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Film reviews and other thoughts

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Location: New York, New York, United States

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Short Takes – Recently Seen: April 2007

Grindhouse is a formidable technical achievement, but a very mixed bag as either entertainment or art. Director teammates Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez have a lot of fun with the trappings of the movie – the parody “prevues” of coming attractions, the scratches and missing frames, the general air of rowdy sensationalism in the 1970s exploitation films to which they are paying affectionate homage. And Rodriguez’s half of the double bill, Planet Terror, is actually pretty entertaining. The hyperbolic gore throughout the nonsensical zombie tale is astonishingly overdone, and often funny in itself. (As in Rodriguez’s Sin City, the limits of the R rating are stretched to meaninglessness.) The performers get right into the spirit of things and Freddy Rodriguez is particularly good as the hero.

But Tarantino’s Death Proof, while skillful, is never as interesting as the best parts of Pulp Fiction or Kill Bill. It divides itself into two similar stories, involving sadistic weirdo stunt driver Kurt Russell’s encounters with two different groups of young women. (If there is a narrative connection between the two stories, or even an indication which one is supposed to come first chronologically, I missed it.) Again, the actors are fine, and the movie is technically accomplished. But the stories don’t add up to much, and they don’t have the baroque asides of Tarantino’s best earlier work. The ending seems particularly lame, attempting to put a lighter-hearted gloss on a very sadistic storyline, or pair of storylines. Possibly by then I was just weary of the whole meta-movie concept. If each feature could have been just an hour or less, the whole thing might be more satisfying.


Despite a well-executed visual style that is not quite like any other movie, the dumb-dumb-dumb thud of 300’s dialogue and narration can deaden a viewer’s mind and senses. The ‘triumph’ of this movie is in art direction, not art (art is no doubt far from the first thing on the mind of these particular filmmakers). There is very little genuine feeling in 300, despite the lip service given to the grief caused by war and the sacrifice of good men for ‘freedom.’ Its gigantic boxoffice success is puzzling - apparently this is actually rousing to a sizable number of young men. Perhaps they love the idea of a video game blown up to Imax size, with plenty of beheadings, blood splatters, and adolescent attitudes toward sex and nudity. As for historical versimilitude, the film could as easily take place on another planet as among the real Greek city-states of the past.

The Hoax is about Clifford Irving’s nearly successful publication of a fake Howard Hughes biography. Well acted and competently directed, it’s an interesting story well told, rather than a fascinating story rivetingly told. Based as it is on Irving’s own account, it sometimes seems to buy into his aggrandized self-image. Despite Richard Gere’s surprising charm as Irving, this portrayal of his scam as something of great importance is not entirely successful.

The Wind That Shakes the Barley

You’d think this would be a likely movie to compare and contrast favorably with 300: with its deeply felt stands on war and politics and power and freedom, this should be the kind of historical drama that shakes you with the force of art. But Ken Loach’s Palme d’Or winner is a real disappointment, more respectable than 300 without being a great deal more moving. The story of the Irish rebellion against the English in the 1920s is handsomely photographed and well cast and acted. But putting a political point of view front and center, as the characters speechify to each other and to us, is a far less effective method than genuine dramatization, and the result is oddly remote. The sadness may still get to you, but the narrative is too spare, lacking in depth and resonance. It's rare to wish a movie were longer, but this one could use more incident, more texture, more of the exhilaration of an epic.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

New Directors/New Films 2007

New Directors/New Films is the little sibling of the autumn New York Film Festival. It’s less expensive and less crowded, and I have had a somewhat better track record seeing worthwhile movies there than at the fall festival. Co-presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art, it has given us the New York premieres of movies like Half Nelson, The Devil and Daniel Johnston, Darwin’s Nightmare, I Shot Andy Warhol, and Welcome to the Dollhouse – plus a whole lot of movies that never got a commercial release. This year I caught 9 of 26 films. As luck would have it, I missed two of the breakout successes of the festival, the Belgian film Congorama and the American The Great Wall of Sound, but I expect they will turn up in theaters in six months or so. Here’s what I saw:

Once, a “verité musical” from Ireland, has only a wisp of a plot, but it does gain considerable charm from its leading man, Glen Hansard, playing a musician who sings on the streets of Dublin for change when not working in his dad’s vacuum repair shop. He meets a Czech émigré (Marketa Iglova), who turns out also to be a songwriter, as well as a classically trained pianist. They are drawn to each other (and of course the audience roots for them to get together), but circumstances keep their friendship platonic – while their aching longing expresses itself in a dozen or so songs, artfully worked into the course of the film. Hansard, lead singer of the band The Frames, is a natural on screen, and gives a very affecting performance as a lonely, big-hearted artist. Iglova, less surefooted with dialogue, is nonetheless appealing, and just fine in the musical scenes. In the end, there’s not much to it as a movie, but Hansard and the songs will stay with you. The CD The Swell Season contains several songs from the film, performed by the two leads.


This film from Argentina covers familiar territory – disaffected adolescents – but the setting provides a different cultural prism from the many American movies on the subject. The houses and landscapes in the part of Patagonia where our hero, Lucas (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), lives are fairly bleak (until the very end, when a camping trip reveals a bit of breathtaking landscape) – they resemble lower-middle-class neighborhoods in semi-rural sections of Texas or Florida (for American equivalents, think of Thirteen or Bully). Lucas’s parents don’t get along, and in fact don’t spend much time together. He’s bored and unhappy and restless, and he thinks endlessly about sex – mostly with girls, but also sometimes with his best friend, a football hunk named Nacho (Nahuel Viale). The film’s frank eroticism may attract or repel some viewers. Although too long, it’s very well directed.

Audience of One is an entertaining documentary, of the “stranger than fiction” variety. It follows a San Francisco-based Pentecostal minister who says he had a vision from God ordering him to make the greatest movie of all time. He proceeds to try to raise $100 million (later $200 million) for his chosen story, a science-fiction reimagining of the Biblical story of Joseph called Gravity: The Shadow of Joseph. Believe it or not, things turn even stranger after that. At first I was queasy about the potential for condescending cheap shots on the part of the filmmakers. My concerns were unfounded: they let the story tell itself, and let the subjects be themselves. The cult-like devotion of the minister’s parishioners, and the Bay Area setting, may uncomfortably evoke Jim Jones – but although the flock’s delusions may border on mass insanity, the results are fairly benign. And just wait until you hear what else is on the preacher’s agenda, in the climactic scene.

The Art of Crying is a well-crafted but ultimately tedious comedy-drama from Denmark about a dysfunctional family, based on a semi-autobiographical novel. It’s difficult to make the oft-told subject of incestuous child abuse dramatically fresh, although the filmmakers attempt it valiantly, telling the story from a young boy’s viewpoint. (In his naiveté, he sees his family as normal until his eyes are finally opened near the end of the story.) The oddball members of his extended family are apparently less amusing than intended, and the overall impact is quite flat.

Although Red Road, from Scotland, is intensely well wrought, it is often deeply unpleasant, and you may ask yourself afterward if the squirm-inducing story was worth telling. It begins fascinatingly, with a young woman doing her job watching banks of police security-camera monitors in Glasgow. The atmosphere is eerie, icy, foreboding – we are drawn to the images even as we may be appalled by the Big Brother setup. The woman spots someone she knows, a man she thought was in prison, who she finds out has just been released. She takes some very extreme steps to follow him, find out more, and then, disturbingly, to interact directly with him. We find out only gradually what their connection is and why she is so obsessed. Many of the ensuing scenes are very suspenseful, even terrifying, but ultimately I thought the story was a bit contrived and the resolution too pat. Nonetheless, director Andrea Arnold is undeniably a talent to watch, and she gets great performances from leads Kate Dickie and Tony Curran.

Euphoria is a beautifully photographed weirdie from Russia. The characters are more like archetypes, with little depth or background: the nominal hero, a strange young man inexplicably obsessed with a married woman; the woman herself, restless and impulsive and mysterious; her intense, brooding husband. The relatively simple story of adultery and vengeance (along with a subplot about a vicious dog attacking a child) seems secondary to the vivid images of a rural area on the arid steppes by a winding river. The director has a painterly eye, and there are beautiful compositions and stunning aerial photography. The film, intense and bizarre, leaves audiences baffled, but it is certainly out of the ordinary.

By far the most satisfying and enjoyable movie I saw was Stealth, directed by and starring Lionel Baier, the Swiss director who made Garcon Stupide. It begins as a light comedy of manners, almost trivial, but becomes unexpectedly warm and moving as it moves unpredictably forward. The lead character, who also has the name Lionel Baier, after finding out that he has a great-grandfather who was Polish, becomes suddenly and utterly obsessed with his newfound ancestry. Lionel is one of those characters (they turn up especially frequently in French-language films) who are both exasperating and lovable. When he leaves his warm-hearted and handsome boyfriend for a woman, a Polish au pair he meets on the street, intending to marry her so she can gain citizenship, the audience reacts like the other characters: Stop, Lionel, you’re being ridiculous. Then the film takes a sudden left turn and becomes a road trip to Poland, where Lionel goes with his sharp-tongued sister. It’s on this trip that the movie shows its true colors, deftly mixing the delightfully comic and the deeply moving. This charming movie is nothing earth-shattering, but it certainly deserves to find an audience, so let’s hope an American distributor picks it up soon.

Reprise is a smart, talky movie from Norway about two young would-be novelists and their circle of friends. At times, it resembles Diner remade by Ingmar Bergman, if Bergman were 30 and immersed in punk rock. (It also sometimes resembles Diner’s source, Fellini’s masterpiece I Vitelloni.) The film is absorbing and entertaining and very accomplished technically, but I found the young men and their friends often very unsympathetic and hard to relate to. This may be entirely intentional – the director’s attitude is ambiguous. Although Reprise was one of the most enthusiastically received movies at the festival, I can’t jump on the bandwagon. But like nearly every movie I saw, it’s worth a look.

Padre Nuestro took the big prize at Sundance earlier this year, and it’s not hard to see why: it’s a well-made, emotional melodrama on the hot-button subject of illegal immigration. The story depends so thoroughly on heavily ironic coincidence that it often seems to want to be a folk tale or fable. Two young men from Mexico buy their way into the US, and on the long truck ride to New York, one tells the other about his father, who owns a restaurant in the big city and who he expects to welcome him comfortably and provide a secure future. Upon arriving in New York, they become separated, and the second young man, finding the father, passes himself off as the son, Pedro. It turns out that the father is a humble dishwasher and lives in very simple circumstances. Meanwhile the real Pedro, lost in New York with no English, continues to look for his father, entering into an ambivalent friendship with a tough, streetwise woman who squats in a vacant apartment. The two stories are vividly staged and skillfully cross-cut, almost skillfully enough to hide the contrivances. The pitch-perfect performances are a great help. Padre Nuestro may be a bit overwrought, but it’s likely to be one of the big indie successes of the year.