Sunday, January 10, 2010

Robin and Marian (1976, Lester) ***

Begins perilously close to Monty Python territory, then gradually deepens into a romance reminiscent of PETULIA (Lester's masterpiece and among the greatest films ever made). In Lester's eyes Robin Hood (Sean Connery) is still a scamp, despite nearing retirement, but the concern becomes what Robin's roguishness and humor are masking: memories of a life committed to slaughter, the Crusades, horrific atrocities, young women and children being disemboweled. He tussles with Marian (Audrey Hepburn) over God and their decades-long separation, but really, in a different world, they would have been perfect together (a PETULIA motif). The landscape Lester conjures is less accommodating. Sherwood Forest is a place where Hepburn can break your heart with the sight of her gently aged face and the prospect of death is often more appealing than love.
[Viewed 1/7/10 on 35mm]

Saturday, January 9, 2010

My Left Foot: The Story of Christy Brown (1989, Jim Sheridan) *1/2

A suspiciously easy film to watch, Daniel Day-Lewis's famed performance is a technical tour de force that smacks more of mimicry than artistry. Of course, I've never seen any indication that Sheridan possesses much of the latter. He always seems scared of prolonging audience discomfort -- an ironic fear given his tough choices in subject matter -- and seizes every opportunity here to undercut pain and menace with wit. This is paint-by-numbers biopic as Oscar-winning crowd-pleaser.
[Viewed 1/9/10 on 35mm]

Saturday, September 22, 2007

In the Shadow of the Moon (2007, Sington) ***1/2

The film's disconcerting implication is that America has never emerged from this shadow, we've never capitalized on our moon landing's promise nor equaled (let alone surpassed) the wondrous -- if ultimately empty -- achievement. Beneath In the Shadow of the Moon's celebratory surface is a bittersweet document of a bygone era's promise -- "a time when America made bold moves" under the guidance of visionaries like JFK -- and the brutal period (sprinkled with triumph) that emerged a few years later. Sington never harps on this angle -- he's too classy, though not clueless -- but it's there in the Apollo astronauts' offhand remarks, like when one implies America has now lost its sense of kinship with the rest of the world that was engendered by the landing.

Sington alternates mesmeric archival footage (a spaceship's many violent interactions with its environments, all-encompassing plumes of smoke and dust and fire, take on an abstract expressionism) with a handful of interviews (restricted to the astronauts; notably absent is reclusive Neil Armstrong). Their recollections are vivid, and the insights formed in their brief abandonment of terrestrial life (e.g. about a celestial power existing beyond religion, about humanity's molecular kinship with the universe, about Earth's fragility, its insignificance, the glorious respite it provides from an inhospitable galaxy) are often profound. The astronauts inspire via their humility and pragmatism and sheer exploratory accomplishment, but there's no escaping the moon landing as a short-lived balm for a country that was mired in assassinations, war, corrupt politicians, and race riots. A big, expensive, uplifting distraction. An entertainment.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

2007 Toronto International Film Festival: Day 10


SMILEY FACE (Gregg Araki) ***
Probably the best stoner comedy since The Big Lebowski. Anna Farris now has my vote for female performance of the year, a fearless, uproarious turn that finds the discursive joy in pot like no one on screen since, well, Jeff Bridges. Farris is in almost every frame -- often alone and in close-up -- alternating between overt lunacy and subtly hilarious facial gestures, all the while maintaining a peerless comic timing. She can be childlike or seductive, overwhelmed or tart and assertive. Araki has fun with his picaresque story, reflecting a stoner's wobbly stream-of-consciousness with intertitles, omniscient narration, rewinds, and fantasy sequences. Smiley Face might be somewhat slight overall -- despite an intriguing undercurrent that swings between Marxist respect for the common worker and pity for their sober conformity, without dismissing Faris's irresponsibleness -- but that seems like a non-issue considering I already want to watch it again.

XXY (Lucía Puenzo) 1/2
IT'S A FREE WORLD... (Ken Loach) ****
LOU REED'S BERLIN (Julian Schnabel) **

Friday, September 14, 2007

2007 Toronto International Film Festival: Day 9


CORROBOREE (Ben Hackworth) * [Digital projection]
A GIRL CUT IN TWO (Claude Chabrol) no stars
SON OF RAMBOW (Garth Jennings) *

WEIRDSVILLE (Allan Moyle) *
I've never had much patience for the brand of obnoxious humor exhibited here, i.e. exhausting pileups of preposterousness -- devil-worshiping serial killers get into fights with dwarf armies clad in medieval garb, while tiresome druggies trip over dumb, obvious one-liners. But Moyle makes good use of music (those ethereal street-gliding sequences seem to capture heroin's languid high), his energy bursts can be infectious, and his central duo -- Wes Bentley and Scott Speedman -- have a decent screwball rapport. Maybe on a better day my rating would be a bit more charitable, though not giving Taryn Manning nearly enough screentime makes me feel especially ungenerous.

2007 Toronto International Film Festival: Day 8


BATTLE FOR HADITHA (Nick Broomfield) ** [Digital projection]
ANGEL (François Ozon) *1/2

YOU, THE LIVING (Roy Andersson) ****
Ashamed to admit I haven't seen Songs from the Second Floor, so Andersson's piercing worldview -- conveyed here, as (I'm told) before, in a series of absurdist (and hilarious) tableaux -- proved a revelation for me. Andersson utilizes long, static takes, his compositions masterful in their compression and reach. Corporate culture, romantic longing, broken courtships, social engagements, the justice system, and retirement, are among the many topics Andersson can slice open with a single shot, his razer-sharp framings packed to the brim with gags and insights. Every image looks sickly and ghostly, and the characters don't fare much better. But underneath these wry vignettes is a surprisingly positive sense of resignation, the idea that life's (often tragic) arbitrariness -- its constant flux -- is exactly what makes us unable to give up on it entirely: as grim as life gets, you never know when your luck might improve. This is a deeply despairing film that never stops chuckling in the face of gloom.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

2007 Toronto International Film Festival: Day 7


CASSANDRA'S DREAM (Woody Allen) *1/2
Few have spent more time and energy than me defending Allen's post-millennial comedies. But whereas I find their (undeniably) sloppy plotting and lazy scene constructions endearing more than inept, I can't stomach Allen applying the same techniques to his more serious and ostensibly substantial recent films (i.e. Cassandra's Dream, Match Point and even Melinda and Melinda to an extent). Allen jogs across very familiar territory here, wondering -- just like he did in Crimes and Misdemeanors and Match Point -- whether humanity can accept murder as a solution to maintaining (or enhancing) social status, and if so, what is the moral price (are the "eyes of God" watching?). Regrettably this question is treated with much greater ambivalence and care in both of Cassandra Dream's predecessors. Regardless of whether I agree with his conclusions, Allen's certainty here comes across as lack of thought, although his now alarmingly casual treatment of death (see also: Scoop) -- reeking of acceptance rather than fear (see: many Woody Allen films before 2000, especially Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters) -- feels earned in some cases, and better formed. The only way to appreciate Cassandra's Dream is as a pitch black comedy of manners, but I'm far from convinced Allen intended e.g. the ridiculous (and pivotal) Tom Wilkinson scenes to be funny rather than tortured. Philip Glass's propulsive score, with its intimations of operatic tragedy (the Greek variety is referenced by Allen as well), doesn't help sell the humor argument either.

[Digital projection]

MARRIED LIFE (Ira Sachs) **
Now this is definitely a comedy of manners (and like Cassandra's Dream, about an ordinary man grappling with murder), albeit another pat and ungainly one that never quite finds its tone -- ultra-literary, portentous narration and suffering is at odds with the deadpan wit, while the focus shifts do nothing but disorientate (major characters disappear for half the film). But reliable acting, nice pacing, and an elegant period style (both behind and in front of the camera), make the film go down smoothly.

THE DEVIL'S CHAIR (Adam Mason) 1/2
[Digital projection]
Probably not the best idea to follow your opening set piece (featuring a blond so fucking hot I didn't want to see her get killed off so fast) with almost an hour of tedious, circular, nonsensical talking. Unfortunately nothing improves even when the blood starts spilling. Favorite moment: A random voiceover suddenly insults the acting and screenwriting, as if the director thinks telling us he knows how badly his film sucks is going to make the experience any more tolerable. Your complicity only makes it worse, dude.