Who has a more intimidating face than Michael Shannon? This is an actor who just breathes intensity. He twitches and sneers with scary effect, often appearing as though he can barely hold his rage in. Heck, this guy just recently proved he could recite a simple email with awesome effect. Clearly, he knows what his strengths are, and capitalizes on them. He is almost always the most interesting actor in a scene, because he has such an unpredictable delivery that we wonder what he’s going to do next. His talents are on full display in Ariel Vromen’s crime film The Iceman (2012). Here, we get to see Shannon at his best: constantly on edge, nearing the breaking point, chewing scenery as if it’s bubblegum. In a vacuum, this is some of Shannon’s finest work. It’s unfortunate the film isn’t as good as he is.
Ron Morales’s Graceland (2012) is a mostly effective thriller hailing from the Philippines. Being Filipino myself, I’m glad to see films from there making their way to the States, because at this point (at least in the mainstream) they are still few and far between. Even better is how Morales gives us a story that doesn’t simply paint the country in any manipulative way. I’ve seen too many works from other countries that solely try to show their culture in the most positive fashion imaginable. Here, these are real characters in tense situations. No one is perfect, everyone has their secrets, and the moral line between right and wrong is clearly blurred. This makes the film—imperfect as it is—much more thoughtful than your random, run-of-the-mill crime story. If anything, this is a good stepping stone, showcasing what the country has to offer to world cinema.
“When people tell me ‘you are famous for being famous,’ I say ‘no, we are famous for having three TV shows.’” – Kim Kardashian
Unease immediately sets in when this quote is presented in the opening moments of Adam Rifkin’s abysmal faux documentary Reality Show, a “message movie” so manipulative and obvious in approach it took everything within me not to walk away from the very task of writing this review. An ever-growing number of Americans are driven by the public misfortune and mockery of others. You know it. I know it. Director and star Adam Rifkin CERTAINLY knows it…and exploits the concept to an embarrassing degree.
As a fan of independent film, I’m excited when I’m introduced to the work of noteworthy filmmakers. For several years now, I’ve been hearing about the prolific career of Joe Swanberg and have been curious to check out his movies. Finally at SXSW this year, forces aligned and I was able to check out his latest project, Drinking Buddies, and saw how hype met reality.
There are few films that have legitimately left a chill down my spine. The Act of Killing (2012) is one of them. This is a haunting, disturbing, and eye-opening documentary that looks into the minds of mass murderers. Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer (and co-directed by Christine Cynn and a source listed only as “Anonymous”), this story goes to places and reveals information I was shocked to see access to. This is like a real life nightmare, where the bad guys have won and are now in control. They freely admit responsibility for the bloodshed they caused, and do so with an enormous sense of pride. And to make matters even more unsettling, these men are actually considered heroes in their native country. Dealing with themes of morality, righteousness, and government control, this is a film that will burrow itself in your mind long after you’ve seen it.
Ahh, the summer movie season. This is the time for big spectacles, epic stories, and plenty of action and excitement. The buzz is never stronger during the year than it is right now. And nothing says “Summer Blockbuster” like…The Great Gatsby 3D? Sure, the idea may seem a little strange, but let’s think about this for a moment. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s well-known novel is a story of excessive indulgence—of bright lights, fancy clothes, and lots of money. If anything, the surface level extravagance fits right in with the movie season. And who better to bring this to life than one of the more excessive filmmakers around: Baz Luhrmann? While we’ve seen films tackle this material before, none have done so the way that Luhrmann has. He’s taken this classic story and molded it into a very contemporary piece.
Midnight’s Children, the new film from Deepa Mehta, based on the novel by Salman Rushdie, is a grand and epic story compacted into two and a half hours that paradoxically feels rushed and drawn out at the same time. The novel, an allegory of a country’s fractious coming of age after gaining independence from colonial rule, is full of colorful characters, impressive language, Indian slang, magical realism, ambition and sweeping scope. To try to adapt this to film seems like an exercise in futility. Mehta is only partially successful. While Rushdie’s novel had the space to create a grand cohesiveness, where one event segued into the next and a narrative momentum was achieved, Mehta’s film, in order to contain the whole of the story, jumps disjointedly forward, creating an awkward pacing that tired me after a while. But the heart is still there.
One of the most fascinating examinations involving the mystery of human connection comes from Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors Trilogy (1993-94). The three films (Blue, White, and Red) signify the tenets of the French Revolution: Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. But that doesn’t begin to describe what these stories are like and how they seemingly relate, despite being separate from one another. Kieslowski takes these themes and molds them in a fashion different than what one may expect. These grand ideas are deeply focused toward personal and intimate stories, involving singular characters dealing with tremendous emotional adversity. In setting his films in a more grounded environment, Kieslowski enables us to connect with them in regards to love, life, and the invisible ties between strangers. Life is short, often times beautiful, and—on occasion—hilariously absurd. Kieslowski knew this, and depicted it in arguably one of the best trilogies ever made.
Eden is a look at a girl surviving under sexual enslavement. This is a hard issue to look at under any circumstances, and the uncomfortable nature of what happens never leaves the film. It shows what this life could be like with realism, though with some convenient events that help to give some hope in the end.
Renoir is well acted and beautifully shot, and it’s rare that this is a detriment to a film, but in Renoir, that’s all there is. The film feels so leaden and clinical. It’s a dull, stately affair. Such is the primary pitfall of biopics. It sure is beautiful to look at, though. But then you’d expect a film about one of the world’s premier Impressionist painters to include a sumptuous color palette—and this is the overriding fault of the film: everything is expected.