Saturday, January 02, 2010

2009 So Far - Part II

21. THE MAID
***½
The script teeters on an edge between Functional and Mechanical, but the direction is quite fresh and Catalina Saavedra’s titular performance in all its nuance and insanity - something to be cherished.

22. TALES FROM THE GOLDEN AGE
***½
Depending on your luck and the distributor’s temperament, you might be able to watch either four, five or all six chapters of this Cristian-Mungiu-penned omnibus of short films about Ceausescu’s Romania in its most overtly declining years. They vary in quality from the trite (a cutesy tale of an idealistic young teacher failing to bolster literacy in the rural regions), the likable but forgettable (a farce about a political dignitary’s visit, an ours-is-bigger-than-theirs scramble about Ceausescu’s positioning in a newspaper frontpage), and the brilliant and piercing (the rest, which I won’t spoil for you).

23. BRIGHT STAR
***½
This uncommonly un-stolid biopic – of young, ailing Keats and his star-crossed love – seems to have been pretty universally greeted as Jane Campion’s return to form (discounting the romantics among us who will scramble for reasons to champion her moderately erotic, distinctly unthrilling 2003 throwback to a genre that died with straight-to-VHS releases). It takes nearly an hour of screentime for the leads to settle into the period – arguably Ben Whishaw never does completely, whereas after asserting her ahead-of-her-time headstrong-ness in about eight scenes too many, Abbie Cornish relaxes. The plot is tragic-biographical-period-romance-by-numbers, but Campion imbues it with poetry (of the cinematic kind) at every chance, immeasurably helped by Greig Fraser’s delicate lighting.

24. HUMPDAY
***½
If there was ever a concept that didn’t need to become a movement, mumblecore is it. Similarly, if there was ever a concept that didn’t need to become a ubiquitous sub-genre, the bromance is it. And yet here, writer-director Lynn Shelton and an impeccable cast who improvised most of the scenes manage to join the two into something productive and meaningful, while also rendering palatable a remarkably ridiculous premise.

25. DRAG ME TO HELL
***½
Sam Raimi revisits his schlocky roots and comes up with an uncommonly likable bit of horror. The key pleasure comes from watching Raimi utilise goo of varying hue and viscosity with unrivalled genius.

26. KATALIN VARGA
***½
A worthwhile viewing because how many Lynchian Hungarian rural noirs with a lurking electronic soundtrack will you ever get to see? And if the psychology doesn’t quite add up, there is enough substance here as well as valiant, sincere attempts at substance to balance out the overload of style.

27. IT CAME FROM KUCHAR
***½

Even if it isn’t a particularly cinematic experience on its own terms, this documentary on the Kuchar brothers’ underground filmmaking overflows with a love of movies that is infectious.

28. BLACK DYNAMITE
***½
An affectionate parody of Blaxploitation films and a fun night out in its own right.

29. AN EDUCATION
***

An intensely charming lead and a lovely sense of the period (moments before the sixties truly swung up London) elevate this above other superficial coming-of-age stories. A rushed, embarrassingly trite conclusion (with a voiceover introduced to deliver the homily) brings it back down.

30. MOON
***
A protracted existentialist quandary fluffed up with all the solemnity endemic to stark sci-fi-scapes that only moody white American men are allowed to tread. That said, most of it unfolds on such an intimate scale on such an impressively used low budget, even hitting some poignant notes in the closing stretch – it feels criminal to poke fun at it.

31. UP IN THE AIR
***
A reductive, bloodless point-A-to-point-B-to-point-forced-redemption script, bathed in a veneer of Oscar-baiting relevance. Through unearthly powers Vera Farmiga enlivens a misconceived role and stands out as a lively, sexy, life-like creation amid a bevy of one-note stereotypes. In fact all of the film’s pleasures stem from the humanity and glow with which she invests her scenes.

32. DOUBLE TAKE
***
A playful, evocative, gradually exhausting mix of Hitchcock worship, 50s advertising, 60s nuclear panic and a story by Borges.

33. EVERYONE ELSE
***
Unquestionably there is a ring of truth and careful observation to this stark, literate, flawlessly acted post-mortem of contemporary romance, but the protagonists’ ennui is catching. Two unremitting hours of it leaves you depleted.

34. AJAMI
***
A foray through the mindless hatred and vengeance that hounds the streets of contemporary Israel and Palestine, which after two hours of grounded, credible, elegantly crafted observation comes up with nothing particularly new to say.

35. THE LAST STATION
Leo Tolstoy’s final days presented as a bunch of overqualified British thespians (and an underqualified American one) exchanging exposition in genteel, mannered English peppered with an occasional “Doh-svee-dah-nya” for authenticity. A let-loose Helen Mirren and a grotesque Paul Giamatti scramble over Tolstoy’s heritage: one smashes the furniture, the other chews it up, and it’s never entirely clear why the famed mind struggles so much to pick a side between his adoring if eccentric wife of sixty years and a man portrayed by Giamatti as a malevolent, literally moustache-twirling villain. It’s an atrocious, film-destructing piece of acting. Mirren on the other hand, though she never uncovers hidden layers to her role (since there are none), puts on a solid show to distract you from the shallowness.

36. (500) DAYS OF SUMMER
***
As far as quirky soggy-indie-pop-laced hipster romances go, you could do much worse than this – the leads, at the very least, are likable and engaging. There is a whiff – actually, more of a stench – of self-pity to the script though that leaves an aftertaste.

37. VILLA AMALIA
***

Arty-bourgeois-rediscovery-by-numbers. Isabelle Huppert’s discipline lends it more of a pull than it warrants.

38. DUPLICITY
***
Two warring corporations (each with an irrepressible scenery-chewer at the helm) send Julia Roberts and Clive Owen in smug pursuit of a priceless formula and erotic charge across places like Dubai, Zurich, Rome and New York. Sex never looked so difficult. Someone had the rich idea to surname Roberts' high tech conwoman something that sounds like 'Stanwyck'. Ah, if only...

39. THE MISFORTUNATES
***

One of those ‘my-quirky-traumatic-Euro-upbringing’ stories, handled with a touch more sensitivity than is customary.

40. KILL DADDY GOODNIGHT
**½

The poorly translated title refers to a video game where you do get to kill your own father. It is one of several subplots in this existential somewhat thrill-less Austro-German thriller that also brings up alapasia, inherited guilt, Nazis still in hideout and naturally, the Holocaust. More than anything else, it’s the sheer ambition you admire.

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