Wednesday, April 28, 2010


(Noah Baumbach, US, 2010)

A relatively low-key and meandering effort from Baumbach, who uses Ben Stiller to great effect and some amount of irritation. Unlike the laser-guided nastiness exhibited by the characters in his previous film, Margot at the Wedding, here the barbs are more haphazard and even seem at times to be halfhearted, as if Stiller's Greenberg really can't bother too much with anything, even being an asshole.

The cast is strong across the board. It's the best work Stiller has done in a while, even besting his amusing turn in Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums. Rhy Ifans deserves special note for his marvelously low-key depiction of Greenburg's closest, and therefore most harried, friend. Greta Gerwig shows promise, but she's poorly served by the script (and the director), who reduce her character to a series of shleppy tics. Harris Savides, one of the best DPs working today, again produces exemplary work which fits the mood of the piece perfectly and yet has a subtle, stylish flair with light. Basically, all of the elements are strong to very strong, with the only notable exception being the writing. It's been said before that a director's number one job is the management of tone - the maintaining of an emotional through-line that grows organically out of the story, rather than being imposed in an arbitrary or sloppy way. This is something Baumbach does very well, even in his less successful films. It's difficult to talk about tone with great precision, but it's closely related to that mysterious extra element that makes art more than the sum of it's parts. Because it can't be reduced, it's hard to tell exactly how it's done - it's an effect produced in the aggregate, the combination of things that only appear more complex the closer you look. This isn't some kind of dodge - tone can be discussed, but when discussing the contribution of the director to this, is usually where the term "instinct" gains the most relevance.

And Baumbach has good instincts. He knows how to keep Greenberg from becoming too shrill and repulsive - understands how to keep the audience interested in this jerk, but still aware of the fact that he is, by any measure, a jerk. But of course, viewers invest because it's clear that Greenberg himself is aware of his jerkitude, even if his awareness is merely nascent. He's a rebel without a cause, or, if you like, without a clue - the protagonist in what can be interpreted as a vaguely po-mo riff on the Brando's role in movie of the same title. It's just that Greenberg knows he's not a nice guy, and it bothers him, as does his general fecklessness, even if he occasionally gets away with suppressing that knowledge. At one point, a character asks him "what are you fighting against," to which Greenberg responds "what have you got?" This little nod comes in the midst of one of the film's weaker scenes, in which Greenberg hangs out and does drugs with young college-types - basically, kids half his age, and it doesn't really do much more than remind people how much things have changed, and also how little. There are still misfits, but the major exeption seems to be that they are now of all ages, and that we seem to be living in a culture in which its possible to get older without ever growing up. This isn't all that new, society-wise, but maybe the fact that this can be seen as admirable or attractive is.

And to plenty of people, it isn't attractive. Nor should it be, necessarily. But its to Baumbach and Stiller's credit that Greenberg the character receives any sympathy from the audience, or at least our interest, however prurient. That interest varies, and it's in the variance that Baumbach's limits as a writer are evident. He's very good at writing quip-filled, psuedo-naturalistic dialogue that contains jokes and character material without being too obvious or showy, except when he isn't. Greenberg contains too many of these moments, where the characters are a little too on point, or not enough - moments like the previously mentioned post-teen party, as well as Greenberg's impulsive decision to accompany two of the party-goers to Australia. It's silly, and its unnecessary, and it makes the filmmaking seem lazy and unfocused. Because at the end of the day, Greenburg isn't really saying all that much - it's quite straightforward in its thematic concern with the weary-but-still-beating heart of the bitter hack. It has neither the entrenched satire and quiet redemption of Alexander Payne's best stuff, nor the parallel-universe impressionism of Wes Anderson. It's a clever movie, and an often entertaining one, but it seems as if Baumbach wanted it to be something more, and he didn't quite bring it there.

Sunday, April 18, 2010


(Bong Joon-ho, South Korea, 2009)

Having seen and enjoyed The Host, I was eagerly looking forward to Bong's latest effort, and Mother didn't disappoint. Filmmakers like Bong hold a certain fascination for me because they are contemporary examples of popular artists - they bring gravity and depth to what could be considered, at a glace, to be genre exercises - and in doing so they invest the term "popular artist" with real meaning. Straddling that line, especially in cinema, has lately seemed rather difficult, with most offerings being evenly split between pretentious awards-bait and pandering, droolingly stupid spectacles. There are plenty of exceptions, and I believe Bong is one of them, but in the current firmament of world cinema they remain exceptions, and they deserve special attention when they emerge. (It should be noted that TV is one area where the aesthetically and philosophically high-minded mingle with the grit and grime of the pulp sensibility. Cinema, I believe, still has some catching up to do.)

Mother is a solid amalgamation of the potboiler and the serious art film, and it works marvelously about 90% of the time. In following the increasingly desperate misadventures of the titular character, Bong exposes the gray area between protectiveness and suffocation, between familial love and near-psychotic codependency. As a crafted story, its exemplary. Perfectly paced and visually dexterous, it shows Bong's impressive range as a filmmaker. Emotionally, too, there are moments of resonating sadness and desperation - the lead actress' performance is particularly fascinating as it alternates between evoking fear, pity, and lurid fascination.

There's a thematic undercurrent to Mother as well, and its here that Bong doesn't quite deliver all the goods. Other discussions of the film (as well as discussions of The Host) have revolved around the perceived political subtext in the film, and the extent to which Bong can be said to be offering a semi-furtive critique of South Korean society, which appears, on the evidence of his films, to be plagued with political oppression of a subtle but devastating variety. There's no doubt that that exists in Mother, but what fascinated me, and what I believe is an ambition worthy of consideration as serious art, was the near-Shakespearean tragedy of the central character. Bereft of anyone in the world to count on besides her son, she ends up creating something of a monster, and in the process of discovering the truth about his potential for brutality, realizes her own monstrosity. This is classic, heady, high-tragic stuff, but it doesn't quite all make it off the page. It may be that Boon spends just a bit too much time on the procedural aspect of the plot, in which there are various digressions and the obligatory twists of the policier (some of which serve comedic purposes), or it may be that he's not quite ready to go all the way in reducing the story down to its essence. Either way, there are moments along the way, and especially towards the end, where things became too on-the-nose for my taste. There are however many more moments of glory, and when Bong and his accomplices are in the zone, they can really make magic happen. The final moments of the film are pure examples of that magic - cinema at its emotional and philosophical best, and its for moments like those that I'll keep coming back to this filmmaker's work.