Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Recent Movie Roundup 10

I'm actually not a very enthusiastic consumer of movies.  When it comes to filmed fiction, TV does a lot more of what I'm interested in, and months can sometimes pass without me seeing the inside of a movie theater or even sitting down with a DVD.  But somehow, since the beginning of the year Israeli film distributors (and in one case, a local movie channel) have ladled out a whole raft of movies I've wanted to see, and I'm not even done--I'm still hoping to catch An Education, Fish Tank, The White Ribbon, and The Lovely Bones.  Here are my thoughts on 2010's movie-viewing thus far:
  1. Bright Star (2009) - The first film I watched in 2010, Bright Star set a very high bar that has yet to be cleared by any other movie.  A slow, meandering sort-of biopic, the film follows the doomed romance between the romantic poet John Keats and his neighbor Fanny Brawne (a very fine Abbie Cornish).  This is a film that is steeped in the romantic--both the 19th century mode, which Keats and his compatriots are in the process of creating, and the modern concept of it.  This is, after all, a love story between a pragmatic woman with no interest in or understanding of poetry, whose self-expression, through the dresses Fanny designs and sews, is rooted in the material (it's a cliché that women watch period films mainly for the pretty dresses, but the costuming in Bright Star is one of its chief delights, perfectly capturing the essence of Brawne's character), and a spiritual, almost fey genius who teaches her to see the world in a new way, which is cut short by his tragic and early death from an incurable illness.  And yet Bright Star is almost miraculous in its ability to avoid the pitfalls that trip up most modern romantic stories.  It strikes just the right midpoint between a sweeping, swoon-inducing depiction of the romance between Keats and Brawne and a clear-eyed view of how such an all-consuming first love looks like from the outside, mainly because both characters are so clearly and vividly their own people before they come together, and the film stresses the fact that as much as their love uplifts them, it also chips away at who they were and the things they cared about before they came together.  In its depiction of Keats's death and its aftermath, Bright Star resists the urge, so common to tragic romances, of modulating the sad ending by giving it a moral or a meaning, and manages to avoid the Scylla and Charybdis of this type of story, being neither a story about how Fanny Brawne surrendered her silly interest in fashion to become the handmaiden to John Keats's genius, nor one about how John Keats died in order to give Fanny Brawne a character-building experience.  Instead it simply allows both the romance and its tragic ending to happen with almost no commentary, a chronicle of joy followed by grief (though I do find myself wishing for a bit more closure for Brawne, who ends the film not only bereft but, having dressed in mourning, separated from the skill that had so defined her).

    Coming out of the film, I found myself comparing it to the last film I'd seen, Avatar.  This may seem, if not a strange comparison, than at least an unfair one going both ways, but both Avatar and Bright Star are films that are as much, if not more, about their visuals as their story, and whose look is dominated by luxurious, vividly colored natural settings--in Bright Star, the natural scenery that inspired and influenced Keats's writing and whose appreciation is an important component of the romantic mindset.  (If you really want to stretch a point, both films are also stories about a pragmatic, materialistic person coming into contact with a more spiritual worldview, falling in love with the person who introduces them to it, and losing themselves in it.)  Avatar's visuals are kinetic whereas Bright Star's are static, but even so--or perhaps precisely because it doesn't seek to make the appreciation of beauty such an in-your-face experience--I think that Bright Star is the more beautiful film of the two. 

  2. Where the Wild Things Are (2009) - I was dubious about this project when it was announced, and the end result mostly validates that reaction.  There are things that this 'adaptation' does very well, such as thoroughly debunking the romantic myth of childhood--Max is a total hellion, and not only does it seem entirely reasonable for his mother to send him to bed without his supper, but one would be hard-pressed to blame her for lacing the still-hot plate she leaves him with Ritalin--and capturing the way that children play, with total commitment and abandon, and the ability to transform even the most mundane environment into a land of adventure.  On the other hand, Dave Eggers's famed expansion of Maurice Sendak's original picture book (which also spawned a 300-page tie-in novel) is rather weak sauce.  It introduces interpersonal dramas between the different Wild Things, which mirror Max's issues with his parents' divorce and his desperate desire to hold on to childhood even as it slips away.  Nothing we haven't seen before, in other words, and rather broadly drawn--that Max is acting out because he feels abandoned, for example, was more than sufficiently spelled out by a few scenes in the beginning of the movie, and didn't require the explication that his interactions with the Wild Things provide, and especially for a film that is so refreshingly ambivalent about the magic of childhood, the script's harping on the Wild Things' sorrow at its end felt overdone.  Visually, the film was also a disappointment.  The designers seem to have borrowed Sendak's designs for the Wild Things, but not his busy, heavily-inked scenery, and though there are some nicely done props and sets--a model that one of the Wild Things builds, or the fort that they and Max construct--for the most part the film looks empty and brown.  All told, I don't really see the point of this experiment, and will stick with the picture book.

  3. The Box (2009) - Like many wannabe auteurs before him, Richard Kelly flared brightly with his first effort, Donnie Darko, then flamed out with his follow-up to that film, the gonzo and incomprehensible Southland Tales.  The next chapter in that narrative, as Hollywood defines it and as it has played out many times, is a penance film, proof that the enfant terrible can do respectable, meat-and-potatoes work.  No one actually expects these films to be good.  They just have to better--and more importantly, more mainstream-friendly--than the disastrous, outre flop that preceded them, and in fact the less distinctive they are, the less redolent of the qualities that brought the penitent director his fame, the better.  At first glace, that's exactly what The Box seems to be--a stretched out Twilight Zone episode, old-fashioned both for its 70s setting and its premise of a couple who are offered a million dollars for pushing a button that will cause someone, somewhere, to die.  In its first half, The Box offers little more than this, albeit that it is very well-made--tense and creepy, and suffused with an obvious love of science fiction.  Based on the story "Button, Button" by Richard Matheson, The Box feels like a 70s-era science fiction story about 70s-era science fiction fans, complete with yellowing copies of Astounding and Amazing in the main characters' basement, references to Arthur C. Clarke, and Apollo program fannishness.

    At some point, however, hints of the same weirdness that made Donnie Darko such a delight and Southland Tales such a chore start to creep in, and by its end The Box mostly surrenders to this weirdness, and seems entirely of a piece with Kelly's previous two films--better than Southland Tales, not as good as Donnie Darko, but clearly carrying on their themes, and particularly that of the desperate search for meaning, for destiny, and ultimately for God.  In fact, taken together, the three films, which often seem to be concerned mainly with expositing their invented cosmology, strongly suggest that Kelly is less interested in making movies than he is in starting a new religion, or evangelizing for an old one--The Box combines Donnie Darko's Philosophy of Time Travel with a healthy dollop of Christian imagery and concepts, and the entire film can easily be read as a retelling of the fall of Adam and Eve and Christian salvation.  None of this is exactly news--Donnie Darko was by no means innocent of Christian imagery--but either Kelly has lost the knack of making his ersatz mysticism feel meaningful, or I've outgrown it, because the ultimate religious message of the film is blunt and obvious where Donnie Darko's was stirring.  It's good to see that Kelly is staying true to himself even as Hollywood takes him through his paces, and even more heartening to realize that he is, all other considerations aside, simply a very good director, but I'm not sure I'm that interested anymore in what he has to say.

  4. Let the Right One In (2008) - I came to this extraordinarily well-received vampire film rather late and with my expectations well and truly built up, which is part of the reason it's left me so thoroughly underwhelmed.  The other, larger part is that I'd already read the book, so that what's remarkable--or at least unusual, in this Twilight-infested climate--about Let the Right One In as a vampire story was already familiar, and what stood out were the changes, compromises, and elisions the adaptation made to the original material.  In that respect, I had much the same reaction to Let the Right One In as I've had to the Harry Potter films--I think it's rushed past the point of comprehensibility and is missing most of the novel's character work.  Given that so many people have gotten so much out of this film, that can't be an accurate judgment, but I still found myself missing the book's more ambivalent treatment of Oskar, the teenager who falls in love with his vampire neighbor, who in the film is very nearly a romantic hero and in the book is something much sadder and creepier even before he meets Eli, or the more thorough exploration of the lives of the kids who bully him at school.  I wasn't crazy about Let the Right One In, the novel, but I admired its determination to be unpleasant, to paint mid-80s suburban Sweden as something no less ugly and no less hopeless than the death that Eli offers her victims.  The film seems to tone that ugliness down, and is thus a much lesser work.

  5. Up in the Air (2009) - This is an enjoyable, very well-made film.  George Clooney is good as ever as a man who has deliberately cut himself off from all human connection, whose greatest pleasure is the smooth and successful navigation of America's business flier infrastructure.  He makes the character believably, even warmly human without ever downplaying the monstrousness of what he believes and how he behaves.  (That said, I think that Clooney's Oscar nomination for this part is overkill, and that the best supporting actress nominations for Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick--though both are good as, respectively, Clooney's love interest and his colleague--are unwarranted.)  The film's plot, which sees Clooney's jet-setting lifestyle endangered by Kendrick's plan to move his job--firing people on behalf of their employers--online, is predictable but well-structured, and there are several extremely well-done set pieces--Clooney and Farmiga's meet-cute, a gruesome scene in which Kendrick remote-fires a middle aged man who breaks down crying, the slickly directed sequences in which Clooney glides through check-in at various airports and his initiation of Kendrick into the brotherhood of frequent fliers.  You'll no doubt have sensed the hesitation looming at the end of all this praise, and here it is--there is, ultimately, nothing in Up in the Air, nothing the film says or tries to bring across, no reaction it tries to evoke, that isn't contained in this two-minute teaser.  This was also the case for Jason Reitman's previous film as writer-director, Thank You For Smoking--both are single-concept films, mostly concerned with delivering riffs on that concept.  (A slight exception is that Up in the Air is also, and quite topically, a film about joblessness and being fired, but this feels almost extraneous to the characters' story, and indeed when they're firing people Clooney and Kendrick seem to fade into the wallpaper as the, mostly non-professional, actors playing the fired workers take the stage.)  I'm torn over whether this is a bad thing--Up in the Air is by no means a chore to watch, and as I said some of these riffs are very well done, but I wish that Reitman would take the next step as an artist, and write a film that can be summed in more than two minutes.

  6. A Single Man (2009) - I was going to write at slightly greater length about this movie, but Peter Bradshaw, writing in The Guardian, sums up my reaction so completely that it would be pointless to belabor it.  A Single Man is two films--a fantastic, heartbreaking performance by Colin Firth as a middle aged gay man grieving in secret for his recently-deceased lover, going about his day as usual even as he plans his suicide at its end, and, as Bradshaw puts it, "an indulgent exercise in 1960s period style," which too often recalls a perfume commercial.  The latter is hardly a punishment--and it is refreshing that the artistically naked, slightly dehumanized bodies on display are men's rather than women's (this is a wonderful film for male beauty, and aside from his great performance Firth is to be admired for more than holding his own alongside men twenty and thirty years his juniors)--but Firth's character study is so affecting that it's hard not to feel a little angry at director Tom Ford for constantly interrupting and very nearly obscuring it with yet another beautifully staged montage set to slow orchestral music.


Chuk said...

I did Let The Right One In in the opposite direction -- movie first, then book -- and I think it worked out better for me. That said, I'd heard a little bit of hype about the movie back when it first played North American festivals, and then nothing until it showed up on a cable movie channel, so I wasn't coming to it with many expectations at all. (While I don't always do it that way, I usually like the book better, so this was like saving the best for last.)

Raz Greenberg said...

I didn't read the novel "Let the Right One In" is based on - in fact, I didn't even know the film is based on a novel, until I read your review here - so perhaps that's why I found the film very impressive. I had issues with the film promoting some unhealthy fantasies, but it did make the film stand out as an impressive contrast to stuff coming from Hollywood (somehow, I can't imagine a Hollywood film taking the "getting back at bullies" concept so far). As for the sets - again, I didn't read the novel, but I felt that their display of urban decay was also a nice alternative to Hollywood (where even urban decay seems polished) and a good example of how to do a genre film on a limited budget.
On a somewhat related note, "Where the Wild Things Are" also impressed me with its fantasy world sets and creature designs - the decision to go with an obviously-fake look is not only a brave one in today's CGI-enslaved production environmnet, but it also achieves the right effect: letting the audience know that what they are watching is not a fantasy coming true, but a reflection of the hero's inner, conflicted personality. If the designers had gone in the direction you suggested, adopting Sendak's richly-detailed scenery, I suspect that this message would have been considerably weakened.
That said, the film's script - which did an impressive work in establishing the real-world prologue of the film - completely collapsed when it came to the fantasy-sequence. The screenwriter failed to give it a focus, or a point of interest. I didn't feel as though the protagonist actually went through the emotional development he was supposed to.
Recommendation, if you haven't seen it yet - "Sherlock Holmes" turned out to be a surprisingly entertaining popcorn-film affair, one that has some deeper connections to the original books than the trailers implied.

Marshall Ryan Maresca said...

There actually was a Twilight Zone episode based on the same story as "The Box". Youtube has it here:

SF Strangelove said...

I agree about Bright Star. It is one of the two best movies from 2009 that I have seen. A more beautiful, Romantic, understated and affecting movie than I have seen in years. My other favorite was The Hurt Locker. While of the surface they are very different, they are both patient character studies and they both revolve around the certainty of mortality.

Up in the Air was a mixed bag. I enjoyed the lead actors and some of the scenes. The story didn’t seem able to hold the film together. The interviews with actual people who had been fired were too strong. over-balancing the surrounding fiction, jarring me out of the story altogether. Clooney was better in Michael Clayton, which was a superior film.

I think the key difference between Donnie Darko and The Box is the approachability of the characters and the sense of fun. The Box is more of a dry intellectual puzzle. The post-human Mr. Steward remains an enigma. Norma and Arthur have the depth of cardboard. Donnie’s family and friends are more real seeming and lively and engaging.

Abigail Nussbaum said...


To be fair, I found the bullies' comeuppance rather over the top in the book. It'll certainly be interesting, however, to see how the American remake handles that scene, and for that matter the entire tenor of Oskar and Eli's relationship.

I keep hearing positive reaction to Sherlock Holmes but can't quite convince myself that I won't hate it. Maybe when it comes to DVD.

SF Strangelove:

I haven't yet seen The Hurt Locker - it hasn't found an Israeli distributor, and its TV premiere has, quite deliberately, been scheduled for Oscar night - but I'm really looking forward to it. So far, as you say, Bright Star has my vote for 2009's best film.

There is certainly a lot less wit, and fewer 'cool bits' in The Box than there were in Donnie Darko, though I suspect this is a function both of the kind of story Kelly was trying to tell and of the film being, as I said, the kind of penance work that discourages a creator's more distinctive touches.

ibmiller said...

Er, while I was more than a bit happy with the performances of the two leads in Sherlock Holmes and the fact that the final scriptwriter had done his homework and filled the dialogue to the brim with quotatations (done right, as opposed to several recent television productions of the character), I think that's as far as the connections to the original really go. The plot is as moronic as Young Sherlock Holmes or the recent Star Trek.

I admit to a slight interest in Up In The Air (mostly because of all the acting reviews - the story itself and the director leave me utterly cold), and Where the Wild Things Are said nothing to me as a childrens' book, and I'm not a fan of adapting such slight material (padding).

On the other hand, I desperately want to see Bright Star.

Jakob said...

Strangely enough, I really liked Southland Tales for its sheer over-the-top Dickianism. The Box was a little bit weaker - I agree that the religious overtones were a overdone (why did it always have to be the woman who pushed the button?). On the other hand, it was a great idea to associate the notion of salvation with all these men in gray suits. It's also interesting that the tests on humanity are depicted as something strictly scientific (by way of the clarke quote). Salvation or damnation both seem to be technological projects - just think of the strict rules that apply to the test. Empathy for the subjects might occur, but only as an error that may not be acted upon. It's a very cold vision of morality, and an interesting thought experiment. (and of course, you have to ask if it's not the alien experimentators who truly behave unethical for setting the brutal terms for their tests, which, in the end, only allow the subjects to choose between different wrongs).
However, I agree it is a flawed movie, breaking apart in the middle. There's also a certain dissatisfactory arbitrariness to the rules of the alien experiment.

I didn't have any problems with "Let the Right One in", but I never read the book - I felt it was a disturbing and quiet little tale, very well told. And from the looks of it, I'll definetely have to see Bright Star!

Nathan Finch said...

This is months late, but I found Where the Wild Things Are to be very right and true. Maybe I'm just an angry teenager and such, but it struck a chord with me.

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