31 May 2008


Directed by: Joachim Trier
Written by: Joachim Trier & Eskil Vogt
Full Credits from IMDb

Grade: A-

Reprise opens with a narrative catalyst most mundane, cinematically: two friends, Anders Danielsen Lie and Espen Klouman-Høiner, drop their unsolicited manuscripts, first novels, into the post. But Trier, a distant relative of Lars von, has no intention of letting his film be so dull; the next reel goes through, what would be if it weren’t cut off, an infinite number of imagined possibilities, narrated in the conditional tense and commented upon by the would-be authors’ animated dust jacket portraits. Dizzyingly circular and endlessly digressive, every visual in Reprise only serves as an excuse to conjure up another—a childhood memory, a fantasized future. In short, the film screams with Godardian playfulness; Georges Delerue’s “Theme de Camille” from Contempt pops up in the first reel not merely for its lush beauty.

Trier’s mad obsession with his subjects matches the characters’ own self-absorption, while the wandering filmmaking reflects the myopia and impermanence with which his characters live their lives. Lie and Klouman-Høiner, as well as their handful of pals, together constitute a quintessential group of young literary friends; they spend their time, or so we’re told, reading and writing, but also possess an almost Apatovian knack for mockingly needling one another. We’re meant to deride both their intellectual pursuits—the modeling of their lives on literary conventions that causes one girlfriend to explode: “you’re such a damn cliché!”—and their abusive prattle as symptoms of their arrested development, though the filmmakers also scorn “growing up,” in the bourgeois sense of settling down—wearing sweaters, throwing white-linen dinner parties. Reprise does not allow its characters to follow an easy arc from puerility to maturity, even questioning the possibility of whether such an arc, simple or difficult, exists.

Instead, Trier offers a meandering film about men meandering for meaning. That’s not intended as insult; Reprise boasts an alluringly, indismissibly romantic world view of scattered pillow-feather revelry, in which writers need hardly spend anytime writing—they simply publish books and, most seductively, hang out with the boys. Like last year’s Superbad, Reprise captures that male yearning for the fraternal bond that dissolves with age, replaced, with ambivalence, by the sexual, female bond. Klouman-Høiner’s novel is about, he pretentiously declares on television, looking for a universal language with which to make sense of the world, reflecting he and his friends’ central problem: that they try to make sense of their lives through books and words, by using their heads. Women, on the other hand, trite as it sounds, use their hearts. Though thoroughly a “(thinking) man’s movie,” Reprise (though not its characters) is unfailingly kind to the fairer sex. Sure, women don’t recommend good books or turn men on to good music, but they’re put together in such a way that allows them to function healthily in a civil society. Too bad the same can’t be said for Lie or Klouman-Høiner. Like Woody Allen at his best (Manhattan), Reprise presents a socio-intellectual class infectiously inviting and yet does so critically, enough so as to prevent any viewer from wanting to join it—just to admire it from afar.

Watch the trailer:

Iron Man

Directed by: Jon Favreau
Written by: Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby and Art Marcum & Matt Holloway
Full Credits from IMDb

Grade: B-

For an ostensible action picture, Iron Man, the latest in the ongoing string of comic book superhero adaptations, features little fighting, chasing or exploding until its third act. That’s fine, I’m all for character-driven summer blockbusters—if only that were Iron Man.

Despite boasting four screenwriters—and, according to Wikipedia, a rewrite from a fifth—including one of the writing teams that helped pen the aughties’ hitherto masterpiece, Children of Men, Iron Man operates on “flick of the switch” character development: sure, characters change—Robert Downey, Jr., as the eponymous metal warrior, readjusts his worldview and Gwyneth Paltrow, as his librarian-type love interest, switches up her hairstyle—but only because it’s narratively expedient or passably conventional. Jeff Bridges is a good guy and then he’s a bad guy. (With that shaved-head-and-beard combo, as well as the character name “Obadiah Stane,” who would’ve guessed?) Paltrow is frumpy and then she’s sexy. Just take the filmmakers’ word for it.

And yet, I did. How is Iron Man so engaging when it’s so conspicuously sloppy? Director Favreau’s sly sense of humor helps, as does Bridges’ supervillainary gusto, but the film lives or dies on Downey’s performance; it’s his sardonic charm, his success in keeping us captivated, especially during the small-scale, human moments—flirting with Paltrow, shooting the shit with Shaun Toub while holed up in an Afghanistan cave, or interacting with his dog-like, quasi-sentient robotic assistant—that saves the film from descending into Daredevil depths.

Downey plays Tony Stark, the man beneath the iron suit, as a gambler, a drunk, a womanizer, a cad, a playboy, a manufacturer of WMDs and an avid art collector with no knowledge of art history. In short, he is Americanness at its worst—its wealth, power, irresponsibility and arrogant disregard—taken to absurdity and then personified. (He is introduced to us early on not only as a scientific genius but also as an “American patriot”.) Iron Man opens in the Afghanistan desert to the ringing chords and hot licks of “Back in Black” because for Downey, sipping Scotch in a war zone, the War on Terror is a gas, a rocking affair on the rocks. That is, until Afghan fighters fire rockets he designed at his car and point guns he made at his face.

Downey is taken hostage but, before he’s forced to build the terrorists any weapons that could be turned on Americans, he breaks out of his three-month-long captivity in a scene that serves as an excessive revenge fantasy in which Downey, in a crude prototype of the Iron Man suit, sets a score of Afghans on fire. (America? Fuck yeah.) When he gets back to the States, he informs his handlers not only that he wants a cheeseburger—he wants a motherfuckin American cheeseburger.

That ingested, Downey tells a room full of reporters that his time in an Afghan cave has changed him and that he will no longer be manufacturing weapons. (Afterwards, many of his friends, like Terrence Howard, spurn him, as though he registered Democrat.) The first thing Downey does after that is get to work on building a new weapon, the suit that will turn him from a man of flesh into a Man of Steel, er, Iron. I’ve read a handful of reviews that claim Iron Man is a work of pacifism, a sly, liberalist attack on the military-industrial complex smuggled into multiplexes. But such a reading is superficial.

The problem, for Downey, is not that he once made weapons, but that he lost control over those weapons and allowed them to fall into the “wrong hands”—the hands of Afghans. The villain in Iron Man is neither war nor weaponry; it’s terrorists and colluding American corporations. How to defeat them? With a literal American fighting machine—a lone wolf, the John Wayne archetype. Fight fire with fire! Make peace at the end of a muzzle! No allies necessary! At this point in The War on Terror, such filmmaking is irresponsible. Iron Man’s problems extend beyond a poor script—it’s downright immoral.

Watch the trailer:

22 May 2008

Standard Operating Procedure

Directed by: Errol Morris
Full Credits from IMDb

Grade: B

Snapshots, like the notorious photographs of abuse that burst out of Abu Ghraib and onto cable news channels everywhere, where they found endless rotation, are full of information—such as whether a person was naked, tied-up, wearing a hood or wrapped in electrical wire—but they sorely lack context. And so, watch out you myopic punditocracy, here comes Errol Morris’ Standard Operating Procedure, purposed to look beyond the limits of the imposed frame. Morris humanizes the soldiers in the pictures, shocking us with the banality of their manners, in contrast to their horrific behavior documented in megapixels, and he places the photos within a larger narrative about conditions on the ground and United States policy. Morris allows us, for perhaps the first time, to make some sense of those senseless images.

But that’s about all he does, as Standard Operating Procedure stops short of investigating any issue more profound. Not that the story of Abu Ghraib doesn’t deserve to be told, but S.O.P. is specific to the point of taxing, as Morris details the minutiae of the Ghraib affair with deliberate artistry. Much of the information Morris supplies is new, but he squanders the opportunity to make it illuminating, in contrast to something like this: “by assuming the role of a documentarian, [Sabrina Harman, one of the Ghraib photographers who also appears in many of the pictures] had found a way to ride out her time at Abu Ghraib without having to regard herself as an instrument of that policy…Taking pictures may have seemed an added dash of mortification, but to Harman it was a way of deflecting her own humiliation in the transaction, by acting as a spectator.”

That sort of analytical insight, of which Morris’ film is sorely lacking, ironically comes from an article, published in The New Yorker, by Morris and Paris Review editor Philip Gourevitch. Standard Operating Procedure, against the depth of the magazine piece, shows us the limits of filmmaking, at least Morris’ special brand. Intellectually, the film is, in the end, simply a retread of familiar arguments: torture is bad, torture is un-American, torture doesn’t yield workable intelligence, torture is a result of high-level policy and not the fault of a few jackass MPs. It adds up to little more than a historical document, a neat summation of the events surrounding those moments captured by a snapping shutter. (The one shattering revelation comes when we’re reminded that what we saw from Abu Ghraib was humiliation at best, abuse at worst. The torture happened behind closed doors and, more importantly, off-camera. In the ongoing torture scandal, the Abu Ghraib photographs are a red herring.)

Morris’ line of S.O.P. products, which includes a book co-authored by Gourevitch, would perhaps better have served the public as a unified, web-based multimedia project—read the text, hear the revelations and watch the footage, all of it interconnected through hyperlinks and embedded video. That could have really challenged audiences to look at the Abu Ghraib affair in new ways; what doesn’t encourage such thinking are Morris’ standard issue “recreations,” shot in slow motion and fetishistic close-up. These come dangerously close to tired formula, now that it’s been twenty years since The Thin Blue Line.

Watch the trailer:

The Blair Witch Project (1999)

Written & Directed by: Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sánchez
Full Credits from IMDb

Grade: A-

In The Blair Witch Project, three student filmmakers set out to shoot a documentary centered on a legend about a mean ol’ witch who, it’s said, lives in the woods around a small town that used to be called Blair; the film we see is passed off as a copy of their raw footage. The documentary they’re making, on a formal level, is awful: The camera moves around arbitrarily and the interviewer, Heather Donahue, constantly interrupts her subjects with uh-huhs and yeahs. At first, that’s irritating—this movie (within a movie) is terrible!—but soon it’s almost tragic. All the terrible things about to happen to these kids—for this?

Luckily, the real (that is, unseen) filmmakers are not so clumsy. To get some location footage, the diegetic crew moves from the Maryland town into the surrounding woods, where they become hopelessly lost—and then shit gets scary. The daytime, woodland scares are thoroughly ambiguous, frightening the audience solely through suggestion: figures of bundled sticks hang off of tree branches! And piles of rocks—signifying grave markers—appear outside their tent overnight! Each serves as a symbol of a human presence eerily stripped of context; we never see anyone in the woods, but we know someone is there. “You ever see Deliverance?” one of the kids, Joshua Leonard, half-jokingly asks his companions. Compared to the supernatural obstacles our three filmmaking heroes face, the Reynolds-led gang from Deliverance had it easy.

That’s because the daytime creepiness is just the icing on a terrible cake; the true terror comes with nightfall. The Blair Witch Project’s central fear is primal: scary things (strange sounds, mostly) happen after dark, nightfall is coming and there’s not a single thing our heroes can do to stop it. What happens during the day is unsettling; what happens at night is petrifying as the filmmakers leave it all up to the audience’s imaginations—the cause of fear is entirely aural and invisible; the screen goes black for minutes at a time.

The filmmakers’ trump card is the first-person camera; by witnessing all the action through a camcorder, the camera becomes a character—we become the camera—and the terrifying mystery that the characters suffer falls on us, as well. All atmospherics and formal trickery, the film reminds adult viewers why it makes sense to be scared of the dark. (And why haughty cityfolk ought to pay more respect to the mysteries of “the woods”.)

In hindsight, the characters’ powerlessness and the frightening uncertainty that surrounds them perfectly tapped into the pre-millennial, late-Clinton-era zeitgeist. Having lost their map, the characters randomly choose the direction in which to travel, paralleling their country’s aimlessness. In Heather’s infamous, boogery, direct address confessional, she admits with shame her responsibility for what’s happening to her and her team, acknowledging that it’s a direct result of her pigheadedness. “It’s very hard to get lost in America these days,” Heather says earlier, reflecting the smug American confidence that would combust on September 11th.

But The Blair Witch Project also functions as a commentary on the compulsion to watch and produce movies. As they wander the woods hungry and afraid, Heather refuses to stop filming. Finally, Joshua snatches the camera and begins shouting, pointing the lens at her as though it were a weapon or accusatory finger. “I see why you like this camera so much,” Joshua tells her. “It’s not quite reality.” The easiest way to escape from the fear of Y2K and the impending unpredictability of a new millennium is, of course, through the movies. As Heather says, “It’s all I have left.” Ditto for America.

Watch the grainy teaser:

20 May 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Written by: David Koepp
Full Credits from IMDb

Grade: B+

Forget War of the Worlds—when Spielberg wants to be, he’s a master storyteller in that grand Hollywood tradition of efficient, effective populism. In the new Indiana Jones movie, which fans have both long anticipated and dreaded, the clunky Spielberg of recent years, from the absurd and pointless The Terminal through the interminably rambling Munich, has disappeared; in his place is the Spielberg of yore, the Spielberg of impossible dinosaur dreams made real. His dinosaur here is Jones, made real once again through a seeming cinematic miracle, equal in scale to that which resurrected the velociraptor. By revisiting his twenty-year-old franchise, Spielberg seems to have rediscovered that spark, the sense of pulpy excitement rooted in youthful fantasy, that made him into what he is today—the darling of commercial American cinema.

Read the rest of this review at Film School Rejects

Watch the trailer:

15 May 2008


Directed by: Alexandre Bustillo & Julien Maury
Written by: Alexandre Bustillo
Full credits from IMDb

Grade: C+

The new French horror movie, Inside (À L'Intérieur) is like a shot of vodka or a roller coaster—it’s not for pregnant women. Béatrice Dalle invades the home of the eight-months-and-twenty-nine-days pregnant Alysson Paradis and proceeds to attack and torture her because she wants Paradis’ unborn baby; she’s trying to get it, by the way, with, gulp, a pair of scissors. For the expecting, this would have to be an unbearable show; for the rest of us, it’s mostly boilerplate slashergore, though with a bit more brains than one tends to get from the typical genre entry. Which makes sense, because if some poor distributor—in this case, the Weinstein Brothers—has taken the trouble to transport the film all the way across the Atlantic and to go through the process of subtitling it, it must have something to offer that Prom Night doesn’t.

It isn’t scares, though, because Inside is just blood, guts and social commentary. Notable for the formal innovation of including reaction shots of a computer-animated fetus, Inside opens with such a cutaway—an unborn child slams its head into a uterine wall, turning the amniotic fluid a bloody shade of pink and letting the audience know, cleverly if in poor taste, that a car accident has taken place. Whether that’s Inside at its worst is up for debate, but at the least the filmmakers aren’t shy about announcing the violence to come; the subsequent opening credits play out over fluid shots of blood, bodily organs and a gestating child. It would be naïve, bordering on foolish, for the viewer to expect that any film that opens as such will go on to be less violent, so clearly if a fetus getting its skull bashed in isn’t your idea of an appropriate movie night, Inside is best left unrented. (The violence is foreshadowed as early as the distributor credits; the film hits DVD thanks not to Dimension Entertainment, but to its extremist imprint Dimension Extreme. Consider yourself extremely forewarned.)

Four months later, Paradis, post-car crash, is on the cusp of giving birth but she’s feeling anxious about it, especially as her husband, Jean-Baptiste Tabourin, died in the aforementioned accident. The filmmakers toss in a tender hallucination in which Tabourin’s hands slide, from off-frame, around Paradis’ bloated belly but, of course, the moment is (c)rudely interrupted by a flashback to his head cracking against the windshield. Later on, in a similar vein, a perfectly pleasant nap is punctuated by a nightmare, which features at least a quart’s worth of vomit as creamy as baby formula and parturition through the, er, oral canal.

Inside ups the gross-out factor with every reel, but at first its sense of horror is often elegant. (Graphic, perhaps, but sophisticated.) Saturated in a lemony haze, the film’s frights are built-up the old-fashioned way: Through shadows and ambiguity, such as a scene in which Dalle is obscurely visible in the rearground of Paradis’ living room, her outline slowly fading into the darkness. But once Dalle enters the light and is thus disambiguated—no longer a ghostly presence in or out of the house but a very literal one—what follows is a zippy bloodbath; Inside changes gears, switching from atmospheric horror to gruesome slasher slaughter. Though there’s something to be said for some of its gutsier choices, like keeping its heroine locked in a bathroom for most of the film, introducing foiled rescue attempt after foiled rescue attempt or the inclusion of a bitingly ironic murder, the film loses most of the brains behind its form. It still, however, retains some of the intelligence behind its story.

Although a lot of Inside is stupid, its metaphors vacuous—from its pretensions to Christian allegory (the film is set on Christmas Eve) and its overambitious nods toward Blow Up and Rear Window (with its phallic camera lenses) to the way it emphasizes the gaze, through shots of eyes peeping through holes, as though it’s making meaningful comments on the nature of spectatorship. But it does have two potent subtexts; one involves the issues Paradis has about becoming a mother, particularly in light of her recent widowhood, while the other is the recent rioting in the Paris suburbs. (“Inside” the womb vs. “inside” France.) By profession, Paradis is a photojournalist, just back from shooting the latest car fires on the outskirts of the City of Lights. Those riots pop up throughout the film, on television screens or later when we see the police toting a Franco-Arab prisoner, thus setting the film in a milieu of real violence. Inside suggests, forget those rampaging Muslims—look at what’s happening between white people, behind the closed doors of those seemingly somnolent Paris purlieus, beating each other bloody with unbabyproofed domestic wares like the common household toaster.

Watch the trailer:

07 May 2008

Be Kind Rewind

Written & Directed by: Michel Gondry
Full credits from IMDb

Grade: A-

In his previous two fiction films, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Science of Sleep, Michel Gondry indulged his taste for whimsy and invention by setting his films inside the imaginarium that is the human mind; Be Kind Rewind, on the other hand, is set in the idealistic world of the cinema, on strips of magnetic tape, where a person can be made to disappear with just a little bit of creative on-camera editing and day turns to night with just the flip of a switch.

As with the other two films, Be Kind Rewind is also set, sometimes, in the real world, in the urban blight of Passaic, NJ; Gondry finds his pathos in the tragic disconnect between life and invention. Not just an ode to the pleasures of moviemaking and moviewatching, the film also serves as a moving rejection of corporatized homogenization. When our movies are focus-group tested and one-size-fits-all, it should come as no surprise that our communities follow suit; say goodbye to the corner video store and its peeling paint and say hello to cookie cutter condominiums and corporate video stores where there are only two sections, Comedy and Action-Adventure, a thousand copies of the same movie, and a staff that wears name badges but doesn’t know the difference between John Huston and John Hughes.

Plenty of directors have tried their hand at making movies about making movies, but it’s unusual for a filmmaker to demonstrate so staunchly and reasonably the rewards of the trade beyond the individual’s. Despite the prevalence of auteur theory in critical circles, and its focus on specific directors, film is a collaborative art, the end result of hundreds of technicians’ combined efforts. In Be Kind, Rewind, Gondry presents two fights, one to make movies and the other to save a neighborhood, and unites them through their shared sense of community.

Jack Black plays a local mechanic who, after an accident of questionable science, becomes magnetized and erases all the tapes at the local video store (after which the film is named), run by Danny Glover and staffed by Mos Def. To try and keep themselves out of trouble, Black and Def start reshooting the movies that were erased, using a standard video camera, creating their own versions of Ghostbusters and other popular classics of the ‘80s and ‘90s. (Although Gondry takes it a little farther at one point, even remaking The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, of which we unfortunately only get a quick glimpse.) The “new” movies are a big hit in Passaic—people come all the way from New York to rent them—and soon the whole neighborhood is participating in the moviemaking process.

Early on, Black says that people only live in his town because they have nowhere else to go, but once the filmmaking begins, the individualized product creates a bond among neighbors, the sense of belonging to a larger group that has disappeared from most American cities. They become citizens of a specific place, thanks to a localized film culture that prides itself on “movies with heart and soul,” not just more mass-produced commodities.

Of course, copyright lawyers from Washington (boo!) storm into town and shut down the video project, but that only redoubles the community’s resolve to go on and write their own movie, a Fats Waller biopic/docuoralhistory, in which Gondry is able to let his surreal madness wildly soar in the guise of DIY can-doery. (See: the piano with black and white human fingers instead of keys.) The little guy still loses in the end, but loss has rarely been as beautiful as it looks in the shot of the flickering light bouncing off the screen and onto the faces of smiling Passaiacans. Be Kind Rewind, with a Blast from the Past poster conspicuously hanging in the background and an embrace of VHS over DVD, isn’t about looking forward; rather, it’s about looking back to a happier time that, while it may have never really existed, was created and preserved through a combination of tall tales, shared through a community, and cinema.

Watch the trailer:

And then watch Michel Gondry's hilarious remake of the trailer, starring himself:

Contempt (1963)

Directed by: Jean-Luc Godard
Written by: Alberto Moravia
Full credits from IMDb

Grade: A

After a decade lost at sea, Odysseus returned home to find his wife Penelope still faithful but surrounded by boorish suitors; he slew the whole lot of them, of course, out of righteous fury, thus restoring the reputation of his wife, home and family. Or, at least, so goes the conventional interpretation. In Godard’s Contempt (Le Mépris), producer Jack Palance hires Michel Piccoli to tinker with the script of a film adaptation of The Odyssey that Fritz Lang, playing himself, is directing. Piccoli discusses Homer’s story with Lang and offers a more modern analysis—Odysseus left his wife because of longstanding issues in their marriage, and stayed away for so long by choice, not as a consequence of Neptune-orchestrated fate.

Piccoli is, of course, shaping art to fit his life. Odysseus’ heroics belong to Ancient Greece; in Twentieth Century Europe, Piccoli barely pauses a moment before he hands over his Penelope (Brigitte Bardot) to the first suitor that comes along. Why does he do such a thing? For money, of course. (Not in an overt Indecent Proposal sort of way, but close enough.) And thus Godard draws his stinging distinction between history and modernity, between capitalism and pre-capitalism. When a communist party pamphlet stumbles out of Piccoli’s back pocket at one point, it’s no accident.

It’s even a bit comical, actually, as is much of the film. At his best when his directorial manner is easygoing and his tone silly, even while shouldering serious subject matter, Godard here is constantly at play; a short musical theme runs almost ceaselessly throughout, for example, and in the first scene he keeps switching filters arbitrarily, from blue to none to red—foreshadowing the vivid reds to come, on everything from couches and convertibles, blouses and bathmats, to the painted eyes of Greek god statues. (The solemn audience at Film Forum, where the film recently screened, let out nary a chuckle, this writer not included, presumably out of a misguided academic respect for Foreign Film.)

Told in three distinct sections, the romance plays out most fitfully during the second act, a prolonged romantic squabble in which Bardot dances around the issue at hand—the way she has been sold, whether literally or not—and Piccoli dutifully follows suit, disingenuously laboring to discover the root of her sulking as if he doesn’t already know. But acts one and three also go after something act two only hints at, when Piccoli, in a fedora with a cigar between his teeth, admits to consciously modeling his look after Dean Martin’s in Some Came Running—with its back lot/on-location settings and its backstage story, Contempt is about movies.

Part one is set on a movie studio that looks like Roman Ruins, the characters romping on what look like the last vestiges of cinema. The set has been sold and will probably be turned into a five and ten, Palance declares with hilarious histrionics. Godard suggests that the film is set during the end of the cinema; a projection room screen includes a popular Lumiere quote, translated into Italian: “cinema is an invention without a future.” (Despite the posters for Psycho, Hatari! and Godard’s own Vivre Sa Vie slathered on the walls.) Lang famously quips that Cinemascope, in which the film is shot, is only good for capturing snakes and funerals, and so we get a film full of slimy, serpentine characters and a memorial service for the cinema. On the set, after Piccoli asks whether some scantily clad women will undress, he’s told, of course. “Movies are wonderful,” he mutters. But if there’s something unsettling about women being used as objects of desire, as media of exchange (for sex or for translating) or, bent over, as tables on which to write checks, we have no one to blame but ourselves. Movies present “a world in harmony with our desires,” Godard tells us at the very beginning, quoting his teacher Andre Bazin, before turning an on-screen camera at the audience, letting us know that, in his estimation, we’re responsible for the objectionable behavior we see on the screen. “You long for a world like Homer’s,” one character says. “It does not exist.” Not even at the movies.

Watch the trailer: