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.

Atonement (Wright, 2007)

It’s not hard to pinpoint the key deficiency in Joe Wright’s Atonement, the critically acclaimed film adaptation of the Ian McEwan novel. It has all the elements one would expect from a high brow English tragedy – strong acting, picturesque cinematography, and an intelligent use of romantic music cues and sounds. But the script by Christopher Hampton rambles and repeats so many times the images, acting, and sound design begin to feel just as false as the words, creating towers of unearned sentiment weighing heavily without support. Atonement tells the story of poor gardener Robby (James McAvoy in a great role) and rich hottie Cecilia (Kiera Knightly) who begin a momentary romance only to be separated by a false criminal accusation issued from little sister Briony, set up via a number of convoluted moments of childish interpretation. This unrequited love haunts both Robby as he decides to join the British army instead of jail and Cecilia as she becomes a nurse during WWII. The story comes full circle when older Briony, now able to comprehend the scope of her malpractice, tries to mend the fences one key stroke at a time (she’s a writer, hence the creative imagination). Atonement flashes back multiple times, attempting to put some life into the material, and Wright’s direction of the early scenes are especially superb. But as the miscommunications and jealousies forge insurmountable odds for Robby and Cecilia’s romance, the heartbreaking writing appears on the wall. This film consumes itself with the obvious suffering of all involved, milking this genre trait dry by the final sentimental moment on a romantic English beach. It seems Hampton and Wright fell into the old trap of telling through words more than showing through visuals. Atonement beautifully captures the ache of lovers defeated by the injustices of false pretenses, but never develops a context for all the pain and anguish to mean something more than meager melodrama. The desperate tears, the screeching screams, and the outstretched hands seem altogether basic.

Away From Her (Polley, 2007)

I can’t imagine losing someone I love, let alone to such a leisurely killer like Alzheimer’s disease. For her directing debut, actor Sarah Polley chooses to examine such a heartbreaking loss, specifically the story of retired professor Grant (Gordon Pinsent) and his beautiful but mentally fading wife of forty years Fiona (the amazing Julie Christie). The first act stands alone as a dazzling and haunting display of editing and mise-en-scene, Fiona’s connection with life beginning to dissolve to white as her short term memories disappear. Framed by the reflecting snow of the Canadian winter, Grant must come to terms with his wife’s debilitating condition and her shifting affections for another patient. While the script churns at a very slow rate, Polley’s direction is flawless, allowing the actors room to shine while her camera calmly maneuvers through retirement home rooms and hallways. Away From Her slowly builds to a calm crescendo of compassion and it’s a painful but ultimately hopeful experience, one that reveals scars of the past and some semblance of a future.

Renaissance (Volckman, 2006)

An impressive visual achievement (as you can see from the picture above), but it’s anchored by a disastrous script and uneven acting. This aesthetic tension makes Renaissance ambivalent viewing at best. The muddled story doesn’t help either, a terrible cross between Blade Runner and Resident Evil. Daniel Craig offers his voice but little else in the form of inspiration. In my opinion, only for the hardcore anime enthusiasts, which I have never claimed to be.

Brother (Balabanov, 1997)

The sociopath hero of Aleski Balabanov’s Brother represents a startling allegory surrounding a generation of Russian youth post communist collapse – part killer, part savior. In almost a playful country prologue, Danila (Sergei Bodrov Jr.) wonders onto the set of a art film production, interrupting a graceful, long tracking shot much to the chagrin of the pretentious director. When pressed to leave, Danila shows his brutality (although effectively offscreen via a dissolve). This boyish Russian teen and his arc break apart every movie cliche. After the attack at the movie set, Danila is forced to visit his hitman brother in the cold doldrums of St. Petersburg. So of course this fresh faced kid out of the army is going to get sucked in to the life of the hitman and get tainted by the grim and violent realities. Wrong. Danila takes to the killing like a fish to water and with more intelligence and skill than his bother or any other idiot street thug. Often at a reserved and humble pace (mirroring it’s heroes demeanor), Brother tracks Danila through the big city, and he’s never threatened once by the stark picture of poverty, spousal abuse, or loss of hope. It’s the odd combination of money and genuine friendship which feed his soul. Scary doesn’t begin to describe Danila’s blank stares, welcoming smiles, and fearless MacGuyver-like way of killing. The overall film falters from an aesthetic standpoint, never distinguishing any visual or audible rhythm. But there’s always Danila’s music obsessed smile, waiting for us to judge, yearning to display a little weakness so he can decide whether to kill, or salvage.

Venus (Michell, 2006)

In Roger Michell’s Venus, the generation gap gets strung together with fleshy innuendo and smarmy charm. Maurice (Peter O’Toole), an elder statesman of English acting, gets smitten with Jessie, the teenage niece of an old chap from the theater. She’s somewhat of a dud and he’s a horny old man with a naughty history (Vanessa Redgrave’s turn as his ex-wife is a stirring indictment of the man’s past infidelity), yet each sees hope in the other. Venus tends to overlap cliches (the thuggish young boyfriend of Jesse, the opening painting of the seaside) with genuine moments of compassion between the aged and those willing to spend time listening. There’s something off-putting about Roger Michell’s directing style, which favors an obvious repetition of shot selection, pop music, and emotional outbursts. I can’t say the film really lives up to it’s reputation, especially as a centerpiece of Peter O’Toole’s illustrious career. It’s often callous, pouty, and overly sentimental in ways reserved for typical American romantic comedies. When Jessie finally wises up and comes screaming back to Maurice’s flat, the moment borders on ridiculous since her broad stares have yielded little dimension thus far. But O’Toole’s brilliant interactions with Redgrave, compatriots Richard Griffiths and Leslie Phillips, save the picture from being trite – old pros dancing words off one another with style and grace. I wish Venus had more of each.