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Archive for the ‘Film’ Category

I keep meaning to come back and make writing here a regular thing. But a lot of time has passed, you know?

Anyway, I’m still here. And still writing. I hiked the AT, by the way.

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For now, anyway, here’s an essay I wrote on the new album by The Mountain Goats. It’s also about the movieĀ Moonrise Kingdom, and I hope to start writing about movies regularly. I started this music review website thing called Eat Your Owner, so I’m always writing somewhere.

The Mountain Goats – Goths

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“I was English, with a minor in history, just to make sure I was fully unemployable.” – Jesse Fisher

Liberal Arts

I vaguely remember the first time I heard rumblings about Josh Radnor, star of the hugely popular sitcom How I Met Your Mother, acting as a director and writer on dramatic projects outside of the TV realm. A quick bit of research back in the day also revealed that his earlier project Happythankyoumoreplease had met with more than a few charges of annoyingly humble-braggy tendencies. Being that Radnor’s follow-up film, Liberal Arts, earned slightly less caustic criticism and a good deal and is available on Netflix, I decided to give it a whirl.

Hmm. What to do with a film like this? On the one hand it has some charming performances but is utterly waylaid by predictable plot turns and an annoyingly insular premise. While the whole thing is filmed in an acceptably indie style with plenty of shifting focus shots and some nice natural cinematography, the whole thing frequently stalls as a result of scatter-shot plotting and an overall sense that the aimless nature of the main character leaves the film itself with a frustratingly nostalgic wanderlust.

Manhattan and Garden State are stylistically checked in this maudlin story of revisiting the salad days of youth, irresponsibility, and the sense of freedom that comes so quickly and with aplomb in college years. Radnor’s character, Jesse, finds his inspiration in a typically MPDG young woman (look, she does improv! And says yes to EVERYTHING!) he meets through some mutual friends of a professor (Richard Jenkins) he happens to be visiting on the occasion of a retirement professor. You can see, perhaps, the various layers of leaving/reminiscing/idealizing at play. Still, it’s all so half-baked and the focus is so minimally on minor characters like Jesse’s former Brit Lit teacher (Allison Janney) or even his newfound friend in a young, troubled student (John Magaro) that the audience never quite knows where to fix its gaze.

There are some troubling gender and sexuality themes beyond the youth of the central relationship explored. Perhaps most troubling is the bizarre attitude towards “virginity” displayed in the fact that Jesse seems mainly not sleep with 19 year old conquest because he finds out just before he does the deed with her that she’s never had sex before. His whole character feels like a microcosm of the worst traits of the annoyingly sententious OTHER character Radnor is famous for, Ted Mosby. Here the literary references feel overwrought, the plot is a sparse 97 minutes but feels at least 120, and the whole thing resolves weirdly, and uncomfortably neatly. I’ll give it points for attempting a good-natured refusal of nostalgia as cure-all, but there’s absolutely nothing about this film which distinguishes it as anything more than junk-food cinema to get you through the week.

(6.5/10)

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“When you perform it is a knife and your blood, when you act it is a fake knife and ketchup.” – Marina A.

The Aritst is Present

I caught a bit of this HBO documentary back in the day and have frequently heard its virtues extolled by friends and fellow artists. I was very pleased to see it come to Netflix, especially as I’ve drifted away from the documentary vibe a bit in the last few months. While I’d be no means call this documentary essential, it’s definitely an intriguing glimpse into an important artist of the last few decades and her unique process.

While the documentary is largely centered on an infamous MoMA performance by Abramovic in which she spent three months in the museum every day face to face with a variety of patrons, there’s also a bit of room for an exploration of her career and identity. Appearances are made by a variety of strange and beguiling visitors including her former lover and artistic partner Ulay and film star James Franco. An intriguing balance is hit between focusing on Abramovic’s work as it relates to the thorny world of contemporary art and finding a balance in which she connects strongly and empathetically with the many guests who visit her exhibition.

To be sure, this documentary is not for everyone. It often relies solely on visuals, gleaning much from the audience studying the eyes of Abramovic and her guests amongst a host of tear-tumbling footage to establish depth and stakes. That written, the footage can sometimes feel a bit migratory in relation to the ideas being expressed. Obviously there’s something to be said for the slow, methodical shooting style reflecting the inherent slowness of the process being undertaken by Abramovic, but about 2/3 of the way in it started to drag rather unnecessarily. Likewise, I appreciated the stripped-down visuals and concentrated visual aesthetics used to introduce different artists and commentators. The music, especially near the end and in scenes surrounding Ulay, tended to be a bit obtrusive and cloying despite itself. Since so much of performance art is about trusting the audience to follow along, I would have appreciated the filmmakers trusting me a bit more to engage emotionally rather than being spoon-fed the drama which the MoMA curator suggested this performance would avoid.

Perhaps its greatest failing, however, lies in the sense of hero worship which surrounds Abramovic and her work. I’ve noticed in my time with character-study documentaries that perhaps their most key weakness is a palpable sense that they refuse to really probe the depths and difficulties of their subject. Rather, this film is so quick to fully exalt and praise Abramovic that the real complexities of her work (i.e. its relationship to self-adulation, fame, and celebrity) are almost completely missed. One wishes the filmmakers had interrogated the notion that Abramovic is anything less than a bullet-proof deity a bit more carefully and thoroughly. Once the glamor settles after the first hour the film frequently falls victim to a lack of stakes and inertia. This lack of vitality and tension threatens to collapse the whole thing and, while it frequently makes for compelling viewing, it rarely rises above the niche which Abramovic herself claims to be working against at a pivotal moment in the film. This is the moment where performance art could go mainstream, she intimates, and yet the film itself seems to be wrestling for a conclusive audience.

(7/10)

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I’ll write off the bat that this thing’ll contain spoilers. How does one discuss a film like this without acknowledging the central conceit? There’s a (potentially) science-fiction element at work here. Or, at the very least, an elaborate metaphor. Safe to write that the house presents an idealized version of your partner and, from the looks of things, has been doing so for a while. That much, maybe, is clear.

The One I love

This film got quite a bit of press when it dropped, so I was surprised to see it on Netflix. But, along with a recommendation from someone very close to me, I was ready to dive into the heady world of all things Duplass and Moss. Fair warning, these are both actors I happen to like quite well. Not exceptionally, per-se, but they’ve both done very solid (and pretty consistent) work in other projects that I think are deserving of attention. Safety Not Guaranteed and Top of the Lake to name just two.

In this flick they’re a couple with some clear romantic issues. Love’s not really popping off like it used to so they decide to take a weekend getaway and, as the above paragraphs suggest, things get weird. In a move reminiscent of another popular indie (The Brass Teapot), the two are introduced to the concept of the magical guest-house full of idealized romantic partners and swiftly take to abusing it and hampering the potential of their own relationship. Think of it like Groundhog Day or a more contemplative, low-key version of The Matrix. Much is made here of the eerie sci-fi elements, but the real strength is actually in the solid performances from the two leads as they bring to life multiple versions of themselves. Some really good chemistry and endearing comedy happens in the first half, though it all goes a little screwy near the end. Even moreso, the somewhat typical twist near the end feels super forced in light of the fact that the film does such a good job in the first hour of keeping everything delightfully grounded and non-melodramatic.

While not exactly perfect, the film does a great job of realizing some big ideas beneath the guise of a super humble indie aesthetic. Duplass has been doing this kind of thing for a while, and if you’ve seen fare like Your Sister’s Sister you have an inkling of what you’re getting into. Nevertheless, the script is smart and asks many of the right questions. Even more importantly, it forwards a character driven experience with innovation and creativity instead of simply throwing money at the solutions and expecting SFX to cover up the lack of a developed story. In its rush to pull off a “twist” I think the film falls prey to the sort of conventions that similar fare such as Like Crazy often plumb, but the story is kept short and sweet and it never overstays its welcome. A rewarding, occasionally short-sighted adventure through the strange (and often every bit as surreal) world of the long-term relationship.

(8/10)

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I first became acquainted with Mike Leigh through his powerful film Vera Drake. That one was part period piece and part dramatically improvised bombshell for a dying conservative Britain. This film, starring the impeccable Ruth Sheen and Jim Broadbent, focuses on a fussy older couple dealing with the variety of minute hardships life throws at you during any given year.

Another YEar

This year, though, is especially hard. As we traverse four seasons with this extremely generous couple we are privy to a variety of the private doubts, fears, and accomplishments of the kind which are extremely personal and yet almost immediately recognizable. A loner son seemingly incapable of finding romantic fulfillment, friends with substance abuse problems, dysfunctional family dynamics, poor listening skills, and the querulous tendrils of old age creeping at the door. Broadbent, now well known for as a stalwart of British cinema and deeply recognizable in his old age, was a real pleasure in this movie. As Tom, an engineer with a one-track mind for work, he pulls off a sort of gentle intelligence which is intoxicating. The same is true of Ruth Sheen, who as Gerri offers a warmth and sensitivity so fitting for her role as a behavioral counsellor. Leigh visits these characters season after season with a gentle, empathetic camera rich in understanding.

Sequences of farming, work around the house, and family comings and goings is frequently soundtracked by earthy guitars. It’s a pleasant English soundtrack, and at moments I was even reminded of the textured sounds of Nick Drake. However, not all is so pleasant in the world of our characters. They’re frequently visited by the loose cannon known as Mary, a work colleague of Gerri, played by the terrific Lesley Manville. Here, as an increasingly neurotic alcoholic, we’re given witness to a genuinely honest character portrayal with dollops of understanding and sympathy instead of monstrous characterization. Here I was a bit reminded of the subtle hues also displayed a film like Blue Jasmine. The shifting seasons, and stages of drunkenness, reveal shades of character which are honest and frequently raw.

Leigh’s film has a slow, randomized feel about it. This makes sense, as the entire conceit of the film fixates on a particular year and the events which will later define it. These moments are just a collection of moments. Two hours is not a year. A year is not a decade or a lifetime. Still, there is much depth and richness to be found in this particular year. Moreover, it’s a wonderful antidote in stillness to have such a gentle, assured film in place of all the explosions and volume 11 dialogue which can too frequently scuttle the real emotions on screen. Leigh trusts his actors to create performances which, in their short time, contain multitudes. Spend some time with Another Year and you’re likely to linger on the moments the film suggests lie far outside a simple 365 days.

(9/10)

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This is a pretty neat double-header in that it includes (accidentally, really) two award-winners from the Cannes film festival. I try to only pay nominal attention to award ceremonies, but I am always appreciative of the way in which they can bring increased attention to art and, particularly, films which deserve to be seen by as many people as possible.

amour

My main familiarity with director Michael Haneke stems from the excellent film The White Ribbon. While the subject matter (and language) of the film Amour is different from Haneke’s previously lauded film, there is certainly an uncompromising rawness/edge which hovers over the film. Like director Lars von Trier, there are moments in Haneke’s filmography which can deeply shock. I won’t spoil the one in Amour for you, safe to say it’s likely to have an impact. In fact, there is seemingly little narrative trickery going on in the film. We follow an elderly couple through the ups and downs (mostly downs) of their twilight years, in effect able to appreciate the gravity of aging and the deep bond and commitment of a love and lifetime which is flickering out. Regarding these ideals the film is surprisingly subtle and nuanced, almost musical in the way in which it endlessly revolves around the same actions, interactions, physical spaces, and ultimately how it resolves. The characters rarely leave the same enclosed house/apartment, and thus much can be made from the way the camera (often an obtrusive observer) is almost always framed through doorways.

The act of witnessing is hugely important in the film, a fact reflected both by an early scene in which we watch an audience appreciate a musical performance or the multitude of scenes in which the character of Georges (Trintignant) watches over his partner Anne (Riva). Pay particular attention to the lack of music in the film outside of diegetic performances, as well as the way the sound-mixing emphasizes natural sounds like water.

This film is deeply melancholy and, at times, very tough to watch. It’s also filled with emotional richness and will reward patient viewers with a rawness and maturity in discussing concepts like grief, death, and aging. Highly recommended.

(9.0/10)

Uncle Boonmee

I’ve been meaning to watch Uncle Boonmee… for about two or three years now. I think it went off Netflix at one point and I was pretty peeved, but I figured since it’s a holiday I could stand to indulge in some spacy philosophy and tripped my way into one of the most unusual films I’ve seen in quite some time. It definitely equals Computer Chess in terms of strange-ness, but manages to use its power for far more interesting ends. Playing out a bit like a dream, but more like a stream of fading memories, we trace the final days of Boonmee (Saisaymar) as he confronts severe kidney problems at the conclusion of his life. Appearances from ghosts, monkeys, and catfish all contribute to the strong supernatural vibe which emanates from the film.

It’s a deeply spiritual experience, filmed in a variety of styles, and truly earns the term “atmospheric”. There’s little resembling a concrete plot here and it’s sure to frustrate those who think that world cinema has the tendency to chug along aimlessly without the standard linear plot many United States viewers typically expect. At times this movie is truly baffling, even maddening in the way in which it rejects being understood easily or literally. Rather, the film seems to float by in a sort of permanent state of mu, a sort of ultimate nothingness which grants it an eerie serenity. Come to this film looking for an experience rather than an A-to-B story and you may find yourself deeply enriched by the spiritual awareness the film suggests is an important part of everyday life. But be prepared to listen intently to this koan, to do otherwise is to ensure failure.

(8.5/10)

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Am I just becoming more cynical about romantic comedies?

The Giant Mechanical Man

Probably. But that doesn’t make this one any better. I remember the quiet rumblings a few years ago when this came out, mainly focused on Jenna Fischer in all of her post-Office glory. However, despite decent turns in films like Walk Hard, it seems like the Fisch has had a hard time parlaying that level of TV notoriety back into the cinematic universe. And here, with a maudlin script and a droll acting counterpart, nothing’s ever done quite well enough to truly draw attention or provoke a strong reaction.

The film reminded me immensely of another romantic comedy (dramedy?), A Short History of Decay which fails at eliciting either joy or sorrow. In large part this can be attributed to the mawkish and unenticing tone of both films, which frequently play up their existential crisis with heavy-handed and nagging symbolism/pretension. Indeed, the whole fantastical element of the mechanical man never really comes to fruition and plods ponderously throughout the film, which doesn’t do much in the way of shooting/editing to make the scenes feel as though they are part of a larger whole. Fischer and her romantic interest Chris Messina have relatively flat chemistry, with his particular brand of cynicism and self-loathing coming off as more of a repulsing tactic than one which breeds sympathy or interest. They hit the occasional right moment, as in their talks during their shared work breaks, but it’s often overshadowed by a certain laziness and disinterest which could be said to stand in for the whole film. When Fischer’s character heads off to spend time with her sister and the pretentious loser who wants to date her (handled nicely by Topher Grace) the film putters out and the stakes all but disappear.

At its worst this movie is egotistically annoying a parody of the sort of self-serious moments which can (rarely) contribute to the idea of a meaningful adult relationship. But here they’re rendered in a way which even those in their aimless mid 20s to 30s will likely find off-putting. My life has changed a lot since graduating college, and of course I want to relate to the sort of film which tackles that emotional malaise and the way a meaningful relationship can help re-invigorate us. This film, however, never rises above the level of a nattering friend of a friend who would rather stew in frustration than move forward and take steps to make their life better. And for all the emotional weight the film purports to wrestle with in sequences of deep frustration from both protagonists, the scenes themselves feel like rough sketches rather than delicately linked pieces of a narrative. The Giant Mechanical Man is a gigantically mediocre film. A few moments of interest and a lot of dead weight.

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