Thursday, September 29, 2011

New York Film Festival: Julia Loktev's The Loneliest Planet

The Loneliest Planet
A Film By Julia Loktev
United States and Germany

            The moment that changes everything for the two characters in The Loneliest Planet is so brief that you need to make sure you are keeping your eyes on the screen. I almost missed it writing something in my notes. A lot of people could easily subscribe this film as one of those subtle works that requires copious amounts of attention for a sly and only relatively satisfactory payoff.  However, Julia Loktev’s second narrative film is a unique look at communication that does require more thinking than the average film, but the reward after considering the film’s actions only deepens with time.

            Shot in the gorgeous landscapes of the Georgian mountains, Ms. Loktev never sets up exactly what type of story we will be watching. We begin by seeing the young Nica (Hani Furstenberg) jumping nude up and down on a wooden plank that crashes against our eardrums. Is she captive? No, she’s just waiting for her boyfriend Alex, played by Gael GarcĂ­a Bernal, to bring in the hot water so she can finish her shower. The two are on a backpacking adventure across Georgia. In early scenes, we see them interact with local culture through gestures and movements. These two are experienced in the world, we can tell, not just tourists trying to go the insider route.

New York Film Festival: Roman Polanski's Carnage (Opening Night Selection)

Carnage (Opening Night Selection)
A Film By Roman Polanski

Correction: This post has been updated to correct the gender of the film's co-writer, Yasmina Reza, who is a woman.

            The title Carnage seems like an appropriate title for any film by the international director Roman Polanski. Not that his films are particularly violent, though they do have their horrific moments, but the word carnage seems to apply to the psychological state of the characters when they have finished their toil through the unsettling world that Mr. Polanski likes to create. When we think of Mr. Polanski as a filmmaker (as opposed to his always on-the-horizon legal troubles), we think of Jake Gittes staring blankly at a dead woman, Rosemary embracing her son of Satan, or a writer maliciously hit by a car, his life’s work simply flying into the air.

            So Carnage, shortened from the Yasmina Reza play God of Carnage, seems like an appropriate for Mr. Polanski to take on. Ms. Reza’s play was a hit in Paris, London, and here in New York on Broadway, and like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, is a 4 person actor’s showcase more than anything else. But thematically, the play about two couples who slowly break down social order into manic chaos seems ripe for Mr. Polanski to play with visually and build into another one of his cinematic satires. Which is where the problem lies for this adaptation: the director doesn’t even begin to bite the apple. To say that Carnage is really a filmed play is an understatement to how literal of a translation this is.

The 49th New York Film Festival: A Tradition of Quality

            In 1963, Lincoln Center decided to host the first New York Film Festival. It was a bold idea at the time. There were no major film festivals in North America, which was still seen as a much more European idea of movie watching. But world cinema had just began to grab a hold of the Gotham public, and names like Godard, Truffaut, and Fellini became household names for an intellectual group craving bold ideas in an only 70 year old art form. So thus they went for it, showing films like The Exterminating Angel, Harakiri, The Servant, and Knife in the Water. The idea was simple: cinema was an art form that deserved are praise, and the New York Film Festival could be the launch pad for the greats of world cinema to make their names known in not only New York, but the entire United States.

            Cut to today, and the 49th New York Film Festival, which has stubbornly kept its format in the age of ever increasing movie knowledge and distribution. And yet, it’s the simplicity of the festival—27 Main Features with retrospectives and sidebars to accompany them—that still makes it one of the greats. Here is a festival that could have easily expanded its size, or compromised its values of what types of film are worthy of play at the festival. But no. We still have five critics who debate for months on end before they decide on a handful of films that represent the best in world cinema and speak best to our times.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Moneyball: Computing for the Fences

Directed By: Bennett Miller
Written By: Steve Zallian and Aaron Sorkin
Starring: Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Chris Pratt, Robin Wright, and Kerris Dorsey.
Director of Photography: Wally Pfister, Editor: Christopher Tellefsen, Production Designer: Jess Gonchor, Original Music: Mychael Danna
Rated: PG-13 for the naughty words sometimes said on the field.

            Moneyball seems like the type of film made just for my own personal pleasure. It’s a baseball film (check), but not a conventional sports movie (check). Instead it deals with minutiae (check) that was seen as a rational approach to a game built on emotions (check), and it’s really about nerds attempting to take over the house (check). This is a film that may scare plenty of audiences—it’s about baseball statistics, after all—but has been artfully crafted for both mainstream and art house appeal. This ain’t no field of dreams.

The film, directed by Bennett Miller, is (loosely) adapted from Michael Lewis’s non-fiction bestseller, but has instead used the statistics story as a structure to approach a more classical underdog story. It’s the story of the 2002 Oakland A’s, a paltry baseball team with a payroll of just under $40 million. In the opening scenes, we watch the 2001 A’s get trampled on by the Yankees, a team with three times the amount of payroll. We watch Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), the A’s general manager, attempting to stay away from the game. He keeps a radio on him, and can’t help but turn it on every once or so, eventually deciding to stomp it to death instead. Billy likes to win, bur what he can’t stand, is losing, and decides he’ll do anything to prevent that.

The Wire - Sentencing: Land of the Free

The Wire: Sentencing
Season One, Episode Thirteen (Season Finale)
Directed By: Tim Van Patten
Written By: David Simon and Ed Burns

Read out “The Wire” Project here. Read about the previous episode here, or click here to see the total coverage. Assume spoilers for the episode.

            At the end of season one of David Simon’s extraordinary drama The Wire, I’m reminded of our opening scene: a story about a man who kept getting dealt into a craps game, even though everyone knew he would steal the money. “This is America, man,” the witness told McNulty. Everyone has to have a stake, and at the end of the day, the same wheels keep on turning.

            “Sentencing” may not actually be as dark and depressing as I suspected after watching “Cleaning Up,” but in finding the balance between resolution and dissolution, Mr. Simon, along with his co-writer Ed Burns, have found something more profound: life goes on, and the institutions of America are built on that premise. Would be better to do nothing? To keep the status quo? McNulty asks himself that question as he watches a portion of the Barksdale crew walk behind bars for minimal sentences. We’re not sure, and neither is he.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Wire - Cleaning Up: The Big Sleep

The Wire: Cleaning Up
Season One, Episode Twelve
Directed By: Clement Virgo
Written By: George Pelecanos, from a story by David Simon and Ed Burns

Read out “The Wire” Project here. Read about the previous episode here, or click here to see the total coverage. Assume spoilers for the episode.

            David Simon’s The Wire is not really a show that comments on itself or the genre of cop shows, but there is one particularly fine meta moment in “Cleaning Up.” The pieces aren't set up, but the order is made to arrest Avon Barksdale without the needed evidence to convict him. McNulty and Daniels drive up to the club with SWAT, and we see inside that Avon and Stringer are sitting in an empty office, calmly watching the take down on security televisions. “I didn’t expect this to be so anticlimactic,” McNulty mutters to himself. 

            It’s very on the nose, but for this heartbreaking and devastating episode before the season finale, it couldn’t be more perfect notice. This isn’t a show where the heroes are going to walk away feeling good about themselves, and the bad guys will receive justice. This isn't even a show where "good" or "bad" make much sense. This is a show where everything comes at a balance, and things goes on in temperament. “Cleaning Up” is the first Wire script written by George Pelecanos, who before writing his first of many episodes, was a DC boiled fiction writer. This episode feels very indebted to film noir, especially a shot after McNulty and Daniels take Avon. McNulty stands in a doorway, covered half in shadow. He is like Dave Bannion of The Big Heat or the Phillip Marlowe of the Raymond Chandler novels, a detective who must persevere, even when the possibilities for real change are impossible.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Wire - The Hunt: Fallout

The Wire: The Hunt
Season One, Episode Eleven
Directed By: Steve Shill
Written By: Joy Lusco, from a story by Simon and Ed Burns

Read out “The Wire” Project here. Read about the previous episode here, or click here to see the total coverage. Assume spoilers for the episode.
            “The Hunt” begins with a great tracking shot that weaves its way through the chaos of the crime scene from last week’s sting operation gone wrong. It’s a visual touch like this by director Steve Shill that throws us into the mess. Instead of getting a series of organized shots and cuts, we get chaos and dislocation of space. That is, until Major Rawls shuts everyone up and tells everyone who isn’t working the case to get out. At this point, continuity is restored, and business begins.
            Reactions and responses are thus the theme of “The Hunt,” after last week’s episode balanced a number of plot lines to help set up for the season’s impending climax. “The Hunt” is also densely plotted, but there’s a little more to chew on thematically, starting with McNulty. Rawls comes upon McNulty still covered in Gregg’s blood, and it’s a great visual touch that he doesn’t wash it off until half way through the episode. While McNulty feels responsible, Rawls gives him a great speech, “It's not your fault. And the motherfucker telling you this, he fucking hates your guts… Shit went bad, she took two for the company. That's the only lesson here.”

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Wire - The Cost: Showtime

The Wire: The Cost
Season One, Episode Ten
Directed By: Brad Anderson
Written By: David Simon, from a story by Simon and Ed Burns

Read out “The Wire” Project here. Read about the previous episode here, or click here to see the total coverage. Assume spoilers for the episode.

            When shows like The Sopranos and later The Wire came along, it’s easy to forget they really attempted to do something that was seen as insane in the television world: tell stories. Now I don’t want to say that shows from beforehand didn’t attempt to do that—Buffy the Vampire Slayer had an intricate cast of characters and a complex plot, and of course Twin Peaks really changed everything and then some—but it was HBO that really pioneered the idea that television could tell stories like cinema, and not waste a minute. There’s no place for “drug dealer of the week” on The Wire, and I’d be surprised if we ever get a bottle episode.

            And in “The Cost,” we really get the ball rolling on the numerous plot developments this season. I’m not sure whether David Simon knew he was going onto four more seasons, or for that matter one, so much of this episode is set up for the final three hours. But what an intense hour it is! “The Cost” opens in perfect bliss, and ends in total ugliness and shock. Much of the tone of this thrill ride comes from director Brad Anderson, a no name in 2002 who has gone on to make some great thrillers like The Machinist and Transsiberian.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

"Cant Fight This Feeling Anymore:" Nicolas Winding Refn Talks Drive

“Every great movie has five things: violence, romance, a great cast, American mythology, and a 90 minute running time.” So says Nicolas Winding Refn, the Danish director known for his violent and meticulous films Bronson and Valhalla Rising. His latest film, Drive, is his American debut, and stars Ryan Gosling as a LA Driver who does movie stunts by day and robberies by night (read the review here). Filled with a 1980s grunge sensibility smashed with a high-art European style, Mr. Winding Refn won the award for Best Director at Cannes for his film. He spoke after a screening last night at Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Bamcinematek. Here is a sampling of the insights he brought to his creative process, as well as the greatest bromance ever told:

Mr. Winding Refn almost killed Harrison Ford:

            I was in LA working on a movie with Harrison Ford called The Dying of the Light. It was a wonderful script about a CIA agent who goes on an existentialist journey and then dies at the end. If I could do a movie where Harrison Ford dies, I could contribute to society. I had gone to Los Angeles to work with him. We would hang out, but then he was like he doesn’t want to die. But then there’s no movie, Harrison! I was so angry for buying into the illusion of Hollywood, I didn’t want to do it.

On how him and Mr. Gosling had the worst first date ever, which led to the project:

            Out of the blue, I got a call from Ryan Gosling asking if I wanted have dinner with him. I had never met him, so I was like why not?—if Harrison doesn’t want to die, maybe you want to die. The only problem was I had a very high fever because I had gotten sick on the plane. Harrison got me these anti-flu drugs that they have in this country that helped put the fever down, but the only problem is they made you as high as a kite. So I’m stoned out my mind and I got to meet Ryan.  That morning a script had arrived from Universal, written by Hossein Amini called Drive, but I didn’t read it because I was so stoned. So I went to dinner and I was the chair. I couldn’t turn, so I was sitting in profile because I couldn’t move…This man had an aura of an unbelievable proportion. He was very interested in how I make my films and had seen all of them, and was very enthusiastic. I was feeling very euphoric so halfway through I say will you please take me home. It was like a blind date gone wrong! He said sure, I’ll drop you off. So this dinner which hadn’t amounted to anything but “you’re great, I’m great, yea!” We’re sitting in the car, driving along the freeway in Santa Monica, which is a very long ride, in silence—blind date gone wrong, and no action. So we turn on the radio and its soft rock, REO Speedwagon’s “I Can’t Fight This Feeling Anymore.” So here I am with Ryan Gosling and “I Can’t Fight This Feeling Anymore” and you know when you’re high you need to turn the music really, really loud. And I’m getting into the song. I’m from the 80s, and I remember this pop ballad, so I start singing along. And I can’t sing to save my life, and Ryan Gosling is driving this car, not saying a single word. And guys we’re pretty weak when we’re ill. So I’m missing my family and my kids and Harrison Ford won’t die, so I start to cry. Tears are rolling down my cheek and it’s flowing out of me and Ryan is just sitting in the car driving. I’m a Finnish filmmaker so I make films based on what I like to see and ideas come to me in the strangest of places, but right there I had an idea to do a movie. I turn to Ryan for the first time and he’s a very good looking man, and I scream at him, since the music is so loud, “I got it man! We’re gonna make a movie about a man who drives around at night, in a car, listening to pop music, cause that’s his emotional relief!” Ryan turns to me and looks at me and says, “Cool…I’m in.”

Drive: Le Getaway

Directed By: Nicolas Winding Refn
Written By: Hossein Amini, based on the novel by James Sallis
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Albert Brooks, Oscar Issacs, Christina Hendricks, and Ron Perlman.
Director of Photography: Newton Thomas Sigel, Editor: Matthew Newman, Production Designer: Beth Mickle, Original Music: Cliff Martinez
Rated: R for the type of violence you only see in the movies.

Read an interview with director Nicolas Winding Refn

            In what is probably the most self-conscious moment in Drive, Albert Brooks, playing a Jewish gangster, tells Ryan Gosling, “I was a movie producer in the 80s. Action films, sexy stuff—one critic called them European.” And while Drive is soaked in the visual style of American neo-noir, the world of Miami Vice and To Live and Die in L.A., its sensibilities and emotions feel ripped out of a 1960s Antonioni picture. Here’s a film about a man who must do what he does because it is all that he knows. It’s the type of self-conscious minimalist work that has lofty ambitions on recreating our knowledge of what it means to be an “action film.” But in reaching those lofty goals, Drive has the look of a sleek muscle car that is a beauty to look at, but hollow inside.

            The film is the first American film from director Nicolas Winding Refn, a Danish “auteur” with a knack for making self-conscious deconstructions. Best known for a Kubrikian exploration of violence called Bronson (which launched the career of Tom Hardy), a better vantage point for Drive would be his previous film Valhalla Rising, an ode to Tarkovsky that was a dumb-as-a-doorknob allegory that visually dazzled but offered little insight to its story of a one-eyed Viking. Mr. Winding Refn is a pure genre expert—he understands the little details that make us giggle with delight, like hearing the sounds of the leather gloves gripping the steering wheels. But he’s also too obsessed with his own allegories that Drive seems to offer little but a simple reconstruction. It’s the best action movie you’ll see this year, but it’s ultimate meaning is inauthentic.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Contagion: An Infection of the Mind

Directed By: Steven Soderbergh
Written By: Scott Z. Burns
Starring: Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, John Hawkes, Jennifer Ehle, Demitri Martin, Bryan Cranston, and Elliot Gould.
Director of Photography: Peter Andrews, Editor: Stephen Mirrione, Production Designer: Howard Cummings, Original Score: Cliff Martinez
Rated: PG-13 for seeing famous people horrifically die.

            There’s a number of minor plot strands throughout Contagion, a big budget star-packed virus thriller from master filmmaker Steven Soderbergh, but the one that opens the film is the most curious. We begin with Gwyneth Paltrow, looking a bit under the weather as she sits in an airport bar. She answers the phone and talks to a lover that is not her husband after they’ve quickly met during a layover. The talk has no discussion of “what if your husband finds out?” or any of that, and while her husband will learn, Ms. Paltrow will be dead, and nothing will come of it. But it's the discussion that Mr. Soderbergh wants us to listen to—it’s rational, good fun, the tone suggests. Nothing serious, maybe a little emotional, but mostly rational. Too rational almost.

           Contagion may be a genre picture, but the aims of Mr. Soderbergh and writer Scott Z. Burns are both the political and the philosophical. This is a film about the battle between rationality and emotions, between doing what’s necessary and doing what’s right. The virus outbreak genre pretty much began and ended with 1995’s Outbreak and there’s not much to say in terms of the dangers organisms can cause in humans—after all, it’s not exactly very cinematic to watch people cough and die. But paranoia, as one character says “more dangerous than any virus,” is a ripe subject, especially as we near the anniversary of September 11th, as the age of conspiracies and technology has completely changed our way of processing information. Mr. Soderbergh and Mr. Burns create a fascinating and horrifying portrayal of how our emotions can destroy our bodies.

Friday, September 09, 2011

The Wire - Game Day: Choice Moves

The Wire: Game Day
Season One, Episode Nine
Directed By: Miclo Mancevski
Written By: David Melnick and Shamit Choksey, from a story by David Simon and Ed Burns

Read out “The Wire” Project here. Read about the previous episode here, or click here to see the total coverage. Assume spoilers for the episode.

            Back in the days of classic Hollywood, every studio has something called “house style.” When you went to a film by MGM, you expected a big lavish production with soft lighting and grandiose sets. Warner Bros. took the opposite route—many of their films were gritty and realistic, and preferred to bring B-movie sensibilities to A-movie material. Whatever it studio it was, it wasn’t about the director, at least to audiences then. Sure, many broke out and became legends—Welles, Capra, Ford—and many others have been reconsidered since the birth of auteur theory. But for the most part, house style dictated everything.

            I bring this up because tonight’s episode is directed by Miclo Mancevski, a well-known Macedonian filmmaker who has received international acclaim for some of his works, including the Oscar nominated Before the Rain in 1996. However, you wouldn’t know that Mr. Mancevski directed this episode, nor would you really be able to tell tonight’s episode is written by David Melnick and Shamit Choksey. The same way you really can’t tell the difference between episodes of 30 Rock or Dexter (Breaking Bad and Mad Men are the exceptions, but that’s for another time). The Wire is all about David Simon’s vision, and while I’ve done my best to point out directorial touches when they’ve arrived, we really have no idea who is calling the shots behind the camera or in the editing room. Maybe we should give the talent to Uta Briesewitz, who hhas been the director of photography on every episode so far, responsible for the uneasing bright sunny days of the low rises, and the blue toned nights on the streets. If anything, Ms. Briesewitz has been responsible for the visual look that has defined this series, and many might call her the auteur. I’ll still keep my eye out for directorial talent, especially the six episodes directed by Do the Right Thing DP Ernest Dickerson when he takes over in season two.

Monday, September 05, 2011

The Wire - Lessons: The Ties That Bind

The Wire: Lessons
Season One, Episode Eight
Directed By: Gloria Muzio
Written By: David Simon, from a story by Simon and Ed Burns

Read out “The Wire” Project here. Read about the previous episode here, or click here to see the total coverage. Assume spoilers for the episode.

As the title suggests, many people are learning lessons or giving lessons in this eight episode of the first season of The Wire. But why those lessons can be given or taken is often more interesting, and the real heart of this episode is about bonds, both familial and fraternal, and how those shape our ideas of the world. The opening functions as both a comic piece and a frightening warning for McNulty. While at a market wit his kids, he sees Stringer Bell, and has his kids follow him. The boys are masterwork detectives already, getting the license plate number of Bell’s car. But McNulty loses his boys in the process, and I’m sure this is not the last time he will realize he has put his children in danger.

But family can also be metaphorical. Despite the setback on the phones, the crew is able to pick up the trail and arrest a driver coming out of the towers with $20,000 in drug money. Excited about their arrest, Greggs and McNulty celebrate, until Daniels realizes the driver also works for an influential state senator. The upper echelons tell Daniels they are finished, but then Judge Phalen, citing his superiority as a judge, keeps it going. He mockingly tells McNulty, “Who’s your daddy now?”