Friday, April 27, 2012

Tribeca Review: Wagner's Dream

With the explosion in documentaries over the past decade or so, we’ve also witnessed a rise in what in my less generous moments I like to call the “promotional doc.” You often see it in music documentaries –  movies about, essentially, how awesome or unique a band is. The kind of thing that would probably work best as a DVD extra, where you wonder if part of the impetus behind making the film wasn’t because it told an amazing story but because it offered the chance to piggyback on the popularity of the chosen subject. This is not always necessarily a bad thing – some of these movies are pretty enjoyable, especially if you’re a fan of the musician or photographer or politician or whatever it is that they’re glorifying. But then every once in a while you get something like Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, which was supposed to be a promotional film for Metallica and turned into an epic about an entire band’s collective neurosis, and you suddenly realize what it looks like when a documentary really uses the full power of its medium.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Titanic: The Chaos Dark and Rude

I saw Titanic so many times in the theater when it first came out that I was practically made an honorary thirteen-year-old girl. (I know I’ve made that joke before, but it’s a good one, so whatever.) I think I caught it nine or ten times during its theatrical run. This wasn’t easy, because, for all the film’s acclaim and success, in my circles (and by “circles,” I mean basically, “my then-girlfriend’s friends”), it wasn’t regarded very highly. In fact, I seem to recall a couple of lengthy dinners where I was mocked mercilessly for my love of the film.

I never quite managed to explain why I loved Titanic so much. I mean, sure, it’s big, it’s beautiful, it’s tragic, I cried, etc. But when I tried to make an actual case for the movie, more often than not I found myself explaining why I didn’t hate it, or at least didn’t hate certain things about it. For example, the dialogue between Jack and Rose never bothered me, simply because I accepted them as kids. (If Rose is 101 years old during the present-day scenes, and if the present day is indeed 1997, then she’d have been 16 years old in 1912.) The big, blustery emotions of the film didn’t bother me either; despite all his proficiency with technology and special effects, Cameron has always had a way with melodrama that marks him as an old-fashioned director at heart. Dana Stevens is right when she notes that, having originated during a suicide attempt, “far from being a moony-eyed gazefest out of a Nicolas Sparks novel, Rose and Jack’s love is presented as a matter of life and death from the start.”

No, to get at why I love Titanic so much, I may need to flash back a little further.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

"Simplicity and Irony": Nanni Moretti on Popes, Politicians, and Cannes

When the Italian actor-director Nanni Moretti’s new film We Have a Pope premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last year, some critics were perplexed. Moretti, an outspoken leftist and a longtime atheist, had skewered religious piety in The Mass is Ended (1985) and had not long ago made some waves with his incendiary satire of Silvio Berlusconi, The Caiman (2006). But We Have a Pope was a seemingly gentler film – a comic drama of a newly elected Pope (Michel Piccoli) who, suffering an existential crisis, flees the Vatican and wanders among the people of Rome, visiting with a psychotherapist and reliving his youthful dreams of becoming an actor. And yet it contained a subtler, more humanist critique of the Papacy, underlining the tension between the power of the office and the messy, all-too-human thoughts and needs of the people who inhabit it. But this sort of humanism has always been the hallmark of Moretti , an iconic figure in Italy and Europe who isn’t particularly well known in the U.S. (Although his 1993 film Caro Diario [Dear Diary], was a small arthouse hit.) I sat down with him during a recent visit to New York, to talk about his new film, crossing Silvio Berlusconi, making political movies, and much more.

Friday, April 6, 2012

American Reunion: Teachable Moments Done Dirt Cheap

Whenever I think of the American Pie movies, I also think of the Scream movies. Both were hip '90s-era celebrations of beloved disposable '80s genres that wore their stupidity as a badge of honor. But as these franchises have gone deep into sequel territory, they’ve been scrubbed clean of what made them interesting in the first place: The self-aware, devil-may-care quality of the knowing throwback has been replaced by the workaday number-painting of the dutiful knockoff. Witness American Reunion, the fourth installment in the Pie series -- if you count the, erm, canonical theatrical releases and not the four straight-to-video spinoffs like American Pie Presents: Band Camp. The new film gathers up enough energy to pull together a couple of funny (if rote) setpieces but falls apart amid a mess of all-too-earnest clich├ęs about our beloved horndog characters learning to deal with life’s disappointments.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

To Thine Own Self Be Truthy: On Facts and Fakes

This issue of truth keeps coming up. I haven’t read John D’Agata and Jim Fingal’s book The Lifespan of a Fact, a contentious back-and-forth between journalist D’Agata and fact-checker Fingal over the many liberties the former supposedly took with certain details in an article about the suicide of a Las Vegas teen. Nor have I seen Mike Daisey’s one-man show The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, which apparently made up some facts in its zealous activism over Apple’s use and abuse of Chinese labor. So I can’t say too much about either of these works, but they have both inspired a lot of diverse, thoughtful pieces about our often complex relationship with the facts (although one did so inadvertently) and for that we should be grateful.

Among the pieces: In Slate, my former editor Dan Kois rather elegantly laid out the ongoing debate between “story-truth” and “happening-truth” and found himself caught in the middle. Over at Salon, Laura Miller astutely stuck up for fact-checkers. Meanwhile, at the Los Angeles Review of Books, Colin Dickey defended D’Agata’s chosen genre, the essay form, even though he didn’t quite defend D’Agata himself (who appears to be a somewhat flawed advocate for the role of essayist-artist). Others have chimed in with more personal contributions: the critic Glenn Kenny recalled the time he had to work with David Foster Wallace on a piece about the AVN awards for Premiere; elsewhere, my friend and colleague Alizah Salario recalled trying to teach Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, along with its truthy complications, to high schoolers.