In the Loop – Armando Iannucci (2009)


It’s safe to say that there will not be a funnier film delivered to theaters this year than In the Loop. My bladder hasn’t been at such a high risk of succumbing to gasping hysterics since the relentless assault of the Uncle Fucker scene in South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, during which I literally fell out of my seat laughing. I was able to comport myself a bit better during this film – instead of a single scene, the entire film is relentless – but just barely.

In the Loop is something of a continuation of the BBC TV seriesThe Thick of It. The utterly fantastic Peter Capaldi and Paul Higgins revive their roles as Malcolm Tucker and Jamie MacDonald respectively in this farce about the lead-up to war in the Middle East.

After a disastrous radio interview in which the unlucky British minister of international development, Simon Foster (Tom Hollander), slips up and calls the war “unforeseeable” – quite against the government’s established media line, Tucker assures him – Foster and his staff are unexpectedly tossed into the middle of an international imbroglio with both the doves and the hawks. Foster doesn’t help matters with a second disastrous interview attempting to fix the first, in which he says the British government must “climb the mountain of conflict.”

The haplessness of politicians (and their equally hapless aides) is a universal truth, it seems, and there is no better time than now to run them through for their mealy-mouthed tendencies and their ineffectiveness as thoroughly as Iannucci and company do here. The wit and skill on offer don’t quite make up for the lack of brains and balls in power seats in government, but it does make it all right for two hours at least.

The film is about the political intrigue, of course, but really, its centerpiece is the enduring satanic charm of Malcolm Tucker, the prime minister’s communications director. The willful exuberance – almost glee – with which Tucker goes on his vituperative rampages, savaging anyone in his line of sight, is one of the most skillful bits of writing and acting seen in ages. It’s a masterstroke of nuance and strategy, not just a string of blind “fuck you”s stuck in for comedy or snarling charm. (When confronted by a female staffer, Tucker unleashes the following: “Where do you think you are, in some fucking Regency costume drama? This is a government department, not a fucking Jane fucking Austen novel! Allow me to pop a jaunty little bonnet on your ‘purview’ and ram it up your shitter with a lubricated horse cock!”) Tucker slowly bends everyone to his viewpoint and manipulates his way through the U.S. State Department and the United Nations.

In a way, Tucker is the anti-Ari Gold, his closest American onscreen analogue – the jerk agent played by Jeremy Piven on Entourage, while all vicious bluster on the surface, is a sappy family man on the side. (Oddly enough, the character of Ari Gold is based on the real-life brother of Rahm Emanuel, President Obama’s scream-happy chief of staff and the closest thing we have to a real-life Malcolm Tucker counterpart.) Tucker? You can’t imagine him having a family or even having had a childhood. It’s as if he accumulated out of thin air fully formed and smarter than you on the day the prime minister was sworn in. He is a straight pit bull with the bark, bite and heart that entails.

Sunshine Cleaning – Christine Jeffs (2009)


The bored, middle-aged women taking a break from shopping for an after-lunch sneak preview screening had come to see the girl from Enchanted and the girl from The Devil Wears Prada in their new movie. As the gasps and “Oh-mi-god”s filled the theater during the first scene, it became clear that these women may not have been aware of the film’s premise, that the pristine pair would soon be tidying up the incidental mess after their “clients’” murders and suicides – like the one they just bore witness to.

It’s a ballsy way to start a movie that, despite its low-key indie vibe, is a fairly mainstream comedy, one not shy to tout its Little Miss Sunshine pedigree.

Sunshine Cleaning stars Emily Blunt and Amy Adams as Norah and Rose Lorkowski, two sisters in desperate need of money who start a cleaning service catering to post-mortem cleanup. The idea for the business is suggested by Mac (Steve Zahn), a police detective who was Rose’s high-school sweetheart, but is now married with children. He still sees Rose on the side while Norah thinks she’s at class. Mac’s wife knows the situation, but wears blinders to it out of a suburban fear of loneliness.

Naturally repulsed by the job description upon first hearing about it, they dive into the decay and detritus headfirst when Rose’s son, the rambunctious Oscar (Jason Spevack), is pulled out of an incompetent school and put in the care of their father, Joe (Alan Arkin), until other arrangements can be made.

The delicacy of the blood-and-guts job hits the emotionally fragile Norah hard. When she finds a fanny pack full of pictures of a departed client’s daughter, the guilt of her own family’s tragedy kicks in, the industrial-strength cleaning solvent starts to erode the wall she’s built up between herself and her past, and she cannot help but save them from the incinerator, against the strict rules of the trade, and try to return them to the girl (Mary Lynn Rajskub).

Director Christine Jeffs’ brilliant casting takes everything we thought we knew about the pair’s prim princess and posh career girl personas and turns it right on its head. To see Adams scrubbing blood off a mirror and Blunt vomiting as a (rational) reaction instead of as a weight-loss measure is deliriously funny, but surprisingly not a one-note gag. It’s played for laughs sparingly once we get beneath the girls’ outer layers and dig into their stories.

It’s a concept that most of us can relate to in one way or another – though maybe not in ways as horrifying as cleaning up brain tissue. We’ve all done jobs that went against our personal sense of self because of human need; money is the key to all of our desires as well as our basic survival. Jeffs has crafted a brave, evocative work that fits neatly into the debt-burdened zeitgeist while offering a jarring possible reality, something the down-and-out in this grim economy might actually look into as a possibility. Hey, it beats flippin’ burgers.

Ashes of Time (Redux) – Wong Kar Wai (2009)


It took 14 years, but Wong Kar-wai’s limp and enigmatic Ashes of Time finally has some life to it.

The new version of the 1994 film, now called Ashes of Time Redux (available this week on DVD), is a luscious visual poem set to the masterful images of Christopher Doyle, the graceful fight choreography of Sammo Hung and the unequaled cello of Yo-Yo Ma in a newly recorded score. The story, however, still falls flat.

Wong tells the tale of two swordsmen, Ou-yang Feng (Leslie Cheung) and Huang Yao-shi (Tony Leung Ka Fai), who will later (in Louis Cha’s 1957 novel, The Legend of the Condor Heroes) become bitter enemies, but for now are friends in love with the same woman (Maggie Cheung), whom neither can have.

Feng is estranged from his home and family when the woman he loves marries his brother. He’s set up shop in the middle of the desert, acting as a middleman for passing bounty hunters and killers, and those in need of such services. Yao-shi is just one of his many visitors, arriving once a year like clockwork to catch up, tell stories and, of course, share his bottle of magic wine.

In the jungle of a city, Wong can pull off this kind of small, intimate story of emotionally blocked characters trying to be set free with his eyes closed, but in the desert he’s lost. Weight and depth are sacrificed amid the jumbled story and those long, lingering shots of clouds passing. Wong meditates on every frame in order to extract every droplet of beauty, but it’s akin to grabbing our attention with a shiny object while the plot sneaks out the back door. It sure is pretty, though.

Redux clocks in at a slightly shorter running time than any of the previous versions Wong has offered. The tighter edit is a better fit, but ultimately, it’s not enough.

Paris 36 – Christophe Barratier (2009)


French films that end up with general theatrical release in this country tend to exist as contented Oscar bait: beautifully shot, sentimental period pieces that are supposed to be uplifting and touching, but aren’t willing to take chances artistically to get there. What results are films that try to please everyone while failing to truly stimulate anyone.

Paris 36 is no exception in that regard. It tells an interesting story about an interesting time in history and does so in an interesting way, but it takes absolutely no chances. The film delves heavily into the push-pull interplay between Communism and Fascism and how the spirit of the times sucked even political atheists into the web in 1930s France, but the production comes off like an unseasoned steak: It’s good on its own, but a little salt and pepper would make all the difference.

The film follows roughly nine years in the life of a small Paris neighborhood, but concentrates mostly on one year, the titular 1936. It concerns the fates of the stagehands and performers of the Chansonia, a small vaudeville-style music hall that is struggling financially. When the owner falls behind on his payments to the local loan shark, he has to hand the hall over as forfeit; he ends up checking himself out of this life at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve, while everyone else is downstairs celebrating.

The loan shark, Galapiat (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu), a politically corrupt Fascist who runs a violent team of strikebreakers, promptly closes the music hall and puts everyone out of a job, including Milou (Clovis Cornillac), a brash young Red constantly at odds with Galapiat and his strikebreakers, and Pigoil (Gérard Jugnot), the head stagehand, who turns to the bottle while his son Jojo (Maxence Perrin), an accordion prodigy, busks around Paris for money.

Meanwhile, the stagehands – led by Jacky Jouquet (Kad Merad) – attempt to occupy and reopen the music hall. That’s when Douce (Nora Arnezeder), a beautiful, blossoming singer, walks into their lives and changes everything.

Director Christophe Barratier has not crafted a film for the ages here, but it’s a workable, fun piece about family and friendship, full of wonderful songs and musical numbers performed on the Chansonia stage. Because Barratier refuses to play with the politics he presents, however, Paris 36 is more a slice of life than an important film. The in medias res opening tells us the plot culminates with a murder; in an hourlong TV drama, that would work just fine, but here the disclosure sucks every ounce of tension from the preceding events we’re about to see. We wait in suspense for the big shoe to drop (a letdown, naturally), thus rendering the smaller moments practically invisible. And a film like Paris 36 is nothing without its small moments.

The Girlfriend Experience – Steven Soderbergh (2009)


The Girlfriend Experience is a film that never could have been made in the star system of Old Hollywood. The Hays Office would have forbidden it, first of all, but it never would have arrived on their desk for condemnation anyway. There was a line between Hollywood sex and real sex that you didn’t dare cross. It was a line that director Steven Soderbergh helped erode in his Palme D’Or winner, 1989’s Sex, Lies and Videotape, and a line that was officially buried and forgotten with Michael Winterbottom’s 2004 film 9 Songs and John Cameron Mitchell’s 2006 Shortbus.

Now, thanks to Soderbergh, we have a porn actress starring in a mainstream film from a bona fide award-winning, A-list director. That sound is Jack Warner and Lew Wasserman spinning in their graves.

With respect to adult thespians, the role is not a terrible stretch for Sasha Grey. She plays Chelsea, a $2,000-an-hour hooker who is looking for more from life. Not in the existential sense, of course. No, she wants to be better paid for her time and body, and to find a better relationship than she has with her $125-an-hour personal trainer boyfriend. At least she isn’t another hooker with a heart of gold.

The film’s jumbled timeline runs against the backdrop of the 2008 election and economic collapse, lingering on the business types who can afford her services freaking out at the thought of not being able to afford her services, while musing randomly on McCain, Obama and why gold is a better commodity than diamonds.

A few of these creeps offer to help Chelsea, but do nothing but inflict damage once they’ve gotten what they want. Case in point: A user-generated sex-website review of the Chelsea experience rips her by stating, “With her flat affect, lack of culture and utter refusal to engage, Chelsea couldn’t even dazzle the likes of Forrest Fucking Gump.” It’s a damaging review for Chelsea, but the problem is that it’s true about Grey herself, even more so than Chelsea. Grey is less convincing as her character than most porn stars are at faking orgasm.

While The Girlfriend Experience is not a good film by any stretch, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it as being, at the very least, worth the time to watch it. Clocking in at a paltry 77 minutes, it gets lost somewhere in the cracks between terrible and bearable. There is something undeniably compelling about watching Grey flounder around onscreen next to this host of creepy user-men in her attempt to reach the next plateau of her business while still trying to find real love at the same time.

It’s impossible to root for her, because her desires would be an absurd largesse bestowed on an undeserving person if she won them. (It’s akin to hoping Spitzer’s girl, Ashley Dupré, lands that record deal she’s always wanted.) Yet it is also impossible to wish failure upon her, since she only wants to succeed at her job. It’s all anyone wants, really.

Sin Nombre – Carey Fukunaga (2009)


Immigration dramas tend to be a crap shoot. Often they are too concerned with the social, political and economic injustices of the places in Central and South America that one needs to emigrate from at any cost. They are more about the whole than the part, neglecting deep characters for stereotypes and microcosms.

The problem is that these morality films are usually boring as hell. And that’s where Sin Nombre director Cary Fukunaga has a winner. He spends as little time dwelling on the whole as possible, instead opting for a classic road-trip story of the parts: the people who are emigrating and the gang members trying to kill one of them. It’s a leap of faith in character before culture that earned the Japanese-Swedish–American the dramatic directing award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Sin Nombre follows the fortunes of Casper (Edgar Flores), a Mexican gang member on the run from his own crew, and Sayra (Paulina Gaitan), a Honduran teen newly reunited with her father and uncle. The family is trying to cross the border illegally to get to relatives in New Jersey. While attempting to rob the train’s illegal riders, Lil Mago (Tenoch Huerta), the gang leader, tries to rape Sayra. Casper, boiling with murderous rage after Mago tried the same on his girlfriend, puts a stop to it … with his machete. Smiley (Kristian Ferrer), the gang’s newest (and youngest) initiate, begs to be given the chance to track down Casper and avenge Mago’s murder to prove he is worthy of the gang’s coveted tattoo.

Casper’s is a life of quiet desperation. Fed up with the lifestyle, he goes about gang business halfheartedly. His only refuge is the short moments he gets – at the expense of his duties – with a girlfriend that he keeps hidden from the gang. She believes his reluctance to tell his gangmates about her stems from embarrassment about their relationship, but he’s actually protecting her from a lifestyle that she is not suited to.

Sayra is only reluctantly trying to cross the border to be with her father’s new family, which she doesn’t feel a part of. He left when she was a child, but was recently deported and is trying to get back. She is as lonely a soul as Casper. Gaitan plays her with aplomb, perfectly capturing the wistful soul of a girl caught between two worlds, neither of them her own, neither of them worth the risk she’s taken to be there.

In a country that is steadily fed the idea that we need to build a fence to keep these people out of our country, we need this kind of film to keep a modicum of sanity alive in the conversation. After all, at some point in our lineage, almost all of us are immigrants.

The Limits of Control – Jim Jarmush (2009)


Jim Jarmusch is not a prolific filmmaker by any means, but when he does make a film it makes noise – divisive noise – thanks to his oddball-arthouse style and the challenging questions he poses to the audience. His fans are used to his style by now, over 20 years into his career, but it’s a harder one to grasp for the influx of new fans Broken Flowers, his last film, and its star, Bill Murray, might have brought in.

For the uninitiated, Jarmusch films unspool in languid labyrinths of subtleties and reversals, where what you are being presented is only a piece of the puzzle, and the puzzle you see may not even be the real picture. His plots are an existential cryptex.

In The Limits of Control, however, Jarmusch has forgotten to give us the codeword. African actor and Jarmusch regular Isaach De Bankolé plays a nameless man on an unknown mission. He has arrived in Spain, where has a clandestine meeting in the airport via translator. The two seedy, Bond-villain-by-way-of-Abbott-&-Costello types he meets pass him a matchbox with a code inside and send him on his way to the next in a long line of such meetings.

The incongruity of “art film” and “big budget” (judging by the rich luxury on the screen) doesn’t gel together. Jarmusch stocks his film with lavish sets, beautiful old apartments, ritzy locations (and even a helicopter) following the nameless man all over Spain, but there is very little substance to back it up.

Instead, we are treated to vignettes of movie stars – Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Gael García Bernal, Bill Murray – musing about the mysteries of life, while Paz de la Huerta roams through the film in the nude. It’s a pretty film, and for more reasons than de la Huerta. Shot by the ultra-talented Christopher Doyle, the varied old-world and modern beauty of Spain is taken advantage of, from the cosmopolitan Madrid to the breathtaking seaside villages.

There are jokes within the awkwardness of the exchanges, but they are too few and far between, if you are even awake to hear them. Every time something seems to be happening, Jarmusch tips us gently back into sleep mode. It’s enough to make you long for a sip of one of the countless espressos the nameless man enjoys.

Whatever Works – Woody Allen (2009)


Pairing fellow ne’er-do-wells Woody Allen and Curb Your Enthusiasm star Larry David together is an idea so natural that it comes as a forehead-slapping shock that it actually happened. Peanut butter and jelly come to mind at the idea of the perfect synthesis of these two bespectacled hypochondriacs illuminating the screen in tandem; for as much as they laid down a basic thematic principle for Woody, the jokes at the beginning of Annie Hall (“The food here is terrible, and in such small portions!”) could sum up David’s style just as well. Here are two guys of similar neurotic Brooklyn upbringings who are both nonplused that anyone finds them interesting. On paper, it’s a perfect fit.

What works on paper, however, does not always translate onscreen. Then again, perhaps judging Whatever Works against the very idea of comedic perfection is asking too much.

Boris Yellnikoff (Larry David) is the definition of a misanthrope: He hates you; he doesn’t know you, but he thinks you are a submoronic inchworm anyway. Yellnikoff’s philosophy boils down to the simple concept that life is miserable, and in such a small portion. Thus, “Whatever works,” he says, to get through it. He likes to remind people that he is a man with a huge-beyond-comprehension worldview – a self-satisfied perspective with the end result of a full-on mortality crisis that leads him to divorce and attempted suicide.

But this misery that starts as a scathing lament for the failed human species ends up a tender, funny meditation on the staggering mathematical improbability of everyday chance encounters, like when a Mississippi street urchin named Melodie (Evan Rachel Wood) charms her way into Boris’s apartment and, eventually, into his life. What follows is an astute movie about existential torment and impractical desire.Whatever Works won’t set the world on fire but it has more than its share of riotously hysterical moments and delicious absurdities.

David does not play the “Woody role” as such. Boris was originally written for the huge shoes (and belt) of Zero Mostel in the 1970s, but could not be made before he died. Therefore, the film comes off as a throwback to Allen’s older, quick-witted verbal comedy. The script was revived thanks to the threat of an actors’ strike that never materialized. This is not the first time David has stepped into Mostel’s shoes – the fourth season of Curb featured David stepping into Mostel’s role in The Producers – but the problem is that every other character is in a Woody Allen film, while Boris feels ripped directly from Curb. The character is not enough of a stretch from the Larry David of the TV show to bridge the gap in styles.

Departures – Yôjirô Takita (2010)


When Liam Neeson opened the envelope at the 2009 Academy Awards and announced that Departures had beat out Waltz With Bashir, the supposedly mortal-lock winner, and another highly touted nominee, The Class, for Best Foreign Film, it was a shocker unlike anything seen since that category became remotely competitive. Departures was a film that, unlike Bashiror The Class, had not yet opened in America, not even on the festival circuit. No one had heard of this little picture, but still it ended up at the top of the heap.

It follows the fate of Daigo (Masahiro Motoki), a professional cellist living in Tokyo. He is starting out with a new orchestra that promptly disbands, leaving him in the lurch and saddled with a huge debt to settle for his new cello – a gift to himself for getting into an orchestra. He returns to his home village with his wife, Mika (Ryoko Hirosue), where, trying to get back on his feet, he answers the world’s most poorly worded want ad.

Daigo’s unexpected new gig is in “encoffinment,” working as a mix of undertaker and showman to prepare the dead for their next journey. It’s not something hidden away in the funeral-home basement, but rather performed as a ceremony in front of the family before cremation. It’s a superficial job on the surface, of course – death cannot be erased with a makeup brush – but it’s a profoundly soothing act for the families of the dead. To the living, especially to Mika, it’s a dirty, misunderstood occupation, one that causes Daigo many problems. Cellist, we get. It has some prestige to it. Music is lifeblood; it moves, ascends and takes you to another place. But a mid-row cellist in this day, especially in Japan, is not a necessary component of life. Entombing, however, is a vital part of death.

Motoki plays Daigo with more of a pop-film slapstick edge than I would have preferred, but he never goes so far with it that it detracts from the story. When he does come perilously near the edge of that cliff, Tsutomu Yamazaki (his boss) and the always wonderful Hirosue are there to reel him back in just in time. It’s a tightrope Motoki and Yamazaki walked right to the Japanese Academy Awards as well, winning 10 overall.

Am I giving awards too much importance? Probably, but it’s a noteworthy achievement for a film with no other discernible hook. Crouching Tiger introduced us to a vibrant new actress in Zhang Ziyi, and The Lives of Others tapped into both our national obsession with the Iron Curtain and our fear of government wiretapping and reprisal. But there is nothing so sparkling to this film at first glance. It’s a film about man’s mortality and how he handles it, but death is not cleverly hidden inside a bigger story. It’s a wake-up slap in the face about the gritty part of dying: the bodies.

The Hurt Locker – Kathryn Bigelow (2010)


It’s no real surprise that we’ve rejected Iraq and Middle East war films almost entirely as a society over these last few years. The war is still an ongoing one, and we’ve been through too many news cycles to sit through the same thing again in narrative form. After all, it wasn’t until after the war was over that the ball got rolling on Vietnam films and we were given great pieces of art like Apocalypse NowThe Deer Hunter and Full Metal Jacket. But as major troop withdrawal in Iraq quickly becomes a reality, The Hurt Locker could not have better timing.

Sgt. Sandborn (Anthony Mackie) and Spc. Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) are the two consistent crew members of a three-man explosive ordinance disposal unit. After their team leader (Guy Pearce) dies during a detonation, they are saddled with Sgt. James (Jeremy Renner), a wild man who constantly skirts around standard procedure in his attempts to dismantle the explosives. Straddling the thin line between functioning head case and brilliant technician, he keeps a piece of every bomb setup in a box under his bed to remind him of the “things that tried to kill him.”

It’s a relatively simple film, based on the writings of an embedded journalist, that follows a few episodes in the daily lives of a bomb disposal unit in Iraq counting down the days left in their rotation. There are no hexagonal conspiracy plots or deep cover black ops missions infringing on their everyday operations. There are no redacted papers or codes to crack. The whole ballgame is the tension that rises within the unit in the barracks and out on patrol as they sniff out, and try to defuse, IEDs buried in the streets or hidden in car trunks or worse – much worse.

Unlike Vietnam, thick plotting does not hang gracefully onto the war in Iraq, and director Kathryn Bigelow doesn’t try to do that here. She allows the film to grow organically until you realize you’ve been hanging onto the edge of your seat in acute panic. It rises exquisitely above the soldiers’ stock characters, giving us a thriller by virtue of the extraordinary stress of their situation, not by the machinations of the military machine surrounding them. She gets the point that no one cares about the politics or paranoia of old-guard war films anymore, only the drastic life-or-death scenarios. We have better and more ubiquitous outlets for the political side of war, now more than ever before, and while that paradigm shift has not fully rendered politics irrelevant in films, it’s taken a giant, toothy bite out of it.

Bigelow’s camera is impartial and dispassionate, but explosively powerful and unflinching. There is no commentary or judgment, just war and fatigue.