The world is quickly dividing into two camps: those who have seen Christopher Nolan's Inception and those who have not. Fearing that if I remained too long in the latter group I would accidentally hear some plot point that would completely ruin the movie for me, Aimee and I made it out to see it tonight in what for us is record time. And oh my hell I loved it, though perhaps not for the same reasons many other people are talking about it. The structure is indeed brilliant, the effects jaw-dropping, the twists clever (though never quite reaching Memento-level heights of brain hemorrhage for me), Joseph Gordon-Levitt disarmingly hot in his fancy suit. But no, what really blew me away was the attention to psychological detail and how deftly the film deals with the slipperiness of memory. When Leonardo DiCaprio's Dom Cobb reaches his own catharsis and admits he could never possibly recreate from his head alone the woman he loves in all her staggering complexity, her passions and faults and all, it spoke so deeply to his sense of loss. The scenes we cherish and turn over and over in our heads, trying to keep a person or a relationship alive, they can never be a real substitute for gloriously complicated reality.
Sampling the Crazy Heart soundtrack at KALX for my show a couple weeks ago I instantly fell in love with Jeff Bridges's portrayal of past-his-prime country singer Bad Blake. And that was just from his voice on the CD, before I'd even seen the movie. Without Bridges Crazy Heart would be thoroughly average fare, following the predictable biopic-esque arc of a man's journey from the edge of destitution to redemption. Bridges puts his entire soul into his performance, however, backed up by the always-luminous Maggie Gyllenhaal and music composed by T-Bone Burnett and Ryan Bingham so memorable I've been humming the songs to myself for weeks now. Seriously, buy the soundtrack. Bridges does all of his own singing in the film, as does Colin Farrell in a small role as Tommy Sweet, the Bad Blake protégé who with his youth and more commercial appeal is selling out stadiums while his former mentor plays in piano bars and bowling alleys (an opening location I chose to take as a nod to The Big Lebowski). The film's loyalties clearly lie with the older generation of "real" country musicians instead of the many slicked-up over-produced messes currently coming out of Nashville, and if you listen to my show you know who I prefer too.
Trust me, I was not at all certain about seeing another Michael Haneke film so soon after having seen The Piano Teacher. But his latest The White Ribbon has been getting such rave reviews, and (let's face it) I can be something of a glutton for punishment. I needn't have been so worried; The White Ribbon is exquisite. Intense, absolutely, and once again Haneke shows himself the master of psychological horror as he depicts a small German village just before WWI that is home to some very odd occurrences. The film is narrated by the local schoolteacher, and it's important to remember at the end that the story is told from his perspective when you ponder the questions left open. Haneke's camera goes even further to show us intimate scenes of private disturbances, especially between parents and children but among the adults as well, building the case for a collective potential for violence, punishment, and revenge present in these seemingly mundane people. The White Ribbon was shot in color and then digitally converted to a luminous black-and-white that is too sharp to be period but still heightens the sensation of inhabiting a different era. It also fits perfectly with Haneke's stark technique, as he also uses nothing but native sound (a snippet of Schubert performed by two actors and two church hymns sung by a child choir being the only music on the soundtrack) and refuses to cut away from even the most painful moments. I was simultaneously impressed and utterly absorbed. Though you could still not pay me money to watch either version of Haneke's Funny Games.
If I want a Sherlock Holmes that is true to period (and to Arthur Conan Doyle), I will go back and watch the British TV series with Jeremy Brett. But Guy Ritchie's sexed-up new version is a ton of fun too, if definitely not for people who insist on Holmes purity. It's a Ritchie film, so be ready for the desaturated color palette that is his shorthand for grittiness and plenty of slow-mo fight scenes and heavily made-up women that if you squinted would maybe look vaguely Victorian. However, my complaints were brushed aside every time Robert Downey Jr. was onscreen, and it is worth seeing the movie for his energetic, wise-cracking portrayal of Holmes alone (though the London backgrounds were pretty darn cool as well). I also enjoyed Jude Law as Watson and am secretly hoping they ratchet up the homoerotic tension between the two leading men for the inevitable sequel. Though really Sherlock Holmes 2 could just be Downey Jr. sitting in his study smoking a pipe for two hours, maybe raising an eyebrow from time to time, and I would still pay to see it.
Though Jason Reitman's latest effort Up in the Air lacks some of the wit and sparkle of his earlier films Thank You for Smoking and Juno, it is absolutely a movie for our time. I wish I could tell you how many of my friends have been laid off this year or how many rounds of cutbacks my company has gone through (the last of which was last week), but I honestly started losing track somewhere around August. In the film George Clooney's Ryan Bingham travels the country handing out pink slips to the employees of companies who have hired him to do their dirty work for them, and he revels if not in his job then at least in the familiar anonymity of airports, rental cars, and business hotels. One of the most gorgeous sequences in the film is the quick succession of shots that follow Bingham as he goes through an airport metal detector. He's like a ninja of airport security, and frequent traveler that I am I couldn't help but gasp in admiration. Clooney is his usual charming self even when playing a man who actively avoids any human connection, but he also has impressive female costars here in the form of Vera Farmiga, who plays a love interest, and Anna Kendrick, who plays a coworker. Reitman is a very capable filmmaker and even throws in a nice Coen brothers moment with a cameo by Sam Elliott, but the story at times feels too predictable and even uncertain of the message it is trying to convey about whether Bingham is destined to be happier isolated in his airborne world or down on earth amongst us screwed-up people. The many layoff scenes are deeply affecting, however, and I wager I was not the only one in the theater feeling my heart wrench in my chest. Here's hoping that 2010 is better for everyone.
Agnès Varda has always loved playing with mirrors in her films, and in the opening scenes of her brilliant new autobiography The Beaches of Agnès we see her directing a shoot by the sea involving mirrors of all sorts. The mirror is a highly fitting metaphor to start out this self-reflective film in which Varda leads us from her childhood in Belgium through to the work she is creating now that she is in her 80s, all told with a wink and her sly sense of humor. Varda has long been one of my heroines for films like Cléo from 5 to 7 and Vagabond, and I was lucky enough to catch a wide range of both old favorites and new discoveries at the series the Pacific Film Archive ran earlier this year. Clips from her vast body of work are interspersed with La Varda's personal recollections, recreations of moments from her past, and outright whimsical flights of fancy (her entire production studio outfitted in bathing suits and taking calls on a sandy beach transplanted to the middle of a street, for instance). I was thrilled to hear her talk about her role in the French New Wave and her friendships with some of the artists and directors I love dearly, not to mention her marriage to Jacques Demy and her passionate involvement in the pro-choice movement, but it also is incredibly inspiring to hear how she has lived her life as a creative woman in a field still completely dominated by men. So often female artists are seen as either vocally and completely off the deep end or silently mysterious, one extreme or the other, and it can be so fucking hard to ignore all those perceived expectations and just be. The Beaches of Agnès is a wonderful memory-box from a woman who has never been afraid of her own voice and as a result has created work that will endure far beyond this century. And of course I have to adore Agnès for her unabashed love of cats too.
I love Joel and Ethan Coen a lot, and their newest offering A Serious Man is one of their best yet. The film follows Minnesota physics professor Larry Gopnik, played by the brilliant Michael Stuhlbarg, as he goes through a bit of rough patch in his life. He is a good man but beset by unfortunate circumstance, and as his certainty starts to unravel he seeks advice from a series of rabbis, each one of them more useless to him than the last. The trademark Coen black humor is fully present, as are their hilariously over-the-top characters. Their camerawork is also fantastic throughout, and the scene pictured here where Gopnik perches on his roof and surveys his neighborhood in all of its 1967 Robert Bechtle splendor took my breath away. But the film is also a rich, multilayered investigation into Jewish identity in particular and the human condition in general, and in the end there are no easy answers either for our hero or for the audience. A Serious Man might be biblical in scope but is no pat parable, and its complexity is exactly what makes it so great.
Inglourious Basterds did absolutely nothing to change my opinion about Quentin Tarantino, namely that he is a hack director way too impressed with his own shtick to attempt anything genuinely innovative and who takes alarming pleasure in portraying gratuitously graphic violence. It is no accident that Hostel director and torture porn extraordinaire Eli Roth has an acting role in this movie, which expects the audience to delight in its cheerful sadism. Certainly there are some laugh-out-loud moments (though not all of them intentional) and great performances from the likes of Brad Pitt and the tragically underutilized Michael Fassbender, and the climax of the film even with its complete disregard for historical accuracy feels satisfying. But every beautiful shot Tarantino frames up is borrowed from a whole slew of filmmakers greater than he, and his packing the movie from end to end with film-geek references is ultimately pointless except as a diverting exercise in trainspotting. Scenes that were clearly meant to be suspenseful seemed a rehash his earlier work, and in terms of sheer offensiveness don't even get me started on the way the two lead female characters are abused. Faux-auteurish touches like the deliberate misspelling of the title and errors in the subtitles are not clever; they're annoying. It might be apocryphal but apparently Tarantino gave the following response when asked about that title:
Here's the thing. I'm never going to explain that. You do an artistic flourish like that, and to explain it would just take the piss out of it and invalidate the whole stroke in the first place.
Most Americans will not recognize Armando Iannucci's name, but in Britain he is known for working with Steve Coogan on the Alan Partridge show and for creating the BBC's political satire The Thick of It, of which Iannucci's brilliant film In the Loop is a lengthy spin-off. In both the series and the film Peter Capaldi plays Malcolm Tucker, the British prime minister's director of communications notorious for spitting hilarious vitriol at everyone who crosses his path. In the Loop follows Tucker as he tries to do damage control after the British minister for international development (as played by a sheepish Tom Hollander) says one word in an interview that sets off a riot of speculation in the press about Britain's support of a war in the Middle East that the U.S. just might maybe be thinking of starting. No one on either side of the pond is spared ridicule as documents are leaked, intel is faked, and political alliances are made and just as quickly broken. The script is lightning-quick and razor-sharp, and frequently I was laughing so hard I was gasping for breath. But though In the Loop aims its volleys from behind the safety of farce, the ease with which I could believe the events of the film might actually happen is ultimately not comforting at all. All the more reason to see it immediately.
Make no mistake: Kathryn Bigelow's astounding new film The Hurt Locker is not just a war movie, it's a war movie set in Iraq about bomb technicians. So you know I mean it when I say it's a little tense. But I think the thing that most impressed me about it was not only the art direction but the film's subtlety, and how by not over-explaining every single thing that happens onscreen you enter into the minds of the soldiers and begin to grasp how utterly mind-bending it is to work in a foreign combat zone that also happens to be where normal everyday people are trying to live their lives. Nothing makes sense; all you can do is hope you survive to the end of your rotation, and in the meantime there's drinking and heavy metal and tussling with your buddies and the pure unadulterated adrenaline rush of defusing a bomb that could kill you and fifty others and doing it with your bare hands. Even though the film is free of political grandstanding beyond the clarity of "war really truly sucks", suddenly the statistics I hear on the news every morning are in sharp focus for me again. Those are people's lives, not just numbers. How sad that this film is still completely relevant.