Archive for the ‘connections’ Category

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Serious Men: The Coens and Soderbergh against the world

November 22, 2009

Is it just me or did anybody else get The Informant! and A Serious Man a little mixed up? You vaguely knew that the Coen Brothers directed one and Steven Soderbergh directed the other, but you couldn’t quite keep them straight, right? (No? Maybe it was just me). For years now the Coen Brothers and Steven Soderbergh have been dividing up the work of making the smartest, most beautifully-crafted, halfway-serious, semi-indie films out there, but until this fall I’ve never really thought of them in the same breath, and that’s despite both of their close connections with George Clooney (who appears in neither of these films, even though he seems to be in every other film out right now). But then The Informant! and A Serious Man were released within two weeks of each other and it got me thinking.

Joel and Ethan Coen are, respectively, 8 and 5 years older than Soderbergh. All three of them have been making films since the mid ’80s. Though the Coen aesthetic is easier to pin down than the Soderbergh aesthethic (Soderbergh being far more restlessly adventurous and experimental) their filmographies have much in common. Both (if I can refer to the Coens as a single entity from now on) have made noiry thrillers (Blood Simple; The Underneath) and both have made comic thrillers (Fargo; the Ocean trilogy); both have made jail-break movies starring Clooney (O Brother Where Art Thou?Out of Sight); both have made ravishing black and white fables (The Man Who Wasn’t There; Kafka); both have essayed left-of-field remakes (The Ladykillers; Solaris); both have contributed short films to portmanteau projects (the Coens to Paris, je t’aime and Chacun son cinema, Soderbergh to Eros). And both have won Oscars and Palmes d’Or.

Above all, both are incredibly fast-working and prolific. The Coens have made half their 14 features in this decade alone. But Soderbergh trumps that, making almost as many features (12, or even 13 if you count Che as two films) in the ’00s than the Coens have made in total, not to mention a TV series (K Street). But the Coens write all their own material, while Soderbergh, who started out as the archetypal writer-director with Sex, Lies and Videotape seems to rely more these days on other screenwriters. The Coens moonlight as their own editor under the pseudonym Roderick Jaynes, while Soderbergh (who also moonlights occasionally as his own editor under the pseudonym Mary Ann Bernard) works as his own cinematographer under the pseudonym Peter Andrews (and is one of the best cinematographers in Hollywood at that).

Which brings us to The Informant! and A Serious Man: two very different films which could hardly be more alike. Two films about bespectacled Midwestern suburban putzes who wear their pants too high and feel that the world is against them. Both films had little fanfare before they started getting themselves noticed this summer (The Informant! with its Saul Bass-y poster, A Serious Man with its what-is-it trailer) then premiering within a day of each other at the Toronto Film Festival (though The Informant! had bowed four days earlier in Venice) and opening theatrically within three weeks of their premiere. (Though both directors have appeared in one of the previous two New York Film festivals, I would assume that the NYFF must have rejected both these new works). Though the films have widely differering budgets ($7 million for A Serious Man, $22 million for The Informant!) neither really looks particularly more expensive than the other, with the big difference in cost being the casting: Soderbergh has Matt Damon, while the biggest names in A Serious Man are Richard Kind and Fyvush Finkel (the film’s star Michael Stuhlbarg being better known on Broadway). Though A Serious Man is a film about Judaism (or is it about Jewishness?) and The Informant! is a film about Capitalism (or is it about greed?), the two films have a similar setting and a similar darkly humorous tone. Both films were shot on location (A Serious Man in Minneapolis MN and The Informant! in Decatur IL) and spend equal time in suburban living rooms, kitchens and driveways, offices, and motels. In both films FBI men arrive on doorsteps and bosses linger in office doorways making veiled threats.

Larry Gopnik in the Coen film is a Job-like figure who suffers the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune (Stuhlbarg played Hamlet in Central Park last summer in preparation) while Damon’s Mark Whitacre is a man who, though even more paranoid than Gopnik, is more the agent of his own demise. Both ultimately are company men (and scientists no less) just trying to work their way up the ladder—Whitacre as a biochemist at a giant Midwestern corporation, Gopnik as a physics professor at a small Midwestern university.

One of the biggest differences between these serious men, beyond their religion, is their wives. One has the most supportive wife in living memory. The other, the least. If you’ve seen either you’ll know what I mean.

Due to the presence of Damon and the backing of Warner Brothers, The Informant opened with a $10 million weekend, has played on up to 2,505 screens and  has grossed $33 million to date. A Serious Man (distributed by Focus Features) had a $251,000 opening weekend, has played on up to 262 screens and has grossed $7.5 million. But A Serious Man is the better reviewed film (79 metacritic rating, 86% rotten tomato rating, against The Informant!’s 66 and 76%) and looks to play longer.

Adding to the confluence of these films is that I feel almost exactly the same way about them. I enjoyed them both a lot and was a little dissatisfied by them at the same time. If I had to recommend one over the other it would be A Serious Man, but only just.

And then, of course, there are the posters. Assume the position…

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The Films of Others

June 10, 2008

After a bit of an argy-bargy with a friend the other day about how much he hated The Visitor, I thought I’d better go see the damn thing. Tom McCarthy’s The Visitor is that film that your neighbors who see a couple of films a year went to see and loved. And with fairly good reason: as a crowd-pleaser for thinking people it’s not bad. It’s well-made and well-meaning, it tickles the emotions, and it’s smart without being too challenging. And that started me thinking why my friend was so angry about it. There are plenty of far worse films out there deserving of his scorn. The Visitor may be safe, it may be predictable, it may be pandering to white, middle-class liberal guilt… but there are so few films out there for The Visitor‘s target audience that to complain about it seems selfish. And then that reminded me that said friend had also hated last year’s arthouse crowd-pleaser: The Lives of Others, a film equally beloved by pretty much the same audience. And suddenly it struck me that The Visitor and The Lives of Others are practically the same film! Think about it: a lonely, middle-aged man who has shut himself off emotionally from the world suddenly finds himself in the presence of a young, vivacious, artistic couple who are everything that he is not. Through cohabiting (in one way or another) with these strangers and becoming exposed to their passions (where The Lives of Others had Beethoven, The Visitor has Fela Kuti) and creativity he loosens up and starts to enjoy life. But when the dark forces of a tyrannical regime (the Stasi/the INS) intrude and threaten his new friends he discovers hidden wells of passion and goodness in himself. See?!

I’m not accusing Tom McCarthy of plagiarism (though given the character he played on the last season of The Wire that’s tempting), but he sure seems to have tapped into a perfect formula for middle-class, middle-aged, middle-of-the-road feel-good cinema.

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(Bad) movie poster of the week

April 25, 2008

FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL

I post this UK version of the Sarah Marshall campaign not because it’s a good poster—it isn’t—but for two reasons. One for the way that Russell Brand—unknown here but a huge celebrity in the UK—has been positioned as the star of the film, and the other because it reminds me of the Local Hero poster to which I have a fond attachment.

LOCAL HERO

Back in 1983 I saw a TV programme about the making of Bill Forsythe’s second best film which showed the marketing department going through various drafts of the poster until they came up with the final design of Peter Riegert wading by the red telephone box. (The phone booth was dropped for the more vertical and wordy US campaign and, in a reversal of the Sarah Marshall scenario, Burt Lancaster was added). Back then I made a mental note that designing movie posters seemed like the best job in the world, but I was about to head to London to study English literature. Somehow I found my way back.

As for Forgetting Sarah Marshall, I saw it yesterday and even for this Apatow apologist it was disappointing. Great cast, not least Brand and the most beautiful Ukrainian actress outside of a Paradjanov film, but droopy exposition. Not memorable.

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Blue Berries and Red Balloons

April 13, 2008

A remarkable red letter day for cinephiles, April 4th saw theatrical openings of new films by both Hou Hsiao Hsien and Wong Kar Wai, the two greatest Chinese-born filmmakers working today. There was a time (briefer for Wong than for Hou) when neither director’s films could find distribution in the States so this is cause enough for celebration. Coincidentally both films—both of which premiered at last year’s Cannes—are set abroad (one in France, the other in the States), star A-list actresses and center their stories on an introverted outsider who quietly observes the maelstrom of life around her. In My Blueberry Nights it’s heart-broken Nora Jones who leaves New York and travels cross country in search of solace. In Flight of the Red Balloon it’s Fang Song who goes to work as a nanny for harried single mom Juliette Binoche. Both films are more mood pieces than narratives. Both flirt with whimsy: a wandering red balloon—a hommage to Albert Lamorisse’s children’s classic of course—that bobs and weaves through the action; and a labored metaphor about blueberry pies. Both films are, in their own way, as light as air…or pastry crust.

As airy as it is, Flight of the Red Balloon is by far the stronger film, one of Hou’s best in years while My Blueberry Nights, dubbed a failure at Cannes, comes to us with its tail between its legs. Seen with low expectations, Blueberry is not unwatchable. Its screenplay (co-written with—WTF?—crime writer Lawrence Block) is terribly corny and adolescent and full of Hallmark sentiment, but the film looks gorgeous. WKW and his cinematographer, the great Darius Khondji (who has three films in theaters right now along with Funny Games and The Ruins!) fill every inch of the frame with a blur of color and light which is almost enough to distract us from the banality of its shopworn scenarios. Flight of the Red Balloon on the other hand is less spectacularly but more subtly beautiful. HHH and longtime DP Mark Lee Ping-bin work miracles in small spaces. Much of the action takes place in the cramped, cluttered apartment of Binoche’s puppeteer and her six year old son and one of the wonders of the film is the way Hou gradually redefines space. At first he films only one wall, with its central table at which everything seems to happen (reminiscent of so many other bustling family tables in earlier Hou films). But as the film progresses Hou reveals staircases, lofts and tiny chambers, like a dream in which you discover a room in your house you never knew was there.

But what really separates Hou’s film from Wong’s is that in Red Balloon, which overflows with incident and life, we feel as if we’re listening in on conversations, catching glimpses of people’s very real lives. (The scenes with the furniture movers and the blind piano tuner in particular are wonderful). In the far more hermetic Blueberry Nights we feel we’re being lectured about people’s lives that don’t ring true at all. And while Nora Jones is passable in her film debut, in Red Balloon Juliette Binoche (not the center of the film but definitely the star) gives the most surprisingly vibrant, mercurial performance of her career. That said, My Blueberry Nights still gets points for Cat Power, whose “The Greatest”—one of my favorite songs—plays at least three times in the film and who appears herself in a lovely, unexpected cameo.

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Two Portuguese Monsters

April 7, 2008

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I’ve been too busy to write or see much recently, but last month I caught up with two behemoths whose considerable reputation preceded them. By pure coincidence both are from Portugal. The first, Pedro Costa’s Colossal Youth, which premiered in Cannes two years ago and has since become one of the most praised films in the cinerati blogosphere, popped up at MoMA. I missed its week long run (preceding a Costa restrospective) at Anthology last summer, maybe deliberately (on the last night of its run a friend—who shall remain nameless—and I bailed on it at the last minute and went to see The Simpsons Movie instead). Not for the impatient of heart, Colossal Youth is 155 minutes of artfully composed monologues set in the slums of present day Lisbon and shot on grainy video.

Then a week later at BAM I saw Manoel de Oliveira’s Francisca from 1981 (made when Oliveira, who turns 100 this year and who showed up a couple of times in Brooklyn last month for his retrospective, was a boyish 72). Francisca is a film I’ve wanted to see ever since I read in the early 90s that J. Hoberman voted it his favorite film of 1984 in the Village Voice (placing it over Stranger than Paradise, Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia, Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America and, notoriously, Cindi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” video). Francisca is 166 minutes of artfully composed dialogues set in the drawing rooms of 19th Century Oporto and shot on grainy film (at least the print we saw was grainy, not to mention out of focus half the time).

Both films are tough going but both have an incredible cumulative impact and an indelible strangeness. They also have a lot in common. I haven’t read anything about Oliveira’s influence on his younger compatriot but it seems inevitable. Neither Costa nor Oliveira move the camera much, most of their scenes are composed of long single shots, and in both people often speak (or rather declaim) while facing the camera. Both films are fond of gloom and shadows, both films center on love letters, both involve repetition of texts. And both are horror movies of sorts. Colossal Youth, with its wandering hero Ventura appearing in room after room visiting acquaintances has been called a zombie movie (though it’s the zombies of Jacques Tourneur not George Romero), and in Francisca, whose eerie atonal soundtrack adds to the fear factor, the main character is at his nadir described as a werewolf.

The other highlight of the Oliveira retro for me was the programme of his early shorts, all in stunning restored prints. His first film, Working on the River Douro was made in 1931 and though it’s become almost banal to talk about Oliveira’s age in relation to his work, it’s still extraordinary to imagine that the man who made this silent city symphony is still working today. A stirring synthesis of Eistenstein and Flaherty, River Douro probably has more individual shots in its 19 minutes than his past ten films combined. After that we leapt forward a quarter century to another urban rhapsody, this time in glorious color, The Painter and the City; the commissioned seed-to-dinner table study of Bread; and the rambunctious and slightly bizarre 1963 short The Hunt which preys on my childhood fear…drowning in quicksand.

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Beyond Control

October 28, 2007

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I love to find surprising connections between seemingly disparate films I am watching (for example who would have thought there was any connection between The Assassination of Jesse James and the new Desplechin that I saw back-to-back recently? The answer: Casey Affleck is married to Desplechin’s Esther Kahn, Summer Phoenix!). But, beyond being biopics of singers, what on earth could one of the coolest film projects of the year, the smash hit Control, about Joy Division’s Ian Curtis, have to do with one of the least cool follies of recent years, Kevin Spacey’s recreation of the life of Bobby Darin, Beyond the Sea (2004)? In fact, what on earth could Mr “Splish Splash” have in common with Mr “New Dawn Fades”?

Well, the more I thought about it the more they did have in common. Curtis and Darin were both unassuming looking working-class white boys who suffered ill health (Darin had a diseased heart, Curtis was epileptic) and died young (Darin at 37, Curtis at 23). Both married teenagers (“girl-next-door” starlet Sandra Dee and literal girl next door Deborah Woodruff — played on screen by Kate Bosworth and Samantha Morton respectively, though I’d love to see those roles reversed) and fathered one child. Both modelled themselves at a young age on other performers (Darin on Sinatra, Curtis on Bowie) and both became legendary singer-songwriters with a penchant for things German (Darin for Brecht-Weill’s “Mack the Knife”, Curtis for questionable Nazi imagery).

But what struck me most of all was what was best about both films: their subjects’ unique performance style and their stars’ (Spacey and Sam Riley) expert imitation of them. Neither Control nor Beyond the Sea transcend the limitations of the biopic genre and both prove how asphyxiating those limitations are. Due no doubt to varied expectations I was disappointed by one and pleasantly surprised by the other (you can guess which). But in each film I found myself transfixed by the concert scenes. Having heard but never seen either perform before I was unaware of Darin’s hand-flapping gesticulation (the genesis of which was a TV gig where he had to sing lyrics he’d written on his fingers) and Curtis’s spastic, speeded up version of the same. Each a personal, long gestated labor of love by directors Spacey and Anton Corbijn, neither film is perfect, far from it. Spacey’s is weighed down by his attempt to create an All That Jazz style phantasmagoria out of the life of someone very few people care about today (I’m not saying they shouldn’t, just that they don’t); Corbijn’s is weighed down by his too literal interpretation of domestic strife and the dreary, inexorable slide to a foregone conclusion. But each film is more than adequate in conveying why people would line up around the block at the Copacabana or the Factory.

(I will say that John Goodman’s very Goodmanish performance as Darin’s manager can’t hold a candle to Toby Kebbell’s performance as Joy Division manager Rob Gretton, which is worth the price of admission alone. Fun trivia fact: In Shane Meadows’ 2004 film Dead Man’s Shoes Paddy Considine, who played Gretton in 24 Hour Party People, plays Kebbell’s older brother. How about that for connections?).

One last serendipity: Beyond the Sea ends the same year that Control begins: 1973. You wonder what a young Curtis, enamored of Bowie and Iggy and Roxy Music, would have made of Bobby Darin singing “If I Were a Carpenter” that year. Actually, it’s not hard to guess. But maybe he’d have enjoyed this.

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Then and Now

October 28, 2007

In response to Glenn Kenny’s new feature Then and Now, over at his superb blog In the Company of Glenn, I’d like to offer up the following Katherine Heigl edition:

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My Father the Hero (1994)

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Knocked Up (2007)

One follows quite nicely after the other, don’t you think?