Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thoughts From a Red Rug - Certified Copy

From AFI Fest.
Certified Copy is an evocative, sly, intelligent, and ultimately poignant dream of a film. Abbas Kiarostami’s work here reminds me of the best of Godard and Antonioni. On the surface, the story is simple enough. A woman who specializes in antiques meets an expert who’s just written a book that questions the idea that an original piece of art is superior to a copy of itself. She decides to take him around to see various works of art before he has to leave for another stop on his tour in support of the book. Along the way, their conversation evolves until it’s become something else entirely and the nature of their relationship is called into question. Are they actually a long-married couple who’s merely pretending to have just met? Or are they two people who’ve only just met that are pretending to be a long-married couple?

In the end, does it matter?

Here, strangely, I don’t think that it does. Ordinarily, things like that drive me up the wall. I grow weary when I feel that a filmmaker’s pretensions toward making some kind of artistic statement overshadow what should be his/her commitment to tonal consistency. If you’re happy with what you’ve made, that’s great, but I need a way inside in order to be able to step back and regard it as a whole.

That’s part of what makes Certified Copy so fascinating. Even though the nature of their relationship is still murky by the end of the film, it rings true. It may not make empirical sense, but it makes emotional sense. I’m reminded of Buñuel’s decision to cast two actresses as Conchita in That Obscure Object Of Desire. The similarity is striking. Both are decisions that should not work, but do so despite the odds against them.

Juliette Binoche may be the most beautiful woman in the world. I can’t think of another actor, male or female, who can light up the screen like she can with a simple smile. It’s a radiant thing. She won the Best Actress prize at Cannes for her work here, and it’s not hard to see why. Her character runs the gauntlet emotionally speaking, sometimes in a short period of time. According to IMDB, the film won’t be released in the States until March 2011, which would mean that her performance will probably be overlooked come award season. That’s terrible.

Of films released in the US in 2010, I can only think of two performances by an actress that rival hers: Carey Mulligan in Never Let Me Go and Noomi Rapace in the Millennium Trilogy. While I sincerely hope that both of these performances receive consideration, the idea that Binoche’s work is probably going to be forgotten is yet another sign that the way films are distributed in this country is all wrong. Something like Transformers (I know that this franchise is an easy target, but it remains so nonetheless) gets greenlit sight unseen and ends up in thousands of theaters around the country, while Certified Copy is pushed off into a corner. By delaying its release until early next year, it will be ineligible for most, if not all, year-end awards in the U.S. What’s more, a movie coming out in March will almost never contend for major awards the following year. Essentially, by sticking the film in that slot, it’s being condemned to fade away into insignificance when it should be given the chance to shine.

What might even be worse is the idea that, even if circumstances were drastically different, Binoche still might not receive any serious consideration. The masses in America have been convinced that they’re not going to be interested in films that aren’t easily found in local megaplexes. The idea that she won’t even be given the chance is something that makes me sad.

Certified Copy hearkens back to an older time when films were made with characters who were preoccupied with the questions of life, death, art, and the meanings thereof. 50 years ago, it was possible to make a film where the main conflict was that of ideas, not armies or souped-up robotic creatures, and have that film find its way to an audience.

When did we lose that curiosity? When did it become important only to provide thrills and chills to an audience and blind them with beautiful people? I’m not suggesting that films don’t, on some level, have some obligation to divert one’s attention, though I hesitate to use the word “entertain” as an overarching responsibility. I think that, too many times, the emphasis is on entertainment through titillation of the senses at the expense of enlightenment through stimulation of the mind. Certified Copy finds a way to entertain and enlighten. The majority of the film consists of two people talking, talking, talking, and it’s almost never less than fully engaging. It doesn’t NEED crashing cars and the like. No, it’s concerned with the nature of identity itself, and has the courage to explore the questions with intelligence and grace.

Can a stand-in ever take the place of an original? Is there such a thing as finding the right thing twice in a lifetime? At what point does a person’s love for something overshadow his/her head shouting that it’s not right to feel that way? By the end of the film, I came to a point where I’d come to a conclusion regarding which relationship of the two main characters was true and which was the illusion.

But, you know, I’m not sure. Still, I feel almost as though nit-picking instances of plot and story are to miss the point. Midway through the film, Binoche finds herself gazing into the mirror/camera as she styles her hair, chooses earrings to wear, and re-applies her lipstick. For her, it’s a hopeful gesture, as she’s hoping that it’ll be something that will be noticed by her husband/companion. The final shot of the film is of him gazing into a mirror at his reflection, but instead of making any effort to change what he sees, he regards himself tiredly, almost resignedly. He runs water, but never splashes any on his face, as most men would. I think the most beautiful moment in the film occurs at the conclusion. Throughout the film, they’ve referenced her brother-in-law’s stammer and the way that her sister loves how it makes him stretch out her name. Elle looks at her husband with a beautiful, tear-filled smile and calls him “J-j-j-james.” If Certified Copy had been released 45 years ago, there would be film classes taught about that moment.

Certified Copy is more than merely one of 2010’s best films. It’s one of the better films I’ve seen in some time. It knows something about life and has the courage to share it with us.

The heart understands what the head cannot.

4 ½ stars (out of 5)

Monday, November 15, 2010

Thoughts From a Red Rug - Blue Valentine

Blue Valentine is the rare film that serves more as window than artifice, as it seems more like watching the lives of 2 people through a window than a mere movie. Apparently, the filmmakers were influenced certain recent European films, including 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days and the films of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, one of the finest writer/director teams at work today.

Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams are Dean and Cynthia, an American middle-class married couple with one child, a daughter (played nicely by Faith Wladyka). Director/co-writer Derek Cianfrance uses a dual timeline to tell the story of the relationship between two people who would probably have never met had not circumstances aligned perfectly, much less gotten married. The film cuts back and forth between the “present” timeline, when their marriage is disintegrating, and the past, when their relationship is beginning and blossoming. Thus, at the end of the film, we’ve reached what might be considered both the conclusion and beginning of their love story.

Blue Valentine’s European sensibilities are readily apparent. Where American films tend to try and balance things/characters to a fault, this film feels like one that’s been lived in rather than created. The balancing act usually means one of two things.

  1. Characters are clearly good or clearly bad, and if this isn’t initially apparent, then it’ll be pretty clear how we’re supposed to feel about them by the end of the film.
  2. When things are a bit more ambiguous, then each character will have strengths and weaknesses that even out pretty well, a la “you are right from your side and I am right from mine.”

That’s one thing that makes Blue Valentine effective. The 2 main characters are messy, messy people with messy, messy lives. As their relationship breaks down, it’s almost impossible for them to have a rational conversation. When Dean wants to talk honestly, Cynthia thinks he’s being unreasonable, and when Cynthia wants to speak her mind, Dean thinks she’s attacking him. I’ve known people like that. No matter how much they may want to work things out, there’s such an incredible divide in their terminology and in the way that they approach certain things that they will probably never be able to really talk. I found myself feeling so sorry for Dean as the story progressed. Cynthia’s incredibly frustrated with him, but, really, he’s a giant puppy dog. All he wants is to be with his wife and daughter. They’re are all he has, and, what’s more, they’re all he wants.

The writing is fantastic. I know that it’s somewhat silly to gauge everything by the Academy Awards, given the somewhat dubious logic behind their selections, but I sincerely hope that this receives a nomination for Best Original Screenplay. The dialogue is wonderfully authentic, with Williams and Gosling bringing it to effortless life. I love the way that natural speech rhythms are present in their conversations. They’ve got all of the little stutter-stops and false starts that are present in the way that people talk. There’s a great scene where Dean finds a way to compliment and insult Cynthia at the same time by talking about her looks. Essentially, he’s telling her that pretty girls have it easy, because people pay closer attention to them than they might actually deserve by laughing at their jokes, which may or may not actually be funny. He then asks her to tell him a joke, and she tells an obscenely funny one about a pedophile. One of the highlights of the scene is the way that Cynthia starts telling the joke, messes up, and adjusts her delivery automatically to fix her mistake. When I (try to) tell jokes, that happens every time. Additionally, there’s a wonderfully naturalistic scene where Dean plays a little song for a dancing Cynthia out on one of their first dates. It’s just terrific. Also, don’t miss the end credit sequence. It’s is one of the loveliest I’ve ever seen. If you don’t stick around, you’re really missing out.

Chances are the only reason that you might have heard of Blue Valentine was because it received an NC-17 from the MPAA. That’s a sad thing. All too often in this country, so-called “obscure” films only get recognition due to controversy, be it related to the personal lives of the actors or the content of the film itself.

Personally, I’m slightly torn on the whole thing. I understand the MPAA’s place in society, but I question the amount of authority they’re given over a film’s exposure to an audience. If the NC-17 stands, a film that will have an already limited theatrical run shrinks even smaller, because many theaters refuse to play films rated higher than an R and funds for advertising dry up almost immediately.

Is there a significant amount of sexual content in the film? Yes, certainly. Is it pornographic? Not even close.

The emphasis remains squarely on the emotional lives of the characters and their responses to what’s happening. It’s about so much more than sex. Furthermore, it’s not as though sex is some kind of revolutionary subject (though you’d certainly think so, given this country’s public persona). Blue Valentine is documenting the way that a lot of people live and act, from the way that they speak, fight, relate, understand, misunderstand, and, yes, have sex. It’s unfair for the MPAA to suggest that the attempt to be honest about the way that people deal with relationships is a negative thing. It’s yet another example that the U.S. needs a workable adult rating. Personally, I’d go for breaking up the R rating into 2-3 subdivisions to denote the level of “objectionable” material a film contains. Under the current system, Lost In Translation and The Passion of the Christ have the exact same rating. Please.

I sincerely hope that Blue Valentine survives the MPAA appeal process unchanged and finds its way to the audience it deserves. It's one of the brightest lights in a year that's been largely unremarkable, and, even more than that, Blue Valentine is one of the better films to tackle human relationships in recent memory. One of 2010's best films.

4 1/2 stars (out of 5)

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Thoughts From a Red Rug - Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

Anyone who’s read this blog in May knows of the uber-love I feel for the Cannes Film Festival. That’s the festival that excites me most as a cinephile, because, more than any other, Cannes plays the films I want to see. So, after getting my pass, I was very excited to see that SDAFF was playing Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, because, for the very first time, I would have a chance to see a Palme d’Or winner on the big screen. Thus far, I’ve been relegated to watching the big films from Cannes long after the fact on my admittedly much smaller (though still awesome!) LCD television.

Sadly, my excitement would die quickly enough once the film was underway. I could BS you with numerous platitudes and flowery descriptions, but I think that simplicity is the best way to go about this. Look, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives sucks. I find it staggering that it was seriously considered for the Palme, and even more so that it ended up the winner.

Whenever a jury is deciding awards, it’s bound to allow for interesting results. A small group of people is choosing from among a clearly defined sample of films, and, depending on the makeup of the jury, anything can happen. Certainly, it’s not surprising that any jury with Tim Burton as its president might choose a title that’s a bit further off the beaten path than most. Still, this year’s festival had a number of films that generated a lot of buzz that seemed to be major contenders for the Palme. Another Year, The Housemaid, Of Gods and Men, and Biutiful come to mind. So . . . what happened???

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is the story of a dying man who lives on a farm in the midst of the jungle. As he nears the end of his life, his sister-in-law and a few other people come to be with him. It’s a quiet, meditative film. Now, just exactly WHAT it’s meditating on is something that I can’t tell you.

Writer/director Apichatpong Weerasethakul has a clear penchant for long, unbroken takes that remind me of Antonioni more than anyone else. However, with Antonioni’s films, there was a latent sense of quiet desperation and a somewhat ambiguous sense of angst that made the pacing work to his advantage. Conversely, Weerasethakul tends to focus on things and objects for much longer than I’d argue is necessary. For example, take the first sequence of the film. A small group of people is camping(?) in a field with a water buffalo tied to a tree. The animal escapes and trots off, only to be retrieved by a man from the group. Let me tell you, I saw far more of that water buffalo than I wanted to. I found myself giving silent instructions to the director: “ok, aaaaaaand it’s time to cut now, dude.” Still, a proclivity for deliberately long takes isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

It’s in the writing that Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives falls short, and it’s really too bad, because the early going is promising. There’s a very strong scene where Boonmee and his sister-in-law are visited by the his dead wife's ghost and long-lost son, and the conversation swirls around the dead’s relationship with the living and the presence of spirits/ghosts in the world. It’s at that moment that the film peaks. Unfortunately, it’s almost all downhill from there.

Not long after, the film takes a left turn that it never recovers from. We’ve been on a farm in the present with Boonmee, and now . . . we’re in the forest about 300 years prior with an emotionally/sexually frustrated princess who ends up having sex . . . with a catfish??? And the CATFISH does most of the work? I kid you not. It doesn’t actually play nearly as disturbed as it sounds, but the sheer oddity of the shift in time/place/subject doesn’t make much sense within the narrative. Then, without any explanation, we’re back in the present and the film continues with the story of Boonmee, albeit without any explanation as to how and why things are happening as they are. By the time the film ends, I was completely lost. I still have no idea how, even in the strange, fantastical reality of the film, the final scene is possible.

Glimpses of a good film shine through in bits of Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. It’s a shame that those moments weren’t allowed to serve as the axis around which Weerasethakul could have framed the rest of the story. Then, it might have made for something truly meaningful. As it is, it’s an uneven, frustrating, and ultimately thankless experience.

1 ½ stars (out of 5)

Monday, November 8, 2010

It's coming!

I am a lucky guy. The past year, I’ve found myself working very closely with a major film festival. As a result, I’ve been able to gain access to a ton of screenings, events, parties, and other festivals that I’d have been hard pressed to get into otherwise. The past few months have been particularly lovely, in terms of both the quantity and quality of what I’ve been able to do, so I thought that it’d be a shame to let all this go past without taking the chance to tell you about it.

So, I’m going to be starting a regular column right here called “Stories from the Circuit.” Or maybe I’ll call it “Festivalations” or “Thoughts from a Red Rug.” Or something like that. I plan to use it to write about the movies I’ve had the chance to see, many of which have not yet enjoyed release, limited or otherwise. Over the next week or so, keep one eye right here, because there’s a lot coming, given my prolific schedule of late.

And I’m open to ideas about the name.