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-

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Love Exposure

A complex, trashy, tonally scattershot, extraordinarily intelligent satire, "Love Exposure" is exactly what its title indicates: a 237 minute examination of the thorniest, deepest passions you can imagine. Unlike many filmmakers who'd try to pull something like this off, Sion Sono has a very good idea of what he's doing. He's chosen his setting and characters carefully and orchestrated the chaos with a deft touch. He's constructed a story that expands to spacious (though not as large as I'd originally expected) parameters and then contracts back to what would be incorrectly termed "simple." Nothing here is. Nagging questions get raised and, brilliantly enough, stay as loose ends. No one gets an easy way out. But no one is made an easy target either.

Yu (Takahiro Nishijima) is the son of two devout Christian parents. His mother, soon to pass away, instills in him the notion to find "his Maria," to which he sticks adamantly. His father, Tetsu (Atsuro Watabe, the most emotionally captivating actor here) driven by the grief, becomes a priest, which satisfies him for a while. That's until Kaori (Makiko Watanabe) comes into his life. And, as Yu notes, things change. She's madly in love with him and is tempting him away from the priesthood. She ends up leaving, which dampens the father's mood and turns him nihilistic and didactic. This sends Yu on a path to become the King/Prince of Perverts and an exceptional dirty photographer. And on, and on, with more characters coming into the frame and an intense love, make that two intense loves, make that three (four?) intense loves, and a cult, and...

The film grows ever the more layered, while doing its best never to abandon its center. I was very amused at times (such eccentrics as Tag Yuji are hilarious), but most often horrified and disturbed by the film's themes of reprogramming and rejection, sexually and religiously. The ending may seem like a relent, and perhaps it is slightly, but while giving an arguably unearned satisfaction, it also left me a lingering dread about a character's sense of free will. Submission is the fate for all, the film seems to be noting, and for all of its inconsistencies, minor missteps, and overplayed musical selections, this deeply affecting, unsettlingly absolute philosophy gives the film an unforgettable hurt. A-