Lita On Film

Archive for May, 2010|Monthly archive page

Floored (2009)

In Film Reviews on May 28, 2010 at 8:46 am

Find this review on ScreenComment.com!

Floored (2009) purports to be a documentary about the lives of futures traders in the testosterone-soaked world of the Chicago Trading Floor, and how their lives are being turned upside down by the rise of computerized trading.  But instead of using these men’s stories as a microcosm of the general ethos that fueled the current financial crisis, it turns out to be more an extended character study than anything else.  Even so—and even given its oddly truncated 77 minute running time—the themes the film touches upon are archetypal and almost Shakespearean in scope.

These men (there are a couple token women thrown in, but just for show) are entirely consumed with greed.  Even if they start out naïve and cautious, they quickly evolve in the dog-eat-dog environment of the trading floor (referred to as “the Pit”) into ruthless, single-minded egomaniacs, totally consumed by their pursuit of the almighty dollar.  All this sounds promisingly like a lost Orson Welles vehicle, at the beginning.  However, in order to win big you have to risk big, and the line that divides the traders who make millions from those who gamble away their homes and livelihoods is vanishingly slim.

We meet a few of each; one retired trader goes on hunting safaris and lives in a cavernous house full of taxidermied wildlife, which he strolls around while chomping on an enormous cigar.  Another man, after years on the floor, has lost everything.  He now works “for $400 a week” as a clerk in the Pit, and lives alone with his dog.  However, even after his shattering experience, he still brings his teenage son to the trading floor and introduces him to its intoxicating power.  Clearly, even having his trading career turn out as badly as it could have wasn’t enough to expunge the thrill and power he associated with it.

The film changes tone towards the end, as it begins to focus on the rise of computerized trading.  As machines have proved more accurate and efficient than live traders, the men profiled in the film and thousands like them have become superfluous and redundant.  It seems that the film wants us to feel sorry for them: we meet a (female) psychologist who specializes in transitioning traders from the Pit to the office, where they are merely spectators to the automated trading process.  We meet a trader who insists that the automated trading machines are inherently “evil” because they “have no soul.”  It’s clear that these men don’t adjust well to change, especially change that threatens their own sense of omnipotence.  Though the film intimates that automated trading may have been at least partially responsible for the financial crisis, why exactly we’re supposed to pity these now-obsolete traders is somewhat unclear.

Throughout Floored, the traders and ex-traders talk about their jobs in near-reverent tones, as though they’re discussing a divine vocation (recalling Lloyd Blankfein’s recent statement in front of Congress that he and his colleagues at Goldman Sachs do “God’s work.”)  Only towards the end does one of them finally make the link: trading is essentially glorified gambling, and they’re all addicted.

Floored opened in New York on May 7th; you can also stream it online at http://www.babelgum.com.

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Living in Emergency (2008)

In Film Reviews on May 21, 2010 at 8:21 pm

Find this review on ManhattanMovieMag.com!

Living in Emergency is a great medical drama—like ER or Grey’s Anatomy, it is charged with adrenaline.  Its characters must constantly choose between the lesser of various evils, and in their spare moments they debate the ethics of saving one patient instead of another, or of abandoning their patients altogether.  Unlike those pop-medical shows, however, Emergency is all the more compelling because everything in it is real.  That’s because the film follows four volunteer physicians who each spend 6 months working on “missions” for Medecins Sans Frontiers, or Doctors Without Borders.

All the doctors are stationed in incredibly impoverished parts of Liberia and the Congo, countries that have been rent apart by decades of war.  As they struggle against insurmountable problems—one nearly snaps because no one can ship him any sterile gloves—the filmmakers give us an unvarnished view of what life and medicine in these places is actually like.  Suddenly, we’re in an operating theater as a doctor uses a hand-cranked drill to put a hole in a man’s skull (he lives).  A moment later, a second doctor matter-of-factly mentions over breakfast that the child he has been trying to revive all morning has abruptly died.  People are shot for no reason; children die of diseases that would easily be cured in the West.

That’s the most shocking thing about this documentary; it is devoid of histrionics.  The fact that the filmmakers allow their subjects to speak for themselves, at length, turns the film into something more than just a document of their collective experience.  Instead, Emergency becomes something huge, weighty and allegorical.  One young doctor realizes that she can’t continue doing this work indefinitely, and her imminent departure from the people she’s grown attached to nearly wrenches her apart.  An older doctor, who has been on many missions, tells the audience frankly that for him death has become an everyday occurrence rather than a monumental event.  He looks exhausted and rubs his eyes.

All the doctors realize that at best they are making a temporary improvement to a desperate humanitarian situation.  As the film goes on, each of them has to make peace with the fact that they can only do so much, and then they must extricate themselves in order to keep from being totally overwhelmed.  The film is eloquent and well-constructed enough that it can show the plight of people in this part of the world without being sanctimonious or patronizing.  Indeed, its neutral but urgent tone is what makes it so compelling—the film doesn’t tell, it shows.

After having made the festival circuit in 2009, Living in Emergency will be in limited release in New York beginning June 4th.  I highly recommend it—but you may want to pass on the popcorn.

The End of Poverty? (2008)

In Film Reviews on May 21, 2010 at 8:11 pm

Documentaries are all the rage lately.  In particular, documentaries which attempt to tackle enormous, unwieldy problems in less than two hours (Michael Moore’s Sicko (2007) for example) seem to be becoming the norm.  The End of Poverty? (2008), written and directed by Phillippe Diaz, takes on an even more inconceivably huge problem: the evils of global capitalism.  The problem is not that the film is a tiny David taking on a huge Goliath; the problem is that the film isn’t well-conceived or well-realized enough to effectively get its message across in the first place.

The End of Poverty? (tagline: “think again”) begins with the unspoken assumption that we in the West believe the world’s current economic structures have effectively resolved the issue of poverty in the Third World.  Personally I don’t know many people who believe this to be the case, but whatever.  The film divides its time between talking heads (economists, politicians, activists) and footage of indigenous tribes and workers in Bolivia, Kenya, Tanzania, and a few other countries, all of whom rail against the oppressive system under which they are unable to extricate themselves or their families from a lifetime of grinding poverty.

What is this “system,” you ask?  The film answers by laboriously laying out the theory that European colonialism is still ultimately responsible for the global wealth disparities that keep Third World peoples “in their place,” i.e. desperately poor.  The film’s thesis turns out to be a grand notion about the redistribution of wealth, and the idea that making land “common” property is the only way to humanity’s salvation.  That the white men proposing this massive economic readjustment are all ensconced in comfortable offices and lavish apartments does not seem to register with the filmmakers.

Indeed, an odd cognitive dissonance pervades much of the film.  As with many social-justice documentaries, End relies heavily on the repetitive use of dramatic inter-cut titles to convey information to viewers.  Suddenly, they’re hitting you with statistics designed to turn your stomach and jangle your heartstrings.  However, not once is an actual source for any of the titles information cited; this technique of throwing hard facts into a narrative would be much more effective if the filmmakers had done the due diligence to make their information credible.  Without sources, the fact interludes begin to feel more like pieces of a conspiracy theory than parts of an elegant, indisputable explanation.

Unfortunately for the noble cause it is pursuing, The End of Poverty? ultimately fails to make its case.  Though many of the vignettes featuring downtrodden indigenous people are wrenching and effective, the filmmakers’ failure to make their work cohesive, believable and approachable (how should I redistribute my wealth, anyway?) undermines the considerable work they put into shooting it.  It feels like a rough draft—perhaps, with a little fact-checking and some editing finesse, it could make a real impact.  Here’s hoping.

The City of Your Final Destination (2010)

In Film Reviews on May 13, 2010 at 11:35 am

Find this review on ScreenComment.com!

James Ivory’s latest film harkens back to Merchant-Ivory’s greatest triumphs, particularly A Room With A View (1985).  But instead of a sheltered ingénue, City tells the story of a restless young academic, Omar, who is forced to question his own feelings towards his career, his relationship, and ultimately his view of the world.  If this sounds like a heavy-handed premise, don’t despair; City’s tone is surprisingly light, and the film moves along snappily.

Omar (Omar Metwally) has just received a grant to write the biography of a famous novelist named Jules Gund, a project that will cement his career as a professor of literature.  However, the executors of the late Gund’s estate—his wife Caroline (Laura Linney), brother Adam (Anthony Hopkins) and mistress Arden (Charlotte Gainsbourg)—do not want the biography to be written.  At the urging of his overbearing girlfriend Deirdre (Alexandra Maria Lara) Omar flies to Gund’s estate in Uruguay and, after arriving unannounced, sets about changing everybody’s mind.

What follows is part comedy of manners and part romance, but also something more: a gently existential exploration of Omar’s changing concept of his purpose in life.  The longer he stays at the Gund estate and the more he acquaints himself with the tangled web of the author’s life, the more Omar realizes that his clear-cut ideas about literature, career, and love are not really his ideas, but what he feels is expected of him.  As he begins to be accepted into Gund’s family circle, he feels drawn to a life of pleasure and contemplation, and begins to dread his return to the snowy, drab university he works at.  As if to illustrate this dichotomy, the scenes in Uruguay (which were actually shot on location in Buenos Aires) are sumptuous, classic Merchant-Ivory.  The lighting is meticulous, the colors are rich and yet muted enough to look real, and each shot is framed so carefully that it feels more like watching a moving painting than a regular film.

The film’s star-studded cast manages to function well together.  No one gets overpowered, although it’s hard for Sir Anthony, even in this relatively subtle role, not to outshine his co-stars at every opportunity (since I last saw him in The Wolfman, this was something of a relief).  Laura Linney is tasked with the somewhat caustic role of the scorned widow, but she manages to bring off her character’s spite without making her unrelatable.  Alexandra Maria Lara (Downfall) does a fine job as Omar’s insufferable girlfriend—like Linney, she folds her character’s obnoxious traits into a developed, believable personality.

Overall, City feels like a breath of fresh air from Mr. Ivory, who sadly has been operating without his legendary producer Ismail Merchant since the latter’s death in 2005.  The fact that this film is set in the present day—as well as its brisk narrative pace—definitely works in its favor.  This is no sprawling, three-hour historical epic; it’s a quirky, beautiful little film that even non-Merchant-Ivory devotees will be able to enjoy.

The Human Centipede (2010)

In Film Reviews on May 13, 2010 at 9:56 am

See a shorter version of this review published on ScreenComment.com!

There are many types of bad movies, but a special place in movie hell must be reserved for those which believe that shock is a substitute for substance.  Now, I admit that many people would not have high hopes to begin with for a film called The Human Centipede, but bear with me.

Horror films are extremely popular in contemporary America.  However, those enjoying the most box-office success would be better described as revulsion films; the so-called torture-porn or “goreno” movement, which comprises the films of Eli Roth and Neil Marshall (among others) as well as the Saw franchise, have raked in more money than Goldman Sachs over the past decade and their popularity only continues to grow.  What defines these films is a focus on the spectacle of degradation, most of the time to the exclusion of almost everything else, including arguably vital things like plot, dialogue and character development. Characters in these films are almost universally flimsy and two-dimensional, more dime-a-dozen stereotypes than actual character about whom the audience can be bothered to care.

But that’s part of the point: we don’t want to care that much, because the purpose of the film is that watching those characters get tortured is oddly titillating.  There’s nothing introspective or even interesting in these films: the point is that they go somewhere that normal films don’t go, or at least they purport to.  Unlike, say, the earlier films of David Cronenberg, another hallmark of the torture-porn movement is a lack of chutzpah when it really counts.  Polanski once said that you can’t describe a man being executed without showing his head being cut off; it’s exactly this sort of ethos that the torture-porn genre seems unable to muster.  It’s all about scare tactics and the accoutrements of pain and evil: there’s always a greater focus on the instruments of torture than the havoc they actually wreak.

Having said all this, try to imagine the most knee-jerk setup possible for a film in this genre.  Well, there’d be an evil doctor, of course—German, most likely.  And why not have (yet) another film start off with naïve American coeds flouncing their way across Europe?  Then a car breakdown, at night, in the rain—excellent.

This is exactly how The Human Centipede, directed by Tom Six, begins.  First, we are introduced to Dr. Heiter (Dieter Laser, who looks like Christopher Walken after a bad facelift) who is clearly both German and evil, waiting to capture a live human subject on the side of the highway.  Then we meet the protagonists, two silly American girls (Ashley Williams and Ashlynn Yennie) wearing too much makeup and not enough clothing.  They try to drive to a nightclub, get lost, and suffer a flat tire.  You have seen this part of the movie before.

Let’s cut to the part of the movie you haven’t seen.  Naturally, the girls end up at Dr. Heiter’s villa of horror, where they are promptly drugged, tied up, and told that they will soon be part of his greatest work: the Human Centipede.  The good doctor plans to join together his captives via their digestive tracts, end to end.  I needn’t elaborate—whatever you’re picturing is pretty much what happens.  After discarding one male subject and finding another (Akihiro Kitamura), the surgery, such as it is, begins.  Talk about a healthcare crisis!

Sure enough, Dr. Heiter’s sick fantasy comes true, and the three characters do indeed get stitched together.  Then we watch them suffer as the Doctor (who is repeatedly referred to as a “Nazi”) plays cruel games with them, and as nature takes its inevitable toll.  Again, I don’t need to elaborate.  Bodily functions have rarely been more terrifying, and, if that’s what you’re into, this film does some audacious things.  The problem is that it’s all spectacle and no substance—Six’s screenplay is so superficial it could be attributed to Paris Hilton.  There’s plenty of gross-out to go around, but that’s it.

The captives eventually rebel, and salvation seems close.  There’s a standoff between Heiter and Kitamura’s character, and it is here that the film really fails.  Kitamura’s character—the “head” of the centipede, if you will—declares at the crucial moment that Heiter is in fact a kind of God, and that his own suffering is well-deserved because of some vague past transgressions.  He then cuts his own throat, leaving the two women to fend for themselves while sutured to his dead body.  Eventually, everyone ends up dead except for the girl in the middle of the centipede.  She whimpers pitifully (she can’t talk, remember) as the camera tilts up to the sky and the shot fades out.

Though the film’s premise could be daring in different hands (old-school Argento?) Centipede wastes whatever potential it has as a concept because of its total lack of introspection and philosophical depth.  We are supposed to think seriously about Dr. Heiter and his Nazi-like way of seeing humans as nothing more than pliant animals.  We’re also meant to understand Kitamura’s character’s suicide as some sort of transformative moment, rather than just an easy way to eliminate a hollow character.  But it’s really hard to think seriously about anything in a film that feels more like a bad cartoon than anything else.  That a sequel is already in production is hardly surprising.   The Human Centipede demonstrates that our current appetite for schlock and awe at the movies seems to have trumped any other aesthetic consideration.