Sunday, January 31, 2010

DON SIMPSON'S TOP TEN OF THE DECADE

Alfonzo Cuaron, Tthe director of Y tu mama tambien and Children of Men.

Living in the aughties

By Don Simpson

The first decade of this new millennium brought us bigger and louder cinematic spectacles than ever before (Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings Trilogy was the best; Michael Bay’s two installments in the Transformers franchise were the worst) as production budgets continued to skyrocket even as economies worldwide plummeted. The decade also marked the resurgence of low-budget dialogue-driven dramas (a movement deemed, for better or worse: “mumblecore”) focusing on the substance of situations rather than worrying about details like film stock, clean audio tracks, and marquee actors (noteworthy “mumblecore” films: Baghead, Hannah Takes the Stairs and Old Joy).

The following is an alphabetical listing of the 12 films theatrically released in the United States between January 1, 2000 and December 31, 2009 that I enjoyed the most.

Amélie (Le fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain) –- While partnered with Marc Caro, Jean-Pierre Jeunet created two of my favorite films of the 1990s: Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children (La cité des enfants perdus). Upon parting ways with Caro, Jeunet dove into the unfortunate disaster of Alien: Resurrection, but Jeunet promptly redeemed himself with the delectable Amélie. Contrary to the menacing and mysterious worlds of his previous efforts, Amélie is as twee and saccharine as cinematic cotton candy can get. Wide-eyed Audrey Tautou is perfectly cast as Amélie Poulain, a young woman who approaches the world (and romance) with the naïvely innocent wonderment of a young child. The story and dialogue are dutifully strong, while Jeunet visually reveals the wondrous world as only Amélie sees it.

Children of Men –- Director Alfonso Cuarón’s prodigious grasp of the cinematic medium is mind-blowing with his fervent conveyance of political, social and philosophical messages while artistically pushing visual and narrative boundaries. Set in 2027, Children of Men skillfully discusses issues of today -– pollution, immigration, violence, poor diet, drug abuse, etc., -– as the seeds for human infertility, anarchy (in the U.K.) and global devastation in the very near future. Cuarón provides a glimmer of hope that humankind’s existence may not cease, we will just have to suffer through hell on earth if we do not start making better decisions for our future today.

Donnie Darko –- Literally riddled with mind-blowing philosophies about reality, time travel, literature, teen angst and numerology (just to name a few), Donnie Darko ranks as one of the most challenging films of the decade. Writer-director Richard Kelly’s ear for great dialogue and music melds flawlessly with his cinematic eye. Unfortunately for Kelly, his low-budget science-fiction debut set a very high bar, which he has been unable to match. Southland Tales and The Box were no less ambitious in terms of their mental gymnastics, but they lacked the overall theoretical cohesiveness and clarity of Donnie Darko.

Far From Heaven –- Equal parts Douglas Sirk and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Far From Heaven is superficially a product of 1950s cinema (thanks to Elmer Bernstein’s classic soundtrack composition and the gorgeous cinematography of Edward Lachman) but the content of Todd Haynes’ film would have been much too taboo to be portrayed quite so frankly back then. In critiquing the opinions of homosexuality and mixed-race relationships maintained in American suburbia in the 1950s, Haynes reminds us that we have not progressed very far in our cultural openness. (Proposition 8 anyone?) Sure homosexuality and mixed-race relationships are much more commonplace on television and the silver screen, but in the reality of some sectors of our modern society (primarily the God-fearing population) they are treated as pure evil. If Haynes would have had the forethought to throw a Muslim into the mix, that could have made Far From Heaven even more meaningful and appropriate in this post-9/11 world.

Gosford Park –- One of the greatest wrongs in Oscar history is that Robert Altman never received a Best Director or Best Picture Oscar (he was given an Honorary Oscar in 2006, eight months before his death at the age of 81), despite being one of the greatest directors in the history of cinema. (Gosford Park shamefully lost to Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind in the Best Director and Best Picture categories at the 2002 Academy Awards.) Set in 1932, Gosford Park brilliantly compares and contrasts the lives of the upper class guests (living upstairs) and the lower class servants (living downstairs) during a party in a country house in England. The last great film of Altman’s career (followed only by the mediocre The Company and the disappointing A Prairie Home Companion), Gosford Park is a thoroughly intense yet sardonically comedic study of British class structure intertwined with a classic murder mystery.

Inland Empire –- David Lynch made two of his career best films in the aughts: Mulholland Dr. and Inland Empire; and while I would have liked to discuss both films on this list, there is just not enough space. So I am opting for the more cohesive and mature of the two. Inland Empire is a labyrinthine meditation on the Hollywood moviemaking machine. As one of the pillars of surrealist cinema, Lynch relies solely on free association and dream logic to link the scenes and characters of this nightmarish narrative. Inland Empire is the film that Lynch has been preparing for throughout his cinematic career as it perfects many of the artsy eccentricities of his early work (Eraserhead, Elephant Man and Blue Velvet) and fine-tunes the unbridled mind-fuck of his later work (Lost Highway and Mulholland Dr.).

In Praise of Love (Éloge de l'amour) -– Mentally-stimulating and arguably Jean-Luc Godard’s best film since the early 1970s, In Praise of Love is half a classically poetic homage to love and the creation of art shot in stunning black and white; and half an oversaturated colorized critique of American (and Hollywood) imperialism told in flashback. Godard puts forth questions such as: what is an “American” and why does the United States purport to be the sole proprietor of the “American” moniker? What right does Hollywood (more specifically, Steven Spielberg) have to steal someone’s identity in order to make millions? Throughout his oeuvre, Godard has cleverly used images to convey his messages. In Praise of Love is proof that he is still the unparalleled master of the image.

Lost in Translation –- Purely a meditation on that certain brand of loneliness one experiences while alone in a foreign country, the story within Lost in Translation is translated primarily via images and music. Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray’s performances –- primarily their expressions, reactions and movements –- are so convincing that Sofia Coppola could have easily conveyed this story as a silent film. Reminiscent of Jacques Tati’s Playtime, the dialogue exists more often than not as a means to complete the space between the silences. I predict Lost in Translation will go down in history as Coppola’s masterpiece.

Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi) –- I never expected Hayao Miyazaki to make a more sublime and enchanting film than My Neighbor Totoro, but he did it with Spirited Away. Marketed primarily as a children’s film, the plot is light years more complex, sophisticated and intelligent than anything Disney or Pixar have ever realized. Miyazaki’s stream-of-consciousness brand of storytelling meshes naturally with his seemingly LSD-induced hallucinatory animation. On the surface a strangely nonsensical surrealist dream, the fantastic Spirited Away turns out to be more like a Buddhist prayer focusing on environmentalism, class structure and love.

There Will Be Blood –- Paul Thomas Anderson’s breathtaking epic is a film that is destined to go down in cinema history as a true masterpiece. Explicating that even in its infancy oil was quite a menacing commodity, There Will Be Blood overflows with unlikable characters (from evangelicals to oil men to the poor and uneducated people that are unnoticeable speed-bumps along the highway to the greater success of Christianity and capitalism). Daniel Day-Lewis’s pitch-perfect performance as oil tycoon Daniel Plainview is as dastardly as the devil himself. The cinematography (Robert Elswit), editing (Dylan Tichenor) and soundtrack (Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood) seem avant-garde in comparison to anything modern but they all work in faithful worship of the great masters of cinema’s past. (The film was dedicated to Altman.)

Waking Life –- An intense immersion into the world of philosophy as experienced within a lucid dream, Richard Linklater brings out all of his heady heavy artillery in Waking Life. A talkie in every sense of the term, the characters in Waking Life never pause for a breath as they tirelessly ruminate upon the notion of existence and being. Bob Sabiston’s groundbreaking animation is a head trip at every turn and it makes what could have been deemed Slacker Part II into something new and completely different.

Y tu mamá también –- I remember my first viewing of Alfonso Cuarón’s Y tu mamá también as vividly as my virginal foray into the world of Godard (Breathless, of course). Equally poetic, political and social study, Cuarón’s unadulterated playfulness with the cinematic medium harkens back to the French New Wave. Y tu mamá también has withstood the test of at least 15 viewings, and I still find something new and exciting within –- whether a line of dialogue, music cue, camera angle or edit. Of all the films of this decade, this is the one that means the most to me.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

FILM REVIEW: DROOL


 
Laura Harring and Jill Marie Jones in Nancy Kissam's Drool 

Drool not droll 

By: Don Simpson 

Anora (Laura Harring) is the beautiful yet mousey southern belle wife to a verbally and physically abusive southern redneck husband, Cheb (Oded Fehr). One day Cheb leaves work early having become ill after giving his boss a blow job in order to keep his job at the local rubber plant. Upon his arrival at home, Cheb discovers Anora getting frisky in bed with their new African-American neighbor, Imogene (Jill Marie Jones). Cheb goes ballistic. Anora, apparently in self-defense, shoots Cheb. Imogene packs Cheb’s corpse into the trunk of her purple sedan. Anora and her two children – Tabby (Ashley Duggan Smith) and Little Pete (Christopher Newhouse) – hop in Imogene’s car and they head to Savannah, Georgia. 

OK, I have some questions, problems and concerns… 

Did Cheb’s actions justify his murder? Once Anora had possession of the gun, did she not also have the power? (I suspect even Anora doubts the murder was justified since she runs away rather than alerting the police.) 

My best guess is that the murder is supposed to represent Anora’s empowerment; however, even after the murder Anora remains the absolute personification of the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of weak: “Wanting in moral strength for endurance or resistance; lacking fortitude or courage, strength of purpose or will; unsteadfast, wavering.” Does Anora really have to be so disturbingly (and annoyingly) spineless and feeble even after gaining her independence from Cheb? 

The murder appears to be the catalyst to force Anora and the kids on the road for some wild and crazy fun with Imogene; but nothing exciting or interesting happens on their road trip. Once they arrive in Savannah, still nothing exciting or interesting happens. Sure, Cheb needed to be out of the picture in order for Anora and the kids to hit the road with Imogene, but did Anora really need to murder him? The only purpose the murder serves in this story is that it gives the characters an excuse to drive around in a purple car with a dead body in the trunk. Unfortunately, the comedic elements of these events were left on the side of the highway as road kill. 

Imogene is the next problem. First of all, I find the writing for this character to be offensively stereotypical. Imogene serves two purposes in Drool: comic relief and to serve as the target for racist slurs (Cheb, Tabby and Little Pete all refer to her using the “n” word). When Tabby and Little Pete use the “n” word, they are immediately slapped by Anora yet no explanation is provided to them to explain why that word warranted physical violence. 

The lesbian relationship between Imogene and Anora also begs questioning. The motivation for their romantic relationship is never revealed; and the development of their relationship is also neglected. Imogene and Anora occasionally kiss or touch each other’s hands, but are they really lesbians? (Did Drool really deserve to be screened at the 2009 Outfest Film Festival and the 2009 Paris Gay and Lesbian Film Festival?) Our only clue that they might indeed become lesbian lovers appears as the final line of the film. 

And the children…Tabby functions as the part-time narrator of this tale (a storytelling tactic that comes off disjointing and inconsistent, not to mention purposeless). To add a little off-beat humor to the mix, Tabby draws clever caricatures of her family and friends which often become animated. There are a couple early scenes concerning a boy (Dalton Alfortish) at school and his love for blow jobs that prompt Tabby to become a queen bitch – a role that she keeps for the remaining hour of the film. Tabby is not only easy and stupid, but she is also annoying. 

The Little Pete character is confusing; but maybe that is because he is confused. He likes playing with dolls, using make-up and stares dreamily at his male teacher. We can only assume that Little Pete is destined to become a gay man, but we will never know since his character is never developed. 

Harring was excellent in Mulholland Dr. and Inland Empire, but her performance in Drool is absolutely ridiculous. Of course, her character Anora’s faults are all due to Nancy Kissam's offensive and superficial writing and directionless directing.




Sunday, January 24, 2010

John Esther's Top Ten of 2009


Leeds United team as depicted in The Damned United 

Fare thee well 2009

By John Esther

It may have ended the decade on a grand -– millions of them -– note at the box office, but 2009 was a resounding dud of a year at the movies.

Granted I saw a fewer films last year than usual -– including a few possible winners such as Antichrist, The Hurt Locker, Where the Wild Things Are, Moon and Capitalism: A Love Story -– but what I did see left greatness to be wild-eye-ly desired.

Having written that, here are my top picks, placed in no particular order: 

Dawson, Island 10 – After the democratically elected president of Chile, Salvador Allende, was assassinated by an United States-backed military coup, many of Allende’s closest political friends and allies were sent to a prison on Dawson Island. Brilliantly reconstructed by noted Chilean filmmaker, Miguel Littin, the conditions of the illegal imprisonment were brutal but these good men endured, thanks to their superior intellect and good humor. 

The Road – In this desolate dystopian future, those who tend to survive are cannibalistic hicks chasing down the remainders of the family unit in director John Hillcoat’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel. A worthy futuristic film in the vein of Robert Altman’s Quintet, brilliant direction, set design and solid acting mark the bleakest, and thus most courageous, feature of 2009. 

The Damned United – A healthy look at English soccer right before it took off into a massive corporate enterprise where players made multimillionaire contracts, director Tom Hooper tells the story of Brian Clough’s (Michael Sheen) 44-days as the coach of Leeds United. A smooth, essentially flawless film The Damned United features the best acting ensemble of the year. 

Invictus - I never thought I would see the day when I would pick a Clint Eastwood film as one of my favorites, but this film about one segment of political prisoner-turn-President Nelson Mandela’s (Morgan Freeman) plan to reconcile the post-Apartheid nation of South Africa through professional sports was an inspiring master stroke of inspiration by a director who finally put his machismo inclinations to good purpose. Timely. 

Avatar - Picking a Clint Eastwood film as a top ten pick is one thing, but when writer-director James Cameron makes one of the best films of the year, something strange this new decade comes. Years in the making, Avatar was a much smarter film than I ever expected and certainly was the most fun I had watching a movie in 2009. 

A Single Man - Worthy of Christopher Isherwood’s writing, Tom Ford's feature directorial debut story about a lonely gay man living in Los Angeles, 1962 burst with radiant images of love, loss and lust in rather equal measures. And Colin Firth’s lead performance was on the three or four best performances I saw all year. 

Precious: Based on the novel “Push” by Sapphire - Speaking of exceptional acting, I do not know where she was channeling it from, but Mo’Nique’s performance as a lousy mother in Lee Daniels’ film about a pregnant, undereducated and obese 16-year-old girl (Gabourey Sidibe) born under the punches and kicks of a terrible home was stunning –- a highlight to a wonderful film about a rarely-wonderful world. 

Burma VJ - When the Buddhist Monk protests of 2007 inspired people to take to the streets of Rangoon and elsewhere to protest the junta’s illegitimacy -- only to meet the strong arms of the martial lawlessness –- a small group of guerilla reporters were right there to capture the heroism and the horrors of the citizens and their relationship to their rulers. Working at great peril if the reporters are caught recording, they are in serious trouble. Very important on many levels, director Anders Østergaard’s documentary reminds us firsthand how valuable the media are to a free society and not-so-free society. 

The Cove - A sad inversion to March of the Penguins, Louie Psihoyos’ thrilling and chilling documentary follows a small group of brave activists as they try and save dolphins from the annual slaughter conducted in the picturesque town of Taijii, Japan and elsewhere. That its box office receipts did not even break a million dollars, compared to the 100-million plus March of the Penguins had, only compounds the tragedy for all those Flippers around the world. 

The Wedding Song - One of the most original voices to emerge during the first decade of the millennium, director-writer-actor Karin Albou’s film about a Jewish girl, Myriam (Lizzie Brocheré) and her Arab friend, Nour (Olympe Borval) in Tunis, Tunisia, 1942, explored multiple dualities -- culture-faith; Jew-Arab; pro-Semitism/anti-Semitism; femininity-masculinity; tradition-modernism; etc. -- against an original World War II backdrop.

SUNDANCE 2010: A PROPHET




Tough talk between Tahar Rahim and Niels Arestrup in A Prophet 
 
If you have to join them, beat them 
 
By John Esther 
 
Winner of the Cannes Film Festival’s Grand Prix and France’s official Oscar submission for Best Film in a Foreign Language film, co-writer and director Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet (Un Prophète) finds imprisonment a necessary lifestyle for some, regardless of what they can foresee.
 
Condemned to six years in prison for assault of a police officer, 19-year-old Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim) needs nobody. His crime, posturing and the scars on his back illustrate a life misused and mistrusting of authority. Prison will hardly alleviate such an attitude.
 
Illiterate, orphaned and alone, part-Corsican and Arab, Malik becomes the perfect assassin for a Corsican mob boss, Cêsar Luciani (a superb Niels Arestrup), when a snitch of Arab descent, Reyeb (Hichem Yacoubi), comes for a 10-day stay before testifying against a mob boss on the outside.
 
Understandably Reyeb is paranoid of everyone, but when he offers Malik some hash in exchange for head, the Corsican mob boss makes an offer Malik cannot resist.
 
After he does his first mission well, Malik gains minimal favor with the Corsicans and maximum loathing from the Arabs in the prison. The Arabs do not understand why he would side with the Corsicans while the Corsicans hardly view Malik with racial equality.
 
Shot by both sides, Malik takes the opportunity of prison and predicament and learns how to read and write. He not only learns how to read books, he learns how to read the thoughts of those around him, knowing what they want to hear, slowly gaining power on the inside and the outside with both Arabs and Corsicans. But this power is not for unification a la Invictus but for the kind of self-preservation a small boy from Corleone, Italy did during the last century.
 
Running a smooth 149 minutes, A Prophet is a well-made film examining how there are many types of prisons within a prison (or the world) and the power of language to allow one to be a little freer than the next inmate.

EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: MICHAEL HOFFMAN





Christopher Plummer in Michael Hoffman's The Last Station 

Taking The Last Station with Michael Hoffman

By John Esther 

Over a decade in the making, writer-director Michael Hoffman is taking audiences to The Last Station. Based on the novel by Jay Parini, The Last Station recounts the relationship between the great writer, Count Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) and his wife/muse/collaborator of 48 years, Countess Sofya Tolstoy (Helen Mirren), during the last year of his life. 

Tormented by his newfound and confounded new religion to essentially leave his materialist nothing upon his death, Sofya torments the great, Russian writer (War & Peace; The Death of Ivan Ilych) with bourgeois tantrums. Torn between his principles and the prodding of his most devoted disciple, Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), and the grand love (and lust) for his wife, Leo cannot continue to live the life he has had nor let it go. 

Clearly not a typical biopic from the director of such films as One Fine Day, Restoration and Game 6, Hoffman summoned his own experiences of marriage to his wife, Samantha Silva, to finally bring the picture to life. 

Born in Hawaii, raised in rural Idaho and educated at Boise State University, Oxford University and Oriel College, we recently caught up with Hoffman. 

JEsther Entertainment: Why did you want to make this film? 
Michael Hoffman: Well, I don’t know. When I first read the novel I didn’t really see what the film was. It took me a second reading 14 years later to see the movie in it and I think it was because I was married 12 of intervening 14 years. I guess I wanted to make a movie about the difficulty of living with love and the impossibility of living without it. When I see some of the shit that goes on in my marriage; it’s so absurd the way we get in our own way. It’s kind of amazing to see this self-proclaimed prophet of love, a person everybody looks up to as a living saint, a saint of love unable to sort things out in his own life, in his own bedroom. 

JE: Then there is the negotiation between artistic integrity and materialistic comfort. 
MH: Absolutely. You have to deal with the gap between the claims of the ideal and the claims of experience. You have to somehow learn to love or work in the real world. And you’ve got all these material constraints – the most of which is your body. 

JE: Speaking of work, what do you think of Tolstoy’s work? In what ways has it influenced you? 
MH: I don’t know if Tolstoy’s work has been a big influence on me. Tolstoy, I would say, is fundamentally a psychological novelist and he’s interested in the psychology of his characters. He has a remarkable gift reprising things within himself that also ring true, but it was really [Anton] Chekhov who I’ve always been obsessed by and who was key to finding the tone in this movie. 

JE: Did you feel uncomfortable making the film in English, since that is not what they spoke as a first language? 
MH: So someone will see it. [Laughs]. That’s the way for this film to reach the largest audience. It’s challenging in Russia because the Russians have an ingrained anxiety with foreigners telling their stories. And maybe we would, too. Maybe we would think “The Russian Ben Franklin Movie” was weird. [Laughs]. For Russia we are going to dub the film rather than keep it in English with Russian subtitles. We have a great distribution in Russia. 

JE: Lastly, what do you think about interviews where you discuss your work? Does it serve the film? Should the work speak for itself? 
MH: I’m probably political enough that it’s important to try to position a film, this film particularly. It’s important that people go into it knowing a couple of things. One, there’s humor in it – and it’s intentional [Laughs]. Two, it’s a movie about love; it’s not a biopic about Tolstoy. If an audience goes into it knowing that and they still don’t like it, then fair enough. But if they go into it looking for a different movie, then that’s a little frustrating.






FILM REVIEW: ST. JOHN OF LAS VEGAS


Steve Buscemi as the not-quite saintly John of Las Vegas 

FILM REVIEW: ST. JOHN OF LAS VEGAS

By Miranda Inganni

John has lots of luck. Problem is, it’s all bad.

When John (Steve Buscemi) decides it’s time to leave Las Vegas and give up his gambling addiction, he moves to Albuquerque, NM, to create a “normal” life. He has a house in a gated community (where even his pass card fails to work), and a job at an insurance company. Succumbing to the temptation of scratch tickets and a super jackpot instant win game, John obviously hasn’t given up his monetary mistress. But he’s landed a desk job at Townsand Insurance and has fallen for his cubicle neighbor, Jill (the underutilized and shallowly written Sarah Silverman). While he thinks his life might be a sure thing, he sidelined when his boss, Mr. Townsand (Peter Dinklage) bets on John to accompany Virgil (Romy Malco) on a fraud investigation case in, you guessed it, Las Vegas.

Along the way, John and Virgil, who are ill-suited for each other, encounter a few off-beat characters, including wheelchair-bound Tasty D Lite (Emmanuelle Chriqui) – who filed the insurance claim – a naked Ned (Tim Blake Nelson), and Smitty, the Human Torch (John Cho), among others.

As the two fraud investigators close in on the truth, Virgil throws John a curveball, which forces him to question everything that has lead them to this point and what he believes about his “normal” job and being a gambling man.

First time writer/director Hue Rhode’s film is watchable, but goofy (and not in the good way). The characters are underdeveloped, and while the actors try their best to create a full house, if you will, they crap out; Jill and John are seemingly in love after a brief tryst in the ladies room at the office; John perseveres while he’s repeatedly shot down by Virgil; Virgil is meant to be the heavy, but it’s John who seems to have the upper hand with everyone they encounter.

All in all, St. John of Las Vegas is 80-odd minutes of quite good actors doing their best with a mediocre script. The titular John doesn’t seem a saint, but that’s left for the audience to determine when he makes a certain agreement with Jill. The soundtrack is the best bet as the most interesting aspect of the movie, with Cajmere’s “Percolator” being a highlight.

I wouldn’t place my money on this film.

Friday, January 22, 2010

THEATER REVIEW: GO WEST

NO PHOTO AVAILABLE

Go west, young man (and woman)

By Ed Rampell

When the curtain rises at L.A. Opera, audiences often applaud for the brilliantly executed sets -- a Spanish piazza in Carmen, an Italian prison in Tosca, a mad scientist’s lab in The Fly – as if they are co-stars in the production. Don’t expect to see elaborate backdrops, etc., in Steven Berkoff’s West at Venice’s Electric Lodge, which is at the other end of the stage experience. In fact, the playbill for the Bruce Cooper-directed production of West doesn’t even have a set designer credit for this pay, which seems to epitomize the theatrical theories of Polish director Jerzy Grotowski.

My first lover, an aspiring actress named Liz who attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, was an advocate of Grotowski, author of Towards a Poor Theatre. As Liz explained Grotowski was a sort of born again dramatist who eschewed onstage special effects, flashy scenery and the like and believed in getting back to the basics where the play per se was the thing. Instead of competing with movies (which generally surpass the stage in terms of rock ’em sock ’em special effects theater should concentrate on its innate attributes and strengths: acting and text in a live experience. It’s a sort of theatrical version of Italian Neo-realism and the Danish Dogma School of filmmaking.

With its completely bare stage (except for a few chairs) this production of West embodies Grotowski’s poor theatre ethos, and the results are anything but poor. This is a richly complex drama about gang violence in 1963 London, marriage, romantic relationships, winning, revenge, mass media and the madness of machismo run amok. Brad Schmidt as Mike is the leader of the pack who feels compelled to avenge the death of a fellow gangbanger by a rival gang. The mano a mano clash of the titans between the two gang leaders (Joshua Schell powerfully portrays Curly) is expertly acted and blocked by fight choreographer Joe Sofranko. (But I can’t tell you more about this battle royale because the first rule of Fight Club is: Don’t discuss Fight Club.)

What will probably surprise American audiences is that instead of baggy pants, hoodies, doo rags, jeans, leather jackets, etc., West’s gang members wear suits and ties. These characters seem related to the so-called “Teddy Boys,” a post-WWII subculture of British toughs. Mike’s droogies are ably portrayed by a quartet of gifted rising talents: Dixie Arnold, Brick Patrick and Joshua Zain. Dennis Kleinsmith portrays Mike’s father Sid, a working class sod who denies his son as facilely as he slights his wife, Pearl.

She’s insightfully portrayed by Kate Roxburgh; her housewife’s wheedling and negotiating with an emotionally distant husband and breadwinner in order to curry favor is heartbreaking and dead on the money, in terms of observing human behavior and translating it into acting. In a dual role (several of West’s cast deftly play more than one role), Roxburgh’s waitress in a telling restaurant vignette that is the opposite of Jack Nicholson’s celebrated rebellious turn in an eatery in Five Easy Pieces also reveals much about human characterDuring her comedic scenes, Annie Burgstede as the redheaded, lovelorn Sylv steals every humorous scene she’s in. She alternates between being a games- playing sly seductress and a vulnerable woman who turns a telephone into a character as she waits in vain for Mike to ring her and rescue Sylv from her crushing loneliness. Burgstede who should have a bright future as a comedienne.

West’s denouement reminded me of the finale of a Napoleon Chagnon anthropological account of the Amazonian Indians, the Yanomamo: Trapped in a never ending cycle of conflict, the primitive tribesmen embark on yet another senseless act of warfare which, in turn, will lead to more reprisals, and so on, ad infinitum. So, perhaps the moral of Berkoff’s story is one about endless violence, as his angry young men mindlessly fight for an illusive and elusive “victory.” As an actor -- as well as a playwright –- who has portrayed a Bond villain opposite Roger Moore in 1983’s Octopussy, this British playwright knows a thing or two about the heart of human darkness.

Also about the influence of mass media on the folks out there in TV-land. There is a droll spoof of the opening credit sequence of Hawaii Five-O -– arguably television’s finest montage title sequence –- acted out with relish by the cast, including outrigger canoe paddling panache. This is all the more remarkable given that Jack Lord’s detective-in-paradise series premiered on CBS in 1968 -– five years after West is set. But this is just a mere quibble as the scene is extremely enjoyable and well done.

One other point, according to an audience member and aspiring actress named Kim, who –- like several of the thesps attended L.A.’s American Academy of Dramatic Arts -– only one person in West’s cast is actually British. This surprised me, as the characters’ Brit accents are so finely drawn that they’d beguiled this Yank into believing he was indeed watching mad dogs and Englishmen. Nevertheless, in a city sometimes seething with gang violence, West is well worth seeing..

West is being performed through Feb. 6 at the Electric Lodge, 1416 Electric Ave., Venice, CA 90201, on Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. For more info: 310/823-0710; http://hellion-pictures.com/west






Monday, January 18, 2010

THEATER REVIEW: PROOF


Catherine (Teal Sherer) and Hal (Ryan Douglas) in NoHo Arts Center's production of David Auburn's Proof.

Do the math

By Ed Rampell

During math class my fellow daydream believer and creative cohort, Danny Stone and I used to while away the boring hours drawing what our teacher denounced to our parents as cartoons of “flying men.” In junior high Danny went on to fail a statewide Regents math exam by a single point (and to become an actor) and when I was a high school senior, I literally received a “0” in my final math Regents (to this day I still don’t even know if it was in geometry or trigonometry or whut). So it was with some trepidation that I saw David Auburn’s 2001 drama about mathematicians (is this an oxymoron?), but lured by its Pulitzer Prize and Tony for Best Play (what can I say? I’m an awards whore) I attended the premiere of Proof. (Although I had pen and paper at hand to sketch some flying men doodles, just in case the theorems flew too fast and furious for this right hemisphere reviewer.)

And holy Pythagoras, am I ever glad I did go see this production of Proof, which doesn’t have a dull second in it! As Catherine, Teal Sherer arguably gives the single best performance this veteran theater critic has ever seen on the L.A. stage. She is luminous as the daughter of Robert, a mathematical genius who broke new ground in two fields by the time he was 22, then burned out and cracked up. (Having also played L.A. scribe Charles Bukowski in the musical, Bukowsical, at New York’s Fringe Festival, Brad Blaisdell knows a thing or two about playing troubled talents.)

Forget about those angry young men in plays like John Osborne’s landmark play, Look Back in Anger, Sherer’s Catherine is a furious young woman who looks back in angst. She has remained behind at their dilapidated Chicago (where Auburn hails from) home to care for her manic mathematical father while older sister. Claire (deftly depicted by Colleen Foy with just the right combo of snideness and bitchiness squared), has parlayed whatever modicum of math ability she has working for a New York currency exchange firm and is engaged to marry a Manhattanite with a promising career. Claire’s smirky perpetual perkiness almost made me pop a Percodan.

Auburn’s fluid drama seamlessly goes back and forth in time and in and out of Catherine’s fervent mind. She is not only mentally troubled but is wheelchair bound, which greatly serves to enhance the overall precariousness of her character, as well as her fighting determination to live life on her own terms. Her disability also highlights Catherine’s duality –- her torso is that of a sensuous blonde beauty, while her legs are that of a woman who survived an awful car crash in Tennessee that turned Sherer into a paraplegic when she was 14 years old. But Sherer dispels stereotypical notions of the disabled as her Catherine hungrily kisses hunky Hal (Ryan Douglas, making his NoHo Arts Center debut), beds her father’s former graduate student and fights for her right to be a full, autonomous human being.

I was quite surprised when a fellow theatergoer, who’d seen Proof on the Great White Way, informed me that the character of Catherine was not played by a disabled actress and was not in a wheelchair in the Broadway production. Thus, in addition to simply doing a stellar acting job, Sherer -– who is also a disabilities activist –- strikes a blow for the other-abled, by expanding the boundaries of the type of roles they can play in a profession notorious for its typecasting.

The aforementioned Douglas strikes just the right tone as the handsome, earnest, wannabe grad student who dreams of greatness and glory, and then falters when he finds it. He is nerdy and square, which is in perfect counterpoint to Catherine’s anguish and unsuspected depths. Foy’s Claire is a “do-gooder” manipulator who tries to decide Catherine’s fate without bothering to consult her about major decisions affecting her future. Of course, these unilateral changes are in her little sister’s “best “ interests –- and coincidentally, in Claire and her fiancée’s financial interests. Claire would make a perfect politician and I wanted to smack her (which, by the way, is a testament to Foy’s talent).

Auburn’s powerful play hinges on the issues of trust and faith. As the playwright Bertolt Brecht observed, “the inflexible rule [is] that the proof of the pudding is in the eating.” Despite the fine performances of the cast -- tautly directed by Bob Morrisey on set designer Lacey Anzelc’s convincing back porch -- Sherer steals every scene.

Sherer has also appeared with Kenneth Branagh as the polio-stricken FDR in HBO’s Warm Springs back in 2004 and this freewheeling thespian is a dramatic force to be reckoned with. Her Catherine is probably the best “crippled” character since the Gershwin Brothers’ Porgy in Porgy and Bess. This production deserves a longer run in a space much larger than the NoHo Arts Center’s intimate auditorium. Hollywood and Broadway should sit up and pay attention: A star has arguably been born at the Center. Sherer trods the boards with the best of them. Who knew back in public school that one day the superhero I’d be sketching would be ensconced in a wheelchair? Just do the math.


Proof runs through Feb. 21 at the NoHo Arts Center, 11136 Magnolia Blvd., N. Hollywood, CA 91601. For more info: 818/508-7101; www.thenohoartscenter.com.   

FILM REVIEW: THE BOOK OF ELI


Denzel Washington stars in The Book of Eli.

Bible-thumping apocalypse
 

By Don Simpson
 

Over three decades ago years ago, “the flash” obliterated most of humanity. Some believe that “the flash” was the Reckoning and it functioned as God’s punishment of humans for misusing the Bible -– using it to control the feeble and naïve (the opiate of the masses), as well as an excuse to wage devastating wars, all in the name of Jesus. (In other words: we should be expecting “the flash” to occur any day now.) Most likely “the flash” was the end result of a nuclear holocaust (most likely due to a religious war). Whatever “the flash” was, it played out as a proverbial reset button for humankind, at least in terms of quelling religious fervor and igniting a passion for reusing and recycling.

Because of Christianity’s association with the catastrophic devastation, every Bible was supposedly destroyed. There is no mention of the Tanakh or Qur’an, but we are led to suspect that all books (religious or not) were to be destroyed. (What better way to control and subdue future populations of the earth than to ensure the propagation of illiterate imbeciles.)

Those lucky enough to be in safe hiding at the time of “the flash,"
such as Eli (Denzel Washington) in The Book of Eli" survived to bare witness to the scorched aftermath of the land and the sheer anarchy of humanity that ensued. Food and natural resources suddenly became scarce; clean drinking water became the most valuable commodity. (Like the survivors in The Road, most humans have resorted to cannibalism due to lack of food.) One line of Eli’s dialogue rings true: “People kill each other now for things we used to throw away.”

Many survivors of “the flash” were permanently blinded, so sunglasses became a necessity for survival (to conceal blindness); those who retained their vision opt to sport sunglasses as well, presumably as protection from the ultra-bright sun (judging by everyone’s burnt leathery skin, the ozone layer is all but gone). The anarchy created by lack of religion and government, as well as natural resources, has instituted a literal hell on earth inhabited by illiterate and godless humans.

Eli has been walking west (or so his faith tells him) ever since he acquired what is most likely the only remaining copy of the King James Bible. According to Eli, shortly after “the flash” the voice of God told him where a Bible was and provided him with the vague instruction to walk west. (Eli has been walking west for over 30 years, but he has yet to reach the Pacific Ocean. God must be taking him on the scenic route.)

Since possessing the Bible, Eli has acquired super-human fighting abilities: Eli’s aim is true with both gun and knife, as well as bow and arrow; his reflexes are faster than the speed of light; he can smell and hear things that are nowhere in sight; and he is apparently indestructible, or at least bulletproof. (Now that is what I call a powerful Gospel.) Presumably God has granted Eli all of these super powers to ensure that he (and his trusty scripture) will find the mysterious westward destination safely. Eli has become the ultimate fighting (and killing) machine, all thanks to the word of God. Can I get an “amen”? How about an “hallelujah”?

(My theory is that Eli’s super-powers are brought forth by his first edition I-pod, which is unscathed and still functioning perfectly after at least 31 years. Steve Jobs should be proud of his workmanship on that durable piece of machinery.)

Eli finds a small town –- much akin to a ghost town you would see in an old Western movie (so he must be heading west) -– to recharge his I-pod and refill his water bottle. We meet the town tyrant, Carnegie (Gary Oldman), as he leisurely reads a biography on Mussolini. Carnegie is an avid reader, but there is only one book that he truly desires and he has heard rumors of one surviving copy. Recollecting the power of God’s word from the olden days, Carnegie plans to use the Bible to expand the footprint of his dictatorship. Luckily enough for Carnegie, Eli (with Bible in tow) wanders straight into his saloon. This is where we meet Carnegie’s blind concubine, Claudia (Jennifer Beals), and her daughter, Solara (Mila Kunis) -- named after the cause of all the destruction. Solara is a prostitute in Carnegie's old fashioned neighborhood bar and brothel; but by the looks of Solara you would suspect that she is a budding Hollywood starlet on holiday in the post-apocalypse, enjoying the sun while showing off the latest in post-apocalyptic couture.

Solara is dutifully sent to Eli’s room to seduce him into joining Carnegie’s ragtag gang of cronies, but Eli does not bat an eye to her feminine wiles. Instead, Eli sits her down at the table, says grace and breaks bread with Solara (like old people did in the olden days). Solara is instantly enamored by the concept of prayer and God, and promptly converts to become Eli’s first disciple; she wants to learn to read by using the Bible (I suspect that she also wants some God-given super-powers). God be damned if it puts her mother’s life at risk, Solara is heading to the sunny beaches of California with a strangely powerful older man and his mysterious black leatherbound book.

Eli’s gratuitous violence is all in the name of the Christian God, but how is this violence any better than the religious wars of the past (you know, the wars that brought Eli’s world to its near end)? It begs to question: What would Jesus do? Slaughter hundreds of people for essentially getting in his way? Is this trail of dead truly justified? Eli is apparently indestructible (thanks be to God), why does he even need to kill any of his foes? He could easily turn the other cheek and walk away unharmed. And how are we to interpret the scene in which Eli cowardly hides as a motorcycle gang kills two innocent people just for their sack of books? Is it truly Christian to refrain from using your super powers to save the lives of others? And, most importantly, how are we to be sure that if and when Eli has the opportunity to spread the word of God it will not just result in more destruction and mayhem? Eli promises faith and renewal, but have we not heard that same old story before?

Many critics have been displeased by the blatant Christian message and I must admit that I hesitated before seeing The Book of Eli for that very reason. However, my reading of The Book of Eli is not as pro-Christian as others. Contrarily, I find this new brand of Christian-exploitation flick to be a thought-provoking critique and scathing indictment of war mongering in the name of the Christian God –- from the Crusades to the Iraq War –- as well as Bible-thumpers’ greedy and overt blindness to the scientific evidence of global warming.

A lot of the hypocrisies inherent in Eli seem to be purposefully present, to prompt questions and concerns regarding his evangelical agenda. Eli is not to be accepted as the new messiah (though the name Eli is used not without a tinge of religious irony -– Eli is a variant on the name of God as spoken in Arabic, Hebrew, and Aramaic); instead, humankind should be very hesitant to believe scripture which he recites from memory. If there is one thing that we have learned from history, it tends to repeat itself.

That is not to say that The Book of Eli does not have many faults. Though Washington’s amped-up performance is a slight departure from his norm, Oldman is an uninspired cookie-cutter criminal and Kunis’ sole purpose is to ooze style and sex appeal (and if the conclusion of The Book of Eli is any sign –- Kunis will be shepherding a sequel). Apparently, the Hughes Brothers, in their first film since From Hell (2001), blew their load while headily pondering Christian ideologies but they completely forgot to create multi-dimensional supporting characters for Washington to play off of.

My strongest displeasure with The Book of Eli is its shameless glorification of violence. Eli, purportedly channeling God, is a weapon of mass destruction for the audience to marvel and cheer on. This graphic novel-cum-video game brand of violence is totally remorseless (Eli seems to enjoy it), and purportedly for the good of all, and that is a bitter and jaded pill to swallow.


Thursday, January 14, 2010

FILM REVIEW: FISH TANK


Mia (Katie Jarvis) dancing in her Fish Tank. 

Pent up Essex

By Don Simpson

As an heir apparent to the British social realist tradition of Ken Loach’s working-class dramas, director Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank is a painfully bleak portrait of modern life on an Essex estate (which, for us Yanks, is a half-step up from the ghetto) –- a steely urban wasteland located somewhere near Tilbury.

We never witness the protagonist, an aggressive and jaded 15-year-old named Mia (Katie Jarvis), attend school (apparently she has been expelled and may be going to boarding school next) and she is rarely out of her life’s uniform of choice: hoodie and sweat pants. Mia resides in a dreary non-descript council flat with her mother –- more like a slutty, foul-mouthed and foul-tempered older sister –- Joanne (Kierston Wareing) and a potty-mouthed, beer drinking and cigarette smoking prepubescent younger sister, Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths). Together (with no father in sight) they are indeed the poster family for "broken Britain" –- the hopelessly marginalized class of high-rise, low-income Britain. The most unpleasantly sour, piss-off existence if ever there was one. Together they personify the mantra of the prominently-featured Nas track: “life's a bitch and then you die.”

Apparently the only form of communication for Mia’s family is yelling at outlandishly loud decibels (Arnold’s casting agent discovered Jarvis in the midst of an argument with her boyfriend at Tilbury station in Essex) and their language is riddled by profanity and hatred. When a working man –- an Irishman named Connor (Michael Fassbender) –- enters their lives as Joanne's new boyfriend, the three intense females begin to mellow out thanks to the lulling nature of his attentive charm and apparent kindness. In fact, Connor seems to be the only factor that can keep the three females in the same room without an incredibly violent combustion. 


Connor even goes as far as ushering them to the country, thus forcing them to peacefully coexist for an extended period of time while in the restricted confines of a car. During this excursion, Connor introduces them to his favorite music. It is "weird shit" (as Joanne calls it), like Bobby Womack’s "California Dreamin'" and “Get Up Offa That Thing” by James Brown, but they adapt to it quickly. It is not long before Womack’s "California Dreamin'" is Mia’s favorite song and it becomes the soundtrack to her fantasy of escaping the concrete jungle of Essex.

Connor’s cooling affect seems to be strongest with Mia. When she is around Connor her personality is toned-down to somewhere around content bordering on pleasant. Yet, we are not fooled by this: from Connor’s initial ogling of Mia as she sensually dances in the kitchen (“like a black” – which, according to Connor, is a compliment) to Mia’s wanting stare of Connor’s bare-chested body, it is easy to predict down which path this story will eventually travel. Their relationship becomes disturbingly more heated as they endlessly alternate between being the victim and the perpetrator in the pedophilic scenario. Mia just wants someone to love her (she certainly does not receive any positive affirmations from her mother or sister) while Connor is just hoping to get those damn sweat pants off of Mia.

Trapped on the wrong side of the unforgiving glass walls of lower-class Britain (most likely the fish tank to which the film’s title refers), Mia’s pent-up anger and frustration is busting at the seams. The question is whether or not Mia will ever be strong enough to shatter the glass in order to break free of the inherent restraints of her family’s class. Cramped in a claustrophobic 4x3 ratio, director of photography Robbie Ryan purposefully and effectively encages (and enrages) Mia’s energies as she quite literally pounds against the outer frames of the screen while she dances.

This is definitely not a healthy environment for a 15-year-old (and especially her younger sister) to be raised –- no hope, no future and no love. It is overtly apparent that Joanne only cares about getting drunk and getting laid; her children are pesky annoyances that continually get in the way of her fun. Joanne’s feeble efforts to keep Mia away from the bumping and grinding parties going on in their living room at night is most likely due to sexual competition, not good parenting (it is obvious that Joanne does not care about keeping Mia and Tyler away from alcohol).

Such a grim picture, but we do glimpse some goodness and naivety within Mia. For one, she is fascinated by, and repeatedly attempts to free, a dying old horse helplessly chained in a parking lot alongside a highway. But, Mia has her excessively evil moments as well, such as the harrowing sequence on the Essex marshes with Connor’s young daughter Keira (Sydney Mary Nash).

Fish Tank’s bravado is a hard kick in the balls for all of the sexist and demeaning jokes that have been made about Essex women over the years. Despite Mia’s penchant for liters of booze and profane tirades, she exudes a relentless and spirited will to do better for herself. Mia is motivated not by role models or the support of friends and family, but solely by the hope that there is something better out there than what she currently has.

First-timer Jarvis gives a bitterly honest lead performance, one that is a schizophrenic (or, at least, hormonal instability) mix of tenacity, meanness and fragility. The character of Mia exudes so many emotions in so little time yet Jarvis ties them all together so authentically and effortlessly. The greatest compliment to an actor is to say that they did not appear to be acting and Jarvis is not portraying Mia, she is Mia.

Admittedly, I did not enjoy much of the music per se but the soundtrack of Fish Tank is flawless nonetheless. Not only do the songs fit the characters and mood of the film like a glove, but the lyrics of the songs provide greater meaning and depth to the onscreen events. In some instances, the song lyrics literally become part of the dialogue as if the singer was an omnipotent narrator. Fish Tank is proof of one of the great potentials of soundtracks –- the use of lyrical songs to work with and advance the narrative of the film.

Fish Tank scored the Prix du Jury at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. Andrea Arnold won Best Director and Katie Jarvis won Most Promising Newcomer at the 2009 British Independent Film Awards.
 

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

ED RAMPELL'S TOP TEN FILMS OF 2009


Director Michael Moore in Capitalism: A Love Story.

Picking the political

By Ed Rampell

I like to be entertained as much as anyone does –- probably more, considering the time I spend in the dark watching movies. But in addition to entertainment, I look for meaningful content that comments on the human condition, as well as for artistry, which, in terms of film form primarily means being cinematic. In terms of social/political/cultural content, 2009 continued the trend of progressive pictures, which are, as ever, my favorite type of films. 


More or less in order, my Top 10 2009 choices for best pictures are:

Capitalism: A Love Story -- Last year's best film, Michael Moore is a cinematic saint who gives voice to the downtrodden, the down and out, the common man and woman more than any other American filmmaker. With his usual motion picture panache, wit and compassion, Moore deftly takes aim at our societal ills like a dead eye Dick documentarian, scoring bull’s eye after bull’s eye, exposing the bullshit of world's biggest problem: an economic system based on greed and the exploitation of man by man.  

Invictus -- A film about change and reconciliation, what an evolution actor-director Clint Eastwood has made from the racist cop in 1971’s Dirty Harry who urges a Black perp to go ahead and make his day (by giving the detective an excuse to extra-judiciously blow his head off) to this film about overcoming South African apartheid. The film’s first half is the best example of “socialist realism” since the heyday of that Soviet cinematic trend. Morgan Freeman’s Nelson Mandela may be in the “Dear Leader” or “Great Helmsman” mode, but he humanizes the political prisoner-turned-president as an aging man with health and family problems who is a mere mortal after all. Eastwood has given us one of the screen’s greatest sports dramas and morality tales.

Me and Orson Welles -- Last year’s most enjoyable film. I loved it because I, too, met Orson Welles in Paris when I was even younger than Zac Efron’s character and because the movie provides glimpses into the Mercury Theatre’s fabled production of a modern dress Julius Caesar. This was one of the highlights of the Depression era “Proletarian Theatre," and Welles’ 1937 spin was to make Shakespeare’s political tragedy a commentary on then-contemporary fascism. This thoroughly entertaining movie is also an ode to the joys of young love and the artistic life. Although Christian McKay looks older than a 22-year-old Welles, he is otherwise uncanny in the title role. When I saw this film it made me so giddily delirious I thought: “Damn, I’m glad movies were invented!”

In the Loop -- A biting political satire shot in a faux cinema verite style about the lead up to the invasion of Iraq. Real life peace activist Mimi Kennedy is “typecast” as an antiwar diplomat who tries to forestall the coming debacle. In the end she’s ballsier than James “Tony Soprano” Gandolfini’s Lt. General and the loopy U.K. and U.S. male politicians who acquiesce to military madness. Let’s hope that the real life British commission currently investigating the prelude to the Iraq mess see this film.

Inglourious Basterds -- A great anti-fascist and World War II movie in the tradition of The Dirty Dozen. But this time, the military misfits are Jewish soldiers and their partisan allies, who pull no punches as they fight the Nazis. Writer-director Quentin Tarantino's film also has super dialogue and an in-the-know film culture sensibility.

Julie & Julia -- Not only was this film witty and good fun, but it also had a progressive subplot. Based on fact, Paul (Stanley Tucci) and Julia Child (Meryl Streep) resist McCarthyism. Who knew that the French chef cooked up a soufflé of defiance to the anti-communist witch-hunts? The movie also has a 9/11 subplot and commentary regarding relationships and feminism.

The Messenger -- A powerful antiwar drama about casualty notification officers (Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster) and the families they notify about the deaths of servicemen and women fighting Washington’s far-flung imperial escapades. Some scenes are among the most gripping since the beginning of the current round of Afghanistan and Iraq adventures, showing how America’s endless wars impact ordinary people in and out of uniform.
 
Burma VJ  -- A stirring documentary about an uprising led by Buddhist monks against the Burmese junta’s Rangoon goons. The use of alternative media methods to bypass the generals’ gatekeepers, along with the underground’s commitment to journalism and getting the story out to Burma and the world at large, is extremely inspirational.

Flame and Citron -- An exciting, well-directed, well-acted fact-based anti-fascist film about the Danish resistance during the Nazi occupation.

The End of Poverty? -- This Cinema Libre documentary directed by Philippe Diaz shows how the economic system Michael Moore excoriates in Capitalism: A Love Story operates abroad, looting the Third World. Call it the shock doctrine of disaster imperialism.

 



 

 


 

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Don Simpson's Top 10 Films of 2009


Matt Damon takes a dark comedic turn in The Informant!

Rounding out the decade 

By Don Simpson
 
In 2009: Steven Soderbergh, Wes Anderson, Michael Haneke, Spike Jonze and Hayao Miyazaki released films that represent some of their best work to date; two unsuspecting directors –- Nicolas Winding Refn and Duncan Jones –- masterfully channeled Stanley Kubrick; Lynn Shelton’s Humpday appeared at the top of the mumblecore pile; Karin Albou directed another brilliant rumination on the possibility of peace between Muslims and Jews; and the Yes Men made another attempt to fix the world.

There were a few near-misses (Goodbye Solo, The Messenger, and The Road) as well as a couple films that I suspect could have been contenders but I shamefully neglected to see (An Education and The Hurt Locker). As far as Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire is concerned, I concede that Gabourey Sidibe deserves accolades for her lead performance, but do not expect to find Lee Daniels’ film listed in the following alphabetical listing of my favorite films of 2009.

BronsonBronson is to A Clockwork Orange as Moon is to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, Bronson can be viewed as a scathing indictment of celebrity culture and glorification of violence in the media; or perhaps a critique of the prison system’s inability to rehabilitate criminals; or an example of how a downtrodden economy makes some people want to go to prison for free room and board.

Fantastic Mr. Fox – By no means a traditional children’s film (though fairly faithful to the tone and plot of Roald Dahl’s book), writer-director Wes Anderson and co-writer Noah Baumbach’s adaptation is ripe with deep existential ruminations (“I think I have this thing where I need everyone to think I’m this quote-unquote fantastic Mr. Fox”; “I’m a wild animal and a husband and father”) just as one would expect from both Anderson and Baumbach. The stop animation and set design are incredibly beautiful and delicately crafted and the characters are carefully outfitted in Anderson’s typical retro chic attire (corduroy suits, velour shirts, headbands) while the interior design is very modern and saturated with earth-tones.

Humpday – Lynn Shelton’s handling of the content and tone of Humpday is masterful –- mature and emotionally riveting, it is also incredibly and undeniably real. As with the rest of the mumblecore oeuvre, do not expect any bells and whistles; Humpday is purely and concisely “an actor’s film” – strong performances and not much else. Best of all, no plot pranks or lines of dialogue are utilized solely for laughs – yet Humpday is an incredibly funny and entertaining film nonetheless.

The Informant! – Steven Soderbergh’s The Informant! is his most cohesive film since Traffic, balancing all of his greatest directorial strengths: brilliantly sharp cinematography; a soundtrack ripe with purpose and meaning; quirky, yet sometimes uncomfortably dark, humor; incredibly strong and unrestrained acting performances; highly imaginative costume and set design; and bitterly relevant political and social commentary. This being Damon’s virginal no-holds-barred foray into the realm of comedy (and a dark comedy at that), I think he has a new career path ahead of him.

Moon – Equally an existential discussion on the human psyche and a treatise against corporate deception and conspiracy, Moon poses a host of questions about humanity’s current modus operandi. Near-flawlessly directed by Duncan Jones (son of David Bowie), Moon is the most compelling, thought-provoking and coherent work of science-fiction to be released in the cinemas in countless years. Additionally, Sam Rockwell’s stunning meditation on what it means to be alone is by definition an Oscar-worthy performance.
 
Ponyo – At age 68, Hayao Miyazaki is still able to channel the playful, curious and fantastical mental acrobats of children better that any other living storyteller. If you want to know what your five-year-old child is daydreaming about while you’re vacationing on the coast this summer, I bet they are dreaming about a world that is eerily similar to Ponyo.

The Wedding Song – Entrancing, stimulating and motivational, French director Karin Albou’s The Wedding Song continues a discussion of themes from her 2005 film, La Petite Jérusalem: female sexuality in repressive cultures and relationships between Muslims and Jews. Albou professes that peace is possible between Muslims and Jews, just as Myriam (Lizzie Brocheré) and Nour's (Olympe Borval) friendship is saved purely by mentally conquering their cultural differences and the politics of racism.

Where the Wild Things Are – Both visually (lensed by Lance Acord) and audibly stunning (soundtrack by Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs), the film adaptation (co-written by Spike Jonze and David Eggers; directed by Jonze) remains honest to Sendak’s mantras: it is amazing how children can develop resilience when faced with adversity; children have the capacity to transform traumatic circumstances into their very own means of survival, growth, and maturation. What doesn't kill the child can indeed make them stronger. Where the Wild Things Are (film and book) is a sensitive masterpiece about the pain of being a highly creative, yet lonely child; and that child’s unyielding desire for acceptance, love and stability. It is grim (or is that Grimm?) and heart-wrenching tale at times, but it’s a wonderful and amazing cinematic experience nonetheless.

The White Ribbon – Judging by the sparse opening title sequence, black and white cinematography, and simplistic editing and lighting design, this is by no means a modern piece of filmmaking by Michael Haneke (one might say that The White Ribbon is the antithesis of his oeuvre to date). The White Ribbon possesses the finely-aged quality of northern European films from the 1930s and 1940s, while also functioning as a stunning homage to the films of Robert Bresson.
 
The Yes Men Fix the World – Directed by Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno (a.k.a. the Yes Men), and co-directed by Kurt Engfehr (editor-producer Bowling for Columbine; Fahrenheit 9/11), this humor-injected political documentary makes Michael Moore’s 2009 effort seem utterly uninspired. Posing as high-ranking representatives of evil corporations, the Yes Men con their way into business conferences and television interviews in order to wake up their audiences to the dangers of passively allowing greed to rule the world. The results are more than just silly activist pranks. The actions of the Yes Men are thoughtfully conceived acts of protest designed to reach the largest possible audiences, inciting discussion, debate and action.