30 March 2011

Source Code

Directed by: Duncan Jones
Written by: Ben Ripley
Full credits at IMDb

A gripping and gooey sci-fi thriller about fate, do-overs, and not sweating the small stuff, Source Code is like Groundhog Day, if it had been written during the War on Terror by Philip K. Dick. Using the titular technology, the U.S. military sends the consciousness of helicopter pilot Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) into the body of a passenger on a terrorist-targeted commuter train, eight minutes before it exploded. Source Code isn't time travel; it's more like simulation, because Colter can't change what happened. (He's supposed to identify the bomber, so authorities can nab him in the post-explosion present.) Like an avatar unloosed in Liberty City, however, he can endlessly explore this recreated world, choosing every possible adventure, perpetually revisiting every detail of the eight-minute mystery.

Keep reading at The L Magazine

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29 March 2011

Putty Hill

Written & Directed by: Matthew Porterfield
Full credits at IMDb

Putty Hill revolves around, but is not about, the death by overdose of a 24-year-old; the movie doesn't engage with such sensational plots: a group of teens in the woods stumbles across federal marshals hunting a bank robber, and they just laugh and walk away. Instead, writer-director Matthew Porterfield looks in on the lives of those who survived the addict; the movie is about them, as it sketches a bare portrait, retracing the dead man's steps, finding the empty spaces—and people—he left behind, from his beer-soaked karaoke funeral to the bare, flashlighted house where he died. The movie seems looking for a ghost, though, that doesn't exist: Putty Hill is a search through emptiness for something, for anything, that finds only nothing.

It's structured like a documentary portrait, but of fictional characters; the director emerges unobscured by artifice, directly questioning the characters when he's not simply watching them go about quotidian routines: it's like he's catching fictional characters in the usually ignored spaces between traditional scenes (like Gus Van Sant in Elephant), ignoring most of the surrounding drama. It's set in Baltimore, but looks an airplane's ride away from The Wire's innercity Bodymore—it looks like the rural South—yet it shares many of the same problems: drugs, crime, unemployment, ex-cons, ennui. Moving through houses whose walls stand undecorated, Putty Hill is infused with a profound sadness, and a spiritual emptiness, crafting not just a regional portrait but an eerie and somnolent picture of a whole Lost Generation. Grade: B+

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25 March 2011

White Irish Drinkers

Written & Directed by: John Gray
Full credits from IMDb

Early in White Irish Drinkers, a Brooklyn-set bildungsfilm soaked in beer and coming-of-age cliches, a couple of Travolta-dressed slicks wander into an Irish bar. "Go back to Bensonhurst," the bartender tells them, "you disco fucks." Though it shares its setting—Bay Ridge, 1970s—with Saturday Night Fever, Drinkers feels a subway stop away from that movie's flashing lights and kitschy style. Which is to say: this movie's not about the American-born sons of Italy, but those of Ireland.

Nick Thurston plays Brian Leary (see? Irish), a sensitive boy—for a first date, he takes a girl on an afternoon stroll through Green-Wood—with a no-good bruddah (Geoffrey Wigdor), a poor put-upon muddah (Karen Allen), and a rough and tumble da (Stephen Lang, doing his best Ed Harris). Brian's a gifted artist ("Vincent van Faggot") who dabbles in petty theft, torn between two possible futures: College? Or jail, literal and not?

Keep reading at The L Magazine, or read my interview with the director.

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Four Lions

Directed by: Christopher Morris
Written by: Christopher Morris, with Jesse Armstrong, Sam Bain and Simon Blackwell
Full credits at IMDb

The conceptually ballsy Four Lions is a very funny movie...about terrorism! It's centered on an English cell of disaffected young men with radical Mujahideen tendencies, plotting to suicide-bomb London. Director Morris humanizes them by positing them as familiar Apatow types: bickering buddies who can't figure out, at prayer time, which way Mecca lies. (The horrifying subtext of these wouldbe jihadis' buffoonery is that we're powerless to stop such morons from exploding us.) The skittish camera and skit-ish structure—not to mention the sense of humor, based around awkwardness, asshole behavior and perpetual incompetence—recalls the improv-based, handheld-shot English television comedies, from Ricky Gervais' multiple series through 2009's big-screen In the Loop. (Morris' previous credits are all from UK TV.)

The most unsettling part of the movie is how, through this kind of stylistic and structural familiarity, it makes us feel something we wouldn't readily think we could. Morris' gutsiest move, counterintuitively, is to exploit comedy cliches: the main character's wife and son, for example, buck-up his suicide-bombing spirits when he becomes discouraged and his plot looks bound to fail. C'mon, buddy—you can do it! Weirdly, we want him to: Four Lions is about a man struggling to follow his dreams, setbacks and all, and thus taps into the sympathies we've established over a lifetime of narrative experience. Who doesn't want to see a man accomplish his goals with the help of his friends? A comedy about radical Muslim terrorists is one thing—one that makes us root for our own demise is quite another. Grade: A-

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09 March 2011

Black Death

Directed by: Christopher Smith
Written by: Dario Poloni
Full credits at IMDb

For once, it's not really about the journey—it's the getting there that counts. In Black Death, Christopher Smith's medieval road movie, a rogue's gallery of papally sanctioned Glourious Basterds travel through a bubo-scarred hellscape to a village untouched by plague, either to learn their secret cure or to slaughter them for apostasy. It's a bubonic play stripped of Hollywood gloss, a Season of the Witch corrective, torchlit and bathed in soot and smoke. ("If you don't have smoke, you don't have the right atmosphere," the production designer says in the press notes. "Wherever you went in the Middle Ages, it was smoky.") But it's not just an aesthetic antidote to the movies' Middle Ages banality—it's thematically counteractive as well, bitter with God-bashing venom.

Keep reading at The L Magazine

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Deep in the Woods

Directed by: Benoît Jacquot
Written by: Julien Boivent & Benoît Jacquot
Full credits at IMDb

The title (Au Fond Des Bois) refers not only to a physical position, but also a psycho-spiritual condition: this peculiar road movie-courtroom drama is often set on the back trails of rural 19th Century France—it meanders through isolated villages like Xena stripped of kitsch—but also features characters whose minds are lost in the deep recesses of human ignorance, naivete and superstition.

Nahuel Perez Biscayart plays the Templeton-faced itinerant Timothee, who rapes and ensorcells a young maiden (Isild Le Besco); as though he is literally magnetic, she abandons her father and her home to follow him on his wanderings. He is the master mesmerist, a puppeteer of human marionettes, the opposite of an exorcist...

Keep reading this dispatch from 2011's Rendezvous with French Cinema at The L Magazine

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