Friday, September 30, 2011

Take Shelter (Friday, September 30, 2011) (84)

So this is Jeff Nichols' sophomore effort, and as such it's slightly inferior to his debut (Shotgun Stories). This is a very good movie about paranoia also starring the transfixing Michael Shannon. (Shannon is perhaps the most interesting, strangest actor working today, or really ever to appear onscreen. He seems totally unhinged, like a modern-day Kinski. Amazing.) Here Shannon's character believes the world is going to end with a weather event, so he builds a storm shelter in his back yard, at the expense of his job and his family's faith in him. I do generally like the final product, but find the whole work less-than-totally perfect. The magical Jessical Chastain (2011 is the year of Chastain, dontcha know) plays Shannons's wife who is dealing with his mania and again gives a near-perfect performance. Nichols is turning into a really wonderful American auteur and I love what he does with atmosphere, in the weather and the thematic sense of the term. The film's European ending is fun and interesting, but a slight bit less than totally fulfilling. I do love the sum of its parts, though: Nichols, Shannon, Chastain, psychodrama, American-Gothic (albeit a more Northern one, this time Ohio).

Stars: 3 of 4

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Debt (Tuesday, September 27, 2011) (83)

This is an American update of a little-known Israeli film from a few years ago. It's a story about a Massad group from the '60s who was supposed to kill a Nazi doctor but actually botched the job. They said they did the job, and thought they got away with it, until there is a small possibility that their lie might get out. They try to fix the job, but that opens up all sorts of other ethical questions that had previously been closed. It's basically The Man who Shot Liberty Valance, but if Ransom Stoddard had tried to make it right with Tom Doniphon for no particular reason. It's a good movie, but not a great one. It does continue Jessica Chastain's amazing year of acting (this time she's a ginger Jewess! Sigh.). It's a bit better than meh, and hurt mostly by it's moral grayness.

Stars: 2.5 of 4

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Restless (Wednesday, September 21, 2011) (82)

Restless is a Gus Van Sant movie about a boy obsessed with death (Henry Hopper, fils de Dennis) who becomes friendly with a girl who has a few months to live because she's about to die of cancer (Mia Wasikowska). It's slight and facile and generally boring, but it does portend nice things from Master Hopper... and once again begs the question: why the fuck does Young Mia get work - she's really not good at all. There's nothing here that you didn't see done better in Harold and Maude (though this time the sex is at least age-appropriate... though that was part of the beauty of Harold and Maude that it was so wrong). There's really nothing about this film that's wonderful or terrible. It's mostly a fart in the wind.

Stars: 2 of 4

Monday, September 19, 2011

Contagion (Monday, September 19, 2011) (81)

Why Steven Soderbergh made a big budget, ensemble disaster film is totally beyond me. Contagion is not as bad as you've heard, but far from good. It tells the story of a virus that began somewhere in China (that new evil-empire, for it's vastness as much as for its secrecy) and moves along the line to all continents and all people until a viable antivirus can be found (this time with crowd-sourcing and YouTube!) (ugh). I like how it feels like a modern zombie movie with allusions to 28 Days Later and World War Z, but the fact remains it's only a movie because it's about a virus that affects white people in suburban Minnesota (aw, how nice). There's a fun 80s'ish score by Cliff Martinez that feels a lot like Vassal Benford and Harold Faltermeyer's score for The Running Man. Still, the script here, by Scott Z. Burns is terrible and inconsistent and begs for a scene in the New York City subway. This is a dog with only a few tricks.

Stars: 1.5 of 4

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Drive (Sunday, September 18, 2011) (80)

Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn makes really interesting movies that are about suberficiality and technical surface qualities as much as they're about genres. Drive is an operatic noir but also a baroque driving movie and borrows from all of those subgenres in a very interesting visual way. There really isn't much of any narrative in this film: Ryan Gosling plays a driver who works part time at a mechanic's shop, part time as a Hollywood stunt driver and part time as a getaway driver for Los Angeles heist gangs. He has a direct way of dealing with everything he does, a style that can easily get ultraviolent in the blink of an eye. He falls for a typical noir mol, this time played dully by Carey Mulligan (that's the only way she knows how to do anything), who enters the plot only as a device to move the story to its next level. Any search for depth of story will lead one down blind alleys and into oblivion. This is a film about surface and it is interesting and quite beautiful in that context. Albert Brooks plays a wonderful bad guy here and is deserving of any acclaim he might get. All in all a fun film and pretty one, but not a great one.

Stars: 3 of 4

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Autobiography of Nicolae Caucescu (Saturday, September 10, 2011) (

OK - so I admit that I have a never-ending boner for anything Romanian these days, but this is such an amazing film it's hard not to be totally bowled over by it. It's 3+ hours of found footage of Commerade Nicolae Caucescu official films (with some home movies thrown in for texture in a few places) cut together as an "autobiography". As a theoretical piece it's one of the most interesting pieces in a long time (at least since Alexander Olch's The Windmill Movie, an autobio-doc made by a third party). It brings up important questions about what makes an "autobiography" and what makes a "documentary". The suggestion here is that Caucescu's persona was a creation of the Party, therefore his autobiography would be a creation of texts (films) of him in an official capacity. The suggestion is that there was no there there with him from a psychological point of view, so his autobiography is simply a superficial view of him looking at stuff (mostly of parades). This totally brings to mind Kundera's assertion that commies loved parades and how fabricated they are themselves. (Who walks down streets to music and choreography... and then who would think they're anything but concocted simulacra of reality?) It is a marathon in length, but I think that's part of the point as well: aside from the formal qualities of contemporary Romanian narrative pictures, only a megalomaniac could create an "autobiography" that was so long.

Stars: 3.5 of 4

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Senna (Thursday, September 8, 2001) (78)

A very nice biodoc about the Ayrton Senna, the major Brazilian F-1 driver of the late-'80s and early-'90s. The film shows how he rose up to become one of the world's biggest sports heroes (albeit one that most Americans have never heard of... because F-1 is a dumb "sport") and how his "drive on the edge of sanity" style worked its way into his clashes with F-1 brass. There's a weird non-politics to the film suggesting that Brazilians loved him and his sport during one the biggest economic depressions in that country's history... a bit of bread and circus... er, circuits... (heh heh). Not enough is explained about the rules of the sport, but it's generally works as a good biography piece.

Stars: 2.5 of 4