Culture Notes: CPAC, Twitter

CPAC/Twitter: This week’s cable-news shows were marked by a very weird confluence: excerpts from CPAC (the Conservative Political Action Conference) and reports of rampant Twitter use, even during Obama’s don’t-call-it-a-State-of-the-Union speech. (Actually, one of Newt Gingrich’s tweets did call the speech a State of the Union message, a minor gaffe that exemplifies a pitfall of the instant 140-word analysis game.) The loonier eruptions at CPAC included a a lot of predictable comments about peculiar-sounding science projects, which for all we know could lead to a cure for cancer but are fair game for derision because they include words such as “swine” and “odor.” William Proxmire, you have a lot to answer for. In some ways the most representative speaker was Mitch McConnell, U.S. Senator from Kentucky, who piped up with, “Who wants to hang out with guys like Paul Krugman and Robert Reich  when you can be with Rush Limbaugh?” — a glorious sound bite that one hopes is being filed away for future election use. McConnell’s line is doubly revealing: it demonstrates how eight years of conservative leadership, with its aversion to reality-based thought, got us in the mess we’re in, and it reminds us that the current conservative message exists as a playground choosing-up-of-sides.

Maybe Twitter doesn’t deserve to be lumped in with that level of behavior, yet it does seem perfect for the Gingrichian sensibility. To question the value of Twitter is to instantly be tarred with an old-fogeyism of the Clint Eastwood/Gran Torino variety, but still: a measured, thought-through response to events — any event — is something we ought to expect and demand, at least from our leaders, if not from my thousand closest friends on Facebook.

Two Lovers in Gomorrah X (Weekly Links)

Movies I reviewed for the Herald this week:

twoloversTwo Lovers (dead link; review below)

by Robert Horton

The people behind “Two Lovers” were probably hoping for a slightly different publicity push from the star of their film.

They couldn’t have reckoned on the sudden career change currently represented by the bushy beard on the face of Joaquin Phoenix. The actor’s insistence that he is no longer an actor but a hip-hop singer, and his monosyllabic appearance on the Letterman show, has already gotten him parodied at the Oscars.

The Phoenix affair may yet turn out to be a piece of “Borat”-like performance art. Unfortunately, it’s eclipsing the release of a pretty interesting film. “Two Lovers” is another slice of grungy, downbeat Brooklyn life from director James Gray, whose previous films include “The Yards” and “We Own the Night.” Nothing has cheered up Gray lately, it seems.

Phoenix plays Leonard, a man living with his parents (Isabella Rossellini, Moni Moshonov) after a suicide attempt and a breakdown. He has vague ideas of doing something with his photography, but the reality is he’ll probably keep working in his father’s dry-cleaning shop. The title suggests his dilemma: should he stick with nice stable Sandra (Vinessa Shaw) whose parents are family friends, or should he gravitate in the direction of the flighty Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), whose window he can see across the courtyard?

There’s little new in this quandary, but Gray and his actors certainly instill it with a great deal of anguished emotion and a palpable sense of place: a nightclub, an upscale restaurant, the dry cleaning shop—these locations are lived-in and authentic.

Phoenix’s inarticulate presence comes across as mannered, but I can’t deny that he blends into the character. Paltrow is very good at playing the kind of person that perpetually justifies the behavior of her married boyfriend (Elias Koteas), a kind of denial that suits Leonard and his desire for escape. Despite being prominent in Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut,” Vinessa Shaw has never quite graduated as a movie star. Perhaps this film will change that; she’s impressive in a role that feels pretty unlikely.

This is the first Gray film I’ve actually liked. Maybe it’s the fierce concentration on a tiny piece of emotional turf (sometimes the world narrows to the surface of a cell phone), but this filmmaker’s more pretentious tendencies are hemmed in. Now it’s time for him to lend some career advice to his enigmatic star.

Gomorrah. (dead link; review below)

by Robert Horton

It’s no surprise the younger hoodlums in “Gomorrah” run around pretending to be Al Pacino in “Scarface.” They’ve absorbed the romance of gangster movies.

As though offering corrective medicine, this scathing Italian film has no romance in its criminal saga. It’s not just that there are no warm-hearted godfathers blathering on about the proper amount of garlic in the marinara sauce; this movie doesn’t even allow you the basic pleasures of a story unfolding in linear fashion. Instead, we’re dropped pell-mell into the ugly, violent world of the Camorra, a Mafia organization in and around Naples (their name allows the filmmaker to reference the biblical yarn about a corrupt city in his title).

A handful of different storylines weave through the film, including one about those two teenage gangster-wannabes, who make the mistake of thinking that they can parlay a cache of guns into the beginnings of their own little empire.

Not a good idea. In this arena, naivete will get you a permanent home in a ditch.

Other threads include a tailor working under the Camorra heel, whose factory exploits cheap-working immigrant workers, and a longtime mob operator whose underling might just be seeing the truth about this diseased system (their particular specialty is toxic waste, which they spread around like candy). Except for the Pacino fans, most of the characters are middle-aged men, and I have to confess that, especially with the different pieces of plot coming from all directions, it took me a long time to tell these various characters apart, let alone piece together their stories.

“Gomorrah” obviously isn’t designed to make it easy for the viewer; it doesn’t seek to engage us, and it’s not in any sense entertainment, in the traditional sense.

It is horrifying, though. And the dangerous locations in which director Matteo Garrone did his shooting leave little doubt about the movie’s credibility on the subject of real-life issues that have made this section of Italy a hotbed of murder and corruption.

“Gomorrah” failed to get an Oscar nomination for best foreign-language film, a category run by a relatively small group of voters who tend to like conventional pictures (it’s one of the only Oscar categories where the voters must actually watch the movies they’re voting for). The omission isn’t surprising—this is a tough film that doesn’t pull punches—but it still looks like an oversight.

Ben X. (dead link; review below)

by Robert Horton

From its earliest images inside an online game world to its final sequences (parts of which take place only inside the hero’s mind), the Belgian-Dutch film “Ben X” is something of a head trip.

The head we are locked into belongs to Ben (Greg Timmermans), a teenager with Asperger’s Syndrome, the high-functioning form of autism. Highly intelligent but socially bewildered, Ben has learned to mimic the behavior of others, even though he can’t comprehend concepts like metaphor (the phrase “give me a hand” is completely puzzling). At school, he’s bullied. At home, he disappears into the landscape of his favorite multiplayer computer game, where his heroic avatar conceals all his awkwardness. Eventually, the woman who interacts with him in the game is going to want to meet him, a challenge far greater than his 3-D animated quest.

Thanks to viral videos of his classroom humiliation, Ben is subject to public abuse as well as small-scale tauntings, beatings, and the other tortures handed out to “different” students. The film ladles this on so insistently that you might wonder whether anybody’s in charge at this school. Director Nicholas Balthazar doesn’t hold anything back, in repeated scenes of the two main bullies and their loathsome behavior.

The melodrama of this is heavy, but Balthazar has a cause. He also wrote the novel the film is based on, and was inspired by a true story of a 17-year-old autistic boy from Brussels who committed suicide after being bullied.

Periodically, Ben (and the movie) retreats into his computer world, where he lives out his Tolkienesque fantasy. Laura Verlinden plays the girl on the other side of his cyberspace connection.

Balthazar fills the movie with visual flash, which helps cover up how thin the material really is. Ben’s doctors, for instance, are broadly caricatured as a gallery of grotesques; I have no idea how this advances the movie’s ideas. Unfortunately, by the time you get to the end of the picture, it feels like a simple idea stretched out to 93 minutes. A spirited (and mostly nonspeaking) central performance by newcomer Timmermans goes a long way toward making it bearable for viewers over the age of nineteen.

Ballerina. (dead link; review below)

by Robert Horton

If you’re going to do a documentary on a subject, you might as well go to the top: thus filmmaker Bertrand Normand made his film about ballerinas by traveling to the Kirov Ballet, the legendary Russian hotbed of dance.

“Ballerina” is the result, a film that focuses on a group of ballerinas at various levels of accomplishment and acclaim. This movie, narrated in English by Diane Baker, is admittedly guilty of merely providing a surface view of an exacting, painful form of expertise. But what a surface.

The Kirov has actually reverted to its original name, the Mariinsky Theatre (it was labeled the Kirov by the Soviets, in honor of a famous assassinated revolutionary, and is still known under that name when touring). But the standards remain high. We follow the stories of a couple younger ballerinas. Alina Somova is a promising student entering her first year at the Mariinsky, where she needs to adjust to the reality of no longer being the star of her class.

A year older than her, pixie-faced Evgenia Obraztsova seems already to have developed her own personality as a performer. That might explain why she achieves success outside the Mariinsky, too, as one of the stars of the French film “Russian Dolls.” She also shows poise beyond her years in dealing with the praise of the fans who come backstage after a performance of “Romeo and Juliet”—some of whom look like they spend a little too much time thinking about ballet.

Even if you don’t spend time thinking about ballet, you will probably be galvanized by Diana Vishneva, a prima ballerina with the company. In a sequence of rehearsal in a studio, Vishneva radiates the X factor: not just the skill to articulate her body in remarkable ways, but acting ability that communicates a character in a few short seconds.

We also hear the story of Ulyana Lopatkina, anointed as the finest Russian ballerina of her generation before an ankle injury sidelines her for a couple of years. During the break, she gets married and has a child, but now she wants to dance again. The excerpts from their onstage work are beautifully photographed, including pieces of “Swan Lake” and “Scheherazade.”

At 77 minutes, “Ballerina” can’t delve deep into these stories, or offer a distanced eye on the sacrifices involved. And it doesn’t give the detail-rich history lesson of “Ballets Russes,” a fine dance documentary from a couple of years ago. What it delivers is its title: women dancing at the top of the game.

(Another dead link here; the video has vanished) Also, an interview I did with actress-auteur Julia Sweeney is included this week on ArtZone in Studio; watch here for the story of Sweeney’s new film Letting Go of God, a one-woman show that manages to be completely bright, disarming, and convincing about what its title says.

Movie Diary 2/25/2009

LoulouRudo y Cursi (Carlos Cuaron, 2008). Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna (and your mother, too) reunited in an aggressively wacky story of small-town brothers swept up in soccer glory. Includes Bernal’s Spanish-language music video of “I Want You to Want Me.”

Ballerina (Bertrand Normand, 2006). Documentary look at some of the dancers of the Kirov, including the remarkable Diana Vishneva, who would’ve been a silent film star in the 1920s. (full review 2/27)

Pandora’s Box (G.W. Pabst, 1929). It’s one damn thing after another for Louise Brooks in Pabst’s most famous film, which is kind of overrated but kind of amazing at the same time. This was my first time watching the Criterion version of the film — a disc of decidedly variable quality.

Movie Diary 2/24/2009

The Brothers Bloom (Rian Johnson, 2008). Whatever else you think of it, this is a logical way for the guy who made Brick to follow up.

threeonmatch4Three on a Match (Mervyn LeRoy, 1932). Childhood friends Ann Dvorak, Joan Blondell, and Bette Davis go through about three hours’ worth of melodrama in this film’s 63 minutes, including some racy pre-Code allusions to cocaine use and what appears to be a variation on the Lindbergh kidnapping case. Dvorak and Davis look under-rehearsed, but Joan Blondell is right on the money. Early Bogart and Edward Arnold (plucking nose hairs in close-up) too.

Female (Michael Curtiz, 1933). For most of its hour-long running time this is a funny and stylish comedy about a woman (Ruth Chatterton, excellent) running an automobile company and reversing the usual sexual roles with her male underlings. It’s a letdown when she has to bow to tradition.

Movie Diary 2/23/2009

blacklegion2Glenn Beck’s “War Room” (FOX, 2009) and Black Legion (Archie Mayo, 1937). Glenn Beck’s special is a lunatic “what if” program designed to strike fear into the hearts of Americans about an “economic 9/11” scheduled for 2014 (with, of course, frequent reminders of the “we’re not saying this is going to happen” variety). A group of experts, some of whom are clearly splashed with a little eau d’Unabomber, play Nostradamus, spinning out a variety of scenarios that run the gamut from civil war to beyond Thunderdome. Really, Beck might’ve included at least one moderate voice — say, Alan Keyes. Before the show is over, Beck shares a ray of hope: belief in god might just help you survive. This is a flabbergasting piece of TV, the kind of thing to make the ghost of Father Coughlin shed a tear of pride. Limbaugh, you better up the crazy quotient, because mocking people with Parkinson’s just isn’t setting the bar anymore.

By sheer coincidence, the same evening I watched Warner Bros.’ bold social-issue picture Black Legion, which puts Humphrey Bogart in thrall to a KKK-like group of racist agitators who dress in robes and terrorize immigrants. Lots of speeches about being 100% American, and at one point Bogart listens to a radio demagogue whose words could easily have come from a 2009 transcript. There’s thick melodrama along with the message, but the ending certainly doesn’t let anybody off the hook.

Ben X (Nic Balthazar, 2007). Autistic teen, fantasy worlds, bullies at school, complicated ending. (full review 2/27)

Oscar Predictions

My predictions are in the Herald. Click here for the guesses.

Hard to go against the predicting consensus for Slumdog Millionaire, which means it’s yet another year of Oscar embarrassment. But this is nothing new.

One other link: the restored version of Lola Montes (playing, gloriously, in Seattle this week at SIFF Cinema) leads to some thoughts on that film and the golden age of foreign films in the U.S. I talk to KUOW’s Jeannie Yandel here.

2005 Ten Best Movies

It used to be easier to determine the vintage of a movie; it came out, and had a date of release. Now, a movie peeks out at the Cannes or Toronto film festival one year, but doesn’t actually get a bona fide release until the following calendar year. So what year does it belong to — the year a few hundred people saw it in a specialized setting, or the year it actually hit theaters? It’s easy enough to do a ten-best list at the end of a given year if you go by the rules of the New York/L.A. opening run rather than isolated film fest one-offs. But try doing a list for 2005. The IMDb has many of that year’s best films as 2004 pictures. So I’m going with the NY/LA thing. But really, it’s a mess.


Mathieu Amalric: call him Ismael.

Arnaud Desplechin makes sprawling, unpredictable movies that somehow exert a hypnotic spell, and Kings and Queen has the movement of a roller-coaster ride, if a roller-coaster ride can be smart and tender and pitiless. The characters brilliantly played by Mathieu Amalric and Emmanuelle Devos operate in seemingly different movies, yet you never doubt Desplechin’s purpose in guiding us along these parallel lines, or his crazy mix of comedy and tragedy. Almost every movie’s ending can be guessed from the first five minutes; this one doesn’t give you a clue about what might happen next. Which is why it leads the ten best movies of 2005:

1. Kings and Queen (Arnaud Desplechin)

2. Nobody Knows (Hirokazu Kore-eda)

3. Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee)

4. Grizzly Man (Werner Herzog)

5. Cache (Michael Haneke)

6. Hustle & Flow (Craig Brewer)

7. The Beat That My Heart Skipped (Jacques Audiard)

8. A History of Violence (David Cronenberg) and Batman Begins (Christopher Nolan)

9. 2046 (Wong Kar-Wai)

10. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (Tommy Lee Jones)

I note how many of the year’s best movies have to do with music as a transformative force: Brewer’s seethingly alive film, Audiard’s remake of Fingers, Martin Scorsese’s Dylan documentary No Direction Home, and a lovely German film you’ve almost certainly never heard of, Michael Schorr’s Schultze Gets the Blues. Brokeback Mountain is at least as much a film in the American tradition of Westerns and lost paradises as it is a landmark in gay cinema, although it is certainly that. Grizzly Man is in those American traditions, too, and a perfect subject dropped into Herzog’s ready grasp.

2005 also gave us Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale and Neil Jordan’s Breakfast on Pluto, which found their way onto my ten-best at the time but haven’t quite stuck around. Spielberg’s Munich, and George Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck., were exceptionally good takes on recent history, while George Romero’s Land of the Dead and George Lucas’s Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith ably criticized current events through science fiction (seriously — the Lucas film is bracingly anti-Bush). Of course, some of these movies came out in 2004, so tread carefully, compulsive listmakers. Nobody knows.

Next week: 1955.

Fired Up Monkeys in Class (Weekly Links)

No advance screenings for Madea Goes to Jail, unfortunately (Tyler Perry is an interesting phenomenon, but they’ve given up on screening his movies for an irrelevant press). Some uncharacteristically good things showing up on Oscar weekend, though. Reviews I wrote for the Herald:

firedupFired Up. “A funny movie, smartly cast and played at a rapid-fire pace.”

Ballast. “A ton of bricks.”

Three Monkeys. “The buck doesn’t stop here.”

The Class. “Just a little less exciting than its reputation.”

Medicine for Melancholy. “Usually, this is called stalking.”

Movie Diary 2/19/2009

Alien Trespass (R.W. Goodwin, 2009). Pipe-smoking scientist, meteor, Southwest desert…all the familiar elements are here in this warp on Fifties alien-invasion pictures. But do check out The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra. (full review 4/3)

Cherry Blossoms (Doris Dorrie, 2008). Any historical unease about the linkage of Germany and Japan is gradually worn down by Dorrie’s gentle touch, in an East-West thing that recalls her documentary, How to Cook Your Life. (full review 3/6)

Movie Diary 2/18/2009

variete2Variety (E.A. Dupont, 1925). Only available in its cut U.S. version via an old VHS tape (a month ago the European cut was up on YouTube, but now it’s been taken down). You can still see the excitement peeking through, with Karl Freund’s camera flying around on the trapeze and hefty performances by Emil Jannings and Lya De Putti.

I Love You, Man (John Hamburg, 2009). If Paul Rudd is finally playing the lead role in one of these comedies, who’s playing the Paul Rudd role? Not Jason Segel, or Andy Samberg. Jon Favreau almost, Thomas Lennon sort of. No way around it: what this movie lacks is the Paul Rudd role. (full review 3/20)