Our Brand is Crisis (Boynton, 2005)

The chaotic opening images of Rachel Boynton’s documentary show crowds of Bolivian’s rioting in the streets, guns firing, rocks being hurled at soldiers. The camera pans over to a man slumped up against a wall, blood dripping down into a pool next to him. Then the film flashes back a year to Bolivia in the throws of a presidential election, anger and unrest brewing and immediately foreshadowing the violence to come.

Our Brand is Crisis charts the involvement of an American political strategist firm headed by James Carville and Jeremy Rosner, helping the main candidate and ex-president Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, nicknamed Goni, try and win back the presidency during the 2002 election. As the opening images suggest, the political climate in Bolivia changes from bad to worse, and Boynton has an all access pass to the subjects during and after Goni wins, then resigns because of growing violence in the streets a year later.

The subject matter feels timely, but the presentation of the characters doesn’t invoke much interest. The American’s of course come off like arrogant, know it all pricks who back the right guy but with disastrous results. Goni lives up to his reputation as high and mighty, a person of big busines and not the people. But as we later learn in the epilogue, the president after Goni has to resign some 20 months after Goni leaves, continuing on the cycle of political doubt in Bolivia. The film tries to show this process as a product of the stereotypical political campaign by the Americans, filled with negative adds and focus groups.

Not sure I agree fully. Goni seems to be using the American’s for what he needs, strategy toward winning, and nothing to do with actual governing. In the end, the angry peasants would rather have action, not double-talk. Our Brand is Crisis doesn’t have much new to say about U.S. foreign involvement in third world countries, instead reinforcing the downbeat and pessimistic vision most foreigners have concerning American foreign policy. While probably true, what’s the point when your film feels general and disinterested itself.

The Damned Thing (Hooper, 2006)

Masters of Horror – Season 1 RECAP: Had high expectations for this series and Season 1 is a huge letdown. Only Joe Dante’s Homecoming stands alone as a great episode, although John Landis’ Deer Woman and Larry Cohen’s Pick Me Up had moments of memorable fright. Even though these so-called masters have complete freedom, most simply play it safe with substance and style. Still haven’t seen the just released Miike episode Imprint, which was too crazy to show on cable (huh?). Low points from John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper provided a downright awful display of once-great storytellers dwelling in absurdity and incoherence.

Which brings us to Season 2, with some overlap in directors, the aforementioned Tobe Hooper helming the opener. Amazingly, The Damned Thing, an even more dreadful outing for Hooper than last season’s Dance of the Dead, inflicts not the intended “horror” of the series title but horror of incompetence; a complete disregard for style and quality acting, obvious metaphors and a stab at political critique that even Bush might get.

This film is downright bad, not simply because the story, which involves demonic possession of a small town in rural Texas, shamelessly attempts to display a generational conflict, but has no brass to conjure up scares within this context. It seems the filmmakers and the executives at Showtime feel the need to display extreme gore and carnage in place of any worthwhile horror. But since the possibility of genius still remains (there is another Joe Dante episode this season), I will continue to be disappointed.

Innocence (Hadzihalilovic, 2004)

The subtext is rich and could concern any number of issues; fascism, slavery, repression, conformity or a combination of them all. Innocence is a stunningly visual film with haunting images that call to mind Kubrick and Malick –  tracking shots, lush natural setting; youth tainted or saved?

The film starts with a series of static, what looks to be POV shots of a forest, then underground walkways, all leading to a interior where a group of girls open a casket, revealing a younger girl, who awakens and joins the crew. All wear different color ribbons in their hair, marking their age. With the emergence of another child, the colors are all passed down one, the now youngest Iris, obtaining the red. We find out that the girls live in an fenced off park, five different houses of girls under the watchful eye of a few older women teachers. The adults seem to be training the girls for something, sending off the older one’s when ready to the outside world.

Many questions follow, where the hell are these girls?, are they being held against their will?, is it in the future or past? This ambiguity produces some dazzling stretches of tense panic. Some girls start to question their place in this society, choosing action instead of pacification. Some, trusting, naive, and loyal, seem to be playing into the hand that feeds them, whomever “he” is, either by choice/comfort or because of fear. I have my own thoughts on the “why’s” concerning the outside forces, but I think it’s better for you to see for yourself.

Innocence offers countless stunning scenes, a collection of great performances, and a subtle attention to mise-en-scene which allows the viewer to detect patterns, nuances, and horrors within an environment of relative calmness. Too bad first time director Hadzihalilovic (who worked on many of Gaspar Noe’s films) chooses to show way too much of the outside world at the end of the film. These final moments destroy some of the established suspense, putting a face to the unseen tormentor we always knew held the puppet strings. In this case, less is more, and for most of the film we get to feel as innocent as the girls laying in wait. Scary stuff.

Glory Road (Gartner, 2006)

An enjoyable tear jerker, Glory Road is a focused sports story about the journey of the 1966 Texas Western basketball team, who carried seven black players to only five whites, overcame internal squabbles and racism to win a national title over Kentucky.

Led by Don Haskins (marvelously played by Josh Lucas), the team destroyed convention and reinvented the game of basketball by starting five black players in that title game, the first time ever by an NCAA D1 team. Side stories of coach and players feel like an afterthought, as if the filmmakers themselves took Haskin’s credo of “only basketball, nothing else”, directly to heart.

But each player personality feels respectfully fleshed out. From the playground kids of Brooklyn to the steel mill worker from Detroit, director James Garnter gives ample opportunity to his actors to reveal the fears, heartaches, and triumphs of these characters. While a little corny and obvious at times, you can’t help get behind Glory Road, who’s greatest asset is a passion for basketball, and the men determined to express their love for the game through an awesome mixture of fundamentals and improvisation (stay for the end credits to hear the actual living members of the team speak out).

Marie Antoinette (S. Coppola, 2006)

Sofia Coppola broke onto the film scene with a success her first time out. The Virgin Suicides (1999), a devastating look at repression in 1970’s suburbia, has glorious visuals, Kirsten Dunst’s great lead role, and a story obsessed with mood and environment.

Her second film, Lost in Translation (2003), a completely disappointing sophomore effort, rejects a coherent narrative for whimsical banter. I was certainly in the minority when it came out, the film universally loved by critics and art-house fans alike. However, I found it whiney, tedious, an altogether juvenile story. While showcasing Bill Murray’s standout performance, the film suffers from Scarlet Johansson’s Charlotte, a lackadaisical soul looking for comfort in all the right places, a boring rich girl discontent with her place in life, even though she has had the FREEDOM OF CHOICE the entire way. In short, her character doesn’t have tension, conflict maybe, deep inner conflict, but no tension within the world she resides. I’m getting this all out of the way because it’s important to lay out a foundation, a place to start in discussing Coppola’s new film,

Marie Antoinette, which falls deeply in line with the motifs and themes of her other work.Marie Antoinette follows the young Austrian princess (Dunst again – thank God), married off to a disinterested Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman), all living exuberantly at the palace of Versailles as unseen revolt and later revolution brew in the streets of Paris. Coppola’s beautiful, deeply sad film, deals strictly with Marie’s life at Versailles; the parties, the traditions, the plays, the walks in the sun, the hunts in the woods, the gossip, the intimate moments with her husband, life of the palace, all countered with the numerous wide shots of the Queen by herself. Solitude vs. society.

The opening scenes show Marie basking in the attention of the court, unaware of the societal rules she now must abide by. As she realizes the pitfalls and limitations of her power, happiness and growth depending on producing an heir to the throne, her joy subsides with brutal clarity. The film, itself a mature meditation on loneliness and heartache, doesn’t judge these characters who have been vilified by history. Coppola attempts to give the story weight through moments of silence, peaceful gaps in history, giving a better sense of character and motivation while deeply rooted in historical accuracy.Style and substance often collide in Marie Antoinette, producing fascinating results.

Using a keen mixture of classical and 80’s pop music and creative camera movement, Coppola amplifies your senses to mise-en-scene, showing dynamic juxtaposition’s of sound and image. The attention to detail is astonishing (as it should be – the film was mostly shot at Versailles), each room filled with texture layered upon texture, a collection of jewels, clothes, interiors, and exteriors which demand to be seen on the big screen.

All of this style leads to Coppola’s real achievement – creating a character (large part due to Dunst’s amazing performance) who has been thrust into a repressive environment, and much like the Lisbon sisters of Suicides, understands the affect of her misery, but finds the courage to rebel against it anyways. Marie’s will to live becomes institutionalized, her growth stunted by repetition, lineage, and hierarchy.

She yearns to live, finding sex, gambling, food as her windows out, creating a film space filled with tension, little moments adding up to a recollection of failed attempts at individuality. What separates Marie and the Lisbon sisters from Charlotte has to be the fact they were never given a choice in how to live their lives, the tragedy all the more heartbreaking. Charlotte’s malaise feels forced comparatively, an American malcontent searching for what cannot be heard or found. One of the best American films this year, Marie Antoinette discovers a lost soul in the crumpled pages of history, one who’s plight fixates on sublime and articulate moments of sadness.

Lady for a Day (Capra, 1933)

Typical feel good Capra about a poor apple vendor named Annie who has somehow kept her daughter living in Europe convinced that she’s a wealthy society type. Girl wants to get married, girl needs rich fiance to meet mom, foreigners come over to depression era New York to be convinced and celebrate. With a little help from her friends; gangsters, other beggars, politicians, and much more, Annie’s stage is set for a large game of comedic deception, a large facade of wealth to try and convince the snobby they’re worth a damn. Snazzy dialogue and a great supporting turn by Ned Sparks as Happy McGuire, the wise cracking right hand man to the main Hood, save the film from being too mushy. Can’t blame Capra for making a feel good satire in such downtrodden times, but he’s made way better. Mr. Smith and Mr. Deeds offer hypnotic performances, genuine social critique and feeling, traits Lady For a Day lacks.

Nacho Libre (Hess, 2006)

Jack Black has a blast as Nacho, the tubby, well intentioned, forlorn friar who decides to follow his dreams and become a Mexican wrestler or Luchador, all for the good of the sweet orphans he cooks for at the mission. Unfortunately, his excitment doesn’t translate into a good film. Nacho and his skinny sidekick Esqeuleto go through all the typical phases of any sports movie, training, tests, allies, enemies, and then the final match with the evil reigning champion.

Nacho Libre doesn’t create a degree of excitement that rivals what it should given the potential for the material. Some charming moments shine through the banality of the plotless story, naive camerawork, and bright hues, namely the orphan Chancho who mirrors Black’s physique and passion for wrestling, also a dynamic, hilarious rumble between our protagonists and two monster munchkins, devilishly fast and skilled, who scream with every violent advance. Overall, fun at times, but completely forgettable in the end.