Wednesday, December 29, 2010

TRON: Legacy (2010, Kosinski)

Rating: **

As noisy, disjointed and tone-deaf as it is, TRON: Legacy is at least enjoyable as a footnote of sorts to this year’s most celebrated movie, The Social Network (2010). Should the Joseph Kosinski’s 3-D behemoth be called TRON: The Grid, the connection would have been even more pronounced.

Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) is obsessed with creating a democratic cyber-Utopia, with the word “sharing” for a constitution and the “users” for a self-guarding army. And since there’s no business like share business these days (case in point: Mark Zuckerberg), small wonder that his innocuous impulse ends up as a huge corporation, Encom (case in point: Facebook etc.).

Early on in the movie the executive board of Encom is shown and – in an amusing and perceptive touch – 99% of its members are not a day over 25 (they wear morbid-chic Twilight attire). Youth without youth is avenged by… you guessed it: youth. Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund), Kevin’s admirably sane heir, is the main shareholder in Encom, but he’s cool enough to sabotage his own company (in a Peter Parker-like opening stunt).

The movie is mostly gibberish: rarely entertaining, always numbing and inconsistent throughout. Its absolute nadir comes with the appearance of Michael Sheen as Castor, the sub-Joel Grey M.C. of the surprisingly commonplace cyber-joint “The End of the Line” (a nod to Gaspar Noé’s “Rectum”, as depicted in Irreversible [2004], perhaps…?). Sheen is desperately camping things up: all giggly, he prances around, brandishing a stupid neon-cane (with top hat inexplicably missing), and finally belting out what might have been the movie’s wishful motto: “This is going to be quite a ride!”.

(It’s an embarrassing performance, but it doesn’t top some of the lines others were given to chew on. Sam, when asked to convey what sun is like, comes up with this nugget of B-movie descriptive flair: “Warm. Radiant. Beautiful”).

The movie not only eschews the visual elegance of its 1982 predecessor (which I happen to like), but is not above devouring Stanley Kubrick’s white Beyond-Infinity-Chamber from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). In Kosinski, the dish being served in this venerable setting is a roasted pig and the wine (?) is toxic-waste-green. Classy.

Just like Avatar (2009) a year ago, TRON: Legacy delivers a metaphor for our own experience of viewing it. There’s a sequence midway through that shows “The Games”: a gladiator-like struggle suspended in mid-air, performed for the roaring crowds down below. The roaring multitudes, though heard in head-splitting outbursts, are nowhere in sight: they’re bathed in shadows. They’re us: all “users”, relevant only for the sake of having “logged in”, but not for the sake of being there or feeling anything at all.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Worlds Apart: The Best Movies of 2010

Whatever you make of it, the fact is that the best movies of 2010 focused on tiny, private and/or completely artificially constructed worlds that can be examined but are not easily ruptured. Be it the wacko-fundamentalist family unit in Dogtooth, its ultra-loose opposite in Daddy Longlegs, the enormous Catholic sanctuary in Lourdes, or the beach house in About Elly – not to mention the total confinement of one’s own computer screen in The Social Network – 201o was fascinated with insularity. (I haven't seen Tron: Legacy yet, but I'm guessing it would make another case in point.) Only one movie on the list that follows has a true epic scale and employs an international setting, thus not only defying fragmentation itself, but reaffirming the functional unity of our world as such. That the hero of the movie is a terrorist (Carlos), is another matter.

Here’s my Top 10 for the year 2010:

1. Dogtooth (Giorgos Lanthimos)
Lanthimos’ small-scale homey prison-camp family fable is not only the most stunningly executed movie I’ve seen this year; it’s also the wittiest and most horrific variation on the perils of insularity since Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s Innocence (2004). Emulating a number of seemingly contradictory influences – ranging from Pasolini to Rocky (1976) – Lanthimos created a haunting vision of human culture as a psychotic parlor game erupting in violence, that is both difficult to match and impossible to shrug off. (See my full review here).

2. About Elly (Asghar Farhadi)
Read my review here.

3. Tuesday, After Christmas (Radu Muntean)
Read my review here.

4. Carlos (Olivier Assayas)
A movie that needs to be seen in its 330-minute version or not at all, Assayas’ mammoth yet slick actioner goes down like a shot of vodka (OK, a series of shots). In its multilingual and geographical grandeur, the movie achieves something that should be flaunted in the ads as Globe-O-Vision. In its intermittent employment of action movie kicks and analytical recoil, Assayas’s film offers an unparalleled glimpse into modern history without a hair of sermonizing, and with a good deal of excitement (and horror).

5. Greenberg (Noah Baumbach)
It wasn’t until the second viewing that I appreciated Baumbach’s quietly accomplished feat of throwing an über-jerk onto us and then pairing him with the most happily autistic screen presence this side of  Seinfeld’s Patrick Warburton (courtesy of the indelible Greta Gerwig).

6. Lourdes (Jessica Hausner)
Read my review here.

7. Eyes Wide Open (Haim Tabakman)
Everything was set for a commonplace doomed-love story. By virtue of his precise (sometimes scarily so) direction, Tabakman eschewed the limitations of the material and gave us the most devastating account of desire warring with culture that hit the screen in 2010. I’d choose the scene in which a passing bus is suddenly revealing the crowd of hostile on-lookers as the single most potent shot I’ve seen this year.

8. The Social Network (David Fincher)
A virtual steamroller of energy and verbal zest, The Social Network has the distinction of surpassing its own perilous topicality and adding a great new character to the venerable lineage of American folk heroes, without stooping to making him cute or even likable.

9. Prodigal Sons (Kimberly Reed)
Read my review here.

10. Daddy Longlegs (Ben & Josh Safdie)
Read my review here.

Runners-up: Exit through the Gift Shop (Banksy); Amer (Cattet, Forzani); Boxing Gym (Wiseman); Father of My Children (Hansen-Løve); Let it Rain (Jaoui); Bluebeard (Breillat); Enter the Void (Noe).

Plus my annual personal awards:

Best Director: Olivier Assayas (Carlos)
Best Actor: Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network)
Best Actress: Mirela Oprisor (Tuesday, After Christmas)

Worst movie of the year: The A-Team (Joe Carnahan)

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Undertow (2009, Fuentes-León)

Rating: ***1/2


Brokeback Mountain (2005) meets Ghost (1990)…? While Javier Fuentes-León’s Undertow is prone to such shorthand (and even gently mocking) descriptions, in fact it’s a wonderfully accomplished love story that flirts with despair as often as it does with cuteness.

The story centers on Miguel (Cristian Mercado), a Peruvian worker from a tiny fishing village. About to become a father, he is seen in the very first scene affectionately kissing his wife’s pregnant belly. A couple of scenes later, an equal – if not greater – affection is showered by Miguel on his male lover, Santiago (Manolo Cardona), and the film’s seemingly commonplace dramatic conflict is set in motion.

The kicker comes some 20 minutes in: after Santiago is killed in a swimming accident, his (very carnal and sexually quite active) ghost keeps paying visits to Miguel and will continue until his body is not found and properly buried in the sea. What follows could turn into a savage satirical farce, and yet Fuentes-León resists the temptation, opting for a gentle (almost fey) sense of humor and a genuine heartbreak of a relationship made impossible less by death than by social convention.

There’s a remarkable moment mid-way through the movie: anxious Miguel is persuaded by the ghost of Santiago to walk hand in hand down a village street. Miguel – gay, yet homophobic to the point of self-denial – never even admitted his identity to himself, much less flaunted it in front of other people. And yet, in an instance, he gives his hand to Santiago and the two stroll together, in perfect bliss made possible only because of the ghost’s invisibility to everyone but Miguel. It’s a lovely movie-Utopia of a scene, made poignant and painful by the fact that it fulfils itself solely on a fantasy level.

The movie has its shortcomings: the economic conditions of Miguel’s life seem fake, all sex is prettified, and the movie pussyfoots around the question of Miguel’s lack of sexual feeling for his wife (the movie suggests he’s gay, not bisexual – and yet it doesn’t confront the question of unsatisfying straight sex Miguel is forced to be having; it merely shrugs it off by suggesting that he “thinks of Santiago” each time).

Still, Undertow is a beautifully executed, socially relevant and emotionally compelling gay fable, in which love defies death, but society defies the individual, in turn.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Tangled (2010, Greno, Howard)

Rating: **1/2

Tangled is a very strange title for any animated feature, not least for the 50th animated feature coming from the Walt Disney studios (it seems more like something out of early Fassbinder – or late Julia Roberts). The movie, though enjoyable, has a rather dull look to it – all honeyed golds and pinks, like those Barbie (or My Little Pony) straight-to-DVD movies that you don’t want your kid to watch. What’s more troubling, though, is that there’s little sense of wonder in the whole production. The script sits rather uneasily between a straight retelling of the Rapunzel fairy tale, and the morbidly Shrekian notion of destroying all faith in fairy tales as such. Once the off-screen narration begins and you hear the compulsive, self-conscious (and borderline apologetic) qualifiers in the first couple of sentences, it’s easy to get apprehensive – and for a reason.

The movie doesn’t really believe in the elation of romance, or rather – it believes in it and it doesn’t, by turns. You won’t find anything in Tangled that would match the silly energy and giddy flow of the “Whole New World” flying-carpet sequence from Alladin (1992) – here, when Rapunzel leaves her tower for the first time, she becomes so anxious and guilt-ridden that her brief shrieks of joy are interwoven with violent sobbing and therapy-session banter between her and the Flynn Ryder character. It works as a joke, but undercuts the inner workings of the story and makes the final pay-off matter less.

I liked most of the film, but it lacks a sustained tone as a whole. I’d much prefer the filmmakers to take sides more forcefully: either they’re into the whole ironic deconstruction thing, or they tell an engaging, energetic tale of magic, romance and adventure. It was the unity of tone made The Princess and the Frog (2009) so successful and it's the lack of it that makes Tangled, well, flawed.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Breathless (1983, McBride)

Rating: ***1/2

Jim McBride’s Breathless (1983) is in many ways even more radical an aesthetic statement than Godard’s celebrated 1959 version. By switching the nationalities of the main couple, as well as by trading Paris for gaudy California, McBride shifted the meanings of the original material, and yet managed to preserve its core. The main theme here (as it was in Godard) is the displacement of an individual in democratic (i.e. Americanized) culture. McBride’s protagonist is even more steeped in pulp references and there’s more glee in his infatuation with the Silver Surfer comic-strip character than there was in Belmondo’s emulating Bogart’s cool.

McBride’s forceful visual style, and his stunning use of expertly choreographed long takes (my favorite is the long, teasing sex scene involving imaginative use of an answering machine and a plate-glass shower curtain), owes more to classical Hollywood storytelling than to Godard’s jump cuts. Thus this Breathless may seem less distanced from the popular culture intoxication that it both mocks and embraces. The scene with the couple making love in front of a movie screen on which Joseph H. Lewis’ Gun Crazy (1950) is playing, is both tacky in its shameless TV-ad-like gloss and stunning in how literal-minded and arresting its central metaphor is.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Unstoppable (2010, T.Scott)

Rating: ***

More of a fun ride than a movie proper, Tony Scott’s Unstoppable makes no claims to subtlety, and is in many ways an even more radical disembowelment of the modern action flick genre than Scott’s jittery Taking of Pelham One Two Three (2009) remake – with which it shares a star, a style and (though this remains to be seen) probably a box office pull.

The premise of having one million tons worth of steel blindly speeding down the railroads of industrial Pennsylvania has an dumb impact of its own. Having cast Chris Pine – for whom the earthly mph must be something of a trifle after having experienced the warp speed in last year’s Star Trek (2009) – and Denzel Washington as the two barely-delineated but amiable buddy-leads doesn’t hurt either.

Unlike in Jan de Bont’s Speed (1994), the menace here is the speed itself, and not just any stock-psycho (be it Hopper, be it Travolta) spurting demands and/or prophecies into his phone (thus transforming the hair-raising action sequences into moral struggles between good and evil).

Now, a stray unmanned train speeding toward doom isn’t exactly tough to politicize, either. One can clearly see Scott sympathies lying with the blue-collar workers whose guts, hunch and experience save the day in spite of the big bosses’ failed attempts to act. (This working-class optimism is so clear-eyed and populist that we are never pushed too far to acknowledge the obvious guilt of Ethan Suplee’s slob-mechanic, whose very negligence triggered the whole event and resulted in a death of one person).

Still, the movie is so unashamedly mechanical and its mode such a willful assault of our senses, that after 100 minutes of Scott’s signature firecracker-zooming, compulsive fast cutting and non-stop flow of Harry Gregson-William’s throbbing score, one can end up too exhausted to fully partake in the closing on-screen elation of a feat spectacularly accomplished.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Due Date (2010, Phillips)

Rating: ***

With all its lazy sitcom writing and its grating overload of dog reaction shots, Due Date strikes me as this year’s most rousing comedy, thanks to a happy pairing of two extremely odd and brilliant comic actors. The volatile straight man Robert Downey, and the hirsute nutball Zach Galifianakis make a great team together.

Todd Phillips doesn’t have the scale (or sensitivity) of, say, Jonathan Demme: his mix of abrupt action sequences and run-of-the-mill character comedy is purely mechanical, and never does it account for a genuine shift in tone. The shocking jolts (car crash, gunshot, etc.) keep coming and never truly disrupt the characters’ comic rapport with the audience. Still, it’s due to Phillips’ remarkable timing that those jolts aren’t just slapstick effects devoid of consequences. There’s a dark, surrealistic streak in Phillips that came to light a year ago in The Hangover (2009), and is on display in Due Date, as well.

The new movie is more dutiful in hanging onto generic rewards offered by the buddy movie, but the oddity of particular choices made by Downey and Galifianakis defy all conventions. (The scene in which Downey spits in the little mutt’s muzzle in ager has a raw energy that’s both scary and convulsively funny.)

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Kaboom (2010, Araki)

Rating: **1/2

Garishly tinted, wilfully sophomoric (and only intermittently funny), Greg Araki’s Kaboom wears its credentials on its sleeve, being  its father’s baby through and through. This broad rehash of Donnie Darko-style prescient dread, served as a sex-and-gore farce, relies so much on its characters’ involvement in their absurd predicaments, that it risks missing out on an audience not trained in Araki’s ways.

Nothing less than an Apocalypse-update (the world indeed goes ka-boom in the end), the movie is a story of multiple awakenings and recurring nightmares, building up and canceling each other out at the same time. The main character’s visions of baleful figures wearing animal masks go hand in hand with his bisexual flings, and it’s to the movie’s credit that for most part these two strands are equally engaging.

It’s only towards the end that the cluttered narrative wears one down, and when the whimsical dénouement finally arrives, it’s a cop-out of sorts. The movie seems to be saying that its own democratic vision of an orgasm-chasing, politically inane humanity is not enough to sustain the story – or the world, for that matter. In that sense Araki (as usual) makes a half-desperate, half-prankish gesture towards the void, telling us that we can’t afford anything but a self-destructive joke (and its slow petering out before our eyes may be integral part of his vision).

Friday, October 8, 2010

Polish Film Series in Dublin

On 16th and 17th October it will be my pleasure to host a Polish film series at the Irish Film Institute in Dublin. I programmed the series so that the overall theme of the presented movies deals with “Civility in Crisis”. There will be four features in the series: The Treasure (1948), How to Live (1977), O-bi, O-ba: The End of Civilization (1984) and Zero (2009).

(Click on a title to see the exact times for each screening and a short program note I wrote).

Each screening will be preceded by a short introduction.

Hope to see you in Dublin!

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Lucky Life (2010, Chung)

Rating: ***

In Lucky Life (2010), Lee Isaac Chung’s quietly accomplished second feature, the camera often abandons the characters to ponder their surroundings in a free-flowing (yet somber) manner that seems to owe a lot to the work of Terrence Malick. Shifting freely between tightly structured dialogue and seemingly improvised scenes of friendly badinage, the movie is quite formidable in asserting it slow pace and making the viewer respect its rhythms – as well as respond to them.

A story of a loss as much as it is a chronicle of a budding commitment, Lucky Life takes an unflinching look at the process of forgetting, or rather replacing memories with fresh perceptions. The death of a friend is interwoven into the whole structure in a recurrent fashion, so that is seems less a singular event, and more a dream that will remain dormant for years, only to seep into one’s thoughts years later.

Overall, it’s a sustained piece of work that makes me look forward to Chung’s future projects.

[The film will be presented as a part of the American Film Festival in Wrocław]

Friday, September 17, 2010

A "Guys and Dolls" Tribute

After Danny Kaye and Robert Preston, it’s Guys and Dolls’ turn! Enjoy... and forgive.

Lyrics | Bobbie, Walter - Guys and Dolls lyrics

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Winter's Bone (2010, Granik)

Rating: ***

Not necessarily the chunk of social realism most reviewers would lead you to expect, Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone (2010) is actually a hybrid of sorts. Part mythical quest, part neo-Ozark-noir, it’s as engaging as it is generic. The story concerns a 17-year-old Ree’s search for her no-good father in order to keep the house she shares with her ailing mother and underage siblings. Her determination, good sense and resourcefulness are what carries the movie. Like Sam Spade, she engages in a string of ominous conversations under a heavy sky, taking no cues from the weather gods signaling “Caution!”, as they’re always are in noir.

As well-structured and affecting as it is, there’s a sensationalist streak in Winter’s Bone that I found myself objecting to. When the horrific (and fairly gratuitous) dénouement finally arrives – complete with a nightly boat trip, chainsaw-wielding and severed limbs left and right (pun intended) – one may question the purity of filmmakers’ intent. The film is as eager to cash in on a Deliverance (1972)-like dread as it is determined to make a social statement. With its fair share of clumsy, soap-operatic dialogue (“Please, help me this one time!”, cries Dee to her spaced-out mom), Winter’s Bone steers dangerously close to being a comic strip.

The redeeming factor lies in Lawrence’s riveting performance as Ree (as well as some first-rate support she gets all around). Perky, taciturn, focused and clearheaded, she emulates Michelle Williams’ Wendy and Lucy (2008) coup so successfully I wouldn’t be surprised if she had received a call from the Dardennes after Winter’s Bone opened. She measures up against Rosetta beautifully.

[The movie will play as part of the American Film Festival in Wrocław]

All My Friends Are Funeral Singers (2010, Rutili)

Rating: **

Paranormal activity is a matter of fact in All My Friends are Funeral Singers (2010) – to the extent that parts of it pose as a video shot by one of the ghosts (take that, Oren Peli). Tim Rutili’s whimsical first feature focuses on a psychic reader Zel (Angela Bettis), quietly plying her trade in a house she shares with a posse of spirits. All clad in white, they’re seen only by Zel and the audience. Occasionally rebellious against what they call imprisonment, the gang seems rather bored most of the time. They dabble in music, they shoot a video documentary, play trivia games, and discuss their post-mortem, though never shown, sex lives (and their earthly lives, as well). “I hung myself by my something blue”, says the corpse-bride in a deadpan voice, thus establishing the movie’s droll (but only partly amusing) tone.

Set in the homely purgatory presided over by the taciturn Zel – who, significantly, seals off her bedroom by sprinkling salt on the threshold, thus making at least her alcove ghost-free – the movie never really dwells on its protagonist’s feelings towards her situation or, for that matter, on that situation itself (it comes as a surprise that Zel has a boyfriend, who remains a cipher till the end).

The second half of the movie depicts the ghostly rebellion and divulges a rather unsettling secret that helps to make sense of the story – but it does so in spasms of superimposed, badly color-timed images and with virtually no attempt at building suspense. It’s a measure of the movie’s unimaginativeness that the only way the spirits mark their dissent is by making clamor with chains and sticks. The way they’re portrayed, even Rick Moranis wouldn’t have any trouble busting them for good.

Angela Bettis’ sensible performance – often hindered by awkward camera angles, as in the scene in which she channels her client’s dead husband’s voice – ultimately saves the movie. Her half-puzzled, half-purposeful demeanor, as well as her uncanny resemblance to Rachel Weisz, sustain our interest and help to swallow the final “lights-out” metaphor despite its trite, Castenada-fueled banality.

[The movie will be shown at the American Film Festival in Wrocław]