BEGINNERS (Mike Mills, 2011)

Next to Mills’s only prior (2005’s forgettable Thumbsucker), this goes easier on the cutesy-quirks that have been the ruination of many an indie romance. Wish I could share the enthusiasm beyond that, but as heartfelt and well-played as it was, it still felt pretty slight. Which would matter less if Ewan McGregor’s memories of his recently deceased father Christopher Plummer (whose last few years, after outing himself aged 75, form a parallel flashback narrative intercut with the present romance) didn’t come with an at-least-half-serious potted history of the gay rights struggle attached.

I dunno, they obviously mean well; but for a film that stands or falls on human intimacy and the conveyance thereof, front-loading with overt identity politics feels a little glib/facile/juvenile/Paul Haggis. That said, the intimacy stands up pretty well; just wait for McGregor to suggest they move in together, and watch the camera staying on Laurent as she absorbs the suggestion in one of those slow reaction shots she’s so good at. Sure, I wished them well. But I wasn’t exactly lighting candles, y’know?

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FEAR EATS THE SOUL (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1974)

So, further to surprise finds… Came across this in CeX. Hadn’t previously come across it anywhere, although vaguely recognised the title. Turns out it’s a key text of the New German Cinema. Of which I know even less than the French New Wave.

So much for context. The film’s a sort of austere melodrama, if that ain’t too contradictory, about the chance meeting and unlikely marital union between a cleaning lady in late middle-age and a much younger Moroccan immigrant. The marriage meets with everyone’s bigoted disapproval, to what can seem slightly overstated effect today; a silent, static tableau of her appalled family absorbing the information (before one of them gets up and kicks the TV in) carries a certain comical charge, for sure.

But as much as the grim and tawdry outside world’s small-minded nimbyism gets it in the neck, the film is as good on its protagonists’ own human frailty, as the uniform hostility escapable only in their home gets internalized for the sake of a quiet life, and the marriage flounders; he starts seeing younger women, she starts showing him off, in crassly demeaning and objectifying ways, to her fair-weather friends. Still, the final resolution is compassionate, hopeful, and nearly but not quite undermined by circumstance; live and let live is a courtesy worth extending to your other half, we realise, if it’s really to mean anything.

DAY FOR NIGHT (Francois Truffaut, 1973)

There may be worse places to start with the French New Wave than a film-course screening of Weekend, but starting there myself all those years ago didn’t exactly enthuse me to become an authority on the matter. If that Tree of Life review last week seemed a trifle narrow-minded, I consider it a tribute to my adventurous nature and willingness to be persuaded that I ever went anywhere near the French New Wave again after enduring Godard’s egregious fin du cinemagoer’s will to live, to say nothing of continuing to go back after Breathless, Jules et Jim, Sympathy for the Devil and The 400 Blows all failed to convert me. (I managed a wry/smug smile throughout Sympathy, anyway. The secret of being in on the gag is pretending to be in on the gag.)

It finally paid off. Day for Night is quite the treasure, an exquisite comedy about the making of a (fictional, and quite silly-looking) tragic melodrama, detailing the siege mentality of a film set and its attendant flings and falling-outs, the prima-donna tantrums, the ongoing search for “a cat that can act”, all infused with the certainty that our auteur (playing a harassed, battle-scarred but diplomatic and ever-patient version of himself) wouldn’t have it any other way.

Most famous is the monochrome dream sequence (or memory) of Truffaut as a child, employing ingenuity to acquire some Citizen Kane stills from a closed cinema. Remembering a time before home video, before small-screen Kane was available everywhere for the price of a king-size Mars bar, is universally relatable; we all recall the rationing of our childhood preferences, when we made do with what we could get, when a (mass-produced) artifact or two come across by happenstance could make our week. Maybe foreign “art” films are among the few cultural phenomena that retain that elusiveness, purely because a pandering western monoculture just doesn’t have time for them and assumes we won’t either?

Aw, crap. I’m gonna have to watch Weekend again, aren’t I?

The last party?

I started this blog the day after leaving my last job, about a month and a half ago. This Friday morning, I got the call – start Monday. Impact on the blog, or my viewing schedule? Time will tell. In the meantime, here’s how I spent the rest of the day:

11:30 HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS PART 2 (David Yates, 2011). Unimpeachably adequate, and that goes for the whole franchise (too much invested for it to be either better or worse). That’s not to suggest that pleasing most of the people most of the time is easy, or to begrudge anyone the joy, wonderment etc they claim to have derived from this Michael McIntyre of a saga; but nothing about Harry’s last hurrah put me in a remotely sentimental mood, and while I wouldn’t go as far as “good riddance”, nor can I muster the interest for a backward glance.

15:25 CELL 211 (Daniel Monzon, 2009). No surprise that Hollywood’s snapped up the remake rights to this Spanish prison thriller; it feels like Monzon’s calling card to their neck of the woods as it is. And good luck to him, he knows how not to pull a punch, and makes the most of his cracking “new guard gets caught in riot, poses as inmate to survive” concept. SPOILER: doesn’t force a feelgood ending that would’ve flown in the face of everything else. Refreshing.

19:00 BATMAN LIVE. First paid preview (though not for me – cheers, See Film First) for this stage extravaganza, and very whoop-worthy it is too; they play fair by the Caped Crusader and his world, deliver on the spectacle (Batmobile, animated backdrops, the Flying Graysons), and keep it family-friendly without making the fanboys fidget. None of yer Spiderman showtunes here; still, “family-friendly” is only technically a compliment in my book, so…

22:10 HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN (Jason Eisener, 2011). Ah, there we go. The ironic quote marks within which this grindhouse pastiche operates shouldn’t overshadow its Rodriguez-worthy cartoon exuberance and invention, its glee in almost-literal dead baby humour (the bad guys board a school bus with a flame-thrower and let rip, just to prove they mean business), or the best use of Rutger Hauer since, well, I’ll leave that to anyone who’s kept up with his post-Hitcher career. Continues to see – and do – things you people wouldn’t believe.

That was a good day. Saturday, I got drunk.

THE TREE OF LIFE (Terence Malick, 2011)

An opening voiceover informs us that there are but two ways of life on the table: “nature” (please yourself) or “grace” (please nobody).* Well, that’s us told, innit? The kind of picture that exists to draw lines in the sand, chiefly between film critics (who enjoy much the same relationship to Malick’s body of work as self-serious pubescent girls do to Robert Pattinson’s) and the rest of us heathens, this takes a passable bit of Stand by Me folksiness about growing up in 1950s Texas, and pads it out with nothing less than the entire history of creation.

If the Palme d’Or and the 85% Rotten Tomatoes score didn’t reach this film sight unseen, you feel, then it may as well have done. So I’m happy to declare my inner contrarian’s interest in pap-snapping the emperor’s bare arse; but I really didn’t think they’d make it this easy. It isn’t, couldn’t have been, without merit – certain childhood fears’n’flights, as when guiltily destroying the evidence of a transgression you don’t even know why you committed in the first place, are captured as vividly as I’ve ever seen. I wasn’t exactly bored by the film, but my mind wasn’t fully on it either a lot of the time, and while I hear tell that’s supposed to be a virtue in itself nowadays (stresses of modern life getting you down? Come to our screening room and meditate), my own contemplative trance threw up the following thoughts, in order:
i) family is an overrated concept;
ii) I’d better not be missing any important calls watching Sean Penn look forlorn in a skyscraper;
iii) life is an overrated concept;
iv) it takes the CGI dinosaurs to make Spielberg laugh, it takes the daddy issues to make him cry;
v) anyone seen The Fountain?;
vi) anyone seen 2001?;
vii) anyone seen Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey?;
viii) further to the last three… DEATH MATCH!!!;
ix) are they going to sing Kumbaya?;
x) if this portentous, self-infatuated sub-Shyamalan twaddle had a face, I would punch it.

Worth the effort? You decide. I’ma go get distracted.

* On balance, we learn, pleasing nobody is better.

THE DEPARTED (Martin Scorsese, 2006)

Again, everybody got what they wanted – Marty his Oscar at long last, Leo, Matt and Marky Mark the opportunity to be actual Scorsese badasses, Jack to just be Jack…and us? Nothin’ but a great big juicy 2h30m comfort-food banquet that I’ve now watched three times, two more than countless “better” – in fact, lose the quote marks, just self-evidently better, more ambitious, more inventive, even more entertaining – movies. If I did “guilty pleasures”, this’d be one of them.

Consensus aside, it may not necessarily be that Scorsese’s greatest gift is finding fun new ways for career criminals to glass each other. But in the context of his formidable skill set, it’s gotta be top five, right? Just watch Mark Wahlberg’s standout cop, deservedly nominated, and contrast with his similar role in the following year’s We Own the Night, in which director James Grey’s fatally humourless approach to very silly material made unintentional comedy of Wahlberg and Joaquin Phoenix’s monotonous fuck-you-no-fuck-you-ing. For better and worse, wiseguy testosterone has become this director’s, and/or  his fans’, default setting; Boston move notwithstanding, he’s very much at home.

So of course everybody groaned when he opened with “Gimme Shelter” again – but then he is the Stones’ perfect big-screen analogue (Shine a Light would be his next project). As in, we’re long past expecting miracles, but he’s still shooting the works with an almost casual vitality and verve, unmatched by pretenders a third of his age. It’s only rock’n’roll, but I like it.

GOOD WILL HUNTING (Gus Van Sant, 1997)

Robin Williams gets top billing in this. Well, it was the film he made between Father’s Day and Patch Adams – motherfucka’s on a roll – and as for Damon & Affleck, Good Will Hunting was their stepping stone, a purpose-written showcase to put their own names above future titles. Their business acumen speaks for itself – this was the film they made between Chasing Amy and, respectively, Saving Private Ryan and Armageddon. Fourteen years on, though, I could too often hear it speaking for the movie as well.

Not that the script is at all cynical (the reverse, if anything), but it seems telling that despite the Oscar, they haven’t collaborated on one since; equally telling that they originally conceived this as a sci-fi thriller (young genius mathematician cracks The Formula and now they’re all after him, etc), before their elders – Sydney Pollack and William Goldman, apparently – urged them to make it more, I dunno, Goldmanesque (young genius mathematician sees shrink, conquers his demons, starts making his way in the world). There’s no reason to assume The Damonator would’ve been as successful in putting them where they wanted to be, or even that it would hold up better in 2011 (although Matt has subsequently been at his best on the run); it may, though, have felt truer to the principle of writing what you know.

Because at twentysomething there’s only so much you do know about real life, and to accordingly fall back on the 3-act screenwriting manual as Good Will Hunting so often seems to might be less glaring in a genre piece. The celebrated park bench scene plays almost as an auto-critique (or disclaimer), sheepishly acknowledging that the writers’ worldly wisdom lags behind their knack for a clever turn of phrase.

Not to worry, as Team Weinstein fell upon it as the awards-magnet they’d assemble between The English Patient and Shakespeare in Love. Hence the treacly Danny Elfman score, Robin Williams winning an Oscar, and Gus Van Sant closing the deal on his To Die For courting of the mainstream, thereafter greenlighting his Warholian reproduction of Psycho. So if I find it hard to respond much now to this slightly ersatz (though perfectly watchable) Ordinary People/Rain Man mashup (with a few precious drops of Mean Streets thrown in – the “layover” scene’s still good for a chuckle), there’s no doubt it was a pretty sweet deal; everyone got what they wanted.

Biggest laugh: the end-credits dedication, “In memory of Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs”.