Across the Pond: Misfits

In across the pond I look at television from the U.K. that stands out as amazing programming.

Misfits Series 1 (6 episodes)

One American television series that completely disappointed me was Heroes. The first season was a slow burn, but once it got where it was going it was incredibly good. After its first season though it started a downward spiral that ended with NBC put a bullet in its head halfway through the fourth season. The idea of a television series that works with the superhero concept is one I can get behind completely. When this BBC drama came around I heard about it, but didn’t really rush to watch it. Recently though, I sat down and tore through the six episodes in two days and it has jumped to being one of my favorite shows. It’s a bit teen drama (and British teen dramas are infinitely more racey than American ones) and a bit super hero series. The mix is a wonderful series that can be deathly serious and absolutely hilarious.

Five juvenile delinquents gather at a community center to perform their court-required service hours. While cleaning up trash along the Thames, they see a strange storm quickly gather over the city and begin to rain down massive chunks of ice. A bolt of energy strikes and moments later they appear to be fine. However, they have each gained a special ability they is tied to an aspect of their personality. Kelly, a chav girl from the estates, can read people’s minds (she’s concerned about what people say about her). Simon, a introverted and awkward boy, turns invisible as long as no one is looking at him. Curtis, a former high school track star caught with cocaine, can send his consciousness back in time. Alisha, a coquettish minx, drives any man who touches her bare skin into becoming compelled to have sex with her. And poor Nathan, the mouth of the group appears to have no powers.

These kids wouldn’t ever hang out with each other so the conceit of the community service hours is a perfect way to have a makeshift team. They even have uniforms, bright orange jumpsuits, which they change into when they meet up. Villains come in the form of other Londoners affected by the mysterious storm. Their first enemy is their probation officer, who is transformed into a Hulk-like agent of rage. From there they run into a man who believes he is a dog during a full moon, a girl who cause others’ hair to fall out, and a former nymphet turned svengali of purity. The show definitely mixes humor in, and is able to joke about what is going while still keeping a sense of urgency. The highlight of the season by far was the episode spotlighting Curtis, the time traveler. He is able to go back to the night the police caught him with drugs and tries to change things. Of course he is forced to deal with the large reaching ramifications of his trip back and is forced to make subsequent trips. The way backstory about all the characters is relayed in this episode is amazing, and puts a lot of the time travel storytelling in Heroes to shame.

My favorite character of them all is Nathan, the seemingly powerless member of the bunch. Every episode he attempts to manifest a different power but ultimately fails. There’s even clues early on as to what it will be and its not till the final episode of the season that we discover what that is. Also, in that final episode, Nathan delivers what is possibly one of the funniest rallying speeches I’ve ever heard. In his effort to convince his friends to shake off the mind controlling influences they are under, he champions teenage irresponsibility, claiming that they’re supposed to be getting drunk and shagging all the time. He plans to do so throughout his twenties, and possibly his early thirties. Its a interesting mix of that aforementioned urgency and comedy. If you have the chance, and this sounds even the smallest bit interesting to you, seek it out. It’s one of the most enjoyable comedy-dramas I’ve seen on television in a long time. Series two is scheduled for the end of 2010, with a Christmas special to precede it.

Tube Time: Mad Men Primer

It’s the eve of the Mad Men Season 4 premiere and fans of the show are definitely curious to find out what has happened to Don Draper and crew since last we saw them. If you’ve never seen the show (and are one of those people who starts watching a few season in, shame on you!) or are fan and just want to geek out with me, here’s a concise guide to everything you need to know about Mad Men.

Don Draper (Jon Hamm) – Don is the core character of the series. A charismatic, suave, yet incredibly cold figure. Draper is a mystery to his co-workers and even his family. He’s a man without friends, he makes acquaintances. His place of business in season one is Sterling-Cooper, a successful advertising agency in the heart of Manhattan. It’s here that Draper is the creative director, wrangling a group of frat boys into producing print ad campaigns for clients like Phillip-Morris, Kodak, and Goodyear, among others. At home, Draper does the minimal duties of a husband and doesn’t seem to have any sort of connection with his children. He often sneaks away to visit which ever mistress he has at the time, women who all seem to be the kind of female he prevents his wife from becoming. In season one, we learn that Draper’s real name is Dick Whitman, and that he served along the real Don Draper in the Korean War. Draper is killed as a result of Whitman’s error, and seeing a chance to shake off the life he hated, Draper takes the dead man’s dog tags. In season two, Draper goes to California for a business trip and ends up MIA, lost in a malaise of empty sex and booze with a young girl and her bohemian family, eventually reconciling with the real Draper’s widow. Season three was a major turning point, with all of his secrets coming out and his wife beginning an affair with another man as a result. By the end of that most recent season, Draper is on his way to a divorce and has broken off from Sterling Cooper to form a new upstart agency.

Betty Draper (January Jones) – Don’s wife, Betty, is an incredibly polarizing figure. You either love her, hate her, or see saw violently back and forth between the two. Betty was born into a fairly well to do family in Philadelphia. She ended up working as a model in Italy as a teen which is where she met Don. They moved to Long Island, had two kids and Betty did what every wife was expected to do at the time; be a stay at home mom. Shortly before the start of Season One, Betty’s mother dies and, much to her chagrin, her father begins dating another woman. Betty also seems to have a real issue with the mundanity of suburban life, and convinces to Don to let her see a psychiatrist. She is unaware that Don makes calls in the evenings after every one of her sessions, where the psych reads off his notes from the session. She is also unaware, but suspicious of, the philandering her husband is up to. In season two, Betty begins to transform, becoming fully aware that Don has slept with at least on other woman. They end up growing distant, until Betty’s father suffers a stroke. They both travel to Pennsylvania to see him and his growing senility frightens Betty. At the end of the second season, Betty learns she is pregnant and has sex with a stranger in the backroom of a bar. In the third season, the marriage is strained even further starting with Betty meeting Henry Francis, an advisor to Governor Rockefeller. She gives birth and also has to deal with her father coming to live with them. The family’s housekeeper ends up saddled with the responsibilities as Betty seems to reject all of it. She and Henry meet in secret, and she breaks into Don’s locked desk where she learns about his life as Dick Whitman. Using fraud as grounds, she files for divorce, and season three ends up with Betty on her way to marry Henry.

Peggy Olsen (Elizabeth Moss) – The opening of season one was Peggy’s first day in the typing pool of Sterling Cooper. She ends up as Don Draper’s secretary and she seems to be the first woman he doesn’t want to bed, not out of a lack of attraction, but from an unspoken respect they have between each other. Peggy grew up Brooklyn, raised in a strict Catholic family. She visits her mother frequently, but is straying away from the traditional upbringing. In her first year at Sterling Cooper, Betty ends up sleeping with sleazy accounts man Pete Campbell, is impregnated by him, and secretly gives the child up for adoption. We learn in season two, that Don was the only person at work she let know about this, and much like his own secrets, he guards it with the utmost privacy. Betty also gets promoted to writing copy after giving some surprising feedback during a focus testing of lipstick. In season two, Peggy continues her move towards independence when she begins spending time with a her mother’s parish priest. The priest urges Peggy to go to confession to relieve any guilts she might have but Peggy realizes she doesn’t need him to do that. In confrontation with Pete, Peggy reveals the existence of her child, something that hits him hard as his newlywed wife Trudy has just learned she is infertile. In season three, Peggy leaves Brooklyn for an apartment in Manhattan and realizes her ideas in Don’s daily meetings are being ignored by the boys’ club. She takes a certain satisfaction when one idea for Pepsi’s new diet soda, which she felt was dumb, gets shot down during the presentation. Peggy also begins an affair with a much older former employee of Sterling Cooper and she is brought in Don’s new ad agency when he leaves the company.

Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce – This is the new agency founded by Don and company. In season two Sterling Cooper is taken over by a British corporation, and over the course of season three the employees find themselves increasingly on the chopping block. As a final revolt, Don organizes a raid of the office accounts films in the middle of the night and steals away some of the top money making contracts. He also brings some of his fellow employees he respects the most. These include: Roger Sterling and Bert Cooper (his former bosses, now partners), Lane Pryce (a British executive who is tired of being a whipping boy), Peggy Olsen, Harry Crane (Sterling Cooper’s former television creative director), Pete Campbell (often a nemesis for Don), and Joan Holloway (the head secretary and the one who made the machine run at Sterling Cooper). Together they appear to be set up to unleash new dynamic advertising campaigns and provide a great antagonist for their former company.

The Boys at Sterling Cooper – Left behind are two figures: Ken Cosgrove and Paul Kinsey. Cosgrove started out as a dopey accounts man who would forever frustrate Kinsey. Kinsey was an aspiring writer, inspired by the Beats, who grew irate when Cosgrove got a story printed in The Atlantic Monthly. What made it even worse was that the story was good. In season three, Cosgrove began to shine was promoted to Senior Vice President of Accounts, over Pete Campbell who became another enemy of Cosgrove’s. When Draper’s revolt took place, they grabbed Campbell over Cosgrove. Paul Kinsey worked closely with Peggy, writing copy in season three. He ends up despising her, but the two get wasted together during a late night session. It’s still remains to be seen how Kinsey will react when he learns he was left behind.

So get yourselves ready as we find out what they’ve all been up since last season. As per usual a few months to a year will have passed, so I think that puts us at the start of 1965. Tune in tomorrow night, AMC at 10/9c.

Criterion Fridays – Summer Hours

Summer Hours (2008, dir. Oliver Assayas)
Starring Juliette Binoche, Charles Berling, Jeremie Renier

It’s always refreshing to see a film made for grown ups. Too often American dramas dumb things down, maybe out of a lack of talent in the writer or maybe a lack of confidence in the audience’s intelligence. Here director Assayas looks at the strange dynamic of being both the adult child of a parent and a parent to your own children. In one position you are still looked on as an infant or adolescent and in the other you are the supreme authority. This difficult place is used to examine how we deal with death and responsibilities placed on us by the dead. The whole thing is a very naturalistic, quiet piece of cinema that is rewarding and ambiguous. The answers we receive will be as open ended as the characters in the film, and like them, we have to learn to happy with that.

Helene has just turned seventy-five and has come to terms with the fact that her life is coming to an end. She takes her eldest child, Frederic aside and explains to him how the family’s vast art collection and the country home they grew up in is something she wants him to maintain and make sure her grandchildren can bring their children to. Helene dies soon after her children make their last visit to the house, all of them caught up in busy lives: Frederic in Paris, Adrienne in America, and Jeremie in China. Frederic comes together with the siblings who all want to sell off the artwork and the house as they don’t have the funds or time to maintain the property. Frederic concedes and they go about cataloging the contents of the home. Frederic maintains a sense of guilt as he watches the promise to his mother fade away.

Summer Hours is a film that will demonstrate how programmed you have become by cliched Hollywood plot devices. There is a never chance anything of major conflict with occur, no one is going to explode in an emotional rage and there will be no ironic twist of fate. This is a very relaxed film about a family and the compromises we all make as a part of families. Frederic never really puts up a fight and its hard to be angry at him. As much as his mother loved the collection her uncle had amassed and she inherited, it is almost impossible for her children to maintain it. What is interesting is how Frederic’s teenaged daughter, Sylvie feels a strong emotional connection to the country house. The opening scene is of her and her little cousins running through the woods, playing, being children. The final parallels this, but with a more bittersweet tone as it is the last time she will be there.

This is not a film that has a message for you. Assayas simply tells the story of these three adult siblings, lives without melodrama, dealing with the aftermath of the death of a parent. What you are meant to get out of the film is what ever you want. So often in American mainstream cinema scripts are locked into formulaic beats and its all about hitting certain plot notes by certain page numbers. Here no one is rushed along, no one reveals some deep dark secret. Its very refreshing, and beautiful, and ultimately stays with you a lot longer than a script that sloppily goes didactic. If you are looking for an incredibly thoughtful film that lets you decide what you want it to mean, then I think you’ll be in for a treat with this one.

Newbie Wednesdays – Greenberg

Greenberg (2010, dir. Noah Baumbach)
Starring Ben Stiller, Greta Gerwig, Rhys Ifans, Mark Duplass, Jennifer Jason Leigh

Hey, you know what isn’t an interesting topic for contemporary cinema right now? Angst ridden white people who live comfortably and don’t have to worry about any necessities. Especially when they aren’t in some sort of hyper-realistic universe (i.e. James Bond, comic book movies). When the films are meant to be set in reality and feature characters whose biggest problems are that their band when they were in their twenties didn’t work out, yet are still rich through other endeavors, then I don’t really have much empathy towards them. This is yet another hugely pretentious piece of cinema from the grating Noam Baumbach. If you’re interested in navel gazing claptrap you’ve found your film.

Florence (Gerwig) is the personal assistant to the Greenberg family, a wealthy couple with two kids and a dog. The Greenbergs are off to Vietnam to open one of the husband’s hotels and they let Florence know his brother, Roger will be visiting for a few weeks while they are gone. Roger had a nervous breakdown and is coming the mansion to relax and work a doghouse. Roger and Florence meet, and she inexplicably ends up liking him. She learns Roger was involved with a semi-successful band in the 80s and they would have made it big if Roger hadn’t freaked out and left. Roger runs into some of his old bandmates (Ifans, Duplass) and while one of them has gotten over it, the other still holds a grudge.

The character of Greenberg is not necessarily a bad concept. I think everyone enjoys a good curmudgeon every once and awhile. But the curmudgeonly attributes of Roger Greenberg come across as cliche and totally dishonest. It doesn’t help that Noah Baumbach is doing what he did in Margo at the Wedding, one of the least watchable films I’ve ever had the privilege of falling asleep during. This is film straining desperately to be so clever and erudite, yet maintain that angst white middle class tone I hate. While some people have the same things to say about Wes Anderson’s films, I argue that Anderson works his damnedest to make his work feel intentionally separate from reality, in effect making contemporary fairy tales. Baumbach thinks he’s making a movie grounded in realism, and I guess for self-absorbed upper middle class people it probably is. I just have zero sympathy who have these problems.

There are few moments of good in it. I think Greta Gerwig is a great actress, more so in more mumblecore type movies than this one. She has a very natural ease in front of the camera and is one of the few people in the movie who doesn’t feel like she is acting. There’s a sub plot involving her ex-boyfriend that I found to be good to see in a film, its something that never really happens even in movies, and if it does there seems to be some moral cultural obligation to make it a big deal. Here Gerwig simply does this thing and everyone moves on with their lives, the way in reality it would probably be. Many of the supporting players are quite good, with the exception of Jennifer Jason Leigh as Roger’s ex from back in the band days. Leigh is also the co-screenwriter, producer, and the wife of Noah Baumbach. She’s just not very good in this role. If you have the option to watch this film, I can’t really say its one of those worth one view ones. It really isn’t, it doesn’t say anything of importance, it doesn’t work to achieve any interesting artistic aesthetic, it is just simply nothing.

Wild Card Tuesdays – The Living and The Dead

The Living and The Dead (2006, dir. Simon Rumley)
Starring Roger Lloyd-Pack, Leo Bill, Kathy Fahy

It’s very hard for me to write about this film after having just watched it today. It affected me in a deeply emotional way that very few films are able to. After cinema becomes a daily occurrence, you are naturally numbed to the typical emotional tricks of filmmakers. I was aware of this film first as a horror picture. The director, Simon Rumley came out of nowhere with this small picture that made the festival circuits. It never really the mainstream venues, instead traveling to the fringe horror festivals. I am very curious as to how it was received because more than anything this film is a deeply disturbing, yet also sensitive, portrayal of the pain of severe mental illness. The film achieved something very few have in recent years, it made me cry. There is a scene in the last third of the film that is so emotionally devastating I can’t see how anyone could watch it and not break down.

The former Lord Donald Brocklebank must leave his dreary estate in the middle of the English countryside for unknown reasons. His wife, Nancy is suffering from cancer and his son James is severely mentally challenged, requiring daily pills and injections to keep his delusions in check. Donald instructs James that Nurse Mary will round to tend to Nancy. However, James forgets his injections and decides to prove he can be the man of the house by locking Nurse Mary out and trying to tend to mother himself. It’s painful to watch James descend into madness while unknowingly hurting his mother again and again. The film makes a sudden major shift in the narrative about half way through that really cements the idea that we are seeing the story through the mind of a mentally ill person. And the finale is just jolting and ambiguous enough that I believe this film will stay with you for years.

Leo Bill should have received an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of James. His face is recognizable as that of Darwin in Tarsem Singh’s The Fall, as well as the arranged suitor of Alice in Tim Burton’s recent Alice in Wonderland film. Here is firing on all cylinders, delivering a performance that is so powerful and unrestrained. Even now, just thinking about certain scenes I feel my gut in a knot and heart breaking all over again. James is both terrifying and sympathetic. I thought of the prayer of Christ on the cross, crying out “Forgive them Father, they know not what they do.” That is exactly how we and the other characters in the film inevitably have to view James. His reality is a different plane of existence than ours and he can hurt people while believe he’s simply giving them a hug.

I can’t emphasize enough what a profound piece of cinema this is. While labeled “horror” I would argue that there is no human monster in the film. The monster is mental illness and the shattering pain and emotional trauma we humans are forced to bear. I don’t know if I could ever watch The Living and The Dead again, much in the same way I am unable to revisit Requiem for A Dream. Both movies are so effective in getting across the helpless pain they want to portray that, while we acknowledge them as masterpieces, our psyches are too fragile to confront them again.

Director in Focus: Brian De Palma – The Black Dahlia

The Black Dahlia (2006)
Starring Josh Harnett, Aaron Eckhart, Scarlett Johansson, Hilary Swank, Mia Kirshner, Mike Starr, Fiona Shaw, Rachel Miner

Coming off of the Euro Noir Femme Fatale, De Palma steps right into classic L.A. Noir, where the entire bleak genre really began. The film is based on the James Ellroy novel, which is in turn based on the real life murder of a young wanna be actress named Elizabeth Short, nicknamed “The Black Dahlia” by the newspapers. For the picture, we find De Palma restrained much more than in Femme Fatale. I didn’t notice too many visual flourishes, instead a lot of post-production gauziness added to the film in an attempt to make the film resemble its counterparts in the 1940s. He manages to directly reference old movies, a trademark of De Palma’s love of cinema. It’s a long picture, over two hours and there are many sub plots and third act twists. So how does it all come together?

Bleichert (Hartnett) and Blanchard (Eckhart) are L.A. beat cops who meet during the 1947 Zoot Suit Riots (sailors versus hep cats). The two men are promoted to being bond agents and fate finds them a block away from the discover of Elizabeth Short’s body. Blanchard becomes obsessed, while Bleichert becomes enamored with Blanchard’s girl (Johansson). Feeling the pressure to keep his partner from going over the edge due to the case, Bleichert does some footwork and meets a young woman, Madeline Linscott who traveled in the same lesbian circles as Short. Through a series of “what a coinky-dink” sub plots, all of these characters become entangled, ending just like all good noir should end, most every dies. The only part that really diverges is the very final scene which felt very tacked on by the studio in an attempt to not let the film end on a “sad” note. Pshaw.

This is a real mess of a film. If we were judging it on style and production design it gets an A+. That’s one thing you can never fault De Palma, the man knows how to make a film ooze style. The cinematography is pitch perfect, thinking in particular of a crane shot where as part of the background we witness the discovery of Short’s body by a mother out pushing her baby carriage. It’s done as this little thing in passing, that you could easily miss if you weren’t paying attention. That sort of clever detail is hard to not love. The entire set and costume design is solid, no one looks out of place. As always, there are some interesting set pieces that had to involve thousands of shots and takes. So from a technical stand point, its an excellent film.

Plot wise this film is trying to do way to much and tie to many things together that don’t make much sense. Characters who have no connection through the majority of the film are suddenly revealed through clunky exposition to have been sleeping with each other the entire time or connected to the murder of Short. By the time you get to the end its all so ludicrous and over the top it becomes absurd. While coincidence is a big part of noir, it at least as to make some sort of sense with the story told so far. I did however enjoy an incredibly macabre and creepy old Hollywood family that plays a crucial role in the film. While we only get a glimpse of their utter insanity, I found myself wanting to see more about them. There’s also some references to The Man Who Laughs, a Lon Chaney, Sr horror picture that served as the inspiration for The Joker. All in all, a rather middle of the road with too much plot to cram into two hours.

Next: we wrap things up with a shockingly different film, revisting Casualties of War territory, this time in Iraq, Redacted

Criterion Fridays – Make Way For Tomorrow

Make Way For Tomorrow (1937, dir. Leo McCarey)
Starring Victor Moore, Beulah Bondi

The economy is bad. Unemployment. The Housing Market. Small Businesses. Crashing every day. During The Great Depression, cinema reflected this moment in history where the common man was struggling to make ends meet. People were losing their homes, ending up jobless and on the streets, and Hollywood wasn’t afraid to put that up on the screen.There were many escapist pictures in the theaters during the Great Depression, particularly musicals, but even those had elements of the financial struggles people were under going. Not so now. Particularly during the summer, we have mindless film after mindless film, featuring people so distant and out of touch with our own reality that, for myself, I become disengaged. What I am shocked to see is reality reflected on the screen.

Barkley and Lucy have been married for fifty years when the bank notifies them that their home for all this time is being taken away. Barkley hasn’t worked in four years and he and Lucy don’t have enough money for a new place right away. They contact their four adult children and explain the situation. Behind the couple’s back, the children fight about who will take them, with it being decided that Lucy will go to stay with George, the eldest son, and Barkley will go to Cora, the eldest daughter. Lucy soon finds George’s wife and teenaged daughter don’t care for her presence in the home. Hundreds of miles away, Barkley has come down with a cold and is bedridden. Cora is infuriated she has to deal with him, but puts on the facade of a caring daughter when the doctor comes calling.

Make Way For Tomorrow introduces an idea that would still be controversial today in many circles: Do not live your life as a parent completely when you have children, you must have a definition outside of that. The children in the film are not monsters; stepping back when can see things from their point of view. But we also sympathize greatly with Barkley and Lucy, they truly gave every thing they had to their children and it may have not been the smartest move. Once their children became adults they vanished from their parents’ lives and only now have becoming aware of the financial situation back home. The relationship between Barkley and Lucy is deeply loving, its rare that I see a couple on screen when I completely buy their relationship. The paths the film leads them down are not happy ones, like the title suggests, it becomes about accepting change in your life.

Orson Welles said of this film that “it would make a stone cry”. He was exactly right. The love between these people is so pure and beautiful. The final sequence of the film involves them taking an unexpected car ride to the hotel where they honeymooned fifty years earlier. The coat check girl, the hotel manager, every one treats them in the way we wish their children did. The drinks are on the house, the band conductor plays an old tune when Barkley and Lucy hit the dance floor. Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi master these characters with a sly humor that undercuts a lot of the sadness that pervades the film. It doesn’t end on a hopeful note, but a realistic one, an admonition that life changes in ways don’t want. We are powerless to fight it, so instead we should embrace the people around us.

Wild Card Tuesdays – Right At Your Door

Right At Your Door (2005, dir. Chris Gorak)
Starring Mary McKormack, Rory Cochrane

The concept of Right At Your Door has the makings of an amazing movie. The story is relegated to single home with a small number of cast (2 lead, 2 supporting) and brings up topics and themes very relevant to modern America. With all of these elements present, you would expect the film to be good. Sadly, it never really becomes about anything. It touches on a lot of ideas briefly, then abandons them, then collapses as film that never really goes anywhere. Its definitely working hard to be important but the substance isn’t there. It’s truly disappointing though, because it could have been one of the best films about post-9/11 America.

It’s a normal weekday morning in Los Angeles, Brad makes sure Lexi wakes up on time so she can head downtown for work. A few hours after she leaves, news reports come on talking about a series of coordinated explosions that have gone off in the most densely crammed traffic areas of the city. Authorities believe these were dirty bombs and that people need to stay in their homes, sealing their doors and windows off. Brad tries to head down but police have things blocked, so he gives up and waits in his home, terrified that Lexi is dead. However, Lexi turns up at the house, after Brad has sealed it off and now the heavy weight of confronting mortality is before them.

I see this as an awesome stage play. Two actors on stage, divided by a prop door. Very minimalist and very open to exploring lots of ideas about relationships, love, death, and the effects of terrorism and fear on contemporary America. Instead, the film has a great set up, I was completely onboard and ready to take this journey. And when Lexi first shows up after the explosion things are interesting, Brad is very torn. However, the film becomes repetitive in a way that is a technique of stalling. The picture is an hour and a half long and the screenplay doesn’t seem to know how to stretch that one day out in an interesting way. So all sorts of ludicrous things are thrown in. A friend of the couple shows up, a neighborhood child is wandering the street, there’s gestapo like military wandering the city. But it never adds up to a point, never reaches the profound pinnacle that it feels like it should. Instead we get a third act twist that is technically plausible, feels forced as a way to end the film on  quasi interesting note.

Criterion Fridays – Close-Up

Close-Up (1990, dir. Abbas Kiraostami)

In America, its not uncommon to see a film “based on a true story”. The audience has come to expect that while names and events are real, screenwriters have “punched up” the script with dramatic tropes and formulas designed to add drama to what they see as dull, uninteresting reality. On the opposite end of things, you have documentaries like Capturing the Friedmans where the reality of the situation is so horrific and dramatic we have to wonder how much is exaggerated and manipulated by the director. In Abbas Kiraostami’s film Close-Up he takes an approach to the “based on a real story” movie that is some sort of amalgamation of narrative film and documentary. This is one of few times I have watched a film unable to figure out what was reality and was staged.

The film revolves around the case of Ali Sabzian, a man posing as Iranian film director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and receiving the good will and shelter of the a family in Tehran as a result. The films opens with an obviously staged scene, the reporter, who first published the story that brought it Kiraostami’s attention, is traveling with police via taxi to the family’s home to witness the arrest of Sabzian. From there the film becomes a patchwork of the actual video footage of Sabzian’s trial and re-enactments of the events. The re-enactments actually feature the real people involved, including Sabzian. The reason this could happen is, that Sabzian never stole from the family he stayed with and the crime was non-violent. By the end of the film, we learn what Sabzian’s motivation was and see the family show great sympathy for him in court.

While most films about real crimes attempt to illuminate and make the mystery something that can be understood, Close-Up works to confuse things and make Sabzian a harder and harder character to pin down. What it becomes is a meditation on why someone not involved in the Arts would feel such a strong connection to someone who made their living off of cinema. Sabzian lives with his mother in the wake of divorce. His wife took one child, his mother raises the other. He works in a dead end job as a printer, and Sabzian claims that in director Makhmalbaf’s work he finds his own suffering put into words he cannot explain. Sabzian is an incredibly sympathetic figure, but even he confuses us because he talks about how he feels drawn to be an actor, that the idea of losing himself in a character is appealing. So, is the Sabzian speaking court truly his honest self, or another persona he has taken on?

This was not going to be the film Kiraostami was supposed to make at the time. However, after reading about the story in the paper he became obsessed with it and couldn’t sleep. So he contacted the parties involved and began making the film. As much as he wants to capture reality on film, he unabashedly manipulates certain scenes. When Sabzian is released from jail at the end of the film, he meets the real Makhmalbaf there are “audio difficulties” with the microphone equipment. Kiraostami has admitted freely after the fact that the audio problems was a manufacturing of him out of respect for the conversation between the two men, but instead of simply saying he was doing this, he made it another layer in the reality and fiction of the film. This is definitely a film that challenges the perceptions of the audience and will make them constantly question the reality or artifice of each and every scene.

Wild Card Tuesdays – Afterschool

Afterschool (2009, dir. Antonio Campos)
Starring Ezra Miller, Michael Stuhlbarg, Jeremy Allen White, Addison Timlin

Stanley Kubrick, probably my favorite director of all-time, once said, “A film is – or should be – more like music than like fiction. It should be a progression of moods and feelings. The theme, what’s behind the emotion, the meaning, all that comes later.” The kind of films Kubrick made the most closely followed this philosophy, 2001 comes to mind immediately, were not films that met the aesthetic of pleasurable cinema. They were meant to provoke a reaction, positive or negative, and I suspect the negative would have interested Kubrick more. This is not to say director Antonio Campos is working at the same level of Kubrick, but is definitely more interested in cinematic language than plot or characters or dialogue. This sort of film is never going to appeal to a mass audience, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t incredibly well made and through provoking.

Rob is a sophomore at Bryton, a fictional East Coast prep school where is a quiet, reclusive young man, preferring to spend his time watching viral videos and porn on his desktop computer. His interest in video leads him to joining the A/V Club after school pressures to participate in after-school activities. Amy, the girl he has a slight attraction to, is partnered with him to film B-roll exterior shots of the school for a collective club project. Amy can’t make it to one session, so Rob goes it alone and happens to witness twin seniors stumbling into frame, bleeding profusely from their noses and mouths. Rob silently walks over to where they collapsed and that is where the teachers and other students find him. It turns out the girls died of drugs that had been tainted with rat poison. Add to the mix that Rob’s roommate Dave is the known supplier in the dorms, and Rob must contemplate what he should do.

Don’t for a second think this is going to be some sort of taut thriller. This is a incredibly meditative and slow paced film, that isn’t about the death of the girls, rather it is about this young man and his personal psychosis. Rob is of a generation who filters reality through the pixelated grain of buffered video. We see portions of the film told through the lens of the digital video cameras handed out in class and through cell phone video. When Rob finally has a moment alone with Amy and they begin to get amorous, he mimics the actions he has seen on an incredibly misogynistic internet porn site. Amy is obviously shocked, but surprisingly not phased, as we can infer she has seen the same being from the same generation. Rob is an incredibly neutral protagonist, which has an odd effect on the viewer. While he does nothing to appear noble or heroic, I found myself rooting for him because of how I have been trained to view movies. Campos seems to be working to make us aware of this fact, that we have no reason to be on Rob’s side.

Michael Stuhlbarg, who made an incredible turn as the lead in the Coen Brother’s A Serious Man, plays Bryton’s headmaster and is a darkly phony figure. Afterschool definitely draws parallels to the archetypal teen stories like A Catcher in the Rye and Heathers, where the maudlin sentiment of the adults is seen through the stark, cold eyes of adolescents. Stuhlbarg expresses false sympathy for Rob’s condition after witnessing the deaths of the twins, and it is obvious every decision the dean makes is about saving face for the school, and making sure those parents who have influence are  not offended. He reveals his true colors to Rob when the young man produces a video that does reflect the false regret and sympathy the dean wishes. The guise of a compassionate and sensitive educator melts away and he chastises Rob in an incredibly cruel manner.

Once again, I emphasize that this is not a film that will appeal to everyone. I suspect the audience that will “enjoy” the film will be quite small. It forces the audience to question their relationship between the tangible and the virtual, and beyond that how our view of the tangible can be distorted and effect the way we interact with the world around us. The ending of the film is incredibly chilling and unnerving and would do the great Kubrick proud, as it shrugs off the plausible and chooses to focus more on creating an honest tone. For those who are fans of Michael Haenke, I suspect parallels will be drawn between this and his contemporary classic, Cache.