Monday, June 12, 2006

Lotsa bang bang. Not so much kiss kiss.

L'ENFANT (2005, Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, seen in theatre)- the Dardennes are not only so consistently awesome but also simply so consistent in their work that it's easy to undervalue how great they are. People like an auteurial stamp, sure, but the Dardennes' work is so of a piece (similar to, say, Ozu's) that the temptation is to scoff at them and say they're simply covering the same old ground. But for me the world they create is a lot like Faulkner's- in the brothers' case, a warts-and-all version of lower-class Belgium, but also one fraught with drama and the possibility of redemption. And so it is here, with the film taking on the Dardennes' most irredeemable protagonist to date, a twentysomething street punk named Bruno (played by Jeremie Renier). Much like Rosetta before him, Bruno is singleminded- in his case, his obsession is with money. "Work is for fuckers," he states, so he steals instead, and will sell damn near anything to make a buck (it's to the film's credit that it doesn't take the sordid route and have Bruno sell his body). When Bruno's girlfriend shows up with a newborn baby- presumably his- he takes the opportunity to sell the kid to a black-market adoption racket, saying "we can always have another one." What follows is Bruno's path toward redemption, and while we see that the film is headed in that direction, it nonetheless manages to surprise us along the way. Interestingly, Bruno is able to get the child back fairly quickly, which is a wise choice dramatically because the film isn't about the baby but rather about Bruno, and too much tot-related peril could have thrown it all out of whack. The film isn't quite at the level of the Dardennes' masterpiece THE SON, but it's still damn potent filmmaking, with numerous moments out of time lingering in my memory (particularly the scene where he sells the baby). Can't wait to see where the Dardennes will take me next. Rating: ***1/2.

A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION (2006, Robert Altman, seen in theatre)- Altman brings Garrison Keillor’s hip-to-be-square radio show to the big screen with his usual skill, although the end result isn’t without its flaws. Much has been made about the film’s focus on death, but I would have preferred the film made the theme of mortality less explicit. To manifest it in Virginia Madsen’s angel character feels too on-the-nose- better she had remained a spectral fringe player in the action, a la Jeff Goldblum in NASHVILLE or Alan Bates in GOSFORD PARK, letting her warm and gentle presence say everything that needed said. For me, the film is more of interest as a study in Americana, with family singing groups, advertising jingles, crooning cowboys, purple-prose-spouting gumshoes, and off-color jokes all represented here in the nostalgic context of an old-school radio show. Given both the narrative framework and Altman at the helm, the film is also a primo performance film, with Keillor’s bowtied folksiness, Streep and Tomlin’s sisterly double act, Harrelson and Reilly’s cowboy routine, and even Lindsay Lohan belting out her twist on "Frankie and Johnny" all making strong impressions. I just wish that the film as a whole felt less slight- as it is, it’s a genial crowd-pleaser, and little more. Rating: **1/2.

DOWN IN THE VALLEY (2005, David Jacobson, seen in theatre)- the first film in Saturday’s ten-gallon double feature didn’t quite work for me, although I had high hopes for it after the first half-hour or so. The problem is partly one of ambition- Jacobson clearly wants to contrast the Western mythos with modern-day Los Angeles, with Edward Norton’s Harlan clashing with messy modern life. However, Jacobson makes the mistake of explaining Harlan’s cowboy persona as a result of both mental illness AND a difficult past (think bad daddy), when there are undoubtedly cowboy types who have made L.A. their home without tragedy ensuing. A shame too, since the film begins so promisingly as a portrait of a few lives in southern California, and the cast (nice to see Norton actually putting forth some effort again) provides able support. Unfortunately, in order to direct the film toward a Western-style finish, Jacobson forces his characters to make numerous stupid decisions just to propel the plot, and when the big showdown happened, I didn’t care nearly as much as I should have. Rating: **.

THE PROPOSITION (2005, John Hillcoat, seen in theatre)- now this is more like it. While the film takes place in Australia, the differences between this and a Western are almost purely geographical. As with many great Westerns, this film deals with the struggle to "civilize" the land, with the civilizing influence personified most sharply by Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone) and his wife (Emily Watson). What they’re up against is a tough land occupied by hard men, including Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce), who Stanley tasks to locate his notorious fugitive brother Arthur Burns (Danny Huston). Hillcoat and screenwriter/score composer Nick Cave make this Australia a brutal and unforgiving place, and nearly every character has leathery skin covered in blood, dirt, and flies. The film is violent and even gruesome, but rarely gratuitous (exploding head scene aside), and the violence is appropriately upsetting, in particular a public beating that includes a shot of the whip-wielder wringing the blood out of his whip. The end result may not be pretty, but it’s nonetheless a vivid portrait of colonialism and its perils, with ample opportunities for the talented cast (which also includes an awesomely over-the-top John Hurt) to really tear up the screen. Rating: ***.

EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED (2005, Liev Schreiber, seen on DVD)- what begins as most premium culture-clash comedy morphs into a meditation on the plight of Jews in the Ukraine. Elijah Wood plays Jonathan, a young man searching for his family’s roots in the Ukraine, but he’s less the film’s protagonist than the catalyst for the story. The real central journey of the film is taken by Alex, memorably played by Eugene Hutz, who through Jonathan discovers his family’s history, which he had never known about before. Schreiber, a quintessential actor, makes an assured directing debut here, resisting most temptations to goose the story stylistically while occasionally injecting bits of magical realism when necessary, most obviously the field of sunflowers. I missed EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED when it played in theatres, and I don’t think I missed much by waiting until DVD to see it- it’s hardly a world-beater, but it’s entertaining and finally poignant, and makes an ideal "sleeper" rental. Rating: **1/2.

THE PRESIDENT’S LAST BANG (2005, Im Sang-soo, seen on DVD)- I can’t help but feel like I missed something in this film, being largely unfamiliar with Korean history- the ad copy for the film labeled it a "dark comedy," but the darkly comic moments were no doubt predicated on familiarity with the story. As it was, the film was fairly interesting from a procedural standpoint, as the killing of Park Chun-hee is created in convincing detail, with some impressive stylistic touches (dig the DePalma-style overhead shot!). Rating: **1/2.

1 comment:

Jason_Alley said...

Yeah, I didn't know that "L'Enfant" was up against "Cache" - I just meant that it was really, really good. I would have voted for "Cache" in that case.

I'm still holding out some hope for "Down In The Valley", seeing as Jacobson directed one of the best and most underseen movies of the last few years ("Dahmer"), but yeah, it doesn't look so hot.