Frontiere(s) (Gens, 2008)

It’s great to see a slicer and dicer like Frontiere(s) frame its wrath within a contextual story, like when four Parisian hoods escape the recent election riots for the countryside, only to be slaughtered by a band of Neo-Nazi’s running a bed and breakfast! In a refreshing formal shift, the film never depends on psychological plot twists or character betrayals to feed the viewer’s interest. Here, the brutality of the story holds water both as a political and social statement, emphasizing the horror of a modern fascist presence existing on the outskirts of Paris, watching as Democracy implodes and slits its own throat, lying in wait for the right moment to pounce. In Frontiere(s), life and death choices transcend the typical absurdity of the genre, reverberating in uncomfortable and palpable ways. Sure, the film revels in the Horror stylistics we’ve come to expect from such fare (quick editing, stark colors, graphic violence), but when these aspects compliment a biting commentary riding underneath the blood splatter, the end result borders on profound.

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Diary of the Dead (Romero, 2008)

I’m really torn with this one. George A. Romero’s Diary of the Dead is at times engaging and timely, a calculated series of apocalyptic scenarios horrifically contained to its characters, streamed “live” via a student filmmaker’s point of view as the world crumbles around him. But the fifth chapter in Romero’s zombie films borders on ridiculous, laughable, and lazy, a troubling dichotomy of terrible acting and fascinating subject matter unable to secure any consistent pacing, context, or subtlety.

Hidden beneath the countless deaths, sacrifices, and cliches, lies a few staggering moments of complicity, glimmers of subtext condemning the “me” generation’s obsession with technology, arrogance, and expectation, and ultimately calling into question who’s really the zombies.  There’s always one constant with the great George Romero – hope doesn’t come cheap.

Flight of the Red Balloon (Hou, 2007)

Like the ambiguous floating metaphor dancing atop its Parisian landscapes, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Flight of the Red Balloon feels just out of reach, a slow, beautiful juxtaposition of grace and solitude guided by somber prevailing winds of change. It’s a film defined by rhythmic characterizations, but one haunted by a void of emotional expression. Hou’s characters, which include a distressed puppeteer named Suzanne (Juliette Binoche), her son Simon (Simon Iteanu), and a Chinese film student named Song (Fang Song), reflect different phases of individual artistic expression/frustration, contrasting souls on the verge of discovery or doubt, often left alone to reflect on their own relationship with the world around them. Elements of fantasy share equal weight with trivial interactions.

But since this is a Hou film, the camera glides just as effortlessly through cluttered interiors as spacious exteriors and nothing feels out of place or inconsequential. Flight of the Red Balloon once again proves Hou’s mastery of composing meticulously calculated human moments through silence and nuance, and the film’s measured pacing says more about the filmmaker’s obsessions with time and space than anything else.  If the end result feels a bit incomplete, it’s only because Hou’s fleeting glimpse at melancholy and longing overwhelms traditional modes of cinematic expression, leaving us wanting more of what can’t be defined.

The Great Debaters (Washington, 2007)

Give director Denzel Washington credit for tackling some heavy imagery, especially since the film’s young adult protagonists witness these horrific acts of brutality suddenly and without warning. Lasting visual trauma’s become an interesting narrative core for an otherwise standard and safe offering, one that neither threatens the status quo of Hollywood biopics nor completely falls prey to their linear views of history.

Redbelt (Mamet, 2008)

Peel away the pseudo-complex layers of David Mamet’s Brazilian Jujitsu film Redbelt and you’ll find the vitality of honor standing righteously alone. A similar warrior code defines Mamet’s previous film Spartan, but the professional world of Redbelt isn’t nearly as cutthroat as that masterpiece’s, at least in terms of mortal combat. The latest Mamet is more of a slow burn, a simmering deconstruction of trust within a sacred martial art that could represent a compromise of ethics on multiple fronts. Surprisingly, Mamet has fashioned an incomplete and simple glance at his own cinematic jockeying, never tying up the many loose ends his manipulating characters hang themselves with.

Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a respected Jujitsu teacher who has never entered the ring of professional competition, is Mamet’s consummate stoic. Mike owns a disciplined but economically failing self-defense studio with his wife Alice (Alice Braga). Their relationship feels temporary from the opening scene, as if their needs and expectations had somehow chosen to ignore each other before marrying. This distant coupling filters down to the rest of the film’s many open-ended characters. Faced with desperate monetary problems, Mike begins to dissolve his sense of tradition little by little, getting lured in by a Hollywood action star (Tim Allen), his producer (Joe Mantenga), and a dirty fight promoter (Ricky Jay).

With Spartan and now Redbelt, Mamet’s legendary magic tricks of plot and dialogue have taken a back seat to a more restrained and menacing outlook on human interactions. Silence comes to represent strength, while those who talk the most pose the greatest threat. But Redbelt never delivers the same gut-punch as Spartan, not thematically or politically. This might have to do with the narrative scope of each film. Where Spartan addresses the devastating international reach of American political greed and corruption, Redbelt takes aim at the bastardizing of sport through mass media and how the so called “Masters” get left in the dust after being drained dry by the latest televised fight or cable interview. Still, Mamet’s growing visual maturity has only heightened the sanctity of his rhythmic words, whether it’s those stated outright in a fog of uncertainty or the ones displayed silently through brutal physical action. Redbelt is a fine example of this exciting dynamic.

Southland Tales (Kelly, 2006)

Just because a film jettisons a number of crucial social and political issues against the frame hoping they’ll drip down to form a timely cinematic message, doesn’t make the end result profound. Richard Kelly’s epic, meandering satire Southland Tales is certainly ambitious, and at times, the film resurrects some biting transcendence from its rubble of pop culture, political referencing, and globalization (the music video with Justin Timberlake’s traumatized soldier/narrator is a rare marvel). But mostly the film revolves like an undecipherable puzzle, obscuring the clarity of its story with layers upon layers of ripe commentary, asking the viewer to fully invest in its “important” vision without really considering the viewer.

Southland Tales charts the three turbulent days leading up to the end of the world, or the very beginning depending on your point of view. Kelly intertwines Marxist extremists, Iraq War veterans, a porn star, an action hero, and a slew of political undesirables who make up the cluttered terrain of technological surveillance, corporate buffoonery, and governmental impotence. Needless to say, the film moves at a brisk and overwhelming pace, flipping plotlines at will while loosely connecting them through the disturbingly familiar mise-en-scene. Kelly’s scope is far reaching but thin on all fronts, a failure of content his formal approaches (time travel, doubles, the Bible) can never truly solve.

This much maligned film, which was been almost universally lambasted at Cannes two years ago, then re-edited, and finally released in New York and Los Angeles last year, is not the debacle many have targeted it as.  Nor is it anywhere near the masterpiece Kelly must have thought it during the screenwriting process. No, Southland Tales merely represents the ultimate example of the auteur gone awry, a young maverick rushing through the celluloid looking glass hoping to find revelation, realizing too late the only thing waiting on the other side is chaos.

Iron Man (Favreau, 2008)

Cinematic spring has bloomed into summer, turning the annual distribution wheel toward that moment in time when Hollywood unleashes the big guns, maximum profit films bent on luring suspecting children/tweens/grown men into the multiplexes for thrill rides and extraneous dialogue. Growing up an avid action fan, I understand the allure. As a young lad, I once reveled in the well-constructed, visceral excitement of films like Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Speed, and yes, Independence Day. But I’ve also experienced the horrors of Wild Wild West, Pearl Harbor, and Swordfish, not to mention countless other plagues my once impressionable mind couldn’t shake. In retrospect, the rotten apples have far outweighed the golden eggs.

Despite the countless disasters and disappointments, the summer movie season still represents something undeniably special for the child-like spirit inside me. The nostalgic twist I feel every May has only heightened the recent failures of the past few summer seasons, where big budget extravaganza’s have seemingly hit rock bottom, savagely and consistently disappointing viewers while flogging them with high octane, anti-story experiences flushed with bigger, louder, and more inane special effects (the penultimate example being Transformers). It’s tough to find any redeeming facets amidst these mind-boggling visual fire-bombings.

Thankfully Iron Man, the entertaining and smart opening punch of summer season 08, is wonderfully different. While the film doesn’t reinvent the wheel, it’s the type of blockbuster that makes the cynic in me remember the gleeful light Hollywood can shine when combining the right elements. The film represents a strange and potentially historic industry packaging job: a famous comic book, helmed by a B performer turned A director, and anchored by a conflicted method actor playing a conflicted super hero. The exciting result, like Christopher Nolan’s superb Batman Begins, uses character development as its narrative foundation while framing a super hero origin story through the kinetic lens of strategically placed and potent visual effects.

Iron Man envisions a high tech world where weapons technology rules the roost, no matter if you’re the American Government/Big Business or Taliban-esque freedom fighters. In fact, throughout the film billionaire playboy Tony Stark (Downey Jr.) seems to be a medium between the two sides, a corporate puppeteer childishly unaware of the horrifying actions occurring just off the screen until his own life gets violently and fantastically engaged. It’s this guilt of inaction that drives Stark, and in turn Downey Jr.’s slyly comedic and nuanced performance.

And so Stark traverses (quite brilliantly in his Hot Rod Red and Yellow get-up) through a battle between conscience and power, on one side the brutal legacy of his father (epitomized by Jeff Bridges’ benign baddie) and on the other an individual philanthropy based on fantastic and violent deflection – of evil, greed, and corporate gluttony – for those unable to do so themselves. During the excellent end sequence Stark uproots his destructively apathetic ways forever, making good on the thematic promises the film and its character have made throughout.

One could almost overemphasize Downey Jr.’s achievement, given that he’s been known as the ultimate roller coaster ride of seriousness, talent, and tragedy. Seeing him succeed is definitely fulfilling. But director Jon Favreau’s decision to cast Downey Jr. in the first place seems to be the real coup of Iron Man. Hollywood often makes idiotic casting choices in the name of mass appeal, putting obviously bland actors in roles simply to appease the supposed demographic at stake (Nicholas Cage in Ghost Rider for example), instead of taking a chance on a more ingenious, albeit risky choice who might be better suited for the role. No such flub here.

Maybe the next three months will again merely amount to a sea of hype leading a starved viewing public nowhere. But at least Iron Man has made an initial dent in my own apathetic qualms with Hollywood; keeping fresh in mind the possibility mainstream fare can both engage and entertain. If only this amazingly rare feat were the status quo.