Friday, November 25, 2011

Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life: Grade B

Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life

Eric Elmosnino, Lucy Gordon, Laetitia Casta, Doug Jones; Writer-Director Joann Sfar (French, subtitled)

Serge Gainsbourg was a pop singer-songwriter in France who enjoyed enormous fame in the mid 1960’s. Though virtually unknown in America today, this biopic is worth seeing because it is a visual feast, an auditory feast, and an acting feast.

Writer-Director Joann Sfar is a creator of comic books (or “graphic novels,” as they are reverently known) and his uninhibited, surrealistic visual sensibility dominates the film, especially in the first half, which covers the childhood of Lucien Ginsberg (real name) in Nazi-occupied Paris. The boy’s alter-ego is a huge balloon with tiny arms and legs, that follows him around, mocking his self-image as an ugly kid, and his Jewishness. The anti-semitism of the Vichy regime is noted, but the story line is really about the boy’s irreverent, iconoclastic, precocious, artistic soul, as he develops his talent as a painter. At times, his alter-ego is represented by an animated figure that swoops around Paris. These early scenes get an A+ for creativity and visual attractiveness.

But it is nominally a biography, so the boy becomes a man (suddenly, without incident), a piano player and song-writer who works sleazy bars and hopes to succeed as a painter. His alter-ego is now played, wonderfully, by a costumed icon with huge nose and ears (Jones), who follows him around and seems to represent his grounding, his center, who he really is (in his mind). Gainsbourg (the adult stage name) is played brilliantly by the relatively unknown actor Elmosnino. His presentation, always through a blue cloud of Gauloises smoke, is simply eye-gripping. In his own voice he sings in the style of ‘60’s chanson, and the songs are great. He cavorts with multiple women, including Bridget Bardot, wonderfully played by Casta, a sensation in her own right. He performs a fabulous reggae version of the Marseillaise, and as he becomes a huge star, also becomes a drunken fool who loses his compass.

During the last half of the film, the visual creativity that was so stunning earlier, fades, and the movie focuses on the psychological development of the artist as he loses his center but never despairs that, though others around him do. The last half runs far too long and dwells too closely, without insight, on basically an unattractive person, diminishing the overall effectiveness of the movie. Nevertheless the film is a work of art worth seeking out.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Turin Horse: Grade A


The Turin Horse (2011)
János Derzsi, Erika Bók; Directors Béla Tarr, Ágnes Hranitzky, (Hungarian; subtitled).

I only discovered Bela Tarr in 2006 when I saw his 1988 movie, Damnation (reviewed in this blog 11/27/06). Turin Horse was his last film. Like Damnation, this one is long (2.5 hrs), extremely slow, shot in beautiful black-and-white, and ultimately about the desperation of life under totalitarian (communist) rule in Hungary. It is utterly mesmerizing, depressing, and beautiful, but only recommended for viewers who are committed to film as an art form.

A poor, elderly, and disabled country farmer in Italy, about 1900, makes a meager living carting goods, his horse an old, gray, sickly mare. He lives with his daughter in a fieldstone house in a cold, windy, treeless land where a howling gale rages for most of the movie. It’s always winter, cold, and bleak in a Bela Tarr movie, because that’s how life was under communism. The storm is the harsh and relentless politics blowing through the land, the dust making the simplest movement a challenge. The man and his daughter eat boiled potatoes, fetch water from the well, stoke the wood stove, gaze numbly out the dirty window, and sleep. She spends a lot of time dressing and undressing her father, who has a bad arm. They both spend a lot of time harnessing up and unharnessing the horse. This goes on and on, repeatedly.

Scenes are re-enacted in excruciating detail, every day. After about three cycles, I inwardly screamed, “Please, God, no! Not another boiled potato!” But yes, it was another boiled potato, and we again watched it being prepared, served, and eaten, in almost real-time. The same for all the other daily chores. Over and over with tiny, tiny variations, sometimes only in the camera movements or angles.

But this is exactly the point. The audience literally feels, viscerally, the hopelessness, the meaninglessness, the mind-numbing repetitiveness of that life. We understand experientially, in a way no narrative description could ever convey. That’s what makes the film an unforgettable artistic triumph. Yes, it takes a difficult 2.5 hours of nothingness to “get it,” but that’s a lot less than a lifetime.

A few things do happen, though. The horse gets too sick to work, and finally, the well goes dry. So they are doomed. They gaze numbly out the window into the winter storm. The final scene, of the two characters sitting at the table (over potatoes not boiled – no water), is pure visual poetry. They look somehow Christlike at that point.

The blurb for the film says that this old horse was the exact one that Nietzsche famously encountered in Turin in 1899. But that is a red herring that should be ignored. If the ads told you what the movie was really about (existential nothingness), you wouldn’t go.

The cinematography is extremely interesting and beautiful, the music hypnotic – deep bass and cello, repetitive, droning, beautiful, and soporific, in keeping with the tone. The visual images burn into your brain as you stare into the face of a human condition reduced to a mechanical numbness that strangely still retains its dignity. The portrayal is not completely realistic (e.g., who chops the firewood and cuts the hay for the horse; who maintains that stone house, etc.? Surely not the woman alone, and surely not the one-armed man). So there is a theatrical element to the storytelling, but the realism of the life somehow comes through that artifice brighter than actuality.

The Mill and the Cross: Grade A

The Mill and the Cross (2011)

Rutger Hauer, Charlotte Rampling, Michael York; Director Lech Majewski. (Spanish; Subtitled)

This is a stunningly beautiful film by a legendary director, based on a painting by the Flemish master, Peter Bruegel, his 1564 painting, "Way to Calvary." You can see the painting online. The film is the story of how Breugel designed the work as he watched people and events in his medieval village, which had been occupied by hated Spanish mercenaries. So there is political commentary in the painting and in the film.

The painting shows Jesus carrying his own cross to Calvary, but somehow this scene takes place in Flanders in the 1500’s. The director uses a combination of CGI, green-screen, location shooting, and live actors to move seamlessly in and out of the painting, with fantastic effect.

A windmill on a towering rock is a metaphor for heaven, God as a miller, the massive wooden gears and wheels of the mill showing how heaven grinds humanity down, down, down, into flour-like dust.

Hauer plays Breugel, who explains his painting’s design to wealthy patron York. Rampling is Jesus’s mother, Mary, who keeps saying “I don’t understand,” as she watches the crucifixion. She represents a modern voice perhaps, speaking for the audience, who sees humanity of that time devoid of intellectual understanding, only passive acquiescence to senseless hardship. There were only the tasks of staying alive, until you were finally ground to dust. Nothing made any sense, not even religion, according to this painting and film. Only art might have made sense.

Dream Home: Grade B


Dream Home (2010)

Josie Ho, Anthony Wong Chau-Sang, Eason Chan, Hee Ching Paw, Kwok Cheung Tsang; Director Ho-Cheung Pang (Cantonese Chinese; Subtitled).

There is a movie in theaters now with Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz called “Dream House.” A family becomes the target of a serial killer in that movie. I haven’t seen it.

This film is called Dream Home, and is from the point of view of a serial killer. A young woman has scrimped and saved for a lifetime to afford the perfect apartment by the sea. But alas, the building is fully occupied and nothing is for sale. Solution? Kill some occupants, creating instant vacancies.

In fairness, I need to say the victims are not just “killed,” for that sounds tidy. No, these victims are violently, bloodily slaughtered, using knives, boards, fists, and garrotes. This is an extremely violent, bloody, Hong Kong horror/slasher film. Nevertheless, I found it enjoyable.

One reason is that there is a balance between the young woman’s ordinary everydayness, at work, with her friends, with her family, versus her forays into serial murder, so you don't overdose. There is no attempt to provide psychological continuity between those two halves of herself. The movie plays it as if the gory murders were the most reasonable thing in the world for a person to do. There is no suggestion that she is a conflicted Jekyll/Hyde. So realism is out the window, but still, the story is marginally plausible.

Also, the murders are very creative, almost humorous. What I mean is that they are so gory and brutal, you can’t for a moment take them seriously. They are just real enough to make you gasp, and you will. For creative murders in the filmic art, you can’t beat these. I doubt that you have seen murder by vacuum cleaner, for example. Finally, the acting is better than not bad. So if you can get past some extreme violence and blood and guts, this is one of the better in the Hong Kong slasher/horror genre.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Drive: Grade A

Drive (2011)

Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Albert Brooks, Bryan Cranston, Oscar Isaac; Director Nicolas Winding Refn.

Gosling is a young, impoverished, ex-con Hollywood stunt driver who moonlights as a getaway driver for burglaries. He befriends a single mom neighbor (Mulligan) and maybe there is a romantic interest there too, but her husband comes home from prison and it is tense. Nevertheless, when the husband gets caught in an extortion deal, the driver agrees to drive for him on one last heist, which, predictably, goes wrong. But Gosling ends up with the money so now the mob is after him and Mulligan too. He fights to freedom in several gruesomely bloody scenes, but realizes he is “no good” for the girl and drives away into the sunset (severely wounded).

What makes the movie good is Gosling’s very quiet performance, which I attribute to excellent directing as much as excellent acting. The book is extremely terse, with not a single spare word, and that economy is transferred to the screen in spare dialog, a perfect artistic choice. Gosling has hardly any dialog, expressing his moods and thoughts through subtle facial gestures and big dramatic actions, like decapitating a guy by repeatedly stomping on his neck. Usually, it is only mature actors who have the skill and the courage to act quietly though. It is a pleasure to watch Gosling perform. Albert Brooks, who usually grates my nerves, does a completely believable job. Mulligan has a terrible, passive role, so she doesn’t have much to do but look beautiful, which she does well.

The photography is outstanding, including the difficult inside-the-car shots, and the music is tense but not too intrusive. The director keeps the action tension very high. The car chases are not too clichéd, but at times hard to follow, like how, exactly Driver got undetected to the freeway underpass to hide from the helicopter. The cars look and sound good, too, Bullet-esque for the Mustang. The main problem is the driver’s character, which unaccountably drifts from earnest, sensitive mechanic and friend, to cold-blooded psychopathic killer. In the end, he apparently realizes his own psychopathy and that’s why he leaves town, but that doesn’t explain who he was when we met him. It’s a violent, bloody movie, not for everyone, but a thoroughly entertaining action film.

Moneyball: Grade B


Moneyball (2011)

Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robin Wright. Director Bennett Miller.

Pitt plays Billy Beane, the real-life manager of the Oakland A’s baseball team in the early 2000’s. The team doesn’t have enough money to hire good players, so they rarely win. He discovers from an ex-stock broker/securities dealer (Hill), that it is possible to cheaply hire players with specific skills, rather than “all around” talent, much the way one evaluates derivative securities against specific screening criteria. Applying that formula to rebuilding the team, Beane came up with a winning A’s team, confounding all the traditionalist critics and skeptics (including field manager, Hoffman). Today, all major league teams use this method to evaluate players.

The story is told well, as a human story, not a technical one, showing how the self-doubts, risks, and courage of the characters plays out. Jonah Hill is a revelation as a serious dramatic actor. Pitt is not as good, playing his usual smart-ass Brad Pitt persona, and strangely, stuffing his mouth with junk food in almost every scene, to the point where it is disgusting, and simply not believable for a guy who still trains and looks buff.

Like junk food, this movie makes you feel good at first, but unfulfilled. There is not enough time given to the individual ballplayers and how their lives are affected by the mathematical strategy. They are hired and fired like the chattel they are, but they think of themselves as people. That’s a story in itself, but soft-pedaled here. There is surprisingly little baseball action in the movie, so it's not really a traditional baseball film. There isn’t much technical stuff either, few details on the method used to rebuild the team. It is nominally the Billy Beane story, but it is not a real biopic either. So what is left? A human drama with lots of nice pictures, nice music, good acting, dramatic scenes, but no actual nutritional value. Still, a must-see for baseball lovers.