31 December 2010

Stone

Directed by: John Curran
Written by: Angus MacLachlan
Full credits at IMDb

The cynical Stone is set-up like those neo-noirs John Dahl used to make in the 90s, except it’s stripped of any and all urgency. It does, though, retain the high-minded pretension toward something more meaningful that you’d get from, say, The Last Seduction. In this case, it’s an exploration of sin—its roots and its costs, themes underlined by the frequent snippets of religious talk radio smeared on the soundtrack. AM chatter is one of the pleasures enjoyed by Robert DeNiro’s parole officer; another is illicit intercourse, which he gets from an affair he reluctantly enters with the sexpot wife (Milla Jovovich, in the panty-less, Linda Fiorentino femme fatale role) of one of his cases (Edward Norton).

Unfortunately, there’s not much pleasure for the audience in any of that—just a vague sense of familiarity. And then there's Norton’s “profoundly spiritual” nervous breakdown, which has more campy charm than sympathetic poignancy (though because of the way Curran lets it play out, laughter feels like the incorrect reaction). As Anthony Cohan-Miccio put it in The L, "Stone is as hard to take seriously as it is to enjoy."

Keep reading at The L Magazine


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29 December 2010

Red Riding: 1974

Directed by: Julian Jarrold
Written by: Tony Grisoni
Full credits at IMDb

As an archetype, the private detective is a relic—even for stories set in the early '70s. The closest we come in this age is The Investigative Journalist, which is why, in Red Riding: 1974, it's the scruffy cub reporter (Andrew Garfield) for The Yorkshire Post who takes the Marlowe-grade beatings and torturings from crooked cops when he gets Too Close To The Truth.

Director Jarrold frequently shoots his Zodiac-reminiscent installment, the first of three parts that form a miniseries, as though through a honeycream filter, capturing Garfield as he digs into a string of missing girls, comes up against regionalist obstructions, and uncovers local corruption involving a developer—and pillar of the community! If that reminds you of, say, Dale Cooper, Laura Palmer and Ben Horne, it's because the mystery in 1974 is of the familiarly structured sort...

Keep reading at The L Magazine


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Blue Valentine

Directed by: Derek Cianfrance
Written by: Derek Cianfrance, Joey Curtis & Cami Delavigne
Full credits at IMDb

I've been struggling for roughly 48 hours over whether or not I should say this out loud, whether or not I'll calm down with the passage of time. But in the days since [I] saw Blue Valentine my enthusiasm hasn't waned: I'm as riveted watching Ryan Gosling act as I am watching Brando in movies from the 50s! I'm not kidding! If you had asked me last week to make a list of the best acted American movies of all time, it would have been a bunch of Elia Kazan films; if you asked me today, Blue Valentine might have knocked Baby Doll off the list. For real!

So, the disappointment—and there's always a "but" during Prestige Pic season, ain't there?—is that he and Michelle Williams are so darn good in a movie that's not nearly at their level.

Keep reading my discussion with Benjamin Sutton at The L Magazine


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Dogtooth

Directed by: Giorgos Lanthimos
Written by: Efthymis Filippou & Giorgos Lanthimos
Full credits at IMDb

What if someone rewrote The Village so that instead of terrible, it was engaging, challenging, maybe a little mysterious? In Dogtooth (Kynodontas), three semiologically scrambled children have been raised in a fortified, isolated house where they're taught that "telephone" means salt shaker and "sea" means arm chair. They exercise, re-watch home videos of themselves, and test each other's endurance (e.g., how long can you keep your finger under boiling water?). And the boy, at least, has mechanical intercourse with an outsider, a prostitute, brought in by their mad industrialist father.

You've heard of the Choose Your Own Adventure books? This is Choose Your Own Allegory. Its ground-level widescreen rarely looks up, and often chops heads out of the frame. It's like a poker-faced aesthetic—looking straight ahead, without expression—but the abstruseness begs to be given shape.

Keep reading at The L Magazine


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23 December 2010

Essay: Why is Every Novel-to-Movie Adaptation Terrible?

Never Let Me Go is a really bad movie: not just for its lazy dependence on cliches—gray uniforms + English countryside = unsettling—but because of its blind fealty to its source material. And, this comes from someone who hasn't even read the Kazuo Ishiguro novel on which the film is based! Yet even I can sense that the filmmakers are like storytelling dogs, obedient to their source-novel master.

From what I've heard, there are differences between the two, particularly in the way director Mark Romanek is upfront about the tragic scifi story, in which clones-in-love are harvested for organs, in spots where Ishiguro is more withholding. But those differences are surely slight. At the movie's two-thirds point, Kiera Knightley apologizes to her friends, played by Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield, for keeping those two lovebirds apart for so long. I was surprised to learn they were even in love. I mean, I got that Mulligan had some sort of crush. But the film's impact hinges upon the epicness of this love, and yet doesn't even take the time to establish it, really. Screenwriter Alex Garland, usually Danny Boyle's collaborator, conspicuously follows Ishiguro's plotting to a fault, to the point that the filmmakers are dutifully moving through a narrative, diagrammatically hitting plot-point touchstones without stopping to consider if anything needs to be developed deeper—if, perhaps, the superficialities don't suffice. As if, there's no time! Ishiguro told a certain story, and its bare shell must be retained at all costs!

Last year, Peter Jackson's adaptation of The Lovely Bones had a similar feel, as did Robert Schwentke's The Time Traveler's Wife. (Both had copious other problems, as well.) Submission to source material has become endemic in our film culture; almost every novel-to-screen adaptation these days suffers from it.

Keep reading at The L Magazine

Inspector Bellamy

Directed by: Claude Chabrol
Written by: Odile Barski & Claude Chabrol

You could almost call this movie Inspector Nick Charles: though it's peppered with minor profundities, it's an airy trifle—a warmly written and acted jumble of character studies. Claude Chabrol reportedly wrote this engaging, popular-appeal potboiler for star Gerard Depardieu who, now thick with age (and a nose like Karl Malden, mon dieu!!), plays a famous-but-retired police detective pulled into a Chandler-esque mystery, filled in with fleshed-out characters—as per usual with Chabrol, the story is far less important than the people in it. (The story includes a lot of fraternal bickering, sibling rivalry with a no-good brother who, in the film's best joke, arrives in the middle of the night with ominous Tchaikovsky music blaring...from the taxi! "Could you turn that down please?")

Keep reading at The L Magazine


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Somewhere

Written & Directed by: Sofia Coppola
Full credits at IMDb

I've never been much of a Little Sofia fan, and always saw her as more of an inward-glancer than a director with an expansive eye. But whatever; I was actually a bit surprised that I kinda, sorta enjoyed Somewhere, mostly for...its Jarmusch-ian pace. I think it's 15 minutes before we hear any meaningful dialogue; before that, a car speeds laps, blondes pole-dance, patrons gawk, and many cigarettes are smoked. But no one says anything more important than "here's your check, sir". I admire the movie's patience, and I doubt any movie shot by Harris Savides could be anything less than fucking beautiful. What's so disappointing about Somewhere is that its beauty is to no end. I don't think I've ever taken fewer notes during a movie; near the end, I just started writing down anything, like basic plot synopses, just so I'd be sure to have something to [write] about. Is there anything more to this movie than its portrait of The Drudgery of Stardom? Gosh—is it true that movie stars don't have it all?

Keep reading my discussion with Benjamin Sutton at The L Magazine


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Frozen

Written & Directed by: Adam Green
Full credits at IMDb

For us to sympathize with their terror and eventual slaughter, horror movie protagonists have to feel realistic. But, realistic for whom? There's a fine line between sympathetic, identifiable, and odious. For those who complained about the schmucks fronting Cloverfield—who, for me, were likable, at least, by virtue of their recognizability—man, oh man: wait until you see Frozen's trio of entitled, whiter-than-white douchebags: selfish, whiny and mean skiers, fer Chrissakes, donning that ultimate signifier of Caucasoid privilege. They get trapped on a T-bar at night, after everyone of the hill has gone home for a long weekend. Whose fears does this set-up tap into but well-off WASPs?

Writer-director Green is better known for his Hatchet dyad and its gore-schlock pastiche. But there are no deformed rednecks seeking revenge here (though frequent Jason-Voorhees-portrayer Kane Hodder pops up in a small part): Green seems after something more classical, more rooted in suspense and suggestion...at least until one of the characters jumps out of the chair.

Keep reading at The L Magazine


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17 December 2010

Rabbit Hole

Directed by: John Cameron Mitchell
Written by: David Lindsay-Abaire
Full credits at IMDb

These are some mutherfuckin' white people! I mean, like, the super-domesticated, bourgeois-extreme Westchester types: she gardens, he plays squash, she uses verbs like "accost." Most of all, though—like classic whiteys—they don't care about anyone or anything but themselves. And, unfortunately, neither does Rabbit Hole.

Really, this is some kind of porn for tragedy fetishists, a voyeuristic window unto grief...I can't imagine how horrible it would be to lose a small child, but I think that's a big part of this movie's problem. Rabbit Hole acknowledges that outsiders feel uncomfortable around a couple steeped in such loss, but doesn't seem to realize it puts the audience at that kind of remove, too. Like some of the couple's friends, I don't really want to spend time with them. It's awkward because I can't even pretend to relate. All I can do is gawk like an asshole. And I'd rather not!

Keep reading my conversation with Benjamin Sutton at The L Magazine


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16 December 2010

All Good Things

Directed by: Andrew Jarecki
Written by: Marcus Hinchey and Marc Smerling
Full credits at IMDb

All Good Things boasts something more alluring than its heavy-hitter cast (including not just Ryan Gosling and Frank Langella but also Philip Baker Hall!): it also packs the lurid appeal of its true-crime subject matter—already fodder for a Law & Order episode—in which the names have been changed so screenwriters Marcus Hinchey and Marc Smerling can be as speculative and trashy as they wanna be. In real life, Robert Durst was investigated for the disappearance of his wife; in All Good Things, "David Marks" murders his wife (Kirsten Dunst). After killing the dog. It's left to the viewer to decide which was worse.

For director Andrew Jarecki, who made his name with Capturing the Friedmans, this is yet another story of privileged white people with dark sides. Gosling plays the scion of a real estate baron (Langella, imperious), a member of the family that has owned half of Times Square since it was farmland—Old Money that sips cocktails with the Moynihans and tells Abe Beame what to do.

Keep reading at The L Magazine


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Tiny Furniture

Written & Directed by: Lena Dunham
Full credits at IMDb

Dunham’s promising debut hints at Mumblecore, what with its post-college malaise and its supporting role for Alex Karpovsky. But its visual style is far finer, its ornate, psychologically evocative set designs captured (by Jody Lee Lipes) on a tripod in Gordon Willis-like widescreen: book-lined walls in an apartment so modernly designed, so alienatingly white it feels like a spaceship. It’s no accident that Karpovsky’s character reads a Woody Allen hardcover before turning in.

What other movies does Tiny Furniture recall? Perhaps, most glaringly, Aazel Jacobs’ Momma’s Man, not only for its downtown setting and its child returning to the nest, but because Dunham cuts costs, as Jacobs did, by casting her real mother (Laurie Simmons) as “her mother” and her real sister (Grace Dunham) as “her sister,” and by using their real apartment as the film’s “apartment”.

Keep reading at The L Magazine


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The Fighter

Directed by: David O. Russell
Written by: Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy & Eric Johnson
Full credits at IMDb

This movie’s as hooked on clichés as [Christian] Bale’s character is on crack, and yet a lot of it—at least half of it—kind of works, thanks to Russell’s direction. You can see some meta-parallels that might have attracted him to the project: like Bale’s character, he showed some promise as a kid, but now seems past his prime. (I actually like, if not love, Huckabees, but I don’t think I’m in the majority there.) Like [Mark] Wahlberg’s, he’s been counted-out by copious haters, but this movie marks his revalidation, his relegitimizing, his comeback. (Curiously, this movie is Wahlberg’s pet project, but he took the flattest character of the lot—the dramatic catalyst.)

Bale has his own striking parallel to his character: did you see Terminator: Salvation? That performance was pathetic—pure, but unintentional, self-parody, worse than the Batmans. But this movie offers him some kind of redemption. Sure, it’s an Oscar-crazy, bug-eyed, scenery chewing kind of performance. But it’s solid and, best of all, fits in neatly with the performances around it.

Keep reading my conversation with Benjamin Sutton at The L Magazine


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09 December 2010

And Everything is Going Fine

Directed by: Steven Soderbergh

Chronicling the life of Spalding Gray as told by Spalding Gray, And Everything is Going Fine is about Spalding Gray. But it's also about stories—namely, the ones we make up about ourselves. From 120 hours of interviews and performance footage, Steven Soderbergh, who directed one of Gray's monologue-movies in the 90s, fashions one last master monologue, 90 minutes of clear biographical narrative—no small feat!—from Gray's New England childhood to the creation of his classic monologues and his late life as a reluctant family man.

Gray was a fine actor, but his raison d'etre was his unique talent for converting life into theater—for forging a sort of public psychoanalysis, narcissism indulged from a knowing distance. (He called it "poetic journalism.")

Keep reading at The L Magazine


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Sweetgrass

Directed by: Ilisa Barbash & Lucien Castaing-Taylor
Full credits at IMDb

Sweetgrass purely documents: without music, talking heads or bottom-thirds, it chronicles an old-fashioned sheep-drive through the mountains of Montana in 2003—the last time such shepherding would occur. This movie’s not so much about the sheep, though, which are often shot like Riefenstahlian crowds. It’s about the cowboys—er, sheepboys?—who move them. An unsentimental elegy for a classically American way of life emerges: a rugged, Western way of life, populated by irascible, vulgar-mouthed good ol' boys whose heads are surely as thick as the calluses on their hands. One even dresses like the Marlboro Man.

Keep reading at The L Magazine


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03 December 2010

Black Swan

Directed by: Darren Aronofsky
Written by: Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz & John McLaughlin

On its surface, Black Swan depicts the burdens of ballet (some might argue the clichés?): the competitiveness, the sexual aggression, the controlling stage moms, the infantilized adults. But Aronofsky seems more interested in female performers in general, fashioning a kind of dude-feminist critique of an industry that demands impossible perfection of women—of their bodies, of their talents—to the point that it drives them to suicide after it makes them crazy: thus, the way reality slowly slips away from Portman, her hallucinations of a deteriorating body. It also gives the movie a metacinematic dimension: is Black Swan also about how Winona Ryder’s career got stolen from her? Or Barbara Hershey’s, for that matter?

Keep reading my conversation with Benjamin Sutton at The L Magazine


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NY Export: Opus Jazz

Directed by: Henry Joost and Jody Lee Lipes
Full credits at IMDb

West Side Story looms large over NY Export: Opus Jazz, a Jerome Robbins ballet choreographed the year after Story opened on Broadway. It’s set to a cool jazz score (by Robert Prince), and features young New Yorkers snapping their fingers and fluttering their palms above their heads. They even dance in a gym. But this 45-minute film adaptation is like that iconic film purified: stripped of stars, soundstages and singing, and returned to awesome basics—the city and the dance.

NY Export: Opus Jazz recaptures the raw, exhilarating energy Robert Wise got out of Story’s opening scene and extends it into a self-contained story of its own. It juxtaposes the fantastical and the real: ballet, on the streets of New York. (Not unlike U-Carmen’s opera in a South African shantytown.)

Keep reading at The L Magazine


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01 December 2010

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale

Written & Directed by: Jalmari Talmander
Full credits at IMDb

Growing up means putting away childish things—or, killing them, as in Rare Exports. In this Finnish coming-of-age Christmas escapade, a group of guys must save The Holidays by blowing up Santa Claus. Wait, really? Well, they have good reason: this is not your Coca-Cola Kringle, but rather a Father Christmas who boils naughty children in his cauldron and feeds on Blitzen's carcass. Wait, seriously? Yeah, it's more Silent Night, Deadly Night than Miracle on 34th Street—more Black Christmas than Crosby-crooned White—though writer-director Helander borrows the mold cast by the child-friendly and -focused adventures Dante and Donner made under Spielberg's banner in the 80s.

Keep reading at The L Magazine


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The American

Directed by: Anton Corbijn
Written by: Rowan Joffe

Like Michael Clayton, The American is another one of those George Clooney movies for grown-ups, in which character, backstory and plot aren’t simply handed out—you have to work for them. Just not very hard. Clooney, of course, plays a disaffected, world-weary expatriate; sad, suave and gravelly voiced, he’s pitched somewhere between anti-hero and hero. (Clooney used to be his generation’s Cary Grant. Now he’s going for its Bogart.) He reads books about butterflies in his spare time, and the strangers he meets during his exile in an Italian backwater take to calling him Mr. Butterfly. Is he a hit man? An arms dealer? A super spy? Or just a gracefully aged hunk?

Keep reading at The L Magazine


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24 November 2010

Heartless

Written & Directed by: Philip Ridley
Full credits at IMDb

It’s not that the world has gone to hell in Heartless—it’s that Hell has gone to the world! What if, wonders this grungy, trippy, thoughtful moral-horror-fable, those nihilistic East London delinquents that Harry Brown preferred to plug were actually agents of Satan? Jamie (Jim Sturgess) is the first person to discover this demonic conspiracy, because he kinda bridges the divide between humans and supernatural evil. He’s Two Face, with a huge heart-shaped birthmark over his eye, a sort of perpetual shiner that makes him look like Harvey Dent after the acid. Not unlike many a misguided gangbanger, he lacks a father, and so falls under the corrupting influence of a figure who’ll fill that hole; the character is even called "Papa"! And Papa B (Joseph Mawle) offers to remove that disfiguring birthmark with magic—and thus, to Jamie’s mind, to give him a chance of finding panacean love—if Jamie will add some chaos to the world: like, graffiti? Or maybe just some gruesome murders?

Keep reading at The L Magazine


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10 November 2010

Triangle

Written & Directed by: Christopher Smith
Full credits at IMDb

Triangle is a time travel movie without a time machine—its repetitious chronoloops are set into motion instead by some unseen, punitive cosmic-force. Melissa George stars as Jess, a single mother with an autistic son, who goes sailing with acquaintances and strangers; before the daytrip’s machinations and romantic jealousies can erupt into drama, the wind cuts out and an epic electrical storm rolls in. Even worse, time begins to unfold, with dreams and radio transmissions providing glimpses of a distressed future. Oh, and then, an abandoned, out-of-joint oceanliner—yes, your classic ghost ship—emerges from the fog to rescue them. Or, to prove their undoing: this floating Overlook Hotel’s eerily emptied corridors, its decked-out dining hall without banqueters, will become the setting for most of their deaths.

Triangle slips into a slasher formula governed by an oneiric logic, in which The Last Girl Standing is being hunted by herself. Jess is tasked—or rather, Future Jess assigns Past Jess—to kill herself and her friends in an attempt to break out of the loop. Instead, it proves rather Sisyphean: after they’re all dead, time resets and a fresh batch arrives. And there are morbid, horrifying signs that this loop has already played out dozens of times. Writer-director Smith crafts unbearably tense murder-mystery madness, a narrative tour-de-force that borrows conspicuously from Timecrimes and becomes a kind of Groundhog Day…of Terror! But, beyond its dashing narrative success (which I suspect might be less impressive on repeated viewings), Triangle tackles tricky themes. The time-loop is initiated by a terrible act of violence. But it’s not just that cruelty that proves so detestable—it’s the nauseating futility of trying to atone for violence with more of it. That’s a message all of us warmongering Westerners, Brit and American alike, could still stand to hear. Grade: A-


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Poetry

Written & Directed by: Lee Chang-dong
Full credits at IMDb

Poetry (Shi), Lee Chang-dong’s attempt to reconcile the awful with the awesome, explores the origins of beauty and searches for the poetry in a culture so ostensibly devoid of it. The movie finds the mundane and the monstrous living side-by-side everywhere it looks—even sharing the same apartment—and then asks, how do we make peace between the simple, natural beauty of apples and trees and the terrible violence humans inflict upon other humans?

Yoon Jeong-hee, South Korea’s Meryl Streep, gives an epic starring-performance as a grandmother with custody of her grandson, a woman on the cusp of dementia who makes a living by caring for a stroke victim. She seems subsumed with a deep, pervasive sadness that she tries to get out in a poetry class. (“I do like flowers and say odd things” she offers as proof of her “poetic vein”.) But it only gets worse when she discovers her grandson was involved in repeated gang rapes that drove a classmate to suicide. Yes, that boy steeped in banal boyhood signifiers—junk food, dumb television—is a monster; his benign-seeming schoolyard chums are his co-conspirators in a program of systematized sexual assault.

And yet Poetry acknowledges there is still beauty to be found all around: sunny, island fishing-idylls, before the dead body washes in; architecturally staggering churches, before the funeral mass; riverside quiet, before the rainstorm. “Even the suffering is beautiful,” one character says. Lee, a poet of images according to the terms he has set—he is a director who sees the world, really sees it—dramatizes beautifully how maybe it’s from this conflict that “poetry” arises: beauty from ugliness, truth from chaos. Grade: A


Watch the (cheesy, unsubtitled) trailer:

Paranormal Activity 2

Directed by: Tod Williams
Written by: Michael R. Perry, Christopher B. Landon & Tom Pabst

Paranormal Activity 2 is a lot like Poltergeist, except it’s bad. Like that 1982 ghostie, this newest installment of a fledgling franchise explores the origins of American prosperity, and shares a fear of middle-class signifiers: here, toys that come to life and, in its best moment, possessed cabinets. But the movie of which we’re most reminded, of course, is the franchise founder. And this movie’s failures just illuminate the triumphs of the first. Paranormal Activity père succeeded by virtue of its minimalism, exploiting in tandem its expert one-upmanship pacing and the tyranny of the long take: the audience was imprisoned in the unedited shot, with the gripping guarantee that whatever scare director Oren Peli had in store of them would be creepier than the last. Like any well-behaved horror sequel, this part-two has more—more characters, more cameras—because new director Tod Williams doesn't understand that the aesthetic only works with less.

Keep reading at The L Magazine


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03 November 2010

The Loved Ones

Written & Directed by: Sean Byrne
Full credits at IMDb

Hell hath no fury, indeed! In [Aussie gorefest] The Loved Ones...a rejected ugly-duckling doesn’t get her revenge by taking off her glasses, letting her hair down and proving beautiful (a la She’s All That, or countless sitcom episodes). She gets it by going psychokidnapper, sending her father, who wouldn’t be too out of place amid the Texas Chainsaw Massacre clan, to abduct her uninterested love interest on the night of the big dance and bring him home for a prom of their own.

As father and daughter, John Brumpton and Robin McLeavy are skin-crawling in their sociopathic glee, slathering in incestuous undertones their roles as baby-talking milk-chuggers who’ll drive a knife through your foot, slam a nail through your dick, or scrape a fork across your chest—and then chuck salt in the fresh wounds...

Keep reading at The L Magazine


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29 October 2010

Monsters

Written & Directed by: Gareth Edwards
Full credits at IMDb

Basically, Monsters is a remake of It Happened One Night—if instead of Depression-era America Clark Gable had had to traverse King Kong's Skull Island. And Frank Capra had been a moron. Like Gable, Scoot McNairy plays a journalist escorting a wealthy brat (Whitney Able) with an overbearing father across the country. Except here, that country is Mexico, and it's been infested with killer aliens.


Yes, the border region between the U.S. and its southern neighbor has become the "infected zone," overrun with cephalopod-like creatures after a UFO crash-landed, contaminating the landscape with, literally, "bad seeds". It's an almost-irresistible gimmick: an ambling, opposites-attract romance set against a science-fiction backdrop—Before Sunrise confined within the electric fences of Jurassic Park. But...

Keep reading at The L Magazine


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Amer

Written & Directed by: Hélène Cattet & Bruno Forzani
Full credits at IMDb

The intoxicated, sexually anxious, almost speechless Amer is pure atmosphere: it rips fear and desire from a narrative context, dropping them instead within the abstraction of hyper-subjectivity. Here, the strange twangs of comb-teeth impart more information—emotional information—than could any line of dialogue. The movie's all slow pans across peculiar tableaux, zooms, close-ups of eyes. It's horror cinema unadulterated, exorcised of meaning and imbued with pure feeling...Aggressively obscure, Amer is dreamy in the purest sense, restoring to cinema a shocking subjectivity it usually lacks: without the comfort of establishing shots or contextualizing dialogue, the movie willfully denies any narrative to form; it plays out as a series of close-ups, with shots laid like the panels of a textless comic book.

Keep reading at The L Magazine


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Psycho Sequels

Psycho II may be smothered by its more-classic-than-classic predecessor, but that’s almost an advantage: one of the movie’s chief pleasures is that, with the old sets-and-stars on display in brazen Technicolor, watching it feels like crawling into an old favorite and poking around. Perkins reprises his role as Bates, released from the nuthouse to the consternation of Vera Miles, still playing victim-kin. She repudiates rehabilitation and spends the film conspiring to re-derange the motelier, inundating him with messages from his “mother”. Oh, but there’s a twist; Psycho II fashions a knotty mystery, but also an engaging social critique about how unforgiving conservatives are themselves the real psychos. And, how America creates its own enemies.

It’s the best-scripted sequel, but its follow-up proves the most ably directed...

Keep reading at The L Magazine

22 October 2010

Kuroneko (1968)

Written & Directed by: Kaneto Shindô
Full credits at IMDb

At the climax of Kuroneko (Black Cat), a dreamy Nihonese ghostie from 1968 in revival at Film Forum, a samurai thrusts his sword at an evil female feline-god who wants him to return her severed arm. She’s also a demivampire, and the warrior’s mom—at least, she used to be. This wacky-transcending movie is like the I Spit on Your Grave of rural Japanese peasantry, with an added anti-war angle. When it opens, a mother and daughter are robbed, raped and murdered by feral marauders—hungry, idle soldiers who then torch the house and burn the bodies. This, Shindo stresses with nonchalant silences, is the simple, horrible reality of life during wartime.


Keep reading at The L Magazine


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12 October 2010

The Hole 3D

Directed by: Joe Dante
Written by: Mark L. Smith
Full credits at IMDb

Joe Dante’s The Hole is a throwback to the 1980s, the heyday of Spielburgian, scary-fun horror, when kids played the heroes and men like Dante owned the genre. One of the earliest images in this movie is of a station wagon pulling into Anytown, U.S.A.—after the camera has been spit out of the tail pipe—and, really, when’s the last time you actually saw anyone driving one of those? In the car are Chris Massoglia (teenager) and Nathan Gamble (pre-teen), playing brothers; behind the steering wheel is their single mom. They’ve fled Brooklyn for Bensonville, moving into a new house with a padlocked-shut hatch in the basement. The kids pry off the locks, of course, and find a mysterious abyss, a hole without a bottom that’s home to fear itself: it (somehow) discovers what gives you the creeps and unleashes it upon you.

Keep reading this dispatch from the 2010 New York Film Festival at The L Magazine


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08 October 2010

Hereafter

Written by: Peter Morgan
Directed by: Clint Eastwood
Full credits at IMDb

Eastwood’s latest, an exercise in jet-setting thanatology, is as mammoth in scope as Mammoth, as high-minded as Babel, as wrecked as Crash. It’s a globally conscious film about death and the lives left behind—whether it’s white people in America, white people in England or white people in France, everyone is touched by death, struggling to cope with Loss and all it entails. The movie opens somewhere near the Indian Ocean, presumably, as it’s only a few minutes past the gray-tone Warner Brothers logo—gray is the color of ghosts!—when we’re already underwater, the latest victims of the 2004 tsunami and all the mawkish exploitation that comes with it. Before the movie ends, we will have lived through the 7/7 terror attacks on the London subway, as well—after all, how could you make a 21st Century movie obsessed with Death and not include a few of its greatest hits?

Keep reading this dispatch from the 2010 New York Film Festival at The L Magazine


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Essay: "Horror Films to America: Your Penises Should Be Chopped Off"

After a recent screening of the I Spit on Your Grave remake, co-hosted by The L, half the audience stuck around for a screening of the 1976 original—and did a terrible MST3K impression throughout. They laughed at the rape victim’s hairy pubis when the assailants stripped off her clothes. They laughed all through the rape sequence, in fact—at the rapists’ funny faces, at the manner in which they raped her, at the speed with which they climaxed. A woman behind me repeatedly exclaimed disbelief that the woman being raped had “no ass”.

I have written before about the way that we, as a culture, turn objects of horror into those of humor as a means of conquering our fears, which was clearly what this crowd was doing. Even so, it was deeply disturbing, like watching the movie along with the rapists, drawing an explicit culpability connection between spectator and on-screen miscreant.

Keep reading at The L Magazine

Meek's Cutoff

Directed by: Kelly Reichardt
Written by: Jonathan Raymond
Full credits at IMDb

Ever the zeitgeist-engagers, director Reichardt and her frequent collaborator, screenwriter Jon Raymond, have made movies about the culture wars (2006’s Old Joy) and the new recession (2008’s Wendy and Lucy). So it’s no surprise that their latest, Meek’s Cutoff, tackles so many contemporary topics—fear of the Other, disillusionment with cowboy leadership, the allure of the mob—even though it’s set so far in the past.

Cutoff plays out in Oregon, 1845; a three-family group of deracinated, industrious would-be settlers (with overtaxed oxen and melancholic mules) has gone off The Trail, attempting to take a shortcut suggested by their hired guide, the hirsute Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), but now hopelessly lost—and dangerously low on water. Despite having wandered off trail, the movie still often recalls the Oregon Trail video game. Welcome to scenes from the hardscrabble frontier: fording a river in silence, slow wanderings through desert-like landscapes (also in silence) that start to evoke Gerry...

Keep reading this dispatch from the 2010 New York Film Festival at The L Magazine

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06 October 2010

It's Kind of a Funny Story

Written & Directed by: Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden
Full credits at IMDb

It’s Kind of a Funny Story, based on Ned Vizzini’s YA novel, is Fleck and Boden’s Cyrus: a thoroughly mainstream comedy adorned with the indie trappings that gave the directors their name. The Brooklyn-based couple used to thrive off of subverting clichés. In their debut, Half Nelson, ostensibly an inner-city school movie, a white teacher is addicted to crack, and depends upon one his black students to pull him through it. In their follow-up, Sugar, they turned a baseball story into an immigrant story, transforming a film about the country’s old pastime into a story about the New America. With this, their latest, they have made a coming-of-age, sometimes-romantic comedy set in a psychiatric hospital. Period.

It’s Kind of a Funny Story is packed full of clichés, taken from Cuckoo’s Nest through the weekend’s latest generic rom-com. Keir Gilchrist stars as a shallowly depressed teen, off his meds and possibly suicidal, who checks himself into a mental ward and realizes he’s in over his head. While he suffers from the ordinary pressures of adolescence—awkwardness, loneliness, the competitiveness of exclusive schools—he’s now locked in with bona fide schizos and other real deal lunatics, including one played by Zach Galifanakis, whose impeccable ability to take subdued offense over minor slights supplies much of the film’s arid wit. But for every one of the movie’s lovingly crafted detail (like the scenes intermittently interrupted by screaming schizos) there’s another eye-rolling one, like the in-patient love interest in the Stooges tee, name-dropping Salvador Allende. Don’t get me started on the glam-rock fantasy sequence, lip-synched to (groan) Queen’s “Under Pressure”.

Fleck and Boden supply a few likably nativist touches for textural color: the rapid mini-portraits of real-life students at Executive Pre-Professional, reminiscent of Half Nelson’s student interviews; the detour to Williamsburg’s Hasidic acid scene; and, my favorite, the Super 8 tour of Brooklyn’s Western corridor, from Coney Island to Brooklyn Heights, Bay Ridge to the Brooklyn Bridge. But then there’s the way they expose the habits of the city’s wealthy classes—how they invent problems to supply their insignificant-seeming lives with the appearance of meaning—only to validate them, ultimately. During his five-day stint in a wellness program—the script pokes fun at the idea that one could get well in five days, but buys into it just the same—Gilchrist learns to, like, appreciate life, and stuff: that he should live freely, in a way that costs a lot of money. (Make art and travel!) Gee, wouldn’t that be nice? What a bunch of brats; Fleck and Boden should know better. Grade: C+


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I Spit On Your Grave

Directed by: Steven R. Monroe
Written by: Stuart Morse
Full credits at IMDb

Last year’s outrages are already quaint. Back then, in The Last House on the Left remake, a revolting rape scene carried on several sickening and unnecessary seconds too long. But in this year’s I Spit on Your Grave remake—a cabin-in-the-woods horror movie in which the monsters are not supernatural but mere men—a similarly gratuitous rape scene continues across several settings, from the cabin to the woods to the cabin to the woods. The woman is beaten and raped and raped and raped and stripped and shot, and this is after she has already been weirdly humiliated at length: made to feign oral sex on a bottle neck and a gun barrel; to show her teeth; to whinny like the showhorse her attackers keep calling her. The ordeal lasts from night into morning, and takes up an entire act of the film.

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01 October 2010

Aurora

Written & Directed by: Cristi Puiu
Full credits at IMDb

Could this movie be any more Romanian? It’s been five years since director Puiu’s festival-circuit favorite The Death of Mr. Lazarescu heralded a new movement in film, and in that time what may have once constituted personal aesthetic preferences have become a national cinema’s lingua franca. Aurora employs all of the Romanian New Wave’s familiar motifs: watch an unshaved protagonist navigate dilapidated lodgings and industrial ruins lit with a sickly green glow; watch long stretches of silent surveillance, three hours of filmmaking without close-ups, without edited sequences of shots, steeped in morose silence. See an irascible population that takes out its bitterness on children; see moments of black humor, like the inherent absurdity of carrying a shotgun in one hand and a slice of chocolate cake in the other; see a lead actor whose inscrutably stoic mien betrays unhappiness but little else.

Keep reading this dispatch from the 2010 New York Film Festival at The L Magazine


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29 September 2010

Let Me In

Written & Directed by: Matt Reeves
Full credits at IMDb

It's not arbitrarily that Let Me In, a surprisingly delicate and usually tactful remake of a Swedish vampire neo-classic, is set in Los Alamos, the birthplace of America's largest-scale violence. Director Reeves, who made his name helming Cloverfield, pulls off the impossible: not only does he retain the sympathetic portrait of pre-pubescence-the universality-from Tomas Alfredson's sensitive Let the Right One In, but he reworks its Scandinavian themes to address our own country's recent political history. (Both films are based on the novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist.)

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28 September 2010

Marwencol

Directed by: Jeff Malmberg
Full credits at IMDb

In the recent documentary Catfish, a lonely wife-and-mother in a flyover backwater invents an intricately idealized version of her life on the Internet. In Marwencol, a damaged man also creates a strangely glamorized parallel life. But his is analog, and thus he is, refreshingly, a mere fascinating character, not an emblem of these techno-times—except, perhaps, as a victim of small town bigotry.

Kingston, NY-native Mark Hogancamp is seriously damaged: he was beaten almost-to-death (and certainly to lasting-brain-injury) by teenage thugs outside a local bar, for reasons that become apparent only gradually. (No, he's not gay.) Afterwards, as a kind of therapy, he began constructing the model town that gives the film its name, which he populates with dolls—often heavily armed dolls—that represent characters from his own life. Around this town, he has created an amazingly imaginative narrative, a WWII espionage thriller in which he stars, in which he has a Barbie girlfriend, and in which SS officers play his one-time attackers. He poses the characters and photographs them in close-up, fashioning astonishing realism—and frequent gore—that’s simultaneously blatantly artificial.

What sets his work apart, one art-magazine editor notes, is the absence of irony. Mark’s work is deeply personal; the dolls don’t foster emotional distance here, as they often do in modern art, but the opposite. By setting his imaginary world in the context of WWII, he creates an easy kind of morality for himself—a fraction in scale of the real thing, like his town—in which he is as heroic as an Allied-Forces soldier, his attackers as villainous as modern history’s worst villains. As such, he reveals something about the weird and possibly destructive ways in which we all simplify the narratives our own lives. We don't just make ourselves the protagonists of these stories. We're the heroes. Grade: A-


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24 September 2010

The Social Network

Directed by: David Fincher
Written by: Aaron Sorkin
Full credits at IMDb

The Social Network, Fincher’s fleet chronicle of Facebook’s founding, captures the zeitgeist insofar as it catches a cultural change, when not only the nerds but the kids starting minding the stores. Aaron Sorkin’s witheringly sarcastic but too-neat screenplay finds Shakespearean tragedy among these machinating whiz kids, manipulating different clichés to tell the story of how Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), the smartest prick in the room, hurt and pissed off a lot of people to become the world’s youngest billionaire; his relationship with Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), which deteriorates through the movie from biffles to opposing litigants, recalls two more embattled titans of a media empire—no less than Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten in Citizen Kane.

Sorkin’s pretentious source-list doesn’t stop there: the film points at Milton (when one character notes that “creation myths need a devil”), and at a Q&A he cited Aeschylus and Rashomon. (Just because people disagree about events in your movie doesn’t make it Rashomon.)

Keep reading this dispatch from the 2010 New York Film Festival at The L Magazine


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Devil

Directed by: John Erick Dowdle
Written by: Brian Nelson
Full credits at IMDb

In the past, the perpetually underappreciated M. Night Shyamalan has reserved his ire for the critics, as when a monster mauls a movie reviewer in 2006’s The Lady in the Water. But in Devil, which his nascent production company backed and for which he conceived the story, he spews his vitriol at the entire audience. All of you philistines who chided The Happening? You’re all going to Hell…unless you beg forgiveness and own up to your idiocy. After all, Shyamalan is still—remember Signs?—a good Christian!

He is not, however, a good writer. M. Night’s only saving grace has always been his superlatively elegant aesthetic style. Each effort is otherwise hampered, if not hamstrung, by lame dialogue and self-righteous storytelling: The Village is delightful to watch, but only with the sound muted. So, who would want a movie that’s slathered with the Shyamalan brand but whose images lack his graceful touch?

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Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

Written & Directed by: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Full credits at IMDb

Uncle Boonmee (Loong Boonmee Raleuk Chat) puts mystical Buddhism in action, the abstract into practice. It’s a treatise on the illusion we call our lives, a densely spiritual and politically symbolic film about fungible borders: between life and death, between animals and people, between the hallucinatory and the real, even between nations. Shooting in Northeast Thailand, where he grew up, Apichatpong adopts the region’s animism and suffuses the lushly verdant landscape with so much life it becomes a character—or, stuffed with characters, a natural world swirling with spirits, where Monkey Ghosts dine with men, catfish fuck human princesses, and Laotians mingle amicably with native Thais.

Keep reading this dispatch from the 2010 New York Film Festival at The L Magazine


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22 September 2010

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger

Written & Directed by: Woody Allen
Full credits at IMDb

After Whatever Works proved a failed homecoming, Woody has again expatriated to London, the site of his greatest recent success. Match Point marked Allen's aughties high, a triumph recaptured in neither Scoop nor (the nevertheless underrated) Cassandra's Dream. In Stranger, Allen gropes again for that English magic, once more exploring matters of fortune. There's even a scene at the opera! Not to mention the soap-opera jealousies on display among the philandering cultured classes. But Allen fails at his art here as spectacularly as his own characters.

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Buried

Directed by: Rodrigo Cortés
Written by: Chris Sparling
Full credits at IMDb

You needn't be particularly claustrophobic to feel unnerved by the opening of Buried, in which Ryan Reynolds wakes up in a wooden coffin buried a few feet under sand. His panicked gasps are contagious. (After all, the fear of being buried alive must be as old as the burial ritual itself.) But the initial anxiety soon morphs into the American can-do spirit, as an agitated Reynolds buckles down to figure this thing out. It goes to show that a protagonist, or an audience, can get comfortable anywhere, even in an airless box.



Unlike the similarly claustro-billed Lebanon, which is set in a tank but frequently peeks out at the surrounding landscape, Buried really is 90 minutes with Ryan Reynolds in a seven-foot crate—no prologue, no flashbacks, no periscope. (The kidnappers are kind enough, from our point of view if not Reynolds', to bury their captive with a cell phone and Zippo, so that he has something to do and something to show him doing it.) But what the movie packs in formal daring it lacks in narrative gumption; it's about one conspiracy short of a compelling script.

Keep reading at The L Magazine


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Animal Kingdom

Written & Directed by: David Michôd
Full credits at IMDb

Is Australia the new Romania? That former Soviet-bloc nation became the darling of the festival circuit when its New Wave movement broke through in 2005, after Lazarescu killed at Cannes. But a new decade needs a new cinema movement to get behind, and the hottest national cinema is currently coming from Down Under.

If people are starting to take Australian Cinema seriously, it’s thanks solely to Blue Tongue Films, a collective of filmmaking friends who have been hitting the festivals with shorts for years. Their feature debut, The Square, released earlier this year, was a solid if unremarkable noir, an excellent example of genre that added nothing new. The latest, Animal Kingdom, isn’t too different. Again, the focus is crime and the details, familiar, having been mined from decades of genre film. What sets this movie apart, from not only The Square but its generic forebears, is the sensitivity of its telling.

Newcomer James Frechville stars as the immoveable J, a cusp-of-adulthood 17-year-old thrust, when his mom ODs, into his grandmother’s clan of criminal uncles. “I’m invisible,” he tells one uncle (the underused Joel Edgerton, the hottest Australian actor in America!!) after an automatic bathroom hand dryer fails to activate; it’s a bit on the nose, but the point’s well taken: J serves as the blank slate, the blank face, the audience surrogate who gives us an emotional in to this family of low-laying bank robbers.

The Cody Family are well-known to the local Armed Robbery Squad; the latter kill one of the former to send a message, the former kill two random beat cops in retaliation. Police pressure intensifies, and the increasingly paranoid Codys, Uncle Pope (a weaselly Ben Mendelsohn) in particular, begin to wonder whether they can trust newbie J, who’s being aggressively courted by Detective Leckie, played by Guy Pearce with a smart moustache, making J a kind of adolescent Jim Hawkins, caught between a Long Pope Silver and a Leckie Livesey.

By focusing on a family of quirky, sympathetic criminals, Michod evokes the 90s—Tarantino, specifically, springs to mind during one slo-mo family inventory scored to 70s pop. But what distinguishes the film as of the present is that it’s been stripped of irony. Two uncles have one of those “you know how I know your gay?” conversations, but instead of provoking laughs it sets up a moving emotional confrontation. For one scene, Michod uses Air Supply’s “All Out Of Love,” but he does so sincerely, to undergird an affecting moment. It’s not a joke—it’s impossibly moving.

Michod makes every effort to provoke a sincere emotional connection and response; generally, the musical cues are few and understated, the takes are long. Before every murder—there aren’t that many—Michod focuses on the victim-to-be’s humanity, whether in a private moment of marital bliss or a casual encounter in the locker room. Generally, Animal Kingdom is rife with these kind of small touching details: Jacki Weaver, as the ruthless but underplayed matriarch, gabbing about television hosts; Pearce playing with a Down Syndrome daughter.

Michod’s MO here is subtlety (aside from the one cokeheaded uncle, played by Sullivan Stapleton, who twitches too much); Animal Kingdom is intimate but cool-headed. The sound often cuts out during dramatic climaxes; intense conversations are whispered. Even murder is conducted in murmurs, with minimal exertion. (Half a cc of heroin leaves the victim putting up little struggle.) When J’s stoical mien finally shatters, it’s from the sight of a make-up brush sitting on the edge of a sink. Michod produces such a mood so tense that just the littlest thing can send any character over the edge—whether it’s to tears or to murder. Grade: A-


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15 September 2010

The Town

Directed by: Ben Affleck
Written by: Peter Craig, Ben Affleck & Aaron Stockard
Full credits at IMDb

The Town opens with a shot of Boston's Bunker Hill obelisk, Charlestown's Big Hard Cock, alerting you that the exceptional cops-and-robbers picture to follow concerns guys and guy stuff-like, heists. Affleck's follow-up to Gone Baby Gone, which reeks of Eddie Coyle's malefactor melancholy, mines similar territory as his 2007 debut, but moreso it evokes, not least with the silly-sounding accents, the recent spate of Blue Tongue Films out of Australia (Animal Kingdom, The Square): it's solid genre fare, reinvigorating tired tropes, most notable for its efficiency and sensitivity.

Keep reading at The L Magazine


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