Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Mala Noche 1985

“Mala Noche”, the first real film from Gus Van Sant, this is the first time I have seen the film and I was really blown away. It is such a raw personal film; it feels as if you are watching something you are not supposed to.

The story is set on the streets of Portland, Oregon and a series of dark places like cheap hotels and neighborhood bars. Made in 1985 for $25,000, this fresh, original film turns its high-contrast, black-and-white footage into a heightened form of immediacy. The plot is about sincere and noble obsession that a young romantic guy named Walt, who works in a convenient store has over a Mexican boy named Johnny who's come to Oregon illegally with his friend Pepper. He doesn't speak English and he isn't much interested in Walt, except in the teasing way of a hustler trying to work him for a meal or a couple of drinks. I understand the idea behind an obsession, however the character of Johnny is so disconnected and rather basic that I hated his role. Walt seems to invite Johnny's abuse, or at least accepts bad treatment when it's all that's offered, which is terrible.

What Walt's interested in is a little danger; he longs, it seems, for a bad night, romanticizing the possibility. And it's clear from the beginning that even though he's barely a rung up on the social ladder from these indigents, he gets a thrill from slumming and playing the benefactor.

Van Sant's next feature in 1989 was "Drugstore Cowboy", but even here you can understand his empathy for edge-living outsiders and his passionate absorption in the poetic possibilities of the situation. In certain moments “Mala Noche” has the feeling of early Godard’s films, particularly when the guys go in Walt's car for a ride in the country. And late in the film, critics have said that as Walt is searching the streets for the missing object of his desire, there's an inspired recasting of the Harry Lime entrance in "The Third Man."

The movie, which is based loosely on a novella by Portland poet Walt Curtis, is a walk on the wild side, but even at its most tragic, the vision isn't despairing, possibly because there is such a feeling of romantic elation in the images. Partly the film is reflective of Van Sant's romanticism for losers; it's fascinated by the poetic allure of trashy beautiful boys riding the rail into the promised land and ending up dead, crushed by the new urban settings.

It's Van Sant's conception of Walt, and the sense of naiveté he projects is certainly endearing, within his infatuation for this kid, he truly means well, the problem is when he looses perspective of his crush and goes into a dramatic situation. He's obsessed: yet still he's imagining situations, hyping his own emotions because that's how he feeds this romantic conception of himself. None of the boys have chosen to be around Walt; for Johnny and Pepper, it's a suffocating factor they carry. Van Sant navigates the distinctions between these two worlds with intelligence and powerful style. This film debut is completely amazing the kind of film moment that was foretelling of the great films that came out of Van Sant’s undeniable talent and vision .

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Roger Greenberg 2010

I was really excited when I heard Noah Baumbach had a new film. Although I was disappointed in his last film “Margot at the Wedding”, maybe a lot of people liked it I didn’t. However thinking about “Kicking and Screaming” and “The Squid and the Whale” I entered the movie theater with great excitement. I wasn’t disappointed.


The story is about Roger Greenberg, a guy who was a former musician and backed out of the opportunity of their lifetime or so it seemed. Now Greenberg works as a carpenter and whose vocation is writing eloquent letters of complaint about apparently minor inconveniences. He appears to be seriously emotionally troubled.  The character played by Ben Stiller as a 40 year old with of raw nerves and complex defense mechanisms, Roger returns to Los Angeles after 15 years in New York and a short stay in a mental hospital after a breakdown. He stays in the large hillside house of his brother, who has gone with his wife and children to Vietnam for a long vacation.


Greenberg’s premise is that he wants to do the right thing, he has gone through what it seems a complicated life. Whether he succeeds is an open question. He looks up some old friends, worries about the neighbors and his brother’s dog, and pursues an awkward stop-and-start romance with his brother’s personal assistant, Florence Marr played by Greta Gerwig.  Roger seems to have a hard time leaving his youth, he has some issues in this regard, but Florence, who hangs out in art galleries with her friends and sometimes sings emo stuff at an empty hipster bar, she really is 25. The film has a love story part between these two characters; she is captivated by Greenberg’s aloofness and with no great self-esteem or maybe a deep compassion she falls for his him.


Although he is a narcissist, “Greenberg” is not all about him. There are lots of aspects about this film that I can relate to. It is perhaps the funniest and saddest movie Baumbach has made so far, and also the riskiest. Ben Stiller is absolutely great in this film he was able to suppress his comedian persona, turns Roger into a challenge to the Hollywood axiom that a movie’s protagonist must be likable. But Baumbach was brilliant in writing this character that inspires all kinds of emotions he treats Greenberg with compassion, even tenderness.

The question is how do you find yourself? Sometimes against even your best interests, to venture that kind of generosity, Baumbach turns what might have been a case study of neurosis into an exploration of loneliness, friendship and the sense of emotional deprivation that grows in an atmosphere of comfort.

The film is absolutely amazing. I hope Ben Stiller is considered by the serious award giving mechanisms for his great performance, as for Baumbach he continues on creating deeply emotional, complicated and personal comedies. Go see it. 

Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Last Station 2009

The Last Station” is an entertaining drama about the final year of the great Russian writer, Leo Tolstoy. Helen Mirren is suburb as Countess Sofya (Tolstoy’s wife) in this funny, richly emotional film about the difficulty of living with love and the impossibility of living without it.  You can think that what Helen Mirren does in

“The Last Station’’ can’t really be called overacting in her melodramatic explosions. It’s something larger. If you’re uncomfortable with the grand gesture.However that full-blowness is entertainments and, besides, Mirren is letting her diva hair down the better to play a diva: Countess Sofya Andreyevna Tolstoy, spoiled and stressed wife of Leo Tolstoy.The countess is the sort of woman who doesn’t exist without an audience, and what actor can resist that?

The movie is full of great performances, from Christopher Plummer’s delightful depiction of Tolstoy as a rough old guy to Paul Giamatti twirling his waxed mustache and playing as Vladimir Chertkov, Tolstoy’s secretary and rival with the countess for the great man’s legacy.

In the middle of these characters since each side asks him to spy on the other is James McAvoy as the young and ardent Valentin Bulgakov, hired as the writer’s secretary when Chertkov is put under house arrest by the czar’s police. McAvoy has played these roles before, but “The Last Station’’ gives him more than usual to build on, and the character grows in inner strength and outer confidence.

The movie explores the chaotic time period just before World War I. With his published calls for universal peace, chastity, women’s freedom, and the abolishment of private property, the 82-year-old Tolstoy was the most famous of the nation’s utopians, with communes full of devoted “Tolstoyans’’ hanging on his every word. He was sort of a prophet.

At the core of this film is the difficult relationship between Tolstoy and his wife. “The Last Station” is about the war between idealism and pragmatism, fame and privacy, the nobility of the soul and the delights of the flesh.  The film contrasts the pleasures of young lust with the rich, intimacy of married love, with sequences between the author and his wife that convey a lifetime’s experience in a couple’s coded private language It is a delightful film. Watch it!

“The Last Station” was directed by Michael Hoffman. Written by Hoffman, based on a novel by Jay Parini.