Archive for December, 2011

The Arbor

Monday, December 26th, 2011


Movie review by Greg Carlson

The family of British playwright Andrea Dunbar is the subject of Clio Barnard’s exceptional cinematic study “The Arbor,” an engrossing piece of creative nonfiction that combines the objectively reported and the imaginatively rearranged with a level of confidence and skill seldom applied to after-the-fact restaging associated with docufiction and docudrama. Dunbar, who at age fifteen wrote the play that shares its title with Barnard’s film, defied the odds of her class and status by soon seeing her work selected for production at the Royal Court Theatre. Dead at twenty-nine of a brain hemorrhage, the alcoholic Dunbar had three children by three different fathers.

Central to Barnard’s technique is the use of actors lip-synching to recordings of Dunbar’s relatives and affiliates (announced via an opening title card), which allows the director to light and frame moments in time with a kind of weird omnipotence only afforded by pre-recording a soundtrack. For example, in one stunning tableau, the memory of a long-ago fire is accompanied by a corresponding image in which flames leap in the shot’s background. The startling beauty of Ole Bratt Birkeland’s digital cinematography paints the environs of the run-down Bradford, Yorkshire streets with deliberate incongruity in comparison to the lives under discussion. Dennis Lim quoted Barnard saying that she “wanted to make a film that looked the opposite of how it sounded,” and the careful compositions operate in stark contrast to the wrenching tale being narrated.

Arguably, Dunbar’s daughter Lorraine eclipses her mother as the movie’s principal focus, and performer Manjinder Virk – like the other actors employed in Barnard’s bold experiment – must negotiate the challenge of constructing a “performance” tethered to a soundtrack that requires the memorization of every single original breath and pause. As the mixed-race daughter of a white mother and Pakistani father, Lorraine’s understanding of prejudice includes some devastating revelations about her treatment during childhood. As “The Arbor” continues, we learn more about Lorraine’s own demons with the same unblinking exactitude that has been applied by the filmmaker to Andrea Dunbar.

Given the unfathomable layers of pain, abuse, neglect, addiction, and illness that enveloped Dunbar during her short life and her grandson Harris in his even shorter one, Barnard cautiously resists what could easily have been rendered as emotionally manipulative in favor of almost ice-water-in-the-veins understatement. This doesn’t mean that “The Arbor” won’t bring you to your knees, but the matter-of-fact way in which the interview subjects talk about personal experiences that could lead to madness or despair says something about impoverishment and the presence and/or absence of hope.

Barnard’s directorial vision extends beyond the lip-synched interviews to a series of scenes from Dunbar’s debut theatrical drama arrestingly shot outdoors with neighborhood residents literally standing in as audience members. The theatrical snippets operate as perfect interstice to the lengthier first-person direct camera address content, demonstrating the frightening symmetry between Dunbar’s characters and the grim experiences that dominated her own day-to-day existence. Dunbar had always deliberately smudged the lines of self-portraiture and concretized chronicle, which Barnard understands and harnesses on screen to perfection.

The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975

Monday, December 19th, 2011


Movie review by Greg Carlson

Comprised of vivid 16mm film footage culled from dozens of hours of material that had been lying dormant in Sveriges TV (Sweden’s Television, a national multi-channel public broadcasting station), “The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975” functions like a time capsule, teleporting viewers into the midst of America’s urban social chaos in the Vietnam War era. Assembled by Goran Hugo Olsson, the documentary reacquaints students of history with African American nationalism through interviews with several key figures associated with the Black Panthers. Additionally, the movie honors its title by tracking on the ravages of heroin in Harlem and other neighborhoods, the Nation of Islam, and the Attica Prison Riot, to name a few more of the movie’s broad-ranging interests.

Stokely Carmichael claims a critical role as one of the principal voices of the era, and the activist’s caustic wit emerges in several public addresses excerpted in the film. Most impressive, however, is a quieter moment when Carmichael sits down with his mother Mabel for an exchange in which the struggle against racism is illustrated with personal clarity. Carmichael is gentle but determined as he coaxes his mother to talk about her husband’s ongoing encounters with discrimination, and the scene shows Carmichael’s considerable skill as a master communicator.

Angela Davis is the other personality who emerges alongside Carmichael as the documentary’s “star.” Her 1972 interview from the Marin County Jail contains the most riveting on-camera response to questions posed about the movement’s willingness to reject Martin Luther King, Jr.’s peaceful resistance and entertain the necessity of violence. Davis says, “When someone asks me about violence, I just find it incredible. Because what it means is that the person asking that question has absolutely no idea what black people have gone through, what black people have experienced in this country since the time the first black person was kidnapped from the shores of Africa.”

In an interview with Channing Kennedy to promote the film, Olsson suggests that the language barrier of the original documentary crew contributed to the openness and generosity of subjects who might otherwise have declined to be photographed by white journalists. Whether this assertion is substantially true, the “lack of knowledge” (Olsson’s words) of the filmmakers in the various situations they covered infuses the movie with a strong sense of fundamental rhetorical explanation of positions that terrified the likes of Richard Nixon, J. Edgar Hoover, and other representatives of the white establishment.

“The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975” makes serious its commitment to vintage visual design, withholding any images of the contemporary commentators whose voices provide thought and perspective on the archival documentation that unfolds. Musicians Erykah Badu, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, and Talib Kweli are joined by poets, scholars, and activists, and while their thoughts make important links between today and the four-decade-old content, the long-neglected interviews – from the famous and the anonymous alike – feel every bit as fresh. Olsson has stated that only two images contained in the film are not from the original period, and the absence of new footage gives the movie an undiluted purity that can only be found in the commemorative – a reminder that “this happened.”

The Descendants

Monday, December 12th, 2011


Movie review by Greg Carlson

Bad movies set in Hawaii vastly outnumber good ones. Elvis, Gidget, Charlie Chan, Ma and Pa Kettle, and the Brady Bunch have used the idyllic location as a stunning backdrop. Adam Sandler went there for “50 First Dates” and returned recently for the putrid “Just Go with It.” For every “Punch-Drunk Love” (which only manages a detour), we have more examples like the pathetic 2004 version of “The Big Bounce.” “The Descendants” falls into the category of Hawaii-based stories determined to move beyond tourist views and postcard snapshots to show a dimension of the islands rarely explored on film. That aspect, however, is largely ignored in favor of a family drama mired in the midlife male milieu.

Alexander Payne’s first feature in seven years, “The Descendants” alludes to the complicated relationship between indigenous inhabitants and the interlopers who profited from Hawaii’s resources. George Clooney plays Matt King, one of the beneficiaries indicated by the title, a mixed-blood attorney smart enough to recognize that he and his extended family are still “haole,” no matter how many generations have lived and died on the islands. While King is preoccupied with the impending sale of a family-trust owned parcel of unspoiled beachfront, his wife suffers a devastating injury in a boating accident, and in the course of addressing the dire situation with his daughters, discovers that his spouse was unfaithful to him.

King decides to track down his wife’s lover, and the resulting – and wildly improbable – coincidence that stitches together the two principal plot threads pulls hard on the film’s credibility. Coupled with one of the master devices of soap opera scum, the lingering coma, Payne mortars the bricks of the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings with an unhurried hand that would yield better results if the dialogue wasn’t so simple. “The Descendants” shows and tells, and shows and tells again, until the viewer begins to believe that this sort of suffering is universal, and even happens to handsome millionaires who live in an earthly paradise.

George Clooney’s saintly householder lacks much of the corrosive edge that Payne has been so consistent in applying to his protagonists. From hot-potato debut “Citizen Ruth” to career best “Election” and on through the bigger commercial successes of “About Schmidt” and “Sideways,” the filmmaker has eagerly presented rough characters who often resist immediate likability in favor of richer, more nuanced inner and outer lives. Clooney, whose easy charm and calm confidence place him in close proximity to classic-era idols like Cary Grant, Gary Cooper, and William Powell, works hard to humanize King by filling him with insecurity and self doubt, a task made tougher by unnecessary voiceover that throttles the viewer with insulting obviousness.

How are we supposed to accept Clooney’s “backup parent” as an exasperated everyman when he is privileged with so much power, wealth, and beauty? The man’s bloodline flows back to Hawaiian royalty. He has sole decision-making authority over a flock of cousins seeking his favor in the real estate deal. Somehow, Clooney the actor carries the whole endeavor on his shoulders, reassuring skeptical moviegoers that Everything Will Be OK and that “The Descendants” depicts the kind of thing that we could all experience, even when it really doesn’t.


Monday, December 5th, 2011


Movie review by Greg Carlson

Perpetual provocateur Lars von Trier shares one of his least overtly “disobedient” stories in years with “Melancholia,” a visionary end-of-the-world disaster drama laced with a puckish streak of black comedy. Unlike controversial lightning rod “Antichrist,” the majority of the bile directed to “Melancholia” came not as a result of what appears on the screen, but instead for the moviemaker’s impolitic press conference at Cannes. Von Trier’s mouth drew attention from the work, a gorgeous elegy in which the notoriously unstable auteur explores the contours of his ongoing struggle with depression by imagining a collision between Earth and a “rogue” planet that has been hidden behind the sun.

Like Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket” and Wong Kar-wai’s “Chungking Express,” “Melancholia” is cleaved carefully, calculatingly in two, and each section of the luminous speculation on astronomical finality reflects significantly upon the other. The halves are named for sisters played by Charlotte Gainsbourg and Kirsten Dunst, physical near-opposites whose responses to impending oblivion and catastrophe are miles from the kind of action-oriented emergency operations undertaken by so many of the participants in cinematic cataclysms. In the most simplistic terms, Gainsbourg’s Claire takes care of Dunst’s Justine until the end is nigh and their roles reversed, but that description is a disservice to the beauty of the storytelling.

Justine, named by von Trier in homage to the Marquis de Sade’s doomed heroine, suffers tortures less physically graphic than her namesake, but the filmmaker – whose skillful character appellations often operate on multiple levels – might be simultaneously offering a rejoinder to the parade of detractors who accuse him of misogyny as a matter of presupposition and continuing in earnest his tradition of anguished female leads with whom he so closely identifies. In any case, Dunst completes the richest, most assured performance of her career. The startling image of wisps of electricity dancing from her fingertips places her in closer proximity to de Sade’s protagonist than first imagined.

The dissolution of Justine’s carefully planned wedding ceremony is rendered as a farcical chain of almost inexplicable breaches of formal social etiquette. Like Jonathan Demme’s “Rachel Getting Married,” the viewer is provided with an engraved invitation to one of civilization’s most fascinating rituals, and the mischievous director makes the most of assets like Stellan and Alexander Skarsgard, John Hurt, Charlotte Rampling, Kiefer Sutherland, and Udo Kier, whose pained wedding planner hilariously refuses to even look at the offending bride who is ruining “his” big day. For admirers, von Trier’s rehearsal-free approach to principal photography results once again in a dazzling series of exchanges. For the uninitiated, the vertiginous jump cuts and woozy, handheld shooting may provide ample torture.

J. Hoberman compared “Melancholia” to “The Tree of Life” in his earliest reports, calling both films “monumentally, even monstrously, ambitious.” He coupled the statement with an assertion that there would be many viewers likely to turn away. Once Justine’s fairytale wedding has disintegrated like unexpurgated Grimm, von Trier cranks “Melancholia” into sharp focus through the lens of an expensive telescope and its homemade, bent wire companion. Both objects report the unthinkable. As the threat of death increases, however, Justine’s comportment evolves from numbed paralysis to serenity, tranquility and peace. The glowing planet draws close, dominating the sky and our thoughts.