Saturday, January 28, 2012


One of the great special qualities of the movies is that they have the power to both allow us to look at familiar subjects in ways we haven’t quite seen them before or open us up to subjects that we wish to further explore. That’s the greatest asset of Wim Wender’s new film Pina, a tribute of sorts to the late German dancer/choreographer Pina Bausch which, like Bausch’s dancing itself, occupies that middle ground between documentary and performance art.

I have, in many reviews in the past, called for, at the very least, self-sufficiency in movies. Pina shows the value of such a trait. For those who are familiar with the influential talent and her work with the Wuppertal Tanztheater company, in Pina they will find a beautiful tribute, staged in such a tender and yet provocative way that only a master of images like Wenders could create. And for those who don’t know Bausch, Pina acts as the perfect portal through which to discover the strange, expressionist wonder of Bausch’s work in action.

Bausch occupied a space in dance that was just as much about performance art as it was about rhythm and movement. The film is largely comprised of Wenders recreating Bausch’s most famous performances, some of them on stage and some of them out on the streets, in trams, parks, escalators, etc.

One such performance includes one of Bausch’s most famous pieces Café Muller in which a cast of characters seem to wallow around the stage in a melancholic trance, crashing into tables and chairs until a surge of passion brings their bodies to life. There's also Rite of Spring in which the stage is completely covered in soil as groups of men and women cower from and then interact with one another in a mess of bodies and limbs seemingly strewn about at random.

The thing that strikes me most about Bausch, who, outside the staging of one of her dances in Pedro Almodovar’s Talk to Her, I have never been familiar with, is the way she used movement, not so much as a display of the beautiful possibilities of the human body but as a means of expressionism. Her dancers stagger about the stage, as if subdued within the troughs of a trance, held up by some unseen force until a surge of inspiration fills their body and sends them into a twisted explosion of movement. It is both startling and hypnotic.

There is, I suppose, no better man than Wenders for the job of staging Bausch’s work (in 3D no less). Wenders, a wildly gifted and consistently inconsistent filmmaker, is, first and foremost, a visual essayist. His most successful films follow not subjects but ideas, which he is able to wrap into the visual landscape of his setting. His Wings of Desire followed a pair of philosophizing angels as they walked around Berlin, looking down on the city’s inhabitants, watching them as they make deep and important decisions and observations. And his Paris, Texas followed a man who couldn’t remember who he was, through the desert as he pieced his life back together.

Documentaries have always been a weak point for Wenders though, who would rather dress a subject up than simply observe it in action. His Buena Vista Social Club charted the making of a great album but also undermined it as his camera spun endlessly this way and that, making the film more about the aesthetic quality of its making and less about its subject, and his Notebooks on Cities and Clothes couldn’t quite decide if it was documentary or university art school project.

Wenders, in more subdued mode, here does a nice job of using 3D to provide Bausch’s work with a look that is uniquely cinematic and removed from it’s staged origins but also providing the depth and myserty of an actual stage.

The problem with the film arises when Wenders wants to go into documentary mode. His large pieces like Rite of Spring and Café Mueller, both of relative length, are intercut with dancers faces looking into the screen and narrating their memories of Pina (who had died of cancer just days before shooting was to begin), their faces static, their lips not moving to the sound of their voice. Other stylistic distractions abound as well as dances on stage are cut away from to view different dances on the street or, in one strange and unnecessary touch, Café Mueller is cut away from to show two dancers, out in a park, standing over top of a miniature cut-out set of Café Mueller, discussing it as it transpires in miniature behind them, cutting into the power and momentum of the actual performance.

But alas Pina is a sight to behold and a film worth our praise. Wenders has done Pina the justice she deserves and will hopefully give her legacy rebirth just as her life was closing. At the very minimum Pina does something that just about every documentary should strive to do: introduce us to a subject that, by the time it has ended, we want to discover even more about.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Oscar Nominations for 2011 Are Out: Here are My Thoughts

  • Is it really much of a disappointment that Ryan Gosling didn't get a Best Actor nod for Drive? The movie wasn't very good and he was the least interesting character in it. The true disappointment is the lack of love for Albert Brooks in the Supporting Actor category.
  • Support Actor: Good for Jonah Hill. I think he said it right when he said people tend to associate you with your beginnings and he has spent the better part of his career thus far pegged as a comedic actor. But given his impressive dramatic abilities in both Moneyball and Cyrus this will hopefully open up a lot of new doors for him.
  • I didn't even know Nick Nolte and Max von Sydow were in The Warrior and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close respectively. Who was it that noted that there was a lot of good acting in sub par movies this year?
  • There's no one to win Best Supporting Actor other than Christopher Plummer.
  • Actress: Viola Davis gets the nod over Emma Stone for The Help. I think that's a good thing. Either way I can't help but think this list of five, except for Michelle Williams, isn't really an accurate portrayal of the best performances by an actress this year. 
  • Merly Streep once again proves that her talent is usually above the movies she's in and if they want to succeed they have to rise to her and not the other way around.
  • I haven't seen Albert Nobbs but I've read the script. It wasn't very good.
  • Both a white woman and a black woman from The Help have been nominated for Best Supporting Actress. If one of them were to win could we have another Crash vs. Brokeback Mountain debate on our hands?
  • Wouldn't it be a wonderful surprise if Melissa McCarthy won Best Supporting Actress? Could this be the year The Academy embraces comedy? Probably not.
  • For the first year in I can't remember how long Pixar doesn't snag a nod in the Best Animated Feature category despite the fact that Cars 2 wasn't nearly as bad as everyone said it was and a general improvement over the original. Tintin doesn't even make the cut?
  • The 3D in Hugo is probably the best I've ever seen but if  Emmanuel Lubezki doesn't win Best Cinematography for Tree of Life, I'll lose a little faith in humanity. 
  • Is The Artist going to win Best Director and Picture? It seems like the front runner despite it's limited market doesn it? It instantly looked like the was between The Artist and Hugo and if Hugo had done better numbers at the box office there's no doubt it would have taken the award. However, Hugo hasn't fared as well with the awards as The Artist and Tree of Life. I think Tree of Life is too "out there" to win Best Picture and Hollywood likes to celebrate itself. This will, I therefore predict, be the year of The Artist
  • Werner Herzog gets the shaft in the Documentary category again.
  • Pedro Almodovar gets the shaft in the Foreign Film category again.
  • I haven't seen A Separation so for me the best foreign film of the year is still Le Havre, which is, needless to say, not nominated either.
  • Every year, since the decision to have more than 5 Best Picture nominees there's always been a trivial film that connected with a large audience and a faux-prestige picture. This year those nominations go to The Help and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close.
  • They couldn't have just had 10 nominations and threw that extra one to Bridesmaids?
  • Year after year the original song nominees are getting depressing. What a lost art this has become (a bigger post of this to come)

One Minute Review - Take Me Home Tonight

There's a scene in Michael Dowse's Take Me Home Tonight that, for the couple minutes it lasts, is so unstoppably funny that it had to have either been improvised or rewritten by the scene's star Demetri Martin. I say that because Take Me Home Tonight is so sloppily written, so lazy, even in it's desire to be nothing but conventional and so otherwise unfunny that I can't, in any sort of good faith, believe that this scene was written by the same people who wrote every other scene in the movie.

I won't describe it to you, other than to say that the film takes place in the 80s. Topher Grace of That 70's Show is out of college and has no prospects. The summer is coming to an end and he's invited to a party where he's trying to pick up his former high school crush who's banking job sounds a lot more impressive than his video store cashier profession. Grace meets Martin at the party. He's in a wheel chair, wasn't impressed by Grace in high school, is even less impressed by him now and doesn't even consider not letting him know it.

There, I've saved you an hour and a half. Google Demitri Martin and Take Me Home Tonight and try to find the scene on Youtube. Martin's final line in the scene, from off screen as he's rolling away is a real howler. It deserves better.

One Minute Review - Antichrist

A lot has been written about Lars Von Trier's Antichrist. Some of it has been good, some bad but most has been written with head-scratching indifference. So much so that I'm surprised I have yet to find anyone who has described it as "flawed" (although, granted, I haven't looked very hard.)

But can anyone, even it's most vehement detractors, openly admit that they think Von Trier turned in anything less than exactly the movie he set out to make in Antichrist? That's it. Game over. The artist has already won. No thoughtless declaration of torture porn, excessive sex or art simply for the sake of art, beyond the point of the film's actual release into our viewing hands matters much. In it's own personal sense then, Antichrist is kind of perfect.

The problem with the film is that, Von Trier, as gifted a visual artist and provocateur as, for better or worse, there has ever been, has released one of the few movies that doesn't require an audience. The success of the film is in it's making. The only audience required to see it are those who continue to need proof that movies like this can still be made.

There is, of course, I'm sure, some meaning beneath this tale of a couple who, after the death of their child, retreat to a cabin in the woods in hopes of mending themselves only to slowly destroy each other both mentally and physically. What it is, I'm not sure. And that's the flaw. The medium is most certainly the message in the case of Antichrist. To rip it apart and burrow deeper inside of it is to tear a hole in the staggering beauty and power of it's immediate surface appeal. Antichrist is not so much a film to be understood as to have itself forced upon you. You see it because you want to know if the tree really does make a sound when it falls in the woods.

Most of that strange hypnotic whatever it is (I deemed it beauty but I'm not sure that's the correct word, maybe aura is better), can be attributed to Von Trier's being influenced by the Russian master Andrey Tarkovsky (to which Antichrist is dedicated).

Much like Tarkovsky's work, Antichrist seems to exist in the real world because it revolves around human people played by faces we recognize, and yet there isn't a single frame that in any way resembles any real place on this Earth. The one definitive difference is that Tarkovsky's ideas were worth exploring and his journey's worth taking. Leaving his films left you feeling enlightened. Leaving Antichrist leaves you feeling battered and in need of a glass of water.

Friday, January 20, 2012

A Problem With Black and White

Is it overly optimistic to think that Octavia Spencer's Golden Globe win for her performance in The Help was because she really did give the best performance of the bunch? Or maybe it's overly cynical to think that her win just may have had something to do with proud, back patting, privileged white people showing just how culturally accepting they are? Maybe a bit of both?

That's certainly the vibe I got from the standing ovation Spencer's win generated from the audience as Chris Tucker (he's still around?) stood, beaming, clapping extra hard from the back while looking on with head-held-high pride. The problem with Hollywood is that hindsight isn't 20/20, and as proud as I'm sure some were to see Spencer mount that stage followed by Morgan Freeman receiving a lifetime achievement award from Sidney Poitier who also got audience members up off their feet, I can't help but feel we still haven't made many strides toward racial equity in the movies.

The purpose is not to take away from Spencer who, like her The Help co-star Viola Davis, is a talented actresses who finally found a footing in the spotlight. The problem is that The Help (directed by a white man, based on a book by a white woman) represents just about everything wrong with Hollywood's treatment of African Americans throughout history: they don't trust black people to tell their own stories.

Even good movies are guilty of this: Edward Zwick's Glory was not about the black soldier's in the Civil War but about the white man who led them into the history books and The Blind Side, one of the most shameful offenders to all discussion of race relations in the U.S., wasn't about a black man getting an opportunity to succeed, but the white woman who gave it to him. Sure Coach Carter was about a black man telling his own story but replace the bankable Samuel L. Jackson with Charles S. Dutton or Danny Glover and see how fast that version gets green lit.

My sentiments of why people related to The Blind Side are ugly but I fear true. The Blind Side succeeded because it pandered to the absolute lowest common denominator while also aiming to touch the privileged white people who like to pat themselves on the back for doing nothing at all. But the sentiments were all wrong. Instead of looking at our condition and seeing the optimism of a society becoming more tolerant the sentiment was: God bless that saintly woman, who has so much, for letting that big dumb nigger into her home and giving him a chance.

By the end of The Blind Side, when the Sandra Bullock character reads about a teen being murdered in the hood and deems that that very well could have been her boy, that's the very problem with our society. We don't need another movie about the kid who was fortunate enough to run into a wealthy white family. We need a movie about the infinite number of anonymous black youth getting senselessly killed every day just based on the sociology of their situation.

But of course white people are quick to pat themselves on the back for the one case of goodness that they allow to shadow the innumerable injustices and societal division that still exist in America today. Let me ask you this: do you feel good that the U.S. elected a black president or do you feel better about, as a white person, having found it in your heart to vote him in? White people always need to be reminded of and congratulated for how open and accepting of those who exist below them in society they are. Ironically have we ever had a movie where a rich white family takes in a drug addicted, white trash hobo? Not enough glory to be had from that kind of endeavour.

That's why, last year, when Monique won the Oscar for Precious it seemed more honest and genuine. When Monique, in her speech, thanked Hattie McDaniel for going through what she went through so that Monique herself wouldn't have to, it felt, for better or worse, like genuine progress. That's the truth of true racial equity: it works because it factors race completely out of the equation.

Monique, I'd like to think, won, not because she was black, but because, in a category where both blacks and whites were nominated, the best person won. Just like Katheryn Bigelow was not celebrated for being the first woman to win Best Director but because she actually directed the best movie. To be equal is to see each other as humans, nothing more and nothing less. Until Hollywood realizes and embraces this, nothing will ever change.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Celebrities Behaving Badly

I just logged on to IMBD but moments ago and was greeted with this headline:

David O. Russell Fingered in Quasi-Incestuous, Transsexual Groping Claim

Apparently the transsexual 19 year old son of Russell's adopted sister is claiming that Russell touched him in a not acceptable way at a gym in Florida. Russell is no stranger to controversy with stories of him headbutting George Clooney on the set of Three Kings after Clooney stepped in and told him to stop abusing the extras and a video of him losing his mind at Lily Tomlin on the set of I Heart Huckabees.

I don't know if the story is true or not and frankly don't really care either way, but what caught me was this: read that headline again. Either the people who write headlines for IMBD are too clever for their own good or just oblivious. Or maybe I just have a sick sense of humour?

Don't know what I'm talking about? Keep reading it until you do.

Monday, January 2, 2012

The Descendants

Maybe the most interesting character to think about in Alexander Payne’s new film The Descendants is Elizabeth King, the comatose wife of George Clooney’s Matt King. The only scene we ever see Elizabeth conscious in is the first one in which we get a hint of the boating accident that leaves her waiting to die. What’s interesting about her is that, by the end of the film, when all of the drama that her accident creates has been said and done, Payne doesn’t quite let us know whether to envy her or despise her. Maybe we should do both. In a way she’s the luckiest person on screen, sitting it out while the lives of her family members crash down around them. And yet, in a strange way, everything that happens throughout the film is, in some small way, kind of her fault. As if she dumped a load of crap on her family, checked out and left them to deal with it.

But that has been, more or less, Payne’s style throughout his career (with the exception of maybe his debut Citizen Ruth): to make small movies on big canvases about desperate men struggling with their simple cosmic purpose of just trying to do the right thing despite all their flaws. What’s the meaning of life, some people ponder? In Payne’s world it’s simply to get by with doing as little damage as possible.

The remarkable thing about The Descendants, and what has been remarkable about all of Payne’s (along with writing partner Jim Thompson) work has been how he finds those small human notes that lie under the comedy. Much like the way Payne treats Elizabeth King, he never passes judgement on his characters, never turns them into two dimensional caricatures and never allows them to fully ever do just the right thing or just the wrong thing. We love them all and yet hold our reservations as well. No one is perfect in Payne’s world. Maybe that’s why it always kind of reminds us of ours.

The film opens as Matt King, the descendant of one of the first white land owners in Hawaii, narrates about his life there. Some people call the place paradise; they can’t imagine how fantastic it would be to live there. Ya, screw paradise says Matt, try coming and giving it a try sometime.

King is in one heck of a dilemma. Not only has his youngest daughter been acting out, getting into trouble at school, but his oldest daughter is away at a private school where she can’t get into alcohol and drugs or rebel against her mother, and his wife, who he soon finds out after springing daughter Alex from private school, was cheating on him. His numerous cousins are also anticipating that he will make them all a lot of money by selling a piece of land his ancestors have had in the family for generations and which he is the trustee for. To top it all off, he’s just been told his wife will never recover and it’s time to pull the plug, something his overbearing father-in-law (the invaluable Robert Forrest) silently blames him and the rest of the family for. Screw paradise indeed.

The film takes much of its arch as Matt, his daughters and Alex's stoned boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause) travel around the islands looking for the man his wife was seeing; wanting to meet him, see what he looks like, confront him, who knows. He hasn’t thought that far ahead.

If all of this sounds like typical sad-sack drama, in theory, it is. What makes it special is how unafraid Payne is of displaying his character’s rough edges. When King finds out about his wife’s infidelity he doesn’t steam, throw a tantrum or any such thing. He runs; down the street, around the bend and to their friend's house to get any information he can. This is, in a perfect blend of mockery and pathos, not a valiant run or a display of grand melodrama. It is the sad, pathetic, desperate run of a man doing the only thing his irrational mind could think to do in that moment. The entire movie is kind of like that: irrational to the point of comedy and yet deeply moving on a human level because of it.

And look at the way Payne treats characters like Sid: dumb, stoned, the kind of kid you pray your oldest daughter never brings home. Matt gets a few laughs at the kid’s expense and then in a subtle scene that sneaks up on us in a way we could never anticipate, Payne gives him the kind of monologue that won Virgina Madsen an Oscar nomination for Sideways. Sid isn’t just a dumb kid, he’s a kid with a heart and a mind and real dilemmas not far removed from Matt’s own. The movie never elaborates on the bond that passes between these two by the end of this scene. It trusts its audience enough not to have to.

That’s the approach Payne takes through the entire movie: never giving us what common movie logic has dictated his characters should give us. The Forrester character is not a bad man, just his own kind of man; Alex is not a bad kid, just one affected by the actions of her parents; and youngest daughter Scottie (Amara Miller) isn’t troubled in any way, she’s just growing up trying to find herself without the guidance of a mom. Even when we so desperately want King to lash out at his wife and blame her for all the drama she has caused, he doesn’t. He holds himself with dignity and respect. He does, most simply, the right thing, the best way he knows he can.

This of course all revolves around the plot involving the land. Should Matt sell to developers and make his cousins rich or should he keep the land, untouched and pure, the way his ancestors inherited it (the way the natives want it to stay), and figure out a way to keep it in the family? The setting is important, not because we rarely ever see dramas set amidst the tropical backdrop of Hawaii, but because it is a land that his been built through the deep heritage of those who discovered it and their descendants who desperately, as history is slowly devoured by commerce, try to keep that family heritage alive as best they can.

The film is thus, at its heart, one about family and the importance of continued bonds. It ends with one simple shot, which some will deem to be too neat and easy, but it’s the one the film has so rightfully worked its way to deserving. This chapter of this family has closed. For a moment they were on a bumpy ride. What happened was tragic, cruel, unfair and unkind but life goes on, history has been written and these characters continue to learn and grow into the future. Families get shaken up from time to time, kids act out and parents make mistakes, but at the end of the day, no matter the circumstances or price tag, a family will always still be a family. That’s history worth preserving.