Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Standard Operating Procedure (2008)

Errol Morris’ recent film Standard Operating Procedure, which studies the now famous pictures of prisoner abuse and torture at Abu Ghraib, is one of the most stone-faced, impenetrable documentaries that I’ve seen in a long time. You can’t fault Morris for trying to maintain an austere tone in the face of such troubling material, but the coldness of the film, his oblique approach, and the intellectual distance that he maintains from his subject are what ultimately make his argument so inaccessible.

I get his basic premise: that photographs never tell a whole story, that they are half-truths frozen in time. The conditions in which a picture are taken-- what lies outside the frame-- are just as important as what we can see. We get some of this from interviews with the accused soldiers, who range from pleading and insightful to downright naive, but Morris undermines any argument he might have by refusing to prove or refute anything. In taking what the soldiers say at face value-- from the convincing and chilling revelation that the soldiers were ordered by the CIA to be hard on detainees to “soften them up” for interrogation, to the now-infamous Lyndie England’s lame excuse that it was all her ex-boyfriend's fault-- he ends up leaving us even more baffled and confused than we were before we saw his film.

And maybe that’s exactly the point. Morris’ only goal here is to make people at least hesitant to judge the veracity of a charge or an event based on photographs that only tell a small piece of the story. Ultimately, his interest in Abu Ghraib is academic. He’s not trying to tell a story here-- he’s just trying to illuminate an abstract idea.

This revelation aside-- which, let’s face it, should already be obvious to anyone who knows the least bit about film or photography, or has ever used Photoshop-- Standard Operating Procedure is still hurt by its relentless meandering. See it for its interview with a wise, seasoned interrogator who puts the whole Middle East situation in perspective, as well as for the gorgeous slow motion photography and Danny Elfman’s haunting score. Just know that it’s not half as enlightening as The Fog Of War, as touching as Gates Of Heaven, as clever as Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control, or as absorbing and important as The Thin Blue Line.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Armond White's Better Than List 2008

I'm not really quite sure what's happened to New York Press film critic Armond White over the last year or so. Even though I've been on board with a lot of his contrarian opinions (hating The Dark Knight) and agree with him about many of the films he supports (Shotgun Stories), the man really seems to have gone off the deep end lately, to the point that the majority of his reviews test the limits of readability. Still, even though there is a lot of Armond-hate out there, I still have an odd respect for the guy, which brings us to his 2008 Better Than List. This is a piece he's been putting together for the past few years, where he gives you ten movies that mainstream critics have been praising and then explains why his choices are better. As usual, he borders on incoherency, but a few of his choices are interesting, like his recommending Steven Chow's CJ7 over Wall-E. I can't get behind his shameless Spielberg-promoting (Indiana Jones 4 is a terrible, terrible movie), but his praise for RocknRolla and Transporter 3 does make me a bit more excited to check those films out. Check out the list for yourself. The indignation of the commenters alone is worth the price of admission. As an added bonus, take a look at Jim Emerson's response to White's list, which is a pretty funny examination of Armond's often impenetrable prose.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

I Love Sarah Jane

I Love Sarah Jane is a zombie film from Australia. It was featured at Sundance last year, and it's one of the better shorts I've seen in a while. Think Night of the Living Dead meets Lord of the Flies, with a twisted love story thrown in for good measure. The You Tube Screening Room has a lot of great films available to watch, and I'll try and start posting the good ones as I come across them.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Favorites of 2008

It’s hard for me to make a “best of” list for 2008, because I’ve seen so few of the big movies this year. It seems that film has become seasonal, with all the awards contenders and critical favorites crammed into late December, and many of them only released in the big cities. So I still haven’t seen some of the movies that are getting lots of attention, like the Swedish vampire movie Let The Right One In or the documentary Waltz With Bashir, both of which are collecting awards left and right. As for the Oscar bait-- like Milk, Doubt, The Reader, and Frost/Nixon-- I’m willing to wait for the video releases.

That being said, I’ve managed to come up with ten films from 2008 that are legitimately good and well worth checking out. Some of them have already been mentioned on this blog, but a few are totally new. To mix things up a bit, I’ve also included a list of the best movies, some recent, some very old, that I caught up with on video this year. Most of the movies I see in any given year are on video, and these are the ones that I can most enthusiastically recommend.

Best of 08 (in no particular order)

The most exhilarating and engrossing movie that I saw this year. It's already on video. Rent it now.

You probably won’t find it listed as a comedy, but this is the funniest movie of the year. I could watch it endlessly.


Some directors have already won me over to such a degree that I can’t even begin to review their films, and Herzog is at the top of that list. I am convert to the church of Werner, but even if I weren’t I would still be saying that this weird, fascinating documentary was one of the best of the year.


The same could be said of Danny Boyle. This is the kind of crowd pleasing, feel good movie that should be at the top of the box office charts.


It’s always bothered me that Hollywood films seem to exist not in the true culture of America, but in a fairy tale culture of their own devising. It’s such a problem that a great movie like Shotgun Stories, so steeped in the culture that it’s documenting (in this case the South), seems oddly like a foreign film. It's as though we need subtitles to understand it. But this faithfulness to regional filmmaking is what makes movies like this one, and Chop Shop, to a lesser extent, so rewarding.

Not technically an ‘08 release, but I had no chance of seeing it until then, so I’m including it on the list anyway. A lot of people have a lot of bad things to say about this movie, but I see it as one of the best of Coppola’s career. Watch it to remember why you ever thought he was great to begin with.

Peter Mullan is great as always, and Andrew Garfield’s performance is nearly the best of the year.


I say “nearly” because the best of the year, not surprisingly, is Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler. It’s an all around well constructed film, but the whole thing is propped up by his presence. I can’t imagine anyone else playing his role, which I’ve always considered to be high praise for any performance. This film also has my favorite ending of the year.

Like any Mamet movie, it has its flaws, but it also has Chiwetel Ejiofor. Enough said. And I’m a sucker for any modern day Samurai in Los Angeles story.

This is my summer comedy trifecta, and even though it’s probably unfair to lump them all together, I don’t feel like choosing one. After all, American comedy these days is pretty much all Will Farrell, Judd Apatow and Co., and Kevin Smith, so I figure I’ve got all the bases covered.

Surfwise, The Visitor, Diary of the Dead, Chop Shop

Only Angels Have Wings (1939)
The Fallen Idol (1948)
Ace In The Hole (1951)
Pickpocket (1959)
Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962)
Belle De Jour (1967)
My Night at Maud's (1969)
Atlantic City (1980)
Deep Water (2006)
REC (2007)
The Man From Earth (2007)

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Boy A (2008)

The sensitive and skillfully acted Boy A follows the story of Eric Wilson, who as a troubled child was involved in the violent murder of a young girl. Dubbed “Boy A” during the trial, he is released after 14 years of rehabilitation and given a second chance at a life. Eric, now 24, chooses the name Jack Burridge, moves into an apartment in Manchester, and begins to build a new identity under the guiding hand of his rehabilitation counselor, Terry ( Peter Mullan). Soon, he’s gotten a job, made some friends, and even begins dating a coworker (the excellent Katie Lyons). But Jack’s release has not gone unnoticed by the press, who have latched onto him as an example of pure evil and are on a constant quest to discover his new identity.

The early scenes surrounding the release are some of the film’s best, thanks to a superb lead performance from the relatively unknown Andrew Garfield as Jack. Garfield has the trickiest role in the film. He is, after all, not only portraying a man with a very checkered past, but one that’s learning to live again, and he does it all with the deftness of a much older actor. O’Rowe’s script doesn’t give him much to work with in the early running, and it would have been easy for him to come off as a non-entity, or, much worse, as outright dumb, but Garfield imbues the character with a kind of quirky earnestness that makes him easily likable. His Jack is quiet, skittish, almost pathologically shy, but it’s this vulnerability that almost instantly earns him the audience’s trust. Early scenes that feature him going out with his coworkers for his first ever night on the town (they think he was in prison for stealing cars) are some of the best I’ve seen in any movie this year (watch the sad, spectacular dance he does in the nightclub), and Garfield convincingly shows how the modest Jack could so easily win the favor of his new friends.

Along with Garfield, Mullan and Lyons deserve attention for their outstanding supporting work. Peter Mullan is one of the very best actors that no one’s ever heard of, and his funny, endearing performance here is one of the most skillful of the year. His relationship with Jack is more paternal than it is professional, (setting up an interesting juxtaposition with Terry’s biological son, with whom he is trying to reconnect) a feeling that rises out of the warmth and quiet wisdom that Mullan brings to the role. Katie Lyons is equally good as Jack’s girlfriend, Michelle, and the chemistry between she and Garfield is a big part of what makes their relationship feel so easy and unforced. Her role as the offbeat, understanding young woman that can see past the shyness of the male lead is perhaps a bit of a cliche at this point (I’m starting to think it’s a case of wish fulfillment on the part of male writers), but she rises above any weaknesses in the writing with a great deal of charm and vivacity, and the love story between she and Jack is one of the most natural and honest that I’ve seen in some time.

Crowley’s direction is appropriately minimalist, using a number of static wide shots and a cool color palette to show the industrial backdrop of Manchester, and he does a good job of preparing the audience for the inevitability of the film’s conclusion. But where he and O’Rowe do a disservice to their story is in the portrayal of Jack’s character. They clearly have their minds made up about how the audience is supposed to view their character, and seem to make an obvious attempt to stamp out even the smallest doubt that Jack may not be truly rehabilitated. Throughout the film, Crowley uses flashbacks to Jack’s childhood to slowly reveal what lead up to his crime. Yet when we come to the actual murder, he declines to show us what Jack’s role in the killing was, as though he wishes to hide any grisly details that might make us think less of our main character. I certainly can’t fault Crowley for wanting to spare his audience a horrific murder, but building a little skepticism about Jack’s character here and there would have done wonders to highlight and complicate the big questions about crime, punishment, and the possibility of redemption that Boy A is trying to play with. Making Jack a martyr, as Crowley comes dangerously close to doing, adds very little to the conversation.

That being said, it’s probably unfair to criticize Crowley too much for choosing to make a small character study over a social treatise, especially when the characters being studied are so well realized and elegantly portrayed. Even though it doesn’t tackle its subject as head on or as cuttingly as it could, Boy A is still a well-rendered, provocative, and heartbreaking story. It’s certainly a shame that it hasn’t been getting the attention it deserves, especially for Garfield, whose breakout performance is reason enough to seek it out. The acting on display here is universally superb, and the fact that Boy A is still one of the best films of the year despite its faults can be credited to nothing other than the significant skill of its cast.