Last year I gushingly reviewed Julia, a thriller in which Tilda Swinton plays an alcoholic degenerate. The performance is honest and without remorse – her Julia is a despicable person, yet remains fiercely magnetic. Just when I thought I couldn’t be surprised by her gifts, Swinton comes out with I Am Love, a lush melodrama about a wealthy Milan family. Even if you ignore the feat of speaking pitch-perfect Italian and Russian, Swinton’s work is remarkable for the depth she’s able to project. Her understated approach is a stirring counterbalance writer/director Luca Guadagnino‘s style. His bold gestures and sumptuous cinematography dominate the screen, making this director/actor collaboration uncommonly moving.
Edoardo Recchi (Gabriele Ferzetti) is a patriarch whose power/influence has gotten to his head. At his birthday party, he languidly walks around the table, delegating power like a king. Many fear him, but daughter-in-law Emma (Swinton) is too busy preparing to notice. She’s a Russian immigrant with striking blond hair who’ll never be totally accepted by the elite Italian family. Husband Tancredi (Pippo Delbono) and son Edo (Flavio Parenti) are running the business, so Emma spends her time thinking about Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), Edo’s friend who runs a successful restaurant. Brisk camerawork hints at their attraction, and it seems inevitable they’ll sleep together. Daughter Elisabetta (Alba Rohrwacher) is a free spirit who, like Antonio, helps Emma move beyond polite reticence. The blossoming affair could unravel the Rechhi dynasty, and after an unexpected confrontation, Emma is left with stark choices.
The connection between nature and emotion is felt early. Wintry exteriors mirror the chilled emotion of Edoardo’s party. And as the affair reaches its erotic peak, beautiful summer scenes match the lovers’ warmth. Eschewing realism may turn off some, but those who accept Guadagnino’s premise will share Emma’s rapture and heartbreak. The symbolism does not stop there – Emma’s children represent opposing lifestyles, and their fates illuminate the path she should take. Along her character’s remarkable journey, Swinton’s facial contortions are affecting. In the final act, she trusts audiences to empathize with her. The gambit pays off – Swinton literally took my breath away, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she has the same influence over others. The supporting cast performs admirably. Because the younger actors embody ideals more than they portray individuals, their work has less depth. It’s no surprise, really – Swinton and Guadagnino worked on I Am Love for seven years, so this movie highlights their skills above all. Strangely enough, American Marisa Berenson is the other standout as Emma’s mother-in-law. She’s never cruel, yet subtle body language is quietly exclusionary.
The stifled well-to-do woman is a familiar archetype. Without such thoughtfulness, Emma’s story could have easily been on autopilot. Because the writers closely observe each relationship and Swinton understands her character from the inside-out, Emma isn’t just another unhappy woman. She’s someone with sophistication and depth, and Guadagnino’s use of setting adds the kind of insight one would normally find in a novel. Midway through the movie, I was unsure where the story was going, or whether I cared. By the end, I realized I Am Love is unique, and became grateful for the sublime experience*. This is one of the year’s most daring movies, and also one of the best.
* Reminiscent of Philip Glass, composer John Adams’ score fits in perfectly. You may want to nab the soundtrack after the credits roll.
Sebastian Junger’s Restrepotakes you into combat in a way few movies have. Over the course of a year, Junger and co-director Tim Hetherington filmed the experiences of 2nd Platoon, B Company, Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment (airborne) of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team. Situated deep in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, once considered the deadliest spot in the world, soldiers and the two directors were fired upon every day. Their mission was to disrupt Taliban activity in the valley, and they did so by building Restrepo, a remote outpost named after a fallen soldier.
Rather than turning the movie into a thrill-a-minute action ride, Junger focuses on everyday life, and the psychological toll combat takes. The soldiers are competent professionals who take their jobs seriously. Some are more candid than others, but the most memorable are the captain who’s responsible for day-to-day missions, and a young soldier who admits his tour left him unable to sleep. The combat scenes are not so much suspenseful as they are chaotic. The camera never gets a good look at the enemy, and it’s never clear how/when someone might die. When the gunfire stops, there are also moments of levity. Soldiers wrestle and joke around – there’s even a point where the men dance to a poppy techno song. But for all their skill and camaraderie, there’s still frustration when dealing with angry locals. More than any news story or magazine article, Junger and Heatherington give a convincing, informative portrait of how soldiers live. Here’s a movie that’ll renew your appreciation for those who serve.
Restrepo screens at 5pm on Friday and 9pm on Sunday. My interview with Sebastian Junger will run on July 9, when the movie opens at E Street.
At Silverdocs, many political documentaries have a consistent political philosophy. They’re uniformly against the status quo, and are deeply skeptical of government and corporations. Sometimes these documentaries are moving because of the human story, as well as the director’s ability to channel frustration (e.g. Presumed Guilty). Other times the documentaries are ordinary in their perspective/criticism, and offer little insight into the subject. Such is the case of Barbershop Punk, which uses the story of a mild-mannered engineer to examine issues of net neutrality. Directors Georgia C. Archer and Kristin Armfield amassed an impressive array of talking heads (Ian Mackaye, Henry Rollins, OK Go’s Damian Kulash), but their commentary amounts to little more than boilerplate anti-corporate rhetoric. Robb Topolski, the engineer in question, is a likable guy with an interesting story, but Archer and Armfield only give him a cursory glance. Instead, they attack a number of hot-button issues, ranging from capitalist greed to freedom of speech. The approach is scattershot, and it seems the directors would rather pick a fight than describe net neutrality in depth. There is little new ground, and earnestness alone cannot save Barbershop Punk from feeling ordinary.
Barbershop Punk is playing on Friday at 8:30pm. With better documentaries featuring musicians and lawyers, I recommend you skip this one.
Between happy hours and random conversations with staff/filmmakers, I saw two wildly different documentaries. This is the point in Silverdocs where exhaustion sets in (the heat isn’t helping), so I hope to power through until the weekend.
Presumed Guiltyis a legal thriller with scenes that recall the most harrowing parts of Midnight Express. Director Roberto Hernández’s scathing indictment of Mexico’s justice system is infuriating and cruel. Though crime statistics offer a broader glimpse of what’s wrong, the movie follows the developments of a single case. Until his legal nightmare began, Toño was a mild-mannered worker with a love of break-dancing. Then he’s nabbed by the police, and convicted of first degree murder before he has a chance to face his accuser or get told what charges are brought against him. Two dogged academics and a selfless lawyer eventually get Toño a retrial, with one a crucial difference: cameras can film the whole thing.
The courtroom scenes must be seen to be believed. Toño stands behind bars while the lawyers bicker and the judge halfheartedly officiates. Lawyers can ask whatever they want, but witnesses only respond to questions the judge allows on record. These absurd constraints pale in comparison to the burden of proof; like thousands of similarly incarcerated Mexicans, Toño is thought guilty until he proves his innocence. When cops and witnesses testify they cannot remember Toño’s arrest, their ignorance does not work in the defendant’s favor, for the working assumption is that he is a murderer. The oddest part of the trial is the facedown – through psychological mind games and intimidating body language, Toño must manipulate his accuser into admitting he’s lying. Of all the documentaries I’ve seen at the festival, Presumed Guilty stirred the most emotion. It’s harrowing stuff, and if anything else, serves as a reminder why I must never be arrested in Mexico.
We Don’t Care About Music Anywaycombines Tokyo’s urban decay with bizarre performance footage to create a curiously affecting documentary. The performances are the best part – while the noise rock can be too much, the musicians are always innovative and sometimes touching. Highlights include the cellist who plays his instrument with a belt sander, or the long-haired man who uses his head as a drum after he attaches a contact mic to his nose. The musicians deconstruct traditional notions of songwriting and instrumentation, with a penchant for the biological. One woman uses amps and a stethoscope to turn her heartbeat into percussive light show. Does any of this sound interesting to you? Great, you’ll probably enjoy yourself. Otherwise you’ll see little point to the performance footage, and will probably walk out of the theater. The musicians discuss their craft in black and white sequences, clarifying their purpose. Their analysis is sometimes interesting but ultimately moot, as the juxtaposition of clattering music and clattering construction hints at the director’s deeper purpose. Come to think of it, I wonder how the documentary could have worked as an auditory experiment, with no interviews whatsoever.
We Don’t Care About Music Anyway screens again at 11:15pm this Friday.
So did you see any docs you’d like to discuss? Mention them in the comments!
Silverdocs opened to a packed crowd Monday night. Eager fans waited on standby while industry types and aspiring filmmakers networked in the AFI Silver’s lobby. Everyone was abuzz about Freakonomics, the new documentary based on the bestselling book by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. After brief introductory remarks by representatives of AFI and the Discovery Channel, Levitt and Dubner appeared on screen, expressing regret they could not attend. They’re in South Africa trying to see if they can apply their theory on cheating to the World Cup. I have my doubts (compared to sumo, cheating requires more systemic complicity), but then again, I’m not nearly smart enough to conjure analysis like Levitt’s.
I’m an economist in my day job, and coupled with a policy background, it follows a movie like Freakonomics unearths the best/worst of my inner nerdery. When filmmakers discussed an experiment, I immediately thought, “What about the control group? This is bullshit,” only to have my concerns assuaged moments later. The most surprising thing about Freakonomics is its consistently high quality. Five different directors tackled four different chapters of the book, and producer Chad Troutwine’s masterstroke was to let the directors choose which chapter to cover. This enabled the directors to cater Levitt’s ideas to their styles, so the movie engages differently despite a common source.
Take Morgan Spurlock, for example. I’ve expressed my doubts about him before, but his segment “A Roshanda by Any Other Name” fits his approach perfectly. Spurlock has never been one for in-depth analysis. He’s more interested in anecdotal, slice-of-life evidence, so his look at first names is amusing and curiosity-piquing. Alex Gibney, on the other hand, has always taken a hard look at institution corruption, so he takes the notion of cheating in sumo and applies it to Japan’s crime policy as well as the American financial sector.
Eugene Jarecki is best known for Why We Fight, a documentary on the military-industrial complex, so it makes sense his segment “It’s Not Always a Wonderful Life” looks at a larger narrative of American crime. The notion that Roe vs. Wade brought down the crime rate is certainly controversial, so Jarecki makes the wise choice of distancing himself from Levitt’s work (the narrator begins often with “Levitt argues…”). Jesus Camp directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady made the crowd favorite “Can a Ninth Grader Be Bribed to Succeed.” Grady and Ewing have an easy rapport with children, and their interviews with bribed students in Chicago suburbs are a highlight. This is even true when they talk with Kevin, who is the kind of idiot kid who prefers tattooing himself over homework.
The eager crowd enjoyed the movie, and many stuck around the theater for a Q&A with Gibney, Ewing, and Grady. Others headed to the lobby for more schmoozing and complimentary champagne. I had my fill and headed home, but the friendly atmosphere is my favorite thing about Silverdocs. In a short time, I chatted with PR assistants, directors, professors, theater owners, students, yoga instructors, and a member of The McLaughlin Group. As my visits to Silver Spring continue, I look forward to pleasant conversation in addition to fascinating nonfiction film.
Be sure to check out my updates as Silverdocs is in full force!
Posted: June 18th, 2010 | Filed under:Movies | Comments Off
Fifteen years(!) after Toy Story, the Pixar team reunites audiences with Woody and the gang in Toy Story 3. These lovable characters have been around so long, it’s hard to imagine a world without them, especially given the proliferation of computer animation. A long timeframe between sequels engenders nostalgia, so it’s no surprise TS3 is the most sentimental of the movies. You may even shed a tear as Andy figures out how to say goodbye. The message/ideas are nothing new, but with ample humor and action, fans of any age will be satisfied.
The toys are in a panic because Andy (John Morris) is about to head to college. Andy plans to take his buddy Woody (Tom Hanks) with him, but Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) and others have a more grim future – they are moving into Andy’s attic. Unfortunate circumstances almost lead the toys to the dump, and soon they find themselves in daycare, a word spoken with markedly ominous tones. The daycare is led by Lotso (Ned Beatty), a cuddly purple bear who shifts from benevolent dictator to cruel authoritarian. With the help of new friends like Ken (Michael Keaton) and Barbie (Jodi Benson), Woody and the others must escape daycare and make their way back to Andy’s house. The clock is ticking, and after Lotso deprograms Buzz, their plan takes a turn for the worse.
It’s a little surprising Toy Story 3 functions best as an escape thriller. Unlike Micmacs which showed high-concept crime without context, a crusty old insider (Teddy Newton as an old telephone toy) offers Woody and the audience a lay of the land. Stakes are understood, so when our heroes are in peril (which is often), there is an added layer of suspense. The lowpoint of the escape is pretty bleak, and the animators expertly articulate complex feelings through silence and meaningful faces. That is not to say, however, the voice actors don’t live up to their end of the bargain. Devotees of the first two Toy Story movies know Hanks, Allen, and the others have their routine down pat. As a kvetching dinosaur, Wallace Shawn remains a personal favorite. Of the new additions, Michael Keaton is a standout as Ken – he’s always been a superb comedic actor, and ably adds depth to what would otherwise be a plastic mimbo.
Growing up, I was never the kind of kid who anthropomorphized his toys. Sure, I had Transformers and other action figures, but I always used them as projectiles for my hapless little brother (a balled-up Optimus Prime is a cruel weapon). I mention this because my interaction with toys might inform why I was relatively unmoved by the gushy final minutes. Scenes such as Andy’s final goodbye stretch credibility and last a little more than they should. This is a minor quibble – I can understand why the director/co-writer Lee Unkrich is reluctant to leave his characters, and like-minded fans may bawl when Andy leaves. But if you’re temporarily stoic like me, at the very least you’ll be grateful for one last visit with old friends.
Note: As with Alice in Wonderland, there is little gained by adding a third dimension. I recommend you save some extra bucks and see Toy Story 3 in 2D.
Posted: June 11th, 2010 | Filed under:Movies | Comments Off
Micmacsis a shallow-but-sweet feast for the eyes, the sort that’s forgiven by those who cherish superb production values and cutesy morbidity. Elements like plot and character are second-tier, so others may find the visual chicanery tedious by itself. I fell somewhere in the middle – some sequences are clever and satisfy in a cartoonish way, yet I found myself craving more. Ultimately, such gripes are minor for longtime fans of director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, as they’ll have plenty to remember.
Bad luck seems to follow Bazil (Dany Boon). A landmine took the life of Bazil’s father, and after a shooting leaves a bullet lodged in his brain, things get worse. Bazils loses his home and job, and resorts life on the street. Soon a mysterious stranger (Jean-Pierre Marielle) takes Bazil under his wing, and introduces him to a co-op of steampunk scavengers. Among them are a plucky contortionist (Julie Ferrier) and a fast-talking wordsmith (Omar Sy). Together Bazil and his new-found friends embark on elaborate pranks against the two manufacturers of the fateful landmine/bullet (their respective headquarters are coincidentally across the street from one another). The two businessmen are comically loathsome – François Marconi (Nicolas Marié) is cruel to his underlings, whereas Nicolas de Fenouillet (André Dussollier) has the off-putting habit of collecting dead celebrity body parts. Always one step ahead, revenge seems inevitable for Bazil, at least until François and Nicolas become aware of his crafty plan.
Once the battle lines are drawn, Jeunet treats viewers to a number of clever-yet-unlikely set-pieces. Highlights include the use of a hapless drug-sniffing dog, as well as a ruse that suggests lengthy airplane journey. After a while, it feels as if the Amélie director is riffing on the Ocean’s Eleven model, with complex machinery as a substitute for Vegas cool. The cons/heists of Micmacs are not as rewarding, for there is little sense of danger or the stakes involved. There’s a point where playfulness substitutes for traditional storytelling, and it’s clear the heroes are meant to inspire more laughs than sympathy. Jeunet’s camerawork, however masterful, cannot substitute for character development, even when the proceedings are fun. The actors are strangely passive. Given the companies’ impact on his family and cranium, respectively, it’s surprising Boon’s Bazil is distant from his elaborate revenge. His friends don’t fare any better – they’re defined by a unique skill, not personality traits. Only the villains are given a chance to have fun with the material, and they, too, are limited by a script that seems them as little more than caricatures.
I can’t help but feel like a wet blanket when I review a movie like this. My post on The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus comes to a similar conclusion – both reviews stem from dissatisfaction that may be unfair. Jeunet and Terry Gilliam have similar ambitions – they trust fanciful effects will transport audiences into their world. As a non-devotee, wit and imagery take me on the precipice of Micmacs’ universe, but the disengaging plot stops me from jumping in.