June 2007


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Lars von Trier’s last two movies opened with off-screen narrators, so it’s not surprising that his latest, Boss of It All, does as well. Instead of the melodious voice of John Hurt, however, we’re treated to the higher-pitched, Danish-speaking voice of von Trier himself. He’s addressing the audience, assuring us that “Anyone can see this film. It won’t be worth a moment’s consideration. It’s a comedy and harmless as such. No preaching or swaying of opinion.” For anyone who enjoyed (or endured) Dogville or Manderlay, this assurance that there will be no preaching and instead just comedy might be greeted with skepticism. Yet von Trier follows through on his promise.

It’s an office comedy, though don’t go in expecting something like Office Space or the tv show “The Office.” Rather, von Trier starts with a ridiculous premise and rather ridiculous characters and then explores how those ideas might play out in an office setting. The story revolves around Ravn and Kristoffer. Ravn is the boss of a company, but his employees don’t know it. They also don’t know that Ravn is planning on selling the company from under their noses. But to pull this off, he has to hire the actor Kristoffer to play the fictional boss who’s never been seen, the “boss of it all.”

Kristoffer is the prototypical bad actor, exaggeratedly trying to find the “center” of the character and contemplating how he should deliver his lines. He even wants to put a smudge of soot on his forehead in honor of the playwright Gambini, whom he worships. Ravn is understandably concerned that Kristoffer will mess things up by improvising or not being suitably boss-like. But Kristoffer is thrown when in his first few moments of acting, someone else seems to be saying his lines. That opening encounter with the potential buyer, an imposing Icelandic man, is laugh-out-loud funny, as Kristoffer tries to regain his composure and Ravn tries to move the sale along. Kristoffer inserts weird pauses into his speech to make it more dramatic, but that only flusters the translator. A hilarious argument ensues about whether the Danes ruled Iceland for 400 years or vice-versa. The end result is that the Icelanders delay the sale, and suddenly Kristoffer has to “play” the boss for another week.

This leads to a series of bizarre encounters between Kristoffer and the employees. The latter are all stereotypes (von Trier skeptics will argue that all of his characters are types), such as the sexy and sexual head of human resources, the insecure worker who’s frightened of the copy machine, the belligerent computer programmer who wants to fight about the weather. The humor from these situations isn’t based on satirizing office culture but rather from watching how Kristoffer pathetically tries to pretend he’s the boss of it all and how quickly the employees accept that, despite all evidence to the contrary.

Von Trier has often poked fun at people who blindly accept what they’re told (think of The Idiots or Manderlay), but he also has a soft spot for that kind of faith. He might put Bess from Breaking the Waves through the ringer, but she’s the one for whom the bells in heaven are ringing. Even the dysfunctional Karen in The Idiots finds a sense of redemption (or at least purity) as she follows the leader’s instructions to the bitter, provocative end.

Speaking of the leader in The Idiots, the same actor Jens Albinus plays Kristoffer here, and he’s fantastic. He’s not a bad actor, but he plays one most convincingly. A scene where Kristoffer tries to guess what he supposedly wrote in an email is priceless. Peter Gantzler isn’t quite as strong in the role of Ravn, but he has a fantastic moment in the movie’s climax.

Fans of von Trier’s meta-approach will find much to appreciate. The relationship between director and actor is an obvious theme, as Ravn and Kristoffer bicker over how various scenes should be handled. Watching them, it’s hard not to think of some of von Trier’s infamous dust-ups with his leading ladies. And while he’s largely abandoned his famous Dogme rules (check this out if you’re interested), he’s devised a new artificial monkey wrench: automavision. It’s a computer program that adds the element of chance to what’s being photographed. So characters are rarely centered in the frame, which leads to some unusual and interesting compositions, though their arbitrary nature and the rapid-fire cutting that accompanies them might irritate those used to classical (or normal) filmmaking. Or you might just think von Trier is being arty. But as he himself asks in the introduction, “Why not poke fun at artsy fartsy culture?” If nothing else, von Trier can laugh at himself. I suspect you will, too.

Boss of It All: four stars, out of five

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In the movie Once, we first see a man (let’s call him Guy) standing on an Irish street corner with a beat-up guitar. He’s singing loudly to no one in particular about love and lost love. But he’s also paying attention to a drunk guy hanging around who might try to steal the money people have left in Guy’s guitar case. Sure enough, the drunk guy makes a run for the money, and a chase ensues through the streets. But when Guy (played by Glen Hansard, lead singer of The Frames) actually catches up to him, he feels badly enough that he actually gives him a few Euros and sends him on his way. Yes, Guy is a good bloke.

The next time we see Guy, he’s again standing on a street corner singing loudly to no one in particular about love and lost love. This time, a pretty young woman (the captivating newcomer Marketa Irglova) comes up to him and starts asking questions about the song he’s singing: Did he write it? Is the song about somebody in particular? Has he ever told his ex-girlfriend about these feelings or does he merely channel his angst into his music? Guy gets tired of the questions, but he can’t shake the young woman. What else does he do? He admits that he fixes vacuum cleaners, which suits her just fine because her vacuum is broken. Sure enough, the next day she shows up at his corner dragging her broken vacuum cleaner. And out of that modest beginning comes one of the nicest on-screen relationships you’ll see this year.

Though Guy and Girl are never named in the movie (they’re only referred to as Guy and Girl in the credits), Once succeeds because its characters are real and complex. They’re not thinly drawn caricatures or stereotypes we’ve seen all too often before. She’s an immigrant from the Czech republic, and she lives with her mother and young daughter. He lives with his father and works with him in the repair shop. She makes money selling roses on the street and has such an innocent air about her that she walks down to the convenience store at night in a bathrobe and slippers. He composes his tunes about love gone wrong while watching home videos of his ex-girlfriend.

All of these details come out naturally in the course of the story, so that we learn more about each of the characters at the same time they’re learning about each other. In this way, the film reminds me of times I’ve gotten to know someone over drinks and the conversation stretched long into the night. Just like those times, I wanted the movie to keep on going and going.

03-once-resized.jpgNumerous film critics have pointed out that Once is a musical. And it is, but not in the old-fashioned tradition of show tunes and musical theater or the new-fangled tradition of rock songs and dancing. Instead, it’s about regular people making music and the relationships that form from that collaboration. An early beautiful scene takes place in a music instrument store, where the manager lets Girl practice the piano. Guy wants to hear her play, and she obliges. Then they start collaborating. That reaches its apex in a glorious scene at a recording studio followed by the whole crew piling into a car to listen to the rough results.

Movies about collaboration are often metaphorically about the process of making movies (which is always an enormous collaboration of many different people). We see both the joy and difficulties of bringing creativity together, and we can infer that’s what a movie set is like. Once is a particularly good example because the low-fi type of collaboration Guy and Girl are engaged in is mirrored in the film itself: grainy digital video, intimate sets, unknown actors. While those features often combine to make dull indie dramas, here they create a simplicity that makes the story that much more believable and appealing. The movie would fail if it had slick set pieces or big stars. Instead, we’re allowed to fall in love with Guy or Girl, in part because we’re meeting them for the very first time.

And speaking of love, that element plays a large role as well. But the relationship between Guy and Girl is a lot more interesting than the standard “boy-finds-girl, boy-loses-girl- for-a-brief-moment, boy-predictably-gets-girl-back-after-clearing-up-the-misunderstanding.” Here, it’s about the zigs and zags of a relationship–how things don’t always go as you’d hoped and yet sometimes a surprise comes out of nowhere. Once is that kind of surprise, too. Don’t miss it.
Once: four 1/2 stars, out of five

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I almost met the actress Sarah Polley last year. I was standing in a public ticket holders line at the Toronto Film Festival when she walked right past me and joined the same line a few people back. Now you may not have heard of Polley–she’s starred in artier films like The Sweet Hereafter and The Claim–but she’s a big celebrity in her native Toronto. She certainly could’ve pulled rank and moved to the front of the line or avoided it altogether. I was all set to go back and tell her how impressed I was by her willingness to join the rest of us when I realized that would defeat the whole point. If she was comfortable standing in a public line, it was because she was counting on fellow film lovers not to call attention to her.

Now I relate this story not because it’s terribly exciting but because it reveals something important about Polley. She’s a quiet, thoughtful person who genuinely enjoys movies and doesn’t care a hoot about celebrity. Not surprisingly, her directorial debut Away from Her is a quiet, thoughtful film that shows a devotion to the craft of acting and an aversion to hype.

It stars the still radiant Julie Christie as Fiona. Fiona has been married to Grant (Gordon Pinsent) for 44 years. And while there are allusions to earlier infidelity on his part, their marriage has settled into a close companionship of cooking and eating, cross-country skiing and reading by the fire. Our first glimpse that something might not be right with Fiona comes when she puts a clean frying pan into the refrigerator. Grant looks at her with a combination of love and concerned puzzlement.

It soon becomes clear that Fiona is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. But she confronts it with a direct sense of irony that’s not exactly combative but focuses instead on how she can still live. The dementia becomes more pronounced, however, as we see when she sets out for a short skiing trip and can’t find her way back home. The scene when Grant finally finds her standing on a frigid bridge is beautifully touching, as he tries to minimize what’s clearly a turning point for her. Fiona is a strong woman, though, and realizes she needs to make a decision. So with Grant’s reluctant acceptance, she checks herself into a nursing home that specializes in Alzheimer’s care. This leads to a poignant scene as Grant can’t bring himself to leave while Fiona tries to push him away though still letting him know that she loves him.

07-away-from-her-resized.jpgIf the first half of Away from Her is a gorgeous portrait of the last months of marriage, the second half is a tough account of how difficult it must be to watch someone’s memory fade away. My friend Garth remarked that the movie must be a real downer, but that’s not so. Yes, there’s a melancholy about the film, but it’s lightened with moments of laughter and, more importantly, a deep attention to the rhythms of life. The movie is based on an Alice Munro short story. And anyone familiar with her work will recognize her direct, unvarnished style as well as the commitment to gaze into the souls of her characters.

Polley brings the same qualities to the film. Much of the movie consists of close ups of Fiona, Grant and a few secondary characters (the always welcome Olympia Dukakis stars as the wife of a man Fiona befriends in the home). Those close ups allow the actors to communicate a great deal through subtle inflections. The Canadian actor Gordon Pinsent is a revelation, as he carries the more difficult part of Grant with uncommon grace. His early scenes with Christie are brilliant, as he grounds their relationship just by the way he looks at her. I was also particularly impressed with an otherwise pedestrian scene when he tours the nursing home, for even the manner of his gait subtly communicates how uncomfortable he’s growing.

Christie is just as beautiful as she was in ‘60s classics like Far from the Madding Crowd and Dr. Zhivago, and here she brings an intense devotion to her work. The subtle deterioration of Fiona’s mind is portrayed not with the flamboyant tics associated with Oscar winners but careful attention to gesture and inflection. It’s amazing how Christie can communicate, just through her eyes, Fiona’s increasing lack of confidence. And Polley bathes Christie’s in a pale light that highlights that vulnerability.

Not all of Polley’s directorial decisions work as well. A few slow-motion shots seem out of place in this otherwise naturalistic story, and she relies too much on an admittedly beautiful score. But her work with her lead actors is extraordinary and certainly belies her youth (Polley was only 27 when she made the movie). And I was just as impressed by how she allows this quiet story to develop slowly. The thoughtful accumulation of details leads to a climax that is rich and satisfying. The next time I see Polley at a film festival, I might have to pass her a note letting her know how much I’m looking forward to her next film.

Away from Her:  four stars, out of five

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Michael Moore has never had trouble getting publicity for his documentaries. His subjects–a meeting with the CEO of GM, gun control, the Iraq war–lend themselves to easy media coverage in the first place. And Moore’s outsized persona and comfort in front of the camera have made him an interviewer’s darling and a publicist’s dream. As I write this, he’s in downtown Chicago leading a rally with Studs Terkel and Hyde Park’s own Quentin Young. The rally is in support of national health care which, by no coincidence at all, is the theme of Moore’s latest movie, Sicko.

I have no problem with Moore’s tactics, just as I have little problem with his movies. I suspect in 30 years, when the controversies over his films have died away, they’ll be seen for what they are: brilliantly provocative, populist and progressive. Roger and Me is still one of the most accomplished debuts of the last 20 years. Bowling for Columbine is, for all the brouhaha over gun control, much more about the media and how it manipulates us through fear. On that front, it’s spectacularly insightful. And while I wasn’t as thrilled with Fahrenheit 9/11, that film looks a lot better three years later. Check it out from a dvd store and tell me Moore wasn’t ahead of his time.

Sicko is absolutely timely. A searing indictment of the American health care system, it attempts to put a human face on what we know is happening across our country–people don’t have health insurance, those that do often are kicked off for the least little reason, and even those who think they have health care are often horribly surprised to find what’s not covered by their insurance. The movie’s opening scenes introduce us to several people who’ve had the worst-case experiences. One man had two fingers severed and had to decide which one he could most afford to have re-attached. A homeless woman is discharged from a hospital, put in a cab and dumped at a rescue mission while she still has an iv in her arm and bandages on her head, all because she had no insurance. A woman is knocked unconscious in a car accident. Later she finds she’s stuck with the ambulance bill because it wasn’t pre-approved. A mother’s daughter develops an extremely high fever and is told she’ll have to take her to a different hospital because the one closest to her isn’t covered by her insurance; the child later dies as a result.

sicko02-resized.jpgMoore also examines how health insurance companies do their best not to pay for those people actually covered under their policies. Whole departments are created to minimize costs and reject claims. Investigators are sent out to discover “pre-existing” conditions. Loopholes are discovered that allow the company to cancel someone’s insurance just when they need it most. As Moore puts it, “You didn’t slip through the cracks. You were swept toward that crack.”

I’m sure Sicko could’ve gone on and on with these kinds of stories (Moore received over 25,000 emails when he posted an Internet notice asking for people’s tales of health insurance). But Moore realizes that putting a human face on the problem is only one part of his task. He has to counter the aggressive propaganda spouted by health care and doctor’s organizations about the evils of national health care and “socialized medicine.” Much of the movie then is about his travels to Canada, England and France, where he interviews patients and doctors about their experiences.

Again, don’t bother looking for balance in Moore’s interviews (apparently, Paris is a paradise). But as I told my friend Garth, if you want to see the other side, just watch CNN, MSNBC and of course FOX as they parade lobbyists–oops, I mean experts–to explain why a national health service wouldn’t work. This despite the fact that pretty much the entire Western world has a national health service. I also appreciate that Moore anticipates various scare tactics the industry uses (you’ll have to wait months to get critical care, you won’t be able to choose your doctor, doctors will be forced to work for peanuts) and reveals them as the lies they are.

Even better, Moore actually examines how the health industry, buttressed by our gullible media, uses fear to keep people from demanding change. Moore is the first mainstream voice I’ve heard make the compelling argument that enormous levels of student loan debt and the deep fear of losing one’s job (and, therefore, one’s health insurance) have created a society in which people are demoralized into thinking they can’t do any better, into merely accepting their lot in life no matter how desperate it is. In this way, Moore is doing more than calling for radical change in our health care. He’s calling for radical change in our democracy–for the poor and middle class to stand up and take back their government, to not accept the lies that spew forth from Washington politicians and corporate lobbyists but to demand that government serve the people and not the other way around.

To accomplish this, Moore avoids the gotcha interviews he’s used in the past (that always made me feel sorry for the poor person on the other side of the mic). Instead, he just shows us speeches from various politicians and then exposes the contradictions. And while most of the bad guys are corporate lobbyists and Republican officials (George W. Bush has a couple howlers), he also takes Hillary and other feeble Democrats to task.

If all of this sounds dry and uninvolving, think again. Moore uses his aw-shucks, blue collar act (and it is an act) to highly amusing affect. He embodies the dumb American abroad in Europe, but his mock astonishment at other health care systems is hugely entertaining. Even the trip to Cuba which has received all the right-wing criticism is much funnier than you would expect. Furthermore, Moore’s editing (and his editing team of Geoffrey Richman, Christopher Seward and Dan Swietlik) is razor sharp, often setting up powerful contrasts and laugh-out-loud moments. And the movie flows beautifully from scene to scene, while never forgetting that the audience isn’t a bunch of policy wonks but regular Americans wondering what needs to happen. What needs to happen is that people need to see Sicko. It’s a gloriously unbalanced piece of agitprop and required viewing.

Sicko: four 1/2 stars, out of five