Saturday, September 27, 2008

Transsiberian (2008, Brad Anderson)

After the eerie but scattershot Session 9 and the somewhat listless The Machinist, Anderson finally shows some real aptitude with the thriller genre with his latest film, set largely onboard the titular railroad. Much of this is due to the fact that he finally decided to pay attention to the quirky little details that previously distinguished his lighter films, Next Stop Wonderland and Happy Accidents. This is especially true in the first half of the film, in which the central couple (nicely played by Emily Mortimer and Woody Harrelson) begins making their way across Russia on the train. At the beginning, very little about their journey goes wrong, but small things contribute to a sense of unease- a disagreeable stewardess, the awful music (The Captain and Tennille) that plays constantly in their cabin due to a broken on/off switch, and so on. Naturally, by the time a friendly English-speaking couple (Kate Mara and Eduardo Noriega) boards the train, Harrelson and Mortimer are quick to make friends, despite Mara’s seeming reluctance and Noriega’s overly-insistent manner. From here on out, the inconveniences begin to worsen, but Anderson’s filmmaking is so assured here that they never feel over-the-top, even after one of the characters commits a serious crime. Everything felt more or less plausible to me, and this wouldn’t have been possible had Anderson not taken the time to really establish his central characters. Another element I liked was that it was Mortimer, not Harrelson, who really drove the story. Harrelson is fine here, cast against type as a nerdy train enthusiast. But while most thrillers would no doubt turn him into an action hero in the final reel (I chuckled when he remarked, “I dropped my glasses!,” anticipating this turn of events), his utility is limited largely to finding a means of escape and a fairly exhaustive knowledge of trains. But it’s Mortimer who carries the story. This isn’t a story where she gets them into trouble and he has to get them out- she ends up doing both, and in the process keeps her husband somewhat in the dark for large portions of the story. Much of the movie deals with the idea of owning up to one’s actions and being truthful to one’s spouse, which makes the climactic scene of the film somewhat disappointing, since it’s never clear that she really fesses up to what she’s done to Harrelson. Still, despite the slight letdown in the final reel, Transsiberian is nonetheless a highly effective old-school thriller, with plenty of atmosphere, a handful of really good surprise scenes, and absolutely no twist ending, which given all the bad thriller twists of late came as a great relief. Rating: 7 out of 10.

Trouble the Water (2008, Tia Lessin and Carl Deal)

The intimate mirror image of Spike Lee’s expansive Katrina saga, Trouble the Water is best at putting what journalists would call “a human face” on the disaster. Of course, it was Lessin and Deal’s good luck that they hooked up with Kimberly Rivers Roberts and Scott Roberts early on. To begin with, there’s the matter of the video footage Kimberly shot herself. The famously grumpy Jeff Wells has complained on numerous occasions that her footage was “amateurish at best” and that she “should never be permitted to pick up a camera again.” Yet I think it’s this clumsy quality that makes her footage so wrenching. With a more assured hand on the camera, the footage would have felt professional, with shots properly framed for maximum impact. By contrast, the amateurishness not only “keeps it real,” but also gives her video footage a serendipitous feel- rather than a seasoned camera operator who plunged into the storm, Kimberly was in the right (wrong) place at the right time, and recorded the disaster because she thought someone should be there to tell the story. But the filmmakers’ good fortune also extends to the subjects themselves, a pair of “ordinary” 9th Ward citizens who prove to be compelling on-camera subjects. Kimberly and Scott may lack formal education and have less-than-savory pasts, but they’re intelligent and intensely verbal, and give voice to their discontents in colorful and expressive ways. They’re not “articulate” in that patronizing way that’s usually attributed to African-Americans, but they’re very good at making their points in conversation, with a no-nonsense manner of speaking that cuts right through the niceties. Moreover, choosing a pair of poor ex-criminals allows the filmmakers to show the pair rising out of the rubble of Katrina to better themselves. The film never makes it explicit that the tragedy has jolted them out of their lives, but it’s pretty clear that what happens to them both during and in the weeks after the storm works to sharpen their foci in life. Kimberly uses her fledgling music career to help bring to light the injustices she believes her people were subjected to by the government in the wake of Katrina. Less obvious but perhaps even more poignant is Scott’s path- an ex-criminal (we see old video of him brandishing a machine gun at one point), Scott eventually finds a job in construction, helping to fix up houses that were damaged by the flood, and he positively beams at the camera at having found a purpose and center for his life (oh, and fuck this guy in my opinion). On balance, I think I prefer Lee’s film- that’s a whole lotta movie, after all, and he handles it beautifully- but in its way, Trouble the Water is no less indispensible in its approach to one of the defining American events so far this century, one that definitively demonstrated (to quote Haven Hamilton) “how far we’ve come along ‘til now/ how far we’ve got to go.” Rating: 8 out of 10.

Friday, September 19, 2008

In Search of a Midnight Kiss (2007, Alex Holdridge)

Holdridge pretty clearly had Before Sunrise on the brain when writing this, and while it’s not up to the standard of Linklater’s classic romance, it’s pretty compelling on its own. One big difference between the two films is the differences between the setups- whereas Jesse and Celine were able to cut through the getting-to-know-you crap because they were on a very tangible deadline, there’s the possibility of a future for Wilson (Scoot McNairy) and Vivian (Sara Simmonds). Consequently, there’s that idea that they might be testing each other- explicitly in the case of Vivian, more implied with Wilson. And this is why Vivian’s final actions throw Wilson for such a loop, as it turns out her goals aren’t nearly as similar as he’d hoped. With this, Midnight Kiss transforms a simple story of youthful romance into a study in the different reasons we seek it out. In addition, I liked the way that, unlike most romantic stories, the protagonists of this film were struggling financially- much of the date consists of the two walking and talking, Wilson takes his final $100 out of the bank to treat Vivian to a nice dinner, and Vivian ponders giving up on her non-starting acting career and moving back in with her mother. And amidst it all, McNairy and Simmonds make their characters specific and interesting. Wilson is clearly having trouble coping with the fact that his intelligence and creativity hasn’t gotten him as far as he’d hoped, while Vivian is one of those women we all know who steep themselves in style and irony to cover for their pain. The stuff between the two of them is effective enough that it’s dismaying enough when the film cuts to something else entirely. But occasionally, Holdridge will insert something so misguided into the story- Wilson’s flighty mom, Vivian’s violent-redneck ex-boyfriend- that the movie got downright frustrating (Linklater was wise enough to avoid this). Yet In Search of a Midnight Kiss is certainly worth seeing. One final note: I’ve slagged on DV and HD in the past, but I’ve got to say that I’m much more forgiving to black-and-white digital than I am to color. The unique textural qualities of the medium are much easier to appreciate without the smeary colors getting in the way. But whatever it is, it works perfectly here, which makes it all the more disheartening to hear that In Search of a Midnight Kiss has been showing in color on IFC on Demand and could very well be released on DVD the same way. So, word to the wise: if you rent this and it's not in b/w, turn the color off. You’ll thank me. Rating: 6 out of 10.

Chris & Don: A Love Story (2007, Tina Mascara and Guido Santi)

The key to the film is right there in the title- it’s “a love story”, not “a gay love story,” or even “a different kind of love story.” That’s because the film essentially takes the idea that Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy were gay as its jumping-off point rather than its destination, to its credit. Since it gets the partners’ mutual sexual orientation out of the way at the beginning, it’s free to move on to other subjects, especially the age difference between the two, the experience gap that came from this, and the love that endured between them regardless of this. Of course, Isherwood was a literary celebrity, hobnobbing with movie stars and world-famous artists, and naturally Bachardy (thirty years his junior) would seem a bit out of sorts in this company. But whereas most people criticize such May-December romances by insisting that each is using the other (or worse, that the older party is "predatory"), Chris & Don shows us otherwise, at least in this particular instance. Part of this viewpoint comes from the fact that the film is Don’s story, and his gratitude for his 36 years with Chris plays a big part in his telling of it. Yet this was a truly loving couple, and as with any good relationship, there was real growth, at least on Don’s part. Instead of turning him into his “boy toy”, Chris encouraged Don to come into his own as an artist and a man, and eventually, while the Isherwood name opened doors for him, his talent could stand alone. And through the years, their love went through its various seasons, just like any other loving, lifelong relationship. In a way, Chris & Don may be the closest I’ve seen yet to a cinematic rebuke to the “defense of marriage” brigade- after all, wasn’t the complex but ultimately fulfilling love between Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy basically a marriage in every sense but legally? Chris & Don may be no great shakes as cinema (it passes D’Angelo’s test for movie-worthiness largely on the basis of Bachardy’s presence), but it’s a moving story because Chris and Don, for all their uniqueness, are much like any other couple you’d meet, gay or straight. Rating: 7 out of 10.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Burn After Reading (2008, Joel and Ethan Coen)

One of the trademarks of practically all great comedies is that they hold up a funhouse mirror to human folly. And while I wouldn’t call Burn After Reading a masterpiece, it definitely fits in this tradition. To really appreciate the movie, one must recognize how self-absorbed nearly every single major character in the film is, and realize how well the Coens use the heightened drama required by an espionage plot to explode this all-around self-absorption. These people are so blinkered by their own egos that they can’t look around and see the shit storm they’ve stirred up.

Most obviously, Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich) is such a puffed-up prick he doesn’t realize how off-putting he is, and he’s so consumed with taking offense to others calling him a drunk that he can’t acknowledge his problem. But even a relatively benign character like Linda (Frances McDormand) isn’t immune- she’s obsessed with getting cosmetic surgery (“I’ve gotten about as far as this body can take me”) in order to attract the caliber of man she desires. This colors almost all of her decisions throughout the film.

And what’s going on with Harry, played by George Clooney? He cheats on his wife (who for reasons of her own doesn’t seem all that broken up about it) with Osbourne’s wife (Tilda Swinton), each of whom refers to the other as “a cold, stuck-up bitch” until we start to wonder if that’s Harry’s type. In turn, he cheats on them by hooking up with women he meets through the personal ads, including - you guessed it- Linda. Yet I don’t think he means any harm- he’s simply addicted to sex as an end in itself (look at the gift he makes for his wife) with little regard for the personal entanglements that can result. But then, he’s pretty oblivious all around, as evidenced by the severity of his reaction to an untimely surprise.

Of course, it goes without saying that Burn After Reading is impeccably acted- few filmmakers rival the Coens for their ability to get the most out of their actors. I’m thinking in particular of Malkovich, whose reptilian pomposity has rarely been effectively utilized, and Brad Pitt, who continues to demonstrate his knack for kidding his himbo looks by playing a gym rat whose general befuddlement quickly leads him to get in over his head.

Many of the film’s detractors have taken the Coens to task (yet again) for showing contempt toward their characters. But I don’t think it’s that simple. In many ways, this is a kind of comedy corrective to the self-righteous posturing of movies like Crash and Babel, with the Coens handling their characters’ travails with biting wit, rather than wailing and gnashing their teeth about human frailty and the impossibility of connecting with those outside our personal bubble. They’re cranky and misanthropic, but they’re also right, and the film makes its points in a way that’s both more entertaining and less pious than either of these bits of Oscar-bait.

Look at the film’s final scene, in which (after all the shit goes down) a pair of CIA agents, played by J.K. Simmons and David Rasche, tries to suss everything out only to throw up their hands in frustration. Like us, they can’t help but marvel at the huge mess that’s resulted from a relatively insignificant matter- blackmail, possible treason, bodies piling up- that has poisoned everyone it’s touched, even those rare people who’ve acted in a relatively selfless manner. I was reminded a bit of the faeries and spirits of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, who despite their role in the human characters’ misadventures are also detached enough to try to make sense of human messiness. “What fools these mortals be,” indeed.

Rating: 8 out of 10.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Frozen River (2008, Courtney Hunt)

Most of the great suspense movies are founded upon necessity. When a character finds himself in a tense situation, it’s because he has to be there, not just because he’s looking for a little thrill. It’s only when the stakes are high for the people onscreen that the suspense really takes hold. Consider Ray Eddy, the protagonist of Frozen River, played by Melissa Leo. There’s almost no wiggle room in Ray’s life- her husband’s disappeared with the money that was earmarked for the family’s new double-wide trailer, her creditors are sniffing around, there’s barely any money left in the coffers (at one point she feeds her children popcorn and Tang for dinner), and Christmas is just around the corner. So the sudden appearance of the young Mohawk woman Lila (Misty Upham) who ropes Ray into an illegal-alien transporting racket looks like just the opportunity she needs to pull herself out of the rut into which she’s fallen. Naturally, much of the suspense of Frozen River stems from whether Ray and Lila will get caught, but I dare say that the film wouldn’t work nearly as well if the various parties who were closing in on Ray’s life weren’t illustrated so vividly. It’s certainly true that trouble can come to us all, but many of these troubles can be staved off with money, and Ray just doesn’t have it. So even when the family’s faced with something as simple as a frozen water pipe, the results can be disastrous. And that’s the true center of Frozen River- that for all its effectiveness as suspense, it’s really a movie about how poverty can back a person into a corner. Especially in a small town like Ray’s, a poor single woman has almost no options open to her, so when trouble comes knocking, everything can spiral out of control. Leo’s performance is pivotal, not a deglammed Oscar-grubbing star turn but nothing short of an act of empathy, inhabiting Ray without soft-pedaling how difficult she can sometimes be, especially when cornered. With a less convincing lead performance, we wouldn’t buy Frozen River for a second. But Leo never steps wrong, and that’s why the movie works as well as it does. Rating: 7 out of 10.

Man on Wire (2008, James Marsh)

“It scares you when you don’t know / whichever way the wind might blow.”

One of the tricks to making a successful documentary isn’t simply finding a story that’s worth telling, but telling that story in a way that’s both cinematic and narratively involving. In that respect, Man on Wire is one of the best documentaries to come along in years. Of course, it helps to have a good story, and Philippe Petit walking a tightrope between the towers of the World Trade Center is a doozy. But if Marsh had simply taken a talking-heads and photo-montage approach, the result would be better-suited to a stylistically inert program on the History Channel. Instead, Marsh intersperses the usual documentary stuff with dramatic re-creations of the day’s events, structuring the story as a kind of caper film (the film’s tagline calls the incident “the artistic crime of the twentieth century”). It’s a daunting task, trying to wring suspense from a story to which we already know the outcome- Petit is interviewed for the film, after all- but ultimately the gambit pays off. That it does is in large part a triumph of filmmaking technique, as Marsh and his interview subjects do such a good job of getting us caught up in the procedural details and snags of the day that one almost forgets that the ending is a foregone conclusion. This makes it all the more effective when Petit finally gets out on that wire for his historic crossing. I think it’s also key that Marsh refuses to invoke the specter of 9/11 for this film- when Petit (an extremely engaging subject, it should be said) speaks of “conquering the towers,” his aims are edifying rather than destructive, and in the end, what makes Man on Wire such a vital film is that it reclaims, albeit briefly, the World Trade Center from the hateful ideologies that tore it down. Even if the incident was little more than a extreme stunt, it matters little in light of the quixotic genius of it, and Man on Wire stands as a testament to the lengths a man will go in order to pursue a mad, brilliant dream. Rating: 9 out of 10.