Tag Archives: 2000s

What Just Happened (2008)

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After making Sleepers (1996) and Wag The Dog (1997) in quick succession, it would be another eleven years before Barry Levinson directed Robert De Niro again. The result was What Just Happened (2008), a movie that takes a look behind the curtain of the movie industry. While Wag The Dog featured a film producer determined to take credit for his part in a huge spin operation, What Just Happened goes to show that film production, with all its stresses, is a thankless task.

There’s plenty going on in the life of Ben (De Niro), one of Hollywood’s most powerful producers, whose star power is beginning to lose its twinkle. His recent movie tested poorly with audiences and its director, despite not having final cut, is keen to preserve its artistic integrity despite the studio’s pressure to apply loss limitation by changing the ending. Ben’s forthcoming movie is also under threat, this time of never being made if its star, Bruce Willis (as himself), won’t shave off his massive beard. And if his professional life isn’t hectic enough, there’s the domestic issues to contend with also, chief among them a second ex-wife who he can’t quite split with despite her sleeping with a married screenwriter on the side.

The two weeks of the movie’s timeframe sees Ben negotiate all these issues with different levels of success. De Niro contributes an unmemorable performance, which is disappointing in the context as, with his long filmography, there must be a line of producers to take inspiration from. It may be that he keeps it all in — his first ex-wife notes that secrets seem to be the family business — and that’s why he remains practically blank throughout, although it just feels that there’s little to work with. Indeed, it’s the supporting cast that adds colour.

Stealing the show is British film director Jeremy Brunell (Michael Wincott‘s blend of Keith Richards and Sid Vicious) who cares only for his artistic integrity in fierce opposition to the Hollywood machine, represented by Catherine Keener‘s bottom-line obsessed studio executive. Or, as he puts it: “you can make a film that has a bit more profundity to it and somehow people actually remember, or the same old load of bollocks”. John Turturro, Stanley Tucci, and, Kristen Stewart do well with their occasional appearances. But it’s the actors playing themselves that appear to be relishing their roles. Sean Penn, star of Brunell’s movie (its contentious finale showing a dog getting shot in the head), worries that the film will still have “edge” after the cut for Cannes changed the finale. And Bruce Willis relishes sending himself up while simultaneously mocking the pompous behaviour of an overpaid Hollywood prima donna.

As a comedy What Just Happened throws up the occasional laugh without really being funny and as a satire it doesn’t cut deep enough, but there’s a perfectly decent, if lack-lustre, story here. Based on the memoirs of Art Linson — incidentally also the screenwriter and producer here — this study of Hollywood politics perhaps suffers due to Linson’s overbearing closeness to the material. It certainly brings up issues of art versus money but it doesn’t quite burst the bubble that Hollywood has made for itself. There are many subtle in-jokes (such as a Jewish agent who, like many others before him, has changed his name to something more Gentile) or hints at the industry’s lust for money and the audience pandering it will do to bring in dollars. But, in the course of the movie, What Just Happened turns out to be not that much. It just shows that even those deemed powerful within the system still answer to someone.

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Mondovino (2004)

Mondovino (2004)

Every story needs its good and bad, and for one to triumph over the other. In the world of wine the good guys are those versed in the traditional ways, passed down through generations; the bad guys those larger corporations that transcend a modest few hectares in favour of homogenising wine on a global scale. In Jonathan Nossiter‘s Mondovino (2004, 131 mins), the world is not so clear cut and the truth lies somewhere between.

One of the few documentaries ever considered for the Palme d’Or, this film takes a look at the globalisation of wine by getting global itself and travelling the world to interview its subjects. From the Old World to the New; through sprawling Napa valley vineyards onto humble uprofitable patches in Argentina; and from tradition to modernity. Nossiter gets access to an excellent range of high profile interviewees and his cinéma vérité style, while a bit hyperactive at times, works well in opening up the industry and being alert to its problems.

What we see is two distinct worlds: one of class, heritage and terroir; and another of democratised brand-led wine production pioneered by the American Mondavi family, its ripples felt around the world. In this first world, Nossiter meets with aristocractic families of France and Italy, their vineyards preserved through periods of fascism by collaboration and support, something for which descendants seem happily unapologetic. And in the other world, wine as a brand is considered, where Californian wine producers have led the capitalist charge to commoditise wine — the faster, better, cheaper approach.

To see how wine has changed in the last fifty years, it’s little surprise to hear that “wine is dead” from Aimé Guibert, the owner of 40 hectares in Languedoc. Where, for millennia, wine has been about the relationship between man and nature, today it is different. What once was about terroir is now about manipulation. The patience once required in maturing a vintage can now be hastened. Guibert is one of the handful of traditional vintners featured — a dying breed in this new world of wine — who will be lost to modernity.

But what is modernity in wine when considered against a timeless culture of grape fermentation? Where one may expect it to be the unrelenting march of technology, the answer in Mondovino appears to lie in the closeness of tastemakers. As the interviews progress the name of Robert Parker comes to the fore, a writer who, with his casual — some might say American — style and easy-to-understand ratings cut through the stuffiness of prior wine writing to become the world’s preëminent wine critic. Parker comes across rather well, a victim — in so much that he’s practically deified — of his own success, perhaps. But should you, as a supposedly independent writer, stop if you could be responsible vicariously for the death of wine.? Are you really to blame for those that hang on your every word?

If Parker is a tastemaker in print, the influence of Michel Rolland is not overlooked either, and Nossiter spends plenty of time chauffeured around with him. Consultant to hundreds of wineries around the world, Rolland offers his advice and improves the fortunes of those using his services. In effect they are moulding wines to his taste. Learning that Rolland shares tastes with Robert Parker, the world of wine begins to feel smaller, more restricted. As Rolland advises in one direction, wineries adapt their wine to the palate of the one man who will sing its praises and make its fortune. A damning epiphany, although it begs the question as to where wine is headed once these men are gone.

Although Nossiter, for the most part, sticks to simple lines of questioning and allows the interviewees to expound on matters oenological, political, and geographical, it feels likely that his mind is made up and that the subjects are there to confirm suspicions that globalisation is detrimental to wine. Subtle hints come when he notices a French press attaché use the English term ‘winemaker’ in a stream of Gallic dialogue; or less subtle such as the moment when Parker talks of his “candid, democratic way of tasting” and the camera turns to underscore this with a Burger King advertisement.

At over two hours there’s so much to Mondovino that it only hints at so much else. And its no surprise to learn that, with 500 hours of original footage, there’s so much more. Fringe characters add further colour, such as the New York wine importer despondent at the changes in the industry and the Christie’s Wine Director who, with the quiet grace of a butler, pines for a return to the 19th Century where England played its part in the French wine industry. Or even the Burgundian di Montille family, where the daughter decides to quit her job at a larger rival for dishonest practices and join her father’s independent concern.

This last one is indicative of much of Mondovino. Whether it be long and morally suspect lineages or siblings working together (or against!), families are important in wine. In this ever globalising world they seem to be the one thing that keeps it human. And it seems to be the one thing that keeps them looking to the future. One of the Mondavi clan dreams of growing wine on Mars fifteen generations from now. And globalisation is bad enough, as Nossiter’s film convinces, without the threat of universalisation lying in wait.

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Coffee and Cigarettes (2003)

Coffee & Cigarettes (2003)

In 1986 film maker Jim Jarmusch gave up coffee, presumably why he started obsessing over in it a series of short black-and-white vignettes spanning seventeen years, all collected under the title Coffee and Cigarettes (2003, 93 mins). The premise of the eleven pieces is basically that people sit down at a table and chat. Those involved are drawn from the worlds of music, film, and art; while the subjects they cover leap around, sometimes cross-pollinating across sketches, revolve around dreams, Tesla coils, and of course coffee and cigarettes.

The first, Strange To Meet You, a skit featuring alternative comedian Steven Wright and Roberto Benigni, was originally shot for Saturday Night Live back in 1986. Mismatched in the sense that one is laidback while the other is hyperactive, they are perfectly matched here as two men (with five cups of coffee!) who meet, chat a little about coffee, cigarettes, and exchange a dentist appointment. As a standalone piece — the second, Twins, wouldn’t be shot until 1989 — not much actually happens and nothing is explained. They meet, seemingly arranged, and then go their separate ways. The moment between contrasts the way that coffee affects them. Benigni’s hands shake, he asks non-sequiteurs; Wright is relaxed, if bewildered, throughout.

How can such different reactions come from the same source? Contrasts, therefore, are at the heart of these sequences. Each table shows a chessboard pattern, and the cinematography beautifully captures every instance of black and white, be it the black coffee in white mugs or the black spots on the white dice in No Problem, an intentionally drawn out scene where Isaach De Bankolé‘s repeated questioning of Alex Descas‘s situation gets rebuffed by the assurance that there’s no problem. The chessboard perhaps implies a level of competition between the people involved; the lack of pieces a permanent stalemate.

While some pieces riff on the same themes (Joseph Rigano berates Vinny Vella for his lunch consisting only of cigarettes and coffee, as does Taylor Mead to Bill Rice in the poignant closing story) and perhaps contain subtle points, there are those that are more blatant in their delivery. In Cousins, Cate Blanchett takes on two roles, a version of herself and a fictional cousin. While Cate has all the trappings of celebrity — of which her cousin will never know — she seems eager to please while feigning interest. When we see her hand over a gift of expensive perfumes, we see the irony of a world where the rich can afford everything but are instead gifted it while the poor can only hope to one day afford it.

Attitudes also play a role as the no-smoking hotel lobby where Cousins takes place delivers an unmistakeable case of double standards. These rear their ugly head again in the similarly titled Cousins?, where Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan, over cups of tea, discuss their shared heritage, thanks to the former’s genealogical research. Coogan barely wants to know until Molina gets a phone call that could lead to work. It’s a wonderful scene, nicely played, and the humour comes mostly from Coogan’s disrespectful take on himself, blatantly dismissing Molina’s career while his own is in the ascendance.

Humour comes again in Delirium, with the appearance of Bill Murray, (playing Bill Murray, who else?) working in some cafeteria and not wanting anyone to know. As he swigs coffee from the cafetière the conversation with the Wu Tang Clan‘s GZA and RZA touches on the dangers of both nicotine and caffeine. On learning that nicotine is used in insecticide Bill Murray asks “It’s good if it kills bugs, right?”, his typical deadpan inspiring more laughter than it really should. Notably here the scene recalls both Strange To Meet You and the short Palme d’Or winning, Somewhere In California, where Iggy Pop and Tom Waits cover the topic of quitting one’s addictions, when a refrain about medicine and music is played again.

In Jack Shows Meg His Tesla Coil, we see musician Jack White do jus that and the phrase “Nikola Tesla perceived the earth as a conductor of acoustical resonance” makes its first appearance. Some degree of its meaning is perhaps in the echoes that appear throughout the tales of coffee and cigarettes, bringing some form of unity. To this end the first few shorts do seem separate from the rest, no doubt because the wider picture had not yet been conceived, but the later episodes make up for this and ensure interconnectedness. The effect is one of wondering where one scene, while having no physical relation to any other, will lead.

The scenes may tackle different areas of conversation, but they all, in some way, cover how coffee and cigarettes are everyday obsessions that people seem unable to function without. In focusing on these, Jarmusch perhaps opens the world up to other obsessions hidden away — gambling, fame, and conspiracy theory, for example. We see Alex Descas confident in his dice, Steve Coogan kick himself at a missed opportunity, and Jack White note how “they” tried to discredit Tesla. These are perhaps bigger, more difficult topics that can play with the psyche and require discussion, but we ignore these as, like the conversations herein, the banal is easier to digest and it enthrals us more.

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The Pornographer (2001)

The Pornographer (2001)

In 1968 civil unrest swept across France, the useless old guard rocked by student sit-ins and workers’ downed tools. For Jacques Laurent (Jean-Pierre Léaud), the subject of Bertrand Bonello‘s The Pornographer (2001, 111 mins), his protest came in the form of making pornographic movies. What started as defiance led to a forty-film career that took him through the seventies and eighties by way of classics such as Schoolgirl Hotel and Perverse Niçoise.

It’s financial difficulties that bring Laurent back into the porno fold to direct another movie. He debates with his colleagues the storyline; he advises his stars on how they should feel; he wants love to blossom from the sex and for his female star to symbolise this by swallowing her co-star’s ejaculate. No moody music, no garish cosmetics, and no faked orgasmic screams. Laurent’s porn, while once protest, is now a means of expression.

Times have changed, however, and the artful pornography of Laurent’s heyday have since been debased, leaving hastily shot, lurid sex that is about pure titillation and quick cash. If we are to contrast the difference between these two visions, then Laurent’s bowed head and sunken heart as he sits watching his actors (real life porn stars, Ovidie and Titof) perform unsimulated sex while his producer calls the shots, captures this succinctly. The movie drifts away from him, much as the genre has.

Straddling Laurent’s professional life, there’s the personal. After years out of the picture, his student radical son Joseph (Jérémie Renier) has got back in touch. They last met when his career as pornographer was outed, the son promptly leaving in disgust. He may be of a new generation, but it’s a new generation that also dreams of protest, although their efforts languish in the shadow of 1968.  As Joseph learns, some protests are without conviction, but what his father knows, based on experience, is that each generation will reject the values of its predecessor.

The one film Laurent never got to make was The Animal, he confesses to a journalist. It would have involved men hunting a woman in a forest as if she were a fox. And through more introspective moments we see it envisioned across his mind’s eye. It looks likely that it will never be made at all. While his wife accepts his work and his son learns to forgive it, and even the industry is bringing him back into the fold, he cannot accept himself. A man of fifty who knows nothing else in life.  As he notes in a passing conversation, obscenity isn’t necessarily base. When people thing of Jacques Laurent they immediately think of his pornography; they never consider his life. And that, he thinks, is more obscene.

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My Architect (2003)

My Architect (2003)

In the preface to Oscar Wilde’s The Picture Of Dorian Gray, he makes the famous statement that “all art is quite useless”. Not so architecture, an art form that can be both admired and functional. Time, though, is a great leveller, condemning some art to the past while elevating others. The works of Louis Kahn (1901-1974) receive this treatment in My Architect (2003, 116 mins), a documentary of his son Nathaniel Kahn‘s journey to better understand the man who died when he was eleven. The Richards Medical Research Laboratories, once lauded on newsreel as Kahn’s greatest achievement now seems a monstrous carbuncle to those who use it today.

Kahn’s death was a bit of a conundrum. Following his return from project work in India, he suffered a heart attack and died in a New York toilet. His address was scored out on his passport and his body lay unclaimed in the city morgue for three days. Despite his career and the high profile of his work, he was half a million dollars in debt. The subsequent obituary noted that he left behind a wife and daughter. No mention was made of his children from two other relationships that he concurrently maintained. It’s this exclusion from his father’s publicly known life that begins this film.

The twenty-five year distance between Kahn’s death and making the film is not fraught with the problems expected, namely that his contemporaries would also be dead. Luckily, architects appear to be immune to death and some of those appearing here (I.M PeiPhilip Johnson, and, for six-degrees-of-separation fans, Kevin Bacon‘s father, Edmund Bacon) are, if not already there, pushing nonagenarian status. Johnson calls Kahn a true artist while Bacon, famous for his role in rebuilding downtown Philadelphia, appears less enthused by Kahn’s seeing individual flourishes while neglecting the larger picture (“all brutal, totally insensitive, totally impractical”)

Bacon’s dissent aside, the overall sense is one of warmth (and why wouldn’t it be in a film about a son wanting to understand his father?) but that sensation comes not from the editing but the words of all the others interviewed. The women who he maintained away from his own marriage never themselves married and still look back favourably on the architect. Frank Gehry attributes his first works to his reverence for Kahn. Old friend Robert Boudreau is lost for words when Kahn fils reveals his heritage. Even a group of career cab drivers seem pleased to take a trip down memory lane without their meters running.

There are two stories running parallel here. That of the son learning of his father and then there’s the story of the father himself which, debts aside, can be held up as an American success story. As a three year old in his native Estonia, he burnt his face with hot coals, and the scars stayed with him through life. Later his family emigrated to America, where he would draw and play the piano for money. Architecture finally came as his calling, although it wouldn’t be until he was almost fifty that his undistinguished career would get the inspirational injection it needed, thanks to a residency in Rome where he learnt from the ancient monuments that endured millennia. No longer would he attempt to emulate the glass fronted buildings leading the new architectural wave; instead he would make ancient buildings for the modern world.

The buildings are certainly unique and Nathaniel Kahn makes an effort to visit them throughout the film. Most vivid are the Phillips Exeter Academy Library for its undramatic exterior which gives way to a beautifully exposed interior and the Salk Institute, which I.M. Pei declares “will stand the test of time”. While time (in the terms that architecture needs to prove its worth) is not possible within a shooting schedule, Kahn does treat us to a lovely time lapse sequence of the building. A young boy plays over the central canal, the sun sets, the building lights come on in phosphorous green, and a portentous sky is reflected in the water. The architecture here is not just the shapes and materials, but how it ties in to the world around it. And not just ties in but shapes it, as evidenced by the tears of Shamsul Wares as he contemplates how the beautiful Bangladeshi parliament building gave the country a home for democracy. Such forward-looking is what ultimately allows the son to say goodbye to the father.

As an inspiration and vaunted as one of the modern greats the sacrifice taken to reach such architectural heights must certainly have been Kahn pere‘s family life — or families’ lives. “Are we a family?” Nathaniel asks of his half-siblings. The answer may be as unclear as their image of him as father, but there’s food for thought in whether a family should be defined by blood or by choice. The blood is certainly there, but notions of familial unity may ultimately be personal.

It’s suggested that certain attributes (being short, ugly, and Jewish) may have driven Kahn internally, such soul-searching ultimately leading to his artistic drive and unique vision (“symmetry, order, geometric clarity, primitive power, and enormous weight”), and his family life being secondary because true artists don’t have discipline. But the story of Louis Khan appears to be one of the older themes around; that of man versus nature. Indeed there’s a voiceover of Kahn eulogising on the power of art to recreate and inspire wonder (“Truly the work of art is one that tells us that nature can not make what man can make.”) The story of Nathaniel Kahn and his father may have been one borne of nature, but it takes an artist to tell it.

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Nikita Kino (2002)

Nikita Kino (2002)

In 1960, the father of experimental film maker, Vivian Ostrovsky, discovered that his siblings were still alive and living in Moscow. It had been forty years since they had last met. Although one died soon after the initial visit, a routine of annual travel was put in place where he would take his family from “carnival-crazy Brazil” to Russia to visit the extended family. It could only have been that way as the Russians were forbidden to leave the Soviet Union. Nikita Kino (2002, 40 mins) gathers together Ostrovsky’s collection of 8mm film footage of those visits and mixes it with other film media to create a video collage that’s somewhere between a memoir and a travelogue.

Her old footage is not that interesting. People sit on benches and chat; take food from the oven; or sit about on grass, smiling at the camera. We never know who is who, and it doesn’t really matter as Ostrovsky instead elects to provide a voiceover narrating what was going on at the time. Early on, as she describes how the relatives’ warmth helped extinguish the sense of claustrophobia and paranoia the situation created, we see the first instance of other footage enhancing the narrative. Tape reels recording and a room of women listening in on headphones and scribbling away. And Ostrovsky’s recollection of “a raincoat man” tailing them shows that, though not entirely noticeable, surveillance was happening.

The breadth of surplus footage used is impressive. Films, news reels, documentary, music, propaganda, and other found footage. The extensive use hides that there likely wasn’t much family footage, but it is cleverly used to either riff on a theme from Ostrovsky’s narrative or to slyly undercut it with contradictions. In a country sans advertising but replete with propaganda, we see what we are meant to see. In a clip from a Soviet movie, we are allowed to see its players dressed up to echo western cinema, albeit showing off how Soviet ideals make the more utopian society. But this propaganda is swept away (“The outside was never like the inside. What you saw in the shop window could never be found inside.”) to show us what lay underneath the falsehoods.

Beginning with ramshackle Soviet housing, Nikita Kino continues lifting the veil on Soviet society — restaurants, dance halls, and industry — with supplementary footage and recollections. The contemporary space race is seen, and it’s sometimes a wonder how they got a man into space with all the parading that had to be done, both military and athletics. And while there are positives about the society — women being able to work any career; to divorce and have abortions — there are darker elements too, most notably that Ostrovsky’s family passports carried ‘Jewish’ as a nationality and, two decades on from the Holocaust, segregation was still a way of life:

Jews had to be smart to get into kindergarten. Bright to get into the best schools. Brilliant to get into the right universities. And supermen to be allowed a military career.

Throughout the short film, the accompanying music flirts with various styles, with gypsy music blending into the martial. While sometimes comical it can turn the mood to solemn in a beat, and this, in the same way the found footage does, helps enhance the experience and the storytelling. For all its linearity — the narrative spans 1960 to Ostrovsky’s father’s death twenty years later — the delivery is nicely abstract and plays with the arrow of time so as not to be episodic. Ostrovsky jumps around, from one theme to the next, meandering into the paradoxes of Soviet life where everyone is individually unhappy but happy as a whole. At one point a young man in Yerevan waves to the camera; footage of Nikita Krushchev smiles and waves back.

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