Willem Dafoe (#110 of 19)

Toronto International Film Festival 2014 Pasolini, Tales, & Don’t Go Breaking My Heart 2

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Toronto International Film Festival 2014: Pasolini, Tales, & Don’t Go Breaking My Heart 2
Toronto International Film Festival 2014: Pasolini, Tales, & Don’t Go Breaking My Heart 2

Abel Ferrara's Pasolini may not be the finest film playing at Toronto this year, but this wholly unconventional biopic manages to stick in the brain like few I've seen so far. Taking for its subject only the last day of Pier Paolo Pasolini's life, the film should, by normal generic conventions, be nothing more than foreshadowing for Pasolini's grisly murder. Instead, it's almost defiantly banal, focused on the simple tasks of making art, such as reviewing rushes, typing and revising copy, and workshopping ideas with peers and loved ones. In terms of commitment and research and all the other method trappings that turn real lives into showboating for actors, Willem Dafoe brings little more than his slight resemblance to Pasolini, an extraordinarily freeing decision that, in classic Ferrara style, deliberately foregrounds the actor's own identity along with the character's, making plain the work of acting just as the film itself looks at the other elements of artistic production.

BAFICI 2014 Streets of Fire, Stray Dogs, Only Lovers Left Alive, & Norte, the End of History

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BAFICI 2014: Streets of Fire, Stray Dogs, Only Lovers Left Alive, & Norte, the End of History
BAFICI 2014: Streets of Fire, Stray Dogs, Only Lovers Left Alive, & Norte, the End of History

The Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Film seems to channel the sheer variety of the Internet, where it seems all movies from all eras are available. During 10 days, all sorts of films are made available at several venues within the Argentine capital, from horror flicks to forgotten commercial failures, classic studio productions, modern art-house fare, and experimental cinema. BAFICI seems to pride itself on its eclectic selection, and its broad pickings allow audience members to trace surprising connections between movies that might appear to have nothing else in common outside their shared inclusion in a festival. A sort of creative viewership is encouraged, as one comes to realize that an American rock fable, a miserablist Taiwanese drama, a visual poem with vampires, and an epic about social and political traumas in the Philippines have plenty in common.

Walter Hill's unsung Streets of Fire and Tsai Ming-liang's Stray Dogs have probably never been mentioned in the same sentence. Seen back to back, they reveal strikingly similar qualities, as both might or might not be science-fiction films. Streets of Fire is set in a fantasy land, which mixes costumes and vehicles from the 1950s with the urban squalor of the 1980s. When a motorcycle gang, led by fresh-faced Willem Dafoe, kidnaps a local pop singer (Diane Lane), it's up to the gruff masculine hero played by Michael Paré to save the day. There are references to an unnamed war and the city appears to be in a state of crisis (its police force is sorely understaffed and justice is meted out by civilians). The characters are so conventional that they recede into the background as they follow archetypal signposts, and because their exploits are so predictable, the environment absorbs our attention instead. Diners and theaters from the American Graffiti years have decayed underneath rubble and trash. In an abandoned factory, the motorcycle gang has established a decadent bar where naked dancers strike aggressive poses, using their sexuality as a weapon. Having been recently and luminously restored, Streets of Fire plays differently today than it did back in 1984. What was originally a blend between the present and the past is now the combination of two different pasts, which together suggest a kind of future.

Berlinale 2014 Nymphomaniac: Volume I

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Berlinale 2014: Nymphomaniac: Volume I
Berlinale 2014: Nymphomaniac: Volume I

The first half of Lars von Trier's probable masterpiece, Nymphomaniac, arrives on eddies of a “playful” publicity campaign that threatened to flatten the licentiousness (and even the straight-up sexiness) of the subject matter into a string of dopey gags. A series of posters featuring ASCII-rendered genitalia and photos capturing its international cast mid-coitus, were mischievous in a way consistent with von Trier's own smirking, ludic impishness—the pranksterish postures that ignite even his worst and most boring work.

At the risk of whittling one of the most thorny, interesting, and exasperating of living filmmakers down to a single problem, the central concern (for me, at least) with von Trier and his films is that this playfulness rather easily teeters into boring didacticism. His button-pushing provocations—both in terms of his films' frequently controversial material (rape, depression, mental retardation, racism, more rape) and the ideas (or discernible whiffs of ideas) that drive them—become needling and banal.

It's like we're constantly asked to take for granted that von Trier is playing his own devil's advocate, putting across visions of nihilistic reckoning, sneering at the feeble human soul's instinctual gravitation toward corruptibility and self-pollution, while simultaneously being asked to believe that he somehow believes the opposite. He angers and riles us and ignites the passion and intellect, while not really meaning any of it, off in the corner with that shit-eating grin on his face offered up as some mawkish mea culpa. He's like Gabbo on The Simpsons, bashfully offering little else in his own defense beyond, basically, “I'm a bad widdle boy.” It's infuriating. And much more so because it's meant to be exactly that.

Berlinale 2014 The Grand Budapest Hotel

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Berlinale 2014: The Grand Budapest Hotel
Berlinale 2014: The Grand Budapest Hotel

At their worst, Wes Anderson's films are mere showpieces. They're meticulously stage-managed, lavishly appointed cross-sectional dollhouses erected as staging grounds for their director's rarely not enervating quirks and obvious opportunities for Hollywood A-listers to recharge their thespian cache. (The idea that Anderson is an “actor's director”—as if there's another kind?—has always smacked bogus, given that to perform in a Wes Anderson movie is generally to perform in a self-consciously stilted, nouveau-Victorian, drained, and affectless pantomime that would play as totally unchallenging were it not so observably different.) And in the best cases, Anderson squares his paisley trick-bag of Godardian compositions and book of vintage carpet samples with a congruent thematic meaning. In 2011's excellent Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson's incurable nostalgia was a nostalgia for the lost summers of childhood. Here, in The Grand Budapest Hotel, which is either his best film or his best film since his last film, it's the waning of historical memory, of the past slipping irretrievably beyond some distant horizon.

Review: The Life and Death of Marina Abramović

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Review: <em>The Life and Death of Marina Abramović</em>
Review: <em>The Life and Death of Marina Abramović</em>

The Museum of Modern Art's 2010 exhibition of performance artist Marina Abramović's life work, five years after the Guggenheim allowed her to “re-perform” seven performances by herself and others, cemented Abramović's conversion into performance art's ruling figure, at once parent to the form and gatekeeper of its history, at least in the public imagination. Those who've accused her of crossing the thin line from self-sacrificing hero to self-aggrandizing celebrity will likely be further displeased by The Life and Death of Marina Abramović, an impressionistic theatrical biography co-authored and co-starring Abramović, and designed and directed by Robert Wilson. Here we see Abramović as a living saint, already transubstantiated.

The evening is framed as a funeral for Abramović (newspapers are distributed to the audience with the headline, “ARTIST MARINA ABRAMOVIĆ DIES AT 67”), who begins by lying in a white robe on a coffin-shaped table and ends drifting into the air in the same gown. She's flanked by two women, and in the finale a triptych of black crows peppers the sky. The two-and-a-half-hour work might have been called The Passion of Marina.

Poster and Trailer Drop for Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel

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Poster and Trailer Drop for Wes Anderson’s <em>The Grand Budapest Hotel</em>
Poster and Trailer Drop for Wes Anderson’s <em>The Grand Budapest Hotel</em>

Assuming he's one filmmaker who's heavily involved with the marketing of his movies, Wes Anderson has become a master of the fetching teaser poster, using mysteriously detailed, illustrative one-sheets that only hint at what the given film is about. Recently, the posters for his films fall somewhere in between those that peddle attractive casts and director-as-brand, and those that merely tease a brand itself. Anderson is so unfailingly unique and exciting a filmmaker that he has become his own draw, but he doesn't seem to rely on that, nor do his marquee names seem to be scrawled across his ads just to sell his pictures. They're doing that, of course, but given that Anderson has come to work with recurring players in a kind of company, the cast list reads more as a celebration of an ensemble, particularly when the biggest name in the lineup is Bill Murray. And how glorious it is to gaze upon a poster that is pushing nothing recognizable, no known faces or logos, but simply something curious, handsome, and new.

Twice in a row, Anderson has employed this specific approach, first with last year's poster for Moonrise Kingdom, which we named one of the best movie posters of 2012, and now with his poster for The Grand Budapest Hotel, unveiled just days ago. Like the Moonrise Kingdom ad, we're given a fairy-tale tableau, with an unfamiliar subject in the foreground (here, the titular inn substituted for a Hansel-and-Gretel duo), and a background that stretches off to the horizon. Furthermore, the wedding-cake-esque hotel is surrounded by numerous quirky details, like the perched buck that appears statuesque, the topiaries on the lower terrace that seem to be playing chess with one another, and the cemetery-style arch that bears the movie's title, perhaps implying that death is afoot.

Summer of ‘88: Fathers and Sons—The Last Temptation of Christ

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Summer of ‘88: Fathers and Sons—<em>The Last Temptation of Christ</em>
Summer of ‘88: Fathers and Sons—<em>The Last Temptation of Christ</em>

I. Spreading the Word

I say this with love: My father is a master of rhetoric. He is a master of rhetoric without, by his own admission, ever having mastered anything to do with rhetoric. I think he's too hard on himself. His style of argumentation is blunt, yet nimble, as straightforward as a battering ram, yet maddeningly hard to pin down (as another subversive, Ernst Lubitsch, was summed up by the Production Code, “We know what he's saying, but we can't figure out how he's saying it”). He'll keep hammering the same point over and over again, until you think you've got him, whereby he'll swerve with surprising dexterity. Approaching 80, my father is typically right-of-center on most political and social issues, except when it comes to religion. Stephanie Zacharek's description of Pauline Kael suits him on one point only: He has no truck with God. Even the renowned theologians of history would have had their hands full with his Columbo-like oratory (“Oh, yeah, just one more question…”). Augustine would have retaken to drink. Pascal would have lost his wager. Erasmus would have turned agnostic.

Finding Nemo: Pixar’s Quiet Masterpiece

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<em>Finding Nemo</em>: Pixar’s Quiet Masterpiece
<em>Finding Nemo</em>: Pixar’s Quiet Masterpiece

Of all the feature films in Pixar's impressive repertoire, Finding Nemo has arguably proven the most durable. The movie, which celebrated its 10th anniversary last month, is held in high favor critically and with audiences, but to some extent it's also underappreciated, commonly regarded as an admirable, stalwart entry from the animation house. And yet, though it's not a film that's inspired the kind of rapturous following that The Incredibles or WALL-E have cultivated, Finding Nemo remains the heart and soul of the Pixar family of movies. It showcases a number of hallmarks for which the studio has become renowned, such as stunning technical bravura and smoothly elegant storytelling. But what distinguishes Finding Nemo from its studio brethren—and what makes it Pixar's enduring classic to date—is its narrative accessibility and emotional directness.

At the time of its release, Finding Nemo was primarily heralded for its unparalleled pictorial beauty. Digital animation was still somewhat fresh at the time; just two years before, Shrek had introduced brand new possibilities in digital animation with its crisply rendered environments and characters that had scale and weight. Finding Nemo, by turn, was possibly the first full realization of those possibilities. I still remember seeing it in the theater and feeling completely engulfed by the colors, layers, and textures of the underwater world it fashions. Ten years later, the film still exudes an ethereal quality that's seldom seen in today's animation (which is a credit, also, to the deep musical and overall soundscape). But the abounding detail of the film's visual design, from the scales on Nemo's body to the speckles dancing in the foreground and background of every frame, is all the more astounding for how subtly it's deployed.

Poster Lab: Nymphomaniac

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Poster Lab: <em>Nymphomaniac</em>
Poster Lab: <em>Nymphomaniac</em>

With little more than two strategically placed parentheses, Lars von Trier may well have delivered the best poster of the year, a preposterously simple, characteristically devious tease that succeeds in saying nothing and, potentially, everything about his latest film. Reported, more than a year ago, to be a two-part endeavor (details of when and how each part will be released remain somewhat ambiguous), the self-explanatory Nymphomaniac stars von Trier's masochistic muse, Charlotte Gainsbourg, as a self-diagnosed sex addict, who, at age 50, spills her lifelong string of trysts to a man (Stellan Skarsgård) who finds her beaten in the street. That's essentially all that's known, aside from the fact that the film will include bona fide, non-simulated sex, and that Shia LaBeouf will be among the libidinous partners baring all.

Depending on how you received Antichrist, a sins-of-the-mother horrorshow that culminated with one of cinema's most unshakable acts of violence (you know the one), von Trier can be viewed as a conscience-deprived misogynist or the world's most offbeat feminist. In either case, there's no getting past his fascination with female genitalia, which is bluntly evoked here without any immediate crudeness. One might call the apparent obsession Freudian, but such a common label seems dumbly reductive for a man of von Trier's oft-immeasurable thematic predilections. Still, Sigmund would be proud if he moseyed over to the movie's current website, which, speaking of revisiting the past, lets the viewer enter those parentheses via a move of the scroll bar, simulating the ultimate return to the ultimate source.