Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Music Feature: Martha Wainwright @ The Cape Cinema

Music / Feature

Martha Wainwright @ The Cape Cinema [InRO]

The Cape Cinema, as the name implies, is primarily a movie theater; however, its owners have for several years now roped in some impressive live music for the summer season. Last year I caught Bon Iver at the peak of their buzz, who played to a packed house and shook the very foundation of the place, testing the strength of its speakers in a way the low-key arthouse fare the theater usually runs likely never has. This year, the management has chosen a very different artist in Martha Wainwright, though probably one much more appropriate for the crowd they cater to.

The venue is nestled in the heart of the very rural Dennis, Massachusetts (just minutes away from my home town), where the average aged citizen probably keeps company with Betty White and where louder musicians are often directed toward one of the area's many bars or the more eclectic Melody Tent a few towns over. This place, for better or worse, is for the art snobs; the people who fancy themselves a cut above the "Spider-Man" ogling set because the movies they like play film festivals, are often in foreign languages and feature actors your average fanboy has never even heard of. Which is no knock on these people; to a certain extent, I count myself among them, cherishing the venue as the only real bastion of intelligent cinema left in my area. I'm just giving you a sense of the scene at these shows, as further evidenced in a conversation outside, during which one man says to the other, "You'll love it in there, it's historical," and then proceeds to ask those around him, "Who is Martha Wainwright anyway?"

Of course, however uninformed this patron is about the entertainment, he's right about the history: The Cape Cinema has been around since 1930, when Cape Playhouse manager Raymond Moore opened its doors, describing it as, "a new miniature talking picture theater deluxe" (whatever that means). The real history here, and the reason our man above cited its historical value, is the arching Rockwell Kent mural overhead, which spans 6400 square feet and is always a welcome sight for this regular patron – almost making up for the venue's endurance-testing seats, which could be compared to deflated beanbag chairs draped over a wooden frame. The mural is indeed the "crowning glory" of the cinema, as the venue's website calls it, and at the time of its installation trumped even "Tintoretto's Paradise," in Venice's Doges Palace, as the largest single mural in the world.

Fun facts for sure, but what of Martha Wainwright? To give a brief primer to the readers of this review, Martha Wainwright comes from a very regal music family; she's daughter to American blues musician Loudon Wainwright III and Canadian folk icon Kate McGarrigle, and her brother – probably the most recognizable name of the bunch these days – is the flamboyant crooner Rufus Wainwright. Martha, while perhaps the least known in the family, has one of the most distinctive voices in all of contemporary music and a vivacious, playful stage presence to complement it. As I already knew from countless YouTube videos and from seeing her absolutely stellar performance of "Tower of Song" in the 2006 documentary "Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man," this was to be a memorable show, if for no other reason than to see this generally reserved crowd's reaction to her sexually charged gestures and to her most controversially titled song ("Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole"), should she play it. No dice there, but instead we get a surprise announcement.

At about 20 minutes past eight, the theater manager takes the stage to introduce Wainwright. First though, he rattles off one pretty banal story – involving his struggles contacting Wainwright's booking agent and his success after tracking her down at the Toronto Film Festival – and then informs us of something far more exciting: "Last night, I got a call from Martha," he says, "and she asked me if she could bring her mother along." As my mental reflexes are not particularly speedy, it takes me a few moments – and a smattering of enthusiastic applause – to realize that this means the Kate McGarrigle is in the house.

However, just Martha comes out at first, looking pretty harried with messy blond hair and black and white striped leggings, as she announces her "mom" will be joining her for some songs later on in the set. Without much pause or any further comment to the audience, she picks up one of her two acoustic guitars and launches into a highlight from her self-titled 2005 debut, "This Life." Her voice immediately fills the room with a piercing emotiveness and she displays an impeccable skill that few can match. "This light is boring," she half-whispers, and the soft glow of a single, saturated spotlight reflects off the body of her guitar as she rocks with the instrument like a dance partner. "There's a song, and it's in my head," she sings, and that same song is now in all of ours heads as well, the meaning of her every word conveyed through her delivery and in other subtle ways that only the most gifted and affecting singers can.

Afterwards, Wainwright breaks for a moment, tuning her second guitar and engaging more with the audience, asking us about the town of Dennis and declaring that she and her mom had only been there for a few hours, just enough time for a dip in the lake (setting up a great punch-line later). The story is less important than the delivery; whereas some performers can't communicate with an audience without seeming like they're on a different plane, Wainwright is endearingly casual. Were the audience a little more lively (only a few were brave enough to answer her inquiries), there could be a great repartee going on here.

Instead, we get some more songs, including the closest thing to a hit the singer has had so far ("Bleeding All Over You"), from her somewhat middling 2008 album, the hilariously titled I Know You're Married But I've Got Feelings Too. The song is also one of Wainwright's greatest achievements lyrically, a rather stunning plea for a married man's love which climaxes in the bitingly poignant line that doubles as the above album title. It sounds perhaps even better live, void of the somewhat distracting choral backing and fluttering string arrangements on the record. As a straightforward vocal and acoustic piece the sentiments lacerate even more, with focus placed firmly on the artist's deft lyrical ability. The song also sets up, rather perfectly, Wainwright's dialogue about how many of her songs feel dishonest to sing ("In one song I say, 'I am 21,' and I wonder how much longer I can sing that"), which then segues into her ill-fated announcement that, "I have something new; it's not very good, but I'm going to play it anyway."

The song, unnamed, isn't bad at all; the lyrics are a little slight, and Wainwright suggests "maybe it can be translated. I hear it in Spanish." But, more importantly, she clearly doesn't know it very well yet, botching chord after chord and forgetting the words regularly, leaning over to check her lyric sheet between just about every line. You half expect this kind of thing from any artist playing new material, but still this portion of the show is something of a train wreck, saved only slightly by Wainwright's admission of the mishap, her very funny interjection ("shit-balls") and then by the excitement we all feel as she summons mom from backstage.

Looking even more bohemian than her daughter, in bag-lady sweater and puffy scarf, McGarrigle enters stage right and plops herself down at an electric keyboard. She immediately comes on strong with the comedy: "Grand piano," she quips, and then, brushing back her frizzy mop she proclaims, "I have pond hair" (punch-line!), and the whole audience erupts with laughter. The duo launch into a trio of songs, kicking off with "Jesus & Mary" which sounds much better than the way-over-produced version on I Know You're Married, even as McGarrigle struggles a bit to get her somewhat awkward piano playing in sync with her daughter's supple lyrical runs and tempo-changing bridge. "We never practice," Wainwright admits, and then launches into, for my money, her best song to date.

"Factory," off her debut album, has one of my favorite opening lines ever ("these are not my people I should never have come here / chick with the dick and the gift for the gab"), in part because it so perfectly encapsulates the awkward place Wainwright inhabits in the modern rock landscape; a bit too left of center for the Starbucks set (again, she has a song called "Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole"), but not at all experimental or adventurous enough to please indie-leaning fans of singer-songwriters in the Joanna Newsom vein. "Factory" is also probably Wainwright's most affecting song and, like most of her compositions, sounds exponentially more engaging in the live setting, where her limitless voice is given ample room to stretch out and get indulgent – but never compromising the flow of the song. Wainwright can be criticized for some things – she's a less than stellar songwriter and her production choices on record can be very poor (I'm thinking the shambling accordion polka and haunted house sonics of "Tower Song" and the sprightly marching band pop of "See Emily Says") – but few can deny the strength of that nimble, intense voice of staggering range and consistency.

And that's really the attraction here: despite some off moments musically and a very short duration (I was in and out of there in just over an hour, for which my rump – increasingly uncomfortable thanks to those wretched seats – thanks Wainwright), that voice is just so captivating and this setting such a perfect showcase for it that the set overcomes its faults. And the show couldn't really be longer than it is, as Wainwright doesn't yet have an arsenal of great songs; she's bested even by fellow Canadian Leslie Feist in that department, who's also only released two albums but of a far more consistent quality. For Wainwright, after she's exhausted the highlights there's really nowhere left to go – though I would have loved to hear those Leonard Cohen covers she performs so flawlessly.

After the obligatory "goodnight," Wainwright returns to the stage for the requisite encore, mom in tow. This time, however, McGarrigle is on her game, accompanying Wainwright on an impassioned French song and then, finally, on a truly lovely rendition of Wainwright's "Don't Forget." Which, despite being a pretty minor slow-ballad, is given ample pathos thanks to McGarrigle's candid admission that, "this is my favorite Martha song." She sways and smiles throughout, completely in tune with the song both musically and emotionally. It's a beautiful moment shared between mother and daughter, of a kind of rare and altogether transcendent variety you just don't see very often, and it turns out to be, by some distance, the undeniable highlight of the entire show.

Film Review: Tony Manero [B+]

Film / Review

Tony Manero [InRO]
Director: Tony Scott
Year: 2009

Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larrain's darkly compelling second film, "Tony Manero," is a sadistic character study set in 1978 Santiago. It's unrelenting and often unpleasant to sit through; in a sense the more solemn cousin of another film from this year, Jodi Hill's "Observe and Report." Both bear the unmistakable echoes of 1976's "Taxi Driver," by examining the behaviors of mentally disturbed and compulsively violent individuals. The central characters in both films are prone to erupt in bouts of rage, but, while the violence in Hill's film is usually caused by his character's short temper, these outbursts in "Tony Manero" are both dispassionate and mechanical, triggered less by emotion than by necessity. Hill chose the template of a comedy in which to conduct his stinging social critique; Larrain’s is a stark realistic drama, closer tonally to Martin Scorses's classic and pervaded by a gloominess befitting its time and location. This establishes "Tony Manero" as a political commentary, capturing a totalitarian Chile strangled by the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, while its people yearn for escape and act with the innate desperation of a cat clawing its way out of a paper bag.

The protagonist in "Tony Manero" is this idea taken to its extreme ends. We cringe at the sight of him beating the life out of his unsuspecting victims, often with his bare hands, but through this depravity Larrain clearly says something: he comments on the influence of an environment fraught with poverty, corruption and moral decay. The man is Raul, weathered, middle-aged and of average build. He's played by Alfredo Castro, who delivers one of the year's best and most haunted performances, communicating a cavernous emptiness through gaping blue eyes and muted expression. His lover diagnoses him as "dead inside," and this is mostly true, excepting when he sits in front of the silver screen, basking in the mirrorballs and bellbottoms of John Badham's 1977 disco-era classic, "Saturday Night Fever"; he lights up even more when he takes to the dance floor, emulating the choreography of John Travolta's Tony Manero with obsessive precision. "Saturday Night Fever," and specifically the glamorous life of its star (the very embodiment of masculine energy and authority), offers escapist entertainment for some, but for a man of Raul's obvious mental instability and discontentedness, the fantasy is too desirable to accept its unreality.

Raul's life is filled with filth; he shares a tiny one-bedroom apartment above a seedy bar with his girlfriend, her temptingly coy daughter, and the daughter's political activist boyfriend, thus forming something of a pseudo family. Together, they all dance on the bar's rotting stage, and Raul scolds anyone who deviates from his idol's specific routines. He adopts every element of Tony Manero's persona as his own, practicing not only his dancing but mimicking his posture, mood and the exact dialogue from the film. Seeing "Saturday Night Fever" on the big screen (or, as he calls it, "Le Fever") becomes almost a religious experience – a concept Larrain alludes to by showing us one sequence from Badham's film in which John Travolta, bare chested and from a low angle, ritualistically slips on his golden crucifix. Raul weeps. This is all done in preparation for a television competition; we see Raul auditioning – on the wrong day – in the film's opening sequence. The competition seeks to find the "Chilean Tony Manero," and because of it Raul becomes obsessed with his impersonation. To those who stand in the way of this determined and irrational man: watch out.

Larrain pulls no punches in depicting his lurid character throughout "Tony Manero." Raul kills an elderly woman in her home in order to steal a color TV, bashes a man's head in who offers him less than the TV is worth and defecates on a competitor's white suit. Larrain launches a political critique via this provocative character study and suggests an animalistic compulsion awakened within Raul as nearly every obstacle he faces is overcome with remorseless brutal violence. The film is meant to be volatile and void of redemption, but Larrain does perhaps take things too far at times; the scene in which Raul smears feces all over his rival's clothing is less psychologically revealing and more shocking for the sake of it – not to mention plain nauseating. Other scenes are equally repellent, the more so because the film is so devoid of feeling.

In this sense, "Tony Manero" can be compared to Carlos Reygades' divisive 2006 Cannes entry "Battle in Heaven," which similarly targets its country's – in this case Mexico – political institutions, deteriorating moral values, religious complacency, and class tensions, alluding to these hot button issues through an overweight man's sexual and, in-turn, social inadequacy. The difference is that Reygades employs a rigorous formalist aesthetic and deliberate narrative structure – the film begins and ends with audacious sequences of oral sex. Larrain, in contrast, crafts a film less stylized and more realistic, with gritty hand-held camera work. Larrain does, however, allow for one aesthetic manipulation; his camera's focus fades in and out almost erratically, but conveying Raul's hazy state of consciousness and his blurred moral judgment. The filmmaker also employs one surrealistic flourish: the film's real-time pace is briefly interrupted by a visualization of Raul's internal emptiness, as he stares vacantly at the screen. This technique's singular application makes it all the more devastating.

By an incremental difference, Reygades' approach seems more successful than Larrain's, if only because the emotional distance Reygades instigates in 'Battle' is more excusable, since focus is always on the craft, and since his hand is deliberately noticeable throughout. In contrast, Larrain's decision to hew closely to realism is slightly undermined by his disallowing any measurable emotional response from his character – especially during Raul's more violent episodes. It's perhaps too extreme to suggest that a man can commit such heinous acts without any visible remorse, and Larrain toes that line a bit too often. Raul may be numb to his world, but he's not comfortably numb, and yet there's never any discernible sign of his unrest. This could have stifled Castro's performance, but the actor is so good that he often transcends the stoical nature of his character and communicates far more than what's on the page. In any case, Larrain should be praised for conducting a political critique in so bold and provocative a way. "Tony Manero" is challenging, if not exactly redeeming, and it illuminates through provocation, functioning on a variety of levels: as a character study; as an examination of a society's relationship with celebrity; and as confident, assured cinema.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Film Feature: Best Films of the Year (So Far)

Film / Feature

The Best Films of the Year (So Far) [InRO]

More than anything it’s just a pain to write these intros. And while this time last year I had the relatively mediocre quality of films released to rail about (seriously, “Kung Fu Panda” made my list), 2009 has been a solid if not overly impressive year thus far. That’s boring. So instead I’ll just observe that this year, for me, has been all about auteur filmmakers; be they established directors like Olivier Assayas or the welcome return-to-relevance of Francis Ford Coppola, or be they promising new talents Armando Iannucci, with his uproarious governmental institutions satire “In the Loop,” muscular and formally accomplished dramas by Austrian Gotz Spielmenn (“Revanche”) and German Christian Petzold (“Jerichow”), and the equally haunting debuts of Chilean director Pablo Larrain (“Tony Manero”) and Korean-American Lee Isaac Chung (“Munyurangabo”). It’s a melting pot of international talents on this list. Add to the group Mainland Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhang-ke’s stunning docu-fiction hybrid “24 City,” the aforementioned British satire “In the Loop,” Kathryn Bigelow’s brutal Iraq War pic “The Hurt Locker,” and- why not “Up,” too? The latest Pixar, a reliably excellent film from a studio that just doesn’t miss any more. Any one of those could fight their way on to this list by the end of the year. Also of note are the ones I still need to see (“Moon,” “The Beaches of Agnes,” “Tulpan,” “The Girlfriend Experience” – the latter I have really no excuse for since it was on On Demand for ages and I slept on it) and the ones I’ve seen but it’s been too long since I have to judge them with any certainty (“Lorna’s Silence”). And let’s hear it for the only doc that matters in ’09: Louie Psihoyos’ genre mash-up “The Cove,” which seemingly aims for the greatness of last year’s similar “Man on Wire,” falling a little short but creating no less enthralling and informative cinema. That’s all I got. That and see Erick Zonca’s “Julia,” despite its absence from this list and my accompanying pseudo honorable mentions rattled off above, if only for Tilda Swinton who gives the performance to beat this year.

Top 10 (Alphabetical):

Ramin Bahrani's first two films, 2006's "Man Push Cart" and 2008's "Chop Shop," wear the Iranian-American director's neorealist influences proudly, and their release marked the arrival of a significant talent. However, those films' tendency to shy away from any real form of tension or narrative momentum can seem forced, and the filmmaking skill on display isn't quite enough to elevate either above the designation of a modest achievement. Thankfully, "Goodbye Solo" steps up his craft, his storytelling ability and his characterizations, without compromising his dedication to realistic cinema, so rare to American independent filmmaking. Its basic plot is lifted from native Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami's "Taste of Cherry," but 'Solo' is considerably more engaging, favoring depiction of a strong and inspiring human connection between two unlikely friends, as opposed to the lonely wanderer at the heart of Kiarostami's film. Both are essentially about a man who seeks to end his life, but where Kiarostami found the grim subject matter to be a jumping off point for stoic meditation, Bahrani sees it as a catalyst for hope and renewal. It's that quality which makes 'Solo' both Bahrani's most compelling work, and his most optimistic. Bahrani may have always wanted to make films with a commitment to capturing real life, but "Goodbye Solo" feels like the first film of the director's career that, by its minimalist aesthetic, is emboldened rather than stifled.

The beach serves as a powerful setting in German filmmaker Christian Petzold's sophomore feature "Jerichow," a modern reimagining of "The Postman Always Rings Twice." In scenes rife with physical intensity, Petzold's characters glide across the screen with a dynamism similar to the greek sculptures rotating against blue skies in Jean-Luc Godard's classic "Contempt." Benno Fürmann as Thomas in particular is a striking Adonis of a man, hulking and authoritative, completely opaque and an emotional blank slate. He was dishonorably discharged by the military and soon finds a job working for Turkish immigrant Ali (Hilmi Sözer), and later having an affair with his wife Laura, played by the great young actress Nina Hoss – quickly gaining cache as one of world cinema's most skilled actresses. Both native Germans, Thomas and Laura find themselves shamed by their relationship to the wealthy outsider Ali, a kind of resent which spurns a cultural and class based conflict that informs many of the wordless stretches in "Jerichow." Dialogue may be minimal throughout and plot as simple as they come, but just the way Petzold positions his subjects within a frame says more about them and is more piercing than any other gestures could be.

Lots of fuss has been made (deservedly) over Kathryn Bigelow's "The Hurt Locker," the first successful film to take on the complex conflict that is the Iraq War and produce a work that captures our troops' experience without over dramatization. Meanwhile, quietly, Korean-American filmmaker Lee Isaac Chung debuted his first feature film, "Munyurangabo," slipped it into NYC theaters almost exclusively and wowed the few who saw it. The comparison is only apt in that Chung's film takes on another major conflict: the Rwandan genocide. And depending on your opinion of Terry George's "Hotel Rwanda," "Munyurangabo" may be the first narrative film to capture the lingering spirit of the conflict in a realistic and honest way. It's about young Tutsi boy Ngabo, an orphan of the genocide, who vows to avenge his parents with the help of Hutu friend Sangwa. The duo are immediately sidetracked by Sangwa's decision to stop and visit his family, who he hasn't seen since running away as a child. It's here where the film unexpectedly stalls, and an examination of the lasting prejudices between Hutus and Tutsis becomes central, as does the complex dynamic between the members of an impoverished Rwandan family – specifically the difficult relationship between a traditional father and his forward-thinking son. Stylistically, the film is even more impressive: the political implication of many scenes recalls the cinema of Africa's premiere filmmaker, Ousmane Sembene, but Chung's deft compositional sense, deliberate pace and sympathetic rendering of youthful characters stifled by a harsh culture and familial expectation is reminiscent of Iranian Abbas Kiarostami's films (specifically "Where is the Friend's House"). However, the real masterstroke here is a long-form, single-take poem – a moment in the film where fiction and non-fiction blur. And as much as Chung culls from many influences, this sequence is very much his own.

Though I perhaps sung its praises a bit too highly in my initial review, Jody Hill's achingly funny and fiercely provocative "Observe and Report" is still one of the most underrated films of this year; a stylishly executed and boldly controversial character study that snuck into mainstream theaters and among much less ambitious fare, never finding an audience and, sadly, making way, way less dough than that other mall cop movie. Too bad, theatergoers, because that's your loss: Hill's film manages that rare feat of being as funny as just about anything, without compromising its depth and integrity. And "integrity" may seem an odd descriptor to apply to a film that features date-rape and the copious beatings of tweenagers, but that's exactly what Hill is going for: provocation, showing us a recognizably volatile man who's a product of middle-class America and popular culture's influence (hence the Tarantino-esque slo-mo montages and classic rock music, often mistakenly taken for mere stylistic affect). But Hill doesn't condemn his sociopath and in fact, more controversial still, shows him sympathy, without ever suggesting his brutal actions should be met with exoneration. It's a deft balance of dark humor and emotional gravity, and Hill nails it. To paraphrase a lyric from The Band's cover of a Bob Dylan classic that opens "Observe and Report," Hill, unlike many other comedic filmmakers, seems like he's genuinely trying to "paint his masterpiece."

Austrian Gotz Spielmann's "Revanche" is a slow burning revenge saga that avoids the rhythms of, say, a Coen Brothers thriller and favors a more meditative pace (especially in its last act), patiently observing its protagonist in the throes of moral crisis. It's an elemental film inspired by that most elemental of all filmmakers: Russian master Andrei Tarkovsky. And just as Tarkovsky suggested metaphorical implication in his "Solaris" through contrasting landscapes – the warm embrace of natural surroundings giving way to the isolation of space – Spielmann too uses his central character's retreat from the confining sprawl of Vienna to calming woods in the countryside as symbolic of spiritual rejuvenation. But not everything in "Revanche" is so heady: it's also a film of nerve-racking suspense, and one that uses a voyeuristic device similar to that in Florian Henckel von Donnersmark's "The Lives of Others" to both give insight into these characters and to build an overwhelming tension that earns a satisfying climax. "Revanche" can be a little too staid and its dependance on an intersecting plot device feels forced, but the striking composition of nearly every frame, communicating a palpable loneliness and isolation through wide-angle shots during which the camera doesn't move, assures that this is one of the most accomplished films of the year from a very promising (and relatively new) international talent.

"Summer Hours" is the second of four planned films produced by and featuring artifacts from the Musee d’Orsay (Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s “Flight Of The Red Balloon” is the first, and in my view one of the defining films of the last decade). Its director, Olivier Assayas, is a guy I’ve developed a bit of a thing for (his “Boarding Gate” remains, controversially, one of my favorite films of last year, and his Fassbinder-esque "Irma Vep" is even more stunning and hypnotic). And the film stars three masterful French actors: Juliette Binoche, Jeremie Renier and Charles Berling – all of whom have worked with world cinema's leading auteurs, from Hou to Kieslowski to the Dardennes and Patrice Chereau. So the film feels like something of a culmination; a meeting of artistic minds that registers as an event movie for arthouse patrons as much as the iMAX sect got their rocks off with the 'Transformers' sequel last month. And, luckily, it doesn't disappoint; if it's not the masterpiece I designated "Flight of the Red Balloon" to be this time last year, it's still the closest thing I've seen to great in '09 thus far, and a fair bit more mature, thoughtful and especially graceful than the rest.

It's also the premiere highlight of a burgeoning sub-genre on the international circuit: a crop of films that deal with generational transference, a term I apply to the many mirthful works concerning familial discourse and the tension between old and new generations, often stirred by financial insecurity. This includes Kiyoshi Kurosawa's nuclear family drama "Tokyo Sonata," as well as Claire Denis’ “35 Shots of Rum” and Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “Still Walking” (both homages to another purveyor of the family dynamic, Yasujiro Ozu). "Summer Hours" is the most affecting; it at first appears an elegiac film, beginning with the death of Helene, the family matriarch (the regal Edith Scob, who makes a major impression during her limited screen time), and involving deliberations between siblings (Binoche, Renier and Berling) over the outcome of the family estate. But “Summer Hours” overflows with warmth and compassion, and Assayas displays his accumulated wisdom as a filmmaker in the way he develops the relationships between his three siblings, carefully balancing their disagreements and sympathies. Still, the transcendence of "Summer Hours" arrives in its final moments: a vibrant house party filled with young people, during which Helene’s granddaughter arrives at a sudden and meaningful reflection. Assayas suggests that as our possessions and property inevitably change hands, a new season of life brings with it the cleansing prospect of a new generation.

It’s hard to call “Tetro” a return-to-form for Francis Ford Coppola since the form this movie takes is so vastly different from the director’s most recognized works. Often pigeonholed as, that guy who did the ‘Godfather’ movies and “Apocalypse Now,” Coppola’s talents in fact extend far beyond those exercised in his two or three monster classics. “Tetro,” if you’re looking for context, is more like the filmmaker’s greatly underrated “Rumble Fish” than anything else; both utilize lush, black and white photography that intentionally recalls a certain era of cinema, and both choose to flirt with color the same way their old fashion narratives flirt with their present day setting. It’s incredibly intimidating just to describe “Tetro” since there are so many things going on in the picture and references that fly way over my head (several scenes play snippets from Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell’s 1951 “The Tales of Hoffman” and 1948 “The Red Shoes,” then reinterpret their absurdist-operatic tone within the film later on). It’s a messy work made by a mad filmmaker with an apparent refusal to compromise on anything – making his pairing with nasally skeleton Vincent Gallo that much more appropriate, considering that actor’s generally critic-repellent choice of projects. But it’s also a genius film, clearly labored over intensely and composed obsessively – though not in a way that makes “Tetro” feel stuffy, as it it is in fact quite humorous and its willingness to not take itself too seriously is one of its greatest strengths. Its story, about a younger brother’s search for answers and for the older brother who abandoned him (Gallo), is apparently based in some sort of abstract way on Coppola’s own life (the tyrannical father in the film is, after all, like Coppola’s own father, a famous composer). Considering this, it makes sense that “Tetro” feels like the most personal and passionate thing the director’s helmed in decades, a far cry from 2007’s wildly uneven and way too heady “Youth Without Youth” – though, thankfully, no less bonkers and thrillingly ambitious.

"When's the earthquake coming," one character wonders aloud in Kiyoshi Kurosawa's "Tokyo Sonata." He's of the younger generation, wandering the streets aimlessly, coming home early in the morning with the feeling that he has no purpose in life. His comment foreshadows the arrival of a "Shortcuts"-esque tremor in the last act of "Tokyo Sonata" with a kind of knowing acknowledgment of the mess he's in – something's gotta give. And so it eventually does, but before that happens Japanese master Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation to that other Japanese master, though he's steadily carving out a legacy of equal importance) spends two nearly flawless hours building suspense through the mundane work-a-day activities of his suburban upper-middle class family. Suspense has always been prevalent in Kurosawa's filmography, but here he gravitates away from the horror genre and tries his hand at something more understated. If the resulting film is not his best (that would be 2005's languid epic "Pulse"), it's definitely up there; Kurosawa acutely observes Japanese social strata, and what first appears to be an on-the-nose study of economic downsizing as it effects the familial unit (a theme already explored comprehensively in Laurent Cantet's 2002 film "Time Out") soon reveals itself to be something much more penetrating, with a screenplay that rarely missteps. The scope of the film earns comparison to Edward Yang's early-decade masterpiece "Yi Yi: A One and a Two," and also to Ang Lee's own dysfunctional family drama "The Ice Storm." All three are intrinsically tied to a specific place and era, and yet take on a universal and timeless significance in their empathetic renderings of families striving to live through the maelstrom of hard times. But Kurosawa's real masterstroke reveals itself during "Tokyo Sonata's" gorgeous and cathartic final sequence: Though much of 'Sonata' is almost relentlessly bleak, at the conclusion of his film Kurosawa offers necessary pause, and suggests that there's salvation to be found in even the murkiest of times.

Dark, dark, dark. Boy is Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larrain's sadistic character study "Tony Manero," set in 1978 Santiago, an unrelenting and often unpleasant experience to sit through. It's something like the twisted, plays-with-matches older brother of another film on this list, Jody Hill's "Observe and Report." Both bear the unmistakable echoes of "Taxi Driver," examining the behaviors of mentally disturbed and violent individuals. But where Hill chose the template of a comedy to house his stinging social critique, Larrain's established tone is much more stark, blanketed in a heavy and oppressive gloom. Both characters are prone to erupt in Adam Sandler-worthy fits of rage, but there's a mechanical, passionless nature to the violence in "Tony Manero" that is particularly striking. Raul (Alfredo Castro, in one of the year's most disturbing and best performances) is a man of few words and intense physicality. He lives in a Totalitarian Chile at the mercy of Pinochet (there are radio snippets and TV clips throughout to remind of this), but he lives for John Badham's 1977 disco-era classic "Saturday Night Fever." Specifically, he's intent on embodying John Travolta's character in that film (the titular Tony Manero), auditioning for a local TV lookalike contest, buying a clean white suit and bartering for muddy glass tiles at a junkyard in order to build a light-up floor in the scuzzy bar he calls home. His exact reasons for obsessing about this particular film (and not, say, "Grease," which also plays at his local theater) aren't entirely clear. But what does seem significant is the escape a polished cinematic work like 'Fever' offers from Raul's putrid, impoverished Chilean existence. Likewise it's the frustrating reminders of Raul's real life that cause him to abruptly lash out with vicious and haunting precision. But Larrain gives us much more than shocking cinema for the sake of it; his film works best as a study of the effects a malfunctioning political and social environment has on a desperate man without options.

James Gray's films are continually dismissed by American critics as being without depth or too straight-forward, when in reality he's just a classical filmmaker, and his work is at worst strangely out of time in modern film culture. Well even Gray's detractors couldn't ignore the director's latest and best film "Two Lovers," which like most of Gray's work is an impeccable piece of filmmaking that values emotional truth and presents sensitively drawn characters – usually males struggling with braggadocio and the conflict between loyalty to family and personal freedom. That's certainly the case in "Two Lovers," which finds Joaquin Phoenix delivering his best performance since maybe Gus Van Sant's "To Die For" as introverted Leonard, a socially awkward suicidal who finds salvation in three woman: his manic neighbor played by Gwyneth Paltrow, Vinessa Shaw's girlfriend-material love interest and Leonard's mother, the regal Isabella Rosselini – all three delivering standout performances, Rosselini especially, better here than she's been in anything in a decade. But "Two Lovers" is Gray's film thoroughly, and it's so structurally sound and stylistically assured – he lends the film an appropriately woozy and dreamlike quality, complementing Leonard's dizzying circumstances – it makes "We Own the Night" (a better film than people give it credit for being) look shaggy and unfocussed by comparison. To this writer, "Two Lovers" is the best American film of 2009 thus far, and one that should end impulsive dismissals of this very skilled director’s work.

Film Review: Au Hasard Balthazar [A]

Film / Review

Au Hasard Balthazar [InRO]
Director: Robert Bresson
Year: 1966
Part of: Robert Bresson & the Anti-Film

No film says more in as economic a runtime or can be read in as many different ways as Robert Bresson’s 1966 masterpiece “Au Hasard Balthazar.” Jean-Luc Godard claimed that "in 90 or 100 minutes, we see the world." As Bresson saw it, this was a world defined by both cruelty and salvation. As is established early on, his protagonist in the film, the Biblically named donkey Balthazar, is destined to suffer for our sins, and despite Bresson's dismissal of traditional Christian practices in his own book, "Notes on the Cinematographer," it's impossible to deny the presence of religion in "Au Hasard Balthazar." From the opening imagery of Balthazar's baptism by a group of children, to the final shot of his death amidst a sea of white sheep, set to the sound of clanging bells and Franz Schubert's elegiac "Piano Sonata No. 20," to the namesake of the virginal Marie, the film's second central character – Catholic mythos looms large here, and though densely allegorical, these elements weave seamlessly with a modest story about a young girl and a donkey, tempted and teased by a world gone wrong.

Bresson was a master of his intentionally artless and thus paradoxically artful craft, and here he tells a complex and symbolic story through minimalism, his intense control of both the aesthetic and more organic elements of this picture creating an overwhelmingly powerful cinema. Bresson's visual grammar establishes an intimate bond between his audience and Balthazar through close-ups of the animal's face, specifically his glassy eye, while distancing us from the relentlessly cruel and hopeless Gerard, a leather-clad, motor-bike riding, chain wielding bully often shot at torso level. Sound, too, informs our perception of these characters, whether the loaded silences, the relief of the Schubert or the cracking of twigs and branches snapping under the weight of Gerard's boots as he sneaks up on Marie, his grubby hand reaching from the shadows toward hers, which lays innocently on a bench. Also integral to Bresson’s execution is the reaction of the "models" (his word to describe actors, not mine), or, in this case, the lack of reaction, as impassive gazes reflect the characters' passionless nature.

The film opens with the animal Balthazar, his braying disrupting the lilting repetition of the Schubert piece which plays over the credit sequence as he’s being bought by a young girl and her school teacher father. The girl is Marie, and as a child her attention is divided between Balthazar and a boy named Jacques who she promises to marry, and whose name she carves into a wooden bench – the same bench where she will later be confronted by a darker and more sinful desire. The film soon cuts to Balthazar as an adult, being worked relentlessly by a stubborn owner. He's whipped and beaten and strapped to a cart. He eventually escapes and finds his way back to the home of Marie and her family. Marie is now a young adult, played by Anne Wiazemsky, whose immaculate features and porcelain face suggest fragility to be tested. Marie still plans to wed Jacques, but false accusations concerning her proud-but-timid father's unlawful dealings ultimately complicate her life and lead her astray. Weak and impressionable, Marie falls for Gerard (Francois Lafarge), whose strong will and rejection of authority appeal to her.

As Marie becomes increasingly obedient to Gerard – telling her concerned mother in one scene that, "If he asked me to, I'd kill myself for him" – her father falls into a deep depression, and disobedience and persistent lying bring the woman who cares for Gerard to tears. Balthazar, all the while, is passed from owner to owner, and Marie usually soon follows. When Marie neglects him, he's handed over to Gerard, who only then successfully seduces Marie; later, Balthazar finds himself in the hands of a cruel, greedy attorney, with Marie having just left Gerard soon arriving at the curmudgeon's estate; and when Balthazar is passed to alcoholic nomad Arnold (Jean-Claude Guillbert), Marie and Balthazar meet once again at a chaotic party orchestrated by Gerard. The meanings to be deciphered in "Au Hasard Balthazar" may be endless, but the world within the film feels inescapably small, with the same dreary scenery repeated and the same characters often involuntarily finding themselves face to face with each other. The party scene in particular beautifully communicates a feeling of congestion, as a hoard of faceless teens dance in sync with each other, none flinching as Gerard busts a mirror with a liquor bottle and destroys the bar. The others neither show disgust nor join in; and this eerie remove recalls and perhaps informs a similar dancing sequence at the opening of David Lynch's "Mulholland Drive," while also complementing the automatism of Bresson's craft.

Bresson made many film's that economically present stories rich with meaning and impeccable in presentation, but none feels so vast and all-encompassing in its scope and vision of, as Godard put it, "life." "Pickpocket" and “Mouchette” are more focused and precise; "L'Argent" comes close to the same universality; but the allegory and mysteriousness inherent in "Au Hasard Balthazar’s" animal protagonist make it uniquely great. It's a film that may not endorse Catholicism (its Virgin Marie/y is corruptible, its Christ-like figure is only deemed a saint bitterly just before death, and a priest reads from a Bible dispassionately and in fragments as a man lays dying), but, as film scholar Donald Richie puts it, it's a film aware of "the idea of religion.” Still, it works just as effectively as a simple tale about a girl and her donkey; or about a society struggling to maintain any kind of purity in the midst of financial obligation and material obsession; and as transcendent cinema of Bresson's own unique brand, where the craft is so prevalent and integral to the film's success, but yet also impeccably measured as to never be intrusive. "Au Hasard Balthazar" is all that's great about the cinema in just under 100 minutes.

Film Review: Pickpocket [A]

Film / Review

Pickpocket [InRO]
Director: Robert Bresson
Year: 1959
Part of: Robert Bresson & the Anti-Film

In Marc Webb's recent lovers' romp, "500 Days of Summer," Joseph Gordon-Levitt's hopeless romantic refers to himself as "adequately handsome." To me, there's no better way to describe the physical appearance of Martin LaSalle, who plays the central character in Robert Bresson's 1959 classic, "Pickpocket." He's not too skinny or too fat. His features are proportionate, though his face is perhaps a bit more narrow than ideal. In fact, everything about Michel seems adequate; his posture, his demeanor, his intelligence. He is not in any way extraordinary, and if he were, Bresson would likely have no interest in him, as this is a filmmaker usually interested in characters with some kind of strain on their life, or with some sort of vice. "Pickpocket" covers both bases, and it's the most Rohmer-esque of the Bresson films I've seen; a pointed morality tale about the persuasive power of commerce, the greed and especially the pride that comes with the pursuit of wealth. In Michel's case, earning money the traditional way has proven ineffective, and so he turns to a life of crime, to the life of a street pickpocket. It's this simple catalyst that allows for Bresson's most carefully choreographed film, imitated often (just this year, and rather convincingly, in Johnny To's "Sparrow"), but never executed with the same grace and precision as shown here: close-ups of hands acrobatically twist and strain around the hem of a jacket like Olympic athletes vaulting over a beam. Much of "Pickpocket's" 74-minute runtime is taken up by these suspenseful sequences, as our daring protagonist is always a thimble's depth away from alerting his targets and spending his life in jail. Of course, there's a story here, and it's a simple yet powerful one, built on three key elements: Michel develops his craft over time, learns from his peers, digs himself a deeper grave (crime); struggles to avoid the ever-watchful eye of a particularly suspicious police chief (punishment); and earns the attention of a pretty but "naive" girl (redemption). The plot is minimalist but strong and complements what I've always felt to be the most compelling element of Bresson's craft: the economy of the filmmaking. In the 95 minutes comprising Bresson's best film, "Au Hasard Balthazar," the director gets as close to the essence of life as any film ever has, but with "Pickpocket,” Bresson zeros in on the life of one individual, and crafts a devastating parable that is arguably the director's most focused and accessible film, one as worthy of classic status as any he's made.