2009 log (8)

(2 Aug) Hazard (2006, Sion Sono) 45
[ What poet/filmmaker Sion Sono (“Suicide Club”, “Strange Circus”, “Love Exposure”) has done here is kind of a reverse take on “Lost in Translation, inasmuch as instead of following a melancholy American movie star in Japan, it follows a melancholy Japanese college dropout (Joe Odagiri) in America, more precisely New York. Now, unlike most people, I actually disliked Sofia Coppola’s mood piece, and I can’t say I liked Sono’s film all that much either. Oh, “Hazard” features some cool moments, interesting visual ideas and good music, but in my opinion, it’s also aimless, sloppy, and pretty dull at times. Even though it has its fish-out-of-water protagonist tag along with two young hoodlums who divide their time between doing robberies and driving around in a “special” ice cream truck, it never works up much momentum or become all that exciting for more than a couple of minutes at a time. Played by Jai West and Motoki Fukami, the “stupid and crazy” hoodlums also grow to be more obnoxious than funny. Shot mostly with handheld cameras in real NYC locations, on the cheap and not always with permits, one assumes, “Hazard” is an intriguing experiment in guerrilla filmmaking, I guess. Too bad it didn’t bother with having strong storytelling, or at least characters we cared about. ]

(3 Aug) Chocolate (2008, Prachya Pinkaew) 22
[ I don’t know if it’s because the DVD I watched was badly dubbed in English and/or roughly reedited from the original Thai version, but I could barely follow the plot during the first 10 minutes, which are like an extended montage of a couple making out, shoot-outs and whatnot… Then we’re finally introduced to the protagonist, a young autistic woman who somehow has impeccable reflexes and incredible martial arts skills. This leads to some fun action scenes, but the movie remains messy and cheesy, with odd tonal shifts (it keeps alternating between melodrama and goofiness) and an extremely annoying lead performance by Yanin Vismistananda. I double-dare you not to fast-forward between the fights! ]

(4 Aug) Defiance (2008, Edward Zwick) 84
[ While not as pulpy and over the top as “Inglourious Basterds”, this is another movie about Jews kicking ass during World War II. What’s great about having Nazis (and collaborators) as your movie’s villains is that it allows your heroes to kill as many of them as you want without having to justify it. In this context, even a middlebrow filmmaker like Ed Zwick suddenly goes all badass on us, making a dark and violent film in which the only good Nazis are dead Nazis. Superbly shot and driven by muscular performances from Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber and Jamie Bell, “Defiance” is alternately sober and explosive, sentimental and brutal, like a cross between “Schindler’s List” and “Braveheart”. I’m very surprised this didn’t get more traction during Oscar time last year – it’s right in the Academy’s ballpark, and it’s actually pretty damn great. ]

(5 Aug) Les Pieds dans le vide (2009, Mariloup Wolfe) 36
[ Imagine a young-adult soap opera overflowing with cheap melodrama (cancer, struggling with homosexuality, unplanned pregnancy, crippling accident, etc.), directed with all the depth and subtlety Tony Scott showed in “Top Gun” and where all the characters are douches, idiots or both. Guillaume Lemay-Thivierge and Éric Bruneau seem to be in a contest about who can overact the most and while Laurence Leboeuf remains an alluring little actress, she’s unfortunately playing a dim-witted slut who alternately has unprotected sex with both male leads then is all shocked when the inevitable happens. The film is mostly being sold with its admittedly spectacular skydiving shots, but we’ve all seen “Point Break” already, right? And that had surfing and bank robberies, too! ]

(6 Aug) Suzie (2009, Micheline Lanctôt) 13
[ For the first 5-10 minutes, Lanctôt’s eponymous protagonist never talks, even when directly spoken to. It’s almost as if she’s catatonic or something, even though the big tragedy in her life, we’ll learn later, happened decades ago. That tragedy was the loss of her child and what do you know, the moment she snaps out of her silence is once she finds a kid in the back of her cab. Off to a bad start. Right there, it feels like the movie is a gonna be a chore, and it is. Contrived. Unpleasant. Visually unappealing. Dull, so very dull. The kid can’t act (he mostly screams like an animal), Lanctôt is one-note, and even the usually reliable Pascale Bussières is embarrassingly bad as the kid’s crass, hysterical mother. Or maybe it’s the writing that’s embarrassingly bad? Or the way she’s directed? In any case, the result is the same: a truly lousy picture. And I haven’t even mentioned the ridiculous poker scenes, the preposterous police station climax and the totally WTF? epilogue with the djembe player… ]

(7 Aug) G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009, Stephen Sommers) [ review ] 52

(9 Aug) La frontière de l’aube (2008, Philippe Garrel) 77
[ Having sharply divided critics at the Festival de Cannes last year, some (including my esteemed colleague Manon Dumais) going as far as claiming that Garrel didn’t even deserve to have his latest film shown in competition, it’s hard to arrive at “La frontière de l’aube” without some trepidation. What side will you fall on: the haters or the apologists? Personally, I gotta say I liked it a great deal. Star Louis Garrel and his somewhat affected acting style are an acquired taste, but I generally find him endearing, even though he’s playing kind of a tool here. His character, François, is a photograph whose sessions with a famous, mentally unstable actress (stunning Laura Smet) turn into a passionate affair, which he can’t quite handle. This is a tale of impossible love which, even when the lovers are away, in the arms of others, in madness or in death, survives in some form, like the ghost of what once was, of what could have been… We’ve seen this kind of story before many times, but it’s in the little moments Philippe Garrel captures that the film shines. Moments of joy, sensuality, doubt, pain, regret… All of which is shot in beautiful B&W, in a style that’s very Nouvelle Vague, in a good way. The visual compositions are often so striking that they fully justify themselves, no matter what you think of the overall framework, which can admittedly be flimsy at times. I guess that’s the critical divide right there: whether one thinks cinema for its own sake is enough and can overcome a thin or capricious narrative by the sheer strength of the mise en scène. ]

(13 Aug) Entre les murs (2008, Laurent Cantet) 90
[ It’s like I’m having my own little Cannes festival here, heh. As you know, this film by Laurent Cantet (“L’emploi du temps”, “Vers le sud”, etc.) was awarded the Palme d’or in 2008, the first French production to do so in more than two decades. And while I remain convinced that “Che” should have won the Palme and every other award known to man, “Entre les murs” is indeed quite an extraordinary film. Based on the book by François Bégaudeau, which itself was inspired by his years working as a high school teacher, this is a seemingly matter of fact look at a year in the life of a multiethnic group of students and their French teacher, played by Bégaudeau himself. From what I understand, the teen actors were also cast according to their real-life experience, and the result is a quasi-documentary feel, especially since writer-director Laurent Cantet doesn’t bother with imposing a three-act structure or any kind of conventional movie plot on us. There are touches of humor, occasional tension, and a heartbreaking third-act “twist”, but everything comes about in a very casual way. What the film does do is allow us to get to know these characters, just through how they behave with each other in the context of their schooling. All the kids are very natural, which can be exasperating at first because so many of them are so loud, disrespectful and insolent even though they’re mostly ignorant. But somehow, they all grow oddly endearing, warts and all. It’s quite astute how the film creates a rich, vivid portrait of contemporary youth, of the education system and even of society as a whole without ever being didactic or obvious about it. A truly great picture. ]

(16 Aug) District 9 (2009, Neill Blomkamp) 93
[ In so many words, this is the best movie Paul Verhoeven never made. Like “RoboCop”, “Total Recall” or especially “Starship Troopers”, Neill Blomkamp’s staggeringly great debut blends sci-fi, horror, action, satire and drama to create a movie that’s original, unpredictable and uncompromising. What’s more, “District 9” also taps into the more and more common trend of using faux documentary, news or surveillance footage in the context of genre fiction, and it does so better than just about any film has before. The least you know about the plot beforehand the better, but the basic premise is that an out of fuel alien mothership has been hovering over Johannesburg for 20 years and that its extraterrestrial occupants (more than a million of them!) have ended up on Earth, where humans have forced them into some kind of refugee camp/slum. What follows is both a potent racial allegory and a kickass genre flick, with astonishing special effects that allow the outer space “prawns” to be utterly convincing as they interact with humans. Often thrilling, gory and funny, the movie is also full of pathos, which comes through a subplot somewhat reminiscent of Cronengerg’s “The Fly” and the surprisingly endearing depiction of the relationship between the lead alien and his infant son. All in all, this is an absolute must-see. ]

(16 Aug) The Hangover (2009, Todd Phillips) 69
[ The first great thing this does is actually skip the crazy night of partying, then have the characters try to piece things back together. Okay, that’s almost exactly like that one scene in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”, or “Dude, Where’s My Car”, or the episode from “The Simpsons” in which Homer and Ned Flanders get wasted in Vegas, but still! I also liked how, while this is in the same ballpark as Phillips’ previous “Old School” and “Road Trip” (the less said about “Starksy & Hutch” and “School for Scoundrels” the better), it also harkens back to some of those classic 1980s comedies, like a “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” with older protagonists or something. I’m not saying that this is a new comedy classic or anything, but a funny, rowdy good time at the movies, with a winning trio of leads in Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms and Zach Galifianakis. ]

(17 Aug) Reservoir Dogs (1992, Quentin Tarantino) [ review ] 93

(19 Aug) Pulp Fiction (1994, Quentin Tarantino) [ review ] 100

(20 Aug) Jackie Brown (1997, Quentin Tarantino) [ review ] 94

(23 Aug) The Dirty Dozen (1967, Robert Aldrich) 73
[ After a longish set-up in which the incomparable Lee Marvin recruits then trains twelve court-martialed soldiers to go on a Nazi-killing mission, the major and his “dirty dozen” get going and never look back. Featuring an awesome cast of badasses including Charles Bronson, Jim Brown, Telly Savalas, Donald Sutherland and John Cassavetes (yes, the filmmaker!), this is a pretty damn good guys-on-a-mission movie, with a suspenseful, exciting and somewhat disturbing extended climax during which a whole lot of people die in horrible ways. Pretty out there, for a 1967 Hollywood production! Revisiting this now, you can truly tell that this is one of the flicks Tarantino had in mind when he wrote “Inglourious Basterds”, if only for a few key moments. ]

(24 Aug) Waltz with Bashir (2008, Ari Folman) 62
[ Shoddy animation, dream sequences and lots of chatter seems to be enough to make you seem like a visionary in Cannes. This ain’t uninteresting, mind, but it kinda comes off like a poor man’s “Waking Life”. Maybe if Richard Linklater had set his underrated animated flick during the Israel-Lebanon war, he’d gotten more praise? Cool soundtrack, though. ]

(27 Aug) McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971, Robert Altman) 81
[ This starts out like a rather atypical, almost experimental Western. For the first 30 minutes or so, there’s not really any plot to speak of, and certainly no gunfights, horseback chases or anything. What you get is Warren Beatty’s John “Pudgy” McCabe arriving in this little mining town, presiding over some poker games, then bringing in a few whores for the men… All of which is absolutely gorgeously shot and often scored with Leonard Cohen songs, which is enough to keep us involved right there, even though the movie doesn’t truly kick into gear until Julie Christie’s Mrs. Miller shows up with plans to open up a bona fide brothel around these parts! What follows is a lot of fun, thanks in large part to Beatty’s wonderfully quirky performance and to the way Christie interacts with him, sweet one moment, feisty the next. Plus there’s this tension that grows once company men come down to make an offer to McCabe which he can’t refuse, but he does anyway, hence he ends up having to deal with gunmen… The elegiac, snowy final showdown confirms that this truly isn’t a Western quite like any other. ]

(30 Aug) La Neuvaine (2005, Bernard Émond) 83
[ Superbly shot by Jean-Claude Labrecque, this is a solemn, sober film about regret, guilt… And faith. Both as writer and director, Émond impresses, but it’s Élise Guilbault’s heartbreaking performance that most elevates the picture. As for Patrick Drolet, I like him, but he always seems to be playing a dimwitted doofus, which is a better fit in comedies than in a Bergmanesque drama, in my opinion. ]

July / September