Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Wrapping up the rest of comp...

Eric Khoo’s My Magic (53) was apparently shot in 9 days, and it shows, both in its shoddy sound design and its blotchy cinematography. Nonetheless, there is something inherently fascinating about watching the film’s lumbering protagonist get subjected to a barrage of tortures in the name of fatherly love. Ironically, the movie never manages to present much more than the carnival sideshow appeal that’s inextricable from the subject matter. This is quite insubstantial, especially compared to Be With Me, and thankfully short at 75 minutes. Had it gone on any longer it would have grown downright mawkish.

Soderbergh’s Che (50) is substantially longer (4 hours, 38 minutes), yet not that much more substantive, amazingly enough. Eschewing typical biopic conventions, Che probably cuts too close to the bone, essentially presenting only two extended, documentary-style recreations of Guevara’s Cuban and Bolivian insurgencies. Soderbergh perversely minimizes our ability to sympathize, or even identify, most of his cast (Matt Damon, however, is all too recognizable in his cameo), which simultaneously discourages jingoism and encourages apathy. The battles from the first film is distractingly interrupted with context-setting voiceovers from an audio interview and flashes forward to a U.N. session in which Che argues for Cuba’s newfound “freedom”. In an audience-punishing move, the first segment ends, just as Che is about to storm into Havana, stymieing any sense of victory… Then two hours of slow-burning defeat follow, as the pompous Che turns up in Bolivia, to attempt an impossible repeat performance of his former glory. The HD footage that Soderbergh shoots in those jungles is gorgeous, and the perversity of so intricately detailing the attempted Bolivian revolution’s downward spiral is palpable, making the second half considerably more intriguing than the first, but it’s tough to imagine the movie appealing to anyone beyond the most ardent of art film aficionados.

Kornel Mundruczo’s Delta (39), like Johanna, cites Bela Tarr in its opening credits. Although Mundruczo’s new film isn’t as distinctively slow-paced as Tarr’s work, it does make several visual allusions to it, and presents a similar vision of small-town malaise as it drifts inexorably toward violence. Unfortunately, without Tarr’s distinctive torpor, the movie settles into the realm of art house clichés. Some critics compared this to Malick’s Days of Heaven, and while I understand why (the sunlit nature photography, the outdoor chamber drama that drives the sparse plot), it simply failed to a cast a spell on me, leaving its thematic musings about incest, society and taboo behavior feeling all too academic.

In my estimation, Philippe Garrel’s Frontier of Dawn (59) seemed almost capable of overcoming its unmistakable engagement with art house clichés, though the hostile reaction at the press screening was hard to ignore. Garrel seems the contemporary filmmaker most indebted to the New Wave movies of the ‘60s. His self-absorbed characters, stark black-and-white visuals, and unapologetic romanticism return here, and once again I find myself somewhat unable to discern if the resulting film is self-parodying or self-serious. It scarcely matters, though, whether or not I was able to identify with the self-pitying protagonist. The attractive cast, skillful photography, and playful directorial flourishes (e.g. camera tricks from the silent-film era and well-placed narrative ellipses) more than held my attention.

Ari Folman’s Waltz With Bashir (46), on the other hand, started out with a blast of energy before quickly settling into a repetitious cycle of guilty confession and representational questioning. Though it’s admittedly novel to see a film that features Israelis grappling with the possibility that they played a part in a genocidal slaughter, the animated approach taken here minimizes the horror behind that act. Even more egregious is the quality of the animation that’s used. Though occasionally capable of presenting striking graphical contrasts, it ultimately looks cheap and stiff. The political bravery on display here resulted in plenty of fans for the film, but what I saw on the screen seemed unavoidably amateurish and half-baked.

In contrast, one could only could accuse Charlie Kaufman’s incredibly dense Synecdoche, New York (65) of being overbaked. After a witty, promising first act, it becomes a bit too burdened by its incredibly hefty amount of thematic baggage. Though one could suggest that Michel Gondry’s video for Bjork’s Bachelorette covered this ground far more concisely, the endlessly inventive script and surprisingly dour outlook found here distinguish Kaufman’s work. For an hour or so in the middle, watching the movie is a real chore. Fortunately, in its last half hour, it delivers a strong closing act that redeems what has come before, making me think that it probably has realized more of its great ambitions than not. This is definitely something I’d like to see again in an atmosphere where I have more time to process it.

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