Tuesday, December 7, 2010
Tuesday, November 2, 2010
While the preceding line may sound like an overly-dramatic voiceover narration for a film trailer, you can rest assured it’s not.
At one point, during a mission designed to run the Taliban out of a small area of in a remote valley, someone accidentally orders a bombing run launched on what turns out to be a home of innocent Afghans. Innocent adults and children are caught in the fray and end up being killed in the process. The film, however, steers away from showing any extremely graphic depictions of death, maintaining a distinct sense of tact and sensitivity, while managing to effectively convey its point.
A final, but rather important point that I’d like to address about the film is the distinct sense of neutrality that Restrepo assumes. Junger and Hetherington set out to show the war for what it was for this single group of men, without inflicting the film with their own personal agendas or views. In other words, Restrepo can best be described as war without the politics, commentary, or drama.
If the name Leaves of Grass sounds familiar to you, it’s because it should, Leaves of Grass also happens to be the name of Walt Whitman’s famous poetic chronicle of American culture. Although this coincidence is certainly intentional on the part of writer, director, and actor, Tim Blake Nelson, the film can only be described as a very loose allegory of Whitman’s original work. The film’s plot and the book’s poetry do have some fleeting similarities, but they end there.
Instead, Nelson chooses to shift the focus of the film to one of the many unanswerable questions exploring the nature of human existence: what does it truly mean to be happy? Famed actor Edward Norton is left to ponder this question, in not one, but two lead roles. In the case of Leaves of Grass, these two lead characters happen to be identical twin brothers, one an esteemed philosophy professor at prestigious Brown University, the other a modest marijuana grower from rural Oklahoma.
The film starts out by opening on a rather intriguing lecture given by the professor, Bill Kincaid, on Sophocles, which, oddly enough, more than does its job in the setting the reflective literary tone of the entire film. Shortly after having given this lecture, Bill receives a phone call out of the blue from his brother’s friend, simply named Bolger (Tim Blake Nelson), explaining the tragic news that his brother, Brady Kincaid, has suddenly died in a fatal “crossbow accident.” Forced to go back to his small hometown in Oklahoma for his brother’s supposed funeral, Bill quickly finds out that what he’s originally came home for is really a complete myth, orchestrated by his brother to force him home to help out with a rather insane plot involving his brother and a crime kingpin whom he owes money to.
Without giving too much more away, what follows is a wild and oddly emotional ride that involves everything from a homicidal orthodontist to hundreds of pounds of the finest hydroponically grown pot Oklahoma has ever known. The film quotes numerous literary works, including the novel it’s named after, and uses them quite effectively to convey its constantly shifting theme of the never-ending search for true happiness.
The only reason that these deep moments of reflection in the film manage to stand out is due in large part to the rural setting of the film and the great acting delivered by Edward Norton. Even in the most unexpected people, a marijuana grower, and under the most unusual of circumstances, Norton and many of his supporting actors (including the likes Susan Sarandon, Richard Dreyfuss, and Keri Russell) help to deliver great performances that help the viewer contemplate these larger questions of life in a much different light.
While most may not consider fishing for catfish in a mosquito infested swamp an adequate location to discuss the deeper meaning of life and Walt Whitman’s classic works, or the front seat of a beat-up El Camino an appropriate place to ponder the existence of god, the performances given in the film are so good all around that these settings easily end up seeming a natural place for such deep topics.
The stark contrasts in the film, namely the obvious differences between both brothers, also help the theme of the work to take on a multi-dimensional look by analyzing situations from a myriad of angles. Because of this, and largely due to the great acting of Norton, the transitions between these different characters, and thusly different points of view, are easily smoothed-out and overlooked by the viewer.
Despite the great performances delivered throughout the film, the uneven pacing and the slightly confusing tonal shifts in the film’s plot cause it to be less than perfect. In one scene two characters, a mother and son for example, might be having a deeply emotional conversation, and less than a moment later a redneck and a drug dealer are duking it out in a bloody shootout. If the film were more consistent in its tone, and maintained it throughout, the film could have ultimately been much better.
These jerky transitions cause it to become not only confusing in parts, but also take away from the deeper meaning in the film. The addition of many unneeded action sequences doesn’t help either. Rather than being a slow-moving, perceptive film, the film is peppered in random places with unnecessary bits of vulgarity, if you will.
Thankfully, the film’s redeeming qualities due in large part to Norton’s and the rest of the cast’s amazing acting help to outshine the film’s inconsistencies.
7/10 - Worth a Rent
The Greek film Dogtooth (aka Kynodontas), directed by filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos, retains many of these qualities common to indie films, and while it certainly incorporates them well, it’s the extent and overkill to which the director goes to convey his intended themes that makes this film a giant thumbs-down for me.
Is it weird? Yes. Is it controversial? Without a doubt. But just because it contains some of these elements doesn’t necessarily make it worth watching.
Dogtooth sets out to explore a single question: what happens to the human condition when one is cut-off completely from the outside world, along with all of its influences? In the case of Dogtooth, the disturbing interactions of three siblings, two sisters and one brother, are explored as they are forced to live out a truly bizarre existence at the country estate where they were born and have never left.
The parents of the three children offer little to no explanation as to why they have chosen to go to such lengths to not only shield but to also imprison their children. Other than a bizarre desire to completely control the mental and social development of their offspring, one can only guess at the sinister motives that are at play within this family.
In their never-ending quest for domination over their children, the parents even go to such extremes as to teach their children the wrong meaning for any word that comes from outside their home. For example, they are taught that the word “telephone” means “salt shaker”, and that a zombie is a small yellow flower. The children are also, rather unsurprisingly, told that the outside world is a place of death and despair, and that they may only leave the confines of their estate when they have lost their “dogtooth.”
It doesn’t take a lot of effort for one to identify the strange effects that this ironfisted isolation has on these three children in the film. The three kids seem to constantly be on the verge of either murder or incest with one another. And, eventually, this isolation does manifest itself in the form of extreme acts of violence among these next of kin, and even in sexual relations between brother and sister, and sister and sister.
It’s this extreme violence that finally pushed me to the point of pure disgust with this film. The basic subject matter is not what causes its downfall in my mind; it’s the utter excess to which the film goes to display its intended themes that makes me dislike it so much. Rather than subtly implying any of the disturbing themes of this film, Lanthimos instead decides upon showing the viewer various scenarios so unnerving and so graphically real that one can’t help but be disturbed.
While some may view this as an artistic choice on the part of the of the director, I don’t see the point in adding things like extremely graphic scenes of sexuality if they don’t in some way add to the plot, theme, or meaning of the film. Thus, when this film is closely examined, a cinephile would be hard-pressed to find any real purpose behind these specific plot elements. They may help deepen one’s understanding of the emotional state of the characters, but this could have easily been accomplished far better by other, less lurid means.
To the credit of Lanthimos, the cinematography in the film is simple yet oddly beautiful, the in-depth study of the human psyche is undoubtedly fascinating, and the themes it explores are also intriguing. But despite these positive points, the negative aspects of the film caused by the sheer gratuity with which it is told make it something I wouldn’t touch with a twenty foot pole. In the end, what this film amounts to is nothing more than an exercise in the depraved and perverted.
Not For Most
Rating: 4.7 out of 10
Monday, August 23, 2010
Exit Through the Gift Shop: A Review
“It’s the worlds’ first street-art disaster movie”, reads the tagline for the indie street-art documentary, Exit Through the Gift Shop. It’s not often that one hears the words street-art and disaster used in the same sentence, let alone in the same paragraph, but this film manages to combine these distant concepts, and it does it well. Exit Through the Gift Shop: A Banksy Film, which is the official title of this “documentary on acid”, chronicles the work of various underground street-artists from around the world. The flow and plot of this film are so wonderfully random, complex, and yet oddly understandable, that it’s impossible to express in words.
The film begins without any subject whatsoever, consisting only of a man, his family, and a handheld camera. This man, named Thierry Gutta (a.k.a. Mr. Brainwash), who also happens to be both the director and eventual subject of the film (I’ll explain later), has an obsession with filming everything he does, and I do mean EVERYTHING. And by that I mean he never goes anywhere without a camera. This need to document everything that occurs to him in life stems out of the death of his mother when he was a small child; because his missed this important event, he feels that every second that he’s not documenting life, he’s losing precious memories forever. For years he continues on with this seemingly aimless obsession, with no subject at all, until he meets his cousin who introduces him to the underground world known as street-art. His brother, who goes by the nickname Space Invader, puts together characters from different retro video games, i.e. Space Invader, with mosaic tiles, and glues them on random surfaces all over the city of Paris, and eventually around the world. On a trip back to his hometown of Paris, Gutta is introduced to his brother’s work and is immediately drawn into it and begins filming his brothers nightly escapades all over the city of Paris. Gutta eventually expands this filming of his brother’s street art to many different street-artists from around the world, which inevitably becomes the subject of the documentary. After spending a few years documenting various artists, Gutta is eventually introduced the famous (or should I say infamous) Banksy, who is known the world over for his provocative and sometimes inflammatory graffiti pieces. Banksy thusly becomes the new subject of the film, as Gutta follows him everywhere he goes. And here’s where the film becomes confusing, very confusing. Because of the amount of time Gutta had spent filming and studying the techniques of these many artists, he eventually becomes one himself, dawning the pseudonym Mr. Brainwash (which I will now refer to him as), and takes to the streets of LA creating his own original (or not so original) pieces of street-art. This causes the documentarian of the film to become the subject of the film, with the director becoming Banksy himself. Beyond that, see the film for yourself, and you’ll get exactly what this all means.
The sheer randomness with which this film is told is what makes it worth seeing. The film juxtaposes from one moment to the next between seemingly unconnected events. For example, in the span of five minutes, the film manages to shoot from a heavily-emotional personal narrative to a thrilling nighttime chase scene with a street-artist fleeing from the cops. At the same time, the film is self-aware of its own wackiness, and it seeks to strike a balance between the being avant garde and simply telling its own story. This strange balance that forms is at the core of what makes this film so unique and, well, different.
Exit Through the Gift Shop even manages to play around with a deeper question of what truly defines art and what art is and isn’t. It begs the question, “When is art really art? And what makes an artist original, rather than a clone of any other modern artist?” Because of the fact that Mr. Brainwash spent such a long time documenting and studying the various styles and techniques of these artists, he is able to emulate it in his own way almost effortlessly. The question of whether or not his work deserves any artistic merit is left to the viewer to contemplate. At one point, Banksy, being somewhat frustrated says, “I used to encourage everyone to create their own art, know I’m not so sure.” This comment poses that great question in a rather inelegant yet pointed way, and makes one sit back in his chair long after the film and ends and ponder what makes art, art.
It’s because of my love for films that maintain a sense of humor, yet still ask serious and thoughtful questions, that I give this film a (drumroll please)…
9.0/10- A Great Movie!