Archive for March, 2010

4th Ave III

Posted in Photography on March 31, 2010 by baker

March 31, 2010.

Film: Jacques Audiard: A Prophet (2009)

Posted in Film Reviews with tags , , on March 28, 2010 by baker

The epic gangster film is by no means a new genre; recent entries like City of God (2002) and Gomorra (2008) infused it with a sort of pop hipness that was never anything less than keeping with the wannabe grandeur of the punk kids stretching their limits. These films flaunt their handheld bravura in a vibrant avalanche of violence and disorder, and probably owe more, stylistically, to a Spike Lee joint, an Amélie (2001), or a La haine (1995) than to the two films Coppola made that defined the modern form. The word that comes to mind is pastiche: an international, multilingual plot confection of rigorously woven story threads, a hip hop soundtrack, and endless references to the likes of Tony Montana. A Prophet falls neatly into the category, and this isn’t exactly a criticism. These are pretty good films, valuing a sort of gangland palace intrigue over complex thematic development, but so what? If Audiard’s film owes a certain stylistic debt to “The Wire” or Steve McQueen’s Hunger (2008), there are certainly far worse points of departure for a film so determined to push its characters to their respective fates.

The danger in these films is that their overt style might obliterate any depth they may be reaching for; a French film featuring Corsican and Arabic, and the occasional de rigeur American hip hop track, raises hairy red flags of pomp over meaning. And the “We Are the World” overtones of Babel or Slumdog Millionaireladen with blaring ethnic scores, a pop star or two (or one in the apparent making), and a buffed sheen for its own sake – are disingenuous at best, and offensively naive at worst, signifying essentially the same righteous, simplistic perspective that got us into, but frustratingly not out of, Helmand province or Sadr City. But Gomorra, and now A Prophet, show gratifyingly different interests. Audiard may be too in love with the pastiche, but he’s absolutely set on the Wagnerian scope and tenor of his film, and once you’re settled into it, it is mesmerizing.

It took me a while to find my rhythm in the film, and while I dig Audiard’s meticulously circuitous route, I think he shoots himself in the foot a bit by not providing his lead – a young French-Arab thrown in prison for unspecified crimes – with a back story. Normally I think back stories are vastly overrated, but in this case, we’re meant to accept Malik as a kid with no sense of who he is when he arrives, but this feels wrong to me in some abstract way, more a plot device than a character trait (particularly in a film that continues to build, inexorably, on character traits). Malik barely registers onscreen in the opening scenes, showing up beaten and cowed. It’s only when he’s offered hash in exchange for a blowjob in the shower that he shows his first sign of a personality, in a predictable expression of mortified outrage. I don’t argue that a teenager’s imprisonment doesn’t muffle him across the board, at least for a while, but nowhere in the film’s 2 1/2 hours do we get a sense of who Malik was before, or how that shapes who he becomes while inside.

Maybe that’s Audiard’s point. Malik’s basically a cypher in the first hour, a weakling conscribed to murder for the Corsican inmate mob that runs the show. The victim is the man who offered the hash, a fellow Arab with bleached blond hair who attracts the attention of the gang and its draconian ringleader, César, before he even gets in the gate. His offense, like everyone’s, remains obscured; Audiard isn’t interested in the past – it just got us here, that’s all. César presents his cypher with a blunt and extraordinarily clear offer: kill the Arab, and we won’t kill you. Thus Malik begins to train, hiding a razor in his cheek and miming fellatio on a Corsican stand-in. Malik’s moral objections don’t stand long in his way – although we’re lead to understand he hardly got his six years for murder – and the killing, messy and awkward, is numbingly visceral. It’s clear that to Audiard we are little more, in the end, than heavy sacks of blood and tissue. César seems to agree, and quickly makes Malik his pet Arab errand boy.

What follows is a meticulous delineation of Malik’s time in prison, his influences and his gradual crawl up the Corsican food chain toward César’s throne at the top, in an endless series of stunningly fluid sequences. A Prophet should feel much, much longer than it is; it never takes a moment to circle back on itself, to build on an idea longer than it takes to move on to the next one. Audiard has a jokester’s sense of timing, stacking the deck firmly against his cypher to see how long it takes him to make a man out of himself (in French prison terms, of course), and he punctuates his setpieces – the Arab’s murder, Malik’s day pass trips outside the prison on brutally exposed odd jobs for César, the various power shake-ups within the prison walls – with a hammy bravado. For every haunting shot of Malik’s Arab kill spinning in Sufi ecstasy, his throat slit and bloodless, there’s a throwaway joke between them; Audiard lacks a certain conviction to take his own audacity seriously.

Look, I like A Prophet very much. It’s tight, and achieves what it sets out to do. Audiard’s writing and direction are sort of wonderful, and he’s cast the film with magnificently present actors, men with articulate stares who can turn on a dime into bestial scrappers. If I shuffle at the sentencing, it’s because Gomorra had a self-conscious quality, aware of how big it was going to get and letting a perverse sense of catastrophic dread creep into the works – as do The Godfathers, and Scarface, and Goodfellas. For all his flourishes, nothing about director Matteo Garrone’s camerawork or editing feels superfluous – their swoop and punch lend exactly the right vertiginous shock across the film’s highs and lows. Audiard behaves a little like a kid with a ton of great ideas who can’t wait to drop them all into his first feature (this is his sixth): the perfect track, the fantastically sobering executions, the visual playfulness. He handles them all with deft precision, but for all the pretenses of religious overtones (the title comes up in a scene that feels tacked on, excessive), he doesn’t seem quite aware of the dimensions his gangster saga might have enjoyed if it had looked inward at itself. I don’t know, I suppose it takes a certain unseemly grandiloquence to present a lot of great storytelling without letting the hokey self-awareness take over; it’s a quality that makes Amélie feel both vibrant and strangely unmoored, adrift in its own abandon. These films can be extraordinary fun, but they feel to me like the friend you can’t quite get a handle on: the one who tells great stories, makes you laugh and stare with dropped jaw in equal measure, but never says anything you think about later.

4th Avenue, Part II

Posted in Photography on March 28, 2010 by baker

a bit further down the road. March 27, 2010.

4th Avenue

Posted in Photography on March 27, 2010 by baker

4th and Degraw. March 27, 2010.

Film: Criticism on criticism: Film

Posted in Film Reviews with tags on March 24, 2010 by baker

I find this whole film criticism business appealing to my sense of analytical reflection, not only on my own feelings about a film, but on a certain filmmaker’s expressed thoughts and opinions.  Which is what a film is, regardless of the impersonal sheen any number of contemporary films might employ (“It’s not my fault you see indifference to historical dilemma in District 9!” chimes Neill Blomkamp, in my head).  Michael Bay says as much about his willful bitchhood to the Hollywood System in Transformers 2 as Ross McElwee says about himself in Sherman’s March: Bay is as content to be a salesman as is McElwee to self-analyze.  That’s all there is to it.  Why do we even bother to critique, then?

Well, I probably wouldn’t bother writing on Transformers 2 on its own (I haven’t seen it, but I will admit I found Transformers an amusing, well-proportioned Hershey bar).  For every soulless action movie he makes, Bay gives critics a progressively firmer paradigm by which to judge a very particular brand of filmmaking, one predicated on noise and market research.  He’s far more interesting as a figure in the system than as a voice, easily evoked as representative of the least personable kind of cinema.  McElwee – this is probably the very first time he’s ever been mentioned in the same paragraph as Bay – demands attention; nothing about Bright Leaves (2003) lends itself to your needs or expectations.  What he wants you to think about he gives you, and backs it up with precise narrative circuitry of his own design.  These guys aren’t really diametrically opposed in terms of craftsmanship – Bay isn’t an incompetent filmmaker; I think he executes exactly the films he wants to make – and I think you understand roughly as much about each of them from their respective films, about their attitude toward communication and introspection, their regard for art as an act of principled self-expression, and their perceptions of the force of the tools of their trade.  Let us assume McElwee lands on the more diligent end of the spectrum.

So what does a critic get out of this?  To read a good critic – a Pauline Kael, a David Edelstein – it’s clear that it’s a mixture of receptivity and taste, an open-mindedness tempered by, let’s say, objective subjectivity (they both know when they’re being assholes; they can admit when they might be wrong, even as they plow ahead with a ruthless attack).  The point is not to be right or wrong, but to dive into a film’s river and mull over the pace and eddies of its current.  Too cold here?  Only because it was so warm there, and slower than it ought to be now…I’m feeling rushed, or rolled over on my stomach, and I have to say, this is a bad call, it’s too shallow, you’re scraping my knees on the rocks…you could be sending me through the rapids down there with perfect clarity if only you prepared me for it now… It’s true, these critics speak with forceful voices of unerring authority, as though lording over cinematic creation with a view of its entirety.  It can send a reader running, with its distasteful scent of godlike disdain…but one second, reader, hang back a bit.  A good critic will circle back on himself, at least indirectly; however right he may feel he is, if he’s on his game, he’ll tell you why.  Implicit in his criticism is his personal sense of why film matters – not whether he likes Slumdog Millionaire, but how he values it as representative of its maker’s intentions.  And then – oh yes – he tells you how he feels about that.  On the understanding that you’re welcome to do the same.

A bad critic ignores a film’s intentions, or shrouds his criticism in his own idea of what a film should be.  Thin line?  I guess so.  It’s about grappling rather than bouncing.  In addition to an apparent compulsion to disagree with the consensus, Armond White filters all his criticism through his own preoccupations – not with film, but with pop culture and politics. His is true disdain, his professed affection for pop culture at polar odds with his verbal obscurity.  Rather than addressing a film directly for its explicit content, he buries it in sweeping, academic, obfuscating judgment – his recent review of Shutter Island proclaimed that “The time has come to ask Scorsese to move on” and stop directing films entirely.  Moreover, you are not free to disagree with his assessment; creeping through his syntax are aggressive insults and flip derision – directed frequently not toward the film or its content, but toward the consumer who may like it.

All of which makes him nothing more than an educated bully, and this snide playground drama with which he’s fully engaging with J. Hoberman and the Greenberg crowd – taking great pains to point out the “racist lynching by white critics of a black critic” – is as silly as suggesting that bad critics have no right to critique.  They have as much right to write as I have to charge him with recklessly diminishing the scant respect critics have to begin with.  The good ones are doing their damnedest to make heads or tails of a film and its creator – or to watch with awe or disappointment as the coin spins endlessly on edge, unwilling, in the critic’s mind, to lop one way or the other, in an ongoing effort to wrestle meaning and purpose out of another craftsman’s work.

The whole thing is remarkably strange and self-indulgent, full of piss and wind and body odor.  But what are you gonna do?  If you ask the critics to stop, you might as well ask the filmmakers to stop too.

Jim Emerson’s blog is responsible for this tirade.  Thank you, Jim.

Film: Martin Scorsese: Shutter Island (2010)

Posted in Film Reviews with tags , , , on March 15, 2010 by baker

Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio are a good fit for each other, at this point.  Their best work appears well behind them, and they both now seem stuck in a perpetual state of late-term adolescence.  Scorsese has done his heavy lifting – Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), Goodfellas (1990), Casino (1995), even Kundun (1997) and Bringing Out the Dead (1999) – and has been slumming comfortably in Hollywood bombast for the last decade.  Even at its most trivial, there’s never a feeling that his cinema craft has gotten beyond him, or that he’s lost his ability to see his way through visual dynamism with the easy hand of a consummate artist.  He hasn’t; his craftsmanship is now slick, effortless.  But that sort of filmmaking isn’t what made his best films work.  He’s always had greater effect when his stories, characters, and craft grappled grittily with tough, bony cuts of beef – he’s been trying pretty hard, but delectable fudge is just not on his menu as a master chef.  DiCaprio vanished into What’s Eating Gilbert Grape to an extent he’s never approximated since, surely as much a result of his limited star status in 1993 as his physical suitability to the teenage role.  He now looks half his age (he’s 35), and the harder he commits himself to a role, the more he comes across as a teenager exaggerating the behavior of a man.  I believe he puts his heart and brain into a film like Blood Diamond (2006), but I simply don’t accept him as a rough-souled Afrikaner diamond runner, or a world-weary suburban husband in Revolutionary Road (2008), or psychotic Howard Hughes in The Aviator (2004), or…or…  (But he could nail, at age 28, 16-year-old Frank Abagnale in Catch Me If You Can (2002).)  It’s not exactly his fault.  He’s just physically screwed.

A direct result of Scorsese’s and DiCaprio’s latter-day shortcomings, I think, Shutter Island is just silly.  It’s neither rich enough in texture nor oblique enough in narrative to bring to life its profoundly disturbing psychological core, and Laeta Kalogridis’ script is far too literal to be subconsciously frightening.  Instead, Scorsese has gone full-on camp in his tone, barreling through the opening passages with crippling impatience and a monstrously Hitchcockian score – which might have developed into pleasurably coked-out, high-strung excess if it weren’t for Scorsese’s unfailing inability to keep a certain humanity out of his filmmaking.  You bought Nick Nolte’s paranoia perhaps a little too well to take the insipid clumsiness of Cape Fear (1991), and, likewise, Scorsese’s commitment to trying very, very hard to make DiCaprio’s Teddy Daniels a complex person instead of a melodramatic construct tempers the funky dread Shutter Island might have conjured.  Instead it feels blocky and insincere, wanting to be two incongruous films at once.

For all of its inherent vapidity, The Silence of the Lambs (1991) spent its opening sequences crafting a visual aesthetic that Jonathan Demme maintained rigorously throughout, a combination of roving perspective and unflinching stares (his actors often looking directly into the lens) that rooted the film in a constant and unsettling sense of exposure, of vulnerability.  He plays his actors like a piano, Jodie Foster in low key and Anthony Hopkins in high, the contrast between the two complementing the ham out of the core drama and leaving Ted Levine with all the room imaginable to let loose with Buffalo Bill’s near-caricatured psychoses.  The film is mathematical in its restraint; Demme wants nothing more than to creep the everloving shit out of you.  He’s certainly no less of a humanist than Scorsese – Melvin and Howard (1980) is more vibrant than anything Scorsese has ever done, which is not a judgment – but he recognizes that to make a thriller, your essential instincts as a dramatist need elicit nothing at all but effect.

It’s still hard to reconcile Scorsese’s obvious admiration for DiCaprio with his revelatory work with De Niro thirty-five years ago, as the two performers couldn’t be more divergent in their physical and vocal tactics.  But Scorsese keeps pushing DiCaprio through film after film of reasonable ambition, with a certain proclivity toward lead characters of operatic defect, and in his cover-boy prettiness and inability to convey adult emotions with an adult persona, DiCaprio’s youthful earnestness should be right for it.  Complexity doesn’t make opera fly; De Niro in his heyday would have smothered a Gangs of New York under the weight of skilled physical characterization.  Yet Scorsese still wants to speak to us, and however grand he aspires to be, he knows there’s nothing subtly articulate about opera.

Shame.  He leaps into Shutter Island with classical bravado, his swooping camera wide and appreciably glossless, his score (all of it preexisting, none original to the film) pounding inexorably toward…something creepy.  I suspect he knows how hollow the script really is, and is more than happy to get us through the cliched scenes of chatty exposition toward the twist that comes along somehow early, and develops too deeply.  The situation on Shutter Island is maniacally idiotic – I wonder whether Scorsese hoped that by diving into the twist at length he might spare us the arid thriller conceit of unraveling the twist in a sudden flash of revelation, and urge us to consider its psychological underpinnings instead, but the problem with a twist is that it’s designed to undo the world we think we know in the film.  Even Scorsese would need another half a film to give the revelation blistering psychic heat. And I don’t think he’d ever get past the absolutely bizarre behavior his supporting cast has had to perform, to justify it as anything but a storyteller’s glib trickery.

And…yes.  Fine.  I am too hard on Avatar, on Slumdog Millionaire, on Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.  These movies are not shooting for cosmic insight.  They want only to entertain, to lull you away from yourself for a couple hours with the promise of a good, light buzz.  And I believe that movies need only be taken as seriously as they take themselves.  But three years ago Scorsese got himself an Oscar for directing The Departed, the least lazy of this decade’s half dozen films of his, probably his most profitable, and a remake.  I wonder if he felt the odd pang of disappointment some of us experienced that evening, to see an honest-to-good-christ cinematic visionary placed in the pantheon of American film appreciation for a herky-jerky strip of celluloid pulp.  Not a bad film, not a great one – and that’s what he’s recognized for after all these years.  He used to go for a jog with lumpy but strident films like After Hours (1985) and The Last Temptation of Christ (1988).  The only thing he’s done in the past ten years that even hints at his prodigious dexterity with the medium is the documentary No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (2005), about a man who, in his youth, made some of the most radically engaging art of his generation, and who settled into retirement age with, most recently, a cover album of Christmas songs.

Footnote: lists remakes of Kurosawa’s High and Low and Michael Haneke’s Caché (starring DiCaprio) under Scorsese’s “In Development” credits.  Nevermind the pointlessness of remaking great films; the tragedy of contemporary Scorsese outhacking Hollywood numbs the brain.

Stock and Lighting Tests

Posted in Films on March 11, 2010 by baker

February 3, 2010.  On location.

Photos calibrated for exposure using Kodak VISION3 7219 500T 16mm film stock.  Test footage came out beautifully.

Film: Roman Polanski: The Ghost Writer (2010)

Posted in Film Reviews with tags , , on March 6, 2010 by baker

The Pianist (2002) uniquely aside, Roman Polanski generally vacillates between twisted creepiness (Rosemary’s Baby, 1968) and pulpy silliness (Death and the Maiden, 1994) (or pulpy creepiness (Chinatown, 1974) and twisted silliness (The Tenant, 1976).  He’s got a strikingly clear visual sense, most of the time – his best work cuts with the organic intricacy of a brilliant previsualist – and an ability to strike a match against his performers without burning off their naturalism.  He’s a ludicrous actor himself, but like many actors – Clint Eastwood, Mel Gibson, Woody Allen – he knows how to direct others in ways that complement his own filmmaking energy; Jack Nicholson and Adrien Brody are as shockingly focused in Polanski’s films as is Richard Harris in Unforgiven (1992), or Jim Caviezel in The Passion of the Christ (2004).

There’s a fire inside him as well, speaking of vacillation, and Polanski’s films tend to be either full of thought or full of emotion, but rarely in equal measure.  And so he’s made The Ghost Writer, a well-written film in a structural sense, but a chaotic emotional jumble of painfully little consequence.  All the ideas are there, from the title on down: nobody is who they appear to be, and it’s usually less for intentionally deceptive reasons than from a sort of incidental lack of proclamation (there are exceptions).  I like this conceit.  It’s perfect for a filmmaker.  The ghost writer does a lot of work for a lot of money, polishing other people’s thoughts for which they – the other people – are ultimately responsible.  The ghost writer gets none of the credit, but also none of the fallout.  He drops in and out with complete anonymity.

Which, indeed, is how Ewan McGregor’s ghost writer operates in the modern island fortress of Pierce Brosnan’s former British prime minister.  Barely acknowledged upon his arrival, McGregor stands in the midst of Brosnan’s family and associates as a scandal erupts ferociously around them (but in the distance, overseas), neither a threat nor particularly useful, except as an occasional perfunctory PR wordsmith.  The film happens by and large in the immediate, in the constant discovery of new accusations and complications, both in the prime minister’s public and private life.  The circumstances are ripe for an exploration of the ghost writer’s soul, as one man privy to another man’s demons.  But Polanski doesn’t plumb for it, content to fill the screen with odd casting choices (Timothy Hutton and James Belushi in stock roles, Kim Cattrall weirdly cast as a British secretary) and a pervasive foul-weather gloom that smacks of vaudevillian excess rather than intelligent artistry.  Does it have to be?  Of course not.  Is it a missed opportunity for a capable director?  Definitely.

Polanski can direct above a potential haphazard script (Chinatown risks cornball hamhandedness at every turn), and I would say he’s probably giving The Ghost Writer his best shot, but he doesn’t seem to have inspired McGregor or Brosnan with much creative investment, and some of his other actors – Eli Wallach and Tom Wilkinson in particular – seem cast for lazily obvious reasons.  Pawel Edelman shot The Pianist with a graceful restraint he’s got no reason to emulate here; the film is dim and moody, but with some clever shots aside (like the last one, beautifully framed and choreographed), simply shows competent actors doing the mundane tasks Polanski and Robert Harris’ script asks them to do.  I’m of the (marginalized, I think) opinion that the mundane has a rightful, complex place in cinema, since we’re already made up of the mundane, the trivial, and the practically necessary, as functionaries in the modern world.  Escapism has its place, but we cast real shadows and reflections that we shouldn’t be afraid of examining in a smart film – one that knows how to let these little details coalesce into something much less ordinary than its parts.  The trouble is that Polanski and Harris seem to have confused movie mundane with real mundane.  A writer discovering secret letters and incriminating photographs in a plot that features the CIA and the Middle East is mundane in a Hollywood way; it’s so boring and contrived that it better be in service of not only some deeper thinking, but at this point in film history some self-conscious eye-winking.  It’s neither here.

To be fair, there is one other level at which Polanski might have intended The Ghost Writer to play, and that’s as weirdly clairvoyant autobiography.  It still wouldn’t quite work as a motion picture, but would at least take on a certain twisted, silly creepiness – the work of a director ostracized from society by his own crime, hidden away overseas and cranking out literal autobiographies couched in sweeping global scale.  That’s if he’s the prime minister.  If he’s the ghost writer, well hell, The Ghost Writer might as well be an allegory about its own making.  That both of these characters meet a similar end is just plain surreal in light of Polanski’s recent arrest – unless it’s possible to read this as Polanski’s own self-indictment.  A monumental stretch, sure, but I’m looking for more beneath this film.  It’s the only emotional current I can find.