Henry Fool (Hal Hartley, 1997, USA)

6 04 2010

If there’s one thing I can’t wrap my head around in the prevailing current school of cinematic thought it’s this idea that films are somehow quantitative and not qualitative; that there can be such a thing as a “perfect film”. The notion of “stars” and “thumbs” and numerical ratings to distill a complex opinion into a simple figure or two has been around for a long time, yet try as I might to indulge, my forays into these sorts of rating systems have always left me dissatisfied and frankly, somewhat guilty. I was particularly struck after an effort to join the site Criticker.com, which allows users to rate the films they’ve seen on a scale of 0-100, that such ratings are spectacularly arbitrary and somewhat pointless in relation to art. I struggled to pick a number on this scale for very many films, and yet there were people who had uploaded ratings in the thousands. I couldn’t do it, my opinions and tastes change daily, even hourly, especially when dealing with such a vast scale.

I am always forced to conclude that any sort of numerical rating is disingenuous. Why didn’t you rate it a 10, rather than a 7? Well, I thought that this could have been done better, so I subtracted points…What sort of a system is this? A film is not a mathematical equation. You don’t add up a good soundtrack, well-developed characters, a compelling plot, and spectacular visuals and get a 10. You might find that all the aforementioned elements of a film were, in fact, perfect – but you didn’t love it. It wasn’t the best movie you’ve ever seen. And if it isn’t, how could it be called perfect? It’s a paradox. I often hear canonically great films, such as The Godfather, called perfect, and as such they are frequently ranked at the top of favorite-films lists; very commonly, in fact, if you’ve ever browsed through the “Top 5” feature on the RottenTomatoes.com website. How could this be? How could so many people, with such vast and varying personalities and backgrounds, love the exact same film?

Making a film, or any work of art, is a personal endeavor. A good film is as varied and complex as a person, as the director, as an artist. I love some films that are imperfect, sure. Mauvais Sang, which currently sits at the top of my all-time favorites list, is as flawed as they come. At times it’s impenetrable, it drags a little, but boy is it worth it for the amount of magic and feeling that bursts forth from the screen when I watch it. It’s not perfect, sure, but to me it’s the best there is. If there can’t be a perfect person, then there can’t be a perfect film.

I also take issue with reviewers (and I’ll admit to having done this in the past, I’m at the very least a hypocrite today) that focus their energies on saying, well, if the film had done this instead of that, it would have been better – These reviews imagine an idealized film that will never be made, tailored to the tastes and beliefs of the critic. The only way to truly be satisfied is to make your own film, and even then you might not find what you are looking for. But there’s no use in saying “I would have liked the film more if it were like this” – because the film is not like that. It is how it is. It’s not a recipe that just needs a little more sugar.

What prompted these thoughts? Well, they’ve been stewing for some time, but they really exploded when I sat down to watch Henry Fool, which might not be one of my favorite movies, but it’s certainly a great one and it has a hell of a lot to say. Thomas Jay Ryan as the titular vagrant walks down the street with a bundle of notebooks and into the life of trashman Simon Grim (James Urbaniak). These notebooks, we soon learn, comprise Fool’s life’s work – his “confession”, a phrase repeated many times throughout the film. It’s almost – not quite! – finished, and Simon can’t read it until it’s done.

It’s no spoiler to say that Simon soon begins writing his own work, which Fool encourages, and soon he’s quit his job and written a poem of epic vulgarity that a few local girls call genius, but most everyone else hates. He’s rejected by dozens of publishers, most of whom tell him pretty explicitly to go to hell. And this is where the film started to really suck me in: besides its obvious appeal as a film about writing, the creative process, and getting published, I found that Hartley has a lot more to say about the nature of art than just mocking the media’s attitude toward controversial work and examining the function of scatological prose (which, by the way, explodes in a tremendously satisfying “poop joke” at a pivotal moment that’s so, so much more than what it appears to be). Taking into consideration Urbaniak’s shifty, deadpan performance and the repeated assurances by Simon’s sister Fay and their mother that everyone used to thing he was retarded, Simon’s quest to get published becomes a quest for not only societal acceptance, which proves somewhat shallow and unsatisfying, but some kind of empathy in a world that lacks it. For someone to read his poem and to enjoy it, be moved by it, is in many ways the same thing that all of us are looking for.

It would be very easy to explain away the plot of the film, and the conflicts faced by the two writers, by saying that Simon really is retarded, his success merely a satire of the confused priorities and standards of the literary world, and that Henry Fool is every bit the fraud he appears to be. It would be missing the point, though, to try to judge the literary talent of either Simon or Henry. Hartley avoids a common misstep made by films about writers and chooses not to show or to quote from the work of either character. Too often, as in Coppola’s Tetro, the work turns out to be underwhelming. I don’t think that Hartley has an opinion either way on Simon’s supposed genius, or lack thereof. The movie is more about the power that Simon’s art has to transform his life, and the lives of those around him, for better or for worse.

The America of Hal Hartley’s films is a strange fairyland, where absurdism lurks around every corner, where the world is dank, cold and drenched in vomit, and yet where the characters remain eerily, profoundly human. The moment when Henry finds Fay holding his Confession is full of Hartley’s particular magic – he approaches her, she slaps him, he puts a hand to her throat. They make love as Simon discovers their mother with her wrists slit in the bathtub and drags her outside, lying her in the front yard for no apparent reason.

Of all the films I’ve seen, Henry Fool might fit least into any preestablished genre or mold. It’s not a comedy (despite what the VHS packaging would have you believe), a romance, or even a drama. There are echoes of film noir as Henry’s past catches up to him and friendships fall apart, and as always Hartley runs slow, graceful laps around indie quirk without ever embracing it. But ultimately it is what all great art should strive to be; it is its own creature, free from convention or genre expectation. Its characters are never overwhelmed by the power of its ideas, or vice versa. It’s a quest for empathy and success on one’s own terms, and what happens when that success never arrives. Do we settle down in Hartley’s America? Raise a family? Or run to catch a plane and take the next flight to Stockholm?

I started off this review with some pretty conflicted thoughts about film, about criticism, and my role here. I don’t write about movies that much anymore, often because I end up sort of paralyzed by my confusion. I like writing, and I love films, but I think the only way to say anything significant about them is to make one yourself. Something I have yet to do, and need to desperately.

I hope what I said here makes sense. If not, oh well. I’m not perfect, and I have homework to do.

New list

9 02 2010

The list of best films was updated last week – that’s really all I had to say. Although yesterday I saw two more films that should make my list, so keep in mind that it’s just a freeze-frame of my cinematic state of mind. Or whatever. Go about your business.

The Best of 2009

14 01 2010

Even though there are still a great many films I should see, I felt it was time to put out a list (and I know the writeups are pretentious, that’s the point):

1. Two Lovers (James Gray)

It’s really too bad that the only attention this film has received (besides some lukewarm critical praise) is its notoriety as the last movie Joaquin Phoenix made before he went nutso, because James Gray really is one of America’s best living filmmakers. His handsome, melancholic mise en scene translates from the deliriously great car chase in We Own the Night to a standing rooftop shag between Phoenix’s Leonard and one of his titular love interests, realized completely with foggy breath, heavy jackets and suppressed passions forcing their way out. Phoenix gives what is probably his best performance (he should really come back), every shrug, mumble and meaningful silence contributing to the undeniably empathetic sadness and confusion of his character. Gray finds meaning in a childhood photograph, a beach at night, and a bowl of pickles. The ending is bittersweet without being tragic, Leonard raps and then breakdances at a nightclub, and Elias Koteas shows up. Easily the best film of the year.

2. Antichrist (Lars von Trier)

At Cannes (and subsequently, in every market), everyone focused entirely upon the scenes of sexual violence, which, while central to the film, occur within a few minutes in the third act. Some have used them as evidence in the case against Von Trier, calling him a provocateur. While it’s probably true that these scenes were meant to instill outrage in the childish Cannes audience (and the Tarkovsky shout-out could only have been meant to attract derision), the intent is less to shock than it is to draw attention away from the deeply personal issues that Von Trier is dealing with here. This is an incredibly vulnerable film that deals openly with its director’s issues with women and his own potential for sadism. Although the performances are both excellent, I can’t even see Gainsbourg and Dafoe as characters anymore, rather than two sides of Von Trier’s conflicted soul warring it out. It’s haunting, funny in a self-aware sort of way, and more than a little gorgeous.

3. Fighting (Dito Montiel)

Cliched plot and predictable story are eclipsed completely by delicate, assured filmmaking in Montiel’s sophomore effort; while I haven’t seen A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, prior knowledge of his filmmaking style wasn’t necessary for me to fall totally in love with the way Montiel makes no apologies or excuses for the kind of film he’s making here, content simply to do it better than everyone else. In an era of stylistic excess whenever a violent scene is called for, Montiel chooses carefully which shots to slow down and underline, while simultaneously robbing the violence of all the precious rituals that Tarantino relishes. Equally admirable is the care taken with the love scenes, which are rendered with a surprising tenderness and out-of-focus intimacy that feels uncomfortably honest and delightfully real at the same time.

4. The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (Werner Herzog)

While not perfect or innovative by any stretch, Herzog’s latest effort features his eccentric whimsy in full swing, and his ever-present obsession with the relationship between his protagonists and their environment is well-served by having Cage’s Lt. Terence McDonagh inhabit a grey, ruinous New Orleans, replete with iguanas and fish as spirit guides. Cage’s performance is the best of his career, his lurching, shuffling walk and contorted facial expressions capturing perfectly the tragicomic, existential angst of the character. Herzog disregards the plot entirely, choosing instead to shift the focus away from the investigation and towards a serious of vignette-like scenes that have McDonagh wreak havoc on his city and on his own life, so that when everything ties up with a neat bow at the end, the only thing you can do is hug your knees to your chest and chuckle.

5. Observe and Report (Jody Hill)

The Paul Blart: Mall Cop criticism wore thin fairly quickly, as it’s obvious to anyone with half a brain that Hill’s film could have easily existed without that one, and if Paul Blart hadn’t existed the naysayers would have been left with very little. The obvious influences of this film are Taxi Driver (to which it is superior), and The King of Comedy, itself essentially a nonviolent Taxi Driver. Ronnie Barnhardt is a far more fascinating character than Travis Bickle, his inadequacies and insecurities just as violently conveyed but with a humorous element that takes this film a step above most American comedies. It’s less one man’s descent into madness than it is a delusional outsider on a quest for self-fulfillment and learning that fitting within the restrictions of institutions are unnecessary for his actualization, a twin of Hill’s Eastbound & Down minus the existentialist conclusion. It’s racist and cliched, yes, but mostly because the film also exists in large part within Ronnie’s own head. The defining moment of the film comes when Ray Liotta’s police detective denies Ronnie entrance to the police academy, and a cop hiding in the closet reveals himself to say “I thought this was gonna be funny, but this is actually just really sad.” The laughs come with a painful twinge of the heartstrings, and as despicable as Ronnie is sometimes, by the end of the movie, I sorta loved the guy.

6. Funny People (Judd Apatow)

The complaints of “Too long!” and “Bloated!” and “Indulgent!” caused me to anticipate this film even more, and my hopes were rewarded: Funny People, while not for everyone, is Apatow’s most personal film (if you can’t tell by now, I really dig the indulgence stuff), and stuffed in there amidst all its flaws, dick jokes, too-late Sandler parody and misguided celebrity cameos, is a big, thumping heart and a movie that’s unafraid to be what it is. A cancer movie that dealt honestly with the issue of near-death experiences and the problem of fame could never be anything less than long and overindulgent, and this deals with it in spades. It’s Sandler’s best performance behind Punch-Drunk Love, Leslie Mann is delightful as always, the ending refuses to provide closure, and all in all this film just has a lot to say about life, love, and laughter, and that’s a combo I can’t pass up.

7. The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow)

Surpasses even Bigelow’s previous masterpiece Point Break, sacrificing the humor of that film for an increased understanding of her characters as men of action and only action, as the ending demonstrates. Much ado has been made of the opening epigram “War is a drug,” which is whatever, it would be doing Bigelow’s technically exhilarating filmmaking a disservice to reduce the movie to such a simplistic theme. There’s more than a little irony inherent in that statement as well, since the characters are less involved in combat as they are in long periods of anguished waiting, sweaty calculations and ever-present paranoia. Bigelow’s Iraq is a hive of such tensions, and she admirably strays away from making Sgt. James a clear-cut hero or giving his prodigy undue attention, granting equal weight to a superior officer praising him and calling him “hot shit”, and his failures to save his comrades from injury or to save a life in the final scene.

8. The Girlfriend Experience (Steven Soderbergh)

It features my favorite ending of any film this year, a final shot which completely encapsulates the film’s cold, sterile mood of alienation, loneliness, and longing to make a connection, however brief and tenuous. The repeated references to the languishing economy aren’t meant to make any sort of political statement so much as drive home the (financial) insecurities and fears of the characters, which in the world of white, upper-class personal trainers and escorts, are significant indeed. The criticisms of Grey’s acting are silly, she’s perfectly serviceable (lol) and that line about no one in her line of work really being themselves casts her performance in a different light altogether. I have great admiration for Soderbergh’s ability to crank out a small film of such intimate scope and great personal effect on such limited resources, and I’ll sit through an Ocean’s 14 if it means we get more films like these.

9. Where the Wild Things Are (Spike Jonze)

Even Karen O and her poor gang of pre-pubescent saps couldn’t ruin the sheer emotional force this film has behind it, all the hipster nostalgia disregarded in favor of raw wounds, snowball fights, and stubborn tears. Egger’s writing is far more tolerable when Jonze is filming it and you don’t have to read it, and although his transparent attempts at reducing the Wild Things to child psychological types are fairly superficial, the voice actors all absolutely kill it and their interaction summons up some intangible feelings of sadness and fear (particularly of loneliness and abandonment, echoed in the absence of Max’s father) that feel half-forgotten and long-buried. It’s all a jumble of confusion and longing that I haven’t felt in this same way in many years, and I’d be lying if I said that ending didn’t have me sobbing.

10. The Limits of Control (Jim Jarmusch)

There’s no better filmmaker alive than Jim Jarmusch at making a film like this: totally comfortable in its ambiguities and closed-off nature, a veritable treasure chest of ideas and thematic turmoil locked up and sealed beautifully, while refusing to make any commentary on them or to even acknowledge that they’re there (and any accusations of political grandstanding in the climax are way off-base, his concerns are far more tangential). Its dreamlike nature is only touched on in a couple of scenes (especially the reappearance of a certain character on a poster and then, in reality), but more than anything it is a film about art, and it wouldn’t be a Jarmusch film if I was capable of elaborating any more than that.

Honorable Mentions:

A Serious Man (Joel & Ethan Coen)

Public Enemies (Michael Mann)

Adventureland (Greg Mottola)

Drag Me to Hell (Sam Raimi)

17 Again (Burr Steers)

do fish have dreams?

22 12 2009

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (Werner Herzog, 2009)

There’s a point in Herzog’s latest film where Lt. Terence McDonagh (Nicolas Cage) is looking for a young boy in the middle of a casino, and a peculiar shot arrives: Herzog sets up the camera to look over the action on the casino floor, focusing on nothing in particular, when McDonagh enters the frame in a very deliberate way, by standing parallel to the camera and stepping forward, then turning to face the lens with a panicked, bewildered expression. This manner of entering the shot has been dubbed the “Kinski turn” by Herzog, a method he devised for actor Klaus Kinski on the set of his early and most acclaimed film, Aguirre, the Wrath of God. While Nicolas Cage knows little of the alcohol-fueled insanity that possessed Kinski, his performance does echo the actor in many ways; from the mad look in the eyes of Aguirre to the stoic determination of Woyzeck, much of the eccentric genius of the late madman can be glimpsed in Terence Mcdonagh.
“It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you’re driven by a singular purpose,” McDonagh half-mumbles, half-declaims to a suspect in the course of his investigation into the murders of five African immigrants, but this proves to be little more than a cool-sounding line from a dope fiend. The lieutenant is not so easily reduced to a “singular purpose.” He likes to get high, he likes to gamble, he likes to screw his prostitute girlfriend, and do anything but face the hand that fate has dealt him. In the film’s first scene, McDonagh risks his life to save a prisoner who would otherwise have drowned in his rapidly flooding cell during Katrina. As a result, he injures himself and his doctor tells him he will be suffering “moderate to severe” back pain for the rest of his life. In Herzog’s world, no good deed goes unpunished.
Herzog is decidedly anti-redemption. Although at times McDonagh does seem “driven” to find the killer of this immigrant family (who is almost certainly drug kingpin Big Fate, played by rapper Xzibit in a surprisingly effective performance), it’s also revealed, in a compelling scene where he navigates the houses and backyards of the New Orleans ghetto to find a suspect, to be just another way he gets his kicks. He throws the suspect’s gun out the door and turns him over to his partners, grinning widely and saying “I love it…I just love it.” Even if McDonagh solves the case, will it mean anything? Probably bad karma: another good deed.
Although the New Orleans of Bad Lieutenant is a bleak existentialist wasteland with permanently grey skies, it’s also a distinctly Herzogian world. Early in the investigation, McDonagh finds a poem scrawled on a piece of paper near a fish swimming in a glass of water, in the house of the murdered family. It reads “My friend is a fish/He live in my room/His fin is a cloud/He see me when I sleep.” He picks up the glass and examines it for a moment, then puts it down and leaves the room. Herzog gazes at the fish for a while longer, however. The director’s fascination with animals and their connection to his eccentric protagonists traces back to the ending of Aguirre, where monkeys swarmed over the conquistador’s raft, as he remained lost in his insane ravings. In this film, the camera also follows alligators, and in one hilarious musical interlude, McDonagh finds temporary solace in two imaginary iguanas.
It may be tempting, with the various idiosyncrasies of this film, to over-analyze it and to find some form of symbolism within the animals and McDonagh’s drug-fueled odysseys. This would be fruitless, as Herzog says himself in an introduction to his published screenplay: “…the pedantic branch of academia, the so called ‘film-studies,’ in its attempt to do damage to cinema, will be ecstatic to find a small reference to that earlier film here and there, though it will fail to do the same damage that academia — in the name of literary theory — has done to poetry, which it has pushed to the brink of extinction. Cinema, so far, is more robust. I call upon the theoreticians of cinema to go after this one. Go for it, losers.” The film was marketed as a remake of Abel Ferrara’s 1992 Harvey Keitel vehicle, called simply Bad Lieutenant. This infuriated Ferrara, who made several public statements wishing death on Herzog and his crew. In turn, Herzog feigned total ignorance of who Ferrara was, later mentioning the possibility of a cameo role for him. As the bizarre resolution of this film’s plot clearly demonstrates, rather than creating a film rich with subtext, Herzog is far more interested in his own artistic expression and extending the middle finger to the cinema elite and conventionalism alike.
This is not to say, however, that this is a film without meaning. Far from it. I found it to be among the best and most fascinating films of the year, and so what if there’s no “message” at work here? I learned more from watching Nicolas Cage slouch and stagger maddeningly through his own harsh existence, rejoice in finding a silver spoon from his childhood, and chuckle to himself in front of an aquarium than anything District 9 wanted to say.

life is great. without it, you’d be dead.

18 12 2009

Gummo (Harmony Korine, 1997)

When asked to rank the greatest living American directors, I usually throw out the same names: Paul Thomas Anderson, Terrence Malick, Jim Jarmusch, Kelly Reichardt, David Gordon Green, and so on. But one name consistently ranks at the top for me, and that is Harmony Korine. He might be the best American artist in any medium.

Few share this opinion, in fact, many consider Korine to be a shock artist and his debut feature, Gummo, among the worst films ever made. This is, however, a shallow interpretation of Korine’s work, and overlooks everything that he accomplishes in the space of this plotless, 90-minute film. So a few cats are drowned and fed glass-filled tuna. Let PETA moan. This is a great work of art.

The set-up is this: In 1974, Xenia, Ohio was struck by a massive tornado. The town is now inhabited by a wide assortment of characters that mostly fall under the label of “white trash.” The film mostly follows two boys, Solomon and Tummler, who kill cats, huff glue, and break into other kids’ houses. There’s also a kid who wears big pink bunny ears and never speaks, two platinum blonde sisters and a brunette sister, Solomon’s mom (played by a grown-up Linda Manz in only her third film role), two brothers who get into violent fistfights, and a gossip columnist. These characters are the essence of Gummo, and that they were mostly played by non-actors is crucial to the film.

What is Gummo like? Not much. I have certainly never seen anything like it. Korine claims his influences include Werner Herzog and Alan Clarke but really, there are few points of reference between these filmmakers rather than a shared passion for individual, personal work.

Korine says, “To me, art is one man’s voice, one idea, one point-of-view, coming from one person.” And his point-of-view is worth seeing.

Gummo is a collage of moments, visions and sounds. The film stock decays to blurred digital video at points, accompanied by a whispered voice-over. The characters are seemingly without morals, killing cats at a whim and pimping out a girl with down syndrome. This is the main reason that Gummo‘s detractors are so set against it: on just a superficial level, the film is just plain aesthetically and morally ugly. Why watch a film that revels in such behavior?

But look closer. When Solomon enters the bedroom of the girl with down syndrome, pimped out by her own brother, he sits on the side of her bed. He talks to her. She smiles at him. He strokes her hair. She kisses his cheek. This moment of tenderness, born out of such ugliness, is transcendent. It glows.

There are other instances of simply great direction. Solomon takes a bath in murky, black-green water in his own tub. His mother brings him a tray of spaghetti and shampoos his hair. In the background, a piece of bacon is taped to the wall. She buys a Crunch bar from two little black boys in well-pressed suits, going door to door. She gives it to Solomon, who almost instantly drops it in the water. He fishes it out, unwraps it and eats it with a shampoo-covered hand. By this point, the ugliness and discomfort has vanished, and Korine’s filmmaking has become soothing, hypnotic.

Harmony Korine might be the gentlest filmmaker of all time. He makes no attempt to judge his characters, to place their morals (or lack thereof) in any context. He watches them, and lets these moments of transcendence slip through. He finds beauty and love in everything, and everyone, even a pair of skinhead brothers who killed their parents. Who are we to call them evil or undeserving of attention?

In a world full of filmmakers interested in pushing cheap intellectual or political agendas, Korine simply looks at the world with love, and asks us to do the same. This is a message worth hearing, and a film worth seeing.

Brendan gets really lazy

10 12 2009

Finals week, plus I haven’t updated this in a while and therefore you just get ratings out of 5, not reviews.

District 9 (Neil Blomkamp, 2009) **

Pickup on South Street (Samuel Fuller, 1953) ****1/2

Junebug (Phil Morrison, 2005) ***1/2

Lancelot of the Lake (Robert Bresson, 1974) *****

Love Liza (Todd Louiso, 2002) ****

Wet Hot American Summer (David Wain, 2001) *****

Bright Star (Jane Campion, 2009) *1/2

Christmas in July (Preston Sturges, 1940) ****

Comingled Containers (Stan Brakhage, 1996) *****1/2

George Washington (David Gordon Green, 2000) ****1/2

Alone: Life Wastes Andy Hardy (Martin Arnold, 1998) ****1/2

The House of the Devil (Ti West, 2009) ***1/2

Drag Me to Hell (Sam Raimi, 2009) ****

Point Blank (John Boorman, 1967) *****

The Limits of Control (Jim Jarmusch, 2009) ****1/2

Antichrist (Lars von Trier, 2009) ****1/2

Hercules (Ron Clements, 1997) ***1/2

Up (Pete Docter, 2009) ****1/2

A Serious Man (Joel & Ethan Coen, 2009) ****

Electra Glide in Blue (James William Guercio, 1973) ****1/2

Housekeeping (Bill Forsyth, 1987) *****

Running Scared (Wayne Kramer, 2006) ****

10 Things I Hate About You (Gil Junger, 1999) **1/2

The Lion King (Roger Allers & Rob Minkoff, 1994) ****

Brendan forgets about his blog for a while

13 11 2009

Seeing District 9 tonight. Also this week I saw Wise Blood in class and liked it even more. Just quick thoughts on these because it’s been a little while and I’m very tired. Some good stuff coming up, Thanksgiving break and I’m planning to see every Boorman and Bresson I can get my hands on in the next couple of weeks.

The Long Goodbye (Robert Altman, 1973)


Obviously a huge influence on The Big Lebowski, it’s got that insightful, incisive Altman touch with those moments of harsh satire that don’t detract from the sympathy that he has for Marlowe or the nostalgic quality of the film. Really clever, really funny, great ending, loved it.

Old Joy (Kelly Reichardt, 2006)


One of the greatest films ever made. I watched this while suffering some pretty harsh back pains, so I put a pillow under my back and lay down in front of the television. Probably the most relaxing experience of my life. Such a wonderful, reflective work.

Two Lovers (James Gray, 2009)

two-loversThe best film I’ve seen so far this year, let me just copy my facebook review here:  It doesn’t hurt my flat-out adoration of this film that Phoenix’s Leonard acts exactly the way I would in every situation, nor that the film is something of an adult companion piece to David Gordon Green’s “All the Real Girls” and in some scenes an older cousin of “Adventureland”, or that the performances are all pitch-perfect (even Elias Koteas shows up to casually add his talent to the mix), but what I love most is the way that Gray’s handsome-as-all-hell direction matches the melancholy rhythm of Leonard’s brain – focusing on fingertips against a cheek, a cut of roast beef, a glove, a strand of hair. Then there’s those gorgeous rooftop scenes with their casual beauty and raw emotion so tenderly captured, and I could go on but basically I haven’t connected with a film this deeply, this intimately since, well, “All the Real Girls” and watching this was like coming home.

17 Again (Burr Steers, 2009)

17againOf course I expected this to be awful, but it turned out to be the best teen comedy I’ve seen since Soul Man, and it does it without being raunchy but by, like Soul Man, acknowledging its absurdity and being awkwardly subversive with ultimately positive messages. The scenes where Mike re-connects with his wife as a 17-year-old aren’t creepy so much as sweet in a really weird way, then there’s those great bits of truthful, fatherly advice coming from the mouth of Zac Efron. Not Disney fare, it’s PG-13, there’s viagra jokes, but honestly this is more affirming and probably a better influence on kids than any of the crap on the Disney channel. Mom, you should see this.