friend so drily put it after our viewing: "Yeah, she dies, but did she EARN it?"

Glad to see some defence for "The Good Shepherd," which I thought I was alone in admiring. I think Damon is really rather remarkable in the face of his miscasting, and I quite like Angelina Jolie in it -- which, from me, for Angie, is high praise indeed.

Speaking of Damon, having recently watched him struggle through "Invictus" (and, boy, was I struggling with him), I have even higher regard for the wit and precision with which Leonardo DiCaprio nails the bolshy-awkward demeanour of the archetypical white South African oke in "Blood Diamond." It's a much smarter performance than the movie surrounding it.

7:09 AM, December 18, 2009  
Blogger Colin Low said...

Oh yes, definitely a great write-up on Adrift - it sounds exactly like what I like popular movies to do, even when the premise and characters are deceptively simple. On my rental list pronto.

7:47 AM, December 18, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What? There are people who didn't love Pan's Labyrinth?? Thank God. I thought I was alone. I liked it but couldn't undestand why all that craziness.

But I disagree on Little Children and Notes on a Scandal. Especially the latter. After watching it for the second time, I loved it. And Dench was incredible! She would have probably won had her name not been Barbara but Elizabeth II.

About The Lives Of Others. I agree that it was a bit sentimental and conventional but perhaps it bothers people because a foreign film is expected to be more unconventional. I regard it as a very good mainstream film.

12:58 PM, December 18, 2009  
Blogger Robert Hamer said...

See, I guess I don't have many of these problems with Pan's Labyrinth because I saw the fantasy elements as all in her head to cope with the horrors of her situation. So, the idea that her tasks would seem too simple makes sense to me, since a little girl is going to dream up seemingly daunting situations that she can overcome relatively easily.

Besides, many of what she sets out to do in the fantasy realm doesn't succeed (Protecting her mother, for example). I don't know, maybe that's a poor defense of the film, I liked it.

1:38 PM, December 18, 2009  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Tim: I hoped you'd like that write-up! And I didn't even mention the starving baby still on board, alone, whom they can all hear on the baby monitor but no one can get to.

@Brook: Those do seem like the best reasons for enjoying Notes, so I'm hoping I can get past all the scenes I disliked (Barbara dancing was just, the, worst) and the killer! lesbian! stuff and appreciate it in the way you do. I agree Dench is much better than the project is asking her to be. We sound pretty simpatico on Prada, too.

@Guy: I completely agree with that problem about Pan's. I was trying not to be so waspish as to reprise my old beef, "If they tell you not to eat the grapes, don't eat the god damn grapes!" but it's weird that her mistakes are almost as compulsory as her successes. Lovely to hear the affirmation on Good Shepherd, too, and your official endorsement of DiCaprio in BD. I'll admit I was curious as to your thoughts on that one, and on Damon, but I hate to be they guy who's all, "Hey, you're South African, what is your expert opinion?"

@Δημήτρης: You make a good point about The Lives of Others, and I'm happy to agree that it was an average commercial movie: hence my C, which perhaps deserved to be a bit higher. It's the same grade I gave to Pan's Labyrinth, I believe, and I like that the camp of skeptics on that one keeps growing!

6:59 PM, December 18, 2009  
Blogger tim r said...

A friend had a great solution to the cast's dilemma in Adrift: wait three years, coax the baby out of the cabin by shouting, and get him (her?) to press the ladder button...

3:12 AM, December 19, 2009  
Blogger Guy Lodge said...

I don't know how "official" or "expert" one can call my endorsement -- just the other day, a friend told me, in all sincerity, "You sound about as South African as Nicole Kidman in The Interpreter."

Do as I say, not as I do, etc.

5:10 AM, December 19, 2009  
Blogger Glenn said...

Of the films you have yet to see I'd like to hear your reaction to Taxidermia, a movie that reminds me immensely of The Cell. Since we both have such positive reactions to that movie compared to the majority consensus, I'd like to see if your reaction meets my positive one.

A movie filled with such foul and filthy acts, yet isn't foul and filthy itself. It's merely a movie about people who happen to foul and filthy and take part in foul and filthy deeds. If that makes any sense. It reminds me of a European Pink Flamingos, really.

3:42 AM, December 21, 2009  
Blogger CCW said...

Trejo is such a treasure and so underrated. Like Bruce Davison or Robert Forster, he is an actor who can always be counted on to bring a high level of dignity and "realness" to whatever part he plays, big or small. I remember liking Gyllenhall's work in Sherrybaby quite a lot and was really thrilled she received a Golden Globe nomination. It's kind of a minor miracle she even made the cut, considering the film had little advertising and disappeared in the blink of an eye from the miniscule number of theaters it played in. I think it's one of the rare times in the last few years that the HFPA really "got it right" and honored solid work that didn't have a massive campaign behind it.
Where do I begin with Fur? It is quite a mess overall, but it also has some truly beautiful and striking moments that I really like. I don't think it deserved all the violently negative reactions it received, but since Arbus is such a beloved figure, I guess I can partly understand the hostility. Kidman's frozen forehead did bug me a little at times, but I really do admire her and Shainberg for taking a big risk that, I'm sure it's safe to say, hasn't paid-off for either of them, career-wise.

9:02 PM, December 22, 2009  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Glenn: If only the Taxidermia poster had actually said, "A European Pink Flamingos"!

@CCW: I have to say, I appreciate how often you comment on some of the performances or films that I'm least expecting people to respond to. Your viewpoints are always really interesting! I absolutely agree that Gyllenhaal's Globe nod was kind of a great awards-season grace note, and I am with you on all points about Fur. I still think I might have overshot it a little, but you've reminded me that I did enjoy it on its own bizarre terms and might have had a defensible reason for doing so!

12:10 AM, December 23, 2009  
Blogger CCW said...

@Nick: Thank you for the kind words. And thank you for keeping your web site alive and kicking after all these years, and spotlighting work like Fur and Sherrybaby. These two films are great examples of interesting, risk-taking work that often falls through the cracks of the industry or gets quickly written-off by the public. Your web site is a great forum for films like these to be seriously discussed, debated, celebrated (or sometimes dismissed). Your blog/reviews/performance critiques are engrossing, informative, insightful and entertaining. And always very inspiring!

4:35 PM, December 23, 2009  
Blogger CCW said...

I forgot to mention that I've only seen around five minutes of Candy, but what I saw I found quite engrossing. The Ledger/Cornish/Rush combination is very appealing to me.

4:38 PM, December 23, 2009  
Blogger Nick Duval said...

Colossal Youth is unfinishable.

8:32 PM, April 12, 2010  

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