26 February 2009

Only for the most hardcore of SciFi geeks.

Seriously, the rest of you will get nothing out of this.

At the movies: Silent Light (Stellet Licht).

In an isolated Mennonite community in Mexico, the farmer Johan is having a crisis of the faith and of the flesh. Though devoted to his wife, the mother of his children and the rock of his house, he has fallen in love with another woman, a development he openly shares with his wife. Believing this new love to be a divine gift, he is torn between the two women, and tumult arises within Johan’s house and in the community.

Silent Light survived the implosion of its domestic and U.K. distributor just based on reputation and the reports of several dazed film festivalgoers. Slowly, it has been creeping through theatres and museums throughout the country with the quiet grace of its opening and closing shots, a paired sunrise and sunset that envelopes the viewer. Acts of nature become sensual seductions, and we see daybreak and nightfall as acts of love on a planetary scale.

Built around the iconography of Carl Theodor Dreyer and with more on its mind about the intersection between the sacred and the profane than any film since Breaking the Waves, this is the cinematic event of Nashville’s first quarter of 2009.

This film is a gift. It does everything we could ask of art cinema, immersing the viewer in something alien yet completely universal. Its beauty strikes a chord deep within, and it triggers that intrinsically human response when in the presence of greatness; awed silence, and a sense of something immense and timeless, not understandable in the concrete, but warm and filling in the abstract.

Silent Light fills the spaces that dogma and human weakness have chipped away over the years. See it, and evolve.

At the movies: Two Lovers.

Leonard (Joaquin Phoenix) is adrift in life, occasionally suicidal, and trying to find his own path in life in a very uncertain time. His family’s Brighton Beach cleaners is always a possibility, especially now that his father has a prospective buyer for it who has a beautiful daughter (Vinessa Shaw, from Eyes Wide Shut) who finds him and his quirky ways adorable. Which would be perfect if it weren’t for Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow, here a shiksa shakti with some great moments and the first real role she’s had since The Royal Tenenbaums), the ‘beautiful, messed-up woman who doesn’t really know what she wants’ whose married lover has just set her up with the apartment across the courtyard from Leonard’s.

Before you know it, we’ve got our man Leonard torn between two women in the romantic equivalent of the Kobayashi Maru scenario: the magnetic, earthily graceful Sandra (Shaw), and Paltrow’s exciting, chaotic, passive aggressive waif Michelle. And if inordinate amounts of ink and pixels have been spilled over Phoenix’ antics on the David Letterman show and in his ‘career move’ to become a rapper, it’s shameful that nowhere near as much attention has been given how transcendently good he is in this film. He’s like a Lars von Trier lead in this film, and he even does his own breakdancing.

The film matches him every step of the way, with an expressive and moody use of the cinemascope frame to highlight both Leonard’s alienation from everyone around him and to demonstrate, without saying a word, how valuable private space is in New York City; it’s good to have a drama that understands the importance of its physical space without being show-offy about it. The whole concept of the family apartment may be lost on audiences with no familiarity with New York housing, but the history and detail put into that home is just beautiful. Also beautiful, as always, is Isabella Rossellini as Leonard’s mother. Rosselini remains one of the most remarkable women alive right now, taking her place alongside Sophia Loren, Elizabeth Taylor, and Catherine Deneuve as a timeless icon of beauty- the natural woman at her most radiant and true.

Two Lovers is a treatise, of sorts, on the sadness of stasis. Viewing Sandra and Michelle as Scylla and Charybdis, we can empathize with Leonard and his own uncertainties. We understand the little tyrannies of others’ expectations just looking at the lines in Leonard’s face, and if this truly is Phoenix’ last performance as an actor, then it sets the bar incredibly high. The last scene says it all; a moment of tremendous beauty and joy, tied to an aching and pummeling sadness, where you see it all: joy built on a lie, hurt flinging itself desperately, needily toward hope.

The forty-sixth* single from the Mode.

Depeche Mode - "Wrong" (official music video)

* forty-seventh if you include Little 15.

20 February 2009

At the movies: Madea Goes to Jail.

Polyhyphenate Tyler Perry is back, and this time he’s brought back his most beloved character, Mabel “Madea” Simmons. Though in all honesty, Madea doesn’t actually go to jail until an hour in, and we’ll be spending most of our time with Joshua (Derek Luke), an attorney engaged to the district’s most successful prosecutor who finds himself in a bind when Candy (Keshia Knight-Pulliam, Rudy Huxtable herself), a childhood friend and college associate in the midst of a stretch of life on the streets as a drug-addicted prostitute, surfaces in the middle of the courthouse.

Much drama ensues, involving judicial fraud, unspecific detox (we never know exactly what drugs Candy and her friend Donna are on), bad wigs, and assaultive pimpcraft. As all that is going on, Madea’s decades-long rap sheet finally catches up with her and sends her into jail, where we get a decent prison laundry beat-down and the film’s moral lesson, delivered by Academy Award nominee Viola Davis as the street minister Ellen.

We also get a grand moral faceoff at a plush wedding (Perry loves plush weddings), and it’s a rather stunning piece of work that manages to serve as a force of karmic retribution and a cold-blooded cut at the exact same time. Also, Sofia Vergara deserves special recognition, because it wasn’t until about five minutes into her performance (as Madea’s Björkian serial killer cellmate) that I realized that she wasn’t actually Parker Posey.

It says volumes about Perry’s perspective as an entertainer that Davis is given loads more to do here than in her Oscar-nominated turn in Doubt; everybody does everything in a Perry film, and though that leaves things in a rather sloppy state (a too-abrupt ending and several unfortunately-improvised scenes, the lack of real structure to several sequences), that’s part of what makes them such fun and unique.

There’s a vaudevillian impulse in his films, a chef’s approach to finding balancing and contrasting amounts of comedy, drama, violence, and religion, and a distinct sense that everyone should be able to get everything out of the proceedings (which suits a film featuring cameos from Frank Ski, the women of The View, Tom Joyner, Steve Harvey, Dr. Phil, and Judge Mathis). Which is fine by me. As long as Perry keeps including the gun-toting, treacle-diminishing, no-nonsense absurdity of Madea in his morality plays, I’ll happily keep getting tickets to them.

19 February 2009

The majesty of pop.

Tracklist for performance:

Love, etc.
Left to my own devices
Always on my mind
Go west
Opportunities (Let's make lots of money)
What have I done to to deserve this? (with Lady Gaga)
I'm with stupid
Being boring
It's a sin (with Brandon Flowers)
All over the world
West end girls

At the movies: Must Read After My Death.

Built from the ground up with the footage shot by and the voice recordings of a family coming apart at the seams in the mid-to-late 60s, Must Read After My Death is the sound of crisis even as it unfolds over images of an uneasy serenity. Using no narration or external set-up, we are immersed in the life of Allis, a mother and wife on the brink of life, and it is a hypnotic and haunting experience; material originally used as therepeutic devices and means of communication become time-delayed weapons.

Think of films like Capturing the Friedmans, Tarnation, and Dear Zachary: nonfiction cinema built around primary sources documented and recorded by the people involved in them. Morgan Dews' film not only helps change the game plan for contemporary nonfiction cinema, it's also changing the way we think of film distribution, working with a plan for access that makes several of the VOD programs used by many independent distributors seem lagging.

This film hits hard and shows no mercy; charting the arcs of a family's life without censoring them. Documentary enthusiasts and anyone intrigued by the mysteries of family should check it out without hesitation. And if it isn't playing near you or at a convenient time, you can check it out online at your leisure thanks to Gigantic Releasing's new universal VOD approach to distribution.

12 February 2009

At the movies: Friday the 13th.

Platinum Dunes must be stopped.

Their remakes of The Hitcher, The Amityville Horror, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre took beloved (well, except for Amityville) horror films of eras past and remade them as slick-looking, empty-headed drivel. And now, in taking the most brain dead of horror franchises, the Friday the 13th films, they've managed to take dumb films and make them even dumber.

They spent countless millions of dollars on production value (and the locations all look beautiful), but all the money in the world can't replicate the idiotic charm of the original Friday the 13th films, and the cast has absolutely nothing to do except get killed. Aaron Yoo, from Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, makes the best impression, but even he is simply bogged down by the utter ineptitude of this new Friday. And as for ostensible lead Jared Padalecki, he is much better served by his show Supernatural than he is by this film.

A new bunch of idiot teenagers is on their way to Camp Crystal Lake to see the sights, swim, do drugs, take part in some topless waterskiing, and have premarital sex. Naturally, they're doomed, and legendary slasher Jason Voorhees is sharpening up his machete, antlers, woodchipper, hatchet, archery set, and chisel to carve up some teenage meat. But without the subtext of the initial run of Fridays (up through Part VII or so), which combined reactionary mores, Cold War nuclear dread, and the shameful "me first" ideology of the 80s, there's simply no reason for this film to exist.

We have a few good kills, one exceptional kill (it involves a sleeping bag, but not in the way you'd expect), no quotable dialogue, and a pittance of gore. I was never dreading this remake, because the original Fridays weren't exactly a sacred text to begin with. But lo and behold, Platinum Dunes have managed to once again snatch defeat from the jaws of a beloved franchise. And they want to tackle A Nightmare on Elm Street next? Blasphemy.

07 February 2009

A few words about the whole Christian Bale thing.

He was 100% right. I went to Film School for Cinematography, and one of the first things you learn is that you don’t mess with lights while you’re shooting a scene. As a cinematographer, you get the lights right before the cameras roll. To physically adjust lights during shooting is unprofessional, dangerous, and disrespectful to the dozens of other people working on set. We’ve all had bad days, and it sucks to be on the business end of that, but there is no reason for people to be acting like Christian Bale is some horrible out-of-control monster on set because he rightfully called out someone who was doing their job incorrectly. He may have all sorts of issues and drama, but as regards the Shane Hurlbut calling-out on set, Christian Bale was 100% right.

At the movies: Coraline.

Young Coraline Jones has just moved, with her distant parents, into the middle floor of the Pink Palace apartments, an old house with mysteries and magic in abundance behind its well-appointed walls. A resourceful and inquisitive young girl, Coraline (voiced by Dakota Fanning) soon discovers a portal to another world, where things are brighter and stranger, and previously lethargic dads become like They Might Be Giants, and everything is exactly right. Except that everyone has buttons instead of eyes…

As with all projects associated with Neil Gaiman (Mirrormask, Beowulf), there is so much imagination running around that it can at times feel flighty and disjointed. No matter, as everything pulls together in classic fairy tale fashion, albeit with a gloriously darker tone than most of what gets processed out as ‘family entertainment.’ Overprotective parents will be freaked out, adventurous kids will adore it. Like all great art, it deals with deep and freaky issues in an entertaining fashion. We get mysterious houses, life lessons, and the chance to turn your back on the world we know and live in and embrace the unknown completely, and it’s nice to have all bases covered. It’s slow to get going, but once it does, it keeps blooming in weirder and more vivid forms.

The 3D effects are used in a subtle fashion, avoiding gimmicks and instead adding depth to the world the animators have created. The inspired voice casting grounds us with Dakota Fanning, allowing excellent supporting work from Ian McShane as a Russian circusmaster who works with jumping mice (who actually look a bit more like kangaroo rats to me, but I digress) and British comedy legends French and Saunders as two actresses living downstairs from the Jones family. As a noble cat, Keith David shines.

Director/adapter Henry Selick remains one of cinema’s true visionaries, building upon the criminally underrated Monkeybone and perennial classic The Nightmare Before Christmas to craft a world that simply seduces the viewer. Color and life become characters in the story, and there’s a moment near the end that looks like a Van Gogh painting come to life- simply staggering.

At the movies: Wendy and Lucy.

Dog lovers who found Marley and Me too sappy and Hotel for Dogs too unrealistic now have their prayers answered. This is a film about how only dogs really embody basic human decency anymore, and it has the understated grace of Bresson and the earthy disillusioned pragmatism of Varda. Wendy (Michelle Williams) is trying to make her way north, to Alaska, to get a job working in a fish-processing plant. All she has in life is a beat-up old car and her dog, Lucy. When the car breaks down in the Pacific Northwest, everything is thrown into chaos. But when Lucy ends up missing after a run-in with the police, Wendy is adrift.

So the trek for work becomes a desperate quest to find a loved one, because that’s what we, as humans who love, do. And hope is a subversive act. Michelle Williams’ central performance is enthralling, and she better articulates the nameless dread of being alive in these uncertain times, buffeted about by money and opportunity, than countless essays, articles, or Dateline exposés. It’s a remarkable performance and a remarkable film. There’s one tracking shot through a nicely enough appointed animal shelter that reduced an audience of the most hardened big city film critics to weepy piles of jelly, not because of manipulative elements or playing unfairly with expectations, but because of its acknowledgement that hundreds of similar stories unfold every day and that’s just the world we live in.