Posts Tagged ‘Film Review’

**** out of *****

Cult-ural difference.

This seriously unnerving debut from director Sean Durkin and actress Elizabeth Olsen mines one of cinema’s richest terrains: the line separating dreams and reality, the past and the present. It’s a haunting portrait of trauma — both its roots and its consequences. It’s also a film about the way social structures influence human behavior. Anchored by a revelatory turn from Olsen, Martha Marcy May Marlene depicts an unstable mind as it struggles to adapt to two very different worlds.

Let’s start with those two worlds. Through a dreamlike flashback structure, Martha Marcy May Marlene tells two stories at once. The first charts a young woman’s (Olsen) time in an insular commune in Upstate New York. The word “cult” never crossed my mind during Martha Marcy May Marlene, though one could easily use that label to describe this close-knit, polygamous community. The farmhouse commune follows a series of strict social rules, as dictated by Patrick (John Hawkes), a slippery dictator who exudes paternalistic warmth and menace with equal conviction. Men eat first in this community, and all women must give themselves sexually to Patrick. Everyone works to help the farm remain self-sufficient. Patrick also gets to rename you; Martha becomes Marcy May. Them’s the rules. Adapt or disappear.

The second story tracks Martha after she escapes the commune. Skittish and paranoid, Martha runs to her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson), a well-off woman living with her husband (Hugh Dancy) at their vacation beach house in Connecticut. Lucy’s world is Whole Foods-fresh, upper-middle-class, spacious, monogamous —  the inverse of Patrick’s commune. Now Martha must adopt the norms of bourgeois living. No, you can’t go skinny-dipping. No, you can’t crawl into your sister’s bed when she’s fucking her husband. Yes, you have to start thinking about your career. Them’s the rules. Adapt or we’ll force you into a psych ward. (more…)

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A flawed, incomprehensible must-see.

“As I do not approve of the current wave of violence that we see on our screens, I have always felt that murder should be treated delicately…I’m sure you will all agree that murder can be so much more charming and enjoyable, even for the victim, if the surroundings are pleasant and the people involved are ladies and gentleman.” — Alfred Hitchcock, 1974

The Killer Inside Me was the most baffling film of 2010. No film I saw made such consistently strange choices. And, unlike some of my favorite films, which tend to relish in delightful weirdness, few of the film’s bizarre strokes inspired any pleasure in me. Was that the point? Did I miss something? To paraphrase Mr. Ebert’s take on the film, The Killer Inside Me operates on a frequency I can’t receive (spoilers to The Killer Inside Me and Psycho abound).

That frequency originates, as far as I can tell, from Hitchcock and classic film noir. Michael Winterbottom’s film brings the misogynistic undercurrent in ’40-’50s noir and Psycho to a scalding boil. The film pummels you, without reason. There’s no elegance, no grace, no Hitchcockian class. Just a parade of ugly human behavior, devoid of easy rationalization. That gleeful psychiatrist who explains everything away at the end of Psycho? Yeah, you don’t get that here. (more…)

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A lush, lurid nightmare.

**** 1/2 out of *****

Frenzied emotions, expressive costumes, booming musical cues — this is the stuff of cinematic melodrama. I eat it up. Frazzled minds were made for the movies. Melodrama, as a genre, lets filmmakers run wild. It lets gifted stylists visualize repression and festering anger with filmic flourishes. A boring melodrama has its characters mope and talk. An engaging one packs the screen with visual manifestations of those characters’ most primal instincts: jealousy, love, fury. In life, these things tend to simmer. In melodrama, they pop, like the red on James Dean’s jacket. You don’t win points for subtlety here.

Darren Aronofsky, the director who flogged us all with the acid-dipped D.A.R.E. shirt he called Requiem for a Dream, is up for this task. This guy only carries blunt instruments. His films hammer; they don’t scalpel. Aronofsky hails from the more-is-more school of filmmaking, which places a premium on viscera over intellect. As such, he tends to live in that ghetto critics call “style over substance.” But now he’s given us Black Swan, his most satisfying movie to date. This is a terrific film about the creative process — its paranoid rivalries and cycles of self-hatred — told with the broad, bold strokes of horror and melodrama.

Black Swan dives into the mind of an insecure perfectionist (Natalie Portman). I’ve known the type. To a large extent, I am the type. Portman doesn’t effuse raw talent. She can’t “lose herself” in “transcendent” moments of artistry, as her superior (Vincent Cassel) often notes. She’s too self-aware, too rigid. But she works harder than anyone. She compensates for natural skill with borderline unhealthy devotion. If ballet were an essay test, she’d be the girl with flashcards. (more…)

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Print the Legend has caught a belated case of listomania. Here now are my 10 favorite films from 2010. I’m writing this without having seen several of the year’s major contenders: Black Swan, The King’s Speech, I Am Love, Winter’s Bone, or 127 Hours. So this list could change in the coming weeks. By the end of 2010, however, these were the titles I most admired from the year.

10: The Ghost Writer

Let’s get this out of the way: 2010 wasn’t a banner year for the movies. Unlike, say, 2007, a year cinephiles will romanticize for decades to come, 2010 held few cinematic stunners. One of them, The Ghost Writer, felt as though it were beamed in from another age entirely. Roman Polanksi directs this Bush-era picture as a sedate, ’70s thriller with a Hitchcockian hand. The Ghost Writer brims with tantalizing subtext: some political (it echoes the real-life story of David Kelly), some cinematic (allusions to past filmic greats abound), and some autobiographical (Polanski edited this claustrophobic film while under house arrest). It also closes with one of the year’s great shots, an image that makes me smile just thinking about it. (more…)

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This review first appeared on Quarantine the Past on December 10, 2009.

Image #1: Close up. A hand clenches a loaded revolver. Its index finger begins to squeeze the trigger.

Image #2: A flock of birds rise in unison, leaping into flight.

What happened here? Well, we know loud sounds startle birds, and we know guns make loud sounds. Therefore, we deduce that someone fired a gun. Yet we never see the trigger pulled, the gun fired, or the bullet reach its target. And, because these shots stem from The Docks of New York, a 1928 silent film, viewers don’t even hear the gun go off. But the images make perfect, intuitive sense as a pair. The first shot informs the second to create a concrete idea in our heads: Someone fired a gun. The filmmaker conveys this information cinematically, not literally. As art critic Rudolf Arnheim wrote in 1933, “What is particularly noteworthy in such a scene is not merely how easily and cleverly the director makes visible something that is not visual, but by doing so, actually strengthens its effect.”

Joel and Ethan Coen continue this tradition like no other directors working today. I call it the Cinema of Smoke. If a house burns to the ground, most directors show you the fire; the Coen brothers show you the smoke. We see the consequence (smoke) and deduce the action (fire). The duo makes the most of the medium; they use images, sounds, and the clashes between them to tell stories in inventive, uniquely cinematic ways. (more…)

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***1/2 out of *****

Anatomy of a bad trip.

I’ve found so many reasons to put off writing this review. I’m still putting it off, in fact, with this self-reflexive lead. Critiquing Enter the Void is like discussing the merits of an iTunes visualizer after a dose of psychoactives. It’s profound in the moment and idiotic upon reflection. It’s hypnotic and scary. You can’t look away. But then, suddenly — oh dear god — you have to, for fear of an incoming seizure. As you’re experiencing it, you ask yourself, again and again: What am I doing to myself?

Everything you need to know about Enter the Void, you’ll find in its opening credits. I apologize in advance.


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This review originally appeared on Quarantine the Past on December 14, 2009.

“If I reach high points with Inglourious Basterds, it is partly because Paul [Thomas Anderson] came out with There Will Be Blood a couple years ago, and I realized I had to bring my game up.” (full clip)

Quentin Tarantino, like the films he makes, is nothing if not self-aware. He must have known something was off in 2007. Paul Thomas Anderson, his dear friend and competitor, unleashed There Will Be Blood as he drooled out Death Proof, a masturbatory and insular B-movie homage. One was an instant classic; the other a Tarantino-dialogue vehicle, this time with chicks. To some, the movie marked his “creative death.” By 2009, Tarantino didn’t just need to bring his game up. He needed a veritable game-changer. (more…)

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