Sunday, March 30, 2008

On Desire's Wings: Flight of the Red Balloon

“You know, grown-ups are a bit complicated,” a frazzled Suzanne (Juliette Binoche) tells her 7-year-old, mop-headed son Simon (Simon Iteanu) in Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao Hsien’s exquisite, spectacular little gem Flight of the Red Balloon (inspired by French filmmaker Albert Lamorisse’s 1956 short “The Red Balloon”). This from a woman stuck in her own childhood world – a small, cluttered Parisian apartment (Simon gingerly steps over her books not any toys), a silver “magic box” in which she keeps super 8 reels of her puppeteer grandfather, a job that allows her to spend her days voicing Asian puppet shows. Her significant other Pierre is off in Montreal finishing a never-ending novel, leaving her with a downstairs freeloading tenant (a struggling screenwriter) named Marc who – like everyone else in her life – pops in unannounced. Her daughter Louise from an earlier relationship is living with her own father in Brussels. From the fairytale cobblestone streets of Paris, to the ancient puppet plays, to her nearly bohemian commune lifestyle (in several scenes Simon wears a T-shirt reading, “Change The World”), Suzanne seems to forever exist in an earlier time – or in a state of timelessness itself.

Into this situation walks Song (Song Fang), a film student from Beijing hired as Simon’s nanny, and not incidentally, a stand-in for the director himself, as Song also happens to be making a film about red balloons (she studied Lamorisse’s short at school, and Suzanne tells Song that her first short “Origins” reminded her of childhood). Soon enough Song is capturing the everyday moments of Simon’s childhood. A stroll through a park becomes an opportunity for Simon to expound upon his mother’s favorite statue, one depicting a puppet show. (Later when someone drops by their red and yellow decorated home asking for Suzanne, Simon nonchalantly offers, “She’s probably tied up with her puppets.”) When Simon becomes engrossed in a game of pinball at a cafĂ© Hou’s camera witnesses the scene from outside through the windowpane, the sunlight’s reflection rendering Song who stands beside Simon, shooting from her own small digital cam, a mere ghost. In fact, “Flight of the Red Balloon,” is visually packed with windows, with mirrors and puppets – forming a narrative of life through reflection and allegory. The titular red balloon is only seen sporadically, in the opening as Simon tries to coax it down from a tree as he stands outside a subway stop surrounded by the roar of traffic, in an “over the shoulder” shot as the balloon frantically “searches” for Simon on the platform of the next stop, flying high above the slanted Parisian rooftops, between the red curtains of an apartment window. And yet, like an omnipresent angel from Wim Wenders’ “Wings of Desire,” that balloon is deeply felt in each and every frame.

But perhaps the most interesting aspect of “Flight of the Red Balloon” is how Hou takes advantage of his “outsider” status – as a Taiwanese director in Paris paying tribute to a French film – to endow all his images with a fresh childlike wonder. The west is seen through an eastern lens with special attention paid to the different rhythms of people and puppets, the balloon and the city itself. Like a tapestry the multi-layered story is intricately woven into the many low angle, “kid” POV shots, the smooth flowing pans and tilts that soothe like a lullaby. The lilting piano that forms the soundtrack parallels Simon’s piano lessons, a bus displays an ad for “Children of Men” (in French). The spontaneity of words is preserved through Hou’s approach to working with actors – creating an already lived-in environment into which they simply step inside. Hou has said he chooses the precise locations and explores them thoroughly (even down to the exact time Simon’s school is dismissed for the day) before he even begins the script. The characters’ back-stories are so rigorously defined, the narrative foundation so firmly in place that the actors are free to improvise, to let the stories unfold organically as in real life. We aren’t “told” of Suzanne’s situation but given crumbs to follow until a clear picture of her emerges. (How do we know Louise is her daughter from an earlier relationship? Because Simon describes Louise as “kind of my sister.”) Nothing “big” happens – for it’s the little things in life that are so momentous!

Little things like keeping a piano in tune. My favorite scene is one that starts with Song escorting a blind Asian man (the piano tuner) over to the instrument. As he sets about his work a visitor comes by unannounced to ask for Suzanne then quickly leaves. A harried Suzanne soon flies through the door still in a heated argument with Marc. By the time she slams the door in his face Simon is on the phone with Louise – who then speaks to Suzanne to tell her she isn’t planning to move back in with her after all. But the most jolting moment of all is when Suzanne suddenly acknowledges the piano tuner with an apology. It’s only then when the realization dawns that the tinkling of the piano keys had been a nearly imperceptible accompaniment to the chaos all along, as abrupt a revelation as when Suzanne implores, “Can you get it back in tune?”

And isn’t that what the longing to capture and extend childhood is really all about? To be transported to a time and place in which the sour notes of adulthood are unknown. Even as Hou “dismantles” the magic – we see puppeteers manipulating their puppets, Song explains why she has a man in green holding the red balloons (so she can digitally erase him later) – he adds to it, yin-and-yang-like. One cannot “explain away” a kid’s make believe world. Towards the end on a field trip to a museum when Simon’s teacher uses a picture of a child chasing a red balloon as an opportunity to give a lecture on angles and perspective, a distracted Simon looks up. With a fluid tilt we’re taken upwards to the glass ceiling where the red balloon hovers outside, always patiently waiting to be discovered anew. “Flight of the Red Balloon” truly is a love letter to filmmaking – its magic above its tricks.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Experiments Gone Wrong

David Berreby’s The Case for Fitting In in “The New York Times Magazine” is notable not so much for trying to make a case against nonconformity (that society as we know it would collapse if everyone marched to a beat of a different drummer is pretty self-evident), but for bringing up the fact that many academics are now (finally!) beginning to debunk Stanley Milgram and his “groundbreaking” behavior experiments – something I’ve been trying to do ever since I first saw Alex Gibney’s documentary “The Human Behavior Experiments,” which uses data obtained by Milgram and his counterpart Zimbardo to explore how decent, law abiding folks can do the most heinous things.

(Also in that issue of “The New York Times Magazine” is my Letter to the Editor concerning Alissa Quart’s When Girls Will Be Boys.)

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Not Playing at a Theater Near You

It’s the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Museum of Modern Art’s “New Directors/New Films” series time! Check out my reviews of “Japan Japan” (small town fag in Tel Aviv) and “XXY” (Buenos Aires, inter-sex teen in small town Uruguay) at The House Next Door.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

First World, Third World

Set aside slick camerawork and an overwrought sweeping score and Tony Kaye’s (Tony Kaye?? The same guy who helmed the trite and tedious “American History X”?) 15-years-in-the-making doc “Lake of Fire,” about the abortion debate in America, is remarkably smart filmmaking (so much so that I even was able to forgive “artsy” indulgences like the names of the talking heads appearing onscreen upside-down before reversing to readable format). “Lake of Fire” works because it takes the issue of abortion as its starting point – a way into the larger context of ideology and dogma in America, suggesting that our thinking on the subject is woefully narrow. As famed lawyer Alan Dershowitz puts it early on, the divisive debate reminds him of the story of the rabbi who had to decide between two conflicting sides in a divorce. After hearing the husband’s version he declared, “You’re right.” Upon hearing the wife’s he pronounced, “You’re right.” When a confused rabbinical student said, “But Rabbi, they can’t both be right,” the rabbi replied, “You’re right!” Which can only lead to the conclusion that the wrong question is being asked.

Bioethicist Peter Singer suggests that we’ve sidestepped the real issue – when is it O.K. to kill? (As opposed to killing as a black-and-white moral concept.) Pro-lifers frame the women’s (the individual’s) rights versus the unborn babies’ (humanity’s) rights as a case of narcissism versus the greater good of society. But these people that rail against the “slaughtering of innocents” (like Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry who also rails against homosexuals – and has a gay son, by the way, though he comes across as a closet queen himself in the film) are the very same people who will go out and eat burgers after a rally. Is it not narcissistic to think your life is superior to these other innocents that have been slaughtered? It all comes down to the idea of drawing lines – a wholly personal issue, not one of right and wrong.

While we pat ourselves on the back for having a black man and a woman as potential presidents, Liberia has become a post-war country run by black women (not only the president, but the ministers of Finance, Justice and Commerce, along with the chief of police). The fascinating documentary “Iron Ladies of Liberia,” by Daniel Junge and Siatta Scott Johnson, follows Madame Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in her first year as the first elected female head of state in Africa. (Which is the first-world country again?)

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Agent Provocateur

In terms of directing style, Michael Haneke is a brother to Polanski, his clinical approach a foil to all the psychological terrors lurking beneath the surface of a frame. His camera is enamored of body language – hands, fingers and feet – as much as by what the face betrays. This is a man able to translate esoteric, “looks great on paper,” concepts flawlessly to the screen. He does what lesser “idea” artists like Catherine Breillat cannot – push beyond his own comfort level, not just ours.

Yet still Haneke is one of the most divisive filmmakers working today – a man both derided and admired, often in the very same breath. What most of the director’s detractors dislike is his desire in films like “Funny Games,” recently remade shot for shot in English from its German original, to implicate the viewer in the senseless violence taking place onscreen. What critics assume is that if Haneke ends up titillating – rather than holding the audience accountable – he is no better than a snuff filmmaker. Alternately, many feel that as director he both births the violence onscreen while placing his intellectual elite self above the fray. Both these arguments are reductive and quite miss the point. The first, “violence is bad – shame on us for watching” assumes a moral preaching too simplistic for this philosophical director. Even if we do in fact become titillated rather than horrified our minds are always engaged. Haneke is a coldly cerebral filmmaker, not visceral. He’d make a terrible mess of slasher flicks. And it is precisely this cerebral quality that often paints him a snobbish academic. He’s “above the fray” like Hitchcock and Kubrick placed themselves “above the fray” – out of a working necessity, not elitism. If Haneke were a down-in-the-dirt, visceral director his films would indeed devolve into “Hostel” for college professors.

For first and foremost Haneke is a provocateur. He wants his audience to think – for themselves. This is his number one goal. And by virtue of the fact that he hits such a strong nerve in those who can’t quite figure him out he’s done what he’s set out to do, got them actively wondering, not passively witnessing. At heart his films are just a series of questions to be endlessly pondered by each individual viewer. There are no right or wrong answers. And this, above all the blood and gore in the world, is what truly makes audiences squirm in their seats.

Eddie Izzard Is My Hero(ine)!

Never underestimate the power of comedy to illuminate. The “NY Times” published an intriguing piece with “lost Python” (John Cleese’s words) and actor Eddie Izzard who still happens to be happily cross-dressing despite masculine appearances to the contrary. Caryn James’ interview excerpted below:

“(Izzard) said he is clueless about Broadway shows because “I’m a straight transvestite; I know nothing about musicals.”

He doesn’t always mention being a transvestite in his shows, he said. But he did in the two I saw, and it worked as a disarming strategy: acknowledge it for fans who are wondering what happened, then move on. “I am a transvestite; I’m just off-duty at the moment,” he told the audience, and immediately went on, “I never was a transvestite; it was a tax thing.”

As he explained later: “Some people would heckle me and say ‘Where’s the dress?’ and I’d say ‘Don’t oppress me, you Nazi’ — tends to shut them up. Because I have fought for the right to be able to wear a dress, not that I have to wear a dress. I didn’t jump out of a not-wearing-dress box into a have-to-wear-dress box.”

But isn’t he now in a have-to-wear-pants box for career purposes?

“Slightly,” he acknowledged. “Socially, politically, the number of out transvestites in the public eye are few.” And in American-accented voices he imagined one studio executive trying to persuade another to hire him:

“ ‘Yeah, he’s a transvestite — but he hasn’t been wearing a dress for a while.’ ”

“ ‘Yeah, I suppose that’s O.K.’ ”

Being a transvestite is “still not part of the establishment,” he said. “ ‘Twelve transvestite senators turned up today’ — it hasn’t been said yet. You’re always sort of outside the loop.”

When he started performing in England, he wore ordinary men’s clothes but worried that the press would learn of his transvestism and run with the news in a lurid way. He told reporters that he was a transvestite; they thought it was a joke. “So I thought, I’ll wear a dress and wear makeup,” he said, “and they wrote, ‘O.K., he is a transvestite, but he looks a mess.’ ”

“By the time I got to America in ’96, I thought, I’m going to bring it to America so I don’t have to do a two-step here,” he said. Eventually people saw him only as the cross-dressing stand-up, though, so he veered again, and here he is as Doug Rich.

Sort of. In the poster art for “Stripped” he is wearing an open lacy shirt, suit and jeweled collar pin, an image he described as rock ’n’ roll. He may be wearing a bit of eye makeup — more than most men but less than Keith Richards. It’s a dandyish, Beau Brummel look that hints at the balance he has to find at this stage of his career.”

And life, I might add. In fact, Izzard is just going through what every one of us whose gender and/or sexuality don’t match society’s “norm” eventually face. How do you come out without having that part of yourself define you completely? It’s really no different from what any minority throughout history has had to deal with. How does Spike Lee go from being a “black filmmaker” to being just a filmmaker who happens to be black? In the same way Izzard is attempting to become a comic and actor who “happens to be” a transvestite. You start out by acknowledging the thing that defines you – and then move beyond it, others’ reactions be damned. It’s the only way for one to grow both as an artist and as a human being. “She’s Gotta Have It” Spike Lee is no less black for having directed the conventional crime thriller “Inside Man.” Likewise, Eddie Izzard will always be a transvestite whether he’s wearing sequins or suits (or both). (In fact, “straight” Izzard in pants is more a true transvestite than gay Divine – who only did drag onstage as part of his shtick, and indeed was gearing up to play a male role on “Married With Children” when he died – ever was.) “Lost Python,” dramatic actor and trailblazing pioneer. That’s Eddie Izzard defined.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Filmmaking Made Easy

Any documentary called War Made Easy and narrated by Sean Penn practically screams “righteous lefty propaganda,” which pretty much sums up the aforementioned film. Indeed, you could just write off the doc as another cog in the robust, liberal, Robert Greenwald dominated propaganda machine (information about screenings can be obtained at Greenwald’s Brave New Theaters website) if it weren’t for one truly fascinating thing. In attempting to reveal the path that has led the U.S. into war after war since the second great one, writers/directors Loretta Alper and Jeremy Earp, along with their talking head media critic Norman Solomon (whose book “War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death” the film is based), end up employing much of the same spin that their film is purportedly trying to expose!

Alper and Earp have crafted a doc heavy on stock footage of yesteryear’s propaganda flicks, blitzing us with presidential speeches from LBJ to W. inter-cut with serious Solomon holding forth, bombarding us with the requisite “Apocalypse Now” images of war. We’re told that propaganda today is the same as that of half a century ago, that the Red Menace has morphed into the Islamic threat, that the U.S. tries to use the “selfless act” as a rationale for going to war (“We must help these poor foreigners to achieve freedom!”), a plea to the public’s emotions. “We go to war to achieve peace” is endlessly repeated while bombers prepare for the next air raid. A constant drumbeat is necessary to rally support. The media colludes with the government while officials blow smoke, actively shaping the media message before waging a PR campaign during the war. We learn that embedded reporters in Iraq were in bed with the government message, were used as instruments of information control. WWII had high public support, but once the public feels lied to or deceived (Vietnam, Iraq) the support drops, yet the war continues on momentum alone. Shocking, no?

No, and this is my second problem with “War Made Easy.” Virtually every bit of information Alper and Earp drumbeat us with is common knowledge. And how do I know that Phil Donahue got canned as a result of questioning the Iraq war, that the U.S. news media didn’t even bother delving into Powell’s infamous U.N. speech to debunk it? Why, from the exact same American media Solomon slowly and deliberately excoriates. In fact, this movie’s entire point about conspiratorial media collusion has been rendered moot. If nothing Solomon says comes as a surprise then the media rectified its own mistakes. No matter that Solomon speaks with gravitas, for his words are lightweight. There’s little substance in his analyses. He proffers that declaring the Iraq war not winnable is a copout, that “A deeper critique is that the war is wrong.” Yet he never explains why this mea culpa is truly any deeper.

Instead Solomon generally paints a picture of the media as lapdogs or suckers. But a “deeper” critique would be an analysis of corporate interest in big media. Maybe Solomon missed the memo, but CNN and Fox are businesses – not public services. They only report what they think will sell. CNN has a fetish for the “technical wizardry” of war just like they have for the dramas of Miss Lohan and Miss Spears. The media doesn’t report that WWI had 10% civilian casualties while Iraq has 90% civilian casualties as a result of those high-tech weapons not because Dick Cheney told them to shut up, but because, really, Americans want to hear about themselves. Big media looks through Americans’ eyes at the expense of foreigners because the average TV viewer simply doesn’t have the patience to sit through subtitled Kurds halfway around the world when “American Idol” is on.

It’s one thing (laughable) for Alper and Earp to trot out O’Reilly and Fox News, quite another to drag out footage of the CNN chief news executive “bragging” about consulting the Pentagon for his (one-sided) experts – when the filmmakers themselves use only one source, Solomon, for their film. We’re told of CNN’s directive to reporters to remind the public why we were hitting Afghanistan – Americans died first. But is this tacky order really so heinous? Giving a story a broader context is a worthwhile goal – a lesson Alper and Earp prefer to ignore. Solomon even holds forth on history’s outsiders, mavericks that stood up to presidential authority and were later vindicated. But not every challenger to the status quo that votes against a bill, a decision, is right. I highly doubt the filmmakers would consider Supreme Court maverick Justice Scalia honorably “right.”

Perhaps “War Made Easy” would have worked before Vietnam, before cynicism towards government became a part of the American DNA. In 2008 it looks antiquated, too simplistic for even a high school audience. Eugene Jarecki’s highly informative “Why We Fight” is an intricate study of Eisenhower’s theory of the military industrial complex. Charles Ferguson’s thoughtful “No End In Sight” is ingenious in its method of turning the war hawks’ own words against themselves. “War Made Easy” is simply a movie for those who’d rather not think too much.

What In The World

Zhang Ke Jia’s “The World” is a sumptuously shot film that follows two star-crossed lovers navigating their way through the world of globalization that they work and live in – in this case China’s answer to Disneyland’s Epcot – a theme park that features replicas of every country (motto: “See The World Without Leaving Beijing”). With Zhang’s use of long shots and wide angles we’re led through a cold, overwhelming Kubrickian vastness of space, of simulated nations, attached to a warm-blooded humanist story. With the catchy Enya-like soundtrack and futuristic anime sequences wedded to an old-fashioned love story, we virtually become enveloped in “The World.” Everything about this film works (and cries out for continuance. I see an intriguing HBO series. Sheila Nevins, where are you?)

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Camp Galore!

Scan the Internet Movie Database for Michael Sarne’s “Myra Breckinridge,” based on the infamous book by Gore Vidal, and you’ll find among the plot keywords “Non Statutory Female On Male Anal Rape.” Which makes one wonder if that category was coined solely for the groundbreaking Miss Myra herself, exquisitely brought to life by the underrated Raquel Welch.

Now playing at The House Next Door:

My double bill of Myra Breckinridge and the CineKink Film Festival Wrap-Up.

Friday, March 7, 2008

B.S.: 10,000 BC

Top 5: Neanderthal Wisdom

The following were taken directly from the press notes for “10,000 BC,” not written by John Cleese (as far as I know).

Harald Kloser (screenwriter/executive producer/composer)

“Roland and I never intended for ’10,000 BC’ to be a documentary.”

Roland Emmerich (director/screenwriter/producer)

“When your subject matter is early man, you have the opportunity to tell very rich heroic stories in which one character has to do the almost impossible.”

Odile Dicks-Mireaux (costume designer)

“There’s not much at all on clothing in the British Museum. The only visual records from around that era are some rock paintings in South Africa. So we took inspiration from the screenplay. We decided to color-code the different tribes: the mammoth hunters have very little color and are more integrated into their landscape. We came up with the idea of shaving springbok fur, which creates a lot of texture.”

Steven Strait (star, D’Leh) (No, this is not a porn star name – I’m serious!)

“During the shooting of the mammoth hunt, there was such an intense sense of freedom in interacting with something that doesn’t exist.”


“Being on top of a mountain in New Zealand with dreadlocks down to your chest makes it a lot easier to pretend you’re a mammoth hunter.”

For more prehistoric wisdom please visit my 10,000 BC review at The House Next Door.

Hell's Kitchen: Frownland

Reading the press notes for Frownland, Ronald Bronstein’s 16mm-shot, indie fest hit about a painfully inarticulate misfit who hawks coupons door-to-door by day and spends his nights “trapped in a squalid apartment situated in some particularly hellish outer ring of New York,” I was expecting to see a gritty film set somewhere in the far-off burning Bronx. So I was surprised to find that Keith Sontag (in a breathtakingly nuanced performance by newcomer Dore Mann) actually lives in, well, my obnoxiously hipster Brooklyn neighborhood. Which leads me to the main problem with Bronstein’s celluloid love letter to Cassavettes and Co. – it attempts to be something it’s not.

Bronstein’s choice to shoot in 16mm gives “Frownland” a cozy and familiar, automatic retro feel. We’re right there with the debut director, a projectionist who claims to have watched an average of 600 movies a year, back in the good ole days when guys like Jarmusch grabbed the art house scene by the balls. But “Stranger Than Paradise,” nearly a quarter century old, was at the time something fresh and new – not because it was shot on film but because the characters were on an Antonioni-esque existential journey the likes of which was rarely seen on these shores. Jarmusch’s characters actually move, both physically and emotionally, embark on a journey of spiritual growth. In contrast, Bronstein’s lead weirdo goes no further (inside or outside) than his daily reverse-commute to the suburbs.

Which renders “Frownland” a little too self-knowing and hipsterish, quirky for quirkiness’ sake. When Keith’s love interest Laura (Mary Wall, looking straight out of “Slacker,” in an unimpressive turn for the only trained actor in the cast) asks for a mirror Keith hands her a metal spatula – after he tries to communicate via a puppet show with her socks. She says she’s allergic to his pillows then self-destructively rubs her face into one. Finally. she sticks Keith with a pushpin. This is nothing more than low budget “Juno,” with licorice (a character is belittled because in the middle of “an ontological crisis” his “safety net is Twizzlers”) in place of orange tic-tacs, Bronstein’s Tarantino-like, “projectionist” hype about as deep as Diablo Cody’s stripper shtick.

Would “Frownland” have garnered those SXSW and Gotham accolades if it were shot on video? I can’t see how since its nostalgic look, and believable acting by the cast of nonprofessionals, is its only allure. What’s missing is the story. Keith Sontag drifts aimlessly from his dead end job to his dead end life, sputtering and stuttering and pretty much driving everyone he encounters crazy. That’s about it. That Dore Mann is so fascinating – and not the least bit annoying – to watch in this otherwise boring film is a testament to his own calibration of character and natural talent (much like Marion Cotillard in the underwhelming “La Vie En Rose”). Bronstein has made the classic first-timer’s mistake in thinking that piecing together a bunch of your friends’ real-life experiences into a series of vignettes constitutes a script. The genius of both Jarmusch and Antonioni is that while both seemed to rely solely on composition and camerawork as a substitute for words, neither ever shot a scene that didn’t further the story. That’s what makes their films so edge-of-your-seat engrossing!

The other big “indie” mistake Bronstein makes is assuming that weird equals artistic. The sci-fi music and overlapping voices as Keith rides in the work van, the roommate who plays his synthesizer really loud as Keith listens to the message from a telemarketer on his answering machine – the strange occurs so frequently as to become normal and lose any punch it may have had. Once again, certain directors (like Terry Gilliam and Alex Cox) can get away with the downright bizarre because their films are always grounded in a solid story. In contrast, Bronstein’s film anchors itself to rat-a-tat dialogue (much like its big-budget sister “Juno”). When Keith calls his friend Sandy in the middle of the night seeking a “badge” he lost when he was last over at the apartment he asks, “Can you look on the couch?” “You weren’t on the couch. You were on the yellow chair,” Sandy replies. “Can you look anyway?” Keith persists. After Sandy finds it he continues, “Do you mind if I stop by? I’m only a couple blocks away from your apartment.” “Why are you a couple blocks from my apartment?” Sandy wonders. Which made me wonder if these going-in-circles lines served any purpose other than sheer cleverness. “Frownland” is just a series of scenes designed to show us how uncommunicative, desperate to connect the character is. (Yeah, we got that in the first ten minutes with the sock puppets.)

Perhaps the most frustrating thing about “Frownland,” though, is that this awkwardly apologetic lead character that makes his living as a door-to-door salesman was ripe for deeper, Willy Loman probing – and the director sacrificed the opportunity at the throne of cool quirk. In a shrink’s office, asked how he felt before he learned that his dad’s full head of hair was really a toupee, Keith snaps back with, “Gave me hope for the future.” It’s an out-of-character, quick-witted response from Dore Mann rather than an excruciating speech attempt by Keith, yet if we’d seen more of these sudden moments of clear articulation in the face of pain it would have given us greater insight into why the other characters around Keith put up with him.

Not that the other characters are all that different from freaky Keith. In a nod to Juno-speak, Keith’s Moog-loving roommate Charles, after failing to land a job waiting tables, applies to become a “test administrator,” where he ends up debating a fellow applicant, a good dose of Keith-spluttering along the way. It could just as easily have been Keith on that job hunt, learning to speak in coherent sentences and growing through his pain in the process. Instead Bronstein, seemingly on a whim, turns his lens on the roommate’s storyline. The only saving grace is a very funny discussion initiated by Charles by candlelight (the failure to pay a Con Edison bill a running gag) back at the apartment – after he’d berated Keith early on for always initiating discussions. Charles has some hilariously poignant lines. “How dare you judge my work pattern!” he haughtily exclaims upon Keith’s noting that he sleeps till noon while Keith awakens at daybreak to pay the rent (only proving that he Charles is “more ambitious” for refusing to get swept up in the nine-to-five grind). But alas, all this is too little too late. By the end when Dore Mann’s Keith utterly and believably flips out we’re wondering if living in the hellish outer ring of hipsterville is what really did him in.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Neorealism On The Hudson

It’s rare to come across a flawless filmmaker nowadays, but Ramin Bahrani just may be the closest thing America has to a modern day De Sica. First with “Man Push Cart,” his story about a one-time Pakistani rock star reduced to selling coffee from a push cart in Manhattan, and now with “Chop Shop,” which follows a Latino street kid hustling to survive via odd jobs while working at an auto-body repair shop in Queens, Bahrani has proved that simple stories about working class lives set against an epic urban and unforgiving backdrop can still pack just as much punch as when visionaries like Rossellini ruled the film world. Bahrani’s eye for exquisite composition acting as metaphor is astounding, his camerawork patient and probing, from close ups of weary sun drenched faces to long shots of empty warehouses in the rare still of night. When the wee protagonist of “Chop Shop” is forced to literally dismantle the dream he’s placed all his young hope in it’s against the background roar of cheering fans from Shea Stadium, the fluorescent lights seeming as far away as Rome.