Monday, December 20, 2010

Review: TRON: Legacy

Any fans of 1982's TRON who complain that its recent sequel, TRON: Legacy, is badly written, lacks depth, and only exists to showcase the latest advancements in movie-making technology have clearly not watched the original film in some time. TRON was a silly, written-by-committee corporate product that had nothing but then-state-of-the-art visual effects to justify its existence. It was a spectacle, and so is TRON: Legacy, but even more so.
Ignore the first 15 minutes or so. The film is actually pretty lame until Sam Flynn (son of Kevin, hero of the first movie) is sucked into the computer world of "The Grid", a virtual city created by his father. He's come in search of his forebear, who's been missing for the past 20 years. 
Once we're in The Grid, the film finally starts in earnest and things hit the ground running. The digital environment is rendered with skill, sophistication, and imagination, and far surpasses the modest, blocky canyons of the first film. The Grid really has a bustling, believable life to it. It's almost as if this virtual world has been growing and flourishing on its own all this time.
Practically the minute he materializes in The Grid, Sam is captured and forced into gladiatorial combat against ferocious "programs", digital humanoids who exist only in this virtual reality. This battle sequence is exquisitely and excitingly pulled off. It follows a video game logic, as does the whole film from this point, that just didn't exist yet in 1982. The use of 3D space in particular is pretty clever.
After a sequence where the famous "lightcycles" make a  magnificent return, Sam is suddenly rescued by the mysterious and beguiling Quorra, played with aplomb by Olivia Wilde, who's origin goes unexplained for some time. Quorra is the film's biggest surprise; Wilde renders her with such honesty, curiosity, and depth that its hard to believe she is only a computer program (or is she?). I won't say she belongs in a better movie, because she gives this dark, thinly written film some much needed heart. She is by far the most satisfying and fun character to watch.
Garrett Hedlund as Sam Flynn is really nothing special, just a more comatose version of Chris Pine's Kirk in  Star Trek. Bruce Boxleitner is surprisingly effective. Reprising his role as both Alan, Kevin Flynn's best friend, and his digital alter ego, Tron, he has a kind of wistful, old soldier quality to him; the pain of Kevin's long absence is far more present in his eyes than in Sam's. 
Jeff Bridges, who helped make the original TRON so much fun, has duel roles here, both as Clu, our villain who turns out to be something of a digital Hitler; and as Kevin Flynn himself, now grizzled, shamanistic, and somewhat bemused. In the latter role, Bridges is definitely in post-Dude mode; he even walks around in a bathrobe the whole time.
TRON: Legacy is unfailingly entertaining and unendingly gorgeous. Instead of relying entirely on blue screen, first-time director Joseph Kosinski opted to have physical sets built, and to clothe the actors in working lightsuits; these decisions help to give the look of the film some substance. Credit is also due to cinematographer Claudio Miranda, who manages to light faces in a unique and grounded way. Kosiniski and his team have finally done justice to Steven Lisberger's original vision of virtual reality, which was so far ahead of its time back in 1982.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Review: Black Swan

Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan is a suspenseful masterpiece of body horror and paranoia set in the rigorous world of the New York Ballet as the company rehearses a new, "stripped down, visceral" rendition of Swan Lake. 
We follow Nina, a technically brilliant but emotionally timid ballerina with the company. She lives with her mother (herself a retired dancer), does no socializing, and thinks only of dancing. Nina has built and perfected her ballet technique over the years while letting all other parts of her life atrophy and slough away. She is ballet.
Two things fall into Nina's world to challenge her. One is the prospect of being cast as both the white and black swans in the company's upcoming show. The other is Lily, an imperfect but free-spirited newcomer. Thomas, the director of the ballet, subtly casts envy in Nina's mind for Lily's apparent effortlessness and ease of expression, which Nina has yet to attain. So begins a psychological character study that skillfully descends into the most terrifying depths of Nina's fragile, beleaguered psyche.
As Nina, Natalie Portman just might be giving the performance of her life. Her voice is a brittle leaf in the wind. When confronted with embarrassment or ridicule (which happens often), her face struggles to mask the crippling blow to her self esteem; the heartbreaking way Portman renders Nina in the first act of film is impressive on its own, but not until our consummate ballerina begins her slide into madness does the portrayal become truly masterful. Oh, and not to mention that the actress does 95% of her own dancing, and believably at that. 
As opening night draws closer, the pressure mounts and the terror builds. Nina has nowhere to turn for comfort, not to her director, not to her mother, and certainly not to her fellow dancers, who belittle each other at every opportunity. This is rare in cinema story-telling - a protagonist with no safe place to land, no port in the storm. We feel that same hopelessness, that same despair. It gets under the skin.
Black Swan feels like a culmination of everything Aronofsky has made thus far; there is the paranoid psycho-drama of Pi and Requiem for a Dream, the elegance of The Fountain, and quite a bit of the deep character study that The Wrestler did so well. The film also evolves into a very loose adaptation of Swan Lake, with it's story of seduction, rivalry, and chaste beauty vs. lustful passion. Long-time Aronofsky composer Clint Mansell even lets Tchaikovsky's opus seep into the score. And the cinematography by Matthew Libatique (also an Aronofsky veteran) dances with the actors, at times caressing them and at others mercilessly cornering them. The film and the 19th century ballet feed off each other; there are no islands in the arts. Aronosfky knows this, and it show. 

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Review: Agora

Agora, Spanish-made but filled with the king's English, tells the mostly forgotten story of the female astronomer Hypatia, a proto-feminist and secular aristocrat who teaches the fledgling science of the heavens to classes full of men in ancient Alexandria, a city boiling over with religious strife. Brought heroically to life by Rachel Weisz, Hypatia is an intellectual and political force to be reckoned with. She wades headlong into the male-dominated seas of philosophy and religion in the face of radical Christian leaders who loudly declare the dominion men must have over women. This creates tension right from the start, and you get the sense that at any minute the fanatical masses will rise up to put Hypatia in her place.
One thing I did not expect was all the stoning; there is a lot of stoning. Christians stoning Pagans, Pagans stoning Christians, Christian's stoning Jews, Jews stoning Christians. Apparently it was the mass murder weapon of choice in those days. The sound of the stones is so strange and benign, like fat raindrops, as they cast death. 
Lensed by cinematographer Xavi Gimenez, the film is unfailingly gorgeous. Director Alejandro Amenabar, however, shows his greatest aptitude with actors, especially in the quieter, subtler scenes. Moments between Hypatia and her slave, Davus (Max Minghella), who falls hopelessly in love with her, are particular tense and riveting. 
For a swords-and-sandals picture, Agora is admirably fresh and accessible; the acting and much of the dialogue is natural, the production design is robust and lived-in, but what stands out most is the cinematography. The lighting and shot-making really give the action room to breathe. It's rare to see a film set circa B.C. that is not stuffy or overly ponderous.
The film's major flaw is its overall pacing; most individual scenes have a good flow to them, but the picture as a whole feels uneven, at times too slow and at others jarringly rapid. There must be a steadier director's cut tucked away somewhere, and indeed the cut that screened at Cannes last year was longer by 20 minutes, but given its lukewarm critical and box office reception (in this country, at least), I fear this or any better version may never see the light of day. 
There is an excellent film lurking just beneath the surface. Agora should have risen to Gladiator-type levels of praise and cultural relevance; alas, it is largely lost in the sands of time, much like Hypatia herself.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Review: Boxing Gym

Each great film creates a world, which the audience marinates in for the length of the picture. Documentary director Frederick Wiseman's Boxing Gym meticulously and beautifully constructs the rhythmic world of Lord's Gym in Austin, Texas. As is his style, Wiseman uses no interviews, voice overs, or title cards to explain the action; he simply captures it, then cuts together a narrative from what he gathers. 
There is no musical score, but then there doesn't need to be, for the soundtrack pulsates with the human beats of fists on punching bags, sparring boxers' shifting feet, and exhausted grunting breathes. The images cut clearly and obviously, but the sound melts together to form a delicious aural collage which swaddles the whole film like a sonic blanket. 
The star of Boxing Gym is Richard Lord, the wise and crusty old proprietor of the gym that shares his name. When he's not talking to perspective and longtime members in his charmingly cluttered office, Lord floats around training kids, giving advice, and overseeing the place from which he is inseparable; he is the gym. 
The gym's patrons represent a microcosm of Austin, and indeed America. There are new moms, aspiring Army Rangers, high school kids, veteran boxers and people of all colors who simply want to better themselves. There is such harmony in this place, such a sublime come and go, peppered with idle and profound talk between strangers and old friends. I wanted to live in this world forever.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Passion of the Silent Era

Last week I had the chance to watch the silent, 1928 French film The Passion of Joan of Arc, starring the talented and awesomely named Maria Falconetti as Joan. The print we saw had been rescued from a janitor's closet of some Norwegian mental asylum in 1981, a bizarre piece of trivia that helped to set the mood for what turned out to be a gloriously strange cinematic experience. The film depicts Joan's trial and execution at the hand of the English, and it is told almost exclusively in close ups on the actors' faces. If you are a filmmaker, and you want to know what a close up should look like, see this film. Apparently, the director, Carl Theodor Dreyer, insisted that his actors not wear make up, a subtraction which simply was not done during that eon of cinema. Add to this the use of then-newly developed panchromatic film stock, and you get 82 minutes of the most emotionally resonate and harrowing close ups the art form has thus mustered.
On the rare occasion that Dreyer does cut to wider shots, in part because of their infrequency, they have a breathtaking impact. This director's sense of movement, both with the camera and people inside the frame, is so modern and ahead of its time that one can hardly accept it was achieved so early as 1928. The cinematic bravura on display in The Passion of Joan of Arc is so complete and intense, it dives so deep, that it gives us a small window into where film might have gone had sound not crashed the party a year earlier. I was talking to my friend after the movie about what a shame it is that the silent era had not lasted longer. Once we could hear the actor's talking, filmmakers got lazy, cameras grew immense and far less versatile, and the art died a little. Imagine the innovations that could have been made; think of all the vocabulary that could have been written into the cinematic language had the crutch of sound not crippled us. We may be just now doing things with movies that might have come about in 1940 or so were it not for evil, easy sound.
Another thing I realized while watching this masterpiece is that silent film is not given nearly the respect and appreciation it deserves. Firstly, almost no one realizes that most films of that era were shot and projected at 18 frames per second, not 24 as we are used to today. It is such ignorance which is to blame for the ridiculous, sped up look we have become accustomed to when watching silent films. Unfortunately, this formerly asylum-bound print fell victim to this practice; it was clearly shot at 18 fps, but then transferred at 24 fps. So, though it was Dreyer's original cut of the film, I still have not seen it as he intended. Ignoring the original frame rate is just as destructive to a film as inflicting pan-and-scan on a letterboxed movie to make it fit 4:3 televisions. Hopeful someone who knows what they're doing will get their hands on this print and release a correct transfer on DVD. If we had been watching silent films at the proper frame rate all along, I have no doubt that modern audiences would take them millions of times more seriously and be more willing to fold them into our collective memory of cinema.

(Above: Maria Falconetti as Joan of Arc in a still from The Passion of Joan of Arc, 1928)

Monday, November 1, 2010

Box Office Mojo is a depressing website

I was filled with a new level of dread about the state of popular cinema today on a visit to the perfectly benign looking Box Office  First I saw this weekend's top 5 grossing films:
3 sequels, two of which are in 3D, and Red, based on a comic book, leaving Clint Eastwood's Hereafter the only original film in the bunch. I thought, good god, this sequel/franchise and 3D mania has really gotten out of hand, so I took a look at the top ten grossing films of 2010 so far:
7 mostly 3D sequels and/or remakes, one 3D based on a book, and one 3D with an original story (and by original, I simply mean not a derivative work; I'm making no judgments about the actual story of Despicable Me). Only Inception is both completely original and 2D, and its all the way down at number 5. 3D aside, the mere sight of so many franchise films at the top of the financial heap is distressing. But this must be a recent trend, right? Surely Hollywood must be going through a phase. So I went to look at the top grossing films for each year of the past decade or so:

Saturday, October 23, 2010

When You Know Too Much

I cannot see The Social Network. Let me back up. Usually, a movie you haven't seen yet is ruined by spoilers, details about the plot that lessen the impact of the film's surprises. Occasionally, however, a movie becomes so talked about that the peripheral chatter outweighs the film itself and overshadows it. I've experienced this three times: with Brokeback Mountain, Slumdog Millionaire, and now The Social Network. I've read about it in every newspaper, on every website, and seen news about it on every TV show. I'm too aware of it. The film occupies too large a part of my brain without having seen it. I would not be able to experience it in a fresh and enjoyable way at this point. Now I have to wait until the film is no longer on my radar so I can see it and judge it fairly, on its own terms, without being burdened with knowledge of awards buzz, critical analysis, details about the production, or its perceived cultural impact. I fear this may be never.

(Top: still from The Man Who Knew Too Much, 1956, Paramount Pictures)

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Hobbit gets ugly

Though it has recently been announced that a film version of The Hobbit is finally going into production this February, directed by Peter Jackson and staring Martin Freeman as Bilbo, there are still some unresolved issues. Its really a quite contentious saga involving striking actor's unions, corporate intimidation, and bitter international rivalry. Watch a rarely riled-up Jackson explain things from his side:

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Zach Galifianakis gets a taste of his own medicine

You might be familiar with Zach's on going web series Between Two Ferns, where he awkwardly interviews the likes of Sean Penn, Jon Hamm, and Natalie Portman and asks them inane questions like "do you like websites?" and "did you also shave your V for vagina?" In this video from a local news station in Texas, Mr. Galifianakis finds himself being interviewed by a real life counterpart to his Between Two Ferns persona. Its hard to tell if the guy is for real or just putting it on. Take a look -

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

"I didn't hurt it!"

The Vimeo Awards were announced earlier this month, which is where we find "oops", the winner for best experimental film. It is brilliantly and seamlessly cut together from found footage of people dropping their cameras. Take a look.

The camera becomes like a portal to these little extreme moments in people's lives. Some are more inane - "I'm gonna drop my camera into my laundry basket. Here we go!" - but many are filled with sheer exuberance, joy, shock, panic, fear, and wonder. My favorite moments: the remote-control plane smash cutting to a roller coaster, and the pure warmness and thrill of the father and his small daughter sledding. Just gorgeous.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Review: Winter's Bone

Debra Granik's Winter's Bone is a creaky, noirish hero's quest set in the impoverished Ozarks in the brittle dead of winter. Ree Dolly, a 17-year-old girl with a steely gaze and a quick mind, is saddled with raising her younger brother and sister and caring for their catatonic mother in the wake of her absent, meth-cooking father. Ree teaches her siblings to cook, shoot, and other adult responsibilities, as if, even at these tender ages, they may have to suddenly fend for themselves. Their is a wary, knowing doom in Ree's eyes that is heartbreaking; no 17-year-old should possess this kind of foreboding wisdom, but for her it is a necessity.
A thick undercurrent of cold, stinging dread lies beneath every scene; as Ree searches for her father, who has skipped out on his court date after putting the family home up for bail, she comes up against a frozen wall of secrecy almost everywhere she turns. Through it all, Ree faces enemies, gains allies, and passes trials and tribulations.
I'll not end without discussing what everyone who's seen the film is talking about: young Jennifer Lawrence's topnotch performance as Ree. A less ballsy director than Granik would have cast a 20-something to play the teen, and it would not have worked; there is no one better, of any age. Lawrence inhabits the character so thoroughly that it is hard to imagine she is not naturally of the film's milieu.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Review: Enter The Void

Trudging away from the theater as the end credits rolled, I had to struggle to keep from collapsing, the cosmic weight of Gaspar Noe's Enter The Void is so great. Expansive is too narrow a word to describe the film's universe and cinematic language.
Oscar is a young American living in Tokyo, dealing drugs small time to raise money for his sister's plane ticket so she can join him in this far eastern city of lights. We open on a scene of them bickering (the language of siblings), shot from Oscar's POV; this take lasts for at least the first 20 minutes of the film, wherein we see the lights of Tokyo, drug-induced hallucinations, and Oscar's moment of death at the hands of the police. Then things get weird.
Though we are with Oscar for every second of the film, the real star is Paz de la Huerta as his sister, Linda; we see her brother's face maybe twice, and mostly when he's dead. De la Huerta delivers a towering, harrowing, and fragile performance that is daring on a number of levels. Noe is a director who can win an actress's trust completely; those who've seen Irreversible know what I'm talking about. De la Huerta does everything, bares all (physically and emotionally), and goes everywhere the film demands.
Noe takes universal paradigms - life flashing before your eyes at the moment of death, the afterlife, and reincarnation - and runs with them. What blew me away was how the film explores these anxieties so deeply yet so simply. After he is killed, Oscar's spirit or ghost floats around the city watching over his bereaved sister, all the while trying to make sense of this new and confusing plane of existence. Like the opening scene, it unfolds entirely from his strict POV.
Perhaps the greatest pleasures of Enter The Void for me as a filmmaker are the lighting and color; the photography marinates in green and purple neon, such a great relief from the insidious orange and teal plague that is afflicting more and more films these days. Though filmed almost entirely at night, the city of Tokyo is so bright it acts as one giant practical light, providing all the illumination we need for a picture about death and life and all the sticky, unpleasant details in between. Some may find this method of cinematography a bit graceless; characters' faces will disappear into darkness for chunks of time and so on, but if you're bothered by this then you're missing the point. 
I can safely say that Enter The Void is unlike anything you have seen; I don't have to know you. The film is so completely unique that I have utter confidence no person has seen anything like it, no person but Gaspar Noe.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Prestige: They Want to be Fooled

Part 4 in a series of essays on the films of director Christopher Nolan. Originally posted December 12th, 2008.

The Prestige is, on the surface, a story concerning rival magicians in Victorian London. But, at the heart of things, it is really a film about film-making.
As far as I'm concerned, the goal of any film is threefold. I call it the 3 Es: Engage, Entertain, and Enlighten. Before either of the later two can happen, the audience must first be engaged. This means giving them a point of reference; that is to say, introduce them to something familiar right off the bat: a character that is relatable, and a situation or conflict that is easily comprehended. Once the audience is engaged, it is the filmmaker's duty to then entertain them, by putting the established characters in humorous or nerve-racking situations. There is a certain flare for creating truly entertaining scenes that only a few select directors possess. There is a kind of showmanship quality to film-making. The final thing a film must do is enlighten the audience. That is, the film should come to a point that stimulates the mind of the viewer. This is not always achieved and is even more difficult to pull off than pure entertainment. This third aspect is what separates great films from those that are simply good. It helps the film stick in people's minds long after they have seen it.
The above three elements of the film viewing experience are directly comparable to the three stages of a magic trick, as discussed in The Prestige. These are The Pledge, The Turn, and The Prestige. The Turn is when the audience is shown something ordinary; a handkerchief or a small bird. This is much like the beginning of a film when the audience is engaged by something equally familiar. The second part is The Turn, when the ordinary thing is made to do something extraordinary, like disappear. "But," as Michael Caine's character says in the the film, "you wouldn't clap yet. It's not enough to make something disappear. You have to bring it back." This seemingly miraculous return of the vanished object is The Prestige, and it is the most important part of the trick. These latter two parts are similar to the way entertaining the audience can bring them to something enlightening; how a heart pounding chase scene can wind and twist and turn, and then deposit us at some great, profound truth.
Another convention of magic tricks that is shared in film-making is the suspension of disbelief. It is said in the film that the audience knows that it is only an illusion, but they don't want to know how it is accomplished. "They want to be fooled", as they say. This is equally true with the film viewing experience. Any individual of even average intelligence knows full well that what they are witnessing on screen is not entirely real, but they ignore that fact. They want something extraordinary. They want to see something aside from their familiar reality. They want to escape, and it is the job of both the magician and the filmmaker to render a believable fantasy for the viewing public.
Filmmakers are the magicians of their day. With both magic and cinema, people go to the theater to see something outside of their own, regular experience. They are, at first, presented with something against which they can compare their own lives. "I know what this is. I get this", they think to themselves. Then, through this relatable proxy, the audience is taken on a journey into previously unknown territory, where they witness things they had never imagined and certainly did not expect. Then, at the end of this voyage, and indeed because of it, we come to a profundity that we had not known, yet it is undeniably true. We leave the theater having gained a fuller experience. Or course we know it was all smoke and mirrors, but to dwell on this notion would ruin something very special.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The King's Oscar Speech

Every year gives us at least one film with its eye firmly on an Oscar statue, and 2010 is no exception. This time it appears to be The King's Speech, a film about King George VI's speech impediment. Cinematical examines its chances:
There are plenty of things in Speech to appeal to the Oscar voter. It's a period piece about the inner workings of the British monarchy, and, more importantly, about the vulnerability of those in power. Like I said, everyone loves an underdog who overcomes and thrives in his or her new milieu, but even more so when it's someone who is in a position of great power.
And WW2 is involved. But will Americans, even those who are Academy voters, care that much about some boring British monarch with a speech impediment? I already don't. And I would hardly call the goddamn King of England an "underdog". Maybe it's just wishful thinking on my part, but I doubt the greatness of Inception will be hard to forget, even come Oscar time. 
Colin Firth looks pretty bored already. Not a good sign.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Review: The Square

Boring, even when wet.
This sloppy Aussie noir could have been a really great film; it gets off to an excellent start, but becomes lazy and uneven as things plunge to a finish.
Produced by many of the same blokes who recently brought us Animal Kingdom, it is in fact directed by Nash Edgerton, whose brother Joel played a supporting role in both films and helped write The Square. Understandably, it feels very much of the same cinematic universe.
The main problem is our blandly stoic protagonist. This is the second Australian film I've seen in as many weeks with a boringly morose hero who's expressionless visage and blank attitude make it very difficult to empathize with him. His face remains frozen in the way pictured above for almost every minute of the film. Additionally, and I don't think this is too much of a spoiler, he doesn't appear to really learn anything by the end of the story, and his constant grimace does not help. He has no arc, he just does things, then the movie ends. If we cannot sympathize or at least be entertained by the protagonist, then nothing else matters; the hero is the face, of the movie and if the face is nearly comatose, then so are we.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Review: Animal Kingdom

The short version is that writer/director David Michod's feature debut is an Australian answer to Goodfellas.
The long version is that Animal Kingdom is a lyrical, operatic, and beautifully brutal film about the unraveling of a Melbourne crime family, anchored by some brilliantly visceral performances.
The Codys are a family of bank robbers, mostly made up of adult children who've grown up in this life and know nothing else. We find the Cody clan as they grapple to stay one step ahead of the cops; the law in Melbourne has been driven to shooting gangsters unprovoked in broad day light in a desperate effort to clean up the city.
The family, in these waning days, consists of plucky, calculating matriarch 'Smurf' (charismatic Aussie vet Jackie Weaver, giving what might be the year's best performance) and her four grown, near-feral sons, who snarl and sun themselves like a pride of lions. The boys are given to fits of confused, frustrated rage as they feel the ravenous heat closing in on them, and a crushing paranoia settles on their psyches, particular that of 'Pope' (played with unsettling vulnerability by Ben Mendelsohn), the eldest and perhaps most vile.
The film begins with the estranged Cody sister dying of a heroin overdose, leaving her teenage son, Josh, with no place to go but into the care of his diabolically loving grandmother. Josh, or 'J', is clearly a reflection of what Smurf's sons once were, as they are a foreshadowing of what J might become if he follows in their lawless footsteps.
Played with constant restraint by newcomer James Frecheville, J provides provides us with a guide through the world of the film, but also presents its two main flaws. The teenager narrates for the first act or so to fill in some narrative gaps, but I didn't really find this necessary. It doesn't give us any essential information, and his delivery is crushingly monotone to the point of distraction. This brings me to the film's second flaw - Frecheville's performance itself. I can appreciate that J is meant to be an awkward, introverted kid and all, but the actor and director take it too far, and he just comes off as nearly comatose, which is not what you want, especially in a character that was so obviously added to the script in order to be an audience surrogate.
The boring protagonist aside, Animal Kingdom is an excellent film and a promising debut from young Aussie auteur Michod; the unique zeitgeist he evokes, and his virtuosic mastery of mood, tension, narrative momentum, indicate a cinematic master in the making.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Review: Centurion

Genre maestro Neil Marshall's new film, Centurion, is all killer no filler, an economic narrative about a band of Roman soldiers trapped behind enemy lines in Northern Britain. The mis en scene is lean, agile, and tough, like its characters, and similarly smeared in dirt and drenched in neon-red blood. Story and execution work brilliantly and symbiotically together. 
Rising star Michael Fassbender (pictured) fronts a solid ensemble, which includes fellow Brit Dominic West, Irish veteran Liam Cunningham, and strong female characters brought to life by lethal Ukrainian beauty Olga Kurylenko (also pictured) and mousy yet quietly confident englishgirl Imogen Poots. There is no ego in this cast; everyone works towards the quality of the whole, while still managing to shine in there own rights. This unity perfectly reflects the ideal dynamic among Roman soldiers, which is tested as Quintus Dias (Fassbender) leads his fellow warriors through the treacherous proto-Scottish wilderness.
One surprising element of Centurion is its contemporary sensibilities; it will resonate with modern Americans for its themes of soldierly brotherhood, the physical and emotional scars of war, the difficulties confronting a foreign army against insurgency. Above all, and indeed through the prism of these ideas, the film asks the timely question of what a conflict is worth. These ideas are thankfully subtle, never coming close to insulting, Avatar-esque levels of obviousness.
As with many films in the historical action genre, Centurion is fueled by healthy doses of testosterone, but is not without a woman's touch. Though it does not pass the Bechdel Test (there are only two major female characters, and one remains mute), it still provides realistic examples of women in a genre usually dominated by men. In film's of this ilk, on the rare occasions that women do show up, they are usually nothing more than eye candy or helpless damsels in need of rescuing by a strong alpha male. Not so in Centurion; Kurylenko's Pict warrior Etain is a brooding, intelligent, and deadly force of nature, who can hold her own against any man in the picture without coming off as overly butch or blandly evil. On the other end is Poots as Pict outcast Arianne, who has convinced the leaders of her native, patriarchal society that she is a witch so that she may live a peaceful, independent existence on her own. Quintus and his brothers-in-arms come upon her at their most desperate hour, and it is she who does the rescuing. She treats their wounds, feeds them, and gives them refuge for the night, but she is not simply here to serve the men. Arianne has a rare agency; a wholeness that we don't often see. She and Quintus are drawn to each other, but not to fulfill some lame, trite requirement that our hero have a love interest; they are equal entities, and the attraction that forms between them is very real and perfectly natural. Credit is due to Fassbender and Poots, who convey this budding relationship with admirable subtlety, and create a bond that lingers even as Quintus and his troops move on down the road.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Review: Robin Hood

Russell Crowe pondering what retirement home would be good for Old Man Scott.
Ridley Scott is getting senile. Case in point: his latest directorial gig, Robin Hood, starring frequent muse Russell Crowe as the eponymous English folk hero. The film might be Scott's worst to date; it is laden with tired action adventure cliches, populated by one-dimensional characters, and meanders directionless for most of its running time. The story is so confusing and muddled that just 24 hours after seeing it, I cannot for the life of me relate what it is; the goals and motivations of each character change so frequently that, not only are we unreasonably challenged to figure out what they are doing and where they're going, but the actors themselves seem to have little if any idea.
In addition to the director's apparent senility, another factor that likely contributes to the film's jumbled story is the fact that the script went through a number of labored iterations in Development Hell, and was even being severely rewritten during filming. This explains a great many things, from lazy character development to jarringly uneven narrative momentum to a number of painful violations of story logic and continuity. Perhaps the constant script modifications are also to blame for numerous, inexplicable moments of extremely ill-advised attempts at sit-com level comic relief, shoe-horned in with no regard for tonal appropriateness. 
As far as I can decipher, the original intent of this film was to give Robin Hood a believable and gritty origin story, Batman Begins style. I can appreciate this, and there are brief glimmers of this premise shinning through at certain moments, but when the rest of the ordeal is such an embarrassing mess, it only makes the film an even greater tragedy. 
Considering the people involved, this realist interpretation of the Robin Hood myth could have been really great. With previous historical epics like Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven (the director's cut), Ridley Scott has shown the capacity to be the David Lean of his day; it is all the more painful when a giant of cinema trips and falls so far. It might seem low to blame Robin Hood's terribleness on Scott's advanced age, but the audience gets the distinct feeling that the director's failing mind, coupled with the ever-changing and confused script, created a perfect storm of screen hackery.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Review: The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle

Writer/director David Russo's The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle continues the rapid expansion of Seattle's cinematic language we've been witnessing recently.
If the film has a traditional story, it is as follows: a young computer programmer suddenly comes down with an existential crisis, compelling him to bombastically quit his cubicle and get a job a with a corporate custodial service. One of the companies in the office building he cleans tests experimental cookies, to which he becomes addicted. Then things get weird.
The film has just enough brilliant sequences to keep us interested, including a clever riff on the "Flight of the Bumble Bee" scene from A Clockwork Orange, and yet another instance where the mere repetition of the the word fuck equals hilarity (although slicker than the opening of Four Weddings and a Funeral, it is still not as genius as this scene from an early episode of The Wire). But perhaps the most original scene is the first one: a rapid-fire journey following a message in a bottle through the waters of Puget Sound to a pebble beach in Seattle, set to the music of "Awesome", a local band that provides the entire score.
Owing equal debts to both Fight Club and Eraserhead, Russo's film already feels like it has settled comfortably into the cult cannon. The film bastes in macabre corporate satire and nightmarish, Cronenbergian body horror. Additionally, there are enough Snatch-esque quick cuts and spastic splashes of traditional animation and dancing text to satisfy a wide range of arty tastes.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Review: The Girl Who Played With Fire

Noomi Rapace, who reprises her role as Lisbeth Salander in this sequel to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, is far and away the strongest element of The Girl Who Played With Fire. While the first film in the so called Millennium Trilogy was a solid and gripping mystery, its successor is merely a pale reflection, resting entirely on the understated greatness of Rapace’s excellent performance.
There are some things here for fans of the first film or of the books each is based upon. The intrigue this time has more to do with Lisbeth’s past; those reoccurring flashbacks from the first film of a 12-year-old Salander lighting a man on fire are finally put into context and explained. Also, Lisbeth’s sadistic case worker, Bjurman, factors into the mysterious plot. This kind of continuity is comforting, and helps us to ignore the film's weaker direction and lazily uncreative photography. By picking up these threads from the previous film, the trilogy takes on the same familiar feeling of a serialized tv drama.
More on the lazy cinematography. Film blogger Todd Miro wrote an article at Into The Abyss about “one of the most insidious and heinous practices that has ever overwhelmed the industry.” - The orange and teal color palette. He explains how it came about:
You see, flesh tones exist mostly in the orange range and when you look to the opposite end of the color wheel from that, where does one land?  Why looky here, we have our old friend Mr. Teal.  And anyone who has ever taken color theory 101 knows that if you take two complementary colors and put them next to each other, they will "pop", and sometimes even vibrate.  So, since people (flesh-tones) exist in almost every frame of every movie ever made, what could be better than applying complementary color theory to make people seem to "pop" from the background.  I mean, people are really important, aren't they?
Now it seems this color theory has been exported to other countries, namely Sweden; The Girl Who Played With Fire suffers from this grading worse than any film I’ve seen, and makes the examples Miro highlights on his blog look subtle in comparison. In nearly every shot, the only two colors are orange and teal, regardless of location, mood, or what have you. Here are just a few examples from the film:

Friday, July 30, 2010

Review: Bass Ackwards

    Linas Phillips proves the importance of cinematography and music to the art of film with his first non-documentary feature, Bass Ackwards.
    After an ill-fated affair with a married woman, Linas (played by Phillips himself) gets a (literally) shit job on an alpaca farm, where he discovers and falls in love with a lemon - a VW bus that has had its middle third removed and then welded back together. Deciding that he needs to move back in with his parents in Boston, Linas takes the strange looking vehicle and sets off from Seattle for a trip across the country. this cross-continental excursion forms the heart of the story; the random encounters he has with strangers on his way East bring a genuine spontaneity to the film.
    Shot by Sean Porter, the film looks singularly gorgeous; it was filmed on a micro-budget by a skeleton crew, but you would never know that to behold it. The camera is always handheld yet never unsteady or nauseating, as is too often the case with films in the so-called 'mumblecore' genre, which Bass Ackwards is akin to in many ways. If Lynn Shelton's Humpday had been shot this beautifully and deliberately, it would have had more going for it than just acting; it would have been a complete film.
   And there is no reason why films of such a small production magnitude and loose style cannot look so good. Film is not just about the writing, or the acting, or the cinematography; it is a marriage of all these elements. the best films bang on all these cylinders, creating an indefinable harmony on the screen that can only be called cinema.
    Another essential element that adds to Bass Ackwards' greatness is the original music by Lori Goldston and Tara Jane O'Neil. it is composed mostly of contemplative, spacious acoustic hooks, with the occasional dollop of gentle electric guitar added for good measure. Not merely obligatory or thrown together, the score is a robust, living and breathing creature that comes along for the ride and acts almost as Linas' sonic mood ring.
    The look and sound of Bass Ackwards together successfully create a  dreamlike blanket of tone that would not exist without either of these things. The writing and acting can be brilliant and affecting (and in this film, they both certainly are), but they cannot stand alone and do not a film make.

Insomnia: Increasingly Fictionalized

Part 3 in a series of essays on the films of director Christopher Nolan. 
     Insomnia, Nolan's first post-Momento film, is full of metaphors for the writing of a film or novel, from developing details to killing off characters, from constructing a narrative to fandom.
     When Ellie Burr first meets detective Dormer, she gushes about his career, telling him she’s followed all of his cases and that she even wrote her thesis on him in college. She is his biggest fan. Similarly,  as the cops uncover the mystery behind Kay Connell’s murder,  we discover that Kay was a huge fan of local crime author Walter Finch, and even got to meet and spend time with him. It is not a coincidence that Ellie and Kay are both at least partially defined by their respective fandoms; it compliments and foreshadows the collaboration between the men they admire, Dormer and Finch. 
(Warning: Spoilers ahead)

Friday, July 23, 2010

Memento: Extreme Moments

Part 2 in a series of essays on the films of director Christopher Nolan.
    Christopher Nolan’s Memento comments upon and explores the relationship between films and memory; this is most effectively achieved through the film’s unique editing, both how events unfold in reverse order, and by juxtaposing silent, out of context snippets with the scene at hand.
    Like any experience, watching a film creates memories. Likewise, these memories are unique for each person; what shape they take depends greatly on the individual’s state of mind, previous experiences, world view, and engagement with the film. After you are finished watching a film, you have a new set of memories, and, again, like all memories, they were triggered by intense emotions. Therefore, the parts of a film you remember will be different than those recollected by your neighbor, because you have responded to certain shots or scenes or musical cues based on how they made you feel, and what existing memories they recalled and are now tied to.
    In the case of Memento, for example, if you have ever gotten a tattoo, or you are a tattoo artist or know one, your mind might assign specific emotional significance to Leonard’s tattoos, where as others in the audience who do not share this kind of experience will only treat these inky notes on the body of our protagonist as merely parts of the story. Likewise, if you own the same make and model of the car that Leonard drives, you will more than likely create a memory of the film focusing on this detail, while others will pay it no mind. Technically speaking, you are all watching the same film, but in essence you are not; the film each person remembers will be different, because as it enters the brain it is melted down and blended with a person’s biases, interests, and life experiences to create something completely unique. The filmmakers address this subjectivity directly, when Leonard says, “Memory can change the shape of a room; it can change the color of a car. And memories can be distorted. They're just an interpretation, they're not a record...”

Friday, July 16, 2010

Review: Inception

Unfortunately, due to the nature of Christopher Nolan's latest film, Inception, I am unable to write an adequate review of the film without spoiling it. One of the biggest thrills about seeing the film is discovering just what it is about, who all the characters are, and the world they exist in. To describe that here would be to rob the uninitiated of a rare and breathtaking experience.
I considered perhaps instead talking in depth about how the film made me feel, but I am finding myself at a literary loss. And besides, my emotional state while watching Inception has already been summed up quite thoroughly by a man the Internet has dubbed "Double Rainbow Guy". He hits every emotional note that I did while experiencing the film.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Following: The Hazards of Observation

Part 1 in a series of essays on the films of director Christopher Nolan

    Christopher Nolan’s debut feature film, 1998’s Following, is a story about the voyeuristic nature of moviegoing as much as it is about a lonely young man who follows people around the streets of London.
    The unnamed protagonist, a struggling writer, begins following random strangers to gather material for his novel. Things take an odd turn when one of these strangers, a sharply dressed man named Cobb, notices him and takes an interest in the young man’s strange hobby, quickly pulling him into a life of petty burglary. The young man joins Cobb, as he is hurting for cash - and human interaction - and justifies his participation in the crimes as a way of accruing story ideas.
(warning: spoilers ahead)

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

"We create the world of the dream."

With the impending release of Inception this week, I've decided to write a series of essays about the work of director Christopher Nolan; one on each of his films, which include Following, Memento, Insomnia, Batman Begins, The Prestige, The Dark Knight, and now Inception. One of the things that fascinates me the most about Nolan's films is how they explore the very nature of cinema itself, from creation to consumption. This will be the guiding thesis for each essay. Look for the initial piece, titled "Following: The Hazards of Observation" to be posted sometime this week. I'll try to post these on a weekly basis. Until then, enjoy this:

Review: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

The original Swedish title of this intelligently flashy mystery film, Man Som Hatar Kvinnor, translates literally to Men Who Hate Women, and it is unfortunately quite apt. The horrors that the male villains perpetrate on their female victims are depicted with unforgiving vividness. These men hate women indeed.
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo might have been just another competently slick European thriller were it not for the presence of Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander, the titular tattooed girl. Lisbeth is not your typical protagonist, as the feminist film blog Act Your Age notes:
Utilizing her technological prowess (a rare quality for female characters!), and at times resorting to revenge and physical violence, Lisbeth [....] aims to correct the wrongs inflicted on women by men in power.
With Lisbeth, Rapace expertly crafts a brooding, burningly intelligent performance that elevates the film to a more memorable place than it might otherwise have occupied. Though small of frame, she nonetheless fills the screen with a character that will remain crushingly silent for long periods of time until finally exploding into righteous, ferocious rage in response the afore mentioned misogynistic violence.
Providing a foil and unlikely partner for Lisbeth is investigative reporter Mikael Blomkvist, who has been hired by a wealthy old business man to uncover the mystery surrounding the disappearance of his teenage niece 40 years prior. 
Once this pair teams up, the film unfolds at a breathless yet meticulous pace as Lisbeth and Mikael piece together a string of decades-old murder cases that are somehow tied to the old man's vanished niece. The investigation is rather standard mystery fare, complete with panning close-ups of grisly crime scene photos and not a few research montages. Two things that save the film from feeling too ordinary are the thrill of the chase, and the always fascinating Rapace. 
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is the first in a trilogy, based on the books by Stieg Larsson, and it very much feels like it, the way characters are established and the partnership between Lisbeth and Mikael is set up. You will be left with a desire to immediately see the second installment in the series, The Girl Who Played With Fire, which has fortunately just opened in US theaters.

Review: Women Without Men

The destinies of Iran and its women are inseparable; this is a major theme of Shirin Neshat's debut feature Women Without Men. Set against the unrest of the Anglo-American coup to remove democratically elected Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh and install the shah, the film zooms in on four women suffering various kinds of oppression: Zarin, a depressed prostitute, who scrubs herself bloody at a public bath in an effort to purge the johns from her body; Munis, a politically aware young woman who voraciously devours news of the demonstrations outside, but is kept from leaving the house by Amir Khan, her religiously zealous brother; her best friend Faezeh, who lusts after Amir Khan from beneath her hejab, much to Munis' bewilderment; and Farrokhlagha, a general's wife who's finding herself suffocated by the pro-shah Tehran aristocracy she and her husband exist in.
 Though the whole ensemble does outstanding work, the one performance that sticks out is Pegah Ferydoni as sweet, unassuming Faezeh. She provides a quiet emotional center for the film. While everyone else is going kind of crazy, she becomes saner and grows quite a bit.
The film follows a kind of dream logic, fueled by the complex history of Iran and the rhythm of Persian poetry. Iranian scholar Hamid Dabashi said that if jazz is the rhythm of American culture, then Persian poetry is that of Iranian culture. This kind of poetic focus brings a unique structure to the scenes; each sequence is a whole statement, while still helping to stitch the tapestry of the film entire. This is also no doubt influenced by Neshat's background as video artist. 
In order to get some fresh air away from the tumult of Tehran, Farrokhlagha buys an Edenesque old orchard in the country, to which Zarin and Faezeh are both inexplicably drawn. For a while they live in blissful harmony, but there is a foreboding calm-before-the-storm undercurrent which lets us know that they cannot escape the changes happening in their nation for long.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Review: REC

  REC (2007) is as much about TV journalism and the creation of the moving image as it is about a quarantined Barcelona apartment building. Because events unfold entirely through the lens of a television news crew, the camera is essentially a character, putting us as in the action as cinematically possible.
  Our guide and unwitting heroine is Angela Vidal (Manuela Velasco), a young reporter who, along with her cameraman, Pablo - played with athletic and graceful cinematic skill by the film's actual camera op, Pablo Rosso - is assigned to cover the work-a-day life of a group of firefighters. She quickly becomes restless, quipping to her laconic cameraman that she wishes there would be an emergency call for them to film. She soon gets her wish; her and Pablo ride along with the firemen to the doomed apartment building where the rest of the movie takes place.
  As a student of the moving image, what fascinated me in the first act of the film was how the news crew behaves in a situation that quickly deteriorates, and how the other characters react to the omnipresence of the camera; a policeman who takes charge of the unfolding crisis is at constant odds with it. Angela, being first and foremost a reporter, tells Pablo to "film this, film that. Did you you shoot that? Are you rolling?" When Angela is interviewing a little girl in the building after it is quarantined, the child's mother keeps offering answers, until the reporter stops her, reminding the woman that she's not in the shot, the girl is. Even in a heightened and possibly life-threatening situation, the newswoman is ever mindful of how her image looks and sounds. In other scenes, her and Pedro brave ill-lit rooms that may contain blood-thirsty cannibals just to get a shot. It is almost as if Angela is directing the very film she is a character in; whether this notion was on the filmmakers' minds or not, it is profound nonetheless, and it totally works. This meta-fictional undercurrent is only one of a bevy of original bits of genius contained in REC. 
  The story unfolds in a loud-quiet-loud rhythm, like a Pixies song; there are extended scenes of hushed, pulsating terror punctuated by sudden explosions of blood-flecked chaos. Added to this is the fact that we see events transpire through only one camera, so there is no safe refuge to cut away to; we are taken along for the ride whether we like it or not. Because of the one-camera, real-time aspect of the film, there are several sustained shots that last for upwards of 20 minutes each, involving a dozen or more actors running, falls, fighting, and gushing blood. This in itself is a feat to behold.
  A sequel, REC 2, is scheduled to hit American screens this summer, but it is difficult to fathom how it can top this masterpiece of taut horror film making.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Movie Review: Splice

David Cronenberg would be quite amused. Director Vinzenzo Natali's Splice is thick with body-horror, just enough thought to stimulate scientific discussion, and a proud product of Canada.
The first 20 minutes of the film are actually really great. Adrian Brody and Sarah Polley play a married couple of genetic scientists, or "splicers", as they call themselves. We open on the birth of their latest creation, a football-sized sea urchin called Ginger, which is a hybrid of many different fauna and produces some kind of drug that stops cancer, or something - its never really explained in depth. Riding high in the success of Ginger, the splicers set their sights on combining human DNA with that of animals to create an even more revolutionary creature. Forbidden from doing so by their financial backers, they go about it anyway, in secret.
These early scenes, mostly set in the splicers' advanced but believable laboratory, are extremely well done in every aspect. The writing is taut and intelligent, the acting is accessible, and the atmosphere that Natali establishes is creepingly exhilirating. 
Without revealing too much, it can be said that the splicers create a human-animal hybrid the likes of which neither of them imagined. The film starts down a strange path as the creature rapidly matures and the scientists raise it as the child they never had. Things become more bizarre still when the hybrid, called Dren, reaches adulthood, and exhibits enough of a human femininity to fill Brody's character with deviant, weirdly incestuous thoughts. 
From this point, Splice takes a trip to camp and never returns, which is a shame, given the great promise of its first act. It feel very much like the writers (Natali and Antoinette Terry Bryant) put all their thought into the concept and beginning of the film, but then simply fell back on cliches when it came time to cobble together an ending. It begins as a film, but ends merely as a flick.
Aside from the initial act, the film's other main attraction is the realization of Dren. Brought to life with a seamless mix of CGI, practical effects and human acting, Dren is an original and impressive creation. She is played with acrobatic aplomb and heartbreaking depth by French-Canadian actress Delphine Cheneac, who is the only thing that saves the film from becoming completely intorrerable when things go south and even Brody's and Polley's performances turn to ham. 
Despite a weak ending and the squandered potential therein, Splice is a thoughtful and exciting sci-fi horror outing packed with imagery that really sticks to the side of your skull.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Humpday and the value of mumblecore

Perhaps I'm biased because it is a product of Seattle, but Lynn Shelton's most recent film, Humpday, is the best example I have seen of the so-called and fledgling mumblecore genre so far. It has a focus and forward moment that no other film of its ilk has yet exhibited.
For those who don't know, the basic tenants of mumblecore are thus: ultra-low budget with an equally low-fi visual aesthetic. There is usually no script, but rather a list of outlined scenes that the actors improvise and rehearse their way through, to mixed results. Plot and character wise, almost all films in the genre focus on over-educated 20-somethings meandering aimlessly through life, often played by the filmmakers themselves. It all comes off as a little self-indulgent.
The goal of having the actors completely improvise their scenes is to pump up the authenticity and verisimilitude, but more often than not the players end up stating the subtext of the scene out loud, and it unfolds more like a therapy session than a riveting piece of drama or hilarious piece of comedy. I appreciate the intent behind this method; we need truth and originality in cinema where ever we can get it. But it takes a steady and precise directorial hand to pull off the right balance between truth and drama. Luckily, Seattle native Lynn Shelton has that hand.
Shelton's third and most recent film, 2009 Sundance darling Humpday, is very good, but not without its flaws. The camera work is inexcusably sloppy, and a few of the scenes do fall victim to the boring therapy rut mentioned above. But these are outweighed by the film's enjoyable traits. Shelton may not yet be a master of beautiful images (which is required to be a great filmmaker), but her skill with actors is approaching genius. In Humpday more than almost any other film, we get a sense that we are flies on the wall; this story is not being presented to or performed for us. We just happen to be there to see these events transpire. The characters speak the way real people do (sometimes to a maddeningly mundane degree), and there is an overriding aura of genuine spontaneity. It is a pure and sometimes exhilarating joy to see things unfold.
As alluded to, one problem with the film (and indeed all of mumblecore) is the lack of attention paid to creating deliberate, compelling, and well composed images. Cinema is, above all else, a visual medium. Writing and acting are indeed important elements, but they are only the skeleton upon which to place the images, the meat of cinema. By ignoring this, Shelton and her mumblecore comrades are forgetting why films are important and what makes them live. Humpday is a good idea for a film, but it doesn't really do anything that couldn't be accomplished by a stage play.
I think mumblecore has valuable things to offer, but it will never rise to great cinematic heights as long as the images are neglected. We are still waiting for a film that harnesses the methods of mumblecore to tell a compelling, unusual story in a film powered by beautiful images.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Review: The White Ribbon

Austrian writer/director Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon is the kind of film that the term 'masterpiece' was coined for. Every aspect of the film, from writing to camera movements to acting to lighting to sound design, all come together to create a very real and immensely disturbing atmosphere.
Set in a small German village in the months leading up to WWI, the story focuses on a young schoolteacher who takes it upon himself to investigate when a series of strange crimes rock the tiny community.
More that anything, the pale, ghostly children in the town aide most in creating this sense of horrific unease. At one point, one of the older girls wanders into the pastor's study, wet hair hanging in front of her face in tangles. She takes a pair of scissors from the desk, then reaches her hand into the birdcage. The scene cuts away, but we know what she intends to do to that little bird. Haneke just can't resist making us accustom to the idea of evil children.
The children are not evil in an Omen kind of way, or in a truant, Bart Simpson kind of way. Yes, a couple of them are outwardly malevolent, but mostly their venom is kept under the surface.
Being aware of Germany's history in the decades after the time the film is set, as most people are, gives the whole affair a simmering, foreboding feeling. Cutting to a close up of one of the children, we get the inescapable sense that we are looking into the eyes of a future Nazi. Indeed, it is likely that Haneke intentionally set out to explore the roots the evil that took old of central Europe in the 1930's. This examination is terrifying, yet it helps to contextualize a political and military movement that we all too often mythologize.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Review: Ballast

Writer/director/editor Lance Hammer's Ballast is a brilliant and beautiful film. Set in the Mississippi Delta region, it focuses on a sullen man named Lawrence who reconnects with his estranged nephew and sister-in-law after his twin brother's suicide. The film establishes an easy, meandering rhythm that is not often on display in cinema; it drips off the screen and into your psyche like molasses.
One aspect of Ballast that strikes the audience first is its gorgeous, rain-drenched cinematography. Every frame marinates in a palette of mossy greens and damp blues. Many of the scenes are set outdoors, and the sad, green, crumbing, rural Delta is captured wonderfully and heartbreakingly
Something that may frustrate some viewers is the film's crushingly sparse dialogue. All the sound could be sucked out, though, and we would still understand what transpires. Similarly, there is no music, but this may be intentional; the filmic language Hammer employs is so rhythmic and lyrical that any musical score would be redundant.

Review: Whip It

So-called "feel-good" films get a bad rap. Serious critics and cinephiles disregard them as trifles manufactured by studios to appeal to Middle America (whatever that means). "A film that makes people feel good cannot possibly be of any cinematic quality", they opine. Director Drew Barrymore's Whip It proves them wrong.
Ellen Page sinks her teeth deep into the lead role of Bliss Cavender, a teenager in tiny, podunk Bodeen, Texas, who dreams of escaping the suffocation of her backwards hometown and the endless series of beauty pageants her overbearing mother (Marcia Gay Harden) shoves her into. One day, she discovers a roller derby league in nearby Austin, and immediately she sees her ticket out of the sticks. Bliss quickly joins a team called the Hurl Scouts, but must participate in secret, knowing her parents would disapprove; this sets up an inevitable confrontation that everyone will see coming.
When Whip It first hit theaters, many people wondered, "can the actress Drew Barrymore direct a movie?". The answer is yes, which shouldn't be a surprise; the girl has spent most of her life on film sets. She succeeds on every level: mood, pacing, shot composition, mise-en-scene, and most especially acting. Again, this last item should not be unexpected. Naturally an actor would excel most at directing her fellow actors. Every member of the cast bangs on all cylinders and is each given their moment to shine. From the afore mentioned Page and Harden, to Daniel Stern as Bliss's Joe Sixpack father, to Alia Shawkat as Bliss's best friend, to the excellent Kristen Wiig as the Hurl Scouts' matriarchal captain.
Does Whip It provide any cinematic revelations or contribute greatly to the filmic language? Not really. It is simply a perfectly crafted, brilliantly acted, delicious little American fairy tale.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Review: Vanished Empire

Director Karen Shakhnazarov's Vanished Empire can most succinctly be described as an amalgam of the book Catcher in the Rye and the Coen bros' recent film A Serious Man, but set in 1970's Soviet Russia. The similarities to Salinger's novel in particular are quite pronounced, and the film almost reads like a back-door screen adaption of the notoriously anti-Hollywood author's work. Our Slavic Holden Caulfield is Sergey, a freshman at some generic Moscow university who spends his time striking up neglectful relationships with co-eds and pawning off his grandfather's antique literature to pay for vodka and contraband Western LPs.
To an American, Vanished Empire feels at first blush like a typical European existentialist coming of age film; the camera work is mostly handheld and sloppy, events transpire without much explanation, and it is all cast in a flat, beige color palette. While this film mostly falls under that description, it does have a few aspects that make it worth watching. First is the acting. All the players are quite naturalistic and understated, which is par for the course with regard to European cinema. The standout performance, however, is delivered by newcomer to the screen Yegor Baranovsky as Sergey's earnest best friend and classmate Stepan. Though not the focus of the film, Baranovsky brings a smoldering honesty to the role that cements him as the moral and emotional center of the piece. As Sergey makes increasingly morally questionable choices, ergo becoming difficult to sympathize with, we are able to latch onto Stepan as an anchor of integrity.
Another value that this film has, especially to a Westerner, is as a window into the later years of the Soviet Union. During much of the 20th century, the USSR was painted as the Evil Empire, and there was not much importation into this country of their culture and arts; this is a drought that persists even today. So films like this one are invaluable to help humanize a people who were our supposed enemies.
Thirdly on the short list of reasons to see Vanished Empire is the final scene. We'll not spoil it here, but rest assured that it makes the entire experience worthwhile. It is a coda like none this critic can think of.