Friday, February 19, 2010

Ghost Writer (2010, Polanski)

Rating: ***1/2

As assignment-driven as Chinatown (1974) and Ninth Gate (1999), Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer (2010) is elegant and assured without being slick and cocky. What’s most remarkable about it, though, is that it manages to be profound while not steering one foot away from its much-threaded generic turf. It’s an extract of a movie thriller. In fact, Tom Wilkinson’s line about “bi-polar relations in a multi-polar world” may serve as a definition of what thrillers have always wanted to embody. They try to navigate in a world of multi-layered and contradictory interests in a way that would divide them into neat oppositions (“we” vs. “them”, at the very least).

Expert as ever in using sound and image, Polanski may have produced his subtlest work to date in The Ghost Writer. As Ewan McGregor’s character agrees to the eponymous assignment, a distant bell chimes, as if warning about haste and greed taking over. The film is embroidered with so many masterful directorial touches, it becomes dazzling without ever resigning from its low-key look. The sudden appearance of the TV-chopper behind Lang’s giant plate-glass window; the ever-lurking bodyguard in the first beach scene between McGregor and Olivia Williams; many other subtle tweaks and turns of the mise-en-scene reveal the hand of a true filmmaker working with a tightly written, exciting material. The final ballet of a paper note being passed from hand to hand, as well as the magnificent last shot, radiate the kind of cinematic suaveness that is so rare we’ve all forgotten it’s actually possible.

PS. The only bit that registered as a over-the-top was Brosnan's PM exchanging hearty grins with a Condi Rice-lookalike. That was the movie's sole brush with a political cartoon.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Bad News Bearers: "The Messenger" (2009, Moverman)

Rating: **1/2

If Up In the Air (2009) introduced us to the idea of a bad-news-messenger as the new hero of our time, Oren Moverman’s The Messenger (2009) takes things up a notch. In fact, the movie gets brazenly close to launching a new genre. And even though I doubt that grief-porn will prove as successful as torture-porn once did, both are equally despicable – for different reasons. The way The Messenger repeatedly puts the viewers through the wringer by making them witness violent outbursts of pain and loss, it achieves a weird, disquieting slickness. Each next mourner is carefully designed to differ from the previous one – and everything is taken into account: gender, race, temperament, economic status (and even star-status: look for Steve Buscemi’s double appearance). This PC-greased carousel is set in motion once the main character, Will (Ben Foster), leaves army hospital and gets a new assignment as a member of a two men strong Casualty Notification Team. As he learns to handle (and sometimes match) the grief caused in people he and his partner notify, Will also comes to terms with his own battlefield guilt.

The dialogue moves between the opposing poles of ridiculous, brash, liberal-conscience-soothing statements and some genuinely smart critique of institutional newspeak designed to neutralize death (“NoK”, or “next of kin” are being divided into two neat groups: “primary” and “secondary”; the “local notification teams” are in operation, etc.).

But the problem of the film is best defined by Will himself, when he shouts to his partner: “We’re walking into those people’s lives, [and] we don’t know shit!”. If the main theme here is how the state objectifies its subjects, than there’s no going around the fact that the film itself is doing precisely that: it confronts us with specimens, designed to prove points and raise issues. In its overt dissent towards structures of power, The Messenger doesn’t wince from the most worn-down clichés, such as crashing a fancy party and flaunting lines like: “Fuck the procedure (…)! They’re human beings!”.

Excellent acting notwithstanding, and even though I admired the two extremely long shots used in the emotional-peak scenes, I found the film pretty exploitative and confined by its own (predetermined) political immediacy.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Lovely Bones (2009, P. Jackson)

Puzzling throughout, at once exploitative and tender, The Lovely Bones (2009) is one huge enigma of a movie. For Peter Jackson, it marks a formidable attempt of reclaiming the territory he once started to explore – namely, the murderous twists and turns of hyper-active, hyper-sensitive minds that made for the folly and the mess of Heavenly Creatures (1994). In The Lovely Bones, tables are being seemingly turned, since this time we follow the victim’s perspective. But this proves alarmingly irrelevant: Jackson makes his movie so convoluted and spastic, that it seems much more a product of the villain’s mind than an object of cool, otherworldly recollection of the girl he murdered.

The imagery of the CGI-heaven that The Lovely Bones largely relies on has been much-ridiculed elsewhere, and it indeed plays like a mid-1990s TV ad; one that would pass as “amazing” back then, but that seems sloppy by today’s Lord of the Rings-set standards. But it’s not the mishandled CGI-brush that’s Lovely Bones’ biggest problem. In the pursuit of rendering his villain’s presence ominous and creepy (a feat accomplished only too well), Jackson drained the opposite pole of the movie’s universe – namely, the little girl’s family – of all interest. Rachel Weisz is game to play anything, but lack of direction is painfully on display in her performance. Mark Wahlberg is doing a new shtick, all right – mumbling his lines with eyes gone loose in different directions – but he barely does anything else. The same goes for  Michael Imperioli, who seems at a complete loss and radiates the desperate will of escaping his Sopranos image. Again, no firm direction going on.

This is a second recent movie, after David Fincher’s Zodiac (2007), that takes a conscious look at the 1970s and a makes a psychopathic killer a center of its focus. Unlike Zodiac, The Lovely Bones is set on ultimately comforting the viewer, but at the same time the relish Jackson takes in disquieting his audience is so evident, that it makes the film feel disjointed. Who’d have thought that it will be bad taste, of all things, that will bury Peter Jackson latest effort…?

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Cultural Blog of the Year 2009 Award

I’m happy to inform about the recent success of the Polish version of my blog. On 11 February, it was awarded as the Cultural Blog of the Year 2009 in a nation-wide competition sponsored by, one of the largest portals in Poland. Since I consider both my blogs really a one entity (hence Jimmy Stewart lurking on both sites, only in different directions) – I wanted to share this news with you as well.

Here is a photo of me receiving the award.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Lourdes (2009, Hausner)

Rating: ****

Amazingly assured and super-cautious in tackling its controversial subject matter, Jessica Hausner’s Lourdes (2009) engages so many contradictory strategies it’s a wonder it doesn’t implode. Its mode both satiric and investigative, detached yet full of quiet wonder, the movie announces the arrival of a major directorial talent.

The story follows Christine (Sylvie Testud), a young woman of a rather rationalist mindset, suffering from multiple sclerosis. Wheelchair-bound, she decides to visit the famous Lourdes pilgrimage center, built around a cave that supposedly saw a visitation by the Virgin Mary. Even though not very religious, it’s Christine and not any of the truly pious pilgrims around her who experiences a miracle (or was it one…?) and starts walking again (we don’t learn whether this will prove a permanent recovery).

The way the narrative is structured, it’s both firmly centered on Christine and flooding her story with an overwhelming, steady commotion of a religious event running 24/7. The magnificent opening shot firmly establishes the large dining room as a space that will recur a number of times. It is so carefully choreographed and so seamless in the way it honors multiple, distinctive human presences that it made me think of Jacques Tati’s large set pieces.

Indeed, the Tati link only proves stronger as the movie progresses. The constant movement of small and big human groups – purposeful yet almost abstract in their appearance – is taken straight from Playtime (1967).  Lourdes even has some of that film’s sense of humor, as Hausner directs our attention to various paces each pilgrim assumes, and to the various means they use to do it (electric & standard wheelchairs, crutches, etc).

Hausner is great at the very same thing Tati was: namely, showing human conduct as a funny, absurd (but relatively harmless) ritual. There’s a brief scene in Trafic (1972) in which a priest, picking up pieces of a smashed car engine, looks as though he was preparing the communion wafers to be handed out. It is the same amused and curious look that Hausner turns onto the religious goings-on in the pilgrimage center. (See the Tati fragment here, starting at 1:40)

The use of sound is as thoughtful as the camerawork. When we see Christine making her way to the cave, we hear a mass going on (words and music amplified by speakers), but we never see the ritual itself: it’s like a tapestry, a given, an irrelevant background the women doesn’t care about, and yet which influences her life in a way she’s not quite ready for.

Hausner is great at using gentle zooming and slight focus-pulling (see the scene of Christine’s confession for the latter). But the area of her biggest strength is the framing. Towards the end of the film, there’s a scene in which Christine realizes that her gift may well be taken away from her (or maybe it wasn’t a gift at all, but mere coincidence to start with). As she keeps leaning against the wall for assurance, too afraid to make a step, I was sure Hausner will push the camera in her face and make us see the anguish “even better”. Nothing of the sort. The camera remains remote, and still our sympathy and fear are piercing. Terrific movie.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism (2009, Peary)


Rating: **1/2

Rudimentary in its technique and pretty standard in its ominous-yet-hopeful conclusions, Gerald Peary’s For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism (2009) is just what its title promises it to be: no more, no less. Structured mainly by the off-screen narration read by Patricia Clarkson (and written by Peary himself), the film is interesting as a series of interviews – some of which are actually top-notch.

My chief reservation about the film is the narrowness of its scope, best seen in the omissions Peary decided to make. Of course, titling one’s movie a “Story” (as opposed to a “History”) is  a preemptive strike against all the nagging completists out there who like to point their fingers at what’s missing. Still, even the most sympathetic viewer must be astounded by how much For the Love of Movies doesn’t say.

To start with, it doesn’t draw any institutional context whatsoever as far as film periodicals in the States go. “Film Culture”, “Film Comment”, “Cineaste” – publications with great contributions to promoting critical thought – aren’t discussed at any length.

What’s more, by hastily passing through all the interviewees the makers didn’t manage to coax into cooperation, Peary skips large patches of high-quality American film writing of today. Elvis Mitchell is being celebrated for his African-American perspective on popular cinema, but how on earth could Peary have broached the subject and not even mention the stunning work of Armond White, is still beyond me. The LGBT voices in American film criticism are not mentioned at all, save for a tiny bit seen in the Extras section. What a shame: to have Rex Reed speaking to the camera and yet not inquire at all about how the gay perspective became acceptable over the years...

David Denby and Anthony Lane – great writers, whatever the controversies around them – are barely mentioned as Pauline Kael’s heirs at “The New Yorker” (Peary skips Terrence Rafferty’s brief reign there). John Simon is not discussed at all, save for one of the DVD extras. Parker Tyler – the same. Robert Warshow, for crying out loud – missing, too (I’m not counting a passing reference). Some of the interviewees aren't even asked about their specific ways of looking at films (a great loss in the case of J. Hoberman, who comes off mainly as a DeMille-influenced Sarrisite, with all of his striking output simply not discussed or even described).

Also, the rejuvenation of cinephilia that we owe to exciting DVD releases of late (and to writers like Dave Kehr, for example) - doesn't enter Peary's narrative.

Overall, it’s the eponymous “love” that saves the movie. One DVD extra reveals Perry as being truly passionate about his subject. Some of that passion seeps into his film – namely, the mere fact of its existence is joyous enough and while watching For the Love of Movies I felt giddy just because I felt someone may be so affectionate towards a topic I love so much myself. It’s too bad Peary didn’t shape his movie into a more coherent and more informative whole, but still – a couple of the interviews are great and it’s sort of a guilty pleasure to watch some of the imaginative “us” justifying their (“our”) trade and a way of living that being a critic ultimately is.

In a year which saw Michael Fassbender’s film critic blowing the cover by showing the wrong kind of “3” with his fingers in Inglourious Basterds (2009), it’s nice to see the profession celebrated and kind of redeemed, as well.