Sunday, August 30, 2009

'Georgia' on My Mind

Still immersed in a long bout of writing and revision in my professional life, but as usual in these moments, through some bizarrely homeopathic logic, the most sustaining activity during my daily breaks turns out to be more writing—as long as it's about something I love. And since I've had no time to watch or re-watch for the Films of the 00s feature, I am turning to the next film up on my Favorites countdown, which seems to be one of the most popular features on this site anyway. Which means a trip back to Georgia, a film that generated a surprisingly robust love-it-or-hate-it conversation among critics and audiences in 1995, given the brevity of its release and its undeserved short-shirking by awards bodies, notwithstanding Mare Winningham's Oscar nomination (which should have netted the actual trophy) and Jennifer Jason Leigh's prize from the New York Film Critics Circle. Georgia got under a lot of people's skins, but that's part of what love is, as the movie is only too ready to show you. I wish the film and its actors had maintained even more momentum in the last few years, though Leigh, Winningham, Ted Levine, and Max Perlich keep fighting the good fight with dedication and purpose in character parts, and somehow that's a great legacy for Georgia to have. It's like an ideal, often-ignored album by a group of artists who have only united that one time, and have flirted off and on with the cultural radar even in their solo careers—but if you're receptive to it, you'll never stop spinning it. And of course, the musical metaphor isn't an accident:

"Georgia's key tool for dissecting and complicating the sisters and their relationships is its completely unerring gift for intensely focused realism, a completely unerring gift for intensely focused realism, a deep familiarity with character and environment that one rarely sees outside of a Mike Leigh movie, and with a deeper, richer palette and a sophisticated approach to rhythm and concision that Leigh's films, in their thespian virtuosity and their thinly laminated improvisations, sometimes miss. Ulu Grosbard, a solid actor's director who hasn't made another movie to touch this one, uses the songs ingeniously to carry the scenes and guide their textures, to include his pitch-perfect recognitions of the kinds of wanderlusters, make-doers, drop-outs, long-distance runners, and swaggering, self-conscious 'legends' who combine to scratch out a living or a niche, or a phantom-image of both, in the traveling world of music. And without making a movie that makes an issue of shattering any conventions, Grosbard still plays as though there are no rules, dilating the song performances for much longer than usual in a non-concert film, and often back-to-back, almost the way David Cronenberg used the sex scenes in Crash..."

Keep reading for more on Georgia's unimprovable acting, terrific music, and terse but adventurous direction, and for why all this matters to you if you loved Rachel Getting Married, or if you loyally love the Oscars but don't always know why.

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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Films of the 00s: Spirited Away

A shame about Ponyo, which is often (surprise!) a kick to look at but is so lacking in narrative cohesion or persuasive emotion, and is so dully voiced by the dubbed cast of Anglo celebrities and, in two instances, their squealy younger siblings. Miyazaki really misses on this one, I think, even if my expectations were inevitably raised by the preceding weekend's return to Spirited Away. I have only seen Miyazaki's last three films, but isn't there a pretty general consensus that this is his masterpiece? It's not without its tiny flaws, but it's such a sumptuous work of imagination. Where you can see the demographic that he's trying to please with Ponyo, there's no way he made Spirited Away for anyone but himself, with all the weirdness and ambiguity that implies. From my new review:

"Chihiro's tasks are trickily superimposed: finding her parents and changing them back into humans, finding their way home, learning a new job, making sense of her companions and fairweather friends, assuaging the fiery Yubaba, working through a proto-attraction to the mysterious and changeable Haku. Because Miyazaki entitles each of these figures and plotlines to their own healthy measure of non-transparency, young Chihiro has an exaggerated but nonetheless a fully persuasive experience of adolescent confusion on multiple fronts. She herself is more rounded than the petulant but slightly blank and compulsory Ofelia of Pan's Labyrinth, and I appreciate that Miyazaki insists for so long and in such detail on the ornate workings of the bathhouse—has a center of relaxation ever demanded so much dizzying organization and helter-skelter commotion?—that it has a freestanding and magisterial integrity beyond its contingent role as a test of Chihiro's mettle. You have a sense that she has truly entered a perplexing, maddening, and magical world, rather than a hunch that an inventive filmmaker has devised some fancy tableaux for her to fumble through on her way to certain triumph. (keep reading...)

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Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Longtime Companions

At Nathaniel's behest, as an XY companion piece to this:

Chaplin • March, Penn, Rains • Cagney, Clift, Day-Lewis, Grant, Mason, Newman
Brandauer, Crowe, De Niro, Fiennes, Hackman, Hopkins, Kinski, Powell, Redgrave, Widmark

Honorable mentions to the androgynes, Swinton and Hepburn, and to Matthew Barney

Edged out, but in the Top 50: Astaire, Bogart, Brando, J.Bridges, Cheung, Cotten, Freeman, Giannini, E.Harris, D.Hoffman, P.S.Hoffman, Hurt, S.L.Jackson, Jannings, Josephson, Krauss, Laughton, Mastroianni, McCrea, Mitchum, Nicholson, Oldman, Pacino, Scofield, G.C.Scott, Stanton, Stewart, Trintignant, von Sydow, and Welles

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Monday, August 24, 2009

Films of the 00s: Ali

My first retrospective trip back to the movies of 2001 is another conversation review with Mainly Movies, this time devoted to Michael Mann's idiosyncratic and commercially underperforming bio-epic Ali. No question the movie is internally inconsistent in style, rhythm, and emphasis, but I couldn't help noticing that Ali was often invoked with embarrassment if not outright derogation in recent reviews of Public Enemies, and having admired the movie tremendously during its commercial run even as I struggled a bit to grasp what Mann was up to, I've been eager for a long while to revisit the movie and stick up for its intelligence and its unusual ambitions. I can see why Tim feels that the movie "has more flow than shape," and I have a few misgivings of my own (and a few more that, as ever, I didn't find time to err in this space), but we both still respect the movie tremendously, with perhaps a bit more visceral enthusiasm on my part. Have a look, and tell us what you think.

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Friday, August 14, 2009

Films of the 00s: Late Marriage

If you were bummed that I ended the 2000 retrospective (at least for now!) with such a lukewarm review, I can doubly make it up to you. My first trip back to 2001 is not only an unqualified rave, it doubles as the next entry up, aka #27, on the Favorites countdown, which has been dormant ever since we checked in on Howards End last December; no question those Wilcoxes have got a splendid cottage there, but I didn't mean to slumber there for quite so long. Here, then, is a peek at what I have to say about another family's crisis of social conventions, class prejudices, and sexual mores in Dover Kosashvili's stark, punchy, funny, and humbling Georgian-Israeli dramedy Late Marriage:

"Even given its stripped-down style, the simply but sharply drawn characters, the bluntness of its sexual scenes and of its dramatic narrative turns, Late Marriage is apparently much more than meets the eye, or the English-speaking ear. I love knowing that even a familiar object contains so many unaccessed depths and complexities, but you have to hand it to writer-director Dover Kosashvili that his peculiar naturalism never pretends to be spelling out all of the meanings in the story or the currents between the characters.... Dramaturgy alternates, sometimes on a dime, from the casual ease of Zaza's scenes with Judith and her daughter to the sinister ritualism with which Zaza's extended family intrude into the apartment to the grippingly dilated reality of Zaza and Judith's love-making, amidst which Judith reveals a secret that ironically invites comparison to the character who is her most formidable antagonist." (keep reading...)

Because Sandra Bernhard's "smash hit one-woman show" Without You I'm Nothing rocketed up the chart after last winter's revised rankings, we're just now catching up to it at #26. Which means we've only got the very best quarter of my stable of prize pets to explore, plus, back on the 00s track, a handful of beloved films I haven't looked at in a while, some mixed bags that I've never stopped arguing about (think eyeliner and Izod dresses), and a sampler of titles I've never seen, ranging from boisterous epics to silly shenanigans to coolly received products from some of the world's most legendary auteurs. 2001: A Blog Odyssey.

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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Films of the 00s: Two Family House

After Timecode, I was both eager and nervous about checking in with its polar opposite, a determinedly modest dramedy called Two Family House that reaped some genuinely warm word-of-mouth during its brief commercial run. I can't say I was a fan, but I concede that for certain viewers, Two Family House will be eminently embraceable as "the kind of movie they just don't make anymore." To wit:

"It's obviously snobby to hold one's preferences above others', confusing any line between judgment and personal taste, and I don't want to do that. Besides, Two Family House was as beloved by most critics as it was by its tiny but devoted audiences, so I stand to learn something from its fans. I just couldn't convince myself to join them, despite the movie's occasional pleasures and admirably atypical environment. Unfortunately, the look, pace, and structure of the film stop feeling elegantly restrained and pass into something like boilerplate mediocrity." (keep reading...)

If an ardent fan of Two Family House can talk me up, I'd be delighted to hear the pitch. Otherwise, we'll soon be moving on in the interest of time from 2000 to 2001, even though it will mean short-shrifting several titles from the turn of the millennium that I recently caught and wanted to trumpet: the monumental but poignant Werckmeister Harmonies, the spirited Faat Kiné, the lengthy but transfixing Eureka, the austere but profoundly moving A Time for Drunken Horses, the sweet romance Big Eden, and the wonderfully amiable Snatch. Hopefully, I'll squeeze out a word or two about these at some point, and I had more titles from 2000 that really cried out for a first acquaintance or a second look, but that's just as true of 2001...


Thursday, August 06, 2009

Films of the 00s: Timecode

Far be it from us to disappoint two of my loveliest and most loyal readers, Catherine and Glenn, who specifically asked for this conversation. And far be it from Tim or me to treat Timecode as any run-of-the-mill picture. I don't just mean that we managed a greater-than-usual difference of opinion, though I hope that's a welcome splash of novelty, and an incentive for lots of you to chime in and take some sides, or pick your own battles. Even beyond that, we had a lot of fun with this piece. One might say, four times as much fun as usual. Choose your own path! It's that kind of conversation, because it's that kind of movie.

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