Sunday, February 24, 2013

Recent business

I've had the urge to get back into doing a little more writing on this blog, so I'm going to start posting about movies I watch in the theater. This is what I've seen so far this year.

Not Fade Away (David Chase)
The first film from the creator of The Sopranos, David Chase, has quickly come and gone without much media hubbub, hoopla, hyperbole, or ham giveaways (I ran out of alliterative descriptors before that last one, but I was on a roll. Forgive me.) This is a damn shame. The Sopranos is my favorite television drama, and though Chase's film doesn't come close to the formal beauty or emotional impact of that amazing show (how could it?), it does have a hell of a lot more ideas, earned emotion, and entertainment value than most recent American films. Like The Sopranos, Not Fade Away energizes and transforms a familiar story by telling it in a personal, unusual way. Chase's semi-autobiographical period piece is about a young rock band in suburban New Jersey in the early-to-mid 1960s, particularly drummer-turned-singer Douglas (John Magaro) and his family and friends. Despite a few embarrassing scenes and lines of dialogue, Chase largely succeeds in creating a world that feels almost as lived-in as his TV show. Chase's subject matter is familiar territory in terms of setting, period, and chain of events (suburban white America, the '60s, youth culture, coming of age, a rock band trying to make it, the generation gap), but he structures the film as a series of ellipses that skip events and chunks of time that have been belabored by earlier works. Cliches are avoided by simply skipping over any scene that would provide it. For example, Douglas and his girlfriend have a horrible fight and break up. The next scene takes place several months later, and they are once again together, but Chase doesn't bother showing how or why the two patched things up. And the band never makes it big, so we avoid the whole spectacular rise and fall and rise again nonsense American film is so damn obsessed with retelling. Instead, like most bands, they don't have what it takes and simply fizzle out. They're an above average suburban New Jersey bar band with a couple good originals, and that's it. Not Fade Away's final moments are as gorgeous and daring as the final Sopranos episode, and probably just as likely to piss off any viewer who needs every conclusion tidy and final so it can be safely tucked into bed in time for the next diversion.

Promised Land (Gus Van Sant)
Gus Van Sant alternates between highly personal independent projects he adapts, writes, or co-writes himself and director-for-hire projects offered to him by producers, studios, or actors. When he does his own thing, he's one of my favorite directors. When he's a hired gun, the results are often disappointing. There are exceptions (his remake of Psycho was a personal project he'd wanted to do years before, but is baffling to me; To Die For and Milk were for-hire films he was able to make his own), but I'm generally wary of Van Sant the hired gun. I had low expectations for this film. Written by Matt Damon and John Krasinski from a story idea by Dave Eggers, anti-frakking drama Promised Land was meant to be Damon's directorial debut. When Damon's acting schedule prevented him from doing the necessary prep work as director, he made a last-minute offer to Van Sant. So, Promised Land is basically Good Will Frakking with John Krasinski as Ben Affleck, right? Yes and no. It's far from Van Sant's best work, Krasinski's smug mug still drives me insane, and the surprise twist at the end is pretty abominably stupid, but the overall feel of this one is far less forced and hollow than Good Will Hunting, the performances are relaxed and natural, the small town is portrayed in a far more accurate light than Hollywood normally attempts, and Van Sant makes it look awful purty. The film also spends more time on the characters than on being a soapbox lecture about the perils of frakking (Frakaganda? Again, I apologize.) I really liked Frances McDormand's interactions with Damon and the way Van Sant shot the landscape. Still, it's nothing particularly special and is too often a reminder of what Van Sant can do with better material. This is the kind of movie made for forced family holiday viewing. It won't matter if you miss some of the dialogue when your loudest relative starts braying nonsense about his/her day or health woes or how much Obama sucks or what Charlie Sheen is up to, but it will be better than most Hollywood swill.

Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow)
First, the right wing nuts bashed this movie for being pro-Obama propaganda. Than the lefties bashed it for being pro-CIA, pro-torture propaganda. These two groups should get together and cuddle because most of them made these accusations without bothering to see the film. After seeing it for myself, I can't side with either group. Bigelow has made a dark, ambiguous film about the absence of humanity and the cold, single-minded devotion to duty in both Al-Qaeda's terrorism and the CIA's counterterrorism. She gives the audience enough room to make up their own minds about the ethical justifications or lack thereof in our country's response to the hunt for Bin Laden. Was it worth it? What did we gain from it? The questions are implied. Not answered. The film depicts torture, and even shows a sliver of usable information coming from the use of torture, but is hardly a flag-waving love letter to the CIA or an apology for "enhanced interrogation techniques," in language-molesting bullshitspeak. The film depressed me, but not because it was pro-torture or because it was bad. I admired it. Bigelow again proved herself to be one of the most talented directors of visceral action and kinetic movement. The final sequence, in which the SEALs storm Bin Laden's compound, is top-notch filmmaking. The film depressed me because the world is a pro-death, pro-revenge nuthouse. As the credits rolled, I sat still for a second thinking about how everything is fucked and the world is a dark, sad place. At the same time, the man behind me yelled, "Wooo! USA!" That the film could inspire both these immediate responses is a testament to its power and skill and its potential negative impact as a big-budget mainstream prestige picture. If the jingoistic war hawk fistpumpers are going to ignore the film's ambiguity and find their own fantasy America in it, maybe it will do more harm than good. Here's hoping Bigelow has another Near Dark or Point Break in her somewhere.
Interestingly, leftist political journalists tend to think this film is pro-torture propaganda, while leftist filmmakers and film critics have been largely supportive of the film. As my viewing experience shows, there are many ways to watch a movie. Filmmakers and serious film critics tend to focus on form, style, and structure and find their meanings there, while journalists more often focus on the film's screenplay, content, and statements made about the film by its makers. We could benefit from exchanging more ideas about this, but I'd just like to say that most journalists are missing a lot of what Bigelow is saying in terms of facial expressions, juxtaposition of scenes, and where she puts her camera at crucial moments in the film. Also, I'd like to say that artists are notoriously unreliable interview subjects about their own work, and journalists too often take artists' statements about the work as gospel when they should be looking for their answers in the work itself.

Amour (Michael Haneke)
I'm pretty shocked that this movie received several Oscar nominations. It's French. Strike one. Hollywood is completely uninterested in any other country, with the occasional exception of the UK and any movie it can remake shittily. It stars two actors in their eighties. Strike two. Hollywood pretends old people don't exist, and it also pretends any woman older than 34 doesn't exist unless she's a rapping granny. It's a film that doesn't try to tell you how to feel from a filmmaker who specializes in exceedingly dark films with open-ended conclusions. Strikes three through a million. Oh wait, the film is about physical disability. The Oscars eat disabilities with a spoon. Still, it's an odd choice, but I hope it makes more people seek it out. Haneke's film about aging, decline, and death is as formally beautiful as the rest of his work and contains a trio of incredible performances from three of my favorite actors: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva, and Isabelle Huppert.

The World's Greatest Sinner (Timothy Carey)
God and Satan bless the Alamo Drafthouse for presenting this super-rare 35mm screening of oddball genius actor Timothy Carey's beautifully strange 1962 labor of love. Carey wrote, edited, directed, and starred in this one-of-a-kind story of an insurance agent, Clarence Hilliard, who changes his name to God, quits the insurance game, gets into street preaching, becomes a rock star, and makes a deal with Satan to achieve political success until Satan comes back to collect. Sometimes infuriating, sometimes repetitive, sometimes transcendent, sometimes hilarious, always unique, this movie made me feel a little more alive. I can't imagine most people sitting through it, but those who do are my brothers and sisters.

Timothy Carey bonus track
Here's Carey with Seymour Cassel in one of my favorite scenes from John Cassavetes' Minnie & Moskowitz

My moviegoing: 2004

Abbas Kiarostami's Taste of Cherry (1997)
Austin Film Society's Iranian film series

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