February 8, 2013
Film Review: West of Memphis

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Dir.
Amy Berg
Score: 6.6

So, let’s go back to 1993, in the small Arkansas city of West Memphis (which could also be called Far East Arkansas, where it’s positioned in the state). On a warm evening in May three eight-year-old boys went missing and were later found dead thrown into a small creek, beaten, sexually assaulted and hog-tied. The police, in a frenzy to find the killers, eventually alighted upon three hapless teens (“white trash” as one of them refers to themselves), who had in the past shown a propensity for satanic imagery and speed metal music. These three quickly got railroaded by the police — with the unfortunate help of a coerced confession by Jessie Misskelley, the slowest-witted member of the three — into heavy prison sentences for two and, for Damien Wayne Echols, considered the brainy leader of the pack, death row.

The case eventually became a cause du celeb with the help of Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofky’s excellent, groundbreaking documentary trilogy (known as the “Paradise Lost” films), and Echols’ unflinching charisma during the case. His penchant for iconoclasm and his refusal to kowtow to the authorities even as he was being wrongly persecuted drew the attention and devotion of an impressive array of activist celebs, including everyone from Henry Rollins to Eddie Vedder (a point the film happily uses to bequeath a lot of facetime to its commiserating cast of famous folks). Fortunately, the boys also garnered attention from filmmaker Peter Jackson and his partner Fran Walsh, who helped finance numerous DNA tests that many years later ultimately proved to exonerate the trio, even as it pointed a significant finger in the direction of the one of the victim’s stepfathers, Terry Hobbs.

So what is it, exactly about these boys that got such world-wide attention? Rollins, the venerable punk prototype might have put it most succinctly when he suggested Echols sneering attitude towards authority and dark, deadpan sense of humor reminded him exactly of a kid like himself. But I suspect there’s more at work here.

As a companion piece to Ken and Sarah Burns’ The Central Park Five, the films more or less augment each other’s main argument: Mob justice, as meted out by the media in giant, rating-bonanza bonuses, is every bit as corruptive and misplaced now as it was when it was small groups of disaffected cowboys formed lynch parties to mete out justice as they saw fit.

We are all conditioned to drink deeply from the careless shorthand of hysteric media headlines and facile stereotypes: “Teens Go on Wilding Rape Rampage,” “Satanic Blood Rituals Used to Murder Children” and so forth. It’s all too easy for those of us who live in fear of unknown, pervasive evil to believe adolescents — the ultimate unknown for people over 30 — are entirely capable of crimes and attitudes we never dreamed possible when we were their age.

The case against the Memphis Three initially comes off as a slam-dunk: The teens were into satanic rituals, as evidenced by the chillingly detailed journal of Echols, whose rebellious attitude did nothing to sway anyone’s first opinion of him; much of the initial circumstantial evidence against the boys appears to be damning, including testimonials from peers that they, too, took part in these evil rituals. Worst of all, Misskelley actually “confessed” to the crime. As is so often the case with trials such as this, the huge body of evidence seems to suggest an unassailable tidal wave of guilt. The thrill of the film, if it can be called that, is to watch this seemingly automatic case get ripped to shreds when the individual pieces of evidence against the trio gets an in-depth analysis. The supposed Satanic desecration of the young victims’ bodies turns out to be nothing more than the gnawings of a particularly hungry band of turtles; the “confession” turns out to be absolutely coerced by the police; the testimonials turn out to be utter fakes put together by the police, and so forth.

Most significantly, by the end, when it is all-too-clear the boys got screwed by the swampy southern justice system, our outrage comes at a bitterly ironic price: After all, before the film makes it strong case in the teens’ defense, it lays out the overwhelming stack of evidence against them, and most of us — if not all, to a person — would have probably come to the same utterly wrong-headed conclusions everyone else did at the time.

We are all equally conditioned by the preponderance of media hyperbole — a trend that has only dramatically increased with the advent of the ubiquitous and insatiable Internet, where we only read the first twenty words of every news story before moving on to the next one, assuming we can get the rest later — and are as prone to overreaction and misinformed opinion as all those terrified, incensed people in West Memphis twenty years ago. This case happened to take place then and there; the next one could very easily be in our own neck of the woods.

September 14, 2012
Film Review: Cosmopolis


Dir.
David Cronenberg
Score: 6.3

There are those that would view the pairing of the coldly intellectual filmmaker David Cronenberg with the coldly intellectual novelist Don Delilio as a blend of both strychnine and arsenic — death by emotional remove — but instead of a lifeless, didactic polemic, Cronenberg’s adaptation of Delilo’s 2003 novel is peculiarly arresting, despite its many narrative peculiarities.

Essentially, we have a day in the life of a Manhattan financial overlord. Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) is, when we meet him, about to head out in one of his specially modified limos to travel crosstown for a haircut. With a perfect suit and sneering visage behind a pair of dark glasses, he’s nothing less than the embodiment of the one percenter’s complete disassociation from the rest of humanity. Sitting in a techno-throne of black leather with touch-sensitive computer screens built into the armrests, he resembles the coldly ambitious commander of a Starfleet spacecraft. Meeting with various underlings and mistresses — and, occasionally, hopping out for meals with his newlywed bride (Sarah Gadon) — he conducts all business through his relentless ego.

The effect of the film, with all of these characters spinning in and out of Eric’s orbit as he very slowly makes his way across town, is a bit like Richard Linklater meeting Samuel Beckett. Every conversation has a strident philosophical tone, and underlying thread of Eric’s philosophical musings on the nature of commerce, capital and the human condition.

Needless to say, this is not a film ever intended to be realistic, per se. It’s a film of Big Ideas, almost a fairy tale, albeit one that includes sex, violence, and one of the more uncomfortable proctology exams ever committed to celluloid, digital or otherwise. Eric, who begins the film so stuffed with himself he employs the royal plural without a hint of irony or regret and by the end is covered with blood, sweat and the remnants of a cream pie in a squatter’s flophouse, stands to represent all the conscienceless callousness with which big business empires are forged.

He likes to speak in existentially pedantic musings (“A haircut is what? Associations.” and, later, “The logical extension of business is murder”) and indulge his hypochondria with daily full medicals, in-between bouts of rancorous sex with a bevy of women whom are not his wife, including the wife (Patricia McKenzie) of his head of security (Kevin Durand), who dutifully strides next to the slow-moving limo, only tapping on the window glass to warn Eric of further dangers. Eric is obsessed with “cybercapital,” notably the single most ethereal form of wealth.

His gradual undoing as the film unfolds — in the course of this day, he loses all his money on a bad bet on the Yuan, his wife leaves him, he commits murder and is stalked by a would-be assassin he can’t identify — strips bare the coddling protective cover of commerce, leaving only a scrawny, battered little man in a dirty shirt, awaiting his fate at the hands of a former employee (Paul Giamatti) who wants to put him out of his existential misery.

As is his want, Cronenberg is fully content to let his piteous characters thrash around blindly in the cold, harsh world of ideas they’ve created for themselves. The surprising thing is how effective he is in playing to Pattinson’s strengths. Despite the pretty boy preening to which his global fame can be attributed in his turn as the despotic Edward in the execrable Twlight series, the young actor shows some considerable chops here, in about as balloon-pricking of a performance as I can remember. It is, after all, not so difficult to play superior as an actor with the kind of fame as he possesses, a much different thing to take that fame and turn it on its ear. It might not have been the kind of role his agent would have been enthusiastic about, but from this vantage point, it’s a serious step in the right direction.

November 18, 2011
Film Review: Into the Abyss


Dir. Werner Herzog
Score: 6.8

We first see Michael Perry through the reinforced glass of a max security prison communication booth. With his bad saucer haircut and uneven buckteeth spread in a listless smile, you might mark him as a particularly guileless 15-year-old, the type of kid you’d see happily pumping your gas or assembling your burrito box at Taco Bell. Instead, he’s on death row for a particularly senseless triple homicide, and awaiting execution in a scant eight days.

Naturally, the first actual voice we hear in the film is the familiar exclamatory German accent of director Werner Herzog, who has travelled to Texas to record another one of his peculiarly gripping ruminations, this time on the subject of capital punishment, a judicial practice he cannot abide. Fortunately, rather than restating the usual arguments against it — systemic failure, ethical consternation, it’s failure as any kind of deterrent — Herzog instead gives us a kind of open riff on the subject, beginning with an inexact and increasingly frustrating account of the crime itself (something about two idiotic young men who so desperately want to joyride in the new Camaro of one of their cronies, they murder him, his friend and his mother in the process). We never get a single, definitive explication, just snippets from the police and the two convicted perps, a method that successfully scrambles the details enough that you get a sense of the confusion and cloudiness of the assaults in the first place. Naturally, Herzog doesn’t stop there. He goes on to speak with a good deal many other people whose lives were affected by this brutal act, including the surviving sister and brother of two of the victims, the prison Chaplin, the investigating officer, and the former captain of the Texas death row unit in which Mr. Perry eventually meets his fate.

Which is to say, he gets executed, despite his continued protestations of innocence. Herzog, for one, doesn’t seem in the least bit interested in pursuing this angle — creating a potential addendum to fellow documentarian Errol Morris’ brilliant The Thin Blue Line — for all intents and purposes, Perry’s conviction in of itself is beside the point. Whether he is guilty, as can be surmised from the evidence, or innocent as he proclaims, the fact of the matter is the actual process of murdering another human being as a punishment for their own murderous crime is neither moral nor effective. But Herzog is also far too canny to create a simple polemic representing his high-minded POV, and he’s not afraid to show an effective counter-point.

One of the key interview subjects is with the woman whose brother and mother were gunned down. She attended the execution, and explains how much lighter it made her feel, how much of a sense of closure she got from the experience. She’s calm, rational, well-spoken and doesn’t want to seem evil-minded or cruel, but to her, Perry got precisely what he deserved, which at least brings her a measure of peace. For her, at least, the ladder placed in the ‘abyss’ of the title was a means of climbing up a few rungs, rather than going further down.

October 27, 2011
Film Review: Martha Marcy May Marlene


Dir. Sean Durkin
Score: 7.5

Consider the word ‘cult’ for a moment, then replace it with something softer, like ‘community,’ ‘idyll’ or ‘farm house.’ You might be able to conjure up images of trees, wooden barns, young people all living and working together in harmony, each with their own way of fitting into the group. What’s the harm in any of that? At least, right up until your leader says something along the lines of “Death is the most beautiful part of life.”

Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) has just escaped such a place, sneaking out in the early morning with a satchel and diving across the road into the woods, emerging sometime later at a diner in the nearby town. It’s not that she wasn’t followed — as she sits there, one of the other ‘family’ members comes to try and take her back — but, rather, there’s at least the idea that she’s free to make her own decisions. This is how Martha comes to stay with her estranged sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), and her sister’s British husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy), at their Connecticut lake rental for a couple of weeks. Martha is attempting to assimilate back into regular society after several years of living under the quietly demented hand of Patrick (John Hawkes, brilliant as ever), who keeps family members in line not with shouting and threats but with promises of bliss and harmony — and, of course, his constant sexual gratification. He’s the kind of leader made all the more creepy by the fact that he never has to raise his voice to get what he wants.

Sean Durkin’s film wisely keeps its opinions mostly to itself. This isn’t some kind of ‘Lifetime’ expose of all the cult clichés we’ve come to expect. It’s more of a psycho thriller, albeit with a defused and indirect payoff, something Polanski might have toyed with in-between Repulsion and Knife in the Water. Under her sister’s care, Martha, renamed Marcie May by Patrick (whose first order of business with new recruits is to give them new identities of his choosing), is seriously damaged goods, sleeping all the time, unable to differentiate between her present circumstances and those of the farm, and terrified that her former community members are out in the woods stalking her, much as they did to upstate New York homeowners when she was with them. Durkin uses a rush of metaphoric segues from past to present (jumping into water, or stirring a spoon in a glass), but otherwise keeps the atmosphere oddly dispassionate. We’re not sure if he means to suggest that Martha’s battered psyche can’t fully differentiate between the two, or if there is literally little difference, but either way, the faded, washed out colors and harsh contrast of the shadows maintain an atmosphere of oppression and fear.

Olsen, whom, after all, could have easily just thrown in with her wildly successful older sisters and had a lucrative career, is a revelation as the perpetually out-of-sorts Martha. Sweet and affable one second, sharp as razor wire the next, and haunted the whole while by what she saw — and did — on the farm, Olsen has the almost impossibly complicated task of creating a sympathetic protagonist who is a thoroughly unreliable narrator. Like the film itself, we’re never quite sure what to make of her, and that’s exactly as the filmmakers would have it.

June 8, 2011
Film Review: Beautiful Boy


Dir.
Shawn Ku
Score: 5.1

It’s been a tough year for parents, cinematically speaking. They’ve suffered through the tragic death of a child (Rabbit Hole), the condemnation of a nation in mourning (The Conspirator), and the abduction of a son to an eerie fourth dimension (Indsidious). Here, though, in Shawn Ku’s drama, the parents have to endure perhaps the most devastating kind of misery imaginable: Not only do they have to survive the grief of their only child committing suicide, they have the added horror of knowing he committed a savage killing spree at his college before holding the gun to his own head.

The child in question is Sam (a sufficiently haunted looking Kyle Gallner), a college freshman at a school not too far from where his parents live. The night before he goes on his rampage he calls them and speaks briefly with his father, Bill (Michael Sheen), and at slightly more length with his doting mother, Kate (Maria Bello). If he sounded more troubled than usual, they didn’t notice. They are in the midst of having their own issues: Bill, remote and joyless, is a workaholic who is coldly plotting leaving his wife and moving into his own place; Kate, a literary copy editor, still has blind hope that all the family needs to get back on track is a nice vacation on the beach somewhere. After the massacre and suicide, they are left trying to come to terms with the loss of their child, and the guilt of him having done such a heinous act.

The film certainly has a sensationalist plot point, but the trouble comes in the aftermath. Grief on its own, frankly, is not the most interesting of emotions to witness. By definition, it’s inert and all-encompassing, reducing everybody to empty husks of themselves, which is a tricky thing to convey on screen without resorting to melodramatic histrionics or unconvincing plot twists. The film, co-written by Ku and Michael Armbruster, tries to skirt the problem by having both of its main protagonists submerge a majority of their pain underneath a more desperately normal façade. When they grieve, it’s nearly always when they’re alone, in the shower, or first waking up in the morning. Easily the best scene in the film is when the estranged couple first hide out from the frothing-at-the-mouth press in a hotel room together, co-conspirators in the management of their misery, almost giddy with love for one another. Though this, too, is clearly a rickety coping mechanism that eventually breaks a major spring.

If the film sounds a bit rote and literal in its construction, something Sean Penn might have directed, you’re not alone. At its worst, it’s an advanced acting exercise — albeit one that finds both its leads in fine form — with many scenes of repressed emotion tangled up with the obligatorily explosive emotional fireworks by the climax. What it never really manages to do, however, is truly peer into the souls of its characters, and, as the cynic might point out, what’s the point, otherwise?

December 16, 2010
Film Review: All Good Things


Dir. Andrew Jarecki
Score: 6.2

Ryan Gosling is blessed with appreciable Hollywood looks and a startling amount of charisma, but what makes him one of the more interesting actors of his generation is exactly what he does with those physical gifts. Not content to ride out a string of pallid romantic comedies and paint-by-numbers dramas, Gosling is far more interested in turning his natural charms around on his audience. Whether as a hapless would-be family man in the upcoming Blue Valentine, or here, playing the unhinged son of one of New York’s most notorious real estate barons, Gosling is unafraid to surface the ugly inner demons of his characters.

This is all to say, he’s an actor who doesn’t play it safe, and never more so than in this role. Based on continuing real events (whatever that may mean at this point), director Andrew Jarecki (Capturing the Friedmans) has continued with his excursions in neo-reality with this murder mystery, based on the infamous Robert Durst saga. David Marks (Gosling) is the son of a New York real estate tycoon (Frank Langella), a man whose ruthlessness and corruption drove his wife to commit suicide in front of the then 7-year-old David. As the film begins, David, now in his mid-twenties, seems affable and guileless. He meets his future wife, Katie (Kirsten Dunst) after being sent out to her mid-town apartment in order to fix her kitchen sink. Determined to separate himself from his family, David marries Katie and opens a health food store in Vermont, but the idyll doesn’t last long: after a short while, he finally acquiesces to his father’s wishes and joins the family business in Manhattan. At first, Katie allows herself to get lost in the glamour and power of her in-laws’ wealth, but it’s not too long before cracks begin to open up in the façade. For one thing, her husband, always a little preoccupied, begins to harden; for another, his dominance of her gets more physical. He talks to himself, a steady stream of barely audible garble. By the time she disappears, it’s clear that David’s grip on sanity is fragile at best.

The film, written by Marcus Hinchey and Marc Smerling, uses as its base the known facts and testimony of many of the principles (throughout the film, we hear Durst’s testimony in his own defense in a separate murder trial), however Jarecki attempts to answer questions in this still-open case with a unnerving combination of heresay and speculation. The result is as if Oliver Stone were making a film on the assassination of Caesar: Engaging, yes, but impossible to fully trust. Removing that element, however, you can still appreciate the fine work turned in by the cast, especially Gosling, the always commanding Langella and, somewhat surprisingly, Dunst, who seems to have grown up considerably since her last on-screen appearance. Taken as a work of speculative fiction, the film is moody and compelling, I would just hate to see the filmmakers go to court with their evidence.

May 28, 2010
DVD Review: M - Criterion Blu-ray Edition


Dir. Fritz Lang

Score: 9.4

The story of a child murderer let loose upon an unnamed German city is less about heroes and villains than it is an examination of the basic laws of society in the face of what appears to be unmitigated evil. A landmark of both social mores and evocative story telling, 80 years after its initial release, this luminous masterwork from Fritz Lang remains a high-water mark of cinematic art.

There is no greater example of Lang’s filmmaking genius than the series of shots he puts together near the beginning of the film to exemplify the unimaginable horror facing a mother at the prospect of the murder of her daughter: an empty attic of the apartment building they live in; an empty stairway leading up to their flat; and, finally, the empty soup bowl just laid out for supper. In these brief static images, Lang conjures up bleak melancholy so effectively it pulls the breath from your lungs.

So effective is his technique, modern filmmakers still pilfer from him, including Steven Spielberg for his singular masterpiece, Jaws. Not only does Spielberg allude to Lang visually (the sad image of a lost ball factors into both films with great impact), he takes the whole idea of a mystery killer, nameless, faceless, only revealed in bits and pieces. Indeed, you can even see how Lang’s use of music (in this case, a famous Edvard Grieg piece, whistled by the murderer) served as a model for John Williams infamous Jaws theme.

If Lang is the mastermind behind the film, Peter Lorre is certainly its most visible genius. His turn as the murdering child killer is equal parts horrifying, despicable and uncomfortably sympathetic. With his hooded bug eyes, and his soft pulpy lips, Lorre presents a man so ruined and terrified by his murderlust that he doesn’t even bother trying to deny his actions to the (exceedingly) ruly mob of underworld criminals that finally apprehend him. It is further testament to Lang’s brilliance that this de facto trial ends up confusing our expectations and confounding our sense of justice. There is no bloody payoff, as one of the grieving mothers puts it, nothing now will bring their children back to them.

In addition to a startlingly new transfer, this Criterion Blu-ray edition also offers up a tasty sidebar of extras, including audio commentaries from film critics, an interview with Lang by William Friedkin, a doc on the making of the film, a stills gallery, and, most interestingly, an extremely rare English version of the film. 

April 23, 2010
Film Review: The Square

Dir. Nash Edgerton

Score: 6.4

Of all the intrusions of modern technology upon the simple thriller, the invention of the cell phone has to be the single most vexing for screenwriters. The damn things have to be accounted for at all times, lest they offer an easy escape for the otherwise inexorably entwined protagonists. Properly taking them into account, then, suggests a careful attention to detail — a definite good sign for an audience. To that end, writer/director Nash Edgerton and his screenwriting cohort, his brother Joel, have dutifully accounted for the devices in this catchy blackmail thriller from Australia.  

Raymond (David Roberts) is a construction foreman on the take, accepting kickbacks for jobs on a huge resort project. He is also having a torrid fling with hairdresser Carla (Claire van der Boom), herself living with a violent despot named Smithy (Anthony Hayes) who suddenly shows up at their house with a satchel filled with money. Quickly a plan is hatched by Carla and Ray to steal Smithy’s money and burn the house down in a fire “accident.” Unfortunately, the two schemers don’t take into account that someone else might be in the house when it goes up in flames. 

The resultant twisty repercussions do indeed seem to owe a fair amount to the Coen brothers 1981 debut, Blood Simple, as has been widely observed, but the brothers Edgerton don’t share the Coens cheeky, dark sense of humor, or much of their story-telling inventiveness. If this film were prose, it would read more like Carver than  Chandler. Instead of florid embellishments and stylistic nods, the Edgertons have made a classic type of thriller, the fine mesh netting of the plot drawing ever closer under the characters feet until the inevitable final pull of confrontation takes place. One of the chief pleasures of a film like this, of course, is how it allows us to experience the full ramifications of taking that wrong turn in our lives without actually implicating ourselves. No matter how bad off we might feel we are, taut, harrowing thrillers like this prove conclusively things could always be much, much worse. 

March 19, 2010
Film Review: Mother (Madeo)

Dir. Joon-ho Bong

Score: 7.2

Joon-ho Bong’s new film begins in a swaying field of yellowed, tall grass. A woman comes up a small rise, staring into the camera, an intense, but inscrutable look in her eyes. Music softly fills in the background, and the woman begins a somewhat ridiculous series of dance gyrations, her face at turns severe, smiling and half-crazed. There is almost no way to read the scene. Comic? Tragic? Are we meant to find this woman peculiar, funny or regrettable? There’s simply no way of knowing, a feeling that echoes throughout this beguiling South Korean thriller.

The woman in question, known only as “mother,” (Hye-ja Kim), is an aging and somewhat neurotic piece of work, who spends her time at a small eastern medicine shop, filled with roots, dried plants and powders. We know very little of her, other than she seems to have no family other than her twenty-something son, Yoon Do-joon (Bin Won), of whom she is fiercely devoted. Do-joon isn’t slow, exactly, he’s not crazy, either, but he is an innocent, extremely eccentric, and more than a little flighty. He also has severe memory problems, things aren’t clear to him minutes after they happen, in order to recall details, he has to go through a ritual of rubbing his temples and concentrating. Thus, when he is suddenly accused of murdering a young schoolgirl late one night as he was returning from a night of heavy drinking, he can’t conjure up a clear picture of his innocence. His mother certainly can, even after he blithely signs his “confession” that will send him away to prison for years. In an attempt to prove her son’s innocence, she puts herself on the case, following leads and, in the process, taking things further than she would ever normally dare.

The single most striking element of this fascinating film is the mastery with which Joon-ho Bong (The Host) takes command of his film’s tone. At various times, it swings from comedy to drama to mystery almost effortlessly, sometimes combining more than one element at a time. It also travels in thoroughly unexpected trails, but never without justification. It plays a bit like Hitchcock through a David Lynch prism, projected onto a Pedro Almodóvar canvas. Joon-ho Bong employs a skillfully arch tone that slyly undercuts even some of the most dramatic scenes with oddly effective pinpoints of humor. And then similarly dots some of his more comedic scenes with touches of extreme pathos.

It also doesn’t hurt that his leads do such fine work. Hye-ja Kim, given an almost impossible task, makes her character believably desperate, pathetic and mesmerizingly fierce, without ever losing our sympathy. Bin Won, who plays Do-joon with an almost Johnny Depp-like deadpan, walks the faint line between incredibly affable and densely unknowable: We have no idea what he may be capable of. Still, the film is a veritable showcase for the talent of Joon-ho Bong, so in command of his craft that he can take enormous risks with his material and get away with them in ways you scarcely notice with the practiced ease of an accomplished magician.

March 12, 2010
Film Review: A Prophet

Dir. Jacques Audiard

Score: 7.2

At first, the French prison young Malik El Djebana (Tahar Rahim) is sent to seems strangely civilized, at least in comparison to its American counterpart. Prisoners are given individual cells, the showers have stalls, and the bread — long and crusty — is plentiful. But that’s before Malik is forced by a Corsican mobster named César (Niels Arestrup) to murder another inmate with a razor blade, an educated Muslim about to testify in open court. In short order, Malik, who initially tries to avoid the situation, kills the Muslim, becomes a sort of man servant to the Corsicans, and slowly begins the process of educating himself — not just to the reading books and language skills of his prison classes, but also to the way of the prison yard, and, more significantly, how men with power dispatch their business.

Malik’s initial sentence is for six years. The film jumps forward in the timeline from time to time, but in director Jacques Audiard’s capable hands, the film subtly suggests Malik’s slow progress and transformation more than announces it. So close to the vest is Malik, despite the tantalizing dream/fantasy sequences Audiard slips into the narrative, that he becomes as difficult for us to read as for César, who suspects his young would-be protégé of running side deals, but can’t quite pin down his true intentions until they are already in play. 

The film also plays with the idea of religious conversion. Though Malik claims no specific set of beliefs — and, indeed, spends much of the film avoiding the Muslims in prison, while being referred to endlessly as a “dirty Arab” by his Corsican colleagues — he is also gifted with a limited sort of prophecy, though rather than utilizing it for the betterment of mankind, he uses it as a method of better ingratiating himself with another set of criminals. He is loathe to assume identity with any one group (“I work for myself,” he explains more than once), in order to play them off of each other as fits his needs at a given time. 

With its documentary-like handheld camera shots and deeply rich tones, Audiard has made a fierce and convincing testament to the power of moral extremity. The film runs as a kind of addendum to another excellent (albeit more intentionally lyric) prison flick, The Shawshank Redemption, specifically when a character suggests that it was only in prison that he became a successful criminal. Rather than Andy Dufresne’s using the system against itself in order to broker his freedom, Malik emerges as a master of the system itself. We know very little about Malik before he was sent away, but six years later, the reticent, unassuming young man he was is replaced by an altogether more conniving and diabolical individual. The prison systems might be moderately different in different countries, but the results seem painfully similar. 

August 6, 2009
Film Review: The Cove

Dir. Louie Psihoyos

Score: 6.8

Arguably, the country most put out by the landmark whaling ban enacted by the International Whaling Commission in 1986 was Japan. In the more than 20 years since the ban was ratified, Japan has wheedled, complained, attempted to circumvent the laws and outright defied authority in order to get past it. Here, in Louie Psihoyos’ chilling documentary, Japan has finally found yet another way to exact a most horrible revenge. In the small, seeming dolphin-loving city of Taiji, fishermen have for years been trapping dolphins in the bay by the thousands, selling a few off for commercial sea exhibitions, and murdering the rest for meat.

Putting aside the cruel and barbarous nature of the slaughter (debatably legal, as technically, though dolphins are whales, the IWC refuses to grant them the same protections as their larger brethren), the other issue at hand is the more-than-dangerous levels of Mercury present in the dolphins’ bodies. Essentially, the meat of the dolphin is neither edible nor cultivated — which, as the film suggests, begs the question just why the Japanese government allows this annual dolphin massacre to happen. Thus, we are introduced to dolphin activist Richard O’Barry, notorious rabble-rouser and thorn in the side of Japan’s fishing industry.

O’Barry knows what the fishermen of Taiji are doing, but needs the high-tech help of Psihoyos and a cadre of hand-picked ‘special agents’ in order to finally prove it. The majority of the film, then, becomes a kind of “Mission: Impossible” meets “National Geographic” as the special team of operatives, including two divers, a Hollywood F/X guru, a band manager and a self-professed adrenaline junkie, sneak onto the property and install hidden cameras. What those cameras eventually record is savagery almost beyond comprehension as hundreds of dolphins are rounded up, pushed to shore and stabbed with harpoons. The sea turns blood red, the bodies are dredged up to the boat, the fishermen laugh and cajole one another, and the next day, the same horrific practice takes place.

As to why Japan would conduct such a massacre without any noteworthy financial reason to do so, several theories are expounded, one of which is the country simply doesn’t like being told how to conduct itself by any outside governing body. When the fishermen are asked by O’Barry if they would stop the killing if they were offered the same amount of money to just stay home, they decline, saying only that they are engaged in a kind of cultural “pest control.” The film is intended to cause enough of an outcry that Japan will finally be shamed into stopping the practice. Far be it from a critic based in a country as morally twisted and capitalistically despotic as the U.S. to cast aspersions, but from this seat, I certainly hope it works.

April 16, 2009
Film Review: State of Play

Dir. Kevin McDonald

Score: 5.5

A film, one supposes, fully endorsed by the Newspaper Guild of America, Kevin MacDonald’s politico-thriller might take its cues — and title — from the critically hailed 2003 BBC TV show, but this Americanized remake is all about the death of Woodward and Bernstein journalism in the age of the blogosphere.

Condensing the six densely complex episodes of the original series into one film might not seem the best idea — imagine taking the third season of “The Wire” and making it into a two-hour feature — but for the first third of the film, you begin to think MacDonald and his team of screenwriters, including Tony Gilroy, might actually be capable of pulling it off, before the thing sinks like a stone. Slovenly Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe, plus about 20 pounds and long, stringy hair), brilliant journalist for the “Washington Globe,” begins to investigate the curious shooting death of a meth head and ends up at the doorstep of his former college roomie and best bud Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck), now a Congressman who himself is heading an investigation into the blatant price-gouging private military source Pointcorps. Collins’ top research aide has just turned up dead the same night as the meth head, and in the resulting media meltdown, it is revealed that the congressman was having an affair with her before she died. Throw in the standard red herrings and surprise plot twists of the convention and you get the idea.

The problem here is that almost everything in the film comes too easily, from information and clues to confessions and moral character arcs. The complexity has been boiled down to a kind of remedial connect-the-dots imbroglio. Without any of the messy, conflicting stuff of reality, the story stands as standard boilerplate, a tremendous shame, given the source material. It doesn’t help that the film’s pet politics — admirable as they might be — are manifest in almost everything it portrays, from the decline of the stolid newspaper as a watchdog of culture and politics, to the privatization of the military (welcome aboard, Halliburton, you shall now be the Evil That Shall Not Be Named Unless By Thinly-Veiled Homage).

By watering down the series into this thin gruel, the producers have also lost most of its conviction. That is, except for its rejection of new media in its lament for the Lost Age of Journalism. In the course of his “truthseeking,” Cal ultimately comes to enlist the aid of a young female blogger (Rachel McAdams) at the paper, whom he initially disregards but later comes to accept into his byline — proving, perhaps, there’s hope for these young whippersnappers yet.

September 18, 2008
Film Review: A Girl Cut in Two

Dir. Claude Chabrol

Score: 4.3

The May/December romance fantasy is alive and well in modern Paris, a time-honored tradition of grotesque, aging French men harboring not-so-secret desires for the freshest young lilies of the valley.

In Claude Chabrol’s latest film, he positions a young, beautiful weather girl, Gabrielle (Ludivine Sagnier), between two, equally disconcerting poles: an elderly, fabulously successful and brutishly amoral writer, Charles (François Berléand), and a blonde fop named Paul (Benoît Magimel), who wears tight, wide-pinstriped suits without a tie and a small-mouthed smirk on his face that makes you want to hit him in the head with a tire-iron. Repeatedly.

Poor Gabrielle settles on Charles, who proves the worth of her choice by taking off at his first opportunity, leading her to marry Paul, a mistake that everyone warns her against making. Given that both men are so fiendishly unlikable, and indefatigably selfish, there’s not much of a choice for her to make: Paul bites his nails furtively and pushes his blonded locks into his eyes like he’s hitting the town with the Chemical Brothers; Charles, smug and condescending, self-indulgently pulls her head to his crotch so she can blow him as he works on his new novel.

The film offers little to clarify itself, we’re never sure if Gabrielle’s misguided love for Charles is meant to be taken seriously or is simply the whim of a young and impressionable woman. The fact that all the beautiful women in Charles’ life, including his “saint” of a wife (also quite young, naturally) seem to love him with fully unearned devotion stacks the deck in favor of the old man — is this a good time to mention Chabrol is nearly 80? — but nothing is really ever made clear. Is Chabrol suggesting that this is the choice French women get to make? If so, join me in weeping for our fair mademoiselles across the Atlantic.

March 13, 2008
Film Review: Paranoid Park

Dir. Gus Van Sant

Score: 6.5

Gus Van Sant and Larry Clark remain in competition to claim the doomed, beautiful youth market as their own. Though, while Clark goes in for the more aggressive and sexual tableau — witness his striking Ken Park — Van Sant has a softer, more elusive thing in mind.

In this, his latest low-budget affair, he has composed an elegiac portrait of one skater kid, Alex Tremaine (Gabe Nevins), who gets involved in a highly regrettable night at the train yard, where he may or may not be responsible for a murder of a security guard. The story is told in fragments, from sweeping, slow pans of the characters, to sketchy video footage of Alex and his comrades skating in and through Portland. We hear Alex’s VO over the footage, spoken in halting, unprofessional streaks, as if he were unsuccessfully reading a term-paper in front of his class.

True to his indie nature, Van Sant is never content to just let his camera do the talking: As ever, he takes chances, scrapping together disjointed elements as if patching together a thread-bare quilt. By focusing almost exclusively on Alex and his jumbled perspective, he does achieve a certain Raskolnikov-like effect. We watch him hang with his friends, spend time with his girlfriend, Jennifer (Taylor Momsen), almost confess to his confidant, Macy (Lauren McKinney), but at no time is he ever able to unburden himself — except, as it happens, to those of us in the film’s audience. Meanwhile, even though parents and teachers are often filmed as blurry and inconsequential, the film comes across less a searing screed about youthful indifference, and more a (quite possibly over-) artful examination of just how badly we all want things to go back to normal.

February 14, 2008
Film Review: In Bruges

Dir. Martin McDonagh

Score: 6.1

Fans of Collin Farrell can rest easy on this one: He doesn’t have to be a leader of men, solemnly make decrees, or, most thankfully, wear a wig. In writer/director Martin McDonagh’s gangster comedy/tragedy, Farrell plays Ray, a twitchy, callow hit man from Dublin with massive ADD and more than a few psychological burdens to carry. Along with his mentor, Ken (Brendan Gleeson), Ray has been dispatched by their boss, Harry (Ralph Fiennes) to the obscure Medieval city of Bruges, in Belgium, ostensibly to get out of London for a while after a bungled hit.

Farrell plays Ray like a fidgety cartoon character, tightening his mouth down small with indignation and releasing heavy sighs of indigestion, while forming a perpetual dense triangle of perplexity out of his heavy eyebrows. Ken, on the other hand, is an older man, much more calm and collected, able to enjoy the cultural sights of the town without compunction, if only for the phone call he’s dreading to receive from his boss.

If you like your comedies alternately bloody, irreverent and more than occasionally melodramatic, you might have a good find here. For the rest of us, while the setting is indeed a wondrous location, and the actors appear to be having a grand ol’ time (not the least of which, Fiennes, who appears more than happy to drop his usual Cambridge prof air to speak lines whose every verb, adjective and alternate noun are derivatives of “fuck”), McDonagh is, perhaps, a little too taken with plot-gyrating manipulations of his characters. By the bloody end, his characters are the recipients of ludicrous coincidences, surviving multiple shootings (and a pitch from an enormously tall Medieval castle) long enough to deliver their punched-up lines; and coming to terms with themselves shortly after stumbling onto the set of a truly dreadful-looking film shoot involving a hoary dream sequence of dwarves and people wearing animal heads. At least on set, the snow is meant to look fake.

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