Sunday, May 29, 2011
Thursday, March 31, 2011
The biggest success of Christopher Morris’s Four Lions lies in how easily it gets its audience to embrace its central conceit. The film follows five would-be British jihadists whose attempt to pull off a suicide bombing in London is constantly thwarted by their overwhelming stupidity. Think of the group—which features one white convert who refers to himself as Azzam al-Britaini—as the Keystone Cops of terrorism. They can’t agree on a target (one suggests a mosque), stumble through every attempt to procure explosives, and in a particularly hilarious subplot, are summoned to Pakistan for training only to inadvertently deliver a hammer blow to Al Qaida.
Morris is working in high satire here, but he does it with a great deal of humanity, to the point that we root for these oafs to pull of their misguided jihad in spite of any semblance of political correctness we might try to bring to the material. Not only that, but the script is full of the kind of subtle humor that keeps its characters from ever becoming too cartoonish. Consider Omar (Riz Ahmed), the group’s least dimwitted member, who we see is constantly at odds with his more traditional Muslim neighbors. In one hilarious scene, he and his wife—a liberated woman who seems more modern and independent than many of her Western counterparts—blithely laugh at the conservative hangups of a peaceful Muslim who tries to warn Omar away from violence. Guess which one the authorities think is a terrorist. In another scene, Omar provides his young son—who excitedly awaits his father’s martyrdom—with a retelling of The Lion King that paints it as a story of revolt against consumerist oppressors. In both cases, Morris is able to weave a sense of irony into the film that keeps it from ever feeling like its relying too strongly on shock value.
It’s scenes like these that keep the film afloat in its more repetitive moments, when it seems to languish a little too long in the gang’s boneheaded antics. At times, Four Lions does border on feeling like a great short that’s been expanded into a just good enough feature. Ingratiating as the characters’ stupidity is, once we’ve come to expect them to fail, the story loses a bit of its edge. Still, this film is full of the kind of deft satire that made films like Dr. Strangelove so vital. The ability to make light of such a seemingly horrific scenario is something worth appreciating. It’s the same kind of boldness the guys at South Park—a show always ahead of the curve comedically—showed when they made an episode that depicted Osama Bin Laden as a Looney Toons-esque buffoon. In the same way, Four Lions uses its bumbling characters to strip the suicide bomber of any power by rendering them dull, ineffective, and ridiculous at the same time that they’re oddly sympathetic. That central opposition might not ever be resolved in any satisfying way, but just creating it is certainly an achievement in itself.
Tuesday, October 12, 2010
The Romans vs. Picts action thriller Centurion might seem like nothing more than B-movie schlock, but there’s no denying that it’s got a few things going for it. At the top of the list is its star Michael Fassbender, a promising actor who’s made a name for himself recently with roles in films like Inglorious Basterds, Fish Tank, and Hunger. It also doesn’t hurt that it was directed by Neil Marshall (Dog Soldiers, The Descent, Doomsday), the British horror auteur whose three previous films have shown him to be one of the few filmmakers around who actually respects and understands the history and fans of the genre. Throw in Olga Kurylenko as a mute warrior princess, the striking scenery of the Scottish highlands, and a little true history (the film is based on the legendary disappearance of Rome’s Ninth Legion), and there was a chance for Centurion to be memorable. But while Marshall’s hand for directing bone-crushing violence and tense chase scenes certainly doesn’t disappoint, the end product turns out to be the most generic genre exercise he’s attempted yet.
Fassbender stars as Quintus Dias, a Roman centurion serving in the legion during Hadrian’s ill-fated attempt to conquer the modern day United Kingdom. As the film opens, the takeover has turned into something of a quagmire, thanks to unforgiving weather and the presence of the Picts, a group of savage Celtic warriors who use guerilla tactics to repel all invaders. After their Ninth Legion is slaughtered in a surprise attack, Dias and a ragtag group of survivors take off across the countryside with a small war party led by the trident-carrying Etain (Kurylenko) on their trail.
This cat-and-mouse chase aspect of the film appears to have been the necessity of a small budget more than any kind of bold stylistic choice, and Marshall makes it work as best he can. He delivers on a few nice moments of tension, particularly a battle in the woods that leads to a Butch and Sundance nod where the characters are forced to jump off a cliff into a rushing river. Still, the attempt to make the small group of soldiers represent the entire strata of Roman society is hackneyed at best, and at its slower points the movie seems to be about nothing more than guys running through the woods with swords. A few attempts are made at building character—hell, they even introduce a beautiful witch living alone in the woods to add some sexual tension—but none of it ever amounts to more than the requisite pre-death talk of wives and future plans of starting farms and retiring from the soldier game. The striking scenery of the Scottish highlands is often the film’s saving grace, but beautiful as those hillsides may be, I eventually got tired of watching the characters sprint across them during long helicopter shots.
As it turns out, the film’s best moments all come early on, when Dias is still with the Ninth Legion and their charismatic leader, General Titus Virilius. As the General, Dominic West (probably known to most as McNulty from The Wire) steals every one of his scenes, and his presence in the film only succeeds in making it clear how uninteresting and incomplete a character Dias ultimately is. This portion of the movie also features the film’s best action scene, when the Ninth is ambushed on a forest road by an army of Picts. Marshall’s eye for carnage is spot on, but he tends to sacrifice coherence for gore a bit too often, to the point that the battle eventually degrades into one close up of a stabbing and throat slashing after another, with no real regard for continuity or the spatial positioning of any of the characters in the frame. That the blood is often CGI only adds to the confusion, as it has a tendency to make every action scene seem just a little too much like a video game. Still, no one could say Marshall doesn’t have a gift for portraying the brutality of ancient weapons, and throughout the film he continually ups the ante on creative ways for his characters to die by the sword.
Unfortunately, new and interesting uses of a trident can only carry a movie so far, and in the end Marshall fails to bring something new to this genre in the way he has with his other films. If anything, his big accomplishment here is that Centurion has none of the vaguely jingoistic underpinnings that taint so much (American) action cinema. Neither side—Picts or Romans—is presented as being morally superior to the other, and a bit of last minute double-dealing calls into question any easy ideas of heroism or victory. In Marshall’s world, there seems to be no constant righteousness or cause, and death only begets more death. That might not seem like much, but it’s pretty heavy territory for this kind of film to venture into, and hints at how Marshall just might be the next John Carpenter. Centurion, then, seems to be a sort of transitional film for him. Given more money for the production, it’s hard to say what kind of big budget madness he might have been able to concoct, and given less he probably would’ve spent a little more time building tension and writing decent character interaction. As it is, I can't help but think that Centurion had just enough of a budget to be mediocre.
Saturday, August 28, 2010
There’s an old argument that troubled kids only truly learn to be criminals once they’re sent to prison. Jacques Audiard’s 2009 film A Prophet takes this idea to its logical extreme, showing us how a French Muslim named Malik (the excellent Tahar Rahim) turns from a naïve street thug into a mafia kingpin during a seven-year stint in the joint. It’s a sprawling film (among other things, it’s been compared to both The Godfather and the epic TV series The Wire), and Audiard never misses a step in his depiction of the intrigue and violence of the French prison system. It’s only when he tries to build a larger thematic arc around his story that he falters—but as an engrossing crime thriller, A Prophet is near perfect.
Tahar Raheem plays Malik El Djebena, an orphaned street kid who’s sentenced to a seven-year prison sentence for attacking a police officer. Once on the inside, he’s approached by a group of Corsican mafiosos led by Cesar Luciani (Niel Arestrup), and forced to perform a hit on an Arab snitch. From there, wide-eyed Malik ingratiates himself to the prison’s criminal element, serving as the “eyes and ears” of Cesar’s outfit by moving seamlessly between the Muslim and Italian inmates.
Audiard’s style is impeccable, especially in the way that he constructs the prison’s hierarchy. He never throws his audience a lifeline to easily understand the narrative, but the immediacy provided by his camerawork and the seamless editing by Juliette Welfing ensure that the audience is never too overwhelmed. Unlike a lot of crime films, the pace here never gets bogged down in details or unnecessary exposition. For Audiard, action is story, and as Malik continues to perfect his reputation as a criminal operator, the film only keeps raising the stakes. Once Malik starts getting day-long work releases for good behavior, the intensity of the story ratchets up considerably, showing how our hero manages to pull of it assassinations and prisoner exchanges by day, only to return to the safety of a prison cell at night.
The film’s greatest asset is its performances, particularly from Raheem, Arestrup, and Adel Bencherif as Ryad, Malik’s contact on the outside. Raheem’s performance is especially impressive considering that we’re never given much information about who Malik is or what motivates him. He arrives in jail as a blank slate, and it’s only through the things he does and the decisions he makes that we begin to understand the breadth of his conviction and ambition. He’s nearly matched by Arestrup as Cesar, the slick old lion of the Corsican mafia, who manages to be at turns both despicable and utterly pathetic. The relationship between he and Malik serves as a lynchpin for the majority of the film’s character-based drama, and despite Cesar’s cruelty, there is something almost heartbreaking about the way things end between them.
Audiard’s approach to constructing his criminal underworld is impeccable, but he plays fast and loose with his themes, and his attempt to construct some sort of overarching thesis around Malik’s actions never quite pans out the way it should. For example, the fantasy sequences between Malik and the ghost of Ryeb, the man he kills early in the film, add almost nothing, and a series of scenes that try to establish Malik as the “prophet” of the title are particularly muddled. But as a portrait of the prison system and the inner workings of the criminal underworld—that is, as an intensely realized, dynamic genre film—A Prophet is unmatched. It may not add up to more than the sum of its parts, but those parts prove to be more than enough to build a compelling film.
Monday, July 26, 2010
The independent film Winter’s Bone follows Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence), a destitute Ozarks teenager on the hunt for her crank-cooking, absentee father in the backwoods along the Missouri-Arkansas border. It's a film that's been praised for its realism, but this seems a bit off base. Winter’s Bone is certainly a good film, but it works more as a kind of larger-than-life, southern gothic thriller than it does as a Ramin Barhani-esque exercise in site specific cinema. At its heart, this is a well-observed genre film that often transcends the familiarity of its story thanks to its excellent performances. And while the sense of place that the film manages to cultivate is certainly worth noting, it’s the complex character interactions and director Debra Granik’s unique eye for the grotesque that are truly most memorable.
Granik shot most of the film in muted grays and blues, and this dour color palette, along with the handheld camerawork and Dickon Hinchcliffe’s original score, helps to build an almost constant feeling of dread. As Ree delves into the local underworld of trailer park chemists and speed freaks, Granik succeeds in building the kind of menacing, trust-no-one atmosphere that’s usually only found in suspense and horror films—and to great effect. The missing person case at the center of the story has led many to compare Winter’s Bone to a noir detective film—Daniel Woodrell, on whose book the film is based, is known to refer to his writing as "country noir"—and this is true enough. It views that genre through the prism of the Ozarks in the same way that a movie like Brick used a high school setting. But along with the detective story, Winter's Bone makes heavy use of horror tropes, particulary in the way that it builds tension and makes use of mystery. It has just as much in common with Last House on the Left as it does The Big Sleep, especially by the time we get to a late scene involving a chainsaw.
As in many horror films, certain players are often mythologized and built up by other characters long before they’re actually shown onscreen. It’s a classic technique for building tension and a sense of foreboding, and Granik plays it to perfection, especially in the case of Teardrop (John Hawkes), Ree’s meth-addicted, caged tiger of an uncle. With his jailhouse tats and his mercurial, just-as-soon-kill-you-as-look-at-you demeanor, it’s Hawkes who’s the film’s most memorable character, and Granik honors him by giving him a wonderful, hauntingly unresolved last scene. He’s nearly matched by Jennifer Lawrence, a 19-year old actress whose previous major credit was, of all things, The Bill Engvall Show. She brings a quiet dignity to Ree that is unusual for someone of her age to be able to pull off, and whether she’s skinning squirrels, chopping wood, or acting as a caretaker for her two young siblings and her mentally ill mother, she always seems totally authentic. Likewise, her command of the grit and flow of the backwoods dialect seems effortless, especially when compared to the kind of “aw shucks, ya’ll” histrionics so many Hollywood actresses seem to fall prey to when they try to go full redneck.
It’s this kind of attention to detail that helps Winter’s Bone maintain a veneer of authenticity, even in the cases where the set design seems all too staged. In many scenes, the filmmakers seem to be going out of their way to achieve a sense of realism through decoration—every coffee table is perfectly littered with crack pipes, guns, beer cans, and spent cigarettes, and every yard seems to have just one too many cars up on blocks—but it’s actually their excellent attention to character interaction that ends up getting the job done. See the way Ree’s neighbors, knowing she and her siblings are hungry, bring over some spare deer meat for them to eat (and after Ree had previously admonished her brother by saying “Never ask for what oughta be offered”), or a wonderful scene between Ree and a benevolent Army recruiter. In each case, Granik succeeds in building a world that operates by its own rules, moral codes, and blood ties, and it’s through this that a true sense of place emerges. After all, classical detectives like Sam Spade never invoked the name of a common cousin, or spoke about how he and another character “share some of the same blood,” as a means of getting the information he needed. In Winter’s Bone, these ties serve as their own kind of currency.
This intricate network of familial connections and sense of community—however perverted it may be—are the most interesting things on display here, and they definitely help to overshadow the film’s faults—particularly the ending, which, save for the possible fate of one key character, is a bit too easy. Still, there’s very little in Winter’s Bone that isn’t earned, and despite its generic trappings, there isn’t an exploitative moment on display here. The attempts at realism certainly aren't among its strengths, but that's not the point. It works precisely because of the familiarity of its story. If there's any transcendence to be found in Winter's Bone, it's in the ways that a universal tale—the gumshoe on the trail of the missing person—is reinterpreted by such an exotic environment.
Tuesday, July 6, 2010
The theme of being haunted is pervasive in The Eclipse, a beguiling Irish film from director Conor McPherson. It’s likely to be categorized as a horror film—and with good reason—but the hauntings on display here are more than just supernatural. Characters are plagued by memories, grief, romantic encounters, and guilt, and that emotional horror often proves to be just as gripping as the more classic “gotcha” moments, which are few in number but always unexpected and remarkably effective. The result is a horror film in the vein of Roman Polanski’s The Tenant or Repulsion, a story where the terror is borne not out of violence or visceral shocks but out of character, conflict, and emotional stress.
The Eclipse’s main character is Michael Farr (Ciaran Hinds), a wood shop teacher from a stormy village on the Irish coast. Farr has yet to come to terms with the death of his wife a few years earlier, but he busies himself with his two young children and his work at the town’s annual literary festival, where he volunteers as a driver. When the film opens, Farr begins dealing with another kind of specter in the form of his wife’s invalid father (who, by the way, is still alive), whose ghost begins to manifest itself inside his house and in his dreams. He finds the perfect counsel for his problems in Lena Morelle (Iben Hjejle), a popular writer of ghost stories who is in town for the literary festival. Their relationship flourishes thanks to their shared experience with the paranormal, but it’s complicated by the presence of Nicholas Holden (Aiden Quinn), a bestselling American writer who claims to be “haunted” by a brief affair he and Lena had months earlier.
Director Conor McPherson’s background is in the theater, but there is nothing stagey or stuffy about The Eclipse. Playwrights have a tendency to attempt to accomplish too much through dialogue, but McPherson’s approach is nothing if not uniquely cinematic. He lets his exposition build through small character actions and sly uses of set design, and his camerawork is entrancing, full of luxurious tracking shots and morbid framing that often recall Kubrick’s The Shining. The film’s moments of pure horror are few and far between, but when they come they are genuinely terrifying, thanks in no small part to some chillingly effective sound design. Still, McPherson’s boldest stylistic choice is the way he refuses to conform to any kind of traditional generic construct. He has a very particular story he’s trying to tell (specifically, the ways in which people choose to confront and move past grief) and he has no reservations about using everything from drama, horror, romance, and even slapstick comedy in order to get at it.
McPherson’s cause is no doubt helped by the exquisite trio of actors he has at the center of the film. Hjejle and Quinn are both wonderful, especially Quinn, who is clearly having a great time playing the pompous Holden. He’s a character we’d love to hate, but Quinn brings an emotional truth to the role that complicates any easy conclusions we might like to form about the kind of man he is. Still, this film ultimately belongs to Hinds, the wonderful Irish character actor who is a reassuring presence in any movie in which he appears. He’s an intimidating figure, but he brings a gentleness to Farr that is completely disarming, and this helps him succeed in gaining the audience’s trust right from the start. Any time you have a horror film with a genuine emotional core, it’s easy for the attempts at suspense to feel out of place, or worse yet, to cheapen the drama. But Hinds is so believable and so genuine that his performance manages to heighten everything around him.
At scarcely an hour and thirty minutes long, The Eclipse doesn’t waste a single scene. Its emphasis on character over plot is likely to lose some viewers, but those who are able to adjust to the story’s peculiar rhythms will be entranced. It’s structured like a great short story in the way that its characters, themes, and style are all so expertly intertwined. But at the same time there is a distinctly mysterious, evasive quality to the ideas it presents (like the provocative notion of a person’s ghost appearing prior to their death), which only seems to grow in complexity and meaning after the story is over. You’re not likely to be able to get The Eclipse out of your head easily—it’s the kind of film that will haunt you.
Thursday, July 1, 2010
One of the most ubiquitous types of modern documentary is the “everything you know is wrong” movie. These are films which shun any attempt at objectivity in favor of giving a very specific viewpoint, usually in the vein of explaining just how screwed we all really are. We’ve already had movies about how our government is corrupt (No End in Sight), our economy is broken (IOUSA), our food is toxic (Food, Inc.) and our lives are controlled by private interests (The Corporation), and that’s just to name a few. Now comes Collapse, the most recent documentary from the director Chris Smith (American Movie), which synthesizes all these arguments into one Grand Unified Theory of paranoia about just how severely our modern world is under attack from forces beyond our control. It’s definitely some heavy stuff, but it’s also endlessly fascinating. Not only does Smith give us a stunning primer on the major problems facing the 21st century, but he also provides us with an intimate portrait of a man on the edge, a modern day street preacher whose obsession with saving the world seems to constantly be at odds with his own wellbeing.
That man is Michael Ruppert, a former L.A. narcotics cop who’s well known in certain online circles for his work as an investigative reporter/conspiracy theorist (depending on who you ask). A chain-smoking everyman with a bad comb over and a few extra pounds on him, Ruppert has made his name thanks to an investigative newsletter and website he ran called From the Wilderness. From predicting the financial crash to breaking the story of the cover-ups surrounding the death of Pat Tillman, Ruppert has been on the cutting edge of the underground news cycle for several years—something he claims has made him public enemy number one of the powers that be. Considering Ruppert and the film’s basic hypothesis—that overpopulation combined with a looming energy crisis and the illusory nature of the financial system is likely to lead to large-scale societal collapse—this probably isn’t all that surprising.
Make no mistake—Collapse is Ruppert’s movie. The entirety of the film’s original footage consists of one long Errol Morris-style interview with him. As Ruppert expounds on his theories about peak oil, government corruption, and the looming collapse of the financial system, Smith uses stock footage and charts and graphs to articulate his points, along with black and white intertitles (“OIL,” “ELECTRICTY,” “COMPOUND INTEREST,”) to help organize the monologue. Ruppert’s theories are certainly provocative, but the majority of his argument shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s spent more than a few hours trawling the internet. What’s really compelling about Ruppert is the way he’s able to synthesize all of these issues (his take on the financial system, for example, is as succinct as it is devastating) and convincingly explain what their long term effects might be. Smith’s film doesn’t go out of its way to fact check anything he says, but it’s easy to see why Ruppert might intimidate those in power: he’s scary-articulate, well-read, and comes from a respectable family of former military/CIA workers. He’s the kind of guy you’d like to write off as a crank (and many people have), but he’s just so damned erudite, so rational even when presenting his most bizarre theories, that you can’t avoid letting at least some of his ideas seep into your subconscious.
It’s no surprise that Ruppert’s personal character helps dictate how you interpret his message, because at it its heart, Collapse is nothing if not an in-depth character study of a man who has dedicated his life to signaling the alarm about where he believes our planet is headed. It’s especially telling that Smith includes no other interviews outside of Ruppert. None of his critics are given the space to rebut him; none of his ideas are backed up by scientific testimony. It’s just Ruppert. And even though he’s a compelling interview, you can’t help but begin to think that Smith is giving him just enough rope to hang himself. Early in the film, Ruppert is unflappable, listing off bullet points and quoting scholars and scientific facts as though he’s reading them from a book. But as the film progresses he starts to loosen up a bit. His rant becomes more profanity-laced; he smokes more; he even cries on camera. Whether this was a natural progression or just a bit of clever editing on Smith’s part is hard to say, but it is incredibly revealing. We start to see just how personally invested Ruppert is in his quest. By this point we’ve already learned about the sacrifices he’s made in its service (he claims to have been shot at; his office has been burglarized; he’s been harassed; and we’re told he’s in financial trouble), but it’s when we begin to realize the psychic toll it’s taken on him that it becomes clear that Collapse is really more about the man than it is the message. Ruppert’s theories of societal collapse may or not prove to be true, the filmmakers seem to be saying, but there’s no denying that its effects are already far too apparent in his own life.