Tuesday, October 20, 2009

"Where the Wild Things Are"

A fervent wave of nostalgia overcame me each time the trailer for “Where the Wild Things Are” interrupted a T.V. show. Half a glance at the quadruple human-size fluffy monster in the sand with a freckled boy in a wolf suit awoke memories of mom reading with her spooky voice while I anticipated the cross-hatched forest beasts. The chanting chorus of a favorite Arcade Fire song made me feel at ease in my recognition, I was an educated white person born in the seventies that identified with a larger group of artsy young professionals, we could all celebrate Max’s originality (i.e. our own), a quality under-appreciated by the outside world. Max was our mascot in 2009.
In a career not unlike Michel Gondry’s, Spike Jonze has been known for directing Charlie Kaufman scripts (“Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation” ) and many indie rock videos (Pavement, Bjork, the Beastie Boys). “Where the Wild Things Are” champions the winning aspects of Jonze’s previous work; the endless paradigms of Kauffman and the precise editing a music video here represent the chaos and beauty found only in a child’s imagination. Unfortunately, the book that represents so many of our American childhoods, was only 36 pages long, and contained but ten whole sentences, whereas Jonze’s film version is over an hour and half, demanding a thicker plot.
Jonze enlisted friend and celebrated author Dave Eggers for screenwriting help but the result feels forced. While vast landscapes of forests and deserts are interchanged under expert lighting on magnificent CGI muppets, the dialogue grows tiresome. A touching parallel between the monsters and Max’s family unit is not over-stated, but runs stale as another game of hand-held camera following Max running through the forest ensues. In this way the unnecessary plot lays flat on a series of beautiful images that need no justification. The debuting young actor (Max Records) is honest in his response to his new community, and especially real in his reactions to his mother and sister. For this reason, the opening scenes before Max’s descent into monster- land are the most poignant and interesting, further enhanced by Catherine Keener who plays a working single mom.
Thus you may ask whether or not this is a children’s movie. The countless mudslinging in the monster scenes of “Where the Wild Things Are” may interest a child more than an adult, but the intricate exposé of Max’s problems might fatigue a child before the monsters appear. While the book was written for the pre-literate, this is a film of generational nostalgia complete with the indie-rock score of the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s Karen O. a spokeswoman for many new alternative parents .
“Where the Wild Things Are” is certainly Spike Jonze’s most ambitious film to date, and his visual interpretation of a perfect children’s book adds new landscapes and realism to our faded memories. However, the specificity of Max’s familial fantasies and the sheer length of Max’s foray into his unique utopia/hell leaves the viewer believing once again the book is indeed better than the movie, and perhaps in this instance, the trailer is still better.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

"Thirst" by Park Chan-Wook

With all the teen-vampire fanaticism, the foreign art-film take on Dracula might pass you by. However, the Swedish Tomas Alfredson’s “Let the Right One In,” and the Korean Park Chan-Wook’s “Thirst” are original romances where bloodlust is anything but skin deep. Park is best known for his vengeance triology, (“Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance,” “Old Boy”, and “Sympathy for Lady Vengeance”). In these films, characters who are subjected to violence become heroes when they retaliate with elaborate murder schemes. One suffers through gore in his films’ first half, but the conclusive proof of justice is in fact more blood and pain. Eventually, the carnage becomes more delicious than disgusting, for it is all shed in the name of fairness.

The plot of “Thirst” is primarily shaped by Emil Zola’s Thérèse Raquin (1867). However, Park sets the naturalist French novel in modern day South Korea, and uses vampirism as a metaphor for the novel’s tragic, addictive love affair. Perhaps Park’s most inventive touch was to rewrite Zola’s Laurent, a gambler who can no longer afford the brothel, as a moral priest (Priest Sang-hyien is played by Kang-ho Sang, who also played the lead in Park’s 2002 breakthrough film, “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance.”) The film openly references Robert Bresson’s 1951 classic “Diary of a Country Priest” as Sang-hyien explains his struggle to suppress sexual desire in a voice-over while vigorously writing in a journal. The priest punishes himself by whacking his penis with a wooden stick when it becomes erect. When this does not suffice, he participates in a dangerous medical study in South Africa. There, ignorant doctors infect Sang-hyien with the vampire virus through a blood transfusion. When he returns to Korea, his sexual desire for Tae-joo (Ok-viri Kim), the wife of his sickly childhood friend, marries a new obscene desire for human blood.

The sex scenes between Ok-viri Kim and Kang-ho Sang are reminiscent of the best of David Cronenberg and Catherine Breillat, exploring passion from both perspectives with animalistic flare. The sniffing, sucking, licking, and biting, is as audible as visual; in a particularly sensuous moment Sang-hyien gives two long strokes of the tongue to Tae-joo’s clean pale arm pit. The film is reliant on their chemistry, as their addiction to blood and to each other spawns the jealousy and torment that become their ultimate downfall. Kang-ho Sang’s striking good looks make him the seductive vampire, while his awkwardness and inconsistent righteousness, demonstrate his character’s contradiction. As in “Sympathy for Lady Vengeance,” Park transgresses gender roles to make the female lead a physical force with which to be reckoned. In fact, Tae-joo’s intermingles her desire for blood and her desire for revenge on her in-laws. Ok-viri Kim as Tae-joo shows timing and character development, first shy and needy, as a vampire she is bold and selfish with hunger. Blue costumes and white powder aid her transformation into a shining ravenous imp.

The violence of “Thirst” is not as startling or as realistic as Park’s best films, and the CGI that normally ties scenes together, at times appears too animated (when Tae-joo and Sang-hyien bounce from rooftop to rooftop one remembers early Nintendo.) Yet the characters’ complexity and strength, and the modernization of the 19th century storyline, render “Thirst” a fascinating chapter in the recent Global North vampire frenzy. Park Chan-Wook couples the actors’ intensity with self-awareness, directing a film that is as tragic and true as it is humorous.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

"The Silence of Lorna"

"The Silence of Lorna"

The Dardenne brothers, Luc and Jean-Pierre, first won international attention in 1996 with "La promesse", a film that dealt with Belgium’s clandestine immigration and which showcased the acting debut of the then 15-year-old, Jérémie Renier. Five films later, the Dardenne brothers are still exposing the misfortunes of immigrants and the extremely talented Jérémie Renier—now 28. However, as the title indicates, this film is Lorna’s story, a young Albanian immigrant, expertly played by Arta Dubroshi. Lorna immigrates to open a snack bar in Belgium with her boyfriend. However, her financial/citizenship path is paved by an international crook that arranges marriages for foreigners. Junkies are ideal for citizenship marriages, as they accept a small amount of cash in exchange for a ring, and usually die of an overdose within a year. Claudy (Renier) complicates the plan when he sincerely cares for Lorna and attempts to come clean. Lorna’s boss wants to force his overdose, and Lorna feels utterly responsible for Claudy’s life.
The inverse of Hollywood production, the Dardennes’ superb realism is captured with a single camera, natural lighting, and brilliantly honest performances. Dubroshi’s restrained expressions and blank stares convey Lorna’s internal conflict in the film’s first half. Eventually, Dubroshi exhibits Lorna’s conundrum with self-utterances and a fearful demeanor. "Le silence de Lorna" follows a social-realist tradition that comments on the unjust world; frequent shots of money affirm its unwavering importance, and Lorna’s final situation is the outcome of a long struggle to succeed in Western Europe.

"Hump Day"

Hump Day

It might surprise viewers to know that the writer/director of "Humpday" is a woman. Lynn Sheldon’s independent feature is almost exclusively about men, and the awkward line where homosexuality and homosociality meet. Ben (Mark Duplass) is a newly wed happily contemplating the prospect of children when his wilder college buddy, Andrew (Joshua Leonard), shows up at his door. Soon after, Andrew finds a party of non-conformist artists and invites Ben along. Late in the night, after untucking his shirt and bong toking, Ben agrees to participate with Andrew in a home-video porn festival, Humpfest, claiming it is part of a larger statement of artistic integrity, straight men having gay sex.
What begins as intoxicated party babble, begins to take shape as a possible venture. The men question the project’s symbolic value; for Andrew it will mean the completion of a project, for Ben it will prove he is larger than his current lifestyle's suburban values. Still both men refuse to directly confront what their desire to participate in Humpfest might suggest about their sexuality. Lynn Sheldon teases the question, and makes every glance between the men questionable. This ambiguity troubles traditional audience expectations of male friendship, and satirizes the typical buddy flic. Nevertheless, the film is wrought with the purest cinema comedy, straight men pretending not to be…or perhaps, the reverse.



Much of the buzz surrounding "Moon" was due to the director’s famous rock-star dad, David Bowie. Indeed, it seems the apple does not fall far from the tree when it comes to pop mythologizing the outer-space: Bowie, aka Ziggy Stardust, starred as “the man who fell to earth” in Nicholas Roeg’s 1976 film and his son’s debut continues where his father’s space lore left off—late 70s/early 80s sci-fi is responsible for the film’s tone and look. In fact, Moon’s spacecraft could easily be a replica of Alien’s Nostromo. Furthermore, the space scenes are done exclusively with models, dismissing today’s “realism” to recall a time before CGI.
A script that draws on themes found in 2001 and Solyaris further enhances this nostalgic return to a bygone era of sci-fi. Sam Rockwell plays Sam Bell whose dualism lies in more than his role’s true-to-life first name. A lone technician who sends masses of a fuel source from the moon to earth, his sole conversation mate is his computer, Gerti (Kevin Spacey), who responds to Sam’s need for human interaction with dead-pan comic relief. When a crash occurs, and Sam Bell recovers to be awoken by his doppelganger, a competition ensues; who will be the real Sam Bell, Sam or Sam? Sam Rockwell’s performance seems incredibly human, especially when his character(s) struggles with the concept of not being so. The film retains some optimism where it might have spiraled into dystopia and is likewise an auspicious debut for its director, Duncan Jones.

Funny People

Funny People

Judd Apatow’s third feature aspires to be deeper than his usual comedy fare. In his previous films, the 40-year-old Virgin and Knocked-up, immature men (virgin) (pothead) prove to be adults, when becoming capable of long-term romantic relationships (i.e. marriage and kids). Funny People follows a similar tract except this time the long-term relationship is a friendship/mentorship between male comedians. The drama quotient is a fear of death underscoring a plethora of dick jokes. A rich and famous film star, George Simmons (Adam Sandler), hits bottom when diagnosed with a rare and deadly disease. Hoping to put new blood into his career, he hires a young struggling comedian Ira Wright (Seth Rogan) to write jokes. This offers Ira opportunities he’d only dreamed of: sharing a bill with James Taylor, flying in a private jet. The payoff is Ira must keep George Simmons from being alone, which means accompanying him to the doctor’s office, and sitting by his bed side to talk him to sleep, a heady feat for the boy-come-man.
Rogan and Sandler share a particular brand of goofball humor that compliments their on-screen chemistry. Unfortunately, an unnecessary romantic subplot detracts from the film’s comedy and/or the profound statements about comedy the film almost makes. When Simmons is ill he refinds his lost true love Laura (Leslie Mann), who is now married with children. Their tryst proffers many problems for the married mom, and after several days of struggle (and nearly an hour of screen time) she decides that her marriage is more important than true love and dumps Simmons to keep her husband, a cheating Australian trader. The audience sympathizes with Ira as he steers George away from ruining the “happy” family. In this way, Apatow demonstrates his family values yet again. Funny People is not as hilarious as Apatow’s previous features, but when the film is the most interesting, it scrapes off the surface of celebrity status and the joke-writing industry.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The French Academy Awards, the Césars

French Cinema in 2008, at the César awards.

My expectations for the 2008 César awards were high. If the French made better films, dressed better and spoke a better language, then surely their Academy Awards would be superior. What’s more I was suffering from cinema depression; a week earlier I had watched the Oscars; grimacing at Hugh Jackman’s song and dance numbers and feigning surprise when "Slumdog Millionaire" slam-dunked a year of mediocre Hollywood. I needed cinema affirmation.
Initially, I thought my expectations were met when 2008 president of the César Awards, Charlotte Gainsbourg, pencil-thin in black glitter with a luscious pout and long disheveled bangs, introduced the ceremony with all the style and elegance of her model mom and rock-star dad. However as soon as the epitome of chic left the stage her foil appeared, Antoine de Caunes, comedian and TV personality, speaking in a high-pitched Muppet voice—you know the French love Jerry Lewis! Unfortunately, though I had survived the Hugh Jackman and Béyoncé butchering of the musical into a Oscar medley the week before, I now found myself watching a budget-cut French version of the same routine; de Caunes cockled “Singin’ in the Rain” with his strangled-chicken voice, while gleefully splashing in puddles of stage-rain.
Why sing a song from an American musical in English at a French film award ceremony? France prides itself on inventing film, n’est-ce pas? Perhaps the answer could be found in the camera constantly panning the American stars Dustin Hoffman and Sean Penn. In fact, as soon as de Caunes took his raincoat off and yelled in English “the musical is back!” he informed the audience that The Sean Penn was present. The audience then applauded even more than they had for his wet chicken song when de Caunes interrupted in English again to say “Yooo air so fucking grrrate man!” Yes, Hollywood and its Oscars were never far away from the César award ceremony, and as Gertrude Stein once said, “An award ceremony is an award ceremony is an award ceremony…”
And is Hollywood far enough away from contemporary French film? French cinema in 2008 was dominated by gender types: the gangster film ("Public Enemy no. 1" and "the Death Instinct") and the fragile female sanity ("Sassarine"). That is to say, the year’s most celebrated films did not break any formal rules and primarily repeated clichés established across the pond. In fact the most original French film of 2008, came from a director of yester-year. Founding New-Wave left-bank director, Agnès Varda, made "Les plages de Agnès" ("The Beaches of Agnès") to celebrate her life, loves, and career at 80 years of age.