An infrequently updated dumping ground for one culture junkie's thoughts on film and whatever else

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Prescience

This isn't film-related, but today I started reading Richard Powers' 1995 novel Galatea 2.2 and found within its first ten pages a strikingly prescient passage about the internet, or as his narrator calls it, "the world web." After several paragraphs waxing on about the web's unprecedented wonders, the narrator explains why the bloom starts to come off the rose:

"But the longer I lurked, the sadder the holiday became. People who used the web turned strange. In public panels, they disguised their sexes, their ages, their names. They logged on to the electronic fray, adopting every violent persona but their own. They whizzed binary files at each other from across the planet, the same planet where impoverished villages looked upon a ball-point pen with wonder. The web began to seem a vast, silent stock exchange trading in ever more anonymous and hostile pen pals.

"The web was a neighborhood more efficiently lonely than the one it replaced. Its solitude was bigger and faster. When relentless intelligence finally completed its program, when the terminal drop box brought the last barefoot, abused child on line and everyone could at last say anything instantly to everyone else in existence, it seemed to me we'd still have nothing to say to each other and many more ways not to say it."

And that was fifteen years ago!!

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Nicole Holofcener and Kevin Smith: A Match Made in the '90s

In a funny way, Nicole Holofcener is sort of the distaff doppelganger of Kevin Smith. (Or, if you prefer, Kevin Smith is Holofcener's evil twin.) Hear me out: they both broke into the mid-90s indie scene with lo-fi Sundance hits (Smith's Clerks in '94, Holofcener's Walking and Talking in '96) that prized chatty eloquence over any kind of visual strategy, and they both rode the wave of Sundance buzz to ongoing success as mid-level indie filmmakers with healthy cult followings and critical respect. But to look at where these two oddly parallel directors are situated in 2010 is, as they say, instructive: one of them just made her best movie yet, which opened to glowing reviews, and the other one directed-for-hire an abysmal piece of buddy-cop dreck before getting thrown off an airplane for being grotesquely obese. The box office numbers of Cop Out may mean that Smith is laughing all the way to the lipo clinic, but by any measure of integrity Holofcener has emerged victorious. Good guys (and girls) win.

Film blogger Jordan Hoffman made an important point recently when he reminded us that the Kevin Smith phenomenon was entirely a case of being in the right place at the right time. Hoffman writes: "If [Smith were] just a little younger and made his first flick in the age of video and not film, none of us would have ever heard of him. He's a lucky dude." Arguably the same is true of Holofcener. If she were ten years younger and had made Walking and Talking in the VOD/DVD/Internet era of disappearing indie distributors, it seems unlikely that her film would've made much of a splash outside the festival circuit, the kind of movie that today is picked up by IFC for a Video On Demand release and a brief run in New York before heading to DVD semi-anonymity. But starting out when she did allowed Holofcener to find a comfortable niche in film culture, making small, sharply observed character studies and giving her BFF Catherine Keener one juicy role after another. The latest and greatest of these is the new Please Give, which feels more expansive, cohesive and poignant than anything else she's done—not to mention funnier.

Woody Allen's name is popping up in some reviews, which makes sense given the film's NYC location and focus on the comic possibilities of Rich People's Problems. But there is a complexity of character, empathy of spirit, and subtlety of theme here that never really existed in Woody's world. I was particularly impressed by the contrast between Keener's character, an unhappily wealthy woman who desperately wants to shoehorn some altruism into her life to keep her gnawing guilt at bay, and Rebecca Hall's character (the real heroine of the movie), who is so casually, naturally kind that she throws the other, basically likable characters into relief as the flawed, confused fuckups that they (and we) are. And the cranky grandma is awesome.

At this point, some critics would say, the only thing that Smith and Holofcener's films have in common substantively is that they use the camera more as a tool to record performances than an expressive instrument. But I'm not sure that's actually true anymore. There are some lovely shots in Please Give, like when Hall discovers her grandmother dead and the camera holds the shot long past when most directors would cut, Hall's face registering the shock and then staring blankly at the TV, bracing herself for the sad hours to come. Or the shot in the following scene, when the grandmother's dead body dissolves away, leaving an empty chair as a visual metaphor for loss. Or the penultimate shot of the film, a shallow-focus composition with Keener and husband Oliver Platt (who is so, so wonderful) in the blurry background and their newly elated daughter in the foreground, emphasizing the daughter's shift in mood and personality. So I'm pretty much not buying the line that Holofcener pays no attention to form or visuals. Meanwhile, Kevin Smith tried to break out of his own formally apathetic comfort zone by staging the usual array of chase scenes and shootouts in Cop Out, and I guess I have to give the guy points for effort, but where he tried for dynamism he achieved only headache-inducing clunkiness. The girl you brought to the party, Kev: dance with her. And no, that girl isn't Nicole Holofcener. She's at a much better party.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Tyranny of Calendars: Four movies that would've made my 2009 best-of list had I seen them in time


The fractious nature of indie/foreign film distribution in the U.S. doesn't always agree with the arbitrary corralling of movie lists into yearly groups. It's one thing to place a film under the year of its commercial release rather than of its original premiere, but what happens when, say, the commercial release only reaches New York and L.A. in 2009 and hits other cities (e.g. my Chicago) in 2010? If we believe that the practice of listmaking matters even a little bit, these films can fall through the cracks: not always seen in time for consideration in 2009, and inapplicable for lists at the end of 2010.

My 2009 year-end post was already bloated and unwieldy—a reflection of the year's cinematic richness. (I just couldn't help myself from going big.) But if I'd been able to see these four films—three of which I saw at the Gene Siskel Film Center this year, and the other I just caught up with on DVD—I'd have made room for them somewhere, knocking off other titles in either the list proper or the honorable mentions. Consider them all worthy additions to your Netflix queue.

• Andrew Bujalski's Beeswax is a great leap forward for the father of mumblecore, a dryly comic study in hipster passive-aggression that's riveting and meaningful in ways that upend all expectations about Bujalski and the DIY movement he helped create. Shot on warm 35mm film that makes it look more like the American classics of the '70s than the video-noise of today's digital youth, Beeswax transcends mumblecore by interrogating conversational tactics rather than simply having actors stumble over words for the sake of naturalism; just about every dialogue exchange in the film is fraught with doublespeak, ulterior motives or barely-concealed resentment. The dramatic stakes are still relatively low, but Bujalski finds the tension in the everyday. This is the kind of American independent film event that's genuinely galvanizing, or at least should be. Would have easily made my top ten of '09 if it had come to Chicago in time.

• Ursula Meier's Home is a strange and wonderful French film that didn't receive much critical attention upon its NY/LA micro-release late last year; it was only on my radar because Mike D'Angelo and his weird Jim Jones cult of cinephiles voted it one of the top 20 films of 2009. I appreciated Meier's fresh take on the family drama: instead of charting a dysfunctional clan's conflicts and eventual unity, Meier begins with an unusually close-knit, content family and gradually bulldozes their happiness via the reopening of the long-dormant highway across from the family's secluded house. The weirdness mounts organically so that by the time drastic measures are taken for the sake of the family's protection (I'm being vague to avoid spoilers)—measures that would feel like bullshit in a lesser film—I was entirely credulous. Tough to describe this one, honestly, so maybe just take my word that it's a beauty.

• Noah Buschel's The Missing Person is a fascinating attempt to update the tradition of the 1970s anti-detective movie (Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye, Arthur Penn's Night Moves) for post-9/11 America. Its greatest asset is the explosively brilliant character actor Michael Shannon, who won my loyalty forever with his work in William Friedkin's Bug and Jeff Nichols' Shotgun Stories and takes on more interesting roles every year. Shannon's skill at suggesting his characters' internal lives makes him perfect for the role of a lost, world-weary private detective, drifting numbly through life; it turns out his condition is rooted in personal tragedy, one that comes to the fore when the tail job he's hired for turns out to have 9/11-related resonance. The plotting is a long way from elegant, but no good detective story is ever about its plot anyway. Buschel nails the elegiac tone and the Long Goodbye-esque incongruity of putting an old-school PI in the modern world. Although the title refers to a literal missing person (again, think 9/11), it's also clearly referring to the detective, and watching the film I fondly recalled the classic tagline of Night Moves: "Maybe he would find the girl. Maybe he would find himself."

• Scott Teems' That Evening Sun, a hit at SXSW '09, is probably the least accomplished film of this quartet, if only for its incoherent third act. But for a while, at least, it's an outstanding character study and showcase for Hal Halbrook as a get-off-my-lawn oldster without, um, a lawn: he escapes from the old folks' home only to find that his longtime farm property has been rented out by his son to a family of no-goodniks. First-time director Teems loads up the film with regional flavor (it's set in Tennessee) and grants humanity and perspective to all the characters, even the ones trying to screw over poor old Hal. Movies about (and starring) octogenarians are so rare that I'm inclined to celebrate this one's virtues and overlook its flaws, which are mostly relegated to the unsatisfying ending anyway. In an added bit of sad real-life resonance, Holbrook's dead wife in the film is played in flashbacks by his recently-deceased actual wife, Dixie Carter.

Note: I'd originally planned to write this post after seeing the French animated film A Town Called Panic, which I regrettably missed in its February run at the Music Box. But I can't find any information about a future R1 DVD release, so I have no idea when I'll be able to see it. But I'm taking an "innocent until proven guilty" approach and, for now, assuming that it belongs on this list of 2009's bastard children.