Saturday, August 20, 2011


"R" is competent, absorbing in the way of prison films, often beautifully shot, and filled with some solid (if sometimes bland) characters. But it sits in the shadow of a film it often mirrors, Jacques Audiard's expansive "A Prophet," which, as time goes by, stands as one of the fullest depictions of a sentence behind bars in all of cinema. The comparison between these two films has been made before; Film Comment called "R" "the antithesis" of its predecessor. That it may be, but it doesn't hold a candle to that film's careful examination of its characters and far reach.

It definitely tries to manage with its own versions of these things. The film follows Rune (Pilou Asbaek, who looks disturbingly similar to both Michael Shannon and Jude Law) as closely as the Dardennes follow any of their leads, establishing his limited territory and picking up on the few character traits that he has: he enjoys cleaning a lot, was imprisoned for stabbing someone, and has a grandmother that cares deeply for him awaiting his release. As the "new guy" at the prison, he's picked on and assigned to beat up a man known as The Albanian. He does this, and gradually starts to work his way into the system, getting protection (as well as some disrespect, from a dude called the Mason; the actor who plays him does pretty well, though I can't find his name at the moment).

Eventually, he gets into the transporting of drugs, initially working with Rashid (Dulfi Al-Jabouri), using easter eggs as means of transport and having Rashid act as the mule. Of course, this supplies definite possibilities for things to go wrong, and if you ever do end up seeing this film, you can observe what happens. I will say that the narrative embraces Rashid in an interesting way (which fits, considering the title), though I don't think co-writer/directors Tobias Lindholm and Michael Noer ultimately have the right kind of sensitivity to deal with what he comes to do.

The film ends with a resonant bang, unlike the mellow, "Mack the Knife"-soundtracked conclusion to "A Prophet." When I first saw the ending to the earlier movie, I was disappointed. But a second viewing confirms that Audiard throughout his movie had a much clearer idea of what he was trying to say. That's much more valuable than treading water for 93 minutes and then trying to make up for it in the final shots. B-

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Guard

Bland and salvaged from dreariness only by the moderate strength of its two lead actors, John Michael McDonagh's "The Guard" is a lackluster answer to brother Martin's "In Bruges," much in the same way Carlos Cuaron's "Rudo y Cursi" was to any of brother Alfonso's films. A good time at the picture show? Yeah, I liked watching it, but it's nowhere near as strong in any department as its predecessor, and you have wonder eventually what the point is.

It's a good idea to star Brendan Gleeson instead of giving him a supporting role, but if you're going to do that, you have to give him better material. Watching this film, I was constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop, for something funnier or more interesting to come. Don Cheadle, playing the straight man, supplies some laughs and holds the screen, but it's really not enough. I admittedly didn't pick up some of what was said early on, due to the thickness of the characters' accents (this movie is set in Ireland and proud of it), but really there seemed to be something lacking.

The film follows abrasive Sgt. Gerry Boyle (Gleeson), who, though not really a horrible person, is not above taking (and doing) drugs from the pockets of deceased lawbreakers, as he investigates a case involving $500 million worth of cocaine. That's where FBI Agt. Wendell Everett (Cheadle) comes in, who comes to appreciate Boyle's company, despite some initial racial and nationalist issues (which, truth be told, are actually pretty humorous).

Since the POV is objective, we also get to meet the criminals (played by "Hunger"'s Liam Cunningham, "Kick-Ass"'s Mark Strong, and David Wilmot), who, though they talk about philosophers and insult colorfully, aren't the most interesting guys to watch (though one moment when Cunningham and Strong burst into laughter is pretty golden). There are also scenes with Gerry's dying mother Eileen (Fionnula Flanagan), probably the only well-defined female character in the whole film. (Of course, when you watch a film like this, you're not likely to find a lot of depth there. But the other three we get, two prostitutes and an ever weeping "Romanian" widow, are paltry stereotypes.) Around her, we get to see Gleeson show off his sweeter side, which is nice, though it doesn't really solve the film's problems (although I think McDonagh hopes it might).

I enjoyed this film perhaps a bit more than I'm letting on. But when I think back on an experience, I want it to be worth something in some way, and "The Guard" doesn't meet those standards. It's very uneven and ultimately doesn't really work. I really hope the next film by a McDonagh is Martin's. C

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Future

At the center of Miranda July's appeal is a contradiction. In my opinion, she's a far stronger actress than writer or director. However, I feel it would be strange, almost not right, to see her performing in anything except for works that she herself has created. If only the two sides of the equation could fit together. "The Future" at certain points gets close to equilibrium, but doesn't succeed in the end due to a problematic lack of cohesion and a dreadful opening half. For me, "Me and You and Everyone We Know," her essentially unwatchable but bizarrely beloved first film, is the beginning of this movie blown up to feature length. Luckily, as the film progresses, July touches on issues and concepts that illuminate the film as a whole and prevent it from being as awful as its predecessor, but when she does, it's too late (ironically enough, when you consider the subject of the film).

The film is framed around the adoption of an injured cat named Paw-Paw (to whom July gives a scratchy voice) by two unhappily employed people, Sophie (July as well) and Jason (Hamish Linklater). They want to do more with their lives, but they feel they should do their part and bring this cat to live with them. That means having their freedom drastically cut (to roughly a month, when they are scheduled to pick the cat up), as the cat could live for a long time and, when it dies, could leave them stranded past the halfway mark in their own lives.

This constraint seems to be a liberation of sorts, as both quit their jobs and strive to do something: Sophie undertaking a project known as "30 Days 30 Dances," Jason trying to sell trees and save the earth as part of a small environmental operation. But ultimately, the constraint sort of disappears, as Sophie grows frustrated and bored with her web series (it doesn't really go anywhere) and goes off on a different tangent and Jason tries to hang on to their semblance of a life while maintaining the idea that everything's gone anyways.

The film includes a few elements of the surreal, such as the moon talking (pessimistically) and Jason's ability to stop time, which seems like a folly (everyone's pretending at first) until it actually takes effect. This mood of spontaneity both helps and hurts the film, as it leads the action into interesting territory but also ends up undermining the emotional impact, as it feels like there's no center holding things together.

But it must be said that the film's strong second half is devastating, quite probably because one cannot see it coming from the beginning. It shows that people settle into different roles as time passes and ultimately inhabit them for good, eventually feeling like they've always held them, even if at one point the idea of doing so would seem incredibly crazy or sad. That's something. If July 1) had made the opening feel like more than just a tedious setup and 2) had more fully realized her theses, a piercing film could have resulted. Instead, she juggles a bunch of plots (as she's done before), only getting little bits of gold out of each. C

Note: Despite the objections I find with her work, I still think July is superb at naming her films. However, though "The Future" is a great, intriguing title, when all is said and done, "Satisfaction," her working title, fits much better.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011


Azazel Jacobs' "Terri" is at its best towards the beginning. Here, the lulling, moderate pace jells with the sharp, shrewd, and enjoyably subtle examination of the characters provided by Jacobs and fellow screenwriter Patrick Dewitt. As the film proceeds into its later portions, the brushstrokes with which the filmmakers paint their subjects become a bit more erratic, and the incisive part of the equation comes to disagree somehow with the movie's speed. The climactic scenes are sensitive and unearth character traits, but since something's slightly off they are a little less entertaining.

That being said, John C. Reilly holds down each and every scene he's in, only faltering when the script lets him down. He plays Mr. Fitzgerald, the principal (or maybe assistant principal) who takes the disillusioned Terri (Jacob Wysocki) under his wing. Reilly plays glib but sincere, spinning off of his usual persona (most drawn out as Dr. Steve Brule on "Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!") into more complex areas, places I haven't seen him go in a long time--if ever. It's the best performance of his career by far, giving Jacobs exactly what he needs, transcending the minor problems written into his role.

Terri is considered a "good-hearted kid," that is, he has an extremely strong moral center. Stuff gets in the way of that sometimes, but ultimately, he knows what's right and wrong. The problem is, he's been having a hard time keeping up with the bare minimum requirements of school, always showing up late to every class. This is not helped by the fact that he needs to take care of his unstable Uncle James (Creed Bratton, most famously known for "The Office," though he's not exceptional here), not to mention his obesity (which gets him picked on and gets in the way of his getting with his romantic interest, namely Heather, played by Olivia Croicchia). A number of things happen, though, that point to leading him from glumness. His counseling with Mr. Fitzgerald is the most prominent catalyst, even though that involves some tremors. He also gets closer to Heather once he lifts some of the burden off of her that resulted from a pariah-making PDA. But catharsis doesn't come so simply in the end, emotionally and otherwise, especially because of two other characters: Mr. Fitzgerald's dying secretary Ms. Hamish (Mary Anne McGarry, who gives more than what seemed possible in the confines of her role's original one-joke routine) and consistently problematic Chad (Bridger Zadina), who seems to be the product of some sort of emotional neglect.

I appreciated the film's comedic aspects (Wysocki and Reilly are strong in this field), as well as the awareness it has of its characters. However, I found certain bits of the story nebulous, especially towards the end. It's nice how Jacobs and Dewitt don't feel the need to spell every little thing out, but I would have been happier if the resolution had felt slightly more assured. "Terri" has definite plusses, but lacks in depth where it could have been well-shaded, and thus probably will not age terribly well. B

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

World on a Wire (Re-Release)

Works as ideologically captivating as Rainer Werner Fassbinder's "World on a Wire" often cannot hold themselves together. This TV miniseries (212 minutes long), drawn from Daniel F. Galouye's novel "Simulacron-3," goes on a tangent in the second of its two parts that sends it into territory that lets it down. It's not enough to truly distract from the film's mind-blowing concepts and beautifully crafted art direction and sound design. However, I wish the film hadn't taken a path that falls below its standard of ingenuity.

What precedes the conclusion is often astonishing, extremely perceptive for a movie made in the '70s, and possibly sweepingly influential (though I'm not sure how much circulation this got). A corporation called IKZ has created a computer, known as Simulacron, which is loaded with a replica world, with people programmed to have realistic traits. Citizens of the outside world can get "linked in" to someone in the machine, which is like playing a 1st-person video game. Mostly, though, the technology has been manipulated to play out possible outcomes of the future, for financial gain for a steel company that the head of IKZ, Siskins (Karl Heinz Vosgerau), has ties to.

The computer has gotten a lot of attention in the media, though no one's quite sure what the deal is. That's not the only thing that's hazy at the company: IKZ's technical director Vollmer (Adrian Hoven) apparently has gone insane with some fact and committed suicide via electrocution. And the only person to have any idea about what's happened is Gunther Lause (Ivan Desny), who at a party suddenly disappears for what seems like no reason.

This happens right in front of the man who comes to be our protagonist, Fred Stiller (Klaus Löwitsch), the new technical director, who is extremely unnerved. He wants to find what happened to Vollmer, especially since he's having a relationship with Vollmer's daughter (and Lause's niece) Eva (Mascha Rabben), who also seems prone to disappearances. But the closer he gets to conclusions, the more crazy and ill he comes off to the people in his office. You can tell, though, that something's off here, and the rare case of one person being aligned with the truth and everyone else straying could be possible.

It's not hard to see where "World on a Wire" could go, and, to my dissatisfaction, it went that way. This movie, though, does not suffer as drastically from that as most would. That's because "World on a Wire" is brilliant and thought-provoking, and follows many of the possibilities generated by its premise to their ends. Fearlessness is a great quality for a film to have, but it's especially important in sci-fi, where implications stack up more than in conventional narratives. Another feature of this genre that can make or break is how the world of the film is depicted visually. On that level, "World on a Wire" is extraordinary. Every set is exquisite, and Fassbinder doesn't waste an inch, utilizing each one completely.

I strongly recommend "World on a Wire" for anyone who loves to be puzzled by science fiction. It definitely comes through in many ways. The only other Fassbinder I've seen is "Ali: Fear Eats the Soul" (which, along with this film, features Elhedi Ben Salem, and seems very different, yet shares some of the same themes, like alienation), but I'm excited to check out more of his work, like "Berlin Alexanderplatz." For now, I'm glad I saw this film and I hope it'll delight those sci-fi fans who get the chance to see it (now that it's screening in various reparatory theaters). A-