Of Gods and Men

I had heard a lot about this film from Cannes given that it won Grand Prix honors. That isn’t always a perfect recommendation, so I approached this film with a bit of trepidation, spurred on by the trailers I’d been seeing. As it turns out, this is a beautifully filmed and subtle presentation; it actually made me wonder what Merchant Ivory could have done if they’d gone to Algeria.

Most  importantly, the story manages to pull off the near impossible. I’d say, “miraculous,” but then I’d blow the comment. We get to know the monks, villagers, and even the rebels and the government players as people. By the time the conflict plays out, you do not see the monks as either noble nor as foolish, they are just honest in their belief.

How this is managed is really a great bit of directing and writing. A large portion of the film is dedicated to not only watching the monks pray, but hearing (or reading) the text of their prayers, which are all rather topical to their situation. Given that they are picking those chants and prayers specifically, that isn’t surprising, but the total effect of observation and watching their interactions with the world brings you into their mindset without the need for beaten breasts or religious diatribes. Gorgeously subtle. And, since this is based on real events, it is even more impressive as the film rises above mere chronicle or exploitation and simply becomes human.

Despite the fact that I’ve rated this rather highly, I have to admit that I don’t see myself coming back to watch the film again. Not because it isn’t expertly done, but because having experienced it now, I don’t think I’ll feel the drive to do so again. However, I didn’t want it to get lost for others and so bumped it up my scale. It really is worth seeing at least once.

Christopher and His Kind

I came to this film thanks to a disc trailer and the involvement of Matt Smith, who’d I’d noticed originally in the Sally Lockhart adaptations with Billie Piper and now more prominently as the current Doctor; making this a Doctor Who round-about. He has some serious chops and I look forward to his developing career… even if I wish he was a bit less frenetic as the Doctor.

As to this film: Christopher Isherwood lived in interesting times and had both a fascinating life and a large impact on society both through his writing and his open lifestyle. If you don’t know much about him, you’ll definitely be enlightened and even likely surprised. This movie chronicles the beginning of his journey as he becomes an independent adult. Taken together with A Single Man, which is frankly a much better film, you get Isherwood’s life story… more or less. A Single Man is focused much more intimately, while this film is broader in scope and is as much social archaeology as it is self-realization.

Because of the scope, and a bit of a weak writer, the script for Christopher and His Kind is a bit pedantic, but it is played with commitment by a nicely rounded cast. It manages to capture the frustration and horror of Berlin in the early 30s and even, and perhaps more personally, the fear of fundamentalist fervor in a book burning scene that years ago I would say could never happen today, but now I wonder. Gave me a real chill. Again, think that was more my state of mind than the film’s success, but reactions to art are always contextual.

If you approach this as more of a BBC special than a film experience, you’ll not be disappointed. If you’re just curious to see Smith in a different kind of role, I can promise you that as well. And, when you’re done, I’d suggest picking up some of Isherwood’s work and experiencing it directly.

The Orgasm Diaries

Perhaps I am over-thinking this movie, but my only other option would be to say it was a 2 star, pseudo-documentary about a slacker couple. I don’t think that is the case because it really does hold together better than that; there was more effort to create a story that, as parable, actually holds together.

So, with that preamble, this is a story of innocence challenged and corrupted. A story of art and passion. A modern Adam and Eve, wholly comfortable with themselves, who leave the garden and get the opportunity to return.

I don’t want to imply this is a brilliant film, it isn’t. But, it works and delivers its message while somehow not becoming porn. I don’t think it manages to provide a real sense of people beyond the sex (as Shortbus did), but it is astoundingly honest and unselfconscious, and filmed with cinematic flair.

Nurse Jackie vs Dexter

No, this isn’t a cage match conversation, though that has some real possibilities for another post or a bar chat at a convention. This post is a social commentary.

Having just made my way through the first season of Nurse Jackie (yes, I’m behind), I was struck by the darker and self-destructive characteristics of Jackie and the fact that it has become such a hit.

We seem to be in a golden age of anti-heroes. Not that there haven’t been anti-heroes forever, depending on how you’d like to parse the definition. I’d argue that some of the quintessential Greek and Roman demigods were so flawed and reprehensible by modern standards that they would qualify as well; “anti-hero” is really a contextual judgement.

But we are now in a time when, regularly, we celebrate truly broken people like Jackie, and we root for them often because of, rather than despite, their bad acts–we are amused by them and somehow do social math that forgives the reality of action and morality because of the good she does or the evil we’d like to do. Interestingly, and thus the title today, we celebrate Dexter for his successes and struggles, but the math here seems more acceptable to me; he kills those who would otherwise go free and kill others (and in the rare moment where he screws up, we suffer with him).

These are two very different manifestations and they reflect heavily on the mood and mores of the society in which they thrive. Dexter is today’s Dirty Harry, sweeping the streets by any means necessary and we thank him for it. Jackie, however, is more like Mack the Knife or Lulu with a stethoscope. She manages to do good, but is so broken and flawed that she should be in karmic free-fall.

We’ve had flawed characters on TV almost since the beginning. Even The Honeymooners or Lucy were seriously flawed people, it was what made them relate-able, and in there way, lovable. However, we were more often laughing at them, not laughing with them.  The punishment was their failures. Their rewards, the love and forgiveness of their friends and family… and audiences. Other anti-heroes, such as Archie Bunker, were object lessons and, yet, we found ways to love them as well.

Somehow, the presentations and creations now all feel very different to me. Consider Misfits, who we sort of support, but only in relation to our own morality–we don’t really want to see them hurt… do we? Probably not; they’re sort of redeemable in their own ways. Of course, Misfits is just as much satire as it is story.

I’ve seen periods like this before, though expressed less broadly. Many years ago I saw a production of Othello where the Christopher Walken portrayal of Iago stole the show and won the hearts of the audience, much to my horror. This was during the period just after the ’87 crash, and perhaps that is a clue given our country’s economic woes? Do these darker characters and their actions provide a cathartic release for our frustrations at the way things are?

I don’t really understand what is going on, but I do notice that there is something happening and a sort of existential scream in the form of entertainment appears to be the manifestation.

Oh, for the record, Nurse Jackie would win–Dexter has too many rules that control his behavior.

Barney’s Version

An odd little film that pulls you along with great performances by Giamatti, Pike, and Hoffman especially. The ability of Pike and Giamatti, in particular, to present both their younger and older selves over a 30 year period believably is wonderful. My respect for both has been raised significantly by this movie.

Additionally, Giamatti’s ability to make Barney, who is a bit of a schmuck to be blunt, sympathetic is impressive. You get to understand and support this guy through every bone-headed and right decision he makes. And, even then, perspective is everything. That this is “Barney’s Version” really does come into play in multiple ways throughout the film. Giamatti loves taking on unlikable characters and given them heart. Most recently I’ve enjoyed him in Cold Souls and The Last Station, each of which have challenging roles that he imbues with life.

Another wonderful aspect of this movie, is that what you think the story is about is probably not what the film is about entirely. It keeps changing and evolving, much as life, ending at a perfect moment. There are plots and comments both obvious and subtle throughout both on a character and social commentary level. Take the time and find this one when you have a chance.

happythankyoumoreplease

Very NYC, very sweet collection of interlocking stories of a group of friends. The strength of the plots is that they are both improbable and believable. Written and directed (and starring) Josh Radnor, it is an impressive piece of effort given all his responsibilities for the production. I do wish he’d given up the director’s chair on this, however, as he never gets very far from his sitcom character on How I Met Your Mother (another sort of silly, fun, set of plots, but less believable). And, if there was a major flaw in the film, for me it was the music choices. Other than the final song, they were all too loud and obvious, and distracting from the film. A minor complaint, really, but I did notice it.

To call this uplifting, or empowering, or life affirming is really to over-think the story. But it definitely leaves you with a reminder of perspective and to accept that you are allowed to ask to be happy. Sundance audiences loved the film, and I see why. Worth your time at least once. Depending on where you are in your own life, you may even want to see it again.

Elektra Luxx

Don’t be decived by the low-budget look, feel (ahem), and bawdy subject manner, this is a good movie. Despite the very conscious porn-style art direction, this is a movie with some great laughs and some some real heart. The cast alone should make that obvious, but any doubts are utterly erased by the incredible performance in the prison scene — both subtle and solid enough to make you sit up and take notice. Carla Gugino is a heck of a talent and manages to pull off seedy, sexy, and intelligent all at once without falling into the cliche “prostitute with a heart of gold” model.

This is a sequel to Women in Trouble, which I haven’t yet seen; my understanding is that this is the better of the two. Given the fun of this movie, I’ll be picking up the first soon in my screenings. If you’re looking for something very different and out of the Indie showcase genre, don’t miss this movie.

Luther (BBC)

I watch a LOT of BBC mysteries; this one blew me away. Luther is probably the most original, non-book based detective created since Prime Suspect gave us Jane Tennison. And that’s saying something.

Luther starts dark and continues that way, pulling you along through horrific crimes and the lengths to which Luther will go to solve them. His passion is both infectious and terrifying to the audience and to those around him. But while it is Luther’s internal struggle that drives the story, he is surrounded by wonderful characters, both whole and broken. Elba picked up a BAFTA for his performance, deservedly, though there isn’t a weak member in the ensemble.

The second series is coming and, I have to admit, I can’t wait to see it. You shouldn’t wait to see this one.

Another Year

Slow but focused, this tale of a couple and their friends is really beautifully done. Even more so when you realize it was mostly improvised; something that wasn’t even obvious until I watched one of the extras on the disc. A solid cast of actors and characters makes it all feel very natural and believable.

Leigh bring a very Altman-like feel to his efforts which, among other things, includes directing  Vera Drake. Both directors just let the story unfold and, while there is clearly a story, it is told through interactions rather than through exposition (visual or dialog). However, unlike Altman, Leigh has more restraint and focus, containing his canvas so you can follow, more or less, one story rather than many. I do enjoy Altman, but all too often I find he goes off the rails with the scope of his films. Leigh maintains a more solid center.

Worth your time when you’re in a quieter mood and want to see good story and excellent craft.

The Amazing Screw-on Head

Based on Mike Mignola’s (Hellboy) work, this failed pilot is a twisted, dark, and rather adult Scooby-Doo sort of adventure.

The voice talent is astounding, as is the pedigree. Bryan Fuller (Dead Like Me, Wonder Falls, Pushing Daisies, Heroes, etc) produced and his wry sense of humor pervades. I can see why this failed as a series, both in content and for the writing, but it is a great 22 minutes when you just want something very different.

Art, writing, life explained… or at least commented upon…