Saturday, December 31, 2011

Mysteries of Lisbon

I suppose I feel right now what the detractors of Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life" felt when they stumbled out of that overwhelming picture. Raul Ruiz's "Mysteries of Lisbon" is a beautiful, painstakingly considered, 272-minute period piece that sags under the weight of its overused devices. The main one that I take issue with dominates the film: the story-within-a-story. The whole film is being narrated/acted-out-with-small-figures by grown-up Pedro (Jose Afonso Pimentel), but within this narration many characters take the time to tell their life stories, usually to the ubiquitous priest Father Dinis (Adriano Luz). The first time this happens, it's actually a story-within-a-story-within-a-story: Dinis is telling Pedro as a boy (Joao Arrais, the most engaging actor in the film by far) about his father arriving at the Dinis' orphanage and him telling about what happened to him. This is executed to dizzying effect (as much of the first 30-60 minutes are). But this narrative ploy is used again and again, and once you've seen it the tenth or eleventh time, you're struggling to concentrate on the technical facets to keep you from going insane.

The other problematic motif in the plot is the interconnectedness of everyone in the movie. We come to find that everyone is someone else's mother, son, father, lover, or belching pirate-esque guard. The appeal is understandable. This is common in books, and one of the big things people say separates this movie from others is how it actually feels a novel, like the one it was adapted from (by Camilo Castelo Branco). And the first time a character was revealed to be someone else from the past, it drew an "oh shit" from me. But, as with the layered storytelling, it got irking and corny to "Crash"-like levels at a certain point.

These two huge annoyances prevented me from appreciating this film as much as others have. Reminiscent (extremely so, in my view) of Lucchino Visconti's "The Leopard," it's a masterfully crafted work: brilliantly shot by Andre Szankowski with impeccable framing, invigorating camera movement, and excellent lighting, pretty well-scored by Jorge Arrigada (even if some elements of the music are used a little too much), and extraordinarily art directed by Isabel Branco. That's not mentioning the way Ruiz has with engrossing you that only abandons him at the end. And the story of a kid with no background who finds out about his history seems like it could lend itself to a dazzlingly immense production. But even if it spirals off in directions, the film comes to feel both too distant and then too limited. At times it seemed like it was struggling to keep moving. Some may make this argument against Malick's exceptional movie as well. Oh well. They won't be reached. I wasn't here. I can admire the skill, but the obvious, intentional emotional punch didn't hit me. B-

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Tuesday, After Christmas

A schlubby, married banker is having a blissful affair with his child's dentist. He's weighed down by this deception, and feels increasingly distanced from his wife and daughter, who are oblivious. He's getting anxious; he knows he won't be able to keep this hidden forever, and he has started to become as insistent and controlling with his mistress as his wife (whom he at one point, indirectly perhaps, refers to as "Mom") is with him. The clandestine relationship has been going on for five months, and he still has no idea how to handle it. He seems to expect to continue onwards with the same arrangement into the distant future. But he knows subconsciously it's inevitable that he'll have to tell.

Even though there's not a whole lot to it in terms of narrative, "Tuesday, After Christmas" is a very hard movie to make. If we don't feel close to these characters, their personal business is going to be quite dull indeed. This seems obvious, but in a film with this sort of subject matter, immersion becomes ever the more important in separating it from other films about the same topic. That Radu Muntean has made as much out of this as he has is extremely impressive. He and his fellow screenwriters Alexandru Baciu and Razvan Radulescu know their characters (surprisingly, given that they're all men, especially the wife) and the relationships between them well and move from scene to finely tuned scene with incredible ease. He and his cinematographer Tudor Lucaciu have chosen to film with a muted palette and with not-too-showy long takes to give the feel of sustained semi-realism and despair (also: the cigarette smoke looks gorgeous). And he and his actors, Mimi Branescu, Maria Popiastu, and Mirela Oprisor, have worked to convey an almost all-encompassing feeling of naturalism; this may be the single most important element of the film, and the whole works only as much as the actors allow it to (which is to say, pretty darn well).

There are a number of smart choices made with regards to the plot details. Setting it at Christmastime creates a parallel between the illusion of Santa to the daughter and the illusion of the affair. In some ways, revealing the fabrication would be just as heartbreaking in each case. Another particular that Muntean plays close attention to is the occupations of the leads. This is most important in the case of the women. Having the mistress be a family doctor sets up an interesting, awkward, and beautifully executed scene in which the parents come to take their daughter to get her braces put on. This moment gets added resonance later on, but is even at the time a telling and overtly choreographed episode. Coming back to the idea of jobs, having the wife work in the courts (presumably as a lawyer) gives her a sheen of precision and a range of knowledge of how to take people down. This, balanced with her often informal demeanor, makes her (at least to me) a recognizable type and a full character. A stronger character than the mistress, I must say, though not overwhelmingly so.

These characters could fail to work off paper. This is not the case, though, because the performers have the abilities required to make them believable. Branescu (who had a role in the exceptional "Outbound") is able to show Paul the banker's isolation, unhappiness, naive defensiveness, and anxiety quite well, even if at times he looks a little unsure (probably the character). Popiastu, given the weakest role and the least number of scenes to bring things together, does what she can with it anyways with charm and agitation, though it isn't entirely convincing. The best performance here is by Oprisor, who gives us both ends of her emotional spectrum to devastating effect. These three, plus the actress who plays Popiastu's mother (I can't find her name), make the film constricting and absorbing (while the actors playing Branescu's parents provide a comic interest). Brilliantly sequenced, with flaws only due to characterization and the resulting portrayal, "Tuesday, After Christmas" definitely fits securely into the rich, remarkable Romanian New Wave. B+

Is Dragos Bucur's character Cristi a holdover from "Police, Adjective"? An in-joke or cameo of some sort? Just a bit strange to give the character the same name.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Drab, obfuscated, and dense, "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy," Tomas Alfredson's equally gray and dreary follow-up to "Let the Right One In," only really grabbed my attention due to the mystery at its core and certain interesting subplots, when Alfredson stops holding us at arm's length and brings us in. The look of the film, minus the astonishing conference room set, essentially washed over me (though the commitment to ambience is admirable) and didn't get any sort of rise out of my visually attuned side, and a few of the actors are dull as dishwater, annoying (Colin Firth, looking at you), or histrionic (Benedict Cumberbatch is the only one who fits all of those). But ultimately, the film ends up overcoming its shortcomings by building many mini-universes and then having them devastatingly blend into one whole.

I wouldn't feel too bad if you find it a little hard to piece together this film while you're watching. It's a complex picture, taken from source material by big water-muddier John le Carré. A meeting gone awry in Budapest is far from what it seems originally, where it's hard to tell who's connected to whom and who's setting up whom (if at all) and what the significance of this event is. (All does come to be explained, maybe even a little too thoroughly.) The experience of watching the film involves both keeping up with what's currently happening on screen and making sure you understand that's come before. This may be irritating to some; some proponents of the movie have neglected to understand this.

The film follows the efforts of dismissed operative George Smiley (Gary Oldman, solid but 90% flavorless) and his still-in-the-system assistant Peter Guillam (Cumberbatch) to track down a double agent high up in "the Circus" (i.e. MI6). I found their antics (and Smiley's day-to-day life) relatively uninteresting, and was much more enthralled by the people they come into contact with. The most prominent one is Ricki Tarr (an engaging Tom Hardy), who, on a dead-end assignment, ended up finding some extremely valuable information via his observation target's abused wife Irina (Svetlana Khodchenkova), who becomes his love interest. Also involving is Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong), mostly because it's surprising what happens with him.

Though what transpires eventually is affecting and thought-provoking, and though the film feels like it has much to it, much of it is tedious and muddled (in plot and in assembly), with one Christmas party scene used as a flashback maybe a few more times than necessary. The last song in the film threatens to drench the film in nauseating Style as well. I can understand what people appreciate about "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" but I have a hard time loving the film to the degree that some do. B-

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Rupert Wyatt's well-directed "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," built on a terrific motion capture performance by Andy Serkis, is a fast-paced, rousing downer that relies more on gestures than dialogue. There's much high concept chatter, but the film brilliantly uses restraint with words for many of its plot points and poignant moments. Along these same lines, as it goes on, it places much more emphasis on the titular animals than on the humans surrounding them, and is all the better for it. It might have been nice for James Franco and Freida Pinto (who is given little room here as his veterinarian girlfriend) to have a couple of scenes not worrying about his father or their ape (i.e. some character development outside what's necessary for the central plot), but I guess you can't have everything.

The film deals with the race to find a cure for Alzheimer's, led by a scientist named Will Rodman (Franco), who tests drugs on apes by measuring their intelligence in the lab. He's looking hungrily for a breakthrough that could help his ailing father (John Lithgow) and satisfy his enterprising boss (David Oyelowo). When an ape breaks out of the lab, the honcho orders for all apes to be put down, though a baby one (soon known as Caesar due to the Shakespeare bent of Will's father) is hidden and nurtured by Will at his home. This ape has inherited genes from its mother, who was given some of the drug, and thus it receives all of the many benefits, including a skyrocketed IQ. As you might imagine, Will, seeing this, gives some to his father as well and it works like gangbusters. But soon Will must make a stronger drug to combat antibodies and of course things don't go well from there.

The events in the film come relatively close to those detailed in "Project Nim," and thus the film gains a bit of topical relevance and, if you know the story of Nim Chimpsky well, some satisfaction. I really started to notice this during the emotionally charged second half, which is in my mind superior to the first. The final scenes have a tense and remarkable grandiosity, the scope of which impresses more than almost anything that comes before. They're a lot more thematically interesting than visually or acting-wise, but that's more than enough, convincing me that a sequel wouldn't be such a bad thing. The whole project could end up being astonishingly ambitious. B

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Best Performances of 2011

I would pick favorites in each of the categories but it's just so hard to choose. Best Actor was by far the strongest field; in some of the other categories I reached a little bit for HMs, etc. Blue and bold means that the perf is from a movie not released in the calendar year that I ended up seeing somehow else. Classifications for "leading" and "supporting" here are not exactly perfect: sometimes I based them on convenience, sometimes on the conventions of the awards bodies (like Berenice Bejo; I would have included her as Best Actress), etc.

Best Actor:

George Clooney, The Descendants

Tom Cullen, Weekend

Jean Dujardin, The Artist

Michael Fassbender, Shame

Peyman Moaadi, A Separation

HM: Lior Ashkenazi, Footnote; Xavier Dolan, Heartbeats; Thomas Doret, The Kid With a Bike; Ewan McGregor, Beginners; Chris New, Weekend; Brad Pitt, The Tree of Life; Michael Shannon, Take Shelter; Andre Wilms, Le Havre

Best Actress:

Sareh Bayat, A Separation

Olivia Colman, Tyrannosaur

Ariane Lebed, Attenberg

Adepero Oduye, Pariah

Ana Ularu, Outbound

HM: Kirsten Dunst, Melancholia; Leila Hatami, A Separation; Elizabeth Olsen, Martha Marcy May Marlene; Anna Paquin, Margaret

Best Supporting Actor:

Raul Castillo, Cold Weather

John Hawkes, Martha Marcy May Marlene

Shahab Hosseini, A Separation

Christopher Plummer, Beginners

John C. Reilly, Terri

HM: Shlomo Bar-Aba, Footnote; Rory Culkin, Margaret; Michael Fassbender, Jane Eyre; Vangelis Mourikis, Attenberg; Charles Parnell, Pariah; Mark Ruffalo, Margaret

Best Supporting Actress:

Nicole Beharie, Shame

Berenice Bejo, The Artist

Melanie Laurent, Beginners

Carey Mulligan, Shame

Shailene Woodley, The Descendants

HM: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Melancholia; Sarah Paulson, Martha Marcy May Marlene; J. Smith-Cameron, Margaret

Technical achievements maybe at a later date. (Edits have been made on this post, due to performances being brought to my attention again.)

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The 18 Best Films of 2011

Films in blue will not receive a US release in 2011. Nonetheless, I saw them in 2011 and, as you can see, they are very much a part of the film landscape for this year. It's 18 because that's the number of As, A-s, and B+s I gave. I have not gotten around to seeing a number of films that may have made an impact on here, among them "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy," "Hugo," "The Adventures of Tintin," "Carnage," "The Arbor," and "Le Quattro Volte." From my reviews of them (if and when I do end up seeing them), you should be able to tell if and where they would have fit on this list.

A special mention goes to Rainer Werner Fassbinder's "World on a Wire," which blew me away during a Janus Films rerelease this year. And a huge omission based on release is Abbas Kiarostami's "Certified Copy," which I included at #8 on my Top Ten list last year and would place at #5 on the first list and #3 on the second. I didn't want to include it in multiple years as that wouldn't exactly be fair.

Dishonorable mentions to "We Need to Talk About Kevin," "Shut Up Little Man!" and "The Man Who Fell to Earth," my three least favorite films that I saw this year (the last in a re-release). "Tyrannosaur" (minus Olivia Colman) is down there too.

18. Pariah (Dee Rees)

Rees showcases her remarkable way around a scene, allowing able actors to give their best in a movie that only really falters when you pull back to survey the entire (uneven) picture. The cinematography is extremely evocative, perhaps even too much.

17. City of Life and Death (Lu Chuan)

Some sudsy subplots dilute the greatness here, but what works emotionally is magnificent and truly devastating. If Lu Chuan can harness the transcendent power given off in fits and starts by this movie and make a fuller film, the results will be breathtaking.

16. Pina (Wim Wenders)

If only Wenders had elected to make the film completely dance-based. The 3D is wonderful, and it helps create a beguiling, enjoyable experience unlike anything I’ve ever seen (even though there are apparently other movies about Bausch’s troupe).

15. Heartbeats (Xavier Dolan)

An exuberant, opulent film that moves adeptly between relaxed and quietly upsetting modes (knowing when to step on the narrative gas pedal and when to kick back and just let the images roll by). Dolan makes it quite entertaining, both by being in it and filling it with wowing design.

14. Cold Weather (Aaron Katz)

Katz takes humorous and incisive jabs at slackers with this well-made, slow-paced, strongly-acted piece. I hope to see Cris Lankenau and especially Raul Castillo again in later films; they rank high among my acting discoveries this year.

13. The Myth of the American Sleepover (David Robert Mitchell)

Enjoyable and with strong cinematic qualities, “Sleepover” disarms with its engaging characters and the smart screenwriting decisions of developing director Mitchell. I wouldn’t call it exactly indelible, but surely meaningful and diverting.

12. A Separation (Asghar Farhadi)

The most beloved foreign film this year, “A Separation” doesn’t quite live up to the colossal hype in my view. But it’s still very good, with four extremely affecting performances that should shake anyone and certain scenes (especially the ones with the judge) that heave with relentless, powerful emotion.

11. Weekend (Andrew Haigh)

Naturalism is tricky, but Tom Cullen ends up hitting all the right notes as the real lead in “Weekend” (as the film is essentially viewed from his POV). Chris New provides the ideal support, as do Haigh directing and Urszula Pontikos shooting, and the result is a terrific character study that looks at being gay in today’s world.

10. The Kid With a Bike (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)

The last scene is what lingers most to me, but “The Kid With a Bike” is absorbing from beginning to end, built on an exceptional performance from child actor Thomas Doret. The casting is exquisite and the storytelling is conventional but wonderfully spiraling a la “Bicycle Thieves.”

9. Attenberg (Athina Rachel Tsangari)

More watchable and less uncomfortable than fellow Greek New Waver “Dogtooth,” but just as observant and unsentimental. Ariane Labed puts on a disturbingly dedicated act in the lead. Friendships and father-daughter relationships have rarely been as weird, but both speak profoundly.

8. Footnote (Joseph Cedar)

I had extremely low expectations going into this film, which was a second choice at the time of the viewing, due to some bad buzz from critics I respect. Yet I haven’t stopped thinking about it since. Cedar’s gripping, transcendent, deeply moral movie about the nature of winning features an excellent performance from Lior Ashkenazi and a screenplay that should win more than just a prize at Cannes. I found the stakes to be very high (the relationship of a father and a son is hardly inconsequential), and the ending shot as haunting as anything I’ve seen this year.

7. Beginners (Mike Mills)

Attacked for being too cutesy, I found it to be sweet and loved it in all of its radiant, blissful, and tragic turns. Mills strikes a superb balance between these different modes. Ewan McGregor, Melanie Laurent, Mary Page Keller, and especially Christopher Plummer are an ensemble to be reckoned with, but they’re not the only ones: the supporting cast is startlingly good as well. I’m sad that I haven’t had time yet to see it again.

6. Into the Abyss (Werner Herzog)

What do you want from a Herzog documentary? You might not be totally satisfied with “Into the Abyss” if you’re looking for the usual Herzog personality, though there are some of his hallmarks. He’s reined in many of his quirks here to deliver some of the most potent moments of his career. Taking apart a Texas town, he closely examines a continuing history of felony that doesn’t look to be ending anytime soon. Not only is “Into the Abyss” wrenching with its intense personal scenes, it’s also an exceptional example of pristine nonfiction craft, beautifully assembled. It’s easily his best film in some time and a strong work of emotional, empathetic, precise journalism.

5. Shame (Steve McQueen)

One of my most anticipated films of the year when I saw it at Telluride, and for me and many other critics at that festival and Venice, it did not disappoint. However, once it hit Toronto (after buzz had started to build), things changed; many of the Twitter tastemakers who are now championing “Margaret” as a cinematic messiah bared their teeth. The film was turned very fast from a superb follow-up to an overhyped piece of Oscar-bait. Now the film isn’t really taken seriously anymore (see the Film Comment and New Yorker reviews, which, due to a quirk of release, both tackily compared it to Julia Leigh’s “Sleeping Beauty”), and I doubt McQueen’s future films will be seen in the same light.

Admittedly, I’m developing apologist tendencies for McQueen, but it must be said that the man is making unique, powerful, atmospheric, artistically sound works about intensely interesting subjects. Though “Shame” appears to be more domesticated due to its urban setting, it’s as alive as “Hunger” was, even as it follows a man falling deeper and deeper into himself. And even though certain parts are vague (which, as I see it, is intended), I doubt many filmmakers working today could make a film with the candor of “Shame,” with regards to both relationships (familial and otherwise) and sex. Oh yeah, and Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan and Nicole Beharie are all astonishing. I have some quibbles about a certain scene (cited by Ignatiy Vishnevetsky and Blake Williams as well) that has some weird connotations, but otherwise, this really isn’t a movie to just toss out. Just like McQueen isn’t a director to just forget about.

4. The Turin Horse (Bela Tarr)

Black and white movies to me provide many of the most memorable and often times excruciating film experiences. “The Turin Horse,” perhaps Tarr’s final film, may eventually come to be seen as the king of the relentlessly colorless. Due to brilliant means of evocation (wonderful sound design, dulling cinematography), the uncompromising director gets his point across and does so while leaving many behind. Definitely not recommended as entertainment (as it serves a similar purpose to “Jeanne Dielman,” a title wisely invoked by Mike D’Angelo that used many of the devices “Turin” does), but as a valuable film that invades viewers and throws them into the windblown environment of its characters.

3. Outbound (Bogdan George Apetri)

It’s hard to understand the lack of distributors chomping at the bit for this formal masterwork. Attention must be allotted to it. Working from an albeit formulaic idea (there were at least a couple of other movies using the same race-against-time device at New Directors/New Films, where I saw it), Apetri employs his incredible craft and tension-building skills to create the year’s strongest, most despairing thriller. I hope this isn’t the last from this amazingly talented director, though his future efforts have much to surpass.

2. Nostalgia for the Light (Patricio Guzman)

Guzman’s extraordinary, revelatory exploration of the human and solar galaxies deserves inclusion in the short list of significant documentaries (like “Waltz With Bashir”) to sit alongside “Shoah” in the canon of remembrance cinema. Among patrons of the independent, this got some attention, but, due to a number of factors (including time of release), it received nowhere near the reverence that it truly commands.

1. The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick)

I don’t think it’s perfect. I can understand some of the arguments against it. But I couldn’t possibly ignore “The Tree of Life”’s unprecedented achievement and the overwhelming feelings of wonder it inspired in me. The bar was set so, so high, and, even if he didn’t satisfy everyone, Malick surely delivered, in that he created a work of historic technical virtuosity and ambition. A film that could have died out as a little project called “Q” but instead came bursting to the best sort of life possible.

A more proper (w/r/t US release dates) Top ten list might look like:

1. The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick)

2. Nostalgia for the Light (Patricio Guzman)

[Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami)]

3. Shame (Steve McQueen)

4. Into the Abyss (Werner Herzog)

5. Beginners (Mike Mills)

6. Weekend (Andrew Haigh)

7. A Separation (Asghar Farhadi)

8. The Myth of the American Sleepover (David Robert Mitchell)

9. Cold Weather (Aaron Katz)

10. Heartbeats (Xavier Dolan)

Best performances of the year coming at later date.

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Skin I Live In

The strong opening hour of "The Skin I Live In" is let down by the second half, which clears things up with unsettling, punch-packing revelations but fails to maintain the extremely precise tone that Pedro Almodóvar set the film up with. The mood of the film is informed greatly by the carefully framed cinematography, the adept art direction, and the brilliant violin-heavy score by Almodóvar regular Alberto Iglesias, which may indeed be the year's finest. The mediocre, repetitive, generally tedious middle section (a flashback that leaves the movie's setting) lets air in on things, but lacks the earlier part's striking control and doesn't fit at all into the grand scheme of the film. It might have been beneficial to the film for Almodóvar to keep tighter reins on the actions, and, furthermore, let only a couple of crazy eruptions result instead of having the film feel almost complete after the conclusion of its first part. This prevents "The Skin I Live In" from getting a truly deep grip on the viewer.

I was certainly affected by Almodóvar's work, however, which has a lot to say about bodies, particularly the command people have over them (the film examines plastic surgery and rape most prominently). He goes a little over the top with this, and the irony in more than a few instances is too much. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the director has some of the problems with sentimentality that made "Broken Embraces" feel sappy. Once he stops being so scrupulous, the film goes in all sorts of directions, only some of which are good for the picture.

I really shouldn't say too much about the plot of the film. It's best to go in absolutely cold. Also because I'm not totally sure I understood the film (even if its supposedly spelled out ultimately), which ultimately didn't make logistical ends meet for me. The biggest reveal is surely disquieting, but, while obviously intended to be pretty bizarre (and raising some strange questions), it ends up feeling very ludicrous. The acting isn't quite as solid as it should've been, and even though Robert Alamo as Zeca makes the deepest impression, he's still wildly uneven (as are Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya, Marisa Paredes, Blanca Suarez, and Jan Cornet for that matter). "The Skin I Live In" is a true original (albeit adapted from a novel by Thierry Jonquet) that would have done better in the long run being more pared down and less brash. But I guess that's what makes it Almódovar. B-

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Le Havre

I've never seen an Aki Kaurismaki movie before, but I've heard much of his style. "Le Havre" displays a unbendingly quirky filmmaker, who lets in only flashes of the world outside the titular French locale. Though definitely pretty amusing at times, "Le Havre"'s happy-go-lucky demeanor undermines a lot of possible interest and suspense, and the film feels very surface-deep. Yet Andre Wilms' superb lead performance redeems things, making the mood of innocuousness feel human and not manufactured.

Wilms plays Marcel Marx, a shoeshiner beloved in his neighborhood but with little money (he's run up insanely large tabs at all the stores in the vicinity of his house that he'll never pay). He lives a modest life with his wife Arletty (Kari Outinen), always cleaning and cooking, and his dog Laika (credited as Laika; Kaurismaki's dog perhaps?). This balance is complicated by two major events: his wife getting really sick and having to be hospitalized, and the finding and taking in of an on-the-run African immigrant named Idrissa (Blondin Miguel) who is looking to find his mother in London.

The idea works better in practice than in theory, but all the same, the freedoms that the movie seems to be on the verge of giving its characters are shut out (by Kaurismaki's intense devotion to his method, no less). The fact that I'm even talking about these things though represents an atmospheric success remarked upon by other critics: the sense of place here is quite solid. But things never come alive to quite the degree that they could, though having Little Bob meet up with his estranged wife (who is supposedly his wife in real life as well) is a nice, interesting way of opening the movie up. B

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Descendants

Alexander Payne's "The Descendants" is a well-directed yet extremely clumsy film that succeeded in rattling me mostly due to George Clooney's brilliant, moving, spellbinding performance. Previously adored to absurd degrees or dismissed as not worth taking seriously, Clooney here takes on a role much like the one he brought little life to in "Up in the Air" (the narration here brings Ryan Bingham to mind) and unreservedly digs deep into it. If only the writing had been as good as his acting (and not tremendously shaky); some sort of historic cinema wonder could have resulted. Clooney gives weight and interest to a plot that needs total audience involvement to carry it through its many turns.

Adapted by Payne et al. from the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, "The Descendants" chronicles the downward spiral of native Hawaiian Matt King (Clooney) after an accident sends his wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) into a coma. King knew his marriage was in trouble beforehand and thought that, following this ordeal, he could reconcile things. When he gets the notice that she isn't going to get better, he realizes he'll have to place his energy in helping his daughters Alexandra (Shailene Woodley, also strong) and Scottie (Amara Miller) get on with life. He also is planning to tell all of the family friends about what will happen, but a terrible revelation makes things ever the more complex.

There's a subplot about selling Hawaiian land (which the wealthy King has a lot of) to make a resort or something, but to me it was far less interesting than the main, emotional strand of the film and far more expository and cluttered than it should have been. I can see why Payne was interested in it, but he doesn't do such a good job of making it captivating for the audience. He's excellent at harnessing the devastating plot points from the novel and helping the actors getting into their characters; however, some of what he takes from the book is pretty poor (the writing especially; I haven't read the book though so all of this is assumption).

"The Descendants" goes down some fascinating roads, but the journey is less mesmerizing than Clooney as the tour guide. A movie that complimented his extraordinary strength here would have been a masterpiece. B-

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Attack the Block

"Attack the Block" is a minute pleasure at only 88 minutes long, a film that often confuses concise with slight. All the same, it puts the considerable talents of its director Joe Cornish on display. This man has a way with visuals, concepts, and characters, and he could make a monumental success one day. The film moves probably a bit too fast for its own good, making the situation at its center more surreal than probably intended and making the relationships of some of the characters seem hastily developed, but all-in-all this intense pacing does Cornish some favors, as he is adept with narrative economy.

The film centers on a dangerous neighborhood in London over the course of one tumultuous evening. Sam (Jodie Whittaker) is walking home when she is mugged by a group led by Moses (John Boyega, quite a presence). Just as the robbery is reaching its apex (and Sam is about to be harmed), something flies out of the sky and smashes into a car nearby. Moses goes after this UFO, which turns out to be one of many aliens to come to Earth that night. These creatures are distinct for not having any facial features besides a glowing, glowering blue mouth, and are a pretty solid monster creation on the part of Cornish.

After this initial incident, he splits the film off into two narrative tracks (that eventually come back together later), the primary one following the gang. It seems as if we'd be made to identify with these guys, but the film wisely chooses to see them as a bunch of FIFA-addicted, misled youngsters instead of as noble heroes. That being said, Cornish hardly puts together a social commentary (as some who've compared it to "District 9" seem to think it is); aside from a couple of muttered, downplayed lines by Moses about how the government unleashed drugs and guns on the blacks of London so they'd kill each other faster, nothing much is imparted. The group is contrasted against a white, uptight, and outta sight fellow pot smoker and zoologist student named Brewis (Luke Treadaway) and the building's pot dealer Ron (cult favorite Nick Frost, unusually tolerable here).

What I admired most here were the consistently amusing asides and the masterful visual style. As the film gets more and more strange, the humor serves as an anchor, balancing the tone. The imagery works to the opposite end, making things ever the more delirious. The shot of the aliens crawling up the building is terrifying, as well as the woozy, disturbingly foreshadowed one where one of the gang members is spinning around in a cloud of smoke. Such arresting style is often absent from creature features, and thus is a wonderful surprise here.

"Attack the Block" ends abruptly and could have been better polished. But, in spite of the qualms I had about it, I enjoyed it quite a bit, and I would definitely champion it over other recent underground classics, even if it doesn't quite stand on its own. B-

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Ides of March

I'd say it's a tad ambitious to try to go behind-the-scenes of politics without being able to write one line of realistic dialogue, but George Clooney tries anyways with play adaptation "The Ides of March." Everything here is exposition; even when characters are having sex, a television in the background is helpfully supplying a live feed of a town hall debate. A cast of extremely talented actors is forced to play with their hands tied, having to make what they're saying sound legitimate when it sounds quite obviously written. The plotting keeps things tolerable, but, all-in-all, this is hardly something Clooney (only skilled at directing himself) should be proud of.

The film follows a campaign making a hard push for the Democratic Primary, as whoever wins this supposedly has a guaranteed shot at winning the election. Mike Morris (Clooney) is the candidate, a personable governor who seems to have a pretty solid platform.Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is his right hand man, and Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling), the movie's main character, is his inimitable media guy. The election hangs on getting the endorsement of an influential, delegate-heavy Ohio senator (Jeffrey Wright), and both sides are desperately wooing with cabinet positions and the like. Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), who has Paul's capacity on the opposite candidate's team, is simultaneously trying to win Stephen over to the other side. And, all the while, Stephen is finding time for romance with his connected intern Molly (Evan Rachel Wood, who is poorly directed in excruciating scenes), who ends up being pivotal.

A technically sloppy yet narratively calculated and blasé configuration of confrontations and one-liners, "The Ides of March" ends up failing to fulfill the potential intimated by the opening minutes. When was the last time a movie like this was even somewhat incendiary? "Michael Clayton" broke the mold for brainy nostalgic '70s-style thrillers; Clooney unfortunately tried to strike gold twice. C

Sunday, November 6, 2011


Messy, incredibly pointless, but jarringly well made, Evan Glodell's "Bellflower" (named after the street in Los Angeles on which most of the action takes place) pays no attention to film conventions. Rules are meant to be broken, sure, but all the same, it's good for a narrative feature to have some structure. Like the lives of its characters, "Bellflower" is devoted to ridiculous, involved ventures and ultimately goes into ambiguous territory, lacking a regard for the audience and not really giving a shit.

Nothing substantial is known about roommates Woodrow (Glodell) and Aiden (Tyler Dawson) except for the fact that they have an intense obsession with "Mad Max" and are willing to go to extreme lengths to make that film into a reality. With the excuse that an apocalypse will come, they've set aside a lot of time and money (the latter of which is weird, since they don't seem to have jobs or family to inherit from) to build a flamethrower and pimp out a car they call Medusa. They also have time to try to pick up women at a dive bar. Woodrow, the more (at least initially) personable of the two, loses a cricket-eating contest to Milly (Jessie Wiseman) at said bar and a kinetic relationship begins. I say kinetic because after Milly says she wants to go somewhere trashy on their first date, the two take an impromptu cross-country road trip to Texas to eat at a dingy redneck establishment that Woodrow and Aiden visited a while back. This sojourn takes up roughly 1/5 of the film's running time, and veers sharply into precociousness. It's touching, but further emphasizes that "Bellflower" is (deliberately or not) far out of touch with reality.

Perhaps due to the fact that Milly spends so much time with Woodrow at the onset, or because Woodrow is a little too soft-spoken for his own good, but their setup eventually caves in with Milly cheating on Woodrow with her roommate. This sends the film down a road seething with aggression, where delirium abounds.

This film makes the viewer do acrobatic jumps through hoops probably more than any recent example that I can think of, at one point splintering off from an image of decision to explore a terrifying narrative detour before coming back and heading off in an entirely different direction. This can be much better appreciated as an idea than as an actual technique, especially since nothing really comes when both shoes have dropped. Glodell needs to realize this before he makes more movies like this one. However, "Bellflower"'s craft, from the ultra-saturated photography to the techno/spare-acoustic juxtapositions on the soundtrack, is astonishing and something that Glodell can lean on for his future works as keystone. If only all other components of the film could have gripped me so intensely. B-

Thursday, November 3, 2011


"Weekend" by Andrew Haigh is built on strong acting and Urszula Pontikos' careful, brilliant cinematography that works well to pierce the viewer. It follows a guarded lifeguard named Russell (Tom Cullen, in a gloriously natural performance), as he begins to form a relationship with Glen (Chris New, also very good), an outspoken, high concept artist who makes works concerned with sexuality. Russell is looking for a boyfriend to alleviate his loneliness, whereas Glen has just gotten out of something very messy and believes himself unfit for such romances. But wherever they stand on what will ultimately come of things, the two see that they fit together with an unparalleled chemistry.

This territory has been mined before, and "Weekend" is hardly groundbreaking in terms of plot structure. What sets it apart is Haigh's superb execution of his excellent script. The film says a lot about what it means to be gay right now and how suffocating the secrecy even those out are privy to. One of the film's most powerful images, a long-range view of Russell's apartment building with activity only occurring in his flat, not only underscores the intimacy at the center of the story, but also emphasizes the isolation of gays as a minority group.

The movie would also fall short without its lead performers, who invigorate the material and draw the necessary emotions to give the film a startling impact. "Weekend" does has its flaws: one scene in particular, involving Glen's roommate Jill (Laura Freeman), drags mightily and should have been revised by Haigh. But the film is a tremendous character study with some of the most vital character observation this year has had to offer. B+

Monday, October 31, 2011

Martha Marcy May Marlene; Tyrannosaur; Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Philadelphia Film Festival)

I saw two of these three as part of the Philly Film Festival, but "Martha Marcy" (which is now technically in its general release) played earlier in the fest so it's valid in rounding up here. I saw about 15 minutes of "House of Tolerance" (or "Pleasures," whichever you wish to call it), but I walked out so I could catch the end of Game 7 between the Cardinals and the Rangers. Much more interesting, as far as I could tell.

Sean Durkin has made one of the year's most propulsive, engaging films with "Martha Marcy May Marlene." Yet despite being so magnetic, it falls far, far short of being a great film. Durkin is a phenomenal director when it comes to look and atmosphere, but he stumbles mightily in the area of screenwriting. He fails to develop the plot to a satisfactory degree, and thus is unable to reach the heights he's more than capable of achieving.

Martha (Elizabeth Olson), who joined a cult due to her lack of a stable family (and who was renamed Marcy May), ultimately gets fed up and leaves to lay low with her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson), who's on vacation in Connecticut. But Martha's flashbacks and cult-induced tendency towards uncouth behavior quickly start to alienate Lucy and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy), and Martha's future seems uncertain.

The film's depiction of the cult is unsettling and riveting, full of many beautifully observed details (the men eating as a group, then the women) and POV quirks (rituals are seen from Martha's eyes). But it would be nice if there was just more there, since when the film comes to a close, we feel as if we only caught a glimpse of this faction. When you have John Hawkes at his absolute best, it's a pity to underuse him. (He does have one particularly extraordinary scene, where he sings and plays on guitar a tune called "Marcy's Song.") And Olson's work calls for more as well.

The film's strongest element is its overwhelming technical prowess. Jody Lee Lipes and Zachary Stuart-Pontier do incredible jobs with cinematography and editing, respectively. Though sometimes Lipes uses the wrong lenses in the wrong places, he accomplishes a stark, rattling visual style. And Stuart-Pontier's deft cross-cutting between the present and the past borders on too good at times-- editing usually isn't this seamless anymore. Yet Durkin confuses the pieces he has for a full puzzle when indeed there are some big holes that aren't filled. Thus, though it impresses in spades, "Martha Marcy May Marlene" isn't a full enough work. B-

Paddy Considine's "Tyrannosaur," is a cohesive film, but feels banal and unassured in ways that Durkin was able to avoid. A drunkard named Joseph (Peter Mullan), depressed after kicking his dog to death and being persecuted by the goons of the store owner whom he annoyed, looks for some support in the form of Hannah (Olivia Colman). In his abrasive way, he at first insults Hannah's naivete and devout Christian piety but eventually forms a strong bond with her. She needs some emotional aid as well, seeing that her husband James (Eddie Marsan) is a violent, manipulative, despicable version of his former self.

If it weren't for Colman's magnificent supporting performance, this movie wouldn't be moving in the slightest. It's still not that affecting, but Colman gives it all she can give. Considine does her and Mullan (solid as well) absolutely no favors, soundtracking the film as if it were a folly and piling on disaster after cliche disaster with the grace of a Disney auteur. If I still favored Jim Sheridan over Terence Davies (who, admittedly, did come to mind during this film's better moments), I think I would enjoy this. No dice. C

Nuri Bilge Ceylan has one of the most distinctive eyes in cinema today. Neither of the films of his that I've seen ("Distant" and "Climates") ever caught up to their images. "Once Upon a Time in Anatolia" perfectly illustrates why the man should stick to photography or video art and stop with the pretense of making feature length narrative motion pictures. None of the film's rambling philosophy or stilted, patently unfunny comedy ever rings true in the way a single still does. What would have been nice if all of these images had been his, but in fact, Ceylan lifts a whole lot from the canon of Abbas Kiarostami: the use of the zigzag landscape, dashboard cam, the apple rolling from the tree downstream just like the can does in "Close-Up."

Despite these problems, Ceylan has still made a somewhat interesting film with great shots and many memorable, well-defined characters (a prosecutor, a driver, and a police chief among them). It follows a convoy of police officials as they drive around looking for a buried body at the mercy of the captured killer. In a regular film, this section would only take up a fraction of the film. The body would be found and that would be that. But Ceylan decides to devote 120 of 150 minutes on it, and thus incites us into thinking more about this process. I don't think much comes of it at the end, but it's a solid approach. Ultimately, it's less about what happens to the suspected killer and more about what happened to the body and the family of the deceased.

I was rather annoyed with the film's main character, a righteous doctor (Muhammet Uzuner) who seems to be solving everyone's problems and having all sorts of profound psychological quieries. I think most people who can take this guy will enjoy the movie, and those who can't (like me) will be less likely to appreciate it. As for Ceylan, he's becoming a director like Nicolas Winding Refn whose films I like in theory but not all that much in practice. It always seems like he's aspiring to far less than he could. C+

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Take Shelter

I'm often very into performance-driven, high-concept works like Jeff Nichols' "Take Shelter." Unfortunately, this film doesn't reach the same heights as its peers due to patchy screenwriting and a dreary rhythm. But it does feature one of the best performance work of the year: a sweaty, committed piece of acting by Michael Shannon, working as the film's borderline schizophrenic lifeblood. He's not always fun to watch, but the film would be rendered ineffective if he were. Seeing him go for broke, it's hard not to be disappointed in Nichols for not coming through.

"Take Shelter" follows about a week in the life of Curtis LaForche (Shannon), a satisfied family man and construction worker, as he gets increasingly freaked out by his dreams and hallucinations of inclement weather (possible symptoms of the insanity that's continued to plague his institutionalized mother since her 30's). Trying to prevent horrific damage, he ends up threatening his relationship with his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain), who's already somewhat occupied making life nice for her deaf daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart). She's not too happy about his spending money (even taking out a loan) on a decked-out tornado shelter when the family could be saving up for a summer in Myrtle Beach. But for Curtis, survival is the only thing worth thinking about.

This potentially brilliant scenario proves to be too tricky for Nichols to pull off. For one, the writing often just isn't there. The final storm scene is an example of when tension can be a bad thing; Nichols draws it out way too far and ends up making a heavy-handed fool of Jessica Chastain. Her part in particular suffers throughout the film. Nichols' debut work, "Shotgun Stories," was centered around father-son conflict and featured primarily male actors. Perhaps that's why "Take Shelter"'s treatment of Samantha doesn't fully work?

Also, Nichols doesn't examine the storm in the fullest way he possibly could have. The film does make a connection between money and the storm, but all the same, the idea of it representing the economic crisis is a bit too muted. But, on an even more fundamental level, fascination with storms (separate from worry), which propels many a storm chaser, is left somewhat in the dark as well. I must say though that the way in which Nichols implements a possible and much-remarked-upon religious angle (displayed in by far the film's best scene, when Curtis vehemently preaches to a stupefied cafeteria, as well as in the fact that Curtis is in his 30's) is ace. But all-in-all, "Take Shelter" is too locked-down for its own good. Nichols may have had to sacrifice some of the intensity, but perhaps it would have been a better film if he had opened it up a bit. B-

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Michael (Philadelphia Film Festival)

Both the champions and detractors have a point. Cannes competition entry "Michael" is by no means a perfect film, and director Markus Schleinzer may not have entirely dealt with some thorny morality problems. But at the same time, he aggressively evokes both space and sound to put you alongside the characters. He also decides not to show any of the explicit content, only leaving suggestions of what happened. By doing this for us, he prepares us for hints at even more upsetting possibilities.

The film centers on the pedophile titular character (Michael Fuith), who has imprisoned a (sadly nameless except in the credits) boy (David Rauchenberger) in his house behind retractable shutters, soundproofing, and barricaded doors. He feeds the kid and lets him watch television, but he also does unspeakable things to him. And he wretchedly stamps out the child's forms of escape (storing all the letters he's written to his parents in a hidden box).

Though one scene may have shown Michael having a cry, there's no indication of ethics for him. He apparently can go on with his life without moral reproach (which is emphasized via religion). So one has to wonder: what happened to him as a kid? What led to this despicable man? At the film's ending (sure to be extremely divisive), we see members of his family, but they seem completely oblivious to the horrific depths to which Michael has plunged.

Another query Schleinzer is raising is: how does the rest of the world view pedophiles? Obviously they're detested, but what about when people don't know who they're dealing with? Michael is an insurance person, and he talks on the phone a lot with many people. It reminded me of the Mr. Show sketch with the rapist who has to identify himself as one everywhere he goes. But this is the real world, and that doesn't happen.

Since Schleinzer tries to make the style as cut-and-dry as possible, the way he sequences the events is the channel through which we sense his judgment. The ending is probably most prominent in sensing what he's trying to say, as it's incongruous in a natural sequence. I would agree that the ending isn't handled in exactly the best way possible. A friend called it manipulative and that it is. But it also sheds some light on mothers and sons in general, as well as a terrifying semi-absolution. At 96 minutes, "Michael" is short and insubstantial. It definitely has its problems. But it does have some things to say, with impeccable craft to say them with, and it does a good job of taking apart every bit of Michael's life. B

Saturday, October 15, 2011


The indie cause celebré of the moment, Kenneth Lonergan's eventually tiresome yet often extraordinary "Margaret" has gained a large amount of champions who profess about its nearly-lost greatness. The film went through some terrible post-production problems when it was being completed a few years ago, and almost never hit screens. And even now, the distributor Fox Searchlight is said to be not marketing the film with the gusto that is usually employed. But what can you really say? This is an 150 minute film that was originally intended to be over three hours long, the title an obscure reference to a poem that's read quietly by Matthew Broderick, and the plot one full of loose ends and scenes that don't exactly match up with each other.

But, for the first hour and a half or so, the film feels like one of the strongest works in a while. These sections may be scattershot, but they're extremely enjoyable, brilliantly composed, and dexterously made. Lonergan shows remarkable economy in his storytelling: seeing the main character, Lisa (Anna Paquin, who does histrionic well), in a couple scenes at school, and one with a suitor named Darren (John Gallagher, Jr.), we already feel like we have a good idea of this character. More depths are uncovered, to be sure, but a very solid foundation indeed is laid down here.

Then the central incident of the movie occurs: Lisa gets into a gestural back and forth with a bus driver (Mark Ruffalo), which distracts him and leads to him running a red light. He hits and kills a woman (Allison Janney), whom Lisa tries to save and whose cause she ends up taking for the remainder of the film. She aggressively pursues getting the bus driver ousted from his job, which seems noble and all except for the fact that it'd probably destroy his life. Lisa never thinks at all about this, and, though her Broadway actress mother Joan (J. Smith-Cameron) originally says something (which, as a friend pointed out, is eventually ruled out in an inconsistency), no adult does either.

The film rips through scores and scores of characters on its way, but I don't think any work as well as the ones found in Lisa's private school. Broderick plays an English teacher there, but there's also Matt Damon as a geometry teacher Lisa is a bit too close to, and a whole bunch of talented teen actors who take Lonergan's script and run with it. The movie is at its best in its most trivial scenes, the ones that have really no consequence in what's happens ultimately, but do in fact sometimes comment on the action. These are the scenes that, when cutting a film down, are the first to go (I'll bet Lonergan probably had more of them in the director's cut), but, even though this film would be better if it was tighter and shorter, I would hate to have missed them.

Perhaps the biggest problem here, in my view, is not allotting more time to Ruffalo's character. He's only given two scenes to make his character, and he does a very good job of it, but there needed to be more. The film splits its perspective between Lisa and her mother Joan (going out dates with a bore played by Jean Reno), and it would have been nice to have a share of time to Ruffalo as well. Instead, the film takes on the annoying Emily, the accident victim's closest friend, as a main character, which turns out to be an incredible mistake. As Emily, Jeannie Berlin, Elaine May's daughter and an Oscar nominee back in the '70s for "The Heartbreak Kid," turns in a terrible performance, making a lot of hand motions and yelling in what can only be described as a Upper West Side Jewish Woman stereotype. Her scenes, coming towards the end, are lazily directed, and it's disappointing that the film goes through all it goes through just to lose its focus. That may be a result of the production issues, but I still bemoan it, especially since the film's final scene, an opera shared by mother and daughter, would have had a resounding emotional impact if placed correctly but, forestalled for this long, doesn't work nearly as well. B-

Thursday, October 13, 2011


*If you want to go into this film cold, I would suggest not reading this review and waiting until after you've seen it to see what I have to say. There's a level of detail I want to go into that having to dodge spoilers prevents. I also reveal plot information about other films by Lars Von Trier. Of course, just in case you're curious and read on anyways, I've supplied a plot summary.*

Lars Von Trier continues to deal harshly with humanity in his work. "Dogville" saw the vindictive main character massacre the residents of the town that brutally mistreated her. "Antichrist" (which I have yet to see in its entirety, fwiw) was not shy in its violent sexual content. And in "The Five Obstructions," he subjected a former hero of his, Jorgen Leth, to tortuous filmmaking exercises in order to prove that the man who made "The Perfect Human" was not indeed perfect. I'm not critical of his employment of these (in some light, perhaps) nihilistic events, however. In continuing to wield a heavy hand, Von Trier sheds light on some unsavory attributes of mankind: our capacity for horrible acts and our burning need for closure and revenge, mostly. He may be obvious (he's been criticized for it), but his output is all the more powerful for it.

In "Melancholia," Von Trier settles on obliteration as the fate of his leads (and, to be sure, all the souls on Earth). And this time, though I can definitely admire his precision and control with his ideas, it's hard for me to say what he's doing. The people of the world are seriously down in the dumps, and things are not helped by a planet called Melancholia crashing right into the Earth. I get that. But the purpose of the movies that came before feels a lot less present. Von Trier seems to think he's making a parable (he's limited the setting to an expansive mansion in the middle of nowhere and its surroundings, and limited the events to a wedding and a visit not soon after), but the key element, the lesson or statement, was neglected.

Yet, as I noted before, on a surface level I liked what LVT was doing. Ultimately the film is structured around the decision to have the world end or not. I found the last image of the film incredibly cheesy. That being said, the film would have possibly felt like a surrender to convention if the director hadn't had the determination to orchestrate such a explosive moment. LVT's level of control and detail is also enthralling: he focuses intensely on the ensemble cast, though especially on Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg (who have marked sections of the film dedicated to their characters, Justine and Claire). The film also looks beautiful, courtesy of the glossy, intoxicatingly lit cinematography by Manuel Alberto Claro.

The movie follows Justine (Dunst, who won Best Actress at Cannes for her punishing work) from one of the highest heights of human elation (getting married) to one of the lowest lows (severe depression). One of the first scenes, where her wedding limo gets caught on a narrow road on the way to the reception, shows her laughing with her husband Michael (Alexander Skarsgard). But as she arrives (late) to the party (filled to the brim with characters) and carries on increasingly more slugglishly with the elaborate proceedings set up by her overplanning sister Claire (Gainsbourg, who won Best Actress at Cannes two years ago for appearing in a Von Trier work), things are clearly wrong. In the sky, this is mirrored: the stars get out of line, and Melancholia looks to be coming closer (indicated by Claire's rich and astronomy-fancying husband John, played by Kiefer Sutherland).

This is an interesting scenario, purposefully directed as stilted and made ever the more drawing by the opening barrage of possible outcomes at the end of the world (i.e. you want to see the route between Point A and Point B). But in the end, it's not a whole lot more than that, and thus I will forget it a lot sooner than I will other cinematic creations by Von Trier. The precision on display should be appreciated, but to me that doesn't mean all that much in the end. C+

Sunday, October 2, 2011

A Separation; Miss Bala (New York Film Festival)

Unable to catch "A Separation" by Asghar Farhadi at Telluride, I relished my second chance to see it, this time at the 49th New York Film Festival. I'm not sure if the film as a whole is quite as good as many have been professing it to be, as there are a few kinks that I wish were worked out. But I was definitely dazzled by the acting and the screenwriting. It took me a little while to get into, but once I was engrossed, it played superbly.

Simin (Leila Hatami) wants to leave Iran with her child Termeh (Sarina Farhadi), but her husband Nader (Peyman Moaadi) feels that his daughter should live with him. He sees his father (Ali-Agshar Shahbazi), though pretty far gone with Alzheimer's, as still worth building his life around, and thus he continues to stay rooted. However, with his wife gone, he has to find someone else to make sure his dad doesn't have problems while he's at work. He settles on Razieh (Sareh Bayat), who has a daughter named Somayeh (Kimia Hosseini) and another kid on the way. We see her as faithful to the job (despite her religious qualms that she calls a hotline to address), but also a little careless, and when Nader comes home one day, he gets extremely upset and ends up forcefully throwing Razieh out of his house. She ends up in the hospital for having a miscarriage, and Nader is charged with murder, at the behest of Razieh's troubled husband Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini), whom Nader tried to hire for his care-taking spot at one point as well.

The film examines how people, under pressure, do disagreeable things to help their loved ones. Nader is looking out for his daughter, and Razieh wants to support her husband get through his spot of trouble with creditors. It also shows the courts as black and white, stripped completely of respect for human emotion, and in incredible contrast to the fraught shouting matches at the center of the work.

It's a relentless piece of cinema. I can see what people mean when they say that it's hard to watch visually. However, that ultimately works to its advantage. The four spellbinding lead performances are among the strongest acting jobs this year, especially Bayat as Razieh. And, though I feel that the script sometimes takes easy ways out (the ending) and doesn't cover things as much as it should (Simin is left a little underdeveloped as a character), the dialogue grabs you and hits very hard. I think "The Turin Horse" should have maybe won the Golden Bear, but "A Separation" is a strong piece, overhyped but all the same worthy of attention. B+

Gerardo Naranjo's "Miss Bala" at certain points captured my attention entirely. At others it nearly put me to sleep (though it is worth nothing I saw it at 9 PM after a long day). It follows Laura (Stephanie Sigman), who sells clothing but who really wants to be Miss Baja California. Due a bizarre takeover of a nightclub, she loses her friend and also, since she's late to her rehearsal the next day, her chances in the competition. But, when she's tapped by a gang to do some risky jobs, she could get both back.

The film's much-praised bravura cinematography, which involves a lot of ostentatious long takes, feels more thought out than the story. Laura could save herself easily, but instead makes a lot of tiresomely silly decisions (albeit for friends and family) so that the film continues. The film is mostly about her being manipulated, and I was less than enthralled. But certain moments do indeed pack a punch (when Laura is caught in the middle of firefights) or sicken (the first driving sequence, when light is shed upon it). "Miss Bala" isn't all for naught, but I can't help wishing that I was a little more satisfied. C+

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame

Hark Tsui's "Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame" unfortunately amounts to nothing more than just another martial arts film. It has its flourishes, its beautiful setpieces, but not enough of them to keep it afloat, what with the pointlessly convoluted plot and underdeveloped characters. Though I've never seen any of his other films, I know that Tsui's some sort of Hong Kong legend. That seemingly earns him the right to a free pass from some. What can I say though? I wasn't really that entertained, and if a film like this fails on that level, then it doesn't have a lot going for it.

Set in the 600's, the film follows Detective Dee (Andy Lau), previously imprisoned for treason and now appointed Commissioner, as he tries to figure out why exactly a bunch of people are bursting into flames. The deceased have all been involved somehow in the building of a giant Buddha statue, which is supposed to be complete in time for Empress Wu's (Carina Lau) coronation. Though he works his way through the puzzle as well as anyone would, the case is so damn complex that he needs some help along the way: in the form of the essentially albino Pei Donglai (Chao Deng) and the Empress' confidant, Shagguan Jing'er (Bingbing Li).

What action there is, and there's not a lot of it, is mediocre. Better fight scenes are not hard to come by. The only spectacular scene in the film is an extended one set in a cavern called Phantom Bazaar, where the trio of sleuths heads to find the wizened Wang Lu, also called Dr. Donkey Wang (Richard Ng/Teddy Robin). The fighting is inventive and crazy. Only here, and in the image of the inside of the giant Buddha, did I feel any real justification for having taken the time to watch this film. C

Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975

Goran Olsson's extremely uneven "The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975" is a depressingly systematic and repetitive documentary that serves as a vehicle for valuable, recently found clips shot by Swedes during the eponymous time and regarding the eponymous movement. The group of people surveyed, from famous pioneers (Stokely Carmichael, Eldridge Cleaver, Angela Davis) to anonymous protesters and ex-addicts to the head of TV Guide, not to mention a sprinkling of modern voiceovers that include Talib Kwali and Questlove, is brilliantly diverse. But the strength from these interviews is diluted by the film's intense lack of focus and hammering, formulaic structure.

Olsson, along with Hanna Lejongvist, won an editing award at Sundance for finding a moderately coherent rhythm within tons of footage and marrying dozens of formats. To me, that's more just honoring the work than celebrating a real achievement. I don't think Olsson has much directorial control, as he often wanders and makes it seem as if the archives are thin. He has a motif of displaying the year in large print on the screen and noting every time a speaker changes, to keep things down. I can't say that these things made the film a more digestible experience, however, and, though one may argue that I'm being too pedantic about a potentially edifying work such as tis, I feel as though this film falls below the standards set by the top movies in the nonfiction cinema canon.

But there are strong stretches here, such as when Talib Kweli talks about the power of Stokely Carmichael, when Louis Farrakhan speaks avidly about the philosophy of the Nation of Islam, or when Angela Davis (caught in a bold, iconic close-up) expresses her frustration about the popular notion of violence. These are worth seeing. The rest is a mix of stylization and sharp preachiness, tolerable but hardly outstanding. I wish this project was in better hands. B-

Friday, September 16, 2011


"Drive" is a bearable but nonetheless disappointing effort from one of the most overrated filmmakers out there: Nicolas Winding Refn, who's made downright lamentable works in the past, including "Bronson" and "Valhalla Rising." Faith in this guy is ridiculously assured. He again and again takes potentially interesting ideas and runs them into the ground, and yet he continues to get validation, now even in the form of a Best Director prize from Cannes for his latest.

Due to all the magic-sounding hype, I was expecting something that would make my jaw drop. I wanted to see something distinct. I wanted to be awed. And I thought that finally, finally, with the right actors and the right story, Refn could pull something like that off. But when the supposedly esteemed first scene rolled by looking and sounding like something straight out of Need For Speed, I knew that things weren't going to run smoothly. In fact, this letdown cast a shadow over the rest of the film for me, and so I was never able to really appreciate anything other than the solid production design and the supporting work of Carey Mulligan and Kaden Leos as a mother and son.

Ryan Gosling alternates between smiling diffidently and growling aggressive warnings as the Driver (a.k.a. the Kid), whose life basically revolves around cars. He's a mechanic, a stuntman, and a getaway man, and even when he's not working, he's driving through LA. Though he affects a bravado, complete with toothpick and scorpion jacket, we see him as a barren soul, sleep-deprived, anonymous, using the drive as an out-of-body experience. We as the audience pick this up, but Refn could've done better by playing up these elements a little more (which is not entirely achieved by showing Gosling driving in close-ups over and over again, which he does).

The Driver runs into Irene (Mulligan) in his apartment building, and, as they find themselves meeting often, the two grow drawn to each other, even though she has a kid (Leos) and a husband, known as Standard (Oscar Isaac), who is on his way out of prison. This section is more human than anything I've seen by Refn up to this point. But it is not to last, as the Driver gets himself inextricably involved in jobs and deals set up by Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks) and his pizzeria-owner partner Nino (Ron Perlman).

And, at a certain point, with the brief use of a character, Blanche (Christina Hendricks), the film crosses a line. On the other side, it breaks with respectability and descends into increasingly cartoonish violence. By the time Brooks stabs a guy in the eye with a fork and then jams a knife into his throat, the initial shock of the savagery has worn off, and what we're left with is sad excess. This is ultimately what has been undermining Refn's works, and it will continue to do so unless the man can get a hold of himself. With "Drive," he's out of touch, though a bit less so than before. C

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Telluride 2011, Day 4: Footnote

Telluride 38 is over, and although it was somewhat exhausting, I am sad to see it go. On the final day at the festival, I tried to get into Asghar Farhadi’s much-loved and Berlin-winning “A Separation,” but, for the first time, I was shut out due to a massive turnout at a small venue. Thus, wanting to see at least one more film while I was in Colorado, I made my way over to see Joseph Cedar’s “Footnote.” I had wanted to watch it, due to a recommendation or two and its Best Screenplay prize at Cannes, but I didn’t have the highest expectations. I had read some negative coverage earlier in the year and figured that it might be below average.

Instead, powered by Cedar’s rightfully awarded script (in Hebrew), “Footnote” is sharp and haunting, a propulsive film that ruminates on the cost of a great legacy. It centers on the awarding of the Israel Prize, given for excellence in research of the Talmud, as the thorough Eliezer Scholnik (Shlomo Bar-Aba) realizes his career dream by winning it. The problem is, his much more well-known son Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi) was actually supposed to have been given the honors. The announcement has already been made in the paper, though, so Uriel feels as if Eliezer would be devastated if he found out that he had lost and that Uriel (whom he resents) was the real recipient. But the judges, especially the chief (Micah Lewensohn), who has ties to Eliezer’s past, feel as if the prize would be trivialized if given to someone who wasn’t voted the winner. Thus, a shattering choice is created that will birth horrible consequences no matter the way taken.

It doesn’t help that Eliezer is an insufferable narcissist who has a reputation for covering all the bases but no major works to show it. His winning the award seems as times to make no sense even to him, but it would boost opinions of his career and thus he really wants it. Uriel consciously made sure never to nominate himself for the prize any of the many years that Eliezer has been trying to win it, but he receives a nod by one of the judges and finds himself in a decidedly unenviable position: both wanting prestige and happiness for his father. Meanwhile, his own son isn’t satisfying Uriel’s grand plans for his future and another strain comes as a result.

The film is exceptionally written, full of strong scenes, the most prominent one coming when Uriel is informed of the situation by the judges in an extremely small room. The characters always sound like real people and what they say is all the more piercing for it. Ashkenazi’s terrific performance as Uriel definitely helps the film as well, as he nails the part’s mix of conviction and uncertainty. The film’s use of close-ups also adds a layer of anxiety to the already tense mood.

I think “Footnote” is a couple steps below a masterpiece due to its suitably traditional but enervating and too forceful score (Cedar lacks the confidence in other places that he displays in his writing) and at times not living up to the clarity and thematic prowess of its centerpiece discussion. I also can see some (possible) echoes of the work of Zadie Smith in the film’s structure and the characters’ traits. But these flaws can be forgotten once you get pondering Cedar’s perceptiveness. B+

That's it for me. It was a great festival, and I hope to return next year.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Telluride 2011, Day 3: Target; Shame; We Need to Talk About Kevin

Telluride '11 was still vibrant today, but the atmosphere could be felt slowly diminishing. I was hoping for the festival to continue to deliver indispensable cinema, and, in one case, it did. But my expectations for two of the three films I saw today weren't met, and I can now reflect that, while it has been quite a strong festival (as everyone has been saying), the programming hasn't been unimpeachable. (It is better than last year's NYFF, though, it must be said.)

I was surprised (but very happy) to see Alexander Zeldovich's "Target" among the official selection of Telluride this year. It seemed like a pretty gutsy move, a welcome push of the usual limits of the lineup, and, as a result, a lot of intrigue was created. I don't think that many people have liked the film that much, however, and it's easy to see why. The film takes a potentially gripping idea into pretty disturbing territory, leading to scenes that are embarrassing, disgusting, and deeply unnerving.

Since the film is about people who go to a radiated place to seek a solution to their problems (more specifically, to stop themselves from physically getting older), I was expecting something near Andrei Tarkovsky's provocative, humanist "Stalker." Zeldovich's movie plays as if Tarkovsky's work were transported into the future and remade by David Cronenberg and Richard Kelly. Instead of a more sensitive examination of this concept, Zeldovich has his characters go overboard with sexuality and violence. I know, as a fellow moviegoer informed me, this is a possible and not often used way of illustrating what could go wrong. My interest got detached somewhere along the way, as affairs take place and the plot devolves into moments of insanity. Though the film has some interesting flourishes in portraying a slightly dystopian future (immigrants are hunted as game and the freeways are full of trailers and nothing else) and a fun character who is talented at talking really fast, I often found what I was watching ridiculous. I know I've misunderstood this movie (a post-film discussion showed me how I went wrong). But to me it was tiresome and troubling in ways I couldn't quite get over. I'm not too keen on having a second viewing, though I doubt I'll ever get one, seeing as though distributors wouldn't have a fun time trying to get people to give it a go. C

Speaking of distributors, I saw representatives from various companies at the day's next film, which, judging from the packed house, seemed to be the most anticipated film of many people (it was mine). It'll be an easier sell than "Target," for sure. But there may still be some logistical issues getting it into a theater without passing on an MPAA rating. This was Steve McQueen's emotionally frank, graphically sexual "Shame." Though I don't think it quite tops his previous movie "Hunger," and though towards the beginning it's a little oblique, it's good enough to establish McQueen as one of the best directors of his generation.

This is especially because he is able to get such good work out of two actors that don't get used to their full potential in other hands. Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan are unquestionably better here than they've ever been before. It's also because he always finds art in the places in which he sets his films (using his extraordinary DP Sean Bobbit). Whereas "Hunger" was all filthy prison cells and urine-stained halls, "Shame" is full of the sleek windows and mirrors of offices and apartments. Brandon (Fassbender) sees himself divided as if by panes from the rest of humanity. He copulates and masturbates often, but always connects only on a physical level, unable to have a serious relationship and doomed forever to a shady private existence.

One day, coming home, he finds his sister Sissy (Mulligan, who alternates effectively between piercing and irritating) unexpectedly bathing in his apartment, although she insists she's called many times. Though she's a captivating singer (as one scene rather uncomfortably shows us), she has nowhere to stay. He reluctantly allows her to crash, though conflict is always around the corner. She comes to discover his erotic tendencies, and it only piles on the shame that Brandon has already been feeling. Also overwhelming him is his attempt at a serious relationship with a woman from work named Marianne (Nicole Beharie), the only time that we can see that he's ever been nervous around a sexual partner. The chemistry between Fassbender and Beharie is remarkable, especially considering the fact that McQueen often chooses to not cut away from their interactions and thus forces them to carry on their bantering with feeling for minutes at a time. The brilliant screenplay by McQueen and Abi Morgan fuels these conversations as well as the confrontations between Brandon and Sissy, giving the actors excellent material, making Brandon not the only character struggling with morality (take a look at his boss), and bringing the film to a perfectly chosen close.

I wish the film, McQueen, and Fassbender (best performance of the year, possibly) the best of luck at Venice when it comes to awards. "Shame" marshals great insight and discomfort, portraying a man who is unable to satisfy himself in any way, continuing to try certain methods, though, even as he pushes farther away from society and digs himself deeper and deeper into a hole, not seeing that guilt won't solve everything. A-

I caught a tribute to Tilda Swinton today, as well, my second of the fest (after the George Clooney one yesterday). Affixed to the end of it was Lynne Ramsay's "We Need to Talk About Kevin." Honestly, I don't understand exactly why this film was made. Adapted by Ramsay and Rory Kinnear from a book by Lionel Shriver, it shows a despicable character doing and saying horrible things, and provides really no explanation for this. It left me feeling very, very sad, especially since it has tapioca pacing and since it never for more than about 30 seconds alleviates its grueling tone. It eventually becomes just a string of bad events, so exasperatingly predictable you have to wonder why Ramsay didn't take a different path.

Swinton supplies a good acting job that goes sadly underutilized as Eva, the mother of the titular character (Ezra Miller), who takes a bow and arrow to school and attacks many students. We don't find this out until towards the end, as the film is scrambled (an approach taken in a similar way by its predecessor, Gus Van Sant's "Elephant"; Ramsay uses a visceral variation that ends up as one of the film's minor high points, even if she stumbles with it later on), dipping back from Eva's depressed present to moments that ended up defining her life. Kevin's motives are supposedly examined, though it just seems that he's pissed off that he exists and takes every opportunity to get back at his mother for bringing him into the world. I say this because he cried profusely as a baby and seemed to have been already resistant to Eva's child-rearing techniques. He does take a liking to his father, Franklin (John C. Reilly), but ultimately it appears to have been only to find another way to emotionally abuse his mother. It's painful to sit through this film, even if it has a couple of merits. I think Ramsay needed to have a talk herself about whether this movie was necessary to make. D+

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Telluride 2011, Day 2: The Kid With a Bike; Into the Abyss; The Artist

Saturday, the first full day of the 38th edition, was packed with a number of highlights, as well as the first disappointing film of the festival (though I did actually like certain aspects of it). I started the day off with one of the most important and most anticipated features of the year, "The Kid With a Bike" by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, which tied for second place at Cannes. I'm a fan of the brothers' previous works, especially "The Son." Yet, though some had called it glorious, I was worried by the critiques (such as this one) that the duo had made a bland picture.

Having now seen it, I can say that the film is very interesting and involving, with a plot that's exquisitely put together. It starts in medius res, as we see young Cyril (Thomas Doret) calling his father's apartment for what appears to be the umpteenth time. Left in a foster home, he clings to the hope that his father will pick him back up; yet, as it becomes clear, this appears to be an unlikely possibility. Cyril, though, with his mix of naivete and street smarts, tries again and again to get his father back, breaking out of whatever confinement he finds himself currently in, going back to every place he ever visited with his dad and trying to work out where he's gone to.

Once, being pursued by counselors of the foster home, he attaches himself to a random woman, who turns out to be Samantha (Cecile de France). Though she's propelled into Cyril's life in odd circumstances, she begins to take an interest in his happiness and well-being, letting him live with her on the weekends, getting back the bike he believes was stolen from his father (who actually sold it), and helping him in his search.

Who he ultimately finds his father to be is a man who is having a hard time keeping himself afloat and who wants nothing to do with him. Jeremie Renier, who played the criminally neglectful father who sold his baby in "The Child," is perfectly cast, as you can see a sort of shared history between this character and the other one. This connection makes Cyril's revelation all the more heartbreaking, and, in turn, his search for another father figure (a position he tries putting a disturbingly friendly gang leader) ever the more compelling. Doret, debuting in the lead role, makes the film even more emotionally encompassing, with his constantly shifting and palpable feelings of anger and optimism. Though at times it admittedly does feel a little like it seems to be heading nowhere, and though it doesn't get to the heights that the Dardennes have at some points, "The Kid With a Bike" nonetheless balances watchability and reflection possibly better than anything else so far at Telluride. B+

Coming off of somewhat underwhelming documentaries and features, Werner Herzog's "Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, a Tale of Life" is the best film he's made in some time. Examining a case that sent one of the defendants to his death and another to live out most of the rest of his life in prison (hence the title), Herzog develops a study of both the motives for crime and revenge (via capital punishment, which he vehemently opposes).

The film makes it clear early on that the two men, Michael Perry and Jason Burkett, are guilty for the killings with which they've been charged. A couple of people in the film, including the attackers themselves, seem to think they are innocent in some way or another, but the evidence is overwhelming. So instead, Herzog, after showing us (with police footage and interviews with members of the force) exactly what transpired, probes into the environment of the perpetrators and victims.

We come to see Conroe, Texas as a town that passes criminal activity from father to son and from brother to brother. Almost every man interviewed in the film has gone to jail at least once. We come to see how a crime with baffling motives (the three people were murdered over a car) has horrific, staggering effects. And we come to see how one could feel that capital punishment would provide strong catharsis as well as a hypocritical continuation of violence. The film at 106 minutes feels uncomfortably long, but it's very valuable how Herzog takes his time and allows us to see all sides. I was humbled and jarred. A-

The initial run of strong cinema ended, though, when I caught Michel Hazanavicius' appealing but annoyingly derivative "The Artist," done up in black and white and with almost no spoken dialogue. Despite two terrific performances by Cannes Best Actor Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo and some strong montages and ideas, the film wore thin far before it supposed to by having the plot go on autopilot in the final half. Dujardin plays George Valentin, a top performer in silent films, famous for performing with his dog, who can better the mood of a group of people just by flashing his exceptionally charming smile. At the peak of his fame, he bumps into Peppy Miller (Bejo), who gets a small slice of attention by giving him a kiss caught on the cover of Variety. She goes on to audition as a dancer at Kinograph Films, where George works, and would have been fired by the Kinograph's money-hungry studio head Zimmer (John Goodman) were it not for George's intervention.

But soon enough, George loses his power when Zimmer decides to make the switch from silent films to talkies, and Peppy quickly reaches the renown with which George once was blessed. He tries to save silent films by making one of his own on his own money (earning the nickname "The Artist" as a result) but no one is really interested anymore and thus his total decline seems unable to be prevented. Hazanavicius' banal depiction of George's self-destruction through booze made me check out about 3/4 of the way into the film, and thus the end, which is clearly intended to be the most "delightful" thing you ever saw (or so everyone says it is), was at least partially lost on me. With the acting ability available here, and the handful of good scenes, it's a pity that the script lets everyone down. C+

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Telluride 2011, Day 1: The Turin Horse; Pina

Though many (including myself) arrived a day early to the 38th Telluride Film Festival, it didn't really get started until today. The first films were projected, the middle of the town was converted into an enclosed dining area, and the jovial atmosphere of the day before was infused with a shot of festival adrenaline. Today is the only day where breathing room is alloted; Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, it'll be full speed ahead.

It appeared when I was first looking over the details of the festival that programming would begin after the celebrated Opening Night Feed, which would mean further possible scheduling conflicts when it came to planning what I would see. Luckily, this was not the case, and I was able to catch Bela Tarr's "The Turin Horse", one of the films to which I was most looking forward, before events really got under way. I'd never seen one of Tarr's films all the way through, but what I caught from "Satantango" and "Werckmeister Harmonies," plus Tarr's great reputation, plus the fact that Tarr is supposedly never going to make another film, was more than enough to convince me that this was going to be something.

Seeing any black and white picture on the big screen is a captivating experience, but especially when the film is one that takes an emotional toll on the viewer. I remember vividly viewing Michael Haneke's punishing "The White Ribbon" and feeling as though all color had been drained from the world. Yet, however exhausting and affecting that movie was, its overall impact ultimately doesn't hold a flickering lantern to Tarr's suffocatingly evocative work.

Over the course of 146 minutes, Tarr brings us palpably into the world of Ohlsdorfer (Janos Derzsi, a Tarr regular) and his daughter (Erika Bok). They own the titular horse, who, as the subject of abuse at one point, deeply affected Fredrich Nietzsche (enough to spur him to never speak again). We watch as the two struggle with sustenance during an extremely harsh gale. Life for them has no pleasures anymore; it's now just a series of chores, each one shown by Tarr many times. Even eating potatoes and drinking alcohol are things done simply to keep going.

The film, from one of the earliest shots (of which there are apparently 30), establishes a parallel between the humans and their animal counterpart, from their windblown appearances to their fruitless labors. It also pits many different philosophies against each other about the storm at the center of the story, from the literalism preached by the narrator and Ohlsdorfer, to the Christianity evident in the daughter's reading of a bible, to the atheistic, eternal-cycle belief of a third character named Bernhard (Mihaly Kormos). Tarr gives his views the most screen time, and I'm pretty sure I know from outside knowledge that this is the philosophy with which Tarr seems to sympathize most. However, Ohlsdorfer's waving off of this talk makes me think that Tarr might be trying to voice his contempt of theorizing about and trying to find a point in what's happening in his film. Still, I think the film does purvey a stark message (although many will think otherwise), and I feel like this is the movie that I wanted out of Bresson's "Au Hasard Balthazar." Also, unlike "Balthazar," the film displays a very admirable dedication to its tone, and I find that an attribute essential to its success.

Also big is Tarr's use of nuance in sound design. According to the producers, much of the short script was devoted to how the wind in the background would sound. One can see why. It plays on the soundtrack throughout the film, alongside a orchestral snippet that Tarr employs in a way that reminds me of William Basinski's "Disintegration Loops." Since these sounds are such a given, they act as a sort of canvas, giving the noises of the characters and their actions a far more striking impact than usual. We learn a lot about the characters from how they manifest themselves in these moments.

One always knows the cinematography in a Tarr film will be special. The opening shots are quite attractive (especially the first one, where Fred Kelemen's camera pulls back and makes the scene look as if it is animated), but later on Tarr has us empathize with the characters by almost totally de-romanticizing and dulling the photography. This makes the film borderline unendurable (some people left early, some checked out audibly from their seats, and everyone exited as soon as the film ended), and I almost wanted to turn away from the screen as it drew towards its close. However, there is so, so much here. "The Turin Horse" is probably going to be one of the most thoughtful and empathetic movies to be shown in the next couple of years. I felt my patience tested, but it was worth it. If you couldn't deal with "The Tree of Life," though, this one's definitely not for you. A-

I came out of "The Turin Horse" spilling my theories out to all who would listen, assuming (as one of the festival directors said might happen) that the next film I would see would be meaningless in comparison. Not so. I found Wim Wenders' "Pina" as riveting as he said he found Pina Bausch's performances. It uses 3D in lovely ways, fully absorbing you in the startling set pieces that Bausch put together (before she died). It's hard to believe that someone could come up with dances so outlandish yet so resonant and enjoyable.

The film draws from four main performances and sprinkles in asides of individual or duo dances. Some of them are viewed as if you are watching over the heads of an audience; others are set in places where only a camera could take you. The aforementioned artifice of the play-within-movie often creates a few annoying anachronisms: for example, how can actors just change into other actors? This, along with including pointless interviews with dancers talking about what it was like to being around Pina, is the film's biggest mistake. I wish Wenders had elected to just show the dancing and allowed us (through them) to draw our own conclusions about the person behind them. Alas, the film is prevented from the heights it's perfectly capable of reaching, though it's definitely worth seeing for the mind-blowing and satisfying acts on display (don't let them get spoiled for you). B+

I will be seeing more in the next couple days. Stay tuned.