Faust (Alexander Sokoruv)
Beginning with a graphic vivisection, Sokoruv’s Faust initially suggests a radical shakeup of Goethe’s text. It really isn’t one. The script here modifies the details of the original plot (indeed, the pact with the Devil is only signed in the final reel), but its spirit is true to Goethe’s play. Faust and the Devil travel about a German town and the surrounding areas (the scope here is smaller than the play or the Murnau adaptation), discussing the human condition. It’s engaging enough from moment to moment, and the central plot involving Faust’s romantic/guilty feelings toward a girl in the town is well-executed, but I was a bit too tired to get a firm appreciation of the picture as a whole. Stylistically, we seem to be in Terry Gilliam’s territory as much as Sokoruv’s. Fisheye lenses and other visual distortions abound, and the performance style seems as likely to irritate as draw empathy at any given moment. Various gross-outs, such as a dying homunculus or the Devil’s grotesque, seemingly cancerous body help to keep interest from flagging.
Your Sister’s Sister (Lynn Shelton)
This confirms that my previous walkout of Shelton’s Humpday was the right call. She’s an incredibly inept director, barely elevating this “script” to the realm of bad theater, despite the fact that it asks next to nothing of her. The cast, each of them terrible in their own ways, struggle through awkward, overextended improv sessions, hoping to give some sort of energy to a plot that deserves no respect whatsoever (a man with a crush on an unattainable girl sleeps with her lesbian sister, only to discover than she’s loved him all along). There are too many clumsy establishing shots, a supremely embarrassing montage near the end, and an absurdly pat resolution to the idiotic premise. Certainly proof that extremely talky movies need not be extremely smart or clever.
As hopelessly self-absorbed as one would expect a movie directed by Madonna to be. Still, this is a competently, if conventionally made romantic drama with some real flashes of wit (e.g. She says, “You certainly know the way to a woman’s heart.” He replies, “I wasn’t aiming that high.”). Two plotlines are juxtaposed here, usually with clanking obviousness. The first details the trouble marriages of Wallis Simpson (Andrea Riseborough), including her “fairy tale” romance with Prince Edward. The second, set in 1998, sees a woman named after her (Abbie Cornish) gain some degree of self-sufficiency through spending her husband’s money at an auction of Wallis’ estate. The fundamental premise here is so privileged that the script’s pleas to look at what was given up for fame and love seem destined to fall on deaf ears. Still, I found this glossy, enjoyable, and surprisingly unembarrassed by its melodrama. I’m sure to be in the minority, but I’d take this over The King’s Speech and its portrayal of monarch-as-underdog any day.
The Kid With a Bike (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne)
This seems to be, like many (if not all) Dardenne movies, a parable about forgiveness and unconditional love. In it, a troubled child finds himself systematically abandoned by adults, with the exception of a veritable stranger with no obligation to him. Her acts of kindness and capacity for forgiveness seem to approximate a state of grace here, and the suspense in this film seems to come from whether or not the boy whom she loves will recognize this miracle when faced with it. While I felt that this overtly Bressonian plotline was somewhat tidy, the details that comprise it are frequently striking. There are many heartbreaking scenes here, such as those involving the boy’s father (Jeremie Renier, very well cast) and the bravura tracking shots which show the boy racing somewhere… anywhere on the titular bike. The confrontations between characters here are especially well done, achieving a raw ferocity rarely seen outside of Pialat. Simple, but rather certain of what it is setting out to accomplish, which makes it feel like a breath of fresh air.
ALPS (Yorgos Lanthimos)
ALPS, in which a group of people offer to stand in for recently deceased family members, is so much in the vein of Dogtooth that one wonders if Lanthimos is already running out of tricks. One could assemble a checklist of similarities between Dogtooth and ALPS (e.g. pop-culture non-sequitirs, awkward, overly precise dialogue, a plot involving a secret outside culture’s brush with a “normal” world that is only slightly less outré, rehearsals that seem to eradicate personal identity, etc…) and when finished with the exercise, it would be very difficult to see what makes ALPS distinctive, indeed. Is this just a cynical bid for auteur status, or do these motifs have more to offer? For most viewers, it seems that getting more of the same has been somewhat disappointing. Dogtooth struck the international film community as the product of a unique voice, but at the same time there’s not much else like ALPS, outside of its predecessor (and Attenberg, I suppose). Trying to appraise this on its own terms, one suspects it’s trying to say something about the codedness of human interactions and our intense desire for familiarity. Lanthimos’ tricks still work, but this is generally a calmer, more sedate film than Dogtooth, which means its impact is reduced as well.
The Moth Diairies (Mary Harron)
Like a teen drama that crawled off of the WB network, Mary Harron’s mostly inoffensive lesbian vampire tale is never as salacious as you want it to be. Indeed, things are so calm here at times that the overall vibe is closer to a Harry Potter movie than anything. In this movie, girls creep around a boarding school, suspecting that the latest addition to their roster might be a vampire. By midway through the film the mystery has its answer, and there’s little left for the viewer to do. Frequent invocations of Le Fanu’s Carmilla only underscore how unoriginal this is. One hopes that some interesting subtext will emerge here, but given the extreme frankness of the film in dealing with lesbianism, there’s really nothing left for the vampire myth to disguise.
Sleepless Night (Frederic Jardin)
A straightforward police thriller with a focused plotline and an inspired locale, Sleepless Night stands out from most Midnight Madness selections. The plot, involving a police officer who is trying to rescues his son from drug dealers, doesn’t get in the way of the action, or slow down the film past the first fifteen minutes. Instead of a series of outrageous set pieces, Jardin delivers a consistently exciting tone here, with tension about the officer’s success riding high throughout. This cop is no superhuman with crazy kung-fu at his disposal, which actually raises suspense levels. The bulk of the film is set inside “Le Tarmac,” a sprawling nightclub. It’s a wonderful decision that helps to erase the sense of contrivance inherent in most action films. Worth seeking out.