Monday, January 31, 2011

Theater of Blood (Douglas Hickox, 1973) -- B

Theater of Blood features perhaps one of the greatest high concepts of all-time; thought-to-be-dead (but not) ex-thespian Edward Lionheart (Vincent Price) begins killing the critics who wronged him with Shakespearean inspiration (he would only perform in his plays). Unfortunately, like most high concept films, the idea becomes tiresome around the halfway point, as each critic is successively knocked off in accordance with the given, corresponding play. Moreover, director Douglas Hickox would have been wise to play the film a little less absurd, shifting focus on Lionheart's sincere devotion to his craft, rather than fetishizing his madness. It becomes nearly impossible to see Price's antics as much more than a devilish in-joke, not without its joys to be sure, but necessarily denying any pathos from forming - jokey, tongue-in-cheek, yet without much scope or resonances. Certainly, the parts are grander than the whole, and in twenty minute segments, one could imagine it being hysterical. Nevertheless, at any length, the lukewarm genre convictions prevent invested interest beyond shifting degrees of amusement.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Limey (Steven Soderbergh, 1999) -- C

The Limey predicts the HBO aesthetic resulting from the subsequent decade - that's the only thing that can be said to be prophetic about Steven Soderbergh's anti-cinematic headache, and I'm not certain it's anything to be proud of. The director appropriates John Boorman's 1967 masterpiece Point Blank (utterly cinematic) and turns it into something stilted, pseudo-academic, and without joy. Yet even more contradictory, Soderbergh's compositions mirror what one would expect to find around 10 PM on any one of CBS's interchangeable crime shows, as does his use of The Who's "The Seeker" over the opening credits - ugly and obvious. The incongruous combination, especially when enacted with very little display of consideration on the director's part, are evidence of Soderbergh's hackery - and the utter lack of anything to say or impart with his film cements this ineptitude. So, the film concerns Wilson (not Walker) (Terence Stamp) traveling to LA, "seeking" the men who may have killed his daughter. A silly montage of different images early in the film displays how little talent Soderbergh has, as if using various color stocks, having the character walk in slow motion in front of a wall, and randomly splicing it together reveals, formally, the character's fractured persona. Nor do jump cuts during conversation prove anything more than postmodernist hokum - the same with casting Peter Fonda opposite Stamp as his nemesis, a potentially clever stunt casting were Soderbergh intent on having any fun with it. Same goes for Joe Dallesandro, wasted since Soderbergh refuses to let him have any resonant scenes or moments. Detached, as one has come to expect from the director, does not lend itself well to cinema, specifically in a genre film. The glaring problem really is, though, that Soderbergh doesn't use his chosen aesthetic for any cinematic purpose, rather a fashionable one, "revising" prior texts, yet forgetting to do any of the revision (or, as are my suspicions, without anything to revise). He betrays genre filmmaking with his film school conceits, and consistently churns out some of the most hollow, soulless films in memory. The Limey is certainly no exception.

The Ninth Gate (Roman Polanski, 2000) -- B

Roman Polanski's The Ninth Gate is absurd, overlong, yet subtle in its delirium - in other words, almost exactly as it should be, recalling Gialli and Jacques Tourneur's Night of the Demon in its half-serious, half-playful interests. Mikel Koven makes a compelling case in his book La Dolce Morte for the Gialli to be seen through a different critical lens than the European art film, since their aims and goals are far different - the former's to allow audience members something to socialize during, pausing for the killer's pursuits and set-pieces, yet conversing with one another and exiting for smoke, piss, and snack breaks during exposition. The Ninth Gate plays in an identical manner; Dean Corso's (Johnny Depp, commenting that the character's last name is Italian) pursuits of the only two remaining eponymous books carry little weight in terms of socio-religious revelation. Rather, the narrative serves as a thread upon which to hang curious dialogue, moments of evocative, seemingly foreshadowing mysteries, and an ending that's appropriately silly and without pretension. Essentially Polanski's rebuttal to the shifting tide of anti-cinema, The Ninth Gate works nicely as a leisurely bit of business.

Friday, January 28, 2011

The Mechanic (Simon West, 2011) -- C+

The Mechanic serves as a suitable enough vehicle for Jason Statham, easily the most underrated screen presence of the past twenty years. He brings a giddy gravitas to every line he speaks and scene he's in, yet even that can't quite make the film function any better than half-assed. Assuming the role played by Charles Bronson in the 1972 original, Statham completes "assignments" (which often entail killing a target assigned by his organization), then retreats home, pops on some Schubert, momentarily brooding over his misdeeds. Thankfully, director Simon West avoids any heavy religious symbolism or overplayed existential dilemma (though bits of each waft in and out), yet he never finds a consistent tone to ground the proceedings - dialogue scenes play stagnant and awkward and the humor is often misplayed, revealing West's lack of rhythm on a conceptual level. Action sequences are chopped to shit much like nearly every other modern actioner, and the kinetic exuberance that founds the genre is lost, giving the film little reason to exist outside of its blandly enacted narrative foundations: killing a close friend, taking that friend's son under his wing, teaching him the ropes, then going after the real culprits. A refreshingly twisty ending jolts a bit of energy into the last twenty minutes or so, but it's not enough to revive The Mechanic's lack of wit, distinctive personality, visual prowess, or moral interests proceeding past the superficial.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Best Films of 2010

20. Sofia Coppola’s minimalism reaches new heights in Somewhere, by turns bafflingly simple and simply baffling. Ditching almost any real narrative to speak of (the film is sort of about a famous white movie star (Stephen Dorff) reconnecting with his daughter) means the film can be sometimes ravishing (this includes opening scenes involving in-room pole-dancing and daughter Elle Fanning’s ice-skating, the two curious aligned with Dorff’s gaze), at others meandering. In fact, Dorff’s character does little other than meander, invoking more Vincent Gallo than Antonioni. Ultimately, the sequences that work do so in spades, but one gets the sense that, unlike Coppola’s great Lost in Translation, the parts are not creating a significant whole.

19. Sometimes genre mash-up can be cool. How about when it’s a cover of Visconti, Sirk, and Kubrick rolled into one? All of these immortal filmmakers certainly hold influence on Luca Guadagnino’s I Am Love, a patriarchal melodrama spanning across several years, concerning sexual infidelity and the shackles of nepotism. If the film were actually about these things more than just placeholders for overstated symbolism and lush cinematography, it would be magnificent. It isn’t that on the whole, yet a stunningly simple, but brilliant credits sequence, calmly evocative scenes, and a consistently steady, forceful tone represent the formal talents of a director who could one day make a great film.

18. Fuck you if you didn’t get Jonah Hex – there, I said it. The film packs more wildly abstract and intelligent visual material into a 10-minute stretch than most films can muster through their entirety. Thematically, this includes a fascinating subtext on individual thought over communal, war-mongering tactics, and lost humanity under nihilistic reign. The credit belongs primarily to scribes Nevaldine/Taylor, whose keen sense of humor, subversive writing style, and masterful thematic structuring are misunderstood as incompetent by those unable to realize their sensibilities. Jimmy Hayward’s compositions are lushly photographed, far more aesthetically sophisticated than the superfluously edited, in-vogue styles of Paul Greengrass and Neil Blomkamp.

17. The Ghost Writer finds Roman Polanski making a tense thriller, more in the vein of his 1970’s brethren Sidney Lumet or Alan J. Pakula, rife with political paranoia and suspicious behaviors, magnificently photographed, and efficiently performed. The film’s themes suit Polanski’s plight over the past 30 years (one must see lead Ewan McGregor’s constant looking over the shoulder as resonant), yet forgetting this meta-textual level, the film still functions suitably enough, though one wishes Polanski may have injected something a bit more odd into the proceedings. This is certainly nowhere near his 1970’s masterpieces (not that it has to be), but as a fairly straightforward political thriller, it’s a superior genre effort.

16. Self-critique is hard to do, but Nicole Holofcener’s Please Give slyly interrogates the charity, guilt, and fears of her upper-middle class Manhattanites rather than merely celebrating them. Not the limousine liberalism one usually expects from the filmmaker, her perceptions and distance from the characters finally enables simultaneous admiration and condemnation, venturing more into the brilliant Whit Stillman’s territory (though not quite there). Catherine Keener anchors the film with an agonizingly complex performance – by turns despicable, admirable, and human. The remainder of the cast completes one of the best ensembles of the year. If only this brand of strong, insightful mainstream filmmaking were more common.

15. To ignore the great work Alain Resnais keeps doing is to show your filmic ignorance – yet that’s what roundly occurred in 2010, the living legend barely able to get critics to review Wild Grass, his playfully whimsical ode to love, cinema, and life. If it feels stilted or even annoyingly precious at times, Resnais has earned the right, and indulging his unique visions are something every filmgoer would be much more enriched by. Not to make it sound like a chore in the least – still experimenting with color scheme, split screen, and character development, Resnais trumps most every young filmmaker with his elegance, grace, and sophistication.

14. Topping Danny Boyle’s needlessly overdone 127 Hours (but not James Franco’s brilliant performance) is Rodrigo Cortés’s Buried, a new classic in independent genre filmmaking. Though Ryan Reynolds doesn’t have the ability to emote the understated humanity of Franco, his more delirious freak-out of a performance matches the film’s anger well, positing his being buried alive in a coffin with an Iraq war fuck-up. Brilliantly, Cortés never leaves the coffin, yet consistently finds ways to deepen both the nightmare and subtext. If one doesn’t buy the political bent wholly, that’s okay since Cortés’s convictions are in the right place, genuinely interested in discussion and tension rather than puerile playtime, unlike Robert Rodriguez’s dreadful Machete. Here’s what a real genre film can be.

13. Floria Sigismondi’s vision of youthful rock-and-rollers transcends the expected diarrhea of clichés by telling her story through a streamlined visual approach, aestheticizing and sexualizing youthful discovery to the point of euphoria, unearthing the true drug that fuels such pursuits: narcissism. The Runaways is one of the keenest explorations of the allure of fame and fortune, and appropriately revisionist for the online age, equating sexual discovery (a menstrual drop of blood opens the film) with self-obsession, the power to control the gaze – yet Sigismondi also acknowledges this power as self-destructive, since that power comes at the expense of each girl’s better human interest. It’s an often subversive film, hindered by a weaker third act, but helped by nice turns from Kristen Stewart, Dakota Fanning, and Michael Shannon, whose eccentric performances don’t get near the recognition deserved.

12. Art sometimes needs to question its own ontology and no film was more convincing at asking those questions this past year than Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop, a documentary (?) initially focusing on celebrities of the graffiti underworld, but culminating in something much more massive – perhaps the greatest art show scam of all-time. Wielding kinetic pacing, rigorous interrogations, and baffling characters simultaneously, Exit Through the Gift Shop affirms art’s unpredictability and power, while remaining something of an enigma itself.

11. The beauty of Frozen is not necessarily its minimalism or social critique (though these are certainly prevalent), but a deeply rooted interest in the value of human life, especially when confronted with an incomprehensibly absurd scenario. Adam Green’s rigorously intelligent script provides three characters of varying degrees of likeability, interests, and demeanors. Yet, instead of sketching merely a broad scenario to watch them squirm, Green prizes their lives more, forcing the trio to confront hidden anxieties, desires, and fears. This is independent horror at the top of its game.

10. The antidote to Black Swan’s preference for pain over ironic pleasure, Andrea Arnold’s mesmerizing Fish Tank encapsulate young teen Mia’s (Katie Jarvis) sexual awakening with understated beauty, as her fancying of mum’s boyfriend (Michael Fassbender) leads to bliss, pleasure, heartbreak, confusion, and edification (not death). It’s easier to be riveted by Aronofsky’s ridiculously lurid passion play, but Arnold’s genuine effort is far more emotionally rewarding, and does not shy away from confronting the euphoria of her young protagonist’s sexuality (something critical darling Winter’s Bone didn’t have the courage to integrate). Fish Tank also stays far enough away from the poverty porn baiting nearly every indie succumbs to these days (Winter’s Bone included), making its narrative intelligent and sophisticated by comparison.

9. The best comedic performance of the year belongs to Jim Carrey, an actor whose brilliance has been overshadowed by the fact that he takes “broader” roles – that should not be a criticism, but a commendation, as in I Love You Phillip Morris, where he gleefully bursts through politically correct, gay stereotypes as Steven Russell, a con artist who ultimately keeps up the cons for his lover, Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor). Not treating its gay characters as precious or fragile, writer/directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa have a satirical impulse that transcends facile indie cuteness. By turns mean-spirited, heartfelt, and passionate, it is a multifaceted human comedy, giving a refreshing middle finger to the gutless raunch mass audiences delightfully eat by the spoonful.

8. Only Todd Solondz could be this self-referentially indulgent and get away with it; requiring at least a base knowledge of his 1998 dysfunction epic Happiness in order to grasp the meta-text, Life During Wartime exorcises the demons of politically correct indie cinema with scene after scene of irreverence, compassion, and sardonic ridicule. It’s not only Solondz’s impulses that should be commended, but his control of it, replacing the cast of the former film with entirely new actors, simultaneously exposing the unspoken façade of political rhetoric as self-aggrandizing and, on a microcosmic scale, the aimlessness that such actions instill upon its trapped and tortured characters.

7. Call it silly, annoyingly self-assured, or pretentious if you wish, but Inception is the year’s most spectacular film, bracingly scored by Hanz Zimmer, whose music accompanies Christopher Nolan’s predilection for suits, guns, and slicked-back hair with operatic delirium. In IMAX, Inception is a virtuoso sensory experience, and although one may mourn mainstream cinema’s reversal of prizing narrative and character over spectacle, I would argue Nolan likes both, helped by Leonardo DiCaprio’s fluent, but conflicted Dom Cobb, anchoring both the action and pathos, a genre conceit that grasps at the viscera – thrilling, if unconvincingly cerebral.

6. No film this year displays a greater elegance and sophistication than Marco Bellocchio’s Vincere, deftly traversing the balance between art, political leaders, and hero worship. As revisionist history, the scope is astonishing – punctuated by Filippo Timi’s virtuoso performance as both Benito Mussolini and his son. Not to be outdone, Giovanna Mezzogiorno manages depth and compassion without histrionics as the future dictator’s imprisoned, former wife. Bellocchio’s vision deserves much recognition and appreciation, not slinging political rhetoric, but probing the conceit of “bigger than life” mythologizing as the reason for mass dehumanization.

5. The most compelling film of the year is David Fincher’s The Social Network, an aurally and visually sophisticated explanation of narcissism fulfilled, petty grievances extended, and children at the helm of societal thought, behavior, and mores. Sorkin’s script skimps on some necessary questions (Zuckerberg’s family history, the how’s of Facebook’s monetization) and overplays others (Zuckerberg’s obsession with ex-girlfriend Erica), but what grounds the film’s pathos is a greater sense of loss, transcending the financial disputes that fuel the courtroom battles – that innocence, decency, and reckoning may be forever lost in an age founded upon subterfuge.

4. Mistaken even by many of its enthusiasts as a guilty pleasure par excellence, Piranha 3D is actually a sophisticated genre flick about the bounds of exploitation and the joys (not the monstrosity) of sexual awakening. Alexandre Aja absolves himself of High Tension’s grossly overstated allegory on the dangers of female sexuality with a film that’s fun, cinematic, sexy, scary, and uninhibited – a level of adeptness this ironically detached culture can’t help but condescendingly chuckle at. Generational angst, genre critique, and a central kinetic set-piece make Aja’s film far more than throwaway fun.

3. It’s hard to think of a contemporary film that could rival Ingmar Bergman’s monumental masterpiece Scenes From a Marriage, but Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine belongs in the discussion, certainly on a smaller scale, but just as rigorously tuned into the dynamic of its particular marriage, representing both the highs, lows, and uncertainties in between, culminating in a devastatingly nuanced portrayal of sex, guilt, emotional torture, joy, playfulness, and childishness. Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams are riveting beyond histrionics, ugly make-up, and mannerisms. They embody a naturalism that would impress John Cassavetes, and although they may not quite have the distinct faces and performance styles belonging to Peter Falk and Gena Rowlands, there’s a beauty, toughness, and proficiency that separates these performers from nearly any other of their generation. Visually, the film is often startlingly precise and exact, especially in a few monochromatic compositions. Relish the humanity.

2. What looked certain to be another smarmy, self-fulfilling bit of pop culture diarrhea a la Zombieland displays a contemporary rarity – wit, compassion, and playfulness. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World encompasses so furiously (and compactly) the eccentricities of its characters purely through film form, a complex examination of adolescent unconscious, anxieties and cultural immersion disguised as product of an euphoric ADD culture. Any perceptive viewer recognizes director Edgar Wright’s blazingly informed satire of, and reverence for, generational obsession, the superficial, (but not) products that develop desires and passion – art as transient and transcendental – revealing deeply felt human relationships (to each other and culture) rather than ass-backwards cynicism. It’s a beautiful film.

1. Nothing I write on this page can either explain or prepare you for Dogtooth, one of the most hilarious, disturbing, freak-out, ingenious movies of the past twenty years. In fact, not since Buñuel has there been a director as proficient and adept in the absurd/surreal as Greek filmmaker Giorgos Lanthimos. I’ve never been big on hodgepodge comparisons, but Dogtooth defies immediate quantification, so here goes: If Buñuel had directed Salo as written by Aki Kaurismaki, it may have looked something like Dogtooth, but that shallow, reductive analogy does very little to demonstrate what makes Lanthimos’s film so mesmerizing. Essentially an allegory for the ills of obsessively protecting children (and, by extension, going to fascist-like lengths to prevent their corruption), Dogtooth showcases some of the most batshit sequences in recent memory – but don’t conflate it’s value as merely fucked-up, since Lanthimos builds upon each sequence, culminating in profound understatement, thunderous yet barely heard. Everything remains beneath the surface in Dogtooth, but it’s a film to return to, again and again, for various reasons. Such a lightning bolt of talent and filmmaking does not strike very often.

Best Director:
Edgar Wright, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
Runner-Up: Giorgos Lanthimos, Dogtooth

Best Actor: James Franco, 127 Hours
Runner-Up: Jim Carrey, I Love You Phillip Morris & Ryan Gosling, Blue Valentine

Best Actress:
Michelle Williams, Blue Valentine
Runner-Up: Giovanna Mezzogiorno, Vincere & Natalie Portman, Black Swan

Best Supporting Actor:
Jerry O’Connell, Piranha 3D
Runner-Up: Vincent Cassell, Black Swan

Best Supporting Actress:
Mila Kunis, Black Swan
Runner-Up: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Best Original Screenplay: Giorgos Lanthimos & Efthymis Filippou, Dogtooth
Runner-Up: Derek Cianfrance, Blue Valentine

Best Adapted Screenplay: Marco Bellocchio, Vincere
Runner-Up: Nevaldine & Taylor, Jonah Hex

Best Cinematography: Eric Gautier, Wild Grass
Runner-Up: Matthew Libatique, Black Swan

Best Film Editing:
Jonathan Amos and Paul Machliss, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
Runner-Up: Lee Smith, Inception

Best Score:
Clint Mansell, Black Swan
Runner-Up: Hanz Zimmer, Inception

Best Ensemble:
The Social Network
Runner-Up: Please Give

Worst Film: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Runner-Up: The King’s Speech

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The King's Speech (Tom Hooper, 2010) -- D

The King's Speech easily qualifies as the most middlebrow movie of the year - pandering, generic, calculated, and cynically melodramatic - manufactured to trick the 60+ crowd (or any naive person, for that matter) in to thinking they've seen something profound, inspiring, and well-crafted. So it's no wonder that it is steadily eclipsing the far more deserving The Social Network in this year's best picture race. Almost on cue, the PGA recently awarded Tom Hooper's travesty its top prize - a move that signals a disinterest in complex social and psychological investigation, opting instead for political reverence and upholding the status quo. If that were The King's Speech's only transgression, it would be merely a trifle. Calculated as formula by its filmmakers to manipulate the target viewer's sensibilities and vulnerabilities, it becomes execrable.

Wafts of shit abound. The cinematography falsely bestows the sense of movement and fluidity, often tracking in front of soon-to-king George VI (Colin Firth), as if to suggest he's deserving of veneration. There's nothing artistically sophisticated about this - any half-wit can turn on a camera and track in front of the actor. Likewise, many shots which place George (or Bertie, an insufferably cute nickname) near the edge of the frame do relatively little to suggest aesthetic value or consideration, other than the obvious "on-edge" metaphor, essentially the most hackneyed visual tick in the book. Moreover, the film goes to great lengths to explain George's stutter (played to mannered, histrionic nausea by Firth) as some sort of daddy/sibling rivalry issue. Amidst this, unorthodox speech therapist Lionel (Geoffrey Rush) comes to the seemingly helpless king's rescue - and to be sure, the film uses several montages and ironic exchanges to pound home the presence of George's perseverance. More pounding comes in the form of the film's bizarre hero worship, as Lionel's wife and family become absolutely disheveled (almost to the point of fainting) once it's learned who his latest patient is. Furthering this misstep is the film's ridiculous aligning of George's persistence with nationalism, as his overcoming of the speech impediment coincides with the commencing of WWII. Literally, the film ends just as the war begins, an egregiously offensive bit of revisionist history suggesting personal triumph as national. George even states to one of his daughter's at the end that "your daddy is a great man today," ignorant to the suggestion of political indoctrination through nepotism - or at least, apathetic to the inherently troublesome suggestion of it. It's a microcosm for the film's meaninglessness and insistence on hollowly putting a smile on every viewer's face. For fuck's sake, it literally ends with a title card reading "George and Lionel remained friends for the rest of their lives," reassuring everyone that, if you were the least bit uncertain everything ends happily ever after, there need be no worries. The King's Speech deserves desecration, not veneration.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

2011 Academy Awards Nomination Predictions


Black Swan
Fighter, The
Kids Are All Right, The
King's Speech, The
Shutter Island
Social Network, The
Toy Story 3
True Grit
Winter's Bone


Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan
David Fincher, The Social Network
Tom Hooper, The King's Speech
Christopher Nolan, Inception
David O. Russell, The Fighter


Jeff Bridges, True Grit
Leonardo DiCaprio, Inception
Jesee Eisenberg, The Social Network
Colin Firth, The King's Speech
James Franco, 127 Hours


Annette Bening, The Kids Are All Right
Jennifer Lawrence, Winter's Bone
Natalie Portman, Black Swan
Noomi Rapace, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Michelle Williams, Blue Valentine


Christian Bale, The Fighter
Andrew Garfield, The Social Network
Jeremy Renner, The Town
Mark Ruffalo, The Kids Are All Right
Geoffrey Rush, The King's Speech


Amy Adams, The Fighter
Helena Bonham Carter, The King's Speech
Melissa Leo, The Fighter
Julianne Moore, The Kids Are All Right
Jacki Weaver, Animal Kingdom


Lisa Cholodenko, The Kids Are All Right
Derek Cianfrance, Blue Valentine
Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, and John J. McLaughlin, Black Swan
Christopher Nolan, Inception
David Seidler, The King's Speech


Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy, 127 Hours
Joel and Ethan Coen, True Grit
Peter Craig, Ben Affleck, and Aaron Stockard, The Town
Debra Granik, Winter's Bone
Aaron Sorkin, The Social Network


How to Train Your Dragon
Illusionist, The
Toy Story 3


Outside the Law


Inside Job
Smash His Camera
Tillman Story, The
Waiting for Superman


Black Swan
King's Speech, The
Social Network, The
True Grit


Alice in Wonderland
Black Swan
King's Speech, The
True Grit


Alice in Wonderland
Black Swan
King's Speech, The
Shutter Island
True Grit


127 Hours
Black Swan
Social Network, The
True Grit


127 Hours
Black Swan
Social Network, The
Toy Story 3


127 Hours
How to Train Your Dragon
Social Network, The
Toy Story 3


127 Hours
Alice in Wonderland
King's Speech, The
Social Network, The


If I Rise, 127 Hours
You Haven't Seen the Last of Me Yet, Burlesque
I See the Light, Tangled
Shine, Waiting for Superman
We Belong Together, Toy Story 3


Alice in Wonderland
Jonah Hex
True Grit


Alice in Wonderland
Tron: Legacy

Friday, January 7, 2011

Catfish (Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, 2010) -- B-

Catfish is fascinating in spite of itself. Forget the debates concerning whether it is all real or scripted - although the fervent opinions on that matter reveal how much stock certain viewers place in having confirmed what they experience is "real," that it could "actually happen," and that something scripted or doctored loses value and power because of its fallacy. The filmmakers of Catfish claim everything in their "documentary" is true, that none of it is scripted and all of the revelations spontaneous and genuine. My concern isn't so much with that claim (suspect as it is), but what Catfish reveals about the ontology of representation - the thin (or non-existent line) between capturing truth and manufacturing it.

October Country, a documentary released earlier in 2010, chronicles the generational struggle of a northern-New York family over the course of a year. Damaged by abuse, teen pregnancy, and poverty, it's a devastating piece on a family held back by themselves - imprisoned through family history repeating itself. Nevertheless, it's also a very exploitive film, lingering on a daughter as she cries after learning of her father's sexual abuse when she was a child, sharing painful moments with the mother whose broken up over a runaway foster child, and capitalizing on other moments to provide emotional cues for the viewer. Yet because it's a more straightforward documentary, these moments are accepted as pure emotion and catharsis - but the viewer who craves these elements also infringes upon the subject, vicariously experiencing their pain to attain some end of his own. To tie this up, I'm not sure Catfish does anything differently, even if it is altered to fit a narrative arc.

This is not to suggest Catfish's intent is to unearth these representational issues - it clearly wants to be taken as objective fact. However, no documentary can be accepted as such, since scenes (just as in a narrative film) are arranged, cut and presented in a particular way, meant to develop characters and scenarios to the preference of the filmmaker. This is an inescapable fact for all films so, in essence, nothing put on screen is ever "real" or "true," since all of it is mediated and filtered through a particular, subjective vision. Perhaps Catfish has been more attacked for the seeming intentions of the filmmakers: present themselves as hip, NY based filmmakers who are conned by a hillbilly from Michigan. Definitely, their attempts fail, since protagonist Nev Schulman comes off like an ego-centric douchebag, equipped with self-pity and a shit-eating grin, and Angela Wesselman, the con artist who faked the existence of almost two dozen Facebook people, is ultimately meant to be a sympathetic figure (pitiable, is more like it), even having two retarded sons who she has to feed, shave, and change diapers for. One of the sons beats himself mercilessly, punching and smacking himself in the face. Rest assured, the filmmakers present close-ups for your viewing pleasure. The film's title comes from a closing line by Angela's husband, who explains the catfish as a means of inspiration for the cod, to stay alert in order to avoid death. The power dynamic is made explicit in the form of an indirect question - who is conning who or, more appropriately, by constructing a narrative, do the filmmakers reverse the betrayal, "speaking for" Angela through their active (re)construction of reality?

Catfish is less interesting as an expose on the shifting technological and social tools which facilitate deception, disconnect and subterfuge. On these grounds, it is rather obvious. However, the crux of its fascination lies in the intricacy of its representational dilemma, the irony of fiction as fact, since the certainty of mediated truth always exists on unstable ground. Utilizing hand-held cameras for a zeitgeist aesthetic works better here than other recent attempts, crafting a (pseudo?) doc that, although questionable in its ethical and moral considerations on the part of the filmmakers, is never less than fascinating because of its blurred lines and double-minded motives.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The American (Anton Corbijn, 2010) -- B-

There's nothing inherently wrong with Anton Corbijn's The American - it's well-shot, paced, and executed. If only it were deeper, fresher, and had more to absorb. Corbijn's sensibilities are in the right place, building tension through gradual character revelation and contemplative ennui rather than dormant chase sequences or uninspired showdowns. Channeling the pathos of Jean-Pierre Melville (and John Woo after him) is a valid pursuit, but as with most films comprising the last decade of postmodernist efforts, there's not nearly as much revisionism as one may desire, nor enough cinematic prowess from filmmakers mimicking their idols. Such is the issue with The American - it simply pales by comparison, especially since screenwriter Rowan Joffe musters less than half a dozen memorable lines or scenes, opting for obvious ambivalence over rigorous struggle. This entails surface questions of existential angst, fatalistic doom, and love that cannot continue because of the protagonist's prior sins. A lead-pipe irony brings the narrative full circle, as the titular antihero (George Clooney) has been constructing a weapon meant to be used on...himself. Thus, his work is figuratively (emotionally) and potentially literally (physically) self-effacing. Corbijn can't seem to help himself in revealing influences either, as Once a Time in the West plays in the background of a bar, with a character eventually commenting "Sergio Leone...Italian, the best." My guess is Corbijn would agree and that's fine - but what would be even more of a blessing is a filmmaker who actually possessed a personal vision, something outstanding in its own right, rather than continually and explicitly aping from the past.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Machete (Robert Rodriguez, 2010) -- D+

The poster shows it all. Digitally applying creases to replicate the former practice of sending folded rather than rolled posters to theaters, Machete is an embarrassingly worthless addition to an already nauseating line of films with nothing more on their minds than paying homage to the sensibilities and lifestyle of moviegoing the directors grew up on. Even this in and of itself is not a completely worthless venture, but Robert Rodriguez, following his equally embarrassing Planet Terror, is a total hack, unable to coherently assemble compelling action sequences, dialogue, or anything resembling texture. Before anyone starts peddling the "but it's self-aware satire" angle, let's be clear about what such a discursive mode entails. Satire necessitates a cognitive grasp of a particular topic or idea, and revealing the inherent absurdity behind it, a more subtle, underlying vantage point that is not readily apparent or, at least, needs further clarification. Yet Rodriguez's filmmaking is totally hollow and soulless - there are no convictions behind any of his fetishized take on the vigilante/(m)exploitation film. In not taking the films he supposedly holds dear to him seriously, he produces silly pop culture fodder, trotting out the likes of Steven Seagal as a craggily faced baddie (but only really cast to get a chuckle from his questionable action star reputation) or Don Johnson (credited as "introducing") as Von Jackson - another throwaway target for Danny Trejo's titular weapon of choice. Subpar as The Expendables is, at least it has enough conviction to take the genre riff seriously. Quentin Tarantino has ten times the compositional craft and giddy cinematic eye as Rodriguez, who cuts action scenes worse than what you'd expect to find in recent direct-to-DVD Tom Selleck movies. Enough with these goofily reverential (but not) films (everyone) and enough with....films, period (Rodriguez).