Sunday, January 16, 2011

2010 in Film (cont'd)

Enter the Void (dir. Gaspar Noé)
Certainly an unforgettable cinematic excursion, right from its incredible opening credits sequence (one of the best I've ever seen). Noé follows up his masterpiece, Irréversible with yet another truly unique exercise, but the details of the film are less memorable than the experience of seeing the film. The narrative (if you can call it that) mostly charts the journey of Oscar (Nathaniel Brown), a man who is shot dead by police during a drug raid at a Tokyo bar called the Void. After his spirit rises from his body, the viewer is taken in first-person shooter mode, seeing what he sees, which include varied and at times very emotionally felt (if aurally and visually distorted) reactions to his tragic demise, particularly from his sister Linda (Paz de la Huerta). We are also given multiple flashbacks of the car crash that killed Oscar and Linda's parents and left them orphans. The film is visually stunning, to say the least and features some of the showiest editing and cinematography I've seen all year. At 154 minutes, it never feels boring, but it does begin to feel repetitive, particularly during its close, which feels like one extended orgy where the audience is a voyeur. Cinematic nudity has never felt so tangentially related to the film itself. The performances range from naturalistic and deeply felt (particularly the child actors who portray young Nathaniel and Linda) to histrionic and over the top. Paz de la Huerta alternates between the two and though there's much to admire about her work here, she never seems to strike the right notes. The film's purposefully muggy, drug haze-like sound mix often can't even serve to drown out the sounds of her chewing the scenery. Nevertheless, Enter the Void is one of the films of 2010 that's a can't miss, regardless of one's reaction. Given its love it or hate it nature, it may seem strange to give it a "B," but at any rate...
Grade: B

Animal Kindgom (dir. David Mich
This tautly structured, well-paced Australian crime drama is more than meets the eye and rewards repeat viewings. Writer-director Michôd has constructed a film that is rife with character specificity that sucks you into this family of clumsy yet conniving and often loving Melbourne criminals told through the eyes of Joshua "J" Cody (newcomer James Frecheville). The green and fresh-faced teenager enters the fold after his mother dies of a drug overdose and he is taken in by his grandmother, Janeane "Smurf" Cody played by Jacki Weaver in a much ballyhooed (justifiably so) performance. The details underneath Weaver's turn are small and subtle, but richly consistent in a slow-burn kind of ways. One often looks for the "big scene" when watching a film with a critically lauded performance that people seem unable to shut up about, but the turning point for Weaver is beautifully understated. It's not a film of big moments, in terms of character reaction, but in how disgustingly, how easily the characters (particularly Smurf) turn on their ear and commit despicable acts. The rest of the ensemble is very good as well, even James Frecheville, who has received some criticism for what may appear to be a blank, vacant turn. His face seems aplomb at betraying any emotion and I'll admit that upon first viewing, I found him unremarkable. Watching the film a second time, I'm almost certain it was Michôd's intention that Joshua intentionally try to be faceless in the midst of very lively, volatile family members who he doesn't instantly trust and who certainly give him no reason to qualm his fears. The film is far from perfect. Michôd's script makes the small mistake of saddling the narrative with Joshua's voice over, which could serve to enrich and add perspective (I'm by no means coming down against voice over across the board as a narrative device), but it doesn't exactly take us deeper into the story or the characters. This is a small quibble, however. Animal Kingdom's ability to build tension to a fevered pitch, particularly in the much talked about scene that involves a car backing out of a garage, is something to marvel at and I'm amazed this is Michôd's first feature.
Grade: A-

Fair Game (dir. Doug Lyman)
Doug Lyman, who (let's face it) is a rather hit-or-miss director doesn't exactly miss here. But, his cinematic account of CIA Agent Valerie Plame Wilson (Naomi Watts) and how she was maliciously outed by the White House is a mixed bag that leans slightly more on the positive. I found myself wondering several things while watching Fair Game. Firstly, how is this story going to play to the section of the audience who are unfamiliar with the basics of the Valerie Plame scandal? I knew the very basic details of what happened in 2003, but I still felt as though the film took much too long to get into the nuts and bolts of the story I think it was trying to tell. When you only have 108 minutes to work with, this leaves the film feeling top-heavy, and the conclusion feeling rush. Lyman also serves as cinematographer on Fair Game. This is possibly a mistake--the film is peppered with some very baffling, arbitrary camerawork, particularly during a CIA briefing with Plame, other operatives and White House officials. I imagine this was an attempt to take a straight-down-the-middle narrative and make it more visually interesting, but it serves as more of a distraction than anything else. The film alternates between scenes such as these and scenes of Plame's domestic life with husband Joseph Wilson (Sean Penn). Here, there are real nuggets of great acting. Joe Wilson is a staunch liberal who of course took umbrage to what was done to his wife. I'm almost certain that Penn, given his own passionate political leanings, has lionized Joe Wilson in his mind. Yet, his performance here is surprisingly realistic and restrained, lacking the over-the-top, soapbox theatrics some may have expected. Naomi Watts is fine as well, playing Plame as alternately self-empowered and backed into a corner. She manages not to overact (21 Grams anyone?) but the performance still doesn't touch her best work. The problem is that Valerie and Joe's familial strife, though brought upon by the bigger storyline of the leak scandal is never married seamlessly with said storyline. As a result, it feels like the two plotlines exist in a vacuum and not enough time is spent on either. There's enough to recommend here, but Fair Game, while high-minded and well-intentioned, is ultimately unremarkable.
Grade: B-

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