Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Good Hair

Good Hair
Grade: B
Cast: Chris Rock
Director: Jeff Stilson
Free Admission Granted

What a pleasant surprise.

Chris Rock channels Michael Moore. Instead of the topic of corporate greed or government malfeasance, he does it on the topic of black women and their hair. The result is a refreshing look at the love and mania caused by our natural - and unnatural - tops.

We start the documentary at a yearly hair product extravaganza in Atlanta for hair products. There we learn that 80 percent of the market for these products comes from Black Americans. Hairstyles are that important. Then we meet the flamboyant contestant and get a feel for their flamboyant performances. We move from there to black men and women jawing for nearly two hours about all facets of hair, from self-esteem to sex.

While that might seem trivial, the thing is that the film isn’t without substance. Special attention is paid to how hair in India shorn at temples ends up in the United States as part of a weave, which is the biggest trend in black female hairstyles. Likewise , the film pays attention to the fact that black hair products are now rarely sold by black-owned companies, a fact that makes Al Sharpton talk about how this constitutes economic exploitation. The film is also very frank about the near torture that the women go through to get their hair the way they want it, often as sported by white models. The most eye-opening moment is when a scientist dips Coke cans into the ingredients of hair straightener and watches them dissolve.

In this it sort of mirrors The Cove, except with more purpose and less porpoise. It is alternately humorous and engaging, while also gaining real interest and credibility in detailing the business and sometimes disturbing dealings behind finding the perfect do. Rock does an excellent job of bridging both sides and making this documentary something worth seeing.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are

Where the Wild Things Are
Grade: F
Cast: Max Records, Catherine Keener
Director: Spike Jonze
Free Admission Granted

There is no way on earth that Where the Wild Things Are will get the terrible reviews that it fully deserves.

The Maurice Sendak children’s book on which it is based is too beloved. Director Spike Jonze has too much good will from his days with screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. Nobody is going to want to admit that this a Transformers 2-like disaster. But it nearly is.

The look of the film, lensed by the often terrific Lance Acord, is far too dark, shot at questionable angles. The pacing is nearly as muddy as the tone. Nor are we helped by Max Records, our child hero, who graces us an entire Saturday morning of cereal box emotions (Watching this performance and then young Cody Smit-McPhee in The Road two days later is jarring.). Kaufman has finally set Spike Jonze afloat and instead he gets set adrift.

For all the alleged creativity, the story is fairly conventional little boy rwonderland fantasy. Its big innovation is that its giant animals speak to each other in modern lingo that occasionally seems like self-satire. Of course, all we learn is that we love our family and it’s important to love our family. (Catherine Keener plays the slightly kooky ….. mother. At least I thought she was a little kooky.)

The big problem with Where the Wild Things Are is the most obvious. Even as critters of the imagination, the giant mascot-like animals – man-sized lions and goats and such – are not nearly as convincing as they probably seemed in Jonze’s head. I hate to say it, but you can always see them acting – a thing I find very hard to say about giant felt (?) creatures with a straight face. Nevertheless, they open and close their little mouths while the voiceover gives them something to say. You can see each part working in tandem. It just doesn’t work, and you sense that the weird middle ground shots are their way of covering up this fact.

Where the Wild Things Are tests the bounds of physics – can you make a movie with fewer minutes of film than are in the run time? Seriously, this thing feels like it was made in about 20 minutes. That’s the lasting impression of the film. And it just feels like a shame.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

A Serious Man

A Serious Man [R]
Grade: A
Cast: Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Fred Melamed, Sari Lennick, Aaron Wolff
Director: Joel and Ethan Coen
Free admission granted

The critical understanding of The Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men often has divided, vaguely, between moralistic versus fatalistic interpretations. Is the killer Anton Chiguhr a human being, and therefore does the film ask us to take measure of his cock-eyed morality? Or is he a specter, a grim reaper for the modern age, a natural phenomenon that operates beyond moral application? How you answer this question creates powerfully different interpretations of the film.

In this debate I have been a fatalist and have always placed an enormous amount of weight on the conversation between the Sheriff and his aging uncle near the end. The Sheriff wishes to retire. He feels worn out by the rise of nihilistic violence. He doesn’t believe it existed in the good old days.

His relative says no, there has always been this sort of violence. The old man then tells the Sheriff that death will come for you when it come for you, and you will have no say in it. To think that you will have a say in the time or method of your own death, he says, is vanity. The Greeks would call this hubris. And hubris carries the implication of arrogance in the face of divine fate.

As a tornado bears down in the final scene of A Serious Man – a match and then some for No Country’s much debated ending – it puts this principle into spellbinding motion. Not only will death come when it comes without any knowledge or say, the film argues. The God of this film is completely unknowable, all his intentions beyond understanding, and man’s puny struggles to interpret his way are futile and – yes, that word – absurd. Somehow the Coens have simultaneously created their most Jewish film and most existential film in a single try.

A Serious Man is a story of stories built upon stories, or more accurately, fables upon fables. In an early scene our dweebish physics professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) introduces us to Schrodinger’s Cat, a logical paradox that is often illustrated by a dead cat in a box. It’s not enough to understand only the cat thing, he tells a failing student. That part is like a fable of physics. You have to understand the mathematics behind it, he says, because that is the truth.

In fact however, he’s wrong, too. Because mathematics is not the truth itself, but only another form of representation of the truth, another way of placing the vast mystery of the Cosmos into our little finite minds. In a dream sequence, we are introduced to a second mathematical proof, that of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, which is a mathematical way to prove a philosopher’s point – that everything is uncertain. (Mark “mystery.” We’re comin’ back to it.)

The uncertainty of it all is the continuing theme in the film. Our professor wants to understand why God is allowing his life to fall apart all at once. He seeks answers to his Job-like sufferings (to which he has an anti-Job-like reaction). What does God want? Why is he testing me? What am I supposed to do? He and we are treated to several fables – such as the story of the Goy’s teeth – that let us know that, as the saying goes, the mind of God is unknowable and his plan ultimately a mystery.

The Coen Brothers have often been noted for being influenced by Stanley Kubrick, and my understanding of 2001: A Space Odyssey dovetails nicely with my understanding of A Serious Man. While many take interest in HAL’s human qualities, I am more interested in the supercomputer’s “god-like” qualities. But what I’m really interested is in the way that these qualities do not measure up to the actuality of divinity. Because the qualities in HAL that we think of as god-like are only our erroneous understandings and projections of godliness, swallowed and regurgitated into finite form.

It is important to remember the final word of 2001 is “mystery.” At the moment after HAL is shut down, the origin and the purpose of the godlike monolith is said to be “still a total mystery.” The double meaning is there – mystery t in the religious/metaphysical sense, something that is unable to be known by human means. Likewise, in this movie, our professor seeks a truth that is beyond his means to know. At some point he is told … and don’t quote me … I think I got this right …. If I’m wrong let me know, but don’t tell my friends … something to the effect of he is failing to see the mystery.

A Serious Man is a serious film, but not an entirely lovable one. It starts as interesting weirdness, begins to repeats its “no good deed goes unpunished” cycle until it reaches a point of oversaturation. On top of that, it relies twice on marijuana as an engine for comedy. That’s just a wee-bit overplayed. Nevertheless, it would be intellectually dishonest to give this film anything but the highest recommendation.

Coco Avant Chanel

Coco Avant Chanel
Grade: B
Cast: Audrey Tautou, Benoit Poelvoorde, Alessandro Nivola
Director: Anne Fontaine
Free admission granted

Because biopics must touch the bases of a human life, there is a certain formality to such films. The best you can hope for, sometimes, isn’t brilliance but to do the person justice.

Anne Fontaine’s Coco Avant Chanel is a lush French film that does justice to its subject – the legendary French designer and businesswoman Coco Chanel. It is a project seemingly willed to quality by the commitment of the performers, starting with the French star Audrey Tautou, who make us care as much as they.

The film centers on Chanel’s pre-fame love triangle with the Count Balsan (a fantastic Benoit Poelvoorde), whom she serves as both best friend and kept plaything, and his English financial planner Arthur Capel (Alessandro Nivola), who will liberate her by backing her business ventures. It’s a sophisticated relationship quandary that deserves a better class of obstacles than society marriages and bad driving. But biopics can only take what reality dishes out.

Coco Avant Chanel is so convinced of its premise of Chanel as a prototype modern businesswoman that you almost don’t notice that she’s partially slept her way to the top. This should pose a dilemma for feminist ideology – is it acceptable to sexually play upon the power of men to achieve your own power? Is that playing into the system, or is that subverting it? That is an interesting question. Yet the film accepts her path without much comment.

Instead we get a very satisfying love story and character study, and an interesting perspective on turn-of-the-century class – the poor girl becomes a leveler of style, slowly infecting the Old World frockery with the egalitarian beauty of orphanage simplicity. She’s drawn to that world, drawn in by it, and yet remains aloof as if in some test of personal purity. It’s the most mature role and performance we’ve seen from Audrey Tautou, who brings proud vulnerability with the same ease that she does Gallic froth.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Invention of Lying

The Invention of Lying [PG-13]
Grade: C
Cast: Ricky Gervais, Jennifer Garner, Rob Lowe, Tina Fey, Jonah Hill, Louis CK, Martin Starr, cameos: Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Edward Norton,
Director: Ricky Gervais, Matthew Robinson

In one of the funnier scenes of The Invention of Lying, British comic Ricky Gervais – stuck in a world where he is the only person who knows how to lie – improvises a religion, the world’s first from what we can tell. The Man in the Sky, he tells a crowd, will give everyone a giant mansion after they die and an eternal afterlife of happiness. (Yes, he is writing his ticket to Hell here.)

What could The Man in the Sky give Gervais in the afterlife? Let’s take a look.

1) A higher Q rating – Last year, Gervais’ name was floated as a host for the Oscars. Those in the know said, “Great!” The majority said, “Who?” The star of the British version of The Office, like many British comics of late, has had a tough time breaking into the American mainstream. While I wouldn’t say his style is without precedent, his melancholy subtlety is a refresher in today’s comic atmosphere of gross-outs and affected weirdness. The man never hard sells a joke, or at least never gets caught doing so.
2) A better leading lady than Jennifer Garner – Garner is a comic over-emoter. She meets every inch of Gervais’ subtlety with miles of pushy expressions. Her face bends in such ways that you must wonder if her skull has secret elbows.
3) A riskier script – Well, it is a twist on Liar, Liar. Gervais appears to be following the path of the American star of The Office, Steve Carell, the Cap’n Crunch of the high-fructose mass comedy. I’d like to see him in a more daring role, even a supporting one. A natural sarcastic cutthroat doorman.
4) A street-front set that doesn’t look like a set, that doesn’t give you the feeling that a crew will clean it up and turn it around for a music video 13 hours later.
5) A story that doesn’t drop off. The Invention of Lying has some quite casually funny moments. A few of the hyper-honest advertisements have real bite as satire of famous products. Then it just …… disappears.
6) More Phillip Seymour Hoffman – Just a fun blip cameo as a salty barkeep.

Best wishes for a happy afterlife, Ricky. But keep plugging away at this one first.