Holiday Films

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It’s been an unusually poor year for films, it seems – or maybe I’m just getting harder to please. But over the weekend I saw three holiday releases that were, well, at least watchable. The first, True Grit, based on the Charles Portis novel and starring Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld, was perfect material for the full Coen Brothers’ treatment, with their attraction to self-consciously literary dialog, dry humor and idiosyncratic characters. Since both it and the 1969 version starring John Wayne and Kim Darby draw many lines of dialog straight from the novel, it would be edifying to compare the two films back-to-back for their starkly contrasting directorial and production styles, not to mention their performances. You can get a hint of the contrast from the trailers, each of which is available on YouTube here and here.

The second film of the weekend, Black Swan, is, as many reviewers have noted, way over-the-top, but I enjoyed it. Director Darren Aronofsky returns here to his fascination with slow descents into psychosis of the sort he explored in his Requiem for a Dream – the film for which Ellen Burstyn should have won the academy award, truth be told. Natalie Portman, the main character here, is no Ellen Burstyn, but she is very well-cast as the ballerina trying desperately to get in touch with her darker, more passionate side. The deteriorating interiors of Burstyn’s and Portman’s apartments are so similar in style, and serve so similar metaphorical purposes, that Aronofsky seems to be committing a sort of self-homage with them (and he is clearly responsible, since the art directors were different on the two movies). My only quibble with the script concerns the final thirty seconds or so. I won’t give away the ending, but suffice it to say that if Aronofsky had been a bit more compassionate towards Portman’s character (and had made a few tweaks elsewhere in the film to heighten the ambiguity of her situation), he might have made a truly inspiring film about the sort of tunnel-visioned dedication it takes to become a great artist, rather than, well, a downer that verges on self-parody.

The third film, The King’s Speech, featuring an Oscar-worthy performance by Colin Firth, was the most restrained (befitting the reserve of its royal British characters), but I think the best of the bunch. Of course, I might be prejudiced by the fact that, like Colin Firth’s King George VI, I required the services of a speech therapist for a time, albeit at a much younger age than he. While King George had a stammer even as an adult, I had the much easier-to-correct problem of my Ls and Rs sounding like Ws – real cute at 5, a real curse at 7 (when I had my sessions with my therapist). I don’t remember her name; I just remember how she gently and kindly taught me where to put my tongue in order to properly pronounce my consonants. We played board games that, when you landed on certain squares, required the making of certain sounds. Fun! Within a few weeks, the issue was resolved before it had the chance to permanently scar my personality… It’s best to save the scarring experiences for adolescence.

Anyway, here’s to the world’s speech therapists, the unsung heroes of uncounted zillions of children and at least one King of England-

Good Hair

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I spent my early teen years (in the late 60s…!) in Honolulu, where the epitome of cool was the archetypal haole surfer dude, sporting only the straightest and blondest of hair. My own curly black locks flagged me at once as irredeemably other, and I found this so disconcerting that I once considered shopping for a chemical cure: if I couldn’t be an ultra-cool surfer dude, I might at least resemble the likes of John Lennon. Somehow I resisted the urge, and in college five years later I was literally living under an ashkenazi ‘fro reminiscent of Abbie Hoffman’s on steroids. Now the years have combed out almost all of my curl, and I’m left with a thinning, graying mini-mane that in Euclidean terms is closer than ever before to my 14-year-old ideal of having “good hair”. Alas, the consolation hardly registers.

Let’s face it, for all sorts of reasons best studied by social scientists, hair has a strange, primitive power over one’s self-image, and I have never seen a film that better explores this fact from the point of view of at least one American community than Chris Rock’s inspired documentary, Good Hair, now available on DVD. Here’s the trailer-

Restrepo (the movie)

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For most Americans, including me, the war in Afghanistan is a distant abstraction, something talked about but never even indirectly experienced. Restrepo, the recent documentary by Tim Hetherington and Sabastian Junger, helps to correct that deficit by showing the war from the perspective of American soldiers ordered to build an outpost in the heart of Taliban country. What it most clearly reveals, besides the mentality that the soldiers must adopt to survive, is just how out-of-kilter the mission of winning hearts and minds is from the cultural reality in rural Afghanistan. The scenes of the soldiers participating in weekly meetings with the local tribal elders demonstrate just how wide the gulf between the sides seems to be. They demonstrate this not so much by what is said, as by the elders’ facial expressions – expressions that are truly worth thousands of words. The strategy recently adopted by President Obama and General Patreus includes abandoning Restrepo (the outpost), and it seems to me that the documentary provides some grounds for thinking that this is necessary, despite the sacrifices of the soldiers who built it. But it also makes me wonder whether the entire project of trying to shape the future of Afghanistan suffers from a similar problem. Given the prospect – particularly for Afghanistan’s women – of the Taliban returning to power, I hope that it does not.

Here’s the trailer-

Agora (The Movie)

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Agora, Alejandro Amenábar’s costume melodrama starring Rachel Weisz, is loosely based on one version of the story of how the ancient library at Alexandria was destroyed (perhaps for the second time) in the fourth century A.D.. There’s no doubt that the film has a negative view of religion in general, and of early Christianity in particular (although Pagans and Jews come off rather badly as well). But the film is not unequivocally anti-Christian, as some have charged; even the priest viewed as responsible for the most evil acts in the film is portrayed as sincerely championing charity at one point. In any case, putting aside the film’s claim to being “based on a true story” (which of course is hardly a claim to historical accuracy), what you have in Agora is a rousing pro-Rationality, pro-Science theme that is hard to find anywhere in popular culture these days, and that’s refreshing.

The film centers around Rachel Weisz’s Hypatia, a Platonist philosopher, astronomer and mathematician who (the film suggests) might have figured out the elliptical geometry of a sun-centered solar system long before Copernicus was born. When she is murdered by the superstitious, misogynistic mob, thereby becoming a martyr for reason and rationality, its enough to bring a tear to any philosopher’s eye. It certainly did mine, but I’m a sucker for bold, beautiful rationalists standing on principle and refusing to give in to brutal dogmatists.

Here’s the trailer, which, as usual, doesn’t do the movie justice-

The Invention of Falsity

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Rarely does a movie make a philosophically interesting mistake, but “The Invention of Lying“, which I just watched on DVD, is an exception. In the world of the film, no one is supposed to have any concept of lying, and the film’s conceit is that the main character gains lots of power by inventing lying, with unintended consequences. There is an interesting screenplay on this theme that has yet to be written, but it’s not this one. The problem is that “The Invention of Lying” makes a conceptual error that renders it not just difficult to swallow, but completely incoherent. The error is to confuse lacking a concept of lying with lacking a concept of falsity. To lack a concept of lying, one need only never have intended to lie or ever thought that one has been lied to. But to lack a concept of falsity, one must also have never noticed oneself – or anyone else – making a mistake of any sort. One problem for the movie is that while it would be fairly easy to “buy” a world of the first sort, that’s certainly not the case with a world of the second sort. But, more importantly, if one were to lack a concept of falsity, one would also lack a concept of truth (which is defined, in part, by its opposite); and lacking a concept of truth, one would lack a concept assertion; and lacking a concept of assertion, one would lack a concept of communication. But the people of this world communicate constantly, even compulsively, and clearly are aware of what they are doing. So by being presented with a world full of communicative people that lack a concept of falsity in addition to a concept of lying, we are presented with a world that makes no sense at all (and this makes a willing suspension of disbelief, at least for me, impossible).

Away We Go

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Intelligent comedies are hard to come by these days, and those that do get made often aren’t widely distributed. This is certainly true of Sam Mendes’ “Away We Go“, which didn’t get within 50 miles of Oshkosh during its theatrical rounds. But ever since his “American Beauty”, I’ve thought that Mendes is one of our better directors. “Revolutionary Road” certainly didn’t deserve the derision it received from many critics, but that’s another story.

“Away We Go” recently came out on DVD, and while it doesn’t rise to American Beauty standards, I’m happy to report that it is funny in the same sort of biting, satirical way. Like many “dramadies”, its tone is intentionally varied, but it’s also a little uneven, with several supporting players going way over the top while others play it more naturalistically. This is true even of the protagonists: Maya Rudolph admirably holds the film together with a straightforward performance of the pregnant Verona, while John Krasinski (her lighthearted and extraordinarily loving boyfriend) comes dangerously close to caricature with his Burt. But the film made me laugh, and its undertone of melancholy gave those laughs extra depth. Here’s the trailer (which, like most trailers, makes the film look more conventional than it is):

Forget it, Roman: it’s Chinatown

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You probably know the story by now, so I won’t belabor it. To mark Roman Polanski’s unexpected arrest by Swiss officials, here’s the original trailer to “Chinatown”. If you’ve never seen the film, I can assure you that it is much better than the trailer, which is nevertheless charmingly kitschy-

Two Films Worth Seeing

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While I love watching a well-made film, most of the ones I see do not stay with me for more than a couple of days. Like most of my dreams, they hardly make a dent in my memory. Like jazz, they seem best appreciated in real time. So when a film sticks with me for more than a couple of days, I figure it’s worth recommending – especially given the lack of quality offerings this time of year.

The first is Two Lovers, directed by James Gray and starring Joaquin Phoenix and Gwyneth Paltrow. This is a deliciously uncomfortable story to watch, mostly due to Phoenix’s performance, which is the most interesting I’ve ever seen him give – a stark portrait of subtle neurosis. Similarly, Paltrow plays a vacant air-head with an authenticity that’s impressive, given that in “real-life” she’s anything but. Isabella Rossellini also does a fine job as Phoenix’s mother… you never quite know, until the end, whether she’s the source of Phoenix’s problems. And the choice that Phoenix makes at the end of the film is so ambiguous, you can simultaneously view it as both amazingly life-affirming and depressingly resigned – quite a writing job by Gray and his partner Ric Menello.

The other film that I can’t help but smile about every time I think of it is Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino. I’ve never been much of an Eastwood fan, although I liked “Million Dollar Baby” and “Mystic River”, and admired his Iwo Jima epics. I’ve also never much liked movies that self-consciously used the histories of their actors to make their thematic points. But here that strategy works beautifully. Eastwood’s previous characters – mostly purveyors of violence (for all the best reasons, of course) – reverberate throughout every frame of this film, and the climax is Eastwood’s very effective way of commenting slyly on his whole career. The effect of the whole is exponentially greater than the sum of the parts.

Huge plot hole in “The Reader”?

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Okay, I might have this all wrong, but isn’t there a huge plot hole in The Reader?  If not, can someone please explain to me why the script goes to so much trouble to stress that the Kate Winslet character is found especially guilty of her crime because she confesses to having written a certain document (it is implied that the document must be written in her own handwriting), and then suggests that she can’t write at all, but keeps on treating her as if she’s more guilty than the others?

By the way, except for this huge glitch (if it is such), I enjoyed the film a lot.  Winslet’s performance is indeed Oscar-worthy.  I don’t think that the political criticism leveled at the film (i.e., that it portrays a concentration camp guard too sympathetically) is true.  After all, the film portrays her  not only as a docile concentration camp guard, but also as a pedophile who has left deep psychological scars on her victim…  In fact, if the script is suggesting that she voluntarily accepts responsibility for a document she did not write, it implies that she herself recognizes her own guilt more honestly than the others.

UPDATE 2/23/09- Apparently the Oscar voters agreed. Winslet won.