Saturday, July 30, 2011

A SEPARATION (Asghar Farhadi, 2011)

****½
Iran
Out of a tangle of decent people, murky intentions and jarring consequences, Farhadi devises a wrenching, escalating mess and orchestrates it impeccably.

While he very much keeps the trials and tribulations of ordinary people at the forefront and never allows the narrative to stall, via the not so subtle subtext he gives the patriarchy a thorough savaging.

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THE KID WITH A BIKE (Jean-Pierre, Luc Dardenne, 2011)

****
Belgium
The story is simple, potent, though pretty interchangeable for any bleak, socially conscious drama of the past few decades. It's the intensity, the sheer ferocity of the images that elevates the film.

That and the breathless pint-sized dynamo, Thomas Doret, in the lead role.

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WIN WIN (Tom McCarthy, 2011)

***½
USA
Technically it's about family and parenthood and love and trust. Though of course it has nothing to say about any of those things.

The main pleasure of this very huggable indie dramedy is that it follows a set formula skilfully and efficiently: you spend an hour and a half or so with people who are impossible to dislike, and whose troubles come off as credible and reasonably urgent. McCarthy piles on the saccharine in the closing stretch but by then it's too late to resist.

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TABLOID (Errol Morris, 2010)

****
USA
Morris' lightest documentary in decades covers the strange case of Joyce McKinney, the ex-beauty queen who may or may not have abducted a Mormon missionary in Devon for a weekend of love and chains, and who continued to lead a bizarre life long after these events.

For once Morris doesn't seek out any metaphysical underpinnings. He comes to some general, rather familiar conclusions about the subjective nature of truth. But mainly he's just out to tell a cracking, outrageous yarn.

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Friday, July 29, 2011

BEGINNERS (Mike Mills, 2010)

****½
USA
Where most movies scramble to develop a single credible character, this one renders indelible at least four - gently, in novelistic detail. Mills adopts several showy French New Wave-y techniques that somehow don't feel showy. His film is warm yet bracing, brooding yet witty, nostalgic yet piercing, intimate yet sprawling. It's a humble miracle.

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FINISTERRAE (Sergio Caballero, 2010)

**
Spain
Two ghosts, or to be precise - two Russians with bedsheets draped over their heads drift through a bleak Spanish mountainside on horseback. The steed is sometimes replaced by a wooden horse, and sometimes it disappears altogether, when the similarly disappearing-reappearing wheelchair comes in handy. In between pondering existential matters in a slurring monotone, the ghosts encounter things like talking reindeer, a talking owl, trees with earlobes as well as a fellow ghost who lifts up her bedsheet to show off some expensive-looking breast implants.

You know, now and again, you owe it to yourself to tackle one of these things. It's tedious, it's hilarious, it's singular nonsense.

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THE APPLE (Samira Makhmalbaf, 1998)

***
Iran
A rough-hewn semi-documentary about two 12-year-old girls who have never left the house or learned to speak.

Inevitably fascinating, even if it doesn't dig anywhere near as deep as you'd like.

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Thursday, July 28, 2011

SUBMARINE (Richard Ayoade, 2010)

***
UK
A familiar, darkish coming of age tale marked by both the buzz and the pitfalls of a first feature. Ayoade borrows techniques from sources that are expected (Wes Anderson) and expected-but-encouraging (Godard). The story is ultimately too overstretched and lean on insight to allow for extended montages cut to tremulous indie tracks. But there is some truth to it and the cast - headlined by the intuitive, disarmingly confident Craig Roberts and featuring the fabulous Sally Hawkins - is pitch-perfect.

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TINY FURNITURE (Lena Dunham, 2010)

***
USA
You could either dismiss this as a self-indulgent serenade to over-privileged, proudly insular NYC twenty-something children of rich parents living in immaculately designed three-level Tribeca lofts. Or you could embrace it as a testament to a generation overwhelmed by too many career options and nowhere near as many job prospects.

It's actually both of those things.

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OKI'S MOVIE (Hong Sang-soo, 2010)

***
South Korea
Drinking, filmmaking, ineffectual men, beautiful sexually willing yet emotionally unattainable women, neurotic romances. Yes, Hong is repeating himself. And in fact, repeating himself four times - this film is structured as four interrelated short films.

But what Hong does all the time, he does better than others. And what seems like a moderately uninspired structural conceit actually works to draw out great resonance from an otherwise very familiar story.

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Wednesday, July 27, 2011

THE FUTURE (Miranda July, 2011)

****
USA
Another case of personalities and situations that should be exasperating but somehow aren't. And in this case, I'm even more stumped as to why this particular melancholy quirkfest works.

The story concerns two pseudo-hippie overgrown children who decide that adopting a cat is the end of life as they know it and they have to make the intervening days count. They quit their respective jobs but then are completely stumped as to how to fill the time as it drags on. The film then shapeshifts and takes radical, often abstract turns, but basically that is the plot. And it opens with a talking cat.

So how did it happen that I not only swallowed this ode to navelgazing but was downright enthralled? Was it Miranda July's way with dialogue? Was it her off-kilter on-screen charm? Was it the rich, gorgeous score by Jon Brion? Was it the side-splitting yet eerily sharp exchanges like "You have two options - you can tell him the truth or lie."/"Oh, the two of us are incredibly close. It's impossible for me to do either of those things."?

For some reason when July writes into her script a conversation with the moon (or a precocious child that sleeps inside a lawn or a stalking T-shirt that incites a Lynchian dance routine) it doesn't feel like hollow quirk. Instead it feels like a natural extension of an idiosyncratic but thoroughly relatable woman's search for meaning in places where people don't normally care to look.

Maybe that's it. Maybe the difference between Miranda July's output and that of the Sundance factory stems from the fact that when she puts in a talking cat, it's not a nod to any attention-seeking indie formula but rather a coherent, authentic part of the world as she spontaneously experiences it. When she unhinges the naturally, hilariously finicky strands of her imagination, when she unrolls her thoughts and follows them systematically from beginning to [obscure yet logical] end, she comes up with ideas, images and conceits that are precious in every sense of the word.

Also, it helps enormously that July is very aware of precisely how ridiculous her alter ego is. She doesn't encourage you to love these characters for their flaws, but in spite of them. And most importantly, she doesn't let her story rest on a string of tiny resonant observations, but on an elegant, idiosyncratic yet hefty statement on the inexorable passage of time.

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TERRI (Azazel Jacobs, 2011)

****
USA
In Azazel Jacobs' hands quirky-melancholy Sundance stereotypes - an obese outcast who wears pyjamas to school, John C. Reilly - somehow become arresting, human.

A climactic sequence in particular, which brings together a grotesquely mismatched trio of pariahs, is a revelation. It exudes the immediacy of a dream, the intimacy of a high school secret, and the penetrating insight of, well, Azazel Jacobs.

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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

THE GUARD (John Michael McDonagh, 2011)

***
UK
Brendan Gleeson plays Eddie Murphy, Don Cheadle plays Nick Nolte, instead of San Fran we're in Limerick, Ireland, and instead of 48 hours it takes a few more days to allow for some Sundance workshop soul searching.

The actors are game and it's all pretty harmless really, but this kind of slightly snarky, self-referential skewering of genre clichés has by now become something of a cliché itself.

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PROJECT NIM (James Marsh, 2011)

***½
USA
Undoubtedly there is a story here that is denser, grander, more profound, more thought-provoking than what Marsh delivers. (If only Errol Morris got to this subject first.) But Marsh works the heartstrings so efficiently. To resist is inhuman. Mr. Chimpsky is just too damn adorable. Even the insufferably pretentious score is easier to overlook than it should be.

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MICHAEL (Markus Schleinzer, 2011)

***½
Austria
For what it is it's well constructed and incredibly well thought out.

Though of course, what it is is a story about a man who keeps a 10-year-old locked in his cellar.

In the meantime, after Hitler, Fritzl, the Funny Games duo and now this guy, Austria is in dire need of a singing nun or another set of von Trapps or a kindergarten cop who isn't hiding any children.

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BOBBY FISCHER AGAINST THE WORLD (Liz Garbus, 2011)

***
USA
A talking-head-driven race through Fischer's life and times, it doesn't lack for hyperbole, bad puns, auto-pilot musical cues or sophomore psychoanalysis, though it makes for solid entertainment. All the same, Garbus would have done better to dwell on certain key events rather than cramming everything into a craziest-hits compilation.

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Monday, July 25, 2011

AN AUTUMN AFTERNOON (Yasujiro Ozu, 1962)

***½
Japan
Ozu's company is always warm, nourishing. But for a man who spent more than a decade making the kind of searching, contemplative, quietly revelatory films each of which feels like a perfect swansong, his eventual final film feels a little.. well, limited. The problem isn't so much that this story (of an elderly patriarch contemplating the crushing loneliness that will follow once his daughter marries off) feels distinctly familiar. It's that the internalised transcendence that hangs over his greatest films is missing here.

Or maybe it was just missing for me. In any case there is still plenty to savour here, not least Chishu Ryu's reliably graceful, grounding presence in the lead role.

Ozu was preparing to make another film when he passed away. You wish he got to make at least a few more in colour. In the end colour turned out to suit him surprisingly well.

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THE FORGIVENESS OF BLOOD (Joshua Marston, 2011)

**½
USA/Albania
In the kind of Albanian mountain village where internet access is widespread but blood feuds still take place, a blood feud takes place. You will now make several assumptions about what kind of film this is, and yes, it is that kind of film. Within 10 minutes you have a clear idea of how the story will play out, but unfortunately there are still another 90 to go.

With lyrical crafting and reasonably complex characters, this plotline could conceivably hold a feature. But the crafting here is purely polished and workmanlike. As for the characters - they are certainly believable and some even sympathetic, but complex or compelling they are not quite.

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NATURAL SELECTION (Robbie Pickering, 2011)

**
USA
The first act is taken up with cheap Christian baiting, the second is a straight-to-video dramedy of two quirky lost souls connecting, the third makes you swallow a rushed self-discovery.

So the overall experience is one of exasperation, followed by a vague soggy sensation, and finally resignation.

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POST MORTEM (Pablo Larraín, 2010)

***
Chile
Larrain seeks out the most grotesque lives on the fringes of Pinochet's Chile (in this case our blank-faced hero assists at very graphic autopsies) and parses through them for symptoms of the regime's virulence. He shapes his characters and storylines through a singular macabre/nauseating sense of humour that is in equal parts ingenious and stunting.

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Sunday, July 24, 2011

TUESDAY, AFTER CHRISTMAS (Radu Muntean, 2010)

****½
Romania
The Romanian New Wave (does it have a proper name yet or do I just keep calling it that?) is still going strong.

Unlike his more celebrated peers (think stories of undercover abortion, scruffy seniors left to die alone etc.) Radu Muntean is concerned with the first Romanian generation to achieve a modest sort-of affluence. Affluence in this context means a medium-sized flatscreen, an annual ski trip, piano lessons for the child and a reliable income that means you no longer have to live either with your parents or your spouse's parents.

So once a nation's socio-economic subsets start to shift (at least for a certain section of educated thirtysomethings living in the capital) so does the nature of its people's day-to-day conundrums and the cinema that reflects them. There is no sign here of toothless grandmas or sadistic abortionists. The case of adultery that drives this story might as well be borrowed from any generic Western European heavy-breathing prestige package.

But don't let the plot outline scare you - there is nothing generic about Muntean's film. The lived-in settings, the careful accumulation of detail,
the alternately mundane and staggering dialogue, the uniformly, uncannily natural performances: for this story and these characters the point of reference isn't the European arthouse tradition - it's lived experience.

Hopefully this film's comparative success will also bring attention to Muntean's previous and similarly lacerating Boogie. And hopefully this 'New Wave' keeps going and going.


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13 ASSASSINS (Takashi Miike, 2010)

**½
Japan
Roughly 137 names are referenced in the opening reel - of people, clans, places, honour codes. Of course it's not necessary to follow any of them, but for a long time there is precious little else to follow. Miike relieves the hour-and-a-half-long exposition-sodden buildup with some bloodletting now and then, but it's still something of a slog.

Finally the film gets going with the famed final showdown - which is spectacular to begin with, as the body count starts to quadruple by the second and in the most creative ways. But even this ardent, extended ode to disembowelment gradually devolves into a matter of logistics more than artistry.

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EXPORTING RAYMOND (Phil Rosenthal, 2011)

*
USA/Russia
Rosenthal travels to Moscow to help the Russians turn Everybody Loves Raymond into Everybody Loves Kostya. In presenting his experience he makes two assumptions: that Raymond is some sort of miracle of screen comedy, and that American superiority is a self-evident fact.

It's more than a little disturbing to have MIFF endorse this kind of semi-blind xenophobia.

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