Thursday, February 12, 2009
I've updated the title of the blog to reflect my habits more accurately. I had a sudden influx of video editing work in the fall that prevented me from finding the necessary minutes to continue writing. I am only now starting to feel like life is normal again. I'm planning to create a new site in the next few months. Will undoubtedly be writing about some movies as time allows.
In brief: Go see Coraline Despite some of its amatuerishness, the film delivers a startling visual kick that is more than worth the price. The 3D is great too. Very tastefully executed and deepens the experience of watching the film.
Rent Frozen River. This is what independent films should be doing all the time. It explores the kind of characters we never get to see in mainstream films (dig that opening shot) and heightens the reality of their lives through a pleasing, tense drama. Really a marvelous little film.
Tuesday, January 20, 2009
Man on Wire is as fitting a eulogy for the World Trade Center towers as one can imagine. It documents Philippe Petit's 1974 tightrope walk between the two buildings through a combination of talking head interviews, archival footage and photographs, and subtly made recreations of the events leading up to his performance. In telling the tale of how Petit and his crew managed to sneak into both towers and pull of the stunt, it mirrors something of a bank-heist story or even (ahem) a depiction of the preparations for a terrorist attack. Because the group is engaged in an illegal activity, they must case the buildings, create scale-model replications of the rooftops to craft their plans, and rehearse the act in the safety of a rural hideout before enacting it. Director James Marsh wisely structures the film to this familiar paradigm, introducing his cast of characters in intimidating, shadowy ways and bestowing upon them archetypal nicknames like, "The Australian," and, "The Inside Man." It's easy to get swept away by the film's heightened reality (led in no small part by the interviews with the charismatic, impassioned Petit) and, as such, Man on Wire pulls off the always appealing feat of generating a tremendous amount of suspense about events whose outcome is known to the viewer.
A great deal of this feat is accomplished through the film's wondrous editing. This is an expertly paced film, moving effortlessly through time as the conspirators recall their individual parts in the deed and concurrently recount their personal histories that led them to participate in this insane stunt. Like any heist crew, their motivations and personalities are varied, each coming to the project for their own purposes, and the film reveals just enough to satisfy for each of them. (I'm struggling not to use the words "balance" or "juggle" here.) But where the film shines is in the amount of space it provides for the tightrope walk itself. Here, Man on Wire changes from the tightly constructed narrative template of a heist film to something more akin to the religious sensation of the mothership landing in Close Encounters. After racing to this moment, the film stops in its tracks, staring slack-jawed at the scene. The reverence is certainly appropriate. As we can see from the archival footage and photographs, Petit, at times, appears to be walking on thin air. It's gorgeous.
The film is powerful enough on its own terms that it would be a crackling yarn of youthful exuberance and showmanship absent any other events, but knowing the eventual fate of the World Trade Center towers provides an additional weight to the film. To my memory, the film never even brings up 9/11, but it's hard to miss the the parallels between Petit and the men who eventually destroyed these buildings. Both see the buildings as a symbol of something larger than themselves and have a selfish, personal desire to conquer the structure. And they all used devious, illegal acts to impose their personal narratives upon the towers, used the majesty of the buildings to shape the world to their own ends. Even the reaction from the American people is similar; after pulling off his tightrope walk, Petit is bombarded with demands to know why he's done what he's done. And yet, the difference between the two groups is stark. Where the terrorists sought to destroy, Petit is an artist. Selfish as he may be, he is always looking to create something. And what he does create is a magnificent spectacle, something that even the police who apprehend him can't help but be moved by. It is by emphasizing this parallel through its heist-movie structure that Man on Wire brings about feelings of closure, at least with regard to the New York city skyline. It is comforting and hopeful to remember a time when the buildings stood for a sense of wonder and achievement rather than tragedy, a time when people conspired to walk on the air between the buildings rather than cause others to fall from them.
Tuesday, January 13, 2009
A simple, straight-forward Western tale of hired guns protecting some innocent townsfolk from a barbarous outlaw, Appaloosa is never less than good. It's a sturdy, competent film, well shot, acted, and edited. But, though it's a novelty to see a Western at all in this day and age (and even moreso to see one that doesn't take a revisionist approach to the genre), there's little to distinguish the film. It plays out agreeably enough, and the overall look and feel of the film has a handsome authenticity to it, yet it dissipates almost instantly in the memory. It would be the perfect film to watch while sick or on an airplane, a passable time-filler to help endure a couple of passive hours.
The film is aptly directed by Ed Harris, and he also stars as Virgil Cole, a man who, with his partner, has made a career as a freelance sheriff, going from frontier town to frontier town to help enforce the law. After the villanous Bragg offs their sheriff, he's hired by the townspeople of Appaloosa to bring things back under control. Bragg and his men are slowly taking over, using violence and intimidation to help themselves to the spoils of civilization while ignoring its rules. Cole is an old pro at this work; his first move is to have the elders sign an old-timey sort of Patriot Act, declaring that Cole's word is law. Free to handle the problem however he sees fit, he's very soon got Bragg all but swinging from a gallows. But things are thwarted by Cole's dalliance into romance--he enters into a serious relationship with a woman who's new in town and finds himself confronted with the complications of love, jealousy, and sexual fidelity. He's new at this game, and the consequences of this relationship bleed over into his work, affecting his pride and his judgement at critical moments.
If it all sounds familiar, it very much is. The film suffers from this, sure, but Harris's direction is lean and taut. He moves the picture in and out of scenes with a speedy efficiency. This is particularly notable when the inevitable gunfights play out in an approximation of real-time--the outbursts of violence are over in mere seconds. Using this technique, the film avoids the fetishisation of gunplay and concentrates its attentions on its finest assets--the characters.
If there's anything to savor in Appaloosa, it's Viggo Mortensen's performance as Cole's partner. Mortensen and Harris share an easy chemistry, and the relationship between their characters is surprisingly intimate--when was the last time you saw two grizzled gunslingers talking about their feelings or searching desperately for le mot juste together? But Mortensen outshines everything else in the film. He stalks about the edges of the frame, communicates affection for Cole and the work they do together in silences, strained smiles, and short, punchy, meaningful sentences. Mortensen can be a goofy presence in films; he sometimes seems as if he would be out of place anywhere. But, in Appaloosa,he carries himself with a gait and manner that seem wholly of the time and place of the film's setting. When he stands sideways during a climactic duel (to shrink the target zone for his rival), he seems more authentic to the period than the costumes and sets (and horses) that surround him.