Archive for the ‘drama’ category

The Third Man

July 26, 2015

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The popular line on The Third Man is that it’s a thriller, or even a film noir, but it reads to me as a tragedy about disillusionment — personal and global. The movie is set in post-war Vienna, and the great city’s old-world beauty is crosshatched with scars. One American pursues another: Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) has landed in Vienna to take a job offered by his old friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles), only to find that Harry has been fatally hit by a car. Apparently it was an accident — or was it? The story keeps changing: two men supposedly carried Harry’s body to the side of the street, but later an unidentified third man is said to have helped move the corpse.

Thus the title, I suppose, and yet it also seems to refer to the overlap that happens when two very different men meet. Holly is a naïve American, the author of many pulp westerns; his outlook on the world has a similar simplistic coloration. Harry is more worldly, an avatar of the moral murk America muddled into during and after the war. Holly would have been shocked by the revelation of bodies strewn like broken toys at Auschwitz; Harry would not. After the movie, Harry was resurrected for 52 radio episodes and 77 television episodes; Holly, poor sap, was not, ultimately being as desolately ignored as he is at the end of the film, when his unrequited love interest (Alida Valli) pointedly disses him in a final shot famous for its bitter understanding of life in Harry Lime’s world.

Welles’s Lime is given an equally famous intro (a little more than an hour into the film’s running time) first only the feet, then his smug moon face briefly illuminated in the shadows of the city. Harry is the villain of the piece, but Welles, like so many others playing villains, acts as if the movie were really about him exclusively, with him as the misunderstood hero. Welles was a still-ridiculously young 34 when he played Harry, but he was probably born sounding 56, and his voice caresses Harry’s monologues. Oh, how pleased he is with himself — Harry, I mean, not Welles, I guess — when he uncorks his legendary “cuckoo clock” speech, prefaced by remarks about the meaningless shapes moving around down there. This sort of thing sounded self-serving and callow when Joseph Cotten spewed it six years earlier in Shadow of a Doubt, and it sounds the same now. Harry has made money by consigning children to death with diluted penicillin; his villainy is not savory and amusing but sordid and appalling, however he tries to justify it by nihilistic rhetoric.

The movie’s ugliness — wreaked on architecture by the war and on humanity by greed, as if nothing were learned from the war and people were just going to go on doing the same old stupid exploitative things forever — is leavened by aesthetic loveliness. Director Carol Reed and cinematographer Robert Krasker shoot almost every scene off-kilter, except for a few establishing shots, but as soon as people start talking the camera tilts. Anton Karas’ celebrated zither score finds an unstable balance between sprightly and melancholy. All the elements are in place for a standard classic, but the decay is never far from the lovely surface. In that respect, The Third Man is as perverse as any David Lynch film, and probably more knowing on a political level than most of Hitchcock.

And so we return to Holly and Harry, the soundalikes, two sides of the same rusted coin. Holly, maybe, was driven to the simplicities of pulp by the incomprehensibility of the war. Harry, driven the other way, styles himself an elegant, suave villain, but he’s really a squalid little opportunist (Welles as seen in The Third Man is “the most hideous man alive” used by the girls in Heavenly Creatures as their imaginary kingdom’s hideously sexy villain), and he closes things out in an appropriate place. In the end, though, who truly wins? Harry has at least been saved from the indignities of prison, and chose his old friend as the one to send him off, whereas Holly, profoundly disillusioned, stands on the side of a road at the end, like the two men who allegedly bore Harry’s corpse to the side of another road, or like the third man.

Brace

July 5, 2015

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Brace is a pocket-size (24 minutes) romantic anecdote that engages an under-represented group: female-to-male transgender people. Adam (Jake Graf) is searching. Fresh out of a relationship with a woman, he drops into London’s gay nightlife to see if the company of men works any better for him. He meets Rocky (Harry Rundle), a delicate-looking young man so nicknamed because of the fights he’s been in (“I didn’t say I started them”). Both people have a secret — the same secret, as it turns out. Adam and Rocky are both transmen.

Adam is a bit further along, having obviously started on testosterone treatment and gained manly stubble. He looks like a cross between Jeremy Renner and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, two actors whose soulfulness plays against their masculinity. Adam seems like your typical brooding gay man. Rocky is smooth-skinned and wide-eyed, an innocent. One can see what Adam sees in Rocky, and vice versa.

Written by Graf, and co-directed by video artist Sophy Holland and actress Alicya Eyo, Brace is a compact story of difficult love that segues organically into a tale of violent intolerance. The gay-bashing scene at about the two-thirds point isn’t there only so that we can feel sad; it moves the plot along as the victim of the beating effectively becomes outed. The directors stage the violence so that we wince, but don’t rub our noses in it. The nightlife scenes, by entertaining contrast, are brief but punchy; unlike similar scenes in feature-length films, they don’t drone on long past the point at which we want to go home.

Adam’s ex Zoe (Georgia Winters) stays friends with him and even accompanies him and his friends to clubs; when the boys plan to go to a men-only joint, Zoe graciously bows out, even though she must be aware of the irony. (Adam is pre-op.) The directors handle Zoe as though they’ve been in her shoes, while Jake Graf has been saying in interviews that Brace has a strong element of autobiography. The story and dialogue feel lived, authentic.

I sometimes say a feature-length movie needed to be shorter, or to stay a short film if it had begun life as one (see Eat with Me). This movie needs and deserves to be fleshed out to regular length. It ends somewhat abruptly, and I wanted to know more — about Adam and Rocky, and whether they overcome their secrets. From Boy Meets Girl to Transparent to Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner, we’ve seen the male-to-female journey so often lately it’s almost in danger of becoming a trope. Female-to-male is relatively fresh in narrative film, and it brings up a whole other volume of interesting things to say about gender and its performative aspects in culture. I’d welcome a longer Brace, a longer visit with these people.

Brace is viewable now on Vimeo.

Honeyglue

June 14, 2015

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Passion counts for something — passion and respect for idiosyncratic detail. In Honeyglue, the parents of a dying twentysomething stand in their living room and try to talk their way through their agony. They want their daughter dead and out of her pain — no, they want to die instead of her — no, they want to do something, but nothing can be done. The exchange, with all its awkward pauses and its rise and fall of emotion, takes up perhaps two minutes but feels much longer. The language is strange, stilted, grasping. It doesn’t sound like the way normal people talk, but these aren’t normal people; they are unwilling tenants of a land called Our Daughter Has Terminal Cancer, a place full of derangement and grief.

This is not a perfect movie. Parts of it are straight-up terrible. But those are the parts that grew on me, because they attempt something, and the movie fearlessly works its time-honored trope — dying young woman falls in love — in order to illuminate and to explore weirder corners. The woman, Morgan (Adriana Mather), meets Jordan (Zach Villa) in a nightclub. She has gone there alone on her birthday, telling her parents she was at a movie. Jordan, a sardonic crossdresser, steals her wallet, then thinks better of it after a bee stings him. Jordan is putting together a kids’ book about a bee who falls in love with a dragonfly, and he’s the bee, and Morgan is his dragonfly.

I believed in the affection that developed between them, because the actors have a tender, unstable, witty rapport. Morgan’s dad, a former detective, distrusts Jordan on sight and is implausibly rude to him; I agreed to accept that as the father’s way of trying to protect his daughter from whatever hurt he can spare her. But Jordan is for real; he turns out to be Morgan’s perfect gentle knight, albeit one in a skirt and Louise Brooks wig. Jordan lives in a tent on an apartment building roof; his presence there is tolerated by a junkie acquaintance (Fernanda Romero) who is pointlessly vicious to him, and who is connected to ethnic baddies to whom he owes money (which he borrowed for art school). This thread of the movie is ludicrous and needed to go.

Morgan and Jordan soon get married, after he shaves his head out of solidarity with her, and their honeymoon is extended and sometimes feels padded. There’s a truly terrible sub-subplot in which Jordan seems to have kidnapped a doctor — though we don’t see it happen and don’t know how it was accomplished — so that the doctor can be on call in case of emergency, I guess. It’s an idiotic thing for Jordan and the movie to do, and it has no consequences. This detour more or less kills the film.

But before it dies, it has a bizarre life. I respected the difficulty of many scenes. When the couple go to visit Jordan’s mom (a fine turn by Amanda Plummer), it feels almost as if the writer-director, James Bird, gave Plummer a basic outline and invited her to run with the scenario — you haven’t seen your son in a decade, you thought sure he was gay, and here he is married to a dying girl. Like Jordan, Bird has Native American ancestry, and he has a simple, unstressed and unfaked sympathy for the outsider that a more polished tearjerker like The Fault in Our Stars couldn’t quite reach. (If anyone is still going to adapt Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Bird has the chops and the heart for it.) Honeyglue — the title refers to a plot point in Jordan’s book — has its bad and pompous moments, but it also feels lived-in and genuine. I could see why these two cared for each other, and I cared for them. That is far from anything to sneeze at these days.

Eat with Me

May 25, 2015

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Eat with Me began life as a short film (2003’s Fresh Like Strawberries), and maybe it should’ve stayed one. The story really doesn’t gain from being expanded to feature length. Emma (Sharon Omi), on the outs with her husband, moves in with her gay son Elliot (Teddy Chen Culver), who owns a failing Chinese restaurant. Mother and son have never properly talked about his sexuality. A lot of stuff happens that feels like padding. Elliot gets a Brit boyfriend, Ian (Aidan Bristow), who’s in a band. Emma hangs out with Elliot’s extroverted neighbor Maureen (Nicole Sullivan) and gets high on ecstasy by mistake.

This is a personal, somewhat autobiographical film for its writer-director David Au, who doesn’t run a restaurant but whose parents did have some of the same troubles Elliot’s parents do. It’s a shame that Au doesn’t pull anything especially compelling out of his experiences. Like many other indie filmmakers, Au makes his living by editing, and some of Eat with Me feels a bit over-edited — not in terms of speed but cross-cutting. An early sequence goes back and forth between Elliot’s tryst with a friend-with-benefits and Emma in Elliot’s apartment finding his beefcake magazines. All this accomplishes is derailing any erotic rhythm (this is a fairly chaste movie, fading to tasteful black when things start heating up).

Sharon Omi and Teddy Chen Culver also starred in the earlier short film, and they acquit themselves calmly and well (except when Emma freaks out on ecstasy). The expanded cast, including a pregnant server whose condition affects the plot not at all, tends to distract from what should be the central conflict — the confused Emma dealing with Elliot’s sexuality, and Elliot dealing with his parents’ estrangement. Maureen, the next-door neighbor, is too baldly conceived as The Wacky, Life-Affirming Neighbor, and comedic actress Nicole Sullivan often goes too big in close-ups or makes weird noises. The effect is that Maureen seems to be trying to monopolize everyone’s attention, including ours.

Eat with Me was shot, unaccountably, in a very wide format, which seems too overbearing for such a tiny movie. Au doesn’t use the wide frame terribly artfully, and the color scheme is drab more often than not. Towards the finish, for no apparent reason other than that the filmmakers could get him, George Takei shows up as himself, counseling Emma on gay matters, because presumably he’s the expert on being gay and Asian-American. Takei brings some theatrical brio to his few minutes, but the marketing is pimping the poor man as though he were a supporting player throughout. For full metal Takei, I refer you to the mild but affable documentary To Be Takei. For a great Asian foodie movie that deals with identity and family, I recommend Ang Lee’s Eat Drink Man Woman, which David Au cites as his favorite film. At least he has good taste in movies.

The Film Critic

May 3, 2015

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The only thing more boring than a movie about movies is a movie about a movie critic. I mean, come on: we are not, as a group, enchanting. We do a lot of sitting: we sit and watch movies, we sit and write about them. We are as dull as any other kind of writer, and with the exception of Roger Ebert or Pauline Kael (subjects of past and future documentaries) or, in the realm of music criticism, Lester Bangs, critics are not movie material. There was that ridiculously pandering bit in High Fidelity when John Cusack referred to an ex-girlfriend’s gig as a film critic as “unassailably cool,” but no. It’s not. Maybe it used to be, back in the glory days of the ’70s, but not now.

The Argentinian comedy-drama The Film Critic seems to take place in some alternate universe where people still care what critics think and a harsh review can end a filmmaker’s career. (I’d say the movie is set in the past, but modern tech is used throughout.) The eponymous critic, Victor Tellez (Rafael Spregelburd), mopes from screening to screening, complaining about the overused clichés in most movies, particularly romantic comedies. He sits with his androgynous niece Agatha (Telma Crisanti) and roasts the usual Hollywood endings featuring slow-motion running, kissing in the rain, and so forth.

Then Victor meets a woman, Sofia (Dolores Fonzi), who wants the same apartment he wants. At this point, the movie could go one of two ways. It could follow the lead of the film’s American tagline: “What if your life became a movie … that you hate?” Or it could blandly nod to the clichés but put nothing interesting in their place. The Film Critic goes the second and less engaging way. After all, we know quite well that life isn’t a movie. A movie telling us over and over how non-movie-ish its events are seems a bit like special pleading. That Sofia is more or less a non-entity doesn’t help; we don’t know what they see in each other or why they keep each other company for a while other than that they’re in a movie.

Writer/director Hernán Guerschuny apparently thinks the answer to boringly conventionally-structured narrative is boringly anti-climactic narrative. Whatever is introduced in the script, nothing seems to come of it. A moneybags of Victor’s acquaintance offers him money to write a script for him to turn into a movie; nothing comes of it. A filmmaker whose career Victor ruined becomes an eleventh-hour mustache-twirler who breaks Agatha’s heart; nothing comes of it. The city is presumably littered with the corpses of cinematic careers Victor’s withering prose has butchered in their cribs. I don’t know if that’s what it’s like in Argentina, but in the larger world, nobody kills movies except the merciless and largely tasteless whims of the market. Critics can assume neither credit nor blame for the failure of terrible movies, the success of great movies, or, more frequently, vice versa.

The Film Critic could have been a meta-fantasy in which a cynical critic does find himself inside a clichéd Hollywood story that he either loathes or grows fond of. But it isn’t; Victor neither loves nor hates his own story, he just shlumps around inside it. He’s never especially witty or appealing; I don’t think he ever even smiles. He’s a dull protagonist, film critic or not. We don’t care whether he ends up with the equally dull Sofia; the only character of more than passing interest is the niece Agatha, and she gets the short end of the narrative stick. If a movie called The Film Critic is not to be a red cape waved in front of film critics, it should probably be unassailably cool.

1915

April 12, 2015

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If you look for narrative films made by Armenian filmmakers about the Armenian genocide of 1915, you will come up short. There are a few, but two of the most recent major films on the subject were directed by a Turkish-German and a pair of Italian brothers. On the other hand, movies like Atom Egoyan’s Ararat (2002) and now Gavin Hovannisian and Alec Mouhibian’s 1915 seem to need to hold the Turkish massacres of the Armenians at a distance, through layers of representation. Egoyan’s film dealt with Armenians trying to make a movie about the genocide, and 1915 is about Armenians trying to put on a play about it. Are the repugnant events themselves too painful still for Armenians to look at them and depict them straight on?

Simon (Simon Abkarian) has written a play called 1915, which has set off a firestorm of controversy even before anyone has seen it performed. Why? Because its plot deals with an Armenian woman who chooses to go off with a Turkish soldier who offers her — and himself — freedom. A great many Armenians are outraged by this — it’s as though a Jewish woman at Auschwitz accepted help from a kindly camp guard. The protesters are having too literal a reaction, though, as protesters often do. Simon has written a play about forgiveness, and self-forgiveness. The play, it turns out, is therapy for his wife Angela (Angela Sarafyan), who plays the Armenian woman in the play. Angela hasn’t acted in seven years, since her and Simon’s infant son died.

The climax of the play, which Simon won’t let his cast rehearse, hinges upon whether Angela, in character, can accept the Turkish soldier’s hand and forgive herself for leaving her husband and son behind. I’m not sure whether this is as urgent a subject as the actual Armenian genocide, which the movie doesn’t seem to want to look at directly, as if it were a solar eclipse, a black hole sun swallowing reason and happiness. Most of 1915 deals with backstage frustrations, and it suffers from the malady afflicting most movies about putting on a play: the play itself looks like dinner-theater dramaturgy. This may have been intentional in a metafiction like Birdman, but here we’re clearly meant to respect Simon’s play as an attempt to dig down to the truth.

The truth of what, though? The movie handles the difficult subject only tangentially, symbolically, glancingly. I’m sorry to say that the actress on whom much of the play’s and film’s pathos rests is rather inexpressive. And there’s a method actor (Nikolai Kinski, Klaus’ lookalike son) involved in the movie’s goofiest twist concerning a hostile interviewer. If not for Leigh Lisbão Underwood’s handsome cinematography, I’d peg 1915 as fairly amateurish, not to mention pretentious. The great modern film made by Armenians about their greatest catastrophe remains to be made, I guess. And here we have this inconsequential film being released in time for the genocide’s 100th anniversary. A shame, that. Maybe there’ll be a better one for the 150th.

Cheatin’

March 29, 2015

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In Cheatin’, the seventh animated feature by cult favorite Bill Plympton, the plot runs on a misunderstanding that could be cleared up by a short conversation — if the characters could talk. But this film, like Plympton’s previous Idiots and Angels, has no dialogue, so it takes the central married couple the length of the movie to figure it all out. This is frustrating, to say the least, but let’s give Plympton the benefit of the doubt and assume the frustration is intentional. The central married couple, Ella and Jake (“voiced” by Sophia Takal and Jeremy Baumann in what amounts to a series of grunts and screams), have communication problems. They’re madly in love with each other, but their relationship seems stuck in the physical realm. In brief, they’re humans who don’t realize they’re cartoons.

Other women are always throwing themselves at Jake, but he declines. Then one of the jilted women gives Jake a photo that makes it look as though Ella has been massively unfaithful, and Jake’s despair and rage lead to his own infidelity. I don’t think Plympton is trying to make any big statements about male/female relations; he’s just having fun riffing on a theme, as he always does. Plympton, though, may strike some as a talent that works best in short doses (while die-hard fans will cherish every minute they get). Even at only 76 minutes, Cheatin’ occasionally feels long, and I think that’s because individual sequences — even individual shots — tend to run on just a bit more than they need to. Plympton clearly relishes basking in his own visual exuberance, but after a while we may prefer the narrative, or what passes for it, to move along.

At other points, though, Plympton’s drawn-out strangeness seems the only way for him to work — the unique thing he has to offer as an artist. Nobody will ever call him a stiff cartoonist: bodies bend and stretch for yards, gravity and physics abide by Plymptonian rules when they aren’t disregarded altogether. Cheatin’ at its loosest and most lyrical is superb eye candy. But if an animator is to work at feature length, a story can’t just be a visually luscious riff. Now and again, the movie feels like a compilation of short “Plymptoons” that happen to share a theme and a pair of characters. I should admit, in case it isn’t apparent by now, that I’m not the biggest Plympton fan. I admire his sui generis style and his visual tomfoolery, but something about his stuff leaves me cold — an experience I noted when watching his first feature, 1992’s The Tune.

What’s my issue? I guess I get the sense that Plympton is into animation for its own joyfully manipulative sake, that he loves twisting and tweaking anatomy and nature as far as he can without stampeding into the realm of the abstract. But here’s just one small example in Cheatin’ of what leaves me cold. Jake has just found out (or so he thinks) that Ella has cheated on him. He jumps in his car and takes off. He howls in misery. He races a train. His teardrops bead up and fly behind him. He looks and sounds like a grievously wounded doofus with a nose that resembles nothing so much as a big fat dick. All of this is clever, amusing, and so on. Except it’s not supposed to be. We should be feeling Jake’s pain, or at least relating to it. Instead we chuckle and admire Plympton’s imaginative verve. And if Plympton would let Jake or Ella say a damn word to each other, their problem would be cleared up, and it would be a seven-minute cartoon — which it possibly should’ve been to begin with.


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