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Carlos (#110 of 9)

Toronto International Film Festival 2012 To the Wonder and Something in the Air

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Toronto International Film Festival 2012: To the Wonder and Something in the Air

Magnolia Pictures

Toronto International Film Festival 2012: To the Wonder and Something in the Air

At first blush, a 16-month gap between new Terrence Malick films is an incredibly small amount of time. After all, here’s a man who’s up to now managed to produced, on average, about one film per decade, if that. However, upon actually seeing his latest work, To the Wonder, that gap feels, if anything, just right. Malick’s lavishly acclaimed 2011 effort, The Tree of Life, represented the apotheosis of a style that he had spent the better part of three decades refining, ultimately arriving with a work of unparalleled ambition and scope. In many ways, it’s the supreme representation of the Malick aesthetic, presented fully formed and without shame. It was his first clearly autobiographical film, and in both look, tone, and thematics, To the Wonder is noticeably similar, an almost seamlessly updated account of marital discord from The Tree of Life’s 1950s suburban milieu to an undefined late-century countryside landscape. Appropriate, as To the Wonder, in nearly every respect, plays like an intimate companion piece to its successor’s cosmic wonderment.

Understanding Screenwriting #62: Carlos, The Plainsmen, 30 Rock, & Mad Men

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Understanding Screenwriting #62: <em>Carlos</em>, <em>The Plainsmen</em>, <em>30 Rock</em>, & <em>Mad Men</em>
Understanding Screenwriting #62: <em>Carlos</em>, <em>The Plainsmen</em>, <em>30 Rock</em>, & <em>Mad Men</em>

Coming Up in This Column: Carlos, The Plainsmen, 30 Rock, Mad Men

Carlos (2010. Written by Olivier Assayas and Daniel Franck, based on an idea by Daniel Leconte. 335 minutes)

I don’t know if this is a great movie, but… it’ll do until something better comes along. According to an interview with Assayas by David Thompson in the November 2010 issue of Sight & Sound, Assayas was sent about four pages of material by Daniel LeConte, the producer of the film. It was a summary of the life and career of the notorious terrorist “Carlos,” aka the Jackal. Assayas was interested in the character (always a good sign), but not the summary. So Leconte sent him research done by journalist Stephen Smith, an expert in the field. What Assayas discovered was that there was more material available about Carlos’s operation and the geopolitical background than he had thought. In other words, it was getting longer. The film was originally supposed to be a 90-minute film for French television. Assayas told that to Leconte, who was reluctant, but they got approval from Canal Plus to do two 90-minute films. Then Assayas sat down with Daniel Franck, a screenwriter attached to the project, and after one meeting they both realized that three hours was not going to be enough, especially when they got into the material on the attack on the OPEC meeting in Vienna in 1975. Back to Canal Plus and an OK for a three-part film. Now as you know, if you have read this column for any length of time, that I do not believe as a general rule that longer is better. Look at any “director’s cut” if you don’t believe me. Carlos is the exception that proves the rule. Yes, there is a 2 ½ hour version that will play theatres, and it may be wonderful, but try to see the full version.

Abu Dhabi Film Festival 2010: First Impressions, Up the Burj Khalifa, Secretariat, & The Accordion

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Abu Dhabi Film Festival 2010: First Impressions, Up the Burj Khalifa, <em>Secretariat</em>, & <em>The Accordion</em>
Abu Dhabi Film Festival 2010: First Impressions, Up the Burj Khalifa, <em>Secretariat</em>, & <em>The Accordion</em>

Abu Dhabi seemed like a city of palm trees, construction, and concrete. A friend and I wandered around after checking into our hotel, but mostly found highway. The road seemed like a symbol of how people keep coming here; less than a quarter of the population is native, and the rest have arrived from nearly 140 countries. After seeing a food court full of South and East Asian, African, and European complexions the next day, we agreed that New York looked homogenous.

We came for the fourth annual Abu Dhabi Film Festival (ADFF), with over 170 films. Like the city, the lineup extends multiculturally: Only three of the 15 films in the Narrative Competition come from Middle Eastern countries (none from the United Arab Emirates), and several others are high-profile Western choices like Miral and Never Let Me Go. Throughout the other categories, too, the area’s work keeps slipping in between films from the Americas, Europe, and India (here, Bollywood yields big box office), several of which do feature characters of Arab descent. Yet the only fully Arab festival categories this year are a series of shorts programs and a brief retrospective sidebar—and the sidebar films have been programmed by MoMA.

New York Film Festival 2010: Hereafter

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New York Film Festival 2010: <em>Hereafter</em>
New York Film Festival 2010: <em>Hereafter</em>

Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter is a bad movie, even an awful one. Many critics will write brilliant, funny words about why. Few will discuss the fact that its footage has been processed and projected digitally. But this is by far and away the work’s most fascinating aspect. You can tell that Hereafter print you’re watching is digital for at least three reasons: The camera’s continual speed and agility, the way actors keep melting-streaking in and out of focus while walking, and the ubiquitous white-blue-and-gray color scheme, which differs from the bleached-out look of a printed-on-film film like Minority Report in that the shades are less delineated. You stare at actors’ faces, and see pixels.

This is not to say that film is good, digital bad. Film usually reveals itself to audiences with splices and scratches, while Eastwood has shown how DV printing and projection can look pristine. Both Gran Torino and Invictus made handsome videos, in both cases because he used a more medium-friendly darker color palette, with lots of greens and browns (no overexposure), and because he used actors and situations (Clint scowling, Morgan considering) that lacked vibrant, dynamic motion, meaning technicians didn’t have to worry much about keeping the image in focus. When the action did kick up, like in Invictus’s rugby games, the running camera and recurring blurs added to the thrill by making viewers feel like they were chasing the scene.

Post-Punk Auteur: Olivier Assayas

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Post-Punk Auteur: Olivier Assayas
Post-Punk Auteur: Olivier Assayas

A tour group passes behind a kitchen furniture setup. The guide says, “And here we have two dining room chairs and a table.” They walk 180 degrees around the wooden chairs, tables, and cabinets, emerging in front of them. A drawer looms. We’re in a museum, we can tell—the D’Orsay, no less—because of the platform the stuff is placed on, and because other objects sit in a glass case opposite them. The group’s members stare at the goods, only half-listening to their guide; a young man’s cellphone goes off, and he walks away, telling his date, “Almost over. We’ve done the whole place.” He’ll be happy to see whatever movie she likes, he says, and then runs after the group, moving on to the next exhibit. The furniture sits, self-sufficient, antique, forgotten, until—only gradually—its original owners walk up and stare at it. We can’t see the couple’s faces, so we don’t know what they’re thinking. The man sighs, finally. “Strange seeing it here.”

The scene glides in toward the end of Olivier Assayas’s 2008 film Summer Hours. I sat watching the film at Lincoln Plaza during its New York run in the summer of 2009, out with someone on what I hoped was a date. Up to that point I had thought that this film about a trio of siblings’ decision over what to do with their dead mother’s heirlooms was pretty good, even remarkable at points (great lighting in the country scenes), but this moment left me irretrievably shaken. Beautiful as it was, it also reminded me of my own past—the trip to the Musee D’Orsay that I had taken a few years before that, the girl I had gone with, the old life I’d lived.

New York Film Festival 2010 Olivier Assayas’s Carlos

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New York Film Festival 2010: Carlos

IFC Films

New York Film Festival 2010: Carlos

In his three-part biographical epic Carlos, Olivier Assayas seems to have approached his subject—Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, the international terrorist known throughout the 1970s and ’80s as Carlos the Jackal—in a manner similar to the way Steven Soderbergh approached another leftist-revolutionary icon, Che Guevara, in his two-part Che. Like Soderbergh, Assayas seems to have decided that the only honest way to approach his enigmatic central figure is to focus obsessively on historical verisimilitude, stand back, and allow us to draw our own conclusions.

The theory behind taking such an approach, it seems, is to avoid the kind of facile psychological oversimplifications that tends to reduce most Hollywood biopics; think, for instance, of the way Taylor Hackford’s Ray turned Ray Charles’s guilt over helplessly witnessing the drowning death of his younger brother into a letting-go-of-the-past homily that magically seems to cleanse him of all his demons at the end. It’s an admirable goal, but, at least as it plays out in Carlos (and in Che, too), it also turns out to be something of a double-edged sword. Assayas doesn’t always provide us with the safety net of a palpable directorial point of view; much of the time, we instead get the unmoored, one-thing-after-another feel of history passing us by. That’s not meant as criticism; history, of course, rarely falls into easy three-act structures. But as a result of that strategy, there are sections of the 319-minute film that naturally are more immediately compelling than others. (Its third part especially flounders, though the aimlessness seems rather appropriate considering that it details the gradual loss of notoriety and revolutionary fervor into the kind of modest, petite-bourgeois existence Carlos had so vehemently railed against during his heyday.) A more pressing question, though, is whether there are any resulting revelations to justify its wholly intellectual gaze.

New York Film Festival 2010: Preview

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New York Film Festival 2010: Preview
New York Film Festival 2010: Preview

Friend (eyes lighting up): Yeah, now you’re talking!

Now, Eastwood deserves credit—he is a talented auteur making personal art-house films on commercial budgets, at a time when most studio films look assembled by ships of fools. But Eastwood’s Hereafter—a Matt Damon-starring ghost story whose trailers suggest to be a deeply felt, emotionally sincere, bombastic mess—is the last film showing in the festival this year (October 10), and if you restrict yourself to it, then you’ll cheat yourself of all the wonders beforehand.

Cannes Film Festival 2010 Carlos, Poetry, & Our Life

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Cannes Film Festival 2010: Carlos, Poetry, & Our Life

Cannes Film Festival

Cannes Film Festival 2010: Carlos, Poetry, & Our Life

Yesterday’s schedule was dominated by Carlos, Oliver Assayas’s three-part, five-and-a-half-hour miniseries about famous terrorist Carlos the Jackal (a Method-intense Édgar Ramírez). By just about any standard, the film is one hell of an accomplishment, an epic-length biopic made with verve and great skill. In scope, it’s about as far removed from Assayas’s lovely, modest Summer Hours as can be, and an impressive testament to his range. But impressive and great are not always equivalent, and Carlos is not without its problems.

To start with, it’s a biopic, and I don’t much like biopics unless they’re doing something genuinely radical with the form, which Carlos quite frankly does not. So there’s a lot of dutiful information-delivery and this-happened-then-this-happened dramaturgy. But unlike rote hackwork like Ray or Walk the Line, Carlos has an honest-to-goodness director with an honest-to-goodness artistic sensibility behind it. Assayas’s camera movements are elegant as always, as are his striking, unshowy compositions. He punctuates scenes with time-collapsing, oddly unsettling fades to black, and modulates energy and rhythm with typically impeccable music cues. And his action sequences are constructed with a plasticity and spatial coherence that Hollywood could learn a lot from.