Archive for September, 2010

I’m Still Here

September 29, 2010

The mockumentary, I’m Still Here, is part of a hoax carried out by Joaquin Phoenix with the help of Casey Affleck. The idea was to convince people that Phoenix had quit acting in order to become a hip-hop artist. Since rumors immediately began to circulate that the whole thing was hoax, it can’t be said to have been very successful. Its main result is this film, ostensibly a documentary following Phoenix during the roughly yearlong period when he was supposedly pursuing a career in hip-hop. In it, Phoenix portrays himself as a sleazy and unpleasant character. We see him snorting cocaine, picking up prostitutes, and spewing verbal abuse at the people around him. There are moments that are clearly meant to be shocking: we see a man defecate on Phoenix’s face, and there’s an extended scene of Phoenix throwing up into a toilet. One of the jokes in the film is supposed to be that Phoenix is unaware that he’s terrible as a hip-hop artist. (The best thing in this film is the expression on Sean “Diddy” Combs’s face while he’s listening to some of Phoenix’s recordings.) There are a few funny moments, but overall I just found this movie annoying. The irony of all this is that Phoenix’s clumsy and heavy-handed parody of celebrity self-absorption and narcissism leaves one suspecting that perhaps he really is self-absorbed and narcissistic, just not in the way that’s shown in this film.

Animal Kingdom

September 25, 2010

Animal Kingdom is an Australian crime film that, I’m told, is loosely based on real events. It tells the story of ‘J’ (James Frecheville), a teenager, who, when his mother dies of a heroin overdose, is forced to move in with his criminally inclined relatives. These include coke-snorting Uncle Craig (Sullivan Stapleton), creepy Uncle Pope (Ben Mendelsohn), and the family matriarch, Mama Smurf (Jacki Weaver). J tries to keep himself aloof from their criminal activities. When, however, a family friend, Baz (Joel Edgerton), is killed by a cop, Pope demands that the family take revenge, and J finds himself drawn into the family’s violence. He eventually tells everything to the police, but his family persuade a crooked cop to try to kill him. The film ends with a twisted version of the return of the prodigal son.

Like Winter’s Bone, Animal Kingdom is about the difficult choices an individual must make to survive in a corrupt world. J finds that he can’t rely on the police any more than he can rely on his family. His only hope is to play the two sides off each other.

Although the acting is all very good, Jacki Weaver steals the film as Mama Smurf. One can sense the cold-bloodedness that underlies her relentless cheeriness. Very creepy.

Highly recommended

Führer Ex

September 19, 2010

I recently saw the 2002 German film, Führer Ex. I found it an odd and somewhat disappointing film. It is ostensibly about the neo-Nazi movement that flourished right after the re-unification of Germany. However, because most of the film takes places inside an East German prison, it’s really more about the brutality of prison life than about Nazism. (Judging from this film, the prisons in East Germany weren’t any worse than prisons anywhere else.) It is ostensibly based on a memoir by Ingo Hasselbach, though it bears no resemblance to the excerpt that I read in The New Yorker.

Tommy (Aaron Hildebrand) and Heiko (Christian Blümel) are two bored, disaffected teenagers living in East Berlin just before the fall of the Berlin Wall. They try to cross the border into the West but are caught. In prison, they gravitate towards an unrepentant Nazi, Friedhelm (Harry Baer), because he offers them protection from the other prisoners. When Heiko is put in solitary confinement, the Stasi use this to pressure Thomas into becoming an informer. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, they join an open neo-Nazi group in Berlin under Friedhelm’s leadership. One day Friedhelm tells Heiko that Tommy was a Stasi agent, so he must kill him. Heiko is unaware that Tommy became an informer to save his life. Meanwhile, Tommy has become disillusioned with the Nazis, after they kill a friend of his, a young girl. Heiko confronts Tommy, but he can’t bring himself to kill him. Tommy is subsequently killed by other Nazis. Heiko then quits the Nazis.

As I said before, most of the film takes place inside a prison. In these scenes, the prisoners are all concerned with power relationships between one another. These relations are enforced through the use of rape. When, for example, Heiko humiliates another prisoner, his cellmate demands that Heiko submit to him. The film seems to be saying that in the absence of the normal rules of society, these power relationships become an obsession for people. It may also be that these actions are a response to the boredom and dreariness of prison life.

One of the weaknesses of the film is that we’re not told much about Friedhelm, who only appears in a couple of scenes, even though he’s clearly an important character. We don’t get any sense of why people are attracted to him. Also, a large chunk of the film is devoted to a pointless subplot about Thomas’s efforts to escape from the prison. I don’t know why the fimmakers saw fit to include this, especially since we know that Heiko and Tommy are going to be released from prison anyway.

This film didn’t give me any insight into why some people are attracted to far right and racist ideologies. It seems to imply that the neo-Nazi movement in the wake of re-unification was a reaction against the East German state. (In one scene, one of the Nazis claims that they were all taught “lies” about Hitler in the Communist-run schools.) However, this doesn’t explain why there were (and are) neo-Nazi groups in western Germany as well as in the east.

All in all, this film is really more of a melodramatic adventure movie than a social analysis.

Tea Partiers Hate Muslims, Like Strippers

September 14, 2010

The good news coming out of New York is that the counter-demonstration in defense of the community center was much larger than than the anti-Muslim protest was. You can read about it here. I found this paragraph particularly interesting:

    The right-wing rally had a quieter crowd (though a better sound system). The organizers discouraged attendees from bringing signs, for fear of embarrassment on a sensitive day and on ground that they describe as “sacred”–although the rally took place directly across the street from a New York Dolls strip club.

Hmm. So, you can’t have a Muslim community center on “sacred” ground, but it’s OK to have a strip club. So nice to see these people defending “American” values.

Somebody in Boots

September 11, 2010

I started to read Nelson Algren‘s Somebody in Boots several years ago. I had just been laid off from a job, and I badly needed cheering up. Unfortunately, Somebody in Boots is not the sort of book you should read when you need cheering up. I put it aside, and it’s not until recently that I worked myself up to finish it. First published in 1935, it is Algren’s first novel. It didn’t sell well at the time, and it’s not hard to see why. This book is a glimpse into Hell.

Cass McKay lives with his abusive father and his brother and sister in a small town in Texas. His life is so bleak and hopeless that he actually envies the tramps who pass through town. At least they get to move around. HIs family eventually falls apart under the pressure of poverty and of alcohol. Cass leaves home and starts riding the rails himself.

Whatever romantic notions you may have about a hobo’s life will be pretty much demolished by this book. Algren describes in pitiless detail the many miseries of this existence: loneliness, boredom, lack of food, lack of sleep, eating bad food in soup kitchens. The hobos in this book live in continual fear of being arrested by the police or of being beaten by railroad dicks.

One problem that I’m sure that many people will have with this book is that Cass is not a good person. Among other things, he takes part in the gang rape of a woman. Later, he almost rapes an adolescent girl. He is a racist, as is almost everybody he meets. (The world depicted in this book is saturated with racism. The Black and Mexican characters get the worst of it.) Cass is clearly a product of his brutal environment, but Algren doesn’t try to soften the edges of his personality for that reason. If we feel any sympathy for Cass, it’s because some of the people he meets are even worse than he is.

Cass eventually winds up in a nightmarish Texas jail. There he comes under the influence of a fellow inmate, a sadistic bully named Nubby O’Neil. Nubby takes Cass under his wing, promising to take Cass to Chicago after they get out. Although Algren doesn’t press the point, there is clearly something vaguely fascistic about the relationship between the two men. In Chicago they break into a store. The police show up, and in the confusion Cass takes off with all the money. While hiding from Nubby, he takes up with a prostitute, Nora. Cass develops a genuine tenderness and concern for Nora. The irony is that this seeming humanization of Cass merely leads to a new criminal career. He and Nora start robbing drugstores in the manner of Bonnie & Clyde.

Towards the end of the book, Cass befriends a Black man, and the two of them attend Communist Party meetings, where they hear Black and white workers talk about fighting back against their exploiters. For a time it seems as though Cass is going to be redeemed after all, but Algren doesn’t go that route. Some people have accused Algren of being too pessimistic, but it seems to me that he was trying to say that there are no easy answers. This is a powerful and disturbing book. It’s not for the faint-hearted, but it is well worth reading nonetheless.

Micmacs, Get Low, The Eclipse

September 7, 2010

The French director, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, makes fantasies that are aimed at adults. In that sense, he’s sort of a cinematic E.T.A. Hoffmann. His latest film, Micmacs tells the story of Bazil (Dany Boon), an orphan whose father was killed by a land mine. When a shooting takes place outside the video store where Bazil works, he is struck in the head by a stray bullet. When he leaves the hospital with the bullet permanently lodged in his head, he finds that he has lost his job. He tries to support himself by working as a street performer, until he is befriended by a street vendor and former criminal, Pacard (Jean-Pierre Marielle). The latter takes him to a junkyard, where he introduces him to the Micmacs, a “family” of oddballs living in a sort of cave made out of junk. There they collect discarded items and turn them into useful objects or works of art. Bazil is welcomed into the group. One day, while out collecting scrap, he finds himself between two buildings. One is the headquarters of the company that made the mine that killed his father, the other is the company that made the bullet that is lodged in his head. Bazil then persuades the other Micmacs to help him get revenge on these two companies.

Micmacs is permeated with a uniquely French type of whimsicality, while it deals with a serious topic, the international arms market. The film’s aim is too broad to really make an effective statement. I nevertheless found it highly entertaining.

Get Low tells the story of Felix Bush (Robert Duvall), a hermit who has lived alone in the woods for forty years. He is the subject of many rumors among people in the nearby town. One day he tells the local undertaker, Frank Quinn (Bill Murray) and his assistant, Buddy Robinson (Lucas Black), that he wants to have his funeral while he’s still alive. This “funeral” will actually be a party, at which people will be invited to tell whatever stories they have heard about him. Soon, however, it becomes clear that Bush’s real intention to reveal a dark secret from his past.

I mostly liked Get Low, but I had a few problems with it. For example, some of the townspeople show an extreme hostility towards Bush that really isn’t explained. Also, it turns out that Bush’s only close confidant is a Black preacher (Bill Cobbs). I found this a bit of a stretch, since the film takes place in the South during the 1930’s. And in one scene an elderly preacher says that his mother used to call gossip “the devil’s radio”. Since radios didn’t become common until the 1920’s, I found this something of an anachronism. On the other hand, I liked that there wasn’t a flashback when Bush reveals his secret. Instead, Bush relates everything in a monologue, which was more powerful than a flashback would have been. Duvall turns in a good performance, and Murray displays his usual wry charm.

As a dialectical materialist, I must guiltily confess that I’m a sucker for ghost movies. (My two favorites are The Uninvited and Dead of Night.) That’s why I went to see the Irish film, The Eclipse, even though the trailer didn’t look promising.

Michael Farr (Ciarán Hinds) is a teacher living in Cobh, Ireland. He’s been seeing his father-in-law’s ghost, which is quite disturbing, especially since his father-in-law’s not dead. Farr is a volunteer for that city’s annual literary festival. His job to chauffeur Lena Morelle (Iben Hjejle), who writes books about ghosts, around town. (In one scene, Morelle tells him that her belief in ghosts led her to study particle physics. Uh, yeah.) Farr confides in her about his visions. Morelle is being pursued by her ex-lover, Nicholas Holden (Aidan Quinn), a novelist. A sort of romantic triangle soon develops between the three.

I found The Eclipse an unsatisfying film. At the end, it’s not clear whether Farr was actually seeing ghosts or whether he was just having nightmares. The film uses sudden loud noises and things like arms suddenly reaching up out of the ground to get its scary effects. This struck me as a little trite, though I have to admit that such clichés can still be viscerally effective at times.

The American

September 4, 2010

The American has only gotten a 61% approval rating at the Rotten Tomatoes website.(The Kids Are All Right, a contrived and dishonest film, has a 96% approval rating.) I can only assume that some people don’t like understated thrillers. The American is one of the more entertaining films I’ve seen this year.

Jack (George Clooney) is a professional killer who travels throughout Europe. After carrying out a bloody assignment in Sweden, he goes to Rome to meet his boss. The latter sends him to a small town in Italy, where he is to await his next assignment. Ignoring his boss’s orders to keep to himself, Jack becomes romantically involved with a prostitute, Clara (Violante Placido), and he becomes friends with a priest, Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli). The latter begins to act as the conscience that Jack lacks. He tells Jack that Hell is “a world without love”, the implication being that this is the world that Jack inhabits.

Jack is an expert on firearms. He is ordered to construct a rifle for another professional killer, Mathilde (Thekla Reuten). As he does so, Jack begins to suspect that he is being betrayed, but he is not sure by whom or for what reason.

I said before that The American is an understated film. The dialogue is sparse, and the tension builds slowly. The director, Anton Corbijn, is highly adept at creating emotional effects with a minimum of resources. When, for example, Jack suddenly finds himself in an empty cafe, we feel his fear that he is being set up. The scenes of Jack methodically building Mathilde’s rifle serve to draw us into his world. It’s not often you see such skillfulness in a Hollywood film nowadays. Oh, and there are breathtaking shots of the Abruzzo region of Italy.

Highly recommended.