February 27, 2013

Why were the Oscars a snoozefest this particular year?  Too many musical numbers (generally a bore for me)?


Independent Lens

February 24, 2013

I’m catching up on some films in the PBS series Independent Lens and have found Beauty is Embarrassing, Neil Berkeley’s look at the life and art of Wayne White a satisfying documentary on several levels except that PBS (or at least UNC-TV) is censoring his art (and some of what he says) because of humorous profanities.  This is what I find embarrassing…and sad…that fear of political controversy has such a chilling effect on programming that, to be honest, airs at the most unfortunate and inhospitable time of 2 a.m. or somesuch anyway.

Top Ten of 2012

February 23, 2013

My friend Spencer reminded me of something yesterday: Well, I’m still anxiously awaiting your top 10 list.  I saw you were waiting for Amour (I read your blog).  I thought Amour was personally very cold for a movie about love, but I did think it was good.  He went on to say that his personal favorite is Argo (which was such a satisfying film to watch), and he is right that it is high time I make the commitment to ten films!

As a reminder from me to you, this is not to be confused with a list of films I think are the “best” of the past year or films that I think should win Oscars.  These are films that I enjoyed and/or appreciated the most over the last year, films that particularly moved or engaged me.  So, in alphabetical order, here they are!

Argo – Ben Affleck’s story is extremely well-crafted. It sounds crazy, but this is a true story about a CIA operative who poses as a movie producer on a location scout to liberate six American foreign service employees who escaped from the American Embassy in Iran when it was taken over by protesters in 1979.  Knowing the story is real makes parts of it more entertaining; knowing the outcome for the seven trying to get out of Iran does not diminish the drama of the situation.  Well-done!

Anna Karenina – I liked Anna Karenina, which presents a bold vision for the novel that is much more an interpretation than a traditional adaptation of the type that are often so respectful of the source material that there is not enough attention by creators to the ways films and novels differ as mediums. I love the look of the film, both the overtly staged sequences and those photographed on realistic sets. Both are just dazzling and work thematically.  While not a perfect film, it is ever so interesting and engaging if approached with an open mind.

AmourAmour is a startling love story, but it really shouldn’t be.  Romantic love has many stages and facets, and Michael Haneke, characteristically, chooses to shed light on the type of story that has not been told in many films – what might happen to two people deeply and companionably in love over many years when the aging process suddenly catches up with them.  Haneke’s films suggest emotional truths with so much particularity that words alone or stagecraft or music or any other art form I can think of could not achieve the same level of exploration presented onscreen in these stories.  Haneke uses all the elements of film in careful combination to maximize the potential of the medium.

Chasing IceChasing Ice chronicles James Balog’s incredible photographic quest to document the shrinking of glaciers in different countries.  Amazing visuals and a strong story to go along with them.  I particularly like the combination of science, art/beauty, and personal obstacles faced by Balog.

Lincoln – Often I find Steven Spielberg’s films too manipulative, melodramatic, and sentimental.  Not so with Lincoln.  Maybe it’s the tempering effect of facts suggested by the source material (Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book), or the screenplay by Tony Kushner, or the understated performance by Daniel Day-Lewis.  The lighting and composition are lovely.  The production design strikes the right note.  The supporting cast is more than fine.  The result is a film that deals with important issues in a serious, respectful way that elicits admiration if not passion.  And, if the price for passion is manipulation, melodrama, and an excess of sentiment, I’m glad to forego it.  Lincoln is a useful film that feels topical because of its attention to political process and how much of that we continue to scrutinize (well, at least those of us who are news and politics junkies).

Rust and Bone – Marion Cotillard must be one of the finest actors working.  I have not seen her co-star Matthias Schoenaerts before, but he, too, is wonderful in this film.  The story is raw.  The look is gritty.  Basically, this is a story of coming to terms.  Two very different characters overcome huge obstacles – hers mainly external and his mainly internal – to connect with one another.  Some people will see Rust and Bone as tragic and relentless, but I prefer to see it as sad but ultimately hopeful. There is more to life than endurance and survival, though those skills are called upon for all of us in varying degrees at different times. Sometimes it takes the direst of circumstances to create an opportunity for an emotional breakthrough. 

Silver Linings PlaybookSilver Linings Playbook is a story about two troubled adults trying to find a suitable and sustainable equilibrium.  The cast is terrific.  I am a fan of Jennifer Lawrence since Winter’s Bone (possibly my favorite film of 2010), have never thought much about Bradley Cooper before but will after this, and Robert DeNiro, Jacki Weaver, and others are equally memorable.  I think writer-director David O. Russell is enormously talented and remain particularly fond of his 2010 film The Fighter.  That film, along with some others he has made, are easy for me to analyze in an appreciative, heartfelt way but with a level of emotional distance I had to work to achieve with Silver Linings Playbook.  There is one moment in the film that I keep thinking about more than the others.  When Pat’s father (played by Robert DeNiro) says to him:  “You gotta pay attention to signs. When life reaches out with a moment like this, it’s a sin if you don’t reach back,” I was nearly moved to tears, though not the happy kind.

Skyfall – Fifty years a classic, indeed.  What do you need to know about Skyfall?  The set-up should be pretty familiar, but the film is uncommonly good. I’ve enjoyed it more than any Bond picture since Casino Royale (2006) and more than a great many before that.  The story is clear, the dialogue crisp, the gadgets updated and understated, the pacing keeps moving at a good clip, and the performances are good.  Terrific fun, and it makes me want to be back in the UK.  (I do think Daniel Craig, bless his heart, needs suits that fit a little better – pants not quite so short and jackets not so snug across the shoulders.  Maybe it’s just me.) 

The Perks of Being a Wallflower – I like both the book and the movie, though they are quite different in tone.  The book is more intellectual, and the movie is a little sweeter.  Stephen Chbosky wrote the novel, adapted it into the screenplay, and directed the film version of The Perks of Being a Wallflower.  There is little point in discussing the plot.  This is a coming of age story.  It is familiar to all of us either because parts of it reflect our own experiences or the experiences of our friends.  This should not be read as a criticism, however.  When such stories are told well, they resonate with us no matter what our age, and this story is told well both in written form and in visual form.  The production design is real enough to feel authentic but not overdone with “look at me” nods to period.  The cinematography is a little grainy and a little soft, just like a memory.  The shallow depth of field emphasizes the characters and their feelings instead of the period props and settings.  That look matches the context of youth when fitting in seems the most important goal to teenagers, and feelings have an intensity that has yet to be tempered by time and experience.  The Perks of Being a Wallflower looks like nostalgia but feels like survival.   

The Sessions – Love is an eternal mystery.  What makes us fall in love with another person?  What makes that feeling endure even, sometimes, when it is unrequited? At times, I wish I understood these mysteries and knew what the future would bring, and other times think it’s better to accept that some things are beyond understanding and just hope for the best.  It’s not just me.  I don’t think anyone knows the answers, really, but the questions are worth exploring.  The Sessions presents me with a version of Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes) who knows love in its frustrating and fulfilling forms.  I don’t think his movie life much resembles his actual life (see the documentary Breathing Lessons), but I feel the connection between this character and the women he loves, including his sex surrogate (Helen Hunt), and none of their scenes together are the least bit off-putting to me because I see the nudity and sex as essential to developing character and, even more, connection.  As I said, this film moved me.  I went to see it with a sense of obligation and left with something much more, a sense of possibility and hope.

It was surprisingly easy for me to compile the list this year, and I’m not second-guessing myself (like the year I left off I Am Love only to regret it ever since).  There are only a handful of movies I thought about including that didn’t make the list.

Hopefully, it will be a harder task next year because that will mean more films that move me…looking forward to seeing what 2013 brings in terms of movies!

TV Roundup

February 23, 2013

Short takes, flights, a sampling, small plates, or whatever:

Scandal is guilty pleasure viewing.  I don’t love it necessarily, but I can’t look away either.

Girls actually had a couple of decent scenes this week…the half hour only felt like 45 minutes instead of 90.

Among the shows that are starting to wear a little thin:

Repetition is starting to set in on Mike & Molly and (hate to say it) The New Normal…or is it some general sense of ennui I have?  Oh, maybe it’s because nothing I’ve seen lately can compare to Rust and Bone and Amour.  Hmmmmmmm…

Lest you think I am only comparing sitcoms to stark, narrative features, I submit that Shameless is less an assault to the senses (in a good way) with a bit of poignancy now and then (like it used to be) than it is another near yawn (sigh).

I still watch The Big Bang Theory and chuckle from time-to-time, but I’m happy to see that there is movement toward some changes for characters who have been static a little too long.  This represents a hint of change and new life, which is the same condition that is making The Office better than it has been in years.

Among the shows that are on the upswing:

The last 2-3 episodes of Downton Abbey were a vast improvement over the first half of season three.  I like the season ending because it opens up a lot of narrative options.  I watch the show and (still) long for Gosford Park.  Alas…

Finally, The Good Wife is starting to crackle again.  This season has been off the mark, but the promise for renewed vigor is there after the latest episode.

It was good to see Ed Asner in a guest shot on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit in a role cast against type.  That’s a show I often DVR then watch when I’m tired and don’t want to think too much – the TV equivalent of macaroni and cheese and bedroom shoes.

Among the shows that I hope will not begin to wear thin:

I still count on Modern Family to make me laugh…and cringe.  Episode for episode, there are a lot more hits than misses.

Bill Maher is on hiatus this week but is still my man.  Not literally, of course.   Can you imagine optimism (me) meets pessimism (Maher) trying to have an actual dialogue?  But, I sure do like to listen to this smart and funny man on television, which is a safe distance from his caustic side.

I zip through a lot of the Sunday morning news shows, but Reliable Sources is the one I watch all the way through.  In the same way, I record Hardball every day but probably watch about two or three days a week.

This sounds like a lot, but I doubt that I watch as much television as most people and generally don’t turn on the television unless it is with the intent to watch something particular.  If you could see the number of movies I DVR from TCM and struggle to find time to see!

Next on my list is online viewing to catch up with the Netflix series House of Games.  Liked the first episode…need to dive into the remainder!


February 20, 2013

I don’t always have favorites, but Amour is my clear favorite of the Haneke films I have seen…


February 20, 2013

I have admired some of Michael Haneke’s films (especially The White Ribbon and The Piano Teacher) because he explores dark, emotional spaces with startling authenticity and skill. 

These films suggest emotional truths with so much particularity that words alone or stagecraft or music or any other art form I can think of could not achieve the same level of exploration presented onscreen in these stories.  Haneke uses all the elements of film in careful combination to maximize the potential of the medium.

Amour is a startling love story, but it really shouldn’t be.  Romantic love has many stages and facets, and Haneke, characteristically, chooses to shed light on the type of story that has not been told in many films – what might happen to two people deeply and companionably in love over many years when the aging process suddenly catches up with them.

Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuella Riva are exquisite, living their parts in every frame.  But, I don’t feel sorry for these characters.  Compassion, yes, but not pity, and that may be as much the way Haneke tells the story as my own thoughts about the meaning of life (I don’t really mean to sound so lofty, but there it is).  There is no way around it; some things must be accepted.

Amour works for me aesthetically – there is no conventional score (though diegetic music plays an important role); except for one scene, the couple’s apartment is the only location (which works thematically to showcase their physical limitations); and, the camera is used in ways that make us voyeurs (static shots, frequent views through doorways, few close-ups, relatively few cuts, eye-level angles).  The spare nature of the visual elements and cinematic sound make the experience feel unmediated (though, of course, this is just another style), which foregrounds the subtlety of Trintignant and Riva’s performances.

Since my Film Theory and Criticism class will see Hiroshima, Mon Amour next week (the film that launched Riva’s career in 1959 and a favorite of mine), it seemed an appropriate outing to trek from campus to a/perture to see Amour last evening.  Ten students were able to make it, and we’ve engaged in pleasant and sometimes robust email exchanges about the film since then.

Their insights about the symbolism of the pigeon that flies into the apartment and about water and windows has enhanced my own experience of the film, and I hope to hear from more of them about their responses to Amour today. 

I love the movies and teaching, so I must have the best job (for me) in the world…what a blessing…something about life that is easy to accept and with gratitude.

Downton Season Three Finale

February 19, 2013

I get that it was a controversial ending for Season Three, but I think it works and opens up a lot of possibilities for the narrative next season.  Certainly the last two or three episodes of the season are a marked improvement on what preceded them!