Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Couchies - Best Supporting Actress

Last Year's Winner - Margo Martindale

Nominees

Rachel Weisz - My Blueberry Nights

Weisz has a way of standing out in bad movies, and, whoo, was this one bad (click the movie above for the details). The only thing even remotely good about Wong Kar Wai's patently false account of love in America was Weisz's boozy and smokin' hot Sue Lynn, who not only drove David Straithairn to the bottle, but also provided the only thing close to real emotion. Even though her character is an archetype as silly and unrealistic as Straithairn's boozer, Weisz brings such power to the role that I wish, god I wish, that Norah Jones had taken out to the road with Sue Lynn rather than Natalie Portman's insufferable Leslie.

Nanou Garcia- Pour De Vrai

I made an internal pledge not to include actors and performances from all the short films I saw last summer, but Garcia really was one of the acting standouts from the Court Metrange Festival, and her appearance in every second of Blandine Lenoir's 22 minute, one-shot, mini-epic, contained more range than most performance this year. She dotes on her kids, rocks out to a garage band, all the while repeating seemingly meaningless phrases. Like so may of the shorts that week, it was breathtaking.

Erika Bók - Satantango

Bok might have had more screen time than all the other acting nominees combined, but her freaky-ass Estike was only really a catalyst for the rest of the town. Despite being partly repulsed and even bored by some of her scenes, I'm still freaked out every time I see her portrait staring out from the front of the Satantango box. It is simply an indelible performance of pure cruelty and alienation, and something that I'm not sure I ever want to see again.

And the winner is...

Jennifer Jason Leigh - Margot at the Wedding

A clean sweep in the female acting categories for Noah Baumbach's tale of one really messed up family. Despite the bitterness, I could have watched Kidman and Leigh trade barbs all day, dropping in sly, and not so sly, hints about the various failures they've each lived through. Kidman gets the meatier part, but Leigh gets more out of the hippy-dippy sister act than was probably in the script. Looking not a day older than her Ridgemont days, Leigh is able to bring some depth and realism to the part, making her tete-a-tetes with Kidman a contest of equals, despite the latter's own formidable skills.

Next up...Best Director

A Small Comment (While finishing up the Couchies)

The selection of Sean Penn over Mickey Rourke for Best Actor on Sunday was an embarrassment. I don't expect the Oscars to reward true merit in Best Screenplay or Best Director, but when it comes to mainstream acting, they should at least be able to recognize the difference between mimicry and true talent.

Now I like Sean Penn as much as the next guy (well, maybe not if the 'next guy' is RFC's Sean), but flaming it up and playing the role of martyr was not nearly the performance of Rourke, who actually had to create a character out of a script and (maybe) his own experience. I'm glad I didn't watch the show Sunday, because the only thing I would have liked to see (well, aside from a Herzog win) was Rourke's acceptance speech. I'm not sure why the Penn pick wasn't more controversial, but the folks in LA did a fine job of conspiring to rob the outsider and reward a guy who, for all his rebel posing, is about as much a company man as there is in that town.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Couchies - Best Actress

Last Year's Winner - Kate Dollenmeyer

Nominees


Hanna Schygulla - Il Futuro e Donna

The only Thespian repeat from the 2007 Couchies, Schygulla once again has to settle for a nomination. What an extraordinary talent. I've yet to see any of her collaborations with Fassbinder, but the two movies I saw her in this year - Il Futuro and The Edge of Heaven - demonstrated a formidable range. In the former, she is beautiful, outgoing, and (sort of) expecting her first child; in the latter, she is conservative, cautious, and in danger of losing her daughter. It's an amazing set of performances and, fortunately for her 2009 Couchie chances, I'm making it a mission to work my way through Rainer Werner's oeuvre this year.

Samantha Eggar - The Brood

Technically, only Sean reviewed this one, but since I saw it and commented on the Cronenberg lecture that preceded it, it's fair game. As the expression of Cronenberg's hatred of his ex-wife, Eggar is all wrath and vindictiveness. Not only is she a woman, but she is pregnant too! Look out. Though the movie as a whole suffers from the director's myopia and structuring its narrative around stereotypes of women from the sixteenth century, Eggar is pretty damn scary.

Cate Blanchett - I'm Not There

For someone who liked this movie, I wasn't as high as others on Blanchett. Sure, she was playing a guy, but Dylan circa 1965 ain't exactly a real stretch into machoville. Dylan had the peacock strut and an almost divaish feel as inhabited by Blanchett, and one I'm not sure was justified. She definitely looked like Dyaln, but that probably had to do more with weird 60s fashion and Dylan's frail body than anything Blanchett did. So wait, why is she even listed? I can't remember, but we have to move on.

And the winner is...

Nicole Kidman - Margot at the Wedding

This one should not be a surprise, at least for anyone who read our review of this film last March. Kidman's Margot is a force of nature, a writer armed with as much sarcasm as any ofNicolson's many misanthropes. At a crucial moment in her sister's life, Margot is torn between her general disapproval of her family and her need to exploit the same family for her art. The result is many many painfully funny and heartbreaking moments, as only Baumbach seems capable of grasping. Margot often seems on the verge of alienating her sister and, more importantly, her son, but Kidman never lets her become a monster.

Next Up...Best Supporting Actress

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Chocolate

Dir. Prachya Pinkaew

Viewed: From the Balcony

With a blood transfused Friday the 13th hacking and slashing its way into the hearts and minds of the populace this past weekend, it was time for many to reconsider the black sheep boy of film -- the slasher movie, but I spent my Friday the 13th taking in a different beast of film -- the martial arts movie. Like the slasher, the martial arts movie got its big push into the mass consciousness in the late 70s/early 80s, in the drive-ins and through indie and low budget productions. Both gained instant appreciation from thrill seeking audiences and were quickly absorbed into the arsenal of the Hollywood studios looking to make big returns off of small investments. While both genres have had their successes and failures, just like anything else, I’ve always appreciated the martial arts movie more.

While there’s no doubt that both genres have had their passionate auteurs over the past 30 years, I’ve always found more inspired ideas, both visual and story-wise, in the martial arts movie. There's a passion behind these films that burns brighter and that sort of effort will always end up on the screen. When looking at the early Hong Kong films, you’re invariably looking at actors play out the characters and events that formed their country’s moral fiber -- the equivalent of our westerns or the stories we were read in school about the Greek gods. Such things are not taken lightly and it’s refreshing to see the determination in everyone involved in these films to capture these characters and events correctly and treat them with the respect they deserve; nevermind the fact that they were making something that would eventually be regarded by some high-minded twat as unimportant b-movie stuff. These kinds of stories (of the wuxia style) soon evolved, or devolved depending on your point of view, as audiences, especially the Americans, began to favor the modern, relatable stories; ones that parallel the westerns that audiences grew up on -- the lone gunman out for revenge and so on. Rather than see their old bedtime stories play out on the screen, we started to see new heroes with fuzzier moral codes begin to take the reins from the old guard.

Recently Thailand and director Prachya Pinkaew have made a name for themselves with martial arts films that show off its homegrown Muay Thai style. It's a martial art that relies more on elbows and knees, basically. A few years ago Ong Bak was released and it caused a bit of a sensation for revitalizing a dying genre. The movie successfully combined quality set-pieces and death defying stunts with equal parts humor and brutal violence. Audiences around the world came out of the theater with aching joints after witnessing this new Muay Thai style. But while Ong Bak's star, Tony Jaa was as dexterous and slippery as Jackie Chan, he carried none of that man's charisma. So while it was good fun to see him crack skulls, we wished we could have a hero who could read a line with some believable feeling. Ong Bak 2 is around the corner so I'll report back if Jaa's taken some acting classes.

Which leads us to Chocolate. Chocolate tries to fixs Ong Bak's problem by crafting its story around actress JeeJa Yanin (much easier to write than Yanin Vismitananda), a string bean fighting machine that is no master thespian by any means (she's a newcomer just as Jaa was) but is a perfect fit for the movie. She's built like Olive Oyl so there's an innate pleasure is seeing her take down mobs of guys twice her size and age -- the actress is in her 20s but I believe her character is supposed to be in her teens. She's a joy to watch. Though I'm not sure if going so far as to make her character autistic, which the movie does, really helps but it gives her very little in the way of dialog and about halfway through the movie you're so excited that it's really beside the point. The autistic angle they go for also makes for an unprecedented mentally handicapped throwdown (I think her opponent has a breakdancey strain of tourettes) that is actually not tasteless at all and is in fact remarkable and funny in all the right ways.



Chocolate does indeed take it's sweet time becoming a good movie. It starts off, I hope I'm using the term correctly, craptacularly. There's a lot of nonsense about two rival gangs and a forbidden romance and bad bad music and ridiculously melodramatic cinematography that hasn't gone down well since late 80's John Woo. Eventually things pick up and our heroine Zen turns out to be the progeny of this elicit coupling and her mother, ostracized by her fellow gangland cronies, falls victim to cancer. At least I think it's cancer, I don't think they ever explain it -- but whatever her illness, the medicine costs too much. To pay the bills, Comic Relief, err Mangmoom aka Moomy aka the little guy who I think is Zen's cousin that live with them, hatches a plan to reach out to the businesses that Mom used to shake down when she was a mobster to collect on what they owe her. Brilliant! The kids are promptly thrown out on their ears but not for long. While it's never stated exactly what infliction makes Zen behave like Rainman, it's like some superhuman version of autism. It gives her lightning fast reflexes and the ability to mimic anyone she watches. Of course growing up she's been glued to the tv watching Tony Jaa movies so she realizes that now's the time to let the elbows of fury fly.

The kids quickly get in over their heads, reigniting the age old gang war and it isn't until the second shakedown, an ingeniously choreographed fight scene that takes place in glowing red meat market at night, that the movie really catches air. But when it does, it soars. The meat market scene is a thing of pure cinematic beauty. Like all great action sequences it combines every facet of movie making and brings them together in a glorious, harmonious filmic orgasm. The story, the set design, the camera movement, the sound design, the lighting, the choreography, the performers, the editing, it all comes together to overwhelm your senses and get your endorphins firing. Chocolate does this with jaw-dropping, profound skill. In the meat market we're initially led to believe that Zen will be too fearful of the abundant flies to go in and get her mother's money. The martial arts movie, like the slasher movie, deals with the manipulation of expectations. We know what Bruce Lee can do to a guy and we're sitting in our seats to see him do it again. But we want to be teased and we want him to overcome some obstacles to see him be able to do it. It makes it better. So when Moomy shows up unexpectedly with an electric fly swatter it elicits hoots and hollers form the audience -- it allows the ass-kicking to begin with quality reassurance. The odd, eerie red lighting of the meat market set gives the action a very cool and unique feel. It's not just another warehouse. More importantly, it allows for flying meat cleavers and some poor guys foot to end up on a hook and be sent swinging across the floor. You start to get caught up in the rhythm of the action. Every punch and kick is like a word in a sentence and the camera movement is the emphasis, a block is like a coma, a knockout a period. A well edited scene like the meat market fight is like a well written paragraph. It's extremely satisfying and gets you craving for more.

And when all is said and done Chocolate becomes the best straight-up martial arts film of the decade, rubbing shoulders with the best work anyone has done in the genre. This is due to the meat market scene but in large part to a final climactic sequence that doesn't come up for air for a good twenty minutes. It's a breath-taking, unbelievable achievement akin to the House of Blue Leaves climax in Kill Bill 1. In fact, it may even trump that. It starts in one room but ends up going through the entire floor, out onto the roof, underneath this pipe work that makes for an awe-inspiring squat-fight, onto an elevated train track and finally onto the signage and fire escapes of a downtown building. It's not just a technological marvel either -- it hits you on a pure emotional level as well. The audience that I watched it with were laterally clawing at their chairs, unleashing "fuck yeah"s and "holy shit"s, and generally failing to control their bliss once the movie got rolling and especially during this final monster of a scene. And when the film was over there was the inevitable ovation. This wholly appreciative crowd made for a better than usual experience, I'm sure (it's currently out on dvd and blue-ray). But this is what a good martial arts film can do. It can reach you at such a visceral level that it becomes exhilarating in a way no other film can. There is no denying the cinematic heights this film reaches when it is done.

During the credits it has become customary for these films to show their "blooper" reel. But in the case of Chocolate and others the blooper reel shows us the real concussions, broken bones and pain that the actors go through to complete the film. You might think they're plain stupid to throw their bodies and potentially their lives on the line to make a martial arts film, but I'm not one to belittle their passions. I doubt the Taiwanese film budgets have gotten anywhere close to Hong Kong's so I do think there's a lot of dedication that went into making this film. There are moments in these clips that show JeeJa Yanin shaking off a bad cut to the head, determining to keep spirits high, and wrapping her pained feet to keep the pain down and the shoot moving. This kind of spirit is heartening and I completely respect it. It's like the injured minor league ball player refusing to sit out the game. They're filled with pride and the folks behind Chocolate should be proud, they made one of the best films of its kind.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Quiet City

Dir. Aaron Katz

Viewed: From the Couch

Aaron Katz's Dance Party, USA was a sweet little slice of teenage disconnect. It showed a guy, who through some small moments of realization, grew up a bit and learned to connect with a girl and come to terms with his own life. Katz's 2007 follow-up Quiet City moves us into 20-something territory and the results aren't nearly as revelatory as they were with his teenage protagonists. Like an even more minor scale Before Sunrise, we follow a couple as they meet, talk, run into some friends, talk some more, all the while developing a budding relationship in the span of a day or less. It's not all a failure. In fact, Katz's ability to craft honest, real, three-dimentional characters out of every one of his cast of unknowns is on full throttle through the entire proceedings (like Dance Party, this one clocks in at under and hour and a half as well). And his ability to film these location shots throughout New York and make the city feel so desolate and lonely is a real triumph -- there's some great looking stuff in here. But it all seems somewhat rote and less than inspired.

Padraic made a comment about these types of films -- there has to be something more to them than simply capturing the lives of 20-somethings no matter how accurate and generation-defining they may be. If all Quiet City is trying to do is capture the begining of a relationship between a girl and a guy in Brooklyn, it succeeds with flying colors. The dialog rings true. You can say to yourself, I've been at that same damn hipster art show! They've re-created it note for note! I've left my hat at a friend's house too and took forever to go pick it up, just like Charlie! It's like they know my life! It's true, much of the movie has a perfect slice-of-life quality, even moreso for a Brooklynite, I'm sure. But what's missing is the tiny earthquake. In Dance Party you felt like the combination of all these small, quiet moments led up to the moving of a mountain -- a shifting of a personal continental shelf. It wasn't underlined or exagerated, but after the movie was over, you felt it. When the credits appear on Quiet City, it's much more of a, well, wasn't that nice, feeling.





There are a few knock-out scenes, one of them an interesting parallel to Once, an unspoken RFC favorite from a couple years ago. In the scene, which takes place during their first few hours together, our couple have an improptu jam session with a cheapie electric keyboard in Charlie's tiny apartment. They put on a programed beat and the would-be lovers each take one side of the keyboard and for a couple minutes make the most beautiful song ever recorded. It's not a rip off of the similar moment in Once, it's a completely organic, priceless moment all its own and like any good music making scene it doubles as a sex scene and in this case it's of the sweetest, fumbliest kind. Scenes like this one and the one that follows when the would-be girlfriend cups her hands to help him light his cigarette -- the moment is captured perfectly in rooftop moonlight -- go a long way towards making up for its manic-pixie-dreamgirl-itis.

It's about as tough a mountain to climb in a movie these days. The girl who drops out of the sky to sweep a young man off his feet... It's a hard sell. Since it's just about every man's dream, I'm sure every young male filmmaker has this story and it'll come out one way or another -- this is Aaron Katz's manic-pixie-dreamgirl story and as far as such things go it isn't half-bad.



Monday, February 16, 2009

Prez Day Roku-O-Rama Move Marathon

Twitter. It's what our attention deficit, any-fame-will-do culture has come to. And I, Sean, am not above it -- I've been on Twitter since I got my iPod Touch 6 or so months ago. As an experiment and since I mostly comment on movies, the television I'm watching or, more recently, my battles with SARS, I'm adding it to our never long enough sidebar over to your right. Today I plan on enriching my life with six sure to be wonderful and amazing movies that I will comment on with the kind of probing and enlightening content that Twitter really promotes. The movies will range from Burt Reynolds to Fassbinder and Miike to Herzog. Let's roll.

Fully, completely movied myself out. Going to end on a sure thing and re-watch No Country For Old Men. Haven't seen it since its release.Taking break. Need to think come up with kick ass last movie to go out on.

Typically good, intense perfomance by Kinski but not much in the way of anything else. Haven't gotten beyond solid three star movies today.

Woyzeck isn't so much a look at a man's battle for sanity as it is a look at how far into insanity he'll go.

Poor Wozyeck a diet of peas and mutton would make any man insane.

Could any movie staring Kinski be described as a battle for sanity?#4 - Werner Herzog's Woyzeck. Staring, yes, Klaus Kinski.

Wildly inventive visuals make up for some bad writing. Western Sukiaki Django is much more successful than Tears of the Black Tiger.

Big fan of Bloody Benton. She's righteously kick-ass. Despite more than a few faults the frequent brilliant flourishes make it bloody fun.

Miike's take on the hero jumping on his horse to escape is of course brilliantly nuts. Some great howdhedothat? shots on display.

Miike's use of color is amazing. But I can already tell this movie would be a lot more fun with less plot.

If this movie can keep the goofy WTF grin it put on my face after just the first few minutes I'll be might impressed.

Round 3: Takashi Miike's recent oddity Sukiyaki Western Django.

Killer final shot tho & a killer theme song--kind of a Doorsy tune that pops up throughout the film. Not bad overall if a bit silly.

Central message of American Soldier--women have a problem keeping their traps shut.

Both White Lightning and American Soldier have great scenes featuring a pinball machine. I knew there was a connection!

In an odd way American Soldier reminds me a lot of Godards Alphaville.

There's something inherently perverse about a film noir from Germany -- nevermind from Fassbinder.

Next up Rainer Werner Fassbinder's The American Soldier.

But as far as the redneck fast cars loose women bootlegging movies go I do believe White Lightning sits atop them all.

White Lightning could have used some more scheming from Beatty's racist corrupt yet proud sherrif.

The movie has this badass theme when Gator is about to jump into action. I know I've heard it before. I wonder if Tarantino repurposed it.

It's a tiny Luara Dern!

This movie may rival Cool Hand Luke for most sweat on celluloid.

Bo Hopkins!

Burt Reynold was one charming SOB. What a laugh. Reynolds + fast car = Cary Grant + good suit.

Even 70's movies with Burt Reynolds have an authenticity most of todays movies lack.

Rokuorama begins. First up: Burt Reynolds and Ned Beatty in White Lightning!

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Couchies - Best Supporting Actor

Last Year's Winner - Casey Affleck

The Nominees:

Michael Pitt - Funny Games

Try as I might, I could not get this bastard's mug out of my face. It probably doesn't help that Michael Haneke's twisted tale of amoral killers ends with Pitt staring right into the camera, but the image itself stayed with me long after most other elements of the film had gone. While I initially balked at the direct-address technique, it did have the effect of implicating the viewer in the crimes, and Pitt's mocking of the audience is one of the most memorable parts of the film.. Co-star Brady Corbett gets the more 'crazy' part, but playing this kind of thing straight is the hard part. Sorry Michael, I apologize for calling you "hammy" in the first review.

John Leguizamo - The Happening

I've never had much appreciation for Leguizamo, though the guy seems interested in trying a lot of different roles in movies. To me, he's always seemed much more adapted to the over enunciation and emotion of the live stage where he began than to the more subdued medium of film acting. In The Happening, however, amidst a background of both philosophical and geographical meandering, Leguizamo brings a sense of real emotion, contrived as his character may be. When you have as dead and flat a canvas as M. Knight does, it does help to have some actors who try too hard.

Shea Whigham - Wristcutters: A Love Story

In a movie filled with some classic supporting actors like Mark Boone Jr., Tom Waits, and Will Arnett, Whigham was the real standout, at times upstaging the leads. His non-geographically specific Eastern European accent might have been a shtick, but it's one that never got old. His deadpan response to his little brother's suicide attempt (click on the movie link above to see it) was classic and representative of the best aspect of the movie: downright hilarious shit at the center of the world's saddest topic.

And the winner is...

Richard Gere - I'm Not There

When I think back to Todd Haynes's uneven attempt to bring the character of Dylan to the screen, my first thought is always of Gere, dressed in an absurd hat and glasses, standing in the audience of forgotten people, and watching a painted Jim Jones and Co. sing a timeless song from the gazebo in the town square. It's probably the most singularly beautiful image of the year, and one held together by Gere's refusal to do more than observe. Unlike Ledger, Bale, and Blanchett, who seemed so eager to display their ability to ape Dylan (and in a sense, being as confused as Jamie Foxx and Joquin Pheonix in thinking mimicry is acting), Gere's acting is in response to the emotion of the film, and not watching a bunch of stock film of Dylan. Sean and I didn't agree on much from this movie, but we both realized Gere was the star. Had Haynes turned the movie over to Gere in the beginning, and wound its way back through the other characters, it might have given the movie the emotional coherence it lacked.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Couchies - Best Actor

Last Year's Winner - Lars Rudolph

A strange viewing year, and very different from last year; the Best Actor nominees were as a whole pretty weak this year compared to last year's competition, which featured stars like Nicholson, Russell Crowe, and Lino Ventura. Not sure why, but I only saw one great leading man performance this year; the rest of the nominees to follow are mostly filler.


Donald Sutherland - Fellini's Casanova

A hell of a performance in a hell of a bloated movie. I still haven't gotten around to seeing the Fellini doc where Sutherland describes his experience in this film, but it must have been one heck of a set. Sutherland dons gallons of makeup, charms the hideous folks of Enlightened society, and screws just about everything that moves in this movie, and somehow comes out looking good even as the weight of Fellini's vision often comes literally crashing down around him.

Konstantin Lavronenko - Izgnanie (The Banishment)

Lavroneko was good in Andre Zvyaginstev's stunning second feature, but is listed here mostly because he had one of the few serious male roles of the past year. Maybe it was the move in the direction of more experimental film and festival fare, but there was a surprisingly low amount of serious dramas based around the life of some dude. Lovrenko's Alex is caught up with a deeply complicated family life - both his own, and the one he thought he had left behind - and though he reacts more than acts, his stoic persona grounds a movie filled with deceit, manipulation, and violence.

Mihály Vig - Satantango



Sean may have been worried that 2008 would see a repeat of the Tarr/Kraznahorkai Couchies sweep, but Satantango wasn't quite the award hog that Werkmeister Harmonies was. Vig, for example, was excellent as the golden-toungued
Irimiás, but didn't have the same emotional impact as Rudolph's Janos. Irimias is a great character however, and Vig sells the long monologues so well that even I was believing there were better things ahead. Sean may have wanted a more terryfying figure after the rumors we hear of Irimias (think Marsellus Wallace crossed with Kayser Soze), but Vig's character captured the spirit of hopelessness perfectly: in times of great desperation, even the ordinary looks like a saviour.

And the winner is...

Isaka Sawadogo - Exoticore/Induction

Star of two Nicolas Provost shorts, Sawadogo showed a tremendous range in the span of about 50 minutes. In Exoticore, his turn as lonely African immigrant (Sawadogo and his character are both from Burkina Faso) in Oslo captured not just the experience of physical isolation, but the more general way in which no matter how hard we try, true communication is impossible. As he tries to befriend co-workers and strangers alike, Sawadogo at first gives only hints at the rage which is coming. Though only a little over a half hour long, the character arc and development was more realistic and true to life than any other film this year.

In Induction, Sawadogo is pure terror: a big, strong (and mostly naked) black man who is going to come into your house, sleep with your wife, and emasculate your suburban white ass. More objet d'art than character, Sawadogo somehow speaks volumes about race, sexuality, class, and colonialism with only his actions. It's almost the complete opposite of his richly textured and realistic portrayal in Exoticore; Sawadogo probably would have won for either of these roles, but the combination of the two made it an easy call.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Let the Right One In

Dir. Thomas Alfredson

Viewed: From the Balcony

Sweden's moody, atmospheric to the point of Lynchian, Let the Right One In, starts off with the hushed voice of 12 year old Oskar repeating "Squeal, pig, squeal". It's a disconcerting voice and the words evoke horrible things. I doubt Oskar has ever seen Deliverance, but when we first see him in his bedroom, in his underwear, fondling a knife, our worst thoughts aren't exactly put to rest. In fact, the movie sets its tone quickly, holds its grip, and never lets you quite feel at ease until it's done. As with most of the facts in Let the Right One In, we find out the reason for Oskar's actions in reveals that are dealt out at a deliberate pace over the course of the movie. You see, Oskar isn't the most popular kid in school. In fact, he may be the least popular kid, with an especially cruel group of kids picking on him, calling him Piggy (Oskar - Oscar - Meyer - Piggy - get it?) and generally making after-school a punishing time where violence is always waiting right around the corner. Give Oskar a few more years in his drab apartment complex with his mother, let his fascinations with knives develop a bit more and you'll most likely have another Columbine on your hands. So it's with some relief that Oskar finds companionship with the mysterious new girl that moved into the apartment next door with her equally mysterious father (?).


Her name is Eli, and as Oskar is playing stab-stab with a tree in the apartment building courtyard one night she introduces herself. Since Oskar is obviously a bit of an odd duck himself, he doesn't seem to mind too much that Eli kind of smells funny and is only wearing a t-shirt and pants on a cold Swedish winter night. If she went to school, she'd probably be picked on too. She tells Oskar she's been 12 for a while now and Oskar seems to feel sorry for her when she says she doesn't get presents for her birthday, never mind that she doesn't even remember when it is. They continue to meet at night in the courtyard by the snow covered jungle gym and Oskar becomes downright smitten when Eli is able to finish a Rubix Cube overnight. Only some nights Eli seems to be feeling better than others.


When we first see Eli's "father" he's putting together a travel kit of some sort. A very ominous one with a jug, some rope, a funnel and a knife. It doesn't take long before we figure out what this gear is for as a random stranger gets tied upside down to a tree and their throat slit. Unfortunately the job is interrupted mid-drain by a couple walking their dog and the killer comes home empty handed. Eli is furious and we see the results the next time she meets with Oskar as the growling of her stomach intensifies and she looks to be on the verge of collapsing in on herself. At this point it's pretty obvious to us, not yet to Oskar, that Eli is a vampire and her hunger has gotten to the point where she has to go out herself. She ends up killing the most popular drinking buddy in the town, an act that is witnessed by the local shut-in/cat enthusiast and so begins the countdown before Eli either gets found out or will have to find a new town to feed from.

Working from a novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist (who adapted his own work for the screenplay), the movie brings the icy, snow covered small town life of Sweden to the screen in a way I've never seen before. The breath in the air and the frozen snot on the upper lip, are all lovingly tended to and give the film a rich, detailed texture. Anyone who's looked out over freshly fallen snow on a clear night knows the magic that occurs as the snow reflects the moon light (and the street lamps) and gives off an eerie, other-worldly glow -- suddenly everything is quite visible at 10 o'clock at night, and lit from a completely different perspective. The movie runs with this effect and it really is something magical. The setting also gives it a great timelessness that I'm sure will be the first thing to be stripped away in the inevitable, already in the works, American remake (I believe the movie is supposed to take place in the early 80's but there isn't much to prevent it from taking place any time in the past 50 years). But equally if not more impressive is the sound design. Each breath, every rumble in Eli's tummy and footstep packing down the snow are clearly audible and so effective in creating the unsettling vibe that carries on throughout that I immediately thought of David Lynch and how well he uses sound to create his atmospheres. Much of Oskar and Eli's dialog is delivered in the awkward mumbled words a 12 year old will often resort to, especially in regards to the fumbling attempts at romance. But the heightened sounds of the film give these words an intense clarity. And therefore the Swedish language has never sounded so bizarre as it does in Let the Right One In -- sometimes sounding like a series of clicks and purrs that again simply add to the unusual texture of the film.

The titles reference is two-fold. It's a play on the title of a Morrissey song ("Let the Right One Slip In") but it's also a reference to the age-old caveat that you must invite a vampire into your home for them to enter. I personally get a lot of enjoyment out of the different ways this movie plays with the vampire mythos. We never really witness the full extent of Eli's powers but in one pivotal scene she suddenly appears crouched outside Oskar's third story bedroom window looking for refuge, needing to be invited in. Until this point Oskar and Eli had been communicating through Morse code taps on the wall separating their bedrooms (another example where the attention to detail in the sound design really plays a pivotal role in the story). Like any 12 year old who's would-be girlfriend shows up at the bedroom window, Oskar invites her in. In a flash, she takes off her bloody clothes and hops into bed with him. Oskar doesn't look at her, he's practically frozen as she lies down behind him. All he can do is ask whether or not she would go steady with him. It's an oddly romantic scene that really gets to what the movie is all about -- it's a creepy, gentle love story between a 12 year old outcast and a stuck at 12 years old vampire.


I didn't mind that I pretty much figured out the ending long before it came, it was still pulled off better than I could have hoped. It didn't matter that the business with the bullies received the deus ex machina treatment, I held my breath along with Oskar every step of the way. The two leads, Kåre Hedebrant (Oskar) and Lina Leandersson (Eli), are so mesmerizing in their loneliness that it's a pleasure to watch their odd courtship play out. Every nuance of this relationship is achingly brought to life and it isn't until the movie is over that you realize how ridiculous it sounds that you were just moved by the romance of a 12 year old boy and a vampire.

Like any good horror or science fiction film, the world that you allow yourself to play in is used as a means for freedom and imaginative experimentation and more often than not as a metaphor to speak about timely topics in an interesting way. The vampire is such an enduring film character because it is based in romance and is so damn flexible. Vampirism is the perfect metaphor for drug addiction as in Abel Ferrara's The Addiction, alcoholism as in Larry Fessenden's Habit, zenophobia as in any number of Dracula adaptations, they're the perfect outcasts and the longing and loneliness that is inherent in who they are make for a prime launching pad for any number of stories. But I don't remember that loneliness ever being handled in such a warmly sympathetic and unique way as it is in Let the Right One In. The child vampire has been handled well in Near Dark and even that Anne Rice movie, but they were always treated in an ironic way. Eli is fascinating in completely different reasons from those characters. She knows she needs help and Oskar needs help whether he knows it or not. Making Eli a vampire doesn't make her a heartless, manipulative, evil thing and it doesn't make her any less in need of love than anyone else -- in fact it makes her much more in need of it and in need of someone like Oskar who can love her despite her odd dietary conditions.

More than anything else, Let the Right One In is a uniquely crafted love story. There might be a touch more blood and creepiness in it to make it a good date movie, but if you find yourself with your significant other, seeing past the severed limbs and bonding over the unconditional love on display here, you know you've got yourself someone special.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Couchies - Best Screenplay

The general consensus out there in criticdom is that 2008 was a big step down from 2007, and I have to agree. No matter which way you look at it, the movies just weren't as good. Nothing like There Will Be Blood or No Country for Old Men in the best picture category, and nowhere near the depth, as last year saw fantastic movies like The Assassination of Jesse James, The Savages, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, Margot at the Wedding, and Once pushed aside by the Cohens and Andersen. 2007 also had a big budget feature from Herzog, a new Wes Andersen movie, and the first good Simpson episode in a decade. Sorry, but 2008 was not going to live up to that, despite the apparently heroic work of Christopher Nolan and Jon Favreau turning comic books into loud comic books. Hell, even a great 2008 movie like Encounters at the End of the World counts for us RFC folks as 2007, since Sean and I got to see a sneak preview when back when.

So maybe it was a fortunate occurrence to spend all but three weeks of 2008 outside the country (Belgium, for those who weren't paying attention), where the occasional American film sneaks in, but where you get a nice mix of repertory film, American blockbusters and European art films sponsored by various government cultural agencies. I spent most of my time at the Cinematheque Royale , my favorite movie venue of all-time (2 euro, occasional live piano, new prints, etc), where I had a great introduction to a half-dozen directors I'd never heard of, as well as the occasional experimental film. Le Belge also run a film festival about once every two weeks, so there were the chance to see shorts, features and documentaries from across the globe.

Now, for those of you not around last year , the Couchies are very much subject to time and place, since only movies actually reviewed by Sean and I are available for consideration, and only movies reviewed (not seen) between Jan 1 and December 31 count. So The Wrestler is out, for example, as well as the literally dozens and dozens of movies I sat through last year in various Bruxellian theaters. This includes, sadly, The Passion of Joan of Ark, which would have won Best Film had I gotten around to reviewing it. After the culling, this left me with 19 films, which is kinda small for, say, the Oscars, but about the number that are in competition at most of your better film festivals. And, of course, I have better taste then the judges at the Big 5 anyway, so any winners should feel proud.

There are seven categories altogether, which will be rolled out all hopeful before the Oscars steal the attention away: the four acting categories, Best Film, Screenplay, and Direction. Let's start things off with those much unheralded screenwriters.

Best Screenplay
Last Year - Bela Tarr and Lazlo Kraznahorkai

Nominees

Goran Dukic - Wristcutters: A Love Story

One of the funniest and (for a time) most inventive stories of the year. Based on the shorty story "Kneller's Happy Campers" by Etgar Keret, this post-suicidal world of ennui and unfortunately-placed wormholes got off to a great start, but started to fall into convention as the plot developed. This is a problem with the short story that adapters of people from Chekov to Dick have been struggling with, and even if Dukic doesn't quite get a whole movie out of it, it's a damn fine (and fun) try.

Todd Haynes & Oren Moverman - I'm Not There

Say what you will about the execution of this movie (and Sean said a lot), the script itself was a brilliant attempt to tell the story of artist without the standard biopic trappings. Dylan's fall, if there was one, occurs in the Heath Ledger scenes towards the end, and the constant switching between Dylans gave an 'ark' to the story that was emotionally if not narrartivley coherent. Maybe some elements failed, but there wasn't a more ambitious script to cross the desk at RFC this year.

Piera Degli Esposti, Marco Ferreri, Dacia Maraini - Il Futuro e Donna

The discovery of the year was the director Marco Ferreri and his absurdist take on motherhood, family, and the Italian suburbs. La Grande Bouffle might be the best Bunuel movie Bunuel never made, but this story - two women, one man, and one future kid trying to navigate the world of adulthood after an adolescence of radical Futurism - had enough touches of real emotion to go beyond mere satire. The movie somehow hits on everything - the hedonism and New Age of the 80s, the revolutionary spirit of the 60s, and the general wackiness of the 70s - all in the span of a few weeks, and all while giving personal attention to character. Hell, now I think it should have won, but I already circled the winner on my ballot.

And the winner is...

Noah Baumbach - Margot at the Wedding

Subtract Jack Black and about half the self-indulgence of Margot, and we might be looking at the movie of the year. The core relationship between Nicole Kidman's Margot and sis Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is perfectly rendered, capturing the subtle underlying anger beneath the open pleasantries. Margot herself (based partially on Baumbach's mom) is one of the best written and intense characters to come along in some time, and I think even the caricature of Malcolm might have been written as an actual person before Black got hold of it. As is The Squid and the Whale, Margot is full of absolutely devastating lines delivered from one family member to another. Baumbach might be drawing substantially on stuff he heard as a kid, but the unhappy family story has never been in better hands. I hope, for his sake, that Baumbach doesn't have much more personal story to draw upon.

Next Up: Best Actor

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Wendy and Lucy

Dir. Kelly Reichardt

Viewed: From the Couch

Says Sean:

Will Oldham steps from out the shadows in the early minutes of Kelly Reichardt's newest film, Wendy and Lucy, to set a tone but in a way to also create a bridge from Reichardt's previous film with Oldham, Old Joy. The two movies certainly share the same spirit but unlike his co-staring role in that film, Oldham is gone from Wendy and Lucy just as quickly as he emerged to stand in the glow of a camp fire, smile some blackened teeth (he is playing a guy named Icky after all), and tell tale of his experiences at a cannery in Alaska. He tells this tale to Wendy (Michelle Williams), who is on her way to the great mysterious state with her dog Lucy. She makes note of the cannery in her journal where she also keeps a strict tally of her thin budget -- a budget that looks to be taking a hit the next morning when her old Honda refuses to turn over. And not only that, but later the same day she gets arrested for shoplifting and looses Lucy. With her companion gone, the movie quickly turns into Wendy's struggle to keep her spirit and dreams alive.

The movie covers only two or three days as we resolve the issues of Wendy's car and what happened to Lucy. It's a brief story (I think the run-time is less than 90 minutes) that benefits from keeping it's focus on the here and now. There's thankfully no flashbacks, backstory or attempts to answer questions like "Why is Wendy going to Alaska?" or "What pushed her into this risky adventure?" You can breathe easy knowing that we're not going Into the Wild again. We simply follow Wendy, sometimes from a distance and sometimes intensely close, as she struggles to get her plan back on track. It's a plan for independence -- this is the dream that Alaska still extends, a place where a person willing to work doesn't need a good credit score and an email address to find a job. There's a hundred and one reasons a young soul would want to hit the road and start over somewhere else and it's refreshing that Wendy and Lucy spends little to no time going over which reason is Wendy's.


Michelle Williams and Kelly Reichardt present a wonderful character to observe in Wendy. She's tough as nails yet vulnerable, independent yet lost without Lucy, lonely yet striving to be on her own. With her no-fuss haircut, hoodie and cut off jeans, she might as well have been pulled out of a scene from Martin Bell's Streetwise. She has the routine down pat -- feed Lucy, freshen up in the gas station, collect some cans to save cash, etc. She seems very comfortable in the lifestyle, but once Lucy disappears and the routine is broken, Wendy has a hard time of keeping it together. While she's fiercely independent, she soon realizes how important Lucy was to her and getting her back (and getting the car running) is going to require help, favors and reliance on others. The sort of help she's clearly reluctant to ask for.

In Wendy's corner through all this is a drug store security guard. He was giving Wendy the heave-ho from the store parking lot when her car wouldn't start and can't help but give Wendy a hand in her troubles. The two characters form a bond that is one of the more remarkable relationships I've seen on film in recent memory. They never exchange names in the film or even shake hands. For this man, it's simply not right to sit idly by when you see someone in trouble. It's a philosophy that almost seems alien -- in life and in the movies -- especially from someone with a badge on their shirt. He's played by Wally Dalton, an actor and writer with credits going back to the 70s, and his character has the feeling of having sprouted from a crack in the sidewalk of that drug store. And possibly as a side-effect of being a low-budget film, there are moments between Wendy and the Security Guard when it feels like they are the only two people in Portland and it adds a weight to their scenes that makes their relationship even more bittersweet than the one the film's named after.

[There be spoilers that follow.]

In the last moments you realize you've not only been a fly on the wall for a turbulent couple of days in Wendy's life but really have seen a transition in her life take place; a gear shift, if you will, where she's painfully shed the last of her old life and perhaps the last lingering pieces of her childhood.

Early on when Wendy meets Icky and his group of hobo vagabonds in a make-shift campsite by the railroad tracks, there's a transfixing shot of Wendy, in the light of the moon and the campfire, standing in the woods looking at them play with her dog and it seems like there's a tear in her eye. There's a dozen reasons why she could be crying. Maybe because she's so proud of the happiness Lucy can bring people. But it doesn't quite look like a tear of happiness. I think it is a tear of loneliness. She doesn't feel comfortable just going up to these people even though Lucy has no problem with it. Their lifestyles my be similar but she doesn't belong. She's determined to do it alone. But at the end, there she is, without a car or a dog, and she knows it's painful to do it alone. She now knows it's safer to accept the fact that independence doesn't necessarily mean you can't ask for help. The question is what will she do the next time she runs into them?

I don' think I'll ever get tired of these small, personal little movies from Reichardt and I hope she continues on this one every couple of years schedule. They're these perfect little character studies that knock me on my ass and I don't think anyone else is creating characters that have me caring so much about what happens to them after the credits roll.

==========

Padraic:

You're right about the opening shot - Reichardt is quickly becoming our finest auteur of the campfire - but I think it worked especially well in tandem with the later scene where the homeless man comes upon Wendy sleeping in the woods. His rambling and partially inaudible monologue, combined with Icky's opening scene, are what really set the movie apart from the more generic indie fare, and what make Reichardt such an interesting director.

To set up a rather large generalization, indie movies generally do one, and only one, thing well: establish true character through deliberate pacing and attention to detail. On one hand, this is what can make a small low-budget picture great, but what can also limit them artistically. From Slacker to the Bujalski circle and even including Old Joy, we can get from the mundane and the ordinary an extraordinary portrait of individual lives that simply cannot be gained from other genres. This is good, but there's more to cinema than capturing real life.

But wow, that opening shot was something else entirely, with Williams lit (I assume) only by the campfire and staring somewhere over the audience's shoulder as she listens to Icky. This is not the mundane or the ordinary, but a scene constructed to tell more about the true fear and horror behind Wendy's story, the kind of feeling that cannot be expressed simply through realism. The information Icky gives her is useless to the plot - she's going to Alaska anyway - and we don't see the characters again. And it's not even symbolic, but almost, well, a Lynchian sense of abstract fear. That is pretty cool.

I'm going to assume Reichardt has at least some familiarity with contemporary video art and experimental film because in between her realist shots of Wendy scribbling in her notebook and feeding the dog, she introduces some odd angles and stagings which stand outside the normal indie (or even feature film) playbook. Not just the two scenes I've mentioned, but also in one of the scenes between her and the security guard. At one point, Wendy is trying to get the man's attention, but the spacing of the characters is unclear - we get a crystal clear close-up of Wendy, but the shot of the security guard is faded and out of focus. Where are these guys in relation to one another? The yelling indicates that the guard is maybe twenty yards away, but the shot of the guard makes him seem like he is clear across the parking lot. It's such a simple narrative scene (Wendy gets guards attention) but the effect is jarring, with one or many meanings I wont bother to guess at. I suppose this could have been a simple continuity error, but the care of Reichardt's work makes that unlikely.

Now, as much as I did like these set pieces, as well as the way Reichardt captures the beauty and pain in simple walking (there are a lot of great shots where she seems imprisoned by all the cars racing by in this unfriendly pedestrian town), the dog thing was a bit overplayed. Maybe it's just because I don't like dogs, but the key Moment was obvious and unnecessary. I never figure out anything in movies, but I knew Wendy and Lucy would be splitting from about the time that the supermarket kid said "if you can't afford dog food, you shouldn't have a dog." In what was otherwise an original and moving movie, the final parting had all the subtlety of an afternoon special, and after the open ending of Old Joy, it's disappointing to see Reichardt resort to manipulating character through such a blunt act of closure.

I imagine, given all the damn dog lovers out there, that the penultimate scene will be the big tearjerker, but Reichardt got me earlier when the security guard handed Wendy a few bucks. Something in the delivery - the actor Dalton sort of shuffles his hand around - was just too damn real. Apart from simply caring deeply about her characters and story, Reichardt is doing something pretty amazing visually - something that makes her one of the best American filmmakers today - but damned if I can figure out what it is.

==========

Sean:

The scene of the security guard handing Wendy the three or four dollars absolutely killed me, much more than the goodbyes between Wendy and Lucy. That said, I appreciate the heaviness of the scene with Lucy as she cuts the last cord of her previous life. Maybe they could have come up with a different way to do it, maybe they were staying true to the source material, but to me that goodbye is the point of the movie and, yeah, it's there in the title too. Sometimes life is without subtlety and that's especially so in moments like those. And though that scene ties up a loose end, it is just as much a new beginning for Wendy as it is closure -- just like the new beginning that was achieved for the character of Mark at the end of Old Joy. To continue the parallel, the final shot of Wendy hopping the train is very reminiscent of the final shot in Old Joy. In both films we spend the final moments watching the characters from a distance, not knowing what will become of them but hoping for the best. I consider Wendy and Lucy to be extremely open-ended in this regard. I'm sure a lot of people with wrong-headed expectations will feel abruptly cut off by the ending -- Wait, we're not going to find out if she made it to the cannery? That would be real closure. We watch as she performs back-breaking work, makes good money and is able to send for Lucy and they're re-united in a joyful embrace as they roll around in the Alaskan snow, Lucy's tail feverishly wagging and licking the happy tears off of Wendy's face. But I guess we'll have to wait for Wendy and Lucy 2: The Quickening.

I want to take a moment to shine a small light on Larry Fessenden, the guy who played the creepy man who accosts Wendy in the woods. Fessenden is a great indie auteur himself, making some of the more memorable low-budget genre movies of the past 10 years or so starting with 1996's alcoholism/vampirism masterpiece Habit. But he's also a pretty damn good actor in his own right and has been showing up like this in movies ranging from Scorsese and Jarmusch to the work of other aspiring low-budget genre efforts. His work as a director is few and far between (I imagine his work isn't the easiest to get funded) but each one is utterly unique and worth seeking out.