Jerichow (Petzold, 2008)

Like many great dramas, Christian Petzold’s Jerichow begins with a tense story already in motion. The film’s opening moments, brimming with silent glances, stoic facial expressions, and sudden bursts of rage, chart the climax of a particularly fascinating narrative thread about two old friends realizing their relationship has come to an end. Ultimately, it’s a 7-minute prologue that becomes a stunning microcosm for the deceit, betrayal, and guilt that will dominate the rest of the film.

Full essay at Fandor

Afterschool (Campos, 2008)

– Originally published elsewhere at the tail end of 2009.

It’s clear with the pervasiveness of the Internet, everything from brutal violence to accidental moments of joy become instantly available at the click of a mouse. Whether you’re picking pleasure or poison, the artificiality of these still images and streaming videos cannot be denied, even if they are supposedly capturing a “real” event. Nor can the effects such media have on America’s youth, especially recent generations born into an existence surrounded and consumed by technology. Diehards revel in these faux representations of the world that make up a vast, potent, and ultimately debilitating alternate reality.

Antonio Campos’ methodical debut feature, Afterschool, attempts to confront these complex issues by creating an almost bleached vision of modern-day adolescence, addressing social isolation and angst as if they were common threads in every child’s development. The result is a frighteningly restrained horror film that charts one young man’s descent into moral ambiguity while the unassuming world around him continues to fester with prescribed apathy. But Afterschool is not specifically a universal critique of technology, or the educational system, or even parental ignorance, but all these things occurring simultaneously, on a relegated and expected level, a system of normalcy bent and twisted and damn familiar. Continue reading

The Square (Edgerton, 2008)

The film noir doesn’t get much traffic these days. Maybe extreme cynicism, morally ambiguous characters, and dire endings are a tough sell in mainstream cinema. But every few years, a filmmaker dives headfirst into this hyper-stylized genre, re-inventing the rules and subverting expectations in the process. Nash Edgerton’s The Square fits nicely into this mold, an evolving organism of style and character that begins with miscommunication and slowly grows into full blown tragedy. The Noir aesthetics are all present – blackmail, greed, double-crosses, and murder – but Edgerton makes it a point to complicate each character and action, focusing on complex decisions that produce lasting and often violent consequences.

Ray (David Roberts) lives an ordinary life with his loving wife in Sydney suburb working as the head of the local construction project. He also happens to be having an affair with his beautiful neighbor Carla (Claire van der Boom), a younger woman unhappily married to a small time crook named Smithy (Anthony Hayes). When Smithy brings home a suspicious sack of money, the stage is set for a collective breakdown of trust, morality, and ultimately perception. Edgerton uses this scenario as a starting point, watching the deception slowly creep from one relationship to the next. Weather, nature, and even irony bend into the mix and before you know it, THE SQUARE has become a mini-epic of deceit.

The contorted narrative contains as many twists as a pretzel, but most feel organically tied to Ray’s very complex character arc. The script by Joel Edgerton (Nash’s brother) relies on nuance to display and upend character motivation, often stopping dialogue scenes with moments of quiet that pierce through the tension and create a paramount sense of dread. The Square measures each scene carefully, building, overlapping, and finally eroding each character from the inside out. The ramifications of each action aren’t always immediately felt, but as in the best Film Noir, the most dangerous consequences stem from the minute details of inaction and fate.

The Square is so dependent on it’s serpentine story path that some of the middle act gets muddled in the process, especially a side plot with one of Ray’s co-workers. But overall, Edgerton slyly utilizes Noir iconography, spinning each character like a top until a collective whirlpool consumes everyone involved. What’s most interesting is how Edgerton manages to inject weight in even the smallest details, whether it be the potent moments between the main character’s two dogs, Smithy’s brilliant transitions between aggressor and defender, or even the one calm second before the bloody finale, when each of the converging characters stand together in shock and awe.

Throughout The Square, time slows down to a menacing crawl, and no matter the sunny location, the unpredictable weather, or the character’s motives, the surface often represents only a fraction of the truth. Edgerton’s film watches as each character backs themselves into inescapable corners, closing the vice slowly until finally the paranoia and greed destroy any hope for salvation. Finally, Ray takes a long last walk down the his quiet suburban street, forever wondering why his life went to hell. The Edgerton brothers still won’t give him an easy answer.

Sparrow (To, 2008)

Johnnie To’s Sparrow begins as seamlessly as it ends – with the arrival of a cagey bird in a lifeless apartment. This often unseen symbol whisks from scene to scene without a care in the world, playing a vibrant foil to the many cheeky characters attempting to control their shifting Hong Kong criminal landscape. These efforts are futile of course, and it’s beautiful to watch each character give in to the subliminal ease associated with the non-diagetic score and crisp widescreen framing.

To replaces blood and guns with whimsy and slapstick comedy, constructing a hazy world where criminals aren’t brutal, but pragmatic, charming rather than abrasive. To’s vision comes to a head in the dynamic silent finale amidst gushing rain and a sea of umbrellas, where the renowned master of violent conflict finds the harmony in the prank. Razor blades have never been uses so effortlessly and kindly.

There’s more cinematic virtuosity in this light-as-a-feather ode to romance, honor, and music than most modern Hollywood blockbusters. But To frames his daring kinetics within the genre trappings of a Musical, and Sparrow shows how song and dance springs from many diverse human conflicts. Be it the graceful art of picking pockets or the sublime drift of a female grifter playing friends off each other, To manages to reveal the beauty of cinematic movement and playfulness. If Sparrow comes across a bit silly in the end, it’s only because To takes a step back and re-thinks his own seriousness toward the crime film, finding an amiable alternate universe smiling between the genre cracks.