16 September 2009

Video and Theory: On Mother & Child and on Men in Film

One of the films that didn't make my list for this new, beginning season of film but that may yet make my - dare I say, more significant - list for this season, once ended, (i. e., my Top Ten of 2009) is a film that has just recently started receiving notices from festivals' circuit. This film Mother & Child is a product of its writer-director Rodrigo García, who has worked (for my credit) on several episodes of HBO's (wonderful) In Treatment, and it features what is apparently a tremendous leading performance by an actress who in my opinion should already have a golden man, Ms. Annette Bening. While the veracity of this claim remains untested by me, as I have yet to actually see the film myself, the film nevertheless remains on my radar for that reason and for one other particular reason: Mr. García's subtle and quotidian story-telling. So, imagine my surprise when Mr. García admitted in a recent promotional clip and interview that he finds it terribly difficult to write in that way for characters other than women: "I find it really hard to write about men without the pursuit being big - you know, blowing up a bridge, robbing a bank - you know - conquering Russia." While he goes on to admit that such films are not impossible to be written and points to Sideways (2005) as a prime example of writing that well exemplifies the "crisis that regular men go through," he nevertheless shocked me by so fiercely limiting the representations of men or male characters in films, in such narrow and - frankly - outdated terms. Though of course we never be able to shake the myth of rough and testosterone-pumped empowerment for a man in the canon of our here favorite story-telling medium (i. e., film), it is unnecessary to even think that we need to do so in order to equally install the myth of soft and tranquil accomplishment, cerebral rather than hormonal, for a man into that same canon and into our culture. For me, Mr. García's comments speak of an extremely gender-biased personal history for the writer-director that derails a lot of the personal stock I had placed in him as a writer-director open to the possibilities of the future, rather than closed by the resistances of the past. For me, his comments speak of the same millennia-old stereotypes, those of he-man and she-woman as warrior and waitress respectively, in terms sadly reinforcing of them in today's shifting and finally evolving sociocultural climate. Today men need not be replica of the triumphant Hercules that a character like a Gladiator (2000) or even like the lead actor in Transformers (2007) is (i. e., riddled with bravura, either by personal or technical design), in order to find a respecting and admiring peers' audience in the public; men instead may be and have already been - several times over - ruminating domesticians or beautifully commonplace family-members, struggling for no more in their lives than social acceptance or emotional consolation - realms that you have explicitly reserved for women and women only: men like the characters in Little Miss Sunshine (2007), in The Visitor (2009), and most pertinently to this discussion in The Wrestler (2009) . Grand pretense does certainly not the man make, Mr. García - Randy "The Ram," who knows hardly another man who has shown as much bravura as he, has learned that truth before even his first few moments of screen-life begin - and to promote that you personally believe otherwise, so much so than you cannot fathom a way to write such a non-hyperdriven drama for a man, is to sully your own artistic ambition by placing yourself in cultural retrograde, backslide into the mentality of an earlier era of distillation, posturing, and gruff stubborn disenlightenment. Wake up, sir; it's a new time and we have come very far from where you think, we still are.

Though I of course will not let these resultant opinions of mine cloud my reception of your work later this year, when I finally do get to see it, they nevertheless will cloud my reception of you, as a person to be heard, from now on.

Fall/Winter 2009

Straight to the content, I present you my much-considered Ten Most Eagerly Anticipated Films of 2009 (ranked by scheduled date of theatrical release) - with the expected 11th cherry/wild-card on top:
  1. A Serious Man (2 October)- A beautiful offering from Joel and Ethan Coen takes the first place here, as the list does not begin until October this year. A clever-looking tale form smart writers-directors and a brilliant cinematographer (i. e., Roger Deakins), I have confidence in this one much more fibrous than the confidence I have in any other.
  2. An Education (9 October) - A film early on supported by notices from the previewings in the festivals, this piece (with the exception of perhaps the fourth film on the list) is the most personally appealing to me for all its British-tinged, higher-educative, jazzy, and youthful sensibilities coupled with motions toward the extraordinary ordinary, the passion for invention, and the incomparable Emma Thompson.
  3. The Road (16 October) - Though I have never read Cormac McCarthy, the heady appeal of The Road is undeniable for me, especially with Mr. Mortensen taking the fore. Through post-apocalypse, where the buzzy tingle of Coca-Cola has become the extraordinary instead of the norm, and moral smog, I fully intend on following.
  4. Where the Wild Things Are (16 October) - Maurice Sendak's classic work translated into a film by the dynamic Spike Jonze leaves me little else to compare - or say now. Plus, Catherine Keener and Lauren Ambrose!
  5. Antichrist (23 October) - A serious thematical departure from that of its chronological predecessor on this list, Antichrist represents the most avant-garde--style work on this list and therefore the most experimentally potent, be it volatile or vomiticious, and exciting. Endorsement by Cannes is no guarantee, but it sure does not hurt!
  6. The Fantastic Mr. Fox (13 November) - A stop-motion--animated, Roald-Dahl adaptation, driven by Wes Anderson and voiced by the likes of Mr. George Clooney and Ms. Meryl Streep - enough said.
  7. Los Abrazos Rotos (Broken Embraces; 20 November) - The only foreign language film on my list this year, Los Abrazos Rotos is the latest filmic creation by writer-director Pedro Almodóvar. Concentrating around the conflict that arises when a beautiful woman is sought after by two different men, the work looks to take that simple concept and flower it in ways that only the exacting and gentle Sr. Almodóvar can.
  8. Brothers (4 December) - A serious young drama with a skillful young cast, this film of all the films on this list is probably the film that has least been promoted thus far into the year and so, though it may be potentially swayed to address the audience of such televised fluff as One Tree Hill, this lack of address so far speaks volumes to me about the intentions and also the estimated equality of the film on behalf of those who have both created and already viewed it. I'm excited to see how it all turns out.
  9. Avatar (18 December) - The follow-up project much delayed from the director's previous work Titanic (1997), Avatar does look potentially exquisitely powerful and well worth the dilation. Though as maudlin and massive as its predecessor was, no one can question the power of the scenes in that late '90s' film. Here we may yet see improvement or simple more power of the same kind; either way, it is sure to be a seriously impressive work on this year in film (as judged in future history).
  10. A Single Man (TBA; select image above) - I am fully in raptures over the trailer for, the early buzz about, and the creative talent behind this upcoming film about a British university-level professor grappling with the death of his partner in 1960s, England. Apart from the beauty and the delicacy of the cinematography and the storyline, the acting - by Ms. Julianne Moore especially - looks just phenomenal. There is a reason why actors win Coppe Volpi at the Venice Film Festival.
  11. Precious (6 November) - I was an early advocate for this film by the sole merit of its trailer, whose structure and promise has diminished not a stone for me in appeal or strength yet. The only story on this list based directly on a true events, it looks to feature, aside from the nominal performances of its leading and supporting actresses Gabourey Sidibe and Mo'Nique respectively, a stellar transformation from Ms. Mariah Carey. Though of course this film has the most potential of all these films to disappoint, by being overly dramatic or poorly written outside of the organization of its trailer's content, it also therefore has the most potential to be a pleasant surprise and therefore, like Rachel Getting Married (2008) before it, it represents the wild cherry on top of this list naming the most exciting-looking films of this year in film 2009 here, at A Year in Film.

Poster Art: Love Happens v. Revolutionary Road

In browsing the always replete batch of trailers on sites like Apple Trailers and The Movie Box, in preparing for the seasonal Most Anticipated List that - a scant bit late, perhaps - I will post tomorrow, I came across the poster art designed to advertise the latest venture of former television star Jennifer Aniston and Aaron Eckhart: the romantic comedy entitled Love Happens. Though the film itself bears arguably little merit to be mentioned here, the poster art, a definite allusion to - if not derivation from - the poster art for another recent romantically tinged film, provoked its own post. For - surely, as anyone can see - that art bears a tremendous likeness to the art for the in-certain-circles celebrated Revolutionary Road (2008), a likeness that, one could argue, has bypassed the flattery of imitation and stridden boldly into the fray of replication. The white borders, tight wide image, typography, blithe faces, sexual blocking, shouldered embrace all scream duplication; and, given the likely lofty aspirations of the leading actress and her studio (aspirations which one suspects because of her previous Emmy-campaigns), one would not hesitate to not call such duplication accident, nor to scream back: Hey, big spender, find your own inspirations; don't be a fool, plagiarism isn't cool; and back up Ms. Aniston, you are no Kate Winslet. No?

Ever vigilant,

13 September 2009

Reviews: 500 Days of Summer, Julie & Julia, G. I. Joe, and 9

Since I have been so backed up here, at A Year in Film, in providing the blog its original content (i. e., my reviews), I've decided to combine posting the reviews for the four outstanding films that I have seen within the last two months into one concise entry and so sweep the desk clean of its pile at once. So, without further ado, here we go:

500 Days of Summer - Genre: Comedy (Romantic)

This film is a mixed bag of faults and redeeming qualities. While Joseph Gordon-Levitt knows not how to be other than pleasing, Zooey Deschanel oddly protrudes herself throughout the piece as though determined to become more than just the female lead in another romantic comedy. Such bravura, if one has caught my tone, counteracts whatever charm she may otherwise have had in the rôle and - frankly - made me more tired of her, the more she appeared. Still, the rôle she played was on paper a droll one: flirtatiously light and counterbalanced nicely by the darker, amber tones of her opposite, Mr. Gordon-Levitt's wistfully indie anti-hero--protagonist. Indeed, the film has that independent appeal for all its cast, its soundtrack, and even its left-of-center glamour but it also has something of a wish too strongly to be so: In the wake of burgeoning indie-to-mainstream-pop sensibility, roused most passionately in recent memory by the popular acclaim to the film Juno (2007), 500 Days like many other films has flocked toward that whistling demographic of young outsider-wannabes, who in the tropes of previous petites coquettes, like those who followed Cher in Clueless (1995), may shell out the major bucks to claim as distinctly their own a part of a film marketed, like they themselves, as particularly "artificially original." Yet, what is a good independent soundtrack without the insertion of the rightfully upheld songs of an '80s' artist like The Smiths anyway? O, the tennis-like effect of a film so equivocally designed. In the end, however, despite whatever uncertainties one may have about how best to diagnose its hemmings and musical scenes, one must remember that this film is a member of the genre Comedy (Romantic) and, as such, can hardly be expected to have much loftier aspirations as a film than imbuing good feelings into its viewers - and at that feat it largely as a work succeeds - no deeper investigation warranted.

For that reason, I feel compelled to give it Grade: B-, fair but unextraordinary; good for a good time.

Julie & Julia - Genre: Comedy / Biopic

Though this film isn't a member of the genre Comedy (Romantic) as its predecessor in this posting, it is certainly kin to that genre's essence, as it excels at producing that jubilant, life-is-good feeling for its spectators' easy consumption. Of course, this production is vastly helped by the talents of its leading ladies, Ms. Meryl Streep and Ms. Amy Adams, who despite never truly sharing a scene together click their two halves of the movie together in a tone quite natural to their preexisting partnerships: harmonious and fine. Ms. Streep is of course a regular wonder as the late Julia Child and gives a performance for which she, no doubt, will receive no few of accolades, come the accolade-giving end-of-year time; and Ms. Adams ventures back to her poppy Junebug (2005) roots, to deftly deepen her character beyond the two-dimensional neurotic that she no doubt had been on paper. This slight is not to say that Ms. Ephron's screenplay was in any serious way lacking; it was actually quite well put together and - even more interesting - quite well realized in cadence and progression that, while perhaps optimistic, never become sillily so. A true feel-good movie, there is not much more to say than

Grade: B, appropriately sweet fare for even the discerning palate.

G. I. Joe - Genre: Action / Fantasy

I saw this film at a drive-in where - believe me or not - it was the best-sounding option on the marquee. Quite simply a loose frenzy most analogous to filmic diarrhea, G. I. Joe tried to be filled with the nonchalant cool factor that sells so well to the male set, aged 8-18, and perhaps would have succeeded except for just about everything technical to do with it: Ghastlily poor visual effects underwhelmed an effects-hungry spectatorship and harried cinematography was enough for the film to warrant a motion-sickness disclaimer. Editing was equally sporadic and costumes and make-up, merely enough to make their dressed parties look believable. I refuse to even consider the screenplay. All in all, a heterogeneous, separated colloid of mud fat, lubed up and ready for action: more pointedly, a

Grade: D, for dull and for dippy.

9 - Genre: Animated / Drama

Of all these four films, I think, it was this one for which I had the highest hopes when entering the theatrical venue. Then I was recalling the triumph that was the original material for this feature: the short film that co-writer--director Shane Acker made some few years ago, without considering the future possibility that it could take on a larger stature and larger reception.That short film, also titled 9 (2005), more deftly told the story of the protagonist character 9 whom the action of the feature's storyline follows like a needy puppy. Though that comment is not to say that 9 as a character is himself boring, it is to say that 9 as a character isn't very complex. All the characters involved in fact are quite 2-dimensional, interested in pursuing only one goal to the exclusion of all others and interested in pursuing that goal only in the way(s) in which he himself or she herself has solely established. The conflict then, if one can call the obvious plot device for tension a true conflict, is hopelessly simple as a result; and the artificial lengths to which the writers attempted to draw it out felt more and more obviously contrived as they were progressing. While there is no denying that the actual animation of 9, the film, is beautiful, one must remember that, as a filmmaker, one must provide a compelling narrative to be portrayed by one's compelling images; pretty faces without pretty minds are pretty dumb and I'd hate to use such a word as "dumb" in conjunction with a review of your work, Mr. Acker, who I am confident has more and better things still to offer, in the fture. For now though, let us call the spade the spade and call 9 a

Grade: C, a tragic disappointment, confused by the laws that for its fictional reality it was free to create and vexed by the feature-length timeframe that it was optioned to occupy.

11 September 2009

Essay: That Hamilton Woman (1941)

Molly Haskel, a staffed writer for The Village Voice and Vogue, has beautifully written an essay on The Criterion Collection's September release That Hamilton Woman (1941) for the Criterion Current. I encourage you, if in the mood for some heady and illuminating words about the production and its stars' both on-screen and real-life affairs, to check it out here.