29 November 2009

Year-End Round-Up Part One: (500) Days of Summer, Bronson, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men

It’s that time of year when screeners start piling up next to my DVD player and the magnitude of what I missed this year stares me in the face, tauntingly.

(500) Days of Summer (directed by Marc Webb; written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber; full credits)

(500) Days of Summer chronicles the ups and downs of a relationship, and does so with a delightfully freewheeling filmmaking spirit: direct address, split screens, voice-overs, diagrams, impromptu dance numbers, a jumbled chronology, and a subjective editing structure. Director Webb is like our country’s Christophe Honore, except his sensibilities are so Hollywood, masquerading as Indiewood: there’s the precocious kid, the Greek chorus of ribald pals and, worst of all, the soft music and Tender Moments that seem to conclude every scene; the formal liberation, ultimately, simply obscures an essential shallowness of content. (Webb over-relies on pop music to do the hard emotional work, so much so that when the opening notes of “Bookends Theme” sounded late in the film, I couldn’t help but laugh out loud.) The boisterous charm wears off quickly.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays the boy and Zooey Deschanel the girl, who he meets, loves and loses over the course of 16 months. The characters, especially Deschanel, are defined merely as a sum of their tastes: her favorite Beatle is Ringo—do you understand what that means? Because it’s really fucking significant. That these kids look and feel so familiar is the most frustrating thing of all: is this what we’ve become? In Band of Outsiders60s Godard is an obvious inspiration—the characters famously raced through the Louvre; here, our lovers run through an Ikea. Let it serve as a sign of the times. Grade: B-

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Bronson (written & directed by: Nicolas Winding Refn; full credits)

Bronson is based on the life of Charles Bronson—not the (popular?) movie star, but the famous English inmate, who took the actor’s moniker as his nom de combat: he’s the most violent prisoner in Britain, who has spent decades behind bars thanks to the years added to his sentences for his bloody outbursts. Bronson, in a manic performance by Tom Hardy that exudes a Jack Napier-level of playful insanity, narrates the film from a dark stage, often in costume, chronicling his childhood and young manhood—marked by robbery and disproportionate violence—through his stays in various jails, psych wards, and disco-era England. (He’s briefly released.) Writer-director Refn scores the film with a blend of opera and contrapuntal rock, which heavily stylizes the gory beatings against creamy and colorful textures.

The director posits violence as art, as performance, as a talent, as a calling, as a cause for fame; think of boxing, wrestling, American football or summer movies taken down from their rarified stages, the brutishness placed back into the real world, which asks the audience to confront the cultural fetishization of barbarity. That is, Refn avoids the pitfall of adapting a real life story—getting mired in conforming the complexities of a life into the blueprint of a familiar narrative—by artfully addressing a larger, compelling theme. Until he settles into the biopic’s familiar rhythms, anyway: eventually, there’s a love interest, even an inspirational mentor-slash-foil, who actually says “you have to find the part of you that doesn’t belong here [in prison].” At least he gets a beating like everybody else. Grade: B

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Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (written & directed by: John Krasinski; full credits)

Not-so-brief interviews with sometimes less-than-hideous men punctuate a short story collection of the same name by David Foster Wallace; a series of answers without questions, they served the book as interludes, at worst, or thematic mortar, at best. Dispersed willy-nilly into John “Jim Halpert” Krasinski’s film adaptation, they feel contrived to the point of absurdity. Who speaks so eloquently without prepared notes, let alone so frankly? Krasinski errs from the onset by inventing a flimsy narrative frame in which to jam DFW’s monologues: Julianne Nicholson, moping like an abused puppy through a one-note performance, plays a grad student (hey, Brooklyn College!) who, in the wake of a devastating dumping, has embarked on an anthropological study of sorts: how have decades of feminist advances affected the male psyche? So, sometimes Wallace’s (provocative!) monologues are spoken from long tables fitted with microphones, but other times they’re worked into Scenes From a Life. (A chat on the line for the bathroom, for example.)

The interviews usually have little to do with what’s happening in Nicholson’s life. And, anyway, the framing device is thin, a cheap excuse to parade a stream of L.A. actors in front of the camera to deliver what amount to flashy theatrical performances, rooted in gesture and intonation rather than a thoroughly realized emotional center. There are notable exceptions: Frankie Faison recounting his father’s life as the attendant in a ritzy bathroom; Krasinski’s climactic explanation of why he left Nicholson. But even if every scene were a standout, the film still wouldn’t work: this isn’t proper material for a movie, at least one too cowardly to embrace a real avant-garde structure. Maybe it would function better as a stage piece. Or, like, as a series of short stories, collected in some kind of book… Grade: C-

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27 November 2009

Horror Movie Round-Up: Last House on the Left, Pontypool, I Can See You, [Rec]

I watched a bunch of recent horror movies so you don't (necessarily) have to.

Last House on the Left
Directed by: Dennis Iliadis
Written by: Adam Alleca & Carl Ellsworth

A punishing rape scene at the thirdway point of Last House on the Left goes on for several shots too long: there’s no good reason our villain couldn’t climax more quickly, assuming such a scene was necessary at all. (It’s not.) Later, there are multiple stabbings, shootings, and thwackings with all variety of household weapons objects: fireplace poker, shower curtain rod. A man gets his hand caught in a garbage disposal before getting a hammer to the brain.

The movie is disgusting. And the violence is disturbing, too—but it’s the film’s underlying politics that really make you want to vomit.

A remake of Wes Craven’s ’72 debut—itself a (loose!) retelling of Bergman’s The Virgin Spring—the film concerns two teenagers who are abducted, ravished, beaten and left for dead by a cohort of easy-to-hate villains; with the spree of violence concluded and their car broken-down, the bad guys seek refuge at a nearby house—which belongs to the parents of one of the girls! The ‘rents figure out what’s happened and take a gruesome and splattery revenge. It adds up to a wacky conservative fantasy of law-and-order and vigilante justice: bad guys are everywhere, they have no redeeming qualities, and we need to cleanse the earth of them—we the multiple-home owning white people, that is, the perpetual victims under constant threat from criminals. (It could almost be an equally repellant terrorism allegory, if Iliadis were a sharper director.) That the parents defeat the enemy with a combination of guns, kitchen knives and found objects serves as a testament to American pluck, moxie, ingenuity, prosperity, and general badassery. U.S.A.! U.S.A.! Grade: D

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Directed by: Bruce McDonald
Written by: Tony Burgess
Full credits from IMDb

Pontypool is almost entirely set in a (spacious) radio station; you’d be forgiven for thinking it was an adaptation of a play—particularly as its aesthetics evoke Talk Radio—but in fact it’s based on a novel, whose author also penned the screenplay. The theatricality and resulting claustrophobia is particularly effective: as mayhem transpires outside the basement-studio’s walls, it unfolds for the audience in phone calls, external reports of bloodthirsty and cannibalistic mobs—what turn out to be zombies. The general rule of thumb in storytelling is “show, don’t tell,” but Pontypool is stronger for its narration of the unseen: horror movies in particular thrive off suggestion, because the images conjured by our own imaginations are almost always creepier than those that can be created on screen.

But it’s not just the palpable sense of chaos, disorder and uncertainty that makes the movie so rewarding: it’s its clever political message. The rampaging zombies don’t hunt by scent or sight but by sound, infected by a virus that spreads through language (specifically the English language, in a juicy detail). Men turn to unthinking mobs, capable only of repeating others’ words. Families murder one another; houses are turned against themselves. The filmmakers’ target is Talk Radio, obviously of the kind that would (after the film was released) put together Tea Parties, the kind that makes Americans mindless with the potential to incite violence. Burgess sums up his position nicely in this on-air exchange, between the morning shock jock (the sonorously voiced Stephen McHattie) and a medical expert:
“Should we be talking at all?”
“Well, to be safe, probably not. Talking is risky. And, well, talk radio is high risk, so we should stop.”
“But we need to tell people about this. People need to know…”
“…let’s just hope what you’re getting out there isn’t going to destroy your world.” Grade: B+

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I Can See You
Written & Directed by: Graham Reznick
Full credits at IMDb

Phew: it takes a long time for I Can See You to get going. In the meantime, we suffer through getting to know a trio of unlikeable Pete Campbell wannabes—Brooklyn ad men, on a head-clearing trip to the forest. Most horror movies, like this citykids in the woods variation, depend upon sympathetic identification with the leads, accomplished through long introductory sequences of character development. But, here, a total absence of drama, action or meaningful conflict exposes the three as little more than mean, ugly, self-consciously styled Billyburgers hustling for a piece of that evil Madison Avenue pie. Look at how littered their campsite is, how they dress for the forest like it were just one more night out at Trash Bar.

Then, around the two-thirds point, something happens (sort of), and I Can See You, at first channeling L’Avventura via The Blair Witch Project, loses all its rationality, moving past Inland Empire territory—a retro musical number, a campy TV pitchman (Larry Fessenden) lurking among the trees, a random zombie chick haunting a trail—and into the realm of pure abstraction. I Can See You makes some bold choices, maybe, but some neat surrealism can’t hide its underlying vacuity. Grade: C

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Directed by: Jaume Balagueró & Paco Plaza
Written by: Jaume Balagueró, Paco Plaza and Luis Berdejo
Full credits at IMDb

So, it turns out that Quarantine was a remarkably faithful adaptation of its source material, the Spanish film [Rec]—even the sets are nearly identical. Both films capture the thrilling pandemonium of a routine fire department service call gone wrong—28 Days Later super rabies meets 28 Weeks Later’s conspiratorial paranoia—in long unedited takes, filmed in the rawness of firsthand experience with a handheld camera that is disorienting and imprisoning: it puts you at the mercy of the directors, who exploit their authoritarian position to maximum effect. Tempers flare in desperation—leading to some overacting, especially from Ferran Terraza as the fireman who survives the longest—and lots of screaming, running and bleeding ensue. [Rec] is leaner, Quarantine has some better details: a medical intern in the original is a vet in the remake, and the American version has that amazing moment of murder-by-camera. In their slight variations, the two are like companion pieces, but also essentially interchangeable. Grade: A-

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Ward No. 6

Directed by: Karen Shakhnazarov
Written by: Karen Shakhnazarov & Aleksandr Borodyansky
Full credits at IMDb

Social misfits often harbor an irrational (except in tyrannical states) persecution phobia, a fear that their otherness will become punishable by law—or at least by some extra-judiciary cabal. As the circles defining artists and eccentrics tend to overlap, this anxiety frequently manifests itself in art, from the senseless bureaucratic injustice in Kafka to Hitchcock's wrong-man manhunts. But writers and filmmakers often also reveal a deeper, more specified fear of their own mental processes; a free capacity for contemplation distinguishes the thoughtful types from the masses, resulting in a worry among the former that the exposure of their private heresies will result in oppression by the institutions representing the latter: Winston Smith's struggle to avoid prosecution for thoughtcrime, Randle McMurphy herded into the folds of conformity through coerced lobotomy. Ward No. 6, Russia's bleak and vigorous submission to the Academy Awards, taps into this brand of psychological apprehensiveness, of mental-as-political repression. And, as a result, it's a deeply unsettling film.

Keep reading at The L Magazine

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23 November 2009

The Box

Written & Directed by: Richard Kelly
Full credits at IMDb

The Box, a moving, mystical, metaphysical epic of illogicality, puts into narrative action the sort of absurd ethical scenarios usually cooked up only for textbooks. (I can tell you from experience that doing so is the dream of every undergrad double majoring in film and philosophy!) Based on a Richard Matheson short story, once before adapted as an episode of the 1980’s Twilight Zone revamp, the film takes off when The Great Frank Langella turns up at the doorstep of Cameron Diaz and James Marsden with a box and a moral proposition: push the big red button and you’ll get a million dollars in untaxed cash. But someone you don’t know will die.

There’s a reel of decision-making (during which I kept thinking about the History Eraser Button) but of course the couple pushes the button and of course weird shit and moral lessons ensue. The surprise, for the casual multiplex goer (how this got a wide release is beyond me), is the degree of weirdness, though any film fan who spotted Richard Kelly’s name in the opening credits should have been prepared for such batshit; the director of Donnie Darko and the much maligned Southland Tales turns a simple story of button-pressing into sci-fi madness that touches on outer space exploration, life-changing lightning strikes and extra-terrestrial possession.

Kelly tries to keep himself under some kind of control here—or, more likely, Warner Bros. was begging him to tone it down—if not narratively then at least formally: The Box’s filmmaking fireworks draw less attention to themselves than those of Kelly’s other films, though he’s still a whiz with the crane and tracking shots; he also possesses a peerless knack for gradually raising the emotional intensity of a scene through music, as well as a talent for elaborate set design: taking place in the 1970s, the film is rich with creamy earth tone textures, as well as baroque wallpaper and tiling patterns. (Kelly’s visuals betray a powerful Kubrick influence, The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut in particular.) It’s a stylized setting to befit the fantastical narrative.

As bonkers as it may play out—the script’s details and revelations, like a bloody nose epidemic and mobs of eerily zombielike irregulars, do little to locate the viewer within the escalating craziness—the story is rooted in real feeling, and not only in the central couple’s heartbreaking affection for each other; as it’s set in the 70s, the film features the same sort of recessionary desperation we’re feeling now: Diaz is a teacher about to be laid off, Marsden is a NASA scientist whose astronaut application has been rejected. (One possible reading of the fatal button press is that financial hardship leads to an erosion of the basic decency upon which society is built.)

But the contemporary parallels extend beyond the economic: Kelly’s story, bearing the scars of the Bush-era, includes a government conspiracy involving the phone-tappin’ NSA, and Langella has “employees” everywhere, spying on Americans as though part of the Terrorist Information and Prevention System (they’re in fullest force at the library, a sly comment on the old Patriot Act); the aura of suspicion grows so powerful that houses are, at least for a moment, divided upon themselves.

The Box, at root and in broad terms, is a lesson about learning to care more about the group than the self. (A common lesson as of late, from Ghost Town to The Simpsons Movie.) More specifically, though, it seems a parable about The Wars, about Americans’ willingness to kill strangers in exchange for prosperity—as long as they don’t have to get their own hands dirty, of course. Kelly’s final point is that kind of violence eventually comes back around, often sooner than later. Grade: A

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Where the Wild Things Are

Directed by: Spike Jonze
Written by: Spike Jonze & Dave Eggers
Full credits at IMDb

Spike Jonze accomplishes what he’s said he set out to do with Where the Wild Things Are, his meandering adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s slim, picture-book classic: he captures the visceral, mercurial nature of childhood. Jonze and screenwriter-collaborator Dave Eggers are deeply in touch with the pre-adolescent experience: the flights of imagination, the pangs of indignation: the thrill of the snowball fight, the hurt feelings when the game goes too far. Often filmed, especially at first, with a shaky handheld camera, the film reproduces the convincing and highly subjective point of view of an attention-starved child, Max (Max Records), who reacts to being wounded or ignored (by a too-cool teenage sister and a workaholic mom with a new boyfriend) by acting out. By being destructive. By being a wild thing.

After a particularly bad squabble in which he bites his mother (Catherine Keener), Max, in his ratty wolf costume, runs until he can’t, finds a small sailing vessel, and drifts into a moonlit sea until he lands upon what evokes a sylvan Skull Island. There, he meets a gang of leaderless monsters engaged in a primal Project Mayhem: destroying their nests, throwing each other into trees, demolishing forests faster than loggers in the Brazilian rainforest. (Shooting in Australia with his regular D.P. Lance Accord, among barren woods and a glaring sun, Jonze dissonantly roots his make-believe in reality; accordingly, the monsters are actors in extravagant costumes, giving the film a beautiful tactility.) Max, through the false boasting familiar to children, becomes their king, and they give each other solace in rumpus and the sharing of impossible dreams.

But, like Sad Max, it turns out the monsters are sad on the inside, and Jonze’s film soon collapses into a languorous examination of petty jealousies among bellyachers; the makeshift monster family is at loggerheads like the humanoid family Max left behind, and a number of set-pieces (strung together to make something approaching a story) in this alternate fantasy world parallel the ones we saw earlier in Max’s real life: the snow ball fight reappears as a dirt-clod war that ends in the same streams of tears. Except now Max no longer occupies the role of misfit child, but serves as the monsters’ matriarch; like the white man turned Negro in Finian’s Rainbow, Max learns through role reversal that it’s tough to walk in another guy’s shoes—here, his mother’s.

Jonze and Eggers unearth some sophisticated emotions: namely, that sometimes we hate the people we love, a fact ordinary kids’ movies don’t often acknowledge but that children themselves surely understand, at least instinctively. (The film also has a charming, childish absence of logistical detail: we never see Max eat.) The problem is that faithfully capturing the textures of juvenilia should be a means, not an end: Where’s the story? What’s the point? Where the Wild Things Are offers little insight beyond the banal: “It’s hard being a family,” as one character says. Is that really the best Jonze and Eggers could come up with? Just because it’s ostensibly a “children’s movie”—though aimed perhaps at man-childs—doesn’t mean it has to mimic a child’s inner life: emotionally rich, intellectually dim. Grade: B-

Watch the trailer, the year's best:

18 November 2009

The Sun

Directed by: Aleksandr Sokurov
Written by: Yuri Arabov & Jeremy Noble
Full credits from IMDb

Alexander Sokurov is hard to love because many of his movies are so unapologetically Russian: Unlike many festival-circuit darlings, he's less concerned with making movies for the Cannes-noscenti than for his own countrymen. Of course, the director will always occupy a tender spot in the hearts of cinephiles everywhere for 2002's Russian Ark, which was not only shot in one take (the first such feature film; Rope doesn't count because poor Hitchcock had to change reels every 12 minutes), but in a single glorious, outrageous, complexly choreographed, epically DeMillian one. But that film, like Alexandra, which opened in New York six years later, proves somewhat esoteric, content-wise, for U.S. audiences not steeped in Kremlinology and Russo-social history. In contrast to a movie like Michael Haneke's upcoming The White Ribbon, whose historically specific message and moral can be reapplied to other cultures and time periods, the aforementioned Sokurov movies are political films that address a particular time, place and people. Their themes don't quite translate across regional boundaries.

But in his latest, The Sun (Solntse), the director turns his attention eastward to nearby Japan, ca. 1945, a promising development as investigations of Nihonese yesteryears don't feel as culturally hermetic as a walk through the Hermitage; WWII history is more familiar than that of the Bolshevik and Chechen Revolutions. The depiction of a declared deity doubting his divinity in defeat involves an element of universal understanding—humans have narrated the fall of kings since at least Ancient Greece—that's lacking from the chronicle of a tough and tender babushka's peregrinations through the rubble of Nokhchiin.

Keep reading at The L Magazine

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13 November 2009

Please Please Me!

Written & Directed by: Emmanuel Mouret
Full credits at IMDb

Imagine if Woody Allen had followed Annie Hall with Take the Money and Run! Emmanuel Mouret, unfortunately, now joins the list of comic directors—Wes Anderson, Christopher Guest—who succeeded poignant, mere-comedy transcending near-masterpieces with follow-ups that signal artistic regression. Coming on the heels of the sumptuous and heartbreaking Shall We Kiss? (Un Baiser s'il Vous Plaît), the hilarious and handsomely shot Please Please Me! (Fais-moi Plaisir!)...is a goofy, mostly physical comedy about a day and night in the life of a man (Mouret) desperately seeking, a la Curb Your Enthusiasm’s fourth season, some girlfriend-sanctioned, extra-relationship relations.

Keep reading at The L Magazine

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11 November 2009


Written & Directed by: Scott McGehee & David Siegel
Full credits at IMDb

At the beginning of Uncertainty, a double-feature of contrasting genres edited into one peculiarly pointless movie, the central characters confront a choice that every Millennial New York couple (of means) must eventually face: Brooklyn? Or Manhattan? But filmmaking couple Scott McGehee and David Siegel don't feel compelled to make such a decision: instead, situating the lovers at a crossroads—the Brooklyn Bridge—they imagine the course of either scenario. The directing duo made their debut over 15 years ago with Suture, a master's thesis-ish film that put textbook theory up on the screen: it addressed such pressing issues as, how do we identify with characters and follow stories?, by casting what are supposed to be nearly identical brothers with actors who not only looked nothing alike, features-wise, but who were of different races-a fact all the characters seemed to ignore. Similarly, Uncertainty operates off of a meta-conceit; its dual, parallel-edited, "what if?" narratives reflect the arbitrary choices of screenwriters: where do my characters live? Are they in a conspiratorial thriller? Or a "kids-in-Brooklyn-apartments" domestic drama?

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That Evening Sun

Written & Directed by: Scott Teems
Full credits at IMDb

Like the recent Is Anybody There?, also built around a grizzled geezer who resents his placement in a care facility, That Evening Sun, a cheapjack Deep South allegory in which a clash between archetypes escalates to a fiery face-off, boasts a single virtue: the centerpiecing of a withered and weathered performer at the top of his golden-age game. While that otherwise unremarkable film gave Michael Caine a role fine enough to go out on, should he have died after the shoot, here the same is done for Hal Holbrook. Hitherto, the aged actor has had a lengthy, respectable career: he's best known for his portrayals of Mark Twain on the stage and small screen, his television turn as Lincoln, his recurring roles on Designing Women and Evening Shade, his defining Deep Throat. But it wasn't until a heartbreaking performance in the otherwise abysmal Into the Wild in 2007 that he catapulted to the top of the list of the finest working actors of his generation. He even snagged an Oscar nomination.

Keep reading at The L Magazine

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