For Reel

Damsels in Distress (2011)
June 27, 2012, 7:02 am
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Director: Whit Stillman

Since 1990’s Metropolitan, Whit Stillman has been addressing the social elite – that is, characters that would be flattered to be christened as yuppies – with a uniquely stylized dialogue that is heavy on wit. In Damsels in Distress, the familiar artificiality of Stillman’s universe is transplanted into Seven Oaks, an east coast college wherein, according to Violet, a trend-setting blonde played by Greta Gerwig, male barbarism predominates. Violet and her disciples take on a promising new-comer in the similarly florally-named Lily, and together the group seeks men who have not yet realized their full potential in an act that they consider to be charitable. The female cast is impressive – Gerwig is as natural a screen presence as any actress of her generation, and Analeigh Tipton, an America’s Next Top Model alumni with irresistible doe-like eyes, plays the fledgling debutante with a refreshing lack of gullibility. Where Stillman falters is in his men, not exclusively in the way that they’re written (ostensibly as simple-minded brutes), but in the performances, which are too broad for an Adam Sandler vehicle. Whereas an actress like Megalyn Echikunwoke can earn a laugh with her umpteenth delivery of “playboy operator”, the central frat boys seem desperate every time they’re on screen, grinding the picture to an unfortunate halt.

Keyhole (2011)
June 20, 2012, 12:03 am
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Director: Guy Maddin

A naked old man chained in the attic watches over his daughter. Mobsters hole themselves downstairs as the police form a perimeter around the mansion. The recently drowned girl among them is suspiciously cognizant. Such is the world of Guy Maddin’s Keyhole, and to anyone who has previously acquainted themselves with the Canadian auteur’s phantasmagorias, little comes as a surprise. Long before The Artist, Maddin has painstakingly attempted to recreate the look of silent and early sound cinema, drawing much from the likes of F.W. Murnau and Robert Wiene. Keyhole might be his easiest to pigeonhole into any sort of genre – it is roughly a film noir, with a melodramatic narrative as seen through the eyes of a haunted, Humphrey Bogart-like protagonist. Yet other touches are otherworldly sensationalist, such as the appearances of Kids in the Hall veteran Kevin McDonald, who spends much of the film having sex with a ghost in a sort of permanent trance. Although Maddin’s ideas are largely recycled from his previous, better films – voyeurism and other fetishisms, the relationships between overbearing parents and their children, memories from the past resurfacing and further disorienting the sense of narrative – the director has certainly not lost his ability to enchant, fascinate, and confound.

The Cabin in the Woods (2011)
May 1, 2012, 9:50 pm
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Director: Drew Goddard

The much discussed meta horror comedy The Cabin in the Woods comes, according to screenwriters Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon, as a direct response to the violent, cynical trends that have permeated contemporary horror cinema since the beginning of the century in money-making series’ like Final Destination, Saw, and Hostel. To attack these modern gore films, Goddard and Whedon have constructed a world in which a disposable group of teens are slaughtered by a set of circumstances that are contrived by higher-ups in an industrial complex. When the kids act too smart, for instance, their air becomes polluted with pheromones that will inevitably encourage them to have gratuitous sex. As a piece of genre criticism, the efforts of the filmmakers are astute and, if not necessarily revelatory in the post-Scream world, endearing. The necessity of the Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford characters – not unlike the game-makers of The Hunger Games franchise – is not merely to comment on the audience’s indifference to the violence that they witness on screen, but as self-reflexive substitutes of the writers, directors, and editors of a genre picture. Through them, the contrivances of the typical “cabin in the woods” narrative are directly addressed – the series of types (including the “virgin”, who will most certainly outlast her companions), the ominous gas station attendant who sets the horrific tone, and, ultimately, irrational survival behavior. Several post-modern genre pictures have made knowing quips about their own predictability, but The Cabin the Woods is quite different in that it is an attack on the filmmakers and studios that continue to produce such sadomasochistic monotony. Once Goddard and Whedon have exhausted this exploration, however, what follows in the latter half is an, if visually interesting, ultimately tedious exercise involving Gods, monsters, and the woman behind the curtain. Amidst all of the climactic carnage, it is easy to forget the initial intelligence that was present in the writing.

The Kid with a Bike (2011)
April 20, 2012, 12:52 am
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Director(s): Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne – the Belgian filmmaking duo with two Palme d’Ors to their name – have established an uncompromisingly naturalistic visual aesthetic over their six features since 1996’s La Promesse. Each picture could also be said to involve a significant moral burden, ultimately culminating more often than not with a hopeful, redemptive note. Great as each of their films are, one grows suspicious that their world is so specific that they risk self-parody. The Kid with a Bike, their latest, while utilizing the familiar handheld camera work and telling a story subjectively through a pair of distinct points-of-view, comes as a bit of a departure. The kid of the title – dressed in bright reds and blues – is, relatively speaking, visually flamboyant, and their occasional use of music is startling. While these aesthetic differences are slight, it is the film’s sense of the world – it, as the Dardennes themselves have put it, is reflective of a “fairy tale structure” – that most distinguishes it from their previous, better efforts. The convenience of the plot is not necessarily a hindrance. After all, every one of their narratives involves a fairly contrived set-up. What is frustrating, however, are its compromises in character by way of broad generalizations – it dwells in the cliches of the guardian woman, the wayward son, the absent father. Although there is the occasional moment of surprise – C├ęcile de France nearly gives up on the boy after a pivotal scene – nowhere is the dynamism of The Son, for instance, in which the characters didn’t correspond with the genre-defined traits that one might expect them to fulfill. As much as one can admire the way that the brothers so adeptly skirt sentimentality – and they quite often dwell in cute, idyllic moments before complimenting them with dread-inspiring sequences – their simplifications of what made them such exciting voices comes as a great disappointment.

Jeff, Who Lives at Home (2011)
April 12, 2012, 5:53 am
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Director(s): Jay & Mark Duplass

Unlike the wayward twenty-somethings so familiar of the mumblecore movement, the Duplass brothers have matured and entered adulthood, and are now not only making their films for personal gratification, but for commercial sustainability. That is not to say that they’re disingenuous sell-outs, though one wishes that their maturation also involved more narrative risk-taking, or at the very least a tripod. Jeff, Who Lives at Home, their latest, sees Jason Segel star as a thirty-year-old who still lives with his mother. He is hardly complacent – he believes heavily in destiny, and is willing to let the “signs” that he encounters take him wherever they might lead him. Coincidence after coincidence leads him and his brother, played by Ed Helms, through an eventful day, and little amounts from it other than an endorsement of reckless spontaneity. One wishes that the filmmakers would learn from Jeff and start taking more chances with the stories they wish to tell. Judy Greer, who has mastered the art of stealing a movie with a single scene, is a redeeming grace, but the film never feels funny enough, nor is the sentiment as earned as the directors seem to think it is.

Whores’ Glory (2011)
April 12, 2012, 5:15 am
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Director: Michael Glawogger

Sex workers from three brothels around the world are profiled in Michael Glawogger’s latest documentary, Whores’ Glory. The Fish Tank of Bangkok, Thailand sees the women sit in a sterile environment on one side of a glass barrier while the customers window-shop from the other. In Faridpur, Bangladesh, a multi-story complex is run down and crowded, and young girls, some barely past puberty, literally pull their customers in off of the streets. Finally, in La Zona of Reynosa, Mexico, women enticingly stand in the motel-like doorways of a secluded block as the men drive past. There are few surprises in the presentation of prostitute life – in fact, at times the picture seems to skirt the full extent of the exploitation suffered by the women – but Glawogger’s subjects are all captivating, and the sense of place so vivid, thanks to cinematographer Wolfgang Thaler’s studied attention to detail and the occasional, but never overbearing, visual flourish. This, in addition to Monika Willi’s surely monumental feat of editing and a fitting soundtrack featuring PJ Harvey and CocoRosie, completes an impressive technical package, which establishes a pace that never feels redundant. The sex happens off screen until the very end in which, in graphic detail, Glawogger focuses on an interaction with a shy, stingy customer and a drug-addicted worker. It is an inevitable development in the narrative, but in the way in which the woman handles the man, who stubbornly attempts to haggle, it becomes one of the few empowering moments in the film (occurring, thankfully, just before a devastating, fitting conclusion that once again establishes the darkest aspects of sex work). Had Glawogger’s ambitions been broader, this might have been an indispensable sociological artifact, but nonetheless it is a great feat of documentary filmmaking and, if not necessarily illuminating, utterly captivating.

The Fairy (2011)
April 10, 2012, 4:14 am
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Director(s): Dominique Abel, Fiona Gordon & Bruno Romy

The collaborations of French comedians Dominique Abel, Fiona Gordon, and Bruno Romy play as modest tributes to the likes of both their silent forefathers in the genre and the great Jacques Tati. Abel and Gordon, the stars of their third feature, The Fairy, are fascinating, highly photogenic presences – their long, slender bodies are fully in their control, moving with tremendous dexterity or, when it is required, humorous gracelessness. Sometimes, as in the several dance sequences of The Fairy, they’re performing somewhere in between. Easy as the team is to root for given the likable quirks of their comedic sensibilities (Gordon performs what might be the funniest lethal overdose in cinema history), they haven’t quite yet met their physical aptitude with great filmmaking. The best work of Keaton, Chaplin, and Lloyd is distinguished by the precision of their rhythm. They would know just when the audience peaks with laughter, and then immediately cut or move on to the next gag. Abel, Gordon, and Romy lack this instinct – some gags barely sustain themselves (such as a late chase sequences), and others hardly explore what could be further mined (an escape from a mental hospital is a highlight, but also a missed opportunity). Nevertheless, their scruffy appeal nearly saves The Fairy, making it affable company for its meager, though still excessive running time.