Saturday, September 13, 2008

Day 10 Grades

The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky, 2008) 87
Genova (Michael Winterbottom, 2008) 48
RocknRolla (Guy Ritchie, 2008) 23
Miracle at St. Anna (Spike Lee, 2008) 29

Friday, September 12, 2008

Day 9 Grades

Adam Resurrected (Paul Schrader, 2008) 47
What Doesn't Kill You (Brian Goodman, 2008) 56
Pride and Glory (Gavin O'Connor, 2008) 41
Birdsong (Albert Serra, 2008) 68
Achilles and the Tortoise (Takeshi Kitano, 2008) 69
Sexykiller (Miguel Marti, 2008) 49

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Day 8 Grades

Hooked (Adrian Sitaru, 2007) 63
With a Little Help From Myself (Francois Dupeyron, 2008) 56
The Sea Wall (Rithy Panh, 2008) 74
Me and Orson Welles (Richard Linklater, 2008) 79

The Beaches of Agnes (Agnes Varda, 2008)

The Beaches of Agnes, Agnes Varda’s latest, and most comprehensive, autobiographical documentary, opens with a shot of the director walking carefully backwards on a beach. It’s an appropriate image for a film that travels this deeply into the past. From revisiting her childhood home (which she discovers is now inhabited by a quirky train collector), to recounting her first steps into filmmaking, to describing the loss she felt when her husband Jacques Demy died, Beaches encapsulates a singular life with the effortlessness of a casual conversation.

Throughout the film, Varda is able to make profound statements about time and memory with the simplest of gestures. Quite appropriately given the subject matter, director Chris Marker (embodied in the form of a hand-drawn cartoon cat) is on hand to serve as a playful counter-narrator. Marker has fixated on these same themes, and many of Varda’s images would be at home in his work. There’s a wonderful moment, for example, where Varda writes her birth name in sand with a stick, and talks about how she had it changed as it’s washed away by the tide.

Varda has always been an autobiographical filmmaker, and her tendency to reveal herself in her movies has only grown in her most recent works. Although The Beaches of Agnes is self-indulgent by design, it still inevitably touches upon periods of Varda’s life that she’s already devoted entire films to. While the movie remains charming throughout, it will offer devotees of her films a few anecdotes that they’ve already heard. Despite this, the film will likely appeal most to those same fans. Varda presents herself as a confidante in her work, and willingness to forgive her repetition will be easiest for those who know her best.

Rating: 52/100

Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle, 2008)

Love conquers all, including all suspense, in Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, a feel-good movie that puts the audience through extended torture, child abuse and a foray into desperate poverty in order to have them arrive at a predetermined, uplifting conclusion. India is presented as some sort of distorted parody of Britain here, ready for Western consumption. There’s a distinctly Dickensian plot, a scene that jokes about how Indian call center workers learn of the geography of Scotland, the familiar game show referenced in the title, and the British director, who ensures that the style and subject matter matches the built-in assumptions about India as closely as possible. Cheap, folksy moments abound. Under the guise of furthering cultural understanding, the film simply transplants our hero narrative to their culture. While such a treatment might be mildly preferable to something like The Love Guru, it still feels like an attempt to appeal to the lowest common denominator. Throughout Slumdog Millionaire, the audience’s intelligence is underestimated by a film that hopes to get by on charm alone.

Casting an impressively broad narrative net, Slumdog uses a structure that initially seems clever, but quickly grows repetitive and contrived. The premise involves a game show guest who appears on the show in an attempt to attract the attention of his childhood sweetheart, who is being held in an abusive relationship by a gangster. As providence would have it, this barely educated scamp turns out to know the answer to every question he’s asked, thanks to a wide range of misadventures which not only taught him street smarts, but also trivia answers. Numerous extended flashbacks are provided to provide the character’s back story, and to show specifically where the boy learned each factoid.

It’s a weak setup, but Boyle throws everything he’s got at it in an attempt to make it work. Shot digitally, Slumdog fully embraces the music video aesthetic. Subtitles are superimposed around the screen as if we were watching a Powerpoint presentation. The loud score if filled with Indian-fusion hip-hop. Visually, the film aims for sensory overload, with a color palette that is a garish blur and many oddly canted camera angles. Such flashiness is expected, it seems, to distract from the plotting which is stupidly implausible, but convinced that more is most definitely more.

Rating: 38/100

A Year Ago in Winter (Caroline Link, 2008)

Classy, but middlebrow, Caroline Link’s A Year Ago in Winter is a respectable effort in every meaning of the word. It’s a film that’s been so thoroughly polished that it scarcely seems possible that it could emit the smallest bit of emotional surprise, yet despite its many calculations and unfailing classiness, it manages to finally sell its story of grief relief. Picking up a year after the golden child of an upper-class Munich household has killed himself, the script tracks the underlying feelings that are dredged up when a painter is commissioned to do a portrait of the dead child and his older sister.

Well-played by Karoline Herfurth, older sister Lilli becomes the movie’s emotional center. Content for years to conform to her parents’ desires, she finds herself becoming more assertive about her own needs when she befriends the closeted portrait artist. As the two benefit from getting to know each other better, the family collectively comes to terms with the fact that they scarcely knew their lost loved one. It’s a setup that sounds trite, but somehow Link manages to infuse it with some real power by the film’s end, even if she often seems more concerned with the lavish set design than the characters’ souls.

Rating: 55/100

The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow, 2008)

A Baghdad bomb squad becomes the subject of a study male angst in Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker. Conceived largely as a string of set pieces, this action film relays the tension and fatigue that builds over the last 40 days of the squad’s rotation. For most of the film, Bigelow exteriorizes the psychological state of these men. Their mindset is relayed less by the actors than the way that they hurtle themselves into life-or-death situations. They are men of actions defined by actions, at least on the battlefront.

The Hurt Locker is designed in such a manner that characterization doesn’t get in the way of set pieces, even if the film is at its heart less a thrill ride than a contemplation. Bigelow does her best to act as if she’s made a mindless movie. The action scenes, which are tense enough, dominate the film, even if the meaning lies in the margins. Oftentimes, the visuals do all of the talking, such as when the director sets her cast in front of a scene of mass destruction at an emotional low point or when the protagonist takes a shower and washes off a cascade of blood. In some ways, it’s a strange approach, because it doesn’t provide the typical overall payoffs of the action genre, but it’s redeemed by the final twenty minutes of the movie, which make what was unstated throughout completely explicit, without cheapening what’s come before. The shot of a squad man, who we’ve seen for the last few hours making split second decisions, paralyzed by a choice of breakfast cereals packs a surprising punch.

Rating: 61/100

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Day 7 Grades

The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow, 2008) 61
A Year Ago in Winter (Caroline Link, 2008) 55
Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle, 2008) 38
The Beaches of Agnes (Agnes Varda, 2008) 52
Liverpool (Lisandro Alonso, 2008) 51
Martyrs (Pascal Laugier, 2008) 80

The Burrowers (JT Petty, 2008)

Horror Westerns, while not unheard of, are something of a rarity, so news that the talented young director JT Petty was making one had me genuinely excited. I’m sad to say that The Burrowers, while fairly solid, still struck me as a disappointment. The movie blends together the creature feature genre with nods to Days of Heaven and The Searchers, but is less successful as a Western than as a fright flick. A big part of the reason for this is because Petty paces the movie more like a horror film. More than most genres, westerns need to celebrate the landscape and take their time to really create a convincing atmosphere. This stands in opposition to the thrill-seeking mode of horror that The Burrowers tries for. The fast editorial rhythms and visual atmospherics of the scary scenes ensure that when Petty tries to make a visual reference to Malick or Ford, the image barely registers as a moment of majestic beauty.

From time to time, Petty does reap the benefits of his generic fusion, though. He is able to locate horror in a few instances directly within the conventions of the Western. An Indian’s scrotum serves as a tobacco pouch. A brief scuffle between a posse and a group of Natives is far bloodier than usual. When the film makes reference to The Searchers, by talking about shooting out a corpse’s eyes to condemn the spirit, Petty zooms in for gory detail.

But The Burrowers has to satisfy horror fans as well, so it keeps moving back and forth between genres, derailing itself with regularity. To be fair, Petty does avoid letting this monster movie degenerate into a series of chase scenes, and he does devise an ending that is more resonant than a hunt to kill the monsters. The problem is that The Burrowers squanders its potential for more by not taking its time to serve both of its generic masters.

Rating: 50/100

The Brothers Bloom (Rian Johnson, 2008)

If there was only a bit more romantic chemistry in Rian Johnson’s The Brothers Bloom, it might warrant comparison to classic comic capers such as Trouble in Paradise and To Catch a Thief. Alas, this still-entertaining second feature from the skilled creator of Brick stands mostly as a testament to its maker’s considerable talent. This lark of a movie has the wild energy of a Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon and the storybook conception of a Wes Anderson film. It introduces its two ingenious con men brothers to us in an opening sequence that feels like a children’s book (one, at least, that is narrated by the oily-tongued Ricky Jay) before jumping forward a few decades to find Bloom (Adrian Brody), the younger of the two, in a full-blown midlife crisis.

Ready to quit his grifter lifestyle in the hopes of finally feeling something real, Bloom is talked into one last con, which brings him into direct contact with the effervescent Penelope (Rachel Weisz), their eccentric mark. From the start, The Brothers Bloom sets a tone that winks at the audience. Rather than offer Mamet style hoodwinks, the film asks the audience to do as Rachel says and “enjoy the ride”. There is plenty to love here, too. The film offers what might be the year’s best costume design, a series of globetrotting backdrops, and a gleefully anarchic tone that’s encapsulated by Rinko Kikuchi's nearly wordless performance.

Problems only arise when The Brothers Bloom tries to engage emotionally. For all of its razzle-dazzle directorial invention, it can’t really manage to create a satisfactory romance. Brody and Weisz don’t exchange banter so much as they state themes. The film’s nonstop grappling with the pitfalls of living a lie only coalesces into a moving dilemma on a few occasions, and then quickly dissipates to make way for more hijinks. It’s a problem that keeps Bloom from achieving the greatness that’s within its grasp, but also one that can be easily ignored in light of the movie’s wonderful buoyancy.

Rating: 69/100

Tonight (Werner Schroeter, 2008)

Tonight offers a heavily stylized play by play of a city’s steep decline into political chaos. Set over one night, this theatrical film features Pascal Gregory as a war hero searching for his estranged wife before he flees the decaying metropolis on the last boat out of town. Told to seek out clues at a seedy cabaret, he makes that locale only his first stop on a foray into depravity. Throughout Tonight, we watch as the city destabilizes and the patrons of this club are tortured one by one by an unchecked military force.

Schroeter stages all of this mayhem in a purposely artificial style. Using mannered performances, heightened lighting effects, frequent blares of music, and recurrent symbolic characters (such as a girl selling flowers), the movie is clearly not aiming for realism. The mood sometimes feels similar to Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (though nowhere near as finely calibrated), with a stronger focus on politics than sex, even if sexual humiliation is employed at times here as a manifestation of political domination. What results is a film that is somewhat Brechtian in its distancing techniques, but nonetheless capable of communicating its message clearly.

Rating: 47/100

Flame & Citron (Ole Christian Madsen, 2008)

Flame & Citron, which recounts the lives of two Danish assassins during World War II, has the extreme misfortune to come on the heels of Paul Veerhoven’s far superior, and equally epic, Black Book. Although Black Book was set in The Netherlands, the two films share a similar feel, and on every level Ole Christian Madsen’s movie comes up short in comparison. Flame & Citron, while watchable enough, lacks Black Book’s technical mastery, fascinating perversity, and gorgeous star. It’s difficult to imagine anyone preferring this film to that (much less preferring it to the towering classic of the resistance genre, Army of Shadows).

Director Madsen has done honorable work here, and has certainly created a movie blessed with great production values, but a dispassionate haze surrounds the project. The themes here, which examine the immorality that becomes rampant in wartime, are too thinly sketched to overcome the fact that this sort of thing has been done countless times before. The set pieces, which showcase the duo’s assassinations, are consistently less inspired than the time devoted to them warrants. Perhaps not surprisingly, given Madsen’s other films, it’s the soap-opera elements that filter into the expository scenes that give the most pleasure. They offer a texture and level of character that gets lost amidst the rest of the movie’s scope.

Rating: 46/100

Two-Legged Horse (Samira Makhmalbaf, 2008)

Like a fable told in documentary form, Samira Makhmalbaf’s outraged – and outrageous – Two-Legged Horse is sure to exasperate many western audiences, who won’t be used to seeing such images of abject poverty and abuse. Set in Afghanistan, the film tells a simple, allegorical tale about a mentally handicapped boy who is hired as the professional piggybacker to a spoiled brat who had his feet blown off by a land mine. With no subplots and little else on its mind, the film focuses, perhaps exploitatively, on its two main characters, documenting their dysfunction as it spirals into a sado-masochistic, co-dependent nightmare

I’m not sure why Makhmalbaf chose to tell this particular story, but it transfixed me, in the same way that you can’t avert your eyes from a train wreck. The film is so blunt that it forces viewers to come to terms with it immediately. Its director uses forceful images of these two, especially as the legless boy whips his “horse”, ostensibly to create a message about power and poverty. It’s one-note, but at the same time kind of hypnotic, since so much of what it shows is taboo on American movie screens. Like some nightmare version of the Richard Pryor vehicle The Toy, it contains a traditional underdog setup, but refuses the audience the usual payoffs found in that genre.

Rating: 62/100

Flash of Genius (Marc Abraham, 2008)

Fairly corny, and certainly predictable, Marc Abraham’s underdog drama Flash of Genius features Greg Kinnear as Dennis Kearns, inventor of the intermittent windshield wiper. Covering a dozen years on Kearns’ life, the film sees him standing up, supposedly for little-guy inventors everywhere, against the rotten thieves at Ford Motor Company. It’s difficult who could possibly root against this family man, but the movie proceeds like there’s some level of suspense present.

Part of the problem with the film is that Kinnear simply isn’t what the role requires. Perfect for everyman roles (see his fine work in the recent Little Miss Sunshine and Fast Food Nation), the actor lacks the range to make his portrayal of Kearns as complex as the other characters seem to imply he is. Time and again, we hear what a difficult, stubborn man Kearns is, but all evidence of this on screen is lost behind Kinnear’s baby face. The one actor who does shine, at least for the ten minutes that he’s on screen, however, is Alan Alda. In a small character role similar to the one he played in The Aviator, Alda manages to command the movie. Playing a shrewd lawyer, he’s given no back story by the script, yet he radiates a level authenticity that is absent in the rest of the Flash of Genius.

Rating: 39/100

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Day 6 Grades

Flash of Genius (Marc Abraham, 2008) 39
Two-Legged Horse (Samira Makhmalbaf, 2008) 62
Flame & Citron (Ole Christian Madsen, 2008) 46
Tonight (Werner Schroeter, 2008) 47
The Brothers Bloom (Rian Johnson, 2008) 69
The Burrowers (JT Petty, 2008) 50

Acolytes (Jon Hewitt, 2008)

Playing at times like a more brutal variation on Stand By Me, this Aussie thriller tracks three especially dumb teens who get into a world of trouble after they discover a dead girl’s body buried in the woods. The premise, which involves two serial killers, probably would sound scarier when described than it plays. Director Hewitt relies far too heavily on post-production effects to try to wring cheap scares out of a psychologically motivated story. The result is a movie that seems schizophrenically pitched between examining the teens’ guilt, presenting them as victims, and disturbing us when they turn vindictive. The plot, wobbly from the start, only gets worse as the film proceeds. By its end, Acolytes has sacrificed any semblance of nuance for the sake of loud noises and quick cutting.

Rating: 30/100

Plastic City (Yu Lik-wai, 2008)

Yu Lik-wai’s dazzling Plastic City uses the gangster genre as a starting off point for a wild, visually intoxicating ride. Set in Brazil, the movie focuses on a group of bootleg merchandise peddlers who find themselves under siege on several fronts due to the changing political world that surrounds them. Thanks to globalization, the corrupt tricks they’ve previously used are no longer enough to keep a firm hold on their operations. This setup leads into a series of events that undercuts the typical trajectories of this genre, resulting in a style that grows increasingly fragmented as their places in the underworld become less certain.

Director Yu Lik-wai has made two decent previous features, but he’s been rightfully best known until now as Jia Zhang-ke’s frequent cinematographer. That training as a cameraman really is on display here, in a movie that fully captures the garish culture clash that is Brazil. Each scene jettisons the stylistic approach of the last, resulting in an experience that’s able to keep viewers off guard throughout. As the rise to power narrative that dominates the first half of the film is waylaid, the movie only grows more discursive, veering off into mysticism and outright hyperbole. The net effect of Plastic City combines disorientation with the affirmation that a bold new filmmaking talent has made himself known.

Rating: 72/100

Three Wise Men (Mika Kaurismaki, 2008)

Before my screening of Three Wise Men, director Mika Kaurismaki bragged that he made this feature in five shooting days without a real script. Such an accomplishment might be worthy of praise if the results were worthwhile, but the movie that this process has produced has been obviously scarred by its slapdash production history. Flat lighting, sketchy characters, and a seeming unwillingness to edit indulgent sequences are the defining characteristics of Three Wise Men.

Set in Finland over a long Christmas Eve evening, the movie follows three losers as they get together for a round of carousing at the karaoke bar, which seems to be the only place that’s still open. Each of them has just suffered a great disappointment in their personal life, and each of them has reasons to dislike the others, but since misery loves company, they group together. The Christmas carols that waft across the soundtrack early on, point toward their eventual redemption. The only thing for the audience to do while waiting for it to arrive is to endure a series of poorly improvised speeches about the meaning of life and too many terrible renditions of Finnish pop songs. Soon the group swells, until it resembles a zany Nativity scene, and at that point the Christmas miracle arrives , universal reconciliation is achieved, and the audience is finally free to leave.

Rating: 21/100

Better Things (Duane Hopkins, 2008)

If the opening images of Duane Hopkins’ debut, Better Things, don’t grab you, you might seriously want to consider leaving the theater, because this unremittingly bleak drama isn’t going to become any less of a tough sit with time. Starting out with a striking series of overcast landscape images and close-ups of drugged up young kids, this incessantly dour movie could not by any stretch of the imagination be classified as entertainment. It is so steadfast is it in its refusal to glamorize the depressive lifestyles of its cast that it is reluctant to let the least bit of levity into the frame.

Nonetheless, it is a respectable effort that suggests Hopkins might be a burgeoning talent. Throughout the film, you get a sense that the director is trying out ideas, searching for his voice, and more often or not his experiments work. Some touches here, like an edit that takes place immediately after a light is shut off, casting the audience into darkness, or the framing of a doorjamb’s reflection of a coat rack in a manner that suggests the image of a cross, are subtly striking. Such moments are acceptable as they never overwhelm the film’s miserabilism. The movie might have but one tone, but it remains sustained throughout the entire run time.

In Better Things, Hopkins is trying to approximate the detached perspective of his withdrawn characters, who largely shun interactions with others either due to drug use or mental disorders. More a mood piece than a message movie, the film pulses with portent. Better Things may not be especially insightful, and it may not offer much in the way of hope, but it certainly can’t be accused of betraying itself.

Rating: 57/100

Uncertainty (Scott McGehee & David Siegel, 2008)

Delivering an unusual twin narrative featuring two different plot strands, and two different genres, but the same lead characters during the same twenty-four hour period of time, the high-concept Uncertainty radiates a warmth that’s rare for the sometimes overly intellectual filmmakers Scott McGehee & David Siegel. This is largely because the film’s prime thematic gambit is designed to convince the audience that the two young lovers that serve as protagonists have a world full of possibilities before them. Played by the likeable Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Lynn Collins, these characters turn out to be worth rooting for, regardless of circumstances.

Opening on the Brooklyn Bridge, the movie runs from its first scene in two strikingly different directions. One story, set in Manhattan, plays out as a chase thriller, in which a mysterious cell phone leads to a dangerous game of blackmail. The second story, which ranges across Brooklyn and Queens, is a family drama relayed in a lower key. The dual plot strands offer autocritiques that expose some of the limitations and strengths of each genre. Cutting between the two plots undoubtedly provides a bigger picture than either could provide alone, but it must be noted that sometimes that’s the result of incidental dialogue that could have as easily been inserted into one episode as the other.

While Uncertainty can’t manage to make each of its stories equally interesting at all times, the unique structure it employs is less gimmicky in practice than one might initially suspect. A few moments, such as cloned sex scenes that redefine the term “simultaneous orgasm”, really maximize the approach, but one must admit that this ploy hardly results in the revelations that might have been unlocked by such a boldly deconstructionalist style. Nonetheless, Uncertainty certainly remains engaging enough as it unfolds, and it stays true to its title in its refusal to conclude by providing easy answers.

Rating: 53/100

Still Walking (Hirokazu Kore-eda, 2008)

All of director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s films thus far have been preoccupied with death, and Still Walking, his latest work, is not much different. Set almost entirely during a 24-hour period, the movie examines the tensions that arise when a family gathers under one roof to observe the thirteenth anniversary of a son’s tragic passing. More audience-friendly than anything Kore-eda has made since After Life, this movie still has been crafted with considerable skill. Almost nothing seems extraneous here. Everything that’s included increases our understanding of the way that this group of people grieves and celebrates together. One shot which lasts 7 or 8 minutes, and features 9 actors seamlessly interacting at a dinner table for the entire time, is typical of the way that the filmmaker corrals his ensemble cast and convinces the viewer that these people actually are related.

One of the more impressive aspects of Still Walking is the way that it shades characters in such a way that undermines first impressions. As viewers spend more time in this household, they come to understand that the curmudgeonly father is not as detached as he might seem at the outset. Similarly, the mother, who initially seems welcoming, turns out to be quite capable of snubbing those who displease her. The pressures that the houseguests feel are sketched out in the early sequences, and then fully realized later on, even though nothing as indecorous as a confrontation ever occurs. Subtle, but not so subtle that its audience could miss its universally applicable observations, Still Walking is possibly Kore-eda’s finest film yet.

Rating: 70/100

Monday, September 08, 2008

Day 5 Grades

Still Walking (Hirokazu Kore-eda, 2008) 70
Uncertainty (Scott McGehee & David Siegel, 2008) 53
Better Things (Duane Hopkins, 2008) 57
Three Wise Men (Mika Kaurismaki, 2008) 21
Plastic City (Yu Lik-wai, 2008) 72
Acolytes (Jon Hewitt, 2008) 30

Not Quite Hollywood (Mark Hartley, 2008)

Sure to bolster the Netflix queue of anyone other than interviewee Quentin Tarantino, Not Quite Hollywood offers a wild and dizzying tour through the subgenre of Ozploitation films. From naughty sex films, to gory creature features, to gonzo action movies, director Hartley covers all bases, and bolsters his coverage with an impressive array of interviewees. The film focuses less on obscurities than films that were seminal to the movement of their respective genres, meaning that depth is prioritized over breadth. Nonetheless, it offered this devout cinephile the rare opportunity to watch one of these catalogue documentaries without having already seen the majority of movies under discussion.

Rating: 50/100

Zack and Miri Make a Porno (Kevin Smith, 2008)

Kevin Smith’s movies are somewhat critic-proof, because they don’t depend on cinematic competency, but rather on crude jokes and a likeable cast. It’s a given when going to see one of his movies that there will be some major shortcomings. The only question becomes whether or not the script and performances are strong enough to distract attention from the ineptly framed shots, the immature worldview, and the sophomoric soundtrack. Therefore, I can’t make any great claims for the formal rigor or deft structuring of Zack and Miri Make a Porno, but I can confess that I laughed a lot while watching it and quickly developed a rooting interest in its underdog characters.

Though Zack and Miri is shameless in its presentation of a formulaic premise, it can’t be denied that since it features absurdities such as an extended envisioning of Star Whores, which is precisely the Star Wars cum porno that it sounds like, it represents the ceaselessly juvenile Smith in his unique métier of geek raunch. Probably a bit late in its envisioning of the mainstreaming of pornography, it nonetheless manages to offer a fast and furious parade of profanity that makes the movie at times feel more like a wild sex romp than the likeable romantic comedy that it actually is.

Rating: 67/100

Jerichow (Christian Petzold, 2008)

East German director Chrisitian Petzold skillfully, but perhaps too faithfully, recycles film noir tropes in his cleanly-directed Jerichow. Using one particular noir tale as its basis (I will refrain from revealing it, lest I spoil the plot), the movie actually represents a reimagining similar to Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. That film modified the premise of Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows to make a statement about racism in then-modern Germany. Here, Petzold does the same, crafting a tale that’s centered on the reactions of a Turkish man who has learned to expect the worst from people.

Jerichow unfolds rather predictably for anyone familiar with its genre, but its visuals and thematic nuances elevate it somewhat. To be sure, this movie, which pits lily white Germans against a suspiciously drawn immigrant, creates audience identification that forces the viewer to question their prejudices. The noir genre depends upon the viewer’s willingness to be compassionate toward criminals, and the audience’s willingness to sympathize with people simply because they've grown familiar is exploited to create a potent message in the film’s denouement.

As a side note I’d like to point out that this foreign noir revisionism seems to be a trend, based on the slate of movies that I’ve at this year’s festival seen including Three Monkeys, Zift, and Revanche. I can’t help but feel, though, that Americans tend to work within genres better than directors from abroad. When an American filmmaker like Tarantino or Haynes takes a revisionist approach to a genre, the result is not a polite counterpoint to what’s come before, as is the case in Jerichow, but a full-blown shakeup to the values system embodied by the works. Not to generalize too broadly, but these foreign films bluntly smuggle subtext that seems to emerge more naturally when it's been inserted on home turf. That isn’t to say that Jerichow is bloodless, but it does lack much of the vitality that makes genre filmmaking so captivating to begin with.

Rating: 56/100

Is There Anybody There? (John Crowley, 2008)

Michael Caine mugs endlessly for the sake of a curious little boy (and for the camera) in John Crowley’s whimsical British comedy Is There Anybody There? Set in a home turned into an old-folks home by overzealous parents, this movie attempts to at once be irreverent and warm-hearted. The mix, difficult to manage for even the most proficient of filmmakers, proves too much to handle for the relative newcomer Crowley. The resulting movie is tonally wobbly and less entertaining than ingratiating.

Centered on a boy’s pursuit of the question of what happens to us after we die, this script comes up with nothing more than the tritest answers imaginable. Instead, it offers plenty of shenanigans, in which Caine, playing a retired magician, goes through a predictable cycle of friendship, misunderstanding and reconciliation with the boy. The fundamental problem is that the boy’s character is thinly sketched. There’s no good reason, beyond a child’s typical morbid curiosity, that he should be so captivated by the afterlife, so the entire film seems a bit arbitrary. It might have worked as an actor’s showcase, despite its deficits, if only Caine weren’t so obviously on autopilot throughout.

Rating: 34/100

The Secret Life of Bees (Gina Prince-Bythewood, 2008)

Gina Prince-Bythewood finally follows up her debut Love and Basketball with The Secret Life of Bees, a disappointing, deep-fried batch of clichéd characters and manipulative tearjerking. Set in South Carolina, during the first days of mandatory integration, this coming-of-age story leaves few Southern clichés unexploited. It follows a 14-year-old girl (Dakota Fanning), as she flees her abusive father and ends up bunking with a group of wholly empowered black women.

Too simple-minded to seem sincere, Bees wastes no energy in making sure the audience can’t help but side with it. From its too-obvious musical montages (which seem designed to sell CDs instead of support the story), to its pre-determined attitudes toward each of its characters, to its trite philosophy lessons delivered via Queen Latifah, the movie is self-aware and aware of its own supposed importance. Fanning seems like a grounding presence through all of this hand-wringing, forced bonding, and pontificating, but in her most dramatic scenes, she tends toward the shrill. Although she is playing a character who is supposedly destined to be a great writer, she gives little evidence of depth, instead only whining incessantly about her mommy and daddy issues. Sure to reap plenty of Image Awards next year (one forward-thinking character even wears an NAACP t-shirt), the film is nothing if not marketable. Ironically, in its pre-digested judgments of its villains, who never reveal much additional texture, it is as biased as any of the bigots it attacks.

Rating: 43/100

Sunday, September 07, 2008

35 Shots of Rum (Claire Denis, 2008)

The sensitive camera of master director Claire Denis reveals the inner stirrings of an extended, working-class, French family in her superlative 35 Shots of Rum. Fans of this immeasurably talented filmmaker will know that she has already made movies with titles such as Trouble Every Day and I Can’t Sleep. From this body of work, it’s obvious that one of her key themes creates an alliance between emotional health and the daily routine. Through 35 Shots’ quiet observations of a father and daughter who appear to be living a normal, quietly happy life, the ability of routine to distract us from our pain is made clear.

Even though it’s spare enough to be called minimalist, 35 Shots is extremely subtle in conveying its meanings. Pointed feelings are ever-present, but many lay undisclosed until most of the tale has been told. Father Lionel (who’s not coincidentally a train operator by vocation) and daughter Jo clearly love each other enough, but their relationship is complicated by unspoken strains. Watching these tensions resolve themselves, with an unreal amount of delicacy from Denis, provides the film with its considerable sense of compassion.

Denis’ work here is just as pleasing to the head, however. The opening overture, composed mostly of POV shots from the train conductor’s window sets the measured rhythm that will remain throughout the film. Backed by a Tindersticks score, it is only the first of many sublime and effortless wonders on display here. One sequence, which occurs when the cast heads out for a concert, but is forced to take refuge in a restaurant, is utterly remarkable in its use of music and its ability to be simultaneously loaded with character tension and vacillating emotional beats. 35 Shots of Rum casts its magical spell with few words, but the mojo that it works is exceptionally powerful stuff, to be sure.

Rating: 84/100

Day 4 Grades

35 Shots of Rum (Claire Denis) 84
The Secret Life of Bees (Gina Prince-Bythewood) 43
Is There Anybody There? (John Crowley, 2008) 34
Jerichow (Christian Petzold, 2008) 56
Zack and Miri Make a Porno (Kevin Smith, 2008) 67
Not Quite Hollywood (Mark Hartley, 2008) 50

Deadgirl (Marcel Sarmiento / Gadi Harel, 2008)

For those willing to forego quality production values and decent acting for a brush with the taboo, Deadgirl offers plenty of repulsive excitement. Mixing sexual deviance and zombie gore like no movie since Return of the Living Dead 3, this twisted thriller follows the fallout that ensues after two undersexed teens find an immortal and naked woman tied up in the basement of an abandoned mental asylum. Upon laying eyes on her gross but attractive form, one of the boys suggests, “We could keep her.” It’s a moment that the film doesn’t manage to sell, but for those who can accept the decision, it sets of a series of gross-outs that reward the suspension of disbelief.

To Deadgirl’s credit, it’s less reliant than gore or shock scares than the inherent perversity of its premise to freak out its audience. As the boys start looking at the dead girl as a sexual object, they begin to fight both their raging hormones and each other. Before long, the situation spirals out of control, resulting in additional mayhem. I’ll refrain from spoiling the story from that point, but I will assure readers that what results is fairly original by the standards of horror movie plots. While Deadgirl has its problems, such as its poor performances, weak dialogue, and gaping plot holes, it is undoubtedly creepy enough to make its roughness forgivable.

Rating: 57/100

Pontypool (Bruce MacDonald, 2008)

Playing, at least for its first half, like a top-notch episode of TV’s “The Twilight Zone”, Bruce MacDonald’s Pontypool unfortunately gets bogged down by its own pretensions as it continues. Set almost entirely within the office of a local AM radio station, the film unfolds in a manner similar to Orson Welles’ radio play “The War of the Worlds”. Through audio contact with the outside world, we’re given an impression of widespread chaos, even as the visual backdrop barely changes. A take-no-prisoners talk radio DJ, played with verve by Stephen McHattie, becomes our narrator as apocalypse looms.

The threat, as far as I could tell, comes from words themselves. Apparently, certain words in the English language have mutated here, resulting in an affliction that creates zombie-like behavior in its victims. It’s a premise that the film never satisfyingly sells, despite plenty of babble (the title is taken from the town where the action unfolds, but is also a complicated play on words). Nevertheless, MacDonald creates an impressive sense of escalating tension throughout the film’s early scenes. By the midpoint of Pontypool, this strain reaches a fever pitch, as callers to the radio station relay audio evidence of the terror that lies outside the shelter of the church that doubles as the broadcasting hub. For a brief passage, Pontypool offers edge-of-your-seat suspense.

Unfortunately, Pontypool seems to have been designed with the pretense that it has something powerful to say about the power of words. Hitler’s name is invoked more than once, and the chanting of the unthinking crowds point to the fact that this disease is supposed to stand as a metaphor for the ability of language to twist people toward evil ends. The message, despite the backdrop of talk radio, never becomes more than bland, though. One can’t help but wish MacDonald had taken the film in a less intellectual direction instead, if this was all that his pontifications would have resulted in.

Rating: 55/100

Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (Peter Sollett, 2008)

This hipper-than-thou romantic comedy tries to create a modern-day romp in the spirit of John Hughes’ Sixteen Candles, but ends up being more comparable to forgettable fare such as 1988’s License to Drive. It comes as a particularly disappointing second feature for director Peter Sollett, whose debut Raising Victor Vargas embraced the lumpiness of family and community. Here, the focus is placed on a group of self-absorbed teens who pride themselves on their trendiness. The plot, which involves two of these kids (Kat Dennings and Michael Cera) getting out of inexplicable relationships and into each others’ pants, is an overextended meet-cute that gives the audience little reason to become invested.

Set entirely over the course of one wild night, the film presents New York City as a carefree urban playground for bridge and tunnel brats. For all of the rampant binge drinking and casual sex on display, though, the feeling here is less like a cautionary Larry Clark film than a live action feature from Disney. Interesting mostly in the way that it seems to place its high school-aged cast in a social sphere that eschews labels such as “jock”, “geek”, or even “popular” (begging the question of whether it is this film or the recent documentary American Teen that’s hopelessly out of touch), this is both unfunny and endowed with surprisingly little heart.

Rating: 36/100

Vinyan (Fabrice Du Welz, 2008)

Emmanuel Beart and Rufus Sewell star as parents who travel to tsunami-ravaged Burma in a hopeless quest to find their missing son in Fabrice Du Welz’s trippy second feature Vinyan. As insistently disorienting as The Ordeal, Du Welz’s debut, the film takes a headlong dive into the heart of darkness, using risible but effective orientalism to create a moody and anxiety-ridden feel.

These expatriate parents’ quest, which begins with the glimpse of an indiscernible image in a video, only grows more desperate as it proceeds. It quickly becomes apparent that the guides they’ve hired are out to swindle them, and as they delve deeper into the rain forests of the region, it becomes increasingly possible that they’re hopelessly lost. Even before they head out into the wilderness, Du Welz throws garish dream sequences on screen. As the situation becomes more dire, and the psychological toll the search is taking increases, the movie becomes only more chaotic.

Throughout Vinyan, as in any good horror film, the threat of the other looms large. Thanks to committed performances by Beart and Sewell, though, it becomes obvious that the relationship their characters share might never be the same again, regardless of their son’s fate. The unspoken tensions that exist between the two seem to manifest themselves in the phantasmagoric rain forest that they descend into. While some might object to Vinyan’s portrait of the region as a place where madness becomes an asset in the quest for survival, there’s no doubt that in both generic and human terms Du Welz does a superb job of crafting menace.

Rating: 59/100

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Dioses (Josue Mendez, 2008)

There’s not really anything that we haven’t seen before in Josue Mendez’s class-based drama Dioses, but that scarcely hobbles the film. While this may not qualify as trenchant satire and may stack the deck against its wealthier characters, it is sure enough of its tone that one can ignore those facts. Focusing on one rich Peruvian family’s dysfunctions, Dioses presents their lives as a hollow series of meaningless parties and sexual dalliances.

Four characters sit at the center of the film. Twenty-one year old Andrea lives the life of a socialite, at least until she discovers she’s pregnant. College-ready Diego is pressured by his dad to enter the family business, but is more focused on lusting after his sister. Prospective stepmother Elisa is desperate, both to hide her working-class roots and to indoctrinate herself in a group of vapid trophy wives. Presiding over the clan is papa Antonio, whose defining characteristic is his blindness to his family’s dissatisfaction.

The film manages to make this stereotypical collection of characters engaging, however. Filmed in a glossy style, Dioses certainly makes the appeal of the lives of Lima’s social elite clear. To provide a point of contrast, director Mendez always keeps the hired help of the family on the periphery, outlining a surprisingly nuanced dynamic between the two groups over the course of the film. It’s to Mendez’s credit that the film resists escalating into the violence that always seems to lurk as a threat in the air. The conclusion he provides instead is both more depressing and probably more realistic.

Rating: 52/100

Zift (Javor Gardev, 2008)

Debut director Javor Gardev delivers a stylish but empty Bulgarian noir with the perhaps too-appropriately titled Zift. Taking its name from a slang term for the word “shit”, the film initially gives one hope with its black-and-white scope cinematography. Such faith is soon squandered, however, as Gardev fails to provide much else of interest. Part of the problem here is the heavy reliance upon voiceover narration. It is so prominent that it, when combined with an overcomplicated flashback structure, drains any sense of urgency from the film. As the movie stumbles inevitably toward its conclusion, it recalls any number of classic film noir set pieces, but fails to create any gripping personality of its own. The noir genre, perhaps more than any other, is dependent upon the presence of entertaining character actors in supporting roles. Pleasure in these films usually comes from being able to brush up against shady types we’d never meet in our daily life. The cast of Zift is a disappointingly generic series of Cold War-era archetypes. No one is able to enliven the film enough that we can shake off the narrator’s disaffected tone. If nothing else, Zift provides a lesson to those willing to tackle the genre: a double-cross won’t sting if we never cared in the first place.

Rating: 27/100

Day 3 Grades

Zift (Javor Gardev, 2008) 27
Dioses (Josue Mendez, 2008) 52
Vinyan (Fabrice Du Welz, 2008) 59
Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist (Peter Sollett, 2008) 36
Pontypool (Bruce McDonald, 2008) 55
Deadgirl (Marcel Sarmiento / Gadi Harel) 57

Detroit Metal City (Toshio Lee, 2008)

A preppy young boy leaves behind his idyllic small town to pursue a career as a bubblegum pop idol, only to somehow wind up as the frontman of an aggressive death metal band in Toshio Lee’s frequently hilarious Detroit Metal City. Adapted with reckless abandon from a popular Japanese magna, this movie is anchored by a game performance from the rubber-faced Ken'ichi Matsuyama. Playing the dual role of trendy pop wannabe Negishi and kabuki gone mad Krauser, his exaggerated body language and equal comfort in either role turn this into a mistaken identity comedy par excellence.

Not since This Is Spinal Tap has the absurd world of heavy metal music been so successfully mined for laughs. Director Lee exaggerates everything, which not only captures the spirit of the original cartoon, but also allows for narrative lapses (such as how Negishi actually got cast in this ridiculous role) to matter little. Featuring numerous comedic music performances with absurdly aggressive lyrics (e.g. “I’m a terrorist from hell / I raped my mom last night. / I’ll do my dad tomorrow!”) and four or five episodic narrative arcs, the film runs a bit long, but the laughs come frequently enough that it seems churlish to complain. I remember seeing a headline in Variety a week or two ago stating that a film based on the video game Guitar Hero has been planned. Such a movie would be hard-pressed to top the appeal that this film would have for fans of heavy rock.

Rating: 66/100