short film reviews, criticism, and occasional musing.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Last Year at Marienbad (1961, French)

Last Year at Marienbad is one of those films that I just don't feel smart enough to write anything worthwhile about. This happens pretty often, in fact, but in this case I feel like I have to put something down, because Marienbad blew my mind so completely, and it's one of those things that is generally very hard to see, so I have to recommend it while I can.

When I was about fifteen or sixteen, I came across Marienbad at about 1A.M. on some movie channel or another. I'd read about it, and wanted to see it for myself, but in about five minutes or less, I recognized that I couldn't possibly sit through the entire thing in the middle of the night. About thirteen years later, I finally got back around to it, and now I feel as if I need to see it again (and possibly again) in order to really get it. Though I know that's pretty much impossible - people have been trying to get Marienbad for over forty-five years now, and there have got to be at least a dozen interpretations. I'm such a film nerd - it's exactly up my alley. There's so much obvious influence here on the work of directors like Kubrick and Lynch, both of whom I love. So - more Resnais for the Netflix queue.

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005, USA)

Tommy Lee Jones' obvious love for his home state of Texas is apparent in every aspect of The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. Jones plays Pete, a ranch hand whose friendship with the titular cowboy takes a dark turn when Melquiades is killed by an overzealous border patrol agent, Mike Norton (Barry Pepper). From there, Pete feels a responsibility to take Melquiades home to be buried, and to simultaneously exact justice for his death.

Three Burials touches on some of the same themes as writer Guillermo Arriaga's other films, like 21 Grams and Amores Perros (connectivity, forgiveness), and shares an episodic sensibility as well, but lacks the conceptual distance of his films with Inarritu. Perhaps Jones is to praise for that. He certainly directs himself with a complete lack of vanity - the closest comparison that comes to mind are the films of Clint Eastwood. (Though I sure would have hated to be Barry Pepper on this shoot.)

However, perhaps the best part of the film, apart from the gorgeous cinematography and the excellent performances, are how all of the little stories work in aid of the film, how the characters interact with one another and create connections. It's all of the small details, too, the ones I attribute to Jones - the night football game, the dance in the motel room, the old man living by the border. It looks as if Jones has no immediate plans to direct again any time soon, but I sure wish he'd find a project that interests him. I hear he owns the rights to Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, but (unfortunately) it looks as if Ridley Scott is currently attached to direct.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Gerry (2002, USA)

I don't know what it was that finally brought me around to seeing Gus Van Sant's Gerry - maybe Paranoid Park's strong reviews, or Casey Affleck's performance in Gone Baby Gone. In any case, I was pretty sure that I'd either love it or hate it - and I actually really liked it. It's simple, absurdist, and hypnotically beautiful. Finally breaking Van Sant's terrible maudlin streak in the late 90's, Gerry follows two Gerrys, Affleck and Matt Damon, as they lose themselves on a desert hike. The script is spare, but the cinematography is not - while deceptively simple, the set-ups are uniformly gorgeous, and often quite terrifying, as the landscape ends up so entirely dominating the human figures within it. It also helps to convey the growing sense of disorientation within the story, as movement of landscape and light seem to change without reason, before abruptly changing back again.

Though he's obviously one of Hollywood's major stars now, I hope that Damon doesn't stop working on projects like Gerry from time to time. He's established himself as one of the few seemingly normal people in the industry, with an often keen sense at picking projects and willingness to take the occasional risk. Gerry is the kind of risk I hope that Damon keeps taking, even post-Bourne and the Ocean's movies.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Michael Clayton (2007, USA)

Like many films of its kind, Michael Clayton feels somewhat bloodless. It's a well-crafted movie, but it lacks a driving force - George Clooney's without a doubt a strong screen presence, but he lacks the depth to make the character of Michael Clayton, and hence the film, truly meaningful. I'm quite surprised he garnered an Oscar nomination for this role - in fact, I don't think that any of the nominations, save for perhaps supporting nods for Tilda Swinton and Tom Wilkinson, were deserved. Even in a weaker year than 2007, Clayton just isn't that strong a film. As for Swinton's Oscar win, my take is that this is something like a belated kudos for decades of strong work, in particular The Deep End and, obviously, Orlando.

King Corn (2006, USA)

I just finished reading Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma a few weeks ago, so the bulk of the information presented in King Corn felt like a review. The documentary follows two college friends, Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis, as they grow an acre of corn in Iowa and try to determine how so much of it ends up in American bodies. It's an entertaining, fairly light treatment of the bizarre and often frightening ways in which corn impacts our lives, spurred on by the fact that Cheney and Ellis are genial, interested protagonists - there isn't the grandstanding you get in a Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock documentary, though their works are surely as much an inspiration to the filmmakers as Pollan's is (Pollan himself appears in the film, and his work is acknowledged in the credits as a primary source). In addition to the affability of the filmmakers, a few other things make the treatment of the material stand out - the lo-fi aesthetic is charming rather than cloying, and there are several inspired bits, as when Cheney and Ellis try to make high fructose corn sweetner on the stovetop (they're denied any opportunities to film in an actual factory), or when they visit former Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz, the man largely credited for the current state of farm subsidies, in his retirement home, to ask him what he thinks of today's corporate culture of corn farming. Not everyone is going to read Pollan or Eric Schlosser, and King Corn provides an excellent, entertaining overview of one very important part of the current climate of American food culture.

Iron Man (2008, USA)

Iron Man is an excellent example of what good popcorn entertainment should be - interesting story, solid characters, non-dopey comedy, and fun action sequences. I know nothing about the original comic, but I have to say that as a piece unto itself, the film version feels both fresh and entirely able to stand on its own. That's not something that's necessarily standard with any genre of adaptation, but certainly not for action/science fiction films. Jon Favreau has hit his stride as an entertainment director, and I hope that he keeps working on projects like Iron Man, starting with the inevitable sequel.

Really, though, a lot of the genius is in the casting - Robert Downey Jr. may be approaching middle age, but he hasn't lost a bit of his energy. It's simply delightful to see him sink into the character of Tony Stark, which seems tailor-made for him. In fact, it's great just to see Downey working again, and at the top of his game. I thought he was a bizarre choice for an action hero when I first learned of the project, but I'm perfectly happy to be proven wrong here.

I'm neither a big Gwyneth Paltrow nor Terrence Howard fan, but both are perfectly serviceable as Tony's personal secretary/love interest and best friend, respectively. Jeff Bridges is fun to see as a villain - he doesn't take these roles often, and it's a great adaptation of his gruff paternalism in service of a real baddie. After their face-off, I'm really looking forward to seeing what they come up with for round two.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Gone Baby Gone (2007, USA)

Ben Affleck's directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone, is a wrenching story, but its impact is undercut by its heavy-handedness. Many of the plot twists can be projected well ahead of time (note - don't cast such heavies as Ed Harris and Morgan Freeman if you really want to make your ending a surprise), and the whole thing frequently feels overwrought. Casey Affleck is good as a street-smart Boston private investigator, and Amy Ryan is very good as the woman whose kidnapped daughter he is hired to find. Harris and Freeman are good as well, but then they could play these roles in their sleep.

Unfortunately, it's Affleck's character that never quite rings true. Patrick changes from a man who at the beginning of the film roughs up a tough at a bar for being rude to his girlfriend, but by the end does the objectively right thing even though it might mean losing her. I'm not sure if I buy his character's arc - the whole point is that he's lived in this neighborhood forever, that he's both part of it and somewhat outside of it, but where does the real effect of his environment show in him? Where does it come out in his personality? the longer we see Patrick, the more stoic he becomes, the more attached to ideas than to people.

Another big problem with the film is Michelle Monaghan as Patrick's girlfriend and investigative partner. She's not particularly good at either, and if she were truly an outsider in this insular Boston neighborhood, then perhaps the audience could accept her as a surrogate. But she's not - she's likewise a part of the environment, though she doesn't show it at all. And she's a weirdly mobile moral figure as well - she serves virtually no purpose as a fellow detective, eventually providing a foil for Patrick, but not much more.

There's some interesting stuff here - the sense of place is excellent, particularly in the filming locations and extras casting. The concept of the impact environment has on personality is a good starting point, but gets lost in the guise of a thriller/drama. I think that if Affleck were to simplify, he might be more successful in his next venture.

Baby Mama (2008, USA)

Baby Mama is an excellent example of material elevated by a good cast. There's little to the script or direction that's original, though I have to chime in with the majority and say that it's quite refreshing to see a buddy movie developed around a pair of ladies. And it's the ladies, along with an amazing number of bit and cameo players, who really make the movie funny. You can tell quite easily when Tina Fey and Amy Poehler are improvising, raising the proceedings above the mundane - the plot still entirely predictable and the ending saccharine, but there are moments of inspiration where the years of comedic partnership shine through.