Tag Archives: Max Berwald

TRAVEL HIPSTERS IN PERIL/ ‘THE LONELIEST PLANET’

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Hard to write about a film I like so much as The Loneliest Planet, which finds Julia Loktev hiking the Georgian Caucuses with two of the best actors alive. Gael Garcia Bernal is certainly in love, or some modern equivalent, and his lover is experiencing some of the existential tremors associated with that condition. The trailer to this film left a lot of people leaning forward and still more begging quietly: wtf?

The Loneliest Planet absolutely refuses to disappoint.

What is becoming my most common complaint applies here: why the music? Loktev’s transcendent-ascetic-meditation on love and life and cold is so damn, well, meditative, that you hate to hear it ruined by self-important bursts of scoring. That they cut out in a way designed to draw attention to themselves works hard against every other strategy The Loneliest Planet is interested in (or capable of) deploying.

Some have criticized the film’s opening shot, which frames Hani Furstenberg (Yossi & Jagger anyone?) in agony or something-like-it, nude under a curtain of frigid water. How we know the water is frigid is either the great mystery of the magicofthecinema, artful color-timing, performance, or a cocktail (some would say a Lok-tail.) Whatever it is: it’s brilliant. The shot is actually typical of the Contemporary Cinema of Contemplation in that it tunes (hijacks) the viewer’s mind (and gut) to the frequency of the film. The quickest way to the viewer’s attention is the visceral. Once we (they) are looking very closely, quite unwillingly chained to the teeth-chattering cold-ness of a young girl’s morning ritual (actually, I hope not) then the narrative hits us behind like a train—a very slow train. Maybe it’s more like a glacier.

But no less forceful.

This film is extremely re-watchable. This film is the plaintive nightmare of the travel hipster. The reason people choose to backpack through remote wild (presumably) and not to ride tour buses around Trafalgar Square all day is that the real world still carries some allure. But they don’t call it that for nothing. The real world can occasionally puncture, subvert, destroy the conventions of the first world. Privilege, a few generations removed from the source of earned-wealth, can be a point of enormous weakness. And you don’t want to be reminded. You really– you just don’t. So toughen up you hipster pansies!

But really, the film is compassionate, and what’s better: far too smart to preach. Like the best of the CCC, The Loneliest Planet seems incapable of violating that deceptively old-fashioned platitude: show-don’t-tell. Rather than shout at you from a mountaintop, it whispers till you’re close, and then sticks its hands in your pockets. (I never said it was for the faint of heart.)

-Max Berwald

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‘SLEEP WALK WITH ME’: A ‘SIDE EFFECTS’ REVIEW

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Side Effects
can’t be accused of cleverness because, depending on who you’re talking to, its craftsmanship is hopelessly clumsy or uncannily on-point or cunning to the point of manipulation. Put another way: vintage Soderbergh. Is his aim gamesmanship, pleasure, homage? What? Your guess, Dear Viewer: good as mine.

It’s not a film that upsets me. You take its punches because they feel good. There are real miss-steps and red-herring miss-steps, if you know what I mean. I’m possibly delivering a spoiler (ahem) when I observe that Catherine Zeta Jones’ sad-bad performance (was she high?) could be directorial meta-cunning. Directing a great-actress badly for the greater good of your movie? Damn, Steve: that’s kinda cold.

Some will call Soderbergh’s game Hitchcockian. Kind to Hitchcock, I say. Side Effects is a good one. At a point, the film has a choice between being a moral, topical, critical work, or a sorta sophisticated fun one, and chooses fun without hesitation or remorse. It’s a choice many films (directors) never have to make! How can we judge? (Except, sigh, I do.) On my first viewing, I’m comfortable accusing Soderbergh of victim-blaming.

Because a moral (preachy) chore (failure) might be more noble than an intriguingly informal (if not warm) popcorn twister. Might. You can tell me if I’m wrong. There’s the obvious problem that no one will watch your moral-chore film…

While we’re on the subject of temperature though, the film is so damn cold you can’t not mention it. I recalled Match Point. Part of what makes calling Side Effects Hitchcockian is that it hands ole Alfred the monopoly on making ingenious little suspense/narrative candies out of a few extraordinary events in the lives of ordinary people. He doesn’t deserve it! I’m not a h8r but—he doesn’t deserve it.

Hitchcock’s got lots besides the mentioned, but that’s what Side Effects has got. You want details? Ohhh.

 Jude Law is good. Rooney Mara is great. Catherine Zeta Jones is not. The scenes are good, tight, built, lean, fit, mobile. Channing Tatum is also good, but could never be called lean. The frames are often embarrassingly frank (maybe Stephen does need his own DP after all?) and the music is jarring enough to warrant its immediate removal. It’s that darn story that’s so good… Yes, the art of the screenplay is still alive, taking jabs at the mainstream when you least expect it.

But then, we have come to expect good things from Soderbergh. As for this being his last film, it wouldn’t be what you’d call a finale. He’ll be back. And we’ll welcome him with open arms. What a thinker. You admire, I think, in Soderbergh, a certain intersection between thinking and feeling, thinking and action, thinking and crying-out, thinking and scrambling.

The sin is picking up a contemporary moral issue, chewing on it, and then throwing it under the bus as soon as a good narrative moment reveals itself. God help all writers.

-Max Berwald

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BARBARARTHOUSE? THE PETZOLD APPROACH

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Christian Petzold must aspire to make all sorts of strange movies. He has assembled an arsenal of techniques, and a not-quite-formalist grammar, both original enough to be impressive.

You can go off the fantastic Notebook interview (here), but the proof is in the pudding. Barbara looks and frequently behaves like a great movie, but admits frankly that it is not. Especially in its ending, which forces us to accept what we could scarcely believe through the rest of the ride: this is, more or less, a standard mystery/thriller told in a more sophisticated, deliberately articulate way than you might expect. It’s no The Conformist, but it’s a hell of a lot more to chew on than The American. Anyway, the film does stick with you.

What Petzold calls “spatial suspense” is no joke. He’s playing a very tight game. I’m just not convinced that the ends have here justified the means. The means in this case being not merely visual, but apparently a more-than-a-little eccentric production process, and the ends being narrative.

When Petzold says in the interview (neither bragging, nor confessing) that he deals primarily in first takes, anyone who has seen Barbara will scarcely be surprised. It’s a great explanation for the constant discomfort, and the constant, organic tension we perceive burning out of the center and the soul of our heroine. She is walking a tightrope. The anxiety performed, and the anxiety in regards to the performed, have theoretically coalesced into something altogether more potent.

And all right, I’ll drop the “theoretical” qualifier. It is something altogether more potent, in terms of character and performance.

Yet the film leaves us troublingly little to talk about when it’s over. The aesthetics of ambiguity are nearly all show. And the character of Barbara herself as a cypher, as a mystery in her own right, I don’t really buy. The most interesting bits of that are in the first series of shots, when she is only being looked at, and is not yet performing those weighty duties we impose on every protagonist. In the end, the film represents a straightforwardness that I don’t resent, but also don’t much enjoy.

What Ignatiy Vishnevetsky has identified as “suspense by induction rather than coercion” may or may not be the most compelling way to handle suspense. I welcome the absence of didacticism, the favor given to texture and objects-in-the-world over blunt, violent plotting, but I think the narrative has got to match. What’s the point of telling the same story with higher, subtler language, unless that language can manage to reveal what we never saw before?

But maybe that’s an old question.

-Max Berwald

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‘SILVER LINING’S’ SPARK NOTES

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It’s the mark of the New New Hollywood that a film can feel at once plodding and rushed. The Silver Linings Playbook is one such curious failure, where the screenwriter seems to suffer from an abundance of trade-skill and an aching, anemic shortfall of things to say.

Adapting a novel is here given the cinematic equivalent of: the Sparknotes treatment, and the result is as riveting as that brand suggests.

Good performances and inoffensive direction cannot save a movie from such a screenplay, which finds intriguing characters shouting at one another and overcoming their odd-ball differences over quirky dinner-fare in perfunctory scene after perfunctory scene. However well these scenes play to satisfying prods, nods, quips and quibbles, they play to them mechanically. Jennifer Lawrence: radiant. Bradley Cooper: better than he’s ever been.

There’s more to say, but I don’t know what. It’s not a pastiche, but it has been done before. Whatever the dubious merits of the phrase “feel-good film,” people who think they’ll love this film probably will. In advertising, the axiom is that nothing kills a bad product quicker than good marketing. Here, that could not seem less true. The advertising (over years and years) seems to have created a product that loads of people love to “feel good” about.

A snoozefest of the Oscar variety, Silver Linings is enough to chase one away from the Cineplex and back to Netflix.

-Max Berwald

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MAN-CHILDREN 2012

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“I’m 34 years old. I have nothing. I can’t start from scratch, don’t you understand?” – Anders, Oslo, August 31st. 

Oslo, August 31st; Jeff, Who Lives at Home; The Comedy; Dark Horse; The Silver Linings Playbook

Cinema from a few different corners seems to be riding a wave of aging ennui. A couple of the year’s most extreme protagonists have trouble growing up.

Oslo follows a 34 year-old recovering drug addict who feels like he’s already missed his shot at normalcy, or better, or worse, or something.

Dark Horse follows a moronic, lazy man-child as he grapples with first love. (Sorry, that’s the best I can do.)

The Comedy follows Tim Heidecker’s pathologically insincere uber-hipster as he… lives, barely.

Jeff, Who Lives at Home is a fantasy revolving around a pothead who lives with his mom.

The Silver Linings Playbook follows a mentally ill man’s struggle to save his marriage after serving time at an institution. He could also be 34.

All these characters are male protagonists, at least two are mentally ill, three live with their parents, all five have unstable housing situations, all are tasked– to some degree, and perhaps least of all in The Comedy– with growing-up.

The trend is also notable then for its considerable genre straddling. We’ve got a kinda austere, philosophical meditation, two hardcore cringe comedies, a fantasy/rom-com, and a plain rom-com. I don’t know what this means, or what it’s about, but keep your eyes peeled. Also leave your thoughts for explanations, theories, or further candidates in the comments.

-Max Berwald

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ANOTHER ‘SPRING BREAKERS’ NOTE

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The debate becomes: at what point do you become the object you’re satirizing? At what point are you supplying the culture with the thing you hoped to skewer? Is Spring Breakers supposed to be a skewering at all? Is the joke so meta that it only works when the artist’s career is scrutinized as a whole? Hopefully not. Hopefully we’ll be able to see criticism unfolding on the screen. Hopefully Spring Breakers will be to pop-reality-TV-superficial-inanity what Funny Games was to commercial-cinematic-sadism: an interrogation, and an exploration, in one cunning swipe.

For now, our only hope for blistering self-awareness comes from a cultish chant, branding the product as we encounter it for the first time. For now all we have is the whispering of two words over and over through the trailer’s climax: spring break spring break spring break.

-Max Berwald

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‘LOURDES’/ “UNCERTAIN CRAP” IN THE QUASI ART HOUSE

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“Miracles happen why play with if or if not. Why not have a movie that does not beat around the bush. Anyone can get healing at any time God wants and He does not jerk people around like secular writers of religious things who write about uncertain crap. He heals who He wants when He wants and it never hurts to ask. if He heals you you are healed – period. Also the half-assed level of faith displayed by many in this movie is frankly the most unreal part about it. The movie is just not how it is, which too bad because it would have been nice to see a more positive display of things. Basically the script is written by a struggling agnostic and represents the typical crap that wanders through their feeble non-commital minds. It is one of the Jesus got people to share the loaves and fishes rather than multiply types – crap. Miracles happen – the pretending what if or if not is literary crap not some dynamic cinematic twisty who can tell it is in the eye of the beholder thing. I can even tell you how the screen writer votes.” (sic) – Netflix User Review. 2 stars.

Some critics have noticed an increasing polarization in the cinema after the year 2000, with the art house becomes more “artsy” and the megaplex becoming more commercial. This is evidenced by the vigorous film culture alive online and at certain festivals, as well as the increasing laughability of any given year’s top ten (at the box office.)

If we take a year like 2011, which I have a noted admiration for, and look at the top ten grossing films, we get this:

  1. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows- Part 2
  2. Transformers: Dark of the Moon
  3. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
  4. The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn: Part 1
  5. Mission: Impossible- Ghost Protocol
  6. Kung Fu Panda 2
  7. Fast Five
  8. The Hangover Part II
  9. The Smurfs
  10. Cars 2

Well, fair enough with the top 5, I’d say. Hyper-visible, mega-budget franchise breadwinners. Crap, but tried and true and expected crap. Aside from the Tourette’s-like compulsion toward colons and sub-subtitles, nothing out of the ordinary. But what are we to make of the next 5 entries? Laughability turns to horror as we near Cars 2 and The Smurfs. (The latter enjoyed a 500% profit margin at the box office, virtually assuring a hundred years of Smurfs sequels and reboots.) What are we to make of this?

Business, as they say, is business.

And the deliverable product embedded in all of these movies is a kind of certainty. It’s a certainty that nothing will deviate from the sacred code of multiplex expectation. You can take your children and your grandma and no one will be in the least surprised by anything. The producers and directors and screenwriters are complicit, right down the line, and obediently oblige to undergo the transformation from artist to cog.

While the system that gives us The Smurfs 2 and eight Harry Potter films is practically predicated on its own eventual collapse (a blog post for another day) it remains muscular right now. The certainty it pedals seeps down into the farthest reaches of its mainstay audience’s subconscious (or barely conscious) expectations, creating a feedback loop in which the slave becomes the master becomes the slave. (Having formatively molded the wants of their audience, the studios are doing what they perceive their audience to demand of them, and experiencing (not-so) puzzling diminishing returns.)

But the proliferation of entries into the new canon of Contemporary Contemplative Cinema continues to demonstrate its potential for provocation.

When you look at a film by a contemplative director, there’s always a tendency to see their work at the art house as hanging in a naïve void. With art films becoming more durational, and requiring ever more intense commitment, patience, love, and attention, how frustrating it must be to mistakenly believe they exist as abstract or theoretical musings, off to the side of the arterial mainstream.

The truth is that the Cinema of Contemplation is a reaction against the certainty of the box office. Here, the currency is narrative ambiguity. This ambiguity seeds contemplation, because contemplation becomes the only way to derive meaning. The burden of creation is shared between artist and audience.

All that said, sometimes one who enjoys (apparently profoundly, even morally) the certainty sold by Hollywood stumbles across the Cinema of Contemplation. The wheels are greased for this accidental discovery, by online streaming. Netflix and Hulu Plus allowed the user above to stumble across Lourdes (2009.)

Now, Lourdes isn’t particularly demanding Contemplative Cinema. It’s got some of the tonal qualities, and has been clearly influenced by that tendency, but it’s hardly an exemplar. There’s a lot of great conventional drama, commentary, and some humor in Jessica Hausner’s film. The characters are expressive and a lot of the missing context is never called on, so you don’t really miss it. It’s quirkier than it is austere; sillier than it is theologically rigorous, or existentially morose… you get the point.

But often times we’re presented with visual truths that are difficult to explain, to understand, to reconcile. What kind of world is this movie happening in? It looks like a movie, it sounds like a movie, but occasionally it presents bits of evidence that contradict one another. Sometimes characters appear to have souls, concerns, doubts, and sometimes they experience profound difficulty communicating with one another. Sometimes what we see on screen is not clearly explained to us by the characters. One could almost say that Lourdes resembles real life…

But it does not resemble the world photographed (not even) in The Smurfs, nor the one in Harry Potter. For all their magic, you usually know just what’s going on in films like these.

My point is that it doesn’t take much ambiguity to provoke. If you read over the commenter’s problems with Lourdes again, you’ll notice that the hostility is almost always focused at the locus of ambiguity, at certain doubts about the way that the universe works, presumed to be complicit between artist and character.

-Max Berwald

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