Saturday, August 06, 2011

CEDAR RAPIDS (Miguel Arteta, 2011)

***
USA
Likable enough but you can sense the script screeching to make each proscribed character turn.

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A USEFUL LIFE (Federico Veiroj, 2010)

*½
Uruguay
The first half is dry and academic, then there is a tonal shift towards something closer to tender and tedious.

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CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS (Werner Herzog, 2010)

***½
Canada/USA/France
Like every recent Herzog venture, a scuffle between ponderous and transcendent trains of thought. Thankfully the latter dominate.

He tackles the Chauvet cave paintings as a tantalising but forever obstructed pathway into not just another time but another universe. For as long as he doesn't get bogged down in inane pseudo-metaphysics,* it's a transporting, almost profound experience.


* e.g. "Is this our heartbeat we hear? Or theirs?" Uh, neither, Herr Herzog, it's a stock sound effect you tacked on in post.

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Friday, August 05, 2011

THE HOLLYWOOD COMPLEX (Dylan Nelson, Dan Sturman, 2011)

***½
USA
A chirpy, frightening, transfixing-like-a-car-crash look at a set of aspiring child stars and the parents that camp with them at the specialty Oakwood apartments in Hollywood during pilot week.

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ELENA (Andrey Zvyagintsev, 2011)

****
Russia
There is a father-daughter hospital-bedside scene here that is blunt, witty, fiercely unsentimental yet deeply moving. It is a masterclass in acting and dialogue.

The film is otherwise a pretty straightforward [im]morality tale - schematic but convincing, compelling and elegantly mounted.

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NEDS (Peter Mullan, 2010)

**
UK
Murky weather, bad haircuts, youth gangs, father-son hysterics - British kitchen sink miserablism lives on.

Mullan has nothing much to contribute. Unless you consider scoring violence with cheesy pop radical. Which it hasn't been since at least the 70s.

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ESSENTIAL KILLING (Jerzy Skolimowski, 2010)

**
Poland
Some people will see a Taliban fighter, some people will see Vincent Gallo with a longer than usual beard. Otherwise this is a pretty routine man-on-the-run-from-men-with-guns-in-the-wilderness tale, more concerned with devising increasingly grotesque ways for Gallo to feed himself than with any kind of political statement.

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Thursday, August 04, 2011

SILENT SOULS (Aleksei Fedorchenko, 2010)

***
Russia
A soul-searching Russian descended from an obscure Finno-Ugric tribe hits the road with his friend to bury the latter's recently departed wife in a distant lake according to ancient folk rituals.

Though the plot has a clearly defined throughline, there are so many eccentric asides and strange detours along the way that the film almost works better as a series of textured, contemplative vignettes. The various strands do ultimately cohere quite eloquently and resonantly. Though the insistent woman-is-an-exotic-body-of-water metaphors don't really belong in this century.

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CLIENT 9: THE RISE AND FALL OF ELIOT SPITZER (Alex Gibney, 2010)

***
USA
Gibney charts a fascinating, intricate tale, if not elegantly, then at least in compelling detail. He gives Spitzer a few too many chances to compare himself to a behemoth of mythological proportions. But he also ensures that several absurd but evidently-not-made-up characters - including a bubbly 22-year-old madame, a singularly sleazy political strategist, an ever so slightly unhinged investment banker - say things that are revealing on multiple (and not always intentional) levels.

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THE DAY HE ARRIVES (Hong Sang-soo, 2011)

***
South Korea
It's uncanny, but in his twelfth version of the same film - insecure filmmakers, beautiful women who sleep with them anyway, lots of drinking - Hong yet again manages to wring out a new and unexpectedly resonant inflection.

However, even within a 79-minute runtime, he manages to meander unnecessarily - particularly in the closing scenes, after all his points are well and truly made and the various conundrums eloquently resolved.

It's always possible that his thirteenth film might uncover yet another arresting nuance on this same plot. But it definitely feels like his comfort zone will very soon grow constricting.

Unless his next film stars Isabelle Huppert. That would be profoundly exciting.

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Wednesday, August 03, 2011

THE TURIN HORSE (Bela Tarr, 2011)

***½
Hungary
The titular horse (which reportedly drove Nietzsche mad) only pops up occasionally, to brood and act deflated. I think the implication is that it knows something. I think the horse is playing Kirsten Dunst in Melancholia.

This is the Bela Tarr Experience cranked up to eleven. The horse's craggy owner and his equally craggy daughter are the protagonists. A force five gale has them trapped in their isolated hut amidst a barren plain. The majority of the action is taken up with six days worth of their ascetic, mind-numbing day-to-day routine: dressing the old man, drawing water from the well, sitting down to a meal of boiled potatoes, staring out the window, downing some home-made spirits, some more potatoes, then some more staring out the window.

Tarr is a pretentious filmmaker, for sure, and indulgent, and morbidly depressed. But also a little bit brilliant. He draws you into his gloomy worlds through a peerless sense for light, composition and movement and a relentless series of stark, entrancing images:

Within a single take, through a slight camera move, he can render a poky hut cavernous. When the horseman's daughter sets the potatoes to boil and takes her seat by the window, the leaves on the tattered plain flutter up at just the right moment and it's poetry. In a later section, from the other side of the window, we come across her staring out once again, this time looking ghostly and beaten. What should be a mundane, familiar sighting is instead eerie and devastating.

In a sense this feeling sums up the film itself: scenes that should be rote and ludicrous inexplicably coming off as poetic and transfixing.

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AT ELLEN'S AGE (Pia Marais, 2010)

**½
Germany
Jeanne Balibar plays a stewardess who discovers her lover has impregnated another woman, ditches him, breaks down mid-air safety instructions, then follows her inscrutable impulses, drifting from one faintly surreal situation to another. A dark, knowing antidote to the Eat Pray Love industry, Marais' film coasts by for a while on Balibar's natural magnetism and a nicely judged, nervy aesthetic. But eventually the heroine's misadventures start to feel arbitrary and interchangeable.

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Tuesday, August 02, 2011

WINTER VACATION (Li Hongqi, 2010)

*1/2
China


Deadpan absurdism of the Andersson-Suleiman variety pushed to a mordant, oppressive limit. It seems to be intended as some sort of satire of small-town ennui in Northern China. But you get the point pretty early on, and the joke - which consists of suppressing face expressions and stretching out the nonsensical dialogues endlessly - wears out quickly.

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CIRCUMSTANCE (Maryam Keshavarz, 2011)

***
France/USA/Iran

Two pillow-lipped Persian variations on Natalie Portman play out a love story against the backdrop of Tehran's privileged classes and undergruond clubs. Underground clubs in this context doesn't refer to a chic-squalid place where you are encouraged to wear the clothes your mother kept from the 80s - rather, a place where "sewing class" is the code word and the headscarf-shedding, hip-thrusting youth goes to snort, dance and hide from the morality police.

Does a difficult shoot and honourable intentions render a contrived romance into something worthwhile? Partially, yes. The glimpses into the above-mentioned underground clubs and things like video stores tucked in behind barbershop fronts make the story - which ultimately amounts to a nonsensical soap opera - much more absorbing than it should be.

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Monday, August 01, 2011

PLAY (Ruben Östlund, 2011)

*½
Sweden
An insufferably smug exercise in sub-Haneke sadism. Three meek children get tortured for two hours not because the narrative demands it but purely to serve Östlund's facile didactics.

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HOW TO DIE IN OREGON (Peter Richardson, 2011)

**½
USA
Who would pay money to check out a moody, wrenching feature-length doc about Oregon's euthanasia laws? The kind of people for whom euthanasia is a resolutely black-and-white issue.

Richardson is very much content to preach to the converted. Only one of his subjects manages to complicate his thesis when he points out what insurance companies are able to perpetrate with the wrong kind of euthanasia law. But Richardson abandons this interviewee within seconds and spends the rest of the time prying out your tears over some deeply sympathetic people's efforts of to die with dignity.

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POLISSE (Maïwenn, 2011)

****
France
A scrappy, immersive slice of French police life that crams in enough scenarios for a mini-series worth of special victims unit procedurals. It's a little crude, and hampered by a weirdly misjudged finale, but it's consistently enthralling. With a peerless ensemble of French veterans at her disposal, despite the busy interplotting, Maïwenn manages to bring off more than a dozen convincing and remarkably vivid characterisations. Through hectic snippets she renders the personal lives of this motley but very relatable crew just as compelling as their professional ones.

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Sunday, July 31, 2011

MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE (Sean Durkin, 2011)

***½
USA
Elizabeth Olsen escapes from an enigmatic cult led by an even creepier than usual John Hawkes, but finds life on the other side even more emotionally constricting.

Minute by minute this is transfixing movie making with an arresting star turn. But ultimately it is too artificial and 'written' to be credible as a realistic psychological treatise, and it has too many gaps and convenient elisions to be a fully satisfying spin on genre. The cult seems like a rather thin invention (a bit of Mormon compound here, a bit of Manson family there, throw in some virgins with flawless complexion, and cut to the orgy).

The closing scenes are particularly unnerving and ensure that the film and the titular character are uncommonly difficult to shake off. But this in turn encourages you to further reflect on the preceeding narrative, which becomes all the more frustating the more you dwell on it.

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PAGE ONE: INSIDE THE NEW YORK TIMES (Andrew Rossi, 2011)

***
USA
Rossi is a little too much in awe of his subject - he brushes aside the NYT's collusion in the Iraq war in a matter of seconds. And while his discussion of the slow death of print media is timely, he contributes nothing new to it. The film only kicks into high gear when it gets properly behind the scenes of individual news stories as they unfold.

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MAJORITY (Seren Yüce, 2010)

***½
Turkey
A knowing excoriation of everything that's ape-like about the moneyed class in today's Istanbul. Yüce portrays casual monstrosities casually, and so his film makes for thoroughly unpleasant viewing. But it's addictive in its own way: it all feels very much lived.

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