Broken Embraces (Almodovar, 2009)

My review for Pedro Almodovar’s entrancing new melodrama Broken Embraces can be found at GCP right here.

It’s a wonderful Holiday present if there ever was one, mixing Almodovar’s patented brand of melodrama with a nice twist on memory and forgiveness. I think it ranks with the year’s best films.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

Best of the 2000’s: Discussion #10

The Filmist has posted our tenth and final discussion where we tackle Edward Yang’s Yi Yi and Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men, our respective favorite films of the decade. You can find it here.

I also want to thank you readers out there who’ve been following our trek through this insurmountable wealth of material.  Without you, we would be screaming into the wind.

Precious: Based on the Novel Push By Sapphire (Daniels, 2009)

An unrelenting timeline of suffering youth, Precious: Based on the Novel Push By Sapphire overtly martyrs its titular character by thickly laying on the trauma. Precious (Gabourey Sidibe) is an overweight African-American teenager living a nightmare in Harlem circa 1987, barely surviving her day-to-day life under attack from both uncaring social institutions and horrific familial degradations.

In fact, director Lee Daniels pounds this point so often, he squanders the initial sympathy for his tortured protagonist, numbing her plight with never-ending escalation in terror. During the atrociously contrived final act, Precious’ ridiculous angelic rise destroys the film’s credibility altogether.

Yet Sidibe’s finely tuned performance somehow transcends her cinematic representation. As Precious fends off countless physical and mental assaults, Sidibe reveals a convincing honesty when pushed to the brink, contradicting the lame dream sequences and melodramatic musical cues and giving her character a forlorn subtlety and complexity. One strong glance from Precious defies snide remarks by fellow students, stuns her mother’s (Mo’Nique) aggressive confrontations, and distills the syrupy arc pushed upon her by the filmmakers. Both actor and character deserve a better film and a more nuanced vision of a woman rising out of the deathly hallows.

Precious attempts to be a poignant character study, delving into the broken psyche of a girl struggling for an identity. By sugar-coating almost every moment of success and simplifying each conflict with violent posturing, Precious churns honest emotion into simplistic representation. Despite it’s undeserved critical praise, Precious remains just another forgettable foray into pertinent modern subjects doomed by agenda- driven faulty filmmaking. Ironically, it’s been pushed into the realm of importance by both short-sided champions and belligerent cynics. Par for the course all around.

Much hoopla has already been made over the film’s chance at the Academy Awards, but love it or hate it, this gives Precious too much credit either way. It seems like just more critical grandstanding typical for this time of year.

Best of the 2000’s: Epilogue

The Best of the Rest: Honorable Mentions for the 2000’s

For every beginning, there must be an end. Sadly, our joint venture has come to its waning days, but the experience has been invigorating and therapeutic. So we have a decade nearly in the books, ten personal favorites revealed, and plenty of great Cinema to spare.

As previously stated in the Prologue, a rash of other masterful films deserve mention as best of the 2000’s, and I’d like to consider each in short bursts. I’ve ranked them 11-20 but in truth, they are interchangeable on any given day. To be followed by my Top 10 performances of the decade. Continue reading

The Girlfriend Experience (Soderbergh, 2009)

Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience doesn’t work as a poignant commentary about contradictions in consumerism, nor is it a particularly engaging character study about a call girl (Sasha Grey) adrift in turmoil. In fact, none of the main characters or themes are very interesting (Glenn Kenny’s uber-freak critic aside), and they exist in shades rather than full complex entities. The film is unforgivably dull at times, watching characters sidestep emotions and motivations in favor of manipulative rhetoric (Wall Street anyone), riding for long stretches on Soderbergh’s blatant halos of grey/blue hues and metallic infrastructure sheen.

But there is a saving grace. Soderbergh makes up for the overall mundanity with some brilliant non-linear editing, fragmenting the story by overlapping images, colors, and shadows in challenging ways. Scale and lighting mold the cuts, and the temporal gaps continuously confound the surface level narrative. Unlike the atrocious Bubble, Soderbergh’s other recent foray into focused HD filmmaking, The Girlfriend Experience creates a shifting cinematic world with potential for subtextual returns. Yet Soderbergh’s vision turns up little, a fickle cynic that is many things – incredibly hollow, savagely impersonal, and altogether silly (Hollywood anyone). Grey breaks the film’s back with some atrocious acting, leaving only the ambitious disjointed montage in her wake. And maybe not ironically, we are left with anything but an experience.

In My Skin (de Van, 2002)

Sometimes people just fall apart, and Marina de Van’s effectively opaque horror film In My Skin charts such a sudden degeneration of body and mind. Along with directing the film, de Van stars as Esther, a mid-level business woman who slices her leg in a accident at a house party, then becomes obsessed with the wound in a very unhealthy way. Throughout the film, de Van is both the perpetrator and the victim wrapped up into one masochistic package, resulting in a complex and astute examination of self-inflicted horror.

In My Skin focuses intently on Esther’s physical and mental trauma, first beginning with her sly fascination with the texture of scars and the taste of the blood running down her leg. But gradually de Van closely reveals an increased activity of violence, paralleling Esther’s trance-like state with the jarring brushes of reality that inevitably interrupt her destructive rituals. In one audacious sequence, Esther and her boss take prospective clients out to a fancy dinner. Suddenly, underneath the table Esther begins to cut her arm over and over, relishing the arousal of the act while trying to maintain an attentive guise with her customers. It’s like Hitchcock downed a pint of Cronenberg and spewed out some Argento, for no other reason than to see the audience squirm.

de Van keeps the narrative crosshairs aimed at Esther’s disturbing drift into isolation, finally ending on a wide shot of startling confrontation and disavowal. Esther seems to understand what she’s become, even if the viewer doesn’t.  As she lies on a bed soaked in blood, her eyes gaze directly into the camera and antagonize our perception of violence and pain. Can we ever comprehend such a destructive process without recognizing the suffering soul underneath? de Van makes it difficult, keeping us distant from Esther’s character and close to her actions. But labeling or explaining such an act doesn’t come close to answering Esther’s traumatic need for pain. It just further complicates her plight, making In My Skin a very effective horror film about the physical ramifications of pent up interior conflict.