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Two movies have opened recently that revolve around style. One is a documentary about a filmmaker who is known for his, the other is a film by a director who has it.
How one reacts to De Palma, the new doc by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow about the director, first name Brian, who really made his mark in movies with the horror film Carrie, may depend on how you feel about the filmmaker’s films in general. For me, De Palma, who is the only talking head here, it’s his show all the way, is only as interesting as his movies, which means that once we get to Blow Out, it’s all down here from there.
His earliest films tended to be of the independent sort, made on a shoestring budget, if that. They may not have always looked as professional as a Roger Corman production, but they had a fresh hipness to them and gave us such actors as Robert DeNiro and Jill Clayburgh.
His most successful films, when it comes to a meshing of auteurism and box office, came with the movies that were heavily influenced by Alfred Hitchcock, films like Carrie, Dressed to Kill and the aforementioned Blow Out. There was something so kinetic and thrilling in his combination of individual style with Hollywood slickness that gave these films a certain electricity. Read the rest of this entry »
There is a scene in Spring Breakers, the new bikini noir written and directed by Harmony (Gummo, Trash Humpers) Kline, where you think it’s all finally going to come together. In it, Alien, a white rapper/Scarface wannabe (a surprisingly amusing James Franco), plays a sentimental Britney Spears’ song on a white piano that overlooks the ocean while three of the spring breakers, model thin college students dressed in more than skimpy two pieces, sing along, dancing ballet like movements while holding assault rifles the NRA would be proud of, and wearing pink ski masks. It’s absurd, ridiculous, preposterous, unlike almost anything you’ve seen before, and you think, this is it, this is the moment when it all becomes something.
But it doesn’t. It just doesn’t quite make it. And in the end, that’s what the whole movie is. Ambitious. Daring. An unapologetic attempt to do things differently. And just one scene after another where you think it’s going to blossom, but never does, finally falling apart by the end in one big, flailing, frustrating mess.
Spring Breakers is a movie that starts out being about one thing and then changes horses in mid stream. It begins as a story about Faith, a college student who attends Christian youth meetings. She’s warned that Satan will tempt her, but God will always giver her the strength to withstand him. She’s not sure she buys it, but she can’t let go of it either. So when three childhood friends (who all ended up at the same college, which I thought was a neat trick, but sure, why not, let’s go with it) ask her to go on spring break, she agrees, even though she’s warned that the three friends are really sociopaths (and they are). And of course, they do what any group of proud sociopaths do before spring break: they rob a restaurant to pay for it (and get away with it to boot, but it’s the sort of movie where the police only show up at the convenience of the plot). And then on spring break, after a very, very, very, very, very, very (well, you get the idea) long time, they finally meet Satan, the aforesaid Alien.
The group describes themselves as miserable. But they’re not miserable because of their situation. They’re miserable because they’re, well, miserable people. But the movie is written and directed in such a way that you’re unclear Kline realizes this; you don’t know if he’s commenting on how self-deluded his characters are, or if he’s playing it straight. In fact, if I were to be perfectly honest, it reminded me of a screenplay I once gave feedback on and described as an incompetently written drama only to find out the author thought it was a comedy—I really couldn’t tell the difference. (At one point, Faith asks “why is this happening”—it’s hard to take someone seriously who is so self-deluded, but at the same time, I wasn’t sure whether I was or wasn’t suppose to take her seriously; I was the only one laughing in the theater).
So everything is set for a highly stylized, semi-satiric morality play. And then at the halfway mark, Faith leaves. She goes home. A very wise move on her point it must be said, but still, she never comes back. So if she isn’t what the story was about (as everything up until that point suggested), then was the point of the first part of the movie? Why did we even watch it? Kline actually does this two more times (changes the intent and direction of the story), until it feels as if he had no clear concept in the first place, that he didn’t really know what was going on and what he was trying to do. And the whole thing finally reaches an ending so absurdly ridiculous that one is just amazed at the preposterousness of it all.
I suppose that’s the point. But in the end, the finale is just one big long cliché. In fact, the whole movie is just one long cliché after the other. But Kline doesn’t do anything with them except present them at face value. He doesn’t comment on them. He doesn’t use them to make a point. He just treats them as if it is enough that they are clichés—which may be a bit too ironic and post modern even for me (sort of like someone copying the Mona Lisa so well you can’t tell the copy from the original and presenting it as an original work of art).
Spring Breakers is visually stunning. But it falls into the category of recent films like Stoker and On the Road and to some degree The Silence in which it feels as if the filmmakers think character, story, ideas are irrelevant. As long as it’s all told visually, that’s all that’s necessary. But the more I see of movies made like this, the more I’m becoming less and less convinced that a picture is indeed worth a thousand words.
At one point in the movie, Dorfman in Love, Dorfman (played by the cute and charming Sara Rue) is described as a cliché…a Jewish accountant. The description is half right. She’s a cliché, but not because she’s a Jewish accountant, but because she is a…well…cliché. A walking, talking, double taking cliché. In fact, one of the things that this light, breezy rom com has in common with Spring Breakers is that it is one cliché and formulaic contrivance after the other. And like Spring Breakers, it’s unclear whether writer Wendy Kout and director Brad Leong realize this.
Kout’s screenplay is sincere and well meaning. She shows all the appropriate empathy for her characters and the story fits all the correct troupes found in the more popular books on screenwriting. But it’s also a movie you’ve seen a million times before.
Dorfman in Love is about a woman whose journey is to find herself, to liberate herself from the stereotyped roles she’s been assigned, to free herself from the bourgeoisie trap she’s found herself in, to really discover who she is. But in this movie, that journey is basically defined as finding a boyfriend (at that point I almost tossed my hat up in the air and said, “That’s it, I’m outta here”). One of the oddest interchanges is when Dorfman’s father (played in an appropriately grumpy manner by Elliot Gould, though his performance, like so much of the acting, is a bit too on the nose) tells her he’d be happy once she is married and has children. This upsets Dorfman, though I wasn’t sure why since this seemed to be the goal she had set for herself as well.
Dorfman in Love is a movie in which the heroine is encouraged to be brave and take chances and really experience the world and have an adventure; noble goals, to be sure, but which, within the context of this movie, means taking the L.A. Metro rather than driving, and then walking around downtown (I suppose the demographic aimed at here are readers of Joan Didion).
There’s something about Dorfman in Love that is very reminiscent of Georgy Girl, Lynn Redgrave’s rise to stardom movie about another non-thin young woman looking for love. But while Georgy Girl is set against, and is a commentary on, the swinging sixties and the changing morality of the time, Dorfman in Love seems more set against the middle brow, urban middle class lifestyle reflected in off-Broadway plays of twenty to thirty years ago (plays that often won Pulitzer Prizes for reasons I never understood). Dorfman in Love just feels a bit dated.
The movie is bright, at times funny (the best line is when Rue runs down the street past some winos and one says to her “Change?” and she says, “I’m trying, I’m trying”). But perhaps the most ironic thing about it is that after it was over, I so wanted to go back and watch the anarchy and failure of Spring Breakers rather than the safe, works on its own terms, formulaic Dorfman.
Ginger & Rosa is writer/director Sally Potter’s touching and empathetic character study of Ginger, a young teenager growing up against the rise of nuclear weapons and the protests against them in 1962, England. It’s a milieu affected very deeply by World War II, even at that late a date. People still bear scars of that time. And the whole country still looks as if it is affected by the rationing (everything is bleak and everyone wears coats and heavy clothing whether they are inside or out).
There’s much to like here. The period detail is quite nostalgically wonderful and Robbie Ryan’s cinematography has an effective cold warmth to it (he’s also worked on such movies as Red Road, Fish Tank and The Angels’ Share). Elle Fanning (of Super 8 and Somwhere fame) is quite marvelous in the lead role. And the most interesting actors keep popping up: Christina Hendricks as Ginger’s long suffering mother; Alessandro Nivola as her not long suffering, but wants everyone to think he is, father; Oliver Platt and a sly minx of a Timothy Spall as a gay couple who are also Ginger’s godparents; and Annette Bening as a no-nonsense war protester (you kind of want to stick around just to see who else might put in an appearance).
The movie doesn’t always work as well as it might. It’s basically a chamber piece, a boulevard drama, but though it has many effective moments, it could use a bit more of the tension of a Henrik Ibsen/August Strindberg play. And the constant references to the threat of nuclear war and the end of the world never quite convince. I suppose the idea is that Ginger is spouting this outward conflict so she doesn’t have to face her inner and more immediate conflicts. But whenever anyone talked about the danger of the bomb, the lines never felt comfortable on anyone’s lips and seemed a bit clunky, more a distraction than an integral part of the drama.
But in the end, it’s a satisfying and often moving portrait of a young girl learning that contrary to appearances, life goes on and there’s always hope for a future.