For Reel

Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (2009)
February 15, 2012, 7:32 pm
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Director: Damien Chazelle

A whimsical indie musical shot on 16mm black-and-white stock, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench has an exciting, youthful appeal that is clearly the work of a filmmaker who knows and loves cinema. Occupying an exciting new ground somewhere between Fred Astaire and Joe Swanberg, director Damien Chazelle uses musical tangents that are nothing sort of magic, especially a tap-dancing number that occurs inside of the restaurant in which Madeline works as a waitress. While the routine doesn’t exactly have the precision and grace that one might expect from an MGM routine, its clunkiness provides a charming, slacker energy that is wholly its own. Like Medicine for Melancholy and the films associated with the mumblecore movement, the picture takes place in the apartments of attractive twenty-somethings, here an assemblage of jazz nerds who get together to play music and dance. The filmmaking captures the energy of these parties – in one, the camera whips back and worth to capture Guy on the trumpet and the slender, fox-faced tap-dancer who accompanies the music – and Chazelle and his cinematographer stay close to the actors to enliven the material with a feeling of spontaneity. While the characters aren’t quite as well realized as Chazelle’s vision behind the camera, much is forgiven due to the delightful vivacity of the world he has invented.

Splice (2009)
May 20, 2011, 8:57 pm
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Director: Vincenzo Natali

Contemporary genre cinema is too often reduced to joyless, uninspired dreck – riddled with recycled creatures, ideas, and aesthetics – and so Splice, in some ways the most unusual wide release of last year, arrived as a breath of fresh air. That’s not to say that it entirely works – to accept the much discussed plot developments of the latter half of the picture, the audience has to put forth a strenuous effort in making sense out of the character’s decisions. Echoing Cronenberg, the film pairs its graphic imagery (the violent encounter between two slug-like creatures is a perfect example of the comedic potential of such schlock) with big ideas like the morality of genetic engineering and the perils of parenting.

Moon (2009)
May 1, 2011, 7:18 pm
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Director: Duncan Jones

Following my third revisiting of Moon, I learned that Sam Rockwell had studied Midnight Cowboy in preparation for the part of the slowly dying clone. As the Ratso Rizzo of this particular duo, he successfully depicts the grim horrors of chronic sickness but, perhaps more frighteningly, begins to show an obliviousness to his own downfall – as if his brain, just as his body, is beginning to fail him. In addition to the use of models, which has been praised ad nauseam in every written piece on the film, it seems as though the make-up effects have gone overlooked. Sam’s body disintegrates as if having a parasite. The horrifying scenes in which he bleeds excessively after a minor encounter with “healthy” Sam, or when he vomits blood into his helmet, are reminiscent of Cronenberg’s bodily horror.

Dust (2009)
March 29, 2011, 3:43 am
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Director: Max Jacoby

With Dust, first time feature filmmaker Max Jacoby directs a surprisingly low-key apocalypse drama. Whereas many films use apocalyptic landscapes to achieve suspense – the searches for food and water, the avoidance of road warrior baddies – Jacoby seems to set his material in such a setting for the sole purpose its aesthetic value. The film concerns a pair of twins, Elodie and Elias, who live together following an unexplained catastrophe that wiped out the human race. Soon, they are joined by an injured stranger, Gabriel, and Elias’ jealousy begins to grow as Elodie takes sexual interest in the brooding vagabond. Most remarkable about the film is Fredrik Bäckar’s widescreen cinematography. Each frame is composed masterfully with an effective use of natural light. Accompanied by the hushed dialogue and Jacoby’s leisurely pace, the film sustains a compelling mood that stays with you long after exiting the theater. Although the performances may be too mannered and the plot too small to retain much narrative interest – Gabriel, in particular, remains frustratingly enigmatic throughout – the film’s aesthetic achievements are significant. Hopefully the film will see a small commercial release as its visuals alone are meant to be experienced in a theater.

Nothing Personal (2009)
March 29, 2011, 12:04 am
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Director: Urszula Antoniak

One of the first images in Nothing Personal is a woman removing a wedding ring from her finger. It is one of several on-the-nose, banal moments that restrict the audience from fully investing in the quiet relationship between the two central characters. For a film that intends to revel in small, telling gestures (which i’ve surmised by the tediously repetitive image of hands rummaging through seaweeds), it has the tendency to be disarmingly blunt. In perhaps the most misguided choice of all, the film incorporates chapter titles like “The end of a relationship” that undo the struggling observational quality of the film. A first time filmmaker, Urszula Antoniak shows potential in getting two commendably under-played performances out of her leads, and should she resist getting in the way of the acting talent she may be one to watch out for in the future. Lotte Verbeek, as the flame-haired, impersonal hitch-hiker, has a magnetic presence on screen, however the character’s emotional barriers break early and unconvincingly.

Bluebeard (2009)
March 26, 2011, 6:35 am
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Director: Catherine Breillat

Catherine Breillat is undoubtedly one of the most heatedly discussed contemporary filmmakers. Many hate her films, and what they often chastise is her supposed misandry (though I would argue that her females are drawn equally poor in their obedience and weak will). It almost seems to be in self-parody, then, to tackle the French folktale “Bluebeard”, which depicts an aristocrat who has the unfortunate habit of murdering his young wives. Despite the potential of the material to rehash Breillat’s familiar ideas, however, she brings a sharp, dry sense of humor to the story and revels in the visceral potential of a fairy tale as much as she does in the sexual politics. The film is not a visual masterpiece by any means – the lousy costumes make much of it look like a Renaissance festival – but there’s an inexplicable charm to the meek production costs. Breillat sets her sense of humor up marvelously with a hilarious opening in which two girls are forced to leave a convent after their supportive father dies (“we are not a charity”, remarks the mother superior). The mannered performances of the two leads – Dominique Thomas as the ogre, newcomer Lola Créton as his young bride – give the film an unusual, dreamlike tone which perhaps mimics the imagination of the two young girls who narrate the film. Look out for an unconvincing “corpse” in the beginning of the picture, whose belly rises and eyes move so explicitly that one has to imagine it was an intentional choice on the part of Breillat.

Cracks (2009)
March 19, 2011, 11:06 pm
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Director: Jordan Scott

With different material, Eva Green’s performance might have stuck out as one of the worst of the year. But her overdone, ludicrously exaggerated mannerisms only heighten the fact that her character is a complete fraud. As a campy melodrama, Cracks works well because of Jordan Scott’s willingness to go all of the way with the material. Her directorial decisions are ludicrously on-the-nose – there’s a scene in which the sheltered Eva Green goes into town and, unnerved by her surroundings, begins having an anxiety attack visualized through a series of quickly cut close-ups and Green’s overemphasized ticks. As serious as Scott seems to take the material, there’s also a sense that she understands how theatrical it all is, and more crucially how theatrical Green, by the nature of her character, needs to be. She’s constructed a matriarchal kingdom in which she rules as Queen, and the outside interference by a more well-traveled student three times her junior compromises every bit of her authority. Juno Temple, whose character is on a similar journey in becoming the future matriarch of a gaggle of naive young girls, gives an equally effective performance as yet another fascistic false sage.