About Me

A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Four films and a burrito

Taken.  Seen Sunday Afternoon February 22, 2009 at the AMC Loews Lincoln Square, Auditorium 5, The Valencia.  2.5 slithy toads.

I'd kind of liked the coming attraction for this, but it's also the kind of movie I've been seeing less these days with more demands on my time.  Ultimately, the fact that it's been holding very nicely at the box office served as a tie-breaker, and it also worked out that I could also combine with seeing my nephew's a capella group performing at the JCC.  It was perfectly pleasant and a fine way to spend the time so long as you don't go expecting too much.  Liam Neeson performs well, and the script is written with brisk classic Hollywood efficiency.  It's also nice to have a movie that only lasts 90 minutes, though in this case a minute or two longer wouldn't have hurt to show the parents of the girl who survived giving a brief thought for the girl who did not.  It's as good a movie on the dangers of sex slavery as the overrated foreign film Lily 4ever.

Two Lovers.  Seen Sunday evening February 15, 2009 at the Beekman aka NY Twin, Auditorium #2.  3 slithy toads.

James Gray is a director whom I find to be consistently interesting.  He's fond of New York City, and a chunk of his movie The Yards was filmed not too far from me in the Sunnyside rail yards.  He uses actors whom I like, with both Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Wahlberg appearing in multiple James Gray movies.  His stories can be flat or overly archetypal, big on betrayals of fathers against sons or of family trauma that's been dramatized since Oedipus, but there's just something about them I enjoy.  His We Own the Night tackles the same kinds of family and fraternal bonds on the NY police force as the recent Pride and Glory, which also has actors I liked (Colin Farrell and Edward Norton) and a healthy dollop of NYC street scene but lacks that bit of passion from within that James Gray has.

In Two Lovers, Phoenix is playing the scion of a Sheepshead Bay dry-cleaning family.  The film opens with a half-hearted suicide attempt; he has mental issues that may or may not result from a wedding engagement gone sour a few years before.  His parents are negotiating the sale of their business to a family with a chain of cleaners throughout Brooklyn, and they'd like along with it to have their son betrothed to the other family's daughter.  But these plans may go for naught when Phoenix falls for a neighbor played by Gwyneth Paltrow.  Paltrow is of course attractive but carries some baggage of her own, particularly a relationship with a rich Manhattanite who may or may not have plans on leaving his wife for Paltrow.

So it's full of the kinds of father and son dynastic themes that James Gray likes.  He's an actor's director and gets a good performance out of Joaquin Phoenix.  Not that this is a challenge.  Who knows if this will or won't be Phoenix's last film, but he's done a lot of nice portraits in We Own the Night, Signs, The Village and other movies.  He's extremely charismatic here and gets every layer of his character, every bit of confused certainty.  Isabella Rossellini was the revelation to me.  She's often struck me as a stranger to the rolls she's been in, and perhaps sometimes intentionally so (see Blue Velvet).  Here, she' s playing the matriarch of a Jewish family and she should be a stranger to the roll, but instead I felt she inhabited her roll every bit as much as Phoenix inhabited his.

It's full of NYC verisimilitude.  The Sheepshead Bay locale, the apartment where Phoenix lives, the subway into Manhattan, the use of Manhattan locations.  There's one sour note with that.  The scenes that take place on the roof of Phoenix's apartment building, you can look in the distance and it's pretty clear it's not Brooklyn you're looking at, and from the end credits it appears those scenes were shot in Jersey City which seems like a better fit for the elevated highway in the distance that isn't the Gowanus.  My sister sent me a review from the Advocate/Weekly chain of free papers in Connecticut that dumps on the film mighty heavily for getting the Jewish stuff wrong.  But if I could buy Isabella Rossellini as the Jewish mother I guess that's not going to be my take.

I doubt everyone would give this as high a ranking as I, but it had what I wanted it to have.

Gomorrah.  Seen Sunday afternoon March 1, 2009 at the IFC Center (aka Waverly), Aud. #2.  1 slithy toad.

In the tradition of The Class, this is another wildly overpraised foreign film, this one hailing from Italy.  It's been doing good box office for a foreign film in spite of being snubbed for an Oscar nom for Foreign Language Film.  I've been looking forward to it since it was in the Cannes Film Festival in 2008 where it got a nice Variety review and there've been no reviews since to put my enthusiasm off.  Other, that is, than seeing the movie.  I guess it doesn't occur to anyone that it didn't get an Oscar nom because it isn't a very good movie?  That didn't stop The Class, but two bad noms don't make a good one, or something like that.

Gomorrah is about the Italian mob in Comorra in Naples which gets less attention and less glamor than the Sicilians we find in the Godfather movies.  It's certainly not glamorized here.  The movie begins in violence and ends in violence and has plenty more in-between.  The reviews praise its mix of narrative film and documentary style, but as with The Class, I think this plays better to the filmerati than to anyone else.  Because there isn't much of a story, and there aren't any characters in the movie.  Everyone in town is involved with the mob, either out of desire or necessity, but there's nobody who seems to be trying to do anything about it.  Most of the characters don't have names.  This wasn't a very good idea in the Fernando Meirelles movie Blindness, and that's not the only Meirelles parallel.  His first movie of note was the Brazilian gangster movie City of God, which was also a widely overpraised turd, and it's safe to say it wasn't a good sign around 20 minutes into Gomorrah when I started to think it was just a slightly more palatable version of that.

I like a plot.  I like characters I can care about.  I don't need to spend two hours watching nameless people do violent things to one another and end up dead in the process, and that's pretty much all this movie is.  To me, the documentary style was more an excuse for bad filmmaking, with the camera placed in weird places that keep you from getting a good feel for the places where the film is taking place.  There's a scene toward the end that might have been much better if it has been storyboarded for suspense instead of filmed without caring.   If you want to get a kick from seeing mobsters who aren't Sicilian, add Infernal Affairs to your Netflix queue.  It's the Korean movie that The Departed was based on.  It has Korean gangsters in an actual narrative film, so when bad things happen you care.  It's passionate and lively filmmaking.

As a coda, my sister tells me she walked out of The Class and wishes she'd left sooner, which is similar to my experience with City of God.  As with The Class, I took a brief mid-movie siesta in Gomorrah.

Katyn.  Seen Sunday evening March 1, 2009 at the Film Forum, Auditorium #1.  3 slithy toads, maybe even 3.5

Speaking of my sister, he recommendations for classes to take at the University of Michigan tended to be better than my attempts to follow in my older brother's engineering footsteps.  One she suggested was the course in Soviet and East European Cinema taught by Herb Eagle.  It was full of mostly interesting movies, and the Polish director Andrzej Wajda was one of the directors represented multiple times.  His film Kanal shows Polish resistant fighters trying to escape thru the sewers, Ashes and Diamonds depicts Poland as the iron curtain falls upon it right after WWII, and Man of Marble and Man of Iron deal with the Polish labor movement during the thick of the Cold War and then during the heady days of the Solidarity movement.  He's now an octogenerian and his output has slowed quite a bit in recent years.  Katyn, with a 2007 copyright, an Oscar nominee last year for Foreign Language Film,  and a February 2008 Variety review, was his first new film in several years.  As with Gomorrah I was quite eager to see it based on the Variety review, but it struggled to find US distribution and took rather a while to slink into Film Forum for a 2-week run.

After the Soviet Union invaded Poland in 1939, it took the bulk of the Polish officer corps as prisoners, sent them to work camps, and then in spring 1940 killed thousands of them, shooting them into mass graves in the Katyn forest.  This became known to most Poles during the War, but as Soviet control over Poland was firmed up, the story was changed.  The Soviets decided to blame the Germans for the massacre, which was now said to have taken place in 1941, and to try and say otherwise was considered a criminal act.  So of course very few people would say otherwise.  It took decades for the truth to officially re-emerge.

The film has a few different strands.  Starting in 1939, it shows a wife attempting to persuade her husband to leave the loosely guarded initial holding area from which the offices are about to be shipped off.  He stands by his men over his wife and daughter, and this causes enmity with his mother, whose husband (and thus officer's father) is himself a victim when the university where he teaches in Kracow is closed and the faculty sent off to labor camps, where he dies. She and her daughter are later saved from arrest by a kindly officer.  There's another woman whose story is followed whose connection I confess I found more tenuous.  We see scenes on the homefront mixed with scenes of the Polish officers in their camp.  A second section of the film depicts the mix of people in Poland dealing in different ways with the attempt to stifle the truth about the massacre.  The third and final section is a reenactment of the Katyn massacres themselves.

From the first 1:30, this is a solid movie given added weight by its presence in the oeuvre of one of the most important directors of the late 20th century.  We've seen a lot of WWII movies over the years.  The filmmaking is solid.  There's one scene in which the prison barracks where the Polish officers are held becomes a cathedral on Christmas eve, the main aisle of the barracks filled with soldiers who spill off in two side aisles, and who join in song after the first star is found in the sky on Christmas eve.  The film is shot in color, but in this segment and elsewhere the stark imagery is black and white in my memory if maybe not in actual fact.  But for all the craft, we've seen WWII labor camps before and if this one is Russian instead of German it's not much of a difference.  We've seen people taken prisoner in WWII in movies both bad and good (Good a recent example of a bad one).

The second part of the film is a step up.  Wajda's been talking about Poland during the Cold War for as long as he's been making films.  This section of the movie isn't the longest, but it has some indelible portraits of a country where the truth isn't to be spoken of.  A country where a tombstone with the right date of death is a political statement, where "1940" on a school application is a risk.  We all have these little moments in our life when we have to say a white lie and act like we really mean it.  Apologizing when we don't mean it.  Saying nice things about the place where we work to our boss when we don't really mean them.  Loving the dry brisket the spouse made for dinner.  But what really would it be like to live your entire life 24/7 in that kind of world? 

The final part of the film is magnificent.  The matter-of-fact reenactment of the Katyn massacre is done with vigor and passion and every bit of the filmmaker's art.  It's stunning and powerful cinema.  The film ends with a minute of requiem music and then the end credits presented in silence.  It puts the "lesson" of Gomorrah to shame.  Wajda's been taught in film school for enough decades for me to have studied him in college, and the closing minutes of Katyn show why.


& then Katyn behind, around the corner from Film Forum for a chicken fajita burrito.

1 comment:

Lisa Iriarte said...

Saw Taken about two weeks ago. I was in a horrible mood and looking for a release of frustration. It was good for that. Lots of killing people and blowing things up. Just what this girl needed. And I like Liam.