blu-ray series #11: certified copy (abbas kiarostami, 2010)

I’m familiar with Kiarostami because of his great film, Close-Up, which totally snuck up on me when I saw it. He won’t get that advantage again … I’m ready for excellence from the start. It helped Kiarostami that I held that earlier film in such high regard, because Certified Copy is so annoyingly tricky that I might have given up on it if I didn’t have positive expectations. I’m glad I stuck with it.

Close-Up had more layers than a dozen other movies. As I wrote at the time, “It’s all based on a true story … a man impersonates a noted filmmaker, is caught and tried for fraud, and another filmmaker, Abbas Kiarostami, becomes fascinated by the story and films a documentary (Close-Up) as the trial takes place. There is footage from the actual trial (I think, anyway), but there are also re-creations of the events in the case. And in those re-creations, the actual people involved play themselves.” Certified Copy, a fictional film, is layered in a different way. The central theme is the relationship between an original and a copy, and whether a copy can be the equal, or even better, than the original. William Shimell (an opera star making his film acting debut) plays a British author who has written a book, Certified Copy, about this topic. Juliette Binoche plays … well, now I’m venturing into the spoiler zone. When we first meet her, she is attending a talk by the author.

The way Kiarostami uses layers here make the notion of spoilers irrelevant. I could tell you what “happens”, but it is never clear if what is happening is “original” or a “copy”. (I know this doesn’t make sense, and it isn’t even a particularly accurate description of the “plot”, but it’s the best I can do without giving a full plot summary with analysis.) Suffice to say that the relationship between the two main characters is never made entirely clear, which makes Certified Copy something of a puzzle movie. But the setting is a lot like Linklater’s Before movies … the two leads wander around an Italian town, jabbering away, and at times they seem to be playacting for other characters who cross their paths, and they always seem to be playacting for the audience … but then, isn’t that what actors do?

Honestly, I’m not sure what the heck was going on. But Binoche and Shimell are great together, and easy on the eyes, as well. #156 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 250 films of the 21st century. Best companion piece would be the Before Trilogy.


what i watched last week

The Great Gatsby (Baz Luhrmann, 2013). Not nearly as bad as I’d expected from the trailers. The anachronistic use of hip-hop is used sparingly (and for the most part works), and Luhrmann’s success is best stated in the film by Nick Carraway, who, when asked by Gatsby if his preparations for Daisy are right, replies “I think it’s what you want”. I believe that what we have here is The Great Gatsby that Baz Luhrmann wanted. Perhaps this is indeed an “unfilmable” novel. Luhrmann splashes through the big party scenes as if he was born for such work (which may well be true), and he can say that he’s been “true” to the novel … Fitzgerald did give us parties, after all. But, despite what film adaptations give us, The Great Gatsby isn’t about the parties, and what makes the book timeless is the prose, which is more elegant than the parties it describes. Luhrmann does what he can to foreground the prose, at times putting the actual words on the screen, and concocting a framing device that turns Nick Carraway into F. Scott Fitzgerald in far too literal a sense. Yes, Nick is Fitzgerald’s voice, and he carries the same ambiguous love/hate relationship to the rich that the author brings. But The Great Gatsby is more than an extended therapy session for an alcoholic. The cast is variable. Leonardo DiCaprio is fine … his charisma makes the public Gatsby believable, while he nicely plays the moments of uncertainty confronting Gatsby. Tobey Maguire’s job is impossible; he does what he can. Carey Mulligan is OK, but again, Daisy needs to be more than OK. She is a fantasy, not a real person, and Mulligan is too good at playing the real person to make the fantasy believable. The one actor I think was at a disadvantage compared to the 1974 version was Joel Edgerton as Tom. Bruce Dern nailed that role as if he personally had the right bloodlines. I thought I’d hate this movie, and I was wrong. But it doesn’t come close to the experience of reading the novel. For comparison, you could check out one of the earlier film versions of the book. Mia Farrow in 1974 offers a very different Daisy.

Thunder Road (Arthur Ripley, 1958). Disappointing cult film that has Robert Mitchum going for it, but not much else. The seemingly accurate portrayal of moonshiners in the South gives it some depth, and Mitchum is his usual laconic best. But the film drags, and the acting is something less than wonderful. I was looking forward to Keely Smith in a dramatic role, but unfortunately, she was pretty wooden. The film meant a lot to Mitchum, who provided the story, produced the movie, wrote the two featured songs, and may have even directed parts of it. But it’s better when you are imagining it than when you actually see it. For a follow up, try The Night of the Hunter, also with Mitchum, which made #31 on my Facebook Fave Fifty list.

The Hunt (Thomas Vinterberg, 2012). Vinterberg gives us a blend of Kafka and Hitchcock in this story of a man falsely accused of child abuse. There is no mystery about the abuse … it didn’t happen … but the ways in which the accusations close in on the accused are frightening and quite real. Mads Mikkelsen, known here for his villain in Casino Royale and for playing Hannibal Lecter on TV, has the kind of good looks that are striking because they aren’t perfect. Combined with his villainous roles, this makes his kindergarten teacher rather ominous, but once we see how he is unfairly mistreated, Mikkelsen garners great sympathy from the audience. I don’t know if there is much more to The Hunt than Mikkelsen’s performance and the creepy atmosphere, but that is more than enough. For another Mikkelsen film, Casino Royale will do. I haven’t seen it, but Vinterberg’s The Celebration is highly regarded.

Captain Phillips (Paul Greengrass, 2013). Tom Hanks does his Oscar thing … for some reason, he wasn’t nominated, perhaps the attempt was too obvious, but he’s fine throughout, and excellent in the final scenes. I’d like to give a special shout out to Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Danielle Albert, who played a doctor in that final scene. She is so good, you want her to be your doctor the next time you end up in the emergency room. Barkhad Abdi deserves his Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor, playing a Somali pirate. Greengrass gives us an exciting recreation of events, although there are serious questions about how accurate the film is. But the film takes too long to get going, Catherine Keener is wasted (if you’re hoping for some Keener magic, here’s a spoiler: she’s in one scene at the beginning, and it’s not even an interesting scene). Greengrass and Oscar-nominated screenwriter Billy Ray make nods towards sensitivity regarding the pirates, but ultimately, we get 2+ hours of crazy black men and stoic white men, with the enormous might of the U.S. military saving the day. It’s like a well-made Top Gun, and that’s not a compliment. For a better film by Greengrass, try Bloody Sunday.


what i watched last week

Five Minutes of Heaven (Oliver Hirschbiegel, 2009). In the midst of all these requests I’ve been watching, I found this one the old fashioned way: looking for something to pass an hour and a half, I chose the first short movie that popped up, knowing nothing about it. Not a bad choice, with Liam Neeson and James Nesbitt doing some fine acting in a story contextually about The Troubles, but which is ultimately more a character study than a political tract. It feels like an adapted stage play (which it is not), which is fine since the point of the film is to examine the characters played by Neeson and Nesbitt, not to show off fancy film making. Nesbitt externalizes in a way that plays well off of Neeson’s more silent, tortured presentation, and Anamaria Marinca makes the most of her small part.

Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik, 2010). I’m using this film in a class I’m teaching this spring, so I gave it a second look. I liked it very much the first time I saw it, and I didn’t change my mind this time around. The film was a big critical favorite (gathering a 90/100 on Metacritic, with 36 positive reviews, 2 mixed, and no negative). The “worst” rating from anyone I read regularly came from Stephanie Zacharek, whose review was titled “Winter’s Bone a Little Too Pleased With Its Own Folky Bleakness”. She felt the “characters veer too close to broad caricature”, but still finds Jennifer Lawrence “impressively quiet and controlled”. I think it’s the best fiction film I’ve seen from 2010, and I thought Lawrence should have won the Best Actress Oscar over Natalie Portman for Black Swan. Lawrence was a revelation when I first saw the film. I knew nothing about her. Things have changed in just two years: as the star of The Hunger Games, Lawrence is poised to become one of the top stars of her day, and she’s only 21 years old. Thankfully, she doesn’t seem to have reached such a pinnacle at an early age for the usual reasons (great-looking, panders to young males), but because she is giving excellent performances. It doesn’t hurt that she’s great-looking, of course, but Winter’s Bone buries her traditional good looks in grit and mounds of cold-weather gear, allowing her to be a special kind of beautiful, strong and centered. Perhaps Portman gives us a peek at what Lawrence might have in store: three movies in the Star Wars franchise, lots of indie films, the lead role in an action picture, and ultimately an Oscar. #48 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 250 films of the 21st century.


outside the law (rachid bouchareb, 2010)

Sprawling film about the Algerian War of Independence that aspires to an epic quality it doesn’t quite reach. Bouchareb has a point of view, that the Algerian fight against the French was equivalent to the French resistance against the Nazis, and he effectively pounds it home. While you’d think such a film would be one-sided and didactic (well, it is, to a certain extent), the three Algerian brothers at the film’s center are not merely heroic, and their fight does not always bring out the best in them. Meanwhile, Bouchareb tosses in several homages to The Godfather, which aren’t quite as out of place as it sounds.


what i watched last week

The Thin Red Line (Terrence Malick, 1998). This is the Terrence Malick version, and I am not a big fan of his work. Still, I like this one a bit more than the others of his that I have seen. It’s a very odd movie, half war film, half meditation on the meaning of life. The latter is pretty lame, and, combined with the beautiful cinematography, is a lot like other Malick movies: pretty, long, slow, and not all that good. The war film part is much more successful … it’s not all that different from other war films, but it provides a welcome respite from the more arty segments. Of course, I suspect it’s supposed to work the other way around, with the arty passages giving us a break from the war scenes, but it didn’t work that way for me. Malick also fails to distinguish one soldier from the next, which could be on purpose, but which is nonetheless frustrating. You always know who Nick Nolte and Sean Penn are, but other characters, in particular two privates who are central to the narrative, are close enough I never could remember which one had a girl back home and which one loved the island life. #646 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

Another Woman (Woody Allen, 1988). I decided to watch this movie after Jeff Pike made it #47 on his Facebook Fave Fifty list. I have to agree with Jeff that the screenplay “moves with astonishing confidence” … this is a very skillful film that shows Woody Allen’s abilities not just as a writer but as a director. But I’m not sure astonishing confidence is what this film needs. The central character is an intelligent, judgmental control freak who comes to realize her life has lacked true passion (yes, it’s like Wild Strawberries). I think we’re supposed to believe by the end of the film that she has turned a corner in her life, and that she will find a way to connect with her emotions in the future. But the movie is so well-made that it resembles the very life the woman seeks to escape. As Kael wrote, “Woody Allen’s picture is meant to be about emotion, but it has no emotion.” I must also admit that the film isn’t quite as perfect as I describe … Gena Rowlands’ voice-over narration sounds like a Books on Tape reading. I don’t blame Rowlands for this, I blame the narration itself … when the narration tells us “I thumbed through my mother’s edition of Rilke," Kael asks, “What universe are we in? (One where this isn’t recognized as a line to hoot at.)”


what i watched last week

Masculin Féminin (Jean-Luc Godard, 1966). Is it my 60s fixation that makes me like this period of Godard so much? This is the “children of Marx and Coca-Cola” one. Godard has a love/hate relationship with these young people … the pop singer seems shallow, the pop revolutionary seems, well, shallow, but then there’s the legendary interview with Miss 19, a young woman who makes the other people in the movie seem like Sartre and de Beauvoir. She is treated like the “consumer product” the intertitle calls her, and Godard is not in favor of consumer products … she is verbally destroyed in the scene, so much so that we start to feel sorry for her, which may not have been Godard’s intent. The movie in general is harder on the women than on the men, but they are all children of Coke. It’s not a cheery movie. #404 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the Top 1000 films of all time.

JCVD (Mabrouk El Mechri, 2008). Fascinating look at celebrity that forces you to consider that Jean-Claude Van Damme can act. Some critics noted similarities to Being John Malkovich, but since I’d just watched a Godard film, it was there that I saw connections. In fact, after watching Masculine-Feminine, I found myself wondering why no one made “Godard movies” anymore. Well, here’s one.

Night and Fog (Alain Resnais, 1956). Still great, still unbearable to watch. It took me more than 35 years for my second viewing. How you make art out of material like this? I don’t know, but Resnais succeeded. #372 on the TSPDT list of the 1000 greatest films of all time.


what i watched last week

Roy Orbison and Friends: A Black and White Night (Tony Mitchell, 1988). Not exactly a movie, of course, but I watched it again, this time in Blu-ray. It sounds magnificent ... the visuals are OK, although I confess I did some work while it was on, so I didn't pay that much attention to the video. I made sure to watch one of my favorite scenes, when Bruce and James Burton duel on "Pretty Woman."

Vicky Cristina Barcelona (Woody Allen, 2008). I loved seeing Spain in Blu-ray, even if we're going to Andalucía rather than Cataluña in June. I'm not convinced Woody Allen actually knows much about Spain, or Cataluña, or Barcelona. Neither am I convinced he knows much about youngish American tourists in Spain, or about Spaniards. He once made a movie, A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy, that was an approximation of Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night ... it wasn't half as good as its inspiration, but at least you got the feeling Allen loved Bergman. This movie lacks even that affection. It goes by pleasantly enough ... by no means is it a disaster ... but it's ultimately forgettable. Penelope Cruz gets an Oscar nomination, and she is wonderful, but even here, I'd credit the actor more than the director. Cruz struggled in her American movies, and made us wonder why she was considered a star in Europe. Then she went back to Spain and started doing great work again in her native language (Volver being a good example). Apparently, Allen speaks no Spanish and let Cruz and Javier Bardem improvise much of their Spanish dialogue, and I suspect that explains why Cruz shines here in ways she didn't in earlier American films ... she speaks Spanish at least half of the time, and she lets it all hang out, as they say. She's the best thing about the movie.

Revolutionary Road (Sam Mendes, 2008). Winslet is excellent as usual, Leo is the perfect choice for his part, the movie is properly depressing, and it's about as good as, oh, Shoot the Moon. I can think of at least two problems. One, Michael Shannon's Oscar-nominated performance as the crazy guy who says out loud the truths everyone else is thinking is irritating. Of course he got nominated ... he's playing the crazy guy who tells the truth. But his character is more anvilicious than subtle ... his every scene consists of clubbing the audience over the head so we get the points we should have already figured out for ourselves. Two, as Brian Lowry pointed out in Variety, this needs more time. I think the comparisons to Mad Men are lazy, but the main idea, that an in-depth study of suburban angst needs more than two hours, is accurate. But then, since the new golden age of television, this has been true ... I may complain about movies that are too long, but in many cases, the problem is that they are too short, by about five seasons. Still, there are signs that TV's golden age is passing, and I'm always telling students who want to write 5000 words when the assignment calls for 1500 that there is value in being concise. Perhaps the next big thing will be movies that use their relatively short length to good advantage. I don't think that's the case with Revolutionary Road.

The Duchess (Saul Dibb, 2008). Pretty.


what i watched last week

Monty Python's Life of Brian (Terry Jones, 1979.)

Little Women (Gillian Armstrong, 1994). The one with Winona Ryder. Not as sappy as it might have been.

A Night at the Opera (Sam Wood, 1935). Funnier than Life of Brian. Not as funny as Duck Soup.

WALL-E (Andrew Stanton, 2008). Approaches greatness, but a bit sappier than it needed to be.

Bridge to Terabithia (Gábor Csupó, 2007). Doesn't approach greatness, but it has Zooey Deschanel, who always does.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu, 2007).

A Patch of Blue (Guy Green, 1965). I couldn't pay attention ... partly I was bored, partly I was tired.


4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days (cristian mungiu, 2007)

I was IMing with my nephew today, and he said something about how hard it is for him to watch movies that are 20+ years old, that is, made before he was born. He said he grew up in a time when movies tended to keep a fairly hectic pace, so when he watched older movies, they seemed slow to him and were hard to sit through.

He might have been talking about 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, even though this Romanian film is actually only a year old. At times, director Cristian Mungiu finds a place to put his camera that he thinks is appropriate for a scene, and he leaves it there for extended periods of time, letting the movie emerge from the stationary camera. At other times, the camera work flows nicely, but it's those long takes that are the most impressive, particularly a dinner scene where a young woman is invited to a family celebration. She sits in the middle of the show, all around her people talk and for the most part ignore her, she has some very important things on her mind that she can't talk about ... and the camera sits there, and the scene goes on and on and on. Actress Anamaria Marinca is terrific in this scene ... you can't take your eyes off of her, even as the other dinner guests jabber on ... but the truth is, she's terrific in every scene.

But I can only imagine that my nephew would want to pull his eyes out of their sockets about halfway through that scene, if he hadn't already.

The basic situation is that a young student in late-80s Romania needs an abortion, and asks her roommate for help. That doesn't really get it ... as one critic noted, she asks her friend to do everything except have the actual abortion. It sounds quite dreary in a Vera Drake kind of way, dreary and extremely depressing. But it's also brilliant. The director's touches draw our attention, but soon enough we realize they aren't there just to impress, but to serve the drama. And the matter-of-fact portrayal of Romania under Ceauşescu is both enlightening and frightening. We see how life could seem both mundane and difficult, how repression could be so complete that people worked their way around it the same way we might accept the existence of commute traffic.

Unlike my nephew, I tend to give my highest praise only to old movies. I'm not much for a literary canon, but when it comes to movies, it would appear that I believe in the old "stands the test of time" notion. I rarely give the top 10-out-of-10 rating to anything until I've seen it a billion times ... I've rated fewer than a dozen movies a "10" in the 21st century. But add 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days to that list.


oscar run xii: les triplettes de belleville (sylvain chomet, 2003)

What the hell was that?

I'll just plead ignorance and an overdose of cretin culture, but I didn't get Les Triplettes de Belleville. It had an interesting look and a couple of things made me smile appreciatively. Other than that, it was all I could do to stay awake. I complain all the time about movies that run too long; this one ran for 78 minutes and I was ready to leave the theater with 50 minutes to go. Rather than say it was a bad movie, I'll blame myself for being a bad moviegoer.