26 June 2008

My Winnipeg

Directed by: Guy Maddin
Written by: Guy Maddin & George Toles
Full credits from IMDb

Grade: B+

Taken together, My Winnipeg’s evocative imagery—from whited-out backlanes to writhing horse heads poking out of a frozen lake—begins to sketch, from the inside out, a portrait of the city that lends the film its name. But it stops short of finishing that sketch. Romantic, bitter and nightmarishly nostalgic, My Winnipeg is a digressive, madly associative and deeply idiosyncratic profile of a place only as it relates to the individual. The title’s possessive pronoun is essential; My Winnipeg is a travelogue only of the director’s subconscious.

Using the film as a means to work through his personal neuroses, Maddin goes so far as to sublet his boyhood home and hire actors to reenact traumatic moments from his childhood (including the straightening of a long rug). Winnipeg, against this psychological backdrop, is not so much a place as a state of mind, a bundled representation of guilt, fear, loneliness, etc. “I need to get out of here,” he says in the film’s nearly endless narration (which often sounds Lynchian, like a blend of Log Lady introductions and Dune voiceovers). “What if I film my way out of here?”

Admitting its artifice from the first frame through the shot of a clapboard, the film, like the bulk of Maddin’s oeuvre, visually plays out as silent movie pastiche—in black and white, overexposed and in soft focus, with intertitles and pre-Stanislavsky acting styles. My Winnipeg makes no pretense to offer an objective view of Maddin’s biography or the Manitoba capital. Instead, in the director’s mind (and therefore his film), Winnipeg is a persistently snowy town where, at night, sleepwalking citizens, obscured silhouettes, crowd the streets. Each carries the keys to their former address (thanks to civic law, Maddin says) so that, like the director in this film, they can revisit their pasts, at any time, in a hypnagogic haze. This is film as sleepwalking fever dream—the director, a haunting ghost.

A wildly inaccurate profile of a place (are the streets really named after prostitutes?), the film presents cinema not as a means to understand the world but to understand the self—film as Freudian self-analysis. For his conspicuous mother complex, I suspect Maddin is Jewish, though his issues extend beyond the Oedipal; for him, the city and his mother converge as mystical forces responsible for his existence. He repeatedly compares, through editing, the city’s forking rivers to a vagina, or “the lap”. “Wooly, furry, frosty lap,” Maddin says of Winnipeg. “The heart of the heart of the continent.” (In the film, Maddin reveals the writing chops he displays every month as Film Comment’s most eccentric critic—eg., of January in Winnipeg: “the condoms come off—this is the bareback month.”)

The film’s funniest moments grow out of Maddin’s hang-ups with his mother, but it pushes further; My Winnipeg moves on, delving into the city and all its phantoms. “The backgrounds in photos,” the director says, “become more important than the people in them.” Maddin visits the city’s backlanes and explores its history—its razed department store, its hockey rink under the wrecking ball—as it offers an insight into his self. Mon Winnipeg ou Winnipeg, C’est Moi? In the end, Maddin mishmashes the city, the self and the family together so thoroughly that they become inseparable. The city becomes more than a city; it grows into metaphor: for the director, deeply secreted but ultimately accessible through filmmaking, and for cinema itself—dreamy, inescapable and so young, yet so ancient.

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Monsieur Verdoux (1947)

Written & Directed by: Charles Chaplin

Grade: B

In 1947, critics panned it and audiences avoided it, but in recent times Monsieur Verdoux has become a minor critical cause célèbre. Like many once and unfairly disparaged pieces of art, however, Chaplin’s cult film now boasts a reputation that exceeds it. Though its conclusion’s sharp leftwing speechifying is stirring, Verdoux, in spite of its admirable anti-capitalist politics, plays out too unevenly to be called anything but flawed.

With his signature moustache stylishly titled up at the corners, Chaplin otherwise abandons his usual tramp persona to play the title character, a bourgeois banker (i.e. icon of capitalism) who, after losing his position of 30 years, starts “liquidating members of the opposite sex” for profit: he hops around France marrying women, murdering them and making off with their cash in order to keep his wheelchair-bound wife and toe-headed boy in the lap of middle class luxury. Verdoux offers a contemptuous vision of the bratty idle class; Chaplin’s killer feels no compunction. (He is careful not to step on a caterpillar, though, and, yuk yuk, he’s a vegetarian!) Exposing the immorality, the murder, that logically follows free-market ideals, Verdoux is like a silver screen Godfather, executed with a wink and a smile.

As a comedy, the awkwardly paced film affords lots of laughs, but none boffo. (In a departure for Chaplin, the comedy is mostly verbal and vicious: suave sophistry—the usually silent Chaplin proves he has quite a way with words—and pointed barbs, respectively.) The idea, which Orson Welles devised, ought to be deliciously vile but what sounds daring on paper never comes across as pleasantly repulsive as it should. Taking such a class conscious idea to the screen in post-war Hollywood took courage (five years later, Hoover’s FBI would bar Chaplin from re-entering the United States after a trip to England), but little of that courage actually makes it to the screen. Dark without ever quite showing its darkness, Verdoux is executed too conservatively. Chaplin’s performance lacks nuance; his eyes never twinkle with a twinge of homicidal lust. Instead, he persistently maintains his composure; all we ever see is what the women he kills see—his unflappable charm. The murderer in him only exists off-screen.

Though in its second half, a few set pieces, classically Chaplin in their complex choreography, pick things up, as does a film-stealing performance from Martha Raye as one of Chaplin’s many murderable wives. These final scenes, more of which may have made a great film, culminate in the Great Depression, which, to Chaplin, means two things: mass suicide and Nazis. The real tragedy comes too late. After The Crash, only the munitions manufacturers are left with any money, Chaplin cynically suggests, and Verdoux ends with a sermon. On killing, he asks, “does the world not encourage it?...As a mass killer, I am an amateur by comparison…wars, conflict, it’s all business.” In New York last week, the audience began spontaneously applauding. Regrettably, what was once so radical has now become boilerplate fodder, rectitude-reinforcing historical artifact, for the modern armchair liberal. Like Michael Clayton, Verdoux no longer asks anything of us but to feel gratified, which must be why its reputation has, over the last several decades, blossomed.

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19 June 2008

The Happening

Written & Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan

Grade: B+

In a post-The Village and The Lady in the Water world, most moviegoing Americans by now ought to be familiar with M. Night Shyamalan’s lackluster writing skills and well-documented egomania. But the “writer”-director still deserves some esteem as a filmmaker; audiences and critics don’t give him credit for his singular talent as an old-fashioned craftsman. Few directors today, American or otherwise, know how to work the medium the way he does. Buy into The Village’s easy mockability if you will, but Joaquin Phoenix’s slow-motion rescue of Bryce Dallas-Howard was some of the most stirring use of decelerated projection I’ve ever seen. Shyamalan has obviously watched enough great films to know how the good ones look and move. He just hasn’t spent enough time at the library.

Because it’s legitimately funny, Shyamalan’s latest, The Happening, might in many ways be his best work, at least in a long while. Though not his cleverest or his most elegantly composed (and certainly imperfect on plenty of other fronts), the film still evinces the director’s sharp sensibility for striking images, carefully composed frames and graceful camera movements. No trailer as fine as The Happening’s trailer could be assembled from a visually unsophisticated film. But Shyamalan’s talents extend beyond those of a mere visualist: he knows how to fuse those images together in order to build tension—here he manages to transform several shots of wind blowing through trees into credible threats—and elicit pathos. (The Happening builds to a poignant, even if contrived, climax.) But for the first time, intentionally anyway, Shyamalan has managed to make us laugh, thanks primarily to the lead casting of Mark Wahlberg.

Using the self-consciously comic persona he crafted for I Heart Huckabees, marked by an endearingly worldly-wise but earnest idealism, Wahlberg teases some much-needed guffaws from Shyamalan’s insipid dialogue and characterizations, particularly a scene in which he speaks soothingly to an ersatz rubber tree. (In contrast, John Leguizamo, in a supporting role, fails at this task; his edgy delivery of a line—“don’t take my daughter’s hand unless you mean it!”—proves to be the film’s most asinine moment.) Wahlberg alone takes the pejorative implication out of calling the movie laughable. Whether or not M. Night has learned to laugh at himself—whether he’s in on the film’s joke—is both debatable and beyond the point. With the good sense to entrust Wahlberg with the role, Shyamalan has ensured that only the most cynical and unforgiving viewers (those that cannot greet any Shyamalanesque Shyamalan effort with anything but mockery) should find themselves laughing at the film. Well, more than a few times anyway.

Wahlberg stars as a New York City science teacher whose lectures about missing honeybees and environmental abuse are interrupted by what’s mistakenly believed to be a terrorist attack; “just when you thought there wasn’t anymore evil that could be invented,” says Wahlberg’s saucer-eyed wife, Zooey Deschanel, comes an airborne toxin to disrupt the proper flow of mankind’s neurotransmitters, leading to mass suicide across the Northeastern Seaboard.

If Lady in the Water, which even Shyamalan’s staunchest apologists should find impossible to defend, served in part to attack the critical establishment (literally, sigh), The Happening goes farther to attack the ticket-buying public that has seemingly betrayed the director. Shyamalan aims to take Americans, both those in cities and small towns, to task on several fronts, beyond their reluctance to fawn over his films: most notably, their disregard for Mother Earth (nuclear smokestacks figure prominently in a shot of the Pennsylvania countryside) and their misanthropic triggerhappiness.

Every American that Wahlberg & Co. meet is either disdainfully callous, like the many motorists who deny our heroes a ride, or peculiar (and easy to laugh at), from the man who won’t stop waxing poetic about hot dogs to the histrionic old woman convinced that Wahlberg is trying to rob and murder her. Shyamalan even mocks the military, making its one representative a bumbling yokel straight out of Mayberry. It’s a bit mean-spirited—Shyamalan lingers on a real estate billboard that reads, “You Deserve This!”—but in the end well-taken, up to a point. With the Midwest currently up to its street signs in flooding, The Happening, wrapping global warming (and more!) anxieties in 1950’s B-movie atmosphere, is simultaneously the most serious and most fun piece of post-Inconvenient Truth filmmaking that America has yet produced.

Watch the (red band) trailer:


Written & Directed by: Cecilia Miniucchi

Grade: C+

For no other reason than to establish The Theme, Samantha Morton asks her mute, wheelchair-bound mother mid-film whether it’s better to have something than nothing, when you know you’ll never have everything. To find out, Expired hews to Sundance’s never-good-to-begin-with storytelling template: take one quirky outsider (the wackier her socks, the better), fill out her life with eccentric friends and family (don’t forget the kooky neighbor!) and have her narrate the idiosyncrasies of her experience.

Read the full review at The L Magazine.

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16 June 2008

The Strangers

Written & Directed by: Bryan Bertino
Full credits from IMDb

Grade: A-

For a film about strangers, much of Bryan Bertino’s debut feature is familiar. The Strangers, a home invasion thriller, bears a conspicuous resemblance to a spate of recent scary movies: it appropriates a tragic-ironic narrative turn from this year’s Inside (and unfortunately handles it far less gracefully); borrows quite a bit more from last year’s Them; and, more broadly, plays out as a straight-faced Funny Games (that is, without Michael Haneke literally winking at you all the time). And those are just the movies it evokes from the last twelve months.

Even though it doesn’t offer much new material, The Strangers still succeeds, largely because it makes the most of what’s been done before; the writer-director knows which of the genre’s tropes to use to his advantage and which to excise entirely (such as the standard series of false endings). To boot, Bertino knows that a horror movie is only as strong as its underlying themes and, ultimately, his violent fable serves not to divert audiences with air-conditioning and bloodletting but to challenge popular conceptions about big election-year (Republican) issues like family values and the sanctity of marriage.

The Strangers starts at the end and circles back, but not before Bertino gives us a taste of the carnage to come: a heart-shaped hole in a windshield, a shotgun resting on a kitchen counter, a blood-spattered wall and, eeriest of all, a perpetually spinning record, the player’s needle stuck in the vinyl’s inner groove. (Try to imagine the mayhem that must have unfolded as to prevent a man from properly caring for his phonograph.)

Bertino steps back from this post-struggle tableau to introduce our heroes: an unhappy couple, Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman, whose misery is established through a wordless lack of eye contact, in sharp contrast to the motormouthed bickering of Vacancy’s doomed divorcees-to-be. The product of a marriage proposal rejected, The Strangers’s melancholy lovers establish a thoroughly morose mood, ripe for intrusion.

That invasion comes in the form of a coitus-interrupting knock on the door. Stop that babymaking, you’re not even engaged! From then on, the film is an uninterrupted succession of frights, tapping into the standard post-9/11 anxieties: not only the fear of being attacked on one’s own soil, so to speak, but the fear of not knowing what’s coming: the home invaders delay their attack, spending the bulk of their time scaring the young couple—our diegetic stand-ins—with spooky sounds and sinister costuming.

While Them’s invaders used a similar technique, which allowed the directors to offer a metacommentary on horror moviemaking (natch, they’re French), here our villains’ scare-first methodology serves merely as an excuse for the director to practice the finer points of suspense construction. Bertino, master craftsman, expertly builds tension, particularly in an almost already-iconic shot in which a menacing figure slides in and out of the frame’s fringes. While keeping us captivated in silence, Bertino plays on our expectations. A confidently extended build-up to the drawing of window drapes actually pays off with something frightening on the other side of the pane, rather than, say, something scary actually behind the drape-draw-er. Later, when a hand reaches into the frame to touch Speedman’s turned back, it turns out to belong to one of the killers—not, say, to his girlfriend. (We seem to be approaching a point where the cliché is so infrequently employed that it is no longer cliché—witness Atom Egoyan’s recent courage to answer “who done it?” with “the butler!”)

But Bertino’s boldest move is to ignore, ostensibly, all matters of motive. Early on, when Tyler asks why this is happening, Speedman sensibly brushes her question aside. “We don’t need a reason if they come through that door,” he says. Later, when the invaders have our heroes tied to chairs, they confess, with characteristically sociopathic laconicism, why they attacked the couple: “because your were home.” But this isn’t because Bertino is lazy or because he’s after a heightened sense of realism (“that’s what psychopaths are really like,” as the IMDb message board apologists might say); rather, it’s because Bertino’s ascribed motives are more metaphysical.

The three invaders are credited as “The Man in the Mask,” “The Pin-Up Girl,” and “Dollface”. The man wears a jacket and tie; pin-up girl, the cartoonishly sultry facemask of a sexualized adult woman; dollface, the chubby-cheeked, wide-eyed guise of a child. In short, the three are made up as a perverse portrayal of the American family, an ersatz nuclear unit with each outfitted in a warped concept of the domestic uniform. (Papa Murderer, Mama Murderer and Baby Murderer.) The notion, and the threat, of “family,” once personified, ultimately kills our notlyweds just as, in abstract form, it effectively killed their relationship.

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Written & Directed by: Michael J. Bassett
Full Credits from IMDb

Grade: B-

Rather than a gang of substance-abusing, sexually promiscuous teens, the ripe-for-the-picking-off in Deathwatch, an English horror film set during WWI, is a crew of savage soldiers; but like the standard gaggle of high-schoolers, they too must be punished for their immorality—in this case, their bloodthirst. Our hero, then, the last-boy-standing to be, isn’t the sober virgin but the reluctant soldier who possesses those rarest—particularly during wartime—of human virtues: empathy and clemency.

Along those (front?) lines, Bassett’s directorial debut hews closely to horror conventions while also bucking them, albeit lightly; as war movie and as horror movie, the film breaks no new ground, but in juxtaposing the two it at least finds a latent subtext ripe for exploiting. It takes the horror movie form for Bassett to express his anti-war sentiments.

Deathwatch opens in 1917, on the Western Front, and all is not quiet in His Majesty’s trenches: shells whiz by, bombs explode and the sky is alight with orange flares. The camera slowly passes over our heroes, a team of sensible cowards and aggressive deathwishers, each an overactor in their own way. After an expensive-looking firefight, that team is winnowed down to a stock crew of ragtag soldiers without a unit, trudging through fog, mud and singed corpses until they make it to a German trench with a mere three soldiers standing guard. Two are quickly killed, the other beaten unsparingly. “Just doing my job,” mutters the one doing the beating.

Stuffed with man-eating rats and perpetual rainfall—and sketched with a palette composed entirely of shades of gray—Deathwatch plays out as a persistent stream of despondence and violence. The soldiers are contemptuous of one another and take a perverse joy in slaughtering their enemy—they eventually crucify their beaten prisoner. Presenting an unapologetically unromantic and downright cynical view of both war and soldierhood (no magnetic yellow ribbons here), Deathwatch, released in the U.K. in December 2002 (during the build-up to the Iraq invasion) looks now like an vehement counterpoint to the era’s dominant strain of Anglo-American sisboombah warmongering.

During their stint in the captured trench, the soldiers are attacked by a corpse bound in barbed wire, a crimson puff of bloodsmoke, subterranean superworms, and the disembodied sounds of battle: explosions, gun fire, howls of death—a possible collective manifestation of the men’s consciences. The supernatural attacks drive the surviving soldiers mad, leading them to murder one another. The nationalist fighters of Deathwatch aren’t battling an opposing country’s forces—they seem to be at war with the Spirit of War itself.

Unless, perhaps, they’re fighting a vengeful God. “He brought us here,” the Chaplain says, “didn’t He?” Only if it’s that smiteful Old Testament Lord, one who abhors the mortal violation of the Fifth Commandment so deeply that He sees it necessary to take an eye for an eye—or in this case, a soldier for a soldier. Imagine that—an antiwar God.

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11 June 2008

To the Limit

Written & Directed by: Pepe Danquart

Grade: C

A title like To the Limit (Am Limit) might imply a film about those who triumphantly push themselves beyond the edge, but instead this documentary boasts a cast, story and director undone by limitations — limited athletic ability, limited character development and limited faith in one’s images, respectively.

Read the full review at The L Magazine.

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05 June 2008

The President's Analyst (1967)

Written & Directed by: Theodore J. Flicker
Full credits from IMDb

Grade: B

"An unwieldy allegory for the freewheelin’ ‘60s’ ethos of responsibility shirking and self-discovery, The President’s Analyst feels hopelessly dated, from the title (who says “analyst” anymore?) to its central villain (what’s a “phone company”?)"

Read the full review at The L Magazine

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