Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Week in Review - 18/4/10

Another week heavy with film - the stand-out is Man with a Movie Camera which screened at Melbourne Cinémathèque on Wednesday, an amazing film given it's place in history. Starting this week is a three-week season of films by (and one about) Jacques Demy, which I'm looking forward to - I've seen none of his work. My reviews of the two German films listed below can be found on my preview of the Festival of German Films.

  • Greenberg (Noah Baumbach, USA, 2010)
  • A Serious Man (Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, USA/UK/France, 2009)
  • Good Hair (Jeff Stilson, USA, 2009)
  • Madeo (Mother, Bong Joon-ho, South Korea, 2009)
  • Chelovek s kino-apparatom (Man with a Movie Camera, Dziga Vertov, USSR, 1929)
  • Aelita (Yakov Protazanov, USSR, 1924)
  • Le concert (The Concert, Radu Mihaileanu, France/Italy/Romania/Belgium, 2009)
  • Sturm (Storm, Hans-Christian Schmid, Germany/Denmark/Netherlands, 2009)
  • Vision - Aus dem Leben der Hildegard von Bingen (Vision, Margarethe von Trotta, Germany/France, 2009)
  • *Nikita (La Femme Nikita, Luc Besson, France/Italy, 1990)
  • In Bruges (Martin McDonagh, UK/USA, 2008)
I prefer this latest Baumbach film to his previous Margot at the Wedding (which I found a bit dull) but not as much as The Squid and the Whale, which I think more compellingly captured some home truths. This latest film seems to aspire in part with mumblecore, particularly with the character of Florence (played wonderfully by Greta Gerwig), the themes of adult lack of direction in life, and perhaps alluded to by the appearance of mumblecore wunderkind Mark Duplass. But it's not really mumblecore per se, as Greenberg (Ben Stiller in a solid and welcome serious role) is in his forties, as are his friends. And the heavy use of soundtrack music also gives it a different aesthetic.

I like that the film is nuanced and demonstrates Baumbach's eye for details within dysfunctional relationships. Given that the titular character has recently spent time in a psychiatric institution, it's not quite as universal a story as Baumbach's previous films. What is universal getting to a point in life and realising that things have not gone to plan, and of opportunities lost.

Baumbach is a thoughtful film-maker and has a take on life that for me is real. There's an underlying truthfulness to his films, one that many of his compatriots are not prepared to handle so frankly. Yet this film doesn't fully grab me. I would have preferred the film give more time to Gerwig's role. Stiller performs surprisingly convincingly, given the puerile material he normally works with, but his deliberately unlikeable character lacks something - there's a kind of monotony to it whereby he's going nowhere, though that seems to be the point of the role. This film will likely appeal mostly to fans of Baumbach, mumblecore and Stiller.

A Serious Man
This screened as part of double feature with Greenberg at Nova. I can see how they make good companion pieces, but I don't understand why (1) Greenberg is getting advance screenings as a double, (2) the advance screenings are over the course of a week and not just a weekend, (3) the film has no confirmed release date, and (4) it's screening only during the day (when most people are at work). Though I'd seen A Serious Man already and have it on Blu-ray, I decided to stay and see it again on the big screen.

I noticed a lot of small details that I missed on first screening, but otherwise, I don't think I gleaned much that I didn't on first viewing. The Yiddish story at the beginning remains my favourite part and the main story to me seems to be all about the Jewish identity, and the indefinable aspects of Jewish culture. I love that the Rabbis are very matter-of-fact as opposed to a false saintliness that their Christian counterparts often assume. I'll have to watch this again on the Blu-ray with the extras.

Good Hair
I wasn't going to see this documentary at ACMI, but changed my mind after the missus showed me the Chris Rock clip from YouTube below. It has nothing to do with Good Hair, but it demonstrated to me how intelligent and insightful Rock is.

Good Hair is about black American women's obsession with their hair and the lengths they go to in order to have "good hair", i.e., like Asian or European women's hair. Rock ensures the material is always entertaining without allowing his personality to shadow the material. It effectively presents information that should surprise audiences, for example, how much these women spend on hair products, how widespread their obsessions are, and what these products are made from and where they are sourced.

I've read criticisms that the film isn't balanced but I don't think a documentary necessarily has to have a counter view to be worthy. Rock presents various pieces of information, clearly has his own view, but leaves it to both his subjects and audience to make up their own mind. It's definitely worth a look.

The following clip is for my pleasure, and if you like it too, that's a bonus. Here's Chris Rock in full-flight stand-up.


There was a lot of buzz about this film coming out of MIFF last year and I was happy to catch it out of the pressure-cooker environment of a major festival, which gives one a bit more space to appreciate it. There's been comparisons to Hitchcock and others and they're all valid. The film looks nice, confounds expectations quite cleverly (but not too cleverly) and is definitely worth seeing. Like Bong's previous film, I like it, but not as much as others seem to. Kudos to the Nova cinema for giving it a chance to find a non-festival audience. The Nova has so many screenings these days that no-one else is supporting, so in support of diversity, it behooves us to support these small-run screenings so that Nova keeps putting them on.

Man with a Movie Camera
This is one of the most amazing silent-era films I've seen, a veritable masterpiece. I had no idea that cinema was so introspective and developed at such an early stage. Vertov sets out to prove that cinema is an art distinct from literature and theatre by proclaiming that this film includes no sets, no inter-titles and no actors (with a brief exception). The film is mostly documentary in form, but not entirely. It has elements that are socially anthropological and it is also self-reflexive, including elements that are about the process of making a film. The array of techniques on display is awesome and puts Paul Greengrass to shame (hand-held doesn't have to look like shit).

Watching it at Cinémathèque, I was frequently reminded of social realist and essay films such as the works of Agnès Varda, Chris Marker and others. I imagine this film would have been treasured by the early social realist movement in Australia, who were largely influenced by Soviet cinema and communism.

I was also amazed at how Russian society at that time looked almost indistinguishable from say American society, with all the trappings of bourgeois life - bikinis, hair salons, dressing up, art deco artwork and architecture, etc. Equally fascinating is Vertov's presumed intention of capturing the seemingly banal; he must have known that this would document a particular place and time. It's focus on machinery in action is reminiscent of Fritz Lang's Metropolis, made two years earlier. Of course, what may appear banal today, is not necessarily banal even in the near future. I thought this title was available from Criterion but can't find it online. I'd like to get this on DVD or (preferably) Blu-ray. If anyone can point me in the right direction, that'd be great.

I was getting pretty tired by the time this first Russian sci-fi (silent) film screened at Cinémathèque. It's worth seeing if one has the chance, particularly on the big screen, but it didn't engage me anywhere near as much as Man with a Movie Camera. It's futuristic sets also remind one of Metropolis, but was made three years before.

The Concert
This comedic drama (or dramatic comedy) has a central conceit that is basically an impossible premise (though the director claims it is based partly on factual incidents). One's ability to enjoy the film is - initally, at least - dependent on one's ability to suspend disbelief, which shouldn't be a problem for the mainstream audience it targets. A former orchestra conductor for the Bolshoi Orchestra witholds an invitation by the Chantelet Theatre, and brings together all his old friends from the Soviet era to perform in Paris in place of the actual orchestra.

There is social and political parody of the Soviet era, which Mihaileanu allows the audience to absorb without feeling they're being preached to. The film's first third is largely slapstick and enjoyable enough, though a bit formulaic. The middle is a bit flat before the film really kicks into gear, when the luminous Mélanie Laurent charismatically consumes the screen (as she always does). Along with the wonderful musical element, the film surprisingly grabs the audience in a way I didn't expect, and it had me in tears. Mind you, Mihaileanu's more serious Live and Become also had a similar effect on me. This film is clearly aimed at the Palace demographic and I imagine it will be well-received. It's not must-see for cinephiles, but it's not bad fun either. It opens in cinemas on 29 April.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that this Luc Besson film stands up quite well after twenty years. It was the first French film I saw that emulated Hollywood blockbusters and I thought it had an edginess that Hollywood lacks. On this second viewing, my observation was that the film shifts between cartoonish violence not so different to a good James Bond film (and it's been a long time since there's been a good one of those) and drama in which the character development and actor performances are just so real. Small details, like Nikita's torn nylons and bleeding leg for example, are a nice touch that Hollywood would normally gloss over. These elements give the film gravitas that one doesn't usually associate with the genre.

Like my recent viewing of Besson's Léon, I had a lot of fun watching this. The film introduces us to Victor (Jean Reno) who re-surfaces as Léon in a full-bodied role in Léon. Nikita was remade by Hollywood, with Bridget Fonda as the lead, but I couldn't bring myself to see it.

In Bruges
Looks good, good characters, good fun. And lots of profanity. Not much else to say. Except that it's nice to see Ralph Fiennes playing something other than a broody, whiny prick.


dmk said...

I would have preferred the film give more time to Gerwig's role.
I agree.

I disagree that the film will appeal to fans of Stiller, definitely not for those people.

Glad you enjoyed it somewhat.

Paul Martin said...

Derek, I think Stiller fans will enjoy seeing him in a different type of role, even if it's not their kind of film. I imagine it was similar for Adam Sandler fans and Punch Drunk Love.

What do you think of my linking the film with mumblecore? I know you've seen a lot more mumblecore films than me.

Gerwig is very good, isn't she? Almost straight out of a Bujalski film.

A common thread in each of Baumbach's films is his use of at least one actor, known more for comedic roles, used in a serious role. Jeff Daniels, Jack Black, Ben Stiller. In each case, these actors have more chops as a serious actor, perhaps because it confounds our expectations. Fulfilled expectations is one of the biggest killers of cinematic enjoyment - there's no surprise.

Jurguens said...

I really enjoyed Mother at MIFF, and I agree with your assessment. He is a great director, but perhaps not as great as some people seem to think.

Man With a Movie Camera is a masterpiece. I borrowed a DVD from Deakin University library at Burwood. But I don't know where else you can find it. Good luck hunting it down.

Paul Martin said...

There's no problem finding it on Amazon, Jurguens; I thought there was a Criterion version, but can't find it anywhere.

David O'Connell said...

Man with a Movie camera is widely available on Madman. I saw it in Borders just the other day - the day before I was blown away by it!

I saw Mother last week too Paul (probably only about 10-12 people sadly at the Nova for a Sunday evening screening). This is definitely Bong's best film for me - in fact I think the first 2 were incredibly overrated. The humour in The Host got totally lost in translation for me. After a first 30-40 minutes that were a bit tedious Mother just got better and better. Incredible central performance and very cleverly plotted too. The score become such a big factor in the second half and definitely enhanced the Hitchcockian mood of it.

Agreed with you about Noah Baumbach too, there's great truthfulness in his writing. Margot at the Wedding was I film I loved at the time, easily one of the finest performances of Kidman's career, especially considering it was an essentially unsympathetic character.

Paul, it probably says a lot about me but A Serious Man was my favourite film of 2009!!

Paul Martin said...

David, you saw Man with a Movie Camera at Melbourne Cinémathèque, right?

I haven't seen Bong's first two films, but would be happy to do so. I've liked both of his two most recent films, but they just don't impact me as much they seem to for others. The Host is a lot of fun - horror mixed with black comedy and a little bit of politics. Mother seems a more nuanced and masterful film, but I didn't like it any more than The Host. I think what I like most about Mother is the start and end, with her standing in the fields. It's as if she's a force of nature, a wild woman from the earth, someone to underestimate at your own risk. That it does it without words and just through sound, music and camera work is quite stunning. And I did like the Hitchcockian aspects.

Re: Baumbach, The Squid and the Whale is for me one of only a small handful of films that depict accurately the gender and psychological dynamics of a relationship in decline. Most films take a paternalistic attitude, depicting women as victims and men as bastards. La séparation, Scenes from a Marriage, Making Plans for Lena, Revolutionary Road and American Beauty are films that come to mind, but their are probably others.

I know a lot of people raved about Margot at the Wedding but it left me cold. I couldn't feel for any of the characters. I felt a little that way about Stiller's character, but warmed to Gerwig's.

I know a lot of people think similarly about A Serious Man. It may be the Coen brother's most sophisticated and complex film yet and I have a lot of respect for it, but it just hasn't grabbed me cinematically like say, Fargo or (especially) No Country for Old Men. What does it say about you, David? That you're Jewish? That you're into philosophy? Existentialism?

dmk said...

I myself compared it mumblecore, it’s a little hard to avoid the comparison if you know of it. Baumbach produced Joe Swanberg’s last film, so he clearly admires the [unwanted] movement somewhat. In a way, Baumbach’s film has an advantage over its mumblecore counterpart, in that it’s got a screenplay with dialogue; while most Mumblecore is straight improv. There’s a consistency, as well as a quality aesthetic to his film that is missing in most Mumblecore (Bujalski excepted, who’s developed a unique style in his three films).

Yeah, as I commented a few weeks ago, Gerwig’s creation is really something special. Margot at the Wedding was universally panned due to the lack of any sympathetic characters; Greenberg has the advantage of having her, someone audiences can lean on when Stiller becomes intolerable. It was a wise decision.

Also, keep an eye out for House of the Devil - it's developed a small cult base now, Gerwig has a small role in it. I think it will probably screen at the ACMI sometime this year, unless it goes DTV, a brilliant horror film

Paul Martin said...

Derek, the only mumblecore I've seen is a couple of Bujalski's films, so I don't have an opinion of the genre/movement yet. I saw Funny Ha Ha on DVD and liked it but didn't get Mutual Appreciation when it screened at the Astor. I have the DVD and will revisit it sometime. I like the aesthetic connection with Cassavetes, that raw honesty.

With Margot, it wasn't just that the characters were unsympathetic. It just felt flat to me and didn't rise to a level where I could hook into it. I think Baumbach deliberately switches between Gerwig and Stiller, because they do counter each other. I've got to say, though, that while Stiller's character is intolerable at times, his acting is spot on. I'm acquainted with mental illness and Greenberg is very real.

As you know, horror is not something I go out of my way for, but if ACMI screens it, I'll check it out.

David O'Connell said...

Definitely not Jewish Paul!...........well, not that I know of anyway! ;) But I do relate to existential themes and the dark humour of Jewish filmmakers even when their work has no direct link to anything related to their religious beliefs.

It's been such a bonus to have the Coens back in such great form over the past three - very different - films; I really thought we'd lost their unique sensibilities to a blatantly commercial, much more disposable type of filmmaking there for a while (that horrible Clooney/Zeta-Jones comedy comes to mind).

Paul Martin said...

I only saw Intolerable Cruelty because it was a Coen bros. film. With Z-J in it, it looked like shite and indeed it was - very disappointing.

While some of their films are obviously much better than others, I think it's commendable how they're switching from genre to genre. You never know what you're going to get next.

You'd think with those last three films, they wouldn't have to resort to such throwaway commercial pulp again.