short film reviews, criticism, and occasional musing.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Brand Upon the Brain! (2006, Canadian)

Brand Upon the Brain! provides a link between Cowards Bend the Knee and My Winnipeg. It features more of a central storyline than any of Guy Maddin’s films I’ve seen to date, but it retains the fetishistic nature of Cowards while delving into the fictionalized origin story of Maddin himself, similar to Winnipeg. An adult Guy (Erik Steffen Maahs) returns to his childhood home, haunted by memories of his family, in particular his domineering mother. What unfolds is a twelve-chapter reminiscence that ends up in a darker place than most other Maddin films - Brand is filled with the common Maddin feverishness, but lacks much of the humor and playfulness that marks his other work.

At this point, Guy Maddin might be one of the most mythologized figures in contemporary cinema. In each of his films he is everywhere and nowhere all at once. Nearly all of his more recent films feature a Guy Maddin, often played by Darcy Fehr. I haven’t seen Cowards in a while, but I do think that there are some common links between all of these Guys – they’re typically observers, spies, voyeurs, and despite all they’ve seen, they retain some sense of childish innocence and naïveté. And, unfortunately, few of these Guys end up where they’d most like to be. Maddin is in his early 50s now, but his fictional Guys remain pretty much the same age. I’m curious to see whether or not Maddin will continue mining this particular period of time, or if he will eventually shift to an older, more experienced Guy.

Fido (2006, Canadian)

Fido has a fun premise that unfortunately stretches on too long. In an otherwise idyllic 1950’s world, space radiation has created zombies, and after a war with humans, technology has allowed for the zombies to be tamed and put to work as servants and manual laborers. Fido (Billy Connolly) is a bit brighter than many of the other zombies, befriending his owners – Timmy (K’Sun Ray) and his mother (Carrie-Anne Moss). But aside from the premise and the film’s stylish look, there’s very little originality here, and after a while it’s simply not terribly entertaining to watch the same joke repeat itself.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Burn After Reading (2008, USA)

Burn Afer Reading is weird. Even by Coen brothers standards, it’s . . . weird. There’s an exuberant amount of plot here but virtually no story, as various leads chase each other across the screen for no real reason. As for the stellar cast, it’s as if the Coens simply told them to play everything THIS BIG, with mixed results. John Malkovich, as a pissed-off alcoholic ex-spy, and Brad Pitt, doing a slightly more active version of Floyd from True Romance, come off better than others. The normally flawless Frances McDormand never hits her stride, and George Clooney’s manic running about is more tiring than funny. Playing to the rafters doesn’t necessarily equal hilarity, and I was disappointed by the relatively small number of laughs I got out of Burn. However, for the time being I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt, as The Big Lebowski probably took at least three viewings before I realized its genius.

Le Doulos (1962, French)

I don’t think there will ever be another movie that will make you want one of those old-fashioned trench raincoats as much as Le Doulos will. The fantastically broody Jean-Paul Belmondo wears one pretty much the entire film. He stars as Silien, an enigmatic hood who may or may not be a police informant. The film is full of solid noir-ish twists and has style to spare – the aforementioned trench coats, but also director Jean-Pierre Melville’s trademark high-contrast filming style, which suffuses the screen with sufficient shadows in which to hide all sorts of intrigue.

The more of Melville’s work I see, the more I love it. I wholeheartedly recommend Le Cercle Rouge, Bob le flambeur, and Le samourai, all crime capers cut in the same mold as Le Doulos (though Bob came some seven years earlier, and is somewhat less stylistically dramatic). Strangely, even the remakes/reinventions of Melville’s work are largely successful – I’m a big fan of both Neil Jordan’s The Good Thief (Bob) and Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog (loosely samourai), each of which take a modern spin on the originals, and actually end up being the richer for it. I’m crossing my fingers that the upcoming remake of Rouge will follow suit, though Orlando Bloom is certainly no Alain Delon.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Redbelt (2008, USA)

I generally enjoy David Mamet’s con films, and State and Main is a favorite, despite the odious presence of Rebecca Pidgeon. Up until now, Pidgeon was what I found most problematic about Mamet’s movies, but her one small scene here isn’t what makes a mess of Redbelt. The twists and turns and question of who’s really scamming who is what makes films like The Spanish Prisoner and Heist work, but in the service of a straight character drama, it all seems like much ado about nothing. The story of a martial arts fighter who lets his principles rather than his needs lead him is cheapened by excessive plotting and multi-character conspiracy. Add to that a completely ludicrous ending, and Redbelt ends up feeling like an extended shaggy dog story. Even the terrific Chiwetel Ejiofor, finally working his way into leading man roles on this side of the pond, and the strong cast of Mamet regulars (excepting Pidgeon) and a few ringers (Emily Mortimer and Alice Braga in particular) can’t make any of this feel really worthwhile, as Mamet has seemingly found a way to simultaneously under- and overwrite.

Street Kings (2008, USA)

David Ayer’s Street Kings plays like a really bad episode of The Shield. Whereas The Shield tackles corruption and the inner demons that haunt cops on the wrong side of the fence with a keen eye for shades of grey, Street Kings is nothing if not pure black-and-white. Keanu Reeves plays a dirty cop who’s forced to reconsider the error of his ways following the murder of his former partner. The cast has some real ringers – Forrest Whitaker as an obvious baddie, Hugh Laurie doing his best not to merely play House in absence of an actual character, and Chris Evans sputtering through a rookie cop bit – but no meat at all. It’s obvious, needlessly violent, and frankly dull. Ayer’s now made this film three times, each worse than the last – while Harsh Times was generally weak, at least it had some originality, and though most people generally agree that Training Day was highly overrated, Denzel Washington’s performance still rings true, and the plot had some smarts about it. Perhaps Street Kings’ status as a box office bomb will shake Ayers out of his niche and push him in a new direction.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Next (2007, USA)

Someday, they will run out of Phillip K. Dick stories from which to make terrible, terrible movies.

Lemming (2006, French)

Tell No One got me interested in seeing Dominik Moll’s follow-up to With a Friend Like Harry, Lemming. I remember Harry as being pretty solid, and who could go wrong with the pairing of Charlotte Gainsbourg and Charlotte Rampling? But Lemming is weird. Like, David Lynch weird, if Lynch were really, really dull. Once it’s possible to figure out what is (most likely) going on, the tension of the first half has dissipated, and it’s far too late to care – all of the characters seem to walk around in a perpetual state of bemusement or stoic repression. So who cares who’s cheating on whom, who might be possessed, and who’s just plain going crazy?