Thursday, May 24, 2012
Before I offer my final recommendations on films from 2011, I’ve just seen one that will figure high on my list for 2012, the Dardenne brothers’ superb Kid with a Bike (2012, MC-87, NFX), which provided an auspicious debut for Cinema Salon at Images, as some members of the film club convened there to watch and discuss the film. This film may be the most accessible that these Cannes favorites have made yet, true to their neo-neorealist style and themes, but appealing to a wider audience with a fairy tale aspect, shot in summertime, with a beautiful actress, and discrete but effective musical cues.
The Dardennes have built an internationally-acclaimed career by staying close to their roots, making all their films in their hometown of Seraing, a nondescript factory town in French-speaking Belgium, working cheap in semi-documentary style, with a small and familiar crew, and mostly nonprofessional actors, with a focus on the powerless, such as illegal immigrants and abandoned children. For Kid with a Bike, De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves is an obvious point of reference, as is Truffaut’s 400 Blows, but even more so Rossellini and Bresson, for an idiosyncratic but deeply-imbued Catholicism with a social conscience.
Le gamin au velo is the story of an 11-year-old boy who is all about velocity, running away, chasing after, swinging from one desperate attachment to another. Thomas Doret is outstanding as Cyril, the boy abandoned by his father in an institution, who finds a lifeline, indeed a fairy godmother, in the sturdy and understanding arms of Samantha, a hairdresser played to perfection by Cecile de France. With harsh reality turned into rewarding fable, every detail is specific, not symbolic, but dripping with significance. This is cinema of heart and mind, as well as eye and hand, an affirmation of kindness and connection in a tough world.
When Cinema Salon film club screenings resume at the Clark, I intend to program a Dardenne brothers double feature, but that probably won’t happen until September, though I may sneak in a screening in June, before the Clark’s summer season is in full swing.
This blog has evolved from immediate comments on films as I view them to more thematic groupings over a longer period. Aside from a final batch of films derived from the Film Comment list of critical favorites for 2011, I’ve got in the works a mini-essay on campaign films, my François-phile appreciation of Truffaut, and groupings of documentaries, older Hollywood films, and currently-running tv series of note. So please continue to check back on my stop-and-go progress.
Tuesday, May 01, 2012
Assessing 2011 critically
I’m still working my way through the best fifty films in the Film Comment critics survey of 2011. Here’s another batch, in most of which I see some merit, but don’t quite share the general enthusiasm. My own “definitive” rankings for the year are still a month or two away.
One’s reaction to The Descendants (2011, MC-84, FC#15, NFX) depends on one’s expectations of Alexander Payne. Judging by his earlier work -- preeminently Election (1999) -- his latest seems soft rather than sharp, more sentimental than acute. On the other hand, there’s a lot to like here, starting with a charming, subtle, Oscar-worthy performance from George Clooney, and lots of Hawaiian eye candy, not least his 17-year old daughter, well played by Shailene Woodley. The ukelele music is nice too. The story is freighted with over-emphasis, not just the mom in a coma and the retrospective revelation of her cheating, but a whole subplot about an old family inheritance of unspoiled oceanfront property on Kauai, whose fate of development or conservation Clooney must decide. Everything works out the way the audience wants, and that’s a problem for Payne, who usually delivers the pain with cutting humor, but here tugs hearts shamelessly, and goes for tears instead of the dry eye he once showed. Hawaii is a long way from his hometown Omaha. The movie is still a pleasant experience in a variety of ways, even if it would have been better less pleasant and more piquant.
I will grant Lars von Trier the quality of being memorably odious, and Melancholia (2011, MC-80, FC#3, NFX) is no exception. However attractive, even luminous, his filmmaking can be, I find his sensibility repulsive, most obviously his obsessive need to punish beautiful women, even if they are meant to be stand-ins for his own miserable personality. Here it’s poor Kirsten Dunst who gets the treatment, sinking into gloom on her wedding day, flailing through acts of senseless self-degradation. Charlotte Gainsbourgh is her more together sister, and the planet named Melancholia is just a tiny red intruder into familiar constellations. Then it’s months later, Dunst is nearly catatonic with depression, and Gainsbourgh is getting more anxious as the errant planet gets closer, first like another moon in the night sky, and then an overpowering presence that blots out the whole universe. Meanwhile the Dunst character is more than content to have her despair made cosmic, moon-bathing nude in the encroaching planet’s uncanny reflected light. I can’t deny that shots, scenes, and performances are compelling, but nonetheless the proceedings strike me as artificial, arbitrary, and antithetical to my own way of thinking. I would just as soon have forgotten this film immediately after seeing it, but unfortunately many images linger in my mind, despite my rejection of their import.
Though less creepy than one would expect from David Cronenberg, A Dangerous Method (2011, MC-76, FC#5, NFX) does have a vein of macabre humor in its depiction of the friendly-becoming-rivalrous relations between Freud and Jung in the years before the First World War. More an illumination of a cultural moment than a story with a conclusion in mind, the film is surprisingly lovely. (In an interesting extra on the DVD, Cronenberg takes part in an AFI master class and talks about working with chance, and how the weather just happened to be fantastic when they were shooting by the lake in Zurich and in Vienna.) Michael Fassbender, who seems to be everywhere suddenly, makes a plausible Jung, and Viggo Mortensen is quite delightful as Freud, but the surprise to me was Keira Knightley as Sabine Spielrein, who was both patient and colleague to the two men and mistress to Jung. I’ve always found Keira more scary than attractive (and I’ve never quite forgiven her for being totally wrong as Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice), so I tended to find her neurotic freak-outs believable, if overwrought. And her angularity seemed right for little bit of S&M too. This film doesn’t bite off more than it can chew, more appetizer than main course, but it’s a tasty little dish.
I did not share the enthusiasm of the Sundance audience or some reviewers for Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011, MC-76, FC#35, NFX), which certainly had some lovely and telling moments, but to me seemed workshopped to no good end. I grant the appeal of Elizabeth Olsen as the polynomynous heroine, but T. Sean Durkin’s film struck me as forced and unresolved at the same time. When the rural cult in which Martha (etc.) has taken refuge turns into the something like the Manson Family, she flees to the elegant lakeside vacation home of her estranged sister, though she seems equally morose in both families, and like her the film slips between times and places, unable to sort past from present, dream from reality. I was initially taken with the portrait of a rural commune with spiritual pretensions, but in the end compared it unfavorably with Vera Farmiga’s more modest and truthful Higher Ground, about being trapped in a community of belief.
I’m not sure I can recommend The Mill and the Cross (2011, MC-80, NFX) to mainstream viewers, but I will definitely be showing this scholarly feature about Brueghel at the Clark sometime soon, in the big-screen, full hi-def that it requires. Lech Majewski’s film takes us literally inside “The Way to Calvary” painting, through a variety of special effects, with our guide Brueghel himself, as played by Rutger Hauer. We see visualizations of various scenes from the panoramic canvas. Almost unnoticed at the center of the web is Christ carrying his cross. In the foreground, Mary mourns, played by Charlotte Rampling. To the right Spanish soldiers in red tunics “crucify” a Flemish nonconformist. Above all, a mill grinds out the wheel of fate, while the miller looks down from afar on the ant-like scurryings below. Brueghel literally walks through the painting, explaining its vignettes to his patron (Michael York) and to us. For interested viewers, this is a walk well worth taking.
Postscript: I don’t usually bother with pipsqueak demolition of Hollywood blockbusters, not watching stuff I know I won’t like, but I can’t avoid it with “Best Picture” nominee The Help (2011, MC-62, NFX), a movie that really bothered me. I can’t speak about Kathryn Stockett’s bestseller, but I confess that a privileged white girl’s view of the civil rights movement in Mississippi, as transcribed from her maid, is not the sort of perspective I’m likely to be interested in. But what’s unforgivable to me in Tate Taylor’s film is using actresses such as Sissy Spacek, Alison Janney, Viola Davis, Jessica Chastain, and Emma Stone, but never allowing them a truly unforced moment. Each does what she can within the context of caricature -- Jessica particularly surprising as a white trash bimbo -- but they are all just moving parts in a mechanical construction that wants to turn Gone with the Wind upside down, but only makes visible the artifice inside. This contraption is claptrap. Blatantly obvious in execution, it’s more objectionable because it trivializes, rather than humanizes, one of the defining and inspiring moments in American social history. Medgar Evers did not die to add a frisson of fear to a sorority girl’s book.