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.

Manufactured Landscapes (Baichwal, 2006)

Manufactured Landscapes, a poorly executed documentary on crucial subject matter, begins with a haunting seven minute tracking shot across an epic Chinese parts factory. The movement, while calculated, invites the eye to wonder and discover the many facets occurring before our eyes. We’re in the world of acclaimed photographer Edward Burntynsky, who’s callous voice often juxtaposes much of his personal quest to capture the developing industrial landscapes of China and Bangladesh. The sporadic voice-over has very little to do with the issues being discussed, namely pollution, globalization, and the environment, undermining the stunning visuals (still and motion pictures) paralleling the trek. Director Jennifer Baichwal should have let Burntysky’s images speak for themselves,  saving the run-of-the-mill artistic musings for a lecture or debate.

Dog Bite Dog (Cheang, 2006)

Dog Bite Dog hinges its relentless hitman vs. cop story-line on some truly horrific parenting, the central motif for a dual character parallel which drives both anti-heroes toward some brutal connection. I can’t deny director Cheang Pou-soi’s talent for visuals and pacing, but his eye-popping film bends and breaks so many times the shear force of it all overwhelms the senses. The final siege of knives and c-sections pushes the film into a rare oblivion, a place I never want to revisit.

Happy Feet (Miller, 2006)

The soul of a film rarely grabs hold from the first frame, but in George Miller’s masterpiece Happy Feet, the hypnotic constellation of a giant Penguin layered with the rhythmic fancies of an unseen musical mosaic does make an immediate impact. Joy seeps from the screen, filling the viewer with a sense of visual awe one might experience with Busby Berkely’s work. Here’s a film about song, dance, balance, romance, and the environment, showing the beauties of each in the opening five minutes. Miller’s film deals with the singing Arctic world of the penguin where dancing outcast Mumbles attempts to overcome social alienation. However, like all exciting adventures, our hero’s destiny and impending journey have greater importance. Mumbles’ trek to find out why his food source (fish) is disappearing leads him to distant lands, dangerous adversaries, and devastating realizations about the human world beyond the ocean, which has crept slowly into the Arctic one large fishing boat at a time. Miller’s haunting mise-en-scene frames each character through blue hued ice caps, bleached white horizons, and countless roving tracking shots of a world in motion and slightly out of whack. Staged as a pure musical, with some truly impressive routines featuring modern pop songs, Happy Feet vibrates with spectacle, showing off both it’s great animation and even better story through the eyes of a socially conscious theme. Happy Feet will inevitably be one of the most important children’s films released in a long time, most notably because it connects with the viewer not through browbeating messages or sensationalist slants, but via a universal story. It’s built around the global ideology that environmental balance cannot occur without education, of both your own experience and the alien’s abroad. Ignorance spells destruction and famine, while a little singing, dancing, and brilliant filmmaking can send the perfectly pitched shock-wave someone (especially kids) might need to recognize the crucial problems facing our future. Happy Feet lives this dream wonderfully. There’s no reason important enough we can’t as well.

This is England (Meadows, 2006)

The virtuoso opening credit sequence of Shane Meadow’s This is England pops with political unrest. Chaotic archival images of skinhead protests, police riots, and the Falklands War rail over the kick back reggae sound of the Maytals, both a jarring and fateful juxtaposition of image and sound. In a nutshell, we see the angry nationalist fervor toward the economic and artistic influence refugees have on the crumbling situation. While a devastating commentary on the racial turmoil produced in part by the early 1980’s Thatcher political machine, This is England roots itself in the story of Shaun, a fatherless young boy (his Dad was killed in the Falklands) befriended by a kindred group of skinheads. Meadows plays with our expectations at every turn. Why does this supposed rough crowd take in a bullied youth? What will Shaun’s mother do in response to her son’s transformation? These story questions consistently produce surprising results in the way of perfectly rendered scenes of friendship. Until another outside force, this time in the form of older and more brutal skinhead Combo (Stephen Graham), rips the group of friends apart. Meadows brilliantly shows the affects sensationalism and manipulation can have on the traumatized young mind. At times naively lost and at others downright confidently mean, Shaun spends This is England a muddled reflection of a confused English sense of self and pride. In Meadows’ film, one can spot unsettling foreshadowings of the American home-front post Iraq; the sense of spite for an out of reach democracy, hatred for differing perspectives, and finally a burst of anger spent from years of rationalizing inequality. This is England documents a short and combustible time in the life of Shaun and his native populace, speaking volumes about both in the process. They are connected, they are irreversible, and they are interchangeable, and Shaun’s fractured sense of identity could be a national anthem.

Exiled (To, 2006)

Exiled, a beautiful and bizarre slice of Western lore served up Hong Kong style by director Johnnie To, flutters with cowboy iconography and codes of honor worthy of both John Woo and John Ford. This might be To’s purest expression of action yet, since he relies almost entirely on the tension built by montage and violence. Even though it’s drenched in powdery blood splatter, the film goes out of it’s way to connect the five assassin protagonists as boyhood friends forced back together to defeat their gangster boss, a distinct and effective basis in character which makes the action even more exciting. My only gripe with the film lies in it’s disregard for plausibility (in terms of story) and dependance on a magical realism of sorts, a strange tonal compliment considering the clashing genres at work. This aesthetic gets tiresome by the end, a jarring approach thankfully soothed by the film’s brilliant Western score and memorable layered action scenes. Another solid effort by today’s most ambitious master of mise-en-scene.

Offside (Panahi, 2006)

A rousing, entertaining, funny, and ultimately joyous film from the great Iranian director Jafar Panahi. Offisde, shot in and around the actual 2006 World Cup Qualifying soccer match between Iran and Bahrain, follows the devout attempts made by women soccer fans to enter the all-male sporting event and their subsequent incarceration by the police. The film’s as much about the love of sports as it is about gender oppression and equal rights. As with all of his earlier masterpieces, Panahi humanizes every character no matter their role or significance, from the variety of girls being held prisoner to the guards sympathizing with their plight, a skill few modern day autuers can claim. The last twenty minutes are pure bliss for any sports fan, no matter the gender, race, or creed.