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Archive for January, 2013

Although nearly the entire film takes place inside a swanky apartment belonging to an elderly Parisian couple, Michael Haneke’s Amour (2012) is less elliptical and more straightforward as storytelling than the director’s other movies. When the story begins, Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) appears to be in pretty good shape, so it’s a bolt from the blue when she suffers a minor stroke while having breakfast with her husband, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant). After a procedure meant to prevent a bigger stroke leaves her paralyzed on the right side of her body, it becomes apparent that Anne’s condition is only going to get worse, and the bulk of the movie is dedicated to charting her decline in minute detail — though I seem to be in the minority in not finding this process terribly interesting to watch for the better part of two hours. The film opens with the police breaking into the apartment where they discover Anne’s corpse, and by telling the story in flashback, Haneke generates an air of mystery about what happens to Georges. Also, there’s an intriguingly ambiguous scene in which he curtly dismisses one of Anne’s nurses; since we don’t know what, if anything, she did wrong, we can’t side with either person. But on the whole, I found this pretty thin and monotonous; one expects Haneke to be austere but this is the first movie of his that I’d describe as minimalist.

On the other hand, that’s probably the last word I’d use to describe André Téchiné’s Impardonnables (2011), a film bursting with intriguing characters. Based on a 2009 novel by Philippe Dijan (which I haven’t read), the story begins with a French novelist, Francis (André Dussollier), renting a house near Venice to do some writing, but when his grown daughter, Alice (Mélanie Thierry), comes to visit him a year and a half later, he hasn’t written a word, although he is happily married to his real estate agent, Judith (Carole Bouquet), who’s significantly younger than he is. Francis’ peaceful life starts to unravel when Alice suddenly disappears and he begins to suspect that Judith is having an affair, prompting him to enlist Anna-Maria (Andriani Asti) — a retired private eye and Judith’s former lover — to look for Alice, and her son, Jérémie (Mauro Conte), to spy on Judith.

It’s characteristic of Téchiné’s work that all of the major characters are flawed in one way or another yet none of them are entirely unsympathetic. However, as in his previous film, La Fille du RER (2009), the story’s concentration on a closely knit group of very particular characters whose motives are often ambiguous tends to preclude any broader social commentary, even when the plot moves into territory that seems to call out for it. In particular, although it’s gradually revealed that Jérémie was in prison for committing hate crimes against gays, the film doesn’t attempt to explain his behavior. There’s no evidence that he’s a repressed homosexual, and while the movie leaves open the possibility that his homophobia has something to do with his relationship with his mother (who’s a militant lesbian), the film doesn’t spell out the connection. In other words, Téchiné’s awesome strengths as a storyteller — chiefly, his ability to create specific, nuanced characters and his refusal to offer any simplistic explanations for their actions — make the film fascinating and mysterious but also limit its resonance.

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Like Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone (2010), Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) tells a story about a resourceful young girl from a poor community that’s been left to fend for itself, but here the movie’s distrust of mainstream society generally, and the federal government in particular, is even more pronounced. The story takes place in a Louisiana shantytown called the Bathtub, which is located on an island cut off from the civilized world by the levees. The heroine, Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), is about five or six and lives with her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), who’s violent and unstable but cares deeply for the girl. To say that life in the Bathtub is far from perfect would be an understatement, but the characters (and it seems the filmmakers) regard living like a wild animal as preferable to, and more environmentally friendly than, life in polite society. When the characters are taken against their will to an antiseptic government shelter, Hushpuppy laments in voice-over that here, “When an animal gets sick, they plug it into the wall.” Then again, contrary to Wink’s assertion that the Bathtub is the most beautiful place in the world, the movie doesn’t make poverty look very appealing as an alternative lifestyle, and in any case, it’s not necessary to agree with the film in order to be moved by its story. I think it’s best to approach the movie as a sort of fairy tale about a young girl and a deeply flawed father figure, and like many fairy tales, it has a way of bypassing one’s common sense and appealing directly to the viewer’s emotions.

Although it opens with the murder of a racist sheriff in rural Florida in 1969 and the plot hinges on a possible miscarriage of justice, I’m not sure if Lee Daniels’ The Paperboy (2012) has a coherent political agenda; ultimately, the film isn’t about inequality or the American justice system but sexual masochism. The story begins with a reporter from a Miami newspaper, Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey), and his writing partner, Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo), arriving in the former’s hometown to investigate the sheriff’s murder and the subsequent conviction of a man named Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack), whom the film goes out of its way to make as loathsome as possible. (That he’s an unabashed racist is almost a matter of course.) However, as in Monster’s Ball (2001), which Daniels produced but didn’t direct, the death row business is primarily a device for bringing together two people who otherwise wouldn’t meet — in this case, Ward’s horny younger brother, Jack (Zac Efron), and a horny middle-aged woman, Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman), who writes love letters to men in prison. Although he could easily find a girl his own age, Jack wants to sleep with Charlotte (who doesn’t think of him that way), and Ward shares her taste for rough trade. Very rough. This is consistently gripping and very well acted, but the story takes so many unpleasant turns towards the end that I was reminded more of Mel Gibson than Tennessee Williams.

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An awkward blend of tough guy posturing and homosocial sentimentality (complete with adult male tickle fights), John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow (1986) is so determined to make its protagonist sympathetic that he’s never allowed to be interesting or believable, even before he resolves to go straight. (The movie’s Chinese title means “True Colours of a Hero.”) As the film opens, Sung Tse-ho (Ti Lung) is part of an international counterfeiting ring yet he’s somehow managed to keep this a secret from his younger brother, Kit (Leslie Cheung), who wants to be a cop. Tse-ho may be a crook but he’s unwaveringly loyal to his friends—unlike his associate, Shing (Waise Lee), who betrays Tse-ho so that he can take his place—though the movie might’ve been more interesting if he weren’t; at least it would’ve been more realistic. Perhaps it’s best to approach the story as merely a pretext for the film’s action scenes which cheerfully abandon continuity and logic. At one point, half a dozen taxi drivers appear out of thin air so that Shing’s henchmen have more people to fight, and Tse-ho’s confrère, Mark (Chow Yun-fat), has a sixth sense that tells him when a bad guy pops up behind him during a shootout. This is watchable enough but James Gray’s We Own the Night (2007) told a similar story more persuasively and with stronger action scenes.

Although one conservative blogger has described Satyajit Ray’s The Music Room (1958) as a defense of the aristocracy as selfless patrons of the arts¹, it strikes me as being pretty ambivalent about its central character, a faded nobleman whose “dangerous addiction” to music winds up destroying him. When the story begins, Biswambhar Roy (Chabbi Biswas) is already broke, but in Bengal in the early part of the twentieth century, the idea that an aristocrat would lower himself by getting a job wouldn’t occur to Roy or anyone else (it’s not like he has any skills), making his downfall all but inevitable. But while the movie characterizes Roy as a decadent layabout who spends his days idly huffing on a hookah pipe, he’s still portrayed in a far more flattering light than his upwardly mobile neighbor, Mahim Ganguli (Gangapanda Bose), a moneylender who spurs Roy to throw ever more lavish musical recitals; Roy may ruin himself to keep up appearances but he has refinement while Ganguli is the embodiment of nouveau riche vulgarity. (In one scene, he brags to Roy that all his furniture comes from the best English shops in Calcutta.) Near the end of the film, Roy gives a speech to one of his servants explaining that Ganguli couldn’t beat him because of his noble blood, and depending on one’s biases, this monologue can either be taken at face value (there’s no doubt he’s the better man) or as proof that he’s finally lost it (with his wide eyes and excited speech, Roy comes off as slightly mad), and his subsequent demise is at once tragic and pitiful.

Note:
1. Morton, Victor J., “I Wish I Were Indian.” Right-Wing Film Geek. WordPress. Originally posted on December 1, 2011. Accessed on January 10, 2013.

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