Taken--Really, sometimes this is all I want out of a movie. Simple, fast, dumb, lots of action. And Liam Neeson! I've always been fairly ambivalent about him, despite a long-standing joke among old friends about his being "the greatest dramatic actor of our time," but he's wonderful here, mostly thanks to his appealing looseness. There's a scene where he approaches a prostitute on a street corner in Paris, purposely trying to monopolize her time so he can bait her pimp out into the open, and he's all Jacob's ladder jangly limbs, gushing about how pretty she is, asking if her dress is made of real silk, and wondering if he could get some sort of package deal if he saw her multiple times. It's goofy and hilarious and awesome and hinges entirely on his ability not to skeeve us out with the interaction. Maybe it's Irish charm or whatever, but these little sparks of warmth come as welcome correctives to a role that could have been all Charles Bronson steely revenge self-seriousness. Plus also, the car chases were bad ass. Why are all the best movie car chase scenes either set in Europe or filmed by European directors these days?
This Is England--Like the bastard hybrid of American History X and Son of Rambow I didn't know I wanted. Watched this with Parowpyro while I was hanging with him in Brooklyn and, despite being exhausted from several days of walking around NYC and several nights of drinking until all hours, I miraculously didn't succumb to the notorious Felusian narcolepsy as soon as the opening credits finished rolling. Seriously, it's that good. A movie about skinheads set against the backdrop of the Falklands War, it could have descended into cheap sentiment in a million different places, but it maintains complete control over its mix of sensitivity (so frothy it's really almost whimsy, believe it or not) and gut-churning violence (that's never exploitative or manipulative). A really special little film. Thanks again, Shawn!
The Class (Entre les murs)--Woof. After a stressful and difficult week at work, I probably would have preferred to see something a bit lighter, but I'm still glad I caught this. It reminded me a bit of the HBO documentary Thin, which I also watched somewhat recently, for the way it doesn't let anybody off the hook--the students, the teachers, the parents, the administration--and for the ways that the system is shown to fail kids who are definitely challenging but could benefit from help the most. Much as my enjoyment of Slumdog Millionaire was heightened by having read Maximum City, my appreciation for The Class was enriched by my love for Adam Gopnik's essay collection Paris to the Moon. Though he doesn't deal too much with the schools specifically in his writing, he does give a wonderful picture of the very French love of debate and committees, where the notion of a theoretical Good is often privileged over the reality of the circumstance right in front of their eyes, which you see here in the many scenes of the teachers meeting to discuss how to deal with certain students and other problems in their classes. Also, the fact that there are only about two moments in the whole movie where the prevailing air of stress and tension is alleviated (by my count, the display of Souleymane's photo essay near the middle and the student vs. teacher soccer game in the courtyard at the very end) recalled Gopnik's description of the European attraction to soccer, as opposed to the American love of basketball. In his piece "The World Cup, and After," he comes to see the multitude of points scored in an NBA game as "a little loud, a little cheap...more goals than you know what to do with...like eating whipped cream straight" whereas the World Cup is "a festival of fate: man accepting his hard circumstances, the near certainty of his fate....Nil-nil is the score of life....Accepting the eventual certainty of defeat in turn liberates you to take real joy in any small victory, that one good kick." Over on Tumblr, Deborah Fight with Knives says that "It’s the most realistic movie I’ve ever seen about teaching...however, it’s so true to life that it kinda felt a lot like going to work." Depending on your stomach for that sort of thing, you should either seek this out immediately or steer clear of it altogether.
Two Lovers--Wow. I almost can't tell if I even liked this movie, but I loved its audacious weirdness. Joaquin Phoenix's performance is almost like nothing I've ever seen before. The preview makes the film look like the standard, sexy "dude can't decide between the girl that he wants and the girl that he has" story (which, in a lot of ways, it is) without giving any indication that his performance is veering close to Crispin Glover levels of lunacy. It's angular and raw and unvarnished and utterly lacking in narcissism (almost to a fault), but also mannered and broad and old-fashioned (in the best sense, like a vaudevillian silent film star transplanted into some European art movie from the 1960s or '70s). Truly, it's astonishing, and I don't know what to make of it. As for the rest of the movie, the levels at which the characters emotionally manipulate each other aren't especially subtle, but they're not supposed to be--there's a certain kind of theatrical beauty to how acute they are. The film ends up feeling like an elaborate piece of origami, all the intricate folds adding up to something unnatural, painstaking, pointless, delicate, and lovely. If swinging-for-the-fences ambition that feels like nothing else in contemporary cinema right now--both for good and for ill--is your sort of thing, don't sleep on this.
Frozen River--Despite the movie having won the Grand Jury prize at Sundance, it's still curious to me that Melissa Leo was nominated for the Best Actress Academy Award for her performance here. She's quite good, but it just doesn't seem like Oscar's cup of tea, at least not in 2008/9, especially in such a small indie. But hopefully, as it did for me, the nomination will draw people to the movie, which deals with race, class, and gender gracefully and organically without ever seeming like a movie that you'd want to describe as dealing with race, class, and gender. There's something fiercely political in the image of Leo, Misty Upham, and the two female Chinese immigrants running across the melting St. Lawrence River during the film's big climax. And of course the shot of this new sort of hybridized, improvised family at the very end totally hit me in my soft spot for that sort of thing.