Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Spring Breakdown: FRIDAY THE 13TH


FRIDAY THE 13TH (Marcus Nispel, U.S.A.)

Unlike his needless Texas Chainsaw redux, which jettisoned the reptilian, snuff-film dread of Tobe Hooper’s original in favor of sleekly modern gruesomeness, Marcus Nispel’s Friday the 13th faithfully evokes the spirit of its much-maligned predecessors. Which is to say, it follows the franchise’s boobs-and-blood template—one of the most primitive and rigidly formulaic in film history—to a razor-sharp, axe-shaped T. Same rowdy bunch of party-animal teens, drinking and smoking and fucking their oblivious way to a grisly demise. Same ominously secluded, summer camp setting. Same alternating cycle of false-alarm, fake-out jolts and sneak-up-behind-you, machete-through-the-brain “real” ones. (Bet if you put the stopwatch to this puppy, you’d see a splatter of CGI blood every seven minutes, almost to the second.) And same ol’ Jason Vorhees, with his hulking figure, steady gate, trademark hockey mask and puritanical killer’s code. Nispel and producer Michael Bay lend these familiar proceedings a magic hour sheen—never has the filmmaking in a Jason movie been this slickly competent—and while the actors still resemble “good looking kids you might see in a Pepsi commercial,” their chops are more Dawson’s Creek credible than skin flick atrocious. Still no real scares, of course, but there are plenty of bare breasts, and more than a few laughs, many of them actually intentional. The kills remain mostly unimaginative, but have a kind of amusingly mechanical precision. (My favorites were the blade through the floor, the arrow through the neck, and the burning sleeping bag.) I’d call this the best entry in the entire series, but boy would that be the faintest of faint praise. Spit-shine aside, Friday the 13th’s ki ki ki, ma ma ma song remains stubbornly (but reliably!) the same. It’s vaudeville for gore hounds.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Spring Breakdown: DUPLICITY


Ladies and gentlemen, I humbly present my hundredth post.

***

DUPLICITY (Tony Gilroy, U.S.A.)

Here’s one for the Owen Gliebermans of the world. As sleek and “sexy” as a sports car, built to corner each turn of its twisty narrative with smooth finesse, Tony Gilroy’s follow-up to Michael Clayton refurnishes that dour film’s topical subject matter—corporate espionage in the ruthless, go-go aughts—for effervescent jolts of movie-ish movie pleasure. The beautiful people in this Grownup Entertainment have no prickly moral quandaries to grapple with (and no car bombs to narrowly escape from either) just an elaborate ruse to pull, easy money to stuff in their designer suit pockets. “The rich stealing from the richer” is how Todd McCarthy described Steven Soderbergh’s trio of Clooney-and-Pitt-headlined heist pictures. To wit: if Clayton was Gilroy’s Erin Brokovich, this is his Ocean’s 11. That’s a roundabout, underhanded-compliment kind of way of saying that Duplicity’s something of a breezy blast—weightless, with some pretty low dramatic stakes, but slickly proficient at its agreeable brand of con-job entertainment. Clive Owen and Julia Roberts flirt, fuck, bicker, lie, and scheme. And not necessarily, thanks to a flash-forward, rewind chronology, in that order. Since the plot is little more than transparent, sub-Mamet trickery—the lovers’ elaborate plan is just un-elaborate enough to make one last narrative rug-pull a foregone conclusion—Duplicity lives or dies on the chemistry between its mega-watt, movie star leads. Roberts suppresses her sometimes-wearisome cheer, Owen sports his trademark brainy swagger and brutish charisma, and the two playfully savor and swap the verbal bon mots concocted, I would have to imagine, especially for them. These aren’t really characters, and theirs isn’t much of a love story. But it all looks really sharp and Gilroy refuses, even in a fairly flippant shell game, to insult his audience’s intelligence. He projects such directorial confidence that upon the arrival of the film’s first genuine say what? moment—a brain-teasing bit of conversational déjà vu—my mind didn’t scramble to solve the puzzle, but simply eased in, confident that the answers would be provided to me in time. I was in the hands of… well, if not a master, certainly a joyous craftsman, a New Hollywood aesthete with some Old Hollywood sensibilities. Not sure we need more Duplicitys, but keep the Gilroys coming, please.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Spring Breakdown: CORALINE


CORALINE (Henry Selick, U.S.A.)

The most convincing case to be made against Coraline, this spring’s spindly, otherworldly big-screen take on Neil Gaimon’s young adult fantasia, is that it registers as some kind of anti-imagination cautionary tale. To be sure, our titular ingénue gets a kind of perilous comeuppance for choosing, initially, the bizarro wonders of her cracked-mirror, alternate universe over the more mundane (if still mighty weird) bric-a-brac of her regular ol’ home life. But the moral’s a bit more specific than the haters make it out to be: Coraline warns not against all manner of fanciful escapism, just the kind that necessitates complete detachment from reality, i.e. repression of real distress—in this case, the familial variety—via the opiate of wish-fulfillment fantasy. That’s a message I can swallow, particularly when it’s attached to such a beautifully baroque, refreshingly unsentimental family entertainment. Written and directed by Henry Selick, who’s perfected the fluidly organic (or is organically fluid?) stop motion animation he first employed in 1993’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, Coraline ravishingly evokes the awe and curiosity, but also the bump-in-the-night, existential dread, of unsupervised adolescence. Unlike Nightmare, which married its gothic, Tim Burton-overseen oddities to a busily propellant story-arc, this one never feels committed to any pressing narrative concerns. It just kind of meanders through its jaggedly eccentric world, pausing to gawk at various creepy-cute attractions, all rendered in eye-poppingly immersive 3D. The critter grotesqueries Coraline vanquishes in Act Three flutter and squirm and pulse like refugees from some grab bag of lingering childhood phobias. Can anything this fever dream fantastic, this elaborately off-kilter, really be anti-imagination?

Spring Breakdown: THE CLASS


THE CLASS (Laurent Cantet, France)

Here’s the perfect antidote to every inspirational instructor fairytale that’s come down the pike in the last twenty years. Look, I’m all for celebrating teachers, those underpaid, undervalued, unsung heroes of our society at large. I just think there’s a little more value in giving an honest depiction of what happens in the classroom than there is in floridly romanticizing the student-teacher bond—real teachers rarely, for example, inspire their students to stand on desks, chanting Walt Whitman poems, or get them hooked on language by asserting that Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” is about a drug dealer. What The Class cannily understands is that, for the truly dedicated inner city instructor, the real question is not “How do I reach these keeds?” but “How do I keep most of these kids in line so at least a few of them can learn something?” Based on the nonfiction memoirs of François Bégaudeau, who wrote the screenplay adaptation and stars as (pretty much) himself, Cantet’s gripping docudrama contents itself, in its fascinating first hour anyway, to simply observing the day-to-day attempts of a frustrated, Parisian schoolteacher to maintain control over his unruly, insubordinate pupils—a thankless and sometimes futile task, the film unsentimentally acknowledges. I’d have been satisfied with these loose, quasi-improvisations alone, buoyed as they are by a phenomenal, multi-ethnic cast of nonprofessional youths. (Plus, what was the last classroom drama you saw that actually devoted a large portion of its runtime to actual classroom activity, to the art of teaching itself?) But Cantet and Bégaudeau have bigger aims, as evidenced by a third act plotline about the fate of a Malian student whose disciplinary problems may cost him his education and, implicitly, his future. “Some students will have to slip through the cracks for others to move forward”—that’s one reading of the film’s complicated thematic agenda, though the last hour is so utterly ambiguous, so colored by questions of race, class, privilege and the dividing lines these cultural identifiers draw, that I’d be remiss to reduce its “message” to simple, ideological bullet points. The Class feels like something very close to a masterpiece, limited only by its lack of a distinctive directorial stamp. Though, come to think of it, how would daring aesthetic flourishes not have just proved an unnecessary distraction from this powerhouse material?

Monday, April 20, 2009

Spring Breakdown: ADVENTURELAND


ADVENTURELAND (Greg Mottola, U.S.A.)

Every young, aspiring writer-director has one of these in them. The painfully earnest memoir about that one summer. You know the one I mean. College (or high school) had just ended. That trip to Europe (or Mexico or California or wherever) fell through. You had no job, no money, no prospects. The future was a big question mark. You ended up working at some soul-sucking amusement park (or fast food joint or shopping mall or, um, movie theater). You worked all day and partied all night. You fell in love, then promptly got your heart broken. You crashed your parent’s car and lost all your savings. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, but you were alive. Then you moved to New York City (or Hollywood), became a writer (and/or filmmaker) and jumpstarted your life. For Greg Mottola, that summer was, evidently, in 1987. And I’m guessing he spent most of it smoking weed, listening to Fugazi, and trying his goddamn hardest to land (and then subsequently forget) the manic pixie dream girl that stole his carny affections.

Adventureland is nothing if not wholly and completely heartfelt. Like Mottola's last movie, Superbad, it possesses a rare, innate understanding of what it’s like to be young and horny and completely clueless about what makes the opposite sex tick. Unlike Superbad, it’s not particularly funny or memorable. While I don’t doubt that all of this is incredibly personal to Mottola, he doesn’t do nearly enough to distinguish his particular coming-of-age saga from the seemingly endless, annual string of likeminded projects. The specifics feel curiously arbitrary: were it not for the fashions, wall-to-wall post-punk tunes, and requisite, boob tube cameo from Ronald Reagan, all of this could fit snugly into the Summer of 2008. What’s worse, the theme park setting is woefully underutilized, as both distinctly mundane milieu and source of work-sucks comedic material. (My version of this quarter-life-crisis fable would be veritably jampacked with the ghosts of Asshole Customer Past.) Mottola’s smartest move was nabbing Jesse Eisenberg, who, after Rodger Dodger and The Squid and the Whale, is making quite a pleasant, engaging career out of playing the hyper-articulate, uber-sensitive young version of every hyper-articulate, uber-sensitive filmmaker who sees a little of themselves in his gawky-cute sincerity. He’s sweet, and so’s the movie, mostly. But real drama can’t run on big-hearted nostalgia alone. Keep that in mind when you’re penning your own perfect little time capsule about that one amazing summer, back in 19-something-or-other, when you almost scored with that one girl who you worked with at that one job.

Spring Breakdown: 12


12 (Nikita Mikhalkov, Russia)

Or: how to botch a million dollar premise with barn-door broad characterizations, superfluous narrative detours, and obnoxious stylistic hiccups. Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men, from which this bombastic Russian chore draws its chief inspiration, remains one of the definitive works of classic Hollywood minimalism. It’s just twelve jurors in one room. Eleven are ready to cast a guilty vote and get on with their lives. One begs, respectfully, to differ. With a clear head and a firm rhetorical prowess, this single man methodically breaks down the dogmatic certainty of his fellow jurors, instilling nagging shreds of reasonable doubt in their minds via his plain, inexorable logic. It’s remarkable how much dramatic tension Lumet managed to wring from this simple, insular idea… and even more remarkable how little Mikhalkov gets out of it.

First sign of trouble? It takes a shuffling half hour of exposition to arrive where Lumet started. Things just slow down further from there, as we’re introduced to our motley troop of very angry men, a rouge’s gallery of outsize personalities, played with theatrical relish by a bunch of chest-thumping, capitol-A actors. Mikhalkov hinges his drama not on a carefully calculated battle of wits, but on a kind of group therapy dynamic, supplying each of his conflicted jurors with a show-stopping, backstory-dispensing monologue. 12 then intercuts this bickering, squabbling Theatre of the Absurd with frenetic flashbacks detailing the troubled, war-torn childhood of the accused. Suppose I should be grateful for any break in these lugubrious proceedings, but cutting outside of the jury room just feels like a tension-relieving cop-out—the jurors don’t get a reprieve, so why should we? The aim, I’d wager, of these Slumdog Defendant anecdotes is to engender sympathy for the jailed teen, and to remove any doubt in our minds of his ultimate innocence. Lumet’s film posited blind, empirical conviction as a kind of fool’s philosophy, the product of personal biases and irrational impulses. (Notably, it’s never stated that the boy isn’t guilty, merely that he might not be.) Mikhalkov’s remake simply swaps one form of absolute certainty for another. He couldn’t have missed the point more had he tried.

Misguided though all of this claptrap is, it might have been rendered a touch more bearable had its maker employed a starker aesthetic palette. What we get instead is choppy-kinetic editing, canted angles and CGI hummingbirds—dance moves cribbed from fellow countryman Timur Bekmambetov. (If this is the new face of Russian cinema, Tarkovsky must be rolling around in his austere grave.) When the film’s reoccurring visual motif finally reveals itself in full, it proves at once a crude, pointless, and cheaply vindictive summative image. I never thought this foolproof material could be warped so grotesquely beyond recognition, but the proof’s in the kissel.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

SUMMER HOURS, EU09 Wrap-Up, and the Shape of Things To Come


Summer Hours, the latest from beloved French cine-maverick Olivier Assayas, was the last movie I saw at this past month’s European Union Festival. In keeping with the makeshift fest coverage I committed to a few weeks ago, this was to be the last of my recap capsules (recapsules?), but I’ve actually decided not to do an official review of the film just yet. Por qué? you inquire. Well, quite simply, because I don’t know what to say about it. I usually find myself able to conjure up some kind of instant critical reaction to virtually any movie I’ve just seen. That reaction may grow or change, blossom or curdle in hindsight, in the cold light of post-screening day or the flickering glow of my computer monitor as I sit down to scrawl out my thoughts. (Often, the very act of writing about a movie alters how I feel about it—what’s that scientific principle about changing the results of something by measuring them?) Yet Summer Hours is one of those rare instances where I feel as though, even from a jumping off point, that I don’t yet have anything constructive or compelling to offer to the critical debate.

And it’s not that the movie is some kind of dense, confounding mind-fuck, ala Inland Empire or Synecdoche, New York. Quite to the contrary, it’s a remarkably lithe concoction, a gently probing examination of family, memory and mortality. The acting is superb, the compositions better, the themes richly developed yet never shoved down your throat. In short, it certainly has the making of a masterpiece, which is what everyone around me seemed to rapturously take it as. With sporadic exceptions, I was left curiously unmoved, sometimes mildly unengaged even. Some of the details were exquisite, but the whole failed to make a very strong impression upon me. (There were extenuating circumstances: the heat in the theater, the illness ravaging my lungs and sinuses, the old woman snoring blissfully beside me—it would be foolish to deny these factors as an influence on my opinion.) I don’t usually second-guess my gut reactions, even when faced with the nearly unanimous, dissenting opinions of my respected and respective film-going comrades. But when so many smart people offer such rational defenses of a work—and when my own perspective is warped by a less-than-favorable viewing experience—I resign myself to the very distinct likelihood that I just missed the boat.

[UPDATE: I missed the boat. This movie is awesome.]

So, no Summer Hours review. Not just yet. I’ll watch it again when it officially opens in Chicago this summer. I suppose I might jot down a few observations/random insights I gleaned in my upcoming Spring Catch-Up piece, wherein I plan to spill some quick ink on the 15 or 20 new movies I’ve watched in theaters these past two months. (For the curious, that’s next up on the To Do List docket.) If I’ve learned anything from this particular festival experience, it’s that America hasn’t the only national cinema capable of churning out disposable, easily digestible genre fodder. Pleasant rom-coms, trashy thrillers, lavishly mediocre war dramas—without the subtitles and “exotic” cultural signifiers, would any of these diversions qualify as “art house” fare? The Garrel and the Assayas pictures were the only arguably challenging ones I saw all fest, and, again, I didn’t adore either of those. Now, granted, I ultimately saw just a handful of the EU’s selections, but lest I failed to catch that the new Haneke or Rivette or something was in competition, what did I really miss out on? The European Union Festival just picked up the Reader’s annual “Best Film Fest” award, beating out the oft-maligned Chicago International Film Festival. The latter certainly has its problems, but until the former starts nabbing less random B-pictures and more new ones from the current class of working masters, I’ll stick with the CIFF, thanks.

With the festival over, I now return to my semi-regular regiment of reviewing new theatrical releases, under-the-radar indie flicks and retrospective screenings. There will be a few changes and a few new ambitious endeavors around these parts in the coming months. They are as follows:

• As of today, no more letter grades on the end of reviews. Done with em’. The buck has to stop here. I am not a contributor to Entertainment Weekly. I do not need to constantly undercut my analysis with reductive stamps of empirical judgment. I’ve long defended the letter grade as a kind of “fun” shorthand, a quick-fire rendering of raw opinion, to be attached to my shorter, punchier pieces. It’s become abundantly clear to me, though, that even in the case of capsules, a grade (or star or number or whatever) actively detracts from the hard critical work I otherwise do. At best, they encourage folks to just skim my writing and go straight to the be-all, end-all last word—why bother tussling with the analysis when the grade pretty much sums it all up, right? At worst, they actually color and muck with my critical reasoning. (Gee, I’ve asked before, is this review a little too harsh for a movie I’ve just assigned a “B-“ rating? It reads more like a “C+”. Maybe I need to rewrite.) Shit has to stop. As Manny Farber once famously wrote and I’m prone to proudly regurgitate, “Criticism has nothing to do with hierarchies.” Time to practice what I’m preaching and put an end to this counterintuitive, mostly useless grading scale.

Ahem. That having been said: for those who MUST know my snap-judgment opinion, free of analytical context, that’s what I keep my Twitter account open for. No plans just yet to jettison the letter grades there, though I may eventually tire of composing pithy, snappy, 140-character reviews, at which point they will be completely and unceremoniously retired. Also on the chopping block: Oscar coverage. Because, why bother?

• What was I saying about hierarchies? I still adore lists, and I still maintain that they have value, as a way of organizing our obsessions and guiding interested parties to new works. I always find the act of summarizing a year in movies via a top ten list to be both overwhelmingly enjoyable and pretty rewarding. By the end of this calendar year, I will have started a massive retrospective project, comparable in spirit to my Year End write-ups, but encompassing a slightly longer cycle of time. Given what’s coming to an end this December, I’m sure the nature of the project is scarcely a secret. A few of my filmic kindred spirits will be contributing insight, analysis, and prose. I look forward to getting started, though I have some catching up to do, watching-wise.

• It’s come to my attention that my blog ain’t the prettiest page on the interweb. A redesign may be in order. I’m actually considering just turning the whole thing into an actual website, though that will depend on how easily I can make changes myself once the template is created. I’m not exactly a pro when it comes to HTML. Anybody want to offer me their services in this department? There’s (modest) pay to be had.

Look for my three-part Spring Catch-Up in the days to come. Summer, month of a thousand would-be blockbusters, rapidly approaches. I’d be lying through my teeth if I said there weren’t a few big-budget projects I’m pretty eagerly anticipating. Is it May 29th yet?

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

EU09 Recap: FRONTIER OF DAWN


SPOILERS herein.

***

Frontier of Dawn, Philip Garrel’s latest swooning valentine to the Nouvelle Vague, commences quite promisingly. Louis, the writer-director’s pride and joy, his brooding brood, the impossibly and fashionably French marquee movie star, strolls down a Parisian boulevard in glorious, retina-tickling black-and-white. For but a moment the heart flutters, enraptured by fond memories of junior and senior Garrel’s last collaboration, their marathon-length ode to reckless, restless bohemia. The magic feeling fades—this is not Regular Lovers. That epic treatise on love and privilege steeped its beating-heart romanticism in the ultra-specific. Set in Paris, during and after the 1968 student revolts, it colored its characters—their quirks and desires, passions and hang-ups—in a very particular shade of nostalgia-tinged earnestness. If the impression left by Frontier of Dawn is exceptionally less memorable, less intoxicatingly vivid even, chalk it up to the film’s comparably vague sense of time, place, and milieu, not to mention its looser contextual link to the New Wave classics it gently emulates. Regular Lovers was a grand mosaic. This one’s more of a sketch, a tossed-off doodle in Garrel’s dream journal.

And yet those with a taste for either Garrel, the restrained aesthetic gestures of the father or the preening postures of the son, will find plenty to like here. Louis, affecting a pout less exquisite than the one he so stylishly sported in La Belle Personne, plays a hotshot photographer who falls into a tumultuous affair with a married actress (Laura Smet, giving her pretty boy co-star a run for his tortured fashion model money). When the going gets tough, Louis gets going, leaving his dangerously unstable, budding ingénue girlfriend to her own self-destructive devices. A year and one tragedy later, he’s hooked up with a new hottie (Clémentine Poidatz), a delicate pixie-waif slowly cornering him into a life of cozy domesticity. Yet the specter of The Ex, wildchild yin to the current squeeze’s nice girl yang, still haunts his heart, mind, and bedroom vanity mirror. Though the love triangle narrative resembles a French Two Lovers (the opposing, archetypal objects of desire are nearly identical to those in the James Gray picture) Frontier of Dawn never works up enough steam to qualify as satisfying melodrama. Garrel’s touch is too light, his actors too coolly detached—we might well be watching an impeccably filmed Levi ad, with big emotion reduced to smoldering, “sexy” affectation.

A minor work from a major filmmaker, Frontier of Dawn gets by on its writer-director’s keen eye for composition, his ease with talent (including a few folks not related to him), and, most advantageously, his general playfulness. If the film’s string of passive-aggressive skirmishes suggests a clip reel homage to Godard’s bedroom scenes (minus the headier conceits and flares of intense emotion) Garrel blessedly undercuts his doomed romantic torpor with oddball non sequiturs, the funniest being a café-set argument with an anti-Semite that has no rational relation to any other scene in the movie. As for the nutty, third act supernatural bent, it both provides the narrative with a much-needed shot in the arm and gives new dimension to Louis’s careless lothario, an indecisive cad who finds no lasting contentment in either adulterous passion or comfy monogamy. He gets his proper comeuppance, of course, a bit of beyond-the-grave poetic justice. Garrel may lionize his boy’s immaculate good looks, but between this “Tales from the Crypt” coda and the equally bleak (if tonally different) closing moments of Regular Lovers, he sure cuts him no slack and pays him no favors in the last reel. B

Friday, April 10, 2009

EU09 Update: PUFFBALL and LEFT BANK


Ever heard a pregnant woman use the expression “a healthy glow” to describe her own condition? Didn’t think so. The “miracle” of childbirth may be cause for celebration, but it’s also, by all accounts, one hell of an ordeal—a disruption of the corporeal self, a stretching, bloating distortion of the flesh, a painful and emotionally taxing trial of the body and mind. Now imagine if that totally natural discomfort were compounded by something unnatural, by a fear of some inscrutable foul play, by the unshakable suspicion that there was something… wrong with the life you were carrying inside you. That’s the anxiety that drives so-called “birth thrillers,” an enduring strain of spooky movie sub-genre that’s mutant gestation can be traced, via a ropey umbilical cord of influence, way back to 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby. What could be scarier, argued Roman Polanski’s creeping-dread classic, than the hijack of one’s own body, its transformation into incubator of ire works and lynchpin of patriarchal conspiracy? I haven’t checked the numbers, but I’d imagine that nightmare of warped domesticity did for maternity wards what Psycho did for showers, Jaws did for beaches, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre did for southern gothic, roadtrip detours.

Polanski’s Baby remains the yardstick in which to measure all birth thrillers—bad news indeed for a recent pair of European variations, both offering a very dim echo of the pounding paranoia Roman conjured some four decades ago. Puffball is the latest lunatic excursion from Nicholas Roeg, who made one of the all time great, fever dream shockers, 1973’s haunting Don’t Look Now. As those who have been keeping up with the Brit iconoclast can surely attest, it’s been a bumpy ride from there: Roeg’s unique talents seem to have gone the way of his sanity, a point that can’t really be stressed enough when talking about his new gonzo shitstorm.

Shot on a budget one might generously call shoestring, Puffball flips the gender of its scheming antagonist, recasting Polanski’s nefarious fertility plot as the black-magic attempts of a barren, middle-aged shrew (Miranda Richardson, gamely committing to this utter nonsense) to burgle the unborn of her newly pregnant, architect neighbor (Kelly Reilly). This proves, alas, the only mildly interesting conceit of Roeg’s crazed picture, a pungent bad brew of pagan mysticism, histrionic overacting, and raw, animalistic sex. To acknowledge the writer-director’s failure in building an appropriately ominous tone—a measure of suspense, a palpable sense of menace or unease—is to suggest that he ever commits, even in the slightest, to any consistent tone. The film’s bat-shit delirium, characterized by wonky visual motifs and bizarre, folk-rock musical cues, would be more endearing were it not accompanying such a mind-numbingly tedious narrative. With its TV-skimpy production values, pregnant (har har) pauses, and hilariously awful digital effects (check those CGI cumshots!), Puffball resembles nothing so much as a “Masters of Horror” episode directed by Adult Swim’s dadaist comic duo Tim and Eric. Except instead of fifteen minutes, it goes on for two hours, each of which feel about as protracted as a full term pregnancy.

By comparison, Belgian birth thriller Left Bank looks like genre poetry. Director Pieter Van Hees envelops his narrative, about a pretty college track star (Eline Kuppens) who becomes the target of a malevolent cult, in a kind of hazily hypnotic atmosphere, one that might actually induce a few stray goose bumps of shuddery anticipation. (A pulsing, clicks-and-whistles score and authentically shady, underbelly-of-Antwerp milieu work overtime to enhance the mood.) Oh, but there’s the problem: Left Bank is all atmosphere. It takes Mia Farrow’s crisis of instinct—is something wrong or is it all in her head?—and stretches it waaaaaay out, dillydallying through its threadbare plot when it should be methodically tightening those screws. There’s no urgency here, as Kuppens, whose sullen tomboy mystique grows wearisome right quick, never elevates her internal threat level beyond “mild concern.” When the shit finally hits the fan, culminating in an icky, sticky ending as bonkers as anything in Puffball, it feels less a cathartic release of mounting tension and more a jar-you-awake transmission from some livelier potboiler… like, say, something Polanski might have cooked up in his unholy artist’s womb. Forty years on, and his Baby remains the last word on in utero horror. Forget these imitators. They’re stillborn. Puffball: D+. Left Bank: C.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN: 3-Disc Collector's Edition


This article was originally published at Film Monthly on 04/07/09.

***

“You can’t stop what’s coming,” Ellis tells the Sheriff, deep into No Country For Old Men’s barren, abandon-all-hope backstretch. As potent quotables go, it ain’t exactly “Here’s looking at you, kid.” But this sobering little nugget of advice does provide the Coen Brothers’ dusty desert noir with its summative catchphrase—not to mention, to every Oscar pundit worth his (meritless) batting average, a wink-wink metaphor for the film’s inevitable Best Picture victory. When the Big Night came, there was no stopping No Country, which steamrolled its way to the center of the Academy’s winners circle, nabbing a shudder-inducing Javier Bardem his first golden statuette and the film’s Minnesota-born, sibling auteurs three of their own. The movie seemed, at the time, like a pretty unconventional favorite. A year later, with Slumdog Millionaire offering up a kind of rose-tinted, life-affirming counterpoint (add a touch of the ominous, and “You can’t stop what’s coming” conveys pretty much the same sentiment as “It is written”) one has to wonder how anything as rough, tough and uncompromisingly bleak ever won the uplift-horny hearts of AMPAS’ voting bloc. Beating the odds, winning the girl and getting filthy rich, vs. dying a gruesome death, alone and offscreen, in the scorched-black heart of the Texas desert? What a difference a year can make.

An aberration, that’s what No Country For Old Men is. Not just as an unlikely award winner, but also, given the all-too-familiar, jokey nihilism of their encore number, Burn After Reading, something of a superbly grave stopgap in the career trajectory of the Brothers Coen. It’s Cormac McCarthy’s weighty text, one might venture, that brings out the best in these technically proficient film brats. Joel and Ethan, sans their trademark irony, faithfully render the beat-by-beat specifics of McCarthy’s razor-sharp narrative, about the protracted cat-and-mouse struggle between an on the lam, cipher cowboy (Josh Brolin), his psychotic pursuer (Bardem), and the weary, aged lawman taking the hindmost (Tommy Lee Jones). This is inherently cinematic material, perfectly suited to the Coens’ detail-oriented, loud-quiet-loud aesthetic, a point that comes up early and often on the new No Country For Old Men: 3-Disc Collector’s Edition.

“It read like a treatment,” recalls Jones of McCarthy’s vivid novel, in an anecdote tucked into the 25-minute “Making Of” featurette that accompanies the movie on Disc One. Carried over from last year’s single-disc release and featuring interviews from most of the cast and crew, the documentary proves as matter-of-fact informative as Jones’s Ed Tom Bell. Rounding out the first disc are “Working with the Coens,” wherein the brothers’ rep for being a “two-headed friend” (as Kelly MacDonald adorably puts it) is dutifully reinforced; and “Diary of a Country Sheriff,” which puts some additional focus on Tommy Lee’s mournful sheriff, the film’s de facto, one man Greek Chorus. Both extras might have been truncated and successfully folded into the larger doc.

Conspicuously absent is any sort of commentary track, though there’s enough interview footage on Disc Two to fill the supplemental void. (Deleted scenes also fail to make an appearance, though I’d mainly chalk that up to the Coens’ “shoot everything we need and nothing more” ethos.) It takes a few minutes to catch on to the tongue-in-cheek intentions of Josh Brolin’s “unauthorized” Behind-the-Scenes featurette, so dryly does it intentionally mirror the form and content of the “real” production doc on Disc One. Amusingly positing the idiosyncratic writer/directors as a pair of insufferable control freaks—Bardem’s deadpan “wrist” story is a hilarious highlight—it’s a lengthy goof that feels like a welcome reprieve from the hours and hours of promotional interviews that otherwise comprise the Bonus Disc. Completists will likely swoon over this wellspring of media coverage and on-set anecdotes, whilst iPod junkies can rejoice over Disc Three, a digital copy of the entire film.

In the wake of a magic, awards season run, this multi-disc special edition feels like something of a victory lap, for the Coens and their collaborators. No matter: the movie itself is worth the hubbub. Via a pristine transfer, No Country For Old Men retains every shade of its mesmerizing power: the days look as bright and sweltering as ever, the nights as menacingly pitch black, while the film’s impeccable sound design—long stretches of unsettling silence, explosive gun shots, the thud of footsteps, the hiss of canister gas, the grizzled gravity of Jones’s cracked baritone—remains intact. (Those with a BluRay player, take note: this is the kind of aesthetic tour de force the technology was created to illuminate.) If there’s a missed opportunity in this package, it’s the lack of any critical commentary on the film’s biggest controversy, that third act shocker that many (mistakenly) took as the deal breaking misstep in an otherwise impeccable genre exercise. Yet it’s that very turn, ripped directly from McCarthy’s tome and chased by an appropriately somber denouement, that transforms the film from a savagely efficient crime thriller to a profoundly subversive meditation on the senseless fragility of life itself. That makes it, I suppose, yet another kind of aberration: a death clock that mourns its own existence. I suspect it’ll be quite a while before we see another of those sitting pretty atop AMPAS’ awards heap.

Friday, April 3, 2009

EU09 Recap: A WOMAN IN BERLIN


For those fatigued on this past year’s plethora of politely cathartic holocaust pictures—each of them reducing, in their own tidy way, incomprehensible tragedy to digestible tearjerker fare—here’s that rarest of rare curiosities: a WWII drama that posits Germany as the victim. Based on a published, survivor’s account of the final years of the war, A Woman In Berlin illuminates, via handsome (if unremarkable) aesthetics and a strict adherence to period drama convention, one of history’s (largely) untold atrocities. In 1945, shortly before Germany’s official surrender, Russian forces stormed and subsequently occupied the city of Berlin, taking shelter in the homes of the helpless populace. The female civilians found themselves completely at the whim of their occupiers, subject to the mens’ amorous advances, forced into a collective sexual subservience. Writer-director Max Färberböck, who made 1999’s lesbian holocaust drama Aimée & Jaguar, is shrewd enough to cast the soldiers’ abhorrent actions as a kind of misdirected retribution, a warped reaction to their own pent-up frustrations toward Hitler’s marauding war machine. Such sensitive understanding only goes so far, of course, as Färberböck can’t quite resist portraying most of the Russian soldiers as hulking, sneering brutes, one step removed from Cold War-era Bond villains.

Refusing to code its characters by their national and/or ideological allegiance—there are no fascists or communists here, just victims and victimizers—A Woman In Berlin remains staunchly apolitical throughout, a quality that simultaneously favors its you-are-there immediacy and precludes it from stumbling upon richer thematic insights. (A stronger film would have drawn parallels, for example, between the trauma these women suffered and the mass persecution that they, through silent compliance, allowed of their government.) Färberböck eventually introduces a tortured love angle, wherein our resilient, narrating heroine (a terrifically stoic Nina Hoss) begins shacking up, for protection and favors, with a heavy-hearted Major (Yevgeni Sidikhin). Though Hoss speaks unsentimentally of her lover—via a running voice-over, presumably torn directly from the source material—the affair is nevertheless depicted with a kind of melancholy tenderness, an undeniably romantic approach that gels uncomfortably with the starkly staged rape scenes. Much more commendable is the interplay between Färberböck’s stellar, unassuming leading ladies, who, in the film’s best scene, find solace in a roundtable discussion of their shared ordeal. As a portrait of feminine solidarity, A Woman In Berlin is, in fits and starts, overwhelmingly poignant. As play-by-play historical drama, it’s otherwise thoroughly average. We may never run out of World War II horror stories, but maybe, with luck, we’ll one day run out filmmakers dead set on giving those stories upscale, dramatically “satisfying” big-screen treatments. B-