Saturday, April 26, 2008

The Counterfeiters (2007, Stefan Ruzowitzky)

I hate to be one of those writers who makes snarky comments about how the Academy's Foreign Language branch can't resist Holocaust movies, but movies like The Counterfeiters just make it so damned easy. The film takes as its inspiration a fascinating footnote to World War II- the Third Reich's attempts to counterfeit American dollars and British pounds by enlisting Jewish prisoners- but unfortunately it's not quite sure how to handle the story. There's an uneasy mix between the Holocaust aspect of the film and the moral quandary at its center. The film attempts to ask the question of whether it's better to survive in the face of evil or to risk your lives to try to bring it down. However, in its attempts to address the question, the film becomes curiously cold, and once the counterfeiters begin their work, there seems to be very little in the way of a serious threat to their lives. A lot of this is inherent in the story itself- the counterfeiters are isolated from the rest of the prisoners and made to feel safe, all the better to do their work. Yet the film gives almost no sense of the world outside their comfortable little world, aside from a few glimpsed or overhead instances. I can imagine a more rigorous filmmaker making this story work, but Ruzowitzky isn't inspired or intellectual enough to really pull it off. As a result, the film's eventual solution to its question is a fairly uncompelling compromise, which finds protagonist Salomon Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics) cooperating with the Reich as long as he can and then sticking it to them after he thinks he can get away with it. In addition, the story turns into a strange bit of hagiography for the character of Adolf Berger (August Diehl), who wrote the novel on which the film is based and is painted as the story's true hero, having resisted the Reich from the beginning and whose efforts to delay the production of counterfeit dollars helped- in the view of the film- to cripple the Reich economically and led to their defeat. To me, that explanation feels too tidy, and if there's one thing a movie like this really shouldn't be, it's tidy. I sort of respect what the film is going for, but for me it's a near-miss. Rating: 5 out of 10.

Chop Shop (2007, Ramin Bahrani)

It's a measure of how far "neo-realism" has come in the past six decades that films that fall into the category are much less concerned with tidy narrative structure and stabs at social concern than with unvarnished portrayals of difficult lives. Freed from the need to couch its storyline in a message, Chop Shop is primarily a character study, and it succeeds mostly by giving us a window into the life of its protagonist, Alé (played by Alejandro Polanco). Alé is a young Latino, about 12 years old or so, whose life is spent in the relentless pursuit of money. As a young immigrant with no parents to speak of, he spends most of his days doing what he can to get ahead, making the most of his natural hustler's confidence and gift of gab. What's most striking about the film is that we get very little background into his life, yet we find out everything we need to know through his actions. Alé spends most of his days surrounded by adults, particularly those who work in the chop shops in the Queens neighborhood where the film is set, and like any kid he wants to like them because he only sees the freedom that comes with adulthood and overlooks the responsibility. But unlike most kids, he doesn't see the commitments of adulthood because he's taken on most of them himself already- making the money he needs, keeping himself fed and sheltered, saving for the future. Mostly, what Alé wants is to be treated with the respect the adults in his life receive, to be truly a part of the world rather than in the outsider position that's afforded children. He wants to be treated as an equal, rather than someone who's just there as cheap labor, as when his boss (and makeshift landlord) curtly admonishes him for counting his money in front of him. Alé is more streetwise than anyone his age really ought to be, but his youth also makes his prone to the occasional child's mistake, as when the food truck he's saved up to buy for him and his sister turns out to be a wreck. Alé and those around him live lives unimaginable to most of the film's viewers, yet the film never becomes a wallow or a tale of woe. In fact, the only thing that keeps Chop Shop from being a really top-notch film of its kind- like the works of the Dardenne brothers- is the spiritual and religious undercurrents of their stories, which tend to give them the feel of hardscrabble Biblical parables. But then, I don't think that's Bahrani's goal, and he's one of the few American filmmakers who has successfully captured the lifestyles of poor immigrants in our large cities. And really, I'd say that's enough. Rating: 7 out of 10.

The Animation Show 4 (2008, presented by Mike Judge)

Since their beginning of The Animation Show four years ago, I've been a supporter of their goals- to bring animated shorts by established and up-and-coming animators to theatrical venues in order to educate moviegoers in the diversity of the medium. But while the previous years have showcased some fascinating work, 2008's crop was pretty thin. I'm such a lot of this has to do with the increasing numbers of animated shorts programs that have gotten released in theatres since TAS's inception- for example, no Oscar nominees are included this year, probably because they just played two months ago with the Oscar shorts program. But I wonder if the dip of quality might also be reflective of TAS founder Don Hertzfeldt's lack of involvement this year. Between his artistic cachet and Judge's marquee value and particular brand of comedy, the first three programs struck a worthy balance between art and entertainment, showcasing everything from new short films by Bill Plympton to gorgeous, deadly serious works like last year's Overtime. But without Hertzfeldt on board this year, the balance has tipped toward snarky, wiseass comedies. Sure, there's still some art in the proceedings, although these films aren't of the caliber of previous years- there's an occasional keeper like Georges Schwizgebel's Jeu, a geometric, Escher-inspired short about human leisure. But most of the arty stuff is flashy and soulless, like Animation Show regular PES's Western Spaghetti and BIF Productions' Raymond. Meanwhile, a large percentage of the funny stuff is more loud and shrill than humorous. The introductory short, Joel Trussell's fittingly-titled Show Opener, feels like little more than a lo-fi homage to the priceless beginning of the Aqua Teen Hunger Force movie. In addition, for the first time this year, several of the animators contributed series of shorts, which unfortunately are among the most tiresome on the program. Usavich, a Japanese CGI series about a pair of silent bunnies, is flashy but never entertaining; Dave Carter's Psychotown series plays like an Australian version of Terrance and Philip but quickly wears out its welcome; and Corky Quackenbush contributes Yombi the Crotch-Biting Sloup, which has little going for it other than the title. There's the occasional genuinely funny short film- the low-key Operator and Nieto's live-action/animation combo Far West are pretty fun- but not enough. All in all, there's not enough good stuff to wholeheartedly recommend this year's incarnation of The Animation Show. If Judge wants to compete with the other theatrical animation programs out there, he'll have to try harder next time around. And distribute it on film like he used to, for that matter. Overall rating: 5 out of 10.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Married Life (2007, Ira Sachs)

There are many fans of Sachs' last film, Forty Shades of Blue, out there, but I wasn't really one of them. Consequently, I found Married Life to be a real leap forward for him stylistically. What really stuck out to me was how lightly he treads on his period setting- rather than using it like Far From Heaven to comment on the widely-accepted conventions of the times, Sachs' approach is far more subtle. Rather than taking the approach of breaking open the squeaky clean mores of the fifties- with the shocking (SHOCKING!) revelation that all is not well with Ward and June Cleaver- Sachs' characters are all fairly good characters who are teetering at the edge of a more modern, Freudian style of self-actualization. At several points in the film, characters repeat the line, "I can't let our happiness be built on the unhappiness of another," and to me that's the key. For many in our contemporary society- with its self-help tomes and overanalysis- self-centered happiness is seen as the acme of existence, and anything that impedes this happiness is seen as counterproductive to the forward progress of our lives. But in a marriage, such self-centered questing is more than callous- it's the antithetical to the idea of the marriage oath- "for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, as long as you both shall live." Not being married, I can't speak from my own experience, but from what I do know, the marriages that last aren't the ones who've never experienced difficulty, but rather the ones who've been able to weather the storm. The characters in Married Life stand astride these two ideas- the modern-day need for happiness and the old-school commitment to making a successful marriage. Even the single characters- Rich (Pierce Brosnan) and Kay (Rachel McAdams)- respect the latter, even as their efforts appear to push the marriage of friends Harry (Chris Cooper) and Pat (Patricia Clarkson) apart. Rich is particularly surprising- what appears on one level to be a self-serving flirtation with Kay (who begins the film as Harry's mistress) ends up helping his best friend as much as it does him. And at the center of the film is the strange and ultimately touching love story that takes place between Harry and Pat, two characters who seem to exist at cross purposes but who care about each other too much to cause the other any pain. The murder plot in the story is a little too literal an expression of this in my opinion, but it ends up leading to a lovely- and it must be said, impeccably acted- climax in which the two stand in separate rooms, a closed door between them, and reckon with their improprieties while they try to mend what they've almost lost. As a portrait of a man learning to love his wife, it isn't nearly the equal of The Age of Innocence, but it's well worth a view. Rating: 7 out of 10.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Note by Note: The Making of Steinway L1037 (2006, Ben Niles)

One of the strengths of cinema that other media can't touch is its ability to show, in detail, how an act is performed. Sadly, this procedural aspect is too often neglected, especially by fiction filmmakers, who are all too eager to move the story forward. However, when it's done right, I'm fascinated. It's one of many reasons why I love The Son, it's why I prefer the first half of United 93 (with its detail re-enactment of how shit went down on 9/11) to the second, and it comprises the one scene in Zhang Yimou's otherwise risible The Road Home that had my full attention. With Note by Note, the procedural stuff is foregrounded for a change, as we follow the creation of a brand new grand piano from the lumber yard to the concert hall. All in all, a Steinway concert model requires roughly a year to make, a task that's accomplished with old-school hand craftsmanship. And through the process, we meet many people who are in charge of various aspects of production, from the guy who selects the wood to the men in charge of the "belly" of the instrument, to the technicians who put every piano through a battery of tunings. It's also interesting to see the makeup of the people who create the pianos- working-class types, many of them immigrants, all of whom despair that too few young people will carry on the tradition they've worked so hard to maintain. It's this tradition that attracts many gifted pianists to Steinway, and a "subplot" of the film finds renowned pianists- from jazz men Bill Charlap and Kenny Barron to concert pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard- testing out Steinway after Steinway to find the one with the character and timbre they want. With the human touch all over the making of each Steinway, there's no wonder that no two instruments are exactly alike, and this is appreciated mightily by those in the know. To the film's credit, we come to appreciate this as well, not simply because the people onscreen say so, but because when they test a room full of Steinways in rapid succession, the differences quickly become apparent. But whether you're Harry Connick Jr. (who also appears) or one of the lucky kids whose parents purchased them a Steinway during the factory sale we see in the film, there's no substitute for quality. I for one hope that the Steinway company is able to maintain their traditional methods for years to come. Rating: 8 out of 10.

Side note: Back in my piano-playing days, I had a huge crush on French concert pianist Hélène Grimaud, beginning when my mother took me to see her perform Chopin. Part of it no doubt had to do with the fact that she was probably the first young, hot female concert pianist I'd ever seen perform, but I was pretty smitten back then, and I found as many of her recordings as I could. Imagine my surprise when she turned up here, as delightful as ever. Will have to seek out some of her more recent albums and do some catching up.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Shine a Light (2008, Martin Scorsese)

After a long career capped by his recent Oscar win, Scorsese has more than earned the right to make whatever he damn pleases. If he wants to do a large-format Rolling Stones concert film, that's fine. But while Shine a Light is entertaining, it's scarcely more than that, and its only real justification is that Marty always wanted to film a Stones concert. Perhaps it would have felt like less of a disappointment if not for the opening ten minutes- a montage of the frenzied preparations for the show, with Scorsese poring over obsessively detailed camera setups for all possible songs the Stones might perform while he sweats what the actual playlist might be. It's a mini-gem, with Scorsese placing it in a tiny square in the middle of the frame and filming everything in black-and-white. It's so much fun, and so jazzily-edited, that it sets up something big to come, but once the concert begins and the image expands to fill the frame (a great moment, by the way) it becomes a pretty standard-issue concert film. In fact, it's the extent to which Scorsese prepared that's part of what keeps Shine a Light from really soaring- because everything is so planned, there's little room for the little offhand moments and found shots that distinguish some of the greatest concert films out there. But then, I'd argue that the lack of stylistic surprises from Scorsese perfectly fit this concert, with Mick Jagger & Co. playing the hits everyone expects (except "Gimme Shelter" for some reason). Although everyone puts in a good day's work onstage- at twice my age, Mick is nimbler and more energetic than I can ever hope to be- they've played these songs too many times and for too long for them to hold any more surprises, either for them or for us. It's hard to argue with the songs themselves, although for my money the earlier stuff just doesn't sounds quite right with Ronnie Wood instead of Brian Jones or especially Mick Taylor. But aside from some good music and a handsome look, it's little more than a better-than-average concert film. That'd be enough for most filmmakers, but given the involvement of Scorsese and his Murderer's Row of cinematographers (Richardson! Lubezki! Toll! Kuras! Elswit! Dryburgh! Lesnie! Maysles!!!!), it feels vaguely like a squandering of talent. Still, well worth seeing if you dig the Stones- but then, who doesn't? Rating: 6 out of 10.

Paranoid Park (2007. Gus Van Sant)

In many ways, this is the film Van Sant has been working toward for years. Much of his work has dealt with pretty young men and the outsider communities in which they live, but Paranoid Park takes this one step further, by telling its story almost subjectively. Along with his ace sound designer Leslie Shatz- almost certainly his key collaborator at this point- Van Sant immerses us in the point of view of Alex (newcomer Gabe Nevins), who wanders through the film without a clear place to fit into its world. His home life is in flux with his parents' divorce about to finalize, and as a high schooler he doesn't pay his parents much mind anyway (rarely do we see them straight on, as Van Sant shoots them primarily outside or at the edge of the frame). Likewise, he's an outsider in school by virtue of his skateboarder status. Yet while he runs with the "skateboarder community" (dig the shot of them walking down the hallway, one at a time joining them), he never even fits in with these guys. Consider that we never actually see him skateboarding at the Park- he tells his friend "I'm not quite ready," and late in the film he admits to his dad that "I mostly just practice when I'm alone." But it's not until the central killing that he more or less severs his emotional ties with those he's closest to- his girlfriend, his best skateboarding bud, and so on. Even when his friend Macy invites him to reach out to her by suggesting he put his thoughts in a letter, he takes the letter and burns it instead. If Gerry was exciting for the boldness with which Van Sant experimented with his new-found style, Paranoid Park is equally bracing, albeit in a different way, as the ultimate distillation of his influences and inspirations into a unique Van Sant-ian aesthetic. And unlike his previous films Elephant and Last Days, Paranoid Park frees Van Sant from the burden of dealing with historical record and the moral quagmire that entails, instead allowing him to groove on the pure-cinema possibilities of his characters' situations. Perhaps it's for the best that Van Sant has declared that he's moving in a new stylistic direction with his next films, as I'd imagine it'd probably end up bringing in diminishing returns if used over and over again. Rating: 8 out of 10.