30 January 2009

Rewinding 2008: Part V

Reviews of Man on Wire, Cloverfield, Slumdog Millionaire, Stop-Loss, and Waltz with Bashir.

As I work on whittling my best-of list for 2008 (set to be published in the near future), I'm pausing to consider releases from the year, both the good and the bad, that I haven't reviewed on Screen Savour.
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The best documentaries are always about their subjects and something else, something ineffable and inescapable that hangs in the air and makes the experience not only educational but viscerally emotional. Director James Marsh has constructed such an experience with his stellar documentary Man On Wire. His subject is a French tightrope walker who envisioned the World Trade Center towers connected by a single line, and who – on the morning of Aug. 7, 1974, after years of planning – stepped out onto that line for a 45-minute dalliance of mysticism. This documentary is a feat: a lively, rambunctious, and engaging examination of Philippe Petit, who may be more alive now than ever. Petit, whose interview is the heart of this film, brings so much of the raw energy from his general demeanor that it is nearly impossible not to become enthralled in his every word. Of course, you also hang on tight to Petit's story because it comes built-in with a million questions: What kind of person would do this? And, for God's sake, how and why? Marsh has these questions as well, and slowly – teasingly, one might say – they are revealed through a beautiful collage of contemporary interviews, skillfully made recreations, archival footage, and still photographs (unfortunately we don't really have any film of Petit out on the wire, but when you consider how dangerous the stunt was, perhaps it's for the best). There is a simultaneous ghostliness and mournfulness in the documentary too, which is where it derives its most forceful element of ineffability. Would Man on Wire have meant as much to us before 2001? You may be tempted to say yes; after all, we were wowed by Petit even before he stepped off the wire and back onto the roof (one NYPD officer calls his routine "dancing," which feels about as right as any other word). But the answer must be no. What Petit did in 1974, when the buildings were fresh and new, was defy those who would impose limitations on the human experience. What Marsh has done in 2008 is something equally impressive: the director wisely knows where our minds will go once we see the images of those two skyscrapers and needn't say anything. Instead, we learn of one man's journey into the air above Manhattan, and we know it can never be duplicated. We learn the value of ceaselessly inhabiting in the present, of appreciating the fragility of life, because tomorrow, or the next day, or twenty-seven years later, there will little warning of how it can all disappear.

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A few critics for whom I have a great deal of respect ranked Cloverfield as a second- or third-tier film in their analyses of 2008, reporting that it surpassed their expectations, which, after seeing the film, I can only assume were apparently low enough to ricochet up from the floor. (To cover my bases, allow me to say most people I respect didn't like it.) I've always been a fan of allegorical B-movies from the 1950s, when the cold war, the bomb, and the space race infused picket-fence American culture and produced many lame but lucid science fiction films. This enjoyment of the genre leads me to believe it's possible to duplicate that joy in present-day cinema, but Cloverfield, which I watched on a whim one afternoon, comes nowhere close to recreating that feeling of B-movie jubilance. I try to consider films as they are, not as they could be, but this film Рwith its epileptic cinematography, its squandered allegorical power, its hobbling and transparent script, and its let's-make-a-hundred-million-dollars attitude by going as PG-13 Рputs its flaws on display so prominently that it becomes more interesting to imagine what could have been instead of watching what is. The decision to film this apocalyptic creature-feature as a shaky hand-held narrative recovered from wreckage ("the area formerly known as Central Park," we are told) is a curious one, chiefly because no matter how dirty director Matt Reeves and producer J.J. Abrams would like Cloverfield to be, it is as glossy and predictable as any other low-brow Hollywood horror release. My assumption is that the camera is meant to make this feel like a documentary and heighten tension by limiting the point-of-view, both of which might be admirable if the script, which hits every clich̩ you might anticipate, weren't such conventional tripe. (Never mind that once you start to ask questions, the entire set-up falls apart.) If you want to get away with looking like an amateur film that just happened to be a few blocks away from the end of the world, it would help if the substance of your film wasn't overly explanatory, audience-tested, and culled from the trash can of Screenwriting 101. Maybe it would have worked if the stakes were more specific, or at least not a love story. Instead, Cloverfield does it all wrong, and it's painful to watch. (Steven Spielberg had better luck with the allegory in his under-appreciated War of the Worlds.) Here's a horror movie that should have had one-tenth the budget; it should have been done in a purer indie tradition and given a nice solid R-rating; it should have been less concerned with the audience's comfort levels and more concerned with the possible complexities of a script; it should have given itself something legitimate to say, instead grunting along and dining on boring yuppies.

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I'd be lying if I said I was impervious to the charms of Slumdog Millionaire, a Teflon-coated nugget of pure pop art, but I'd also be lying if I said that charm didn't immediately begin to wane the moment the film was over. To the uninitiated or under-prepared like me, Danny Boyle's rags-to-riches fairy tale can be overwhelming – the cinematography is high-octane, the editing is aggressive, the script is temporally incongruous, the emotions calculated and manufactured and somehow sort of pure. I was surprised by much of it, certainly by how thrilling it could be. But the film is not wall-to-wall success, and it only works until its rather ordinary love story consumes the final third of the story. The script, liberally adapted by Simon Beaufoy from Vikas Swarup's novel "Q&A," follows an orphan named Jamal (Dev Patel) from poverty in the streets of Mumbai to a momentous episode of success on the Indian version of "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire." The film is framed with the events following Jamal's appearance on the show; he is accused to cheating, but through a series of strategic flashbacks – which reveals his streetwise brother and the young girl with whom Jamal falls in love – we come to understand how Jamal's life has made him a wiser, weathered, and wounded guy. Beaufoy's script is engaging at first, then it tends to grow a little too familiar. The film is by no means a failure, even if it is jaw-droppingly superficial in its character interactions and depictions of contemporary Indian life. That superficiality seems to be translating nicely into immediate crowd-pleasing, but in terms of long term survival, I'm not sure Slumdog Millionaire has the vibrancy of a film that will demand multiple viewings. I was pleased, but the more I thought about the film, the more it revealed itself to be only something of a novelty. There's the illusion that we're going somewhere special, but the path is well-trodden and the dreaminess grows hazy in hindsight.

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Films in the latter half of the year tend to be most remembered, but the early part of 2008 had one interesting film that, while not great by any stretch, has stayed with me as a curious character study and a strong example of emotional precision: Kimberly Peirce's pro-soldier war story, Stop-Loss. As she showed through her debut feature Boys Don't Cry, Peirce has an enormous capacity for empathy, and the characters of Stop-Loss – traumatized soldiers from the Iraq War – are portraits of raw, powerful, and often uncontrollable energy. Ryan Philippe stars as a man whose retirement from the military is postponed, or "stop-lossed" – essentially voided by a war-time government that demands he report for duty again – and faced with the possibility of returning to war, he goes AWOL. Philippe's performance is dark and convincing, and he's wonderful alongside the exemplary Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Victor Rasuk. The film correctly takes little if no position on the merits of the war itself and instead admirably advocates on the behest of soldiers and families whose morale is in tatters, people who are fundamentally good and what to do the right thing but who come to realize they have been abused for their intentions. Movies about the Iraq War haven't fared well with audiences; the obvious reason is that if it's this depressing in real life, why would it be any better in fiction? But until Peirce's film, they haven't had the ability to elicit serious emotion out of the audience. There are times when the script (written by Peirce and author Mark Richard) and the actors stumble into overdrawn Movie-Of-The-Week mode, and there is something vaguely off-putting about the fact that it was released by MTV Films. But Peirce rises to the occasion, and these bouts of strained melodrama are countered with genuine and stunning bursts of emotional clarity. Perhaps given time and space to heal our artistic responses to the Iraq War will become more focused and more honed, thus ultimately better, but even when they do, Stop-Loss will still be the among the first that got it right.

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One of the most exhilarating sensations a person can have at the movies is the joy that comes when you wholeheartedly embrace a director's vision. Many filmmakers try to capture an effect and fall short, but there are times when the choices seem so visionary that you couldn't imagine how the film could have been made any other way. That is the sensation I felt with Israeli director Ari Folman's animated documentary Waltz with Bashir, an insightful and dazzling study of a soldier's trauma-induced spotty memory and the magnitude of cruelty capable in war – in this case, the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. The animated documentary is a nascent genre, though not completely new (Richard Linklater worked within it for his great 2001 film, Waking Life). Waltz with Bashir, however, might so far be the most effective documentary told through animation, due to his commitment to the power of emotional truths and the power of animation; together, they are formidable. We follow him as he seeks to reassemble the memories of the war that he has repressed, each friend or comrade painting in elements of their tales (although they too have a great challenge in recollection) and helping Folman find his own. Like Man On Wire, Waltz with Bashir has the opportunity of recreation – each account of the war elicits an animated sequence in which the memory, in all its surreality, is experienced. Creating the film was a monumental, four-year task, and Folman splits with the credit of this towering success with his director of animation, Yoni Goodman, who invented the film's rotoscoping-esque style of animation. It is a beautiful film with powerful undercurrents, another piece of evidence in the ongoing argument that animation has a practical and mature use and that some circles, particularly the Academy Awards, should be more willing to accept its almost infinite possibility. (Of course, a great irony in this is that Waltz with Bashir has been nominated for Best Foreign Language Film and not Best Animation Film.) In his pursuit for the truth in memory and the truth in factuality, what Folman has created is a cross between Tim O'Brien's probing novel "The Things They Carried" and Art Spiegelman's brilliant graphic novel "Maus." It is a tremendous achievement, at once haunting and euphoric, and brought to the screen with such deliberate and delicate craftsmanship.

7 comments:

FilmDr 30 January, 2009  

Interesting reviews. I fully agree with you about Slumdog Millionaire, but I wonder if you might have liked Cloverfield better if you had seen it on the big screen. In his blog Spectacular Attractions, Dan North wrote a nice analysis of the media campaign and some of the visual subtleties of that film.

NoirishCity.... 30 January, 2009  

Hi! T.S.,
Oh! yes, I have watched the documentary Man on Wire...This is a very "fascinating" documentary about French tightrope walker Monsieur Philippe Petit Wow!...What a very fascinating man to attempt and accomplish such a daring "feat" that high above ground level.

Personally, I think that he was born to "walk" between the 2 towers. Because from childhood to adulthood he was always climbing and such self confidence and such a sense of determination.
Remarkable!

(My joke question about French tight walk Monsieur Phillippe Petit, and the remake of Alfred Hitchcock's 1958 film. "Vertigo")
…Do anybody think that Monsieur Phillippe Petit, will be the perfect choice to portray (Scottie) in the “remake” of director Alfred Hitchcock ’s 1958 remake of (“Vertigo.” ) “Vertigo?”

My response: No!...because I wouldn't believe him when he said, "I'am afraid of "height(s)"...
Merci!
DarkCityDame ;-)

MovieMan0283 31 January, 2009  

You are very good with this format...all of these reviews are well-written and thought-provoking; not that your lengtheir musings aren't but there's a tightness here which is extremely impressive. Good work...and as far as your sentiments, I have not seen Man on Wire, found Cloverfield nauseating (which, oddly enough, I did not find Blair Witch Project) and its characters fairly repellent, liked Slumdog Millionaire though it's been fairly overrated (and the ending lost it for me), and have not seen Stop-Loss but am intrigued, more so by your praise. Waltzing with Bashir remains on my to-see list.

Have you heard of the brewing controversy around Slumdog? Apparently, in the process of making this film about exploiting Indian youngsters, the filmmakers...exploited Indian youngsters. Sort of adds to the diminishing returns you already noted.

Farzan 31 January, 2009  

Good post, I enjoyed Cloverfield. I thought it was a good teen horror movie and was pretty entertaining. Its a film thats meant to be seen on the big screen just because its pretty intense. Sure its got problems, but what movie doesnt.

Sam Juliano,  31 January, 2009  

Once again T.S. your work here with these provocative capsules is simply outstanding, and your fecund writing is engrossing. I much agree with Movie Man in this sense.
On two of the four films I completely agree: MAN ON WIRE is a feat, much like its subject. And yes it's visceral and emotional, and it's educational and entertaining. I read in a few quarters where some think the psychology of the main character was underdeveloped, but to remedy that underpinning may well have compromised this film as a deft resurrection of an event that has even more profound and poignant meaning in view of the ensuing tragedy. Of course the film, like Mordecai Gerstein's Caldecott picture book on the same subject, chose rightly to make only cursory allusion to that wrenching calamity, but it's impossible to shake nonetheless.

CLOVERFIELD is derivitive, jarring and as you eloquently pose: hobbly, transparent, glossy and predictable. It would be a strong contender for the worst film of the year had such a list been composed, but I am no fan of such celebration of failure.

i do not agree with you at all on SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, which is a viseral operatic confection, known for its bold artsitic currents and exhilarating emotional content. I fullly endorse the spectacular reviews the film has received, and myself do not take any issue with the (nonetheless) excellent argument you offer here, and lament at the inevitable backlash that will always inform a film receiving this kind of penultimate praise. SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (and I was dazzled by the dance at the subway station at the end myself) is surely one of the best films of 2008. One usually reacts to cinema or to any work of art in the way one is emotionally connected. If that connection isn't ever realized, then the issues will be elaborated upon. But again, as in all threads we post to agree and to disagree. Your insights here are perfectly presented. One could ask for no more.

Similarly, I did not connect with WALTZ WITH BASHIR as you and 99% of the critical establishment has. I found it tedious, redundant and disjointed, and it's intend resonance was lost in an underwritten script. But again, that was my take, apparently I'm on the outside looking in.

Magnificent writing and insights, as per the course for this gifted critic, T.S.

T.S. 31 January, 2009  

Thanks for the comments, everyone. There's nothing quite so daunting as opening your Internet browser and discovering a boatload of comments requiring a response!

@FilmDr - Glad to hear the back-up on Slumdog. It's really quite lovely packaging, but I'm not convinced that there's much else inside. I have nothing against a good love story; many contemporary narratives are simply about finding a new way to tell a story in a new way and with a new and different emotional spin. I think Slumdog found a new way of telling its narrative, but I'm not convinced there's enough of a spin on it to make it completely original. On the subject of Cloverfield and the big screen ... that's a good question, one I'm always asking myself. It's fair to acknowledge the environment we see a movie undoubtedly influences our verdict on it, although sometimes it's only so small of an effect we can't notice. Who knows, I may have enjoyed it more; my primary issue with it was how glossy and high-production it was, when what it really needed to be was dirtier and messier and more like an indie. The conceit of the "found tape" lost me when it was clear the screenwriter had built in a series of Hollywood-esque introductions, where we get to meet all the characters in such a cute way and then watch them band together, as if they were pitching the script to us as simpletons. I'd almost wanted them to give me a little credit.

@DCD - Glad to hear you liked Man on Wire. I think you'd have to assume Marsh was familiar with much of Hitchcock's work because he has structured his documentary very well. All through it, Mrs. T.S. kept saying, "I WANT TO KNOW DID THEY DID IT!" I was gripped by the whole thing, as was she, so Marsh knows how to structure something that keeps you gripped and wanting more.

@MovieMan - Thanks for the kind words. I like the capsule reviews; they help me get my thoughts out of my system and not look back. I've noticed the longer I've been writing on Screen Savour, the longer the reviews have been getting... ha. Anyway, after Hitchcock and Chaplin, I'll go back to shorter reviews; three or four paragraphs. At least until I move onto my next cinematic obsession to write essays and essays about. (I did hear about the exploitation. Who knows the extent to any of that stuff – but the more popular the film gets, the more likely people will be either trying to knock it off its pedestal or trying to get a slice of the pie.)

@Farzan - That is true, maybe my perception on it was skewed and I should have accepted it as more of a teen horror flick. The problem as I saw it was that it seemed to be aiming higher than mere schlock; that it wanted us to draw parallels between this and domestic/foreign terrorism. It was difficult for me to give it pass as just a horror flick when it seemed to be clearly invoking something allegorical, and subsequently not living up to its own proposal.

@Sam - Thanks, as always, for the prudent comments. I see what you mean on Slumdog. There is a great deal of emotional material bouncing around inside the film, and as you watch it's (nearly) impossible not to be affected. I have not read many TRULY disparaging critiques of Slumdog, which speaks volumes of its ability to captivate and entertain. I can't account for the way it began to fade from my mind almost immediately in any other way but to say it might be due to the final third of the script, which I felt was a little too much expected and without much of an original spin on it. (That also might be due to the fact that I could sense where the film is going in the first 15 minutes – but again, it IS a fairy tale.) I had a good time watching it, so I can't avoid recommending it to people; but I similarly can't name it among the year's best (or even Best Picture) because its allure disappeared too fast, unlike Wall•E or Milk, whose emotional elements stuck with me for weeks after seeing them. But always, I'm lucky to have readers like yourself: intellectual, balanced, allowing yourself to see both sides and then sticking to your guns while allowing me mine. :) Most bloggers don't have that blessing!

Daniel Getahun 25 February, 2009  

I'm obviously VERY late to the conversation here, but wanted to extend my appreciation for your appreciation of Stop-Loss. Indeed, it's the first film about the war that has mattered, in my opinion (excluding documentaries, No End in the Sight and The War Tapes being the top that I've seen).

I'm interested in The Hurt Locker coming up soon, which may be the second film that has mattered.

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