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A “Warrior” from Peru

August 27, 2010

Magaly Solier, a talented young Peruvian actress, stars in two films that have come out in the last week in New York: Altiplano and The Milk of Sorrow. In both she plays young indigenous woman persecuted by the forces of history, but the performances–and the films–are very different.

Read my profile of Solier at indieWIRE.

(Personally, I preferred Altiplano‘s flight into irrational mysticism and audiovisual splendor to The Milk of Sorrow‘s dry symbolic realism, but The Milk of Sorrow won the Golden Bear and an Oscar nomination for best foreign film. So what do I know?)

(What do I know? Glad you asked–Altiplano has been unfairly skewered in the press because it was written and directed by a Belgian/American filmmaking team (Brosens and Woodworth) whose pretentious statements about their filmmaking style don’t help. Especially since Babel and Crash, critics are hyper-sensitive to Western guilt being exorcised through so-called “network narratives,” and Altiplano appears, on the surface, to be just such an offender. The Milk of Sorrow, on the other hand, bears the stamp of “authenticity,” because it’s director is part Peruvian, even though she lives and works from Spain. Its symbolism is much easier to read and interpret in comparison to the purposefully obscure Altiplano. I still don’t entirely know what Altiplano is trying to say–and judging by their statements about their approach, neither do Brosens and Woodworth–but I know its striking visuals and haunting score will linger with me long after I’ve forgotten The Milk of Sorrow.)

“Unfinished” Business

August 20, 2010

Is this scene from the Warsaw Ghetto real or staged? A Film Unfinished raises questions about truth, history and documentation.

I recently interviewed the director of A Film Unfinished for indieWIRE. This essay is my opportunity to explore in more depth some of the issues with the film and its portrayal in the media that had been gnawing at me.

In A Film Unfinished, young Israeli documentarian Yael Hersonski painstakingly details the history of “The Ghetto,” a collection of Nazi footage from the Warsaw Ghetto that has served as the basis for much of our visual understanding of that wretched waystation on the road to the Final Solution. Few laymen have seen the entire four reels of “The Ghetto” before. But it has been commonly known to Holocaust historians, and pieces of the footage have been widely redeployed in other Holocaust documentaries. Indeed, Hersonski, upon first seeing the footage four years ago, immediately recognized a number of images from other Holocaust documentaries.

But in 1998, 30 minutes of additional footage from the “documentary” came to light. These outtakes revealed that some (much?) of the imagery from “The Ghetto” was staged by Nazi propagandists in an attempt to portray Jews in an unsavory and stereotypical light. The avowedly secular head of the Judenrat (the ghetto’s Jewish government) was forced to take down pictures from his office and replace them with photos of rabbis and place a giant candelabra on his desk for a staged meeting with religious elders. Fully bearded, yarmulke-wearing Jews were ordered to recreate Jewish rituals, perhaps to provide a visual record once the race was wiped out. Most despicably of all, the Nazis gathered up the best-dressed and best-fed Jews in the ghetto and made them act out vignettes that would demonstrate the disparity between the rich and the poor in the ghetto and the rich Jews’ callousness to their impoverished neighbors. In one outtake, well-dressed waitresses in the ghetto’s nicest restaurant are shown repeatedly walking by the outstretched hands of ragged, emaciated beggar children. In A Film Unfinished, Hersonski reveals that what was assumed to be a documentary was really the raw material for a vilely anti-Semitic propaganda film. (As if one would expect anything better from the Nazis…) Read more…

The Perfectly Weird Toy Story 3

July 15, 2010
Toy Story 3

Buzz (L) and Woody, a paean to gay marriage? You decide.

“It’s pretty much a perfect film,” was my friend’s judgment after we saw Toy Story 3. I’m inclined to agree. The crazy thing about her statement? Nobody is the least bit surprised.

After 15 years and 11 films, Pixar has established such an exceptional standard of excellence that anything less than perfection is disappointing. In every aspect—animation, story construction, dialogue, character development, emotional depth, unobtrusive 3D effects—Toy Story 3 is unimpeachable. Toy Story 3 is a demonstration of what can happen when a gifted, driven group of people is as motivated by aesthetic excellence as it is by making money. Imagine what other Hollywood blockbusters would be like if their producers had even a quarter of Pixar’s perfectionism.

But you probably know all that. What I’d like to explore instead are the somewhat odd character psychologies and psychosexual dynamics of Toy Story 3. Take these characters out of the playpen and put them in a live-action film, and you wouldn’t find an odder collection of emotionally tilted, sexually ambiguous characters this side of Pedro Almodovar.
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Digging the Greek

June 29, 2010
Get Him to the Greek

Jonah Hill (L) and Russell Brand (R) are chased by Sean Combs (C) in one of the more nonsensical sequences in Get Him to the Greek. 'This is the longest hallway!' shouts Hill. 'It's Kubrickian,' replies Brand.

I’m a sucker for a perfectly tuned pop culture parody. Tropic Thunder opened with a series of sublimely hilarious movie trailers, and I was hooked—despite the rest of the film being a somewhat erratic, and occasionally obnoxious (Tom Cruise as Les Grossman, anyone?), action-comedy. Which is why I fell for Nicholas Stoller’s new generically Apatow-ian comedy, Get Him to the Greek.

Get Him to the Greek opens with a video for “African Child” by Aldous Snow. Snow is played by Russell Brand, in a reprise of the narcissistic British rock star he played in Stoller’s and Jason Segal’s Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Snow is not far removed from the stage persona known as “Russell Brand,” who by all appearances, is not far removed from the real human being called “Russell Brand.” Not a stretch, but no matter. Breezily walking through the streets of a war-torn African city, Snow sings “All these blowjobs in limousines/What do they matter/What do they mean/To the little African child/Trapped inside of me,” as child soldiers murder each other in the background. In interviews on the set, Snow denies seeing himself as a “white Christ figure from outer space.” He leaves that judgment to other people, who are perfectly entitled to see him that way. Yup. I’m sold.
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The Eh Team

June 22, 2010
Yes, The A-Team

L-R: Going in, I thought Bradley Cooper, Quinton Jackson, Sharlto Copley and Liam Neeson were perfectly cast in The A-Team. I hate it when a plan doesn't come together.

During the ‘80s, I watched The A-Team on a weekly (and later, daily) basis. Two decades later, I can’t remember the plot of a single episode. At 5 p.m. on June 20, 2010, I watched The A-Team the movie. Two hours later, I’m struggling to remember the plot.

Appropriate? I guess, if one’s expectations for a movie are defined by the limitations of its schlocky source material. I didn’t expect much more from director Joe Carnahan’s (Smokin’ Aces) reboot than a rehash of cartoon-deep character quirks, a throwaway plot and some over-the-top action scenes, but I was hoping it would be so stupid it would be fun. Unfortunately, it’s so stupid that it’s depressing.

On paper, the producers got the casting right: Bradley Cooper has the looks to play Face (Dirk Benedict in the original), Quinton “Rampage” Jackson seems mean and cuddly enough to fill Mr. T’s shoes as B.A. Baracus and Sharlto Copley was effortlessly funny in District 9, suggesting he could easily improve upon Dwight Schultz’s annoying Murdock. The most questionable call was Liam Neeson as Col. Hannibal Smith (George Peppard on the show), but the trailers seemed to lay that concern to rest. With cigar in mouth, hands on hips and smirk on face, Neeson appeared to capture Smith’s joyful sense of authority. Trailers can be deceiving.
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Better than Moonshine

June 17, 2010
Winter's Bone

This is about as glamorous as Jennifer Lawrence gets in Winter's Bone, where she plays a dirt-poor teenager in the Ozarks caring for her siblings and trying to find her fugitive father before the family home is taken away.

It’s tempting to search for universal themes in a film like Winter’s Bone, set among dirt-poor rednecks in the Ozarks, a mountainous, wooded region that spans from central Missouri to northern Arkansas. But everything that is great about Debra Granik’s film—and there is much—derives from the uniqueness of its setting, and the specificity of the characters’ motivations and codes. Stripped of its local color, Winter’s Bone becomes a drab and barely credible detective story.

As imagined by Granik, the Ozarks are a forbidding place. The trees are leafless, the ground crunches underneath each step, lawns—if you can call them that—are littered with vehicles and trash. Everyone owns a gun, if not several, and the only available occupations appear to be the military, the police or making crank. Somehow, every walk is uphill. This is surely not a full portrait of the Ozarks—the region is home to Wal-Mart and a healthy tourism industry—but it appears to be an accurate reflection of a particular kind of poor, marginalized community. Daniel Goodrell, a former Marine who has lived in the area for much of his 57 years, wrote the novel on which it is based.
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Women Behaving Badly

June 11, 2010
Please Give

L-R: Rebecca Hall, Ann Marie Gilbert, Amanda Peet and Catherine Keener are just four of the women who say horribly inappropriate but brutally honest things in Nicole Holofcener's Please Give.

I have little patience for movies about Upper Manhattan angst (see Solitary Man). But few are as funny, well-written and smart about female anxieties and—get this—the importance of money as Nicole Holofcener’s Please Give.

The latest Holofcener film to explore modern American women and their neuroses (Walking and Talking, Friends With Money), Please Give is less a story than a series of vignettes of very real, very flawed women who communicate as if their ids had been uncorked. When they cross paths, they say horribly inappropriate, brutally honest things but shrug them off with all the politeness expected of enlightened denizens of the East Coast middle/upper class. If it weren’t for the sympathetic piano score and the chorus-of-hugs ending, this could play as vicious satire.
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The Gift that Keeps Us Guessing

June 4, 2010
Exit Through the Gift Shop

A classic example of Banksy's subversive, gimmicky street art that sorta kinda serves as the subject of Exit Through the Gift Shop.

Exit Through the Gift Shop is a knowing exploration of the aesthetic, financial and ethical issues surrounding street art, hidden under the guise of a hilarious story about a talentless fool who hangs on the fringes of the scene. The fact that the fool may not exist hardly matters. If we take Exit at face value, it’s a twisting, amusing adventure that demonstrates how easily hype can manipulate art world taste. If we see it as a hoax, it becomes a twisting, amusing joke… that demonstrates how easily hype can manipulate art world taste.

Street art exists at the intersection between pop art, graffiti, performance art, vandalism, protest art and straight-up pranking. It’s usually not particularly complex—one of the most ubiquitous examples is a stencil of Andre the Giant’s face with the word “OBEY” in block letters—but it tries to make up for its simplicity through inventiveness, cleverness and how-the-hell-did-they-get-that-there logistical audacity. Its most famous practitioners are the mysterious, never-photographed Banksy, and Shepard Fairey, now best known for his red-and-blue Obama “HOPE” poster. Both figure prominently in Exit Through the Gift Shop, and Banksy directed it—a tip-off that in this documentary, not everything (perhaps even nothing) is what it seems.
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May 28, 2010

George Romero’s latest installment in the Living Dead series, Survival of the Dead, opens today. It won’t be in theaters long. Read my review from March.

Also, check out my story on Romero and the making of the film.

Solitary Man Should Be Left Alone

May 27, 2010
Solitary Man

In Solitary Man, Michael Douglas uses sex to stave off mortality. Not a bad idea, in theory.

In a moment of post-coital clarity after a one-night stand, a lovely young blonde woman (Anastasia Griffithe) asks Ben Kalmen (Michael Douglas), “How did I even end up with the grandfather of one of my son’s friends?” With typically cruel bluntness, Kalmen responds, “You’re in your late 30s. And if you were in your late 20s, you would be with the dissatisfied father of one of your son’s friends.” Pulling the bed sheets to her chin, she asks, “Who even talks like that?” Good question. The same could be asked about any character in Solitary Man, one of those contrived exercises in middle-brow profundity where every character articulately says what he’s thinking or feeling all the time, without the slightest bit of shame or misdirection. Its apparent cynicism is as fraudulent and predictable as its final reel turn to humanism.

Directed by Brian Koppelman and Daniel Levein (co-writers of Rounders) from an inexplicably celebrated script by Koppelman, Solitary Man focuses on Douglas’ Kalmen, one of those raging, aging lions familiar from overrated Saul Bellow novels. He’s 60, he has a bad heart, and he’s taken a dump on everything good in his life. Sometime in the past seven years, he divorced his faithful wife (Susan Sarandon) and sabotaged his successful car-dealership empire so as to dedicate his life to the pursuit of the youngest possible tail he can snare. Despite being a world-beating douchebag, he retains the unconditional love of his angelic daughter (Jenna Fischer, who has yet to prove she can do anything interesting beyond her role as Pam on The Office) and his eternally patient ex. He still lives in luxury in an impossibly expensive Manhattan apartment (which is to say, it has a view and there’s room to walk around his bed), and still catches the eye of winsome, exotic 20-somethings. In other words, he lives the kind of heterosexual fantasy of late middle age reserved in reality only for celebrated authors and, well, Michael Douglas.
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