Friday, December 11, 2009

Review: Ratcatcher

Garbage is piling up all around the neighborhood due to all sanitation workers being on strike. All this refuse lying around suburban yards appears meant to symbolize the people who live in this place. Young children frolic wantonly upon mountains of garbage, while their adolescent peers rape, murder, and pillage throughout the neighborhood. These kids are trash. It is clear that the filmmaker wants us to make this connection. The adults have produced these children and then carelessly strewn them all over their front yards, paying no mind to the damage they cause, just as they do with the rotting bags of trash.
Scottish writer/director Lynne Ramsay's 1999 film Ratcatcher is not about a literal catcher of rats. It begins with the the accidental drowning of a young boy while playing with his friend. That friend is James, an aimless 10-year-old in 1973 Glasgow who provides the stoic little center of the film. The canal is the ratcatcher, and the children are the rats, frolicking in garbage and treating everyone with an antisocial, rodent-like regard.
Ratcatcher is in a spiritual and thematic cousin to two seminal American films: Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep, and Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show. All three films concern and explore elements and emotions of childhood that are rarely discussed, either in cinema or in everyday life. Also, each film is essentially without traditional plot, instead opting to follow its characters’ through their everyday lives, finding theme and profound meaning by the end.
Also like those two older films, Ratcatcher is brilliant, beautiful, and mesmerizing. Every element is staggering in its dreamlike authenticity and comes together to create a film that contributes immensely to the cinematic language.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Critique: It’s Called a Change Over

Director David Fincher’s Fight Club was released last month on the Blu-Ray format in a commemorative 10th anniversary edition, packed with all kinds of interviews, commentaries, and other special features. An honor like this is not bestowed upon just any film, especially one that did so poorly at the box office and was nominated for only one Academy Award (which it did not win). Additionally, the critical response of the time ranged from bewildered at best, to disgusted at worst. The film Fight Club could not be fully appreciated in 1999 because contemporary critics knew not what to make of it as it was so different from what they expected, and its influence upon the art and business of cinema had yet to be witnessed.
Critics and general audiences alike went to see Fight Club not knowing what to expect. The marketing campaign put together by the studio, 20th Century Fox, led people to believe that the film was all about underground boxing, when in fact that is only a small part of the story. The film does feature boxing, but it is only one ingredient that David Fincher used to tell the story of a man frustrated and numbed by the culture of consumerism he lives in. The marketing did not sell the real gist of the film to moviegoers, instead opting to push the action as much as possible, and in so doing, accidentally created a false expectation of what the film was like. If the film had been sold instead as an art film, or as a psychological thriller, it might have been more successful at finding an audience while still in theaters. Alas, audiences and critics were confounded when what they thought was a straight action film turned out to be an intelligent, multilayered cinematic trip about societal emasculation and schizophrenia, which they did not recognize at first; this led many critics to write negatively of the film:
Fight Club isn't a movie so much as it is a series of blows – three fast shots to the gut, an uppercut, a left-right combination to the head and a final jab that splinters your rib cage. It doesn't end; a bell rings. You stagger to your corner, beaten and pulped, sucking for raw oxygen. Is this the same as being a good movie? Well, not exactly, though the director, David Fincher, clearly thinks so. (Hunter)
The contemporary review quoted above, which appeared in the Washington Post, uses a multitude of boxing metaphors to describe the film negatively, and even takes a passive-aggressive shot at Fincher himself. This kind of hostility from a critic exemplifies how frustrated many reviewers and filmgoers were when they first laid eyes upon Fight Club. The film challenged audiences in ways they didn’t expect and could not recognize at first.
In the decade since its release, Fight Club has influenced countless films and found both a devoted audience and the critical respect it deserves. Critics have been able to views the film in the proper historical context:
Indeed, a few short years later, it is now viewed as a milestone, a benchmark in the careers of everyone involved. For Fincher, the story of a young man discovering the beauty - and the inherent danger - in embracing your inner maleness become a commentary on an entire sub-generation of dejected men. Thanks to Palahnuik’s brilliant deconstruction of the bottomed-out baby boom, complete with IKEA “nesting” instincts and designer mustard mandates spoke volumes back when Clinton was canvassing the White House, and now, two regime changes later, it seems even more prescient. (Gibron)
The above review of the recent Blu Ray release of Fight Club has ten years of hindsight to work with, and this historical perspective helps the critic better appreciate not only the artistic merit of the film, but also its significance in cinema and pop culture.
Fight Club has had a strong influence on subsequent films. Mostly, filmmakers have been inspired by the film’s unique and riveting visual style. Take, for example, the opening credit sequence in Brian Singer’s X-Men (2000), a computer generated backward tracking shot which twists and turns through strange clouds and patterns, accompanied by fast-paced, dramatic music. It is almost identical to the opening credits sequence in Fight Club, the only difference being that the original scene takes place inside the protagonist’s brain, where as the copycat moves through some generic, nebulous ether. Fincher started with setting the scene inside the character’s brain, and then the style and technique came from that, whereas Singer and his effects team saw the sequence in Fight Club and copied the style, without putting any intent or purpose behind it. This hollow mimicry is evidence of Fight Club’s extreme originality.
When people saw Fight Club for the first time in 1999, they failed to grasp how mind-blowing it was. Nothing like it had been done before, and it had yet to be imitated, so it did not jive with the accepted notion of what a film is supposed to be. Over the last ten years, however, many people have come to recognize just how revolutionary the film was. It has not only changed our idea of what the art of cinema can do, but also opened a previously closed window into our collective unconscious and, in turn, helped to shape our cultural discourse in ways we are still struggling to comprehend. The most famous line from the film, “The first rule of Fight Club is you do not talk about Fight Club”, has been quoted and paraphrased so much that it has evolved beyond the film to become a part of our everyday lexicon. In the years after the film’s release, actual fight clubs began to spring up all across the country. The film was so powerful that it inspired young men to get together and beat each other up. What other film can this be said about? Fight Club is now such a large and integral part of American culture that it is mind-boggling to imagine that it was not embraced and revered more widely in its own time.

Critique: Give ‘Em a Thrill: Action Films Past and Present

What are the common staples of the action genre? Set pieces, heroism, violence, villainy, an explosive climax. Buster Keaton’s The General is an excellent and revolutionary example of an action film, and indeed solidified many tropes of the genre that continue to be used; 1988’s Die Hard is one example of a film that employs these elements.
The General strikes the perfect balance between story and action; never do we feel that either element is overplayed or laid on too thick. This being said, however, the story is really only there to provide a skeleton for the action to rest upon. Nearly two thirds of the film depict action set pieces, most of which are centered on trains. The whole reason the film was made was to stage these highly original and breathtakingly impressive real-life train stunts. This is the purpose of every action film, to give the audience a thrill. The story, however sparse, is still critical, as it gives us a reason to care about the people imperiled in these cinematic feats of daring.
When The General was released in 1927, audiences had never seen anything like it. The stunts were thrilling and, sometimes, actually threatened the lives of the performer, namely Buster Keaton. A reason for this might have been to impress the audience, or perhaps it was due to the limited filmmaking technology of the time; there was no green screen, no stop-motion, no CGI. Keaton actually had to run atop trains and demolish bridges in order to depict these events on screen.
The General may seem typical to today’s audiences because its tropes have become so familiar. Take, for example, Die Hard, perhaps the greatest action film of the 1980s. From a literal perspective, these two films are not very similar, but if we ignore the specifics of their respective story lines and focus more esoterically, we can see how they are in fact quite alike. Each concerns an everyman who finds himself in an extraordinary situation: a high speed train chase in the case of The General, and a terrorist takeover of a skyscraper in the case of Die Hard. Also, both films are set in and around familiar, ordinary constructs, trains in one, a high-rise office building in the other. And, as with The General, the story in Die Hard is only there to give the action a framework. But even if we focus more specifically, the similarities between the two films remain. Die Hard’s protagonist, John McClane, begins the film outside the good graces of the woman he desires, much the same way Johnny Gray does in The General. But, through heroism and rising to the occasion, each man proves himself and wins the heart of the girl in the end. A trial by fire to obtain what one desires is one of the main tropes of the action genre. The locations and time periods are different, one film is silent while the other features extensive synchronous sound, but they are akin in their use of action to entertain the audience.
What is the goal of an action film? The goal is to give the audience a thrill. Through an engaging yet sparse story line, sympathetic characters, and heightened, exciting situations, action films as varied as The General and Die Hard thrill the audience, whether the year is 1927 or 1988.

Critique: Conversation of Blood: How Sound Tells the Story

When synchronous sound first appeared in films in 1927, many filmmakers feared that the art of cinema was dead। Over the years, however, ways were found to integrate sound usefully into the filmic language. The films Throne of Blood and The Conversation are two excellent examples of how juxtaposing sounds and images can be used to help tell the story and infer deeper meaning.
The sound in Throne of Blood is very literal; it is always attached to an object on screen. One of the most striking and memorable uses of sound in the film is the lonely, hushed swishing of Asaji’s gown upon the floor as she flits around the fortress in the tense minutes just after the murder of the Lord. It is practically the only noise we hear, and this near vacuum of sound serves to create a haunting and foreboding atmosphere. If the film were silent, the same effect would not be rendered. This is an example of how sound helps to expand the impact of the scene. The same notion would not be accomplished with music; indeed there is no score accompanying this sequence, and with good and deliberate reason: it would be too much. Kurosawa knows this, and so, uses admirable restraint. The sound of Asaji’s swishing gown goes everywhere with her, like a devious whisper. It is quite literally attached to her. it is a sound we would hear were we actually in the room with her, yet on the screen it takes on a special significance. This small sound has a big impact; it tells us that she is a maniacal schemer inside a deceptively quiet package. The sound of the swishing gown, being the only noise present, tears through the scene, simultaneously building and cutting the tension. The sound is simple, mundane even, but the context it is put in causes it to mean something more.
Conversely, the sound effects in The Conversation are used more metaphorically and symbolically. They start out holding onto literal objects, but quickly let go and are allowed to roam around the ether, attaching themselves to things they should regularly have no business associating with. This detachment and reassignment does well to create new and precise meaning. A perfect example of this is the titular, spied upon repartee that Caul records. We first witness the conversation as it happens in real time, attached to the images it originates from. Later, though, as Caul listens to bits and pieces of it, it is out of context, assigned to new images. The words take on new meaning; repeated over and over, they begin to lose their traditional definitions and become just sounds, almost like music. Indeed, the score of the picture is quite minimal, leaving room for these orphan syllables to fill the sonic gaps and punctuate the action themselves. Another function that Coppola employs this method for is to represent Caul’s state of mind cinematically. He starts out sane. We see him listening to the conversation as it happens, in context, unfolding from beginning to end. As the film progresses, however, Caul begins to loose his grip on reality, just as the sounds he listens to again and again are no longer connected to the situation that birthed them. With The Conversation, Coppola proves that sound design can be used to enhance images on screen, rather than detract from them.
Similar to Throne of Blood, though, is Coppola’s deft use of the absence or near-absence of sound. Take the elevator scene, wherein Caul inadvertently shares a ride with one the subjects of his surveillance. For the first time in the film, there is a hush, and it is suffocating and deafening, making us and Caul feel trapped. Again, like Asaji’s swishing gown upon the floor in Throne of Blood, this quiet in the elevator, in the larger context of the film, does more than any carefully crafted effects or musical score possibly could.
Another thing the two films have in common with regard to sound design is juxtaposition. Loud scenes are adjacent to quiet ones. Juxtaposition is a key element of the cinematic language. Usually, it is thought of with regards to opposing images, but it applies equally to sound. As discussed before, Coppola removes certain sounds from their original places and pairs them, or juxtaposes them, with new images.
Through expert use of juxtaposition, Kurosawa and Coppola prove that sound does not have to be a crutch, but can in fact greatly enhance the power of a film.

Critique: Kubrick’s Path to Glory

(SPOILERS) Who has the moral high ground on the battlefield? Is there any place for morality during war? With Paths of Glory, director Stanley Kubrick attempted to answer these questions, using dynamic lighting, juxtapositional editing, economical mise en scene, and archetypal characters to symbolize good and evil, and in so doing defined himself as one of the 20th century’s most important and elemental filmmakers.
The film is shot in black and white, or rather black or white; there is no gray area, an absence which represents the moral absoluteness of the characters. When General Mireau tours the trenches, he is brightly lit and clean, whereas the soldiers are dirty and mostly in the shadows. Since we have already been introduced to Mireau in a bright, sterile environment, it is almost as if the general is in a bubble, protected from the realities of war by his place in the social order. All of this is achieved simply with lighting. Additionally, when we are first introduced to Col. Dax, our heroic protagonist, he is rather neutrally lit, representing his place as a sort of moral center between the innocent soldiers and the evil general.
Kubrick cuts from scene to scene very abruptly. Frequently, we are taken from Mireau’s great, white, palatial headquarters suddenly to the dirty, claustrophobic trenches where the honest, hardworking soldiers reside for the first third of the film. This is clearly meant to bring our attention to the disparate conditions experienced by the men who give the orders, and those who actually carry out those orders.
Often working in tandem with the editing is Kubrick’s use of very efficient mise en scene. This is most obvious, once again, in the early trench scenes. Take, for example, one of the long, backwards dolly shots of Col. Dax walking through the trenches. We see not only Dax, but also dozens of soldiers going about the business of making war, loading weapons and so on. In the same shot, we can see bombs exploding over head, just outside the trenches. This helps greatly to suggest setting, and quickly and effectively creates a foreboding and oppressive atmosphere. The soldiers are literally under the bombs, just as they are figuratively under the generals, who are equally as lethal and uncaring as the artillery.
Later in the film, during the court martial, Kubrick takes care to arrange the characters in a very specific way. The judges, legal counsel, and various other court officials are grouped tightly together, around a long table; General Mireau, the orchestrator of the whole affair, is nearby, watching and relaxing upon an opulent sofa. This comfortable cabal is placed in great contrast to the three soldiers on trial, who sit several feet away in nondescript chairs. This arrangement is shown to us plainly in a high angle wide shot which looks almost straight down on the scene. The people at the table are one object, while the soldiers are each alone, adrift and helpless. This is brilliant mise en scene, as it is not only immediately informative, but also visually compelling and, perhaps most important of all, symbolic of the various characters’ situations and states of mind.
Col. Dax is clearly good, and General Mireau is obviously bad. There is not much moral ambiguity with regard to the characters in Paths of Glory. Yes, they are both technically on the same “side”, being French officers, with a common enemy in the Germans, but it is obvious within the first reel of the film that the two are opposed; Dax as protagonist, Mireau as antagonist. When we first meet Mireau, he is lounging contentedly in an open, luxurious setting. He discusses tactics and the loss of life so casually that it is difficult to sympathize with him. Later, as he commands the attack on the German Anthill from his safe spot behind the trenches, he screams maniacally and indignantly at his subordinates when they question his order to fire on their own troops. He is so obsessed with winning the war and maintaining discipline that there remains no humanity within him. We are clearly not meant to like this character, and in fact, over the course of the picture, we come to hate him. He is archetypically evil.
Col. Dax, on the other hand, is always presented sympathetically; he is modeled after the righteous hero archetype. When we are introduced to him, he is shirtless, his bare skin meant to represent his innate humanity. Additionally, he is always on the side of his troops; he openly challenges his superiors in defense of his men, first in the trenches, then more formally as their legal counsel in the courtroom. This animosity between French officers rather than between nations is driven home by the fact that we do not actually see any krauts until the very end, when the sweet, angelic German girl is made to sing in a rowdy tavern, causing the drunken French soldiers, and the film itself, to take on a sobering silence. We realize that this story was never about French vs German, but instead about the lower class foot soldiers vs the aristocratic high command, and, in a broader sense, the righteous human spirit vs the madness and folly of war.
Does Col. Dax gain the moral high ground on General Mireau by defending the three men accused of cowardice? If so, what does he accomplish? The men are still found guilty and thence executed. Perhaps nothing is accomplished, save only to show the world that war cannot completely crush every person’s humanity and compassion. Whatever the case, with Paths of Glory, as he would with all of his subsequent work, Stanley Kubrick showed that he had a fundamental understanding of the power of film and how to harness its various elements, be they lighting, mise en scene, or editing, to create a singular, visceral cinematic experience.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Review: The Headless Woman

Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman is the best head-injury film since Christopher Nolan’s Memento. Through a breathtakingly remarkable and original use of cinematography and shot composition, the Argentine auteur effectively yet subtly puts the audience in the head of her disoriented protagonist.
Vero is an upper-middle class woman living a comfortable life in suburban Argentina. She takes the kids to the pool, drinks wine with friends, and so on. One day, while driving alone along an empty country road, she runs over something, banging her head in the process. Stopping, she slowly collects herself, then drives on, making a point not to look back at the thing she has hit. This places great doubt in her newly-injured mind; was it a person, or just a dog? The uncertainty haunts her.
Do not expect a traditional narrative from this point on. It is not Martel's intent to present a clear story. We often do not even know who certain characters are or why particular events are happening. None of this matters because this film does not exist to present a story, but rather a unique state of mind.
The way we are pulled into this state of mind is through the gorgeous, subtly bizarre cinematography. Most scenes consist of only a single shot which often stays completely stationary, allowing the various characters to move in and out of frame, between foreground, middle ground, and background. When attempting to create a psychological state on the movie screen, directors will often move the camera more, and include a multitude of cuts. This method is over-used and lazy. Martel understands this, and so makes a great effort to do something different. It pays off. The restrained camera movement and conservative editing are, together, a stroke of genius, and do more to put us in Vero's rattled mind than any impatient, MTV-style moviemaking could.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Review: The Informant

The Informant! is a bizarre and brilliant film. Directed by Hollywood indie auteur Steven Soderbergh, it is inspired by the real-life story of the Arthur-Daniels-Midlands price-fixing scandal of the mid-1990's, told from the questionable point of view of engineer turned executive Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon). Whitacre is a devoted family man, has a fulfilling, high-paying job, and seems altogether content, so when he suddenly goes to the FBI with inside info on his employers' possible illegal activity, something is probably up.
The film begins routinely enough. Whitacre narrates as he drives his son to school, telling us some facts about corn we might not know (his company is a corn conglomerate, among other things). The score is light and upbeat, the cinematography is bright and glossy; we appear to be in for a pleasant, if predictable, 108 minutes of entertainment. This familiar and comfortable feeling is fleeting, however. We don’t really notice at first, but things slowly start to take a strange turn into to unforeseeable territory.
Matt Damon is a very well-liked movie star, and Soderbergh uses this to his advantage in order to take the audience somewhere they cannot possibly foresee at the outset. The fact that Whitacre, with much to lose and apparently not much to gain, not only rats out his company, but goes undercover as an informant for the FBI, endears him to us immediately. He is an everyman, portrayed by the afore mentioned beloved movie star, putting himself in a heroic position; there is almost nothing that could turn the audience against him. Almost nothing.
Aside from Damon, there are no widely recognizable faces in the picture. many key supporting roles are played by standup comedians; they all do a fine job, to be sure, but it is a strange move on Soderbergh’s part. Stranger still, is the the superb choice of Quantum Leap alum Scott Bakula as the beleaguered FBI agent assigned to Whitacre and the ADM investigation. Bakula’s last high profile role was as Captain Archer on the dreadful Star Trek spin-off Enterprise, a part for which, many felt, he was terribly miscast. So it is a baffling yet welcome surprise to see Bakula tearing through a meaty role that suits him to a tee. His Agent Brian Shepard is a gruff, world-weary, and honest man who doesn’t take any crap, and he makes the perfect foil for Whitacre, especially as the latter’s behavior becomes increasingly erratic. Bakula’s presence in the film is weird and wonderful, and helps to elevate things above the normal Hollywood fare.
Another lesser known actor who almost steals the show is Melanie Lynskey as Whitacre’s loving wife, Ginger. She takes a role that easily could have been phoned-in as a standard ‘supportive spouse’ to another level. Her performance is subtle and honest in a way that Damon’s certainly isn’t, and it gives the film its moral and emotional center. Later in the film, after certain things have been revealed regarding Whitacre, the only reason we continue to care about him is because she cares.
Soderbergh takes what on the surface seems completely ordinary and turns it into something unexpected. The film is not what it seems, just as Whitacre is not. The narration that our protagonist provides throughout the movie actually has nothing to do with the action on screen, or even the story; he talks about the hunting behaviors of polar bears, or wonders what kinds of tie he should buy. It is such a bizarre thing, a voice over that does not help to illustrate or explain what we are watching. However, we do not even notice this incongruence until very late because we are so used to hearing voice overs in films. Soderbergh takes what the audience is familiar with and mutates it in order to challenge us without our knowledge.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Review: Big Fan

"I can't tell you how sick I am." That is the first line of Big Fan (2009), writer Robert Siegel's directing debut. The line is uttered by the lead character, Paul (Patton Oswalt), an obsessively devoted New York Giants fan, as he rehearses a tirade to be delivered later that evening on a sports talk radio call-in show. This is a nightly ritual, and it is one of the biggest, and only, parts of his small life. Over the course of the film, we come to learn just how apt that line really is.
Siegel is most recently known as the Onion editor turned screenwriter who penned the Mickey Rourke comeback vehicle The Wrestler, and Big Fan is very much in the same vein, in that the film follows it's lonely subject through an episode in his life that challenges everything that he feels is right.
One night, while out with his admiring and lone friend Sal (a Christopher Walken-esque Kevin Corrigan), Paul catches a glimpse of his favorite player, Quantrell Bishop. Without hesitation, the two follow Bishop from Staten Island to a strip club in Manhattan, where, due to a misunderstanding, the drunken athlete beats Paul to unconsciousness. He wakes three days later in a hospital bed, and the first thing he wants to know is the score of the latest Giants game. Horrified to learn that not only did they loose, but that Bishop, their star player, has been suspended as a result of the assault on Paul, he refuses to cooperate with the police investigation. What follows is a harrowing and fascinatingly original journey into the depths of guilt, loyalty, obsession, and revenge.
The writing is brilliant, the direction assured, the digital cinematography beautiful and dynamic, but the main attraction here is Patton Oswalt. Known to many as one of the great comedians of his generation, Oswalt has made appearances on the big and small screen in mostly supporting, character-actor roles, but with his stellar work in Big Fan, he soars to a higher echelon; he joins that rarefied fraternity of comedic actors who have proven they can blow the doors off serious drama. As Paul's dilemma unfolds, Oswalt takes us to a dark, dark place; the struggle and pain on display is frightening, heartbreaking, and unwaveringly honest.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Review: Der Baader Meinhof Komplex

Der Baader Meinhof Komplex (2008) is a German movie, but it drips with American cinematic influences. This is ironic, as the central characters (the founders of the Red Army Faction [RAF]) carry out acts of terrorism in protest of what they call American imperialism which stretches from Vietnam to Israel to their native West Germany. It is directed by German TV director Uli Edel, but its operatic scope and gruesome yet cartoonish violence smack more of American masters of blood and guns such as Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese.
Our anti-hero is Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck), a well known liberal journalist who is attracted to the burgeoning RAF by their political message (the West German government is fascist) and free-spirituality. She is at first taken with the charismatic leaders of the group, lovers Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu) and Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek), but, as the RAF's actions become more violent and brazen, she begins to see them for who they are.
There is a key act of he film set in the secluded desert hills of Jordan, where the Baader-Meinhof gang goes to get trained by Palestinian freedom fighters in the ways of guerilla war far. During the classic crawl-rapidly-with-gun-under-barbed-wire-through-ditch-while-being-shot-at exercise, Baader gets bored, telling the perplexed Arab insurgents "we just want to rob banks". And in another scene, during target practice, the hot-headed Baader ceases firing one bullet at a time and opens up rapid fire, telling his frustrated instructors "its more fun". These scenes serve to reveal the RAF's true colors; they are not the righteous, oppressed freedom fighters they pretend to be, but simply bored, sociopathic brats taking advantage of the political unrest of the period (1967-1977) to kidnap and kill public officials and recruit disenfranchised youths to carry on the carnage; the good-hearted Meinhof realized this all too late, and it drives her insane.
While the people portrayed may not be admirable, the film itself is quite excellent. The action is artfully yet organically staged, the camera work is frenetic without causing nausea, and the direction is compelling. But this is really an actor's showcase. Bleibtreu is explosive and rakish as Baader; Gedeck's Meinhof is the moral center of the film, and she sells her heart breaking realization extremely well; and perhaps most impressive is Johanna Wokalek as Ensslin. Wokalek steals every scene she's in; she is a restless, dangerously beautiful force of nature who might shot you as soon as look at you.
Der Baader Meinhof Komplex might seem tedious to some, but it pays to stay with it, especially if you have even the slightest interest in post-war German history. But the film is not only informative, but also full of enthralling cinematic moments. However, the film is a contradiction; it uses cinema to canonize and mythologize people who killed and maimed, themselves fueled by some sort of fantastical notion of fighting the power. They claim to fight against so called American Imperialism, yet they drive around at night, wantonly shooting off their guns, listening to western rock music. The leaders of the RAF act as if they are playing parts in their own action film, so the whole endeavor has a kind of life-imitating-art-imitating-life quality to it.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Review: Inglourious Basterds

Inglourious Basterds (2009) is a strange and wonderful entry in the vast pantheon of World War II-based cinema. It is Quentin Tarantino's first film in five years, and it signals a new phase for the eccentric writer/director. His career so far is broken into these stages (including only films he has both written and directed): we've got the "Los Angeles Trilogy", consisting of Reservoir Dogs (1992), Pulp Fiction (1994), and Jackie Brown (1997), which, aside from being set in the same city, are each populated by ensembles of obsessively foul-mouthed, shady characters who get themselves into violent situations mostly through stupidity. Next we have the "Homage Trilogy", which includes Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003), Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004), and Death Proof (2007). Each of these, as the name of their grouping suggests, is a naked tribute to the genre flicks that Quentin grew up with (kung-fu in the case of the former two; grindhouse car horror with the latter). Whether his newest film is the first in a new set, or simply an island, of coarse remains to be seen.
Basterds happens in 5 chapters, the first of which opens on a farm in Nazi-occupied France. We are reminded, intentionally no doubt, of those sweeping, Western landscapes, from the lone farm house, to the laundry hanging out to dry, to the Nazi patrol in the distance coming towards our idyllic scene like a marauding posse. Leading this band of Nazis is Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), a brilliant, slitheringly charismatic, jew-hunting German officer who serves as the film's antagonist and main attraction. Waltz is an Austrian actor who has mostly appeared on German-language television over the course of his 30+ year career; it's mind-boggling that this is his first American film, or that no one is already familiar with him outside of Central Europe. Christoph Waltz gives not only the best performance in Basterds, but of the year. This previously unknown master thespians threatens to displace Daniel Day-Lewis as the greatest actor of his generation. 
Half the reason to see Tarantino's latest is Landa; the other half is everyone else in the film. Despite Brad Pitt's name standing alone on the poster, the picture is really an ensemble piece, with not just one protagonist. Pitt cartoons it up as sarcastic hillbilly Aldo Raine, the leader of the eponymous "Inglourious Basterds", a group of eight Jewish-American soldiers who tear through France killing, scalping, and generally terrorizing the Nazi's. 
Joining the male dominated cast are Melanie Laurent as Shosanna, a secretly Jewish young Frenchwoman who runs a movie theatre in Paris while planning her revenge against the Nazis for murdering her family; and an unusually good Diane Kruger as German movie star Bridget von Hammersmark. 
With Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino has essentially filmed a master thesis on what cinema means to him. The entire film is really not much more than a series of extended, loosely connected dialogue scenes which all threaten to explode at any moment. He brings filmmaking down to one of its most essential elements: tension. Yes, there is humor, but this is largely a product, or perhaps a reaction, to the razor-tight tension that tethers us breathlessly to the screen; we need to laugh so we don't cry. Yes, there is violence, but this trope must be established to keep things from going slack, to keep us suspended. 
See it, and witness not only the mainstream introduction of a future acting legend, but also a master class in sophisticated, boisterously entertaining cinema. 

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Review: District 9

The fact that District 9 (2009) became an immediate box office hit in the age of vacuous tween-oriented marketing and Michael Bay's Transformers franchise is nothing short of a miracle. Just as miraculous is the film's very existence, no less at the hands of a major studio. First time writer/director Neill Blomkamp's film is fueled by a level of originality, creativity, and disregard for convention that is nowadays only evident in the most hard-scrabble of independent cinema, and some of the more daring serialized shows on TV.
Set in Blomkamp's native South Africa, District 9 is a faux-documentary which morphs seamlessly into a narrative film. We are dropped right into the situation as if it were real. About 20 years ago, A giant alien space craft entered Earth's atmosphere, eventually coming to rest over Johannesburg. The South African military cracks the derelict craft open to find over a million malnourished extraterrestrials huddled and shivering, clearly in need of assistance. Complicating matters is that all of them appear to be essentially uneducated workers, with no leaders. The South African government hires MNU, a massive, militaristic corporation, to move the beleaguered aliens (referred to by the epithet "prawns") to a piece of land outside Johannesburg dubbed District 9. 
Moving forward to the present, we meet Wikus Van De Merwe (first-time actor Sharlto Copley), an eager desk jockey working for MNU. We follow him as he leads a team into District 9 with the task of informing the prawns that they are being relocated to a larger area. These eviction scenes are where the film really comes into its own. There is so much thrown at us. The aliens, first of all, are an achievement all by themselves. Realized through CGI motion capture, they are photo-real. While this computer-aided technique has been used all too commonly in recent years, and to varying degrees of success, the digital artists behind District 9 have taken it to the next level. The prawns not only look real on the surface, but they also move organically, which is something that has, up to this point, been seemingly impossible to achieve with CGI. Similarly, they mesh seamlessly with the real world environment, another notoriously difficult feat to pull off. 
In addition to the breathtakingly realistic prawns, another aspect that grabs us in these early scenes is just how dirty everything is. This adds realism as, sadly, it causes District 9 to resemble all too well real world slums and refugee camps, which were no doubt inspiration for the film, especially given South Africa's history of apartheid. The prawns root around in garbage heaps for food and basic supplies; intoxicated residents vomit and relieve themselves in public. These conditions, coupled with the prawn's natural and believable appearance, cause us to sympathize more with them than with any of the human characters. 
Chief among the aliens is Christopher Johnson (no doubt a name given to him by the humans in charge), a smarter-than-average prawn who is building...something; to reveal what would give far too much of the plot away. 
As the film settles into a narrative track, "Christopher" emerges as the main protagonist, with Wikus acting more as a catalyst. It is really a testament to the digital artists, and the actor behind Christopher Johnson (Jason Cope), that a computer generated character who only speaks in clicks and clacks ends up tugging at our sympathies more than any of the humans. 
District 9 is not only topnotch science fiction, with the most believable first contact between humans and aliens perhaps ever depicted in cinema, but also an allegory for how we, both as individuals and as a society, relate and react to people and creatures that are not outwardly like us. In South Africa, the film reminds people not only of their all too recent history of apartheid, but also the ongoing crisis of refugee camps there and all across the continent. And in the United States (this critic's home) we see the film and think of our own record of racism, from Indian removal to slavery to segregation, while in Germany it strikes yet another cord. And on and on. 

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Review: The Hurt Locker

The Hurt Locker (2009), a nail-biting, fall-off-the-edge-of-your-seat thriller about a US Army bomb squad in Iraq, has no political agenda, and that might be the most impressive thing about it, though it has so many elements rightfully vying for our admiration. The only set up it gives us is "Baghdad, 2004". We, a well informed audience, can fill in the rest with our preconceptions and strong opinions. 

Our protagonist is Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), a brilliant, fatalistic bomb tech who marches to the beat of his own drummer. Renner brings a reckless, troubled charm to the role, and he owns the film. Save for the opening, he is in every scene. There is really no plot; the film is simply a series of insanely tense ordnance disposal sequences, with deftly subtle character details sprinkled in at just the right moments. 
Written by first-time screenwriter Mark Boal, a journalist who was embedded with a real-life ordnance disposal unit in real-life Iraq, the film is palpably authentic. Perhaps 95% of the action is set in the war zone, and we come to feel that we have actually ridden along with these soldiers. 
Considerable praise is also due to director Kathryn Bigelow, who, in concert with cinematographer Barry Ackroyd and editors Chris Innis and Bob Murawski, has finally managed to find a perfect equilibrium between stationary, traditional camerawork and vomit-inducing shaky-cam. Paul Greengrass should take note. 
With The Hurt Locker, Bigelow (responsible for much mediocrity as Point Break and K-19: The Widowmaker) has suddenly revealed herself to be a master of suspense. While diffusing a bomb is a cheap and easy way to build tension, she takes it to the next level, serving up a cinematic feast of details in such a precise order and combination that we are taken somewhere new. There is no overarching plot or goal; we are given moments, and as such allowed to bathe completely in each moment, as of course these soldiers must do in reality. The Hurt Locker has the rare distinction of being both informatively true to life and so cinematically innovative as to add new vocabulary to the filmic language. 

Friday, June 12, 2009

Review: Gomorrah

What strikes the viewer first and most evidently is that Gomorrah (2008) feels nothing like any mob movie we have seen. It is indeed appropriate that the film takes place in Naples, Italy, the origin of so many mob families that washed up on the New England shore and went on to help inspire the entire mob movie genre in America. Called Napoli by the locals, the city is really the film's most prominent star. Set in the present day, the film peels back a thin, dusty layer of romanticism to reveal a 21st century city that sits rotting atop ruins, both literal and figurative.
Another thing that is blatantly peculiar about this film is that the mobsters depicted do not remind us of those romantic, almost stately warring families from such films as The Godfather and Goodfellas. Most of the "soldiers", as many members of mob families are called, are very young, some no older than 12, and they are more akin to the gangs of Southern California than anything that Martin Scorcese ever put on the screen. Maybe we are finally seeing how Italian mobs really are, sweeping away the myth of the Corleones, or maybe, being set as it is in modern times, this similarity to homegrown American gangsters is evidence of the global, post-national world we now find ourselves living in. The kids in Gomorrah wear bling, listen to rap and electronica, carry out drive by shootings, and even act out scenes from the film Scarface. This current generation, too young to remember the Soviet Union, is coming of age in one nation, all over the world. Free-trade, American cultural imperialism, and the proliferation of the internet has knocked down old borders and laid waste to old customs and traditions. 
Cinematically, this picture reminds us of two films. First, Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep; both films clearly know the worlds they depict in amazing, vivid depth, and each is largely a collection of moments from these worlds. At the end of many scenes we are left to wonder why we have just been shown what we've been shown and what on earth the characters were doing. Another film that comes to mind is Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's Amores Perros, in the way that it's filmed, and the fact that each tells several parallel stories that are all connected in the grand scheme of things. Gomorrah, however, feels more voyeuristic than these films. Things are presented in a very fly-on-the-wall fashion. 
That is not to say that we are kept from connecting with the characters. Perhaps the most memorable is a pair of teenage Scarface enthusiasts who knock about in their rundown section of Napoli, robbing arcades, annoying the local kingpins, and wantonly, ecstatically firing a stolen cache of automatic weapons at the Mediterranean Sea.
Many of the familiar tropes are present, from the cycle of retribution and questions of loyalty and influence to the kind of autonomous society the families create, but they are laid upon a framework that is utterly original. Gomorrah is not only a challenge to mob pictures, but to cinema in general. The structure, narrative, editing, fluid camera work, and complete embrace of real locations as compelling set design all threaten to redefine, or at least further refine, what filmmaking is in the 21-century.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

SIFF Review: Moon

Moon (2009) is writer/director Duncan Jones' debut feature, and it is a promising start to what should be a long career. The film is a throwback to pre-CGI sci-fi gems of the 70's and 80's, such as Alien and other such offspring of the phenomenon that was 2001: A Space Odyssey. Though the practical models and sets may have been constructed more for financial reasons than anything else, the effect is nonetheless welcomed; the whole thing feels very authentic.
Set entirely upon the moon in some not-so-distant future, the story revolves around Sam Bell (Oscar-worthy Sam Rockwell), a blue-collar everyman who's 3-year contract on a lunar base that produces some kind of fusion energy is almost up. He is alone, aside from a robot named GERTY, so it not too surprising when he appears to be losing his mind after such a protracted stint away from humanity.
Though other human actors are featured on computer screens and in brief flashbacks, the film rest entirely upon Sam Rockwell. The term tour de force is trite and really doesn't do justice to his performance here. He is given the unenviable task of filling the vast emptiness of the moon with life, and he delivers. It would be rather narrow to simply label this film as 2001 with a pulse, but that notion definitely comes to mind. 
As mentioned before, the filmmakers steer away from the standard 21st-century practice of spraying CGI all over the screen, instead using traditional physical models and miniatures to represent everything from the exterior of the moon base to the lunar rover to the giant ore collectors. The effect is really much more believable than anything that can be done inside a computer, and it boggles the mind why we do not see this used more often. 
There is a twist that we do not see coming, and it is quite original. Sam suddenly encounters a double of himself, but he and the audience are forced to wonder: is he just going crazy, or is there something sinister at work here? The praise for Rockwell's performance is not complete without addressing this double situation. Most of the film plays out with two Sams, and its in the trailer, so talking about it will not spoil things. One actor playing two characters at once is nothing new, but here, it is taken to another level. It is impressive to see Sam Rockwell engage in fisticuffs with and even at one point play ping-pong against himself, but what makes the whole thing work so well is the acting. Rockwell manages to create two versions of the character, the first is 3 years moon-bound, the second a younger, more hot-blooded incarnation, but they are still, in essence, the same person.
The director, Duncan Jones, was at the screening I went to, and he took some questions from the audience. He alluded to the idea of making another film set in the same universe he has established with Moon, and we can see this happening. If Hollywood loves anything, it is a franchise, and, should this film be a success (and I think it will be), it will be no surprise when we see a sequel. 

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Review: Star Trek

With Star Trek (2009)Director JJ Abrams has successfully rescued a franchise that should have been dead ten years ago. In injecting new life into the series, he has not only resurrected an American institution, but further developed his frenetic, easy, smartly crafted style of story telling, pushing narrative cinema in a new and surprising direction. 
The most important scene in a film is the first one, and Abrams seems to understand this. We open on the USS Kelvin, a Federation Starship, as it does generic scientific research in orbit of a star. Suddenly, some kind of wormhole bursts opens in front of them, and out pours a gigantic alien spacecraft that resembles a poisonous flower. Unprovoked shots are fired, demands are made, and the Kelvin's captain goes to the enemy ship, leaving one George Kirk in command. The captain is killed upon the alien ship, more shots are fired, and Kirk orders all hands to abandon ship, including his very pregnant wife. What follows is a heartrending study in sacrifice and fast, decisive action in the face of certain death. The scene is beautifully shot and wonderfully acted, and, if nothing else, Abrams has an uncanny talent for getting the audience to immediately care about characters we have never met before. 
The film is fresh and new, and this starts with the cast. Leading the pack is douchy-looking Chris Pine as James T. Kirk, future captain of the Starship Enterprise. Despite his troubling resemblance to Disney teen star Zach Efron, Pine is actually quite good; his young Kirk is a bright, impatient punk kicking around in the desolate farmlands of Iowa when we first meet him, throwing one liners at every beautiful woman and punches at every dumb thug. He's plucked out of the Midwest by Captain Christopher Pike and joins Starfleet Academy, and proves to be quite the whizkid, but not without a little smarm and rambunctious sarcasm. His diametric opposite is one Mr. Spock, a half-human-half-Vulcan misfit who finds his place at Starfleet. Played by Zachary Quinto, this young Spock reminds us at first blush of Dwight Shrute from "The Office"; he appears a humorless, power-hungry rule-nazi. But as the film progresses, he is given some heart and just the tiniest glimmer of a soul. 
Drawing from the Princess Leia archetype is Zoe Saldana as Nyota Uhura, a spunky, brilliant linguist who, upon her first encounter with Kirk, says "I thought you were just a dumb hick who only has sex with farm animals." Her affection is one point of competition between our "dumb hick" and Mr. Spock, who, throughout most of the film, completely despise each other. Some critics have bemoaned the film's villain (Nero, a Romulan... pirate, or something, from the future, seeking revenge for some nonsense that will be explained later by Leonard Nimoy) for being ill-conceived and lacking in screen time (strange complaints to come from one person's mouth, but many critiques are along these lines), but they fail to see that the real struggle, the real animosity is between Kirk and Spock. Nero is merely a catalyst; he's around only long enough to set things in motion. Kirk and Spock are constantly butting heads, and they even come to blows and one point. And Spock, as acting captain of the Enterprise, is so irritated with Kirk that he goes so far as to stuff him in an escape pod and leave him on some Hoth-like planet. 
The rest of the principle cast is uniformly superb, though they are given scant screen time. Kiwi actor Karl Urban is an inspired choice for Kirk's best friend, Leonard "Bones" McCoy; he perfectly renders the curmudgeonly, acerbic Southern doctor, though his American accent can be heard slipping at certain points. Comedy actor John Cho is passable as Sulu, pilot of the Enterprise, and genuine Russian youngster Anton Yelchin is actually kind of hilarious as Pavel Chekov. Similarly, Simon Pegg, an actual Brit, is perfect as Scotty, a genius engineer who apparently moonlights as a comedian. The entire ensemble is great together, and we look forward to further installments with this new breed of intergalactic travelers aboard a shiny, new Starship Enterprise.

Review: Watchmen

From a filmic standpoint, Watchmen (2009) does not remind this reviewer of anything. Director Zack Snyder, just three films into his career, has managed to create a style that is completely original and uniquely cinematic. Perhaps it was born out of a desire to imitate the kinetic stillness of comic books, but with this film Snyder finds a place in between the action. The glorious title sequence, for example, at first glance looks like a series of still photographs, but upon closer observation, we realize that these are moving images captured with high speed film. There are sequences like this all through out the film, and it quickly settles into a visual style that, it can safely be said, has never been seen before.
Sticking like glue to the plot, pacing, and even dialogue of Alan Moore's original graphic novel of the same name, the film has not an original bone when it comes to the things that happen; where it breaks new ground is how we see these things happen. Filtered through Snyder's brain and the faces of his actors, this cinematic endeavor brings Moore's vision into the living, breathing world.
This is more of an ensemble piece than any other comic book movie to date (even X-Men). We are first introduced to aging, retired superhero Edward Blake, aka The Comedian. He is killed within the first three minutes, but, because of the nonlinear narrative, he is featured throughout the film. Played by Seattle native Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Blake is a violent, cackling psychopath, and everything revolves around trying to solve his murder. The Comedian was part of a band of superheroes in the 1940's called The Minutemen, and then joined the group's successor in the 70's, called The Watchmen. Their activities were eventually outlawed, but one still roams the streets fighting crime: Rorchach (Jackie Earle Haley), an insane noir ninja whose paranoid journal entries provide voice-over throughout. Both Haley and Morgan turn in explosive, charismatic and psychologically subtle performances that save these comic book archetypes from coming off as mere caricature. Rorchach's former partner, Nightowl aka Dan Dreiberg, lives a normal, apartmental existence. Patrick Wilson takes Dreiberg, a somewhat boring character in the comic, and creates a complex and sympathetic every-man who just happens to have a history of fighting crime in a silly costume.
Perhaps the most impressive character is Dr. Manhattan, a former scientist who is transformed into a literal super being through a freak accident. Now he can rearrange matter and perceive time in ways no human can; this unique perspective renders him completely apathetic to the fate of humanity, a fate he can change with but a snap of his fingers. Played through motion-capture by a reflective and tragic Billy Crudup, Dr. Manhattan is the most realistic and impressive CGI character since Andy Serkis' Gollum. His blue skin emits a light that shines upon his surroundings in a surprisingly realistic way, he moves with an earthly weight, and his face is relatable and does not fall into the uncanny valley (thanks, no doubt, to Mr. Crudup). 
Rounding out this group of retired superheroes are Malin Akerman as Sally Jupiter, and Matthew Goode as Ozymandias, but neither is visibly old enough for their parts or equipped with enough talent, especially next to their much more impressive cast mates. 
Watchmen, the film, has been criticized for having an unwieldy story that is at once over stuffed with subplots and too sparse. These critics do not realize that the film is not here for the story; the reason it exists is to present a collection of moments. The first two thirds are a glorious exhibit of live action filmmaking stretched and bent to fit into new and wondrous places. From the title sequence, to Dr. Manhattan's heartbreakingly beautiful origin story, to The Comedian's final, fatal battle, Mr. Snyder shows us some kind of new, uniquely 21st-century vision of where cinema is going or ought to go. 

Friday, May 8, 2009

Review: Wendy and Lucy

Writer/director Kelly Reichardt's third feature length film, Wendy and Lucy (2008), is strange and beautiful. It follows Wendy (Michelle Williams, laconic and make-upless), a 20 something making her way from her home in Indiana to a prospective job in Alaska. Along for the ride in her dying car is her best friend Lucy (played by an affable dog named Lucy). The story opens as they stop for the night in a small suburb of Portland, Oregon. Waking the next morning, Wendy discovers that her car will not start. The nearby auto shop is not open, the local strangers are apathetic, and some bad decisions lead to a missing Lucy.
Reichardt possesses an easy, observational directorial touch. She keeps a tantalizing distance from her subjects, in a way very much like Jim Jarmusch or Charles Burnett. There is something almost voyeuristic in the way we just sit and watch strangers interact in strange and perplexing ways. 
Both set and filmed in suburban Oregon, the film is doubtlessly the work of Northwesterners, evident in the respectful yet passive-aggressive distance people keep from each other, the aching sprawl, and the unrelenting grayness of both the weather and the infrastructure. Wendy and Lucy is a study in stranger apathy, post-American-Dream America, and the time that comes in every person's life when they realize they are truly alone.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Review: Doubt

Doubt (2008) is based upon the play of the same name by John Patrick Shanley. Set exclusively inside a repressive catholic school somewhere in New England in the 1960's, it is a film about the struggle between doubt and certainty, and how this struggle can blow up into a heartrending, soul shattering battle when the combatants are forced to exist in such a buttoned-down environment. 
Amy Adams (pictured) stars as Sister James, a young nun and teacher at the school. She is a quietly positive, gentle little flower pressed into a black habit. Brilliantly played, Adams' Sister James is the fragile, calm rope that two opposing forces tug at voraciously, each with possibly ill intent. One, the instigator, is Meryl Streep (insert requisite praise here) as the school's hard, cold principal. Streep is downright hawk-like here, her birdy face stone-cut, her big spectacle-eyes like lasers. She suspects that the head priest and one of the students are engaged in... something; it is never addressed straight on. This is how repressed these people are; even behind closed doors, and in the throws of what passes for passionate speech, they cannot bring themselves to say what everyone seems to be thinking. The priest, played with superb aplomb by Philip Seymour Hoffman, is the other tugger here. He is kind and intelligent and progressive, all qualities that Sister James can appreciate and in fact admires. So Streep and Hoffman do their dance, their duel, and sweet Sister James has a choice to make; this little leaf threatens to be torn asunder.
Shanely seems to have some understanding of cinematic storytelling. In the beginning, at least, he lets the camera do most of the talking, which is as it should be. Little scenes that just watch, from afar, the daily life at the school are really quite sublime. It is only later, when accusations are thrown and much near-exposition is spat that things sag and become uninteresting. It can be said without spoiling things that this reviewer felt the end of the film did not deposit us in a different enough place than where we began. Or it was not compelling enough. It said what it wanted to say, but it might have taken too long to say it. 

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Essay - Fahrenheit 451: At Once Real and Fake

Ray Bradbury's 1953 dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451 is not so much about the censorship of literature, but about modern society's lack of interest in books, an apathy born from a preoccupation  with television (and film, similarly). So it is a contradictory exorcise to adapt this book to the movie screen, the very medium (visual story-telling) that the text accuses as it's murderer. This contradiction is epitomized by the fact that the filmmakers had to actually burn books to illustrate the horribleness of burning books. When it is read on the page, the books only burn in your mind, but to put the image on screen, the action must actually be carried out and photographed. This paradox reminds us of the inherent exploitative aspect of filmmaking. The actors must actually cry. Cars must actually crash. Punches must actually be thrown. The act of putting oneself on screen and performing things one would not otherwise do is some form of ritual sacrifice. Baring the soul to the world. In a book, we read that she and he kiss, and there is only the words and the harmless, victimless image in the reader's head. But on screen, he and she are real people, and their real lips really touch, and our eyes are provided with the real image of a kiss, no imagination required. These real people, pretending to be fictional people, are likely not really in love, and therefor the kiss is at once real and fake. When projected from the page to our mind, the kiss is in a way more real because the only people involved are the characters, who really are in love, yet at once it is not happening at all, save in the mind. But on screen, the physical act of two mouths meeting is real, there is proof, it is documented. However, it is more fake, for the kiss is only happening for show. 
Fahrenheit 451 (1966) was french auteur François Truffaut's first foray into color film, and his only film in English, a language he understood very little of at the time, as is evident from the sparse and stilted dialogue which he foolishly wrote himself. 
Austrian actor Oskar Werner is protagonist Guy Montag, a "fireman" (bookburner) who begins to question the system he is a part of. British beauty Julie Christie is on double duty, both as Montag's conformist wife, and as a rebellious school teacher who dares to illegally keep and read books. Christie is the star here, pulling off these disparate roles expertly and with flare. Werner is another story. His Montag is stiff, emotionless, and at some times appears on the verge of narcolepsy. Perhaps his Austrianess is to blame, or maybe his onset animosity with the director. Having seen none of his other work, this reviewer cannot say. 
From it's unfortunately ironic existence, to it's independent filmmaker's ill-advised and jarring transition to Hollywood, to the reported onset arguments and clashing of ego's, Fahrenheit 451 is a perfect example of why some books should not be filmed, and how moviemaking can be so absurd.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Review: I'm Not There

If writer-director Todd Haynes' film I'm Not There. (2007) is to be taken as a straight up biopic about the life and work of music icon Bob Dylan, then this is what we take away from it; Dylan was a phony, pretentious, unoriginal crybaby. But the film's beyond unconventional structure and presentation suggest that it is instead intended as something else. 
To call it experimental would be a misnomer; experimentation is connected to a lack of certainty, and this does not describe Haynes' work here. His assured vision and direction guide the film along at an intentional pace, down twisting ally ways and up into the mystifying heavens. The experience is however arthouse; the narrative, if it can rightly be called such, tennis-balls hither and thither between five different characters and timelines. Beautiful cinematography by Edward Lachman, alternately in color and black-and-white, elevates the film from insufferable pretentiousness to purer cinematic territory. 
Central to the project are the actors that play five characters based on various aspects of Dylan's life. First is newcomer Marcus Carl Franklin, who plays Woody Guthrie, a kid riding the rails with dusty guitar in hand, affecting a poor southern twang when he is in fact a middle-class northerner. Next is Christian Bale as Jack Rollins, an iteration clearly inspired by Dylan's folk days and initial rise to fame. Health Ledger shines as usual as an actor who catches his big break playing Rollins in a film. Though filmed and released before The Dark Knight, it is nonetheless worth contemplating the fact that the most recent incarnations of Batman and his arch-nemesis the Joker play two sides of the same coin here. Bale (Batman) as the honest, humble people's musician, and Ledger (the Joker) as the sociopathic, womanizing sham-artist who rides the former's fame. 
Of course, the main attraction, the exhibit everyone is talking about, is actress Cate Blanchett as Jude Quinn, Dylan's gone-electric Judas character. The hype is deserved; Blanchett so convincingly and casually plays a man that this reviewer would not have known the difference without being aware of the casting. From the voice to the walk to the expression, she captures Dylan at the hight of his apathetic rock star phase. 
Rounding out the ensemble is Richard Gere as Billy the Kid, probably meant to be Dylan as he is now, an outlaw of sorts and a wise, wondering old folk sage. 
As is stated above, narrative is not really a word that fits in a description of this film. It is a collection of interconnected moments, and they are juxtaposed and added up to equal something that is not immediately apparent and cannot be quantified. Haynes clearly has some wild and unique understanding of cinema, and it oozes in I'm Not There. 

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Review: "For Your Consideration"

Haha, okay, we get it. Actors are pretentious whores, Hollywood sucks your soul away, blah blah waah haha we get it move on. 
Christopher Guest's latest cinematic offering, "For Your Consideration" (2006), is a heavy handed, groan-inducing, inside joke about the film industry. Like his previous films, it is cast with a familiar ensemble of comedy actors and relies greatly upon improvisation. But, unlike those films, this one fails to be good or even very funny. In all his films, Guest lays everything on the skeleton of his improv troupe, but here the bones are brittle, and the whole thing collapses. It is really sort of painful to watch these usually gifted actors struggle and grasp to make things funny. There is nothing here beyond the concept that the film industry is a constant and supposedly hilarious battle between artistic integrity and commercial viability. Things never focus. There is no chance for the characters to have much depth. 
One thing that might throw viewers familiar with Guest's previous films is that this is not actually a foux-documentary. Similarly, we are let down because he has set the bar so high.
SPOILER ALERT: We are here going to relate the funniest... no, make that the only funny part of "For Your Consideration". It is a line uttered by Fred Willard (pictured), and goes like this, "You know what they say about blind prostitutes. You really have to hand it to them." There, the only funny line in the whole movie. We have just saved you 86 minutes of improv comedy at its worst. 

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Review: "Once"

As loath as we are to use superlatives, it is nonetheless accurate to say that "Once" (2006) is the best musical this reviewer has ever seen. It is also perhaps the most original film musical since the inception of the medium. Shot sparsely and cheaply with a handheld, digital camera in and around Dublin, it stars two non-acting musicians, essentially playing versions of themselves. They play and sing original songs that they have written, and the music is not beholden to any traditional musical theatre conventions. 
Glen Hansard plays an Irish street musician who is quickly befriended by Markéta Irglová, and young Czech girl who sings and plays piano. At first glance, Irglová threatens to be nothing more than the dreaded Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but to our relief she turns out to be a complex and relatable character. 
Everything that matters is great in this film. The acting is organic and lovable, the cinematography and editing are beautiful but not distracting. What makes this the greatest musical we have seen, however, is the music, or, more specifically, how and when the music happens. There is a scene early in the picture when Irglová and Hansard go to a music shop. She sits down in front of a grand piano, then he begins playing a tune on his guitar. She joins in on piano and they both begin to sing. As we write this, we discover that words really fail to express the magic of how this scene unfolds. To attempt to describe it further would do a disservice to the film and any reader who has yet to see it.
Nothing more can be said. See "Once", and witness the deconstruction and redefinition of what a film musical is. 

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Review: "Il y a longtemps que je t'aime"

Il y a longtemps que je t'aime (I've Loved You So Long) (2008) is very French. Along with being in the french language, written and directed by Phillippe Claudel (a frenchman), and set and filmed in France, the film has many of the tiresome cliches that Americans have come to recognize in these kinds of ventures; flat, undynamic cinematography, beige and lifeless color palette, laconic dialogue, and an uncomfortable deficit of exposition. longtemps exhibits all of these, and for its initial half hour or so they combine into a sticky molasses of almost unbearable french bleakness. 
The only aspect here that will keep a non-francophile from falling asleep or just giving up is the film's star, English actress Kristin Scott Thomas. How fitting that the most entertaining part of a french film is it's one non-french component. As Juliette, recently released from prison after a 15-year sentence, she is a shell of a woman. Scott Thomas does a brilliant job of suggesting so much about this person with the smallest gesture or expression. 
Upon her release, she is reunited with her younger sister Léa (Elsa Zylberstein) and goes to live with her and her family, which includes Léa's two young daughters, her husband, and his wacky, mute father. Juliette is standoffish, the kids are precocious, and everyone is French. 
Juliette's crime is not immediately revealed, and once it is, the motive for it is left for us to guess at until the final scene. It can be said here, without spoiling things, that this final revelation is handled surprisingly poorly, given the filmmakers' care throughout to craft a detailed and realistic experience. It is especially disappointing because the entire story is built around what Juliette did and why, and whether she was justified. 
I did end up almost losing consciousness, but I cannot determine if this was because the film is boring, or because it slowly creates some dreamlike reality parallel to the real world, where former prison inmates live. 

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Attack of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl

A new film archetype has popped up in recent years - the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. She is always a spontaneous, wacky, beautiful young woman. She has no real soul; her only purpose is to fall in love with some brooding, laconic young man who's usually in the process of 'finding himself'. First appearing in smaller films, and then spreading like a cheery, sexy virus to more mainstream fare, the MPDG is a scourge. She has most recently taken the form of indie princess Zooey Deschanel in two upcoming findies (faux indies) - Gigantic, wherein she fawns over master of broodery Paul Dano, and 500 Days of Summer, which finds our vapid, non sequitur sexpot attempting  to bring Joseph Gordon-Levitt out of his shell. 

Here are the two films' respective trailers. 

Like any overused archetype, our Manic Pixie Dream Girl has gone stale, as is evident in these above film advertisements. Also what is clear, in case it was not before, is that Zooey Deschanel always plays the same exact character in every film. She's sarcastic, hilarious, apparently smart, and gorgeous in that independent record store kind of way. Furthermore, she relies far too much on her gigantic, oppressively blue eyes. She will spread her lids the same way to express every emotion from surprise to joy to sadness to anger to horniness. Those eyes must have their own acting coach. 
The Manic Pixie Dream Girl needs to go away. We are tired of depressed, shlubby guys standing around all mopey until this hollow fairy poofs in and "changes his life FOREVER!!!1!!". We are also weary of Hollywood trying to make indie films; this venture is, by its very nature, a contradiction. A true independent film is made for little to no money (and I mean no money, quite literally, not 1 or 2 million dollars), by unknowns, starring unknowns. No crew, no industry involvement. What the big studios are throwing at us are anything but independent. Big stars, big budgets, popular soundtrack, industry directors (the helmer of 500 Days of Summer got his start directing Green Day and Jesse McCartney videos), and recycled and cliched scripts. They are findies - faux indies. What would be much more artistically progressive, and less expensive (moneymoneymoney), than making these farces themselves would be to go out and find true indie film, buy them and distribute them. This is a win-win.