Monthly archives of “June 2011

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Damages, Glenn Kessler, Todd A. Kessler & Daniel Zelman (2007-)

This is one of the most claustrophobic and nasty pieces of television I’ve ever seen. There’s not a single likeable character, everyone is a lying and cheating power-mad narcissist out to stab everyone else in the back and then self-justify. Worst of all, no one even seems to enjoy the overripe fruits of their iniquitous labors. The show is completely humorless and profoundly amoral. Watching it makes me feel dirty and ashamed, but I’m halfway through it now.

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The Killing Fields, Roland Joffé (1984)

Wrapping up “journalist as hero/antihero” week. Joffé’s achievement here is easy to underestimate; there are so many ways this could have turned into a disaster, and he avoids them all. The journalist is a hero, and we get that, but he’s also a dangerously narcissistic asshole, and we get that too. His colleague Dith Pran is also a complex character, both ambitious and naive, and his character here is also fully three-dimensional. On top of all that, we get here a very detailed and comprehensive history lesson without ever feeling like we’re in a classroom — also a remarkable achievement. Real questions about journalistic ethics, taken seriously, plus a lively and accurate dramatization of one of the 20th century’s most despicable crimes. There are worse ways to spend a couple hours.

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Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen (2011)

Every time, I swear I’ll not be swindled out of my $7.50 again, and every time, I falter and fail and curse myself. The premise is charming, the people are beautiful, the light is gorgeous, but the dialogue is so stilted it makes me cringe. It’s like Allen has his hand up inside all the actors, flapping their mouths open and shut while he voices variations on the same half-dozen cliches he’s been using for the past twenty years.

“Are you coming to the dinner with my parents at Le Cirque?”

“No, I really need to work on my novel.”

“Why can’t you be happy and enjoy yourself for once?”

Etc. It’s exhausting! And the characters from literary and art history are even worse. Gertrude Stein really has nothing more interesting to say than, “I read your novel, it needs more passion?”

Thank God Allen’s at least moved from London to Paris; I almost hung myself in the theater restroom after Match Point.

Adrian Brody playing Salvador Dali gets the photo because he is the only actor in this entire film who seems to be enjoying himself. Everyone else trudges through their scenes talking like they’re reading off cue cards. I bet $20 that Allen was annoyed with Brody’s performance for being too ad-libby. 

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Salvador, Oliver Stone (1986)

What an annoying movie. I’m glad Stone wanted to draw attention to the crimes committed by the (American-enabled) Salvadoran right wing death squads, but the James Woods character is so irritating, and Stone is so concerned with his redemption or lack thereof, that the historical quickly sinks beneath the mire of the personal. A pity.

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The Parallax View, Alan J. Pakula (1974)

In honor of this week’s public release of the Pentagon Papers, it’s heroic journalism week here. We begin with this paranoid classic. The relentlessly louche Warren Beatty is pretty improbable as a crusading journalist, but the pure weirdness of the story is ample compensation. As usual in Pakula, banal and efficient modern spaces — parking garages, convention halls, office buildings, airports — intensify the horror and dread. This was made at a time when Americans were just getting used to living with the idea our leaders lie to us as a matter of course, but were still capable of being scandalized. Pakula captures the zeitgeist with verve.

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Gomorrah, Matteo Garrone (2008)

Hoo! I let this sit in my queue way too long. When’s the last time you saw a Cosa Nostra picture that didn’t feature a laundry list of cliches? Garrone, working off the best-selling book by Roberto Saviano, tells five distinct, occasionally overlapping stories of life under the Camorra, from small-time neighborhood hoods with delusions of grandeur to multi-million Euro syndicates dedicated to the expedient (and illegal) disposition of industrial waste. There’s some blood, but the movie’s delightfully free of the kind of swagger and celebration of violence in American mafia movies. Most of the people involved are involved because they’re trapped, bored, scared, resigned, stupid, or some combination of these. Ironically, the scenes of hopelessness played out in the courtyards of the housing projects can’t help but remind me of turn of the century American tenements and the organized crime that blossomed there. Old world or new world, past or future, bathtub gin or pirated DVDs, desperate people will always do desperate things.

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Julia, Erick Zonca (2008)

I would wager that a lot of Europeans think this sort of thing happens in the USA all the time.

Who knows, maybe it does.

This is an update of Cassavettes’ Gloria, but the madness here is less about nuance and more about flat-out intensity. Swinton goes completely Oscar-snippet batshit in almost every scene. It must have been exhausting for her; it’s exhausting just to watch. Still, it’s gripping, at least until the final half hour, where Zonca suddenly and inexplicably gets bogged down in what seems to be some sense of responsibility to honor the ridiculously complicated sets of double- and triple-crosses the plot has imposed upon him. Unusual for a Frenchman to fall under the misapprehension that plot matters more than character. 

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Bridesmaids, Paul Feig (2011)

Well, it’s more a calculation than a revolution, but it’s not all bad. Women get almost all the screen time and absolutely all the jokes, and many of those jokes are genuinely funny. On the other hand, the movie does nothing to undermine, much less undo, the standard assumption of this genre, namely that the two valid paths of fulfillment open to women are cookery and marriage. The moment at the end where the cop/boyfriend takes Wiig into custody by putting her in the back seat of his patrol car pretty much sums it up: the law triumphs, and the dude drives.

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Biutiful, Alejandro González Iñárritu (2010)

A dignified drama, directed with grace and acted with integrity, but doesn’t it kind of tip over the edge into bummer-porn at some point? I am not afraid of depressing movies, but this one’s relentless hectoring of its hero brought me to the point of wishing he’d fight back by having at least one good thing happen to him, maybe finding a few coins in a gutter or something?