Thursday, January 28, 2010

J.D. Salinger 1919-2010

First Rohmer, now Salinger. The icons are dropping like flies. But mark my words, in the coming years - now that his 30 years of secret writing and all the speculative work that he sued to suppress can finally be published - his legend will be even bigger than it was during his life.

Publishers...let the bidding begin.

Rohmer in Retrospect: Full Moon in Paris (1984)

Director, writer and critic Eric Rohmer passed away on January 11, 2010, at the age of 89. In this series, we will be examining some of his lesser known films.

Smack dab in the middle of his Comedies and Proverbs series, “Full Moon in Paris” is an underrated work by Eric Rohmer. Its predecessor, “Pauline at the Beach”, was wildly successful, both critically and financially, and Full Moon’s reception was second tier in comparison.

But in many ways, this is the archetypal Rohmer light romance, complete with a confused and utterly self-absorbed protagonist named Louise (Pascale Ogier); a shallow young woman with a brand new degree in interior design, beginning what she thinks will be a glamorous career in Paris. She has moved into a suburban apartment with her stogy but dependable boyfriend (Tcheky Karyo), who she considers more of a lifeboat than a lover.

Louise foolishly wants it all; a settled, stable home life when it suits her, and wild nights of partying and flirting when it doesn’t. But mainly, Louise wants whatever she doesn’t have at that second. She justifies her flightiness by allowing Karyo the same freedoms, although he is totally uninterested in an open relationship.

As is typical for this series, the story plays out as Louise interacts with her circle of young Parisian friends, who spend their nights dancing to dreadful French pop music (yes that is a redundancy) and sneaking off to terraces and alcoves for a little old fashioned necking.

A wet-behind-the-ears Fabrice Luchini is quite good as Louise’s married friend and confidant Octave, who is content with their platonic relationship for now, but thinks Louise would make a smashing mistress one day. Despite her posing, Louise’s liberated lip service will be severely tested as the film unfolds, and she will learn that getting what you wished for can be surprisingly hazardous.

The film is rendered in Rohmer’s typical light tones, so light in fact that it almost seems un-ambitious, and it is clear where the story is heading long before the dénouement, but that is the fun of Rohmer: watching the manipulative and the misguided arrive at their long-awaited date with Karma.

Production Details

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Lorna's Silence (2008)

Being human, I suppose the Dardenne Brothers are capable of making a bad film, but they haven’t done so yet. With Lorna’s Silence, the talented siblings back off a bit on their raw meat documentarian style – there are a lot less violent camera swings and shots of the backs of people’s heads – but story wise, the brothers remain in their comfort zone with another tale of fringe, shadowy hustlers trying to make a quick buck off of illegal immigrants.

I would never have imagined that there are so many people desperate to live in dreary Liege, Belgium but, over the years, the Dardennes have introduced us to many of them, and their compelling, heartbreaking stories. Undocumented Lorna (Arta Dobroshi) has entered into a sham marriage with a heroin-addict (Jeremie Renier) as a way of obtaining Belgian citizenship. As soon as she gets her papers, she plans to divorce Renier so that she in turn can marry other illegals and help naturalize them, etcetera etcetera.

All of this is quite lucrative and, on the surface, fairly harmless, until Lorna’s sleazeball business partner (Fabrizio Rongione) devises a scheme to double their profits through a sinister shortcut. The Dardennes succeed brilliantly in making us feel Lorna’s dilemma, as her seemingly benign plan has been taken to a new, high stakes level.

Lorna’s desperation manifests itself in surprising ways, and her lack of predictability is captured by the brothers with their trademark objective immediacy, and ultimately, we share her sense of helplessness and guilt. Lorna’s attempt to make amends using the only option available to her is both pathetic and oddly logical, and we realize the full and devastating measure of her predicament.

In typically Dardenne fashion, Lorna is neither obviously endorsed nor condemned by the storytelling, but the matter-of-fact presentation of events makes us keenly aware of the “banality of evil”, and the thin, fragile line that separates us all from a world of utter barbarism.

Production Details

Monday, January 25, 2010

In The Loop (2009)

Doctor Strangelove meets The Office in this bouncy quasi-doc that somehow makes us laugh out loud at a bit of recent history - the selling of the Iraq War - that wasn’t the least bit funny when it was happening. The film looks at the unique, and rather sordid, relationship between the US and UK governments in drumming up war fever; a relationship based on mutual exploitation and bamboozlement.

The fun gets rolling when a dim bulb of a cabinet minister (Tom Hollander) makes a casual public remark that war is “unforeseeable”, and the BBC makes the mistake of assuming that Hollander has a clue what he’s talking about. This causes frenzy on both sides of the pond as US and UK officials realize they must now redouble their efforts to sell this war to a skeptical public. Hollander and his young assistant (Chris Addison) are quickly summoned to Washington, where a thorough tongue lashing awaits them from a cold blooded State Department neo-con (well played by David Rasche), who wants this war so badly he can taste it.

Along the way we meet an array of powerful goofballs and wannabes, and all of them share the trait of ineptitude tempered by naked ambition. Mimi Kennedy (yup, Dharma’s mom) and James Gandolfini kind of steal the show as Secretary of State and a dovish 5 star general, respectively, and it’s great fun watching these two gifted talents interact.

Ultimately, the whole rush to war is nearly derailed by a livid constituent of Hollander (the hilarious Steve Coogan) whose garden wall is falling down and somehow it’s the government's fault. Then there’s Peter Capaldi as a shadowy Downing Street official whose profanity laced tirades serve as a vivid reminder that British cursing is much funnier than the American variety.

“In the Loop” is an entertaining and enjoyable romp. Just don’t think too much about the actual events the film satirizes or you may find yourself feeling a bit nauseous.

Production Details

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Dequenne & Deneueve

A still from Téchiné's La fille du RER (The Girl on the Train) which is finally being released in a few highly civilized North American cities. I'm looking forward to this one.

Review From Indie Wire

Friday, January 22, 2010

An Education (2009)

Set in London in 1961, “An Education” is an intelligent and sophisticated drama that features a performance from Carey Mulligan that is nothing short of astounding. Mulligan stars as Jenny Miller, a 16 year old straight-A student who is introduced to the scary but exhilarating world of adult freedoms and responsibilities through a new and seemingly harmless friendship with a 30ish charmer named David (Peter Sarsgaard).

David’s apparent wealth and worldliness, coupled with his mild nature and self-effacing modesty make him an irresistible package both to Jenny and her squabbling and insecure parents (Albert Molina and Cara Seymour). Through David, a new and exciting world opens up for the diligent Jenny, a world that suddenly puts all of her dreams within her grasp, and with a speed and ease she never expected.

But as we learn in this well constructed story, short cuts to happiness can be treacherous and heartbreaking paths. Director Lone Scherfig works with a clarity and confidence that is reminiscent of David Lean and early Hitchcock. Editor Barney Pilling’s work is invisible and therefore nearly perfect as the film’s surprises unfold at a pace that neither rushes nor drags.

While there are elements of the story that could be considered anti-Semitic by the overly sensitive, screenwriter Nick Hornby does a fine job of finessing these aspects and makes us realize that it is really Britain’s deeply engrained and quite exhausting class warfare that can cause even the most clear-headed to pursue reckless courses of action.

Despite the strong supporting cast, it is the extraordinary work of Carey Mulligan that keeps us enthralled and riveted as this superb film proceeds, and the connection we feel with her enlarges this small scale story into a sort of parable for the way the world has changed since 1961. Jenny’s lost innocence echoes our own, as we have learned that people are not always what they seem, and that the quick and easy route is often the most perilous.

Film Details

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Fraulein (2006)

Set in damp, wintry Zurich, “Fraulein” is one of those small scale, grungy melodramas that seems tailor-made for the German language. A series of coincidences unite a successful cafeteria owner named Ruza (Murjana Karanovic) and her assistant Mila (Ljubica Jovic), both émigrés from the old Yugoslavia, with young Ana, a newly arrived and emotionally scarred Bosnian refugee (Marija Skaricic).

Ruza and Mila, now middle-aged, left Yugoslavia decades earlier, before the nation was ravaged by war. When homeless Ana shows up at the cafeteria seeking employment, Ruza grudgingly agrees, but keeps a suspicious eye on Ana, who Ruza regards as inferior, and possibly uncivilized. But Ana is so full of spirit and energy that Ruza begins to respect and even admire her young employee and, despite their deep cultural differences, a bond of friendship develops.

But under Ana’s passionate zest for life is a dark and stunning secret, a secret that ultimately makes her a richer and deeper character. Culturally, there is much in this story that is Yugoslavian “inside baseball”, and most viewers will have difficulty fully appreciating the subtleties of Mila and Ana’s relationship at first, but director Andrea Staka does a fine job of filling in the blanks, and eventually we have a firm grasp of the complex view those from the former Yugoslavia have of themselves and each other.

Even comically frumpy Mila gets in on the act, as Ana inspires her to accept the fact that the homeland she knew is no more, and to begin looking forward instead of sulking over the past. But this is Marija Skaricic’s film, and her portrayal of Ana, a character whose generous, life-affirming spirit extends to everyone but herself, is a performance this reviewer won’t soon forget, and I hope we get more opportunities to see her on screen in the coming years.

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Sunday, January 17, 2010

Star Trek (2009)

This prequel of what Trekkies call “TOS” (the original series) is all flash and speed and action and doesn’t have an idea in its head. We see how the famous Enterprise crew met and through skill, bravery, and despite appalling personal shallowness, forged themselves into sci-fi icons. The catalyst for this nonsensical story is a sociopathic Romulan named Nero (Eric Bana), owner of the most unfriendly looking spaceship you’ve ever seen, running around destroying planets by turning them into black holes.

He accomplishes this by… wait for it… drilling holes in them. But he’s actually from the future, and spoiling for a fight with the federation because Spock was unable to save his planet from destruction 120 years later. Confused yet? Newly minted Star Fleet Academy grad James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) is pressed into service aboard the Enterprise which is the only functional starship in the vicinity; all the others are sitting in a cornfield undergoing maintenance. Apparently, starship construction will be something of a growth industry in the Iowa of the future, and it’s nice to know that one day good paying jobs will return to the American Midwest.

Kirk finds a young Spock (Zachary Quinto) firmly ensconced as first officer aboard the Enterprise. This Spock’s personality is a mix of logic and elite snootiness and he and Kirk have a long way to go if they are ever to be BFFs. It doesn’t help that they both have eyes for the same girl, the fetching young Uhuru (Zoe Saldana) who in this version was apparently a big hit at Academy frat parties. The movie gets sillier as it proceeds, and there are phaser battles and fistfights aplenty before Kirk and Spock discover an odd whirly-gig spaceship that may be human-kind’s only hope.

The acting here is actually quite serviceable, Quinto in particular, and there will no doubt be other movies featuring this young Enterprise ensemble saving the universe. They can start by saving us from these script writers.

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Saturday, January 16, 2010

Up in the Air (2009)

Here we have the typically quirky Indie Film template applied to grown-up subject matter, and the result is a movie that entertains but doesn’t involve. George Clooney stars as a freelance corporate grim reaper, a man who travels the breadth of this great nation canning middle management types with a highly professional style of faux sensitivity. Clooney relishes this life of airports, hotels and rental car kiosks, swiping his various elite status cards to break into long lines and rack up enormous frequent flier miles that he never intends to use.

He begins a liaison with a fellow road warrior, the sultry Vera Farmiga, and the two occasionally synchronize their schedules long enough to share a few witticisms in varying states of undress. The film’s best moments belong to a young business school hot shot (Anna Kendrick) whose newfangled ideas about firing people via teleconference threaten not only Clooney’s livelihood, but his beloved lifestyle of high flying solitude.

The movie seems to be most alive during Kendrick’s brief scenes, and it’s clear that director Jason Reitman is much more effective at creating 20-something characters than mature adults, as both Clooney and Farmiga seem quite bland in comparison. Clooney eventually has a slow burning epiphany sparked by his sister’s wedding and, due to some unconvincing sentimentality during a trip to Wisconsin, begins to question some of the underpinnings of his lonely existence.

But Reitman handles big revelations with the same too-cool-for-school ironic detachment that he handles everything else, and Clooney’s moment of insight seems more like a blind alley than a turning point. In fact, while the film works as a source of pleasant entertainment, it’s difficult to surmise exactly what Reitman is trying to say with the whole enterprise. The film has garnered praise and award nominations aplenty, but if this is what passes for the Great American Film these days, it’s not just our economy that’s in the crapper.

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Sunday, January 10, 2010

Kitchen Stories (2003)

This arid, retro Scandinavian comedy offers immense and surprising pleasures that seem to come out of nowhere. A band of 1950s-era Swedish efficiency experts, bulbous travel trailers in tow, caravan across the frozen plains to study the kitchen usage habits of rural Norwegian bachelors.

One such researcher named Folke (Tomas Norstrom) is assigned to catalog the daily activities of Isak (Joachim Calmeyer), a reluctant and at times belligerent subject whose eccentricities comically frustrate the researcher at every step. Eventually, the two men settle into a kind of stalemate where the line between observer and guinea pig becomes blurred and then completely obliterated.

Norstrom’s long and impassive countenance is the perfect foil for Calmeyer’s craggy obstinance and we eagerly await each amusing and unexpected turn as this odd couple’s story unfolds. Thanks to director Bent Hamer’s clear and detailed vision of the material, we feel as though we are in lockdown with the two men, as the deep snow and biting winds of a Norwegian winter lead to a sort of cabin fever that causes the pair to comically question their roles in life and the choices each has made.

Solace is found in small pleasures - jars of pickled herring for Folke and monthly baths for Isak- and we realize that the science of Sociology is an imperfect one at best, as it attempts to tailor people to it’s neatly defined categories with no allowance for individualism. Ultimately, it is clear any social engineering data derived from the study depicted in this film would be as useful as last week’s TV Guide, and this realization causes an existential quandary as the entire research team devolves into a humorous sort of harmless decadence, and the scientific method is quietly discarded.

The film’s coda strikes a note thats both poignant and satisfying, as role reversals and small rebellions complete the slightly skewed circle of life that is “Kitchen Stories”.

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Thursday, January 7, 2010

Bunchy's Scrapbook - Camera Porn Edition

The mention of the word "scoopic" prompts giggles in most cinematographers, but it wasn't a bad little camera at all. I shot my first student film with this thing and, as long as I ignored the built-in light meter, all was well.

An odd, quirky contraption my University bought at some depressing auction, and then made the students use it. The whole magilla was driven by a flimsy looking belt. The only thing I ever shot with it was a 2 minute documentary about a sink full of dirty dishes. Yep, that's what I thought of the Frezz.

Now this is a camera. Solid. Simple. A joy to use. The Zeiss prime lenses were sharp as a tack. You never accidentally left it on because it sounded like a lawn mower.
I used this camera many times, and everything I shot with it looked gorgeous.

Imagine carrying a flaming cinder block on your shoulder for 3 hours; that was life with the TK-76. One of my first jobs was shooting video for a sports production company, using this ridiculous piece of crap. Portable in name only, the TK-76 weighed 400 lbs, ran extremely hot, had a finicky zoom motor and serious auto-iris issues. Designed by people who never had to actually use it, RCA sold millions of these things to TV stations, and then laughed all the way to the bank.


Precisely built and extremely versatile, the SR was a great little camera. I shot dozens of TV commercials with it and never had a problem. Does anyone even shoot 16mm anymore?

Everything filmed with this camera looks good...I loved working with the Panaflex. Great lenses, solid construction, wonderfully big and bright viewfinder, it was a serious camera for serious production. There just wasn't anything better.

It's all HD digital now (a development I predicted 30 years ago and people scoffed at me), and this relatively low cost camera is emerging as a popular choice. Is it as good as the hype? Well, I'm no longer in the biz so I wouldn't know, but the creative possibilites of digital media are both exciting and a little scary.