Monday, May 22, 2006

Tomorrow We Move

(2004, Chantal Akerman, seen on DVD)- Akerman's latest feels like a more comedic companion piece to her 1975 masterpiece JEANNE DIELMAN, 23 QUAI DE COMMERCE, 1080 BRUXELLES. In both films, the protagonists thrive on routine, and both films observe the effects that breaks in routine can have on them. Happily, Charlotte (TOMORROW's principle character, played by the adorable Sylvie Testud) is better able to negotiate the chaos than Jeanne- rather than DIELMAN's climactic act, Charlotte merely becomes frazzled and tries to find ways to escape, with varying degrees of success. Charlotte is a writer trying to hammer out a commissioned erotic story, but she is impeded by her life- her flighty mother (Aurore Clement) who has moved in after her husband's recent death, the jam-packed apartment in which they live, her lack of contact with the outside world, and her relative lack of experience in love. So, craving order, she decides to find a new, quieter apartment (hence the title). Much of the film's second half is devoted to Charlotte showing the apartment to various people, and Akerman turns this sequence into a mini-masterpiece of farce, with viewers showing up one right after the other and Charlotte and her mother doing their best to put them at ease, field questions, and show them around. The viewers of the apartment include characters played by Lucas Belvaux (a gruff, slightly obtuse man on the outs with his wife) and Natacha Regnier (a cheerful pregnant woman who feels like an earlier version of Amy Adams' character in JUNEBUG). By the end of the film, Akerman has redefined the film's realities, with touches of magic realism (the childbirth scene) and a musical finale that positions the apartment as a haven of femininity. In short, a delight from beginning to end. Rating: ***1/2.

And speaking of moving, I'm currently looking to move back to Columbus. I was apartment- and job-hunting last week, and I plan on checking out a few more of each in the next couple of weeks, so my days with mom and dad are numbered. Much to everyone's relief, I'm sure.

Also, good DVD-related news. The big recent announcement for nerdy types is Abkco Films' upcoming release of three of Alejandro Jodorowsky's best-known works on DVD- FANDO Y LIS, THE HOLY MOUNTAIN, and EL TOPO. No set date yet, but there's a promo reel on their site (not work-safe). I've never seen any of these, but I've always wanted to, and now I'll finally get the chance.

In addition, good news for people who are mental midgets (that's me) and like giggling (hey, that's me too). One of the greatest prematurely-cancelled but now-classic series of all time is getting released on DVD in October. I refer of course to POLICE SQUAD! In Color! So while there may be more snob-friendly releases in the pipeline (Criterion's YI YI, for example), you can be sure I'll be shelling out my twenty-some dollars come October to grin like an idiot.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

A: Because The Ringer hurled a Brick at Natalie... that's Why We Fight.

Brick (2005, Rian Johnson, seen in theatre)- I'm happy to report that this film has more going for it than a hook- hard-boiled detective noir in high school. In fact, what makes this really work is that Johnson (making his feature directing debut) isn't content to riff on the genre, but finds a way to fuse the noir sensibility with a transplanted setting. In other words, he takes noir seriously and respects the tone as well as the style. And to me, that makes all the difference. Between this film and MYSTERIOUS SKIN, Joseph Gordon-Levitt has completely left his 3RD ROCK FROM THE SUN past in the dust, revealing himself to be a singularly compelling performer, and he's darn near perfect here as Brendan, a role that requires him to essay a sullen, lovelorn loner who seems just inconsequential enough that most people underestimate him. The film's story owes more than a little to Chandler and Hammett, in particular the latter's RED HARVEST, especially in the film's second half, when Brendan finds himself in the middle of a crime war. The movie's also a lot of fun to listen to, with the characters volleying elaborate dialogue that might have made Chandler (or the Coen brothers) cackle with glee. And any movie that ends with "Sister Ray" is OK by me. Rating: ***1/2.

Why We Fight (2005, Eugene Jarecki, seen in theatre)- yet another in a seemingly endless string of left-leaning political docs, this one dealing with the "military-industrial complex," a phrase coined by Pres. Eisenhower, case you hadn't heard. Problem is, there's little here that doesn't feel like secondhand info- yeah, so Cheney and friends were planning Iraq in the early 90s, and the veep's relationship with his former employer Halliburton may have enabled them to play a major role in the current war effort. Really, we've heard it all before, to the point where the few bits that don't feel recycled, like the father of the 9/11 victim who later became disillusioned with the Iraq War, don't mesh all that well with the rest. And the Philip Glass-ripoff score was annoying as hell. If you've watched any political docs lately, you've probably already seen better and learned everything this proports to teach you. Rating: *1/2.

The Ringer (2005, Barry Blaustein, seen on DVD)- this film has a late-period Farelly brothers feel to it (duh, they produced), with comedy scenes interspersed with a serious message, with THE RINGER making the case that the mentally handicapped are real people with engaging personalities. Problem is, the film just isn't as funny as it wants to be- there are a few good laughs, but it ends up being more good-natured than hilarious. The story is dragged down by a romantic subplot involving Johnny Knoxville, pretending to be mentally challeneged, falling in love with a pretty Special Olympics volunteer (Katherine Heigl), who must be fairly dense, since Knoxville's act isn't remotely convincing (nor, admittedly, is it meant to be, this being a comedy and all). Thankfully, Knoxville's fellow contestants aren't fooled, and the film's best scenes involve Knoxville bonding with these guys and learning the aforementioned lesson. I also sorta liked how the film acknowledges how convoluted its setup is, referring back to it later when Knoxville has trouble explaining it all to his new friends. In short, diverting enough, but neither as refreshingly un-P.C. or as funny as it should have been. Rating: **.

Nathalie... (2003, Anne Fontaine, seen on DVD)- it's been a week since I saw this and I barely remember anything- rarely a good sign. It's never boring, and any movie with Emmanuelle Beart in tramp mode (she's one of the few actresses who can pull it off successfully and still be hot) is worth a look, but the result is unassuming to a fault and contains a climactic twist that I saw coming a mile away. Rating: **.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Some links for now...

I wrote an honest-to-goodness long review! Can you believe it? I don't know how often this will happen now, given that it required a movie as amazing as THE NEW WORLD to motivate me, but we'll just have to see...

And speaking of THE NEW WORLD, it's so awesome that it actually cracked my top 100. Scroll down and see how high it placed.

Oh, I also finally posted my 2005 Coveted Opal Award nominations. Let the second-guessing commence!

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Fantastical Newness

Hard Candy (2005, David Slade, seen in theatre)- intense as all hell, and disturbing too, not least because it leaves one unsure of who to root for. The film is structured as a two-hander, with almost all the action unfolding in a locked house, in which we find Jeff (Patrick Wilson), a photographer with an eye for underage girls, and Hayley (Ellen Page), a 14-year-old who hooked up with Jeff over the Web. Jeff thinks he's in control, but after Hayley drugs his drink it's clear that she has something more sinister in mind. Hayley runs the risk of feeling more like a construct of the screenplay than an actual person, but Page's performance is so spot-on that she's never less than convincing, injecting occasional bouts of uncertainty into her carefully-considered plan and sometimes having to wing it to get it back on track. Director Slade takes an interesting directorial tack with this film- rather than seeing the action primarily through the eyes of (a) the vicious girl, or (b) the pedophile she holds hostage, he stands back, recording the action from a third perspective, turning the audience into voyeurs. This may not seem to be a new idea, but (SPOILER!) given the true nature of Jeff's involvement in a certain incident in question, it makes perfect sense in retrospect. Rating: **1/2.

The Notorious Bettie Page (2005, Mary Harron, seen in theatre)- fairly entertaining but wafer-thin, Harron's film coasts mostly on the surprisingly awesome lead performance from Gretchen Mol, who provides pretty much any emotional pull the film has to offer. The film has little to offer in regards to perspective about Page's life- it's a glossy rags-to-riches-to-rags story spiced up by Page's cult status and the requisite vintage erotica. What I lacked was a reason to really care about the people onscreen- I never got the impression that the people I saw were living lives, but rather were re-enacting them for the cameras, which of course they were, but this feeling shoots the whole suspension of disbelief idea right in the ass. That the film doesn't really seem to take the time period too seriously doesn't help- most of the incidental characters are seen ironically, such as the "respectable lawyer"/bondage freak who reveals himself to be a mama's boy. As I said before, Mol's performance is top-notch, which is almost enough reason to see this. Almost. Rating: **.

Don't Come Knocking (2005, Wim Wenders)- part of the problem with Wenders' recent work is that he gets too caught up in incidental goings-on that he gives short shrift to his ostensible plots. Which is not to say that plot is the be-and-and-end-all of filmmaking- consider Howard Hawks' late period, in which he made the same movie three times- but when the film deals with a father connecting with a son he's never met, some engagement is required. Still, there's some good stuff interspersed throughout- a scene of Sam Shepard resting on a couch in the middle of the street, the sensory onslaught of a casino, a short conversation between waitress Jessica Lange and bond company stooge Tim Roth about different varieties of breakfast potatoes- but not enough to make me forget that my attentions ought to have been elsewhere. Alas, the film goes downhill once Eva Marie Saint (as Shepard's mother) exits the scene- Saint commits 100% to the story, creating a deeply felt character that holds much more interest than anyone else in the film. Rating: **.

Mirrormask (2005, Dave McKean, seen on DVD)- more fun than I had expected from a movie that looked like a distaff version of the SPY KIDS movies. Perhaps it's the Britishness of the film that makes it so enjoyable- the sense of class structure even in the fantasy world, the way this world traffics in riddles that sometimes double as clues, and the very un-video-game nature of the visual flights of fancy all contribute to the uniqueness of its vision. In the end, it's still fairly slight, but it's also entertaining enough to make that forgivable. Kinda wish I could've caught this on the big screen, however. Rating: **1/2.

A Perfect Couple (1979, Robert Altman, seen on DVD)- "minor Altman," as Professor Berkman might say, but Altman's still Altman, and his cockeyed vision of the world informs every frame of this. The bits with Paul Dooley's staunchly conservative Greek family feel almost cliché, but Dooley himself is sort of marvelous here, making for a capable, albeit unconventional, romantic lead (his female counterpart is Marta Heflin, an ideal Altman camera subject, who depending on the camera angle can become hard or soft, pretty or homely). I also dug the stuff with the band with which Heflin sings, "Keepin' 'Em Off the Streets" (lead singer: Ted Neeley), with Altman's knack for capturing musical performances as peerless as ever. This is hardly canonical Altman, but for a second-rank piece it'll do quite nicely. Rating: ***.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Have you ever hated a movie enough that you wanted to punch the director in the face?

Battle in Heaven (2005, Carlos Reygadas, seen in theatre)- Yes, the title of the post applies to this movie. I'm normally pretty lenient on movies that are ambitious and are clearly aiming to be original. However, this feels like a parody of Serious World Cinema. Consider that the film contains (a) unsimulated and unerotic sex between people who make the subjects of Francis Bacon paintings look like supermodels, (b) copious religious imagery, (c) overly mannered camera work, and (d) a random act of violence. Now, a good film could be made that uses some of these elements- for example, Bruno Dumont's TWENTYNINE PALMS. But Dumont not only has a gift for framing vivid images but also actually views his characters as people rather than the loaded symbols we see in Reygadas' work. Reygadas suffuses his work with such a sense of suffocating self-importance that it's blatantly obvious that nothing (or no one) is meant to be taken simply at face value. Both in his first film, JAPON, and now here, it's clear that the guy is out to portray the culture clash that takes place in Mexico- one of the most heavyhanded moments in JAPON found his philosophical protagonist drunkenly beating the shit of a cantina boom box for playing popular music, fer chrissakes- and from the first shots of BATTLE IN HEAVEN he's up to his old tricks. The film opens with the middle-aged, corpulent, dark-skinned Marcos being fellated by young light-skinned hottie Ana, and the camera pans down to her face to reveal that she's crying. Um, yeah. This is echoed by the film's final scene, which is either a dying fantasy or a vision of the afterlife in which Marcos and Ana declare their love for each other. I'm not sure which option I hate more. I'm not even sure we can take the idea of love at face value in the final scene, since after all she's still giving him head, hardly a position of equality. Of course, I don't think he's talking about equality after all, but rather the fall of the bourgeoisie and the rise of the underclass. But talk of class warfare seems hollow when it's clear you don't give a shit about either class. This is made abundantly clear by the film's third act, in which Marcos responds to the aforementioned act of violence by embarking on a religious pilgrimage, crawling toward his destination while a fanatic yells out "No more drugs! No more titties!" Was it really Reygadas' goal to portray the Mexican proletariat as a bunch of sheep who are religious zealots at heart? Or wasn't I supposed to take this seriously? I can almost believe this was meant to be a comedy, but Reygadas has a funny way of showing it. Either way, I'm done with this dude. Rating: *.

When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960, Mikio Naruse, seen in theatre)- my first exposure to Naruse, and quite as pleasant one at that. I was surprised twofold at the outset- not only was the film in black and white 'Scope (one of my cinematic fetishes) but it was a lot more modern in style than I had anticipated for a film about a woman's limited roles in Japanese society. I found the character arc of Keiko (Hideko Takamine), aka Mama-san, an aging bar hostess who is becoming discontented with her station in life, to be fairly compelling, although to my mind she's befallen by at least one too many personal setbacks, which makes the film feel a touch too long. No matter- I'm curious to see more Naruse, although since I missed the rest of the retrospective who knows when that'll happen. Rating: ***.

The Syrian Bride (2004, Eran Riklis, seen in theatre)- a diverting film in two parts- the first half deals with the preparations for a wedding between a woman living in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and a Syrian soap star she's never met, and the second details her difficulties at the border. Political implications aside, the first half is fairly conventional wedding-movie stuff, with the family's conflicts and resentments bubbling to the surface- the son who has been cast out for marrying a Russian, the onetime-revolutionary father who may not be able to attend the wedding for legal reasons, the strong-willed sister whose husband is uneasy about her independence, and so on. I prefer the second half, which reminded me a bit of (the admittedly superior) NO MAN'S LAND, in which the characters were trapped by international diplomacy and politics. Of the cast, Hiam Abbass effortlessly places first as the bride's sister, caring and supportive of everyone in her life but also yearning to break out of her traditional woman's role. Not a great film, but watching it on the same day as BATTLE IN HEAVEN certainly made me appreciate its modest pleasures all the more. Rating: **1/2.