Monthly Archives: January 2010

A Moment of Innocence (1996)

Director: Mohsen Makhmalbaf

Screenplay: Mohsen Makhmalbaf

It’s almost impossible to tell fact from fiction, documentary from narrative, in this Iranian New Wave entry, though it is much easier to ascertain that the film is something of a masterpiece. The story of this project’s genesis is extraordinary in itself: director Makhmalbaf, who spent five years in prison as a teenager for stabbing a police officer during a political rally in the late seventies, encountered the very same police officer (Mirhadi Tayebi), now unemployed and looking for work as an actor, some twenty years later at a casting call. The two subsequently decided to collaborate on a film that would revisit the scene of the stabbing, exploring its personal, political, and moral implications for both parties concerned, then and now; A Moment of Innocence is the fruit of that collaboration.

Makhmalbaf’s execution here owes something to the French nouvelle vague, with its abrupt, playfully self-reflexive intertitles and extended interview/audition scenes particularly revealing Godard’s influence. But what makes the film especially engaging on its own terms, and lends it a tremendous amount of heart, is its mingling of the real Makhmalbaf and Tayebi with the young actors they cast as themselves to appear in the film-within-a-film reenactment (Ali Bakhsi as Mohsen and Ammar Tafti as Mirhadi; Maryam Mohamadamini as the young cousin of Mohsen present at the time of the stabbing). Rather than simply dramatizing the events of the past with these young actors, Makhmalbaf allows Bakhsi, Tafti, and Mohamadamini’s own personalities and ideals to inflect the way the story is retold, producing variously confusing, whimsical, and heartbreaking results.

By this method of allowing reality to affect fiction (and vice versa), Makhmalbaf and Tayebi’s original encounter is (or seems to be) thoroughly reinterpreted in A Moment of Innocence, confirming that no one interpretation can disclose the meaning of this encounter, and, more generally, that the passage of time both yields fresh insights into the events of the past, and serves to complicate them. The entire film pays off big time in a single, startling image that should knock the wind out of you and make your mind race.

-Cam

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Farewell, Miramax.

After much discourse on the subject and many rumors, Harvey and Bob Weinstein’s iconic studio Miramax is no more.  As of 1993, Disney had bought the studio for $70 million, but brothers Harvey and Bob maintained creative control, keeping the studio teetering on the brink of collapse for some time.

I don’t know about you, but to me Miramax represented one of the closest things to an arthouse studio that existed within Hollywood.  Without Miramax, who would have taken on films such as Pulp Fiction, The Talented Mr Ripley, No Country For Old Men or The Diving Bell and the Butterfly?  Miramax’s death is yet another setback for those of us who crave something more at the cinema than comic book heroes blowing things up.  What does it say about the state of narrative driven, original films if a studio run by two of the most powerful men in Hollywood can’t even survive?  Sure, they gave Kevin Smith his start, but everyone makes mistakes, right?

Grim indeed.

-mike

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TIME CAPSULE REVIEW

[In the interest of upping the frequency of posts here at Wipe, we’ve decided to try our hand at writing shorter, “capsule” reviews for your daily (or semi-daily) reading pleasure. Below you’ll find the first of these “Time Capsule Reviews” (note: punny name subject to change; it just seemed appropriate for this particular posting). In the meantime, we’ll continue to work on our longer reviews and other exciting features, to be posted throughout the week. We ask for your patience and undying loyalty as the Wipe team tinkers with the format of the site. Thanks!]

Blind Husbands (1919)

Director: Erich von Stroheim

Screenplay: Erich von Stroheim

The brilliant and notoriously difficult Erich von Stroheim debuted as a director/screenwriter with this potently erotic yet severely moral silent feature. Always a superb actor (probably best known for his supporting roles in La grande illusion [1939] and Sunset Boulevard [1950]), Stroheim himself co-stars in Blind Husbands as a libidinous Austrian cavalry officer with designs on seducing the wife (Francelia Billington) of a neglectful doctor (Sam De Grasse) during a vacation in the Dolemite mountains. The film ostensibly concerns the doctor’s moral (and indeed sexual) duty to overcome his “blindness” to his wife’s desire to be loved. But as in his later masterpiece Greed (1924), Stroheim strikes deepest in Blind Husbands by exploring the moral and existential consequences of compulsive overreaching: hence, the film’s primary fascination lies in how the cavalry officer’s lustful, reckless appetite for women (unmistakably alluded to in his boast: “To me mountains are lifeless rocks. My pleasure has always been to master them”) binds him to a cruel, bitterly ironic fate. If that makes Blind Husbands sound self-righteous in tone, let me just say there’s something undeniably hilarious about the moral reckoning of Stroheim’s character, alone atop a mountain, driven into childish hysterics by what is apparently the judging eye of a vulture circling overhead.

-Cam

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Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle (2004)

Director: Danny Leiner

Screenplay: Jon Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossberg

I make it a firm habit never to muck about with the sort of filmmaking that produces work such as Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle. However, since the film’s release in 2004, that title, that ridiculously languid title has echoed from the depths of my cerebellum.  Now, some six years later, I’ve given in.  Well, to be honest, in the end it wasn’t the title that got me to see the film.  It was the realization that the film concerned two grown men living together.

It’s not that Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle is a good film or a bad film.  Such a classification is irrelevant.  Rather, the film is utter perfection as a case study of homoeroticism in the contemporary “buddy” comedy.

The “story” of Harold and Kumar involves marijuana and cheeseburgers, with the former barely being edged out by the latter as king.   A tremendous quest for cheeseburgers then ensues.  From a superficial view point, this is simply two good friends desperate to obtain their favourite meal.  But scratch the surface almost effortlessly and what’s buried beneath is crystal clear.

Seen from this perspective, meat and its bewitching allure drives the film as surely as does a libido.  In layman’s terms, Harold and Kumar’s quest is a quest for meat, and plenty of it.

So reverential is this meat in fact, that once Harold and Kumar get it, it proves to be the cure for all the problems the boys face with regards to women, bullies or any other conflict that life can throw at them.  They’ve stuffed themselves with meat and their hunger has been sated.  By the film’s end, both a symbolic as well as a physical penetration has occured in the lads, changing their views on everything and making them realize that their true strength was in them all along and that surprise, surprise,  it was hiding.

Still, although the film unearths the great depth of sexual attractions and feelings that Harold and Kumar share toward one another, it tries (in vain) to poke fun at the honest emotions behind what bonds Harold and Kumar.  Harold, for example, coming home after a difficult day at work to find Kumar trimming his pubic hair with a set of Harold’s scissors.  Kumar licking Harold’s face in order to “revive” him.  These sorts of dalliances into the arena of male courting patterns are to be perceived as little more than silly notions of homosexuality between two ostensibly very heterosexual men. In reality, this practice determines that not only are there feelings between these two friends, but also just how tender of a bond those feelings are.  For its part, Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle soundly fails at dispelling any sort of male intimacy by mocking it.  For goodness sake, there’s even a giant penis cut into a wheat field, seen by the pair as they sail by, snuggled up together in a hang glider.

Yet, what quite possibly persists in most endearing me to this film is that below its crack-up of homosexuality, there truly exists a soul.  Down beneath the frivolous surface it shines: a world where men form alliances that aren’t broken by women and where alliances with their brethren elevate them to phenomenal plains of ecstasy.  Plains of ecstasy, I might add, that came solely from a slab of beef inserted betwixt two pillowy soft buns.

-Brice Hornell

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Stand-out performances from 2009

With the announcement of the Oscar nominations just around the corner (February 2), I thought it an opportune time to bring attention to a few fine performances from last year that are likely to be shut out of the running. Some of these performances stand an outside chance of grabbing a nomination (a hunch tells me Anthony Mackie might steal a spot in the Supporting Actor category); others are clearly nowhere near being in the race, by virtue of appearing in “lowbrow” or strictly commercial fare. All together, the following comprise ten of my favourite male and female performances of 2009.

Alison Lohman in

Drag Me to Hell

Provided a blessedly soothing, sweet-tempered presence amidst a maelstrom of blood, flames, and witch vomit. ______________________________________________

Zac Efron in

Me and Orson Welles

Proved his ingenuousness (already traceable on his always-flush, emotion-stained face) by way of a beautifully poignant vocal and ukulele number. ______________________________________________

Beyoncé in

Obsessed

Made fiery, fierce red hair iconic; upgraded her fierceness with a rousing (if ideologically loaded) defense of domesticity by fisticuffs.

______________________________________________

Tobey Maguire in

Brothers

Manifested post-traumatic stress with paranoid, spectral eyes; scared the hell out of me and broke my heart, often in the same scene.

______________________________________________

Charlotte Gainsbourg in

Antichrist

Went to the limits for a no-class director; transcended his bullshit by channeling rage and madness on an almost super-human level.

______________________________________________

Omari Hardwick in

Next Day Air

Rendered a potentially trite drug kingpin character fully dimensional, with humour, style, and moral complexity to spare.

______________________________________________

Abbie Cornish in

Bright Star

Did justice to Keats’s effusions in her beauty and charm; clarified Fanny Brawne’s own passion in moments ranging from tranquil to devastating.

______________________________________________

Anthony Mackie in

The Hurt Locker

Unforgettably expressed a soldier’s anxieties in his final, heart-wrenching breakdown in front of Jeremy Renner’s (seemingly) unflappable bomb defuser.

______________________________________________

Rachel Weisz in

The Brothers Bloom

Rather amazingly shaped a ludicrous mess of quirks into a tolerable, even beguiling character.

______________________________________________

Johnny Depp in

Public Enemies

Eschewed his recent streak of commercial showboating in favour of a more refined, fascinating intensity; redeemed a misguided gangster narrative with movie star charisma.

Honourable mentions: Nicolas Cage in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans; Zoe Kazan in Me and Orson Welles; Sam Rockwell in Gentlemen Broncos; Shoshana Bush in Dance Flick; Richard Kind in A Serious Man; Edith Scob in Summer Hours

Cam

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Precious: Based on the Novel PUSH by Sapphire (2009)

Director: Lee Daniels

Screenplay: Geoffrey Fletcher

Novel: Sapphire (1996)

That I caught up with Lee Daniels’s Precious late in the game (i.e. this past Monday), following its run of resoundingly successful festival appearances (major awards at Sundance and TIFF; standing ovation at Cannes) and hyperbolic critical notices (both gushy and censorious), clearly influenced my perceptions of it, and not for the better. It’s no secret that hype can be a wickedly distracting thing; but it can also tell us a lot about a film.

Oscar talk™–which Precious has been receiving since well before its domestic release last November–is high on my list of warning signs that a movie secretly has no integrity. Part of what’s so ruinous about awards season—and perhaps the very idea of handing out awards for films in the first place—is that it invites and rewards fawning: in most instances (not to say always), the films that emerge as “award-hopefuls” at year’s end are those custom-designed to flatter voters’ tastes, their sense of self-importance and awareness of “important” subjects (people like Kate Winslet and Stephen Daldry devote their entire careers to making these kinds of films). I couldn’t shake the impression while watching Precious that every “raw,” “powerhouse” moment in it was calculated to appease (liberal-minded) award-voters–perhaps because, from my vantage point mid-way through awards-season, I can see how well the film has succeeded in doing just that.

Maybe it’s unfair to place the blame on the filmmakers for the hype Precious has generated; they may have originally had only the best intentions in mind. (Besides, could the Oscars have possibly been in their sights when they debuted at Sundance?) All I can say, for my part, is that the award fever surrounding the film, and integrated into its marketing/campaign strategy (no doubt with the complicity of Lee “Monster’s Ball” Daniels), has significantly deadened the actual emotional experience of watching the film. I find it very difficult to be moved by a film when all its dramatic peaks–including the heart-tugging dialogue between Gabby Sidibe and Paula Patton, and Mo’Nique’s tearful climactic monologue–come straight out of the trailer I’ve seen a dozen times. Hyping Precious in their own right, these emotion-soaked clips have become the Oscar-jockeying equivalent of the f/x “money shots” in previews for summer blockbusters. Again, the calculation shows the more the hype grows.

Perhaps I digress. Aside from my above complaints–which all seem external (though, I think, not inconsequential) to the film in some sense–what else can I say about Precious? Most of you should know by now that the film is about an obese, illiterate black teenager (Gabourey Sidibe) from Harlem who struggles daily with poverty and an abusive mother (Mo’Nique), as well as the trauma of being raped and twice impregnated by her biological father, until education and the efforts of a kindly teacher (Paula Patton) transform her life. Being a “liberal-minded” viewer myself, I found that the film did make a lot of concessions to my particular biases, and it didn’t always feel like a ploy: I especially appreciated the film’s attempt to imbue nearly every character–even the monstrous Mo’Nique–with a measure of self-understanding and humanity (more than can be said for the potential Best Picture-winner Avatar). And it is a rare film indeed that allows you to see the beauty and inner-consciousness of an overweight, African-American female character, not to mention a film that deals so directly with incest, abusive parenting, and class and racial issues.

But (another but!), just because Precious addresses the latter issues directly, doesn’t necessarily mean it does so adequately, or responsibly. I’ll tread lightly here and reference other critics, since I’m definitely out of my area in discussing some of these topics. As glowingly as the film has been praised by some critics (Peter Travers composed a love poem or two, calling it the best film of 2009), other critics (Armond White most famously) have attacked it as racist, demeaning in its representation of inner-city black life, and particularly problematic in light of its critical standing with the majority of (white) critics.  Nikole Hannah-Jones of The Oregonian perhaps frames the anxiety about Precious best: “I am skeptical about a movie that seems so heavily steeped in black pathology, yet is so embraced by the mainstream. Of course incest and illiteracy occur in the black community, as [they do] in all communities. But with so few black dramas on the big screen, I also know ‘Precious’ presents this view in a cinematic vacuum.” You begin to see what Hannah-Jones and White mean the more Precious relentlessly piles on the un-prettiness of inner-city life (e.g., Mo’Nique’s pathetic attempt to appear presentable for a social worker by throwing on a wig and smearing on lipstick; stylized flashbacks that highlight the sweat on Precious’s father’s belly as he unbuckles himself to rape her; a late appearance by the AIDS virus). Why are so many (white) critics eating this up, without compunction? Why is Precious the only film with black themes to emerge as a contender this awards season?

The other major problem, touched on by White and several other critics, is that the film casts only light-skinned performers (Patton, Lenny Kravitz, Mariah Carey) in the sympathetic, kind saviour roles. This is particularly alarming given that, as Latoya Peterson points out on the excellent blog Racialicious, Patton’s teacher character is darker-skinned and wears dreadlocks in the original novel. With a light-skinned actor occupying this role, the character seems to join a long line of predominantly white teacher/saviour figures in films about inner-city education (in the same blog posting mentioned above, Peterson provides a hilarious clip from MadTV to illustrate the prevalence and ridiculousness of this phenomenon). Further compounding this problem is the film’s depiction of Precious’s shame at her own skin colour; she speaks of desiring “a light-skinned boyfriend” and even envisions herself a skinny white woman while fixing her hair in front of a mirror. I don’t doubt that a black girl could have such self-consciousness about her skin colour; I am merely troubled by the fact that the film takes it for granted that Precious desires to be white (it’s almost offhandedly treated), and never comes to terms with where this identity issue stems from (could movies like Precious, with their light-skinned angels, be partially responsible for perpetuating this self-image problem?). In the absence of any deeper reflection on skin colour, Precious’s self-hatred in the film appears as just one more element to flatter critics’ sense of “raw truth” in this telling of an African-American story.

[For a fine summary of the debates surrounding Precious, see this article.]

-Cam

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Frygtelig lykkelig (Terribly Happy) (2008)

Director: Henrik Ruben Genz

Screenplay: Henrik Ruben Genz

Normally I’m someone who hates the idea of watching a foreign film only to automatically compare it to something similar from Hollywood.  More often than not there’s no reason to do it – it’s little more than cramming filmmaking into a narrow spectrum in which the film is either familiar to our Hollywood sensibilities and therefore good, or isn’t, in which case it’s unjustly relegated to little more than “that arty stuff they make in Europe”.

This time however, I can’t resist.  I’m sorry.  It’s just that Danish filmmaker Henrik Ruben Genz has so aptly channeled the feel and look of the Coen brother’s Blood Simple with his latest film Frygtelig lykkelig, that I would be foolish not to mention it.  Besides, there are far worse things for a filmmaker than to be compared to the Coen brothers.

Frygtelig lykkelig follows Jakob Cedergren (Robert Hansen), a Copenhagen cop who has just been demoted to working as the marshall in a tiny, remote Danish town.  It’s apparent right from the start that Jakob’s gone overboard in some capacity and is now grimly facing banishment from his life in Copenhagen.  The town he finds himself stationed in is an odd one, with its methodical and routine driven inhabitants giving off subtle hints of  expectation toward Jakob’s place as marshall.

Jakob quickly becomes friendly with Ingerlise Buhl (Lene Maria Christensen), the sad wife of abusive drunkard and all around town bad-ass, Jørgen (Kim Bodnia).  Jørgen Buhl, with his cowboy hat, beer belly and bad reputation is as Coen of a character as they come, and his presence in the first two acts of the film help to slowly unroll a sticky and dark little tale of comeuppance, justice and misguided passion.  There’s an unspoken code of ethics in this muddy little town and all problems can ostensibly be solved by a trip to the local bog.

If all of this sounds more than a little odd to you, that’s because it is.  In fact, it’s exactly this ability to sustain the oddities of the film, while steering them clear from weird for the sake of being weird, that Genz handles so well.  There’s a creeping notion hanging over the film’s first two acts that things are not what they seem and that before all is said and done, the audience will be privy to both the town and Jakob’s darkest secrets.

Unfortunately, the film’s final act loses the momentum that the previous acts held, either by leaving questions unanswered or by providing answers that don’t match the initial corresponding levels of build up.  And that’s a problem.

Still, the isolation of the town as seen through cinematographer Jørgen Johansson’s lense is splendid in its understated beauty and the entire cast maintains the film’s well orchestrated feel for a place where strange happenings are so regular, that they’ve ceased to be regarded as strange.  As a whole, Frygtelig lykkelig captures great levels of tension in minimal surroundings, just as Blood Simple did more than two decades before.  But for its part, Frygtelig lykkelig just doesn’t satisfy on enough levels to live up to the excitement it produces in its first hour.

-mike

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