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Tag Archives: Carlos

On Mildred Pierce and the Increasingly Fine Line Between Cinema and Television

Mildred Pierce
dir: Todd Haynes (USA, 2011)
Rating: 8.4

The best American film of 2011 may well turn out to be one that never played at a theater near you at all. Instead, writer/director Todd Haynes’ ambitious adaptation of James M. Cain’s 1941 novel Mildred Pierce has headed straight to your living room, premiering as a five and a half hour HBO miniseries but packed with enough filmmaking smarts to help further erode the increasingly fine line between cinema and television. Broadcast over the past three consecutive Sunday evenings, Haynes’ movie (and yes I have no problem calling it that) is now available “on demand” and will no doubt be released later in the year in DVD and Blu-ray editions (the way I suspect most people experience movies nowadays anyway). It will also most likely be prominently featured in both of my Best of 2011 lists (“Films” and “Home Video Releases”) at the end of the year. So, while pilgrim-hatted purists have been apoplectic for a while that movies have more and more come to resemble television (even movies shot on film today exist as purely digital data at some point in post-production), my response is to look at the glass as half full: television has also come closer to resembling the movies.

This is Not a Movie Poster:

Mildred Pierce tells the story of a newly divorced single mother in 1930s southern California who waits tables to make ends meet, much to the embarrassment of her class-conscious children. Her increasingly lucrative side business of making pies encourages her to attempt to open her own restaurant, the eventual success of which has the unintended effect of driving a further wedge of resentment between her and her older daughter Veda. Eschewing the murder subplot that was added to Michael Curtiz’s justly celebrated 1945 film version (and that was absent from Cain’s social realist novel, which I haven’t read), Haynes’ movie predictably draws more on classic Hollywood melodrama than film noir. However, this is not the colorful, 1950s Douglas Sirk-style melodrama that Haynes already mined in Far From Heaven. The chief reference point here would appear to be Max Ophuls’ The Reckless Moment, a film that Haynes has repeatedly cited as one of his favorites. Much like Ophuls did with his leading lady Joan Bennett, Haynes envelops Winslet in a chilly mise-en-scene consisting of vertical lines and frames-within-frames to continually reinforce the idea that Mildred, even when professionally triumphant, is a prisoner inside of her own home. Mike Wilmington, in an otherwise perceptive review, has criticized Haynes for not showing more “directorial style and flash” but, since Haynes already made that movie with Heaven, that’s a bit like criticizing Bob Dylan for not making John Wesley Harding sound more like Blonde on Blonde.

The very notion of “television mise-en-scene,” which would have been an oxymoron just a few years ago, is symptomatic of our times. One of the most interesting byproducts of the boom in popularity of widescreen televisions in recent years has been the concurrent rise in popularity – in television shows and miniseries alike – of what might be termed old-school film aesthetics (such as long shots, widescreen compositions and a 360 degree shooting space); and there is thankfully no longer such a relentless focus on the use of alternating close-ups that seemed the de rigueur television style of the 1990s. One case in point is Olivier Assayas’ breakthrough Carlos, a miniseries originally made for French television that became the critical darling of the 2010 Cannes Film Festival. It may have premiered on television but Assayas’ electrifying political gangster biopic contained an unforgettable and exquisitely cinematic 90 minute scene of Ilich Ramirez Sanchez’s notorious 1975 terrorist raid on the OPEC headquarters in Vienna. Masterfully combining ‘Scope framing with nervy handheld camera work and brisk cutting that crucially remained spatially logical, this extended sequence has proven to be the definitive “action movie” set piece of our time. Further muddying the waters is the fact that respected film auteurs such as Assayas and Haynes, as well as actors known primarily for their “big screen” work (such as recent Oscar winner Kate Winslet and the formidable Guy Pearce), are turning to the “small screen” in an age when movie studios are seen as increasingly risk-averse and cable television is perceived as picking up the slack in delivering entertainment deemed “edgy” or even merely aimed at an adult audience. Gone are the days when a movie star of the caliber of Charlie Sheen turning to television automatically signaled the beginning of a career in decline.

A huge benefit for filmmakers in this era of the new and improved T.V. movie is the ability to have a more expansive running time than what can be achieved in a traditional movie. This allows the makers of a miniseries to create a highly elaborate, overarching narrative structure without necessarily falling victim to the aimless, meandering quality that seems to become the sad fate of nearly every long-running television series. (21st century television is a medium that a serial-minded film director like Louis Feuillade, not to mention the young Jacques Rivette, would have loved.) This more novelistic structure means Haynes’ Mildred Pierce can consequently go places that Michael Curtiz could never have dreamed taking his 111 minute version, fully justifying its five and a half hours without ever wearing out its welcome. Our feeling that we have come to truly know characters like Mildred and Veda is much stronger in the miniseries, which makes the growing conflict between them more acutely painful.

Technically, Mildred Pierce is a tour-de-force, featuring 1930s locations and costumes rendered in impeccable period detail, gorgeous but low-key cinematography by Ed Lachmann (doing essentially the opposite of the baroque work he performed on earlier Haynes collaborations like Far From Heaven and I’m Not There) and a gorgeous but mournful score by the Coen brothers’ regular composer Carter Burwell. But for all of its estimable formal qualities, this film finally belongs to the actors, more so than any of Haynes’ previous work – with Winslet and Evan Rachel Wood (as Veda) tearing up the glass screen in the most heavy-duty dramatic parts. There is plenty of acting firepower in the supporting roles too, namely by the perennially underrated and underused Guy Pearce (looking and sounding exactly as if he stepped out of a Hollywood movie from the 1930s) and the suddenly hot Melissa Leo as Mildred’s new boyfriend and best friend respectively. If contemporary Hollywood could serve up even a half-dozen theatrical films each year as intelligent and well-crafted as Mildred Pierce, we’d be entering a new golden age of American cinema. But they can’t and we ain’t, so for the time being let’s all be grateful for television.

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Top Ten Films of 2010

It may not have been as strong of a calendar year as 2007, which I’m convinced will go down as one of the all-time great movie years alongside of 1939 and 1960 (but that’s a subject for another post); 2010 was still a good year for the movies. I would go so far as to say it offered an embarrassment of riches for Chicago-area cinephiles – provided, that is, one knew where to look. The only films I really wanted to see but missed were Tuesday, After Christmas, the latest buzzed about film of the Romanian New Wave, which received a scant few Chicago International Film Festival screenings, and the full five and a half hour cut of Olivier Assayas’ Carlos, which turned up for a few Music Box screenings before being supplanted by the much shorter, and ostensibly more audience friendly, theatrical cut. But with so much good cinema fare playing only in limited runs or at “alternative” venues, a few things are bound to slip through the cracks. Having said all that, I’d like to give a special shout out to The Chicago International Film Festival for having a more impressive line-up than usual and the enterprising programmers at the Music Box, the Siskel Center and Facets, who continued to go above and beyond the call of duty in bringing the best of contemporary world cinema to the Second City.

Below is a list of my ten favorite new films to first play Chicago in 2010 (even though some debuted elsewhere last year), as well as fifteen runners-up.

The Top Ten (in preferential order):

10. White Material (Denis, France/Cameroon) – The Music Box. Rating: 8.2

The peerless Isabelle Huppert combines sinewy physical strength with psychological complexity as Maria, the French owner of a coffee plantation in a nameless civil war-torn African country. As violence escalates, Maria presses on running her business, stubbornly refusing to acknowledge that the world around her is descending into chaos. No characters are spared the harsh eye of director Claire Denis in this disturbing drama – not Maria’s fractured family, the government troops, nor the rebel soldiers (including a fair number of child soldiers) led by Isaach de Bankole. This isn’t a masterpiece on the order of her earlier Beau Travail but no one else except Denis, who spent her childhood in Africa and has now made three films there, seems willing to perform the necessary task of providing a moral reckoning of France’s colonial past.

9. Around a Small Mountain (Rivette, France, 2009) – Siskel Center. Rating: 8.3

aroundasmallmountain

Jacques Rivette’s supposed swan song, which some allege was completed by his longtime screenwriter Pascal Bonitzer, is a charming, wise, deceptively simple film that clocks in at a very atypically brief 84 minutes. The story concerns an Italian businessman (Sergio Castellitto) who becomes involved with a low-rent traveling circus, presided over by a mysterious Englishwoman (Jane Birkin). But plot is really only an excuse for Rivette and Bonitzer to explore the nature of performance and how art and life are inextricably bound. Delightful scenes of jugglers, acrobats and clowns performing are intercut with the main story until it becomes unclear where the performance ends and life begins. If it is Rivette’s last movie, it is a fitting farewell indeed. Full review here.

8. Carlos (Assayas, France/Germany) Music Box. Rating: 8.4

French writer/director Olivier Assayas posits the international terrorist as rock star in this electrifying biopic of Ilich “Carlos the Jackal” Ramirez Sanchez. Multilingual, made-for-television and shot in many different countries, this insanely ambitious epic is a perfect reflection of the “global” character of cinema in the 21st century – even as it sticks closely to the “rise and fall” formula of a Warner Brothers gangster film of the 1930s. The highlight is an hour long scene depicting Sanchez’s takeover of OPEC headquarters in 1975, a set piece that puts most contemporary Hollywood action movies to shame. If the film’s inevitable downward spiral denouement can’t sustain as much interest, no matter. This is still essential stuff.

7. Everyone Else (Ade, Germany/Italy) – Gene Siskel Film Center. Rating: 8.5

Everyone Else announces the arrival of a major new directorial talent in Maren Ade, the film’s young female writer/director. In only her second feature film, the chronicle of the end of a love affair between a young German couple vacationing in Sardinia, Ade shows she knows a thing or two about human nature and the mysterious machinations of a relationship in irreversible decline. Reportedly inspired by Ingmar Bergman, whose relationship dramas traverse similar psychological terrain, I found this more devastating and more cinematic than Ade’s ostensible models. I can’t wait to see what she does next. Full review here.

6. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Weerasethakul, Thailand) – Chicago International Film Festival. Rating: 9.0

“Facing the jungle, the hills and vales, my past lives as an animal and other beings rise up before me.” So begins the latest film by Apichatpong “Joe” Weerasethakul, one of the world’s most exciting young directors. Fully deserving of its Cannes Palm d’Or, Uncle Boonmee is a masterful tone poem that expands on the spiritual themes of Joe’s earlier work to encompass a graceful, feature-length meditation on dying and death. Shot entirely in the jungles of rural Thailand, the cinematography is appropriately lush and the dense sound mix creates an impressively immersive experience. I suspect the experimental aspects of this film may drive some viewers up the wall but I could have watched it go on forever; I emerged from the theater as relaxed and refreshed as I typically feel after watching a film by Yasujiro Ozu. More here.

5. Wild Grass (Resnais, France) – The Music Box. Rating: 9.3

Alain Resnais’ alternately sublime and ridiculous study of fantasy and obsession represents a return to the “wildness” of his early films and, for my money, is also his best film in decades. I really admire the way Resnais takes the premise of a generic romantic comedy (a typical meet-cute involving his regular players André Dussollier and Sabine Azema) and continually undercuts the audience’s desire to “identify” with these characters. Is Dussollier a stalker? Did he actually kill a man in the past? Why does Azema express interest in him as soon as he loses interest in her? The most obvious example of the film’s surrealist/satirical bent is its first false ending, complete with Sweeping Romantic Gesture and Twentieth Century Fox theme music. This is followed by the “real” ending, a cosmic punchline so bat-shit crazy that it nearly caused me to fall out of my chair from laughing so hard. I also loved the candy box colors and near-constant use of crane shots. Now what the hell’s wrong with Sony Pictures Classics that they won’t release a blu-ray, hmmmm?

4. Shutter Island (Scorsese, USA) – Wide Release. Rating: 9.5

The closest Martin Scorsese has come to making a straight horror film is also the best thing he’s done since Goodfellas in 1990. Forget about the narrative twists and turns, which aren’t any more implausible or predictable than what you’ll find in Hitchcock’s best movies. Shutter Island is a great film because of the raw, ferocious emotions at its core, in particular the palpable guilt, fear and paranoia of Leonardo DiCaprio’s Teddy Daniels. These emotions all coalesce in the film’s ingenious finale, which critic Glenn Kenny has aptly compared to Vertigo and referred to as a “perfect note of empathetic despair.” Once the mystery plot has given up its surface secrets, Shutter Island still repays multiple viewings as a brilliant character study. And the unusually baroque visuals, which clearly show the influence of Scorsese’s idol Michael Powell, are never less than a treat.

3. The Ghost Writer (Polanski, UK/Germany/France) – Landmark’s Century Centre Cinema. Rating: 9.6

With this, his 19th feature film, Roman Polanski earned the dubious distinction of becoming the first director to supervise post-production of a major motion picture from jail. Unfortunately, the brouhaha surrounding l’affaire Polanski overshadowed this superb return to form, a meticulously crafted political thriller. Comparisons between The Ghost Writer and Shutter Island are instructive, as both are influenced by Alfred Hitchcock but in radically different ways; Martin Scorsese is the modernist, Polanski the classicist. In Scorsese’s film, every aspect of the movie is aggressively stylized as a way for the director to comment on the subject matter (expressive camera movements, bold color schemes, intentionally fake-looking digital backdrops, crazy editing rhythms). In Polanski’s film, the visual components are just as aesthetically developed but are less self-conscious and more pressed to the service of, not really the story per se, but more what I would call Polanski’s theme; this is most obvious in Polanski’s rigorous color scheme (in particular the suppression of red) and the set design of Pierce Brosnan’s beach-front home, which is perhaps best described as a modern-art nightmare. Both movies finally aren’t about “story” at all; Shutter Island centers on the question of whether violence is inherent in human nature. The Ghost Writer is a query into the dark heart of our new global society and how the major players on that stage use, betray, victimize and discard one another.

2. The Social Network (Fincher, USA) – Wide Release. Rating: 9.8

Another groundbreaking, digitally shot time capsule from David Fincher’s astonishing post-Panic Room mature period. Every aspect of this movie works — from the terrific rapid-fire dialogue of Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay (which recalls the heyday of Hollywood screwball comedy) to the sterling ensemble cast (notably Jesse Eisenberg as motor-mouthed Mark Zuckerberg, Justin Timberlake as the Mephistophelean Sean Parker, and Andrew Garfield as Eduardo Saverin, the man they both screw over and the movie’s true emotional core). But it’s Fincher’s mise-en-scene, which for many reasons could have only been achieved in the 21st century, that turns The Social Network into an exhilarating roller coaster ride. A film that defines our time? Who cares? It’s a film for all time. Full review here.

1. Certified Copy (Kiarostami, Iran/France/Italy) – Chicago International Film Festival. Rating: 10

I’ve heard Abbas Kiarostami’s latest masterpiece described as both a comedy and a metaphysical horror film. Certified Copy, which seems to be both a curve ball and a true-to-form puzzle film from the master, is great enough and slippery enough to accommodate both descriptions simultaneously. I still don’t know if this is a story about the characters played by Juliette Binoche and William Shimmel engaging in some extreme form of play-acting or if the film instead posits a kind of mutable reality in which their identities are constantly morphing in accordance with the demands of a mischievous narrative. And that’s how I like it. Binoche continues to look more radiant with each passing year and Shimell (a professional opera singer but amateur thespian) is pitch-perfect as her foil. More here.

The Fifteen Runners Up (in alphabetical order):

35 Shots of Rum (Denis, France) – The Music Box. Rating: 7.7

Black Swan (Aronofsky, USA) – Wide Release. Rating: 7.6

The Chaser (Na, S. Korea) – Facets Cinematheque. Rating: 7.1

Chicago Heights (Nearing, USA) – Gene Siskel Film Center. More here. Rating: 5.8

Heartbeats (Dolan, Canada) – Chicago International Film Festival. More here. Rating: 7.5

Hereafter (Eastwood, USA/France/UK) – Wide Release. Rating: 7.3

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (Stern/Sundberg, USA) – Landmark’s Century Centre Cinema. Rating: 7.5

Lebanon (Maoz, Israel/Lebanon) – The Music Box. Full review here. Rating: 7.7

Life During Wartime (Solondz, USA) – The Musix Box. Rating: 6.7

On Tour (Amalric, France) – Chicago International Film Festival. More here. Rating: 6.6

A Prophet (Audiard, France) – Landmark’s Century Centre Cinema. Rating: 7.0

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (Wright, USA/Canada) – Wide Release. Rating: 7.4

The Town (Affleck, USA) – Wide Release. Full review here. Rating: 7.0

True Grit (Coens, USA) – Wide Release. Rating: 7.4

Winter’s Bone (Granik, USA) – Landmark’s Century Centre Cinema. Rating: 6.9

Anyone reading this should feel free to post their own favorites in the comments section below.


CIFF – Twenty Two Most Wanted!

Here is a wish list of the 22 films I’d most like to see turn up at the Chicago International Film Festival in October. The titles are a combination of films that played at Cannes in May, films that have been slated to play at the Venice or Toronto fests in the coming months and some serious wishful thinking.

22. The Housemaid (Im, S. Korea)
An erotic thriller in which a married man’s affair with the family maid brings tragic consequences. I would normally be skeptical of this, a remake of one of the best S. Korean movies of all time (Kim Ki-Young’s mind-blowing Hanyo from 1960), but this was made by Im Sang-Soo, director of the formidable The President’s Last Bang.

21. The Town (Affleck, USA)
Ben Affleck’s directorial debut, Gone, Baby, Gone, was one of the great surprises of 2007: an effective genre piece boasting a terrific ensemble cast and some interesting sociological insights to boot. This sophomore effort is another crime thriller, starring Affleck and The Hurt Locker ‘s Jeremy Renner.

20. 13 Assassins (Miike, Japan)
A reunion between Audition director Takashi Miike and screenwriter Daisuke Tengan that promises to melt more brains – in the audience if not onscreen.

19. Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Herzog, France/USA)
A 3-D documentary about the earliest known hand-drawn images. Werner Herzog, whose best films in recent years have tended to be documentaries (see Grizzly Man), will almost certainly do something interesting with the 3-D format.

18. Secret Reunion (Jang, S. Korea)
I know nothing about this except that it stars the enormously talented Song Kang-Ho, veteran of many great S. Korean New Wave movies. Recommended by my film fest savvy friend David Hanley.

17. Another Year (Leigh, UK)
I always like to see what Mike Leigh is up to. If nothing else, you know the performances will be very good.

16. Accident (Cheang, Hong Kong)
A new crime drama from producer (and possible ghost-director) Johnnie To, arguably the best genre filmmaker in the world.

15. Black Swan (Aronofsky, USA)
I found The Wrestler to be Darren Aronofsky’s best film by a wide margin so I’m eager to see what he does in this follow-up, a dark thriller about rival ballet dancers starring Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis.

14. Poetry (Lee, S. Korea)
An elderly woman with Alzheimer’s disease takes a poetry course in this highly praised drama from S. Korean director Lee Chang-Dong. Won Best Screenplay at Cannes.

13. Film Socialisme (Godard, France/Switzerland)
A Mediterranean cruise is the jumping off point for the latest edition of Jean-Luc Godard’s global newspaper. This outraged many at Cannes (and predictably found passionate admirers among the Godard faithful) where it was shown with “Navajo English” subtitles.

12. Hereafter (Eastwood, USA)
After Invictus, director Clint Eastwood re-teams with Matt Damon for a European-shot supernatural thriller.

11. On Tour (Amalric, France)
Mathieu Amalric, a distinctive actor who specializes in comically unhinged characters, directs and stars as the manager of a traveling burlesque show. This has been compared to the work of John Cassavetes and indeed it sounds a lot like The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. A surprise Best Director winner at Cannes.

10. Hahaha (Hong, South Korea)
School of the Art Institute grad Hong Sang-Soo is one of the most prominent writer-directors of the S. Korean New Wave. His latest comedy won the top prize in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard sidebar and had critics grumbling that it belonged in the main competition.

9. Road to Nowhere (Hellman, USA)
Described as a “romantic noir,” this new film from Monte Hellman (director of the great Two-Lane Blacktop) is also apparently a movie-within-a-movie that he shot digitally with a newfangled still-camera. Hellman, returning after a too-long absence, has compared it to Last Year at Marienbad.

8. The Strange Case of Angelica (de Oliveira, Portugal)
This turning up is almost a certainty as the CIFF has shown 101 year old(!) Portugese master Manoel de Oliveira a lot of love in recent years, regularly screening his films since the late nineties. The Strange Case of Angelica premiered in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes where it found many admirers. Adding to the interest is the fact that it’s Oliveira’s first time working with CGI.

7. Tree of Life (Malick, USA)
Brad Pitt and Sean Penn play father and son (though probably don’t share screen time) in a drama set in both the 1950s and the present day. If the last couple films by the reclusive, secretive Terrence Malick are anything to go by, this will probably open in New York and L.A. on Christmas Day, then have its Chicago premiere in early 2011.

6. Carlos (Assayas, France)
A five and a half hour epic period piece about the true exploits of left-wing celebrity/terrorist “Carlos the Jackal,” this would seem to be an abrupt about-face from Olivier Assayas’ last film, the sublime family drama Summer Hours. Originally made for French television, Carlos screened out of competition at Cannes where some critics claimed it was the electrifying highlight of the entire festival. Could conceivably play CIFF in one, two or three parts.

5. The Grandmaster (Wong, Hong Kong)
Wong Kar-Wai’s return to filmmaking in Hong Kong after taking a stab at an American indie (2007’s minor My Blueberry Nights) is a biopic of Bruce Lee’s kung-fu teacher, Ip Man. The all-star cast is headed by Wong’s favorite leading man, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, who has said this will be a “real kung-fu film” with “many action scenes.” This is an intriguing prospect from the most romantic filmmaker in the world.

4. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong, Thailand)
The latest from another SAIC alumnus, Apichatpong “Joe” Weerasethakul, who specializes in experimental/narrative hybrids. Joe made an auspicious debut with Mysterious Obect at Noon in 2000 and has only gone from strength to strength with each subsequent feature. Uncle Boonmee, a work of magical realism about the deathbed visions of the titular character, wowed ’em at Cannes where it converted previous skeptics and walked off with the Palm d’Or.

3. The Social Network (Fincher, USA)
Or “Facebook: The Movie.” If anyone can make a great film about the founding of a website, it’s David Fincher whose pioneering work with digital cinema in Zodiac and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button established him as a Hollywood innovator and maverick in the tradition of F.W. Murnau, Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick.

2. Certified Copy (Kiarostami, France/Italy)
More often than not, when a beloved auteur leaves his native country to make a film in International Co-production-land, the results are muddled and unsatisfying. That doesn’t seem to be the case with the shot-in-Italy, Juliette Binoche-starring Certified Copy, which has been hailed as a return to form of sorts for Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami. (He’s working in 35mm again after having spent most of the past decade experimenting with digital video.) This nabbed Binoche a Best Actress award at Cannes and was favorably compared in some quarters to Roberto Rossellini’s masterpiece Viaggio in Italia.

1. The Assassin (Hou, Taiwan)
Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s long rumored martial arts film starring Shu Qi and Chang Chen. This is probably a pipe dream as news of the project was first announced years ago but reports of the film actually going into production have never materialized. Still, one must dream.


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