Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Top Ten Films and Albums of 2012

Here goes. I've seen a lot less movies this year than I have in previous years due to feelings that this site is not of a primary significance to my life or to the lives of readers. But anyways, out of tradition, here are my favorite films (and also albums, since I listened to some music this year, too) of a disappointing year. Keep in mind that I have not yet seen (for various reasons): "Argo," "Amour," "Lincoln," "Life of Pi," "The Silver Linings Playbook," "Rust and Bone," "Zero Dark Thirty," "Killer Joe," "Elena," and "Django Unchained." I just wanted to put this list out before it would be obsolete to do so.

Best Films

1. The Queen of Versailles (dir. Lauren Greenfield)

An incredibly in-depth study of the extremes of wealth, a great highlight of contemporary non-fiction cinema, and the only film this year that blew my mind completely.

2. Moonrise Kingdom (dir. Wes Anderson)

A customary Andersonian vacuum, which is something I've usually been into, but, for the nonbelievers, "Moonrise Kingdom" is filled crucially with sweet tenderness and inspired insanity. The year's most enjoyable.

3. Leviathan (dir. Verena Paravel and Lucien Castiang-Taylor)

I saw this at the New York Film Festival, so it's technically not a 2012 release. But it left a sizable impact on me, showing how very (even sickeningly) effective pure cinema can be. Though it may be hard for some to take, here's a movie that can be viewed on the most basic level, sound and image.

4. Alps (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos)

As baffling and frustrating after seeing it as before, "Alps" is a film that contains worlds and that is utterly lost in itself. Brutal and harrowing, it's cut of the same cloth as "Dogtooth" but offers different (and equally satisfying) sorts of cerebral pleasures.

5. No (dir. Pablo Larrain)

A paean to the power of persuasion, and a point in history when advertising did more good than bad. This is one historical film where I was entirely invested in the conclusive victory, most likely due to the fact that it's incredibly fair in its view of all sides involved.

6. Damsels in Distress (dir. Whit Stillman)

Funny and silly in the way of Stillman, but with a totally unexpected and arresting undertone of true wonder and emotion that holds things together beautifully.

7. Reality (dir. Matteo Garrone)

I feel that with repeated viewings this audaciously conceptual movie (a deserved winner at Cannes) could reveal its shriller moments to be less of an issue. The ending, which many will despise, may be the finest this year had to offer. If the Oscars meant anything, Ariello Arena (in likely his only performance ever) would be decorated.

8. Neil Young Journeys (dir. Jonathan Demme)

I didn't see the first two films that Demme made with Young, but this one struck me, full of brilliant decisions in filming a Toronto concert and moments where Young to me sounds better than ever. I could take or leave the weird and inconsistent interjections, though.

9. The Color Wheel (dir. Alex Ross Perry)

This movie wore me down, sometimes badly and gratingly, but mostly in the way of working its way past my defenses and making me laugh. Then the unbearably tense climactic sequence came, and it became clear Ross had entire layers (cinematically and, of course, thematically) concealed.

10. The Master (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)

I found myself defending this movie much more than I originally thought I would have. But I feel like a second viewing could really boost my opinion of this deeply flawed but extraordinarily ambitious technical masterpiece. Joaquin Phoenix is my man for every award in his line, as is Hoffman. It is about something, I can say that. 

Honorable mentions: This Must Be the Place (Paolo Sorrentino) was ultimately attempting too many different things to stick its landing, but it's still uproariously funny and random. It's easy to see why Dark Horse (Todd Solondz) threw people off, with its overtly abrasive lead performance by Abe Gelber and dejected mood, but there's a lot going on there (long held sadness and longing). Safety Not Guaranteed (Colin Trevorrow) was one of the year's most satisfying little movies (commanded by Mark Duplass' excellent work), despite its use of a basketload of Sundance tropes. Then there was Simon Killer (Antonio Campos), which I both loved and loathed, and which requires much more study, since Campos rightfully demands it. The scene with the miscommunication is one of the saddest I've ever seen. To round out 5, Oslo, August 31st (Joachim Trier) seemed for a while to be heading for film-of-the-year status (with its piercing and complex human observation, and literary qualities), but it unfortunately peaked somewhere. Still worth a look, though. 

Deserving films I included last year: "Attenberg," "The Kid With a Bike," "The Turin Horse"

Best Albums of the Year (loosely ranked, I could go up and down with these albums all the time; I've only heard bits and pieces of some of these also, but I feel like their quality is deserving)

1. Centipede HZ (Animal Collective) < give this album more than one chance, people
2. The Money Store (Death Grips)
3. Lonerism (Tame Impala)
4. good kid m.A.A.d city (Kendrick Lamar)
5. Shrines (Purity Ring)
6. channel ORANGE (Frank Ocean)
7. Swing Lo Magellan (Dirty Projectors)
8. The Idler Wheel... (Fiona Apple)
9. Silent Hour/Golden Mile EP (Daniel Rossen)
All of these could be 10: Attack  on Memory (Cloud Nothings), Bloom (Beach House), Luxury Problems (Andy Stott), Pink (Four Tet), Shields (Grizzly Bear), Duality (Captain Murphy), Until the Quiet Comes (Flying Lotus), Four (Bloc Party)

Comment with your faves if you want to discuss. Maybe I'll do performances if it seems like there's the need for that. 

Monday, November 26, 2012

Roundup of Recent Movies I've Seen

The Color Wheel, dir. Alex Ross Perry (B)
Holy Motors, dir. Leos Carax (B)
Skyfall, dir. Sam Mendes (B-)
Smashed, dir. James Ponstadt (C)

I'll elaborate more maybe later, but I haven't had time to formulate full reviews.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Loneliest Planet (and The Comedy)

Julia Loktev's favorite storytelling device is ambiguity, which was clear from her last effort, the disappointingly vague if at times gripping "Day Night Day Night," about a fledgling terrorist. "The Loneliest Planet" expands her visual palette exponentially, and, though she seems to still believe less is more thematically, Loktev works this idea much more smoothly into this narrative. Following a fateful hiking expedition in the country of Georgia, she explores how quickly trust can dissolve and how terrifying such a loss can be.

Gael Garcia Bernal and Hani Furstenberg (who bears strong resemblance to Julie Delpy) are cast well as the central couple, Alex and Nica, who seem to be happy, carefree, in love, and in sync. They acquire a guide, Dato (Bidzina Gujabidze), who's prone to rambling monologues but pretty knowledgeable. It seems like all is set for a couple fun days in the Caucasus Mountains, but it turns sour when Alex makes an alienating move. After that, everything feels undone, and the two have an entirely different relationship. It's debatable whether the event at the film's center is quite as significant as all make it out to be, but it's not that implausible, and the implications it arouses are thought-provoking.

But the primary reason this all works is the fascinating style that Loktev employs, which is heavy on depth-of-field experimentation and spatial awareness. Aside from a grating motif that pairs wide landscape shots with a heavy-handed cello track, the film achieves a striking look and feel, both laid-back and intense when it wishes to be. Pitching the dialogue down in the sound mix, this is a film that relies more on the noises of nature and the expanse of the terrain. These things make it well worth seeing, even if Loktev isn't quite as ambitious with where she takes her plot. B

And then there's Rick Alverson's abysmal "The Comedy." Which I couldn't find any discernable reason to watch more than 40 minutes of. It bears no resemblance to the "Tim and Eric" brand it seems from a glance to to be cut from, featuring Tim Heidecker in an incredibly unlikeable role. I tried in vain to find it funny, but the only original, not entirely abrasive element was the inspired use of William Basinski's "The Disintegration Loops" in a scene undeserving of its grandeur. But this movie is terrible, and made me unhappy. I would probably have headed for D-/F territory had I finished watching it.

Monday, October 29, 2012

After Lucia (Philadelphia Film Festival)

Michel Franco's "After Lucia" is too insular for its own good, not bringing enough to the table thematically to attempt a small-scale analysis of bullying, or really anything in particular. The perpetrators seem pulled from a PSA. Alejandra, the victim of the harassment, is just as underwritten, and credit should go to Tessa Ia for gleaning any sort of emotional response from the audience. Everything is pared down to fit Franco's static style, which occasionally allows bits of tailored emotion, most of them courtesy of Hernan Mendoza as Alejandro's father Roberto ("a disgruntled chef," as the problem says, pretty hilariously). Mendoza gives the film some of the spark it needs, but all the same, even his characterization feels familiar. Franco goes for a mix of subdued and unhinged, but it all feels poured on, tired, and not really justified, including the apathetic and abrupt last scene. The film's aesthetic is predominantly trashy and repetitive, with a couple of nice compositions sprinkled in due to luck or motives unknown.  How this movie has gotten so much attention (the Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes, Mexico's cosign for Best Foreign Film) baffles me, and the more I think about it, the less sympathy I'm willing to give it. C-

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Reality (Philadelphia Film Festival)

Having seen Matteo Garrone's "Gomorrah" will not prepare you for his new film, this year's Cannes Gran Prix winner "Reality." It's pretty much an 180* turn from that grounded, despairing work. Garrone her shifts to a much lighter and brasher tone and a flashier style, drawing from Fellini and Max Ophuls to craft a sendup of trivial ambition and religious devotion. His greatest asset comes in the form of Aniello Arena, apparently an imprisoned member of the Mafia (whom Garrone may have found while doing research for his previous film). This may be the only film he's ever in, and he surely gives the performance of a lifetime, playing his Luciano as vivacious and awed and out of his mind. Uniformly strong, he helps the film through its bland setup and patchier sections to help Garrone bring his emblematic story to good fruition.

We first see Luciano in his favored habitat, entertaining at a wedding. He hams it up as a drag queen alongside Enzo (Raffaele Ferrante), a vapid celebrity who got pretty far on "Big Brother." Much praised for his amusing antics, Luciano wants the stardom and admiration Enzo has. His current life as a seller of fish and cooking robots lacks those things, but it takes the incessant pressuring of his daughters and the support of his large family to get him to try and audition for the show. 

Now, obviously, men in their 30s and 40s are unlikely to compete against hot and fit people a decade or so younger than they are. Nor should they: at that point in one's life, the time for lazing around in pools and fucking everyone in sight is most likely diminishing. But, for whatever reason, Luciano gets incredibly into the idea of being on this empty show. Following an audition where he said he gave his all, he starts thinking his behavior is constantly monitored. Previously focused on making every dollar he could, Luciano starts being more charitable, to the delight of his Catholic assistant Michele (Nando Paone). At this point, the film begins making clearer analogies to the pursuit of salvation. It follows this trajectory all the way to the final sequence, which I thought was transcendent but which will annoy or turn many off. 

The last shot (rhyming with the first) is a work of genius. Throughout the film, Garrone shows his range, carefully composing certain shots and letting the camera run often for minutes on end. He lets himself loose, showing a side that was unseen in at least "Gomorrah" (though I know he's made crazier films in the past). The music, too, is also key in determining the mood, and though it cloys at the start, it helps things literally soar by the end. Maybe it's a little dated (though it's kinda beside the point), and maybe it won't leave a totally lasting imprint, but "Reality" is worth taking in. Arena's acting alone totally validates seeing it. B

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

"Caesar Must Die" and "Simon Killer" (Philadelphia Film Festival)

The Taviani Brothers' "Caesar Must Die" and Antonio Campos' "Simon Killer" are two films about bad communication, hopelessness, and predestination. However, in how they examine physical and mental prisons, the movies differ drastically. The Tavianis possess a sentimentality and belief in transformations that Campos almost completely veers away from. The Italians also maintain a distracting artifice that ultimately undermines their film's strengths, while the American largely strives for verisimilitude in depicting boredom, sexuality, violence, and heartache.

Berlin Golden Bear winner "Caesar" follows prisoners putting on "Julius Caesar" in Italian, which means that Shakespeare's language has been translated into a different tongue and (for our English-speaking benefit) back through the subtitles. This essentially turns the brilliant dialogue of this great play into bad, blunt screenwriting. Sure, certain sections are preserved, but for the most part it feels watered down. This diminishes the experience of watching the play, which is a shame, since the production itself is well-done and strongly acted. 

Another huge thorn in my side was the bothersome use of what appeared to be staged docudrama. A raw documentary style, though perhaps impossible, would have suited this film much better, as moments of transcendence are made trivial by their probable fabrication. The whole film would have felt like more of a revelation if it didn't feel scripted; this is especially true for the bits that are compelling nonetheless, such as Salvatore Striano's devotion to his role as Brutus and the grandeur of Giovanni Arcuri as Caesar. But unfortunately the Tavianis pour this artifice on, in hopes of hammering their thesis into place. The film peddles some interesting ideas and stunning images (courtesy of Simone  Zampagni's incredible B&W cinematography), but the whole is repetitive and scattershot, if enjoyable in certain moments. 

"Simon Killer," Campos' similarly cerebral follow-up to his haunting and successful "Afterschool," was a real handful while I was watching it, but after the final monologue ended, it came together to hit me, and hard. Simon (Brady Corbet), its main character (read: definitely not a hero, more of a total asshole), doesn't deserve any of what he stumbles upon, but due to his charms, he continues to end up in potentially worthwhile situations that he continues to squander. He's on a self-imposed exile outside of the US following the dissolution of a stable relationship. He starts out pathetically lonely, aimlessly wandering to Parisian museums, listening to the same few songs, writing notes to his ex, hitting on random French women, and videochatting with his mother. 

He ends up finding a beautiful and hopeful prostitute (Mati Diop) with whom he starts to spend his days. Though their first meetings seem full of good (intensely sexual) chemistry, one can sense a rift due to their disparity in terms of French. One scene, where "Victoria" (her real name isn't listed online) tries to share a horrible memory from her past and Simon (out of ignorance most likely) doesn't understand, is devastating, and kept me in the theater when I was close to walking out. The film often doesn't seem to be going anywhere, but on closer study it definitely is, and it eventually comes into the clear as a work of repetition. 

The setbacks are technical mostly, as Campos is too reliant on empty, common Dardennes-esque formalism when he's capable of much more (take the long take of the opening monologue, the stationary camera during the first sexual encounter between Simon and "Victoria," and the shooting of a disturbingly callous scene in a club set to "Dance Yrself Clean"). However, I really liked the "Enter the Void"-esque psychedelic transitions. The whole film feels pretty empty at points. But I give Campos credit ultimately, as he pushes all the way to a dispiriting, wrenching finish where a stuttering letter motif is repeated for a final time. I can see why this film has only played sparingly since its Sundance premiere, since it angers you, bores you, and eats at you in an uncommonly unsettling way. Yet I see those things as more valuable than most of what "Caesar" had to offer. 

"Simon Killer" is ingenious in its slow playing out of a previously doomed relationship in microcosms for all to see and gasp in horror at. Campos, in his provocative way, stresses how important good communication of various sorts is (stranger/stranger, lover/lover, mother/son, brain/eye), especially in this increasingly disjointed age. It's the kind of film that you might have to see again, even if you can't really muster up the courage to do that. 

Caesar Must Die: C+
Simon KillerB

Sunday, October 14, 2012

"No" and "Leviathan" (New York Film Festival)

I've never seen Pablo Larrain's dour-sounding "Tony Manero" or "Post Mortem," but it seems as if his new film "No" is something of a departure. Both of the other films, I read, were set in the 70's, in Pinochet's rule and at the transition into it, respectively. "No" tells of how Chile took up the dictator's offer to overthrow him and ended up doing so with the help of some well-thought-out advertising. It's a fascinating subject that offers Larrain the chance to examine both the creative process (especially under pressure) and the idea of how to sell something in a respectable way. But "No" would be a much weaker film if it allotted screen time only to the side opposing Pinochet. Its greatest strength is a willingness to look at all sides of situation, and to see that these advertising opponents were much more connected than one would've liked to believe.

Gael Garcia Bernal's Rene Saavedra, the man whose audience-friendly ideas ultimately fueled the NO campaign, is also valuably not portrayed as a beacon. He's a cool, careful, cynical man whose family life is a bit of a shambles and who is nervous about risking his job to work with "Communists," especially when his boss Lucho Guzman (Alfredo Castro) is big-time Pinochet supporter. The relationship between these characters epitomizes the film's evenhandedness, and Bernal and Castro both deliver strong, complex performances. The film itself is an intricate venture, that looks honestly at motives (Saavedra wants to win this particular standoff, not necessary completely change Chile) and what it takes to appeal to everyone. Most importantly, this is a film that earns its celebratory close by looking at the pain that's been born and how much of a relief it is to try something different. Larrain's idiosyncratic choice to shoot the film on U-matic video (the same format as the ads Saavedra worked on) and edit as if he's directing one of those commercials is both inspired and a distraction, but it ends up feeling like a good move once the film settles in. B+

"Leviathan" by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel (two highly-regarded young documentarians) is not a film you can describe easily. It's a movie that must be watched to be understood. That's not necessarily true of the talky and historic "No," or seemingly many of the other films at this festival ("Life of Pi" seems to be an exception, despite it being an adaptation). "Leviathan" is magnificent and monotonous, a focused work of sound and image that makes you aware of the fisherman, the fish, the boat, the bird, and the sea. It's so good, it may make you seasick. It contains some remarkable footage, both above and underwater, of the systematic catching, cutting, and disposing of various types of sea life off New Bedford, MA. There's also a focus on the wear that such a job puts on the fishermen, manifested in an unrelentingly long take of the captain slowly falling asleep. 

I can see why this film only was scheduled one time in the festival. It's more hardcore and stripped-down than even Frederick Wiseman would usually go (to be sure, he usually shot on land and in workspaces). The only audible speech is an Ancestry.com ad played on the radio. As I mentioned before, it possibly could cause motion sickness. And it's as devoted to its style as Bela Tarr was on his similarly textured "Turin Horse." But I feel, even if it could have been slightly cut down from its sparing 87 minute runtime, that "Leviathan" is an example of true, pure cinema: an experience that can't be reproduced in any way other than actually going out on a boat. A-

Friday, October 12, 2012

Oslo, August 31st

There are two elements that elevate Joachim Trier's "Oslo, August 31st" beyond the normal crop of well-made, faceless festival films in the grim style of the rightfully sainted Dardennes brothers. The first and most important is the exceptional lead performance by Anders Danielsen Lie, previously seen (by people other than me) in Trier's first film "Reprise." He plays a rehabbing drug addict named Anders, and though it's probably a coincidence in casting/naming, Lie burrows in and does everything he can to make us feel for a self-destructive man whose potentially fruitful life has been rewritten by abuse. We pick up certain details about the past along the way, but credit to Lie for radiating the burnt out and cautiously optimistic demeanor  such a character would. The second factor that distinguishes this film is the flawed but fitfully extraordinary screenplay by Trier, who works from a novel by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle. The film's use of monologues/narration and observation of the random people around Anders shows its origins in the literary, but these techniques end up feeling wonderfully evocative instead of turgid and flat. However, these bursts of unlikely invention are ultimately unable to lift "Oslo" to a higher cinematic tier due to Trier's overall blank and restrained style that works extremely well in certain instances but leaves little imprint on the viewer when all's said and done.

My feelings about this film feel bizarre to me, considering how much I appreciated the way Trier told his story and how well I responded to the attention paid to the subtle dynamics between characters. The pinnacle of the film (outside of the aforementioned narration) is a 20 minute portion dedicated to a long conversation between Anders and his friend Thomas (Hans Olav Brenner, who reminds me a lot of Michael Shannon). Though Thomas cares deeply for Anders, he also seems to have been consistently hurt by him in the past. This is conveyed through Thomas' sporadic conversational arrogance and offering a recovering alcoholic and druggie a beer with his meal. It's a complicated relationship, and Trier steers it in interestingly conflicting directions. Outside of early scenes depicting a suicide attempt and a (close-up heavy) drug-abuse meeting, his style best suits this scenario. His oft-used slow dolly-ins build tension and beauty, drawing attention to his dialogue. And in this case it's devastating. I was somewhat disappointed with the rest of the film for never reaching the emotional clarity of this section. That's not to say it isn't depressing (read: it is). But it's not quite as heartrending, which is what I think is what's missing. B

Saturday, September 29, 2012


"Looper" starts as an arresting, hilarious, intense, brainy, and disturbing look at a futuristic killing profession, but then is unable to muster the imagination and/or courage to follow through on the level it started at. It buckles under its own weight and feels all too rote as it reaches its conclusion. If you are to suspend your disbelief, the first half of this film is some of the most all-around appealing filmmaking to be had this year. Starting with a bang of a first shot, we are thrust (with a great deal of exposition) into 2044, where drug-addicted hitmen (the main one being a strangely mime-looking Joseph Gordon-Levitt) kill targets sent back in time from 30 years into the future. It's a profitable trade, but also one that's bound to do you in. People have been avoiding spoiling why, so I'll continue the trend, but its a profound and very unsettling conundrum. Moral stakes help flesh the film out from its high concept roots.

Barring the very problematic second half, where things slow basically to a crawl and everything gets pretty boring and nothing comes of anything ultimately, writer/director Rian Johnson's script is a joy. The small details he embeds in the environment of the future make a huge difference in endearing/intriguing the audience. And the dialogue that he gives to his actors (Paul Dano, Jeff Daniels, and Bruce Wills especially, all great and all squandered to some degree) works to the same degree, at least until his uber-conventional characterizations of a mother (Emily Blunt) and son on a farm.

Ultimately, it seems like Johnson expertly faked his way through a lot of the movie (a 2-minute montage of 30 years being the prime example), since he seems at a loss to back things up when the time comes for it. And, while a scene of Willis escaping from confines and blowing a bunch of people away is appropriately badass for such a celebrated action star, Johnson uses it also to avoid going down certain paths. While I can excuse not everything making sense, a lack of ambition for a filmmaker who wants to transcend his current crowd is disappointing. B-

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Capsules: Arbitrage and The Master

"Arbitrage" is a little more interesting than you would have expected from the trailer. But ultimately Nicholas Jarecki doesn't do too much out of the ordinary, only letting in little bursts of interest and letting his hand get weaker and weaker as the film goes on. Richard Gere's billionaire honcho Robert Miller is ostensibly the film's center, running from the scene of his own car crash and thoroughly screwing up his already frantic lifestyle. Yet he fades into the background for much of the middle, while the moral stakes between a teenager seen as an accomplice (Nate Parker) and a detective who's trying to get to the bottom of things (Tim Roth) take up large amounts of the film. Supposedly peripheral characters (Susan Sarandon and Brit Marling as Miller's wife and daughter, respectively) get more screen time than they should, and nothing in the plot feels developed enough. Parker and Roth make the film watchable, but Jarecki's gaze wanders too much to give them what they deserve. The issue of race crops up way too much too, and between the African-American Jimmy and Miller's Asian butler Jarecki definitely seems to be laying it on thick that Miller is a hardcore exploiter. When it all comes to a head, it's hard to really care about anything. C

Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master" combines his previous two films, the sublime "Punch-Drunk Love" and the shrill and unbearable "There Will Be Blood" into an excessively handsome package. Freddie Quell is another example of PTA's favorite character type, the self-destructive charmer. Joaquin Phoenix plays him scarily, and it's for the most part a remarkable performance, to match the exceptional work of Philip Seymour Hoffman and a strong but mis/underused Amy Adams. Though Quell seems to be so off-kilter due to a mishandled romance with a girl back in Massachusetts, it's really hard to say what drives him to bizarre behaviors and an inability to fit in on the sea, in the city, in the fields, or ultimately in Hoffman's Master's Scientology-esque cult. Quell succeeds most prominently in the final place, becoming the group's enforcer and a specimen of its success, but he soon falls apart and can't take it too much longer. The film's central idea (how can you live without a master?) is extremely interesting, and many scenes are brilliantly executed (including a stare-down, a prison shouting match, and a montage of religious conditioning). The film is also often strikingly composed (by Francis Ford Coppola regular Mihai Malaimare Jr.), with a couple of indelible shots and camera placements. But everything feels a little too studied, and though I think I'll need to see it again, I don't think there's enough blood here to make this the masterpiece that many have heralded it as. B

Tuesday, September 4, 2012


Here's a movie that upset me. That was trying to upset me, but more enraged me due to its poor handling of the material at hand than due to what it was going for. "Compliance" by Craig Zobel, a man making a career based around films about lying to and humiliating people, is a misfire, a film that's way too quick to vilify and build up disturbing incident. It makes many problematic decisions that derail it from being a meaningful provocation.

Even if events like the one portrayed here have taken place, Zobel nonetheless crudely fashions the situation in an implausible way and hammers hard at his message with contemptuously drawn, stereotyped characters and setting. He removes the audience from sympathizing with the characters (either mistakenly or because he wants us really to hate humanity) by making all the details of the situation, most importantly ones unknown to the central players, known to us from early on. And, with a crappy film-school aesthetic designed to try to dramatize a scenario lacking in cinematic appeal and a score that tries to force you into anger, "Compliance" seethes.

There's nothing wrong with a filmmaker being angry at people. Lars von Trier, most prominently with "Dogville," does this sort of thing all the time, but he knows how and picks his subjects well. Zobel clearly has ire towards the myriad of sexually abusive fast-food prank calls that have sprouted up recently. That these things happened is terrible. But you or I know that just by reading about them. Making a whole film whose core thesis is "strip-searching dehumanizes" or "fast-food working conditions suck" is a waste of time. There has to be more. Zobel scores few points for essentially documenting an inherently appalling spectacle. It's how he treats it, and earns it (or, in this case, doesn't), that really proves what he's all about. And he's done a shitty job of validating it, much like Ben Wheatley ("Kill List") and Lynne Ramsay ("We Need to Talk About Kevin") have recently. The emotions shown by the actors I guess are worth something, but even they seem somewhat calculated and slapdash. I admit that I was held by "Compliance" for much of its running time. But I would have been whatever way this story had been told, and I wish it had been under the control of someone much more capable, someone who could have seen the potential depths. D

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Queen of Versailles and Neil Young Journeys

A strong frontrunner for documentary of the year-and the film of the year, for that matter-is Lauren Greenfield's sprawling, exceptionally observed "The Queen of Versailles." Greenfield looks at flawed systems, unruly ambitions, and devastating collapses. Of all films that I've seen so far about the 2008 Economic Crisis, this one struck the deepest chord with me. Working with about as much access as a documentarian can have with her subjects, she doesn't have to take as broad of a viewpoint in her editing and presentation that a less-privy filmmaker would have. I'm sure there's footage we didn't see, but what's captured here seems to show a family on the breaking point who essentially lets everything (their money, dignity, community) start to fall apart.

The film, based around two sets of interviews two or so years apart, seems to have originally intended to be a monument to the continuing success and megalomania of David Siegel and his titular wife Jackie. David was "smitten" with Jackie, and plucked her out of her Miss America stardom to fall into a loveless union. The two had seven children, but David, when asked if he "gets strength from his marriage," bluntly says no. He's way too absorbed in his work, at the top of the largest timeshare company in the world, which shoots too far even if its not-entirely-fair way of conducting business seems like it could never fall apart. Everyone seems pretty oblivious to the idea that building a super-mega-mansion based on a French palace that's destined to be the biggest in the United States might not be the most sensible thing to do. But these people are seriously deluded, shaken by their upbringings, and it may take a few generations for this line to normalize.

Like all great documentaries and films, "The Queen of Versailles" has startling implications. Greenfield doesn't stop at just looking at these two people (who are among the most interesting figures in non-fiction filmmaking in some time), she looks at all the people who they touched over time and finds some fascinating ironies at both ends of the wealth spectrum. I don't really know what more one could want from an investigative documentary. A

In terms of documentary technique, Jonathan Demme's third Neil Young film (after "Neil Young: Heart of Gold" and "Neil Young Trunk Show," neither of which I've seen) is much less accomplished than Greenfield's. That being said, "Neil Young Journeys" is a great time and provides an opportunity for reflection on the new works of the aging (and, to me, better now) Young. Drawing primarily from the 2010 album "Le Noise" (though fans of his old material will be at least partially appeased), Young gives a strong 2011 show at Massey Hall in Toronto. And, though Demme at times seems to be running out of ideas and drifting into inconsistency, the camera placement and cinematography for the most part helps create the right, often hypnotic, moods for the songs. Spliced in are weird anecdotes from Young following his brother Bob drive around through towns in Ontario. Juvenile stuff, which strikes a sharp contrast against the grace and maturity of many of Young's songs. I'm a casual Young fan, at times annoyed by his voice, but I was drawn in and continually arrested by his greatness as a guitarist and songwriter. He has his stumbles, but he's remarkable, and an uncommon force even without a backing band. Now Jeff Tweedy's current tour wardrobe seems more decipherable. B+

Monday, July 30, 2012

21 Jump Street

"21 Jump Street" reaps the benefits of having a stocked comedic cast, which helps it succeed despite the overall inclination towards being a slightly altered version of the typical high-school film. The gangbusters pairing of Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill is the most prominently ingenious decision, but having a mix of famous and more indie types (taken from Youtube, "Scott Pilgrim," and NBC alike), all exceptionally compelling performers, draws the audience in even further. Add to that an above-average sense of humor that slants into the meta- and into surrealism at times, and you have a comedy that will appeal to all sorts of viewers.

I know only enough about the television source material to have gotten the big climactic in-joke. I don't think that really mattered. What's here is a twist on the classic tropes of the jock and the nerd, which comments on how times can change very quickly and how social strata evolve accordingly. Tatum and Hill start playing exactly the roles you would think (the former popular but unsuccessful, the latter shunned but perennially on the honor role), but slowly and believably (after bizarrely becoming best buds at a police academy and getting an undercover assignment at a high school) move into acting against type.

I'm not really into revealing too much about movies I find funny, since I think even more than being blindsided by a twist in a thriller I like being surprised by laugh-out-loud moments. What I can say is that the first half is much more successful than the last one (largely due to the presence of an excessively profane Ice Cube as well as some off-the-wall drug humor). But "21 Jump Street" manages to stay at least moderately cohesive wall-to-wall and expertly retains interest all the way through the wacky credits. Apparently directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (previously known for "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs") are following up this work with a picture about Legos. I wouldn't have given it a second thought before, but maybe I'll give it a whirl now having seen what they're capable of. B

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Easy Money

Daniel Espinosa's quintessentially European "Easy Money" is damn complicated (which makes sense given its origins as one part of a three-novel series), but it comes to be exceptionally engrossing due to the three main performances that drive the film. That makes the fact that the film is open-ended and incomplete all the more disappointing, with a letdown of a climactic scene. But while the film seemed to be heading for higher and higher ground, I was near completely enraptured. Matias Verela, Dragomir Mrsic, and especially Joel Kinnaman hold the screen with great intensity and vulnerability, and it's too bad that the filmmakers couldn't hold up on their end.

A whole lot happens in "Easy Money," but not a lot of what you'd call "action." Looking back, it's hard to believe how simultaneously absorbing and empty this movie is. A lot of the pathos is cheap, but it works to pin you to your seat while you wait for the next plateau. Business student JW (Kinnaman) tries his best to look affluent (convincing a lot of people with some tricky maneuvers), but in actuality he lives in student housing and wants better. He has a woman who loves him also (Lisa Henni as Sophie), but he's inexperienced with women and cares much more for monetary compensation. Escaped prisoner Jorge (Verela) has a pregnant sister to worry about. And Mrado (Mrsic) comes to understand the importance of being a father to his eight-year-old girl. All three of these men are involved in different ways in a cocaine ring: Jorge has the connection to his cousin that sets it in motion, JW has the money smarts to make the financial end work, and Mrado is a third party who wants in one way or another.

When push comes to shove, I don't think this is really a fulfilling movie. There's a lot of extraneous detail and weird filler (a missing sister, an anecdote about someone chopped in half inside an elevator), some of which probably was developed in more detail in a) the source material or b) its sequels. But it has some moving and emotionally involving moments, and a lot of strong facial acting (Kinnaman in a scene where he's forced to do something unspeakable is harrowing). It's a mixed and not entirely satisfying bag for sure, but definitely an involving one. B-

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Dark Horse (Fragment)

I wrote a 3 paragraph review on this film and then accidentally deleted it the moment after it was finished. That was very frustrating. I will say more about this to people who want to hear more, but in short this is an extremely divisive film that I ended up liking more than a lot of people will. It's very uneven, and very shrill, but I came to appreciate the undertones of honesty and sadness Todd Solondz imbued under his typical sheen of intense irony. B

Not a lot of people seem to read this much anymore. Or at least use it as the forum for discussion that I'm into having. So I guess this little bitty review will be a sort of Rorschach test to gauge how interested people are in hearing my extended opinion. I pour a lot into these reviews and sometimes it feels futile. So I'll see how it goes.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Unfortunately for a film whose title features the words "Beasts," "Southern," and "Wild," Benh Zeitlin's debut doesn't very much truly capture the spirit any of those things. It hits all the marks it has to in order to be a mass-appeal success. Employing starkly enervating vibraphone music and the occasional jittery camera on the technical end, it trusts most of its responsibilities to Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry (who will appear in Steve McQueen's "Twelve Years a Slave"). These are (previously non-)actors who at times are capable of excellent things but at times are given things to do that really exasperated me as a filmgoer. For me, this is a largely unnecessary work that provides some minute perspective but for the most part stirs up a bunch of clatter while trying to pull the occasional heartstring.

It takes place apparently during Hurricane Katrina, on an intensely communal island called The Bathtub off the Louisiana mainland. Hushpuppy (Wallis) and her father Wink (Henry) live in a couple of dilapidated dwellings with a lot of animals and have great kinship with their neighbors. Most people would call this squalor or poverty, but the two relish it and sense of place and community that these people have far surpasses many of those with a more conventional upbringing. The film seems too anxious to get moving, though, and I for one didn't get enough of this environment (save one sequence towards the start, one of only a few, that lives up to the title's promise of craziness) to feel ingrained in the movie. But Zeitlin doesn't seem too concerned with fleshing things out, and thus he lost me pretty early on. The rest of the film concerns their weathering of the extreme storm, and how they stay, and how it's frowned upon to stay. Also the human world (including health) intruding upon their seclusion. This could have been very interesting and engaging, but instead it feels flat and offhand (even if these are people who throw crabs on the table and say "pussy" and are in general "colorful").

Zeitlin and his screenwriting partner Lucy Alibar are pretty dramatically lazy all around, giving his heroine an absent mother and lines of "charming," essentially obvious narration to string things together. He also throws in some legendary creatures that seem to have no effect on the film other than to bloat the budget and to give some weight to Hushpuppy's bouts of stoicism. Sure, there is some real tenderness here at times, but that's largely due to Wallis and Henry (though there are some good lines at times). Nowhere near as restless as it should be, "Beasts of the Southern Wild" is problematic and ultimately fits right into the tradition of mediocre Sundance pictures. To say it's a major highlight of the independent festival's history is to discredit works like Shane Carruth's "Primer." (Even more outrageous may be the fact that it won the Camera d'Or for Best First Film at Cannes.) C

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Magic Mike

I am the target audience for "Magic Mike" only in the sense that I follow the work of its director Steven Soderbergh and was interested in seeing what his newest effort would look like. Honestly, though, this man's oeuvre has only become distinguished by its unique visual style (designed, impressively, by he himself), still one of the best in the business but not enough to sustain film after lackluster film. Part of the reason for the inconsistency in his films must be his outsourcing the script to a different screenwriter each time around. This time, Reid Carolin (who also appears in the film) takes up the reins, and what results is extremely lazy and patchy, especially in key moments. Of course, the writing was never supposed to be good enough to distract the target audience from what they came for, but at times here it's a little bit below serviceable. It also distracts from all the supposed allegorical stuff, which is dangerous because it ruins the film's appeal as commercial art and instead makes it seem more just like a doodle Soderbergh made to pay the bills.

That isn't to say that the appeal of the film to others isn't understandable. As the titular main attraction and partial owner of a male strip club, Channing Tatum is, when he isn't failed by the dialogue, as much the likable presence as the film's champions have called him. He wants more and sort of gets the audience involved in his quest, even if it is a little hard feeling for someone who feels like they should be able to get whatever they want when they want it. And, playing the intensely devoted coordinator and owner of the joint, Matthew McConaughey's got a magnetism that he knows how to use and play with, edging at times into insane zeal with the knowledge that everyone else will follow along. He's by far the most interesting figure on-screen throughout the entire film.

But I can't see how people could buy Alex Pettyfer's Adam (a.k.a. The Kid), who, in a very pivotal role, shades cartoonishly from mild-mannered leech into insensitive male stripper prodigy over the course of a couple weeks. Cody Horn as the sister he continues to impose upon (and whom Mike develops a thing for) is just as inconsistent, if somewhat affecting in some bits.

Praising Soderbergh for his direction seems kind of a rash thing to do. His only significant contribution to the film is the light-drenched, somewhat '70s-esque cinematography, which is to rank among the year's strongest achievements. Though it makes the film watchable on a moment to moment basis, in certain instances (such as an impromptu visit to a beach off Tampa), it rises to the level of magnificence.   Since he's his own editor too, he knows how long to keep a take going and utilizes this command well. All that being said, he hasn't made a film in a while (ever?) that's truly won me over. C

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Your Sister's Sister

One of my biggest indie blind spots in recent years has been Lynn Shelton's "Humpday," which is supposed to be the more exemplary package of her style. I can at least tell from her new film, "Your Sister's Sister," that she has a good working relationship with Mark Duplass. He, along with co-stars Emily Blunt and Rosmarie DeWitt, was said to have a lot of input on the film's flow and dialogue, and I think such an arrangement suits this exceptional, winning funnyman. He is the engine behind this film, lending its shakier moments his humor and gravitas. He's a bit over-the-top at times, but I think that maybe the film would descend into the amiable-sitcom vibe it threatens to were it not for his presence. Blunt is very important as well, as she (though she seems to be pushing the edges of her comfort zone) has a real way with eliciting sympathy. DeWitt, such a great force in "Rachel Getting Married" (why is that film not more loved and discussed?!), is the weakest link here, but she still brings tenuous and at times explosive emotion to the situation (even if she's a bit of an outsider when it comes to the passions of the group). Unfortunately for all of them, Shelton, who seems to be keeping a good eye on the proceedings, slackens her grip in the film's final 15 minutes and seems to misunderstand what the film's really about.

The film does do a very good job exploring sensitive bonds between siblings and close friends. It looks first briefly at the depressed Jack (Duplass), who views his recently deceased brother Tom as a flawed figure and gives a typically-indie-awkward speech at a remembrance party that he feels is verging on hagiography. It then pries at the damaged yet still extremely tender relations between Jack's best friend Iris (Blunt) and her sister Hannah (DeWitt). This all is revealed at a cabin outside Seattle, where Iris suggests Jack goes for a head-clearing weekend. Hannah happens to be there doing the same thing, and soon Iris arrives even though she says she isn't going to be able to come. Since this is a romantic modern independent movie, there of course are things had between them that Jack sets off. And they're adeptly orchestrated by Shelton in ways both humorous and tragic, as many confrontations are to be had and sleep is to be lost and stuff like that. It never really goes beyond its parameters, though it would be foolish to expect anything like that. Maybe "Your Sister's Sister" would be stronger if they'd taken more than a handful of days to put it together. It's decent, a little disappointing, but still pretty funny, as uncomfortable as you'd probably want, and with a lot of beautiful nature (though the number of establishing shots validates the "sitcom" label). B-

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Safety Not Guaranteed (and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter)

I'm huge into cinematic greatness and perfection, but there's an obvious limit on these two quantities when it comes to certain types of films. Sundance indies, that much-derided sub-genre that's become so clear in the past couple decades, is probably the most prominent example of this, along with Hollywood blockbusters. "Safety Not Guaranteed" is in many ways a textbook example of a cliched low-budget film. But even though it has a flawed framework, it comes to work marvelously in spite of itself, and though many of its sins can be pardoned, I wish it had gone the extra mile and done all of the work for us. Alas, neither Colin Trevorrow as director nor Derek Connolly as writer has the chops to make a film like that at this point in their careers, as they're still cutting corners with bright montages and jokes about nerds. But they do provide some surprisingly provocative insights under the playfulness. Most of all, though, they have a remarkable cast of actors, each at the top of their game, who make this a movie worth taking the time to see.

The chemistry achieved by Audrey Plaza and Mark Duplass (also individually outstanding) is an amazing thing, harkening back to the work done by Britt Marling and William Mapother in last year's "Another Earth" but flowering more because this is a stronger film. Both play people on the societal fringes who are looking for happiness in  what appear to be wrongheaded ways. Darius (Plaza), working on a potentially illuminating magazine story with Jeff (Jake M. Johnson) and Arnau (Karan Soni), hasn't been happy since her childhood, and looks dubiously on this assignment to try and find out about Kenneth (Duplass). Kenneth posted a very unspecific classified ad asking for a time-traveling partner, and after Jeff tries to be his man (failing as no doubt many others have in Kenneth's eyes), Darius steps in with the right amount of confidence to satisfy the role. Kenneth has extremely high standards and at first seemingly warped ones; he's a longtime social reject who is routinely considered crazy and whom fears rejection and scorn. In Darius, he finds someone willing to take him seriously and who's actually serious about something herself. 

The film feels the need to take some detours since it apparently can't be only about the relationship of these two. Thus, there is a subplot involving the other two members of the team, most prominently Jeff. Jeff wants to rekindle a long-gone relationship with a girl he used to know in high school (because, weirdly enough, Kenneth is set up in the same Washington town where Jeff went to high school). This could have been a significant misstep, as could have Jeff's attempts to get the shy and conventionally nerdy Arnau laid. But these scenes are played very right, with perfectly chosen details (the aviator sunglasses), and at certain points reach a beauty that really floored me. (They also fit into the film's perceptive overall message about revision and regaining a lost feeling.) I was also impressed with Johnson, whom I remember as being incredibly annoying in the not-often-discussed indie "Paper Heart" with Charlyne Yi and and Michael Cera. Here he's certainly abrasive but much more bearable. 

You have to meet this film halfway. No doubt about it. Perfectionists stay away. It's not incredibly polished, and you might not be happy with the directions it goes in (and avoids). But if you're willing to accept it for what it is, it's quite a pleasure, and certain moments and performances (Duplass' most especially; a heartbreaking and very intense contender for best male acting of the year) are to be savored. B

Abraham Lincoln was already a badass. Okay, maybe not as much as George Washington, but surely, freeing slaves and helping end the Civil War count for something. Add to that an unknown history of vampire hunting, and man, this guy's the real deal. This could have provided for an outlandish, campy, schlocktastic blast, but somewhere along the way, the fun stopped. Was it the studio head, the screenwriter (Seth Grahame-Smith, who also wrote the book), or the director (Timur Bekmambetov, who made the plenty insane "Wanted")? My guess is some combination of the first two (as Bekmambetov has run wild in the past), but there's no way to know why "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" failed to be a transcendent B-movie diversion. Sure, it has some slaying and historical inconsistency, but all the same, this is nowhere near as hilarious and irreverent as it should have been. I did read in an in-flight magazine interview something that may indicate Grahame-Smith was trying to please historical scholars along with regular filmgoers, but that honestly shouldn't have been a factor in the slightest. If only it had been scarier, wackier, or funnier. Only one scene (a completely left field chase sequence through a stampede of horses) shows the kind of tone the film should have had.

Dominic Cooper was the absolute right actor to cast as Henry Sturgess (who teaches Honest Abe in the vampire-hunting arts), and Anthony Mackie is good to have on hand as a freed slave, but having the stolid and too rigidly Lincoln-like Benjamin Walker as the great man was a huge mistake. A better or more game actor could have saved the film from becoming too polite, but Walker seems caught in the middle. The film can be dismissed on these grounds alone, so I suppose it's not particularly worth it to comb through the film's ridiculously-PC racial politics or lack of coherent follow-through. It all feels so tasteful, when very little of it should have been. It does look good, though: Caleb Deschanel (who shot the gorgeous "Natural" way back when), lends allure to mundane moments. C

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Moonrise Kingdom

It was already a good year for erudite, mannered white filmmakers, with Whit Stillman's strong and sometimes very deeply felt "Damsels in Distress." But Stillman's protege Wes Anderson, following up his excellent "Fantastic Mr. Fox," has made 2012 a great year for the privileged. "Moonrise Kingdom" is a wonderful, tonally adept, beautifully crafted, and near impeccably acted film that dodges most of the traps that its familiar and too-quirky-on-paper scenario sets up. The way "Moonrise" is marketed suggests a film very easy to get on your nerves; in actuality, the complete opposite (at least for me) is true. Once the film finds its footing after a red herring of a precious opening sequence, it's essentially all uphill, a masterful ride of a childish adventure.

The film equally divides itself between the efforts to search for two runaway kids and what the kids are doing while they're being looked for. This could have been an iffy proposition if the "fugitives" in question weren't such strong screen presences. Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward as Sam and Suzy are given a remarkable amount of time and they, under the calculated direction of Anderson, elevate their material to the stars. They make their story of two emotionally disturbed types (one a neglected, orphaned Khaki Scout; the other a troubled iconoclast) true and relatable, two words that aren't always the most prominent in describing a Wes Anderson film. All of their scenes, from their first meeting, to a clipped montage of letter-writing, to their adolescent courtship and views of love, are pitch-perfect. The rest of the child actors are also superb.

The bit with the adults comes through, too, and I think that Anderson did himself good by working with a lot of new actors. I'd never thought I'd see such gravitas from Bruce Willis, playing a sympathetic cop (Captain Sharp) in the middle of a declining affair with Suzy's mother (an exceptional Frances McDormand). And I'd never thought I'd see such comic chops from Edward Norton, who does a great turn as Khaki Scout Master Ward, a man who takes his job very seriously (to the point of intense depressions while journaling it). The only actor I was really disappointed in was Bill Murray, cuckolded once again by Anderson and not given too much to work with. He has some good moments, but his performance doesn't pop in the same way that fellow regulars' Bob Balaban's or Jason Schwarzman's do (hilarious in only about 5 or so minutes as Cousin Ben).

Another thing I was very impressed with here was Anderson's clearly developed filmmaking technique. He's always been known for his style, but here he creates truly astonishing imagery, playing with light and playfully mimicking '60s and awkward childhood filmmaking devices as well as terrible special effects. He's made quite the film, both human and aesthetically pleasing, and one that continues the run that began with "The Darjeeling Limited" (which I love unabashedly) in very good fashion. A-

Wednesday, June 6, 2012


Greek New Wave spearhead Yorgos Lanthimos' "Alps" is at once a more ambitious and slighter work than his previous film, the much-celebrated, bizarrely Oscar-nominated "Dogtooth." Conceptually, it spirals to the levels of Charlie Kaufman’s “Synecdoche, New York,” reaching for similar theatrical metaphors as a way of prying into the modern ailment of dispassion and disconnection. Yet, at the same time, though this isn’t a fun film to watch in the slightest, Lanthimos has slackened his constricting tone from the film before. Thus, the film doesn’t leave quite the visceral imprint, and moments feel wasted and, shockingly enough, boring. Even so, it’s a strong, mind-bending movie, maybe a bit too vague but probably all in the interest of leaving endless possibilities wide open.

It’s clear throughout that no other director could have made this film, from the head-scratching scenario to weird and consistently offbeat comedy to the deliberately stilted direction to the inevitable descent into sad sex, harsh violence, and despairing madness. Lanthimos follows four people who, oddly enough, offer themselves to pretend to be people who died so that those who lives were impacted by the deaths can resolve their grief. This sounds like a ridiculous and emotionally destructive idea, but, as you might expect, there is a market for it. The whole operation is controlled mercilessly by an EMT who goes by the code name Mont Blanc (Aris Servetalis), which is the biggest of the titular mountains (used as a group name because it is considered essentially nonrelated to the practices of the “substitutes”). The others include a gymnast (Ariane Lebed, incredible in “Attenberg,” extremely disturbing here), her abusive and singleminded coach Matterhorn (Johnny Vekris), and Monta Rosa (Aggeliki Papoulia, looking a lot older here than in “Dogtooth”), who works in the hospital with Mont Blanc (and whose relationship with him is as strange as anything in this movie).

Monta Rosa is the audience’s cipher into this world, though not the single POV, and not a very clear cipher either. She lives a relatively mild existence, rooming with her father (Stavros Psyllakis) and seeming to get a sort of pleasure out of some of the jobs that she takes on (as an angry wife, as an adulterous friend, and, most prominently and dangerously off-the-clock, as a teenage tennis player). But it’s all speculation, as it could be that she’s a transitory figure, substituting for her father (?) and not living anywhere in particular. What comes towards the end fits under this interpretation, though the eventual explosion could be just the typical sort of Lanthimos aberration.

Little is known about the other members of ALPS, and how long the group had been around before being christened that. We do know that the gymnast is suicidal, fragile, and wants more than anything else in the world to perform to pop music, and that Matterhorn the coach feels some sort of lingering affection for his dead barber. The rest is a mystery, and all we know about certain characters in the film is who their favorite actor is, a trait that reflects Lanthimos’ obsession with acting and popular culture. Outside of the narrative growth, “Alps” doesn’t represent much of a push for Lanthimos, more of a refinement of what he did before. For example, the ending is excellent here whereas in “Dogtooth” it came as too much of a sudden shock. There seems to be more here than in that film too, and multiple viewings could help mine all of the possible implications. And even if it’s familiar for Lanthimos, that doesn’t mean it isn’t original and interesting overall. I’d like to see more of a spin on or rethinking of his style next time out, but this will certainly do for now. B+

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Cannes 2012 Award Predictions + What I'm Excited For

Palme d'Or: Amour, Michael Haneke

Gran Prix: Holy Motors, Leos Carax

Jury Prize: Beyond the Hills, Christian Mingiu

(I think these three films could win any of these awards; other possibilities for all three include Cosmopolis, Reality, You Ain't See Nothin' Yet!, and Post Tenebras Lux, as per other predictions)

Best Actor: Aniello Arena, Reality

Maybes: Garrett Hedlund, On the Road; Robert Pattinson, Cosmopolis; Jean-Louis Trintigant, Amour; Guy Pierce/Tom Hardy, Lawless

Best Actress: Marion Cotillard, Rust and Bone

Maybes: Emmanuelle Riva, Amour; Margarethe Tiesel, Paradise: Love

Best Director: Andrew Dominik, Killing Them Softly

Maybes: Leos Carax, Holy Motors; David Cronenberg, Cosmopolis; Christian Mingiu, Beyond the Hills

Best Screenplay: Moonrise Kingdom, Wes Anderson 

Maybes: You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet!, Laurent Herbiet and Alex Reval; In the Fog, Sergei Loznitsa

Most Excited for: Amour, Holy Motors, Reality, Killing Them Softly, Cosmopolis, Laurence Anyways (Un Certain Regard), No (Director's Fortnight)

Very Interested In: Post Tenebras Lux, Beyond the Hills, Like Someone in Love, Gimme the Loot (UCR)

Looking Forward to: Student (UCR), You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet!, In the Fog, Paradise: Love, Antiviral (UCR), Polluting Paradise (Special Screenings), Sightseers (Director's Fortnight)

Could be good?: Rust and Bone, Moonrise Kingdom, The Hunt, Beasts of the Southern Wild (UCR), Mystery (UCR), Mekong Motel (Special Screenings)

Goodbye First Love (and Corpo Celeste)

"Goodbye First Love" represents somewhat of a narrative growth for its director Mia Hansen-Løve, whom last time out made an almost entirely front-loaded picture in "The Father of My Children." This new work is just as mannered (sometimes for better, sometimes for worse), but it does tell a story from beginning to end, settling on a slow burning release of its emotional power instead of putting everything out there in a jolting wallop and not having anything to show for it by the end. Hansen-Løve still has the knack for finding and isolating small moments of intensely specific human nature, and certain scenes in this film are as moving as the memorable shot of the producer's look of abyss before suicide in "Father."  But, despite these poignant touches, I could never truly give myself over, feeling emotionally cut off by the polite, distanced style; the pleasing but misplaced soundtrack cues; and the (probably intentionally) lack of thematic rhythm or discipline (way too many alienating perspective changes, though it is good that we get to meet some interesting background characters).

I found the film to be most successful in its observation of the romantic behavior of Camille (Lola Creton), and how her gradual overall changes and coming of age can be reflected in her subtle moving away from dependence. We enter into her life when she's 15, entering as an audience via her beloved older boyfriend (and "first love" of the title) Sullivan (Sebastian Urzendowsky), who seems to care a lot about her (and enjoys the sex for sure) but still wants his own life separate from her. The idea of life without Sullivan is impossible to think of for Camille at this point, who doesn't have much of a developed social life outside of her tenuous relationship with him. This makes his decision to take a long trip to South America all the more devastating. The film's strongest section involves the two's final trip to the countryside, which proves erratic and summarizes both why they're perfect and wrong for each other. The moment where Camille, sitting opposite Sullivan at the end of a long table, crawls down a bench to meet him is remarkably tender and touching, and some of most life and reality that Hansen-Løve has ever put into a scene.

The rest of "Goodbye First Love" chronicles Camille's attempts to get over Sullivan and to start anew years later in a May-December romance with her divorced architecture teacher Lorenz (the excellent Magne-Havard Brekke), with some flare-ups of the past. But, as critic Mike D'Angelo observed, the lack of age difference between the 15 year old Camille and the college-age Camille is startling nearly to the point of distraction. The film looks like it was shot terribly out of sequence, as in certain moments the older Camille looks younger than the younger one. I guess it would have been an even poorer choice to cast a different actress in a slightly older role, but I'm not totally sure. Anyways, the film feels less in control here than before, sometimes trying to mimic the repetitive lifestyle of a girl whose life is consumed by an unreachable love, but also just feeling like it's just standing around, padding on (it's too long a film for sure).

A minor subject of the film is light and how spaces capture it. Lighting is the strength of Stephane Fontaine's cinematography, which is sometimes transcendent (examples include the image of the Camille and Sullivan lying in a luminous, subtly shifting forest, as well as the two providing a fading light to a Parisian darkness). It adds greatly to a familiar and uneven work from a filmmaker who's figuring out how to push herself, and who needs to change certain tendencies (like the bluntness of the extremely disappointing cop-out of an ending) before she can truly deserve the festival acclaim that she's gotten. B-

I have very little to say about Alice Rohrwacher's "Corpo Celeste," which hasn't really left a dent since the time I saw it a few weeks back, other than that it's trying too hard in its studied disapproval of the church. A lot of mileage is gotten out of the idea that the sacred is now profane, as if that wasn't obvious enough. There's some interesting imagery, and a somewhat involving lead in Marta (Yle Vianello), but the film overall is a bland time-waster, not worth devoting time to in this world where there's much more stimulating cinema to be taken in. C

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Damsels in Distress (and The Deep Blue Sea)

Bluntly satirical and enjoyable, with punches of powerful sincerity, Whit Stillman's "Damsels in Distress" is a committed, considered film. Stillman has taken the medium of the "chick flick" (a la "Mean Girls") and used it to make his style into slightly less (yet still pretty damn) familiar territory. "Damsels" takes a close look at what intellect is and how it affects how people look at each other. The film considers two groups, the Damsels, a group of extremely contemptuous college students who run a Suicide Prevention Center, and "their Distress" (a group of men that ranges from frat boys to pretentious "operators" to hypocrites).

 It pays most attention to Violet (Greta Gerwig), the leader of the Damsels, and Lily (Analeigh Tipton), the transfer whom she and her friends (Megalyn Echikunwoke as Rose and Carrie MacLemore as Heather) take in. Violet is a complicated story, very put-together, who changed her identity (she used to be "Emily Tweeter") and is sticking very rigidly to the new one. She feels a connection to a guy she sees as drastically inferior, Frank (a very chipper Ryan Metcalf), who is accurately described as a "moron." Lily, on the other hand, is relatable, the audience's entry point, seeing Violet in her sweet and charming turns but also calling out her often ridiculous sentiments. She's caught between Xavier (Hugo Becker, the least interesting performer with the least interesting character in the film), an older, manipulative college grad, and Charlie (Adam Brody), who's really Fred (who's pretty full of shit), who identifies himself as a "playboy operator" just as Rose constantly says of him.

Stillman is well-known for his archness; complex, "comedy of manners" style conversations; and dance sequences. This one encompasses all of those things, and it's a pleasure. But, unlike at least "The Last Days of Disco," which was a perfectly humorous but ultimately pretty simple venture, "Damsels in Distress" has some interesting underpinnings. Violet's aspirations towards a universal dance craze and her spreading of salvation via a bar of pungent soap show that the rigidly structured world of jocks and queens and waitresses and highwaymen is much more connected than it seems. These flourishes may just seem like flourishes, but they help "Damsels," rough around the edges but valuable all the same, transcend Stillman's normal trajectory. I was happy after having seen it. B+

On the other end of the spectrum is Terence Davies' 1950's-set "The Deep Blue Sea," a foggy, painstakingly put together tale with much subtext. However, it is of a piece with Stillman's work: it shows the director embracing some of his old traits (bar singing, jumbled chronology, beautiful camera) while trying to make a film in the modern day (by actually trying to tell a story instead of giving vignettes). Incredibly diffuse, it follows the love triangle of Hester Collyer (Rachel Weisz), who's almost committed suicide, her separated but importantly not divorced husband William (Simon Russell Beale), who still loves her, and Hester's lover Freddie (Tom Hiddleston), who flew airplanes in WWII. Adapted from a Terrence Rattigan play, I've heard there are some gay issues involved, and it makes sense to me now thinking back on it. Maybe it's worth a second look. But a week after having seen it I'm left with not that much of an impression, and it seems to be a far less significant work in Davies' ouevre than the remarkable "Distant Voices, Still Lives" (the only other movie I've seen by him). One scene, somewhat disjointed feeling, does work very well: a long tracking shot through a subway station used as a war shelter as everyone there sings what seems to be a traditional tune. But not much else will retain with me. B- 

Saturday, April 21, 2012

(Late) Cannes 2012 Competition Reaction and Preview

So, I know it's been a couple of days since the Competition lineup was revealed, but I haven't had the time to put down my thoughts about it. It is, in my opinion, one of the best slates in a long time, with many superb highlights that would stick out in bland years but come together to form what will be a very entertaining festival to watch unfold. (I'd never thought I'd say that about a lineup that has multiple Matthew McConaghy films in it, but there you go.) There's no one film that sticks so obviously above the rest (as there was with "The Tree of Life" last year), but I actually think that's better. With the opening film (Wes Anderson's admittedly terrible-looking "Moonrise Kingdom") a part of the competitive action, no day this year will sag with the boredom of delayed anticipation.

The lineup has a good deal of extremely-anticipated films this year, so many that it's actually pretty hard to process what's at the very top of the field. So I'll start with the films that look to be the odd ones out and work my way towards the cream of the crop.

Im Sang-Soo's "Taste of Money" isn't making me too excited, considering how excruciating his remake of "The Housemaid" was. This looks like the exact same movie. Oh well. 

I can't say I'm chomping at the bit for the new Ken Loach film either, and "The Angel's Share" has the potential to be the next disappointment in the line that started with "Looking For Eric." The trailer makes it look like it was shot in 15 minutes. It has a slightly interesting idea (guy looks for success in wine), but it really looks like Loach hasn't stepped up the ante at all.

I know someone who worked briefly on it, but that only slightly raises my anticipation for "Moonrise Kingdom," the film that appears to see Wes Anderson delve completely into the bullshit that many have pegged his films to be his entire career. They haven't, though, so it's sad that this last film seems to be all surfaces and no meaning. It is Anderson, though, so there'll be a couple laughs, but I feel nearly nauseated when I watch the trailer, so I doubt that's a good sign.

 Much speculation has been made about "The Paperboy" by Lee Daniels (director of "Precious"), which seems like it could be more than a little soapy. Unless it has the power of a Mo'Nique, I can't say that it'll be able to stand in the company of American cinema in general, much less the masters in competition here. It must be said, though, that Daniels is the only African-American director in competition, and though Cannes represents international diversity of some sort, much of the lineup is still white Europeans (and men; no women this time).

I've never been the hugest fan of Walter Salles. Didn't like "Central Station." Really didn't like "The Motorcycle Diaries." And now here's his version of "On the Road," which could be another problematic buddy movie or something great. Indications are towards the former, but maybe not.

And since I really didn't like cult favorite "Wild Grass" at all or even "Last Year at Marienbad" that much, Alain Resnais' "Vous n'avez encore rein vu" (a.k.a. "You Ain't See Nothing Yet") doesn't hold the same prospect of excitement that it does for others. But it's surely pleasing to see what may be the last film of this acclaimed and long-spanning career to be shown here. Call it the Godard effect?

That concludes what I'm not particularly excited about. Everything else in the selection is worth at least a solid look, in my opinion. That was exhausting to work out, so I'll just go through the highlights in rapid-fire mode.

A few past winners are coming back for more: Michael Haneke, who's following up Palme d'Or winner "The White Ribbon" with "Love"; Jacques Audiard, who won Gran Prix for "A Prophet", with his Marion Cotillard-featuring and not-outstanding-looking-but-still-cool-due-to-his-reputation "Rust and Bone," Abbas Kiarostami, who won the Palme many years ago and who put on a show most recently with "Certified Copy," with the horribly titled but tantalizingly international "Like Someone in Love"; Mateo Garrone, who snagged a Gran Prix for his exceptional debut "Gomorrah," with what may be in my top 3 most anticipated films, "Reality"; and Cristian Mingiu, the welterweight of the Romanian New Wave, Palme d'or winner for "4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days," with "Beyond the Hills." Also back from previous competitions are "My Joy"'s Sergei Losnitza with "In the Fog," "Import/Export"'s Ulrich Seidl with "Paradise: Love," and most importantly to many, Carlos Reygadas, maker of the sublime "Silent Light," who has supposedly messed around massively with narrative to make "Post Tenebras Lux."

Other notables include "Cosmopolis," Robert Pattison's first real role in David Cronenberg's well-casted, hyper-sensationalized Don DeLillo adaptation; Yousry Nasrallah's "After the Battle," which looks like it could be a sleeper and one of the strongest films in competition based of its relevance to Egypt's current history; Thomas Vinterberg's "The Hunt," which could strike me right even if "The Celebration" struck me wrong; the amazing sounding "Holy Motors" by Leos Carax (who did a horrible segment in omnibus film "Tokyo!"); John Hillcoat's prestige-y, Shia Labeouf-y, "Road" follow-up "Lawless" (previously known as "The Wettest Country in the World"); Jeff Nichols' surprisingly quick follow-up to "Take Shelter" and competition debut "Mud" (also with Matthew McConaghy); Hong Sang-Soo's Isabelle Huppert collaboration and absurdist Competition debut "In Another Country"; and, extremely anticipated by me and many others, "The Assassination of Jesse James..." follow-up "Killing Them Softly" by Andrew Dominik. Sure to be a great Cannes.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

A Roundup of Sorts

(UPDATE: I will continue to add to this.) I haven't posted since last month and I will resume posting once I start seeing films in theaters again. There hasn't been anything to pique my interest lately, but come "Crazy Horse," "The Deep Blue Sea," "The Raid," "Damsels in Distress," and more, there will be reviews. In the meantime, here are some of the significant films that I've seen off the big screen:

in order of preference:

Le Haine, dir. Mathieu Kassovitz, 1995 (A)
Night of the Living Dead, dir. George Romero, 1968 (B+)
Young Adult, dir. Jason Reitman, 2011 (B+)
L'Atalante, dir. Jean Vigo, 1934 (B+)
Sweet Smell of Success, dir. Alexander MacKendrick, 1957 (B+)
Sangre de Mi Sangre, dir. Christopher Zalla, 2007 (B-)
The Tin Drum, dir. Volker Scholondorff, 1979 (C+)
Battle Royale, dir. Kinji Fukasaku, 2000 (C+)
Khrustalyov, My Car!, dir. Alexsei German, 1998 (C+)


4:44 Last Day on Earth, dir. Abel Ferrara, 2012

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Chico & Rita

"Chico & Rita" by Fernando Trueba, Javier Mariscal, and Tono Errando, is a classic star-crossed lovers meets showbiz drama, except this one takes place partially in Cuba, has jazz, and is animated in a slightly disjointed, penciled style. Since it drops the ball in both its central love story and its general structure, it's lucky that there are details and subplots to savor. I found the character of Ramon (voiced by Mario Guerra), the agent of the titular characters, much more interesting than Chico and Rita's much-prolonged struggle to stay together that includes heartbreaks and other lovers galore. He's the center that keeps the characters together, and he does the same gig for the film itself.

The film begins with Chico (Eman Xor Ona), a shoeshiner, returning to his apartment, pouring himself a couple drinks, and listening to a song that he wrote to win a contest come on the radio. It's a nicely familiar opening that suggests a grand love lost. We come to learn Chico is an extremely proficient piano player, and that he had his sights on his collaborative partner, Rita (Limara Meneses), from the first time he saw her in a bar somewhere. She rejects him initially, but the two come to have a strained but at times incredibly passionate relationship that becomes ever the more complicated (yet in some respects simpler) when she gets whisked off to New York as the next big thing.

I can't be the only one who's seen this scenario enough times so that a story like this without any other perks is a lackluster bore. Trueba and his fellow directors and his fellow screenwriter Ignacio Martinez de Pison seem to at least partially realize that, so we get some brushes with jazz legends like Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and, most prominently, Chano Pozo, plus a third character in Ramon that provides much of the comic relief as well as an additional source of heartbreak. But these are, in my mind, not enough to justify yet another take on this motif, one that "The Artist" to mined to just the same lack of effect. This one may have a chance in its category of Best Animated Feature at the Oscars, but even if it seems like one of a couple underground choices (the other being semi-cult-favorite "Rango"), it doesn't come through for me. The animation seems like a good idea in some ways (allows more freedom) but also somewhat of a detractor (lessens the impact; makes it into more of a curio than it should be). The style partially gets at the push and pull of precision and improvisation in jazz, but ultimately leans too far towards the latter, whereas the film seems mostly lost in the netherworld of cliches, hurriedness, and sentimentality, with an ending that struck me (even in late night screen of fatigue I had) as unsatisfying. C+

Sunday, February 19, 2012


Transposing a lesser-known Shakespeare play into the modern era seems doesn't play so well initially, but comes to pay off in Ralph Fiennes' emotionally charged "Coriolanus." He moves it to a modernized Rome that engages in an intense back-and-forth with a nearby city. The dialogue at the beginning comes off as line-reading; later on, for the most part, it enriches the proceedings. It sets the stage for some of 2011's best acting, which was criminally neglected during awards season. Sure, it's over-the-top much of the time, but that's what makes all the more moving in this case.

Coriolanus (Fiennes) is a general who wants to be consul (for those not schooled in Roman politics, that means like president/leader). He's valiant, to be sure: he fought a one-on-one battle with his most bitter enemy Aufidius (Gerard Butler) and almost won. But he also doesn't really care about his people, not giving them bread (or circuses, in this case). A rebellious force has emerged, led by Tamora and Cassius (Lubna Azabal of "Incendies" and Ashraf Barhom, respectively) and the tribunes they want to be consul (James Nesbitt and Paul Jesson), and they want Coriolanus out. This leads him to do some crazy things.

Also worth mentioning in this are Coriolanus' right hand man, Senator Menenius (Brian Cox), his mother, Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave), and his wife, Virgilia (Jessica Chastain). These are the only three people in his life, especially the latter two, and especially his mother, whom he feels any emotional connection to. They also provide the film with its heart; without them, the film would be nowhere as poignant as it ultimately is.

The acting by the leads, once they settle in (so to speak, I have no idea whether or not this was shot in sequence), is essentially impeccable. So the problem lies elsewhere. The film drags a lot in the middle, and at times, certain parts make an odd fit with one another (especially the strange "Call of Duty"-meets-the-Bard section). The film does make an admirable commitment to its enraged (and, to others, enraging) main character until the very end, and does what it can to grip you. For me, it worked, not throughout, but ultimately. B

Saturday, February 18, 2012


The parts of "Contagion" that Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns carefully considered are good enough to offset their occasional baffling missteps, but, all the same, what could have been a monumental work on par with "Traffic" ends up a passable, insightful film that lets up way too early. The subject (international epidemic) and its treatment (personal but withdrawn) seem like they could work better in a mid-range independent vehicle, where Soderbergh would have more freedom to follow the premise to its rightful conclusion. Instead, this is part of the venerable filmmaker's ouevre that tries to pander to the masses, and unfortunately, it seems caught between artistic risk/observation and rushed starfucking/killing.

The film, the structuring of which probably didn't the consideration it deserved, begins with the disheveled looking Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow), on the way back home from work abroad in Hong Kong. She seems pretty sick to her husband Mitch (Matt Damon), but he thinks nothing of it. The same goes for people all around the world, from a Hong Kong casino waiter (the same one that Beth visited during her trip) to a model in London, who end up getting very, very ill. This turns out to be a fatal malady, and they are among the first victims of what will become a far-reaching, smothering outbreak.

Soderbergh and Burns decide to view this scenario from many different angles: that of the everyman, of the doctor, of the PR person, of the self-centered blogger. In doing this, they spread "Contagion" farther than it should go, at least in 106 minutes. (Add another part, a la "Che," and they'd be cooking with gas.) There's not enough depth to go around, even/especially considering the wealth of actors involved (Laurence Fishburne, Marion Cotillard, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, John Hawkes, and more) and it seems as though they realized this after it was too late, budget- and time-wise.

A lot of the details are sterling, but much of the overriding emotion seems off. To give an example: Mitch not only loses his wife and step-son, but realizes that she's been cheating on him. Then 26 million other Americans die. Significant, eh? Not enough so that he can't give his daughter (Anna Jacoby-Heron) from his first wife a home-made prom night with her formerly star-crossed lover. Barring one mini-breakdown and a couple of shouty moments, he doesn't seem to have a lot to say or feel, or at least not much that's shown on camera. The lack of care invested here is unsatisfactory. "Contagion" overall feels like it deserved a couple more drafts, to work out kinks and loose ends (and maybe to decide to make some choices like, perhaps, scrapping the synth-y score and not having non-diegetic music), before it was assembled. Because what's good is definitely good enough. B

Friday, February 17, 2012


A rigidly structured yet free-floating documentary of a well-known skateboarder on the West Coast, "Dragonslayer" is slight yet disarmingly even-handed, never reaching the judgmental or hagiographic extremes it easily could have in more cynical/reverent hands. Not only that, but it feels as though director Tristan Patterson has unparalleled levels of emotional access with his subjects, who seem at times to disregard the fact that a camera is trained on them (or maybe not?). Either way, it's just as rough-hewn and well-soundtracked as a skater would make it, and it serves as a thought-provoking treatise on the netherworld between adolescence and adulthood.

Josh Sandoval, more commonly known as "Skreetch," is extremely well-connected on his circuit, and seen as a generally nice guy who used to be excellent at skateboarding. Now, he's a struggling father who moves from place to place, getting some skating gigs, trying to put together money for he and his new girlfriend to have a good life. He still skates and he still drinks and smokes weed. His teenage years haven't ended yet; the only job he can land is at the bowling alley, and his lack of self-respect seems to stem from parental neglect (he mentions some turmoil at home when he was young; his mom calls during the film but his relationship with her seems strained).

The film is all the more involving for its brilliant use of indie music (so good there was an article in "Film Comment" on it), which is commonly used in skate videos. The music itself isn't quite as effective when separated from the image, but when the two are married, greatness ensues. But the film thankfully isn't all gloss; there is some real pathos and wisdom here. B

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Oscar Nominated Animated Short Films 2011/2012

There was a packed house for this one, just as there was for last year's edition. A disappointment and comedown from the works of 2010, the bunch of shorts (5 nominees, 4 highly commended) one gets in this package is largely joyless and unsatisfying. No worthwhile entertainments or advances in animation abound. I'm overly tough on these, perhaps, but all the same, I can be utterly receptive when one of these knocks me back.

The only time that I was ever surprised and invigorated in this whole program came at the end of the bizarre, interestingly structured "A Morning Stroll" by Grant Orchard and Sue Goffe, which has to be the strangest short nominated for an Oscar this year. It shows an event in three different time periods, 1959, 2009, and 2059: a chicken walking past a man, knocking on a door, and entering into the blackness of a safe apartment. Apparently drawn from some New York Times story, the film appears to be a lame-ass "oddity," but, over its seven minutes, it charts the fall of man and the rise of zombification. There will be blood. I'm not sure I totally bought the thin plot or the trite vision of the future, but I was surely jarred in a way unlike anything else in either program. B

Some nice animation was put on display in Amanda Forbis' and Wendy Tilby's "Wild Life," which undermines its amusing yet somewhat aimless story with frequent and completely unnecessary messages about what comets are and how they behave. Apparently this is done to establish a metaphor that's finally carried out at the end, but it's so weakly pulled off that the film suffers mightily for it. An Englishman moves to Canada and deceives his folks back home by saying he's a cowboy. Instead, he sits around, progressively drinking more and more and falling into decay as the winter draws nearer. The voice acting is a pleasure here, and the brush-stroke quality to the film's look is splendid, but things never really feel together. I suppose that's the point, but the lack of overall cohesion (despite intense and annoying repetition) doesn't bode well. B-

I saw it at Telluride in 3-D last year, and thus I suppose some of the magic had worn off. But I wasn't that enthusiastic about Enrico Casarosa's people-who-talk-in-guttural-noises Pixar flick "La Luna" in this environment. Not only that, but the troubling phallic symbolism I saw the first time was all the more flagrant this time around. I may have a dirty mind, but it can't be just me who's noticed this (hint for those who end up seeing this program: it involves the point of a star and a hammer). We get the initiation of a kid into a timeless ritual that involves humans at play in the celestial realm. Just like every other Pixar film ever made. You'll enjoy it, probably. I'm downplaying it for sure. I'm just not that big on it anymore. B-

"The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore" by William Joyce and Brandon Oldenberg is just as annoying as its character's ridiculous name, supposedly about what reading can do. Ultimately, though, it's really just a stream of images that have been drained of meaning. Dude in New Orleans who bears a striking resemblance to Buster Keaton gets displaced in Hurricane Katrina and finds a library out in the country somewhere where books fly and come alive and communicate by flipping pages. Certain scenes completely throw out meaning for the sake of a gag. I can sense there's some sort of passion here, possibly fueled by the disaster that happened, probably trying to show how people got through the aftermath by turning to the written word. That's all fine and good, but I'm not sure what it really says about that tragedy. C

At the back of the pack is "Dimanche," Patrick Doyon's child-POV tale of a Sunday with the most typically rough-hewn animation you can imagine. The gags, if charming, feel entirely secondhand, and, dreadfully enough, people talk in the blabbers which lazily depict the adult as seen from a kid's eye. The less said about this one, the better, though people seemed to like it a lot in the theater. C-

I don't really feel like writing up the four "Highly Commended" films, but suffice it to say, aside from "The Hybrid Combo", none seemed to be anywhere near worthy of a nomination. I was annoyed, baffled, and nonplussed by the other three.

Oscar Nominated Live Action Shorts - 2011/2012

The live-action nominees this year were a weaker bunch than last year's, relying for the most part on pure emotion to try to guide half-baked plots and decent technical facets into a successful product. They also confirmed an unsettling trend in the nomination process. The lack of thematic diversity over the last couple of years has been frankly stunning. The new template seems to be: 1) heavy-handed film (either about Irish-Catholicism or the Holocaust), 2) film about imminent death, 3) quirky New York set film, 4) film set in 3rd world (preferably with 1st world/3rd world conflict), and 5) a(nother) Irish film. This isn't worth getting upset over, just as the best picture race isn't, I know. I should try to see more short films, which are readily available outside of this package. But many will only see 5-10 short films this year (including the Animated ones, which I'm hoping to see soon as well).

Anyways, on to the actual meat of the review:

The best of this lot, the "quirky New York set film," "Time Freak" by Andrew Bowler, isn't even all that original. "Primer" and countless Youtube videos have gone here before. But the charm of the actors, the intense specificity of the idea, and the devotion to hard sci-fi logic, works some form of magic that I appreciated. Stillman (Michael Nathanson) and Evan (John Conor Brooke) are roommates. Stillman's been gone for 3 days, so Evan takes a trip over to the storage room where he's has been working tirelessly, to see what's been going on. Evan comes to find some disturbing truths about the nature of his pal's work (which hasn't been used in the way he originally thought it would be) and the seductive nature of getting things right via time travel. The ending, a silly punch-line, and the overall brevity of the short, detract from a solid short, one more challenging than your usual Internet comedy bit but still relatively harmless. B

One of the two Irish films is Terry George's "The Shore", which explores the time/space-fractured love triangle of Jim (Ciaran Hinds), Paddy (Conleth Hill), and Mary (Maggie Cronin). Jim, in the midst of the Troubles, left Ireland for San Francisco, leaving his fiancee Mary with his debilitated best friend Paddy. Now, 25 years later, he's making a return to Ireland, not intending to revisit the wounds of the past. But his daughter Patricia (Kerry Condon), learning of his long-buried friendship, urges to make a gesture to the people he thinks he "betrayed." The result is at times powerful and touching, but drastically diminished due to a lack of shading, a cheap and stupid undertone of comedy, and a wispy ending. Bolstered instead of padded, this could have been much better. B-

Drawing from the likes of Roy Andersson and Aki Kaurismaki, Hallvar Witzø's singularly titled imminent death dramedy "Tuba Atlantic" is ultimately touching but often very unassured and forcedly quirky. When Oskar (Edvard Haegstad) learns he's gonna pass in just under a week, he doesn't do a whole lot. He just wants to talk, or a least make a gesture, once more to a brother he hasn't spoken to in a few decades. That, and to continue killing seagulls. He has someone to keep him company, Inger (Ingrid Viken), part of some program called "Death Angels," designed to help people through their last days. They have a typical indie sort of bond that at times works better than the norm, but feels too banal to really succeed. Same goes for Witzø's short as a whole. This is not a voice that I'd really care about hearing a whole lot more from, but for the time being, this is decent. B-

The last respectable film in the group I had intensely mixed feelings about. Max Zahle's "Raju" is an interesting rumination on human conscience as well as parenthood, but it also peddles some troubling 3rd-world stereotypes. It follows the adoption of the titular character (Krish Gupta) by two upper-class Germans, Jan (Wotan Wilke Mohring) and Sarah (Julia Richter). Just before they get around to leaving, Jan loses Raju in a market. The two are devastated, and, while Sarah lies bereft in their hotel room, Jan goes on a search that leads to some horrifying ends. The moral aspects of the short fascinated me, and will possibly do the same for other viewers, but I was left with a bad taste in my mouth throughout, especially at the ending, which championed the German father as some sort of 1st-world saint. Add to that the fact that the filmmaking is at times pretty lazy, and you have yourself a problematic little film. At feature-length it would probably be intolerable, but here, it's distilled fairly enough. B-

And then we have the only real dud of the group, "Pentecost" by Peter McDonald, which actually is the first film in the compilation. The style is close to Tanel Toom's similarly themed "The Confession" from last year, but while that film was sensitive and well-acted, this is a broad, cliché doodle that comes to mean absolutely nothing at the end. An altar boy named Damien (Scott Graham) makes a gaffe and is punished (he doesn't get to watch soccer games). But he gets another chance at the behest of his father, and... that's basically all there is to say about the plot, which is as depthless as the Catholic types that populate the film. Curios like this can work, but not when they're this sloppy and idiotic. C-