Hanna (2011, Joe Wright)

Review by Chris R

Hanna‘s plot is immediately recognizable: it fits easily like the worn in jeans of The Bourne Identity and every child coming-of-age under duress story. But, the sensory experience of Joe Wright’s latest film is wholly inventive and exciting: though critics have compared the chase scenes (ie nearly the whole movie) to Run Lola Run, the cinematography is a new brand of hallucinatory, combining the surrealism of Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and David Lynch with the over-awareness and paranoia of The Prisoner. Each scene feels more than tells, exacting every point of sensation and evolving the viewer’s awareness of each as the camera follows a character through the space. Unlike another recent film that leaned on a score from an electro heavyweight (cough Tron cough), Hanna‘s score – expertly crafted by The Chemical Brothers – pulses and interacts with the film instead of just accompanying action with throbbing bass and intense strings. When the score begins, it is unclear what sound is diegetic which, combined with the dizzying and eye-popping cinematography, disorients the viewer. But, that is the whole point: Hanna has never experienced the modern world as we know it, so Wright aligns the viewers perspective with hers for a wildly entertaining film about seeing the world for the first time.

Bottom Line: Hanna definitely begs for the theater experience as much of its impact comes from the sound design and immersive visuals. I would imagine seeing this film at home will highlight the pitfalls of the plot and characters, but I thoroughly enjoyed it until it’s far too brief conclusion. If you have a chance to catch it before it leaves theaters, I would recommend doing so!


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Dogville (2003, Lars Von Trier)

Review by Chris R

I have not seen enough Lars Von Trier – only Antichrist and Boss of It All – because I never feel like I am quite ready to re-enter an environment under his complete control. Certain films and filmmakers are unrelenting to the point that they are completely engrossing and elicit physical reactions, Black Swan and Enter the Void being recent examples, but Von Trier is simultaneously most effective and shocking of this class of artist (particularly after Antichrist). By embracing new and experimental cinematic techniques that alter the basic way a film is experienced he created the groundwork for the startling emotional turns and showstopping brutality in his films, as if by constantly alluding to and breaking the film experience he could pushed the envelope on his visuals and narrative. Dogville is somehow his most experimental and most basic film I have seen: it does not frame and manipulate reality as other films do, instead Von Trier destroys the illusion of reality and relies on great storytelling and captivating performances to amplify the emotions of each situation. The Brechtian set and tone of the film initially break the illusion, but he uses and twists nearly every film cliche imaginable to captivate and invest the viewer in the strong characters. Though, much of Dogville‘s success can be attributed to the absolutely pitch-perfect performances from Nicole Kidman, Paul Bettany, and the rest of the cast, without which the structure of this film would quickly become overbearing and cumbersome. These performances allow Von Trier’s experimentation to be successful by drawing attention away from form and deeper into the dark, perverse tale of this mountain town. There was a moment when I realized I had become completely engrossed in the narrative of Dogville despite the self-proclaimed illusion of drama onscreen, a perfect articulation of the ‘No Hai Banda’ scene in Mulholland Drive.

Bottom Line: This is a masterpiece. Many reviews I read argue the point of whether it is about America or not, which seems completely beside the point. While Von Trier claims the film represents America, it is arrogant and misguided for him to suggest only Americans are capable of this behavior: the rich and disturbing themes of Dogville speak to all of humanity, not just America.


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The Big Bang (2011, Tony Krantz)

Review by Chris R

A psychedelic neo-noir with a charming male lead and a plot made up of a missing stripper, a giant Russian boxer, a substantial amount of diamonds, and an acid-head physicist creating the ‘god particle’ in a secret laboratory… what more could I ask for? Though, sadly, Tony Krantz’ The Big Bang simply misses the mark: the plot mostly stays within the confines of detective genre conventions and its attempts at Lebowski-ness fall flat without strong characters to occupy the psychedelic moments. The film follows Antonio Banderas, our disillusioned private detective, on his search to find a missing stripper for a giant Russian boxer who loves her, but Banderas simply does not play the part well: he lacks the devil-may care charm that a broken-down but morally uncorruptable cinema PI needs. Banderas’ miscasting or poor performance, not sure which is the main cause, hinders the whole film as every other character is onscreen for a scene or two, leaving him to carry the film to its conclusion. Banderas, known for his charm, is somehow unbearably flat here: while great cinematic detectives appear disoriented and disillusioned they are strong willed and charismatic and always in the know, yet Banderas’ detective just goes through the motions and seems to fall ass-first into the ending. Sam Elliott, who appears as The Stranger in The Big Lebowski, provides the finest of the brief supporting roles as the acid-crazed physicist trying to recreate the moment of The Big Bang, but his entrance comes as too little too late. Elliott’s role also highlights the films biggest missed opportunity: the cosmic weirdness of his experiments playing against Banderas’ basic PI love story builds nicely and seems headed for an interesting take on the “two cases are actually one” detective story trope. Instead, the third act grazes over Elliott’s character and what his experiment actually does, opting for a basic action scene and easy conclusion rather than taking a dive into the psychedelic weirdness Elliott’s character seemed to promise. To that end, the The Big Bang has some interesting visuals: Krantz often creates a warm psychedelic environment with the purple skies and glowing objects. Yet, the idea of the style is often better than the execution, which looks cheap and overdone for the most part.

Bottom Line: The Big Bang is not without its merits, but it is also obvious why this movie has remained off the radar. Krantz tries for some Lewowski-ness here, but without strong characters to distract from the meaningless plot this is just an underwhelming genre exercise. Though, it does make me excited to see PT Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s fascinating and well-crafted psychedelic detective novel Inherent Vice.


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Boarding Gate (2007, Olivier Assayas)

Review by Chris R

When I finished watching Olivier Assayas’ Boarding Gate I did not quite know what to make of it. At first glance, the film seems to have all the trappings of a basic erotic thriller (sex, murder, international pursuit, betrayal) and, despite Assayas’ distinctive style, it drips with Wong Kar-wai’s stylization and color palette and Tarantino’s conversation-based thrills. Though, while Assayas also works within the B-movie framework to achieve larger cinematic goals, his approach does not stylize or romanticize the way other high-pulp filmmakers do: Boarding Gate is a starkly real, slow-moving, and humorless film that, though self-conscious of its outlandishness, seems grounded in life. Instead of breaking the narrative for humor or hints at the cinematic experience, Assayas shifts slowly across countries, wild incidents, and moods (with the help of a cascading Brian Eno score), willing Asia Argento’s powerful lead through each experience. Argento is magnetic and captivating, but understandably misguided in her attempts at survival, so by the film’s end I was as confused about her motives as she seems to be: I was as lost in her desires, fears, and loneliness as she is, but transfixed by her sad human-ness. The most fun in the film comes in her absolutely insane conversations with Michael Madsen as the power in their S+M relationship see-saws back and forth, but even then Assayas is self-aware and does not allow camp to enter the equation: these characters speak so frankly to each other about such awful things, yet there is no irony or wink to remind us that all this is fiction. These characters are depraved, they are lost in real crime, and their feelings are as strong and easily fractured as reality.

Bottom Line: Boarding Gate is closer to Steven Soderbergh’s experimental films than other pulpy art cinema: Assayas’ vague commentary on international commerce, which provides the undercurrent of all of Argento’s relationships and propels the narrative, and humorless approach to dark characters lands near The Girlfriend Experience. But, unlike Soderbergh’s film, Assayas’ female lead delivered a rich, powerful performance and the narrative, however disjointed, still propelled me through the film. Though, with reality comes the age old problem: injecting stark realism into outrageous B-movie tropes removes almost all ‘thriller’ fun and entertainment from the film, leaving the pleasure to the after-film thoughts or, in my case, writing.


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Source Code (2011, Duncan Jones)

Review by Chris R

Moon was a small affair –  a $5 million dollar sci-fi film with one(-ish) living character – that grossed double it’s budget and promised something we have not had in a while: a sci-fi director more interested in fascinating characters than wild effects. Source Code seemed to be Duncan Jones’ chance to cash the check he wrote with the success of Moon for a larger cast and budget. Instead, Source Code is caught between the tightly crafted indie that Moon was and the loose Hollywood cliche-heavy sci-fi Jones originally seemed pitted against. Initially, the film seems promising: Jones pulls you into a Hitchcockian thriller, then slides into 21st century techno-spy-sci-fi land. The first few passes through the source code (if you have seen the trailer you know Jake Gyllenhaal keeps reliving the final 8 minutes of another man’s life) move between breezy, comic dialogue and steadily building mystery and suspense. But when Gyllenhaal’s character finally gets the answers he demands the mystery turns into political drama and the ‘real world’ piece of the narrative becomes supremely hokey (something I did not expect at all from Jones). This may be the main trouble with Source Code: while Moon was hard sci-fi (I have heard it described as Solaris without all the slow bits), Source Code keeps one foot in our reality, leaving the balance of the film’s themes and narrative thrust totally out of whack. The ‘real world’ of Source Code is not a future world, it is a recognizable yet secret military/political world that could exist right now unbeknownst to the rest of us, so though Source Code deals with the same ideas as Moon – a man forced into a cycle by an unseen, unfightable overseer that he must outwill – Jones misses beautiful simplicity with his latest film by trying to tread lightly in political conspiracy of today and arrive at a neat, feel good ending. The saddest part of my experience with Jones’ latest film was the missed ending: there is a moment where, if the movie had ended, the conclusion would be left vague enough to forgive any hokiness or inconsistencies. But, by putting a neat bow on the future and leaving the open-endedness with the past, Jones ends Source Code with a cringe.

Bottom Line: There are few actors who could pull off Sam Rockwell’s near-perfect performance in Moon and Jones cast another heart-stoppingly charming lead in Source Code, but did not give him room to humanize the premise as Rockwell did. Instead, Jones rockets Gyllenhaal through a series of cliches and arrives at a deeply disappointing ending. I thought the son of the Starman was destined to bring great sci-fi back to planet Earth, but unless Duncan “Zowie Bowie” Jones changes course he is headed straight for deep Hollywoodification.


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Attenberg (2010, Athina Rachel Tsangari)

Review by Chris R

When people ask about Dogtooth I often cite the cinematography of the film as ‘clinical’, but after seeing Attenberg – a film that works more effectively in the same stylistic space as Dogtooth – I realized that visual sense is more informed by nature documentary. The title of Athina Rachel Tsangari’s second feature derives from one of the main character’s mispronunciation of famed nature documentarian David Attenborough’s name, which acts as a roadmap for how to take in the absurdist actions and phonetically driven dialogue of the film. The one-line for Attenberg could be very simple – a woman comes of age sexually as her father passes away – but Tsangari displays Marina (the protagonist) as an alien being among mammals, allowing the normally inherent melodrama of this situation to be nonexistent. Marina (played wonderfully by Ariane Labed) seems more content to observe than engage, but when she does interact with others characters they most truly express themselves with actions. The actual dialogue is less important than how it is said; word games, sound, and physical elements of interaction tell more about a scene than what the characters say. This allows Attenberg a sense of humor that would feel uncomfortable in Dogtooth, strengthening the frank, savage approach to drama mastered by this crop of Greek filmmakers.

Bottom Line: Attenberg is a perfect film, as far as I am concerned: the acting is superb, the cinematography gorgeous, the drama palpable but not cheap, and the New Wave/absurdist interludes fully humanize the characters. Dogtooth is printed all over this film’s style, Giorgos Lanthimos even makes his acting debut in a small but important role, yet through awkwardness and humility Attenberg invites the viewer to empathize with the alienation we only observed in Lanthimos’ film.


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Fallen Angels (1995, Wong Kar-wai)

Review by Chris R

Fallen Angels, Wong Kar-wai’s sequel/companion piece to the perfect Chungking Express, is a super sexy, delectable film. Like its predecessor, the stories of Fallen Angels are simple and easy to follow, but less important than the pleasure found in the style and sensations of the film. A great deal can be said about this film and there are many levels to enjoy it on. The characters are childish and basic in a relatable way and Wong makes us endearingly laugh at and enjoy their antics and bizarre relationships. Though, on first viewing I was drawn to how far he stylized the noir aesthetic: the only visable daylight appears in the final second of the film, which bears symbolic meaning for the characters. But, the array of fascinating stories and visual moments are rich and worth continual exploration. Though, for me, perhaps most striking visually were the gunfights. I have never seen action scenes like these: quick and crazed movement that are washed out and gorgeously fractured by using slo-motion for footage not shot for slo-motion.

Bottom Line: A great companion piece to Chungking Express and a stunning visual experience. But, unlike its predecessor, Fallen Angels does not have a runaway star (Faye Wong in Chungking) to emotionally captivate, so the plot momentarily drags .


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