Friday, November 28, 2008

Lots of conflict in this Christmas gift

To say that director Arnaud Desplechin's "A Christmas Tale" is about a dysfunctional family is a bit like arguing that World War II amounted to little more than a minor quarrel between Germany and the rest of the world. Packed with incident and densely populated, Desplechin's family drama makes a stunning contrast with American holiday movies that tend to regard tension and conflict as a source for comedy.

Desplechin treats such potentially toxic ingredients as a natural expression of the tormented lives of his characters, each of whom might require a lengthy dossier to describe all of his or her tics or traits. I won't bother to list them all because you'll get to know them as the movie progresses, although you may have some difficulty keeping track of them at first.

Notable among the Vuillard family is Junon (Catherine Deneuve), the mother of the clan who needs a bone marrow transplant from one of its members. She's suffering from a rare form of leukemia, the same variety of cancer that took her oldest son as a child, a tragic loss that continues to wrap the family in guilt and recrimination. Abel (Jean-Paul Roussilon) is the father, a gruff, portly businessman who seems oddly unfazed by the bustle of his household, located in the provincial city of Roubaix, where the family has gathered for its first holiday reunion in six years.

Those who've seen "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" or "Quantum of Solace" will recognize Mathieu Amalric as one of the film's stronger personalities. Amalric portrays Henri, the family's black sheep, a dissolute fellow who has been estranged from his playwright sister (Anne Consigny) for reasons that are left charmingly vague. There's also a troubled teen-age boy (Emile Berling) and too many others to describe without turning even a short commentary into a psychological laundry list.

As the movie unfolds, arguments abound, infidelity rears its head -- albeit without ruffling too many feathers -- and the children put on a play. All of this is presented in a style that suggests Desplechin likes to sketch his narrative in swift strokes that can make you feel as if you're lagging behind, a hapless eavesdropper on a conversation that began long before you arrived. Don't let this put you off; it's fun trying to catch up. Characters sometimes talk to the camera; the pacing is frenetic; scenes are introduced with title cards; and you can't always tell whether you should feel exhilarated or depressed. In short, you're watching a movie and you know it.

If anyone in this troubled family is seeking maternal comfort from Deneuve's Junon, they've probably come to the wrong place. She's critical of many of her guests, including the wife (Chiara Mastroianni) of her youngest son (Melvil Poupaud). Those who wish to add additional layers of complexity to this heavily seasoned stew may wish to know that Mastroianni is Deneuve's real-life daughter.

Desplechin seems to endorse the notion that smart, literate people are not the best candidates for familial bliss. I don't know if that's true, but I found myself engaged by all the ruckus. The only problem with "A Christmas Tale" is that it goes on too long, particularly for a movie with a slightly frantic tone. Still, you won't soon forget Christmas with the Vuillards, although you may wish you could. That's not meant as a criticism of the movie, but as a reaction to some of its less appealing characters. If "A Christmas Tale" catches you in its staccato rhythms, you may just want to return for a second helping. Desplechin puts so much under this family tree, it's difficult to unwrap everything all at once.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Harvey Milk's date with history

Harvey Milk, an openly gay San Francisco politician, was assassinated in 1978 by fellow city supervisor Dan White. Even before Milk's life was cut short, he had become a gay icon, a man who committed his life to the gay rights movement, but who early on learned how to cross political lines. As a city supervisor, Milk worked with labor and with various minority groups to forge the beginnings of an unlikely coalition. If you want to see the best film about Milk, you'd do well to rent "The Times of Harvey Milk," a 1984 documentary that covers some of the same territory as "Milk," a new movie from director Gus Van Sant.

If you see "Milk," you'll discover that Sean Penn transforms himself into Milk, a New York sophisticate who moved to San Francisco when he was 40, beginning a new life of open gayness. Milk's arrival in San Francisco coincided with the transformation of the Castro into a gay center of gravity, a district that became an emblem of what can happen when concentrated groups of like-minded people want to express themselves -- not only in bars, streets and the privacy of their homes, but in the city's institutional life.

Aware that his career was provocative, Milk dictated his reflections into a tape recorder, leaving a tape that was to be played only in the event that he was murdered. Van Sant uses this conceit to hold the movie's disparate events together, and he's aided greatly by an Oscar-caliber performance from Penn. To play Milk, Penn puts aside the edge that he has brought to so many roles, as well as to his public persona. Milk may be the most likable character Penn has ever played. Milk mixed wit, kindness and a sense of mischief with staunch commitment, and Penn captures all of that.

Van Sant, an openly gay director, seems to have two sides to his artistic life. In movies such as "Gerry," "Elephant," "Last Days" and "Paranoid Park," he employs a style that relies heavily on silences and on images that seem to float past us; these movies tend to turn audiences inward, as if their images were opening doors to the subconscious. "Milk" moves in the opposite direction. It's less driven by mood than by Milk's dynamism and the tumultuous events that surrounded him. As if further to ground his movie, Van Sant uses some real footage -- of anti-gay, orange juice queen Anita Bryant, for example -- and sticks closely to the historical record.

We get to understand Harvey Milk, but the same can't be said for Dan White, played by Josh Brolin. White seems an ambivalent man who couldn't keep up with the times, a supervisor who stood for the heterosexual status quo and what he viewed as working-class values. At one point, Milk wonders if White might be suppressing his gayness. Whatever troubled White, he seems lost and angry, frustrated that he can't do for his constituency what Milk did for his; i.e., infuse it with a sense of hope and optimism.

Penn's isn't the only interesting performance. I don't think I've ever seen James Franco play a character as centered as Scott Smith, the lover with whom Milk moved to San Francisco. And Emile Hirsch proves flighty and then reliable as Cleve Jones, a representative of the kind of younger gay men for whom coming out was less difficult than for those in Milk's generation. Jones became part of Milk's inner circle. So did Anne Kronenberg (Allison Pill), a no-nonsense pragmatist who managed Milk's successful campaign for supervisor, his fourth attempt at landing the job. A troubled Hispanic lover (Diego Luna) brings a touch of tragedy into Milk's personal life.

The movie ultimately hones in on a battle over Proposition 6, a ballot proposal that would have banned gay teachers from working in California's public schools. Because Milk was political, the movie may become a rallying point for those who want to topple another California proposition, the recently passed Proposition 8 which bans gay marriage.

"Milk" doesn't necessarily bring a strong new point of view to its material. But the movie will introduce "Milk" to a wider audience than any documentary could. And if it has a message, it's this: If you want to be part of the public discourse, you have to roll up your sleeves and work. Harvey Milk's life ended tragically, but he seems to have fully met his moment. He shrewdly recognized an opportunity, seizing it with conviction and, yes, with pleasure, too.

A movie as big as a country

"Australia" attempts to be as big and as unruly as the country that gives the movie its name. Maybe that's why director Baz Luhrmann's sprawling epic turns out to be several movies in one.

At times, "Australia" looks like a classic western built around a cattle drive. At other times, it celebrates Australia's rich Aboriginal heritage while wagging its finger at homegrown racism. And at still other times, it goes to war, joining in the global conflagration that shifted eastward when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Luhrmann ("Moulin Rouge!," "William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet" and "Strictly Ballroom") tends toward bold blasts of narrative, and "Australia" certainly is no exception. Rich looking and brimming with earnest melodrama, the movie attempts to recapture the sweeping grandeur of old-time Hollywood epics. Say this, though: Luhrmann's movie refuses to be ashamed of its cliches, contrivances and obvious calculations.

I didn't mind "Australia," and I didn't love it either -- although on a couple of occasions I chuckled at the fact that it's so damn obvious. The story revolves around three central characters. Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) arrives in Australia to learn that her husband has been murdered; Hugh Jackman plays The Drover, an Australian cowboy who loves bringing cattle to market; and Bandon Walters portrays Nullah, a young half-caste taken under wing by Kidman's character.

Set mostly in the days prior to World War II, the movie recalls a time when mixed race Aboriginal children were taken to missions where zealous Christians hoped to "civilize" them. This scar on Australia's historical face is subject enough for any movie, but Luhrmann embeds it in a tale that touches what he presumably regards as the jagged cornerstones of the Australian experience. Nullah, by the way, narrates the movie, the first in a planned Luhrmann trilogy of big movies. (What's next? New Zealand?)

Lady Sarah, a transplanted Englishwoman, must adapt to hard country. She decides to remain in Australia, run her husband's ranch and participate in the cattle drive that's necessary to save it. A misfit crew -- led by Jackman's character -- takes 1,500 head of cattle to the port city of Darwin. All the while, King Carney (Bryan Brown) -- an aggressively greedy rancher -- plots to acquire Sarah's land. David Wenham plays Neil Fletcher, an even worse villain, a man who's more unscrupulous than King Carney.

Another archetypal character carries the burden of representing all of Aboriginal Australia. King George (Jamie Gulpilil) occupies the movie's fringe. He's Nullah's grandfather, the Aborigine who wants the boy to learn the ways of his people. King George operates in the movie like a magical figure, cropping up when needed to add a sense of mystery or to resolve a difficult situation.

Predictably, The Drover and Lady Ashley become an item -- albeit one that faces an uncertain future. She's thinking about adopting Nullah and forming a multi-ethnic family. He's a free-range kind of guy. What's left? How about World War II? The Japanese bomb Darwin harbor, and all hell breaks loose.

"Australia" clearly is an epic made possible by computers. CGI backdrops are easily detectable, as were the matte paintings of a bygone era of filmmaking, and the performances, which are scaled to play big, can be silly. This is a case where the actors can't be faulted; the movie's style encourages them to go for broke. When characters start singing "Over the Rainbow" in the middle of a rough-and-tumble epic, you know that the director has no fear of cornball sentiment.

You may find yourself amused, bemused or swept up in "Australia," possibly all three during its nearly three-hour running time. I admire Luhrmann's willingness to steer clear of nuance, to present his picture in the kind of vivid strokes that evoke memories of past moviegoing. But "Australia" proves a mixed blessing, as much a tribute to Luhrmann's eclecticism as to the magnificent country in which it takes place.

Friday, November 21, 2008

A feel-good movie set in the slums

The thing about "Slumdog Millionaire" -- Danny Boyle's exuberant romp through the teeming streets and alleys of Mumbai -- is this: Boyle mixes hard-core realism and with fairy-tale logic, and somehow manages to catapult his impoverished hero toward a happy ending. Better yet, he carries us along with him. Boyle's spirited treatment of his young characters, the remarkable gloss of his imagery and the sheer audacity of a plot that defies belief could all be turnoffs. But instead of allowing contrivances to push us out of his story, Boyle uses them to push us through, sweeping us along as if we had little choice in the matter. That's what can happen when a filmmaker has complete control over his material.

The conceit is pure and silly: Young Jamal finds himself a contestant on the Indian version of "Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?" As the show progresses, the movie reveals how Jamal may have obtained the knowledge that allows him to move toward the show's highest realms of achievement. He's the ultimate graduate of the school of hard knocks.

From the set of the game show, Boyle flashes back to Jamal's youth. He tells us how Jamal and his brother, Salim, were orphaned; he introduces Jamal to Latika, the girl who will grow into the woman to whom Jamal is endlessly devoted. The story careens through events that are part Dickens, part Rocky, part travelogue and part Bollywood. Scenes at the Taj Mahal are appropriately gorgeous; scenes in the slums of Mumbai are less so.

Gorgeous or gritty, Boyle infuses every scene with the energy of a chase sequence; "Slumdog Millionaire" can look busy even when it's standing still, and for me at least, the movie overwhelmed any reservations I might have had -- not about its depiction of poverty -- but about the way it maintains a melodramatic spirit in the face of a host of reasons to speak in a different voice.

Simon Beaufoy's script -- based on a novel by Vikas Swarup -- seems to delight in its own ebullience. It's as if both Boyle and Beaufoy, best known for his screenplay for the "Full Monty," have allowed the complex stimulation of India to overwhelm and then guide them. Although some of the developments in "Slumdog" are appalling, the irrepressible spirit of its characters prevails, giving the film a driving, palpable energy.

The young actors are all remarkable, and Dev Patel, who plays the adult Jamal, never seems totally disconnected from his character's youthful past. Anil Kapoor portrays the game show host who alternately taunts and encourages Jamal, and Irfan Khan appears as a police inspector who, at one point, interrogates young Jamal. The adult Latika is portrayed by Freida Pinto, a model whose lack of acting experience does not show -- or maybe it doesn't matter because "Slumdog" isn't built around performance, but around the breadth of its story and the boldness of its ploys, which ultimately resolve into two love stories, one between brothers; the other between Jamal and Latika.

When you leave the theater, you can look back and determine how Boyle has managed to turn so much poverty, suffering and degradation into a feel-good experience. I wouldn't have thought it possible. Even as I watched the movie, I didn't think Boyle would pull it off, and I wondered whether the movie's finale would payoff our emotional investment. It does. That may be because Boyle, who brought a similar vigor to "Trainspotting," knows he has two leads in his movie: Jamal and Mumbai. The combination proves irresistible.

"I've Loved You So Long" might be one of the few French movies that suffers from too little ambiguity. Director Philippe Claudel's quietly powerful story begins when a woman (Kristin Scott Thomas acting in French) is released from prison. She moves in with the sister (Elisa Zylberstein) she hasn't seen for years. Her brother-in-law (Serge Hazanavicius) is troubled by her arrival. Who wouldn't be? Thomas' character served 15 years in jail for murdering her young son. There's plenty of tension as Thomas' Juilette warily adjusts to her new freedom, but the movie's ending -- which answers all our questions -- proves deflating. Part of me simply didn't want to know why Juliette killed her son. I'm not sure I totally would have embraced a less explanatory ending, either. That might have led me to complain about the movie's lack of cathartic satisfaction, thus proving that there's no pleasing some people. Still, "I've Loved You So Long" boasts some fine acting with a deglamorized Thomas memorably leading the way.

Her prom date was a vampire

It's time to stop and wonder why vampires -- never entirely out of vogue -- are again resurgent. At the movies, we've had the chilly Swedish import, "Let the Right One In." 0n television, HBO's "True Blood" is about to conclude its first season. The film and the TV series, though entirely different in tone, share one similarity: They place vampires in the midst of ordinary life. The same goes for "Twilight," the big-screen adaptation of a wildly popular novel by Stephanie Meyer. In a time when terrorists have lived among us, why not vampires? It's almost as if we're bringing danger close to us, perhaps in hopes of detoxifying its power.

Not surprisingly, we're also seeing some ambivalence about our fanged neighbors: Some are evil; others are trying to adapt to a human world that's largely inhospitable to their blood-sucking ways. The vampire family in "Twilight," for example, preys only on animals and seeks a degree of acceptance in a small town in Washington. Aside from their pallid complexions and standoffish ways, they're not so different from other folks. No one is supposed to know that they're vampires.

The appeal of "Twilight," which has been reasonably well directed by Catherine Hardwicke ("The Nativity Story," "Lords of Dogtown," and "Thirteen") hinges on a teen romance built around internal conflict. Seventeen-year-old vampire Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) fears for what he might do to the human with whom he's fallen deeply in love, a headstrong high-school classmate named Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart). Bella -- a potential victim of vampires -- persists in her association with them; Edward, a potentially dangerous predator, tries to resist his worst impulses.

Bella recently moved to the Washington town of Forks because her mother is traveling with a new husband. Bella has taken up residence with her dad (Billy Burke), the local sheriff. The mixture of teen genre issues, vampire lore and overcast Washington gloom proves eerily effective, and the special effects -- vampires moving at amazing speeds or leaping to the top of tall trees -- are acceptable without being overly impressive.

Hardwicke carries the story toward an action-oriented ending that pits the Cullen family of vampires against a trio of traveling vampires who are unwilling to curb their appetites. A vampire baseball game (don't ask) feels a bit Harry Potterish, and there's a definite juvenile quality to material that seems aimed primarily at teenage girls. That may limit the audience, but "Twilight" qualifies as a moody, featherweight entry into a new world where humans sometimes are more to vampires than the source of the next meal.

Look for a big opening weekend. A publicist at a preview screening told me that at 1:30 p.m., some 75 people already had begun lining up for a 7 p.m. show. Such is the power of a book that makes teen hearts race.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Wrestling with feelings after a movie

Last night, I attended a Starz Denver Film Festival screening of "The Wrestler," a new film starring Mickey Rourke and directed by Darren Aronofsky. If you follow film, you know that "The Wrestler" received an enthusiastic reception at September's Toronto International Festival and that many are hailing it as a significant comeback effort for both Rourke and Aronofsky, whose last movie, "The Fountain," tanked with critics and with audiences.

I'm going to hold off on commenting on the movie, but want to address something else, post-movie discussion. The moment the film ended, the person seated next to me said, "That was a great movie. What did you think?" I don't know if she wanted me to confirm the movie's greatness for her or whether she was genuinely interested in what a trained movie observer might think, but I was stopped in my tracks by the word "great," which is not a description I use casually. I mumbled something about needing to think about it and moved on.

The truth is I can't recall seeing many movies that I would deem great, least of all at the precise moment I finished watching them. Even critics deserve what I call a digestion period, a few moments to allow the movie to arrive in one's psyche, to live with the feelings that a film engenders.

The moviegoing process -- at least for me -- is twofold: It consists of the immediate experience of the movie and, just as important, the way the movie plays upon reflection. Does it continue to reward me? Does it nag at me? Does something about it fail to compute? Does it have anything to say or was it just another flickering diversion?

For me, both parts of this process are vital before I start talking seriously about a movie, unless it's so obviously bad that spending another moment thinking about it would constitute a form of intellectual dumpster diving.

On the morning after, I'm pretty sure that "The Wrestler" is not a great movie, which doesn't mean it's not worth seeing. It just means that I don't see it as something that will become an indelible part of my movie consciousness or of movie history.

But back to the moments after the final credits roll. Yesterday, I also showed "Five Easy Pieces" to a class I'm teaching. Late in the class, we arrived at the movie's quietly powerful ending -- the moment where Bobby Dupea, the character played by Jack Nicholson, abandons his pregnant girlfriend at a gas station in Washington. I let the credits play, offered a brief suggestion about something they might consider for the next session and then dismissed the class. I'd leave the discussion for next time. I wanted the movie to work on them. At minimum, I hoped the mood of that last shot would linger with them before they clicked on their cell phones, checked for text messages or scurried toward the weekend. A few students lingered. "That ending always tears me up," I said to them

Am I being too picky? Maybe. I know people use the word "great" to mean that they've just seen something they've enjoyed or that has had a real impact on them. Maybe they just feel something needs to be said as a way of getting outside the solitary absorption of viewing a movie. But just after a movie ends, the reaction I most appreciate is one that tells me precisely how someone felt about they've just seen. Had the woman next to me said "The Wrestler" really got to her, I'd have been more interested in continuing the conversation -- after, of course, I'd had a chance to let my own emotional dust settle.

Friday, November 14, 2008

"Synecdoche:" See it. Don't say it.

Charlie Kaufman's "Synecdoche, New York" is bound to divide audiences. I admired its creativity and marveled at the idea that a director could raise money to make a movie that spends much of its time contemplating death. Philip Seymour Hoffman -- as an upstate New York theater director -- anchors a cast that includes Catherine Keener, Michelle Williams and Samantha Morton. I talked to Kaufman during a recent visit to Denver. That interview and a review of "Synecdoche" can be found in Friday's Rocky Mountain News. Kaufman's movie certainly will have its share of detractors. If you're one of them, I'd love to hear from you. Post your thoughts. "Synecdoche," may not be everyone's night out, but it's a great movie about which to argue.

Note: I'm moderating panels at the 2008 Starz Denver Film Festival, which kicked off Thursday with a showing of Rian Johnson's "The Brothers Bloom." I'm also doing a variety of Podcasts for the festival. That means I'm a little behind in my regular moviegoing.

I have, however. seen "Quantum of Solace," the latest James Bond opus starring Daniel Craig. The movie opens with a ferocious car chase around the marble quarries of Carrera. The action then moves to Siena, where Bond is involved in underground interrogation while the famed Palio di Siena -- a twice-a-year bareback horse race -- unfolds in the famed Piazza del Campo . The two parts of this sequence don't seem to have much to do with each other, we can't see much of Siena and the action consists mostly of editing so frantic, it's not always easy to tell what's happening. That's pretty much true of the entire movie.

Audiences may complain that "Synecdoche" confuses them, but probably will tolerate the latest helping of Bond chaos, even though "Quantum of Solace" isn't nearly as good as its immediate predecessor, "Casino Royale." Maybe there's a rule here: If a movie moves quickly enough, its flaws become too blurry to bother us.

A few questions, though: Is it me or is Bond starting to look and act like a psychopathic killer? Has it become impossible to find a villain with stature? This time out, Mathieu Almaric -- of "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" -- portrays Dominic Greene, a sadistic baddie who hides his villainy behind environmental causes. Are the stakes too low for a 007? Isn't Bond supposed to keep the whole world from blowing up? Here, he's out for vengeance and to keep Bolivia from succumbing to drought, a noble task but one that seems better suited to the Peace Corps than to the world's most able secret agent.

"Quantum of Solace" offers the pleasures of scale. And one could argue that we've seen so many Bond movies that we're able to tolerate the kind of directorial shorthand that director Marc Forster ("The Kite Runner" and "Stranger Than Fiction") consistently employs. And, yes, there still are beautiful women to ogle, most notably Olga Kurylenko, who winds up accompanying Bond as he hurtles toward the movie's finale.

Something's off, though. This Bond seems less like the world's manliest man than someone who has had so much beaten out of him, there's not much left beyond perpetual disappointment and simmering rage. Craig's Bond has been re-tooled for a bruising, cynical moment in which adrenalin and instinct trump wit and savoir faire. That may be metaphorically apt, but it's not exactly fun to watch. Put another way, would you want to have a martini with this guy or would you be more likely to move a couple of bar stools away?

Thursday, November 13, 2008

A vampire in suburban Stockholm

"Let the Right One In" might be the most original vampire movie to hit the screen in some time. Steeped in loneliness and punched up by gruesome splashes of violence, this Swedish import becomes even creepier if you give some thought to its ending. Set in 1982, the movie focuses on 12-year-old Oskar (Kare Hedebrant), a boy who has no friends and minimal family life. Oskar lives with his divorced mom, sometimes visits his dad in the country and finds himself picked on by other boys at school. When Eli (Lina Leandersson) and the man who appears to be her father (Per Ragnar) move into the neighborhood, Oskar seems on the verge of making what might be his first real friend. Nothing about Eli is as expected, though. She's a vampire, and the man who seems to be her dad sometimes ventures out to freshen her blood supply. Obviously, this requires knocking off a few of the townsfolk. Set in the dead of winter, the movie lowers your temperature right up until the point at which young Oskar makes the biggest commitment of his life. Are Eli and Oskar made for each other? If so, what might that mean? You'll be thinking about such macabre things on the way out of the theater, thanks to director Tomas Alfredson, who gives his movie the feeling of a near-death experience (and I mean that in the best possible way). You'll still be trying to digest this cold slab of a movie long after the final credits roll.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

This movie computes -- more or less

It finally happened. Perhaps it was inevitable. I watched a movie on a computer.

I'm old enough to remember when critics refused to review films they hadn't seen in theaters or in screening rooms. The idea of watching a video on a TV was akin to making love with one's clothes on, a poor approximation. But times change, home-theater equipment improves and necessity pushes principles aside. We'll save the debate about new modes of distribution for another time. For now, let's say that watching a movie on a computer is about the same as watching it on a decent but small-screened television.

The movie in question happened to be "Mar Nero" ("Black Sea"), an Italian feature from director Federico Bondi. I had a copy of the film because Bondi had won a $10,000 cash prize in the form of the first Maria and Tommaso Maglione Italian Filmmaker Award, an annual selection that will be funded through the Anna and John J. Sie Foundation and presented at the Starz Denver Film Festival, which kicks off Thursday. Bondi's film shows in the festival at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 20.

I'm planning to do a festival Podcast with Bondi and with Anna Sie, who named the award after her parents. I needed to see the movie before its scheduled festival screening. As luck would have it, the DVD I was given came up blank on my player, which is hooked up to a fairly new, high-definition set. Someone suggested I try a computer. So my wife and I trundled into her office and popped the disc into her iMac. Sure enough, the movie played. We selected the full-screen mode and jacked up the sound as much possible. We do not have speakers hooked up to the computer, probably because neither of us listens to music on it.

As the DVD rolled, we watched Ilaria Occhini portray an irascible elderly woman who's being assisted by an illegal immigrant from Romania (Dorotheea Petre). In reviewing the movie at last August's Locarno Film Festival, Jay Weissberg wrote in Varliety: "'Black Sea'" reps a notable freshman feature and should see decent fest and Euro cable play."

Given a general lack of interest in subtitled fare, it's unlikely that "Mar Nero" will find U.S. distribution, even after being tagged as an award recipient in Denver. But as Weissberg notes, it makes for a respectable festival pick, and it doesn't totally follow the expected arc: Mean older woman ultimately finds friendship with the Romanian helper she initially abuses. The story doesn't quite work out that way.

So can one appreciate a movie that's watched on a computer? On some level, yes. Of course, it's not the same as the theatrical experience. I have no doubt, for example, that the work of director of photography, Gigi Martinucci, would have looked better had it been run through a projector. The movie was shot in high def and transferred to 35 mm, a process that seems to be improving all the time.

Computers aren't ideal for viewing movies. But if the alternative is not seeing the movie at all, a computer screen may have to do, providing of course one knows enough to understand what's being lost. If I really loved a movie I had only been able to watch on computer, I'd make it a point of seeing it again in a theater if that were possible.

I write this note mostly because I can't believe I actually used a computer for something other than browsing the Web or writing, and because I have a feeling that in the brave new world that awaits, this won't be the last time I watch a movie on the same device I use to check email.

p.s. I'm collecting anecdotes about computer viewing, so if you have one, please leave it as a comment. What do you watch? Shorts? Downloaded features? DVDs? Do you feel guilty about watching movies on a computer? How often do you use your computer for watching films?

And if you want to keep up with festival Podcasts, you'll find them on the Starz Denver Film Festival site.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Yes, Bruno, there was a Holocaust

Far be it from me to suggest restrictions on how artists approach any subject, even the Holocaust. This most calamitous event in a long series of sorry human transgressions remains a source of endless fascination, horror and authorial obsession, and it has attracted lots of diverse talents.

But when I review a movie that deals with the Holocaust, I find it impossible to separate my values from my criticism. And for me, "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas" seems pretty much an exercise in audaciously poor judgment. In focusing on the son of a Nazi officer and concentration camp commandant, "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas" too often finds itself acting the poor witness: The movie spends too much time looking in the wrong direction.

David Thewlis plays a German officer who has been assigned to run a concentration camp. Dad and mom (Vera Farmiga) try to keep things normal for their two children, eight-year-old Bruno (Asa Butterfield) and his 12-year-old sister (Amber Beattie). Toward that end, the family moves into a house that’s located at a supposedly “safe” distance from the camp. But the curious Bruno discovers the place anyway, initially supposing that the men wearing striped pajamas are farmers. He doesn’t grasp the enormity of what he’s seeing even when he begins to develop a "friendship" with Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), a Jewish boy imprisoned in the camp. Bruno and Shmuel chat through a barbed wire fence.

Based on a 2006 novel by John Boyne, "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas" has the feel of something written for teen discussion groups. It's presumably intended to teach lessons about the price of institutionalized bigotry that's turned into national policy. But in shortchanging Shmuel, the story inevitably serves to diminish the most important part of the Holocaust: the murder of six million Jews and millions of others who didn't fit the Nazi mold. The expanding consciousness of an eight-year-old German boy and the ultimate suffering of his family pales in comparison to the vicious consequences of Hitler's "Final Solution." I can't say more without giving away the movie's shocking ending, but know that “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” makes for a poor introduction to a subject that never should be reduced to fairy-tale proportions.

Writing in the New York Times, critic Manohla Dargis took an even more extreme view: “See the Holocaust trivialized, glossed over, kitsched up, commercially exploited and hijacked for a tragedy about a Nazi family. Better yet and in all sincerity: don’t.”

Dargis may swing the hammer a little too hard, but she pretty much hits the nail on the head. I didn't, however, get the impression that the filmmakers wanted to exploit the Holocaust. They probably hoped to do the opposite. But before it's possible to venture into such deep thematic waters, it's necessary to learn how to swim. In this case, that would have meant amassing greater knowledge and engaging in deeper reflection than "Boy in the Striped Pajamas" shows.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

An American election and a French movie

Now that Barack Obama has become the president elect, it’s safe to assume that a large number of white Americans have found a measure of psychological relief in being able to vote for a black candidate. “See,” they’ll finally be able to say, “We really mean it when we assert that anyone can grow up to be president.” Aside from the obvious hollowness of this Horatio Alger bromide, the question remains: If an African American is elected to the nation’s highest office can the death of racism be far behind?

The answer, as you might expect, isn’t clear. Racism didn’t disappear from South African when Nelson Mandela became the country’s president. And racism won’t disappear from the U.S. when Obama is inaugurated as the 44th president of our battered and financially stressed republic.

But maybe Obama’s election will provide us with an on-going opportunity to deal more honestly with race and multiethnic challenges – even at the movies. It’s possible that some filmmaker will be inspired enough by Obama’s victory to begin the racial conversation that has yet to take place and perhaps to recognize that before we can start that conversation, we need to acknowledge the realities of race in the U.S., the subtle and not-so-subtle forms of racism that still pervade daily life. (And, no, I don't count 2004's overheated "Crash" as part of what I would deem the most productive form of artistic discussion.)

Obama ran a non-racial campaign in a society that’s still marred by racism. Now, it’s time for the country – and its film artists -- to catch up with the dreams and fantasies fostered by the campaign.

On the night of the election, Harvard professor Orlando Paterson was among the guests on the Charlie Rose Show. Paterson spoke of the glorious integration of the public sphere of American life. He seemed to view Obama’s election as a kind of culminating event in that area. But he also noted that there’s a private sphere in America, and in that sphere, we’re far from having changed the face of the nation. This is the sphere in which disproportionate numbers of young black men are in jail. This is the sphere where impoverishment and inadequate education rule. This is the sphere in which a black man with money still can raise suspicious eyebrows among clerks in upscale stores? It’s also the sphere in which black men may have difficulty hailing taxis in major American cities.

This list of woes brings me back to the movies, in particular, “The Class,” the French film that won the Palm d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. The movie, directed by Laurent Cantet, followed its Cannes’ premiere by opening the New York Film Festival, and it’s about to be shown in at the Starz Denver Film Festival, which kicks off on Nov. 14th. It will open in New York and Los Angeles in December, and probably will work its way around the country after that.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more realistic movie about teaching and classroom tensions. Cantet based his movie on a book by Francois Begaudeau, a teacher who wrote a book about his classroom experiences. Begaudeau also stars in the movie, which records a year in the life of a Parisian school.

Real students, who participated in workshops prior to filming, created these roles, and the result is an astonishing encapsulation of the friction between student and teacher in a the multiracial hothouse environment of a school. Perhaps it goes without saying, but these tensions are also the tension of a society in transition: The students – blacks, Muslims and disaffected whites -- speak French, but don’t necessarily want to identify themselves as French. The whole notion of fixed identities seems to be foundering.

In this atmosphere, Begaudeau’s Mr. Marin represents all the contradictions of the larger society. He wants to teach the kids; he sometimes empathizes with them; he sometimes blinds himself to their laments; he can be helpful, and he also can step out of bounds when he feels that he has been too directly challenged. And, in one of the movie’s key incidents, he’s challenged by a student in a way that he finds galling.

As for the students, they’re a handful. At one point, a kid named Souleymane asks Marin if he’s gay. He’s not. Khoumba, an alert and engaging young woman, can’t always disguise her contempt for Marin, which – in reality – may be contempt for something much larger than this embattled teacher possibly can embody. She’s beginning to understand the society that surrounds her, to feel more responsible to her peers than to any authority figure.

Cantet shows us interactions between students and teacher and among the teachers, and at times, the movie justly can be accused of droning. There are no triumphs. No one wins any contests. The students can be recalcitrant, and the teacher isn’t always lovable. At times, the classroom seems like the setting for one long argument, more a place of contention than of learning.

What has any of this to do with where I began? In these post-election days, I wish someone would starting thinking about an American version of “The Class,” a movie that honestly showed the rewards and tensions of a multiethnic living, a movie in which things do not go smoothly but don’t always end catastrophically either, a movie in which some characters make honest efforts and others don’t, a movie that actually contributes to the discussion on race by showing us how people really feel and behave – not in the public sphere, but in what professor Patterson aptly termed the private sphere. The classroom of a public high school might not be a bad place to start. An office setting might prove fertile.

Of course, there’s a huge difference between Cantet’s movie and most American films. Cantet evidently didn’t feel compelled to provide uplift. He was willing to have a student tell the teacher at the end of the year that she had learned nothing. She means it. She’s not angry, but flustered and disappointed, unsure whether to blame herself or the school system. She’s at a loss, and her awareness of her educational deprivation makes for a heartbreaking moment.

So maybe in our so-called post-racial moment, we’ll have the courage to deal with a little reality of our own. Imagine if an American filmmaker were more inspired by the works of Jonathan Kozol (“Savage Inequalities”) than by the work of Dan Brown (“The Da Vinci Code”). I’m not a knee-jerk Francophile, but “The Class” could provide a much-needed lesson for American filmmakers, an encouragement to tackle grass-roots filmmaking.

Cantet had money and three cameras at his disposal. But that’s not what made his movie work; what made it work was the filmmaker’s desire to reveal the truth, sometimes even at the expense of drama. Cantet also did that in “Human Resources,’’ a 1999 movie about labor and management. He has done it again.

To make “The Class,” he associated himself with someone who knows the subject, Begaudeau, and allowed the subject to come to him, to let the characters find their way onto the screen rather than forcing them into straitjackets created by commercial expectation, editorial anxiety and fear of rejection.

I want to see that movie. I long to see that movie, and I want it to be American made. And if someone were to ask me whether we really could have such a film, I’d try to overcome my natural skepticism, risk embarrassment and embrace the optimism of this post-election moment.

"Yes we can," I'd say. "Why the hell not?"