Outside the Law (Rachid Bouchareb)
A polished historical epic about an Algerian family’s struggle against French oppression, Outside the Law ranges from 1945 to 1962. Covering such a large span of time, things are bound to get lost, even with a 140 minute run time. Unfortunately, what remains most obscured here is how these immigrants developed a political conscience that saw terrorist action as the most effective path to liberation. One or two brief conversations shown in a prison setting do not comprise an ethos. It’s difficult to separate the Algerian identity from the immigrant experience from the political sensibility here, which is somewhat damning, given that the film’s main goal seems to be to provide access to a terrorist’s mindset. Its inability to be revelatory might be more forgivable were it not so glossy or self-serious. There are moments of irony scattered about (e.g. “See You Later, Alligator” plays on a radio as a man is killed), but never a moment of levity. Still, there are things to admire here. The gritty picture of shantytown life and the community’s sliding ethical standards is compelling, and an early scene showing the mass slaughter of Algerian protestors and innocents sparks genuine outrage.
127 Hours (Danny Boyle)
Danny Boyle delivers real-life drama, as thrillseeker Aron Ralston gets trapped under a rock and cuts off his own hand to escape. Boyle doesn’t try to make this scenario scary or tragic so much as ironic and relateable, which is a choice that feels questionable. The film’s focus on the sensual dominates, and it lends the ordeal a visceral, sometimes unbearable feel. Some edits, like that from an ant crawling on Aron to a memory of his girlfriend stroking his chest, show real inspiration. Other moments, like one in which Aron takes pleasure basking in the fifteen minutes of sunlight granted by his situation each day, universalize the action. Throughout it all, there’s some gallows humor (e.g. a urine Slurpee) to temper the dread, but that only goes so far. When Aron finally cuts off his arm, the moment is gruesome and painful, to Boyle’s credit. There’s not much going on here, really. The film seems designed as a showcase for the director. Franco makes little impression, given his screen time. Boyle’s visuals are inventive, but inconsistently so. It’s clever to show a change in temperature by focusing on the condensation in a water bottle, but considerably less so to place a temperature gauge on screen. Whenever the high concept gives way to a character study, things weaken considerably into a series of corny flashbacks and flights of quasi-spiritual significance.
Home for Christmas (Bent Hamer)
There are several stories here, all arranged around a Yuletide theme, but none of them step outside of a very predictable, professional course of action. The performances are all fine, and Hamer resists sentimentality as often as he indulges in it, so the film is not nearly as mawkish as it might have been. Still, this feels inescapably like product. Beyond its mysterious opening sequence, in which a Christmas celebration gives way to sniper fire, it’s forgettable, watchable fare in every way.
Nostalgia for the Light (Patricio Guzman)
A poetic meditation on remembering and the inability to forget, this documentary from Patricio Guzman examines links between astrology, archaeology, and political memory. Chile, and particularly its Atacama Desert, provides the unique backdrop. Its humidity-free climate makes it an ideal location for both star-watchers and historians. Throughout the film, Guzman interviews those who work there, finding common ground in their relationship to the past. The delayed images of the stars and the buried record of historical past provide equal points of obsession for the people of a country that actively denies its troubled recent past. That immobilization, triggered by the Pinochet coup d’état, has created a wound culture (as Guzman has observed in his other movies), and his work probes that wound, resulting in several heartbreaking, soul-searching interviews. Throughout, we are reminded of the true scale of history, with Guzman shifting effortlessly between macro and micro scales, broadening meaning in all of his chosen topics at once. A cloud of dust particles reminds us of the swirling cosmos. The calcium in the stars reminds us of the bones of Chile's Disappeared.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog)
Granted unprecedented, exclusive access to the world’s oldest cave paintings (discovered in 1994), Herzog offers truly remarkable raw footage in a film that feels compromised by the limitations of its production. The strict limits on the access that Herzog was given to explore the caves means that we’re doing anything but venturing into uncharted territory here. It’s understandable given the precious nature of the caves, but it means that we are watching a guided tour from a filmmaker known for blazing his own trails. In typical Herzog fashion, a few of the talking heads (generally there to help contextualize the paintings) exhibit quirky personalities. A 3D effect is used to help the audience to get a sense of the contours of the cave surfaces. The best moment comes when it is revealed that several of the drawings were designed to simulate motion, almost as a prototypical cinema, as torchlight moves across them. The content here is indispensible, the film as a whole, merely adequate.
John Carpenter’s The Ward (John Carpenter)
A group of girls in an insane asylum are stalked by the ghost of one of their former peers in this tepid and uninspired horror film from John Carpenter. Seeming like a work from hire from this usually distinctive director, The Ward lacks much of the compositional strength that distinguishes his usual output. There are a few mild scares to be had, but they seem like a weak payoff for a film that is not well-acted enough to function as the psychological thriller that it wants to be. Had this been a direct-to-video work from an anonymous source, it would have felt mediocre, but passable. Coming from Carpenter, who hasn’t made a feature film since the underrated Ghosts of Mars, it’s cause for alarm.