Friday, February 20, 2009

Review: "This is England"

A less insightful critique would label writer/director Shane Meadows' autobiographical film "This is England" (2006) as merely "English History X", but it is far more than that. The similarities are present, insofar as it is a skinhead-coming-of-age picture. 
12-year-old Shaun (stellar newcomer Thomas Turgoose) has recently lost his father in the Falklands War. He wears bell-bottom pants that his father gave him, and is bullied for it at school. Being this is northern England circa 1983, he soon falls in with a group of older skinhead kids, whose friendliness greatly raises his self-esteem. This lonely adolescent finally has a clique to hang with; what follows (a shaved head and so on) is just a part of it and feels harmless enough. 
Shaun and his new friends run and frolic through rundown suburban England, and a care-free time is had by all, until the gang's former leader, Combo (pictured), returns from prison. Lines are drawn, and the "real" skinheads emerge. Brought to explosive, charismatic life by Liverpudlian actor Stephen Graham, Combo is a frighteningly real yet altogether otherworldly and unholy creation, a malevolent force to rival Heath Ledger's Joker or Daniel Day-Lewis' Bill the Butcher. 
Combo takes an immediate liking to Shaun, in whom he sees a younger version of himself. They seem made for each other; Shaun sees a father figure, and Combo is drawn to the boy's unadulterated, bully-induced rage and, probably, his moldable mind. It really is quite terrifying watching young Shaun slip obliviously into the depth of racism. Just the way "Paki bastard" bounds out of his mouth is horrifying, primarily because it is merely blind, child imitation. 
Meadows appears to have quite a talent for crafting realistic scenes that are alternately tight and loose. The camera never calls attention to itself, and it shouldn't; this is an actors showcase. Witness nonactor Turgoose perform beyond most of the ensemble. His Shaun is a witty, angry and precocious kid careening toward manhood. He is defined equally by his temper and his insightful wit. In one scene he will unflinchingly engage Combo in fisticuffs, while in the next he will shoot off lines like, "What are you giving her porn for? She has her own nipples." It is a wise and surprising performance, especially from a 13-year-old novice thespian. The only one who comes close is Graham as Combo. 
"This is England" is a brilliant film, which is at once soul-crushing and charmingly hilarious. See it and glimpse the dark side of The Clash's England. 

Monday, February 16, 2009

Review: "Frozen River"

"Frozen River" (2008) is the debut film from writer/director Courtney Hunt. It is a beaten-down tale of two working class mothers who turn to illegal immigrant smuggling to make ends meet when their men leave them (one through death, the other through a gambling addiction).
Ray (Melissa Leo, subtle, heartbreakingly convincing, and Oscar-nominated) has two dependent sons and an impending payment for a double wide (this is the American Dream, right? A double wide?). Her gambling-addicted husband has recently run off with a big chunk of their money when the film starts, and he never shows up again. Ray finds his abandon car at a Native American bingo hall, where she meets Lila (a fiery Misty Upham), a Mohawk woman who's involved in smuggling illegals through her tribe's territory, which straddles the US-Canada border. it is a chance encounter that sends both women down a life-altering path.
Set as it is at the northern border, this is a film about people pushed to the edge of the American experience, both geographically and regarding quality-of-life. Ray and her kids routinely have nothing more than popcorn and tang for dinner, and everyone lives in trailers. Everything is frozen. 
The cinematography is sparse and documentary-like, perfectly capturing and complimenting the desolate snowscape. The performances are uniformly superb, but not showy. Hunt clearly knows this desperate world and it's denizens well, and she knows how to let her actors act. 
"Frozen River" is not without flaws. being a debut, perhaps this is understandable. The story descends into melodrama towards the end, and there are some minor screen direction issues (I'll admit, this second item is nitpicking on my part). Overall, however, it is a worthwhile filmgoing experience, if you appreciate fine acting, and authentic American stories. 

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Review: "Killer of Sheep"

"Killer of Sheep" (1977) was writer/director Charles Burnett's Master of Fine Arts thesis at UCLA's film school, and it is perhaps the grandest student film ever. Filmed on weekends for two years on location in the Watt's region of Southern Los Angeles, it initially smacks of the urban man's response to "The Last Picture Show" (1971), what with it's black-and-white depiction of bored American existential quandary. It is, however, it's own film. 
Burnett knows intimately the world he lays bare here. Gaggles of children run and play amongst the city's decaying infrastructure, while the adults are either stupid, brutal, or, in the case of Stan (Henry G. Sanders), depressed and contemplative. 
There is no tangible plot, but, of course, there is not meant to be. We are simply shown moments in the every days of these people, and from this tapestry we glean some kind of meaning. This inherent and full-bodied understanding of cinema is rare, least ways on display in a director's first feature. 
The real world history of this film is somewhat storied. Completed in 1975 and first shown publicly in 1977, it was held up in legal tanglings for 30 years until the rights to the music could be purchased, and it was worth the wait. As with most great films, the juxtaposition of music and images is it's best element. The score is all pop and blues songs, the most effective being "This Bitter Earth", sung gloriously by Dinah Washington. It is first used when Stan dances with his wife, and it shows up again against images of Stan in the titular profession. Indeed, it is clear that the mechanized slaughtering of sheep is meant to be some kind of metaphor. The film will cut directly from crowded sheep milling about mindlessly right to a group of children giggling and play-fighting. 
Aside from some (rather endearing) sound and editing stumbles (this is a student film), "Killer of Sheep" is something quite marvelous. Original, thoughtful, meditative, wry and original, it has landed at our 21st century feet like a cinematic time capsule from childhood neighbors we saw but never met. 

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Review: Irreversible

Irreversible (2002) is a remarkable, expertly crafted, beautifully tragic film by writer/director Gaspar NoĆ©. It is the story of lovers Alex (the glorious Monica Bellucci) and Marcus (Vincent Cassel, animalistic and unhinged), and the urchins of society that they encounter one night by happenstance. Unfolding in reverse, it could be considered France's answer to Memento (2000).
One aspect that viewers will notice immediately is the nearly nonstop camera. This may leave the audience feeling nauseous at first, but it becomes more relaxed as the film progresses (or regresses). The first half hour or so may be disorienting and claustrophobic, but as we slip further into the past, things become steadier and more pleasant. 
The wandering camera is indeed a character unto itself, spiraling up, over, and around the actors to create a truly visceral and cinematic experience. The entire film is meant to look like one continuous, fluid shot, and this effect is pulled off wonderfully, without even an ounce of obvious pretension. It is dizzyingly chaotic in the opening scene, but the camera quickly finds a comfortable groove. 
The plot of Irreversible cannot be discussed in detail without spoiling things. Discovering who these people are and how they come to do what they do is a big part of this cinematic experience. 
It should be mentioned that there is a very graphic murder within the film's initial ten minutes (the end of the story). It is so graphic, in fact, that this reviewer (who doesn't flinch when faced with Saving Private Ryan or Schindler's List) was forced to look away. Working backwards from this point, we are gradually shown the incidents that lead up to this crime. Also, be forewarned that nearly halfway through there happens a punishingly protracted scene of rape.
Though you may be disgusted at first, stay with this film to the end. You will be glad you did.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Review: "Deja Vu"

"Deja Vu" (2006) is the third collaboration between leading man Denzel Washington and director Tony Scott (bother of Ridley). Washington (bringing his usual free-floating, dogged charisma) is an ATF agent investigating a terrorist attack on a ferry in New Orleans. He is quickly recruited, rather informally, by an experimental government agency that, through the use of many satellites, is able to look at anything that happened in the city exactly 12 hours and 4 days previous. They intend to use this technology to catch the perpetrator of the ferry attack. One drawback, however, is that they cannot rewind or record this sophisticated surveillance image (no viable explanation is given for this quite obvious dramatic devise, nor is it explained why they can only look at one thing at a time. Lazy writing on the part of Bill Marsilii and Terry Rossio, the screenwriters [seeing as the latter's previous credits include the Pirates of the Caribbean films and 1998's atrocious Godzilla remake, I suppose this is not a surprise]). As such, the team (Washington is joined by Adam Goldberg and a criminally underused Val Kilmer) spends much of the first two thirds of the film spying on the last moments of Claire Kuchever (Paula Patton), a woman who washed up burned and dead mysteriously up stream from the exploded ferry. 
Scott is a capable enough director; while not an auteur by any means, he knows how to let actors act, and he can set a scene realistically and entertainingly. But where his films usually suffer (and this one is no exception) is in the editing; there are too many unnecessary cuts and unhinged camera moves. I suppose in this case it is meant to distract from some of the plot holes and dumb science, but it makes for an unwieldy and unfocused cinematic experience. It is hard to tell if Tony Scott truly lacks clear vision as a filmmaker, or if his craft is being buried in over-editing. Given his long career of similarly edited films, I'm guessing the former. An average shot length of 2 seconds coupled with too many uncalled for camera angles are the mark of a director who is bereft of cinematic confidence. 
"Deja Vu" is very surface. It floats along pleasantly and stylishly enough, and it's fun if you try not to think about it too much, or if you get some friends together and use it as drinking game fodder.  Denzel carries the whole adventure firmly and solely upon his shoulders, and he is more than capable. 
The final third of the film slips surprisingly casually into a full out time travel picture, and it's enjoyable, if a bit derivative and simple. Sending characters back in time is always tricky, especially if you want the audience to take the whole premise seriously. Time travel being of course strictly theoretical in the real world, there are two or three fictional conventions that one must choose from and then adhere to. There is the divergent timeline, wherein our hero goes back in time and creates an alternate timeline through his actions. Then there is the predestination paradox, wherein our temporal sojourner is meant to go back in time and cause something that has already happened (see "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban"). This film seems to osculate between the two, which is not acceptable. Time travel enthusiasts will be irritated, and the uninitiated will be confused. Note to filmmakers (and storytellers in general): if your story involves time travel, commit to it, and please know what you are getting yourself into. 

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Mini-Review/Discovery: "Signs" (short)

I don't know what this is exactly or how it came about, but it proves that silent cinema is not dead. Yes, there are sound effects and some incidental dialogue, but what tell the story are the visuals. Everything we need to know is shown to us. We know exactly who this guy is as soon as we see him.
Another thing that makes the film so great is that it could take place in just about any city in the world. The story and themes are universal.
Though evidently filmed very recently, "Signs" recalls the earliest days of cinema. It is a Chaplinesque tale of trying to find happiness in the big, bad world. Our morose hero is like The Tramp squeezed into a cubical.
I must admit that, upon initial viewing, I was half convinced that this beautiful little short would turn out to only be an elaborate commercial. I suppose this is just residue from watching expensively produced Super Bowl ads this past weekend, but I was afraid that someone was going to crack open a Pepsi and smile at this camera.
Upon further consideration, I come to the realization that the only place in mainstream entertainment where essentially silent cinema persists is television advertising. It's kind of sad. I wonder now if there could be a resurgence of silent movies. Commercials, along with music videos I suppose, have acclimated a new generation to wordless, visual story telling.
I am going to track down the makers of this picture and return with more info.