Sunday, November 28, 2010

Five Thoughts on Monsters

1. Director-writer-production designer-cinematographer-visual effects supervisor Gareth Edwards makes an impressively audacious debut, especially given his extremely pennywise budget. He hands his industry colleagues and his audience a whole handful of calling cards. I actually think he excels most at the lensing and the convincingly offhanded blend of found locations and incorporated design elements—i.e., the dimensions of his work for which Edwards is reaping the least credit. (By contrast, his scripting is James Cameron-level regrettable, and the visual effects are inconsistent in design and execution, though this is more than forgivable.) Monsters's images pack a charge from noonday sun to humid dawn to barely any light at all, and feels visually spontaneous, three-dimensional, and tense in its framings. Its world is as conceptually compelling as it is convincingly lived-in. And the unquantifiable drift of the crash-landed aliens beyond the parameters the government designates as a discretely bounded "infected zone" seems a much sturdier metaphor for dangerous bureaucratic folly than does the bizarrely meticulous yet completely unworkable tenement-colony of District 9.

2. Monsters not only allows its expository passages to continue twice as long as they ought to, but they encompass at least twice the necessary number of incidents. Insufferable assignments from the boss. Professional disappointment. Pre-wedding heebie-jeebies. Wrecked train. Exploitation of those in crisis. Port closings. Lost passports. Fumbled flirtations. Jealous reactions. "Why are you marrying him?" "You have a kid?" We know the entire time that Monsters just needs to get its leads skulking through the alien-infected wilds of northeastern Mexico. I suspect the impetus is budgetary: Edwards probably lacked the funds and the logistical support to shoot for long on rougher terrain, or to include as many creature F/X sequences as he might have wanted, so he has to pad out the surrounding material. And I'm sure he meant to give his actors more to work with, though the most effective performance by far is Mario Zuniga Benavides's, rendered in only two appearances as an unapologetically cynical ticket vendor. And anyway, the film still mires us for much too long in plotty curlicues involving one and a half dislikable people (she's okay, he's just awful). Worse, it then regroups around their problems at the end. Hasn't Edwards seen Casablanca? Doesn't he know that the problems of two very little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world? Especially this crazy world?

3. Monsters doesn't extend its fantasy scenario with the broad, idiosyncratically textured, multi-layered brio of District 9 and, inevitably, can't match the pure spectacle menace or technical wizardry of the alien assaults in War of the Worlds. To its credit, though, the movie doesn't blow any of its driving conceits as badly as District 9 does its tattered "faux-documentary" frame, and doesn't get stuck for a deadly span in Tim Robbins's basement. Even if Monsters abstracts its protagonists too much from their ten-times-more-fascinating contexts in the finale, that context remains grievous, unresolved, and mysterious—rather than dopily white-washed and tied-up, as in the Spielberg film. Its highs aren't as high as those of its closest analogues, but its errors aren't as handicapping, either.

4. I was going to add that Monsters doesn't scapegoat or exoticize its Mexican characters the way District 9 does its black Africans, and doesn't seize on glib 9/11 metaphors to buttress spectacular entertainment the way War of the Worlds did. However, it does manage to kill off all of its nonwhite characters and make some very ham-handed jabs at Saying Something about the U.S.'s mythologies of itself and about the quagmire of U.S.-Mexican border-crossing. It's no less obviously and no less stiffly an "America as seen by Europeans" picture as something like Monster's Ball. And as the movie continues, it becomes more annoying that there's no reason for our protagonists to be white (to say nothing of aggressively blonde, in the woman's case). For all the Mexicans who keep protesting they can't afford to leave Mexico, the film ties itself in needless knots to flesh out the motives of its incongruous main characters. Does Monsters somehow not trust us to root for Mexican leads, in a film that is otherwise thoroughly Mexican in casting, locations, and locus of narrative crisis? Would such casting make the last-act revelations appear too dogmatic? I don't think so. Replace Andrew and Samantha with two Mexican characters trying to grab the last train or ferry to join relatives who have already bounded north—to certain or uncertain success—and you immediately have an emotionally richer and less convoluted narrative line, raising fewer specters of entrenched Anglo-Caucasian bias.

5. Maybe my favorite thing in the movie is how it captures a citizenry that has in many ways resigned themselves not just to the terror but the inconvenience of the alien menace. Watching them haggle over boat tickets and prices, or watching Mexican escorts debate whether it's too late in the day or the season to risk another river-crossing, is to watch people consumed by pressing issues rather than broad implications. They seem exhausted by each other's needs and by their own bad days—not so much debilitated by the tremendous scale of a global calamity, the likes of which could never have been predicted. It's spooky, the fright, the weariness, but ultimately the acceptance with which people treat world-altering events as impediments to their own plans, or as problems they have to work around while accomplishing other tasks. Not always, but often, Sam and Andrew look more bored and tired by their journey northward than terrified out of their skulls. Yes, this amounts to yet another indulgence of their film-long mopes over things we never care about, but there's also an eerie truth in it.

Grade: B–

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Saturday, November 27, 2010

10 Reasons To Be Thankful in '10

So many film bloggers put their own spins on the idea of giving thanks this week. Keeping things short and simple, here is a list of films released in the U.S. in 2010 that I value even more highly than my grades would indicate, and for which I personally thank the producers, distributors, directors, writers, crews, and casts. Not necessarily my favorites of the year, and even less close to being the "best." Just films about which I feel compelled to say, I like this even more than you might imagine I do. In alphabetical order:

Burlesque - Because it radiates equal joy in its showcasing of real talent, its exposure of its own semi-competence, and its unrepentant fondness for the ersatz. At the level of form and technique, it's like a middling but exuberant karaoke performer you totally cheer for, whatever the magnitude of its failings—a sort of a film equivalent of Cameron Diaz's "Don't Know What To Do with Myself" coup in My Best Friend's Wedding, endearing in almost all of the ways it's off. Yet it often achieves real showmanship. I had a great time.

Cairo Time - Because what I liked on sight, the modest revelation of fully grasped characters and the subtle tilting away from generic expectations, has continued to linger three months later. Contra my review, I'm thinking it was a touchstone of the August multiplex, at least for me. If you read the script, you might respond to it in terms of big turning points and filler sequences. The film as produced, however, makes no such distinctions. As un-self-consciously as it plays, you can still see how fully its makers have thought through all of their choices.

City Island - Not unlike Burlesque in its unabashed bearhug of sitcommy situations and mechanistic writing. The movie generates a huge, contagious affection for its characters, whose familial vibe is utterly convincing. Makes Andy Garcia four times as likable as he's ever been, but the whole ensemble shows to advantage, from Julianna Margulies (whom almost everyone seems to admire) to Emily Mortimer (whom I found quite fetching, though I guess a lot of folks didn't). The movie is very sweet, which is harder to nail than you'd think, given how many films aspire to that quality and to little else.

Conviction - I'm with everybody who valued the acting highly while finding the narrative too compressed and the emphases misplaced. The first part bears repeating and expanding, though: Swank and Rockwell win a shared Laura Linney Award for conveying deep sibling connections. Scenes like the one where Minnie Driver forces her friend to confront an undesirable truth in front of her kids captured a certain kind of awkward, adult moment that we don't see in enough movies, or between enough women in Hollywood movies.

Easy A - It's not just that Emma Stone is so talented and funny, but that the film seems genuinely excited for its female lead to be so funny, and to give her a star-is-born vehicle on those exact terms. Hollywood is rarely so sanguine about women being so hysterical, especially new stars, and in ways that imply the actress's sophistication as well as her charm. She's beautiful in a non-cookie-cutter way, yet her looks take even more of a backseat to personality, quickness, and wit than Silverstone's and Lohan's did in Clueless and Mean Girls. Bravo.

Fish Tank - A second full screening might elevate an already high grade, but I'm just thrilled to have a filmmaker working comfortably across downmarket realism, stylistic adventurousness, and poetic conceits, regardless of whether the moments or the blend always click perfectly. Breakout female first-timers often face even bigger sophomore-slump problems than men, but Arnold seems more exciting than ever.

For Colored Girls - When the movie works, it really works, as when Anika Noni Rose and Janet Jackson hold the screen for close-ups of several uninterrupted minutes, hitting home-runs with very tricky speeches. The haunting image of the digital clock has outlived its degrading juxtaposition to the opera cutaways. The cast is so nice to spend time with; they all deserve more and better work than they usually find. The ambition to adapt this story, no matter how often or badly it's flubbed in the execution, remains inspiring to me.

The Ghost Writer - Stumping for this movie since early winter means I was with it when it was seeming unceremoniously ignored and am still with it now that it's on the cusp of seeming overpraised. I think it distills so well what acute, precise, tonally complex direction can do for a script that could easily have been a dumb throwaway. Not only is every actor good in it (Cattrall aside), but it raises the possibility that everyone in it is, in general, better than you've given them credit for being (uh, Cattrall aside).

Mother - Another movie I've hardly stinted on praising—it featured in my Top 100 Films of the 00s—but that I revisit in my mind more often than I do a lot of the other films that I graded similarly, or higher. Currently my favorite example of that herky-jerky storytelling mode in Korean cinema, sometimes too broad and sometimes just right, that makes a cumulative impression in excess of its uneven parts. And boy does that ending land it. So many cinematic character studies are afraid of being stylistically florid; I love that Mother takes such confidence, even at times too much confidence, that bold strokes can sometimes acquaint you with an enigmatic person as well as finely etched details do.

October Country - A documentary almost nobody caught, about an upstate New York family that has seen marital discord, generational conflict, poverty, and early pregnancy pass across generations, but in a way where chronicling misery is not the point. At its best, the film captures a sense of how difficult lives are actually lived, from the perspective of those who are living them, rather than a more outwardly editorial position. Desi, the preternaturally spunky pre-teen girl, is a real "find," the kind of character you never forget, even though she's hardly the center of the film or its only indelible figure.


Monday, November 22, 2010

An Open Letter to Roger Durling

The very short version is: what on earth got into me? Here is the very long version.

If you follow this site at all, you might know that I've worked myself into a tiny lather in recent years – drawing bubbles from my admittedly small soapbox – as both an incorrigible devotee of the Oscars and a somewhat cranky critic of how long, expensive, and over-crowded with nuggets and chatter the so-called "awards season" (or, worse, the "campaign season") has become. It's hard enough when so many of the wrong films seem either pre-targeted for consideration or disappointingly excluded from it. I find my Oscar addictions, which are no one's fault but my own, prompting me to think and write more about movies I don't really care about, just because they're likely to be nominated, than about movies for which I might actually have a thought-out, passionate, more valuable critique to put forward.

Meanwhile, I always feel sorry for actors and other filmmakers (some, not all) when we hear them say what a tiring grind "awards season" becomes, no matter how flattered they are by the attention, and no matter how happy they are to promote a film they are proud of, and which might struggle to find an audience without the spotlight of awards. Speaking only for myself, I dislike when awards and their surrounding discourses become goals in themselves, rather than opportunities for rich, detailed debate and conversation about the films in question—the quality of the work, including but not limited to, or even centered upon, its possible appeal to AMPAS. Anyone who reads even a little about the Oscars—and I stick to what I see as the best, The Film Experience and In Contention—may also have heard some editors and journalists say that the season has gotten out of hand, with too much to cover, and too little differentiation among events and prize-giving bodies. December becomes so crowded with films that many of them are doomed to box-office failure. The entertainment pages themselves are so glutted with tightly or loosely awards-based coverage that what (I think) should be a fun hobby and a spontaneous honor can become a bewildering blur, an echo chamber, or a vegetative industry all its own.

Beyond forming these aggravated opinions in recent years, I have jumped to my own conclusions about what is or isn't a "legitimate" event and what seems, by contrast, like a pure publicist's coup, with little to teach anyone about filmmaking. I haven't been consistent or very well-informed in arriving at these knee-jerk opinions, so I usually keep them to myself. Yesterday, though, in a comment thread at In Contention, I arbitrarily seized the occasion of a news item about the Santa Barbara International Film Festival to vent some of this frustration. The gap between what I have prejudicially been feeling and what I actually know quickly became obvious. I don't withdraw from many of the general principles of what I've outlined above, but I didn't take any time to phrase them carefully or test their validity before posting the comment, and I sure did a ham-handed job of picking a scapegoat without any basis in knowledge. (Perhaps you have heard of this kind of thing transpiring - even, occasionally, on the Web.) Having been rightly called out and calmed down by In Contention's editor, Kris Tapley, I then received a personal invitation from Roger Durling, the Executive Director of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, to come attend the festival and "have priority access to everything and criticize from experience. Let me know, and I will make it happen." I am taking for granted that Mr. Durling is in earnest, though he would be well within his rights not to be. What follows is my open response:

Dear Roger Durling,

The humble pie keeps coming, and deservedly so. Believe me, I fully appreciate what a classier, more generous overture you have made than I deserve from my exchange on In Contention. I feel particularly humbled after having aired my prejudices so vehemently and recklessly. I've been behind the scenes of enough festivals to know at least a little of what it takes to put one on. So on those grounds alone, cheers to you and the SBIFF, and hosannas from high up in the nosebleed seats for choosing a Vanguard award winner in Nicole Kidman who inspires so many people – including me – in just the ways you single out in your publicity release: her talent, her range, her fearlessness, her filmography, and her wonderful performance in Rabbit Hole, which I saw at a festival screening here in Chicago.

I've already caught myself red-handed, and enabled others to further catch me out, connecting faraway dots as an uninformed reader. So you know already that as one Oscar enthusiast, unusually or not, I have felt liable to fuse together in my mind several Southern California film festivals of the fall and winter (Santa Barbara, Hollywood, et al.), their pre-announced awards, the various career-recognition and Lifetime Achievement awards emanating from other groups, and all the other press releases and ceremonial prizes unfolding through the fall and early winter as one long campaign for Oscar. For me, this becomes especially tempting when, year to year, there seems like such strong overlap between the spotlighted recipients at these events and the actors and films we know to be involved in carefully orchestrated campaigns. But I should take more responsibility for these subjective impressions I've knitted together. I just never see coverage of SBIFF or the Hollywood Film Festival or other, similar events except as regards these pre-announced awards. I could obviously take the initiative to look up more coverage—and certainly should, at least before airing my arbitrary, petulant grievances about them, with no necessary basis in reality.

Foolishly, like other media consumers who think we can read between the lines and discern The Truth, I imagine I know what nominees or prospective nominees are talking about when I read them saying they wish the season were shorter, required fewer PR appearances, and felt like less of a grind, even amid all the generous adulation they receive. The truth, of course, is that I don't really know what these artists are talking about, and don't even know enough about what I'm talking about, so for lack of a better phrase, I ought to shush up. I have attended plenty of festival galas honoring artists and senior executives for their work. Of course it is often the case that the readiest people to accept are often those who are trying to cast a light on recent efforts that are just finding their way to market, to voters, or to critical notice. I have seen them be very proud and flattered by the recognition of their own careers, and pleased that someone else's gracious admiration has enabled them to draw extra eyes to a just-emerging film that could use the support in a crowded market, at a frantic time of year.

I wrote on In Contention as though this entails an implicit act of bad faith or "shilling" on the part of festivals I have never attended, even though I know it not to be the case at any festivals I have attended. You don't have to be naïve about publicity to know how earnest a festival or an executive director or a programmer or a festival staff is in honoring someone whose contributions they truly admire, and whose time they appreciate. It's one of several grounds on which I owe you and your colleagues an apology.

No matter how coordinated or not your festival is with other publicity efforts for actors or their films, I do know that every festival in the world only comes together through long, hard work and coordination. You'd never know I understand that, based on what I said above, and I'm sorry to have rejected the possibility out of hand—based in part on what I have projected onto the timing of Santa Barbara's film festival and the framing of the small bits of coverage I happen to see. My perceptions or misperceptions of what's going on half a country away are just that: cursory, faraway perceptions.

Most importantly, I at least oughtn't pull the two lamest moves on the internet: forming strong opinions in the absence of adequate knowledge, and then broadcasting those opinions with a cynical vehemence that's beneath my age and good sense. I admit to wanting to see more diversity in the range of names getting honored and fêted at this time of year, and to other personal hankerings and nostalgias related to film awards and press campaigns, past and present. But they, too, are subjectively cultivated biases, and I should have stated them responsibly as such, if they even needed stating at all.

Please accept my apology for what I wrote, including tones and claims that were more scurrilous than I intended or ought to have allowed. Meanwhile, I wish I could accept your humbling, generous offer to grant me press access to SBIFF, were I able to attend. I can't be there, and at least in the context of today, I think it's clear I haven't warranted the privilege; maybe you can extend it instead to a journalist, writer, or blogger who has already supported the festival and would be thrilled to enjoy their first press pass at an international film festival.

As an alternative, either sooner or much later, may I propose a short, open interview to be published as free publicity on this site for SBIFF, about how your role as Executive Director works, how the festival's honorees are chosen, how you see the festival as relating or not relating to the awards campaigns that are ramping up around the same time and around many of the same people, and what you most wish people knew about SBIFF that we might not know or understand. I would learn a great deal from this, I expect my readers and students would learn a great deal from this, and it would be my privilege to promote the festival, even from afar, as – wait for it – an informed member of the blogosphere. E-mail me if you're interested and available. If no (or even if yes!), many, many best wishes for your festival. I look forward to reading about it, carefully and in context.

Nick Davis

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Sunday, November 21, 2010

I'm Still Breathless: The Final Weeks

This late in the year, the original Fall Preview post gets a little tricky to read, with all the grades and the font colors, and the "passes." Plus, it helps to see light at the end of the yearly tunnel and to know exactly how much you have to look forward to (or not) before you can officially tie a bow on 2010. In the months since drafting that first list, some of my reservations have been cheerfully dispelled, some of my optimisms have cooled, and some titles have become such awards-circuit inevitabilities that I h-h-h-have to s-s-see them even if I d-d-d-d-don't want to. So, preserving our Madonnarific categories, here are all the remaining films for which I'm still "like a virgin."

Closed category. After the sublime White Material, I'm not panting for anything.

Blue Valentine A - Gosling and Williams meet sky-high hopes in vivid, deft film
Carlos B+ - Opaque politics, indulgent length, but still a lot to chew on and savor

Another Year B - Odd courting of cliché and rude moralism, but intriguing layers
Burlesque B– - Such pop flair, so damn amiable and dopey, you forgive a host of sins
The Illusionist B - Single frames and sum effect entrance; less satisfying scene by scene
Samson and Delilah Drat! - Held up with work on the only two nights it showed
Tiny Furniture C– - Signs of promise drowned in flat writing, overwhelming narcissism

Boxing Gym Drat! - Getting ever further off my game. This darn day job!
The Fighter B+ - Actors all click, but vital, resonant direction really sells it
Love and Other Drugs D+ - Glimmers of hope snuffed by very narcissism film critiques
Night Catches Us B/B– - Slow to find story and footing, but bristles with complex ideas
The Way Back B– - Aptly sobering, but chatty screenplay intrudes, structure flags

Country Strong - I like the full-on push Gwyneth is giving, even if it's iffy
Fair Game B/B– - Strong first half compensates for patchy, off-topic dénouement
Frankie and Alice - Halle's Country Strong? Vanity project, but anti-typecasting
The King's Speech C– - Ill shot, poorly written; good perfs not enough to redeem flaws
Somewhere C - Even airier than usual for Coppola, as in, it barely exists
True Grit B– - Kinda sweet, pretty cold, mostly handsome, acted okay, quite dull

Helena from the Wedding Drat! - Badly timed one-week run; sorry to have missed this
How Do You Know Pass - I didn't even read reviews, but I gather they were ...not good
Leaving Drat! - Same four-day run as Helena, same problems catching it
Made in Dagenham C+ - Satisfying story, but filmmaking below par. Hawkins a plus.
Nowhere Boy C - Some tart images, but too shellacked, lacking in stakes
Vision Drat! - Now only playing in the northern suburbs. That settles that.

Biutiful - I'm all but dreading this, but hopefully the actors do some triage
The Tempest - Boy has this gotten clobbered, but I can't help seeing for myself
The Tourist Pass - Reviews confirm my worst suspicions about plotting and casting
Unstoppable - Who knew the critics would be so jazzed and generous?

All Good Things - Early notices are poisonous; wisps of curiosity linger
Barney's Version - Guy was gently admiring at Venice, but is it my cuppa?
The Company Men - Trailer has some charm, and I'm pro-Ben at the moment
TRON: Legacy Pass - Just doesn't sound fun or impressive enough to make time for
Welcome to the Rileys Drat! - Spent a couple weeks in Chicago, but I didn't make it

Casino Jack Pass - If the script couldn't attract bigger talent than Kelly Preston...
Tangled B– - Tender, funny second half elevates what is maladroit and off-putting in first

(Rental Possibilities)
City Island B–/C+ - Clunkily shot and written, but quite charming; good use of actors
The Disappearance of Alice Creed C - Stylishly shot but unedifyingly lurid
Going the Distance B/B– - In its modest way, manages good jokes and plausible layers
Legendary C/C– - Unrepentantly stock, even clunky, but actors save enough of it
Sweetgrass B/B+ - Casually majestic but thin until late-film outpourings of inner strain
Ajami, Cell 211, Leaves of Grass, Soul Kitchen, Spring Fever

(Wish I hadn't missed these)
Enter the Void, Last Train Home

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Due Date, Faster, Gulliver's Travels, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1, Little Fockers, The Warrior's Way, Yogi Bear

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Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Voting Like It's 1947

After all this 1947 viewing I've been doing, considerably aided by your suggestions, I've hit the quotient of 30 U.S. release-year contenders that makes me feel justified in posting a personal Oscar ballot for the year. Which is the only framework in which I can really summon the will to discuss "ballots" and "voting" today. My only misgiving is that I've seen so many great performances, especially given the vivid and large ensembles of so many of the noirs and pseudo-noirs, that I wish the list hadn't just wound up looking like I did what Oscar voters so often appear to do: start with their five favorite movies and just keep ticking them off through every category. Lots of very close calls in arriving at these groups of five, and almost always at the expense of candidates whose films would have thrown more variety into the list.

So, by way of honorable mention, and since the main page for 1947 already clarifies my next stable of candidates for Best Picture...

Best Director: Alf Sjöberg, Torment; Jean Renoir, The Woman on the Beach; Carol Reed, Odd Man Out; Robert Rossen, Body and Soul; Robert Montgomery, Ride the Pink Horse or Lady in the Lake; Vittorio de Sica, The Children Are Watching Us

Best Actress: Joan Crawford, my beloved Possessed; Shirley Temple and Myrna Loy, The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer

Best Actor: Roger Livesey, I Know Where I'm Going!; Cary Grant, The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer; Victor Mature, Kiss of Death; Robert Ryan, The Woman on the Beach; Ronald Colman, A Double Life; Edmund Gwenn, Miracle on 34th Street; Dana Andrews, Boomerang!; Nikolai Cherkasov, Ivan the Terrible, Part 1

Best Supporting Actress: Elsa Lanchester, The Bishop's Wife; Celeste Holm, Gentleman's Agreement; Marilyn Nash, Monsieur Verdoux; Gloria Grahame, Crossfire

Best Supporting Actor: Robert Alda, The Man I Love; Thomas Gomez, Ride the Pink Horse; Lloyd Gough, Joseph Pevney, and Canada Lee, Body and Soul; Lloyd Nolan, Lady in the Lake

Two bonuses: one is that Oscar's Best Supporting Actor lineup from 1947 turns out to be a really high-grade lineup, to include very solid work from Robert Ryan and Charles Bickford, though I preferred them both in other movies; the other is that, while I can't make up my mind about hypothetical Cinematography nods, I cannot see how the Academy omitted Body and Soul and Nightmare Alley. The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is very, very pretty but not quite in the same league, and I can't speak from Green Dolphin Street, but as ever, I think I smell a rat.

Not done with '47 till the next Best Pictures installment goes up, so I may still sneak in a few more titles. Recommend away if you've got performances to stump for, in addition to the films you might have pointed me toward in the previous entry.

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