Stolen (Anderson, 2009)

I’ve been humbly added to the short list at the great online publication Slant Magazine , where I’ll be contributing reviews for a number of strange and diverse releases. A few will air later this week, so stay tuned.

Here’s my first DVD review for a film titled Stolen, a stinker of a genre hybrid that trips over many Detective/mystery/melodrama tropes. It’s unforgivably predictable and dramatically inert, and a completely useless film. But you have to start somewhere. You can find my review here.

LAFF: Day #8

June 25, 2010

I’ve had a great run here at the Los Angeles Film Festival, and I’d especially like to thank Doug Jones and his wonderful staff of programmers and volunteers for running the festival with seamless precision. After 21 films, 3 interviews, and host of  late nights, I’m ready to head home to the friendly confines of San Diego, CA. But first, 2 final reviews from my last day at the festival. And thanks to all of you readers out there. Without you, I’d be screaming into the wind.

ANIMAL KINGDOM (dir. David Michôd, 2010)

The buzz couldn’t be hotter for Australian David Michôd’s debut feature, which had a great run at Sundance and now here at the LAFF. Still, I can’t fully endorse this sometimes enthralling pressure cooker of a gangster film. While calculating and cunning, the film is far too plodding to sustain the tense momentum it desires so badly, and at times it gets completely stuck in a thick narrative mud.

Animal Kindgom charts the experiences of 17-year old J (Josh) (James Frecheville) who moves in with his volatile extended family of criminal uncles after his mother overdoses. J immediately gets consumed by their operations, and Michôd uses the metaphorical title early and often to create a rigid universe where creatures of all kinds are led to slaughter. The first act of Animal Kingdom fuses the murderous actions of the Melbourne Robbery Squad with the brothers’ genuine need to transcend their reputations and go straight. The result is a devastating introduction to the overlapping moral ambiguity occurring on each side of the law, and during these sequences Animal Kingdom lives up to its reputation.

But while technically impressive and tonally gripping, Michôd’s film returns to the well too many times. The film repeats actions and plot devices until each character becomes a hollow representation rather than an actual complex entity. During the pointless voice-over narration and endless slow-motion sequences, Michôd tips his referential hand of genre influences far too obviously. While the film shows a great eye for camera movement and blocking, the unfocused pacing scatters characters and scenarios at the drop of dime. The meandering script slowly falls apart as each character comes into full bloody focus, ultimately descending into free fall throughout the climax. With Animal Kingdom, its kinetic virtues are outweighed by a crushing sense of familiarity and banality. Ironically enough, it doesn’t go far enough into the complexities of these lions and lambs to make a lasting impact.

NIGHT CATCHES US (dir. Tanya Hamilton, 2010)

My last film at the 2010 LAFF, Tanya Hamilton’s Night Catches Us, was another hot ticket due to its reputation from previous festivals. Anchored by two electric lead performances from the always great Anthony Mackie and Kerry Washington, Night Catches Us intricately details a specific social space attempting to transcend the past while dealing with traumatic land mines still wreaking havoc. So the textures of location take on a special meaning and tension, connecting character with symbolism in nicely subtle ways.

Set completely in a Philadelphia neighborhood circa 1976, Hamilton uncovers the personal artifacts and relationships linking the now distant memory of The Black Panther movement and a tangible disillusionment for the future. Mackie plays Marcus, a disgraced ex-panther who returns home for his father’s funeral and gets re-entrenched in the local scene, connecting again with his old friend Patricia (Washington). But Hamilton focuses on how these characters traverse physical and mental spaces, disavowing “action” for long conversations between people longing for a connection. There’s much to admire here, especially the acting and the dynamic musical score by The Roots.

But the detailed construction of this specific time and place occasionally gets overwhelmed by the predictability of the plot, the pandering stoicism of certain characters, and the easy villainy of others. Also, Hamilton doesn’t fully explore the relationship between Marcus and Patricia’s curious daughter Iris (Jamara Griffin), who consistently mines the past for clues to her upbringing. Sadly, the adult world seems to be more important than a child’s perspective, and this choice keeps Night Catches Us from being a great film. Still, the overall passion of Hamilton’s direction shines through the actor’s faces in offhand looks of reflection, and these images speak volumes about the film’s soulful attention to key redemptive moments.

LAFF: Day #7

June 24, 2010

WHITE MATERIAL (dir. Claire Denis, 2010)

Clarie Denis’ White Material could be the seminal cinematic examination of European colonialism in modern Africa and the impending trauma’s/ramifications plaguing all ends of the social spectrum. Set in an unnamed African country during a relentless rebel uprising, Denis’ film intricately follows white Coffee plantation owner Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert) as she attempts to salvage her crop and homestead despite the growing violence and unrest. But this is not a character study, or even an allegory, but the almost primal story of a place experiencing a violent moment of transition, and all the hidden instinctual layers revealed in the process.

Denis takes what could have been a concise trajectory and constructs a serpentine narrative path of haunting flashbacks, breathtaking tangents, and hypnotic set pieces weaving every character into a devastatingly incomplete national timeline. She connects the melodrama of Vial’s crumbling family unit with the textures of wealth, focusing on the objects of power and the sudden disavowal of their impact on social standing and safety. The film instills a deep sense of menace in every scene, thanks in large part to Yves Cape’s incredibly crisp cinematography and Stuart Staples’ foreboding score that sweeps through the trees like a mighty wind.

By the end of White Material, a devastating ideological revolution has swept away all the political posturing and stereotypes and unveiled the core human elements residing under the surface. Poverty, guilt, and ignorance form the densely intricate map of a country’s dying soul, one without easily defined borders and reference points. Denis’ film is a staggering cinematic achievement, but more importantly it’s a crucial document on the diverging interpretations and gaps of a revolution that will not be televised.

DOG SWEAT (dir. Hossein Kershavarz, 2010)

Subtle intersecting stories of regular people experiencing challenges with love, sex, desire, and purpose. The interesting hook in Dog Sweat comes from a cultural standpoint, as the film is entirely shot on location in Tehran, Iran, where the filmmakers illuminate the universal emotions and issues defining a country plagued by censorship, religious fundamentalism, and stereotype. The images, while sometimes dramatically inert, are always visually fascinating, documenting a bustling city of everyday people living under the shadow of international judgement and local terror.

Smuggled out of Iran on a computer hard-drive by it’s director Hossein Keshavarz, Dog Sweat is a deeply passionate film that occasionally delves into narrative contrivance but always exhibits an honest look at human interation. Some of the film’s stories gain more resonance than others, specifically the arranged marriage between a closeted gay man and a singer with her own secret. Their mutual compromise is something tragic, but completely understandable considering the social and economic pressures put upon them. Yet other characters, like a boozed- out player who turns fundamental when his mother is struck by a car, become forced and uneven as they progress. This pattern ultimately lessons the impact of Dog Sweat, but the filmmaker’s goal and vision are undeniably important, even if their narrative decisions don’t always add up.

DOWN TERRACE (dir. Ben Wheatley, 2010)

Finally, a late night screening that lives up to it’s schedule slot. Ben Wheatley’s gangster film takes pitch black comedy to a new level, evolving from uncomfortable family comedy to diabolical Shakespearean tragedy. “Down Terrace” stays with this extremely conniving subset from start to finish, watching them conduct criminal operations with the same devastating indifference as they do life-changing family decisions. In truth, one can’t be distinguished from the other.

During certain moments, situations turn from casual to grave in a matter of seconds, words and facial expressions merging together to form a sort of unspoken code of deception. As the bodies pile up, Wheatley’s cyclical evolution of evil and comes full circle, leveling the playing field with heinous acts of retribution. That these moments stem from complete distrust, ego, and manipulation is expected, but the subtlety with which they are ordered and carried out is striking.

Down Terrace stays true to it’s evil heart, conducting a symphony of violence so effortless it’s almost as if the filmmakers themselves are taking part in the carnage. This is problematic for a film about glaring gaps in morality, but ultimately it’s all part of the nasty fun. There are shallow graves for both discomfort and comedic anarchy, and the audience gets to see both bury each other under a mountain of betrayal.

LAFF: Day #6

June 23, 2010

My Los Angeles adventure continues, most notably the moment my interview with The New Year director Brett Haley experienced a catastrophic technical error in the 11th hour. Fortunately, Mr. Haley was kind enough to spend more time with me and the result was an engaging interview about independent film, performance, and the subtleties of great screenwriting. I’ll have that transcribed in the coming week. As for the festival, two interesting films couldn’t prepare me for my short-lived late night screening of The Wolf Knife, a competition film so ridiculously amateurish I had to walk out after only thirty minutes. And this coming from a critic who never walks out of films. Anyways, let’s try and forget that debacle and get to the movies that matter.

EVERYDAY SUNSHINE: THE STORY OF FISHBONE (dirs. Lev Anderson, Chris Metzler, 2010)

The first half of this entertaining documentary on the “famous but not rich” music fusion group Fishbone is a dynamic history lesson on two decades of Los Angeles music culture. The filmmakers introduce the six key members of the original band through a great montage of 2-D animation, archival footage, and telling interviews. The group’s diverse personalties are juxtaposed with a shifting analysis on racism, musical genres, and the rigid corporate approach to selling art to mass audiences.

The film succeeds at showing how Fishbone and their kinetic live performances influenced so many bands (Red Hot Chili Peppers, No Doubt, Circle Jerks, Jane’s Addiction), ultimately revealing a number of stylistic and business factors explaining why the band never made it big despite being adored by its followers.

Unfortunately, the second half of Everyday Sunshine pushes the narrative to a familiar rise and fall arc, where the band disintegrates due to ego, doubt, and the dreaded creative differences. The descent of Fishbone becomes far less interesting than their unique rise to legendary status. But each member of the band, most notably crazed genius frontman Angelo Moore and reserved bassist Norwood Fischer (the artistic forces still driving the band to this day), get a forum to tell their strange and layered story. Everyday Sunshine unveils a neglected overlap between the often violent and racist history of Los Angeles and the revolutionary music that provided the key voice for battling against mainstream conformity.

KATALIN VARGA (dir. Peter Strickland, 2009)

Variety critic Robert Koehler presented Katalin Varga as a part of the FILMS THAT GOT AWAY sidebar, and it turned out to be an exemplary programming decision. The debut film from Brit Peter Strickland, Katalin Varga is a revenge film of great weight and depth, using it’s concise narrative to focus on the seeping menace undercutting every scene.

The titular character (played by Hilda Pater) sets off in a cart with her 10 year old son Orban (Nobert Tanko) after a destructive secret comes to light banishing them from their village. Once on the sparse roads of Romania, Katalin’s mission of vengeance becomes incredibly focused, and Strickland slowly unveils her intentions with keen attention to detail.

Shot on location in the hauntingly majestic Carpathian Mountains, Katalin Varga uses a rhythm of audio tones to foreshadow both the trauma’s of the past the inevitable violence to come. This eerie score of contrasting sounds merge with the Strickland’s use of long lenses to film the epic countryside. The result is a film obsessed with both mood and character ambiguity, revenge and counter-revenge.

At just 82 minutes long, Katalin Varga manages to discover a woman’s broken soul on the verge of redemption, and the epic conflict of conscious residing just beneath each character’s deceptive facade. Stirring in every respect, Katalin Varga charts the rocky terrain of emotional sacrifice and physical violence, showing in tragic detail how they inevitably overlap.

– Two more days to go, then back to reality. Three more films tomorrow, including Claire Denis’ White Material, so stay tuned.

LAFF: Day #5

June 22, 2010

A welcome conversation with a fellow InRO writer, a chance meeting with master director Charles Burnett, and a host of interesting films added to an already rewarding festival schedule. Life is good. Now, three new reviews.

THE NEW YEAR (dir. Brett Haley, 2010)

Most debut films concern themselves with the exterior exploration of human relationships, the dimensions of genre, or the sensationalism of conflicts. Brett Haley’s first film The New Year inverts this expectation, walking side-by-side with incredibly complex souls experiencing subtle yet crucial moments of transition. Shot on a super-low budget over two weeks on location in Pensacola, Florida, The New Year harkens back to the honest human interactions of early John Sayles films, highlighting a specific physical region while discovering the rhythm of interior emotional calibrations directly connecting persona and space.

Sunny (Trieste Kelly Dunn), an intelligent, vibrant young woman who works tirelessly at a local bowling “center”, rests at the heart of The New Year. Two years removed from leaving college early to care for her Cancer-stricken father, Sunny is stuck in a potent emotional malaise. She has nightmares about wardrobes full of rotting teeth, worries about her degenerating patriarch, and seems to be losing any chance of realizing fading long-term goals. But Sunny’s relationships with coworkers, family, and friends lighten her worry, and these glowing dialogue sequences are the soul of the film. When an old high school “nemesis” named Isaac returns home complicating Sunny’s relationship with her kind boyfriend Neal, The New Year takes on complicated layers of depth.

Decisions of all kinds define Haley’s film, but the many divergent answers are always out of reach, just beyond the next shifting human interaction. As Sunny’s life slowly moves toward a definitive crossroads, Trieste Kelly Dunn’s performance evokes a range of different conflicts through subtle glances, clever quips, and delicate smiles. It’s a brilliant turn by this young actress, and it proves the emergence of someone deft at traversing the often cliched landscape of the modern woman with a devout attention to detail and nuance. The rest of Haley’s fine cast brings texture and weight to the human mosaic on display.

Connecting the beauty of performance and plot is Haley and Elizabeth Kennedy’s perfectly rendered screenplay. Each character has a singular impact on The New Year, and even the most surface-level incarnations are anchored by one or two moments of pure honesty and purpose.  In the end, “The New Year” turns brilliantly reflective, drifting through Sunny’s existence with a calm dedication to the connections and disconnections life throws our way. The actual reasoning behind Sunny’s difficult resolutions are not the point. It’s the fact she confronts them in the first place with such personal feeling that makes The New Year a lasting piece of American Cinema, and its filmmakers exciting new voices in the medium.

PARADE (dir. Isao Yukisada, 2010)

A long line of passing ciphers criss-crossing through modern day Tokyo, all floating down a deceptively dark undercurrent of repression. Pairs of young men and women share a cramped apartment, and director Isao Yukisada gradually follows each as they experience disappointment, elation, and finally discombobulation. There’s a deep longing for camaraderie here, but as described by one of the space’s inhabitants, it’s more chat-room than confessional. These characters are happy just hanging out, and disavow any mention of conflict or doubt.

Maybe most interestedly, Parade becomes a series of voyeuristic moments of one character uncovering something horribly destructive about another. And the following silence/inaction really defines the film as an interesting commentary on the fleeting connections our modern technological world produces. But the individual moments are more impacting than the sum of the film’s parts. During the “shocking” twist ending, Yukisada pulls out all the stops to bring Lynchian horror to the final reveal. It’s just the last of many ambitious pieces of a strange cinematic vision, yet the puzzle never fully becomes clear, and we’re left with a distinctly incomplete picture of ignorance as bliss.

R (dirs. Michael Noer, Tobias Lindholm, 2010)

Set in the oldest Danish Prison, R falls into many narrative traps plaguing most Prison films. Yet the sparse, incredibly realized fragmentation of the locale and the many strong performances elevate the film beyond cliche. The titular “R” refers to a fresh inmate named Rune, who quickly gets consumed by the entrenched toughs living on his ward. The opening bit of violence quickly introduces Rune and the audience to the brutality which will be leveled throughout. When Rune meets Rashid, his Arabic equivalent, directors Michael Noer and Tobias Lindholm reveal some devastating parallels between men in the grips of mental and physical entrapment.

As Rune, Pilou Asbaek brings a palpable desperation to every scene, and Noer and Lindholm’s fluid hand-held camera stalks him through the dank interiors and gloomy prison yard. Even though R doesn’t instill the surreal horror of the recent French hit A Prophet it’s bare-bones approach gives the narrative a much more textured interpretation of prison life. Hope, no matter how small and fleeting, doesn’t provide lasting relief from the violent erosion occurring behind every closed door.  R ends with a crushing comeuppance that finally links Rune and Rashid forever, not as friends or enemies, but as victims of the same institutional destruction.

LAFF: Day #4

June 21, 2010

The Los Angeles Lakers championship parade descended on the LA Live campus and in turn everyone’s film festival schedule. Luckily most of the craziness had dissipated by the time I arrived to interview Life With Murder director John Kastner (look for that piece in the coming week). Because of the interview, I only screened two Festival movies today, Aaron Katz’s sublime mix of genre and character Cold Weather and Kimi Takesue’s observational Uganda documentary Where Are You Taking Me?

COLD WEATHER (dir. Aaron Katz, 2010)

The shoddy production quality and rambling dialogue sequences of the American indie sub-genre loosely labeled “Mumblecore” have always struck me as lazy and indulgent, basically the dumbed down bastardization of what Cassavetes, Sayles, and Jarmusch explored in the last half century. So the evolution of director Aaron Katz from that world into a completely singular auteurist space couldn’t be more fascinating. His third film Cold Weather, a sublime mix of detective genre quips and character driven set-pieces, signifies Katz as a major filmmaker concerned with both the haunting majesty of textured locales and the deep seeded human relationships traversing this terrain.

Doug (Cris Lankenau), a former forensic science major and avid Sherlock Holmes aficionado, has just returned to Portland, Oregon and moved in with his sister Gail (Trieste Kelly Dunn). Doug reads books, finds a job at a local ice factory, and goes about his daily life with a somewhat dejected but never pouty outlook on his situation. Katz makes it a point to inject beautiful long shots of rustic Portland scenery as transition points, emblems of a specific place often drenched in rain, covered in ice, and glossed in a haunting blue sheen. When Doug’s former girlfriend goes missing, he enlists the help of Gail and his work buddy Carlos (Raul Castillo) to piece together the jigsaw puzzle.

But Cold Weather is neither purely a detective film or character study, but an overlapping singular experience focusing on the shared moments in-between the action. During these sometimes hilarious always telling conversations, Katz develops character through sly tangents, resolute facial expressions, and a deep attention to movement and rhythm. Amazingly, Cold Weather becomes a film defined by pacing, as it ping-pongs back and forth between breakneck suspense and subtle resonance, then back again. Andrew Reed’s lush cinematography and Keegan DeWitt’s Hitchcockian score add a fantastic dimension to Katz’s direction, making “Cold Weather” a deeply personal slice of regional cinema and an ambitious advancement for this talented collective of filmmakers.

WHERE ARE YOU TAKING ME? (dir. Kimi Takesue, 2010)

Introduced by its director as an “observational” bridge to understanding the people/rhythms of Uganda in a more complex light, Where Are You Taking Me? weaves seemingly random footage of various everyday acts into a mosaic of facial expressions and character movement. The piece was commissioned by The Rotterdam Film Festival as a way of connecting diverging points of view and linking filmmakers from foreign countries. This is an admirable goal, but the film aimlessly moves from scene to scene without an indication of narrative focus. We see a beautiful Ugandan wedding, confront taxi drivers waiting on the street, and enter elaborate markets of stuffed stalls and corridors. But we never hear from the people themselves, never understand their perspective on the infiltration of the camera and filmmakers. A specific voice seems to be missing, and it’s that of the people being filmed.

After the film director Kimi Takesue explained her desire to blend into the scenery and capture layered moments of people in transition. Her reasoning is interesting and informative, yet the film doesn’t achieve this goal as a documentary. There’a a complete disavowal of structure, style, and focus, except during one sequence in the middle of the film when a voice-over reflection by a child soldier of Uganda rightly asks about the director’s intention with his image and story. There really isn’t a response, and this moment leaves an indelible mark on the viewer’s mind, making the rest of the footage seem disjointed in the process. By the end of Where Are You Taking Me?, we’re left with the images on the screen and nothing else. Universal human concerns can only take a film so far, and without any context, reflection, or structure the film becomes more slide-show than Cinema.