Friday, December 28, 2012

Anna Karenina

Get off my back. I've never read Anna Karenina, okay. I haven't even read Android Karenina. And get this: I haven't seen a single one of the heretofore dozen-or-so notable screen stabs at this tome. I have, though, read Don Quixote and Moby Dick. And maybe the most faithful takes on these expansive canon-dwellers have been failures. I'm referring to Orson Welles's sometimes awkwardly earnest and usually stunning piecemeal recitation of Melville's text and Terry Gilliam's quixotic attempt at filming (sort of) the Quixote, as documented in Lost in La Mancha. In a previous post, I thought aloud a little bit about the Fitzcarraldian nature of dragging that big boat of literature up the steep, scree-laden mountain of film, and I think many of the points raised there apply here. That a dozen attempts have been made to film Tolstoy's hulk suggests that no one has so far managed to put a finger on it. I'm reminded of the three attempts made since the new millennium to get The Hulk right.

So how to take Joe Wright's stab at this hulk? The British director has so far tackled mostly books. Here's roll call: Pride & Prejudice, Atonement, and The Soloist. On the whole, his adaptations have been well-received. And this one--certainly the steepest of the mountains he's so far traversed--has been similarly approved. But the question remains: how does one begin to review a movie based on a classic book? Should it judged on its hermetic merits, or on its fidelity to the source material?

Well, there's no answer I can give you. This is a stone I've been swishing around in my own mouth lately. I'd like to proclaim that whatever art should have either a long and limp or else a non-existent tether to its source material, but we all know that fans of the book will always find fault with anyone's interpretation/digestion that isn't their own. And this may be your reaction to Anna Karenina. If it is, please keep in mind: when it comes to things you love, it's rare that anyone else's opinion/interpretation will ever be as articulate/invested as your own--but that don't mean said opinion/interpretation can't be interesting as hell.

- Andrew

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Sessions

The poster for The Sessions hawks it as being "destined to be a player at the Academy Awards," pointing, it would seem, to John Hawkes's portrayal of a man confined by polio overcoming his physical restrictions and reaching out to the world. The A.V. Club's review puts it best: "While his role feels like an import from an Oscar-bait prestige picture, the film around him has different aims. It’s funny and overtly sexual, rather than serious and stuffy, and it’s supremely uninterested in Oscar-esque gravitas."

Hawkes plays the real-life, now-passed poet and journalist Mark O'Brien, who, as a forty-year-old, engaged the services of a sex surrogate (played by Helen Hunt). The Sessions is based on O'Brien's 1990 article "On Seeing A Sex Surrogate," which you can read here.

The frankness of the subject matter could possibly deter the bashful, but know that there's nothing quite prurient about The Sessions. Here's the New York Times on that issue:
Arriving in a culture steeped in titillation, prurience and pornographic imagery, “The Sessions” is a pleasant shock: a touching, profoundly sex-positive film that equates sex with intimacy, tenderness and emotional connection instead of performance, competition and conquest. There are moments between the client and his surrogate that are so intensely personal that your first instinct may be to avert your eyes. But the actors’ lighthearted rapport allows you to rejoice unashamedly in their characters’ pleasure.
Whether or not The Sessions deserves its Oscar destiny on account of John Hawkes's portrayal of someone who doesn't get around as easily as you or I (which the Academy apparently loves) or on account of its own merits is unclear and unimportant. But if Oscar gold is important to you, it's worth noting that O'Brien as a subject won the Oscar for documentary short in 1996. You can watch that doc, Breathing Lessons, here.

- Andrew


Armageddon came on the heels of Ben Affleck and Matt Damon winning the Best Screenplay Oscar for Good Will Hunting. The Michael Bay disaster flick wasn't the worst thing ever committed to celluloid, but it made fine grist for the hater mill. With just a few mainstream movies, Affleck and Damon went from wunderkinds to jokes. Then, when Ben human centipeded with J Lo--becoming Bennifer--making the disaster of a movie Gigli, the lingering scintilla of respect we had for the guy dried up. I always felt this derisive attitude was uncalled for. I liked Ben Affleck; still do. When Gone Baby Gone was released I remember there was an effort to dampen the fact that Affleck had helmed the film, so much so that there was a confused murmur in the audience when the Directed by Ben Affleck card hit the screen. It wasn't a corker of a movie, but it was good. His sophomore movie, The Town, was similarly strong and people must have been warming up to the idea of Affleck not being a chump enough that he was allowed to star. Now, with Argo, everyone seems poised to recalibrate their jerky knee-jerk Affleck hate.

Argo's a caper movie that manages to maintain all the classic will-they-or-won't-they-pull-it-off? tensions while also staying connected to its social and political impetus. The trailer sums up the background fairly well, but here's a primer: Reacting to the USA's sheltering of the just-deposed Shah, militants storm the embassy in Tehran. Six people manage to escape (approx. 50 others are taken) and hide out in the Canadian embassy. After having no better idea than sneaking in six bikes to peddle hundreds of miles to the border, CIA agent Tony Mendez (Affleck) concocts a The Producers-like ruse wherein he travels to Tehran posing as a filmmaker scouting locations for a sci-fi movie, Argo.

Hack got up and hay got made when the movie premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. We Canadians felt like our role--specifically ambassador Ken Taylor's (played by the go-to Canadian, Victor Garber) role--in The Canadian Caper was under-represented. Affleck's act of contrition was to replace a snubbing card of postscript with this new one: “The involvement of the CIA complemented efforts of the Canadian embassy to free the six held in Tehran. To this day the story stands as an enduring model of international co-operation between governments.”

After you've seen Argo, why not check out this jenky, VHS-wobble copy of the TV movie Escape from Iran: The Canadian Caper:

- Andrew

Friday, December 7, 2012

Holy Motors

Leos Carax's headscratcher Holy Motors is pretty straightforward. A man named Monsieur Oscar is driven from "appointment" to "appointment" by his limo driver, Celine. We get the idea, as the appointments are completed, that Oscar's been in this business--whatever this business is--for too long. Oscar isn't quite at Murtagh-level of exhaustion, but is beginning to suffer from onset French ennui. When Holy Motors comes out on "home video," can I recommend a drinking game that has you and your buds bottoms-up whenever Oscar lights a cigarette?

Now, what are these "appointments" that Oscar is ambulated to over the course of the movie? I'm not actually sure. Each appointment comes with a dossier outlining a scenario. Then, in the back of his limo--which is basically a refined tickle trunk--Oscar dons the appropriate disguise. He becomes a beggar woman, a flower-eating troll, a hit man, and so forth, and either foists himself into situations or slides into them seemingly seamlessly. In a no-brain way, Holy Motors is just a day-in-the-life of Mr. Oscar and whatever it is he does.

Cinema Captain Peter Henderson summed up Holy Motors best: "It's film school." It's a film about film, about performance, about genre, about mimesis, as referential as a classic Simpsons episode. The best comparison I can make is to Italo Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler, which is about You trying to read Italo Calvino's new book, only to find that, through printing errors and conspiracy, the book is constantly being replaced by other stories that cover the whole gambit of literary genres. Sounds annoying and laborious, huh? Holy Motors is anything but. As confusing as it may be, it's also completely entertaining--it may be complete entertainment. Oscar himself is an appointment performed by Denis Lavant, one of the most satisfying, challenging performers I didn't know about until now. The film would be alienating if it weren't for Lavant's grounding, inviting presence. 

Like Calvio's book, Holy Motors is just as much about You as it is about whatever it's about. The movie begins with a shot of a movie theater full of people, as though seen from the screen's point of view. You could ruin this movie for yourself by worrying whether or not you're understanding it, or getting it. If this movie's about anything, it's about surfaces. The experience of and maybe even the enjoyment of surfaces is just as important as whatever's underneath. The only thing you're really responsible for, at first, is watching. So watch Holy Motors, keep your appointment.

If you're looking for elucidation afterwords, this discussion and this ejaculation might be of interest. 

(Also, if you're with me on this, I'd like to start using "Holy Motors" as an expression of astounded amazement. As in, "Holy Motors, Batman!")