Tuesday, December 21, 2010
2011 Winter/Spring Series
Joan Rivers: a Piece of Work (2010)
Rated R - 84 min.
No one is ever too old. You may have that idea about Joan Rivers, who is 75 in this film and never tires of reminding us of that fact. Is that too old? It's older than she would prefer, but what are you gonna do? She remains one of the funniest, dirtiest, most daring and transgressive of stand-up comics, and she hasn't missed a beat.
Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work covers the events in about a year of her life. If the filmmakers didn't have total access, I don't want to see what they missed. In one stretch in this film she closes a show in Toronto, flies overnight to Palm Springs, does a gig, flies overnight to Minneapolis, and performs another one. Try that sometime...
Rated PG - 80 min.
"What a lovely evening," says the impeccably dressed Brandon (John Dall) to his impeccably dressed, great and good friend Philip (Farley Granger), as he draws back the curtains in their elegant penthouse living room to reveal the Manhattan skyline. "Pity we couldn't have done it with the curtains open, in bright sunlight."
The "it" Brandon is talking about is the carefully planned, coolly executed "thrill" murder of their long-time friend, David Kentley, whose impeccably dressed, still-warm body they've just hidden in an antique chest that occupies a prominent place in their living room...
In the Loop (2009)
Not Rated - 106 min.
The pace is fast and the technique is raw in In the Loop. Everything is done to convey a sense of instability and speed. The dialogue comes in cascades of exuberant comic language. Characters indulge in frantic and absurd monologues. The United States and Britain are rushing to war, in this pointed British satire, and everyone in government, on both sides of the Atlantic, is scrambling for position.
Taking its inspiration from the lead-up to the Iraq war, In the Loop shows how the prospect of military conflict plays out on the staff level. The language is brilliant, and the laugh lines come so quickly that you'd probably have to watch the movie twice to get them all. Only dimly concealed beneath the veneer of comedy is a vision of human nature as self-serving, weak and unable to see past its own interests...
No One Knows about Persian Cats (2009)
Not Rated - 106 min.
If you think it was hard being a female rocker in America in the '70s, try being a musician of pretty much any sort in contemporary Iran. That's the message of Nobody Knows About Persian Cats, the latest movie from the great Kurdish director Bahman Ghobadi.
Ghobadi's earlier films, A Time for Drunken Horses, Turtles Can Fly, and Marooned in Iraq, are documentary-style features (he likes to cast nonprofessional actors as themselves or people like themselves, telling stories that are, as a title at the start of Persian Cats informs us, "based on real events, locations, and people") about the struggles of rural Kurds in the Kurdish territory that overlaps Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan. His latest is a radical departure, giving us a vivacious, thoroughly contemporary tour of the underground music scene in Tehran...
All that Heaven Allows (1955)
Not Rated - 89 min.
The All That Heaven Allows version of the May-September romance formula has Wyman playing Cary, a well-to-do widow with two college-age children and a dull social life at the country club. The emptiness at the heart of her life is filled when she meets Ron Kirby, the young gardener-turned-tree farmer who prunes the trees that line her all-American suburban home - and then comes back to court her. This simple love story is disrupted by the vicious snobbery of her children and high society acquaintances. Early in the film, Cary is at her dressing table preparing for an evening at the Stoningham elite. To one side stands a vase containing the branches Ron had cut for her earlier, so that Cary’s awakening interest in him carries over from the previous sequence. In a beautifully composed shot, the children first appear reflected in the mirror, coming between Cary and the vase, and, as the camera pulls away, she is taken back into the room and towards the children. This one shot tells the story of the dilemma that Cary will face for the rest of the film and is typical of Sirk’s emblematic, economical use of cinema. His stars’ performances mesh well with this style. He gives them the screen space appropriate for their status, but the sexual charge between Cary and Ron is articulated through looks and gestures, and the rollercoaster highs and lows of their love are displaced onto the things that surround them...
Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974)
Not Rated - 93 min.
The first shots set up the theme: them against us. An older woman, dumpy and plain, walks into an unfamiliar bar and takes a seat at the table inside the door. The barmaid, an insolent blond in a low-cut dress, strolls over. The woman says she will have a Coke. At the bar, a group of customers turns to stare at her, and the camera exaggerates the distance between them. Back at the bar, the blond tauntingly dares one of her customers to ask the woman to dance. He does. And now the camera groups the man and woman together on the dingy dance floor, while the others stare.
Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974) tells the story of these two people. Emmi Kurowski (Brigitte Mira) is about 60, a widow who works two shifts as a building cleaner, and whose children avoid her. Ali (El Hedi ben Salem) is about 40, a garage mechanic from Morocco, who lives in a room with five other Arabs and describes his life simply: "Always work, always drunk." Ali is not even his real name; it's a generic name for dark-skinned foreign workers in Germany...
Waiting for Superman (2010)
Rated PG - 111 min.
Toward the end of Waiting for Superman, there is a sequence that cuts between lottery drawings for five charter schools. Admission to the best of these schools dramatically improves chances of school graduation and college acceptance. The applicants are not chosen for being gifted. They come from poor, disadvantaged neighborhoods. But the schools have astonishing track records.
We have met five of these students, heard from them and their parents, and hope they'll win. The cameras hold on their faces as numbers are drawn or names are called. The odds against them are 20 to 1. Lucky students leap in joy. The other 19 of the 20 will return to their neighborhood schools, which more or less guarantees they will be part of a 50 percent dropout rate. The key thing to keep in mind is that underprivileged, inner-city kids at magnet schools such as Kipp L.A. Prep or the Harlem Success Academy will do better academically than well-off suburban kids with fancy high school campuses, athletic programs, swimming pools, closed-circuit TV and lush landscaping...
Rated PG-13 - 130 min.
Death is for the living and not for the dead so much.
That observation from the mourner of a dead dog in Errol Morris' Gates of Heaven strikes me as simple but profound. It is the insight inspiring Departures, the lovely Japanese movie that won this year's Oscar for best foreign film.
The story involves a young man who apprentices to the trade of "encoffinment," the preparation of corpses before their cremation. As nearly as I can recall, there is no discussion of an afterlife. It is all about the living. There is an elaborate, tender ceremony carried out before the family and friends of the deceased, with an elegance and care that is rather fascinating...
Tiny Furniture (2010)
Not Rated - 98 min.
These days, first-person accounts of female misbehavior are virtually a literary genre of their own, as well as a staple ingredient in women's magazines. Erica Jong's granddaughters seem to number in the thousands, and they hew to a quasi-Augustinian formula: a super-hot author's photo, loads of explicit detail, expressions of ritual regret. No one even pretends that the whole enterprise isn't simultaneously prurient and moralistic, the interwoven yin and yang of our culture since Puritan times. Amid this cattle call of raven-tressed babes in riding boots, it's easy to forget that not every American female in her early 20s is a precocious and self-possessed sexual adventuress. That's where Lena Dunham comes in.
Dunham is the 24-year-old writer, director and lead actress of Tiny Furniture, but whatever else you might say about the movie, it isn't much of a vanity exercise. Dunham's character, Aura, is a socially and sexually awkward young woman, who's just home from college in Ohio and feels out of step with the culture of hotness and hipness surrounding her artist mom's downtown Manhattan apartment. She's recently been dumped by a hippie boyfriend who moved to a Colorado commune instead of coming east with her; she has no specific goals or ambitions. Even when Aura gets dressed up to go out, it feels effortful and not entirely successful; she's got mousy brown hair, a bit of baby fat around her middle and a propensity to select unflattering outfits...
Rated R - 105 min.
An exploded grandfather clock of a movie, Jean-Pierre Jeunet's intricately antic Micmacs hurls gears, gizmos, and other trash-heap objets d'art at the audience. It's aggressively, whimsically retro, like a heaping second helping of his 1992 black comedy Delicatessen. Instead of the enchanted Paris fairyland of his smash hit Amélie, Jeunet burrows into the scrapyard Paris lair of the Micmacs, a band of outcasts without superpowers but with ingenious uses for old junk. Movie-quoting video-store clerk Bazil (Dany Boon) joins them after a nasty encounter with a bullet; that, plus his father's prior landmine mishap, has him vowing revenge on two rival arms manufacturers. Quicker than you can say Yojimbo, the Micmacs spring into action...
Everlasting Moments (2008)
Not Rated - 131 min.
Rarely is there a film that evokes our sympathy more deeply than Everlasting Moments. It is a great story of love and hope, told tenderly and without any great striving for effect. It begins in Sweden in 1911, and involves a woman, her daughter, her husband, a camera and the kindness of a stranger. It has been made by Jan Troell, a filmmaker whose care for these characters is instinctive.
The woman is named Maria Larsson. She lives with her husband Sigfrid in Malmo, a port city at the southern tip of Sweden. They eventually have seven children. "Sigge" is a laborer on the docks, who takes the pledge time and again at the Temperance Society but falls back into alcoholism. He is a loving and jovial man when sober, but violent when he is drunk, and the children await his homecomings with apprehension...
The Secret of Kells (2009)
Not Rated - 75 min.
If you're older than 30, The Secret of Kells may take you back to the ethnic fairy-tale hardbacks of your childhood, with their glowing, gold-spun illustrations and tales of victory over wild beasts with slits for eyes. If you're younger, the movie will be a fresh take on the comic-book formula, with a carrot-topped hero, Brendan (voiced by Evan McGuire), possessed of more imaginative brio than can be contained by the cloistered life he leads under the over-protective eye of his uncle, the Abbott (Brendan Gleeson). A former illuminator reduced by bitter experience to a grump obsessed with security, the old patriarch registers his disillusion in the droop of his thick neck as he shuffles around, overseeing the building of a massive wall to keep encroaching Norsemen out of the monastery—and his inquisitive nephew in...