Friday, August 03, 2007

The Boss of It All (Lars Von Trier, 2006)

****
Denmark

With trademark guile and mischief, Lars Von Trier pretty much sticks to the Dogme aesthetic as he presents a comedy (!) - which he brands harmless, as such - wherein the owner of an IT company decides to sell up, except he's forced to present to his employees the CEO, whom he himself invented as a scapegoat for his own unpopular decisions. So he hires a nutty, pseudo-intellectual actor. It's a screwy plot and a cast's worth of genial, pitch-perfect actors take on it with screwball conviction.
The unconventional and often clever framing of the shots is reportedly the result of a computer program called Automavision, which, once the camera was placed in position, randomly selected when to zoom, pan or tilt. Automavision takes all the credit for the film's cinematography.

My Friend and His Wife (Shin Dong-il, 2007)

**½
South Korea

What begins as a gentle romantic comedy with a curious focus on the corporeal (i.e. an exemplary relaxed attitude to the depiction of sex, nudity, birth and various viscous substances) is derailed by a grave tragedy round the 40-minute mark, after which much of the screen-time is devoted to characters staring grimly/vacantly just past the edge of the frame and blurting out pregnant, vaguely contemplative-sounding musings on matters of life and death.

Woman on the Beach (Hong Sang-soo, 2006)

***
South Korea

A typically talky, observant, gentle poke at contemporary romantic neuroses by Hong Sang-soo, with ripe, well-rounded performances (from the women, in particular). But as its running time bloats, its insights begin to feel increasingly superficial.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Red Road (Andrea Arnold, 2006)

***½
UK/Denmark

Andrea Arnold is a much weaker writer than she is a director, but wow is she a clever director! Comments to follow.

A Few Days in September (Santiago Amigorena, 2006)

***
Italy/France/Portugal

A European espionage thriller with political pretensions (it takes place in the week leading up to 9/11). It's watchable enough in that it has arthouse staples like Juliette Binoche and John Turturro playing things like spies and assassins, though you don't for a moment believe that writer-director Santiago Amigorrena has any informed idea about the weighty matters he pretends to be addressing.

Men at Work (Mani Haghighi, 2006)

***
Iran

Small-scale comedy/allegory, nicely observed. Comments to follow.

The Ballad of Narayama (Shohei Imamura, 1983)

****½
Japan

Imamura's Palme d'or winner, probably his best-known and possibly best film. Comments to follow.

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Wednesday, August 01, 2007

The War Tapes (Deborah Scranton, 2006)

****
USA

Head and shoulders above the flock of left-leaning Iraq docos. Comments to follow.

Control (Anton Corbijn, 2007)

***
UK/USA

As far as biopics of troubled musicians go, this one, detailing the personal more than the creative life of Joy Division's Ian Curtis, is a watchable one, though it's deeply flawed. Director Anton Corbijn and writer Matt Greenhalgh - predictably - want to present Curtis (played by Sam Riley) as a misunderstood genius, yet they give him the dialogue of an angsty teenager. And, with his emotional range limited between skinny brooding hipster and skinny misty-eyed hipster, Riley doesn't contribute any further layers. Within this context, even his lyrics sound whiny. You're bound to feel sympathy for a man driven to suicide at the age of 23 by epilepsy and mistakes he made as a teen, but you can do that from reading a newspaper article. The Ian Curtis who mopes and hazes his way through Corbijn's film doesn't warrant feature length nor Samantha Morton as his wife (doing her best with a dog of a role).
It has to be noted though that while Corbijn fails to grasp the complexity of Curtis' character, he does capture the beauty and impact of his music.

I Don't Want to Sleep Alone (Tsai Ming-liang, 2006)

***
Malaysia/China/Taiwan/France/Austria

Another Tsai Ming-liang joint where very little happens; the little that does involves a bunch of mute, unfulfilled souls (two of whom may be the same person) in Kuala Lumpur, and is only occasionally at all significant, though always really lovely to look at.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Time (Kim Ki-duk, 2006)

***½
South Korea

Kim Ki-duk abandons his newfound state of zen for this metaphysical horror wherein a hysterical girlfriend becomes adamant that plastic surgery will save her relationship. There are complications, of course, only involving a lot more conversation than you'd expect and a lot less gore.
As in much of Kim's work, plausibility is a non-issue - and when the girlfriend goes under the knife (and morphs into a different, though no less arresting, actress), it isn't entirely clear whether or not you're supposed to accept that the man who had been sleeping with her for two years is unable to recognise her even once he starts sleeping with her again. But even at its most disorienting, the film is never less than intriguing. The impact that the self-mutilation has on the lovers' shifting neuroses goes well beyond the basic identity crisis, and brings up issues regarding both contemporary romancing as well as some basic, rarely acknowledged hangups that have been haunting relationships a fair bit longer than cosmetic surgery has. Hangups to do with obsessiveness, possessiveness, dueling egos/pathologies, the [insert-number]-year-itch etc. etc.
Also, perhaps for the first time in his career, Kim is working towards social commentary, since roughly half of Korea's population of women in their twenties is estimated to have turned to a plastic surgeon.

R.I.P. Michelangelo Antonioni (1912-2007)


Year of the Dog (Mike White, 2007)

***½
USA

An off-centre, admirably committed portrayal of a near-middle-aged woman, whose most poignant relationship in life is with her dog - and then the dog dies. Though he's constantly treading on the edge of hollow quirk and cutesiness, writer-director Mike White very rarely crosses it, and he's served with uniformly note-perfect performances from his fine cast.

Yella (Christian Petzold, 2007)

***
Germany

An obtuse metaphysical thriller that puts an attractive young accountant played by Nina Hoss in increasingly dubious circumstances that fail to compromise her icy veneer. The few outbursts of plot are imaginatively handled and carefully placed within the greater focus on faintly off-kilter mundaneness. And Hoss' conviction helps to make the picture intriguing for the most part. But in the end it's too clinical and arbitrary, or maybe just too much smarter than its audience, to pack any kind of a punch.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Vengeance Is Mine (Shohei Imamura, 1979)

***½
Japan

Shoehei Imamura explores the mind and history of a real-life serial killer, ostensibly in search for a tangible motive or explanation behind his behaviour, though wisely in the end, choosing not to narrow it down to a single, comfortable one. At his clumsiest, Imamura does insist that a scarring incident with unsubtle Freudian overtones in the [anti-]hero's childhood be taken into account. It's entirely possible however that Imamura doesn't want you to concentrate on the personal, Freudian aspects of said incident, rather than its banal nature - the fact that it's the kind of scar bound to be common throught a population coming out maimed and thwarted from a brutal war. This reading would fit much more neatly within the overarching presentation of the killer as chiefly a concrete, more honest manifestation of the unwholesome impulses bubbling beneath the most arbitrary of disguises in the outwardly booming post-war Japanese society as a whole.

R.I.P. Ingmar Bergman (1918-2007)











Sunday, July 29, 2007

My Kid Could Paint That (Amir Bar-Lev, 2007)

****
USA

You may have heard of 4-year-old Marla Olmstead and her strikingly sophisticated abstract paintings; and you may have heard the general consensus that their sophistication owes a lot to her cowardly father's secret input and/or tyranny. Accordingly, in your mind you may have formed your own maniacal portrait of a parent so ghastly and despicable, and then here comes Amir Bar-Lev to present the lovely, twinkling Mark and Laura Olmstead, who, by all accounts, are determined to ensure a happy and wholesome state of mind for their two adorable children. And then you get a nasty feeling. As Bar-Lev's layered, piercing documentary unfolds, and damning evidence builds up against the Olmsteads, you find yourself suppressing your better judgment, and scouring for unlikely clues to vindicate them lovely Olmsteads. As Bar-Lev catches himself doing the same, torn as he is between his common humanity and his pursuit of truth (not to mention, 'documentary gold') he brings up some pesky points regarding the editorial slants and agendas that shape the reportage that so often poses as objective fact.
Working off the implication that reportage (including documentaries and news reports), like art, is subjective, he examines in great detail the role of the artist in relation to his/her work, both in terms of his/her self-aggrandising perspective as well as his/her status in the eyes of the public. Furthermore (and in line with his sole original motive), in terms of pure artistry and virtuosity, he ponders what it is exactly about Marla's technically irrational paintings that makes them beautiful and moving and worth thousands of dollars. And as he watches the same paintings' gushing devotees decamp and start denouncing, he comes across some uncomfortable revelations about the corrupting human dependence on neat, (more often than not) projected narratives.

Alexandra (Alexander Sokurov, 2007)

***½
France/Italy/Russia

Alexander Sokurov presents a war film bereft of warfare in his characteristically dreamy, meditative fashion. Russian opera diva Galina Vishnevskaya plays Alexandra, who visits her beloved grandson at his army base, technically situated in Chechnya, though it stands in for every squalid war zone in the world. Sokurov's anger - disguised as it is with serene music and photography - isn't necessarily directed at the state of things in Chechnya but at the state of things in the world and in history as brought on by man's ('man' as in 'not woman', not 'man' as in 'mankind') hollow, destructive war instinct. And although somehwat more indulgent, the picture is marked by the elegance and sincere humanity of his best work.

Blind Mountain (Li Yang, 2007)

****
China

Wholesome university graduate Huang Lu is cheerily toiling her way through rural China, working for a distributor of medical instruments in order to pay off her family's debts. And one morning she wakes up to discover she has been sold into marriage to an uncouth, uneducated peasant and is to feed the pigs, bear children and have no further say in the matter. In his gracefully gut-wrenching verité suspense drama, Li Yang tracks Huang's harrowing escape attempts in a low-key, unfussy style traditionally suited to dusty odes to faintly exotic country life. In pretending he isn't doing it on purpose, he draws out your disgust and outrage with beguiling mastery (which is why a certain cathartic third-act incident has been repeatedly greeted with rabid applause at festival screenings around the world). He plays dumb, taking the perspective of an ambivalent observer allowing ugly things to take place against pretty scenery and seeing nothing unusual in the matter - which, he implies, is a common enough attitude in rural China where bride trafficking remains widespread.

4 Elements (Jiska Rickels, 2006)

**
Netherlands

The title hints at grandiose ambitions and is an unfortunate choice as such. Had Jiska Rickel's fashionably impressionistic doco been christened "Filthy Men Performing Soul-Numbing Labour in Isolated Regions of the World", it would have seemed less of a failure. Rickel deserves kudos for eschewing the National Geographic postcard aesthetic, though the ugly, shapeless point-and-shoot visual style she adopts instead makes for a lazy alternative. The sullen new-age score signals you to watch out for the mystery and majesty of the four elements, though none of it is captured in the images. Rickel may provide moderate insight into male camaraderie in grueling, high-risk working environments, but she has nothing new - in fact, nothing at all to say about man's present relationship to them pesky elements.