Tuesday, May 16, 2006

"Do you just never wanna get laid again?": Tribeca Part Whatever

So, like I was saying, subject matter. I am always looking for films that deal honestly and insightfully with issues of race and class in America, like Crash, if that film had anything honest or insightful to say about race and class in America. I mean, if provocation was sufficient, than White Man's Burden and Soul Man would be important films.

The Architect, which played at Tribeca, intrigued me because the synopsis in the festival catalogue made it seem like it was about an architect (Anthony LaPaglia) who had designed a housing project in Chicago, and a resident/activist (Viola Davis) who was trying to have the buildings--now a haven for drug dealers--torn down. Having read There Are No Children Here, Alex Kotlowitz's excellent nonfiction book about a family living in Chicago's notorious Cabrini Green, and being a fan of Bernard Rose's underrated Candyman, which took place at a fictionalized version of Cabrini Green, I had a lot of curiosity about how detailed the film would be in its depiction of project life, and how incisive it would be in confronting the culpability of well-meaning, well-to-do white liberals in the suffering of poor black people.

Well, filmmaker Matt Tauber has taken the opportunity to make yet another film in a long, storied tradition, about the suffering of well-meaning, well-to-do white liberals. The Architect is not so much about a poor black woman who is so desperate to change her family's surroundings that she petitions the government to destroy her home, and comes into conflict with the arrogant man who had some very progressive ideas in mind when he originally designed that home. It's a little bit about that. But it's much more about the architect himself and his midlife crisis and his kooky wife (Isabella Rossellini), and his sexually confused and vulnerable teenage children. So, it's kind of a bait-and-switch, and by the standards of your typical "rich people and their problems" flick, it still doesn't have much to offer. The film is based on a play by Scottish playwright David Greig, and I suspect that the original play has nothing at all to do with race or America, and it hasn't been sufficiently adapted to address its new setting. Why would you want to adapt this story to Chicago only to gloss over all of the racial issues involved, focusing on the poor architect and his familial woes? The answer escapes me.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Tribeca Part 2: "Every day is a gift, but does it have to be socks?"

Again, I have to mention that I know it's bad form to complain about movies that one is lucky enough to be able to see for free. And I feel especially bad about bitching out a fluffy little bunny of a documentary like When Fried Eggs Fly. In a perfect world, I would never have seen it. Tribeca has this little screening library where press people can go and watch DVDs or tapes from a select library. I had about 75 minutes to kill between screenings, so I figured it would be a good time to watch the aforementioned Maquilopolis, but for some reason that screener wasn't available. They tell me that you can't take the screeners out, but then that screener is still somehow out, so maybe it's just us lowly Franklin Pass people that can't take them out. Anyway, the only other film I have time for is this doc about a music teacher at Manhattan's PS 3 who gets 150 or so kids, their parents, and the other teachers to compose, perform, and record a little pop ditty about the environment. This story would be perfectly good fodder for a six minute human interest piece on the local news, but as a feature documentary at a major film festival, it just does not cut it. Nothing against this hard-working teacher or his adorable and ever-so-talented brood, but this is fairly dull stuff, and only one of the kids is given enough screen time to differentiate himself in any substantial way. Spellbound it ain't. But then, I despised Paper Clips, but that got a distribution deal and the old perfume-soaked hags at the video store seem to like it enough. I mean, I like kids, generally, and they're all stars, in their own way. Maybe the kids I know, like my wonderful nieces and nephews, and Josh and Alex, and Brielle and Neo, and little Shmemma have just raised my standards too high, but I figure if I would rather spend an hour with those brats, the flick ain't working.

On my previous visit to that screening room, I'd watched the doc Rosie Perez made with Liz Garbus, Yo soy Boricua, pa'que tu lo sepas! and that was a much more worthwhile use of my time. It's essentially Perez's celebration of her heritage, and, in addition to a very warm, personal point-of-view, it contains a wealth of fascinating and often troubling historical data about the island of which I knew very little. It's always nice to actually learn something from a documentary, particularly when it's presented with passion and vigor. What I mean is, there's a lot of names and dates, but it's never dry because the whole thing is infused with Perez's electric personality. Of course, if you're one of those people that cringes at the sound of her voice, this film is probably not for you. Oh, and go fuck yourself!

Just kidding, of course.

Say what you want about Rosie, but don't start talking shit about my girl Sarah Silverman, or there will be trouble. I know what you're thinking: This is another one of those pathetic online blog nerds who is hopelessly in love with Sarah Silverman just because she is so funny, and is kind of cute. Right?

Well, I don't really have a comeback for that one.

I try not to be obsessive about it. I think I find her so beguiling in part because she reminds me a bit of Lisa, but that doesn't detract from her enormous talent, which exists beyond my personal peccadilloes. Just like Mary Louise Parker is an amazing actress, regardless of whether or not she bears a passing resemblance to my aforementioned wayward soulmate.

In any case, enough of that crap. I was determined to see the atrociously titled I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With, written and directed by Jeff Garlin of "Curb Your Enthusiasm" fame, partly because I find Garlin moderately amusing, but mainly because Silverman has a substantial role in it. So, I shouldn't have been too surprised that the film is moderately amusing, while Silverman is fucking awesome. There is a temptation here to lapse into even more embarrassing confessional mode, and I am having a hard time resisting it, but in the name of all that is holy, I shall. Or, I will just briefly mention that I liked that scene where Beth (Silverman) takes James (Garlin) along as she goes underwear shopping. I won't even say that I really liked it, and you between-lines readers can just chalk whatever you make of that up to your own twisted projections.

One problem I had with the film is the way it nearly constantly evokes "Curb." I'm not suggesting that Garlin is ripping Larry David off. I'm sure he shares a certain comic sensibility with David, and as the show is largely improvised, his own comic persona is obviously integral to the overall tone of CYE. But still. James's stand-up inflected conversations with his buddy Luca (David Pasquesi) as they search for a place to eat; his encounter with a guy in a pirate outfit (Joey Slotnick) promoting a hot dog stand who turns out to be a friend of his and whom he ends up filling in for, briefly; the coincidental run-ins with various eccentrics... It's all a bit too familiar, and because Garlin is a much more amiable sort than David, a lot of it comes off as CYE without the edge. For edge, we have Silverman's brazen sex and ice cream talk and her sweetly unhinged passive aggressiveness. James's relationship with Beth is the most interesting thing about the film. Garlin seems to strain to make James unattractive, what with him living with his mother, his food issues, his immense self-pity, but then he goes through lovely women at an alarming rate. I count three very attractive (thin, pretty, intelligent) love interests for James in the film, so it's hard to feel as sorry for him as he does for himself. I mean, maybe it's especially hard for me. Anyway, it's still worth seeing, from my disgruntled perspective. It's a decent first feature, and I was entertained, despite my reservations.

Okay, this isn't going as smoothly or as quickly as I'd hoped. I'm going to try to wrap the whole thing up tomorrow, I guess. So stay tuned?

Monday, May 08, 2006

Tribeca Part 1: "You've really never heard of a no-win situation? Vietnam? This?"

Well, Tribeca is over. I didn’t see any of the award winners, unfortunately. The Free Will, the Jonestown doc, Maquilapolis: City of Factories, loudQUIETloud (Pixies doc) , and The War Tapes were among those I meant to see, but just didn’t get to. I agree with Filmbrain about the size of the festival. If they showed half as many films, it would still be massive, and they could focus more on the quality of the films they present, weeding out some of the less interesting stuff. I only saw twelve films (cheating to include MI:3 and United 93, which I did not actually see as part of the fest), but two of those really had no business being in a major festival. If there are about 300 really good feature films out there right now, waiting to be shown, Tribeca either couldn’t get them, or made the wrong choices.

If they’d given me a fancier press pass, I would have been able to see more, but because I wasn’t guaranteed seating to any of the public screenings, I stuck mainly to the press screenings, and tried to choose the stuff I thought would interest me, based on subject matter, clips (if they were available online) and the creative people involved (which means mostly whether or not Sarah Silverman was in them).

Thankfully, I saw what I have to believe was the most important film of the festival, and certainly the best I saw. You know, that expertly made docudrama about the “real cost” of 9/11.

What? United 93? You’re joking, right?

No, I’m talking about The Road to Guantanamo.

My Tribeca was all about make-believe. We had:

-John Malkovich pretending to be Kubrick,
-Sabina Guzzanti pretending to be Berlusconi,
-Reed Fish pretending to be Zackary Adler, who pretended to show us a movie, when it was really a movie within a movie,
-Jeff Garlin pretending that no one would notice him pretending to be Larry David
-Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe doing a very good job of pretending that their Brothers of the Head was a documentary about the Bang Bang, a conjoined twins fronted 1970s rock band,
-Perry Grebin and Michael Nigro doing a somewhat poorer job of pretending that their purported documentary, American Cannibal, was a sly commentary on our national obsession with reality TV, and not just a cynical attempt to exploit that obsession.
-The US government pretending that three innocent British men were best buddies with Osama bin Laden and Mohammad Atta,
-Tom Cruise pretending to be Philip Seymour Hoffman,
-JJ Abrams pretending that it will take extremely complicated plot by a rogue agent to get us into another war in the Mideast,
-Paul Greengrass pretending that a well-executed partial simulation of the events of the morning of 9/11 is somehow important or useful.

United 93 was a gut-wrenching experience, as they say, and I found its real-time depiction of the nuts and bolts aspect of air traffic control and military decision-making on that morning fairly fascinating. Seeing it in real time is not the same as reading about it, and I did find myself wandering off and thinking about seven minutes of My Pet Goat, for some reason. So it was useful to me, in that limited sense. When it’s focus is on the actual plane and its passengers, it seems more like docudrama bullshit to me. Clearly, Greengrass knows that we will never know what those passengers said to each other or did on that morning. His solution is to avoid showing anyone saying or doing much of anything that might indicate that they had any type of individual personality. This might be respectful, but it’s certainly not insightful, and, unlike the earlier scenes in the control towers, it doesn’t really capture what was so irrevocably horrible about that day. Which is not to say that I wanted to relive those feelings I had, sitting up here with Lisa in what was then, thankfully, our apartment (by which I mean to say, I am glad that neither of us was alone that morning) watching the TV, horrified about all those people, and wondering what would become of our city and our world. But this film brought those feelings back to me with an immediacy that I did not expect. Which is not to say that a less capable filmmaker couldn’t have done the same damn thing, which is why I guess some people think of United 93 as exploitation, despite its virtues. And I have mixed feelings about it, but I guess I am leaning toward agreeing with them. The real time element makes the nuts-and-bolts element, which you could read about in a multitude of newspaper and magazine articles, more immediate, but the film's emotional impact--the trauma it evokes--is not justified by the information it imparts. Since the film doesn't put these events in the context of what's happened since, the sorrow and anger it brings up are not useful emotions.

The Road to Guantanamo inspires feelings just as powerful, but it is a much more "important" and "useful" film, providing a very detailed and convincing look at one aspect of our country's ongoing efforts to produce more terrorists. I think the film is great, and I want everyone to see it. I'm astounded that Michael Winterbottom can go from making Tristram Shandy to this, and can do both things so brilliantly. This is as good a time as any, I guess to plug earlier films of his, like Wonderland and I Want You, that you might have missed.

Early on in the film, I wondered about the Tipton Three, because the story they tell (the film is comprised of interviews with the former prisoners, reenactments, and news footage) of how they ended up in a Taliban stronghold in northern Afghanistan doesn't make much sense. But in the end, there's no evidence of anything other than their being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and evidence used to be the standard that we used before we put people in prison, let alone for years, and let alone while torturing them for information that they clearly did not have eg. "Where's Osama?"

It seems there are fewer and fewer of the Kool-Aid drinkers around these days (unless you look online) so maybe a lot of people will actually get to see this film, and will get an inkling of how far from our ideals our country has strayed.

While those two films both left me in a grim mood, hope was proffered at a screening of Ronit Avni's fine documentary, Encounter Point. One of the films subjects, Ali Abu Awwad, attended the screening, and spoke afterward. He is a Palestinian whose brother was killed by Israeli soldiers, and who was himself imprisoned for many years, along with other family members. Now a peace activist, Awwad approaches the notion of peace between Palestinians and Israelis from a very pragmatic and practical, as opposed to an idealistic or political point-of-view. He pointed out at the Q&A that communication is key, because peace itself represents something very different for Palestinians than for Israelis. For most Israelis, it essentially means that they can continue their lives as they have been, without having to worry about suicide bombing, while for Palestinians, it essentially means, as Awwad put it, that "we can begin to live." Selling the notion of statehood and peaceful coexistence to Palestinians is harder, because it's so much further removed from their current existence than it is for Israelis. He explains that many of them have no hope of peace, so their anger becomes destructive. But he and others are out there, talking to both Palestinians and Israelis of all political stripes, trying to shift the focus from the violence that the media obsesses over. And it seems to be working, slowly. He does win people over, and he makes a compelling case that this kind of grassroots activism is the only possible way to affect real change in the region.

I'll post some more about what I saw later today, or tomorrow.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Worn Out Joy

Hi, everyone. Sorry it's been so long. I am too busy to post anything lengthy right now, and my head is not right, but I just wanted to share this link to a New York Times profile of the wonderful filmmaker Kelly Reichardt, who made River of Grass, one of my favorite films of the 1990s, and more recently Old Joy, (please not to be confused with Oldboy) which I saw at this year's New Directors/New Films. I have been sick for a while, and didn't make too many of the screenings, and continue to feel awful about it, but this was a film that I knew I had to see. It is beautiful, and I hope that more people get a chance to see it. The profile is by Dennis Lim, who does a good job of capturing what the film is all about without revealing too much. Not that there is too much that could be revealed in mere words...

I want to say that I will try to make up for my lack of attendance at ND/NF by going to an overwhelming number of Tribeca screenings (they start this week) but Tribeca is such an odd and unwieldly beast of a fest, and there is such a good chance of screening one bad film after another for days on end that I don't know if I will muster the energy. Yes, it is probably bad form to complain about having to see a bunch of bad movies for free, but I do believe it is actually dangerous to my mental and physical health, both of which seem to be in decline lately. I'm much more looking forward to this summer's New York Asian Film Festival, and the surprise and excitement that will bring.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Another 2005 boo-boo.

Yeah, ok. This wouldn't have been my favorite movie of 2005, mainly because there's a lie at its core that I find disconcerting, to say the least, but it's my favorite Terrence Malick movie since Badlands, and I guess that's saying something. And it moved me, which is more than I could say for The Thin Red Line. Oh, silence your gasping, ye
acolytes. Malick's poesy and his stunning images, including the nature cutaways, feel far more organic to this tale of colonization than they did to his WWII drama. They jolted me right out of that movie, and made me all too aware of the "visionary" behind the camera. The New World works as cinema on many levels. It is a coherent and beautiful film, and Q’Orianka Kilcher was absolutely amazing. ("Still wearing that rabbit fur coat" above) If I were to vote on my best actress/breakthrough performance awards for the OFCS today, she would be right at the top of each category. It goes beyond the "ray-of-sunshine" naturalism that Seitz describes. This is a startlingly complex and nuanced performance. Her character changes radically through the story, she assimilates, and yet she retains her essence. There is not a false note in Kilcher's work here, amazing to consider how young she is. (I was trying to resist the urge to put in a defensive aside to Lisa here, but I guess it was too strong. I know how you think. Come now. I am a professional. Let me work here.)

Anyway, the film itself--despite my reservations about it, and how it depicts the growing conflict between Native Americans & colonists--definitely merits another one of my many, increasingly meaningless honorable mentions for 2005.

Friday, February 03, 2006

No sense closing the barn door once the genetically engineered killer cow has already left!

I almost laughed aloud hearing our president exhort us to avoid "creating human-animal hybrids" in his State of the Union address on Tuesday night, but then on Thursday I saw Billy O'Brien's Isolation, which is going to be shown as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center's "Film Comment Selects" series later this month (and eventually put into theaters by Lion's Gate) and damn if I didn't realize just the type of horror old GWB was talking about. It's actually a pretty good, icky, creepy, and efficient little shocker, with a lot of disturbing psycho-sexual undertones and just a smidgen too much mad scientist for my taste. I will probly review it for AMG, but here I just wanted to mention how very timely it is.

On another note, I had to change my blog template, because I could not stand the way the old one dealt with comments, they'll now come up in a pop-up window, so you don't have to scroll down to the bottom of a long post to read/add them.

Monday, January 30, 2006

The World's Last 2005 Top Ten Movies List

Ok, enough is enough. I am the slowest movie critic/blogger on earth coming up with this list. First I had to see Munich. Then I had to find photos for all the films. Because my pal Jason Jackowski (see link to the right) posted photos with his top ten list on his nascent blog. Knowing that some of my "regulars" (okay, "some" is a vague term--"one" would be a big enough percentage of my readership to merit consideration) don't know how to read, and like pretty pitchers, I decided that I had to post photos, too. So I will try. It might look dumb.

I am not going to waste time slamming Last Days, which I think represents Gus Van Sant's recent opportunistic "artiste" phase at its most venal and unnecessary, or even mentioning The Producers, even though my ears are still ringing, because most people, even those that somehow like them, seem to have forgotten about them, and rightly so. I mean, maybe the silly Golden Globes had Nathan Lane thinking he was going to get an Oscar nomination, but damn, that was one painful filmgoing experience.

I will mention, though, that this was a pretty awesome year for film. So there are a bunch of worthy movies that did not make my top ten list, but I do mention a lot of them in the honorable mentions section just below the list proper. This site is full of such innovative ideas, and now, with photos.

I considered making the list alphabetical, and for all intents and purposes, it really is alphabetical, except that it is not in the traditional order of the alphabet. What I mean is, any of the top three could have been #1 on a different day, and beyond the top three, the rankings are fairly arbitrary. The only bigtime prestige release that I failed to catch this year was The New World. Naturally I don't want to reveal too much about my biases, but from what I've heard, I would be surprised if it made this list...

1) Save the Green Planet!
Yes, this South Korean whatsit is the weirdest, best film of the year. Its nonstop inventiveness and refreshing disregard for the traditional boundaries of genre are only a small part of its appeal. It is wacky, hilarious, disturbing, and horrifying by turns, and, as with my number 2 film, the story is rooted compellingly and truthfully in a resonant and painful recent history.

2) Memories of Murder
Ah, another dark, disturbing South Korean film that subverts genre cliches and finds inspiration in an oppressive recent history. It also directly addresses the failure of torture and ideology in ascertaining truth, so I would hope that us Americans in 2005/6 might find some meaning in it in relation to our own little world. Beyond that, it works like gangbusters as a straight up genre piece. It's the best thriller I've seen in years.

3) The Squid and the Whale
I've always admired Noah Baumbach's smart sense of humor and his skill with actors. Kicking & Screaming and Mr. Jealousy are both well worth watching. But this is the first time that those talents have come together with a strong, deeply personal story and a developing visual aesthetic to produce a cohesive, funny, and heartbreaking work documenting a family's breakdown with bracing emotional honesty. Forget the damn Oscars; this uniformly outstanding cast (even William Baldwin) deserve the highest praise.

4) The World
I'm not really a "cinema of quality" guy, but there are always exceptions, and I guess Jia Zhang-ke is one of them. He appeals to me, among other reasons, because he seems to expand his palette a bit with each film, and this is certainly his most lively and accessible film to date, encompassing comedy, drama, and spectacle, all with a all with a sharp and salient worldview. Unlike, say, Gus Van Sant, Jia always seems to have a precise grasp of the specific milieu he's portraying, along with a keen eye on where its denizens fit in the grand scheme of things.

5) Kung Fu Hustle
Whatever Ang Lee thinks, Stephen Chow is an artist, in much the same sense that Chaplin, Keaton, Jerry Lewis, and, for a brief moment in time, Jackie Chan were. This was the most flat-out fun I had in a movie theater this year, and it brings a lovingly constructed world to vivid life, with larger-than-life underdog heroes and slick villains, inventive and energetic visuals, and a good-natured sense of humor and morality.

6) Funny Ha Ha
As one might gather from my comments extolling the virtues of Noah Baumbach's early work, I am a sucker for talky, urbane romantic comedies in the vein of Nicole Holofcener's Walking and Talking, and this is one of those. Andrew Bujalski throws us into this low-key, awkwardly funny world of smart, quick-witted, but confused and conflicted twentysomethings who don't always have the best intentions, and don't always know how to say what they want heard, which is not always what they mean. The film features outstanding performances and offers insight without any forced or phony epiphanies.

7) A History of Violence
Like The Squid and the Whale, I guess Cronenberg's superbly enthralling thriller is too prickly to get past the middlebrow taste enforcers of the Academy. HOV is a superb, tightly constructed genre piece with a rich, fascinating subtext not easily parsed in a single viewing. It's easy enough to be mesmerized by the blood-drenched sardonically funny tale and the skill with which Cronenberg presents it, plumbing the depths of the dark heart of a seemingly simple, ordinary life. Kind of reminds me of Cache in many ways, though that excellent film has been sadly relegated to my honorable mentions by an embarrassing instance of fanboyishness. My own, natch.

8) Darwin's Nightmare
Even if they didn't honor Grizzly Man, I guess I have to give whatever coffee klatsch decides on the Academy's documentary nominations some credits for recognizing this brutally fascinating depiction of the desperate bottom end of the world economy, and the devastating environmental havoc that the worship of profit can wreak. It's not a pleasant moviegoing experience, but it offers a critical look at how the rest of the world pays for the comfort we in the West take for granted.

9) Turtles Can Fly
An intensely timely, clear-eyed, and tragic look at the effects of war on the defenseless, former Kiarostami assistant Bahman Ghobadi's third film is also funny, angry, emotionally honest, and profoundly humane. Soran Ebrahim and his young castmates bring Ghobadi's warzone tale to vivid life.

10) Serenity
What? Yeah, Serenity. So? Please pardon my defensiveness. I know there are a lot of people out there who think Joss Whedon is some kind of god. I swear I am not one of them. I mean, Buffy and Firefly are great, of course, but I've only seen about ten episodes of Angel, so you could hardly think that I'm of that ilk. I've had the chance to see this again since it came out on DVD, and I am decreasingly embarrassed with how much I like it. It's Whedon, so of course, girls kick ass. But there's so much more. There's witty banter, strong characters, a great villian (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the slyly subversive anti-authoritarian theme, and it looks great. If I'd never heard of Firefly, I have to believe that I would still find this a great sci-fi action flick. But I do feel kind of like I know these people, so it's a bit more than that.


Cache. Time of the Wolf made my top ten last year. This was a stronger year, and another film that I will have to see a couple more times before I decide if it's one for the ages or just exceptionally clever and pointed.

Head-On. Fatih Akin's twisted romance between two supremely screwed up Turks in Germany generates real emotional impact from the specificity of its cultural milieu.

Kamikaze Girls. Jason suffered from some kind of Japanese pop culture overload while watching this, but I found its cultural specificity (again) extremely refreshing, and it was probably the most pure fun I had after Kung Fu Hustle.

The Power of Nightmares. Why shouldn't our side have good propaganda?

Grizzly Man. Another great year for documentaries.


War of the Worlds.

Mysterious Skin. I started with Gregg Araki back in 1992, with
The Living End, and this is the first film of his that I've really liked. It's harsh and disturbing, and it often threatens to slip into camp, but, thanks in part to an excellent cast, it never crosses that line, and it develops a genuine poignancy.

The Ice Harvest. Insanely underrated straight-up genre flick.

The Constant Gardener. Or, as Lisa calls it, "The Constipated Gardener." I go back and forth on this one, but today I like it, and I continue to have high hopes for Meirelles' career.

Junebug. Sharp, funny, and much more emotionally complex than I was expecting.

Pulse. Got inside my skull like no J-horror before it (or, technically, after it--Thanks, Miramax!). I like Kristen Bell, but I don't have high hopes for the remake matching the original's subtle creepiness.

Sarah Silverman: Jesus is Magic. Her five minutes in The Aristocrats was that movie's highlight, too. Her feature is a little uneven, but still a lot of thought-provoking, guffaw-inducing comedy.

Land of the Dead. Easily the best theatrical horror film/political allegory of the year, and might have made my top ten if I hadn't liked Joe Dante's Homecoming (from Showtime's Masters of Horror) even better.

2046 and Tropical Malady. These are both good films from directors whom I admire a lot, and maybe one day I will be far removed enough from my (perhaps unreasonable) expectations to appreciate them more.

In Her Shoes. Hands down the chick flick of the year, and one I didn't expect to like at all.

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. While Oldboy and Lady Vengeance certainly have their moments, I pretty much feel like Park Chan-wook said everything he needed to say on the subject right out of the gate.

Also, I wanted to mention Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, The Holy Girl, My Summer of Love, Look at Me, Me and You and Everyone We Know, The Time We Killed, Breakfast on Pluto, Kings and Queen...

See, I told you it was a good year.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Prelude to a Top Ten

Yeah, I know. Such a momentous event deserves some kind of run-up. If I had any web design skills, you would be hearing a drum roll now. Before I get into my top ten for 2005, which I will post soon, I wanted to discuss some of the films that were well regarded by other critics, but failed for me. And maybe another couple or so observations on 2005.

You already know how I felt about Sin City, or if you don't, you can scroll down and read about it. A lot of critics liked it, and aside from it looking cool and perhaps having a patina of being transgressive (in the most sophomoric and reactionary way), I will never understand why. I can't understand its appeal to thinking people who take cinema seriously as an art form. I also contend that if you just think this movie is "a blast," there is something wrong with you. Kung Fu Hustle is "a blast," because it is wildly entertaining, but also has such a good heart and a strong sense of morality. Kamikaze Girls is a blast. Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story is a blast. Even King Kong could conceivably be thought of as "a blast," if you could somehow get past its discomfiting racial subtext. Beyond the impressive look of the film, there was certainly nothing in Sin City that gave me the sense of vertiginous giddiness that I got from Kong's battle with those dinosaurs.

So you can imagine how disappointed I was when my critics group, the Online Film Critics Society, gave the film two of its year-end awards. Best Supporting Actor for Mickey Rourke and, even worse, Best Cinematography for Mr. Half-Assed Jack-of-All-Trades-Master-of-None Robert Rodriguez. The director of Shark-Boy and Lava-Girl. Remember a few years ago when Conan O'Brien made that joke about how Catherine Keener won the OFCS award for Best Supporting Actress, beating out Lieutenant Uhura? This is the type of thing that reinforces the public perception of our group as a bunch of geeks. I mean, I wouldn't mind if it was film geeks, but Sin City voters are, I suspect, more the type of geeks who hang out at the comic book store, and have never spoken to a girl. I know, I was one of them once. I just wish they would outgrow it, now that they are in a fancy OFCS awards-giving body. Womens heads mounted like trophies on a wall is not cool or even really demented and sick, it is just moronic.

I didn't really mean to write about Sin City, but it does piss me off, and I get carried away. Anyway, another film by a filmmaker who apparently hates women and has been lauded for it by the critical community this year is Match Point. Again, I don't get it. These "characters" he writes do not resemble any actual human beings we have ever met, and the "London" they live in bears little resemblance to any real place on this earth. (I should note that I am relying on the word of people who actually live in London, here, as I have not been there since I was a kid.) The acting is stiff and the dialogue stilted as the film plods along inexorably toward its unmistakably late Woodman unjustifiable "bitch killa" moment. We get it. You hate women. They are either simpering, oblivious dunderheads (though bless Emily Mortimer for trying to give this creation life) or coldhearted bitches who, at the drop of a hat, will turn into shrieking harridans who must be murdered. In the past ten years, I have seen one sympathetic female character in a Woody Allen film. She was a mute. Aside from being hateful (both sexist and classist), Match Point is not a well made film. It does not work as a thriller, because motivations are not clear, character behavior is not consistent, and the filmmaker spells out his banal themes with embarrassing bluntness. It's hard for me to fathom that there are people who appreciate Allen's "mastery of craft" here, while simultaneously belittling Steven Spielberg's seemingly effortless talent for audience manipulation.

Speaking of Spielberg, I don't know if either Munich or War of the Worlds makes my top ten list, but for the first time since the 1970s (when I was just a kid and didn't know better), I am actually eager to see what he does next. Of course, Abe Lincoln doesn't sound particularly promising, but then neither did the 1950s sci-fi remake starring Tom Cruise, and that turned out to be so terrifying, and so relentlessly grim, right up until Spielberg ruined everything with that Spielberg ending (dishearteningly similar to the "yeah, the world is fucked, but my family made it out ok, so cue the triumphant music" ending of The Day After Tomorrow and countless other schlocky disaster films). This film deserved better. It's no surprise that Munich is a skillfully made, effective thriller. But it's also smart and morally complex in its depiction of the horrific events of the 1972 Olympics and the purported Israeli response to that attack. Spielberg is even willing to let things end on an ambivalent note, for once. I would hope that people who are intrigued by this film would seek out Kevin MacDonald's excellent documentary, One Day in September, which also works as a thriller, but places the terrorist attack in context, and goes into fascinating, dreadful detail about exactly what went wrong when the Germans tried to rescue the Israeli athletes.

Two other films I saw this year, both at the New York Film Festival, addressed Palestinian terrorism and Israel's response to it. Paradise Now is also an effective thriller. Like Munich, it engages in its own internal debate, but the sense of rage underlying all the handwringing is palpable. It's worth seeing, because it offers a thoughtful examination of one of the salient issues of our age, from a perspective we rarely encounter in our mass media. That said, I find Avi Mograbi's documentary, Avenge But One of My Two Eyes more effective, because it condemns the right wing Israeli perspective with its own mythology and its own words and actions. I can't fault Hany Abu-Assad for making a confrontational and angry film because clearly, to me, his rage is justified. But Munich, while less immediate, will reach more people, and it makes more of an effort to be persuasive, and it cannily connects the events it depicts to the world in which we live today.

I was going to continue on and write something about how much I dislike Last Days, another of my "Overrated Films of 2005" list, but I went a-rambling, it got very late, and now that will have to wait for another day.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Summing up my personality

So, I was playing poker online with this flirtatious 20 year-old Rutgers student who sent me to her myspace account to see her photo. She turned out to be cute. Let the online stalking begin! No, I'm just kidding, did I mention she is 20? She only liked me because three places paid out, and she was very short-stacked with four players left, and I took all of some other player's chips.

In any case, she had a link to her blog, where she posted the results of the personality test she'd taken on similarminds.com.

I took the same test, more out of boredom than curiosity, and here is the "trait summary" part of the results, in its entirety:

messy, depressed, introverted, feels invisible, does not make friends easily, nihilistic, reveals little about self, fragile, dark, bizarre, feels undesirable, dislikes leadership, reclusive, weird, irritable, frequently second guesses self, unassertive, unsympathetic, low self control, observer, worrying, phobic, suspicious, unproductive, avoidant, negative, bad at saving money, emotionally sensitive, does not like to stand out, dislikes large parties, submissive, daydreamer

Those of you who know me are probably asking yourselves, How could a banal little online personality test create such a detailed and accurate portrait of Josh? Except for Lisa, who is saying, How did they miss "stinky?" (Well, maybe he wasn't completely honest in answering the personal hygiene questions.) They did actually miss some things. There's nothing on that list to account for why I spent ten minutes taking their personality test, for one thing. But clearly, this is why computers were invented.

Anyway, I am back and better than ever, so soon I will post my top ten list of 2005 films. I need to see Munich first, at least. Normally, I might be willing to skip the year's most highly acclaimed Spielberg film, but I was so very impressed, for real, with the truly grim and horrifying War of the Worlds that I want to give the other one a shot.